28 February 2010

Photos of ideas

A lot of the pictures I take are of ideas: Bits of design, combinations of plants -- cool stuff I want to remember to play with in my own garden. And half the time I never go back to those pictures and actually DO anything with them. Blogging projects are always a good way to make me actually do something I've long been thinking about, so I'm going to do a series of posts with photos that represent some cool gardening idea to me.

 To start off: This image I took in the summer of 2005 when I was working as an intern at a nursery in Saitama, Japan.
 (Do click on the image to view it full size -- it is better that way)
This garden is in front of a small, neighborhood shrine, and perfectly creates the quiet, restful, sacred atmosphere appropriate for this space. If I was gardening this space, I think I would be tempted to throw in variegated foliage, or a few slashes or flowers -- but the restrained colors really work, and play up the gorgeous contrasts in texture. And the stone trough it just about perfect -- again, simple, but not boring. Just enough decoration, the color nicely matching the stones set around it. As you can only sort of see in this picture, it is filled with still water, which I love. No trickling waterfall or fountain -- just placid water.

Best of all, like so many Japanese gardens, this one is tiny, and so could easily translate to the smallest yard. I want to create a small, peaceful, sacred nook like this in my garden. I just need to figure out where.

26 February 2010

Are specialty nurseries dying?

I got my copy of Asiatica's spring catalog the other day, which opens with a chatty letter from the owner. This year, a fairly depressing one, starting with "For most merchants in the specialty nursery business, [2009] was a difficult year." and going on to say: "If it wasn't clear before, it is clear now that there is no sound economic basis for introducing and selling new and rare plants."

Arrowhead Alpines' catalog doesn't start out much more cheerfully: The headline on their first page is "Still Alive" and includes this: "All the better specialty nurseries are struggling and we hope that out customers and friends will continue to support our efforts to provide cool new plant material. For that matter support our competition as well. It is depressing how many great nurseries have gone in the last couple of years."

Even the perpetually upbeat Tony Avent of Plant Delights writes in his nursery's current newsletter:
"The economy continues to devastate the nursery industry, and the latest casualty is Green Valley Growers of Willis Texas. Green Valley Growers was the 59th largest nursery in the country with 300 acres and one million square feet of greenhouse production. There are many other large growers who are still hanging on while operating in Chapter 11 or Chapter 12 bankruptcy ... we wish them the best in trying to save their businesses."

I wonder -- and worry -- if these nursery struggles are just one more side effect of the hard economic times, or a sign of a longer term trend. I hope not. I can't imagine a world without catalogs packed with amazing plants I've never heard of and long to grow... I hope all my beloved suppliers make it through the hard times, and thrive for years to come. I'll even add a little bit to my orders, just to do my part.

But I think -- and hope -- that brighter times are ahead. Gardening is becoming trendy! I know right now it is just vegetable gardening -- but surely those people lured into the garden by vegetables will be drawn ever deeper into plant addiction, and soon finding themselves ordering rare Japanese Asarum. The rise of the internet, which is not only the ultimate gardening reference book, but also a source for plant-lust inducing blogs, and virtual gardening communities, will surely help fuel the rise and passion of gardeners across the country and the world. I think gardening is poised to follow the path of the "foodie" scene, and explode into mainstream America.

What do you think? Is gardening on the rise? Are specialty nurseries doomed?

24 February 2010

Wednesday Links:

Biofortified has an excellent review of a new book by Stewart Brand (of Whole Earth Catalog fame) in which he advocates a new, pragmatic, science-based, environmentalism -- they include this quote from the book: “Cities are green. Nuclear energy is Green. Genetic engineering is Green."

Following up on that, here is an article by the fore mentioned Stewart Brand on why cities, even slums (perhaps especially slums)  may be the greenest way to live.

For all the feminists who read my blog (Redhead, Anna): The Inelegant Gardener links to a news reel from the 60s about a "lady gardener" including this priceless comment about one of her tools, described as being  "as easy to operate as pushing a pram - another pursuit at which the ladies excel". Also follow her link to a side-splitting youtube video titled "Women: Know your Limits."

The Galloping Gardener (who surely produces the best garden porn on the internet) does a post on a garden at... a dump. Of course, she, being British, calls it a "rubbish" rather than "trash" or "garbage" which makes it sound ever so much more appealing.

On the Gardening Gone Wild blog, a post on TINY flower arrangements caught my eye. I tend to make arrangements with amounts of flowers measured in fist fulls, but these dramatically downsized arrangements are delightful -- they marvelously highlight the tiny gems in the garden that are too easy to over look.

