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.


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.


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.



Hostas need time fully develop

June 19th, 2014

If you are like me , you probably have had the experience of buying a plant from a catalog or garden center only to find out it wasn’t quite as wonderful as it looked in the picture. Of course, sometimes sellers tweak  photos a bit to highlight the characteristics of a particular plant.

In the case of hostas however, the differences can be very real and not due to photo manipulation.

Many varieties of hostas require a cold period before they reach their full potential. New hostas are often grown in a greenhouse for the first year and may have not gotten enough exposure to cold temperatures. As a result, during the first year in your garden, they can look very different from a mature plant of the same variety.

Although hostas produce flowers, it is the foliage that attracts gardeners.

Although hostas produce flowers, it is the foliage that attracts gardeners.

Leaf color, texture, size and shape can all look different until the second spring. There are some varieties that require a few years growth before all their characteristics are evident.

Also, keep in mind that hostas are shade tolerant plants. Even though we see hostas planted in sunny areas all the time, they prefer to grow in areas where they are shaded from the hot afternoon sun. Full morning and evening sun exposure will allow hostas to develop properly.

In a year or two your new hosta will look as good as the one in the catalog. I wish I could say the same about the shirts I buy.


Veronica speedwell

June 12th, 2014

This is the first spring for our Veronica gentianoides, sometimes called Veronica Speedwell or Gentian Speedwell. We planted this perennial last fall and it seems to be very hardy since it survived our winter, even after all of those record-breaking cold days and nights.

Gentian speedwell is one of the earliest flowering perennials. Ours started blooming right after the tulips died back and just recently finished blooming.

Its wonderful light-blue flowers are about one-half inch across and are held by a spike 16 inches tall.

This is not a plant that you would notice driving down a bumpy road at 50 miles an hour, unless it was a naturalized area with a large number of plants. It works best in an area where you can enjoy it up close such as along a sidewalk.

Later a seed stalk will develop from the flower stalk on these Gentian Speedwell plants.

Later a seed stalk will develop from the flower stalk on these Gentian Speedwell plants.

You may have noticed that Veronica gentionoides has the same first name as Veronica filiformis, the common lawn weed also called speedwell.  That’s because they are closely related. Don’t worry though, Veronica gentianoides won’t become a lawn weed.

Like many of us, Veronica’s ancestors immigrated from somewhere else in the world. In this case, they were brought here from the middle east — specifically the Caucasus region around Turkey and Iran.

Gentian Speedwell will tolerate some light shade but prefers full sun. Wild populations in the middle east are found in damp fields, which tells us that the plant will do best if kept watered or is grown in a moist area.

There are cultivated varieties for sale, I’m not sure what variety ours are.

Later in the summer after they’re done flowering, the plants will send out creeping roots that will produce new plants. The new plants eventually form into a mat that makes a good ground cover for filling in bare spots in the garden.


Ants on peonies

May 22nd, 2014

We’re seeing ants again on peony buds again this year. It happens every spring. They show up as soon as the buds get some size to them. They’ll stick around all the way through flowering.

Ants and peonies just seem to go together.  Many long time gardeners believe you must encourage the ants because you can’t have good peony flowers without them.  We now know that is an old wives tale.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are gardeners who fret and worry about the ants so much that they try to destroy every ant on their peonies. They think the ants are hurting the peonies and inhibiting flowering. That belief is just as much an old wives tale.


You'll find ants on peonies all day, every day this time of year.

You’ll find ants on peonies all day, every day this time of year.

In fact, ants on peonies are pretty much neutral — neither good nor bad. They are there only to feed on the sugary surface coating that is secreted by the buds. And that causes no damage.

Peony ants are so well behaved they won’t even try to get into your house so there is no need to worry about that either.

Sometimes an ant or two will ride into the house on cut flower stems. To avoid that, cut the flowers just before they open and knock off any ants you find.

Gardening has enough challenges without having to worry about ants on peonies. So cross that one off your list.



Wild asparagus

May 15th, 2014

This is the time of year when we see cars parked along the roadside and people nearby with their heads down looking for something. What is it they’re looking for? They’re hunting for wild asparagus.

Wild asparagus is the same as the cultivated kind. When growing out on its own without anyone tending it, it’s called “wild”.

The best place to find wild asparagus is near abandoned homes or sites where a house used to stand. That’s because years ago, everyone had a small asparagus patch in their yard. Asparagus plants are perennials and often outlive their original owners.

A wild asparagus patch can also start from seed. Sometimes you can find a secondary patch growing under nearby trees where birds perch and spread asparagus seeds in their droppings.

It’s pretty hard to find asparagus just by searching for the newly formed spears without knowing where to begin looking. Seasoned asparagus hunters look for the distinctive fern-like, fully-grown fronds —  the mature plants that develop from the spears. They make a mental note of the location and come back the following spring to harvest the spears.

This is what the asparagus hunters are looking for.

This is what the asparagus hunters are looking for.

If you don’t know what an asparagus frond looks like, find someone who is growing asparagus and take a look at the plant. Once you’ve learned to recognize asparagus fronds, you’ll easily be able to spot them from your car while driving down the road.

Like morel mushroom hunters or smelt dippers, many asparagus hunters won’t share their secret spot with anyone except their closest friends. I’ve even had the weird experience of an asparagus picker get upset with me because I was picking asparagus from “his patch” even though it was on my property.

Keep in mind, when you do find a wild asparagus patch, ask permission from the land owner before you harvest the crop.

Happy hunting!


Circle of life in the chicken flock

May 14th, 2014

The big news around here this week is the arrival of our new day-old chicks. I have fifty baby chicks to keep warm and look after, much like a mother hen except I use a heat lamp instead of cuddling up with them.

They were shipped from the hatchery by the United States Postal Service to our local Post Office. The Post Master called me to let me know they were ready for me to pick up. This is a unique service that the Post Office provides. UPS, FedEx and other shipping companies don’t ship chicks. It’s one more reason, in my opinion, to support our Postal Service and not let it be disassembled by outside competitors.

New arrivals.

New arrivals.

This latest group of new arrivals will be replacing our flock of old hens. The old gals are not laying enough eggs to pay for the feed they eat, even when they are able to forage out in the yard. So, it’s time for them to move on to the next stage of chicken farming — meat.

Old hens don’t make very good fried or roasted chicken, they are just too tough and scrawny. They do however,  make the most delicious chicken broth you have ever tasted.

My old joke is: “I have discovered a fast and easier way to make homemade chicken soup. Instead of butchering one chicken at a time when you start your soup, butcher several at a time and put them in the freezer. Then, take one out of the freezer the next time you make soup.”

I tell that joke every time I pull a hen out of the freezer and it always gets the same response from whoever hears it — silence followed by a quizzical look.

I’ll keep the  old hens around until the newcomers begin laying, about 18 weeks from now.


Cool spring weather is just right for growing peas

April 21st, 2014

Many years, I don’t even bother planting peas.  More often than not,  the spring weather around here is just too warm to grow much of a crop.

Peas need cool growing temperatures to grow, otherwise, if the temperature gets too high, they just quit growing and never produce. That goes for all types of peas: shelling peas, snow peas and snap peas.

Shell peas are the type of peas we buy in the frozen food department. Those have already been shelled from their pea pods and quick frozen.

Snow peas are the flat-podded peas used in Chinese cooking. Snow peas are harvested while the pods are still quite flat and the peas inside are just beginning to swell.  I like to plant snow peas. I use them in stir fry dishes.

Snap peas have edible pods too but they are not snow peas. They are harvested and eaten much like a green bean, when the peas are larger but still tender. ‘Sugar Snap’ was one of the first snap pea varieties on the market.

This spring is shaping up to be a good pea growing year. I plan to get an extra large spot planted just as soon as the soil temperature warms up to 45 degrees F.

Treated seeds are dyed a bright color. The chemical treatment keeps the seeds from rotting in cold, moist soil. Most pea seeds sold in small packets are untreated.

Treated seeds are dyed a bright color. The chemical treatment keeps the seeds from rotting in cold, moist soil. Most pea seeds sold in small packets are untreated.

You might want to try planting peas too. You just might end up with enough peas to make a meal or two with some left over for freezing.

By the way, the flowering plant called “sweet peas” are not edible. They belong to an entirely different genus.


Seedling heat mats speed up germination

April 11th, 2014

For many years I started seeds without using a seedling heat mat.There never seemed to be any problems doing it that way as long as I was able to find a warm spot for my seed trays. Those were the days when the tops of refrigerators radiated heat and were nice and warm. That was the best place to germinate small amounts of seeds because the constant heat warmed up the seed starting containers to the ideal temperature. Small heat mats for home use were not readily available back then.

It wasn’t until I worked in a large private greenhouse that I really found out the advantages to using bottom heat. I needed to grow thousands of flower and vegetable plants from seed. Time was, and still is, a valuable commodity, I couldn’t afford to wait for seeds to sprout.

Seeds I grew on heat mats seemed to jump up through the soil surface compared to their unheated brethren — germination percentage went up too. After the first transplant growing season, I invested in a few large commercial heat mats.

These days, nearly all garden centers sell small heat mats. They are usually preset at a specific temperature and are not adjustable, unlike the commercial mats.

Heat mats last a long time if used properly and are carefully stored.

Heat mats last a long time if used properly and are carefully stored.

The small mats work just fine for small amounts of seeds. By small amounts, I mean you can still germinate enough seeds to grow hundreds of plants. That’s more than enough for an average home garden.

If you are even a little bit serious about growing plants from seed, a seedling heat mat is an essential investment, especially now that refrigerators aren’t warm anymore.