Thursday, August 21, 2008

If You Go To the Beach, You're Going to get Sand in Your Bed

It was not the worst house we’ve ever rented. In some ways, it surpassed the houses where we stayed on Pawleys Island in the 70’s. This house had air-conditioning, practically unheard of in a rental then. It had a dishwasher. We washed and dried by hand. It had a washer and dryer. We either went to the laundromat or wore dirty. And this house had a microwave, which, in the early 70’s, had been invented but nobody owned one.

This house, on another South Carolina beach, was surrounded by a little grass, a lot of ants and a whole lot of sand, which, because the house sat flat on the ground, made its way into the house, and even our beds, with regularity, and the house broom didn’t get much rest.

Here in Aiken, on the edge of the sandhills, we fight another battle with sand. Peaches, watermelons and peanuts love sandy soil, but most other garden and landscape plants need more nutrients than it provides. Sandy soil is good for plants that don’t like wet feet, but hard on plants that need a lot of water, so we must constantly amend with humus and other organic material.

But Sand is what makes the beach a beach, I think. A rocky beach should be called something else. Sand is “nature’s true grit,” says Todd Ballantine in his wonderful book about beach ecology, “Tideland Treasure.” .

Three things make up our beach sand, he says. Quartz is weathered from Appalachian granite and was transported here by ancient rivers. Ground up sea shells are calcium carbonate pulverized by sea surf. The final ingredient is detritus from plants, animals, plankton skeletons, fecal pellets and bacteria. Sand feels gritty, as opposed to silt, which is smaller grained and feels smooth. Sand feels especially gritty when it’s rubbed between the bottom sheet and your bare legs.

It was only a short walk across the sand dunes to the beach from our house. Sea Oats are the most plentiful plants on the dunes. They are the seashore’s indispensable “amber waves of grain” with creamy panicles on six foot stalks that bend in the intense beach wind. A wild relative of the oats from which oatmeal is made, Sea Oats are there for more than just decoration. These Sea Oats send roots deep down into the dunes and help hold them in place.

Other beach grasses populate the dunes as well. Bitter panic grass, broomsedge, nutgrass, and the nasty, foot-puncturing sandspur help keep the dunes from blowing away.

Besides the sandspur, other shore plants have developed thorny defenses against marauding herbivores. Horse nettle, Solanum carolinense, is close kin to our garden tomato (the same genus) and is familiar to Aiken gardeners as an irritating yellow flowered, thorny spined plant that pops up regularly in our flower and vegetable beds.

Other spiky plants that grow wild on the dunes are also grown as ornamentals in xeriscaping. Yucca has sharp, pointed leaves that grow in a rosette shape with a tall candelabra of white flowers. Prickly Pear cactus pops up here and there and bears a flower and a fruit that can be made into jelly.

Closer to the ground, yellow flowering Evening Primrose still blooms along with wild Morning Glory. One of the most prevalent beach plants and one that that we don’t seeing growing wild in Aiken is the round leaved Beach Pennywort. And there’s smilax, of course.

All these plants have adapted to grow in the sand in the hot, windy, salty conditions that exist along the shore. If it weren’t for them, the dunes would blow away or wash away and eventually the houses would too. We wouldn’t have our yearly family vacation, where the big boys can go fishing and the little boys can dig a hole to China and fill it with ocean water.

So it wasn’t the best house. Most mornings began with the chirp of two-year-old Elliot calling, “Mammommy! PopPop!” and ended with a quiet night on the porch with his big brother who’s now four and fascinated with sea turtles. “Look, grandmommy, the moon looks like a seashell.” Angel voices. What’s a little sand in your bed?

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Picks and Pans for Summer 08

There’s nothing like late August in the South Carolina midlands to separate the sheep from the goats. We’ve rolled along all summer, enticed by wonderful flowering things we’ve seen growing at the nursery or in glossy photos in magazines. We’ve brought them home and planted them in the appropriate place in the garden and expected them to look like they did in the picture or newly emerged from the greenhouse.

Just like the dress from Talbots that looks fabulous in a size 6 on a 5’9” model in the catalog but not quite the same in a size 14 on you in front of the full length mirror in your bedroom, real life sometimes doesn’t live up to exactly what we expected.

Still in a testing mood after last week’s tomato test, I want to gather some recommendations from Aiken Gardeners for their favorite hardy plants for local gardens. I’ll start with some of my picks and pans:

Dragonwing Begonia. The bright red flowers and thick shiny leaves of this annual make it a star in my book. Dragonwing seems resistant to pests – something I’ve been fighting all summer in some parts of my garden. It’s able to stand up to a few weeks of low water when the sprinkler head was broken, and to just be an all around good plant. It seems happy in shade or a whole lot of sun.
Alternantha. I think this variety is called “Party Time,” though there are dozens of other varieties in many colors with different leaf shapes to recommend. I planted a few pots of this rather late and it still seems to be thriving. Alternanthera is grown for its foliage, and this particular variety has pink and green leaves that fill in the holes with color without the demands of a flowering plant. Tom Rapp uses a chartreuse alternanthera with small, bright green leaves in some of the city plantings and has for several years. That’s a clue that it’s a hardy plant.
Purple fountain grass. There’s nothing like the drought tolerant grasses to add interest and texture to a bed. This fountain grass is especially attractive as it nods in the morning breeze. Too bad it won’t bloom year round.
Black-eyed Susan. Probably the most common wildflower across the United States, a sign that it can deal with hot summers and occasional neglect.
Lantana. Any plant that survives the summer on the west side of my house out of sprinkler range, and returns every year in a burst of yellow, butterfly loving color, can stay in my garden as long as I can turn a spade.

