Monday, May 31, 2010

Growing swiss chard

I haven't had much success with Swiss Chard in the past, in spite of it being an 'easy' vegetable. My fertilizer challenges (uh, I studied native plants, not nutrient-hungry vegetables) are evident in this regard, but I'm trying to mend my ways.

Compost, aged manure, mushroom compost, etc. as soil amendments aren't enough to maintain fertility, in continually cropped beds (eg. my main and satellite vegetable garden areas at home in the Piedmont- in the Southeastern US). So I've been mindful of the benefits of adding organic timed-release fertilizer (Espoma is one brand that provides a nice range of major and micro nutrients).

My new raised beds, in the mountains, though, have been (so far) quite supportive of leafy greens, being filled with compost and composted manure.

I've been delighted with the lush lettuce, radishes, arugula, and swiss chard that have been part of the early plantings, and have been in harvest mode recently.

This swiss chard is the nicest-looking that I've grown; it's not hugely lush, but hey, I'm quite pleased with it. And I'm sure it will taste good, too.

(But, stir-fried lettuce with sesame oil, onions, mushrooms, and garlic was on the dinner menu tonight!) And, I've warned my gardening companion that there's more lettuce to come....

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Sunday, May 30, 2010

Heavy clay soil

I've been experiencing what is definitely heavy clay subsoil/building fill in the mountains.

Digging below the top layer of composted leaves and mulch, I hit almost solid clay, either red, or gray, or in between. It's not like the rocky clay subsoil of our garden in the Piedmont, which crumbles easily, making it simple to incorporate soil amendments like compost, ground pine soil conditioner, and leaves.

This stuff is ready for pot-making--slick, tough, and hard to break up. The best I can do in the new trellis beds (and elsewhere) is to liberally dig up the clods with soil conditioner and bagged organic 'garden soil' -- a mixture of peat moss, compost, and natural fertilizer. The clods of clay don't actually break up totally, even with repeated slicing with a shovel, but...there are earthworms in the mulch, so maybe they'll make some headway with more compost....

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Saturday, May 29, 2010

Trellises (inexpensive)

If I were the least bit handy, I could have built these trellises. But I'm not, and I don't have any woodworking equipment or fancy screwdrivers.

So these inexpensive, pre-made trellises, from a big-box store, seemed perfectly decent to try. They're made by a company that has redwood in its name, but these are probably stained redwood color!

I'll be improving the soil beneath the three new trellises tomorrow, and planting more pole beans, cucumbers, and maybe a twining squash.

Eventually, we'd like to have permanent trellises on the side of the apartment building, but that will require a bit more investment and work!

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Friday, May 28, 2010

Trellis gardening and pole beans

I'm using space between our house (in the mountains) and the next door apartment to set up trellises (and planting areas) for pole beans, yard-long beans, malabar spinach, etc.

The space gets full sun most of the day in the summer; we planted blueberries along the apartment side last year.

But challenged by space elsewhere (uh, I've filled up my raised stone beds already, probably overfilled them, to be sure). I'd be thrilled to have some vining vegetables in the corridor between our dwellings.

Cheap, probably fake, 'redwood' trellises are the supports; they're attractive, at least. And the apartment brick wall is not especially attractive, marked by cable and telephone lines, along with abandoned phone lines, etc.

Digging up the soil here isn't rewarding; beneath the decaying organic matter (leaves and bark mulch), there's more of the heavy gray to red clay, but at least this stuff is friable (unlike the compacted builder's fill in the front meadow). I've been 'fluffing' it up with soil conditioner (finely ground pine bark), and hoping for the best, as I've planted.

I've got a few more small 'beds' to dig up (I'll have a total of five trellis beds when I'm finished).

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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Growing plants

I find growing plants to be a wonderfully satisfying endeavor -- from vegetables to natives. It makes a difference for me, to feel like I'm restoring habitat and growing food.

I was reminded looking at some past photos, about the growth we've had in our raised beds here in the mountains.

I guess the raised beds are really 'mine', but we both built the beds, and both of us filled them with compost! Not an insignificant thing.

Everything is growing well, and I (ruthlessly) pruned the very robust tomatoes, and hopefully trained them up through the tomato cages or supports with ties, in some sort of proper manner this afternoon.

Hmm, I've not trained (or pruned) tomatoes before, but I know it's a good practice.

Check out some of the videos online (Fine Gardening and Johnny's Seeds) have nice ones.

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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Close to a full moon

The view up through the trees was stunning.

