Monday, June 30, 2008

A hummingbird's territory

The old Southern red oak near the house has a number of bare branches, twigs really, that have been favorite perching places for ruby-throated hummingbirds over the years. There are two feeders nearby, as well as flowers to visit, and this particular branch is perfect as a foraging perch, apparently. It's also easy for us to notice them sitting there.

This morning, I saw a pair of brown thrashers courting, while I was checking things in the garden, and thought I'd change lenses to get a better image.

Of course, only one thrasher was visible preening up in one of the hemlocks by the time I returned, but I was able to take a few shots of 'our' male hummingbird, waiting for insects and monitoring his territory.

Hopefully, he has a mate somewhere nearby.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Cicadas, crickets, and hoping for rain

Summer evenings in the Southern U.S. are full of sounds -- cicadas, crickets, tree frogs, with an occasional late katydid. The crickets and tree frogs are melodious; the cicadas produce a harsh whirring sound, hard to describe.

The evening light is a deep purple now turning a peach-apricot color, with clouds hinting of a good chance of thunderstorms. The last two evening's 'isolated' thunderstorms passed us by, so hopefully we'll get more than a few drops tonight. The clouds look thick on the weather radar.

It was a good day in the garden. I put extra lime in the bed near the breakfast room, to make the midwestern Penstemons from yesterday's foray seem more at home.

One of them was labeled Penstemon 'Sour Grapes'. The nursery owner told me it was Penstemon cobea, an adaptable plant of limestone glades and outcrops from Central Texas north to Missouri. An Internet search suggested, however, that P. 'Sour Grapes' is of hybrid origin, possibly with P. hirsutus as a parent. Paghat.com suggests it's of muddled heritage, but is a tough evergreen perennial that attracts hummingbirds. Sounds like it's worth a try to me. Penstemon digitalis 'Husker's Red' is a selection of a widely distributed Central and Southeastern U.S. species. The attractive Heuchera 'Palace Purple' turned out to be a patented selection of H. micrantha, which hopefully will like the partial shade/light afternoon sun conditions in this border.

And the Lavender 'Anouk' - one of the give-aways for speakers and volunteers at the recent Master Gardener's conference was a patented selection of Lavandula stoechas. Hmmm. Patenting plants is a somewhat odd (in my opinion) development of American horticulture.

In any case, I settled them all into the bed, and will see how they do. Gardening is always an experiment.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

An irresistable group of plants

It started with the farmer's market this morning. I wanted to check on a type of tomato that was being sold at Thursday evening's market (of course, the tomato fellow must have been at another market this morning). But a local garden club had plants for sale from a small nursery that I hadn't heard of before, so after buying some thread-leaved coreopsis (Coreopsis verticillata), a pink-flowered form called C. rosea, lemon verbena, and dwarf thyme, I thought I'd go check out the nursery. Much to my delight, they had all sorts of things that you usually don't come across locally, so first I broke my rule about not buying big plants in small pots (because they're usually pretty pot-bound) and some of these had been subjected to less than ideal conditions (it's been so hot and dry, it's hard to keep up), and second, it's quite a subpar time to be planting perennials, in early summer with hot, dry conditions predicted.

But I added a perennial foxglove, a Mexican bush sage, several Penstemons (Husker's Red), a couple of other Penstemons that I'm not familiar with, a lovage plant, an unusual lavender, a tricolor sedum, and a dark-leaved Heuchera (to replace the unattractive lime-green one I bought by mistake last year).

Hmm, I think I had in mind that I was going to spruce up the bed outside the breakfast room window, which is looking a bit threadbare?

At least, they're all drought-tolerant and tough!

Friday, June 27, 2008

Brussels sprouts and kohlrabi

We love all sorts of greens and broccoli relatives, at least I do, and my gardening companion eats them happily, when stir-fried with olive oil, onions, and garlic.

I've certainly got plenty of garlic. This was the large 'main' harvest, now cured and inexpertly braided.
Now I just need to find a place to store the harvest; the garden shed is MUCH too hot, and the basement seems too dark and dank, although it's quite dry. Perhaps, I'll have to rig up a 'herb rack' to hang from the 'mudroom' ceiling? This sounds like it will require crafty things with vines or twigs, not exactly my area of expertise.

