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Grow me, Grow me — aloe

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Farm Forum

A January thaw is feeling really good right now, a welcome but likely short-lived break from the extreme winter cold and snow. But, even if it is freezing outside, we can still garden inside. One of my favorite groups of plants are the succulents and one of my favorite succulent plants is the aloe. You are probably already familiar with the Aloe vera, which is often called the medicine plant because of its use in soothing burns and other skin irritations and it is even available as a juice! I like Aloe vera and appreciate it when I think to use it on a burn, but the jelly-like stuff in the leaves is pretty smelly and I don’t think I want to drink it! Even if you don’t want to use it for burns, it is an attractive plant to just grow for fun too.

Most aloes are from northern Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and Egypt. They take the place of the Agaves that we have in our desert southwest and see in landscapes in Mexico. They are mostly stemless, have fleshy leaves that are often serrated, some with a row of spines along the edge. Usually those spines are fairly soft so they are not going to hurt you if you brush up against them. The typical Aloe vera is a pretty-good-sized plant, often growing about a foot tall and wide. You will probably have to grow it in an 8-10” pot, so it may not fit on your windowsill very well. There is a smaller version of the plant that has creamy-white spots on the leaves, often sold as Aloe vera ‘Chinensis’. It grows about ¼ the size of its bigger relative, so it will fit nicely on a sunny windowsill in your kitchen, where you may need it for a burn someday.

There are many other kinds of aloes. Another of my favorites is Aloe ferox, called the ferocious aloe. This is an appropriate name because the spines along the edges of the leaves are stiffer and numerous, so needs a little more respect, but it is still not likely to poke you unless you really bang into the spines. It grows a bit taller than the Aloe vera and has stiffer leaves and a bit more of a stem as it ages. You will need a good sized, heavy pot to contain it.

Aloe variegata, called the tiger aloe or partridge-breasted aloe is another smaller sized plant that has lovely rows of creamy white spots along the leaves. It is one of the more striking aloes. It too is very easy to grow on a sunny windowsill. It is also one of the more free-flowering of the aloes. Usually a couple times a year, it will send up a flower spike about 6” tall that will have 20-30 peach colored, tubular flowers. The plant will often set seed too, so you can collect the seed when the triangular, bulbous fruits turn tan and open up. The other Aloes flower too, but usually only once per year. Aloe vera and A. ferox can have a 3-4’ tall, branched flower stalk with hundreds of flowers when it gets to be an older plant. Keep in mind that if you want your aloe to flower, it will have to get plenty of sun, otherwise it will just have leaves.

Hybrid aloes are also becoming more common. You can sometimes find them in garden centers and the big box discount stores in the spring. Most of these are smaller plants that offer interesting leaves, textures, colors and flowers. Keep in mind that even though you might find some of them in a local greenhouse, they are not winter hardy here, but can be grown outside during the summer. They also need a potting soil that is well-drained and should not be grown in a container that does not have a drainage hole or be allowed to sit in water in a saucer. They can tolerate drought and go without water for a few weeks at a time since they are a succulent plant. They could probably even survive an extended winter getaway from the cold and be just fine when you return.

Backyard Biodiversity presentation at the Miller Farm and Home Show

By Amanda Bachmann

Extension Horticulture Field Specialist

It might be winter, but I am already busy planning for the summer. More specifically, it’s almost time to launch Backyard Biodiversity in South Dakota for 2014. The purpose of the Backyard Biodiversity project is to engage people all over South Dakota in the active monitoring of pollinators and other beneficial insects in their immediate environment. Honey bees and other native pollinators are in the news so frequently, and many people are interested in taking a more active role to help them. This project is a way for anyone interested in pollinators and pollinator conservation to be involved in helping scientists learn more about them.

I will be giving a talk on gardening for butterflies and pollinators as well as handing out information on the 2014 Backyard Biodiversity project at the Miller Farm and Home show on Jan. 17 at the Miller National Guard Armory. My talk begins at 5 p.m., but I will be there when the show starts at 3 p.m. I will also have handouts, some of the pinned insects from the 2013 Backyard Biodiversity project and a sign-up sheet if you’re interested in participating in 2014.

You don’t need to be a professional entomologist to participate in Backyard Biodiversity. The monitoring protocol for this project is simple — observe the flowering plants in your backyard for 20 minutes at a time once every two weeks (or weekly, if you’re so inclined). The observations should start as close to June 1 as possible and end Sept 30. In addition to the visual observations, which are recorded on a paper data sheet, participants can also set out bee bowl traps once a month in June, July and August. Bee bowls are a passive trapping method that gives us a more detailed look at what is present at a site. The insects that are caught in them will be pinned, identified, and added to research and teaching collections.

Training webinars for Backyard Biodiversity will be offered multiple times this spring, beginning in April. The dates and times for the training events will be posted on iGrow.org under the ‘Events’ section. Like last year, the webinars will be recorded. I also hope to make it to some of the areas with high 2013 participation, like Watertown and Huron, to do some hands-on training for interested volunteers.

In 2013, 19 people participated in this project through either submitting observations, bee bowl catches or both. That effort resulted in the observation of over 550 pollinator visits to flowers and almost 500 insects captured in bee bowls. The majority of these participants were in the eastern half of the state and north of Interstate 90. For 2014, I am looking forward to working with returning volunteers as well as new ones. If you are a Master Gardener, participating in this project counts towards your volunteer hours.

Ultimately, this project will result in a spatial and temporal snapshot of pollinator abundance and distribution in South Dakota. I hope to use the results of this research to focus future pollinator conservation efforts in the state. Knowing what pollinators we have, where they are geographically, and when they are observed in residential areas will help me create more detailed recommendations to improve pollinator habitat.

If you are interested in participating in Backyard Biodiversity for 2014, please email Amanda.bachmann@sdstate.edu or call 605-773-8120, and I will add you to my project contact list.