By way of Studio G, comes this Lifehacker post on making solar-powered lights out of jars - I'm not personally nuts about the jars themselves, but the basic idea is really exciting to me: buy cheap solar lights, take them apart, and rework them into lights of your own creation! I've been wanting to incorporate more non-plant items in my garden this year -- maybe I'll start with this...

Another story on Dave Clark's studies on the genetics on flower fragrance -- in this one, he claims it is a breakthrough to developing genetically engineered fragrant flowers. I have my doubts: They have identified a DOZEN different genes that together create the petunia fragrance. Genetic engineering could easily stick in one or two of those into a new plant -- resulting in something which would be far from a complex or interesting scent. At best, the result would be something like cheap, artificially flavored processed food, but nothing like the complexity and depth of nature.

 My back 40 Feet posts about a terrific guerrilla garden -- it is really quite lovely. Seeing it is convincing me that I AM going to do some guerrilla gardening this year. There is a pitiful, weed-infested island in the middle of a traffic circle up the street that I AM going to do something with this year.

22 February 2010

The agave lives (for now...)

I thought for a moment we were going to see the ground -- we had a string of warm (highs in the mid 30s!) temperatures, and snow was melting. Of course, we got about 4 inches last night, and are supposed to get 4 MORE today, so I guess seeing the ground will have to wait a while.

However: while poking about outside in the heat wave, I did see this poking up out of the snow:

My Agave Parryi 'Super Hardy'! It lives! At least for now... It has made it through the real cold of winter, but still to come is the perpetual wet of early spring. But it is alive! I hope everything else I'm worried about makes it too.

19 February 2010

Should we be adding charcoal to our soil?

I've been reading lately about the incredibly fascinating Terra Preta ("Black Earth") in the Amazonian rainforest. Most tropical rainforest soils are pale, nurtient poor, prone to leaching, and virtually impossible to sustainably farm. The Terra Preta, on the other hand, are dark, nutrient rich, resist leaching, and produce high yields year after year. Here is a picture of the two soil types from wikipedia:
The coolest thing? These fertile, stable soils are man made -- created by massive pre-columbian native American societies before they were wiped out by European diseases. HOW they created them is an interesting question: There are a lot of differences between them and the regular soils -- many more and different microorganisms, numerous pottery shards, and lots of charcoal. And it looks like the charcoal (or biochar, as people in soil science seem to like to call it, for some reason) is what is making the difference. In tropical soils, regular organic matter (compost, etc) decomposes and vanishes extremely rapidly. Charcoal, however, is carbon in an extremely stable form, which can presist in the soil for thousands of years -- and apparently alter the structure, chemistry, and biota in the soil enough to produce very stable, long-lasting fertility.

I should emphasize that no one has yet conclusively shown that biochar (charcoal) is THE factor in creating these soils, but a number of studies (nicely reviewed here by Warnock et al) support the hypothesis that adding charcoal to the soil does dramatically increase populations of beneficial soil microorganisms.

So, I'm thinking of trying adding charcoal to some of my beds this spring, and seeing if I can tell a difference. There are lots of sites with information on making your own charcoal, but it seems regular charcoal (chunks, not briquettes, which have added chemicals to glue them together) should work just fine. So we'll see! I'm not expecting my soil to instantly morph into super-fertile terra preta, but it should be fun to play with.

18 February 2010

Timber Press photo contest

Timber Press is having a contest: Submit your best macro garden photograph, and you could win a copy of a book about taking macro photos.(which seems back-to-front to me... clearly the winner is in no need of a book in order to take amazing pictures. Maybe they should give the book to the worst submission? I like that idea -- I might have a chance then!)
I'm not much of a macro person -- I tend to try (try, usually fail) to take pictures which give an idea of what a whole garden looks like. But: Sometimes the extreme close up is irresistable, as in the case of my submission to the contest: A fringed tulip I saw in the Netherlands a couple years ago:

17 February 2010

Wednesday Links

A brief story about some University of Florida researchers and the potential to genetically engineer fragrance into flowers which I mostly pass on because I can't resist news stories about people I know (Dave Clark, one of the researchers in the article, is a collaborator with my advisor on the petunia project I'm doing) but also because it is an interesting note in the whole GMO debate. Though really, it would be easier to add fragrance to florist roses with traditional breeding. The genetic engineering approach would only really make sense with something like gerbera daisies with no scent whatsoever. And wouldn't a fragrant gerb be kinda weird?

