Monday, August 27, 2012

Summer Xeriscaping Series: Parts 8 & 9

As fate would have it another semester of college rolled up on me in the week before last and suddenly I had to drop everything and get all that paperwork and the initial classwork done in a hurry. The good news is that I am now a student in North Carolina A&T, the bad news is that online classes are 'unique' and they absolutely caught me off-guard.  So today we have a double catchup post that covers the four plants from parts 8 and 9 of the summer xeriscaping series. This portion of of the series was supposed to cover the food plants, and flavoring herbs in far greater detail, however in the interest of keeping it to the point and with time in mind it has been boiled down to the four primary plants, and I've skipped the usual sub-topic. Next week's post will return to the usual format, so without further ado I bring you parts 8 and 9 of the summer Xeriscaping series.

Foeniculum vulgare ‘Purpureum’ – Bronze Fennel, Zones 4-9

Bronze fennel is a dark colored foliage variety of traditional fennel. Normally most would reserve this plant to an ornamental role but it also serves as a drought tolerant replacement for traditional green fennel. Like green fennel; bronze fennel is a favorite food of the Black swallowtail butterfly. Earlier in the month I posted pictures of the caterpillars feasting on my bronze fennel demonstrating that they are especially visible when they are present. Now normally most gardeners might think “ACK! They’re eating my herbs!” But then fennel is so resilient that it often recovers from the caterpillars just fine and the bonus for that work is more butterflies to make your garden even more attractive.  Fennel is a rather tough perennial, the part you eat are the lacy leaves, which are often chopped up and added to all manner of Italian-style dishes but also have use in soups. Part of what makes Fennel drought-resistant is the fine foliage plus below or at the soil level the delicate-looking fronts emerge from a central crown. Basically the plant presents little surface area for the sun to heat up so it’s water needs are very small. For note, if you’ve ever seen what is labeled as “Anise root” in the supermarket that is probably a fennel crown.

Santolina sp. – Lavender Cotton, Zones 5-9

Santolina is one of those plants that gets little use in the common garden. Typically you will see it in gardening books as part of a low formal hedge along a path or as part of a knot garden. But the real power of santolina is its ability to ignore drought once established. The green variety is better for dry partial shade whereas the silver type is better for full-sun drought conditions. The two of them have the same remarkable scent which resembles a unlikely hybrid of Cedar and Lavender. At set intervals during the year santolina will also bloom and produce yellow bachelor’s button-like flowers which are interesting to look at but not showy. As an herb Santolina can be used to repel moths while its oils are useful as a more masculine replacement for actual Lavender. It bears mentioning that santolina grows just as well in New Jersey as it does in North Carolina giving it a great distribution. In the north it is typically called Santolina, where as in the south it is often tagged as ‘Lavender-Cotton’ due to it’s cottony fuzz and foliage coloration that resembles lavender.

Rosemarinus officinalis – Rosemary, Zones 5b-10

I suspect some of you readers out there knew I was going to get to Rosemary eventually, and here it is, one of the last Xeriscaping plants on the list. Before I go any further it is important to note that Rosemary is a tender perennial at best up north, some varieties such as ‘Arp’ are said to handle frost and freezes but I would still try to keep it potted and bring it in for the winter up north. For those of us from at least Virginia southward rosemary is a incredible hedge-forming perennial that can reach a height of five feet over time and effectively can replace some common needle bearing landscaping shrubs. Additionally Rosemary will thrive in heat, poor sandy soils and, utter neglect. What it wont tolerate is constant wetness and of course repeated exposure to freezing temperatures. As far as Xeriscaping is concerned rosemary is a easy winner since it can be shaped into topiaries cut into hedges and otherwise arranged to do whatever you want. If you consider that it is a powerful scent and flavoring herb and that the often straight stems can be used as flavor-imparting skewers for kabobs then the use for this herb is literally off the charts. Additionally there are numerous types of Rosemary, some that creep along the ground, others with arrow-straight stems and others with dramatic bloom or foliage. Lastly, lets face it rosemary is incredibly cheap to acquire so why not?

