Start early to grow your own gourmet onions from seed

Onions are a staple in our kitchen and I’m guessing are in yours too. While homegrown vegetables are always the best, it’s especially true with onions.

Those little onion bulbs, called sets, that you find in the garden center were grown last year from an onion variety selected for good storage characteristics, not flavor. I have to confess that I’ve used them plenty of times in the past during those years when I was not able to grow my own transplants.

Not only do homegrown onions in general taste better, you can pick and choose the variety you want without having to depend on what the local garden center has to offer. There are all kinds of gourmet onions available that you can only get if you grow them yourself. Just stay away from short-day varieties, they are not adapted to our latitude.

The secrete to growing onions from scratch is to get started early. I try to sow my onion seeds indoors sometime during January.

Onion seeds are fairly easy to grow. Compared to many vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers and others, onions don’t require as much attention. With most other vegetable seedling, transplanting from a crowded container into individual pots or cells is absolutely necessary, that’s not so critical with onions. They do quite well growing close together like a clump of grass during the early stage of their life cycle.

To get started, sow onion seeds into clean containers, I use six inch plastic flower pots. They’re easy to wash and sterilize and can be used year after year.

Fill your growing container an inch or so from the top with a good starting mix, other types of potting mixes may be used if the manufacturer didn’t add too much fertilizer.  Gently firm the soil down and moisten it.  Sprinkle your onion seeds evenly over the surface of the soil –about 50 -60 seeds will fit nicely in a six inch pot. Cover the seeds with about a quarter inch of the starting mix and firm it down so it makes good contact with the seeds. Lightly water the pot.

Onion seeds are fairly small so don’t cover them too deeply.

You should start to see the tiny seedlings begin to emerge in about a week to ten days at 70 degrees F. Once they’ve emerged, place the pot in a sunny area and drop the growing temperature to the lower 60’s during the day and upper 50’s during the night. If you grow your seedlings under artificial light only, give them ten hours of light a day. Keep them moist but not soaking wet.

Occasionally fertilize your growing plants according to directions on the fertilizer package. The onions will sometimes grow so much that they will fall over. If that happens l cut back the tops a little bit with  a pair of scissors. Our goal is to get the plants about a quarter inch wide at garden planting time.

Since onion transplants can tolerate frost and cold soil temperatures, you can plant them into the ground as early as April. That will give them plenty of time to grow lots of leaves. The larger the onion plant is when it begins to form bulbs, the larger the onion will be. At planting time you just knock the plants out of the pot all together in one clump and pull them apart as you plant.

If you haven’t done so, order your onion seeds now so you can get them started soon.

Bob

Remember to collect Christmas wreath materials in season next year

It’s a lot of fun seeing all of the different kinds of Christmas decoration folks have put together out of natural materials.  Wreaths have evolved way past just a simple circle of evergreen boughs with a red ribbon tied to it, although you still see plenty of those.

As gardeners we have the opportunity to grow or gather together the raw materials for unique Christmas decorations. For example around here at pruning time, we save our grapevine trimmings and roll them up into circles, that’s a common one many people do. But other materials can be used as well. Many flowers, shrubs , stalks even weeds have interesting features that can be quite decorative. Who remembers making Christmas items in elementary school out of milkweed seedpods?

Some materials, such as hydrangea stems,are easier to bend and form when they are fresh.
Some materials, such as hydrangea stems, are easier to bend and form when they are fresh.

You only have to use your imagination a little to come up with something that is really neat and one-of-a-kind. If you’re not the creative type, you can always glean ideas from Pinterest.

Right now, while you’re thinking of it, make a note in your phone’s calendar app to remind yourself next spring and summer to look for raw materials for your 2018 Christmas. Maybe you’ll even come up with something cool enough to post on Pinterst yourself.

Bob

Use old camera as light meter for plants

If you are like me, you find it hard to toss or give away any of your really good stuff, even if it is obsolete. I still have my old SLR film camera, a Pentax K1000 that I bought way back when. It was one of the first things that I splurged on during my early adult life when I really couldn’t afford it. That is probably why I feel so attached to it even though I haven’t taken any photos with it for many years.

There is however another alternate use for that old camera of yours still bumping around in your closet. It can be used as a light meter to determine the amount of light available in the spots where you are planning to keep your plants indoors during the winter.

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This method measures the reflected light from an area as opposed to some light meters that you point at the light source. Set the shutter speed to 1/60 and the ASA to 25. Take a sheet of white paper and place it in the spot you want to measure. Point your camera at the paper and look through the viewfinder. Move so that the white of the paper is the only thing you can see in the viewfinder. Follow the meter inside the view finder and adjust the f/stop until the the meter is in the optimum range for taking a photo. From there you can use the f/stop to get a fairly good approximation of foot candles (fc): f/2 equals 40 fc; f/2.8 =75; f/4=150 fc; f/5.6=300 fc; f/8=600; f/11=1200 fc; f/16=2400 fc. Each f/stop move indicates a doubling of  foot candles from the previous setting. If you own an older camera like this you probably remember what ASA and f/stop means, everyone else will have to look it up.

Foot candles reading below 75 is considered low light. Readings up to 200 fc is moderate light while anything over 300 fc is bright light. That will give you some idea where to place which plants over the winter.

Now, if only I can figure out how to blog using my manual typewriter.

Bob

 

 

 

Native witch hazel shrubs bloom in the fall

By the time mid-November in Michigan rolls around you’d think that we’ve seen the last of blooming plants until spring, that’s what I though anyway. Once again, I forgot all about our witch hazel bush that started blooming a week or so before Thanksgiving.

Witch hazel is a native plant in our area. Back when I was a kid I used to see them along the edge of the woods near our house and wonder; are those spidery-looking yellow things on that bush really flowers?

Like many other plants, witch hazel flowers are pollinated by insects, despite the fact that November is not the biggest month for insects in Michigan. With this warm November we’ve been having, there has to be a lot more insects around to pollinate the flowers. Maybe that will result in a larger than average crop of witch hazel seeds.

They're not gaudy or even very showy but witch hazel flowers are still a nice surprise in the fall.
They’re not gaudy or even very showy but witch hazel flowers are still a nice surprise in the fall.

Although pollination happens this time of the year, the seeds don’t start to grow until spring. They are produced in easy-to-see, green, capsule-like structures that form where the flowers were. Later in the summer as the capsules turn brown and ripen, the seeds are explosively ejected up to 30 feet away. I’ve never had a chance to see this in person but might one of these days since our shrub is right next to the deck.

Witch hazels grow very slowly, the one in our yard is about eight feet tall and has been there for almost 15 years. That can be an advantage in smaller yards since they rarely get too big for a space and  out-grow their welcome.  They can get up to 20 feet tall but I’ve never seen one taller than around 12 feet in our neck of the woods.

Plant nurseries and garden centers sell potted witch hazel. But be aware that they often offer the imported Japanese witch hazel or Chinese witch hazel, both of which bloom in late winter rather than in the fall.

Bob

 

Lupine seed pods in the house

I was a startled the other day as I was putting on my coat getting ready to go outside. It was quiet in the house and I was the only one home. All of a sudden I heard a snap and the clickey-clack sound of what sounded like small beads landing on the table and front entry tile floor. At first I thought maybe the cat had discovered something and was playing. I often blame the cat for things but to be honest, he very rarely is at fault.  I looked up thinking a part the ceiling lamp had disintegrated or one of the lights failed however, everything was intact.

It took a few minutes of investigating but I found out what caused the mysterious sound. Scattered around on the floor and furniture I found a whole slew of seeds that I quickly realized were lupine seeds.  Earlier this fall we collected some lupine seed pods from a roadside near us hoping to re-establish a Lupine perennis population on our property.  When we got home, we put the pods in a bowl on the table in the front entry and just forgot all about them.

Plants have many ways of spreading their seeds. For example, squirrels bury acorns, maple trees have those little helicopters thingys and milkweed uses silky parashoots that are carried by the wind. Other seeds stick to animals or pass through the digestive systems of birds and are dropped far away from the parent plant.

Here's a few lupine seeds that I found scattered around the house.
Here’s a few lupine seeds that I found scattered around the house. They are explosively thrown from the fuzzy pods when they’re ripe.

Lupine seed pods explode when they mature, throwing seeds several feet in all directions. Botanists call this spontaneous phenomenon dehiscence.  You may have seen this with other plants such as impatiens or sorrels. In this case, inside the house, it was very surprising.

I made a mental note to make sure I told my wife about it but, through the course of a busy day, I forgot about it. Later that evening when were binge watching Blue Bloods, all of a sudden we heard a snap! and the clicking sound of seeds bouncing off of the walls. Another seed pod exploded ricocheting seeds all over the place. It was then I remembered what it was I meant to tell her.

The mystery sound was solved and the cat was once again vindicated.

Bob

Problem with geese eating cover crop seeds

One of the best things you can do for your garden is to plant winter rye; the same crop that farmers grow for flour that eventually gets made into rye bread. Last year at this time I wrote a couple of posts about how to sow rye. You can scroll back and find those posts if you’d like to read about it.

This year I planted my rye about ten days later than usual — big mistake. Not only was it late for planting, it turned out to be the middle of the Canada goose migration.

I carefully prepared the soil by removing weeds and debris. Then I mowed the finer textured plant material that was left. Next, I roto-tilled to make a nice seed bed.Broadcasting the rye with a seed/fertilizer spreader works good, which is what I did. Since my original plan was not to rake in the seed, I doubled the recommended seeding rate. With that all of that done I was sure the garden was all set for a long winter’s nap.

A couple of geese had discovered all of that rye seed laying on top of the ground in my garden and decided to help themselves to a free meal. It wasn’t long before other migrating geese looked down and saw what was happening in my garden. It turned out to be a free-for-all once they landed.To a goose, the seed must look like an easy meal.To a goose, the seed must look like an easy meal.

By the time I checked my garden a couple of days later, it was all over. Not a seed could I find, the garden looked like it had been used as a feed lot. Goose tracks covered every square inch. They ate all 100 pounds of my rye seed in one day.

I re-seeded again the next day only this time I raked in the seed and surrounded the garden with wooded stakes with twine strung between then. The twine is about a foot off of the ground and has some plastic ribbon tied to it. That seems to be enough to deter them.

Canada Geese are strong, graceful flyers and are at home on the water. But on land, they’re at a disadvantage. They can waddle to move short distances but can’t run very fast or negotiate obstacles very well. Being on land makes them more vulnerable to predators than when they’re in the water or flying. That twine is just enough to to make them nervous about getting tangled up so they stay out of the garden. A few strands of twine criss-crossed inside the garden reinforces the effect.

We have has a mild late-fall so my rye had enough time to germinate and get established. If not I have learned a valuable lesson about putting off planting my cover crop.

Bob

 

Three interesting tomato varieties

Earlier in this past growing season I took an informal survey of how a number of tomato varieties were responding to leaf spot diseases. You can go back and read the post to find out how things were going for them at that time.

I kept an eye on them through the season and watched their progress. In one garden I applied a couple of sprays of an organic fungicide, that didn’t seem to make much difference; it may have helped if I kept it up. As expected, on all of the plants, sprayed or not,  the leaf spot symptoms got progressively worse as the fruit on the plants began to grow and develop. It takes a lot of plant energy to produce a crop of tomatoes.

A curious thing happened on one variety at the end of the season. The heirloom variety, Granny Cantrell, began to shake off the fungal infection. While the other tomato plants lost pretty much all of their leaves and most of them actually died back, the Granny Cantrell plants shed their infected leaves and grew very healthy looking replacement leaves. That was something I’ve never seen in a tomato plant. Sure, many varieties struggle to send out more leaves but they never seem to amount to much. Not only were they growing leaves but they were also ripening existing fruit and producing new tomatoes to boot! Our growing season is too short for the plants to continue to grow so I’ll never know if the new shoots would have continued to grow without leaf spot symptoms. It may be a useful trait that tomato breeders could use to develop a new variety.

Notice the green foliage on the Granny Cantrell on the right compared to the defoliated tomato plant next to it.

Juliet was another noteworthy tomato. They had good resistance to the diseases throughout the growing season and produced a huge crop of tomatoes, far out pacing any variety I grew this year.

All of the tomatoes I grew were tasty, how could they not be? since they were vine-ripened and eaten right after picking. All the people who tasted the tomatoes; and there were quite a few, agreed that Cherokee Purple was their hands down favorite. Cherokee Purple however,  had little disease resistance and didn’t produce very many tomatoes at all. They also have very thin skin making the very hard to handle without damaging them. They are not a typical red tomato so their coloring made it harder to distinguish when they were ripe. Also their flesh inside has a distinctive purple hue that, along with their taste makes the quite memorable.

Bob

 

 

Large population of painted lady butterflies this year

Just about everyone knows what a monarch butterfly is and its amazing migration to and from Mexico. But not nearly as many people have even heard of a painted lady butterfly; until this year that is. Reports of painted lady butterflies seem to be all over the twittersphere. The most popular one I’ve seen is the weather radar in Colorado picking up a huge swarm of the migrating butterflies.

In a garden that I tend, I’ve been seeing lots of painted ladies during the past week or so. Although there’s many more than normal, they’re not in radar-detecting numbers, that’s for sure. Since it is the middle of October, most of the plants in the garden are done for the season.  There are however, a couple of hundred late-planted zinnias still going strong. That seems to enough to convince the butterflies to stop by the garden to tank-up on zinnia nectar before continuing their journey south. I’ve noticed there is a wide size variation in the ones I’ve been seeing, some are only less than three-quarters the size of the larger ones. Apparently, the larger insects had much better feeding conditions when they were caterpillars than did their smaller companions.

