Thursday, July 19, 2012

Summer Xeriscaping Series Part 3 of 9

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.

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