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, 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!

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Ron Finley - Gangsta Gardener

While researching for a recent post (A Garden to Die for), I kept coming across a guy who is part of a growing group of people who call themselves 'Guerrilla Gardeners'.  He is not your run of the mill granola eating, feral type looking to change the world with compost toilets and Goji berry bars.  Instead, this gardening renegade, Ron Finley, is a straight talking, regular kind of guy who is just fed up with living in a food desert, where finding healthy food is just as barren as a desert.

Ron Finley hit the headlines after he presented a talk on 'TED Talks', a nonprofit organization that gives a platform for people with ideas worth sharing.  Ron's presentation was based on his frustration of needing to drive for 45 minutes, round trip to buy an apple that hadn't been impregnated with chemicals that he could spell.  In the South Los Angeles community where Ron lives, your food options are limited to fast food or processed, low cost supermarket offering.  Childhood obesity and curable Type 2 diabetes has been on a steady rise in reflection to poor health options in low income neighborhoods.  Ron's hope was to get the message out there and bring change.

"If kids grow kale, kids eat kale.  If they grow tomatoes, they eat tomatoes.  But when none of this is presented to them, if they're not shown how food affects the mind and body, they blindly eat whatever you put in front of them" 

Although South LA (previously called South Central) is infamous for Drive-by shootings, statistically the Drive-Thru's are killing more people.  When dialysis clinics started popping up like coffee shops and wheel chairs were sold like used cars on street corners, he knew something had to give.  Ron began looking at ways to create an alternative to what had become normal and to give hope to the next generation.

To put some perspective on this, in November 2012, the U.S. Census Bureau said that more than 16% of the population lived in poverty, with 1.2% of that total living in extreme poverty.  15% of households also lived without food security, not knowing if they could afford a diet for what the government deems necessary for a healthy activity.  One sobering static put almost 20% of America's children fall into the poverty bracket with an estimated 16.1 million living in food insecure households.  Most of these statistics fall into the neighborhoods and communities of South LA.

So what did Ron do?  He planted what he referred to as food forest in a strip of land (10 ft x 150 ft) that separates his property from the street.  The problem is that the land belonged to the city, but he's required to maintain it, so Ron turned it into a productive space rather than just to grow grass.  Of course the city objected to it and issued him a citation to remove it or face being issued a warranty for his arrest.  Yep, apparently you can be arrested for planting food on city land that they required to maintain!

Of course this antiquated thinking hit the media and coupled with a 900 plus signed petition on the city sat up and took note.  Ron points out that Los Angeles leads the country in vacant lots.  The City owns 26 square miles of underutilized land that is comparable to 20 central parks.  To drive his point home he pointed out that you could grow 724 million tomatoes and help feed people in need.  Ron's fight ended up becoming his gospel and started to preach it to change the manufactured culture he saw every day.  Together with LA Green Grounds, a group he help start of like minded, pay it forward gardeners, they began to transform abandon lots to transform the food desert of South LA into food forests for everyone.

'We've got to flipping the script on what it means to garden, if you ain't gardening, you ain't a gangsta'

Ron's drive and passion to make a change is definitely infectious.  Looking at the TED Talk stats for his presentation, it has been view nearly 1.5 million times since first aired.  Couple that with You tube's 250,000 and that's a lot of hits.   His fresh approach of looking at gardening is as refreshing as as the food he grows.  He knows that to get more people caring about there health and community he needs to make gardening sexy.  When he talks about growing your own food is on par to printing your own money, it brings a rebellious edge to a pastime often disregarded by youths.  He considers this use of city land to feed the community as a defiant act and sprays it with this edible green graffiti for everyone to enjoy.  His down to earth message resonated strongly with me, let just hope the other 1.75 million who have watched him also got the message.

"My Weapon of choice is a shovel, now let's plant some shit"

Learn more at

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Brit's in Print

I did it!  Yep, I finally managed to get into print at one of America's top gardening publications, Fine Gardening.  A while back I submitted a piece that was accepted for the Southeast's feature called 'Plant this, not that' and now its out for the world to see.  Its quite the feather in the cap to think that from the humble beginnings of this blog, I have stepped up my game and gone national with my writing.

