Thursday, September 27, 2007

Wait until the moon is full

Last night was the full moon. It was the Harvest Moon -- the full moon closest to the Fall equinox.

It was beautiful here - bright, rising about 8:15 pm, and creating plenty of moonshadows.

The nocturnal symphony here in the Southeast is somewhat muted because of drought, but there are still plenty of field crickets singing and tree frog choruses.

I had a group out with me, and one of the sharp-eared participants could hear the squeaking of bats as they left for their night hunting. I think my hearing is still good, but I couldn't hear what she did. A young boy was enamoured of my calling for barred owls -- who cooks for you, who cooks for you -- and kept calling himself -- he and his mom thought they heard a reply, although I think it was a bit of wishful thinking.

I told the story of how my mother liked to read to my sister and me one of our favorite nighttime stories -- Wait until the Moon is Full. This is a lovely children's story about a mama raccoon, who wants her children to 'wait until the moon is full' to go out and play.

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Monday, September 24, 2007

A new focal point with Lobelia x speciosa

The Lobelia x speciosa and the Monarda 'Raspberry Wine' have new homes next to the bird bath. Searching for an appropriate site (of course, there's no place that's really damp enough normally), my gardening partner suggested that the area under the big oak might be good.

It is currently getting full sun for several hours in midday, which may be ideal for these species, although I'm not sure what the sun's angle is in spring. We have our bird bath and bird feeders there, my containers have done quite nicely with the light levels, so I thought, why not? After all, I clean and empty the bird bath at least 4 times a week; it might as well help something grow (in addition to the oak, that is).

I set about digging up an area for the two Lobelias, the Monarda, and a Heuchera, all of which I thought would be perfect for that level of partial shade. I nixed an attractive Euphorbia that I had bought recently, since our friendly squirrels had chewed one in one of the porch boxes to bits. The soil was quite nice, and looked rich with with organic matter, and didn't have many roots, as it's been mulched for some years.

Then, I added a good measure of 'top soil' -- really a half peat, half sand 'product' and mixed that in to hold moisture. Plenty of water, and then I was ready to plant.

It was a pleasure walking out the door this morning on my way to work, and seeing the results. This is why we garden.

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Saturday, September 22, 2007

Perennials to add

Since we finally had some rain and it's cooled down, I'm feeling hopeful that fall really is a good time for planting. A quick run up to two local nurseries (actual nurseries, not just the garden centers at the big box stores) found me nabbing some good additions for my fall garden. A lobelia, set aside for a butterfly-gardening client who never showed up, caught my eye. These plants had beautiful large blue spikes, were being visited by carpenter bees and butterflies, were flowering in small pots and were labeled Lobelia x speciosa 'Fan Blue.' In spite of not really having appropriately moist soil anywhere, I thought I'd try them. They were half-price, anyway. I also picked up some selections of one of our native asters, Aster novae-belgiae (New York Aster), a pot of society garlic (Tulbaghia violacea), some Viola, and a couple of pots of Spanish lavender, which flowered profusely in one of my containers this summer, and was heavily visited by bees.

A web search revealed that Lobelia x speciosa is a hybrid of two of our North American natives, L. cardinalis (Cardinal flower) and L. siphilitica (Great Blue Lobelia), which results in a range of flower colors that have subsequently been named as cultivars. Wray Bowden, a Canadian horticulturist, apparently did the original crosses, although the hybrid is also credited as being of German origin, and one of his early successes ('Queen Victoria') was a Royal Horticultural Society Award winner in 1993. Since the hybrids proved to be great in gardens, they're now being grown in temperate climates around the world. I found references in New Zealand, Australia, and Europe. The nice picture is one taken by a Swedish botanist, foto: Hans-Otto Tengrud, from his website: Unfortunately, I couldn't make out the Swedish (just enough to identify the country, I think), but he seemed to be a photographer who took pictures of plants.

The garden centers, to be sure, had some interesting selections, too, thanks to the tendency of the wholesale nursery businesses to keep providing 'something new' even if they're not really new, but just a new form or an old favorite rediscovered. A perennial I picked up at one of the garden centers, not in flower, so easy to overlook, was a robust quart size pot of Raspberry Wine Bee Balm. It had beautiful foliage and looked very healthy, and even though, again, I really don't have a moist soil site, I succumbed.

