Thursday, August 23, 2012

Buffalo Grass Trial - Day #2

Buffalo grass plugs newly installed, Day #2, August 23, 2012

Yesterday, my mail order of Prestige buffalograss arrived from Todd Valley Farms.

(Yes, this is the same Todd Valley Farms referenced in my interview with Wayne Thorson about the virtues of buffalograss. In case you're wondering, I did not get any perks or discounts from Wayne or Todd Valley Farms in exchange for the interview. You can read the Trust section of this website if you'd like to learn more about my policies and promises on editorial integrity. I bought my buffalo grass fair and square in a 95-plug tray for $48 plus $14 shipping and handling. I looked around and investigated buying the buffalo grass through other mail order outlets, but the ones I investigated seemed to basically just be distributors for Todd Valley Farms, so I just decided to buy from the source.)

I have to admit that I was very excited to open the box and see the thick carpet of Prestige buffalograss therein. Despite three days in transit in mid-80s to low-90s weather, the plugs looked healthy, strong and green. Yes, the grass is a softer, greyer color than fescue or bluegrass, but it was incredibly soft and all the blades were nicely interconnected in a way that seemed like it would do a good job of excluding weeds.

In fact, the stolens on the buffalograss were so interwoven that it was impossible to pull the plugs apart without cutting them. My wife graciously volunteered for this task while I set to work trying to dig holes in the rock-hard clay that we call soil.

(I'm sorry I didn't take a photo of the buffalograss looking so pretty in its tray. I was eager to get the plugs untangled and planted. As it was, the job took us ~3 hours and we only finished around sunset. It would have taken far longer without the help of my generous and kind wife!) 

Incidentally, this buffalograss test patch was installed where we previously had our raised garden bed. I disassembled the bed a few days ago, distributing some of the soil therein throughout the landscaped beds and raking the remaining soil to the point where it looked relatively smooth with a nice slight grade away from the house and patio.

Anyway, back to the digging. It was hard work, chopping at the soil with a small shovel. If I were planting more than one tray (and even if I were doing one tray again), I'd certainly consider buying some sort of auger attachment for my drill to make the work go faster and easier. Or I might try the approach my wife suggested, which would be to use a big shovel to chop up the top layer of dirt throughout the whole planting area and then plant all the plugs into that loosened soil. Or maybe it would have been better to use a tiller? I'm not sure yet and confess that I still have a lot to learn about soil!

Prestige buffalograss plugs close up after installation

In any case, we watered down the area, watered down the plugs themselves and chopped out holes in the soil. I didn't worry too much about placing the plugs at exact distances from each other, but I did try to stagger the rows as recommended in the planting instructions. (By 'stagger the rows', I mean that I wanted the post-planting area to have a checkerboard pattern.)

The planting and care instructions sent by Todd Valley Farms are rather chemical dependent. They recommend soaking the plugs with Miracle Gro®or a similar sod/seed starter fertilizer and using chemical herbicides to suppress weeds.

As an organic gardener, I basically ignored those instructions. Instead I scattered some chicken manure and earthworm castings into each of the holes and plan to spray some organic liquid fertilizer in a few weeks. As far as I can tell, the fertilizers that are recommended (every 30 days according to the planting instructions) are not absolutely essential - after all, no one was spraying buffalograss with fertilizer when it was the dominant grass on the Great Plains! - but rather just to encourage the buffalograss to fill in its area before weeds pop up to compete. Since I'm not using an herbicide - some of which like 2-4D can apparently harm the buffalograss itself - I'll need to just be vigilant about weeds and try to pull them before they get established. Since this is a compact area (probably not more than 50-60 square feet), I'm hoping I can deter the weeds until the buffalograss fills in and gets strong enough to screen them out on its own.

Update - Just called Todd Valley Farms and was told that using organic fertilizer is fine, just to try to use one that supports root growth - i.e. one that has more P and K, versus N that would encourage top growth, which would be counterproductive without the roots to support that growth.

An overhead shot of the buffalograss plugs. The slightly darker patch of soil in the middle of the photo is where I emptied out the last of the earthworm castings. I wish all my soil was that dark and rich. Yes, I have Soil Envy!

So that's where things stand for now. The instructions emphasize keeping the plugs wet for two weeks, so I soaked the area thoroughly right after planting and again this morning. I spoke with Todd Farms to ask exactly what this meant in terms of how often to water the plugs, but was told that it was impossible to give a hard answer since the watering frequency would depend on temperature, soil, etc. Basically I was told that I should keep the area 'wet' for two weeks (wet meaning you wouldn't want to walk on it) and then 'moist' for another two weeks (moist meaning you could potentially walk there). I was also given the reassuring news that the plugs are a bit less sensitive to drying out than the sod.

And while some buffalograss buyers have reported problems with their grass turning brown, again as I understand it that is more of a problem with buffalograss sod and/or with spring plantings where the grass is taken out of a warm greenhouse and plopped into a colder environment. Since it's going to be in the low 90s today and for the next couple of days, I don't think I have to worry about cold temperature shocks with the buffalograss!

Prestige buffalograss plugs and one zinnia, one of a couple plants that I didn't have the heart to remove when I was preparing the buffalograss bed

So, I'm very excited to be giving this a try! Hopefully temps will cool off in a week or so (that's the long range forecast) and we'll get some rain which will cut down on the amount of watering I need to do, but for now I'm willing to do some intensive short-term watering for the future promise of less watering down the road. As the "General Care Guidelines After Establishment" in the planting instructions state:
"You should not need to water your buffalograss except in times of drought. If this occurs, deep water (1 to 2 inches) once per month. This will keep your lawn looking lush. Adjustments to this may need to be made due to soil conditions and/or local climates. If you choose not to water, this will not harm the grass (my emphasis) but you may notice a slight browning of the blade tips. Buffalograss will go into dormancy in extreme droughts."
All of this sounds awesome to me. The promise of a lawn - or at least a patch of a lawn - that needs hardly any supplemental water and grows slowly to a maximum height of 4-6 inches tall? That is the dream I am pursuing with this buffalograss trial.

Will the buffalo grass ever knit together into a green carpet? Or will it remain as a patchwork of isolated clumps? Find out (eventually) with free email updates.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Expert Interview #2 - Kirk Shillinglaw, Prairie Nursery

Monarch butterfly and bee on Prairie Blazingstar, photo by Rachel Ford James
As I mentioned when interviewing Ira Wallace of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, my hope with is to share not only my own limited knowledge and experience with gardening, but also to bring you the views, opinions and wisdom from authorities in the field.

For that reason, I’m honored to be able to present an interview with Kirk Shillinglaw, VP of Sales and Marketing at Prairie Nursery. Although Kirk carries a businessperson’s title, he assured me that he was formerly seed division manager at Prairie Nursery, which means that he is well acquainted with the virtues of various prairie and native plants.  Tell me what makes Prairie Nursery different from other plant nurseries and seed catalogs.

Kirk Shillinglaw: We were one of the first nurseries to use native perennials in landscaping. In fact, we just celebrated our 40th anniversary in business, which makes us one of the oldest – if not the oldest – native plant nurseries.

In addition, we have very high quality seed and plants. All the seed we sell is lab-tested for quality and viability, and we hand-grade all our plants. 

And we have something for  just about any soil type or condition. Our annual sales reports show that we have customers in all 48 contiguous states. In the Southeast, many of our customers are located in North Carolina and Tennessee. Why should gardeners consider using native plants in their landscapes?

Shillinglaw: If you choose the right plants that fit your soil and sunlight conditions, then native plants will be naturally adapted to the local conditions. Natives are generally hardy and disease-resistant plants. They often attract birds and butterflies by serving as a natural source of seed and food for pollinators. They are typically low-maintenance and many of them have good drought tolerance. While some natives do naturally experience a certain degree of insect predation, they’re generally less likely than exotic plants to get absolutely mauled by insects, which means that usually gardeners do not need to resort to insecticides to keep a plant alive and healthy. Where I garden in Tennessee, the soil is mostly clay. Many other gardeners in the Southeast and elsewhere in the U.S. garden on clay soils. What sort of plants would you recommend for them?

Shillinglaw: We actually have a strong line of clay plants that we call Clay Busters. The great thing about using these plants is that you don’t have to amend the soil. Really? You don’t have to amend your clay soil at all before planting these Clay Busters?

Shillinglaw: Well, we suggest removing competing vegetation to reduce some competition at the start. If you plant a native plant into a patch of quack grass, it will have a tough time getting established. So give the plants an even playing field, dig a hole, loosen the roots of the potted plant, ensure that you have some loose soil at the bottom of the hole and then tuck the plant in. You do need to give the plant some water in its first few weeks until it gets established so that it can get its roots into the soil. So which of the Clay Busters would you specifically suggest for someone like myself gardening in a sunny patch of Tennessee clay?

Shillinglaw: One of the most commonly and frequently used clay plants is the Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea). Another popular one is Prairie Blazingstar (Liatris pycnostachya). Those are two of the most well-known native prairie plants.

Another plant that can work well in clay is Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium), which has a really unusual and unique appearance.

And one of my favorites is the New England Aster (Aster novae-angliae), which in Tennessee might bloom through November.

In moist clay, Ironweed (Vernonia fasciculate) can be a good choice if you’re looking for a tall plant [4-6 feet].

Butterfly on Rattlesnake Master, photo by sfgamchick You said Ironweed is good for moist clay. What if you have clay soil like mine that is moist after one of our strong rainstorms and slow to dry, but then bakes like concrete in hot, dry weather? And what if you want a plant that can take drought without a lot (if any) of supplemental water?

Shillinglaw: In that case, you want to look for plants like Yellow Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) and Black Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) that are listed in our catalog or on our website as doing well in any kind of soil – Dry, Medium or Moist. The plants that have that description will generally be more cosmopolitan and adaptable with regards to soil moisture. Note that Black Eyed Susan is a biennial, but does self-sow on bare ground, and the vast majority of our plants are perennials that you can plant once and that will come back year after year. Changing topics a little, do you grow your own plants?

Shillinglaw: We do grow approximately 95% of the potted plants we sell in our own greenhouse. Much of our seed is also produced on site. I am trying to do some of my planting in autumn this year (as opposed to this year and last year when I planted in springtime). How do you feel about autumn planting in Tennessee or elsewhere in the Southeast?

Shillinglaw: Planting in fall can be a good idea to help plants get established and put down roots so that they grow a bit more strongly next spring. While most spring transplants will still bloom their first year in the ground, you’re more likely to get blooms the following year on a fall transplant. Our autumn shipping season runs from mid-September to mid-October, although we will ship a little later to Southern areas on request. For large orders, we can sometimes make exceptions and ship outside of this time frame. What are your recommendations when it comes to fertilizing native plants?

Shillinglaw: Generally, there is no need to fertilize native plants. In fact, we find that adding fertilizers may actually tip the balance in favor of competitive weeds. Of course, like anything that is green and growing, if you have a plant that is looking really poor, you might want to add a balanced fertilizer, but generally there is no need to fertilize with native plants. So in the Southeast, where we have a lot of rainfall, but we alternate between periods of heavy rain and drought, would you suggest looking mainly at plants listed as tolerating dry to moist conditions?

Shillinglaw: Well, it depends on soil type. I know quite a few people garden on clay in the Southeast, but if you have a sandy soil, you’re more likely to lose moisture quickly even after a heavy rain. In that situation, plants that we have categorized as suitable for Dry, Sandy & Rocky Soils would be most suitable. What plants would you recommend for shade or partial shade on clay soil?

Shillinglaw: Well, Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) is one good option. Another good choice might be Sweet Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium purpureum). Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense) is a tremendous groundcover for shady or partially shady areas on clay soil. Even a few of the woodland asters, like the Heart Leaved Aster (Aster cordifolious) and the Big Leaf Aster (Aster macrophyllus), can do well in clay and partial shade.
Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense), photo by gardentrek Speaking of groundcovers, any suggestions in that area?

Shillinglaw: We don’t really carry any vines that would rapidly cover an area, but almost any of our ferns has the potential to spread and attain good coverage. Stiff Coreopsis (Coreopsis palmata) can also spread and function as a groundcover. And then there’s Wild Stonecrop (Sedum ternatum), which can function as a groundcover. Another good option might be Palm Sedge (Carex mukingumensis), which has unique foliage that looks like the leaves of a palm tree. Would you say that interest is growing in the U.S. in native, prairie plants?

Shillinglaw: I’d say that the market for purists or traditionalists looking to restore native prairie lands has stayed about the same size in recent years, but we do have more and more customers and potential customers who realize that native plants don’t have to look wild and weedy. A lot of native, prairie plants make excellent garden plants. Very few of these natives are aggressive, which means that they will mostly play well with others.

Also, pretty much everyone likes birds and butterflies, and so the fact that these plants often do a good job of attracting that sort of wildlife is a strong point in favor of the native prairie plants. Generally, I’d say they are becoming more mainstream and more accepted by landscape designers and customers. Presumably a lot of the native plants are also attractive to bees and hummingbirds?

Shillinglaw: Absolutely, bees love plants like Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), which is commonly known as Bee Balm. And Columbine (Aquilegia Canadensis) is an excellent hummingbird plant. Our catalog and website has icons showing which plants are best for attracting birds, hummingbirds and butterflies. And next year, we’re planning to add a bee icon to highlight plants that attract pollinators. We are working on that project with the Xerxes Society, which aims to protect pollinators. Anything new that we can expect from Prairie Nursery down the road?

Shillinglaw: We have been building up the woodland species that we offer, for instance by increasing our selection of woodland ferns. And we are starting to look at offering a few native shrubs, for instance plants like Elderberry. So that’s something to keep an eye on for next year.

Thanks to Kirk at Prairie Nursery for these insights!

It’s almost fall planting season at So stay tuned for photos and play-by-play on some of the big changes coming to the garden!

Have you ever ordered from Prairie Nursery? 

Do you have any native and/or prairie plants in your garden and, if so, how have they fared? 

Please share your experiences in the Comments field below.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Buffalo Grass, Won't You Come Out Tonight?

A cat named Ella on a buffalo grass lawn, photo by mandymooo
Apologies for the pun in the title!

I've become really interested in buffalo grass lately - and blue grama grass for that matter.

I won't go into too much detail here on the problems with traditional lawns. Books have already been written on the topic. Suffice to say that bluegrass and fescue are both resource intensive. They require lots of water, lots of fertilizer and lots of mowing. (I'm not as familiar with bermuda or zoysia grass, but I understand they each have their own issues, particularly with invasiveness.)

So I've been looking for alternate options for groundcover and lawns. Some people recommend lawns made of creeping thyme, but I don't think that's supposed to do well in the humidity of the Southeast.

And my experiments with clover early this year turned out to be a disaster. I won't say that clover isn't suited for any lawn, just that the height and the flowers are not compatible with HOA communities that like lawns to be unobtrusive. But the worst part for me was clover's aggressiveness. I can't imagine how people with clover lawns keep clover out of their landscaped beds and gardens, for instance.

And on the flip side, since clover disappears in extended heat or drought, it's not really a reasonable option for year-round groundcover.

So I've settled on two native grasses as my Great Hope - buffalo grass and blue grama grass.

To find out more about these two options, I spoke on the phone with Wayne Thorson of Nebraska's Todd Valley Farms, a grower with a 20+ year history of cultivating and selling buffalo and blue grama grasses. Here's some of the main information that I gleaned from my call with Wayne:

- Buffalo grass is very drought tolerant and requires much less water than typical mid-South alternatives like bluegrass or fescue. According to Wayne, bluegrass often needs 1 to 1.5 inches of water per week to look its best. In hot weather, that can mean watering once or twice per day. By contrast, buffalo grass needs only 1/4-inch of water per week. In many parts of the country, Wayne says that buffalo grass will not require any supplemental water once it gets established.

Buffalo grass lawn, photo by lindkathi

- Buffalo grass is low-growing. None of the varieties sold by Todd Valley Farms grow more than 8 inches tall, and one of them, Legacy buffalo grass, typically grows only 5 inches tall maximum. Because all buffalo grasses are slow-growing, they can be mowed as little as once per month, or even less frequently, depending on how manicured a look you want for your lawn.

- It is important to pick a bluegrass variety that is adapted or bred for the climate where you live. For the hot and humid Southeast, that means going with Prestige buffalo grass. According to Wayne, Prestige has been grown successfully even in the hottest and most humid regions of southern Texas and Florida.

- Buffalo grass is the only native North American turf grass.

Buffalo grass closeup, photo courtesy of Todd Valley Farms

- Buffalo grass does spread horizontally -- but above-ground using stolons. It does not have below-ground rhizomes like zoysia or bermuda grass. That means (according to Wayne) that it's relatively easy to prevent buffalo grass from invading your flower beds through the occasional use of an edge trimmer.

- Blue Grama grass also has low water use and it's a native North American grass, but Wayne says that it would make a poor choice for a lawn grass because it is not traffic tolerant at all. It also grows about 15-20 inches tall and does not spread. These latter two characteristics, plus it's attractive seed heads, could make it an appealing ornamental border grass. In late winter or early spring, you can rejuvenate blue grama by cutting it down to the ground, though I must confess I have some concerns about damaging the grass during the cutting stage if it is really as traffic intolerant as Wayne suggests.

'Hachita' variety Blue Grama grass, photo by AgriLife Today

- How do these grasses fare in heavy clay soil? Wayne says that buffalo grass thrives in clay soil. High Country Gardens, another native grass supplier, states that blue grama also does well in clay soil.
- How about dormancy? Blue grama and buffalo grass are both warm-season grasses. That means they'll go dormant when the days get shorter and the temperatures get cooler. For Middle Tennessee, Wayne said that I could expect buffalo grass to green up in early April and go dormant around the beginning of November. Blue grama would follow roughly the same schedule, he said, with perhaps a slightly shorter dormant period, but blue grama's seedheads can persist in the colder months, forming a nice addition to the winter landscape.

- Wayne says that both buffalo grass and blue grama grass need relatively little supplemental fertilization. He recommends an annual application of just 1-2 lbs. of nitrogen fertilizer per 1000 square feet of grass. (Applying a heavier dose of fertilizer could actually give an advantage to weeds that would compete against the buffalo grass.) By comparison, Iowa State University recommends 3-5 lbs. of nitrogen fertilizer per 1000 square feet for a bluegrass lawn.

Buffalo grass plugs ready for planting, photo courtesy of Todd Valley Farms

If you want to read more about the pros and cons of buffalo grass, there are a number of good Internet resources like this overview from Colorado State University. Do note that according to CSU, buffalo grass is not well-suited for sites that get more than 1/2-day of complete shade.

So...Does buffalo grass (or blue grama) sound like an interesting/worthwhile option to you? I have to confess I'm intrigued with the idea of a low-maintenance, drought-tolerant, native lawn and I will probably try planting a small trial patch of buffalo grass this autumn.

How will buffalo grass fare in Middle Tennessee in the long run? Find out with a free email subscription?

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Botanical Garden Review - Cheekwood, Nashville, Tennessee, USA

I'm a big fan of botanical gardens in general, and since Cheekwood is my hometown garden, naturally I have warm and fuzzy feelings toward it.

And yet, I don't get to Cheekwood as often as I would like. I used to live just around the corner, but since we moved further away, it's become a special occasion sort of trip.

But just to be masochistic, we decided to visit Cheekwood on a typically hot and muggy August day (~95 degrees). The good part is that the garden wasn't that crowded. The bad part is that it was 95 degrees! We carried LOTS of water, sought out shade and hydrated constantly.

I wanted to see which plants were thriving in Middle TN despite the heat. Here's some of what we saw:

Big bee on unidentified purple flowers. Anyone know what these flowers are?

Beautiful goldfinch snacking on cone flower seeds, I believe

Two more goldfinches munching on coneflower seeds. I like goldfinches and I like coneflowers. They go together like Rice Krispies and milk.

I was so focused on getting a photo of this handsome grasshopper before he hopped off that I didn't even notice this white flower until I uploaded the photo. What do you think? Could it be a balloon flower?

These green and gold bushes were really dazzling and looked simply luminous and healthy despite the baking heat. They were pared (as you can see) with hostas that had a similar color scheme. I'm not a huge fan of hostas (is that sacrilegious to admit?) but I did like this big bush. Anyone know what it's called? I'm pretty sure I've seen it in a catalog, but I can't remember the name and it looks like it would be a great shrub for Middle TN if it can handle this summer's heat, humidity and drought and still look this good. PS - Could it be Aucuba japonica??

Beautiful groundcover, dotted with charming pink flowers. I'm thinking that the leaves and buds look a lot like zinnias, but these were really short and the flowers seemed pretty different from zinnias that I've grown. What do you think? Are they zinnias? And if so, what variety?  Maybe one of the Profusion series?


1) Art + Gardens -- Cheekwood has both an (air-conditioned) art museum housed in an historic mansion and numerous gardens. It's a nice mix. When you get hot and tired (or, in the winter, cold and tired) there's a climate-controlled space to cool down or warm up. And if you're a history buff or a coffee drinker, you might be interested in visiting Cheekwood just for the Maxwell House connection...

2) New Literary, Rain and Wildflower Gardens -- Like other parts of Middle Tennessee, Cheekwood has suffered its share of severe weather lately. As I recall, one particularly severe storm wreaked havoc in what had been a shade garden, necessitating a complete rethinking and replanting of that space. The newly renovated Howe Garden is not only a beautiful space in its own right, but also does a good job explaining some of the concepts and importance of rain gardens. And I simply adored the Hobbit-esque house stone house with the thatched roof in the Howe Garden. Plus there's a new Sigourney Cheek Literary Garden too where readings are held on a monthly basis. I haven't been to any of the readings yet, but it looks like there is a small rock amphitheater that has been built to foster intimate storytelling sessions and I can easily imagine that the result is charming. Paths throughout the new gardens are well-constructed and comfortable for strolling.

3) The People -- As elsewhere in Nashville, my experience is that Cheekwood staffers, particularly the gardeners and the museum docents, tend to be kind, cheerful and polite, which makes any botanical garden visit more enjoyable.

Constructive Criticism:

1) Variety, or Lack Thereof: I believe that a botanical garden should serve both aesthetic and educational purposes. Cheekwood has loads of dogwood trees and an impressive alley of crape myrtles. Both certainly fit into the local horticultural vernacular and deserve a place in the garden, but I would have very much liked to see more variety and more unusual specimens among the plants on display.

2) Give Me a Sign: I don't mean to be harsh, but I thought signage was simply dreadful through the gardens we visited. Seeing an interesting plant and finding a identifying tag was the exception to the rule. And sometimes in the rare occasions where ID tags did exist they were illegible due to their location literally 20-feet from the path in the middle of a landscaped bed sporting a sign pleading with visitors to stay on the path. It would have been more helpful in that scenario to have a large illustrated sign near the path explaining what plants were in the bed and offering photos of each one. There are one or two signs in the Howe Garden that take this approach, but again, they are the exception rather than the rule. Thus my confusion and pleas for assistance in identifying some of the beautiful plants in the photos above...

3) A Feast for the Senses: Gardening is about beauty, but taste is also one of the five senses. How about adding a demonstration vegetable garden that might inspire visitors to grow some of their own food and even show them that a potager can be aesthetically pleasing? I guess it would be a lot of work to maintain, but I think it would be a valuable addition to what Cheekwood has to offer (and probably would help make the garden more historically accurate, since I would imagine the Cheek family grew some crops on site back in the day...)

PS - If you have children or you are a child-at-heart, this month is a great time to visit Cheekwood to see some incredible giant treehouses based on famous works of literature!

Sweepstakes #1 - We have a winner for the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange sweepstakes!

Thank you to everyone who participated in the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange sweepstakes!

This morning, I used the random number generator at to randomly choose a winner from among the valid entry comments left on the blog.

In this case, as you can see, the winner was #16: emchelly77, who hopes to grow sunflowers or tomatoes. (I heartily endorse both crops, but I'm not sure that there's still time to plant either this fall, unless emchelly77 lives someplace where frost comes awfully late...)

Thank you again to all who entered, subscribed and commented. I hope to have many more gardening-related sweepstakes on in the future.

If you have ideas for future sweepstakes -- or ways to improve the blog, topics you want me to cover, etc. -- please don't hesitate to leave a comment below or to contact me.


Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Good Read - Seeking Tougher Roses

Rose in the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, photo by David Gardiner Garcia

I came across the interesting story in the New York Times the other day about a curator (fancy title!) at the New York Botanical Garden trying to identify and promote tough roses that can grow without herbicides, pesticides and even without much fertilizer or supplemental water!

Here's a link to the story: Leading the Search for a Self-Reliant Bloom

What do you think of the article?

Personally, I don't have any roses in my garden now, but I do aspire to someday plant some and hope to install just these kind of tough-as-nails roses.

But I have noticed that some of the tough (and IMHO overplanted) roses in our neighborhood - the Knockout Roses - don't seem to attract many bees, and I would want a rose I plant to be a pollinator-magnet in addition to being tough and beautiful.

Is it asking too much to want it all? ;-)

When I do buy, I'm thinking of ordering from the High Country Roses catalog, probably one or more of the Species Roses.

ps - Today is the last day to enter the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange sweepstakes. I'll choose and contact a winner tomorrow!

Monday, August 6, 2012

Close Up #1 -- Japanese Cucumbers, Southern Delight and Progress

Here's a new type of post on that I hope to repeat semi-regularly where I'll take an in-depth look at one particular kind of plant in the garden.

Today, let's take a close up look at the two varieties of Japanese cucumber - Southern Delight and Progress - that I'm growing in the garden. Both of these are grown from seed that I purchased online at Kitazawa Seed.

Baby cucumber. Most cucumbers have both male and female flowers. The female flowers are the ones with a baby cucumber at the base.
Both the Progress and Southern Delight varieties are supposedly bred to withstand heat and disease.

They survived the all-time Nashville record heat (109 degrees) and all the 100+ days in late June / early July. But they did grow much better when temperatures fell back into the 90s.

If the female flower is not pollinated, the baby cucumber will dry up and fall off. That was a problem I had last year for a while, which forced me to try hand pollination with a very small paintbrush with limited success. Pollination seems to be better this year, perhaps because of all the zinnias and cosmos I've planted among the vegetables to attract pollinators. Here, pollination seems to have occurred and the baby cucumber is getting darker and longer.

Last year, my cucumbers sprawled all over the ground and I think the lack of air circulation might have contributed to the plants getting either powdery or downy mildew, which basically killed the cukes. So this year, I wanted to trellis them for better air circulation, but I wasn't sure of the best way to do it, so I experimented by taking some leftover hardware cloth in the garage and bending it into a tunnel that I secured to the ground with landscape staples (pounded in with a rubber mallet) and weighted down with bricks and heavy stones.

Cucumbers starting to cover the makeshift trellis. I think we've got Progress on the left and Southern Delight on the righ in this picture.

For whatever reason, I'm totally charmed by the curliness of the cucumber tendrils

Here's a young Japanese cucumber. It seems to me that the blossoms hang on the end of these Japanese cucumbers more persistently than on the 'American' cukes I grew last year. Love the huge, healthy green leaves!

One thing that has surprised me about the Japanese cucumbers is just how thin they are! I know that the catalog describes them as approximately 1-inch diameter (versus maybe 2-3 inches on a typical 'American' cuke?) but they still seem really slender to me. Well, I guess that means I can justify eating more cukes at each meal!

Fortunately, the skin is so thin on a Japanese cucumber that there's no need to peel the cuke. At least, I don't peel them. I just wash them thoroughly and slice them up with the skin on, then eat them with a little salt. Yummy!

They grow up so fast...

Sadly, despite the trellising, the plants did end up afflicted with some disease. Some of the leaves yellowed, others got blotchy. Some of the cucumbers grew deformed. Trying to diagnose the problem on the Internet, I suspected bacterial wilt. And I found some insects clustered on the growing tips that I suspected were juvenile leaf-footed bugs. I knocked a bunch of them off into a bucket of soapy water which effectively killed them without harming the plant or any other beneficial insects nearby.

On an optimistic note, some of the plants seem to have recovered somewhat, which would suggest that maybe the problem is not bacterial wilt, since I believe that's supposed to always lead to the rapid irreversible demise of the cucumber plant...

Anyway, I'm happy that the plants are still forging onward. The other day I even harvested two cucumbers that were long and straight and healthy-looking.

Cucumbers are not problem-free plants and it seems like they do require some pampering and watering in the South, but they're still one of my favorite things to grow (and eat) so far!

Japanese cucumbers tossed with a little salt. What could be cooler and more refreshing in the summertime?


- Have you ever grown Japanese cucumbers? If so, do you peel them or just eat them with the skin on?

- What is your favorite variety of cucumber to grow and why?

- Do you experiment with any wild cucumber recipes or do you just eat them sliced or in a salad?

There's still a little time left to enter the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange sweepstakes, which ends tomorrow (August 7th) at 11:59 p.m. Central time!

Friday, August 3, 2012 Video - Zinnias, Garden Phlox, Sunflowers and lots of Crape Myrtles!

You know, I feel like it's only really rained a couple of times all summer here in my little patch of Middle TN.

This morning, I heard the weatherman say that we're only an inch or so below normal in Nashville. Well, that may be the official rain gauge at the airport or Downtown or wherever they measure these things, but there are an awful lot of storms that have skittered by north and south of us while missing us entirely.

It happened a few nights ago when we had loud rolls of thunder and lots of heat lightning flashes, but just a little drizzle.

And it happened today where we got a steady rain for all of 2 minutes. By the time I got outside to take a look, the rain had stopped, the sun was out and the atmosphere felt like a steam bath.

So I can't say I'm surprised that some of the zinnias are throwing in the towel, giving up the ghost, calling it quits. Same for a lot of the cosmos. They may be drought-tolerant, but they need some decent downpours every once in a while!

What amazes me more is the way that plenty of plants continue to tough out the heat and the drought in this full-sun, clay soil cauldron. And that's the topic of this short video walk around my garden a couple of days ago:

In other news, you still have a few days left to enter the / Southern Exposure Seed Exchange Sweepstakes for a chance to win 5 seed packets of your choice from the Southern Exposure catalog!

To enter is sign up for the email list, verify your email subscription and leave a comment on the sweepstakes post, where you'll also find the full contest rules. The contest ends at 11:59 p.m. on Tuesday August 7, 2012.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Expert Interview #1 and Sweepstakes #1 - Ira Wallace, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Growing a garden from seed can produce tasty rewards, like these juicy and sweet Sun Gold cherry tomatoes!

As one of the co-owners of the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (SESE) co-op, Ira Wallace is extremely knowledgeable about seeds, particularly when it comes to the edible plants that predominate in the SESE catalog.

As Ira's biography details, she has had a wealth of experiences from her early days volunteering at Florida's Sarasota Succulent Society, to her learning experiences on a kibbutz in Israel, an organic farm in Denmark and a cooperative community in Canada where she became a certified plantsman.

In addition to her work at SESE, Ira serves on the board of the Organic Seed Alliance, writes for Mother Earth News and helps organize the Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello (September 14-15 this year).

So given this busy schedule, we're thrilled that she agreed to an interview with so that we can share Ira's expertise with you now in our first Expert Interview:

(FYI -- I asked Ira these questions a couple of weeks ago and just found time to publish the blog post now, so please take into account that her answers were provided in mid-July. Apologies for the delay in publishing them!) Your website says that you carry more than 700 varieties of vegetable, flower, herb, grain and cover crop seeds. Are all these seeds organic and how do you choose which varieties to carry?

Ira Wallace: Over 400 of our varieties are USDA certified organic and many of the remaining varieties are grown sustainably by small part-time farmers and gardeners committed to seed saving and preserving heirloom varieties. We work to help more seed growers get certified organic and to help more certified organic farmers add seed production to the mix produced on their farm.
We trial all of our varieties on our farm here in Central Virginia. Many of them are family heirlooms sent to us by customers like Shronces' Deep Black peanuts or varieties developed by southern universities or extension stations like Tropic tomato from Florida or the nematode resistant Carolina Wonder pepper.

We also like to offer the fruit of successful on-farm and amateur breeding programs like the Cross Continental Breeding program that Craig LeHoullier and many others are working on. Brett Grosghal at Ev'nStar Farm has given us some great Winter Hardy Greens. Frank Morton at Wild Garden Seeds does amazing work with lettuce. Folks love his Wild Garden lettuce mix. The USDA gene bank has been really helpful for getting seed samples of older varieties no longer available commercially to try. From those and other sources we offer the best from our trials in the Southern Exposure catalog.  Is it too late to plant some additional garden crops in the Southeast?

Ira Wallace: Actually, this is a great time to plant crops. You can still plant summer crops like summer squash, cucumbers and zucchini, but you would want to plant a variety that matures quickly, like Yellow Crookneck squash (55 days to maturity) or Spacemaster cucumber (60 DTM). How about planting fall crops?

Ira Wallace: It can be hard for organic gardeners to get seedlings started in the middle of summer, particularly due to pressure from insects. I like to cover the seedlings with a floating reemay cover. Of course, it doesn't look pretty, but that's why I group all my seedlings into a dedicated bed where I can keep them watered and protected with the reemay. Then when the temperatures cool down and the plants are more established, I transplant them throughout the garden.

As the weather cools, these crops grow fantastically well with little pressure from insect pests that are less active in the colder weather. I always get much larger, nicer heads of broccoli and cauliflower in the fall than I do in the spring.Other seeds to sow in a rich bed with afternoon shade from tall crops like corn or staked tomatoes and beans are cilantro, cabbage, broccoli, collards, salad greens, Chinese cabbage, Asian greens, beets and carrots. Wait until it is cooler in late August or September for arugula, kale, spinach and lettuce.

I use the seedling bed covered with floating row cover for many types of seedlings, except root crops which are better sown in place because they do not transplant well. What about waiting until the weather cools - here that could mean into October - to plant fall/winter crops?
Ira Wallace: The problem with waiting that long is that the plants really won't grow much during the winter. But if you plant something like Bloomsdale Spinach, it should overwinter well in the South, especially if it is well-mulched, and then grow really well in the springtime as the weather warms up. Bloomsdale is a particularly good variety for over-wintering since it grows low to the ground, which affords it better protection from hard freezes versus the types of spinach that grow more vertically. On the other hand, autumn is the time to plant crops like garlic and onions that you would then harvest the following May or June. Speaking about mulch, what sort of mulch do you like to use in your garden?

Ira Wallace: I like to use straw, particularly because it has few weed seeds. We also use hay sometimes. As for wood chips, we use those mostly on the paths between the beds. And then do you turn in the straw to act as a soil ammendment?

Ira Wallace: We do! We like to add as much organic material to the soil as possible. We turn in the straw and we also grow cover crops like buckwheat that we turn into the soil. Here in Virginia, those beds where we have gardened for a number of years have been transformed from red clay soil into brown gold. How about fertilizer? Do you use any type of fertilizer in particular in your gardens?

Ira Wallace: We used to use a lot of chicken manure, but then we realized that we were raising the level of phosphorus quite a bit, so we don't really use much of that anymore.

Mostly nowadays we just use amendments like earthworm castings or mushroom compost that we can get from an organic mushroom growers.

I would encourage gardeners to see if they can find interesting and unusual fertilizer sources nearby. For example, one of my gardening friends is able to get okara, which is a byproduct of tofu production. Okara is naturally high in nitrogen and can make a great soil amendment to an organic garden. Are there any particularly interesting or unusual varieties of seed in your catalog that you think gardeners might find exciting?

Ira Wallace: We have these really neat seeds from a plant called an Egyptian Walking Onion. These are perennial onions that are quite hardy to zone 4. You can eat the green stalks anytime and dig the onion bulbs themselves in fall and winter, using what you want and replanting the rest. But you actually don't even have to dig the bulbs at all, because the stalks themselves produce aerial bulblets! Thanks for your time and your advice, Ira! We hope you'll participate in an interview again in the future!

Sweepstakes Notice! 

Ira Wallace has generously offered to have Southern Exposure Seed Exchange be our first sweepstakes sponsor.

One lucky winner will receive Five (5) Seed Packets of his or her choice from among those seed packets priced at $4 or less in the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange catalog. This covers most of the 'regular' size seed packets in the catalog, which is one of the most exciting and diverse mail-order catalogs that I have seen. The SESE seed catalog includes vegetables, flowers and herbs, many of them unusual heirloom varieties you may not find elsewhere.  

To be eligible to win, all you need to do is subscribe to the email list and post a comment below saying what (if anything) you are hoping or planning to plant this autumn.

Update 8/2/2012 - When you sign up for an email subscription, FeedBurner (which manages the email list) will send you a verification request. You must verify your email and activate your subscription by 8/7/2012 at 11:59 p.m. Central time to be eligible to win the sweepstakes.

Sweepstakes Rules (with apologies for all the legalese):

- No purchase necessary to enter. A purchase or payment of any kind will not increase your chances of winning.

- Contest only open to persons 18 years of age or older who are residents of the contiguous United States
- Winner can choose any five available seed packets in the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange catalog with a listed retail price of $4 or less each. 

- Prize includes shipping and handling from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange to winner's mailing address in the contiguous United States.

- Total maximum approximate retail value of this prize is $25, although prize value may be lower depending on seed packets chosen by the winner.

- This sweepstakes began on Wednesday, August 1, 2012. The contest will run for one week. To be eligible to win, you must have signed up for the email list and posted a comment by 11:59 p.m. U.S. Central time on Tuesday, August 7, 2012.

- On Wednesday, August 8, 2012, will choose one (1) winner from among the eligible entries by using a random number generator website. The number of eligible entries received determines the odds of winning. Winner will be notified by email (if the commentator's profile contains an email address) or via a posting on (if the commentator's profile does not contain an email address). Winner will have 72 hours from the time of being contacted by email and/or blog posting to respond and confirm acceptance of prize.

- To receive the prize, winner must agree to allow to identify his/her comment as the winning comment.

- To receive the prize, winner must also acknowledge that acceptance, participation and use of the prize is solely at his/her own risk and therefore must unconditionally and forever release, discharge and agree to hold harmless, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange and any of their officers, directors, employees, agents or contractors from any and all claims, judgments, costs, damages, losses, expenses and liabilities relating to any claim now or hereafter with respect to any death, personal injury, property damage, pecuniary loss or other loss, damage, cost or expenses suffered by winner or any third party as a result of the sweepstakes or the prize awarded.

- will have sole judgment and discretion in selecting a winner and awarding the prize. will not be liable for any technical malfunctions or typographical errors that result in the disruption or corruption of the sweepstakes. In the event that tampering, fraud, technical failures or other problems prevent the sweepstakes from running as planned, reserves the right to cancel the sweepstakes or limit entries to those legitimately received before any action was taken and/or award the prize in such a manner as may be deemed fair and equitable by in its sole discretion.

- Once winner has fulfilled all conditions and confirmed acceptance of prize, will share the winner's contact information (name and email address) with Southern Exposure Seed Exchange so that winner can claim his/her prize of five (5) seed packets.

- In the event that winner does not fulfill all conditions or does not accept prize in writing within 72 hours of notification, winner will forfeit the prize, which will then be re-awarded using a subsequent random drawing.

- If you have any questions about these sweepstakes rules, please contact for clarification.

- This sweepstakes is void where prohibited by law.