Monday, June 4, 2012

Summer Series: Understanding Plant tags 101

“Ah summer, you start out so nice, but I know your tricks, come August you will be kicking my rear like an enraged bookie determined to get his money.“

Welcome to another edition of Lost in the Farmer’s Market or LITFM for short. Today we have a very interesting episode for all of you readers out there, including a double-plant spotlight and the main topic, Understanding Plant Tags 101. Before we get to the Plant spotlights and the main topic I would like to talk briefly about the test gardens.

As you might have heard I operate a series of test gardens to test the veracity of numerous gardening claims that crop up (no pun intended) every year. In doing these tests often strange results occur, for instance earlier in the year I tested the validity of using Epsom salts to promote growth and vigor in tomatoes. This test proved to be measurably true, and thus worth recommending to all of you readers out there.  Here are some results of those trials.

Epsom salts promotes tomato growth: True!
Azomite improves plant growth: Undetermined.
Beer Traps effectively kill Slugs: Gross but True!
You cannot grow Kale in the Summer: False (see striped togo eggplant picture)
Upside down Tomato Planters improve yield: False
Upside down Tomato planters improve flavor: False
You cannot grow big tomatoes in the South: False
Marigolds have no insect pest problems: False (Slugs will eat them)
Peppers are pest free: False (Slugs again…)
Use miracle-Gro products to get bigger Plants:  False (see pictures below)

That said it has been an incredibly busy year and we have had some crazy results including botanical gigantism. Botanical gigantism is when a plant displays growth that is uncharacteristically large for it’s type for instance below we have a picture of what my Striped Togo Eggplant looks like right now.

 The Striped Togo Eggplant is in the center of this picture, the blue-green plant on the right is a Dinosaur Kale Plant, still growing strong despite it being June.

Last year the Striped Togo was tall narrowly columnar and had leaves no longer then 5” at the most. For some reason, this year it is short, massive leaved and has been covered in blooms since early May.  Then we have this group of tomatoes here two of these are Black Krim tomatoes and two are Red Currant.

 While it is not clear which tomato is which you can barely see the cages holding them up, instead of growing straight upright all these tomatoes decided to aggressively side-branch.

Both tomato plants are displaying incredibly aggressive branching, foliage growth and incredible vigor without the use of any artificial chemical fertilizers nor fertilizer-laced soil. But wait there is more look at these other eggplant, both of which are Millionaire type, respectively both have stems at least two feet long and there is even fruit on them as of this writing.

The visible eggplant fruit may not look like much but every plant has several.

Last on the list is this guy, my single rhubarb plant, it’s biggest leaf and stem measures at 9” long by 1” thick for the stem with a leaf size of 1’ 4” wide by 1’ 7” long. Now that may not seem like much but this is about the size you’d expect from a commercial farming operation. Take a look at the plant and see what I mean. 

This rhubarb is at least three years old and was installed when this bed didn't have b ricks or stone work. It now as of this year dominates that corner.

Keep in mind I put down compost this year, I used Fish fertilizer and Epsom salts, but did little else, we have had all those thunder showers and things are growing as if there was a tanker truck of steroids that spilled up hill somewhere. This sort of gigantism where plants are growing abnormally well is appearing all over the test gardens. I am surely not complaining, but is anyone else experiencing this level of overgrowth? The reason I ask is to determine if it is the regular rains causing this or some of my cultural care. Feel free to send in your comments, and with that said lets go onward to the plant spotlight.

 These tomatoes are  6 ounces and 4 ounces respectively on one of the black Krim plants, they were ripening before the farm tour and are not the first of this size on that plant this year. the pot is there to prevent the birds from finding them.

Now for today’s plant spotlight we have what I like to call, the Asian Invasion. Today’s plants of interest are Perilla and Okinawa Spinach. The latter is a new edible plant I came across by accident at a garden center within the last week or so. The former is a well documented and some times weedy plant you might find appearing in yards with little promotion. 

Perilla fruitiscens nankiensis - Perilla

Talk about dramatically purple, Perilla is a common herb in Asian cooking and can be found in numerous dishes as flavoring or colorant. In our climate perilla actually is an annual, but it readily comes back from it’s sown seed and takes on an almost perennial habit due to it’s prolific nature. For those of you in the north, it comes back from seed like lemon balm tends to, almost anywhere. Fortunately perilla has many uses for American cooking styles, the most obvious being that its purple color bleeds out when cooked and this can be used to make vegetable-based dye. The flavor of perilla is interesting as it resembles anise somewhat but with a slight camphor burn, that resembles cloves or basil. One interesting way to use this herb that I personally have devised is as an additive to pesto which gives pesto a unique flavor and color. A good winter vegetable stew with some kale as the primary greens might also both benefit from the neat color of this herb but also the flavoring when combined with fennel. According several sources perilla leaves have impressive amounts of calcium, iron and potassium, riboflavin, vitamin A, vitamin C and fiber. It is believed that perialla also bears anti-inflammatory components and may act as a preservative when added to other foods. Lastly oil extracted from perilla is confirmed to be a very rich source of omega-3 fatty acid and alpha-linolenic acids.

Gynura crepidioides – Okinawa Spinach

Okinawa Spinach on the other hand is a perennial from zone 11 through 9 in the continental USA which means it might survive a mild winter in Fayetteville North Carolina, but your chances of hitting the lottery are far better. Unlike conventional spinach or any of the other spinach substitutes I have cove red in this blog Okinawa Spinach prefers partial to full shade. The difference in sunlight tolerance means that those gardeners who love spinach but lack the sunlight to grow it well can now have a similar leaf-green to sate their culinary preferences. Fortunately this vegetable happens to make for a pretty attractive foliage plant and thus can be grown indoors readily Okinawa Spinach has dark green leaves with purple undersides which gives it an and appearance resembling some Kalanchoes and other common succulents used as house plants. As the pictured specimen indicates this spinach substitute is absolutely upright growing and will produce a lot of side branches. The leaves are generally eaten raw in salads or gently cooked like spinach and could be served in a dish like sautéed spinach and garlic along with pasta. The key is to make sure not to overcook the leaves as they do lose their exceptional nutrient value if overcooked,  remember you want them to retain some rigidity when cooked somewhat like dinosaur Kale. Speaking of nutritional value Okinawa Spinach is one of the more undocumented leaf vegetables, it is suggested that it may have stronger then average cholesterol reduction capabilities.

Onward to the topic at hand, understanding plant labels. Admittedly I talk about the labeling conventions for plant stock quite a bit. The reason for this continual discussion is that the industry has some guidelines which make perfect sense if you are savvy on plants and read the labels all the time. Unfortunately not everyone has the fortune to be a landscaper or super-avid gardener (guilty on both counts myself.)  so today I’m going to talk a bit about a few common misnomers as found on plant labels.

  1. Full Sun – Often defined as 6-8+ hours of direct sunlight. Full sun is relative; your environment will determine the truth. For instance Lemon Balm is labeled as ‘Full Sun’ however it will practically spontaneously combust in the south when put in full sun. Up north you could give it 10 hours of sun a day and it’s just fine. Be wary of this label, and test the plant’s ability to handle full sun first.  Some plants that definitely like full sun include Penstemon, Russian Sage, Portulaca, Purselane, Sedum, Ornamental Sage, Artemesia,  Rosemary, Santolina, Rue, Verbena and, Lantana.
  2. Plant Size – It only grows 18” by 12”.  Be wary of plant size information, some plants have no idea they are supposed to be limited in this way. A prime example of this is Mint in general, a number of plant labels often say their spread is something like 18” to 24” but I’ve had stands of spearmint take over an entire 15’ by 15’ lawn area. That sounds pretty bad but the mower sure was minty-fresh after each clipping!  Generally what you want to do with plant size is note it plus the spacing then throw on  an extra bit of buffer area just in case to handle any plant that is overly happy in it’s new spot.
  3. Native Plant! – I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, native is relative. The fact is that the term native could mean it’s from this continent, but not necessarily from your neck of the woods.  Consider also that the plant you are about to buy may have been cultivated outside its native range and given certain treatments or enhancements to produce a different rate or style of growth. Always to the research before you buy and remember, some natives are great where they came from and terrible where you put them.
  4. Misleading Adjectives – A great example of a misleading adjective is ‘Swamp’ Sunflower which grows perfectly well outside of a swamp and can tolerate drought quite well. Another one is ‘Swamp Rose Mallow’ one of which I have growing in the hottest, driest areas of the test gardens with little irrigation except for natural rain. A third example is Water Mint which isn’t an aquatic plant nor does it like growing in standing water it does like moist soil but not standing water. To put it plainly you will need to use your common sense to break through these naming conventions.
  5. Common Names – Common names are a problem, because they are just a common name, which means that these names might be national, regional or local. A prime example is ‘Monkey Grass’ which is almost any form of Liriope. If you go to a garden center and ask for just Monkey grass you’ll be shown whatever they have which may not be what you actually want. Another good example of common name confusion is found with the Cone flowers. Technically four different genera within the Aster family can claim that name, Dracopsis, Echinacea, Ratibida and, Rudbeckia, in a more clear example of that confusion, Rudbecki lacinata is known as Cutleaf Coneflower, yet Echinacea purpurea is Purple Coneflower, Echinacea paradoxa is Yellow Coneflower and,  Rudbeckia maxima is the Great Coneflower. It is easier to use the internet to find the botanical Latin name for a plant and ask for it using that name in whole or part so that you get the plant you want which will be best for your area. Some times a garden center will have it and some times they might have a similar replacement which makes for a fun experiment.
This wraps up another edition of Lost in The Farmer’s Market, next week we will be covering the ‘Last Call’ for planting seasonal plants for the summer before the real heat of summer arrives.

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