Super-sized Christmas poinsettias are started now

March 29th, 2015

Holidays for horticulturists usually have two dates.  First, there is the actual date that the holiday occurs. The second date is the time when plants associated with that holiday need to be started.

Greenhouse people are beginning to make preparations for Christmas now, in very early spring .

I’m sure you’ve seen giant-sized poinsettias in full bloom during the Christmas season. Did you ever wonder how they managed to get them so big? The secrete is to keep the same poinsettia plants growing year after year.  Each year the plants get bigger and produce more colorful bracts.

If you have a poinsettia that is still alive from Christmas, you can renew it and have a larger more colorful plant for next Christmas.

 

A bench of pruned poinsettias at Matthaei Botanical Gardens, Ann Arbor.

A bench of pruned poinsettias in Greenhouse 3 at Matthaei Botanical Gardens, Ann Arbor.

Start by pinching off all of the leaves and bracts from the plant. Many of them may have already dropped off anyway by now. Next cut the main stem or stems to about six to eight inches above the soil surface. Remove the plant from its pot.

This pruned poinsettia is just beginning to make new growth.

This pruned poinsettia is just beginning to make new growth.

It’s best to carefully rinse the old soil off of the roots and re-pot the plant using new potting mix. Removing the old soil is not absolutely necessary though, I’ve had very good results by simply leaving the existing soil then re-potting into a larger pot. What is necessary however, is using a loose commercial potting mix, not soil from the garden. Poinsettias need loose soil, no ifs ands or buts.

Then water thoroughly — soak the pot with water and let it completely drain out. Never let poinsettias sit in the water that collects in the pot saucer, they just can’t tolerate wet feet.

Put it in the brightest area you have to encourage it to grow. Once you see shoots developing, feed it with a good house plant fertilizer about once a month.

Later, after the danger of frost has passed, place the plant outside in a bright spot that has dappled shade during the hottest part of the day.

As the plant grows through the summer, you can pinch back shoots to help keep a symmetrical shape. Pinching will also stimulate more branching giving the plant a more compact and bushy look.

With some care and luck you’ll have a stunning plant to show off next Christmas.

Bob

 

Snow cover helps plants through harsh winter

March 25th, 2015

Our second bitterly cold winter in a row is finally over. Even though this winter was not as cold as last year’s, it still made the record books as one of the top twenty coldest. It’s kind of surprising to me how quickly it ended. Just a few days of moderate temperature erased the snow.

The plants in our area look to be in pretty good shape despite those cold temperatures. We can thank the continuous blanket of snow that was covering the ground all winter.

Snow is nature’s insulator. I’ve heard people say they were worried because snow would freeze their plants. I’ve had to point out to them that snow is a gardener’s best friend , especially if you have perennial flowers and small fruit such as strawberries.

Farmers who grow winter wheat — which is planted in the fall — pray each year for snow cover so their wheat crop is not damaged by exposure to cold temperatures and desiccating winter winds.

Despite the fact that I neglected to mulch my strawberries as I usually do, they look to be in great shape.

The garlic I planted last fall looks good too. There was no covering on those either except what nature provided in the way of snow. I got lucky this time skipping the mulch, I don’t plan on ever taking a chance like that again.

The mud season around here was pretty short too, it lasted only a few days. The mud I’m talking about is that mud that forms when the surface layer of the soil thaws but the lower layers are still frozen. That surface water has no where to go so just turns into mud especially if poultry or livestock are walking over it.

Since the soil was not frozen very deep around here — again thanks to the continuous snow cover — it was able to thaw out very quickly.

One other surprise I found was a couple of rows of spinach that were still green and beginning to make good growth. Without that snow, they would have been frozen out way back in November.

The snow cover provided plenty of protection for a small row of spinach.

The snow cover provided plenty of protection for a small row of spinach.

It looks like we’ll be eating an early salad from the outdoor garden this year.

Up-cycle an old light fixture into a grow light

March 25th, 2015

There was a small project that I had to get done this week. I needed to add another bank of lights in my seed starting area.

You would think that after so many years as a professional gardener my seed starting room would look like some kind of laboratory complete with stainless steel racks, electronic equipment and all other sorts of really cool stuff. A few years ago when I was starting many thousands of plants, that was pretty much the case. Now days, I’m gardening at a much smaller scale.

My seed starting area is probably much simpler than what the average serious garden has. My general rule for these types of things is to not buy anything fancy or brand new if I can make it myself without sacrificing functionality.

I have a a pair of three foot, single bulb fluorescent light fixtures that I bought for a couple of bucks at a garage sale last fall. My plan was to attach them together to make a single assembly that I can easily adjust up and down depending on the growth of the seedlings.

Used florescent light fixtures from a garage sale.

Used florescent light fixtures from a garage sale.

There were no florescent tubes when I got them. That actually was a good thing since, over time, the amount of light  florescent bulbs produce dramatically diminishes over time. I didn’t have to dispose of any used bulbs which saved me some hassle. The bad thing was that I only had the seller’s word for it that the fixtures worked.

The first thing I did was open up the case to inspect the innards to be sure there were no wires shorting that could be an electrical hazard — they both looked sound.