This turns out to be a White Flower Farm introduction, the source of this photo. It sounds like a great selection, mildew-resistant and long-flowering. and attractive to hummingbirds (which is why I bought it in the first place). Monarda didyma is a great Eastern U.S. native, and its selections certainly are worth trying. Our Monarda 'Jakob Kline' in the pollinator border outside the Nature Center at work attracted lots of hummingbirds, although it suffered in the dry summer this year.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Composting is fun

My mom's house in Texas was nestled on a woody, juniper-filled hillside in a upscale neighborhood in NW Austin, only marginally "landscaped" above and below the house. The deck extended over a scruffy lawn (no sun, of course), so from the deck, it was easy to throw the odd banana peel or lettuce leaf into the scrubby forest.

She wasn't a gardener, so there was no need to create compost, but I think it appealed to her thrifty ways and sense of environmentalism. Her mother was a gardener, though, so maybe she had composted back when the vegetable garden was a source of food for a good bit of the winter, after canning. I still remember being impressed by the jars of canned beans and tomatoes in Grandma's cellar and the vegetable gardens and berry patches that she had when I was a child.

Even before I was a gardener, I enjoyed putting our vegetable and fruit scraps in a compost heap, being environmentally-inclined myself. We had established one within one of our shrub borders in our first house in Georgia, so we didn't have to toss vegetable scraps in the trash. When we moved to Clemson, our neighbor asked if he could have the compost -- "solid gold" of course, for those of us who want to add nutrients and organic matter to their gardens. We said, of course you can have the compost, but it certainly got me thinking more about it.

Here in SC, I set up a simple wire-bin compost system, and we started throwing more things into it-- all of our kitchen vegetable trimmings, but also the results of our weed-pulling efforts, spent vegetables from the garden, etc. It's now grown to a 3-bin system, especially after we moved in against the fence, post garden shed. I've also added a garage-can composter to hopefully 'cook' any weed seeds left in the compost, so have tried to ramp it up to being efficient.

Essentially, what we're doing is cold composting -- turning is somewhat of a chore in these bins, since they're surrounded by hay bales to prevent Mocha (our dog) from foraging for nasty spoiled bits, so it's a bit of a reach to "turn" the compost, as recommended by many 'experts.'

In one of my programs, a participant said that she blended up all of her compostable materials, eggshells included, to speed up composting. A lovely idea, if you have a spare blender and the initiative to do it. Do I need to admit that eggshell bits are part of the compost I spread on the vegetable garden?

But it's great to see that pail of compost go out almost every day, and see how small the trash bag is each week, since we also recycle everything we can! There are all sorts of attractive compost pails that coordinate with kitchen decor. This one is a Turkish copper pail from Gardeners Supply. Quite nice, and certainly a lot better than an open plastic container!

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Monday, September 17, 2007

A new visitor munching sunflower seeds

An unaccustomed visitor dropped by the bird feeders yesterday. His markings caught our eye. Beautiful white eyestripes, a rosy breast and flashy black and white feathers. He avidly zipped through a lot of black sunflower seeds, while watching alertly in all directions. The normal cardinals, titmice, and Carolina chickadees were seemingly a bit perturbed at the large intruder. When I looked him up in our bird field guides, he turned out to be an immature male, so had the rosy breast, but not yet the solid black head of the adult male. Here in Upstate SC, rose-breasted grosbeaks are visitors briefly in the spring and fall, as they pass through from their summer breeding grounds in the mountains to the lowcounty. There was no hope of getting a photo, since he was so skittish.

But this lovely photo of an adult male, taken by Rhonda Weldon, from Hanceville, AL -- the first place winner in an Outdoors Alabama contest shows you what attractive birds these are.

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Saturday, September 15, 2007

Spiders in the mist

Amazingly the rain last night was over three inches, and it wasn't hard to imagine the garden giving a sigh of relief.

But more remarkable was the early morning mist, and as I went out the front door to walk, a huge web was sparkling with dew.

The walk around the botanical garden was amazing. There were spider webs everywhere -- on the grass, in the trees, in shrubs.... I don't think I've ever seen so many.

Coming back home, I was able to get a couple of good shots of the porch web, and then discovered the two above the vegetable garden.

Another remarkable thing is when I went out later, all of the webs were gone. I had never really given any thought to spider webs as being temporary, but many garden orb-weavers build webs in the evening and take them down in the morning (I found out after a bit of web research).

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Friday, September 14, 2007

Sowing more seeds

It's been a tough summer in the vegetable garden. The late freeze in April, the drought and heat for most of the summer, and now really low soil moisture levels combined with higher soil temperatures, make it hard to coax along even the fall greens.

Seedling in the flats are coming along OK, but the seeds sown directly in the garden are taking their time. I haven't been optimistic enough to plant anything in the satellite garden, as I think the thirsty woodchucks will appear out of nowhere to devour any young kale, chard, or lettuce plants that manage to germinate.

