Wednesday, September 28, 2011


            My cold is much better, thank you. Or—in the interest of clarity—I should say “My cold is much diminished, thank you. I feel better.”

            Today Tim and I gave a talk to the Winding River Garden Club entitled “Falling for Bulbs.” As usual, we had a grand time. The WRGC always pulls a great crowd. Plus they coaxed me out of the house for the first time and into the first non-rainy day since we got home from Chicago.

Clear as mud, right? I mean, today I left the house for the first time in a week; and, today was the first dry day in a week. Better?

Because of the effort required to overcome the cumulative force of 144 hours of inertia on a fundamentally lazy personality, and because I spent most of Monday and all of Tuesday pulling together a script and over a hundred pictures for our Power-Point presentation, I’m temporarily written out. So today’s post is a Field Note I penned for my friend Sally a few weeks ago. Under the circumstances, it’s the best I can do.

(kos-stee-LETS-kye-uh ver-GIN-ih-kah)

            The main problem facing plant collectors with small gardens is lack of space for rambunctious perennials. In my own little yard, muscular Joe Pye weeds (Eupatorium maculatum, E. purpureum) had to go after a few seasons, as did their companion, Helianthus angustifolius. Canna lily hybrids merrily multiplied, eating up one whole bed before they got the axe (literally). Mountain blue-star (Amsonia tabernaemontana) threatened a beloved Baptisia minor: I moved the Amsonia five years ago, and it’s been in a puny sulk ever since.

            One herbaceous big boy weathered this parade of comings and goings, secure in the knowledge I could never bear to banish it. Native to salt marshes from southern New York to Florida and as far west as Texas, Kosteletzkya virginica goes by several common names: Virginia mallow, swamp mallow, seashore mallow, marsh mallow, fen rose. A member of the Malvaceae (mallow) clan, its clear pink blooms resemble two-inch-wide hibiscus flowers, complete with prominent yellow stamens topped by dainty pink pistil crowns. The four-to-five-foot high subshrub has large, mid-green, spear-shaped leaves and a three-to-four-foot spread. A stately presence in the garden, Kosteletzkya’s coarse texture offers the eye a place to rest amid the fussy foliage of lesser perennials.

         My herbaceous seashore mallow,
 full-size and blooming big in August
   My specimen came in a two-inch pot from Woodlanders Nursery out of Aiken, SC, back in the late 1990s, when they still offered a hard-copy catalog. It’s been a fixture in our garden ever since, surviving in situ numerous plant shufflings, bed reconfigurations, and purges. It endures with good grace an occasional root-whacking to keep it in bounds. Kosteletzkya doesn’t require cosseting: once established, it grows without much in the way of supplemental water or food. It tolerates wet feet (swamp mallow, marsh mallow, fen rose) and salt air (seashore mallow), but also does fine in my sandy soil amended with compost every other year or so. Although late to emerge in spring, once it’s up, it attains full size by July. That’s when the flowers start appearing, becoming prolific as nighttime temperatures begin to moderate in late August. Blooming continues into November most years here in southeastern North Carolina.

Closer, oh Kosteletzkya, to thee
            Maintenance is a dream: just cut down—or break off—the hollow woody stalks in late winter. Pest problems are negligible, and I’ve never seen foliage or flowers marred by disease.

Kosteletzkya increases by suckering, which suggests one method of propagation. In my yard, the seed also germinates readily enough in pots of soil inadvertently left around: I imagine a purposeful sowing by someone who actually knows what he’s doing would work as well.

The only problem with Kosteletzkya virginica is its scarcity in the trade. I know from experience it does as well in pot—even accidentally—as it does in the ground. Not picky about soils, this easy-to-get-along-with plant is easy to propagate, salt tolerant, low maintenance, and virtually pest-free. With a native range encompassing nearly the entire East and Gulf Coasts, its selling points include a long bloom season, a self-cleaning nature and a pleasing habit. Is there something nurserymen know about Kosteletzkya that I don’t?

BOTANICAL NAME:  Kosteletzkya virginica

COMMON NAMES:  Virginia mallow, swamp mallow, seashore mallow, marsh mallow, fen rose




CLASSIFICATION:  Herbaceous subshrub

LANDSCAPE USE:  Specimen, perennial gardens, mixed shrubberies

ORNAMENTAL CHARACTERISTICS:  Prolific 2” clear pink, hibiscus-like flowers July to November; pleasing coarse-textured habit; ease of culture and maintenance


Okay, that’s it for me. Thanks for understanding. And thanks for dropping by.