Studio G does a post on living willow structures. Which I totally want to do. When I eventually graduate, and can move out of the blasted city, to somewhere with SPACE, I'm building one. Probably several.
Do check out this news story of a debate over genetic engineering somewhere in the UK (okay, I looked it up: Birmingham. Don't know where that is, but maybe you do.) It starts of all civilized with people saying they can respect and learn from each other, and ends with one farmer calling the others "miserable gits." Which just makes me giggle.

A good post on the evils of topping trees. I remember a professor explaining this to my class, and saying that topping does have one useful purpose: It can help you pick a good arborist! As in, if they offer to top your trees, don't hire them.

This report of a new repeat blooming cherry tree gets it all back to front. The variety was created via mutation breeding -- which is simply exposing the plant to some mutagen (chemicals, radiation) to create random changes in genes, most of which will be damaging, some of which might be useful. The strange thing about this story is that they act as if mutation breeding is some shiny new alternative to genetic engineering. Fact is, it is OLD news. Mutation breeding has been used in wheat breeding, to create rex begonias and in many other ornamental plants -- it is also a fundamental technique for doing basic research on genetics -- there are thousands and thousands of mutated lines of arabidopsis, corn, etc, in use in genetics labs around the world.

An interesting story in The Atlantic (by way of the essential Give Me Something to Read) about Wal-Mart's movement into local produce -- including a blind taste test comparing produce from Wal-Mart and Whole Food's, where Wal-Mart actually wins in several categories. A very interesting counter-point to the typical knee-jerk "Wal-Mart = bad" thinking.

16 February 2010

No, I don't need MORE copies of your catalog!

I opened my mail box yesterday to find catalogs from High Country Gardens, Johnny's Selected Seeds, and Bluestone Perennials. All companies I like -- but I already have a catalog from each of them. I've already gotten TWO from High Country, and I've already even put in my order to Johnny. I love catalogs -- but one is enough, people! Every extra catalog I get from you just makes me annoyed and less likely to order from you!

Addendum: DO look at the comments. A representative from High Country Gardens commented to explain that the multiple catalogs are actually different. So I take back all the annoyance I just expressed.

15 February 2010

Bloom Day

Bloom day is destroying my life. I always force bulbs during the winter, so I had a pot of dwarf irises which just finished flowering a couple weeks ago, and I have a pot a hyacinths which are just about to bloom, as you can see in this picture:

Normally I would be perfectly happy with this: Flowering bulbs for most of the winter is a good thing, and a week or two between one finishing and another starting is perfect.

But NOW, thanks to Carol and bloom day, I'm just frustrated that neither of them decided to bloom for the 15th!

Luckily, this little african violet in my office comes to my rescue:
Which is hardly surprising -- it pretty much is ALWAYS flowering. It seems all they really need is warmth -- when I had it in my house, which I like to keep cold in the winter, it pouted all the time. Brought it into my overheated office at school/work, and it is as happy as can be -- even if I don't water it for weeks at a time (persisting lack of water does stop the flowering, but it picks up again as soon as I stop neglecting it.)

And with that: I've survived the last of the truely difficult bloom days -- next month, I should have crocuses, aconite, witch hazel, and snowdrops, and I'll be good until November -- and next winter, I'll be prepared. I'm going to force SO many bulbs next winter I won't have room in the fridge for anything else.

13 February 2010

Time Travel

My mom is super-human in many ways. An example being, when each of us was born she started a journal for us -- she wrote in it when we were small, when we learned to talk, we'd dictate to her, and when we learned to write, we took over. If this doesn't seem superhuman, bear in mind: my Mom did this for all 5 children she gave birth to in the course of 6 years, while also doing things like keeping us fed with homemade bread and being generally being amazing.

Which is all just back story to explain why I have a huge box of notebooks in which are recorded my entire life. I stumbled on the box the other day, start flipping through that first notebook, and found this entry from when I was 5 years old:

8 August 1988

My flowers are growing well. The sweet peas are the tallest and the portulaca are the smallest. The marigolds are in between.

Yep. Already gardening. Not much has changed, only I know now not to try and grow sweet peas in August in Maryland (where we lived at the time).
And it sort of came out of no where. Gardening is not one of my mother's many super powers, though she often tried. With results as indicated by the rest of my entry for that day:

Mom's strawberry patch grew 5 strawberries

11 February 2010

That's it. I'm getting bees.

My friend ST got bees last spring. And today, she brought me a container of her honey.
That is my finger. I've been dipping into it, and licking the honey off. Yum... So much better than boring clover honey from the store -- it has richer flavor, almost a little spicy. Which instantly makes me think of my grandfather -- he used to keep bees, and trips to North Carolina to visit him always ended with us heading home with a huge jar of honey and bees wax to make candles.
I've always said I want to have bees -- but tasting this honey has pushed me over the edge. I've got to get some. My seed orders are all in. Time to put in the bee order.

