Sunday, January 22, 2012

Attacked by the Natives!!

I am NOT a fan of Native Plants! There I said it. I think for the most part they are ugly and look like weeds. Now, before my friends from the Native Plant Society hang me from the nearest Betula nigra (River Birch), let me say this....I understand their point of view, kind of.
Yes, I will admit that Native Plants have a use in the landscape. They tolerate our up and down temperatures. They know how to handle the droughts we sometimes have. They also provide shelter and in some cases food for the local indigenous critters. There are even a few decent looking plants. I like the majority of the trees, Oaks, Maples and such.
However, What does this look like to you?

To me it looks like a yard that has been unattended to for years. I know, there are some people that find this pretty. There are also people that think Justin Beiber is talented, but I digress.
How is this for pretty?

Looks like somebody needs to mow. This is Eupatorium fistulosum, also known as Joe-Pye Weed. With a name like that, who wouldn't want it in their yard!?
There are entire neighborhoods that are planting almost strictly native plants.
While I admit, this is a little formal for my taste, isn't this much prettier?

Okay, you want some reasons why you should plant natives? When used intelligently, native plants require less maintenance, are less expensive, and save energy. Did you know that lawnmowers are a significant source of air pollution? Lets, just for the sake of argument say this is true. Well then,lets just all stop mowing our yards. Problem solved!
Used properly, native plants require little to no extra water or fertilizer compared to most exotics. This is sounding like the lazy mans landscape solution.
Native plants have been exposed to most pests as long as they have existed, and continue to display their resistance to insects and disease in our own yards. So what do the bugs eat, each other? They need to survive too.
This is an excerpt from a Native Plant Societies newsletter down in Florida:
With historical perspective, this is an amazing development. In past centuries, when corners of this planet were yet unexplored, botanists brought horticultural oddities from hither and yon to beautify the gardens of the elite. To adorn one's garden with plant species that were foreign, rare and unusual was a mark of wealth and status. Only the leisure class who studied botany and horticulture could identify and appreciate these collections. Today, by contrast, exotic plants are no longer the exception but the rule; everyone has them, regardless of their socioeconomic standing. It is the inclusion of native species in one's garden that is now distinctive and unusual, and ironically, only those with a special interest in native plants can identify and appreciate these native collections.
If you want something really strange and unusual in your garden, go native!
I would like to disagree with that last sentence. I have growing in my yard some very unusual plants that NOBODY else in this area is growing. My variegated Chinaberry is very unusual and it is definitely NOT native....Chinaberry? Hello.
If it were not for the exotics coming into this country, we would be in some financial hardships....okay, even more than we are now. How much do you think it would cost to import Orange Juice from China instead of Florida? Citrus is native to our Asian friends.
Another example would be that PB&J you gave your kids for lunch. Do you think Peanuts are native to North America? Nope! The peanut is native to South America.
So leave my exotic plants alone and I will try and tolerate your Native Plant fetish.
For those of you that don't quite get this article, it is mostly tongue in cheek.
On a serious note, look into some native plants for your area. Everything is native to somewhere. While I admit, I do not like most native plants for my area, they can and do have their place in the landscape. Besides, I have a lot of Master Gardener friends that love their natives and will probably want to boil me in Witch Hazel after they read this. It is a native you know!
Happy Growing!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Jump Start on Spring

Now that the holidays are over, it is time to start thinking Spring!!
So far the Winter here in my zone 8 has actually not been too terribly bad, of course with that being said, I will be buried in 8 feet of snow next week. Knock on wood.
So, I was actually trying to come up with a idea for a good blog this week and was not having the best of luck. Yesterday, one of my best friends, Paul called me. He wanted to know if I had ever heard of a "Hotbed". I asked how he meant it, because I knew of a couple of meanings. He then told me that he had two glass shower doors and his mother wanted to build a hotbed to start some vegetable seeds. He offered one of them to me, but with my greenhouse and limited space, I declined the offer.
After that conversation I got wondering just how many people have even thought of doing something like this. There are so many benefits. You can recycle the doors and possibly other materials. You get a jump start on Spring and veggie growing. It can be a fun family activity. I really saw no downside. I also wondered how many people even knew what a "Hotbed" or "Cold Frame" even was and if they knew how to build one.
Success, a blog article!
Cold frames (or hotbeds) are simple structures that have two main purposes. They act like miniature greenhouses to trap radiant heat and to provide protection and insulation from the elements.
They can be very elaborate or very simple, depending on the expertise of the builder and what you have on hand or are willing to pay for materials. You can even purchase a pre-made one. This is an excellent example of the basics we are striving for.

Even though they can be simple or elaborate, there are a few certain basics that need to be observed.
First thing to consider is the location. Ideally it should be South facing to collect the warmth of the sun. A West facing direction would be second best. When I say facing a certain direction, the sloped front should face South or West. The sloping will of course give you better sun exposure, but it is not so critical that all is lost if you don't have it.
Most cold frames are a simple rectangular wooden box, about 2-3 ft high that sits on the soil surface. If you have access to straw bales, maybe something left over from the Fall holidays, you can use them too. That would look something like this.

Other materials to consider are brick, masonry, cinder, and concrete blocks. Use your imagination. If you really want to get fancy, foamboard insulation panels can be used inside the frame on the above-ground, North-facing side for even more insulation.
Good drainage is essential for the plants, especially if you are planting directly in the ground and plan on moving the cold frame later. If you are using this to harden off or start seedlings in containers, just make sure that the containers can drain. An accessible water supply is also very important. The top covering will prevent rain from watering your plants, so that must be done manually.
Okay, you have decided what you want to build the walls out of. Before you begin building, you need to decide what the top will be made out of. Follow me for a second here.
Many different materials, both recycled and new can be used for the frames lid. These include such options as glass, fiberglass, or poly (plastic) film.
Double glazed windows are a good choice. They are durable and are heavier than other materials. Glass is generally looked upon as the best material to cover a cold frame. Other materials include discarded storm windows from screen doors or no longer needed patio doors or the above mentioned bathroom shower doors like my friend has.
If polyethylene plastic is used, the film should be clear and at least 6 mil thick. Consider using a double layer for extra insulation. The poly is not very durable and will probably have to be replaced each year.
Now, why did I say that you need to decide on the top covering before building the box? If you have a shower door that is 7 feet long and you build a box 8 feet long, how effective do you think the whole thing will be?
Get the measurements of your top first, then build your box.
There are some pros and cons to the different materials used for the top.
If you use glass:
*Recycled windows can be used.
*Good light transmission.
*Good insulation value.
*More hail-proof (weatherproof) than polyethylene.
*Glass is heavy. The extra weight means the frame must be able to withstand the extra weight.
*Opening and closing involves additional weight.
*Broken glass is more difficult to replace and repair.
*Expensive to purchase new.
If you use plastic:
*Inexpensive to purchase.
*Easy to install and lightweight to handle.
*Probably will need to be replaced each year
*Won’t withstand large hail stones, heavy snow, ice loads or errant twigs.
*Must be secured so that it doesn’t take off in a strong wind.
There are other materials that can be used, again each one will have its pros and cons.

I am by no means a carpenter, that is my brothers gig. That sucker could put McGyver to shame. So, I am not going to give you building tips or dimensions or anything like that. Besides, I have no idea what size shower door or glass windows you are going to use.
I will give you some ideas on how to use your new built toy.
You can start the Spring cool weather vegetables — Lettuce, Onions, Spinach, Radishes, etc. — up to 45 days before you experience your last frost. While excellent for starting your Spring vegetables, a cold frame is NOT the best place to start warm-weather vegetables such as Tomato or Pepper plants. The average temperature may not be consistently warm enough to germinate those seeds. What you can do is, long before Spring arrives, start the plants indoors under grow lights and then move them out to the cold frame to help harden them off. This eliminates a lot of the transplant shock.
And lastly, don’t forget that you can use a deep cold frame in the Fall if you wish to extend the growing season of the same vegetables.
There is one more very important factor that I should tell you about. Even in the middle of Winter, there will be very sunny days. The temperature in your box, under glass could get very hot. If you are doing the cool season crops, Lettuce, Cabbage and such, they will not be happy. Whatever type of covering you decide on needs to be hinged in some fashion. This way when the temperature gets too hot, you can prop it open, like this.

Remember to take into account wind speed and direction. You don't want the lid flying off or the interior temperature to cool down too fast. This prop job is extreme, sometimes only a couple of inches will suffice.
I really appreciated my friend thinking of me and offering the shower door. Like I mentioned above, I have my greenhouse and just not enough room to do something cool like this. I wish him and all of you the best of luck this growing season, may your lettuce produce large leaves and your zucchini produce an abundant crop. Beware that last wish, I have heard evil stories of such bountiful crops of zucchini that people were locking their car doors at church in fear that a fellow gardener would leave a present of their "OVER BOUNTIFUL" zucchini on the driver seat!
Happy Growing!