Sunday, June 17, 2012

Summer Series: Installation and Upkeep

Welcome back to another edition of Lost in the farmer’s market where we deconstruct the practices of modern agriculture and demonstrate how you can apply their conventional wisdom to your back yard endeavors. As you may have noted there was no blog post for LITFM last week, admittedly yours truly got bogged down at work and unfortunately I lacked the time to sit down and write it however this week  we will have extra content to make up for that. Additionally it dawned on me, the plant of the week was supposed to be Lemon Beebalm, but honestly I’ve covered the heck out of that and something far more interesting has come up so this week we have a double header of weird and wonderful plants. Also in this weeks double-installment we cover three plant spotlights, and both last week's main topic and this week's main topic. 

There is a correction to the last post as evidenced by my own plants, the plants noted as striped togo eggplant with unusually big leaves have thrown a curve-ball. As it turns out they are the Turkish Italian Orange eggplant, a labeling error has caused them to be misidentified. The fruit started off as ovoid which aided in the identification error then promptly between now and the last post began to swell outwards taking a wider shape. Perhaps Ironically, this error further proves the case for gigantism as the Turkish Italian eggplant are noted from the prior year to have poor vigor and only produced one fruit where as this year they are covered in fruit. The slow growing plants I labelled as Turkish-Italian Orange eggplant are of course the striped togo and are growing as expected tall narrow and columnar in shape. It seems that first real hot and dry spell caused their sudden rapid growth. Thus far the Togos seem to wilt less and require less water, more to come on this as it develops.

But before we get into the plant spotlight or the main topic I’d like to provide this bit of important information for all you folks out there who read the ‘weeds you can eat’ series or for that matter want to try some of the exotic spinach substitutes. It is important that you consider trying the Universal Plant Edibility Test to verify that you are not allergic or that your digestive tract is not sensitive to anything you eat. The last thing I want is anyone to get a case of the ‘trots’ at the least and a hospital visit at the worst. So I present to you the universal plant edibility test in full form.

The Universal Plant Edibility Test
  1. Abstain from eating for 8 hours before testing a new possible food source.
  2. Separate the plant into its basic components: Seeds, Leaves, Stems, Flowers, Buds and roots.
  3. Test for contact poisoning by placing the plant part in the crook of your arm for 15 minutes. If no irritation is visible or felt, proceed.
  4. Place the plant part to be eaten on your lips for 3 minutes to make sure it will not cause a burning or itching sensation.
  5. Place the plant part on your tongue for 15 minutes to make sure it causes no irritation.
  6. It there has been no adverse reaction to the plant material up to this point, chew a small portion and hold it in your mouth for 15 minutes.
  7. Abstain from eating anything for another 8 hours to check for any ill side-effects.

It should be said that if nausea or vomiting ensues, drink plenty of water to flush out your system. If there are no adverse effects, prepare a small handful of the plant part and eat a whole portion. If another 8 hours pass without irritation or vomiting, you can consider the plant safe for consumption.

That’s a rather comprehensive test that you survivalists out there can try when the going is good to prepare for when the going might not be so good. For the rest of you it’s a good way to widen your palette safely without a great deal of risk. Plus you can tell your friends you just tried this crazy new food and usually if they’re garden-minded they’ll be thinking about it and might want to try it too. Plus think of the resulting dishes with food substitutes. Ever try a Garlic-Malabar spinach oriental stir-fry? Oh….heck YES! Summer spinach dishes for the masses with no fear of GMO, pesticides or any other creepy and unsafe Corporate Agribusiness shenanigans. Feel free to ask me for that recipe over at Sustainable Neighbors on On the forums my name is TKG.

With the edibility test in mind next we have the plant spotlight, and we feature three plants that sadly as far as I know have not passed the edibility test but are still very cool and add a flare of the exotic to the otherwise drab east coast garden. First off we have the White Voodoo Lily.

 This is the flower of white Voodoo Lily

Amorphophallus albus – White Voodoo Lily (foliage is in lower center of photo)

Now first off the scientific name says some odd things, Amorpho means ‘mishappen’ and phallus means penis, albus simply means white. What the name refers to is the shape of spadix, or the flowering organ that emerges somewhere between late spring to late summer. Before we go on here’s a little bit of plant botany; the spadix is a specialized reproductive organ that relies on what is called a bract to attract it’s preferred pollinators. Not unlike Poinsettias whose colorful ‘petals’ are actually bracts and the little bits in the center are the actual flowers bracts play a different game entirely. At the tip of the spadix are the tiny male flowers then midway down is a band of sterile flowers and way down inside at the bottom are the female flowers. The bract itself is ultimately cup shaped and may be covered with features to trap pollinators so that they cannot leave without passing pollen down to the female flowers inside. Some members of the Amorphophallus family such as the Titan Arum are known for their ability to create heat at the tips of the spadix to volatilize their scents to attract pollinators. I might add in the case of the titan arum, it smells like a corpse so of course the pollinator would be flies. Now before you ask ‘Why the heck would I want a flower that smells like I’m hiding a dead body in the yard?!’ the answer is simple, in most cultivated varieties this trademark aroma of the Amorphopallus family has been for the most part bred out or reduced so you get the perks of a really weird flower and crazy-exotic foliage without the police stopping by to see if you’ve been burying the neighbors in the back yard. I is important to note that the spadix type flower structure is not unique to the Voodoo lilies. Other plants with the spathe-type inflorescence include Skunk Cabbage (Symplicarpus sp. & Lysichiton americanus), Peace lilies (Spathiphyllum sp.), Calla Lillies (Calla sp.) the peperomia family (Peperomia sp.), Jack-In-The-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum ), Elephant Ear (Xanthosoma roseum) and more commonly The family of lawn herbs/weeds known as the Plantains (Plantago sp.). Needless to say the Voodoo lily much like other lilies in that aforementioned list are not actually in the lily family; a fair number of them are in the Arum family. For note, the arum family includes the food plants Taro, Eddoe and Malanga.  Getting back on track, the specimen pictured just emerged in early June, and is far larger then it was when I planted it. I admit it was one of those crazy impulse buys, this one when bout last year was about $10.00 tax included and I had honestly gotten to thinking it had died and then while giving a tour of the test gardens there it was emerging bigger then the year before. Now here’s the thing about Voodoo Lilies, you need to be patient; small tubers may take years to mature enough to flower but the foliage and its odd shapes and exotic forms make up for this. The below is a typical ‘black’ voodoo lily as seen at cape fear botanical gardens. I think

Voodoo lily shortly after flower emergence but before leaves emerge.

Amorphophallus konjac – Voodoo Lily (flower fully opened)

Note the polka dot speckling on the stems and overall dark coloration, quite a show-stopper when in this case paired with black bamboo, though I do advise skipping the bamboo and sticking with the Voodoo lilies with the right kind of backdrop to maximize the value of their foliage.  You can get voodoo lilies through Plant Delights online though expect them to be a bit hefty in price. As for care make sure they get adequate water the first year and plant them in heavily improved soil, they will tolerate a lot once established but don’t take it for granted. I might add Voodoo lilies are deciduous, that is they drop their leaves in late summer or fall and disappear generally the level of drought and stress will effect how long they remain leafed out.

Tricyrtis micranthopsis – Yellow Toad Lily, foliage only

 Tricyrtis micranthopsis – Yellow Toad Lily, in bloom

Tricyrtis formosana – Taiwanese Toad Lily, foliage only with measuring tape to denote length of stolons.

Tricyrtis formosana – Taiwanese Toad Lily, in bloom

To be fair, this little guy has everything I personally like in a garden plant, it self proliferates by stolon, it has exotic flowers and, it’s an underutilized garden perennial. Oh and one other thing, toad lilies are not invasive so you can have a nice colony of them in a few years that you can pass out to fellow gardeners. You should note that despite what some sources state yes Tricyrtis is in fact in the lily family and flower shapes aside bears no direct or indirect relation to the Orchid family. This means that their care and cultural requirements of this fine grouping of lily relatives is rather easy. While of ten toad lilies can be a bit pricy initially and their care can seem daunting the average gardener needs to remember just two important things. First toad lilies are woodland plants that grow best in or near riparian areas. What this means is they like shade and moist but not constantly wet areas also; a light topdressing of compost early and initial soil modifications to draw the soil closer to loam will produce the best effects. As I’ve said before the key to soil moisture retention is organic matter and where possible mulching every six months or so. For all this preparation you will be rewarded with unique and hardy plants that produce blooms something like the pictures below. I might note that the yellow toad lily will grow between USDA hardiness zones 6 to 8. But don’t worry for all you gardeners up north the Taiwanese Toad Lily will grow between zones 8 to 4 making it the better plant for those of you more towards the north. It is possible with clever use of stonework and or proximity to the masonry or stone siding of a building with ample mulch in winter to protect the roots one could wring zone 3 out of the Taiwanese Toad lily but of course that is pushing it. Likewise I am quite sure you could achieve successful stands of toad lilies as far south as zone 9 in deep shade with heavily amended soil. The USDA zones are a factual guideline, which the plants don’t know about, so they have no idea they aren’t supposed to grow somewhere. Barring that USDA zone limitation Toad lilies could be used as unique houseplants as they are disease free and well behaved.

Now onwards to the actual main topic, for those of you who tune in regularly to read this blog, you know occasionally I turn into a total garden geek, and the above is proof.  The intended main topic for this post was supposed to be how to keep your new plants alive, and last weeks was supposed to be about planting the last of your spring plants before the summer’s heat arrives. Due to my work status preventing me from posting last week in brief today I will cover both since it seems we in the southeast have a wave of hot and humid coming mid-week it’s not a moment too soon!

The first thing you should know is that generally much like when I suggest one should do all the stonework and heavy labor tasks in the garden in late fall through early spring to avoid the heat the planting of large numbers of annuals, perennials and so forth should also only be done before July. The reason for this is quite clear; I can’t speak for any of you but when the temperatures reach 90 degrees and the humidity is through the roof the last thing I want to do is plant things or for that matter be scrambling about to water dozens of plants that are still in transplant shock. Furthermore planting these plants when the August drought strikes are an even worse idea, because then you not only have unrelenting heat but possible water restrictions and of course the mosquitoes and humidity combine to make your life extra-difficult.  The first thing to do is to look at your intended planting area, determine the soil quality, and figure what kind of labor you need to do to achieve your goals. Consider the following questions when planting late in the season.
  1. Have you planted here before, if so what did you plant and will the soil need to be enriched?
  2. Is it a new bed, and if so, how much amending will it need.
  3. How deep is the soil currently?
  4. Where is the bed located?
Once you figure this out determine the watering needs of what you are planting, it is a rule of thumb that most plantings will require almost daily rain for the first two weeks after they are installed. However this rule applies largely to perennials and annuals, more permanent things such as shrubs and trees may need intensive care for a full month to recover fully from transplant shock. Knowing this basic level of care can allow you to plan your planting date ahead of the dog days of summer and ease your maintenance burden. As a final note to the ‘Last Call’ for planting, I do advise using transplant fertilizers; surprisingly they do actually seem to work. Generally a transplant fertilizer is one that uses less nitrogen and more phosphorous (P) and potassium (K) which promotes root growth, and drought resistance both of which are your biggest enemy when planting new plants.

Now keeping your plants alive post planting can be a daunting task, some times the weather cooperates and gives you the right amounts of rain and you have to do little. On the reverse some times it’s a mild winter and those critters are waiting to eat your hard work. Either way, for the sake of this portion of the article let’s presume that you’ve gotten your plants past the two week transplant period. Now the problems you face happen to be some of the usual ones that all gardeners face.

  1. Noting what time of day your plants wilt and if they stay wilted into the evening.
  2. Watching for damage from insects.
  3. Watching for animal damage.
  4. Keeping an eye out for soil erosion.
  5. Noting which plants are holding up the best.
The three things you have to worry about most are wilting, insect damage and plant collapse. The first; wilting can be caused by three things. Normally heat can cause wilt, this is a biological reaction by the plants to reduce the surface area that can be hit by the heat and light of the sun to conserve moisture. The cure for this is to wait and see if it persists into the evening after the sun has been off your plants an hour or two. Lack of water however, the real wilting causes cells to contract and become soft which causes plants to lose their rigidity. Normal wilting of course can be remedied by watering. The third form of wilting is the sort you can do little about, as a number of plant viruses, bacterium and fungi all can attack a plant’s vascular system and cut off water and nutrients to the green growth of a plant. The way to diagnose this problem is to watch for wilting that persists even if the soil is moist and the sun has not been shining on the plant for a few hours. If this wilt persists into the next day regardless of temperature, you may have a pathogen. Often it is cheaper to replace with another plant not susceptible to the disease then to treat the problem. To treat a plant or not to treat a plant is purely at your discretion with the cost of the treatment versus the plant’s value in mind.

Now the second thing to worry for is insect damage, a good example was noted earlier in this blog where I planted out my main production bed and had a slug problem. Looking at your plants as you care for them will allow you to see the telltale signs of damage from insect pests. Caterpillars skeletonize and leave chewing damage, slugs leave slime trails and raggedy damage, aphids cluster about stem tips and leave the shoots crumpled and deformed and, white flies often cause a gradual loss of color and vigor and fly about in swarms when the host plant is disturbed. Most insect issues come about at times of opportunity for the insects, as noted in the slug example above; these critters were active during our unusually wet spring. White flies came about in early summer due to a lack of winter freezes to kill them off. Aphids tend to show up in the drought of summer when ants act as their co-conspirators and thus are farmed for their secretions by the ants. The Only thing you can do is to observe, note the problem, and treat it as it happens with your preferred method.

The third thing to worry about once your plants are in and past their transplant shock period is plant collapse. Plant collapse is best seen when for instance you plant a bed full of impatiens and a handful suddenly die for no real reason. Typically plant collapse is really just Russian roulette; maybe those plants were the less genetically vigorous seeds in the flat. Perhaps those few plants didn’t get as much water or fertilizer during the growing period before sale. Maybe that portion of the soil mixture was tainted. It could be that the grower simply botched the care of a handful of plants and you had the misfortune to buy them. When one of your plants collapses in this way and you’ve done what is needed to care for your garden, the only thing you can do is remove evidence of the deceased plant and if possible replant or let the others nearby fill in.

As I like to say ‘if at first you don’t succeed, destroy all evidence you tried!’ and with that in mind we come to the end of another episode of Lost In The Farmers Market. I know this was a unusually long and detailed post, but I had to make up for the lack of a post last week and there was just too much good information to leave out. Next week we will be covering the last installment of the summer series titled ‘Trial and Error, Mostly error!’ which is about finding out what plants work best for your garden and the botanical journey that one often undertakes to get the sort of yard they want. Also our featured plant spotlight is a returnee from one of last year’s posts, Lemon & Lime Germander. I have some new information about this perennial that may spark your interest in using it in your yard. 

Thank you for reading and I owe some image credits to a select few groups as I lacked flowering photos of the plant spotlight plants today.  As always keep ‘em growing, and see you next week!

Special image credits
1.        Taiwanese Toad Lily in bloom: courtesy of Big Bloomers
2.        Yellow Toad Lily in bloom: courtesy of Big bloomers.
3.        White Voodoo Lily in bloom: courtesy of Plant Delights
4.     The two photos of  Amorphophallus konjac were taken by me at Cape Fear Botanical Gardens in 2011.

P.S. The Results of the Azomite Trial re-do will be available next week.

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