Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Damn good plants - Illicium floridanum, Purple Anise

We tend to forget what a wealth of plants North America has to offer.  During the early days of exploring, many collectors came to North America in search of new plants to feed Europe's horticultural appetite.  Before the Asian continent was opened for European trade, it was considered the height of fashion (as well as a show of wealth) to have gardens rich in North American floral exotic's.

illicum floridanum
In America, gardening with native plants seems to go through waves of popularity.  Many native prairie styled perennials like Coneflowers and Black Eyed Susans have enjoyed a renaissance over the last decade.  Lots of new cultivars have entered the maketplace with varying heights and colors, increasing their popularity for use in our gardens.  However, native woody shrubs have been lagged behind with the same range of choice.  One shrub though that is stepping out of the shadows is our own native Anise, or Illicium floridanum.  

I first encountered this shrub when a customer presented me with a photo of an evergreen shrub, much like a Rhododendron, but with deep crimson star-like blooms.  Some how we managed to name this plant as a Illicium but there it remained as just a photo for a few years.  More recently I've began to noticed more mainstream nurseries listing it and every year newer varieties seems to be dribbling out from production. My own garden boasts a couple of varieties with room still to add one or more as the selection of choice continues to grow.  No longer is it just found as a typed listing in a mail-order plant catalog.

Rare white flowered form
Listed as a threatened species, Purple Anise is native of northern Florida and Georgia's moist woodlands, spreading into coastal plain areas of Louisiana.  Given its southern location, I have found it grows quite well in my colder zone 7, Northern Virginia garden.  This evergreen shrub reaches heights of 6-10 ft tall in an upright, but rounded habit.  The foliage is elliptical, smooth and glossy, which when bruised will emit an spicy anise-like aroma. The Latin word 'illicium' means allurement, referring to the aromatic properties of this plant. Although a close cousin to the Asian Star Anise (Illicum verum), don't be fooled into thinking  of consuming it as its highly toxic.  Nodding dark red flowers appear from April into May and emit a fishy fragrance when up close, but tend to be overshadowed by its glossy foliage.  Plants do best in areas where they don't receive the hot afternoon sun and needs organically rich, moist but not excessively wet soil.

So given the fact that the flowers are fishy and the foliage is toxic, why grow Illicum?  Easy, its one of a few native evergreen shrubs for shade that deer detest and secondly, there's a lot of different varieties now to choose from.

Below is a list of some of the varieties that have passed through the garden center at different points.

'Florida Sunshine'
'Florida Sunshine' - A chance discovery by Tony Avent of Plant Delights Nursery, came across some unusual seedlings grown by Florida plantsman, Charles Webb.  After several years of evaluation, one was selected for its bright chartreuse yellow foliage and brilliant red young stems.  My own plant is still to young to flower but not much is said in references online about it.  One article did comment that the bloom color is near white and doesn't show against the foliage very well.  It can suffer with leaf burn if exposed to too much winter sun and is best located in partial sun to shade. Smaller in height at maturity than the straight species, this shrub will act like a beacon in a shadier corner.

Haley's Comet
'Haley's Comet' - Awarded the Pennsylvania Horticultural Societies 2009 Gold medal, 'Haley's Comet' is an all round improved variant over the species.  Bigger and better blooms appear in large numbers over an extended period.  It has shown better cold tolerance and faster growth than others and is mentioned to be tolerant of dry shade once it gets established.

'Pink Frost'
'Pink Frost' - This was discovered in 2003 as a sport or branch mutation growing from another variety of Illicum called 'Shady Lady'.  Upon evaluation, 'Pink Frost' showed dramatic improvements in form over its parent plant.  A well branched habit with outward held creamy margin leaves.  During colder temperatures or when new growth appears in spring, the creamy margins are replaced with a pink tint, leading to its name.  Flowers are a deep maroon-red that really pow against the foliage.  I also find the aroma produced from bruising the leaves to be much sweeter when compared to others.

