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Musings About Family, Travel And Gardening With Allen Martinson.


Zone Pushers

THE PAST COUPLE weeks I have had the opportunity to do a little traveling. I have visited two very different planting zones that show what a difference zones can make. I have traveled to Zone Nine in Thibodaux, La. and to Zone Four in Wausau, Wis.

Unfortunately, my visit to Zone Nine way down south in Louisiana was to comfort a good friend whose mother passed away. I had heard over the years what a passionate Gardner, her mother, was. She was so passionate about her love of plants that even as her health was declining and she became wheelchair bound for the last few years of her life, instead of parking near a window wishing she could be in her immense garden she had pads laid in a meandering circle so her chair could easily roll throughout her life’s labors. Now that’s what I call passionate.

Mimi and I went to pay our respects to our friend’s large family. They were all such gracious hosts and I don’t even want to start describing the delicious food that was laid out for all to enjoy. If you’ve ever attended a Cajun funeral you can just imagine. I knew we would be learning some things about food I never knew. For instance, new to me, when they asked if I would want rice or potato salad to go with my gumbo they looked at me like I had three heads when I told them I’d never heard of mixing potato salad with my gumbo. Apparently, all serious gumbo eaters know this and now that I’ve experienced it that is the only way I’ll ever want it again. It’s delicious the way the potatoes soak up the dark roux that someone worked mighty hard to accomplish. I said I wasn’t going to get started about he food but it was such a huge part of comforting every one there, it was like medicine.

I knew many of the family members from holidays gone by. They knew Mimi and I were anxious to see their mother’s botanical garden. We were touring within the first 30 minutes of our arrival. We followed the paths throughout the 10-acre yard amazed at the diversity of plants throughout. Her garden style was very well thought out, she wasn’t one to happen up on some plant then get home with no plan for it. It was very obvious she had a very well laid out plan for every bit of each area.

The first thing we noticed and fell in love with was a huge planting of a very dwarf agapanthus called Peter Pan. We have sold that one before but like many nursery plants, they are very unremarkable while still in their nursery pots. They just never sold that great for us so we gave up on them. Now that we have seen them planted and about three years old we will bring that plant back in for sale and for our yard of course. The foliage was a very healthy green but the blooms were a cobalt blue, unlike the regular Agapanthus that we’ve been selling for years, which has more of a powder blue bloom.

The path led us to a live oak like none I’ve seen before. I can’t be sure how old this tree must be, I think well over 200 years. There were moses and lichens growing all over the branches that were reaching so far out that they were touching the ground and growing back upwards again. We could almost hear the laughter and the fun generations of kids must have had climbing around in the friendly arms of this tree. Our friends said she spent many hours playing and daydreaming in her arms. This tree makes our live oaks on our driveway, which are 50 years old, look like babies. Of course there were plantings in the shade of the tree of caladiums, impatiens and English Ivy that were stunning.

As we meandered past her vegetable garden we could see where all her fresh veggies, which she used for wonderful meals, came from. I was very surprised to see an old bougainvillea bush thriving in the ground. Our friend told us it had been there as long as she could remember, I wish our zone would allow that.

The path led us to a backyard greenhouse her mother had just added to the mix right before her sickness made it difficult for her to use. I did notice she had laid out the wheelchair pads leading right up to the front door of the beautiful structure. She was determined to be able to use her lifelong dream. A backyard greenhouse can be very handy for someone who is into gardening like this lady was for starting seeds early or for overwintering any tender plants.

It was a wonderful weekend of visiting another culture, another plant zone and another garden that had been loved for decades. The mountains of food and hospitality made it even better. As we were pulling out of town we stopped at a place we were told about and picked up some gumbo, potato salad and boudin so we could try to replicate what we were offered at their table. It was good but not quite the same.

MY TRIP TO ZONE Four in central Wisconsin was very different. I was there last week to visit some farmers who had some greenhouses that were for sale. The two young farmers were from a corn farming background. They tried to get in on the hemp growing rush that is happening all over the U.S. They grew about five acres outdoors where some of their families’ corn had been grown and they grew some in a 10,000 square foot greenhouse range they purchased just for this endeavor. Unfortunately, like most hemp stories go, no matter how good of a grower you may be, the market saturation of hemp has lowered the price so much that it can’t be grown profitably unless you go huge, even then its not the gold rush it appears to be on paper.

When these guys started buying equipment and started planting their crop they had signed up to contract grow for a large company in Utah. The price for a gallon of the crude oil for CBD was $8,000. By the time they were finishing growing and beginning the extremely laborious job of harvesting and drying the plants the price of crude had dropped to $2,000 a gallon. That would not be enough to break even. They knew the prices would continue to go down over the years because there are so many people getting into hemp growing with stars in their eyes and hopes of early retirement like they did. They decided to get out after one year with their hopes and dreams dashed, I really felt sorry for them.

These guys were in their late twenties and were trying to change their families’ destinies of farming corn for the rest of their lives. They did everything exactly perfectly. Their timing was right on, their crops were some of the best I have ever seen from the pictures they proudly showed me. One of the guys was six foot seven and skinny as a beanpole. In one of the photos, with his long arm stretched as far up as it would go, he could still not reach the top of some of the plants, about 11 or 12 feet tall. The plants were as healthy and vigorous as hemp plants can be. They can be very vigorous.

These guys worked their day jobs and concentrated every waking moment at night and on the weekends on their babies. I think they talked and sang to every plant out there, hand picking off any insects or worm that crossed over into their field. It was a phenomenal crop but nothing could be done about the price.

We wandered around the greenhouses and the barns on the farm. They were also trying to sell some of the farm implements they had purchased for the endeavor such as one that laid down the plastic on the rows, one that took up the plastic once the crop was finished and one their mother rode on that punched a hole in the plastic, filled the hole with water and nutrients and dropped the clone in the hole and pushed soil around the roots. That was a pretty cool piece of equipment. I think that machine is used for planting sweet potatoes which you know we grow plenty of right here in Mississippi.

I imagine lots more people will grow this crop on paper and lots more people will have a similar experience, easy to grow and very hard to harvest and dry. I have a buddy in Nashville who has the exact story, he has had to put his plans to rest and start landscaping again.

The morning I arrived at their farm in Zone Four it was a chilly 50 degrees and misting and windy. Luckily I had checked the forecast before flying out there so I had a jacket, but I felt like I was on another planet after leaving our July.

On my drive out to their farm I noticed acres and acres of very heavy shade cloth on short telephone poles that had been cut to about six feet tall. The shade cloth was a 90 percent shade. These were the ginseng farms I had heard about. Central Wisconsin is the world’s best place for growing ginseng. Ninety percent of the ginseng produced in America is from central Wisconsin. This is another very non traditional crop that takes a lot of patience to produce. Ginseng takes three to four years to mature the root into a size big enough to harvest. In the meantime seeds and berries can be harvested from the one foot tall plant, but they are not that profitable. The root on the other hand can sell for as much as $100 a pound.

The crop is very labor intensive. Some of the specialized equipment will be used only once a year and it takes three years at least until it can be harvested by migrant workers. Wild grown ginseng can be much older and can fetch up to $500 a pound, which is why people have begun searching for the elusive plant that grows naturally in some forests. Most states have made it illegal to forage just any ole where because the foragers were leaving such a mess behind their digging spots.

I ALSO NOTICED WITH the change in plant zones that most of the trees I could see while driving around to these farms were spruces and other conifers that could survive the 60 inches of annual snowfall. Plant zones are a good way to choose the plants that will be hardy here but no one has to adhere to those guidelines. I’ve mentioned in some other articles that Mimi and I frequently test plants out that are not recommended for our zone just to see what will happen. We have been more pleasantly surprised than not in most of our experiments. That is why our garden feels more like an Oregon garden with our deodar cedars, maples, smoke trees and many others.

While I was languishing in the airports getting to these places I got bored enough to search around on my phone to find a group out there called Zone Pushers. This group is all about trying plants from other zones just for the fun of it, made me feel a little less crazy. I saw palms growing in Ontario and many other unbelievable experiments. The plants that don’t belong in our hardiness zone that have lasted at least three years are plants we offer at our garden center. We will tell you where in your yard you are most likely to be successful and that they may or may not make it. It’s sure worth it when they do. It’s fun to beat the odds and we will continue to find new plants for our area so the landscapes around here can be a little different.

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