Sunday, March 24, 2013

Spring hath Sprung; Onward to Shovel Duty!

Greetings and Salutations, the first day of spring has sprung (Wednesday March 20th ) and here we are with a larger then average episode of Lost in the Farmer’s Market. For those of you who were wondering there were no episodes posted in the last two weeks due to midterms in college and a sudden glut of landscaping work for BL2. In short  I was pretty busy (in a good way) and honestly, there was little to cover since march is one of those months where you want to think about the outdoors more but the weather is so bizarre that it’s hard to write about certain things. With that said I think I have a rather good article for you with some cool stuff in it.

The Dessert Kiwis are back!

The first thing I must remind you of is an upcoming date, next Sunday is March the 31st, and that is Easter. For us gardeners in the sand hills region it’s the last likely date of frost which means you can begin planting your warm season plants in the garden if they are large enough. Given the relative lack of stable temperatures during March however a few of my warm seasonal- plants are delayed by a week or so I won’t be planting anything until Mid-April at the latest. The spring last frost date is suggested and each yard will be different, but generally the Easter date is used as it’s easily found on most calendars and most cant miss it. For you gardeners up north, the last frost date in the New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania areas tends to be about Mother’s Day or May 12th. Personally I used to wait until the 15th just to be sure however.

 One of the sure signs it's spring is that birds of all sorts return, and int he Fayetteville area that is usually marked by entire flocks of Robins. However see the hanging pansy basket? This basket has been hanging in that spot since last year when I put the pansies in. That stick like stuff jutting out isn't part of the coco-fiber liner it's a bird's nest. Some house sparrows decided to set up shop in the basket by building a nest between the pansies using mostly pine straw and bits of asparagus stalk. The big twig you can see above is part of a flowering top of asparagus plant, it used to even have little dried asparagus berries on it too. Wild birds serve an important role in pest control and are totally worth encouraging by providing bird seed in the winter months. Speaking of pest control.....

For note, if you look in the lower right corner...the neighbor's dog Photo-bombed this shot..that is one scary guard dog. check the zoomed photo for why.

Yes, the Neighbor's guard dog sees all...she does not judge..all shall fall by the power of her laser eyes! Moments after this image was taken my camera mysteriously caught fire.

One critical annoyance of our region and climate is the damage that fire ants can do to even the best strawberry bed. If you factor in squirrels and other critters you might have a hard time growing your own strawberries in general. On the heels of the successful growing of strawberries last year I've decided to grow them in hanging baskets this year in lieu of annuals. This is one of the better ways to avoid ant damage however... I may have to find ways to prevent bird damage. Even so, I don't mind sharing with the birds since they're already helping the Clark ranch by eating pests and of course singing.

 Despite the weather temperatures and the mayhem of March it self some of our winter crops are doing just fine. Both of these pots were started back in September, and were nursed along through winter. Now my cilantro (on right) is rapidly approaching harvesting size. The Swiss Chard (on left) has almost tripled in size and may make for a decent salad green in a month or so. This just goes to show that you can grow nice looking and edible potted crops to save space. Anyone who's been to the ranch lately knows the front porch is lined with stuff like this the mother load of non-lettuce salad fixings!

Out of tragedy comes Triumph!
 The spring report isn't all good news, as the Yam bed which is used to grow cabbages in the winter was hit by a vehicle and utterly destroyed just a few days ago. The cabbage was mostly salvageable as a mini-harvest but otherwise it was not worth it to rebuild the bed...yet. The bricks along with the surplus bricks from the combining of HP1, HP2 and the main asparagus bed  were used to raise HP3 to a height unmatched by any garden bed in the ranch to date, Two feet above ground, with six inches below ground. This makes HP3 the tallest bed on the property with a soil column of 2-3 feet one foot of which is below ground. This works out really well for me as I was planning to grow Armenian Cukes or Kiwano Melons in this bed. The soil mix is composed of the original bed soil a 8" layer of organic composted turkey manure, a layer of the yam bed's soil and then a final 4-6" of composted turkey manure. In short I figure this bed will be growing stuff like gang busters!

