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!

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