Category Archives: plants

Drought-Tolerant Okra Offers Colorful Pods in the Garden

Yellow okra flower, similar to hibiscus

When I was at Rooting DC last February, I received six seeds of “African red okra” from a person who was talking about preserving seed diversity. Intrigued, I planted them later in the season just to see how they would grow. Four of the six seeds germinated resulting in two plants in the front garden in full sun and dry conditions and two in the back garden. The two in the back lived with the tomatoes in morning shade and afternoon sun and did not lack for water since the diva tomatoes get all the water they need.

All summer long I have been watching the okra grow in my Virginia garden. When people think of okra plants, they think “vegetable.” True, the immature pods are harvested for many types of dishes and are highly nutritious. Other parts are edible: the leaves can be eaten raw or cooked (like spinach) or used as a thickener in a stew. The seeds, if roasted and ground, can be used as a coffee substitute and if they are pressed, they can yield oil for cooking.

mature pod splits open to reveal seeds

I never intended to eat the pods, I just wanted to see how the plant would fare as a garden plant, a summer annual. Now in September, I think they have reached their full glory. These plants are about 4 feet tall with sparse foliage but plenty of pods and flowers. Because okra is a member of the hibiscus family, the small, yellow flowers look like hibiscus flowers but are not as flat. The thick pods are red and green, with five broad sides that taper into a point. The pod points upwards, much like a hat. Some pods have already matured enough to split open, revealing many dark black seeds (which mature to a soft gray later on). These I cut and put in a paper bag to prevent okra babies in my garden next year. The mature pods can be dried and used in floral arrangements such as wreaths. The young pods, if sliced in half, can be used to make flower designs by pressing the cut half into an ink pad and pressing down on paper.

Although not deer resistant, these plants have proven to be pest-resistant. I have read that okra plants are the most heat and drought-tolerant vegetable species in the world and they certainly were drought-tolerant in my garden. They are known to grow in poor soils with heavy clay and intermittent moisture. Technically okra is a perennial but in our zone 7 area, the plants will die from the cold this winter.

I like their strong vertical shape but because the foliage is sparse, they would work best if many were grown together yet with enough space to see the pods. There is actually quite a lot of diversity with okra with regards to the pods: they can be spiny, smooth, thin, thick, short, or long and have many more ridges than five. Pods can be green or green and red or burgundy red. However there is little diversity with the flowers, basically yellow or white. There are some varieties with gorgeous burgundy red pods that would be very interesting to try in the garden, especially in a mass up against a house, as a backdrop to other plants. Instead of growing okra for cooking, try growing okra as an ornamental garden plant and let the pods mature into unusual colors and shapes. The yellow flowers are a bonus!

young, immature pods are best for cooking

Curious Garden Exhibit at the Atlanta Botanical Garden

Recently I visited the Atlanta Botanical Garden in Georgia and was fortunate to catch the Curious Garden exhibit. I could only stay for a few hours in the morning so was not able to see everything but the garden itself was lovely, the weather was relatively mild for an Atlanta summer day, and the staff were very friendly.  I have never been to the Atlanta Botanical Garden before and did not even know about the Curious Garden exhibit so it was a real paradigm shift for me to see so much art in the garden.

Designed by Adam Schwerner, a horticulturist and artist, the Curious Garden exhibit has 11 installations created to highlight the gardens’ plant collection and plant conservation work.  Currently, Adam is the Director of Resort Horticulture and Resource Enhancement at Disneyland but when he was Director of the Chicago Park District Department of Cultural and Natural Resources, he spearheaded an initiative to bring together the arts and nature in the Chicago parks. His famed Painted Tree Project brought together works of art in a public space that enhanced the environment. These unusual expressions known as Artscapes spark conversation among the public and make them see nature and plants through a different lens. This certainly was true for me at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. Adam’s creations were installed in May and will run through October so if you get a chance to visit Atlanta, don’t miss this.

Although I took many photos of the Atlanta Botanical Garden, which I will post in a separate article, these photos are just a few of Adam’s installations to give you a flavor of his work.

The spirited bosk, painted maple trees, planted and hung from larger trees

The mountain flows, the river sits, a “river” of red-painted gourds

The white garden, a garden of white flowered and silver leaved plants

Chains, metal painted chains and roots of a plant in a conservatory

Antebellum aerophyte, chandeliers draped with bromeliads and Spanish moss

Chalices, small pots of orchids stacked on top of each other

Sunflowers, sunflower plants interspersed with cosmos

 

 

 

Invasive Balloon Flower Takes Over the Garden

Today I tweeted that it would be good to pull weeds since it had rained buckets for the past few days, thus decreasing the heat and humidity and loosening the soil. For me, the time was ripe to pull an invasive plant from my garden, balloon flower (Platycodon grandiflorus). “Balloon flowers?” you say, “but it has such pretty blue flowers and the kids love to pop those inflated buds.” Yes, my kids did like to pop the buds on my original plants as they walked to the front door and yes, they do produce pretty blue flowers on tall stems all summer long. But after 10 years, the kids don’t see them anymore (because their heads are always bent down viewing their iPhones) and the original four have multiplied into hundreds, crowding out my other perennials in my Virginia garden.

original four plants have multiplied on left side of walkway and have tan seed pods (directly across walkway is one balloon flower from front garden bed)

Part of problem is that balloon flowers self-seed very fast. The plants could be deadheaded to prevent self-seeding but this is a nerve racking, time consuming task. Each single seed pod has to be clipped off in order to leave the remaining buds or open blossoms. It is not possible to whack the entire plants down a foot. And part of the problem is that they are deer-resistant, drought-resistant, and generally pest free but the worst part is that balloon flowers have long, large tap roots. Breaking off the stem just encourages more stems to grow from the root. Although it is easier to pull and dig after it rains, I still spent hours pulling and digging to get the whole roots out as much as I could. I suspect I did not dig deep enough though, there probably are pieces in the soil that will rise again like the phoenix.

seeds landed on front strip across walkway (blooming with blue flowers)

Interestingly, I have found little reference to its invasive attribute on the internet. I did learn that the Kitazawa Seed Company catalog sells them and according to their description, the root, called doraji, is used in Korean cuisine. It is also used as an anti-inflammatory to treat colds and is considered a cheap ginseng substitute. The root can be dried and packaged for sale in Asian markets.

Unless you want to grow your own doraji for medicinal or culinary reasons, don’t plant this invasive perennial in your garden no matter how much fun you have popping the balloons.

pulling to reveal tap root

 

Letting Your Herbs Flower to Attract Beneficial Insects

My first guest post for the Herb Society of America’s blog appeared yesterday. I was inspired by the numerous beneficial insects hovering around my herbs in my Virginia garden. Often my herbs flower before I ever get to harvest the leaves but that’s okay because their tiny flowers attract the “good” bugs. If you are interested in growing and learning more about herbs, contact the Herb Society of America (I belong to the local Potomac Unit).

Amazing Lotus Flowers and Water Lilies at Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens

On Saturday, I visited the annual water lily and lotus festival at Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens. The free festival was from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm and billed as a family event.  I arrived early to park nearby but there was a shuttle that ferried people from the metro station and other parking lots. The music had already started. There was a stage with a band, plenty of picnic tables, and paper lotus-shaped lanterns strung from trees. People from several local organizations were setting up tables to either inform the public of their organization, offer crafts for kids, sell or make the paper lanterns, try lotus tea, and other activities. Many families brought coolers to eat lunch; later I spied several food trucks parked on the street. Because this is a national park, there is a small gift shop, plenty of bathrooms, and very informative rangers. There also were volunteer from the Friends of Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens passing out brochures.

I first saw pools of water lilies (Nymphaea odorata) and then an interesting collection of cannas. I took many photos with only an iPhone — I had no idea this was THE photographic event. Swarms of professional photographers collected on the banks, setting up tripods and taking photos with large equipment.

Down the trail was a field of the sacred Asian lotus, Nelumbo nucifera. There were thousands of blossoms and seed heads with leaves larger than dinner plates. Beyond that were more ponds with water lilies and more lotus. There were many other water loving plants on the paths including buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), swamp mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos),  and bald cypress (Taxodium distichum). Frogs, turtles, butterflies, dragonflies, and plenty of birds were in view and I heard there were beavers, ducks, and herons.

Further out was a boardwalk to the Kenilworth Marsh, the last surviving tidal marsh on the Anacostia River. This wild, natural area gives a glimpse of what the river would have looked like 300 years ago when it was inhabited by Nacotchtank American Indians (Jesuit priests later changed the name to Anacostia).

The Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens, located within the Anacostia Park, is the only National Park Service unit dedicated to cultivating water loving plants.  It is comprised of more than 45 ponds filled with a variety of tropical and hardy water lilies, lotus, and other aquatic species. This land was originally owned by Walter B. Shaw, a veteran of the Civil War. He had a clerical position with the U.S. Treasury Department and purchased 30 acres in the 1880’s. He planted water lilies from his hometown in Maine in a pond that was used to make ice. As he built more ponds and grew more water lilies, he developed the W.B. Shaw Lily Ponds business. His daughter, Helen, managed the business and traveled the world looking for more varieties of water lilies and lotus. When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was ordered to dredge the Anacostia River, threatening to destroy the gardens, Congress purchased 8 acres in 1938 to preserve the area and the plants. The National Park Service received the property and renamed the gardens Kenilworth.

Even though the annual festival is over, the water lilies and lotus are still there in full bloom. Visit in the morning as many flowers will close up in the afternoon or when temperatures are above 90 degrees. The hardy water lilies begin blooming in early May and tropical water lilies bloom from early June through early fall. The lotus bloom from late June through the end of August. I overheard a ranger say that they have the giant Amazonian water lily (Victoria trickeri) but the leaves do not reach mature size until September. If you are interested in volunteering  or learning more about their other events, contact the Friends of Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens.

Petite Jenny’s Lavender-Rose Flowers Sway Like a Calder Mobile

Last year I received a small green plant that just sat in my garden all year long. It really did not grow much, it did not bloom, it just took up 6 inches of space. I assumed it was on its way to the pearly gates. This year, it has bloomed so well I would not mind having a few more! Lychnis ‘Petite Jenny’ has leaves at the base (a basal rosette) with inch-wide lavender-rose, tufted blossoms atop 12-inch wiry stems. Petite Jenny started blooming in April in my Virginia garden and should bloom all summer long. Because the flowers sit atop the thin stems, the blossoms sway in the breeze, much like a Calder mobile.

Now that it is flowering (its alive!), I realized I was fortunate to plant mine next to a ninebark called ‘Summer Wine’ (Physocarpus opulifolius). Summer Wine is a small bush with dark, red/purple foliage that complements Petite Jenny’s lavender-rose flowers and also provides a dark backdrop to make it easier to see the flowers.

Hardy to zone 5, Petite Jenny prefers full sun to part shade and more moist than dry soil. It is deer resistant and the flowers can be cut for arrangements. There is a “Jenny” that is a larger plant; Petite Jenny is a dwarf form with sterile blossoms (sterile blossoms have a longer blooming period). Petite Jenny is a Blooms of Bressingham introduction. If this great perennial is not available at your local independent garden center, contact http://www.musthaveperennials.com

Thirty Tours Across the Commonwealth During Virginia’s Historic Garden Week

fountain turned planter

Sponsored by the Garden Club of Virginia (GCV), Historic Garden Week (HGW) is an opportunity for the public to tour almost 250 private homes and gardens and historical sites in Virginia. A non-profit organization, the GCV is comprised of 47 member clubs and 3,400 volunteers. Proceeds from the annual HGW, which originated in 1927, fund the restoration and preservation of Virginia’s historical gardens and provide graduate level research fellowships for building comprehensive and ongoing records of historic gardens and landscapes in the Commonwealth. For more than 80 years, the grounds of Virginia’s most cherished historic landmarks including Mount Vernon, Monticello, and the Executive Mansion in Richmond have been restored or preserved using proceeds from this statewide house and garden tour.

Japanese maple among tulips

This year there will be 30 tours hosted by volunteers at local GCV member clubs. The GCV has member clubs in 6 regions: Northern Virginia, Chesapeake Bay, Coastal Virginia, Capitol Region, Shenandoah Valley/Central Virginia, and Southern Virginia. For example, in the Northern Virginia Region, there will be tours in Old Town Alexandria, Leesburg and Oatlands, Reston, Warrenton, Little Washington, and Winchester on various days between April 22 and 29. In 2015, I visited homes and gardens in Clifton and Fairfax Station one day and Warrenton another day (the photos were taken on my trips).

inner circle of kitchen garden

The schedule is available online and tickets can be purchased on the day of the tour at numerous locations or in advance. Tours are held rain or shine. Properties can be visited in any order. Also available is the Guidebook, a 240-page, beautifully illustrated publication, which can be downloaded, purchased online, or picked up free at designated public places. I always find them in March at my local library. The Guidebook has descriptions of the tour sites, directions, refreshments, special activities in the area, and other places of interest which usually include historical sites that can be toured at other times of the year (for future reference). The Guidebook is a snapshot of the touring area; it lists names of the sponsoring Garden Club member organizations; area information such as Chamber of Commerce & historical societies; and advertisements from local businesses such as garden centers, antique stores, and restaurants. For more information, visit http://www.vagardenweek.org; e-mail historicgardenweek@gmail.com; (804) 644-7776.