Saturday, September 24, 2011


"Rabbit Warren at Pontoise, Snow"  by Camille Pissarro,
at Chicago's Art Institute
            Sorry for the long hiatus. Tim and I spent six days in Chicago recently, reveling in the Art Institute’s magnificent European Impressionists collection, the beautiful Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, the city’s eclectic architecture, superlative Greek omelets, Millennium Park’s sculpture and plantings, vast Lake Michigan, all those friendly Midwesterners.

Sally and me
I also got to meet one of my best friends ever, Sally Benson, face-to-face. Sally’s editor of American Nurseryman magazine and the first person ever to pay me hard cash for writing something. For once, the actual event exceeded the anticipation. It’s entirely possible that we’re actually twins who were separated at birth, as coincidences multiplied over years of an impeccably grammatically correct email relationship, a feeling that talkingtalkingtalking for 17 hours over two days did nothing to dispel. Sally, you’re the best.

Caryopteris x clandonensis
'Dark Knight'
I had meant to publish a post from the Windy City about our jaunt to Glencoe, but the United States of Greed does not make it easy—or cheap—for itinerants to access the Internet. As always, things work out as they’re supposed to, because I was so busy yakking with Sally that only the vaguest of impressions of the Botanic Garden survive. It was huge (380 acres) and in full fall glory on a perfect Midwestern September day. The glorious shrub Caryopteris x clandonensis ‘Dark Knight’ (blue mist spirea, blue beard), with blue-blue flowers displayed to perfection against dark green foliage, snagged my attention: Sally and I marveled that breeders work so hard to produce cultivars with lackluster variegation, gold-I-think-not foliage and washed-out-looking blooms.

I do remember saying “That plant doesn’t go in North Carolina” about 600 times.

Millennium Park sculpture
Paid more attention at Millennium Park (Sally had gone back to work). The giant chrome bicycle-helmet sculpture on the main plaza really draws your eye. I experienced a flash of inspiration and asked Tim to take a picture of our reflection as he took a picture of the shiny glob. Unfortunately, hundreds of other tourists were simultaneously struck by the same “original” thought. Anyway, the curved surface made my rear look big. (Like that’s hard to do. Ha.)

Formal planting at Millennium Park
On a horticultural note, the planting designers and maintenance crews of both Millennium and Grant Parks really know their stuff. Tim and I came away with several stolen ideas for future projects. One of my favorites is the use of rainbow-colored painted 1x10” boards as access walkways in and behind beds—what a great way to give a space winter interest!

 Gentiana andrewsii
with bumblebee butt
(click on picture and look for black blob)
Millennium Park’s prairie garden introduced me to an absolutely stunning little miracle of nature, the native bottle gentian (Gentiana andrewsii). The flowers expand but never open, whence the common name. Enchanted (regular readers know what a sucker I am for blue blooms), we watched a bumblebee wriggle herself head-first into the bottle, completely disappearing. She shimmied back out a few seconds later, her saddlebags filled with pollen, only to move on the next flower for a repeat performance. Tim caught her descent in the photo here. (I am reminded again of how difficult it is for a camera to capture blues truly.)

Completely disregarding a cardinal rule of public-garden etiquette, I filched a faded bloom in hopes of getting viable seed. (Don't try this on your own, kids.)

A cluster of bottle gentian flowers
Alas, research revealed Gentiana andrewsii requires the cool nights of USDA hardiness zones 3 to 7 to flourish, something Zone 8/9 SENC can’t provide. This revelation came as no surprise, really: gentians in general don’t go here (and that makes 601). Further digging yielded a species—G. saponaria, or soapwort gentian—allegedly tolerant of Zone 8 conditions. I prepared to roll out an Internet search for plants when I remembered that coastal Oregon is also considered Zone 8. I can’t think of many places with a climate as dissimilar to Oak Island’s as, say, Eugene. It’s illustrative of the inherent limitations of hardiness zone maps.

The prairie garden featured many familiar plants, including various Salvia species, Echinacea (coneflower), Rudbeckia (black-eyed Susan), Eryngium bourgatii (Mediterranean sea holly), Eryngium yuccifolium (Rattlesnake master, so called because it is believed to treat snakebites and/or keep snakes out of the garden; both claims are erroneous), Veronicastrum virginicum (Culver’s root), Cimicifuga racemosa (snakeroot or cohosh), and numerous grasses, including the graceful Eragrostis spectabilis (purple love grass). The whole space buzzed and whirred with bees and birds, like the goldfinch feasting on coneflower seedheads pictured below.

Echinacea seedheads and goldfinch
Alas, we country mice remembered—too late—that four days is enough city-time for us. Trudging miles of concrete sidewalks hemmed in by tall buildings and crowds of people, high ambient energy levels and incessant hum and rumble lose a lot of their charm after the first 72 hours or so. In fact, they lost all their charm, leaving us to wonder why we thought a little change of scene would be so much fun in the first place. Despite frequent and liberal dousings with hand sanitizer, by Day 5 I could no longer deny that I’d caught a cold, my first in years. We spent most of Day 6 huddled in O’Hare, snuffling and counting minutes until our 8:25 pm flight.

