Dogwood Blooming in August!

This was the third year for the 100 mile yard sale on Missouri Highway 39, going through Monet, Mt. Vernon and onward. Josh and I traveled the route, hoping it was a better organized and supported event than the first year. But it wasn't. Every town we went through, had a few scattered yard sales, but nearly all of the businesses on the town squares were tightly locked up. You'd think the host town businesses would do a little something, maybe a card table out front of their store with outdated merchandise. Something. But none did. They should be embarrassed.

No great finds were made at the sales and it was, overall, a very disappointing garage sale event. I think they are trying to model it on the great 100 mile yard sale that goes from Tennessee into N. Carolina. I happened upon that once, and it's worth a trip in that direction to catch it again.

But it was a fun day anyway and along the route, along about Miller, MO, I spotted a pink dogwood in full bloom. The cool, damp summer had caused the leaves to fall, most likely because of leaf fungus, something dogwoods are prone to getting in damp summers. The tree was evidently confused, first by the loss of its leaves, then by the unseasonably cool August weather (last night it was in the mid-40s and felt like fall). The confused tree was full of pink blossoms. It's likely, with the lack of leaves so early and the out of season blooming, the tree will probably not live through the winter.

Late August and early September is the time for yellow. Sunflowers, goldenrod, yellowing leaves on the Spicebush. This last plant, Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) is one of the few shrubby herbs that grows in the shade. It's the size of a lilac bush and produces spicy leaves, twigs and berries for seasoning soups, stews and venison. It's also a good tea herb for colds and flu in the wintertime. Ours here in the garden next to the Herb Shop already has red berries and is beginning to lose it's already yellowed leaves.

The air has been cool and clear, even chilly at times. It feels like fall. Peppers and tomatoes are producing well, although the tomatoes are smaller than in the heat of summer. I've cooked okra and tomatoes, we've eaten sliced tomatoes on everything, I've made cold tomato soup and we still have golf ball and tennis ball sized tomatoes. And we're still fully grateful for all of the produce from the garden.

I saw this great sunset the other day. We're on the east side of the big hill, so we seldom see a sunset unless we're out and about.

Every day, Josh's mother, Barbara, says this is without a doubt the most perfect summer day, and it's true, the days have been consistently perfect temperatures. I hope you are having such days, too, and enjoying them thoroughly.


Corn from Outer Space

We saw this corn on the trip to the Fair last weekend, corn like I've never seen before. Sure, like you probably have, I've grown sweet corn that has an occasional wimpy ear of corn, not well filled out, that appears with the corn tassel. But I've never encountered an entire field of corn with the ears where the tassels should be. Nor with suckers (they're called, "tillers") which have what appear to be normal ears of corn. I contacted my friend, Chuck Voigt, the State Extension Specialist in Vegetables and Herbs at the Univ. of Illinois, who sent the photos on to other folks at the University.

From the information they sent me, what I understand this to be is the following: an uncommon but not that rare of an occurrence. It requires the following: (1) a hybrid corn variety that contains long dormant corn genes (remember, corn is an ancient crop, selected from wild grasses in the much distant past, in Central and South America);
(2) an event that damages the corn tops, such as hail;
(3) weather conditions, such as this year's, with excess rain and cool weather.

This phenomenon is called, "tassel ears" but by the descriptions I read, this happens on the tillers (aka suckers). The suckers in this field appear normal, while the strange ears of corn are on the top of the corn plant, not on the sucker. And they're pretty well filled out, too.

Generally when this does show up, from what I read, it is only seen in a small percentage of the field, usually along the edges. The field I photographed appeared to be a hundred acres or more, with "normal" looking corn fields joining it on both sides. And the entire field, for as far as I could see (and you can see more in the field photo if you click to enlarge it) is the same. Even driving along at the speed limit on the highway it was easy to spot this corn with the ears at the top of the plants. All the corn plants have filled out ears on top of the corn, with the tassel sticking out the top. And all have clumps (tillers) at the bottom of the corn stalk, with multiple ears that all appear to be normal and with husks.

We saw the corn between Lincoln and Sedalia, MO, on the trip to the Fair. I didn't see a sign anywhere designating what hybrid corn variety it might be and I would have liked to talk to the farmer whose corn it was to get an opinion from him. Of course the seed corn company may have removed their company name to avoid publicity for providing seed for outer space corn.

Years ago, many of them, when I was just a kid, riding along in my father's truck, we visited a farm in that area of the country. My Dad was hauling corn or livestock, I don't remember which, but the owner of the farm where he was hauling, gave him an ear of corn that had no outside husk, but every kernel of corn had it's own, tiny husk. I kept that for many years because it was such an oddity and I wanted to grow some. I learned that aberration of corn was a throwback to the old corn gene pool, as is this strange field of corn with the ears on top. So maybe it's something in the water of northern Missouri. Of course it is a substantial corn growing area, so some occasional corn from outer space just makes it more interesting!

For plants I know somewhat more about, I just harvested a guinea bean for supper tonight. Sometimes you'll see these sold as "decorative snake gourds," sometimes guinea beans, sometimes, "New Guinea beans." In the community where I grew up, we grew and ate these every summer. In fact, they were much more common where I lived than eggplant.

I slice the tender guinea bean into quarter inch thick slices and dip each in buttermilk then flour and fry them until golden brown. This vegetable can be fixed many other ways, but this one is my favorite ways. It's soft and mild flavored inside with a crispy outside.

Guinea bean is from Papua, New Guinea (thus the name, "guinea bean"). It's a gourd, and the traditional covering for men on that island. While some of the villages I visited while in New Guinea a few years ago have been pushed by outsiders to give up their cultural traditions, most of the men still wear the penis gourd, called a "koteka," thid same "guinea bean" vegetable. What surprised me when I was there and collected seed in 1999, was I didn't find people in any of the villages eating the vegetable. It probably has more to do with the more than 200 varieties of sweet potatoes grown on the island, and the abundance of taro, but according to The Gourd Book, by Charles Heiser, there are 5 varieties of gourds in New Guinea (including West Papua, New Guinea, where I visited) and 3 of those are used for food. I was also there at a time of year the gourds were already nearing maturity. And I certainly explored only a small area. Different tribes use different gourd varieties and you can identify the members of those tribes by the kind of gourd worn.

In doing Google searches for New Guinea bean I found a lot of wrong and misleading information. Some websites labeled this gourd as "cucuzzi or Italian edible gourd" which it is not. That's a completely different plant, which I have also grown. And you'll find some seed companies labeling it, "snake gourd," which it's also not. Snake gourds are not actually gourds and don't have hard shells. I grow these as well as guinea beans and they are a very different plant. Snake gourd, shown here is Trichosanthes cucmerina, and is not the same plant as the guinea bean.

And to confuse you even more (if you're still with me here and I'm not getting too botanical for you), "snake gourd" is listed on one website I found as Curcurbita pepo, which I'm pretty certain is wrong, but it IS the new guinea bean I am growing and they have seed for sale. Most places it's listed as Lagenaria siceraria or just "Lagenaria species."

If you don't know, or ever wondered, gourds have white blossoms while loofahs (which are also edible when young, like guinea beans), pumpkins and squash, have yellow blossoms.

So there you have it, dinner tonight at Long Creek Herbs: heirloom tomatoes with lemon basil, grilled chicken with quick fried guinea bean and a few ginger carrots. There are so many good things to eat in the garden this time of year.


Mo Fair, Great Veggies

I've been going to the Missouri State Fair every year since I was 3 years old. My parents didn't have many traditions and they both worked so hard they never took a vacation. Running a small town grocery store was a 12 hour a day, 6 1/2 days a week job. It provided a respectable living for us, but it meant my parents had time for very little joy in their lives.

But a trip to "The Fair" was one thing they always did. The store would be closed for all day Sunday and Mom & Dad would load up the car about daylight. Mom would have made sandwiches the night before. This was back in the days when there were lots of warnings to fair-goers to avoid foods like potato salad and fried chicken - back in the days when coolers were rare. So Mom would grind up a variety of cheeses, mix in mayonnaise, pimentos and celery seed, and make a bunch of sandwiches. Those were all wrapped up, then put in plastic bags, then into a box with ice. Iced tea in a jug, potato chips, celery sticks and carrots, and always a pie or dessert, rounded out the meal. My parents had lived through the Depression and buying "expensive" Fair food didn't occur to them.

And that same drinking fountain, above, was a fascination to me as a child. Early on, I couldn't reach the fountain and had to be held. But I always stopped there and drank my fill, wondering where the cold water came from. It's still there, unchanged, still a cool, refreshing spot for a drink.

So in keeping with that tradition, Josh and I still go at least once to the Fair every year. We always visit all the agricultural displays, the Dairy House, to see the one ton cow made of butter. The FFA (Future Farmers of America) house, with all of the youth vegetable exhibits is fun, as well. I have noticed the changes in what vegetables are displayed over the years. It used to be there was just one kind of eggplant, but in recent years, the Ichiban, a long, slender eggplant has appeared. This year there were several kinds of eggplants on display for judging. And peppers - it used to be simply bell peppers of different sizes and colors. Now, there are almost as many hot pepper varieties on display as bells.

Pumpkins, herbs of many kinds, watermelons, canteloupes, pumpkins and lots of tomatoes, both heirloom and hybrid, had been judged. It's exciting for me to know there are lots of young people coming along who value gardens, who put in enough time and energy to grow vegetables and to show them at the Fair.

We took in the Midway, always fun for me because I like seeing carnival art. And to see what "weird and unusual" things are on display on the Midway, as well. There used to be the calf with two heads, the woman with a snake's body, a hairless dog and more. When I was about 12 or 13, I started taking a friend or two along with us when we went and the friend and I would leave my parents to explore the "old people's" exhibits and we'd go off to the Midway for the rides. Back then, if you had 25 cents, no matter your age, you could (and we did) get into the girly shows. Not that they were anything exciting, but the idea that we could, "get by" with getting in was the excitement.

Ten cents was the price of admission to see the woman with the snake's body back then. The two headed calf, as you might expect, unless you were 13, was dead and in a jar of formaldehyde. Nearly all of those kinds of exhibits are gone now, and rightly so, but I was surprised to see, "The World's Tiniest Woman" on display. "You can talk to her, she talks to you." Ok, exploitation aside and the sick feeling you get in the pit of your stomach, I would assume some little person makes their living being, "The World's Tiniest Woman." I didn't go to see that, however.

I hadna dish of Pineapple Whip ice cream, however and Josh had handmade, homemade vanilla ice cream and we had earlier followed one of our own traditions, which is lunch at the Beef House, which is sponsored by the Missouri Beef Industry Council. The food is always good, the place clean and the service is outstanding. Servers and cooks are all volunteers from various counties across the State of Missouri.

The grounds of the Missouri State Fair serve other functions during the year. It's home to State Fair Community College, and the grounds are host to tractor pulls, International Fair and a variety of other events.

But the biggest event ever on the fair grounds, not by size but by impact, was the Ozark Mountain Music Festival, July 19-21. It was the last of the huge music festivals following Woodstock, and ended the era of the great outdoor music festivals of the 1960s. Sixty thousand young hippies took over the fairgrounds, and the town of Sedalia, for music. Bands playing that weekend included some of the all time greats of that period: the Eagles, Ted Nugent, the Marshall Tucker Band, Jefferson Starship, America, Nitty Gritty Dirty Band, Boz Scaggs, Bachman Turner Overdrive, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seeger and the Silver Bullet Band, Ozark Mountain Daredevils, Blue Oyster Cult, Aerosmith, Lynyrd Skynnyrd, Charlie Daniels and the Earl Scrubbs Revue. Wolfman Jack, the famous radiohead was the emcee. Now that really was a concert of a lifetime! I missed Woodstock by being in the military and I missed the Ozark Music Festival by being newly married, employed and too timid to go. That, and I couldn't find anyone to go with me. That year taught me a lot, but one big lesson I learned from missing OMF, was to seize the day - go, and do, instead of always wishing I had.

Jim Ryun, the athlete and runner who broke the world record for the one mile run (3 min. 51 seconds) in the 1960s was also there on stage. (He was a conservative Republican who represented the 2nd District in Kansas, as a U.S. State Representative from 1995 to 2006).

So, with pumpkins, peppers, lots of fish, turtles, snakes, coyotes, deer, great gardens, interesting displays and shows, the Missouri Department of Conservation's Gardens, tractor pulls, free music, car races, Demolition Derby and lots more, the fair lived up to all that I've seen and experienced there over the years. Agriculture is alive and well, young people are learning to garden and feed themselves and good, healthy food can still be found at the fair. Fresh roasted corn, anyone?


Roadside Native Hibiscus

This morning Felder Rushing called and asked me to be a guest on his Friday morning radio show, The Gestalt Gardener. We talked about easy things people can do when they're new to growing herbs, including things to get kids interested in gardens. (He's just been to visit the Huntsville Botanic Garden 2 days after I was there, so we missed each other by only a short while). If you'd like to listen to his show, click this link and go to the archives. The show's fun and people call in with their gardening questions. I've known Felder for many years through Garden Writers of America and he's crazier than I am at stopping and photographing strange, unusual or weirdly wonderful things on his trips. Check out his website and you'll see what I mean! Felder's the author of a bunch of books and speaks often at flower & garden shows, conferences, etc. and like me, prefers to drive and see what's along the way, camera always at the ready. (That's Felder's Gestalt Gnome, on the left, I just borrowed the image for this post). Felder ended the show with what he said was a song, "Just for you, Jim," Rosemary Clooney's, "Come On-a My House." Little did he know, I liked Rosemary Clooney's songs as a kid.

When I go on long drives across the country to lecture, I botanize as I drive. I found, about 3 decades ago, I can spot and fairly well identify a plant when I'm going 55 mph, provided there's no traffic. Not that I can observe the little details of a plant, and sometimes I'm wrong, but driving along, meditating on the world, I can spot a ditch iris or a spider lily growing in a roadside ditch, even if it's surrounded by weeds. I can spot a few ripe blackberries or notice a couple of muscadines hanging in a tree across the fence from the highway. I can often see a variation in a plant color in a colony of single colors. I love plants and I look for them, and at them, everywhere. In my opinion, the whole world's a garden, that garden just has to compete with the highway mowers and roadside herbicide sprayers and chainsaws and neighborhood lawnmowers.

As I was driving along Interstate 40 between Memphis and Little Rock last week, I was admiring the continuing miles of native hibiscus (Hibiscus moscheutos). These are the same hibiscus I grew up with, growing in the ditches and marshes areas along the Osage River in west central Missouri. Mostly they're white with a red throat. Once in awhile you'll encounter a light pink one. (By the way, the French, when they owned most of the land in southern and central U.S. before the Louisiana Purchase, named the Osage River, the Marais des Cygnes, which is French for “Swan Marshes," which refers to the marshes that were once prolific, and that is where these same native hibiscus once grew).

But there I was, trucking along about 65 or 70 mph, and I spotted a beautiful pink hibiscus smack in the middle of a ditch full of white ones. The clouds were moving fast and the sky was darkening. I saw the hibiscus too late to stop, there was too much traffic, trucks bigger than mine were on my bumper. I thought I'd simply go on to the next exit and turn around and find the flower again and take a photo.

Just then I noticed a virtual herd of huge, roadside mowers ahead, mowing down the "brush and weeds" on both sides of the interstate. I hoped I could collect some seed before the mowers got there. Why? The occasional pink hibiscus is a natural hybrid, not that unusual, but still worth collecting. The various hybrids that have been released by seed companies and nurseries over the years, all trace their parentage back to this same native hibiscus.

It was 10 miles down the road before there was an exit, more than I had anticipated. I crossed over the highway and drove the 10 miles back to another exit, then back on the road looking for the hibiscus. The mowers were creeping closer and it was beginning to rain.

I spotted the pink hibiscus and pulled off the road onto the grass, well away from the rushing tractor trailers and fast moving traffic. I walked over with my camera and saw the plants didn't have mature seed. A shame, since they would soon be mowed to the ground by the approaching mowers.

These native hibiscus, as I mentioned, are the mother of the big plate-sized hibiscus we grow in our gardens and you can read more of that story here for more details. They're a long blooming shrub, often having flowers for 6 or 8 weeks and are lots easier to grow than the tropical hibiscus varieties (and with much larger flowers, too). They'll grow as far north as Zone 4 and as far south as you can go before walking off into the ocean. Give them sunshine and most any kind of soil - although moist soil is preferred, and they will grow and bloom. They've been used medicinally in folk medicines for centuries, the stems provide a very good weaving fiber, and the flowers make a colorful and pleasantly tart tea. (By the way, the darker the flower, generally the more tart and tasty the tea).

I wanted the seed because I would like having that particular one in my garden. Of course had there been miles of pink hibiscus and there were only a couple of white ones in the midst, my impulse would have been the same. Gardeners want to grow what's unusual and what their neighbors don't have. This pink variation among the white ones isn't that unusual and I spotted a few more pink ones as I continued my drive. But that one pink hibiscus did get photographed before the mowers got to it and this week, if you pass by, you'll see what appears to be a neatly mowed roadside with no hint of the beauty that was there last week. Nor will you notice the bees and butterflies that were flying about as I was photographing. I'm sure we need clean roadsides, but the ditch, 100 feet or more off the highway didn't seem to be a threat to anyone and the highway drive along Interstate 40 was certainly more interesting when it included millions of bright hibiscus blossoms and a few pink ones scattered in!


Children's Gardens

(Click on photos to enlarge; all photos are from the Huntsville Botanic Children's Garden, except the last one, which is in our gardens at Long Creek Herb Farm).

I am an enthusiastic promoter and supporter of children's gardens. I think they are vitally important in teaching kids where food comes from and for teaching humanity's relationship to, and dependency on, nature.

A few years back I was invited to the Cleveland Botanical Garden to participate in a Children's Garden Conference. It was a remarkable and insightful event and brought children and their projects from many states. My part was to present a program on methods of promoting and marketing kids gardens, and a second program on making such gardens profitable (by creating products, events and creative marketing projects). Cleveland Botanical Garden has a magnificent kids garden (named the "Hershey Children's Garden" .....Mama, is that Hershey like Hershey bar??? Yes it is dear and they believe in kids and gardens..).

The Hershey Children's Garden, much like the kid's garden at Longwood Gardens outside Philadelphia, PA, is created to give kids a little taste of flowers and activities. Some call these gardens, "Kids theme park gardens" because a lot of money is poured into things that look good and impress kids but that kids only look at, rather than participate in - little garden pathways that have gates where adults are too large to enter, for instance, fountains just for kids, doll houses and the like.

The flip side of this kind of kids garden are the gardens I found in San Antonio, TX and Philadelphia, PA. Gardens that were started by adults, but built, tended and worked on by kids (and "kids" is a broad term, ages 12 on up to adulthood are often included in these working-teaching gardens). I gave herb programs a few years back at the San Antonio Botanical Garden, also, and they have ongoing programs for teaching children about plants and gardening.

The Hershey Children's Garden has a lot of displays like plants growing in raised bed tables and kids are encouraged to open windows that show into the soil, show where the roots are and how earthworms are working. There are lots of activities and programs for kids, and for the teens, there's a working community garden. As I recall, Master Gardeners are the teachers and kids from anywhere in Cleveland can sign up for a summer of learning and garden work. Each teen is assigned a little garden plot and taught how to raise produce, which they sell. A big part of the ongoing project of the Children's Garden is the Salsa Project. The teens learn to raise tomatoes, basil, peppers and onions, and those are processed in a commercial kitchen under the guidance of a local chef into salsa. The salsa, mild, medium and hot varieties is then sold in the gift shop and in stores around Cleveland. We used to offer it through our catalog here at Long Creek Herbs, but not enough of our customers seemd to appreciate the idea of supporting children's gardens enough for us to keep offering it.

The kids community gardens in Philadelphia was founded by an elderly lady who lived in a very poor, rund0wn section of Phily. She saw lots of empty, abandoned lots growing up in weeds. She organized a few local teens and cleaned up a lot, took much of the trash, broken glass, ceramic tiles and such and enlisted a local college art class to help her teach the kids about art from trash. The artwork became a focal point in the garden. The gardens that have evolved out of her work now cover 30 or 40 lots with the assistance and permission of the Philadelphia government. She explained that on every block where a community garden is established, the crime rate goes down and there are less gangs. It's a remarkable project and continues to grow. I toured several of the gardens as part of the Garden Writers of America conference a few years back.

The Huntsville Botanic Garden's Children's Gardens incorporates a diversity of projects and displays to keep kids interested. Their approach is to make the gardens a place kids want to go, to show plants and their relationship to the environment, and to host lots of activities to keep kids coming back. There are displays of unusual plants, displays were kids can explore earthworms, soil, root structures, along with mazes of different kinds. One new maze that will be fun when it's farther along is the willow maze, made of rows of willow saplings planted, then tied together so as to make tunnels for kids to explore and find the way through. There are also displays that show how rainbows work, what a bee sees by looking through prisms and lenses.

I learned to garden from my parents. I kept pestering them to let me have my own garden and at age 5 they said ok. I was allowed to order seed of my own. My father spaded up a little spot about 6 x 6 ft and my parents allowed me to make the rows and plan and plant the seed. I made lots of mistakes that spring, planting corn too close to the peas, too many zinnias, too many crops total for the space. But the few things my garden produced were touted and featured in summer meals. I hated weeding, so my garden went to weeds, but my parents did not interfere. I learned a lot from my mistakes that year and am eternally grateful to my parents for letting me learn instead of doing it all for me. That's why I think children's gardens are so important. Kids, if given the opportunity, will develop an understanding of our relationship to nature.

Many kids who grow up without a garden or parents who garden, often don't even know that lettuce comes from anywhere other than the grocery store. Or that eggs come from chickens or milk from cows. I've had families visit my gardens here and the kids were amazed that tomatoes grow on vines, or that they might even be able to grow a potato, and that it can be turned into a french fry.

Children's gardens are important and regardless of whether they are mostly theme park or mostly working garden, both can make a lasting impression on kids.