Sunday, June 2, 2013

Beating the heat? Nah it's beating me!

And here we are and it is undoubtedly summer but don’t worry here comes another episode of Lost in the Farmer’s Market! Today we have some cool test garden pictures and the start of a brief series on how to prepare your gardens for the coming spike in temperatures. We all know the drought days of august are coming soon so while the weather is currently tolerable it makes sense to  prepare as best we can for the heat now as opposed to compounding our labors later.

Lets face the facts folks as gardeners we all know it’s going to get warm in summer and for those of us in the south east that means a delicate balance between watering our beloved plants or letting nature do it’s worst and pick up the pieces later. Obviously it doesn’t have to be this way, but this is often what it appears to be a narrow spectrum of choice. The truth however could not be more different in several differing ways. Take for instance the average garden plot, we know that the addition of much can help conserve soil moisture and keep down weeds but then it gets into the differences between the types of mulch. Whether you realize it or not mulch is as different as the people who choose to apply it so here is a fast rundown on the types.

Stone – example granite, pea gravel marble chips bluestone gravel ect.
            Stone is nice and fairly permanent but it suffers from the issue of being both expensive per square foot, heavy and it contributes nothing to the soil. For that matter stone really only works well when combined with landscape fabric and thus by itself won’t block weeds very well unless several inches are applied. I might add stone does have to useful features as it tends to help retain soil warmth and in the case of certain crushed stone products may add trace nutrients to the soil as it weathers.

Pine Straw – longleaf and short needle types such as loblolly and white pine.
            Well out in Fayetteville this stuff is everywhere so it’s no surprise it stays in use, and good clean pine straw isn’t bad stuff. On application pine straw is nice and fluffy but settles down somewhat flat. With age (1-3 years depending on species) pine straw will decay into a sort of pine straw loam. Pine straw also has use as an anti-erosion material as the numerous surfaces it creates tends to slow down water runoff and wind keeping the soil beneath it where it is. The downside of pine straw is the cost, irregularity of the bales if purchased and its high flammability. Pine straw tends to weather to a light brown or a pale gray depending on sunlight exposure and moisture.

Pine Bark
            Pine bark is more a southern thing then a northern thing, and as a byproduct of the timber industry it makes sense to recycle this waste product into something useful. Fortunately you can get pine bark both by the bag and by bulk which makes it rather economical. The quality of pine bark does vary so most of you out there are advised to get a good look at what your local garden centers sell and determine what is best for you on a case by case basis. A major advantage to pine bark is that it forms a dense cover that most weeds have trouble getting through especially when an inch or more is applied. More so pine bark has all the useful qualities of pine straw with one difference. New applications of pine bark may float off during heavy rains and washout is a problem also. Good pine bark after weathering tends to be a golden-brown color.

Hardwood/Cedar Bark
 The hardwood and cedar group are more found up north, and tend to cost more but also last longer, and have anti-insect and decay properties. Cedar and cypress mulch are notorious for this effect which is good if termites are a concern and you can get cypress or cedar in bulk. Hardwood much tends to be maple or more commonly oak, and has the advantage of lasting at least as long as pine straw but is heavy enough to resist all but heavy rain induced washout. Cedar and Cypress both last the longest of the organic mulches and tend to weather to a light brown-gray where as hardwood much is often a light gray.

If you will notice I skipped two much products in this list, the first is rubber much and the second is any form of colored mulch. I skipped the former because of its habit of leaching zinc into the soil. Rubber much is often made of spent auto tires with the internal wires removed and thus due to vulcanization exudes zinc and in cheaper tires sulfur residue. Rubber mulch is however ok for use in kid’s playgrounds but not so good in an actual garden. The colored mulches were skipped because they are essentially the industries biggest scam. I might also add the red much is incredibly tacky looking unless you live in a McDonald’s restaurant. The real scam here is that when you buy a bag of dyed mulch not only are you paying for the cost of labeling and advertisement but also you are often buying a lower quality product. Depending on whom you buy colored mulch from at the worst the actual mulch may have ground up reject lumber and crushed wooden pallets instead of true timber materials. What they might call bark may not even actually be tree bark but the remains of the timber process after logs are turned into boards. There is the lack of permanence in the dyes used, as red much tends to turn pink, and black mulch takes on a gray color after a few weeks to a month or so. At a worst case scenario the dye leaches out and stains other surfaces. In short friends don’t let friends buy dyed mulch!