Although not as big as monarchs, painted ladies are one of our larger butterflies

A quick search online shows not much is known about this species compared to the the intensely studied monarch. They’re still figuring out how they find their way south and what triggers them to migrate. Unlike the monarchs that take more than one generation to migrate, the painted ladies make the entire trip as a single adult. They’re often found in their southern range all beat up from the long flight, yet they still search out just the right plants on which to lay their eggs.

All round the country the same thing is happening: a large expansion of the painted lady butterfly population. Some scientists are so impressed by some of the reports that they are comparing this rare event to this summer’s total eclipse. If you don’t want to be left out of what is possibly a once in a lifetime occurrence, find a place that still has a few flowers in bloom and take part in some fun butterfly viewing. You probably won’t see clouds of painted lady butterflies around here but you certainly won’t have to look very hard to find them.

Bob

The amazing salvia flower

You can find some really amazing things in the garden if you know where to look. For example, look closely at a salvia flower and you will see something unique.

Like most flowers, salvia produces nectar to lure pollinators such as wild bees, honeybees and others. And as usual the pollinators end up carrying pollen it picked up from the first flower to the next flower it visits thereby pollinating the second flower and others after that. Usually nectar collection is pretty straight forward, the bee simply visits the flower and sucks out the nectar and moves on to the next flower.

In the case of salvia however, something marvelous happens. The flower has a tiny structure that blocks access to the nectar. Instead if simply inserting its tongue and sucking out the nectar, the pollinator has to physically push itself deeper into the flower past the blockage in order to get to the nectar. That tiny gate that is hindering the bee is connected to the flower’s stamens by way of a pivot point like a see-saw. At the other end of the see-saw are a pair of stamens. At the very end of each stamens is a pollen sac.

When the pollinator pushes against the blocking structure, it causes the stamens to pivot downward. As the stamen moves down and touches the pollinator’s back, pollen is released from the pollen sacs onto the insect. The pollen sticks to that spot on the insect and once it is done gathering nectar, it moves on to other salvia flowers carrying the pollen with it.

To see the stamens move, use a pencil to mimic the pushing action of a bee inside the flower.

All salvias have this astonishing mechanism in their flowers. Different species of salvia have slightly different lengths,sizes and shape of stamens. Some scientists believe that the different lengths of stamen by species minimizes hybridization ie. the pollination of two different species with one another. One type of salvia may deposit its pollen toward the rear of the insect while another may deposit at the front thereby reducing the mixing of pollen.

We’re nearing the end of the growing season but there are still some salvias blooming.

Bob

 

Sneezeweed is blooming

We were sitting out on the porch earlier this week enjoying that summery weather.  One flower caught my eye, it was fresh and bright among the others that were either gone or fading fast. It was one we forgot that we had planted this spring — it was sneezeweed.

Sneezeweed, also referred to as Helenium  by many gardeners, is not as elegant as some other flowers but it provides a nice splash of color this time of year.

This plant is native to our area and in the wild, it is normally found in damp spots. Our flower garden is high and dry with very sandy soil and a southern exposure. Since we water that garden whenever it needs it, the sneezeweed seems to have adapted nicely. Often, when gardeners grow sneezeweed  in rich garden soils it grows tall but the stems will be weak causing the plants to fall over. That means more work for the gardener: staking and tying the plants. Cutting the plants back during June encourages branching and keeps the plants shorter avoiding the need to stake them later in the season. Ours are about three feet tall and were never cut back yet the stems are strong enough to keep the plants upright. That’s probably due to the growing conditions in our garden.

The full flower heads measure about one and a half inches across. Later the ray flowers drop off leaving behind the round disc flowers.

Helenium belongs to the compositae family of plants and like most of the plants in this group, they have composite flowers. What most people (other than botanists) call its flower is actually two different types of flowers combined into a single display. The outer ring of petal-like things are the “ray florets” or flowers. The center ball-shaped structure is a cluster of other tiny flowers called the “disc florets”. Daisies, sunflowers and dandelions all have similar flower structures.  If you watch bees visit these flowers, you can see them collecting nectar from each little floret.

Sneezeweed is a perennial and will continue to come up every spring for several years. Horticulturists and plant breeders have developed many varieties with different colors and growth habit. They are more civilized than their wild cousins but still retain the basic Helenium characteristics.

Bob