Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Atlanta May Not Have Water, But It's Got the Varsity

“It’s hard to imagine civilization without onions,” said Julia Childs. Spaghetti Sauce, pot roast, enchiladas, potato salad, cornbread dressing, the list goes on for miles. Onions are a staple in our diet, no doubt about it.
Allium cepa, the common garden onion, is consumed at a rate of approximately 21 pounds per year per person in the United States, and a half cup of chopped, raw onion contains one gram of fiber and 5 milligrams of vitamin C. What more delicious way to ingest those necessary nutrients than in an order of that great comfort food - fresh, hot Varsity Onion Rings?
Having made the three hundred mile round trip to Atlanta three times in the past three weeks (one funeral, one wedding, and a reunion) Hank and I felt that a trip to the Varsity was the least we could do for ourselves.
The Varsity, we are sure, is as much a part of our shared family tradition as Thanksgiving dinner or church on Sunday. My parents went to the Varsity on dates, when chili dogs were two for a nickel, long before it became necessary to negotiate the harrowing, ever evolving, mass of interstate highway that surrounds downtown Atlanta.
My daddy would take us there when we were kids, and we’d eat in the car, since only old men and Tech students ate indoors. He was very particular about the condition of his cars. “This car will smell like a weenie joint for a week,” he’d complain. But it was worth it, even to him. As a teen-ager I made more than one spin around the parking lot in a souped-up Chevrolet, and Hank and I went there on a few dates ourselves.
So, we went on Friday, and enjoyed once again together the unmatched flavor and perfect texture of a Varsity Chili Dog and side of Rings. It was just as good as we remembered.
Since I moved away from Atlanta, I’ve noticed that there are certain topics that seem to be on everyone’s mind at any given time. For years that topic was the fearsome, eternal traffic. Traffic that was getting bad when I lived there forty years ago, is now nearly intolerable.
There’s a new worry on everybody’s mind these days. That is the problem of water. “We were supposed to get four inches,” my Uncle Jeff said, when we stopped by for a visit. The sky was already growing lighter on a day that was to have been filled with thunderstorms. “Instead we only got a half inch, if that. It’s the worst drought since 1931.”
There are water restrictions so intense that neighbors turn each other in, and if you dare appear to be extravagant, you risk having your water turned off with a thousand dollar fine to have in turned on again.
Aunt Faye, a dedicated gardener, has maintained the small garden of their condo with efficiency, having saved the latest advice from Georgia’s garden guru Walter Reeves, and having come up with some ideas of her own. She passed the paper along to me.
“Make better dirt when you plant and dig deep,” says Reeves. The soil’s moisture is more constant the deeper you dig, and you should amend the soil around your new planting with plant matter.
Spread a double thick blanket of mulch. “Stay away from hockey puck sized nuggets,” he said, “and stick to mulch that’s more finely textured.”
And, speaking of mulch, here’s a hint from the Terminix man I talked to a few weeks ago. Cockroaches, or as we South Carolinians say, “Palmetto Bugs” are attracted to many kinds of mulch that we use near our homes, taking a thick blanket of pine straw or pine bark as a welcome mat to come on inside, BUT they don’t like cedar mulch. So he advises, if you’re planting near your foundation, use cedar.
Aunt Faye plans to work some type of “water grabbers” into the soil around her pansies when she plants them. I’ve had good luck with these in potted plants. I expect they’d work the same in the ground, though it might get expensive if you have a lot of plants.
I’ve also heard many people talk of using dishwater or shower water, if you have a way to capture it, to water plants. It seems a good idea, and I can’t find any advice against it. One thing I read said that dishwashing liquid won’t affect the pH, but that detergents from the clothes washer might and that it might be illegal to water with what’s called “gray water” anyway.
I expect be the time we make that trip over I-20 again, the leaves will finally have changed and fallen off, and North Georgia will, I hope, have come up with some long term solution to its water shortage. Georgia’s problems should be an object lesson for us. We are fortunate here in Aiken to have a good source of water, but it is not endless. As gardeners, we must consider more sustainable, adaptable garden practices. As citizens we need to be sure that our state’s and city’s growth is planned around the resources available to us.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

You Can Take A Ride Around Aiken's Old Downtown

“At the request of Major Alex Black Ag’t of the S. Carolina Canal & Rail Road Company we have surveyed and laid off 27 Squares or Blocks in the Town of Aiken bounded on the North by Edgefield St., on the East by Williams St., on the South by Rail Road Avenue and on the West by Newberry St, as in the above plat represented – This 19th September 1834.”
(signed) Cyril O. Pascalis
(signed) Andrew Alfred Dexter

And so Aiken was born. The plat that Pascalis and Dexter, two of Aiken’s resident engineers, refers to shows twenty-seven neatly ordered rectangular blocks, lined up in three rows of nine, where the first residents of Aiken would build homes and shops and around which our beautiful, vital city would soon grow. The outer perimeter of the city went from South Boundary on the south, Charleston Street on the east, North Boundary (now Hampton Avenue), and West Boundary (now Florence Street). The railroad ran down Railroad Avenue, now Park Avenue. The streets were one hundred fifty feet wide and lots, which we would call city blocks, were four acres. Could those first citizens have ever imagined what good things would come of Aiken in the next one hundred and sixty-three years?