It's close to the full moon -- it'll be full tomorrow night, on May 27th. I follow the moon cycles because of full moon hikes; I didn't used to follow them, but it's fun to track the changes and notice what's happening.

My (very much younger) fellow gardeners at the Pearson Community Garden seem to adhere to the planting by the moon cycle; hmm, as someone who's been 'trained' as a scientist, I just nod politely, and keep weeding and mulching.

The Pearson Community Garden is a lovely spot, at the end of Pearson Rd., in the far reaches of Montford, and is land that has been owned by non-profits (most recently by Bountiful Cities Project) for awhile (apparently through a donation of land), although I'm not sure about the details.

I've had fun the last two Wednesdays (the community work days) digging and weeding. I enjoy the physical activity associated with vegetable gardening, and away from my main vegetable garden beds, it's satisfying to dig in!

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Monday, May 24, 2010


We don't have a native Stewartia at home, but we should. It's a lovely shrub, full of flowers when healthy and doing well.

Stewartia malacodendron (Silky Camellia) is one of our native species of Stewartia in the Southeast. The sister Asian species are also nice.

This specimen was in the NC Arboretum, along with several others, next to the Education Center. It was in full flower-- delightful!

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Sunday, May 23, 2010

Moss sporophytes

I don't know much about individual moss species in the Southern Appalachians, but I do know that it's a center of moss biodiversity. On a walk this afternoon in the NC Arboretum, we enjoyed a lovely oak-hickory forest along the Natural Garden Trail, with regenerating saplings of all sorts of trees (maples, oaks, hickories, sassafras, etc.) in the understory.

I noticed these striking mosses in their reproductive stage; mosses produce sporangia (spore-producing structures) in their sporophyte stage. (Their alternate gametophyte stage is leafy-looking, and what we think of as moss, even though they don't have true leaves).

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Friday, May 21, 2010

An Eastern cottontail rabbit

WAY down the slope, almost to the bottom of the ravine (below our small house in the mountains), we spotted a grazing rabbit early this evening. The long camera lens gave me a better shot... In perfect rabbit fashion, it proceeded to eat entire stalks of grasses (probably from the winter-strewn hay that my gardening companion had put down for mulch).

As wildlife gardeners, we're happy to see such a large and robust rabbit, obviously a survivor over years; as vegetable gardeners, we hope s/he will stay down on the slope eating grasses!

But it would take a bold rabbit to make it up to the raised beds above the house, the ones full of lettuces.

We'll see! But we had fun watching him/her consume the grasses (through binoculars) this afternoon.

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Thursday, May 20, 2010

Early tomatoes

I spent some time this evening tying up tomato vines. I didn't bring up tomato cages from my main garden in the Piedmont (Clemson, SC), so I'm relying on bamboo stakes and stretchy plant ties, at least while the plants are still small.

There's time enough to add the vinyl-coated tomato towers that I like to use, but that are hard to find, at least in sturdy versions (there are plenty of flimsy sorts to be had). Or maybe I'll just use extra tall supports, and train the vines to use them!

The first three tomatoes that I planted, two Cherokee Purples and a Sweet Million, are flourishing, in spite of being subjected to sub-40°F temperatures shortly after planting. (In contrast, the peppers planted the following weekend were stunted by the cold, and have been replaced...)

I'm thrilled with how successful the lettuce and arugula has been, and maybe I'll finally have some decent chard (not to mention beets and carrots) to harvest, too. I think chard requires more nutrients and water than I've ever given it before, even though it's supposed to be an easy vegetable. So the current plants are thriving in nice raised beds filled with compost!

P.S. CEN, notice the arrow -- that's your Meyer lemon behind the tomato plant; it has 4 young fruits, along with a cluster of new flowers.

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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Lettuce abundance

My raised beds in the mountains are producing prolific lettuce; undoubtedly the rich soil and cooler temperatures are favorable to excellent leaf growth.

I've had nice mesclun mix in flats for many years, and good lettuce in my main vegetable garden in the Piedmont, but these lettuces reflect how lots of nutrients (from the compost in the beds) and plenty of water produce succulent leaves.


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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Some favorite natural gardening books!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

A variety of sedums

Our sedum bed continues to provide a diversity of colors and textures. It's jewel-toned in morning and evening light, and now, in mid-spring, many of them are starting to flower.

Flowers are merely a bonus in a group that encompasses plants that are tough, drought-tolerant, often perennial, and which have leaf shapes of all sorts.

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Saturday, May 15, 2010

Raised beds for vegetables

It's amazing how good 'soil' (in this case, commercial compost and composted manure) can support excellent growth. The lettuce, tomatoes, and other vegetables in my raised beds in the mountains are flourishing.

Now these are permanent beds with stone, but you don't need them to have raised beds. They can be formed without support, actually, and be wonderfully productive.

But it reminds me, again, of how MUCH vegetables need nutrients (compared to trees, shrubs, and perennials).

These lettuces are much bigger and more succulent than any of those I've grown before, obviously thanks to LOTS of extra nutrients in the compost!

And these French breakfast radishes (seeds were from Renee's Garden Seeds) look great!

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Friday, May 14, 2010

Garden maintenance, containers, and other thoughts

A program today had me thinking about garden 'maintenance' and the 'effort' involved to keep different sorts of gardens going.

A push for 'color' along a well-traveled pathway means annuals with water needs--even if they're drought-tolerant, it means supplemental water. Ditto for 'color' near the Nature Learning Center (at the Garden where I work).

I'm all about tough, drought-tolerant perennials in my own garden. I DON'T have time to be fussing with extra water, and it's not a sustainable practice to be adding gobs of supplemental water to non-food plants, in any case.

Wherever we live in the world, there are plants that are adapted to grow well, in the conditions that are presented. Not all are 'garden-worthy,' but there are always many wonderful plants to choose from.

Why not choose plants that do well without extra 'care'?

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Thursday, May 13, 2010

Late Spring

It's been a lovely spring here in the Southeastern U.S. Ample spring rains means lush green growth for all of the trees, shrubs, and perennials.

I've battened down the vegetable garden areas for being away (mostly) over the summer. The main vegetable garden is fallow (as I've mentioned before), except for a giant butterfly weed, some perennial French sorrel, and French tarragon -- none of which seem to be root-knot nematode hosts.

In the satellite garden, the garlic beds are flourishing, and will be harvested sometime in June. The asparagus plants are growing well, along with some tomatoes and peppers that I planted in one of the far beds.

Hopefully, any local woodchucks will remove themselves from habitat, without herbs, squash, and okra seedlings to eat!


Wednesday, May 12, 2010


I'm developing a fondness for simple-flowered irises.

I don't have any, but I've been admiring them. They're usually a clear blue to purple color, and seem to form robust clumps, flowering seemingly without fuss in spring.

That's my kind of perennial. 

They don't seem to fit my 'working for a living' screen for our garden, as they seem to be a horticultural selection of a native species from elsewhere in the world.  But, to be fair, our native irises aren't exactly a wildlife magnet, either.  Maybe that's their strategy!

This iris near the Geology Museum was photographed in dim light, so isn't as vibrantly colored as it actually is.

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Monday, May 10, 2010

Cool spring days

The last cool days of spring are welcome, with summer's heat coming soon. The crystal skies of the weekend gave way to clouds and showers this afternoon, with a bit of a nip in the air. We'd be glad of a 'chill' in the summer!

But it's time to enjoy sitting out on the porch, and enjoying the green lushness of spring, before crispy bits appear, from summer drought.

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Sunday, May 9, 2010

Climbing roses

We have a wonderful old rose that's incredibly tough.

It predates our residence here by many years, judging by its old canes. It sailed through the drought years of the last decade without a drip of extra water. This evening, it's flowering profusely.

A cutting taken a couple of years ago has also flourished.

In a permanent spot against the back of the house, it's looking robust, too.

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Saturday, May 8, 2010

Perennial plantings

The border next to the garden shed is especially fun this spring.

It looked great after initial planting, settled in, and has continued to be an interesting mix.

With abundant rain, Coreopsis 'Nana' has flourished after sulking for several years, and the Liatris, Phlox, and Agastache are coming along nicely. The ornamental Alliums are also looking good (also thanks to plenty of rain).

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Friday, May 7, 2010

Perennial borders

I'm enough of an experienced gardener to know that many of the perennial borders that I admire on garden visits require lots of maintenance and change-out of plants.

They're beautiful, certainly, but folks like me that don't have full-time to devote to their gardens (uh, isn't that most of us?) would rather have lower maintenance mixed shrub and herbaceous perennials in focused areas, with naturalistic plantings elsewhere, with 'color' in specific spots in our garden, often in containers.

At least, that's my approach!

I like to use foliage colors and textures to provide a soothing feel, in addition to the blues, grays, yellows, and purples that stem from flowers and leaves.

The shed border, undergoing a pleasant transition, is anchored by a large rosemary, but surrounded with Coreopsis 'Nana', ornamental alliums, and Agastache growing rapidly at this point in the year. Earlier in spring, Veronica umbrosa 'Georgia Blue' added color to this border. I lost a lovely Rosemary 'Irene' on the far left of the border last year, probably due to our exceptionally cold winter. But the Agastache and Phlox have quickly established their new spaces in the bed.

