31 December 2010

Friday Cartoon: News Years Resolutions


For more silliness on new years resolutions for gardeners, do check out this post from the lovely Carol of May Dreams Gardens.

29 December 2010

Yet another reason to GROW your dinner.

This article in Wired caught my eye a while ago, and I'm just now getting around to blogging about it. It talks about some studies which indicate that the more we work for our food, the better it tastes, the more we enjoy it. Most interestingly, this isn't just a higher level psychological feeling of satisfaction -- the same apparently holds true for mice, indicating this may be a pretty fundamental part of how brains work.
That's interesting, but it gets more interesting. Work with brain scanning indicates that obese people get less pleasure from food than people with a healthy weight -- implying that they may be overweight because they have to eat more to get the same level of satisfaction.
In this article, they put that together to say that taking time to cook dinner will make it taste better, and therefore help you eat less and be healthier.
I'm inclined to take it a step further: A home cooked, home GROWN meal is quite the peak of deliciousness, leaving one so flushed with pleasure the thought of an oreo orgy can hardly come to mind and McDonalds sounds simply repulsive.
 As if I needed another reason to keep vegetable gardening...

28 December 2010

19 December 2010

Sedums were (apparently) hot in 1810

I know I said I was taking this week off blogging, but this is just too fun not to share.
I've been playing with Google Ngram viewer. Basically, google has scanned a huge number of books, and you can search the entire database to see how often a word has been written in the past 200+ years. It is fascinating, and kind of addictive, giving a little window on how much we write and think about different topics.

Here is a chart of the use of "garden" (blue) and "television" (red) from 1800 to 2008
I love where the garden trend is going! Higher than it has been since the 1950s, and eclipsing television for the first time since the '70s. My generation is coming of age, and we're gardening it up!

It is also fun to look at individual plants. Here's hosta:
Maybe the hosta craze is (finally) over?

Heuchera is still going strong:

Turning to tender bulbs, here are dahlia (blue) and gladiolus (red)
I think it is high time for a come back...

In light of the current mania for succulents, I typed in "sedum"
The recent rise, I expected. But a huge spike in 1810? Who knew?
I could keep going on and on... I'm not sure how meaningful this data actually is, but it sure is fun to play with. Play with it yourself here and be sure to let me know in the comments what your favorite results are! (BTW, if you want to recreate my results, you'll have to change to search from 1800 to 2008 -- the default is 1800-2000)

17 December 2010

Friday cartoon: Gardener dreams

Merry Christmas everyone! (Unless you don't celebrate it, in which case, Happy Whatever Suits Your Fancy!)
The night before Christmas
I'm taking next week off blogging for the holidays, so I'll see you all in a week or so.

13 December 2010

Sciency Answer: Variegated plants are liars

Dear Mister Greensparrow Gardens Person:

I have a SCIENCE QUESTION (dah duhduh DAAAH) about variegation. Isn't the point of a plant being green for good light wavelength absorbency? I mean, plants that are other colors besides green still absorb most of the spectrum because of different kinds of chlorophyll, etc. But what about the plants that are variegated to have mainly white leaves? What is up with that? Doesn't the color "white" mean that all the wavelengths are reflected back? So how would they photosynthesize properly if they couldn't trap light efficiently? With some of these plants, there is still some green or other color, but it doesn't seem like it would be enough to support such a big plant. 


You are absolutely right -- completely white sectors on leaves don't photosynthesize, and plants that produce whiter leaves are going to be inherently less vigorous than ones with green leaves. So why are they like that?

Most variegated plants are essentially man-made -- they are unhealthy, mutant freaks that would die if we didn't like them and keep them alive in our gardens. Sort of like chihuahuas (except chihuahuas are disgusting and variegated plants are delightful.) Surprisingly, however, some wild plants, like some caladium, begonia, and dieffenbachia naturally have white patches on their leaves. Breeding has increased the amount of white on the plants we grow, but still, the wild plant have distinct white patches on their leaves. Why?

Because they are liars.

Imagine for a moment that you are a expecting mommy-to-be leaf miner. You are flying about, looking for a good leaf on which to lay your eggs so your babies can happily start eating away at them. First you see a leaf like this:

photo credit
This leaf is already infested with leaf miners. Lay your eggs on that leaf, and your babies will starve, because there isn't enough leaf to go around. So you keep flying, and see a healthy, green leaf like this:

This looks perfect! You land, and lay some of your eggs, and then happily fly on to find a home for the rest of your brood. But the next leaf you see looks like this:
photo credit
This leaf looks TERRIBLE! There must be a million leaf miners and caterpillars already there, munching away for this leaf to have so little green on it. So you fly on... fooled by a sneaky, variegated plant. The plant has made a trade off: less efficient photosynthesis in exchange for not being eaten alive.

In other words, natural leaf variegation is the plant equivalent of pretending you have whiplash in order to get insurance money. This is a fact that should make those of you who don't like variegated plants because they look unhealthy rethink your position. That is just what those plants WANT you to think! You are being fooled, just like the little leaf miners. Go buy some today just to show those plants you are smarter than them.

If you want more of the science behind white leaves, here are some good papers (subscriptions required):
The history of research on white-green variegated plants
Ecology of a leaf color polymorphism in a tropical forest species
Leaf variegation in Caladium steudnerifolium (Araceae): a case of mimicry?

Have a question? Get a sciency answer! Just e-mail me: engeizuki at gmail dot com

10 December 2010

08 December 2010

My Top 5 Gardening Books

Genevieve is asking garden bloggers to list their top 5 gardening books -- just in time for winter book season!

Here is my list: 

The Explorer's Garden by Dan Hinkley
There are actually two of these -- one on perennials, one on shrubs and vines. Both are amazing, but I have a personal love for the first one, on perennials, because that was the book I stumbled upon as a beginning gardener who grew nothing but roses (for SOME insane reason) and that book opened up for me this whole other universe of growing, loving and collecting plants. To me, this book contains the magical essence of gardening as a passion, as a way of life. 

Gardening on Pavement, Tables, and Hard Surfaces by George Schenk
Okay. Just read that title. What? Gardening on tables? Hard surfaces? What does it mean? Don't get this book from the library, but buy your own copy, because it will blow your mind right out of your nose and all over the page, and librarians frown on this. Container gardening without the container. Floating table top gardens. Lawn you can roll up like a carpet. 

My Garden (Book) by Jamaica Kincaid
This book takes you right inside Jamaica Kincaid's mind while she gardens, and what you find there is a wild, exhilarating, poetic, funny, moving, swirl of images, stories, ideas, plants, and places. Which is a terrible description, but this book is indescribable. And wonderful.

A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, and Murray Silverstein
The subtitle to this book is "Towns Buildings Construction." So... why is it in my list of top gardening books? Because good design is good design, and these principles are universal. An example: I just flipped my copy open at random, and this is what I read: "Do not be tricked into believing that modern decor must be slick or psychedelic or 'natural' or 'modern art' or 'plants' or anything else that current taste-makers claim. It is most beautiful when it comes straight from your life -- the things you care for, the things that tell your story." There are over a thousand pages of truths like that. Go dig in. You'll garden -- and live -- differently for it.

Merry Hall by Beverly Nichols
I've reviewed this book before so I won't say too much, except: This is a must for any gardener. It captures so perfectly the JOY of gardening, the sheer bliss of this most wonderful of passions. 

So that's my list! What are you five favorites?

06 December 2010

Sciency Answer: Seed cleaning and sprouting

Today's question is from Keith Long, brought on by a comment this post on his blog:

My question is about Rhodochiton astrosanguineum seeds.
When you buy these they're very small seeds with the husk (of each seed) removed. Yet the germination rate is very poor. Either that or the the type of people who buy them clearly are incapable of following their instructions!
Yet once you have a plant, and have collected the seeds, the germination rate is near 100%. Clearly, I don't mess about removing the individual seed husk, I just put the seeds in. The seeds in their husk are nearly the size of a chilli seed.
Why are they husked? Why does this lead to such a low rate of germination? And merely out of interest, how on earth do they do it without losing the minute seeds?

The factor here is almost certainly not the husk covering the seed, but the freshness of the seeds. Many seeds rapidly loose their viability, and need to be sown right away, while others simply start taking longer to germinate the longer they sit around dry. Based on my poking around, it appears that very fresh Rhodochiton seeds germinate rapidly and easily, while older seeds will still sprout, it just takes significantly longer.

Which makes one wonder... why would seeds do that?

A gardener, of course, wants every seed to sprout as soon as it is planted. But in the wild, plants need to be more careful. If every seed sprouts right away, one flood or late frost can wipe out the entire next generation. So most wild plants have various tricks to ensure seeds don't germinate all at once, or germinate at the best possible time. For a plant like Rhodochiton, fresh seed that falls on moist soil will sprout right away, getting a quick start on the next generation. But any seeds get a chance to sit dry for a while drop into a deeper dormancy and hang around without sprouting, acting as a sort of insurance policy to make sure there are still seeds around if something happens to those that have already germinated -- much as gardeners usually don't plant the whole packet at once in case of damping off.
How readily or uniformly seeds sprout often depends on the climate they evolved in. Plants from desert areas with erratic rainfall are notoriously hard to get good germination from, instead one seed at a time will sprout over a very long period -- extreme insurance for a difficult, erratic climate. Plants from wetter, more predictable climates tend to have seeds that sprout more uniformly.
Plants that have been grown for a long time by humans almost always develop quick and uniform germination because without even trying to, we tend to select the individuals that sprout first. If you sow 100 seeds, and 10 sprout in a week, most people just prick out those ten and forget about the other 90, even though they may have eventually sprouted. Those quick germinating seeds will go on to have more rapidly germinating offspring, and so on, until they all sprout at once like most familiar annuals and vegetables.

To get to your other questions about removing the husks, seed companies usually remove them for a number of reasons: It looks neater and tidier in the seed packet, the cracks of crevices of the husks can offer ideal little hiding places for fungi. In some cases, it also allows the seed producers to get a good look at the seed itself and separate out small, shriveled seeds that are unlikely to germinate.
Cleaning off all the husks and chaff of seeds can be rather a pain. I worked for a while for the Ornamental Plant Germplasm Center, and spent quite a bit of time cleaning seeds. The first step is usually to gently rub the seed heads between to rubber blocks, which crushes and breaks up the seed husks. You can then separate the chaff from the seeds a number of ways. A fine sieve will let fine seed fall through but keep big chunks of chaff behind. We also had a cool machine which was basically a big plastic tube with a fan in it which allowed us to blow off the light chaff but leave denser seeds behind. Various other shaking, blowing, and sieving machines are used to rapidly get all the seeds in one pile and the other stuff in another. It is kind of cool, but when you are working with many different species as we were, you have to figure out the best machine and setting for each species, which can lead to a frustrating amount of trial and error.

Have a question? Get a sciency answer! Just e-mail me: engeizuki at gmail dot com

03 December 2010

Friday cartoon: Winter activities

We've had our first snowfall, and I'm settling in for the winter...
winter books

01 December 2010

Science Answers: tap water versus rain water

Another great question from Annie of Annie's Annuals:

Is there something special about rain water ? I mean beyond "hydration"? As we are a Mediterranean climate here in the Bay Area, we have to use city water all Summer .  Then, after the first rain everything goes bonkers and all my garden plants seem to grow quite a bit overnight and vibrate with inner happiness.  No, I'm not currently on drugs and I swear this is true. I notice it every year. I know its not that they get watered deeply for the first time in a while- because our waterers  at the nursery water everything  every day whether I like it or not!  Can you solve my mystery?

I think I can solve your mystery. Let me start by telling you about another mystery.

Columbus Ohio has a lovely public conservatory which had a marvelous collection of palms. These palms had been happily, healthily growing for decades, then started mysteriously wasting away and dying. The workers at the conservatory hadn't started doing anything new, the plants weren't diseased or infested with insects. At a loss, they enlisting help from horticulture professors at Ohio State who determined the soil pH was WAY too high. Which was an answer, but lead to another question. They had been maintaining these palms the same way for decades, and everything had been fine. Why would the soil acidity suddenly get all out of wack?


The city, it turns out, gets water from three different treatment plants, and each uses water from different reservoirs and/or wells, making the water from each plant chemically different. As the city grows and changes, they sometimes switch a neighborhood from water from one plant to another, and they had changed the source for the conservatory's tap water -- but didn't mention it to them. After all, water is water, right? Nope. The new water source was radically more alkaline than the old one and suddenly all the plants that had been vibrating with inner happiness were stressed and dying. The conservatory started pH testing and treating their water with acid, and the remaining palms were saved though many beautiful trees had already died.

(a moment of silence for the palms)

The sad story of the palms goes to show that sources of water can be pretty radically different and have a big effect on plants. Truly pure water essentially doesn't exist. Water is sometimes called the universal solvent because almost anything can, and does, dissolve into it. Even ultra-super-extra-triple distilled water won't stay perfectly pure for long. As soon as it is exposed to air, carbon dioxide will dissolve into it and make it slightly acidic. So don't be fooled by "pure" bottled waters. If it was truly pure, it would cost a lot more (ultrapure, research-grade water costs about $25 a liter), and besides, extremely pure water tastes unpleasant, and isn't good for you.

City water comes from various sources like wells, lakes, rivers and treated sewage (yum...) and picks up all sorts of different minerals, salts, and gasses along the way. Water treatment plants remove some of those compounds, add others, and sterilize it to make it safe for people to drink. The emphasis here is on people, and some water treatments aren't all that good for plants. Some plants are sensitive to chlorine, and water softeners take out excess dissolved minerals in water (which are mostly fine for people or plants) and by replacing them with dissolved salts (which are very bad for plants). Rain water generally has less stuff dissolved in it than tap water, but it isn't pure either, not by a long shot. Clouds contain not just water, but also various dust, gasses, and (unfortunately) industrial air pollution, making rain water chemically different than tap water.

So how might the difference between rain water and tap water be effecting your plants? As demonstrated by the palm story I started with, pH could be a big one. Rain water is slightly acidic (or not so slightly, if you've got acid rain) whereas most tap water is alkaline due to dissolved minerals. It may be that over the summer your soil pH slowly goes up, out of the plant comfort zone, and then gets brought back down with the arrival of the fall rains. You could test this theory pretty easily be measuring your pH before and after the rains start.

Another option would be mineral and salt build up. Most tap water contains a fair amount of dissolved minerals, and fertilizers (of any sort -- organic or synthetic) are salts. As water evaporates from the soil, it leaves the minerals and salts behind, which over time can affect the health of the plants. In extreme cases, like house plant that have been around forever, you might even see a crusty white layer on the surface of the soil. Rain water is purer than most tap water, and coming in large amounts could flush out the excess minerals and salts letting plants grow more happily. You could sort of test this one by comparing your soil's salt concentration before and after the rains with an EC (electical condictivity) meter.

It could also be nitrogen. I didn't realize this until I started researching this answer, but rain water can have significant amounts of nitrogen in it (but, then again, so can tap water, especially in agricultural areas). The papers I've looked at on the subject find the amount to be pretty variable by region and season, so your local fall rains may or may not be giving your plants a fertilizer boost along with hydration.

Finally, as I mentioned above, the water treatment process adds chemicals like chlorine to tap water, which some plants are sensitive to. These may be slowly building up in the soil over the watering season gradually hurting the health of the plant.

In short, rain water is very different from most tap water, and the "inner happiness" your plant exhibit with the arrival of fall rains isn't a figment of your imagination nor a drug-addled hallucination, though it is hard to say for sure which factor or combination of factors are responsible for their joy.

Have a question? Get a sciency answer! Just e-mail me: engeizuki at gmail dot com.

29 November 2010

The Great Catalog list!

