Riverbend Park Wildflowers

April 4th, 2012

Go there today!

Virginia Bluebells

Virginia Bluebells and Paw Paw flowers

The Virginia Bluebells are at peak bloom along the Potomac River in Riverbend Park. Maybe even a little past peak.

In almost 26 years of living in Fairfax County, I had never visited Riverbend Park. Yesterday was a gorgeous day to see it for the first time.

The number of bluebells isn’t quite as overwhelming as at Bull Run Park, but having the Potomac River in the background is very adequate compensation.

Virginia Bluebells along the Potomac

Virginia Bluebells along the Potomac

The flora seems a bit more diverse than Bull Run Park too, or at least different. I saw lots of woodland phlox, various violets, spring beauties, trilliums, and paw paw flowers. And many Zebra Swallowtail butterflies, but none would pose for a photo. (Paw Paw is the host plant for Zebra Swallowtail caterpillars.)



Turning inland away from the river, you enter a cathedral of tulip trees.

Tulip Trees

Fresh green foliage on majestic tulip trees

I walked upriver from the Visitor’s Center on a section of the Potomac Heritage Trail, and then inland back to the Visitor’s Center on the Follow the Hollows Trail. About 2 miles of easy walking.

I apologize for the not-so-great photos, but I was playing with an HDR app on my phone. A good app, I think, but not really suited to handheld photography. Anyhow, you really should go see for yourself!

Edible Alliums and Row Covers

March 25th, 2012

Now, about those alliums I promised 2 posts ago. It seems to me that garlic is a crop that prefers warm winters. If you think about the places around the world where garlic is used in traditional cooking, most of those places don’t have very cold winters. So I had the bright idea to trick the garlic into thinking it was wintering in a warm climate and see if I get a bigger, better, and earlier harvest. And naturally, the year I decide to do this turns out to be the warmest winter in memory. So it hasn’t been much of a test. But, nevertheless…

Garlic and shallots under row cover

Garlic and shallots under row cover

I draped a double layer of Agribon 19 – a non-woven agricultural fabric – over supports made of rebar (concrete reinforcing rods) and plastic pipe. The rebar stakes are about 12″ long and pounded into the ground about 4 to 6″. We cut the plastic pipe into lengths that would give us a hoop about 2 or 2 1/2 feet tall. Insert one end of the pipe over the rebar stake, arch it over the bed, and place the other end over the stake on the opposite side. I sort of gather and pleat the fabric at the ends of the row and secure it with a binder clip or a clothespin. Then weight down the edges of the fabric with rocks or concrete pavers or branches from the woods or whatever else is handy.

On 28 November 2011, in the bed you see above, I planted ‘Thai Red’ garlic, ‘French Red’ garlic, ‘Ajo Rojo’ garlic (I like red) and ‘Nootka Rose’ garlic. I also planted some red Asian shallots from the grocery store, and a new batch of potato onions from an eBay seller from Tennessee. Everything except the potato onions began to grow almost immediately after planting. Well, actually the Asian shallots were sprouting on my kitchen counter before I planted them. There was so much green growth that I was afraid it would all freeze if the weather turned colder, and so I mulched with straw several weeks after planting.

Thai Red Garlic

Thai Red Garlic

Everything appears to be happy and healthy under the row cover. The potato onions have only recently sprouted, but everything else has been green and growing all winter. But, with such a warm winter, and with no control group (dumb, I know), I can’t say whether the row cover made a difference.

In fact, take a look at these White Multiplier onions that have been growing in the open ground all winter.

Hardy White Bunching Onions

White Multiplier Onions, 17 March 2012

They even have flower buds.

Hardy White Bunching Onions

White Multiplier Onions, flower buds

Those White Mulitpliers are excellent scallions (aka green onions or spring onions), but that’s all they do. I mean they never make a big bulb. In a normal year, they sprout early in the spring, give us scallions for several weeks, then the tops begin to die down when the weather gets hot. They’re dormant over the summer, sprouting again in late summer or early fall. The center of each onion divides and divides, making a very large clump if they aren’t dug and replanted.  I have no idea what schedule they’ll follow in this strangely warm winter and now spring – they were green all winter.

But I know another way to get early scallions. For the last few years, I’ve deliberately left some mature seed-grown onions in the ground over the winter. Each onion sprouts and provides us with a clump of scallions early in the spring – much earlier than planting sets or more seedlings. The variety I like best so far for this purpose is ‘White Lisbon’, but any onion seems to work this way. I currently have ‘White Lisbon’, ‘Yellow of Parma’ and ‘Red Long Florence’, all grown from seed last spring.

White Lisbon scallions

'White Lisbon' scallions

Above are some I harvested on March 17. These too sprouted in the fall and never really stopped growing over the warm winter, and without the benefit of any kind of protection from the weather except last year’s straw mulch. The only problem I’ve had is that deer/rabbits/something occasionally chew them to the ground.

I plan to repeat the row cover experiment next winter – with a control group – but so far it appears to be beneficial. If nothing else, it keeps the critters from munching on the onions/shallots. I’ll keep you posted as the season progresses.


February 22nd, 2012

I know I said the next post would be about the various edible alliums I’m growing under row covers this winter, but we escaped winter for the Florida Keys last week and the pictures from there are much prettier than straw and row covers.

I felt like a total newbie looking at plants down there. What’s that? What’s this? So many things I’d never seen before.

This Key West flowering tree caught my eye. The flowers looked so much like azaleas to me, but then I saw a bean-like seed pod and knew that I was looking in the wrong plant family. Eventually I identified it as Hong Kong Orchid Tree (Bauhinia blakeana). The common name is misleading because it is in the Fabaceae family, not Orchidaceae.

Bauhinia blakeana

Hong Kong Orchid Tree (Bauhinia blakeana)

Bauhinia blakeana

Hong Kong Orchid Tree. Different tree, sunnier day.

I remembered the banyan trees from a previous visit. This one grew a natural arch over the driveway.

Banyan Arch

Banyan Arch

Lots of palm trees, of course. We walked a nature trail in Windley Key Fossil Reef state park, were I learned to recognize the Florida Thatch Palm.

Florida Thatch Palm

Florida Thatch Palm (Thrinax radiata)

In this case, I knew the plant (red impatiens, ho-hum), but not the butterfly.

Blue Morpho

Blue Morpho, Red Impatiens

They have one of those butterflies-in-the-conservatory tourist attractions in Key West. You all know I like butterflies, right? I recognized none of these butterflies, either. They wanted us to buy a laminated guide for another $2 (or was it $4?), but we weren’t inclined to give them any more money, so we just marveled in ignorance. I did look up the Blue Morpho later on, just because it was so big and colorful. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a nice clear photo of the pretty side of the wings to show you.

Blue Morpho

Blue Morpho

You may be familiar with US Route 1 in the DC area? This is where it starts.

US Route 1 Mile 0

US Route 1, Mile 0

Or ends.

US Route 1 End

US Route 1, end

Feral Chickens

Feral Chickens

So a chicken walks into a bar…No joke, I actually saw this happen. Feral chickens are everywhere in Key West, but the one that walked into the bar was domesticated – somebody’s pet. I didn’t get a photo of that one, but I did take a picture of the door it walked through.

The Porch

The Porch, a funky craft-beer bar

Vacations have to end, though.

Key West Sunset

Key West Sunset

California Dreamin’, Part 2

January 25th, 2012

So after the wedding, we stayed a few extra days in California to revisit some places we’d been to long ago, and find some new favorites. In one of the those totally serendipitous moments that makes travel fun, we drove through downtown Petaluma past an elegant old building with painted lettering on the windows announcing that it was a Seed Bank. Huh? You mean like real seeds? What is this place? Well, we were on our way to somewhere else, so we didn’t stop.

But I looked it up later on the internet and said to the spouse “Damn, we should have stopped.” It turned out to be the west coast headquarters of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. They opened in 2009 in the renovated Sonoma County National Bank building, originally built in 1926. So we returned the next day, and it was well worth the detour. The store sells not just seeds, but books, magazines, tools, gifty-type stuff, etc. A vegetable gardeners’ paradise. I was too overwhelmed to even take pictures, but here are a few that other people have posted on Flickr.

Petaluma Seed Bank - inside view

The Seed Bank 1-9-11_3591

I was not too overwhelmed to shop, however. We spent quite a while oohing and aahing and then picked up some pepper seeds, radish seeds, melon seeds, cucumber seeds, flower seeds, magazines, and one bulb of Thai Red garlic. The seeds are awaiting spring, but the garlic is now growing under a row cover in the Tangled Branches kitchen garden.

More about edible alliums and row covers in the next post.

California Dreamin’

January 13th, 2012

…on such a winter’s day.[1] Actually winter has been unusually pleasant this year and I’m sure it will soon punish me for saying that.

We traveled to California in September for a wedding and a few days vacation and I just couldn’t get the blog restarted when we got back. But not because I don’t have anything wonderful to report – I do! We have happy memories of the trip – lots of fabulous food, wine, beer, cider (is there a theme here?) and even some plant-related tourist stops. More about those later. This post is about the beautiful bride’s interesting, lovely, and sentimental bouquet.

Bride's BouquetLovely is obvious.

And so interesting upon closer observation. How many wedding bouquets have you seen that feature cabbage, kale, and succulents? And garden flowers like Love-Lies-Bleeding (Amaranthus caudatus)? As a person who is expected to know something about plants, I often get asked to identify things. So when someone inquired what was that turquoise flower in the bouquet, I was stumped by the question because 1) I didn’t notice any turquoise flowers, and 2). I can’t think of any turquoise flowers. But my reputation may still be intact because it wasn’t a flower and only sort of turquoise – leafy gray/blue/green (does that color have a name?) rosettes of some succulent which I’m guessing is an Echeveria. Anybody want to help me out here? However, I was truly stumped by the cabbage and kale. The brain is expecting flowers and it will find them even if they aren’t there. Here’s a better view of the cabbage (top right) and fringy kale (just below and to the right of the cabbage).

Brides's Bouquet

But I think the sentiment behind some of the choices is the nicest of all. Callas and cabbages were two prominent and fondly remembered plants in the bride’s grandmother’s garden.

[1] Everything you ever wanted to know about the song “California Dreamin'”, courtesy of NPR.

Pentapetes phoenicia

September 20th, 2011

Pentapetes label…is the mystery plant in the previous post. The flowers make me think of Abutilon – they have that nodding look – and they’re both in the Malvaceae family.

It’s native to south Asia, where it’s a weed (of course) of rice fields. That reminds me that the Lantana standard I so admired at Monticello is also a weed in India (and probably not trained to a standard there).

Thomas Jefferson may have acquired his Pentapetes seeds from Bernard McMahon, the Philadelphia nurseryman. There is apparently a range of red-to-pink shades. I only saw the red one, but pink is mentioned on the Monticello website.

Some links:

Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello

September 18th, 2011

Well, it took us five  years to get around to attending the Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello but I’m happy we made it there yesterday. We didn’t know quite what to expect, but it was something like a cross between a county fair and farmer’s market or craft festival. Central Virginia  is rich in local farms and businesses producing high quality food and other agricultural products, and the Heritage Harvest Festival attracted a good many of them to exhibit their wares.

Some of the vendors/exhibitors were already well-known to us, so we concentrated on some we had not done business with before. But first we stopped at the Tasting Tent set up by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, the driving force behind the festival. Can you believe that I’m actually a little tired of fresh tomatoes just now? It’s true – the garden has been good to us this year – but I saw some on display that I wanted to sample. ‘Long Tom‘ is now on my list for next year. And due to a lot of pickle-making this summer my garlic harvest is already dwindling, so I bought some ‘French Red’ to supplement what I grew. Huge cloves on this one. I’m not sure if it’s the same as the one listed as ‘Mild French’ on their website, but it looked interesting.

The spouse and I went our separate ways for lunch. I had a bratwurst from The Rock Barn, a caterer and farmer’s market vendor, and the spouse had a pizza from Primo Tuscan Wood Oven Pizza. We would happily eat either one again.

Hard cider seems to the trendy new thing. Albemarle Cider Works is the local veteran, having produced several vintages now (if that’s the right word when talking about cider), but we noticed a booth from a newcomer so stepped up for a tasting at Castle Hill Cider. We liked what we tasted, and especially enjoyed the stories behind the names of their ciders. Although we didn’t buy any bottles, we plan to visit their beautiful tasting room sometime and buy then.

Then we headed over to the Edible Landscaping booth for a talk by owner Michael McConkey about growing figs. You know, I hadn’t really considered growing figs before, but now I’m totally sold on the idea. He made it sound fun, but the bullet points were that the hardiest varieties (i.e. best chance of success locally) are ‘Chicago Hardy’ and ‘Celeste’, and they’d probably be happier if we sweetened up our acid soil for them with some lime.

Although the Heritage Harvest Festival would be worth attending at any location, it was not in just any location. We’ve toured Monticello a couple of times, but never during the growing season. So on our previous visits, at the end of the house tour, we’d just walk through the bare gardens and imagine what they’d be like in summer. Now we don’t have to imagine. I wish I had taken a picture of the lantanas trained as standards. One of them had a trunk about 2 or more inches in diameter. I’d love to start one, but don’t have a good place to keep it in the winter. Someday, when I get my greenhouse………but then again, how long would it take to grow one that big?

But anyhow, one of the neat things about touring gardens is discovering new plants. How many of you reading this know this plant?

red flower

Do you recognize....?

I now know what it is because it was labeled, but if it hadn’t been labeled I’d still be in the dark. If you recognize it, please leave a comment. I’ll update this post with the name later. (Update: it’s Scarlet Pentapetes, Pentapetes phoenicia)

The vegetable garden at Monticello was mostly green in an end-of-the-season kind of way, but a few spots had been recently replanted to fall crops. The mature pumpkins and winter squashes in the garden emphasized the harvest theme. I wonder if the Monticello gardeners resort to 21st century methods to keep the squash vine borers away, or do they know some 18th century secret?

All in all, a very pleasant and informative experience, but as I was writing this I thought of an improvement I’d really like to see. Where I’m from in the Midwest, county fairs have extensive horticulture competitions where the gardening public raises and enters their best tomatoes, dahlias and just about anything else you can think of. I’ve written before about the Sandwich Fair in my home county, but if you missed those posts, here’s one photo from 2009. Sandwich is the name of the town, by the way. There’s no sandwich competition that I’m aware of, but hey, maybe they should have one.

Mixed Vegetable Competition, Sandwich Fair, 2009

In fact, here’s all the photos I took in 2009. (That’s why I didn’t attend the Heritage Harvest Festival in 2009 – I was back in Illinois to see the Sandwich Fair.)

To my knowledge there are no agricultural exhibits from members of the gardening public on this scale anywhere in Virginia. The county fairs have a very few poor exhibits, most from 4-H kids. Maybe the state fair (which I haven’t been to) has something good, but not any of the county fairs I’ve attended here. I’d love to see something like that added to the Heritage Harvest Festival. It wouldn’t even have to be a competition, just a tent or two where gardeners could show off their harvests.