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Thursday, May 6, 2010

A Promethea moth

After a series of school programs this morning, we saw a wonderful Promethea moth on the ceiling of the porch of the Geology Museum (in the Garden where I work), with wings fully extended. The kids saw it, too. Way cool!

But I didn't have my camera, bah humbug, and didn't manage to get back until this evening.

The lights were on, so the moth (still there) had its wings closed, and I wondered about whether it was 'confused' about flying off, with the light and heat from the lamp.

This isn't a great photograph, but I was glad to see a Promethea moth, in any case.

It's an interesting moth, native to the Eastern US.

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Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Spring evenings

The end of spring semester is filled with a flurry of activity:  school programs, wrapping things up, and final interpretive responsibilities.  I'm fortunate to have summers 'off' now, being a 9-month faculty member instead of a 12-month one - having 'converted' 3 years ago. 

It means I try not to have many 'work' responsibilities in the summer, but it doesn't mean I stop learning about nature (and enjoying nature), or learning about gardening (and enjoying it).

The kids in recent (Garden) programs have enjoyed observing the numerous black swallowtail caterpillars in the Ethnobotany Garden (part of the Children's Garden).  Way cool!  And the young praying mantises, grasshoppers, lady bird beetles, Northern banded water snakes, Carolina wrens, etc. that we've discovered, I hope have just encouraged their interest in the natural world.

Pipevine swallowtail on a Zinnia flower
But I wanted to make note of how the evenings in April and May this year have been lovely  - cool, relatively low humidity, and lush.  Yes, it was up to 87°F this afternoon, but it started out cool, and now in early evening, the temperatures are moderate again.

And the delights of summer (as well as sultry heat) are around the corner.

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Monday, May 3, 2010

A rainy evening and garden visits

We had almost two inches of rain over the last 24 hours, excellent for us, as we needed it. 

But I'm mindful of the deluge that folks experienced in Tennessee and Kentucky, and the resulting flooding, damage, and loss of life.  I've become aware of the increasing variability of extreme weather (predicted by climate change models), and it's hard not to wonder (and worry).

But the gift of rain, and being thankful for every day, is currently on my mind;  an evening stroll found a luminous light and plants grateful for extra moisture.

Last Friday, I had a lovely group of 'students' from a OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute) class visit our garden after a presentation about 'Creating a Natural Garden.'  I'm a garden (and nature) educator by profession (and avocation as well, actually); I love to encourage folks to think creatively about their gardens, and what they can plant, how to find natives, etc. etc.  I was delighted to have a full class (25)! 

But it does take a bit of courage to invite people to visit your garden in its normal state. We do clean up the annual weeds, but were a bit behind, so cosmetic tidying was in order.  It wasn't pristine, but enjoyable, and that's what we experience everyday.  A gift, to be sure.

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Sunday, May 2, 2010

Japanese persimmon in flower

Our Japanese persimmon, moved from our first house in Southeast Georgia, is in full flower today. There are LOTS of flowers open, but rainfall will determine how many of those flowers produce fruits (usually a good number are shed; fruits are 'expensive' to produce in terms of plant resources.)

This persimmon struggled in the first few years after being moved, gingerly extending shoots, then finally flowering.

It's produced nice crops of persimmons most years, in spite of being rather small and gangly. In Southeast Georgia, persimmons were handsome large shrubs. This one is reasonably attractive, with nice fall color, but it's hard to claim that its shape is particularly noteworthy.

The fruits are lined up here, along with homemade bread, from a post on Thanksgiving, 2008.

It's a trouble-free fruit tree for us, and well worth growing if you like persimmons!

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Saturday, May 1, 2010

Planting native perennials

The Botanical Gardens of Asheville Spring Plant Sale and the WNC Herb Festival were full of cool plants this weekend. We snagged all sorts of interesting natives, from Wild Quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Goldenseal, American Ginseng, and ramps, along with Golden ragwort (Senecio aureus), Anise-scented Goldenrod (Solidago odora), Wild Yam, a Gaillardia cultivar, (Rough Blazing Star) Liatris aspera, and a lovely Carex spp.

Added to the Penstemons, Coreopsis, Centaurea, and Achillea that came as trial complimentary plants from Blooms of Bressingham (I'd signed up for them at the Garden Writer's Association annual conference), we had lots to plant in the front perennial bed at our small mountain house!

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