Archive | June 2014

The start of summer and the tomato sandwich

tomato_sandwichFor me, the first day of summer begins when I harvest the first a vine-ripened tomato of the season, slice it into thick slabs, slather Duke’s Mayonnaise (Hellman’s up north) on a slice of honeywheat bread (I know, it should be white Wonder bread), and then gently lay down the tomato slices on their bed of mayo. This is what the legendary Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson was talking about in 1820: gustatory bliss!

Growing Easter lilies year-round in the landscape

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Easter lily (Lilium longiflorum var. eximium) grove in Piedmont, SC on June 22, 2014.

If you saved your poinsettias with plans of coercing them into bloom for next Christmas, then you’re probably going to save your Easter lilies.  But for those of you who compost your holiday plants, you may want to make an exception with Easter lilies.  They can be recycled by replanting them in the landscape.  Unlike tender poinsettias which can be killed by temperatures below 50 degrees F, Easter lilies (Lilium longiflorum var. eximium) are hardy, garden-worthy bulbs that can be grown outdoors year-round,

Right now, continue to enjoy their pure white fragrant flowers indoors.  They should be resting near a window that receives bright, indirect sunlight.  Keep the potting medium moist.  Water the plant thoroughly when the soil surface feels dry, but avoid overwatering. If the pot is wrapped in decorative foil, be careful not to let the plant sit in trapped, standing water.  Remove the plant from decorative pots or covers and water until it seeps out of the pot’s drain holes. Repeat this several times. Allow the plant to drain for a few minutes before putting it back into its decorative cover.

When a mature flower starts to fade and wither, cut it off to keep the plant looking attractive.

After the last flower of your Easter lily has withered and has been cut away, plant it in the garden.  Follow these simple steps:

1.  Prepare a well-drained garden bed in a sunny location amended with organic matter such as compost.  Good drainage is the key for success with lilies.  To ensure adequate drainage, create a raised garden bed by moving soil to the top a few inches higher than the surrounding soil level.  Also, adjust the soil pH to 6.5 to 7.0.

  1. Plant the potted Easter lily bulbs 12 to 18 inches apart.  Water them in immediately after planting.
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Easter lily (Lilium longiflorum var. eximium) on June 22, 2014 in Piedmont, SC.

3.  Lilies like their “feet in the shade and their heads in the sun.” Mulch with a 2-inch layer of compost, pine straw, or shredded leaves. This helps conserve moisture in between waterings, suppresses weed growth, keeps the soil cool, and provides nutrients as it decays.

As the leaves and stems of the original plants begin to turn brown and die back, cut them back just above a healthy leaf on the stem. Wait until the leaves and stems have turned brown before removing them.  New growth will soon emerge.

In the fall when the lily stalks have matured and turned yellow, you can cut them back to soil level. When they are completely dry, the stalks can be pulled out easily.

During the winter months, maintain a generous layer of mulch. Carefully remove the mulch in the spring to allow new shoots to come up. Fertilize with a complete fast-release fertilizer such as 8-8-8 when the new shoots emerge and monthly until flowering.  Conversely, a slow-release fertilizer can be applied just once during the growing season when new shoots emerge in the spring.  Apply the fertilizer to the soil around each plant about 2 inches from the stem and water it in.

Easter lilies, which were forced to flower under controlled greenhouse conditions on Easter, a holiday that can fall on any Sunday from March 22 to April 25, will flower naturally in late May and will reach a height of 3 feet or more.

Although your recycled Easter lilies will not bloom on time, you can still enjoy their elegant flowers and take credit for their spectacular display.

Hooked on chastetree

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Chastetree (Vitex agnus-castus). SC Botanic Garden, Clemson, SC. 06/28/2014. (C) Bob Polomski

Chastetree often draws attention to itself with aromatic, grayish-green leaves that look like marijuana. It garners even more interest when it blooms—now in June to September in the Southeast—with blue spikes of 3- to 18-inch long flowers. Pollinators find these flowers irresistible as well.

Chastetree was recognized by the Greeks for its medicinal properties (they believed the flowers curbed lustful desires). Since 1570 the British cultivated it in their gardens as an ornamental. Native to east and south Asia and the Phillipines, chastetree is quite at home in the Carolinas where it revels in our heat and humidity. It’s also drought-tolerant, easy-to-grow, and has no serious pest problems.

Chastetree can be cultivated as a multistemmed shrub by pruning it back to within 1 to 2 feet of the ground in late winter before new growth begins. You can also maintain it as a small deciduous tree that will reach a height of 10 to 15 ft. or more. For the best floral display, site it in full sun.

There are several cultivars to choose from that include ‘Blushing Spires’, a blush pink; ‘Rosea’, pink flowers; ‘Silver Spire’, white; ‘Shoal Creek’ produces spikes of vivid blue flowers up to 18 in. long; and ‘Montrose Purple’ has rich violet flowers. Try any one of them, and you’ll be hooked.

(c)2014 Bob Polomski

For watermelon lovers only….

Watermelon2 No matter how you slice it, there is no summer without watermelon.   Royal Sweet or Icebox, seeded or seedless, I’m not finicky about watermelon.  According to USDA estimates, each American consumes about 15 lbs. of watermelon a year.  By July, I’m way ahead of that mark.

The flesh can be any color–red, yellow, or orange-as long as its ripe.  If you grow your own, knowing the variety and the days to maturity will give you a ballpark idea as to when you should begin checking for maturity.  Then, look for signs of ripening on the both the vine and the fruit.  The tendril closWatermelon1est to the stem end of the melon will turn brown as the fruit ripens.  Also, the underside of the watermelon where it rests on the ground will change from green to a yellowish-white.  Finally feel the skin. As the melon ripens, the shiny skin turns dull-colored. It will also feel slightly rough, and as you run your hand around the melon’s center you may notice a certain irregularity.

Some people can pick a ripe melon by the sound it makes when you thump it. The “thump test” is a more subjective indicator of maturity and requires a good ear.  Immature melons have a metallic ringing sound after being thumped.  A really deep thud usually indicates a melon that’s overripe.

If you eat more watermelon than the average American, visit the SC Watermelon Board web site. It’s for folks like us.

Pawpaws: a native ornamental and edible

When it comes to growing fruit at home, nothing could be easier, prettier, or tastier than the pawpaw (Asimina triloba).  This deciduous, multi-stemmed shrub or small tree can reach a height of 15 to 20 feet.  It’s 6 to 12 inch long, tropical-looking leaves turn yellow in the fall.  Purple, one- to two-inch wide flowers appear in the spring and are pollinated by flies and beetles, undoubtedly attracted to the irresistible carrion-like scent of the blooms.  Cross-pollination must occur for fruit set to occur, because an individual pawpaw is incapable of fertilizing its own flowers.  They give rise to large bean-shaped fruit, which grow to about three to six inches long and one to three inches wide.  The fruit has a fragrant aroma, a custard-like texture, and a banana-like taste.

For quality fruit, choose named cultivars such as Shenandoah, Susquehanna, and Rappahannock.  If price is more important than quality, purchase seedling trees.

Pawpaws are difficult to transplant, so select container-grown cultivars to improve your chances at successfully establishing them in your landscape.  Choose a moist, well-drained location in full sun or partial shade.  Water the newly planted trees regularly during their establishment period.

Once pawpaws settle in, their horizontal roots create sprouts that emerge some distance from the trunk.  Mowing will suppress these emerging shoots from becoming an unmanageable thicket.

For additional information and links concerning pawpaws, visit http://www.pawpaw.kysu.edu.

Honeybees helping humanity

While weeding around my tomato plants the other day, I paused for a moment and marveled at the way their flowers almost magically develop into fruit.

Grasping a lemon-yellow flower between my fingers, I smiled and visualized the red, vine-ripened tomato the blossom would become one day.

This miraculous transformation from flower to fruit occurs through pollination–the transfer of pollen or male cells from the anther to the female cells on the stigma.  Wind pollinates tomatoes by shaking the flowers and transferring the pollen.  Sweet corn also relies on the wind for pollination, but only to catch airborne pollen on the silks.  Squash, like most vegetables, depends on insects for pollination.

One of the best insect pollinators known since ancient times is the honey bee which was introduced to North America by European settlers in the 1600s.  (Native Americans called these honey bees the “white man’s fly.”)  Honey bee pollination is not intentional, just a result of the insect’s search for its favorite foods–pollen and nectar.  While the honey bee scrambles around inside the flower, searching for the small oasis of nectar in the nectaries or scooping up pollen from the anthers, pollen from its body lodges onto the sticky surface of the stigma.

Although the honey bee’s way of life and work ethic make it an ideal pollinator, it is the insect’s physical makeup that results in efficient pollination.  The honeybee is to flowers what Tiger Woods is to golf.

Its large compound eyes offer a wide range of vision and sensitive antennae, and its tongue acts either as a spoon for licking up small drops or a pump to rapidly draw in large quantities of nectar or water.  The honeybee’s hairy body collects pollen as it dashes from blossom to blossom.  Combs and brushes on the legs are used to remove the pollen from the flowers or from the body and stuffed into “pollen baskets” in the legs.

For honeybees, pollination is just a matter of survival.  But for Americans, the pollination of millions of acres of crops by honeybees translates to dollars. In South Carolina, commercially grown crops that depend on honey bees for pollination include apples, blueberries, cantaloupes, cucumbers, squash, strawberries, and watermelons.

Those impressive figures show how important a role the honey bee plays in agriculture.  However, honey bees and their brethren–wild bees, bumble bees, and others–assume a critical role in nature.  They pollinate the flowers of many seed- and fruit-bearing plants which are cherished by wildlife.

So, you can see how devastating a shortage of domestic and wild honey bees could be.  In the past 10 years, tracheal mites and varroa mites have greatly reduced the honey bee population.  Fortunately, these pests can be controlled by beekeepers.  But the widespread use of pesticides toxic to bees also has reduced their numbers.  Most bee poisonings occur when bees visit flowers that were recently treated with an insecticide.

Home gardeners can help protect honeybees.  When using insecticides that control a broad range of insects, apply the material when bees aren’t actively foraging in the garden.  It may mean making your applications very early in the morning or late in the evening.  Don’t forget to always read and follow the label directions.

Thinking about the reduced number of honeybees and seeing the blooms on my squash, cucumbers, peppers, and watermelons, I wondered about the future of this year’s crop.  What if there wasn’t sufficient honeybee pollination?  Wouldn’t I be reduced to scurrying from blossom to blossom with a cotton-tipped swab, daubing tiny pollen grains on the impatient stigmas?  It might work, but I’m no Tiger Woods of the blooms.  When it comes to pollination, I’d rather have it done by an expert.

Attracting hummingbirds to your garden…naturally with flowers

The ruby-throated hummingbird is the most common hummingbird east of the Mississippi, but a few others, such as the black-chinned and rufous hummingbirds, make occasional visits to South Carolina.

All hummingbirds have a tremendous appetite, consuming more than half their weight in food each day.  To satisfy their high energy requirements, hummingbirds seek out sugar-rich nectar, and, to a lesser extent, insects and spiders.  Their long needlelike bills and especially adapted tongues enable them to reach the nectar deep inside long tubular flowers.

The flowers that are most attractive to hummingbirds are frequently red, orange, or pink.  Favorite vines include trumpet vine (Campsis radicans), trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), crossvine (Bignonia capreolata), and scarlet morning-glory (Ipomoea coccinea).  Hummingbirds are also attacted to cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis), four-o’clocks (Mirabilis jalapa), butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), and lantana (Lantana camara).  Trees and shrubs such as the red buckeye (Aesculus pavia), bottlebrush. coral bean, and swamp hibiscus are also significant sources of nectar.

Remember that hummingbirds need to feed from March to September, so plan on planting an assortment of plants that will guarantee a continuous supply of flowers from which they can feed.

For more information about attracting hummingbirds and other wildlife to your landscape, visit the SC Wildlife Federation web site (www.scwf.org) and the Clemson Extension Home & Garden Information Center (http://hgic.clemson.edu).