Archive for category Vegetable Gardening

For Earth Day: Reclaiming Our Suburban Deserts

Native dogwoods provide fruits beloved by many species of wildlife.

Native dogwoods provide fruits beloved by many species of wildlife.

Some days, I confess, I weep for our Earth. Perhaps I am a sentimental tree-hugger, but I know that my sentiment is based on science; I mourn for what mankind is losing. Among the degrees I’ve earned (I have three), is a master’s in environmental management from Duke University. My study focus was southeastern ecology and environmental resource management.

Why am I telling you this? Because I want you to take my words seriously on this day when we celebrate our home planet.

Humanity’s time on the Earth has often been marked by turmoil and destruction. And throughout history, mankind has taken whatever it could from our planet – minerals, oil, diamonds, and now, more than ever, trees.

People who do not understand ecology, who do not know the difference between an oak and a maple, a loblolly and a red cedar, think vegetation is infinite and completely replaceable. Here in the southeastern US where I live, until the last couple of decades, when you cut down a forest, it grew back pretty much the same. This is no longer true.

Let me repeat that: Today in the southeastern US when you cut down a forest, what grows back will only superficially resemble what you removed. This new reality is primarily the result of an alarming increase in invasive exotic species – insects, diseases, animals, and plants that are not native to the southeast and therefore have no natural enemies here. The invaders now have the edge over natives largely because deforestation due to urbanization has reduced remaining woodlands to small, scattered, highly fragmented tracts – easy pickings for non-native invaders.

Small woodlots that once were havens for the Southeast’s abundant native species of plants and animals are now overrun by invaders the natives are not evolved to fight. The species diversity in our dwindling native forests is declining faster every year. For hard data backing me up, try here or here or here.

Why should you care? Because an absence of species diversity creates a biological desert – a place where almost no creature can thrive, a place where our songbirds, our pollinators, our frogs and toads, our dogwoods and ash trees cannot survive.

Squash flowers need visits from pollinators like these if you want squash for your table.

Squash flowers need visits from pollinators like these if you want squash for your table.

Parking lots, shopping malls, and city centers full of skyscrapers are obvious biological deserts in my region. They don’t have to be. If you try an Internet search on sustainable urban landscapes, you’ll find exciting developments going on all over the world, even in a few places in the United States. Not so much in the Southeast. Green roofs on buildings — even green walls on sides of buildings – are successfully providing food for people and animals, ameliorating the heat island effect known to afflict urban areas, and elevating the moods of the people who live in such areas. Humans crave green; we evolved with it; on a deeply visceral level, it makes us happy.

Native Lonicera sempervirens 'Major Wheeler' obediently remains where you plant it, providing beauty for people and food for wildlife.

Native Lonicera sempervirens ‘Major Wheeler’ obediently remains where you plant it, providing beauty for people and food for wildlife.

Suburban deserts are less obvious to the average person, but they are entirely real. Start with the archetypical symbol of suburban life: the grass lawn. Somewhere back in time – probably about the time fertilizer companies commercialized chemical fertilizers – someone in the real estate industry decreed that “curb appeal” depends on how startlingly green your grass lawn is. Only certain species of grass – all non-native to the Southeast – are allowed, the height of the lawn must not exceed a few inches, and it must be kept artificially green at any cost. Chemical fertilizers and weed suppressors must be religiously applied, and hundreds of thousands of gallons of water must be poured onto the sacred green plot to preserve its holy color. (Imagine what better uses for their money suburbanites could find if they weren’t squandering it on maintaining their lawn deserts.)

The consequences of failure to conform in suburbia are dire. Your Home Owners Association (HOA) will first try to shame you into complying with the rules regarding Sacred Lawn Maintenance, and if that doesn’t work, they will fine you. Some HOA rules might even allow the HOA to foreclose on your home for noncompliance.

Anyone who lives in a typical suburb with an HOA has heard stories about unfortunate neighbors who fell victim to the wrath of HOA despots. My neighbor recently told me that her daughter, who lives in a nearby town of rigidly regulated suburban deserts, was recently castigated by her HOA for the crime of allowing clover to grow in her lawn. It might interest the despots to know that before the commercialization of chemical fertilizers, grass lawns were deliberately interplanted with Dutch white clover, because the clover’s nitrogen-fixing roots added this nutrient to the soil, thereby helping to keep the grass green.

Children can play in forests too; I grew up playing in forests.

Children can play in forests too; I grew up playing in forests.

Does any real estate expert really think that clover in a lawn will bring down the value of the entire neighborhood? Really? My neighbor’s daughter also got in trouble last year when her child grew sunflowers for a school science project. The sunflowers were deemed to be unsightly by the HOA despots. Apparently, any attempt to increase species diversity in a suburban desert is against the rules of most HOAs.

Unsightly? Really?

Unsightly? Really?

The population of my part of North Carolina has grown immensely in the last twenty years. Former large tracts of forest that once separated towns are almost all gone now, replaced by suburban sprawl – thousands upon thousands of housing developments, many full of nearly identical houses surrounded by manicured lawns perhaps punctuated by a lone tree struggling to survive outside the context in which it evolved. Southeastern trees don’t naturally occur in the middle of chemically altered non-native mowed lawns, folks. And what you do to maintain that green desert is slowly killing any tree you insert into that unnatural environment.

Our native trees, such as this Halesia diptera,  will thrive in your yard, if you site it correctly.

Our native trees, such as this Halesia diptera, will thrive in your yard, if you site it correctly.

This situation could so easily be fixed. Europe is way ahead of the US in this area, but even in the US, if you search on “sustainable communities,” you’ll find some exciting examples of entire suburbs being constructed according to sustainable concepts.

Sustainability is more than energy-efficient building methods, green materials, and even adding food plants to your landscape. Your food plants won’t thrive if the native pollinators are gone, if the songbirds and frogs that eat insect pests are gone. These animals need the environments they evolved with. In my region, that means healthy, diverse native southeastern forests. This can be accomplished easily if suburbanites will throw off the shackles of archaic HOA rules based, not on ecology, but on some real estate expert’s notion of what looks good.

Our native redbuds not only look spectacular in the spring; their seed pods are essential food for many wildlife species, including cardinals.

Our native redbuds not only look spectacular in the spring; their seed pods provide essential food for many wildlife species, including cardinals.

Lawns should be reserved for parks, soccer fields, and other large spaces where people like to play and run on short green surfaces. These lawns can remain healthy without regularly dumping chemicals on them. They should not contain one species of non-native grass. Clover should be welcomed. Occasional applications of animal manure or other organic nutrients is likely all they’ll need, especially if they are mowed less frequently and maintained at a slightly higher height.

Instead of deserts full of green lawns bereft of all other forms of life, homeowners should consider working together to rebuild a patchwork of native forest in their neighborhoods. In developments full of tiny lots, this might mean one homeowner plants one large canopy tree – an oak, a maple, a tulip poplar. As it grows, native understory trees and shrubs can be added for color and species diversity – dogwoods, red buds, sourwoods, persimmons, viburnums, blueberries, deciduous azaleas – all of these species provide food for native wildlife while contributing to the beautification of the area they occupy.

Native viburnums offer abundant spring blossoms attractive to pollinators and humans, abundant berries beloved by much wildlife, and gorgeous fall leaf color that enhances any landscape.