With this week marking 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's famous speech at the foot of the Lincoln memorial, it seems fitting to admit that I also have a dream.  Mine though is far less ambitious, but to write a book.  Like Dr.King, I would like to see a change, but in peoples feelings towards their gardens. Knowing that my words can have an affect on someone and their garden, it creates an overwhelming feeling of fulfilment. Now that I have the taste I'm already chomping at the bit and working towards the next article, keen to submit and keep the momentum going.

So don't delay, rush out and pick up your copy of the September -October addition of Fine Gardening.  One day when my name is up in lights it might be worth something on Ebay.  You'll be able to say it was the place where the British Gardener took his first step towards gardening stardom.  Hey, we can all dream.

Follow this link to explore Fine Gardening website

Can't make it to the store, buy the current issue from Fine Gardening direct CLICK HERE

Saturday, August 17, 2013

A Garden to Die for

How far would you go to defend your garden?  I don't mean from deer or snails but from others.  A strange question for sure seeing as gardening is supposed to bring inner peace and a sense of tranquility.  Isn't gardening about getting plugged into the universe and being one with your environment?  Well as it turns out, gardening is to blame for arms race.

According to 'Mankind Decoded - Arms Race' a program I happen to channel surf upon on the History Channel, we humans began to develop an Arms race to protect our gardens.  The theory is that when humans changed from being nomadic hunter gathers into farmers putting down roots, we learned that we needed to protect what we grew.  Raids from rival tribes looking to take what you had often lead to bloodshed and this became a matter of survival.  At first the tools used to cultivate the land were employed as close combat weaponry.  As time progressed, weapons developed  into longer distance types like bow and arrows to reduce close contact fighting thus leaving your fight force somewhat safe from harm.  But, with the evolution of a new weapon, another was created to supersede it. Serious escalation just for the sake of a few spuds and lettuce tops!

Step away from the spuds!
Sadly, the human race hasn't evolved much since primitive man began sowing his first crops.  An article in the Wall Street Journal reported on a community garden in Queens, New York, that has become the battleground between two rival factions, true mob stuff.  Tensions reached fever pitch when a 75 year old man became so upset with the local authorities decision to bar him from his plot of land in the community garden that he threatening to set himself on fire.  Armed with two gas cans and lighter, San Ok Kim actions lead to having local schools placed on lockdown until a NYPD Hostage Negotiation team could subdue him. Of course how can you go against the NYPD's firepower, unless you use yourself as actual firepower!  With fights, mud throwing and even death threats becoming a daily event, the Parks Authority has stepped up patrols to curb the violence.

Old MacObama had a farm, EE-I-EE-I-O
The story of the potential flaming man only demonstrates the extreme lengths some will go to in defence of there sustainability. The internet is full of stories from people facing down overwhelming opposition in their needs to grow there own food.  One such story that hit the internet and went viral, was of a Michigan woman who faced a 93-day jail sentence for planting a vegetable garden in her front yard.  According to her cities bureaucrats, it violated codes that requires you to have suitable plantings in your landscapes.  Of course, defining 'suitable plantings' leaves it wide open to personal interpretation, but if the White House can have a Vegetable garden on their front lawn, why can't she?  Although criminal charges were dropped because of overwhelming support for the garden, prosecutors were still look at ways to bring charges.  However, if the story was flipped and it was First Lady, Michelle Obama facing jail time for her sugar snaps, we'd soon see what capabilities are at her fingertips to defend her food source.

The cold war made America the world leader in the Arms Race, with the most superior weaponry known in battle.  But, this country's biggest threat doesn't come from bullets and bombs.  Instead, our Achilles heel might be our inability to feed ourselves.  We have become so dependant on others in foreign lands for the food we eat that we have become detached from being able to supply for ourselves.  For many, growing food from a packet of seed is like figuring out how to fly to the moon.  Crisis from food shortage will drive many back to those primitive days of taking with force.

I have no idea of what she's fighting for, but sign me up!
Viva la Revolution
The ability to grow food to support our nation should be a matter of national security rather than considered a criminal activity.  Regardless of where you grow vegetables, these cultivational renegades need to be embraced as Broccoli revolutionist or Potato Patriots.  The Nuclear bomb is the pinnacle to the arms race but it holds no ground against the humble carrot!  And, whoever holds the dangling carrot, leads the Mule.  As a nation, we need to ask who is holding that carrot, and who is the mule?  Just think about it!

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Thinking outside of the zone - Part Three

Part Three - Into the Jungles of Northern Virginia

Thumb through any good books about tropical landscapes and it soon becomes apparent that a plant's foliage is the key element of design.  Flowers tend to be an afterthought, playing second fiddle to the over exaggerated rich tapestry of foliage that is greatly utilized.  Large, bold and often architectural leaf forms are the hallmark of any tropical design.

In this final installment, we'll take a look at some plants long considered to be too tropical to over winter in a cooler environment.  If you've managed to stumble onto this post and are wondering what the heck is going on, here's a quick recap. The last three posts have been based around a remarkable garden that I visited in Northern Virginia, created by self-confessed  'Zone Pusher' called Panama John.  I was invited to explore this Tropical Eden by another zone denial victim, Boca Joe, who with Panama John demonstrated that the wealth of plants we could grow in zone 7 was far greater than believed.

The bold foliage of Tetrapanax

When beginning to explore Tropicalesque gardening, one plant that immediately grabs your attention is the bold Rice Paper Plant, Tetrapanax papyrifer.  Until this visit I had only read about it, but here Johns garden it took center stage right by the front door.  Its extremely large, dissected foliage created a bold statement, providing an exciting contrast with its surrounding neighbors. It reminded me greatly of another bold, otherworldly plant that I wish we could grow here, the Giant Rhubarb, Gunnera maculata.  Both plants have a 'Alice in Wonderland' appeal that provide well for their use in gardens as show stoppers.

Fatsia japonica
Standing guard by the back yard gate like a bouncer at a night club, was an impressive specimen of Japanese aralia, or Fatsia japonica. This evergreen shrub is a close cousin to the already mentioned Rice Paper Plant and has been touted for years as a zone 8 plant.  Again, the presences of such a large and obviously old specimen dispelled the myth.  John did tell me that during the winter the foliage has a habit of drooping, much like rhododendrons, possibly to reduce the amount of desiccation from cold winter winds.  Another of this areas zone pushers refers to this as 'Fatsia flop', stating that the foliage takes on a 'boiled spinach appearance in winter but miraculously recovers come spring'.

John had no shortage of Hardy Japanese Banana, Musa Basjoo, on hand giving that tropical punch to the garden.  Few people even realize that this banana is actually rated for zone 6a gardens, dying back anywhere from a trunk (pseudostem), all the way down to its underground rhizome.  A thick layer of mulch will protect the underground rhizome that will quickly re-sprout in spring, or if the winter has been mild, will push new grow from the pseudostem.  If you're lucky to get it to flower the golden creamy flowers will give way to somewhat seedy fruit.

Amorphophallus Konjac Foliage
One plant that I was completely blown away to see growing happily outside was one that goes by a range of common names like Devil Tongue, Voodoo Lily or Snake Palm, Amorphophallus Konjac.  Not for the faint of heart, this aroids big brother is none other than the Corpse flower, Amorphophallus Titanum, named for smelling like rotten flesh. This is a flower a man can brag about around the water cooler and had the office jocks lining up to witness.  During nonflowering years, the solitary leaf stork takes on a trunk like structure while displaying a attractive crown of radiating leaflets.  Once the bulb has reached flowering size, a bloom emerges resembling a decomposing meaty vase with boney structure sticking out of the center of it.  The fragrance matches this gruesome sight as it attracts carrion flies looking to feed on rotten flesh, to pollinate it.  Maybe the next time I have a customer looking for a flower that doesn't attract bees I should recommend this guy.  After experiencing this flowering event you'd welcome bees back into the garden again.

Reflecting back over these last few posts,  I can honestly say its been a long time since I found myself this excited over a garden.  What the likes of Panama John and Boca Joe are doing is nothing short of remarkable.  By never accepting conventional wisdom, John has pushed the envelope and produced an amazing tropical oasis in the heart of North Virginia.  I'm thankful to both of them for opening my eyes to this this new world of possibilities. Never again will I look at another so called 'tender' plant and not want to try my luck.

 'If you are not killing plants, you are not really stretching yourself as a gardener' - J.C. Raulston

Follow this link to read Part One - Tree Treasures of Emerald and Silver or Part Two - Palm Trees without the Ocean Breeze

What to read more about Zone Pushing, here's Panama John's and Boca Joe's publication through the Virginia Extension Service

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Thinking outside of the Zone - Part Two

Part Two - Palm Trees without the Ocean Breeze

The subject of War and Gardening doesn't often mingle in the same discussion unless you're addressing deer or weeds.  But for this next post I wanted to use a military doctrine of 'Shock and Awe' to describe my amazement of discovering Palms flourishing in Panama Johns Northern Virginia garden.   'Shock and Awe' was coined to describe the surprise of overwhelming power that leaves you paralyze, and if jaw dropping dumbfoundedness was the result of this Shock and Awe... then I think it worked.

The image of coconut palms with an inviting hammock stretched between them is everyone's dream of paradise.  Though global warming hasn't made it possible for us to enjoy coconuts in the backyard just yet we do have some other options that will equally create drama!  In this second instalment of my visit to Panama John's garden in Northern Virginia ( Part One - Tree Treasures of Emeralds and Silvers ), seeing his collection of palms was what I came for.  My goal was to discover his tricks but what I learnt was that they're pretty easy plants to grow.

If like me you're thinking of growing palms, then the hardiest group to begin with would be the clumping types.  The main reason is that their growing shoot (meristematic tissue) is protected close to or below the ground.   Palms fall under the order of Monocots, plants that grow from a solitary shoot, just like grasses.  All Monocots growing points are often protected by multiple layers of leaf stocks wrapped around this shoot. Should something happen to this shoot then the plant cannot typically re-generate and often dies.  This adaptation, by keeping this shoot low or below the ground, insulated it from colder air temperatures and allows it to grow into lower hardiness zones.

A grand old specimen of Needle Palm growing at a different location.

The best for cold hardiness are the Needle Palms, Rhapidophyllum hystrix.  One website, lists the needle palms being able to survive winter temperatures down to a bone chilling -20 F, quite a feat for a palm!  Native to the southeastern United States, the needle palm gets it name from the long porcupine like spines produced at the base of its fronds, an adaption to guard against animals that might take a fancy to a quick meal.  In fact, 'hystrix' is actually the scientific name given to categorize porcupines.  John did tell me that you can wrap the foliage, particularly if very bad weather is forecast, just to prevent the fronds from burning but they will recover in the follow spring.

The only Mailbox in Northern Virginia to have Dwarf Palmetto's growing next to it!

Second to the needle palm for hardiness is the Dwarf Palmetto, Sabal minor.  Native to the south eastern parts of this country it can be found cultivated as far north as south-central Pennsylvania.  This is one palm well suited to our heavy Virginia clay as it prefers a wetter soil and will work as an understorey palm, taking some shade to brighter locations.  Just like the Needle Palm, the dwarf Palmetto may produce a trunk, barely reach no more than 3ft, but only after many years have past.

Chinese Windmill Palms, Boca Joe
Clumping palms aside, what most people think of when talking about palms our the big trunked forms that grace so many southern landscapes.  Although coconut palms are still a stretch, even for the most skilled zone pusher, Chinese Windmill palms are well adapted to live in a northern town.  Out of all the palms John had, the Chinese windmill Palm, Trachycarpus fortunei, was the predominant player.  Every size grew well around his garden, from small seedlings to some impressive 8-9 ft specimens.  Their shaggy fiber covered trunks I was surprised to learn that Chinese Windmill palms, also known as Chusan Palms, grew pretty quickly and were very tolerant of droughts that so often impact our summers.  

Fiber covered trucks of Chinese Windmill Palm
Boca Joe
Also lurking in the backyard jungle,  I discovered a little known Kumaon Palm, Trachycarpus Takil, a native to the foothills of the Himalaya in northwestern India.  Often mislabeled or confused with Windmill palms, the Kumaon Palm has dramatically more leaf segments per frond and its trunk fibers shed off easily, revealing a bare trunk.  Because of it's geographic distribution, growing at an altitude of 5,400 to 8,200 ft, it is naturally acclimatized to survive bitterly cold and snowy conditions.  This makes it a great contender for colder locations than what the Chinese Windmill palm can withstand.  However, few places offer the Kumaon Palm for sale so little is known about its range limits in the US. For now, only enthusiasts like Panama John are testing the limits of this palm, but more needs to be done.

I can't deny that I have become smitten with the concept of growing palms in my own garden.  A dwarf Palmetto has found its way into a butterfly border in my side yard and numerous seed pots have appeared on the deck.  I walk around the garden envisioning palms sprouting up all over the yard, much like in Panama Johns garden, providing that dramatic texture.  Maybe one day I'll be able to swing on a hammock stretched under their lush canopy of pleated fronds in my own version of paradise.

The start of a Mini Palm Nursery
Coming up in the last post in this three part series we'll explore some of the iconic leafy plants that have made their home from the tropic's in the steamy jungles of Northern Virginia.

Follow this link to read Part One - Tree Treasures of Emerald and Silver or Part Three - Into the Jungles of Northern Virginia

What to read more about Zone Pushing, here's Panama John's and Boca Joe's publication through the Virginia Extension Service


Monday, July 29, 2013

Thinking outside of the Zone - Part 1

Part One - Tree Treasures of Emeralds and Silvers

George Mallory was once asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest so much, his response was because it was there!  Sadly his quest ended on the high slopes of Everest, but it's fair to say that us human beings enjoy pushing the envelope and its no different in the garden, albeit safer.

I have for a while been suffering with a case of  jungle fever, craving to grow those plants with big dramatic leaves, but in my zone 7 garden.  My zone denial causes me to constantly push the envelope, much like George Mallory, to prove that plants will tolerate the unthinkable.

Eucalyptus neglecta - Boca Joe
A while back, I eagerly accepted an invitation to visit a garden in Northern Virginia created by a fellow jungle fever victim.  The creator this garden goes by the alias of Panama John and we were also joined by my invitee, Boca Joe.  Both men are self confessed 'zone pushers', looking to prove that many subtropical plants can and will flourish in cooler locations.  All the plants that I would see in Panama John's garden are given little if no shelter during the winter and all grow in the ground. Johns tough love approach really tested these plants and most of what I saw had been growing for at least 5-6 years old if not more.  A sign that many plants are actually more resilient than what we think.

Myself with Panama John next to
a 19 year Eucalyptus neglecta
What first grabbed my attention when approaching his garden was the beautiful cloud of smoky blue foliage from the evergreen Australian Omeo Gum,  Eucalyptus neglecta.  I have a fondness for Gum trees and this is one I have growing in my own garden for the better part of 3 years now.  Johns tree had been growing for much longer and later on my visit they took me to a garden near by to see a tree that has been growing for 19 years plus.  The large rounded leaves of this Gum emit a strong but pleasurable fragrance that hangs in the air.  Apart from the Omeo Gum, John also had another hardy kind called the Snow Gum, Eucalyptus pauciflora ssp debeuzevillei. More upright in growth, this tree was encroaching the upper windows of his house in the backyard.

Eucalyptus pauciflora ssp debeuzevillei
With all these towering gums to look up and stare at it would of been ease to miss one of the smaller ones if its shining silver foliage didn't catch your eye.   Eucalyptus pulverulenta 'Baby Blue', is a staple of the florist industry and used as a foliage accent in flower arrangements.  The round silver-dollar like foliage appears stacked along its stem and presents a different foliage texture useful in plant combinations in containers.  Many people don't realize that in most cases it will survive the winters to make a shaggy bold statement in any garden.  Panama Johns plant was still a young juvenile but already had the sex appeal that makes it popular in the trade..

Live Oak, Quercus virginiana
Apart from the 'Euc's' or Gum trees there were a couple of other trees well worth a mention.  Balancing the front yard on the opposing corner to the first Eucalyptus, was one of our American South's most endearing trees, the Live Oak, Quercus virginiana.  I had always been told that Live Oaks wouldn't survive here, but this one was flourishing dispelling the myth.  Some might say it was a fluke, but within a stones throw was another one growing just as strong.  Being an evergreen tree I had expected to see reminisce of winter injury on its foliage but was assured that it prevails with little harm.

A young Chinese Bamboo Oak, Quercus myrsinifolia
My last tree I was introduced was a mature Chinese Bamboo Oak, Quercus myrsinifolia, growing in the same garden where I was taken to to see the mature Omeo Gum.  This was my first encounter with this rarely seen but fully hardy evergreen Oak to zone 7.  This handsome, well proportioned fellow made me wonder why I hadn't seen it being utilized more in the trade.  Instead, it hides deep within reference books as just a small listing. Admittedly, the Live Oaks popularity and frequent use in Southern landscapes overshadows any one's quest to find alternatives, but the Live Oaks behemoth size restricts its use to only large landscapes.   Alternatively, the Chinese Bamboo Oak offers a fantastic opportunity for smaller urban gardens where it can be utilized as screening tree while being admired for its stately appearance.  Now all I have to do it train some squirrels to pilfer acorns in fall so we can start a evergreen revolution.

Chinese Bamboo Oak, Quercus myrsinifolia
Boca Joe
In Part Two, I'll take you to the tropical jungles of Northern Virginia to expose the myth of some surprising plants.  Trust me, your life will never be the same so say tuned!

Follow this link to read Part Two - Palm Trees without the Ocean Breeze or part Three - Into the Jungles of Northern Virginia

What to read more about Zone Pushing, here's Panama John's and Boca Joe's publication through the Virginia Extension Service

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

In Memory - Bebe the dog

Whoever coined the phrase that 'a mans best friend is his dog' wasn't far wrong.  Today I said goodbye to my best friend and companion, 'Bebe'.

Having a dog had always been a boyhood dream of mine.  It was only later in life, when all the stars and planets all aligned that I could make a dream it a reality.  Nearly 13 years ago, Bebe the dog came and joined our young but growing family.

Waiting by the window
Bebe came from a small dog rescue who had it turn saved her from a kill shelter in West Virginia.  In our first meeting with Bebe she was bulldozing over all the other dogs as she ran around.  She was borderline in size to what the rescue group would save but fortunately did.  Her name was inspired from one of my wife's co-workers, a slight woman who wore leather pants, smoked pencil thin cigarettes and called everyone "Bebe" in an Omar Sharif way.  For some reason it stuck which was strange as she had a funny look about her coupled with a snaggle tooth.

We had decided to adopt an adult dog while still living in an apartment.  A safe move when you don't know how house broken a dog is.  Getting a puppy seemed like a lot of work when both of us worked, so an adult dog made more sense.  Our fears were soon put to rest as Bebe moved in.  She rarely had accidents and got along with our 3 other cats we had adopted whilst living in Arizona. We never really did know how old she was and best guess placed her at around 15-16 before her passing.

Bebe was a extremely  laid back dog with an easy going temperament and spent many a day laying upside down on the sofa.  Just like in the TV show's, 'Its me or the Dog', I got into a lot of trouble for showing Bebe plenty of attention.  However, with successful training I managed to redistribute my time evenly between all the pets but made sure my wife got the lion's share.

As life progressed we added another two kittens to our furry herd and later two children.  All through this Bebe remained patient and tolerant to all the changes.  Even when my children would chase her around, she would be gentle, only resulting in a bark or small nip when the playing got a little rough.  She had a liking to the children's Crayons which were always being left out.  Of course the surprize of picking up dog poo with what looked like rainbow sprinkles mixed in was a giveaway to her crimes.  We did finally managed to buy a house with a good sized garden that she enjoyed patrolling.  It goes without saying that we decided to lay her to rest in the back garden that she guarded so well from the rabbits and squirrels.

As age ticked by she developed cloudy eyes and would miss the local wildlife infringing on the garden.  Also gone was her hearing, probably a result of having two noisy children.  Her face took on that white shadowing you often see in old dogs and her walks were reduced to just short runs around the neighborhood.  I found the walks to be valuable in clearing my head.  It was almost meditative.   For example, whilst working on finishing our basement, I would often come up with solutions to problems as she dragged me around the block.  I'm sure the worlds problems could be fixed if everyone found time to take a dog on a long walk.

Now our time has come to part ways.  My faithful pal, gardening bud and 'thinking' dog is on her way to doggy heaven.  She has made me a better person by making me step back and think whilst we walked everywhere.  Though the common saying is 'rest in peace' I believe shes had enough of that.  Hopefully she has found her legs again and is raising cane, chasing squirrels up in heaven.

Goodbye my sweet girl.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Bee Gone

In April of this year I wrote a post highlighting the plight of our bee populations and risk of using certain garden chemicals. Since then the news networks have been a 'buzz' on the same topic.  Though I would like to think it was because of my post, in reality the chemicals under scrutiny have been doing their own publicity although negative publicity.

A recent news story in Total Landscape Care, an industry online magazine, reported an incident of a mass killing of around 50,000 bumblebees out of Wilsonville, Oregon.  An investigation found that a landscape company had sprayed 65 European Lindens in a parking lot with a neonicotinoid based chemical called Dinotefuran, an active ingredient in product called Safari.  The reason behind the treatment was to control aphid populations which fed off the sweet sap in the leaves.  Though the aphids are not too damaging by itself, often spurring a population increase of ladybugs, a natural predator of aphids, it was the honeydew dripping on parked cars that sparked the lethal application. 

Unfortunately, the timing of the application coincided with the flowering time of the Lindens.  These nectar rich blossoms draw in extremely large numbers pollinators and from the estimated 50,000 bumblebees killed, its believed to of wiped out 300 wild colonies.  To be fair to the manufacturer of Safari, they make it clear not to spray the product during the flowering period of the intended crop.

Well, Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) is taking the matter very seriously and the treated trees were covered in nets to prevent further kill offs. I'm sure the company responsible of spraying the trees will be punished accordingly but is this enough?  However, shouldn't the bigger question be why we have these chemicals to start with, and more so, why are they available in garden stores for anyone to use?  I've met many customers who wouldn't blink an eye over spraying what they see is a nuisance.  By making these chemicals available to homeowners to rid themselves of their phobia, it is no different than the professional applicator in Oregon who should've known better.

Just last year, Scotts Miracle Gro was fined $12.5 million in penalties from distributing lethal bird food contaminated with insecticides, to reduce pest damage in stored seed.  Through an investigation it was discovered that three rogue Scotts employees took it upon themselves to add the insecticide to the seed without company knowledge, the courts felt differently about the responsibilities.  Should this same approach apply with the manufacturer of the product as well as the applicator?

Europe has already banned neonicotinoid until a full study can be concluded as to its effects on bee populations.  Surely, we here in America should follow suit until we fully understand how this group of chemicals impacts on our environment.  However, by doing so maybe an acknowledgement of guilt upon the EPA for approving its use.  They are in the process of being sued by a coalition of beekeepers for not properly studying the effects of Neonicotinoids before approving its use.  Instead the EPA based its approval  on biased results from the manufactures research instead of carrying out its own independent study.

In more recent news, the ODA announced that it was implementing an 180-day temporary restriction on products containing dinotefuran until a complete investigation could be carried out.  This restriction will affect both professional applicators as well as homeowners.  But, just when you thought a government body might be growing big enough balls to safeguard our environment they backpedaled to remind us that these chemicals are important tools in defending our plants from destructive insect pests.  My guess is that they hope after 180 days we'll all be distracted by all the going on's of the Kardashians than to take much time to care about what helps put food on our plates.

Just imagine the outcry over losing 'Honeybuns' because theres no more bees left to make the honey.  Think I'm crazy?  Remember the panic when Hostess (the makers of Twinkies) shutdown production?  Thats right, process food buying frenzies!