Garden bed enhancement and recovery aside there is something else I need to give props to, and thats the first LITFM book recommendation  that isn't one of our own books (southward skies). Since spring is a time of growth and renewal I want to take as moment to recommend some spring reading.  If you check, you can find a series of books by a very talented author named Amy Stewart. Her past books include “Wicked Plants: The weed that killed Lincoln’s Mother and other Botanical Atrocities” and “Wicked Bugs: The louse that Conquered Napoleon’s Army & Other Diabolical Insects”. For note I have both and they are incredibly good reads and are informative for new gardeners and skilled land managers alike. The book I am referring to today however is her new book “The Drunken Botanist: The plants that create the world’s great drinks” which was released about the 20th of March. Mrs. Stewart honestly handles this topic, with the same skill and attention to detail as she did her prior two books and yet keeps it’s down to earth so every reader can understand. Needless to say I’m currently reading the book myself but in one sitting I plowed through 107 pages out of 362 pages which is pretty much the mark of a good book when you can put it down. Simply put if you are a gardener and want a good read or need to get a gift for a gardener you know this one or the other two books mentioned are good options. For note here is a direct link to her page on’s site so you can find the books I’m referencing.

Books Aside I’d like to show you a plant feature. As some of you know, inevitably whenever I go about doing my usual business as a Landscaper at the various nurseries I encounter plants that are weird and strange but more so I often find things that I inevitably have to add to the array of botanical I keep as house plants. This week was no different and of course again I have to give bLowes props again, as I was there to buy a cell-pack of annual vegetables for use in the first of the 2013 plant experiment and saw the plant in question in passing.

This may be tiny Pachypodium Geayi or Madagascar Palm.
I have to admit, I think this is a Madagascar Palm however it is so small and so nondescript it could also be a Euphorbia milli or Crown of Thorns.  The thorn arrangement says it's Madagascar Palm and the lack of leaf development makes it's identification a bit tricky. Either way I see it as a win as I like both plants. Now before you ask, this plant and the others with it were unlabeled which I consider an pretty irresponsible act of negligence by the grower. For note, Costa Farms produces these and they have had some bad press about the poor quality of their orchids. According to the Costa Farms site they neither sell Crown of thorns or Madagascar Palm so...needless to say I'm not exactly fond of the grower but then again if bLowes would settle on a single supplier like Angel Plants I would not be writing this paragraph.
At the store I looked for a larger specimen and failed to find one so this little guy is now in the living room next to the desert rose. Both Crown of  Thorns and Madagascar Palms are nice plants because they require little int eh way of care except good light and occasional watering. Both have a coating of large and visible thorns coating their stems which make them pet and child resistant and neither is poisonous. Both are rather terrible tasting and the Euphorbia produces milky latex sap, which can cause skin irritations for some. Both are candidates for Interior defence-scaping, if you can imagine this growing under or beside the window when a burglar climbs in and grabs a handful you get the idea.
For note there are two types of Madagascar Palm in the trade, Pachypodium lameri (the most common) and Pachypodium geayi (less common), they are difficult to tell apart and honestly it may be better to just tag them as Pachypodium species. But enough of the plant-geek action let me tell you a bit about the year’s first experiment.

Well it’s spring, and of course with it comes the various yearly experiments that I operate as part of the skye project. Our first experiment was suggested by the talented Marsha Howe, as we were discussing soil test reports and soil amendments for the MLK highway Bridge/ coffee Klatch.  The conversation ended up about Bio-Char which is wood that has been charred to a point it becomes ultra-crumbly charcoal. Bio-char is currently undergoing trials as a soil nutrient anchor and as a major soil amendment for depleted and otherwise unsuitable soils. Marsha proposed a test using a small sample of Bio-char using worm castings as an activator to see how it compares to other soil media. Amazingly Marsha had some and some worm castings to go with and the experiment was officially started on the 21st. 

The first experiment of 2013 is a simple one, the goal is to determine if or if not bio-char can improve plant growth noticeably. To that end I have selected four test plants all of which are Red Chicory (Raddicio) each plant will be potted in a 4” round plastic pot for the duration of the test which is six weeks. In five day intervals the group will be photographed to photo-document growth. The soil mixture of each will be proportioned to demonstrate the qualities of the various soil media.

From right to left: plants 1-4 spaced in a zigzag to increase space between plants.
Plant 1: 0.5oz Bio-Char + 1.5oz Earthworm castings + 4.0 oz Sterilized Compost.
Plant 2: 3.0 oz Earthworm Castings + 3.0 oz Sterilized Compost
Plant 3: 6.0 oz Sterilized Compost
Plant 4: 6.0 oz Coir-Based Potting Mix.

All the above plants will be placed outside in an eastern facing to receive morning and midday sun in a wire-tray and tagged numerically. The test plants will receive only rain water for irrigation and no additional fertilizer. The stage is set to see what happens, let’s see how this turns out in six weeks through 9 photographs with any luck the report on this, due in the first week of May will be useful. 

Whew, that was a long post, but as spring heats up there will be less gaps in posts and more information. Some upcoming projects include the Berm project which will be the subject of a Sustainable Neighbors Crop mob, the Voyage to Big Bloomers (early summer) and the Fall Drainage Project which will also probably be a crop mob event and be roughly in October. Beyond that in our next episode expect info on how the seedlings are doing.

As always folks keep 'em growin!

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Urbanite the stuff of...oh nevermind!

Welcome back to another episode of lost in the farmer’s market! As you can see we are getting closer to the wonders of spring and the delightful harvests of summer. Outside the birds are back as scores of sparrows, catbirds, cardinals, thrashers and, robins are out singing their little heads off. As for you the gardener you have heard me talk about seed catalogs and planning and well I think I sort of beat those topics to death.  Today’s topic is a wild card that came up while out on a work site this week.

Today’s topic is “Urbanite” and no, this is not a country term for a city dweller. Urbanite is a residual byproduct of urban development and is commonly available for free where ever construction is going on. In short the material called Urbanite is really scrap cement from sidewalks and foundations, its cheap durable and no harder to use then field stone. I admittedly have no idea who first came up with the term “urbanite” but I do know that it is a catchy term that sounds much better then ‘scrap cement’. Plus I can imagine if one were driving about town in a pickup truck looking for areas to “quarry” urbanite it probably would not be that hard to find. New construction or refurbishments of buildings or even the replacement of a sidewalk can provide a lot of urbanite. I have to state that of course as with any salvage item you should ask permission before hauling anything off.

I realize that some of you out there may be thinking we’ve gone bonkers at LITFM with the urbanite suggestion. Others might be flat out thinking something like the following.

“Eww its busted cement why would I use that?!”

The obvious answer is the cost of stone and brick. For note a ton of ‘black forest’ field stone costs between $150 and $200. A single band of Pinehurst type bricks at retail level will easily run you a little below or above a hundred dollars. When I say castle block typically used to make retaining walls isn’t cheap, I mean it. Honestly shelling out two to three dollars per 22 pound castle block and knowing you will need at least three concourses means you will be digging deep in your pockets.

 I might add I am no fan of impermeable surfaces such as pavement but since concrete is generally a mix of sand, gravel, lime and a major sticking agent it is actually semi-permeable.  Since Urbanite is semi-permeable, this means it can aid in moisture retention, and since it’s essentially artificial sand stone it could aid in keeping the soil warm. There is also the chance that if the urbanite you use was made with lime as it weathers it may help in countering acidic soil Ph.

This is the naturally occurring form of urbanite.

That aside I won’t sit up here and say that urbanite is the wonder material of tomorrow as it has its difficulties. As you can see in the above picture, the urbanite pieces are quite variable in size and shape. The below picture depicts a retaining wall-raised garden bed combination is made of irregular pieces of urbanite some of which are four to six inches thick. This leads to a clear observation of the first and second natures of urbanite, the pieces are often irregularly shaped, and may be rather heavy. Even so, the above urbanite was used to make the below retaining wall. Now that’s not bad,  we have a curved retaining wall that is relatively pet-proof due to height and can be cultivated to add to existing garden space.

Stacked Urbanite can make for interesting raised beds.

A major use of Urbanite can be found at the link above. That link goes to the web log of the Suburban Hermit of Fayetteville.  Look closely at the walls used to make his terraces, that’s finely lain urbanite but you wouldn’t be able to tell if you didn’t see it in person. It looks comparable to the finest dry laid field stone walls. Quite literally that is the best case scenario, think of how much urbanite is not in a dump somewhere because he turned a waste byproduct into a functional material.  I might add that you too could do this; it would only take some initiative and a source of urbanite.

Now I have to make some observations about the two demonstrated uses of urbanite. In the first example the retaining wall has visible amounts of tumblehome; as the bottom is visibly wider then the top. This design aspect is common in load-bearing walls because it spreads out the weight of the earth behind the wall and any water weight across a greater surface area.  Additionally the slope, height and curvature serves both to stop soil erosion, create a micro-climate and it happens to be pet proofed.

In the case of the Hermit’s work, his contoured urbanite walls are part of a cleverly designed and complex integrated terracing system. The core of what he did is to negate a bare slope with little in the way making this potential terraced backyard garden utopia. If you looked at his blog photos you can see he crew all kinds of cool stuff very successfully. This means that both his terracing is wildly successful but also his accompanying plant selections approved of his design and rewarded his efforts with serious productivity.

In short we are both combating erosion with the same material. Our style of construction and the reasons for why we built what we built are as different as the environments we built them in. In the end the Urbanite walls are unique, functional and work in different environments, and only you can determine which approach is best for you.  This brings us to the end of today’s episode and I might note that you can always contact myself via this blog, the Suburban Hermit of Fayetteville through his blog  or the group Sustainable Neighbors on their meetup page about anything pertaining to urbanite.