Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Valuable Redbud Tree

Spring's arrival is always marked in the Tennessee Valley by the pink-magenta blooms of the redbud, Cercis canadensis. This spreading small tree is found from southern New England all the way to Mexico. In the west, the western redbud, C. occidentalis, is the equivalent species, though it is smaller and more tolerant of drought than its eastern cousin. Gardeners throughout much of North America, therefore, have access to a redbud tree that is native to their region. The most frequently seen alternate name is Judas tree.

A large Eastern Redbud glows in morning light.
Rarely growing larger than 25-30 feet, the eastern redbud eventually develops an umbrella-like canopy 20 feet or more in width. It tolerates shade, and although it is abundant in the rich bottomlands of the Mississippi Valley, it grows very well on leaner soils of the Ridge and Valley region of East Tennessee. The interstates are lined with them.

Because the tree is a legume and develops a deep tap root, it improves the soil in which it grows. Creating a flower bed underneath a redbud is typically successful, as long as the flowers will tolerate the dappled shade cast by the limbs. The symbiotic bacteria that live in nodules on the tree's roots add nitrogen to the soil, and the annual leaf fall provides minerals pumped up from deep in the subsoil through the tree's extensive root system.

Several cultivated varieties of redbud species exist. All typically offer desirable features not always present in wild trees. The shade and intensity of coloration varies considerably from one tree to the next, for example. Nevertheless, we have produced some fine trees by selecting self-sown seedlings of the tree shown in the above picture, a mature specimen that was here long before the house was built. Seedlings are usually large enough to bloom by their fourth year of growth. They grow rapidly to about 15 feet, and then slow down and spread out. Careful pruning of young trees will yield the most attractive specimens. Once they are blooming size, little additional pruning is needed. Older trees will shed limbs, pruning themselves.

Water stress can lead to browning of the leaves and premature leaf loss, but the redbud is remarkably tolerant of drought once established. It flourishes best, however, with an inch of water a week during the growing season. Fertilization is not needed, as a rule.

Many gardeners are familiar with the redbud, but I am willing to bet that few know its culinary properties. Native Americans collected the flowers and ate them raw or cooked in water. The shiny, brown seeds were roasted and eaten. Modern analysis indicates the seeds contain healthy fatty acids, while the flowers contain anti-oxidant compounds. Green twigs of the eastern redbud were also used by Appalachian settlers to flavor game-based stews and roasts, earning the plant the colloquial name "spicewood." It would be worth trying with lamb, turkey or bison. (In case you are short on opossum or groundhog.)

Redbuds can be propagated from both softwood and hardwood cuttings, and by seed. Freshly collected seed should be placed in hot (99 degrees F) water and allowed to cool overnight before sowing. They will germinate quickly. Field grown specimens are preferable because containers resrtict the taproot, preventing the best growth.

If you are looking for a small tree for your property, the redbud offers numerous advantages, and is a long-lived, trouble-free species.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Thanks for Attending

Thanks to everyone who attended my presentation yesterday at Stanley's Greenhouses. I hope you all have a wonderful, productive vegetable garden this coming season.

The information from my presentation is posted on my other blog, The Permanent Gardener. Please click the link to find it.

Happy Gardening!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A VERY Early Spring

I have finally arranged my schedule, and am pleased to announce that posts will appear hear each Wednesday henceforth. I write two other blogs. One is here. The other is an internal blog for the company I work for. Thus, I am blogging three days a week, plus I have other projects. Ergo, blogs appear on Monday (work), Wednesday (this one) and Friday (The Permanent Gardener).

Carolina jessamine
 As you can see from the photo at left, the garden is busting out all over after several days of record high temperatures. The greenhouses are warming up into the 90s. We are going to add some extra ventilation this afternoon to bring the temperature down a bit for the lettuce. Kale and winter greens are bolting all over the place. We are harvesting and using everything we can. Fortunately, we are able to grow more than we can use fresh of most vegetables, so we have excess to freeze for later or share with others.

Our first spring planting of lettuce, which went in on March 5, will be ready to harvest next week. It is growing like crazy in the unusual warmth.

Every gardener I know is praying that we won't have a late freeze next month. The dogwoods are already beginning to swell, virtually guaranteeing that Knoxville's annual Dogwood Arts Festival will take place without the star attraction, since the event is roughly a month in the future. I'm predicting the dogwoods will be done by then. Our large redbud tree, and those I've observed all over the county, are hitting their peak about now, much earlier than usual.

Welcome to Louisiana! Can you imagine how the summer is going to be if this keeps up?

I am going to plant beans after I remove the kale crop. It is about a month earlier than usual, but what the heck. I have a brown-seeded bush variety, Contender, that made a tasty crop last year. Did you know that you should choose brown-seeded bean varieties for early planting? They will germinate in cooler soil than is the case with white-seeded beans.

I planted Yukon Gold potatoes on St. Patrick's Day, last Saturday, right on schedule. This afternoon we will also be transplanting leeks and scallions, and seeding carrots, beets and radishes. For those who follow the moon phase planting schedule, Thursday marks the New Moon, and the end of the traditional time for sowing root crops. The beans go into the ground on the weekend, because the moon will then be waxing. Other crops that bear above ground, such as greens, tomatoes, peppers and squash, are started during the waxing moon, as well. Despite the weather, it is still too early to start peppers and squash from seed, but we'll get some mid-season tomatoes going. Early tomato seeds were started on March 10, along with mid-season lettuces. Needless to say, with the warmth they are going gangbusters.

Happy gardening, everyone!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Hurray for Regional Seed Suppliers

Local Food Report
Things are slowly picking up on the local food scene. This week's visit to Three Rivers Market turned up lettuces from Hines Valley Farm in Loudon County, along with mushrooms from Brewer's Mushrooms in Sevier County. We also found an especially good selection of bread and other goodies from local bakeries. I am particularly fond of the herb flatbread made by Tellico Grains Bakery in Tellico Plains. We enjoyed it with olive oil and parmesan as an accompaniment to minestrone, had panini the next day, and turned the leftovers into croutons for a panzanella. It was delicious in all three recipes. Three Rivers also offers baked goods from Hogan's Bakery and The Bakery Lady, as well as a great selection of local and regional cheeses, eggs and dairy products. They also carry Benton's bacon and country ham, both of which are gourmet quality. Anyone who wants to enjoy local food should check out Three Rivers. I know there are other stores that carry great local products, and I plan to venture out and explore them as the season progresses. I will also be reporting regularly on local farmer's markets, which will be opening soon. I just happen to like shopping at Three Rivers, and it is convenient for me. Please make suggestions, using the comments section at the end of the post, for local food producers and vendors. I will make every effort to visit them and share my experiences here.

Regional Seed Suppliers
While I am on the topic of regional businesses, I want to remind area gardeners about our local seed suppliers.  Buying seeds locally not only supports the small businesses that make up the bulk of the economy, but it also guarantees you will have access to selections that have a reputation for success in our area. Most people do not realize how much variation in performance there can be between different cultivars of the same vegetable. For example, Brandywine tomatoes are delicious, but they are difficult to grow in the hot, humid Tennessee Valley. They do better in cooler conditions. On the other hand, Cherokee Purple, a tomato heirloom that originated here, does just fine and produces excellent crops, despite having less disease resistance than most modern hybrid tomatoes. When you are looking for varieties adapted to the special needs of Tennessee gardeners, always look first at local seed suppliers.

D. R. Mayo Seed Company has been in business in Knoxville since 1878, and they are still my favorite place to look for heirloom seeds and old-fashioned flowers. Their online garden seed catalog is not the most visually stunning I have ever seen, but it is packed with helpful information on all the seeds they carry. Besides vegetable and flower seeds, the company offers seeds for turf grass and field crops, such as alfalfa. I have been growing Mayo's generic leeks, celery, scallions and parsley for many years. If you are a fan of sweet corn or green beans, they have many varieties of each.

Knoxville Seed and Greenhouse Supply has a web site that is presently under construction. Located on Rutledge Pike east of downtown Knoxville, the company serves primarily commercial growers, but also welcomes walk-in retail customers. They are a great source for pots, cell trays, and growing mixes as well as seeds. They are one of the few places that still carries bamboo poles in various sizes for garden projects. I find they have a particularly large stock of organic pest control products at reasonable prices. When you visit, tell Rick (who is usually behind the sales counter) that I said "Hi!"

If you shop these two companies and still don't find everything you want for your food garden, also visit the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange web site. This mail order house has consistently provided quality seed, many organically grown, for two decades. Selections that perform well in the South make up the bulk of their offerings. I am trying two heat-tolerant lettuces from them this year, and will report on the results in a future post. They also carry perennial onions, also to be discussed in a future blog post. I particularly like their seed selections for cold-tolerant vegetables.

A great garden begins with the right seeds. Start your seed search with our locally-owned businesses. It's a win-win.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Abundant Greens

The warm, sunny weather has rewarded us with an abundance of greens from the plants we overwintered in the coldframes. I picked about a pound of spinach the other day, and we have been eating all the lettuce and corn salad we can hold. We also have more Lacinato kale than we know what to do with, although I plan to freeze some to make Caldo Verde later on in the season.

Our experience with winter gardening in our three walk-in coldframes (each one is 6 by 8 feet) has yielded some lessons for next year's planning. Lesson number one: only a few plants will actually grow during the cold, short days between Thanksgiving and President's Day. Our best performers in this regard were cilantro, corn salad Vit and the Lacinato kale. Next year, we will make successive plantings of all of these. They can all be started in cell trays and transplanted. The corn salad germinated well even though it was planted in November in the cold frame. The cilantro, sown at the same time, November 8, 2011, did not germinate until last month, and now is about eight inches tall. We started the kale indoors in October and transplanted it to the cold frame in November.

Lacinato kale with lettuce plants in the coldframe
The lettuces we tried mostly sat there during the winter, but the ones that survived have now taken off and we have all the salads we care to eat. Lollo Rossa and Ashley were the best cultivars.

Wild arugula sown November 8, 2011 germinated, grew to about 2 inches in diameter, and sat there until the last few weeks, when it has rapidly reached harvestable size.

Dill and parsley, also sown in November, were both a complete disappointment. We had much better luck with parsley grown in the open raised beds. It remained green and was harvestable during all but the coldest weather. Cilantro outdoors also wintered over and is now growing like crazy again.

Scallions failed to grow during the winter. We started the cultivar Parade indoors and transplanted to the coldframe and under cloches in a raised bed. Neither planting has shown much growth until recently. I guess that is why the Chinese call them "spring onions." Short days apparently tell them to chill out.

With better planning, we hope to have green crops all next winter. Starting plants in September and October for overwintering in the coldframes will be key to our success. Our late start gave us little food during the winter, and more than we need now.