Archive for category Vegetable Gardening
Hurtling into spring
Posted by piedmontgardener in Favorite Plants, Greenhouse growing, piedmont gardening, Vegetable Gardening on February 16, 2017
I know the folks in the Northeast are cold, snow-plagued, and miserable. I know the folks in the Pacific Northwest who prayed for rain for most of a decade are desperately looking for the emergency shut-off valve to Heaven. And I’m sorry for your troubles, truly I am, which is why I feel a tad guilty complaining about the temperatures dominating the southeastern Piedmont region of the US.
Sure, it got down to 25 degrees Fahrenheit at my house this morning. I had to remove ice from the bird baths. But according to the forecasts, I probably won’t need to do that again for at least ten days. And the way things are going, maybe not until next November. My neck of the woods is hurtling full-tilt-willy-nilly into spring.
We’ve already zoomed through crocus season, the snowdrops opened yesterday and will likely be done in a few days. I planted a variety of daffodils that are supposed to provide me with an extended seasonal bloom period, but I’m starting to think that may not happen this year.
I started seeds of greens for my spring garden during the first few days of February; at the time, I wondered if I was overeager. Now I’m exhorting the seedlings to grow faster, fearing that if I don’t get them transplanted into their garden bed soon, summer temperatures arriving by early April will melt them before we’ve harvested more than a salad’s worth. This. Is. Not. Good.
I posted the above shot to my Facebook page the other day, and someone there asked me to list the varieties I’m growing, because she couldn’t read the scrawls on the labels in the photo. So for her — and anyone else who might be interested — here are the spring salad varieties growing in my greenhouse right now.
- Coastal Star — This is my go-to green romaine lettuce. It stands up to the early heat that hits my area in late April/early May. This is the third year I’m growing it.
- Outredgeous — I grew this red romaine for the first time last season, and we loved it. It faded in the heat a little faster, but it stayed alive and productive this whole past winter for me beneath a row cover. I love this lettuce.
- Cherokee — This is a red summer crisp lettuce that I’m trying for the first time, because Johnny’s Selected Seeds (the source of most of my veggie seeds) says it is more heat-tolerant (i.e., bolt-resistant) than most.
- Ovation Greens Mix — I’ve grown this mix several years now. I get a nice assortment of fast-germinating speciality greens that give a nice tang or slightly bitter note to sweeter lettuces. They bolt very quickly in my heat. I direct-sow a few more when I transplant the starts in my greenhouse; sometimes that pays off, sometimes it doesn’t.
- Seaside Spinach — This is a new smooth-leaf variety I’m trying this year, because it is touted as being bolt-resistant. I often have trouble persuading spinach to germinate for me in the greenhouse, but this variety is popping up and growing with enthusiasm — a promising start.
- Rosaine — I grew this red bibb lettuce for the first time last year. It produces really lovely thick, buttery leaves. It is supposed to be bolt-resistant, but did not impress me last season. However, like Outredgeous, it produced all winter for me under a row cover. I’m thinking red lettuces may be more cold-tolerant.
- Corvair Spinach — If Seaside remains as enthusiastic as it is starting, I won’t be growing Corvair again. This smooth-leaf variety is a downright temperamental germinator for me — and most everything germinates for me, so this is unusual. The plants that do show up, grow well enough, but I would rather grow a spinach that I can always count on.
- Sparx — This is a new green romaine I decided to try, because it is supposed to be heat-tolerant and high-yielding. It is back-ordered until March 1. At the time I ordered, I figured this would not be a deal-breaker, timing-wise. The crazy weather may preclude a proper test of this variety, but I’ll give it a try when it shows up.
That’s it for the greens. Believe it or not, I really tried to keep down the number of varieties I’m trying this year. I also tried to contain myself when it came to tomato varieties, but I compensated with a new pepper variety, and an eggplant that intrigued me. Seed catalogs in deep winter are very, very hard to resist.
The absurd warmth caused my flowering apricots to zip through their bloom cycles much more quickly than usual. Only Peggy Clarke Senior is still perfuming the air, albeit faintly, with the magical cinnamon-sweet scent of her rosy blooms.
Our Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Stars’ has opened flowers at the top of the tree. The forecasted heat this weekend will no doubt cause most of the rest to explode into bloom.
Both of my Cornelian cherries (Cornus mas) are in full bloom. I’m hoping the warmth will encourage pollinators to cross-pollinate them to produce fruits this year.
This member of the dogwood family doesn’t naturally occur in North America, but it doesn’t seem to be invasive, so I decided to give it a try. If I start seeing seedlings popping up, I will yank it out pronto.
My patch of Golden Ragwort grows larger every year. It does a great job of reducing erosion, and when it blooms, its bright yellow flowers make the ground glow.
The weekend is supposed to reach high temperatures in the mid-70s here, so Wonder Spouse and I will be outside preparing spring vegetable beds and hauling fallen branches knocked down by winter storm winds. I anticipate plenty of sore muscles and creaky joints. But it’s all worth it when we sit down to the first salad of the season.
