The Incredible Edible Fig

Read & Eleanor's Fig PreservesTalk about Time Travel.  Yesterday I bit into my first fig of the season.  One taste and and I was whisked back to my childhood, lying on the warm grass beneath the boughs of a neighbor’s fig tree eating an endless supply of sweet succulent figs. The amazing taste and texture of a fig with all those tiny seeds is an experience like no other.  It’s positively addictive.  With the moist spring we’ve had, 2009 should be a bountiful harvest year.

The cultivation of the fig dates back 4-5 thousand years, before Biblical times, believed first in Egypt, then Crete, and on to ancient Greece, where they are still a traditional part of the daily diet.  Thought to have been brought by Spaniards to the Western Hemisphere in the 16th century and to Jamestown during the founding years, Virginians like to credit Thomas Jefferson for helping to popularize the fig.

Members of the ficus family, fig trees are easy to grow in zone 7 and higher.  They are bug and disease resistant but you must share the harvest with an occasional flock of birds or your dog (they love figs!).  Fig trees reach heights of 30 – 50 feet and can bear two or three crops a season.  In our area, we see two different kinds of figs: Brown Turkey, copper-colored with no neck, and Celeste, purplish and more fleshy.  Locate the plant against or near a south-facing wall so it can benefit from reflected heat during the winter.  If temperatures fall below 15 degrees F, insulate the roots with mulch.

Figs fall into the false-fruit category like strawberries as each fig harbors thousands of tiny fruits. When you pick, make sure the figs are ripe as they do not ripen off the tree.  The taste is fabulous on its own but marries well with a variety of foods and recipes abound.  Preserves is one of my favorite ways to enjoy figs all year and I’m lucky that friends share gifts from their trees. 

figs

Read and Eleanor McGehee of Ware Neck often make preserves from their harvest for Christmas gifts but they’re not divulging their recipe and I’m not pressing them.  (Shhhhh….  I know lemon is one of their secret ingredients.)  Some recipes call for ginger, lemon or the rind of a lemon, while others list cinnamon, cloves, or allspice as ingredients.   Eleanor is a member of The Garden Club of Gloucester.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

A New Secret Garden

When I announced over dinner to mister gardener that I am developing a spot in the yard for a new secret garden, his response was, “A secret garden? Why would anyone want a secret garden?”

Surprised, I had to think a minute.  “Well, it’s the delight of planning, planting, the joy of using it, sharing it and the excitement of discovery.”

“If you ask me (nobody did), I don’t think it makes sense. It would be like me making a beautiful chair in the workshop, then bringing it up to the house and hiding it in a closet.  Maybe I’d share it.  Maybe I wouldn’t.”

I could see we were going nowhere with this.  “You’ve got a point, dear…”  And we switched to the conversation to the wonderful tomato harvest.

Like sugarplums, visions of the new secret garden are dancing in my head.  I have already spent several days hidden deep inside clearing, pruning, transplanting, and making room for what is to be. Dragging in a chair, I sometimes sit and think about the habitat I will create for the birds that I already see in this area, I imagine leading the grandchildren on anmy other bunny adventure picnic to an enchanted new wilderness, and I think of sipping my morning coffee here watching a microcosm what goes on in nature.  There are two bunnies that call this garden home.  They do not scurry when I approach.  They are stretched out on the cool earth.  Like the animals of the Galapagos they have no fear of humans.  So together we share this space, just me and the bunnies.

One fun feature is that I can peek out into the world of bright sunshine and roses and mowed grass but no one notices me hidden in the dappled sunlight in this new space.  The labs walk by searching and sniffing the air and I have seen mister gardener scratch his head and look around for me.  “Yoo hoo,” I say.  Up until my little announcement, he thought I was just weeding. Now he wonders if I’m actually going through with this notion.  I see it on his face.  I think secret gardens must appeal more to Maid Marions of the world who grew up with playhouses and sisters.  I will allow this Merry Man to join me in my secret garden for a cocktail on occasion.  I shall name it Sherwood Forest.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

A Rough End to the Weekend

No relief!Last night, I sat huddled on the couch until midnight with two labs and two cats and no power in the house.  Severe thunderstorms pounded Gloucester County overnight with damaging winds and numerous lightning strikes.  Our only light came from very close and frequent lightning and the only sounds we heard were from loud claps of thunder and window-rattling wind gusts or an occasional whimper from me.

The cause of the storms was hot and muggy weather stalled over the entire Atlantic Seaboard.  Cooler air from the north could not penetrate this system due to a Bermuda High firmly situated over the Atlantic Ocean.  With the High strongly in place, we will not have any relief from the muggy weather for the next several days. The storms that passed through last night could roar through each afternoon through Wednesday. Yikes!

Our water gauge registered 3 1/2″ of rain overnight. The pond is overflowing but okay.  So far mister gardener has discovered one tall Tulip Poplar that was struck by lightning but I think there could be damage on more of our trees.  I can hear chain saws on distant properties so we are not alone.  I do wonder how wide this storm front was that passed through Virginia.

As the dogs and cats and I huddled together during the storm last night, where was mister gardener you might ask?  He was asleep.  He heard nothing.  He saw nothing.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count The Ways.

Not everyone feels the same way I do.  Many love it but others have a love/hate relationship with it, while some simply hate it.  It is not uncommon to hear unflattering whispers about it when gardeners gather:
“It smells bad.”
“You give it an inch and it takes a mile.”
“What’s that yucky sticky secretion?”
“Touch one and you bleed.”
“It never grows where you want it to grow.”
“It’s just a 4’ stick with a flower on the top.”

Tisk tisk.  They’re talking about cleome or spider flower, a bloom I think is exotic and jazzy. For me it was love at first sight.  I’ll be the first to concede the leaves and flowers are pungent, the stems are covered with spines, they are sticky, and you never know where they will germinate. But the flamboyant purple, pink and white blooms are spectacular and I’ll overlook any shortcomings these plants have.Cleome

Let me count the ways that I admire this oft-criticized and maligned flower.

1.  Heat tolerant. Cleome scoffs at high temperatures and brings welcome color to the borders until first frost.
2.  It’s free.  That’s the beauty of a self-seeder.
3.  Fun surprises when the babies appear in the borders.
4.  Drought tolerant.
5.  Bees love it.
6.  Hummingbirds love it.
7.  Bunnies hate it.
8.  They pull up easily.

cleome

Advice:  Water occasionally to prevent leaves from drying.  Plant in established borders so other plants will support the stems.   New varieties like Senorita Rosalita are more compact and have no odor, nor spikes.  They are sterile however.  No fun there.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

How to Rid a Fish Pond of a Snake in One Easy Step

Yesterday I leaned over the pond to adjust the water fountain as I always do, lost my footing and in a flash I hit the water creating a pond-sized tsunami that blanketed the flower bed.  As I fought to regain my footing in the midst of lily pads, I spotted our resident water snake bolt like a rocket from the pond and quickly escape to safety across the yard.  This was a moronic way to solve the snake problem but, hey, I think I scared it enough that it won’t be back.

This harmless 16” snake took up residence about a month ago.  Very timid, it always would disappear into rocks when I approached and my glimpses were fleeting.  But I saw enough to identify it as an Eastern Garter snake, a common snake in the area that can adapt to a variety of habitats including fish ponds.  They mainly eat earthworms but will feed on amphibians and fish.  I tried a variety of ways to catch it including nets, flushing it from the rocks with a hose, but it outfoxed me every time… until now.

Wipe that smile off!

I was relieved that mister gardener did not witness my humiliating misadventure but as I climbed from the pond, I noticed Big Bullfrog just watching me.  Is that a grin on his face?

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

Having Fun With The Brown-headed Nuthatch

Brown-headed nuthatchSunflower seeds, peanuts, and suet bring the gregarious brown-headed nuthatch to our garden feeders in the winter.  Like other nuthatches, they eat seeds at the feeder during the winter months, but during warm weather, the bird will forage for bark-dwelling insects.