Considering the options of what mulch you use is as important as where you apply the material. As we all know mulch can act as a weed barrier because it prevents light from reaching the weed seeds that may lay dormant in the soil. More so the few weeds that do germinate then have to push their way though that extra layer of material just to get to light and but the time they do they’ve burned off a lot of energy. By this point the weeds are very visible and that’s where you come in. Needless to say mulch is quite important for your beds in numerous ways but did you know you can use mulch in your large pots for the same purposes? Indeed the test gardens insulate our 14” planters with a ½” layer of pine bark mulch to reduce watering needs and it seems to work. The squirrels also seem to want to mess with the planters less and fire ant mounts if they ever appear are very visible which makes it a triple bonus. We also use mulch in our raised and non-raised beds equally to promote better moisture retention and an improved topsoil quality as the bark does break down over time. But enough on this topic, next week we will cover watering, and after that plant selection. As promised earlier here are the week’s best test garden photographs.

This is what a maturing Kiwano or Horned Melon vine looks like, at the time of this photo the vines had reached the top of the 5' climbing support and were still aggressively growing despite that. If the growth is an indicator of the potential for fruit I may be buried in horned melons! I sold young kiwano plants this year and this folks is what you ought be prepared for.

Here Is that rascaly rabbit I was telling folks about. He or she posed right behind the tailgate of the truck long enough for me to snap two pictures. As it turns out this rabbit was no doubt attracted to the yard by the number of dandelions I grow which is a food staple for conttontail rabbits.

Ascepias tuberosum also known as Milkweed or Pleurisy Root in full bloom. This pure orange variety is one I brought to Fayetteville from new jersey and is the only perennial on premises that made it through year one. It's not well known but Asclepias of this type have a LONG taproot so they loathe to be transplanted. When grown from seed it takes two or three years for the seedlings to mature. Also the plants appear from nothing in late spring bloom and then slowly appear to decline and die going dormant until next year.

Yucca filimentosa also known as Adam's Needle or Spanish Bayonet, this tough perennial is best known for it's foliage but mature clumps flower in early summer. The flower stalks can be upwards of 6' tall and are covered with these bell shaped flowers. No scent but then not such a big deal for a plant often deemed unapproachable.

I snapped a shot of this butterfly on a particularly windy day as it settled in the pine straw no doubt to take a brief rest. After a little research it seems to be a black swallowtail type. According to some aspects of African lore butterflies carry the souls of those recently deceased. Personally I just consider the presence of this butterfly as a sign that the work completed int eh gardens is worth it.

A Silver Fir Tree tomato showing off it's 'fir' which sparkles a little in the light and it's mature form lacy foliage. This is one of the tomato varieties sold this year. Overall the fir tree tomato is turning out to be rather durable and is growing quite well in the test garden.

Oxalis articulata or Pink Sorrel this common garden plant is often considered a weed. As a relative of the sorrels it is a perennial with a reasonably good drought resistance. This little plant spreads both by seed and it's tuberous roots. It will tolerate poor soil drought and has few if any insect problems but may succumb to a fungal infection of Rust. Generally a cheery plant in the spring and fall very easy to propagate and it also makes for a reliable perennial addition to any garden.

Physalis, Cossack Pineapple Ground cherries in a 15" pot out in the test gardens. For note all pots in the test garden this year received a 1/" layer of much to conserve moisture. This variety was sold this year and this is what a established but not quite mature plant looks like. For those who don't know the ground cherry is a semi-native that is disease resistance and drought tolerant. There are few issues with this plant in general and the best part is most casual visitors will never know this is anything other then an ornamental. The fruit is fantastic though, they taste like little candies.
Penstemon gloxinoides, or Gloxinia-flowered beardtongue. This variety of penstemon has all the durability traits of the other varieties but also bears large two-tone flowers throughout summer. as you can see the variety above called Hot coral is very striking. These plants are drought tolerant but to do their best need a decent soil.
With that last picture this brings to a close another episode of Lost int he farmer's Market. I know this episode didn't quite make it online at the time it was planned with a plant list but, never fear, next week's episode should be posted on Thursday evening if not Friday proper.  In the next episode I'll continue the topic with a bit about soil amendments and quality and it's effect on how efficiently you water your garden.  As always folks be wary of heatstroke and hydration  and also keep 'em growing!

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