Monday, February 25, 2013

Tropical sage...a wise addition to the Southern garden

Tropical sage, a popular Southern plant

February 25, 2013

I’m waiting for hummingbirds to discover my tropical sage plants. 

Last fall, my daughter removed a large patch of the pretty, scarlet-colored flowers from one of her garden beds but before tossing the lot into her compost pile, she put a couple aside for me.  I accepted her gift gratefully and placed the small starts in my kitchen garden where I hoped their bright red blooms would attract butterflies, bees and especially hummingbirds.  Since I spend considerable time in the kitchen preparing food and cleaning up afterwards, I like to reward myself with pretty views to gaze out upon from the kitchen window.  

In the months since, the flower stalks have grown tall and the plants have sprawled broadly.  Unlike Amber’s yard where garden space is limited, I have plenty of room for plants to expand – if they’re the right plants.  Rather than installing more exotics that look lovely but turn out to be incredibly hard to control or eradicate, I’m on the lookout for Florida-friendly additions that provide beauty and attract wildlife without the need for much attention.  Tropical sage fits the bill.  I haven’t noticed any hummers yet but I’m sure their arrival is just a matter of time.

Although its botanic name is Salvia coccinea, tropical sage is a popular southern plant with many monikers.  Common names include Texas sage, scarlet sage, blood sage, hummingbird sage and red salvia.  Salvias are the largest genus of the mint family and tropical sage (like all mints) has square stems, aromatic leaves and small flowers displayed in a whorl around upright stems.  The tubular red flowers, which attract so much attention from nectar-seeking wildlife, are about an inch long and perfectly shaped to accommodate a hummingbird’s long, pointy bill.  

I’ve planted my tropical sage in a flowerbed where I’m also growing a purple sage, orange cosmos and a few red, pink and white pentas.  Over time, I’ve enhanced the soil in that garden with compost, peat and lavish amounts of grass clipping mulch.  While tropical sage abides such soil amendments, it can also prosper in less enhanced settings.  As long as it gets a few hours of shade every day, it will grow in dry, sandy spots as well as rich loam. 

The blooms, which continue year round except during freezes, are more profuse if the plants receive at least some irrigation.  However, even when ignored completely, tropical sage will survive.  It just won’t thrive like it will when given a little attention.

From a lazy gardener’s point of view (mine!), one of tropical sage’s many assets is its ability to self-seed.  With her limited garden space, my daughter doesn’t find this characteristic as endearing as I do.  In her yard, salvia coccinea volunteers kept popping up and taking over spots where she would have preferred to grow vegetables and other herbs.  Although Amber appreciated seeing all the fluttering wildlife the plants attracted, the self-seeding Florida wildflowers simply took up too much valuable real estate. 

Unlike Amber, I’m ready for Florida-friendly, wildlife-attracting, low-maintenance plants like tropical sage to overtake garden space.  I wouldn’t mind in the least if the two plants my daughter gave me blazed a scarlet path beyond the garden and into other planting beds.  I wouldn’t even object if they continued spreading their way around the lake.  

One of these days, a hummingbird will discover the tubular red blooms in my kitchen garden.  When it does, the tiny bird will be happy to have found a new source of life-sustaining nectar.  I’ll be happy too because we’ll both be nourished - one by nectar, the other by fluttering moments of beauty.  

Monday, February 18, 2013

Local farmers step up to the plate

An early crop of mulberries

February 18, 2013

It looks like it’s going to be an early spring.  Loquats began ripening toward the end of January, a good month ahead of normal and the mulberry trees in our yard are flush with fruit.  Blueberries are also ripening earlier than usual.  While that’s one crop we don’t grow ourselves, we do take advantage of nearby farms that welcome u-pickers.

Loquats are also ripening earlier than usual
One of our favorite U-pick operations is Lake CatherineBlueberries in Groveland (5849 Lake Catherine Rd, Groveland; 352-429-8221) run by Dustin and Jamie Lowe.  According to Jamie Lowe, this year commercial picking should be starting in March and they expect to open their U-pick operation in early April.  That’s a couple weeks ahead of last year, but I’m not complaining.  I’ll gladly indulge in an early feast of local produce.

U-pick blueberry season should be beginning in early April

The popularity of locally grown fruits and vegetables seems to be on the rise.  Within a five-mile range of my home, I know of three new “farmettes,” backyard gardens turned into businesses to supplement the fruit and vegetable needs of several families.  Three other specialty farms – farms that focus on specific crops like strawberries, blueberries and blackberries – are also nearby as well as three “egg farms” where small flocks of free-range chickens produce enough eggs to help their owners earn a little extra “scratch.”

No eggs can compare in taste, texture or nutritional value to those produced by backyard flocks of free-range, uncaged chickens

My son’s girlfriend, Malory Foster, is among the new crop of garden enthusiasts eager to share a passion for plants with the public.  Shortly after joining forces, Malory converted a sandy patch of weedy lawn into a verdant oasis of organic vegetables.  One garden led to two, which led to a third as well as the installation of a small greenhouse.

Malory Foster and Tim Boas share a passion for farming and a desire to share their knowledge of organic gardening and healthy living with others

My husband and I have watched with nostalgic pleasure as the energetic couple sought out sources of local horse manure then proceeded to tote loads of the nitrogen-rich fertilizer to their property to mix with woodchips, peat and compost.  Just as we did when we were starting out, Tim and Malory have managed to transform sadly deficient soil into a healthy composite of produce-supporting nutrients.  Malory’s gardens now provide enough surplus vegetables to launch a small CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) in addition to a stand at the Clermont Farmer’s Market on Sundays.

The kitchen garden: arugula, Siberian kale, lettuce, broccoli, bok choy, Swiss chard — at The Food Forest at Beautiful Bamboo Farm.

I find myself encouraged by the surging interest in edible landscapes.  Even in small spaces like patios, balconies and postage-stamp-sized front yards, people have begun to realize how much sense it makes to grow a few vegetable, herb or fruiting plants. 

Perhaps the abundance of online information has helped. 

Anyone who wants to learn how to grow a particular plant need only do an Internet search for how-to videos.  Consider tomatoes.  A Google search on “how to grow tomatoes” yields 1.2 million posts by people eager to teach others how to do everything from plant tomato seeds to trellis growing plants, to preserving their harvest. 

And then there’s Facebook. 

In addition to reconnecting with high school classmates, Facebook is a great place to find others who share common interests.  Both experienced and would-be gardeners can join any of Facebook’s many specialty groups set up by individuals with passion for particular aspects of homegrown goodness.  One of the Facebook groups I find particularly inspiring is called Grow Food Not Lawns (website:, which strives to spread the word about sustainability, permaculture and edible landscaping.

Fortunately for those who either don’t have the opportunity or interest in growing their own food, people like Malory Foster, Dustin and Jamie Lowe and numerous other small-scale, local farmers have stepped up to the plate.  Their willingness to dedicate the time, labor and resources needed to provide the public with fresh grown, local foods is a welcome addition to the community. 

No matter whether the growing season is running early like it is this year, late or along normal lines, it’s good to know resources are available to make locally grown foods more accessible to anyone with the desire to seek out a more nutritious (and delicious!) way of eating.     

Online sources for local farms:

Monday, February 11, 2013

Forget cut roses — give valentine a rosebush

Red roses are a traditional Valentine's Day gift

February 11, 2013

What gift is more traditional on Valentine’s Day than a bouquet of red roses?  Red roses represent respect and a creative spirit.  They symbolize romantic love and enduring passion.  However, as beautiful as they are, cut flowers have a short life.  Within days, they begin to fade until the blooms eventually wilt on the stem and are tossed away.

If only there was a way to make the gift of red roses last forever…

There is.  Plant a rose bush! 

Of the many roses to choose from, one stands out.  Rosa “Louis Philippe” has just about everything one would want in a rose.  It is a prolific bearer of medium-size, deep red blooms that have a wonderful fragrance.  It naturally resists diseases and pest problems that bother many other more delicate cultivars, requires minimal care, no pesticides and is a hardy specimen that been around for a long time. 

In Florida, where it has adorned landscapes since the late 1800s, Rosa “Louis Philippe” has many names.  It is known as ‘Florida rose’, ‘antique china rose’, ‘Florida cracker rose’ or simply ‘cracker rose.’  
But no matter what name it goes by, this aromatic beauty is sure to supply an abundance of deep red blooms throughout most of the year.

On our property, we have several Louis Philippe plants and each one boasts a multitude of blooms.  We have Louis Philippe roses abutting our parking area, near the entry and surrounding our compost pile where the sweet scent of roses helps displace the less pleasant odor of decomposing food matter.  All of our plants came from cuttings of the original rose purchased more than 20 years ago.  Louis Philippe is easy to propagate by cuttings. 

Although we established most of our young plants in areas that receive irrigation and soil enhancements, we have one plant that receives no such attention.  When my son Tim stuck a rooted cutting across the lake under a pine tree, I was dubious.  The only water that location receives comes from rainfall, the spot gets little sun due to the pine canopy and receives no attention from us since it is so far from our house.

Despite receiving no irrigation except rainfall and being planted in pine forest, our Louis Philippe rose is flourishing
However, not only did the young rose survive.  It thrived!  The plant is spectacular.  Lush with foliage and flush with blooms, I can honestly say it is doing better there with less attention than the more carefully planted and irrigated specimens closer to our home.  Across the lake where it is left alone, the rose can do what it does best – grow dozens of ruby-red, beautiful, fragrant roses.

Louis Philippe is a bush rose that likes to spread out and sprawl but it can also be pruned or shaped to fit a snug spot.  No matter where it is planted or what form it ultimately takes, Louis Philippe will produce a year-round supply of lovely flowers. 

If you’re searching for a Valentine’s Day gift that speaks volumes, consider adding a Rosa “Louis Philippe” to your landscape.  If a single red rose says, “I love you” and a bouquet of blooms mean, “enduring passion,” what message could an entire bush filled with red flowering fragrance possibly say?  

To me, it says you care enough to grow together.  It symbolizes the desire to create beauty out of briars and to thrive even when times are tough.  It’s a message of commitment and long-lasting love. 

Can one plant really do that much?  Try it and see.


Monday, February 4, 2013

No guilt: Enjoy chocolate without fat or sugar

Chocolate covered strawberries is just one way to enjoy homemade cacao powder concoctions.

Simply Living
February 4, 2013

I’m not a big fan of chocolate but my husband is.  However, until recently, Ralph has been careful not to overindulge.  For health reasons, he didn’t want to consume too much saturated fat or sugar, ingredients found in most manufactured chocolate products.  His self-imposed limit was one small piece of dark chocolate a day and he rarely cheated. 

He doesn’t restrain himself anymore. 

Ever since we discovered how easy it is to make fat-free, sugarless, no-cooking-involved confections at home out of raw cacao powder, Ralph eats as much chocolate as he wants without guilt or health worries.  In fact, the way he now consumes chocolate might even be beneficial to his health.

Raw cacao beans are high in essential minerals like iron, magnesium, calcium, zinc, potassium and copper.  Research suggests that the antioxidants found in raw cacao beans aid cardiovascular health by improving circulation and lowering blood pressure. 

As if that weren’t enough, when you eat a confection made out of raw cacao powder, feel-good signals flood your body.  Neurotransmitters like serotonin and endorphins send out messages of calmness and wellbeing that improve moods and act as anti-depressants.

Sound good?  Tastes better!   

It only takes three basic ingredients - raw cacao powder, liquid and stevia – to make fat-free, low-calorie, no-cook chocolate confections at home.  However, how much of each ingredient to use depends on what you want to make.  I like to start each day with a hot chocolate drink made with more liquid than the gooey mixtures Ralph prefers.  Adding extra liquid to the powdered cacao creates a thinner, syrupy concoction while adding less yields a more fudge-like texture.  Similarly, the amount of stevia (we use both a powdered form and a liquid form of stevia) will determine how sweet the chocolate becomes. 

The two brands of cacao powder we use – Raw Cacao Powder by NavitasNaturals and Madre Labs’s CocoCeps – are both excellent.  For stevia, I’m partial to the brand NuNaturals, which makes both a Pure Liquid Clear Stevia as well as NuNaturals' NuStevia White Stevia Powder.  For a liquid, we have tried water, tea, juice and unsweetened soymilk but any liquid will do. 

Making no-cook, chocolate at home is all about experimentation.  It’s important to begin with just a little, perhaps a couple tablespoons of powder mixed with a teaspoon of powdered stevia or about 10 drops of liquid stevia.  Add to that a few drops of liquid, stirring until it is no longer lumpy then increase the liquid a little at a time until the desired consistency is achieved.  To determine if the chocolate’s texture is what you want or if it is sweet enough, take frequent tastes.  Remember, eating chocolate made without the fat or sugar is good for you! 

Once you’ve arrived at a desired consistency and flavor, try dipping various fruits and nuts into the chocolate.  Strawberries, which are just coming into season in Florida, are yummy when dipped in stevia-sweetened cacao syrup.  After enjoying them fresh, try placing a few chocolate-dipped fruit on a platter to place in the freezer for a few hours where the cold air will cause the chocolate to harden. 

End result:  A satisfying dessert that’s low in calories and fat, tastes delicious and - most important – will make you feel good while improving your health.

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