An Upcycle Garden Idea: Build a Living Wall

By Wendy Diaz, EMGV

The first time I remember seeing a living wall (or vertical garden) was along ‘Museum Mile’ in Madrid, Spain on April 2010 (see photo 1). The green wall was designed by Patrick Blanc, a French botanist famous for creating vertical gardens in Europe1. I was intrigued and took several photographs because I just couldn’t believe the scale of this immense beautiful patterned wall covered in very healthy and vibrant plants. It did not seem possible that so many plants could be so healthy on a very narrow vertical surface and it did not even cross my mind at the time to attempt a vertical garden at home. 

Photo 1 Living Wall designed by Patrick Blanc along Museum Mile in Madrid, Spain. Photo by Wendy Diaz April, 2010

Then, I attended a Durham Garden Forum Talk at Duke Gardens on February 20, 2018 by Leslie Herndon of Greenscapes, Inc.2 and she inspired me to think about attempting a scaled down version of vertical gardening using, among other things, nothing simpler than a wooden pallet. All any home gardener needed was a little inspiration, and in my case, my husband to help me lift and assemble the required materials. I decided it was something I wanted to try doing and I had just the spot. The idea for the location presented itself last fall when I cut down the wisteria in my backyard (see photo 2), on the east side and backyard of our property, as part of my ongoing plan to remove all invasive species from my yard. It left a bare hole (see photo 3 and 4) between two remaining support posts of an old children’s fort my husband built many years ago.  We decided to hang the pallet from the cross board between the posts to provide a screen in the backyard until my newly planted cross vine spread. 

Photo 2 Chinese wisteria (Wisteria sinensis) before removal in my back yard. Photo taken November 5, 2018 by Wendy Diaz
Photo 3 Chinese wisteria (Wisteria sinensis) stems after cut-back. Photo taken November 11, 2018 by Wendy Diaz
Photo 4 Hole in landscape between two support posts after Chinese wisteria removed. Two birds enjoy the new space created. Photograph taken November 12, 2018 by Wendy Diaz

Materials 
Oak pallet
Staple gun and staples
Three coffee bean bags burlap, no holes
Potting soil (about 1 cubic feet)
Scissors or knife to cut burlap

Plants
Sedum (spreading variety)
Coleus (Plectranthus scutellarioides)
Basil
Spider plants (Chlorophytum comosum)
Caladium

I didn’t want to spend a lot of money so I split some of my houseplants, propagated some basil, used some extra caladium bulbs I saved from last year’s frost and uprooted some ground-cover sedum from my yard. I did purchase the coleus and salvia. I already had a small wood pallet left over from a recent bathroom renovation.

I went to the Scrap Exchange and purchased used coffee bags for $2 each and borrowed my husband’s staple gun. I cut the coffee bags along their seams for a single layer and cut out a space in the bag for the center post of the pallet and wrapped the bags around each wooden plat to make a pouch for the potting soil and stapled it to the boards (see photo 5 and 6).

Photo 5 Bottom right hand corner of Hanging Garden with burlap wrapping to make plant pouches. The rabbit is curious. Photo taken April 13, 2019 by Wendy Diaz
Photo 6 Side view of burlap coffee bag wrappings. Hanging Garden also provides a perch for birds. Photograph taken May 6, 2019 by Wendy Diaz

Initially, we used two stainless steel screw eyes to hang the pallet but it almost touched the ground (see photo 7) so my husband raised it to the first notch on the side panels and screwed it to the cross beam between the support posts (see photo 8). My husband had to secure the posts with concrete due to the weight of the oak wood pallet and wet soil. It took just over a month to for the plants to fill in (see photo 9).

Photo 7 Initially the Hanging Garden was suspended by two screw eyes but it was too close to the ground and my sedum would not be able to trail over the edge of the bottom pouch. Photograph taken on April 13, 2019 by Wendy Diaz

Photo 8 Hanging Garden secured to cross beam between two support posts about 1 foot above the ground surface. Plants were placed in three layers on April 13, 2019. Photo taken April 24, 2019 by Wendy Diaz
Photo 9 Plants are thriving in Hanging Garden and most of the pallet is covered with plants. Photo taken July 25, 2019 by Wendy Diaz

Leslie Herndon recommended an Internet search on the words “DIY Living Wall” to get some ideas and see other projects. She also recommended fabric stapled to the back of the pallet to protect the wall but because we were suspending it from old support posts, I decided to try to achieve the reversible affect and hope the plants would grow in front and back (see photo 10). After a few months, plants grew out of the back, though not as fully due to shade and the burlap covering. I now call my living wall the Hanging Garden and it achieved my purpose of providing a screen and filling in the hole left by the wisteria vine. In the end, my Hanging Garden became the most thriving part of my backyard during our heat wave in July and a focal point looking out our picture window. I am well pleased with our efforts.  

