Biochar: Ancient Soil Amendment

As we continue to learn about gardening, we are often reminded of nature’s essential role in the process, and, by extension, the wisdom demonstrated by historical gardeners as they worked in concert with nature.

We have countless examples of the benefits of “gardening with nature,” and ample evidence of the short-sightedness of technology-based agribusiness.

”Technology” as used here encompasses monocropping, animal feedlots and synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, as well as more constructive activities such as the use of drone aircraft to monitor crops.

One fascinating historical instance of natural gardening is biochar. The briefest definition of biochar is organic matter that has been heated to high temperatures with limited oxygen to produce charcoal. This process (pyrolysis) also produces gasses that can be burned to produce electricity.

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Biochar is very similar to charcoal, which is made principally from wood, and used in backyard barbecues and a variety of industrial processes. Biochar, by contrast, is made from all kinds of organic waste, particularly garden or agricultural waste, and is used as a soil amendment, adding carbon to the soil.

 

Note: The biochar photo is from a good article by Jeff Cox in Rodale’s Organic Life.

Biochar apparently has been produced and used for thousands of years by early gardeners in Brazil’s Amazon River Basin to improve their rather poor soils. In 1870, an American geologist and explorer discovered and reported areas of dark and highly fertile soil. Researchers puzzled over the origin of this unusual soil, called “terra preta” but recognized that it has strong benefits for agriculture.

During the past twenty years or so, scientists have attributed several valuable properties to biochar, beyond improving crop yields. The additional benefits include increasing water-holding capacity of soil, reducing the need for chemical fertilizers, reducing natural emissions of greenhouse gasses (nitrous oxide and methane) from agricultural soils, increasing soil microbial life, resulting in carbon sequestration, avoiding the natural decomposition of agricultural and forestry waste and thereby decreasing carbon dioxide emissions.

These benefits are stimulating great enthusiasm for uses of biochar in both gardening and agriculture. For example, scientist James Lovelock, author of The Gaia Theory, has written, “There is an outside chance that one procedure could really turn back the clock on Global warming and that is burying carbon. All you have to do is get every farmer everywhere to make a profit by turning all his agricultural waste into char and burying it.”

This success story has only an outside chance because it assumes universal participation by the world’s farmers, but does reflect the genuine value of biochar.

Still, individual gardeners could help to reverse global warming by using biochar. This material is available commercially, but it’s costly. A quick survey of sources on the Internet shows a typical price around $30 per cubic foot, enough to amend a garden bed of twenty-four square feet.

A gardener could produce biochar with little or no expense. Here are brief directions from Barbara Pleasant, Mother Earth News (2009): “Pile up woody debris in a shallow pit in a garden bed; burn the brush until the smoke thins; damp down the fire with a one-inch soil covering; let the brush smolder until it is charred; put the fire out.”

For more on this topic, visit the International Biochar Initiative.

Biochar could increase dramatically the fertility of your soil, and help you to rival the successes of ancient gardeners of the Amazon Basin.

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A reader’s query and my reply.

Q: I read your article in Friday’s Sentinel about biochar. I am wondering if I can put used, regular, charcoal from the grill in the garden. There is always some left over. Can I break it up and put it in my garden?

It seems like I read somewhere years ago I could, but I can’t remember.

A: By “used charcoal” do you mean ashes?

I have attached a short article that is about Colorado’s soil, but California soil also tends to be alkaline, so the article has relevance in our area as well.

Charcoal is Not a Good Soil Amendment in Colorado

The bottom line is that charcoal ash, which is alkaline, would have some value when added to very acidic soil, i.e., low pH, but doesn’t add any fertility to the soil.

On the other hand, unburned, or partially burned charcoal briquettes (made from wood) could be useful as a soil amendment, although they have less nutrient value than biochar, which is made from a range of vegetative materials.

Charcoal briquettes usually contain cornstarch as a binder, and might include coal, lime and other ingredients, none of which would be harmful in the garden. Soften them in water to break them down, then dry the result to mix into fertilizers or directly into the soil.

