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America’s Native Bamboo

Mention the word “bamboo” and visions of China, panda bears and exotic jungles readily come to mind for most of us living in the Western Hemisphere. Indeed, the majority of the 1,450 species of true bamboo found throughout the world originate in Southern and Southeastern Asian countries, with a few scattered species found in Africa and the beech forests of Chile in South America.

River or giant cane is the largest and most noticeable of the three native types of bamboo.

Some bamboo species grow more densely than any forest you can imagine and produce giant canes as big around as a small tree, while others are as diminutive as a clump of native big bluestem prairie grass to which all bamboo is related. In fact, bamboo belongs to the true grass family Poaceae which contains some 10,000 recognized species and represents the fifth-largest plant family on Earth.

The United States is home to three very distinct native species of bamboo, which are collectively known as cane.

Native Bamboo: Cane History & Ecology

When the first Europeans set out to explore the New World they encountered massive canebrakes so dense they were nearly impenetrable. These natural obstacles were so massive that explorers had to navigate around them, sometimes for miles. While cane was present in much of the southern and southeastern half of the United States, the largest canebrakes in North America were found along the edges and floodplains of major rivers such as the Mississippi and its tributaries. Continue Reading →

Edible Landscaping with Elderberry

To harvest elderberries, cut the stem several inches below the cluster using a small pair of hand shears.

Elderberries have recently been dubbed a superfood, yet these big, beautiful plants with tiny dark berries have long been renowned for their versatility and flavor. Today, new elderberry cultivars are being bred from their wilder cousins to produce plants with improved disease resistance and higher production rates; a perfect combination for anyone wanting to add these luscious fruits to their edible landscape.

Recognizing Your Elders

Elders and elderberries belong to the Adoxaceae family of plants. Within this family is the elderberry genus known as Sambucus. This large genus contains more than 30 diverse species of shrubs and small trees. However, the two most common edible species of Sambucus in the United States are the relatively small native American elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) and the larger, more widely cultivated European elderberry (Sambucus nigra). These two species have been used to breed a wide array of commercial and ornamental cultivars that are often referred to as Common elderberry (Sambucus nigra subsp. canadensis).

These three elderberry species have very similar growth habits. All are perennial multi-stemmed shrubs characterized by their upright, bushy appearance and a tendency to grow in large colonies if not kept in check. Continue Reading →

Hügelkultur Gardening

Hügelkultur (pronounced “hoogle-culture”) is German for “hill culture.” Hügelkultur entails growing crops on a raised, earthen mound that consists of a foundation of fresh or rotting logs and branches covered in layers of manure, compostable materials and soil.

Hügelkultur (pronounced "hoogle-culture") is German for "hill culture."

Planting potatoes in a hügel bed.

Hügelkultur (pronounced “hoogle-culture”) is German for “hill culture.” Hügelkultur entails growing crops on a raised, earthen mound that consists of a foundation of fresh or rotting logs and branches covered in layers of manure, compostable materials and soil.

Hügelkultur Construction

  • Hügel beds can be made to any length, width or height desired. The average hügelkultur bed is three to five feet tall and can be rectangular, square, round or horseshoe-shaped (keyhole).
  • Beds are typically built on top of the ground and sometimes in 12- to 15-inch deep trenches.
  • Beds are generally free-standing, without any physical support or enclosure, but can be framed at the base with blocks, untreated lumber, logs or hay bales as desired.
  • A mixture of soft (faster-rotting) and hard (longer-lasting) woody base materials usually includes freshly dead or rotting firewood rounds, stumps, branches, brush and twigs.
  • Avoid wood from allelopathic trees like black walnut (for its juglone toxicity); high-resin trees like pine, spruce, yew, juniper and cedar; and hard, rot-resistant woods such as black locust, Osage orange and redwood. Any type of wood with sprouting potential (such as willow) should be completely dead before using.
  • Small branches, twigs, sawdust and coarse woodchips are used to fill voids in the woody base before construction is complete and periodically as the bed breaks down.
  • A simple hügel is covered with three to five inches of rotted manure or compost, followed by another three to five inches of garden soil or topsoil, but this can also include multiple layers of various organic materials in the fashion of a “lasagna-style” garden bed.
  • Hügel beds are ready for planting immediately after construction.

Continue Reading →

How to Grow and Use Lemon Balm

I always get excited when I talk about herbs, especially when I talk about medicinal culinary herbs like lemon balm. Lemon balm’s simplicity, beauty, flavor, ease of care, and exceptional medicinal properties make it one of my favorites.

Harvesring lemon balm stems

Harvesting the long stems of lemon balm.

I particularly like the way lemon balm attracts beneficial insects and butterflies to my garden, and occasionally even the hummingbirds find it intriguing.

I am also partial to lemon balm tea, especially on a cold winter night, when its deep, earthy, lemony flavor brings back a touch of summer sunshine.

Sometimes referred to as Melissa or Sweet Melissa, Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) is a member of the Lamiaceae, or mint family, of plants. Like other mint family members, lemon balm has scalloped, oval- to heart-shaped leaves that grow opposite one another on square (four-sided) stems. Its leaves are bright green on top and whitish below.

Lemon balm is a great herb to share with kids because the leaves are wonderfully fuzzy to touch, and they leave a trace of lemon scent on the fingers. Most people don’t stop to look at the flowers of lemon balm because they are very small. Up close, the tiny white to pale pink two-lipped flowers form whorled spikes that are quite pretty.

Continue Reading →