Yes, it’s true. Tim and I are Official Old Farts (OOFs).     

Anyway. We’re home now. The fine layer of cat litter riming every flat surface has been shoveled out, the kitchen table cleared of last week’s mail and newspapers, the laundry mountain conquered, the soporific effects of NyQuil and Benadryl (almost) worn off. Once this opus is posted, I’m headed down the hall for a nap. Another day or two and I’ll feel like getting back to work. Whoever said “East, West, / Home’s best” sure knew what he was talking about.

Thanks for dropping by.

                                                            Your OOFy correspondent,

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


Gardens start with dirt
          Not to overstate the obvious, all gardens start with dirt. If you’re a recent transplant to North Carolina’s coast, you may have noticed that you’ve traded your familiar “real dirt” for sand or, worst-case scenario, antediluvian swamp muck over concrete-like hardpan (a layer of soil so compacted and/or so mineral-laden that it has become impervious, a horticultural term meaning “impossible to dig through.”) Not to worry: you just need some perspective adjustment, a little education, a lot of patience and a good attitude.

No matter what you may have read or been told, native coast soils are NOT acidic. In our experience, pHs generally range between 6.0 and 9.0 (fill dirt can be an exception, depending upon where it came from).

What’s pH and why does it matter? you ask.

The measure of a substance’s acidity or alkalinity is called pH—little “p,” big “H”—standing for “percent of Hydrogen.” The pH scale runs from zero to 14, but actually starts in the middle, at number seven, or neutral. Seven to zero is the acid end of the scale, seven to 14 alkaline, or basic. The progression between numbers is geometric: four is ten times more acid than five, nine is ten times more basic than eight. Vinegar tests out to about pH 3; chalk’s about a pH 12.

            It matters because soil pH values influence how plants absorb nutrients, which translates to how well a given plant will perform in a given place. By way of illustration, let’s talk iron absorption. An essential micronutrient, iron is most readily available to plants rooted in soils with pHs between 4.0 and 6.5. If pH is higher than 6.0, iron absorption is curtailed. You can pour all the Ironite® around you want—the plant can’t take it in. Most soils contain sufficient iron, but that’s a moot point if the pH is too high. Iron deficiency frequently manifests as chlorosis, characterized by yellow leaves with green veins. 

            Many other nutrients are absorbed better at lower pHs as well; optimum absorption of most nutrients occurs at pHs from 5.0 to 7.0. (See table.)

(Click on the table to enlarge it)

            Unamended native coastal soils fall in the neutral to somewhat basic range of the pH spectrum, 6.0 to 9.0, regardless of what we want to believe. Pine trees do not indicate acidic soil, so get that notion out of your head right now. The marvelously adaptable genus Pinus will grow where the dirt tests a vinegary pH 3.0 and with equal aplomb in calcified soils of pH 12. Moreover, forget what you’ve heard about the acidifying properties of pine needles. They do not contribute significantly to lowering pH. Repeat after me: I do not have acid soil. I do not have acid soil. I do not have acid soil.

Don’t believe me? Get a soil test. Get a soil test even if you do believe me. Call your local Cooperative Extension Office to find out how. They may also be able to translate for you when you get the results. (Maybe not, in North Carolina. Tim and I had to take a seminar before we were able to decipher all those symbols and figure out what they told us about our yard.) 

What do you need to know in order to optimize plant performance in the soil you do have? Just because it’s more common, let’s start with sand.

My yard: sand to China
           On the plus side, sand is a dream to dig in. Remember those happy childhood hours spent in the sandbox or playing on the beach? Well, chances are your present yard, except for the mat of roots just below the surface, has a similar consistency. The other really good thing about sand is that it drains beautifully. The day after 1999’s Hurricanes Dennis and Floyd finished dumping about 45 inches of rain on us in a little over a week, our yard—at about 26 feet above sea level—had no standing water. When Tim and I dug our back garden, we finished the job in one day: a 28-by-32-foot area, double dug, in six hours. Never found one stone, one worm, one ant, to the depth of two feet. Just sand, sand and more sand. Coming from the foothills of the Adirondacks, we thought we’d died and gone to heaven. While it is possible to induce root rots in such an environment, you have to work really hard at it. Much easier to do is water insufficiently, especially during the one to five years it takes for a new planting to establish.

Swamp muck is another, sadder story. Don’t let its rich-looking black color fool you. Stick your nose near it: that pungent smell means it’s anaerobic, what farmers call “sour.” Millions of years of periodic flooding have resulted in a densely compacted layer of organic matter. The first 12 to 24 inches or so may be tillable, given a sharp shovel and good muscle tone: below that, the compaction increases to form a stratum of hardpan, an impervious layer of super-compacted soil. The worst thing about hardpan (not counting trying to dig through it) is that water flows across it laterally instead of sinking straight down, dramatically affecting drainage. If your hardpan layer is less than 12 inches from the surface, your best bet will be to: a) blast; or b) raise your beds. The good news is you won’t need to water so much.
Despair not: both soil types make fine gardens with some amending. Both lack high (or even moderate) levels of microbial activity, but you can give the little critters a boost by adding generous amounts of composted organic materials. Why do I want to do that? you ask. Because good soil is, by definition, alive, full of organisms including the ones we can see, like worms, centipedes, ants and slugs, as well as the ones we can’t: bacteria, fungi, nematodes and protozoa.

Ewww, you say, but since I need them, where do I get them? I told you already, composted organic materials. You can produce your own, simultaneously reducing overcrowding in our landfills, by composting your food waste and yard debris. Keeping small herds of bovines, ovines or equines and flocks of chickens, turkeys or bats would be nice, too—less packaging—but many communities frown upon urban farming.

Not all commercial composts
are created equal:
read the label
Another option is buying commercially available compost mixtures. Most blends feature some kind of animal manure. It’s not as bad as you might think, smell–wise. (Except for Milorganite, which I don’t recommend because it’s industrial sludge and heavy on the heavy metals.)  Plus bags of already-aged stuff are easier to manage, ready to use, consume less space and cost far less than feeding a herd or flock of anything.

Besides attracting and feeding our bacteria buddies, adding composted organic matter to the soil raises your chances of gardening success in other ways. It makes sand more moisture-retentive by giving water something to soak into. It loosens up the close-packed particles of swamp muck, improving its ability to drain. Most herbaceous plants (the ones that die back to the ground every winter) appreciate eight to 12 inches of good soil to root in: woodies (plants like trees and shrubs) prefer 12 to 18 inches. Compost also provides micronutrients in forms plants can access without additional chemical reactions taking place. Used at planting and as an annual topdressing, compost encourages the arrival and multiplication of soil bacteria, fungi, protozoans, nematodes, micro- and macro-arthropods, and earthworms. Bottom line: compost is good.

Permit me to expand the scope of my little rant vis-à-vis encouraging microbiota in soil.

1.                  When you want to create new planting beds from lawn or natural areas and don’t feel up to digging them out by hand, consider this method: place a layer of newspaper six to ten sheets thick over the unwanted vegetation. Cover the newspaper with organic mulch three to four inches thick. Go do something else for three or four seasons. (Have I mentioned that gardening is not the best of hobbies for personalities requiring instant gratification?) Light deprivation discourages the growth you want discouraged while the newspaper and mulch biodegrade, enriching the soil.

2.                  Be careful about amending with topsoil. “Topsoil” is a vague catch-all sort of word meaning something like “the stuff scraped off the top of something.” One lady we know wanted to transform her flat back yard into an undulating landscape, so she bought ten double-truckloads of what the seller assured her was "topsoil” and had it sculpted into a lovely rolling berm. When everything she planted the first season only survived long enough to get really ugly before dying, she had the “topsoil” tested. Well, it may indeed have been scraped off the top of something, but mostly it was home to nematodes of the most unbeneficial kind. The lady subsequently spent four years, pots of money and untold hours outside sweating and swearing under her breath to remediate the damage. Less horrendous but still not good, another friend paid good money for a load of “topsoil” that arrived chock-full of asphalt chunks. When it comes to “topsoil,” caveat emptor. 

Peat moss:
detrimental to soil bacteria
and non-renewable
3.                  Avoid amending with peat (a.k.a. sphagnum) moss. Yes, it adds some acidity to the soil. Yes, it holds water. Like a sponge. Once you manage to get it wet. But why would you want to put a wet sponge into your swamp-muck? Also, its very high acid level is detrimental to bacteria. In fact, it kills them. Besides, if high-acid soils are so hot, why do Northerners spread lime all over everything twice a year? One other, global consideration: because peat bogs take skillions of years to form (perhaps I exaggerate a teensy bit), peat moss—like oil and coal—counts as one of your basic non-renewable resources. Yes, the Canadian economy will falter, but it’ll be all right if more Americans start buying their prescription medications north of the border.

A Southern Living garden spread
            To recapitulate, chances are excellent that sand and/or swamp muck is the land-hand you’ve been dealt if you've relocated to southeastern North Carolina. Chances are also excellent that, with a little knowledge, planning, a judicious amount of compost and time put into soil building, you can have the garden those Southern Living spreads promised.

This post is an excerpt from my excellent but unpublished The Best Gardening Book Ever. Be sure to tell all your publisher friends what they’re missing.

Thanks for dropping by.


Saturday, September 10, 2011


            Where were you ten years ago tomorrow? Tim and I had just arrived at the site we meant to prepare for sod when we heard surreal reports on the radio about planes flying into the Trade Towers. My man of action restarted the truck’s engine, and hurried to the bank to withdraw some cash—a State Department veteran, Tim has a good grounding in worst-case scenarios. After topping off the gas tanks in both our vehicles, we settled in at home to watch those horrifying images on TV, and wait.

            Sunday, September 10, 2011, is the tenth anniversary of the day the world changed for complacent America. Never again would war be thought of as something that only happens in other places.

            We have kind and generous friends who let Tim and me use their apartment in Battery Park City in New York. The door is difficult to open because of the rattling the building endured as the Towers fell. The front window overlooks what was at first a debris-filled hole from which the memorial gradually rose. I remember staring out that window at those poignant twin spotlight beams.

We haven’t visited the city for a few years. I’m ready to go back now. My son, Sean, will graduate from art school there this coming May. Maybe they’ll have finished working on the downtown portion of West Street by then. It’ll be good to see a building and a park where that ugly, sad hole used to be. It’ll be good to remember, and good to remember it’s good to keep moving forward.

Take a minute to think of all the people who died that day ten years ago, and the families whose lives were instantly, irrevocably, eternally altered. Never forget them, and never stop moving forward.


Shine on, shine on Harvest Moon...
             The Harvest Moon goes full at 5:27 am EDT on September 12th. How do I know it’s the Harvest Moon? Traditionally, the name goes to the full moon falling closest to the autumnal equinox. At this time of year in the northern Hemisphere, the moon’s trajectory forms a shallow angle to the eastern horizon. The result is that, on the evenings around the moon going full, it appears to rise only a few minutes later than it came up the night before.

So what? you ask. Doesn’t it do that anyway?

Well, not exactly. It probably will not surprise you to learn that I track moon cycles as part of my weather fixation. Here are graphs plotting the curve of the difference in minutes between rise and set on consecutive days for September of 2010 and March of this year. I’m not entirely sure what they mean, but there are more dots closer together at the top of the curve during last year’s Harvest Moon (September 23) than during March 19th’s “Super” Moon. The farther north you go, the differences get smaller, until, when you get above the Arctic Circle, the Harvest Moon actually appears to rise earlier on successive evenings. At any rate, all this “extra” light is a boon to farmers laboring far into the night to get the last of the crops in before frost. Or that’s the story, anyway.

Moon cycle graph March 2011

Moon cycle graph September 2010

Some planting-by-the-moon folklore: I put in pole beans last weekend, because planting during a waxing moon is supposed to help crops that grow up; contrariwise, I’ll wait until Monday to set out my potatoes, because waning moons traditionally aid in the establishment of root crops. I don’t really think it makes any difference one way or the other, but I’ll try anything once.


Comet Garradd
            In other celestial news, two cool events should be visible to casual viewers for most of September. The first is the continued presence of Comet Garradd, easily visible with binoculars. That’s not a typo: the comet is named for Australian amateur astronomer Gordon Garradd. A Google search turned up many listings for Comet “Garrard,” which is just wrong. Easier to say, but wrong. Do the right thing and pronounce Mr. Garradd’s name correctly.

Supernova 2011fe
in a galaxy far, far away
            The other skylight, for which you’ll need a telescope, is the supernova occurring in Galaxy M101, good ol’ SN2011fe. Astrophysicists are wetting their pants over this one because it’s a Type I supernova. That means it reliably produces “standard candles” of light by which interstellar and intergalactic distances are measured. The current estimate is that Galaxy M101 lies about 21 million light-years away from us—SN2011fe should help refine that calculation.


Azalea caterpillar
calmly defoliating an azalea
            From the celestial to the terrestrial: keep an eye out for azalea caterpillars. Tim found a pair of them on a client’s Azalea indica on Thursday. You wouldn’t think it, looking at the picture here, but they blend very nicely into the foliage until there are so many of them that there’s no foliage left. If you find any, hand-pick them off the plant and squish them. The caterpillar’s spines are soft and not toxic in any way. (I remove them barehanded, but recommend gloves for the squeamish among you. I’m one of the squeamish about the smushing part, so that’s Tim’s job.) Keep in mind that, if you find one, more than likely there are others. I’ve never known a moth to lay a solitary egg. That’s inefficient.


Centipede grass seedhead
            Finally, for those of you with centipede grass lawns, it would behoove you to allow the seedheads to ripen before mowing at this time of year. It’s nature’s way of increasing the density of your stand, and absolutely free.

Speaking of mowing, I am happy to report that Tim has made it through the worst of the hot weather without having to cut our grass once. If our water bills were not zooming through the stratosphere, he might even have thanked the fiscal idiots who run our town.

Thanks for dropping by, and please spare a minute for remembrance tomorrow.


Tuesday, September 6, 2011


            As a nation, we are as enamored with the opinions of experts as with the bad behavior of people celebrated mostly for behaving badly. Of the former group, economists are the most egregious example. The Labor Day op-eds pointed out that the actual number of unemployed and underemployed Americans comes closer to 17% of the population than the nine percent the statistic crunchers spewed out earlier this month. What do they care? No doubt they all have cushy jobs with super-duper benefits.

Here's the guy who started
all the nonsense
            Held in a 250-seat auditorium, the introductory economics class I took as a first-year student at UVa several hundred autumns ago cemented my disdain for “the dismal science,” a moniker that seems only half right: “dismal” hits the bulls-eye, but the “science” part is extremely iffy. In his initial lecture, rising-star professor and author of the $60 required textbook (that’s 60 1970s dollars, almost a full week’s wages for a seasonally employed teen—how economical is that?) Dr. Kenneth Elzinga made clear in a subtextual way that the foundation of economics is to assume away reality, posit the factors that best fit the outcome you want to “prove,” and go from there. Guns and butter, supply and demand, we learned as the semester wore on, are just so much smoke and mirrors. Because I’m good at on-demand regurgitation of factoids, I came out of the course with a B+, three credit hours toward a degree, and an abiding mistrust for anything any economist has to say on any subject.

            (In retrospect, the best part of ECON 101 was sitting next to Tony McReynolds, a bearded bearish guy from Boca Raton, Florida, who was scary-smart and had a wicked sense of humor embellished by a dreamy baritone speaking voice. If it hadn’t been for him, I probably would have skipped most lectures and cadged my roommate’s notes. I haven’t thought of Tony Mac in years. Wonder what he’s doing today? Whatever it is, I bet it’s not economics.)

Why economists are worthless:
all talk, no action
            Economists may be the worst at dispensing “expert" sound-bites, but they’re far from alone. The advent of 24-hour on-air yakking (thanks bunches, CNN) has given rise to a culture of expertise. Turn on any TV or radio and you can get horse’s-mouth opinions on dealing with your physical health (Dr. Oz), your mental health (Dr. Phil), your love-life and children (any afternoon talk show), your house and garden (HGTV, Martha Stewart), your pet (Animal Planet), your politics (FOX News), the weather (TWC), your cuisine (Emeril, Paula Deen, Rachael Ray, the Iron Chef, those nutcase Swedes on PBS, etc., etc., etc.), your religion (TCN), your drugs (The People’s Pharmacy), your money (CNBC), your sports fixation (ESPN), you name it. Experts also expound in print: just check out the how-to and self-help sections of any library or bookstore (Deepak Chopra, Dr. Whatshisname Dobson, Malcolm Gladwell).

            We’re adrift in a vast sea of information, completely free of ever having to think for ourselves. Doesn’t seem to make us any happier, though. Or more efficient, or proficient, or functional as human beings. “Where is the wisdom in information?” worried T.S. Eliot in Four Quartets decades ago.

            Yesterday afternoon, while pulling out failed bush beans with a view to an experimental fall planting of potatoes, it occurred to me that not much I’ve ever read about vegetable gardening has been all that helpful. Take potatoes, for example. This was my third season working in the genre (as we writer-types say): it was the best ever, harvest-wise, but that’s not saying much. I am embarrassed to report that we dug a whole 28 ounces of golf-ball-sized spuds; which, I hasten to add, is 11 ounces better than last year, and 23 ounces more than 2009’s dismal harvest. The Adirondack Blues, new to us this year, beat the odds in this distinctly non-Adirondack climate by producing the largest and the most.

The remarkable
Adirondack Blue potato
             (I would like to take this opportunity to point out that the Adirondack Blues also surprised by being the only non-regulation-colored vegetable I’ve ever seen Tim eat without coercion. Seriously. The man won’t touch orange, yellow, pink or green tomatoes. He regards sweet peppers of any hue but green as suspect. He doesn’t even like to be in the same room as a white eggplant—not that he’d allow one of those of any color to pass his lips.)

Some seed catalogs
I consult
            Back to the point. As is my wont, I conducted extensive research into raising potatoes before planting the first batch—Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening, Mel Bartholomew’s Square Foot Gardening, Carrots Love Tomatoes by Louise Riotte (see Good Reads at right), seed catalogs and gardening websites galore. I also quizzed the guy at Farmers Supply in Wilmington where we bought our seed stock. (He told me I was a bit behind the curve for planting time.) I prepared the soil and the eyes, placed them at the prescribed depth and distance apart, and hilled the damn things repeatedly that first season. Turned out most of the advice must have been geared to places like Maine and Idaho, not the nutrient-poor sand and steamy nights of southeastern North Carolina. A week before time to dig, bacterial soft rot set in. Who knew potatoes could dissolve into sacks of noxious goo while still in the ground?

