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CHARD TIMES: A DINER'S GUIDE TO THE LANDSCAPE

Jan. 19, 2011: I’ve grown Swiss chard for years in the garden. I grow lots of it because its hardy. I live in a valley in the Coastal Range that I like to call “Little Siberia”, as I am routinely 10 degrees colder than the Portland Metro area. I’ve had frosts as late as the third week in June. In a good year, I might get tomatoes, but peppers and corn – forget it. But chard - ah, that's always been an earner.

Last year I got to thinking about chard as a landscape plant and tried some in my yard. I would say, not immodestly, it was a success. So, back to this idea of edible landscaping. Plants in an edible landscape have 2 functions: edibility and ornamentation. It’s a tricky balance because if you completely harvest your edible plants, why you have no landscaping and if you never harvest, well you’ve got no edibility. The best plants then are those you can harvest and they still remain behind. This is not so hard to achieve with woody perennial shrubs and trees, but with herbaceous perennials and annuals there is a smaller palette. That is particularly true for incorporating annual garden vegetables into the landscape. For one thing, not many are all that ornamental and secondly, you are usually removing quite a bit of the plant in harvesting. When dealing with garden vegetables, they are treated as annuals often with a very limited time span as a landscape ornamental.

Not so chard. Chard is an annual but I’ve had it last into the winter. I’ve found it to survive down to 20 degrees. It can be planted early spring and last until late fall and winter. The ornamental value of chard lies in its lush green (and now in purple) foliage and brightly colored stems. The most eye catching variety of chard is “Bright Lights”which has red, yellow and white stems. If you want big and green, “Fordhook Giant” is a cultivar that has been around a long while. I used it in my edible landscape trial last year with success (though I’ll try “Bright Lights” this year for pizzazz.) There is even a purple leaved variety called “Prima Rossa”. In the cool spring, it’s purple. When temperatures warm, it turns green with red veins.

Most chard is grown from seed, which in landscape is hard to be successful with. If you use started plants as you can often find in cell-packs at local nurseries, there should be no problem.

A single chard plant produces a number of basal stems much like celery. This means you can harvest the outer stems and the plant keeps producing. You can eat your chard and view it too. Though climate hardy, chard is not immune from pest problems. In the vegetable garden it gets aphids and chard leaf miner, a little grub that burrows between the upper and lower layers of a leaf. You can actually see the little leaf miner grub if you hold a leaf up to the light and cut it out with scissors and eat the rest of the leaf, but that may not be for the squeamish. Chard is also susceptible to g** d**n gophers (as you can see I have little love for gophers). In the fall, when rain softens the soil, these rodents from hell will burrow along a row of chard (or beets, also in the same family) and eat just the roots. They then wait in hiding for some unsuspecting gardener to go out to pull some produce and wind up flat on their tuckus. Gophers are cruel.In the landscape though, garden vegetables will be less prone to pest problems because they are isolated in small groups with numerous other plant species around them. In a vegetable garden, they are concentrated and more vulnerable than in a landscape.

What do you do with chard once it’s in the kitchen? Lots and there are a lot better resources on the Internet for the many great ways to cook with chard than I can summarize here. You can treat the leaves like you would spinach, you can treat the stems like you would celery, and if you want to harvest them before the gophers do, it blanches and freezes easily for winter-round use. Bon appétit!

THE DINER'S GUIDE TO LANDSCAPE - A SERIES

Jan.2, 2011: The sun is out . . . and it’s 18 degrees in my valley. Oregon is the same latitude as Minnesota and Northern New York. The only thing that keeps us in Western Oregon from frostbite is the rain and its clouds. Yes, it’s the devil’s bargain, but I’d rather be soggy than a block of ice. And it won’t keep me from craving vegetables from the garden or fantasizing about them, which I am now about to do.

You don’t have to have a tilled chunk of ground to eat from your landscape. I am a big believer in edible landscaping – incorporating edible herbaceous and perennial plants into a contemporary landscape so it is both functional and aesthetic and edible. Your yard does not have to look like Old McDonald’s farm to get there. I highly recommend “Edible Landscaping” by Rosalind Creasy, to get a full picture of the art and science.

So, I thought I would start a series on some of my favorite edible plants in the landscape. Afterwards, I might then start a series on which plants not to eat in the landscape . . . maybe “Death in the Garden: A Lucretia Borgia Guide to the Landscape”. Anyways, let the series begin.

DINERS GUIDE TO LANDSCAPE – RESPECT YOUR ELDERS

Elderberry or elder. In the Pacific Northwest, we have 3 native varieties – Sambucus cerulea (Blue Elderberry) and Sambucus racemosa (Red Elderberry) and Sambucus callicarpa (Coast Red Elderberry). I say respect your elders for elders are not entirely benign. It’s sort of like having a family member in the Mob. They can be very generous, but if you take too much from them or the wrong stuff you’ll end up being kneecapped or at worst, whacked. Most parts of the elder are toxic ranging from mild (if you eat a quart) to very toxic (a handful), but the part most people (and kids) are likely to encounter are the berries and flowers. Here the simple rule to remember: the blue elderberries are edible raw in moderate quantities, the red elderberries you better cook or avoid. All elderberries must be harvested when fully ripe. I’ve had both varieties raw and haven’t dropped dead yet, but I wouldn’t take that as assurance from me. The rest of the plant (leaves, bark, roots) are indeed poisonous, but have long been used in folk medicine by both Native American and Western cultures for over 70 ailments. Unless, you’re an experienced herbalist, I’d be wary of self medication.

Now to say that blue elder berries are delicious, to me, is a stretch. Elderberries are small to begin with and have little crunchy seeds in them and tastewise are . . . OK. Not something I would munch on while watching Sunday football, but you add a little sugar to them in the form of jelly or jam, buona tavola! The berries are very high in vitamins A and C and anti-oxidants. Research is currently underway to develop elder as an anticancer drug. I like to add a handful of elderberries to a large bowl of ice cream. Makes me feel like I’m eating healthy.

My favorite use is "elder blow". These are the flower clusters that are produced in abundance in June and July. Just snip the flower clusters off, dip in the best pancake batter you can make, and fry them up. It’s a pancake with a handle on it. I learned that from Euell Gibbons, the man who popularized wild food foraging and Grapenuts cereal back in the 60’s. When my daughter was young, I would delight her and her friends with breakfasts of elder blow pancakes and fried daylily donuts. Dad was “nature cool” then, as opposed to the teenage years when Dad somehow evolved into a “nature nut” and he had to eat the elder blow pancakes by himself. That’s when I turned to elderberry vodka (vodka infused with elderberries – simpler to make than elder wine), my second favorite use of elder. It takes the edge off rejection.

So, how does elder fit in the landscape? Give it plenty of room. They are big (10-15’ high and about equal spread) multi-trunk shrubs or trees. They are extremely tough, hardy, fast growing, full/part sun, and soil tolerant. Because of its proclivity to grow in hedgerows and ditches, some have called it ditchweed, but that’s not respectful. I think the best application of elder in the landscape is in a more naturalistic part of the yard away from the house (those berries clog gutters) or they make a wonderful hedge. They can get to look a little “rangey” as the older canes die out, which means at least annual pruning, if you want an immaculate look. A couple of winter’s ago, I discovered just how hardy they are. A winter storm broke most of the crown out of one large elder. Not having anything to lose, I whacked it down to within 2 feet of the ground and by that July it was as tall as it was before and much more healthier looking.

There are also cultivars of elder bred solely for ornamental landscaping. ‘Black Beauty’ and ‘Black Lace’ have black leaves and pink flowers. Sambucus nigra laciniata is a cutleaf variety that looks akin to laceleaf maple. There are two variegated varieties: Sambucus nigra ‘ Marginata” and S. nigra ‘Aureomarginata’. There are also a handful of varieties that have been bred for fruit production, mostly in Europe where its popular food and respected.

If you’re a bird enthusiast, the blue elder is the Chez Panisse of the bird world. All the uppercrust birds I don’t normally see around the place, like cedar waxwings, will deign make their appearance to dine on my berries. With blue elderberries (and to a lesser degree the red elderberries, as they’re not as tasty) to snooze is to lose and birds never snooze. Butterflies, moths and a some little black beetle (because its ended up in my pancakes) are all also attracted to elder flowers. If you haven’t eaten off all the flowers for pancakes, you had best get out there harvesting berries as soon as they’re fully ripe.

