Saturday, January 31, 2009


In the mountains for the weekend, we were walking near a city park. My attention was drawn by recently planted trees and shrubs near a recreation center. Much to my surprise (and delight), blueberries, a mulberry, apple trees, and yellow-stemmed dogwoods were among the plantings.

The centerpiece was a largish apple tree, with multiple grafts, marked by aluminum tags. They read Esophus Spitzenberg, Winesap, and something else I couldn't read. What fun! There was plenty more space between the building and the basketball court for vegetable gardens, I thought...

The North Carolina mountains are apple country, and heirloom apple varieties are getting more attention.

Western North Carolina is home to a wide variety of small growers and producers, with locally-grown or produced vegetables, artisan bread and cheese, and seasonal tailgate markets, well-supported. A visit to a local organic market found a regional brewer giving away free samples of their ales; my gardening companion was impressed!

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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Brussel sprouts

I haven't grown brussel sprouts successfully myself to date; the few plants that I have tried were either eaten by a woodchuck or frosted in the shady conditions of my main vegetable garden in winter.

So I definitely perked up in the fall when my greens-averse colleague mentioned how much she liked her homegrown brussel sprouts, as she put plants into the vegetable garden.

I'd never eaten a brussel sprout before going off to graduate school. In (San Franciso) Bay Area vegetable markets, though, fresh brussel sprouts were a new, enticing vegetable (along with fresh mushrooms, red peppers, and all sorts of other things). I tried them, in my enthusiasm for the variety of winter vegetables that were available, many from the productive nearby coastal valleys, and enjoyed their fresh, cabbage-like taste.

Spending time in Germany after graduate school, brussel sprouts were ubiquitous, but overcooked, offered up in little dishes at the Mensa (the University cafeteria). What was more memorable was the cucumbers with dill.

Returning from traveling during winter break, another colleague mentioned how good the baby brussel sprouts were, from the plants set out in fall.

I plucked a few this afternoon, along with some side broccoli sprouts and leaves, and some tough, overwintered spinach, and stir-fried them (in olive oil) with onions and garlic as our dinner vegetable -- absolutely delicious. I kept the leftovers for my lunch, not my gardening companion's, for a change!

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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Spanish lavender

Not all my Spanish lavenders look like this in late January. Most look rather spindly at this point.

But, it's hard to beat a plant that looks this good after an usually cold winter.

I think it was a 'thank you' from last summer's Master Gardener conference, a cultivar called 'Anouka' maybe (darn, a quick search of previous posts brought all sort of other interesting thoughts about Spanish lavender, but not the source of this one). I'll have to do a more complete search.

Spanish lavenders are also tolerant of our humidity, unlike 'English' and 'French' lavenders.

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Monday, January 26, 2009

Winter beeches

American beech trees retain their leaves in the winter, giving successional forests a ghostly appearance. Beeches are abundant in the understory of hardwood forests here; shade-tolerant beeches have regenerated in the lower light levels of maturing forest. Lack of periodic natural fire is another reason that beeches are common where they didn't used to be; fire damages their thin bark, killing young (and old) trees.

The dead leaves are shed as the new leaves expand in spring.

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Sunday, January 25, 2009

Yellow-bellied sapsucker

We've been wanting to see a yellow-bellied sapsucker for awhile. Their evidence is everywhere, in the evenly drilled holes in the bark of sweetgums, maples, and other preferred trees. Sapsuckers are winter residents here, moving north in spring.

This morning, we caught sight of a woodpecker moving up the trunk of a Bradford pear. A largish bird, my gardening companion could tell that it was a bird he hadn't seen before (through his binoculars). I was fortunate enough to get a couple of reasonably clear shots, which confirmed its identity: a male yellow-bellied sapsucker!

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Saturday, January 24, 2009

Cedar waxwings and robins

While briefly poking around the internet this morning (reading about growing kohlrabi and asparagus from seed, converting the White House lawn to vegetables,etc.), a sudden descent of a large flock of cedar waxwings crowding around the birdbath and water dishes caught my attention.

