It has been three years since I wrote my last Gardener's Journal but not because I didn't want to. I just didn't feel like it because so many other things were going on. The hurricanes of 2004 left me pretty freaked out and the Katrina debacle just scared the hell out of me. At about the same time I became a full time caregiver for a family member. Taking care of someone demands a lot of time and energy so I gave up writing to focus on my duties. So instead of doing a lot a gardening projects and writing about them in these columns I learned care giving skills. For me that included not just learning about the medicines and more mundane things as well. Though it's hardly delicious, I learned how to cook and though less than aseptic, I learned how to clean and manage a household. Care giving aside, this is hard work!
Work aside, care giving is also emotionally exhausting. The most difficult part is helplessly watching a loved suffer day after day and not be able to do anything about it. It can become extremely overwhelming at times which is why I am lucky because I have two things to help me cope. The first are dog friends. Bubba and Sue the Great Danes are both getting old but they're still with me and it is such a comfort to have them around. The other is Floridata. Over the past few years I designed new features that are collectively call Floridata 2.0. Actually building the new system involved a lot of learning - like new ways to store information and build programs that run "in the cloud" using resources software building blocks that are distributed across the Internet (I plan to write more about this in future Journals). Since many of these resources are still in development and are being tested I decided to take a break, write some Journals and enjoy some Spring gardening projects.
I was also getting a little squirrely after spending three years out in the woods isolated from non-dog social interactions. Now that everyone around here is feeling better, it seems like a good time to get out and about. - so I headed cross-county to see what was growing at Steve's place.
To fortify myself for the journey, I pit-stopped at Starbucks to stock up on Rice Krispie marshmallow squares and a quad shot of espresso. I pulled onto Capital Circle which is in the process of being widened to six lanes in my part of Tallahassee, Florida. While this might sound sad it is actually not bad because they're doing a beautiful job. They're using drought tolerant landscaping and it looks like they're using mostly native plants. One non-native that I really like is the star magnolia (Magnolia stellata). Rows of these line sections of the road and they've been blooming for weeks now. I expect they'll be finishing up this week then will leaf out. The trees are shrubby tear drop shape, compact in size, drought tolerant and free of pest problems - I love'em!
I drove on Capital Circle until it dumped me somewhere near I-10 and Thomasville Road in the middle of a construction zone. I became disoriented for an astonishingly long period of time while I tried to figure how to navigate all of the new and under construction overpasses and ramps. It seems like if you don't leave your neighborhood for a few years they up and change everything around on you everywhere else.
By the time I happened upon the ramp to westbound I-10 which was also being widened, I was in a state of urgency. And I was relieved when I made it to the rest area outside of town so I could be relieved of the four shots of and the triple shot tall white chocolate mocha which I failed to mention in the earlier paragraph but which was so good it was worth the discomfort. More relaxed now, I noticed that the daylilies (Hemerocallis spp.) growing in the planters in front of the vending machines (don't try the machine espresso - blech!) are already blooming while the ones in my garden were just coming up.
Back on I-10, I drove over the Ochlockonee River (not pronounced how it looks) and was in Gadsden County, Florida which was once a large producer of tobacco grown under shade cloth. It's tobacco that is pampered to produce thin fine textured leaves that are used to roll cigars. I'm not sure if any one still grows shade tobacco there but I do know that they produce tons of tomatoes. In fact this week the commercial growers are busy setting out their plants. On this handsome stretch of I-10, the lanes are separated by a wide wooded strip of wooded, rolling countryside. Because it's the "bare season" I was able to sneak peeks at dogwood trees (Cornus florida) beginning to bloom and green mounds of needle palms (Rhapidophyllum hystrix spp.) growing from the hillsides. In the low places and along the creeks were solid carpets of white wildflowers. I was tempted to stop the car and climb out to see what they were but didn't because I just wasn't in the mood to explain to the trooper parked nearby what I was doing. Later I learned from Steve that they are Atamasco lilies (Zephyranthes atamasca) and he had been unsuccessfully looking for them just the day before.
I exited the freeway and headed south through some very pretty rolling farm country and hardwood forests. The grass was greening up, the redbud trees (Cercis canadensis) were in full glory and the azaleas (Rhododendron spp.) and other spring bloomers were just now gearing up. As I neared Steve's road, I discovered that large tracts of sand pine in the Talquin State Forest had been clear cut (to be replaced with longleaf pine) I realized that I wasn't near Steve's road any longer because I was in the next county. I had missed a turn. Since it was a nice day I didn't cuss and even though the landmark barbeque place sign I depend on had disappeared I eventually found my way to Steve's where I found him busy planting out some tomatoes and tatumi squash.
It's always fun to visit Steve and his garden. I've been coming here for more than ten years and it's fascinating to watch the progress of plants that you only see periodically. There's a weeping yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) that's rocketed from 5 ft to about 30 ft in just a few years and pawpaws (Asimina triloba) that have grown from scrawny sticks to towering trees. Even the vegetable garden itself has imperceptibly grown in size.
The most noticeable addition since my last visit was the number of citrus trees - he now has a regular mini-orchard of cold-hardy citrus planted over by his bee hives (we're planning an article on bee-keeping later this spring). Here in North Florida we're a couple of hundred miles north of the state's commercial citrus growing area. Because of semi-frequent frosts and freezes the familiar (but tender) sweet oranges like 'Valencia' and 'Navel' (Citrus sinensis) cannot be grown. Steve's citrus collection is composed of species and hybrids that can take a freeze and still survive and bear fruit.
Two of my favorites are the Meyer lemon (Citrus meyeri) and satsuma tangerine (Citrus reticulata). The Meyer lemon is the centerpiece of an island flower bend. It's kept neatly trimmed and is always loaded with fruit - and at times with both flower and fruit! He also grows the Rangpur lime (Citrus x limonia) which doesn't look like a lime at all but from which a wonderful pie can be made. One of his latest additions is a pomello (Citrus maxima) which, even though is only about 5 ft tall already has huge fruits hanging from it.
He has several smaller citrus species growing near his porch which must smell heavenly when all these begin to bloom at once (the Rangpur lime is already blooming). He has a couple kinds of kumquats (Fortunella spp.) and calamondin (X Citrofortunella microcarpa) both of which are small trees (they grow well in containers too) and extremely attractive. He also showed me some of his "quats" which are citrus that are hybridized with the cold-hardy kumquat - he has orangequat, limequat and whatever other quats are to be had.
We finished up the tour with a visit to the vegetable garden - the best part! We tasted stem lettuce which has a crispy stem that puts iceburg lettuce to shame. I also scored some chicory (Cichorum intybus) including a beautiful head of red radicchio that was delicious. Steve also grows the unusual rattail radish (Raphanus sativus) which has pretty flowers and long skinny seed pods which are what you eat instead of the root. The pods taste just like radish roots and I am told that they are perfect for snacking on while drinking beer (they're called "beer radish" in German).
Steve always treats me to souvenirs of my visits. This time I scored big pots of ginger (Zingiber officinale) which is great since mine died out years ago and cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum) which I've never grown. The ginger is frozen back to the ground in our cold Zone 8 winters but bounce back in warm weather becoming very attractive foliage specimens for a dark shady area I have over by the dog runs. I'm not sure if the cardamom will return so I'm going to keep part of it growing in a pot that I can bring indoors during winter cold snaps. He also gave me some young angel trumpet (Brugmansia suaveolens) in white and yellow which is perfect since a lot of mine might not return because I didn't care for them during last summer's drought. Another souvenir was a pot of horsetail rush (Equisetum hyemale) - I love this stuff the jointed stems are very decorative and though it is a wetlands plant it will thrive in regular garden soil which is where I plan to grow mine.
What a great trip! It was great getting out of the house for a few hours on such a beautiful (almost) spring day. I would have been perfect if I hadn't impulse-purchased a bag of fried pork skins on the way home which can be hazardous to your comfort and health if unwisely consumed in bag quantities at short intervals of time. Choose travel snacks wisely.
In the next Journal I'll show you where I ripped out a huge clump of prickly pear cactus. I'm now replanting the space with drought tolerant plants that will attract butterflies.
Lastly I want to apologize to all of the emails that went unanswered over the past several years. I run Floridata on my own and often there's just more stuff to do than I have time to do them so important things often don't get accomplished. To those who sent nice messages and encouragement I especially want to thank. Those kind words helped me through some bleak periods during the past three years and helped me to stay motivated and productive. Thanks to everyone for or reading (or at least scrolling) my newly revived Gardener's Journal to the very end. Please look for my next Journal and I will show you the progress of some of my projects of the past three years. - Jack
Click here for the archive of links to Jack's earlier Journals from 2001 - 2005