Assessing Winter Damage

tree frog

After a colder than normal winter, it’s time to assess winter damage in trees and shrubs.  For plants which normally would not have budded or leafed out by now, I suggest a wait and see approach.  For those that are evergreen, or should be showing signs of life, you can test it’s survival fairly easily.

The first category of plants are evergreens like rosemary and wormwood and camellia.  Although the leaves may have all died, the plant may still be alive.  Gently scrape off a bit of the outer bark and look for the green cambium layer.  The cambium layer is a thin layer of tissue under the bark that transports nutrients up the plant and provides cells for further growth.  If you see green (and it may be pale green), that stem is alive.

living cambian layer

Living cambian layer

If there is no green, give the twig a gentle bend and look for a place where the plant bends instead of being hard and brittle.  Go back to that point and check again.  The inner portions of the plant may be alive while the exterior portions, more exposed to the elements, are dead.  If so, prune back to the living tissue.  It may be that there is no sign of green.  In this case, the plant’s roots may be alive and it may grow back from the ground.  Give the plant a hard rejuvenation pruning all they way back to a stub, and wait.

dead cambium layer

It’s dead, Jim.

The second category of plants are deciduous shrubs which normally regrow on old wood.  These plants may have a very subtle cambium layer, one which is barely visible if at all.  Leave them be.  If you see the plant regrowing only from the roots, like this hydrangea, give it some time.  Go ahead and prune away the dead, brittle twigs once it’s clear it is not going to regrow from the existing wood.

hydrangea regrowth from roots

Top part is dead, but it’s coming back from the roots.


Starting seeds the lazy way

seed starting, seedlings

Practically every store has ramped up their gardening section by now with brightly colored plastic pots and gaudy yard art, cheap imported tools in adult and child sizes, racks of seeds and of course the ubiquitous flimsy plastic seed starting kits with peat pellets.

There are three main problems with these kits.  One, they aren’t a good value.  They are more expensive than other methods, and they rarely last past 2 or 3 seasons while you buy refill pellets, at which point you have to buy another kit.  Two, peat is not a sustainable resource: peat bogs develop much, much more slowly than we harvest them.

And three: they are a lot more work than people think.  Those peat pellets, ranging from small to painfully tiny are just not enough root space, so you will have to re-pot them rather rapidly.  That’s not only extra work, but each time fragile seedlings are handled, there is the potential to damage them.

So why not be lazy and start them in their final sized pots before transplanting in the garden?

If you go this route, you can’t use a seed starting mix, because it won’t contain the nutrition the plants need once they are past the seedling stage.  I use regular potting soil with the big chunks screened out.  Potting soil without fertilizer is preferred, but it’s also acceptable to use it with a mild timed release fertilizer — you risk burning your seedlings if the growing media contains fertilizer before they are ready for it.  Any old pot will do.  Re-purposed cottage cheese containers.  Mayonnaise jars with the lip cut off.  Old nursery pots.  Any vessel where the plant can come out safely and is big enough to hold a healthy root system until transplant time will work.  Since many of my old nursery pots were cracked beyond repair this year, I supplemented with old paper cups that I can compost later.

Otherwise, I follow regular protocol.  The pots go in a warm (75-80F), humid place.  For me that’s in an old aquarium in my boiler room.  An old fish tank light is turned on for the seeds that require light to germinate.  Once the seedlings have sprouted, they get moved to a cooler place (65-70F) under a bright light.  I use a cheap shop light with 6500k florescent tubes.  On those warmer days of spring, they spend the warmest part of the day outdoors in the shade with plenty of indirect light, bringing them indoors if nighttime temps will drop below 50F.  Finally, when the soil is warm enough and danger of frost is past, they get hardened off and then go out into the garden.

I have heard it said that seedlings do better if they are kept in small pots and slowly upgraded, but I cannot find any factual foundation for that claim.  In my personal experience, I have never encountered any difficulty NOT starting them in tiny containers, and the inevitable volunteer seedlings in my garden and compost pile don’t seem to feel the lack.

So I stick with my lazy way.

North Alabama Planting Calendar

Bean seedlings

I have shared my personal planting calendar with a few local groups, and they have been very enthusiastic, so I am throwing it out to the internet.  There are a couple of caveats:

  • This is North Alabama specific.
  • Don’t take it as the gospel.  Conditions from year to year may vary planting and harvest times considerably.  For example, I couldn’t plant hot weather crops last year until early May, and lost crops that usually overwinter to cold in December.

Without further ado, the link to download the calender is here: North Alabama Planting Calendar

Reading List: The Science Behind Biodynamic Preparations

making oak bark prep

Biodynamic preparation 505 : The oak bark is grated into a powder in Autumn and is then placed in a very clean cow or sheeps skull. (Thea Maria on Flickr)

My favorite myth-busting horticultural educator, Linda Chalker-Scott, has just released a literature review of the available scientific knowledge behind biodynamics.

First, a modest introduction to biodynamics: Biodynamics is a growing method created by philosopher Rudolf Steiner in the 1920’s.  While Steiner is to be praised for creating one of the first modern attempts at a sustainable agriculture system, he was neither trained in agriculture nor did he use any sort of scientific principles in coming up with his methods for aligning terrestrial and cosmic forces.  These methods include stuffing dandelion flowers into the mesentery of a cow, burying it in the ground in winter and retrieving it in spring.  While theoretically possible that there is some sort of beneficial enzymatic reaction between dandelions and cow entrails, Steiner came up with this method through clairvoyance and meditation instead of any sort of evidence or testing to see if it worked.

Advocates have added other principles to the system to create what is considered biodynamic agriculture today, and these principles are generally in line with organic agriculture, with the exception of Steiner’s special preparations.  Some of the preparations have entered internet garden lore as home concoctions used in isolation.  For example, the practice of blending up pests (not in MY blender, thank you) and spraying them on crops to theoretically deter the living members of that pest bears strong resemblance to Steiner’s methods of burning pests and scattering the ashes over crops.

Despite the mystical and decidedly non-scientific origins of biodynamics, there have been several decades of scientific inquiry into its effectiveness.  Ms. Chalker-Scott reviews the available evidence and summarizes it in The Science Behind Biodynamic Preparations: A Literature Review, in the December 2013 issue of HortTechnology.  The article, although scientific in nature, is accessible and understandable to the average garden reader.  It is recommended reading for anyone considering the use of these methods.

She summarizes that most of the available research comes from poorly constructed or inconclusive studies, and that biodynamic plots do not outperform organic plots, although both outperform conventional agriculture in terms of soil health and sustainability.

To date, there are no clear, consistent, or conclusive effects of biodynamic preparations on organically managed systems… Given the thinness of the scientific literature and the lack of clear data supporting the efficacy of biodynamic preparations, biodynamic agriculture is not measurably distinct from organic agriculture and should not be recommended as a science-based practice at this time.

However, that means we can also reverse that: there also appears to no measurable negative effects.  If you are drawn to biodynamics for philosophical or faith reasons, science does not have evidence to suggest that you should not do them.


Book Review: “In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa’s Botanic Legacy in the Atlantic World”

shadow of slavery

I am always interested in the origins and historical cultivation of our modern edible plants, particularly with subsistence farming, because it provides clues on how those plants can be cultivated today with a minimum of labor and inputs.  Carney’s In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa’s Botanic Legacy in the Atlantic World traces the origin of many modern crops back to Africa, and their introduction to the New World during the Atlantic slave trade.  In short, she upends the idea of the Columbian Exchange where New World crops and methods were transferred to Africa, and documents that it was a two way trip.  (Although Mr. Alfred W. Crosby’s work focuses on European ecological history, his books are also recommended reading.) 

This is not Ms. Carney’s first foray into this territory; it is a much expanded treatment of her early work, Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas.  Like her earlier book, Ms. Carney’s insistence on the contributions of Africans leaves out evidence that while African foods, food knowledge and growing systems were very important, the Africans were not running the show in the New World, but it does provide some much needed counterweight to the stereotype that the African continent and people were inept and starving until the white man came along.  Given that the African slaves were generally responsible for somehow growing or acquiring the bulk of their own diet (and clothes and shelter and other necessities) in addition to their work duties, the crops the African slaves were growing for their own use is certainly the summit of subsistence growing with minimal labor in our region.

Unfortunately for me, Ms. Carney covers the Caribbean in much more depth than the Southeastern United States.  While African coffee and bananas are very important foods in the modern world, I can’t grow either of them.  So I mostly focused on her discussion of rice farming in the Carolina colonies, which is about the only crop in the southeast that she discusses in any detail.  To my surprise I learned that not only is there African rice (Oryza glaberrima), but it was the first rice cultivated in the new world.  And, it some places, still is.  Its Asian cousin, Oryza sativa, is the primary species in the modern rice trade due to its higher yields, but I keep coming across references that the African variety is tougher, more tolerant of weed pressure and more drought resistant, which makes me wonder whether Oryza glaberrima might be a good crop for gardeners who don’t have access to the warm lowlands and swamps where rice is usually grown.  Perhaps not: it is also more difficult to mill.  One heirloom rice variety, Carolina Gold, is still grown commercially today in smaller amounts, may in fact be a variant of the African species.

Another interesting fact is that African women encased rice seeds in clay for planting, a practice popularized in the modern era by Masanobu Fukuoka but is by no means a new invention.  I had believed this to be a middle eastern and Asian practice, but apparently the historical use of this very practical method in regions of sporadic rainfall is geographically even wider.

Beyond rice, African crops grown today that can be grown in the southeast include okra, watermelon, black-eyed peas, millet, sorghum, sesame, rice, kidney and lima beans, and taro.  Most of these are grown and used by southern gardeners today, although taro is much more likely to be grown as an ornamental.  (Please do not go out and dig up your elephant ears and eat them.  Taro roots and leaves require special processing and not all things sold as elephant ears are an edible species.)

If the origins of plants is a topic of interest to you, Ms. Carney’s book definitely deserves a spot on your reading list.  However, it is a book designed to persuade to a point of view that is only slowly emerging, so keep a careful attitude of skepticism and read her critics as well.

(By Nicole Castle)

Stealth gardening: When obvious is not an option

Front landscaping

Can you count the edibles?

In the past year or two there has been a lot of media, web and blogosphere attention generated about homeowners and their front yard gardens, and the neighbors and cities unhappy about them.  While there’s nothing inherently unattractive about edibles or gardening, some of these gardens have certainly been undesirable from a modern urban/suburban aesthetic.  Property rights issues aside, I don’t share that aesthetic and you may not either, but whether you just want to keep the neighbors happy or you have to deal with local ordinances or homeowner’s association restrictions, there are ways to use your front yard for edibles without raising the ire of others.

Front yards are great places for fruit and nut trees.  They don’t need to be planted in a row or a grid just because it’s an orchard.  You can also take cues from the permaculture movement and build layered beds of edibles, which is more natural appearing.  While this makes maintenance more difficult for fruits that need it, it does reduce the need to keep the windfalls picked up in order to maintain a manicured appearance.  Another option for “tall” shapes is building a nice trellis or arbor for vines like grapes, squash or gourds.

Numerous edible shrubs can do double-duty as foundation plantings.  A few examples are roses, rosemary, blueberries, tea camellia and hazelnuts.  Rosemary can be pruned into a formal hedge.  Some herbaceous plants like cardoon and artichoke can be shrub sized.  Jerusalem artichoke is a tall sunflower with good tasting tubers.  And then, of course, there are regular sunflowers big or small.

Culinary herbs are other plants which straddle the arbitrary line between “edible” and “ornamental.”  Your local nursery probably has dozens of “flowers” that are edible or medicinal herbs that have been selected for brighter colored blooms.  They tend to be not as strong as their wild cousins, but provided you have the same species (beware mislabeling), they still share the same flavors.  Yarrow, borage, chives, sage, chamomile and lavender are a few in this category.

“Ornamental” vegetables are often just regular vegetables which have been bred for other characteristics.  Ornamental kale is still kale, and many of the varieties not sold as ornamental are still quite attractive.  Same for many other greens such as swiss chard and beets.  The bright leaves of rhubarb, the red blooms of scarlet runner bean and the bold foliage of hibicus plants (including okra) can used as ornamentals.  Ornamental sweet potatoes don’t make good roots, but the appearance above ground is the same — a rambling ground-hugging vine.  The non-ornamental versions just don’t have lime green or purple leaves.

Be more careful with ornamental peppers — not all are Capsicum annum and the ones that are tend to be brutally hot.  I would buy seeds from a reputable seed company to ensure safe edibility.

Underneath it all are groundcovers.  Think wintergreen, strawberries, thyme, purslane, and prostrate rosemary.  The more groundcover you have, the less mulch you need to keep fresh.

In a nutshell: if you need to garden stealthily, avoid rectangular garden shapes, straight rows and uniform blocks of plants.  Instead, think in terms of landscape design, where you choose the shapes and sizes you need, and then pick the appropriate plants.  Plant things like greens closer together for a more lush and full appearance.  This will reduce individual plant productivity and deplete your soil faster, but if the alternative is not using the space at all, you still come out ahead.

Finally, don’t be afraid to mix in plants that are purely ornamental or are not edible to us but feed beneficial insects and birds.  If you attempt to build your edible landscaping with 100% edibles, you will probably drive yourself nuts trying to find solutions to every space.  Yesteryear’s kitchen garden contained a mix of pretty and useful, and yours can, too.

There’s no reason your front yard “garden” needs to be unattractive — or even recognizable — to even those people who have a firm modern landscape/lawn aesthetic.  Plan carefully, and you can have a stealth garden in plain view.

(By Nicole Castle)

The Pitfalls of Internet Advice

The internet is full of complicated garden advice.  If you tried to follow it all, you’d drive yourself crazy trying to put 15 things in each hole with each plant (and not the same things!) and spend a fortune on a stash of micronutrients, amendments, fertilizers and snake oil.  You’d scratch your head and wonder how to plant garlic with tomatoes when they don’t grow in the same season and spray half-identified bugs with noxious substances you make in your blender.

Some of the advice is well-meaning but inaccurate, some is not well-meaning and is instead intended to part you from some of your hard earned money, and a little bit of it is actually true, at least under certain circumstances that may or may not apply to you.  Of the true items, some of the benefits are so minor they aren’t worth the trouble.

Filtering through the advice can be time-consuming, difficult and annoying.  A good place to start is Linda Chalker-Scott’s The Informed Gardener, her sequel The Informed Gardener Blooms Again, and her Horticultural Myths web site.

The reality is that if some advice you come across involves common household items which purportedly improve a plant in non-specific and in a non-quantifiable way, it’s probably safe to ignore it, even in the rare instances when that advice is true.

(By Nicole Castle)