Sunday, December 30, 2012

Farewell 2012!

As the year finds it end, we can look back at the year and consider all that has occurred, this year was one of great fortune. We had ample rain and this meant excellent crops while others had no such luck. The weather was not disagreeable overall, we toiled, planned and executed to the best of our ability and yet our rewards were great. We here at the test gardens were amazed when the numbers came in, and below are the absolute final numbers for the year with all harvests in and all work noted as completed for the year.

Table  1A: 2009-2012 End of year costs & monthly averages
|           |   2009  |  2010  |  2011  |   2012 |
| Avg. P/M$ |   67.65 | 105.68 | 160.41 | 109.25 |
| Per Year$ |  676.47 |1268.15 |1924.81 |1310.90 |

Table 2A: 2009-2012 Year End Labor Hours and Total Harvest Weight
|            |  2009  |  2010  |  2011  |   2012 |
| Ttl lbHarv.|   0.00 |  25.25 | 111.55 |  71.03*|
| Hours PY   | 000.00 | 191.75 | 258.50 | 173.50*|
| Hours APM  | 000.00 |  15.97 |  21.52 |  14.45*|
| Hours APD  | 000.00 |   0.53 |   0.71 | 000.48*|

Table 3A: Yearly Square Foot Area of the Test Gardens
|            |  2009  |  2010  |  2011  |   2012 |
| # of beds  |   9.00 |  13.00 |  16.00 |  23.00 |
| Total Area | 327.99 | 391.13 | 419.06 | 284.43 | (sq ft)
| Area incr. |   -.-- | +63.14 |+ 27.93 |-134.63 |

*Labor hours and harvest amounts adjusted for final harvest of the year on 12/30/2012.

Essentially at the end of the year we now know what it costs to grow your own. Some of you who may read this may balk at the numbers, but you have to consider that farmers get subsidies, and use chemical fertilizers and pesticides and often use gasoline powered machines and varied levels of automation. I might add farmers often buy whole sale for a projected year’s worth of operations where as I don’t since the test gardens operate on six-month financial periods. With that in mind, to level the playing field, lets assume that labor was none of the cost of operations and take out the cost of crop testing and reduce all my material costs to bulk wholesale levels.  With the aforementioned factors included my cost per ounce would be $4.81 where as my cost in materials per square foot would be $4.61. Essentially I am getting about a 1:1 ratio which is really good for a back yard garden. If I cut out labor costs, and altered material costs to a wholesale level ($355.45), then counted against the harvest totals we have a averaged cost of $0.313 per ounce. Needless to say this is quite reasonable when compared to the medium tier produce found at most supermarkets. In short corporate agriculture, makes their food cheap not by their own capability but on the dole of the tax payers. If I had a subsidy; I too would be pricing product at their level as well, however for the gardener of any skill this should stand as proof of why you should start or increase the size of a garden as part of your resolutions.
But enough about the numbers, new years is coming at us rather quickly and I’d like to look at the year in a different light.

Not unlike any other profession that requires one to be unflinching and ever ready a New Year rushes to meet us, will its weather be so kind or will we face heavy drought as we have in years past? I cannot and, will not dare speak for any of you, but I hope for more of the same of 2012, the positives outweighed the negatives. Many new things were tried at the test gardens and major expansions were made, and they paid off greatly if even just our yearly surplus sale was an indicator. To that end it is now that I must thank all of you who read this blog for your kind support. The Sustainable neighbors group also has been incredibly supportive, and their  leader Marsha Howe is responsible for suggesting more then one study that revised a lot of our own thinking here at the test gardens. We’re glad to have her back in the sand hills, and wish her the best in her endeavors and look forward to another year of mutual cooperation to further the great tapestry of work that bears a lot of names but always is sustainable. Also I must thank Sustainable Sand hills for their promotion of everything organic and sustainable; without them the cause would no doubt be set back a bit and we might find ourselves fighting a harder uphill battle.

I will not go without one more thank you for the year, thank you to each and every client who supported the operations of Bordeaux Light Landscaping with your patronage. Without all of you, I’m not sure how far BL2’s many projects would have gone. You guys are excellent people and for your incredible open-minded approach you deserve to take a bow, you folks are what makes the sustainable organic universe keep spinning.

