Sunday, August 31, 2008

Waterwise gardening

All the rain last week (hooray for that) meant lots less time outdoors (since it was pouring) and in the garden (actually being back at work is the main reason). But shifting from home garden thinking to work garden ideas isn't too much of a contrast -- it all blends together in how I think about plants, gardening, ecology, environmentally-friendly approaches to gardening, and observing and learning more about nature.

I've been thinking quite a bit this week about sustainable gardening, and what waterwise gardening in our climate really means. Talking this week with my colleagues about updates for our xeriscape garden has me mulling over my approach to sustainable gardening.

I guess because my first interest in plants was those living in 'wild' landscapes that were native to the Texas Hill Country where I grew up, followed by a fascination with weedy species from a summer spent with my family in upstate NY (and visiting frequently in NYC) as a young teenager, and fortified by the tremendous plant diversity in California, where I studied plant ecology as a graduate student, I'm looking at our home landscape/garden with an ecologist's eye to plant behavior and needs.

The standard (US) horticultural recommendation of an inch of water a week sort of seems nuts to me. Is this a lawn thing? My pampered vegetable garden, well, yes, maybe, but our trees, shrubs and perennials (mostly native or tough) will happily get by on a lot less water. Uh, what about all the plants out there in the 'wild'? No one's watering them.

And we certainly DON'T need an irrigation system to successfully garden, even in times of drought.

I think being a waterwise gardener means choosing plants that can withstand dry spells, and flourish without lots of supplemental water (I wrote this in a post last September and this in October). Here in the SE (United States), we can grow lots of great plants that fit that description. Many of our native plants are prized in Europe as normal landscape plants, so this doesn't mean our palette is restricted to cacti and succulents.

Beth Chatto's gravel garden in East Anglia, England (20 inches of rain/yr)

She uses lots of Mediterranean natives in this garden.

Long hot summer dry spells (3-4 weeks) are not uncommon here in the Southeast, so native plants exposed to these conditions (those that don't live along streams,rivers, in floodplains, or in the mountains) have various adaptive strategies to cope, either through different types of tolerance mechanisms or avoidance (by being dormant). Clues to drought-tolerance come from native habitat (grasslands, prairies, dry woods, shallow soils, rocky slopes, 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).

What really gets me cranky is our American/Southern focus on lawns. In our home garden, we have perfectly nice areas of Zoysia lawn, established many years ago, and greatly diminished in size since we moved in. They never get a bit of supplemental water from us, nor any fertilization, aeration, de-thatching or anything else resembling 'lawn care.' The clippings are left to decompose and renourish the lawn. The lawn patches that are most exposed to sun and on shallower soils have suffered during the drought, turning totally brown. But the rain last week has stimulated regrowth of tender young shoots, so maybe that area isn't ready to be turned into raised beds after all. Darn!

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Thursday, August 28, 2008

Garden peas

It's fun to try new things. All it takes is some seeds and prepared soil. I've had a number of spots ready, and now, after 4 days of rain (thankfully due to Tropical Storm Fay), the soil is well-hydrated for now, at least.

I thought I'd try shelling peas this fall -- 'Maestro' and 'Wando' look like good varieties to try for our climate. So I pre-germinated this first batch, and have just finished tucking them into the soil.

I think that I'll try succession plantings over the next month, just to see what timing might be best. It's supposed to be back up to 90°F on Friday; young peas won't like that heat, but hopefully it will cool down before the seedlings emerge above ground!

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Night sounds

I've enjoyed trying to figure out cricket, cicada, and katydid calls. I'm not sure I've made a lot of headway, but I was delighted with several new books I acquired recently (and accompanying CD's) by Lang Elliot and friends. They were A Guide to Night Sounds, The Calls of Frogs and Toads, and the best -- The Songs of Insects.

I'm looking forward to listening to all of them.

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Monday, August 25, 2008

Finally a prospect of some decent rain

Gardeners and naturalists are almost as keen as farmers following the weather. Where I live, garden, and pay attention to the natural world, we're in the center of quite a severe drought.

We normally get fairly even rain throughout the year, but not for the past ten years or so, except for one year (the year the front meadow looked especially fabulous, with moisture-loving Joe-Pye weed and huge Blazing Stars (Liatris spp.)