'Shady Lady'
'Shady Lady' - This 1989 discovery had been in underground circulation until recent popularity in the group forced it into the spotlight.  Discovered by Dodd & Dodd Native Nurseries of Alabama, this variety has a brighter creamy white splashing of color across its green to blue-green foliage.  The foliage also has a crinkle to it that adds some textural qualities.  Flowers are a soft peachy-pink but are hard to distinguish against the riot of foliage color.

A worthwhile cousin to mention, although not as flashy, is the Yellow, Star or Ocala Anise Tree, Illicum parviflorum.  A native to Florida's central moist woodlands and swamps, this evergreen shrub or small tree does equally well in Virginian gardens too.  It is slightly bigger than the Purple Anise at 10-15' tall and 6-10' wide and can colonize through root suckers.  The olive green foliage emits the same fragrance as all Anise shrubs and is left alone by browsing animals.  Yellowy- green flowers appear in late may but for the most part go unnoticed.  Mostly for these reasons it lends itself well to hedging as it lacks the drama and refinement that the Purple Anise has and responds well to shearing and training.  Best growing in moist sites in light shade but can tolerate more sun as long as they are provided with uniformed moisture.

These variations may not keep the species true to form but it does improve its marketability.  Through the work of many nursery people, this obscure and little known shrub is beginning its march to becoming a potential mainstay of domestic landscapes.  Any time you can find a plant that isn't favored by deer it becomes worthy of attention, and this plant deserves all the respect in the world.  March on! 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Bringing Nature Home

One of my children's most watched films is 'The Lorax', based on the book of the same name by the famous author, Dr. Seuss.  It is a fable chronicling the plight of the environment as the 'Oncer-ler', a character representing corporate greed, strips the land of natural resources for production of a 'Thneed'.

It highlights the dangers of unsustainable growth as the last 'Truffula' tree (the Once-ler's major raw material), is cut down forcing the Once'lers factory to close. In the mean time, all the wildlife that coexisted with the Truffula trees becomes displaced as their environment is filled with toxic pollution.

This past weekend, I jumped at the chance of taking my daughter to meet a real life Lorax, who like Dr Seuss was 'giving voice to the trees for they have no tongue'.   Doug Tallamy, who I featured in a post entitled America's Top Gardeners is a Professor of  Entomology and Wildlife Ecology for the University of Delaware. He was in town to talk about award winning book, 'Bringing Nature Home', and to address the plight of our own environment. What I discovered during the presentation was a revelation, that my own gardening philosophy was causing more harm than good.

Bluebird with caterpiller
Flickr.com - kansasphoto
Tallamy discussed that 96% of bird life relied heavily on insects, mostly caterpillars, to feed their young. These protein rich morsels contains pound for pound more protein of beef that allows chicks to develop quickly. However, this food supply has been declining, adversely effecting everything within the food-web. So frightening is the rate of decline that since 1966 we've seen a drop of 1% per year of migratory birds who over winter in Central and South America. That is a 50% reduction in 50 years! Habitat loss is one area of concern but failing food-webs are the other.

As we all know, most insects feed on the foliage of plants. Plants are able to capture the energy of the sun, while insects are very good at converting this plant tissue into other types of energy, in the form of themselves. But, plants are smart. Many plants produce toxins to prevent being striped of foliage, which would lead to their demise. As a result, selected insects have co-evolved with selected plants to become exclusive consumers, resistant to the toxin that would otherwise kill them. The down side to this specialism is that when food plants become endangered, then the insect can't adapted to new sources and declines in numbers. This limiting factor then effects the next level up that relies on the insect for food, triggering a collapse of the  food-web.

Monarch Caterpiller
Flickr.com - mean and pinchy
One example Tallamy used was the demise of the Monarch butterfly. The Monarch caterpillar only feeds from the foliage of milkweeds, Asclepias sp. For a long time, both milkweeds and monarch could be found in mass numbers among crops grown for agriculture. However with hybridizing, many of our crops have been bred to resist damage from herbicide spraying, funneling more nutrients to the intended crops but eliminating the population of milkweeds that would have grown wild in our fields.  96.4% of migrating Monarchs have gone, leaving only 3.6% of what that number was. Apart from Monarchs, 11 other butterfly species are known to reproduce on Milkweeds.

The last stand of the Monarchs
Flickr.com - Henry McLin

New sanctuaries have to be found if change is going to occur and Tallamy's answer is our gardens. Plants are the lifeblood of earth but our gardens have always been designed as status symbols. In America, nearly 45 million square acres (3 times more than irrigated corn crops) of lawns are grown, fed and watered for purely aesthetic reasoning. However, lawns don't filter water, don't provide clean air and don't support wildlife. We also fill are gardens with exotic, non native plants that are impervious to insect damage or spray harmful chemicals to ward off attacks.  In theory are gardens have becoming food deserts, unable to support live. Tallamy's suggestion was to take some of this area and convert it back.

"If half of American lawns were replaced with native plants, we would create the equivalent of a 20 million acre national park – nine times bigger than Yellowstone, or 100 times bigger than Shenandoah National Park."

Doug Tallamy

One example Tallamy used was of a courtyard garden (15ft x 15ft) found growing at the Department of Agriculture in Delaware. The garden contained just four plants of milkweeds but were found to be supporting over 150 monarch caterpillars. With such a small area set aside for native plants, it had become an island where a threaten population could find a haven.

'Native plants support native insects' was Tallamy's clear message. If you want birds you have to have a food source for them. In turn, to provide a food source for birds you need plants that are hosts to insects. The dilemma for a gardener is to except that your prized plant will at some point be nibbled on but the payoff is greater than the worth. An oak can support up to 550 different species of butterflies and moths which in turn provides food for birds, while an invasive Norway Maple is food for none.

I've learnt that by filling my garden with exotic, non-native plants that insect don't feed on, I have produced an environment of little value with green statues everywhere. This coming year I will be changing some of my planting to include more wildlife friendly, native plants. It would be a sad day if a stroll in the garden didn't include the song of a bird or the fluttering colors of butterfly wings, Unless.....

“But now," says the Once-ler, "now that you're here, the word of the Lorax seems perfectly clear. UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not.” 

― Dr. Seuss, The Lorax

Check out Doug Tallamy website by clicking here

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Becoming a Mulchologist!

Maybe just 2 more bags?
If ever such a professional title as a mulchologist existed, then last year I came pretty close to earning that accolade.  I hadn't given too much thought to the stuff until I was faced with some peculiar questions about are wood based mulches.  In fact, the more I dug into the world of shredded or chipped mulch the more I realized that it might be more foe than friend.

My training began early in 2013 as many landscapers and homeowners were breaking out of snow-mode and venturing back into the garden.  There's nothing better than cleaning up the remnants of last years fallen leaves or cutting back the odd ornamental grass to get us into the gardening mood again.  What better time to lay down that fresh carpet of mulch before all those perennials break through the ground.  Although not my favorite of mulch coverings, color dyed mulch has become very popular.  Black, brown or martian red, we sell enough scoops to probably pave the Washington DC Beltway (slight exaggeration).

The Lava flow
However, little did I know, you have to make sure that you have at least one dry day after applying the stuff or you run the risk of rain washing off the color.  So great is the demand for this colorful carpet, it is processed without time to properly cure.  Nothing is worse than waking up the following day after spreading it to discover your lava field of red mulch looks more like fresh milled chips spat out from an arborist's tree shredder.

For suppliers of mulch, one thing they have to watch out for is souring.  The large piles of wood mulch stored for long periods over the winter, or bagged mulch that remains too wet can undergo anaerobic fermentation.  This process converts organic matter into sulfides, acetic acid, ethanol and methanol, basically it becomes wood alcohol.  If not properly processed, this 'Moonshine mulch' releases gases that are toxic to plants, bleaching or scorching the foliage of surrounding plants and even running off into your lawn.  For some plants this can be detrimental, but woody plants will regrow any lost foliage once the hangover has pasted.  A quick sniff of the mulch, checking for an alcohol-like, vinegar or rotten eggs odor should alert to a potential problem before you spread it out.

We all know the virtues of mulching to control weeds and reduce moisture loss but it can be over done.  Excessive mulch will suffocate the soil and provide cover of rodents like my personal nemesis, the veracious vole, who likes nothing better than to chew off the roots of my plants undetected.  Long have we been told to not mound up mulch around trees, creating a volcano but it is still seen around our neighborhoods.

Lesser known but equally as damaging, is constantly re-applying mulch in annual layers.  Many of us don't realize the need to break up and aerate the crust that mulch can form throughout the year.  When shredded wood mulch is applied to thick and allowed to dry out, it becomes a breeding ground for certain kinds of water-repelling fungus.  This Fungus produces a mycelium mat, similar to roots of a plant, that becomes so dense it repels water.  The technical term is 'Hydrophobic', but this effect prevents moisture penetrating down to the soil, starving the roots of water.

The opposite of a Mulch Volcano - The 3ft deep, compact Crater

Now that's just not right!
Many microorganism live in and around mulch.  Some are beneficial to our gardens like mycorrhizal fungi. Others slowly break down and mineralize the mulch material, releasing nutrients that benefit the surrounding plants. However, some microorganisms can become a nuisance and become detrimental in our gardens. Who hasn't suffered from Tar spots on your siding or covering your car, fired from artillery fungus. And, what about those phallic toadstools from stink horns, aptly named for the stench they give off too. Nothing beats the slime molds. Commonly referred to as Dog Vomit Fungus as it looks just like its named! Wood based mulch is an ideal media for fungus establishment and if measures aren't taken to remove these annoying organisms, then the chances are great that they will re-inoculate fresh mulch after its applied.

These problems are just a glimpse into a bigger a debate about wood mulches dirty little secret.  I have been scarred by Artillery fungus's Tar Spot bombs and lost many plants from tunneling voles.  Gone is the desire to spread yet another 10+ yards of shredded wood mulch each and every year.  I confess, I'm cheap, but is there a better alternative?  Well according to Ohio State University Associate Professor of Agricultural Research and Development, Dr Dan Herms, the answer is compost!

In a study comparing ground or shredded wood mulch and composted yard waste it was found that the low Carbon to Nitrogen ratio of compost produced better plant growth and increased productivity.  The finding are too long to cover in this post, but isn't compost what we used to do before it became popular to buy shredded mulch?  It was only since the 70's that sawmills began removing the bark from logs in an effort to extend a saw blades lifespan.  Within a few years of that, nurserymen and landscapers were buying up all the waste from mills as an easy way to dress up our gardens.  Are we now beginning to discover some of the negative effects from this product.

So true Mr 'Most interesting man in the the World'
While I'd agree mulch is more aesthetically pleasing to look at, like icing on the cake, I would welcome something that improves the well being of my garden.  Gone for me are the days of bagging up grass clippings and fallen leaves for the trash truck.  For the past year I have been spreading my garden waste directly onto the beds and allowing those microbes to go to town on it.  Although the conventional wisdom tells me to process this material first, I've seen no negative effects on my plants.

One unexpected benefit I've recently seen is that neighborhood cats have been able to easily hunt down the voles.  It seems that these supreme hunters can seek out and attack subterranean voles better in compost than compacted mulch.  This is enough reason for me to continue using compost to mulch with but I suspect I will need to find more material to feed my gardens needs.  I'll have to keep an eye open for more curb side garden waste to use and recycle.  Someones trash will become my treasure!

Read more here, but don't forget to come back!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Back from a Break!

Where does time go?  I recently had to put the 'Blogging' thing on the back burner so I could concentrate on preparing for a talk, followed shortly by a TV appearance. Now, I'm realizing that more than a month has gone by since I put pen to virtual paper and need to climb back on the Blogging Horse again.

Doing these talks and preparing for TV shows becomes all consuming as I strive to make them perfect.  The fear of sounding like an idiot makes me obsessively focus on that particular subject until their no more to be learned.  Now it behind me I can focus once again on the next post but, for now I'm leaving you a link to the television show so you can see yours truly in action!

Be prepared, this is filmed as a live show so many things inevitably go wrong.  Being in the studio always reminds me of the comedy film 'Wayne's World'. Like the characters in the film, you have to be able to ride by the seat of your pants when things go wrong and hazards are abound.  Timing for when slides come up and what camera to look at are just some of many pitfalls.  This episode was no different with our microphones dying and pictures being flashed up out of sync and too quickly. The true test comes at the end of the show with viewer call in's.  Its a mind-field of 'on-the-spot' questions that you can't prepare for.  A good example is one I got asked of, "how do you stop lizards eating your plants?"

I love having the opportunity of being a part of a local TV show, broadcasted across D.C, Maryland, Virginia and even the White House.  Although I'm a barrel of nerves leading up to the event, once the camera comes alive you experience a release as you realize that its out of your control, so just have fun.   For the last 22 years this show has gone out every Saturday covering a wide range of gardening topics and it's an honor to be a part of it.  Even without much rehearsal time, having people come up to tell me know that they learnt something new out weighs all the technical problems.

So until my next post, .......party on Wayne!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Flower Power Tips for your Crape Myrtle!

Without any doubt, Crape Myrtles are the south's most beloved flowering tree.  Their frequency of use in south gardens is only paralleled to lilacs and Crab apples found in just as many northern gardens.  Renowned as a 'tough as old boots' tree for difficult and dry sites, there's not much that will slow it down.

However, this year we've received more phone calls than normal about Crape Myrtles failing to put on there dramatic display of blooms which we have become accustomed too.  Such an unusual occurrence prompted myself to delve into this phenomenon and investigated why the normally flamboyantly flowering tree has become shy.

Below is a list of top ten reasons why your Crape Myrtle has become impotent.  The good news however is, with a few changes you can bring the flowers out of hiding and get the show on the road again.  Here are my top tips to shower your garden with Crape Myrtle blooms once again.

1. Flowering only occurs on the current years new growth.  Look to see how much growth your Crape Myrtle has put out in spring.  If it appears stunted than a good feeding of fertilizer from late winter to early spring will promote a good flush of new growth ready to set flower.

2. Heavily pruning your trees DOESN'T increase your flowers. The myth of whacking down your tree to its trunks doesn't promote a flood of flowers come summer.  Instead, most of your trees energy will go back  into regenerating those lost limbs. Prune to maintain a good framework of branches and thin down the small twiggy growth.  That's all you'll need to do to promote the right growth to set blooms.

3. Crapes like sun!  If your tree is receiving less than 8 hours then expect to see less blooms than those out in full blazing sun.  The more the better!

4. Wild fluctuations in temperatures during spring can play havoc on when your Crape breaks dormancy. Some varieties are known to produce early buds, which if hit by a late frost will set them back a few more weeks.  Alternately, extended summer heat increases your bloom time greatly.  Crapes are native to Asia and love to bask in the sun and cook in the heat.  Haven't you ever wondered why those trees growing in parking lots look so amazing.  Its all to do with radiant heat baby!

5. Not all Crapes are the same.  You can't look at your neighbors tree in full bloom, and compare it with your own as chances are there not the same cultivar.  Some of the smaller, compact types are the last to flower.  For example, 'Pocomoke' won't bloom until we get into mid to late August.

6. Crapes can be subject to a few pest and disease problems.  Heavy outbreaks of any issue will stress a tree to delay or prevent flowering.  Major signs of problems include black sooty mold covering the leaves from honeydew, the excreted sap of aphids or white coating extending from the leaves to flower buds from powdery mildew. A common leaf spot disease called 'Cercospora', brought on by warm, wet summers will cause your tree to prematurely shed most of its foliage, weakening its ability to flower. The nemesis of Crape Myrtle flowers are Japanese Beetles, which munch through the flower buds like they were candy. Be watchful of these issues and deal with them before they get the better of your tree.

7.  Excessively high amounts of nitrogen from fertilizers can knock out the trees ability to set flower. The roots from a Crape can spread fairly wide and spread under your lawn.  If you strive for a nice carpet of emerald green grass for a lawn, you might be effecting your trees ability to set flowers.  A soil test will also indicate if your soil has a good balance of phosphorus and potassium needed to produce flowers.

8. Too much water will flood your tree with new growth, knocking out the need to flower. A plants survival instinct is to set seed so that its genetics can be saved through its offspring.  If the Crape doesn't feel stressed then it won't have a desire to flower and reproduce. Summers with ample rainfall, irrigation systems or heavy, poorly drained soil only compound this problem.

9. In rare occasions, drought conditions will also affect your Crape's blooms. When conditions become tough, a plant will switch to life support, minimizing its activities to stay alive. Flowering is considered a luxury and is often the first thing a crape will drop. Newly planted Crape will often suffer from this as their roots wouldn't of ventured far into the soil at this point. A good, deep penetrating soaking is often all that is needed to turn them around. However, once the hot, dry weather breaks there is often ample time to see some blooms appear in late summer.

10. Just like roses, when a Crape goes to seed it will stop flowering.  To encourage a new flush of flowers, simply snip off those pods and return the energy back into flower production.  For a plant to produce seed to requires a tremendous amount of energy from the plant, sacrificing flowering and vegetative growth produce the next generation.

Another strange flowering quirk that doesn't have anything to do with lack of flowers but instead relates to blossom color has to do with two of the best red flowering varieties, 'Dynamite' and 'Red Rocket'.  When the flower buds begins to open you'll notice that the flower is white, only turning red after 10 - 15 minutes in the sun.   However, if this blossom begins to open in the shade it will never turn to the rich red you thought it would.  Drought conditions can also play havoc with the color too.  Low sap levels brought on by droughts don't flush the petals with color quick enough in that short window needed.  Heat on the other hand will intensify the pigment in the petals, bring out the best reds.  Best advice is to not let your 'Red Capes' struggle for water when they flower and always plant in the sunniest spot you can find.

In gardening, there are always forces beyond our control that affect how plants will grow and preform.  There's no point fighting these forces as not every year will be the same, so the results won't be the same either.  As long as the basics are covered then the rest is just surrendering yourself to what mother nature will give us to enjoy.  You either go with the flow or swim against the current.  For me, float down the river is far less effort and you get to enjoy the finer things in life.

Gardening after all is the study of patience.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Bee Educated

People should have a cause to fight for.  Some might be against whaling, others to save the rainforest.  Mine it seems is for something far smaller in size, but just as important, the humble honey bee. Fresh new research has caused me to get back on top of my soap box and start preaching as yet another smoking gun was found in the mysterious disappearance of the bee.  Mount evidence in this whodunit case I last wrote about in a post titled Bee Gone, is beginning to cast a grim light into the plight of the honey bee.

A recently published report in July from researchers from the University of Maryland working with the US Department of Agriculture, identified a number of deadly contaminants found in pollen samples taken from bee hives.  Although researchers are quick to point out, that the link between these contaminants and the collapse of bee hives wasn't conclusive, it does prove that bees are increasingly unable to resist infection by parasites, largely believed to be the main cause to the colony collapse disorder.

Bee hives were sampled up and down the east coast and analyzed for their chemical content. On average scientists identified nine different pesticides and fungicides. But one hive had 21 different chemicals present. The most compelling news was hives containing pollen contaminated with high loads of fungicides were three times more likely to be infected by parasites.  Fungicides have long been considered safe to use around honey bees and they were designed to attack fungal and disease issues.

The main culprit in this case is a fungicide called Chlorothalonil, an active ingredient found in products like Daconil, openly available to homeowners and professionals alike.  Although the scientists aren't ready to point fingers, the research does suggest that this chemical soup that bee's are increasingly being exposed too is collectively effecting their populations.

When I first wrote about the effects of garden 'use' chemicals, in particular Neonicotinoid insecticides on Bee's, it came with a positive ending.  The European Union took steps to suspend its use until further studies could be independently carried out to see what effects it has on honey bee populations.  Though this group of insecticides doesn't kill bees outright, it is classed as 'sublethal', making bees more vulnerable to other stressors like pathogens.  Couple this effect with the newly discovered effects of fungicides and its clear to see that Honey Bee's are no longer able to fight off attacks on their health.

Still on the subject of Neonicotinoid insecticides, Friend of the Earth also conducted a different study to determine the level of contamination in common nursery plants found in retail centers.  What they discovered is nothing but alarming.  Plants that were recommended as 'bee or pollinator friendly' were found to contain systemic pesticides at levels high enough to cause adverse effects on Bees.  Neonicotinoids were found on average in seven out of thirteen samples, demonstrating widespread use of chemical treatments in the nursery trade.  Homeowners who might of been looking to plant bee friendly gardens were inadvertently being mislead and instead provide a buffet of poisoned flowers.  Should the question now be that nurseries issue health warnings with plants, much like cigarette manufacturers have to? "Planting this flower may lead to cancer", what on earth is next!

To put some perspective on the chemical usage issue,  Environmental Health News in February highlighted the rapidly growing use of fungicides on US farms.  Their report estimated that the global fungicide market will increase at annual compounded rate of 6.7% over the next five years, predicting that the annual market will be worth $21 billion worth by 2017.  The U.S. has witnessed the highest growth during the last five years and is expected to lead the industry as farmers continue to use fungicides as a cheap way to boost crop yields. Couple this with the $2.6 billion sales recorded in 2009 of Neonicotinoids in the US alone in 2009 and you soon start to realize this is a market that will be fiercely protected.

However, just when you thought that the European Union was going to rein in the big chemical giants, they brought out their secret weapon.  Syngenta and Bayer have combined forces to sue the European Union over loss of profits during the ban.  Sadly, corporate power has grown so great that the rights of people represented by governments they elect may have been lost.  You don't need to look any further than the GMO debate to see what power the big Ag companies wheeled.  During the last presidential election, people of California voted 'against' having food labeled as Genetically Modified.  Also on the ballet, Californians voted 'for' sexual protection to be mandatory for pornography actors. I'm glad to see Californians are looking to protect the hardships of their actors, but maybe 'hardship' isn't the right term to use.  Mass marketing campaigns from Ag companies created so much confusion, that it was easier to vote to protect the health of a few while munching on herbicide resistant foods!

As governments financially struggle during this global recession, it would seem that Chemical companies have gained the upper hand to protect their assets in expensive lawsuits.  Many public representatives have come out in defense of these chemical companies, leaving many to speculate that they're in the back pockets of the defendants. America has seen the fight against corporate greed many times before, and even gained its independence by fighting one that was sucking the then fledgling country dry.  Contrary to popular believe, the Boston Tea Party wasn't created to fight the English Government, but instead to fight the enormous power that the global East India Company had over the colonist.

While arguments can be raised for the benefits of all of these chemicals, there side effects cannot be denied anymore.  It has been estimated that with the decline of pollinators, 2/3 of fresh produce found in grocery stores will vanish because of food production shortages.  In post I wrote called 'A Garden to Die For', I brought to question if America's food chain should be a matter of National Security.  Surely the pending threat of national food destabilization should be on the lips of every public official.

I know I have little power in changing what happens in agriculture, but I do expect our publically nominated officials to be the watchdogs of the nation's well being.  Theodore Roosevelt once said, "Our aim is not to do away with corporations, but to do away with any evil in them.  We draw the line against misconduct, not against wealth".  What does wealth mean when it comes at the cost of extinction of another more beneficial organism?  I for one will not be using any of these chemicals in and around my gardening, voting instead in favor of the Honey Bee!

Need to be 'Bee' Educated more,  follow these links:

Monday, September 9, 2013

Figs - The Sexiest most Unsexy Fruit in the World

What fruit do you consider has all the taste of summer? You know, the kind that overwhelms your taste buds with its sweet nectar's richness that you can almost taste the warmth of the sun. Of course many will say Peaches, Nectarines and possible Raspberries, but the lonely fig sits outside of the popular circle like the new kid in school, looking to find its seat at a lunch table. Well my friends, this will not do and I'm here to stake its claim!

Ficus carica, or the common Fig, originate from the arid middle east and up into western Asia. Since ancient times they have been cultivated by people of this region for both its fruit and uses in ornamental plantings. Foliage from the humble fig has even found its way into the Biblical book of Genesis where Adam and Eve used the leaves to cover their naughty bits in shame after eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge. Thank God it wasn't a leaf from a poison ivy as the story might of gone in a different direction. However, as religion grew across Europe, Fig leaves became increasingly used as a form of primitive pixelation. In fact, many pieces of art were modified with fig leaves added to reduce the amount of nudity on display, even after they were created.

Unfortunately for figs they aren't the most attractive of fruits around. They don't have the rich color that mouth watering peaches do,  taking on a purplish brown skin tone.  Even the shape of the fruit hanging from the branches is said to resembles a man's scrotum. It's no surprise then to learn that this appearance has lead to the Fig being used for all kinds of sexual treatments. According to some websites, a diet rich in Figs will give you the sexual appetite of Ron Jeremy, but be careful, fruits full of edible seeds are said to make you into a very fertile partner.

Virginia may seem to be a long way from the hot arid homelands of the middle east, but some varieties have proven to do well in our variable climate. Thomas Jefferson was known to be fond this plant as well as overs from the Mediterranean and grew them very well at his Monticello Estate.  I was even excited to read online that a nearby farm in Virginia, Ticonderoga Farms in Chantilly has been pioneering their use in agriculture for the last 20 years and has mature groves of some 400 plus Fig trees.  When compared to other powerhouse fruits like Blueberries and Strawberries, Figs come loaded with calcium, phosphorous, potassium, beta-carotene, vitamin C as well as other beneficial nutrients making them a top pick.

Most of  the varieties recommended for our northern climate will mature into 10 ft shrubs with equal spread. The dark green fingered foliage provide an excellent backdrop for other plants and introduce a exotic flare when used in a mixed border. Known to be exceptionally trouble free and extremely drought tolerant their only weakness is towards temperatures that dip below those found in zone 7.  There only other requirements is for a site in full sun and well drained soil.  They loved to be basked in the sun so only location that provide 8 hours or more will produce the best results.  Figs will do well without the need for fertilizer but a balanced feed of 10-10-10 in early spring and again in early summer will do.  All figs are self-fertile and don't need a partner to produce fruit.

Below is my top picks on three of the most popular types we see at the garden center.

Brown Turkey - The King of cold hardy Figs in the Virginia area and the most asked for since I've worked at the nursery. I've search in vain to try and find the origin of the name and the best I can ascertain it reflects the country of Turkey, which is one of the largest areas of production next to Spain that leads the market. The large, dependable purplish-brown fruits are loaded with sweet tasting strawberry-pink flesh.

Celeste - The Fig that most others are measured against for flavor. If you ever have the chance to taste one you'll soon understand why it's referred to as a Honey or Sugar Fig. This flavor also holds well when the Fig is dried or preserved to extend their season well into the winter months. The skin is lighter that Brown Turkey but the pink flesh is very similar and is less likely to split. Celeste is second only to Brown Turkey for cold hardiness.

Chicago Hardy - If you're looking for the most cold hardy fig to grow then this is the top pick! Its history is somewhat shaky, but like the name suggests it originated from a garden in the Chicago area.  Because of the cold this Fig would die to the ground every winter ,but come spring every year it would grow back still produce fruit (roots remain hardy to 20 degrees below zero). Normally, Figs require the previous years growth to set fruit, so this rare trait makes Chicago Hardy a exciting discovery. In theory, for those limited with space you should be able to chop the plant back in early spring and still have a good yield of fruit by seasons end. In my own garden I've found the fruits to be smaller, but just as prolific than any other fig. The fruits of this variety share the same qualities as Brown Turkey, for which some people believe Chicago Hardy is a variant of.

Figs are not fickle like other fruits and will faithfully bare every year.  Be prepared to be inundated with a stream of fruit when they all begin to ripen.  Sadly, they don't store very well and are best eaten fresh for the tree,but figs can be dried and stored for use well into winter.  I myself haven't gotten to that stage as the honey sweet filling is too irresistible to just have one and leave the rest.

The taste of summer would be the same without Figs.  Hopefully, with this post I've won a few more hearts over to this outsider of the fruit bowl.  Viagra gave us the chemical answer to our sex life with the little purple pill, but according to some, mother nature had already given us the natural solution with this little purple fruit.  

To learn more about growing figs, click here:

Fig'uring on some loving!