Sunday, January 31, 2010

Biodegradable nursery pots

I'm not one to plug products, but I love the idea of CowPots™. I've just filled up my test set of 12 with potting mix, and am letting it warm up on the heating mat out in the shed overnight.

I'm not sure how warm it will get; the mat's not the one I used last year. Hmm, maybe that one's down in the (still dark) basement?

I'm planning to sow seeds of hardy greens in them for transplant. It's still much too early to think about warm season veggies, but a round of kale, collards, and winter spinach is worth a try.

CowPots™ are made of composted dairy cow manure, after most energy has been converted to methane gas (used to power dairy operations) and the liquids returned to crop fields. It's a sterile, quickly biodegradable, mildly nutrient rich medium for a pot - how cool is that?

I'm SO tired of nursery pots made of non-recyclable PP plastic. Sure, I can reuse them to some degree, but what about all the pots that are thrown away? CowPots™ are similar to peat pots, but decompose more readily apparently, so will be perfect for vegetables. Longer-lasting coir- and paper-based pots may be an alternative for plastic for containerized plants, too.

Black nursery pots, made of HDPE plastic, are recyclable, of course, along with plastic milk jugs, shampoo and vitamin containers, and a variety of other products.

After the storm

We didn't really get much in the way of snow with the recent winter storm, although surrounding areas did.

In the mountains, up to a foot of snow and ice fell, creating slippery conditions on highways and streets.

This morning, the ice droplets sparkled as the sun started to peak out.

The Eastern hemlocks looked graceful, with their dusting of ice.

And it looks like I need to fill the feeders again!

Friday, January 29, 2010

Waiting for snow

In spite of my optimistic thoughts about planting peas in a couple of weeks, we're expecting snow and sleet overnight - a prospect that brings many folks rushing around getting supplies. I don't normally worry about it too much (we always have lots of provisions in the fridge and pantry), although maybe I need to have more water, batteries and candles.

But I am inspired to think about being on Phu Quoc Island at winter break, in the far southern tip of Vietnam, which, for now, is a wonderful place to hang out on the beach, developed just enough to be idyllic.

This is the beach in front of Mai House, an excellent place on Long Beach.

We spent several relaxing days here.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Planting cool-season vegetables

It's getting close to time to start think about planting a first round of peas (in the next few weeks). It's time at least for us anxious Southern US gardeners, who are ready to get out there, but have been delayed by cold and wet this winter.

It's always dicey planting in spring; the soil's cold, it's been exceptionally cold and wet, the seeds probably will just rot, etc. etc. But, hot weather comes on its own schedule, and you never know whether we'll have a long cool spring, or a brutal arrival of summer in late April or early May.

The bigger mistake is to wait too late and have pea vines shrivel in the heat. So, successive plantings from mid-February to mid-March spread the risk, and up the possibilities of harvesting some nice garden, snow, or snap peas, but even then, I'm delighted to have a decent harvest.

(Hmm, I just thought about the ROWS of snow peas I saw this winter in Dalat, in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, a perpetual spring-like climate. The rows of vines were LOADED with snow peas ready for harvest. Hmmph.)

Fortunately, most of my vegetable beds are largely ready for late winter and early spring sowings of peas, lettuce, spinach, and greens. The beds are covered by a nice layer of mulch and were amended following harvest last fall. Amazingly, the flats of collards and kale have hung on through hard freezes, so are ready to take off with a bit of warmer weather.

But, the weather isn't cooperating; it's going to be totally cold again this weekend, hardly winter-annual weeding weather. (Fortunately, they're not growing quickly in the beds with garlic and shallots).

Much of the main vegetable garden will be in root-knot nematode-quelling (I hope) cover crops this summer such as French marigolds. With a basically fallow year, I'm hoping that their numbers will be greatly reduced. The satellite garden has lots of garlic already planted and onion sets to come, ordered from Dixondale Farms. I'll tuck some tomatoes and peppers in those beds, too, but only hardy varieties that won't need much attention.

In their place, I'm planning to put in raised beds on the end of the driveway of our small house in the mountains (where the arrow points).

Filled with fresh (more or less sterile) soil, they should provide ideal conditions for growing beans, squash, chard, greens, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and cucumbers. We're planning a trellis with beans, cucumbers and tomatoes between our house and the adjacent building (marked to the right on the image).