The Brassica oleracea cultivars that produce brussels sprouts and kohlrabi should be delicious, and kohlrabi, at least, is supposed to be easy to grow, and harvestable within 60 days. Hard to believe, but worth trying as a fall crop. Brussels sprouts are quite frost-hardy, so they should be a decent fall crop for our region, although I don't know anybody who grows it. I bought seeds of both at our local farm supply store, and the cashier (one of the owners) asked about the kohlrabi, saying she'd seen some at a local upscale grocery store.

It looks to me like it will need plenty of water to mature the swollen stems. This image is from a lovely vegetable-gardening-oriented blog called Calendula and Concrete.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

More spaces to plant

I harvested almost the last of the garlic, along with all of the remaining bulb onions yesterday. The garlic (a German porcelain type) was smaller than the June-harvested ones, probably because the hot, dry weather limited clove growth, in spite of watering.

But I've been quite pleased with my harvest and have LOTS of garlic for the coming months, enough even for devoted garlic lovers.
There are also quite a few harvested new potatoes that will stretch for a month or two, along with fresh onions.

I'm not quite sure how to properly store onions and potatoes for a long time, and they're so tasty fresh, it's hard to get motivated to do the research.

I think I'll add a second trellis of yard-long beans, for fall production, and another set of cherry tomatoes & roma tomatoes to the vacated space, after adding lots more compost. I'm also going to put kohlrabi, brussel sprouts, and broccoli (oops, and parsnips, too) in beds that I won't need for rotation in fall. Hmmm, maybe I need more beds. That's a slippery slope!

This large red cabbage in a container is ready to harvest.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

A new infusion of seeds

I just received more seeds (hooray!) -- I love getting seeds for new things, and this shipment includes kohlrabi (Dyna Bio), something called Ruby Streaks mustard, French Sorrel, Giant Winter Spinach (hope springs eternal here in our acidic soils), and parsnips (Cobham Improved Marrow). I've tried growing parsnips before (last year in an equally droughty summer), so this may not be the year to try again.

The drought doesn't get much worse than what we currently have. There are many places that get a lot less rain than we do, normally, so I hate to whine, but the U.S. Drought Monitor place shows the area where we live as one of the worst areas in the country.

Look down to the Southeastern U.S., where the big red patch is; we live there.

Long summer evenings

Close to the summer solstice, our evenings outside stretch past 9 pm; I've just now come in at a quarter-past nine. Our northerly neighbors have later summer evenings, but the trade-off comes in the short winter days.

Recently, talking with a garden writer/speaker who lives in New Hampshire, I asked him about the winters. His response was revealing; he said that was his planning and resting time, and the seasonal cycle was one he enjoyed. Summer was a time of gardening, while spring and fall were speaking and traveling times.

I find even our short winter days difficult, so I'd be a poor candidate for northern winters.

We did have a great trip (in our winter) in southern Patagonia a few years ago -- it was light until past 10 pm -- a fabulous tonic!

I'm taking a group of summer interns on a evening hike tomorrow -- we'll listen to the nocturnal symphony as the day turns to dusk and then dark. Lovely.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Less grass, more interest

It's really time to get rid of more grass. The drought is an incentive, not that we ever water our drought-tolerant Zoysia.

But the frequently-trampled patches that used to be full of honeybee-friendly clover have become hard-packed clay punctuated by unattractive tufts of something unrecognizable. And as we're walking more around the house (post-garden shed) and taking Mocha (the pampered Golden retriever) out the kitchen door more (the main vegetable garden side), we're wearing down a path more than ever.

I've been planning a flagstone patio on the porch side for awhile, mirroring the front walkway that I put in last fall, but I'm thinking I'll extend it around the house in an informal path, replacing the scruffy grass between the house and main vegetable garden with some sort of mulch or gravel/mulch mix beyond that. Flagstone there would be too much, competing with the house and the main vegetable garden's stacked stone edge.

And the slope below the house that's drying up after two summers of extreme drought --why not convert it to a drought-tolerant 'gravel garden' like Beth Chatto's in Essex, with mixed herbs and flowers? I could create a retaining wall of stone on the slope with defined paths.

I'm ready to get rid of the riding lawn mower that we had to buy when we first moved in, faced with almost two acres of grass. We're now down to maybe 1/4 to 1/3 an acre of grass, well within range of a newfangled reel mower!

Monday, June 23, 2008

Planting Villages

I heard a remarkable keynote speech (at our statewide Master Gardener's annual conference) this evening by Roger Swain on 'Planting Villages' -- about how plants can connect neighbors, encourage interaction between them, and enrich our lives as a consequence. One of his points was about having a front garden that is welcoming to passers by.

I know the names of my neighbors, but we don't know any of them well, and although we've created a wonderful garden (from our point of view) that suits us, most of it is behind the fence, and I don't know if our front garden welcomes people walking down the bike path (really a walking path) along our road.

This is what it looked like when we first moved in.

But, now, I do know people have noticed our meadow in front of the garage, and the buckeye in bloom, and the striking yellow sugar maple near the road in fall, so maybe we're having an impact in any case.

At least the folks coming down the small hill across the street now look into a mixed woods and meadow, instead of a row of redtips and lawn.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Admiring natural gardens

We're not far from the remarkable biodiversity in the Southern Appalachians.

Supported by abundant moisture and an ancient mountain range, it's one of the most species-rich places in North America. A recent visit to a short stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway, which stretches from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park up to the Shenandoah Mountains of Virginia yielded some great plants and 'natural gardens.'

A favorite spot was a seepage slope, covered with sundews, Michaux's saxifrage, a mountain St. John's Wort, and a rare Krigia, among others.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Musings about vegetables

Before I started growing them myself, I used to think that onions and potatoes were about the same home-grown vs. buying them. Boy, was I wrong. Fresh onions and potatoes are nothing like their stored versions, fresh being deliciously succulent (full of water in their cells, I guess) vs being cured (or dried out). I harvested the last potato bed this afternoon, but plan on replanting the smallest potatoes as 'seeds' for potentially a fall harvest. I tried a fall planting last year, and had a nice (small) harvest.

Fresh-picked squash are another revelation; the eight-ball squash, green scalloped squash, and yellow squash that I harvested (and we ate) for dinner this evening, cooked with fresh garlic and onions, are hard to beat -- not a bit of toughness in the skins.

Something called 'mixed summer squash' that I sowed in early June is now started to produce fruit. I think they were Curcurbita moschata, normally grown as winter squash, but hopefully delicious as young fruits.

Rotations are so important, and I need to step up my record-keeping in addition to my 'online notes'. At the botanical garden, a couple of our raised beds in the Food for Thought are showing signs of lack of rotation and planting diversity -- squash bugs, wilt in some tomatoes (perhaps not resistant varieties), etc. And, there was another woodchuck boldly running up past the Ethnobotany Garden this morning. This, after relocating three of them already!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Too much dry weather

While the Midwest is suffering the consequences of too much rain, again, we haven't had any significant rainfall in weeks (I should say weeks and weeks). In the last six weeks, we've maybe had 3/4 to an inch of rain where we live in Upstate South Carolina, way less than 'normal.'

The natural areas up in the mountains look stressed, for lack of normal summer rain, which often is afternoon thundershowers.

We don't live in a Mediterranean climate, normally, but maybe we need to garden like we do.

Even some of my drought tolerant herbs are drooping from lack of moisture. I can still water, since we're not under a watering ban, but the local lakes/reservoirs are lower around the edges than we've ever seen them, in the 15-odd years we've lived here.

Someone mentioned to me recently that 'they' -- that is, the Drought Emergency team for South Carolina -- didn't want to alarm people -- uh, hello-- we're in a significant drought, and why aren't we being asked in any significant way to conserve water? Our neighboring states have been much pro-active, but personally, I think we're all still thinking that we might return to 'normal rainfall' times, when we're really experiencing historic drought conditions.

And, probably, long periods of summer drought are here to stay.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Squashes and kale

I harvested several green scalloped squashes, a small yellow squash, some Siberian kale, and some redbor kale this evening.

With fresh onions and garlic, stir-fried in a bit of olive oil and braised in homemade chicken broth, with some mushrooms and peppers, it was very tasty after a long day in the field.

My gardening companion and I are teaching a field course for teachers about Natural History of Wildflowers -- great fun!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Common milkweed and bee balm

Common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, is a robust plant, spreading by rhizomes (underground stems). But it's a favored host plant for monarch butterfly caterpillars, which is recommendation enough for me. It's just started to flower, and is being visited by lots of flower visitors, just like its relative, Asclepias tuberosa (butterfly weed). I transplanted it into our meadow thanks to my butterfly gardening friends, and it's flourishing.