Photo 10 View of shaded back of Hanging Garden in the morning. Photo taken July 30, 2019 by Wendy Diaz

In Hindsight
One of things that I will do differently next time is to install an automatic watering system because we had to hand water the shallow soil pockets twice a day to prevent wilting in July. We would also put more concrete in the hole of the north support post because it is now leaning with all the weight of the established plants. Next time, I will not plant salvia (not enough sun at this location) and I would place basil in the top pouch of the pallet and try some coral bells. Maybe next spring I will arrange plants to make a geometric design with common plant textures and more colors and even add a nonliving accessory as recommended by Ms. Herndon2.

I am not a professional and my first attempt wasn’t a work of art nor to the scale of a Patrick Blanc creation, but it surpassed my expectations so I am going to replant it next year!

Photo 11 Photograph taken July 30, 2019 by Wendy Diaz

References:

  1. https://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2017/07/09/495905421/hot-dry-madrid-aims-for-a-cooler-greener-future
  2. https://www.greenscapeinc.com/gallery/commercial-property-gallery/retail

More reading:

  1. http://www.greenroofs.com/projects/
  2. http://www.greenscapeinc.com/blog/how-much-do-living-walls-cost
  3. http://www.verticalgardenpatrickblanc.com

From Boll to Yarn: Teaching Kids About Cotton

by Ariyah Chambers April, EMGV intern

Extension Master Gardener Volunteers commit to spreading research-based gardening practices within our communities. One of the ways we share knowledge is by teaching kids (grades K through 5) in afterschool 4-H programs across Durham County.

I spent most of my own grade school years in South Carolina. Teachers took us on field trips to nearby cotton fields to learn about the state’s socio-political and agricultural histories. Holding cotton stalks in my young hands—gently, because we all know what happens if not—my appreciation developed for the intense drudgery required to pick and process cotton before modern machinery became widespread.

It occurred to me to create a cotton lesson for the local 4-H kids, replete with actual cotton stalks, bolls, and fiber samples (after all, show-and-tell is much better received than a PowerPoint presentation… no matter the age group). A few email exchanges later with the North Carolina State University Textiles Building staff, I drove out to Raleigh to pick up some samples they kindly offered to fortify my cotton lesson.

NCSU’s Zeis Textiles Extension (ZTE)  manages five world-class “TexLabs,” all critical to the textile and apparel industries by enabling cutting-edge research and product development. Experienced professionals and faculty at each lab assist students and industry partners in reaching their academic or industry goals.

The Spinning Lab—one of ZTE’s five TexLabs—is designed to help meet the needs of the textile industry in applied research. The lab’s state-of-the-art machinery converts cotton fibers (less than 65mm) into spun yarn. Lab services include evaluating the processability of various fibers and running trials to determine optimum machine settings and speeds.

I recently joined Senior Lab Operations Manager Tim Pleasants for a tour of the Spinning Lab. Our time together provided the opportunity to reflect on the major changes modernization has made to the U.S. textile industry. Tech advancement has streamlined equipment, fully automated much of cotton processing operations, and tremendously increased machine speeds. Tim is both an expert and an enthusiast when it comes to cotton, hailing from a Durham-based cotton family himself.

So what are the steps of modern cotton processing, from boll to yarn?

Step 1: Ginning is the opening, cleaning, and carding of cotton bolls. The opening of cotton bales at most mills is fully automated. Lint from several bales is mixed and blended together to provide a uniform blend of fiber properties. To ensure that the new high-speed automated feeding equipment performs at peak efficiency, and that fiber properties are consistent, computers group the bales for production/feeding according to fiber properties.

The blended lint is blown by air from the feeder through chutes into cleaning and carding machines that separate and align the fibers into a thin web. Carding machines can process cotton in excess of 400 pounds per hour.

