Sunday, May 27, 2012

Farewell Spring, Hello Summer!

It’s a bird!
It’s a plane!
Why look it’s another edition of Lost In The Farmer’s Market!  Happy Memorial Day to all of you out there reading this, remember to drive safe, keep your seat belts on and don’t drink and drive. 
 Today’s topic of discussion got sidetracked as did the entire month, I was supposed to write about the origins of another well known garden vegetable but in the middle of composing the piece thought it wasn’t fitting for the time and date. So instead we will start with a plant spotlight and some time-sensitive garden advice for all you readers out there. The plant spotlight for today is almost an article unto itself  so sit tight and be warned there are pictures up ahead.

Salvia nemorosa – Woodland Sage

This year I planted three differing varieties of this particular sage, including ‘East Freidland’, ‘May Night’ and ‘New Dimension Blue’. Why triple down on the ornamental sages you ask? Form me I had three major reasons to install these non-herbal sages.
Firstly, there is the fact that ornamental sages are deer-resistant, and even squirrels and rabbits wont really mess with them; in fact they wont even likely mess with the plants directly adjacent either.  Secondly, ornamental sage is drought, heat and humidity resistant which makes it perfect for Xeriscaping beds, and makes it a reliable plant for a roadside planting under full blazing sun. My final reason for using ornamental sages in such large numbers is literally the same as why for shade I let pineapple sage, black and blue sage and Coral Nymph sage do what they want. To be specific most if not all members of the sage family produce a lot of nectar and pollen so they are quite good at attracting and sustaining a population of pollinators and can help in attracting humming birds.  As a final thought this type of sage is known to bloom in shades of blue and purple which can add a new angle to the typical colors of full sun low-maintenance beds especially if silvery foliage is used as a backdrop.

Heliotrope arborescens – Garden Heliotrope

Heliotrope is one of those plants for which an entire set of colors is named, and should not be confused with the term Heliotropism. Heliotropism is a scientific term that refers to the diurnal motion of the leaves or flowers of a plant in response to the motion of the sun. The most common plant known for this motion is the sunflower whose flower heads move to face the sun as it moves across the sky. Science aside, Garden Heliotrope was immensely popular in Victorian era Europe for its attractive flowers and unique textured foliage. The real selling point was its incredible fragrance. Unlike most flowers that smell sweet and floral, the garden heliotrope smells literally like a freshly baked cherry pie. Let that sink in for a moment, a plant whose flower smells like cherry pie, oh yes, probably the best smelling thing ever. Better then that the plant does really well in a container and is quite heat tolerant. A few of these on the edges of stairs or flanking the front door of a house can be quite an aromatic treat. I might add that of course as it is in the Borage family it is a good attractor of butterflies and moths, and butterflies. All this plant asks in return is pot full of decent soil with reasonable drainage, occasional dead heading and a little fertilizer in regular intervals.

Chicorum intybus – Chicory

Chicory is only in today’s plant spotlight so I can show you the newly opened flowers, which wilt by the end of the day. These flowers can be used to make a dye and certainly they hold their own in a ornamental role.

Basella alba ‘Rubra’ – Malabar spinach

For the same reasons as the chicory Malabar spinach is one of today’s plant spotlights because it’s flowers are interesting. While not as showy as some these tiny pink flowers contrast with the red foliage nicely. The flowers are followed later in the season by dark purple berries which really look cool. In the picture above the flowers are the pinkish-white ball shaped things in clusters near the center of the picture.

Centaurea cineraria - Dusty Miller

I covered Dusty Miller (aka Velvet Centaurea) in an earlier article about plants that are labeled annuals but in truth really are perennials. In that article I stated that dusty miller blooms twice a year, spring and fall and has yellow flowers that indicate clearly it is in the daisy family and here is the proof. This stand of dusty miller is three years old, and it blooms twice a year. The flowers aren’t bad to look at and certainly stand out.

Dendranthema morifolium – Hardy Chrysanthemum

I wanted to include the chrysanthemums in today’s list for one obvious reason; they were in full bloom despite it being late spring. Admittedly I do say this a lot but chrysanthemums are a durable perennial that if sited correctly can provide up to two seasons of color for your garden.

Now with the plant spotlight out of the way I wanted to talk to all of you out there briefly about some things to watch for in your garden.  The most important thing to remember is that despite the fact we in the southeast have had those late afternoon to evening thundershowers does not mean anyone should not begin drought preparedness. Everyone in the east coast knows its coming, it might be the end of May, but those long hot days are just around the corner and considering it’s stressful for you it will be just as bad for your plants.  Thankfully there are a few things you can do to both conserve water and get a bountiful harvest this year.