The bee balm doesn't much like the ongoing drought, but is a tough customer nevertheless. Bumblebees were active visitors close to dusk.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Almost a full moon

I've paid attention to the cycles of the moon a lot more after doing full moon hikes.

I can't say I really noticed them before, but moon rise and set times change much more rapidly than sunrise and sunset-- by hours each day, rather than minutes.

Yesterday, the almost full moon was well above the horizon, while it was still light enough to take a picture.

Tonight, it doesn't yet top the treeline, at 9:30 EST.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Adding more beans (and seeds)

I couldn't help myself -- I ordered more seeds yesterday evening (this time from Territorial Seeds, an excellent seed company based in Oregon).

I used the last of my yard-long bean seeds Saturday afternoon, and I wanted more to plant, as I harvest the last potato beds, and the garlic beds. We have such a long growing season here in the Southeast (and it's getting longer), there's no reason not to plant more 'warm season' veggies in mid June. I'm planning to put in more tomatoes too, for a fall harvest, but they'll need to go in the garlic beds, for a good rotation, since they're related to potatoes.

My excuse is that I need more seeds for fall. Hmmm. Actually I just like trying new things. So I added French sorrel, more Tom Thumb lettuce (a remarkably attractive small butterhead), parsnips, and something called Dyna Kohlrabi to my 'cart.' And, definitely, I need the purple mustard, speckled lettuce, argula, Tuscan kale, and Pac Choi for fall. Something called Ruby Streaks Mustard also made it into my online cart-- it looked like a red-tipped mizuna from the picture, and the cabbage butterflies have diminished by fall, although they haven't been much in evidence this year. Hmm, I also might want to add the compost starter, even though I know it's not necessary. The power of description.

But I prepared another potato bed and planted more beans (Scarlet Runner and Kentucky Wonder in a mixed planting) envisioning hummingbird-attracting flowers and productive beans. I like pole and runner beans because they save space and are easy to harvest, not to mention being attractive.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

More vegetable change-outs

After a few more days of HOT, terribly dry weather, while busy with other things, I went ahead and harvested one of the potato beds in the satellite, since the tops were pretty much 'flopped' over. The soil is dry in spite of watering, and it didn't seem like much more potato growth was likely.

I mixed in compost, set up a couple of trellises, and am now thinking about whether to plant yard-long beans, pole beans, or squash. One of my personal 'rules' is that gardening (whether vegetables or otherwise) should be fun, and once I start worrying about 'chores' -- this is not a good thing.

Having too many beans, or squash, or lots of anything to preserve that requires lots of prep work -- this is not fun. Productive and sustainable, yes, but some things are more fun to do than others. Slow-roasted tomatoes, for example.

Actually, yard-long beans are super easy to prepare and squash and zucchini, too. But I'm looking at the potato and garlic beds yet to be harvested and thinking about things there, too. Hmmmm, maybe some more tomatoes? Or mulch until planting the fall beds (in late July, August, and September?) I think I need to rotate even easy to grow plants like garlic, so I'd better make a couple of notes about which bed had what in it!

I think I'll put in a mixture of yard-long beans, cowpea, and 'Italian summer squash' - Lagenaria siceraria 'Longissima' edible when eaten young and then growing into a gourd. Since gourds and squash cross pollinate readily, it will be interesting to see what these are actually like. All of these are vigorous growers, appreciate heat, tolerate drought, are disease and pest-resistant, and are tasty!

And they like to grow on a trellis.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Vegetable change-outs

It's a good thing that we're not totally dependent on my potato harvest for sustenance, although South Carolina is hardly a prime potato growing location. 'Caribe' potatoes seem to do the best, although I've had harvests from all the varieties I've tried. I'm still learning about potatoes - in my second year of growing them, my ecological instincts (about native plants) don't necessarily serve me well with nutrient and water-hungry crops. And, certainly, dry weather doesn't help.

But we had some delicious fresh potatoes (along with new garlic and onions) for dinner, so I'm happy with that.

But, I'm enjoying thinking about rotations, and what to put in the potato beds after they're done. (They still have small developing potatoes at the end of underground stems -- do I water and side-dress with compost and hope for more potatoes -- or do I dig up everything and plant beans, or wait until mid-July and plant fall-maturing cole crops, or seed in basil, or transplant tomatoes, oh my...)

