Saturday, July 16, 2011

Go privacy green. In with light and nature, out with peering eyes

     Stuck in a semi-urban area? Feel claustrophobic? If you feel peering eyes too close to your window, go privacy green.
     My small bungalow had a few great features. One was lots of big windows. We who love light and airy living spaces don't have to sacrifice privacy. Plant the right shrubs and place big potted plants in front of the window. The photo below is one of my three Sweet Viburnum, among the easiest and most cooperative plants one can grow.
     Viburnum come in many varieties, even in dwarf cultivars. The leaves have an eye-catching texture and they'll change to a light lavender in the winter. The tiny flowers are pink or white and berries provide food for birds. Viburnum would prefer full sun, but a shaded spot won't deter them. These two are on the north side of my house which doesn't get a lot of direct sun. They survived two vicious winters (okay, Florida freezes, but still freezes burrrrrrrr). Viburnum thrives as far north as zone 2 and that is cold, bubba.
      In our springtime,  Viburnum blooms give off a light scent sort of like a magnolia blossom. I planted these five years ago and now must trim the tops because they are close to the roof. They are fast growers.

     This potted plant is a Red Dragon plant, actually three of them. Placed on a stand, small table, child's colorful chair, stack of adobe bricks, you are only limited by your imagination for plant stands. A healthy plant will obscure the view into your windows. Plus, you can complement or contrast the look of your house. A great plant stand doesn't have to be store bought or cost a fortune.

    The massive six-foot high morass of vine below started as four 1-gallon pots of Confederate Jasmine. Within four years they engulfed my chain link fence and now, at eight years, the vines are so thick it would take a buzz saw to get through them. Come spring, it is a wall of heavenly-smelling white. My neighbor says he drives by with his head out the window to get a better whiff of my jasmine.

  The photos below show what I started with. To get past the first few years I put up the wicker fencing along my chain link. That's long gone from the elements, replaced by a glorious jasmine vine. My handiwork made an impression, I'm sure, because a few years ago I noticed the local electric company planted Confederate Jasmine plants ten feet apart, all along the high chain link fence that encircles a small substation two blocks away. Jasmine is a lot prettier than electric coils.


The plant below is a broad leave philodendron, very pleased a spot kissed by the morning sun. 

     The key to making it work is getting the right plant for the spot. The Viburnum are hardy plants, and they are on the north side of the house, typically a tough area battered by brisk north winds. Is the spot sunny? Shady? Mixed? What type of stand will make the house look great? What kind of plant will complement, contrast? More important, though, what kind of plant will thrive in the spot? Afterward, keep the plant tags in a holder for easy care reference.


 One last great surprise  here!

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Friday, July 1, 2011

Gardening on a budget: the sweet potato vine

     A sweet potato vine is so lovely. Look in the upper left of the photo below. I grew that vine in a coconut liner last summer 2010.  


      The beauty of sweet potato vines is their growth habit. No slouches, sweet potato vines reach for the sun and air, then gracefully flow down in cascades of branches with heart-shaped leaves.
     Not to deprive the standard bearer philodendron its due. But for a nice change in a hanging basket, a sweet potato is a real sweetie.
     Once the vine reaches high enough to peek over the planter, it's off. A potato is a tuber. And any potato will grow a vine, even if it has sat in your fridge way beyond the time to eat. Cut it in half, and grow two vines.
    In fact, potatoes are the most cooperative tubers around. This leafy one grew from a sweet potato in my fridge. It was withered, too old to eat. I planted it in June 2011.


     Most sweet potato vines offered for sale at the nursery have the purple leaves. Those provide a nice contrast to most green vines. Can't afford to be fussy? Potatoes are the most cost-effective vines around. Any potato -- tuber -- will grow. White, sweet and the specialty nursery kind. Take the potato and look for the eye, usually easy to spot. Plant that side facing up halfway in fairly rich potting soil. But even if the eye faces down -- a mistake I made last year -- the potato leaves will find their way up. 

    These vines make for a nice contrast to philodendrons. For dimension, add different size baskets next to each other with wind chimes to create a tropical or jungle feel.   

      How much to water depends on what houses the vine. I like coconut lined baskets because they dry fast and one can't over-water, which is what usually kills most house and porch plants. My old bungalow did not have a lot of amenities. But it  had that great old porch and I made good use of it. Next:  Got lots of windows? Go Privacy Green.


Saturday, June 25, 2011

Keeping four-legged pests out of the garden

     Something bit that rosy ripening tomato. Molested the melons. Few things will set gardeners into a snit than putting a lot of back breaking work into a garden and walk out in the morning to find something feasted on your squash.
    Raccoons. Opossum. Squirrels. Bluejays. Crows. So many. Each has its own preference but one commonality: they wreck your work. When intruders help themselves to the fruits of your labor, the first step is to find the culprit.
   Many gardeners love to blame squirrels. But in fact, this resourceful member of the rodent family is rarely responsible for eaten fruit and veggies. Don't put up a bird feeder as squirrels adore sunflower seeds. They will find a way to get to them, feeder  baffle or not. But these critters are only active in the daytime. They are likely to be the least of your worries.
    Grow citrus or avocado? You may well develop a problem with rats. Unlike the squirrels, rats are nocturnal. They'll feast on the fruits of citrus and avocado. You're best bet here is non-poisonous  snakes into your yard. The Florida black racer is a fast but docile snake who will rarely make an appearance except in times of extreme droughts. It will clear out any rodent problem.

   Can't bear the thought of snakes? Then place some rat traps around your trees. As unsightly as they may be for a few weeks, rat traps are the best way to eliminate these pests. Unlike their cousin the squirrel, rats can carry disease though it is rare today.
    Other nighttime marauders are the opossum. They are America's only marsupial. They are omnivorous which means anything goes.  They have a love of tomatoes so if you see a bitten tomato, that's your likely culprit. Opossum are nomads. They keep wandering. Usually if you cover your crops at night and wait it out, this critter will move on when she discovers there is no food source.
   Raccoons are more challenging. They climb. They have hands and boy they keep them busy! By far they are the most adroit animals at getting into closed places. They are meat-eaters. So the first order is to secure your garbage pail lid on tight. They'll grab other things in your yard, like your tools. Put them away. They'll tip over plants and go into the garage in search of food. The most harmless deterrent is Cayenne pepper placed in strategic areas. A nose that feels on fire may seem mean-spirited, but its a lot kinder than trapping and killing the critter. 
    Raccoons carry rabies. It's dangerous to let them get close or to try to feed them. No matter how cute they are. It's for this reason that a trapper will euthanize  any raccoon he catches. 
    Netting over your prized melons, string beans and romaine is a big help to deter bluejays. Securing the garbage and covering your crops. And finally, a dose of hot pepper. You may lose a few tomatoes but you'll won't lose your wits.  
     While you're at it, check this out: surprise

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Re-seeding like Johnny Appleseed

        Want a lush yard with little work? Get plants that re-seed.
        Such plants are more prevalent than you think. Three are happily re-seeding in my yard right now. One is a snow bush, more properly called Snow on the Mountain. It is a beautiful shrub with leaves that turn a purple-lavender and in the winter have white tips. This is my original planting, two bushes each side of my porch entryway. They are larger now:

    These happy bushes keep sending off seeds that popped up around the corner, under my Butterfly Cassia. Snow on the Mountain is so cooperative, just dug out the small seedlings and re-planted them in another amenable spot. Fertilize with plant food and water daily for a few days and look:

  The new seedlings were pretty thin and spindly when I dug them out of their original spots. But some plants are persistent. So plant the roots with a bit of the original soil they grew in, mulch and water for a few days. Even the ones I neglected thrived. Now five of these are growing along the south side of my once-barren yard. They are on the side with the mango tree, you can see them in the photo. Snow on the Mountain does best in morning sunlight, dappled afternoon sun but they'll make it in dappled sunlight all day. They are sensitive to prolonged freezes and will die down. But these reliable bushes come back in the spring. Trim the tops of these guys a little to make them grow wider. Plant food isn't really required once they are established, but they will appreciate some fertilizer in the spring.
     Others that re-seed readily are Butterfly Cassia and Confederate Jasmine. In the fall the Cassia bloom with profuse bright yellow flowers that attract butterflies. In the summer Jasmine, which is now a thick mass covering the entire six foot high chain-link fence, is completely white with its aromatic blooms in spring.   See what four 3-gallon Jasmine plants can do in five years:

Friday, June 17, 2011

Fat, juicy worms

            Want juicy cantaloupe? Big rose blooms? Every successful gardener knows slimy, slithering and twitching Earth worms is a sign of rich, healthy soil. Nutrient-packed soil is the key to healthy plants. The bigger, the faster and the more energy Earth worms have means you're dirt has nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and other important nutrients. A few years ago, I was so miffed after I saw that half my yard had an abundance of earth worms, but just not where I wanted to plant my tomatoes. So I shoveled the loamy dirt with the worms into my planting site. I don't recommend that unless you want an aching back, wasted time and dead worms.
        A better idea is to make a compost pile. Compost is great for plants. Plants grow easily. And it's just as It's easy to make a compost with just your own kitchen waste and a little ingenuity. A compost bin isn't even needed. No worries about four-legged prowlers digging up your orange peels and carrot shavings.
      Mother nature provides all you need: leaves, mulch -- whether pine needles or the kind you buy -- as long as it's natural. Start by digging a long shallow ditch, or use a flat plot of space. Choose a spot that will get dappled sunlight. If that's not possible,  try to find a spot that will get both sun and shade. But even if there is no spot like that in the yard, you can still  create a great spot for a composting site. Worms aren't choosy.
    Choose your spot away from the house. The next step is to line the bottom of the compost area with the leaves and mulch. I keep a small garbage pail with a plastic garbage pail liner and whatever kitchen leftover I have goes into it. That means only -- ONLY -- raw vegetable and fruit waste. NO meat, dairy, or cooked anything. In my house, this usually means orange peels, unused leafs of romaine lettuce, mango and peach pits (watch it they often do sprout into trees) the ends of uncooked broccoli (yup, that's even sprouted roots and started growing). You get the idea. 

   A kitchen is a great source of organic raw material. Give the garbage disposer a rest. Use eggshells (they won't break down as fast) carrot peels, watermelon rinds, any rinds, all fruit pits and uneaten skin, pea covers, corn husks. (Those are the ONLY cooked veggie you can toss in). 

   When your small garbage pail is full or when gets a bit pungent take the matter and spread it over your mulch area. Whether in a shallow ditch or flat, be sure to take the leaves and other mulch material and cover your kitchen scraps well. You want to make a mulch pile, not attract four legged foragers. If it is covered well, it won't attract anything. Hunters will tell you anything with a scent must be buried or otherwise covered well enough with earth so animals can't sniff it out.
    Depending on your weather, there will soon be rich, gunky and gross compost to either spread over plants as fertilizer or to mix with gardening soil. What a punch of nitrogen. Hot and humid weather makes the fastest compost. I live in Florida. We got hot. During a dry spell, water the mulch pile a bit once a week. It doesn't take much. The worms will be busy quite fast.
    Another fast way to improve the soil is to buried fruit and veggie waste directly in the yard. It will enrich any dirt, and promote rich loamy soil. IIt also will be on the alkaline side, as will your compost pile. Most plants are acid loving, so adding some high acid  water-in plant food will restore ph balance. Whenever I planted a new rose bush, I used to toss into the hole whatever uneaten, overripe fruit I had in the fridge. That burst of nitrogen gave me huge beautiful blossoms. Hey, don't forget this: here!