Book Review: Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs

The spring season for plant-obsessed gardeners is a time to prepare to grow something new and different – something you’ve never tried growing before. Sure, standards and favorites will make an appearance, but when you love plants for plant’s sake you’ve got to try them all, especially the rare and unusual ones – the ones no one else is growing. Even if it ultimately turns out to be a disaster or a dud, at least you tried and can say you did.

That seems to be the spirit behind Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs by Emma Cooper. Subtitled, “Unusual Edible Plants and the People Who Grow Them,” Cooper’s book is all about trying new plants, both in the garden and on your plate. While its focus is on the rare and unusual, it is not a comprehensive guide to such plants – a book like that would require several volumes – rather it is a treatise about trying something different along with a few recommendations to get you started.

jadepearls_cover

Cooper starts out by explaining what she means by “unusual edible” – “exotic, old-fashioned, wild, or just plain weird.” Her definition includes plants that may be commonly grown agriculturally but may not make regular appearances in home gardens. She goes on to give a brief overview of plant exploration throughout history, highlighting the interest that humans have had for centuries – millennia even – in seeking out new plants to grow. She acknowledges that, in modern times, plant explorations have shifted from simply finding exotic species to bring home and exploit to cataloging species and advocating for their conservation in the wild. Of course, many of these explorations are still interested in finding species that are useful to humans or finding crop wild relatives that have something to offer genetically.

Cooper then includes more than 2o short interviews of people who are growers and promoters of lesser known edible plants. The people interviewed have much to offer in the way of plant suggestions and resource recommendations; however, this part of the book was a bit dull. Cooper includes several pages of resources at the end of the book, and many of the interviewees suggest the same plants and resources, so this section seemed redundant. That being said, there are some great responses to Cooper’s questions, including Owen Smith’s argument for “citizen-led research and breeding projects” and James Wong’s advise to seek out edible houseplants.

The remainder of the book is essentially a list of the plants that Cooper suggests trying. Again, it is not a comprehensive list of the unusual plants one could try, nor it is a full list of the plants that Cooper would recommend, but it is a good starting point. Cooper offers a description of each plant and an explanation for why it is included. The list is separated into seven categories: Heritage and Heirloom Plant Varieties, Forgotten Vegetables, The Lost Crops of the Incas, Oriental Vegetables, Perennial Pleasures, Unusual Herbs, and Weeds and Wildings.

This is the portion of the book that plant geeks are likely to find the most compelling. It is also where the reader learns where the title of the book comes from – “jade pearls” is another common name for Chinese artichoke (Stachys affinis), and “alien eyeballs” is Cooper’s name for toothache plant (Acmella oleracea). I have tried a few of the plants that Cooper includes, and I was intrigued by many others, but for whatever reason the two that stood out to me as the ones I should try this year were Hamburg parsley (Petroselinum crispum var. tuberosum) and oca (Oxalis tuberosa).

Tubers of oca (Oxalis tuberosa) - photo credit: wikimedia commons

Tubers of oca (Oxalis tuberosa) – photo credit: wikimedia commons

In the final chapter, Cooper offers – among other things – warnings about invasive species (“our responsibility is to ensure that the plants we encourage in our gardens stay in our gardens and are not allowed to escape into our local environment”), import restrictions (“be a good citizen and know what is allowed in your country [and I would add state/province], what isn’t, and why”), and wild harvesting (“act sustainably when foraging”). She then includes several pages of books and websites regarding unusual edibles and a long list of suppliers where seeds and plants can be acquired. Cooper is based in the U.K., so her list of suppliers is centered in that region, but a little bit of searching on the internet and asking around in various social media, etc. should help you develop a decent list for your region. International trades or purchases are an option, but as Cooper advises, follow the rules that are in place for moving plant material around.

Bottom line: find some interesting things to grow this year, experiment with things you’ve never tried – even things that aren’t said to grow well in your area – and if you’re having trouble deciding what to try or you just want to learn more about some interesting plants, check out Emma Cooper’s book.

Also, check out Emma Cooper’s blog and now defunct podcast (the last few episodes of which explore the content of this book).

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Book Review: Bringing Nature Home

Since Bringing Nature Home by Douglas Tallamy was first published in 2007, it has quickly become somewhat of a “classic” to proponents of native plant gardening. As such a proponent, I figured I ought to put in my two cents. Full disclosure: this is less of a review and more of an outright endorsement. I’m fawning, really, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.

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The subtitle pretty much sums it up: “How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants.” Ninety three pages into the book, Tallamy elaborates further: “By favoring native plants over aliens in the suburban landscape, gardeners can do much to sustain the biodiversity that has been one of this country’s richest assets.” And one of every country’s richest assets, as far as I’m concerned. “But isn’t that why we have nature preserves?” one might ask. “We can no longer rely on natural areas alone to provide food and shelter for biodiversity,” Tallamy asserts in the Q & A portion of his book. Humans have altered every landscape – urban, suburban, rural, and beyond – leaving species of all kinds threatened everywhere. This means that efforts to protect biodiversity must occur everywhere. This is where the You comes in. Each one of us can play a part, no matter how small. In closing, Tallamy claims, “We can each make a difference almost immediately by planting a native nearby.”

