Friday, June 29, 2012

Harvest #4 - Sun Gold Cherry Tomatoes and UBT (Unidentified Black Tomato)

Sun Gold cherry tomatoes ripening on the vine

I planted five varieties of tomatoes this year - Sun Gold, Riesentraube, Black Cherry, White Rabbit and an UBT (Unidentified Black Tomato -- well, not unidentified by the seller, but I didn't write down the name when I bought it at the farmers market and promptly forgot it by the time I was ready to label it).

Of these five, the White Rabbit (purchased online via mail order) died practically immediately. Its stem was broken in transit and it never recovered. The seller, whom I contacted immediately upon receipt of the plant, never even bothered to respond. This experience has soured me on buying tomato plants via mail order, despite all the amazing-sounding varieties available. I'll be sticking to farmers markets or nurseries from now on.

Anyway, Riesentraube (which translates to "Giant Grape") is humming along and growing nicely, though all its tomatoes are still green. I'll post Riesentraube photos at a future date. (I'm encouraged by the success that Margaret Roach has had with Riesentraube, as chronicled on her A Way to Garden blog.)

Black Cherry, purchased at the farmers market, has sulked and refused to grow since being planted. I suspect it may not be happy in its raised bed.

That leaves Sun Gold and the UBT.

The UBT produced a number of smaller-sized-than-regular-tomatoes-but-bigger-than-cherries and then has basically stopped growing at maybe 12 or 15 inches tall.

UBT (Unidentified Black Tomato), looks ripe but isn't really
The half-dozen tomatoes turned black but they still seemed really hard to the touch. I don't have much experience growing tomatoes, but I was concerned they might be unripe.

So I turned to that Voice of Experience (my momma) and asked her what she thought. Her sensible advice? Pick one and see if it was ripe.

So I picked one UBT and one Sun Gold tomato for a tiny tomato amuse bouche:

UBT and Sun Gold, just picked and freshly rinsed

I then sliced them open, so that my wife and I could share equally in this tiny harvest:

Sliced Sun Gold and UBT. Notice that the Sun Gold looks pleasingly ripe. Not so with the UBT.

Uh oh. That UBT didn't look ripe at all on the inside.

And in fact the taste was distinctly green tomatoish. (The crunchiness of the green tomato with the black skin and a slight sourness actually also brought to mind the experience of eating a plum.)

The Sun Gold of course was delicious. These photos are slightly old, but despite our record temperatures in Middle Tennessee and the ongoing drought, the Sun Gold has continued to produce new tomatoes with a bit of supplemental water given twice weekly. I'm impressed and certainly plan to plant more Sun Golds in the future. I can see now why they are a favorite of home tomato growers.

Dear Readers:

Has your tomato harvest begun?

Which varieties are performing best for you this year?

If you have photos of your thriving tomato plants online, please post photo links!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Heat is On! Which plants can survive a hot, dry Tennessee summer?

Pineapple Sage (Salvia elegans), not so drought-tolerant after all

The other night, I heard that nearby Franklin, Tennessee has started requesting voluntary water conservation from its citizens.

There hasn't been much news about the drought yet (despite the fact that Tennessee's rivers are at or near historic lows this year), but I can tell you that it is hot and dry.

We're talking mid-90s Fahrenheit (~35 Celsius) every day with high pressure parked over the region and no rain in sight.

Lawns up and down the street are turning brown, despite the fact that most people are watering daily. (I find lawn watering awfully wasteful, so I use our irrigation system a few days a week and feel guilty even using it that much. So our lawn is browner than most.)

But I don't care much about lawns. If I could afford it, if our HOA would allow it and if I thought it wouldn't adversely affect retail value, I'd rip it all out and replace it with landscaping with greater ornamental value and greater wildlife value for bees, butterflies, birds and other critters.

But that raises the pertinent question of what plants can survive the extremes of a mid-Tennessee summer. And I can tell you right now that it's not looking pretty.

Take the Pineapple Sage (Salvia elegans) at the top of this post. I thought this was supposed to be heat and drought tolerant, full sun plant. Apparently, I was misinformed. On closer research today, I discovered from Floridata that pineapple sage needs regular watering for best growth and flowering. Apparently it can sometimes survive a drought by wilting and dropping its leaves, but it won't thrive in drought conditions.

(Floridata also says that pineapple sage is best suited for zones 9-11, so I really goofed when I bought the plant for my zone 7 garden!)

