Friday, October 31, 2014

First Taste - Sweet Potato Greens!

Sweet potato leaves make one heck of a good side dish.
They're served here with purple mustard greens (self-sown fall crop -- several generations removed from seeds I sowed back in spring 2012!) and sliced green pepper.
A couple of months ago, I let some sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) sit too long in the closet. And they sprouted vines.

Hm. What to do? I could throw them out or plant them in the garden.

So I dug some shallow holes in the sun-baked clay soil, dropped in the sweet potatoes, gave them a little bit of water and basically forgot about them.

Fast forward to this week. The vines were a couple of feet long and covered with healthy-looking leaves.

As University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension reminded me, sweet potato leaves are not only edible, they also may be healthful and nutritious.

(Note - Be sure you are picking SWEET potato leaves, because regular (white) potato leaves are POISONOUS! Also be sure you're picking the leaves of a sweet potato and not some other member of the Ipomoea family such as Morning Glories, as sources suggest that many other Ipomoea species contain toxic alkaloids.)

So, I strolled to the garden, picked some of the soft and tender sweet potato leaves from their vines, brought them inside, rinsed them off and tossed them in a frying pan with some freshly-picked mustard greens and some sliced green pepper.

I drizzled a tiny bit of olive oil into the pan and cooked the whole shebang over low heat for a couple of minutes.

The verdict? Delicious!

In fact, I'd say it's much better tasting than spinach with sweet undertones and none of the oxalic acid sourness you find in spinach or chard.

Here are some other blog posts about the virtues of sweet potato leaves via The Slow Cook and Show Me Oz. And here's a YouTube video showing an alternate method of preparing (blanching) sweet potato leaves.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Travel Report -- Berlin Botanical Garden: Papaya, Zigzag Goldenrod, Lady's Mantle, Male Fern, Firecracker Vine and more!

Perennial beds at the Berlin Botanical Garden

With all the historical sights and great museums in Berlin, I doubt that many international visitors make it to the Botanical Garden (officially the Botanischer Garten und Botanisches Museum Berlin-Dahlem).

That's a shame, because it's a huge place filled with an array of interesting plants. Here were some of the highlights for me:

A nice specimen of Dryopteris filix-mas, also known as Male Fern. It's actually native to much of the United States, but I've never seen it in a garden here. Funny how sometimes you have to go half way around the world to find a plant that's appreciated as an 'exotic' ornamental! 

Bee on aster at the Berlin Botanical Garden

A nice dense patch of Epimedium x versicolor "Sulphureum" showing its potential as a shady groundcover

Bee visiting a dahlia. I noticed a lot of dahlias in both German and Dutch gardens. And I have to say that I was impressed. I must admit that I'm not too familiar with dahlias, but I plan to do a lot more research to see if I can find a way to incorporate one or more in my garden. 

Gorgeous swath of nasturtiums. I once tried (and failed) to grow nasturtiums here in Tennessee. They seem to thrive in Berlin.
This is Mina Lobata, the Firecracker Vine. Native to Brazil and only hardy to zone 12, it's clearly being used as an annual here, but to tremendous effect. I'd seen it online before, but this was my first time seeing it in person. Color me very impressed.
Bee on a lovely stand of Verbena bonariensis. 

Another really interesting design choice. Berlin Botanical Garden shows the potential of Lady's Mantle to serve as the defining plant in an herbaceous border.

Here's yet another plant that I'd heard about, but never seen in person before. This is Solidago flexicaulis, commonly known as Zigzag Goldenrod. Yep, it's another North American plant that I had to travel to Europe to see in a garden! Anyways, we tend to think of goldenrods as sun-loving plants, but as you can see here, the Zigzag Goldenrod is actually happy in a shady forest setting!

I like papaya juice and I've seen papayas in the supermarket, but I'd never seen papayas growing on a tree before. Here you can see how they cluster along the trunk of the Carica papaya, a tree that is native to tropical areas of Central and South America.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Travel Report - Berlin Mystery Shrub?!

Unknown mystery shrub in a planter box on Berlin street. Can anyone ID it?

Well, they say travel broadens the mind.

But sometimes it just mystifies the mind.

At least that was the case when I came upon this landscaping shrub on the Berlin streetscape - in a prominent spot on Museum Island to be precise.

Anyone have a clue as to the identity of this mysterious (to me) shrub?

Close up on Berlin mystery shrub flower. Does this help any plant sleuths out there?

Detail of mystery shrub seedpod. Surely this must jog somebody's memory?

Update 10/28/14 - After cross-posting my "Please help with plant ID!" request to Google+, I received help from a few friends over there ( +Eric Hunt+Tatjana Tijan and +Teresa Schoellkopf) letting me know that this is most likely Oleander -- or more scientifically, Nerium oleander, as Lynn points out in the comments below. As I wrote to Eric, I was kind of amazed that Berlin is using the shrub for street landscaping, considering its poisonous reputation, but Eric told me that in fact oleander is used heavily in California as a landscaping shrub, and Tatjana chimed in to say that it also grows in profusion around the Medtierranean. Teresa then mentioned another potential drawback with oleander, saying that her experience with the shrub in Galveston, TX leads her to believe that it has an aggressive root system capable of breaking through PVC pipe and damaging sewer lines. Yikes. Do you think folks should still be planting oleander given these drawbacks and the fact that it seems to have few ecological benefits

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Travel Report -- Sweet (Bee) Dreams in Berlin at the Ritz-Carlton and the Scandic on Potsdamer Platz

Rooftop beehives at the Ritz-Carlton Berlin, with the Tiergarten park in the background

In September, I took a trip to Germany and the Netherlands. Over the next few posts on Garden of Aaron, I'll be sharing some of my garden related experiences and memories from the trip.

But first, any travel involves finding a place to sleep. Personally, as a gardener, I try to find places with an eco-friendly sensibility.

In Berlin, I found two hotels that actually maintain their own beehives and produce their own honey - the Ritz-Carlton and the Scandic, both of which are on or near Potsdamer Platz.

Wikipedia has a great entry on the history of Potsdamer Platz, once the busiest public square in Europe. Destroyed in WWII and subsequently divided by the Berlin Wall, Potsdamer Platz became a desolate no man's land.

But after the Cold War ended and Germany reunified, the platz sprang back to life. For a while, it was the biggest construction site in Europe. Heavy investment has transformed it once more into a showcase for modern Germany.

All of which is to say that from a traveler's perspective, Potsdamer Platz is interesting, historical (you can still see remnants of the Berlin Wall) and convenient from a transit perspective.

When I started researching eco-friendly places to stay in Berlin, it was the beehives at the Ritz-Carlton that first caught my eye. Installed in 2011, the seven beehives house up to 400,000 (!) bees in the summer -- fewer in winter -- who collectively produce 250 to 400 kilograms of honey each year. Some of that honey shows up at breakfast in the hotel's restaurant, while jars of the sweet stuff can be purchased as souvenirs at the hotel's gift shop. Some of the honey even makes its way into the hotel's delicious signature lavender-honey cake!

Signature lavender-honey cake at the Ritz-Carlton Berlin

Where do the bees gather their nectar and pollen in the midst of a giant urban area? Well, Potsdamer Platz is nearby the Tiergarten, a large city park. I also noticed quite a few bees buzzing around inside the display cases at local bakeries and donut shops. Coincidence? :)

The restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton Berlin incorporates ingredients from approximately 5 acres of land that are farmed exclusively for the hotel. The farm is in the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern region, a couple of hours north of Berlin. In season, the farmer (who is also the supplier for the Ritz-Carlton Berlin's organic lamb meat) grows more than 60 kinds of organic and bio-certified vegetables and herbs for the hotel, including pumpkins, onions, carrots, cabbage, Jerusalem Artichoke (known locally as topinambur) and lavender.
(Photo courtesy of Ritz-Carlton Berlin)

The beehives are just one of the many environmental initiatives at the Ritz-Carlton Berlin, which recently became the first five-star-superior hotel to win certification from the EU's Eco-Management and Audit Scheme. The hotel managed this feat by taking a number of eco-friendly steps, including installing energy-saving LED lights, using environmentally-friendly cleaning products and reducing water usage.

I was impressed to hear that the hotel partners with a recycling program to transform its paper waste into school notebooks. The hotel provides approximately 25 tons of paper materials every three months that are then processed into more than 1,300 notebooks, which are distributed to welfare organizations in Germany and abroad.


After a couple of nights at the Ritz-Carlton, I checked out and walked ten minutes to my next hotel, the nearby Scandic Berlin Potsdamer Platz.

This was my first time staying at a Scandic hotel. Headquartered in Sweden, Scandic is a Nordic company with hotels in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Poland.

The company has a long track record of supporting sustainability initiatives over the past two decades. One thing I really liked and don't think I'd ever seen at another hotel was the way the hotel had subdivided the in-room wastebasket to allow for easy separation of organic and paper wastestreams.

The cheerful and clever subdivided wastebasket at the Scandic Berlin Potsdamer Platz.

To reduce packaging waste, you'll notice that the hotel has done away with the innumerable little bottles of shampoo and body soap that you find in most hotels and replaced them with refillable pump bottles in the shower.

Refillable pump bottles of soap and shampoo in the shower at the Scandic Berlin Potsdamer Platz

As a gardener, I loved the way that the hotel incorporated nature themes throughout its decor. For instance, this translucent panel between the shower and the bedroom is decorated with a leaf motif that glows when the bathroom light is on.

These nature motifs continue in the hallways, where murals (giant decals perhaps?) adorn the walls at the ends of the corridors. Piped in nature sounds such as birdsongs (motion-activated like the lights) provide a soothing soundtrack. I believe there are also ambient nature sounds in the elevators.
You'll even find the nature theme continued on some of the lampshades in the guest rooms at the Scandic Berlin Potsdamer Platz.

Clearly the Scandic has less Old World luxury than the Ritz-Carlton. Still, I was impressed with the Scandic's trendy modern design. I liked the wooden floors for instance, and the floor-to-ceiling windows.

The Scandic Berlin Potsdamer Platz seemed really new and clean. Here's another eco-friendly design choice -- a dual-flush toilet designed to reduce water usage. I like how the Scandic shows that you don't have to sacrifice beauty when you emphasize eco-friendly design. Personally I think it would be nice if every toilet in hotels (or homes) offered the dual-flush option.

I didn't get a photo of it, but like the Ritz-Carlton, the Scandic Berlin Potsdamer Platz also produces and sells its own honey. Some of that honey also ends up on the breakfast buffet, which was included in our room rate and featured a selection of packaged and fresh organic products (which are typically labeled as "bio" in Europe).

So if you're a gardener or just a traveler who wants to support and encourage eco-friendly business practices while still enjoying a comfortable and convenient stay, I'd have no qualms about recommending either the Ritz-Carlton Berlin or the Scandic Berlin Potsdamer Platz.

(Well, maybe one qualm. In an effort to save energy, I believe the Scandic Berlin Potsdamer Platz turns off its air conditioning between 9 p.m. and 9 a.m. We had a little bit of a warm spell during our time in Berlin and I did find it a little hard to sleep at night. I'm a little concerned that the room might become a sauna during a Berlin heatwave... Clearly I'm not the only one who had concerns over this practice. Reviews are generally very positive on Tripadvisor, but the few negative reviews generally reference the lack of nighttime A/C as the reason for giving a poor rating.)

Starting next week, I'll be sharing photos from my visits to German gardens. Stay tuned!

Full disclosure: Both the Ritz-Carlton Berlin and the Scandic Berlin Potsdamer Platz allowed me to stay in their hotels on a discount media rate. That said, all of the opinions expressed in this review are still my own.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Energizer Flowers in the October Garden of Aaron - Balloon Flower, Rozanne Geranium, October Skies Aster, Chaste Tree and more!

I'm probably revealing my age here, but do you remember the Energizer battery commercials from years past with a battery-powered bunny drummer that kept going and going and going?

That's just the sort of plant I admire in the garden, one that flowers for months and months without much (or any) external intervention.

I actually went away for a few weeks in September and left my garden to its own devices. We had a warm September here in Tennessee -- meaning plenty of days with temps in the 80s and practically no rain whatsoever (0.25 inches for the whole month).

And while the grass got some water from the sprinkler, the garden had to fend for itself without any irrigation. Here's how things looked when I got home:

Red berries on the Aronia arbutifolia, Red Chokeberry

Bunches of black berries on the Aronia melanocarpa, Black Chokeberry.
In prior years, these had some nice fall color. More recently, they seem to get defoliated (perhaps by lacebugs) every year, which doesn't seem to damage the plant much, but certainly eliminates any autumn color.

Autumn Fern (a.k.a. Japanese Shield Fern), Dryopteris erythrosora, I installed two of these in April in a partial shade setting. They seemed to struggle at first, but have since settled in nicely. Yep, it turns out there are ferns such as this that are remarkably drought tolerant once established. In fact, UGA recommends it as a groundcover for Georgia, which tells you it can take the heat (though it's also cold hardy to USDA zone 5). No flowers of course, but the new fronds have a beautiful copper color.

This is Platycodon grandiflora, the Balloon Flower. It had a nice long flowering period in the early summer, after which it formed seeds. Last year, I let the seeds mature and fall to the ground, which resulted in some self-sowing. This year, I trimmed back the plant by about one-third, which prompted it to rebloom vigorously. I've also noticed some bees visiting the flowers this year, which is nice.

Baptisia australis, Blue False Indigo, this has pretty flowers in the spring, but it certainly doesn't fall into the Energizer flower category (the flowers only last a couple of weeks at most), But it's a trouble-free tough native perennial with lovely foliage that stays attractive all year. It is also apparently a host plant for the Clouded Sulphur butterfly, which I have seen in my garden this year for the first time. I just planted some new Baptisias from Prairie Nursery, so hopefully I'll have more Baptisia foliage next year upon which the Clouded Sulphurs can dine.

I planted three small Spicy Globe basil plants in the spring. I hae to say this was not necessarily my favorite basil from a taste perspective. But they formed nice bushy plants (perhaps 8 inches high by 12 inches wide) that were covered with flowers for months and months. As you may be able to see in the left middle section of the photo, the flowers do a great job of attracting bees. So if you're looking to attract pollinators to your garden, a few basil plants could work wonders. And unlike some herbs, they seem to grow perfectly well (at least in Tennessee) in partial shade. Since these got so much attention from pollinators and since I never cut them back, I'm very curious to see whether they will self sow next year.

The Camellia sasanqua by the front porch has started blooming. You can't see it here, but the flowers attract a steady stream of honeybee visitors.

Even though I did not do any deadheading or pruning, the young Vitex agnus-castus (Chaste Tree) began reblooming in early September and was still going strong in early October. These flower spikes almost always have large bees hanging on them from dawn to dusk. They also attract some butterflies, as you can see from the small tawny skipper butterfly in the upper section of this photo.

More big bees on Chaste Tree flower spike

Practically all the cosmos have fallen over, but they usually are tough enough to keep blooming even while lying prone on the ground. And as you can see here, the (slightly out-of-focus) small bees will keep visiting regardless.

You may not be able to tell from this photo, but this (self-sown) cosmos plant has actually fallen across the path, but it is still blooming its heart out. No deadheading required for weeks and weeks (sometimes months and months) of blooms!

I'm not a huge fan of daylilies, but I do have some in my garden that I inherited and more that I added before I decided I didn't like them much. One thing I truly dislike is staring at the dead, dying and damaged daylily foliage after the plants flower. So after doing some research online, I read it's possible to cut the daylilies to the ground and have them resprout fresh foliage (aquilegia will do the same). So I gave it a try and - voila! - it worked! This clean foliage is much nicer to look at from late summer into autumn.

Another clump of daylilies that was cut back to the ground in mid-summer and has since resprouted vigorously with clean light green foliage.

A feather found in the grass. Perhaps from a hawk?

I tried to remove the Ajuga reptans from part of the front border. Clearly I did not get it all. Meanwhile, I had planted an Athyrium nipponicum, Japanese Painted Fern. Again, this is a fern that some sources will list as being drought tolerant (in partial to full shade) once established. This particular fern is called "Ghost" and it's actually a hybrid between the Japanese fern and a native American fern called Athyrium filix-femina. The name seems appropriate, since I thought it was a goner when something (rabbits?) ate it to the ground twice over the summer. Nonetheless, it has popped back to life each time! Clearly tougher than it looks...

My three Hidcote lavender plants (Lavandula angustifolia, also called Lavandula officinalis) have all grown nicely this year, although they haven't flowered much. I fear I may have cited them in too much shade, or perhaps they are just getting settled. The big challenge with growing in Lavender in Tennessee (as I understand it) is not so much the cold - these are after all supposed to be hardy to zone 5. No, the real challenge is our heavy clay soil and winter rains. Lavender apparently cannot tolerate wet winter soils. That said, Hidcote is supposed to be one of the tougher lavenders, so I'll hope these guys can defy the odds and survive until springtime.

At first, I thought my lavender plants would not flower at all this year, but sometime in September they did produce a few tall flower spikes. Since this is my first year growing lavender, I'm not sure when I'm supposed to harvest it for dried flowers / potpourri. 

One of my favorite plants just keeps on giving. Lonicera sempervirens, the native Coral Honeysuckle, produces non-stop orange-red hummingbird-attracting flowers from very early spring to autumn. The flower production has slowed dramatically now, but all those hummingbird (and butterfly) visits have clearly produced results, as the plant is now covered in berries at various stages of ripening. This photo shows all three stages of berries ripening from green to light orange to bright orange-red. I haven't noticed any birds feeding on the berries yet, but American Beauties says that bluebirds, waxwings and many other birds will eat the fruit. 

There are some Aronia berries in this photo, but the intended focus is the lush mass of Melissa officinalis, a.k.a. Lemon Balm, that grew from three tiny sprigs that I planted in April. As you can see, the Lemon Balm has formed a thick weed-suppressing groundcover. And the foliage is darn pretty. The leaves have a nice lemony scent, and I've tried them in a salad and as "lemonade", but alas I could not detect much of a lemon taste. Lemon Balm did not flower this year, but it's supposed to have late spring or early summer flowers that are a big hit with the bees, so I'm hoping it will put on a nice flowering show next year if it feels suitably happy and established. Of course, the real question is how far it will spread and whether I will someday regret having planted it. Only time will tell...

You can see where October Skies aster (Aster oblongifolius) gets its name. These plants are absolutely covered with sky-blue flowers in September and October. And the flowers are visited by clouds of little bees and wasps. It's a delightful plant that has been trouble-free so far for me this year. The dense foliage also does a great job of suppressing weeds. This was my first year growing asters, so I'm excited to see how they perform next year (presuming of course that they survive the winter without any problems).

Just another photo to show how floriferous all three October Skies asters have been. Charming, lovely plants. Unlike some other asters (I'm looking at you, New England asters), that can grow tall and gangly with defoliated lower stems, the October Skies aster stays dense and bushy. And at least this year, it probably topped out at about 12 inches high with perhaps a 14-18 inches spread. Definitely a lovely foreground plant.

Finally, a definite contender in the Energizer bunny category, this is Rozanne Cranesbill Geranium which has flowered for at least four months (early June through early-to-mid October) and will probably keep going until a hard frost with no deadheading or pruning required. (It accepts pruning if it rambles out of bounds, but no pruning is necessary to stimulate flowering.) What's more, I think the foliage quality actually improved on Rozanne throughout the summer and into autumn. One of the first plants I added to my garden, Rozanne has survived a couple of transplants and given me so much joy over the years. I think anyone who can grow Rozanne (hardy to zone 5), should give her a try.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Two Shots from Bernheim Arboretum - Abelia and a Pink Mystery Plant

Happy October!

Last week, I shared a slew of photos from a trip I took to Yew Dell Botanic Garden back in late August.

Around that same time (September 1st) to be exact, I stopped at the Bernheim Arboretum, also in the Louisville vicinity, on my way back south toward Tennessee.

I didn't take nearly as many photos at Bernheim, but I did have two snaps that I wanted to share:

I saw a number of Glossy Abelia shrubs (Abelia x grandiflora) at Bernheim. Covered with small flowers, the Abelias were attracting several butterflies, including this gorgeous Monarch that kindly held still long enough to permit this photo.

OK, all you Horticultural Gurus, would you care to hazard a guess on this (unlabeled) plant with pretty pink flowers that clearly has a bumble bee fan base? I'm thinking it might be some sort of Japanese anemone?