A plant is considered native to an area if it shares a historical evolutionary relationship with the other organisms in that area. This evolutionary relationship is important because the interactions among organisms that developed over thousands, even millions, of years are what define a natural community. Thus, as Tallamy argues, “a plant can only function as a true ‘native’ while it is interacting with the community that historically helped shape it.” A garden designed to benefit wildlife and preserve biodiversity is most effective when it includes a high percentage of native plants because other species native to the area are already adapted to using them.

Plants (and algae) are at the base of every food chain – the first trophic level – because they produce their own food using the sun’s energy. Organisms that are primarily herbivores are at the second trophic level, organisms that primarily consume herbivores are at the third trophic level, and so on. As plants have evolved they have developed numerous defenses to keep from being eaten. Herbivores that evolved along with those plants have evolved the ability to overcome those defenses. This is important because if herbivores can’t eat the plants then they can’t survive, and if they don’t survive then there will be little food for organisms at higher trophic levels.

The most important herbivores are insects simply because they are so abundant and diverse and, thus, are a major food source for species at higher trophic levels. The problem is that, as Tallamy learned, “most insect herbivores can only eat plants with which they share an evolutionary history.” Insects are specialized as to which plants they can eat because they have adapted ways to overcome the defenses that said plants have developed to keep things from eating them. Healthy, abundant, and diverse insect populations support biodiversity at higher trophic levels, but such insect populations won’t exist without a diverse community of native plants with which the insects share an evolutionary history.

That is essentially the thesis of Tallamy’s book. In a chapter entitled “Why Can’t Insects Eat Alien Plants?” Tallamy expounds on the specialized relationships between plants and insects that have developed over millennia. Plants introduced from other areas have not formed such relationships and are thus used to a much lesser degree than their native counterparts. Research concerning this topic was scarce at the time this book was published, but among other studies, Tallamy cites preliminary data from a study he carried out on his property. The study compared the insect herbivore biomass and diversity found on four common native plants vs. five common invasive plants. The native plants produced 4 times more herbivore biomass and supported 3.2 times as many herbivore species compared to the invasive plants. He also determined that the insects using the alien plants were generalists, and when he eliminated specialists from the study he still found that natives supported twice as much generalist biomass.

Apart from native plants and insects, Tallamy frames much of his argument around birds. Birds have been greatly impacted by humans. Their populations are shrinking at an alarming rate, and many species are threatened with extinction. Tallamy asserts, “We know most about the effects of habitat loss from studies of birds.” We have destroyed their homes and taken away their food and “filled their world with dangerous obstacles.” Efforts to improve habitat for birds will simultaneously improve habitat for other organisms. Most bird species rely on insects during reproduction in order to feed themselves and their young. Reducing insect populations by filling our landscapes largely with alien plant species threatens the survival of many bird species.

In the chapters “What Should I Plant?” and “What Does Bird Food Look Like?,” Tallamy first profiles 20 groups of native trees and shrubs that excel at supporting populations of native arthropods and then describes a whole host of arthropods and arthropod predators that birds love to eat. Tallamy’s fascinating descriptions of the insects, their life cycles, and their behaviors alone make this book worth reading. Other chapters that are well worth a look are “Who Cares about Biodiversity?” in which Tallamy explains why biodiversity is so essential for life on Earth, and “The Cost of Using Alien Ornamentals” in which Tallamy outlines a number of ways that our obsession with exotic plants has caused problems for us and for natural areas.

Pupa of ladybird beetle on white oak leaf (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Pupa of a ladybird beetle on a white oak leaf. “The value of oaks for supporting both vertebrate and invertebrate wildlife cannot be overstated.” – Doug Tallamy (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Convincing people to switch to using native plants isn’t always easy, especially if your argument involves providing habitat for larger and more diverse populations of insects. For those who are not fans of insects, Tallamy explains that “a mere 1%” of the 4 million insect species on Earth “interact with humans in negative ways.” The majority are not pests. It is also important to understand that even humans “need healthy insect populations to ensure our own survival.” Tallamy also offers some suggestions on how to design and manage an appealing garden using native plants. A more recent book Tallamy co-authored with fellow native plant gardening advocate Rick Darke called The Living Landscape expands on this theme, although neither book claims to be a how to guide.

