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!

19 September 2011

Mum mania

My mums are flowering! No, not the little wretched cushion mums you see everywhere. These are the lovely, fully hardy ones from Faribault Growers I was all excited about buying earlier this year.

Plants and flowers are a bit smaller than the catalog descriptions, but given they started as itsy bitsy little plugs this spring, that isn't too surprising. I expect they will grow into their full size next year. In any case, I'm nuts about them. Great colors, diverse forms, large voluptuous flowers, on utterly tough, carefree plants. What's not to love?

Matchstick has a vivid, ever-changing mix of yellow and red I've seen around in catalogs. It is nice, but not my favorite.
Snowscape has a graceful combination of pale pink and yellow on huge, profuse blooms. Very soft and romantic feeling.
Centerpiece has an elegant spooned form, in a richer shade pink
My favorite, hands down, is Peach Centerpiece. Same form as Centerpiece, but in a warm peach tone that one of my absolute favorite flower colors.
I think I need a LOT more Peach Centerpiece next year. I want dozens and dozens of them, all over the garden, sending the gardening year off in a rush of glorious, decadent beauty. That shouldn't be too hard... I love it when I fall for a plant that is both cheap and easy to grow.

15 September 2011

Chance of frost tonight

The weather man is predicting a chance of scattered frost tonight... We all know what that means.

Frost and sheets

04 September 2011

Growing a bit of ancient history.

One of the reasons I love gardening is for the connection to history. My personal history of grandparents who gardened, but also the greater human history, those early gardeners who first realized they could take a bit of ground and make it into something called a garden. That is why, this spring, I planted these seeds.
You all know the seeds on the right. It is corn, of course, known scientifically as Zea mays. On the left we have... Zea mays, only this one goes about under the common name teosinte, and is the wild Mexican grass that Native American farmers started with to breed the corn we know today. When I requested these seeds, I knew they would look different, but I never expected it would be so dramatic!
This is them in my garden (please forgive the lousy picture) Teosinte on the left, again, with more stems, and looking more like a typical grass than the thick, single stem of the corn on the right.

And now, as summer winds down, my teosinte is beginning to make ears. Here they are:
I can't quite wrap my head around this. That little stack of seeds, those few brown silks... THAT was transformed by prehistoric gardeners, with no knowledge of genetics, into the huge beefy ears of corn with all its colors and shapes and sizes that we know today. Surely the greatest plant breeder the world has ever seen was some native American whose name we will never know.

Teosinte isn't particularly attractive, or edible, but I'm very glad I grew it this year. It makes me really take a moment to think about -- and be thankful for -- the amazing gardeners who created the plants that feed our world today.