Sunday, September 30, 2012

Double-Post!: Gardening for Fall & Winter

Welcome back to another episode of Lost in the farmer’s Market. Due to an exceptionally busy two weeks last weekend's post was combined with this week's post so that all aspects of the topic could be covered in a single post to keep the update schedule in line. for those of you with somewhat slower connections, this post will be very photo heavy, but trust me, I think you will enjoy the imagery as much as the information.

 First off is a picture of the proof copy, this is what will become Southward Skies Second Edition, This arrived within the last week. The process of editing and proofing the book is the last portion before print copies arrive. The first shipment of books should arrive between October 5th through the 10th, and will be available for sale immediately. The book is 120 pages of gardening info for those of you on the east coast. Also the digital version is available for kindle and with a free app for the Ipad/Iphone on right now. The book costs $25.00 (usd) in print or $10.00 in digital format, you can either send a message through this blog, the sustainable neighbors meetup group or come to the Sustainable neighbors meetings at the cape fear historical museum. Enough of the plugging of second edition, lets see some fall picture goodness.

As the weather cools and the deciduous trees begin shedding leaves, we are on a direct course for autumn. Today’s topic is about cool-season crops, and how to keep your garden productive during the cool periods of fall, winter and early spring. But before we get to that I have a few pictures from the test gardens that I thought you would find interesting.

 This is a Gasteracantha cancriformis or Star Spider.

These spiders are common in the sandhills area, what makes them interesting is that at this time of the year along with other larger spiders they will often build webs stretching between the limbs of a tree to the ground. This of course puts their web at head height for an unwary passerby. I don't think they are poisonous but be wary when you walk at night, the webs are hard to see.

 Occasionally I do get questions inquiring as to what could possibly take so much time at the test gardens in general,  below is a series of three pictures showing the second generation of our own hybrid okra 'Clark's Mammoth' which was crossed between 2009 and 2010 and is now the sole okra species grown.

A close up of the hybrid Okra showing the particularly attractive bloom and a young 3" pod.

 The 'blood splat' is a common feature on the leaves of this  hybrid, in larger plants the splat is far more vibrant.

 Unlike last year the two production specimens were grown in much smaller 8" pots to see if they would still bear full pods despite the lack of space. As the first picture above attests, they will in fact mature just fine under cramped conditions.

As you can Imagine, the idea of our own localized hybrid is pretty exciting, hope fully next year will be the first in which full in-ground trials on a normal scale will begin with the third generation. But good news aside we also have the following picture of another crop in the test gardens.

 Sweet potatoes only bloom when reasonably mature, and in the years since the start of the gardens, ours have not until this year. These small cup shaped blooms are something else, if only the ornamental potato vines did this with any regularity they would be worth a whole lot more as a annual.

 Two years after being planted, the Swamp Sunflowers finally bloomed this month. For those who don't know Swamp Sunflower's Latin name is Helianthus angustifolius, and it is a perennial that can handle wetter soils then the common sunflower we think of. Just like Jerusalem Artichokes and other sunflowers pollinators love it.

This is Eupatorium, and it is a volunteer around the compost pile that is covered in these blue batchelor's button type flowers right now. It spreads as much by seed as it does by stolons and is quite attractive even if it is technically a weed. As far as wild flowers go it is a good candidate for shady areas to attract pollinators who don't like open areas.

Trycirtus, or toad lily in full bloom. I posted some stuff about these guys earlier in the year before planting them, and they bloomed the same year which is a bit rare. With flowers like this it was totally worth it to grab a few.

Saint Johns Wort, the round things are the seed capsules which in this variety are just as ornamental as the flowers. The short-lived blooms are bright yellow and can light up a land scape with ease.

 And last in the list for the fall menagerie Chicory, which has been in bloom almost non-stop since late spring. Talk about a plant with boundless optimism. Chicory is a tough plant that can handle drought and poor soils with ease, the blooms are preferred by pollinators too.

 Now onward to the main topic, how to produce a cold-season harvest? Today I have a step-by-step photographic guide to how we at the test gardens prepare a bed for cold season crops. It is important to mention that we are geared for absolute productivity in minimum space and high efficiency. Some of the quantities of materials we use are higher then would be normal for the average backyard gardener. More plants more amendments and much more maintenance, in your case I strongly advise you adjust as needed for your own situation and what your goals are.

A few weeks ahead I tend to start seed using recycle cell packs, a basic soil mix and a reasonable group of cold season food plants. In this case it's Paris Market Carrots, Red Cabbage, Dino Kale, Snow Peas and Chinese Cabbage. 


A electric seed warming mat and a  humidity dome can aid or hamper germination depending on what you are growing. Cool seasonals may turn to mush if the dome is kept on too long. In the back are my late-summer lettuce and cabbage-collard plants, I tend to start three batches of cool-seasonal crops and use the best outdoors when planting time comes.

While sowing your crops you must also undertake what is called culling, in which you pull up and remove any crop plants that are in the area you wish to plant with cool-season plants. The exception to this rule is if the crops are perennial or have formed fruit that is close to maturity. In the above case a number of fruitless peppers and eggplant have been pulled and the soil shaken from their roots. These pulled plants should be composted

The first step at the test gardens is to gently remove the existing mulch so you don’t loose too much soil.

I know what some of you will likely say here, ‘Pine Straw?!’. Yeah the test gardens are fortunate enough to have five white pines (Pinus alba) on the property that produce scores of fine needles that rapidly decompose. There is also a single Long Leaf pine which is also home to a decent stand of Spanish moss. The first rule of good horticulture is to look at what you have and use it responsibly. I took to using pine straw due to the large feral cat population. The cats love using disturbed soil to go to the bathroom, so I’d often see miniature mounds in the garden beds. They won’t however mess with a garden bed that has pine straw. The straw makes for less incentive for them to hang around and bother the numerous species of birds that visit the test garden regularly.

The second step is to carefully move the top 2” of soil over the planting area into a wheel barrel.

As you can see the soil has great structure and while sand is a significant component this soil despite being dry is rather dark. As I continue the re-enrichment process twice a year it will likely become blacker then the night sky. Keeping fertile productive garden soil is a constant process but you will be rewarded with exceptional yields.

The third step is to apply your soil fertility booster of choice to the new area.

 In this case I used a large quantity of poultry manure, at a rate that may be upwards of six times the labeled amount. I know this sounds excessive however the soil in this region grew a heavy summer crop and before that a heavier winter crop. As noted in a prior soil, you need to feed your soil if you want the best results, if that means compost or some other amendment don’t be shy about it either.

The planting of a cool season pea is part of the plan too.

In this case on the same trellis where the waning Malabar Spinach from summer is slowly winding down; two types of Snow pea are direct sown into the garden. Taichung, a ferry Morse variety, and Snow Bird a Burpee variety are sown. The trellis has three sections and on the outer sections snow bird was sown while Taichung was sown in the center. At the very least when a few pods mature fully and seed is collected I might have an interesting Snow Pea cross. With any luck there will be snow peas to store for winter, and the possible cross will have taichung’s size and vigor with snowbirds cold resistance and sweet floral scent.

The plants you choose are as variable as your own dinner table preferences.

These lettuce and cabbage-collards are planted with maximized spacing to encourage high-quality leaves for even better harvests later.

So here we have Black-Seeded Simpson Lettuce, and Cabbage-Collards, two good full-cold season edible leaf greens. The collards are planted higher up in the row to give them more soil depth while the lettuce is planted in zigzag patterns to maximize space between the plants. The effect is that I can rapidly see any problems and act on them before they become anything more then a nuisance.

Watering in is of course the Next part, a gentle pre-watering occurs first. After the pre-watering the mulch is gently replaced to hide the signs of cultivation and discourage critters.

To reduce the incidence of plant transplant shock all plantings are watered gently using a 1-liter watering can. The sown seed are watered a bit less gently to ensure as much of the soil around the seeds is wet enough to promote even germination. In this case the mulch also acts as a modest repellant for the local feral cats as well as a limited erosion control. Thankfully at this time of the year the mulch is a bit brittle and reapplication means less fussing with it as it tends to land gently about the plants but does not necessarily block their growth towards light. I would also as a final action hit these plants with a standard potency bit of fertilizer in my case it's always Alaska Fish Fertilizer. In a few weeks your plants might look like this first batch Napa cabbage planted in a 14" pot.

 This picture was taken two weeks ago, at the moment from a top-down view, you cannot see the pot, hows that for successful organic goodness?

Now what good discussion of methods is complete without a listing of good winter crops? I started this list  two episodes ago and as now is the time to plant here is a list of things that are good for the garden and for beginner to intermediate skill gardeners.

Easy / Beginner: Lettuce, Flat-Leaf Cabbage, Collards, Radish, Carrots, Mustard and, Snow Peas.

The beginner group contains a number of easily purchased plants in both seed and plant form that require little to be successful at and in the case of the snow peas are good for use in teaching kids how to garden.

Medium/ Intermediate: Asparagus, Cilantro, Flat-leaf Kale, Broccoli, Cauliflower, Turnip, Rutabaga, Parsnip and, Kohlrabi.

The intermediate group consists of common cold-seasonal crops some of which can be bought as plants, but all can be bought as seeds. These plants require more attention to care, watering and especially soil quality. In the case of cilantro it is the easiest of the bunch, but does not tolerate hot weather. The cilantro seeds are of decent size to handle for older kids and the plants grow fast. Asparagus is the only perennial in the group, it takes more then a year to produce anything edible but is highly adaptable to soil types. I may take experimentation to determine what works best for you with this particular plant.

Hard/Difficult: Kale (Heavily curled types), Cabbage (Head Forming types),  Broccoli Raab, Strawberry Spinach and some of the head-forming Asian cabbages.

The Difficult group consists of plants with tricky seed germination, and limited availability of plant stock. In the case of head cabbages it takes more effort to grow a plant of any size due to heavier then average nutrient needs. Insect damage may be harder to spot early and need a trained eye. I might add because of these plant’s potential you will need deeper soil of higher quality. In case of heavily curled kale such as ‘Russian Red’ insect damage may be harder to spot because the leaves already appear ragged normally. In the case of Winterbor Kale the leaves are heavily curled providing places for pests to hide and continue to damage your crop unseen.

With all that said, Next week, the second phase of the cold-season crops discussion will continue as generally it is best to get these crops in the ground within the first two weeks of October. Again I am sorry for the long double post ands thank you for your patience; but I hope you all have found it useful, I promise the next one will be more compact.

As Always folks, Keep ‘em Growing!

Monday, September 17, 2012

Defensive Landscaping Part II

Here comes autumn and not a moment to soon if you ask me. We have the fortune to be in an area where the few deciduous trees that are visible and present will likely be exceptionally vibrant making them an exceptional treat. But thoughts of fall aside it’s time for another episode of Lost in the Farmer’s Market.

Before we start with this week’s episode, here is a run down of what is in the upcoming second edition of Southward Skies.
  1. 120 pages with 49 new pictures.
  2. Reorganized plants section
  3. New plant pests section
  4. New Chemicals Section
  5. Reorganized Weeds Section

Of course if you were unable to get the first edition you will get a kick out of the second edition. It has a lot of things that didn’t make the cut the first time as well as a new plant data format that should prove more useful.

Today’s Topic is a continuation of last week’s conversation about defensive landscaping. For those reading defensive landscaping was defined as the following in last week’s post.

“Defensive landscaping is in the intentional placement of plants that passively discourage passage by animals or persons by way of thorns, density or sheer unpleasantness while maintaining an aesthetically pleasing form.”

So knowing that what is a gardener to do? well the easy part is to pick plants that have aesthetically pleasing qualities but also have defencive features such as thick dense growth, or particularly dangerous thorns.

HollyIlex spp.
So we have the holly family, you knew there would be a holly in this list. Holly is here with preference to the most vicious members of the family such as the original ‘China Girl’ or ‘China Boy’ varieties. Not all hollies are quite as dangerous as the ink berries, gall berries and the yaupon type hollies have no thorns at all. For our purposes holly is the best choice for making thorny walls that will become nearly impenetrable with age. Adding to this anything that is able to break through a stand of hollies will also make quite a bit of noise as the wood in the older branches is quite dense. A final bonus of the group is that the angular leaves are actually attractive albeit from a distance. The bright red berries borne in the fall into winter are a second bonus and thankfully the berries are not a great issue in the mess department. As a final note, hollies are very pliable for pruning and shaping purposes and can be grown to fill areas but do their best when gut into a triangular shape.

False Holly Osmanthus – Osmanthus heterophyllus
You might know the Osmanthus family for the famed Sweet Tea Olive, which has no thorns but incredibly sweet scented flowers. The false holly Osmanthus is an that without tagging could be mistaken very easily for a holly. The leaves are as thorny as ‘China Girl’, they are shaped the same almost and it is a striking evergreen. The difference is that the most common variety ‘Goshiki’ bears the most striking variegation imaginable. Unlike the normal variegation, ‘Goshiki’ has this blend of white and shades of green with rare yellow-green tinges making each leaf look like green-white marble. As a defensive landscaping plant Goshiki is a slow-growing but incredibly thorny foundation planting asset. It can add color to an otherwise boring lineup.

Mock Orange - Poncirus trifoliata
Mock orange is as its name suggests is a plant that due to its small fuzzy yellow-orange colored fruit resembles true oranges at least partially. The big difference is the presence of numerous rather large thorns that can make passing through risky business. The real value of mock orange is that it can be trained to form a small tree or bush. This ability to be shaped does allow the mock orange to serve multiple purposes as a deciduous asset. In winter when framed by snow or a light background the bare branches of the Mock Orange are quite striking as a structural asset, varieties such as ‘Flying Dragon’ are even more so. As a final note the flowers of the Mock orange are no slouch either and have a decent sweet scent.

QuinceCydonia oblonga
As some of you know quince are essentially super tart apples and in some very early references to them are confused with actual apples. To that extent some suggest the quince was cultivated much earlier then apples. The best part of fresh quince is the apple-like scent they strongly impart in whatever area they are stored. However unlike applies the quince needs to be cooked longer to soften so it can be eaten. I might add the flowering quince has very attractive flowers and can be shaped into bonsai or topiaries.
For defensive landscaping purposes the flowering quince bears a number of sharp spurs that can injure the unwary. At best it is a mild defensive landscaping plant that just so happens to produce flowers and fruit.

As a final note to this discussion, I have to give an honorable mention  the plant known as ‘Bed of Nails’ or Solanum quitoense and it’s cousin ‘Devil’s Thorn’ or Solanum pyracanthon. Both of these annual members of the nightshade family are naturally coated with thorns that are technically called trichomes which make for a rigid but fuzzy coating on all surfaces. In between this fuzz is a series of wicked thorns that get worse after the plant dies as they can penetrate clothes with ease. For the question posed by one of my landscaping clients as to a plant to place under your daughters window this is the one. I might add the Bed of nails produces edible fruit that is said to taste like a mix of citrus, rhubarb and lime. I can say I have grown this plant here in North Carolina and by the end of summer in a pot it produced a considerable navigation hazard despite being an incredible plant. A line of these things nourished with Poultry manure and extra high quality topsoil would be a seriously imposing defense indeed.

With that said this ends the defensive landscaping discussion but feel free to send in any questions you might have. I know there are a slew of thorny plants I could have used but I wanted to present some that I have not spoken of prior. The next few weeks will be about preparing cold crops for the ‘off season’ as well as what to do with your soil and you can expect a bit about compost.

Thank you for reading, see you next week and as always keep ‘em growing.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Defensive Landscaping Part 1

Welcome to a belated episode of Lost in the Farmer’s Market, as some of you might know I’ve successfully enrolled in North Carolina A&T and online courses are very different from the actual classroom ones due the amount of time one must spend completing numerous assignments. In short last week’s update got eaten by homework.
I defy anyone to tell a teacher their blog ate their homework…if you are lucky they mistake blog for some kind of pig and nod solemnly otherwise…

The good news, Second Edition is on track for release long before Christmas. I cane some of you have not heard this blog is the digital extension of the Southward Skies Book. There was a limited 105 book print run of Southward Skies and to the best of my knowledge all saleable copies sold.  Not bad for a test run right? Well second edition is basically a heavily revised first edition with a major improvement, color photos in the weed, vegetable, herb and ornamental plant indexes as well as full color sectional pages. Stay tuned here for updates as they progress.

Now to the topic at hand, since there is a bit of catching up to do, for the purposes of this post the information presented will be slightly compacted. As promised the topic for today is all you ever wanted to know about Defensive Landscaping. Defined clearly defensive landscaping is in the intentional placement of plants that passively discourage passage by animals or persons by way of thorns, density or sheer unpleasantness while maintaining an aesthetically pleasing form.

A number of plants are readily available to fit the bill, we all can think of one or more ‘sticker bushes’ that we would rather not tangle with. The trick to good defensive landscaping is to pick a plant that is all that but easy to maintain. So first off the most obvious choice any typical rose is out of the question. Yes they are thorny and will cut you up even through some clothing but the ease with which they catch disease and or have pest problems makes them an unwise choice. On the other hand we have Prickly Pear cactus, which no one wants to mess with, its weakness is its slow rate of growth making it not exactly reliable for filling an area. So here is a list of some plants for use with defensive landscaping.

Beach Rose - Rosa rugosa

The beach rose is one of the few antique roses that torpedoes the standard rues of having a rose in your garden. Not only is it very drought tolerant, disease and pest free but it also produces the expected aromatic flowers. The rose hips resulting are quite large and contain impressive amounts of vitamin C which makes them an excellent choice for jellies and other herbal preparations. The key to this plant’s defensive landscaping value is that the stems are absolutely covered in thorns. More so that it reproduces by underground stems or stolons allowing it to rapidly form an impassible thicket of thorns. For defensive landscaping purposes the best use of beach rose is in living wall format, cut a planting trench and plant one 3-gallon size potted beach rose per 4 feet, mulch heavily and watch as the plants grow together into a wall of crinkly green foliage and wicked thorns. Feel free to cackle evilly at the first person to try and cross your new wall of thorns.

Mahonia – Mahonia sp.

Mahonia is one of those plants in the invasive plant lists for the fact its seeds are viable and may come up in odd places. Barring that if you can imagine a plant that combines the bamboo-like stems of a Nandina with the sharply spined leaves of a holly and is still evergreen then you can imagine the somewhat slow-growing Mahonia.  Mahonia is a clump-forming shrub that can make areas impassible by the way of its spiny leaves and it’s incredibly rigid stems. In the case of defensive landscaping mahonia plays its part in being the tall evergreen plant used to compensate for deciduous plants or as a permanent screen when combined with a lower-growing screening plant. When used in foundation plantings near windows mahonias can be effective in denying entry when paired with lower supporting plants. Mahonia does flower in early spring or late winter with small yellow bell-shaped flowers borne on long upright stems. The best part about the flowers is that they are a early nectar and pollen source for honey bees and they produce a lemon aroma that is quite strong.

Firethorn – Pyracantha sp.

Technically the Firethorn and Scarlet Firethorn are two differing but closely related plants but for the purposes of defensive landscaping they can be used in identical roles.
Now when you’re talking defensive landscaping plants the firethorn is a real appropriately named plant. The name originates from the fact that when stuck by a thorn from the fire thorn the area tends to itch and burn. This is due to the fact the thorns themselves apparently are tipped with or release on contact a chemical that causes the sensation to discourage browsing of its foliage or fruit. Furthermore the thorns are often straight a few millimeters thick and up to four inches long.  The best part about firethorn is that in spring it is often covered with a tone of small white flowers which are followed by bright orange or red berries in large clusters. Additionally Firethorns cont mind being shaped into arches, living wreaths, and espalier forms so you can turn a wall into a thorny pain display for some poor sucker. The one weakness of the firethorns is that they do catch fire blight which can ruin the showy fruit. The disease it self may often persist for many years and not kill the host, so you can live on with an infected plant just fine.

Barberry – Berberis spp

Barberry is some what of a given for a list of plants for use in defensive landscaping. In common cultivation barberry comes in many colors and sizes ranging from dwarf plants like ‘Crimson Pygmy’ to larger faster growing green varieties. In fact it isn’t hard to find purple, red, gold, yellow, tricolor and green varieties within the same garden center. But the real use of barberry is as a casual defense shrub. Admittedly barberry has short straight thorns that won’t stop a determined person or animal but with a thick enough stand of the plants (3-4” wide) it will certainly make them think twice about passing. Barberry has one of the same advantages as Beach Rose as they both can be planted as far north as the northern half of New Jersey and at least as far south as Fayetteville North Carolina.

With that said tune in next week for the next group of perennial plants for defensive landscaping, where we will cover four more defensive landscaping plants. Also, just a tip folks if you plan to continue growing food plants over the winter now is the time to either start buying or starting them as seeds. Winter crops include the following common plants.

Lettuce (May survive winter but will peter out in mid spring the moment it gets warm.)
Snow peas (will not survive winter but will produce a crop before the first heavy frost.)

Just give it a thought as to what you want to grow, make sure to space your plants well and fertilize with a manure product such as poultry manure when you plant. I'll cover more on this in the next post, as always keep 'em growing folks!