Thursday, September 18, 2008

This is the last weekend of summer, 2008

We know it by the calendar, but our senses also hint that season is winding down. The sunlight falls at a different angle through the kitchen window, the Chessers’ dogwood is sporting its first blush of red, and the birds are quieter, their chirps replaced by the occasional pop of a wisteria seedpod setting seeds for spring. And, best of all, it is blessedly, blissfully cool.

One of best things about writing a garden column in a small town is the contact it gives you with lots of people – people you see often and people you’ve never met. They call you and invite you to come by and look at their unusual plants, or send you a photo by email or snail mail.

The past few weeks yielded a bumper crop of those kinds of contacts. One call came from New Ellenton. Like me, June Cofer is a plant collector. Less concerned with design and more interested in finding interesting plants, she and her husband have a huge garden filled partly with vegetables – she was harvesting the last of the peas when I arrived – and partly filled with unusual plans she’d purchased, been given, and in many cases, dug up.

The promise of a clump of Coral vine was the thing that tempted me to the Cofer’s garden in the first place. Coral vine is an annual or perennial vine, depending on how the winter treats it, that is evergreen in warmer climates where it may become invasive. Here it will die back in winter and, if mulched and protected a little, will reappear in spring with a mass of delicate pink flowers and arrow shaped leaves. “Give it something to climb on,” she warned me. “It grows a lot over the summer.”

Though Ms. Cofer’s Coral Vine had no flowers, my friend Linda Christine knew where there was one blooming and took me to Gem Lakes to see it. The Shealy’s garden in Gem Lakes is abounding in color now, and the Coral Vine, buzzing with bees, made a lush cover over the trellis where it was planted.

Mrs. Cofer had other plants she wanted to share that I would have loved to take off her hands if I could - a healthy loquat tree, a sprawling Angel Trumpet.

It’s Angel Trumpet time now. Kathy Walker, also of New Ellenton, sent me a photo of her Angel Trumpet, taller the roof of her house.

I don’t know if there’s a more beautiful, more elegant flower than the easy to grow Angel Trumpet. Like hydrangeas of early summer, we can’t let fall go by without at least acknowledging its presence. We whacked it down to the ground after the freeze killed it last winter. Then, with the first warm days of spring, shoots begin to emerge from the mass of roots. By now, it’s gigantic, with fragrant, trumpet-shaped blossoms dangling from its branches.

Lisa Roberts sent me a photo of another plant on steroids she has growing in her front yard. She’d purchased the seeds for Castor Bean at the Pascalina Herbe Faire in the spring and said she felt like Jack that planted the Beanstalk. The plants are already twice the height of her 6’2” son with burgundy palm-shaped leaves and fuzzy seed pods that are a great contrast in shape and texture with many other late summer flowers and foliage plants. They grow from seed fairly easily. Just be careful. They are quite poisonous.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

"In Georgia, the legend says ...

The May River toward Palmetto Bluff

That you must close your windows
At night to keep it out of the house."

from “Kudzu” by James Dickey

I’ve learned a lot about gardening from my patient friend Judy. She’s introduced me to dozens of interesting plants. She taught me about how I should be careful not to get fertilizer on the leaves of the plants I’m fertilizing and which kinds of tomatoes she thinks are the best to grow and when to plant sweet peas. Best of all, she didn’t even complain when I planted a potato vine and a five-leafed akebia vine on the arbor that stands between her garden and mine. These two have the Banksia Rose in a full-nelson now, despite my efforts to get rid of them.

Anytime a gardener plants an unusual plant, it pays to look into its background first. No matter how attractive or how beneficial a plant is, it looses its charm when you can’t control it. Take Kudzu, for instance. Judy and I were sitting near a bank overlooking the May River in Bluffton this weekend when I noticed a purple flower spike jutting up from a healthy looking vine covering the river’s bank. The flowers were pea-like in a rich purple color, on six or eight inch long spikes, and they smelled like grape Nehi.

If I hadn’t known better, I’d have picked some of it and brought it home, but being a Georgia girl, as I am, I recognized the thing by its leaves. Pueraria montana var. lobata is its botanical name, but it’s more commonly known as Kudzu.

You see Kudzu all over the southeastern United States, but it always has seemed the most abundant along I-20 between here in Atlanta. That may not be my imagination.

Kudzu was introduced into the United States in 1876 at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Japanese exhibit contained a garden filled with the vine, bearing sweet smelling blooms and healthy green leaves. It began to be planted first ornamentally. Then during the Great Depression, the Soil Conservation Service encouraged people to plant it for erosion control.

Alabama filmmaker Max Shores tells us that Kudzu’s most vocal advocate was Channing Cope of Covington, Georgia, a WSB-AM (Atlanta) radio personality. During the 1940’s Cope traveled across the southeast starting Kudzu Clubs to honor what he called “the miracle vine.”

Covington, Georgia is right there in the Kudzu corridor along the interstate. Maybe the proliferation of the vine there was not just in my head.

Cope was disappointed when the U.S. government stopped advocating the use of Kudzu in 1953. Kudzu just grows too well here it seems. Our winters aren’t cold enough to kill back the roots, and Kudzu spreads like a creature from a science fiction novel. The vines grow as much as a foot per day during the summer, over trees, power poles, and anything else it comes in contact with.
To get rid of it, you must continuously cut back the leaves to deplete its carbohydrate supply or destroy the root crown, a fibrous mass of tissue that sits on top of the root, which can regenerate, even it’s dumped in another site.
Some parts of Kudzu are edible. The young leaves can be used for salad, or cooked like spinach. I’ve read about, but never tried, the flowers of Kudzu that may be battered and fried or made into jelly, and the roots that can be cooked as well. Parts of Kudzu are used in herbal medicine.
The southeastern United States is no longer the only area with claim to Kudzu creep. Dr. Harry Shealy tells me that it has spread north to Illinois and west to Texas. It’s also invaded South Africa, Malaysia and some western Pacific Islands. But we may claim the most acres covered – over 2,000,000.

Kudzu blooms everywhere, he says, not only along the coast. The flowers just don’t show up well from a distance. If I like the flowers, and they are quite attractive, I could plant a Millettia, or Evergreen Wisteria vine, a much more mannerly look-alike. But I won’t plant a Kudzu vine on the arbor or anywhere else. That might push Judy over the edge.

For a county of around 150,000, Aiken is well represented in “Garden and Gun” magazine’s “50 Best of the New South” this month. The article names Beech Island native Jenks Farmer, Best Horticulturist . Jenks is curator and designer of Moore Farms in Lake City, SC and owner of Lush Life Nursery, a great mail-order source for Crinum Lilies. Woodlanders’ Nursery, right here in downtown Aiken, is listed as “Best Nursery.” There is plenty of competition in both arenas. Hometown boys make good!