Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Going Native

As an official “Plant Maniac” there’s no chance anyone is talking me into giving up my rare and unusual plants. Centuries worth of botanists, explorers and nurserymen have gathered, cultivated and shipped stuff across continents and oceans to feed the frenzy of gardening nuts throughout the ages. And I’ve got the bug.

And I’ve been told many times that gardening with non-indigenous or alien plants is not always the “right” way to go. Alien plants are invaders; they don’t “belong” in our backyards. They can overrun our existing plant life; are not as well adapted to our ecosystems as the plants that are originally from here. I can’t argue the facts of nature with these folks, because they’re not wrong.

The dilemma for me has always been that these eco-enthusiasts have faced off with me in an all-or-nothing stance. It’s either I rip out all my foreign ornamentals and replace it with native plants or I’m a bad gardener. Which, frankly, was kind of a turn off. And, besides, I think the aliens are prettier.

Then, last week, I attended a lecture by Doug Tallamy, the author of “Bringing Nature Home,” and my world changed. Professor Tallamy, who teaches Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware, got my attention by telling us no matter how many butterfly bushes we planted, it was of no use if we didn’t have plants for the caterpillars that become the butterflies to eat as well.

Duh!! Of course I knew that I should have milkweed for the Monarch caterpillars, but he went further by pointing out that if I didn’t have native plants that the native bugs and other crawly things could eat, I wouldn’t have the birds and little mammals who eat the native bugs, and without them, there’s nothing for the bigger carnivores to eat, and, voila, we end up in a natural wasteland. A dead zone where there’s lots of color and flowers but very little other life. Sure birds like berries, he told us, but they feed their young mostly insects, and if there’s no bugs in your backyards, the baby birds are going to go hungry.

Then he told us that an Oak tree could support 532 species of caterpillars while a Zelkova supported 0. I was staggered. It had never even occurred to me to think of these kinds of plants as butterfly food, but there you had it. Oaks are yummy.

But wait, I thought, but if we have all these caterpillars etc eating my plants, they’ll look nasty and holey. It was like the professor read my mind, because he then explained, that when the insect life is back in sync with the rest of the world, more birds will return and when those birds populations get back to higher numbers again, my bugs will be kept in check. Back in the way nature had it all worked out for those millions of years it existed before we started to meddle with it. Hmmm.

In addition, there was no scolding for the plants I already owned or even the ones I still coveted. Instead, he suggested that I just add a few natives back into the mix. Give up some of my lawn he recommended. We have over 40 million acres of lawn in this country by the way, a number that is ridiculous. And if you don’t have a lot of lawn to begin with, just tuck them under trees, or at the corner of the house or in the front up by the road, even a few will make a difference.

Let some violets invade the lawn and you’ll make 29 crawling things available to those starving babies.

Not sure you have room for asters? How about if there are 112 moths & butterflies that would say thank you? I’m going to let some mingle with my perennials.

Blueberries support 288 critters, not including the two-legged short wearing ones that also enjoy their harvest, and they take some shade, so they’ll work almost anywhere.

And if you’re thinking about a shade tree, and want excellent fall foliage why not go for Acer rubrum, the Swamp or Red Maple that provides 287 different tasty birds snacks.

So the good professor has a convert. And although I’m not giving up my rose addiction, I’m now thinking there are 73 more reasons for me to indulge my passion for Sunflowers.

Paige Patterson has seen only one Luna moth in the wild. Now she’s planting to try and attract number two.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Food, glorious food!

You want to grow more things to eat, but hate the look of straight, boring vegetable rows.

You think your garden is too small to grow vegetables, or you’re already gardened to the max.

You’re starting a new garden and want to make something that’s both beautiful to look at and to eat from.

You’re totally brave and want to rip out your entire front lawn and remake it into a productive and beautiful potager –- a creative blend of vegetable, fruits, flowers and herbs.

It’s time for all of you to think about edible landscaping -- the art of growing the things you want to eat in more attractive ways.

To start, browse some of the amazing books and website out there for insights and inspiration. I have two favorites.

The queen of edible landscaping, Rosalind Creasy, has a new book, ‘Edible Landscaping,’ which shows over 300 color photographs of edible ideas that will have your mouth watering and fingers itching to get food among your flowers. I also love Joy Larkcom’s ‘Creative Vegetable Gardening’ for the way she approaches fruit, vegetables and herbs from a design point of view.

You might already have some edibles incorporated into your garden -- did you know that you could eat daylilies? And that rose petals can be used in salads? Most of us have a lavender or two or 30 already in the garden, so why not add in some other decorative plants that can also garnish the table?

Try using chives as an edging, they work wonderfully next to roses and mixed with geranium Rozanne -- snip off the flowers and leaves as need. There’s a newish, variegated basil out there, called ‘Pesto Perpetuo' which tastes wonderful and looks incredible in the middle section of a perennial border. I’m going to tuck it into all my beds next year, for a little hint of hot green and white to help pop other colors. Perhaps you’d rather use purple basil as an accent? It works just as well and looks amazing next to white phlox and blue balloon flowers.

With their pretty spring flowers and bright fall foliage high bush blueberries can be a screen, part of a shrub border or, if allowed to get large enough, become beautiful vase shaped garden sculptures. Plus they’re a native plant so they count for revegetation! Although some produce fruit all on their own, most need at least one other variety to get the best crops and so make sure you buy a couple different names.

You can also work any of the sages into your sunny flowerbeds. I use the classic ‘Berggarten’ as its velvety soft, silver leaves balance the oranges and hot pink flowers I have a thing for. I also plant pineapple sage every year (it’s not a perennial like the cooking sage) to attract hummingbirds and to use in fruit salad. It gets huge, but is open and airy so I plant it with bee balm towards the back of gardens.
Just the slight distance between Sag Harbor and Bridgehampton makes all the difference for winter hardiness, and a fig tree that overwinters for my father on Palmer Terrace needs a huge amount of protection for me. For him, and you in Sag Harbor, a fig with its dramatic leaves can be a startling accent plant. If it’s sited right, it can become huge, but it’s easily pruned and once you’ve eaten your own figs you’ll be an addict for life.

Try growing garlic in between your roses. Not only will it help keep away the aphids and look smashing when in flower, but if you save some of the bulbs you harvest to replant in the fall, you’ll have garlic forever. Tuck bronze fennel into the back of your border and snip pieces of the soft foliage for potato salad or with fish. I like the way it looks with daylilies and Nepeta subsessilis, the larger catmint.

Last year I dug in some currants and gooseberries. Although we don’t use their fruits as much as the Europeans do, I find the plants attractive, especially in spring when they are flowering. I used mine to make a mixed shrub border behind which I’m growing some climbing roses for later seasonal color.
Push nasturtiums seeds everywhere you need to fill gaps. I’m planting mine next to all my oriental poppies. I love the flowers in salads, and as we know, I’m an orange freak, but they come in a whole slew of other colors now.

Lets banish the idea of rows of greens and lines of corn and open our minds up to the idea that things that are edible being used in ways that are beautiful. Let’s use corn to screen out the neighbors’ pool and choose to plant Swiss chard and kale because they look pretty, not just because they’re nutritious.
Joy Larkcom recommends using loose-headed lettuces as edgings, knowing that by the time the heat of summer is upon us; neighboring plants will have filled in the spots where the lettuce once was. She also plants Bull’s Blood Beets as accent plants with their deep red leaves. I would interplant them with curly or large leaf parsley that could fill in the spaces that appear when the beets are pulled. This year I’m tucking eggplants into my flowerbeds. They have beautiful soft velvety leaves and I’m borrowing Rosalind’s idea of using them with pink Echinaceas. She also suggests planting them in pots with million bells as under plantings which I think is just genius.

I’m also going to try growing my lemon cucumbers up the same fence with my climbing roses and morning glories. I was truly inspired by the pumpkin that last year climbed to the top of the huge hedge opposite the Sagg Store.

Going to pick up my mail I pulled in and almost forgot to put the car in park as I stared at a glorious orange orb dangling 10 feet up in the air. I knew that squash, pumpkins, watermelons and cucumbers could all climb but I was stuck thinking of them as ground huggers. I’m still going to try and grow melons as groundcovers this year, but seeing that huge pumpkin vine threaded through the hedge changed my view of sprawlers into crawlers. And that’s the whole key to edible landscaping.

It’s about changing the way you look at about plants and rethinking the way you use them in the garden. Realizing that there doesn’t have to be a conflict between utility and beauty. That a fruiting Asian pear is just as pretty as a crabapple. That pole beans climb pergolas as beautifully as wisteria. That purple pak choi is as pretty as sedum and dill is as elegant as Queen Ann’s Lace but both taste better. That lettuce, alpine strawberries and zucchini can also be thought of as part shade plants. That hot peppers look great in containers, strawberries are great garden edgers and that some of cherry tomatoes get so tall they should be used to dress up an arbor.

And that the only edible plants that don’t belong in your garden -- are the ones you don’t want to eat.
Paige Patterson wants 5 truckloads of Sweet Peet to magically appear in her yard & for elves to start spreading it on all her garden beds.