Monday, April 26, 2010

Hello, My Name is A. Zay Leeyuhh…I’m from Chawlston

If plants could talk, I believe that the azalea we think of would be so honey-tongued and gracefully Southern, that one would immediately know these plants came into our country by way of Charleston. Brought in from the Orient, Indica Azaleas, as they were dubbed, are native to Japan, once called the East Indies and thus the Latin name, Rhododendron indicum.

Magnolia Plantation, up the Ashley River from Charleston, was the first home for these wowing imports from Japan. Now, just about every home garden and landscape in the Deep South boasts mounds of these flowering beauties, with the azalea becoming one of the symbols of the Southern garden and landscape.

Port cities such as Savannah, Jacksonville, Mobile, and New Orleans began bringing in these exotic flowers, which felt right at home in our climate. Sharing the same latitude lines as much of Japan, this pocket of the American South and Southern Japan have many of the same temperaments and cultivation requirements for many of the same plants, in turn, why we share so many of the same garden varieties and the species term japonica on many plants.

Yet, native azaleas were already thriving in the Americas and can still be seen flowering the undisturbed habitats and older landscapes of the South. R. flammean, the flame azalea, blooms in late April and even into May and is the color of its name – flame orange into the deepest coral. An absolutely stunning flowering shrub. Rhododendrons can be found all throughout Appalachia and bloom in shades of pink, white, and lavender in late spring. The R. catawbiense is named for the Catawba tribe, and their namesake flower can be found from Alabama to Virginia. R. atlanticum and R. alabamanse are quite striking natives that spread across Dixie. Native azaleas are loosely grouped into the white, pink, and red/orange group, and bloom about the same time as the Indicas and even later, thus providing your garden with weeks of azaleas blooms.

Why the South for such success with azaleas? Our mild winters and acidic soil are the main reasons. Rhododendron family members like an acidic soil, and our clay to loam growing mediums are perfect for them. With so many natives already thriving here, it was only natural to import some relatives from the Far East to complete the family. Success with azaleas is quite obtainable, and I encourage you to find some spots in your garden and landscape for them. Foundation plantings, understory plantings, and high hedgerows, azaleas are fantastic. There is nothing more elegant and quintessentially Southern than banks of ‘Formosa,’ ‘G.G. Gerbing,’ ‘Pride of Mobile,’ and ‘George Taber,’ the most recognized and traditional Southern azaleas, mounding under the dappled shade of pines. Augusta National…need I say more?

Tolerant of full sun but preferring partial shade, i.e. that lacey, pocketed light under the canopies of pines, dogwoods, Japanese maples, and crepe myrtles, azaleas do need that bit of light for floral production. Somewhat shallow rooted, azaleas won’t handle extreme drought nor extreme wet soil, so a well draining soil that allows the roots to collect water and not sit in it is preferable. Fertilizing through Miracid and other acid loving plant fertilizers is helpful as well.

Now as for pruning…this is a hot button for this Farmer. So many people butcher their azaleas into gosh awful shapes not occurring in nature. Azaleas are not meant to be cubes, rhombuses, boxes, or tight hedges, but graceful, mounding shrubs in an organic growth pattern. If your azaleas didn’t bloom, I bet it was because you pruned incorrectly. If your azalea is too big along your house, then you probably planted the wrong cultivar and you chopped it back into something out of horticultural horror film. Prune azaleas immediately after they have finished blooming to gently shape if need be. NO chainsaws, gas shears, or electric clippers needed. Simply snip and prune any “wild hairs” and allow your azaleas natural shape to prevail. For outgrown or neglected gardens, azaleas can be pruned severely and may take a few years to come back, but they will in time. Just leave the gas and electric tools in the shed.

I hope you have some Indica beauties in your yard and some natives as well. The native azaleas make for striking accent and specimen plants and R. indicum can be a backbone in the Southern garden. I think the azaleas of the Deep South are quite amazing in color, form, and hardiness. Enjoy them and be delighted by their presence in the landscape, and if you hear them softly speak in a severely Southern drawl, simply nod back in Southern gentility, and wish them a good day, ya’ll. From this Farmer’s garden to yours, happy gardening!

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Herban Gardening

This begins a series of posts on Herban Gardening…growing herbs, cooking with herbs, and even decorating with herbs. In short, let’s develop a dialogue between your herbs and your kitchen, and thus your life.

I love herbs. I grow them, I cook with them, I eat them and sometimes just smell them for instant links to memories and tastes. Growing up in Hawkinsville as a child, our farm provided space a plenty for me to dabble in herb cultivation. It was there, on our farm, that I first learned what organic gardening was, though I did not know my “organic gardening” was “organic gardening.” I knew our cows ate our grass, drank our spring water, and breathed our surrounding air. So, I knew, somewhat instinctively, that their manure was just good… basic, natural fertilizer – the byproduct of the cows’ natural digestion. What better fertilizer, compost amendment, and soil conditioner could there be?

But what truly struck me was the saying, “you are what you eat.” Since my cows were eating our natural grass, I knew their manure was safe. Same theory went for their meat and milk. Of course, I composted the manure and thoroughly washed the produced, but that simple, basic cycle of good things in, good things out stuck with me and I still believe it today. Those tomatoes, melons, herbs, squash, cucumbers, peppers, and corn were just amazing, and nothing beats a farm fresh produce basket!

As with my Herban Gardening today, I firmly believe in “you are what you eat” moxie. Whether I’m planting herbs grown by a grower I know or starting from seed, I know what is on and in my herbs, thus I know what will be on and in my kitchen, plate, and tummy! So with this in mind, let’s discuss a few of the gardening basics when it comes to growing herbs.

  • Light and water…lots of light but not too much water. Herbs prefer a well-drained soil, which means not a soggy, soupy, mushy growing medium. Water thoroughly and often, but be sure your herbs have enough time to soak up the water you give them each time, developing healthy, deep roots. In the heat of the summer, water in the morning and again if your basil begins to look peaked. Wider leafed herbs such as basil, mint, salvias, and sage will show wilting more so than little leaf thyme and rosemary.
  • Pinching and pruning…the green new growth is definitely the freshest, so pinch off new shoots for cooking and arranging. The woody stems of rosemary and thyme can be used for BBQ skewers, stew flavorings, and bouquet garni. The flavor, essence, and oils are in the leaves, so use them for your culinary creations. Basil and oregano make lovely bolts of flowers that I love to use in arrangements. Allowing your herbs to bloom does make them focus their energy on flower and seed production, rather than foliage…pinch off flowers for arrangements and allow new shoots of leaves to sprout.
  • Companion plantings…thyme, rosemary, and the like, can take hot, dry weather better than the others, thus they make good companions in the garden or container. Mint is very aggressive, so keep it in a pot or let it have its own plot in the garden. It will take over. By grouping herbs that need the same or similar water and light requirements, you will be able to provide your herbs with a more uniform care regimen.
  • Plan for your palette…I grow the herbs I like to eat. I like some better than others, thus more of those. Think also on the different varieties of herbs that abound i.e. Chocolate Mint, Orange Mint, Margarita Mint, Kentucky Colonel Mint – each one a mint, but distinctively different flavors nonetheless. If you cook with a more savory palette, have a heavier garden plot of savory herbs. Plan and plant for your palette, and you’ll be more than thrilled to incorporate your specific herbs into your menu.

I hope you discover your favorite herbs and combos of flavor to bring in from the garden. A lifestyle of garden living is an enriched way of life – complete with the fruits of your labor and tastes of your very own garden. Stay tuned for specifics on several herbs in particular coming soon, from this Farmer’s garden to yours!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


“Love and eggs are best when they are fresh.” Old Russian Proverb

Fresh from the farm eggs – what could be more basic and simple than that? And delicious and nutritious to boot! When it comes down to the nuts and bolts of the kitchen, i.e. eggs, milk, produce, this Farmer prefers a “from the farm to the table” direction. Now I may or may not personally know the farmer (little “f” appropriate here) who grew my kitchen basics, but I do know a Farmer (big “F” here) who’s farm brings us farm fresh eggs.

My father lives on a little farm down in Thomasville, Georgia…a portion of the state that conjures longleaf pines and quail plantations into my mind… so far down into Georgia, that Tallahassee, Florida is the next stop. This area of rich, sandy loam soil is part of the quintessential Deep South, and what better place to raise a bunch of crowing and clucking fowl? Daddy’s little farm has chickens, guineas, and ducks that keep a steady supply of eggs coming our way. Though we often find ourselves trying to find new and inventive egg dishes, the basic principles of eggs are always quite helpful in the kitchen. Keep these in mind for “egg”cellent success with eggs.

When baking, room temperature eggs are needed. The typical method of mixing a cake batter is to cream the butter and sugar, adding the eggs one at a time. This creates an emulsion, thus blending the fats and liquids in your batter. Naturally, fat and liquid are unmixable, so the purpose, the goal, of eggs in the batter is to create a “water-in-fat” emulsion. Cold eggs don’t create the correct chemistry needed to make a successful emulsion, in turn, they can make the batter lose air and cause the cake to fall or become grainy. A grainy batter and cake is proof of an ill-mixed batter.

Now the case for cold eggs…when making a meringue or a dish that calls for egg whites, you need cold eggs to separate the yolk from the albumen, or white. Egg whites are 7/8 water and 1/8 protein, with a few trace elements for good measure. The yolk is ½ water, 1/3 fat, and 1/6 protein – the remaining fractions are lecithin (the emulsifier) and vitamins A, D, and E. Several elements also find their home in the yolk as well. Since the yolk and albumen are thus so different in their fat make up, a cold egg will separate easily, whereas the fat has not had time to “melt.” Try spreading cold butter on bread as opposed to warm butter…same scenario…the fat is congealed when cold and soluble when warm.

Also, when separating the yolk from the white, be sure not to tint the whites with any yolk. The heavy nature of the yolk will prevent your whites from reaching their full, whipped volume. And since an egg white can more than triple its volume, be sure not to contaminate your whites. A good clean metal (copper or stainless steel with cream of tartar and sugar to stiffen) and whisk are keys to fluffy beaten egg whites. Egg whites beat better when at room temperature, so remember this tidbit of kitchen wisdom…Separate when cold, beat when warm.

Eggs should be kept refrigerated and may last up to a month in the fridge. To test whether an egg is still fresh, gently place the egg in some salty water. A fresh egg will sink and a bad egg will float. You may also shake the egg – fresh eggs do not slosh…a bad egg will.

Why use organic, free range eggs? Well, this Farmer believes you are what you eat, and I like to eat what I can see – water, sunlight, grass, etc. A chicken that has been allowed to roam and eat natural food will produce an egg with a yolk higher in Vitamin A, D, and E than one in a cooped up hen house. Plus, these eggs contain higher amounts of beta carotene (7 times more, mind you) and less cholesterol and fat. Besides, I firmly believe the taste is superior to a factory farm egg, and isn’t that what cooking is all about? The taste? Yes sir, yes ma’am! The same goes with milk, but that’s a topic for another post.

“Try this experiment: crack a free range egg in one bowl and a normal farm factory egg in another. Compare the appearances of the eggs to one another. The yolk of the free range egg is a deep vibrant yellow-orange color whereas the factory egg is a wimpy yellow color. The color differentiation is due to the high beta carotene content in the free range yolk – over six times more than factory eggs. Beta carotene, also known as vitamin A, is just one of many benefits free range eggs have to offer.” From

So if you’re driving down the road and see a sign for farm fresh eggs, grab them! Most grocery stores carry free range eggs as well. Learn what you can about eggs and their nutritious benefits and kitchen prowess. From glazing to emulsifying to adding texture, moisture, leavening and flavor, eggs are staples in the kitchen. From this Farmer’s farm to your kitchen, have some fun with eggs!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Think Pink…Backyard, BBQ, and Baby

When two of my dearest friends found out they were expecting their first child, I was so thrilled and excited! I told them “Uncle James” would throw a shower, whether its “pink and green or blue and yellow…either is fine with me!” So, when baby Rainey turned out to be little Sarah Annsley Rainey, the pink and green came on out and my house was the setting!

BBQ, Asian slaw, monogrammed petit fours, and all the traditional accoutrements that accompany a barbeque were prepared and the party was set! Nothing like a Sunday afternoon dinner with a couple dozen of your friends!

Setting the table with the help of my sister Maggie, we chose my lavender dinnerware to accent with the pink checkered table cloth. Since pink and purple share a parent (red), their familiar color kinship is always a winning combination… and who says pink has to be dainty? I think pink is a great color, and one should “go pink or go home!” Thus, a darker magenta pink makes a statement, and for this Farmer, darker, hotter pinks are fun to combine with other colors i.e. chartreuse, silvery green, and other fun shades between. I love indigo and navy blue with dark pink too, so phaleonopsis orchids with hot pink centers added some height and color contrast in my blue and white containers.

Furthering the “pink and green scheme,” I festooned my table with the celebratory colors of our event for little Sarah Ann and created a “living arrangement” of potted hydrangeas, dwarf Artemisia, ruffle leaved ivy, and Rex Begonias. Stems of chartreuse spirea, karume azaleas, and fuzzy budded willow added some drama and fun color to the combo. Lime green moss and green mood moss accentuated the spirea and foliage, thus adding a spiffy border to my arrangement’s rim. Some preserved “shelf” mushrooms added to the au natural style, along with dimension and texture and I enjoy so much.

The day was gorgeous…that perfect, ephemerally fleeting moment in spring when the day is warm, the night is cool, and the dusk time hours are heavenly. Spilling onto tables inside and out, my guests were seated and fed…all of us happy as larks! Some of the best advice I can give hosts is to have fun and enjoy the party! Accommodate for your guests and make them feel right at home…a relaxed host or hostess makes for a relaxed party! Enjoy the food, the fun, and the fellowship and you just may be the happiest guest at the party!

I am always glad to host a fun time, whether it is a baby shower, a Christmas dinner party, or a supper club cocktail. So, remember the rule about this Farmer’s home and garden…if you come over once, you have to come over again! Happy Spring, ya’ll!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Consider the Lilies

Perennial bulbs such as daffodils, tulips, and lilies bring about some of springtime’s best qualities - all making for exceptional cut flowers as well. Even wintertime’s brisk and chilly climate can provide glimpses of floral beauty with Hellebores heralding the coming spring and giving the gardener a glimpse of what is to come. When all things become new again, unthawing from winter’s chill, consider lilies for an accent and spark of year to year blooms for the home and garden.

Bulbaceous and herbaceous lilies alike make fantastic additions to the garden. Planting lily bulbs in the spring ensures sprays of flowers to perfume your garden and interiors as well. Asiatic or Oriental lilies found in florists and flower markets can easily be grown in your own garden. Just think how wonderful it can be to cut ‘Casa Blanca’ lilies direct from your own garden! Hundreds of varieties in numerous sizes, colors, bloom times, and aromas can fill the garden and then vases inside. Start with a collection of a few of your favorite colors and scents or add to a successful assortment already growing in the garden. Lasting for nearly a week as a cut flower and dousing the garden with intoxicating perfumes, lilies spice up the air and atmosphere of the gardening lifestyle.

Filling our churches and homes during Easter, one of my favorite lilies is the Easter Lily (Lilium longiflorum). But, what to do with that Easter Lily now languishing in your home? Plant it in the garden! Once your Easter Lily has spent its time indoors, release it to the great outdoors and have those white, heavenly scented blooms for years to come. A sunny, hearty soil combo and good drainage will give your lily a nice garden home.

A bit of history on these fascinating flowers…Christian tradition tells of these purest of white blossoms springing up in the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus sweat His drops of blood. Sometimes referred to as Madonna Lilies, Gabriel handed Mary a bouquet of white lilies at the Annunciation, thus further enriching this flower’s history.

As for the herbaceous side of lily growing, Daylilies, many of which are repeat bloomers, can be the gardener’s prized blooms in late spring and early summer. One of my favorite varieties is ‘Yangtze,’ like river in China. So many Asian plants have Southern cousins and adapt well to the Deep South climate because of similar latitude lines with the Far East. This daylily in mention is a repeat bloomer, evergreen, fragrant, and the purest yellow. By a repeat bloomer, I mean this plant blooms again at least one time past the typical bloom time. Once in the spring, summer and fall, for this little dynamo and it is a show stopper with each session of blooms. Many other species and cultivars of daylilies bloom in this fashion and I recommend experimenting with colors and bloom times that satisfy your gardening lifestyle.

Besides being knockouts on the perennial stage, these fast growing, eager blooming, and reliable plants are great to share with friends, divided and spread around the garden, and even entertaining, for every part of the daylily is edible. An Asian delicacy is stir fried daylily! Daylilies, as do avid growers of roses, camellias, dahlias, and many other plant specimens, host contests and shows displaying their finest blooms. Visit these garden shows and learn about specifics of the plants in show. These garden shows are reminiscent of fairs and festivals across the Deep South and of a group of gardeners who know how to fuse gardening and its intrinsic rewards – decorating, entertaining and cooking.

“Consider the lilies of the field…” Consider them, plant them, and use them in and a part of garden living.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010


Oh the beautiful dogwood! The sign of spring and the herald of warm days to come, the dogwood coming to our minds is the Cornus florida or flowering Dogwood.

Here in the Deep South, we can boast the flowering dogwood as one of our natives – one of our indigenous species that floats in lacey shifts beneath the dappled shade of pines. White, creamy white to purest white, dogwood blossoms dance along the tips of the pretty gray, square barked trees. Four distinct bracts open into a near perfect cross, complete with nail scars, for this tree is the traditional Christian legend of the Cross’ construction.

Truly a year round tree, this specimen can delight the garden and home landscape each season. In winter, the tight buds and distinctive bark provide handsome architecture to the winter landscape. Of course, the show stopping image is in spring, where the gorgeous and elegant buds open into bracts of a delicious white, dotted with chartreuse and yellow centers. After the show of spring, simple, opposite leaves – in a true green – gracefully hang on branches and stems until autumn, when they turn shades of red and even a smoky aubergine. The fruit, scarlet red ovules, contrast against the autumnal color scheme and hold into winter, providing a wintry tableau for fauna.

Now, I am asked quite often about planting dogwoods. They are so beautiful and make a gorgeous addition to any garden landscape, YET I don’t recommend transplanting Dogwoods from the woods…I leave the planting up to The Almighty! These plants truly bloom where they’re planted naturally, and the native dips and washes, understory bottoms, and acidic loamy spots are the perfect spots for Dogwoods. Enjoy them in their native habitat for best success. But if you are determined to plant one, be sure to select a balled and burlap tree grown from a reputable nursery, free of disease. Plant dogwoods in loamy and acidic soil, amended with organic material such as peat moss or soil conditioner. Not a fan of droughts, do be sure your trees receive a thorough drink once a week during the hottest, driest months.

There are, however, great species of the Cornus genus that I recommend for the home garden and landscape. One of those is the Kousa Dogwood. Another native, this species blooms later than the flowering tree and some varieties are evergreen. Often referred to as Chinese Dogwood, the Kousa Dogwood, and its cultivars, are quite successful within in the Deep South, especially since we share the same temperate and latitude zones as portions of China and Japan.

Requiring little pruning, only cut out dead branches or injured limbs from the tree. Of course, an elegant arrangement of dogwood branches is quite lovely this time of year. When cutting dogwoods for arranging, smash the ends of the stems with a hammer; thus allowing the fibers within the stem to soak up more readily the water. Hydraquick is a great product as well for arranging woody stem and other easily wilting stems. A few branches in a simple container make for a beautiful bouquet and will grace your tabletop for a few days.

When thinking of the perfect understory tree, the tree or shrub that grows satisfying well under the canopies of larger trees, the Dogwood is first in my mind. Each year I am astounded by their grace and shock of brilliant white throughout the woods and vales of my native land…the same native land that sustains marvelous other indigenous flora, but sustains my soul with the beauty of trees such as these.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Remember the May Rule

If you learn nothing else about pruning, remember the May Rule. If the shrub blooms BEFORE May, then prune the plant immediately after (or while it’s blooming to bring the blossoms inside for an arrangement) the shrub has bloomed. This bids well for azaleas, Spring blooming spireas, forsythia, camellias and sassanquas, quince, dogwood, red bud, Japanese magnolia, tea olive, winter daphne, English dogwood, and other “blooms before May” shrubs.

If the shrub blooms AFTER May, prune the plant during dormancy or winter time. This goes for hydrangeas (except Oak Leaf – prune immediately after blooming or during for arrangements), crape myrtles, vitex, roses, althea, grapes (coldest day of the year), Confederate rose, pyrancantha, liriope and small fruit trees.

For Evergreens (hollies, boxwood, conifers, ligustrum...etc), think Christmas decoration…cut them in December and use them for your Holiday d├ęcor! January and February are just fine as well. You want to shape the “bones” of your garden during winter so that the new flush of growth stems from your Winter pruning technique thus keeping your shape…top off any stray branches or “wild hairs” that may occur in spring and early summer.

If you prune your garden correctly, it will reward you with bountiful blooms at appropriate times!
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