Saturday, June 29, 2013

Surrounded by Nature

Ah, summer! Our weather has been nearly perfect for gardens this month, with periods of rain and sunshine. We did lose a tree limb to high winds earlier in the week, and the power was out during the night, but we survived, and the tree will, too. The long evenings provide a great opportunity to sit in the shade near the pond, surrounded by Nature.

We added more dragonfly observations to the pond list this week. A female green darner (Anax junius) visited long enough to lay eggs among the roots of the water hyacinths. Another species, also laying eggs, kept moving so quickly that I could not at first identify her. When she finally alighted, I could see her brown body with distinct marking of the abdominal segments, and wings with big black dots on them. She was the female common whitetail (Plathemis lydia). The green darner perched on the leaves of the water hyacinths and probed with her ovipositor below, depositing eggs among the plant's violet-black roots. The whole process took perhaps 15 seconds and she was on her way. The common whitetail skimmed the surface, dipping her ovipositor into the water at widely spaced intervals. She made three passes across the pond, dipping four or five times on each pass. Later the same day, we observed a blue dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis) laying eggs among the water hyacinths, in a manner similar to the behavior of the green darner.

While out running errands recently, I could not help but notice the display of blue chicory and white Queen Anne's lace that decorates the interstate exit near the house. Both these "wildflowers" are escapees from our vegetable gardens, being, respectively, endive and carrots.

I also want to mention one of our most maligned trees, the mimosa, Albizia julibrissin. Wild ones blooming along the interstate are beautiful, and the range of colors is remarkable. Some are creamy white, while others are bright fuschia. Not enough has been done to tame this Asian tree, which was introduced to America in 1785. They are short lived, and seedlings can be weedy, but a well-grown specimen is a joy to behold and to smell. Tincture of mimosa flowers has been used for centuries as an anti-depressant. Mimosa tolerates poor soils, drought and bitter winters, and blooms for about a month. Breeders should work on a cultivar that does not make viable seeds.

Victory in the Vegetable Garden
We harvested our first artichokes this week, and they are delicious. Artichoke is not an easy vegetable to produce in the Tennessee Valley. I have been trying for several years, and this is my first success. I attribute the difference this year to two factors. One, we grew the plants in "raised bed mix" from Hines Fine Soils. This combination of topsoil and mushroom compost seems perfect for our veggies, as they are all performing better than last season. Secondly, we have had abundant rainfall, something that artichokes love. I purchased a plant of the cultivar 'Imperial Star' from Ellenburg Nursery in April, and transplanted it immediately. I added cottonseed meal to the soil before planting, and irrigated a few times during dry spells. Besides the main bud, we harvested a large secondary bud and we have a couple more large secondary buds, and several smaller ones, yet to pick. If you like artichokes, growing your own can be a fun project, but they do take a lot of space, about one square yard per plant. Imperial Star was developed for areas where other artichokes might not overwinter, and produces a crop in the first season from seed. Other varieties take at least two years to bear, and in Tennessee may winter kill their first year. Milder winters may increase our chances for success in bringing this tasty thistle through the winter.

We picked our first cucumbers this week, and the vines are blooming profusely. It will soon be time to start a batch of sweet pickles. Beans are coming along, and the first tomatoes are large enough to start showing a little color soon. A few of the corn plants are tasseling up.

Summer is definitely surrounding us with abundance.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Heat Slows You, Not Your Garden

Happy summertime! Today is the first full day of summer, and the temperature is in the upper 80s throughout the Tennessee Valley. Gardening now can be exhausting, but this is a great time to get some chores accomplished. For example:

Weed and brush removal are likely to be more effective when the weather is hot and dry, as the weather makes it hard for new shoots to recover. Similarly, high temperatures make herbicides like glyphosate more effective, as the plant takes up the chemical more rapidly. As I have previously mentioned, I do not advocate the widespread application of toxic chemicals, but some noxious weeds can be eliminated no other way. One plant I am attacking this year is Chinese autumn clematis, Clematis ternifolia. This plant is considered a pest plant of concern by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, because it can outgrow and smother native plants and shrubs.

