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