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.