And now for the plants that did not live up to my expectations.
Sun Coleus. I know I have mentioned more than once that whatever is eating plants in the back bed must be especially fond of these coleus. I have grown them for years and they always seemed to stand out as good plants. This year I’m ready to be done with them. Is it something I said? Have I taken them for granted? I’ve vowed to give this bed a thorough renewing this fall and then again in spring. Coleus gets one more chance and we’ll part for good.
Plectranthus ‘Mona Lavender” She looked so pretty in the hanging baskets – so hardy and soft. Mona must have given the critters of the night a come hither look and they took her up on the invitation. They’ve been munching on those leaves all summer. No leaves, so no flowers. No more Mona for me unless it’s in a hanging basket.
Some of the new coneflowers. I think I’ll stick with the old reliable varieties. ‘Magnus’ is a good one that’s been around a while and has proven itself.


.“You know what they said when the old lady kissed the cow…there’s no accounting for taste.” Old Elder family saying.

They’re celebrating in Atlanta these days. Not because the Dogs were the preseason pick for number one in the nation for the first time ever. That seems to make everybody a bit nervous. But they’ve had rain! Though Lake Lanier is still low, this July’s rainfall was above average and watering is again allowed, though there are still some restrictions.

Judging by the abundance of produce at one small Farmers’ Market, in the parking lot of St. Phillips Cathedral on Peachtree Road in Buckhead, there’s a bumper crop of vegetables – and not your ordinary vegetables.

I’ve been reading, and writing, about heirloom vegetables, primarily tomatoes, for the past two years. I planted some heirloom tomatoes last year and some more this year, but had not had much success. I wanted to taste them and see if they really were as good as promised. Wanting some to keep and some to give some away, I chose four, maybe five, varieties, picked two of each variety and divided them into two bags.

“That’ll be $17.95,” said the girl behind the table. Gulp. That was somewhere around two dollars a tomato. These had better be good.

I gave some away, supplementing my gift with some less expensive hybrids, and brought home one of each variety for the First Annual Tomato Taste Test – held in the kitchen, just before dinner on Sunday night. The pricey heirloom tomatoes would be judged against hybrid tomatoes straight from the side bed, just picked that afternoon. These hybrids were planted in fresh, fertilized soil back in the spring. They get regular watering from the sprinkler and have stayed healthy all summer without additional fertilizer or insecticides.

The judges of the F.A.T.T. Test were my husband Hank, our son David, and me. Each type of tomato was sliced and put on a separate plate, with a light sprinkle of salt.

We found, not surprisingly, that after thirty-nine years of marriage, Hank and I have similar taste. The bright red, juicy, fresh out of our garden tomato was our favorite. Were we influenced by the fact that it was red and juicy and we knew it was fresh? Probably. David liked his a bit firmer and liked one of the heirlooms better.

“Aunt Ruby’s German Green,” “Georgia Streak,” and ”Black from Tula” were the heirlooms we tried. The comments about them were inconsistent. We thought the heirlooms were tasty, but hardly worth two bucks each.

I’m not sure what I expected. I suppose the heirloom tomato sensation is, in fact, a reaction to those awful grocery store tomatoes, the ones grown for their thick skin and shippability that are totally lacking in taste. If that’s your basis for comparison, there’s no contest. The hybrid vs. heirloom race is about even until you consider that heirlooms are a little harder to find and harder to grow. Then hybrid’s the winner I think.
What’s the difference between a hybrid, a heirloom, and a genetically modified tomato? Heirloom vegetables are simply vegetables that come from seed that has been saved and grown for a period of years. To be capable of being saved, they must be open pollinated, meaning the seeds produce seedlings just like the parent plant.
Hybrids, the kind of tomatoes we usually grow and buy at the local farmers’ market, are crosses between different plants in an effort to get the best features of both parents. The reason varieties such as Better Boy, Early Girl, Marion (developed at Clemson – my friend Judy’s favorite) have survived to be grown in back yard gardens is that they are fairly easy to grow, are resistant to disease, and they’re pretty tasty, especially when you pick them straight off the vine.
Genetically modified plants have been genetically altered using molecular genetics techniques such as gene cloning and protein engineering. The FDA promises us they are safe and are being developed so that we can buy a tasty tomato at Kroger in the middle of the winter. With some exceptions – the Romas and Grape Tomatoes aren’t so bad – I’d say they need to keep working on it.
Give me the Aiken Farmers’ Market any day, where the vegetables are reasonably priced and taste as good as any I know. Hollie Gartman tells me she hopes to have sweet Silver King corn until September to go with the table full of tomatoes she displays every week.
But I’m still pulling for the Bulldogs.