But we've just had a lovely downpour for quite awhile, thanks to some left-over moisture from the hurricane in the Gulf, and hopefully got at least 1 1/2 inches, maybe two. This would be excellent for recharging the soil layers farther down. I'll sow another set of seeds of greens and lettuce tomorrow, I think....

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Waterwise gardening

In this summer of extreme heat, and severe drought here in South Carolina, it's hard NOT to think about drought-tolerant plants. We have tried to establish a low-water use landscape, but that doesn't mean no water, especially with recently planted perennials, shrubs, and trees.

We've both gotten really tired of dragging the hoses around to water these young plants that we don't want to lose, but anything planted this year needs water to survive the high temperatures, hardly any rain, and too much wind conditions that we've had. Our plants would normally thrive, after establishment, on normal rainfall, but rainfall this summer has been anything but normal, and even the toughest drought-tolerant perennials have wilted in the late afternoon sun. Trees, with their much more extensive root systems, and shrubs haven't been much affected, and certainly reflect their higher drought-tolerance.

Conditions this summer have me thinking about waterwise gardening (a 'new' alternative term for xeriscaping), as we basically don't believe that putting in irrigation systems is a sustainable option. I think the term 'xeriscaping' makes people think about desert landscaping or high elevation drought-adapted western plants, but I like the term 'waterwise gardening.' Even though I know we're hardly in the low rainfall zone at an average of 50" annually, our local cities and muncipalities are encouraging voluntary water use restrictions, and some are now mandatory in a severe drought year.

Being a waterwise gardener means choosing plants that can withstand dry spells, and flourish without lots of supplemental water. Here in the SE, we can grow lots of great plants that fit that description. Clues to drought-tolerance come from native habitat (grasslands, prairies, dry woods, etc.), plant habit (deep tap roots or fibrous storage roots), leaf color and texture (gray leaves are reflective, waxy or thick leaves are water-loss resistant).

Some of my favorite 'tough plants' from this summer have been blazing star, purple coneflower, black-eyed susans, oakleaf hydrangea, Salvia species of all sorts (including the purple Salvia leucantha shown above, Vaccinium (blueberries), Rosemary, Nepeta (catmint) hybrids, garlic chives, anise-hyssop, and certainly all the native trees. Only the relatively thin-leaved tulip poplars, maples, and dogwoods have looked really stressed, where, in contrast, the oaks and hickories are looking fine.

Lush leafy landscapes and abundant lawn grasses transpire large amounts of water and often need additional water added beyond the regular rainfall amounts.

I'm looking around and seeing what in our landscape might fall in that category. Fortunately, most of the native plants (perennials, shrubs, and trees) from this part of the U.S. are well-adapted to long periods of summer drought, and have been pretty nonplussed faced with weeks and weeks of no rain and extreme heat. The exceptions are many of our favorite plants that are native to the mountains, but not all of them. There are also some of our native understory trees that have large, thin, leaves and show water deficits quickly, too.

But, I do want to have a garden that I won't worry about if we're away in the summer and am not around to do water triage. Of course, my container plantings will be on their own, too, in that case, too!

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Sunday, September 9, 2007

Changing out vegetable beds for fall

After pulling out spent beans & tomatoes a few days ago, I started readying those spots for fall plants. I like to add more compost, a bit of organic fertilizer, and lime, depending on how each block looks (not very scientific or orderly), but some vegetables are more demanding than others, and almost all vegetables are much more fussy than the tough perennials, shrubs, and trees that we like to grow in our garden.

Spinach (along with beets and chard) prefer a much more neutral soil (almost 6.5-7.0) than ours tend to be here in the SE, so adding more lime is helpful, at least over the long run, although it would have been best to have added it some months ago! Pelletized lime is the easiest to use in the garden.

In fact, one of the harder things I've had to learn about vegetable-growing is that vegetables tend to be nutrient and water 'hogs' -- and have generally been selected to grow tasty fruits and leaves for us to consume, and take up plenty of nutrients and water in the process.

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Friday, September 7, 2007

Hoping for rain again

We were lucky at the end of August -- lots of folks around us didn't get the welcome relief of the heavy thunderstorms that added over 2 inches of rain to our garden. The state drought response team has just raised drought levels to severe in SC - here in the Upstate (roughly the expanse in SC between Atlanta and Charlotte, NC), it's particularly bad. Our garden is a low-water use garden (except for the pampered vegetables and the much less pampered container plants), although they do make do with hand-watering and don't have soaker hoses that run for hours on them. A neighboring county is calling for water conservation, and only watering lawns (!) before 5 am. In my opinion, it's a bit much to water lawns at all, but we're not lawn people. We have brown patches that have developed in our Zoysia lawn areas.