That's my gardening companion and gardening assistant there, too.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Sustainable gardening

I've been thinking more about what it means to be a sustainable gardener.

A request to sponsor a permaculture workshop, at the botanical garden where I work, finds me scrutinizing posted permaculture curricula online, descriptions of principles, book renditions of permaculture on a home scale (Gaia's Garden; Food not Lawns), or community scale guides (The Transition Handbook).

Of course, I've been familiar in general with permaculture for quite a while, and I had one of our SC extension horticulture agents talk about his home permaculture system last year for Winter Lecture Series. But I find myself reluctant to 'sponsor' a permaculture workshop that espouses a permaculture system as an achievable garden design. Hmm.

To me, gardening is an act of stewardship and restoration. We create gardens that support wildlife, mimic nature, and support our spirit. The trajectory that we've had of converting our roughly 1 1/2 acres lawn to woodland, meadow (borders), shrub borders and understory along with two intensively maintained vegetable garden areas has been deeply satisfying to us.

In our small mountain house, the mulched areas, with minimal planting, have quickly yielded to adding more native trees and shrubs below the house, ripping out invasives (English ivy, honeysuckle, etc.) in the ravine below, and add shrubs, bog, sedums, and meadow garden in front, with part of the driveway scheduled for raised bed vegetables this spring.

A post on Blogger Action Day in 2007 isn't too different from my thinking now.

But I know as an ecologist that we need to create sustainable systems on a community and regional scale, not a home owner scale. These sustainable gardens include not only home gardens, but neighborhoods, and city landscapes, and include watershed and foodshed in the overall picture. Ecological systems aren't balanced on an acre or 1/2 acres, but multiple acres.

As a vegetable gardener, I know about the work it takes to grow even a part of one's own food, not to mention the calorie-dense grains or tubers that provide the sustenance for most diets world-wide. And I'm in awe of folks who are growing all of their vegetables.

Permaculture systems are problematic for a plant ecologist with the suggestions of creating food forests, plant guilds, and mimicking nature's layers, but thinking that we can do it better, and even on a small scale.

I'm all for incorporating edibles into home landscapes (and city landscapes, for that matter), trying to keep all organic matter produced on site, and capturing rainwater (and greywater, too).

So I'm willing to keep an open mind, and include mentioning a permaculture approach (and 'principles') into my own ecological gardening and sustainable gardening perspectives. It's always helpful to think in terms of balancing ecological systems, and renewing and sustaining them.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Signs of spring (to come)

Even though winter is still firmly here, the signs of spring are evident in swelling flower buds (blueberries, quince, etc), extended shoots (coral honeysuckle and Carolina jessamine), and the reliably open flowers of mid-winter in our part of the world: Lonicera fragrantissima (Winter honeysuckle) and Prunus mume (Japanese apricot). There are actually some open flowers of Carolina jessamine (a native species) on the front porch!

The usually stalwart camellias are slowly showing expanding buds and open flowers, but probably many experienced damage from the exceptional cold of a few weeks back. The red-flowered Professor Sargent in front of the house is just beginning to show some color.

A cold winter and clear winter air reminds me that winter is still here, but the bright light of mid-day and signs of spring to come from flora and fauna are encouraging.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Garden communication (and nature communication)

I've spent 35-odd years or so encouraging people to learn about plants and nature. The first incarnation was as a TA in graduate school, for classes in General Biology, Plant Ecology, California Flora, and Evolutionary (Plant) Ecology. As a young college professor, I taught General Biology, General Botany, and People and the Environment.

But for the last 15 years or so, I've been a botanical garden educator, which means that I get to encourage folks (of all ages) to learn more broadly about plants, gardening, gardens, natural history, nature, birds, etc. etc. It's been a gift to be able to have as 'work' the mission of educating folks about the natural world. (There are PLENTY of non-idyllic aspects, to be sure, but I won't list them here.)

I've thought about this recently in the context of blogging, as I'm planning on going to the Garden Bloggers Buffa10 gathering this summer (the third of these informal gatherings). It sounds like it will be great fun.

Several years ago, two wise gardening friends (excellent garden writers and communicators, both) encouraged me to join the national Garden Writers Association. I've now been to two annual meetings and been inspired by both. I read posts about the first two Garden Bloggers gatherings, and they sounded great, too.

Because what I've realized is that as an educator, I'm actually a communicator and a coach, and thinking about what I do in that context is both invigorating and inspiring. GWA now defines their profession as garden communication, which is apt, since most of us write, speak, post web pieces, do radio spots, do video, podcast, etc., etc.

But it's also been a distinct pleasure to write about my own garden, gardening experiences, and observations. The medium of blogging has been a delightful way to keep track of what I've been doing, thinking about, and observing and it's been encouraging, too, with whomever drops by to read a post.

Thanks for dropping by.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Recharging aquifers

It's been raining all weekend -- lots.

This is a good thing, since even though our reservoirs (for drinking water and power generation) have been full since early last fall, recharging aquifers takes a lot more moisture, especially following the profound drought of the last decade (more or less). Hopefully, these winter rains will fully recharge groundwater supplies.

My gardening companion conveyed a colleague's report from winter break of low aquifers in Florida, depleted of much groundwater to attempt to save citrus crops from freezing (by applying a coat of protective ice). Concerns about sinkholes rerouted traffic, and folks who had dry wells were compensated.

The abundant rain this winter is good for native landscapes as well as our gardens.

But, it was a good weekend to stay inside.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Vegetables in small spaces

We don't always properly appreciate the spaces that can be used to grow vegetables.

Here's a small roadside planting in Hoi An, Vietnam.

And a riverside one.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

A chilly, wet day

First rain, then a very cold wind pushed in today, bringing gusts that howled around the office windows. Hmm, it was warmish when I left for work this morning, but blustery by lunchtime.

It was nice to have had some warm days to punctuate the wintry weather (with apologies to those who really have winter weather).

I spent some early morning time organizing seeds for growing vegetable transplants; all of my orders have come in (from Baker's Creek, Johnny's, Tomato Grower's Supply, Cook's Garden, Renee's Garden, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange), and I've sorted what I had on hand already from last year's purchases.

It's a lovely assortment of tomato, pepper, eggplant, tomatillo, and herb seeds: heirlooms, hybrids, and unusual varieties. They're all destined for this year's Garden Fest, an event that promotes local food and growing your own vegetables. It'll be fun to make these seedlings available. I also have an assortment of seeds for direct planting (squash, bean, cucumber, chard, etc) that we'll package up for distribution as well.

Last year's Planning a Garden table

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Robin flocks

A sign that winter is progressing are the flocks of robins, descending on berry-laden hollies. They're not unlike the cedar waxwing flocks, taking turns swooping down on the hollies and back up to branches on the bare oaks. They're both sociable winter birds: a nice piece from Journey North that I just found describes their behavior.

The birds I heard and saw today outside my office in the Garden had a melodic murmur; without my (regular) glasses or binoculars, I couldn't see them clearly, but based on the sound, they may have been cedar waxwings (also from the Journey North site courtesy of Lang Elliot) rather than the robins I saw at home recently.

Both are welcome signs that winter is moving towards spring.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Winter beech trees

Janet (of Queen of Seaford) remembered in a comment on a previous post that I'd posted about winter beeches last winter. I had forgotten (and was glad to look back at it), since a wonderful aspect of mid-winter here in the Piedmont is the remnant brown leaves persisting in the understory of our regenerating forests. They're so noticeable this time of year - in mid to late January, and in the clear winter light.

Isn't that the fun of having an online garden journal, after all? Not only to have a record, but friends to remind us of our observations?

Monday, January 18, 2010

Winter images

It didn't feel like winter today; it was more like spring, with highs in the low 60's (°F).

But the scene was the browns, greys, and greens of winter in Southeastern North America.

Quite nice.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Winter colors

The luminous tans, browns, and greens of winter are evident here. Our winters don't feature snow or ice (very often), but the colors of winter are what stand out.

Broomsedge is a beautiful tawny gold, the frost-bitten cool-season grasses are a dull green, and evergreens have a color spectrum of their own.

The drips and drabs of dead foliage await cleanup or decay, but remind me that the renewal of spring growth is only a couple of months away.

Gardening seasons help ground me to the cycle of natural rhythms, and even sowing warm-season vegetable seeds in flats on a heating mat (on the schedule not too far off), in a couple of month's advance of the last 'average' frosts remind me that the growing season is coming.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Mountains, winter, and spring vegetables

Bare branches, open landscapes and remnants of snow greeted us in the mountains. The air was clear and the mountains visible, without the humid haze of summer.

With more normal winter temperatures, it's not frigid, thankfully.

But happily it's time to be thinking about spring and summer vegetables.

I just have an order or two to still put in; I've already received the tomato, pepper, eggplant, and tomatillo seeds for growing for transplants (most will be donated to produce transplants for Garden Fest, an event to promote vegetable gardening in home gardens at the botanical garden where I work). The rest are for vegetables that benefit from direct seeding -- also many will be offered at Garden Fest.

It's so encouraging to see the interest in growing vegetables and other edibles expand. It's part of a sustainable garden, for sure.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Mekong Delta floating markets

Probably a disappearing tradition, but still evident, floating markets in Cai Rang (via a boat trip from Can Tho) are vibrant.

Hoi An Full Moon nights

We were lucky enough to bumble on a Full Moon night in Hoi An. They don't take place literally on the Full Moon (like we thought) but the 14th day of the lunar month (I think I'm remembering that right).

My gardening companion was a bit under the weather, so I ventured forth.

It was quite wonderful, with paper lanterns (similar to Mexican and Southwestern US luminaries) launched to float on the water.

Locals and tourists alike were there -- and there were many local folks enjoying the rituals. Quite nice.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Hoi An: old houses, vegetables, and rice

Hoi An is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and well-deserving of the designation. A historic seaport and trading center (think 250-300 years), it declined into obscurity as the river and harbor became shallower, as silt and time made the town less accessible.

Now about 3 km from the coast, Hoi An has a nice historic center, with extraordinary buildings (maybe overly filled with silk shops, galleries, etc.), but that's what supports tourism.

We were there five years ago and loved the area, and bicycling into the countryside.

There are still rice and vegetable fields just out of the town center.

We enjoyed our time there again -- a wonderful place, and it seems to be developing as a tourist destination in a very attractive way.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Red cabbage

A spring cabbage from a past garden

Chopping up a (store-bought) red cabbage to add to a vegetable mix this evening had me wondering about where it had been grown. A traditional cool-season crop, cabbage requires cool weather and a long growing season to mature.

Was this a freshly-harvested cabbage from somewhere in coastal California? Or somewhere in Florida? Imported from Mexico? Or was it a refrigerated stored cabbage, thanks to the modern equivalent of a root cellar?

Hard to know, since a quick search revealed only that California and Florida were likely sources of fresh cabbage in the US this time of year.

In our normally mild winter climate in South Carolina, most cabbages (and their relatives) do quite nicely planted in the fall (or early spring), but we'd harvest heads in early summer. In colder winter climates (think the Northeastern US or Northern Europe), you'd be able to harvest in fall and store through the winter.

But cabbages of various sorts are grown around the world, and I'm remembering seeing some sort of cabbages in most of the local markets that we've visited, whether in Asia, Europe, or South America. I've posted these images before - totally enormous cabbages grown in the mountains of Northern Vietnam.

Giant cabbages growing near Sapa, Northern Vietnam
Carrying cabbages to market

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Morning light, warmth, and fresh herbs

In spite of the frigid days in the last week, the morning light has reminded me of tropical places. A pink glow has illuminated hazy clouds, contrasting with crystal-clear air. It's been lovely.

The clarity of the air was a definite contrast from the haziness and humidity of Southern Vietnam, but the shock of returning to an usually deep cold spell in the Southeastern US (and a cold workplace, thanks to insufficient insulation and underpowered heat) has made my normally semi-cold-tolerant genes wishing for warmth and sunshine.

A dinner of fresh romaine lettuce wraps with roasted chicken, an aromatic brown rice, stir-fried vegetables, with a nice dipping sauce made with fish sauce, lime juice, cilantro, sugar, peanuts, and chilies reminded us of some of the delicious dinners we'd had in Southeast Asia.

It was almost like warmth (and sunshine) on a plate.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Squash from the garden (uh, from the freezer)

I fished out a bag of frozen tromboncino squash from the chest freezer in the basement to cook as the vegetable for dinner tonight. It was quite nice. But, I really needed a flashlight to get into the freezer, as the bare bulb light down there doesn't seem to be working.

The basement (walk-in, and large, but unfinished) is not my favorite place, and quite dark, so I took the opportunity to transfer some frozen blueberries and blackberries, roasted tomatoes, and hot peppers to the 'upstairs' freezer, too. Hmm, I'd rather not have to go down there again soon...

