Archive for category Vegetable Gardening
My Latest Garden Experiment: Growing My Favorite Beverage
Posted by piedmontgardener in piedmont gardening, Vegetable Gardening on December 11, 2022
I’ve been growing some of my own food for 45 or so years now. Part of the fun of that experience is the opportunity to try growing new kinds of food. With varying success, I’ve tried most culinary herbs and quite a few different varieties of garden vegetables. Often, our favorite fruits and veggies are too tender for farm production, so the only way to have them is to grow them ourselves. This past October, we decided to expand our garden repertoire to include tea plants. Yes, you can use a vast array of native and herb plant leaves to brew tasty beverages, but our new plants are the source of what most tea drinkers consume: Camellia sinensis var. sinensis, and Camellia sinensis var. assamica.
Cousins to better known ornamental camellias like C. sasanqua and C. japonica, tea camellias do not produce large colorful blooms. Their magic lies in their leaves, most of which contain an array of compounds that include methylxanthines – caffeine. Another tea cousin – C. ptilophylla – is sometimes called cocoa tea, because instead of containing caffeine, the leaves of this species contain a different compound, theobromine, which is also found in chocolate. Leaves of cocoa tea don’t taste like chocolate, but they do contain much lower levels of caffeine – a potential source of decaffeinated tea without the decaffeination process!
It is my understanding that certain tea varieties are best used to produce certain types of tea – black, green, and oolong, for example. But, ultimately, the tea created depends on how harvested leaves are processed. I’m planning to stick to trying to produce green tea, because the process is not as elaborate as for other types.
As with growing any perennial crop, whether nut or fruit trees or blueberry bushes, tea plants require several years to attain a size sufficient for harvesting. And it would take many more plants than I have room for to produce enough tea leaves to keep me supplied year-round with my favorite beverage. However, as with growing any special food crop, even a few cups annually of tea produced by my own plants are treats worth savoring as I bask in my tea-growing accomplishments.
Tea Growing in the Piedmont Region of NC
I’ve known about tea camellias for some time, because of a well-known nursery that’s just a fifteen-minute drive from my house: Camellia Forest Nursery. This nursery has been in business for over 40 years and is well known as the finest source of camellias on the US East Coast. Peruse their catalog of options at your own risk; they are intoxicatingly tempting. Even to this native-centric Piedmont gardener, these evergreen Asian beauties are hard to resist.
I have not succumbed to temptation mostly because the ornamental species require protection from deer munching, and because even with five acres, I’ve only got room for a finite number of plants. Tea camellias, I’ve recently learned, are more deer-resistant, because of the bitter compounds like caffeine in their leaves, compounds not present in their ornamental cousins. I’ve always known that Camellia Forest Nursery owner, David Parks, offered a few tea camellias, but I had missed the development of Camellia Forest Tea Gardens within the grounds of the nursery.
Camellia Forest Tea Gardens
As the name implies, Camellia Forest Tea Gardens offers an astonishing array of tea plant options – overwhelming is the word that comes to mind when you stand among the rows of blooming tea bushes on an autumn morning as I did this past October. Wonder Spouse and I attended a tea-planting workshop in early October to learn tea-planting methods first-hand from David Parks’ spouse, Christine Parks, the owner and energetic force behind the Tea Gardens. Christine is gainfully employed full time by a company in the Research Triangle Park. The Tea Gardens operation is her weekend job/passion/obsession.
With the help of equally passionate volunteers and two part-time employees, Christine continues to expand her tea fields. A new building being erected beside the fields will house tea-processing equipment on the lower level and a tea-tasting/sales/display area on the upper level. Even without that equipment, Christine and her team have been processing small batches of tea from the leaves harvested there. Throughout the year, she offers workshops on tea and also tea-tasting events, many of which are free. Visit their web site for more details.
Christine has literally written the book on tea growing. She and a friend and fellow tea fanatic, Susan M. Walcott, co-authored a book published by Timber Press, which you can order from them here.
In the workshop, we learned that if your land grows blueberries well, you can successfully grow tea camellias. In fact, the planting process that Christine demonstrated that day resembled the same process I use for planting blueberries and native azaleas. The keys are excellent drainage and somewhat acidic soils. Her biggest growing challenges are the occasional very cold winters we still get here in the Piedmont region of North Carolina, and voles, which tunnel into root systems and damage the bushes.
To deal with the occasional cold spells, she recommends C. sinensis var. sinensis, which handles most random freezes with no more than a few cold-damaged leaves. C. sinensis var. assamica is more cold-sensitive and has been killed to the roots more than once at the Tea Gardens. They do re-sprout from the roots, but that’s an erratic way to try to create a harvestable plant.
