27 August 2010

The Friday cartoon is on vacation

Sorry folks, no cartoon this week. I'm in Portugal at a conference. Regular programming will resume next week.

25 August 2010

Why I breed plants

You, gentle reader, may not know this, but while I am a passionate gardener, I am an wildly obsessive plant breeder.

I realize most people, even most gardeners, aren't plant breeders -- they've never made a single cross or selection. It is almost mind-boggling to me. I know other people are different but how, how possibly could so many people overlook THE MOST FUN THING about gardening?

So I've been thinking about how to communicate how thrilling it is.

Here are a couple images:
At the top of each picture are two species of petunia, and below them are some of their grandchildren (More technically, F2 hybrids. For more detail, see this.) I don't even LIKE petunias but these pictures make my heart skip a beat. All those flowers below are the secret, hidden flowers just waiting to be discovered. New combinations of color, shape, fragrance, and size.  Take two plants, dab a little pollen, save some seeds, and out comes a wild kalodoscope of new flowers.

Take two tomatoes, (in this case, Matt's Wild Cherry and Black Krim) and here is the flurry of sizes and colors that came out:

And they all taste different! Sweetness, tartness, savoryness, and all the 300+ flavor compounds that make a tomato shaken up into essentially endless variation. Tasting my way through this hybrid population is a thrilling exploration: Some are okay, some vile, some -- a rush of excitment here -- are simply delicious.

To me, plant breeding is the prefect combination of creativity and discovery -- the two most exciting things in the world. I start with an idea (Wouldn't this tomato taste good if it were a bit sweeter? Or this if it were more savory and complex?). The goal in mind, I start making crosses to try and create it. But, instead of merely succeeding or failing in my quest to create, each step of plant breeding throws open a whole new world to explore! Looking, tasting, and sniffing as I go, I feel like Columbus stepping into a new world surprised and delighted by what I find. When I find what I want, the rush of discovery is combined with that other great rush, the euphoric sense of "I made this. It existed only in my mind, and now it exists, for the first time, in the world!"

I know everyone is different -- and for most people, this is no more appealing than playing baseball is to me (I mean, really? Standing around watching people try to hit balls with sticks?) But if what I describe sounds appealing, go ahead and give it a try. It isn't hard, and life will in the garden will never be the same again. You can even get started letting bees do most of the work as I describe for violas or columbines, or dive right into the slightly more complex, but marvelously delicious joys of tomato breeding!

23 August 2010

Bearded irises: not so boring afterall?

Bearded irises. I've always thought of them as being pretty in a generic, over-planted way, when they flower, but inclined to require staking (I hate staking), with foliage that starts off nice but quickly gets all disease ridden and yeck (one of the side effects of living somewhere it rains all the time, I suppose).

But, recently I've been talking to the one and only Kelly D. Norris, who (in addition to a lot of other stuff. He's kind of insane. In a good way) runs Rainbow Iris Farms.  He's starting to change my mind -- or at least, getting me to give irises a second chance. Basically, he's doing this by tempting me on his nursery's on-line catalog with photos like this (all photos stolen borrowed with permission from Kelly):
'Giggles and Grins'
These ain't your Grandma's bearded irises...
'African Wine'

When I asked him about staking, he said "medians" don't need it. Bearded irises, like so many groups of plants that have been grown and bred and exhibited and obsessed over for a long time, have their own wacked-out language to describe themselves. The plants are broken down into categories like "Plicata," "Neglecta" and (my favorite) "Miniature Tall" (It used to be called "big small" but they decided that was too confusing). All these terms apparently mean things to Iris People. Kelly spent a while explaining it to me... still don't make much sense, but hey, who cares. They have flowers that look like this:
'Just a Croc'
When I asked him about foliage diseases... well, he said "they can do that." Which isn't exactly comforting, but with incredibly flowers like that, I think I'll be willing to put up with foliage that doesn't look perfect all year.

So... I ordered a few. Just a few. Okay, I ordered a dozen. But no more... except Kelly promised to throw in a few extras... Better start digging new beds for them all to live in!

17 August 2010

From the trial gardens

I've been observing the annual trial gardens at Michigan State this summer, and as the season is starting to come to an end, it is time for some of my thoughts on what looks cool.
Pelargonium 'Cherry Picotee' Grandiosa series, from Dummen
Back in April, when I visited the California "pack" trials, I commented that these regal-type Pelargonium seemed to be a huge trend. Historically, regal pelargoniums have been lovely, but demand cool temperatures. So, I am pleased to see that the Grandiosa series from Dummen has looked stunning in the gardens all summer -- and it was an unusually hot summer too! Well, hot by Michigan standards: we spent a lot of time in the 80s, and even hit 90 a couple times. Who knows how they would do with a real Texan summer.

Dianthus 'Noverma Clown' from Kief-Pro Seeds.
I loved this annual Dianthus -- I've never seen anything quite like it!  Charming, round sweet William-type heads of flowers in a confetti of different colors. I think each individual flower opens white, and darkens as it ages. A great take on a classic flower. I sure hope I can find a source for seeds for my garden next year.

Purple Catharanthus
This cool, dark purple, almost black, annual vinca is from the All-American Trials section of the garden, so no cultivar name yet. I really love the color -- quite different from any vinca I've seen before. And they are such great, tough, annuals. I hope it wins the All-American selection so I will be sure to be able to find it everywhere!

13 August 2010

Friday cartoon: Still about the weather

Since last week's cartoon, it has technically rained. Barely. For about 5 minutes.

Yelling at clouds

Actually, in full disclosure, I drew this a few days ago, and right afterwards we had a lovely rainy afternoon, dumping a solid inch and a half of rain! Maybe the weather is reading my cartoons? (Also, there are worse things than too little rain... All you flooded Iowans are in my thoughts.)

11 August 2010

Happy Blogaversary!

My blog is one year old today! Happy blogaversary!

"But!" you ask, "What do you mean? Your archive clearly shows that the first post on this blog was in January 2009, not August!"

Okay, so technically my blog is more than a year old. But though my first post went up in February, I posted all of 5 more times in March, and the nothing until August, when I started posting regularly. So I have decided that August 11th is my blogavesary. If you don't like that, tough.

To mark this special occasion, I have decided to put together a little list of the blogs greatest hits for the year just ended. And by greatest hits, I simply mean posts that I happen to like.

Cartoons: My favorite of my garden drawings/cartoons so far is this one. Probably because I totally stole the idea was inspired by the wonderful Carol of May Dreams Gardens.

Garden design stuff: Last winter, I got all excited about houseplants for the first time in my life (thank you, Mr. S.), and staged make overs of not just one but two of my window sills. A vast improvement. This summer, I've been collecting more interesting plants to enjoy indoors over the winter, so I'll probably be talking more about it come snow season.

Sciency things:
I like science. I really enjoyed writing my bit on hummingbirds and the color red. I also liked my post on where dwarf conifers come from (witches!!)
And, still in science, but a little more seriously, since I do study plant breeding and genetics, I think and hear a lot about genetic engineering. I think the debate about it currently raging ignores a lot of both the real problems, and potential positives of the technology. I hope you'll take a moment to read -- and respond to -- my thoughts, if you haven't already. This is an important issue we need a more informed debate about.

And that's it! Happy Blogaversary! Looking forward to another year of writing random nonsensical wonderful blog posts!

09 August 2010

Chair/pantry for wasp babies

I was sitting on my front porch when I noticed a little wasp hoving about in an annoyed manner. I got up, and she quickly landed on my chair and started poking around in the little decorative holes drilled in the wood.
 What is she up to?
 Oh, just shoving a live, but paralyzed, catepillar into one of the holes.
 All finished now -- she flies off. Probably to get another catepillar. When the hole if full, she cap it with mud, as you can see she's already done with several of the other holes in the chair.

Before she caps them, though, she'll lay some eggs. They'll hatch into little baby wasps, which will munch happily on the still living, but paralyzed caterpillars -- they carefully eat the vital organs last, so the catepillars don't die and start rotting.

Kind of gruesome, but mostly cool... besides, I think those caterpillars had been munching on my roses, so they deserve to be eaten alive by wasp larvae.

06 August 2010

Friday Cartoon: The Weather Man

As this exceptionally hot summer wears on, my relationship with the weather man is getting increasingly tense.
Weather man

04 August 2010

Borer resistant zucchini

Back in January, I talked about trying a new type of zucchini in my garden this year. Normally I grow the variety 'Costata Romanesco' because it is simply delicious -- but, like all zucchini I have grown, it generally collapses sometime in the middle of the summer due to attacks by the evil squash vine borers.
So this year, along with my 'Costata Romanesco' I'm growing 'Zucchetta rampicante tromboncino'. It is a different species (Cucurbita moschata rather than the typical summer squash Cucurbita pepo) and is supposed to be resistant to borers.

I can't speak to the borer resistance, at least not yet, because so far none of my squash have been attacked. I'm sure it is coming, though... borers being the evil little vermin they are. But I can speak to their other attributes. They are very late, and low yielding compared to any other zucchini I have grown -- they started several weeks after my other zucchini, and I've only picked 4 of them so far. I wouldn't recommend them for a small garden, unless you grow them up a trellis, because the vines are very long and vigorous -- a good dozen feet long so far, and showing no signs of stopping.
Here are what the fruit themselves look like. My standard Romanesco is on top, and the Tromboncino is on the bottom.
 Here they are sliced, ready to go into a pan with some hot olive oil and fresh tomatoes.

The flavor is quite good, though different from a standard zucchini. My romanescos have a warm, nutty flavor that I adore. The Tromboncinos have a sweeter flavor that reminds me a little of a winter squash. Raw, the Tromboncinos are firmer, drier, and crisper than the romanescos, but when cooked, they were slightly more inclined to get mushy -- which is not a good thing, as mushy zucchini is foul and loathsome.

All in all, I like the tromboncinos, but I'm not in love with them. They are beautiful and interesting, and the promise that they'll keep on producing all summer even if borers arrive is certainly wonderful. I plan on growing them again next year, along side my standard zucchinis -- as a standby for when the borers decided to try and ruin my summer.

03 August 2010


 What is that white flower, looking stunning (ever slightly floppy) behind my 'Matrona' sedum? Oh, just some agapanthus. Why yes, I DO live in zone 5. Hmm? Oh, yes, agapanthus are generally only hardy to zone 7, at best. Do I bring it inside for the winter? No, this is a hardy version! You didn't know zone 5 hardy agapanthus existed? Well, neither did I until I saw it in the Arrowhead alpines catalog.

01 August 2010

How (and why) to breed tomatoes in your backyard

Since I had the chance to talk about breeding tomatoes on last week's episode of The Splendid Table, I thought I'd follow up with instructions on how to create your own tomato variety. It is really easy, I promise. If you start your own tomatoes from seed, you can breed your own tomato variety -- and you totally should because it is freaking cool. Any gardener knows the thrill of picking that first tomato you grew yourself. Picking the first tomato of a variety you bred yourself multiplies that thrill a hundred times. Then you get to name it. And share it with friends, or pass it on to your children.

So how do you do it? Well, the basic process is to pick two or more tomato varieties you like for whatever reasons and make them have sex with each other. That combines and scrambles their genes, so when you grow a bunch of their children and grandchildren, you get all different combinations of their traits, from which you get the pick the new tomato you like best.

For example: I garden in the north with a short growing season, so is it is very important to me that my tomatoes start producing early. But a lot of early tomatoes aren't very tasty. To remedy that, I could cross a very early tomato with a very delicious tomato. Their children (called the F1 generation) will all have exactly half of their genes from their early mother, and half their genes from their delicious father, and so will all be essentially the same, and usually roughly half-way between their parents. Save seeds from those plants, and you get the F2 generation (the grandchildren of the original parent varieties), each of which will be a random mix of the genes of the two original parents.(for a more detailed explanation of F1 and F2 generations, see my explanation here). If you grow enough plants of that generation, you'll hopefully find a individual or two which combines the best traits of both their parents: delicious fruits produced early. You'll also get some which combine the worst of both worlds -- late, bland fruit -- as well as crazy, unexpected stuff. Genetics is way more complex than I'm going to get into in this little explanation, so crosses don't always do what you expect.  Personally, I think that is half the fun. You plan the best you can, and then go with what pops out at you.

Once you find an individual plant in that F2 generation that you like, the next step is just to save seeds from that plant, and keep growing them out and picking your favorites for a few generations. Each year, you will see less and less variation in the plants you grow out from seed.  After a few years, when all your seedlings are looking, growing, and tasting pretty much the same, you've got your new variety. Give it a name, collect a bunch of seeds, and share them with friends and family. And, if you are like me, start dreaming up what you could combine it with next to make it even more delicious, or a different shape, or bigger or smaller or... the sky is the limit.

If you are a gardener, the whole process is pretty much stuff you know how to do already: Grow seeds, taste test, pick your favorites. The only think you need to learn how to make the two original varieties have sex to produce that first hybrid generation and start the whole ball rolling.

Here is how.
Tomato sex is all about the flower. Each flower has several layers: Green sepals that protect the developing bud, within them, yellow petals that attract pollinators. In the middle, forming a yellow cone, are the stamens, the male part of the flower that produces pollen (pollen = plant sperm) and in the very center surrounded by the stamens, the stigma (female). Sex happens and seeds are produced when pollen from the stamens gets on the stigma. Tomatoes are a bit odd in that they usually self pollinate -- they have sex with themselves. Usually, pollen from the anthers just falls down onto the stigma of the same flower, and hey presto, you get seeds that have just one individual as both their mother and father. Sometimes bees will carry pollen from one flower to another and mix things up, but it is fairly unusual.
In order to make two different tomato plants get together and make hybrid babies, you first need to prevent the mother of your hybrid babies from having sex with itself. So find a flower bud just about to open:
Using tweezers, carefully peal back the sepals and pull off the petals, to reveal the stamens. Those are the male parts of the flower, and they need to go. Hold the flower with one hand, and gently pinch and pull at the base of the stamens to peel them back to reveal the stigma hiding in the center of the flower.
This can be tricky. Tomato flowers are delicate, and it is easy to damage it in the process. Some varieties are easier to work with than others, so if one plant is giving you trouble, try a different one and see if it is any easier.

Once the stamens are out of the way, find a fully open flower from the other parent of your cross, and pull off one or two of its stamens.
You don't need to worry about damaging this flower -- all you need is the pollen, so you can rip it apart as much as you want. Once you've got a stamen, run your tweezer tip along the little groove on the inside.
 You'll see a little tiny bit of powdery, yellow pollen collect on your tweezer. (Yes, it is there in the picture -- click to enlarge if you can't see it.)

Gently dab this pollen onto the tip of the stigma of the first flower
(You can sing romatically or buzz like a bee as you do so, if you wish) and you have made your cross! Now just tie a string or something around it so you can find it again.
If you did everything right, the flower will develop into a tomato fruit, full of your F1 hybrid seeds. If you don't get fruit and seeds, you probably damaged the flower while pulling off the stamens. I usually do two or three flowers at a time to make sure I get at least one good one. When the fruit is ripe, collect your seeds, grow them out, and see what wonderful things you have created!