Native viburnums offer abundant spring blossoms attractive to pollinators and humans, abundant berries beloved by much wildlife, and gorgeous fall leaf color that enhances any landscape.

The traditional suburban aesthetic is killing our land by creating biological deserts where our songbirds, pollinators, and other wildlife cannot perpetuate themselves successfully much longer. This catastrophe can be avoided if homeowners in these deserts will stand up and defend our planet – and their homes – by working to change the HOA rules that prohibit the nurturing of native species diversity in their home landscapes.

This newly emerged Copes Gray Tree Frog needs clean water and a diverse plant-filled landscape to survive long enough to eat overabundant insect pests.

This newly emerged Copes Gray Tree Frog needs clean water and a diverse plant-filled landscape to survive long enough to eat overabundant insect pests.

Do it for your children and grandchildren who will suffer the consequences of current HOA scorched-earth policies. Do it for the migratory warblers seeking safe nesting sites, the insect-and-slug-eating toads who need non-poisoned waters to reproduce in.

Do it for the Earth.

Do it today.

Rescue the natives; save your children.

Rescue the natives; save your children.

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Just in case…

Eastern Columbine

Eastern Columbine

At my house during the hours just before sunrise today, the temperature dropped to around 30 degrees Fahrenheit. Fortunately for the myriad tender plants on my five acres, a north wind was blowing in cold air all night. The tender leaves of my canopy trees, the delicate flowers on shrubs and perennials are all as lovely today as they were before the one-inch rainfall of yesterday. However, tonight — we may not be as lucky.

A blooming blueberry bush in front of an Eastern Redbud

A blooming blueberry bush in front of an Eastern Redbud

Tonight, temperatures are predicted to be as low as last night’s, but tonight the winds are predicted to be much lighter. If they stop entirely, cold air will tumble down my hill to the floodplain beside the creek, then fill up the lower areas with freezing air, like water filling a basin.

A Rhododendron austrinum hybrid that started blooming yesterday.

A Rhododendron austrinum hybrid that started blooming yesterday.

One dark spring about a decade ago, temperatures dropped into the low to mid-twenties just as the canopy giants that tower over my land were pushing out fresh perfect tiny leaves, as they are now. Every leaf was killed. The trees remained winter-bare until June, when they finally managed to summon enough energy to produce another flush of greenery.

Variegated Japanese Solomon's Seal

Variegated Japanese Solomon’s Seal

So this morning, just in case, tomorrow dawn’s colder than predicted and destroys the spring beauty surrounding me, I went out and took a few photographs. Not every plant is peaking just yet, but this may be all we get this year. The whims of weather are not for mere gardeners to understand, I suppose.

Halesia diptera is just about to attain full glory.

Halesia diptera is just about to attain full glory.

The thicker bracts of our native dogwoods are unlikely to be adversely impacted.

The thicker bracts of our native dogwoods are unlikely to be adversely impacted.

The visual impact of a mature native dogwood in bloom should not be underestimated.

The visual impact of a mature native dogwood in bloom should not be underestimated.

The trilliums I planted last year are all up and showing flower buds. I am hoping the cold will not harm them.

I think this one is Trillium luteum, but I've managed to lose my labels, so I won't be certain if the flower buds don't open.

I think this one is Trillium luteum, but I’ve managed to lose my labels, so I won’t be certain if the flower buds don’t open.

The native deciduous gingers Asarum canadense) I added last year have expanded their numbers considerably. I am worried that this potential food for the Pipevine Swallowtail may be too tender to withstand tonight’s chill.

Asarum canadense

Asarum canadense

The Pinxterbloom Azalea is in almost full bloom, its flower clusters bobbing prettily in today’s north wind.

Pinxterbloom Azalea

Pinxterbloom Azalea

There’s more, but the strong wind prevented me from getting decent photographs of them.

As I wandered the floodplain, I discovered that the frogs and toads have reproduced with spectacular abundance this year. Because of the wonderfully generous rains all winter and, so far, this spring, my floodplain is still covered with a number of channels full of water — long, narrow puddles, basically. Today I discovered all of these puddles are brimming with tadpoles!

I'm guessing there are thousands, when you add up all the occupants of all the puddles.

I’m guessing there are thousands, when you add up all the occupants of all the puddles.

These puddles are not very deep — a few inches at most. And now that the great canopy trees are awakening and pulling up water to create leaves, past experience tells me these puddles will be vanishing quickly — barring unusually heavy and regular spring rains. The tadpoles are in a race with evaporation and thirsty trees. Can they metamorphose into frogs and toads before their puddle homes vanish? I confess I’ve spent more than one hour over the years scooping up beached tadpoles and ferrying them to deeper waters. As the water vanishes, the beached tadpoles become food for crows if I don’t intervene. I know it’s all part of Mother Nature’s master plan, but still I can’t seem to stop myself from interfering, at least a bit.

The yellow cast to the water is from the abundant pollen currently covering every object on the property.

The yellow cast to the water is from the abundant pollen currently covering every object on the property.

Tonight’s cold is unlikely to be severe enough to hurt the tadpoles. Warm ground will prevent the water from freezing. It’s times like this that I wish I could drop a giant glass dome over my five acres, protecting all the tender vegetation from unseasonable cold spells.

The vegetable garden will be fine. I’ve covered all exposed plants, and the cold won’t last long enough to exceed the protective capacity of those covers. Summer plants in the greenhouse continue to thrive. The tomatoes are becoming quite large. They need the weather to stabilize soon, so that I can transplant them to their summer beds.

The tomatoes are growing impatient with the weather swings.

The tomatoes are growing impatient with the weather swings.

The summer birds that have returned should be fine. The cold won’t be deep enough to kill their insect food supply, and I’ll be sure all the feeders are well stocked. The hummingbirds could be adversely impacted, if their favorite food flowers are killed by cold. Sugar water in feeders helps, but they need their native foods too.

Eastern Columbines are one of the first flowers beloved by hummingbirds to bloom in the spring.

Eastern Columbines are one of the first flowers beloved by hummingbirds to bloom in the spring.

So, my fellow gardening friends, keep all fingers and toes crossed for all of us who are facing a freeze warning tonight. Strawberry farmers will be encasing their crop in ice to protect blossoms and fruits. Alas, I’d need a sprinkler system capable of coating the leaves of 90-foot trees to protect my tender vegetation. Not exactly practical.

Here’s hoping these photos are the first of many I’ll be able to share this spring.

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All Signs Point to Spring

birdbath

Blossoms abound, bird song delights ears from dawn to dark, pollen is ubiquitous — yup, I’d say spring is most definitively here. Those are petals from a redbud tree floating in that little birdbath. Here’s one of the native redbud trees adorning our landscape at the moment:

Redbud bloom color really pops against a background of red cedars.

Redbud bloom color really pops against a background of red cedars.

Along with all the flowers, native wildlife is suddenly more evident everywhere, especially the water-loving birds. In addition to the Wood Ducks that nest along our creek every spring, this year, a pair of Canada Geese has moved in. I see them paddling up and down the creek at dawn most mornings. They seem to have claimed the downstream end, while the Wood Ducks dabble in the waters upstream. The geese will leave as soon as their young are adept fliers. But I’ll likely see the family patrolling the floodplain for about a month before they leave.