The inside of the fixture looked clean and no signs of electrical shorts.

The inside of the fixture looked clean and no signs of electrical shorts.

Next I tested them with my new bulbs and sure enough, they lit up nice and bright.

The bulbs lit up without hesitation or flickering.

The bulbs lit up without hesitation or flickering.

Fixtures like these usually have pre-drilled holes that are used for mounting onto various surfaces, these were no different. I had some metal drawer brackets in my inventory of useful stuff that I saved from an old dresser. They were the perfect size for joining the two fixtures together.

I used self-tapping sheet metal screws to attach the brackets to the light fixtures.  I bent pieces of heavy-duty fencing wire to make hangers for each end of the fixture assembly.

Self tapping screws work great for this application.

Self tapping screws work great for this application.

 

Heaves wire bent into shape makes a fine fixture hanger.

Heaves wire bent into shape makes a fine fixture hanger.

The assembly is hanging by leftover ceiling light chain from a section of shelving that someone gave to me.

I used part of a used plastic shelf unit to hand the lights from and hold trays of seedlings.

I used part of a used plastic shelf unit to hang the lights from and hold trays of seedlings.

Even if you don’t have parts like I had laying around, recycling center that sell building materials often have fixtures, shelves and other parts for sale at very reasonable prices. I noticed while visiting Recycle Ann Arbor today that they had five nearly new florescent fixtures in stock.

A couple of these fixtures were still brand new and in their original boxes.

A couple of these fixtures were still brand new and in their original boxes.

For a very modest investment in cash and time I ended up with an additional seedling grow light.

 

 

 

Going through garden seeds

February 6th, 2015

We’ve managed to save up a pretty large collection of seeds over the past several years.

There are two large, covered containers in our garage that contain over twenty pounds of assorted vegetable and flower seeds. Most of them are long expired. The oldest are between five and ten years old. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re no longer usable. Even some of the oldest may still be viable, that all depends on what species they are. I just need to take the time to organize them.

Now's a good time to sort through our garden seeds.

Now’s a good time to sort through our garden seeds.

I plan to go through and separate the out-dated, non-poisonous ones like sweet corn, peas and melons and feed them to the chickens. The rest I’ll toss into the compost pile. I did that once about five years ago, now it’s time to do it again.

Also we have a number of current seeds, those that we’ve either purchased or saved from our own plants. They date back only a year or two or three. We keep them in glass jars in the fridge. They stay in the planting rotation from year to year. We’ll plant most of those this year.

We don’t have a detailed list of what is in those jars, that’s what Judy is doing this week. Once she gets the list done and compares it to our garden plans, we’ll place our seeds orders.

Bob

Garden seed catalogs

February 3rd, 2015

A lot of gardeners I know get pretty antsy this time of year. Seed catalogs are arriving in our mailboxes almost every other  day and making us even more fidgety. I suppose that’s the whole point of the catalogs, to make us excited about the up coming gardening season so we buy something we may not otherwise want or need. The familiar seed company logos are like the faces of friends we haven’t seen for a while.

I don’t consider any seed catalog junk mail, even the new ones I’ve never seen before and will probably never order from. Sometimes I find a jewel hiding in those too.

I’ve been gardening for many years and have seen seed companies come and go. Some stick around for eight or ten years while others try to break into the crowded field and fade away after a few years. The most familiar names have been around for generations.

Some homey-looking seed catalogs look like they’re from a small, friendly business when in fact they come from multi-national conglomerates. That’s marketing I suppose.

Most seed companies, even the small homespun outfits, don’t actually grow their own seeds, they purchase them through brokers and from other suppliers.That makes sense when you think about it.  Keeping genetic lines going and varieties true-to-type is a very time and labor intensive business, takes highly skilled managers and lots of land. The best most can manage, if they try at all, is to grow just a few varieties.

To me,  there is something about holding a printed catalog in my hand that I don’t get holding a tablet computer. Plus, with printed catalog you can mark pages and write notes all over it. I use bright colored marker and make big sweeping circles around the varieties I’m interested in. Then I write the page number on the cover. To me it is a lot easier, or maybe more intuitive, than book marking web pages on a computer.

On the other hand, when it comes time for ordering and paying, I’ll buy online — it’s so much easier that way.

Do you have a favorite garden catalog?

Bob

Lemon tree recovering from frosty fall temperature

January 8th, 2015

Sometimes gardeners are given plants that others can’t use or take care of but they just can’t bare to throw out. That happened to me this past summer when someone gave me a four foot tall lemon tree. It was in mediocre condition, a little weak and run down and needed some extra attention.

I re-potted it and applied slow release fertilizer pellets. Once or twice a week it also got a dose of manure tea solution.  It took me the rest of the summer to nurse it back to reasonable health.  And it actually looked pretty good going into the fall.

I always like to keep my citrus trees out as long as possible in the fall. It seems like a bit of a chill tends to make them a little more hardy. I don’t worry about the trees if it gets down below freezing. They seem to do well even when it briefly dips into the upper twenties at night.

One evening this fall I got caught stretching the season out too much. The overnight temperatures were predicted to be around 28°F so I moved the trees to a sheltered area near the garage, tossed a light frost cloth over the top of them and let them stay out that night.

The actual temperatures were almost ten degrees colder than predicted. The oranges looked a little droopy from the cold but I was pretty sure they would pull through. I’ve seen them handle some pretty cold temperatures after a power outage. The new lemon tree however, lost nearly all of its leaves. A large percentage had already fallen off of the tree and were laying on the frosted ground — it did not look good at all.

That day I moved them all into a semi-heated area in my garage for storage. The temperature stays in the upper 40’s and the trees get a few hours of winter sunlight from south facing windows.

 

These buds started out as just tiny green bumps. Here they are about a quart of an inch long.

The new buds grow from the node where the old leaves used to be.

A couple of days after Christmas I noticed some tiny green pointed buds here and there on the lemon tree — it was still alive and wanting to grow leaves! A few days later, buds were emerging from branches all over the tree.

This week, the buds are still growing and developing into new leaves and twigs.

Right now the largest new lemon twigs are about one and a half inches long.

Right now the largest new lemon twigs are about one and a half inches long.

I’m fairly optimistic that the lemon tree will completely recover but it’s not out of the woods yet, we still have plenty of winter left before spring arrives.

Bob

 

 

Taking care of your holiday rosemary plant

December 28th, 2014

Although nowhere near as popular as poinsettias, rosemary plants are becoming a favorite holiday plant.

Rosemary trimmed to a conical shape bears a striking resemblance to a miniature Christmas tree. Though it may look like it, rosemary is not related to pine, spruce or any other evergreen trees. It belongs to the mint family of plants which includes basil, thyme, mint and sage.

Just brushing against the leaves of  a potted rosemary releases its signature fragrance that can fill a room.

In most cases, fresh sprigs can be cut from a potted rosemary and be used in recipes calling for this herb. I say in most cases because sometimes plant growers apply systemic pesticides to their rosemary crop. In that case the rosemary is intended for ornamental use only and not for consumption. Always read the plant tag before assuming your plant is OK to use in the kitchen.

 

Plant tags often contain more information than just the name of the plant.

Plant tags often contain more information than just the name of the plant.

Don’t be tempted to water your plant and let water stand in the saucer or wrapper thinking that will supply even moisture. Standing water will drown and kill rosemary roots and eventually the entire plant.

On the other hand, don’t let the plant dry out. The stiff foliage doesn’t appear to wilt much when the plant gets dry, but damage can happen pretty quickly from lack of water.

Place your rosemary into a container of water and allow the entire root ball absorb water.

Place your rosemary into a container of water and allow the entire root ball absorb water.

Try this little trick: try to gauge how much your rosemary weighs before you water it. After the plant has drained in the sink, note how much heavier it feels when you pick it up. After a few times you’ll be able to have a good guess at how dry the plant is. If you’re not comfortable doing that, use a moisture meter — they’re relatively inexpensive and make a great Christmas gift!

Finally, be sure your plant gets as much direct sun as possible — a south window is almost mandatory. We’ve been setting ours outside during these mild days to help the plant get more sunshine.

Bob

Protect fruit trees from mice damage

December 28th, 2014

Now that the fruit trees are all dormant, disease and insect pests have also gone dormant and won’t be bothering the trees until spring. That doesn’t mean the orchard is completely safe from pests.

There’s another kind of pest active out in the orchard during winter; meadow mice, or more accurately, meadow voles.

Voles look very much like mice and are about the same size. They act much like mice too, especially in the way they gnaw on things.

During the winter when the ground is snow covered, voles build tunnels under the snow. The tunnels are built to help hide them from predators and to help keep them warm while they search for food. They travel through those tunnels over and over through the winter.

So far, our mild beginning to winter means that voles haven’t had to worry much about finding food, but that could change as winter drags on.

Meadow voles eat a wide variety of grasses, seeds and other kinds of plant material. Unfortunately, they sometimes develop a taste for the tender bark of young fruit trees, especially if the vole population is large and their other food sources become scarce.

I’ve lost a few fruit trees from voles through the years. One way to keep voles from damaging vulnerable trees is to install a physical barrier around the trees.

Installing a cylinder of wire mesh — hardware cloth — around each fruit tree, keeps voles from gnawing on the tender bark. It’s like having a miniature fence around each tree.

I use 18 inch wide hardware cloth and form it into thin cylinders about six to eight inches in diameter around each tree trunk. This gives the trees plenty of protection in case there is a lot of snow cover. The mesh size has to be one-half inch, less is even better, otherwise voles will crawl right through to get to the bark.

Hardware cloth

Full service hardware stores will cut hardware cloth to any length you need. Other stores sell it in pre-packaged lengths.

There’s a plastic tree-wrap rodent barrier on the market. It’s easier to install at first but needs to be removed each spring and re-installed each fall. Even though it’s designed to expand, if left on, the plastic material will keep the bark from developing properly.

A hardware cloth cylinder can be left in place for a few years until the tree matures and has developed coarse bark that is less appetizing to vole.

Bob

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.

Bob

 

 

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.

Bob