To get an idea of the size of Aiken in its infancy, you can take a short drive around the perimeter of those twenty-seven blocks, starting in front of the Washington Center at 124 Newberry Street, a relatively new building that stands comfortably beside the century old Aiken Club Room and Court Tennis Building.

Stop at the lights that cross Richland Avenue and continue north past St. John’s Methodist Church. This active and ever growing church has been doing the Lord’s work here in Aiken since before the turn of the century (the last one).

Continue up Newberry and before you turn right on to Edgefield Avenue, have a look north. It’s peaceful vista with wide parkways and comfortable homes that very likely hasn’t changed much over the past century.

Turn right onto Edgefield Avenue and continue as far as you can. At Kershaw Street, you’ll come to the sprawling campus of Schofield Middle School, another of Aiken’s historic sites.

The Schofield Middle School website tells us that Martha Schofield, a young, determined Quaker lady from Buck’s County, Pennsylvania came to Aiken following the Civil War in order to help educate young Negro children. With help from the Society of Friends and others throughout the state, she was able to have begun one of the most important schools for Negroes in South Carolina. The original building here was completed about 1870. There were sixty-eight students and a total of three staff members. Schofield has grown considerably since then and has recently been renovated into an attractive modern building that sits on grounds that cover several of Aiken’s original twenty-seven blocks.

To get around the school, turn left onto Kershaw Street, then right onto Abbeville. When you reach Williamsburg (called Williams in the original plat) turn right and you’ll be back on the perimeter road. If school’s out, on the weekends or after 3:30, you can stop and have a look at the park and Wetlands project established several years ago on the grounds of Schofield Middle School. Listen for the bullfrogs and watch other tiny frogs skitter across the pond abounding with water lilies and purple flowering pickerel weed.

Continue south on Williamsburg, crossing Richland Avenue. On your left, you’ll see the Aiken Farmers Market, bursting with activity if you happen by on a Saturday morning. When you reach Park Avenue, called Rail Road Avenue in the original plat, you’ll face the railroad track and remember that, like many towns across the country, the railroad was in large part responsible for Aiken becoming a town.

Ride several blocks and look to your right and you’ll notice something new growing out of the old Aiken setting. Five new, beautifully landscaped Charleston type houses invite folks to sit a spell on a side facing porch, originally designed to catch the sea breezes that blew in from Charleston harbor.

Keep driving, past the old caboose and railway cars that are soon to be part of the Aiken Depot project and you’ll come to the first of several blocks of shops and galleries. If you’re lucky you’ll encounter Bill Jackson in his beautiful and ever evolving garden. You can stop and look in, through the wrought-iron gate and notice the outstanding collection of Japanese maples and unusual sculpture that could be at home in any big city.

You can’t see the train for much farther here. A railroad cut that takes it below street level was completed in 1852.

Keep going and you’re almost done. Pass more magnolia filled parkways and stop for a minute to look south at handsome St. Mary’s Catholic Church and then at the Aiken County Courthouse and the monument to the Confederate dead that stands in front of it.

Now past the antique shop and the Chesser building and you’ll find yourself back at the Court Tennis Building, one of only eight active Court Tennis courts in the country.

These twenty-seven blocks, still identifiable after over a century and a half after they were first laid out, remind us of Aiken’s artistic and educational and agricultural and horticultural and religious heritage and why I think those first Aiken citizens would still be happy to call Aiken, South Carolina “home.”

Friday, October 05, 2007

All You Ever Wanted to Know about Naked Ladies

“In the South, fall comes like a second spring, but with decidedly tropical overtones…It’s as if a gentle breeze from Africa had blown into the garden to awaken the inhabitants. This rich and rewarding season includes a surprising number of bulbs,” says Scott Ogden in his book “Garden Bulbs for the South”, published in 1994, with a second edition in February, 2007.

Take a ride around town or into the countryside and you might spot a row or a patch of one of the bulbs Ogden tells us about. Lycoris radiata is the botanical name of this handsome red flowering, fall blooming bulb that reminds us of the native azalea, with its long, feathery stamens. The stems are graceful and slender.

In his book, Ogden goes into great detail to explain to us the origin of this handsome flower. In the South, he says, they were long referred to as Guernsey lilies because of the similarity to another lily, Nerine sarniensis, that is said to have washed up after a shipwreck onto the island of Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands between England and France, where it thrived.