Solanum melongena - Eggplant

Few realize it but eggplant is a drought tolerant plant. I suspect this is due in part due to what we consider an ‘eggplant’ or in short the supermarkets have spoiled most rotten with giant purple eggplants. The eggplant is an immensely variable family of incredibly varied types flavors and shapes.  For example the following types are completely at odds with your traditional large purple eggplant.

  1. Applegreen: Small round fruit that are bright green overall with the veins being white adding a neat crackled effect. Fruit are about 3” in girth.
  2. Louisiana Long Green: An heirloom variety that produces narrow curved green fruit that are roughly shaped like a banana.
  3. Striped Togo: This eggplant relative produces clusters of fruit (2-5) on tall columnar plants. Each fruit is striped with yellow and orange when ripe.
  4. Turkish-Italian Orange: Looking more like a wild nightshade then an eggplant. ‘TIO’ produces medium-sized misshapen fruits between 2” and 6” of girth that are bright orange when ripe.
  5. Purple Tiger: This is a good medium sized eggplant, the fruit are striped with white and varied shades of purple making it a dramatic replacement for plain purple eggplant. Fruit is medium to large sized.
  6. Fox-Face: This variety is not edible and serves as a ornamental, the fruit are shaped roughly like a dog’s face with two or more protrusions sticking out towards where it is attached to the plant. Each fruit is also brilliant orange and when casually viewed they resemble Fox-heads.

Eggplant is one of those great vegetables, that plays by its own set of rules, you can use it for ornamentation or for food, but one this is universally clear. Most of the smaller fruited less heavily hybridized species have impressively low watering requirements and handle droughts with incredible ease. The down side is some of the larger eggplant species don’t set fruit in cooler weather so you have to make sure you know what you're using. As a final point, eggplant has been noted as being grown in arid climates for some time, I think this is due in part to it's fruit biology. Unlike a tomato which needs regular water to form and will split if it gets too much water, the eggplant's fruit is made of that white flesh that is moist but only barely so.  For example a ripe tomato  that weighs 123 grams has a water weight of 114, and thus is 93% water by volume. A eggplant that weighs a mere 41 grams will have a water weight of 38 and is 92% water by volume. In short the eggplant distributes its water more less is sitting around in the fruit. If you take into account the large leaves which shade the fruit, and the fruits leathery skin you have a fruit that has evolved to resist casual environmental damage and perpetuate itself successfully in a harsher climate. In fact most eggplant will callous over injured portions of the fruit long before they get a fungal disease unlike a tomato. In short, all but the designer genetically modified species of eggplant are practically optimized for drought and arid conditions.

So I hope this two-month series has had it’s desired effect, that is to get you thinking about Xeriscaping as more then just planting succulents and cacti. Also I hope you have been presented with some ideas that will help you think both outside the box and get a nice crop in difficult environmental times. Next week’s article will be covering defensive landscaping which is a method of plant selection  that can increase the difficulty potential trespassers, burglars or animal traffic  will experience on your property.

As we come to the end of August and enter the prime of hurricane season I have to remind you to stay safe and  play it careful, Hurricanes and the damage they cause is no joke. With that said, see you next week and as always Keep ‘em Growing!

Monday, August 13, 2012

Summer Xeriscaping Series: Part 7 of 9

Welcome back to another edition of Lost In the Farmer’s Market, today we are covering the seventh part of the Summer Xeriscaping series which covers plants that are Xeriscaping-compatible but generally don’t have that typical desert plant stigma. Additionally as with the other parts of this series we have a small section called natural wonders, and a subtopic which in this case continues the theme of what to do when you loose your crop.

First off I thought I’d show you this guy a common cicada, these are the critters best known for making a lot of noise in the trees during the summer.

 This cicada is demonstrating his or her preparedness for a new Olympic sport; Anti-Predation Camouflage.

A side shot of the same cicada so you can see the full body shape note the seeming lack of mouth parts. Cicadas only have a straw-like mouth part to feed on liquids such as nectar.

Now there are several species of cicada each with a differing life cycle, the one in the picture above is of the type that has a one year life cycle. The cicadas that get the most attention are those that emerge every fourteen or so years causing a nuisance in both sheer volume and noise. Thankfully cicadas overall are totally harmless as the adults don’t eat and generally spend their remaining time seeking a mate and making noise. Also cicadas are a important food source for certain types of wasp and birds in particular.

The second natural critter is this guy, a medium-sized dragon fly.

 This dragonfly sat there  unlike most and let me get close enough to snap this shot, they are in credible fliers with excellent eyesight by insect standards.

 The same dragon fly stayed still allowing this frontal shot from the same close range as the last one, despite what it looks like dragonflies do not have stingers and use their legs to capture their prey after which their chewing mouth-parts are used to eat whatever they catch.

A mere eight inches below the caterpillars were eating the same fennel plants still and one, had already formed a chrysalis.

 Normally I’d not even bother but this one perched atop the chewed tops of the fennel plant that the caterpillars from last week defoliated. But there’s more to that, as of late I’ve been seeing lots of these guys flying about. Dragonflies are unique insects that have a voracious appetite for the one insect we hate the most, mosquitoes and often inhabit the same sort of environment. It is worth saying that yes the test gardens have regular dragonfly visitors but this year it seems to have permanent residents.  Recently the CDC released a map of the states in which West Nile Virus and thus mosquito populations are on the rise as seen here.

This map can be found at full size on the Center for Disease Control (CDC) website.

This is the United States Department of Agriculture Drought map as updated on August 7th 2012. You can find it in it's real PDA format on their website,

The most recent drought map seems to suggest a bit more if you notice a lot of the places where west nile is worst seem to also be areas hit by severe drought. The places where there is no drought (knock on wood) have reduced amounts or none of the virus problems.  It could be a coincidence, or it could be a sign of the times,  it is up to you to decide.

Now about losing your crop, it is a heart breaking event to realize that not only is that disease or pest situation so bad you have to cut down your own crops. If you consider that a crop loss tends to occur randomly and you may have a portion of a season left; you then are stuck deciding if you should try again for the short term or let the fields lay fallow and try again for fall planting. In prior editions we covered how to clear your affected crops, and what to do in the instance of containerized gardens to prepare for a shortened season and heavy productivity. 

Continuing that trend is the next step, once you’ve restarted your garden, what do you do to keep it on track. The first thing you must remember is that when you have to restart a crop in a short season is that you essentially are racing against time. As you saw in the case of my own container gardens, three weeks ago I destroyed the effected crops, then for a week let the pots and stakes sit to allow any remaining pests or larva die off as their food source was eliminated. Additionally all soil was disposed of as top soil in an area of the garden far away from any food crops. The pots were refilled with new topsoil that was enhanced with poultry manure and new crops were planted.  This brings us to the matter of what to do now, since the summer season will be coming to an end at least in temperature somewhere in September it means we have about six weeks, so the only option now is to fertilize.

In typical greenhouse production operations plants for consumption are fertilized at some level every time they are watered which in purpose counteracts limits of a growing season and the lack of nutrient in the sterile potting mixes. For your purposes if you utilized an manure enriched soil when restarting your crop and picked short-season crops, fertilizing twice a week with a nitrogen-rich water soluble fertilizer is the way tp get your crops to maturity in just a few weeks short. I recommend using an OMRI listed fish emulsion fertilizer (5-1-1) at the suggested rates on the packaging. The effect of this is to prompt your plants to reach their maturity faster then normal. In essence you would be borrowing a trick from the agri-business to make turnaround shorter without the damaging use of petroleum or chemical products while reaping a decent crop in the short term.

The advantage to this method is that vigorous plants that are well fed tend to be able to fend off most casual diseases and pests by themselves.  Now that the aspect of accelerating production has been covered next is the main topic for today.

 You can see two varieties of Pomegranate here, the bigger one to the rear is 'Angel Red' and the lower one with the branch reaching towards the bottom of the picture is 'Nana' or dwarf pomegranate.

Here is a close up if a leaf on the Angel Red Pomegranate as you can see the glossy leaves are oval and thus are well suited to providing less resistance to wind and presenting less surface area to the sun thus loosing less water to dessication.

Punica granatum – Pomegranate, Zone 6b-11

The noble Pomegranate, is one of those fruit-producing plants where the plant it self is virtually never seen, and yet the odd fruit is now in all sorts of beverages and in the produce aisle at the supermarket. If you have never eaten a pomegranate you have missed out; it is a wonderfully sweet and tart fruit and if you eat the seeds it also has this nice almond-like nutty flavor. No wonder the Greeks and Romans held it in similar regard to the fig what other fruit was good for you but also provided respectable levels of protein. As far as Xeriscaping goes pomegranate bushes are elegant looking well contained plants with rounded narrow leaves that resemble most narrow leaved evergreens in function. Obviously the leaves in this case are far larger, more rounded and in come cultivars have a reddish-bronze coloration when newly opened. What makes the pomegranate a Xeriscaping plant is its sheer resistance to drought. A prime case of this can be found in Fayetteville at the Cape Fear Botanical Gardens. The pomegranate specimen there produces a decent yield of fruit yearly but receives no irrigation other then what nature provides. Additionally I might add Pomegranates have virtually no pest problems in this climate and require little other then a little additional care post installation.

The Sweet Potato vegetable has heart shaped leaves and green or red stems, the ornamental has been hybridized to have a wide variety of leaf shapes and foliage colors.

Ipomoea batatas – Sweet Potato/ Potato Vine

The sweet potato in its two common forms, the ornamental annual and the annual vegetable is an efficient plant for Xeriscaping.  What makes the sweet potato efficient Is it’s resistance to pests and disease while bearing a strong tolerance to heat and drought. Both types of sweet potatoes produce tubers and both types of tubers are edible, sweet potatoes are a good source of numerous nutrients and the heart of the plants ability to withstand drought. The tubers of the potato vine are generally considered as a flavorless famine food and play less of a role in drought resistance. Ornamental potato vine instead relies heavily on its ability to root in soil where its vines touch to counter act the effects of drought and heat. Both plants are excellent ground covers which can choke out weeds with ruthless ability; even fire ants seem not to want to deal with soil where these plants are growing. The sweet potato vegetable is a good  long-season edible plant for Xeriscaping as it alone when grown under taller crops in tall raised beds can reduce the amount of time you spend weeding and help hold mulch in place reducing erosion and the need to water. The ornamental form respectively can be used in poor soils to again prevent erosion, reduce water runoff, and if need be add color to an otherwise unappealing area. As a final bonus did I mention, that both can be cultivated by stem cuttings, soil layering or saving tubers?  This means you could continually grow crops from little bits of last year’s crops reaping great rewards for little investments. In the test gardens 4-8 ounce tubers repeatedly yielded upwards of three pounds of food crops and the mother tuber could be recycled over several years paying for it self in about two years.

 Jerusalem Artichokes have a pretty flower that absolutely identifies their heritage and relation to the sunflower family.

 Much like traditional sunflowers Jerusalem Artichokes also display heliotropism, that is, their flowers naturally tilt to follow the path of the sun, even through cloud cover they still do this. Sunflowers as a whole might be the most cheerful plants you can grow.

Helianthus tuberosus – Jerusalem Artichoke

Jerusalem artichoke is one of those plants that is not as well known as it probably should be. As far as Xeriscaping plants go, in this years test gardens it has needed the absolute least water of any food-producing non-perennial plant in the entire garden.  In case the Latin name does not seem familiar the Jerusalem artichoke (aka ‘sunchoke’) is a member of the sunflower family and bears no relation to the actual artichoke family (Cynara).  Healthy stands of this plant can readily reach heights of six or more feet per individual tuber planted with a horizontal spread of three to four feet. Since it is in the Aster family its flowers are attractive to most pollinators especially assorted types of bees. Basically what makes this plant so great is that it produces large edible tubers that are an ideal substitute for potatoes minus the sugars and carbohydrates that can pose problems for diabetics. These same tubers are the core essence of its drought tolerance as are the plants trademark fuzzy leaves which greatly reduce desiccation. When grown in raised beds this plant can readily be a wonderful food source to be harvested in the fall when paired with sweet potatoes. Combined the Sweet potatoes act as a ground cover and benefit from the shade cast by the Jerusalem artichoke where as the artichokes benefit from the sweet potatoes ability to block out weed competition. Both plants respond well to fertilizer and shrug off poor soils but won’t tolerate prolonged wetness.