And the last two summers have been truly exceptional (note the current rating for the dark red area- ugh). I've marked where I live with the arrow!

But Tropical Storm Fay is bringing some decent rain, even to us in Upstate South Carolina. I'm sorry for the flooding in Florida, but we'll be thankful for the downpours that are predicted for the next few days.

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Sunday, August 24, 2008

Hints of fall

Some of the sassafras leaves are turning red, signaling the waning of summer. All of the fruits have been eaten, and are fueling the activities of birds getting ready for winter, whether they're migrating or staying put.

The usually dry days, providing cool mornings and evenings, have given way to stickier air, with a promise of rain, perhaps. Squash, bean, and tomato harvesting is continuing, but I planted garden peas and spinach this afternoon, hopeful of cooler weather to come.

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Saturday, August 23, 2008

Radicchio and squirrels

Last year, a nursing squirrel found the radicchio irresistable, but I was still surprised to come out the kitchen door this afternoon and see a squirrel scampering off with a radicchio leaf in her (presumably) mouth.

She left clear evidence behind. And, I had thought that clump was a bit bigger, but had absentmindedly thought perhaps I'd harvested some of it, and forgot? (the trio of greens)?

Hmm, not exactly. But I don't really mind. The beautiful red coloration in radicchio develops in cool weather, so hopefully the fall growth stimulated by the 'pruning' will be nice.

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Friday, August 22, 2008

Garden spiders

My gardening companion reports that the Argiope spider (AKA garden spider and writing spider) is happily ensconced to the right of the door to the garden shed.

I hadn't noticed her in the last couple of days, but had taken a picture a couple of days ago.

Late summer and early fall is prime time for these lovely garden spiders!

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Thursday, August 21, 2008

Extending the seasons

As a nature observer, I love watching the changing of seasons. The days are definitely getting shorter, the nocturnal symphony is getting quieter, and early signs of fall are signaled by changes in leaf color in tulip poplars, sassafras, and sourwood.

From a vegetable-gardening perspective, though, I'm a bit greedy (even though I'm planting fall crops in earnest now). Not content with the long (three seasons) that I have, I'm figuring that I need to put together the sturdy cedar cold frame that I ordered to replace a flimsy aluminum one I bought a few years ago.

If I was handy with tools, or my gardening companion was (and alas, he's not), I know I could make one myself. But I don't have power saws or fancy drills. My new cold frame, I'm sure, won't look like these high-end English made ones, but the pieces look very sturdy! My idea is to carry over spinach, lettuce, and tenderer salad greens that might otherwise be frosted in our Zone 7b (working on Zone 8) climate, and experiment holding some of them over cold weather (think Elliot Coleman's Four-Season Harvest), an inspirational book, to be sure.

And why don't we have more small greenhouses in the U.S. like this delightful one, in a rectory garden in Southern England?

Inexpensive (for a greenhouse), simple, and not too big.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

More fall vegetables

I hadn't tried growing broccoli rabe before, but this experimental patch is flourishing. I'm waiting for a few flower buds before harvesting, but it looks delicious right now.

Maybe because the woodchuck ate all the brassica relatives last summer, the populations of cabbage whites didn't build up -- I've only seen one so far this summer. That's good news as far as the brassica leaf chomping goes -- a large spring red bor kale still looks lovely, and has been spared from being harvested for a stir-fry because of it.

I've already pulled out quite a bit of unproductive squash (the yellow squash/zucchini C. pepo sort), making room for kohlrabi, turnips, beets, lettuces, arugula, kale, mustard, and spinach (yet to be planted). Happily, I harvested some nice yellow, patty pan, and eight-ball (Ronde de Nice) squashes, actually my most successful squash foray to date, not counting my stalwart, delicious, and squash vine borer-resistant tromboncino squash.

It's hard to find the space for planting fall vegetables, when tomatoes, peppers, beans, squash, and tomatillos are still hogging their spaces, but it requires being ruthless -- unless you're willing to dig up more beds -- a slippery slope towards gardening overextension.

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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A giant tromboncino squash!

This big one was hiding near a old tree stump. (I normally harvest them at the size of the one next to it). Notice its size relative to the cutting board. Yikes!
Oops, one that got away!
Amazingly, it was still quite edible, roasted in slices with garlic and olive oil.

The yard-long bean vines in the satellite garden are starting to produce -- need to knock off some aphids (their one pest) with some water.

And, all of our tomatoes love the heat and dry weather that we've had, as long as we water. It's hard to imagine all the rain that folks up in the northeastern U.S. and Midwest have experienced this summer.

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Monday, August 18, 2008

No farms, no food

Being a (vegetable) gardener is humbling. And thinking about local foods (and thinking about folks trying to be locavores), even more.

It's fascinating to consider how we (at least Americans) are finally embracing the idea of trying to grow more vegetables and buy locally. There's an initiative to encourage the next incumbent of the White House to grow an organic vegetable garden; there are blogs encouraging us to grow Victory Gardens again; what an encouraging trend.

But, if you actually think about whether you could grow all of your own food -- that's an eye-opener. Once you get past the things that would be impossible to grow here (coffee, rice, and bananas are staples in our house), and then think about spices like cinnamon and cloves, and then think about how much wheat you'd have to grow, and thresh, and grind, simply to make a few loaves of bread (and I make all of our bread), that's humbling, too.

And if you'd like to eat lettuce in the summer (at least here in a hot summer climate), and have potatoes all year round (uh, my harvest was delicious, but it wasn't exactly large enough to store), and enough onions to cook with, and what about the cheese that we eat and milk that we use in our cereal and my coffee (hmm, not much room in the back garden for a cow) and chickens would need to be 'underground' as I think they're prohibited in our small college town's zoning scheme.

The American Farmland Trust is a sponsor of 'Best Green Blogs' -- and they had a nice click-link to their site where I could order a 'No Farms, No Food' bumper sticker. Two arrived today, and I'll be sticking one on the back window of my car tomorrow.

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Cranberry Viburnum

We have many wonderful native species of Viburnum in North America, and there are interesting species in Asia as well. Many are great garden plants, certainly for a wildlife garden.

Their fruits, although not always the first choice of fruit-eating birds, provide a backup food source, and their shrubby habit is a great place for cover and nesting. A brown thrasher pair took advantage of this cranberry viburnum (Viburnum trilobum) earlier this summer.

The berries are turning a vibrant cranberry red now, and are a striking backdrop to the satellite garden.

Addendum: hmmm, these are so striking that I did another post, forgetting I already had admired them!

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Sunday, August 17, 2008

A Peter Rabbit Garden

I love this whimsical garden. I enjoyed Peter Rabbit and other Beatrix Potter stories as a child (and still do) -- and the illustrations are wonderful. So the idea of having a small cottage garden, complete with a child-sized garden shed was appealing, and the reality has been even more fun. It changes seasonally; right now the zinnias are stars.

The sweet bright blue chair is a kid-magnet. Shortly before I took this picture, a delightful tow-headed toddler was insistent about clambering up to sit on it. It'll be fun to do our Peter Rabbit Salad Garden program next weekend!

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Saturday, August 16, 2008

Lots of butterflies

I've never been particularly fond of zinnias, but maybe I just didn't know them very well. The large garden zinnias, planted in the Peter Rabbit Garden by a colleague, are butterfly magnets. The zinnias reseeded happily from last year, and right now it's a wonderful butterfly pitstop.

Maybe because of our drought, nectar sources are literally drying up, so only minimally watered garden flowers are a respite.But the butterflies were abundant - mostly tiger, black, and pipevine swallowtails, with an odd silver-spotted skipper, gulf fritillary, and a single monarch dropping by.
Pipevine swallowtail

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Friday, August 15, 2008

A perfect peach

My dad's parents lived in the northern end of California's Central Valley, a productive farming area for fruits, nuts, rice, and other crops. Summer peaches always remind me of our childhood visits, and my grandmother saying that 'she was going to fix some peaches' for dessert.

This meant peaches from an orchard in nearby Red Bluff, large rosy peaches picked at their peak, carefully peeled and sliced, served with a bit of sugar and cream.

I had a perfect peach for breakfast this morning. I bought some at our local farmer's market yesterday afternoon from an older couple. This was an extraordinary peach -- perfectly ripe, sweet, and delicious. It bore limited resemblance to the 'local peaches' that I've bought at the grocery recently.

still life with peaches...

