Driving south to Florida this month? Stop at Imaginary Worlds in Atlanta

October 23rd, 2014

If you are planning to drive south this month to escape the winter, you might want to think about adding a stop at the Atlanta, GA Botanical Gardens to experience the Imaginary Worlds exhibition.

 

Topiary Cobra

Topiary Cobra

Thousands of annuals are growing on metal forms covered with netting and growing medium to bring to life fanciful sculptures.

The topiary sculptures are made from individual plants.

The topiary sculptures are made from individual plants.

The gardeners/artists of the Atlanta Botanical Gardens teamed up with International Mosaciculture of Montreal to create fabulous  works of living art.

Earth Goddess

The Earth Goddess is 25 feet tall.

 

Imaginary Worlds is the first major exhibition of its kind in the U.S.

Gorillas in the garden.

Gorillas in the garden.

There is only a small window of opportunity left though, the giant topiary exhibition Imaginary Worlds closes at the end of October.

Bob

 

Monarch butterflies with wing tags

September 25th, 2014

Monarch butterflies are on the move heading south on their annual migration. Look closely next time you spot a Monarch and you might see a flash of white against the orange and black pattern of their wings, it very well could be a marked butterfly.

We spotted one last week near Ann Arbor. It was flying and feeding on flowers in the Matthaei Botanical Gardens.

I mentioned in a previous blog how the Monarch population has dwindled. Several groups, professional and amateur alike, are studying Monarchs trying to learn more about their behavior during migration. The butterfly we found was tagged by someone working with a group called Monarch Watch, a conservation education and research organization.

Each ultra-light weight polypropylene wing tag has an identification number and an email address printed on it to report your find.

I would like to think that we found “our” butterfly after it flew and long and arduous journey from somewhere far, far away. But it could just as well have been tagged and released that day by someone nearby.

 

Tags are placed on a specific spot on the wing to minimize any impact on the butterfly's ability to fly.

Tags are placed on a specific spot on the wing to minimize any impact on the butterfly’s ability to fly.

All tagging information is placed in a data base. Monarch Watch contacts both the tagger and the person finding the butterfly with the location of where it was tagged and found and, how far it traveled.

Most of the tagged butterflies in the United States and Canada are found dead. Ours however looked to be a strong flyer.

Reporting tagged butterflies helps researchers learn how Monarchs move across north america to their wintering places in Mexico.

Bob

 

 

Cool weather crops for winter harvest

September 9th, 2014

My seeds are planted for my winter vegetable crop.

We have a small, unheated greenhouse — sometimes called a high tunnel — that I built last year out of salvaged parts. That’s where I sowed my seeds. In our climate, most winters are too harsh for plants to survive without some kind of protection.

In years past I’ve harvested winter produce from simple homemade cold frames made from window sash, low plastic covered tunnels and other kinds of structures. The secrete is to make sure the structure gets adequate sunlight and that it is air tight to keep frigid winter drafts from freezing the plants.

I was able to plant the entire floor area of the greenhouse with spinach, winter onions, radishes, beets and a couple of different types of lettuce — all cool weather vegetables. The seeds were left over from our spring crop.

Part of the winter greenhouse crop.

Part of the winter greenhouse planting. It will provide enough salad greens to supply us during the winter.

I’ve tried setting out transplants late in the season, they just don’t seem to be as hardy as plants grown from seed in place.

When the really cold weather hits, those plants will hardly grow at all, even when protected inside a structure. By sowing seeds now, the plants will have plenty of time to get to a usable size before they go into hibernation. Once they are established they will become accustomed to the falling temperatures and will be more likely to survive.

Bob

Heirloom fruit tree 14 year odyssey

August 28th, 2014

Fourteen years ago I planted a ‘Lord’s Seedling’ apple tree, an heirloom variety. It transplanted well and made really great growth the first three years.

Then during the winter of the fourth year, disaster struck. Under the snow, near the base of the tree, mice chewed the bark all of the way around the trunk, girdling it.

That spring the tree leafed out normally. Somehow, it stayed green the entire season. It didn’t make any growth of course because the connection  between the roots and the top was severed.

I could have tried to repair the damage by grafting but I was very busy that spring and never got to it. I decided to write it off.

The next spring, a few shoots sprang up from what was left of the roots. Most of the shoots were obviously from the root-stock, the part of the tree on to which the Lord’s Seedling was grafted on to at the nursery. Those shoots would never produce a Lord’s Seedling apple because they have a different genetic background.

Looking closer, I noticed one tiny bud looked like it may have been above the point where the tree was grafted. That meant it could have been a Lord’s Seedling bud.

I removed all of the shoots from the rootstock except that one bud. I nursed that bud and later it grew into a vigorous shoot.

During the following years, that bud became a tree. I still had no idea if it was a Lord’s Seedling tree or just a tree grown from the rootstock.

The beautiful golden-brown russeting on Lord's Seedling apple is considered a defect by the commercial apple trade. It is a normal part of the appearance of this variety

The beautiful golden-brown russeting on Lord’s Seedling apple is considered a defect by the commercial apple trade. It is a normal part of the appearance of this variety

This year, the tree grew a full crop of apples and I was finally able to see what variety it is. Low and behold, turns out it is a Lord’s Seedling tree after all.

I took an educated gamble on the tree and it paid off fourteen years later.

Bob

 

 

Time to let heirloom beans mature into seeds

August 14th, 2014

Earlier in the season I mentioned that we were growing a few heirloom bean varieties.

The results are in. It turns out that the differences between varieties were pretty dramatic. ‘Chabarowsky’ beans out-performed all the rest of the varieties by a wide margin.

The seeds germinated and grew vigorously in the dry sandy soil in that part of the garden.

Chabarowsky has a climbing habit which makes it a pole bean type. I grew ours on a length of farm fencing so they were very easy to pick.

The beans themselves, when I picked them at the optimum time for green beans had no strings in the pods. They were simple to prepare for cooking. The rest of the varieties all needed to be “stringed” first. To be fair though, all of these varieties are grown primarily for dry beans, so picking them for green beans was not the best use for them.

On the other hand Chabarowsky beans have an excellent taste when cooked green.

I’ve picked quite a few green beans from the vines, now it’s time to let them grow and mature into dry beans. It takes about six weeks from the time the beans are in the edible stage until they will be mature enough to harvest for seed or dry beans.

Chabarowsky bean pods can get a foot long or more.

Chabarowsky bean pods grow to a foot long or more.

Chabarowsky will eventually produce white beans that look kind of like over-sized navy beans. Even though the vines are loaded with pods, there’s no way they will produce enough to make more than one batch of bean soup. Most of the beans will be used for seed. I’ll save some for planting next year and share the rest. I am curious however, how the dry beans taste.

Even though the Chabarowsky variety did well in my garden with its sand and low pH, it may not perform well in someone else’s garden. That’s why there were so many different seeds saved and passed down by generations of gardeners. The best performers in specific locations eventually became heirloom varieties.

Bob

 

Apple maggot flies

August 6th, 2014

I’ve seen noticeably fewer insects in my garden this year. It’s probably due to the relatively cool temperatures we’ve been having this summer, especially at night.

While looking at my apple trees this week I noticed some funny little insects flitting around the leaves and fruit — they were apple maggot flies. It is the larval stage of this fly that causes brown streaks inside infested apples.

 

Apple maggot flies have a distinct pattern on their wings. They are somewhat smaller than a house fly.

Apple maggot flies have a distinct pattern on their wings. They are somewhat smaller than a house fly.

Normally, the early varieties are the ones that really get hammered by apple maggots. However this year, my early apples were free of those pests. My guess is that because of the weather, the flies took a little longer than usual to develop and were not around around in sufficient numbers to cause any noticeable damage.

Now that I’ve picked all of my very early summer apples, the maggots have moved over to the other later varieties that have apples still developing. The adult flies are looking for apples on which to lay eggs. The eggs will hatch into those pesky maggots that ruin so many apples.

The storm front moved through yesterday and the rain has ended. That gave me a chance to spray my trees this morning to knock back those apple maggot flies. I like to spray early in the morning when the air is calm and spray material is not being blown back in my face by wind.

There are other ways of controlling apple maggot flies that take more time such as trapping adult flies, or wrapping each individual apple to protect it from egg-laying flies.

I suggest you spend some quiet time with your trees soon and look for apple maggot flies. If you find them, use your control method of choice. Your trees will reward you with pest free apples.

Bob

 

 

Milkweeds for monarchs in the garden

August 5th, 2014

Back when I was a kid, it seemed like milkweeds were everywhere. We used to play with the ripe pods by breaking them open and letting the seeds blow away in the wind. I remember asking my Grandfather why they were called milkweed. He told me it was because when you cut the stem, it oozes out sap that looks sweet and milky. He also told me not to try the sap because it didn’t taste good. Of course, later, when he wasn’t looking, I decided to taste the sap, yuk!

Milkweeds have had a checkered past. Sometimes they were considered just a weed that needed to be weeded out of farm fields and gardens. Other times they were highly desirable. For example, during World War Two, ripe milkweed pods were collected and processed into filling for life jackets. The weed helped to win the war in the Pacific.

After WWII, they were once again considered a nuisance. Now, milkweed is rapidly becoming everyone’s favorite weed, or should I say native plant. This is because milkweed is the sole source of food for Monarch butterflies. Without milkweed there are no Monarchs.

With the eradication of milkweed, the Monarch population has crashed from one billion individuals down to around 33 million.

There is a huge and growing effort to allow more milkweed to grow for the sake of the butterflies. The easiest thing for gardeners to do is just leave a few milkweed plants grow in the corner of the yard or garden. Since they are a perennial “weed”, they take absolutely no effort to maintain.

There are more than one species of milkweed in Michigan. Here in our yard we have two different types. The first one blossomed early in the summer and has large pods growing on it already.

This milkweed has large pods aready.

This milkweed has large pods already.

 

The other is a smaller plant that is just finishing blooming this week. The second type has a wonderful fragrance.

