Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Gardening in winter

In a mild winter climate, there's not much excuse for retreating indoors at the first sign of gloom. 

OK, I'm as susceptible as the next normal Southern U.S. gardener to whine when we have long dark rainy days for more than two days in a row.  Hmm, are we wimpy, or what?

But what our long seasons mean is that we can grow winter vegetables (some with a bit of protection) quite well, and that we can have winter interest in our gardens from berries, bark, seed heads, dried foliage, etc. that continue our gardening season through the winter and beyond.

I was reminded of this today by an excellent article by Piet Oudolf in Fine Gardening's regular e-mail. 

In the long winter days in the Netherlands, he relies on many of our North American natives for winter interest in perennial borders.  He includes plants whose fruits, seedheads, or berries are interesting to look at throughout winter.  Totally wonderful.

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Monday, November 29, 2010

Leaf mulch

Those of us in deciduous forest habitats (and with lots of deciduous trees in our gardens and neighborhoods) have plenty of free organic mulch.

First, save your own leaves -- don't let any of those go to the curb.

Second, snag your neighbor's leaves.  We collect bags full of them.

one of our leaf stashes!
Finally, corral the leaf-vacuum trunk (if available) and have them dump a load or two in your driveway!

Why buy hardwood or pine bark mulch for your garden when leaves are free?

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Sunday, November 28, 2010

Sustainable Gardening

I've been thinking quite a bit about 'sustainable gardening' lately.  I promote (what I consider) are sustainable gardening practices in the classes I teach -- minimal inputs of water, fuel, pesticides, herbicides, and inorganic fertilizers, don't let leaves leave your property, don't kill things, promote diversity, plant mostly natives, think naturalistic planting design, minimize areas devoted to lawn, etc. 

We've been happy with our 'natural garden' created with this approach in our own home landscape in the Piedmont of South Carolina.  And we're continuing this in our second home in the mountains (where we'll probably 'retire'), where we're populating the slope around our small mountain house with native understory shrubs along with native trees.

Vegetable gardening is a bit more problematic;  vegetables, by their domesticated nature, are nutrient and water hogs, so the gardener is ALWAYS grubbing around for more sources of organic matter and nutrients. 

Homemade compost is excellent, but it's hard to produce enough that's high nitrogen, unless you have chickens, rabbits, cows, or horses.  Chickens and rabbits are feasible in an urban environment if you're at home most all of the time, but not so practical if you're away for weekends or holidays.

But what exactly is sustainable gardening? 

I'll assert that it is creating an ecologically-balanced landscape on the property that you inhabit, and that restores most of the ecology that once was on that site, along with making sure that no extra inputs of fertilizer or pesticides get washed into the stormwater drains. 

That's what we've tried to do, in our attempt to create natural woodland and forest habitat and meadow on what once was almost 2 acres of lawn in the Piedmont, and incorporated organic vegetable gardens into the mix as well.

In the mountains, trying to restore an invasive-rich ravine into a rich cove forest of native trees, shrubs, and wildflowers is an amazing effort;  my gardening companion has made remarkable progress already. 

And converting part of the driveway and bare area below the house to vegetable garden beds is productive, too.

So, my first 'take-home' message, is let's get planting natives instead of 'ornamentals' in our gardens and landscapes.

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Friday, November 26, 2010

Removing invasive species

We've been freeing the slope below our small (urban) mountain house of invasive species.

Or, really, I should say my gardening companion has been doing it, with my encouragement.  It's made a huge difference to date;  first, he tackled the Japanese honeysuckle, English ivy climbing up trees and walls, and now is rooting out English ivy sprawled along the forest slope.   He's all the way down to the intermittent creek in the ravine, and is making great progress along the creek bed.

Enjoying the hard physical labor, he's ventured forth on the lower slopes of adjoining lots, too, clearing trash as well as weeds.  The results have been great. What was a sea of green honeysuckle and ivy in winter is now bare branches and a rich understory of fallen leaves (with bags and bags added from our neighbors' collections).

We're plotting additions of woodland wildflowers to accompany the shrubs and trees that have already been added (all characteristic of cove forests).  That'll be my gardening challenge, as we 'landscape' the paths down to the garden studio (now in the planning stages, but hopefully construction to begin in the new year) and beyond.

It's fun to think about restoring a weedy, overgrown ravine to a semblance of a natural plant community.

Maybe someday, if and when a greenway is established along the creek, folks will talk about the enthusiastic homeowners (the botanists) who transformed the slopes along the creek.