More exciting than these waterfowl is the return of the Belted Kingfishers. Every day now, I see and hear one flying the length of our adjacent creek, calling raucously before it settles on a good fishing perch.

The water birds are here because the creek is healthier than it has been in recent springs. Water levels are back to optimal levels, thanks to abundant rains. The surrounding wetlands are very, very wet, dissected by many water-filled channels, where crayfish and frogs thrive. The cinnamon ferns have unfurled their fiddleheads, the glossy green leaves of Atamasco Lilies promise imminent flower shoots, and any day now I expect to spot Jack-in-the-Pulpits poking up out of the mud.

My two gorgeous early-blooming Magnolia acuminata varieties have been perfuming the air and delighting the eye for several weeks now. ‘Butterflies,’ as usual, was the first variety to bloom, its 25-foot tall frame covered in deep yellow blossoms.

One of the last Magnolia 'Butterflies' blossoms.

One of the last Magnolia ‘Butterflies’ blossoms.

Magnolia ‘Elizabeth,’ now 50 feet tall, started opening her paler yellow blossoms about a week after Butterflies started.  She still sports many gorgeous blooms, but I fear the mini-heat wave we’re getting this weekend will finish off the display all too quickly.

Magnolia 'Elizabeth' -- 50 feet of spectacular!

Magnolia ‘Elizabeth’ — 50 feet of spectacular!

In the last few days, my three Serviceberry trees have begun opening abundant pure white flower clusters. I think last summer’s rains were good for them. They’ve never been more covered in flowers. Maybe this will be the year they produce enough fruits for both the birds and me.

Apple Serviceberry blossoms. Pollinators adore them.

Apple Serviceberry blossoms. Pollinators adore them.

Over the years, I have no idea how many different kinds of daffodils I’ve added to our five acres, nor do I remember most of their names. But I do know that I made a point of planting varieties that would bloom from late winter through late spring. This succession of increasingly abundant blossoms every spring never seems too adversely affected by whimsical weather patterns. In fact, whenever spring cool spells and/or rainy weather is predicted this time of year, I routinely cut a quick bouquet of beauteous blooms to keep me company indoors until the sun returns. These varieties started blooming about the middle of last week:

The pink centers get bleached out a bit by sunlight, but they are lovely.

The pink centers get bleached out a bit by sunlight, but they are lovely.

These pure white, ruffled blossoms are especially elegant.

These pure white, ruffled blossoms are especially elegant.

These bloom in tight clusters for an instant bouquet effect, and their fragrance is super sweet.

These bloom in tight clusters for an instant bouquet effect, and their fragrance is super sweet.

The previous owner had planted forsythia, a ubiquitous southeastern spring landscape shrub. I relocated the bushes from my front door to an area near my road. Their abundant blooms seem to indicate they had no objections.

It isn't spring in the southeast without sunny forsythia flowers.

It isn’t spring in the southeast without sunny forsythia flowers.

The Golden Ragwort is just starting its own parade of yellow blossoms:

Golden ragwort is an easy wildflower to add to southeastern landscapes.

Golden Ragwort is an easy wildflower to add to southeastern landscapes.

The earliest blooming native deciduous azalea on the north side of my yard is about to burst into bloom. The other species/varieties are full of swelling flower bud clusters.

Pinxterbloom Azalea will be the first native azalea to bloom, as usual.

Pinxterbloom Azalea will be the first native azalea to bloom, as usual.

The spring ephemeral wildflowers I showed you in my previous post are zooming through their life cycles as promised.

Bloodroots now sport point seed capsules, their lovely white flowers gone with the wind.

Bloodroots now sport pointy seed capsules, their lovely white flowers gone with the wind.

See the swelling round flower bud between the two Mayapple leaves? It will be open any second now.

See the swelling round flower bud between the two Mayapple leaves? It will be open any second now.

In short, my five acres of green chaos is busting out all over. Alas, it’s not just the invited plants reproducing so enthusiastically right now.  I am walking like a bent-over granny on evenings preceded by a day of weeding. The winter weeds got light years ahead of me in the vegetable garden area this year. Before I can plant, they must go, and that work isn’t nearly as much fun as it once was (hah!)

But the spring veggies are looking good, despite mini heat waves, heavy rains, and occasional frosts. And the summer vegetables, herbs, and flowers are growing tall and eager safely tucked in the greenhouse, waiting for more stable weather and weed-free beds.

Aye, there’s the rub — weed-free beds. I see many pollen-filled, sweaty days of joint-punishing work in front of me. But all the hard work pays off times ten when we dine on fresh-picked salads, juicy tomato-and-basil sandwiches, and green beans the likes of which you’ll never taste unless you grow them yourself.

And when I need a break from the veggie garden, I renew my resolve with a flower-filled walk around the landscape. Nothing puts a fresh spring in my step better than Spring!

Even my "lawn" is adorned with many wildflowers, including gazillions of violets.

Even my “lawn” is adorned with many wildflowers, including gazillions of violets.

 

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Renee’s Garden Seeds Review: Vegetables

Sunflower "Royal Flush"

Sunflower “Royal Flush”

Last growing season, Renee’s Garden offered me the chance to try a few free seed varieties. As a member of the Garden Writers Association, vendors of garden-related items occasionally send me free samples of their products, in the hopes that I will review them favorably. I was very happy with the results of the free seeds that Renee’s Garden sent me last year. You can read my reviews in Part 1 and Part 2.

This year when I received my order form for free seeds, I decided to add a few vegetables to my Renee’s Garden trials. Today’s entry covers my results with these vegetable varieties.

As you likely know if you’re reading here, vegetable gardening is the fastest growing area of interest for new gardeners. Analysts speculate that this interest is driven in part by folks who want access to high-quality vegetables at reasonable prices. Whatever the reason, I think it’s wonderful that more newbie gardeners are out in their yards playing in the dirt. I tried a beet variety, two carrots, a spinach, and a pepper mix.

Beet, Dutch “Red Baron”

Red Baron

Red Baron

I always grow Red Ace beets, because they do well for me every year, and I like their sweet, robust flavor. As a comparison, I tried Red Baron from Renee’s Garden. Beets don’t really transplant well, so I always direct-sow them into the vegetable beds. Germination rates for the two varieties were both high; if anything, Red Baron did slightly better. Vigor of the plants also appeared to be nearly identical. In fact, if I hadn’t labeled my rows, it would have been easy to mix them up based only on top growth. However, differences in flavor readily distinguish Red Baron from Red Ace.

Root crop harvest on June 23, 2013

Root crop harvest on June 23, 2013

This was not my best year for root crops. I think perhaps uncharacteristically heavy spring rains may have had something to do with this. Still, when it became clear that summer heat was asserting itself, root crop yields were respectable.

Between Red Ace and Red Baron beets, Red Ace had a much sweeter flavor, but we found that we liked Red Baron too. Red Baron beets were earthier, more hearty, in flavor. I think they would be the basis of a delicious borscht. Red Ace beets are better suited to salads. I would grow Red Baron again.

