Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Gardening Hints and Helps. Insect Eating Plants.

Gardening Hints and Helps

Insect Eating Plants

            When I started this blog I promised that I’d touch on gardening every now and then, because I believe that plants and trees give a house character, make it more than a drab pile of bricks and wood. Raising plants and giving my own house character has been a pastime of mine for nearly 40 years. Some of you may know that I used to write a weekly column on gardening for the Prattville Progress and The Montgomery Independent, and then later on for the Master Gardener Newsletter. I’ve always loved plants, but in recent years have slowed down and cut back the time I put into them. A few years ago, for instance, I had over 200 potted plants—ones that had to be put in my greenhouse or Florida room every winter. The task of moving all those plants twice a year became too much for me. Of course, when I say “twice a year,” I’m being optimistic. My usual routine every spring was (still is) to begin taking my plants outside early—long before the last frost—and then bringing them back to the greenhouse. Not just one time, either. Some years I moved as many as 25 of those plants five times before the frost quit coming in. The ones I moved were the biggest, too--my lemon, the plumerias, etc., growing fast and needing larger pots every year. Impatience and unreasonable optimism have always been two of my failures. Recently, another failure has been my diligence in writing these columns—a failure I intend to rectify with this article on “Bug Eaters.”

         (Above is a picture of one of my hanging baskets filled with "bug eaters." On the left side is a clump of Venus fly traps, in the middle a group of very fat, well-fed pitcher plants, and on the right a skinny type of pitcher plant--one I found and tried this year for the first time.)

        (Above is a closeup of my Venus fly trap. At first I was worried that it might be too close to the pitcher plants, but as every Alabamian knows, there is no shortage of bugs here.) 

            I believe it was because of my grandchildren that I first began raising insect-eating plants with any seriousness. If you’ve read my 500 Opinions blog, you know that when I eat my meals, I usually eat one item at a time. It was the same way with me when it came to growing different types of plants. For the first fifteen years of my delayed adulthood . . . (In other words, the fifteen years after I turned thirty, up to the age of forty-five. I was a late bloomer. I was also an English major, so I have to use lots of flowery similes and metaphors in my writing) . . . As I was saying, for the first fifteen years of my delayed adulthood, the only plants I grew were vegetables. I saw no need to grow a plant unless it was edible, and I became quite good at raising tomatoes, peppers, greens, squash, eggplants, potatoes, okra, onions, etc. I tried broccoli, Brussels sprouts, corn, watermelons, and radishes, but never became good at raising them. Perhaps that’s why I love to eat vegetables—I had a lot of time and energy invested in them—too much to toss them in the garbage every night.
So, at about the age of 40, I came across a dying cactus. The poor thing had been left inside a vacant house I was remodeling, with no sun to speak of, and no water for months. I took the cactus home, gave it some water, and put it outside, in semi-shade. She lived. I was amazed. I was also sold on cacti. Any plants that tough, who were that interested in staying alive, were the plants for me. It meant they needed little care. I was sold. I began my cactus collection. I still have my first cactus, by the way. She’s now huge—a seven-foot monster, but I can’t let her go.
But about five years later, I felt a primal urge—I wanted more. I decided it was time for me to branch out (My goodness. There are a ton of symbolical words related to growing things, aren’t there?). I decided to try a class of plants other than the vegetables and cacti. The cacti were easy, but if you’ve ever raised vegetables, you know that they are not self-raising. Vegetables take constant work—checking for bugs, pulling invading weeds, checking the soil acidity, fertilizing, watering, and on and on. Anyone who plants and grows a vegetable plot more than ten-feet square, also knows how much work goes into raising your own food, and doesn’t mind paying decent money to a farmer at the local Farmers’ Market every summer. I don’t mind a bit. I realize they use pesticides, and I did not—I fought my bugs with fingers, a nearby coop full of chickens, crop rotation and companion-planting, and every little trick I could learn about keeping back the tide of insects (and soon you’ll understand my love of insect-eaters). Farmers also use tractors and herbicides to knock down weeds, while it was just me and my trusty hoe versus my own weeds. I learned from my father-in-law how a hoe needed to be filed down and protected with oil every week, to keep it sharp and hold the rust at bay. So, yes, I know how much work goes into raising vegetables, and when I purchase a large basket of gleaming, ripe tomatoes, I never utter a word of discontent. That farmer is doing me a favor, selling his or her vegetables to me at a small discount, not only avoiding the middleman, but getting them to me with just-picked ripeness, at the top of the plant’s flavor and health benefits. When summer comes and the Farmers’ Markets begin selling local produce, I spend 40-50 dollars a week on fruit and vegetables, alone—for just me and my wife. I buy berries, peaches, onions, potatoes, okra, peas, beans, tomatoes, peppers—you name it—I’ll buy and eat it. I have a deal with one farmer to purchase a box of “second” tomatoes every week, the ones not quite pretty or ripe enough—or too ripe—to sell in a basket to picky tomato buyers. I take the box—about twenty pounds of tomatoes—home and as soon as I walk in the door, I start boiling them down for tomato juice, which my wife and I, after a huge glass of almost scalding, fresh-as-it-can-be juice,  drink every morning until the next batch comes in.
I’m having so much fun telling you how I came to grow insect-eating plants, I’ve veered off course. I think this article has blossomed into a two-parter. I’ll add a few more sentences, then continue next week.

(The hanging basket on the left is another group of my "insect eaters," both fly traps and pitcher plants. On the right is a basket of Stapelia, a succulent I now use to aid the bug eaters. The blossoms you see on the Stapelia haven't opened yet, but when they do, they are magnificent--and very strange. I'll tell you more next time.) 

After I made up my mind to try and grow plants other than vegetables and cacti—I had been taking care of a nice 20 by 40 vegetable garden for two years, and had about ten cacti at the time—I decided I wanted my next class of plants to be more work than cacti, but less work than vegetables. For that reason, I chose perennials. At this time I knew absolutely nothing about perennials—I didn’t even know the names of any. All I knew was that they were supposed to return every year, over and over again. This sounded like less work to me, so I got some books on growing perennials and jumped in with both feet. And now, all these years later, I realize that I couldn’t have made a better choice. Most of my perennials didn’t last forever, but some are still with me—my red-hot pokers; the baptisias; the coreopsis; my Echinacea—coneflowers; the gaillardias; three hibiscuses (Years ago, the cold weather here kept killing them. I’ve had these three 15-17 years. That’s when the weather here changed to longer, hotter summers, and milder winters.); irises; and Virginia spiderwort. I had good luck with hollyhocks, but they’re actually biennials. They were wonderful flowers, but I didn’t have the patience to wait two years for blooms. Do I need to slow down? Should I kick back, relax, and get into hollyhocks again? I do remember one thing about hollyhocks. No matter where I planted them, or how I marked the spot, when the little plants poked up the second year, I never had any idea what they were. I would study and study them for several weeks, and then my brain would finally function as it’s supposed to do. I’d run to get my plant diary, search through it, and find out, that, sure enough—I had put them there on purpose—they were my biennial hollyhocks—ugly as sin their first year, the crowning glory of the garden in their second. Weird plants. But then, so am I.
I may be forgetting some of my perennials, but the ones I mentioned stick in my mind. I did find out, of course, that growing perennials was not less work than growing vegetables. Their constant, year-after-year blooms have been worth the work, though. And I promise—that in two weeks I’ll finish this article and tell you about my trials and errors growing insect-eating plants. Until then—go grow a thing or two. Not only will your home look prettier and have more character, you’ll be happier in the long run. And . . . as usual . . . I need to take my own advice.


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