Archive for the ‘My Garden’ Category

Flood relief

Summer is the rainy season in Central Florida. Rain is frequent and heavy, and is often accompanied by gusty winds and lots of lightening. Anyone who has visited the region during the summer months can attest to the severity of our afternoon thunderstorms this time of year. They can also tell you how, once the storms clear out each evening, the sky will clear up again and we will have a warm and muggy, but otherwise pleasant evening.

This past week was different. One storm in particular had all the locals chattering on Facebook and comparing notes for several days afterward. Several things made this storm stand out. To begin with, it caught nearly everyone off guard by coming through the area at night. It also produced exceptionally heavy and frequent lightening. And thirdly, it dumped an incredible amount of water in a matter of just a few minutes. The rain gauge below shows what this storm dropped on my garden in under thirty minutes.

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Under normal circumstances, if I have young plants out, I can see the storms coming well enough in advance to bring the plants in under a shelter. Not this time. My young seedlings caught the brunt of it. And by the time I was aware of the storm, there was far too much lightening for me to go outside safely. Thinking back on it afterward, I realized that I did hear the storm coming; however, since I live within earshot of the Magic Kingdom, I actually thought the thunder was just a somewhat louder than normal nightly fireworks display. Little did I know!

When I checked on the seedlings the next morning, the tray they were sitting in was filled to the rim, and it was obvious that the plants had taken a beating. I didn’t think to take a picture at the time, though. I just dumped the water, tidied up the plants and refilled their little peat pots with fresh Mel’s Mix.

Yesterday, we had yet another heavy storm. This one wasn’t quite so intense, but I did not see it coming, and once again my plants got hit pretty hard. Here’s what their tray looked like this morning. There was almost an inch in the rain gauge. As you can see, much of the soil was once again pounded out of the pots. Some of the pots themselves had even been ripped by the force of these storms!

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Today, I provided them some relief. I repotted those in the worst shape, moving them to plastic pots, and placed the plastic pots in a tray with drainage. I am hoping that does the trick. While they are still vulnerable, I will try to pull them in out of harm’s way, but obviously I’m not always able to be there for them.

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Here’s hoping they have seen the worst of it! In the meantime, happy gardening!

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An Overdue Update on my Cowpeas

It’s amazing sometimes how fast time can slip by without being noticed. I guess that’s how I managed to let almost a whole month go by without providing an update on my cowpea project. I continue to enjoy pretty good success with the cowpeas as I learn about this relatively unknown garden crop. As you may recall from my previous postings, this is my first time growing them, so I am using this summer as a learning experience. Based on the lessons I learn this summer, I plan to make adjustments next summer when I start all over again.

We have had cowpeas to eat off and on for several weeks now. I have been harvesting every two to four days, depending on my personal schedule and whether the weather permits me to do so. The harvest quantity varies significantly, depending mostly on the maturity of the different planting waves. So far, only the first two waves have been producing, and they have almost run their course. The ones you see in the rightmost basket below show what I picked today. When the first two waves were at their peak, I got significantly more than this at a time.

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The plant in the next picture is one of only three plants still living from the first wave. The purple hulled peas you see in this picture are the same ones you see in the basket above.

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The second wave, planted around the end of May, included three varieties. Two of those (Mississippi Silver and SaDandy) have produced quite a few peas, but the Red Rippers have yet to produce. The Mississippi Silvers are just sitting around staying green, but not producing anything. The SaDandy, shown below, appear to be thinning out somewhat, but are producing another flush of peas which should be ready in the next few days.

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The Red Rippers, in the next two pictures have not produced anything yet, but this is not a surprise. All the literature I can find on the different varieties indicates that these take considerably longer to mature than the other two varieties planted in Wave Two. As you can see, they look quite healthy and are most definitely proving themselves to be climbers. They are beginning to produce some peas now, the earliest of which should be table-ready within days.

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The third wave has yet to produce, but is looking very promising. Many, many pods are within days of being ready to pick now. Varieties in this wave include California Blackeyed #46, Pink-eyed Purple Hull, and Mississippi Silver.

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Wave Four, which is planted in the flower bed to provide greenery and add nitrogen to the soil, is coming along nicely. No peas yet, but I wouldn’t expect them this soon. You can see in the picture below how they are doing.

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Since my last update, I have added a fifth wave to my cowpea project. This wave is planted in two separate patches on different sides of the house. Both patches are in areas intended for something other than permanent vegetable gardening, but both areas have really poor soil and could use the natural boost of nitrogen. In addition, I plan to spade the plants into the soil after harvesting the peas, providing organic mass and additional soil nutrients.

The first patch is the now infamous “bare patch” in my butterfly garden. I decided to plant California Blackeyed #46 in this patch while waiting for the recently started larval hosts (parsley, dill, fennel, etc.) to get big enough to transplant. This variety does not get very tall (meaning they should stay hidden from the road by the row of flowering plants in front of them), it matures quickly (meaning the herbs shouldn’t have to wait too long for their turn), and the plants die back quickly after harvest (giving me good organic matter for turning into the soil).

If you look closely at the picture below, you’ll see a plant other than peas right in the center. This is a milkweed that was recently eaten down to the stems by a Monarch caterpillar, as described in the post linked above. It has little tiny leaves all over it now, and should be looking healthy again in a few more days.

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In the top portion of the next picture, you can barely make out the base of the Duranta that I recently planted and discussed in a couple blog posts.

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Finally, in the picture below, you will see a new addition to my selection of cowpea varieties. About the time I finished selecting the five varieties I would try growing over the summer, my wife and I bought some Zipper peas from the local farmer’s market, and we absolutely loved them. After buying and consuming several batches of them over the summer, I decided to grow some of my own. I finally found some seeds available for sale and proceeded to order a pound! Assuming these taste like the ones we bought at the farmer’s market, this is just the first of many plantings. This location is along the back of our house near the pool pump. An old ligustrum bush recently died here, leaving quite a hole in the landscaping. I have replaced the ligustrum with a firebush, which is a species native to Florida, but it is growing slowly, so I decided to take advantage of the available space while waiting for it to fill in the space. And, as I have mentioned before, being legumes, the cowpeas will augment the soil.

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That’s it for now. Until next time, happy gardening!

Awaiting Autumn

Florida gardeners look forward to fall with as much anticipation as gardeners farther north look forward to spring. With the exception of a few tropical species such as okra and cowpeas, not much grows in Florida gardens during the long, hot summer. By the time August rolls around, the limitations on what can be planted have begun to loosen up, and by September, we will be able to plant pretty much anything.

Although this region theoretically has a year-round growing season, fall is really the time of peak gardening. By way of comparison with northern gardens, August is akin to that period in late winter when the ground has thawed, but frosts are still frequent. September brings the first hint of cooler weather, with the kind of long warm days and mild nights that make garden vegetables thrive. One significant difference that remains, though, is that here the days start out long and then get shorter as the season comes to a close. Because of this, the growth slows down as the season progresses, rather than accelerate.

Against the backdrop of this calendar, I have spent these first few days of August clearing out old growth, preparing the ground where I have spaces available, tending to the young plants previously started, and planting more seeds. The first two pictures below show the oldest of my fall plants, an assortment of tomatoes and peppers as detailed in this post.

I would like to draw your attention to the two peppers on the far right of the tray in the foreground of the first picture below. Those are Black Hungarian peppers, which produce tasty, medium-to-hot peppers and can be used as ornamental plants. Notice the dark coloration? According to the description when I bought them, they are supposed to have deep purple veins and emerald green leaves. From what I’ve seen so far, it appears the reverse is true. Either way, as they mature, they should produce purple flowers, followed by pepper pods that start out green, turn solid black, and then ripen to red. This is my first time growing any, so I’m looking forward whatever colorful display they offer.

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I’m somewhat concerned with the discoloration on several of the tomato plants. I have compared them with tomato disease pictures found in databases, and as best I can tell, these leaves do not match any of the leaves illustrating identified diseases. As such, I will not panic just yet. What I will do is trim them up and move them out of the screened enclosure to expose them to full strength sunlight on a full time basis. I will also be transplanting them to their permanent homes within the next couple weeks. I am hopeful that this will address the problem.

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The next picture shows the second and third waves of tomato and pepper plants. The second wave is discussed in detail here, and the third in this post. Careful readers or keen observers might notice that there are a couple extra pots in the right-hand picture. Those are both a type of ornamental tree known as a Jerusalem Thorn. Only one of them has sprouted thus far, and it has been almost long enough to conclude that the second one failed to germinate. Needless to say, these are not intended for the vegetable garden!

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The next picture marks this fall’s first departure from the Solenacea family, more commonly known as nightshade. The plants in this tray are members of the Brassicacea family, more commonly known as the cabbage family. In fact, they are all members of a single species, Brassica oleracea. This species has a surprisingly diverse array of cultivars, one of which is cabbage, and within those cultivars, one finds an assortment of varieties.

In is tray I have planted one variety each of two cultivars, neither of which happens to be cabbage. Instead, I have broccoli (the DiCiccio variety) and collard greens (the Georgia variety). The nine on the left are broccoli and the six on the right are collard greens. If you look closely, you will notice that they are indistinguishable from one another at this stage.

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Last, but not least, I have planted a whole lot of herbs. Many of these will end up in containers that we keep within easy reach of the kitchen; others will find their way into the butterfly garden, either because of their nectar-producing flowers or their use as caterpillar food. Others still will be tucked away in various niches in the yard to add a particular ornamental characteristic or two, and some will be used as companion plants where beneficial relationships exist. Most of them are the types of herb commonly used in cooking, but some are used for other purposes. Here’s the full list:

  • Basil
  • Chives (Common)
  • Chives (Garlic)
  • Cilantro
  • Dill
  • Fennel (Bronze)
  • Fennel (Florence)
  • German Chamomile
  • Hyssop
  • Marjoram
  • Mustard
  • Oregano
  • Parsley
  • Rosemary
  • Rue
  • Sage
  • Summer Savory
  • Thyme

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Wordless Wednesday – August Heat

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Butterfly Magnets

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Earlier this week, I posted about my effort to find a suitable location in which to install my new plant, Duranta erecta, also known as Sapphire Showers. This new plant is shown above. My goal has been to use this plant to solve several simultaneous landscaping challenges. First and foremost, I would like for this plant to obscure the electric meter and other utility interface boxes from view. I need to leave access to these fixtures, but I don’t need to leave them fully exposed to view from the road or the yard. After studying the placement of the underground utility cables, I decided that the best location was just a few feet from where I had originally planned to place it.

Secondly, there are some unsightly stumps in this area, and I would like this plant to shield them from view as well. The stumps themselves are leftovers from some very thick greenery that I took out last year when I started my butterfly garden. Some of that greenery was a cluster of the highly invasive camphor tree, and some of it was anise bush (Illicium parviflorum). Although that is a decent landscaping plant, it was originally planted too close to the house, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to manage. There are actually numerous stumps clustered closely together at various angles ranging in size from about half an inch to four inches or so. I have trimmed them as close as I can to the ground, but there’s still quite a bit left. As best I can figure, it isn’t worth the effort or scraped knuckles it would take to get them the rest of the way to ground level or to remove them by hand. They are also too close to the house to safely operate a stump grinder. So, my goal for now is to simply make them less visible while they slowly decay over the coming years. If you look closely, you will see these stumps in some of the pictures I post now and then.

A third goal for this plant is for it to be an integral, positive addition to my butterfly garden. I have a patch of ground in that garden that has gone bare over the last few weeks, presenting a good opportunity to rework the design. My thought has been to place this plant in that section. When this section is viewed from the front, the first foot or so above the ground is hidden by several rows of flowers and low-to-the-ground flowering shrubs. You can see this perspective in the picture below. All of those plants are species native to Florida, and all of them serve as nectar sources for adult butterflies. Species represented in this section include Lantana depressa, Salvia coccinea (Scarlet Sage), Rudbeckia hirta (Black-eyed Susan), Gaillardia pulchella (Indian Blanket Flower), Coreopsis lanceolata, Silphium integrifolium (Rosinweed), Scutellaria lateriflora (Blue Skullcap), and Asclepias tuberosa (Butterfly Milkweed).

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All of the plants in that section produce showy flowers that attract adult butterflies in search of nectar. But if you really want to attract butterflies to your garden in large numbers, it is imperative for you to plant sources of larval food, that is, you need to feed the caterpillars. Nearly all butterfly species are highly selective with respect to the types of food they can eat as caterpillars. As adults, the females will seek out those plants as a place to lay their eggs. They then hatch out as caterpillars and happily munch away until it is time to pupate, and then emerge as adult butterflies. The butterflies seek out nectar sources for sustenance, seek mates for reproduction, and the cycle continues. So the key to successful butterfly gardening is to plant larval sources specific to the butterfly species you wish to attract, and to plant a variety of nectar sources sufficient to entice the adults into hanging around instead of wandering off elsewhere in search of food.

Because the larval sources in a butterfly garden are intended to be eaten by caterpillars, it is a fairly common practice to position them in places where they are not visible to most passers-by. This is what I have been doing (with mixed success) in what has become a largely bare patch. There are still a few specimens left in this patch, but they blend in so well with the sandy ground and leaf debris, they are nearly invisible at first glance. An example of this is bronze fennel. There really are three decent sized bronze fennel plants in the picture below. They are all along the right-hand side of this picture, but unless you know what to look for, you will have a really hard time finding them. Can you spot them?

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By the way, bronze fennel is a favorite of the Black Swallowtail butterfly, and I have had several of them start their lives here since I started this butterfly garden. I see them fairly frequently nowadays. Another favorite of the Black Swallowtail is rue, which is the plant that inspired the design of the clubs symbol on a standard deck of playing cards. I had several of these in this area, but they all suddenly and mysteriously died in recent weeks. There are also several species of foods that humans eat which serve as larval sources, although I do not have any growing here yet. This includes parsley, dill, fennel (the edible kind), carrots, and others. Expect to see some of these show up here in a future post once I figure out how I want to integrate these food crops into my butterfly garden.

Some plants serve dual purposes as both larval and nectar sources. A classic example is the genus Asclepias, commonly known as milkweed, as mentioned above. There are many species of milkweed, several of which I have growing in my butterfly garden. All of them serve as larval food for the Monarch. In fact, Monarch caterpillars are incapable of eating anything other than milkweed. Milkweed grows natively throughout North America, but it usually gets taken out along with other native vegetation when land is developed. This is why gardeners planting milkweed is so crucial to the survival of this beautiful and unique species of butterfly.

Just a couple days ago, I found the youngster below, happily munching away on one of the many milkweeds in my garden. Monarch caterpillars are voracious eaters, and will strip a milkweed of its leaves and flowers in a matter of days, leaving nothing but nubs and bare stalks. If you look near the left-hand edge of the picture above, at about the same level as the pot, you will see what a milkweed looks like once the caterpillars get through with it. This actually does not harm the plant; it will bounce back completely in a couple weeks or so.

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Another plant that serves a dual purpose is the genus Passiflora, commonly known as the passion vine or passion flower. These take up considerable space, so at this time I only have one specimen, a P. caerulea, or blue passion vine. These serve as hosts for two of the butterflies we have locally, include the Zebra Longwing (our state butterfly) and the Gulf Fritillary. Passion vine flowers are short-lived, but incredibly exotic looking. In the picture below, you can see one that was in my garden a couple weeks ago. One day it was a bud, the next day it was as you see below, and by the third day, it was gone. While present, butterflies will stop by for a drink.

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In the picture below, you can see what the vine looks like, along with a Gulf Fritillary caterpillar. As adults, they look like the one shown back up at the top in the first picture of this blog post. There you will see it enjoying my new plant, even before I placed it in the ground. Take note of its size relative to the flowers on the Duranta.

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In the next picture, you will see another butterfly that stopped by during the time I was conferring with my wife about the placement of the new plant. Look closely. It is mostly white with some black markings, and it is on a flower very near the center of the picture. You will note that this one is much smaller than the fritillary. This butterfly is not familiar to me. I am not 100% sure, but I believe it is a female Checkered White. I arrived at this conclusion after consulting my copy of the Butterflies of Florida Field Guide. If any of you are butterfly experts, please feel free to correct me!

Also in that same short time, a butterfly of a third species paid us and the Duranta a visit. This one was a tiny blue butterfly that was too small and too quick for me to get a picture. By consulting my book, I determined that it was probably a Cassius Blue. The largest specimens of this species have a wingspan of only an inch. I don’t grow any of the larval host plants for either of these species, so we may or may not see some return visitors. Nonetheless, we very much enjoyed the show while it lasted!

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When the butterfly show ended, I proceeded to install the new plant. As you can see by looking at the shovel, it took quite a hole to place it in the ground properly. I had remarkably few roots to deal with, so the digging was fairly easy. It was very nice knowing with certainty that I was digging well away from any utility cables! Once I finished the hole, I filled it partially back in with some Mel’s Mix, augmented with some Plant Tone organic fertilizer. After placing the plant, I filled the hole the rest of the way with Mel’s Mix, tamped it down, and watered it thoroughly.

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So, in this final picture, you can see the finished product. There it is, perfectly centered between the naked milkweed stalks and the invisible fennel! Ah, the joys of gardening!

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Until next time, happy gardening!!

Wordless Wednesday Legumes

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Can You Dig It?

If you live in the United States, chances are that you have heard the admonition to “call before you dig.” As a gardener, you may or may not have given it a second thought. For those of you who may not be familiar with it, this is a nationwide program to coordinate utility notification services for the purpose of assisting people with locating the placement of underground utility lines. I can’t speak for how this is done outside the US, but I would imagine that practically everywhere in the developed world has something similar.

Across the US, regulations vary regarding the extent to which home gardeners are required to use the service, but generally speaking, anyone who damages an underground utility line is liable for the cost of repair, and possibly for secondary damages as well. More importantly, when dealing with buried power lines, it can be a matter of personal safety, so why risk it? Keep in mind that digging is digging, even if you only use hand tools. I can’t think of very many things less pleasant than the prospect of using a spading fork to determine the exact placement of an electrical cable. In fact, I suspect that would qualify as a very bad day.

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I recently decided that whether it was required or not, it would certainly be a good idea for me to use this free service before putting the plant shown above into the ground. The plant is a variety of Duranta erecta known as Saphire Showers. A broadleaf evergreen member of the Verbena family, this plant produces flowers during the spring and summer months, and then produces small yellow fruits popular among birds. The flowers attract both butterflies and hummingbirds. For a period of time in late summer, it will often have both fruits and flowers. It is native to the West Indies, but not Florida, with the possible exception of the Keys (the evidence is contradictory). However, there are no documented cases of it escaping cultivation in Florida. Since it feeds native wildlife without invading wild habitats, it has been deemed “Florida friendly” by the state agricultural extension service. To me, that’s a green light for use in my landscaping.

This plant can grow to about 15 to 20 feet tall, but can also be shaped by regular pruning. It also spreads out about as wide as it is tall. For this reason, I’m seeing it as a nice addition to my butterfly garden, in particular in a place where I would like to obscure the unattractive electric meter and telephone and cable TV connections, which happen to be on the wall right behind the butterfly garden. A portion of that garden has gone bare in recent months, due to some plants dying back. That bare patch is located such that a tall plant there would not block too much sun from the other plants, although it should still get enough for itself. Planting the Duranta in that patch would fill the bare spot, attract butterflies and birds, and grow to hide the eyesores on the wall. But that brings us back to the issue of underground utilities. Where, exactly, are those cables? Do they run straight out from the equipment? Or do they run alongside the wall and then pop straight up to their respective service interfaces?

To make a long story short, I’m glad I called. As you can see from the picture below, the electrical cable (marked in red) runs along the edge of the bare patch, making a wide, sweeping curve before angling across the neighbor’s yard. The phone and cable TV cables, on the other hand (marked in orange), run out from the wall in straight lines but at a slight angle, and then turn toward the back fence, keeping about a one foot spacing between them all the way. I would not have guessed either one of those routings. In the end, I can still use this patch, but I need to alter my plans slightly. I plan to think about it for a few days before sticking my shovel in the ground.

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As a footnote, I also had the technician mark the routes to the edges of the property, even though I don’t have immediate plans in this area. In the picture below, you can see the orange markings heading toward the white fence in the back. I will be taking careful measurements over the next few days before the markings wash away. That way, when I do make plans, I will know what challenges I’m facing.

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So, remember to call before you dig. It’s not just for people with backhoes!

Happy gardening!!