Monday, April 27, 2015

Exploring New Ideas

What if you could take starch and sugar and convert them into healthy, delicious salad greens? Believe it or not, the lowly sweet potato can do this effortlessly. Encouraging one to do so is a great way to use up last year's sweet potatoes that are starting to sprout, along with producing new plants for this year's crop. Besides the sweet potato, you will need a quart Mason jar and (possibly) three toothpicks.

Choose a sweet potato that already shows signs of sprouting. Set it, sprouted end up, in the Mason jar. If necessary, stick toothpicks into the potato near the sprout end to support it upright in the center of the jar. Pour about two inches of tap water into the jar and set it in a sunny place. Within a week or two, the sprouts will begin to elongate, forming heart-shaped leaves. At the same time, roots will emerge from the bottom end of the potato. Keep the water level topped up, as the sweet potato will start drinink a lot of water once it has a root system. Don't worry about the growth of algae in the water, and do not add fertilizer to the jar.

For sweet potato plants to transplant to the garden, wait until several stems are at least six inches long and have multiple leaves. Remove these stems close to the old potato root, and remove all but the top two leaves. Set these "slips" in a glass of water, where they will root within two weeks. The rooted slips may be transplanted directly to the garden if the soil has warmed up, or you can put them in pots to hold for a few weeks until favorable planting conditions arrive.

Don't discard the old sweet potato, however. It will continue to produce stems and leaves, feeding off the carbohydrates stored within it last season. You can continue to take slips until you have as many as you like. Thereafter, you can harvest the leaves from the potato any time. They make delicious additions to salads, soups and stir frys. Use them as you would spinach. You can eat the stems, too, if they are not too tough. The original root will continue to produce leaves until all of its stored food is exhausted. At that point, it is ready for the compost pile. Until then, you should get several servings of sweet potato leaves.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Let's Talk Seeds

Spring unfolds in all its glory, with each new day in East Tennessee bringing another wonder. If it isn't the parade of flowers in the woods and along the roadside, it is the way the spinach seems to grow, getting visibly larger by the hour. After a snowy winter, we are being rewarded with nearly perfect growing conditions this spring.

If you are not planting a food garden now, you should be. There is still time for heat tolerant lettuces, beets, carrots, and all members of the onion family. Beans of all types should be planted now. You can try planting tomatoes, peppers or eggplant this early, but if you can bear to wait three more weeks you will likely have fewer problems with these crops. Wait another week or two to plant sweet corn, also. Brave souls may go ahead and plant corn now.

Thinking of corn and beans leads me to think about seeds, as well. Seeds seldom get the media attention they deserve, unless perhaps if they are GMO seeds. Nevertheless, gardeners should always remember that our backyard vegetable gardens would not be possible without a vast network of growers, brokers and retailers who produce and sell seeds. For you and me, the end result of all their efforts is the ability to step inside any big box store, garden center or specialty shop, and chances are we will find a varied selection of seeds. Amazingly, they are cheap, too. Seldom is a seed packet more than three dollars.

I write about seed catalogs a lot during the winter months. It is fun to pore over them and pick out likely candidates for the spring and summer garden envisioned for six months in the future. This year, however, I took a different approach. I decided to find all our seeds locally. As it turns out, this has proven much simpler than I would have thought.

If we broaden the term "local" to include businesses in Virginia and North Carolina, we have two suppliers of heirloom and organic seeds just over the mountains. Southern Exposure Seed Exchange in Virginia and Sow True Seed in Asheville, NC, were at one time both mail order-only operations. These days, you can find their seed racks at Three Rivers Market.

The big surprise was that two genuinely local, Knoxville-based, family-owned seed companies between them have all the seeds we needed for our vegetable garden. Knoxville Seed and Greenhouse Supply on Rutledge Pike caters to professional growers as well as the general public. In addition to an extensive selection of seeds under their own brand label, all in reasonably price one ounce envelopes, Knoxville Seed displays racks for several specialty suppliers. Bean, pea and corn seeds, along with some other crops popular with market growers, are available in half pound or full pound quantities. (Be prepared for sticker shock if you are purchasing corn. This crop is the exception to the "seeds are cheap" rule.)

I have been impressed with the extensive selection of heirloom vegetables offered by Knoxville Seed. Cherokee Purple tomatoes, dipper gourds, Cherry Belle radishes, and more. I have not counted, but the selection includes well over 100 varieties.

Our other great seed resource is Mayo Seed Co., which has for several decades operated Mayo Garden Centers around the area. The core business, however, has been seeds. The company was founded in 1878 and is still run by members of the Mayo family. In addition to a huge selection of vegetable seeds, Mayo offers flower seeds, many of them "old-fashioned" cultivars that were popular generations ago. Mayo can always be counted on to carry seeds of vegetables that only a few people still grow, including parsnips, New Zealand spinach, and salsify.

Because they have long been focused upon plant varieties that perform well in the Tennessee Valley region, Mayo can be counted upon to carry seeds that gardeners have relied upon for over 100 years. Examples are Black Seeded Simpson lettuce, Mayo's own generic varieties of romaine lettuce and leeks, and White Icicle radishes that make roots the size of carrots.

Next time you think about seeds, think about all the work it took to get them on the shelves, and reward our local seedsmen and their network of suppliers. Those heirloom varieties may have been the work of only one small farm, the owners of which took a great risk to devote part of their land and labor to the seed crop. Think about that, also, as you enjoy those Cherokee Purples in August.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Full Tilt Springtime

Many thanks to everyone who stopped by our table at the UT Gardens Spring Plant Sale last Saturday! It was a pleasure to meet our fellow gardeners, readers, and listeners of the radio show.

April is the biggest gardening month here in the Tennessee Valley. If you have not already planted cool season crops like lettuce or mustard, the window for success is rapidly closing. Your best bet is fast maturing greens, such as mizuna or arugula, and heat tolerant lettuces. Jericho, Anuenue and most romaine varieties are heat tolerant cultivars. Another good one is Black Seeded Simpson, a local favorite since the 19th Century.

You can also plant beans, potatoes, onion sets or plants, scallions, beets, radishes, carrots and cabbage plants with success. Broccoli and cauliflower may or may not produce a crop if planted this late.

Even though tomato and pepper plants have appeared in the garden centers, hold off until at least May 1 to plant. We will still have some cold nights that can set these plants back if they are not protected. You have plenty of time to obtain a crop even if you wait.

It is still a bit early for cucumbers and squash. Plants in cold soil have more disease and pest problems. Wait until after Mothers Day to plant these veggies.

Here's a great idea for growing lettuce, which does not need a lot of root space. Slap a coat of white primer on a citrus crate. These little crates were full of mandarin oranges or clementines when we bought them. I saved a bunch (we love citrus in the winter) and we planted them with an assortment of smallish lettuces. The result is shown in the photo. If you'd like one of these, Sweet Pea in Bearden is carrying them. Besides interesting plants, Sweet Pea stocks a wide selection of high-quality garden art and accessories.

For those who would like to purchase our hardy orchids, they are available at the following local independent garden centers:

Stanley's Greenhouse
Ellenburg's Landscaping
Mayo Garden Centers in Powell, Bearden and Farragut
Sweet Pea, on Carr Street in Bearden

Hardy orchids will be available until mid-May.

Please support your local, family-owned garden centers this season. Not only will your dollars remain in the area, you will get better plants, better advice and an overall better value than you will find at any big box retailer.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Southern Appalachia, Biodiversity Hotspot

Warm weather and rain have conspired to bring out the blooms. With the annual re-awakening, it becomes evident that the Southern Appalachian region is not like other places. The climate and topography between the spine of the Unakas and the mesas and canyons of the Cumberland Plateau are home to more different species of life than virtually any other spot in the temperate zone. These same conditions of climate, soils and topography also help to make this region a wonderful place to garden.

Blueside darter (Copyright 2015 by Conservation Fisheries)
On Monday I attended the annual meeting of the board of directors of Conservation Fisheries, of which I am a charter member. Conservation Fisheries has been raising rare and endangered native fish species for more than 20 years. The fish produced in the Knoxville-based hatchery have been used to restore species to areas from which they have been extirpated. J.R. Shute and Pat Rakes, the co-directors of Conservation Fisheries, have accumulated more data regarding the reproduction and early life history of southern Appalachian stream fishes than perhaps any other group or institution.

Conservation Fisheries deserves the support of everyone who cares about the biodiversity of our beautiful region. Visit their web site to make a donation and to learn more about their important work.

Tennessee has more species of native fishes than any other state except Georgia. In numerous other categories, including salamanders, plants, trees, mosses and various kinds of insects, this region is home to enormous biodiversity, much of it as yet undiscovered and undescribed by scientists.

Despite this, our state has a history of permitting industry to run roughshod through our beautiful woods, poisoning streams and rivers, and contributing to the poverty that has lain over this region like a cloud for more than a century. If you want to understand how absolute the power of money used to be in east Tennessee, I suggest you visit Ducktown. At one time the center of a thriving copper mining industry, Ducktown today preserves as a "living" museum, a portion of the land that was turned into a lunar landscape by the acid-rich effluvium from the smelters. The land was so raveaged that not a blade of grass would grow, and the rocks in some area streams still bear streaks of blue-green copper minerals dumped into the water.

I urge all concerned Tennesseans to find out where their state legislators stand on protecting our precious biological heritage.