Carrot, Nantes “Starica” & Carrot, Snacking “Rotild”

As you can see in the above photo, many of the carrots did not grow as optimally as I’d like. Most of what you see are the Renee’s Garden varieties. They grew more robustly than the several carrot varieties I tried from Johnny’s Selected Seeds, which surprised me. Johnny’s offers pelleted carrot seeds, which makes these tiny seeds easier to handle while planting. I am able to space the seeds in the row far enough apart that they don’t require much thinning as they grow.

Renee’s Garden carrot seeds were not pelleted. I ended up doing major thinning to their rows. Interesting to me, Renee’s carrot seeds germinated at much higher rates than Johnny’s pelleted seeds, which is why I ended up with more of those varieties at harvest. I’ve never had such poor germination results with pelleted carrots before; I’m not sure why this happened.

As for flavor, despite their less-than-lovely looks, these Nantes-type varieties were both tasty. Starica was sweeter than Rotild.

Spinach, “Summer Perfection”

The blurb about this Dutch spinach variety sold by Renee’s Garden states that it “stands up to early summer heat.” I’m thinking that Dutch and/or California (location of Renee’s Garden) early summer heat must be a pale imitation of North Carolina Piedmont early summer heat. Summer Perfection bolted fast and early for me, just as soon as our high temperatures hit 80 degrees Fahrenheit (i.e., late March).

I grew this variety, along with all my other greens, beneath a canopy of spun garden cloth. The transplants went in before the last frost and were protected by the garden cloth. As temperatures rose, the garden cloth shaded the greens. I think this system (aided by phenomenal spring rains) kept some of the greens going into May — an unprecedented growing season for me!

Summer Perfection leaves were delicious before they bolted, but the variety is probably not worth growing in my climate. They just don’t last long enough to provide a sufficient return on my investment in them.

Pepper, Italian Sweet “Sunset Mix”

Every year, I grow a hybrid variety of Sweet Italian pepper called Carmen. Plants are consistently vigorous, overwhelmingly productive, and the scarlet fruits are reliably sweet, zinging the palate with a vitamin C tang. So when I saw that Renee was offering an heirloom mix of the pepper type from which Carmen is derived, I was curious, especially since I was promised plants with yellow or red fruits.

Sunset Mix peppers

Sunset Mix peppers

I have a love-hate relationship with most heirloom plants. In the southeastern US where I garden, our fungal diseases and insect pests are numerous and often devastating, and our summers are usually brutally hot and frequently plagued by drought. Most heirloom varieties I’ve tried start out strongly, but soon succumb to the growing challenges of my region.

I sow pepper and tomato seeds in my greenhouse and transplant them into their summer beds when growing conditions stabilize. Peppers especially don’t do well if you transplant them before nighttime temperatures stop dipping into the low 50s. The germination rate for Sunset Mix was about 60%. I routinely get 100% germination from Carmen seeds, and that was the case again this past spring. I attributed the difference to the hybrid vigor of Carmen and was not really surprised.

A yellow-fruiting plant from Sunset Mix

A yellow-fruiting plant from Sunset Mix

Vigor of the transplants was good. Sunset Mix plants grew as tall as the Carmens. Each plant produced a fair amount of fruit, but not at the hybrid vigor levels of my Carmen plants. As you can see by the harvest basket photo above, Sunset Mix produced some nice-looking peppers. Their flavors were good, but had much more bite than Carmen fruits. I found that Sunset Mix peppers did not always please my digestive system, while the milder, sweeter Carmen fruits never bothered me. I donated most of the Sunset Mix fruits to friends and the local food bank, where they were much appreciated.

Conclusions

I would not grow any of these varieties again, except perhaps the Red Baron beets. Even though the carrots were productive, they didn’t seem to appreciate my soil. I’ve had much better success with other carrot varieties. The spinach bolted so fast that I deem it to have been a waste of bed space. The peppers, although productive, just couldn’t match the flavor and productivity of my Carmen hybrid plants.

Still, my garden is big enough to accommodate a few experiments, and I will continue to try a few varieties that intrigue me. I never know when I might stumble on a treasure worth adding to my list of essential varieties.

Coming soon: Results of this year’s trials with Renee’s Garden flower seeds.

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Welcome, Autumn!

aster2

Summer left as sweetly as she arrived this year, bringing needed rain overnight. We woke to sunshine, deep blue, cloudless skies, and a steady breeze bringing in cool, dry, autumnal air. If only every summer could be as kind as this one was to us. Oh, she wasn’t perfect. Her excessive June rains put fungal diseases into overdrive. My tomatoes were blighted beyond redemption by late July.

But the peppers remain productive. My sweet Italian Bull’s Horn variety, Carmen, is overwhelming us with scarlet fruits.

Carmens remain productive.

Carmens remain productive.

And the one purple cayenne plant I added (free seed — who can resist?) is still producing zillions of fruits. They start out deep purple, then pale to lilac, then suddenly go deep, hot scarlet.

First, the cayennes are purple.

First, the cayennes are purple.

Then, they go hot!

Then, they go hot!

The vegetable garden is mostly flowers now. The nasturtiums went bonkers, thanks to Summer’s rains. They now own two full rows where the beans and tomatoes once grew.

Never have the nasturtiums displayed such prolonged enthusiasm.

Never have the nasturtiums displayed such prolonged enthusiasm.

And they’ll be popping up everywhere next year without any help from me. Their fat, curly seed pods are verging on ubiquitous.

Clearly, the nasturtiums have plans for next year.

Clearly, the nasturtiums have plans for next year.

Reproductive efforts were evident everywhere in my yard today, as I took my Farewell-to-Summer stroll around the yard this morning. Some plants are just now showing off ripe fruits.

Cornus florida berries won't last long; my pileated woodpeckers adore them.

Cornus florida berries won’t last long; my pileated woodpeckers adore them.

Beauty berry always lives up to her name about now.

Beautyberry always lives up to her name about now.

Viburnum prunifolium fruits go pink, then deep purple, but you don't see many purples, thanks to hungry birds.

Viburnum nudum fruits go pink, then deep purple, but you don’t see many purples, thanks to hungry birds.

Hearts-a-bursting is exploding with strawberry-like fruits.

Hearts-a-burstin’ is exploding with strawberry-like fruits.

Some plants only produced a few fruits this year. I think the rains actually inhibited pollination in a few instances. Case in point: my native spicebushes (Lindera benzoin). They produced few berries, and as soon as those ripened, they were devoured. I found one lone exception today, hiding deep inside the center of a plant whose leaves are just beginning to turn their characteristic autumn gold.

One lonely spicebush berry hidden deep within the shrub.

One lonely spicebush berry hidden deep within the shrub.

Most of my holly species are heavy with unripe berries, but one is already showing off. A deciduous species, Ilex verticillata, is loaded with crimson fruits. In another month, its leaves will drop, but the berries will likely linger well into late fall, even January some years. The fruits are usually a meal-of-last-resort for the feathered inhabitants of my yard.

Ilex verticillata berries ornament a still-green shrub.

Ilex verticillata berries ornament a still-green shrub.

Fruits of my deciduous Asian dogwood (Cornus kousa) are just turning red, looking quite like Christmas ornaments.

Cornus kousa fruits.

Cornus kousa fruits.

The wet summer was a boon to the legions of lichens that adorn the trees in my yard. Lichens are not only beautiful and essential to the transformation of dead plant material into soil. I’m told they also signal good air quality; lichens won’t grow in smog-filled skies.

An array of lichens adorning a fallen dead tree branch.

An array of lichens adorning a fallen dead tree branch.

Even if my calendar didn’t tell me that today was the Autumnal Equinox, I would have known it was imminent. My Seven-Son Flower Tree never fails to signal Summer’s departure as it transforms its clusters of sweet, white flowers into clusters of purple-red sepals that consistently fool hummingbirds into thinking nectar hides within their embrace.

Purple-red sepals signal Autumn's arrival.

Purple-red sepals signal Autumn’s arrival, even as a few white flower clusters persist.

Rain-softened ground today made weed-pulling almost enjoyable; cool breezes prevented early autumn sunshine from overheating me as I tackled yet another area of my yard overwhelmed by the invaders that Summer’s rains invited willy nilly everywhere in my yard.

Other inhabitants were not entirely happy with my Autumn clean-up activities. A large earth-colored American toad hopped frantically between my legs when I removed its weedy camouflage. Numerous ant colonies bustled about carrying pearl-colored eggs to safety when I disturbed their weed-covered homes. And an Asian Praying Mantis female glowered at me with unblinking emerald eyes from her perch atop a pink-flowering abelia.

Her work is nearly done, though. I spotted freshly laid mantis egg masses firmly attached to the branches of a nearby shrub. Perhaps she was cranky from all that egg-laying; perhaps the cooling breeze told her that her time was nearly over.

Autumn’s arrival signals many endings, it’s true. But abundant fruits, well-hidden egg masses, slumbering salamanders, toads, anoles, skinks, and myriad snakes ensure that Spring’s beginnings are just a winter’s sleep away. Now is the time to tidy up our yards, tuck in a few new shrubs and trees, and settle indoors for some well-earned rest. Now is the time to dream of coming snows and next spring’s gardens.

Happy Autumn, everyone!

Happy Autumn, everyone!

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Transitions

Signs multiply daily. Reddening leaves:

Cornus florida

Cornus florida

Virginia Creeper vine

Virginia Creeper vine

Fruits swelling.

Big-leaf Magnolia cone

Bigleaf Magnolia cone

Carmen Bull's Horn Italian Peppers and some yellow Italian heirlooms

Carmen Bull’s Horn Italian Peppers and some yellow Italian heirlooms

Cornus kousa fruits will redden soon.

Cornus kousa fruits will redden soon.

Halesia diptera fruits dangle from every branch.

Halesia diptera fruits dangle from every branch.

I first heard about it from the flock of American Robins that blew in about three weeks ago. As they stripped purple Pokeweed berries from magenta stems and gobbled elderberries, branches bent from their weight, they muttered among themselves: “Autumn’s on its way.”

Pokeweed berries

Pokeweed berries

Raucous cries of Pileated Woodpeckers echo through the forest as they argue with greedy robins and complain about magnolia cones ripening too slowly. A few mornings ago just after sunrise, three of these crow-sized woodpeckers called and flew in circles over my head for a minute or so. Two were chasing a third, making it clear that the interloper was not welcome.

Umbrella Magnolia cone

Umbrella Magnolia cone

Southern Magnolia cone

Southern Magnolia cone

Ash Magnolia cone

Ashe Magnolia cone

And today, as Wonder Spouse and I walked beside the creek, we startled Wild Turkeys on the other side. They squawked once, then ran silently to the blackberry thicket, where they disappeared amid its prickly greenness.

We were down by the creek so that Wonder Spouse could photograph this beauty for me:

Franklinia alatamaha

Franklinia alatamaha

Our wonderfully wet, mild summer made our two Franklin Trees very happy. Both grew several feet higher, and the mature specimen produced more flower buds than I have ever seen before. Spent snowy blossoms littered the ground beneath it, still faintly emitting their gentle rose-like scent. I held down the branch, so that Wonder Spouse could take the shot. You can see its close kinship to camellias by the form of its breath-taking bloom. The leaves of our smaller tree are already sporting garnet hues. But the flower-producing tree remains green-leaved.

Every time I think the record numbers of swallowtail butterflies are waning, another wave of fresh-winged beauties descends on every bloom in the yard. The Chinese Abelia still plays host to dozens, even though its sweet white flower clusters are beginning to diminish, but that’s OK, because the Seven-Son Flower Tree is in full, fragrant bloom, attracting every pollinator in the neighborhood, from butterflies to bumblebees, mason bees, and hawk moths. I cannot use my front walk without getting bumped into by a floating winged beauty.

An Eastern Tiger Swallowtail enjoys the Seven Sons Tree.

An Eastern Tiger Swallowtail enjoys the Seven Sons Flower Tree.

The abundance of butterflies has been a bonanza for predators as well. Myriad dragonflies pick off the lazy flutterers in mid-air, scattering severed wings of gold and black along the walk.

And the most certain early sign of autumn abounds: spider webs. As fast as I knock one down walking anywhere in my yard, the industrious weavers rebuild. A particularly clever female Writing Spider has declared her domain over the water feature in our front garden. The abundant blooming spires of Cardinal Flowers are irresistible to butterflies, and this fattening weaver is taking full advantage of that fact, even bending the top of one spire to anchor her web.

The direction of the bend points to the fat weaver's sticky trap.

The direction of the bend points to the fat weaver’s sticky trap.

Yesterday, I saw her trap and devour at least two large butterflies. Today, she seems to have doubled in size.

Female Writing Spider awaits her next victim.

Female Writing Spider awaits her next victim.

Perhaps in response to her rapid growth, today a male Writing Spider has built a modest web adjacent to this queen, even using a corner of her web as an anchor. Much smaller than the female he lusts for, he will wait for just the right moment to woo her. It won’t be long, I predict. Usually the females deposit their egg sacs in thick, winter-proof webs well before the leaves begin to fall in earnest.

Male Writing Spider. Note the smaller zigzag woven into his web. That's mist from the water feature on the right side of the photo.

Male Writing Spider. Note the smaller zigzag woven into his web. That’s mist from the water feature on the right side of the photo.

Cricket songs now rule nights and mornings, replacing the steady thrum of summer cicadas. Occasional cold fronts rush in behind lines of thunderstorms, freshening our air for a day or two before summer reasserts itself, cloaked in humidity.

Autumn will dominate soon enough, that we know for sure. For now, we can revel in the transitions, as plants and animals shift from growth to fruit to sleep.

It’s a transitional time of year for many people too. Schools start, and birthdays occur in bunches, as those born under the sign of Virgo celebrate another dance around the sun. I send best birthday wishes to all my Virgo kin and friends, and most especially to my favorite nephew, AJR, who celebrates what many consider a milestone moment tomorrow. Happy Birthday, sir. May your journey lead you everywhere you want to go.

Happy Birthday, Virgos!

Happy Birthday, Virgos!

 

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Fortex for the win!

August 6 harvest basket

August 6 harvest basket

As gardening seasons go, this one has been more full of surprises than usual. My eyes have been opened to just how much water vegetables really need to be happy — and how much more than that they can handle.

