Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Is This a Weed? #1

Do you grow plants from seed?

If so, then you know it can sometimes be hard to figure out what is a seedling that you sowed and what might be a weed.

Other times you know that the seedling isn't something you sowed, but you're still not sure whether it might be a valuable volunteer plant or something with the potential to take over garden.

With that in mind, I contacted a horticultural source at the University of Tennessee to ask her help in five types of seedlings that had popped up in my garden beds. After warning me that she is not specifically a weed expert, she very generously gave me her opinions and permission to publish them on this blog.

Can you guess the identity of each plant without checking her answers?

Culprit #1:

Possible ID: My friend suggested this might be smooth pigweed. Based on photos I've seen online, I'm not sure that's right. (Although I think I've got a smooth pigweed seedling growing in the garden bed right now.) Whatever this was, it grew really fast and there were perhaps half a dozen of them scattered in the garden web. My friend's advice was to pull it. I did.

Culprit #2:

 Possible ID: Oak tree seedling, according to my friend. I should have guessed. We do have a gigantic oak tree in our front yard. I pulled a lot of seedlings from the lawn last year, but not so many this year despite the fact that we had a bumper acorn crop last fall.

Culprit #3: 

Possible ID: Some sort of tree seedling. I would have let it grow, but it was right next to the house and I figured that I didn't have space for a tree right there, so I pulled it. I still feel a little conflicted about this. Should I have let it grow a bit and then tried to transplant it?

Culprit #4: 

Possible ID: Pokeweed. Apparently, some folks cook it and eat it as Poke Salat, but others warn that Poke can be poisonous. My friend warned me that the plant could grow quite large and indeed it rocketed to about 12-15 inches tall in what seemed like days. The first linked source in this paragraph suggests that the stem can be more than 5-inches in diameter at the soil surface within two seasons. I ended up pulling out about a dozen of the plants from my landscaped bed. (I hadn't noticed some of the smaller specimens at first among dozens of Calendula seedlings, but once I knew what to look for - different shaped leaves, red stems - it was easy to spot and pull them.)

Culprit #5: 


Possible ID: My friend thought this might be a box elder seedling, but she wasn't sure. Not wanting to take changes (nor wanting to grow a tree next to the house), I pulled it.

Update (7/6/12) - A commenter has identified culprit #5 as a grape vine seedling.

Do you think that we misidentified any of these plants?

Or do you have seedlings popping up that you can't identify either?

If so, feel free to leave a comment or send me a photo and I'll try to help identify it!

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Shots in the Garden! (May 20-26, 2012)

Daylily (Hemerocallis), not sure of the variety because we inherited these dayliles when we moved in.

Busy bee at work gathering pollen from Cosmos flower

I believe this is a type of coneflower (Echinacea). I don't remember ordering it, but I think it might have grown from a bonus pack of seeds we sowed last year.
Russian Sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) and bee.

I like the way that Zinnia buds look just before they open.
The front border is filled with bright and cheerful English Marigolds (Calendula officinalis, a.k.a. Pot Marigolds)

Pole bean seedlings (Phaseolus vulgaris, Spanish Musica variety) getting off to a strong and inspiring start.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Harvest #3 - Orach, Peas and Herbs

Pasta tossed with olive oil, sugar snap peas, red orach,  Italian oregano and baby Genovese basil
The sugar peas are nearly done. The vines have mostly collapsed. Since I neglected to trellis them, it was hard to see a lot of the peas that got buried in the foliage, which means we ate some peas that should have been picked sooner. Mature sugar snap peas are still edible, but they're not as tender and sweet as the younger peas.

Orach (Atriplex hortensis) has been cultivated for hundreds of years, and it's certainly a beautiful plant. Also known as Mountain Spinach, I think it's one of the few leafy red vegetables that holds its color when cooked, as you can see from the photo above. 

Nonetheless, I don't see myself growing it again. Why not? The seeds germinate unpredictably. The seedlings are maddeningly temperamental -- wilting, recovering, wilting again - they're like Victorian ladies having fainting spells! The plants did eventually get a few feet high, but there are not that many leaves per plant (at least not on the ones in my garden) and the leaves are not particularly large, and besides the taste was rather bland.

So all in all, besides the appearance, there's not much I can say to recommend orach. It might be a bit more heat-tolerant than spinach, but I'd rather use the garden space in the future either for true spinach (individual plants yielded far more leaves) or lettuce, which is still hanging touch in my garden thus far in late May and has yielded many, many salads. 

Of course, it's always fun to grow something new and unusual, but there are many other rare leafy greens to try growing besides orach -- such as tatsoi, arugula, mibuna, mizuna, etc. etc.

We ate some of the peas and orach on their own as a side dish and then tossed some in with this pasta. Right before serving, we sprinkled in some fresh herbs - Italian oregano and a bit of baby Genovese basil sown from seed. 

Monday, May 21, 2012

Down the Garden Path 2012 -- Nashville Garden Tour & Plant Sale

My wife and I had the pleasure of taking a Garden Tour this past weekend. The 13th Annual Down the Garden Path tour sold tickets to visit nine gardens as a fundraising effort for the Lupus Foundation of America, Mid-South Chapter.

All in all, it was a wonderful day. True, the heat and humidity were a little oppressive around noon, but a tremendous hail/lightning/thunder storm dropped the temperatures by 20 degrees in the early afternoon and made the rest of the tour much more comfortable.

Here are some of the photo highlights from our tour:

Lacecap Hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla normalis). I really liked the lacecap, but my wife liked the mophead ones better. Which do you like best?

Koi pond with water plants. Notice the heron statues behind the pond in the center of the photo. According to the owner of this garden, herons are territorial birds. Most of the time, if a heron flies over and looks down and sees what looks like another heron, it will bypass the garden, sparing the fish.
Close-up of the heron statues. Heron statues can ward off real live herons, which are solitary and territorial birds. The only problem is that the statues may actually attract  herons during mating season.

Lilies, after the rain

Hibiscus. Lots of people think that hibiscus is just a tropical flower, but hardy hibiscus (a.k.a. Rose of Sharon) plants are hardy perennials that can tough it out as far north as Zone 4!
Elegant fountain in shady woodland garden setting. This fountain was crushed by a falling tree that was uprooted in a storm, but the owner had the fountain rebuilt and restored to working order. I feel like fountains can have a cooling, soothing effect in any garden. 
Close-up on the big frog sitting next to the fountain.  Used with restraint, statuary can enhance a garden. Here it adds a touch of whimsy. 
We came around a bend in one garden and found ourselves facing this realistic deer statue. I loved the positioning and realism of the statue, although personally I think we have so many real, live, plant-destroying deer in Tennessee that I wouldn't erect a statue to one in my garden!
Next to this plant was a sign that read, "Ugly plant. Beautiful blooms only one night per year." This, my friends, is the Night-Blooming Cereus. Actually a type of spineless, climbing cactus, Cornell says a mature (4 or 5-year old) plant should bloom every two weeks from midsummer to autumn. The flowers are supposed to be extremely fragrant, but you had better be a night owl, because they don't reach full potency until after midnight. Not at all frost tolerant, it seems like Cereus would have to be grown in a pot in Tennessee and brought indoors over the winter. In frost-free parts of Florida, the plant can apparently climb as much as 40 feet.
Inviting bench swing with several types of clematis vines. Notice the adjacent meerkat statues.
Unknown pink flowers leaning against tall verbena. Wish that the gardener had been around to ask about the plant ID.
Rose Campion (Lychnis coronaria)
Unknown flower. Maybe a type of Monarda?
Hardy Gardenia. This plant had an incredible fragrance! We actually visited this garden twice, primarily to spend more time lingering and burying our noses in these flowers with their heavenly scent! 
Close-up on gardenia flower. Middle Tennessee is supposed to be right on the Northern edge of the hardy gardenia's range, but I may have to try growing one in a protected spot for a chance at inhaling that perfume again.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Shots in the Garden! (May 13-19, 2012)

Blue Star Creeper (Laurentia fluviatilis), groundcover
Garden Cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus), also known as Mexican Aster, self-sowing and self-cleaning annual, thrives in heat and full sun
Cosmos again, looking down at a 3-foot tall plant that self-sowed into raised garden bed. Cosmos attracts bees and butterflies for its pollen, as well as gold finches for its seed.
Gaura lindheimeri 'Siskiyou Pink', see May 7th video for more information

Sweet Alyssum (Lobularia maritima), grown from seed, the flowers look more lavender in real life, should bloom spring until frost (with a mid-summer shearing) and attracts butterflies and many small beneficial insects

Rozanne Perennial Geranium, 2008 Perennial Plant of the Year, easy care, forms a spreading mat of attractive foliage topped with stunning purple-blue flowers. Each flower is short-lived, but the plant is self-cleaning and new flowers bloom continuously over a long season.
Dianthus gratianopolitanus 'FireWitch', just planted a couple of weeks ago, has flourished so far in windy and warm conditions that wreaked havoc on other plants. Self-cleaning flowers are supposed to be fragrant on hot, sunny days, but I confess I have not yet gotten down on my hands and knees to sniff and find out!

