Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Old Spineless

I admired a particular cactus last fall at the TNLA Expo, and stopped to talk with the vendor. Not only was this a (mostly) spineless cactus, it was also variegated emerald and lime green. Pretty sensational. This variegated type is the decorator version of the hardworking Opuntia ficus-indica, which I grow. No spikes means it is easier to tend, prepare, and eat. The vendor thought Opuntia ficus-indica has been selected for spinelessness since prehistory. That really intrigues me and I wanted to know more.

My very brief research turned up this nice paper. I learned that sailing ships were stocked with Opuntia ficus-indica to prevent scurvy. The cactus was distributed around the planet via trade routes and people in distant places think the cactus is native to their own country. But DNA studies show it is closely related to several central Mexican prickly pear species. The authors present multiple possibilities for its origin, with more research needed. I am partial to the romantic idea that someone in ancient Mesoamerica found or hybridized a spineless sport and it has been propagated vegetatively ever since, right up to my potting up a pad from my neighbor.

My specimen, in the photo above, grew from the piece I picked up while out walking the dog. (On dog walks I have also found plumeria branches, macho aloes, and ceramic pots of all sizes set out for the trash, or opportunistic gardeners.) This is the mother plant:

See how she is ‘arborescent’.
In summer a tuna (fruit, not fish) grew on my Opuntia ficus-indica, and when it looked ready, I picked it. The Kid and I shared it. It was impressive for its brilliant violet juice but was not too flavorful. This “Indian fig” is what the species name refers to. I have not tried julienning and serving up the pads yet. I don’t crave the taste of cactus but it’s good to know it’s there to eat, come the revolution.

Prickly pear pads at my local supermarket, Fiesta. These have spines, hence the tongs you see here!

My cactus produced a spiny throw-back of a pad from the base the main trunk. I plucked it out. I’m curious what triggers going spineless to spiny. Luther Burbank developed cactus varieties for livestock feed, and wrote that many spiny cacti have spineless sports from time to time.

Every article I read about ‘spineless’ cacti mentions the glochids, and I’ll mention them too. When you move a large-ish Opuntia ficus-indica from one side of your garden to the other, and up some steps, you end up with short, almost invisible, glochids in your arms. Those are the hairs that cluster in the sparse nodes visible on the pad. They are annoying, but they seem to disintegrate in the skin after a few days where they are not completely removed by tweezers.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Holiday greetings, late and early

In the long silence since I wrote about the surprise incidence of snow, perhaps you are wondering if the frozen plant trauma required a little stay for rest and medication? Not this time. As amazing as having water freeze outside all by itself is the fact that none of the tropical plants suffered, even though some snow stuck around til morning.

I'm blog lazy, but busy otherwise, gardening and holiday-making. I've sent out Christmas cards a mere two days after Christmas this year. It's no good considering them generalized holiday greetings, current til about mid-January, as they specifically reference Christmas in the pre-printed message inside. What's a Buddhist sending Christmas cards for, anyway? Well, that was to be addressed (heh) in an off-topic blog entry called How a Buddhist Decorates for Christmas. I'll sit on that for next year.

In the event that I continue this internet indolence past 2008, I'll say it now: May the New Year be wonderful, lush, fruitful, and muddy!
[sound of cork popping]

Grape leaf in dry grass

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Something odd

It's snowing! The euphoria of seeing snow for the first time in 3 years has given way to some foreboding about the massacre of tropical plants. This naturally occurring frozen water took me by surprise, completely unprepared. Even worse (for tropicals), it is sticking around and collecting!

Snow and a cardboard cycad/Zamia furfuracea: probably a bad combo

Soggy tents over the little citrus trees in a new bed. Aww, I hardly knew them.

Instant jungle in the garage, thawing.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

On Liriope...and a Confession

I always ask myself, why does someone who loves diversity and local plants have so much damn Liriope in the garden?
Then I tell myself about one of the reasons: dogs.

When I turned the soil in the only sunny place in the front yard, I was dreaming of produce. I put in vegetables, herbs and heritage plants right where someone could pick from the sidewalk if they were motivated.

Then, this lady let her dog walk up into the bed to piss on the dill. My anticipation of fresh salad ingredients died right then. The dill died later, after taking a hit from every other dog in the neighborhood.
(By the way, the lady was none other than our neighborhood association president.)

Now everything I plant along the sidewalk is inedible, and piss-resistant, and cheap to replace when it does succumb. Ergo, the Liriope muscari, aka, monkey grass. Once you have one patch, you have a source for endless division. This is what I call a place-holder plant, but in this case, it probably won't get switched out.

You might ask why I don’t buy a few packages of seeds to get thrift and some interesting diversity too. Good question!

Here’s my confession: I am crap at starting seeds. They are like baby birds, needing time and devotion and I resent that. I neglect them one day and they mummify. The pots get knocked off the windowsill by a breeze, or by a crazy dog, or by the blinds crashing down. When I direct sow, one plant will emerge, and it will be growing in the neighbor’s driveway, maybe.
So I go for bulbs and rhizomes and roots that take a long time to notice they are out of the dirt. Cactus pads, stalks that root, corms, epiphytes—I’m all over them like a cheap suit.
Still, I look at the seed racks in the nursery and feel defective as a gardener. I truly admire people who collect seeds for next year and grow a real garden from them.

Over the Edging

After the garage construction, we had some left over Trex “composite lumber” decking. It has become the edging material of choice here in my garden.

It looks appropriate for an urban garden: simple and modern when the faux wood grain side is turned away. This color plays well with the terra cotta colored brick of my house. (The house in the photos is my neightbor's but her brick is similar). It is not going to rot, being part wood waste and part recycled plastic. Barring any sloppy driving incidents, it will stay indefinitely just as it was put. Unfortunately you must pay dearly for these qualities, at $2 a lineal foot!

I justified the cost in tires not punctured, as I pulled out the deformed existing steel edge.
There are cheaper composite lumber materials available for edging, like Rhino Edge and Bend-a-Board. Since we already had part of what was needed, I decided not to change materials.

The corners were mitered, without loss of body parts, and two steel angles were installed to hold each corner together.

There is a corner running into the slope at the end of each side, for stability and to finish off what would otherwise be a loose butt end. (This is a gentrified neighborhood, thank you.) On the long runs, the Trex is set down in a groove adjacent to the sidewalk, and this combined with the angles at the corners provides all the stability it needs.

With the front and part of the back garden edged with Trex, I am looking at using it to shape the vegetable beds…coming soon! (Project number 29 out of about 5000)

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Holiday Road Trip Part 2

Yes, we have Thanksgiving at an off-road vehicle park. Lots of people did. I sure do like to get free and muddy, but as it turns out, a 4-wheel motorcycle making sounds of intestinal distress isn’t my cup of tea, or rather, can of Bud. Doesn’t matter. It is tradition now for cousins, aunts and uncles to converge there in the cabins down by the creek with sugary white sand beaches.

Curiously named Red Creek has white sand.

My cousins own Red Creek Offroad. There is no gardening to speak of, but the woods are full of trees and shrubs that have made the landscaping bigtime, so I find it interesting to see them at free range.

Huckleberry or farkleberry or something Vaccinium is in foreground.
Berries tasted not so great.

Going home (50,000 calories richer)...

Isn’t it terrific to find a world class gem somewhere unexpected?
Right off the interstate and behind the Wallmart in Picayune, Mississippi, is the Crosby Arboretum. (My mother’s people are from nearby Poplarville.) I went there for the trees, vaguely aware there was something else there in the woods.

The Prairie Style gateways and notice board, and nicely constructed bridgeways were clues that resolved in a splendid pond-side pavilion designed by the late Fay Jones.I assume it was mentioned in a May 2007 article in Landscape Architecture magazine, but I forgot about that. What I remember from the article is that people walking around on site have asked the staff, So where is the arboretum? The plants are Mississippi natives in their own wild habitat, and that is the intent of the Crosby Arboretum. Some people can’t see the trees for the forest.

The structure of the pavilion speaks softly of a weathered barn gradually coming apart.

We were given a bag of pellets for the pondlife. Turtles were a no-show; hibernating. In the main pond, perch came up, looked hard at the floating pellets, and left. They were sick of pellets. In the backwaters of the pond the fish were not so choosy.

Canted benches—so you don’t roll into the water by accident if you are asleep, the Husband says.

Vistas came and went around the pond, like a Japanese stroll garden. In fact, even without a stalk of bamboo, this was more of a Japanese garden than the Jungle Gardens (see Part 1) with its various Asian decorations.

There were other sections left unvisited, such as a large meadow called the pitcher plant bog. Prospects of lunch down in New Orleans, just an hour’s drive away, got pretty hard to ignore.
From there on, the trip was roads and restaurants--too tangential for this garden blog.

Leaves from a red maple / Acer rubrum

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Holiday Road Trip, Part 1

Eventually we get to Shiver Me Timbers Millenium Park in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Best playground I ever played on. You have your Lord of the Rings-evoking style which is a hallmark of Leathers and Associates. You have your alligator in pirate drag up on the entry gate. (See him again here.) You have splinter-free composite-lumber bridges and contraptions, all built by the community. This is so cool that I want to be a playground designer, too.

Random kid, not mine, in photo.

Photo not so good, but hopefully you get the idea.

The next leg of the journey brought us to Avery Island for the Tabasco Factory and Jungle Gardens.

We arrived in time for last tour of the factory. The Kid actually wanted photos taken, as conspicuous Tabasco consumption is currently ‘hot’ at school.
Some tour gleanings: The seeds of the peppers not selected for next year’s crop are sent to Wrigley’s. Wrigley’s extracts the oil and uses it in Big Red chewing gum. Peppers are picked when the color matches the red on ‘le petite baton rouge’, and you can get a baton of your very own in the factory store. (Why? For wannabe hot sauce contenders?) I stocked up on Tabasco Cheez Nips, Tabasco Slim Jims, Tabasco soy sauce, but not petite batons.

The Tabasco factory was calculated to soften up the Kid for a dreaded garden tour at the adjacent Jungle Gardens. But dark came and we retired to Lafayette till morning.
And then...

Dwarf palmettos (Sabal minor) and bald cypress (Taxodium distichum):

A fine, 900 year old statue of the Buddha sits inside this hilltop shrine:

Camellias were literally humming with bees. Not possible to show on film. Note to self: Get a real camera.

Home hole in the foot of a massive oak named ‘Cleveland’:

Another camellia, festooned with blooms and Spanish moss:

There were an absurd number and variety of birds in the Jungle Gardens, not just the white egrets the Gardens are famous for hosting in nesting season. This kinglet, a cartoon-like bird of eyestrain-inducing size, cheerfully came closer and closer, to within a few feet of us:

Then it was on to the business of locating the husband in the city of New Orleans, and navigating into the woods of Mississippi where the GPS unit goes blank. We will say nothing of the distant banjo music. Check back soon for our adventures there and back…Holiday Road Trip Part 2.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Bromeliad on a Stick

There is something appealing about the weird sputnik shape of ball moss/Tilandsia recurvata . Although I have never seen them used I am sure that branches with ball moss colonies would make a very mod, very cool floral arrangement or sculpture.
When I find the balls on the ground I take them home and put them to a more mundane use. They make good ‘mulch’ over the soil in pots of bromeliads. Ball moss is itself a bromeliad.

Now don’t that look natural?

There is no consensus about what ball moss is doing up there in the trees. Some say that it is a true parasite that will suck out the life of the tree. This scary-looking crepe myrtle has a bad case of ball moss:

Some say it is a benign epiphyte which simply prefers the more open canopy of a sparse tree. I am not an arborist but I have an opinion anyway. Ball moss is not a murderer or a sunbather, but gets established on a tree that can’t thwart it because it is already weak or sick. For example, here is the root flare of the same crepe myrtle above:

It looks like damage from a line trimmer used to cut the grass next to the trunk, followed by an infection in the wound. I would bet my Felco’s this happened before the first ball moss showed up.

Some healthy looking trees have a small stable ball moss population. But the association of prolific ball moss and really sick trees looks as if ball moss is not merely using the branch as a perch. Science, anyone?

Monday, November 17, 2008

Right now, other gardens are more fun

Now that it is finally cool enough to do some major garden work, there is no sunlight for it in the evenings. Contrast this with the summertime, when there is no shortage of light, but it is so hot that you can die gardening at 7pm.
Lately I have been landscaping at night, installing the hardscape in the back garden. While I would like to put up a blog post or two about it, it is coming along so slowly that no one should be squirming with anticipation. In the meantime, enjoy some scenes around town that I found diverting...

A garden of culvert tubes:

Infestation of ceramic fungi at The Arbor Gate:

Sign seen on leaving the soil supplier Mulch King:

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Summer concedes

Once in a while we get vibrant autumn colors here, if an early cold snap drops in. But usually the fall season is indicated by subtler things: the color of the light and shade, the declension of the sun, and the reluctant tapering off of summer produce. There is something so poignant about the sweet vestiges of summer hanging on well into fall. Seen in the garden today:

Celeste figs in November

A small second crop of Hunt muscadines (or maybe they are Fry muscadines).

Sweet basil beginning to lose its vigor. Pesto time!

Monday, November 10, 2008

The need for integrating my pest management system

So my next door neighbor told me about a new garden pest. One recent night while she was writing, she heard violent rustling in the shrubs behind her fence. She said she wondered what kind of animal was back there, and decided to go see.

A man came out of the shrubs through a gap in the fence. He had some lame explanation about searching for his lost dog but he looked like he had either been sleeping back there or taking a dump. He bummed a cigarette off my neighbor and asked her about her marital status. She’s married, but he asked to see her ‘coochi’. [Oh, you mean my ‘chichi’ ruellia? There’s a good patch blooming in a garden down the street and around the corner. Bye.]

My neighbor is very brave and played it cool till he left. By the way, she didn’t describe about her garden dweller much but I don’t think he fit this appearance:
A guy I saw at the Texas Renaissance Festival

I have a management system for garden pests like my neighbor’s. It is 75 pounds of mutt named Plue. We did not bring him in for homestead security but he takes it upon himself. From time to time he makes himself a key pest. For example, I feel like nannies pushing strollers do not need to be evicted from our street but he does. A mail carrier told me Plue has the loudest bark he has ever heard from any dog, and I would guess that he is an authority on barking dogs.

(Photo taken by the Kid)

I don’t know how other people do it, but gardening with a dog this size and varietie(s) can be such a drag. He is not a puppy anymore so maybe I shouldn’t tell tails but I have not forgotten that he tore up 7 bags of fine compost directly over the new French drain. I haven’t forgotten that he excavated the drip irrigation system and added many, many more perforations. Part of the reason the back garden is nearly a wasteland is the recent garage construction, but part of the reason is Plue.

As I get the garden going again, I will be considering ways to integrate it with Plue. Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure I can learn from the dog vs garden experience of the many garden blogs writers out there. And I will post my successes, if any.

Meanwhile, I have yet to find garden-lurking, cigarette-mooching pervs in my landscaping, and for this I say: Good Boy, Plue!

Friday, November 7, 2008

Taste test: Turk's cap hibiscus

Today I tried the berry of Turk’s cap hibiscus (Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii) from a shrub I passed while walking the dog. They are a common native hibiscus here, but I heard only lately that the fruit, which about the size of a big blueberry and the color of a ripe persimmon, is edible.

It tasted exactly like a red delicious apple from a school lunch: mealy and vaguely apple-flavored. Also, it’s packed with seeds. I’m glad to have the experience, but the rating I give Turk’s cap berries is: bird food.

Tasting a new strange fruit is a great pleasure of mine, and I will pay stupid amounts of money to try something that may not even be ripe. Ah, but I am even happier if I found it and picked it myself.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

At Last Organic Outpost

Having meant to go for years, I made a visit to the urban community farm Last Organic Outpost yesterday. I stayed a little while to see Dan Phillips demonstrate how to prepare a cork floor, using wine corks. In a slight error of judgment I followed friends away to an early dinner when I really just wanted to hang out amid the greens and community farm folk. Here are a few images right off the cell phone (I am comfortable in the knowledge that no one comes to this blog for the fine photography).

Summer and autumn merge gracefully here and heat-loving crops like okra keep producing alongside the fall plantings of greens. Unexpected combinations of volunteer plants and crops made exploring interesting.

For example, spearmint and broccoli raab...

Squash, lettuce, and mustard greens...

Kabocha squash, I think.

One of several eggplant varieties I saw, here cosying up to okra:

Mint corrals...

Edible and ornamental coexist:

Children tried their hand at the cork floor and bottle cap wall model. Dan Phillips designs and builds houses together with the house’s future residents. The building materials are reclaimed to keep costs low, and so inventively recycled I urge you to see some examples at the website.

A few parting shots...