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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

More winter greens

Our young neighbors in the mountains (who live in the apartment building next door) have been fun to watch (and encourage). 

There was a large cast iron water feature that was breeding mosquitoes when we took over our cottage;  we put anti-larval dunks in it to their approval (they're mostly health professionals).

a re-purposed salad bowl

But this year, they filled it with potting mix and are growing mustard and chard.  What a nice thing!

Our late November raised beds with leeks, chard, lettuce, and greens

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Monday, November 22, 2010

Miscanthus sinensis

What's out of place in this image?

It's not hard to spot, as an invasive plant, along Interstate 26 from Greenville, SC to Asheville, NC and up the Blue Ridge Escarpment on Highway 25.  It's colonized the roadsides along those thoroughfares and is now moving out to disturbed old field habitat beyond.

It's a colonizer, to be sure.  My gardening companion and I saw it in Northern Vietnam, where it's native, flourishing on disturbed slopes.

Supposedly, our plants in the Garden were sterile cultivars, but here are a couple of plants that have become established in the powerline corridor.

So, we're still planting it as an 'ornamental grass' -- hmm, what's out of place here?

A footnote:  River Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) is an equally prolific (reproductively speaking) grass in our area.  Plant it in your landscape at your peril.  Other native grasses will also abundantly set seed (Indian Grass comes to mind), but that's what plants often do, to be fair!

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Sunday, November 21, 2010

Labels and categories

Geez, I'm thinking I need to go back through my posts to focus their categories and labels, so if one of you is interested in something (I've) written on a topic, it's easy to find correlated posts, if you have time to read them.  Happily, Google's search capabilities within blogs are good (I use it all the time to find connections on mine), but I was admiring the nice category clouds and lists on other blogs. 

I'd like to create a reasonable (small) category list, but obviously my personally generated labels (by Google standards) are all over.  Hmm.  Going back and sorting though posts and adding more 
general labels for posts seems necessary to do so, though.  Yikes, that could take awhile.

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Full moon in November

It would have been a beautiful evening for a full moon walk. 

But November 21 could just as easily have been cold and rainy than the lovely late fall day that it was.  This evening was mild, and the sky just punctuated with clouds, and the crickets are still singing.

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Saturday, November 20, 2010

Ginkgo in fall

It's been a great fall color season, and the ginkgos are currently at their peak.

Ginkgos are ancient conifers with a delightful habit of turning butter yellow in fall, just before all the leaves (in clusters on short shoots) drop, practically in unison.

I remember a great photo/memory image from years ago of our dog romping with my gardening companion in the ginkgo leaves in front of our (first) house in Georgia.

Ginkgos at the South Carolina Botanical Garden
We've had ginkgos ever since.

These two are at the garden where I work.  Fabulous!

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Thursday, November 18, 2010

Preparing vegetable beds for spring

I've amended all of the soil in my satellite garden beds now.  Garlic is planted in a couple of them, but the rest are devoted to getting ready for spring.  The asparagus is flourishing, hooray, (not shown in this image), so I'm hopeful those beds are fine, especially after the mulching of compost that they received.

I half-heartedly transplanted kale and mustard greens in one of the beds (the one on the far left) last weekend, but the resident woodchuck (not yet in semi-hibernation) crept up and made short work of them.  Hhrmph. 

If it's not the herbivorous squirrels (who knew), the major herbivores (big-time) are woodchucks. 

OK, I AM a wildlife gardener, but this is getting tiresome. 

I came across a 'gardening tip' today that vanilla extract (the real thing) sprinkled on lettuce leaves was a woodchuck magnet (that's according to Sharon Lovejoy, in Trowel and Error) -- it may be worth trying in my Havahart trap!

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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Seasonal changes and musings

We've had a long extended fall season, with colorful leaves persisting for weeks.

The ginkgo leaves are at their peak now, with an beautiful golden color.  They'll all drop any day, but they're glorious while they're here.   The dogwoods, even in spite of their drought-stressed summer, are putting on a show of reds and oranges.

The kids I had outside in a program today delighted in the perfect fall weather, which was clear and cool, following several rainy days.

We discovered fall fruits and seeds (having them squish them between their fingers is always interesting - I demonstrate- -- are they sticky, indicating sugars, or smooth, indicating lipids, how many seeds are in each fruit, etc.?)

Who eats them?  Oh, they're poisonous, many kids say when looking at red fruits.

