I always thought that chervil was a delicate, shade-loving herb in the carrot family, which it is.
The name chervil can also refer to a root vegetable from the same family. Digging even deeper,
I learned that the same name can also refer to several other plants, but we're going to focus on the first two. For now.
The name chervil is probably so popular because it comes to us from the Ancient Greek words for "leaves of joy". How's that for a garden addition? Makes me want to grow them just for that. Let's see if we'll want to grow them for other reasons, as well.
Chervil, the herb
Chervil, the herb, is also known as French parsley or garden chervil, is more delicate than parsley, with a light licorice flavor. Chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium) is used along with chives, parsley, and tarragon to make fines herbes and it is commonly used to season poultry, seafood, soups, and sauces.
These plants grow 12-30" tall and readily reseed an area, left on their own. Like other umbellifers, chervil plants have hollow, ribbed stems, divided leaves, long, sheathed petioles (leaf stems), and flat seeds. Edible chervil flowers attract many beneficial insects, so these plants are commonly included in butterfly gardens and tea gardens.
Chervil prefers partial shade in areas where temperatures are under 65°F and full shade in areas that go above 80°F, making chervil a nice addition to stumperies and shade gardens.
Chervil can be grown in USDA Hardiness Zones 5-9 when temperatures are above 60°F. Chervil does not transplant well, due to its taproot, so seeds should be planted in place. This is a cool season crop that needs moisture. Seeds should be planted 1" deep and 6-12" apart. In 10-14 days, you should see signs of life. In 45 days or so, your chervil will reach harvestable size.
Slugs and snails will be your biggest problem
Chervil, the root vegetable
Native to middle- and southeastern Europe, this root vegetable goes by several names: bulbous chervil, parsnip chervil, tuberous-rooted chervil, and turnip-rooted chervil. Popular in Europe in the 19th century, these biennial plants grow very much like their cousins, the carrots. Instead of carrot's orange taproot, bulbous chervil (Chaerophyllum bulbosum) looks like stubby, dark grey carrots with yellowish-white flesh. Eaten raw, these tubers are said to taste similar to radishes. Once cooked, they are described as a cross between potatoes and chestnuts, with just a hint of celery and parsnip. [I haven't had them yet.] These roots are left in cold storage for a few months for starches to be converted into sugars.
Being a member of the carrot family, bulbous chervil plants produce large flower clusters that attract many beneficial insects, such as hoverflies.
Bulbous chervil grows best in loose, fertile soil that is kept moderately moist. Seeds need to be vernalized (exposed to cold) to germinate properly. Because of this, seeds are usually planted 2" apart in autumn. As temperatures rise, in spring, germination should occur.
Initial growth is a rosette of leaves close to the ground, followed by stems that can grow 2-6' tall. Roots are harvested when leaves start turning brown, usually in late summer. These are slow-growing plants that take 9-10 months to reach maturity.
Pests of bulbous chervil include aphids, carrot root flies, and voles. Diseases are similar for carrots and parsnips, with celery mosaic virus and root rots being the most common.
How about adding some leaves of joy to your garden this year?
Most of us garden because fresh fruits, vegetables, and herbs taste better.
But why do they taste better? In fact, why do plants have flavors at all?
It ends up that flavor is all about transmitters and receivers, but not the type that deliver your favorite songs or movies.
Plants have flavors because of the chemicals they use to communicate and to protect themselves. They use these chemicals to attract pollinators, inhibit bacterial and fungal pathogens, and, in some cases, slow the growth of competitors (allelopathy). Plants protect themselves by creating chemicals that make them unpalatable to attacking insects, herbivores, or pathogens.
Plants use one chemical, ethylene gas, to trigger neighboring plants to ripen. In nature, this means there will be a bunch of ripe fruit available at the same time, increasing the odds of birds and animals coming to eat and dispersing seeds. This ripening cascade works the same way leaves change color in autumn. A few trees start doing it, which triggers neighboring trees to follow suit.
But how do those chemical communications translate into flavors?
A matter of taste
When we eat something, our taste buds collect information about the chemicals in our food that dissolve (soluble). At the same time, our noses collect information about the chemicals released into the air as we chew (volatile). It ends up that these are the same chemicals plants use.
Taste and smell are inseparable. In fact, your sense of smell is estimated to be 80% of the flavor experience. Don't believe me? Try closing your eyes, plugging your nose, and taking a bite of onion - you'll swear it's an apple.
Taste is a matter of acids and sugars. There are different types of sugars. Most fruits contain varying combinations of fructose, sucrose, glucose, and sorbitol. Fructose has the most sweetness and sorbitol has the least.
Our taste buds sort sugars and acids into five categories: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami. Umami is a protein flavor. Some cultures also include fattiness (oleogustus) and pungency.
Did you know that children have 10,000 taste buds and older adults only have 5,000? And dogs have less than 2,000 (which may explain why they are willing to eat some really gross things). They simply don't taste them. On the other hand, our canine companions have over 300 million smell receptors, while we have 50 million or so.
Scents and smells
We sort out aromas over those 50 million receptors using more than 650 different types of olfactory nerve endings found in our noses.
I once gave my students the assignment to create their own word. One 6-year-old student came up with 'olfactorized'. When I asked her for a definition, she said it meant being attacked by a bad smell. I miss teaching.
But how can a plant smell something without a nose? It ends up that plants have sensory receptors, much like our taste buds, that allow them to identify volatile chemicals (essential oils) floating around in the air. Dodder, for example, is a parasitic plant that uses its sense of smell to find host plants, sniffing out its favorites and avoiding sick plants.
Some of those scent chemicals include:
Clearly, there are many factors that determine a plant's flavor and some of those factors are under your control.
Genetics play a big role in flavor. If you want to taste lime, you wouldn't plant a grapefruit, right? When selecting plants for your garden or landscape, start by choosing varieties that are suited to your microclimate and that produce the flavors you want.
Environmental conditions also impact flavor. If your fruit trees and tomato plants don't get enough sunlight, they cannot produce the sugars that make them taste good. Proper tree training and plant spacing, pruning, and reflective mulches can be used to increase the amount of sunlight that reaches inner branches.
If your plants are allowed to produce too much fruit, the flavor won't be as good, either. Fruit thinning allows plants to focus their energies on quality, rather than quantity. In the same way, too much irrigation can be just as bad as not enough. During the growth phase, plants need plenty of water. As crops get closer to harvest time, you can increase flavor by reducing the amount of water available. This is called deficit irrigation.
The same is true for nutrition. If your plants get too much nitrogen, they will have more of a green, grassy flavor. Less nitrogen translates into more fruit flavor.
When you harvest your fruits also determines flavor. Most store-bought produce is harvested before it is fully ripe, to allow for shipping and storage. One of the nicest things about growing your own is that you can wait until that perfect moment before taking a bite.
What are your favorite garden flavors?
Elderberry syrup and elderberry wine are yours for the making when you grow your own.
It ends up that this group of mostly edible plants is more complex that I realized.
I say mostly because red elderberries are toxic and should never be eaten. Blue and black elderberries are toxic when unripe, but safe and delicious when ripe or cooked. And the elderberries used to make medicinal syrup are only one type of elderberry.
That being said, edible elderberries are pretty amazing. Most of us have heard about elderberry jams, jellies, pies, syrup, and wine. Did you know you can also dip flower clusters in batter and deep fry them?
These plants were traditionally used by Native Americans and the Spanish for a lot more than just food, though. The cooked "sauco" was a summer staple that needed no sweetening. Hardwood stems were used to make arrows, flutes and whistles, blowguns, baskets, and fire starters, with the pith used as tinder and stems used as twirling sticks. The wood was also used to make combs, clappers, and pegs.
Elderberries are deciduous, flowering plants (angiosperms) that grow as shrubs. Now, we're not talking about tame, well-mannered shrubs here. Some species of elderberry, given the opportunity, can grow 20-30' tall and wide, in something of a fountain shape similar to currants. And they grow quickly. [Before you panic, know that most elderberry shrubs only grow 6-12' tall.] Glossy leaves are opposite. Cream or yellow flower clusters appear in spring, followed by purple berries in autumn.
Elderberries used to be thrown in with the honeysuckle family, but scientists have discovered that they are their own group (Adoxaceae). The elderberry family is also known as the moschatel family. [If that name is new to you, you are not alone!] In the world of elderberries, it ends up names can get very confusing.
To begin, all elderberries are members of the Sambucus genus. Beyond that, there are several species worldwide, with three major elderberry species found in the U.S. Each of these species has different characteristics.
American black elderberries
American black elderberries (Sambucus nigra spp. canadensis) are native to North America east of the Rockies and they prefer cool, moist conditions, often growing naturally alongside creeks and in low lying areas.
European black elderberries
European black elderberries (Sambucus nigra spp. nigra) are found throughout Europe. These plants are not as cold tolerant as the American blacks, but more so than the blues. And it is European black elderberries that are made into medicinal syrups.
Mexican blue elderberries
Until very recently, I didn't even know there were blue elderberries. Now I get to try my hand at growing my own because a reader dropped off a big cutting yesterday! [Thank you, C.P.!]
Blue elderberries (Sambucus mexicana) are native to North America west of the Rockies and they go by a variety of names, both common and scientific. Blue elder, sweet or wild elder, Arizona elderberry, and blueberry elder are just a few of the common names. If you talk with botanists, they have another whole collection of names, but we won't get into that. Bottom line, blue elderberries prefer hotter, drier conditions than the other two. These California natives have deep roots that go in search of water. Blue elderberries also have a longer harvest season, producing fruit all summer in most cases.
Elderberries and biodiversity
Healthy environments are diverse, with lots of different things living and growing and interacting with each other. It ends up that elderberries are an extremely important food source for many native birds, including western bluebirds, cedar waxwings, and ruby-crowned kinglets. Elderberry flowers also attract a number of moths, some of which you may not want near your garden. Maybe the birds will eat them, too.
Elderberry plants produce knob-shaped, nectar-producing glands, called extrafloral nectaries, on leaves and stems. These sugar stations attract beneficial insects. This is why elderberries are often included in butterfly gardens, bee gardens, and insectaries. Insectaries can be plants or plantings that attract beneficial insects.
How to grow elderberries
Elderberries can grow in full sun, partial sun, or full shade, depending on the variety. Once established, they need very little water, maybe once a month in summer. They can also grow in areas that stay moist, but they do need medium to fast drainage. These plants can tolerate temperatures as low as 5°F, but they prefer heat.
Elderberries are best grown from seed that have been planted right away, in autumn, or separated from the fruit, dried, and then warm stratified for spring planting. If you are lucky enough to receive cuttings like I was, follow these steps:
Once established elderberry plants can be coppiced. Coppicing refers to periodically cutting trees or shrubs back to ground level to stimulate new growth for firewood, basket weaving, or other building materials, as well as fruit.
Irregular brown or white spots on leaves often mean that leaf blight has taken hold.
There are many different types of leaf blight. Leaf blight can be caused by fungal spores or bacteria and most forms of leaf blight are species specific, which means different types of leaf blight attack different plants. If you grow onions or garlic, carrots, sorghum, melons or squash, you need to know about leaf blight.
Fungal leaf blights of onions and garlic
Purple lesions, yellow to brown spots, and yellow streaks on onion or garlic may mean purple blotch and Stemphlyium leaf blight have infected your plants. These two fungal leaf blight diseases are mostly late-season problems, so you can avoid them all together by planting early season crops, if that's an option for your area. As a double whammy, these two diseases often start growing in downy mildew lesions. A similar leaf blight attacks sorghum.
Fungal leaf blight of squash and melons
Alternaria leaf blight is a fungal disease caused by Alternaria cucumerina that attacks members of the squash family. Melons are the most susceptible, but squash, pumpkin and cucumber may also become infected. Brown smudges first appear on older leaves, near the base, or crown, of the plant. If you look closer, you will see that the damaged areas often have a yellow halo. These leaf spots may also develop concentric, target-shaped rings. Ultimately, leaves wither, curl upward, and die. Alternaria leaf blight doesn't harm the fruit, but it can interfere with photosynthesis enough to reduce crop size and can cause sunburn damage.
Bacterial leaf blight of carrots
Bacterial leaf blight is caused by Xanthomonas campestris pv. carotae and attacks carrots. Brown spots are first seen along leaf edges, or margins, and may look watersoaked. As the disease spreads, you may be able to see dark brown streaks on the petioles, or leaf stems. Flowers may also become affected. An amber-colored ooze is usually present, as well.
Bacterial leaf blight is a seed borne disease, so be sure to get your seeds from reputable suppliers. This disease is only active when moisture is present. Optimal temperatures are between 77° and 86°F. This disease does not occur when temperatures are below 65°F.
Leaf blight management
Preventing disease is nearly always easier than curing it, and this is no exception. You can prevent leaf blight in your garden with these tips:
If leaf blight appears in your landscape, toss infected plants in the trash at the end of the growing season and be sure to sanitize your garden tools between cuts. You can use common bathroom cleaners to do this.
Most of us have had the experience of discovering a forgotten something in the back of the fridge, or found a fruit in the bottom of a bowl, covered with fuzz. That fuzz is a type of fungus.
The white threads seen in soil and compost - more fungus. But there is far more to this bizarre life form than you might expect. Prepare to be blown away!
A different kingdom
We all know about the animal kingdom and the plant kingdom, but the kingdom of fungi is far less familiar. Fungi are not plants. In fact, they have more in common with animals than plants. Fungi broke off into their own group one billion years ago, and we have a lot to learn about them.
Fungi can cause and cure disease. They have been used as pesticides, poisons, and potables. They are the Earth's (and your garden's) primary decomposers and critical players in nutrient cycling and most food webs. Fungi are used in bioremediation and there are fungal spores drifting down onto your skin as you read this.
Fungi spoil our food and help it grow. They break down our buildings and provide us with building materials. Every step that you take on soil impacts approximately 300 miles of fungal threads. Every step. Three hundred miles.
There are species of ants that farm fungi for food. One type of wasp injects her eggs together with a certain fungus into the bark of host trees. The fungus starts to rot the wood, making it easier for her babies to eat when they first hatch. There are fungi living in the gut of several garden insects, including beetles and cockroaches.
Once we begin to see fungi for what they are, an extremely large, diverse group, I think we can appreciate them more fully.
The fungal family
Yeasts, molds, and mushrooms are all types of fungi, while slime molds and water molds are not. Water molds (oomycetes) are more closely related to algae, while slime molds (mycetozoa) are closer to amoeba. [Did you know that lichens are actually mutually beneficial communities of fungi and algae?]
Scientists estimate that there are millions of species of fungi. So far, we only know about 150,000 of those. An area of fungi is called its mycobiota. The study of fungi is called mycology. There are currently nine types of fungi that have been identified. You can look them up, if you're into that sort of thing, but this post is already packed with a lot of information.
One thing that makes fungi different from plants is that their cell walls contain something called chitin. Chitin is also found in fish scales, squid and octopi beaks, and insect exoskeletons. Plants do not contain chitin; they have cellulose. Some types of fungi have structures called rhizomorphs, which behave similar to plant roots.
Fungi grow threadlike structures called hyphae. These are not chains of cells, the way algae grow. Instead, hyphae are tubes that may hold several nuclei. Hyphae grow at the tips of these tubes and often branch. Collectively, these hyphae are called mycelium. Mycelium are found in all of Earth's soil. Growths of mycelium are called colonies. There is one fungal colony in Oregon that covers 2,400 acres and is believed to be 9,000 years old. Known affectionately as the "Humongous Fungus", this specimen of Armillaria ostoyae may be the world's largest living organism, when measured by area.
Fungi do not perform photosynthesis. Like animals, they must get their food from other living (or dead) things. The different ways fungi gather their food may surprise you. In some cases, fungi do this by dissolving organic material using digestive enzymes and absorbing nutrients. Other fungi, especially pathogens, have piercing structures that can break through plant tissues, spreading disease. More on that in a minute.
Some fungi are miners. They secrete acids that dissolve tiny rocks, creating tunnels, and then harvest and store those minerals for later use.
You've probably heard me talk about mycorrhizae. Mycorrhizae are microscopic fungi that live in and around the roots of many garden plants, helping them to absorb important nutrients. These fungi also help transport inorganic, mineral nutrients from one plant to another, in exchange for sugars produced through photosynthesis. There's a great NPR radio show, From Tree to Shining Tree, which talks about an experiment that showed how trees share their food with other trees, even trees of different species. All of this happens because of soil fungal colonies. But there's more to fungi than simply decomposing and mining.
There are fungi that actively hunt springtails and other microorganisms found in the soil. They trap their prey in sticky nets and insert hyphae into living insects and nematode eggs, sucking out the innards. But they don't keep all of that food for themselves. Fully one-fourth of those insect guts and embryos end up in nearby trees. In exchange for that gift, trees give 20-80% of the sugar they produce through photosynthesis to the fungi growing in and around their roots. The fungi, in turn, hold that sugar until it is needed by the tree, or its neighbors, at which time they give some of it back.
We now know that trees send chemical messages through these fungal networks, warning neighboring trees of illness, or insect or herbivore attack. We also know that dying trees move their resources into the fungal network to be shared with other trees. We do not know who or what decides the movement of these resources or chemical messages, but I can't help wondering about the neural-like structure of the fungal networks that help keep our plants alive. But I digress...
Fungi use several methods of reproduction and some species use more than one method. In most cases, fungi reproduce by releasing spores into air or water. A few older specimens have spores have with wiggly tails called flagella. Most fungi now use cup-shaped fruiting bodies, called apothecium, which are lined with a tissue that produces spores. Spores are often ejected forcefully, with the initial force reaching nearly 10,000 g's!
Fungi also reproduce by splitting off bits of mycelium, while others use colors and odors to attract insects, which help distribute spores. Most spores are spread on wind, which is why a fungal disease in your neighbor's yard is a problem for your garden.
Fungi in the garden
Fungi perform several functions in the garden: some of them good, and some of them not so good. Fungi decompose our compost piles and provide many garden plants with nutrients. Some fungal species inhabit the leaves and stems of your grass family plants, making them less attractive to herbivores and better protected against environmental stresses in exchange for room and board.
One Swedish study even showed it is fungi and not plants who are sequestering the majority of the carbon held in northern boreal forests. But all too often, fungi are the cause of plant disease.
Fungi as disease carriers
There are many different fungal diseases that can affect garden plants: black spot, blights, downy and powdery mildews, rusts, and wilts are just a few. More often than not, the presence of too much moisture is the reason why fungal disease takes hold. You can reduce the odds of fungal disease occurring in your garden by spacing plants out properly, pruning for good airflow, and keeping leaves dry. This means watering from below, rather than from above. Soaker hoses and furrow irrigation are better choices when fungi are present. (And they are always present.)
When fungal disease strikes, be sure to dispose of infected plant material in the trash, and sanitize garden tools between each cut.
I hope you now share my new-found respect for these amazing life forms.
Imagine an apple that tastes something like bell pepper.
That was the first description I could find for rose apples. I had never heard of these edibles until this morning when a friend told me she was having some problems growing hers in San Francisco. Let’s see what we can find out.
Rose apple family
Despite the name, rose apples are not in the rose family. Instead, they are a type of myrtle (Myrtaceae), making them cousins to cloves, guava, allspice, and eucalyptus.
Rose apples are native to Southeast Asia and the northern parts of Australia. These plants are tropical and cannot handle freezing temperatures. They thrive in moist heat with full sun. If any of these conditions is missing, trees will not produce fruit. They need to be irrigated in summer and kept on the dry side during periods of cold.
Mature trees tend to have a dense crown with many slender, arching branches that can make the tree wider than it is tall. Large, showy flowers appear in early summer.
The fruit is a slightly pear-shaped berry, with a hint of rose fragrance. The flesh is crisp and watery, with a taste that starts out mildly sweet and then turns to a floral rose or slightly bitter taste, depending on who you ask. These fruits are non-climacteric, which means they must be left on the tree until they are fully ripe before being harvested. Once picked, most varieties of rose apples do not ship or store well.
Like apples, rose apples often do not grow true from seed, although some people have had good luck that way. Very often, the fruit is substandard when started this way. Cuttings and most grafts generally fail, as well, so plants are most often reproduced vegetatively, using air layering.
There are four major types of rose apple, each with different characteristics. In many cases, there is an overlap of names, but it’s nothing to worry about unless you’re a botanist.
Jambos rose apples
Jambos rose apples (Syzgium jambos) feature yellow fruit with two seeds. They are also known as plum roses, wax apples, and pomarrosa. These trees grow 10-45’ tall and look very similar to guavas. Unlike guava fruit, which is filled with tiny seeds, these rose apples contain one or two large seeds. Apparently, when the fruit is ripe, you can shake it and hear the seeds rattle. Lance-shaped evergreen leaves and twigs are hairless (glabrous) and the brown bark is smooth. In temperate regions, these trees are self-fertile.
Java rose apple
Java rose apples (Syzgium samarangense) are also known as wax apples, wax jambu, and Java apples. These trees grow 40’ tall and have grayish-pink bark that flakes off. Leaves can be up to 10” long and 4” wide, and they smell nice when crushed. Java rose apples are bell-shaped and come in many different colors, with pale red being the most common.
Malay rose apples
Malay rose apples (Syzgium malaccense) are also known as mountain apples, Malay apples, pomerac, or simply rose apples. The oblong fruit of these plants is said to be refreshing but bland. Some varieties have pink or white skin, but most Malay rose apples have dark red skin and contain only one seed. Trees can grow 40-60’ tall.
Watery rose apples
Watery rose apples (Syzgium aqueum) are also known as water apples, bell fruit, and bush cherries. Water apples are true to their name in that they need lots of water, as in monsoon levels. The yellow fruit of water apples is described as the taste of apple and the texture of watermelon. Unlike other rose apples, this variety stores well. Glossy green leaves are also edible.
Rose apple problems
While rose apples have few insect pests, it ends up that they are fruit fly magnets. If you are growing rose apples, you need to harvest the fruit as soon as it is ripe. And discard overripe fruit right away. This will interrupt the lifecycle of the fruit flies, along with several other pests.
On the disease front, myrtle rust (Austropuccinia psidii), also known as guava rust, has all but wiped out the Hawaiian rose apple population. Since rose apples are introduced as ornamentals in many regions, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Unless it strikes your tree. Other common diseases and disorders of rose apples include anthracnose, leaf spot, mushroom root rot, root rot, and sooty mold.
All that being said, I think insufficient sunlight and cool temperatures are probably the problems being faced by my friend’s tree. [Sorry, Gaea!]
If you are growing rose apples, we’d love to hear about it in the comments!
Strange and exotic dragon fruit is even more bizarre when you learn that these delicious fruits grow on a vining cactus!
If you’ve never seen one, dragon fruits have bright pink, leathery skin and scaly spikes. The interior fruit is peppered with tiny black seeds, similar to kiwifruit.
White-fleshed dragon fruit (Hylocereus undatus) is the one we see most often in grocery stores. There are also red- and yellow-fleshed varieties, H. costaricensis and H. megalanthus, respectively.
Also known as pitahaya and strawberry pear, dragon fruit is probably native to Central America, though scientists are still debating over that.
The dragon fruit plant
Dragon fruit plants are climbing cacti with branches that put out aerial roots. Fragrant, edible flowers bloom at night. Pollination is usually done by bats and moths. These plants can handle temperatures over 100°F and light touches of frost. Too much time in freezing temperatures will kill a dragon fruit plant.
These plants can get big. Wait, let me say it another way – they can get HUGE! Multiple branching arms can grow 30’ long. That’s important information if you want to start growing your own dragon fruit.
How to grow dragon fruit
To begin, be sure to get a self-fertile variety. Also, having more than one plant will boost your harvest, if you have room. You can grow dragon fruit in 15-gallon pots to help keep it under control. This makes moving it to a protected spot in winter easier, too.
Being cacti, dragon fruit plants thrive in Hardiness Zones 10-11, though they can sometimes be grown outdoors in zones 9a or 9b. They grow best in slightly acidic soil with good drainage.
You can grow dragon fruit from seeds or cuttings. Like most cacti, broken-off bits of a stem will readily start producing roots when in contact with moist soil. [In some countries, dragon fruit plants are classified as invasive weeds.]
To grow dragon fruit from seed, be sure to remove all the fruit first and allow them to dry out. Then, lightly cover them with nutrient-rich potting soil and water regularly, allowing the soil to dry out slightly between waterings. Soggy soil usually kills seeds and seedlings. Seeds should germinate in a couple of weeks.
If you are growing a dragon fruit indoors, you will need to pollinate flowers by hand, which isn’t difficult. Dragon fruit plants usually reach full production when they are 5 years old and live for 20-30 years.
Dragon fruit problems
Most dragon fruit diseases are related to too much water. Overwatering and heavy rains can create conditions that allow several fungal and bacterial diseases to occur. Be on the lookout for anthracnose, black rot, blossom drop, brown spot, cactus stem rot, pitaya fruit rot, and white rot. This is why good drainage is so important. Also, you will need to monitor for aphids, mealybugs, mites, and thrips. These pests can suck the life out of your dragon fruit, and some of them may carry plant diseases.
If you’ve never eaten a dragon fruit, I urge you to try one. Then, decide for yourself if there’s room for this vining, fruiting cactus in your landscape!
A new weed has appeared in my lawn and it’s a member of the mallow family.
We’re not talking about roast-able marshmallows here, although it ends up there is an ancestral connection. Cousin to okra, hibiscus, cola nuts, and cocoa, the mallow family also includes cotton, hollyhocks, and linden trees. And an Old School ingredient of marshmallows. But we’ll have to get to that another day. Weeds move fast! I needed to stay focused before deciding what to do about this new weed.
Now, my Malva neglecta poses a problem for me. On the one hand, it is an invasive weed that attracts orange tortrix moths and weevils. On the other hand, it is an edible that clearly grows without any effort on my part. What’s a gardener to do?
I do what I always do - I learn more about it.
Here’s what I have learned about common mallow.
Common mallow plants
Common mallow is also known as buttonweed, cheeseplant (another great name!), roundleaf mallow, and dwarf mallow. This weed is native to Morocco, Mongolia, and Spain, just to name a few. In fact, this little weed really gets around!
Apparently, once common mallow appears, it can be hard to get rid of. [Uh, oh!] Tough, cheese wheel-shaped pods can hold and protect 10-12 seeds for decades. Once germination starts, a tough taproot stakes its claim, searching for hard-to-reach water and nutrients. Ultimately, plants can get 6-24” tall. I haven't seen any yet, but they produce pinkish-white flowers in mid-summer.
Common mallow plants can be annual or biennial plants, most often found in neglected areas. [I have to assume seeds blew in from my neighbor’s yard because there’s nothing neglected about my yard. Well, maybe a couple spots…]
An edible weed
The leaves, seeds, and stems of common mallow are edible. Mature seeds are cooked like rice, and immature seeds are eaten raw. I was surprised to learn that common mallow seeds contain 21% protein and 15.2% fat!
Traditionally, people have chewed the leaves to treat sore throats. Since most mallow family plants produce mucus, I suppose that it soothes irritation the same way apple pectin does. But I’m guessing. There are countless claims about common mallow as a medicinal plant, providing relief for everything from the common cold to childbirth difficulties. According to WebMD, there is currently no scientific evidence to back any medical claims made about common mallow.
So, the question is, should I pull them all up or let them grow?
As much as I love growing edibles, I think this one is going to have to go. First off, it is an invasive plant. Secondly, my husband really wants at least a little bit of green lawn in my backyard garden. Gotta keep the peace, right? There it is, the mallow goes. But that brings me to something else.
As you may have heard me say before, you can use the weeds in your yard to help you figure out which edibles should grow equally well. Since I know common mallows can grow well in my yard, maybe it’s time to try growing okra…
I’ve seen goji berries in seed catalogs, but haven’t (yet) tried my hand at growing them. This might be the year!
Also known as wolfberries, these bright reddish-orange berries are a type of boxthorn native to Asia. They have been part of Asian cuisine and medicine for over 2,000 years. Goji berries grow on somewhat thorny deciduous shrubs that produce numerous canes. In early summer, you’ll see small purple flowers. A month or so later, your crop will start to come in!
Pros and cons of goji berries
There are many claims about the health benefits of these members of the nightshade family. Said to help fight aging, diabetes, depression, high blood pressure, eye and skin problems, and more, these fruits contain high levels of Vitamin C, antioxidants, iron, and fiber. While research has backed some of those claims, it has shown negative interactions, as well. If you are taking warfarin, blood pressure drugs, or diabetes drugs, you may want to think twice about eating goji berries.
Another problem with goji berry products is that they have been found to contain high levels of pesticides and fungicides. If you really want goji berries, it’s probably a good idea to grow your own.
Goji berries have a very short shelf life, so growing your own is really the best way to go. As a bonus, the fruits don’t ripen all at once, so you can nibble a few berries as you putter in the garden. You know, the same way you might enjoy those delicious yellow cherry tomatoes that never seem to make it into the house.
Goji berry species
Before you start, you need to know that there are two different species of goji berry available. The fruits are very similar to each other, but Lycium barbarum and L. chinense taste slightly different from each other and they tolerate different temperature ranges. If you live in Hardiness Zones 3-10, you can grow your own Lycium barbarum goji berry bush. The L. chinense variety is said to have a more limited range, Zones 2-7, so be sure to get yours from a reputable seller.
Planting goji berries
You’ll need to give your goji berry plants some room. These shrubs can grow 10-13’ tall and 4’ wide, though they are often pruned to 3-6’ tall, for easier harvesting and management. They grow best in full sun, though they can tolerate partial shade. Goji berries prefer loose, somewhat alkaline soil, with a pH of 6.5-7.5.
Goji berry shrubs are most commonly grown from bare root stock. You can also start one from seed, but it will take a few years to get a crop and they don’t always grow true to the parent. Goji berries can be grown in large containers (at least 5 gallons), but they will be much happier in the ground because they have a taproot. Goji berry plants can be left as shrubs or trained up a trellis.
Goji berry care
The first year you have a goji berry plant, leave it alone except to water. Mulching around (but not touching) the stem can stabilize soil temperatures, retain moisture, and reduce weed competition. In the second year, allow a central cane to grow upright and prune all the others to a height of 15”. You may need to provide support to keep it growing straight up, much like when growing currants. As the plant gets taller, pinch back stems to promote lateral growth for better flowering and fruit production. The fruit is produced on new growth, so remove canes the winter after they produce fruit. This will make room for new growth and provide good airflow.
You can help your goji berry shrub live longer and be more productive by removing all the flower buds for the first couple of years. This will push the plant to develop a healthier root system. Your goji berry shrub will take 4-5 years to reach full production.
Goji berry problems
Like tomatoes, goji berries are susceptible to blossom end rot. Regular irrigation can help prevent that from happening. Common pests include aphids, birds, gall mites, Japanese beetles, leafhoppers, spider mites, and thrips. Diseases include anthracnose, early blight, and powdery mildew.
If you’ve ever grown goji berries, I’d love to hear about your experience in the Comments!
The fish tanks of our youth were often coated with algae.
As gardeners, you may see algae growing in planter pot saucers, rain barrels, or birdbaths. You may also see it growing on your soil.
But what do you really know about this plant family? And what does it do in your garden?
Algae are a large group of plants most commonly found in water. Most seaweeds are algae, but I doubt any of us are growing any seaweed in our gardens. Unlike moss, which prefers shaded areas, algae thrive in direct sunlight. Algae can also become a problem in greenhouses and on houseplants. By learning more about how these plants grow, we can find ways to reduce a few garden problems.
Algae are simple plants that contain chlorophyll and perform photosynthesis, the same as your tomato plants. Some of them absorb nutrients through osmosis, sucking, or surrounding and incorporating smaller life forms. Algae need water more than they need heat. This is why algae is often seen in spring and autumn on soil with drainage or overwatering problems. Algae do not have true stems, roots, leaves, or vascular tissues.
There are green, brown, red, and golden algae. There is also something called blue-green algae that is more closely related to bacteria than plants. These microorganisms are all believed to be some of the first lifeforms on Earth. But we probably don’t want them growing in our birdbaths or on our soil.
Algae on soil
A thin layer of green slime on exposed soil is usually algae. Algae won’t harm your plants directly, but it does compete for nutrients and water, and often attracts fungus gnats and shore flies. As the algae dry out, it can form a dark, dry crust that makes it difficult for water and gases to penetrate in either direction.
Algae prefer neutral to alkaline soil pH, so acidic soil is less likely to have a problem with algae. If your soil is heavy or compacted, adding compost can improve drainage. If you have an area that stays wet, you may want to consider installing a rain garden there. Rain gardens are sunken areas that put native plants to work to absorb excess water.
Algae in plant containers
Algae can grow on vermiculite, peat moss, and perlite, as well as soil. If plant containers and seedling pots are not allowed to dry out between waterings, algae spores floating in the air will take up residence. Rather than watering containerized plants from above, add water from below. This encourages the root system to expand downward and makes life more difficult for algae.
Algae in birdbaths
If your yard features a birdbath, keeping it clean is necessary for bird health. Red algae commonly grow in birdbaths and should be removed by scrubbing with a mixture of 9 parts water and 1 part vinegar. Birdbaths placed in sunny areas will have more of an algae problem than birdbaths placed in the shade. Position your birdbath accordingly.
If you see algae in your garden soil, try aerating the area. If you see algae in potted plants, let the soil dry out between waterings. If your birdbath is demanding more time than you want to give, move it to a shadier spot.
And if you haven’t seen the fish in your tank lately, it may be time for a good scrubbing,
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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