I’ll leave you with one last photo. I posted this to my Facebook page, but I wanted to share it here for my non-Facebook followers. On February 10, we enjoyed a penumbral lunar eclipse. Just the left edge of the full moon in the photo below was obscured by the sun’s shadow, but it was discernible. The Amazing Wonder Spouse set up his tripod and took this shot. Enjoy!
Frost? What Frost?
Posted by piedmontgardener in piedmont gardening, Vegetable Gardening on November 4, 2016
The wacky, way-above-normal-temperatures weather continues in my piedmont garden. We live in a frost pocket. Our yard gets zapped by frost when nearby neighbors remain un-iced. So when I tell you that my house — on November 4 — still hasn’t seen a speck of frost, that is testimony to the strangeness of this year’s “autumn” weather pattern.
The weather forecasters have been promising cold any minute now for the last month or so. But every time a front approaches, it fizzles out, so that the cold air behind it never gets here. There’s talk of record snow in Siberia that will eventually mean deeply cold temperatures for much of the US, including my area, but I gather that weather is at least a month away. In the meantime, we continue to enjoy the best Italian sweet pepper crop we have ever grown.
In normal years, my staking system for these peppers is entirely adequate. Usually they are long gone by early October, either due to drought or frost. But this year, the peppers just keep growing, and flowering, and pushing out gorgeous large, heavy fruits that drag down overlong branches to the point where I’m having trouble finding the ripe fruits lurking deep inside this pepper forest. Those blue flowers bumping into the peppers are Blue Brazilian Sage (Salvia guarantica) — a very frost-sensitive perennial that is usually long gone by now.
No ripe fruits appear in these photos, because I had already picked them before I took these shots. I picked every ripe fruit I saw, because the forecast called for a nighttime low that usually translates to frost at my house. And peppers are very frost-sensitive. But the chill didn’t materialize, and today I picked a dozen more beautifully ripe fruits, some red, some yellow, all tasting of summer sunshine and vitamin C.
Wonder Spouse only just planted the garlic he ordered, because the soil thermometer warned us that the soil was too warm until just a few days ago. Yes, that’s a potato in the foreground of the shot. A tiny spud somehow eluded Wonder Spouse during last spring’s harvest, and he didn’t have the heart to pull up such a healthy-looking plant.
About six weeks ago, I direct-sowed all the remaining seeds of the greens I had planted for this past spring’s crop. I sowed thickly, because the seeds of lettuce and other greens are not supposed to keep well. Mine had been sitting in a box in my study, so I guess the air-conditioned house kept them happier than I realized. I think I got 100% germination from all varieties, including the carrots. I thinned as much as I could, moving seedlings to adjacent beds. But eventually I ran out of room. And enthusiasm.
Those are Queen Sophia marigolds in the foreground of the shot of the second big greens bed. They’re usually done for the season by now too. Not this year. I couldn’t bear to pull them up to make room for more greens. They were there first, after all.
A couple of days ago, the weather forecasters began speaking excitedly of the imminent arrival of seasonal autumn temperatures, so I broke out my row covers and covered the salad greens. The big tent on the left is protecting broccoli. However, the crop is not happy; I think it’s just been too hot for the plants to thrive. Of course, now the forecasters have raised the predicted nighttime lows to temperatures well above freezing. But the weather is at least cooler now. The row covers will probably just encourage the lettuces, spinaches, carrots, beets, and dill to grow a little faster, meaning more fresh salads. We aren’t complaining.
The marigolds I tucked in beside squashes, tomatoes, beans, etc. months ago have grown to epoch dimensions, spreading out as dead summer crops were pulled out of their way. Local bees — and the few stray butterflies still flitting about — are delighted the Queen Sophias continue to reign with enthusiasm.
What a strange autumn. We had almost no fall color, because the nighttime temperatures were too warm. A cold front that blew in today denuded many of the canopy giants in my yard. Yet summer peppers, salad greens, and sunny marigolds continue to thrive. That’s why I’m still gardening after more than 50 years of playing in the dirt. Every year — and every season — is different.
2016: Our Best Onion Yield Ever
Posted by piedmontgardener in piedmont gardening, Tools & Techniques, Uncategorized, Vegetable Gardening on November 1, 2016
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Another Turn of the Wheel: Welcome Summer
Posted by piedmontgardener in Vegetable Gardening on June 20, 2016
Flowers and fruits abound as we celebrate the arrival of the Summer Solstice, which in my area, will arrive at 6:34 this evening. This year — the first time since 1948 around here — the solstice’s arrival will be enhanced by a full moon. The myriad fireflies that dance in my landscape after sunset may have trouble being seen as they compete for visibility with that bright orb in our night sky. But she will dim in a few days, and the fireflies will dance for another month or so.
Late spring was kind to us this year, and most plants are only just now beginning to notice that the frequent rains have diminished, that the temperatures are trending suddenly much higher, and our famous southeastern humidity has arrived to make humans sweat even during early morning tasks outside.
Yesterday shortly after sunrise, I was in the vegetable garden tying enthusiastic tomato shoots to their trellises, watering thirsty beans and squashes, and hunting drowsy insect pests before the sun energized them when I heard cicadas thrumming for the first time this year. One day ahead of the arrival of the solstice, I thought perhaps they were testing their instruments to ensure they could greet Summer with fully tuned accompaniment.
Busy insects abound. Dragonflies patrol the skies for tasty morsels, honeybees and myriad other bee species diligently visit flowers from dawn to dusk, mosquitoes buzz, flies swarm, ladybugs devour sluggish aphids — it’s a jungle out there.
I spend too much time these days taking photographs, as I vainly try to capture early summer’s energy and diversity. But it’s all so wonderful, I can’t help myself. Do you remember that feeling of release and energy that overwhelmed you every June when your elementary school let out for the summer? Our futures glowed with possibilities filled with sunshine, warm water, fireflies in bottles, and long, warm evenings playing with friends, or sitting with elders on wide porches listening to their stories of summers past.
Summer’s arrival is a moment of infinite possibilities for gardeners too. Sweat equity starts to pay off handsomely in fresh green beans, tender squash, refreshing cucumbers, and the ultimate reward — fresh tomato-basil sandwiches — truly the taste of summer at my house.
Savor Summer’s soft side today, my friends, for soon we begin the hard slog through heat and humidity, rampant bugs and insidious fungal diseases. But today — today we embrace the new season with hopes for bountiful harvests, the welcoming symphony of thunderstorm rains, and nights full of fireflies, cicada songs, and family gatherings.
Happy Summer Solstice to all!
Recovering from a Late-spring Hard Freeze
Posted by piedmontgardener in Favorite Plants, Native Wildlife, piedmont gardening, Vegetable Gardening on April 9, 2016
The damage to one of my hollies (They all looked like this.) in the above photo occurred this past Wednesday, April 6, when the temperature at my house fell to 26.8 degrees. Unfortunately, late tonight and into the early hours of tomorrow before the sun returns, my area’s temperatures are predicted to be lower than this previous event. I am expecting my yard to see temperatures between 23-25 degrees for at least 8 hours. This one is going to hurt. A lot.
I am worse off than many, because I live in an area not yet completely encircled by concrete and asphalt. The heat-island effect that urban/suburban areas generate by absorbing the sun’s heat in man-made materials usually prevents temperatures from falling as low as they do at my house. Plus I live on a hill that slopes to a floodplain. Cold air is heavy and sinks, and as it slides down my hill, it pauses long enough to caress newly sprouted green shoots until they become brown, shriveled sludge.
If a miracle occurs and the roaring winds now driving in arctic air don’t diminish to stillness, the damage won’t be as bad. But odds are most of the fresh new green growth on canopy and understory trees, shrubs, and perennials will look the way my poor Magnolia ‘Diva’ in the above photo already looks.
This has happened once before in my years here. I called it the Black Spring, because literally every leaf on every canopy tree died. Finally about mid-June, the trees mustered a new flush of leaf growth, but it was a much-reduced push of foliage. That summer was hot and dry with no tree shade to hide in. Such a trauma leaves plants in a weakened state that makes them more vulnerable to disease and insect attacks. So how should you plan to recover from any freeze damage to plants at your house?
Reduce your expectations for the growing season
Perhaps your fruit and/or nut trees produced an abundance of flowers, followed by tender new leaves, as my pecan trees did. If tonight’s freeze kills that new growth, it is likely you won’t see much fruit this year.
My pecan trees are about 40 feet tall, and planted in one of the coldest spots in my yard (before I understood that area’s temperature issues). The growth of one tree was completely killed, as you can see in the second photo above. The other tree was heavily damaged, but still shows some green. It is closer to a tall stand of Eastern Red Cedars, which protected it somewhat.
But no matter. Pecans need two trees for good cross-pollination and nut production. The squirrels will see no pecans this season. And I will need to figure out a way to provide water to the completely killed tree if we go into drought, so that it can summon enough energy for a new flush of leaf growth. And to the other tree, too, if it suffers the same fate tonight.
Depending on what happens tonight, I may still have a few blueberries to harvest in a month or so. The early-bloomers had already set fruit, and I’m hoping — because they are still tiny — the cold won’t kill them. But as the photo above illustrates, still-blooming flowers were mostly damaged at least a bit. Odds are high that the later-blooming bushes will yield few if any berries this year.
Appreciate the wondrous early spring we enjoyed
Those of us who work with plants know that myriad circumstances can overrule our expectations at any moment. To be sure, we are always at the mercy of the weather. That’s one of the reasons I like to take pictures of my charges frequently during this time of year. I need the glamor shots to lift my spirits after the weather does its worst.
Know your yard’s cold spots before you plant, and know which plants are most cold-sensitive
As I noted above, I planted our pecan trees before I fully understood the microclimate variations on our property. I also didn’t realize the cold sensitivity of deciduous magnolias, native or otherwise.
My Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Stars’ was unscathed by the first freeze. It blooms much earlier, so its flowers were done. And its leaves had been out much longer, so they had toughened up, unlike poor Elizabeth and Butterflies. The buds on my tall native Magnolia fraseri were still tightly closed during the first freeze, but they were swelling. My camera’s zoom lens revealed at least some freeze damage to those buds. Magnolia macrophylla had not even begun to enlarge its buds. The first freeze did not damage it. The reality in my yard is that my beloved early-blooming deciduous magnolias will always be damaged by freezing temperatures. The only variable is the duration of the freeze and the consequent extent of the damage.
Remember local wildlife
Normally by now, I’m tapering down the frequency with which I’m filling seed feeders to encourage disbursement of winter flocks of Northern Cardinals and other feeder-loving species. I always leave out one suet cake until the temperatures remain reliably warm, because woodpeckers and nuthatches are feeding fledglings, and the harried-looking parents seem to really appreciate being able to stuff a bit of suet down a young one’s throat when they can’t find a tasty bug to quell the youngster’s clamoring.
My summer bird species are all mostly here now, and their bug supply has been adversely impacted by the freeze. Consequently, I’ve re-stocked the seed feeders and put out more suet. The warblers seem quite grateful for the suet, but I hadn’t seen them visit the feeders before Wednesday’s freeze. As I do throughout the year, I’m making sure all my bird baths are full of clean, unfrozen water.
In the woods adjacent to my house, tonight’s freeze may kill blackberry flower buds, damage new tender shoots of pokeweed, and turn fresh elderberry growth into mush. If that happens, the native fruits my birds rely on will be severely limited. I can’t really offer them anything equivalent, so it is likely they will relocate to areas where their wild foods were not damaged — if they can find such areas.
If a Black Spring darkens my door…
If tomorrow reveals another Black Spring for my yard, I will expect to see many fewer bird species while my trees struggle to re-leaf themselves. If drought appears, I’ll need to add water to challenged plants where I can. I can’t water canopy trees. For them, I can watch closely for signs of dying limbs, and disease and insect encroachment.
Summer annuals and summer-blooming perennials and woody plants will not be affected by the freeze directly, but the absence of shade provided by canopy trees will stress them, especially if the rains stop coming. My summer vegetable garden should not be too adversely impacted — barring drought or plagues of locusts/disease, etc. I will tend my tomatoes, savor the tang of basil, and do what I can for my damaged charges.
Such is the lot of those of us who work the earth. And the truth, of course, is that we know embracing the bad along with the wondrous good is all part of our journey.
Glory in the Morning
Posted by piedmontgardener in Favorite Plants, Native Wildlife, piedmont gardening, Vegetable Gardening on March 28, 2016
My rain gauge recorded 1.77 inches of rain from yesterday afternoon until early this morning. The clouds parted by about 10:00 a.m., leaving clean air (no pollen!), moist ground, and almost visibly growing plants. A walk with the camera seemed essential.
The spring garden is growing well. We’ve been dry, so I’ve been watering lettuces, broccoli, onions, and potatoes to try to keep them growing, but I could see they weren’t as happy as they could be. Of course, some of that may have been because their coating of yellow-green pine pollen made them all look a bit sickly. But this morning, freshly washed, vibrant veggies greeted me.
In the greenhouse, the tomatoes I sowed last week have all germinated. Most of the peppers have too. The Scotch Bonnet pepper seeds I’m growing for a friend are still ungerminated, but they are notoriously slow, so I’m not worried yet.
The spring ephemerals have been coming and going fast, thanks to the unseasonably warm weather. Last night’s rain denuded all the still-blooming bloodroots, revealing erect seed capsules, standing like soldiers beneath the great canopy trees. The mayapples are full of flower buds, and the Atamasco lilies were putting up flower buds.
Blooming Shrubs and Trees — with Butterflies!
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterflies are literally everywhere, floating at all levels, from treetops to lawn. It is especially wonderful to see after last year’s near-absence of all butterflies. Today I saw my first Spicebush Swallowtail, but it refused to pose for me. There were several other new, uncooperative species, and a gossamer-winged dragonfly that I suspect was newly emerged. The flowers were more cooperative photographic subjects, although a gusty wind (that re-awakened the pollen) did create some challenges.
Despite the rain, Wonder Spouse and I did manage to get our front water feature going for the new season. We anticipate that the local frogs and toads that lay eggs in it every year should arrive as soon as this latest cool spell has passed. The plants in the pots look a bit bare at the moment, but the pitcher plants and the new Venus Flytrap in them have flower buds, and the moisture-loving milkweeds are growing quickly. I think all will come together for the plants in a month or so.
The Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have been reported in my area, but I haven’t seen or heard one yet. Just in case, the feeder full of sugar water is in its usual spot. Soon these flying jewels will join the increasingly evident wildlife to enjoy the bounty of blooms that signal Spring’s arrival on our five acres.
Happy Spring, everyone!
Late Winter Pluses and Minuses
Posted by piedmontgardener in Favorite Plants, Greenhouse growing, Native Wildlife, piedmont gardening, Vegetable Gardening on February 22, 2016
It’s been too long since I posted here. My apologies. Late winter in my corner of North Carolina has been a mostly soggy mess. And as I type this, yet more rain is pouring down upon my mushy landscape. I have been posting small items regularly on the Piedmont Gardener Facebook page; if you use that social media tool, you may want to check out the photos and announcements of relevant events that I post there.
As I’ve noted on the PG Facebook page, beavers have once again moved into the wetland adjacent to my creek. They have built a dam downstream and off my property, which has raised the water level in the creek so that every rain event involving more than a half-inch is causing the creek to overflow in numerous places along my property, even cutting channels into what has been a stable, flat floodplain for over 25 years. It’s a real mess, and we’re not sure what, if anything, we can do about it.
The beavers are actively foraging all up and down the creek. In addition to harvesting a few saplings, they even “tasted” two of the Leyland Cypresses still standing beside the creek. To discourage them from returning, I sprayed the entire lower trunks of all the Leylands with a deer repellant spray in the hopes that it would make them taste bad enough for the beavers to ignore. So far <knock wood>, it’s working, but all this rain probably means I need to reapply the repellant.
But not all my landscape surprises are less than wonderful. Case in point: a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers appear to have chosen a sycamore just across the creek to raise this year’s brood. Until the forest leafs out, I can see this spot from my living room window and back deck. That’s a good thing, because when I try to walk near this tree, the woodpeckers make it clear that I am not the least bit welcome.
Another pair of late-winter nesters has settled in, as usual, in the wetland forest — Red-shouldered Hawks. They often lurk in the trees near our backyard bird feeders, but I haven’t seen them catch any songbirds. Frogs, salamanders, and earthworms, on the other hand, seem to be dietary staples. Wonder Spouse took that spectacular hawk photo two days ago when it decided to hunt from a tree in our backyard. He actually took the shot from inside our house. He is a wizard with his camera — and his post-processing software.
When we’ve gotten a few back-to-back days of sunshine, we’ve been hard at work preparing the vegetable garden for another season. All my seeds have arrived, and last Wednesday (2-16), I sowed my first batch of greens in my germination chamber. The ones in the above photo germinated in two days! I’ll enumerate the spring garden veggie varieties I’m trying in a new post soon. All the lettuces germinated instantly, along with baby kale and radicchio. The spinaches and parsley are only just now showing signs of germinating, which is entirely normal. When they are all well up and moved out of the germination chamber, I’ll sow another batch of spring veggies.
The two varieties of onion plants I ordered arrived mid-week, and I managed to get them all planted in their garden bed yesterday. I know they don’t look like much now, but if the voles will leave them alone, we have big hopes for these.
It’s always amazing how these stubby little onion starts that arrive with shriveled roots plump up in just a few weeks. I was delighted to get them planted the same week they arrived. Usually I’m not this organized and they wait a week or more. I’m hoping my efficiency will pay off in bigger bulbs. Stay tuned.
We’ve had a few bouts of deep cold and some ice — mostly freezing rain — which damaged my Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Star’ flowers. They opened too early, thanks to the absurdly warm December we had here. Fortunately, not all the buds opened before the cold, so I’m able to enjoy a round of new blooms during our current milder spell of weather.
In addition to the witch hazel ‘Amethyst’ blooming well in the first photo of this post, my Cornus mas ‘Spring Glow’ trees are bursting with bright golden flowers. I’m hoping they will cross-pollinate each other this year and produce some of the red berries that give them their common name: Cornelian Cherry. I was thus heartened to see a pollinator on these flowers yesterday.
Of course, spring bulbs are well up. My crocuses were eaten by deer before I remembered to spray them with repellent. Snow drops and myriad daffodils are all loaded with buds and will soon be glowing in the landscape as it wakens from its winter slumber. Meanwhile, the lushest, greenest parts of my yard are the lichens, soft and fluffy from abundant rains.
2015 Review of Renee’s Garden Seeds: Part I
Posted by piedmontgardener in Favorite Plants, piedmont gardening, Vegetable Gardening on January 3, 2016
With apologies for tardiness, here are my thoughts about the free seeds from Renee’s Garden that I trialed this year. As those of you who have been reading my blog for a year or two may recall, every year, Renee’s Garden offers up to 15 free seed packets to members of the Garden Writers Association in the hopes, I imagine, that we will write about the seeds we try. I know that I feel obliged every year to write up how my Renee’s Seeds samples fared. I had hoped to squeak in my review before last year slipped entirely away, but I know most folks haven’t ordered their seeds yet, so you’ll still have time to ponder my results here.
I ordered 11 seed packets, and received an additional sample in a promotional mailing sent out by this company, so I tried 12 seed varieties this year ranging from perennials to annuals to herbs to a vegetable. I’ve assigned grades ranging from A to F to this year’s seeds, but many more high grades than low ones. This post describes all the varieties that earned an A from me.
Kale ‘Tuscan Baby Leaf’ — A
This was the freebie seed packet sent with a promotional mailing. Described as a cut-and-come-again salad baby kale, I had to try it, and it has not disappointed. I first tried it with the spring garden greens and loved it then. For that round, I started seedlings in the greenhouse and transplanted them out when the weather had settled. They produced well and were delicious, but they bolted sooner than many of the other spring greens.
However, when copious autumn rains began to fall, I decided to plant a small fall vegetable garden of broccoli and salad greens. I direct-sowed all the greens, using the same packets of seeds from the spring. All germinated enthusiastically, including this baby leaf kale. When our autumn temperatures turned absurdly warm, I was able to protect these crops through minor dips in temperatures by covering them with a tent of spun garden fabric. At this point, after something like 8 inches of rain during the month of December, the salad greens are mostly mush — except for this kale, which continues to happily grow and produce. I’m guessing that the prolonged cold forecast for January will finally end this delicious, tender, productive vegetable, but I’ll let you know.
Conclusion: I must give this variety an A for prolonged, delicious productivity, but with the caveat that my region experienced an extraordinary fall growing season. As a spring green, its productive life was too short to be worth the space it occupied.
Foxglove ‘Freckled Rose Princess’ — A-minus
I like foxgloves. I think they provide elegance to a flower garden, and the ones I’ve grown usually bloom for quite a while. Pollinators of many persuasions like them, and because they are poisonous, deer and rabbits don’t touch them. They aren’t native, but the ones I grow have never demonstrated any invasive tendencies. This variety sounded lovely, so I figured I’d try them.
I sowed the seeds in the greenhouse. They weren’t the fastest germinators, but they came up reasonably strongly. I managed to grow about 8 or 10 plants to transplant size, then planted them in their permanent bed at one end of my enclosed vegetable area. This bed is a trial bed for plants I’m testing.
A late spring-early summer drought required me to water the new foxglove plants attentively. By doing so, I was rewarded with a number of bloom stalks that showed off rosy bells for about six weeks. When the flowers were done, I removed the stalks. About that time, the rains returned enough to encourage lush growth in the basal rosettes.
I was looking forward to a 2016 mid spring full of foxglove flowers until one of the wettest, warmest Decembers ever recorded hit my region. The last time I checked, most of the foxglove rosettes appear to have rotted into brown goop. I have a feeling they’re gone for good, but I’m going to wait to see if new growth emerges when spring returns.
Conclusion: This is a beautiful perennial that needs even moisture and perfect drainage to flourish. I’m not sure my gardening conditions meet this variety’s requirements. I’ll update you next spring. I’m giving this one an A-minus, because my December rains were more than many fussier perennials could probably handle.
Parsley ‘Gigante Italian’ — A+
All parsleys are biennials, meaning they grow vegetatively through the first year, then produce seeds the following spring, after which the plants die. I started my parsley seeds in the greenhouse and got abundant, nearly instantaneous germination. I ended up with about a dozen vigorous seedlings that grew rapidly and well. I gave away a few plants to friends and transplanted the rest in open areas of my bed of chives, where they flourished.
I harvested parsley leaves all spring, summer, and fall. This large, flat-leaved Italian variety enhanced salads, sauces, and many other savory dishes. About September, the plants surprised me by sending up flower stalks, which I had not been expecting until the next spring. I responded by cutting off the stalks before the flowers opened, in the hopes of prolonging their productivity. The tactic seemed to work, because the plants are still alive. This is one of the few herbs (chives being the other) that didn’t seem to mind the deluges of December.
Conclusion: I’ll be growing this variety again. Santa brought me a food dehydrator, so that I can dry and preserve the abundant tasty leaves of wonderful herbs like this one.
Basil, Thai ‘Queenette’ — A
Renee’s Garden imports the seeds of this variety directly from Thailand, and I can attest that this is the very best Thai basil I’ve ever grown. Greenhouse-started seeds germinated well and produced strong, well-branched plants. This annual herb was powerfully fragrant and flowered constantly, attracting a great diversity of pollinators, including many of the smaller, solitary bees and wasps so important to a healthy garden.
I don’t cook much with this herb, but many folks do, and I know it is used in teas too. I grow it mostly as a companion plant for my vegetables, because it attracts beneficial insects, and I think its strong fragrance confuses some pest insects. My plants flourished with almost no supplemental water during the dry early summer. And later autumn rains didn’t bother them either.
The flower stalks make great additions to bouquets, and I used them often that way all growing season.
Conclusion: This is a wonderful summer annual herb that adds fragrance and insect appeal to any garden. I would happily grow it again, despite the fact that the faintest of frosts kills it completely — well before even other basil varieties surrender. This variety gets a solid A.
Zinnia ‘Blue Point’ mix — A-minus
I try a different zinnia variety from Renee’s Garden every year. Sometimes I’ve been wowed, sometimes disappointed; this year fell somewhere in between. In the past when I’ve tried a mix, I’ve been pleased by the relatively even color balance that resulted from the greenhouse-started seedlings I transplant into my garden. But this annual variety yielded more pink shades by far. They were nice enough, but I like to use zinnias for bouquets full of color. This year required more monochromatic bouquet construction.
The plants grew tall — about 5 feet or so, and the rains of autumn plagued the leaves with fungus. But for much of the summer, they looked pretty good.
Still, zinnias are annual flowers I will always include. They are easy to grow, make great cut flowers, and draw a diversity of pollinators to the garden. Every piedmont gardener with four or more hours of sunshine on a flowerbed should grow zinnias.
Conclusion: I might try this variety again, but if I get another uneven color mixture of plants, I’d discard this zinnia option permanently. I’m giving it a provisional A-minus, based on the hope that future mixes would yield more color variety.
What a gorgeous perennial this turned out to be. I had tried this the year before, but only got a couple of weak plants started in the greenhouse that never took off when I transplanted them. I had better success on my second try. I still had germination problems. More than half the seeds didn’t germinate for me in the greenhouse. This is very unusual. I almost always get excellent germination from any seed — perennial, annual, vegetable, etc. — that I start in my greenhouse. But the plants that did come up grew vigorously. I was able to transplant out four very healthy plants.
Floriferous is the word that best describes their productivity. During June and July, the two plants that survived vole and drought challenges bloomed copiously and constantly. I imagine they would make great cut flowers, but I couldn’t bring myself to cut any, because the pollinators were addicted to them — and they looked so gosh-darned fabulous in the garden.
I was very hopeful that these plants would survive the winter and return for a new growing season. After all, the native rudbeckias have no trouble with this. But like the foxgloves, my Capuccinos did not fare well during the warm, absurdly wet December my area experienced. The vigorous basal rosettes present in November seem to have melted into mush. Like the foxgloves, I will not dig up where I planted them until the new growing season begins. If I don’t see signs of resprouting then, I’ll know they drowned.
Conclusion: As much as I want to give this variety an A+ for its wow factor, its weak germination combined with its apparent inability to handle wet soil mean I must give it a provisional A-minus. If it comes back next spring, I reserve the right to revise the grade upward.
That concludes my description of the varieties that earned A grades in my garden. In my next post, I’ll describe the varieties that didn’t perform quite as well for me, along with a couple of varieties from previous years that continue to do well.
Here’s hoping the new gardening season will bring us optimal growing conditions. We could all use a break from droughts and deluges.
Posted by piedmontgardener in Native Wildlife, piedmont gardening, Vegetable Gardening on October 17, 2015
I’ve been away from the blog a bit, because I’ve been outside trying to catch up on gardening tasks. Those tasks achieved urgent status this week when it became clear that the first killing freeze of the season was imminent. In my region, it is supposed to be tomorrow night. But I live in a cold pocket, so I’m betting we’ll see temperatures below freezing in my yard tonight.
Yesterday afternoon, I picked all the greens that were big enough to eat, along with fresh chives, parsley, dill, and basil, and every pepper left on the plants. Peppers faint at the slightest sign of chilly air. I also picked a big bouquet of nasturtium flowers. They are another plant that melts into mush when 30-degree temperatures visit the garden. I love the fragrance of nasturtiums; they smell like heirloom roses — sweet, but not cloying.
I’ve covered the greens bed with a tent of garden fabric, and I expect they will mostly survive the two-day chill we’re in for. Warmer temperatures are predicted to return after that, so I’m hopeful more home-grown salads will be in our near future.
My tented broccoli loved the two-week rain. I don’t think I’ve ever grown such happy fall broccoli. Flower heads are just beginning to look big enough to harvest. After the cold snap, I’m going to fertilize these veggies and the greens in the hopes of encouraging some faster growth before prolonged cold settles in.
The drought had turned the chives into dry stalks, but they got a new lease on life after two weeks of rain. I’ve never had such a healthy autumn chive crop. And the parsley perked up too.
This afternoon, Wonder Spouse helped me drain the front water feature and relocate the partially submerged pots of plants that summered there. It’s slimy, mucky work, and we had to relocate four unhappy frogs down the hill to the small pond on our floodplain. These frogs were not born in our little water feature; they migrate up from the creek during rainy summer nights. The tree frogs and toads that start as tadpoles in spring in our artificial pool metamorphose and move out into the yard.
Earlier this week, I cleaned up my greenhouse, which had been vacant all summer. Then I weeded my way to where my potted plants had been summering beneath the Southern Magnolia, cleaned up all the pots, then loaded them into a wheelbarrow for transport to the greenhouse. By the end of summer, these pots harbor a wide assortment of weeds, slugs, snails, rolly-polys, and occasionally (but not this year) tree frogs or a Carolina Anole. This year’s biggest surprise was a cranky black rat snake that considered the area its turf. I posted some photos of it on the Piedmont Gardener Facebook page. It has been quite annoyed by my weeding, and today it was very upset with us as we drained the water feature, even rearing up as if to strike when Wonder Spouse stepped closer for a look.
The good news is that the frenzy of activity prompted by the impending freeze is done — and a good thing, because I’m not sure that either Wonder Spouse or I will be walking fully upright tomorrow. We were pushing our joints and muscles pretty hard, and our “mature” bodies just don’t bounce back from that sort of abuse the way they did a few decades ago.
When I do recover and the warmer weather returns, I’ll resume my attempts to catch up on weeding. The prolonged rains caused every weed to quadruple in size, so it’s going to be a winter-long task.
That’s if the winter will let me. Weather scientists are saying we’re in the midst of a strong El Nino year, which for my region means average temperatures and above-normal precipitation. Frozen or liquid, precipitation impedes yard work. But perhaps that is just as well. I confess the idea of remaining warm indoors with books and my computer for a month or two is sounding pretty darn wonderful about now.
Now you see them, now you don’t
Posted by piedmontgardener in Native Wildlife, piedmont gardening, Vegetable Gardening on August 27, 2015
It’s been a week of appearances and disappearances in my yard and gardens. Last weekend, Wonder Spouse and I were checking out our sad little creek, which has morphed into a series of shallow pools separated by sand bars, when we noticed this:
That was a large branch of a buttonbush growing beside the creek. All the leafy goodness was removed recently by a beaver.
We figure it’s probably the work of a juvenile beaver recently expelled from its parents’ territory, because the only other damage we could find was to a stand of naturally occurring hazelnuts that grow downstream from the buttonbush about a hundred yards. If a pair or more of these rodents had moved in, we would be seeing much more damage. The other possibility is that a group has set up camp somewhere in the wetland beyond the creek, which is criss-crossed by a number of channels that eventually feed into our creek downstream of our property. However, if that were the case, I would have thought even our part of the creek would have higher water levels.
I’m hoping it was a juvenile just passing through. If I had a hundred acres, I’d happily share ten with beavers — that’s the average size of the impoundment they prefer to create. But I only have five acres, and they’re full of trees and shrubs that I planted with love and have labored and watched over for decades. So I’m hoping this one moved on after decimating the tastiest woodies it could easily access.
My bronze fennel and parsley plants were playing host to about three dozen caterpillars four days ago. They were growing fast, and I was looking forward to searching for their chrysalises when they were ready for that transformation. However, I think they were instead transformed into dinners for my local bird population. I’ve been grateful all summer for the steady work of bluebirds, wrens, gnatcatchers, and warblers as they prevented tomato hornworms from inflicting any serious damage to my tomatoes.
But I should have realized that the same bright eyes that spotted the hornworms would eventually notice the swallowtail caterpillars. A few mornings ago when I came out to inspect their progress, I found one lone caterpillar on a fennel. Thinking it was too exposed there, I moved it to a parsley plant disguised by chive leaves. The birds must have been watching from the trees. My relocated caterpillar didn’t last the day.
This is a tough one for me, but if forced to choose between aiding the reproduction of a beautiful pollinator species and nurturing a healthy horde of insect-devouring feathered flying machines, I think the birds are doing my landscape more good than the swallowtails. Still, it was a jolt to see my fennels suddenly devoid of caterpillars.
As if in compensation, Red-spotted Purple butterflies are suddenly back in my yard. This one was sipping the moist bed in my vegetable garden that I had enriched with compost and deeply watered before I planted it with spinach, lettuce, baby kale, and beet seeds. As of yesterday, germination was evident for all varieties. I see much transplanting and watering of small seedlings in my future.
I am gambling big time with direct-sowing these veggies, but I had the seed, I’m craving good spinach and lettuce, so I planted. A possible hurricane may get close enough next week to make temperatures soar, but odds are we won’t get any rain out of it. I’ll be lucky to keep the seedlings and the broccoli transplants I’ve added alive until more autumnal temperatures arrive. And if the rains don’t come soon, lack of water may finish them off. But even the faint chance of sweet fall broccoli, savory spinach, crisp lettuce, and maybe even more sugary red beets was more than I could pass on. As any vegetable gardener knows, once you’ve grown — and eaten — your own, it’s very hard to go back to the grocery store.
Another sign of summer’s waning is the appearance of increasing numbers of soldier beetles. They are mobbing my flowers almost more than the bees.
Sky dragons sporting an array of colors and patterns patrol the skies from dawn till well past sunset. Given their numbers this year, it’s a miracle I’ve seen any butterflies flitting about at all.
Autumn fruits are also coloring up on a wide array of shrubs and trees in my yard, but I’ll save those for another post. For now, I advise my fellow gardeners to keep close eyes on your charges during this transitional time of year. Otherwise, you’ll almost certainly miss some of the comings and goings in your patch of green.
A note to my NC piedmont region readers:
I post a number of links of local interest on my Piedmont Gardener Facebook page. Along with many extra photos of my yard and gardens, you’ll also find links to relevant local events and to articles of interest. Check it out, and if you like what you see, follow me there.