I hope this is helpful

Another reader’s comment: 

Dylan Gillis

Fine article, though it sort of glosses over the fact that biochar itself is 99% carbon that stays in the soil for hundreds if not thousands of years. While compost only costs $3 or more per cubic foot (depending on quality, volume you buy and packaging/marketing variables) it needs to be replaced every year, forever, to result in similar levels of carbon sequestration and fertility. Of course the best is to add biochar, once to satisfactory levels, and then amend with compost for the nutrients and energy feeding the soil life, every year. In this approach you would use less compost to get the same or better results and your carbon sequestration would be more or less permanent!

Drama for the Landscape

 

One of the most spectacular plants from South Africa, in exuberant bloom at this time of the year, is Aloe arborescens. It can be seen throughout the Monterey Bay area, occasionally having spread into impressively large clusters of plants.

The specific name means “tree-like,” because the plant can grow to close to ten feet high. Structurally, the plant consists of several branches, each of which ends in a rosette of leaves edged with small spikes. Each rosette can generate several flower stalks that produce cylindrical inflorescences (racemes). The individual flowers, typically a bright orange-red, are tubular and attractive to hummingbirds. The clusters of flowers resemble the flame of a torch, leading to the plant’s common name: Torch Aloe.

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Several years ago, I planted my first specimen of this succulent plant, a single rosette, in a well-drained bed. It grew rapidly and extended runners (stolons) that produced new plants, ready to take over the bed. Not knowing its full growth potential, but realizing that it was too productive for that small bed, I shovel-pruned it, replanted three rosettes in front of a nearby compost bin, and placed most of the rest in the bin.

The replanted rosettes grew readily into a dramatic presence in my garden, and also shielded the compost bin from view.

A. arborescens is related to A. vera, a smaller, more familiar South African native that is popular for its ornamental, cosmetic and medicinal values: its juices reportedly have rejuvenating, healing, or soothing properties.

The Torch Aloe also reportedly has value in promoting good health. Some people advocate a drink made from the pureed whole raw A. arborescens leaf, unheated raw honey and 1% certified organic alcohol. This drink is claimed to support immunity from a range of diseases and provide general cleansing for the whole body. It is reported to be “bitter, but unctuous and savoury as well, thanks to the honey.”

I have plenty of leaves but have not tried the drink. This is not a testimonial.

A. arborescens is one of about 500 species of the genus Aloe, which includes natives of South Africa, tropical Africa, Madagascar, Jordan, the Arabian Peninsula and some islands in the Indian Ocean. Many grow well in the summer-dry climate of the Monterey Bay area. Most species, unlike A. arborescens, are stemless: the rosettes grow directly on the ground.

A smaller, yellow-flowered variant, called Golden Torch Aloe (A. arborescens lutea), can be found in limited numbers.

Another yellow-flowered form, Yellow Aloe, was discovered in a private garden in Santa Barbara. This plant might be a variant of A. arborescens, a hybrid with another species, or an entirely different species: A. mutabilis, which has red flower buds that mature into yellow.

Aloe arborescens can be an attractive and interesting addition to a landscape that has sufficient space.

Pollinator Friendly Gardening

The current period of warm weather surely doesn’t signal the end of El Niño rains, but it does bring to mind the coming of spring. And with that cyclical change comes the inspiration to plan for garden development.

Our gardens can support many different objectives. One timely objective to consider is to support healthy lives for nature’s pollinators, primarily bees and butterflies.

We have frequently touched upon the vital role that bees and butterflies fill in the propagation of plants. The development of fruits and vegetables, which are essentially seed cases, often depends on bees, and butterflies are important pollinators of wild and cultivated flowers.

Our pollinators are threatened by civilization, notably habitat loss and agricultural chemicals. In May of 2015, the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency, in response to a directive by President Obama, established the Pollinator Health Task Force. That multi-agency group has begun reporting on studies and releasing recommendations to help bees and butterflies. We can expect a continuing flow of constructive new directions.

In June of 2015, with endorsement by First Lady Michelle Obama, environmentalists created the National Pollinator Garden Network and launched the Million Pollinator Challenge, with the goal to create one million new pollinator gardens by the end of 2016. Clearly, individual gardeners are invited to join in nationwide efforts to support pollinators.

In this context, we have a new book by Master Gardener Rhonda Fleming Hayes: Pollinator Friendly Gardening, (Voyageur Press, 2015).

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This is a valuable resource for developing a garden that supports healthy lives for bees and butterflies. Fleming, a dedicated advocate of pollinators, provides a readable and complete introduction to the subject and maintains a calm and informative style. (We respect fervent commitment to a cause, but the strident alarms and urgent calls to action we sometimes see can be trying.)

Fleming offers three principals for pollinator-friendly gardening: provide blooming plants all year, allow nesting and overwintering sites, and avoid uses of pesticides.

She also focuses on native plants, which have co-evolved with many insects and developed reciprocal dependencies. These relationships are site-specific so that the plants and insects that are native to California are not the same as the plants and insects of the east coast of the U.S. Many garden books, including this one, address national readerships, so each reader should adapt plant lists to his or her own garden environment.

Also, note that honeybees were imported to the U.S. long ago from Europe and other regions, and do not relate to U.S. native plants in the same way as the thousands of species of U.S. native bees. Imported bees particularly appreciate plants from their native lands that have been introduced in the U.S.

Here are sources for more information on pollinator-friendly gardening:

The Pollinator Partnership

National Pollinator Garden Network

Xerces Society

Monarch Watch

Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center

A pollinator-friendly garden has direct benefits for the bees and butterflies, and also serves the gardener with the pleasure of beautiful surroundings and the satisfaction of ecologically sound practices. Also, an enjoyable and educational counterpart to bird-watching is the emerging activity of bee-watching. There is much to learn from the bees!

Color in the Winter Garden

A good practice is to walk through your garden occasionally to see what is succeeding, and what might need changing. It’s rewarding to visit your plants in the spring, but the winter months (now) are when we look for dormant season instances of attractive color, form or fragrance.

In the Monterey Bay area, the dormant season brings nothing like the severe conditions experienced in some other parts of the United States, but our gardens still rest at this time, and might present only limited interest.

It doesn’t have to be that way! There are many plants that can enhance our gardens while other sleep, when we plan for all season interest.

A first step is to take note of plants that are already in your garden, and looking good right now. They might be providing attractive blooms or interesting foliage, taking the center of attention while others have dropped their leaves or died to the ground.

You could supplement the tour of your own garden with a walk through your neighborhood to see what looks good in nearby gardens. That approach automatically identifies plants that would thrive in the climate and soil conditions of your garden. It can also be a good excuse to meet new people, to ask them about their gardens.

My garden, while not a true all-season display, still has several plants that are attractive during the winter months. For example, succulent plants, which have done well during our drought period, can maintain their appearance during dormancy.

I recently renovated a small bed of Mexican succulents, and the plants are looking good. They will produce blossoms later in the year, but the forms and colors or their foliage works well year-round. The recent addition of a large Talavera bowl, recently added, serves to mark the bed’s Mexican theme.

Talavera pottery, offered by many garden stores, is a style of glazed ceramic pottery that dates to the Italian Renaissance. Authentic Talavera items are from the Mexican city of Puebla and nearby communities, but imitations (which includes my own piece) are widely available. Imitations from other parts of Mexico are properly identified as Maiolica, which refers to the decorative style.

Other plants that are starring during the winter include a Purple Lilac Vine (Hardenbergia violacea), an Australian native, now covered with small violet flowers; an enormous Candelabra Plant (Aloe Arborescens) from South Africa, blooming later than others in the area, and a favorite, a Variegated Winter Daphne (Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’), which offers both colorful evergreen foliage and a sweet fragrance that highlights the season.

Daphne odora 'Aureomarginata'

Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’

When provided good drainage and afternoon shade, daphnes are reliable performers for years until they suddenly and without apparent cause, give up. An older specimen recently showed arrested development: flower and leaf buds simply didn’t mature for months. After quizzing three knowledgeable friends, without success, I removed the plant (making space for another fuchsia). By this time, I already had three replacement daphnes growing nearby, so I still could enjoy the wafts of fragrance this year.

Prepare now to bring new interest to your garden for next winter with more seasonal bloomers and evergreen foliage, either adding specimens of existing plants that you like or bringing in good performers that you have seen in nearby gardens. Winter gardens can be very pleasing environments.

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A quick Internet search or a visit to your local library or bookstore could lead to useful lists of winter-blooming plants. For example, one good source of information is Dan Hinkley’s book,  Winter Ornamentals.

Waiting for Organic Pot

A young friend recently took a look at my garden and suggested that I could grow a few marijuana plants for personal use.

I looked into it, out of curiosity.

Long before I searched for sources of seeds or seedlings, or cultivation advice, I learned that, unless I had a genuine medical need for the herb, growing marijuana (Cannabis sativa) in my garden would be illegal. The related regulations at the local, state and federal levels are full of contradictions and different perspectives, and are in flux.

I’ll wait.

Many hundreds of illegal marijuana “grows” exist already in the Monterey Bay area, and thousands in California, including many in California’s “Emerald Triangle” of Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity Counties. The numbers are growing, and it is not difficult to find pot, if one were to be inclined to try it.

Last week, at the 36th annual Eco-Farm Conference, in Pacific Grove, Dr. Andy Gordus of California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, described and illustrated the impacts of illegal and therefore unregulated marijuana grows in California. The growers are illegally clearing forest lands, damming streams, digging wells that drain streams that wildlife depend on, polluting waterways and killing wildlife with pesticides, leaving mountains of trash, and otherwise being really bad neighbors.

Marijuana plants, like other plants, are subject to a variety of pests and diseases, and growers use a variety of synthetic agricultural chemicals, including some highly toxic materials that are being smuggled in from Mexico. Such chemicals may be sprayed on growing plants, or applied systemically. Also, because rats and other animals chew through plastic irrigation lines, rat poisons are often used.

Marijuana products may be used by inhaling, ingesting, and absorbing through the skin. These diverse forms of use mean that users should ensure that their marijuana does not contain toxic substances. Consumers of marijuana products ideally could rely on the organic label, but at this time there is no such label for these products. Consumers can only rely on trusted sources.

California does not approve any aspect of marijuana cultivation, including pesticides, because it continues to be illegal at the federal level. The federal government also does not recommend pesticides for illegal crops.

In this bizarre environment, California has provided informational guidelines that include a short list of organic pesticides and natural rodenticides that “may be used in and around marijuana cultivation sites consistent with the label.” Visit www.waterboards.ca.gov and search for “Legal Pest Management Practices for Marijuana Growers in California.”

For more information, visit the websites of the Santa Cruz County’s Cannabis Cultivation Choices Committee, or Organic Cannabis Growers Society.

For now, I’ll wait.

During four days last week, the Eco-Farm Conference provided updates about a wide range of organic gardening and farming practices, and related state and federal policies. The short story is that organic, sustainable and regenerative gardening is healthy and expanding steadily. I’ll have more to report in future columns.

Labels are Important

Our gardens are mostly dormant during the winter, but government regulators never rest! This column offers a brief update on three current debates over garden-related regulations.

Labeling Foods as Genetically Engineered

Almost all consumers, when responding to surveys, have said they want labels on foods that are based on genetically engineered plants or animals. I wrote about this issue in late spring of 2015: go to ongardening.com to read “GMO Controversy.”

Consumers in several states, including California, have tried to require labels on such foods, but industry groups have argued against the related ballot measures. Vermont succeeded in adopting this labeling requirement, to be effective in July of 2016. Since then, opponents lost their legal challenge of the requirement, and failed to persuade Congress to ban such requirements (the House approved, the Senate didn’t).

Most recently, the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA), responding to pressure4s from both side of the debate, issued “Guidance to Industry: Voluntary Labeling Indicating Whether Foods Have or Have Not been Derived from Genetically Engineered Plants.” In brief, the nonbinding recommendations of this Guidance allow voluntary labeling that is truthful and not misleading (as required by the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, 1938).

The FDA is currently accepting comments on its similar draft guidance for labeling genetically engineered Atlantic salmon.

An increasing number of food producers are voluntarily labeling such foods, but the ultimate resolution, a uniform federal requirement, would benefit all parties.

Labeling Foods as “Natural”

FDA, responding to another set of pressures, has requested comments regarding “Use of the Term ‘Natural’ in the Labeling of Human Food Products.” The issue becomes more complex than it would seem at first. Long-standing federal policy interprets “natural” food to mean that it contains nothing artificial or synthetic that would not normally be expected to be in the food.

The Grocery Manufacturers of America want to label as “natural” foods derived from genetically engineered plants or animals.

The Consumers Union wants to prohibit the use of “natural” on any food labels, indicating that the large majority of consumers believe “natural” means no use of artificial materials, chemicals, ingredients, colors, toxic pesticides or genetically engineered plants or animals.

Labeling Garden Chemicals as Toxic

The World Health Organization has found that glyphosate, the active ingredient in the widely used pesticide RoundUp, is a probable carcinogen to humans. In response, consumer groups have asked California’s Environmental Protection Agency to label RoundUp as a carcinogen. The agency received comments on this action until late October of 2015, and is now considering those comments.

Most recently, the agency is currently receiving comments on proposed changes to clarify existing requirements for “clear and reasonable” warnings of a variety of exposure situations.

Another chemical that is under fire is imidacloprid, one of the neonicotinoid insecticides (called “neonics”) that has been linked to risks to honey bees hives. The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had approved agricultural uses of this chemical, but in response to President Obama’s National Pollinator Strategy, and recent scientific studies by the State of California, has released a “preliminary pollinator risk assessment” that imidacloprid use potentially poses risks to bee hives. This assessment focuses on agricultural crops and does not consider this chemical’s risks to bees when used on ornamental flowering plants!

Chemical companies that produce this chemical insist that bees are not at risk when this company is used correctly.

The EPA is inviting feedback during 60-day comment period. It is continuing assessment of the risks of this chemical and three other neonics, with more findings to be released in December of 2016.

Irrigation for a Small Greenhouse

Another rainy day project in the garden!

Several years ago, with the help of a friend, I installed a greenhouse in a corner of my garden. This is a typical backyard structure, just ten-by-twelve feet, not an expansive “plant factory” like those on the annual open greenhouse event hosted by local nurseries for mostly flowers.

Greenhouse-large

My greenhouse, although small, has ample bench and shelf space for an ambitious program of propagating and maintaining plants. Plants will assume the primary role of growing, and a greenhouse can easily exclude deer and gophers, but operating a greenhouse still requires investments of the gardener’s time for planning, planting, monitoring and controlling climate, diseases and the smaller pests.

Best intentions aside, other priorities can leave the greenhouse unattended. When that has happened to me, my plants have tended to expire.

In addition, my greenhouse developed another problem. I had installed a sprinkling and misting system to irrigate the plants, using an inexpensive battery-operated timer. It worked fine until the battery died when the irrigation valves were open. The timer did not have the power to close the valves, so they ran for days, unobserved. This resulted in soggy plants, a huge water bill and attendance in a water conservation workshop.

I turned off the system in favor of watering by hand, but because the greenhouse is away from the house, it was easy for me to neglect the watering schedule. Except for some succulents, my plants did not do well under that plan. A clear need existed for a reliable automatic irrigation system.

Working with another gardening friend, we are installing such a system, with the longer-term objective of starting seeds, growing new plants to garden-ready size, and maintaining surplus plants for giving to other gardeners. (I could also grow plants for sale, but the small-scale nursery business would seem uneconomic.)

The irrigation system includes a professional grade controller, capable of scheduling four irrigation valves, and two valves plus capped connections for two future valves. Wires running the length of the greenhouse support flexible tubing over plants, which will be on tables or shelves (not on the ground). The tubing will have multiple emitters that will either spray or drip water on the plants. Spray is best for groups of seedlings or small plants while drip is more effective for larger plants.

Some gardening friends use their greenhouses to maintain collections of succulent plants that require warm, dry conditions, or orchids or other tropicals that require warm and moist conditions. Greenhouses in public gardens often focus on one or the other of these plant groups.

When planning a greenhouse for the home garden, a good first step would be to decide which plants are to be grown, and what climate those plants will need: cool/moderate/warm, or dry/tropical. To learn about these options, search the Internet for “types of greenhouses.”

My greenhouse is intended to moderate temperatures, year-round, and to control moisture levels through scheduled spray and drip irrigation. This growing environment will support a wide range of plants, excluding only those that require extreme conditions. Plants that require a winter chill, for example, grow poorly in the coastal Monterey Bay area, whether in a greenhouse or in the ground.

The home gardener can use a greenhouse to extend the growing season, protect against larger pests, and control the environment for either specialty plants or general gardening. Greenhouse management can be an engaging and satisfying form of gardening; it can also be more expensive and time-consuming than conventional gardening. Enter with eyes wide open.

 

Gardening Events – 2016

Let’s survey the gardening events of the New Year. The following list includes recurring, mostly free annual events in the Monterey Bay area. The list includes the currently available date information, and identifies organizers for more details.

I invite readers to provide additions. I will post an updated calendar, suitable for display, on my website.

Winter Quarter

Fungus Fair, Fungus Federation of Santa Cruz, www.ffsc.us, January 8, 9 & 10

Scion Exchange, California Rare Fruit Growers, monterey_bay@crfg.org, January 10

Eco-Farm Conference, Ecological Farming Association, https://eco-farm.org/, January 20-23

Solstice Fest, UCSC Arboretum, http://arboretum.ucsc.edu/ , January 23

Hummingbird Day, UCSC Arboretum, http://arboretum.ucsc.edu/, March 5-6

Phenology Walk, UCSC Arboretum, http://arboretum.ucsc.edu/, January 16

Flower & Garden Show, San Francisco Flower & Garden Show, http://sfgardenshow.com/ , March 16-20

California Naturalist Program, UCSC Arboretum, http://arboretum.ucsc.edu/, begins March 24

Spring Quarter

Plant Sale, UCSC Arboretum, April 9

Plant Sale, California Native Plant Society, April 9

Dahlia Sale, Monterey Bay Dahlia Society, early April

Garden Fair, Monterey Bay Master Gardeners, early April

Garden Fair, Santa Cruz Earth Day, April 16

Plant Sale, Monterey Bay Cactus & Succulent Society April 23-24

Garden Fair & Plant Sale, MEarth, late April

Iris Show, Monterey Bay Iris Society, late April

Plant Sale, Cabrillo College Horticultural Dept., May 8

Garden Tour, St. Phillips Church, early May

Rose Show, Monterey Bay Rose Society, early May

Garden Tour, Monterey Bay Master Gardeners, mid-May

Garden Tour, Santa Cruz Baroque Festival, May 22

Consulting Rosarian School, Monterey Bay Rose Society, early June

Greenhouse Open House, Monterey Bay Greenhouse Growers, late June

Garden Fair, The Garden Faire, late June

Boot Camp, Monterey Bay Master Gardeners, mid-June

Summer Quarter

Plant Sale, Monterey Bay Iris Society, August 6 & 13

Plant Show, Monterey Bay Dahlia Society, late August

Succulent Extravaganza, Succulent Gardens, late September

Fall Quarter

Plant Sale, Monterey Bay Cactus & Succulent Society, October 1-2

Plant Sale, UCSC Arboretum, early October

Plant Sale, California Native Plant Society, early October

Orchid Show, Santa Cruz Orchid Society, mid-November

Adding Unexpected Plants to Your Garden

This column presents a case study of adding an unexpected and unfamiliar plant to one’s garden.

A friend gave me a plant that had outgrown its container, and no longer had a place in its previous home. My friend didn’t have a name for the plant, but a neighbor’s garden has a related species: the photo shows much longer leaves than my gift plant, and the potential to grow rather large.

Dyckia

I had never grown a plant like this one, so I was immediately interested. Here is a suggested intake process.

First, inspect the plant visually to check that it is healthy and free of disease or pests. This plant had some dieback from normal aging and outgrowing a large container, but otherwise looked healthy. I gladly accepted the gift.

Identification should be the next priority. I had seen this plant in four-inch pots, and knew it as a Dyckia, but learning the genus and species of a new plant can be challenging. This plant doesn’t appear in Sunset’s Western Garden Book, a convenient reference. In such cases, asking other gardeners or garden center staff can be the best strategy.

Then, examine the plant’s size and characteristics. This Dyckia develops several rosettes eight-to-twelve inches in diameter. Each rosette is comprised of many thin leaves up to eight inches long, with very sharp terminal spines and numerous sharp teeth on both sides. (My neighbor’s magnificent Dyckia has leaves up to two feet long!) The plant is attractive, but neither welcoming nor easily handled!

Considering both this plant’s mature size and hazards, I concluded that it should be should be three feet from any walkway, but still close enough to appreciate its intricate leaf structure.

Also, it should not be under a tree, as it would be difficult to groom dropped leaves from the Dykia’s spiny cluster.

Then, learning about the plant’s cultivation needs will guide planting and future care. An Internet search for “Dyckia” brought me these websites: Wikipedia; Bromeliad Society of Houston; Yucco Do Nursery; Annie’s Magic Garden; and Dyckia Brazil.

Dyckias, I learned, are native to Brazil, members of the Bromeliad family, and related to pineapples (Ananas comosus), Puyas, Tellandsias, and Bilbergias. There are some 158 species of Dyckias.

After comparing my specimen’s appearance with others on the Internet, I concluded that it is D. fosteriana, which is a popular species. This plant hybridizes easily in nature and in human hands, so many cultivars are available. Confident identification requires a specialist.

The Dyckia lacks internal water storage tissue, so it’s not a true succulent, but it will go dormant in response to a lack of moisture. It prefers full sun but will manage partial shade, and has exceptional tolerance for freezing weather. It is pest-free, although snails will nibble at tender flower shoots. Generally, the Dyckia is a sturdy and trouble-free plant.

Dyckias reportedly do not like transplanting during the winter, but I proceeded still to separate and pot up six offsets (”pups”) for gifts to others, and to put my new plant in the ground. I’ll learn how well it responds.

My garden lacks a bed for Brazilian plants. I accommodated this unusual new plant by redefining my existing Chilean bed as Chilean/South American.

Avid gardeners should welcome unexpected, unusual and attractive gifts to their gardens. A systematic process can help to place the plant well and to provide the care needed for its success. New plants are gardening adventures!

Twelve Ways to “Plant-Mass”

An important guideline for amassing plants in your garden is to plant when seasonal rains will water the plants as the establish roots and prepare for blooming in the spring. So, a good time to add plants to your garden (or to find a late gift) is right now.

Here are twelve ways to succeed in that enterprise.

  1. Plan to fill an existing space in the garden. Impulsively buying plants that catch your eye in the garden center can result in specimens that are too large or too small for spaces that need filling, or won’t complement plants next to those spaces.
  2. Focus on plants that will add to your landscape style or theme. There are many alternatives to randomness in garden design. An explicit theme or style in your garden provides direction in the hunt for new plants, and adds coherence to the look of the garden.
  3. Choose plants that will thrive in your garden’s environment. Most important is your U.S. Dept. of Agriculture climate zone, but also consider elevation, sun exposure and soil type.

    Crassula argenta

    Jade Plant (Crassula argenta) in a one-gallon nursery can

  4. Select plants of an appropriate size for the spot where they will grow. A common error is to install a plant that will outgrow its location.
  5. Look for plants that are pest resistant. With fuchsias, for example, a good choice would be a variety been bred to resist the Fuchsia Gall Mite (Aculops fuchsiae), a pest that’s difficult to control.
  6. The logical corollary is to examine plants that you might buy to check for any evidence of “livestock.” The symptoms (e.g., chewed leaves, creepy-crawlers or their eggs on the underside of leaves) are usually unmistakable, but if you have any uncertainty, choose a plant that’s symptom-free.
  7. Similarly, look for plants that are disease resistant. Several varieties of roses are both beautiful and resistant to powdery mildew and black spot. Why would you want to struggle with those diseases?
  8. Again, before buying a plant, check for any sign of disease, or anything other than good health. Garden centers screen their plants diligently, to protect customers and their own reputations, but problems can be missed. This is most possible with amateur plant sales.
  9. More and more, gardeners prefer plants that are free of toxic synthetic chemicals. Growers are beginning to label plants that have been grown without the use of neonicotinoids (“neonics”), for example, which appear to be harmful to bees. If the label doesn’t give assurance, ask!
  10. To minimize your plant-buying expense, favor the garden center’s smaller plants. They should be well rooted, rather than freshly transplanted. In your garden, they will grow quickly to reach the size of more expensive plants.
  11. On the other hand, to achieve an immediate effect, favor the larger plants. You will be paying the nursery for caring for the plant for months or even years, but the results may be worth the cost. An added benefit is seeing a well-grown plant’s structure.
  12. Before buying a plant, especially one that fills its container more than others, check for healthy roots. Gently pull the plant from its container to examine roots for healthy color (usually white) and ample space in the container. Plants left too long in a container become root-bound, which can hamper their growth. On the other hand, such plants often could be divided into two or more for the price of one.