25 December 2012

Tuberous Begonias - A Christmas Gift

Tuberous begonias come with many varieties of leaves and flowers.  This plant was first hybridized in 1870 from other species gathered in the Andes mountains.  They are grown in the landscape as well as in pots.

Tuberous begonias need bright, indirect light all day, but a little morning sun or late afternoon sun is fine.  They like evenly moist, well drained soil.  They do not like the soil to dry out.  Begonias want a little dormancy in the winter, so cut back on watering in the winter.  They are also frost-tender, so keep them out of freezing or near-freezing weather.

In spring, begin fertilizing with a diluted, complete liquid fertilizer every two weeks, or once or twice with a slow-release fertilizer at the beginning of the growing season.

Make sure begonias have good air circulation, but keep them protected from wind.  Sometimes poor air circulation leads to a fungal disease called powdery mildew.  As its name suggests, it will look like a white powder covering the leaves.  As a preventative, you can spray a mixture of one tablespoon of baking soda per one gallon of water once a week.  Once the fungus develops the only treatment is a commercial fungicide.

Peperomia - A Christmas Gift

I decided to give a few plants as Christmas gifts this year - it makes sense, since I picked up several plants out of people's trash and rehabilitated them.  The plan was to repot them into something nice and write about how to take care of them.  I also have some packets of slow-release fertilizer I thought I would include with the card.  Here are my care instructions for Peperomia:

The Peperomia plant is a tropical house plant grown for its interesting and variety of foliage.  Looking at its slightly succulent appearance, you would think that it comes from an arid region, but, in fact, it lives in the shade of South American rain forests.  Although the flowers are usually insignificant, there are numerous varieties of this plant that have different shapes, colors and textures of leaves.

Being a tropical understory plant, Peperomia like bright, indirect light and they are very comfortable in a cool environment (65-75 degrees), like most homes.  They like a more humid environment, so, like other house plants, keep away from heating vents and you may want to set them on a gravel tray with water or mist them regularly to increase humidity.

When watering Peperomia, they like the soil to stay moist, but they don’t like to be overwatered.  Signs of overwatering include wilting and raised scab-like protrusions on the leaves.

Beginning in the spring, they will need to be fertilized regularly either with a diluted liquid fertilizer every two weeks, or with a slow-release fertilizer a couple of times during the growing season.

There is little need to repot Peperomia often.  They are shallow-rooted and like to be slightly rootbound.  But when you do repot, there are a few things to remember:  either remove the plant from its pot, root prune and repot, adding organic matter such as compost;  or repot into a slightly larger pot, adding compost or other organic matter.

19 December 2012

Are Poinsettias Poisonous?

A few days after I posted about poinsettias, I realized that I didn't address an issue which I wanted to and other might want to know about - are poinsettias poisonous?  The answer is no, generally speaking.  Being Christmastime, a lot has been published recently about this topic, and everyone agrees that it is not.  That doesn't mean it's completely safe.  Poinsettias, as well as all other euphorbias excrete a milky sap, called latex, when cut.  This latex can be an irritant to the skin and cause damage if you get it in your eyes.

So why do more than half of us believe this?  In 1919, a two-year old child died and the cause was incorrectly determined to be poinsettia poisoning.  If someone does managed to eat a number of leaves of the plant, there will probably be an upset stomach and vomiting, but apparently they taste so bad, it seems like it might be too difficult to eat enough to do any damage.  A 50-lb. child would have to eat more than 1.25 lbs. of poinsettia bracts (500-600 leaves) to excede the experimental doses, according to the POISINDEX Information Service.

So, there's no need to worry about eating the leaves.  Having had other euphorbias in the past, my biggest fear was of the latex, but everything will be fine, if you don't get it in your eyes.  Merry Christmas everyone!

(source: snopes.com)

16 December 2012


I've been working on a lot of different articles lately, but I put those aside to try to write about something more seasonal - Poinsettias.  Named for botanist and Charleston native, Joel Roberts Poinsett, who introduced the plant into the US in 1825, the Poinsettia (Euphorbia Pulcherrima) has become synonymous with Christmas.  Almost everybody has one this time of year, but does everyone know how to take care of them?  And what to do with them afterward?

Poinsettias are tender, tropical plants, and as such, do not do well at our house as a rule.  But since my in-laws gave us one this year, I'm determined to take care of it the best that I can.  So I set out to learn more.  During the winter, poinsettias need about six hours of bright, indirect light.  They tolerate temperatures between 50 and 70 degrees, but they should avoid drafts if at all possible.  They like moderately moist soil, but they can't tolerate standing water - that can happen if you water your poinsettia while it's sitting in the decorative foil it came in.  Take it out to water and make sure all of the water has drained before putting it back in the foil.  While it is at its most colorful, showing off its red (or another color) bracts - modified leaves, not flowers - there is no need to fertilize.

It is now spring, and if you still have your poinsettia, you will notice that the colorful bracts have died back.  Prune the plant back to eight inches, and once nighttime temperatures stay above 50 degrees, take the plant outside - remember, it need bright, indirect sunlight.  At this point you can begin fertilizing every 2-3 weeks with a complete fertilizer, i.e. 10-10-10, and in June transplant into a pot about 2-3 inches larger than the one it is in, making sure to add lots of organic matter like peat moss, leaf mold or compost.  If you want to prune it again, you can, but do it before September 1st.  When nighttime temperatures dip to 55-60 degrees, it's time to bring it back in.  Now all of that was easy.  Now it's time to get it to rebloom.

So, you've really committed to this plant, huh?  If you thought it needed lots of attention before, just wait.  Poinsettias, like other Euphorbias are what's called "short day" plants.  Some plants need shorter days - actually longer nights - to initiate the flowering process.  With houseplants being in the environment they are in, they don't experience the natural change in sunlight, so they have to be given it artificially.  Begininning the first week of October, poinsettias need 14 hours of continuous darkness each night for 10-12 weeks.  That means moving the plant to a dark closet, or putting a box over them from roughly 5pm to 7am every day.  During the day, they will need 6-8 hours of bright indirect light.  If you have done all of this, your poinsettia should begin to bloom - form colorful bracts - in November or December, depending upon the cultivar.

Wish me luck with my efforts with Poinsettias, and if you want more info on this or other "short day" plants visit HGIC 1561 Poinsettia or Wikipedia's article on photoperiodism.

12 December 2012

Florida Betony

As the days began to cool off, I started making plans to control the cool-season annual weeds in our lawn.  While I was waiting for the proper time to apply preemergence herbicide, a problem weed reared its ugly head - Florida betony (Stachys floridana).  Also known as rattlesnake weed, this cool-season perennial appears in lawns before other weeds, growing from an underground tuber that gives it its nickname.  It is a very aggressive weed, having made its way from Florida in the 1940s or '50s, and will thrive in your yard during the winter as the lawn goes dormant.  There's nothing worse than seeing a brown, dormant lawn, with about 10-20% covered with this green weed.

Not much is known about how this plant reproduces by seed - it is thought that it mainly spreads by growing new tubers - but before we moved in here, this house was vacant for at least two years, so I'm sure a minimal maintenance of the yard provided the opportunity for this weed to spread.

There are several 3-way broadleaf herbicides that can be used for spot treating Florida betony.  In addition, lawn weed sprays containing Atrazine will control this weed.  I'm not a fan of spraying chemicals on the lawn, but with as much as we have here, it might be necessary.  I'll probably spend some warm winter afternoons spot treating weeds in the lawn, but not before I figure out which herbicides to use at:  HGIC 2313 Florida Betony

05 December 2012

Imaginary Call to the Master Gardener's Office

    "I have this weed that grows only in the winter in my St. Augustine grass yard! It's really annoying because it grows real low to the ground and forms mats.  The leaves are like little ears (lobed) and I don't see any flowers.  When I try to pull it up, it sticks me in the hand!"

I recently took an online Master Gardener continuing education / re-certification course in which the previous scenario was given to us.  Before taking this class, there is good advice I could give this person without knowing exactly what the weed is.  It is a winter annual so, a properly-timed application of preemergence herbicide will control it.  Hand-pulling larger plants (with gloves) is an option.  Also, a broad-leaf herbicide for St. Augustine lawns would work if you missed applying a preemergence.  But we were given an additional resource to identify this weed - Turf and Weed ID.

I've only played with it a few times, but this site helps identify a number of grassy and broad leaf weeds and sedges, if you can describe them accurately.  Some of the questions you needs to answer are whether it is a grass, broadleaf or sedge, its growth habit, bulbous or fibrous roots, leaf characteristics, etc.

So, let's use this tool to solve our current problem.  The first decision we have to make is the type of plant.  The fact that the leaves are lobed tells us that it is a broadleaf weed - we're down to about 50 choices.  The fact that it grows only in winter suggests that it is a winter annual - that cuts our choices in half.  We used the fact that the leaves are lobed to determine that it is a broadleaf, which narrows our possibilities down to about seven.  This person said that it grows low to the ground, so, after choosing "prostrate" as its growth habit, we are left with only one plant - lawn burweed (Soliva sessilis).

I didn't know what this plant looked like, but I was familiar with it nevertheless.  I used to walk around barefoot a lot and I won't forget the feeling of stepping on burweed.  Over the years I avoided certain yards and wear shoes outside all the time now, so it's not an issue anymore.  It is a winter annual, but as the weather warms in the spring, it begins to grow rapidly, producing spiny burs.

An ounce of prevention goes a long way.  A healthy, robust lawn will outcompete this weed, reducing the amount your yard.  Burweed can become established in areas where the turf isn't very thick, so good lawn care is important.  A number of different herbicides will control the spread of lawn burweed.  Postemergence herbicides are more effective on this weed during the winter, when the plant is small.  If you use them on the plant during the spring, it may be harder to kill.  It may also give the plant a chance to produce its burs, in which case, a preemergence herbicide will be necessary to further control the spread of this plant.  For more detailed information and herbicide recommendations, please see HGIC 2323 Lawn Burweed.

02 December 2012

Holiday Tour of the Recycling Center

We did this three years ago, but I still think it's really interesting.

This past Tuesday Charleston County Recycling invited neighborhood volunteers to a reception and tour of the John L. Jencks Recycling Center at 13 Romney Street. As a neighborhood volunteer - I put out a sign every two weeks - Robin and I got to go on the tour. Putting out a sign doesn't seem like much of a job, but overall, it has increased recycling rates from less than 30 percent to just over 50 percent. Enough about that - let's get to the tour.

For a slide show of the tour, please click here.

When trucks arrive at the recycling center, the first thing they do is get weighed. After that they dump their co-mingled loads of plastic and metal. Local inmates load all of this onto a conveyor, which takes it into the building - you're going to see that word (conveyor) a lot.

Once inside the building, there are magnets that separate steel and aluminum, while workers separate plastic and glass. Conveyors dump steel and aluminum into hoppers and crushed into small cubes, which contain about a thousand cans. About a hundred cubes are bundled together for transport - pictured. Glass is separated by color and conveyors toss them into stalls outside - Companies buy recycled glass and use it to make other products.

Other products are sorted and bundled separately - plastic milk cartons are recycled into more milk cartons, while soda bottles and the like are made into carpeting. Paper is made into more paper.

Charleston County Recycling picks up most items at the curbside. A few things that they recycle, but not curbside, are CFLs, corrugated cardboard and electronics. For a complete list of recyclables, click here.

28 November 2012

Salvia Hispanica

Salvia hispanica is a flowering plant in the mint family, native to southern Mexico and Guatemala.  It was cultivated by the Aztec in pre-Columbian times and thought to be almost as important as maize.  The seeds are still used today, as they are extremely nutritious...but this isn't why I wanted to write about this plant.

S. hispanica is also know as chia, as in Chia Pets.  We're getting to that time of year when you start seeing them pop up in stores as a last-minute holiday gift ideas.  I don't know anyone who have taken these seriously - I'm sure I know some MGs that did - but when we planned to give one as a gag gift a few years ago, the temptation was too much and I had to buy one for myself.

If you follow the instructions, the seeds will almost form a paste that you can spread onto the clay figure and stick there.  I thought they must have treated them or coated them with something, but I was browsing their site and it seems that Chia seeds form a gelatinous coat when soaked in water.  The Chia Pet website recommends other seeds you could use when your supply of chia seeds runs out, but they contradict themselves on another page by recommending against some of those same seeds because they don't germinate quickly enough.  More research may be required on this subject.

I was really excited to try this, but my little experiment didn't turn out so well, and I suspect that most of the people that get this for Christmas don't fair any better.  Our biggest problem is that we get very little sunlight in our house.  When I first "planted" the chia, the seeds germinated fine, but it was when they needed light that was the issue.  I put them near a window, but then all the seedlings were stretching towards the light.  It was very strange-looking - I had a photo, but I can't find it anymore.  (I found them)  The second time I tried it, it was at least spring, so I put it outside and it did well at first, but clay containers dry out fast in our area and I'm not the best person to take care of potted plants.  I know I made sure it was watered in the beginning, but I either gave up or forgot...or stopped caring.  I felt like I had tried the Chia experiment and failed and I was moving on with my life.

Recommendations if you really want to grow these:
1.  Follow the instructions - Water seeps out of the planter constantly.  You will need to dump the water from the collection tray every day and top off the planter.

2.  Chia is a flowering herb, so it needs a lot of sunlight.  Make sure you have a good place for it.

3.  Expectations - Like anything you buy from toys to food, it's not going to look as good as what's on the box.

If you're ok with everything I just mentioned, then I wish you luck.  After writing all of this, I think I might have to try it again, but I'll be waiting until spring.

25 November 2012

Seed Catalogs

Years ago I started getting lots of seed catalogs.  During the holidays I would peruse them and dog-ear pages when I found seeds I wanted.  I got away from that some in the last couple of years for a number of reasons.  I stopped planting the whole packet - I recognized that I didn't need 30 tomato plants, or I needed to save some for a second planting, or even that seeds usually don't "go bad" after a year.  I haven't grown as many vegetables in the last few years as well, and what I have grown, a lot has come from feed stores.  Back in August I even stocked up on a lot of seeds from a nearby feed store.  But as the first seed catalogs arrive, I find myself circling seeds in catalogs again.

I do have legitimate needs when it comes to seeds - I need pole beans and I need corn, but that's probably it.  My interest in what I grow has expanded and I was even circling a number of different gourd varieties, but I no idea where I would plant all of them.  In some ways my gardening is approaching small-scale farming - my interest has expanded to a "what if I had to feed myself" kind of gardening.  This spring I was reading up on how to make corn meal from dent corn, and, after watching Ken Burns' "The Dust Bowl", I'm curious about growing wheat.  I just want to be the best gardener/farmer I can be, but also, almost unconsciously, I'll be ready for whatever global food crisis comes our way.  The glut of end-of-the-world, zombie and apocalyptic movies and TV shows doesn't help either.

I was hoping to have some sort of a greenhouse by early spring, but it's not looking good for that now.  I will be ordering seeds from Park Seed - I have a coupon from when the cukes I wanted were on backorder.  Since I'll be getting a discount, I think I'm going to get one of their bio domes - it was recommended by one of the local extension agents, and it's just the thing I need for starting seeds in the the spring.

I'm sure my seed list will change as the catalogs start to accumulate.  And I'll also have to adjust my order to what I have room for in our yard.  But I can always save it for next year, right?

21 November 2012

First Expected Frost Date

Trying to figure out when the first expected frost in your area will be can be frustrating.  The problem is that no one knows for sure.  Everyone is guessing - some using historical weather data, others not.  A good bit of the information that I found is old, whether it be taped to a desk at the Master Gardener's office or online in a 1988 NOAA report.  Another source I have for this information is Gardening in the Carolinas by Bob Polumski.  I'm going to lay out some of this information and let's see if we can reach a consensus.

MG Office - Average First and Last Frost Dates
Charleston Airport     November 20th     March 15th

NOAA - 50% Frost Chance Table
50% chance of Frost on or after the spring date indicated
50% chance of frost on or before the fall date indicated
Charleston AP            November 12th     March 18th

NOAA - 10% Frost Chance Table
10% chance of Frost on or after the spring date indicated
10% chance of frost on or before the fall date indicated
Charleston AP            October 30th         April 6th

Gardening in the Carolinas by Bob Polomski
average date of first fall freeze 11/21
average date of last spring freeze 3/11 or 3/16

What does all of this mean?  Let's start with the MG office information.  First of all, I don't know the source.  I believe it to have been reliable when it was taped to the desk, but I can't say when that was, but the dates are in the ballpark.  The info in the Polomski book is a little dated, but it's also a little hard to interpret.  Like the MG office, it's an average, but it's also a couple of graphics of NC and SC with wavy lines.  Once again, these first and last average frost dates are in the ballpark - see for yourself.

When I first started writing this, I wanted a clear answer - the NOAA information seemed too vague.  But now that I've reached this part of the article, it makes the most sense.  No one is going to know for sure when it will freeze, until it does, but the table gives a good estimate.  On November 12th, you should be planning on it to freeze, if it hasn't done so already.  The same thing goes in the spring - by April 6th there is very little chance that it will freeze again.  Like I've said before, none of this is exact, but it's the best we've got - unless you want to go by the farmer's almanac.

18 November 2012

Rainy Day

We've had rain in the forecast for the past two weeks.  Election day was cold and overcast and it warmed up for a few days - then it turned cold and wet again.  This whole week has been cold and threatened to rain, but never did...until today.  I knew the weather report, but didn't completely trust it.  I had plans to get out in the yard and finish the broken concrete path that's been sitting there for way too long.  No such luck today - so I thought I would talk about something that happens this time every year.  People throw plant and fall decorations away.

For years I've picked up dying houseplants from the curb that people have decided that they don't want anymore.  Most of the time there is usually something a little wrong with them.  People throw the plants away at the start of cold weather either, because they have neglected them and they are dying - or in the best cases, they are very healthy and they just want a change.  It's really hit or miss - I pick up a lot of tender houseplants that may be beyond help, that I can't do anything with, but on occasion I get something decent.  Back in April I picked up a hibiscus and a palm that someone must have had around the house all winter and then decided to get rid of.  This was a luck find - it was spring, so I didn't have to worry about protecting them from the cold.  The hibiscus was so large, I was able to divide it into three plants - one for the front, one for the back, and one for the plant swap.  They have bloomed constantly over the last seven months.

Recently I've picked up a number of other houseplants, etc and I started posting photos of them on Tumblr - take a look.  There have been succulents, alliums, tuberous begonias...  This time last year I noticed something else people were starting to throw out - their Halloween/autumn harvest decorations - mostly bales of hay.  Last year I picked up four or five bales of hay that I was able to use in the garden and for the chickens.  It was a little bit of a windfall, but I'm not getting my hopes up.  I have been looking around, trying to see who has fall decorations that they might be getting rid of soon.  I didn't think about this last year, but I imagine that people will be discarding other items as well, specifically pumpkins, winter squash and the like.  I wouldn't pick up jack-o-lanterns - only whole fruits.

I expect that after Thanksgiving people will getting rid of fall decorations in favor of Christmas ones, so in the next couple of weeks, I'll be keeping my eye out for these things.

14 November 2012


Last year, I was looking for a simple trellis design that I could put up easily and take down and store during the winter - something that would last a long time.  I had done variations on a trellis that Mel Bartholomew uses in his square-foot gardening books, but I wasn't happy with that.  I wanted something sturdy that I could grow pumpkins or watermelons on if I wanted to.  I was browsing GardenWeb, looking for trellis ideas and I found people using cattle panels.  This seemed like the idea that I was looking for, but I needed to learn more.  I did some research on the different sizes and prices of feedlot fence panels and decided on the cattle panel.  They were the cheapest ($22 at Tractor Supply) and they were the best size for me.  The cattle panels are 50 inches tall and 16 feet long.  I was hoping to find a six foot tall fence panel, so I could make four trellises from it, but this was the best I could find.  50 inches is wide enough for the beds and 16 feet would get me two trellises with a little extra.

As a frugal gardener, I was a little hesitant about spending this much money on something I haven't tried before.  The panel plus four 6-foot posts cost about $42.  I was worried that it might not work out as I planned.  I went to Tractor Supply one night and did some window shopping and spent a good bit of time talking to the salespeople, asking how the fence panels work and how easy it is to cut - remember, I had to get these things home!  They also showed me a $25 post setter that I might need to get them in the ground.  Finally, I was ready to make my first buying trip.  I bought a panel and four 6-foot t-posts - I took with me a couple of different size bolt cutters to cut the panel to be able to put it on the top of our car.  In a perfect world I would have cut it in a 6-foot piece and a 10-foot piece, or cut the 10-foot down to 6-foot and 4-foot, intending to use the leftover pieces for half of another trellis - but it was just easier to cut it in half and tie it to the roof racks and go.  I used the 36 inch bolt cutters, but when I got home and trimmed the pieces - I tried the 18 inch pair and they worked fine too.  Once I got them home, it took less than 30 minutes to trim and put up both trellises.

A couple of concerns I had was the size of the t-posts.  I went with the six foot ones, but I worried they might not be tall enough once they were in the ground a foot, but they seem really sturdy.  Also, it was fairly easy getting them in the ground without the $25 post setter.  They went in about six inches with a little arm strength and it took a little body weight to get the rest of the way.  I would definitely recommend this if you need a trellis of any kind.  I put up two more the following weekend and I have a couple more ideas for them other places in the yard.

