Saturday, December 29, 2012

Recap of Garden Talk for December 29th

For the last post of 2012, I’ll recap some of the questions Dr. Sue and I received on “Garden Talk” this morning. If you have not heard the show, it’s on every Saturday morning at 8:00 on WNOX-FM 100.3, and is sponsored by Stanley’s Greenhouses and Ellenburg Nursery.  [] I am filling in as co-host with Dr. Susan Hamilton of UT Gardens. Listeners can call in with questions like these:

I received a plant called “sweet box” for Christmas. How should I grow it? Sweet box (Sarcococca) is an evergreen creeping shrub from Asia that grows best in partial shade is moisture-retentive soil high in organic matter.  Sometimes called “Christmas box” it blooms very early in the season, usually in February in the Tennessee Valley. The relatively insignificant flowers are sweetly fragrant and perfume the air near the plant. Sweet box is an excellent subject for edging or for softening corners in a shaded garden space. It is rarely bothered by pests or disease.

Another great question concerned controlling the Colorado potato beetle. This insect is a native American pest that even has its own web site

While it is susceptible to the natural pesticide, spinosad, the beetle can also be controlled by taking advantage of certain aspects of its behavior and life cycle. For example, beetle pupae overwinter in the ground and emerge when the weather warms. They literally walk to the potato patch from wherever they were hibernating. Therefore, locating this year’s patch a good distance from last year’s can be effective. This won’t work, however, on a small property. Another approach that works is to dig a narrow trench all around the potato patch, and line it with plastic sheeting. Potato beetles fall into the trench but cannot climb up the slick plastic sides. Periodially flooding the trench with water drowns them.

Because Colorado potato beetles appear as the weather warms, getting potatoes in the ground early and choosing an early-maturing variety can allow you to bring in a crop before the beetles pose a serious threat to the plants. Popular varieties in the Tennessee Valley are Kennebec and Red Pontiac. The traditional time to plant potatoes around here is St. Patrick’s Day, March 17.

Now is a great time to be planning your garden for next year. Seed catalogs will soon appear in your inbox or your snail mailbox. So stay warm inside and garden with your laptop. Recent months have seen the appearance of many gardening apps for smartphone and computer. You can access a garden planner from Mother Earth News that offers many useful features. The web site provides a free 30-day trial, after which they charge a modest annual fee. This type of help for the novice vegetable gardener is almost like having a personal gardening coach, and is highly recommended.



Saturday, December 22, 2012

Holiday Q & A on "Garden Talk"

If you missed “Garden Talk” on WNOX-FM 100.3 this morning, what follows is a partial recap of our discussion. I have the pleasure of co-hosting this radio broadcast with Dr. Sue Hamilton, Director of UT Gardens, every Saturday morning at 8:00 from now until January 12, 2013. It’s a call-in show.
Call us at 865-243-TALK (8255) between 8:00 and 9:00 next Saturday.
This morning, one caller asked us to indentify what turned out to be hen-and-chicks (Sempervivens), a great little plant for containers and edging in hot, dry, sunny locations. It’s an old-fashioned plant that now comes in a wide assortment of cultivated varieties. Either in pots or in the border, it pairs well with sedums, which like the same conditions.

Another caller is designing a fragrance garden, and wanted to know about fragrant spring bulbs. He already has a large planting of hyacinths, arguably the most fragrant bulb of early spring.  Fortunately for Dr. Sue and me, there are lots of other fragrant bulbs we could suggest. She mentioned grape hyacinths, which smell like grape jelly, and noted that selected varieties of dwarf iris and some cultivars of tulips are fragrant. I mentioned several of my favorites among the large narcissus family. A late blooming Narcissus, ‘Actaea’ is also called “pheasant’s eye” narcissus. It is a richly fragrant white flower with a yellow center. Another narcissus cultivar, ‘Thalia’ blooms pure white in mid-season, and a few blooms can perfume a room when brought in as cut flowers.
Our special guest, Nancy Schneider of Stanley’s Greenhouses, mentioned that paperwhite narcissus, widely available as a forced bloom for Christmas, can also be planted outside and will overwinter in a protected spot. Like gladiolus, it may winter kill during severe weather, but you are likely to get several seasons of repeat bloom.

This week’s “Plant of the Week” was, what else, the poinsettia. Dr. Sue reminded us that the familiar Christmas plant is native to Mexico and was introduced to cultivation in the United States by Poinsett, who is commemorated in the name. She dispelled the myth that these plants are harmful or toxic, telling the story of a professor at Ohio State University who used to demonstrate their harmlessness by actually eating a few leaves in front of the class. Nancy pointed out that a potted poinsettia is the ideal starting place for a beautiful Christmas arrangement with greenery cut from your yard and bits of traditional Christmas ornamentation, like tinsel. To illustrate, she brought along some beautiful examples of her work at Stanley’s Greenhouses. If you have never seen 50,000+ poinsettias in bloom in the same spot, visit Stanley’s and take your camera.
If you decorate your home with poinsettias this season, here's a tip for keeping them looking great: drop two ice cubes into the pot each day, and keep the plant in bright light. The ice cubes provide just enough water without keeping the soil to soggy. You can place a poinsettia anywhere you like for a temporary decoration. For long term maintenance, however, the plants should receive sunshine, ideally from a south-facing window. For those interested in re-blooming their poinsettia next year, Dr. Sue suggested using Google to find detailed instructions.
We’ll be back after Christmas with another edition of “Garden Talk” on December 29. Please join us!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Join Me for "Garden Talk" December 22

Please join me for "Garden Talk" on WNOX-FM 100.3 tomorrow (December 22nd) beginning at 8:00 AM. I will be co-hosting with Dr. Sue Hamilton, Director of UT Gardens. Listeners can call in with their gardening questions.

I will be posting information and questions/answers from the program on this blog tomorrow afternoon.

Garden Talk is sponsored by Stanley's Greenhouses. If you haven't seen what 50,000+ poinsettias in one place looks like, you should pay them a visit. I was there earlier in the week and the scene is stunningly beautiful. No pictures. You gotta go see for yourself.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Holiday Gardening Gifts

In case you missed it this morning, I co-hosted "Garden Talk" on WNOX-FM 100.3 with Dr. Susan Hamilton of UT Gardens. I'll be filling in for Andy Pulte, the "Garden Guy," from now until January 12. Please join us and call in with your gardening questions!

Today's topic was "Plants To Give As Gifts." We focused on plants that look great this time of year, and that will be available in the local garden centers for gift giving. Because winter is the best time to transplant trees and shrubs, our discussion focused mostly on woody plants. But there's something for every garden in the list we made: big, little, slow-growing, fast-growing, shade and sun. The perfect plant for that special gardener in your life is out there waiting for a new home.

Here are some of our top choices:

  • Winterberry holly, especially the cultivar 'Red Sprite' (pictured above)
  • American holly, the traditional, slow-growing tree
  • Yaupon holly, especially the dwarf, weeping cultivar introduced by Don Shadow
  • Pyracantha
  • False-cypress, many varieties to choose from
  • Dwarf Alberta spruce
  • Arborvitae, many varieties to choose from
  • Virginia sweetspire, especially the cultivar 'Henry's Garnet'

We also suggested looking at the many planted containers offered by local garden centers such as Stanley's Greenhouses and Ellenburg Nursery. These usually feature dwarf evergreens, along with flowering annuals such as violas and pansies, that will last through the winter and in many cases can be planted out next spring.

We received a great question from a local caller: Which evergreens should I choose for fragrance? We seldom think about this aspect of the contribution that many conifers make to the garden, so it took both Sue and I a moment to come up with balsam fir, Abies balsamea. This tree is native to northeastern North America, from Newfoundland south to West Virginia. Further south, it is replaced in the mountains by Abies frasieri, Frasier's fir, a plant now threatened with extinction due to infestation by the balsam wooly adelgid. Balsam fir likes colder conditions that we typically experience in the Tennessee Valley, but may adapt if it receives some afternoon shade in the summer. A good substitute would be Korean fir, A. koreana. Much easier to grow, Colorado blue spruce, Picea pungens, received its botanical name due to its strong scent. The dwarf cultivar 'Baby Blue Eyes' remains small enough for most backyards.

If you do purchase trees and shrubs for holiday gifts, remember that these plants are accustomed to being outside in the cold at this time of year, and should not be brought indoors for more than 24 hours. Enjoy them during Christmas, then transplant them to the garden as soon as possible. Last year, we kept two evergreen trees on the front porch. We slipped the nursery containers inside two large decorative pots, and then trimmed the trees with lights. After New Year's we moved them to the garden, where they are thriving and look great against a backdrop of dark foliage from our Leyland cypress trees.

Please join us next week for another edition of "Garden Talk," Saturday, 8:00 AM, WNOX-FM 100.3

Friday, December 7, 2012

Food Gardens and Curb Appeal

People often say to me they would grow more veggies but they don’t like the look of vegetable gardens. What they undoubtedly have in mind is the traditional garden with rows of beans on poles and caged tomatoes. While gardens like that have a certain charm, one would look out of place in front of the typical suburban home. I recently had this discussion with a friend of mine who is thinking about growing garlic next year, but worried that it would not look very pretty in the yard. As the photo from UT Gardens illustrates, food gardens need not be boring and ugly.

Here are some of the points I made:

1) Garlic is not ugly; it just doesn’t offer much to the eye. But that is also true of, say irises, when they are out of bloom. One way to deal with this issue in the design of the landscape is to surround the boring thing with something eye-catching. Annual flowers are cheap, readily available, and in many cases edible. They also come in a sufficient array of colors as to work with any other features of the landscape. Another approach to redirecting the eye is to create a focal point in the middle of the bed. For this, you could use a daylily. They are perennial, carefree, and edible. They also come in a wide range of colors, to blend with existing plantings, if necessary.
2) Very low-maintenance plantings can be created with perennial herbs. You get flavor, seasonal flowers and foliage all year from rosemary, French thyme and Greek oregano.

3) Lettuces, annual herbs (basil, cilantro, dill, parsley) and numerous other salad greens are highly decorative, although more trouble to grow than perennial herbs.
4) Another possibility is strawberries.  They remain compact, bear all season long and have brightly colored foliage at this time of year.

These are but a few examples of things that could combine with a garlic patch to render it not only attractive, but also productive, easily repaying the costs involved by food production. Furthermore, the spot will be re-used year after year, and consequently will get better and better at production as the soil improves. This seems to me to call for a permanent border, so why not have one that is also productive?
Also, please remember that a food garden need not be rectangular in shape nor laid out in rows. Free form designs, or anything that works with existing landscaping is the way to go. But instead of filling with flowers and shrubs, you fill with food plants that perform the same visual functions in the landscape.

You can find a lot more tips on attractive food gardens in The New American Homestead. It is available both in paperback and as an e-book wherever books are sold.
Let me please offer one more observation that I hope will be encouraging: a successful food garden  more often results from a lot of mental effort rather than a lot of physical effort. If well designed, a space the size of my parlor rug could produce an amazing quantity of fresh food.


Saturday, December 1, 2012

Homemade Holiday Gifts

The gift-giving season is upon us yet again. We have jars of jam and jellies, along with dried peppers and various other foodstuffs that we made last summer and fall. I like to create food baskets for gift giving. For packaging, I save the little wooden crates that clementines are shipped in, and re-purpose them as holiday baskets. Lined with tissue paper or even clean, dry pine needles, they can hold an array of goodies. Don't forget to include a copy of The New American Homestead for your gardening friends.

If you grow herbs, any cook on your list will appreciate a bundle of fresh cut rosemary or other fresh herb tucked into the gift basket. Tour your yard for other possible decorations, such as pine cones, evergreen boughs or hollyberries, rather than purchasing artificial items.  

Didn’t put up any canned goods this summer? Not to worry. You can create delicious, Earth-friendly homemade products with store-bought ingredients. Consider this recipe with pineapple and pecans, both in season in the markets now.
Pineapple Upside Down Cake Jam
  • 3 ¼ cups chopped fresh pineapple (from one whole pineapple, trimmed, or about 2 lbs)
  • 3 oz pecan pieces
  • 1 box pectin
  • ½ teaspoon unsalted butter
  • 1 pound cane sugar
  • ½ pound light brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Combine fruit, pecans, butter and pectin in a large pot. Combine the sugars in a separate bowl and reserve. Bring the fruit mixture to a full rolling boil, stirring constantly. Add sugar all at once, bring to a full rolling boil again, stirring constantly. Boil exactly one minute, stirring constantly. Remove from heat, skim foam if necessary. Stir in vanilla. Transfer to hot half pint jars, adjust caps. Process 10 minutes in boiling water bath.

Here’s another recipe for a great homemade food gift:

Market Bean Soup

The dry ingredients for this soup constituted the first gift of food I received when I moved into my first apartment in 1971.  I have been perfecting my own formula, and giving this wonderful winter soup as a gift, ever since.  Be sure to copy the recipe to include with the soup, so friends and family can make their own gift jars. You can purchase a decorative jar or canister for the soup mix, or just use an extra canning jar.

All the dehydrated ingredients are available in well-stocked groceries. Mine come from the bulk department at Three Rivers Market. Don’t have a kitchen scale? No problem. Just use the scales at the market. The plastic bags come from there, also, and at no additional charge. As long as the total weight of the beans is one pound, the recipe will work. The bean mixture is separated into parts one and two because the legumes in part two do not need soaking and have a tendency to break down after long cooking. Preparing the soup in two stages avoids this. Nevertheless, you can just mix all the legumes together if you prefer. It will taste great and no nutrients will be lost. By the same token, feel free to use different combinations of dried legumes. As long as the ones that need soaking get it, they will be tender when the soup is finished.

Here’s a tip for going greener: Instead of wasting a disposable canning lid, purchase plastic re-usable lids for Ball™ canning jars. They are great for storing unused home-canned products in the refrigerator, and are typically available wherever canning supplies are sold. They are dishwasher and microwave safe, but don’t try to use them for canning.

Soup Preparation Instructions
  • 1 Ib mixed beans (See below.)
  • seasoning mixture (See below.)
  • 1/2 pound ham or kielbasa, chopped (optional)
  • salt and pepper to taste 
  • Parmagiano-Reggiano cheese or croutons (optional)
  • soy sauce (optional)
1. Soak Part One of the bean mixture overnight in water to cover by 1 inch. 

2. Drain.  Place soaked beans, Part Two of bean mixture, and three quarts water into a large pot.  Bring to a boil and simmer 1 hour.  Add seasoning mixture.  Simmer 1 hour.  Add ham or kielbasa, if used.  Simmer 1 hour longer. Taste and adjust seasoning.  Serve topped with cheese or croutons, or both. Pass soy sauce at the table, if desired.
Bean Mixture:
Part One
  • 3 3/4 ounces dry white baby lima beans
  • 2 1/2 ounces dry red kidney beans
  • 1 1/2 ounces dry great northern beans
  • 1 1/2 ounces dry black turtle beans
Part Two
  • 2 1/2 ounces dry green lentils
  • 2 ounces dry green split peas
  • 1 3/4 ounces dry red lentils
  • 1/2 ounces dry yellow split peas
Seasoning Mixture:
  • 1/2 ounces sun dried tomatoes, in small bits
  • 1/2 ounces dehydrated chopped celery
  • 1/2 ounces dehydrated chopped carrot
  • 1/2 ounces dehydrated onion flakes
  • 1 tablespoons dried basil leaves, crumbled
  • 1/2 teaspoons dehydrated Worcestershire sauce*
  • 1/2 teaspoons dried lemon zest
  • 1/2 teaspoons ground black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoons dehydrated minced garlic
*For a vegan version, substitute an equal amount of nutritional yeast for the dehydrated Worchestershire sauce. Substitute mushrooms for the ham or sausage. Omit the cheese.

To Prepare for Gift-Giving:
Combine the seasoning ingredients and place in a small plastic bag secured with a twist tie. Place Part Two of the bean mixture in a second plastic bag. Place Part One of the bean mixture in the bottom of a large jar, stuff the plastic bags inside and cap. This will keep for months in a cool dark place.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Thanksgiving Harvest

We hope everyone had a happy Thanksgiving Day with family and friends, as did we. It is always a pleasure to use homegrown ingredients in the kitchen, and the traditional Thanksgiving feast is no exception.  We had cabbage, carrots, sage, parsley, thyme, scallions and lettuce from the garden. I purchased sweet potatoes at the Farmer’s Market a month or so ago, and kept them in storage. For the remaining ingredients, turkey, cranberries, and so forth, we sought out local, regional, or organic products to the extent possible. As a result, I think we had one of the tastiest, most wholesome Thanksgiving dinners in recent memory, one to be thankful for, in fact.

Although the harvest in the coming months is likely to be rather small, a touch of homegrown here and there can take a meal from routine to special. Our number one cold weather gardening project is growing herbs. Fortunately, our climate is sufficiently mild that French thyme, Greek oregano, chives, sage and rosemary are perennial. Freshly cut herbs really perk up dishes made with canned, frozen or imported produce, and growing them saves a fortune. Typically, a little bunch of herbs at the grocery costs about $2.00, and the amount is usually more than I need for a couple of meals. So the herbs sometimes languish in the fridge and eventually wind up in the compost bin. Not so with homegrown herbs.

Three members of the carrot family, parsley, cilantro, and chervil, all grow well through the winter here. To be sure of a continuous supply, however, it is best to give them a bit of protection. I have a pot of chervil in the greenhouse, just in case something unfortunate happens to the ones growing out in the garden.  Parsley can be potted up and brought indoors for the winter, or you can start a few plants in late summer for the purpose. Outdoors, parsley grows and produces on all but the coldest days. If you grow in a coldframe, cilantro seeds can be started in succession all winter long. They grow slowly but will yield enough to garnish your favorite Asian and Latino creations.
Another herb that tolerates cold well is dill. However, you must time seed sowing so the plants will be a couple of feet tall before frost arrives. This can be tricky, since the seeds take a long time to germinate. My last sowing is only about six inches tall now, and refuses to grow taller. I suspect I will have a bumper crop of dill in the spring, but during cold weather I will have to be content with a few sprigs here and there.

Cabbage and carrots have been our best fall crops. We enjoyed coleslaw made from freshly picked ‘Savoy Perfection’ cabbage for Thanksgiving. This cultivar is recommended for fall sowing, and tolerates cold well, as do most plants with "savoyed" leaves. More heads of this and ‘Early Flat Dutch’ await harvest in the greenhouses. Carrots in outdoor beds remain crisp and delicious all winter, and we pull them as needed.
Spinach that we planted in September is now ready for picking, and this year’s crop is among our better efforts. We sow the seed heavily, then thin for baby spinach when the plants are four inches tall. When they reach six inches, we pick entire plants and leave others to grow throughout the winter.  By leaving larger plants with space between, we can extend the harvest until next February.

Our favorite local garden center, Stanley’s Greenhouse, is planning to offer grafted tomatoes next season. We can’t wait to try this new concept. Grafted tomatoes have been used for commercial production for years, but recently growers have begun grafting them for the home gardener. The idea is simple. An heirloom plant with desirable fruit characteristics is grafted upon a rootstock with disease and pest resistance. Presto! A plant with heirloom taste and hybrid adaptability. Monte Stanley told me he plans to offer five types, including the popular Cherokee Purple and the scrumptious Brandywine. Thomas Jefferson grew Brandywine tomatoes at Monticello, but they are difficult to grow in the Tennessee Valley because they lack disease resistance. This may be an opportunity for homegrown taste Jefferson would have appreciated.
If you are interested in grafted tomatoes, it might be wise to let them know at Stanley’s, as quantities will necessarily be limited.



Saturday, November 17, 2012

Saving Seeds and Reading Seed Catalogs

If you have not already collected seeds from your favorite annual flowers for next year, now is the time. Frost tends to harden seed coats and to dry out seed heads, maturing seeds that will survive the winter.  Save those little packets of silica gel that come packed with electronic equipment. Keep all your seeds in an airtight container in the refrigerator, and place a handful of the silica gel packs in the container. This keeps moisture to a minimum and maximizes storage life.
Properly stored in this way, many seeds will remain viable for a much longer time than is commonly stated in reference works.
Speaking of seeds, it won’t be long before the catalogs start showing up. For many companies, online catalogs are always accessible, although not all seed varieties are necessarily available at all times. With printed catalogs completed months in advance, availability of most, if not all, of the offerings is assured. I still enjoy flipping through the print catalogs, even  though it has become a guilty pleasure. Despite the use of paper and ink to display what can be displayed digitally, catalogs offer me a sense of nostalgia for the years when I first started gardening. I swear, some of the seed companies are still using photos from that era, too. I’ll bet the children depicted in some of these photos, holding a huge tomato or sunflower or whatever, have grandchildren by now.
In any case, it is time to start thinking about what to plant in the vegetable garden next year. I like to make plans for the next season while the experience of the season past remains vividly in memory. Based on last year’s successes and errors, the overall goal for next year will be to grow less of certain crops to avoid the time and effort entailed in producing more than we need. We are going to aim for quality, not quantity, for the majority of veggies, and focus on a few that we want in abundance for preserving.  Unless you simply enjoy having an exuberant garden and want to give lots of food away, both of which are admirable traits, mind you, is it really necessary to plant more than one eggplant, for example?

Crowding crops can be counterproductive. Cabbages grown too close together, for example, will produce smaller heads and lower total weight than fewer plants spaced farther apart would produce. Parsimonious use of garden space is important. Why supply the room, fertilizer and water for any but the minimum garden that will supply your needs? Our two person household can seldom accommodate the abundance of some veggies our relatively tiny garden now yields.

Thomas Jefferson directed that the vegetable garden at Monticello be planted with “a teaspoon of lettuce seed every Monday.” This embodies the approach backyard gardeners must take. Sow small amounts in succession. Aim for a continuous harvest, rather than a seasonal glut. This approach, incidentally, lends itself to experimentation with new varieties. For us, experimentation provides a lot of the pleasure we derive from growing veggies. We are already looking to next spring with anticipation.

Bring on the seed catalogs!

Friday, November 9, 2012

Start Ginger Now for Next Year

Ginger is in season. Three Rivers Market has a pile of it in the produce case, sourced from Mobile, AL. Lots of green shoots and eyes are present on the rhizomes. Now is the time to plant for a ginger crop next year. I mentioned growing ginger briefly in an earlier post. Here are more details on growing it in the Tennessee Valley.
Select a healthy looking piece at the market. It should have at least two green eyes showing. Mine cost less than $2. If you find a piece with green shoots, use them as a guideline for planting depth. Try to find organic ginger that looks and smells fresh. I have seen ginger in the supermarket that looks so dried out that it is unlikely to sprout. I have also read about possible chemical treatments to inhibit sprouting.
Put the piece of rhizome in a large pot. The roots need plenty of room to expand. Use any good potting soil that would be suitable for houseplants. Mix in some Osmocote, or an appropriate amount of balanced organic fertilizer. If using Osmocote, you need about a tablespoon per gallon of growing mix. Ginger is a tropical plant and a heavy feeder. Water well and place in a warm, sunny spot with your other tropical houseplants.
Ginger normally goes dormant during the dry winter season, so it may take a month or more for new shoots to appear. Do not allow the soil to become bone dry, but don’t keep it soggy, either. One approach at this stage is to let the pot drain overnight, then enclose it in a trash bag to maintain high humidity. Check periodically for new green shoots and remove the bag as soon as they appear.
Once it sprouts, treat the pot of ginger like your most prized tropical houseplant, with plenty of sunshine, regular watering and additional fertilizer if it begins to show any sign of yellowing. Protect it from cold drafts and keep it in a warm spot. Around next Memorial Day, when the night temperature will reliably remain above 50 degrees, transplant the plant to a sheltered spot with full sunshine, in soil that would be suitable for tomatoes. Ginger does not like cold, winds, drought or soggy soil. Take care not to disturb the roots too much when transplanting, to keep it growing steadily. Irrigate if rainfall is insufficient, and feed regularly. Ginger's requirements in this regard are much like those of the squash family, another group of tropical plants that need heat, water and fertilizer to produce well.
Ginger is unlikely to be attacked by pests other that slugs. Use your favorite method to control them.
By the end of October or thereabouts, the plants will start to yellow. This is a sign they are ready to enter dormancy, and that you are ready to dig. You should easily get two or three pounds of roots from the pot you started in November. Replant some, then peel and freeze the remainder.
For those with limited space, you can transplant the ginger to a larger pot on the patio or balcony in late spring. Choose a broad, relatively shallow container that will allow for maximum root spread. Container plants may require daily watering during the hottest summer days. With all the irrigation, you will need to fertilize frequently to keep them growing.
We continue to learn how to make the best use of our 6 foot x 8 foot plastic greenhouses. By way of review, we were disappointed that the failure rate is 100% on the interior tie-downs that secure the plastic cover to the steel frame. The tie downs supplied with the greenhouse (manufacturer specs here) are made with a white stretch cord that turns to powder after a few months in the sun. We will have to replace them with UV-resistant zip ties. This seems like a problem that could have been easily avoided without adding to the cost of manufacturing. We installed them almost exactly one year ago.
Even an unheated greenhouse can extend your growing season considerably, we are learning. We still have pepper plants untouched by the recent frosts, even though the temperature in the greenhouse has reached a low of 30 degrees F. Frost forms when solid surfaces are cooled below the dew point of the surrounding air, and below the freezing point. Many plants can tolerate temperatures below freezing, as long as frost does not form on their leaves. The reason is that the ice crystals physically damage the plants, which would otherwise weather the cold and resume growth when the temperature rises.
A greenhouse, coldframe or cloche provides some protection from falling temperatures during the daytime, owing to the greenhouse effect, but without added heat or a means of storing heat, the greenhouse can drop to freezing at night. Frost, nevertheless, will not form unless the temperature reaches the dew point. As the absolute humidity increases toward 100% saturation, the dew point approaches the ambient temperature. For example, at 35 degrees and 40 percent humidity, the dew point is 13.2 degrees. At 100 percent humidity, it is 35 degrees. You can find a dew point calculator for any given temperature, relative humidity here.
In a greenhouse, where the humidity is higher than the outside air, dew will form on plant surfaces at a higher temperature than it does outside. The presence of liquid water on the leaves then in turn protects the leaves from reaching the freezing point, where frost could form.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Trees and Shrubs for Fall Color

We’ve now had the season’s first light frosts here in the Tennessee Valley, and many plants are showing signs of entering winter dormancy.  Indian Summer brought especially beautiful foliage to the valley this year, while strangely withholding the autumn show in the mountains. In many spots, it seemed as if the trees changed color one day, then dropped their leaves the next. The autumn color display is affected by many factors, including the previous season’s rainfall amounts, temperature and day length.  That explains the variation in peak days and color intensity from one year to the next.
Home gardeners can take advantage of genetics to help guarantee that the trees and shrubs on their property put on a maximum show every year. Numerous cultivars have been selected for the brilliance of their autumn foliage. Here are some suggestions to help make next year’s display memorable.
Foithergilla gardenii 'Mt. Airy'
Among fruit and nut trees, many growers would probably cite serviceberry (Amelanchier species and hybrids) as among those with beautiful fall foliage. The cultivar ‘Autumn Brilliance’ can be grown as a small tree or multi-stemmed shrub. In addition to the bright red foliage, it offers edible fruit in summer. For larger properties, it is hard to beat a hickory for bright yellow leaves in fall. Shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) is prized also for the quality of its nuts and the ease of shelling them. Nut trees typically grow very large (>100 ft tall) and take about 7 years to begin bearing.
The old standbys for brilliant fall color are sugar maple, Acer saccharum and red, or “swamp” maple, A. rubrum. Both get quite large. A more compact possibility is Japanese maple, A. palmatum. Numerous cultivars, such as ‘Osakazuke,’ have been selected specifically for their fall display.  Good ones include ‘Seriyu,’ ‘Bloodgood,’ and ‘Fall’s Fire.’ A nice one with multiple colors is ‘Kagero.’ For something a little different with shining, golden yellow fall foliage, try one of the dwarf cultivars of Ginko biloba, such as ‘Jade Butterfly’ or ‘Chi Chi.’
Among native species, chokecherry, Aronia arbutifolia, produces white spring blooms, red fruits and bright orange-red foliage. Shrubby Fothergilla gardenii or dwarf fothergilla, seldom exceeds six feet in height. Cream-colored, honey-scented flowers in spring are followed in autumn by a bright, multicolor display. Hearts-a-bustin’ (Euonymus americana) adds the colors of its interesting fruits to a mixed border, as will American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana). The latter’s fruit is edible, too. Blueberries (Vaccinium) turn various shades of coral, red and pink in the fall, depending upon the cultivar. Another colorful native plant is Arkansas bluestar (Amsonia hubrechtii). It is a perennial that grows to the size of a medium shrub, about three or four feet in diameter. In spring, tall stems are topped with pale blue flowers, and in fall the whole plant assumes a bright golden yellow color.
From the first hard freeze to the middle of February is the best time to plant any of these trees or shrubs. Local independent garden centers stock them, or can order them for you.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Indian Summer

Indian Summer has brought splendid foliage to the Valley, and we have been harvesting our best fall lettuce in years. Warm, sunny days and cool nights have given us all the salad we can eat.  Bak choy is ready to harvest in the greenhouse, and broccoli is producing heads. Cauliflower remains iffy. We may or may not get a crop. I have made a note to start the cauliflower a bit later next year. The late summer weather raised the temperature in the greenhouse into the 80s, which may have adversely affected the plants.
We may get our first frost next week, however. This will slow down lettuce, as well as our other late crops, beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cilantro, dill, parsley, spinach and Swiss chard, but none of them are likely to be seriously damaged by the light frosts we can expect between now and Thanksgiving. That should be enough time for the crops to mature. The cooler temps may also induce the cauliflower to bloom. We will keep our fingers crossed. In any case, based on historical data, the first frost is arriving about ten days later than usual this year, following the fourth warmest summer in the lower 48 states since record keeping began in 1895. Does this mean we will have a milder winter than usual?
According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac the weather here in the Central South will be cooler and snowier than usual. The entire Southeast, they say, will be “wet and chilly.” Accuweather says essentially the same thing. Here’s the map they posted for the upcoming season. Long term weather prediction is an inexact science, to say the least. Last year, Accuweather made headlines for being wrong.
We will take the mild weather for as long as we can get it. Besides lettuce, we are also harvesting baby beet and spinach greens, and our first crop of arugula is ready to pick today. I will make a delicious fall salad with dinner tonight. Thinning will allow the beets and spinach room to grow, which both will continue to do despite cold weather, as will the carrots. Last winter, we had carrots and spinach all season long from fall sown seeds. We just left the plants in their beds and harvested them as needed.
Protected by the greenhouse, sweet bell peppers, long frying peppers and pimentos continue to yield heavily. Fortunately, peppers are easy to freeze for later use. Just stem, seed, and rinse them. Dry well and pack into freezer containers, label and freeze. That's it. I also can relish made out of the pimentos for making the best pimento cheese you've ever eaten. (The recipe is on our In the Kitchen page.) We have been particularly impressed with the quality of 'Ashe County Pimento', a pepper we obtained from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange to try this year. It produces uniform, deep red, thick walled fruits with a small seed core and almost no blemishes. They look like tomatoes near the top of the image at left, showing part of one day's harvest last week. I have already made all the relish we will use through the winter, but the shape and size makes these peppers ideal for stuffing, also. We will definitely grow this one again next year. Two plants have provided all we need, and they are compact growers into the bargain. All our peppers have done extremely well with protection in the greenhouse.
Winter Garden Tips
As a general rule, the shorter days and colder temperatures of winter greatly reduce plants’ demand for water. Unless you observe potential wilting, you can reduce irrigation in raised beds to about half what it was during the summer, or even less. Cold, soggy soil will damage roots and spoil crops like carrots, beets and turnips. When in doubt, hold off on the water.
Similarly, plants need far less fertilizer now, because growth rates are slow. This is the best time to use organic fertilizers such as cottonseed meal, greensand, and phosphate rock. Their slow breakdown releases soil nutrients in the constant, small amounts plants need at this time of year.
Ideas From “Garden Talk”
I had great fun last Saturday morning on “Garden Talk” with Dr. Sue Hamilton on WNOX 100.3 FM. Our guest was Nancy Schneider from Stanley’s Greenhouse. We had a great discussion about re-blooming azaleas, like the wonderful “Encore” series that blooms three times a year, and likes full sun. One idea that came out of that discussion was to incorporate blueberries into azalea plantings. The two shrubs are in the same family and like the same growing conditions: moist, well-drained, acidic soil in full sun. The autumn coloration of the blueberry foliage compliments the colors of the azalea blooms.
We had several callers with questions and comments covering a range of topics. I’ll be co-hosting “Garden Talk” again tomorrow (October 27th) morning, at 8:05 AM. Join us and call in with your questions.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Edible Pond Plants

As we continue to plan our garden pond, we have noted that many aquatic and semi-aquatic plants are edible or have edible parts.

Edible Sagittaria also sports atrtractive blooms.
Lotus root, for example, is available in Asian groceries. Although most lotus grow too large for a backyard pond, there are dwarf varieties with stunning large flowers. Like water lilies, they are vigorous, and need dividing periodically. Roots, therefore, will be available for stir fries. Arrowhead (Sagittaria latifolia) is sometimes called “duck potato” because of its edible rootstock. The young leaves and seeds of pickerel rush (Pontederia cordata) can be added to salads, as can duckweed (Lemna minor). Cattail (Typha species) spring shoots and pollen are edible, too. Celery is among the more common vegetables that can be grown in bog conditions. Water chestnut, water spinach, and watercress are all possibilities, too. A few water herbs, for example Bacopa caroliniana and Hottuynia cordata, are used like lemon balm and cilantro, respectively. Mint, of course, is famously vigorous in marshy conditions. Plant with care.
Indeed, this could be said of all water garden plants. If the pond is located in full sun, they can be amazingly productive. Most water gardens need an annual renovation to avoid looking overgrown. Certainly, every three years in all but the largest ponds, it will be necessary to reduce the plant population.
Fish, too, can become overcrowded in a garden pond. Goldfish, the recommended variety for beginning water gardeners, often produce offspring after they are over six inches in length. These can number in the hundreds, and only a few of them will bear the bright coloration of their parents. It is advisable, therefore, to thin the herd on a regular basis. Ponds under 5000 gallons may need this every 5 years.
It is worth mentioning that we have considered the possibility of raising food fish. We rejected this idea because the pond is too small to accommodate a reasonable number of winter hardy fish. (The typical home aquaculture set-up is focused on Tilapia, a tropical fish.) While we could certainly add a few bluegills and/or catfish, the effort would hardly be justified by the meager harvest we could expect. Pond fishery managers tend to think in terms of pounds per acre, not per square foot. Besides, the only way to catch them without disrupting the plantings would be on hook and line. We will probably stock the pond with local fish rather than goldfish, but not for eating. We would emphasize that every garden pond should be home to a few fish for purposes of mosquito control. Otherwise, the pond will require regular treatment for the pesky insects.
A lot of planning has already gone into our pond project, and we have more work to do. We will post updates and images as we have them. It will be next spring before we begin planting, and next summer before the fish will arrive.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

A Look Back on the Season

2012 Cucumber Crop Worst in Years
This past summer was not the season for cucumbers in the Knoxville area. I was overheard last week at the Farmers Market, bemoaning the absence of good cucumbers even in that venue. A lady in line near me turned and said she had had the same problem. Two attempts on our part yielded plants that quickly succumbed to cucumber mosaic virus. Ironically, a plant that came up volunteer in an area we’d amended with compost actually produced a few small cucumbers before it, too, became infected. Heat and humidity at the wrong times probably contributed to the crop failure.  We originally thought perhaps our choice of new varieties to try, ‘Picklebush’ and ‘Boston Pickling’ may have been the issue. But this would not explain the widespread nature of the cucumber shortage.
I have not had the opportunity to discuss this issue with locals who farm for a living. Whatever the reason, we’ll have no homemade pickles this year.
Rare Sweet Corn
Corn on the cob is one of the true pleasures of summer, but finding the genuine article locally has become increasingly difficult as the years roll by. Only a few of the 30 or more vendors at the FARM Farmer’s Market this year have offered corn. One of these was selling corn exclusively for a few weeks, then was seen no more. The only variety I saw offered that was not a sugar-enhanced type was ‘Silver Queen,’ the old standby for a white sweet corn around these parts. Unfortunately, the ears I purchased were picked a bit too late, and the flavor was not as good as it might have been.
All the other varieties we observed on offer were recently developed, high-fructose hybrids like ‘Ambrosia,’ ‘Peaches and Cream,’ and ‘Awesome.’ With all due respect to the plant breeders who have created these types of corn, they are almost too sweet for me. The original idea of sugar-enhanced corn was to increase the shelf life. As soon as it is picked, corn begins converting sugar to starch, so the fresher the ear the sweeter. Hence the old adage about bringing the water to a boil before going out to pick the corn.  Ordinary sweet corn varieties, like ‘IA Chief’ and ‘Golden Bantam’ were great eating, as long as you grew them yourself. If you wanted corn out of season, from someplace like, say, California, it just did not taste as good after its long journey, despite refrigeration. The answer, someone realized, was to grow sweeter corn that would remain sweet longer because it would take more time for enzymes in the ear to convert the sugar to starch.
Ironically, consumers have come to expect the farmer’s market to offer the same type of corn as the supermarket. Yellow and white varieties, like the so, so sweet ‘Honey and Pearl,’ tend to dominate because of their attractive appearance. But all of these lack the genuine, “corny” flavor of the heirlooms, and I wish local farmers would learn to grow them again. Offering ‘Silver Queen’ was a great idea, but you gotta know when to pick it. Burpee's seed catalog offers only three "normal sugar" corn varieties, 'Silver Queen,' 'Golden Bantam,' and 'Early Sunglow.' By contrast they have 10 "sugar enhanced" and 4 "super sweet" cultivars available. Locally, Mayo Seed offers some additional heirlooms, like 'IA Chief.'
We consumers should be dedicated to supporting local farmers who grow good sweet corn, regardless of the variety they offer. Few crops are less well suited to small scale production that corn. If you grow the modern hybrids, seed is expensive and it is often difficult to find seed not treated with chemical pesticides. (Burpee offers only one organically grown corn variety, 'Golden Bantam.') Further, corn is demanding in terms of both soil fertility and sunshine, and needs a lot of water to boot. Each plant will take up about 3 square feet of growing space, making it difficult for many home gardeners to squeeze in a patch. And for all its demands, corn rarely produces more than two ears per stalk. Given that the typical price at the FARM Farmer’s Market is $5 a dozen, it is easy to see why so few growers bother.
So if you are a local vegetable grower and you are reading this, I’ll make you an offer. Grow an heirloom sweet corn next year, pick it at the proper time, and bring it to market.  Let me know ahead of time, and I will do everything I can to encourage consumers to patronize your stand. And we locavores should be willing to pay a dollar an ear for the privilege.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Adding a Pond To Your Garden

One of the most exciting projects we have going this fall is completing our garden pond. It all started when we decided to remove a pine tree that had been inconveniently placed by a previous owner of our home. When the stump came out, we were left with a hole in the ground. My partner loves to dig so much you’d think he was a badger, so he has enlarged the excavation bit by bit over the past couple of years. (At our age, shovel and wheelbarrow work has to be done in small episodes.) To begin constuction, we first establish the highest water level, then we work outward in opposite directions from that point, laying a row of cinder block to form the top edge of the pond. We have seen photos of pond construction in which the soil itself was cut and contoured. Not only is this hard work, it is difficult on a sloping site. Using cinder blocks makes the job much easier. These are "FHA" blocks, with a solid concrete bottom. Once leveled on compacted soil, they stay in place better than standard blocks.
(As the image illustrates, all construction work on the property is overseen by PJ, our Boston terrier.) It is essential to the appearance of the finished pond that the top rim be as level as you can make it all the way around. Otherwise, the liner will be visible above the water line if you leave a low spot, and this will ruin the "natural" effect. Once the top course of blocks is in place, the remaining levels can be installed using the top course as a reference.
The pond will have three levels when completed. The deepest area in the center will be kept free of plantings, and will hold the pump for a planned small waterfall. The waterfall serves not only a decorative function, but also oxygenates the water.
The second level will hold tubs planted with water lilies. We plan on using only two or three compact-sized varieties. Otherwise, the pond can become overcrowded in too short a time frame. As a rule, water lilies should be divided and repotted every three years. This can be a daunting task, as they can grow profusely in that time. On the other hand, lily pads shade the pond, which helps keep the water cool for the fish and lessens algae growth. We recommend that about two thirds of the surface be covered. The upper level is for emergent plants. These are species, such as cattails, that like wet feet but grow up from the water surface. We have dozens of varieties of such plants to choose from, and our research is ongoing. We will be posting a complete planting list here, once we have our plans completed.
The current grade slopes slightly, so we have constructed a retaining wall on the uphill side of the pond. The surrounding area will be brought up to the level of this wall and re-paved.  We are using precast concrete pavers set on a gravel base. Pavers are not only easy to install without heavy equipment, they are also pervious to rainfall, and don’t interfere with natural drainage. Posts for a guardrail will be installed before paving. The wooden arch bridge in the lower right corner of the image will be replaced with a new bridge. Up to this point, it has served to get across the French drain that carries water away from this side of the house. This water will now be stored in the pond. We can re-direct the flow into another French drain when needed by means of a water gate. The excavation for the overflow is barely visible at the right of the image. It will have the appearance of a creek bed when completed and will direct water to a bed of moisture loving plants, such as cardinal flower.
The pond will now be allowed to settle for a few weeks before we install the liner. Once the liner is in place the pond will be filled with water and again allowed to settle before we begin the fun part: installing the natural stone coping and rock work. The finishing touches will allow the pond to blend with the rest of the nature inspired landscape in our back yard. We will also have "planting pockets" here and there in the rock work.
We will have more to say about garden pond construction and maintenance in future posts. A small pond is a great way to put into practice the permaculture principle of increasing diversity in the landscape. Besides plants both edible and ornamental, and fish, a pond offers habitat for dozens of varieties of insects and amphibians, along with countless micro-organisms and tiny invertebrates. Properly sited, a pond can assist with water management and make great use of an otherwise marginally productive area. Using marginal areas is another principle of permaculture.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

You Can't Grow That!

Following are the highlights of a presentation I gave today for the University of Tennessee Gardens Fall Symposium. The theme of the symposium this year was "Incredible Edibles."
“You can’t grow that!” is the reaction I often get when I suggest to one of my gardening friends that I plan to try such-and-such next season. However, every time I look for information on a food crop that supposedly does not grow in Zone 7, I find plenty of suggestions and advice from gardeners who have done just that. In a minute, I will cite some examples of tropical and sub-tropical food plants that you certainly can grow.
I was appalled by an article I read recently that suggested producing the majority of our food locally is an impossible dream. I wonder how the Native Americans who occupied this Valley centuries before Europeans arrived would have reacted to that remark? Many of them were farmers as well as hunter-gatherers, and this region of the world is unusually lucky in having an abundance of edible wild plants. I have several examples of those to share with you today, also.
A third group of food plants includes some that lots of people apparently grow, but for some reason you never hear much about. I will offer two examples from this group.
First, however, let’s look at some plants you “can’t” grow here.

Tropical and Sub-tropical Plants:


Plants grown in large containers outside during the warm months will produce fruit. Dwarf and super-dwarf cultivars are available in the nursery trade. The one pictured, ‘Novak,’ fruits at only 4 feet tall.
The growing medium must be well-drained. Bananas do not tolerate wet feet. Fertilization with a balanced formula monthly is necessary. Bananas need about 1 ¼ ounces of nitrogen per month when young, and double that amount when mature. If your fertilizer is 8 percent nitrogen, that is, the NPK numbers are 8-x-x, you should apply a pound of this fertilizer around the base of the plant monthly, gradually increasing the application to two pounds over the course of the season. If the temperature at night is below 50°F, as during overwintering in a garage perhaps, don’t fertilize.
While bananas are generally tolerant of cold down to 28°F, they perform best when grown under constantly warm to cool conditions. If winter storage is a problem, however, you can take several steps to keep your banana plants growing. First, if you have a suitable sheltered spot exposed to southern sun, you can probably overwinter a banana plant outdoors as far north as Zone 4. This is accomplished by cutting it down, covering the base with a bushel basket, and piling leaves on top to protect the underground stem . Do this as soon as frost kills most of the top growth. Check such plants frequently in early spring and remove the covering as soon as shoots emerge. Be ready with a frost blanket in case of a late cold snap. A more reliable way of overwintering is to dig up small shoots and pot them in containers as houseplants for the winter. Grow in a bright, warm location and fertilize lightly until you are ready to move them outside again. Generally, you allow only two shoots to develop. The older one will fruit and the other will provide the subsequent crop.

Bay Laurel

This frost-tender shrub or small tree prefers rich, organic, well-drained soil. It grows best as a container plant, in full sun to partial shade. Do not allow plants to dry out, but do not allow soil to become soggy.  Use a growing medium intended for citrus, if available. Can be successfully overwintered in Knoxville if grown in a sheltered location and the soil is prevented from freezing by deep mulch, an adjacent building foundation, or a water feature.


The photo is my Meyer lemon ‘Improved’ on a dwarf rootstock. This is a hardy citrus that will tolerate cold down to 34 degrees F. Kumquats, such as ‘Meiwa,’ can take it down in the 20s. The vast number of selections of grafted citrus means you must pay attention to rootstock and graft alike. Citrus prefers a gritty, well-drained growing mix and plenty of water and fertilizer when young. Drought tolerant as they get older. Water citrus when the top one inch of growing mix feels dry when you stick your finger into the soil. Feed once when the plants move outdoors, and again about three months later, using a good, balanced organic fertilizer. Formulas made just for citrus are recommended and available from garden centers or by mail order. Glossy, dark green leaves indicate that the plant is receiving adequate nutrition. When in doubt, err on the side of less food and less water. Too much of either one will result in leggy, unsightly growth and poor fruit production.
In the second year after transplanting nursery stock, you should expect a few fruits. Thereafter, fruit production will increase with the size of the tree. Lemons and limes can bear almost at any time of year, but most other varieties bear the best crop after their spring bloom. Leaving the fruit on the tree until you are ready to eat it is the best bet, as the fruit becomes larger and flavor improves with time. Don’t wait until the fruit begins to dry out, however, before picking. Among the numerous varieties of citrus available, consider one or more of the following. Meyer lemon is a small form with smooth, thin-skinned fruit and reasonable cold tolerance. Kumquats have good cold tolerance and adapt well to containers. Selections include ‘Nagami’ and ‘Meiwa,’ both of which bear during fall and winter. Mandarin oranges and tangerines also exhibit good cold tolerance, but with some varieties, such as the Clementine tangerine, you need two plants for successful pollination. Varieties to try include Satsuma, Owari, Clementine, Dancy and Changsha tangerines, and Minneola and Orlando tangelos.


Figs have been grown for centuries, and can be over-wintered outdoors in Knoxville in a sheltered spot. ‘Brown Turkey,’ ‘Celeste’ and ‘Chicago’ are popular cold-tolerant cultivars. Grow in any reasonable soil in a spot sheltered from winter winds. Keep root suckers pruned off and head back the tree to maintain shape. All are considered easy to grow, with water management being a more important consideration than soil fertility. Poorly drained, constantly wet soil will rot the roots, but trees should not dry out to the point that leaves begin to wilt. Since the tree should be sited in as much sun as possible, water needs during hot weather can be significant.
Purchase nursery-grown stock of a known cultivar, or root a cutting from a tree of known provenance. Cuttings taken in August will root readily and can be transferred to their permanent location the following year. Plant the tree a little deeper than it was growing in the nursery container, using a well-drained mix such as has been previously recommended for growing avocado and citrus. Add a little bone meal to the mix at planting time. Figs are not heavy feeders and phosphorus is more important for them than nitrogen. You will need a container holding fifteen to twenty gallons of potting mix to accommodate a mature fig tree. Trees can be kept in bounds by thinning the main stems and by root pruning every three years.
Overwintering a container fig is relatively easy. When leaves fall, move the tree indoors to a cool spot. Light is unnecessary while the tree is dormant, so even a closet will do. Water about once a month. As the weather begins to warm up, gradually acclimate the tree to outdoor conditions, and new buds should begin to swell. Thereafter, resume your normal schedule of watering. Work a few tablespoons of bone meal into the top layer of soil when the plants are growing well again.
A fig tree planted in the ground in a sheltered spot can be successfully overwintered if the roots are protected from freezing. When dormant, the tree can be wrapped in a frost blanket until warm weather returns. Gardeners as far north as Zone 5 report success with this technique. Some drape the tree with Christmas lights connected to a timer, thus providing extra warmth on cold nights.


Olives typically do not do well in the humid South, but the Spanish Arbequina cultivar does perform well here. I saw olives fruiting in small pots at the Farmers Market this summer. They are decorative plants that adapt well to container culture. Use a well-drained mix, such as intended for citrus or palms, and keep well-watered and fertilized during the growing season. Hold back on water during the winter, but do not allow to dry out completely, and keep the plant in a sunny window.

Unusual ornamental edibles:


Tolerant of poor soils, drought and shade, the native elderberry is a reliable and easy edible shrub. Two plants are needed for pollination, except in the cultivated varieties ‘Nova’ and ‘York.’ European elderberry is also available; ‘Black Lace’ is a particularly decorative selection.


This Native American tree is under-appreciated. Usually found in rich, moist, organic soil near rivers and streams. Once established, the trees are rarely bothered by pests or disease. Selections available in the trade. Choose two different varieties to insure pollination.  The tree is the host plant for the zebra swallowtail butterfly, and chilled pawpaw is said to have been George Washington’s favorite dessert.


A sturdy native American tree, persimmon is self-fertile. Several cultivated varieties are available, along with a hybrid between the American and Asian persimmon species. Attractive checked bark and fruits remaining after leaf fall create year round interest in the landscape. Tolerates a wide variety of conditions, but prefers rich, well-drained soil high in organic matter.

Prickly Pear

Native to the desert Southwest, but naturalized in some places around here, this cactus can grow to an impressive size, provided it has plenty of sun and well-drained soil. Handle with extreme care. Tiny spines come loose and work themselves into your skin if touched. Fruits are used for juice, jam and wine-making. Leaf pads are de-spined and eaten as a vegetable, nopalitos, available canned in the Latin section of the grocery store.
A fruiting tree with four season interest: spring flowers, summer fruits, fall foliage and winter bark and buds. Fall foliage color is often spectacular. Numerous cultivares are widely available, and tolerant of just about anything but wet feet.


Often called “bear grass” this desert native is naturalized throughout the Southeast. Flowers are edible raw or in stir fries and omelets. (Some people may have a reaction, but this is rare. Eat only one flower the first time.) Trim out the centers and chop them separately, using the petals whole.

Completely Unexpected:


You can easily produce a year’s supply from a couple of purchased roots. Look for those with attached green stems, and use the best-looking ones to start your plants. Select a container at least four times larger than the piece of rhizome you are planting. A 12 to 14 inch azalea pot works well. This will allow for the development of an extensive root system. Fill the container three quarters full with a good, well-drained potting mix containing plenty of compost. Place the rhizome on top of the mix with the eyes pointing upward. Cover with more potting mix and water well. Place the container in a plastic bag in indirect light until green shoots appear. (This can take a month.) Then remove the bag and water well. Keep the plant in bright, indirect light and never allow the soil to dry out. Growing plants need protection from wind and should be brought indoors any time the temperature is headed below 50°F. The ideal growing temperature is 75°F to 85°F. Water and feed regularly, like most houseplants.


Saffron crocus grows like any other crocus, but blooms in fall, not spring. It grows well in Zones 6 through 9, and prefers good, well-drained soil in full sun. A patch of ten square feet, enough to accommodate about 50 bulbs, will provide an increasing abundance of spice as the plants mature and multiply. Set them out in summer, while they are dormant, six inches apart and three inches deep. Drainage is essential. Avoid keeping the soil too wet when the plants are dormant. You can overplant, if you wish, with annuals, but take care not to irrigate too much. Pull up the annuals when you see the new green shoots of saffron poking through the soil in autumn. When the lovely lavender-blue flowers open a few weeks later, harvest by picking the bright red stigmas by hand. You can use them immediately in such Mediterranean dishes as paella, bouillabaisse, and risotto, or dry them for a few days before storing in an airtight container for later use.
With just a little planning, your yard can become more beautiful and productive. Just be sure not to listen to anyone who says, “You can’t grow that!”

Friday, September 21, 2012

Happy Autumn Equinox!

Tomorrow, September 22, is the Autumn Equinox, and the weather has mercifully cooled down a bit. The accompanying photo depicts one of our favorite native plants for this season, smooth aster (Aster laevis). This is a cultivated variety named ‘Bluebird.’ Besides adding color, it attracts butterflies and bees.

For the backyard gardener, this time of year can be as busy as spring. Besides cleaning up spent plants and dealing with late summer’s abundance, you must also focus attention on the cool weather crops appropriate for the Tennessee Valley's “second spring.” From now until around Thanksgiving, you should be able to produce many of the same crops you’d grow in February, March and April.

Fast-maturing peas can be planted now, and you can transplant broccoli, cabbage and their relatives. If you did not start your own plants, you can easily find them at garden centers. Nurseries have responded to the surge in home food gardening by offering an increasingly good selection of transplants for fall planting. I have previously mentioned that late summer is also a good time for planting carrots, beets, leeks and turnips. There is still time to get them in the ground.

Greens Crops
We received over five inches of rain earlier this week, and our first planting of lettuce responded with rapid growth. We are starting more lettuce seeds in small pots tomorrow.

Deer Tongue – This is a loosehead heirloom from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. It did not do so well for uslast spring, so we are giving it a try as a fall crop.

Ashley – A frilly loosehead type with pink coloration on the leaves, it has performed well in the past as a fall and winter crop.

Lollo Rossa – A crinkly, deeply savoyed loosehead with dark red markings on the leaves, this one also has a delicious, succulent texture.

Spinach provides healthy greens all winter, so we will plant about 25 square feet of it. ‘Bloomsdale’ is the best variety we have tried, and is the one most widely grown in this area. You can pick individual leaves and keep harvesting one planting for months. Two other green crops to sow this week are arugula and corn salad. Both can be sown in succession every two weeks from now until the end of October. The Asian mustards, tatsoi and mizuna, offer additional options for fall planting, but we like to wait to plant them until the weather is really crisp, to minimize insect problems.

We will also sow chervil, which grows happily for us throughout the winter months, and here and there some cilantro seeds.

Preserving Summer Abundance
Besides all the garden chores, fall brings with it the need to preserve summer’s abundance. Many gardeners have piles of tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers at this time of year. Did you know that you can freeze tomato-based foods like salsa and gazpacho? In recipes where the vegetables are chopped, texture is less of an issue, so freezing is an option. Also, the acid from tomatoes and citrus juices helps to preserve the summer-fresh flavors for a mid-winter treat.

A food processor will facilitate making either of these recipes, but you can also chop everything by hand. These recipes also lend themselves to the use of heirloom tomatoes, which may not give good results when canned. I developed the gazpacho recipe by experiment, and it subsequently occurred to me that salsa would work, too. I use 2-cup rigid plastic containers with wide mouth screw tops for freezing both these products. Either recipe can be easily multiplied. If you don’t own a kitchen scale, use the equivalent volume measures for the gazpacho base. As long as the ratios are maintained, the flavor will be great.

Frozen Salsa

1 cup chopped white onion
1 quart cored and chopped firm ripe tomatoes
1 cup chopped green or red bell peppers
¼ cup chopped seeded hot peppers, more or less, depending upon desired heat level
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup loosely packed chopped cilantro leaves and tender stems
juice of two lemons or three limes
 teaspoons salt

Place the onion in a heatproof strainer in the sink and pour 2-3 cups of boiling water over it. This step prevents the onion from becoming too strong during storage.

Combine the onion with the other ingredients and mix well. Chill until cold. Fill freezer containers to the mark, seal, label and freeze. To use, thaw overnight in the refrigerator and serve with chips.

Freezer Gazpacho Base

8 ounces ripe tomatoes, seeded and chopped
4 ounces cucumber, seeded and chopped
2 ounces bell pepper, seeded and chopped
¾ ounce red onion, minced
¼ ounce garlic, minced
1 ounce fresh mixed herbs, minced (basil, chervil, chives, parsley, tarragon)
A few grinds of freshly ground black pepper.
¼ teaspoon coarse sea salt
½ teaspoon sweet paprika
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Combine these ingredients in a large bowl and mix well. Chill until cold. Fill freezer containers to the mark, seal, label and freeze. To use, thaw overnight in the refrigerator. Combine the gazpacho base with enough tomato juice, chicken broth or a combination to achieve a consistency you like. Serve chilled, garnished with sour cream, croutons, and finely chopped fresh parsley.