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Book Review: Hellstrip Gardening, part three

The second section of Evelyn J. Hadden’s book, Hellstrip Gardening, is all about the unique challenges and obstacles one faces when gardening in that stretch of land between the sidewalk and the road. I highlighted some of those challenges last week. This week we are into the third section of Hadden’s book, the part that is all about designing, building, and managing a curbside garden. As I have read through this book, I have begun to look at hellstrips in a much different light. They are no longer boring sections of yard with little potential, but instead are full of possibility and have unique characteristics involving publicity and functionality that are absent from most of the rest of the urban landscape. Now that we are in the creation phase of the book, this fact becomes abundantly clear.

Choosing a Style

When deciding how to design and plant your curbside bed, it is important to consider – along with aesthetics – the functions you wish to achieve (storm water runoff collection, food production, wildlife habitat, etc.) as well as how you are going to maintain it. You may decide to embrace minimal maintenance with a mass planting of a single species or mass plantings of a handful of species in sections called drifts. This can be very attractively done, but it also has the risk of a disease or pest wiping out a section of plants. A mass planting of ground covers acts as a living mulch and will eliminate the need to replenish non-living mulch. Hadden provides descriptions of a few styles of garden design, such as formal, naturalistic, cottage garden, and stroll garden, each with their virtues and limitations. Growing food is also an option in a hellstrip. If this is the option you choose, keep the bed looking full by intermixing flowers and crop plants, growing perennial crops, and staggering planting times. Ultimately the style of the garden is the preference of the gardener; however, the environmental conditions of the hellstrip must also be a consideration.

Choosing Plants

Because hellstrips are by nature public gardens, they are the ideal place for plants that appeal to the human senses – plants that invite interaction. Hadden calls these plants “friendly plants.” They are plants that are aromatic, have interesting textures and bold colors, “feel great underfoot,” have “aesthetically pleasing symmetry,” and have unusual flowers or unique foliage. Hadden asserts that, “plants that invite touching engender good will,” so consider the ways that your hellstrip might make you a better neighbor.

Their public nature also means that hellstrip gardens are not the place for rare and valuable plants, and instead are ideal for easily replaceable and self-repairing plants. This includes perennials that are easily divided, shrubs that reproduce by layering, creeping plants that send out runners, and plants with seeds that are easily collected and can be sown in bare spots. One option is to plant only annuals. This eliminates the loss of plants during the winter when snow, sand, and/or salt are deposited in the beds by road clearing equipment. Just be sure to protect the soil with mulch or a cover crop during the cold months of the year.

A hellstrip is also an ideal location for an alternative lawn. Traditional lawns require loads of water and fertilizer and regular mowing in order to stay looking good. There are lots of other grasses and ground covers available now that are drought tolerant, require little or no fertilizer, don’t need to be mowed often or at all, and are still very attractive. Hadden has a website all about lawn alternatives called Less Lawn.

The seed heads of blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis), one of many attractive alternatives to traditional turfgrass. (photo credit: www.eol.org)

The seed heads of blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis), one of many attractive alternatives to traditional turfgrass. (photo credit: www.eol.org)

When selecting plants for your hellstrip garden, consider the conditions it will have to endure. Unless you want to make serious amendments in order to accommodate certain plants, it is probably best to choose plants that are already adapted to your site. One way to determine this is to observe sites similar to yours and see what is thriving there; particularly make note of plants that look like they have been there for a while. Also, feel free to ask local experts at garden centers and public gardens what they might recommend for your site.

Earthshaping

“Diverse topography makes a more visually interesting garden, and it adds microclimates, letting you grow more diverse plants.” Shaping a curbside bed can also serve other functions such as softening traffic noise, defining pathways, collecting runoff, and providing wildlife habitat. When building a large berm, first create a rocky base and then fill in the spaces between the rocks with sand and small gravel. After that, add topsoil and firmly pack it down with machinery or a rolling drum. Small berms can be formed by simply piling up excess soil or turning over sections of sod and piling them up. Maintain good plant coverage on berms in order to reduce erosion, and consider planting shrubs with extensive root systems like sumac (Rhus sp.) and snowberry (Symphoricarpos sp.).

Hellstrips are ideal locations for rain gardens and bioswales since they are typically surrounded by impervious surfaces. Storm water can be directed from these surfaces into your rain garden, thereby reducing the amount of storm water runoff that must be handled elsewhere. Hadden provides a brief overview on how to construct a rain garden; the process is too detailed to go into here. If you are serious about building one, it is important to do your research beforehand to be sure that it is built properly. There are several great resources available; one that I would recommend is Washington State University Extension.

Partnering with Nature

Time spent managing and maintaining your hellstrip garden can be greatly reduced when it is well planned out, contains plants that are suited to the site, and has good soil health. Helping you achieve these things is essentially what Hadden’s book is all about. Watering properly and wisely is key to the success of your hellstrip garden. Hadden suggests organizing plants into “irrigation zones,” separating those that need little or no water from those that need frequent or regular watering. When you do water, water “thoroughly and infrequently to maximize deep root growth and drought resistance.” Consider installing a drip irrigation system, particularly one that will direct the water to the roots of the plants and deliver it slowly. Avoid watering areas where there are no plants, as this encourages weed growth.