I'm always humbled to be thinking about trying to grow more of what we eat! But, perhaps a useful step would be to make the basement a bit brighter and more welcoming -- there's an electrical connection down there, so lights are certainly possible...

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Vietnamese food

Morning Glory Cooking School class in Hoi An

I did miss eating homemade whole-grain bread, real cheese, potatoes, and brown rice, but with the delicious diversity of fish, fruit, and green vegetables in Vietnam, I can hardly complain about food while traveling there.

It's totally delicious.

My gardening companion is a rice and noodle lover, so he's happy with breakfast pho, noodle dishes, and even the barely passable white rice normally served up.

The diversity of greens used in Vietnamese cooking was underscored by a trip we made to a market garden outside Hoi An, but was really made apparent by a cooking class at the Morning Glory Cooking School there.

A diversity of ingredients

My fresh spring roll

Our instructor Ms. Lu, a delightful young woman, described characteristics of different herbs that are used in fresh spring rolls, added to banh xeo (a delicious rice pancake), chopped up for chicken marinade, etc.

Hmm, it sent me to look for seeds to order ASAP after returning home. (Tom, I'm willing to share!)

Lemon basil, amaranth, Thai basil, Vietnamese mint, culantro, etc. were on the list, and I've bookmarked sources of fresh galangal and tumeric to grow in the warm season here in the SE US.

Making rice paper wrappers is much more of a specialty item; they're normally purchased dry, then rehydrated, but seeing them made (on a Mekong Delta bike ride) encourages me to think about trying that (uh, if I had any free time!)

And, I do wish we had sources of green papaya or green mango, not to mention fresh ripe ones, in our small Southern college town. But, that would hardly be focused on local food, hmm. There are reasons that global trade developed...

Papaya salad and grilled chicken (with an amazing marinade mixture)

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Fish, sticky rice, and sweet potatoes

At home in South Carolina, we're experiencing unusually cold weather (frigid, actually). I haven't had time to post web galleries of photos from Southern Vietnam yet, but it's nice to choose photos to write about.

Here's a wonderful image of the diversity of sweet potatoes offered up in Dalat's main market, reflecting a major vegetable and fruit growing area in the Central Highlands of Vietnam.

And a sticky rice street food snack from Hoi An. Yum.

And the fishing fleet that still exists near the international beach resort of Nha Trang (actually quite a lovely place, complete with fabulous beach views from high hotel windows, and a wonderful park behind the beach stretching for miles).

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Vietnamese greens

As a gardener (and as a cook), it would be hard not to like the Vietnamese interest in vegetables and greens. Vegetables at every meal, great, and the variety of fresh herbal greens, extraordinary.

I spent some time today ordering seeds to grow some of them (this link is an excellent overview of their diversity). Most, outside of cilantro and Thai basil, aren't greens that we grow frequently in the U.S., although they're available in Southern California in farmers' markets grown by folks of Vietnamese heritage. Thanks to one of my favorite podcasts for the information!

In markets in Vietnam, we saw both diversity of greens and fruits, tropical and imported. (Imported apples and grapes are a special treat).

A traditional (and organic) vegetable village near Hoi An was one of the most attractive vegetable production areas that I've ever seen - neat mounded rows of vegetables grown in fabulous soil with freshwater 'seaweed' for fertilizer.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Local markets

An absence of supermarkets in Southern Vietnam (despite its rapid development) means that there's a vibrant culture of community markets, street sellers, and street food vendors. And with a cultural emphasis on fresh food, made with fresh ingredients means that food (even for travelers) is delicious.

Here are a few images from early in our trip.

Herbal remedies

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Cold winter air

It's remarkable how clear the winter air was as we returned home. Perhaps the absence of Vietnam's tropical humidity and hazy air (not actually that bad for the developing world) makes the sparkling crispness more noticeable.

We were glad everything was fine at home and in the garden -- no fallen trees, etc. Amazingly, my lettuce, collard, mache, and kale flats look great, although frozen solid. Hmmm. We don't normally have frozen soil for very long, but last winter, and now this year seem to be trying to confound the trend towards climate change (perhaps instead of global warming, we have much more erratic weather, to be sure).

A wonderful aspect of traveling in a 12-year growing season climate was seeing what was going on in vegetable fields and in the markets. Photos to come -- I downloaded them this afternoon, but they await sorting, and post-jet lag choices...
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