Visiting Virginia

The first thing that I did, gardening wise, when I moved to Minnesota from Georgia was to try all of the plants that I had grown to love in the South in the North — hoping beyond hope that perhaps someone had made a mistake when listing the hardiness zones of these plants.  The result was a mess of dead lacebark elms, Japanese maples, and butterfly bushes.  One plant that I did find could live, albeit just barely, was the beautyberry — a purple fruiting shrub that would survive as a perennial in Minnesota, just barely getting up to my knee — just enough to tease me.

Today I’m giving a few talks in Blacksburg VA and visiting fellow GP Holly Scoggins.  She runs the Hahn gardens here and has some truly beautiful specimens of many plants that I covet, beautyberry among them.  I am so jealous of people who live in the South and can grow this stuff to its full potential!

In this photo I share a beer with a large, lush beautyberry.  I think it might have been more impressed by a higher caliber beer. 

Creative Uses For Old Water Breakers

Why, oh why, can’t someone engineer a sturdy, long-lasting, horticulturally-correct water breaker.

We have, at last count, six hoses in use at our very spread-out garden & farm.  I go through a lot of breakers, and am down to two, which I rotate around.  In dire need of some new ones (as well as a huge bale of TP), I perused the garden aisle at our local big box (rhymes with “Target”).  Pistol grip schnozzles abound – these things that propel the water
like a 95 mph fastball.  Just what your plants want. Some had the “dial” for various water flow patterns, but these are never satisfactory.  Not a single real water breaker for plants among the 20 choices. So I shall do mail-order from FarmTek.

Dramm seems to makes the only functional water breaker, but alas, most of what’s in my busted-breaker-bucket are old Dramm heads (at $10-$12 a pop). Their commercial line is a bit better than the consumer items, where a rainbow of colors seems to be more important than structural integrity.  Anyone who’s worked in a commercial greenhouse has used their aluminum models or the plastic RedHead soft flow breaker, The only solid brass item in their line is the super-fine Fog-it Nozzle… I’ve had the same one since 1996.

A solid brass version of the full-size breaker would be great.  The point of failure (always) is the interface between the screen plate and the body/shell.  I hate replacing things. I’d pay for quality.

Hammer Time!
Obsoive.  My ingenious partner uses a water breaker body to keep bamboo from splitting (further) when pounded.  Principle of transference of impact from smaller area to larger surface, etc.  Tomato stakes finally installed!

Mystery photo uncurled!

There were a few brave souls who ventured to ID the mystery plant – a trunk shot is not particularly helpful, I know.  But I was hoping that its contorted nature might help a little.  (It wouldn’t have helped me at all, but you all know by now that I am NOT a taxonomist.)

So our mystery tree is a curly willow (Salix matsudana):

…which may or may not be synonymous with Salix babylonica.

In any case, it’s an interesting tree that’s relatively cold hardy.  Like many willows, it has weak wood and is prone to breakage.  But in the right location (away from targets) it could be a lovely specimen.

Plastic grass and organic gardens

One of the best cures for writers’ block for a Garden Professors is to spend a little time in front of the tube watching home gardening shows.  Now, to be sure, there are useful nuggets of information that can be gleamed from an hour or so of gardening or landscaping on HGTV or PBS Create.  But there are moments when I just stare at the TV in disbelief and go, ‘Have these people lost their frickin’ minds?’


A recent case in point, a half-hour gardening show devoted to installing an ‘allergy free’ backyard for a youngster, we’ll call him Billy, with environmental allergies.  Let me state up front I am in no way minimizing the seriousness of environmental and related allergies.  I suffer wicked seasonal allergies (yes, I know, poor career choice) and I have several close friends whose children have severe allergies.  I realize allergies can seriously affect quality of life and, in the cases of some food and insect allergies, can be a matter of life or death.  And I realize that a parent will do just about anything to keep their kid healthy.  Nevertheless, some of the practices promoted on this show strained all manner of credibility.


First, since Billy is allergic to grass, the landscaper replaced all of the grass in the backyard with synthetic turf.  Grass allergies are among the most common allergies but what is it about grass that most people are allergic to?  Pollen.  According the National Institutes of Health just keeping grass mowed is a simple preventative measure to reduce grass pollen.  Synthetic grass may have issues of its own with molds and there are remaining uncertainties regarding the safety of the used-tire derived crumb rubber used in some fake turf.   And if Billy has issues with pollen, I saw a much bigger problem looming like an 800 lb gorilla as the camera panned back from the picture-perfect synthetic lawn: Trees, specifically dozens of oaks and pines in the woodlots beyond the backyard.  I joined the show part way through but the overall landscape looked like the Southeast, perhaps Georgia or the Carolinas.  Even if the fake turf does reduce grass pollen in the back yard, Billy will scarcely notice as a yellow-green cloud of tree pollen envelops his house every spring.


Next, in addition to wanting a place to play, Billy wanted a vegetable garden.  Actually, given Billy’s obvious disinterest during this part of the show I don’t think he was really that interested in vegetables but the producers knew they couldn’t fill a 30 minute show with just fake turf.  Assuming Billy really was into vegetables the solution, of course, was an organic garden.  Why an organic garden is a panacea for allergy sufferers was never explained in the show; apparently pollens and molds don’t hang out in organic gardens.  The choice of vegetables was curious as well.  Billy got to plant squash and watermelons; guess no one bothered to tell Billy that cucurbit allergies are among the most common food allergies for people predisposed to pollen allergies.  For good measure, Billy got to plant some corn – doubt that could ever produce any pollen…


Bottom-line: take the info from the garden shows with a grain of salt and consider the source of the information.  Often times these shows are limited to whatever local source they could dredge up.  Do you really want to rely on a landscape contractor to make decisions about your child’s allergies and health?  Enjoy the shows but keep your skepticism handy and be ready to do some fact checking on your own.

A nifty garden to visit

I missed my regular posting on Wednesday since (1) I’m on vacation and (2) I hadn’t had time to find anything sufficiently worthy of posting.  (Of course I have a compost barrel full of snake oil products I could rant about, but even I get tired of that.  Especially on vacation.)

Note the strategic head placement

But yesterday we visited the Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens just north of Niagara Falls.  We didn’t have nearly enough time to see it all, so I’ll share just one special corner.

The Poison Plant collection isn’t listed on the map, and the only reason I noticed it at first was the giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegassianum), a particularly noxious introduced species, in the center.  Looking closer, I discovered unique signage for these plants.

I think these types of display gardens – poisonous plants, noxious weeds, etc. – are great educational tools.  The trick, of course, is keeping them from setting seed and spreading.  And keeping 15-year-olds out of them.

What About the Corn?

Year after year farmers in the US plants a lot of corn.  A safe estimate is around 80 million acres with another 70 million acres or so going to soybeans.  Corn comes from South America,  soybeans are from East Asia.  When we plant these crops we plant them in such a way that we exclude or, at the very least, limit the ability of native plants to grow.  A safe estimate is that 99 percent of our cropland is planted in non-native species.  I’d like to get your opinions on whether it’s OK for us to go to such efforts to control invasive species like kudzu and buckthorn when, on the flip side, we’re going to so much effort to encourage other species which don’t come from here.