The web of fibers at the front of the card is then drawn through a funnel-shaped device called a trumpet, providing a soft, rope-like strand called a sliver (pronounced SLY-ver).

STEP 2: Drawing, or sliver processing, is when as many as eight strands of sliver are blended together. Drawing speeds have increased dramatically over the past few years and now can exceed 40,000 feet per minute.

STEP 3: Combing makes cotton fibers nice by making strands more parallel and removing short fibers. This process can add light crimping for more surface cohesion of fibers. 

STEP 4: Spinning, or yarn making, can happen in one of several ways:

Ring spinning is slower than more modern spinning systems—and the end resulting bobbins don’t hold a lot of yarn in comparison to the output of other spinner types—but is a dependable process for producing high quality yarn. Ring spinning first requires roving, which draws the slivers out even more thinly and adds a gentle twist; this process makes the fiber tighter and thinner until it reaches the yarn thickness (or count) needed for weaving or knitting fabric. The yarns can be twisted many times per inch.

Open-end or rotor spinning uses rotors that, totally automated, can spin 10 times as fast as a ring spinning machine. Rotor spinning is becoming more widespread as it eliminates the roving process; yarn is produced directly from sliver, saving time. The result is a cone of yarn that goes on to create cotton fabric that is coarser than yarn from ring spinning creates.

Air Jet & Vortex spinning (not pictured) eliminate the need for roving, similar to rotor/open-end spinning. Air jet and vortex spinning also address the key limitation of both ring and open-end spinning: mechanical twisting. This method uses compressed air currents to stabilize the yarn, faster and more productive than any other short-staple spinning system. The Vortex spinner at NCSU is its newest spinner and became commercially available in the 2000s.

STAGE 5: Twisting happens after spinning, when the yarns are tightly wound around bobbins or tubes and are ready for fabric forming. In case you’re wondering, ply yarns are two or more single yarns twisted together, while cord is plied yarn twisted together.

You can see this and more machinery in action on the Spinning Lab’s website. The equipment’s humming brings a Zen-type comfort that the resulting cotton fiber does, too.

For the 4-H cotton lesson, Tim Pleasants kindly gave me sliver and other samples representing the different phases of cotton processing. I have no doubt these samples, held in the hands of the students, will awaken them to the complexity of textile production. It’s not simply magic that the cotton cultivated in fields turns into their sweatshirts and jeans—it’s thanks to necessity, technology, and human ingenuity we have the cotton to create everything from dollar bills to baseballs.

All photos were taken by Ariyah April.

Resources & Further Reading

Tim Pleasants, Senior Lab Operations Manager for Zeis Textiles Extension at NCSU

https://textiles.ncsu.edu/zte/

https://textiles.ncsu.edu/zte/spinning-lab/

Learn With Us, week of August 18

Raised Bed Gardening
Saturday, August 24⋅10:00 – 11:00am

For Garden’s Sake
9197 NC-751, Durham, NC 27713
Vegetable & herb gardening in raised beds. Topics covered will include siting and suggested materials for building beds; soil; incorporating ancillary devices such as row covers, bird and rabbit netting, tomato cages, arbors; water; crop rotation; companion planting; pollinators; pest and disease control and others as requested.

Free/Registration required
To register, email ann@fgsnursery.com or call 919-484-9759

Microstegium on the March

by Andrea Laine, EMGV

Typically I don’t get riled up about weeds that are easy to pull up by hand, but Japanese stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum) is a HUGE exception. Despite its fibrous, shallow root system, in just three to five years this invasive species can overtake a natural area, pushing out natives and non-natives alike. It is also detrimental to ground-nesting birds and can contribute to fueling forest fires. I’ve observed more and more of it in local forests and parks where I hike as well as the roadsides in my woodsy Durham County neighborhood. It’s a sad sight, especially on conservation lands.   

This spring was the first time I noticed stiltgrass at a friend’s home in the Piedmont region of Virginia. Normally when I‘m there I’m grousing about periwinkle (Vinca minor) and winged burning bush (Euonymous alata), two other invasive species which I have previously blogged about. I admit to feeling a bit of poetic justice at the sight of the one invasive (periwinkle) being overtaken by another (stiltgrass). But the feeling was fleeting. Every subsequent feeling has been more along battle lines – how can I fight this?

A trio of invasive species is pictured here: winged burning bush in the background, a wide mat of periwinkle established in the foreground and now Japanese stiltgrass has joined the scene. Photo taken June 22, 2019 by A. Laine

Identification

Before attempting to eradicate any weed, you want to be sure you have identified it correctly. When I first noticed stiltgrass, its structure and wispiness reminded me of bamboo, albeit a tiny version.  

In plant ID lingo stiltgrass is a “prostrate to erect, sprawling and freely branched summer annual with spreading stems that root at the nodes … Leaves are rolled in the bud; ligules are short membranous with hairs …”1  If you’re thinking, hey what IS a ligule? Don’t despair! Stiltgrass does have one distinguishing characteristic that you need not be a botanist to recognize:  Each leaf on stiltgrass has a silvery midvein that divides the leaf unevenly

Note in the accompanying photo gallery how this feature is absent from other plants (some weedy, some not) that are often mistaken for stiltgrass.


The root structure of stiltgrass is also distinct from other weeds often mistaken for stiltgrass as noted in these photos. (Stiltgrass is the photo with the brown background.)


Growth habit and lifecycle
Japanese stiltgrass seeds germinate in early spring. The plants grow and strengthen through the summer. In June the Virginia patch was about six inches high; At the beginning of August, the plants were two to three feet tall. In NC it flowers from mid-September through October and soon after flowering the seeds are dispersed – 1000 seeds per one wispy plant! Seeds stay viable in the soil for four years.

I consulted a lot of sources before writing this post and it seems that there is not one “right place” for stiltgrass to thrive. Some sources advised sun, others shade. Some moist woodland, others dry roadsides. Apparently, it is adaptable to a variety of conditions. It will even tolerate a mild frost. And, it really makes its presence known in areas where the soil has been disturbed. This may have been a factor for the Virginia property I referred to earlier as several very large trees were felled, cut up, and carted away from the land over the last year. That kind of activity definitely disturbs soil and surrounding environment.

Would you believe there is a tree peony in the midst of this mess of Japanese stiltgrass? Photo taken August 4, 2019 by A. Laine

Understanding the lifecycle of a weed or any unwanted plant is important because in order to stop it from spreading you need to stop it before it seeds. The flowerhead on stiltgrass though is quite small as are the seeds, so best to act based on the time of year than on a visual. From now through September is a good time for those of us in Durham County to act.  

Tactical solutions
Here are three ways to combat a stiltgrass invasion. Which tactic you choose will depend upon how much stiltgrass you have, where it is growing, and your comfort level with chemicals.

Hand-pulling or digging
While this tactic is typically my go-to for weeding, it only makes sense with small infestations and even then, there are some caveats. When we pull weeds by hand, we disturb the soil which is often enough to bring previously dormant seeds to the surface where they will receive the sunlight they need to germinate. “Hand-pulling of stiltgrass plants needs to be repeated and continued for many seasons until the seed bank is exhausted.“2

Mowing
If stiltgrass is growing in your lawn (or what passes as your lawn) then mowing seems like an obvious tactic. But when stiltgrass is mowed too early in its lifecycle, the roots re-energize and send new shoots above ground more quickly than the first time and it may flower and seed earlier, too.3  If possible, delay mowing stiltgrass until the end of August to deter regrowth or seeding.

The best way to prevent stiltgrass in a lawn is to follow best practices for lawn seeding and care. To learn how to properly maintain your lawn consult Carolina Lawns: A Guide to Maintaining Quality Turf in the Landscape

Herbicide
My friend has given me complete freedom to attack the burning bush and the stiltgrass around his home, but not the periwinkle which he likes very much. After three decades it is as much a part of his mountain retreat as the cabin it surrounds. Knowing I needed to save the periwinkle, I turned to the one-percent solution. This is a tip I received from a weed control expert at a local botanical garden during an educational class. (We master gardeners need to complete at least eight hours of education each year.) Extension programs also endorse this solution.

A half to one-percent solution of glyphosate will kill Japanese stiltgrass without harming the other plants around it. Ready to spray containers of glyphosate I have purchased held an 8% solution. Concentrated varieties were 18%. I share this information to drive home the point that more IS NOT better. I suited up (long pants, long-sleeved shirt, tall rubber boots,  nitrile gloves) before mixing up a much diluted version of the herbicide and I sprayed the stiltgrass.  

Do not use glyphosate on your lawn. Pre-emergent herbicides for crabgrass are recommended for preventing stiltgrass from growing in a lawn. These are best applied in late spring or early summer so that the lawn has time to recover.