  1. Remember to think forward: Try to plant ornamental plants that are labeled as ‘drought tolerant’ or ‘water wise’ or otherwise are noted to have characteristics that allow them to tolerate periods of drought easily.
  2. Check your equipment: Make sure your soaker hoses and watering devices are in good repair before a heat wave and drought occurs.
  3. Monitor precipitation: Get a Rain Gauge, it doesn’t have to be an expensive model but get at least one and place it in a central location to monitor rain and adjust your watering accordingly.
  4. Monitor your watering: A gallon of water every other day is enough to sustain most vegetables that are mature enough to bear fruit or are actively bearing fruit. It may take up to five gallons of water every three days to maintain soil moisture for fruiting bushes and vines so keep an eye on the temperature and precipitation
  5. Use Mulch: Mulch will aid in retaining soil moisture as well as add topsoil when it decomposes.
  6. Use Efficient Nozzles: Shower-wand type nozzles on your hoses will reduce the amount of runoff caused by watering and increase watering efficiency. These sorts of watering devices are best used on outdoor potted plants, window boxes and anything that is heavily wilted.
  7. Use soaker hoses: I admit, soaker hoses take longer but they deliver more water to the soil then conventional watering methods. If you have the time to turn it on and monitor it use it.
  8. Install watering wells: A watering well is a direct and extremely inexpensive way to deliver water deep into the root zone without risking the loss of topsoil. Water Wells are made from 2-3 liter plastic soda bottles with the labels, caps and bottoms removed. You then dig a hole deep enough to fit the bottle into with about 1” of bottle sticking up above ground. The bottle is inserted into the ground cap-side down and is then filled with pine straw. The effect is a direct way to water into the root zone of a garden bed.
  9. Remember the peak heat of the day is between 1pm and 3pm most plants will wilt then whether they need water or not. If your plants are slightly wilted in the afternoon wait until 6pm and check again, anything still wilted definitely needs water.
  10. If you have rain barrels installed on your property use them, these water collecting devices can save you a bundle in irrigation costs even if there is no rain in the summer and you have to refill them with your garden hose and then ration out the water from the barrels. Otherwise, if paired with a 3-5 gallon bucket you can manage to make the contents of a 50 gallon rain barrel last for a few weeks between rains. I might add rain barrels can also be used to refill your water features but remember tap water has chlorine so before you use a rain barrel that has been refilled via garden hose let the water stand for 24 hours to allow the chlorine to dissipate.

With all that said, I think all of you reading this may be off to a good start for this year’s drought season. As always you can contact me about anything you read on this blog  through this site. As some of you might know, every august is Xeriscaping month at LITFM, an entire month dedicated to kicking drought to the curb. This will be a yearly thing simply because who says you can’t have gorgeous landscaping and yet still be water restriction-compliant?

There is one announcement before we conclude today’s garden menagerie, for anyone in the Fayetteville, North Carolina region, there are still plants left.  On June 15th the remaining skye project plant sale plants will be planted in the test gardens so they do not go to waste but this is everyone’s last change to get a hold of some of the plants listed in ‘Southward Skies’ our book. For note the Second edition of the book’s print version is still delayed, but the digital version can be had on, and for all you iphone users there is an free app that allows you to read digital books for the kindle on the iphone.

This has been another edition of Lost in the Farmer’s Market, check in next week for the first of our summer series and as always keep ‘em growing!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The History of the Tomato

Welcome back to a belated edition of Lost in the Farmers Market, today I’m going to talk a bit about the origins of the tomato as its prime time for tomatoes. Also in today’s article we have a plant spotlight triple-header with three interesting plants. Before I get into the any of that I have a few things to say about last weekend’s Urban Farm Day.

For those just tuning for the first time the Urban Farm Day is an event organized by a local group called Sustainable Sandhills. The event itself is a family-oriented public showing chock full of how-to displays and workshops ranging from how to raise chickens, ducks and rabbits in your backyard through bee keeping and victory gardening. Despite the name it’s really a backyard gardening event where you can find cool stuff, and make good connections with experts and other gardeners. With that said, the event last week went well with a good attendance and many good exchanges of info at my booth. The weather was cooperative, and in short I doubt we could have asked for a more beautiful setting for the event. I’d like to thank Sustainable Sandhills for hosting the event and thank everyone who stopped by the booth. As a final note for anyone who missed the event and wanted to pick up some plants there is some stock left, all you have to do is send an inquiry .

With the UFD wrap-up covered; we move on to one of today’s features The Plant Spotlight. Today we have three plants for you to consider in your garden and for your home.
  1. Ascelpias tuberosa or Milkweed
  2. Coreopegia woodii or Rosary Vine
  3. Penstemon barbatus ‘Delft Blue Riding Hood’

The first plant is a easy one, I’ve spoke about Milkweed before, for those who missed the ‘A weed only in name’ series of posts think of this as a prime example of a plant who just has a bad name. Commonly also known as Pleurisy Root, this native was once used as an expectorant for wet coughs essentially it’s root was used to reduce mucous in the throat and pulmonary system. Today it’s more used for it’s beautiful flowers as seen in the picture below.

The bright orange flowers of Milkweed are as much a sign of summer as the yellow flowers of Forsythia are a sign of spring.

