Paw paw tree from seed

December 17th, 2014

I’ve heard experts, farmers and others say for decades that paw paw is on the verge of becoming the next “in vogue” fruit. They may be finally right.

Since current paw paw varieties are so difficult to handle and are impossible to ship because of the soft fruit, only local paw paws are ever available.That makes them well positioned to become popular with locavores and other foodies.

Five years ago I planted eight seeds from a paw paw fruit and ended up with a half dozen seedlings happily growing in pots. Unfortunately, they were lost during a move and I never pursued starting any more. Since it takes five to seven years for a paw paw tree to begin producing,  by now, I probably would have had a small crop to pick this year.

A few weeks ago, I was given a paw paw fruit. I was inspired once again to save the seeds and start all over again with my future paw paw orchard.

Like most trees native to this area, paw paw seeds must be stratified before they will germinate. Stratification involves exposing seeds to cold temperature and adequate moisture.

I case you've never seen one, this is a paw paw.

In case you’ve never seen one, this is a paw paw. It contains about a dozen seeds.

In this case, paw paw seeds require 90 to 120 days at 32°F to 40°F while being kept moist. The vegetable crisper of a refrigerator is just the thing to meet those conditions. Just rinse off the seeds, and place them in some moist peat moss in a zip-lock storage bag. Toss the bag in the crisper and forget about it until spring. Don’t let them dry out or freeze, either one will kill the tiny paw paw tree embryo inside the seed.

Next spring plant the seeds into pots of good potting mix. If all goes well, the seeds will sprout in about two and a half to three weeks. Then re-pot as needed in order to give the new seedlings plenty of room to grow.

The most difficult part of the whole process may be finding a paw paw fruit in the first place.




Frosty temperatures can enhance lettuce taste

November 5th, 2014

Our recent frosts have put an end to all of the warm season vegetable crops like tomatoes, peppers and squash.

The cool weather crops on the other hand are still hanging in there, even though the colder temperatures have slowed down their growth rate.

The flavor of leafy vegetables, like lettuce, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kale and the like, is enhanced by light to moderate frosts. Root crops like carrots, and especially parsnips, sweeten up after exposure to cold temperatures.

Cold temperatures can enhance lettuce flavor.

Cold temperatures can enhance lettuce flavor.

The mechanism behind this phenomenon involves plant carbohydrates. Starches and sugars are different types of carbohydrates that are present in plants. When the plant is exposed to cold temperatures the starches get converted into various sugars that sweetens the flavor. This is the main reason why you should never keep potatoes in the refrigerator, it is the starches that give potatoes their distinct flavor.

Lettuce, cabbage and kale will eventually winter kill as the  season progresses. It takes quite a bit to kill Brussels sprouts, they can survive well into November getting more flavorful with each frost but they too will eventually freeze and die back.


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.



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.




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.


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.




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.



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.




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.



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.