The red cabbages in pots have been an unexpected element, as has the redbor (I think) kale, transplanted from a salad mix, and now handsome in one of the vegetable garden blocks. There haven't been many cabbage butterflies, yet, or maybe tough older kale and cabbage leaves aren't preferred to the younger ones that were chewed up.

And there are young squashes to harvest soon.


And this is the first broccoli plant I've managed to get a head from (although quite small).

Monday, June 9, 2008

Hoping for rain, again

The main vegetable garden is looking nice, thanks to water still available from the faucet.

But I'm worrying about the summer to come. It's been exceptionally hot for June (pushing 100°F) - yuck - and not a drop of rain for the last couple of weeks. Not 'normal' at all, and the midwestern U.S. has been deluged with rain.

I've got spots ready to swap out for new plantings, for beans, more tomatoes, and peppers, and basil. It looks like the potatoes are ready to be harvested, too, and something put in their place.

I'm hoping for thunderstorms this week!

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Time to harvest garlic

The beds of garlic I planted in the fall are ready to harvest. The lower stalks are turning brown and tops of the early varieties flopping over. I've never actually stored garlic, since we usually eat the entire harvest while fresh, but this year may be different.

I planted a LOT of garlic and onions in the satellite garden (the photo below is from April; I knew if the woodchuck emerged from his/her winter hibernation early, they wouldn't be eaten in early spring). The garlic and onions have flourished.

Garlic is wonderfully easy to grow; I've enjoyed ordering different varieties from specialty growers and have been amazed at the types available. They have evocative names- Inchelium Red, Nootka Rose, Chesnook Red, and Georgia Crystal; garlic is grown all over the world, so there's been adaptation to local conditions.

I'll be swapping out the garlic for more tomatoes, tomatillos, peppers, and pole beans -- all hopefully will thrive in the hot dry days to come.

Next year, I'm definitely planning to harvest some of the young 'scapes' or flowering shoots-- I just received a link to this article in Mother Earth News by William Woys Weaver, which is fascinating, as are the other garlic links given.

Why hadn't I thought of making my own garlic powder before?

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Asclepias tuberosa

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is a great native here in the southeastern U.S. It's not a great host plant for monarch butterflies (as a milkweed), but it's a tremendous nectar and pollen plant for LOTS of flower visitors. Mine have been alive with visitors, from honeybees to bumblebees to syrphid flies to butterflies.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

A wildlife sighting

There's a story in the New York Times that's among the most currently e-mailed in their online version, called Peter Rabbit Must Die. Hmm. It's a good article, and I'm certainly guilty of moving a young woodchuck out of my garden, but the comments are interesting.

But we haven't had many rabbits in our garden, and we've been happy to see the ones we've had, since it seems to me to represent an improvement of habitat, from lawn to a diverse habitat garden.

So, I was delighted to see a very small young rabbit this afternoon.

First, s/he was being very still under the cover of one of our dogwoods, and then ventured forth onto the lawn, and then ducked into the cover of a nearby border.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Pipevine needs caterpillars

A dark butterfly flying around the pipevine outside my study window caught my attention. Ooh, might it be a pipevine swallowtail?

Our pipevine (Aristolochia macrophylla) definitely needs some caterpillars this year.

We didn't have any last year, and it's a strong grower.

Planted specifically as a host plant for pipevine swallowtails, it coexists with Carolina jessamine on this trellis, producing large green heart-shaped leaves and spreading vigorously. Its small greenish purple flowers, shaped like a pipe, appear in mid-spring (late April-early May for us).

The afternoon light was harsh, but I was able to determine that it was a female pipevine swallowtail, depositing eggs on young leaves (which are preferred).

Hooray!

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Back in my garden

I arrived home this morning to find a sleepy, but then very excited Mocha to welcome me. (My gardening companion was coming home at lunchtime).

Wandering around first thing to check on plants, I was glad to be home in our garden. The vegetable garden is flourishing, in spite of the dry weather, the garlic is almost mature, and the squash vines are starting to ramble. Several variegated fritillaries were flying around, and the garden is lively with birds.

The snap peas are still producing, the nasturtiums have started to flower, and the butterfly weed is trying to expand its spot next to the tomatoes and bean trellis.

I had moved quite a bit of it via root cuttings last year, but clearly it's enjoying the extra nutrients and water...

It's wonderful to travel, but also good to be at home.

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