{ Archive for March, 2009 }

My seeds: The chosen ones

My sister and I chose our seeds from the heirloom seed house and plant nursery, The Cottage Gardener in Newtonville, Ontario. It was important to us to choose heirloom and organic varieties.

It would have been easy to go crazy and pick one of everything, but we had to realize that we can't start everything from seed. I simply don't have the space, and as Anne Marie said, not everything does as well from seed. So, I'll be hitting the nurseries, including my usual spots–the heirloom vendors at the Evergreen Brickworks Farmer's Market and Richters–for the seedlings of the veggies I'm not starting early.

But back to my seeds. My choices include cosmos, one of my favourite flowers, and experiments like white-stemmed pak choy and Detroit dark red beet. My sister chose a lot of herbs, which I'm game to try out, as well. Here is a list of what we're planting:

• Dill
• Florence Fennel
• English Thyme
• Black Calypso Beans
• Common Chives
• Roman Chamomile
• Cilantro
• Champion Collards
• Black Hungarian Hot Peppers
• Arugula
• Cosmos
• Detroit Dark Red Beet
• White-Stemmed Pak Choy
• Mesclun mix (a gift from Canadian Gardening writer Lorraine Flanigan)

Citrus groves and grapefruit pie

img_23272Do you ever stop to wonder at the contradictions in nature? For example, why do orange blossoms smell so sweet when the fruit they produce tastes tart?

Citrus is big business in central Florida, so a visit to the groves was a component of our tour. We were shown how oranges are washed, dried, polished and waxed before being packed for shipment. I was surprised to learn 95 per cent of Florida’s harvested oranges are earmarked for juice. However, enterprising Floridians figured out a use for all that leftover pulp and peel–it goes into cattle feed. I guess Florida cows don’t suffer too much from colds and flu.img_23331

One of the many interesting stops we made was to the Citrus Research and Education Center of the University of Florida. It’s been around for about 90 years, with a citrus library that’s open to the public. In addition to an overview of projects being carried out by graduate students and other young scientists, Wendy Meyer (with magnifying glass, right), an entomologist and research biologist, told us about some of the pests that are plaguing crops. One of the most serious of these is the Asian citrus psyllid (Diaphorina citri), an aphid-like insect that is a vector for the Liberobacter asiaticum bacterium, which causes deadly greening disease that can kill a tree in just five years.img_23141

Since its initial discovery in Florida in 1998, the Asian citrus psyllid has spread throughout the state. Dr. Meyer reviewed various methods that are being used to monitor this pest, including putting out pheromone-laced yellow panel traps. Controls being tried include interplanting citrus with guava, which seems to act as a natural repellent. At present, there is no cure for this devastating disease. Greening could spell big trouble for the industry in the years ahead.

img_2409Next, we headed off for lunch to Lang Sun Country Groves in Lake Alfred, a family-run business since 1951. The massive Florida flame vine (Pyrostegia venusta) in front of the building dates from that time. Not only does Lang’s grow, pack, ship and sell oranges, grapefruits and other citrus varieties, but they also have the Taste of Florida Cafe, where they serve freshly squeezed juice, homemade soups, salads, sandwiches and especially, desserts. I sampled the signature grapefruit pie shown here (you can find the recipe on their website, below).img_2414

After lunch, we toured the packing facility out back, where fruit is sorted by size and packed by hand. It seemed a surprisingly small, low-tech operation for a company that ships citrus fruit far and wide. Lynn Miller, a second-generation member of the Lang family, proudly showed us a box of honeybell tangelos, a runaway Florida marketing success story. When I told him their shaped reminded me of the mineolas I bought at home, he grinned. It seems they are indeed the very same. The difference is they couldn’t give away mineolas in the U.S. until an enterprising grower changed their name to honeybells to reflect their bell-like form.img_2426

www.langsuncountry.com
www.visitcentralflorida.org

Next: Good eats and cheap retreats

Taking a deep breath and perusing the seed catalogues

I have never started my seeds indoors before. Sure, I've thrown a few in the ground over the years to see what would come up, but I always worried I didn't have enough space or light to sow them inside. I had varied success with my veggies last year, but my sister and I both realized that the long wait for our peppers and tomatoes had a lot to do with planting them too late in the season. This year we're determined to get a head start.

We decided to order seeds together, but plant in our own respective homes. I'm going to sacrifice the windowsill in my home office and the space around it. My sister's apartment is a virtual greenhouse–her lemongrass is a tree!–and her husband built her these awesome shelves for her seed pots. I figure my odds of fresh herbs and veggies increase with both of us planting the same thing. If one of us fails (most likely me), we have backup.

But where to begin? I find seed catalogues so overwhelming–especially when looking at 10 tomatoes with the same description. Cross-eyed and confused, I turned to Anne Marie for some advice in choosing what to plant.

Here are her helpful tips:

• Look for flowers and vegetables listed as award winners. These are some of the best ones to grow.
• Good plants to start from seeds indoors include tomatoes, marigolds, sunflowers, squash, geraniums, lettuce, sweet peas, cosmos, morning glory and basil.
• Sunflowers, squash, lettuce, sweet peas and morning glory are also good to sow directly outside, too.
• Not all plants are worth starting from seeds. Some are better divided or started by cuttings. (Good call, I'll reign in my list!)
• Buy the size of package you can use in one year.
• If packets contain less than 10 seeds then expect to pay premium prices because they have to be collected by hand, the plant is rare, or the plant only produces a small number of seeds.
• Beware of packets that contain 1,000 seeds for a low price such as $2.49.
• After your seed list is assembled a little time searching on the Internet can give you the specific details about how to sow them–when to sow i.e. days before planting them outside, to cover or not to cover (light vs darkness), ideal temperature for germination, days until germination, etc.

Someone recommended a seed company to my sister, so we both compiled a list and our seeds are in the mail! I just have to buy my little seed starting pots and I'm good to go!

Hollis Garden, Lakeland, Florida

Once the third largest city in Florida, Lakeland is a quiet, pretty place with three lakes within its downtown core. This is a college town, home to the University of Southern Florida and Florida Southern College, where the latter’s campus boasts a number of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings. It’s also been the spring training camp of the Detroit Tigers baseball team for 70 years.

Known as the “city of swans,” Lakeland is also home to Hollis Garden, a formal, neoclassical-style beauty spot located on the shores of Lake Mirror and a very pleasant place to spend a few hours.

Established in just 2000, the garden has matured well and packs some 10,000 plants on its 1.2 acre grounds. There you will find Florida natives, as well as annuals, fruits, vegetables and herbs in some 16 garden rooms, along with water features, grottoes and more.

The garden has other, quirkier, charms. A number of offbeat sculptures keep the space from looking too prissy. And I was especially enchanted by the historical Trees of America section. There, pollarded to maintain a manageable size, are trees with a direct connection to their famous owners–some of them come from seedlings or the original trees found in their gardens. You can admire the Abe Lincoln overcup oak (Quercus lyrata), the Elvis Presley weeping willow, the George Washington tulip poplar and the Patrick Henry osage orange, to name just a few.

Seldom-encountered curiosities, such as this Buddha’s hand (Citrus medica var. sarcodactylus), above left, from China may also be seen. Yes, it’s a citrus and loaded with Vitamin C, but according to our guide Stacy Smith (shown in middle photo, above, with sugar cane) it must be cooked before it’s eaten. Another interesting plant is the popcorn cassia (Cassia didymobotrya), above right. Native to South America, it’s so named because it really does smell like buttered popcorn.

Once you’ve strolled around the garden, you might want to head over to the nearby Hotel Lakeland Terrace, which also overlooks Lake Mirror, for some refreshment. Originally built in 1924, the hotel is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a member of Historic Hotels of America. Its impeccably restored interior, including the beautiful pecky cypress ceilings, makes it a fine spot for a relaxing drink or a full meal.

Some gardens need more space than a mere blog can give them. To explore central Florida’s historic Bok Tower Gardens, view Lorraine Flanigan’s slideshow.

(www.terracehotel.com)

Next: Citrus groves and more

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