I might add the name ‘Milkweed’ comes from the fact that it can be prolific, and when the foliage and stems are broken this plant will exude a milky sap. The real value is of course the flowers and the fact that they produce a lot of nectar and are a preferred food of hummingbirds and pollinators.  A good stand of milkweed can often reach up to four feet tall and I’m sure an budding etymologist would have a field day counting the critters that have stopped buy to get a meal. The one thing to remember, from seed you may not see a bloom for more then two years. Biologically Milkweed unless kept really happy with a fertile but well drained soil and full sun takes so long because it has to develop a long taproot. Sadly most milkweed do not take kindly to transplanting once established, thankfully their seed is viable for years after collecting.

The rosary vine is a unique house plant that has a series of other common names such as chain of hearts, collar of hearts and string of hearts. Basically for once in the history of agronomy we have a plant where everyone kind of saw the same thing in a single plant and kept the names relatively close.

 The Rosary Vine is a pretty houseplant by itself, but as seen in the center it's unusual flowers are kind of cool to look at even if they do look like some kind of strange alien creature.

As far as houseplants go the rosary vine is an excellent candidate for a hanging basket. The one thing to remember is that rosary vine will root in any soil it touches so it may be wise to keep a eye out for its wandering habits. In case your wondering this plant is native to parts of Africa and thus like quire a few houseplants from the region is a succulent that requires soil with excellent drainage and decent fertility. Left to its own devices the Rosary Vine will need little care save for the occasional watering it will reward this semi-neglect with beautiful variegated leaves and unusual flowers. Cuttings taken from this succulent root readily with a simple layering method, so you can pass this plant around to your friends at a whim.

Wow, at least that was my precise comment upon seeing this plant for the first time. For those of you familiar with Penstemon or Beardtongue,  this family of rugged perennials that falls under the family of Plantaginaceae, which includes the veronica, snapdragons digitalis (foxglove), angelonia (summer snapdragon) and a few others. What makes this particular plant fascinating is obviously the color, penstemon is known for it’s shades of cream, white, yellow, pink, orange and red, but here we have a solid blue color with all the shape and form of a traditional beardtongue.

 I know it's not a great specimen in fact this one's bloom is on it's way out but you can get beardtongue to bloom a little more by deadheading the flower stalks before they go to seed.

What is not to love about this, finally one of the most durable, heat and drought proofed perennials can do more then just be flash with it being blue flowered it can finally be supporting color. Paired with a decent ornamental sage it can now add some serious effect to a bed. All penstemon asks for in return is a decent soil with good drainage and regular water during times of stress. Some fertilizer in early spring will aid growth greatly and improve overall vigor. If you can find this variety at a garden center go ahead and nab a few, it’s totally worth it.

Now with the plant spotlights handled onward to the main topic; today I want to talk briefly about the origins of the common tomato. Admittedly there is a lot of conjecture out there in both print and the web as to the origins of the modern tomato. Some truths remain evident in its origins and original introduction to Europe. The name is where we first start to find the trail, typically most garden books will blithely skip over the botanical Latin names of vegetables as if that isn’t important but it tells a lot. The botanical name for the common tomato is Lycopersicon esculentum which as of recent times has remained the name but currently it has been changed to Solanum lycopersicum.
The original name tells us a lot about the plant because obviously it is the name picked for it by Europeans, it denotes what the earliest tomatoes looked like.

  1. Lyco = Wolf.
  2. Persicon = Peach colored.
  3. Esculentum = Edible

This is a good example of what early tomatoes might have looked like, small fruits of variable color. Note the darker 'shoulders' or tops of the fruit, typical colored varieties such as brown berry color up there first.

So what we have is an edible wolf peach, which tells us a few clear things, firstly the first tomatoes to be studied were likely peach shaped and bore a peach coloration. The wolf part of the name is somewhat of a mystery, I’ve personally been unable to find out why that is in the name. But this of course has told us what the first tomatoes looked like when they got to Europe. The name ‘Tomato’ itself is a European pronunciation of the word ‘Tomatl’ from the Nahuatl dialect which literally means ‘swelling fruit’. While not expressly verified, it is thought that either Spanish Conquistador Cortes or The explorer Chrisopher Columbus were the first noted persons to bring the tomato back to Europe.
However the Tomato did not appear in European literature until about 1544,  being noted as an herbal plant under the name ‘pomo d’oro’ or golden apple as written by Pietro Andrea Mattioli. That said, there are certain select cultural inferences that perhaps the tomato spread father then that before that as it is known that inter-continental contact occurred long before the Europeans arrived at the shores of the Americas.

This is a good example of a heirloom tomato that bears the large irregular fruit mutation. These Black Krim tomatoes bear large fruit on overall larger plants with a less vine-like habit then a currant tomato. The loss of the vine-habit is a product of cultivation and selection.

What is clear is that the large-fruited tomato was a genetic mutation that is likely to have occurred under cultivation by the Mesoamericans and is likely to be the direct ancestor of many of our modern large varieties. As noted in my article on Figs last week this mutation would have been advantageous for the Tomato species as it allowed its seeds to spread greatly thus increasing the chances of select mutations furthering it’s spread more.

The interesting thing about the tomato is the myth of its being poisonous or unfit for consumption. This myth comes from the fact that occasionally meals would be eaten off of plates composed of metals that had an amount of lead. Now remember in the 1400’s metallurgy was not as precise as it is now, so metal implements often had trace amounts of other stuff in them silver for instance often had lead. At the time tomatoes hadn’t been hybridized as much as they are now, so their relative acidity was higher, and well that acid reacted with the lead and instantly one had a new sort of poisoning.  The tomato got the blame and no one ever thought to look at the dining implements for some time.

With all that said and I admit it’s quite a bit, even for a condensed version it’s a big read now, I want to cover how to grow tomatoes successfully in the southern climate. Keep in mind yours truly is from the northern state of New Jersey where growing high quality tomatoes is practically a second occupation.  The garden state has long been eclipsed in volume of production; however the quality is a source of long-standing pride.

  1. Pick a variety: Pick a variety of tomato that will fit your environment best. For instance if you have nothing but hot sun, pick a variety like ‘Solar Fire’ or ‘Tropic VFN’. If you want a prolific vine that produces scores of small fruit try ‘Red Currant’ or ‘Sweet 100’, For heirlooms I recommend ‘Cherokee Purple’ ‘Pink Brandywine’ ‘Black Krim’ ‘Paul Robeson’ and lastly for containers there is the tried and true ‘Patio’ tomato. Just remember you can prolong the production season by growing your tomatoes in partial shade.
  2. Start early: It does not matter who you are, if you can start your tomatoes indoors in January do so, the earlier in the year you start a tomato, the less delay you have when it gets around planting time. A good reason for this comes with dealing with slower growing large-fruited heirlooms, they sometimes take longer. Cherry, grape and currant type tomatoes however grow so fast that you may be able to wait until February or early March. Every bit of cool season lead you can give your tomatoes the better.
  3. Improve your soil quality: If planting in ground dig an area that is 1 foot deep by 1 foot wide where you intend to plant your tomatoes. If you are planting a row of tomatoes then dig a trench as long as needed but maintain the 1 foot deep and wide aspects. Mix 1 part excavated soil with 1 part compost or composed animal manure (think black hen) and mix with 2 parts High quality top soil or low-grade potting soil (something cheap like Hyponex). Mix the soil materials together well and refill the trench, you want to have enough soil material so after filling you have a slight mound over where you intend to plant. This mounding will counter the soil’s slumping or sinkage after watering.
  4. Plant your tomatoes deep burying the stems up to 1” deep on their stems. This deep burial will promote new additional rooting and the original roots will develop more deeply increasing resistance to drought. The new roots will take over as surface feeder roots and thus additional vigor and stability will result. Make sure to either to put on a cage or stake at this point; you don’t necessarily need to tie your tomatoes down unless they are already more then a foot tall but it’s easier to install the supports now.
  5. Per foot of current plant height make sure to apply 1 teaspoon of Epsom salts, and repeat this application once every two weeks readjusting the dosage to compensate for growth. This simple fertilizer application will promote stronger growth with better disease resistance and tolerance for damage and ward off blossom-end rot a common nutrient deficiency in the south that causes the bottoms of tomatoes to go soft and rot ruining the fruit before harvest.
  6. Remember the Mulch: In the south if you can get away with it remember to apply a fine organic mulch such as pine bark, otherwise pine straw is equally good. Personally I have switched to pine straw because it seems to filter sunlight, slow weed growth and, seems to create an area of cooler air just above the soil that reduces soil temperature. We all know that most tomatoes may refuse to set bud if the nighttime temperatures are above a certain temperature. What is not said is that cool roots can overcome some of this.
  7. As a final note remember to fertilize and water regularly during the hottest summer months, Late July though early September can be a real monster for drought and heat. You must be prepared to handle this yearly weather restriction. The average tomato plant might need as much as a gallon of water a day if the temperature is around the 90 degree mark and more if there is no precipitation.
  8. As a final note; always evaluate at the end of the season, what worked, what didn’t work, did you have too many plants, too few plants and so on. Over a few years you can fine tune a plan to meet your needs.
 Thank you for reading  this edition of Lost in the Farmer's Market, I know it's a long read but a lot came to the forefront within the last week, Next week there will be another multiple plant spotlight, and we will be focusing on another garden topic. Just a note the month of May is for spring planting if you want to get annuals in try and do it before it heats up in June. Thanks for reading.

Monday, May 14, 2012

...And now for something completely different!

Welcome back to another edition of LITFM, today is our mother’s day edition, and we will be featuring new and unique ways to celebrate the Mothers in your life by talking about ways to color coordinate your sock drawer!  Ah, who am I kidding, actually the article intended for today was about the origins of the tomato however I thought it more appropriate for the day to delay that to next week to cover a different angle of urban farming.

But first, I would like to thank all of you intrepid gardeners, farmers and sustainable neighbors who came out to the Urban Farm Day event and stopped by the booth. It was a great pleasure to talk to all of you and you really made the day great. As some of you know I had the fortune to be sharing a tent with Marsha from Sustainable neighbors and we formed an ultimate tag-team for sustainable organic awesome. Heck even Local Food Fred made his first public debut and was a hit! In all seriousness, all you urban farmers out there deserve special thanks, you made the event possible, also Sustainable Sandhills deserves special credit, they somehow make this event more awesome every year they run it. If any of you out there don’t have a membership with this group I advice you get one to support their cool local initiatives below is a link to their website.

Also here is a link to the Sustainable Neighbors Meetup group:

Now beyond that, if you missed UFD 2012, you know that every year I sell horticultural surplus, that is plants that were not used in my crop production usually because more seeds germinated then I had space for.  The link below goes to a list of remaining plant stock still available for sale, and keep in mind you can arrange to pick up an order or it can be delivered for a small additional charge to the greater Fayetteville area and surrounding towns.

As promised in prior articles here is a brief plant spotlight and a picture of a few plants sold at the UFD at my booth in mature form.

The Primrose Orchid, Primula vialii.
The Orchid Primrose is an oddball that as it's latin name states is an actual primrose, that is named for it's blooms that resemble the blooms of certain types of Orchids. This particular primrose tends to prefer partial shade especially in the southern states. It does best in enriched soil that receives annual additions of compost. Most references say it is a short-lived perennial and it is unclear if it will resow itself like the Yellow Fumewort does. However as seen above paired with darker foliage such as columbines it can be quite attractive even when not in bloom. This plant has been appearing a lot in Home Despot and Lowes and I expect it may be a new perennial sensation.

This is an example of the Rainbow Bell Peppers I sold at UFD, the color of their fruit is entirely random. Each plant might be green, yellow, orange, red, white, purple, brown or black fruited. This one in my high production bed seems to be purple.

This is the plant used in the Epsom salt trials, based on the color and size of the fruit I imagine it's Brown Berry one of the tomato varieties sold at UFD. The fruit are about 3/4" to 1" wide  like most dark colored tomatoes the shoulders or tops of the fruit are darker even when unripe and color up first.

 Red Malabar Spinach or Basella alba 'Rubra'; These specimens are planted in the Reinforced mound bed with full sun exposure and have a five foot trellis above to climb on. Malabar spinach is a hot-season replacement for spinach that grows rapidly and can form living edible walls to cast shade for more sun-shy plants. The berries can be used to make intensely purple or dark red dye.

This is one of the crops that did not make it past the seed stage for the most part, the crop of Black Krim Tomatoes simply refused to cooperate this year with only three seedlings emerging. I think next year I'll go back to Paul Robeson Tomatoes. Black Krim is a traditional heirloom tomato with irregular fruit and decent heat tolerance as long as you can maintain good soil quality and regular watering.

Flaming Hot container garden action! For note, the blue-green plant in the upper right is Dinosaur Kale, The large plant in the lower center is a Striped Togo eggplant, and the plant on the left edge is a Turkish-Italian Orange Eggplant. Only one 'TIO' eggplant was sold this year due to poor germination. In the ground Striped togo is tall and columnar, in a pot it's bushier and large leaved.

In the center pot: Tobago Seasoning Pepper(rear-left of pot), African Marigold, Siam Thai Queen Basil, Turkish Italian Orange Eggplant. This picture was taken to show the height and habit of the Tobago Seasoning Peppers sold at UFD. What you cant see is that the Pepper has several flower buds on it most of which are big enough to open soon.

Mindless salesmanship aside, we move onward to today’s topic of interest the culture of figs. Why figs and why on mother’s day? Well according to recent archaeological digs, sponsored in part by Rutgers University, the remains of figs found in an 11,400 year old house in Gilgal 1 an early Neolithic village in the Jordan valley have proven to be of parthenocarpic type. What this means is that figs now are officially one of the oldest cultivated crops as a parthenocarpic plant produces fruit that is effectively seedless or otherwise sterile and thus must rely on other means to propagate itself in this case us.
Why is this important much less what does it have to do with mother’s day?
Well this afternoon I was out planting two fig bushes, a Chicago Hardy and a Ischia, both of which are common varieties of figs but each was adapted differently. Keep in mind at ‘the Ranch’ as I like to call my property, the driveway has a row of robust figs on one side of the driveway already. As I was planting the new bushes on the opposite side of the driveway I got to thinking, what fruiting plant has done more for mankind and yet gets so little credit? I mean the grape gets a lot of credit, then there’s citrus famous for it’s anti-scurvy properties, and the apple which apparently is doctor-repellant… the list goes on…but no credit for the first fruit-bearing plant mankind is likely to have cultivated. In that light the fig is a little like a mother who never gets the praise deserved for an incredibly difficult task. Analogies aside, after planting the new figs one of which was a generous donation by a classmate to the Skye Project (Ischia) I got to thinking further, I hadn’t ever bothered to cover in this blog a darn thing about the culture of figs, the very fruiting bush that I had the most varieties of on premises. With oversight on that level I could work for the government!

Jokes aside, first and foremost the fig sold in stores is typically known as Common Fig and its scientific name is Ficus carica.  The first thing you should know about fig is that for all intents and purposes figs have a root system that possesses relatively few primary roots, a few secondary anchor roots but a whole lot of fibrous feeder roots. The greater number of fibrous feeder roots means that figs can be easily damaged by disturbances to the soil surface and can be easily affected by surface applications of extended control herbicides. The good news is that due to the extensive fibrous feeder root system figs also recover from wilting rapidly and respond to fertilizers with surprising speed. A careful fertilization program with excellent soil quality and generous mulch can improve fruit size and quality greatly deep but infrequent watering to compensate for drought can improve fruit quality and strengthen resistance to root damage by encouraging roots to dig deeper.

It needs to be said that the leaf morphology of a fig is variable, even on a single fig bush you may encounter several leaf shapes. Most commonly figs will bear a 3-5 lobed leaf with an irregular crenate margin. The leaf’s lobes may be greatly pronounces almost appearing maple-like in shape or entirely absent. The variability of leaf shape is often a source of identification nightmares which leaves the fruit as the only reasonable identification feature. Physically most figs unless trained into a specific shape will take a loosely upright form eventually resembling a particularly loosely branched tree with age. To date the largest figs I’ve personally seen have been about 15-20 feet tall and and in both cases they were the Brown Turkey type and were growing in swampy areas with a high water table. That last bit leads me to another important observation, the common fig grows best in a riparian setting that is an area with a high water table, near a body of water or that is subject to annual flooding in which sediment is deposited near or on its feeder roots.

The fruit of figs are interesting as they technically are not fruit but a Syconium which is a flower but turned inside out technically the seeds are the actual fruit.  In the case of caprifigs and figs such as calimyrna type a pollinator is required however for most home enthusiasts  the figs you will grow are self-fertile or more likely are parthenocarpic and thus no pollinator is needed. Further more the fruit themselves are ripe when soft to the touch, have full color for their variety and, lastly have begun to droop at the stem.

In droughty periods one has to watch out for fire ant damage to fruit and bird damage. A common trick is to protect fruit with bits of news paper so the birds cannot get at them or to apply a product such as Amdro to fend off fire ants before they can find the fruit. One other trick is to grow light skinned figs to make it harder for birds to spot the ripe fruit. Obviously there are far more figs out there then the list below, but these particular varieties are not hard to get in the Fayetteville North Carolina area and are quite reliable in general.

Light Skinned Fruit

Dark Skinned Fruit
Black Mission
Brown Turkey
Chicago Hardy

As a final note for this episode of LITFM, I might add one last thought to the culture of figs, cuttings root easily, they generally will bear the first year installed if cared for well, also most varieities fruit on last year’s wood; though Chicago Hardy will fruit on new growth readily. In conclusion to quote the Agricultural extension agent from Alamance county in North Carolina ‘Figs are the great unexplored fruit for our region, we have the right soil, climate and all the space needed, someone just needs to have a little initiative.’  

Sunday, May 6, 2012

A Day In the Life: Natural Alternatives to Chemicals

Welcome back to your weekly edition of Lost In the Farmer’s Market, a balanced garden guide for navigating the often confusing world of sustainable, organic garden practices. Today’s topic is about natural alternatives to the usual cadre of chemicals sold by the average garden center. At the article’s end is a bit about the urban farm tour coming up and what we at Lost in the Farmer’s Market are doing there. But before we get to the main topic or the farm tour here is this episode's plant spotlight!

Blue African Basil - Ocimum kilimandscharicum × basilicum 'Dark Opal'
This Blue African Basil is growing on my front porch in a 6" pot it makes for an excellent long-season potted plant when used to mark the edges of boundaries.

Blue African Basil has been one of my long-standing favorites since I first saw it sold by Gilberties Herbs back in the 1990's. Back then it was somewhat rare and hard to get but now  you see it more regularly and occasionally you do see it sold by Bonnie Plants. As the botanical Latin name suggests this basil is a cross between Dark Opal basil and Camphor basil which means it has a higher camphor content but some or all of the appealing values of the Dark Opal basil. The overall flavor is a bit more pungent which makes for some powerful pesto, and thus it's best use is with pasta and vegetables or in stews that need extra aromatic and seasoning power. In general however it serves a useful role as a source of pollen and nectar for pollinators and hummingbirds and as seen in the picture above it's blooms are no slouch in the looks department. Occasionally a well grown stand of blue African basil can be mistaken for lavender from a distance due to the similar bloom color. Lastly is the sheer size, blue african basil takes on an teardrop shape over all and can form a large herbaceous shrub by the time it is killed by frost in our climate. As a final note it is commonly stated that Blue African Basil is sterile, however from tests in the Skye Project Gardens and reports from other gardeners this is not entirely true at least in North Carolina.

Now without further ado, we bring you the main topic of today's post, six natural alternatives to chemicals.

