Saturday, February 24, 2007

Blue-eyed grass

One of our native irises, Blue-Eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium atlanticum). Very tough, very perennial, very cheery.

From the comments:
Given where I found it I probably don't have sufficient soil moisture for it at my place. Mores the pity.

It's been my experience that B-EG is very drought tolerant, thriving on neglect. I had a bunch of these in a ceramic pot, outside of irrigation, during the driest summer EVER in Central Florida, and they came through unscathed. Under irrigation, they spread quickly and are easily transplanted.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007


I noticed yesterday that my freesia has begun to bloom -- a cherry-red stalk from the freesia that I planted a year ago December. The new blooms are mixing it up a bit with a Buddleia here. Several other plants from the same batch are getting ready to bloom. I'd say about half the freesia I planted a year ago are back this season, about what I've come to expect in perennial bulbs here in FLA. Up north, of course, they'd have proliferated. Here many of them succumb to the heat, humidity, and excessively-drained soils.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

A garden update in pictures

Pea vines ('Tall Telephone') have reached the top of my seven-foot frame.Fava bean ('Windsor) blossoms.
Blueberries ('Emerald')
Chickasaw Plum blossoms.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

A brief natural history of Arugula

I've been very happy with the 'Apollo' cultivar of Arugula that's been growing in my garden all winter. I can harvest a couple of salads worth every ten days from a single square foot of the garden. Totally pest free. Healthful. Tasty.

Arugula refers to several species, including Eruca sativa (Eruca means rough or harsh, presumably referring to the peppery flavor of Rocket; sativa refers to a cultivated rather than wild plant) and some spp. in the Diplotaxis ("double rows," referring to the double rows of seeds) genus. The Eruca, which I believe is the one almost universally called Arugula here in the States, is in the Brassicaceae, so closely related to cabbages and mustards.

It was a well-known herb in ancient times, gathered for eons as a potherb, and surely part of the horta (χορτα), the mixed greens gathered by Greeks and Etruscans that formed one of the bases of their diets.

We find it, for instance, mentioned in the Book of Kings:
4:39 One went out into the field to gather herbs [oroth, widely believed to be E. sativa], and found a wild vine, and gathered of it wild gourds his lap full, and came and shred them into the pot of stew; for they didn’t recognize them. So they poured out for the men to eat. It happened, as they were eating of the stew, that they cried out, and said, “Man of God, there is death in the pot!” They could not eat of it.
Mmmm. Death in the pot. (My guess: Zucchini!) Guess they should have brought back the Arugula.

In most cultures where it is indigenous (the Mediterranean basin and some parts of western Asia, particularly Turkey), it has been considered an aphrodisiac, but it was more than a classical Spanish Fly: I've found it cited as a cure for freckles, baldness, and intestinal worms. Its healing virtues are lauded as a cure for children's coughs, as a way to increase milk flow, and as a way to "take away the ill-scent of the arm pits." Given that one book I came across referred to the smell of Arugula as "like rancid bacon," one wonders if this might not be another case of the cure being worse than the disease. (Personally, I like the bitter and peppery smell of Arugula, and I'll often mash a leaf between finger and thumb while watering or weeding.)

I read that Pliny advises one to eat Arugula seeds before being whipped: Anyone who does so shall be "so hardened, that he shall easily endure the pain." The Talmud teaches us that it can be used to treat eye infections.

Most cookbooks I've glanced in claim that Arugula first gained popularity here in the States in the 1990s, taking its place alongside roasted red peppers during the mania for all things Mediterranean. However, I read in a 1960 New York Times article ("A Green by Any Name; Pungent Ingredient Is Cause of Confusion for City Shopper Arugula -- or Rocket -- Is the Secret of Experts' Salads") that Craig Claiborne, the Times food critic, found the herb everywhere in New York City: "Most Italian chefs know [that Arugula] is the secret ingredient of their salads-about-town." He lists a half-dozen stores in the area that sell bundles of the stuff for fifteen to nineteen cents, about the price of spinach. (The Publix down the street sells a couple ounces of "baby Arugula" for close to $4!)

Galen, the Greek physician whose theories dominated 'medicine' for over a thousand years, proclaimed Rocket to be "hot and dry in the third degree" and therefore unfit to be eaten alone. He instructed that the herb be eaten with "cold herbs" like lettuce and purslane. Galen's advice aside, I eat the stuff straight with a cheesy vinaigrette or stacked high on a roast-beef sandwich. It's an undemanding herb, and the 'Apollo' cultivar is ready to pick within a few weeks. The seeds germinate at nearly 100% and transplant easily from a seedling tray into my garden. I've tried the wild stuff, but it grows much more slowly and the leaves are far smaller and have an unpleasant rubbery texture.

(The photographs are, from top down, 'Apollo', "wild" arugula (E. sativa) and '

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Garden crops for Florida Summers

From a gardening standpoint, we have three seasons here in Florida: We have an extended fall, which runs from the first cold, dry airmass that hits Florida sometime in late October until the last frost date, sometime in February. Spring lasts from mid-February until the onslaught of the wet season, which starts most years the first half of June. Summer lasts until late October, etc. etc.

You can, with good timing and a little luck, grow really just about anything during fall and spring. For instance, I often buy mums in late October for a little color and to replace my summer annuals (zins, dahlias, tithonia). Those mums bloom for a couple of months, go dormant in December, and then, if I'm patient, will bloom again abundantly in March. I buy pansies and Johny Jump-ups in November, with the first sustained cool spell. They bloom constantly and reliably all the way until at least the end of May the beginning of May. Biennials like Foxgloves (Foxy) and Poppies, when planted in November and December, bloom in March and April. The "cold season" (November through the beginning of May) find my roses in full glory.

But our summer is a lot like the winter up north: Many plants -- flowering and vegetable -- cannot make it through June and July, and those that do usually die of fungal issues during September's combination of shorter days, hot nights and constant deluge. By October, I need those mums to add a life back to the garden.

Anyway, I've really been into the whole veg gardening thing. I've pulled pounds of Collards, tons of Rocket, bunches of carrots, turnips, lots of lettuce, some strawberries, fennel... Just recently, my peas have started to produce prolifically. My favas look to be not far behind.

I'm now ramping up my spring garden, with a couple dozen tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and various warm-season greens like chard and spinach hybrids. I expect to switch over to warm-weather gardening soon, pulling up the brassicas and cool-weather plants and replacing them with the Solanaceae (tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, etc.). I've got dozens of seedlings ready to transplant into my intensively-planted beds.

That phase of the garden, though, will come to an end in June. Fungal diseases, nematodes, insect damage and dry spells just make it not worth my while. What to plant then?

I ordered some vegetables for summer planting from ECHO, which should do pretty well here in Central Florida:
  • Quailgrass (Lagos Spinach)
  • Edible Amaranth
  • New Zealand Spinach
  • Roselle (Florida Cranberry, Red Sorrel)
  • Ethiopian Kale
Descriptions of all these plants can be found here.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

In Niger, Trees and Crops Turn Back the Desert - New York Times

In Niger, Trees and Crops Turn Back the Desert - New York Times: "Better conservation and improved rainfall have led to at least 7.4 million newly tree-covered acres in Niger, researchers have found, achieved largely without relying on the large-scale planting of trees or other expensive methods often advocated by African politicians and aid groups for halting desertification, the process by which soil loses its fertility.

Recent studies of vegetation patterns, based on detailed satellite images and on-the-ground inventories of trees, have found that Niger, a place of persistent hunger and deprivation, has recently added millions of new trees and is now far greener than it was 30 years ago."