Hmm, why do you think red fruits are 'poisonous', I ask, after some 'wait' time.  Hmm, what eats these berries or fruits?  And we talk about the virtues of being sugary or being lipid-rich. I finally explain that red fruits are basically signaling 'I'm ready to eat.'


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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Vegetable gardening seasons

A quick trip to the grocery this evening brought a question from a fellow shopper:  are you a Master Gardener?

Well, no, I'm not, I said, but I work at the Botanical Garden.

I supposed she'd seen me at Garden Fest (where we've been promoting growing your own vegetables for the last couple of years), but she didn't say.

We proceeded to talk about winter vegetables.  She asked if it was too late to sow kale seeds (yes), are broccoli and kale plants in the ground hardy (yes), and would a cold frame be handy (yes).

It's encouraging, even though we live in a small college town, to be asked these questions, from someone I didn't know!

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Monday, November 15, 2010

Creative hanging baskets

My colleague Ginny is an artist in the Garden.  Not only does she create wonderful  vignettes in her borders for us to learn from, but her baskets, on the Nature Center porch, are amazing. 

I took these photos after the first frost (the bromeliads that had been in the baskets have been tucked away in a warmer spot), but even at that, you can see the magic at work.

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Saturday, November 13, 2010

Hardiness of greens

Arugula, parsley, and kale
I was surprised to see the kale seedlings looking quite good, after frosty nights in their beds in the mountains. 

Supposedly, young leaves are more frost tolerant than older ones, and kale is normally tough to 20°F, in any case.   The leeks, lettuce, swiss chard, and parsley are doing well, too.

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Friday, November 12, 2010

A long fall season

After a mild frost (30-32°F) last weekend, we've had lovely warm days (highs near 70° F) with lows in the 40's.  Tender annuals and perennials were zapped, of course, but hardier plants, whether ornamental or vegetable, sailed through.

In our (SE US) climate, it's always variable, and with a mix of plants from around the world in our gardens (vegetables included),  it's hard to predict HOW the impact of oncoming cold weather will affect our individual gardens.

There's always the site to consider, and exposure, in addition to how frost affects our plants (whether edible or ornamental).

We're doing an experiment in our unheated education (Sprouting Wings) greenhouse this winter (I've posted about this previously).

It'll be interesting see if we can 'grow' greens in the winter, beyond simply holding them for harvest.

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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A gray tree frog

We had an unexpected visitor in our garden office building this afternoon, a gray tree frog (Hyla versicolor).  I'd seen anoles inside before, but not a tree frog.  But my new office colleague (a keen naturalist) spotted it in the stairwell, and we took a look.  Gray tree frogs vary in color, depending on their surroundings, temperature, and humidity;  this one was a solid dried-leaf gray.

I was surprised to see a frog still out and about, maybe seeking warmth?  But, doing a bit of research, I learned that gray tree frogs survive the winter by hibernating 'on land' - under leaf litter, rocks, and logs; their bodies 'freeze' but are protected from damage by high glycerol levels in their tissues.


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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Winter greens and other winter vegetables

We're doing an winter vegetable gardening experiment in our unheated education hoop house (it used to be a 'greenhouse').

Propane costs ran up to $500/month to heat the house (and after losing all of the tropical plants after an severe freeze, without heat, a couple of years ago), it's quite appealing to run the house as a demonstration 'cold house'.

In our Piedmont South Carolina winter, we only have a few weeks with less than 10 hours of sunlight a day.  That's plenty to support winter greens to harvest, and probably to grow  -- I'm thinking we'll be able to do successive lettuce mix plantings as well as grow hardy and semi-hardy vegetables in containers.  (This house has a gravel surface so isn't conducive to ground sowing.)

West Dean, UK cold frame
We sowed various mixes of greens today, and will be doing more in the coming weeks.  There may be enough light for greens to grow through mid-December and take a rest, and then resume growing, but temperatures will be important, too.

We've got a bank of black plastic drums (recycled soft-drink syrup containers) filled with water that will be serving as a reservoir of heat, and we can always add a second layer of frost-protection with floating row covers.

If Elliot Coleman and Barbara Damrosch can grow greens in coastal Maine in unheated houses, surely we can manage to extend our growing beyond kale and collards in the Southeastern U.S. (They're tasty, of course, but lettuce, spinach, and arugula are great additions to winter salads.)

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Monday, November 8, 2010

Black walnuts

My gardening companion collected LOTS of green-husked black walnuts a couple of weeks ago. He said that he'd crack them on our driveway (hmm, ancient black asphalt?)

They sat in a ceramic dish on the dining table for some time, until some were showing sign of mold, when I banished them to outside the kitchen door.

black walnuts ready to be predated
After quite a bit of rain, the dish filled up with water, and the husks darkened and started decomposing.

And the squirrels discovered the dish and started recovering the nuts.  Way cool!

We're down to maybe one or two black walnut 'nuts' to be recovered today.

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Sunday, November 7, 2010

The first frost

We had a solid frost last night. The temperature went down to 30°F, with enough moisture in the air and combined with a still wind, the conditions were ideal to produce a heavy frost.

The mustard greens, purple mustard, arugula, etc. were frozen early, but by late morning were fine (I'd harvested all of the large leaves yesterday, just in case).

The lone fall tomato plants wilted with frost, of course, but the young green tomatoes became sauce for a vegetable lasagna that I'm planning to make tomorrow.

It was a good day in the vegetable garden.  I finished planting garlic cloves and prepared two beds with extra compost in the satellite garden for potatoes and onions. for spring.  The added mushroom compost and composted manure will enrich the soil over winter, so those beds will be perfect for planting.

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Saturday, November 6, 2010

A (college) student vegetable garden

Ecoplex vegetable garden
The students at the Clemson University Ecoplex (a duplex retrofitted with energy-conserving features) were up for trying a vegetable garden this fall.

They weren't experienced, but game, and following soil prep (and support and encouragement by an committed CU Housing staff member and CU's Sustainability Program), we planted out transplants of lettuces, mustards, and red cabbage as well as sowing seeds of mesclun mix and other greens in late September.

I was delighted to receive this photo late last week (in addition to reports along the way).  The fall vegetables have been flourishing, and the students report that they've been sharing lettuce and greens with neighbors and others.

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Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Using leaf mulch

It always amazes us that some of our neighbors don't keep their leaves. 

My gardening companion and gardening assistant with leaf bounty
They're such a great source of organic matter, and usually nutrient-rich, too, it's like throwing away the bags of organic material available for purchase at big-box stores. 

We're not talking big bucks here, but dry leaves are a LOT easier to move around than bags of mushroom compost, pine bark nuggets, or hardwood mulch.

Putting leaves out
We've got a long back slope in the mountains that benefits from leaves, and we have plenty of space to put as many as we can collect. 

My gardening companion (aka my husband Tim) is restoring it as a hardwood forest, pulling up the English ivy, editing the box elders and wild cherries, removing the debris of some decades, and opening it up for a variety of suitable tree and shrub species, not to mention understory woodland plants.

For understory plants to thrive, though, we need more mulch to enrich the soil, creating the deeper layers that support them in natural conditions.  It'll be fun to start planting when the soil's ready.

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Monday, November 1, 2010

Winter vegetables

In the Southeastern U.S., we're blessed with plenty of winter sunshine (at least compared to Northern and Central Europe and Northern Asia) -- I need to check corresponding parallels in Asia, to be sure, actually.

And our winter temperatures aren't so bad either, being much more moderate than the Northeastern U.S. We often experience relatively mild winters, although it's variable, and more recently, even more so.

In the mountains of N.C., we're Zone 6, but have only had a light frost so far, which even romaine lettuce of unknown hardiness (transplants from a big box store) sailed through.  With predictions of 28°F for next weekend,  I harvested all of the outside (lettuce) leaves this afternoon, and chard leaves of any decent size, and the arugula in that category, too, before heading down the 'hill' tomorrow.  I'm sure that the frost/freeze might not amount to much and the raised beds are plenty buffered by their stone walls, but I'd rather enjoy eating the greens than clean up the frost-bitten remnants on a later trip!

The young mesclun mix, kale, and mustard seedlings are on their own.  I'll be delighted to harvest any of them.  The parsley is looking great, too, so I'll probably cut quite a bit tomorrow morning, too.

At home in the Piedmont (Zone 7b), I've planted several beds of garlic, but need to tuck in a couple of more beds.  And I have flats of kale, arugula, and other greens to tend.

I'm planning for a winter vegetable garden experiment in one of our unheated houses at the Garden where I work.  Doesn't it seem like winter greens are a no-brainer?

Check this book out (The Winter Harvest Handbook by Elliot Coleman).  It's a fabulous guide (and inspiration) to what more of us should be doing.

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