10 February 2010

Wednesday Links

Make that Wednesday link. It was a busy week people -- all I've got is this one link, but it is a good one!

From KeeWee -- planted boxes of flowers on the bumper of a pickup truck! I want some!

08 February 2010

Window sill make-over, part 2

As I have been talking about, I have a goal of redesigning the inside of my house as a garden.

This past weekend, I tackled the long window in the living room:
It is a fairly narrow window sill, with a couch right in front of it -- so about my only option would be a row of little pots all along the windowsill. Which seemed... lame. A whole bunch of little pots would be silly looking, and the windowsill isn't wide enough to make them really stable. I'd have to end up buying nice looking ceramic ones, which the cats would end up knocking off and breaking.

I explained my quandry to my extremely handy partner. He's not a plant person, but he knows building things. We took a little trip to the local home improvement warehouse, and hey presto, he made me this:
A water-proof metal tray, to make watering mess-free, faced with a piece of trim, so when you put plants in there, you don't see the (cheap, plastic) pots, just the greenery -- and it cost a total of about $10. (Yes, I know how lucky I am to have him.)
The planted up result looks like this:

Which I am pretty happy about. I'm in love with the planter box -- makes even this fairly uninspired combination of random plants I had around (mostly Ficus pumila, plus the odd aeonium, kalanchoe and philodendron) look pretty nice. I'm also planning, next winter, to force a lot of small bulbs (dwarf iris, crocus, etc) in 4 inch pots, so I can slip them in between the trailing fig as they come into bloom. Some small cyclamen would look good too (and yes, I keep my house very cool, so they'll be happy) if I can find some that aren't magenta. Magenta, fuchsia, and all allied screaming purply-pink colors are absolutely NOT allowed in my garden, inside or out.

Anyone have other ideas of good plants for this spot? They need to be fine with an east-facing window, not too big, and ideally winter flowering -- and NOT magenta.Oh, and don't say african violets. Way too cold in the house for gesneriads. They live in my overheated office at work/school.

07 February 2010

Rice art and cultivar lust.

Have you see these amazing images created in Inakadate, Japan, by planting different colored leaf rice varieties in exacting patterns?

Photo from Pink tentacle (Do go check out the rest of the set. Really cool.)

But what gets me is the varieties they use to create the images, especially this almost white leaved rice:
Photo from this site (in Japanese)

How stunning is that? I want some! I've seen purple leaved rice for sale before, but never the white. Does anyone know of a source? I've been asking my Japanese friends, our friendly neighborhood rice researcher, browsing rice mutant databases... no luck yet. If anyone knows anything about it, PLEASE let me know! I NEED it. Desperately.

04 February 2010

Scientists (not) talking to gardeners

This gorgeous display of phalaenopsis is part of a study by a professor I know who researches (among other things) orchids.

How cool is that – right? Don't you wish he had an orchid blog to pass on all sorts of tips on how to get the darn things to rebloom after you buy them?
Well – not really. He actually doesn't know much more about growing orchids at home than anyone else. In fact, I've been to his house: He had one orchid, which was dying, just like the one on your windowsill. He knows and studies commercial orchid production – how to rapidly and efficiently grow baby orchids into the lovely plants in full bloom you can pick up at virtually any grocery store these days. In other words: He's NOT “one of the few scientists interested in talking to gardeners.”
I put that last line in quotes because it is a phrase I've seen often on Garden Rant to describe people like Jeff Gillman – as in “his is one of the few scientists interested in talking to gardeners."
Sadly, this is true: Very few scientists do research that directly relates to home gardeners. I'm a grad student in a horticulture department, and I know faculty who study everything from vegetables to flowers to conifers to turf grass to weeds -- but none of them study these topics in terms of the home gardener. They study breeding, watering and fertilizer at the nursery, light levels in commercial greenhouses, even marketing --  in short, they study everything required to get a plant in your hands walking up to the check-out counter at a garden center – and nothing after that point. This isn't just a quirk of one particular university. The same is true of the school where I got my bachelors degree, and of 99.99% of the research I see presented at academic conferences.
But why? Why are so few scientists interested in talking to home gardeners? The truth is, I think lots of them are interested – they just can't afford it.
As usual, it comes down to money. Before I landed (more or less accidentally) in grad school, I assumed academic research programs were funded by the university. Not true: Professors are more like small business owners than regular employees. When a new professor is hired they get an office, a telephone, and part of a salary (Increasingly faculty are only paid by the university for 9 months of the year). The money for laboratory equipment, staff, salary and fees for graduate students like myself, fees to use university resources like greenhouse space or plots at research farms, and yes, one fourth of their salary, they have to find themselves. To get the money to pay for all this professors spend a huge amount of their time applying for grants from industry groups and governmental organization like the USDA. In other words: They have to come up with research ideas that will convince someone to fork over the money to actually get it done -- and home gardeners don't tend to give out grants. A book for gardeners could bring in some money, but not enough to run a whole research program – certainly nothing compared to the 14 million (yes, million) dollar grant a professor in my department recently landed.
Want more scientists to talk to gardeners? Well, you're going to have to pay for it. Oh wait – you already do. That 14 million dollar grant I mentioned? Your tax dollars by way of the USDA. I'm not  running down government funding for basic research – those 14 million are going towards spectacular research. But wouldn't it be nice if a little of that money went to research we could use?  Maybe it is time we gardeners spoke up and convinced our government to make research on healthy, environmentally sound home gardening more of a priority – or rather, a priority at all -- so the scientists who are interested in talking to us are able to.

03 February 2010

Wednesday Links

I'm giving this top billing this week, because I think it is pretty important (normally these links are simply on the order I find them during the week): Do go check out the blog biofortified. It is written by a team of graduate students (and their mascot: Fank N. Foodie) studying genetic engineering. They're also environmentalists, advocates of local food, and generally all-around-cool. If you are looking to move past the silly and pointless debate over if GMOs are good or bad, and on to reading real, thoughtful discussion of what we should and shouldn't be doing with the technology, start here. It is high on my Must Read list from now on.

By way of the always excellent Scientist Gardener, plans for what is being billed as the world's largest urban farm in Detroit.Which is cool. I was in Detroit recently, and the city is spectacular -- spectacularly depressing, that is. We drove through entire neighborhoods of lovely victorian homes where only one or two houses WEREN'T boarded up. So I'm super excited about the growing urban agriculture movement in Detroit these days.

This was posted, like, 6 months ago, but I just found it, and feel like linking to it: James and the Giant Corn explains why pineapples are awesome.

Carol provides translation for what house plants are really saying. I hope she's not right... her plants sound pretty demanding. And do they really WANT to be deadheaded? I always thought having your half-developed offspring chopped off would be pretty traumatic. Though not as bad as what the poor hyacinths have waiting for them.

Apparently, in New Zealand they are seeing a shift in gardening trends: A move away from grasses and foliage and back to a more traditional flower centric look. I'm not sure if this is true in the US (here it seem to be all about vegetables at the moment), and if it is, I'm not sure what I think about it. I love growing all of the above, but I do think flowers are more fun to breed, and plant breeding is my favorite part of gardening.

Garden Rant has a great piece on native and non-native plants -- a great summing up of what sounds like a spectacularly sane chapter on the same topic by Linda Chalker-Scott of The Garden Professors.

Germi goes gaga for Aloes. Well, she's BEEN gaga for aloes, but seriously, she's taking it to another level. I should warn you, this post induced SEVERE zone envy, and anyone else in a cold climate might want to wait until spring to view it.

One scientist finds trees growing two to four times faster than usual, apparently due to the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. I'm not surprised that it increases growth rate -- CO2 supplementation has been showed to do that before -- I AM surprised at the numbers. Two to four TIMES faster? I'll have to track down the actual paper and read it in detail. (I'll pretend this is part of studying for my up-coming comprehensive exams...)

01 February 2010

Where double flowers come from

Every wondered how plant breeders get from single flowers like this:

To big doubles full of petals like this?

(photo from jungle seeds)
Well, it starts with flowers like this:

Look closely (click on the image to expand it) in the center of each flower, and you can see little tiny specks of extra petals -- they're actually called "petaloids"
Here is what they look like carefully pulled out of each flower: (I highly recommend clicking on the photo to see them much larger)

At far right is a normal stamen -- the male part of the flower that produces pollen. The others are in various stages of conversion into petals. Keep going with this, and you get the full, frilly, double flowers you see in the second pictures. It only takes a very small change in the expression of a single gene to switch an anther to a petal -- so double versions of flowers pop up randomly all the time in nature due to random mutations, or in the genetic confusion of hybrids between species (which is what lead to the petaloids in these pictures). In the wild, of course, double flowers die out because they are usually virtually sterile -- and even when they aren't how is a bee supposed to get in there and pollinate them? But in the garden, we treasure them and keep them alive -- so much so that many people don't even realize that the classic rose:

Is a double version of a very simple flower with only five petals like this: