Archive for category Tools & Techniques

A Compost Comparison

compost-bag

I’ve been blogging about gardening in the piedmont region of North Carolina since 2011. Occasionally, companies that provide gardening-related products contact me asking me to try their product and write about my results. I’ve done this for a number of years for seeds from Renee’s Garden, because they send me a number of seed packets for free to try. You can find my reviews by searching on the company name in my blog.

Last winter, I was contacted by a company called Super Sod. They have a local office in a nearby town, and I gather their main business is growing and selling sod. But they also sell a product called Soil3, which they describe as follows:

Soil3 is 100% organic compost comprised of grass clippings from our sod farm, wheat straw from our farm, and cow manure from a local dairy. We compost using a high heat method (160º) and add mycorrhizea. Beneficial microorganisms naturally colonize the compost as part of the process.

 You can learn more about this product here. Their representative offered me a free bag of this compost (thanks, Shannon!) if I would try it and write about it, and they would deliver it to my door.

Well what gardener turns down free organic compost? The folks at Super Sod, like all companies that ask me to review their products, understood that my review would be based only on my results, not on how nice I thought they were to offer me this opportunity.

On the agreed upon delivery date last March 8, I was surprised to discover a massive yellow semi parked on the road in front of my house.

I had not realized a giant truck would deliver my sample compost!

I had not realized a giant truck would deliver my sample compost!

I think this is the truck that is also used to deliver sod, which always comes in big sheets, so it made sense after I thought about it. It was certainly a happy bright yellow, just like the color of the bag of compost.

I don’t know what you call the machine hooked up to the back of the truck that is used to deliver the compost, but soon the driver had it zipping down my driveway holding the bag of compost on the front prongs that probably also hold sheets of sod. I had intended for the bag to be deposited just beside the gate to my vegetable garden, but the delivery machine was too wide to maneuver there. So we went with Plan B and had the driver deposit the bag at the end of our driveway beside the walk to my house. It wasn’t optimal, but it was the best we could do.

The bag is on the prongs in front of the machine, which he is maneuvering into place. I couldn't get too close for photos. He was moving fast, and the machine was too noisy for me to be heard, so I stayed out of the way.

The bag is on the prongs in front of the machine, which he is maneuvering into place. I couldn’t get too close for photos. He was moving fast, and the machine was too noisy for me to be heard, so I stayed out of the way.

As soon as he had dropped the bag, the driver zipped back down the driveway and drove off in the semi.

Heading back to the bright yellow semi.

Heading back to the bright yellow semi.

I was left with a bright yellow bag of compost — a cubic yard of it! The web site says it weighs about 1200 pounds, and I believe it. That  bag was not going anywhere, which meant we had to offload the compost shovelful by shovelful into our wheelbarrow, then move the loaded wheelbarrow to the garden. It would have been much easier if we had been able to deposit the bag by the gate as we had hoped. But, hey, it was free compost. And, truthfully, when we get a dump-truck load of compost delivered from a local supplier, the pile isn’t any closer to the garden.

I knew that this bag would not be enough for all my garden beds, so we ordered half a dump-truck load of compost from our local supplier too. I had always intended to do a side-by-side comparison of the Soil3 compost with that made and delivered by our usual supplier.

I encountered one problem as soon as I tried to use the Soil3 compost the first time. The bag is almost taller than I am. When I untied the inner green bag to get to the compost, the compost level  was about up to my elbows. I was not tall enough to maneuver my shovel into the bag, lift out a shovelful of compost, and deposit it into the wheelbarrow. My solution? Wonder Spouse, of course!

A taller, stronger gardening companion and all-around great guy -- Wonder Spouse!

A tall, strong gardening companion and all-around great guy — Wonder Spouse!

Our plan was to plant identical spring greens — lettuces, spinaches, and Asian greens — on two sides of one of our long vegetable beds. We mixed in Soil3 compost on one side, and the local compost on the other. Then I transplanted the greens, and we mulched them with a bit more of their respective composts.

Before tilling in. Soil3 compost is on the left side of the stake.

Before tilling in. Soil3 compost is on the left side of the stake.

It’s a little hard to see in the above photo, but the Soil3 compost was a bit darker, and it tended to clump into tiny balls. It was less friable than the local compost, possibly because it was quite soggy when it was delivered. Liquid oozed out of the bottom of the bag for weeks after delivery.

After tilling. Soil3 side is on the right side here.

After tilling. Soil3 side is on the right side here.

After tilling, the little balls of Soil3 compost broke up, so the soil on that side ended up being of a slightly finer texture that the side with local compost. And it was just a shade darker.

We added metal hoops to support the garden cloth fabric we use to protect the greens from spring frosts, and the bed was ready for planting.

We added metal hoops to support the garden cloth fabric we use to protect the greens from spring frosts, and the bed was ready for planting. The Soil3 side is on the right.

As usual, I started my greens in my little greenhouse. I transplanted them into their compost-enhanced bed just after the middle of March. Here they are on March 28 after about a week in the bed.

As you can see, at this stage, both sides (Soil3 in left photo) — which were planted with exactly the same varieties — looked indistinguishable. I got busy with all the other vegetables — and my new pollinator garden — and didn’t take any more side-by-side shots until the greens bolted in May, but I did pay close attention when I harvested and ate the greens.

Neither Wonder Spouse nor I could discern any differences in growth rate or flavor, and both sides bolted from early summer heat at the same time. I’ve always used local compost to mulch my vegetables, and it has worked wonderfully, suppressing weeds, and continuously but slowly adding nutrients to the soil throughout the growing season. But the Soil3 compost didn’t work well that way. It created a hard crust that actually would create cracks as it dried out.

Bolted greens on the Soil3 side.

Bolted greens on the Soil3 side.

Bolted greens on the local compost side.

Bolted greens on the local compost side.

By May 15, the spring greens on both sides of the bed were bolted and bitter. Plant sizes were indistinguishable by my admittedly unscientific analysis.

We also created comparison beds for tomatoes and peppers. One bed of each vegetable type was mulched with one of the two composts. Again, we discerned no differences in productivity, disease resistance, flavor, etc. And as with the greens, the Soil3 compost tended to clump and crack to the point of reducing its usability.

Eventually, Wonder Spouse had used enough of the bag so that I could now reach down with a shovel and fill my own wheelbarrow with loads of Soil3 compost. The closer to the bottom of the bag we got, the wetter was the compost, even though we diligently retied the top of the bag after every use. We even tried putting a plastic sheet over the bag to keep out more rain, but the Soil3 compost at the bottom of the bag never dried out, eventually become rather cement-like.

We still have several inches of it in the bottom of the bag. We plan to move it somewhere and dump it out, hoping that if it is out of the bag, it might break down into something usable again.

