31 December 2011

Bring on 2012!

I've kept a journal my entire life, and every new years, I sit down and read over my entries from the past year. It is always interesting to step back and remember everything that happened this year. 2011 was a busy year for me, most notably I finally finished with school, and unexpectedly, thrillingly, signed a book contract.

In the garden, I had the best year of my entire life. Which, frankly, has been true every single year I've been gardening. That's one of my favorite parts about gardening. Every year I learn more, discover new plants, enjoy old plants as they multiply, and seedlings from my myriad breeding projects mature and thrill me with their first bloom. Every year is bigger, fuller, richer, and more exciting than the last.

2012 is poised to be an amazing, revolutionary year for me. With school behind me I'm striking out into the world, ready to explore. I'm going to be selling my house, moving somewhere yet to be determined with more land, and spending a few years living off my savings and exploring breeding, writing, and who knows what other projects full time. After a decade of college, I'm desperately ready for unstructured time to explore, be creative, and focus on serious play. I'm full to the brim with ideas for new projects, most of which make little or no logical sense, but they excite me, and that is what I'm focused on right now. I may well be broke in two years, but who cares. I'm going to live, dance, and make stuff. Crazy, cool, beautiful stuff. Can't wait.

19 December 2011

Proper Poinsettias

I'd never been a big fan of poinsettias, but my first winter here in Michigan, the display at the MSU conservatory changed my mind.
Every year they haul out a huge display of massive, 6-foot poinsettia shrubs in full bloom. Grown like this, they look great. Poinsettias are, after all, big shrubs by nature, and allowed to grow big, they look much more in proportion and attractive than the stubby little things in pots.
My other favorite things about poinsettias are their flowers. The colorful parts, are, of course, not flowers are all, but bracts, modified leaves. Peer down into the center, and you find the actual flowers which are really quite strange looking. 
They remind me of funny little one-eyed aliens.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

14 December 2011

My own tropical paradise

For less than $1000, I get to take a vacation from winter just by walking out the back door and into my greenhouse. I only keep it heated to just above freezing, but one days when we have any sun at all, it quickly soars up to 70 or 80 degrees, and I go out, strip down to t-shirt and shorts, and enjoy the warmth and growing things. Even in rainy days like today, it is a soul-soothing respite from all the grey and brown outside.

It is full of a random mix of plants,  bunches of not-quite-hardy things I'm over wintering, lots of good things to eat, and just random things to make me happy.
Lettuce couldn't be happier. I've never grown great lettuce in the garden, it always bolts and gets bitter, but the cool temperatures and short days are making this the most beautiful, delicious lettuce I've ever grown, by far.
 I'm loving having loads of fresh herbs, including rosemary, parsley, thyme, and this yummy cilantro
And of course, some flowers. Pansies, I think, were meant to be grown in greenhouses. I've got pansies outdoors too, but their flowers are all beaten down into the mud by the rain, while these are pristine, fragrant, and wonderful.
Now I'm wondering why I waited so long to build one... seriously, for less than the cost of a vacation to Florida, you could have this too. Why doesn't everyone have a greenhouse?

30 November 2011

Sciency Answers: How multicolor corn works

During Thanksgiving, people must have spent some time looking at decorations involving multicolored ears of corn, because I got several questions all essentially asking, What is up with that? How does a single ear can have many different colors on it, while you never see, for example, a single plant producing yellow, red and purple tomatoes? How does corn pull it off?
Corn does it the same way my parents had five kids, ranging from brown-eyed, brown haired me to my blond blue-eyed brother, with a smattering of hazel eyes and light brown/dark blond siblings in between. In other words, when you look at an ear of corn, you are looking at the next generation, and the genetics of each individual seed determines what color it is. With a tomato or any other fruit, what you see is produced by the mother plant, so it looks the same no matter the genetics of the seeds inside, just as my mother's pregnant belly looked the same whether that particular baby was a blond or brunette. But since each kernal of corn is a seed, you get a preview of the next generation.

As a gardener, and enthusiastic backyard plant breeder, I think this is one of the most fun things about corn. You get a little preview of the next generation before you plant the seed. Buy a mixed packet of petunia seeds and they'll all look the same, you have to plant them to find out what color they are. But when I buy different mixes of colored corn, I get to spend a very happy time sorting through them, picking out the colors I like best, so that when I plant them I get a customized mix of colors I like best.

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

21 November 2011

Creating New Heirlooms (Plus: Exciting news!)

Recently, I was telling a friend about my deep and abiding love for Russian tomatoes. I've grown several, and they have a distinctively rich flavor, often a beautiful dark color, and are well adapted for the cool, short summers of Michigan. 'Black Krim' is my favorite of the ones I've tried (though I think it is technically Ukrainian), and whenever I see the words like “heirloom from Russia” in a catalog, I pretty much know I'm going to like it.

That conversation got me thinking. I love Russian (and Ukrainian) tomatoes, but of course tomatoes don't really come from Europe at all. Tomatoes are native to South America, and, like a host of other delicious things (beans, squash, peppers, potatoes, eggplant, corn...) only made it to European gardens and tables after Columbus opened the new world to European explorers. Tomatoes, when they were first arrived in the old world, were a mix of varieties adapted to grow in warm South and Central American climates and selected for use in local food traditions and culture. Once they arrived in Europe, however, local gardeners took them on and made them their own. By saving seeds from varieties that performed well in their local climates and local cuisines, Italians created heat-loving, red, often green-shouldered varieties with a bright, clean taste, while Russians (and their neighbors) perfected cool tolerant, dark fleshed “black” tomatoes with a rich, smokey flavor.
Italian food. Plants from around the world.
As Europeans immigrated to the United States, they brought with them the varieties of tomatoes (and other plants) they grew up with in their home communities, and here they have continued to evolve. Just as Russian and Italian cultures and climate created distinctive tomato types, the melting pot of America brought a whole range of European heirlooms together to create distinctly new varieties, like the famous and wildly popular Brandywine tomatoes which came into being in gardens in Ohio and Tennessee.

It isn't surprising to me that the Brandywines, and other homegrown heirlooms like the Mortgage Lifter varieties, are so popular here in the US. After all, they were created here, the product of our culture, just as different European and Asian cultures have created their own specific takes on tomatoes that reflect their different values, cooking styles, and ways of life. Heirloom varieties are more than simply a crop, they are the result of a long, dynamic partnership between plants and people that has been going on since agriculture began. Weedy grasses give up life in the wild to become wheat and corn, one little plant scientists know as Brassica oleraceae morphed into myriad forms gardeners call broccoli, cabbage, kohlrabi, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower, and of course, tomatoes sailed around the world to form a perfect partnership with Italian pasta.
Corn, before it teamed up with humans
Unfortunately, many gardeners today have given up their part in this ancient collaboration, ceding their role in the on-going evolution of the plants in their gardens to corporate breeders. Corporation, as they tend to do, have set out to replacing the endlessly diverse, personal forms of heirloom varieties created by and for a local community with new varieties which are efficient, uniform, and score well with focus groups.

This story has been told many times, and many gardeners have turned to growing historic heirloom varieties in response. But that is only half the solution. We've worked hard to preserve what previous generations have created. Now it is time to bring back the very art of that creation itself.
Pollinating tomatoes
Some gardeners are beginning to do this. Heirloom tomatoes came into being when their were fewer people in the world and have huge, sprawling vines that don't fit well in today's small yards or patios. A few years ago, a some gardeners were looking for delicious, beautiful varieties for their small gardens, and decided to do something about it. They got on-line and created the Dwarf Tomato Project, working as a community to breed a new generation of delicious heirloom-style tomatoes for small spaces. I love that, and I want it to spread. It is time we took back our plants, started making varieties for us, created by our friends, in our community, adapted to our local climate, soil, and tastes. It is time we started creating new heirlooms.

Which brings me to the big news of today's post. The working title of my upcoming book for Timber Press is Creating New Heirlooms, and it is going be all about the concepts I just outlined in this post. I'm super excited about it, and hope you are too!

01 November 2011

Sciency Answers: The great fertilizer debate

Gary has a question:

Are organic fertilizers such as GardenTone and HollyTone really worthwhile using or is putting compost on your garden beds just as good?

Feeding soil versus feeding plants
Compost provides two things when you put it in your garden. A small amount of fertilizer for plants to take up, and a huge amount of food for all the earthworms, bacteria, fungi, and such in the soil. The fertilizer component is released slowly over time as the compost is degraded by soil life and taken up by plants to use to build leaves and flowers. The soil eating the rest of it improves the texture and structure of the soil making it better at holding water, nutrients, and allowing plant roots to grow through it more easily, so the same amount of fertility is utilized much more effectively.

Fertilizers, on the other hand, just provide nutrients for the plants. Because they are not tied up in the complex structures of compost, they are released quickly in higher concentrations to the plant roots. There really isn't much of a difference between organic and synthetic fertilizers here. The compounds the plant roots actually take up are absolutely identical in either case, and, depended how they are formulated, both synthetic and organic fertilizers will be released fairly quickly in high concentrations. Since both lack the bulky organic matter of compost or mulch, neither are going to do anything to improve soil structure and health in the long term.

More isn't always better
Fertilizers need to be used with caution. I grew up in a rural area where most people's "lawns" were really periodically mowed meadows, never fertilized or watered, and full of as many flowers (what the lawn care companies call "weeds") as actual grass. But we got a new neighbor who had lived in the city, who wanted a green, all grass lawn. They bought a bunch of fertilizer, and dumped it on. Their grass turned a vivid shade of green almost over night. And after the next rain storm, so did the drainage ditch all down the street and a good portion of our stream with a mass of algae spurred into growth by the fertilizer bonanza. Because fertilizers are quite concentrated and release their nutrients quickly, it is easy to over do it. You can harm you plants, but long before you do, you'll harm the more delicate life in the soil, and pollute your local ground water and wetlands as all the extra fertilizer leaches out of your soil.

The bottom line
In my own garden, I rely almost exclusively on compost and mulch to provide fertility. I do use more concentrated fertilizers, but only rarely in my container plantings, and very rarely in new beds that haven't yet been beefed up with enough compost for hungry plants like vegetables. In my ornamental beds, I don't even use compost, just regular mulching, because keeping fertility relatively low there keeps my plants a bit smaller and more compact so I don't have to stake them. When I do buy fertilizer, I frankly don't see much difference between synthetic and organic, so I go with price and convenience, which leads me to a slow-release synthetic fertilizer.

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

24 October 2011

Late autumn goodbye

I was down in Ohio, visiting my parents this past weekend.
It was a gorgeous late autumn day, and the trees and water in their back yard were breathtaking.
The 12 acres I grew up on back up to Lake County's (poorly named) Hell Hollow Park which is dramatic and beautiful.
We moved to this spot when I was 8 years old, and since I moved out at 19, I don't get back as often as I like.
But every time I do, I step out of the car, hear the waterfalls, smell the cool, moist woodland air, and feel at peace.
My parents are  moving in a few weeks down to where they've always wanted to live, in the high country of Western North Carolina. They're selling the land to the park, so more people will be able to enjoy this idyllic spot I spent my childhood running around in.
I'm happy for them, and very happy I'll always be able to come back and visit this place in its new life as part of the park, but it was also a little bittersweet, saying goodbye.
These woods were not just my playground, they were my church, my place to be alone. In special, secret spots, I figured out who I am, what I believe, how I want to live my life. I cried, rejoiced, wrote long, long letters to dear friends.
Standing in those special places this weekend, I looked at myself, and was very happy. I love who I am, how I am living my life, happy knowing that wherever life takes me, I'll always have deep roots reaching back to that rich, woodland soil.

18 October 2011

Got sciency questions? Ask Linda!

Thought I'd pass this along. The wonderful Linda Chalker-Scott, on The Garden Professors blog (which you should all be reading, by the way. They rock.) is asking for question you might have about how plants work to be included in the book she is working on. So head on over and ask away!

17 October 2011

Life in the soil

I've been thinking a lot lately about beneficial soil life. It is kind of a hot topic these days, from compost tea to various commercial products, and I'd like to share a few basic concepts that inform how I think about the subject.

If there is food, they will come

I am an enthusiastic bread baker, and have been for years. Every now and then, I make my own sour dough starter. It is really ridiculously easy. Mix water and flour, leave it sitting out, and after only a few days wild yeasts and bacteria arrive, and start munching away on it. The yeasts eat some of the flour, producing carbon dioxide, which causes the bread to rise, and alcohol as a by product. The bacteria eat the alcohol from the yeast, converting it into the acids that give sour dough its tart flavor. Adding a sour dough starter speeds up the process by inoculating the dough with those organism, but you don't need it. The air is full of tons of tiny fungi and bacteria floating around, and once they land on something good to eat, they start growing and rapidly take over all the dough. The same thing is true of soil. Even if you completely sterilize your entire garden, if there is food (organic matter) microorganisms are going to arrive to eat it.

Adding more of what you've already got doesn't change anything

To bake bread, you take a little sour dough starter or commercial yeast and add it to a new pile of food (flour). Once that yeast has colonized the dough and started rising, adding more of the same yeast isn't going to do anything at all. It would be like a friend who, when our campfire started dying out, asked if we needed to add more matches to keep it going. This is why I'm skeptical of aerated compost tea. Sure, you can take your compost, and put it in special conditions to help the bacteria in it to reproduce wildly, but they're going to be the exact same bacteria that are already in your soil and compost. Pouring them by the billions over your soil isn't going to increase their numbers long term unless you give them more food – organic matter.

Not all microorganisms are created equal

Each batch of sour dough is a little different, because different yeasts and bacteria arrive and happen to get established first. Some will rise faster, others will taste better. Commercial baking yeasts has been specially selected to dry and store well, and to rise quickly. Just as plant breeders have selected bigger fruits and flowers for our gardens, bakers and brewers have selected superior yeasts for making various breads, beers, and wines. However...

All gardening is local

Travel as a gardener at all and you quickly realize that half the plants you lust after and can't grow are actually a weed somewhere else. Microorganisms are no different. Some sour dough cultures perform best in whole wheat flour, others in white. Wine makers measure the acidity and sugar content of their grapes, and choose the best yeasts for each situation. Soils are vastly more complex and variable than flours and grapes, and I'm sure that most of the organisms in my acidic, clay soil can't even survive in the alkaline, sandy soil in a friend's garden. This reality makes me very skeptical of most commercial soil biota products. Even if what is in that package is an exceptional combination of organisms, what are the chances that they are going to be able to out complete the thousands of locally adapted species already living in my soil? This is also why I'm not surprised that in scientific research on these types of treatments they've only seen beneficial results when adding organisms to sterile potting media. That is a much more uniform, simple setting than the wild diversity of soil, and starting with something sterile, the added organisms don't have to complete against an already established soil community.

But maybe...

This is the completely speculative part of this post. As a plant breeder, I know that you can create significantly better varieties for you garden if you simply grow a diverse variety of plants, pick the ones that perform the best for you, and save seeds from those to grow again next year. Would it be possible to somehow select for superior populations of soil life as well? The idea intrigues me, but I don't quite know how to do it. Carol Deppe, in her brilliant book Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties, says that she is attempting to do this by each year taking soil from around the best performing, disease-free individual plants in her garden and spreading it around the garden to hopefully promote the spread of better soil biota. Does this work? I don't know. Sometimes when I have a spare moment, I dream up wildly complex, completely impractical schemes to “breed” soil biota involving acres and acres of land, soil samples from around the world, and annual soil sterilization for all but my selected plots of soil, but I don't know if I'll ever attempt it. Is anyone else a soil nerd thinking this way? Any ideas, comments?

14 October 2011

Some big news

Yep, folks, it is official. I'm writing a book. Just signed the contract with Timber Press. What is it going to be about, you ask? Well... I think I'll leave that part out for now so I can dribble details out bit by bit, because that sounds like more fun. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go dance wildly around the house giggling with sheer happiness.

10 October 2011

Fall is for crocuses

It is time to plant spring flowering crocuses, of course, but also to enjoy the fall bloomers! I planted a few species for the first time last year, and am delighted to see Crocus speciosus has come back to kick off the fall crocus season!

07 October 2011

Friday Garden Cartoon: Plant those bulbs!

It is that time of year again. Get out there and start planting!

See all my garden cartoons here

05 October 2011

October in the garden

Thought I'd share some photos of my garden at the moment.
 Verbena bonariensis with bronze fennel
Sedum 'Purple Emperor'
 Salvia nutans (Again!)
Rhus typhina 'Laciniata' just beginning to color up with Eupatorium rugosum 'Chocolate'
 Another favorite hardy mum: Chrysanthemum 'Mellow Moon'
 The front garden
Eupatorium rugosum 'Chocolate'

03 October 2011

Building a greenhouse

It started with a drawing on our chalkboard counter top...
 And now an actual structure has been going up in the back yard.
I now have a greenhouse! It is small (8' x 16') but big enough to have a lot of fun, and surprisingly inexpensive. This year, at least, I'm going to leave it unheated, so I won't be able to grow in it quite year-round, but it will seriously extend my growing season, and let me overwinter almost-hardy plants. SO much fun!

30 September 2011

Nuts for nutans!

I am a big fan of Salvia. It is an enormous genus (900+) species and I'm always finding something new to fall in love with. This week, is it Salvia nutans. I grew it from seed I got from the always great Gardens North this spring. I've been loving the foliage all summer.
Isn't that great? Big, bold, and sexy. I've got three seedlings shoved into this space, and they all seem a little different. I'm particularly fond of the extra large leaves on the one in the back.
I wasn't expecting flowers the first year from seed, but one of them decided to bloom!
How cool is that? Many salvia flower spikes start out hanging down, but I've never grown one before that kept on hanging upside down while flowering! But what excites me most is how the whole plant looks while flowering
I'm sure you can hardly see it in this picture, but the flowers are perched on the end of a stem a good three feet tall, suspended almost magically over the lovely leaves. I'm imagining it in a mass in the front of my boarder, the leaves making a bold statement at ground level, and the flowers dancing in the air, almost like the always wonderful Verbena bonariensis.

Supposed to be hardy to zone 3, I'm looking forward to seeing how it performs next year. I'm expecting a lot more flowers, bigger clumps of those terrific leaves.

28 September 2011

Sciency Answers: Pruning dormant roses

Esther over at Gaias-Gift has a question:

A number of us are discussing a common wisdom thing about not pruning your roses before the forsythia bloom or only when the buds start swelling. The implication that I will harm my roses by pruning before they start to come out of dormancy doesn't exactly make sense to me. ...the implication of what people say is that pruning in late winter, before they come out of dormancy on their own, brings them out of dormancy too early, making them more vulnerable to freezes than they would otherwise be. Is there any science to support that?

I love getting questions like this! I've heard this since I began gardening, and never stopped to wonder if it is true, and if so, WHY?

Pruning can break dormancy
So I've been poking around, and it turns out that yes, pruning woody plants can cause them to break dormancy earlier. Most of the research on the topic is in grapes, but from a very different perspective than those of us in cold climates worried about late freezes. Rather, I found a lot of research on growing grapes in warm, semi-tropical climates where there isn't enough cold to break dormancy naturally. In Taiwan, is appears, grape growers can keep their vines growing without a winter by using a combination of severe pruning and plant hormone treatments. But it isn't just in grapes. I found studies of cherries, peaches, and apples with similar findings. So many woody plants are stimulated by pruning, even when they are dormant.

More susceptible to freezing?
Interestingly, though, the one paper I could find that actually measured the winter hardiness of developing buds at several time points after pruning didn't find any change, so there isn't direct evidence that early pruning will lead to more damage from late freezes. That isn't to say it doesn't happen, however. Cold hardiness is notoriously hard to study because there are so many factors from moisture to time to temperature that make it very hard to recreate the real world effects of cold in the lab, so just because one group of researchers weren't able to find a difference doesn't mean there isn't one.

But what gives? I mean a dormant rose bush is just sitting there. How and why does it respond to someone cutting bits of it off? Well, I found some papers looking at dormancy in grapes, and they found that dormant buds are really quite busy, with many genes still being actively expressed. The also found that during natural dormancy breaking, the hormone auxin peaks in the buds a full two weeks before any visible bud swell. So, in late winter, when your plants look like they are just sitting there, they aren't. Genes are doing there thing, and hormones are churning, and when you take your pruners and lop something off, you change the patterns of gene expression, the flow of hormones, and can stimulate buds to break dormancy and start growing.

The bottom line: wait to prune
It looks like the advice to avoid pruning too early in the season is good. By pruning too early you can cause them to begin growing to early, and result in more damage from late spring freezes.

23 September 2011

Friday Video: Bearded irises through time

I'm fascinated by how plants change through time in the hands of human breeders and gardeners. So I decided to make a little video to better visualize it. I went through the American Iris Society Wiki (http://wiki.irises.org/) and grabbed images of 189 varieties introduced in the last century, more or less distributed evenly across the decades. String them together in a video, and you can watch how breeders have modified bearded irises over the last 100 years. Most dramatically, the falls get shorter and rounder, and the petal edges get ever increasingly frilled and ruffled.

It is pretty cool, if you are a breeding nerd like me. I'm sure the flowers are getting bigger as well, though you can't see it in this video, since the flowers are not to scale. I'm also realizing that I think I like the mid-century varieties better than the super frilly modern ones. Which did you like best?

21 September 2011

Evolution of a garden

It is fall, the time I start looking back at pictures, evaluating how the garden did this year, and think about what I want to do next. I've been thinking about my front garden.
Three years ago I bought my house. The day I closed I signed the papers, got my key, drove to the house, and planted crocuses. Sure, there was a window missing and a pile of raccoon feces upstairs, but crocuses come first. One has to have priorities.
We worked in the interior all winter, and come spring, I started on the outside.
One year in, the house has been painted, and gardens are starting.
Every spring I'm glad I put a priority on crocuses.
And come summer, things begin to fill in.

This is, strangely enough, the longest I've gardened in any once place since I moved out a decade ago. I've loved coaxing this garden into being, and am looking forward to helping it continue to grow and mature!