Mostly likely you will be doing some amount of trimming and pruning in your hellstrip. Consider how you will handle this plant material. You may choose to cut it up into fine pieces and leave it as mulch; or maybe you have a compost pile to add to. Large woody materials can be placed in a section of your property set aside for wildlife habitat. Choosing plants that will not outgrow the space will reduce the amount of pruning you will need to do.

As much as Hadden is an advocate for alternatives to conventional lawns, she is also an advocate for reducing the use of gas-powered leaf blowers. Nobody enjoys hearing the clamor of a smelly, polluting leaf blower echoing through the neighborhood, so be a good neighbor and use a broom or rake instead. You will probably enjoy the task more as you listen to nature, get some exercise, and revel in your garden.

Continued focus on building healthy soil is paramount to the ongoing success of your curbside garden. Continue to add organic matter by letting some of the plant litter lie and decompose. Plant nitrogen fixing species like lupines (Lupinus sp.) and false indigos (Baptisia sp.). As much as possible avoid compacting the soil, especially when it is wet, and keep tilling and digging to a minimum once the garden is planted.

Partidge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculate), an annual plant in the pea family (Fabaceae). One of many nitrogen fixing plants that can help improve soil health. (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata), an annual plant in the pea family (Fabaceae). One of many nitrogen fixing plants that can help improve soil fertility. (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Again, this is only a fraction of what Hadden discusses in this section of her book. Consult the book for more of her wisdom. The final section of Hellstrip Gardening is a long list of plants that are “curbside-worthy” complete with photos and descriptions. Next week’s post will be all about a particular type of hellstrip garden that employs a subsection of those plants.

Book Review: Hellstrip Gardening, part one

Keeping a garden alive and thriving is replete with its inherent challenges. Plants have needs, and those needs vary by plant. Lots of sun might be great for one plant but harmful to another. Some plants are very drought tolerant and don’t require much water beyond what falls naturally from the sky, while others insist on regular supplemental irrigation. Plants also have preferred soil types, and that soil must provide a proper balance of nutrients. Then there is the litany of potential pests, diseases, and predators that can present themselves at any given moment. Frankly, it’s surprising that any garden stays alive, all things considered.

Some gardens have added challenges. They may be regularly visited (and trampled) by the public, who may or may not have pets in tow. They may be surrounded by paved surfaces which increase ambient air temperatures significantly and can introduce contaminants to the garden in the form of road salts, petrochemicals, fertilizers, sediments, and animal waste. They may encompass utility boxes, water meters, and road signs that require regular visits and occasional maintenance. All of these things describe the plight of a curbside garden, also known as a hellstrip – that section of green space between the road and the sidewalk. Comparatively, backyard gardens are veritable havens for plants.

Hellstrips have been on my mind for several years now. It all started back in graduate school while studying green roof technology. One of the macro benefits of green roofs is storm water mitigation. During a storm event, green roofs capture a greater proportion of precipitation compared to conventional roofs and slowly release it back into the environment. Storm water is a major issue in urban areas where the percentage of impervious surfaces is high. These surfaces prohibit precipitation from infiltrating the soil and recharging groundwater and nearby waterways. Instead, this water is rushed away and directed into either waste water treatment facilities or local waterways, carrying with it the contaminants that have collected on paved surfaces and rooftops. Gardens along roadways can be engineered to manage storm water in a similar way that green roofs do – capturing it, filtering it, and releasing it back into the environment at a slow pace – thereby minimizing the negative effects of storm water runoff.

A rain garden or bioswale planted in a hellstrip to help mitigate storm water runoff. (photo credit: epa.gov)

A rain garden or bioswale planted in a hellstrip to help mitigate storm water runoff (photo credit: epa.gov)

The hellstrip in front of my parent’s house has been the source of many headaches. It is another reason why hellstrips have been on my mind. It is a weed patch, but not intentionally so. I remember many years ago when my mom told me she was going to replace the weed patch with buffalograss. She was elated by the idea – little or no mowing, very little supplemental water, a cool alternative to conventional lawn. Now, years later after planting dozens of buffalograss plugs and making a concentrated effort to keep them alive and prospering, the hellstrip remains a weed patch. But my mom hasn’t given up hope. The hellstrip will be conquered in due time.

Riding my bike to work last summer, I regularly rode past a house that proudly displayed the potential that curbside gardens could reach. The house sits on the corner lot of an intersection that, due to the angle of the connecting roads, gives the lot a long triangular shape. This makes the hellstrip longer than most of the others in this neighborhood. On this lengthy strip, the owners have planted an expansive and diverse vegetable garden. While once upon a time vegetable gardens were largely confined to backyards, they have lately been making more regular appearances in front yards. Few, however, are as bold and as public as this one – a true hellstrip success.

Last year, garden writer and lawn alternative enthusiast, Evelyn Hadden, put out a book called, Hellstrip Gardening. When I discovered this, I was intrigued, especially considering all of the mulling over hellstrips I had been doing for so long. I was curious to learn what she had to say. It has taken me until now to read it, but it seems like an opportune time to do so. After all, we are in pre-spring, a time when garden planning is being done in earnest. Perhaps this book will give me some ideas and encouragement to tackle some hard to garden spots this year. And maybe this review (and Hadden’s book) will inspire you to do the same. After all, this approach (as Hadden suggests) doesn’t have to be limited to curbside garden beds and can, in fact, be applied to any garden with challenges beyond the norm (like gardens along driveways and in alleyways, for example). The ultimate goal, for me at least, will be to pass along whatever knowledge I gain from this to my parents so that we can address their hellstrip issues once and for all.

hellstrip gardening book

Hellstrip Gardening is organized into four sections: Inspirations, Situations, Creation, and Curbside-Worthy Plants. This review will also have multiple parts that will be posted as I read through the book. The first section of the book is intended to inspire and encourage – to show through words and pictures what others have done and to give you that “if they can do it, so can I” sort of feeling. It also introduces some of the challenges of gardening in hellstrips as Hadden visits 12 gardens across the United States and talks with the people who designed, installed, and maintain them. She tells the story of how the gardens came to be and showcases some of the plants and plant combinations that were used in each situation. The challenges will be fleshed out in the following section; these narratives are meant more to demonstrate what can be done. There are dozens of great photos throughout, and the short plant lists at the end of each profile are sure to be useful.

Now that we’re inspired, next week’s post will take a look at what Hadden has to say about addressing challenges and overcoming obstacles that are unique to hellstrip gardens.

Our Backyard Farm and Garden Show: Fall 2014

I had every intention of documenting this year’s garden more thoroughly, but as things tend to go, the days got busy and the year got away from me. Now here we are in mid-October, still waiting for the first frost but accepting its imminence, watching reluctantly as another growing season comes to a close. We took several pictures but few notes, so what follows is a series of photos and a few reflections on what transpired this past year in, what Flora likes to call, Our Backyard Farm and Garden Show.

Abundance

Abundance

I guess I should start at the beginning. Last year I was living in an apartment. I was growing things in two small flower beds and a few containers on my patio. That had been my story for about a decade – growing what I could on porches and patios and in flower beds of various apartments in a few different parts of the country. At one point I was living in an apartment with no space at all to grow anything, and so I attempted to start a garden in the backyard of an abandoned, neighboring house – geurilla gardening style – but that didn’t go so well. At another location I had a plot at a community garden. The three years I spent there were fun, but definitely not as nice as stepping outside my door and into my garden.

Earlier this year, I moved in with Flora. She was renting a house with a yard, so when I joined her, I also joined her yard. Flora is a gardener, too; she had spent her first year here growing things in the existing garden spaces but wanted to expand. So we did. We enlarged three beds considerably and built four raised beds and two compost bins. We also got permission to grow things in the neighbor’s raised beds. And that’s how our growing season started – coalescence and expansion.

Then summer happened. It came and went, actually. Most days were spent just trying to keep everything alive – moving sprinklers around, warding off slugs and other bugs, and staking things up. Abundance was apparent pretty much immediately. We started harvesting greens (lettuce, kale, collards, mustards) en masse. Shortly after that, cucumbers appeared in concert with beets, turnips, basil, ground cherries, eggplants, tomatoes, carrots, peppers, etc. Even now – anticipating that first frost – the harvest continues. We are uncertain whether or not we will remain here for another growing season; regardless, we are considering the ways in which we might expand in case we do. Despite the amount of work that has gone into our garden so far, we still want to do more. Apparently, our love of gardening knows no bounds.

A view of our side yard. It is pretty shady in this section of the yard but we were still able to grow kale and collards along with several different flowers and herbs.

A view of our side yard. It is pretty shady in this bed but we were still able to grow kale and collards along with several different flowers and herbs.

 

We grew several varieties of lettuce. This is one that I was most excited about. It's called 'Tennis Ball.' It is a miniature butterhead type that Thomas Jefferson loved and used to grow in his garden at Monticello.

We grew many varieties of lettuce. This is one that I was most excited about. It’s called ‘Tennis Ball.’ It is a miniature butterhead type that Thomas Jefferson loved and grew in his garden at Monticello.

 

'Shanghai Green' Pak Choy

‘Shanghai Green’ Pak Choy

 

'Purple Top White Globe' Turnips

‘Purple Top White Globe’ Turnips

 

A miniature purple carrot with legs.

A miniature purple carrot with legs.

 

Two cucumbers hanging on a makeshift  trellis. I can't remember what variety they are. This why I need to remember to take better notes.

Two cucumbers hanging on a makeshift trellis. I can’t remember what variety they are. This why I need to remember to take better notes.

 

'San Marzano' Roma Tomato. We grew three other varieties of tomatoes along with this one.

‘San Marzano’ Roma Tomatoes. We grew three other varieties of tomatoes along with this one.

 

The flower of a 'Hong Hong' sweet potato. We haven't harvested these yet, so we're not sure what we're going to get. Sweet potatoes are not commonly grown in southern Idaho, so we're anxious to see how they do.

The flower of a ‘Hong Hong’ sweet potato. We have not harvested these yet, so we are not sure what we are going to get. Sweet potatoes are not commonly grown in southern Idaho, so we are anxious to see how they do.

 

We grew lots of flowers, too. 'Black Knight' scabiosa (aka pincushion flower)was one of our favorites.

We grew lots of flowers, too. ‘Black Knight’ scabiosa (aka pincushion flower) was one of our favorites.

 

Some flower's we grew specifically for the bees, like this bee's friend (Phacelia hastate).

We grew some flowers specifically for the bees, like this bee’s friend (Phacelia tanacetifolia).

 

We grew other flowers for eating, like this nasturtium.

We grew other flowers for eating, like this nasturtium.

 

Even the cat loves being in the garden...

Even the cat loves being in the garden…

It has been an incredible year. “Abundant” is the best word that I can think of to describe it. We have learned a lot through successes and failures alike, and we are anxious to do it all again (and more) next year. Until then we are getting ready to settle in for the winter – to give ourselves and our garden a much needed rest. For more pictures and semi-regular updates on how our garden is growing, follow Awkward Botany on tumblr and twitter, and feel free to share your gardening adventures in the comments section below.

Drought Tolerant Plants: Blue Sage

If you are considering installing a drought tolerant garden on your property or including more drought tolerant plants in your landscape, one plant that should come standard is blue sage. Its silvery-green foliage, large, abundant, purple-blue flower stalks, and attractive mounded shape, make it an excellent feature in any water-efficient garden bed.

salvia pachyphylla_edit 1

Salvia pachyphylla is in the mint family (Lamiaceae). It has several common names which it shares with several other plants: blue sage, Mojave sage, rose sage, mountain desert sage, giant-flower sage. For this post we will refer to it as blue sage; however, if you’re looking to purchase it, make sure to verify the botanical name. Blue sage is a subshrub that can grow up to 3 feet tall and 3 feet wide. It tends to remain smaller – around 1-2 feet tall – in its native habitat. It is found in the southwestern states of the United Sates on dry, rocky slopes and flats at elevations between 5,000 – 10,000 feet. The leaves are oppositely arranged and covered with fine hairs that lay tightly against the leaf surface giving the foliage its silvery appearance. Like all other sages, the leaves of blue sage are highly aromatic.

salvia pachyphylla foliage_edit

The flowers appear in compact clusters on spikes that extend upward from the branches. The inflorescences can be several inches long. They have numerous large, purple bracts that appear in a whorled pattern along the spike. The violet-blue flowers are small but prolific and appear between the bracts surrounding the stalk. Flowering occurs throughout the summer (July-September in its native range). The flowers attract droves of pollinators including bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. Blue sage is especially beneficial to native pollinators. In fact, while taking photos for this post, I noted that the flowers were being visited by several bumblebees. Its benefit to pollinators is another great reason to include this plant in your landscape.

salvia pachyphylla_edit 2

Blue sage is a very drought tolerant plant. Once it is established it requires only occasional watering throughout the summer in order to keep it looking good. It performs well in a variety of soil types, but like most drought tolerant plants it is best placed in well drained soil. Heavy soils can be amended by mixing in things like sand, lava rock fines, and compost at planting time. It prefers full sun and is winter hardy to USDA hardiness zone 5, especially if planted in an area where the soil is relatively dry throughout the winter. Blue sage is a long lived plant and can be kept in shape by cutting back the spent flowers in the fall. The folks at Plant Select recommend planting blue sage with, among other things, penstemon, coreopsis, and creeping veronica.

Photos were taken at Idaho Botanical Garden in Boise, Idaho.

Square Foot Rooftop Gardening

Square foot gardening is a method of gardening that was described and popularized by Mel Bartholomew. The basic concept is simple: measure out your garden beds into equal squares (4 feet by 4 feet) and then plant individual crops into each square following specific spacing recommendations for each crop. The square foot method is intended to eliminate the inefficiencies of standard row planting, making vegetable crops easier to plant, maintain, and harvest. Bartholomew’s book about square foot gardening was first published in 1981. From that book came a television series on PBS, various other books and updated versions of the original book, a square foot gardening product line, and the Square Foot Gardening Foundation.

As a long time gardener, I had been familiar with Bartholomew’s book and its basic premise for a while but had never read it until recently. I found the book to be basically what I expected: a description of how to garden in squares instead of rows. I can see how this system could be very simple, attractive, and efficient while simultaneously producing decent sized yields; however I felt like Bartholomew’s description of the process made gardening into a very methodical, calculated, and meticulous task bordering on joyless. I’m sure that’s not how he sees it (nor how it really is), but then again, he’s a retired engineer [insert smiley face here].

For a long time I’ve had an interest in green roofs. I even went to graduate school to study them. So when I got to the part in Bartholomew’s book where he talks about square foot gardening on rooftops, I was intrigued. Green roofs (along with rooftop vegetable gardening) have become fairly common in urban areas in the past decade or two. And for good reason. Green roofs offer myriad benefits including mitigating storm water runoff (and the numerous sub-benefits involved with that), reducing the urban heat island effect, increasing a building’s energy efficiency, and re-introducing green space and wildlife habitat that was lost when a building was built.

Vegetable gardening on rooftops is a practical solution for residents of urban areas where space for gardens on the ground is limited. Restaurants – like Noble Rot in Portland, Oregon and Café Osage in St. Louis, Missouri – have found that they can grow some of the produce and herbs they need on their rooftops while simultaneously setting themselves apart from other restaurants. There are also a few urban farming operations on rooftops (Brooklyn Grange and Eagle Street Rooftop Farm for example). Michigan State University (an institution with one of the most prominent green roof research labs in the U.S.) has a research program dedicated to improving rooftop vegetable crop production. So with this recent trend of growing food on rooftops, I was curious to read what Bartholomew was saying about the subject more than thirty years ago, back when green roof vegetable gardening was less than mainstream.

The reality is that square foot rooftop gardening gets only a brief mention in Bartholomew’s book (at least in the first edition – perhaps he has more to say about it in more recent editions), but what he does have to say is relevant.

Rooftops are windy:

“Stay away from plants that grow tall, have delicate stems, or that might be blown over when they are mature and filled with ripening fruit…The wind can be unmerciful to a plant; it whips the leaves about and can dry out the plant in short order.”

Rooftops are hot:

“The other big consideration for rooftop growing is heat buildup…These conditions will naturally affect both the frequency and amount of watering the garden will need.”

Rooftops have weight limits:

“The soil in your rooftop garden should be as light and porous (yet still be water retentive) as possible. Mix in lots of vermiculite and peat moss.”

Each of these three considerations (wind, heat, and weight) continue to be considerations for any vegetated roof whether it includes vegetable crops or not. Yet people are figuring out how to overcome these obstacles, constructing and maintaining incredible rooftop gardens that are both productive and beneficial.

Rooftop Garden - Manhattan, New York ( photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Rooftop Garden – Manhattan, New York ( photo credit: wikimedia commons)

In future posts, I intend to elaborate more on this topic, profiling individuals, groups, and organizations that are making this sort of thing happen. Comment below and share something about your favorite rooftop garden and/or recommend a rooftop garden that should be profiled in an upcoming post.

Ground Nesting Bees in the Garden

Earlier this year I wrote about planting for pollinators. In that post I briefly introduced various things that people can do to encourage pollinator activity in their yards and gardens. One thing that I mentioned was the importance of providing nesting sites. Most pollinators are insects and insects are small, so the distance that they are able to travel in search of food is relatively limited. According to the Xerces Society, the smallest bees can only fly a few hundred feet from their nests. Providing nesting sites in close proximity to foraging sites is incredibly important.

Roughly 70% of native bee species in North America are ground nesting bees, so chances are pretty good that if you are providing forage for bees in your yard, a good number of the bees that visit will be ground nesting bees. In order to ensure the survival of these bees, consider providing nesting habitat for them on your property.

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Lasioglossum leucozonium – a North American ground nesting bee (also known as a sweat bee) – photo credit: www.eol.org

Here are a few things to keep in mind when developing nesting habitat for ground nesting bees:

Create and Maintain Undisturbed Bare Ground: You may already have ground nesting bees living in your yard and you don’t even know it. Obvious evidence of nests is difficult to spot. If you can find tunnel entrances, they will look like small ant mounds. If you find a series of small “ant mounds”, watch for bee activity during sunny times of the day. Activity can be quite ephemeral though, so it is difficult to know if bees have just moved in or if they have moved on. Avoid tilling up soil and walking through areas where you suspect or intend for bee activity. Leave patches of bare ground unplanted and unmulched in order to encourage bees to nest there.

Sunny and South Facing: Bees are most active when the sun is shining and temperatures are warm. For this reason they tend to build their nests in warm, sunny spots. However, warm, sunny spots are also the best locations for many plants. Consider sharing these sites with ground nesting bees. Avoid putting down mulch in these areas and keep vegetation sparse and minimal.

Avoid Pesticides: When encouraging pollinator activity in your yard and garden, it is best to avoid using pesticides as much as possible. Herbicides kill potential food sources. Insecticides can kill pollinating insects along with pest insects. And soil fumigants can harm ground nesting bees.

Provide Some Accommodations: Due to the diversity of ground nesting bees, it is difficult to provide nesting habitat for all potential species. Some prefer loose, sandy soil while others prefer smooth, packed ground. Some bees will nest on level ground, while others prefer sloped ground. The habitat you are able to provide will depend on the conditions present on your property. Some modifications can be made, but this all depends on the resources available to you and how particular you want to get. Apart from maintaining a patch of undisturbed, unmulched, south facing ground, there are three additional things that you can offer ground nesting bees to make them feel more at home on your property: food (in the form of diverse flowers blooming throughout the growing season), a water source (in the form of a birdbath or something similar), and a few rocks for the bees to perch on and warm their tiny bodies.

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The tunnel entrance of a ground nesting bee.

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Tunnel entrances are often found in groups in areas of bare ground mixed with patchy vegetation.

Ethnobotany: Holy Basil

Every year I try to grow a few things in my garden that I have never grown before. This year one of those things is holy basil. Not to be confused with the common culinary basil (Ocimum basilicum) – of which there are numerous horticultural varieties – holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum) while closely related is a completely different species. Both species are native to South Asia. One of the main differences between the two is that O. basilicum is an annual and O. tenuiflorum is a short-lived perennial.

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 Holy Basil, Ocimum tenuiflorum (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Holy basil is a member of the mint family (Lamiaceae), which means that it has square stems and oppositely arranged leaves and branches. It is a highly aromatic subshrub that reaches about 3 feet tall and has hairy stems and green and purple leaves. The flowers of holy basil are white/purple and tightly arranged in a long raceme. While it is a perennial in its native range, it is not hardy in more temperate climates. Holy basil is a common ingredient in Thai food and has many medicinal uses. In India, it is often prescribed by Ayurvedic practitioners as a treatment for many things, including stress, fever, influenza, headaches, insomnia, and upset stomach. The leaves of this plant are used as a mosquito repellent, and oil derived from the seeds is being researched for it’s potential use in treating cancer. However, probably the most interesting thing about holy basil is its place in Hindu culture.

Holy basil is considered by Hindus to be the earthly incarnation of the goddess Tulsi who is a companion of the god Vishnu. Thus, tulsi is a common name for this plant in Asia. Tulsi is the most sacred of all plants in Hinduism, which is why it is commonly seen growing in special pots in the courtyards of Hindu homes. During ritualistic worship, tulsi leaves are offered to Vishnu and his avatars. Vaishnavas (followers of Vaishnavism, a major branch of Hinduism) make prayer beads from the stems and roots of tulsi plants. Wearing these prayer beads (called Tulsi malas) is said to connect one with the gods and bring their protection. Because tulsi is considered to be a manifestation of deity on earth, it is seen as a connection point to heaven, and so tulsi leaves are placed in the mouths of people who are dying in order to ensure a safe journey into celestial realms.

Hindus not only regularly use holy basil in ritualistic worship, they also regularly worship the plant itself. Daily worship of the tulsi plant is traditionally done by women. Worship can involve praying to the plant, chanting mantras, watering the plant, cleaning around the plant with water and cow dung, and offering it things like food, flowers, and water from the Ganges river. Even when not worshiping tulsi, simply caring for it daily is said to bring blessings from Vishnu.

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My holy basil. It doesn’t look like much now, but it has potential.

Learn more about holy basil and its ethnobotanical uses by visiting Kew and HinduNet.

The Real Dirt on the Hudson Valley Seed Library

Last month on Ken Druse Real Dirt podcast, Druse talked to Ken Greene, the founder of  Hudson Valley Seed Library. Greene came up with the idea for a seed library while working as a public librarian. The concept: people check out seeds from the library, they plant those seeds in their gardens, they save some of the seeds from the plants they’ve grown, and then they return the saved seeds to the library, at which point the seeds are available for someone else to check out and do the same. Greene started his seed library at the public library where he worked. He soon discovered the great need for educating the public about seed saving, and so he quit his day job and founded his own seed company. Along with carrying on Greene’s original vision of a seed library, Hudson Valley Seed Library is a producer and distributor of seeds, as well as a great resource for information concerning seed saving and other farm and garden related topics (just check out their blog to see proof of this).

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Castor Bean Seeds (Ricinus communis)

When Greene first started his seed library, there were very few others. But the idea is catching on. Perhaps you have one in your region. My local seed library is called Common Wealth Seed Library. And speaking of local, in the interview with Druse, Greene talks about local seed growers. They used to be common, but many were bought up by larger companies. However, they are making a comeback. My local seed grower is called Earthly Delights Farm. Local seed growers are worth supporting because the seeds they offer have been produced in that particular region. Ideally, they are varieties that have been trialed against similar varieties and selected for their superiority. This means that the selected varieties are likely to do well in that region.

Expect more posts about seeds, seed saving, and seed banking in the future. In the meantime, share your thoughts about anything seed-wise in the comment section below.