gardening

Figs - Food Powerhouse

There are a few foods that fall into the “either love them or hate them” category: oysters, olives, beer, beets, cilantro, mushrooms, anchovies, licorice, all come to mind.  In the fruit world, figs have their share of fans and haters.

Figs are grown in most parts of the temperate world and have been for centuries. They are mentioned more than 70 times in The Bible. It was the third plant mentioned in Genesis, after the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge. Adam and Eve supposedly used fig leaves to cover their nakedness. I assume that they were using a different type of fig than the one in the Mary Snoddy garden. Mine have a rough texture that causes intense itching in some of us tender-skinned gardeners.

Figs consist of 55% natural sugar, making them one of the sweetest fruits available. They are LOADED with good stuff – fiber, antioxidants, minerals, vitamins. They can be eaten fresh or dried, which makes them excellent take-along foods for hiking.

Common fig (Ficus carica) is in the mulberry family. You won’t find blooms on the shrub, because the fruit IS the bloom. Fruits are what is called an “enclosed inflorescence” because the male and female flower grow inside what we consider to be the skin or peel, also called an infructescence. The tiny seeds give fruits a gritty texture than some people dislike. I find it delightful.

While a few fruits can develop without pollination (“parthenogenesis”), most are pollinated by a small wasp that enters through a tiny hole at the base of the infructescense. These entryways are easily seen on the ripe fruit, opposite the stem.  

Figs are self-fruitful, so you only need one to have a crop. Be aware that these shrubs can grow quite large – 30 feet or so. Unlike many other fruit trees, figs live a long time, usually 30 years or more. In my part of the southern US, most home trees are one of three varieties: Celeste, Brown Turkey, or LSU Purple. If you decide to try one in your home landscape, consult your Extension agent to determine which varieties do best in your particular zone.

This variety is 'Celeste' which grows well in my area. These fruits are immature. They will double in size and turn purple when ripe.

This variety is 'Celeste' which grows well in my area. These fruits are immature. They will double in size and turn purple when ripe.

What's That On My Mulch??!

Don’t be alarmed if patches of yellow or tan spongy growth appear  overnight on your mulch. These are not an indication that your dog is suffering from digestive upset.  Fuligo septica is a type of slime mold that commonly appears during warm, humid weather. It thrives in a damp environment, whether from rainfall or irrigation. It is commonly called the “Dog Vomit Fungus” which gives a pretty accurate description of the appearance. It is not really a fungus, but a different group of organisms known as Protistas. Only a science geek would belabor the distinction, so I’ll keep referring to mine as slime molds.

These eyesores can appear on your lawn or shrubs, but they show up most often on mulch. While slime molds look disgusting, they live only on dead plant material so they are not damaging to living things unless they are so large they block sunlight from the host plant and prevent photosynthesis.

Don’t waste time, money or chemicals by spraying with fungicides. The molds will disappear on their own in just a few days. If you want to speed their demise, you can rake through the growths to speed drying of the host material. If you choose, you can remove them and bag them for disposal.  Molds are usually yellow for a day or two, then turn tan as they mature and prepare to release reproductive spores into the air.

This slime mold is about six inches across. The tan color indicates that it is nearing the end of its lifecycle. It was lemon yellow yesterday.

This slime mold is about six inches across. The tan color indicates that it is nearing the end of its lifecycle. It was lemon yellow yesterday.

Orange Jelly Balls in Cedar Trees

Have you noticed an odd element in your cedar trees recently? If you see something about the size of a tennis ball that appears to be covered in strings of orange jelly, you are witnessing evidence of Cedar-Apple Rust. Before they “bloom” into alien-looking maturity, they appear as small, warty knobs a little larger than a nickel.  With their dimples, these galls look a little bit like brown golf balls.

Cedar-Apple Rust is a common fungus in the southeast, especially in warm, rainy weather. To survive, the fungus must spend part of its life on apple trees and part on something in the Juniperus family. In the south, that is typically Eastern Red Cedar. The fungus cannot survive without both hosts (apple/crabapple and something in the juniper family).

While unsightly, the fungus balls don’t have a major impact on cedar trees.  Apples, on the other hand, develop round rust-colored spots on the leaves. The younger the leaves, the more susceptible the tree is to airborne spores.  A tree can lose a majority of its leaves in serious infestation.  Fruit is dotted with dark spots that damage appearance and quality.

If you want to include an apple tree in your home landscape, be sure to select a cultivar that says it is resistant to Cedar-Apple Rust. You can reduce the impact on cedars by removing the jelly balls, but many of them are held in the upper branches of trees, outside of safe reach. It takes two years for the fungus to mature, so you can reduce future problems by removing galls when they are in the hard, warty stage.

Cedar-apple rust in Mary Snoddy tree.JPG

The Magic of Lightning Bugs

Here at New Hope Farm, we define the first day of summer as whenever we see the first lightning bug blink. I apologize to my friends who prefer the term “firefly.” I was born and raised in the south; they’ll always be lightnin’ bugs to me. They are beetles, not flies.

Like most of my friends, cousins and neighbors, I spent hours of my childhood capturing lightning bugs into a clean mayo jar that had holes punched into its lid for ventilation. Occasionally someone would squash the insect on their finger and pretend it was a diamond. Kids are weird. Now the mayo jar is plastic instead of glass and the lid is plastic instead of metal, but capturing glow bugs is still fun.

My mother warned me otherwise, but the glow produces no heat and no electricity. Instead it is a chemical reaction inside their bodies. This reaction is efficient. Almost 100% of the energy produced is released as light. Compare that to your incandescent light bulb, where 10% of energy  is converted to light and the other 90% is lost as heat.

Why do they blink? It’s a mating game. The males have a blink pattern to proclaim their suitability as a partner. Sort of like an insect version of Axe, I guess. Females evaluate their suitors' blinks to decide on mating partners, and respond with their own come-hither blinks. Baby lightning bug larvae and even eggs glow underground.

Yellow is the only color I’ve ever seen, but my research says that some varieties produce green, orange or pale red light. They protect themselves from predators by producing a steroid in their blood that is foul-tasting. When threatened, they squeeze out a drop of blood. Predators soon learn to avoid anything that blinks. Sensitive noses can pick up the smell of their internal toxins.

The Mary Snoddy garden, located in the deep South, is home to plenty of lightning bugs. I understand that they are rare in some parts of the country, and non-existent in California. What a shame. Our numbers are declining due to widespread use of insecticides and the encroachment of development onto formerly wild areas. A report from the Smithsonian says when fireflies’ home field is paved over, they do not relocate. They just disappear.

Lightning bugs like damp areas, plenty of shrubs and grass for hiding, and they love pollen and nectar from flowers. They also enjoy snacking on worms, snails and slugs.

If you gather a collection of blinkers in that old mayo jar, be sure to release them into their native habitat later that same evening. Bon appetite, guys. You are welcome to my slugs. 

 

Cartoon firefly.png

Judas Tree or Redbud?

Throughout my neighboring woodlands, native Cercis candensis trees are lighting up the landscape with their bright reddish-purple blooms. As a gardener, I have always known this tree as a “redbud” but my husband grew up knowing it as “Judas tree.” I researched the origin of the Judas common name, and ran across several versions. You can pick your favorite.

  1. After Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus, he was so ashamed of his actions that he hanged himself on a tree with white flowers. The tree was so sad that its white flowers turned to red with shame. The tree was originally tall and strong, so the story goes, but after Iscariot’s suicide, its wood was weak and the tree was short so that it could never again be used as a vehicle for hanging.
  2. Corollary to the above version, the blossoms hang from the branches like a man hanging from a noose. It takes a lot of imagination to follow this imagery.
  3. The French common name is Arbre de Judee, meaning Tree of Judea. Judea is a hilly area where the Cercis thrives in the wild. Tree of Judea may have been misunderstood as Tree of Judas.

The redbud is in the legume family. The flattened seed pods resemble snow peas. The blossoms are edible and can be used to add a little color pop to spring salads. I think they don’t have much taste.

Here are a few of the most common cultivars. ‘Avondale’ is a prolific bloomer; alas, it produces a zillion seed pods too, so can be messy. ‘Don Egolf’ is a good bloomer, and does not produce seeds. ‘Covey’ or ‘Lavender Twist’ are weepers. ‘Oklahoma’ has a much deeper bloom than the others, almost purple. ‘Forest Pansy’ has beautiful burgundy leaves in spring, but it deepens to green when temperatures rise in the summer. There are several white cultivars, but all I can say about them is “meh – not for me.” 

There is a newer cultivar in the Mary Snoddy garden that I really like. ‘The Rising Sun’™ has the same pink/purple blooms as its cousins, but its foliage emerges peachy-color then turns chartreuse before it becomes lime green. New leaves that unfold during the year are the apricot color. The combination of several colors of leaves held at the same time is a real eye-grabber.  I’m itching to try ‘Whitewater,’ a weeping variety with white variegated leaves. Weeping AND variegated -- Wowzer!

Redbuds are best used as understory trees. Their small stature makes them perfect in partial shade cast by taller deciduous trees. Their zigzag trunks are interesting, but they usually lean one way or the other rather than standing up straight. Give them a little extra water during hot dry periods and they will thank you for it. They should be moved when small to reduce transplant shock.

The Rising Sun redbud, starting to show apricot leaves emerging

The Rising Sun redbud, starting to show apricot leaves emerging

Pollen Woes

The spring equinox occurred this week. For gardeners, that means the arrival of watering eyes, sneezing, and congestion associated with seasonal allergies. “Hay fever” happens when the immune system reacts to the pollen and spores that grasses, trees, weeds and outdoor molds release this time of the year. Impacts range from simple sneezing to full-blown reactions that make the general population treat us as pariahs.

There are several steps that we can take to help reduce the misery.

  1. Consult your medical caregiver, who may recommend prescription drugs or over-the-counter medications, or less traditional treatments such as the consumption of natural products (honey, herbs, probiotics) or rinsing sinuses with a neti pot. 

  2. Keep indoor spaces as pollen-free as possible. Keep windows closed (house AND car).

  3. Vacuum often, using a HEPA filter. Be sure to vacuum upholstered furniture and rugs as well as floors.

  4. Change clothes as soon as you come indoors from gardening. Shower before bedtime, to avoid transferring pollen from your hair to your pillow.

  5. Change air filters in your air conditioning units. Use a high quality filter that says it will trap pollen.

  6. Avoid being outdoors when pollen counts are their highest, typically morning 5am to 10am. If you must be outside for extended periods, consider using a dust/pollen mask.

What your body reacts to can change over time. You may develop an immunity to something that troubled you as a child, or increase sensitivity with long-term exposure. And moving doesn’t help – If you are prone to allergic reactions, your body will find a new enemy in a different locale.

Just keep telling your sneezy self, “this, too, shall pass.”

This is what magnified pollen particles look like. Is it any wonder that our sinuses protest being invaded?

This is what magnified pollen particles look like. Is it any wonder that our sinuses protest being invaded?

Oddities in the Garden

It’s an inescapable fact:  Gardeners feel the call of the weird. The longer one has been a gardener, the  more peculiar our taste becomes. One of my favorite not-your-average-shrub specimens is Harry Lauder's Walking Stick (Corylus avellana 'Contorta'), also called a Contorted Filbert. The plant produces drooping catkins in the winter, but no nuts.

This deciduous shrub reaches eight feet in height and width. Mine is a good bit bigger, as a result of accidentally planting it in our septic system drainage field. It’s not exciting to look at in the summer, but the photo below should convince you that you must have one. The birds love it.

The more sun the shrub receives, the curlier the branches are. Some grafted plants are prone to throwing straight suckers from the root stock. This calls for frequent pruning to retain the plant’s intended appearance. Buy an “own root” plant if possible. Cut branches can easily be spray-painted to accent cut flower arrangements.

Another unusual choice is Edgeworthia chrysantha. Its claim to fame is the fragrant blossoms that appear in late winter, when few other shrubs are in bloom. They show well at the tips of leafless branches. Many of us who have tried and failed to keep Winter Daphne alive have changed our allegiance to this less-temperamental plant.

Stamens persist after the petals have fallen, looking like tufts of yellow thread stuck onto the end of each branch. Edgeworthia spreads by suckering but is not invasive. If you want more plants, you can carefully dig out one of the suckers (retain some roots) and move it to the desired new location. They also propagate fairly easily. Site in shade to partial shade (ideal in a woodland garden) and keep them moist for the best bloom display. They reach four to six feet tall, but final size varies with soil fertility and moisture.

Buzzards - Nature's Roadkill Cleanup

There are three large black walnut trees located in one of our fields. When I first moved to the farm in 1994, I wondered why my husband’s grandfather allowed them to remain in the middle of an area otherwise occupied by crops – strawberries and cotton, mostly. After my first full summer of gardening, I understood. On a blistering hot day, it is usually ten degrees cooler under their shade. They make a nice cool oasis.

Black walnuts are the last trees to leaf out in the spring and the first to drop leaves in the fall. So, for half the year they are stalwart skeletons. And they are much beloved by our community of buzzards. We host two varieties of buzzards, correctly called vultures.  The turkey buzzard has a hairless red head, while the smaller black buzzard has a gray head.  The two species are frequently seen together.

Soon after sunrise, a group perches in my walnut trees. They stretch their wings, warming themselves in the sun. When present in large numbers, it gives one an Alfred Hitchcock shiver.

Like other birds of prey, buzzards are protected by law. You cannot harm them. They provide a public service by “processing” carrion that might otherwise provide a breeding ground for bacteria that are harmful to humans. Turkey buzzards have a great sense of smell and can easily locate roadkill. Black buzzards don’t share this acute sense, and tend to follow their red-headed cousins. Interestingly, vultures can help natural gas companies pinpoint gas-line leaks because they are attracted to the smell of the chemical that is added to make leaks more evident to humans.

Buzzards do not pose a danger to full size adults, but they may attack smaller animals. (Gag alert! Swallow your coffee before reading further!) Their only means of defense is to regurgitate. One of our dear, departed dogs was infuriated when buzzards roosted in her trees.  She would circle the trunks, jump, bark, howl, and say nasty things in her canine tongue. Vultures lack a voice box, but would respond to her insults with harsh grunts and spooky-sounding hisses. On occasion she would irritate a bird enough to be treated to a spray of buzzard barf.  (Keep in mind, they eat dead stuff.) This would always result in an immediate deodorizing bath for the poor dog. Their vomit is so acidic, it would cause harm if left untreated.  It is this stomach acid that kills bacteria and leaves them unscathed by salmonella and other such pathogens.

These large birds produce large, odiferous bird droppings, so it is wise to avoid the area under their resting spots.

A crowd of crows is termed a murder and a flock of turkeys are called a rafter but what is the correct term for a group of buzzards? Answer: When they are sitting, they are called a committee. When in flight, they are called a kettle,  and when they are feeding on a carcass as a group, they are called a wake.

A committee of buzzards

A committee of buzzards

Get Along Groups

There seems to be a lot of divisiveness in today’s world. Polite differences of opinion have morphed into open conflicts. There are two groups, I am pleased to report, where I have seen no evidence of this.

First is the Master Gardener program sponsored by US land grant universities. When I enrolled in the (Clemson University) Master Gardener education program in 2002, I had no idea how it would affect my life. Through the classes, the requisite volunteer work and ongoing membership in the local MG Association, I have met people of all ages, ethnicities and socio-economic levels. I would never have encountered them in the course of my normal activities. Somehow a love of gardening and respect for nature levels the playing field and brings us all together. Differences of opinion still exist, of course, but shared goals enable us to work together without conflict.

The second group, which I have discovered only in the last two years, is the world of dog competition. My mixed breed dog and I will never compete in the crème-de-la-crème events of Westminster and the like. But we are having tons of fun on the local levels. Right now we are focusing on Rally events, with a dip of the paw into the Obedience pool. We are meeting owners and trainers from all walks of life. Yes, the events judge one trainer/dog’s performance against others in the same competition category. But everyone encourages their co-competitors. We cheer others’ successes. It makes a happier world.

Jan 2018 AKC competition.jpg

Maybe Shakespeare had it right after all?

“There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance…”  Was Shakespeare’s Hamlet onto something? The answer is yes if you believe a study released by Dr Jemma McCready and Dr Mark Moss from the University of Northumbria, England, in 2013. And the National Institute of Health released a highly technical abstract in 2016 that lends some credence to the theory, but stops short of supporting the idea that Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) will help those suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.  For every study released that endorses herbs or specific plants for disease treatment, there seems to be a counter study that says otherwise. I’m taking no chances. I plan to breathe in the scent of my potted rosemary every chance I have. Couldn’t hurt, right?

The rosemary pictured below is in a pottery container that is a creation of my sister, Linda, the artist in our family. My plant will remain indoors, but the herb is perennial outdoors in Zone 7-10. It will grow to the size of a shrub and have pale blue blooms that bees love. When sunshine falls on the foliage, it releases a delicious fragrance. Some describe the scent as pine-like, but it really has a distinctive resinous odor all its own. I love the flavor of rosemary leaves in tomato-based sauces or sprinkled on toasted ciabatta. Older leaves tend to be a little prickly, so use the young, tender growth in cooking.

Even though the bees love it, deer and insects leave rosemary alone. Anecdotal evidence says that planting it under roses will help keep aphids away. It likes heat, full sun and limited but regular water. It’s not an easy plant to start from seed, so either buy them at the nursery or start them from cuttings. Both upright and trailing forms are available.

I find that rosemary will be attractive for a few years before it gets woody and the center of the plant opens up. You can delay the demise by frequent, light pruning, but when it becomes ugly, just replace the plant. You can strip the leaves from the reject plant and include them in sachet bags in your closet.

Rosemary in Pottery