17 March 2009

Jackson and Photoshop Roses

Jackson and Perkins sent me a catalog the other day. And they had this lovely photo of the rose Burgundy Iceberg:

Which is all very lovely... only I've seen Burgundy Iceberg before, and it happens to actually look like THIS photo of the same plant I found on the Treloar Roses website:

Been having a little fun with photoshop, have they? Nice way to instill confidence in your mail order customers. Browse through their catalog or website, and you'll see a lot of clearly faked images. Just lovely. J&P has been added to my list of companies to NEVER order from.

13 March 2009

Starting seeds: About the seeds this time

I've been thinking a lot about seeds lately -- it is that time of year, so I thought I'd write a post about getting the things to germinate.

Vegetables and your standard annual flowers are simple to germinate -- get them wet and warm, and hay presto, they sprout, all at once, often within a week. That is because these plants have been bred to do that by us humans -- we like seeds that sprout as soon as we plant them, so we selected for varieties to germinate that way.

But in the wild, it doesn't work that way. Many seeds ripen and fall to the ground in the fall -- but it is better to wait until spring to sprout. Small seeds need to be close to the soil surface to survive -- if they try to sprout when buried too deep, they won't have the strength to reach the surface. Many plants spread their germination out over time -- if all the seeds sprout at once, they can all be killed off at once by a drought, hungry rabbit, or human with a hoe. So they use various method to keep their seeds dormant until just the right time. Here's how they do it, and how you convince them to germinate when you want them to.


Light is an important factor in the germination of a lot of seeds, most common being seeds that require light to germinate. These are usually very small seeds that can't push up from deep underground, so light signals that they are at the surface of the soil, where they can germinate and grow successfully. Incidentally, this is a way weeds persist in the ground for a long time. When you plow or till, weed seeds get buried, and then each time you turn the soil over, some are brought to the surface, are exposed to light and sprout.
For seed that aren't weeds, they are easiest to sprout by sprinkling them directly on the surface of your soil, and then lightly covering them with a sheet of plastic wrap until they get growing so they don't dry out.
Some seeds, on the other hand, require dark to sprout. These are usually larger seeds, and want to be deeper in the soil so they don't dry out while small. For most seeds, these need for darkness can be met simply by planting them deeper in the soil and not placing them under your lights until they've come above ground.

A hard seed coat:

Many seeds have very hard seed coats which prevent them from absorbing any water at all -- so while they may be planted in moist soil, on the inside they are as dry as they were in their packet. Over time, this hard coat is slowly broken down by fungi and microbes in the soil, or weakened by passing through the digestive tract of a bird, eventually the water seeps in, and the seed sprouts. This trait seems to be common with large seeded tropical plants like cannas and bananas, and almost universal in plants in the bean family. I used to spend HOURS making little holes in the hard coats of these seeds with a nail file or a sharp knife or nail clippers -- which is horribly tedious -- and often I'd accidentally cut too deep and damage the inside of the seed. Then I learned the easy way: Put the seeds in a bowl. Pour boiling water over them. Wait a few hours, leaving the seeds in the water as it cools. The seeds will swell up much larger than before (like dry beans when you soak them before cooking). If any of the seeds didn't swell up the first time, fish them out, and douse them with boiling water again. It seems extreme, but works like a charm! The packet of canna seeds I ordered this year said they germinate irregularly over a period of weeks or more. I doused them with boiling water, planted them, and 90% were sprouted within a week.

A period of cold temperature (technically, this is called "cold stratification." you may be more familiar with it as: "winter"):

Most seeds ripen in the later summer and fall, but in cold climates, the best time to sprout is in the spring. So many winter hardy perennials, and almost all winter hardy trees and shrubs produce seeds that won't sprout until after they've spent time in cold temperatures. One way to achieve this is to plant the seeds outside in the fall, and let nature take its course -- but in my experience, hungry mice and birds end up taking their course as well -- so I prefer to use my refrigerator. Now, my partner is not too fond of pots of soil and seeds in the fridge (he prefers to keep food in there for some strange reason) so I put my seeds on a couple layers of coffee filter (I used to use paper towels -- but they fall apart too easily. Coffee filters hold up much better. I don't actually drink coffee, so I buy filters just for seed starting) moisten them with water, pop them in a zip-lock bag, write their name and date on the outside, and throw them in the fridge (not the freezer! That's too cold). 3 months in the fridge is enough for most plants, but I check on them every few weeks, when I think about it. If I seed little white roots starting to pop out of the seeds, I pull them out and pot them up.

Those three techniques will allow you to successfully germinate most seeds -- and usually a quick google search with the name of the plant and the word "germinate" will turn up the exact requirements for that specific seed.
But seeds like to keep you guessing... fully three years ago I first placed some Japanese maple seeds in the refrigerator. After three months, I took them out and planted them. One seed sprouted. I thought, okay, bad seeds, and kinda forgot about them. They sat outside that next winter, and the next spring, a dozen more sprouted. There are still a bunch of seeds which look good, so I'm fully expecting another batch to sprout this spring -- who knows how long they will keep it up. Once again, my garden is teaching my patience.

09 March 2009

A trio of early spring blossoms

It is cloudy, and hovering right about freezing, in a couple days, we're predicted to get lows in the teens again, but spring is on its way! I took a stroll through the Beal Gardens on Michigan State's campus, and here are the blooms I enjoyed:

Witch Hazel (Hamamelis mollis)

I love these flowers -- like little streamers of crape paper celebrating the incoming season!

Double Snowdrop (Galanthus -- not sure what species. They all look the same to me.)

Snowdrops are such a joy, though I wish they were a bit... rowdier. They're so elegant and understated, which is all well and good in the summer and fall, but right now I want COLOR!

Color which is happly provided by:
Winter Aconite (Eranthus hyemalis)

Because it was cloudy, they kept their flowers closed, but even so, they are such a cheery shade of yellow. This fall I am going to have to order several hundred of them and plant them in my yard. Sneak into parks and plant them after dark. Give them to the neighbors. Because in March, in Michigan what we need is bright yellow flowers EVERYWHERE!

06 March 2009

Starting Seedlings Indoors: Its all about light

It has been warm here (almost 60 degrees today!), the days are getting longer, and the air smells like, well, like SPRING IS COMING! Which means I'm full of pent up gardening energy even though it is far too early to actually be out working in the garden. Thank goodness I have all those seeds I ordered to sow. Otherwise I'd probably start browsing catalogs again and find more plants I can't live without and can't afford.

So I've been starting seeds. Growing your own seedlings for the garden isn't hard, but there is one key feature that a lot of people get wrong: Light. Seedlings need light -- LOTS of it. Too little light causes seedlings to grow long, spindly, and weak – light is what they use to make food, remember. Anorexic seedlings will limp along and the completely collapse when you plant them out into the garden. If you just focus on giving them lots of light, most of the difficulties of seed starting vanish.

There are three simple ways I've used to successfully to give seedlings enough light and let me say now that none of them involve a window sill – even your sunniest windows doesn't have close to enough light – and none of them involve those "light garden" setups you see in garden supply catalogs. The ones I've seen always have too little light, and are way over priced. So here is what does work:

Desk lamps with compact florescent bulbs:
This is a great, low cost way if you are just starting a few tomatoes or flowers. The secret is to use the brightest bulbs you can and keep the bulbs as close to the plants as possible. Aim to keep the lights on 16 hours a day -- either turn them on and off when you get up and go to bed, or (if you are forgetful like me) get an inexpensive timer to plug them into. Be sure to use compact florescent bulbs -- traditional incandescent bulbs waste energy, get too hot, and produce a lot of a kind of light we can't see called far red, which causes plants to stretch and get spindly rather than stay nice and compact.

Shop lights with florescent bulbs:
This is a step up from the desk lamps, and will allow you to start enough seedlings for a reasonable size gardens. Just be sure not to skimp on the light: for healthy seedlings, you want a minimum of four bulbs right next to each other – the cheapest and easiest way to get that is buy two standards shoplights with 2 bulbs each and hang them right next to each other. Then lower those lights so they almost touch the seedlings so they get as much list as possible. And just buy regular florescent bulbs, not those expensive "plant light" bulbs. Those bulbs are designed to emit light which will make your plants LOOK prettier, but they'll grow just as well under the cheaper, regular florescent bulbs.

High Intensity Discharge Lamps (HID lamps):
These are lights for serious seed starting -- or even for growing tropical plants year round like a mini greenhouse. They will set you back a few hundred dollars or so, but these lights actually produce amounts of light close to sunlight and will grow a lot of beautiful, compact, healthy seedling. Your neighbors may assume you are growing something illegal with it, but they'll change their tune when they see the lovely heirloom tomatoes you get to feast on all summer.

But how much will it cost you to run all these lights? Less than you might think, and the exact amount is easy to calculate for the purposes of convincing skeptical spouses and partners. Your electric bill will have the amount they charge you per "kilowatt hour" -- 1 kilowatt hour is simply 1000 watts of electricity used in one hour. So, to calculate the cost to run your lights simply add up the wattage of the bulbs (for a four bulb, two shop light set up, about 160 watts) divide by 1000 (0.16) multiply by the 16 hours a day it will be on (0.16 x 16 = 2.56) and multiply that by what your electric company charges you per kilowatt hour. My company charges about 8 cents, so those lights would cost me about 20 cents a day to run. Even my 1000 watt high intensity discharge light only costs me about a $1.30 a day -- you can't even buy a cup of coffee for that, and you'll save a LOT more than that by not having to buy seedlings at the nursery.

So invest in some lights, and get some tomatoes growing!


For anything except the High Intesity Discharge lights, your best source will be your local home improvement store or hardware store. If you want to bring out the big guns, I recommend Home Harvest. They have tons of lights, and a lot of good information as well.

03 March 2009

I really am addicted...

I just got an e-mail from a nursery near Columbus Ohio (Bakers Acres -- if you live anywhere nearby, you've got to go check them out. Coolest tender perennials out there) saying that they will have a "limited number" of Strobilanthes gossypinus for sale probably in late April.

Let me make this clear: a nursery 4.5 hours away from me is going to have one plant I want for sale. What did I do when I got this e-mail? I turned to my calendar and wrote "Trip to Bakers Acres" in large letters over the last week in April. Yes, I really do plan my vacations around plants. I'd find that a little sad, only I'm too excited about getting Strobilanthes gossypinus!