            This year, I decided the experts could go pound sand and followed the dictates of intuition and sad experience instead. I planted in mid-February rather than late March, didn’t bother hilling at all, didn’t wait anxiously for flowers that never came. The results, as mentioned above, showed improvement. I learned respectable harvests depend in part on the amount of acreage sown. I learned that you don’t have to space plants with mathematical precision: cramming works as well as not. I learned cool soil temperatures are critical to successful potato farming, which is why Idaho and Maine get such spectacular results when I don’t. Tim pointed out that the only type of spud widely grown in our neck of the woods is the sweet potato, which is botanically closer to morning-glories than Solanums. All these vital clues to growing potatoes in coastal southeastern North Carolina came from on-the-job training and personal observation, not from what somebody else told me or from something I read. These are the lessons I will remember, and apply.

Books such as these
have their limitations
            So, disregarding the experts’ warnings against non-certified-virus-free stock, I’m sowing a small fall crop of eyes from sustainably raised potatoes I bought at farmers markets and let sprout under the kitchen sink. Maybe they’ll have time to produce before killing frost sets in, maybe not. But either way, it’ll be a lesson I learned on my own about works for me, in the place I live.

            Not all expert advice is worthless. I’m forever grateful to the trophoblastic disease unit at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston for giving me the opportunity to be alive these past 30 years. I’m really glad I never bought that Yugo. Momma was right about the Sims boy. Tim is very seldom mistaken when he expresses an opinion about anything. But the best lessons—in gardening as in life—are those we stumble into on our own.

            My expert advice? Turn off the outside noise and go figure out something for yourself. I guarantee you’ll feel better for the exercise.

            Thanks for dropping by.


Saturday, September 3, 2011


Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua)
is native to my neighborhood...
            In recent years, gardening with native plants has come into fashion. Again. When Tim and I get asked to design one, we give each other secret little smiles and ask the potential client, “Native to where?”

You may recall that, a few posts ago (“Wind and Weather,” August 17th), I vented my annoyance with the NWS and NOAA for using the word “normal” for their computed 30-year averages. (Check out my new gadget at right, Acronyms Explained.) When I read an exchange in American Nurseryman about regulating “invasive” species—those quotation marks again!—I had a similar reaction. “Native” is as nebulous a concept as “normal.”  

...while Rhododendron catawbiense,
native to western North Carolina,
does poorly on the coast; and...
            I’m not just being supercilious and snotty here. Most people, even when impelled by environmental earnestness, don’t have any concrete idea what “native” means. Newcomers here often consider hybrid azaleas, crape myrtles and gardenias Southern natives. Nope, they all originated in China and/or Japan. Tomatoes, some rhododendrons and hemlocks do come from North America—just not this part of it. In the 500 or so years since first darkening the doors of this continent, Europeans have introduced about 50,000 plant species. These introductions include about 90 percent of our present food crops as well as a hefty slice of the ornamentals pie. And that doesn’t include “exotic” animal species like horses and nutrias; insects like European honeybees, some earthworms, fire ants, and the emerald ash-borer; plant pathogens like Dutch elm disease, chestnut blight, and the fungus responsible for sudden oak death; or human diseases like West Nile virus and avian flu. Makes you think, doesn’t it?  

...and crape myrtles
(Lagerstroemia indica x fauriei)
came from the Orient.
            Over time, many introduced species have interbred with their indigenous counterparts, producing natural hybrids that muddy genetic-origin waters more than a whole university-full of hyper taxonomists. 
            People who really, really want a native garden should buy a large parcel of land and just encourage (and perhaps impose a little structure on) what’s already there. Indeed, I would argue that all “gardens” are by definition artificial, the result of human will worked on the land. 

            Philosophy aside, the flip-side of what makes a species native is what makes one non-native. Except for recent introductions whose provenance is (somewhat) known, it can be really hard to tell who’s whose horticultural daddy. Sylvan and Wallace Kaufman point out in the first three chapters of their excellent book, Invasive Plants (see Good Reads at right), that all “natives” were once successful invaders. 

Trans-Atlantic transport
circa 1670
To illustrate the difficulty inherent in defining “native,” I present a Homo sapiens example. Both Tim and I were born in United States to parents who were also born in the United States. No one from either family (the documented ones, anyway) is indigenous to the eastern U.S. My ancestors hailed from all over Western Europe, and it’s anybody’s guess how they ended up there. Two or three lines of my family had established themselves in North America by the latter half of the 17th century. Yep, I’m certified DAR and UDC (check out that acronym gadget mentioned above). But am I more native than Tim? Both sets of his grandparents sailed from Ireland in the 1890s, some 220 years after my folks got here. Besides, with all due respect, even the “Native Americans” came from somewhere else—can you spell “land bridge”?

Welcome to the New World,
circa 1900
            The Kaufmans assert that “native” does not always mean “better,” nor can we assume that exotics always cause “harm” in “native” environments. This issue is about as far from cut-and-dried as you can get. Nonetheless, in our crisis-of-the-day national mentality, it’s just a hop, skip and a jump for some people to move from neutral non-native to frightening invasive.

Invasives poster child,  kudzu
(Pueraria lobata)
            Remember those 50,000 plant species introduced to North America since the 1500s I mentioned a while back? Well, about 5000 of those have escaped cultivation and moved in with the 17,000 “native” species. How did these foreigners get into the wild? Birds and rodents relocate lots of pre-fertilized seeds. Water and wind do their bits, carrying seeds and even entire plants over long distances. Large mammals join the party by transporting seeds and bits of roots on their fur or pants or shoes. Most new arrivals have proven to be good neighbors, behaving well and blending in nicely. On occasion, however, some thug will throw its weight around. The buzzword “invasive” applies to these rogues, the cause of all sorts wailing and gnashing of teeth among environmental purists and legislators.

The best definition of an invasive is “a plant that is too successful.” Its trademark trait is the speed with which it takes over an area. Examples of When Plants Go Bad in the South include kudzu, Asian wisterias, Japanese honeysuckle and Chinese ligustrum (a.k.a. privet). New York battles purple loosestrife and milfoil. In the Middle Atlantic states and the Northeast, burning bush, barberries, and Miscanthus cause problems. South Florida fears nandina, melaleuca, and many, many others. The Irish suffer from troublesome volunteer butterfly bushes growing in their gutters and chimney pots. And so on.

The Invasives Alert page from
June 2011's Fine Gardening
            “Invasives” appear globally, but are they necessarily a problem? Some scientists theorize that more than 90 percent of all species that ever lived on earth have gone extinct. (How did they determine that? I don’t know.) Must we assume that “change” equals “harm”? We cannot turn back the clock to the time of North America’s virginity. Isn’t it possible that what we perceive as “invasiveness”—or “man-made global warming”—is really part of an on-going process, and that maybe everything, even Homo sapiens, only gets to stay on the stage temporarily?

             There’s also the local character of invasiveness to factor in: for example, kudzu’s not a problem in Minnesota.
Anyway, the challenge facing both the horticulture industry and gardeners boils down to avoiding being part of the problem. Most states’ Cooperative Extensions post lists of local potential invasives on the internet, as do watchdogs like the Nature Conservancy, the Invasive Plant Atlas, the USDA Plants Database, the National Invasive Species Information Center, and Invasive Alert. Connecticut leads the way in outlawing flora non grata, legislating against anything that’s invasive anywhere. (In fact, I’m considering relocating there, as they must have already handled the important stuff like universal health care, unemployment, education, immigration problems, and the shrinking of the middle class. You think?) If you suffer from technophobia, as I do, call your Extension or State Department of Agriculture: they will sigh heavily and eventually mail you something. The Kaufmans’ book has a long list of sources of information as well.

Looking for alter-"natives"?
            Some people think the only way to combat invasiveness is to use only natives, and write hefty tomes on the subject (like Armitage’s Native Plants for North American Gardens and Native Alternatives to Invasive Plants—see Good Reads at right). Seems to me a lot like throwing out the baby with the bath-water, however. Your real-life options? Refuse to use plants like Japanese honeysuckle and barberries, boycotting the nurseries and garden centers that grow and sell them; or keep a tight rein on your beloved specimens, including provisions in your will that potential invaders be immolated with you on your pyre.

Check out these books by 
Allan Armitage
or C. Colston Burrell
             A parting thought: in the August-September 2007 issue of Horticulture, Carol Reese responds to a reader letter about her recommendation of a plant considered to be an invasive in some places by saying, “My main concern is loss of habitat, and humans are the worst of the invaders… [E]cologically sensitive landscapes… need not be all native, especially if the plants are those that can be grown without chemicals… The Earth is in a constant state of flux, which does not relieve us of responsibility, but requires us to make the best choices we can with what information we can gather.”
            So get informed before you plant. And whatever else happens, don’t you be slipping in a cutting of kudzu to cover your new pergola. Unless you live in North Dakota.


P.S.—You may want to invade Plant Delights Nursery’s Fall Open House. It's being held the weekends of September 9-11 and 16-18. Weather’s nicer now, if you weren’t up to facing the summer do.