Thursday, April 30, 2009

DIY Upside Down Tomato

I was watching one of those infomercial type commercials, the one about the hanging containers for growing your tomatoes upside down. This particular commercial offered them at $19.95, plus ("But Wait!! There's MORE!!") shipping and handling. That makes for a rather expensive home-grown tomato. So I decided to try my own homemade version. We already have eight tomato plants growing in the ground in the conventional manner, so if the experiment is an utter failure, all we will lose is the price of a tomato plant, instead of $19.95 plus shipping and handling

I started with an old 5 gallon bucket.

Using a 1.5" hole saw, I drilled a hole in the bottom. I decided that I needed a
hole large enough to get the tomato plant through the hole in the bucket.

I cut a piece of shade cloth a little larger than the hole. I'm going to put this around the stem of the plant to keep the soil from exiting the hole in the bucket. The cloth will allow the stem to grow, but keep the soil in. I cut halfway into the piece of cloth and took out a tiny bit at the end of the cut, as space for the stem.

Next, I put the bucket between two trash barrels so I could plant the tomato.

Here's the star of the show, a 'Brandywine' tomato plant:

I pinched off the lower foliage. I will plant the tomato deeper so more roots can grow along the stem and strengthen the plant.

I threaded the tomato through the hole by gently bringing all the foliage together and slipping it through the hole.

I put the piece of shade cloth around the stem of the plant.

I teased the roots a bit (Nee-ner nee-ner neeee-ner!) and added potting soil. I
pulled the tomato upwards as I added soil so more of the stem would be inside the bucket.

All done! I hung it upstairs on the balcony using the big trellis beam as support. I used a not-very-attractive (but strong) piece of wire. I'll look around for something a little less ugly than the wire tomorrow. Last thing: MUST remember to water! If the soil seems to dry out too fast, I can put the bucket lid on the top to help preserve moisture.

I'll do monthly updates to see how well this experiment works--will it be any better than the ones planted in the ground? We'll find out!

Friday, April 24, 2009

Jekyll/Hyde, or, The Best Tulip for Southern California

Christmas Amaryllis, those inexpensive (or not so inexpensive) flowering bulbs sold around the holidays by everyone from White Flower Farm to Home Depot to your local grocery store, are actually hybrids from the genus Hippeastrum.

In a pot on the dining room table in December, they bloom and then proceed to fall over a lot, being ridiculously top heavy. Or they don't bloom at all because you forget to water the pot, or because the bulb got too dried out from sitting in Santa Ana winds at the big box store. Then it is January and the flower is dead, or smashed up from falling over, and the foliage half-heartedly sprouts and you throw the bulb out right along with the left over candy canes. This is the Mr. Hyde version of the Christmas Amaryllis (Mr Hyde was the bad guy).

There is also the Dr. Jekyll version, the good guy, who mainly hangs out in coastal Southern California, where it is warm enough so he doesn't freeze, and dry enough so he doesn't rot. This is the Christmas Amaryllis that doesn't get thrown out, but gets planted in the garden, in the ground, in a dryish spot in morning or all day sun, and who then proceeds to create a clump of strap-shaped foliage that dies back come winter. And then in April, flowers. Huge flowers, and more of them than ever develop in a sad little pot on the dining room table at the end of December.

My clump, which three years ago was originally one sad bulb bought for a dollar the day after Christmas, is now that one bulb and her five offspring bulbs. This year, each bulb has a flower spike and each spike has four to six flowers, or twenty-seven flowers, each over six inches wide, for that one dollar plus three years of neglect.

They are not directly irrigated. I give them a couple good drinks of water a month in the heat of summer, but they are better off fairly dry, to avoid rot. You plant them with about 1/3 of the bulb out of the ground: you don't even need to dig that deep a hole--how lazy can you get? I suppose you could fertilize them without harm, but I've never bothered. The main potential problem is snail and slug damage, though if they are located in a dry area, that is not so much of a problem. Snails don't like dry.

Which brings me to the other part of the title. Tulips in Southern California are annuals, and often just as the glorious chalice of color emerges, we get a heat wave that fries it in an hour. Rather annoying if you've stored the bulbs so carefully in your fridge for the 6 or 8 weeks of chill they need, and then carefully planted them, and then waited and protected. Not to mention the cost of the bulbs.

Why all that work? Plant Hippeastrums, and be happy.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Compost those branches--later

You can do things with an interesting branch rather than just tossing it in the compost pile. You can spray-paint branches (or not) to use for free and instant decoration in the house. The spray paint helps to preserve the branch, keeping it from drying out and crumbling. The drawback is that once painted, you can't compost the branch later.

Outside, decorate a potted plant, either adding the branch upright to add a vertical element, as here where a rose clipping is added to a pot of Ophiopogon planiscapus nigrescens (Black Mondo Grass):

Or horizontally, to hide a bare spot or to add some twisted, writhing texture:

Even more interesting is when the sun casts the shadow of the branch on a nearby wall. If you have an interior pot, aim an inexpensive uplight at the branches to create shadow patterns on the ceiling.

If you have bamboo stakes lying around the yard, gather them all as display into an empty spot. Then they can function in two ways--decoration, and as a way of keeping stakes at hand for supporting a tilting plant.

And there's always the compost pile if you get tired of it, if it gets dusty, or if you find a better looking branch.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Remember "The Natural"

Remember 'The Natural'? The 80's Robert Redford baseball movie, which many people adored, and which some derided for literally casting a golden halo around Robert Redford at every opportunity?

The other star of "The Natural" was the cinematography, which managed to express, visually, what emotion does to memory. When Redford strikes out "The Whammer", the sepia tones of the fading light evoke memories of memories--of a time described by grandparents, not a time lived. Later in the film, the black and white line up of the players is a photo in an old newspaper you once saw tossed into a gutter that suddenly swells into the colors of real life. And of course, the golden halos around the hero, and the magical ending with its shattered light bulbs transformed into a rain of stars.

So, what does this have to do with your garden? Well, something: back lighting.

The most magical times of day in the garden are the early morning and late afternoon, when the sun slants from the east or west. Time for morning coffee or a drink at the end of the workday. And the time when the sun can turn an ordinary plant, for a few moments, into an muse of fire.

So, how do you incorporate this wonderful effect into your garden? First, select plants that are born to be back lit--ornamental grasses, phormiums, lavenders, anything with thin, spiky, or upright foliage or flowers that can lock on to the rays of slanting sun.

Now just grab your new plants in their nursery pots, and wait for that angled light, then move the pots around until you capture that light. Plants in more permanent pots can be adjusted for the changing arc of the sun over the year, or by planting several drifts of plants here and there, in the right spots, you can prolong and enlarge the show. If nothing else, one plant in a pot that is inflamed just as you stumble out in the morning to let the dog wee can inspire you for the rest of the day.

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!

You'll be the monarch of your garden Kingdom, and the plants, princes, in that moment of glowing light.

Or maybe just remember "The Natural".

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Delphinium Envy: The So Cal Garden Blues Blues

Southern California is not the place for Delphiniums. Yes, you can grow them here, or rather you buy them ready to bloom: tentative, brief, stunted, heat-seniled versions of the glory they achieve year in and out in the climates of New Zealand, the Pacific North West, and the United Kingdom. So it is less glorious, but perhaps wiser, to look elsewhere for the coveted blue color for this particular garden.

There is nothing bluer (except a Delphinium, of course) than the biennial Anagalis monelli, which the first year gives a hint of blue in a soft green pillow of foliage, and the following year turns into a sheet of blue before withering:

The old reliable Lobelia 'Cambridge Blue' betrays a hint of purple, but being "reliable" in every way, is a must-have. It reseeds just enough to keep the garden supplied year in and year out. The volunteer seedlings can be moved around as needed, or left to the odd places they choose for themselves.

Another highly reliable annual for your blue fix is Ageratum houstonianum. Again, it reseeds just enough to keep the garden supplied with fuzzy pools of blue.

Then there are Iris. They photograph much bluer than they are, the teases. You may buy the blue catalog picture, but what you end up with is the purple flowered plant. The bluest are the very pale ones, such as this aptly named, strongly scented 'Heavenly Vision':

The blue pansies are truly blue, as blue as Delphiniums. But they lie at your feet, needy puppies gazing up at you. Delphiniums look you straight in the eye, or even down at you. What compares to that? Perhaps Echium fastuosum? The blue is not delphinium blue, but the spike is bold and lordly.

Echium fastuosum forms a large shrub. It's a commitment in space if not water, and its glory is relatively brief, a few years.

A longer commitment in space AND water are Hydrangeas, which must be chemically blued up here in high pH-land with aluminum sulfate applied with a fan's devotion. It is as Botox to a movie star--a star is already good looking, but the camera requires perfection. A lacecap:

And 'Endless Summer', which needs more treatments than it got here:

Clematis, like Iris, are blue-teases. They photograph bluer than they really are. Still, they come close enough at times. Clematis 'Angelique',

and especially 'Perle d'Azur', make up in general gorgeousness what they lack in blueness.

We must also remember (and not without a little satisfaction) that which struggles in the lush rainy coolness of New Zealand, the Pacific North West, and the UK, just as Delphiniums struggle here: blue succulent plants.

Agave americana we will avoid. The blue is tempting, but the hooks, the spines, the mass, and a bloom spike the size of a telephone pole is too much. It's a prison fence, not a plant. Much less intimidating is Agave 'Blue Flame', a deep sheeny metallic blue with oxblood edging, various Aloes, and Mariana sedifolia, Pearl Blue Bush, which dances like an angel on the pinhead convergence between baby blue, white and silver. No kow-towing to Delphiniums, she.

Agave desmettiana companion plants

The very beautiful Agave desmettiana variegata combined with Senecio vitalis and Limonium perezii. The green shade of the Agave and the Senecio are nearly identical, allowing the eye to focus on the textural contrast, while the yellow edging on the Agave leaves contrasts with the purple Limonium perezii blooms.

The Agave leaf has an up-then-out shape that is particularly sculptural. Adding a variegated Aeonium might be overkill.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Aloe Striata companion plants

Aloe striata, common name Coral Aloe, looks beautiful planted en masse with Senecio talinoides var. mandraliscae (Blue Chalk Sticks) and Oscularia deltoides. Add height with a tree-type Aloe such as A. marlothii or A. ferox, or Nolina recurvata. The contrast between the Aloe's brilliant coral flowers, the blue tones of the Senecio and Oscularia foliage, and the Oscularia's magenta stems make a colorful statement.

How to make a rebar arch

If you can weld rebar or have a buddy who can, here's an example of a well-crafted rebar archway I saw recently at a local botanical garden. Though it was supporting a Hoya, not a rose, it seemed very sturdy, and it was good looking. A rose, a clematis or any other moderate vine or climber would look great on it.

Materials needed:

-- rebar
-- a section of metal pipe cut into rings for the spacers
-- a couple of bags of quik-crete (post-setting concrete) to secure the rebar


-- a hack saw to cut rebar and to cut pipe into sections
-- welding equipment (remember welding safety equipment also, of course)
-- a shovel to mix the quik-crete
-- a rebar bender for shaping the top area of the arch

The two bases: A circle of 7 sections of rebar secured in the ground by concrete:

Sections of metal pipe cut into rings act as spacers and stabilizers for the rebar. You can increase or decrease the girth of the arch by using larger or smaller diameter pipe. Depending upon the size of the pipe, you may need to add or subtract pieces of rebar. The spacers increase strength of the structure. Note the welds in the picture. Each spacer was placed 3' apart along the arch:

And here's a section of the top of the arch:

I think they used the longest rebar they had, and then welded another piece on, end-to-end, if they ran out of length--you can see a weld like this in the 1st picture.

I hope this gives you a good idea of how to build an arch for your own garden. Make friends with a welder! Rebar, a section of pipe cut into rings, and a bag or two of concrete are quite inexpensive in comparison to redwood or cedar lumber or a purchased arch.

Disclaimer: work at your own risk. I saw this and liked it. Your mileage may vary.