Our Lycoris radiata is quite a different genus altogether. Nerine lilies are better as cut flowers, but don’t grow well in America. Lycoris, on the other hand, is quite comfortable in our hot, southern climate.

“Lycoris,” by the way, he says is correctly pronounced LYcoris, if we are alone or among botanists, but that we would probably say liCORis if we want to be understood around other gardeners.

As for the preponderance of names for this handsome flower, we shouldn’t call it “spider lily” lest it be confused with Hymenocallis or Crinum, so we must call it “Fall Spider Lily.” It may be called “Hurricane Lily” since it often comes into bloom during hurricane season, or, since the Lycoris come into bloom without accompanying foliage, it is fancifully and properly, and, I suppose, uniquely called “Naked Lady.”

Studies performed by geneticists found that the old Southern Lycoris, probably itself an import, is a triploid, meaning it has an extra dose of chromosomes. This gives it tremendous vigor and hardiness, but also makes it sterile. After World War II, commercial growers in Japan began supplying American dealers with Lycoris at inexpensive prices. They are fine bulbs, says Ogden, and the flowers of the diploid types come into bloom a few weeks earlier than the triploid. If you’re lucky enough to have both types, you may have Naked ladies around your garden for a month.

We can plant Lycoris radiata in well drained slightly acidic soils (perfect for Aiken), in a woodland garden among trees or in borders of shrubs or in full sun, though full sun can cause premature withering of the delicate flowers. All Lycoris like soils enriched with leaf litter and humus. If you are fortunate to have some of the old garden varieties passed along to you, you may plant them in soil with more clay. Five to seven flowers appear on each stem, and after the flowers have withered basal leaves appear and deteriorate by the following summer.

Divide Lycoris in spring and don’t be surprised if they take a year off before blooming again. Naked ladies can be persnickety.

There are several similar species of Lycoris: golden spider lily (L. aurea), white (L. albiflora), salmon/orange (L. sanguinea). Another close relative, (L. squamigera) has more typical lily-like flowers that are light pink.

You can get Lycoris radiata bulbs now at Cold Creek Nursery here in Aiken. Plant them now and you should have flowers next year, but remember to mark them. The strap like foliage that comes up unattached to any flower might fool your highly efficient yard man into thinking it’s a weed. He’ll whack it, and you know the rest - no leaf, no photosynthesis. No photosynthesis, no flower. It, I am sad to say, has happened to me.

Finally Fall

Aiken is blessed with a number of good nurseries that offer handsome, healthy plants for our fall planting. One of them, Woodlanders offers many unusual and sometimes rare perennials, vines, shrubs and trees. I stopped by the nursery the other day and saw at least a dozen plants I was dying to try. At the top of that list was a vine called Evergreen wisteria. If I’d heard just the common name, I’d probably have stomped the thing to death, since I have spent the last twenty years trying to get wisteria out of my yard and wouldn’t think of introducing another Wisteria. Fortunately, Woodlanders never leaves us with anything so common as a common name, and I found that this plant isn’t another evil cousin in the wisteria family, but a more mannerly Milletia reticulata.

This Milletia is a vine that has beautiful deep purple flowers that bloom about now on racemes that resemble those on Wisteria and leathery dark green compound leaves that stay on through the winter. It has twining stems that grow twelve to fifteen feet or more and needs good support. It also needs full sun and regular watering. It is hardy down to zero degrees.

I can’t find anybody with a bad thing to say about Milletia reticulata, though I think it’s good to remember that it is not native to this area, but to China, and that probably when people first planted Wisteria here they didn’t know how invasive it would become. In any case, it’s a beautiful plant for a late summer show.

Years ago when I visited a Spring sale at Woodlanders, I asked Robert McKintosh, one of the nursery’s founders, if he could just buy one plant, a perennial, not a tree or shrub, what would it be. He answered without hesitation, “Lobelia Cardinalis.”

Lobelia Cardinalis (wasn’t there an Italian movie star with that name?) or Cardinal flower, as it’s also called, grows in clumps one to three feet tall, with tubular flowers that are the reddest red in your flower bed.

It’s a plant native to North America from New Brunswick west to Minnesota, and south to central Florida and eastern Texas. It grows in moist meadows, bogs and stream banks, so it needs moist soil and will even tolerate flooding, but not drought, in full sun to partial shade. If you grow it in ordinary garden soil, keep it watered.

Among the best things about this flower is that it’s pollinated by the ruby-throated hummingbird, and I’m told they are attracted to it in droves.
If you end your spring or fall planting season with a garage full of empty black plastic nursery pots that look like they will outlive the planet, recycle them! Woodlanders asks us to put our recyclable pots inside the gate on Beaufort Street. Cold Creek Nursery and Palmetto Nursery will take them also.
Sam Stephens at Palmetto Nursery has snapdragons ready, as well as lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, collard, and onion plants. Pansies will be ready about the second week in October.