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