All posts by Gryphon Corpus

Gryphon Corpus is part of the gang here at Southern Exposure. Many of her blog posts are related to medicinal herbs.

Planting for Pollinators: Black Swallowtail Butterfly

Eastern Black Swallowtail

As a garden lover, you know that pollinators are in trouble. For decades now huge amounts of pesticides have been dumped on US crops in order to control pests (335 million lbs in 1965, up to 948 million lbs by the year 2000, as the bugs keep gaining resistance.) At the same time pollinator populations are being destroyed. Compounded with the chemical stress, they are losing their food sources as more invasive species of plants that they cannot eat crowd out native species. It’s up to us enthusiastic gardeners (even if you’re not quite as enamored of all the creepy crawlies as I am) to plant the first line of defense and grow with an eye not just to our plates, but to the care of our buggy friends. We know from how quickly our Insectiary Mix gets snapped up that people want to be doing this, so we’d like to offer more in-depth information about particular pollinators and how to attract and care for them.

Butterflies are an easy sell for gardeners. Unlike wasps and bees, no one is afraid of them, and they make a beautiful addition to any garden. Moreover, butterflies help to pollinate your plants and feed your songbird population. While adult birds can live well on seeds and berries, nestlings are unable to digest these yet and require juicy caterpillars to help them grow. Without a steady supply of caterpillars arriving at the nest – it takes thousands to feed one clutch – baby birds starve to death. Read more here.

The Eastern Black Swallowtail is a wonderful candidate to attract to your garden. They are efficient pollinators and their striking black wings dabbed with yellow and blue are a delightful sight among the flowers. There are hidden benefits too: the caterpillar of the black swallowtail smells bad to predators and helps to deter them from your garden. The black swallowtail has a large range, covering all but the northeastern part of the United States, and extending well south into Mexico.

So what can you grow to draw these lovely critters? Black Swallowtail caterpillars feed on plants in the Apiaceae family – that’s carrots, dill, fennel, parsley, celery, caraway. Keep in mind that feeding caterpillars means sacrificing some plants, so if you’re trying to feed yourself too it’s a good plan to grow extra plants that you won’t mind sharing with the caterpillars.

A quick guide to recognizing the black swallowtail in all its stages:

Eggs: tiny yellow spheres on leaves and stems, turn brown before hatching (actually, it’s turning translucent and the brown is the caterpillar seen through.)

Caterpillars: They grow in 5 instars. Starting out black and spiky, they moult to light green striped with black with yellow spots, with a little spike in each yellow spot. The last three instars are similar, but often with more light green at each and spikes disappearing.

Pupa: The skin splits to form chrysalis (no cocoon like with silk moths), held on to a twig with a thread harness. It can be green or brown. The last generation of the season overwinters as a pupa, for as long as nine months.

Adult males have more yellow, females more blue on the wings, and a wingspan of about 7-8.5 cm.

More about black swallowtails.

Black Swallowtail Caterpillar

Easy Bamboo Bean Teepees

Bean teepees

Once upon a time, when I made my first attempt at putting in a garden and was as clueless as they come, I tried planting some pole beans. I new they needed some kind of trellis to climb and I thought maybe a teepee sort of a thing would be easy. I found a stick of some sort, stuck it in the ground, tied some yarn around the top (that’s right, I used YARN, fine, wool knitting yarn,) and staked the yarn to the ground. Maybe I even used pins to stake it. In case you can’t tell, my background is in textiles, not gardening.

Needless to say, my teepee fell apart almost as soon as the first little bean tendrils reached out for it. The yarn broke and eventually the stick fell over. It would have been funny if it hadn’t been so sad.

Last week I learned one way to do it right, using a few of the bamboo stalks we have in profusion, so I’d like to share that with you.

  1. Cut or collect a bunch of bamboo stalks and cut them to around 9′ long, 7 per teepee. Cut off all the branches. We found this was easily accomplished using a machete and whacking from the top down.

2. Pound a t-post into the ground where you want the center of your teepee to be and tie one of the stalks to it using strong twine, like baling twine.

setting up bean teepee

3. One by one, tie the other six stalks to the center one near the top, with the bottoms propped against the ground about three feet from the center. I did a lot of complicated winding around of the twine to make sure each one was secure, and then wound a bunch more twine around all of them once they were all up.

Bean teepee top

Alternate method: you can also tie four of the stalks together lying on the ground, with one a little longer than the others to be the center pole, then stand them all up and arrange them in place. Once they’re up you can tie on the remaining three stalks.

alternate bean teepee

4. Wrap twine around each outer stalk at about 1.5′ and 3′ up, going all the way around. This will give the plants something to grab on to as they climb.

bean teepee support strands

5. Now plant your beans or peas! We put in eight in a little circle around the base of each stalk.

Dinosaurs, Bloomsdale, and the Mortgage Lifter

What do a kale, a spinach, and a mortgage lifter tomato have in common? They are some of the best sellers of all the varieties offered by Southern Exposure. Each one has a story and reasons you should consider adding it to your garden.

Many factors go into breeding a great spinach. You want a plant which is disease-resistant and if you live in a temperate zone like we do, you want something which can handle the colder nights. We strive to find varieties which have both nutritional and health advantages and are also tasty to eat. The Organic Seed Alliance (OSA), working with various organic farmers, seem to have succeeded in meeting all these criteria with the Abundant Bloomsdale Spinach.

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Abundant Bloomsdale is a cross between the open-pollinated Winter Bloomsdale Spinach and Evergreen Spinach. As the name suggests, the tasty Winter Bloomsdale is hardy in cold weather and the Evergreen is resistant to multiple diseases. Having originated from the OSA breeding project in the Pacific Northwest, this variety performs well in the mid-Atlantic and is a most welcome and popular addition to our line.

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You can use ours, if we can use yours

Southern Exposure wants to credit and support this type of selective breeding program, so we contribute 10% of all the revenue from bolt resistant Abundant Bloomsdale to OSA’s ‘open source’ breeding program. This program allow gardeners to use these plants in any way they like, including breeding projects, as long as they agree not to restrict others’ use of these seeds or their derivatives by patents or other means.

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What is in a name? Lacinato Kale has many, we also call it ‘dinosaur’ on the seed packet label because of the bumpy leaves which some think resemble what dinosaur skin might have looked like. There are many other names you might hear it go by including: Tuscan kale, Tuscan cabbage, Nero di Toscana, Italian kale, black kale, flat back cabbage, palm tree kale, or black Tuscan palm.

In 1777, Thomas Jefferson recorded his success with Lacinato at his famous Monticello estate at Monticello (the venue for the Heritage Harvest Festival, held this year on 10 Sept.) On the longer history of this plant Seed Savers Exchange tells us, “These curly leafed cabbages that were grown in ancient Greece are thought to be the ancestors of kale plants. By the Middle Ages kale was one of the most common green vegetables in Europe.”

The list of advantages for Lacinato Kale is quite long and spans the spectrum of desirable characteristics for a food plant. One advantage is that it grows well in almost every region of the US. It is a cold-hardy vegetable, which should be planted 3-5 weeks before the last frost, and the leaves sweeten after they have been frost kissed. It is hardy in very hot climates as well.

Kale generally reduces cancer risks for bladder, breast, colon, ovary, and prostate. Kale also provides support for our detoxification systems. Steam Lacinato kale to get at its cholesterol-lowering benefits. Lacinato is rich in at least 45 different flavonoids, which have both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits.

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Black, Dinosaur, Tuscan – a kale with many names.

Lacinato is a pretty plant with unusual thick dark blue-green verging on black leaves which have a rare bumpy texture. This variety is famous for being an important part of the Tuscan cuisine, especially soups and stews. Because of its slightly bitter and earth taste, this so-called “Black Kale” is the darling of the culinary world.

It is no surprise this is the single best selling variety at Southern Exposure, followed closely by some good old fashioned collards, Green Glaze and Georgia Green. We wonder if some of the newly rediscovered Blue and Curly collards will inch into the top rankings next year. Make sure you are signed up for our 2017 catalog to be among the first to try some varieties described in ‘Collards: A Southern Tradition from Seed to Table,’ a new book by Ed Davis and John Morgan.

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One of the most humorous names in our catalog has an especially interesting story. Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter tomato is not known for being pretty, but it is both big and flavorful. This stabilized open-pollinated family heirloom tomato comes with this unusual and disputed history.

The story has it that M.C. “Radiator Charlie” Byles was a capable and colorful guy. Without formal education Radiator Charlie would become a pilot, a wrestler, and a mechanic who strategically located his shop at the bottom of a large hill where trucks often overheated and needed his assistance.

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One of the few pictures or Radiator Charlie

But the great depression hit Radiator Charlie, as it did most of the country in the early 1930s, and he was looking at losing his house because he could not pay the bills. Radiator Charlie had no experience breeding or growing plants, but decided he would try to come up with a larger meaty tomato that families could grow to feed themselves.

He looked for tomatoes regionally available and started with four large fruiting varieties: German Johnson, Beefsteak, an unknown Italian variety, and an unknown English variety. Using a baby ear syringe, he carefully hand pollinated these varieties for 6 years, choosing the best year after year. He sold the seedlings of this very large, flavorful, and popular tomato for $1 each for another 6 years and paid off most of his $6000 mortgage.

Sep2014 (767) Radiator Charlie's Mortgage Lifter

Commonly, people wonder why supermarket tomatoes don’t have the same great taste that these heirloom tomatoes do. The answer lies in the goals of the breeder. Supermarket tomatoes are bred for uniformity in size, bright red color, and tough skins which allow them to withstand being shipped thousands of miles to your neighborhood store. Flavor is not a priority. In contrast, Radiator Charlie is a pink tomato bred principally for its large size, reliability, and flavor. It is not uniform in color and is not designed for long haul shipping, something you don’t need when getting food from your garden to your kitchen.