As a final thought for the year of 2012, when it comes to gardening and finding solutions to the limitations of the current food supply I do think that George Bernard Shaw’s quote rings true.

“You see things; and you say ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were and say ‘Why Not?’” –George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) from ‘Back To Methuselah’

So I ask why the heck not, 2013 will have some very interesting things afoot at the test gardens, and I can promise for the adventurous at least six edible plants you wont see in your books nor on the internet.  For those not so risqué I can ensure that the best of 2012 will return with a few cool new additions. In case you’re wondering what will return for your gardening delight next year here is the confirmed list below.

Cucumber, Armenian
Eggplant, Striped Togo
Eggplant, Turkish Italian Orange
Okra, Burgundy
Pepper, Lemon Drop
Pepper, Tobago Seasoning
Spinach, Red Malabar
Tomato, Red Currant

The above reflects less then half of the entire planned plant list for next year’s sale, but I can assure you this, some of next year’s plants will blow your mind! Exploding heads aside, I wish you all warmest season’s greeting sand may you have a happy but safe new years.

As always Keep ‘em growing folks, and remember, frost does it’s damage through dehydration, water your cold seasonal plants before a frost but don’t wet the leaves to reduce damage!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Seasons Greetings IV: Record Keeping

Welcome to the next-to-last episodes of Lost In The Farmers Market for the year of 2012. Let me tell you, this entire year has been one heck of a ride.  This has been a year of serious research and development for the Skye Project, as numerous methods and materials were put to the test to determine what the best outcome should be. Numerous challenges arose each one in its own way threatening to derail the forward momentum gained by the project and its intentions.

Environmental difficulties aside as this is the next to last post of the year, it’s time to start talking numbers. I rarely do this except at year’s end to avoid this blog from turning to a complete boredom festival. That aside part of the Skye project is keeping track of the actual numbers how much material was used, how much was harvested, what worked and what did not. These bits of information collected over the course of the year and calculated in December just before the final harvest of the year, are posted well,  now. The reason for looking at the numbers is that it can tell me with reasonable accuracy if the concepts I am proposing even work, more so they give you the reader something to examine, and determine if you would like to try some of these methods your self. With that said here are the 2012 Statistics as of 12/22/2012. Keep in mind this is supposed to be tomorrow's post but it's being posted a day early.

Skye Project statistics:
Total amount Harvested*: 1006.05oz (62.88 lbs)

Most Productive Crops*:
1.      Red Giant Mustard: 152 ounces, (9.5 pounds)
2.      Jerusalem Artichoke: 93 ounces, (5.8125 pounds)
3.      Cabbage, Green Loose leaf: 89.75 ounces (5.61 pounds)
4.      Collards, Georgia: 81 ounces (5.0625 pounds)
5.      Potato, Sweet: 63 ounces (3.9375 pounds)

6.      Mustard, India: 58 ounces (3.625 pounds)
7.      Tomato, Black Krim: 55 ounces (3.4375 pounds)
8.      Lettuce, Bibb: 45 ounces (2.8125 pounds)
9.      Cabbage, Napa: 42 ounces (2.625 pounds)
10.  Cabbage, Red: 24 ounces (1.50 pounds)

Total Amount of fertilizer used*:
-          192 ounces of Alaska Fish Fertilizer (6 Quarts)**
-          2 gallons of Vermiculture concentrate

Total Amount of Soil Amendments used:
-          20cu of  un-sifted Compost
-          48cu of Organic Composted Turkey Manure
-          62 cu High Quality Topsoil with coco-fiber.
-          16 cu Moisture enhanced Clay-Topsoil
-          600lbs Black Hen Poultry Manure

Total Cost for Year: $1310.90

Average Cost per month: $ 109.2416…

Cost per Ounce of Produce: $1.303…

Average # work hours per Ounce of produce: 0.131 work hours per ounce***

Total Amount of Work Hours: 171.5 hours

Average # of Work Hours per month: 14.29

Average # of Work Hours per Day: 0.47 hours

The above information is quite useful by itself, you can see that my costs per year are a bit on the high side. Tye typical amount spent per year for an average homeowner on their yard is about $500-700 dollars a year. I obviously spent more then this, as some of you might realize yours truly is not an average homeowner and the cost is relative to the objective. As a refresher for those new to this blog or who have not heard the ultimate objectives of the Skye Project in order they are as follows