When the delivery man dropped off my bright yellow bag, he told me that many of their customers apply it as lawn fertilizer. I can see how that might work, if you have some mechanism for applying it evenly. But a 1200-pound bag of compost requires heavy machinery to manage. I kind of doubt typical homeowners like me would be able to devise any better way of dealing with this than I did.

To summarize my test results, I would say that Soil3 is no better or worse than the local compost I usually buy, in terms of vegetable productivity. In terms of usability, the Soil3 compost is more difficult to use than the local product in two ways. First, just getting the compost out of the bag and into the wheelbarrow is remarkably difficult for anyone under 5’10”. And second, the texture of Soil3 is much harder to work with, tending to become cement-like when exposed to drying.

My conclusion: Soil3 is expensive — at least by my modest standards. Given that the product was harder to use and we could discern no differences in crop productivity between it and our local compost, I would not buy this product for my garden. For larger horticultural operations with access to heavy machinery, it is possible that this product would be worth the investment.

Thanks again to Super Sod, maker of Soil3, for the opportunity to try this product.

Thanks, Super Sod!

Thanks, Super Sod!

 

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2016: Our Best Onion Yield Ever

We ate one of our last home-grown onions of the season last night. It was a Candy onion — a softball-sized, sweet mild white onion known for its good storage quality. After curing our harvested onions in our garage for a few weeks, we stored them in our cool basement. The handful of remaining bulbs down there have mostly now gone soft and will be composted. But all in all, it was without a doubt our best onion season ever. How did we do it? I think it was a combination of nearly perfect onion-growing weather and the application of a new strategy to combat a lesson learned the hard way.

In the 2015 growing season, voles ate about two-thirds of our Yellow Granex onion crop.

In the 2015 growing season, voles ate about two-thirds of our Yellow Granex onion crop.

Voles are everywhere in my vegetable garden. The sturdy deer fence that repels those hoofed beasts along with raccoons and even all but the most persistent squirrels merely protects the voles. Dense plantings of vegetables provide ample cover for these voracious rodents when they venture above ground, so hawks and owls aren’t’ any better able to catch them than the wandering cats or coyotes thwarted by the fence. We’ve tried vole traps. I’ve reached the conclusion that the voles are amused by the contraptions. They build tunnels around them, and yes sometimes I’m certain I hear snickering down the ubiquitous holes I find in every vegetable bed. But this past spring, I tried a new strategy that I think is likely responsible for the abundance of beautiful bulbs we harvested, all with no evidence of rodent nibbling.

The latest weapon in my vole-fighting arsenal.

The latest weapon in my vole-fighting arsenal.

Swedish growers developed the above product; the name translates as “plant-protection.” It is essentially super-concentrated blood meal combined with a vegetable oil that ensures the product sticks to the plants upon which it is applied. The Swedes developed it to protect tender trees from gnawing critters during their long, snowy winters. It is USDA approved for organic gardening operations. But I suspected that if I merely sprinkled the product above ground around the onions, the voles would tunnel in and devour the bulbs again. So I went underground, where they operate.

Onion plants freshly planted in their bed on Feb. 22, 2016.

Onion plants freshly planted in their bed on Feb. 22, 2016.

I took the above photo just after I finished planting the onion starts in their bed full of compost and supplemented with an organic root crop fertilizer. Onions like two things: plenty of nutrients, and a steady supply of water. Mine got both this year.

I always order onion plants, because in my part of North Carolina, the plants need to be in the ground as early in the spring growing season as you can manage. Companies that sell onion starts, as these skinny baby plants are called, contract with growers in the deep south, where their climate allows them to get seedlings going in late winter. The starts are shipped to customers when the growing season for onions is about to begin for a given area. My starts showed up on Feb. 20, and I was able to plant them on Feb. 22.

They don't look like much when you first plant them.

They don’t look like much when you first plant them.

February in my area was mild and relatively dry this year. I was thus able to clear and prepare my spring vegetable beds much earlier than usual. I cleared the onion bed first, because I knew I would need it first, so it was ready to go when my starts arrived, except for the implementation of my new anti-vole strategy. I decided to dig a trench outside the entire perimeter of the bed — about 6-8 inches deep — the level where I usually encounter the vole subway system. Inside the trench, I liberally sprinkled Plantskydd. The strong odor of dried (bovine) blood is supposed to repel rodents — and even deer. My results indicate that this is true.

It would be interesting to conduct an experiment that compared this product to the less expensive blood meal product you can buy from organic suppliers. I didn’t, because I didn’t want to take a chance on losing some of my crop. My suspicion is that Plantskydd is superior because it is super-concentrated, and because the vegetable oil mixed with it allows the dried blood to persist longer in the soil than regular blood meal. All I know for certain is that when we harvested our onions, we did not find a single vole tunnel in that bed. I am sold on the efficacy of Plantskydd.

The onion bed on April 30, 2016.

The onion bed on April 30, 2016.

We grew two varieties of onions this year:

  • Yellow Granex Hybrid — These are short-day-length Vidalia-type onions; this is the go-to onion variety for my region. They are sweet, large and slightly flattened, with light yellow skin and flesh. They do not store well.
  • Candy Hybrid — This intermediate-day-length onion was a bit of a gamble. Theoretically, it is less sensitive to the day-length issues that limit folks in my region to a few onion varieties. When I read they stored well, produced softball-sized bulbs, and were extra sweet with mild, white flesh, I decided they were worth the risk.
The onion bed on April 30 with an adjacent bed of young salad greens.

The onion bed on April 30 with an adjacent bed of young salad greens behind it. Candy onions are on the left end; Yellow Granex plants are on the right end.

Spring rains came fairly regularly this year, which hasn’t happened in quite a few seasons. It had also rained enough during the winter to fill the shallow well that I use to water the vegetables; this has not often been the case in recent springs. My onion bed received about an inch of water every week from late February through the end of May. I’m fairly certain this was the other reason our harvest was so successful.

Onion bed just before first harvest on May 25.

Onion bed just before first harvest on May 25.

Onions are ready to harvest when the green stem at the base of the leaves where it attaches to the bulb flops over. The Yellow Granex plants (left end in the above photo) flopped over before the Candy plants surrendered to Summer’s impending arrival.

We hung the harvested Yellow Granex bulbs -- leaves still attached -- to anything handy in the garage. In this case, our push mower was drafted into onion-curing duty.

We hung the harvested Yellow Granex bulbs — leaves still attached — to anything handy in the garage. In this case, our push mower was drafted into onion-curing duty.

The heat of early summer, perhaps combined with the disturbance created by harvesting the Yellow Granex end of the bed, seemed to push the Candy bulbs into accelerating their production cycle.

By May 31, some of the Candy plants were flopping over, ready to be harvested.

By May 31, some of the Candy plants were flopping over, ready to be harvested.

I kept watering as needed, trying to encourage the last of the Candy plants to push just a few more bits of goodness into the maturing bulbs. But by June 19, we had pulled up the last of this variety.

The last of the Candy onion harvest on June 19.