Thanks to a string of growing seasons filled with long streaks of 100+-degree days and prolonged droughts, I’ve become pretty good at gauging a vegetable’s minimum water requirements. A shallow well for the garden that routinely dried up by August necessitated strict water rationing.

Not this year. I don’t think we’ve gone more than 10 days without at least an inch of rain. Fungus flourishes, it’s true, but so does everything else. Canopy-sized trees are still putting on bright new green growth — in early August! Plants are re-blooming at unprecedented rates. As I wander around my yard, I sometimes feel as if I’ve stepped into an alternate universe, so different is this year’s August landscape from previous years.

More about that another time. Today I want to offer an overdue update on the vegetable garden. The pole beans in the harvest basket photo above are Fortex. I’ve always had good success with them, but I never realized before this year that they were dying out by July in past years because I just wasn’t giving them enough water. This year, they topped their trellis by the beginning of May, reached the bottom of the other side by the end of June, and now they are heading back up again — at least, mostly. Some seem to be heading horizontally for the next county, despite my attempts to encourage the vines to remain on the trellis.

I’m picking a good mess of beans every other day now. It was every day until about three weeks ago, so I guess they are slowing productivity a bit. As I did last year, I interplanted the beans with a climbing nasturtium. Last year, the two species played well together, but this year’s abundant water has produced quite the tangled mess of vegetation.

Fortex bean-covered trellis

Fortex bean-covered trellis

The deep orange-red flowers near the bottom are the nasturtiums. Some have climbed higher, just not in this shot. The lighter orange flowers on the far right are Queen Sophia marigolds.

As you can see by the harvest basket, I’m also still picking tomatoes, but not nearly as many as in previous years by this time. This wet year has taught me that my organically grown tomatoes stay healthier and more productive during drought years, because the fungal diseases that are plaguing them this year just can’t flourish without abundant rainfall. Limiting their water supply also intensifies the flavor of the tomato fruits. This year’s ‘maters, while tasty, are just not as vibrantly flavorful as in past years. And, yes, I’m mostly growing the same varieties as I had in previous years.

You’ll also see in the basket a couple of sweet Italian peppers — Carmen is the variety name. These beauties are the best-looking veggies in the garden right now. We’re about to be buried in an avalanche of sweet, juicy peppers with just a hint of zing. They are so vibrantly flavorful that I think perhaps I can taste their Vitamin C. So good!

A few more Carmen sweet Italian peppers ripen daily. Luckily, the fruits freeze very well.

A few more Carmen sweet Italian peppers ripen daily. Luckily, the fruits freeze very well.

I’m also growing a few plants from a seed packet of mixed Italian heirloom peppers. So far, one plant has produced a lovely ripe yellow fruit. Another one appears to be turning its fruit orange. Stay tuned for further developments.

Additionally, I got a free seed packet for a purple cayenne pepper. Of course, I had to try it, but I did limit myself to growing just one plant. Cayennes are notoriously prolific pepper producers, and my purple-fruited specimen is living up to my past experiences.

The purple cayenne's fruits start out a deep magenta purple, but seem to lighten as they mature. Will they go red when ripe? Stay tuned.

The purple cayenne’s fruits start out a deep magenta purple, but seem to lighten as they mature. Will they go red when ripe? Stay tuned.

The basils are having a great year. Because my vegetable garden is a fair hike from the kitchen, I cut stems of fresh basil and put them in a water-filled vase on the kitchen counter. That way, Wonder Spouse remembers to add leaves to his many wonderful culinary creations. Plus the sweet-spicy scent wafting from the leaves freshens the air.

I was worried that the rampant fungal fiesta ongoing in my vegetable garden might hurt the heirloom zinnias or sunflowers that I got from Renee’s Garden Seeds this year. But they are thriving, and have bloomed nonstop since May.

I'll tell you more about this sunflower mix soon.

I’ll tell you more about this sunflower mix soon.

I am in love with these old-fashioned zinnias that have grown taller than me by at least a foot.

I am in love with these old-fashioned zinnias that have grown taller than me by at least a foot.

Other parts of the yard are still blooming too, and I’ll share more in another post. For now, I’ll close with a favorite perennial that I associate with summer’s waning — Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis). I don’t think one can ever have enough of these in one’s garden — and I’m fairly certain that the hummingbirds and butterflies agree with me.

The true red of Cardinal Flower brightens any late-summer landscape.

The true red of Cardinal Flower brightens any late-summer landscape.

 

 

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Aerial acrobats in the garden

Swallowtail butterflies mobbing the Joe Pye Weed.

Swallowtail butterflies mobbing the Joe Pye Weed.

Record amounts of rainfall this growing season continue to create ripple effects throughout my landscape and gardens. For the first time I can remember, I harvested two zucchinis today. Normally by this point in the summer, heat, drought, and insect pests have exterminated my squash crop. Not this year. Zucchini spice bread, anyone?

Likewise, the Fortex pole beans seem to be ramping up for another surge in bean production. The vines have already climbed their six-foot trellis, grown down the other side, and now I’m trying to persuade them to climb back up again.

Tomatoes? Oh yes, we’ve got tomatoes. The plants are fighting fungal diseases, but the fruits are coming in bigtime. Ornamental flowers, which have often surrendered to the heat by now, continue to bloom with abandon. I’ve got sunflowers, zinnias, nasturtiums, and cosmos among the annuals. Perennials like black-eyed Susans, coneflowers, salvias, verbenas, daylilies, and now cardinal flowers have never been happier.

A Spicebush Swallowtail enjoys the ever-blooming Verbena 'Homestead Purple.'

A Spicebush Swallowtail enjoys the ever-blooming Verbena ‘Homestead Purple.’

The rain has also produced a bumper crop of biting flies, gnats, and mosquitoes, among the aerial pests. But that’s not all bad, because the record abundance of flying insects has also brought record numbers of predators to prey on them. Insect eaters like Eastern Bluebirds, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Carolina Wrens, and Eastern Phoebes patrol the skies from dawn to dusk. Numerous bats take care of night patrol. And during the heat of the day, when the birds relax in the shade, the sky dragons take over.

A Sky Dragon pauses briefly before resuming its hunt for flying food.

A Sky Dragon pauses briefly before resuming its hunt for flying food.

I have not yet spent the time needed to learn the names of our local dragonflies, but I can tell you our landscape is blessed by quite a number of species, some small, some as large as the hummingbirds with whom they share the sky. Wonder Spouse was so struck by the diversity of dragonflies in our yard last weekend that he spent some time capturing them with his camera. In fact, all the photos in this post were taken by Wonder Spouse.

The butterflies thrust themselves deeply into the throats of the flowers of our Autumn Daffodil daylilies.

The butterflies thrust themselves deeply into the throats of the flowers of our Autumn Daffodil daylilies. See its tongue curling above its head?

Dragonflies are efficient hunters, and yes, they do grab and devour an occasional butterfly on the wing. But they glitter like jewels; their wings appear to be made from delicate lace, yet are strong enough for aerial maneuvers any stunt pilot must envy.

An emerald Sky Dragon pauses on a boulder.

An emerald Sky Dragon pauses on a boulder.

As much as I love the butterflies, this year we can lose a few to the dragonflies. My Chinese Abelia, a massive shrub about 10 feet tall and equally wide, has been blooming since June — and continues to do so. All day long, it is visited simultaneously by at least a hundred butterflies. I’ve never seen so many!

When they fill up on the Chinese Abelia, the Eastern Tiger Swallowtails stop by the lantana growing along the front walk.

When they fill up on the Chinese Abelia, the Eastern Tiger Swallowtails stop by the lantana growing along the front walk.

Between the drifting flight of butterflies and the zooming quick starts and stops of the dragonflies, I get bumped into on a regular basis as I walk around my yard.

This dragonfly appears to be made of lapis lazuli, or perhaps sapphire.

This dragonfly appears to be made of lapis lazuli, or perhaps sapphire.

Patterns on the wings of the dragonflies are likely diagnostic. I really must learn the names of these hunters.

The white wing bars on this one make it more noticeable in flight.

The white wing bars on this one make it more noticeable in flight.

This one appears to be designed to blend in with the trees.

This one appears to be designed to blend in with the trees.

Butterflies, of course, are silent creatures. If I stand right next to the blooming abelia, I can sometimes hear a gentle fluttering of wings by the Spicebush Swallowtails, which never seem to remain motionless for more than a few seconds. Dragonflies make a bit of a buzzing noise as they zip erratically through the air, snagging snacks on the wing.

But for aerial maneuvers with sound effects, you can’t beat the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. This season has brought a bumper crop of them to the front feeder. The bejeweled beauties visit it from dawn to full dark. It seems to be a pit stop for them when they tire of dashing from coral honeysuckle to cardinal flower to salvia to abelia, all the while chittering as they argue over the rights to a particularly tasty nectar source.

After an early morning harvest session in the vegetable garden, I spend probably too much time sitting in the shade and watching the aerial show. I’m not the only one. I often spy a Green Anole perched on a shrub or vine within grabbing distance of unwary butterflies. And a large Green Frog usually meditates in one of the pots of sedges and pitcher plants sitting in our front water feature. The cicadas thrum, the hummingbirds swoop and squeal; in the distance, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo calls from the treetops, predicting more rain.

Pesky bugs and all, it’s the best summer we’ve had in years. I reckon I’m not going to feel to guilty for enjoying it as much as possible.

A Sky Jewel grabs a quick drink from the feeder that I keep supplied with fresh fuel.

A Sky Jewel grabs a quick drink from the feeder that I keep supplied with fresh fuel.

 

 

 

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After the Deluge

My floodplain living up to its name.

My floodplain living up to its name.

Perhaps you’ve heard? It’s been raining a lot in my area for the past several weeks. Actually, it’s been pouring — veritable waterfalls from the sky cascading in fat droplets the size of marbles. I’ve lived in this part of North Carolina for well over 50 years. It has never rained like this. Not ever.

The local meteorologists back me up on this. They’ve noted record rainfall amounts that triple our “normal” accumulations. Talk about your mixed blessings. The photo above was taken about 9:00 a.m. after a day and night of rain. I’ve lost track of how many inches fell, but it was more than enough to push the creek that forms one of our property boundaries out of its banks — in at least a half dozen spots — and onto our floodplain.

The bird feeder in the foreground is not quite in the flood.

The bird feeder in the foreground is not quite in the flood.

It looks a lot like a raging river, doesn’t it? Muddy water tears by in multiple interweaving currents. But it’s not even the sights you notice when you step outside. The smell assaults you first — mucky, decaying, fungus-filled deep humidity. Then you notice the roar of the water as it leaps over the bank of the creek onto the floodplain, currents scouring paths in the silt, carrying fish, driftwood, and assorted bits of trash deep into the swamp, where the currents finally weaken, morphing into a murky pond.

We lived on muddy lake-front property for about 18 hours.

We lived on muddy lake-front property for about 18 hours.

The floodplain is on the south side of our property. The creek banks on the north side are higher. The only time the creek ever leapt out of its banks there was during Hurricane Fran, when fallen trees forced the water sideways.  This time, the water backed up a bit on the north side:

The creek is the muddy stream in the background.

The creek is the muddy stream in the background.

The water in the foreground covers the trail beside the creek, where we usually walk. The creek breached the bank further downstream, then back-filled itself up the path, right up to our back fence line.

We count ourselves deeply fortunate. Our power was never off for more than a few hours at a time, and we experienced no strong wind gusts during the unrelenting downpour. Our completely saturated ground could not have held the large canopy trees upright, if strong winds had bullied them. We did lose one canopy tree on the floodplain: a large Ash. Its root ball was completely undercut by rushing water.

That's the root ball of the Ash in the middle of the raging current crossing our floodplain.

That’s the root ball of the Ash in the middle of the raging current crossing our floodplain.

Alas, the Ash fell smack onto my Sweet Bay Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana), which was covered in swelling white flower buds. The Ash sheared off one of the two main branches of the Magnolia. If the mud on the floodplain ever dries up enough for us to walk on, we’ll try to clean up the damage to the Sweet Bay. For now, all we can do is share our sympathies with the maimed Magnolia.

The Ash ripped off one of the trunks of the twin-trunked Sweet Bay Magnolia.

The Ash ripped off one of the trunks of the twin-trunked Sweet Bay Magnolia.

By about 2:00 p.m. on the day I took the above photos, the creek had grudgingly retreated — mostly — back to within its banks, leaving only a few thin streams running across the far southern end of our property beside the swamp. I took a picture to show how it looked.

A yucky, smelly mess.

A yucky, smelly mess.

That’s the creek in back, just barely where it’s supposed to be. The foreground shows one of the spots where it overflowed with rushing current, hence the flattened vegetation and the abundant fresh sand/silt deposits. I gave up walking pretty quickly. I was sinking past my ankles in my boots, and it was very difficult to pull myself out — one foot at a time — to move anywhere. I knew if I fell over, the mud might swallow me whole, so I retreated.

We’ve had two whole days without rain now, maybe three, but the floodplain is still nothing but mud. Too muddy for Wonder Spouse to try to cut up the fallen Ash and trim up the wounded Sweet Bay Magnolia. He was able to cut up the other tree we lost — a dying Black Cherry at the top of our hill. It simply fell over, pulling down some of our deer fencing that encloses the north side of our yard. The root system was weakened by disease and the ground was wetter than it may have ever been before. Eerily, Wonder Spouse had mentioned to me the week before that he wanted to take down that tree anyway, noting its sickliness. I guess the tree wanted to save him the trouble.

The most astonishing thing to me through this crazy wet summer is how the plants and animals have responded. I knew we had been living in varying states of drought for the last 17 or so years, but I hadn’t realized how thirsty the plants were — until I’ve seen how they’ve responded to basically unlimited water. I am almost afraid.

Don’t get me wrong, the trees look great. Instead of the raggedy brown look they’ve been sporting most summers by this time, they look nearly as freshly green as they did when they leafed out in April. In recent years, the Tulip Poplar leaves have been turning yellow and dropping by now, their response to insufficient water. Not this year.

And, good golly, the weeds. Have mercy, the weeds! As I walk from my front door to the vegetable garden at the top of the hill, I try to look straight ahead, focusing only on the path before me. Because if I look anywhere else, I see flowers struggling in a jungle of Japanese Stilt Grass approaching four feet tall, Pokeweed the height of pro basketball players, Poison Ivy plotting to grab me by the ankles and pull me into the overgrown areas full of ripening blackberries and volunteer tree saplings.  The green areas I call lawn are requiring me to mow them (weather permitting) weekly. Usually by now I’m mowing every 6-8 weeks, as the drought forces lawn plants into slow-growing survival mode.

The birds are deliriously happy over the abundant wild blackberry supply. And the bugs. Gnats form sky-blackening clouds. Biting flies slam into my hat-covered head like bullets as I traverse the path to the garden. Mosquitoes bite me through my clothes. Ticks dangle hungrily from every blade and branch. It is a bona fide jungle out there, folks. And I am completely outnumbered.

Despite the plagues of weeds and bugs, my garden is hanging tough. The tomatoes are finally thinking about ripening. They needed sunlight — a commodity in very short supply these last few weeks. Now it’s a race between the moisture-loving fungal diseases and the ripening of the fruits. I’m not sure which will win yet. I’m still picking squashes daily.

Despite the usual bug attacks, the plants are still producing. I think the abundant soil moisture is allowing them to hang tough longer than usual. Ditto for the Fortex pole beans. Never have they produced so abundantly for so long.  The pepper plants grow heavier with fruit daily, but no signs of ripening yet.

Carmen Sweet Italian peppers grow longer each day, but no signs of ripening yet.

Carmen Sweet Italian peppers grow longer each day.

 

In short, for the first time in my gardening life, my vegetables have all the water they could possibly want.

Doing its own jungle imitation, the vegetable garden looked like this on the day I took the flood pictures.

Doing its own jungle imitation, the vegetable garden looked like this on the day I took the flood pictures.

As usual, the Sweet Treats cherry tomatoes are ripening first, but we have eaten a few wonderful Bella Rosas, a couple of seed-grown Early Goliath fruits, and a couple of Viva Italias.

Sweet Treats cherry tomatoes finally developing ripe fruits.

Sweet Treats cherry tomatoes finally developing ripe fruits.

Despite competition from out-of-control weeds, the later blooming daylilies have looked lovely. Case in point:

Daylily 'Spanish Forte'

Daylily ‘Spanish Forte’

I can’t close this too-lengthy post without showing you how my Plumleaf Azalea responded to the abundant water. This summer-blooming deciduous azalea is always the Grand Finale to my procession of beautiful azaleas, the effect of its flowers somewhat muted by the presence of leaves. All the others bloom before the leaves emerge in spring.

I took these photos last week early in the morning. We had received another three-quarters of an inch of rain the night before, so it was misty outside.

Heaven-in-a-bush to the hummingbirds.

Heaven-in-a-bush to the hummingbirds.

Here’s a closer view of the flowers. The leaves are a bit damaged, but the flowers more than compensate as far as I’m concerned.

Red flowers contrast with green leaves in a way that always reminds me of Christmas.

Red flowers contrast with green leaves in a way that always reminds me of Christmas.

Finally, I’ll leave you with a fuzzy Monet-esque shot of the Plumleaf Azalea in my landscape. If I had skill with watercolors, I would try to paint this.

Glowing in the misty landscape, Plumleaf Azalea celebrates the abundant moisture.

Glowing in the misty landscape, Plumleaf Azalea celebrates the abundant moisture.

Here’s hoping the meteorologists are over-estimating the amount of rainfall predicted for this weekend.

 

 

 

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The Great Potato Experiment: Final Results

Viking Purple harvest

Viking Purple harvest

During the fleeting moments of sunshine in recent weeks, Wonder Spouse found time to harvest his potatoes. I first told you about his plans for a potato-growing experiment here. And I updated you on the experiment here.  The verdict according to Wonder Spouse (and me): Success!

You may recall that Wonder Spouse, a devoted fan of potatoes in in their myriad culinary forms, had grown frustrated with growing spuds in our lovely soil. The potatoes grew magnificently, but the voracious voles ate at least half the crop. Like so many varmints, the voles wouldn’t devour whole potatoes, preferring to nibble a bit on most of them, which caused steam to escape Wonder Spouse’s ears, even when he wasn’t standing in the summer sun.

When Wonder Spouse spied grow bags on sale in one of the thousands of gardening catalogs that fill our mailbox, he was intrigued — and hopeful. Would growing his beloved spuds within the grow bags protect the tubers from vole predation — and still produce acceptable yields? Thus was born The Great Potato Experiment.

We bought three of the largest size grow bags and, after much agonizing over the potato catalog (What — you didn’t know there are whole catalogs devoted to spud sales?), Wonder Spouse selected three potato varieties: a fingerling, the name of which escapes me, Viking Purple, and Bison. In my area, you can find Bisons in the farmers’ markets and speciality grocery stores, but we’ve never seen WS’s beloved Viking Purples anywhere. He purchased a pound of seed potatoes of each variety, and when early spring arrived, planted them in the bags — one bag for each variety.

He created his own soil mix — a combination of compost, leaves, and our lovely soil, filled each bag a third of its height, and planted the seed potatoes. As the plants grew tall, he unfolded another third of the bag, filling in with soil, in the hopes that more tubers would form at this level. When the plants grew tall again, he unfolded the final third of the bags, filled them with soil, and settled in to wait for harvest time.

The plants grew well and appeared quite vigorous. They didn’t bloom much. Traditionally, blooming marks the time when you can steal a few new potatoes — just to tide you over till harvest. However, Wonder Spouse didn’t want to disturb the bags even to forage for new potatoes. So we waited.

The fingerling plants faded first. I neglected to photograph the harvest — sorry about that. But his one pound of seed potatoes yielded about 5.5 pounds of fingerling crop — an acceptable yield. All potatoes were perfect in form, unmolested by varmints, and delicious every way they were cooked.

During a brief sunshine episode during our Wettest Summer Ever during the July 4 holiday, Wonder Spouse harvested the Viking Purples in the above photo, and the Bisons, shown below. No doubt about it, they were perfect potatoes — no blemishes, no chew marks, just superlative-looking spuds. For his one pound each of seed potatoes, Wonder Spouse harvested right around 8 pounds of potatoes. Although this is an excellent return on his investment, Wonder Spouse still wishes he had gotten more potatoes out of each bag.

To that end, he has decided to revise his methodology slightly for next year’s crop. He noticed that all the potatoes were at the bottom of the bag. No potatoes formed as he pulled the bag higher and added soil. He suspects (and I agree) that the soil mix he used was probably too heavy to stimulate new potato production higher up on the plants. Next year, he is planning to fill the top two levels with shredded leaves, mixed with just a bit of compost. He’s hoping the lighter mix will encourage potato production at all three levels.

Also, and especially if we spot the bags on sale again in late summer, we will invest in three more bags. We have a dry, cool basement where potatoes store very well. Twice (or more) the amount of spuds we got this year will not go bad before their enthusiastic consumption, of that you can be sure.

My guess is that Wonder Spouse will end up purchasing six different varieties of seed potatoes, one kind for each bag. Among the hundreds (yes, hundreds) of potato varieties out there, Wonder Spouse insists he can taste, see, and feel the subtle differences, and I’m sure he can. I don’t (affectionately) call him Mr. Potato Head for nothing. 

Bison harvest

Bison harvest

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