Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Confederates

Being a Yankee by birth (New Jersey) and living in the South, I tend to get teased a lot. It is nothing serious, I know it is in fun (I hope), and I usually throw it right back. I currently live in Charleston, SC the birthplace, for all intents and purposes, of the Civil War. That war began with the firing on Fort Sumter, April 12, 1861.
South Carolina was one of the Confederate States of America which consisted of the governments of 11 Southern states that seceded from the Union in 1860-61. So it is fitting that I use this background to introduce today's topic. The Confederates.
There are some plants that use Confederate in their common name, which can actually get confusing, and I will discuss this in a moment.
The first Confederate I want to discuss is Confederate Jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides).

Contrary to its name, Confederate Jasmine is not native to the Southeast, nor is it a true jasmine. It is actually native to China. When supported, this twisting, twining vine can reach up to 20 feet or more. Without support and with some tip-pinching and pruning, it can be a spreading shrub or groundcover.
 It is a fast-growing vine that can be grown on lamp posts, trellises, or arbors. It will easily twine through chain link fences and makes a great, evergreen screen.

In early Spring and Summer, Confederate Jasmine produces clusters of small, white, VERY fragrant flowers that look like tiny pinwheels. This plant prefers full sun to partial shade. It likes a moist but well-drained soil, however it is drought resistant. It is relatively problem-free, though rabbits have been known to graze on it. It is primarily grown in USDA Zones 8 - 10. There are a few cultivars that are hardy to Zone 7. Propagation is done by cuttings as they root easily when taken in the Spring. This is probably the South's favorite flowering vine. I highly recommended Confederate Jasmine to new gardeners. It is easy to grow and satisfies with quick growth and a fabulous floral display. Who wouldn't want to come home to this?

The next Confederate I would like to discuss is the start of the confusing ones. Confederate Rose.

Botanically this is Hibiscus mutabilis. As with the Confederate Jasmine this is neither a confederate, it too is originally from China,  nor is it a rose, it is in the Hibiscus family.
One of the most interesting things about this flowering shrub are the flowers themselves. Three distinct colors appear on the bush simultaneously as the blooms color cycle independent of one another. They open white or pink, and change to deep red by evening. 
This can be a large shrub or small multi-stemmed tree that grows to 15 ft high with about a 10 ft spread. USDA Zones 7-9
This plant likes full sun to partial shade. It thrives on regular watering but is very drought tolerant. It is propagated very easily by cuttings.
 This is a great plant to add to your landscape as little to no care is required. This shrub truly takes care of itself and is adaptable to most locations and soil conditions. One last tidbit about the Confederate Rose. You can learn a lot by the plants botanical name, (mutabilis), it is mutable, it's flowers changing color with age.
The last plant I would like to discuss is the Confederate Rose.
I know, I did that one already. This is the Confederate Rose Agave. See how common names can screw you up?

There is some confusion as to the exact botanical name, it is believed to be a hybrid, possibly a cross of Agave parrasana and Agave Parryii.
Either way, it is a very nice plant.  It is considered a medium sized Agave which grows in clustering rosettes up to 1 foot across and 1-2 feet high. It has deep blue/gray short, stubby leaves, with sharp reddish teeth on each leaf. USDA Zones 8-11
As with all succulents this thing is VERY drought tolerant. However, many people do not realize that this plant is so tough that it is highly frost tolerant, it can handle down to below 20 degrees and withstand the blazing hot summer sun. Propagation is usually done by the pups that it sends out.
So there you have it, The Confederates.
Not a story of division between the states nor a story of war. Just some very good, relatively problem free, plants for a Southern Landscape. 
I hope you enjoyed this article, for now, this Yankee is off to feed some Southern mosquitoes, rumor has it that they think Yankees are delicious.
Happy Growing!

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Mothers Day

Twas the night before Mothers Day 2013. As I ponder what my mother went through as I was growing up, it still amazes me. I always wish I could come up with the perfect gift to say Thank You for all you did for me, and STILL do!!
There is no amount of money in the world that could ever repay you. So, as I sit here thinking, I remember the blog that I wrote two years ago.
To my dearest Mother, these words still ring as true today as they did two years ago.

A little change of pace. Today is Mothers Day in the United States, I don't know if any other country observes this, if they don't, they should. Everybody out there will tell you that Mothers are "superwomen" or that their Mother is the best. Well, let me tell you, if you REALLY want a Super Mom, mine wins hands down!
Most people that know me don't know that my Father passed away when I was in 2nd grade, making me all of 7 or 8 years old. At the time, I had only 1 younger brother and 1 younger sister...My littlest brother came from another marriage. So, at the ripe old age of 27, my Mother was now alone with three very young children...ages 8-5-3.
To this day, I have NO IDEA how she managed to raise us. Yes, her parents helped some, we saw my grandparents on the weekends, but that was about all. We lived in an old farmhouse, when I say old, it was 100+ years old then. This was up in New Jersey. The house was basically in the woods, we had a few neighbors across the street, but they were much older. There were no kids around to play with, other than each other.
Thinking back, we always had food on the table. Christmas and Birthdays were amazing. Every year just before school started we went shopping for new clothes, remember this was LONG before Wal-Mart came on the scene, we went to Sears, that was the only place that had clothes to fit my skinny brother and my fat bleep.
This was also back when they had classroom Mothers. These Mothers would come in and assist with classroom birthday parties, arts and crafts, and who knows what else behind the scenes. My Mother was at every function I can think of!
Abraham Lincoln once said: “All that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother”. No truer words have ever been spoken. My mother taught us about friendship, safety, kindness, nature and you know where I got THAT part of my life from. She also taught us about laughter. I mentioned above some of the things she taught me, let me demonstrate:
My sense of clothes:

Safety, it was dangerous to ride wild animals:

And of course, cleanliness:

I mentioned laughter, I got her sense of humor too, warped!
But seriously, there is a part of Mothers Day that I hate. Every jewelry store, department store, and any other store you can think of, tell you to buy your Mother this, that or the other thing to show her how much you love her. I would love to if I could afford it, I would buy her everything under the sun, but it wouldn't mean anything. Abraham Lincoln also said one other great thing: “No gift to your mother can ever equal her gift to you - life”.
Mother because of you, I am what I am...I had an absolute wonderful childhood, and I would not change it for anything......There is also no way in the world I can ever Thank You enough!!!
p.s. She will kill me for this picture, but I had to end today with my two favorite flowers:
Wife on the left, Mother on the right.

I know this is a repeat, but I could never write anything ever again that tells the world exactly how I feel. Happy Mothers Day....Mom!

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Roll Out The Barrel

Since the start of my fruit group, the Lowcountry Fruit Growers Society (check us out HERE ) back in November. I have been doing a lot of lectures on growing different kinds of fruit for garden clubs. I have so much in store for this group that it almost scares me!
Anyway, I was doing one of my talks a couple of weeks ago and the topic of Strawberries came up. Let me pause here to remind my followers and let some of the new folks in on a piece of information, the majority of the plants I grow are in containers of some kind, this includes all my Citrus, Figs and other fruits. My Strawberries are no exception. They are grown in a plastic barrel. It looks like this:

This was my first attempt at one, it has problems that we will discuss in a minute. Anyway, this was a lecture where I did not have the luxury of using a powerpoint presentation, so there were no pictures. I explained my barrels to the audience. There was one woman that was having problems understanding what I was talking about and how to go about doing one. Hence, the topic for today's article.
There are numerous places that I know of to get these. The one above was from a wholesale florist that I once worked at. The floralife liquid that we used to keep the flowers fresh came in it. That might be a good place to start if you have one close to you. Another starting point might be a local carwash. The soap comes in large barrels. My other barrel, the blue one below, came from a large landscaping company that used large amounts of liquid iron. I am sure there are other places to get them, just use your imagination. You will want to steer clear of ones that have contained harsh chemicals. The plastic will absorb them and could transfer it to your soil. My cost for each of these barrels? Zero
I mentioned that the one above has problems. Let's discuss them.
First, the holes are just a tad too big. I was actually doing it freehand with a jigsaw. I DO NOT recommend trying this at home. The soil tends to run out of the holes and sometimes the plants start to fall out. The best thing to use is a 2" drill bit, designed to cut nice round holes.
The next problem is, they are spread too far apart. There is a LOT of wasted space there. Now, what should the ideal spacing be? That will probably depend more on the look you want. If you want the plants to completely cover the barrel, maybe 2" apart.
This is what my new and improved barrel looks like:

I only had a few plants to put in, it is still a work in progress.

 This is a little closer view of the holes. As you can see by the ripe fruit, it works pretty well.
I enjoy writing this blog so people can learn from my trials and mistakes. I wish I had more plants to put in when I was making it, but they are easy enough to put in, even after some die off or whatever happens.
I will walk you through the steps and show you how easy this all is.
I will assume you have your barrel and know what kind of look you want.
The first thing to do is cut off the top. This is where you can use the jigsaw. Create a hole with a 1/2" drill bit then jigsaw the top off. You will also want to drill a few small holes in the bottom for drainage.
Next, start drilling your side holes. Start at the bottom, go all the way around however far apart you want.
The next row up, stagger the holes in between the ones from the first row. Continue all the way to the top in this fashion.
So far, so good?
Now, the fun part. Learn from my mistakes. Count your holes and get that many plants, plus four or five more. You will also need LOTS of potting soil, compost or whatever other soil amendments you prefer. Just make sure that it drains very well, yet retains some moisture.
Starting at the bottom, fill the soil up to the first row of holes. Place the roots of the plants through each hole, make sure you don't bury the crown of the plant too deep, then fill with soil up to the next row. Repeat this process all the way to the top. Then use those four or five extra ones to plant into the top.

Pretty easy, right?
Depending on what part of the country you live in and when you want your Strawberries to be ripe will determine what variety to get.
Just to give you a little bit of an idea of what is out there, I will discuss a few here.
The main type of Strawberry suited for me here in my South Carolina garden is called a June-bearer. The name June-bearer is somewhat confusing since these varieties bear most of their crop in May. June-bearers produce a single crop in the Spring.
 Then, there are 'Everbearing' or 'Day-Neutral' types which produce a crop in the Spring, another in late Summer and until frost in the Fall. All of the Everbearing strawberries advertised in nursery catalogs originated in the northern states; therefore, they succeed better for any of my followers up there.
 There are some advantages and disadvantages to growing Strawberries in a barrel like this.
Watering can be tricky. This is where a very well draining, but does hold some moisture, soil is critical. As you can imagine, the plants at the top of the barrel will dry out faster than the ones in the bottom. I keep an eye on it and will stick my finger in some of the bottom holes. If it feels very wet, I will not water, if it is just slightly damp, I water. As long as the soil is good and you have enough drainage holes, there should not be a problem.
 You also have to be careful when fertilizing. If you apply too much fertilizer, you will get excessive leaf growth and poor production. A water soluable food, given right after harvest is what works best for me.
The color of the barrel should also be considered. Strawberries need full sun, 6 hours minimum. I have never seen any, but avoid using a dark colored one. Black, dark blue or even a dark green can absorb the sunlight and get too hot. I like the white and light blue myself. If you want something that blends in a little more to your landscape, painting the barrel a light green or even beige will soften the appearance. You will need to consider this before planting.
Some of the advantages are things like space saving. As you can imagine, 35-40 plants that one of my barrels can hold, would take up a LOT of space in the garden. Having them "up" off the ground also keeps the fruit cleaner and easier to pick.

I will not sugar coat this, Strawberries are also one of the most problematic fruits that you can grow.  
They are subject to many diseases, which I will not go into here: fruit rots (gray mold, anthracnose), leaf diseases (leaf spot, leaf scorch, leaf blight), crown diseases, root diseases (red stele, black rot) and viruses.
Some of the best pieces of advice I can give you when it comes to these problems is, plant only certified disease-free plants, look for resistant varieties and sanitation, sanitation, sanitation. Make sure you remove any diseased or dead foliage and ripe or rotten fruit.
Root weevils, aphids, mites, slugs and snails are among potential pests. Birds are also a huge problem. Netting is about the only sure fire way to foil them. The net will have to be anchored all the way around the barrel, otherwise the birds will walk under it.
Please don't get me wrong, I certainly do not want to dissuade you from growing your own Strawberries, I just wanted to give you all the information. Strawberries can and are one of the most rewarding food crops to grow in a small home garden. Homegrown berries taste far better than the store-bought ones and you can save some serious money by not having to pay supermarket prices. They are the first to ripen in the Spring, berries begin to ripen four to five weeks after the first flowers open and continue to ripen for about three weeks, they also bring a sigh of relieve after a long dreary Winter.
With some luck and good horticultural practices, these guys will even help you with replanting, which should be done every 3-4 years as the plants get older and non-productive. They will send out runners that root very easy and can be trained and held in place in the soil of different holes around the barrel.
Hopefully this will inspire you to try your hand at Strawberries and you will be able to find yourself a barrel (or two) and grow some healthy, tasty fruit.
As always, if you have any questions or comments, please feel free to contact me.
Happy Growing!