Tree of Heck

We have about 3000 sq ft of mixed border surrounding (in multiple layers) our 1500 sq ft home.  We take care of everything ourselves, in our spare time (ha!!).  Thus, our maintenance schedule BARELY includes cutting back perennials and ornamental grasses Feb-March, plus any pruning needed for woodies…then some fits of weeding throughout the growing season.

Most of this stuff has been in the ground for five to eight years, and we have a high tolerance for nature taking its course.  We’re surrounded by deciduous forest, so of course trees pop up where they’re not supposed to, especially oaks and the occasional hickory, which I dearly love and hate to remove. But I do. Because seedling trees are about impossible to just yank out like a weed – a whip just a few feet tall will have a taproot as long.   With our stringent maintenance regime, they’re usually tall enough to poke up over the Panicum or loom over the Leucanthemum by the time I notice, so then digging becomes the only option.

Or, wait, maybe just cut it back really hard, like below the soil line.  That’ll kill it, right? Nope?  Back again? Chop, chop, hack, hack.  Most saplings will give up after a few years. Except this one:

Ailanthus altissima a.k.a. “Tree of Heaven.”

Most of you know this is a totally invasive doody-head of a tree.  Google for details if not familiar.  I thankfully have not had much experience with it, until the past few years – there must be a mature one in the area.  It would pop up here and there in our borders and blueberry field, but I didn’t think much of it. Grab the loppers, cut it back.  BIG mistake.

Behold, the most ridiculous root:shoot ratio ever:

ailanthusrootBunny, our pensive 40 lb whippet, for scale. 

I had lopped this individual back three years in a row. All I could see were the pale, unbranched shoots, not very imposing at all, so chop, chop.   But finally, after a heroic effort last evening, it was successfully ripped from the heart of our main perennial border. Joel had to use our John Deere 950 tractor with a brush grabber chain to get this out of the ground, even after 20 minutes of his digging around the root to get the chain attached.

Like some kind of sea monster, my repeated attempts to kill it apparently just made it angry.  And stronger.

It’s still out there, on our burn pile.
A dog barks in the night.
0_o.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pretty in Pink

It’s October. Fall is such an underrated time in the garden, and much pink can be found. In fact, flashes of pink are everywhere!! Got my ma’ams grammed last week; thanks for the reminder, NFL.

Muhlenbergia ‘Pink Flamingo’.
Aye yi yi. Alleged hybrid between M. capillaris and M. lindheimeri. Five feet tall and as wide, huge plumes of pink. Looks like nothing important the rest of the year, then, blammo!!! Sorry, folks north of Zone 6. Actually, it only works here  (Z. 6a) because of outstanding drainage; it’s planted in a pile of gravel. Mine has lived through two winters with -20 F days.  Place where the sun will rise or set behind it for maximum effect. Bunny the Whippet not included.

muhleypinkflamingo

Salvia involucrata – Rosebud Salvia
Big ol’ gal that will not favor you with blossoms until September. Absolutely not hardy here, or anywhere north of Zone 8.  Take cuttings, ’cause baby she’s worth it. The furry, hot pink flowers will thrill any hummingbirds left zipping around (I read ours the riot act this weekend, they have GOT to hit the road soon). Note there is some hullabaloo as to S. puberula vs. S. involucrata vs. some hybrid amongst the two.  Will report back.

salviapink

Chrysanthemum x whatever ‘Venus’ .
Am so tired of the taxonomic uncertainty. ChrysanthemumDendranthemum…  Whatever you call her, ‘Venus’ is a wonderful “real” garden mum (not those heinous meatball things) that brings the pink blooms in September, then fades to palest of pink, but not before every bee in the neighborhood visits.  Fairly compact (2-3’) and pretty darn hardy (Zone 5). Tuck Venus amongst things you know will be done before fall – bee balm, phlox, etc. to keep the show going!

chrysvenus

So there you have it, some pink for our October gardens.  In loving memory of my sister Carlene.

Puya report!

For all five of you that might have paid attention to my posts on the genus Puya (which does in fact rhyme with booyah…thank you my west-coastie friends):

Here’s the update that you’ve been waiting for!

Puya is a horrifically spiny, painful, and hateful genus in the Bromeliad family. Native to the Andes, the fish-hook-like spines snare passing mammals; the rotting flesh provides nutrients to the exceptionally lean soil of the arid steppes on which it sort of grows/becomes grumpier.

Puya flowers once an eon, in a spectacular [but ill-earned] display that turned me to mush, based on a photo in an Annie’s Annuals catalog (see my “eternal gardening optimist” post). Autumn of 2012, I ordered and received one healthy Puya berteroniana in a 4” pot. Heckling commenced.  Overwinters in a 40 F greenhouse, where it was watered once or twice. Summers have been spent on our deck. Osmocote has hopefully provided required nutrients. Expected to kill her within months, as it is SO VERY not native to the verdant and humid Blue Ridge mountains of Southwest Virginia.

Happy and amazed to say Pootie [what was I going to name her? Bert??] is in her 3rd year – continuing to grow, and, AND, captured her very first mammal!

Pooyah!

Okay… so it’s a fluffy stuffed possum, and the dogs dropped it from the deck above. But snagged! You know Pootie got a thrill…

Observations regarding you-pick blueberries…

We just finished up with our 8th season of welcoming you-pickers to our back yard, which happens to include three acres of northern highbush blueberries. This has been an interesting venture – helps pay for our farm, obviously, but also presents an opportunity to connect with the “general public” outside of academia [that probably wouldn’t happen otherwise, considering we are both introverts]. Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the folks that take the trouble to come to a you-pick are fabulous, functional human beings. We are very, very grateful for their patronage, especially since blueberries from Canada are on sale for $1.50/pint at the grocery store and take 5 seconds to plop in your cart.  We do, as you might expect, get some interesting questions and comments, and the “OMG! Nature!” thing has come up a few times.

bee berry farm

Here’s a selection of our [reasonably patient] responses to not-so-frequently-asked questions and comments that occur while handing out buckets and ringing up sales:

  • “No, we don’t have to plant them every year like potatoes. They are perennial shrubs.”
  • “The berries do indeed taste better if they are blue. Green and pink, not so much.”
  • “No, I cannot weigh you before and after picking to tell how many you’ve eaten in the field. Ha, ha, I’ve not heard that one before.”
  • “I’m sorry you saw a Japanese beetle.”
  • “Alas, we do not provide Wi-Fi out in the field.”
  • “I can’t go pick for you while you watch the sales stand. Sorry.”
  • “I know the picking season started one week earlier than last year, even though you were on vacation. It’s kind of a weather thing.”
  • “Nope, there will not be more berries ‘appearing’ later. This is sort of a one-shot deal, they flower in the spring, and that’s what you see here.”
  • “Yes, there may be some bees around. It’s a farm. We have bees. The name of our business is Bee Berry Farm.”
  • “No, we cannot put a net over three acres.” (People are very concerned as to how we are not overwhelmed with deer, birds, bears, etc.)
  • “I’m so sorry your child was stung while poking a stick in a yellow jacket’s nest.” (indeed very scary for all of us involved…especially the poor little guy with the stick.)
  • “We do not apply chemicals other than water and fertilizer. Pardon? Yes, water is a chemical.”
  • “Unfortunately, you cannot make your own bushes by planting these blueberries. And no, I’m not familiar with that website.”
  • “No ma’am, I do not know who placed excess zucchini in your unlocked car.”

Other observations made and behaviors noted:

  • Small children are usually not excited about roaming through a hot sunny field at 11:30 a.m. Though we salute the parents who think this might be a good experience for them.
  • Please do not send said hot and annoyed children to stand unattended under the sales tent, staring at the proprietor.
  • You would be amazed at how sound travels across a hillside; other pickers may or may not want to hear exactly what you think of your mother-in-law.
  • Please don’t park IN our perennial border.
  • It’s not fun to find a dirty diaper hiding in the bushes.

Cat TV and tulips

Like many gardeners, we provide a couple of bird feeders in our yard. Along with the desirable birds, we get less desirable visitors like pigeons and squirrels. Having tried (and failed) to make our system squirrel-proof, I finally decided to wave the white flag and embrace our furry visitors with their own bowl of treats – raw peanuts and sunflower seeds in the shell. We put this on our deck next to the sliding door so our cats can enjoy the show.

IMG_8162IMG_8301

IMG_7890Cat TV is very popular viewing at our house.

A completely unexpected benefit of Cat TV is that the squirrels no longer dig up my bulbs and gnaw at them. Nor do they destroy my tulip buds. In fact, for the first time ever my tulips are intact and gorgeous.

IMG_8299

Now if I could come up with something for the pigeons…

A 19th Century Garden Hero: Hero or villain today?

John Porter: Extension Blog Contributer
Extension Agent, Ag and Natural Resources
West Virginia University
John.porter@mail.wvu.edu

There’s been much ado in the press and on social media about the use of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in the food system.  While there is a scientific consensus on their safety, many still reject their use. While the controversy rages on, an innocent bystander has taken fire, mainly from the spread of misinformation on social media.  It seems that simple hybrids, produced through a selective, yet natural, breeding process have been mislabeled as genetically modified.  These misinformation sources point to heirlooms as the only non-modified (and thus safe) source of food.  The thought is that since the development of a hybrid is directed by humans, they are genetically modified.  This simply isn’t the case.

The truth of the matter is that all of the food crops that we plant have been modified at some point in history through human intervention, whether purposeful or not.  The simple act of seed saving is a selective breeding process selecting for the best and the tastiest. So even heirlooms are modified through human interaction.  The comparison of a hybrid to a GMO is starkly false.  I once saw someone explain it this way:  breeding a hybrid is like crossing a beagle and pug, making a GM crop is like crossing a potato and a fish.  While it is a simplistic comparison, it does make it a little easier to understand.

Many of the heirlooms we now have today were developed by breeders over the last century or so.  No one man had such an impact on agriculture as Luther Burbank, who was a prolific plant breeder and a well-known national hero.  However, in today’s anti-science fervor, would he be considered more of a villain than a hero?  That was the topic of one of my recent newspapers articles. Read more about Luther Burbank, 19th century garden hero.

 

The great urban potato experiment

I don’t grow vegetables at home, mostly because I don’t have the space and partially because I don’t have the time. But I did want to try the potatoes-in-a-barrel method, which I also tried last year. But this year I planted about 6 weeks earlier (end of April) than I did the previous year (mid-June).  Here’s my mid-October harvests from both years:

October harvest  IMG_7560

Next year I’ll try planting even earlier. It’s not a huge harvest, but it’s fun to do, especially with kids. A richer media (like a green compost along with soil) might give you a better harvest.

If you want to try this yourself, here’s how to do it:

1) Use a plastic trash bin with holes drilled into the sides. Be sure to locate the barrel in full sun.

2) Put a layer of soil on the bottom, and add potatoes. (You can cut them into smaller portions, each with an eye, if you don’t have as many sprouted ones as I did.)

April planting 20143) Cover with soil and water well.

June 0554) As shoots and leaves emerge, continue to add soil or other media to the barrel, leaving the tops of the shoots and a few leaves exposed. I used a mixture of soil and composted wood chips. Water well.

June 0565) Continue to add media as needed, and continue to water through the season.

June 0106) When leaves begin to die back, you can dump the barrel onto a tarp and pick out your potatoes. Save the media for next year’s barrel.