It is official. Plant catalog season is underway! Time to make some tea, get a blanket, and do some serious dreaming about next year's garden. To celebrate, I'm writing this post, which is an annotated list of all my favorite, can't-live-without-'em catalogs. I thought about pretending that this was for the purposes of sharing good information with you, my readers, but in reality, that is just a ploy. I always worry that I'm missing out on great catalogs, so this is my chance to pick all your brains on the best sources I don't yet know about. So PLEASE, if you love a company that isn't on my list mention in it in the comments, or better yet, talk about them on your blog (if you have one) and leave a link to it here.

I should add that this list is almost all seed catalogs. I am a huge fan of buying seeds through the mail. Mail order plants are tiny, expensive, and generally very stressed by the whole shipping process. Mail order seeds, on the other hand, are cheap (critically important to a grad student like myself) and utterly unfazed by shipping. They also cross country lines easily, unlike growing plants, which means you can happily shop from around the world. Seeds also solve the great problem of balancing the collecting urge to have one of everything with the good design imperative to plant in drifts since a single packet of seed easily produces a dozen or more plants. In short, seeds are the best -- within reason, of course. Some things are a pain to germinate, or don't come true from seed, but for everything else, there are seeds.

Oh, and I should say: I've never gotten any sort of kick-back or blogger swag from any of these companies. I just love 'em.

So, with no further ado, my very favorite catalogs, in no particular order:

Seed Savers Exchange
An exciting, diverse range of very cool heirloom vegetables. Nonmembers can shop the catalog, members get access to the entire seed exchange. I finally joined up this year and can't WAIT to see all the amazing stuff I'm going to have access to.

Johnny's Selected Seeds
If you grow vegetables in the north, you've got to check out Johnny's. Their catalog is more informative than most gardening books, you can rely on their varieties to perform,  and they do great breeding work. I go to other catalogs for crazy experiments. I go to Johnny's for solid varieties and information I can count on.

Pinetree Garden Seeds
I always order a lot from Pinetree because they've got a winning formula: Small seed packets, and very low prices. Who really needs 200 tomato seeds anyway? They have a very diverse selection of vegetables, many of them quite hard to find anywhere else. My only complaint is that their catalog is always horribly confusingly organized (why on earth aren't all the tomato varieties together in the same section?) but that is a minor quibble. Pinetree can't be beat when it comes to value for your money.

Territorial Seeds
I don't order much from Territorial, but I really like them. They do vegetables. Essentially they are a Johnny's for the Northwest, and since I don't live in the Northwest, their stuff is less applicable to me. But the catalog is a great, information packed read, and they always have a some quirky, cool things I want to try and can't find anywhere else.

Chiltern Seeds
Chiltern... love, love, love, adore this catalog. They're in the UK, but ship to the US without any fuss or bother, and oh, what a catalog. Their focus is ornamentals, and what a selection it is... page after page after page of amazing things I've never heard of. The catalog is also a lot of fun to read with funny, silly descriptions. On the down side, Chiltern is very expensive, especially with the exchange rate, and since they are in England their descriptions of how hardy or easy to grow something is essentially mean nothing here in my climate. That being said, even very expensive seeds are incredibly cheap compared to buying plants at the nursery, so why not experiment? This catalog is a high point. I read it cover to cover several times every winter with google and stacks of reference books around me. Chiltern will give you a wildly interesting botanical education, and a LOT of plant lust to deal with.

Gardens North
Another insanely terrific seed company for rare and unusual ornamentals. The selection is at least as varied and fascinating as any of the British companies I recommend here, but they are in Canada which means that I can actually GROW all the cool stuff they have on offer. They don't publish a paper catalog, which is kind of sad, but the website is wonderful. It also changes frequently throughout the year, meaning I have to go check out what they are up to every few months... and order a few things.

B and T World Seeds
B and T does seeds of ornamentals. This isn't really a browse-able catalog, because there are essentially no descriptions, but the selection is mind-boggling. If there is a specific thing I'm looking for, and no one else has it, they usually do. Based in France, ships to the US effortlessly.

Who would have thunk? Like B and T, ebay is hard to browse, but recently I've discovered that the range of rare (and not so rare) seeds and plants you can pick up there is pretty surprising. Quality is, of course, hit or miss, but I've actually always had good experiences. I always check there when I want something specific and can't find it anywhere else.

McClure and Zimmerman
My personal favorite bulb sellers. The selection is good, the catalog is very pleasant reading, and service is great. My default source for fall and spring planted bulbs.

Old House Gardens
This is a new one for me this year -- which is shocking since they are right here in Michigan! They are bulb sellers, with a solid, interesting selection. They might just be rivaling McClure and Zimmerman for my business this year.

Rosy Dawn Gardens
I just surfed into this company the other day, but I'm super excited about it! I love a company that REALLY specializes. These people just do coleus. Lots and lots of uber-cool coleus, some of their own breeding. Now I feel like I can stop by their site and know I've got access to everything coleus have to offer.

Specialty Perennials
I hesitate to recommend this company, but since I end up ordering from them every year I feel I can hardly leave them out. They do seed for a wide range of hardy perennials. I like them because they have a great listing of rare and unusual stuff, and also seeds of things that you can usually only buy as plants (last year, for example, I got heuchera, bergenia, and astilbe seed from them) which is great for someone like me who is gardening on a tight budget. The downside is their customer service or, rather, the lack thereof. Place an order, and your credit card gets charged right away and then it can take literally months for an order to get shipped. To add insult to injury, in the mean time they won't respond to e-mails or calls trying to find out what is going on. However, the seeds always do eventually arrive with fun free extras, prices are quite low, and the selection is good. So every year I bite my tongue, order early, and am patient.

Plant Delights Nursery
Does anyone NOT know this one? Just in case you don't, they sell a mind-boggling range of ornamental perennials. PDN is pricy, but also worth it. Like all really great nurseries, PDN focuses on their local climate, namely hot and humid North Carolina, so their selection is less applicable for me here in chilly Michigan, but I seem to end up ordering something from them every year. Whether you order anything or not, the catalog is a must read. Nobody writes a plant description quite like Tony Avent...

Annie's Annuals (and perennials)
If you've ever googled an unusual plant name, you've probably had Annie's Annuals pop up as a hit, complete with a lovely photograph and lots of good info. Annie's is a truly amazing nursery, with a stunning and eclectic array of both ornamentals and vegetables. Since they are in California and I'm in Michigan, a browse through their catalog leaves me with a severe case of zone envy more often than an actual list of plants to buy, but still, I wouldn't give up looking through for anything. Someday I'll build a greenhouse just so I can grow everything Annie sells.

Plant World Seeds
I just learned about this one last year, and oh MY. They are now rivaling Chiltern and Gardens North as my absolute favorite source of seed for ornamentals. Just typing their address into my browser sends a little shiver of joy down my spine. They're in England, so all the usual comments about climate and the expense due to the exchange rate, but what a catalog! What a selection! Plant World does a lot of their own breeding, so their catalog is full of hot-off-the-press, completely unique, new varieties. If nothing else, you've GOT to check out their selection of fragrant columbine. Now that I've grown them, I absolutely refuse to grow anything else. That is the sort of catalog this is: one that will change how you think about whole groups of plants.

Baker Creek
Rapidly becoming THE heirloom vegetable seed company, Baker Creek has a stunningly diverse, fascinating selection of varieties from around the world. Where so many companies take the "heirloom" concept only as far as the old standards like 'Brandywine' tomatoes, Baker Creek goes literally all over the world with things like a red-and-purple striped tomato from China or a watermelon from Iraq. The catalog for seriously crazy vegetable fun.

J.L. Hudson
This is perhaps the quirkiest seed catalog I've ever read. Vegetables, ornamentals, odd "ethnobotanicals", you name it. The selections are always intriguing (want to grow a bitter-but-edible wild relative of lettuce?) and I always have a great deal of fun reading it. Since they are seeds, experimentation is cheap, and experiment I always do.

A.M. Leonard
No plants here, but every tool, stake, or widget you could possibly want for your garden. Frustrated with my local garden center's vast selection of hideous garden sculpture and tiny selection of overpriced hand tools that break, I've shifted my gardening hardware needs 100% to AM Leonard. The quality is high with solid, dependable tools rather than gimicky gadgets, prices are low, and shipping is practically instantaneous. 

Glasshouse Works
This is my source of choice for unusual house plants and tropical plants for the garden. Their list of varieties is long and incredibly diverse, but their website a giant confusing mess of links and images, and it can be quite difficult to find your way around (a friend who visited the nursery in person said it was just as confused and dis-orderly there). Once you do get to the list of plants, however, be prepared for some fun. The coleus go on for pages, as do the begonias (many from their own breeding program). Shipping can be very slow, as sometimes they have to root a cutting before they can send a plant to you, and I've gotten a few dreadfully pot-bound, overgrown things from them, but everything has been disease and pest free, and they always seem to throw in a few free plants with the order. When I ordered a few begonias this spring, they included three extra ones, along with a note saying they were nice varieties, and a little more reliable than the ones I had ordered. I'd love these people just for the wide selection, but that generous, personal touch really keeps me coming back.

Arrowhead Alpines
Despite the name, Arrowhead doesn't just do alpines -- they do just about any ornamental plant you can think of, and many you can't think of because you've not heard of them yet. They are one of the great specialty nurseries in the country, with an enormous sprawling catalog packed with delightful gems. Better yet, at least from my perspective, they are right here in Michigan, which means when they say "hardy" I know that actually means it will survive my winter. For anyone in zone 5 interested in pushing boundaries, theirs is the catalog to get your hands on. Even better, the catalog is a joy to read, full of puns and silly jokes, and if you get to visit the nursery itself (highly recommended), you'll find they are delightful in person as well. I would say a good 80% of the growing plants (as opposed to seeds or bulbs) I buy every year come from Arrowhead.

So that is my list. Now, please let me know what I'm missing! I eagerly await new discoveries.

26 November 2010

Black Friday

black friday seeds

While you are thinking about shopping, why not go buy my cartoon calendar? It makes a perfect gift for that gardener in your life (even if that gardener is yourself...)

24 November 2010


It is that time of year when we gather and think of all the things we are truely, deeply, thankful for. I have a long list: My health, my wonderful partner, my house, family and job, all my wonderful blogging friends, and a whole array of amazing things that have happened to me this year. But among all the things I could mention here, one really stands out.


I am so, so, SO thankful for cardoons. Just look at those leaves!

I love my cardoons all year, but right now, when everything else is brown and dead aside from a few plucky pansies and a handful of autumn crocuses, the fact that they continue lush, vigorous and very much alive with color and texture is almost hard to believe.
As the garden fades in the face of nightly frosts the cardoons stand tall and vigorous, their bright silver setting off the browns and tans around them.
I love my cardoons now, and come spring I love them, if possible, even more, as cardoons are one of the first perennials to leaf out and start making the garden look full and lush again. Provided, that is, they make it through the winter at all. They are only boarder-line hardy for me (future breeding project: hardier cardoons), but I have them in a sheltered spot right by the foundation, and they've done fine the last couple years. I'll be crossing my fingers, hoping for the best, and starting more from seed just in case.

22 November 2010

Breeder's Provenance (or, why delphiniums and those new echinacea are so whimpy)

I got thinking about insufficiently tough delphiniums and echinacea after I read Kelly Norris talking on his blog about the concept of provenance. The concept is pretty simple. Any given species of plant grows across a range of habitats and we refer to individual plants from different parts of the range as have different provenance. And provenance matters. To give an extreme example, Acer rubrum, the red maple, has a native range that stretches from frigid Maine right on down to sweltering Florida. They are all the same species, but individual trees can be very, very different depending on their provenance. A red maple from Maine can't survive Florida summers, and a Floridian red maple would collapse at the first hint of the Maine winter. Each local population of the species has evolved over time to match its local environment, gradually loosing or gaining heat or cold tolerance genes, slowly becoming better adapted to the climate and soil in one specific area and less adapted to different environments.

That is the real concept of provenance. I'm going to talk about something else all together and call it "breeder provenance" but you should be aware that I am completely making this term up.

The connection to real, biogeographical, provinance, however, is very close. Just as wild populations of a species become adapted to their local enviroment, cultivated plants, under the hands of plant breeders, become adapted to the environment where they were bred. These varieties develop a breeders provinance. Case in point: delphiniums. Delphiniums are, of course, almost obsenely lovely -- huge, lush spikes of rich, true blue. As a beginning gardener, I wanted to grow them rather desperately. Then I learned, the hard way, that in addition to being beautiful, they are drama queens. They demanding perfectly rich, moist soil, and miserably whimper away and die at the faintest hint of heat in the summer. Looking at my rows of corpses, I asked myself: Why is it that so many insanely beautiful things seem only willing to grow in England?

Pretty soon I learned the answer: Because they were bred in England. Or, in the case of some, the ever-mild West Coast. If you go back to the various wild species of delphiniums, they are far from all being cool-summer whimps. The stunning six-foot spires of Delphinium exaltatum, one of the species thought to be used in creating the modern hybrid delphiniums grow wild in the mountains of hot North Carolina. Another US native, Delphinium carolinianum, far from demanding cool, moist loam, grows wild all over the great plains and even down to the sand hills of Florida. Modern cultivated delphiniums are not such a pain to grow because that is how they have to be, rather, they have simply adapted over the years of breeding to the conditions where they have been bred: lush gardens in England and California. In other words, the breeders provinance is all wrong, and just like the red maples growing in New England, they've lost the ability to cope with the heat.

The same thing appears to be happening right now with the (formerly) tough-as-nails midwestern native, echinacea. In the wild quest for new colors and forms, the simple cone flower has moved out of the plains and into gardens and greenhouses. Instead of being forced to either cope with clay soil and hot summers or die, these new hybrids are luxuriating in rich, irrigated soil in places like The Netherlands and the Pacific Northwest, where summer heat is a mere figment of the imagination. Talented breeders there are producing an astonishing range of new varieties, while here it in the middle of the country, gardeners are snapping up the new lovely colors only to discover that many of them just don't have oomph of the old fashioned, plain pink varieties. It isn't that these breeders are doing anything wrong, it is simply a reality that you can't breed for heat tolerance without, well, heat.

That is part of the reason why I, as a plant breeder, and committed to not moving to the West Coast. I want to work in the midwest, breeding plants that are adapted to real weather. Right now I'm busy collecting up a bunch of non-wimpy delphinium species and can't wait to start crossing them together to form kick-ass, midwest-tough varieties. This is also the reason I like to keep talking on this blog about how easy plant breeding is, and how everyone ought to be doing it. The absolute best "breeders provenance" for a plant is your very own back yard. Let some of your favorite annuals self-sow, and each year they'll adjust more and more to your specific conditions. Make some tomato crosses, and see what performs -- and tastes -- best for you. Let all those breeders in Europe and the West Coast have their delicate drama queens, while we start creating great plants they'll wish they could grow.

19 November 2010

Friday Cartoon: tomatoes

Early this year, in the middle of tomato season, I did a cartoon about the joys of excess tomatoes. Some of you wondered what I could possibly do with them all. I do this:

canned tomatoes

17 November 2010

Cyclamen hederifolium

I adore Cyclamen hederifolium. Those leaves...
 They come up in late summer or early fall, when everything else is going down hill, and last well into the spring, looking amazing for me from at very least from October to May -- the very period of time that is hardest to keep looking good in my climate. What's more, they perform like this in the dry shade under my maples, not minding the absolute lack of water in the summer since they're dormant then anyway. They flower too, very profusely in September and October. I like the flowers, but the leaves are so much lovelier that I realize I don't even have any photos of the flowers.
There is a lot of variability in the leaf patterning. Arrowhead Alpines has a wide range of leaf types, and I love going and picking out my favorites.
This is one I picked out this spring. I love the complexity of the patterning.

I also love their silver leaved strains, where the silver covers almost the entire leaf. They are not as cool up close, but make a better statement from a distance.
Hardy cyclamen grow from a big, flat corm, but unlike the corms of crocuses, they don't divide. They just keep getting bigger and bigger every year. The picture above was a plant I purchased last year. Here is what it looks like this year:
Since they don't divide, pretty much the only way to get more is to buy them (which gets expensive) or to start them from seed. I always get a few self-sown seedlings, like this little two year old plant:

But I've had terrible luck starting seeds myself. I know the seeds require absolute darkness to germinate, but everytime I've ordered seeds and tried starting them, I get miserable germination rates. This year, however, I had great success. I decided to imitate nature, so I collected seeds as soon as they ripened on my plants -- the middle of this summer. (surprisingly, the seeds take almost an entire year to ripen.) and sowed them in pots right away. I'd read that absolute darkness is a must, and even a little light can stop germination, so I put the pots in a plastic bag to keep the moist, and shoved them in a box. Then I watched my plants outside. I figured the seeds would be germinating at about the same time the plants ouside were puttig up their leaves. Dispite my temptation, I didn't open the box and let light in, until my plants outside were looking stunning. Then I opened the box and...

Seedlings! I've got two more pots like this, totally maybe100 little seedlings. I'll let these guys over winter outside in a sheltered nook, then divide them up into individual pots once they go dormant next summer. I can't WAIT to see what leaf patterns they have as they mature. I'm not sure what the critical factor for success was -- I'm guessing it was the combination of very fresh seeds that hadn't dried out, and matching the timing to their natural growth cycle. In anycase, now I know how to get lots more cyclamen, which makes me very happy. I might buy a few other species this year, so I can harvest fresh seed from them as well. Because I think it is physically impossible to have too many hardy cyclamen. Or most any other plant, but especially cyclamen.

15 November 2010

Sciency Answers: Rooting cuttings

Today's question is from Loree, of Danger Garden fame:

I have a couple of Echium that I've grown extremely attached to. I know there is no chance they are going to winter over here and I don't have any more space to dig them up (they've gotten huge!) and pot them with the hope of their surviving. I'm wondering if you can talk me through the process of trying to propagate from a cutting. I have both soft wood and hardwood on my Echium fastuosum, “Pride of Madeira" (at least I think I do!?) what is the best to take a cutting from? And then what do I do. Hope you can help,

Indeed I can! Here is my Sciency Answer:
Rooting cuttings is a pretty good trick. You take a piece of a plant lacking a very important organ, roots, and convince it to grow new ones. This is possible because plant cells are 'totipotent' meaning one type of plant cell can change into a different type of plant cell. Our cells can't do that -- our skin cells can only produce more skin cells, etc, and when you cut off one of our legs, we can't grow a new one. The only human cells which are totipotent are those embryonic stem cells you keep hearing about. But all plant cells are essentially embryonic stem cells. When you take a cutting, the plant goes, "Whoa! No roots!" and starts trying to make some. At first, all the cells are busy being specialize to form bark or stem or buds. But some of those cells de-differentiate into generic cells called callus, and then those callus cells change into roots. This process takes time, of course, and during that time the plant has no roots, so is very vulnerable to drying out and dying.
To deal with that reality, all the procedures for rooting cuttings are designed to do two things: Speed up root formation, and keep the plant alive in the mean time. As a general rule, younger, softer, tender growth is quicker to make roots, but also quicker to wilt and die, while older stems may take longer to root, but tend to hold up better during the wait. When you see instructions for taking cuttings that recommend soft wood or hard wood cuttings, you are just seeing what, in other people's experience, is the stage of growth which best balances, for that particular plant, rooting quickly and not dying. For some easy-to-root plants, this is merely a suggestion. For others, one particular stage of growth may be the only time you have a reasonable chance of success. To move from the general to Loree's specific question, it appears that for echium, the best stage is softwood, meaning new, tender, freshly sprouted growth.
Once you've taken your cutting, you need to provide a special environment to help it survive. The first requirement is usually extremely high humidity to keep the plants from drying out before the roots get going, unless the plant in question is a succulent or a desert plant able to cope with very low water. Commercially, this is achieved on benches in a greenhouse which are automatically sprayed down with a fine mist every couple minutes. This is excellent, but not practical for most of us. At home, my default method is a zip-lock bag. I put some moist (not wet) potting soil in the bag, shove my cuttings in, and seal the bag. I should add here that though some cuttings will root if placed in pure water, I would never recommend it. It looks cool, but everything that roots in water will root more happily in good potting soil, and roots formed in water are physically different (because of a lack of oxygen) than roots formed in soil, so transplanting from water to soil can be a shock for the young cutting. Moist vermiculite or water-holding florist foam (eg, Oasis) are both also good alternatives to standard potting media. I always use potting media because that is generally what I have around, but you may want to experiment.

(I had fully intended to have a cute little photo of happy cuttings in a zip-lock bag at this point in the post. But I didn't get around to it. So you can use your imagination instead.)

With your high humidity provided to ensure your cuttings don't wilt and die, you now need to encourage the things to grow roots. There are a couple things you can do to help this process.

Light: Light is essential. Growing roots requires energy, so the cuttings need to photosynthesize as much as possible. This can be a balancing act -- too much sun can dry out the cuttings, or overheat ones in a sealed bag. I tend to aim for light, dappled shade under a tree in the summer. Florescent lights also work great because they produce a fair amount of light without a lot of heat.

Bottom heat: If possible, keep the bottom of the cuttings warmer than the tops by placing them on something warm, like a seedling heat mat. Warmth speeds up cell division at the bottom of the cutting, shortening time to rooting. Keeping the tops of the cuttings cooler keeps them growing slower and using less water while the roots are developing.

Rooting hormones: The plant hormone auxin promotes new root formation. You can buy auxin preparations specifically for rootings cuttings either as a powder or liquid you dip the end of the cutting in before sticking it in the media. Many cuttings will root on their own, but hormone treatment will usually speed up the rooting process and increase your percent success. In many species, the exact ideal concentration of hormone to apply for maximal rooting has been identified. I doubt anyone has done that study for echium, so you might want to try treating at different rates and see what works best for you.

Wounding: This may seem counter-intuitive, but for many species, cutting or even crushing the end of the cutting promotes rooting. In essence, this exposes more cells to the hormone treatment, and gives more cells a chance to divide and switch into roots. Depending on the species, sometimes this helps, sometimes not, as wounding can also promote rotting. Again, you might want to play with it and see what works best for you.

Then you just wait for roots to form. Telling if there are roots or not can be difficult because, obviously, the roots are going to be out of sight (I guess this would be the only benefit to rooting in water). The oft repeated advice is to tug gently on the cutting and see if it resists or not. The problem with this advice, at least for me, is that it only works for plants I don't care about. When I'm rooting a few odd coleus, I generally forget about them for a few weeks, then give them a solid tug which is solidly resisted by their roots and I know they are ready. For precious plants I end up fussing with them practically day, generally tugging too gently to be able to tell if they've rooted or not, sometimes tugging to hard at just the wrong time and ripping off just nearly developed roots, which is fairly devastating. So I use other clues. A good one is to look for new growth. Until roots form, the cutting will probably not really grow, so new leaves usually (not always) means new roots. If you are rooting in a zip-lock bag, you can also watch for roots to show against the clear plastic. If in doubt (and I frequently am), gently lift the cutting with some soil, and gently wash or shake the soil away. If the end of the cutting looks just like when you stuck it in, you've got a while to wait. If you see lumpy whitish or brownish bumps on the bottom, you are in luck, that is callus, the first step to roots. If you see roots, of course, you are home free.

Once your cutting has rooted, you need to slowly acclimate it to the harsh real world. Commercially, this is done on a bench next to the mist benches where humidity is still high, but the cuttings aren't getting directly sprayed. If you've rooted in a plastic bag, first open the bag, then gradually, over a course of days, roll the top down until the cutting is out in the real world. With cuttings I care about, I do as I've just written. With things I don't care so much about, I just open the bag one day, nothing gradual about it. Generally things take this just fine, provided they've had time to develop a good root system. Then you can pull the rooted cuttings out, stick them in pots, and smile at them with smug satisfaction.

If, by the way, you are interested in learning more about the art and science of plant propagation, Ken Druse's Making More Plants is excellent. Very thorough, very readable, and, like all of Ken's books, very beautifully photographed. For an even more in depth but much drier presentation, the standard textbook on the subject is Hartmann and Kester's Plant Propagation.

Have a question? Get a sciency answer! Just e-mail me: engeizuki at gmail dot com

12 November 2010

Friday Cartoon: Indian Summer

We've had a perfectly glorious week here in Michigan -- 60s and sunny. This is what I WANTED to do...
indian summer

10 November 2010


If you haven't heard it yet, you should go check out the new pod cast, RadioGarden from Horticulture magazine. I'm quite struck by it. It very different, and very cool. Sort of like This American Life meets gardening.
I particularly like this first episode, because the topic is one I know all too much about: Moving as a gardener. I've been seriously gardening for about a decade. In that time, I have live no fewer than 9 different places in three states and two countries, leaving a trail of plants everywhere I go, and loading up an ever-increasing collection of plants I can't possibly leave behind. I've had two years at my current address, but another move is looming... At the end of next summer, if all goes well, I'll be graduating with my PhD, selling my house, and heading off somewhere new (where, exactly, is yet to be determined. Suggestions are welcome!). Another move... But I am really hoping, and planning, on this being my last. I'm ready be somewhere, settle in, and start planting trees.

08 November 2010

Guest posting for The Soil Sisters

The Soil Sisters, Jan and Kylee, asked me to do a little guest post about why I garden... you can read it all over on their blog.

Sciency Answers: Overwintering tender plants

I've gotten a couple questions from people about how to over winter tender plants indoors -- Cathy asked about some species of tender salvia, and Joel asked about echium, so I thought I'd do a little (or not so little) Sciency answer on the basic principles of overwintering stuff.

First, I've got to tell a story. I was a student at Ohio State, and my friend Beth was teaching me to drive (Yes, I didn't get around to learning to drive until I was 22... I actually took my driver's test the same week I took the GRE for grad school. Aced the GRE. Technically failed the drivers test, but the testing lady was nice and let me get my license anyway. No, I'm not really one for practical life skills... which is why I get on so well in grad school.) So we were driving slowly around neighborhoods in Columbus when I suddenly slammed on the breaks.
"Um... there is no stop sign." Beth said.
"Those are BANANAS!" I yelled as I jumped out of the car. They were bananas -- over a dozen 10 foot tall banana plants with fruit on them. In Columbus Ohio. Zone 5. I ran up to them and admired their beauty, then knocked on the door to ask them how they managed to pull it off.
Turns out it was simple. Every fall they dig them up, knock most of the soil off, cut off all the leaves, and throw them in the basement. Come spring, they shove them in the ground, and the bananas take up where they left off. That is the beauty of bringing in tender plants -- you can grow all kinds of cool stuff that you wouldn't be able to otherwise, because while it may be a zone 5 winter outside, in the house it is a solid zone 10. So every fall, I bring in loads of plants. Sometimes I plan ahead for this, growing things in containers that can easily be moved, or taking cuttings of large plants in the late summer. But more often I see frost on the forecast, look at some cool plant I was growing as an annual, and decide to dig it up, cut it back, and see if it will make it. Usually they do. I've actually had very few failures, provided I follow these rules:
My rosemary standard has been wintering happily indoors for several years now
1. Don't expect them to look pretty. My goal for most things is merely that they survive. Some plants will look marvelous indoors all winter, but most others will limp along, loosing a leaf here, getting leggy and ragged looking -- but they survive, and come spring I cut off all the raggedy growth, and pretty soon they're looking gorgeous again.
Various small, tender things in my sunniest window.
2. As much light as possible. This is a no brainer. Shove everything in the sunniest windows you have. Florescent lights are wonderful for plants, so if you really have a lot of plants to bring through, invest in a few shop lights. Oh, and don't bother with "grow light" bulbs. They don't make plants grow any better, they're just designed to make plants look prettier. So unless you are displaying them in your living room, any old florescent bulb is fine.
My elephant ears always look sad over the winter, but perk up as soon as they go back outside.
3. As cool as possible. This may seem counter-intuitive, but in my experience it is the most important thing of all. You don't want plants to freeze, of course, or really drop much below about 50 F (10 C), but especially if you don't have as much light as they might want, cool temperatures are the best. At 50 or 60 (10-15 C) the plants don't really grow, but they don't die either. They just sit in suspended animation until spring, which is exactly what I want them to do. For me, this is easy, because I'm cheap and keep my house chilly. When I'm home and awake, I keep my thermostat at 63. At night and while I'm at work, it is at 50. Perfect for everything... except guests. But serious, plants always come before guests! If you like to be warmer, a cool basement or garage might be a better bet. If they are cool enough, many plants will stay dormant and you won't even need lights, or you can rig up some florescent bulbs to keep them happier.
Kept cool and dry, succulents like this agave are effortless. I basically ignore them, and they're fine.

4. Keep them dry. Don't dehydrate them, but be careful not to over water. These plants are going to be stressed and barely growing, and too much water will make them rot. Also, lots of plants are adapted to going dormant through seasonal droughts, and keeping them dry will signal them to shut down and wait -- which is exaclty what we want them to do.

That is my standard protocol, and it works for just about everything I've tried.

Some plants will come through fine with even more extreme treatments without any light at all. Just about anything which forms a bulb or tuber can be dug up, branches chopped off, wrapped in dry newspaper, shoved in a plastic bag, and left somewhere cool and dry like a basement. I do this regularly with tuberous begonias, Salvia guaranitica 'Black and Blue', sweet potato vine, dahlias, callas, cannas, and gladiolus. When I try new plants, I often go out in the fall with a garden fork and pop them out of the ground to see if they have a tuber I can save -- turns out that four-o'clocks (Mirabilis jalapa) and hyacinth bean (Dolichos lablab) both form easily overwintered tubers. I've heard of people doing the same with the thick, fleshy roots of nicotiana (ornamental tobacco) and scarlet runner beans as well. Some plants that don't have obvious bulbs or fleshy roots will take the same treatment, as with the bananas I talked about at the beginning. Similarly, the shrubby Hibiscus rosa-sinensis can be over wintered in the dark, fully dormant. Just put them somewhere cool (like a basement) and let them dry down. They leaves will drop off, and they'll sit patiently until warmth and water returns in the spring. I've heard Pelargonium will do the same, and are probably oodles of other plants that can be overwintered this way as well. The only way to find out is to try. It doesn't take long to pop something out of the ground and throw it in the basement. If it dies, oh well, it would have died anyway had you left it outside. If it lives, well! Then you've got a lovely plant for next year, and a trick to show other gardeners!

To sum it all up: Keep them cool, light, and dry, and experiment with everything. If you have success with something unexpected, be sure to brag, and please let me know, so I can share your methods with other gardeners.

05 November 2010

Friday Cartoon: Fall rollercoaster

You probably need to click and enlarge this one to really see it.

03 November 2010

Canarina canariensis

I am quite deliriously excited about my Canarina canariensis.

I've been busily watching the flower bud slowly, slowly, developing, starting as green blob
Flushing orange

And finally, just this past week, bursting into its full, dramatic form.

I'm nuts about it, for the very simple reason that it is in the family Campanulaceae, and it isn't blue. This may seem odd, especially as long-time readers may recall the time I went ga-ga over a species of impatiens simply because it IS blue. But somehow, that is how I am. Give my a bunch of impatiens, all dressed in lovely pinks, reds, oranges, and yellows, and I dive for the only blue one. Presented with an entire family of Campanulas, codonopsis, and platycodon, all in shades of blue (aside from a few insignificant whites and pinks), I instantly and eagerly search out the one genus with yellows and oranges.

And what a marvelous yellow and orange it is... The veining and delicate shadings... I could stare at it for hours.

Indeed, I have stared at it for hours. I first came in contact with this plant when I ordered some seeds from the Rare Plants in Germany. I ordered a completely different set of seeds, but along with my order they sent me a little note pad with each page printed with the image of a Canarina canariensis flower. I took this pad of paper to various meetings, ostensibly to take notes, but instead ignored everything that was being said (my usual practice in such situations) and stared at that picture of the Canarina flower... So lovely. I must have one.

So I googled it. First I found out, of course, that it isn't hardy, can't even take a frost. But I grow all sorts of things that aren't hardy. Surely I could grow it outside in the summer and winter it indoors? I read further, and found out it becomes a sprawling vine growing to over 6 feet (2 meters). A difficult thing to shove into my increasingly crowded windows. But I was still hopeful. Then I read that in is native land, the Canary Islands, it is dormant during the dry summers, and only grows during the winter. Practically hopeless. I can grow tender plants provided they are happy to grow in the summer and retire to dormancy or near-dormancy in a cool corner of the house in the winter. But without a greenhouse, there is no way I could grow this delightful plant to flowering.

So I firmly told myself to forget it, not to bother, it would only lead to heart break.

Then I went to another meeting, and stared at those same images on the paper pad, and thought, "I bet it can pull it off... a sunny window... maybe I can trick it with careful watering and get it to grow in the summer and sleep in the winter." In short, this spring I ordered seeds, and planted them.

All this summer, the results looked sad. I started with 4 seedlings, but over the summer, two died, and the other two just sort of sat there. They grew, but barely. Then, as fall came on, I realized my mistake. I had hoped I could trick them into growing in the summer simply by keeping them watered, as their native summer is very dry, but they were cleaverer than that -- they were observing the daylength. As long as the days were long and summery, they refused to grow, but as soon as the days got shorter in the fall, they lept into action, growing like crazy, with one plant setting a single flower bud, as you have seen.

Which is all very good, but that brief window of warm fall days is over, and now I have them in my sunniest window. They're still growing (though so far only one flower) but beginning to look a bit stretched and unhappy with the low light. And it is only going to get darker and colder... I think I can keep them alive, but I fear they'll be so straggly they'll never want to flower again.

So I've hatched a plan. Next summer, I am going to buy a couple large trash cans, plop them over the plants every day in the late afternoon, and leave them there until the next morning -- thereby blocking out the sun for several hours so they will THINK it is fall or winter, and keep on growing and perhaps -- hopefully, hopefully -- flowering! Logically, I know this course of action makes no sense. I am growing them because they are beautiful, yet now I'm planning to, as soon as I get home from work, cover them with a large, extremely ugly, garbage can, and leave that cover in place until I leave for work the next morning. In other words, whenever I am home, my garden is going to look like garbage day in a wind storm. But I will know that under those garbage cans is a mass of lovely flowers, flowers I will get a glimpse of when I first get home from work, and which I will be able to gloat over every weekend. Some people, no doubt, will wonder at this... after all, there are loads of other plants with similar, or even more amazing, orange flowers which don't require elaborate trash can schemes. But, as I've said before, I'm not sensible, and have no desire to be so. I'm in love.

02 November 2010

Why have I lived so long without fall crocuses?

After years of looking at the fall blooming crocus options in bulb catalogs, this year I finally bought a few.
Oh. My. God.
I am in love. Why on earth have I lived so long without these marvelous things? This is Crocus speciosus, and as you can see, if is insanely beautiful. Elegant. Graceful. Intricate. I think it may be even better than the spring flowering species I have been nuts about forever. Why did I buy so FEW? Next year they're going in by the hundred.

01 November 2010

Sciency answes: Really big dahlias

David and Connie sent this question:

I have a question about Dahlias. I love the dinnerplate dahlias, but have not been able to find varieties that get 14 inches in diameter or larger. Do you know of any varieties that get that large?

Sadly, I am going to have to say no, I do not know of any dahlias that
get larger than 14 inches.The largest official dahlia size
classification is "AA" which covers anything over 10 inches. I think
about 14 may be about the upper limit when it comes to flower size. But I admit I'm not a dinnerplate dahlia grower, I like them smaller (as you can see in the picture above) if any readers are dahlia nuts who know better, please chime in!
But, if you are interested in giant dahlias of a different sort, you
should check out this post from the amazing Annie on tree dahlias!
These things don't just have big flowers, they are insanely huge plants! My growing season is WAY too short for them, but if I live somewhere warmer I would TOTALLY be growing them.

31 October 2010

Seasonally appropriate aphids

Here is a scary picture for Halloween...
This is a milkweed plant I went past on my ride home... what with the orange aphids, the black mold growing on the aphid poop and the overall grossness, I figured it would make a good shot for today.

29 October 2010

Friday Cartoon: houseplants

Now that we've had a frost, the outdoor garden is beginning to shut down, and my focus has turned elsewhere...
house plants

27 October 2010

Why grocery store apples are better than peaches

I was chatting the other day with a friend about 'Honeycrisp' apples. How yummy they are, and how everyone in the apple growing, shipping and selling industry hates them. 'Honeycrisp' is a pain to grow, and doesn't ship or store very well. That is why they cost so much more at the grocery store than the less tasty, but easier to grow, apples next to them.

'Honeycrisp' apples are also interesting because they are a relatively new variety that is actually better tasting than older ones like the infamous 'Red Delicious.' When is the last time you ate a peach or pear or pepper or tomato from the grocery store and thought, "Wow! These are better than what I'm used to!" All the other produce in the store seems to get tougher, drier, blander and less worth eating with each passing year, while apples have actually gotten a little better. Why are apples the exception?

There is one simple reason: Apples are sold by variety. You never go buy "apples," you go buy 'Braeburn' or 'Pink Lady' or 'Gala.' With the actual names of the varieties in front of us, we, the consumers, get to pick the ones we like best. Growers of superior, but difficult, varieties like Honeycrisp can charge more for them to make it worth their while. But look next to the apple section, and you see a big bin labeled "Peaches." That's all. No variety name, just "Peaches." Same with the grapes, tomatoes, peppers, and virtually everything else in the store.

The effect of this lack of variety names was brought home to me a few years ago I got a chance to visit a university research farm where they were testing different varieties of peaches to see which would be best for local farmers to plant. As we tasted through some of the varieties, there was one we all loved called 'Ernie's Choice.' Whoever Ernie was, he knew how to choose, as it is a divine peach -- rich, tender, flavorful and incredibly juicy. Run-down-your-chin-and-ruin-your-clothes juicy. So how did this lovely peach do in the variety trials? Were they recommending 'Ernie's Choice' to all their growers? Quite the contrary -- it ranked as "unmarketable" because it is too tender, too juicey. It can't be harvested and shiped cheaply without damaging it. Anyone growing it would have to charge more for it and no grocery store buyer is going to pay more for them, because without a variety name they have no way to justify charging higher prices to their customers. Grocers are just buying peaches. The cheapest peaches available.

Without variety names attached to our produce, it is a race to the bottom. Whoever can breed and grow the toughest, cheapest, best storing variety wins. If we went to the store and found big bins of generic "apples" you can bet there would be no 'Honeycrisp' in that bin. It would be all 'Red Delicious' or something even worse but even easier to grow. Without variety names our apples would be like our tomatoes, peaches, and everything else at the store, and we, the consumers, would never have the chance to choose taste over price.

I hope that will change -- with the rise of home gardening and farmers markets, I think more and more people are realizing that fruits and vegetables are not just generic commodities, but come in distinct varieties. Hopefully grocery stores will realize it as well, and start telling us what we are actually buying. Maybe we'll even get the chance to buy 'Ernie's Choice' peaches someday.

Addendum: Do check out the comments where WmJas links to the meaning of "Red" in Turkish... Suddenly the name 'Red Delicious' makes so much sense.

25 October 2010

Sciency Answers: Mycrorrhizae

Liz, of Ginkgo Grass, sent a question:

Does adding mycorrhizae to a garden help? I have heard that there is plenty in the soil, and the only good use is for sterile potting mix.
The short answer is that you are right. But there is a longer answer, and it is much more fun.
Soil biology is incredibly complex, with every handful of healthy soil containing many species of bacteria, fungi, protists and nematodes, many still unknown to science. We know that many of these soil organisms for beneficial, mutualistic or even symbiotic relationships with plants, but the sheer complexity of these interactions is just beginning to be unraveled. Several species of fungi which form close, beneficial, association with plant roots (mycorrhizae) have been identified, and adding these fungi to soil has shown benefits, in a few specific situations.

The first situation is in sterilized soil or soilless media in pots. This isn't particularly surprising -- when you start with sterile soil, adding a beneficial fungi can be helpful. But frequently the results aren't dramatic, or significant in normal conditions. Which isn't surprising either -- mycorrhizae help plants primarily by acting like extensions to the root system, scavanging up scare nutrients (especially phosphorus) and water. In very poor, acidic soil, this can be the difference between a plant living or dying. In a carefully watered, fertilized container, it doesn't have much effect.

The other situation where adding mycorrhizae can be beneficial is best illustrated by a story (taken from Soils in Our Environment by Duane Gardiner and Raymond Miller): People tried transplanting pine trees grown in the US in Puerto Rico, but they only grew a few inches and died. The problem was solved when some soil from a pine-growing part of the US was taken to Puerto Rico and used to inoculate the soil there. The mycorrhyzae from the US soil hooked up with the pine roots, and hey presto, they grew 2.4 meters in a year rather than 30 centimeters. This case worked because the mycorrhizae used were species specific. These pines needed this specific fungi in order to thrive in particularly harsh conditions, namely, extremely nutrient poor tropical soils. Adding some generic "helps everything grow better!" commercial mycorrhizea product to those pines wouldn't have helped because it wouldn't have been the specific species those pines needed. And adding even the right species of mycorrhizae to the soils in the US wouldn't have done any good either -- because it is already naturally in those soils. I should add here: This story makes a good point, but you should follow their example. Moving soil around to get mycorrhizae VERY BAD IDEA! Soil from where a plant grows naturally may have beneficial mycorrhizae. It also probably has all sorts of soil born diseases which you do NOT want to be helping spread around. You don't want to be the person who introduced the soil equivalent of kudzu to a new area.

So the take home message is: mycorrhizae in potting soil might be beneficial, but I wouldn't expect to see a huge effect. If you are curious, it might be fun to give it a try, but be sure to keep an untreated pot for comparison. Also, check the label to see if the mycorrhizae treatment also includes fertlizers, which of course will result in added growth, but not because of the inoculation. 
Adding mycorrhizae to good garden soil will probably do nothing unless it is a specific mycorrhizae for some specific plant that isn't native to your area. Any product claiming to be a generic helpful mycorrhizae that will make all your plants grow better is going to be (almost certainly) a waste of money.
If you do want your plants in the ground to grow better, your best bet is to keep your already existing soil organisms happy with lots of organic matter and mulch.

Have a question? Get a sciency answer! Just e-mail me: engeizuki at gmail dot com

22 October 2010

The Friday cartoon is on vacation

Sorry folks... insanely busy week, and no Friday cartoon got drawn.

But I have got another treat for you. I am Ken Druse's guest this week on his radio show/podcast Real Dirt! Head over there, and you can hear us chat. We start on tomato breeding and go from there to... well, just about everything. I had fun doing it, and Ken is awesome, so go check it out. While you are there, do nose around some of the older episodes -- Ken talks to a lot of cool people.

If, however, you  really require a cartoon today, this is one of my favorite older ones. And you can also buy a whole 2011 calendar of my cartoons on zazzle! I promise that 100% of the proceeds will go towards my spring seed orders.

18 October 2010

The proper way to buy and plant bulbs

 I shouldn't really say the "proper" way, as there really isn't a proper way to do anything in the garden. But, after a decade of experimentation, it is by far the best method I have found for dealing with the bewitching little things. You may have other methods, but I doubt any will be quite as effective as this one.

The first critical thing is to order them from catalogs. There are practical reasons for this (price, selection, quality) but the real, essential, reason is that you can do it curled up comfortably on your couch with a hot cup of tea, gleefully circling things -- SO much more pleasant than standing in a garden center looking at bins of bulbs. It is also critically important to order your bulbs are early in the year as possible, for a reason I will explain in a moment, and this can't be done at the garden center. So order from catalogs.

To order successfully, you need to do two things: Order a lot (roughly twice as much as any reasonable person would) and order from a really great catalog.
Choosing a great catalog is a matter of taste. There are many companies with excellent selections and prices, but when curled up on the couch circling things, what really matters most is how well they are written. Every year I also get catalogs from companies whose names I can't remember with extremely low prices and garish, horrible photographs that describe each and every variety as "Amazing!" These catalogs go straight into the trash. White Flower Farm is lovely, but over-priced and feels a bit snobbish without an extensive selection to back it up. Like a restaurant where you can't wear jeans, but the food isn't any better than the local diner. I always start to look through Brent and Becky's Bulbs, because they have a great selection, but the prose and photography are both so poor it kills the mood, leaving me to indulge in my long-time favorite, McClure and Zimmerman. No photos, which allows for more fun imagining things, and clear, simply worded descriptions. I read it over and over, making list after list of things I simply must have.

Once you have spent a few gleeful weeks looking over and re-looking over your order, circling this and that, imagining them all in the garden or in a vase, you finally place your order, and move on to the next critical step, which is:

Forget everything you ordered.

This is very hard to do, but very important. The first few years I gardened, I couldn't pull it off, but I've gradually become quite talented at it (I'm told it will only get easier as one gets older). I order as soon as possible and as much as possible, and once I'm done I throw myself into other gardening tasks and never, never, never look back at any bulb catalogs. As fall comes along, and you start seeing bulbs for sale at the grocery store, it is tempting to try and remember what you ordered, but resist!  Keep thinking about asters and mums or your fall crop of lettuce and put bulbs out of your mind.

If you succeed, one day, you will find a big, surprisingly heavy box has arrived. You know it is full of bulbs but you don't know what bulbs they are. It is like Christmas, only better, because you needn't worry that you won't like it. You spent weeks picking them out, they are sure to be perfect, but what, oh what could they be?

My Big Box of Bulbs arrived last week and OH! It was exciting. I opened it carefully, then spent the next 10 minutes pulling out package after packaging and going "Princess Irene! OH! MORE Princess Irene! I LOVE her!" and "I can't believe I got SO MANY dwarf irises! I'm going to force a bunch of them. Oh my god! I got ANOTHER dozen of 'Harmony!'" and doing little happy dances all over the place. I didn't go quite so far as to kiss any of them, but I certainly thought about it. By the way, it is best, if possible, to do this alone. Non-gardening friends and relations who don't know that 'Princess Irene' is the most gorgeous tulip in the history of the world, a decidant orange shot with purple, won't understand the happy dances and tend to make unfortunant comments like, "How much did you SPEND on all of this?" and "Where are you going to plant them?" So, if at all possible, be alone. If not, simply ignore these comments. They are perfectly reasonable, and reasonable is the exact opposite of what you should be when dealing with bulbs.

Next, you plant them. All over the place. There is lots of good advice on planting bulbs, but it always leaves out the critical step necessary for a really successful bulb planting: Don't label them. If you MUST be organized (though I don't really advise it) you can write down what you planted where, but as soon as you do so be very sure to loose that piece of paper. Because, again, you now need to try very hard to forget everything you can. Spend the winter with seed catalogs and gardening books, thinking about tomato varieties and petunias. When spring finally arrives, you'll know there are great masses of crocuses and snowdrops and such around somewhere... but where exactly? Each warm day you can go out, carefully poking about here and there, giggling gleefully each time you find a little mass of green spikes showing through the soil. As the days warm, you'll constantly be surprised by little drifts of crocuses in full bloom. Daffodils will greet you in a corner you swear you never thought of. A thicket of tulips will errupt by the front stairs and one day reveal themselves to be 'Ballerina', the most lovely of the surpasingly elegant lily-flowered tulips, and you can sit down in delight staring at their slim, curved petals. As you are looking at them, the postman (or postwoman, as the case may be) will come by, holding a thick stack of catalogs and you can sit on the steps in the warm spring sun, and start dreaming of next year...

That is how your order bulbs. Or how you do it if you are not at all sensible. Sensible people, no doubt, do it very differently but I personally wouldn't be sensible about bulbs for anything.