Beer Traps
Slug Genocide! This trap was placed about a week ago as a last-ditch effort to kill off anything that might be eating my marigolds as it had already eaten my Tobago seasoning peppers. This trap in total had 47 slugs in it the next day when this picture was short we now know the culprit.

Before you ask; the beer trap does not refer to a policeman parking his cruiser near a local bar on a Friday night. But considering what these do the critters they catch probably think it is darn close. The beer trap is an oddball way to handle one or two specific pests slugs/snails and certain types of roaches. The idea behind it is simple as noted below:

  1. Acquire a few pot saucers of the plastic type with low edges.
  2. Place around your garden in the evening with the saucers buried in the soil up to their outer lip or alternately mound the mulch up around the saucer.
  3. Fill partly with the cheapest but highest alcohol content beer you can find, 6% is ok, 8% is good 12% might be a bit much.
  4. Check saucers the next day.

Simply put for some reason that is unknown to me, slugs in particular are attracted to beer, and thus with beer traps out they wander in hit the booze and die. The higher the alcohol content the more likely the slugs are to outright dissolve in your beer trap and thus no worries about cleanup. The traps can be hosed out and used repeatedly thus allowing you to reduce slug problems and monitor pest populations. Additionally you may see a variety of critters in the traps such as roaches, wasps, gnats and pill bugs.

Glass Cleaner
 These aphids never knew what hit them, serves them right for messing with my chicory plants!

Yes Windex is a responsible pesticide as it turns out it is the ammonia in this largely inert household cleaning solution that takes down flying pests effectively. Products like Windex that use ammonia are largely effective because they volatilize rapidly. The target insect when hit will breathe them in and suffer complete respiratory failure depending on size instantly or within a few minutes. This is especially effective against singular wasps and aphids. Another nice effect of glass cleaner is that it often disallows the target insect flight probably due the weight of the fluid or simply because it softens the wing membranes. If using glass cleaner on a aphid problem make sure to water the plant thoroughly and have the pray bottle set to mist as opposed to stream then carefully douse the pests. Aphids often will die in place for the most part while a few may fall off but the effect is the same one less pest.

Rubbing Alcohol

Got a plant covered with what appears to be a number of scales or tiny little gross looking cotton swabs? If you said yes the rubbing alcohol is the pesticide for you. The two insects mentioned above are Scale Insect and Mealy Bugs both of which pose a problem even to high end pesticides due to their body coatings. The scale insect forms a waxy protective cover once it settles down on a plant and this coating is largely impervious to most pesticide applications. The mealy bug forms a waxy fuzzy sort of coating that repels liquid and thus a number of pesticides don’t work on these bugs.
Rubbing alcohol preferably Isopropyl 90% however effectively kills both on contact and has no lasting effects on the subject plant. The key is to apply some rubbing alcohol to an already damp cloth and then wipe the offending insects of your plant, the alcohol kills any eggs or immature insects it comes into contact with and the wiping action kills off the adults. A secondary bonus is the fact that rubbing alcohol also will kill off any sooty mold or powdery mildew on your plant caused by the excretions of aphids, mealybugs and or scale insects it also will dissolve the honeydew also. Not bad for a mere topical disinfectant.

Sticky Traps

Some times available in garden centers the venerable sticky trap is an excellent tool for monitoring pest populations but also is a great way to lower flying pest populations. Normally a sticky trap is a piece of paper or plastic with a sticky coating on both sides that has a bright yellow or some times green coloration. The color serves as the main attractant as pests such as gnats, thirps, flies, whiteflies and some times aphids are attracted to the color and get stuck. The bulk advantage is that sticky traps are 100% chemical free, rarely hurt beneficial insects and can be used indoors and outdoors equally well.  Since the pests cannot get free of the traps when the trap becomes covered with stuff you can simply toss it out and there goes the pests with it!  Cheap, effective and totally environment-friendly.

Comfrey Symphytum x uplandicum ‘Bocking 14’

Comfrey seems to be the most unknown herb in the gardening world, many books to not cover it, few magazines praise it, in fact its cousin Borage gets far more press and often it is excluded also. So what exactly is this perennial good for? Comfrey is somewhat of a hyper accumulator which means it stores larger then average levels of nutrients in its leaves but also its roots exude a certain chemical that accelerates the decomposition of organic matter in the soil making it a great ally when you desire to speed up the progress of a compost pile. Lastly there are a few herbal medical uses for the plant.

How to make Comfrey Fertilizer
  1. Harvest a cup of leaves.
  2. Add to a bucket containing 1 quart of water (per cup of leaves).
  3. Make sure the bucket has a lid and cover the bucket to avoid contamination.
  4. Allow the leaves and water to sit undisturbed for at least a week.
  5. Check bucket regularly until water has turned black or very dark brown.
  6. Strain out the leaves and add to compost.
  7. Resulting fluid in bucket is the high potency fertilizer.