This milkweed flowers later and has a different growth habit.

This milkweed flowers later and has a different growth habit.

 

Monarch butterflies are out and about in southern Michigan. These are breeding adults. I’ve only seen two so far at our place but other people I have talked to said they have seen several.

By growing milkweed you not only help the overall Monarch population but you get to enjoy watching the butterflies attracted to your garden.

Bob

 

Matthaei Botanical Gardens blooming agave

July 22nd, 2014

A few days ago, I had a chance to see the blooming agave plant at University of Michigan’s Matthaei Botanical Gardens Desert House — the one you’ve been hearing everyone talking about.

The agave leaves have a rare variegated green and white color.

The agave leaves have a rare variegated green and white color.

When I first saw this plant over 30 years ago, it was already 50 years old. Through the years it didn’t appear to change much but of course it has been growing and maturing all that time. Now after 80 years, it is finally blossoming.

It has produced a flower stalk so tall that they’ve had to take out some roof glass from the greenhouse in order to give it more room to grow.

The flower stalk has grown through the roof of the conservatory.

The flower stalk has grown through the roof of the conservatory.

I encourage you to get out to the Botanical Gardens and see it. This type of agave blooms only once in its lifetime and then it dies. So, when it’s over, it’s over.

The flowers are producing an abundance of real agave nectar, not the manufactured stuff you find in the store.

The flowers are producing an abundance of real agave nectar, not the manufactured stuff you find in the store.

Matthaei Botanical Gardens is located on Dixboro Road south of Plymouth Road, Ann Arbor, directions and hours are available on their website.

Bob

Yellow leaves on sweet corn plants

July 8th, 2014

We just got back from a relaxing week-long vacation at Bear Lake in northern Michigan.

The first thing I did, even before unloading the car, was to take a look at the garden. It’s amazing how much a garden changes in a week at this time of year.

Everything looked great except for the sweet corn; it’s looking a bit peaked. The lower leaves are turning yellow, which is a sure sign of nitrogen deficiency.

If plants can’t get enough nitrogen from the soil, they will rob it from older leaves and use it to grow new leaves — that’s what causes the discoloration.

Plants use nitrogen to make chlorophyll, the green part of a leaf responsible for photosynthesis.

Plants use nitrogen to make chlorophyll, the green part of a leaf responsible for photosynthesis.

I can trace the problem back to last season. In that spot last year, I mulched the growing vegetables with a generous covering of wheat straw. This spring, instead of raking out the old mulch, I left it in place and tilled it under.

Since then, soil microorganisms have been working overtime trying to decompose all of that straw. They require loads of nitrogen to do the work of decomposition. As a result, there is not much nitrogen left over for the sweet corn to use.

Now I’ll have to add nitrogen fertilizer to make up the difference. I have some urea fertilizer left in a fifty-pound bag that I have been dipping into for several years now, it’s finally almost empty.

Urea is an artificial fertilizer that contains forty six percent nitrogen and nothing else. That makes it a “hot” fertilizer, meaning it is very easy to burn growing plants with it if you’re not careful. I like to mix it with sand to help make it easier to spread evenly.

Other types of fertilizers, such as fish emulsion and blood meal, contain nitrogen in a different form and will provide nitrogen without the danger of plant damage. Because those types of fertilizers contain less nitrogen on a pound for pound basis as urea, you’ll have to apply more to get the same results.

Nitrogen deficiency results in weaker plants and lower yields so it’s a good idea to correct the problem early, while the plants still have time to recover.

Bob

Pruning tomato plants

June 25th, 2014

It’s always a good policy to keep tomato plants off of the ground rather than letting them sprawl all over the garden. Leaves and fruit in contact with the soil are more prone to disease problems. Plus tomatoes laying on the ground are often damaged by insects and slugs.

I usually use tomato cages to help raise the plants up but, most of the time, the tomatoes grow so much that they topple the cages and end up on the ground anyway.

This year I’m going retro with my tomatoes by using old-fashioned staking and pruning. Pruning was very popular before tomato cages became the most prominent way of growing tomatoes. There are many gardeners who still prefer this method.

The objective to pruning tomatoes is to train the plant to grow a single main stem.  You do that by pinching off any side shoots or “suckers” that develop in the joint of leaf stems. When left to grow, the suckers form side branches making a bushy tomato plant. Pruning eliminates all side branching.

Sucker shoots grow from the joint of a side leave branch.

Sucker shoots grow fright in the joint of a side leave branch.

You have to be diligent about your pruning or else the plant will tend revert back to it’s natural, bushy growth habit. I think the main reason why pruning fell out of favor was the time involved.

Pruned tomatoes must be staked and tied to a stake at least four or five feet high since pruning stimulates so much upward growth. In late summer you can limit the height by pinching out the tops of the plants.

By staking, I’m saving a lot of space too. I’ve got my plants only two feet apart instead of my usual three or four feet apart.

One other side benefit is staked and pruned plants produce tomatoes up to two weeks earlier than non-pruned plants.

Bob