I had bought some red-fleshed plums from them several weeks ago that were (almost) as good, and wanted to ask what kind they were -- the answer was 'oh, we just call them purple plums.'

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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Sassafras fruits

The sassafras trees in our garden are some of my favorites -- my gardening companion planted four of them early on. We've got healthy young trees now, both a male and female in the front and back. We found them at a regional nursery, now gone, that grew a lot of native plants.

Sassafras is a great native (eastern U.S.) tree with wonderful fall color, lovely spring flowers, and interesting leaf shapes. Only the female trees produce fruits, of course, but they're favorites of fruit-eating birds, and usually disappear quite rapidly. The tree near the satellite garden was loaded with dark purple fruit last weekend. Now, there's only one left.

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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

It sure looks like a gourd...

Ok, we've been eating tiny versions of this squash/gourd now for some weeks (it came from a 'summer squash mix' after all, even if I really think it's an imposter that snuck in.

But as it gets bigger (if I miss harvesting one while it's small), it definitely shows why I think it's a bicolored spoon gourd at heart!

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008


I loved nasturtiums in the San Francisco Bay Area as a student. They flourished in the cool, wet winters, and foggy dry summers. I've only seen them here in the last few years, grown for our cool climate periods in spring and fall. I've enjoyed them in baskets, and mixed in with vegetables. Normally, they've died back in summer, to reappear in fall, but these, perhaps buffered by morning and afternoon shade, and with a minimal amount of blasting sun, have flourished at the base of the Armenian cucumbers.

Maybe the light conditions have determined the success of the cucumbers, too. I just harvested the largest ones -- quite tasty.

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Three bluebirds and a hummingbird

I just saw a mother bluebird and two fledglings at our feeders (not eating anything, but stopping by on top of the shepherd's hooks) -- and now two of the fledglings are taking a bath-- and one just went back to the top of the hook. Way cool.

I figured the chances of my getting out there with the camera were nil, of course, so I kept watching them splash around, and hang out. The young ones were very spotty and attractive, with bluish tail feathers, and still looked like they wanted a handout from Mom. One poked around in the mulch, and hopefully found something.

I've only seen a bluebird in our yard once before, last spring, so these are presumably dropping by from somewhere nearby. There are some open grassy areas nearby with bluebird boxes.
(An addendum: I just read that bluebird parents and fledglings usually move somewhere away from the nest box that has abundant food -- this group appears to be hanging out in the dogwood trees behind the feeders)

A blurry shot through the study window had me trying to sneak out on the porch; my reward was a robin poking around -- I'm seeing them again now --and, oh, Mama bluebird is back on top of the shepherd's hook, and now there's a phoebe -- it's been a parade today.

But a young male or female hummingbird was leery of me on the porch, but came in to visit when I stayed very still.

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Monday, August 11, 2008

A front entrance to the garden

Our front yard didn't always look this way. When we moved in, it was a long dull expanse of lawn, punctuated by a row of magnolias and dogwoods, in alternation with a single white pine. Beyond that was a dying red tip hedge, planted by the second owner (we're the third owners).

We've lived here almost fifteen years now, but it didn't take long for the young trees that my gardening companion planted to make a difference.

Now, it's like a natural woodland, with a variety of native hardwoods developing the canopy, with an understory of small native trees and shrubs. All that we did was try to recreate (and speed up) what nature might do in a open field, if there were ample seed sources nearby.

We had to provide our own saplings; but the regenerative power of planting is as simple as digging a hole, amending the soil a bit, and keeping a young tree or shrub watered through its first seasons (and maybe a bit during exceptional droughty times like now.)

An nice comment from a fellow blogger on another post got me thinking about this again -- we're not 'experienced gardeners'-- we do know about plants, but that doesn't mean we knew how to grow things very well when we bought a old house that we fell in love with. My parents certainly weren't gardeners.

And since we transformed our lawn expanses into a wildlife-friendly garden, simply by planting a diversity of native (mostly) shrubs and trees (and we're still working on it) -- I'd like to think encouragingly that all it takes is a shovel and a plant. And repeating that. And then doing it again. And replacing plants that don't do well. And there's great joy in the results.

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Finally, a developing cucumber!

Supposedly cucumbers are easy to grow. I haven't found it to be so, having tried perhaps halfheartedly, the last couple of seasons with no success. The plants shrivel, look sickly, and flower feebly, before succumbing, undoubtedly to some sort of cucumber wilt. Maybe it was the offbeat varieties I was trying.

But, I finally thought that I'd try in earnest, with the (3rd!) packet of Armenian cucumber seeds I'd apparently purchased. Hmm, perhaps that was a message that I kept ordering Armenian cucumbers, which are long slender, supposedly non-bitter cucumbers.

I actually never have much liked cucumbers, at least the American variety, which in their supermarket incarnation are seedy and have bitter, tough skins. So my interest in Armenian cucumbers is a bit odd, when I think about it. I do have fond memories of delicious cucumber salads flavored with dill in German 'mensas' (or cafeterias) back in my school days.

So I amended the soil heavily with compost and lime, and proceeded to put in seeds in a place along the fence that has successfully grown beans and Malabar spinach (pretty but not so tasty) in the past.

So having some cucumbers developing, finally, seems like an accomplishment. Maybe they'll even be tasty!

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Sunday, August 10, 2008

Ready to go?

It's been a banner year for butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa. Very deep-rooted, with somewhat fleshy, tuberous roots, it's sailed through months of minimal rain and heat to produce abundant fruits and seeds.

It's a widespread species across Eastern North America and the Midwest, occurring along roadsides, open areas, and in its native grassland sites.

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Late garlics

I enjoyed cleaning up the second round of harvested garlic this morning. The bundles had been hanging from the rafters in the garden shed ('curing' for probably too long). Generally, recommendations describe curing garlic for several weeks for good storage, but we'll eat it fast enough anyway not to worry too much about it.

I trimmed off the stalks and dried roots and some of the outer wrappers, and piled them in a basket. Hopefully they'll keep well at room temperature.

The heads are smaller than the early varieties, but they're equally delicious. The pungencies of varieties differ, but basically we like all of them! There are a number of excellent mail order/internet order garlic companies -- two of my favorites are Hood River Garlic, in Oregon, and Gourmet Garlic Gardens (in Texas).

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Saturday, August 9, 2008

A hoofed herbivore?

We saw evidence of deer last summer for the first time (AKA the summer of the woodchuck), but this summer, there's been munching on the Rudbeckias in the meadow, a phlox here and there, and the disappearance of these leaves is telling.

When I checked the squash yesterday morning, this is what I saw. They must be especially hungry to eat squash leaves, since they're so rough and hairy. Maybe their juiciness makes up for it?

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Italian edible gourd

I had no idea that there were so many different sorts of gourds, edible and otherwise, until my 'summer squash mix' adventure earlier this summer (here are links to just a couple of posts about them: 1 and 2). Those 'squash' -- I'm quite sure that they're actually a bicolored gourd--are still chugging along, in spite of continued wilting in the afternoon. They're quite delicious, eaten at about an inch or an inch and a half long, but their skins become quite hard and tough if they get any bigger.

But I'm currently watching another interesting squash relative. They're all squashes, of course, being members of the squash family (Cucurbitaceae). I was thinking that based on how resistant gourds and the C. moschata squashes (tromboncino) are to pesky squash vine borers, that it would be worth trying other edible squashes.

Versions of Italian edible gourds (Lagenaria siceria 'Longissima') are apparently grown in warm climates in many places (the names of Lagenaria siceria cultivars are quite complex), and are probably native to India, but were domesticated and spread long ago. Just the English common names are remarkably diverse: bottle gourd, Italian edible gourd, long fruited gourd, long melon, long squash, New Guinea bean, Tasmania bean, snake gourd, as well as many more.

Its white flowers open in the evening and are fragrant, and probably were moth-pollinated originally. (I could happily spend hours doing web searches about these things...but there's planting to do!)

The Lagenaria is thriving on a trellis in full sun in the satellite garden. I'm looking forward to seeing (and trying) the fruits.

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Friday, August 8, 2008

A rose, and thinking about fall...

Is it fall yet?
I feel like a kid asking, are we there yet? August days are trying for gardeners and nature watchers in the southern U.S. It's the worst time of our gardening year, actually -- even in 'good' years, it's hot and often dry. This year, we've already hit 100° in the first week of August. And hardly a drop of rain in the forecast.

The cutting from the hardy rose at the corner of the house is flowering beautifully, two hummingbirds are chasing each other outside my window, and I'm harvesting tomatoes, squash, and yardlong beans (the regular beans are sulking in the heat), so I'm grateful for that. And, the dry weather, unlike our usual humid summer days, makes mornings and evenings quite pleasant, instead of sticky.

But I'm enjoying thinking about fall vegetables, tough fall-flowering perennials, and fall color. The lettuces, mustard, and mesclun mixes in flats are doing well, although I'm waiting to sow some other things until conditions are actually favorable for germination.

I'm eager to try garden peas this fall, although they sound like something that is totally unsuitable for our climate. I've had good success with spring crops of sugar snap peas and snow peas, but never thought about trying garden peas (English peas, or shelling peas) before.

Seeing Rob's lovely photo in a post about his peas (and flocking pigeons) got me thinking about it. Hmm, peas would be fun (and my gardening companion loves peas with rice at Thanksgiving dinner)... So now I've got pea seeds, supposedly suitable for growing in warm climates, ready to go.

This morning, I was listening to a gardening podcast (Ken Druse Real Dirt) in which his co-host Vicki Johnson waxed enthusiastic about the virtues of fresh peas (which are legendary, of course), and has me even more eager to try. I'm going to try succession plantings in shadier areas starting in late August through mid September. And then I'll hope for a long (cool) fall. I like Ken and Vicki's podcast; it's quirky, and often gets off topic, but is often full of interesting environmentally-friendly gardening tidbits.

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Thursday, August 7, 2008

Garden butterflies

I've seen lots of butterflies in our garden recently. Most are familiar visitors, and always welcome. But I've needed to remind myself recently of the differences between two of the 'regulars' -- tiger and black swallowtails. They belong to a mimicry group of butterflies that mimic pipevine swallowtails.

Male tiger swallowtail
Male tiger swallowtails are yellow with black stripes, but females are either yellow, with blue on the hindwing, or dark, also with blue spots on the hindwing.

It's telling the dark females apart from some of the other dark swallowtails that's harder. Hmm, I see from my Kaufman guide that there's a good bit of variation in the tiger female's dark morph, just to complicate things. But distinguishing black swallowtails to dark tiger females is easy if you get a good look at the lower side of the wing and how it's banded with orange, and then get a good look at the upper wings (easier said than done).

Check out a wonderful butterfly site that I just found at the Massachusetts Butterfly Club, a chapter North American Butterfly Association -- it has a wonderfully useful side-by-side comparison feature, with LOTS of images of each species. Wow. That one is being bookmarked!

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Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Global gardening

an array of vegetables and fish, Vientiane, Laos

I bumbled onto a cool device called Feedjit visiting a fellow blogger's site (thanks, Beverly!) It tracks where people who are reading your blog are located.

Muang Sing market, northern Laos (near the Chinese border)

I enjoy making blog posts (for myself) because it helps me keep track of what I've noticed in my own garden (or the botanical garden where I work) and what I'm currently thinking about in terms of gardening and nature, worrying about our current drought, and what I'm needing to plant next in the vegetable garden or the meadow, etc.

Otavalo market, Ecuador

But as someone who loves to explore distant parts of the world (my gardening companion shares this enthusiasm and he takes the travel photos), I'm delighted to hear from someone in Japan, Malaysia, or the Philippines (in addition to anywhere in North or South America or Europe or Africa or Australia or elsewhere in Asia).

sugarcane and buyers, BacHa market, northern Vietnam

It's humbling to realize that someone in Egypt somehow stumbled onto to a post that I made -- it makes being part of the global community so much more real. We all depend on plants for sustenance -- and the connections and understanding and ease of obtaining those things differs.

My gardening companion and I have been fortunate enough to poke around markets, natural areas, and gardens in a number of places -- the markets and home gardens provide inspiration and encouragement about growing a diversity of other vegetables, but more importantly, help us get a better sense of the interplay between food, culture, and the resources and work that it takes to grow an abundance and diversity of food.

Bulati market, Tanzania, Crater Highlands

breakfast at the market, Otavalo, Ecuador

selling peas, Otavalo, Ecuador

squash and edible gourds, Mysore, India

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Tuesday, August 5, 2008


Coming home after dinner with friends, it was a perfect summer evening in the South. The air was humid and heavy from the afternoon thunderstorm, and the crickets and other insects well underway with their evening songs.

