Thursday, May 31, 2012

Edible Dreams.

 For the past week, I've dreamt of gardens.


Elaborate gardens, formal gardens, lush mountain paradises, quirky artists' gardens, community gardens. A few of those dreams left me in a cold sweat, panicked about our own gardens—and the impending Carolina Farm Stewardship Association's Upstate Farm Tour that will feature our edible gardens this weekend.

After spending four days touring magnificent gardens during the Garden Bloggers' Fling in Asheville, I'm feeling a bit anxious about our gardens. First of all—we're not a farm. We live in a subdivision with a Homeowners' Association, on less than an acre. One of the reasons, though, that we're included on the farm tour is to show how a typical family living in suburbia can grow healthy, organic food in the backyard—or front yard. Or balcony. Or in containers. My goal is that everyone who visits us during the farm tour will be inspired to grow something edible this summer. (Or, perhaps Chicken Mama will convince them to add pet chickens to their lives.)

Still, while I know that the farm tour doesn't focus on pristine flower beds (ignore the weeds, please) or perfectly mulched paths (they aren't), I can't help but judge our gardens based on the four days of gorgeous landscapes I experienced in Asheville.

We don't have the staff of Biltmore to tame unruly perennials or to design perfect kitchen gardens. But then again, neither does Sunny Point Café.

One of my favorite stops on our tour, Sunny Point Café is the epitome of the farm-to-table movement—or, in its case, back lot garden-to-table.

As our group traipsed across the street from our bus to the Café, I barely contained my excitement. I knew of Sunny Point Café from reading reviews of area local food establishments, and a restaurant that fed guests from its own kitchen garden was high on my list of places to visit. Kindred spirits awaited, and I readied my Nikon to capture the café's organic spirit.

What the--? Full. My DS card was full.

Panic! What could I delete? How long did we have at this garden? Would I miss the experience by spending valuable minutes sorting through hundreds of images, deciding what to save and what to trash?

Then, a miracle—Family Dollar beckoned across the street, a glimmering ray of hope.

I sprinted away from the Bloggers, dodged traffic, and burst into the store like the madwoman I am. The lovely cashier led me to the aisle, where ONE DS card hung, as if fate decided to kindly throw me a bone for my poor planning.

Eight dollars later—and swearing that I will always carry a backup card everywhere I go—I rejoined the group.

And found an edible paradise.

OK, so maybe I'm overly excited about peas and kale.

Honestly, though, I was as delighted to talk with Melissa Metz, the garden manager, about the varieties of potatoes and peas she grows as many gardeners are to discuss the latest introductions of hybrid roses. We spent time chatting about the irrigation system, the compost, and a variety of purple peas she grew. 

(Purple peas? I've grown purple beans, but never purple peas. Must. Add.)

One of my challenges with our edible gardens is to make them not only functional but also aesthetically pleasing. Sunny Point Café's whimsical garden art added an attractive, warm, inviting atmosphere to the kitchen garden. Bright signage...

...cozy seating areas...

...and a friendly scarecrow-like mascot greeted garden guests.

Not only does Sunny Point Café provide homegrown produce for its guests, it also adopts environmentally friendly principles as part of its business model.

While we sampled biscotti and lemonade from the Café, I wished Sunny Point was our lunch destination. Although we didn't eat a meal at the Café, the snacks certainly enticed for a return visit. These are folks I'd love to break bread with while talking about heirloom tomatoes, fraise des bois, and crop rotation. 

Sexy stuff.

Still, Sunny Point Café served as an ideal, attainable garden. 

It's large--but not unmanageable. It's attractive without excessive fluff. It's inviting, warm, and the kind of place you'd like to settle in for a bit with a glass of lemonade to talk with other geeky edible gardeners who understand why it's so important to grow 80 varieties of heirloom tomatoes.

After all, not all gardeners want to debate the merits of the Florida Weave versus tomato cages.

Thinking about Sunny Point Café's garden, I checked on our own larger veggie garden tonight.

I have two more days to prepare for the Farm Tour.

I think we'll be ready.

(Just please, ignore the weeds.)

XO ~


Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Rock Pirate and the Artist: Appreciating Garden Art.

I'm not a fan of yard art. To me, the phrase “yard art” evokes images of tired bathtubs repurposed as front lawn container gardens, filled with petunias. Perhaps a neighboring toilet is its companion, displaying fire-engine red geraniums.

My yard art snobbery might stem from my mother, who grew up in a rural area where bathroom fixtures likely frequented lawns. Maybe my aversion comes from my inability to decorate our house—I'm missing that gene that coordinates window treatments and area rugs. Whatever the reason, I've never paid much attention to yard art.

Until now.

Welcome to Wamboldtopia.

For four days, I abandoned my family and my endless garden tasks. Instead, I self-indulgently galavanted around Asheville, North Carolina with the Garden Bloggers' Fling—a group of approximately 90 passionate garden folks who—you guessed it—blog about gardens.

A tireless group of organizers arranged garden tours, receptions, dinners, and most popularly, incredible ice cream from The Hop. (Holy salted caramel deliciousness. I think a weekly road trip to Asheville is on my agenda.) While this was my first Fling, it was the fifth annual event, with the next Fling slated for San Francisco in 2013.

We bounced our way on a school bus (I had the ever-popular-as-a-kid, now not-so-kind-as- an-adult back of the bus hump) to the first garden, where we found...

The Rock Pirate.

An apt name for Ricki Pierce, a man who creates amazing structures from stone. Arches, walkways, fences, ponds...all sporting exquisite, extravagant stone work.

If you've ever worked with stone, you understand—this garden wasn't built in a day.

Yet, the gracefulness of Pierce's stonework and its seamless transitions into the surrounding landscape tease the garden guest into thinking: we need this pond in our garden. (Warning, Peter: new project idea!)

Entering Wamboldtopia is daunting—you don't know where to look first. Pierce's stonework is a show stealer—but tucked into every nook and corner is a surprise, some delightful...

...others disturbing.

Interplaying with the stonework is the art of Damaris Pierce

To quote her website, Wamboldtopia is a place where the “...perfect imperfection of life is allowed to evolve and flourish in all its mystery.”

Mysterious it is. Skeletons...

...fairy hideaways...

...guardians of the garden...

...gnome adversaries...

...and inspiration abound.

Stumbling upon certain displays can be unsettling.

(“Mommy, “ asked Kristen when looking at photos from my trip, “are those really James Sprouse's bones?” Hmmm. Good question. I'd rather not know.)

Others provide sheer delight.

For plant purists expecting an orderly display of the latest, greatest hybrids, Wamboldtopia shocks the senses. Instead, the painstakingly created natural garden provides an ideal marriage of blooms...

...and bizarre.

From the barren house and yard acquired in 1999... the lush, funky, provocative, garden created with passion by the Pierces...

...Wamboldtopia is a labor of love.

Gardeners and artists can agree to the saying which greets guests of Wamboldtopia:

Wamboldtopia. FIlled with light of inspiration, passion, and creativity.

More gardens to come...but now, I must visit our garden. After all, we'll have visitors from the CFSA Farm Tour here in less than two weeks—oh my.

XO ~


Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Into the Trenches! How to Trench Plant Tomatoes.

You know the adage about the shoemaker's children? The same holds true for the gardens of nursery owners. Our first responsibility is to ensure our green babies thrive and find happy homes. Then, and only then, can we take a moment to put our own selected babies to bed.

Spring 2012 wrecked havoc on my plants...and my nerves. The seedlings grew beautifully in the new greenhouse—lush and full of promise. But then, our spring vanished in a blink, and we faced unseasonably warm temperatures. Those lovely little seedlings became behemoth, towering monsters...far too early. Yes, I—like most gardeners—was excited about the prospects of early tomatoes. But then, suddenly, the plants grew too large to ship. Or transport to market.

I sold what I could, gave away plants to friends, and searched for community and school gardens to donate the plants.

After hours and days and weeks and months of work...the majority ended up in the compost pile. 


But—this is not a tale of woe. (Well, maybe it is a little bit of a pity party...but let's just shake that off, shall we?)

This is a tale of how you can take a too-tall tomato plant and turn it into a strong, healthy, fruit-producing machine!

I admit, this is the first year I've tried trench planting tomatoes. I've never needed to contend with ultra-tall plants before. However, I've always been a believer in planting tomatoes as deeply as possible to develop a strong root system. Trench planting embraces the same premise.

The tiny hairs along the stem of the tomato plant will develop into roots upon contact with soil. By planting more of the stem underground, you're providing more opportunities for root development. By growing more roots, the plant can absorb more water and nutrients to produce a greater crop. And—the additional roots provide a sturdy support, bracing the plant against strong winds and storms.

Trench planting is ridiculously simple.

Step 1:
Remove the plant from the container—unless it's grown in a biodegradable pot, like I use. If your plant sports a biodegradable pot, tear off the top lip of the pot to the soil line.

Step 2:
Dig a trench approximately 4 inches deep, and as long as your plant is tall.

Step 3:
Pinch off or snip any suckers along the stem, leaving at least four sets of leaves at the top of the plant. (Must have those leaves for photosynthesis, of course!)

Step 4:
Place your plant horizontally in the trench, gently bending the top portion of the plant upward. Be careful not to pull too hard, or you might snap the stem.

Step 5:
Cover the root ball and stem with soil, gently firming the soil around the plant. The top of your plant will lean a bit—but as the plant adjusts to its new home, it will straighten.

Step 6:
Stake your plant. Remember—you want to keep those leaves off the ground to prevent disease.

Step 7:
Water well.

Now, wasn't that easy?

A few tips when planting tomatoes:

I always add lime into the soil to provide a boost of calcium to the plant. Calcium helps prevent blossom end rot—that nasty black spot on the bottom of tomatoes. It's best to add lime into the soil a few months ahead of planting...but honestly, I add it at planting time, and it's never failed me. (Crossing fingers.)

Also—remember to water consistently. My rule is: stick your index finger into the soil, approximately one inch deep. If it's moist—don't water. If it's dry, time to water! Inconsistent watering also leads to disease and poor tasting fruit, so make certain to keep those babies hydrated.

While we're on the topic of water—avoid wetting the leaves, which also can cause disease. Drip irrigation is best—it allows the water to get straight to the roots.

And—don't forget to feed your babies. If you prepared your beds with good, organic components—you don't need to fertilize at planting. However, tomatoes are heavy feeders. I use fish emulsion or a good, organic fertilizer high in phosphorus as fruit sets, and then I feed them again about every two weeks throughout the season.

Take a look at the N-P-K ratio, the numbers you see on commercial fertilizers:
N = Nitrogen, which promotes tissue development and big, green, leafy growth. Too much nitrogen, and you'll have a lovely plant—with no fruit.
P = Phosphorus stimulates root growth and helps the plant set buds and flowers. This is key in developing delicious tomatoes!
K = Potassium improves overall vigor of the plant. It helps the plant make carbohydrates and provides disease resistance.

The key to selecting an organic fertilizer is to choose one with a higher “P,” such as 5-10-5.

So, my gardening friends, your tomatoes will have strong roots, adequate calcium and water, and enough good nutrients to produce delicious summer harvests for your dinner!

I'm growing 60 varieties of tomatoes in our gardens of the 160 varieties I grew for the business. (I just need more sunny beds so I can grow them all!)

What varieties do you plan to grow this year? And what's the most delicious variety you've ever eaten? I'd love to know...(I'm craving bruschetta right now...for breakfast! Hurry up and grow, tomatoes!)

Happy gardening!

XO ~


Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Blooming in the Rain.

Lately, I've focused on planting seeds and transplants in the new kitchen garden.

After all, if we want to eat delicious treats this summer, serious work needs to be accomplished in spring.

Our first peas barley made it into the kitchen. Really, is there anything tastier than eating peas straight from the vine? (Well, maybe snacking on just-picked strawberries while working in the garden might rival the peas...)

But spring also brings the best blooms, and once in awhile, you've got to get your nose out of the dirt and take a stroll around the garden to relish spring's visual bounty.

Many thanks to May Dreams Gardens for hosting Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day each month on the 15th. It's the perfect reminder to slow down and take a few moments to enjoy all of the pretties that we so often take for granted.

We've had a rainy few days in Upstate SC, as you can tell from the general darkness of the photos...or the over amplified flash. Still, I'm so thankful for the rain. Our drought status tends to worsen earlier and earlier each year, and I hope the past two days of downpours helped fill the lakes and aquifers.

The hydrangeas, obviously, enjoyed the showers. When I was a new gardener and attempting to grow my first hydrangea, I didn't understand the concept that a plant with "hydra" in its name might, perhaps, flourish if well-watered.

Huh. What a novel idea. 

Sometimes, it's the blinding glimpse of the obvious that turns a novice into an expert, don't you think?

Today, hydrangeas happily thrive throughout the gardens. 

 "Blushing Bride"

Variegated Lacecap Hydrangea

 Oakleaf Hydrangea

 Pink Lacecap Hydrangea

Most of our gardens are in deep shade, which I used to curse mightily when we first moved to our forested property. Now, I've made peace with our shade, particularly when July's muggy high 90s hit. I've also learned that there are plenty of gorgeous plants for our shady spaces.


Coral Bells about to bloom

 Catmint, which is a flurry of purple blossom all summer...even in shade.

Gardenia...and shade loving friends. 

Variegated Potato Vine.

Confederate Jasmine, divine smelling vine...which survived even after several attempts of the pups to dig it out.

 Sweetshrub in the forest

Fraise des Bois...forest strawberries. Have you ever tried fraise des bois? These tiny jewels are sweeter than any candy, grow in the shade, and the evergreen plants bloom and produce fruit all summer--until the first hard freeze.

 Tangerine trumpet vine

The last hurrah of azaleas. I never appreciated Gumpo azaleas until I realized how quickly our others bloomed and vanished.

In our tiny patches of sun, a few blooms awaited their photo op:

Stella d'Oro

Gaura, weighted down with rain.

Buddleia, first bloom of the season. Come along, little butterflies, dinner is waiting!

Provence lavender, ready to burst.

Of course, the blooms in the kitchen garden and herb gardens foreshadow delicious meals to come...

 Common chives. 


A mystery squash plant, growing in the compost bin. Some sort of pumpkin, I believe, from the size.

German Chamomile.

 And, finally, tomatoes...lots and lots of tomato blossoms. I've planted more than 60 varieties this year...can't you just taste that first summer tomato?

So, while this Bloom Day is a bit gloomy and dark, I'm looking forward to meeting the many Garden Bloggers who participate in Bloom Day at the Garden Bloggers' Fling in Asheville this week!

Yes...can you believe it? I'm leaving the family for four days of garden tours, writing, and meeting fabulous gardeners, garden writers, and gardeners who write! Pure bliss!

Stay tuned--I'll be sharing my tours of really impressive gardens...that, hopefully, aren't too rain soaked!

Happy Gardening, friends!

XO ~