Now, here is one of the tricky conundrums of edible landscaping. In landscaping, we use edible plants not only for their food utility but also to look good, to have a certain amount of ornamental quality. Otherwise, all you’ve got is a vegetable garden around your house and not a landscape. Very often the ornamental characteristic of those plants are what we’re eating. You can’t view your elder blow and eat it too! Just a little cautionary reminder. It’s OK to have edible landscaping and not eat it, though. It’s perfectly acceptable to say, “Yes, I can eat my landscape, but right now I choose not to. Maybe in the next economic turndown . . . “

One last important characteristic of elder. Elder branches have quite large center piths. These can be easily punched out with a hot piece of hanger wire to form a hollow tube. Those same Native Americans and Europeans, who had utilized elder for its many other properties, used them to create flutes. Later, generations of school children would discover this and use elder to create not music , but another instrument of self expression (and torture) - the spitwad shooter. I know, because as a constant resident of the back row at public school (and often the detention row in study hall), I used elder to express my individuality. I even made them for my fellow delinquents and called them Death Elders (that was pretty cool back in the Coolidge years). Talking recently with a K-12 colleague, I was informed, much to my sadness, that the spitwad shooter is no longer. Whether today’s kids are more disciplined, more interested in their classes or have higher technological means to disrupt their classes, I don’t know, but an important piece of our culture has passed.

“Eh, cafone! Show some respect! “ that Mob guy might say. Elder either can provide us with beauty and food in the landscape or a slimy paper wad in the eye . . . or worse.

WATER, WATER - THE DRAMATIC CONCLUSION

Dec 5, 2010: So, in parts I and II we learned about how water is a finite resource and how it is getting “finite-ier” and more costly and the root of the problem is you and I and our consumption of real and virtual water. Now that I have laid the guilt of the world water crisis squarely on your shoulders ( I was just including me before to be polite), your eco-soul is no doubt in quiet anguish wondering how to expiate this heretofore unknown sin. For the flames of eco-hell, brother and sister, rage unquenched . . . that’s what you get for not saving water for when you’d really need it. But verily I say unto you, redemption is possible. There is a middle way. We can have our irrigation and not have to live in an Ozark chicken yard to do it. We can have waterwise irrigation, if we follow these commandments. (Here comes the drama part!)

(Stage left. Enter an old guy with a long beard, clad in a rainsuit and carrying a stone tablet in one arm and an irrigation shovel in the other. Yes, its the Ancient Irrigator. Stopping center stage, he puts down the shovel, turns to the audience, and raises the stone tablet over his head)

OLD GUY WITH BEARD: "Hear me, Philistines! I have been to the Great Distributor’s Warehouse and he/she has given me the Word and the Word is of water and the water is of Life itself. Harken now and ken to these words! For if you ignore them, your lands will be smitten, your crops will wither, the fruit of your trees will turn brown, and the land will be rendered so barren and blighted that only chickens can live on it. Hark now and ken these words!"

I.THOU SHALT HYDROZONE WHEN DESIGNING THE LANDSCAPE.
Hydrozoning is grouping plants with similar water needs together. It makes effectively and efficiently irrigating them possible.

II. THOU SHALT NOT SPRINKLE THY TREES AND SHRUBS.
(Microirrigation, such as drip, is much more waterwise in application in shrub and tree beds. Though more maintenance intensive, its water efficiency makes it the proper choice)

III. SPRINKLE NOT MORE THAN THE EARTH CAN RECEIVE.
Lawn sprinklers have precipitation rates (how many inches of water they put down per hour) and soils have an infiltration rate (how many inches of water they can absorb per hour) If the precipitation rate exceeds the infiltration rate, water runs off to where its not needed, like the gutter. Using low precipitation rate sprinkler heads and proper irrigation controller programming can solve this.

IV. THOU SHALT NOT USE MY WATER WITHOUT A PLAN.
A waterwise irrigation system which has been designed for proper head to head coverage has a plan. “Field engineering” the process of going out and sticking flags where you think a sprinkler head ought to go, usually leads to shoddy coverage at best and inability to work under pressure at worst. And when the contractor leaves the project and you don’t have a plan in hand, you’ll have no idea what’s under the ground and that’s not good.

V. THOUGH SHALT NOT WATER WHEN I DO, NOR WHEN I SEND MY WINDS AND TEMPESTS. THERE IS A TIME FOR EVERY SPRINKLER UNDER HEAVEN.
The climate should dictate the irrigation schedule. At the least, that means having a $40 rain sensor installed on your irrigation controller that’ll turn off the watering while its raining. The next step up in water conservation is to install a climate based controller. These come with their own little weather stations or receive hourly radio signals from sophisticated local stations to modify your programming based on the weather. These clocks start at $275 (excluding installation). Ten years ago they were triple that and did less. It’s a great time for water conservation bargains!

VI. WATER NOT THE SUN.
The best time to water with sprinkler irrigation is early morning or early evening. Less is lost to evaporation that way. On a hot August afternoon in Oregon we can lose as much as 50% of the water before it ever hits the ground. Also there is less competing pressure usages in the neighborhood if your sprinkler are running before everybody is up and showering for the day. Microirrigation applies water at the soil surface and is therefore much less affected by time of day. In fact running in the daylight hours is better for detecting problems like leaks, blown-out emitters, and cuts in the pipes.

VII.THOUGH SHALT NOT WATER THE FALLOW FIELD, NOR THE OXCART'S PATH.
Overspray. Watering sidewalks, driveways or anything else that doesn’t grow is wasting water. An irrigation professional can adjust these or you can too. It’s not rocket science.

VIII. BE NOT SLOTHFUL IN THY MAINTENANCE
Even the best designed and installed irrigation system needs yearly maintenance. Drip filters need to be flushed, heads need to be aligned and straightened, nozzles get plugged. Poorly maintained systems are not waterwise.

IX.THOU SHALT KNOW WHAT THY WATER, WHEN THY WATER, AND WHERE THY WATER FOR I GIVE THIS GIFT UNTO YOU AND THOU SHALT NOT BE PROFLIGATE WITH IT.
Timing is everything when it comes to irrigation. Proper programming of the controller is the key. Programming is complex and it starts with knowing how much water your system is putting out (precipitation rate – Commandment III) and that means a water audit. Water auditing is the measurement of an irrigation systems output – how much and where. It can be done with something as simple as setting out tuna cans and measuring how much they fill up in a period of time or more sophisticated audit catch devices. Once you know its output, the challenge is to figure out a base schedule that matches the precipitation rate to the infiltration rate to the plant water requirements and to explain how to do that would take more area than could be accommodated on a stone tablet. Suffice it to say, its best to get an irrigation professional, preferably one that is a certified irrigation auditor.

X. Sorry, only nine. It’s conserving stone.

So, don’t be a water Philistine, be a waterwise guy/gal.

WATER, WATER - PART DEUX

Nov 23,2010: NO. . . that’s the answer which you’ve been waiting for with much anticipation (well, OK, maybe not) to the last blog’s question “Is landscape irrigation sustainable?”. Now that I’ve just talked myself out of business and besmirched the business of other irrigation professionals, let me try to redeem myself. The problem is that asking the question of how sustainable anything is is one of degree. If we define environmental sustainability as meeting the needs of the present without compromising future generations in meeting their needs, then I think that our mere existence ,living, breathing and consuming makes for an unsustainable future at least at the prosperous levels we’re used to.

One of my favorite books on the world water situation is “When the Rivers Run Dry” by Fred Pearce. He points out that there are the obvious uses of water like taking a shower, running the washer, and watering the lawn, but there is also a much larger hidden usage of water we partake in – “virtual water”. Virtual water is the water we use to make the stuff we have and the things we eat and drink and on a per person basis it’s a real eye opener.(To learn more visit: www.virtualwater.eu ) Mr. Pearce devotes an entire chapter to analyzing what the typical meat eating, beer guzzling Westerner or even Vegan uses in water per day and per year. Here’s a couple of highlights.
- The typical per capita usage of real water in the US is about 100 gallons of water a day
- Breaking virtual water down by meal portions
o 40 gallons for a serving of toast
o 130 gallons for 2 egg omelet
o 530 gallons for a pork chop
o 800 gallons for a hamburger
o 2650 gals for a 1 lb can of coffee or 37 gallons per cup
- Around the home in a year we typically use 50 – 100 tons of water, the virtual water we consume amounts to 1500-2000 tons.