This brings us to an end for this episode of Lost in the farmer's market, next we we will be covering two xeriscaping compatible herbs and another often overlooked vegetable that one can be used in xeriscaping. Also the weekly sub-topic will continue on the same lines with any good things that happen to be caught on camera within the next week.  

As always folks, watch out for the wild weather; thank you for reading and Keep 'em growing!

Monday, August 6, 2012

Summer Xeriscaping Series: Part 6 of 9

Welcome back to another episode of Lost In the Farmer’s Market. Our goal here is to provide you a weekly resource for growing a better garden without all the back-breaking labor, chemicals or corporate shenanigans.

Today’s episode was set to be posted yesterday but occasionally nature forces me to change what I plan to post in part or in whole. The main topic for this post has not changed since part six of nine of the summer xeriscaping series is still nature aside quite useful. What has changed to some degree is the sub-topic which is an adjusted continuation of last week’s topic. Last week’s sub-topic covered what to do when insect damage to your crops renders them unproductive and beyond recovery. This weeks sub-topic will cover how to recover from such losses especially in the case of using container gardens to improve productivity while maintaining efficient use of water and space.

Now the natural menagerie of stuff that caused the delay of this article first off is this picture of the marble sized hail that fell in a major thunderstorm that occurred on the 2nd of August. 

This is the third hail-thunderstorm that has hit Fayetteville and is a sign of the times. While the weather shifts, the storms will be come more violent and you start to see record highs and lows. Areas that used to receive regular timely rain will go dry or worse get too much. Remember folks you may not believe in climate change but at least have respect for the power of nature and be careful when storms like these come to pass

The second distraction was finally getting a picture of one of these little guys.  I’ve stated before that the test gardens are home to a reasonable population of both frogs and toads. On Sunday night I saw one hanging out between the container plantings.

Toads are generally active at night or on overcast days and are voracious eaters of insects. While I didn’t catch it on camera this little guy or gal had literally while I watched just eaten a cricket bigger then its head. Toads will generally eat anything they can fit in their mouths including smaller tads if hungry enough. However they are good at handling anything they can catch which means larger insect populations can be controlled if you do a bit to support a toad population. A pile of overturned broken clay pots can provide an adequate cover for toad populations. Additional areas of moisture like water features can provide a spawning ground that can produce decent resident populations. Lastly remember to avoid using vehicles or power equipment such as mowers around areas known to have active populations.

The third distraction comes in the form of these little critters; some folks might think ‘arggg caterpillars eating stuff!”  I personally think hey cool, these guys are neat, and they’re the larvae of the Black Swallowtail Butterfly. While yes they are chewing up the bronze fennel they are on I did plant it as much for a seasoning as a food supply for them.

 The larvae of the Black Swallowtail are attractive in their colored banding, to the point you can see them feeding on a stand of bronze fennel from several feet away easily.

 If you look carefully this little guy or girl is flipping me the bird for poking it.

In the second image I gently coerced this caterpillar to extend its defensive organs which are called Osmeterium. Basically these little slime coated organs deliver a reeking chemical-pheromone designed to repel predators by contact-dousing them basically in the same way riot police might use tear gas.

With all the natural wonders covered next on the list of topics is the sub-topic. How does one recover from a massive crop loss caused by insect infestation? Say you’ve lost your back yard crops to an insect problem or pathogen and proceeded to cut everything and disposed of the dying plants then taken the next step to save what seems to be doing well. What can you do then as you look at the empty plots that used to be your grand spring garden, a comparatively barren expanse?

You can take the first step by recovering with fast-growing crops. Typically if you suffer a crop loss in full or partially you can rapidly turn around the situation with a crop that can produce within a season or about 60 days. Secondly make sure to start with fresh soil, and spike that soil with a non-burning soil amendment/fertilizer such as black hen.  Generally a 14” fluted pot will require about 0.5 to 0.6 cu of soil material to be full enough to be within 1-2” of the pot rim. Additionally once the pot is half full if you mix in about a half-pound of black hen you can provide a season’s worth of soil fertility for most crops. It bears mention that the primary soil you use is important, but you must be discerning, potting soil is nice but it comes in two varieties with slow-release fertilizer (miracle-gro products) or the types that lack this and may be lacking in nutrients (pro-mix). Instead consider using a high quality ‘lawn soil’ or top soil that has been enriched using coconut fiber or peat moss allowing it excellent drainage.

The plants you can get to make a fine replacement this late in the season are some what limited but you can still pull a decent harvest in limited space within sixty days before it becomes time for the fall crops to go in. Some plants that are great for rapid productivity include the following.

  1. Tomatoes: most cherry, grape, currant, pea or paste types will do.
  2. Squash: Yellow Summer and, Zucchini.
  3. Cucumbers: Armenian, Space master, and other small types.
  4. Peas & Beans: Snow Peas, Black eye peas, some varieties of bush bean.
  5. Leaf crops: Loose-leaf cabbage, Malabar Spinach.
  6. Annuals: Nasturtiums, Zinnia, Marigolds, Cosmos.
  7. Select herbs: Dill, Parsley, Cress.

Recovering garden beds can be done in the same way except it’s probably a bad idea to dump all of your soil and instead start with enriching your soil using a manure product. Depending on the potency and type of manure product you may need to apply as much as a pound of poultry manure per square foot or twice that with composted cow manure. At witch the soil needs to be turned and new seeds or plants installed after. At the very least your late summer crops could provide early shelter for the fall crops and a continued harvest.

Ficus carica – Common Fig, Zones 7-11 (Perennial)
For note this is a ripe black mission fig.

The common fig is one of those Xeriscaping plants that many books pass over. This is a shame because figs are naturally accustomed to catching and using every drop of water they encounter while also acting rapidly on every bit of fertilizer they get. Add in the production of figs and you have an excellent plant that is efficient. Now the thing that makes them a Xeriscaping plant is that they often will produce fruit without your meddling and grow quite large while doing it casting excellent tree-like deciduous shade with time. The quirk of fig biology can be found in their roots, as they produce an exceptionally large number of feeder roots that are used to capture water and nutrient. This allows them to aggressively out compete most similar plants while making them a great choice for planting near hard surfaces such as driveways and cement paths as the roots will go under, not heave the surfaces and absorb every drop that bleeds through.  Interestingly enough the discharge water from laundry machines seems to have no negative effects on figs planted down hill from such a discharge.

Loropetalum chinensis ‘Daruma’ - Fringe bush

Loropetalum (Lore-o-petal-um) is commonly called fringe bush, and for good reason. When typically seen in the landscape its foliage quite striking regardless of cultivar. Typically you will find loropetalum in one of two foliage colors, purple or green, but some burgundy shades do exist. The variety pictured above is called ‘Daruma’ and is a slower growing member of the purple variety and as you can see it is seriously purple.
Foliage color is good and all and this shrub might sound like a one-trick-pony right? Wrong, actually fringe bush is also known for its equally intense bloom, as green varieties often produce white flowers and the purple ones produce anything from hot pink to fuchsia colored blooms. But wait, it gets better, the blooms aren’t like say rhododendron blooms, individually they don’t last that long instead these tiny flowers are visible because of their 2” long petals that look like brightly colored fringes like you’d see on some sort of decorative pillow. Typically a fringe bush will also be covered with these blooms giving the entire thing a wild haze of color that resembles some sort of Jimmy Hendrix-inspired trip involving illegal substances.  Yeah it’s that intense, and completely worth it.  The reason a fringe bush is included is because it is almost drought-immune once planted and established, shears into an excellent hedge and with time can get up to 6’ tall in some varieties making a gorgeous border shrub. All you need to do, is settle it in, give it decent soil with good drainage, and once established occasionally prune to shape it.

Scabiosa columbaria – Pincushion Flower,  Zones 3-8
I admit this one isn't in bloom but if you type in scabiosa in google you'll see why it's liked.

Scabiosa, probably has the worst Latin name ever, I honestly can’t get past the word ‘scab’. Either it was named by a person named that or some union-busting scabs picked the name; yours truly has not bothered to look to far into it.  Its common name is Pincushion Flower and once you’ve seen the blooms the common name makes perfect sense. The flowers are borne on 12” stalks typically and form clusters that do resemble pin cushions in a nice shade of blue. Newer varieties include white, purple, deep red, pink and even a shade that resembles black. The real reward to using scabiosa is the wide variety of butterflies it tends to attract. Now for Xeriscaping the scabiosa is tougher then it looks as it has similar durability as can be found in cone flowers but this comes at one requirement, better soil. Once you meet that soil requirement, you can use scabiosa in Xeriscaping plantings for its unique flower shape, and its relative drought resistance.

That does it for this episode of lost in the farmer’s market, I know it was a long one with a brief delay but I hope it was useful and informative.  Next week we will have another triple Xeriscaping plant group that dips into the vegetable and fruit side of the topic. Additionally the sub topic will continue on with the bit about what to do when you’ve lost your crop to insect pest damage and how to boost growth towards that rapid harvest of your efforts. 

Thank you again for reading, and as always folks keep ‘em growing!

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Summer Xeriscaping Series: Part 5 of 9

Welcome back to another somewhat belated episode of Lost in the Farmer’s Market, as you may know the entirety of the months of July and August are devoted to the Summer Xeriscaping series and to day will be the fifth installment. In addition to the main feature is an included mini-article about a useful garden topic that relates to current goings on in the test gardens and or seasonal topics to help you produce more with less cost.  This week’s mini-article is about handling severe crop damage.

Generally when a pest of one sort or another begins to damage your preferred crops you have to determine when to take action, this process is called an ‘Action Threshold’. By definition an action threshold is a series of points that determine when to take action and what action to take. Not always is a pest problem worth doing anything about some times these pests are handled by nature itself. A good example of a problem that requires no action is when a tomato horn worm is found, but is covered with cocooned wasp larvae. In this case no action needed, another example is to see you have an aphid problem but a lot of them are dead, dark colored and have circular holes in their abdomens, again the problem is being handled by nature and thus no action needed.  Now take the problem currently on going in the test gardens. Since spring there has been an ongoing whitefly problem, normally these pests would simply not be a problem; I wouldn’t even waste the time to use insecticides. But they started to damage the nightshade crops seemingly favoring the eggplants first then the tomatoes. This is where the action thresholds I mentioned before come in; until the food output started to suffer I had planned to do nothing. As the white fly fed they damaged the plants, produced honey dew and that brought in fire ants, and on that spilled honey dew sooty mold began to kill off the leaves. When severe defoliation results, it then becomes an issue of the final threshold being reached, at this point little can be done and thus there are two options.  Option one is to allow the plants to fail and don’t bother to replant.  Option two is to cut down all effected plants dispose of any possibly contaminated soil if the plants were in pots, let the areas sit empty for a week and then replace all plant material and hope for a fall crop.  The difference is based on how determined you are and what sort of garden you have. Replanting for a late summer or early fall crop is not a big deal in fact cutting your losses can some times provide a better overall result even if you see some gardening downtime.

 In this case as you can see I had to cut down the worst affected plants in order to have a chance at a later harvest. The next step here is to treat all  remaining plants with systemic pesticide.

 In the case of potted plants all the effected plants have been cut down and the potting soil disposed of to prevent any new infestations due to eggs in the soil. Shortly after this picture was taken the pots were washed out, allowed to dry and a few days later refilled with new soil enriched with black hen.

Eucalyptus cinerea – Eucalyptus 7-11
Eucalyptus follows it's own rules when it comes to form and shape if you want the best oil content harvest new growth.

Eucalyptus up north is considered an annual unless grown as a houseplant during the winter. In southern areas like USDA zone 7 and southward Eucalyptus is a perennial.  It is important to note that Eucalyptus starts out as a somewhat loose shrub with a naturally weeping habit.  Given time Eucalyptus can develop into a thirty foot tall tree with a loose habit and especially attractive bark.  When mature the flowers of Eucalyptus are quite a stunning sight being fluffy in appearance and typically white in color. That said Eucalyptus produces large amounts of nectar that Honey bees can harvest to add a unique flavor to honey itself. Additionally the essential oils of Eucalyptus are quite effective as a decongestant and are used most notably in varied cough syrups and lozenges.  When used for garden purposes Eucalyptus is best used as a roughly horizontal centerpiece. The foliage is grey-silver in color and is quite effective in breaking up rough straight lines or providing loose foliage for informal barriers. I do have to note that Eucalyptus is a very slow growing perennial and may take decades to get to full size but with careful pruning you can keep it a reasonably neat shrub  and of course have little shortage of aromatic eucalyptus boughs for your home.

Echinacea purpurea 'Magnus'  – Purple Coneflower

Echinacea purpurea – Purple Coneflower

The coneflowers are members of the aster family and are best known in the trade as a group of durable summer-blooming perennials with deer resistance and excellent drought tolerance. Admittedly Coneflowers have become incredibly popular in the last decade with both the rise of Xeriscaping and organic gardening, as a result of this numerous cultivars now exist with previously unthought-of colors beyond the traditional purple (E. purpurea). If you add in the varied medicinal and ornamental forms of coneflower like those listed below you get a much wider range of color.

Echinacea angustifolia – Narrow Leaf Coneflower (pale purple)
Echinacea pallida – Pale Purple Coneflower
Echinacea paradoxa – Yellow Coneflower
Echinacea sanguinea – Sanguine  Coneflower (Red-Purple)
Echinacea tennesseensis – Tennessee Coneflower (Lavender-Purple)

Most if not all coneflowers being native have good tolerance for the natural weather of the continental united states which makes it an excellent choice for any good Xeriscaping design. When considered in conjunction with vinca and Eucalyptus  the coneflowers make an excellent tall color and foliage accent for the bed around the base of a eucalyptus tree. If one considers the variations in bloom color that include purple, red, pink, lavender yellow, orange and white the possibilities for use as a color-support perennial are virtually limitless.

Catharanthus rosea – Madagascar periwinkle

Madagascar Periwinkle is one of those annuals that comes in a great variety of bloom colors yet despite this it tends not to steal the show as does other more popular annuals such as petunias or million bells.

Madagascar periwinkle is one of those annuals that is sold country wide as a drought and deer-tolerant bedding annual. Madagascar periwinkle is often commonly called ‘vinca’ in the nursery trade due to its casual resemblance to the perennial ground-cover known as vinca.  Vinca the annual bedding plant is not actually related to the perennial ground cover but it’s ability to effectively block out weeds with dense green foliage and produce a attractive flower once mature.  The key to annual vinca’s drought tolerance can be found in the features that also make is undesirable for browsing. The waxy leaves and stems produce a white latex sap when damaged which both acts as a repellant for creatures wanting to eat it but also serves to reduce water loss during times of drought. When paired with a similar plant such as Eucalyptus the vinca can be used to form a low border to keep the weeds down. Additionally the green foliage is similar in shape but can be planted in contrast to the Eucalytus’s silvery coloration. For note  Madagascar periwinkle is also known under additional Latin names Vinca rosea, Ammocallis rosea, and Lochnera rosea.

Hopefully your harvest thus far has not suffered the same insect maladies mine have in the test garden, but even if it has I do have a few pointers as a final thought.

1. Always identify the actual problem and treat that as opposed to treating the secondary issues. 
 (ie the white fly are the main problem the sooty mold and fire ants are secondary)
2. Try to use non-chemical methods first and in the right proportions.
(In treating white fly I first used Neem Oil and to reduce the sooty mold cotton swabs soaked in rubbing alcohol, lastly I used diatomaceous earth to counter the fire ants.)

3.  If all other options are exhausted use limited amounts of chemicals but make sure you know the side effects of the active ingredients.
(for example Imidicloprid a common systemic insecticide can have negative impact on honeybees and, Malathion can kill honey bees if they come into contact with the spray. Both have absolute application limits which must be heeded as well as time limits after application to harvesting.)

The next episode of Lost In The Farmer's Market will continue the Xeriscaping series, where we will be covering two xeriscaping shrubs and a durable perennial all of which are quite dramatic in color and use. Also  our sub topic will be 'The science of productive container gardening' which is all about producing food in limited space despite droughts.  

Thank you again for reading and as always folks keep 'em growing!