Viola tricolor, Johnny Jump-Up, also known as Wild Pansy and Heartsease. I have read that the flowers and leaves are edible (which is why I sprinkled the seeds in the vegetable garden among the lettuce), but I'm not sure how to prepare it so I haven't tried any yet. Still, it is a very cheerful little flower that brightens up the veggie garden.
Lonicera sempervivens 'Blanche Sandman'. Also known as Trumpet Honeysuckle, this native vine is supposed to attract hummingbirds. As the flowers unfurl, they remind me of a Dr. Seuss drawing!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Mustard Greens are Delicious! (Insects like them too.)

Baby mustard greens add zest, spice and color to salads

 Advantages to growing mustard greens (Brassica juncea):

1) They're easy. Sprinkle a packet of seeds on the soil in early spring. (I sowed in mid-March, but I think you might even be able to sow in February.) Scuff the dirt around a little. Make sure they get some moisture and watch as countless little sprouts emerge. The garden dirt, as you can see from the file below, was not the best. Basically, it's clay with a bit of mushroom compost mixed in. The mustard greens thrived in it.

Mustard greens sprout and grow incredibly easily. With two small packets of seeds I ended up with countless plants jammed together in three-and-a-half rows.

 2) They're beautiful. My mother, who has been gardening for a long time, actually thought the mustard greens were some sort of ornamental ajuga. Seriously, you could grow mustard greens just for their looks (if it weren't for the fact that the plants look pretty ragged later on once the insects discover them). I grew Purple Osaka and Red Giant varieties.Couldn't decide which one was prettier, but they're both rather purplish.

3) They're tasty! The kind of mustard that you put on a hot dog, as I understand it, comes from the ground seeds of the mustard green plant. I think both the flowers and seed pods are edible, but I didn't get a chance to try either one before my plants expired or I had to pull them. Anyway, as you could guess, the greens are fairly spicy as well. They start out milder as baby greens with just a nice little zip and get quite hot as they get older. You can definitely eat the baby mustard leaves raw in salads, but it's generally recommended to saute the larger leaves and even then, they'll get kind of bitter.

Another salad, this time with a heavy proportion of mustard greens in their prime.

4) They're nutritious! According to Tufts University's New Entry Sustainable Farming Project, Mustard Greens contain high levels of calcium, iron, folate, vitamin C and vitamin K.

So far, they sound like the Magical Perfect Green.

So what are the drawbacks that have me questioning if I will grow them again anytime soon?

1) Insects love them too. As with the collard greens, if you're trying to practice organic gardening, you're going to end up with a LOT of insect damage. At least, I did. I suspect that slugs, cabbage loopers and cabbage worms were the main culprits. Not sure what the organic solution might be. I didn't want to mess around with row covers, but I probably should have tried beer traps to cut down on the slug population. Apparently, there are also parasitic wasps that prey on some of these caterpillars. I'm not sure of the best way to attract those wasps, but perhaps sowing sweet alyssum near the mustard greens might help? Or maybe it's a better idea to plant mustard greens in the fall so that they mature in cooler weather when there are fewer insects around?

These mustard greens have been skeletonized. In some cases, the leaves are pretty much all gone and only the ribs remain. This scene of devastation was repeated throughout the mustard green bed. As with the collards, turning over the greens with somewhat intact leaves often revealed eggs and/or caterpillars.

2) They're spicy! Tastes vary. I thought they got a bit too spicy and bitter as they matured. My wife still liked the flavor.

This was one of the few mustard green plants that got really big despite suffering a good deal of insect damage. I kept waiting to see if it would flower, but I needed the space for summer crops, so I ended up pulling it.
3) Thinning isn't much fun. Mustard green seeds are tiny. Which means it would be incredibly tedious to plant them one at a time. Which means I ended up sifting them out of my hands into the rows. Which means that they sprouted incredibly thickly and I had to go through and spend hours pricking out seedlings. On the bright side, those seedlings make a tasty addition to a salad. But it's an awful lot of work trying to pull out seedlings without injuring the neighboring plants and kind of sad to pull seedlings that are just starting to do their thing.

Will I grow mustard greens again? Probably not anytime soon. I think I'd prefer to keep looking for some more pest-resistant crops of leafy greens (spinach and lettuce both had much less insect damage this year). And besides, I have a relatively small garden bed and experts recommend not planting brassicas in the same spot more than once every three years to cut down on the likelihood of soil borne diseases.

I cannot wholeheartedly recommend growing mustard greens for most organic gardeners, but if you happen to have a greenhouse or you don't mind wrestling with row covers, then mustard greens could be a wonderful crop. And even if you don't grow them, I'd strongly suggest seeking them out at your local Farmers Market to have a spicy nibble.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

My First (and Last) Experience Growing Collard Greens

Insects love organic collard greens

Since I garden in the South, I figured there are certain iconic Southern vegetables that I should try to grow, including collard greens.

I sowed a short row of heirloom Georgia collard green seeds (from High Mowing Organic Seeds) in my raised bed in early March. Germination was fairly successful and the plants grew surprisingly well considering that the leaves were devoured by insects on a regular basis.

I garden organically. As I understand the term 'organic', that means no synthetic chemical herbicides, pesticides or fertilizers. I do this partly out of concern for the environment, partly out of concern for my own health and partly out of a belief that gardeners shouldn't have to rely on chemical companies to grow their food.

Organic gardening does permit the use of certain organic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, but I guess I'm either lazy or laissez-faire because I rarely apply any of those either. In fact, so far this year, I haven't applied any pesticides or herbicides at all, and the only fertilizer I've applied has been a liquid kelp and molasses mix.

Anyways, I'm not saying this to brag, I'm saying it because I want to say that if you have any hopes or plans to garden organically, you should realize that certain crops may come through without too much damage, while others will be eaten to nubs.

Collard greens, as you can see, falls into the devoured-by-insects category. I suspect cabbage loopers, who may also be the culprit in the attacks on my mustard greens.

Apparently, collard greens have few natural defenses against getting munched by insects

If this looks bad from above, the truth is far worse, because when you go to pull the collard greens, there on the underside of pretty much each and every leaf, you'll find one or more small caterpillars, a smattering of insect eggs and other detritus.

It's all pretty discouraging. 

Nonetheless, I persevered, pulled the entire row of collard greens, salvaged the leaves that were still somewhat intact, brushed off as many caterpillars and eggs as I could and took the leaves inside for a good washing.

The collard green recipe I found online called for tearing the leaves into pieces, discarding the center stems, boiling the leaves for 10 minutes, draining them, then sauteing them in olive oil and seasoning them with salt, pepper, garlic and a splash of olive oil. 

This is what a 4-foot row of collard greens looks like following a good boil and fry

How did it taste? The first bites were promising, a bit zingy, a nice crunch or two, but things went downhill from there. As I kept chewing, the collards left a rather mushy, bitter impression.

I didn't think they were awful, but they were definitely my least favorite of all the different kinds of greens I grew this spring (lettuce, spinach, mustard and collards), the least attractive, the most insect-eaten and the kind that took the most prep work (boiling and then sauteing, whereas most other greens are just fine raw or with a quick saute).

Oh and then there's the fact that the entire row of collards (a short row I'll grant you, but still) ended up yielding just the one small dish of greens pictured above.

So will I be growing collards again? I don't think so. And in my humble opinion, neither should you. There are too many other exciting, productive, delicious, easier and more pest-resistant crops to waste time and space in your garden on collards. 

Lovers and defenders of collard greens, I have thrown down the gardening gauntlet! I await your rejoinder.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Harvest #2 - Peas and Lettuce

Dwarf Grey Sugar Peas and three kinds of lettuce (Merveille des Quatre Saisons, Ruby and Lollo Rosso)

I picked all of these veggies this morning. The peas come from those beautiful flowers I showed in my first post.

Here's another close-up look at the peas:

Dwarf Grey Sugar Peas, lightly sauteed in olive oil and tossed with garlic

Many other gardeners whose blogs I read wax rhapsodic about the taste of fresh peas from the garden. Maybe it's the variety of peas I'm growing or maybe by tastes are just different, but I actually was underwhelmed by the fresh pea taste. It was not as tender as I thought it would be and the pea taste was not as pronounced as I had imagined.

But just toss those peas in a little olive oil (pinching off the ends first), saute them for a minute or two over medium heat and finish with a little ground garlic and the difference is astounding. Melt in your mouth tender. Sweet and succulent.

I actually asked my wife if she had added any sugar while she was cooking the peas, but the answer was no. Just as with the spinach, it is the cooking process itself that brings out the sweetness in the peas. (But then I guess that's why they are called sugar peas!)

As for the salad, it's a combination of three kinds of lettuce - Merveille des Quatre Saisons, Ruby and the delightfully-named Lollo Rosso (no relation except in homophony to the beautiful Italian actress and artist Gina Lollobrigida).

I'll have more to say on my success - or lack thereof - growing lettuce in an upcoming post...

Friday, May 11, 2012

Harvest #1 - Spinach

Spinach harvested from the garden on May 10, 2012

The salmon is from Alaska. The rice is from California.

The spinach was picked less than an hour before this meal from my backyard Tennessee garden.

Preparation is simple:

1) Tear off the stems from the roots and brush off dirt outside.

2) Clean the spinach leaves in a sink. (I submerge them in water and then give them a rinse in a colander and let them drain.)

3) Heat a little olive oil in a frying pan on the stove.

4) Add the spinach to the pan and saute for a few minutes over medium heat. Add some garlic powder for flavor if you like, but wait until about 15-30 seconds before you're finished cooking so that the garlic doesn't burn. Experiment to find the cooking time and temperature that work best for you. Basically, you want the spinach to be wilted and tender, but still bright green and vibrant. Keep the spinach moving in the pan using chopsticks, a spatula or tongs to make sure it doesn't burn or get stuck.

5) Plate it and eat it! Easy as pie and the whole thing takes about five minutes or less.

I don't add any sugar to this dish, but I swear that cooking actually sweetens the spinach. If you have children and you can get them to try it with an open mind, they may be begging for seconds on this easy-to-prepare and healthy vegetable dish!

ps - Spinach, like other leafy green vegetables, tends to shrink dramatically in volume when cooked. You probably want to fill the pan to the brim with spinach leaves to start to make sure you have a decent amount of cooked spinach when you're done. To give you an idea, the spinach on the plate above probably represents two entire heads of spinach. I should emphasize that these are small heads of spinach. My spinach did not grow very big this year. I don't know why. Gardening gives you new respect for farmers and appreciation for food!

Monday, May 7, 2012

Gorgeous Gaura

Do you like tough, carefree plants that bloom for a looooong time (no deadheading required)? Well, you might want to take a close look at Gaura lindheimeri 'Siskiyou Pink'.

Per this bloom chart from Missouri Botanical Garden (one of my favorite gardening information sources), Siskiyou Pink typically starts blooming around the end of May and lasts until the beginning of November!

For more on Siskiyou Pink Gaura, check out this detailed description, also by Missouri Botanical Garden.

I bought these two Gaura (plus one more that is not shown on the video, but is thriving just as well as these) from Bluestone Perennials.

Sunday, May 6, 2012


Dwarf Grey Sugar Pea flowers

Welcome to my garden!

I do not lay claim to any great expertise. This is only my second year attempting to garden in Middle Tennessee (zone 7a) on a piece of land that is mostly clay.

I have made a lot of mistakes. I'm sure I'll make many more.

I hope this blog will be both instructive ("Here's what I did. Don't make that same foolhardy mistake!") and inspiring ("If I can get these results on a windswept clay hilltop, imagine what you could achieve in your own garden!")

So...to begin with the peas!

I planted my Dwarf Grey Sugar Pea seeds from High Mowing in mid-March in a base of clay with mushroom compost and pine fines worked into the soil. Not the ideal seed-starting medium you'll find recommended in gardening books.

And yet, they grew splendidly through conditions that whipsawed between wet and dry, hot and cold.

Frugalista Gardener has a wonderful post on these peas - their edibility, their beauty, how to cook them and how to save the seeds so that you can have a self-sustaining garden.

I don't think I can add much to what she has written, except to say that these peas will also grow and apparently flourish even without a trellis.

(Why didn't I just build a trellis and grow pole peas? Many reasons, but chiefly the fact that I excel at the twin skills of research and procrastination. I spent hours researching the topic online, couldn't decide what would be the best and most effective trellis to build and so ultimately settled for dwarf peas that were advertised as not need a trellis at all.)

Of course without a trellis, two of my pea rows have comingled. I'm not sure how I'll ever find the peas in the middle...