Garden Check 8/19/14—Rains and Grains

These little fellows (Amaranthus, Elephant Head or Red Cathedral?) are stunted, perhaps because of poor soil, competition, or living under the Russian mammoth sunflower. I'm impressed they produced any flower head or seeds at all, and look at that color!
These little fellows (Amaranthus, Elephant Head or Red Cathedral?) are stunted, perhaps because of poor soil, competition, or living under the Russian mammoth sunflower. I’m impressed they produced any flower head or seeds at all, and look at that color!

Quick checks last night and this morning revealed a few trouble spots, but mostly I want to share some of what’s going on out in the yard and garden that’s getting me excited right now, and it all boils down to rains and grains!

Amazing Amaranth

Wikipedia has plenty to say about Amaranth (Amaranthus), you may have even heard about the “super weed” Palmer amaranth, or Palmer pigweed, but I got into it—first heard of it, even—looking through this year’s Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company catalogue. I was looking at beautiful grains like quinoa and variegated cat grass (actually a barley) when I came across the flowery Amaranths.

There are tons of varieties (from Africa, India, Central and North America, and Asia), colors, and habits for these generally tall plants that are both edible and beautiful. According to the Wikipedia opening paragraph on Amaranth:

I love passages like this in the yard and garden where we have unusual polycultures. Foreground to background, here's Redbud (Cercis canadensis), Lambs Quarters (Chenopodium album), and Golden Giant Amaranth (Amaranthus tricolor), tall and golden like goalposts or bookends.
I love passages like this in the yard and garden where we have unusual polycultures. Foreground to background, here’s Redbud (Cercis canadensis), Lambs Quarters (Chenopodium album), and Golden Giant Amaranth (Amaranthus tricolor), tall and golden like goalposts or bookends.

Some amaranth species are cultivated as leaf vegetablescereals, and ornamental plants.

That checks off a lot of boxes if, like me, your yard and garden plants need to be more than just pretty

Having grown a few varieties in spots around the property this summer—Opopeo, Red Cathedral, Golden (or Orange) Giant—I now have a much better idea of what I want to do with it in the months ahead including small circles in the front and side yard beds to add elevation, diversity, and visual interest. I haven’t eaten any that I planted yet, but I’ve noticed that my yard bugs find the leaves delicious; everywhere I go they’re eaten all to pieces. They look like swiss cheese. This may be a sign that Amaranth is a good “trap” crop, i.e. one that lures insect pests away from higher value, more delicious (for me) annual crops. It’s something to think about.

I may still be able to get some seeds down this month, actually; that Wikipedia article says there are summer and autumn varieties, though I’m not sure which I already have. I am sure, however, that I want MOAR.

The other Taro plants are all very pretty, though none of them have the blotchy, almost splattered look of this one. The label has fallen into the underbrush so I can;t get the name of it right now, but just look at that—it's stunning!
The other Taro plants are all very pretty, though none of them have the blotchy, almost splattered look of this one. The label has fallen into the underbrush so I can;t get the name of it right now, but just look at that—it’s stunning!

Taro Roots Love the Wetness

The Taro plants out on the steps in pots (also from Baker Creek) are doing really well, already 10 times their size when they arrived, and I think the mixture of humidity and sunlight here at the end of summer has been right up their alley. Look at the color on that leaf!

Taro wants things wet—you can even grown them partially-submerged in a chinampa or swampy part of your yard or garden—and I am slowly plotting out their final planting place. I need to get them into the ground soon so they can get established before cold weather comes. I am somewhat confident that I can overwinter these here with a enough mulch.

For various reasons, our entire yard and garden plan was up in the air heading into summer and so I planted our Amaranth sparingly in just a few spots because I wasn’t sure what I was going to get, or where exactly I wanted it—I just knew that I wanted some. But while these pictures don’t convey it, there is something exceptionally cool abut this grain and leaf and flower crop that I find extremely appealing. Seeing it work so well with the little I gave it this year has me inspired to do something exceptional with it next year. And I know just where I’m going to put it. Stay on the lookout for plans!

Hops a poppin'! These continue to be a joy in the yard and garden—so happy I added them. Now, where can I put more of them?
Hops a poppin’! These continue to be a joy in the yard and garden—so happy I added them. Now, where can I put more of them?

Elsewhere: Vines, Veggies, and Bananas

Other thriving things in the yard include the Cascade hops (Humulus lupulus “Cascade”) which are experiencing a late-summer growth spurt. There are tons of new, little “arms” reaching out from one string to grab hold of other little arms on other strings which is always something to smile about. And if you open up one of the “cones” there is so much pollen in there!

Tomato towers have collapsed, but they'll be upright in a jiffy. These are all heirloom varieties from Baker Creek.
Tomato towers have collapsed, but they’ll be upright in a jiffy. These are all heirloom varieties from Baker Creek.

The rain and sun have also helped our tomato supply to explode at a time when most folks are done with their. We planted late, but we planted in straw bales—which we will do again and recommend—and after a slow start, we’re sold on the technique. The plants are so huge and healthy that they’ve actually fallen over and now rest a little bit on the herb spiral. They’ve taken their wire cages with them, but no worries—a little twine to lash the cages to the fence and we’ll have things upright again. The plants are so big and powerful now though that you can walk near them and get magnificent wafts of that sharp, almost acrid smell of good tomatoes. We’re loving it!

Also awesome out in the yard right now is the banana circle. I tell you, this is an experiment gone enthusiastically awesome. While two of the three banana plants died, the third one is growing very well—even if it won’t overwinter— and this has proved to be a fun thing since planting it a few months back. I’ve learned a lot—borage can get HUGE, jerusalem artichokes flower in the fall, there are banana plants that will overwinter (Musa basjoo)—I think my favorite thing has been the success of sweet potatoes as a ground cover.

What’s got you excited in your space right now?

~Ben

The copious sweet potato vines and rain-soaked, soft soil have brought two of the three jerusalem artichoke clusters down, but I'll prop them back up soon enough. There's beautiful little purple flowers hidden in that sweet potato cover!
The copious sweet potato vines and rain-soaked, soft soil have brought two of the three jerusalem artichoke clusters down, but I’ll prop them back up soon enough. There’s beautiful little purple flowers hidden in that sweet potato cover!
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