In the vegetable garden, there is still time to plant beans, cucumbers, summer and winter squashes, okra, tomato plants and pepper plants. I transplanted two Bush Big Boy tomatoes that I had been holding in large pots, awaiting the garlic harvest.

Speaking of garlic, boy did we get a good crop this year. Most of the heads are over two inches in diameter. I attribute this success to the abundant rainfall we have had, at least 15 inches above normal, according to the National Weather Service. Usually, we harvest garlic in June, but the leaves were beginning to yellow, a good sign the crop is ready. The freshly harvested garlic, leaves and all, is spread out on a rack in the shade, protected from rain. Once they dry enough, I will braid the stems and hang them on the clothesline in the garage to finish curing for storage. I still have a few cloves in the refrigerator from last summer's garlic crop, although most of them are sprouting.

Our Plant of the Week this morning on Garden Talk was purple coneflower, Echinacea purpurea and its related species and hybrids. This easy-to-grow member of the aster family comes in an array of colors and sizes, thanks to active plant breeding in recent years. E. purpurea is a denizen of the open plains. In a few Middle Tennessee counties, Tennessee coneflower, E. tennesseensis, thrives naturally. It lives abundantly in gardens across the state, as well, both in its pure form and in the genomes of numerous hybrids. The use of yellow coneflower, E. paradoxa, as a hybrid parent has resulted in a color range including yellow and orange shades. Coneflowers will bloom with a little afternoon shade, but the best display is in full sun in moist, well drained soil of average fertility. The plants are visited by butterflies and other pollinators, and the mature seed heads attract goldfinches. Once established, they are pest and disease free and will grace your garden from summer to frost. In the first season after transplanting, remove the flower buds as they form, to allow the plants to develop an adequate root system. Water new transplants during periods of drought. Established plants tolerate drought well. If you grow coneflowers in your garden, you will find volunteer seedlings here and there. If their blooms delight you, it is easy to multiply the plants by dividing the rootstock in fall after the plants have gone dormant. If you have more than one species or cultivar, you will get hybrid seedlings, such as the example from my garden shown in the image. This is a tennesseensis/purpurea cross, I suspect, created by insects.

Echinacea tennesseensis is endangered and is found only in a few locations in Middle Tennessee. Wild stands should never be disturbed. This plant is nevertheless easy to grow and can be purchased at many specialty nurseries and better garden centers. The leaves and petals are much narrower than in E. purpurea, and the plant is fuzzier.

The hot weather will also speed up growth in your earlier vegetable plantings. Make sure you keep beans, cucumbers and other early crops well picked, or they will stop bearing. Get out there and weed some every day, too, because the weeds also are growing vigorously. Just be sure to protect yourself from the sun and to drink plenty of water. When the temperature is above 80, I work about 30 minutes and rest in the shade for 15. Pace yourself.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Garden Pond a Study in Ecology

One of the best things we have done in the garden in years is add a pond. We have actually been working in this direction for about five years. Originally, we removed a tree. Then we removed the stump, and were left with a large hole in the ground. We decided to make it larger rather than fill it up, and eventually we wound up with a pond.

Watching our pond develop its own little ecosystem has been both fun and instructive. We began in February, as soon as the weather began giving us a few warm, bright days, by adding a commercial bacterial starter culture to seed the pond with beneficial bacteria. This technique is much like adding a bacterial product to your compost, or putting nitrogen-fixing bacteria into a row with bean seeds. You are giving Nature a head start on ecosystem development. Left to its own devices, the pond will acquire these essential micro-organisms. They will drift in on air currents, on the feet and feathers of birds and on the bodies of insects that happen to visit the pond. Adding the commercial product simply speeds up this process.

Within a week, the pond became cloudy, teeming with microscopic life. Besides the added bacteria, the water was full of microscopic algae that tinted everything greenish brown. During the first month, the water was alternately cloudy and clear, as vast numbers of organisms grew and died, each subtly altering the water conditions and contributing to the pond's ecology.

By the end of March, we had added some marginal plants. Marsh marigold (Caltha palustris) was the first flowering plant to go into the new pond. Our plant came originally from a friend in Michigan, and it has lived in various ponds and containers for almost 25 years. Next we added Iris virginica, the native blue flag. Our plants are tetraploid ones, originally from Barry Glick at Sunshine Farm and Gardens. During early spring, we added several other species that like wet feet, including cinnamon and royal ferns (Osmunda cinnamonea, and O. regalis), dwarf cattail (Typha minima), blue moneywort (Lindernia grandiflora) and four-leaf-clover (Marsilea quadrifolia).

This week, we added our first water lily, Nymphaea aquatica 'Charley's Choice.' This cultivar remains under three feet in diameter, making it a good choice for a small pond such as ours. The pink and white blossoms open during the daylight hours.

We have also added fish. While we would prefer to have native Tennessee fishes in the pond, it is illegal to maintain native fish species in captivity without a permit, so we have opted for goldfish and livebearers from Aquarium Knoxville, our local pond supply store. The goldfish is a Shubunkin type, bred for coloration that shows up well when the fish is observed from above. We have only one spcecimen, whom we have named "Ichiban." With 1200 gallons of water, the pond can support only a limited number of fish. Because goldfish can reproduce prodigiously after a couple of years in the pond, we decided to keep only one. If we added more and happened to end up with a pair, we would need to periodically net out many hundreds of offspring. Finding a home for unwanted fishes is even harder than trying to place a litter of kittens. And unfortunately, there is no way to determine the gender of small goldfish. Ichiban, therefore, will remain celibate.

To help Ichiban with mosquito control (the primary purpose of having pond fish in the first place) we added a couple of dozen small mixed livebearers from Aquarium. They sell these to feed larger fish, and they are therefore quite cheap. Further, they will bear offspring about every three weeks, ensuring a continuously growing population all season long. Livebearers are also not winter hardy in Tennessee's climate, sparing us the need to cull them at season's end.

While it is true that the decisions Jerry and I make regarding the pond's inhabitants have an effect on its development, many of its most interesting denizens arrived on their own. Certainly this was the case with the micro-organisms that were not in the bottle of bacterial starter. In terms of diversity of species, one look with a microscope will reveal that this part of the pond's ecology is the hands-down leader. Next came the insects. Even while the nights were still a bit frosty, midges arrived in hordes, and their aquatic larvae were soon teeming on the bottom of the pond, hiding themselves in little tubes they construct from debris. Next to show up were the water striders, accomplished hunters who sit delicately poised on the surface to await another insect's misfortune. As soon as anything alive falls into the water, the striders head for it, hoping to make a meal of a struggling fly or moth. A little later, backswimmers arrived. They also hunt for prey at the water surface, but with a different strategy. The backswimmer lies upside down (hence the name) just beneath the surface, rather than floating supported by surface tension. This appears to confer the advantage of speed, as the backswimmers can move faster than water striders can. The last insect arrivals have been the elegant dragonflies and damselflies. The blue dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis) has been the most common species so far. Males spend most of their time defending territories from each other, awaiting the arrival of a female with which to mate. I have observed the females depositing eggs within a few moments after a mating flight. Dragonfly larvae are aquatic predators, while adults hunt other insects on the wing. We have seen a damselfly, probably an Enallagma species, together with two other dragonflies, one is a member of the darner family, the other is a common whitetail, Plathemis lydia. The latter is unmistakable, with its powder white abdomen and boldly marked wings. Both of these dragonflies have been occasional visitors, whereas the dashers seem to have taken up residence.

We also have at least two species of frogs. One is the common leopard frog. We also have a smaller chorus frog and possibly a tree frog species. All the frogs found the pond on their own, possibly moving from one of the small creeks that surround the base of our ridge.

Within only a few months, our pond has gone from being a hole in the ground to a thriving community that never fails to provide entertainment and insight.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Not Too Late for Veggies

It's not too late to plant a vegetable garden. In fact, many of the most popular backyard vegetables will thrive best now that the weather is warm and settled. This weekend would be a great time to plant sweet potatoes, okra, beans, southern peas, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and basil. All these crops will be ready to harvest long before the first cool night arrive in September.

Soak okra seeds overnight before planting them out, about three inches apart, in well-drained soil that is not too rich. Excess nitrogen will delay blooms and thus reduce your harvest. When plants are six inches tall, thin them to stand about a foot apart. Okra has achieved new popularity with backyard gardeners in recent years, and breeders have responded with compact varieties, such as 'Baby Bubba,' that produce a good crop on space-saving plants. If you have the room, old standard varieties, such as 'Clemson Spineless,' have proven themselves over the years. Heirloom okras are also available, offering additional possibilities in flavor and plant growth habit. The only drawback to the heirlooms is that many of them retain the spines that cause itching and irritation of unprotected skin. If you are a sensitive person, you should wear long sleeves and garden gloves when working in the okra patch. Also remember that older okra varieties will grow to more than six feet in height.

Beans are among the easiest and most productive backyard crops. Although more work to pick, bush beans are less trouble to grow than pole beans. The latter require a sturdy support at least six feet above ground level, but once the begin bearing they continue all season as long as you keep them picked. Bush beans tend to produce one large crop and then taper off quickly. But you can find a greater variety of bush beans in most seed racks. Among our favorites is Romano, a flat Italian type bean with great flavor. Yellow wax beans, such as 'Goldrush,' are wonderful by themselves with just enough cooking to make them tender. They are also an essential component of that church supper staple, three bean salad. For gardeners with a little experience growing beans, the French filet types, also known as haricots verts, are among the tastiest and tenderest beans out there. A good bush selection is 'Fantastic Filet.' These beans are harvested when they are a bit smaller in diameter than a pencil, and typically are steamed whole and served with a simple dressing of butter or oil and fresh herbs.

Cucurbits will practically leap from the ground now that the weather is hot. Cucumbers for summer salads, gazpacho and pickling will produce a bumper crop about two months after sowing. Zucchini, crookneck and pattypan squashes, if planted around the first of June, typically avoid the onslaught of squash borers that plague earlier sowings. Research has shown that adult squash borer populations are at their lowest point during this time of year, allowing tender new shoots to toughen up before the borers go looking for a place to lay their eggs. For gardeners with plenty of room, now is also a great time to plant watermelon, pumpkin, winter squash, melons, and gourds. All enjoy the hot days and warm nights of Southern summers.

Basil is the quintessential summer herb, and it goes well with all the summer veggies, from beans to zucchini. We start basil several times in spring, spacing our sowings about two weeks apart. Plants are transplanted to the garden as they become large enough. This technique provides for a continuous harvest of the fragrant leaves from late June until frost. Repeated picking leaves basil plants looking "worn out." If appearance is important, try our succession method, and just pull up and compost the plants when they get ratty looking. Basil likes water, but grow it in not-too-fertile soil, perhaps at the corners of the sweet potato or okra patch.

June is also a great month for flowers. One of the best choices for the Tennessee Valley, and indeed most of the eastern United States, is the daylily (Hemerocallis). Available in any color except true blue, daylilies are hardy, easy and reliable perennials. They require at least six hours of sun in order to bloom well, but that is about the only hard and fast rule. Daylilies love water, but are extremely drought tolerant once established. They prefer a moist, well-drained soil enriched with organic matter, but will grow in poor, clay soils as long as they are not waterlogged.

Daylilies are also edible, but they vary somewhat in taste. Choose fragrant selections for the best flavor. Unopened buds can be added to stir fries, and the opened blooms can be battered and fried like squash blossoms. Flower petals can also be chopped and added to salads.

This year, whether you are a novice vegetable gardener or a veteran, consider planting a little more than you think you can use. (Most of us end up with extra produce each season, anyway.) Bring your surplus fresh produce to the UT Gardens Farmers Market on Wednesdays between 4:00 and 7:00 PM. UT staffers and volunteers will be available to collect your excess and distribute it to area charities that feed the hungry.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

A Road Trip and the Late Spring Vegetable Harvest

After taking off the Memorial Day weekend, I am back online this week. The long weekend gave me a chance to get garden chores caught up. When you have a lot of container plants, as I do, repotting each year can take up an amazing amount of time.

Last Tuesday, I paid a visit to East Fork Nursery near Sevierville, TN. East Fork is a wholesale and retail nursery owned and operated by Vivian Abney. Accompanied by a friend, I made the trek from Knoxville in search of a Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica) cultivar called 'Sekkan-sugi.' This variety has gold-tipped branches that I thought would look great in my backyard garden with the darker foliage of a Magnolia 'Little Gem' that I dote on. Unfortunately for me, Vivian's trees are too large to fit into my Toyota, so I will have to return later with a larger vehicle. Never one to pass up a beautiful plant when I see it, however, I had trouble choosing from Vivian's wide selection of beautifully grown, healthy conifers and azaleas.

Especially azaleas. Vivian is passionate about these flowering shrubs. She has a great selection of evergreen varieties, but the deciduous types abound in her offerings, and it was to these that I was drawn. Some sixteen species of azaleas are native to the eastern United States, and Vivian has them all. She seems especially fond of the flame azalea, Rhododendron calendulaceum, with its seemingly endless variations on orange, yellow or red-orange blooms. They take a long time to grow from seed, but the wait is worth it. Flame azalea in bloom is a late spring treat throughout the southern Appalachians. In the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Gregory's Bald is said to have the finest display to be found anywhere in the world.

Despite the allure of flame azalea, I left the nursery with a fine specimen of sweet azalea, Rhododendron arborescens. Pure white flowers with crimson stamens and pistils grace the dark green foliage. In bloom now, it follows the earlier species like piedmont azalea, R. canescens, and precedes the summer azalea, R. prunifolium. But the real attraction, as you might guess from the name, is the delicious fragrance, which the plant is not shy about producing. We had to roll down the car windows on the way home. With the azalea sitting in the back seat, the fragrance soon became too much of a good thing. Throughout the week, the plant has perfumed an entire corner of the garden. Several other deciduous azaleas are fragrant, but R. aborescens outdoes its cousins in this department. Like other azaleas, it thrives in moist, organic soil that is well-drained and not too fertile, with an acidic pH. Morning sun with afternoon shade suits them perfectly, although they will tolerate full sun with ample moisture. Adding pine bark to the growing bed helps with both pH and moisture retention. I look forward to enjoying this plant for years to come.

We observed many other great plants, from the weeping eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) 'Rapberry Twist' to miniature evergreens no bigger than a grapefruit. If you are looking for something a little out of the ordinary for that special spot in your garden, ask your local independent garden center if they can get if for you from East Fork Nursery. Or contact Vivian yourself:

East Fork Nursery
2769 Bethel Church Road
Sevierville, TN 37876

Veggies Maturing Now
With the unseasonable heat we have experienced recently, early spring crops like lettuce and spinach are showing signs of going to seed, if they haven't already done so. We have harvested all the broccoli, leeks and cabbage, storing the excess well-wrapped in the refrigerator. We will have coleslaw for summer barbecues, and leeks to make chilled vichysoisse for a more formal meal.

Potatoes are beginning to bloom, a sign that baby new potatoes lie waiting just beneath the crown of foliage. I recommend using your fingers to probe the soil gently if you want to steal a few. Digging with a tool can injure developing tubers, and reduce their storage life considerably. If you want potatoes for storage, wait until the foliage has almost completely died back, another month perhaps, before you dig. Shake off most of the soil, spread them out on newspapers or an old sheet, and allow the potatoes to cure in a cool, dry, shady spot for about a week, after which they should keep for months. Once cured, you can gather them into baskets to save space. Don't refrigerate potatoes, however, or they will become sweet-flavored, and don't store them in an airtight container. The tubers need to breathe.

I tend to associate early June with peas, and this year's crop has arrived right on time. We are growing a new (to us) cultivar from Burpee, 'Super Snappy.' The vines are short and almost free of tendrils, so the plants tend to lean on each other and need no trellis for support. This makes them a great choice for a small space garden like ours. Best of all, they produce sugar snap peas that are truly huge, at least twice the size of regular Sugar Snap, with excellent flavor. (See image above.) We are going to plant these again for a fall crop.

On Wednesday, June 5, I will be at a table at the UT Gardens Farmers Market. Visit the market for fresh local produce, honey, baked goods, natural cosmetics and much more, and stop by my table for help with your gardening questions, or just to say "Hi!" The market is open every Wednesday from 4:00 to 7:00 PM and is kid and pet friendly. Bring the family and enjoy the flavor of east Tennessee.