But we're still monitoring plants that have been planted in the last few years, and watering them regularly. Anything that's been planted in the last three years needs water, when it's so exceptionally dry. Deciduous azaleas, Itea, Joe-Pye weed, Frasier magnolia --these are all thin-leaved natives used to regular rainfall, ditto for some of the forest understory species such as dogwood and redbud.

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Thursday, September 6, 2007

Greens are great

I finally sowed some seeds of fall greens in flats and in the ground on Monday. I was a bit late for timing of some of the larger fall vegetables (the ones that take longer to mature) but I'll be able to harvest the fast-growing lettuces and baby mustards within the month, and hopefully get a cut-and-come-again second harvest. Cilantro and argula are also two fast-growing and tasty greens. Transplanting red cabbage seedlings and attractive kales from the garden center are another way to get a quick start on a fall greens garden.

If the first frost doesn't come too early, I'll almost certainly be able to harvest the hardier kales, collards, mustards, and (slightly-protected) spinach through late fall, and again in spring. Here's a container of young spinaches that overwintered last year and provided some tasty early spring salads.

Brassicas -- the mustard greens of various sorts -- grow incredibly fast, and with luck will provide some excellent fall and winter greens. Red mustards are so pretty that it's hard to harvest them sometimes -- I try to grow enough for eating and appearance!

The kales and collards are remarkably resistant to hard freezes, and some people think the flavor is improved after frost. I like to grow more tender-leaved kales than the traditional curly varieties, so I haven't noticed this so much.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Kale, chard, spinach, and lettuce

When we first moved to the south over 20 years ago, I had never eaten kale, collards, mustard greens, or turnip greens. I don't recall eating much spinach either, as a child, since it was largely available as the canned sort. And my mom was a decent, but relatively uninspired plain cook, from a farm cooking background. Although I grew up eating broccoli and green beans (frozen), my education with vegetables and fruits started in the SF Bay Area markets during my graduate school years. I first had fresh brussel sprouts (good), fresh mushrooms (delicious), fresh local Gravenstein apples (great), peaches, apricots, and plums straight from the Central Valley (fabulous), and learned about so many unusual vegetables in the Chinese and other ethnic restaurants that were springing up in the late 70's and early 80's in the melting pot that was the SF Bay Area even then.

But moving to SE Georgia in the mid 80's was interesting in a different way. Southern cooking with its greens, fried fish, and biscuits and gravy were a long way from the plain cooking of my youth or the Schezuan restaurants in Chinatown. A new, older colleague who was a keen organic vegetable gardener was amazed when I said I had never eaten kale, or turnips, or collards. I quickly learned to appreciate the greens at a local restaurant, where the fried whiting was a Friday night standard. A bit salty, by today's tastes, but delicious with a bit of Texas Pete.

Today, I stir-fry homegrown greens of all sorts with olive oil and garlic, and we thoroughly enjoy them. And I've grown all sorts of 'ethnic' greens from the Tuscan kale, to Russian kale, to Asian mizuna, to the pac choi. All delicious! The high-end Italian dandelion greens were more bitter than I expected, requiring par-boiling, but hopefully quite the spring tonic. And hopefully the radicchio (that was such a favorite of our nursing female squirrel) falls into that category as well.

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Sunday, September 2, 2007

Hummingbirds are everywhere

We've had fun watching the hummingbirds whizzing around the garden lately. Right now, it seems that we have five. An adult male, 3 females, and a juvenile male. The adult male has just arrived, probably passing through on his way south, but the others have been here for a while. The females chase each other around, but fairly companionably, and they seem to be friendly with the juvenile male. Yesterday, it almost looked like one of the females was the 'mom' and the juvenile male (he only has a few red feathers on his throat) was wanting her to feed him. We have two feeders near the porch, where we eat during nice weather (basically April to October), with an additional feeder on the other side of the house. But there are also the nectar-rich flowers of the Salvias (S. guaranitica and S. coccinea) and the coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) and the Buddleja flowers for nectar. There are lots of insects, too, in our garden.

My gardening partner has been busy this weekend moving mulch --lots of freshly chipped trees from our campus that the tree service fellows were happy to give us (we gave them a nice 'tip'). He's moved one truckload already, to nourish the front woodland garden. The second two loads will add mulch to the back garden, and other areas. Organic matter is solid gold to add to your garden.

The lovely hummingbird image is from Early Birds: Common Backyard Birds by Millie Miller and Cyndi Johnson, Johnson Books, Boulder, CO.

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