Update:  I am moving forward with my front-yard vegetable garden and plan to use similar trellises at the north end of my planting beds - always plant the tallest plants on the north side of the bed, so they don't shade the rest of the plants.  The same goes for trellises as well.  I'll be putting them up in my beds and using them for beans, peas, squash and any other vining crops.  Go browse fencing on the Tractor Supply Co. website.  They have a good selection to help you find the right size for you.  If there's not a store near you, call your local feed stores to see what they have for sale.

12 November 2012

Wild Kingdom

One of the first things I noticed when we moved into our house was all of the wildlife - small animals, lizards, spiders, snakes, etc.  To me, that was a good sign.  Our neighborhood is older - some parts are about a hundred years old, but our area, in it's present state, is about sixty.  I felt like it was old enough that, once all the houses were built and everyone moved in, nature began slowly creeping back in.

Like I mentioned before, we have had lizards, skinks, garter snakes, rat snakes, spiders - from banana to black widow.  We've seen rodents, possums and raccoons, as well.  Now that we have chickens, we've seen lots of hawks and had a few problems with them, as well as possums or raccoons, but this tops it all - we had a coyote.

I knew that coyote sightings had been more frequent in recent years - there are some in nearby Mount Pleasant, and there are a few rare sightings here in Park Circle - but I never thought there would be one in our back yard.  Both Ella and I were half-asleep when we thought we heard something scaring the chickens.  She got up and out the door before I could, and she saw a coyote run away from our chicken coop toward the front yard.  From everything I've heard, a daylight appearance of a coyote is a rare event.  After talking with neighbors, it seems that we have more coyotes than I thought.  Apparently another neighbor has seen them congregate near his house a couple of blocks away.  I don't think it's something to start worrying about, but it is a sign that things are getting a little wilder in less dense urban areas like we live in.

11 November 2012

Long Weekend in the Garden

As a long weekend approached, I started thinking about what I wanted to get accomplished around the yard.  I saw an opportunity to get a jump start on my front yard vegetable garden and reorganizing the chicken area, so I can eventually fence off the chickens from the rest of the yard.

My long weekend started a little rough when I tried to get compost on Friday afternoon.  I called Charleston County Recycling to find out when the landfill closed and was told 4:30.  When I got there at 4pm, the sign said they had just closed - I wasn't able to get compost.  I thought it was a bad sign for me for the weekend, but it wasn't - I got off work early enough on Saturday to go back out there and get what I needed. 

Last weekend I started laying out planting beds for the front yard.  Ironically, it's the north side of my property that has the best sun.  The paths are two feet wide and the planting beds are three feet wide, and I've aligned the them on the north-south axis.  I'm looking forward to working them - I built raised beds before and I was trying to maximize what little space I had in the back yard.  They were built with concrete blocks, so they were a little too wide to reach the middle sometimes, and the paths between them was barely a foot wide.  Even though I'm giving up a little acreage, gardening will hopefully be a better experience this time.

I'm having to find homes for the plants that used to be here as well.  I have a fairly new planting that I created near the house that should keep some of the afternoon sun out during the summer.  I've got a few tall Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus) plants with Knockout roses, and I've just planted irises and day lilies today.  I've got some alliums to put in there tomorrow and I should be done - except for the weeds.  I've got some kind of grassy weed that just wont go away.  It's not as bad as it was, but I think I'm going to have to pull up the mulch and lay down newspaper and then be aggressive against any weed that comes up there for a while.

As part of the chicken fence project, I'm trying to clean up and organize the area behind the garage.  I've begun moving the compost bins in a more organized fashion.  After that I'll be clearing the brush and eventually putting in a little bit of landscaping, something benefiting the chickens - something that provides food or cover from predators.  One of the reasons for them to be fenced off is that I can better protect them from hawks - once contained, I'll be able to run monofilament over the area as a deterrent to hawks and owls, etc.

One thing about spending time in the yard is that you always see something else that needs to get done.  In my case, I noticed all of the houseplants that I need to find a winter home for.  We had a couple cold nights recently and I know I can't leave them outside forever.  I'm trying to put it off as long as possible, but I know the time is coming.  Winter will be here sooner or later and there's nothing we can do to stop it.

07 November 2012

Flower Show Experience

For the past couple of years, my friend Darren had encouraged me to enter the flower show at the Coastal Carolina Fair - since becoming a Master Gardener, I thought about it again.  Like any judged show, there are plenty of rules.  I spent some time flipping through the rule book and decided to get Darren to help me wrap my mind around all of this - after less than an hour, I got it.  I thought I understood the process of filling out the forms, labeling plants, and the general entry process for the flower show at the fair.  There was a little bit of a learning curve to get over.

After looking around at our plants, I decided that I had ones worthy of a flower show.  I got organized, figuring out which plants would go in which category, and then I waited.  The night before the show, I thought I would pull everything together and put them in the car, since I wanted to leave early in the morning.  After going through my list, I realized I had mostly cuttings, and very few plants that I could load early - I planned to take cuttings in the morning before I left, to give them the best chance of looking nice.

The next morning was an adventure.  I filled a bucket with some water and ventured around the yard in the dark, finding plants on my list, and trying to cut the best-looking foliage without being able to see.  Some plants were easy - I just had to cut the largest elephant ear or papyrus stem, but others were harder.  I had very few blooms on the Turk's Cap (Malvaviscus arboreus), and I had too much Root Beer Plant (Piper auritum) to chose from.  The shoot I cut off the Japanese privet was as much for pruning's sake as it was for the show.  It wasn't on my list, but I was considering taking a pad from the prickly pear cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica) as well, although I didn't think anyone there would want to handle it.

When I got to the show, I got to see things in a whole new light - literally.  I got a good look at what I had chosen in the dark, as well as what was required of me as an entrant.  I was warned ahead of time that I would be required to write my name and address multiple times, but I underestimated the actual amount.  I came prepared with fifteen address labels - all I could find - and was presented with forms that needed that information in duplicate, for what would be fifteen entries.  Every plant id tag had to have the show and the date and, in duplicate, the division, the section, the class number and my entry number.  Did I mention that it had to be in pencil?  I made sure to ask a lot of questions in the beginning, so I didn't have to redo many tags.

I got the hang of filling out the plant tags, but I continued to be told of things I needed to do - apparently I was supposed to underline the plant's binomial name as well.  The biggest problem I had was the cold - it was probably 45 degrees at my house that morning, and I know it was colder at the Exchange Park.  There were tables set up outside the building for us to label our plants.  Then we would bring them in to be verified and placed in the show for judging.  One of the garden club members volunteering that morning was another master gardener.  When she saw me bring in a few of my entries, she coached me a little bit on how to groom them for a higher score.  The same thing happened with another MG that I saw later - she suggested that cut this off, then that.  I felt like I was getting a real flower show education in just those two small interactions.

After all of that, I ended up winning 7 blue ribbons, 2 red ribbons, 4 yellow ribbons, and one honorable mention.  It was a real experience and I'll definitely do it again next year.  If anyone wants to see the complete list, click here.

04 November 2012

Week In Review

The past week has been very busy - enough that I haven't posted here for about a week - I'll try to catch up a little.  I don't want to talk too much about the flower show, but that, and volunteering as a Master Gardener, was what kept me busy this week.  I took a couple of days off work this week to enter my plants in the Coastal Carolina Fair Flower Show and to volunteer with the Tri-County Master Gardener's exhibit at the fair.  Since I had the time off, I scheduled myself to mentor at the Master Gardener office as well.  All of that kept me very busy.

The past few Sundays I haven't been very gung ho about getting out in the yard - sometimes when there are a million projects, it's hard just to pick one and feel like you're accomplishing anything.  Sometimes there are projects I wouldn't mind tackling except that I need to do another one before I can do the one I want.  You get the idea.  After being lazy most of the morning, I got out in the yard around noon - unfortunately, it was supposed to be around 80 degrees today.  I started clearing and mulching an area of the front yard that is going to become the new vegetable garden - it's large enough that I plan to refer to it as "the farm" in the future.  The heat discouraged me a little, but after lunch, a few errands, and a potential future rain storm, I got back out there and cleared and mulched another large area.  Before it got dark (at 5:30pm!) I started laying out the beds - where I'm planting and the paths - enough that I might plant a few things tomorrow afternoon.

I'm going to the flower show tomorrow to pick up my plants (and my awards?) and while I'm out there, I'm stopping at the feed store, hoping they have some garlic and onion sets, and maybe some broccoli - since caterpillars ate my last batch.

I plan to resume my regular posting schedule soon.  The next post will be about the flower show, and after that will probably be another horticulture article.  Stay tuned.

24 October 2012

Bottle Gourds

This summer I decided I wanted to grow gourds.  I didn't get an early start, but there was still plenty of time to get a small crop of them.  I had collected seeds from an apple gourd and a luffa gourd, and I had a pack of mixed gourd seeds as well.  I started the gourds in seed flats - I knew I had lots of apples and luffas, but I didn't know what type the mixed gourds would be.  Gourds are a vining plant, similar to squash or pumpkins - since I have a small garden, anything that vines usually gets trained to grow on a trellis.  In this case, it was the lattice hiding our garden tools from our neighbors.  Once the fruit started developing, I realized I had a few Lagenaria siceraria, or bottle gourds, also known as Calabash.  Supposedly the bottle gourd was the first cultivated plants in the world, but it wasn't used primarily for food - it was used as a water container.

Growing the gourds was the easy part - if you plant too many - like I did - they will be almost uncontrollable.  Mine grew up the lattice and onto the roof and started fruiting up there too.  I had to do some pruning, and pull up several plants that hadn't thrived like others.  Once the fruits finish growing, the vine leading to the gourd will slowly dry out and turn brown.  When it's completely dry, harvest the fruit by cutting the vine several inches above the fruit.  Like any warm-season plant, you will need to harvest before the first frost, to avoid any damage to the fruit.  When harvesting, be careful and avoid damaging the fruit - any bruises or scrapes could lead to rotting.

Once harvested, you need to clean the gourds with soap and water and let them dry.  After they are dry, soak them in a 1:10 bleach and water solution to kill any fungus or bacteria that might form.  For the gourds to completely dry, they need to be in a warm, dry area out of direct sunlight.  Place them on clean newspaper or cardboard, spaced so that they do not touch.  Depending on the size of the fruit, drying could take as long as six months.  The bottle gourd you see here was harvested on August 27th, so it took less than a month to dry completely.

Now that the bottle gourd is completely dry, there is one more step for a Lagenaria type of gourd - you have to scrape off the outer skin to reveal the hard inner shell. Soak the gourd in warm water for about ten minutes - this is harder to do than you think!  Then take a scouring pad and scrub off the outer layer.  Almost anything rough will do - I used a stiff-bristled brush and some steel wool.  Once the outer layer is completely gone, let it dry, and you'll be ready to harvest the seeds, or make it into something that holds water, or a ladle, or whatever you can think of.  For more information, see Harvesting & Curing Gourds.

21 October 2012

Mealybug Destroyer

Mealybug Destroyer
There are a number of beneficial insects that people are familiar with - lady beetles being the most popular - but I ran across an interesting one today - the mealybug destroyer!  I was in the process of cleaning up my trellis of gourds - cutting back overgrown vines and thinning out, leaving the mature gourds to finish ripening - and I started noticing possible insect eggs on the underside of leaves - then I came across something a little scary.  I went to get my camera and a specimen jar, took a few photos and took it in the house to figure out what it was.

I used my standard approach to these problem - doing an image search for common pests of gourds, but I had no luck.  So I searched for "white insect" and there it was, on the first page of results - the mealybug destroyer larva.  Once I discovered it was a beneficial insect, I quickly relocated back to the gourd patch.

Mealybug Destroyer Larva
Cryptolaemus montrouzieri, the mealybug destroyer, is a native of Australia, where it is known as the Mealybug Ladybird.  It was introduced into California in 1891 by Albert Koebele to control the citrus mealybug.

 Normally they are cold-sensitive and would need to be re-introduced every spring, but the climate here may be warm enough for them to overwinter.  Adult mealybug destroyers feed on all stages of mealybugs, even laying their eggs in the mealybug egg sac - when their eggs hatch, the MD larvae begin feeding on the mealybug eggs.  They even feed on honeydew, a sticky, sugary substance secreted by mealybugs.  Although a lot larger that mealybug larvae, the MD larvae have the same wooly appearance and may be overlooked by their prey - a case of aggressive mimicry.

So if you see these in your garden, leave them.  More Mealybug Destroyers mean fewer mealybugs.

17 October 2012

Cross-striped Cabbageworm Caterpillar

Once again I have severely neglected my vegetable garden - until I resolve the chicken issue, I have only a few beds to plant right now, and they are a little inconvenient.  Back in August I transplanted broccoli there, and it has suffered in the waning days of summer.  I went out there recently and found that they were being eaten by lots of caterpillars.  Despite the demise of the broccoli, I was excited(?) to find another pest to learn about.

I soon figured out that the pest was the Cross-striped cabbageworm caterpillar - not knowing why it was called a cabbageworm, I decided to look it up. They are called cabbageworms, because they feed on cabbage and other cole crops like mustard, cauliflower, turnips, radishes, and broccoli.

At first glance, I only saw a few here and there, but there was significant damage - on further inspection, I found tons of caterpillars on the underside of the leaves.  The odd thing was that there were completely untouched plants next to ones that were skeletonized.  On the untouched plants, I found what looked like egg clusters.

Caterpillars can be a huge problem, especially when they find their food of choice.  Fortunately, if you catch it early enough, there is a good solution.  Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is a bacteria that is a biological pesticide for controlling caterpillars.  Because B. thuringiensis is a bacteria and has little or no effect on humans, animals and beneficial insects, it is considered environmentally-friendly.  Bt is probably the active ingredient in all products that are labelled to control caterpillars.  These products are usually a liquid spray applied to plants, which then needs to be ingested by the caterpillars to be effective.

Personally, I have just decided to let the caterpillars have the broccoli this time.  It was just a few plants, but next time I will be prepared.  In the meantime, I will remain vigilant for signs of the next attack. 

14 October 2012

My Gardening Library

I do most of my garden research online - the Master Gardener's office is filled with books, but I head straight for the computer.  It's more comprehensive and easier to search, but what if I couldn't use the internet?  I have not been a collector of books for a long time - in fact, I have been getting rid of books over the last decade, but I decided I needed a small reference library for my gardening questions - and there was no better place to get started than the local Friends of the Library Annual Book Sale.

My main goal was to pick up some good reference books, ranging from plant identification, to pest and diseases, and maybe some botany or soil science.  I didn't know the likelihood of finding what I wanted, but I was hopeful.  I should have been preparing for this a lot longer than I did - because of work and other factors, I didn't get there until nearly the last day.  I missed the member preview on Thursday night.  I missed Friday because I had to work late.  And I didn't get to the sale on Saturday until 3pm.  I did feel better when Robin bought me some books on Friday, and the sale didn't seem to have a lot that I was looking for.  Despite all of that, I did get a good start to building a garden reference library.

At first glance, I saw a lot of common types of books - small books dealing with one type of plant, probably from a book or gardening club, or those that you can pick up at Lowe's.  Then there were books about more interesting things like native plants, or weeds, or roadside plants, but they were specific to a completely different part of the country (or world).  Another type of book I ran across a lot was the older, complete gardening guides.  Some of these books had brittle pages, out-of-date information, old color photos, b&w photos, or no photos at all.  There were a lot of books that I would like to have looked at it, but not paid for the privilege.  So, I managed to find some books I could use, like:

Identification and problem solving books:
What Flower Is That? - 1000+ color photos
Southern Living Garden Problem Solver
Colour Dictionary of Garden Plants
Trees of the Eastern and Central US and Canada
Rodale's Garden Insect, Disease and Weed Identification Guide
Landscape Plants for the Southeast
Garden Guide to the Lower South
Taylor's Gardening in the South

Books on organic gardening:
Macmillan Book of Organic Gardening
Rodale's Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening
The Chemical-Free Lawn
Gardening for the Future of the Earth
Growing Fruits and Vegetables Organically
The Organic Garden Book
Successful Small-Scale Farming

I'm planning to build a greenhouse, so:
The Complete Greenhouse Book
Your Homemade Greenhouse

Essays, Biographies, Curiosities:
A Gardener's Book of Words
Garden To Order - The Story of Mr. Burpee's Seeds
The Best Gardening Ideas for the 80's
Second Nature - A Gardener's Education - Michael Pollan
Plant Propagation - Principles and Practice
The Curious Gardener (essays)

Until I made this list, I didn't realize how many books I bought.  Wow!  Well, they will come in handy if I can use the internet - and they look good on my bookshelf.

11 October 2012

Leaf-Footed Squash Bug

The leaf-footed squash bug became a problem in my garden this past spring.  With not much of a winter and an early spring, the insects were out early.  Cool-season gardening is usually my favorite - I plant potatoes as well as lettuce, spinach, broccoli and peas.  With the early warm weather, came the squash bugs.  I have to say that I saw lots of these pests this year, but I didn't see much damage.  The most dramatic scene was a declining potato plant with many squash bugs in different stages of development.  The orange/red nymphs had me fooled at first - I thought they were assassin bugs.

From the order Hemiptera, which means half-winged, these insects have a partially hardened forewing, while the rest of it is membranous.  Leaf-footed means that part of their hind legs are flattened, possibly resembling a leaf.  They have sucking mouthparts - a proboscis pierces the plant tissue and sucks out the liquids.  While some bugs transmit pathogens, it is unclear whether this one does, although any damage to plant tissue can be an opportunity for diseases to infect the host plant.  They also can be a lot larger than other garden pests, measuring a inch or more, including the antennae.

In the spring, eggs are laid typically on the underside of a leaf of a member of the Curcubit family - squash, cucumber, pumpkin, etc.  In about ten days the eggs hatch and the nymphs begin feeding on the host plant and in about 4-6 weeks they will have grown into adults, having completed simple metamorphosis.  The adults don't mate, but overwinter until spring when they emerge, mate and begin the whole life cycle again.

The best control for this pest is vigilance.  Check regularly for egg clusters, hand pick individual bugs from plants, remove dead host plants and cultivate the soil, hopefully disturbing their winter resting places.

07 October 2012

Social Media Update

I'm at a loss for what to write about this weekend.  There are a number of little things, but nothing too exciting.  I know it's really not about our garden or chickens, but it might be interesting if you haven't checked it out in a while, or ever.

What am I talking about?  Park Circle Homestead's social media, that's what!  I've been expanding a little bit recently and thought it was time share the news.  We are now on Tumblr - PCHomestead.tumblr.com.  I know - you're saying, "another site?"  I've tried to make these as unique as possible.  The only major duplication might be between Instagram and Tumblr.  Let me try to list everything:

Blog:  blog.PCHomestead.com - Some variations of PCHomestead.com and ParkCircleHomestead.com will get you here, but it's not foolproof yet.

Email:  If you have any gardening questions, I'll be happy to try to answer them for you.  You can email me at ParkCircleHomestead@gmail.com.  It's also on the site.

Twitter:  @PCHomestead - For those not keeping up with the site,  I send out updates on Twitter when I post new articles.  I will also tweet a few photos and gardening news when I have them.

Instagram:  PCHomestead is our username.  If you have Instagram on your phone, please give us a try.

Tumblr:  PCHomestead.tumblr.com - I decided to start this to share original photos.  There's a larger audience on Tumblr than there is om Instagram, and, silly me, was never tagging photos.  Since I started doing that, I've had a lot more interest in them.

Pinterest:  Sorry, not yet.  I looked into it when I was starting the Tumblr page, and I just don't know what to do with it yet.

OK, sorry to have bored you, but I had to get that info out.  Being Columbus Day, this is a holiday weekend for some of us.  I'm sure by the end of it, I'll have something good to write about.  Stay tuned!

03 October 2012

Soil Drainage Test

How well does your soil drain?  This is an important question - it could mean life or death for your plants!  If your soil has too much clay, it could remain waterlogged, keeping oxygen from getting to plant roots.  If it is too sandy, water and nutrients drain right through the root zone.  Here's how to find out how well your soil drains:

First, dig a hole about a foot deep.  Fill with water and let it drain completely.

Immediately refill the hole and measure the depth of the water with a ruler.  Fifteen minutes later, measure the drop in the water level in inches and multiply by four, to calculate how much water drains in an hour.

What is your soil's drainage rate?
If it drained between 1 and 6 inches per hour, then you have well-drained soil.  If your rate was less than an inch per hour, your soil has poor drainage.  If it drained more than six inches, your soil has excessive drainage.

What does this mean?  What do I need to do?
If your soil has poor drainage there are a few things you can do.  Amending the soil with compost or other organic matter will help with drainage as well as adding nutrients.  You can also choose plants that tolerate wet conditions - there are many native plants that work well - hibiscus, bog lilies, pitcher plants, and many others.

Adding organic matter helps soil with excessive drainage as well.  If the area gets a lot of sun, you may want to consider growing succulents.  There are a number of aloes, agaves, yuccas and cactuses that are hardy in your area.  Also, once established, native flowers like Rudbeckia and Echinacea can thrive in areas where drought-tolerant plants are needed.

With the right information, there's no need to let plants grow in a soil that's not right for them.

30 September 2012

Living With Chickens

Since getting chickens more than a year ago, we've had our share of drama, but nothing compares to what has happened this summer.  When we first got our flock, there was some pecking order issues and they had a tendency to prefer our neighbors' yards rather than ours.   They settled down and we put up more fencing and let them free-range in the back yard during the day.  It was fun having them always roaming the yard, finding insects and chasing each other around.  While our first set of chicks were growing up, they, along with their mother, decided they liked our neighbor's yard.  After plugging most of the holes, they decided the front yard looked good - eventually they were contained.

I was growing the bulk of our vegetables in the back yard, but I knew having chickens might be a problem.  I postponed planting the garden in order to let the chickens dig around in it, thinking they might mostly leave it along after I planted it - they did not.  I experimented with fencing off the garden - it kept the chickens out, but it kept me out too.

This summer has seen hawks attacking our second set of chicks and Robin being attacked by our rooster, who, we think, is under the impression she is another rooster.  We thought the dogs would eventually get used to the chickens, but it seems to have only gotten worse.

So, you see, we have some issues with our chickens right now.  As much as I like them roaming the yard, this summer has given us reason to contain them.  I want to give them as much room as they want, but I want to keep them safe, and I want us to be able to use the yard however we want.  The conclusion I came to was to build a fence - but exactly where?  I want it to be easy to put up, and placed somewhere that will give them, as well as us, the proper space.  The area that I'm thinking of will give them plenty of space to roam, and I'll be able to better protect them from predators - and I can plant my garden again!  I may let them roam in the evening, but I'll have to keep an eye on them around the veggies.

27 September 2012

Master Gardener Secrets

At the Master Gardener Office, you're put to the test - there is no way to anticipate what problem you might have to solve.  I don't know how other people do it, but I have figured out something that makes it a little easier.

Let's say someone comes by with an insect that they need us to identify.  I can almost say for certain that I won't know what kind of insect it is.  I'll ask questions about where it was found, what type of plant it was on, etc.  I'll use that information, and look up the most common pests of the plant it was found on.  If I need to see an image, I'll do that as well.  I can say that most of the time this is a good strategy.  It works the same way when people call about insects or plant damage as well.  Did I mention plant diseases and other problems?  The same goes for them too.  Start with the most common problems, and you can't lose.

For example, this past week at the office a man brought in several larvae he found in a house.  He said that he had removed a bee hive from the same area the week before.  I thought of hive beetles, but I went to ask an agent instead.  She did an image search of several other things that it might be, before we tried "hive beetle larva".  That's what they turned out to be - the most common pest for that particular situation.

This aphorism is used in medical school, but it applies equally well here:  "When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras."  When presented with a simple and a complex solution, the simple one is probably best.

23 September 2012

Fifth Annual Fall Park Circle Plant Swap

To the swap
We've been going to these plant swaps for at least five years and we usually have a lot of fun.  Sometimes it's a little disappoint- ing when someone gets that one plant you had your heart set on, or when you see something afterward that you would have picked up if you had seen it earlier.  We have also gone through a change of attitude toward then over the years - in the beginning we were just excited over free plants, but then we became a little more discerning, and practical.  What I have noticed at the fall swaps is that people will bring their leftover annuals - if not seedlings, then vegetables or something else that won't last past the first frost, which I have the same problem with, since we have a less that ideal home for these.

From the swap
I know I'm being a little critical - these swaps have been really fun, and I've gotten a lot of great plants from them over the years ...and I wasn't even able to attend yesterday's.  I know I will continue to go to Darren's plant swaps, but they have grown into something they weren't five years ago.  When I started going, they were a little more intimate, but still had tons of plants.  I was still a little green, and got excited about.  And maybe I'm a little disappointed in the plants that I was able to take as well.  I remember looking at them as I was labeling them thinking, "really?  These same plants again?"  So, without further ado, the plants that Robin took to the swap:

Purple Water Iris
Purple-stemmed Elephant Ears
Native Hibiscus seedlings
Dwarf Papyrus
Root Beer Plant
A few small Agave Americanas

And, what Robin brought home from the swap:

A couple of small shrubs
A few different succulents
A few gardenias
and a Dianthus

19 September 2012

Local Feed and Seed Sources - 2012

I've been going to the feed store a lot lately and I thought I would write an update to past posts on the subject of feed and seed sources.  Let me begin by saying that Red Top Feed & Farm Supply still is number one in my book, but, that being said, I have been to Dorchester Feed & Supply a number of times, mostly because it was convenient.  I took a gardening class at the Exchange Park, and just a few miles down the road is Dorchester Feed.  The first week, I stopped by there to get some starter feed for our baby chicks.  The next week, I bought a couple of bales of hay.  Each time I was there, I noticed that they had lots of seeds for sale.  I went back next week and bought a bunch of seeds and some broccoli plants.

I have to say that I really liked the fact that they had so many different seeds - four kinds of squash, two kinds of radishes, two kinds of lettuce, etc.  I was off the other day and had plans to go to Red Top Feed to get chicken supplies - layer feed, scratch feed, bedding - and while I was there I decided to ask about spinach seeds.  They don't have their seed inventory on display, so I never thought to buy it there.  They had it, and probably everything else that the other feed store had, but since it wasn't on display, I didn't think about it.

 I still like Red Top Feed and will continue to go there for my usual supplied, but I may call before making a seed-buying trip.  That goes for any of them.  Since buying seeds recently, it doesn't look like I will need to go for a long time.  If you have read previous posts I mentioned a couple of other places, one of them was Tractor Supply.  I have to say that I don't think I've been there since I bought the fencing I used to make my trellises.  Not to say anyone shouldn't shop there, but I think I prefer going to a locally-owned business, and I don't think TS has the hay and seeds that Red Top or Dorchester has.

Red Top Feed and Tackle Shop
3815 Highway 17, Charleston
(843) 763-6651

Dorchester Feed and Supply
10310 Highway 78, Summerville
(843) 875-9776

16 September 2012


I know you've seen them - I have too, a lot, recently.  I realized that I didn't know anything about them, so I set out to learn more.

Lovebugs (plecia neartica) are related to flies (Diptera), and, if you're like me, you forget about them until they emerge and begin mating.  That's what I've been seeing this week.  They usually have two life cycles per year - in the spring and now, in the fall.  Females deposit their eggs in damp areas - ditches, swamps, etc.  After hatching, the larva live in grassy areas, feeding on decaying plant material.  After the larva go through several stages, they pupate for about eight days, emerging as an adult after that.

Females live for about four days, and males a little longer, so it's very important that they find each other and mate - As we have all seen, they seem to spend their whole adult life attached.  Since they are a problem only twice a year (three in Florida), there hasn't been a lot of research put into controlling them.  Not a lot is known about the larval stages on this insect.  It is suspected that various fungi act as a biological control.

So what can be done about them?  Not much.  They're not around long enough do anything.  The drought we're having probably helps, but not if you live near water, like we all do.  Just know that fall has arrived.

12 September 2012

5th Annual Fall Park Circle Plant Swap - September 22nd

It's that time of year again - the fall plant swap.  I can't believe it's been five years.  The spring swap has been going on a lot longer, but I've been to every one of the swaps in the fall.  Unfortunately, I won't be able to attend this time.  I have to say that I'm not too upset - I've been to a lot of these and each time I get pickier.  This year will be a surprise - I'm putting plants together for Robin to take, and we've come up with a list of plants we both want, so I'm going to leave it up to her and be surprised when I get home in the afternoon.  I'll try to do my usual before and after posts, but we'll have to see about that.

For more information about the plant swap, click here.

When to Apply Pre-Emergent Herbicides

Here in coastal South Carolina, we are approaching the time in the fall when pre-emergent herbicides need to be applied.  What are they, you ask? Herbicides are chemicals that kill plants.  Most people are familiar with post-emergent herbicides that kill actively-growing weeds.  Pre-emergent herbicides do their job as the weed seed is germinating - that's why the timing of their application is critical.  Too early and it is washed away.  Too late and the weed is past the point of being affected by the herbicide.

So, when should you apply pre-emergent herbicide in the fall?  Where I live, it is typically during the second half of September, but there is a universal way to get the timing right no matter where you live.  When nighttime temperatures reach 55-60 degrees for four consecutive days, it is time to apply the pre-emergent herbicide.  This will control seed germination of winter annuals - perennial weeds, such as Florida Betony, will not be affected.

What about spring?  Here,  PE is applied around March 1st, but, for everyone else,  it is when high temperatures reach 65-70 degrees for four consecutive days.

Florida Betony
Since we're talking about applying chemicals to lawns, I thought I would talk about something that some of the master gardeners feel very strongly about:  Don't use "weed and feed" products.  These products have both a pre-emergent herbicide and fertilizer in a single product.  They should not be used on lawns in our area, and probably throughout the south.  As discussed before, PE typically will be applied around March 1st, when weed seeds are germinating.  Fertilizer should not be applied to lawns until lawns have completely "greened up", probably in late April.  If it is applied early, it will control weed germination, but will burn the still-dormant grass.  If applied later, the effect of the PE will be significantly diminished.  The best course of action is to buy separate products, applying the PE earlier and the fertilizer after the lawn has greened up.

09 September 2012

Chicken Drama

Some of our chickens can be a little high-strung.  One of our Rhode Island Reds is very vocal about wanting out of the coop in the morning and also about wanting a treat.  Some of the bantams will squawk at the smallest thing.  And they all get a little upset when we let the dogs out.  But there has been cause for alarm recently.

We had the covered area on the side of our house still set up as a "chicken nursery" when it was time to hatch our second set of chicks.  It had its flaws, but, for the most part, it was nearly the same as it was when we hatched the first chicks.  The only thing different was part of the fencing was two feet tall instead of four feet.  During the first couple of weeks after the seven chicks hatched, something must have attacked them during the night.  I found the mother out of the nursery and sitting on her chicks near the hen house.  When it got light enough, I discovered there were only five.  Within a few days she and her chicks were living in the hen house and getting along with all the other chickens.

I've always assumed that there were always hawks around our house.  I felt like we really didn't know the extent of it, since we're not in the yard from sunrise to sunset.  But we have been seeing a lot more recently.  Earlier this week, between trips into the back yard, a hawk must have gotten one of our chicks.  We could not find it anywhere.  The next evening, Ella saw a hawk on top of our mother hen, and scared it off.  Then another evening a hawk must have gotten another chick, because, when I let the chicks out in the morning, I only counted three.  So we're down to three chicks.  Ella is a little upset about all of this, but there's not much more that we can do.  We just have to hope they grow up fast.

One of the hens we kept from our first set of chicks is suspected of being a rooster.  Back in August I heard a second crow coming from the hen house.  If you love your chickens as much as we do, it's a devastating sound - it means that you are going to have to get rid of one.  I wasn't sure which one it was, but I planned to find out.  I've given up on that for now, because we're pretty sure which one it is.  He has become more of an outcast from the flock and I think he's been bullied as well.  He's very skittish, even jumping when you throw food in his direction.  We were thinking about him the other day and I found him in the hen house - I grabbed him and Robin and I were able to get a good look at him.  He has what looks like a sore spot on his upper back, and he wasn't opening one of his eyes.  The eye thing was probably a fluke, because I saw both of them open today, but I am concerned.  I don't think there's much we can do for him.  Maybe he needs to become our personal pet chicken.

05 September 2012

How To Get a Soil Test

One thing that everyone should do before planting their garden, or even landscaping their yard is have the soil tested.  I have to admit that I had never done this - until last year.  Here's how you do it.

You need to get a representative sample of the area that you want tested, which means you should collect a dozen samples and combine it into one composite sample.  Soil samples should be collected from the surface to 6-8 inches deep.  Using a soil tube or auger is pretty straightforward, but if you are using a spade or trowel the technique is a bit different.  Dig a v-shaped hole about 6-8 inches deep and use your trowel or spade to take a thin slice from the side of the hole.  Combine all the soil samples in a clean bucket and mix them thoroughly.  You'll need at least two cups of soil per sample.  You can either take your sample to your local Clemson Extension office or purchase a soil sample mailer.

 About a week after I dropped off my soil samples at the Clemson Extension office, I received an email with a link to the results of my soil tests.  I had two different soil tests done - one for the vegetable garden and one for the beds in the front yard.  When you fill out the forms, it helps to let them know what you plan to plant and whether you want organic recommendations as well.  I thought I asked for both, but I only got inorganic recommendations.  Here is what the chemical analysis of my soil looks like:

The soil test found low levels of potassium; phosphorus and calcium levels were very high, which is common for this area.  To correct the potassium deficiency, it was recommended that I use muriate of potash.  Since I didn't get organic recommendations, I tried to learn more about these fertilizers and amendments, to understand what they were and what the organic alternatives were.  In general you can tell what an amendment is by the fertilizer grade.  I knew muriate of potash (MOP) was solely to correct the potassium deficiency, since the third number was so high, but I decided to read more.  MOP is actually potassium chloride and there are a lot of people out there that think it's harmful to soil biology, but others say it leaches out of the soil fairly quickly - and supposedly chloride increases yield by improving disease resistance.  Since I wasn't a fan of chlorine, I decided to see what my options were - it turns out that there are few.  Sulfate of potash is a common substitute, but it tends to be more expensive and it has less potassium (0-0-50), so you need more of it.  It is used for plants that are sensitive to chlorides.  An organic alternative to these are wood ashes.  They may contain around 6% potash, but they also contain lime which raises the pH of the soil, making it more alkaline.  There's no easy way of knowing how much potash is in it and, if you don't need lime, you shouldn't use it.

The other fertilizers are pretty straightforward.  10-10-10 is what it seems like and it turns out 15-0-15 is a common fertilizer for centipede grass.  I haven't looked into organic alternatives to these, but it seems easy enough.  Maybe it won't be in one product, but I'm sure there are things out there that are good substitutes for this.  That will have to be a future blog post.  For more information about soil tests, click here:

HGIC 1652 Soil Testing