What about zinnia? The University of Florida extension service describes zinnias as being a drought-tolerant annual. Floridata (one of my favorite information sources, despite the fact that I don't live or garden in Florida) describes zinnias as being "quite drought tolerant" plants that do best in full sun. The plant shown below must not have gotten the memo, as it is looking cooked. (I will note that now that I am scouring plant descriptions specifically looking for drought tolerance, I notice that many merchants, such as Burpee, emphasize that zinnias are heat tolerant without mentioning drought tolerance. Maybe zinnias are moderately drought tolerant, but do better in hot and wet places?)


How about Russian Sage? As you can see below, the plants are still rocking away and producing a profusion of blooms that attract a happy chorus of buzzing bees all day long.

Russian Sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia)

And yet, the picture isn't quite as pretty just a bit further down each plant where the leaves are yellowing, browning, turning yellow and falling off. What's the reason? Various Internet sources suggest either (a) too much water, (b) too little water or (c) shedding leaves as normal behavior. The mighty Missouri Botanical Garden says that Russian Sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) tolerates clay soil, dry soil and drought, which pretty much precisely describes its environment. And yet, there's no mention of yellowing leaves...

Russian Sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia), yellowing leaves

Well, let's not make this post all doom and gloom! The good news is that after weeks of teasing with nothing but foliage, the French Marigolds (Tagetes patula) have started to burst into bloom. True, the 'Sparky Mix' seeds I bought from EverWilde were supposed to grow into plants 12-inches tall, whereas the actual plants are less than half that height, but the flowers are endearingly luminous.

French Marigold (Tagetes patula)

Some of the leaves Natchez crape myrtles are looking a little limp, but the trees themselves are covered in blooms. I think we have many more flowers this year than last year.

Natchez Crape Myrtle

And Purple Cone Flower (Echinacea purpurea) is still going strong, to the delight of bees and butterflies. (At least, I think these are butterflies, operating on the layman's assumption that moths land with wings flat and butterflies fold their wings...) University of Maryland's Cooperative Extension describes purple cone flower as "quite drought tolerant," while University of Delaware's Extension service describes Echinacea purpurea as being "very drought resistant." Interestingly, definitions of drought tolerance may differ here in the U.S. versus across the pond in Europe. I found one U.K. site that says Echinacea needs water at least weekly in full sun. I'm guessing that is the case, as a couple of my Echinacea are looking a little drought-stressed (though they're still getting by much better than the pineapple sage or the zinnia). Perhaps in very hot areas with drought risk it makes sense to ignore the usual full sun recommendation and plant Echinacea where it will get some afternoon shade?

Echincea purpurea, standing tall for now despite the drought

We have four or five of the Natchez crape myrtles in full sun, as well as an unidentified lavender crape myrtle that gets less morning sun, though it does get plenty of solar radiation in the afternoon. This specimen is thriving, growing vigorously and not exhibiting any signs of drought stress. Of course, it also has hardly any flowers at this point, but the one bunch of lavender flowers that has opened looks lovely and has a light, sweet fragrance.

Lavender crape myrtle flowers

 Over to the front of the house (morning sun, afternoon shade), we find that Calycanthus floridus, also known as Carolina allspice or sweetshrub. Floridata says that Calycanthus likes moist soils, but can survive drought. I've been giving the plant a deep watering twice a week and so far it seems to be limping along with just a bit of leaf tip browning. The plant is native to the Southeastern U.S. and is supposed to have fragrant spring flowers. Obviously no flowers this year as this tiny plant (purchased through mail order) is just getting established, but I'm hoping I can nurture it through the drought so that I can enjoy its flowers next spring.

Calycanthus floridus, Carolina allspice, sweetshrub

Last but not least, here's a look at an Ajuga reptans that seems to have happily established itself in one of the shadier corners at the front of house. North Carolina State University (NCSU) includes ajuga on its list of drought tolerant plants, and this specimen certainly seems to be living up to its reputation, perhaps helped by the fact that it gets shade from about 10 a.m. onwards. It's not a particularly flashy plant, but I've definitely come to appreciate ajuga's shiny, classy foliage. I'm hoping it spreads into a sizeable groundcover, and I suspect that next year I'll be able to enjoy more of its blue flower spikes.

Ajuga reptans

That's all for now. I didn't include any photos (to keep this post at a somewhat manageable size) but I can tell you that the Autumn Joy sedum and the phlox paniculata (shown in the June 21) post are both doing fine. Both sedum and the phlox are on the NCSU list of drought-tolerant plants.

The drought has struck harder and earlier than usual in Tennessee, but we're certainly no stranger to droughts here and this experience has only reinforced my feelings on the importance of planting drought-tolerant or drought-resistant plants in any climate that is prone to water shortages. It seems to me this makes sense for two reasons: (1) You may enjoy watering (I do), but it's nice to know that your plants can survive for an extended period of time if circumstances prevent you from watering for one reason or another, and (2) with 300+ million people in the U.S. and 7+ billion people around the world, planting a landscape that needs lots and lots of supplemental water doesn't seem like such a swell idea.

Dear readers, I'd like to get your thoughts on a few questions:

1. Is your garden facing drought now or have you faced drought recently?

2. If you've encountered drought in your garden (now or in the past), what have turned out to be the toughest and most drought-tolerant plants in your experience?

3. How do you define drought-tolerant? Is a drought-tolerant plant in your garden one that only needs water once a week? Once a month? Never needs any supplemental water?

Thanks for reading! And let's hope for rain -- 'cause it's a good thing!

PS - Curious as to what's going on in the veggie garden? Check back in a couple of days for an update on the tomatoes, cucumber, pole beans, okra and more!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Shots in the Garden! (June 21, 2012)

Sorry for the posting hiatus. I was traveling on business for about a week and the blog (and garden) were neglected while I was away. Fortunately, my wife was kind enough to do a bit of watering in my absence, plus we apparently had a couple of storms that may have helped keep the garden in bloom.

Without further ado, here are a few shots from my garden on the day of the summer equinox, 2012:

I have mixed feelings on Calendula officinalis (English Marigold). On the one hand, they attract bees and butterflies...

On the other hand, they tend to look kind of ratty, especially now that the summertime heat has kicked in. The flowers don't last long and they go through various stages of post-flower decrepitude so that there are typically many more obviously and visibly dead flowers on a plant than live blooming ones. And these post-flowering seedheads aren't attractive (like coneflowers) or inconspicuous (like cosmos) and they don't even seem to attract birds (like cosmos does). The overall effect is not shall we say aesthetically pleasing...

And yet, there are the interesting butterflies (or moths?)...

I planted an awful lot of Calendula officinalis this year, so deadheading is an arduous and unwelcome task. (I don't mind various gardening chores, but I'm not into deadheading.) Despite its ability to cover a lot of ground and provide weeks of flowering, I'm not planning on sowing English Marigolds again next year, for the reasons cited above. But in the future, I could see growing a small patch of them for the bees and butterflies.

Now on to the Sweet Alyssum. We planted a lot of it this year, both from seed and nursery starts. Most of it has languished or died, but some of the white ones have really taken off, growing big and bushy. Exhibit A:

Some of the alyssum is planted near the native trumpet honeysuckle. One of those honeysuckles (Alabama Crimson) is growing well, but has not flowered at all yet. The other plant (Blanche Sandman) is smaller, but already flowered weeks ago and has now grown and begun opening a second flush of flowers. Exciting!! Haven't seen any hummingbirds yet, but I'm hoping that as the honeysuckles get bigger, the birds will discover them. Here Blanche is ready for her close-up:

Finally, here's a close-up look at the 'David' variety of Phlox paniculata, a.k.a. garden phlox. Remember the buds from a couple of weeks ago? Well, many of those have burst in bloom now! According to Missouri Botanical Garden, this plant likes full sun, is hardy from zones 3-8 and can bloom from July to September. Garden phloxes have a reputation for being susceptible to powdery mildew, but David is apparently relatively resistant. The flowers have a light, sweet fragrance, but you have to practically bury your nose in the petals to smell it. Still, I don't mind getting up close to this...

But let's take a step back to give you an idea of the strong, upright form that the plant takes. We started with three Phlox plants last year. All three came back, but this one actually multiplied into four individual plants, or at least four stalks. According to the University of Minnesota Extension service, Phlox paniculata needs to be divided every two to four years if it is growing well. Being a relative newcomer to gardening, I've actually never tried dividing any plant before, but I'll probably give it a shot with the phlox next spring...

Monday, June 11, 2012

Shots in the Garden! (June 3-9, 2012)

Bee on Russian Sage
I think I remember now that the coneflowers I planted last year are Echinacea purpurea (Purple Coneflower). It takes a long time for the flower to open, but once it does, the flower lasts for a long time and slowly evolves through different stages. 
This is an Echinacea purpurea flower that has been open for a long time. I haven't counted the days, but perhaps as long as two weeks? The individual flower petals are fading, but the central part of the flower and what I presume are its spiky seeds are getting bolder, more dramatic and more sculptural each day.
Four stages of flowering on a single Purple Coneflower plant. 
Let's move over to the vegetable and herb garden. Chocolate mint is growing in its own pot. Yes, the leaves really do taste and smell like a combination of mint and chocolate! Mint has a reputation for being invasive and as you can see, this plant has put out rhizomes in attempt to colonize new ground. Being in a pot, the rhizomes have been forced to take a circular path.
The Sun Gold cherry tomato plant has lots of fruit, but none of them are ripe enough to pick yet.
Spanish Musica pole beans are boldly climbing their trellis made from an upside-down tomato cage staked into the ground. 
I like the name of this cucumber variety from Kitazawa Seeds: "Progress". The seedlings have emerged next to a makeshift 'trellis' I created from a roll of hardware cloth. I'm hoping the plants can be trained onto the trellis to keep the fruit off the ground and help keep the plants healthy. Last year, my cucumbers produced heavily but succumbed to powdery mildew. Progress and the other cucumber variety I planted ("Southern Delight", also from Kitazawa) are both supposed to be disease-resistant varieties. 
The Natchez crape myrtles have started to flower!
The peeling bark on the Natchez crape myrtle adds another layer of visual interest. 
I like to post photos of my gardening triumphs, but I think that sharing information on my failures can be equally instructive. This is/was Lamium maculatum, also known as Spotted Deadnettle. This particular variety is/was "Red Nancy". Lamium is supposed to form a nice groundcover in partial shade settings. Some sites even warn that the plant can become rampant or invasive. I would say this is the opposite of invasive, at least in our Middle Tennessee garden.
Back to a more cheerful photo. This sweet alyssum is thriving in the same bed where the lamium flopped. We sowed some sweet alyssum seed this year, but also purchased purple, pink and white seedlings at a local nursery. Our success rate was not great with the seedlings, but the white ones seem to have done best of all. Based on my experiences last year, I hope that alyssum will flower all summer, attracting small beneficial insects like hoverflies and parasitic wasps to the garden. I may need to give the plant a haircut in the middle of the summer, but then it should bounce back and flower strongly in the fall until frost. We'll see if these expectations are fulfilled!
The David Garden Phlox is almost ready to bloom!
Half a zinnia is better than none! Why only half? I suspect the gold finches. I'm not sure if they eat the petals or probably just dislodge them while going after the seeds. Either way, they leave intact the yellow 'crown' that surrounds the pink globe on these improbably beautiful flowers.
We started with blue and let's finish with blue. This is one of the Rozanne perennial geraniums, still covered in flowers.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Playing Favorites #1: Cosmos bipinnatus and the American Goldfinch

Parents may be obligated to say that they love all their children equally, but gardeners are allowed to play favorites.

So I'm starting what I hope will become a semi-regular series of posts about some of my favorite plants. Today's featured plant is Cosmos bipinnatus. This self-sowing annual thrives amid heat, drought and poor clay soil. The finely-cut leaves seem untroubled by pests or diseases.

In my garden, cosmos is one of the bees' favorite flowers. Sometimes, at the end of the day or first thing in the morning, I'll even find a tuckered out bee asleep in a cosmos flower.

When the seeds mature, the bright and beautiful American Goldfinches come flying to enjoy the feast.

Sow cosmos seeds in full sun and enjoy non-stop flowers right through the summer and fall up until frost. The blooms make nice cut flowers and the more you snip, the more the plant produces.

Here are some scenes of Cosmos on a June evening in Tennessee:

Sunday, June 3, 2012

After the Storm: Survivors and Casualties from 60-70 mph Winds

This cosmos binpinnatus plant got flattened by the wind storm.

What happens when 60-70 mile per hour winds rip through an exposed hilltop garden as part of an early summer rainstorm?

Which plants survived with flying colors and which ones were uprooted or shredded?

Russian Sage and perennial geranium toughed it out, but cosmos and zinnia took a real beating.

This cosmos stem actually splintered into four shards.
This zinnia flower looked OK at first...

...but on closer inspection, the stem seems severely damaged at the base.
This zinnia on the other hand seems OK. The plant definitely got bent into the pathway, but the stem looks intact.
Other than being a little bedraggled, this coreopsis appeared totally unperturbed by the storm.

I will say that the perennials - the coreopsis, the russian sage, the geraniums - seemed to come through the storm much better than the annual flowers like zinnia and cosmos. Maybe the annual plants aren't as well rooted or don't put as much energy into building tough stems?

Do you encounter windy conditions in your garden?

If so, which plants stand strong and which ones topple?

Have you successfully ameliorated a wind problem by planting or constructing a wind break?

Or do you just refrain from planting annuals or other plants that are prone to wind damage?

Your wisdom is welcome in the Comments field!