  1. Locally I intend offset household grocery costs by 5-10% yearly until at least 70% of all vegetable groceries are home grown on site.
  2. To produce the aforementioned food without the use of chemical agents and or mineral salt based fertilizers.
  3. To create a naturally self-sustaining agricultural environment using the least amount of land area possible.
  4. To promote through examples facts and figures that this process is repeatable, reliable and possible for the average homeowner.
  5. Efficiency of work and Economy of costs: minimal work at minimal cost for maximized output.
  6. Using study results, to produce a series of books of further promote the sustainable standard of urban agriculture.
  7. Promote the use of alternative plants as replacements for overly homogenized common varieties.

That said, the Skye project has had success on all seven fronts and is rapidly entering it's fifth year of operations in the North Carolina Sand Hills environment. That said you can pull one interesting fact from the information presented above, It costs me $1.31 per ounce of food grown on site per 7 minutes of working time. Essentially if bought at a store this produce would cost $4.50 per ounce which puts it up there with those gourmet specialties such as Shiitake Mushrooms and so on. For note that is 1.31 for the produce costs, plus 0.94 for labor and then a retail markup of 200%. I know more goes into retail then that but the fact is for getting food I know is absolutely free of toxic agricultural chemicals it's a small price to pay. I know what is in my food, who grew it and I also know that the way it was grown was sustainable and will only improve the land over time rather then damage and poison it as corporate agriculture would prefer. 

Politics and intentions aside there is the following bit of information to consider. Below is a comparison of core statistics for the last four years. The first set of numbers represents the monthly expenditures for the project. It is useful because the costs have always been accurately recorded and it shows when the primary spending tends to occur. Between 2010 and 2011 you can see the visible shift ins pending to support production beyond the needs of the project. In 2011 I started the Skye Project plant sale using our surplus plants and it became a standard operation by 2012. there tends to be another peak in spending in September or October as preparations for planting cold season crops begins. If you notice the warm seasonal preparations spending tends to occur in March or April depending on weather. Last winter was mild so the preparation was spread between February and April in 2012. 

From this bit of monthly financial number you can tell that the method I use is fairly standard, two major plantings, one in spring and one in fall. It also means that in order to have a real reliable harvest, one must pick a variety of crops to produce over a six-month or longer period.

Month     |  2009  |   2010 |   2011 |   2012 |
January   | ---.-- | ---.-- | 140.80 |   7.10 |
February  | 105.53 |  61.68 | 752.51 | 124.05 |
March     | ---.-- |  44.46 | 211.84 |  29.98 |
April     | 110.61 | 139.71 |  98.51 | 180.87 |
May       | 102.82 |   8.52 | 155.59 | 275.65 |
June      |  76.49 |  60.48 |  73.87 | 202.31 |
July      |  20.68 |  90.70 |  15.33 |  80.84 |
August    |  44.37 |  72.10 |   0.00 |   8.50 |
September | 124.55 | 304.84 | 355.00 |  47.82 |
October   |  17.82 | 410.61 |  78.87 | 353.78 |
November  |  73.68 |  75.05 |  42.49 |   0.00 |
December  | ---.-- | ---.-- |   0.00 |   0.00 |
Avg. P/M$ |  67.65 | 105.68 | 160.41 | 109.25 |
Per Year$ | 676.47 |1268.15 |1924.81 |1310.90 |

The information below represents the final accounting of the work hours and harvest amounts in general per year. The 2009 Year has no information included due to a lack of a working scale at the time, we fixed that oversight in 2010, but were still battling the soil issues which hurt productivity. Exceptionally cold weather between 2010 and 2011 also caused crop losses in November and December. You can see clearly that as the conversion of unproductive land into productive land occurs the amount of time spent working has been reduced. The work hour spike in 2011 is more or less due to the large number of construction projects then the actual act of harvesting, in 2012 the number of projects was identical, but the change came in their lasting effect and permanent nature.

Ttl lbHarv|   0.00 |  25.25 | 111.55 |  62.88 |
Hours PY  | 000.00 | 191.75 | 258.50 | 171.50 |
Hours APM | 000.00 |  15.97 |  21.52 |  14.29 |
Hours APD | 000.00 |   0.53 |   0.71 | 000.47 |

With all those numbers in consideration and compared against prior years numbers you can clearly see a lot of progress despite numerous natural setbacks to productivity in the 2012 growing year****. I'm personally happy with the results, given what occurred and the crop loss back in the summer the recovery was excellent. Next year starts the fifth year of the Skye Project being at it's current location, we've learned a few new methods and will be employing them. Hopefully next year will also be the first year in which the non-animal based fertilizer initiative will produce some fruit, no pun intended.

As always if you have an questions feel free to send me a note via this blog or ask in person at a sustainable neighbors meeting. With all that said, Keel 'em growing folks, oh and one last thing, friends don't let friends gift chia pets to gardeners!

*As of 12/22/2012
**Produces 192 gallons of ready to use liquid fertilizer at a rate of 1 ounce concentrate to 1 gallon water.
*** Essentially it takes less then seven minutes of work top produce an ounce of food roughly.
**** The tomatoes, eggplant, basil and some peppers were infested with whitefly in 2012 to the point the crop plants had to be utterly destroyed. It is estimated that this alone caused a loss to the tune of thirty pounds of produce. Also a loss of tomatoes to blossom end rot caused damage to the end result.

Seasons Greetings III: Indoor and Outdoor

Welcome back to the third of the holiday episodes of Lost In The Farmers Market. Today the topic shifts to a family of plants that is famous for it’s most known and festive member Euphorbia pulcherima which is more commonly known as the Poinsettia. I did not include the Poinsettia itself because it’s varied history deserves its own post. Its relatives deserve a great deal of credit, even if they are not as seasonally showy. Before I delve into the natures of those two fine members of the Euphorbia clan I would like to talk briefly on an important garden topic; planning for the future.

Planning, it’s an incredibly formal word for this informal affair we call gardening, and there is no wrong or right way to go about it. Some muse about their happenings and determine a general direction. While other gardeners keep exacting notes and refers to those to determine the goals of the next year. Most gardeners probably fall somewhere in between which is perfectly fine. We all have our own ways of planning for the next year but now is the time to start thinking, and considering. Not unlike last minute shopping you don’t want to rush the process or find that when the time comes you can’t get the materials you need the most.

For the average gardener equipped with some notes is should not be too hard to figure how much material you used in a given year.  But the first step to planning is considering how much of what was used in the last year. Having a rough estimate or even a hard number of how much of something you had can tell you what needs to change if anything. For instance in the case of liquid fertilizer, lets assume in the last year you used six 6.25 pound boxes of MiracleGro soluble fertilizer. From that you should be asking, why am I using this much? And of course what can I do to improve my soil so that much fertilizer is no longer necessary? Further more you may want to consider asking yourself if the plant varieties you are using even need it.

Just using the example you could sit back and figure if you paid $13.88 per box of fertilizer* at a total cost of $ 83.28. From the numbers as written to get a temporary gain in nutrient and a large use of water is this a good sustainable use of materials? Considering that for the same price you could get the following instead:

1.      4 bags of Black Hen poultry manure 20lbs each at 5.30 each for 21.20.
2.      3 bottles of Alaska Fish Fertilizer, 1 Quart each at 8.54 each for 25.62
3.      8 bags of premium topsoil at 0.75 cu each at 2.12 each for 19.96.

In the end the total would be 63.78, and the savings would cover fuel and buy more plants perhaps. The overall effect of monitoring your costs, and using the information to spend more wisely would mean that you would have to work less to produce the same amount of output if not more. The aforementioned information is the heart of the financial aspect of garden planning. I will cover the other aspects of planning in the following articles. But enough of the technicalities it’s time to talk about the last of the house plant gift ideas.

The euphorbia family is a massive and diverse family including numerous plants that don’t even resemble each other. The euphorbia family includes varied plants not all of which are houseplants some examples include; Baseball Plant (E. obesa), Crown of Thorns (E. milii), African Milk Barrel (E. horrida) and the garden perennial Spurge (E. polychroma).  It is also important to know that the overall common name of the euphorbia family is either spurge or milkweed. In the case of the latter name this is not to be confused with Asclepias which is also called milkweed. Either way the Euphorbias from a biological stand point are important because they demonstrate the concept of convergent evolution. In short  in instances such as the African Milk Barrel it has developed into a physical shape resembling the barrel cactus of the American continent dispute the two being entirely different plants biologically. These plants are also useful for teaching the most basic concepts of evolution as individual specimens of similar growth and development can demonstrate what changes can occur with a life form in response to an environment.

This is a view of the entire plant, as you can see the stems don't ever grow straight, the leaves are variegated and edged in white, and unfortunately you cant quite see that the red coloration on the leaves and stems due to the compact size of the photo so it would fit in this blog post.

The crooked stems give this Euphorbia its common name. You can kind of see the zigzag pattern the stems take, in some instances it is very pronounced and in others not as much.
These plants will often form offshoots as seen above, this is their response to being pot-bound. The specimen pictured above was very pot bound in a small 5" clay pot until it was potted up to a 7.5" pot a few weeks prior to being photographed for this post. Typically it should have gone into a 6" pot but given that this plant was overdue for repotting for almost two years I had to make a pot-size exception to the rule.

Devil’s backbone is also known as Pedilanthus tithymaloides, and under that name it bears several additional common names including Jacob’s ladder, Redbird Flower and Japanese Poinsettia. In the case of the common name it should not be confused with the actual perennial garden plant called Jacobs ladder (Polemonium caeruleum).

As a house plant the most common form of Devils backbone is the variegated form which as you can see in the picture has attractive stem colorations and foliage color. This member of the Euphorbia group when it flowers it does so by producing colorful flowers that resemble tiny red birds perched on the foliage. What makes it so unique is that it is a counter to the normal poinsettia. While I do appreciate marbled poinsettia during the holidays, this plant is colorful all year long, and gets more so with increased light exposure during the summer.

In terms of care you will find this one is much more durable then your common poinsettia, as it can withstand neglect longer and doesn’t need any special treatment. Cuttings can be taken in the same way as poinsettia.

With exposure to heavy summer sun this Euphorbia takes on interesting colors. If left indoors for extended periods it remains plain green instead.
The fire sticks Euphorbia is an orderly member of the Euphorbia clan, it produces tiny leaves at stem joints rarely but other wise produces virtually no plant litter. It can be grown in a wide variety of potting soils with little issue as long as the soil is allowed to dry out completely between waterings. Its primary virtue is its form as it resembles a carefree version of reeds or Marestail (Equisetum) or even some form of Scotch Broom (Cytisus scoparius). For the indoors its loose form can be used in the place of the aforementioned plants minus the upkeep and or invasive issues. In the same way it fills the same role indoors as a Spear Sanseveria might, as a vertical accent to be planted in a contrasting pot and used as a minimalist centerpiece. What really makes this plant special is the ability of its stems to take on a variety of colors after being exposed to full sun during the warmer months. If kept in doors with filtered light this plant remains green. But when exposed to partial sunlight for a few weeks its stems take on a variety of colors in varied hues of yellow, orange and red. Go ahead and google “Euporbia tirucali” in the USDA Plants database you will see what I mean by color. Either way it makes for a fine alternative to a boring old Poinsettia.

With that said there are two more posts left in the year of 2012, so stay tuned for this weekends post, and as always folks Keep 'em Growin!

Monday, December 10, 2012

Seasons Greetings II: Indoor and Outdoor

Welcome back to the second of the holiday episodes of Lost In the Farmer’s Market, today we have a short list of interesting plants that may make great gifts for those gardeners you know. But before I get into that, I would like to talk to you about a quick garden topic and explain the odd posting schedule. 
In case you are wondering why there was a double post today it is because the first post of the month was delayed with me buried in finals for the last two weeks. This post was intended to appear yesterday, and so both are posted back-to-back in chronological order so no one misses out on anything. That said lets get on with the garden stuff.

I’ve said it before but it bears repeating, every square inch of your gardening space is home to something. And those things play a critical role in the balance of your garden. Your actions can ensure the proper balance of the soil, growth of your plants and the long-term health of the micro-climate that is composed of your yard. If you are being mindful of the way in which you garden you should then have no problem attracting beneficial creatures and making sure that your soil is productive and well balanced.