They were avidly loading up on water, probably after a berry feast somewhere nearby. There were robins visiting, too, reminding me that I need to refill the dishes.

The weather is mild, now, and the water's not frozen, and there's a feeling of spring to come (we have lots of quince flowers that are open now).

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

More seeds!

Oh, happy day, for more reasons than one (certainly for many Americans), but the least of them is receiving the last of my early January seed orders. Lots of tomato seeds from Totally Tomatoes. Hard to beat.

I'm ready to start transplants, but it's way too early. Maybe if there's a warm spell, I can amend some of my garden beds with compost.

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Monday, January 19, 2009

Greens under cover

Away for the weekend, my only gardening observations were at a local community garden. Under hoop house cover, purple mustard, lettuces, different sorts of kale, and collards were growing well. And this is in the mountains of North Carolina.

In the prepared rows, there were emerging garlic leaves, cover crops ready to turn under, and row markers waiting for spring.

And, unfortunately, my camera wasn't along with us.

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Friday, January 16, 2009

Thinking about transplants

Um, I love to look at seed catalogs, and seeds are really CHEAP, as hobbies go. I've been cataloging mine in a spreadsheet (an uncharacteristic activity) to see what I have to grow as transplants for an upcoming Garden event to encourage people to grow some of their own vegetables.

We represent lots of partners: the SC Botanical Garden, Upstate Locavores, CU's Sustainable Ag program, CU's Home and Garden Information Center, SC Master Gardeners, and local community groups.

This will be a free event, with lots of info about how to grow vegetables (as a revived Victory Garden sort of thing). Many Americans are enthused about giving vegetable gardening a try; I'm seeing much more interest now. Hooray.

But, here's the list (uh, I did say I like seeds, right). Donating these seeds or transplants gives me the opportunity to buy more. Hmm, and I'll probably be enticed to buy transplants to support the cause, too! Not a bad thing.

What a nice list to contemplate.

Vegetables for transplant:

Ashley Cucumber
Italian cucumber (Lungo Della Cina)
Kiwano (African Horned Cucumber)
Sweet Armenian

Fairy Tale Eggplant
Millionaire Eggplant
Thai Light Green round
Thai Long Green (Elephant Tusk)
Lao Green Stripe
Lao White

Early White Vienna
Purple Vienna
Dyna Giant Purple

Hill Country Heirloom Red OKRA
Burgundy Okra

Ancho San Martin Hybrid Pepper
Pizza Pepper
Corno Di Toro Red Pepper
Carmen Hybrid Pepper
Red Cherry (Cherry Sweet) Pepper
Carolina Wonder Bell Pepper
Ashe County Pimento Pepper
Corno di Toro Mix
Southwestern Chile Trio
Pizza My Heart (container sweet pepper)

Summer Squash
Portofino Squash
Trombonciono Squash
Tromboncino Squash
Thai Serpent
Zucchino Rampicante (Zucca d'Albenga)
Eight-Ball Zucchini
Trombetta di Albenga
Ronde de Nice
Baby Round Zucchini

Winter Squash
Thai Small Pumpkin
Green striped cushaw
Greek Sweet Red
Thema Sander's Sweet Potato
Menina Rajada Seca

Swiss Chard
Golden Sunrise
Perpetual Spinach
Ruby Red

Big Beef Hybrid Tomato
Black Heirloom Tomato
Mortgage Lifter Tomato
Quick Pick Hybrid Tomato
Brandywine Heirloom Tomato
Super Marzano Tomato
Italian Goliath Hybrid Tomato
Big Bite Hybrid Tomato
Small Fry Hybrid Tomato
Miroma Hybrid Tomato
Sweet Chelsea Hybrid Tomato
Sweet Cluster Hybrid Tomato
Tomosa Hybrid Tomato
Fourth of July Hybrid
Tomato Heat Wave
Roma 'Pompeii'
Green Zebra
Early Girl Hybrid
Rio Grande

Purple Coban
Pueblo Verde

Profuma di Genova Basil
Cilantro Santo
Cilantro Slo-Bolt
Smokey Bronze Fennel
Maresilles Basil
Sweet Purple
Dill 'Mammoth'
Giante d'Italia
Sweet Curly Parsley
Thai Basil

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Seed longevity

Many seeds live a long time, at least in nature. Viable weed seeds in the soil seed bank provide abundant evidence when soil is disturbed. Seeds cycle in and out of dormancy with temperature fluctuations, tracking the seasons. And some legume seeds are particularly long-lived, thanks to their hard seed coats.

But even pampered vegetable seeds can be germinable for some years under cool dry conditions.

Thanks to Kathy, at Skippy's Vegetable Garden, here's a link to average seed viability; these are rough estimates. Poorly handled seeds (hot, humid conditions) lose viability (and so germinability) more rapidly.

But, there is quite a bit of variance in what's reported about seed viability (note the differences in this chart compared to the previous link), and as someone who studied seed germination (in a previous research life), there's a lot more to it.

However, even with reduced percent germination, the numbers of seedlings produced are often fine when sown more densely sown. That's why pre-testing of germinability is sometimes recommended. And even with older seed, some seeds will often still be viable.

I always try mark dates on my seeds to keep track. And it's always worth buying fresh seed from good seed sources for short-lived seeds.

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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Perennial vegetables

There are so many interesting vegetable varieties to grow and try. After a vegetable gardening talk this morning, one of the participants asked me if I'd heard of perennial collards.

She had a few plants of perennial kale, obtained from a local gardening enthusiast, which she's had for several years. Perennial kale (Brassica oleracea var. dumosa) is a cultivated selection of the versatile species that provides some of our cole crop mainstays (kale, collards, cauliflower, cabbage, brussels sprouts, broccoli, sprouting broccoli, and kohlrabi). This selection is propagated vegetatively, so isn't widely available, except gardener to gardener, apparently.

She also asked if I'd heard of tree kale, which I took to be walking stick kale, but a google search also found reference to tree collards, which must be a similar selection. This thread on Garden Web was fascinating.

I had a beautiful Red Bor kale plant that overwintered last year and was beautiful through the summer and fall (I couldn't bring myself to harvest the leaves), but it finally succumbed to low temperatures in December. It was definitely on the long-lived side of the genome.

I'm going to have to learn more about perennial vegetable varieties. We have a speaker (a young Clemson University Horticulture Extension agent who's from California) coming to talk about permaculture during this year's lecture series who's interested in them. It should be fascinating!

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Sunday, January 11, 2009

Moon view

The full moon has been developing over the last few days; it was gorgeous Friday evening rising before sunset, and luminous the next morning.

This evening, I caught a glimpse of the moon from the kitchen window.

The clear winter air makes the view more striking.

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Saturday, January 10, 2009

Winter flowers

Henbit flowers
A morning walk found more winter flowers.

Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule) is a winter annual (weed) from Europe, the earliest flowering of a large group of plants that germinate here in the fall and flower in winter or spring, produce LOTS of seeds, and wait until the following fall. It's really a lovely plant, however pesky it may be.

A Japanese apricot (Prunus mume), normally flowering in February, has open flowers with many flower buds ready to open.

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Friday, January 9, 2009

Camellia flowers

A blessing of living in a mild winter climate (USDA Zone 7b) is that hardier plants from temperate areas elsewhere thrive here. Camellias are one of them.

I probably haven't appreciated them properly in the past.

They're not very supportive of native wildlife (C. japonica cultivars have highly modified flowers), although they provide cover and nesting sites for birds.

But in winter, they provide a wonderful array of flower shapes and colors; they're evergreen; and they're drought-tolerant and low-maintenance.

And now, in mid-winter, they're flowering, and providing an uplift of spirit. There's a lot to be said for that.

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Thursday, January 8, 2009


I love native plants and communities, but appreciate gardens, too, where we mix plants from all of the world (hopefully reasonably suited for the site). Some gardens are naturalistic; others are fantastical. I appreciate those that have a naturalistic inclination, to be sure.

Receiving a catalog today from a well-respected purveyor of plants (because I'd recently joined a professional association), I flipped through the pages. It was full of the sort of plants I hate - strangely variegated cultivars, gaudy flower selections, and oddly dwarfed specimens. I DO know many gardeners enjoy such things, but I'm not one of them.

This poor sweetgum, a wonderful fast-growing native tree here in the Eastern U.S. that some people fuss about because of its fruits (spiny, seed-rich fruits favored by American Goldfinches), has been turned into a rather dreadful pencil-shaped thing (I won't name the cultivar to protect the source).

I'm quite fond of sweetgums myself, but this one -- I don't think so.

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Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Preserving and storing food

A blogging friend in England mentioned that storing food is a bit of a lost art; I'm certainly guilty about not thinking (and doing) more about food security and self-sufficiency.

I've been promoting vegetable gardening as a fun, creative activity in my work; laudable, to be sure, but maybe there's more that I should focus on.

My two vegetable garden areas produce enough fresh vegetables for us to eat for six months of the year, but I'm also buying things at the supermarket, now in winter. There are greens to be harvested, to be sure, so that's good. But I'm buying potatoes, lettuce, spinach, and broccoli.

But I avoid any (long-traveled, or excessively fossil-fuel enriched) tomatoes or peppers, but I get demerits because my gardening companions loves bananas, and I buy them for him (and eat a few myself).

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Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Plants DO make a difference

Newly planted saplings in spring 1994

When we moved into our house about 15 years ago, the front yard was pretty bleak.

Lawn, ugh, with a few large trees near the house and a row of trees near the road. And these photos are in the growing season.

Coming home today, the front forest looked nice in late afternoon light, and reflected the difference that our plantings have made.

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Monday, January 5, 2009

Greening a highway

I'm so pleased that my small college town has managed to acquire the resources (hopefully from some sort of highway fund) to plant trees on both sides of the main strip highway through town.

It's not the main street (which was 'beautified' some time ago), but our main bypass sort of highway, the kind that in American towns are normally lined with fast food places, banks, car washes, and strip malls.

Our highway is no exception, but with the gradual turnover of businesses putting up less obtrusive signs (because of sign standards), the visual footprint of this highway has definitely improved.

And with adding a new green strip between the road and sidewalk, now there are lots of new street trees (oaks, I think) being added, along with attractive new street lights. I'm not one to begrudge tax money for this sort of thing at all, and this looks like money well-spent to me.

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Sunday, January 4, 2009

Wildlife and subdivisions

I checked on the neighborhood without wildlife this afternoon. The gray skies don't do very much for the neighborhood, which is a typical small subdivision, with neat, well-kept houses.

As I thought, it IS a relatively new development, carved out within older areas of a small historic town nearby, a summer retreat in the 1800's for wealthy planters from the Lowcountry of South Carolina, before becoming a district center for the surrounding area.

There are large oaks and young beeches near the entrance, but otherwise, it's new surburban landscape style, with small lots, manicured lawns, and the same three or four trees and shrubs used over and over.

And the rest of the story is evident from the satellite view; the large area cleared for the subdivision doesn't have enough habitat diversity to support much wildlife activity.

It's a perfect candidate for a community backyard wildlife habitat makeover, to be sure, since the neighborhood is surrounded by older areas with tall native trees and more diverse habitats!

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Fall echoes

I remembered the fall leaves I'd pressed in an old phone book as I was trying to reduce a clutter stack in my study. What a nice surprise!

My glycerin-preserved leaves are lovely, too, but these leaves, pressed for creating framed leaf pictures (I think), are delightfully fragile, with fall color still fresh.

I thought I'd spread some out in the old berry box on the breakfast table (replacing some very crispy old leaves). A nice bridge from fall to spring.

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Saturday, January 3, 2009

Where's the wildlife?

I've been thinking on and off today about a question that a nature walk participant asked yesterday.

He wondered why there wasn't any 'wildlife' in his small town (a historic town right next to ours). The rest of us looked at him rather blankly; the walk leader had just been telling us about seeing a bobcat near his house in another small rural town nearby, and talking about the wild boar (aka feral hog) he would be roasting later on that day, which one of his neighbors had shot after it had attacked a number of cows. Aside from these quite 'wild' examples, many of us have plenty of squirrels, birds, mice, racoons, etc. in relatively woodsy neighborhoods, where mature oaks, hickories, and conifers make up the fabric of the landscape.

The questioner went on to say that he saw more wildlife around his former suburban home in Chicago than he did around his house in Pendleton. So where was the wildlife, he asked again?

Another participant (new to the area, too) joked about how the people around here shoot wildlife, suggesting that accounted for it, which didn't strike me as very enlightened; we are in the Southern U.S., where hunting is certainly a strong tradition, but there are hardly people out roaming the yards and gardens of our university town or towns nearby looking for their next squirrel to put in the pot.

Having never noticed any particular lack of wildlife in Pendleton myself, or lack of suitable habitat, I asked him where he lived exactly. He replied with a name of one of the newish sub-divisions with a historic name.

I'm not that familiar with it, but the name provided a clue. I think it's one of those developments that was laid out on a largely cleared landscape and now is filled with houses rimmed with lawns and standard landscape choices, most of which aren't very sustaining to wildlife.

I'll have to go by and see if I'm right. An addendum: here's the follow-up post.

Certainly, we didn't have much wildlife in our immediate landscape when we moved in. Lawn and a few big trees wasn't much habitat diversity (the sidebar photos bear this out and the web gallery version of a wildlife-friendly garden talk illustrates it, too), and a whole neighborhood like that would be akin to a desert for self-respecting Piedmont animals with any ability to go elsewhere. But after adding hundreds of native and a few non-native plants, creating layers with native trees and shrubs, and diversifying habitat, we certainly have a diversity of wildlife to enjoy now. Even the woodchucks....

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Friday, January 2, 2009

Winter flowers

Even though 'official' winter is just underway, our recent mild weather has encouraged a few early winter flowers.

These aren't natives, to be sure, but hardy imports from Asia, Camellia japonica (Camellia) and Chaenomeles speciosa (Flowering Quince). Their early flowers are an encouraging part of gray winter days (at least what passes for gloomy winter days here).

I'm thankful that we don't have too many dark days; a fellow on a nature walk this morning said 'this is what Chicago is like all winter.' Without the snow, I guess. But, that doesn't sound fun to me, although I celebrate folks who can embrace winter snow and ice with a full heart.

But I thought today WAS a gray, cold day, and I was glad to see the Professor Sargent camellia flowers and the quince flower buds.

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Thursday, January 1, 2009

Another crescent moon

The moon caught my attention from the bedroom window. I enjoy noticing changes in the moon; I never used to before doing full moon hikes!

The shadow, not clear in this image, reminds me of the full moon to come.

This time of year, the night air is still, without many sounds, a contrast to the abundant sounds of insects that fill the air from late spring to fall.

If I were outside, and listened closely, perhaps I'd hear the sounds of a field mouse rustling in the leaves, or the almost silent 'whoosh' of an owl hunting.

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A New Year's Day

More typical winter weather greeted us (Mocha and me) on our morning walk. A skim of ice covered the small frog ponds (actually retention pools) at the Garden and bare soil crackled underfoot. The perfectly blue sky reflects the low humidity this time of year; the mountains are sharp in the distance without the haziness of damp air.

After refilling the feeders, a parade of Carolina Chickadees and Tufted Titmice are stocking up, along with Northern Cardinals; why not take advantage of easily foraged seeds, after all?

I caught a glimpse of a downy woodpecker moving up one of the dogwood trees, perhaps after a visit to the suet feeder.

And groups of American Robins are getting a drink at the bird bath and water dishes.

Best wishes for a New Year of nature watching and gardening!

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