The last of the Candy onion harvest on June 19.

I pulled the onions in the early morning, then left them on their beds for an hour or so, allowing the skins to toughen up a bit before I moved them to the garage. We found that the Candy onions actually tasted sweeter after we let them rest in our cool basement for a month or so. In the meantime, we devoured the Yellow Granex bulbs, since we knew they wouldn’t store as well.

One of Wonder Spouse’s favorite ways to cook our onions is to marinate them briefly with other summer veggies — such as squash, tomatoes, and fat portobello mushrooms — and then grill them just long enough to heat them up and give them a bit of yummy charred goodness.  Whatever meat he added to the mix played a distant second fiddle to those sweetly zingy grilled onions. My mouth is watering from that tasty memory as I type this.

I will definitely be employing my Plantskydd methodology for next spring’s onion crop. It will be interesting to see if I can repeat — or even better — my results. I used this product in a couple of other ways in my vegetable garden this year. I’ll tell you about those techniques soon, as I continue to review this year’s growing season.

Young pepper transplants in front of maturing onions on May 25. These peppers are still producing, thanks to   an unusually prolonged, frost-free fall.

Young pepper transplants in front of maturing onions on May 25. These peppers are still producing, thanks to an unusually prolonged, frost-free fall.

 

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The Twenty-First Century American Garden: My View

Anyone not sleep-walking through life is aware that Planet Earth is metamorphosing into a world never seen by humanity before. Rapid urbanization, consequent deforestation and habitat destruction, invading animals and plants, epic levels of environmental pollution – all are driven largely by human population growth that most experts believe is already well beyond sustainable levels. These enormous problems cannot be solved by legions of gardeners, but we can alleviate some of the burden, rather than add to it. To do so requires a radical shift in the thought processes of most gardeners, but I believe that shift is critical to the preservation of what is left of the blue-green orb we call Mother Earth.

Alabama Azalea in full bloom in my native woodland north slope landscape.

Alabama Azalea in full bloom in my native woodland north slope landscape.

Today as we residents of the United States celebrate the birth of our nation and its continued progress into a new century, I’m asking that its gardeners participate in a revolution of their own. I’m asking that we embrace a nation-wide paradigm shift for our yards and gardens that celebrates our American landscape, instead of attempting to force it to look like something it never was and never should be.

This post today was prompted by an article in the latest edition of a gardening magazine local to my region. The article was written by an acquaintance of mine – a woman who lived most of her life in New York, but retired to my area, embracing gardening so enthusiastically that she became a master gardener via North Carolina’s Agricultural Extension Service. She loves her garden, and I am delighted by her enthusiasm, but I am dismayed by the opinions she presents in this article.

About 40 feet tall, this native Dogwood is at least 50 years old, maybe even older.

About 40 feet tall, this native Dogwood is at least 50 years old, maybe even older.

The author argues that native plants aren’t necessarily better than non-native plants. Her point appears to be that some native plants are challenging to deal with, just as some non-natives are, and that we should make our landscaping choices based on what she calls “desirable” plants. In her view, it appears that desirable plants are those that don’t create work for her. In her ideal garden, she would banish Tulip Poplar trees because they produce many seeds. She would eliminate all Sweet Gums because the seed balls sully her landscape; she asserts that dogs eat the balls and get sick. She would also banish our native Dogwoods in favor of more disease-resistant Asian ones, eradicate Redbuds because they produce too many seeds, and she considers Virginia Creeper to be almost as annoying as Poison Ivy. Of course, the author is entitled to her opinion, but her article will be read by many and assumed to be authoritative. With respect, I must disagree with her assertions and conclusions.

The same Dogwood as above displaying its autumn colors.

The same Dogwood as above displaying its autumn colors.

Her article reflects an approach to American gardening that our planet can no longer sustain. If gardeners and homeowners continue to make plant choices based on convenience rather than ecological integrity, by the time their grandchildren are adults, healthy native ecosystems in our country will be relegated to a few carefully defended preserves.

Tulip Poplar flowers humming with pollinators adorn this towering canopy specimen every spring.

Tulip Poplar flowers humming with pollinators adorn this towering canopy specimen every spring.

To avoid an epic loss of species that may result in a breakdown of ecological processes that could affect everything from water quality to weather patterns to nutrient cycling, gardeners and landscapers in the United States must embrace a new American gardening paradigm, one that makes the ecological context of a property the guiding principal for all design choices.

Native dogwoods provide fruits beloved by many species of wildlife. The decomposition of its leaves back into forest soils is critical to cycling calcium through the forest ecosystem.

Native dogwoods provide fruits beloved by many species of wildlife. The decomposition of its leaves back into forest soils is critical to cycling calcium through the forest ecosystem.

The great thing about the United States is that our country is enormous. If you want to embrace the stark beauty of a desert landscape, you can live in the American Southwest. If you like open vistas with lots of sky, our central prairies were made for your home prairie grass-and-wildflower landscapes. And if you live on our east coast, your choices should be based on the forest ecosystems that evolved on this land over many hundreds of thousands of years. Forests always have openings, so your landscape can have sun-filled spots, if that is your preference. But fundamentally, for the sake of all the species that evolved together over great expanses of time, you must respect the plants that were here before you were.

The native swamp plants in my landscape provide critical habitat for at least 7 species of frogs and 2 species of salamanders, not to mention crayfish, and a diverse array of native birds that hunt some of these species.

The native swamp plants in my landscape provide critical habitat for at least 7 species of frogs and 2 species of salamanders, not to mention crayfish, and a diverse array of native birds that hunt some of those species.

In the southeastern US Piedmont region where I garden, our forest habitats comprise myriad unique ecosystems adapted to the subtleties of our terrain. North slope-facing forests differ from dry hilltops; floodplain forests differ from swamp forests, which differ from remnant Piedmont prairies. As American gardeners in the 21st century, our goal should be to recognize the native attributes of our landscape, then work to enhance them.

I added a couple of native spicebushes to my landscape early on. Now the birds have spread them all over, enriching their habitats and ensuring spectacular golden fall color throughout the understory in my yard.

I added a couple of native spicebushes to my landscape early on. Now the birds have spread them all over, enriching their habitats and ensuring spectacular golden fall color throughout the understory in my yard.

Rather than replacing natives we don’t like, we should supplement what is already present to enrich the landscape for wildlife while simultaneously creating a more beautiful and sustainable home oasis. Instead of attempting to impose your will on your landscape, embrace your environmental context and creatively adapt to it. Your plants will be beautiful and healthy, and your workload will be vastly lighter.

mystery bee on Black-eyed Susan

In my area, pollinators are a topic of growing concern. At the NC Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill, for example, many exhibits and presentations on native pollinators and non-native honeybees are available to the public throughout the summer. Pollinator populations are declining alarmingly in many areas. Numerous explanations for their disappearance are being offered. But one thing we know for sure: native pollinators that visit our crops and flowers evolved to exploit native plants. If the native plants are unavailable, the native pollinators have no incentive to stick around.

Native food for hungry natives: Sweet Gum trees are not your enemy.

Native food for hungry natives: Sweet Gum trees are not your enemy.

The Tulip Poplars, native Dogwoods, Redbuds, and yes, Virginia Creeper and Poison Ivy that the author of that article advises we eliminate from our landscape all provide food for native pollinators. Tulip Poplar honey from non-native honeybees is considered to be excellent by many. The seeds of those plants – and the Sweet Gum balls – provide essential food for many native bird species and other animals.

Invasive, non-native Japanese Stiltgrass is a vastly greater threat to the health of my landscape than a few stray native tree seedlings.

Invasive, non-native Japanese Stiltgrass is a vastly greater threat to the health of my landscape than a few stray native tree seedlings.

I tend five acres populated by large native canopy trees that include the species the author dismisses as unworthy. Abundant, diverse wildlife devours most of their seeds. Yes, I see some seedlings, but they don’t present a great nuisance. I spend far more time battling Japanese Stiltgrass and other non-native invasive species than I ever spend on pulling seedling trees. Frankly, I rejoice in the abundant seed production. It’s a sign that my land is healthy, fertile, and full of life.

The author of the article concedes that the fall color of Sweet Gums is spectacular, but she doesn't understand   that this is just an aesthetic bonus for humans to enjoy as it carries out its important roles in our native ecosystems.

The author of the article concedes that the fall color of Sweet Gums is spectacular, but she doesn’t understand that this is just an aesthetic bonus for humans to enjoy as the trees carry out their important roles in our native ecosystems.

There isn’t enough money in the world to persuade me to cut down the massive Sweet Gum beside my creek that draws large flocks of Cedar Waxwings and other birds all fall and winter. Their antics as they extract seeds from the dangling balls are entertaining to watch – and encouraging, because I know these birds can use my yard as a food source, and a haven from an increasingly hostile, unfamiliar landscape. And, for the record, I searched online for instances of dogs being harmed by ingesting Sweet Gum balls, and I couldn’t find any. My dogs had free reign over my seed-ball-laden landscape for decades without ever even seeming to notice them, much less eat them.

This intimidating Poison Ivy vine climbs a tree on my floodplain, where I am unlikely to bump into it.

This intimidating Poison Ivy vine climbs a tree on my floodplain, where I am unlikely to bump into it.

Gardening means getting your hands dirty. Yes, seedlings happen. Bird-planted Poison Ivy pops up all over my yard. My policy is to eliminate it from my few formal beds, my vegetable garden, and any areas where people are likely to brush up against it. Otherwise, I leave it alone. There’s no way I’d ever eradicate all Poison Ivy from my five acres, and there’s no reason to even try. As for Virginia Creeper, I think it’s lovely. Like Poison Ivy, if it’s not in my way, I leave it alone.

If you've ever watched a flock of Northern Cardinals tear into the seedpods of our native Redbuds, you would forgive a few "undesirable" seedlings in your landscape each spring.

If you’ve ever watched a flock of Northern Cardinals tear into the seedpods of our native Redbuds, you would forgive a few “undesirable” seedlings in your landscape each spring.

As we move more deeply into this new century, many of our old ways of doing things are no longer adaptive; many are downright destructive. Those of us who love the natural world, who delight in digging good earth, harvesting food we grow with our own hands, and beautifying our landscapes with fragrant and colorful flowers will be essential in leading the way to a new paradigm for American gardens.

There's no way it would be spring in my landscape without this color show from our native Redbuds.

There’s no way it would be spring in my landscape without this color show from our native Redbuds.

I hope you will join me in understanding and partnering with our uniquely American native landscapes. It is time to cast aside the formal lawns and hedges of our European ancestors. This is the United States of America. It should be filled with American gardens that reflect and celebrate the native plants and animals that make our country special. By definition, that makes all our native plants desirable, because they evolved here, and are deeply integrated into the complex dance of living organisms that provide fertile soil and clean air and water.

Happy Birthday, USA. Long may our people – and our native landscapes – prosper.

For more information:

For more information on understanding the environmental context of your home landscape, consider these books:

  • Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants by Douglas W. Tallamy
  • The Living Landscape: Designing for Beauty and Biodiversity in the Home Garden by Rick Darke

Also consider taking advantage of classes and talks given at your local botanical gardens, agricultural extension programs, and museums. In my area, for example, here are just a few upcoming offerings:

The Author of the Article Responds

The author of the article to which I refer above responded with a lengthy comment. I think the easiest way to respond is to add her comments — and my responses — here.

First, to answer a query made by this author, I have my blog set up so that I review all comments before they are published. This is the only way to ensure that spammers don’t get through. WordPress has an excellent spam filter, but it is not perfect. Second, I didn’t respond instantly, because yesterday was a national holiday and I was out enjoying it, rather than checking my computer.

Now let me sincerely apologize to the author for misremembering where she lived before moving to NC. She reminded me — twice — that she lived in Washington, DC, not NYC. She seems to think I was implying that I am prejudiced against folks from New York. I’m not. But many of the transplants who retire to my area are from New York, and I forget sometimes that not all of them are. It was a genuinely honest mistake on my part, and again, I apologize.

On to the author’s comments, which are italicized. My replies are in standard type:

I think you have misinterpreted my article. I am not against tulip poplars, poison ivy, Virginia creeper, and sweet gums in the landscape but I will continue to argue that these are undesirable plants and trees in our gardens.

OK, I think you are saying that these plants are fine in so-called natural areas, parks, etc., but that no one should desire them in their yards, because of the issues you mentioned — seediness, allergies, diseases. That’s what I thought you meant, and that’s what I disagree with.

I could never recommend to anyone that they should plant a sweet gum in their garden as the drawbacks are too many: I have had several friends who have had to rush their dogs to the emergency vet because their family pets ate them and they are extremely messy in a one acre garden. As Michelle Wallace, the Durham Extension Agent told me, they simply don’t belong in the urban or suburban landscape.

And again, I disagree. First, I am horrified to learn that family pets are eating Sweet Gum seed balls. However, I’ve lived here for almost six decades now, and I’ve never heard of this until you mentioned it. I’d need a lot more data documenting your assertion before I’d join you in dissuading folks from adding these trees to their home landscapes. With respect to extension agents, they are espousing — as I think you are — a 20th-century view of American yards and gardens. This perspective ignores the environmental context of the landscape, the fact that “natural areas” are disappearing entirely in increasingly urbanized landscapes, and the increasingly evident negative impacts such views are having on native populations of plants and animals.

I would argue that the tulip poplar is another one that doesn’t belong in the urban or suburban landscape because it is extraordinarily seedy, a quality that if exhibited in an exotic would deem that exotic as invasive.

Again, your perspective seems to imply a “man-versus-nature” attitude, wherein anything in nature that annoys humans should be eliminated. My post above was my assertion that this attitude is not appropriate for the realities of the 21st century. I asserted that our yards and gardens must change, must be integrated into the environment, if we have any hope of preserving species diversity, clean water and air, etc.

As for poison ivy, I don’t want to live with it. It’s that simple. Birds love it but I am highly allergic to it and I have a son who has to get a cortisone shot if he even looks at it. It isn’t simply an “inconvenient” plant but can affect our health. As for Virginia creeper, I really see very little difference between it and English ivy, a plant I think is dangerous and invasive.

I’m allergic to poison ivy too. That’s why I eliminate it from areas where I’m likely to bump into it. But it’s never going to disappear from any landscape unless you’re planning to kill every seed-eating bird that lands on your property. And it dismays me that you cannot perceive the difference between English ivy and Virginia Creeper.

I know you know that English ivy is a non-native invasive plant, because I remember when you read the paper I wrote about invasive species when we were both in the master of liberal studies program at Duke. I was delighted when, after you read that paper, you decided to eliminate English ivy from your home landscape. I am thus surprised that you can’t see how Virginia Creeper — a native vine — is different.

First, it’s not evergreen, so even when it climbs into trees, its additional biomass doesn’t add dangerous weight to the trees, as does English ivy. Likewise, because Virginia Creeper is deciduous, winter ice doesn’t accumulate on it — as happens with evergreen English ivy — so trees aren’t likely to topple from the weight of extra ice. I’ve lived here nearly six decades. I’ve never seen Virginia Creeper overwhelm a tree or shrub the way English ivy does. Ecologically speaking, Virginia Creeper is not invasive in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. I am perplexed that you deem it to be equivalent to English ivy.

You have the luxury of having five acres but most of us have much smaller gardens and have to be selective in what we plant. I love roses, am concentrating on growing sustainable roses. I see no reason to limit myself to native American species roses. I don’t spray my roses and do not grow hybrid teas but I see no reason to deprive myself of growing Rosa bhaksiae, a species rose that is native to China. I also love the China tea roses and have them in my garden where they mind their business.

I grow non-invasive non-native plants too. I would never tell anyone to eschew a plant simply because it’s not native. And I don’t think my post above implies otherwise. Again, your use of the word “selective” I believe harkens back to my point about 20th-century thinking. My post advocated a new gardening/landscaping paradigm for this new century — one that acknowledges the increasingly tenuous health of remaining native ecosystems world-wide. One that suggests that home gardens and landscapes can respond to this situation by helping save what is left, rather than actively choosing to eliminate it.

As for “native” plants, I tend to agree with Tony Avent who argues that it can be very hard to determine what is a native plant. Should we stop growing okra because it originated in Africa? Okra has a long cultural history in this country and is part of the Louisiana cuisine. I do think we have to be very careful in selecting the plants that go into our garden but I am not going to limit myself to “native” plants. I love redbuds but I also love my Cornus kousa and as a Master Gardener I would never recommend our Cornus florida because it is so susceptible to anthracnose. I would recommend the Rutgers cultivars but they are stronger because they contain genetic material from C. kousa–so I would argue that perhaps they were not “native.” If you note, much of my argument was that it is extremely difficult to determine what is a “native” plant. Some would argue that growing Magnolia grandiflora in the Piedmont is favoring an exotic because it is native to just one small area in eastern North Carolina.

Yes, Tony Avent pulls out that argument about one’s inability to define natives frequently. When I interviewed him for that paper I mentioned on invasive plants, he argued that in Earth’s past, all land was one supercontinent — Pangea — so all plants were all part of the same land mass, and therefore all native. I feel confident that any ecologist on earth would find this notion absurd. Using the most conservative estimate I can find, Pangea broke apart into the ocean-separated continents we know today about 174 million years ago.

Yes, it is true that you can find members of the same genus that are native to Asia and to North America. But they are different species; they evolved in association with many other species in unique ecosystems that are not the same on the two continents. That’s why many of our most invasive plants are native to Asia. They are adapted to our growing conditions, but because they evolved on another continent, the animals/diseases/plants they evolved with are not present here, so there is nothing to hold them in check. Hence, their invasive status here.

And, of course, plants long cultivated for food, medicine, materials, etc. will continue to be grown wherever they are needed, regardless of their distant original native contexts. The challenge, I believe, in growing agricultural crops in the 21st century, is to find ways to integrate them into the landscape as much as possible, minimizing the use of chemicals and genetically modified materials that have been shown to damage adjacent native ecosystems.

The point I attempted to make in my post is that we can no longer afford to make gardening/landscaping choices without considering the ecological integrity of the land. If you eradicate all Tulip Poplars and Sweet Gums from suburban and urban areas, all the insects, birds, etc. that rely on those species have nowhere to go. If you haven’t read Dr. Tallamy’s book that I reference at the end of my post, I encourage you to do so. He delineates these issues in great detail.

Thus, the argument is not about how one defines a native plant. The argument is about whether a given plant will be recognized  and function as a viable member of the ecological community you create in your home landscape. If nothing eats it, it is occupying space that an ecologically integrated plant — one that serves more than an aesthetic function in your landscape — could take.

Honey bees are not native to the US but I don’t think there are people calling for the US to rid itself of honey bees. Exotic species, like the honey bees, can have a positive effect on our local environment.

Again, I don’t recall advocating for the eradication of honey bees. I did advocate for not eradicating native species because they are deemed “undesirable” by 20th-century gardening standards that I believe are a threat to the future of the health of our planet. In this new century, I think we must revise our thinking, recognize that in a world of rapidly dwindling healthy ecosystems, every back yard — no matter how small — can be part of the problem, or part of the solution. Every back yard, every garden can contribute to the health of our planet by better integrating into its native environmental context. Yes, we will always grow our favorite non-native plants. But I respectfully ask that you please reconsider advocating the elimination of native species because you find them inconvenient.

I’m sorry that you found my article so offensive but I do think there is more than one side to this argument. I stand by what I said: I would like the dialogue to be more about desirable and undesirable plants–and the sweet gum is a highly undesirable tree in the urban and suburban landscape.

Your article did not offend me; it disheartened me, because it reflects an attitude that I believe is a direct threat to the future health of the native ecosystems remaining on our planet. That’s why I felt compelled to suggest a different approach. I know it’s a big leap for many traditional gardeners and landscapers. However, I believe this shift in thinking from defining plant choices by their desirability to choosing plants that are well-integrated into the environmental context of the landscape is our best chance for preserving water and air quality by maintaining the viability of native ecosystems.

And, again everyone, she’s from DC, not New York. My apologies again for misremembering.

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Tomato Talk

Tomatoes and friends

Tomatoes and friends

I exercised great restraint this year. I only chose 5 tomato varieties to grow from seed, and I only planted two of each kind in my vegetable garden, for a total of 10 plants. Compared to my younger, wilder days, that is a modest tomato planting, trust me.

Because I was being so restrained, I devoted a great deal of thought to my seed choices. I decided I couldn’t live without two varieties that have been consistently wonderful for me. One is a hybrid cherry tomato called Sweet Treats. Search my blog for that variety, and you’ll find plenty of reasons to appreciate my loyalty to this variety, including its resistance to a number of tomato diseases.

First fruits of Sweet Treats.

First fruits of Sweet Treats.

My other repeat choice was Goliath Early Hybrid, a member of the Goliath series of tomato varieties that I’ve found to be both early and wonderful. It is also resistant to just about every tomato disease out there, and it shows in the resiliently vigorous vines that usually top my 8-foot-tall trellis. Thus you can imagine my distress when the company I ordered from — Totally Tomatoes — substituted a completely different tomato without asking me, claiming a crop failure. Although I understand crop failures, Totally Tomatoes infuriated me by sending me a substitute without consulting me. Now on their Web site, they admit what they’re doing — that notice wasn’t up when I ordered. But even now if you search for the variety they substituted, you cannot find a description.

As far as I’m concerned, a company should always ask if substitutes are acceptable. When given that option, I always say no, because I want to decide what my Plan B will be, not some company that knows nothing about me and my garden needs.

The packet of Early Choice tomato seeds I received as an unwanted substitute offered no information about the variety. I have no idea what, if any, disease resistance this variety offers, but I’d bet big money it doesn’t match the disease resistance of the variety I actually ordered. Although my Early Choice plants look fine so far, I have grave misgivings about their staying power, because they have leaves that resemble potatoes (tomatoes are in the same plant family). All of the potato-leaved tomato varieties I know are heirloom types — delicious, but they fail fast, because they have no disease resistance. I want plants I can count on. In my climate, that means plants with disease resistance and flavor. I’ll let you know how this one turns out, but I will also tell you that I plan to never order seeds from this company again. They failed me with grafted tomatoes last year, and they failed me this year by substituting without asking my permission. Two strikes, and they are out. Luckily for me, they are not the only tomato seed company option available.

The other three tomato varieties I chose this year are determinate and new to me. For you tomato newbies, a determinate tomato grows to a set height, ripens all the fruits it has set, and then it’s done. Indeterminate varieties — Sweet Treats and Early Choice for me this year — just keep growing and producing until diseases or frosts kill them, whichever comes first. I chose determinate varieties because growing mostly indeterminants results in a messy, out-of-control trellis every year. I’m hoping that using determinants will give me more good-eating tomatoes with fewer disease issues. Time will tell.

First fruits of either Charger or Tasti-Lee. I can't tell from this photo.

First fruits of either Charger or Tasti-Lee. I can’t tell from this photo.

First up, Tasti-Lee Hybrid. I picked this one because it is supposed to contain 40% more lycopene than other varieties. This antioxidant has proven to be a nutritional powerhouse in a number of studies — and it’s supposed to have “true tomato flavor,” so I’m giving it a try. This one’s a bit of a gamble, because no disease resistance is listed.

The other slicing-type determinant variety I’m trying this year is extremely disease resistant. Charger Hybrid is supposed to be high-yielding with good flavor. It’s also crack-resistant; cracking is an issue when you get a lot of rain after a dry spell — something that happens in my summer gardens most years. The fruits absorb too much water too fast, and their rapid expansion causes them to crack.

I’ve been growing the same paste tomato for years — Viva Italia. But this winter when I was perusing my options, I decided to try a different variety. I don’t remember why, and my choice — La Roma III Hybrid, is actually somewhat less disease-resistant than Viva Italia. It may have been the fruit size. Viva Italia plants produce 3-oz fruits. La Roma III is supposed to produce 5-8-oz fruits. I may have been thinking I can make more tomato sauce faster with larger paste tomato fruits. I can tell you that, so far, the La Roma III plants are extremely vigorous, their growth habit more shrubby than vine-like. And their fruits are growing faster and larger than the other slicer varieties I’m growing.

La Roma III fruits are winning the size contest so far.

La Roma III fruits are winning the size contest so far.

I’m sure I’ve shared my tomato-growing tips in previous years, but to review briefly, I grow my plants from seed in my greenhouse. I usually start about six of each type, then transplant the ones that look most vigorous. Extra good-looking starts are shared with friends. I never have trouble finding good homes for them.

I try to wait until nighttime temperatures are remaining above 50 degrees Fahrenheit, because studies have shown that tomatoes exposed to temperatures lower than that are slightly less productive. This year, I waited as long as I could, but my transplants have definitely experienced a few nights when temperatures dropped into the upper 40s in my garden. They all look great, though.

When I transplant my tomatoes, I dig deep holes, so that the bottom leaf nodes end up buried when I fill in the holes. New roots sprout from the newly buried leaf nodes, providing even more nutrition conduits for the plants. I also add organic fertilizer especially formulated for tomatoes. My soil is wonderful, but this boost seems to generate optimal flowering and fruit set for me.

I’ve tried every tomato support system out there over my decades of tomato growing. For me, a trellis system works best. I can plant on both sides, being sure to space plants so that they aren’t directly opposite each other. Remember to sucker indeterminate plants to foil their attempts at world domination. But don’t sucker determinant plants. Because they don’t grow infinitely tall, all those side shoots are needed to produce a good fruit crop.

Water when rains don’t do it for you, then wait for the green globes to go red. This is the hardest part for me — the waiting. I should be eating cherry tomatoes by the middle of June, maybe even a bit sooner. The others will likely take a week or more longer.

But I should be up to my eyeballs in another fruit before the tomatoes are ready. My enormous blueberry bushes are loaded with a record fruit set. I see blueberry muffins, pies, cakes, pancakes, and jams in my future, along with handfuls of fresh fruit for instant snacking goodness. I’m so ready!

This year, there should be enough blueberries for me and the birds.

This year, there should be enough blueberries for me and the birds.

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Sunrise Sea Gulls, Twenty-one Pots, and Spring

Snow drops signal spring's imminent arrival.

Snow drops signal spring’s imminent arrival.

I love this time of year in my corner of the southeastern Piedmont. One morning, I can wake up to 14 degrees Fahrenheit and frost so heavy it looks like snow. Two days later, mosquitoes and moths beat at my windows, taking advantage of 60+-degree air. And through it all, the Spring Peepers chorus steadily from the swamp. Add to that the shrieking of female wood ducks when I unintentionally startle them as they paddle on the creek, Red-shouldered Hawks scolding me if I approach their nest too closely, and the cacophony of woodpeckers arguing over territory, and what you have, my friends, are abundant early signs of spring. Oh sure, we may still get a late snow storm or (please no!) ice storm, but that won’t slow spring’s progress for long.

I have always loved sunrises, and they tend to be especially spectacular this time of year. I rise early and watch the chilly ones through my large south-facing windows. On warmer mornings, I stand outside, admire the colors, and enjoy the rising chorus of waking songbirds. If I’m really lucky, just as the sun tops the ridge line to my east, I am treated to the sea gulls.

No, that’s not a typo, I meant what I typed. Even though I’m a couple of hundred miles from the NC coastline, every winter I see sea gulls. I think they’re Herring Gulls. They migrate inland for the winter and settle on the large man-made lake/reservoir that’s about ten miles or so (as the gull files) from my house. Every morning just at sunrise, these thousands of gulls fly from the lake to the area shopping malls, where they feast upon the garbage left by shoppers in the parking lots. They return to the lake in the evening, repeating the cycle daily until they decide it’s time to return to the coast.

A couple of days ago, the gulls decided to steer their sunrise flight directly over my house. Wave after wave of gulls flew overhead in ragged V-shaped formations, the low rays of the sun illuminating their bellies and undersides of their wings. What seemed like an endless stream of brightly lit angels flew silently over my house for over five minutes. There must have been thousands of them. I don’t know if it’s because they are quite high up and out of my hearing range, or if perhaps they really do fly in silence, but their sun-brightened mute flight seems just right for that time of day. Raucous gull calls would definitely spoil the effect. It is a breath-takingly wonderful way to start one’s day. Alas, I was not awake enough to think to grab my camera.

The daffodils are just beginning to awaken to spring's distant call.

The daffodils are just beginning to awaken to spring’s distant call.

I took advantage of yesterday’s mild weather to do a bit of yard work. I am far behind on outdoor chores, due to a self-inflicted injury on my right elbow. Some people get tennis elbow. I gave myself weeder’s elbow when I weeded my front bed vigorously for about six hours straight. (Memo to self: Aging elbows are much less forgiving than young ones.) After three full months of babying my cranky elbow, I’m now finally able to attack a few garden tasks. I started with some raking, followed by a few hours of dividing perennials and potting up some of the excess pieces. I’m helping a friend plant a new flower garden later this year, and I promised her some of my extras to help her get started.

Garden books will tell you that perennials should be divided every three to five years to keep them actively growing and blooming. I’m sure that’s probably true, but I’ve found that most of my perennials are more forgiving than that, and thank goodness, because that’s a task I rarely seem to find time for. I ended up yesterday with 21 pots of varying sizes full of healthy offshoots from some of my perennials, including bronze fennel (seedling explosion in the veggie garden paths), daylilies, salvias, rudbeckias, echinaceas, anise hyssop, columbine, and catnip for my friend’s cherished felines. You can’t even tell where I chipped off bits to pot up, so overgrown are my enthusiastic plantings.

Pots of perennials settled on my greenhouse floor.

Pots of perennials settled on my greenhouse floor.

The sad ones in front are little bronze fennel seedlings. They already look better than they did, so I'm hopeful they'll recover fully.

The sad ones in front are little bronze fennel seedlings. They already look better than they did, so I’m hopeful they’ll recover fully.

While I was settling the potted perennials into the greenhouse for safekeeping, I checked on my rooting flat of rosemary and lavender cuttings. To test for roots, I lightly tug on the cutting. If I feel resistance, I know roots have formed. The lavender cuttings are not yet rooted, but about half the rosemary cuttings are rooted. I pulled one up so you can see how it’s looking:

Rosemary cuttings are showing signs of healthy roots.

Rosemary cuttings are showing signs of healthy roots.

Most folks dip cuttings into commercial rooting hormone — liquid or powder — to encourage stems to produce roots. If I were trying to root more difficult plants, say, cuttings of trees or some shrubs, I’d probably use this product, but I’ve never found it necessary for these herbs. I’ve also noticed that after a few stems acquire roots, the rest of the cuttings seem to root all at once. I suspect that the early rooters are putting chemical signals into the soil that encourage nearby cuttings to begin rooting. All the cuttings seem quite healthy, and the rosemaries are blooming like crazy. You’re really not supposed to root blooming cuttings because the flowers theoretically consume too much energy for the cutting to create roots. But my rosemaries apparently don’t know that, and I’m not going to tell them.

Herb cuttings seem quite happy in their greenhouse flat.

Herb cuttings seem quite happy in their greenhouse flat.

Very soon now, I’ll be starting vegetable seeds in the greenhouse. Rain — perhaps even significant quantities — is predicted for my region over the next few days. My county is in moderate drought, so I’ll welcome every drop. But as soon as the sun returns, I must focus on cleaning up the vegetable garden for spring planting. Ready or not, elbow, here comes spring!

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The Great Potato Experiment

We will confine our bag use to potatoes.

We will confine our bag use to potatoes.

One of my other nicknames for Wonder Spouse — assigned with great affection — is Mr. Potato Head. My spouse would eat potatoes once a day and twice on Sundays if he could. It’s not that he dislikes other vegetables — he loves most of them. But he waxes poetic on the versatility of what some deem a humble spud. The secret is not to eat the mass-produced varieties sold in ten-pound bags at your local chain grocery store.

My Mr. Potato Head has become quite a connoisseur of this often unappreciated tuber. Varieties abound, if you know where to look. Yes, as with tomatoes and peppers, you can find entire catalogs devoted to selling potato varieties like Colorado Rose, Conestoga, Dakota Pearl, German Butterball,  Purple Peruvian, and Yukon Gold to name a very few. Some varieties are best for mashing, others for frying, still others make ideal baked potatoes. Fingerling potatoes are gnarly little tubers that resemble arthritic fingers and come in colors ranging from pink to pale yellow. Fingerlings are beloved by gourmet chefs and taste buttery without the addition of actual butter.

If you grow your own, you can have red, white, and blue potatoes for your July 4 potato salad. Mr. Potato Head has produced this patriotic dish more than once. And if you’ve never eaten a truly fresh potato, you have no idea what you’re missing. When you cut into a fresh potato, it’s like slicing an apple — crisp resistant flesh yields moistly to the knife.

As soon as we realized that our five acres of Piedmont possessed sandy loam soils (a rarity), we knew we would be growing root vegetables, and they’ve done well here during our over 20 years of vegetable gardening. Carrots grow long, straight, and sweet. Beets plump up roundly. And potatoes multiply and flourish. At least, they did until the voles decided we were growing the potatoes for them.

The down side of fencing out the deer, it turns out, is that neighborhood cats and other predators can’t get inside to catch burrowing rodents. The rodents, alas, have figured this out, and now clearly consider our vegetable garden to be their own personal Eden.  Still, I manage to get excellent yields from all veggies except the potatoes. A few years back, we lost more than half our crop to the voles. Every other potato we pulled was thoroughly chewed.

Because we are fortunate to live in a region populated by numerous small organic farms who sell their wares at local farmers’ markets, Mr. Potato Head has been able to find most of the varieties we once grew, freshly dug and as tasty as what we grew ourselves. However, some speciality varieties are not productive enough for the small farmers to grow them, so Mr. Potato Head has been pondering ways he can grow those himself.

Some folks grow potatoes in tires, but we nixed this for two reasons. First, tires are not organic. Heaven knows what chemical leak into surrounding soils from tires exposed to hot sun and regular watering. They also are connected to the ground, meaning industrious voles would still find their way to Potato Heaven. Barrels and other solid enclosures seemed likely to present drainage issues, and the expense of those options was prohibitive.

Then Mr. Potato Head spotted the item in the top photo in one of the many gardening catalogs that fill our mailbox. These bags appear to be made out of a nontoxic landscape fabric that permits air and water circulation, but is too strong to be penetrated by voles. We were intrigued, but the cost seemed high, so we passed on this option. But last fall, Mr. Potato Head spotted these bags on sale in the catalog. So we bought three bags. I think we settled on the red ones because of research showing that red-colored mulch improves productivity of tomato plants. Mr. Potato Head is betting that since potatoes and tomatoes are in the same plant family, red bags should boost productivity. Time will tell.

Limiting himself to only three varieties was his greatest challenge. We once grew seven or eight kinds every year. After much pondering, Wonder Spouse settled on Bisons, Purple Vikings, and Kipfel Fingerlings. I believe he has trouble finding at least one of these varieties in the local farmers’ markets, so he was eager to have them once more.

We will fill the bags with a mix of our soil, a bit of compost, and a lot of broken-down leaves. As is always true of potato planting, you plant the tuber pieces in a deep hole and cover them with an inch or so of soil. As the plants sprout and grow, you add more soil, so that the stems will produce multiple levels of tubers.

We’ll find a spot in the garden for our red bags of potential spudly goodness. I’ll provide updates as they progress through the season. If this works, Wonder Spouse may try his hand at constructing his own bags from landscape fabric we have collecting dust in our garage. If all goes well, perhaps future gardens will contain bags full of all of his favorite varieties. I’ve always said, if you’re going to go the trouble of growing your own food, you should absolutely grow the food you like, and at my house, that most certainly includes breakfast hash browns and July 4th patriotic potato salad.

Next post, I’ll update you on the other varieties I’m growing this year. I’ve mostly stuck with old reliable favorites, but as always, a few new varieties looked too tempting to ignore. Have you ordered your seeds yet? If not, get busy. Here in the southeastern Piedmont, spring garden preparations should begin in just a few weeks.

Spring green options always tempt me to excess production, but they're good for me, right?

Spring green options always tempt me to excess production, but they’re good for me, right?

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Tips for Planting Understory Piedmont Trees

A mature native dogwood approaching peak autumn color.

It’s that time of year again — planting time for trees, shrubs, and perennials in the southeastern Piedmont. As I’ve stated before, autumn planting gives plants time to focus on root growth while the soil is cool but unfrozen and deciduous plants don’t have to expend energy on leaf production.

I’ve offered advice on tree planting before here. But in that post, I was emphasizing issues related to trees that eventually attain canopy status. Today, my focus is on the more diminutive trees — occupants of the forest understory. Many of our native southeastern trees in this category comprise some of our better known ornamental trees: dogwoods, redbuds, sourwoods, fringe trees, Carolina silverbells, deciduous magnolias. The list is long, and depending on how you define the height of your understory, it may include large shrubs, such as our native deciduous azaleas, viburnums, and vacciniums. All of these woodies produce gorgeous flowers, most in spring through early summer.

I fully understand why Piedmonters fall in love with these beauties and want to add them to their home landscapes. And they absolutely should, but I would like to suggest that, before you plant, you consider the environmental context of the tree/shrub you want to add.

Understory trees and shrubs, by definition, dwell beneath the forest canopy giants — oaks, hickories, sycamores, ashes, beeches, maples, sweet gums, tulip poplars, pines. If you look carefully at a Piedmont forest, you’ll see that the understory dwellers grow along forest edges and within clearings, places where they have access to sunlight, but are still shielded by nearby forest giants. By growing along forest edges, smaller understory plants are protected from strong winds, and they are shaded for part of the day.

In my yard, I’ve tried to plant new understory beauties in spots where they are sheltered by canopy giants, but will still receive enough sunlight to bloom and prosper. Here in the southeastern US, our afternoon summer sun is brutal, so I’ve sited new trees so they are shaded from that searing heat by nearby larger trees. I didn’t plant the mature dogwood in the top photo, but I suspect it is thriving because it is protected from western sun by the nearby southern red oak you can just see on the left of the picture, and the mature pine trees further back.

Pine trees are especially good at protecting evergreen understory trees, like camellias, and early bloomers, like Royal Star Magnolias.  My Royal Star Magnolia is nestled beneath tall loblolly pines that protect it from harsh north winds and late freezes. Winter-blooming camellias benefit from a similar location.

Try to resist the urge to plant a single dogwood, redbud, magnolia — insert your favorite small blooming tree here — in the middle of your front lawn, where it will be bombarded by sunlight all day; shallow roots will be damaged by any chemicals (fertilizers, herbicides) you add to the lawn. And the watering regime applied to most suburban lawns will encourage shallow root growth, meaning your tree will be susceptible to toppling in strong winds and dying from drought when you can’t water.

Instead, plant your understory tree in the front of a “natural area” with larger trees. If you have no larger trees, buildings can be used the same way. Trees planted near the east- or north-facing sides of your house will be protected from the harshest winter winds and hot summer sun. Your house becomes a substitute forest canopy giant for your small tree.

Understory beauties can help each other if you plant several near each other. Create a large planting bed by removing a patch of lawn, tilling the soil to a depth of at least a foot, and adding some organic matter like decomposed leaves to create a fluffy planting bed more akin to the forest duff such plants naturally grow in. Plant your trees far enough apart to account for their eventual mature size. Don’t add any fertilizers when you plant. This only stresses the roots. Add an inch or two of organic mulch (shredded wood lasts several years) and water well.

By providing a more natural planting area and combining several plants in one space, you’ll create a much better growing environment for your additions, and the visual appearance of your landscape will be much more appealing. Also, when you group plants, you create appealing habitat for native wildlife, and as your trees mature, you’ll be able to add native wildflowers and ferns to fill in open spots.

Working with living plants is always a dynamic adventure. Every day of the year, your trees and shrubs will look different as blooms and fruits come and go, birds feed and nest, squirrels squabble, and the sun highlights different angles as it treks across the sky through the seasons.

If you provide understory trees and shrubs with what they need, the beauty you receive in return will multiply every year. Fall is for planting, and I’ll bet that almost any home landscape could be enhanced by the addition of at least one new special tree.

Get thee to a local nursery; most are holding sales. Seize this autumnal opportunity while you can!

A thirty-foot tall kousa dogwood thrives in our backyard, where the house shades it from searing afternoon summer sun.

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