Weeding is a commitment
Whichever method you choose, plan on at least a five-year commitment. Since I don’t live on or near the property I treated, I won’t know the outcome of my effort until the fall. But I already understand that my work is not finished. I was working in a natural area on a mountain side. I could not reach all the stiltgrass. Hopefully, the patch of stiltgrass growing on your land is smaller, more easily accessible and responds to your chosen method of treatment.

Footnotes
1 and 2 –  Detail about the identifying characteristics of stiltgrass and list of herbicides specifically labeled for stiltgrass: https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/japanese-stiltgrass-identification-and-management#

3 – Control options for grasses and grass-like plants:  https://www.invasive.org/alien/pubs/midatlantic/control-grassesandsedges.htm

Additional Resources & Further Reading
Carolina Lawns: A Guide to Maintaining Quality Turf in the Landscape
https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/carolina-lawns

A very good weed key:
https://weedid.missouri.edu/weedinfo.cfm?weed_id=173

Invasive Plant Species Management, Quick Sheet 4: Japanese stiltgrass, Penn State

Invasive Weeds of the Appalachian Region, University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture.

Growing Well at the Community Garden

Continuing our topic of What’s Growing Well in the Garden, Kathryn Hamilton and Charles Murphy share stories of their successes. Both of these Extension master gardener volunteers garden at the Briggs Avenue Community Garden. They maintain their own individual plots as well as assist the community with bigger tasks. Charles minds the orchard and Kathryn minds the composting. — Andrea, Blog editor

Kathryn’s awesome year

I have had an awesome garden year. Beginning with snow peas planted in January and harvested through May, and including winter crops (cabbage, cauliflower, and broccoli) harvested through the beginning of May. The summer, though not nearly through, has been equally robust. I have totaled 191 pounds of produce. This does not include what was given away at the garden before I got to weigh it. Some of the summer highlights: 107 pounds of cucumbers; 9.6 pounds of mostly Japanese style eggplants, 17.3 pounds of zucchini, and 36 pounds of tomatoes, as of today. A new crop of cucumbers has been seeded along with a new set of zucchini, four different kinds of string beans, and snow peas which are on their way from the seed house.


Peppers lead the pack for Charles

I have had consistent good results with peppers of all sorts – green and purple bells especially, mild banana peppers and really hot cayennes – for a number of years. All my plants were set out as seedlings in April, and are producing well in mid-July.

Peppers, like many garden plants, prefer loamy, well-drained soil and the raised beds at Briggs work well. Frequent watering while seedlings are growing is good, as is a light application of a low-potency (e.g., 5-5-5 or 5-4-5) fertilizer as the plants reach mature size. Mature plants like water, but will tolerate dry conditions for longer than some other veggies, and are less susceptible to hot weather damage with temps in the low to mid 90s like we have had for the last two weeks. Bells show rich green, or other (purple, yellow) colors when ready to pick and can be used even when they are medium size. The banana peppers mature as light green fruits three to five inches long, and cayennes will turn red, but are just as spicy before they change color.

A typical picking of peppers and eggplants. Harvest every 4 to 6 days for best results. Photo by Charles Murphy

The peppers I’ve grown have had less pest damage, e.g., Japanese beetles, etc., than most of the garden crops, and tend to be low-maintenance. I’ve also had good results with the “Ichiban” variety of eggplants (caution: they are susceptible to a variety of predacious critters, so watch them closely.)  Regular watering, light fertilizing and regular cutting of fruit at six to seven inch lengths help to keep healthy plants producing longer. Peppers and eggplants co-exist in the same bed quite well, though it is a good idea to rotate planting sites from year to year.   

Other success crops for me include English peas and cucumbers. This year I put in pea seeds in early March, and could have done that earlier, expecting a mature crop in late May to early June. The variety I chose was listed as bush type on the seed packet, but I prefer to set up a trellis for the plants to climb. That makes harvest easier, and keeps pods off the ground. I chose a medium-size fruit cucumber variety (don’t remember the name), and set seedlings out in early May. Cucumbers don’t like cold weather, so wait until after last average frost date to plant. Trellised them, again to make them easier to harvest and to keep fruit off the ground. Cucumbers peas and peppers need  regular harvesting to keep fruit production going.

Learn more about vegetable gardening in central NC: