Monday, September 28, 2015

Some Thoughts About Grasses

Too many gardeners think of grasses as turf, without regard to the many grasses that have ornamental value. Some of theme can be useful, too. For example, Japanese maiden grass, Miscanthus sinensis, is available in numerous cultivated forms. It is adaptable, tolerant of poor soil and low moisture, and makes an effective screen fence or hedge. Propagation is simple, too. This plant deserves wider application in home gardens.

Japanese maiden grass does require annual maintenance. After frost sends it into dormancy, the old growth should be cut back to about a foot tall. This will make for a tidier and more shapely clump the following season. The hay this trimming produces is a great mulch for other plants. If allowed to dry out, it can be chopped and composted along with autumn leaves.

If you have a lawn, September and October are the best times for annual chores such as aeration, over-seeding, fertilization and weed control. I will repeat the admonition to set your lawn mower as high as possible. When grass is allowed to grow tall, it also develops a strong, healthy root system that will help keep it green and thriving through adverse summer weather. Tall grass also smothers weeds before they can gain the upper hand.

Numerous other grasses find uses as ornamental subjects. Many produce their blooms in late summer and fall, adding to the show of colorful blooms and autumn leaves. Among our favorites are:

Japanese forest grass 'Aureola'--A low, growing plant with yellow variegation in the leaves, it does well in shade where few other grasses thrive.

Foxtail grass 'Cassian'--Dramatic blooms from neat clumps of foliage about three feet in diameter; this grass is easy and drought tolerant.

The vegetable garden continues to yield both cucumbers and peppers that are better in quality than they were before the weather cooled down. Fall plantings of kale, spinach and parsley are coming along nicely. We even have a few late tomatoes, from self-sown seeds growing in the compost area.

This is a great time to think about preserving some of the end-of-season abundance, from the backyard as well as the farmer's market.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Garden Renovations

September and October typically offer beautiful weather in the Tennessee Valley, and that makes these months excellent for garden renovation projects. Cooler, drier weather makes working outdoors a pleasure. Soil amendments added now will have time to break down and contribute their intended components to the soil chemistry by spring, in time for next year's plantings.

Some of our trees and other plantings have grown so much that they have now begun to shade the vegetable growing beds. These beds will need re-locating, so we have taken down the tomatoes and okra that were in them. It is a bit early. The plants would have continued to bear, albeit not as well as if they were growing in full sun, until frost. But we don't want to do the work when it's cold and windy, so we will forego the remaining fruits.

It is worth making the point that your garden, first and foremost, should be about you. Your interests, your tastes, and your needs should all be reflected in your garden. Never fear to rip out a plant that is not doing well, or that you find you don't like as well as you thought at first. You are the controlling hand in the garden.

Despite there being only about 30 days until the first suspected frost, you can still get in a crop of fall greens. Try arugula (pictured), bok choy, radishes, mizuna, and chervil. All of them mature quickly and all are frost tolerant. Plant a patch of Seven Top Turnips within the next week, and you should be able to enjoy several pickings of greens, as they are frost hardy. Plant lettuces in containers; one of our favorites for this purpose is Tom Thumb. If frost threatens, container plants can be brought indoors for the night, thus extending the season. You should be able to harvest a nice salad for Thanksgiving dinner.

It is not too early to begin thinking about your vegetable garden for next year. We are launching an exciting new project that will result in another how-to book. More about this as the season progresses, but for now, think about what you would grow in only 100 square feet of outdoor space.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Late Season Gardening

Yesterday I transplanted some kale plants we started a few weeks ago. The cultivar is 'Dwarf Blue Scotch Curled.' It makes a compact plant ideal for the small space garden. I removed some spent pepper and basil plants, making room for the kale and some spinach that I plan to move in later this week. The current spate of cool weather is ideal for all kinds of garden projects.

We are still harvesting beans, cucumbers, okra, tomatoes and peppers from the summer garden, while scallions and parsely start to mature from late plantings. It will soon be time to start seeds for fall lettuces, along with some other items that will move indoors when frost threatens.

Our best crop of beans this year has come, believe it or not, from container plantings. By using a sterile potting mix and incorporating a legume innoculant into the mix at planting time, we have achieved some beautiful filet beans with no hint of trouble. We have found a bean beetle here and there, but they are easy to control by hand when the crop is small.

We have also begun making plans for next year's garden. As was the case during 2014, when we wrote two gardening books for Random House, we are going to garden in 2016 with a new book in mind. Our plan is to select a single small space and demonstrate just how much produce can be grown with limited resources. The area, which is about 100 square feet, has been a multipurpose raised growing bed for years. At the moment, it is home to cucumbers, sweet peppers, hot peppers, scallions, parsley, turnip greens and kale, with room for the small planting of spinach I mentioned above. We will continue to share details as this project evolves.

Looking for a way to deal with an abundance of peppers? Check out this red pepper relish recipe, which keeps for weeks in the refrigerator. The seasonings are similar to those used for bread and butter cucumber pickles. The relish is great on chicken or pork, and makes killer pimento cheese. If you wish to add heat, include a hot pepper with the chopped sweet peppers, keeping the total amount the same.

Bread-and-Butter Pepper Relish

Makes one half pint (one cup)

1 1/2 cups finely diced sweet red peppers
1/2 cup finely diced red onion
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon whole yellow mustard seeds
1/4 teaspoon celery seed

Combine all ingredients in a small saucepan. Cover, place over medium heat and bring to a simmer. Stir, then adjust the heat to maintain a bare simmer. Cook, covered, until reduced to one cup, about 25 to 30 minutes. Allow to cool. Store in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to 6 weeks.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Saving Seeds

Late summer is a great time to save seeds for next year's garden. Many of our favorite annuals, vegetables, and native plants are maturing seed now, and the often pleasant late summer weather is conducive to getting out in the garden and harvesting them. Here are a few tips for seed saving at home:

1. Moisture is the enemy. If you harvest seeds that are too green, or leave too much green plant matter with them, or store them in a location with high humidity, they are likely to mold. Always harvest fully mature seeds. When in doubt, wait a few more days. Harvest after a period of dry weather. Remove as much chaff as possible before storing seeds.

2. Use paper bags, not plastic. Harvest entire seed heads from plants such as dill. Place the seed heads upside down in a paper lunch bag. Fold over the top of the bag, label, and place it in a warm, dark location, such as an interior closet. In a week or two, you can separate and discard most of the chaff easily. This works for cilantro, many varieties of annual flowers, and native plants such as lobelias and milkweeds.

3. Hands came before tools. The most effective tools for breaking small seed capsules, plucking the fluff from milkweed seeds, and similar tasks are your hands. Seeds are often tiny and delicate. Handle them with care.

4. Wet seeds need special attention. Seeds of tomatoes and cucumbers are surrounded by a jelly-like material that must be dealt with to prevent mold damage. One recommendation is to place the seeds and their jelly in a jar of water and let the mixture ferment for a week or so before straining out the seeds. Rinsing the seeds repeatedly in a strainer removes any residual material, and the seeds are then spread out to dry prior to storage. This is a suitable technique for producing seeds in large quantities, but if your needs are limited to a few dozen seeds of any given plant, there is a better way. Simply remove the seeds and their jelly with a spoon and spread the mass out on a paper towel, in such a manner that individual seeds are spaced a short distance apart. Use the back of the spoon to assist in this task. Allow the seeds to dry on the towel for a day or two in a warm, airy spot. You should then be able to pick off individual seeds with a pair of tweezers, or by scratching gently with a fingernail. The jelly material will remain behind, absorbed into the fibers of the towel, producing no mess and no smell. You can simply toss the towel into the compost bin when you have harvested the seeds.

5. Native plants may need a cold period. Many native plants produce seeds that will sprout only after they have been subjected to a period of wet, cold weather, as we normally experience each winter. These seeds should be planted out soon after harvesting. Either plant in containers, or label a spot in an outdoor bed, so you won't forget next spring and dig up your seedlings by mistake.

It is worth noting that the fruits of some native plants may contain chemicals that irritate the skin of sensitive people, much like poison ivy. For example, the fruit cluster in the image is green dragon, Arisaema draconitum. The juice from the red berries is an irritant. For safety's sake, wear disposable gloves when working with any plant material, until you are sure you won't experience any consequences. This type of fruit, by the way, is a good candidate for the "let it rot" approach noted above. Along the same lines, beware when removing the relatively dry seeds from hot peppers, as the juices can burn your eyes and skin.

6. Store seeds dry and cold. Vegetable and flower seeds that you will plant next spring should be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Plastic food storage containers work great and are inexpensive. Place individual seed varieties in small paper envelopes. Save the silica gel packs that often come with electronic equipment. Place several packs in the storage container to keep humidity low. Do not store seeds in the freezer.

The seeds of beans, peas and other legumes are easy to save. Allow the pods to dry thoroughly on the plants and then shell out the seeds.

Remember that it is worthwhile saving seeds only from "open pollinated" vegetable varieties. These are non-hybrid plants that will come true from seed next season. Hybrids typically produce seeds that revert to parental types. Make sure you know the plants from which you are obtaining seeds.

Butterfly and hummingbird flowers typically are among the easiest annual plants to grow from seed. They include milkweeds, salvias, morning glories, and the huge annual aster family, including sunflowers, daisies, cosmos, asters, marigolds, zinnias, and many others. For these plants, you need only purchase seeds the first season, and you should have all you need thereafter. The same caveat applies to hybrid plants in this group as was mentioned for vegetables. However, in the case of flowers, it may not matter if the offspring are a bit different from their parents, as they usually bloom and attract pollinators anyway.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Mother Nature's Gardens

Around here, it's the spring wildflowers that get all the attention. We have had a Wildflower Pilgrimmage up in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for decades. One reason for the intense interest lies in the amazing diversity of our spring flora, with numerous families from orchids to aroids represented.

The fall flower show is a little bit different. For one thing, most of the flowers are from a single family, the asters. For another, you don't have to drive to the Park in order to enjoy the display. Some of our most spectacular fall bloomers thrive in roadside ditches, open fields where the soil has been disturbed, and at edges where development meets the woods.

Just for fun, yesterday I did a little survey of the plants that are presently blooming between my house and the grocery store I frequent, a distance of about 1.2 miles. Much of the area is covered with asphalt or buildings, but there is a huge open space (intended for future development) lying between the county road and the Interstate. It is along the edge of this space that the majority of the flowers can be seen, and the diversity of species is such a small area is remarkable. Here is my list:

Asters (Aster sp.)--Notoriously difficult to identify to the species level, there appears to be at least two species

Goldenrod (Solidago sp.)--Another group of species that are difficult to separate, this one is probably S. rugosa, or common rough goldenrod

Ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis)--Among the most intensely purple blooms to be found in the plant kingdom, this tall plant thrives in moisture-retentive soils.

Tickseed (Coreopsis)--Bearing bright yellow blooms with notched petals, this plant has been domesticated to produce numerous cultivars.

Calliopsis (Coreopsis)--This group of plants was once a separate genus, but now is considered part of the Coreopsis species complex. The yellow blooms often have bright red centers. It is another example of a wildflower domesticated for the garden.

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)--This roadside perennial is the parent of 'Goldsturm' and numerous other cultivars for the garden.

Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium)--The most common species in North Knoxville appears to be E. maculatum, or spotted Joe Pye weed.

Snakeroot (Eupatorium)--This plant is similar to Joe Pye weed, but the flowers are pure white, whereas Joe Pye is a dusty rose color.

Sunflower (Helianthus)--The ones in my area are probably H. tuberosus, the perennial also known as Jerusalem artichoke.

Cockleburr (Xanthium)--Always considered a weed, owing to its spiky fruits, this plant produces pale yellow female flowers that look rather pretty at a distance.

Ragweed (Ambrosia)--Despite the connotations of its botanical name, this plant is responsible for a large number of seasonal allergy problems, often known as "hay fever." Please note that the other asters mentioned here do not produce lots of wind borne pollen, and therefore do not perpetrate allergy reactions in humans. Too often, goldenrod or one of the other fall blooms gets the blame, while the real culprit, ragweed, with its insignificant greenish-yellow flowers goes unnoticed.

Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis)--Bright red bloom spikes appear all summer long where the soil stays moist. This plant is common along an I-75 drainage swale near the house.

Everlasting pea (Lathyrus)--An established exotic weed, this plant had lovely pink and white flowers for most of the summer. It used to be cultivated, but has proved too invasive for the garden.

With the exception of the last two, all these plants are asters.

As the vegetable garden winds down and your summer annuals begin to look a little ratty, take a moment to enjoy the floral display along our Tennessee roadways during this late summer season. If you are traveling in the Cumberland Plateau region, you may see several others, such as meadow beauty (Rhexis), in addition to the ones named above.