Approaching Hablitzia

Scanning page after page on late night searches for interesting plants, there is one that has always topped my list of most lusted after leaf.

Hablitzia tamnoides, or Caucasion mountain spinach, is the sole member of the genus Hablitzia, closely related to Amaranth. It is a perennial vine, growing 6-10 ft (or so), hardy to zone 4 by most accounts, boasting the title of ‘the’ perennial spinach, with harvest beginning in very early spring. Tantalizing, isn’t it?

The plant is also said to be triploid, which is supposed to result in poor germination. Diploid strains seem to have surfaced in the gene pool after increasing interest in the plant. Years ago the seed was only available per the kindness of a handful of growers -sometimes at a dollar a seed as I recall -aside from any shipping.

I have traded, bought, begged hablitzia seed from several sources, for several years, gotten several strains. Every year I have carried out the most carefully composed care I can contrive to obtain a healthy plant. They have invariably died.

Every year I have inched closer, with barely a sprout the first year. In following years, I began getting what I think must be diploid seed strains, because the germination greatly improved to about 90 percent.  I also began stratifying them for shorter durations; because one gardener told me he gets sprouts by simply putting the planted flat in his root cellar for two weeks in fall. Which one allowed the improvement in germination is hard to tell.

Once germination was no longer a problem, I achieved whole trays of the plants. This was only for one by one, day by day, each plant to wilt. The next day I’d find it flat on the ground, dead.

I figured it must be a bacterial infection. What kind I am not sure. The only disease I have ever heard hablitzia succumbs to is botrytis, but I had never seen a sign of the ‘ash.’

It may have just been post hoc, but I found the greatest onslaught usually followed even slight long term excess of water -such as watering two days in a row. Now I keep a tight leash on any watering, waiting until the soil completely dries out, then drenching. The plants seem to like this. Other variables may be at work.

This year, I finally made a breakthrough: I have continued using more and more rock powder, with better and better results for the plants. Most describe hablitzia as a ‘woodland’ plant; but the situations that seem to give the best results simulate dry river beds, or rock crevices. They seem to like tons of available minerals, little nitrogen, and alternating dry and wet, with lots of sun. Providing enough rock seems to be especially important.

I started the seeds last year in a simple organic blend of potting soil. This includes small amounts of peat moss, and chopped wood chips, and has proven the best choice. Once sprouts appeared, I dusted the plants heavily with a very silica-rich rock powder called wollastonite.*

Also, I only filled the pot about half way with soil. This way the walls block most movement of air, and reflect heat and light on the seedlings. Because the soil is thinner, it dries out faster too.

Once the seedlings achieved true leaves, I transplanted into simple, unamended clay I dug up from under a healthy clover plant, mixed with wollastonite until it was white. I put the transplanted seedlings in the shade, and didn’t water for the first day. When I did finally water, I put them in full sun for a couple hours, to dry off the leaves, then put back in the shade.

The plants that followed were some of the most sturdy specimen I have ever grown. I dusted again with wollastonite, and moistened with water I  added a little honey to (antibacterial properties). Bacterial wilt stayed away for a long time.

I gave away a couple of these plants, hoping they would live somewhere. Haven’t heard back any successful reports. I gave two to one of my clients. These I dusted and sprayed during a later visit in hopes of holding off any possible infection. One died. One took.

Yes, one continued to grow beyond the size of any hablitzia I have grown. Then it vined. It even bloomed! This spring, it’s sprouting!

Obviously I’m just short of delirious. What’s more, I am reverse engineering the heck out of this situation in the hopes I can actually get one to grow in Mortal Tree. I transplanted several of the other plants to the food forest last year. They all died -some due to animals though. Perhaps they would have overcome the wilt otherwise.

The situation at my client’s is a southeast corner of their white brick house, next to a concrete patio. This protects from all the most undesirable winds, but is wide open to early morning, and some mid-day sun. It is also under the rain gutter, which overflows in downpours, but dries out quickly after because of all the reflected sun. The soil isn’t notably good -actually quite gravelly there. Spent flower bouquets, and a few kitchen scraps under thin grass in a sort of thin Lasagna Garden fashion provides a small flow of nutrients. If you would like to learn more about the site, see this For example:

Eventually I will get one of these plants to flourish in Mortal Tree. Until then, I am ecstatic my clients have achieved one of these precious plants, and look forward to hearing what they think of the flavor when they begin harvesting. That will probably be next year of course. We want to be sure this plant is here to stay!

 

*I got it from the mine owner when I met him at a conference, but he sells as small as 50 lb bags on request through his website. My parents are considering getting a couple tons of the stuff for our gardens and fields. I am actually planning on taking the distribution a step smaller with one, or even half pound units available for sale for small scale gardeners. I’m still working out packaging and sales channels; but contact me if you would like to be informed of Stardust Chelation Substrate’s launch in a couple months.

Growing Amorpha

Deep purple petal over bright orange stamens of Amorpha fruticosa melt into green, spotted little crescents of seed. These ripen in the sun to a dark brown, then white-gray and hold. I kept thinking these seeds would fall off, but even in January when I lately picked some, they were tightly attached.

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They have a peculiar ability to sprout without cold -unlike most woody perennials that need months of subfreezing temps. They just need heat above 70 degrees F, and up pop little green leaves. Usually I soak the seed for a couple hours before sowing into flats. I start them in February in some years, March in others, but for my climate these both mean heat has to be provided.


I have to be careful with the dry air of indoor heating to keep the seeds wet, so usually cover with some plastic, and water often. We begin heating a small portion of our greenhouse about that time for garden vegetables, so these seedlings can soak up real sunlight from day one.

They are wise little seeds, and spacing their sprouting time -which outdoors would be a fail-safe against late frost and other catastrophes. For me, it’s a great convenience. Out of one ‘source flat’ as I call it, sprouts pop within three days after planting, but keep popping up for several weeks.

Usually I wait until the first true leaves show before I begin transplanting, then clear the flat of any sprouts with true leaves once a week.

Out of the hundreds I have grown, I find it’s best to start the seeds with potting soil, or compost with good levels of nitrogen. From here I separate into small pots or cell flats no larger than 2 inches across, filled with the same kind of nitrogen rich potting soil they sprouted in.

The heat and rate of drying in smaller pots, where the roots can quickly reach the bottom and be air pruned, has given superior results for me. They still develop very deep taproots once in the ground, but this root pruning while in the pot is helpful -in part because it stimulates more branching of the root system. Planting in extra large pots with nitrogen rich soil, many seedlings rot, and must be replaced two or three times over before each pot successfully grows a plant. On the other hand I have tried planting them this early in nitrogen poor soil, and they make little headway.

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I think this best mimics the situation they would find in nature. Forests and grasslands have a thin layer of nutrient rich, fluffy soil on the surface usually, which quickly becomes clay or whatever the base soil of the area. I want to get the seedlings into nitrogen poor soil to induce nodulation (aka hosting nitrogen fixing bacteria as evidenced by the formation of little nodules). This is spurred on by a lack of nitrogen in the soil. The catch is it takes time for the young plants to find the bacteria and get the symbiosis set up.

Nature’s way seems to be nutrient rich soil at first, then less rich soil as the plant gets bigger, the roots deeper. My contrived biomimicry that gives best results is moving the seedlings once they have filled their small pots and gotten a bit root pruned (not pot bound, as in roots turning back on themselves) into larger pots of whatever size you choose, filled with nitrogen poor soil about 1/3 rd coarse sand. I usually mix nutrient-rich rock powders, such as carbonitite or granite, into this before filling the pots.

Usually I transplant into 4inch pots at this point so they are filled with their roots in a couple of weeks -about the time nodules start to form. Usually this is early June -plenty of time for establishment before fall. Those I don’t get in the ground the first year go into gallon pots by August, which they usually have amply filled by next spring.

I try to avoid keeping Amorpha in pots more than a year. They grow best put in the ground as soon as possible after they have acclimated to the nitrogen poor soil. After years of refining this method, I’ve had transplants pushing 5ft by the end of year one -well on their way to exploding every spring with growth, providing some of the best organic matter for fueling your plant projects.

Where to get the seeds? You might have a plant nearby, which I recommend you snatch some seeds from. Otherwise they’re very affordable, and widely available from Sheffield seeds (my first choice), Oikos Tree Crops (They advertise A. californica, but I’ve gotten their seed -and plants, and compared it against pictures and attributes on the USDA plant database, and they have the name wrong. It’s species fruticosa), or even Amazon if you shop there.

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Practicality -Edible Dahlias part 3

The model in my mind of an edible dahlia seeds itself abundantly, and grows tenaciously; tubers just spontaneously generate over summer for fall harvest; the tubers you don’t care to dig freeze, so never become a perennial problem. I really do think this is a realistic vision, but it might take a little species trials to find the right one.


Cultivariable has done some excellent work gathering a collection of dahlias they consider edible, and are harvesting the seed for further selection. I read through an excerpt of his very informative book on his website which I subsequently grabbed a copy of (link below if you’d like to to check it out. It covers far more than dahlias) but saw no mention of self seeding.

He is already sold out of this year’s available tuber and seed stock anyway, so I looked deeper.

The species he raises are Dahlia pinnata and coccinea. Pinnata is the species most often cited as edible, and actually grows wild in the lower southeast US according to the USDA Plant Database -Mississippi and North Carolina in particular.

This was helpful when looking at my next best option -“Bishop’s Children” mix. I’d seen it many times in seed catalogs because it’s commonly grown as an annual from seed. It’s the progeny of “Bishop of Llandaff” -hence the name, and is believed to be cross between pinnata and coccinea.

This background information seems to originate from a single article profusely circulated and cited in Wikipedia articles. But the characteristics I see in pictures agree with the story. I think it’s worth believing. The seed is widely available so why not try them anyway?

The plan is to get the seed and sow some for carefully potting up and transplanting, the rest just spread around in opportune patches in the food forest to see how easily they take. Assuming they form plenty of tubers (most dahlias are daylength sensitive, some forming only small, and very few, tubers before frost) and assuming they taste good, they may become a prominent citizen of Mortal Tree, and perhaps find their way into my client’s gardens as delicious, productive little gem mines.


Above: The same heirloom dahlia in the opening photo, now harvested, with tuber harvest laid on the aerial parts which are now mulch.

The book I mentioned: The Cultivariable Growing Guide: Sixteen Rare Vegetables for the Pacific Northwest

Success for your plant purchase: Top 5 tactics

FYI, the frantic Black Friday deals for plants is during July -September, not November, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make some major cuts on your “consumption” of resources (I mean that in an environmentally responsible, as well as haphazard money saving way) using these time-refined strategies for getting, and successfully establishing, productive plants.

1. Plants or seeds?

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This one is huge. Some plants really sprout easily from seed, providing stronger, less expensive plants, for which you have lugged far less material around the globe to get; other plants are a regular joke to sprout from which you should by no means expect an actual plant.

This is because the perennials parents grow for years, and don’t want their progeny choking them out. As a result, the seeds aren’t really meant to sprout, and do so only after their puzzlebox-like seeds have been unlocked, which can take years. Many have germination rates which, even in synthetically pumped conditions, soaked in gibberilic acid, only reach single digit percentiles. You might be fighting a losing battle per the dictum of the parent plant.

My general rule is that potted, already established plants are the golden ticket to abundance. With perennials, I study their habits, and usually opt to get just one really healthy plant (or two if they need a pollinator) and let the plant self seed, or harvest the abundant, free seed to carefully plant myself, or propagate by divisions etc. in time. The long span of time, and higher price, are often better choices than the smaller, reoccuring price of seed year after year.

This is not just thoery. I have several plants with whom three years of seeds marked equal cost to getting the plant. After these serial failures, I just got the plant and started gathering succesful progeny in a year. In effect, I’ve payed double. Just pay up front for plants, and take this post as a 50% discount code for your future self.

There are few, but dramatic, exceptions to this rule, which I can’t ensure will be the same for you (that’s the hard part), but here you go.

Crambe cordifolia has been sky high on my want list for quite a while, and I payed matching prices to get my hands on two year old plants from the few sources that offer them.

I have forgotten how many I even got. They invariably died. None even made it through their first winter.

This year I begrudgingly tried seeds, which I read take years to finally bloom, are small, and all that dreadful stuff. I already had bad experience with the closely related sea kale (Crambe maritima) from seed. The success it had with Eric Toensmeier catapulted it into what I consider an extremely inflated fame. It’s meant for the rocky shoreline.

I half expected the same with cordifolia, but got some hefty, thick little sprouts resulting in two plants astronomically larger and healthier than the older, far more costly plants. I have no worries about them growing through the winter. What’s more, I see how luscious these plants are, and can’t wait to share my experiences on cooking and eating them. Their leaves are like green steaks.


So do homework, but in general, get plants.

2. Don’t let it get out of hand

There is a funny little principle that the fewer things you put your energy into, the more effective the energy. The result? You get more with less. You’re not a saviour of the planet letting your paycheck evaporate into a pile of tree seeds if all they do is evaporate back into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

My rule is don’t let the number of new/risky plants you try exceed the number of fingers on your hand -five. You’ll really progress much faster this way.

3. Get promiscuous plants

I love weeds. They are astoundingly efficient, little (you hope) masters of the growing edge, and I adore every one of them. One of my foremost jobs as a designer is just weedling out their true service for mankind.

Any potential problem can almost always be rendered a potential power source. It’s when a plant is weakly and does nothing in either direction that you have no potetial at all -and far more potential of your single plant dying.

Lambsquarter (Chenopodium alba), for instance, is a lovely vegetable weed that come up on its own. The vegetable mallow I wrote about lately is a fantastic leafy green that comes up gangbusters on its own in the fertility of late season tilled (or properly mulched) gardens.

All the malvas below self seed. Read about them here.

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Always pay attention to comments on how easily a plant self propagates. If they say it’s invasive, find out how. Often, different conditions will render a horendously invasive plant sterile, so consider carefully whether it will actually be a propagation monster.

If it is, use it. We have thousands of uses for soybeans and corn -not because it’s useful, but because we figured out a thousand ways to use it. The whole reason for figuring these uses was because we had it, and a lot of it. It’s a pretty smart tactic.

4. Focus on where it will grow.

I have a confession to make: I tried to grow kudzu. Yes, the plant that ate the south is actually a crazy powerhouse of nitrogen fixation, which, if you know me at all, you know I’m a sucker for.

It died.

The most ferocious plants will at best do nothing if planted into a chink of grass-covered clay out back. A major component of a plant’s success is figuring how it will be worked into a guild, in cleared, fertile ground. Everything else -the decisions of what kind, what form, and what stage of plant/seed to get, comes after.

One bed a year is wise -or whatever your mulch supply can handle. This, for me, makes one bed I then plan my puchases around. Is it sunny? Shady? Sandy? Get plants that will grow in those conditions and use the niche of fertility and moisture the fresh mulch will provide, getting a good groundcover in place, and you are ten times more likely to succeed in establishing your plants and never order them from a catalogue again!

5. Look close to home.

Unfortunately, perennial vegetable and rare fruit enthusiasts are still too rare to be on every street corner. A not so rare occasions is when desirable ornamental and edible goddess type plants meet, making it far more likely to show up in the popular skin-deep ornamental garden.

Keep an eye out for what grows in your friend’s and neighbor’s yards, considering what plants might be of use, that you could trade for, or that are rank weeds somone else wishes were gone. The many insanely sweet possibilities here are amazing, especially if you posses the techiques to handle the plants well. Check this post here for one of them.

When I am glutted with a ton of plants, the ‘getting out of hand’ rule often applies. Taking up the resources and time to plant all you removed from someones yard (sometimes the deal for getting the plants is that you remove them all ) can lead to none of the plants living. It seems heartless, but sometimes picking out the one that looks best to plant and mulching around it with the others is the surest way of success.

It in a way combines all the former tactics, using all your resources for the single most likely specimen, and working towards propagating multiple plants from that one as soon as possible. It’s the biggest bang for your metaphorical -and literal- buck.

Perennial Alliums

         It is hard to imagine a civilization without onions

 -Julia Childs

Among all the weird perennial vegetables that seem more like the domain of botanists than cooks (understatement, I know) it’s pleasing to find our well known friends the onion, leek, garlic, have very tame, delicious counterparts that are some of the best perennials.

In many cases, the difference between a perennial and biennial or annual allium is how you grow it. Many of our common alliums people take the time to dig up every year only to replant in a few months, like garlic, are really perennials. They could easily be left in the ground to become a thick clump that returns year after year, each stem becoming thinner, with more emphasis on the tops than the roots.

The opposite is also true for some alliums that are recognized as perennials. When kept as a clump, these get smaller bases and are more for flowers than roots. Dividing these and lining them out, they suddenly grow thick and tender.

Welsh onion (it originated in China, welsh comes from the Anglo Saxon for foreign or strange in that it came from a strange country), Allium fistulosum, has, and is today cultivated as a standard food crop. Go into about any Asian market and you’ll likely find some very large, bulky looking green onions, which are more than likely welsh.

Most green onions sold in US supermarkets are A. fistulosum too. We usually call them bunching onions.

These are usually grown from seed rather than divided from clumps. As gardeners, we can get an edge on efficiency by letting a clump of welsh onions propagate in our perennial beds, dividing them once a year. Line these out with good spacing, they size up nicely in a few months.

Even if left a clump, the real benefit of welsh onions over the green stage of regular onions (Allium cepa) is the season they’re available. Regular onions are day length sensitive, so bulb up and dieback in midsummer. Welsh onions coming up perennial are ready at least a month earlier, if not two. After a short hiatus for flowering and seeding in late spring, the late summer and fall growth is absolutely fantastic.

There is still a small harvest during the flowering time because the flowers are edible, and pretty, and the sideshoots are still tender. The only undesirable part is the hard flowering stem.

Lining them out, there will usually be some first year sprouts that won’t flower and will be tender all the season. Seedlings, likewise, which may turn up if you let the flowers make seed, won’t flower their first year but will nevertheless be picking size within 4-6 months or so of sprouting depending on what size you like.

The only thing dizzying about the fistulosums is their many colors and sizes -large, small, red, white, purplish. I personally grow ‘Ishikura’, which is white, very thick, and very tall. Kitazawa seeds has a very large selection of welsh onions if you want the more exotic types. If you aren’t too particular, most seed companies carry them under bunching onion.

Next up: Egyptian walking onions.

 

Suiting itself: Turnip rooted chervil

There’s a list more lengthy than I’d like to admit of plants I continue buying the seeds of, pampering to the greatest extent, but I have yet to grow into adulthood.

Turnip rooted chervil (Chearophyllum bulbosum) was very near the top of the list. It was while searching for this seed I became aquainted with Wojchiech who I still have linked on my Seed sources page. For three years I bought the seed, spreading it around in fall, spring, stratifying in the fridge and planting into a flat. I never got so much as a sprout.

Last spring I was showing a friend around the food forest when I came to the guild featured in Fruiting factors and saw some feathery leafed plants in quite a definite patch. Since Wojchiech is very generous with this seed, I have literally spread it any place the grass is cleared away. A single spot growing so thick with the stuff seemed unlikely.

Something must be right in that spot because the stuff grew to over six foot (descriptions site four feet usually) blooming very prettily in late summer with legions of wasps and tiny bees I had never seen. I did check closely and am sure it is C. bulbosum.

The edible roots are best at the end of the first year, which I obviously had missed, so left them all to seed. I made sure plenty of seed was left to reseed the patch, but got a decent amount to spread around in all the other spots I thought it would grow.

I have yet to find a sprout in any of those places, but last year’s patch is coming up thickly fairly with mature looking plants, and lots of sprouts.

The reason for this preference? I really can’t tell. It’s in the guild that excels in about every way though. My best guess is it needs protection from evening sun and wind, which it gets from the garage about 25 ft to the west. It’s out of the sun for maybe an hour or two before the rest of the food forest depending on the position of the sun.

C. bulbosum is a biennial; so I was curious about these larger plants. They might be late rising seeds I originally planted, or early sprouters from last year’s dropped seed; genetics in wild plants especially can vary a lot in their stratification requirements. I had to wonder though if they had made any appreciable root?


Not much. The root was about two inches below the soil and maybe as big around as a dime. I expected it to be a little bigger and will check again in fall of they don’t bloom.

Even if it doesn’t turn out to be an amazing edible, it’s a great insectary. Most important, I can scratch it off the list of plants I, in vain, keep trying to grow. That gets frustrating after a while.

N-fix 6: Senna hebecarpa

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One of the few hardy Cassia/Senna’s, Senna hebecarpa. Photo credit: George H. Bruso found on Ladybird Johnson institute

The method of finding hardy nitrogen fixers I used to comprise my list is pretty simple: choose a genus of nitrogen fixers (I say genus because there are some weirdos that can’t be found from the higher orders and phylum) and look through the whole genus. Often, there will be some member that is hardy in your area.

I consider one of the greatest prizes I found this way to be Senna/Cassia hebecarpa.

Cassia is a genus almost exclusively tropical, and mostly trees, which are gorgeous.

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Cassia alota, commonly called “Candlstick Cassia” for its looks. Can’t grow it. Click for source.

Like a lot of the non-hardy N fixers cassia are woody yet legumes and utilize Rhizobium to fix their usually medium level nitrogen.

S. hebecarpa, on the other hand, is herbaceous, and clump forming. Like lespedeza it grows up over the summer and dies back to the ground in winter. Although senna usually stops around 4 ft.

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A more established clump of S. hebecarpa. I can’t wait until mine looks like this! Click for source.

This change in height allows for some niche-in-time filling because it makes sunlight and mulch abundant in spring when most perennial vegetables are growing fastest, but in summer and fall covers everything up to protect from wind and make a buffer against quick changes in temperature extending the warm season.

Another plus senna has over lespedeza is its taproot rather than fibrous shallow root system. Senna is native to the eastern US prairies, which were created and partially maintained by droughts that kept the water table below the reach of tree roots. So it makes sense senna would go deep to get its sustenance, leaving the upper ground for shallow rooted plants to play in, so plant away!

I haven’t bothered starting this from seed yet since I found decently priced second year roots available from Prairie Moon Nursery.

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The happiest of my three S. hebecarpa this year. It barely bloomed but made a nice four feet of growth.

Companion Plants sells first year seedlings, and lots of ornamental greenhouses sell it because it’s really quite pretty with it’s yellow flowers characteristic of the genus.

Senna marilandica is different from S. hebecarpa only in how its pods break open in fall. So if you have a hard time finding the one the other is an excellent stand in.

Another characteristic I like about this plant is its thigmonasty -the tendency to fold it’s leaves when exposed to touch, or when the sun goes away for night or before a storm (technically photonasty), or when it’s overly hot (thermonasty). Amorpha and several other plants do the same, but senna with its larger leaves is more notable. It’s caused by electrical sensors in the plant modifying the potassium in the leaves causing an efflux of water from the cells, reducing turgor pressure, and thus reducing leaf rigidity.

Being so ornamental and interesting to watch I’ve placed these in very visible spots in the food forest. Of course, I’d make it visible if only to be reminded I have a Cassia in my northern food forest as it seems I’ve got the collector’s bug.

 

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