Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Ong Choy (Ipomoea aquatica)

Ong Choy is a green leafy vegetable that I was introduced to at our local Chinese restaurant.  They serve Ong Choy with oyster sauce as one of their dishes.  Some time later I got a plant of Ong Choy but I forget how that came about.  I know that I did not understand how water loving the plant was until I saw it covering an old shrimp pond at a local farm.  From then on I made sure that my container grown Ong Choy was sitting in a deep saucer filled with water and I make sure to water it often.  Even then, I notice the plant is a lot happier in the rainy season that in the dry summer.

Ong Choy is a member of the sweet potato family, which becomes obvious when you see its flower.  It is a tropical and semiaquatic.  It grows in moist soils as well as water.  Its hollow stems allow it to spread out on top of water. The leaves and shoots are a popular vegetable through out the tropical world.  Apparently it is extremely popular in Taiwan.  There is some variation in the shape of the leaves; from arrow head shape to lanceolate.  Stems can grow 2-3 meters in length.  There is rooting at the the nodes which makes it easy to grow new plants from cuttings.  It can also be grown from seed.

Ong Choy is a vegetable that does not store well.  You really need to pick it on the day you are going to eat it.  A good reason to have some of this growing in your kitchen garden.  I have just one four gallon size container of it but it is a quick vegetable to grab for a stir fry or to add some nutrition to my packaged, instant noodle soup. My container plant has kept going for several years at this point.  I just cut the leaves and tips off to eat and occasionally cut the old stems back  and give a bit of fertilizer for new growth.  Ong Choy has a history of providing survival food for people in the tropics during war time when other food was scarce  It is also high in vitamins and minerals.  Definitely a good plant to have around and an easy one to care for.


Monday, March 16, 2015

Callisia fragrans

I have a small garden full of Callisia out in the back yard beside an old coconut stump.  At least twelve years ago I brought a clean cutting back from Samoa and planted it in a shady area where it grew and multiplied like crazy.  After that I decided that it needed to be in the sun, wind and sand of the back yard where it would not grow so robustly.  Still, even there, I have to trim it back every few years but it is worth having the Callisia around to use as greenery in flower arrangements plus it really is a nice lush ground cover.

I first saw this plant in Apia, Samoa where it was growing in a public area of town.  When I researched it on the internet, it seems quite popular in Florida and the rest of the South East area of the US.  However, the only place I really have noticed it growing in Hawaii since is at the Waimea Valley Park here on Oahu.  There it is used as a great ground cover in rocky semi-shade areas.  The plant is thought to be native to Mexico.  It is a little puzzling to find that Callisia fragrans has become a popular medicinal plant in Russia of all places.  There are various medical claims out there on the internet that you can look up if you are interested.  The most common seems to be chewing the leaves to cure a headache.

Callisia is sometimes called Basket Plant as it was once very popular as a hanging plant.  It is quick to put out runners with a new baby plant growing at the tip.  This makes for easy propagation as you just snap off those baby plants and pot them up. They will root quickly and can be used as houseplants.   Callisia likes partial shade to full sun for good growth.  If the plant spreads too much and looks a little untidy, it is easy to pull off the extra unwanted plants and pull out the older big plants to let the young smaller ones to grow.  At the end of winter or early spring, tall, slender green spikes will appear from the center of the plant and will grow quickly up to three feet or so with tight clusters of small flower buds growing out at the top.  Callisia is a little strange in its flowering routine as one day all the plants will just be in full flush of beautiful small white flowers that just last one day and then it may be another week before there is another flush of flowers again and so on.   It does seem to me that the flowers burst forth the day after a heavy rain but that may just be coincidence.  I have not seen any seeding from the flowers.


Thursday, February 12, 2015

Asparagus Fern (Asparagus aethiopicus)

It is useful to have an old potted asparagus fern around in the garden.  They make a nice full display as well as being a source for long dangling cuttings of greenery to insert in floral arrangements.  This plant,a native of South Africa, is not in the fern family, despite its name, but is a relative of the edible asparagus.  It has a couple of cousins that are also common in warm climate gardens........the Fox Tail Fern and the Climbing Asparagus Fern that I associate with old time bridal bouquets and boutonnieres. 

The Asparagus Fern is a natural for hanging pots but also is used as a ground cover.  Personally, I would not use it for a ground cover as it can get a bit messy looking with age.   I see on the internet that there is a problem with it getting invasive in Florida.  Another reason for not planting it out in the ground.  Birds could spread the seeds I guess but I have never noticed the fruit eating birds taking any interest in it.  I like to grow Asparagus Ferns in a large pot so that I have more control over it plus I can move it around for special garden events if wanted.  I rarely notice any bug or disease problem with it.  If it does get a problem it usually means it is getting too much water and not enough sun.  They do not like wet feet.  If I use the plant indoors for a special event, it is only for a day or two at most.  Longer than that and the plant will be dropping yellow needles all over the place.

Asparagus Fern can be propagated by division but I much prefer to grow them from seed so that I get a pretty, fluffy and upright plant to start off that will stay attractive for a long time.  As the plant grows older, it produces hundreds of white grape looking tuberous roots.  It is one of the mysteries of potting plants. Where does all the potting media disappear to?  You can plant a young Asparagus Fern in an azalea pot full of potting mix and in a few years the pot is just jam packed with the "white grape" tubers and no potting mix to be seen.  It will not stop there.  The plant keeps on producing its little tubers so that the plant root ball is lifted up right out of the pot and can grow several inches above the pot rim if left to do so ending up looking plain ugly.  You can see this tuber growth in older plants grown out in the landscape too and it does not look pretty.  This is when growing the Asparagus Fern in a pot helps for easy plant management.  It is time to be the boss and cut the plant down to size.

First, you give the overgrown Asparagus Fern a haircut.  This is done by cutting it totally bald.  You do not want any bits left sticking up and looking unattractive in the next new growth. Next, you remove the root ball from the pot and cut all those tubers off, keeping a small "cake" of roots, 2-3 inches deep and about  4-6 inches across.  A good carving knife or machete is the best tool for this job.  It is rather like cutting bread.  Repot the remaining "cake" of roots in fresh potting mix, fertilize and water well and you are done.  In a few weeks the new fronds will be coming out and in a few months you would never know that the plant had undergone such intensive surgery.  If a plant is not outgrowing its pot but looking very sad and straggly, I do just the haircut and fertilize part to get it looking good again.  Asparagus Fern loves getting fertilized and really responds to it with  lots of new growth.

The old-timer, before it meets the knife.
The same plant, after the haircut.
The root ball full of "white grape" tubers
The roots after surgery with the resulting "cake" on the left.
The root "cake" repotted.
New growth two weeks later.

To grow new plants, gather the little round red fruit and plant them in some potting mix.  You can rub the red fruit part off  the black seed inside or not worry about it.  I might also soak the seeds in water for a few hours before planting but either way, the seeds sprout quickly and easily.  After they have put up a few tiny fronds I transplant them into a 4 inch pot.  In a few months, when the small plant is full and bushy, I will transfer them to something bigger.  They always look nice in an azalea pot but I will use a big 4 gallon pot for the old timer that I want to keep for long dangling greenery.


Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Clean up time

I have been busy cleaning up my potting/nursery area of the garden this past few weeks.  I got pushed into it because we had the old asphalt roofing tiles removed from our house and new ones put on.  The result was black confetti all over the potting area and among the plants.  It was good incentive for me to get stuck into cleaning up the place and do some reorganizing.

At the same time I had been complaining to myself about how I hated getting down on my old knees to weed the aggressive St. Augustine grass out from under the potted plants.  I do not know why I did not not think of laying down old carpet as a weed barrier before.  I put a call out  for old carpet on the local free stuff Facebook page and it really has done the job well.  Plus there were some old asphalt roofing tiles under the house that I laid down under the plants as well.  I am thrilled with the result of both jobs and now I can put my energy back into potting again.  Anyways, while everything is looking ship shape  I have taken a few photos of the nursery and potting area for you to see.  I am afraid that on the average day it does not look so tidy.

The wonderful old wood bench that I use for potting was a free find..  The big red container holds my potting media....composted wood chips and recycled potting mix.  The black crates on the bench I use for recycling bottles.   All pots/containers have been recycled.  I garden cheap!

The nursery pot plants all started out on the ground but over time I found free junk to use to keep them up higher.  All the plastic crates and fish trays you see float in on the tide down at the beach.  I am happy to re purpose them.  Most of the plants get some wind protection from the house but the tough succulents and aloes etc. get stuck at the far end where they get the ocean winds coming through the back yard.

Yay! ....not more grass weeds under the pots.

I enjoy the challenge of propagating plants but I am afraid my plants get neglected when I go off traveling for a few months.  Between that and the salt winds we get as well as our sandy soil, you know why my favorite plants are tough plants.


Sunday, November 30, 2014

'Song of India' (Dracaena reflexa 'variegata')

The name of this plant, 'Song of India', always intrigued me.  Whispers from exotic movies watched as a kid I expect.  It was interesting to find out, when doing an internet search on the name, that there is actually an old Big Band performance on You Tube of a composition called 'Song of India'.  Was the plant given its English name from that piece of music?  Further research also told me that this plant is not actually native to India.  It is native to islands like Madagascar and Mauritius in the the Indian Ocean though.

'Song of India' is another one of my loved tough plants.  It is not fussy about soil as long as it has good drainage.  It thrives in my coral sand soil.  It is high drought tolerant and will grow in partial or full sun.  It grows slowly and is upright in growth although it widens out in the middle as it gets older.  It will grow 4-5 meters high if allowed to grow naturally.  Mine is above the height of our house and is part of the boundary hedge planting.  Actually, it is one of the few 'Song of India' plants that I have seen that has been allowed to grow to full height.  Most are kept cut down to lower than five feet. The mature tree has small white flowers early winter and then a few yellow/orange berries.  I have never seen disease or insect problems with it.  Strong salt winds may mean some dry leaf drop with lots of dry leaves to rake up on the lawn but the tree does not look bare from it.  I like these dry, long lasting dropped leaves to use as mulch in my container plants.  I notice that the thick foliage growth of the tree makes it a popular place for birds nests.

The wild native Dracaena relexa is plain green in color so the 'Song of India' is a variegated variety grown by nurseries.  There is another variety grown by nurseries called 'Song of Jamaica' which has leaves with stripes of two shades of green.  I also have that growing in our boundary hedge and it grows the same way as the 'Song of India'.

'Song of India' is very popular here in Hawaii for tropical flower arrangements.  Strong, upright branches are needed for this so the naturally shorter curled branches of my old tree do not work well.  Instead, a shrub must be kept topped at easy reach height and  then the vigorous  new growth harvested when it gets to the required size for selling to floral shops.

We gathered huge amounts of 'Song of India' several years ago to decorate the big white tent for my daughter's wedding reception.  We tied clumps of floral oasis on the tent poles and filled them with 'Song of India' branches, big Laua'e fern leaves and long hanging strands of Asparagus Fern.

The leaves of the 'Song of India' are also used in lei making here in Hawaii.  The attractive leaf colors contrast well with other foliage and flowers.  Although the leaf is a little stiff and pokey it works well in certain styles of lei such as the haku lei and lasts well.

To propagate 'Song of India' I have always used cuttings.  I will usually put several cuttings cuddled up together in a large pot of potting media and then leave it in a shady place for several months to grow strong roots.  They seem to do better this way than in individual pots.  One thing to remember with this plant is to just remove the leaves from the bottom of the cutting but do not trim the upper leaves back as usually done with cuttings.  Those leaves will not grow back and the resulting plant will not look so good or you will have to wait for the plant to grow taller for new nicer leaves and then remove the lower cut leaves. I also dip these cuttings in rooting powder to help them get going.


Monday, November 3, 2014

Looking Over Moss Covered Walls in Reykjavik

My recent three week trip to Iceland was a big change from visiting warm countries in recent years and the bleak but beautiful landscape of Iceland was very different too.  Much of the island is rock covered in moss or heath with a few birch forest areas that grow low because of the cold winds.  The Viking settlers who arrived in the 900s  cut down much of the native birch forest for firewood while their sheep nibbled down the low growing ground covers.   It is only in the last few decades that there has been a dedicated effort to grow new forests and stop soil erosion.

The weather is too cold for fruit trees but potatoes and rhubarb were introduced to sunny slopes behind houses over the last few centuries.  In the mid 20th century the Icelanders also began harnessing the heat from the hot water springs to heat glass houses so that now they can grow a lot more vegetables and flowers on island. Still, like Hawaii, much of their food is imported apart from the local dairy products, meat and fish.

 Iceland is a country that has changed remarkably since WW II gave them airports and opened up their world.   A hundred years ago, most of the population still lived on farms and lived off the land and sea.  Half of the population was still living in sod covered houses.  Now, most of the population lives in the modern city of Reykjavik.

In Reykjavik I really enjoyed just wandering around the streets of the older parts of town looking at all the styles of houses with their lace curtains in the windows.  Gardens were usually simply done with lawn, trees and shrubs.  There were lots of red berries and rose hips to celebrate the end of summer and everywhere there was moss growing.

Actually, I think my favorite garden in all of Iceland was a simple one that I saw in the town of Hveragerdi.  It was a very ordinary square house set in a landscape composed of three kinds of plants....a grass lawn, native birch trees and clumps of the native angelica.  It was so very simple and bare that it gave a delightful natural feel to the garden as well as being very simple to maintain.  It made me think how one could replicate a similar feeling in a tropical garden.  I could see it being done with lawn, Ohia trees and ferns in upland Hawaii but I am not sure what I would use here in the sandy lowlands.  Maybe Beach Heliotrope trees but what would go with them?  Anyways here is a picture of my favorite yard there although it does not show the whole effect of the place well.

And just to finish off my post on Iceland:  Here is a picture of the native Iceland Poppy that was growing next to the footpath just down the road.  This is the native original that all the commercial garden varieties were developed from.


Sunday, October 12, 2014

A Community Garden on Bainbridge Island

Last month I was off traveling and as part of the trip I had a few days in Seattle.  Seattle is becoming one of my favorite cities on the mainland US.  Now that their light rail train runs right up to the airport it is so easy to get to downtown so that Seattle is a wonderful city for us Hawaii travelers to arrive in and have a stop over when we go to the mainland.
I am a big fan of ferry boat rides so on this visit I went for a ferry ride over to Bainbridge Island for a days outing.  It is a lovely boat ride out on the Puget Sound with good views back to the city.  The small town out on the island is a lovely wooded community to walk around and I enjoyed viewing the first autumn colors as well as gorging myself on wild blackberries that were in full fruit on every vacant lot.

There is an old Congregational church in the middle of the town that has a wonderful community vegetable garden in its grounds.  What a good idea for making the most of the church property and that garden was the highlight of my day there as I inspected all that was growing and sat on a garden seat in the quiet to eat my sandwich lunch.  There were lots of interesting plants to inspect as well as lots of bees to watch and also a few hens in a wire pen to talk to.  The age and multi-headed size of all the kale was very impressive.  Anyways, here are a few photos I took in the garden and if you are ever over on Bainbridge you might want to go stop by and have a look as well.