Tuesday, July 24, 2012
Welcome back to another episode of Lost In the Farmer’s Market and the fourth installment of the Summer Xeriscaping series. The two plants covered today are Yucca filamentosa, Spanish Bayonet and Delosperma cooperii also known as Ice Plant. Also as part of the topic I thought it might be important to cover a critical agricultural resource without which we might have a greatly reduced yield of some of our favorite foods. Indeed the sub-topic today is all about pollenators, and what you can do to keep a reliable bunch of them coming to your garden to help increase productivity.
Let me start by stating that pollinators are a diverse group that includes our well known favorites such as Moths, Butterflies, Bumblebees and Honey bees. Additionally did you know that wasps, beetles, certain types of fly, midges, thirps and even ants all play roles in the entire picture that makes up the insect pollinator group. If you add in certain species of bat, humming birds and even some kinds of lizard and non flying rodents the chain of creatures that can be considered a pollinator gets even larger.
In today’s post however what I am focusing on today is how to attract and support populations of pollinators for the purposes of keeping natural balance. Biological balance is important because it often can reduce pest problems assure heavier fruit set and can reduce the amount of pesticides and chemicals you use. Reduction of pesticide and herbicide use can reduce the risk the targets of such chemicals gaining any form of immunity which makes it easier to get what you want without going out of your way to obtain it.
First off, supporting most pollinators is easy while planning your gardens, you must remember to leave space for multi- season blooming perennials and annuals. These long bloomers are the plants that sustain the pollinators, and as they go about their business they will hit up the stuff that’s producing food materials for you. For instance, Echinacea or cone flower if healthy will start blooming in late string almost through the fall, paired with Asters, Chrysanthemums, Zinnia, Sunflowers and French Marigolds you have a nearly constant supply of both pollen and nectar. Plus given the variety of cultivars the color choices are incredible so this mix works in any landscape with a decent amount of sun.
Expanding the mix don’t for get the wasps and hornets. I know what your thinking, ‘why the hell would I help wasps and hornets?!’ The group known as Hornets/wasps or vespidaceae have a bad rap. I’ll admit that yellow jackets, bald-faced wasps, European hornets, and most paper wasps are not my favorite creatures, but I know they serve a purpose and if given a decent clearance should never be a problem. Prime example, have you ever seen a wasp just hovering over the foliage of a plant for no real reason? What they are doing there is hunting they’re looking for the colonies next meal. Typically that meal will be something like a caterpillar which works in your favor. Even with the bad reputation there are some good wasps out there that don’t get much notice. Beneficial wasps include the Fig wasps without which the figs we eat might not be so plentiful, and the Cicada-Killer which acts as a biological control for adult cicadas, and lets not forget the tarantula hawk, a large wasp that hunts tarantulas keeping them in check. Then there are the parasitic wasps that hunt garden pests such as tomato horn worms and take care of the problem. Generally wasps are heavily attracted to the nectar of a few things, Mint, and surprisingly they love the flowers of mature ivy. I might add if you want to see biological diversity, plant a stand of mountain mint and wait until it blooms, there will be more species of pollinator on those blooms from the wasp family alone then most have ever seen. Just remember don’t get too close and always give wasps a wide berth, also killing their nests don’t do it unless it poses a clear and unavoidable danger. For instance if the nest is at head height in a tree over a path that’s a hazard, if it’s under the overhang of a roof where people might pass, that’s a hazard, but if it’s thirty feet up in a pine and not near any frequently used structure, leave it alone.
The key is to plan your garden to provide them what they need from spring through fall, as though you were planting to provide yourself with materials to survive. Any garden with a decent number of pollinators will also have a better fruit set and will support it’s gardener/s far better. Also remember which pesticides harm pollinators the most, for instance use Malathion and Imicloprid carefully as both have a effect on honey bees and honey bees are known to forage distances of up to 30 miles.
Honey bee swarms can have between a few hundred to thousands of individuals. I might add that is a White Pine they are on, and more then a week later they are still there…apparently having taken up residence in an old Carpenter Bee nest.
Bumble Bees despite producing no useful amounts of honey are excellent pollinators and are one of the few alternatives for greenhouse pollination of tomato crops. This one is on the flower of a cotton rose, a member of the hibiscus family.
This is some sort of wild bee species visiting the Jerusalem Artichoke, which for note is in the sunflower family and attracts bumble bees and honey bees as well.
Yucca filamentosa – Spanish Bayonet 4-10
In most general use for the garden I tend to think of yucca as the most aptly named plant in the universe. The issue generally is that most gardeners then to plop the plant down as they see fit with little consideration for its shape and form or requirements. What you get is a large angular plant that often does not look very good by itself. Thus, the joke that ‘yucka’ is aptly named. Most yucca in common cultivation have the rough form of especially coarse grass that happens to flower in late spring or summer. Additionally yucca also tends to form dense impenetrable ‘colonies’ by virtue of its heavy rhizomatous growth when it is happy and placed well. Newer cultivars bear yellow or white variegation, and may have differing foliage colors ranging from exceptionally dark green to almost chartreuse colorations. Additionally select varieties of yucca are available in more clump forming shapes to single-stalked varieties that are more columnar and contained.
Yucca filamentosa ‘Clark’ – Spanish Bayonet (Zone 7-8)
This cultivar is one I’ve developed unlike the normal yucca it’s got a waxy-blue-green color that holds up in full sun and seems to have a faster then average growth rate.
There are even incredibly slow-growing types that remain small for a long time and thus can be inter-planted as a plant anchor for a normal scale garden bed. Finally when you start looking at other species of yucca there are shapes and forms resembling immature long leaf pines.
That said, yucca is often horribly misused, the key to yucca is remembering it resembles exceptionally coarse grass and does it’s best when supported by lower growing plants of finer foliage in front and larger contrasting foliage plants to the rear. The columnar forms of yucca can be used as a ‘faux’ tree or palm substitute as a centerpiece. I might add the flower stalks are quite impressive but only mature yucca will produce these so if the plant you buy is too small it may be a while. As I mentioned before; most common yucca are rhizome forming, and thus will spread at a relative rate to how soft the soil is and how well cared for they are. In fact a yucca kept in a plastic pot too long will eventually puncture the pot. Additionally Yucca are useful in the garden as they will tolerate the hottest driest areas with poor soil. With fertilizer and good soil yuccas like Prickly Pear respond well and show noticeable growth. Lastly the one thing a Yucca will not tolerate is being constantly wet, like the cacti and succulents a yucca will begin to suffer root rot if planted in constantly wet soils.
Delosperma cooperii – Ice Plant
Ice plant is one of those garden center staples that is still picking up proverbial steam as its recognition increases. As far as the garden is concerned Ice Plant is a welcome addition to the succulent & cacti arsenal as it can do two things reliably whereas any number of succulents and cacti cannot do both at once. Unlike a lot of succulents Ice plant gets its name from the appearance of its foliage which is covered with a sparkling coating of frost or ice. The appearance of an Ice Plant’s foliage can be striking when light hits a mass planting of Ice plants the right way and the best part is it appears this way all year. Just using the foliage alone with some
Remember that second thing that the ice plant does well? Surprisingly when it comes to the Ice Plant half of its appeal is the veritable sea of flowers they produce between late spring into early fall. Typically Ice plant is found in some shade of bright pink, however yellow, red and orange tones are occasionally seen making the Ice plant an excellent performer as far as succulents go.
As another advantage to using the Ice Plant as a bedding perennial is that it propagates easily from cuttings without rooting hormone. All you need to do to make more Ice plants is to take stem cuttings 3-5” long from stems that are not actively blooming. Take the cuttings you have collected, trim off the leaves off the lower parts of the cutting and insert in moist but not wet soil. The cuttings if kept reasonably moist should root in a few days to a few weeks depending on the vigor of the mother plant.
With all that covered, next week will be part Five of the summer xeriscaping series and the plants covered are Eucalyptus and Madagascar Periwinkle. I hope you found today’s post useful, and are considering some of the stuff covered so far, if you’ve got a suggestion or drought proof plant idea feel free to send it in. Thank you again for reading and as always Keep ‘em Growing!
Thursday, July 19, 2012
Welcome back to another edition of lost in the farmer’s market, this episode was planned to be posted on Sunday the 15th, but other situations forced it to be delayed until now. Ironically an aspect of what was to be discussed in the post scheduled for July 22nd occurred this weekend and so I’d like to share a bit of that with you, and of course the intended topic and a bit about some good plants for Xeriscaping.
First off over the last few nights I noticed a particularly large lump in one of the white pines out in the backyard. As the lump was on a long broken and dead branch at first I thought a piece of bark or wood had partly come loose. Finally late in the day on Sunday I saw that the limp was rounded and about the size of a basket ball. It was dark out so I could not quite ascertain clearly what it was. Several possibilities came to mind…wasps, tent caterpillars or maybe some new critter took up residence. As it turned out I was somewhat correct as the mass on the bottom of the branch turned out to be this.
This is a honeybee swarm. In this state they’re largely harmless if you don’t do anything crazy like poke it with a stick.
Honey bees will swarm like this for a number of reasons, including colony overpopulation, poor hive management by a bee keeper, colony stress or occasionally some times the present queen is not performing well but may be too strong to remove so the colony splits. At the center of the mass in the picture above is a queen, and the swarming mass is there both to protect her and to maintain a preferred temperature mimicking the temperature of the inside of an established hive. For bee keepers a swarm like this is quite literally cash money because one can get a free colony with queen if you can get up to the swam mass and capture it in a hive box or some other device. Often swarms of this size may have upwards of a thousand individuals which makes for a short turn around from capture to growth and production. These bees seemed especially dark in color suggesting they may be one of the Russian breeds. The best way to handle such a situation is to call a bee keeper to collect the bees. Where swarms decide to land and mass is completely random and over the years I’ve seen them mass on fences in the engine compartments of unused cars, on branches and even in unused barbeque grills.
Todays intended mini-topic was going to be about watering and with the endemic drought situation across the Midwest it may be rather important to talk about this critical issue. With that said here’s a bit about watering methods.
This is a staple of efficiency for the homeowner, a soaker hose attached to a rain barrel.
To be fair, for a rain barrel to provide enough pounds per square inch to make a connection to an soaker hose worth while the bottom of it must be about three feet above ground level. Any column of water will have about 1/3rd a PSI per foot of height so on an average rain barrel like the one pictured the top of the water column would be about six feet off the ground once full which allows for it to pressurize a 25’ soaker hose very efficiently. When used in this way at night the water used will suffer less evaporation and since most plants tend to do their growing between 2 and 5 am roughly depending on temperature the water is there and available when they do their growing or further mature their fruits. The downside of this arrangement is that the outlet (Soaker Hose) needs to be at a lower height then the source (rain barrel) also this cannot be a permanent arrangement, frost and freezing can rapidly destroy a soaker hose. Additionally for a soaker hose to be effective it has to be as close to the soil as is possible which may mean using steel landscaping pins to hold it in place. One of the major perks of a soaker hose is the variety of critters it can attract, In the test gardens it isn’t uncommon to find a variety of toads, frogs and lizards hanging out near the soaker hose Birds also enjoy the hose during the day as it’s a source of water and in the process they also find would-be garden pests to eat. As a final note the one thing not seen in the picture is the rapid-fill manifold on the rain barrel. My rain barrels are fitted with an overflow port from the factory and what I did was to attach a manifold which allows me to run a garden hose from the overflow port so overflow is redirected into the muscadine grape beds. But this overflow is fitted at the end so a normal hose hooked to the house’s water supply can be attached and during a dry period the barrel can be force-refilled if there is no rain.
Watering devices like this one vary in shape size and efficiency, the key to using them is matching your usage and area to their capacity.
Sprinklers are found in numerous styles and designs ranging from hoop-spray sprinklers like the one above to oscillating models, impulse sprinklers, travelling types, rotating spike types and occasionally you might find a bubbler type. The idea is that once hooked to a hose these sprinklers can be run for a set amount of time such as an half-hour or more and achieve some similar effect to a natural rain. Basically sprinklers rely on constantly watering an area over time to do their job. The problem is that they water everything in their radius and if they don’t match the area you intend to water they can be very wasteful. Admittedly if you are into having a green lawn the oscillating and impact sprinklers are reasonably efficient for that. Bubblers, Hoop-spray and low height rotating types are more efficient for garden use as their water projection is usually less then ten feet.
A rain wand is a very effective way to water especially if it has a on-off valve so you can control the flow.
The rain wand is a great alternative for watering for those with troubles bending kneeling or otherwise with mobility issues. Typically found in lengths between 12” to 36” these devices are really good at watering hanging baskets, and reaching into shrubs without doing any damage. Additionally the rain wand applies a gentle spray of water that causes very little soil erosion and to a certain extent can allow for better coverage of more soil for less working time and relatively a reduced amount of wasted water.
Lastly we have the old-school pistol type nozzle modified with a rain wand’s sprinkler nozzle.
This modification would be used to allow for better watering efficiency, reduced erosion of soil. While lacking the finer level of control of the rain wand it does have a better water projection range. This combination allows you to do a bit more with simple tools at a lower cost.
Opuntia humifusa – Prickly Pear zones 3-9
Opuntia humifusa – Spineless Prickly Pear zones 3-9
Prickly pear is a common weed/herb/fruit/vegetable it’s category depending on how you view it. The new pads are edible and a staple of South American cuisine. The fruits are also edible make a pretty good jam or are edible fresh and can be bought in most stores with a ‘Mexican’ ethic aisle Goya also carries both the pads and the pears jarred or canned. Occasionally you might find the pears in the fruit aisle in some supermarkets though the variety they come from still has spines so you need to be wary of the small fine spines called ‘glochids’. Biologically prickly pear is built to survive it is one of the few cacti that can potentially survive the winter as far north as zone three with protection. One of the neat features of this plant is that a single pad can produce an entire new plant while it may take quite some time for a prickly pear to grow large enough to produce pears you can get incredible amounts of growth with typical liquid fertilizers making for a lot of potential vegetables. As far as Xeriscaping use the prickly pear virtually requires no irrigation is pest and disease free and will tolerate utterly deplorable soils. What it will not tolerate is constantly being wet, and soils that do not drain well. Like most plants the higher quality soil that you place a prickly pear in the better the quality of your harvest.
In landscape use thankfully someone had the smarts to breed a spineless variety that has all the same size and form minus the prickly parts. The effect is that the plant is upright with numerous oval pads that with age take on an stretched ovoid bubble shape each one bearing a sort of olive-drab color with reddish tinges around the internodes. Basically the prickly pear is an ultra-coarse foliage plant that requires finer support or some sort of backdrop until it is old enough to flower. New pads for note are bright green and bear fleshy ‘pseudo-leaves’ that eventually fall off as the pad matures. Paired with darker or silvery fine foliage a prickly pear can be a solid evergreen anchor for a Xeriscaping bed.
Portulaca grandiflora – Moss rose (flower of Samba Peppermint hybrid)
Portulaca grandiflora – Moss rose (Samba Fuchsia hybrid, note that the leaves fold up at night)
Portulaca oleracea - Purselane
I know I talk about purselane quite a bit here in this web log. That’s because like Prickly pear it has many unrealized uses the problem is that most gardeners are often too busy looking at the bad and ignoring the good. Ignoring most of what you might find at Lowes or Home Despot and other such ‘big box’ stores which by the way is the rank and file moss rose. Today I’m talking about the new cultivars which may look different but keep all the great features that make them so useful. For note, P. oleracea is edible and in my ‘weeds you can eat’ series earlier in the year you can find how to do that and what nutritional value it has. The first thing to know is that both types of purselane is that cuttings root readily without any chemical or hormone. This makes spreading this annual about the yard very easy. Additionally purselane tends to return from seed so there is a chance that when used in an area (such as near a sidewalk) with consistently warm soil you may have a yearly volunteer batch of purselane.
Purselane is a drought tough annual, it can withstand almost much as Prickly pear especially when well-established. As noted before one form is edible and as seen in the pictures above its flowers are no slouch. Purselane does have a few interesting uses, when acting in support of sedum for it’s flowers where as sedum has the foliage angle covered the two become an impressive weed blocking mat that can readily blow Moss Phlox out of the water. When color matched and paired as a weed-blocking groundcover mat for an upright prickly pear then you have a especially dramatic center piece. Additionally Purselane looks great dangling out of window boxes and hanging pots as well as in wrought iron urns.
As a final note Spineless prickly pear can be grown indoors in the role of winter time accent plant if it is an upright form. Some of the more ornamental forms of purselane can be used in the same role if started from cuttings in the fall. With that said this does wrap up a slightly belated episode of Lost in the Farmers Market, Just for note the Neighborhood Grange/ Sustainable neighbors meeting is at the Cape Fear Museum in Fayetteville North Carolina this Sunday at 2:00pm. In the upcoming episode of Lost In The Farmer’s Market I’ll be covering two more Xeriscaping plants, Yucca and Ice plant, and the myriad varieties of pollinators upon which we depend and their value to Xeriscaping.
Sunday, July 8, 2012
Welcome back to another weekly installment of Lost in the Farmer’s Market. Today we cover part two of the Xeriscaping series with a pair of plants you would likely not expect would go together that work in a wide range of the USDA’s hardiness zones. But before we get into that I’d like show you a picture of last week’s harvest.
Clockwise from the lower center: Cayenne Pepper (2), Lemon Drop Pepper (6), Turkish Italian Eggplant (9), Black Beauty Eggplant, Hansel Eggplant (4), Lemon Drop Tomato (11), Sweet 1000s Tomato (10), Red Burgundy Okra, Emerald Okra (2) , Red Currant Tomato (34) and, a single roma tomato in the left-center.
What is a gardener to do with all this organic goodness? Make the largest salad ever? Nope what I do with the first harvests before August is I make a preserve I call ‘Nightshade Delight’. Basically all the tomatoes, eggplant and any sweet peppers harvested are cut especially fine, and added to 1 cup of broth per ½ pound of vegetables which is then seasoned with fresh herbs from the garden. The purpose of this is to form a good natural version of bullion for winter soups and other similar recipes. Below is how I make my ‘Nightshade Delight’, obviously you can substitute your veggies for my express use of the nightshade family.
1. Wash all produce and herbs carefully.
2. Make one cup of broth per ½ pound of vegetables & herbs.
3. Cut all vegetables finely and add to the broth.
4. Cut all herbs very finely and add to broth.
5. Bring to a gentle boil and maintain for 5-10 minutes to prepare for canning.
6. Follow preparation procedures for your preferred form of canning and transfer mixture to jars or cans to appropriate amounts.
7. Make sure to allow mix to cool before you put it away in a cupboard.
It is worthwhile to keep in mind I also harvest my tomatoes at differing ripeness levels to produce different flavors. For instance in the picture most of the red currants are orange or orange-red, they aren’t fully ripe, but they are very tart in this form and add a certain bite to whatever they are used in. Lemon Drop tomatoes are also harvested early for their citrusy bite plus their nutrient levels are somewhat different when not fully ripe. Sweet 1000’S are picked as ripe as is possible for maximum sugar content. The roma tomatoes are picked orange because they break down when cooked and tend to add tomato flavor but also color a soup orange-ish. The eggplants are always picked before they reach full size to reduce the amount of seeds that may be in the fruit. Lastly the peppers are often dried and crushed to use in place of traditional black pepper which does not come from our native climate. The lemon drop peppers are a substitute for lemon-pepper mix and cheyennes are just for good respectable spicy bite. The one thing on the platter that stands out is the Turkish-Italian Eggplant which retains their orange skin despite cooking, in a stir-fry they really stand out, and their flesh remains roughly whitish despite cooking. I can’t wait to see if I’ll have enough to make some sort of eggplant parmesan with them. For those of you out there who bought some of the Turkish Italian from me at the Urban Farm Day please feel free to trade your recipes, I'd like to know what you did with the most orange eggplant on the market. Also stay tuned, striped togo eggplant season is coming soon, I will have recipe suggestions for that and feel free to reply with your ideas.
Now to the topic at hand, the two Xeriscaping plants for today are an excellent set of companions. One plant forms a living mat that most weeds cant penetrate and the other grows tall and shelters the former from receiving too much heat and sun both draw their nutrients from differing levels of the soil and thus do not compete.
The first plant for today is the persimmon which has a exceptional range allowing for specimens to be grown as far north as Zone 5 which covers a significant portion of the northeastern states. This plant is the Persimmon, which is a member of Ebonaceae or the Ebony family in fact certain species of non-edible fruit bearing persimmon are grown for their dark wood. Three distinct types of persimmon are important to us for the purposes of Xeriscaping and they are the following:
This is D. kaki 'Fuyu' the Japanese persimmon in the test gardens, admittedly I picked it because 'Fuyu' is fun as all heck to say in casual conversation.
Diospyros kaki – Japanese persimmon 7-11
Diospyros virginiana – American Persimmon 5-9
Diospyros texana – Texas Persimmon 7-9
Each one is specialized for a region and set of temperatures with the American persimmon having the most land area naturally covered. In the trade it is most common to find Japanese persimmon because the astringency of the fruit prior to ripening has been bred out. The funny thing about persimmons is that depending on what type you buy they may or may not require a pollinator. When buying a persimmon make sure to verify what the needs of the plant you are buying are. For instance I can verify that the Japanese persimmon variety ‘Fuyu’ definitely does not need second plant for cross-pollination. However after planting it may take a few years to produce any fruit because the buds are produced on old wood and the act of transplanting may shock the plant and cause it to abort fruit buds for a while.
My personal favorite aspect about persimmon is its incredible ability to tolerate periods of drought and its utter lack of care if it is provided subsequent fertilizer. That level of sheer self-sufficiency is some what rare when you’re talking fruit bearing trees. All you have to do is prepare the site, plant it, nurse it for about a year with a little extra irrigation and then it can handle itself barring especially bad weather conditions such as extremely prolonged drought. Even if your persimmon does not bear fruit for the first few years you still get attractive large dark green foliage and a graceful plant that birds will love to perch in with a bird feeder nearby you get a free wildlife show.
This is a yarrow variety called 'Summer Berry, it's virtually evergreen in the south not the mention the really cool pink blooms that fade to a off-shade of white. This is what it looks like in spring and fall when the color is at it's best!
Now the companion plant of a persimmon tree is the herb Yarrow, which admittedly can become somewhat weed-like in certain climates. For those not familiar Yarrow’s scientific name is Achillea millifolium. As of the last decade or so plant growers have introduced many cultivars and hybrids of yarrow that introduce differing foliage, and some unique flower colors. For the purposes of medicinal-herbal use you want to stick to plain white yarrow. Thankfully pollinators love yarrow no matter what color it is and will visit it repeatedly which in turn means they will visit whatever else is nearby. Fortunately Yarrow tends to attract various species of bees but tends not to attract wasps or hornets which when viewed from the personal safety angle is a good thing. Yarrow is a rosette/crown forming perennial that produces leaves from a central growing point, the leaves generally are produced in a radial pattern allowing for impressive groundcover effects. Yarrow is so good at operating as a ground cover that most weeds have a severely hard time getting through. Once established the original crowns will often produce offsets which further thicken the foliage blanket. Typically yarrow’s foliate will top out at about eight inches to a foot; the flower itself can extend upwards of another foot above the foliage. I might add yarrow may also reseed in lawn areas but most varieties will not tolerate foot traffic or mowing for very long.
How does this relate to the persimmon? Yarrow when grown as a living ground cover under a persimmon will effectively out compete the weeds which means you don’t need to even apply mulch to your persimmon tree after a while. Since Yarrow responds well to fertilizer you can rapidly grow a ground cover that can tolerate the exposure of full sun, drought and is pest and disease free. When it gets out of bounds you can dig up the little plants and move them to other areas so they can either take over and choke out weeds there or give them to friends. Generally once established you can ignore yarrow except for occasional upkeep which makes it an incredible Xeriscaping plant. Put the two plants together and you have a bed that looks like a bed without you the gardener having to do all that much.
The pair look like this when seen together, chalk one up for xeriscaping that defies the standard! The centipede grass nor the weeds can hope to encroach on the persimmon because the yarrow has a mafia-like grip in the triangular bed.
Next week we will have the third installment of the Xeriscaping series detailing another neat plant combination that could work for you. Remember folks to stay hydrated and take periodic rests in the shade during out door activities, having a perfect garden and winding up at the hospital trying achieve it simply isn’t worth it. Also be wary of ground nests, its summer and the wasps out there are a heck of a lot less docile and have the numbers to do some serious damage.
As always folks see you right here next week and Keep ‘em growing!
Sunday, July 1, 2012
Welcome to today’s edition of Lost in the Farmer’s Market. Today’s episode is the first of a nine-part series detailing a number of Xeriscaping plants and methods. In each episode you can expect to see two Xeriscaping plants, one that is a perennial outdoors and a second that is a ‘seasonal perennial’ specifically a tender perennial that needs to come indoors for the winter. Before we go into the two plants of the day, I need to cover one of the key aspects of maintaining a good Xeriscaping bed. For all of you regular readers this might sound like retread theatre but when it comes to Xeriscaping the most important thing is soil improvement and quality. Half of a plants tolerance for its surroundings comes from the soil’s ability or lack of ability to hold both water and nutrients. The other half lies within the plant’s own ability to retrieve and absorb moisture and nutrients which is a factor that you cannot change. So back to the soil, the one absolute way to improve the soil texture and quality is to add organic matter.
For those of us in the Southeast we face sand or clay dominated soils where as in the northeast the soils tend to be clay or slit oriented. Both have a similar problem, in that either the moisture or nutrient you add tends not to stay, in clay or silt soils it tends to runoff since water cannot penetrate. In effect a clay or silt soil often ends up compressed and thus is rather like a colander with holes so tiny virtually no water can pass in any amount of time to allow any actual drainage. Sandy soils in comparison tend not to retain water or nutrient as the individual sand particles are large enough to act somewhat like a colander with extra large holes basically remaining damp but not holding onto anything.
The addition of organic matter to either soil base effectively changes the soil structure. Using the prior metaphor, adding organic matter to a silt or clay is akin to filling the colander with large chunks of sponges, the water no longer sits and the lack of drainage becomes less of an issue. Those sponges present more surface area to spread out the water and allow slower evaporation. Using the same metaphor as before; in the case of sand adding organic matter is a little like lining the colander with loose layers of sponges. The effect of this is that water is slowed down in it’s drainage but its clear where you can see the difference between what you add and the parent material. The effect of these additions is better retention overall.
In short, the addition of organic matter can rapidly improve the quality of any soil as it improves the ability to hold moisture and nutrients over time. This improves your chances of success with Xeriscaping because it improves the tolerances of your plant selections. Further more soil quality can also make already durable plants that are not traditionally considered Xeriscaping plants into drought tolerant plants that can be used in drought situations. Good soil quality can in fact make normally soil-insensitive plants grow to greater dimensions and proportions and read an otherwise greater potential then noted. The easiest way to improve a garden bed is either by use of compost, as a good organic garden will have no shortage of compost. The other way to improve it is to add in high quality topsoil at a rate of two parts top soil to one part native soil. A third alternative is to topdress your existing beds with either compost or topsoil at an average depth of 1/4th and inch. With that said onto the first plants of this plant series.
As you well know climate change is a problem we face despite what certain pollution-oriented industries say, knowing this; we can skill keep beautiful gardens if we select plants for their ability to withstand drought and heat. The measures we take also can have far-reaching effects on the survivability of these plants and our gardens. Today’s plants come from the Artemisia and Aloe families.
Artemesia absinthium – Wormwood
Artemesia dracunculus - Tarragon
The Artemisia family is notorious as far as herbs go, while related to the invasive weed/herb Mugwort (A. vulgaris) these particular herbs take heat dryness and humidity and seem to laugh at it all. A well established stand of either even when planted in poor soil will do quite well forming a respectable stand about 1-2 feet high. Wormwood itself has been extensively cultivated beyond its natural form into varieties such as ‘Powis Castle’, ‘Silver Mound’ and ‘Lambrook Silver’. Despite the cultivation all wormwoods can form mounds of dense silvery-grey flower comprised of fine textured foliage. Ff cared for and provided better then average soil and additional fertilizer can form a extremely dense ‘canopy’ of growth that can block most weeds. One additional advantage to Wormwood is that you have the ability to make assorted Liquors and spirits and can with some preparation make medical remedies for parasites and worms.
Tarragon in respect is coarse and rangy looking, with its large flat needle-like foliage. Unlike wormwood tarragon is more upright, rangy and lacks the neat mounding form that is trade mark of the above herb. While tarragon has its use as a cooking herb and that fact cannot be discounted and it’s a darn good herb when accompanied by rosemary and savory it also has a unique use in the garden as an ornamental. Few realize that a healthy tarragon plant can reach between 1 and 2 ½ feet tall in a growing season forming an upright flame shaped plant with fine green lacy foliage not unlike an entirely upright fern for full sun.
Aloe vera –Medicinal Aloe
(Aloe vera is sometimes listed as: A. barbadensis, indica, perfoliata, vulgaris And yes this one is quite pot bound.)
Aloe quicksilver x 'Rare Flare' - Silver Ridge Aloe
(For note this specimen is VERY pot-bound.)
Aloe haworthioides var. aurantiaca – Faux Haworthia
(This little guy was repotted into the above 4" round recently from a 2" round in which it was pot bound. A special thanks goes out to Jen Smith at CFBG for giving the test gardens this specimen.)
The Aloe family is noted in the eastern climates as a houseplant and this reputation is absolutely deserved. For most of the eastern coast and with most of it’s cultivars it cannot tolerate winter freezes. In USDA hardiness zones 9-11 a select few aloes are full outdoor perennials year round but may need some special considerations for unusual weather fluctuations. Our first aloe is without a doubt the most well known, there is no shortage of skincare products that incorporate Aloe in their mixtures. There are even beverages based on Aloe gel on the market. Few realize this useful herb can be kept outside in full sun after the last frost date in spring up until the first frost date in fall. Even then aloe can be kept in an unheated but glass-enclosed sun porch for most of winter if one keeps an eye out for exceptionally cold conditions. In the garden for the purposes of Xeriscaping aloes can be utilized in pots or in temporary plantings amongst other Xeriscaping plants to add sharp angles and unusual colors. Normally most aloes are thought of as glaucous grey-green plants with elongated triangular leaves but when exposed to full sun they often take on a reddish cast that disappears once returned to the indoors.
In the case of the Silver Ridge aloe it is known for its corky ridges on the leaves and a pale silver-grey coloration. Unlike medicinal Aloe, Silver Ridge forms dense contained clusters of small offsets that as the picture above will attest are quite striking, appearing like silver-speckled stars when viewed from above. In a Xeriscaping setting its best paired with plants with darker more rounded foliage that are trailing or low-growing.
The third and final aloe of note in today’s post is a rare one. In respects the Faux Haworthia or Aloe haworthioides var. aurantiaca this particular species has been heavily selected and hybridized to the form you see in the picture. It looks like a haworthia but is actually an aloe. In truth there are few examples of the originating plant, as it is apparently somewhat rare in nature and rarer in cultivation. For note the common name listed above is one I’ve stuck on this plant due to a lack of a common name in any reference to the plant. In the garden it’s an excellent contender for use in ornamental planters such as cement urns when paired with certain types of sedum and other succulents.
As a final note to the Aloe family, these plants are some what fond of being pot bound. The moment they are heavily confined for any length of time they immediately begin to produce flowers. The flowers are borne on 6-12" long stalks in clusters and are usually any mixture of red, pink, orange and yellow in color. Generally the more heavily pot-bound an aloe is the more often it will flower. Though I would not expect an aloe to bloom more then twice a year. Additionally, it is important to note that all aloes are susceptible to root and crown rot, so their potting medium should have excellent drainage or if it is not limit watering as much as is possible. A recently watered aloe will have swollen looking leaves where as a dry one will have emaciated slightly curled leaves that are thin and rubbery feeling. During the winter make sure to only water an aloe when it is dry, and allow the soil media to dry out until it is light and the plant seems heavy between individual watering times. Avoid wetting the crown of the plant and avoid watering at night to reduce the risk of any rot setting in.