The crescent moon was high in the sky. My camera 'saw' the entire moon as well as stars that I couldn't see.

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Monday, August 4, 2008

Urban green space

A typical street in Hanoi, Vietnam

I empathize with people in cities or in places without much green space - it's not easy to connect with nature without having green space, parks, community gardens, container gardens, or balcony gardens, much less easy access to more 'wild' nature.

A peaceful place in central Hanoi

In the urban whirl that characterizes Hanoi today, the central lake and its surrounding park provides a bit of a connection to the natural world. It's a traditional park with walking paths and landscape plantings.

Closer to home,
I remember seeing a woman in Washington, DC last summer waiting for the homeless shelter to open, 'planting' weeds that she'd collected, echoing perhaps a distant memory of planting a garden. I wish I had talked with her about what she remembered.

I read a piece a couple of years ago written by a woman who'd had a difficult struggle with illness, and she wrote poignantly of the meaning that being able to be out in her garden had for her. And I am always grateful for the green respite that our garden provides, and the sustenance that seeing growing things provides.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology recently rolled out a new program called Celebrate Urban Birds, promoting small-scale habitats with container gardens and rooftop gardens in cityscapes.

It's a great site and full of encouraging ideas about planting pockets of urban green.

But those of us in small cities and rural areas have even more opportunities to improve our community plantings. Why not focus on restoring natural diversity in our commercial landscapes and roadsides? We have the space; why not plant a diversity of (native) trees and shrubs in streetscapes, parks, and medians?

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Sunday, August 3, 2008

The benefits of shade

I'm rethinking a bit why the basil sown thickly in a flat near the potting bench is still relatively succulent compared to its brethren in adjoining pots and in the ground. I thought it was the benefits of fluffy potting mix, and richer fertilization, but now I'm thinking it's extremely useful that the flat is in filtered morning and afternoon shade.

I've always thought of basil as a warmth-loving plant (which it is), but maybe the blastingly hot afternoon sun here simply shuts down leaf growth, closing stomata and depressing photosynthesis, and therefore leaf expansion. The plants I transplanted to a container (from the flat) that receive more afternoon sun are looking more and more stressed as the heat wave continues, whereas a single plant in soil that's shaded by beans and in a spot that gets full afternoon sun looks quite nice. Perhaps I'll need to do an experiment! And more investigation about how basil flavors develop, etc., would also be interesting.

Certainly the combination of extreme heat and 10 hours of full sun isn't ideal for many vegetables - here in the South, both plants and the gardener are looking for a respite.

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Sorting seeds

I thought I'd organize my seeds a bit to get ready for planting the first sowing of lettuce. I usually try to keep them in a (vaguely) organized way in containers, according to planting season. But my flurry of seed ordering activity in early summer had overwhelmed that 'system.' So I thought I'd spread them out on the breakfast table.

This is a pretty amazing array of seeds, even for me. (Notice that the seed packets are stacked, and the full containers of flower and spring vegetable seeds....). Uh-oh. I think my idea had been to give seeds away at upcoming vegetable gardening programs? Plant things in the Food for Thought Garden?

Since I'm really not a file-sort of person (I have started shoving my seed order packing slips in a folder, however), and like my (somewhat) orderly stack method of working, I normally just enjoy discovering seeds that I'd forgotten I'd ordered -- and hadn't yet planted.

But this does seem a bit of an overabundance of seeds. I don't have enough room to plant half of these things....

I knew I had ordered some unusual sort of winter radishes, and hmm, I still have some scorzonera and salisfy seeds (both root crops that I saw growing in a restored colonial garden in Old Salem, NC). I think I germinated some, and didn't manage to get farther than that. Canola and sesame seeds were a momentary enthusiasm -- they're good cover crops to reduce nematodes, I think. Growing spring wheat is always fun, of course -- need to remember to do that again.

I have LOTS of different sorts of lettuces, asian greens, chicories, kales, mustards, turnips, sprouting broccoli, spinach, beets, chard, arugula, radishes, lettuce mixes, edible flowers, etc. etc. An embarrassment of riches to be sure. I'd better get going and plant some of them!

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