Case in point if any of you will remember, I reported seeing larger numbers of toads in the test gardens last year. I’d like to think this was a direct response to the installation of seasonal drip irrigation and the rain barrels. This year I spotted green frogs living near the rainbarrels too. Frogs as you may know pretty much need clean water to survive, and moisture to be healthy. To see them this summer was quite important because it meant the rain barrels were the right choice. But now for the first time in perhaps ten to fifteen years the Small green lizards are showing up.

I think the lizard is a bit camera shy, I blame all this GEICO business really. It hid under the cover of the leaves of the Coffee chicory as I took this photo.

Some of you might say, ‘So what it’s a lizard’ and a few years back I might have agreed. But the Green Anole is important because it eats large insects, which means moths, crickets palmetto bugs, slugs and a entire host of things I don’t necessarily want messing with the crops. Which in turn means less chemical controls are needed; not that I use many of those anyway. That aside seeing them proves that my efforts are providing an environment in which they can function and I can continue onward doing what I do anyway.

This individual was about 6" long and about as thick as a pencil.

Close up of the head of the snake, as you can see the head is angled making it easier to burrow.
The next critter in the list is this guy. Some of you may be thinking ‘God it’s a snake kill it!’ first off put the shovel down, not every snake is venomous. This is a Eastern Worm Snake they don’t get any longer then 11 inches on average with the largest noted being 13 inches. The key here is that they are NOT venomous in fact they lack fangs because their primary prey is exclusively invertebrates. Their name both comes from their tiny size which often is comparable to that of a particularly large worm, often their coloration bay be brown or grey. What makes these guys important is that their presence indicates there are plenty of invertebrate organisms living in the soil, and they are present to keep the numbers in check. The noted prey of this particular species includes slugs, snails, grubs, caterpillars, other soft-bodied insect larvae and of course worms. Because worm snakes prefer to be near rotting logs it is possible they also eat termites. Considering this particular snake is adept at digging as its reduced and pointed head suggests, it may play some role in aerating the soil. Chances are you may have these guys in your yard but may never see them, for some that is just as well.

This small slow-growing cactus is noted for its fragile stem-joints. These two cuttings are about six months old but the one on the upper right has doubled in that time probably due to soil fertility.  I barely water these and keep them in full sun.
The mammilaria cactus  as a whole are best known by their common name, Nipple Cactus. The name stems from the usual round shape of the stems when seen from above and the rings of blooms which make the cactus roughly resemble an areola when seen from the top down. I think we all know from the name of this group what classical agronomists had on mind while wandering the wilderness. Believe when I say the names only get worse when you delve into the meanings of horticultural names.

That aside, Thimble cacti are typically small, they form short branches that are roughly shaped like a thimble. This cactus is easily propagated from its small easily separated branches. Though like most cactus you must be patient with new cuttings as they take some time to form roots.  Overall the thimble cactus requires cactus soil or standard potting mix, in the case of the latter you must remember to water very sparingly. Like all cactus, thimble cactus require very little water and definitely do not like having wet foliage or extended periods of wet soil. What makes thimble cactus desirable for gifts is their lack of dangerous spines, while the thimble cacti do have a coating of curved spines it takes some special effort to come into contact with the glochids or to lodge one of the primary spines in the skin.

The real gift-able feature of these cacti is their potential for use in living sculptures. When used in a role similar to bonsai, with colored gravel and assorted miniature statues the thimble cactus transforms into an interesting living accent. The whitish colored spines on the thimble cactus can be used to contrast with a dark pot or dark colored sand or gravel to make the plant especially striking. If paired with more angular or darker foliage house plants in a single pot the effect can make for quite a nice miniature garden. Also when added into a small miniature glass conservatory it makes a nice companion to other slow growing cacti.

I often use this plant as a metaphor for understanding and tolerance. If you look closely that somewhat Z shaped ridge in the middle of the plant was the original growth, it used to be a straight line, over time this cactus will contort in odd ways.

This is a monstrose form cactus. The term monstrose essentially means mutated or warped.  called ‘Caterpilar’, it was bought roughly 2005 from Home Despot on loan as a part of the Cactus exhibition for VanVleck House and Gardens. This very slow growing cactus is now pushing its seven year in my care and is the only outright prickly cactus in the collection. As for that metaphor, I often use the cactus to emphasize tolerance and understanding because what is more misunderstood then a prickly cactus? In this case the warped lumpy shape plus the spines tends to add to the point of what is being said.

As for how I use it to represent tolerance and understanding as you can see in the picture other plants have colonized the pot. There is a bunch of dragon cactus, and that brown curved thing at the top of the picture is a Million bells petunia plant. The three plants live in the same pot with no problems. During the spring and summer the million bells grows out and covers one entire side of the pot in foliage and bright pink blooms. Typically I aim the million bells side at someone and ask for their first impression, then after turn the cactus side towards them and ask the same question. Often they won’t even look at the cactus closely, which demonstrates a lack of tolerance because all they can see are the spines. Yet if you look closely you can see that it in shape resembles coral, or some kind of brain-like organ, the adjectives are endless. But the point made is that, how can one expect to be tolerant and understanding they are not willing to look past what they see from afar instead of looking closer and examining the situation?

For gift ideas this is a plant you give to someone fascinated with arid climates and desert regions. Also if you know a horticulture-inclined person who wants a unique plant this may be it. What really makes this a good gift plant, is that it grows slowly needs little in the way of care and can be put outdoors in for the summer. Appearance wise it is a very unique and in a dish shaped pot with attractive gravel, pebbles or sand it can make for an interesting centerpiece.  This is a unique gift that requires some thought and planning as well as knowing that this cactus will develop into a more interesting specimen over time.  When I bought this plant it formed a singular crest, but over the years it’s developed the lobes lumps and numerous crests you see in the picture. Who knows what it’ll look like in another seven or so years?

This wraps up another episode of lost in the farmer’s market, I hope the plant ideas and the thoughts on biodiversity help to get your ideas flowing not only for the holidays but also for the coming growing year. Thank you for reading, and as always Keep ‘em Growing!

Season's Greetings!

Welcome back to the first of the holiday episodes of Lost In The Farmer’s Market where we examine the horticultural trends as though we were a horticultural Myth Busters on steroids! Today we have the promised continuation of the house plants-oriented discussion but also a special additional discussion regarding a common but often misunderstood occurrence in most gardens on the east coast of the United States.  Since we are in the early days of the winter give or take the occurrence that has been included in today’s discussion is frost.

This Lemon Drop Pepper plant is showing the immediate after-effects of frost exposure, it is still green but all soft tissues have collapsed making the plant look wilted.

Commonly frost is thought of as what happens when a plant freezes and typically dies afterward. This assertion is partially true; yes frost does its damage through freezing of a plant’s soft tissues. There is no doubt that for the gardeners in the north east the dead annual plants have stacked up already. In the southeast particularly Fayetteville we have had several incomplete frosts starting around the second week of November.

In this case a much more hardy Lemon Verbena shows the typical scorching of leaf tips inward. Note that frost damage missed the actual growing tips of this herb entirely yet the peppers in the earlier picture, which were much taller were wiped out. The two plants were inches away from each other in the same garden bed.

For clarity, frost is what occurs when the ambient air temperature is 32 degrees or less and an exposed plant suffers severe cellular damage. Typically the cold itself causes cells in leaves and stems to freeze causing the cell walls to burst as the water contained within expands. This effect is devastating to the plant and should it survive it is often stunted and mangled never quite being able to return to its former stature in most cases. The effect is similar to frostbite for a human being, as the damaged areas are effectively dead and begin to go necrotic as other decomposing organisms often move in. The amount of humidity in the air can effect which type of frost is visible in an given area, typically either frost or hoar frost.

This sweet basil was utterly destroyed. Apparently having frozen and thawed more then once overnight you can see where the early stages of necrosis are occurring in the brown portions of the leaf tips. Annuals such as basil are very dramatic in displaying the effects of frost injury.

Normal frost manifests itself as clear ice crystals on surfaces; typically it’s the glittering stuff you see in the lawn as you walk across it in the morning on a cold day. In that case specifically the frost is formed from morning dew that has frozen in the leaf blades of the grass. More often then not you will not see this frost but you will see its damage the next day. In exceptionally long periods of cold this sort of frost

Hoar Frost which mind you is so much fun to say is the sort of frost that results when there is higher ambient humidity in the air. Hoar frost manifests itself as white or gray ice crystals on surfaces that often take on very unique patterns. On plants Hoar frost will show it’s damage like traditional frost however, some times across leaf surfaces it will miss an area or leave entire leaves alone. The name Hoar while fun to say does not mean the same thing as Whore in fact something described as ‘Hoary’ has a white or grey fuzz or light hair of the same color.

This rose scented geranium persists despite exposure, it's fuzzy leaves no doubt negated some or most of the killing frost's effects.

In this image you can see the areas of damage as the tan colored dead areas at the leaf tips. Frost damages by dessication as much as it does by cold thus it makes sense the leaf tips are what get damaged the most. In the case of the basil above since the leaf margins die first it makes sense that necrosis occurs there first and decomposing organisms such as mold and bacteria appear there first.

I admit the frost situation sounds bleak, but there are a few things you can do to save your prized tender perennials and or annuals from the ravages of frost. If the plant in question is a perennial that has been planted recently or still is in a pot make sure to water it but do not get the foliage wet if possible.  Tender perennials under the same circumstances will require watering and protection perhaps by temporarily burying them in leaves, wrapping them in burlap or fabric or if posted being moved to a more protected location. Annuals present a tougher alternative, it is easiest to move them indoors or take cuttings but alternately if this is not heavy protection may be the only way to protect such plants. Moving onwardto something cheerier today's plant selections involve two succulents from the Heurnia family.

The lifesaver cactus is named for the red ring on the flower as seen above which resembles a cherry life saver candy.

You can identify a lifesaver cactus by the fact it has four rows of fleshy spines, but the stems contain no glochids, thorns or other prickly bits.

Dragon Cactus seems to get it's name from the impossibly red sparkling flowers. In the right light the flowers sparkle as if their petals are composed of the scales of some lizard. They are a bit on the small side but appear in numbers from September through January.

Unlike the life saver cactus the Dragon Cactus has six points on the stem. It also lacks any thorns or glochids on the stems making it equally easy to handle.

Heurnia’s not to be confused with Hernias are commonly confused with the Stapellia family of succulents and both are often commonly called starfish cactus. The two are somewhat related however the most obvious difference is the fact that Heurnia lack a well known trait of the stapellia group. Stapellia are commonly also known as carrion flower for the coloration of their flowers which resembles bloody meat and the scent resembles road kill. The heurnia typically have similar flowers but without the smell and as you can see in the pictures included today, great variability in shape. The first plant is commonly called Lifesaver Plant, as you can see in the photo this is because it has a unique red ring in the flower which is quite unique. The second plant is called Dragon Cactus for its fiery red flowers which when combined with the pointy foliage resembles a fire breathing dragon perhaps.

For note the Heurnias are members of the Apocynaceae family which also includes Plumeria, Vinca, Oleander (Nerium) and Madagascar Periwinkle (Catharanthus). For the succulent enthusiasts out there this group also includes Pachypodium, Ceropegia (String of Hearts) and, Adenium (Desert Rose) all three of which can be found in the trade readily.

In terms of care, the one thing to remember is that Heurnias do not like to have wet foliage or constantly wet soil. If kept we you can be sure to see how devastating root rot can be to a succulent. The good news is that if you do mess up and root rot sets in you can take a 2-5” long cutting allow the end to dry out and try to start a entirely new plant. Occasionally a heurnia will drop stem segments of its own volition and these ‘natural cuttings’ can be potted up as new plants without delay.   

While photographing these plants as if on cue the Dragon cactus shed three stems. Occasionally these plants will shed even while not under stress of any sort.
The soil you use is not important as long as it is not heavy in clay, any normal potting mix or cactus mix will do as long as you adjust your frequency of watering to compensate for the moisture retention of the soil. It is important to remember that hernias can tolerate nearly year-round exposure but must be protected from freezing. Hernias will also do well in full sun in the north east but down south may need some protection in the south to avoid scorching.

This concludes this week’s episode of lost in the farmer’s market, I hope you enjoyed these plant ideas and found the information about frost useful. In the next post I will be discussing another interesting set of plants and a garden oriented topic, thank you for reading and remember folks Keep ‘em Growing.