To deal with voles, Christine and her team add a manufactured sterile product called Permatill to their planting holes. In my area, gardeners add this mix to planting holes for spring bulbs like tulips and lilies for the same reason the Tea Gardens staff add it to their planting holes. Voles do not like tunneling through the rock-like bits of Permatill. Permatill also improves soil drainage.
Our Tea Plant Acquisitions
Christine Parks is constantly testing new tea varieties – results of cross-pollination between the plants in her field. Tea plants bloom in the fall. When Wonder Spouse and I were there in October, the field was buzzing with industrious honeybees and other pollinators collecting (and depositing) pollen. The fertilized flowers produce abundant seeds. Christine and her team trial many seeds, because, she told us, you never know when you might get an extraordinary tea plant from such crosses. At the end of the workshop, she gave out handfuls of seeds to class attendees and showed us how to plant them. I am proud to say that all of the seeds she gave me have germinated. I’m not quite sure where I’m going to eventually plant all the seedlings, but I’ll be growing them in pots for at least a year, so I have time to think about it.
Meanwhile, Wonder Spouse and I also purchased three tea plants from the nursery – two different varieties of C. sinensis var. sinensis, and because I like a challenge, one C. sinensis var. assamica. All three are planted inside an empty bed inside my vegetable garden, where the soil is rich and well-drained, water is easily accessible, and a sturdy deer fence protects the plants within from most plant nibblers. I picked varieties that Christine says make excellent green tea – my daily tea of choice. It will be a couple of years before the plants attain harvestable size, and then the key will be to prune them attentively to maintain the bushes for maximum productivity. It’s all explained in her book.
At the tea-planting workshop, Christine provided samples of one of her tea blends. It was the most delicate, wonderfully complex tea I’ve ever enjoyed. When we learned she was offering a bigger tea-tasting open house event a few weeks later, we returned and enjoyed several additional wonderful teas harvested and prepared by Christine and her team. We also met a lovely British couple who were in town visiting their daughter. They saw an advertisement for the open house and could not resist sampling American-made versions of their country’s signature beverage. They were kind enough to allow me to photograph them for this article.
That day, I also wandered among the blooming tea plants buzzing with pollinators. In addition to the pollen collectors, I encountered a healthy Asian Praying Mantis lurking among the bushes, hoping to snag a pollinator snack, and in an area beside the bushes planted with zinnias to attract pollinators, I spotted a late-flying Monarch butterfly – on October 30!
Christine and her team offer workshops on tea-planting several times a year. They also hold open tea-tasting events, and have two scheduled for the last two Saturdays of this month from 3:00-4:00 p.m. In the email she sends to subscribers, this is how she describes these last two events of the year:
- Saturday, December 17: Sunny Day Oolong: a smooth and easy oolong, withered in the Carolina sun
- Saturday, December 24 (Christmas Eve): Summer Garden Green: warm, flavorful, fukamushi style green
Tea samples, plants, and her wonderful book will all be available for sale at these events. And if you buy three tea sample packages, you’ll get a fourth one for free!
Note that Camellia Forest Nursery (where the Tea Gardens are located) will be open on Saturdays from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. and Sundays from noon to 4:00 p.m. If you live near Chapel Hill, NC or plan to be in the area, and you’ve got tea lovers and/or plant lovers on your holiday shopping list, you might want to stop by.
Summer Solstice: A Time for Celebration and Dedication
Posted by piedmontgardener in Conservation Corner, Native Wildlife, piedmont gardening, Vegetable Gardening on June 21, 2022
Perhaps you are one of the fortunate souls like me who remember childhood summers as times of great joy, when daylight lasted past bedtime, lightning bugs provided nightly fireworks, thunderstorms were welcomed respites from summer sun, and ripe blackberries filled every thicket – ideal snacks to fuel childhood explorations. As much as I missed school (yes, I was one of those children), summer’s seemingly infinite daylight, bird song, humming lawn mowers, thrumming cicadas, and smoky backyard barbecue smells provided ample compensation.
These days, my feelings about the summer season are mixed. Climate change brings excessive heat by mid-spring, and dangerous heat by early summer. Weather patterns are more extreme, alternating earth-parching droughts with flooding downpours punctuated by large hail and terrifying winds that throw trees to the ground. As a child, I never feared thunderstorms. Now I find myself praying for the many giant trees that surround me, asking that they withstand winds that bend them nearly in half during violent storms.
As a lifelong gardener, I do still pray for those storms to come, because my thirsty green charges need the water now more than ever. I’ve learned to start my gardens earlier than I did twenty years ago. Spring crops must be in the ground by mid-February, then protected from late cold snaps by garden fabric tunnels. Otherwise, there is no spring lettuce or spinach, peas, or broccoli. I start the summer veggies in the greenhouse in early March, then nurse the plants within that enclosure until the last wild temperature dive to freezing temperatures is past. This year, that was not until mid-May in my garden.
As soon as any vegetable or flower goes in the ground, it is heavily mulched with the aged compost we buy by the truckload for that purpose. The compost holds in precious soil moisture, slows down weed encroachment, and slowly feeds the plants over the growing season. I cannot imagine trying to grow a vegetable garden in traditional rows with today’s climate. Raised beds full of rich soil, well-mulched plants, and regular, deep watering are gardening essentials.
When I describe my current process – how I rise at dawn and only work until 9:00 a.m., when the heat and humidity force me indoors, how I mulch and weed and water attentively – I am frequently asked why I bother. My answer: my body, my heart, and my soul are tuned to and intertwined with the dance of the seasons. I cannot imagine myself not dancing along with them. Yes, the dance has grown wilder, more chaotic, and more challenging, thanks to human-made climate change. But the dance continues.
Despite destruction and disruption by bulldozers, invasive species, and the profligate application of pesticides and herbicides by humans, Mother Earth’s native species are still doing their best to dance with the seasons. Today, in the wetland that adjoins our property, goslings of Canada geese have transformed from yellow fuzz balls to slightly smaller versions of their parents. Tadpoles crowd every puddle – and my front water feature. Frogs chorus at deafening volumes on hot, humid nights. Mother turtles climb out of the wetland to lay eggs on our hill every few days. I finally heard the cowp-cowp call of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo yesterday, and the first summer cicadas were tuning up to greet the solstice a few days ago. The wildlife cameras have documented small spotted fawns closely following their mothers. Wild turkeys mutter to each other as they forage for blackberries and ash tree seeds along the creek.
Decades ago, I turned away from the sort of gardening one reads about in horticulture magazines. Except for my vegetable beds, our five acres are jam-packed with native trees, shrubs, wildflowers, and grasses planted to encourage and nurture the native animals still valiantly dancing as Mother Earth turns. Pollinator gardens and meadows buzz with winged visitors, but they also frequently host an array of hungry native birds, bunnies, and other wildlife. If they focus too hard on a particular plant, I encourage the plant-nibblers to move along with an application of non-toxic repellant spray. The secret, I’ve discovered, is to offer as much good native food and shelter as possible, so there is enough for all native animals to use without negatively impacting the plantings. It’s a delicate dance, and missteps still happen. For me, it is enough that we are all still dancing.
It is challenging to create such plantings on a scale that can support native wildlife on a small suburban lot – but only if you are the sole gardener in your neighborhood trying to do this. So don’t be the only one. More and more, I hear of HOAs in my area that are adopting policies of only planting native plants in common areas, of encouraging native plantings in home landscapes, educating homeowners about invasive species and how to remove them. More and more groups are joining the dance, and not a moment too soon.
I think of my five acres as a green anchor connected to a network of similar spots all around Mother Earth. Together, we are doing our best to keep the dance going by nurturing the music-makers. I invite you to add your home landscape, your neighborhood, to this critical network by planting and nurturing the native plants and animals that were there before you, and without which none of us will survive for long.
On this Summer Solstice, celebrate the season of fruits, flowers, and flip-flops by dedicating yourself to the dance. Keep the music going by making your yard another green anchor in Earth’s network. For without music, there is no life.
Winter Means It This Year
Posted by piedmontgardener in Native Wildlife, piedmont gardening, Vegetable Gardening on January 18, 2022
Winter does not appear to be kidding around this year. As soon as 2021 exited with one of the mildest Decembers ever, January ushered in 2022 with some serious arctic air that shows no signs of leaving for the duration of the month.
Our yard is generally 5-10 degrees cooler than locally reported temperatures, because of the slope down to the floodplain and creek that allows cold air to linger. So far this month, we’ve seen one and only one nighttime low above 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Most nighttime temperatures were well below freezing.
This January reminds me of the Januarys of my childhood and adolescence in the Piedmont of North Carolina. It was always miserably cold. We often saw bouts of snow (if we were lucky) and freezing rain (when we weren’t lucky). Native plants and animals remained in deep slumber. Pines and red cedars provided the only green relief in the landscape.
Since Wonder Spouse and I moved to our five acres of green chaos almost 33 years ago, we’ve had a few winters with deep snows, and a few very nasty ice storms, but they were usually followed by a spell of warmth that thawed any hint of frozen ground very quickly. Not this year. The ground in my yard is rock-solid. I feel as if I’m walking across uneven concrete — very cold concrete.
The beaver-built pond and wetland is very icy these days. Over two dozen mallards have been dabbling about in the shallow water all fall and early winter, but now that shallow water is frozen. The creek that supplies the wetland with water is deeper, and the water moves, so it has not frozen over. The mallards noticed, and now spend much of the day swimming up and down the deep part of the creek behind our house. Our wildlife cameras captured many videos of mallard interactions on the creek this past week.
Because this temperature trend is forecast to last until the end of the month, including several more predicted bouts of winter precipitation, I am wondering which plants won’t survive another winter. I grow several non-native so-called tender perennials, two of which are salvias — pineapple sage, and blue Brazilian sage. They have been reliably re-emerging in spring for over a dozen years now. Before that, they were killed by winter’s cold, so to keep them around, I always took cuttings in the fall and rooted/overwintered them in my little greenhouse. However, I stopped doing that some years ago, because it was unnecessary. Now I’m wondering if I’m going to regret that decision.
I usually start spring vegetable seeds in my greenhouse in early February, but the unrelenting cold is making me wonder if I should delay a bit. I’m glad I ordered seeds early. Some of my favorite varieties were hard and/or impossible to find. I’m guessing as the weather warms, vegetable seed options will diminish quickly. Seed catalogs are all online now, folks, and given the weather, electronic catalog browsing might be an excellent way to pass the time.
It has been too cold to risk lifting the row covers over my winter broccoli and lettuces, but I’m pretty sure that when I do I will find green mush. Row covers can protect crops down to about 25 degrees, especially if that temperature only lasts a few hours. Our nighttime temperatures have been in the teens every night all night. Gardeners are gamblers. This winter season, I harvested some wonderful veggies in December, which makes the January losses easier to tolerate.
I think the mallards have the right idea. When winter gives you a frozen pond, go dabble in a creek until the weather thaws. When winter gives me frozen ground, I stay cozy in my house, dabbling through catalogs and a pile of books that need reading, dreaming of the new season of flowers and fruits that will likely arrive before my winter napping is done.
Year’s End Walkabout
Posted by piedmontgardener in Favorite Plants, piedmont gardening, Vegetable Gardening on December 31, 2021
I spent an hour or so yesterday morning walking around our five acres with my camera to record the state of things as this year draws to a close. The weather here in central North Carolina has been alarmingly warm and we are struggling with moderate drought. However, a bit of rain fell the previous day, and gloom persisted yesterday as rain fell to our south. Winter, the forecasters say, will return on the second day of the new year, shocking plants, animals, and humans alike, I imagine.
The warm spell has been a gift to our winter vegetable garden. In past years, I have kept them tented all winter beneath row covers to protect them from freezing temperatures. Severe cold will turn the greens and broccoli to mush, but beneath row covers, lows into the mid-20s for a few hours do the veggies no lasting harm. This latest warm spell has been so prolonged that I’ve been able to remove the row covers to give the veggies access to full sun. I even gave them all a dose of fish emulsion/seaweed mix this week. Winter fertilizing is not something I am usually able to manage, because I don’t want to expose them to prolonged cold.
We harvested several heads of broccoli — I’m trying Emerald Crown this year — which we will be enjoying with tonight’s dinner. Broccoli doesn’t do well here as a spring crop anymore. The days warm up too quickly. But winter’s chill sweetens them as they grow beneath their row covers. The row covers also protect them from cabbage moth caterpillar damage without the need for any pest control substances.
The greens are all doing great. I’m averaging one salad a week by picking individual leaves. Beet greens provide a bit of zip to the mix of lettuces and spinach. The warm spell accelerated the growth in this bed visibly. I may get two salads out of it next week.
Winter-blooming flowers — all but one non-native — are opening. Pink blooms of one flowering apricot were scenting the air yesterday. Today, the other one also began blooming. I look forward to the perfume from these flowers every year.
January jasmine, which has no fragrance, is also beginning to open its bright yellow flowers that are often mistaken for forsythia. When I leaned in to photograph this flower, I was surprised to find it occupied.
Today, I noticed that my non-native Persian ironwood is beginning to bloom. This tree is in the witch hazel family, and the flowers are not showy, but I have observed honey bees visiting them.
My native witch hazel ‘Amethyst‘ has already begun to bloom. Typically, it waits until middle-to-late January. This shrub insists on holding on to its leaves, but it’s still quite lovely in bloom — and its fresh scent never fails to lift my spirits.
Most of the berry-producing shrubs in our yard have long been picked clean, but the red berries of native deciduous holly and the deep purple berries of native greenbriar vines were still visible when I walked around yesterday.
A few shrubs are still holding on to their autumn-colored leaves, including my native oakleaf hydrangeas. I grow the smaller form, ‘Pee Wee,’ and I recently added a full-sized one, cultivar ‘Alice.’
Dried seed heads of cardinal flower and goldenrod also caught my eye, as did an ever-increasing abundance of bald cypress knees emerging from the muck where three trees I planted three decades ago have now attained heights between 40-50 feet.
Bared tree branches reveal their complex beauty during this leafless season. I was especially enthralled yesterday by a young winged elm. Its corky extrusions along its trunk and every branch made its silhouette quite striking.
Even during this time of moderate drought, the new channel that cuts through what was for 25 years dry, flat floodplain merrily chuckles its way toward a growing wetland pond, home to at least two dozen ducks. I have accepted the fact that this part of the floodplain is now a wetland. And, I must admit, the permanent streamlet that now traverses that area adds an air of tranquility to the landscape.
Never have I been more grateful for my lifelong passion for gardening and the natural world. I am certain the dirt perpetually beneath my fingernails is largely responsible for the retention of my sanity during these challenging times. I know that you, my readers, understand this. Here’s to a new year filled with fruits, vegetables, flowers, pollinators, and ever-dirty fingernails.
Our Garden Grows
Posted by piedmontgardener in piedmont gardening, Vegetable Gardening on May 3, 2020
Cool weather in my part of central North Carolina has been uncharacteristically prolonged this spring. Blooms on our native deciduous azaleas and magnolias have lasted weeks instead of days, as did the spring ephemeral wildflowers like bloodroot. The spring vegetable garden has also benefitted from the cool weather. I do mean cool. Just last week, our morning low dipped down to 38 degrees Fahrenheit, and low-to-mid 40s have frequently occurred.
Consequently, the summer vegetables I started from seeds at the usual time — mid-March — have been impatiently growing taller within my greenhouse for quite some time. I tried to wait until nighttime lows looked like they would remain in the 50-degree range, but this past week I finally had to plant my summer vegetable/herb/flower charges before I could promise them fully settled weather. They are in no danger of being killed by a freeze — I’m 99% certain of that — but I’ve read of studies that show fruit production of tomatoes is reduced for the lifetime of the plant if they are exposed to temperatures below 50 degrees. However, I’m fortunate; fewer tomatoes won’t impact my household one way or the other; keeping towering tomatoes in the greenhouse, on the other hand, could have risked our entire crop.
As I planted out the summer vegetables, herbs, and flowers this past week, I pondered why it is I feel compelled to do this every year. I have decided the drive lurks within my DNA. Almost all my ancestors on both sides arrived in North America before the United States was born; most clear-cut forest and planted crops for food and profit. Their lives revolved around seasonal cycles, plant productivity, and insect and warm-blooded varmints trying to eat their livelihoods.
As I dig planting holes in beds I’ve been enriching with compost for three decades, I feel the hands of my grandmothers and grandfathers guiding mine. Food-growing is my connection to my lineage and to the land that shares its bounty with me. The sweat and sore muscles I accrue in the process seem a fair trade for what I am given in return.
I took all these photos yesterday morning. Yesterday afternoon, I finally transplanted the last few flowers I’d started in the greenhouse. Except for sweet potato slips, which don’t arrive or get planted until the end of May, the vegetable garden is planted.
Our Spring Vegetable Garden
I don’t grow carrots anymore. I never thin them adequately, and most years temperatures get too hot for them before they make much progress. Fortunately, many local organic farmers sell theirs at local markets, so we are always well-supplied. I hadn’t tried peas for years for the same reason, but something told me this year would be different. I started the peas in the greenhouse, because seed germination in cold, wet soil can be unpredictable. As soon as the pea sprouts had two sets of leaves, I transplanted them beside their trellis in the garden. Thanks to the cool spring, I see an excellent pea crop in our future — maybe even enough to freeze some for winter soups!
Wonder Spouse and I love beets. I grow two varieties — Red Ace and Detroit Red. Both make delicious greens that I’ve been popping into our salads for some time. Meanwhile, their delicious bulbs grow fatter in the cool spring weather. I only grew one lettuce variety, because it is so easy to buy organic lettuce from local farmers in my area. The variety I tried this year is New Red Fire; it is wonderfully tasty. Our unfinished basement makes a great root cellar, so we grow onions and potatoes that we store after harvest. Wonder Spouse likes mild, sweet Red Candy onions; I grow them from small bundled plant starts. Mr. Potato Head (aka Wonder Spouse) grows his potatoes in five large grow bags to thwart destructive voles. I know he’s growing two varieties this year, but I don’t remember the names at the moment.
Our Summer Vegetable Garden
This season I exhibited great self-control and only grew/planted three tomato varieties. Sweet Treats will always be our cherry tomato of choice. Picus has become our favorite plum/paste tomato. This year’s experiment with a medium slicing tomato is Rugged Boy. Only Sweet Treats is indeterminate, meaning it keeps growing longer all season. In theory, the other two determinate tomatoes should stop growing taller about mid-season and focus entirely on fruit production. I’ve noticed, however, that in my garden sometimes the determinate tomatoes forget themselves and grow nearly as much as the indeterminate forms. I tie them to either side of a 7-foot-tall trellis. By the end of the season, Wonder Spouse uses a stool to reach the fruits growing beyond my reach (even with the stool).
Peppers are a sweet Italian form, a variant of the traditional Bull’s Horn type that produces fruit half the size of their ancestor — a good thing for us — Bull’s Horn peppers are quite large. We grow a red one (Cornito Rosso) and a yellow one (Cornito Giallo). Because of their high vitamin C content, peppers freeze very well. Their colorful zing adds zip to Wonder Spouse’s culinary masterpieces all winter long.
I’ve had multiple years of success with a Japanese eggplant variety called Millionaire. It has shrugged off flea beetle damage and heat waves to remain productive until hard frost. We have become addicted to having a steady-but-not-overwhelming supply of these fruits all summer long.
I always grow a couple of zucchini plants I start from seed in the greenhouse. When I transplant them out, I cover them in a Reemay tent until they begin to bloom, so they can grow vigorous before I must expose them to the bug varmints of summer. I wrote about my method in detail long ago here. We like a variety called Raven. Its rich, dark fruits contain much antioxidant goodness and excellent flavor.
Because soil temperatures remained cold for so long, I only sowed my summer beans a week ago. After a recent copious rain, seedlings are emerging. Our pole bean of choice is Fortex; no other comes close for flavor and productivity. We love Jade bush beans for the same reason. I’ve taken to growing both on a trellis, allotting half to each variety. I find it is much easier to keep the bush beans upright and productive when I can lean or attach them to a trellis.
I’ve grown borage (Borago officinalis), an annual herb, off and on for years. I love the vivid blue of its flowers, and it is a pollinator magnet. I’ve never used it for its purported medicinal properties, but in researching it today, I learned that “the flowers, candied and made into a conserve, were deemed useful for persons weakened by long sickness.” Perhaps more of us should be growing borage this year to aid those recovering from world-wide sickness.
Summer Solstice Anticipation*
Posted by piedmontgardener in Favorite Plants, piedmont gardening, Vegetable Gardening on June 21, 2018
One of the great imponderables of gardening life: Why does it take so long for the first tomato of the season to ripen? And then when it does, why does it take forever for the rest of the tomatoes to transform from hard green to juicy red?
Amidst the heavy harvest of Fortex pole beans, one Sweet Treats cherry tomato was ready yesterday. It was consumed with great ceremony at last night’s dinner — one half going to Wonder Spouse, the other to me. It was so good!
But now the waiting begins in earnest. So many green tomatoes, so few signs of color change — except for yesterday’s delicious outlier. Somehow the memory of its perfect tomato flavor must satisfy us for — who knows how long?
All the tomato plants are still very actively growing. I tie new growth to the trellises daily. The undersides of my thumbnails are stained dark green from using my nails to snip off unwanted suckers as I tie my enthusiastic charges. When I wash up, the soap suds turn yellow-green from the tomato pigments that coat my hands as I groom the plants.
I’ve been doing this — growing tomatoes — for over four decades now. The routine is the same every summer. About fifteen or so summers ago, I wrote a poem about growing tomatoes. I hope you’ll indulge me as I share it with you here.
There they go again.
This year I swore I’d keep them under control —
every sucker pruned,
every new shoot tied to a support.
I thought I had them tamed.
Obediently, they clasped their cages —
yellow flowers nodding
from the weight of visiting bees.
Today, the riot is well underway.
An antigravity avalanche of green
shoots skyward, sideways, all ways —
like a group of guilty children scattering
in all directions at the approach of an adult.
I can almost hear them giggling.
So here I am once again —
This is not a task for timid souls.
You must wade right into the plants,
disregarding spiders and sticky aphids.
You must show no fear as you use a firm hand
to tie them to their supports.
Emerging from the struggle,
sweaty and coated in green tomato tang,
I bow to my partners.
Soon they will offer me heavy red globes
to transform into refreshing summer salads,
and fragrant rich sauces to freeze for winter feasts,
certain to fuel warm dreams
of summer sambas with tomatoes.
Happy Summer, everyone. May the fruits of your labors bring you as much delight as mine bring to me.
* I hope you enjoyed this repeat of a post from 2013.
Early June in the Garden
Posted by piedmontgardener in Favorite Plants, Native Wildlife, piedmont gardening, Vegetable Gardening on June 8, 2018
I always carry my camera with me when I step outside this time of year, even if I’m just walking the 100 yards to the mailbox. If I don’t bring it, some butterfly, bee, bunny, or bird does something photo-worthy that I don’t catch if I’m unprepared. These shots are what I caught today.
I spent the morning working in the vegetable garden. I needed to work longer, but the sun is ferocious, the humidity unforgiving. Yesterday, I finally harvested our first squash and first two eggplants. We ate them last night and I can report that they were delicious. Today, I picked another eggplant, decided to give a couple of squash one more day to fill out, exhorted the tomato plants bent low with the weight of green orbs to hurry up and ripen, and rejoiced in sighting the first bean flowers on all three varieties I’m growing. A little photographic documentation follows. To enlarge a photo and see its caption more easily, click on it.
To get to the vegetable garden, I travel through the front yard and pollinator gardens. Here’s a sample of what I saw today.
In the center of my front yard, the Chinese Pearl-bloom tree commands full attention as it nears peak bloom.
We especially enjoy this time of year because of the near-daily emergence of tiny new amphibians from the front water feature. A few days ago in the early morning after a night-time shower, Wonder Spouse and I counted 25 hiding on various plants growing nearby. I suspect that most are Cope’s Gray Treefrogs, but I’ve heard other amphibians singing lustily beside the pond at night too, especially Narrow-mouthed Toads. When they are this tiny, though, I have no idea how to tell them apart.
Every day brings new discoveries, fresh food, and hard work. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Posted by piedmontgardener in Conservation Corner, Native Wildlife, piedmont gardening, Vegetable Gardening on November 3, 2017
Those of us who care about the natural world, especially current assaults to it from all sides, have long been worried about the short- and long-term effects of pesticides and herbicides on native flora and fauna. And, of course, we also need to be worried about the effects of these chemicals on humans, especially more susceptible groups like children and women in their child-bearing years. A study released in the October 6 edition of the journal Science provides alarming evidence that agricultural practices throughout the world need to be re-examined. Immediately.
You’ll find a good description of this study in this recent article in Nature. In this new study, scientists collected 198 honey samples from around the world. They detected at least one of the five common neonicotinoids they tested for on every continent with honeybees, including remote islands with very little agriculture.
Neonicotinoids target the central nervous systems of crop-destroying insects, but — theoretically anyway — do not have the same effects on humans. However, an increasing number of studies are demonstrating how these pesticides are negatively impacting non-target insect species like honeybees — and wild bees. Increasing evidence shows that our well-documented decline in pollinator populations is associated with the massive increase in the use of these poisons by the agriculture industry.
It is true that in all samples, levels of these poisons were below the minimum levels established by experts to be safe for human consumption. However, I would argue — strenuously — that these determinations were not the result of rigorous science. Heck, I would argue that the presence of any amount of these poisons is dangerous to humans. Were cumulative effects considered, for example?
I ask because of the results of another alarming study recently published in JAMA Internal Medicine led by Harvard scientists. This one notes a strong association between women struggling with fertility issues and their high consumption of fruits and vegetables laden with pesticides. These women are no doubt trying to improve their nutrition by consuming more fruits and vegetables that they are buying in their local supermarkets. But some of these crops (not organically grown, of course) are so coated in pesticides that when eaten frequently, show up in the bloodstreams of those consumers. I submit that it is only a matter of time before scientists produce evidence of similar effects specifically associated with so-called “safe” neonicotinoids.
What can we do? I think we need to make it a priority to increase the availability of organically grown produce to all of humanity. In the US, we must speak with our wallets and refuse to buy poison-laden produce. As the popularity of organically grown produce increases, prices for it will fall. Every other corner of every neighborhood — suburban or urban — should showcase a community garden where organically grown crops are produced by neighbors for their local consumption. Every able-bodied suburbanite with a yard dominated by a poison-laden, non-native lawn should convert that waste of space into small, beautiful gardens full of food and flowers — all grown without pesticides.
Organically grown produce and flowers do not look as pristine as poison-coated ones, but, my friends, you get out what you put in; you get what you pay for. And future costs to future generations must immediately become a significant factor in this calculation.
Why I Grow Food
Posted by piedmontgardener in piedmont gardening, Vegetable Gardening on June 28, 2017
I grew my first tomatoes when I was fifteen. I dug up a long, skinny bed beside the family carport, the only spot that got enough sun to give fruit development half a chance. I don’t remember where I got the plants. I do remember being amazed by how tall they grew. I was not prepared for that, improvising stakes from fallen sticks that littered our wooded lot. I didn’t get many tomatoes out of that effort. I’m not sure the pollinators knew where to find my pitiful plants among the massive oaks and hickories that towered around the house. But even with all those challenges, I was hooked on growing my own food.
I didn’t have a chance to try it again until I was in graduate school. Some friends were renting an old farmhouse. They had turned part of an adjacent fallow field into a vegetable garden and invited me to start my own garden beside theirs. So I did. Graduate students are not often known for their healthy diets, but I ate fresh carrots, zingy peppers, and orb after orb of juicy red tomato. I even bought a pressure cooker and taught myself how to can. This was in the ancient days before youtube — no how-to videos for me. I actually read books to figure out how to grow and preserve my garden bounty.
The biggest lessons I recall from that summer were about canning. First, canning in humid North Carolina in the tiny kitchen of an apartment without air conditioning is a great way to lose weight from perspiring excessively. Second, it is possible to can squash, but you really don’t want to eat canned squash; the texture is way too slimy. Canning blackberry preserves, on the other hand – totally worth the sweat equity.
I’ve grown a garden every year since then. First, in the yards of rental houses, then on the properties I’ve owned with the amazingly energetic Wonder Spouse. This year marks our 27th anniversary of growing vegetables in the same garden space. Every year, we have added compost and organic mulches to the raised beds we built. What had been pretty good soil to start with is now Vegetable Nirvana – chocolate cake soil, my sister used to call it – dark, aromatic, moist, and unlike cake – full of earthworms.
Once you are smitten with a love of growing your own food, soon you are not satisfied with buying plants grown by others. You spend your winters studying seed catalogs, drawing diagrams of where you will plant various crops, choosing old favorite varieties you know to be reliable, but always trying something new, something too intriguing to pass up.
Wonder Spouse built me a small greenhouse from a kit 22 years ago, and it is a testimony to his meticulousness that it functions as well today as it did when it was shiny and new. Before the greenhouse, we started seeds indoors, but trying to ensure that plants received adequate light was a perpetual struggle. My beautiful greenhouse solved that issue and the issue of adequately watering without overwatering – or ending up with water and soil on the living room floor.
I wish every child had the chance to grow her own food, preferably with coaching from a parent or grandparent eager to welcome a new member into the Green Thumb Clan. Too many children today don’t know where vegetables come from, and I believe the reason so many children think they hate vegetables is because they’ve never had the opportunity to taste a carrot just pulled from loamy soil, or a ripe pepper right off the bush. They don’t know what dill is, or that you can munch it like a stalk of celery.
I find it heartening to see a growing number of community gardens. Some are on city lots, some on school or church properties. Folks who have had limited access to fresh vegetables and fruits are getting chances to improve their diets and get a bit of exercise in the sunshine.
I am also heartened by the interest of millennials in growing their own food, even adding chicken coops and honeybee hives in record numbers to urban and suburban lots. They are growing food instead of ecologically inert lawns – in their front yards! This movement is nation-wide. I am encouraged every time I peruse the Front Yardener Facebook page, where these energetic folks are figuring out how to maximize food production in their yards while making their gardens aesthetically appealing.
Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, these kids (sorry, you all look like children to me) are progressing far more rapidly than I did. If they see a bug they don’t recognize, they go online and quickly determine whether it is a friend or enemy to their garden. They proudly post many photos of their gardens, their harvests, and their preserved bounty.
I know of one local neighborhood that engages in a sunflower-growing contest every summer. The household that grows the tallest flower wins accolades and admiration from all. And there’s a party, of course, to celebrate the occasion. I hope all the Front Yardeners have harvest parties where they share produce, growing tricks, and the companionship that derives from shared passions.
I’m guessing they grow food for the same reasons I’ve been doing it for almost 40 years. Yes, it saves money and gives me access to foods I might not get otherwise. But as important, it keeps me outside, my hands in rich earth, my ears tuned to bird song and cicada thrumming, my eyes alert for new pollinators or potential pests. It gives me an excuse to stand at the fence to chat with my neighbor and share garden bounty. It keeps me connected to Mother Earth, the source of everything upon which we all rely.
For me, that will always be the bottom line – that connection to the Green World, the anchor that prevents me from being sucked into the vortex of electronic media full of talking and shouting heads and images of such cruelty that I can’t get through most newscasts these days without shedding a few tears.
I grow food to remind myself of what is important, to prevent my heart from breaking, to hold on to hope. Growing food is my daily prayer for Earth and humanity. May we all find ways to nurture our hearts, our souls, and our connectedness.
Spring is …
Posted by piedmontgardener in piedmont gardening, Vegetable Gardening on March 20, 2017
Bloodroots pushing through the leafy forest floor.
Salamanders emerging from algae-covered gelatinous egg masses.
Freeze-killed Magnolia ‘Elizabeth’ flowers.
Emerging columbine blooms decapitated by hungry deer. I watched five very pregnant does scour the frosty floodplain this morning for anything tasty and green.
Splotchy Mayapple leaves just emerging, with fat, round flower buds centered between their two leaves.
A newly planted onion bed.
Fuzzy elm seeds and two-winged maple samaras floating on sluggish creek waters.
Red buckeye flower buds preparing to open in time to greet returning Ruby-throated hummingbirds.
Freeze-killed blueberry flowers.
A male Wood Duck paddling on the beaver pond, barely within range of my camera.
A freeze-killed cinnamon fern fiddlehead. Fortunately, the others appear to remain viable, tucked tightly in the center of the plants.
Pawpaw flower buds wisely waiting for more settled temperatures.
Spring salad greens and wildflower seedlings waiting for the final (we hope) big dip in temperatures predicted to arrive after tomorrow’s 80-degree heat ushers in another cold front.
Hot and cold, dry and rainy, vibrant and brown, life and death — Spring is here.