Depending on the conditions where your comfrey was grown you may need to dilute this mix a little or a lot, but the resulting fluid is still an effective and 100% organic fertilizer.
In addition to being an inexpensive fertilizer the fluid can be used to accelerate the decomposition in a compost pile and be used to aid in breaking down tree stumps.

Pyrethrum Daisy Chrysanthemum cinerariifolium
 Also known as Dalmatian Chrysanthemum the Pyrethrum Daisy is a somewhat rangy plant with interesting foliage and cheery but typical daisy flowers.

The pyrethrum daisy is the source of the insecticide known as pyrethrum. Surprisingly it is a somewhat weedy looking plant with tall flower heads that identify that it is an absolute member of the daisy family. Pyrethrum as a pesticide is effective because it has a nearly instant kill effect but requires contact and yet has little residual action on its own and thus naturally made pyrethrum pesticide will have little ecological effect. In case you are wondering the part that supplies the pesticide is the flower heads. Opened flower heads like the ones in the picture can be picked and dried face down. Below is a recipe for making pyrethrum pesticide. The seeds of Pyrethrum daisy can be bought through Richter’s Herbs of Canada, but remember pyrethrum daisies are  not an easy plant to grow from seed so be patient.

How to Make Natural pesticide

  1. Bring the three cups of water to a near-boil, but do not boil.
  2. Put dried flowers in a muslin bag, cheese cloth or a straining bag.
  3. Place the bag in with the heated water and allow steeping until water is cool.
  4. Remove bag and empty flowers into the compost.
  5. If you desire a pesticide that sticks more add 1 teaspoon of dye and scent free soap or glycerin or pure mineral oil per cup of fluid.
  6. Store resulting pesticide in a dark bottle away from extreme temperatures and away from direct sunlight.
  7. Your pesticide is ready to use once cool and transferred to a spray bottle. If you added a sticking agent make sure to shake the mixture in the spray bottle before using.
  8. Put the resulting mixture in a dark colored bottle and store away from extremes in temperature and direct sunlight, you can transfer what you need to a spray bottle when you need it.
  9. As a final note, rainy periods can cause a dilution of the concentration of pyrethrum in the plant; the best time to harvest blooms is during dry hot periods.

It’s that time again folks, the second weekend of May is coming up on us fast and that means it’s time for 4th Annual Urban Farm Day down at the Fayetteville Community Garden on Vanstory and Mann streets in Fayetteville. The event is on May the 12th between the hours of 10:00 am and 3:00 pm and admission is 10.00 per adult and kids 12 & under get in for free.  This fine family friendly venue is organized by the Sustainable Sandhills group with a few sponsors and is a showcase for all sorts of Urban farming techniques.
Why should you come on down, well LITFM will have a booth there and yours truly will be front and center to answer your questions and talk a little about what urban farming is, composting and any garden topics that happen to come up.  For note this is our fourth year of participation in the UFD event and the UFD yearbook can be seen at our booth. I also know the meetup group known as Sustainable Neighbors (aka the Neighborhood Grange) will be right next door with their own awesome booth.

At the LITFM booth we’ll have a few things going on:
  1. Free Plant giveaway, curtesy of the FTCC horticulture department.
  2. A rare copy of Desert Harvest for sale.
  3. Our own Carolina Gold Compost Products.
  4. The yearly Skye Project Horticultural surplus sale.

Of course you can expect the same sort of Sustainable Organic Solutions you’ve come to know from this blog your reading as well as from those of you who have had landscaping work done through Bordeaux Light Landscaping. So come on down with your questions prepared and pay us a visit we’d love to meet you. As a final note, for all of you out there this, is the horticultural surplus plant sale list so you know what we will have, all stock numbers are current as of this posting you can email if you  would like to ask to reserve some plant materials or want information on a specific plant.

2” Fiber Pots (2.00)
 4x Basil, Sweet
 4x Basil, Lemon
 4x Basil, Cinnamon
 4x Parsley, Italian

3” Fiber Pots (2.50)
 9x Eggplant, Purple Tiger
 3x Eggplant, Striped Togo
 6x Okra 'Emerald'
 2x Pepper, Cayenne
 2x Pepper, Habanero
 3x Pepper, Sangria
 5x Pepper, Tobago Seasoning
 6x Red Malabar Spinach
18x Tomato, Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter

3” Plastic Pots (5.00)
 1x Spear Sanseveria

4” Plastic Pots (3.00)
 8x Chinese Foxglove
 5x Desert Privet
 6x Eggplant, Black Beauty
 3x Eggplant, Hansel
 4x Lemon Bee Balm/ Bergamot
 4x Okra, Clemson Spineless
 4x Okra, Red Burgundy
 3x Pepper, Rainbow Bell Mix
 4x Pepper, Tobago Seasoning
11x Sedum, Northern Lights Mix
13x Star Tickseed
 2x Strawberry Spinach
 1x Swiss cheese Plant
 5x Vietnamese Coriander/Cilantro

6” Plastic Pots (4.00)
 3x Tomato, Brown Berry
 3x Tomato, Lemon Drop
 3x Tomato, Red Currant Hybrid