As the cartoon character Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” So, if true sustainability cannot be met because of many of us and much of our consumption, what is there to do ? . . . . That’s where pragmatic sustainability comes in. It’s trying to meet the needs of future generations by intelligent and moderated uses of resources today. When it comes to landscape irrigation, that means using the latest water saving technology , having a properly designed system, and a properly programmed clock.

When people go from hand watering their landscape to having an automated irrigation system put in, they sometimes shocked to find their water bill goes up. Most hand watered landscapes are water starved and the water put down is often wasted. Have you ever done this? Set out the sprinkler in the afternoon and then forget it until you walk out the next morning? Or how about watering your driveway in addition to your lawn? Or went off on vacation for 2 weeks in August with no irrigation on. The point I’m making is that manual irrigation is wasteful and inefficient with wild swings between monsoons and droughts in your yard . . . . but it usually uses less water. The most sustainable landscape would use no water . . . . and would look pretty much like an Ozark chicken yard for a couple of months a year. Since most folks prefer a nice green landscapeto a chicken yard in the summer, automatic irrigation makes for convenience and efficiency and, if it is “waterwise” (uses the latest water conserving features), it will save water over more traditional irrigation systems.

How specifically can landscapes and irrigation be made more water efficient? That must wait until next blog. I’ve got some pipes to unthaw.

WATER, WATER EVERYWHERE NOR ANY DROP TO DRINK

Nov. 1, 2010:So goes the line from the classic “Rime (that’s not a misspelling) of the Ancient Mariner”, for sailors on the sea knew well that when fresh water ran out on a voyage so did your luck. As I hear the winter rains battering my roof and know they will be serenading me here in the Pacific Northwest for the next 6-8 months, it’s inconceivable that water would ever be a problem in Western Oregon. And for 9 months, sometimes 10, it’s not. For those 2-3 months in the summer when water is not abundant ,and more probably non-existent, it’s easier to see where water might be a problem.

It’s been a few years since we’ve had any droughts worth mentioning on this side of the Cascades, but we’ve had them and, if you’ve been around for awhile, you remember them. Those even-odd day watering restrictions? The evening news sponsoring brown lawn contests and instructing you how to put out tuna cans on your lawn to measure watering? And God have mercy on you if you moved here from California or the Southwest, the irrigation restriction nightmares there probably still have you waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat (or to go out and secretly water your lawn).

If I had the talents of old Samuel Coleridge I might compose the “Rhyme (at least I’d do a better job of spelling than old Sam did) of the Ancient Irrigator” (ouch, that’s getting a little too autobiographical) and there’d be a classic scene where the grizzled old irrigation contractor would stare out over the sea of turf and mutter “Water, water, everywhere nor any drop is free”. In Oregon, there is no free water. Not exactly a revelation if you get a monthly water bill. What I mean by that is that all water in the state is owned via water rights. These water rights entitle the owner, be it a city water purveyor, a farmer, or a nursery to pump X quantity out of surface or aquifer water. The state granted these rights originally but once granted they are owned like property and can be bought and sold. The problem is that water is a commodity that no one knows how much there is. You can measure surface water, but you can’t measure water in the ground. So we have this precious commodity that is owned by many stakeholders through a complex legal web. This lifeblood is managed , in part, by no less than 15 different agencies in the state of Oregon. There are federal laws and tribal laws that sometimes conflict with water rights users (think Klamath Basin). And this huge water circus is based on a commodity that we have no idea can sustain it. There are some experts that believe we have oversold this commodity, like there’s not enough stock on the shelf to meet the shoppers lined outside the door. When demand is higher than supply, then some will do without or the price rises (and some still will do without).

So where does landscape irrigation fit in the water circus? Is landscape irrigation a sustainable practice? That, gentle reader, must wait ‘til my next blog entry. I got to go work.

F & P