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.

15 October 2010

Friday cartoon: planting bulbs

This weeks cartoon is a little different. More serious than silly. But I read something this week, and can't get it out of my mind... This says something about the real reason I garden. If you don't get it, don't worry -- Friday silliness will return next week.

13 October 2010

Interesting, itchy, art

I was riding home on the bike trail along the river the other day, when I saw this bit of ephemeral botanical art by the side of the path:

I like it, but unless I am very much mistaken, the two inner circles are made from twisted bits of... poison ivy.

Somewhere in town, there is a very, very itchy artist. They'd better invest in some plant ID books if they are planning on becoming the next Andy Goldsworthy

11 October 2010

Vernonia lettermannii

Those of you where were at the garden bloggers meet up in Buffalo this summer may remember I was just slightly excited about a certain Vernonia lettermannii I picked up at a nursery we visited. And by slightly excited, I mean of course, insanely, annoyingly, goofily thrilled, talking about it constantly and covering up the tag and asking people to guess what it was.
I was so thrilled because everyone was guessing things like "Amsonia" because the leaves are so amazingly thin and marvelous -- and yet, it is Vernonia! Aka, ironweed, which typically is a giant plant with big wide leaves and lovely masses of purple flowers like this:
Photo credit
So I was all excited at the thought of those flowers on a plant with lovely little leaves.
And now, at long last, mine is flowering and I'm a wee bit disappointed. This is it, in full bloom:
The leaves are all one could ask for, but I'm excessively disappointed with the flower power. Does anyone else grow this species? Will it get better once it has settled in? If not... guess I'm going to have to try and hybridize it with another species of vernonia... come to think of it, I'd like it to be taller as well...

06 October 2010

Sciency Answers: What do bulbs know, and how do they know it?

I got another great question from Annie of Annie's Annuals:

 Hi Joseph !
  I hope you don't mind 2 questions in one month !
So I'm looking at all my demo beds today, September 30th, and i'm noticing all the Spring blooming bulbs have awoken and are actively growing . Now how do they know to do this ? How do they know that its almost Fall?  They are buried and can't "see" the day length, Its not a temperature drop signaling Fall (in fact it went to 100F here this week ) and they get watered every day, so its not a Fall rains-after-a-dry-Summer-thing. i am in wonder of it all ! Can you explain this mysterious bulb-psychic behavior ?

your faithful reader , Annie

I love this question!
Let's start this answer by remembering the last time you got on a plane and flew across a few time zones. The first few days after you arrive, you get to experience the joys of jet lag, walking around with your body saying "It is night time! Time to go to sleep!" while the bright sun in the sky is clearly saying "It is day time! Time to be up and about!" After a few days you adjust to the local time and everything is fine. Until, of course, you head back home and get to go through it all again.
Jet lag demonstrates how we humans tell what time it is: We use a combination of external signals (is it light, or dark?) and an internal clock, our circadian cycle.  We get jet lagged when the two ways of telling time don't line up. In response to the confusion, our internal clock gradually adjust until the two are in sync again.
Plants are just the same -- they use external signals, the sun, and an internal clock, circadian rhythms, to tell when time it is. Take the signals from the sun away by putting them in a box, and they'll keep up their daily cycle for a while: Daylilies will still last a day, morning glories still open in the morning, and four-o'clocks will still bloom around 4 pm. Plant's internal clock is very well established scientifically, and researchers have even started figuring out how exactly that clock works at the level of genes and proteins (which is cool, but also gets incredibly confusing pretty quickly... at least to me). But Annie's question relates to something else: Do plants have an internal calendar as well as a clock?
This is a really interesting question. Sadly, science doesn't have a very good answer for it, meaning that from here on out this is going to be more of an "educated guess answer" than a "sciency answer"  because I haven't been able to find any good research on the subject. The lack of research is probably due to the fact you would have to be working on the scale of years not days and it is hard to convince people to spend years on something that might not even work. Even so, I think the evidence is very strong that at least some plants have some kind of internal calendar to go along with their circadian clock.
Colchicum flowering on a windowsill (photo credit)

After all, as Annie says in her question, bulbs sprout without any external environmental signals. Colchicum for example, flower in the fall, and they will do so even if you forget to plant them and leave them in your (climate controlled, artificially lit) house on a table. The horticulture industry even uses the effect, importing jet lagged amaryllis (hippeastrum spp.) bulbs grown in South Africa (link) to get bulbs that will flower in time for Christmas here in the Northern hemisphere. In his book, Cape Bulbs, Richard L. Doutt, advises collectors of South African bulbs in the Northern hemisphere to import seeds rather than plants, because the jet lagged plants have trouble adapting to our inverted seasons. Gardeners know and deal with bulbs that know what time of year it is, even if science hasn't looked into the matter yet.
In my personal experience, the effect isn't just limited to bulbs. Last year, I got some (normally) autumn flowering sedum ('Matrona', I think) from a friend. She was doing research on their flowering, and tricked them (with artifical lighting) to bloom in the spring. Once they flowered, she didn't need the plants anymore, so I took some home and planted them, in full flower, in the spring. All that summer they never really grew, just limping along fitfully. I think they were jet lagged, expecting winter to come after they finished flowering and instead getting a big dose of summer. Eventually, of course, winter did arrive, which apparently reset their internal calendar, allowing them to grow and flower normally this year. An internal calendar isn't the only possible explanation -- maybe they just had an extreme case of transplant shock -- but I think it is likely.
Putting all this together, I think it is clear that many bulbs, and perhaps other plants, have some kind of internal calendar keeping track of what time of year it is. But given the lack of research on the subject, I can't say much authoritative or "sciency" on the subject... Any plant physiologists out there looking for a PhD project? This would be an awesome one! It will probably take you a decade to get useful data, but think how cool it will be when you finished!

Have a question? Send me an e-mail (engeizuki at gmail dot com) and I'll provide a sciency answer!

05 October 2010

Don't stand still too long...

I went to get my bike off the rack to ride home the other day and noticed this
A bicycle being eaten alive by a morning glory. The funny thing is that every summer they make a sweep through campus and get rid of all the abandoned bikes -- so this one can't have been sitting here more than a few weeks. I wonder if you'll even be able to see the bike by the time frost puts and end to the morning glory?

04 October 2010

Castor beans: From "meh" to "oh YEAH"

I've always loved huge, dramatic, castor beans (Ricinus communis), but the past couple times I've grown them, haven't had much luck.
I'm not alone -- Loree over at Danger Garden wrote recently about castor beans not quite living up to what she had planned on.
This year, though, I think I've gotten it figured out.
First, what not to do:
This is the variety 'New Zealand Purple' Great color leaves, but not really making much of a statement.

Check out, however, this one, just a few feet away in the same bed:
This is better. Same site, but this one is from a mix of seeds collected from wild populations in the Dominican Republic I got from Chiltern seeds. So lesson one: Variety matters. If first you don't succeed, try, try another variety.

Lesson two: Site matters even more. Those first two plants are in the front bed, where conditions are dry and slightly shaded thanks to a big silver maple. This is what the same Dominican Republic castor beans look like in the back garden:
That is me. I am 5' 10" (175 cm). The castor beans are pushing ten feet (about 3 meters). Back here, they are getting absolutely full sun and lots of water, and are rewarding me by being freakishly huge and awesome.