In the summer, we are alerted to their arrival by their familiar rubber-ducky squeaks.  We watch them climb up and down the pine trunks in characteristic nuthatch fashion inspecting the bark, the cones and pine bracts in their search for spiders, cockroaches, egg cases, etc., as well as pine nuts.  To have a little fun with them, we hide peanuts under the bark that they love to discover, sometimes with the male feeding his mate.

Sadly, due to the loss of their mature pine forest habitat, it is reported that these 4.5″ birds are declining at a rate of 2% a year, down close to 45% in the last 30 years.  One possible way to help the brown-headed nuthatch is to build a birdhouse.  Make sure the entrance hole is 1 1/4″ in diameter with a 4″ x 4″ floor and 9″ ceiling.  Hinge one side for cleaning, make ventilation holes and attach about 7′ or 8′ above the ground. Next, invite them to your feeder.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

The Cow Killer, also known as Red Velvet Ant

Cow KillerI’m not walking in the garden without shoes again.  Today I saw a Cow Killer as I weeded in my bare feet.  I called for mister gardener to quickly bring me my camera because the insect moves fast.  Named Red Velvet Ant for the fine layer of hairs on the body, it is also called Cow Killer for the venomous punch it packs when it stings.  Actually, it is not an ant at all but one of the 475 species of Velvet Ant parasitic wasps in North America.  The winged male does not sting but the wingless female, usually nocturnal, wanders the flower garden dining on nectar while searching for the tunnels of ground-nesting wasps, especially the cicada wasp.  The female Velvet Ant will sneak into the tunnel and lay eggs on the host larva which the Velvet Ant young will consume after hatching. She has a nearly indestructible exoskeleton which protects her from the sting of the cicada wasp should they meet in the ground nest.

cow killer

The Cow Killer is a solitary wasp and does not live in a colony or have a nest of her own.  She is not aggressive and will try to escape if disturbed.  Interestingly, she does make a sound.  As a child, I would touch one with a twig just to hear the tiny squeak it made.  These beautiful wasps are not numerous and cause no damage to plants. No chemical control is needed.  Teach others about them, appreciate them, and leave them alone as they have a purpose in keeping the bee and wasp population in check.  My advice: Simply defend yourself against a painful sting and wear shoes in the garden.

Red Velvet Ant

See September 12:  “A Red Velvet Ant Stops in for Lunch”

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

Sunshine On A Cloudy Day

Daylilies….
Orange Clockwork: Bill DuPaulIf your idea of a perfect summer garden is drifts of colorful yet carefree flowers, then daylilies are the flower for you. They are a forgiving plant, easy to grow, long-lived, low maintenance, salt tolerant, accept soil from sand to heavy clay, and are ranked among the top five drought resistant plants.  They are perennial and can be used as ground cover, in drifts in borders or used as accents in the landscape. No green thumb is needed to enjoy summer-long blooms in a vast array of colors.

The invitation came from a neighbor, Bill DuPaul, to visit his glorious daylily gardens.  A scientist recently retired from Virginia Institute of Marine Science, Bill is now devoting more time to the science of growing and hybridizing daylilies in Martian Sunset: Registered by Bill DuPaulWare Neck.  He is a 1st class grower who has a strong desire to share his knowledge and his plants with others.

Despite inclement weather, mister gardener and I were delighted to join Bill for a drizzly excursion through his daylily gardens.  Just gazing at the vibrant colors brought us a bit of sunshine beneath the clouds. As we walked we learned more about substance, texture, colors, sizes and forms of daylilies.  We have certainly come a long way from the common orange ditch daylilies that are seen on roadsides, fields, and around mailboxes.  Today’s shades range from yellows, oranges, pinks, purples, near whites, to vibrant reds and one with a unusual touch of blue he is hybridizing.

Bill is meticulous about his methods and choosy about registering the hybrids he develops.  Only the very best of the best will heWare Yellow: Bill DuPaul register with the American Hemerocallis Society.  To date he has registered four but some of his daylilies are local favorites and hotly sought after.  To have a ‘Ware Yellow‘ in your garden gives you certain bragging rights.  Ahem.  Yes, I have two.

You can find Bill’s daylilies for sale at the Williamsburg Farmer’s Market on Tuesdays and Saturdays, May through October.  Bill’s wife, Jaye, is a member of the Garden Club of Gloucester.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

Fireworks Every Day in the Garden

Every two and a half weeks I stand in line at Costco along with other bulk shoppers, their carts full of king-size supplies of food and my cart containing only two items….two king-size bags of sugar, 50 lbs. of sugar to be exact, just enough to fill 7 hummingbird feeders with nectar for about 18 days.  There is a formula to estimate how many hummers reside in an area by the amount of nectar they consume but we aren’t interested in knowing.  We only know we have oodles of Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds that are drawn here year after year by an abundance of food, water, and nesting sites. Suburban and rural gardens are ideal hummingbird habitats with trees, shrubs, open areas of grass or meadows, water and flowers.  With the addition of the right flowers, most gardens will attract these miniature thespians to entertain you in the garden.

leucistic Ruby-Throated Hummingbird in Ware Neck VAThese “glittering garments of the rainbow,” as John James Audubon called them, are the most colorful and prolific bloomers in our gardens from early spring until late fall. We recognize the same individuals as they arrive each spring, not only by their familiarity with us, but by unusual markings on some of them.  Several of our hummers are leucistic, a condition of reduced pigmentation in the feathers.  As new generations are born each spring to these birds, it is interesting to see the white leucistic variations on the heads of the offspring.

We are entertained by the raging territorial battles to protect their nectar source. They battle each other, bees, birds, the dogs and people.  As the ‘king’ of one feeder chases an intruder, several others slip in to have a sip from his nectar cache. These jewel-colored birds with their explosive and ferocious territorial dances at speeds of up to 60 mph provide us with 4th of July fireworks every day of the summer.

Did you know?

  • The Ruby-Throated is the only hummer to breed east of the Mississippi yet during migration you can see other varieties passing through.
  • Hummingbirds are great pollinators, often better than bees because they feed continuously from dawn to dusk.
  • Hummingbirds do eat insects: gnats, mosquitoes, spiders, aphids, etc.  In the early spring they will look for insects trapped in sap from woodpecker holes.
  • Females do all the nest building, often attaching it with spider silk and pine resin, and camouflaging it with lichens and fungus.  The nest is walnut-sized and the 2 eggs are pea-sized.  The male continues to court other females after mating.
  • Predators include spiders, preying mantis, dragonflies and other birds. I have witnessed a bullfrog in our pond jump a foot straight up to within 1/4-inch of a hummer at a pickerel weed bloom. We have rescued them from spider webs and nursed them from collisions with each other.
  • At night, due to their small size and lack of insulation, hummers enter a state of torpor, a hibernation-like condition where the breathing and heart rate slow dramatically.

Nectar recipe:  1 part white granulated sugar to 4 parts water.  According to Bill Williams of William & Mary’s Center for Conservation Biology, it is not necessary to boil the solution, just dissolve the sugar. Male Ruby-Throated HummingbirdThe nectar solution can be stored in the refrigerator for two weeks. Do not use the commercial red dye solution.  Keep the feeder very clean to avoid black mold that can be harmful to the birds.

Bill Williams also states that the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird has recently been documented wintering over in two Tidewater locations.  Is this a new trend? It very well could be he says.

Plants to attract:  hibiscus, flowering quince, currants, weigela, azalea, mimosa, and buddleia.   Flowers to attract: morning glory, columbine, trumpet vine, fuschia, bee balm, bleeding heart, honeysuckle, virginia creeper, and salvia.  Remember, they are attracted to the color red.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester