Mystery of the missing apples

At a function I attended over this past weekend the conversation turned to gardening. A friend mentioned his apple trees were being raided by an unknown animal. This animal was very stealthy, so stealthy in fact, that it left virtually no trace of ever being there.

The thief left no footprint despite the fact that apples were missing from all parts of the tree. Every branch had missing apples and none of the branches had any damage whatsoever. Apples taken from high up the tree implied the animal was either quite tall or was a good climber.

Since this is early in the growing season, his apples are still small and still in the developmental stage, about the size of a cherry. Maybe the suspect was a bird?

Our little group spent some time discussing all of the other factors surrounding the case: when did it happen? what other plants were near by? where there any apples on the ground? was grass growing under the tree? and so on.

I’ve come across this kind of mystery with apples before and it always takes place this time of year. As the tiny apple fruits grow, a natural phenomenon happens during the course of their development. The an apple tree cannot bring all of its young apples into full-sized mature fruit. There are not enough leaves to generate the amount of photosynthesis required to grow out all of that fruit. And even if there were, the shear weight of all of those apples would break off the branches. So the tree cuts off the flow of nutrients to a large number of young apples causing them to fall off. This phenomenon is sometimes called the “June drop”.

To make excess fruit fall off, apple trees form an abscission layer that stops nutrient flow to the developing fruit.

It was the June drop that was the cause of my friend’s missing apples. The apples fell very quickly over a short period of time which would explain the lack of damage to the tree. Once they were on the ground, mice and other small animals took advantage of the bounty and ate them or carried them way.

Bob

 

 

Milkweeds can become a nuisance

In this day and age pretty much everyone knows about the relationship between monarch butterflies and milkweed plants. It wasn’t always that way.

Before modern chemical weed killers, farmers had limited ways of dealing with weeds. Depending on the weather conditions, a farmer might have to go over a field two or three times with a horse drawn cultivator. Later, cultivators were mounted on tractors but the process stayed the same. An efficient farmer could do a pretty job of controlling most of the annual weeds, perennial weeds were harder especially if they became established in a field. The only thing to do was to send the family out to the fields with hoes to try to keep the weeds at a minimum.

Milkweeds were one of those perennial weeds that farmers were constantly battling. When the first herbicides were developed, farmers no longer had to spend so much time and energy constantly going over their fields. Perennial weeds like milkweed still were a problem however and farmers hated them. I remember when I was young seeing a beautiful field of some sort of crop — I don’t remember what crop it was — that was completely free of weeds except for a colony of milkweeds that you could see from over a hundred yards away.

Nowadays modern herbicides are very efficient at controlling all types of weeds so we never see milkweeds in farm fields anymore. They’re limited to fence rows, ditches and other out of the way places. The number of milkweeds for monarch butterflies to lay their eggs on and for their caterpillars to eat has been drastically reduced. Now, farming organizations that used to join in the battle against milkweeds now pass out seeds and encourage people to re-establish them.

Milkweeds still have the potential to get out of control and become a nuisance. Once they become establish they will spread by way of underground roots. Those roots are very tough and strong and are able to push themselves into surrounding areas and compete with other plants. In one spot in my yard, I started out with a single milkweed plant next to my garage a few years ago. That has now turned into a colony of plants that is over 40 feet long. One of these days I’ll have to do something with them before they really get out of hand.

The nearest milkweed stalk is over three feet away from this shoot pushing up through the concrete expansion joint.
The nearest milkweed stalk is over three feet away from this shoot pushing up through the concrete expansion joint.

Another patch is beginning to encroach into the vegetable garden. They’re pushing their way up through seams in the plastic mulch I have laid out.

I don’t mind my milkweeds being a bit unruly, it’s fun , at least for now, to see those plants thrive in the yard. It reminds me that it won’t be long before the monarchs are back.

Bob

 

 

Finding a sphinx moth pupa

Butterflies and moths overwinter in different forms depending on the species. For example, the famous Monarch overwinters as an adult, swallowtails in the chrysalis stage. Other species of moths or butteries spend the winter as as eggs or as pupae.

Earlier this week I was filling up a plant container with growing mix that I had saved from last fall. The mix was stored in a few open trash cans inside the barn. Using an antique coal shovel, I was able to make good  filling transferring the potting soil to the planters. I noticed in one trash can, lying there in the soil mix, was a brown, leathery looking cigar-shaped thing. Looking closer I could see it was a large insect pupa, that of a sphinx moth.

A sphinx moth is the adult stage of the tomato horn worm, those big, ugly, destructive caterpillars we often see chomping away on our tomato plants during the summer.

Sphinx moths are one of those species that overwinter as pupae. As autumn approaches, the huge hornworm caterpillars leave the plant and burrow into the soil to morph into a pupa. Although hornworms are abundant, finding a pupa is relatively rare. That’s because they burrow so deeply. Most rotary tillers only till to the depth of six or seven inches or so. A gardener with a spade may work the soil as deep as eight inches. The hornworm tunnel down to at least a foot, well under the disturbed topsoil layer.

A sphinx moth pupa is not uncommon but is rarely seen.

 

The caterpillar that formed the pupa that I found came from one of two places, it either traveled from the garden and crawled up the side of the trash can into the mix, which is highly unlikely. Or, I missed it when I was emptying the deep planters last fall, which is probably what happened. One of the planters did have a couple of tomato plants in it, that would explain why the hornworm was there in the first place.

The sphinx moth pupa has a kind of “jug handle” structure that contains the moth’s long tongue.

We have a love-hate relationship with these insects. During their caterpillar stage they can be quite destructive, defoliating entire plants sometimes.  As an adult however, they are fascinating. They don’t have much color but they are quite large and at first glance are often mistaken for a humming bird. They act like a hummingbird too as they hover over flower blossoms gathering nectar.

So, I have a decision to make: should I squash the pupa so it won’t develop into a garden pest later in the season, or let it go to emerge as an interesting visitor to the flower garden. What would you do? Let us know in the comment section below.

Bob

Iris that blooms at the end of daffodil season

Our Pumila iris, also called dwarf iris, has been putting on a colorful show for several days now. Each spring we look forward to them coming into bloom just as the daffodils are fading, weeks before other irises even think about blooming

We have a hot, dry, sandy area right along our walkway that closely mimics their original habitat in eastern Europe. Our soil is fairly acidic with a pH right around 5.4. Dwarf iris prefers the soil to be slightly acidic, 5.5 to 6.5. That may explain why ours wants to grow toward the sidewalk and not in the other direction. The sidewalk is slowly leeching calcium from the concrete slightly raising the pH in the process. It’s fascinating to watch how a plant like this reacts to its surroundings. They’re slowly but surly expanding their cluster.

Pumila iris come in a wide variety of color due to a a lot of cross breeding done by horticulturists, those are not the true wild species types. On the other hand, even wild species populations exhibit a wide variety of color depending on local growing conditions.

Dwarf iris flower stems are very short compared to the irises we normally see.

The Pumlia we have are probably a wild species type — I say that because of their unique history. There’s a population of dwarf iris that has been growing at Matthaei Botanical Gardens perennial garden for at least thirty years.  Several years ago the irises needed to be divided and renewed. Ours were rhizomes from that project that were rescued before going the compost.

If you have a “problem area” with the right growing conditions, you might want to try planting some dwarf iris. They’re available at plant nurseries and garden centers.

Bob

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Almost no-till potatoes

This year I’ve decided to try a minor experiment with my potatoes. I guess you might call it a kind of no-till planting.

There are a couple of reasons I thought it might work well. First, the spot where they’re going was recently an area where some of my older chickens were penned in. I purposely kept them confined to a relatively small area to help clear it from weeds. They did a great job eliminating all of the existing weeds and keeping new ones from getting a foothold. Chickens enjoy grazing on fresh green plants and those wild greens provide plenty of vitamins.

Even though they are small, chickens can disturb a lot of soil in a short period of time. That makes them destructive if they get loose into a flower garden or other valuable spot and start scratching. Believe me, I had plenty of experience shooing chickens out of  flower gardens. It’s that relentless scratching that makes them such good helpers in the garden before planting time.

The area where my no-till potatoes are going there were no visible weeds. Under the surface however, there were thousands of recently germinated seedlings ready to pop up into the sunlight. Instead of using my rototiller, I used my sharpened swan hoe to skim along top half inch or so. I was able to cut off the weed seedlings before they had a chance to get started.

The theory is that while roto-tilling will destroy young weeds, at the same time it also drags up new seeds to the soil surface where they will germinate and grow. Shallow hoeing will kill weeds but not drag up new seeds. That Sounds like a good idea but there are plenty of dormant weed seeds waiting to take the place of their lost cousins. But over time, if done consistently, you can eventually reduce the number of viable seeds.

Back to my potato patch.

The second reason why I feel my quasi-no-till will work is because the soil is a sandy loam that really doesn’t need tilling to provide a good seed bed. If it was a finer textured soil with more clay content, I would probably not plant them without tilling.

Instead of using a trowel or shovel to dig the planing holes, I got out my two-handled post hole digger. That way I was able stand straight up to do the digging and I got a great upper body workout to boot.

The holes are plus or minus a foot apart with the rows around 28 inches apart.  At that planting density, the potato plants should eventually grow together enough to shade the soil surface keeping it cool and shading out weed seedlings.

I made sure the rows were straight and the holes evenly spaced.

I know I’ll have to keep up with my hoeing through the season, “no-till” doesn’t mean “no-work”. I’ve seen many inexperienced gardeners learn that the hard way. Real no-till involves the use of herbicides to control weeds but I’ve never used herbicides in my vegetable garden and plan to keep it that way.

While hoeing will be my main method of weed control, I’ll mulch what I can.

Bob

Two weeks behind at the end of April

The colder than normal April has been a topic of conversation with just about everyone. Mostly I hear people complaining about it but when I talk to people who spend a lot of their leisure time outdoors, the conversation gets much more interesting.

Fishermen I’ve talked to have mentioned how far behind their season is. Mushroom hunters are wondering about their upcoming picking season. Other outdoors people are saying much the same thing. As a gardener, I have to concur, we’re about two weeks behind normal. The agricultural weather people at MSU have measurements and statistics backing up observations made by us outdoors types. The statistic they look at is “growing degree days”.

The growing degree days system is a way of calculating when a crop should be planted and at what stage of growth it should be during the growing season. This is much more accurate than looking at the calendar and expecting “the corn will be knee-high by the fourth of July”. A month like the April we’ve been experiencing demonstrates just how inaccurate simply looking at the calendar date can be.

Compared to last year, the rye cover crop is way behind schedule.
Last year’s rye crop was over a foot tall on the same date.

Plants require a certain amount of heat in order to grow and reach their different developmental stages. For example, corn seed germinates, then the seedling grows and forms leaves. The plant later forms silk and tassels out. After fertilization, ears of corn form and eventually ripen. A certain number of growing degree days will have accumulated at each one of these stages.

Insects, since they are cold-blooded, also require heat to grow and progress through their stages of growth: egg, larva, pupa and adult. Like plants, at each stage a certain number of degree days must have accumulated before that particular stage is reached. That gives farmers and gardeners a tool to help predict when an insect pest might arrive and cause damage.

So now that we are two weeks behind at the very beginning of the growing season according to the calendar, what does that mean for us in a practical sense? One way of looking at it is: insect pests have no choice in the matter. They are already two weeks behind in any development they might have made during a normal year and even further behind if this were a warm April. Gardeners will most likely be planting their gardens at pretty much the same time, say near the end of May. If the trend continues, conceivably it would mean gardeners will have a two week head start ahead of the insect pests.

It will be interesting to see how this cold start to the season plays out.

Bob

Intensive soil improvement

A couple of posts ago I discussed a hands-off style of flower gardening that works sometimes in established gardens. In those cases the soil is usually in pretty good shape after having had plants growing in the same spot for many years. Not everyone is fortunate enough to have such a garden space.

Sometimes the soil in a potential garden spot requires a lot of work before it is fit to grow vigorous plants. Take for example the case of the typical yard of a newly constructed home. It’s not unusual for the builder to remove the existing topsoil and haul it away to be sold. Then, usually, soil excavated for the basement is spread over the new yard area leaving the new homeowner to struggle with the poor soil. The homeowner often ends up buying topsoil (most likely from a different housing project) to add to the yard.

New topsoil may be adequate to grow a lawn but not necessarily good enough to grow flower and vegetable plants. In that case, the laissez-faire method of gardening will have to be put on hold until the garden has built up fertility and the soil structure has improved. That may take years or decades without major help from the gardener.

There’s a way to drastically improve a garden spot so it can be in tip-top shape the first year. It’s a method called “double digging”. Double digging is not for the faint of heart. I did it one time many years ago for a problem area and I can tell you it’s a heck of a lot of work but the results were impressive.

I suggest starting with a small garden bed in case you run out of energy or patience before the project is done.

A sturdy garden fork is an essential tool for double digging and general garden work.
A sturdy garden fork is an essential tool for double digging and general garden work.

Start by digging a trench about a foot wide and the depth of of your shovel along the entire lenght of one side of your new bed. Pile the soil from the trench along side your excavated area. Then insert a garden fork into the soil of the bottom of the trench. Use the tines to break up that layer of dirt and incorporate some compost as deep as you can.

Dig another trench along your original trench, again over the entire length of that same side. Take the soil  that you remove from digging  your second trench and place it into your original excavation, right on top of the loose soil and compost. Once the second trench is done, dig another and another until you eventually reach the far side of the bed. Fill the final trench with the soil that you took out of your very first trench.

The final step is to spread more compost over the entire garden bed and deeply dig it in to the soil with your garden fork. If you plan to add fertilizer, now would be the time.

The soil will be fluffy and full of air-pockets so you’ll need to water the area a few times to help settle the soil before planting.

In some gardens, double digging seem like over-kill but in certain circumstances it’s the ideal way to build a garden bed.

Bob

 

 

 

Spring planted garlic

Garlic is normally planted in the fall. Planting at that time of the year allows the garlic bulb to be exposed to several weeks of cold temperatures which stimulates bulb production. Missing the fall date can be disappointing, it means waiting an entire year before planting a crop.

If you are the type of person who doesn’t mind experimenting a bit, spring planting may be a option. Bulbs grown from spring planted garlic are significantly smaller which is why it is not recommended. Farmers would never be able to make a profit with an undersized crop, but in a garden it is worth having some fun with.

The other thing with spring planted garlic is finding bulbs to plant since most seed companies ship their garlic in the fall. One solution is to plant garlic from the supermarket produce department. You’ll never know what variety you’ll be getting but look at it this way, someone had a good enough crop with them to grow enough to sell.

Even though spring planted bulbs will be smaller, that doesn’t mean they will not be usable. You’ve probably eaten green onions before, you can eat green garlic too. If you’ve never tried fresh green garlic right from the garden, you’re in for a treat. The garlic taste is quite unexpected when your taste buds are expecting an onion flavor.

Don’t let them get too mature though. Green onions or scallions that swell up at the root end as they get older are still quite usable. Green garlic at that stage will start to develop the separations that eventually become cloves. When that happens tough membranes form that eventually become the papery wrappings over each clove that you see in full sized garlic. Those membranes make the young garlic too chewy to enjoy eating. At that point you just let them grow.

Since your spring planted garlic is late, you’ll have to give it every advantage to make growth. The first important thing to remember is garlic hates to be planted on it’s side. It’s critical that you plant the garlic clove with the bottom pointing down, don’t just toss it into a hole otherwise you’ll reduce the size of the mature bulb even more.

These are about the smallest sized garlic cloves that I would plant in the spring.

In your richest area of your garden, dig your planting hole so that top of the clove is covered by about two inches of soil. Plant the cloves between 3 and six inches apart; the closer spacing for green garlic, the more distant for garlic bulbs.

Early and season long weed control is essential, garlic just doesn’t compete well with weeds. Kill those weeds while they’re still little and keep it up all through the season. Make sure the soil is kept evenly moist but not soaking wet. The object is to try to encourage the garlic to grow as much as it can early in the season so that it will have plenty of green leaf area for photosynthesis.

If you’re going to do this thing, do it now — don’t wait until May. Garlic needs as much cool soil as you can provide during the early stages of growth.

With some care and persistence, you’ll end up with a culinary conversation piece that will surprise your garlic loving friends.

Bob

Self planting garden

A friend of mine once told me his method of flower gardening was to see what comes up then just pull out the weeds. That actually is a viable way to approach it especially you have a personality type that doesn’t mind a bit of disorder.

For a while my friend was moving into a new house every five years or so. In nearly every case he inherited a garden from the previous property owner and his laissez-faire gardening theory worked quite well.

If this sounds appealing, you can help your own garden become more self-sufficient by planting appropriate plants.

One obvious option is to plant perennials that come up every every year. They can be left in place for many years until they get old or big enough that they can be divided and moved occasionally . The problem with perennials is they often don’t provide enough interest through the entire garden season.

Planting annual flowers will add welcome color to an otherwise drab perennial garden. Some annuals will successfully reseed themselves year after year. Because many annuals sold are hybrids, their first year will most likely be their most colorful year. Hybrid plants often don’t come back true to type the second year and beyond. Instead they tend to revert back to their ancestral traits. The color may not be as vibrant, the height or shape may be a little more “wild” but hey, we’re not looking to establish a formal garden.

Cutting off faded flowers, also known as dead-heading, through the summer, is a common management technique to keep annuals producing new, fresh flowers through the season. However, ff you want your annuals to come up next year, keep in mind that the reason plants flower in the first place is to make seeds for reproduction. So near the end of the season stop dead-heading and leave some flowers to complete their life cycle in order to produce seeds.

Wild flowers like verbasum make a wonderful addition to a low maintenance garden.
Wild flowers like verbasum make a wonderful addition to a low maintenance garden.

Here’s a list of annuals that I’ve had come up on their own in my garden through the years: sunflowers, calendula, snapdragons, cosmos, celosia, lamb’s ear, monarda, nicotiana, California poppy, decorative herbs like fennel, portulaca, salvia, nasturtiums, hollyhocks which are biennials, verbascum, cleome, lychnis coronaria a perennial that produces lots of seed, alyssum, sweet pea, baby’s breath, chamomile, morning glory, even petunias.  There are probably more but that’s all I can think of right now off the top of my head.

After a mild winter you may see even more annuals come up during the following spring. One spring after a particularly mild winter, I had a bumper crop of castor plants that had come up on their own.

If you are new to gardening, it may take you a season or two to learn how to tell the difference between a weed and a flower you want to keep. That’s all part of the fun.

Bob

 

 

Divide perennials in early spring

The best time of year to divide perennial flowers is early spring just as their new shoots begin to peek up through the soil. That time is right now.

Gardeners have different reasons why they might want to divide their perennials. Maybe the plant is getting too old or too big for the space they’ve been growing in. Another gardener may want to  build up the number of plants they have to expand their planting. Still another may want to give away hard-to-find plants to friends.

From a practical point of view, dividing perennials is most often done because the plants age and their flower displays start to wane. As a perennial plant grows, it adds new growth to the outer portion of the clump of plants. This works fine for the gardener up to a point. Eventually the clump expands so much with new growth that the center of the clump will turn woody and non-productive.  That’s when dividing needs to be done to revive the plant.

It’s the new growth area of a plant clump that you want to save. You do this by removing the new growth from the old, replanting it and discarding the old portion.

Start by using a garden fork to loosen the soil all the way around the plant before you do any actual digging. Then use a garden spade to cut the clump into pieces small enough to handle, usually in thirds or quarters. If you cut too small of a piece, the new plant may not be able to compete very easy with the other existing plants and you’ll spend extra time nursing it through the season.

Some fine-rooted perennials like dianthus can be separated just using your hands. For tougher plants you’ll need help from a spade or garden fork. One trick I use is to take two garden forks placed back to back into the root area. Then push against the handles to lever the clump apart.

Two garden forks placed back to back can be used to wedge apart stubborn roots.
Two garden forks placed back to back can be used to wedge apart stubborn roots.

Lift up the cut part of the plant you want to move and clean off all dead leaves and any broken or damaged plant parts. By the way, this would be an excellent time to add compost, fertilizer or any other soil amendments to the area before you set the plants.

For fastest plant recovery, plant the clump right away in your newly prepared spot. Set the plant at the same level it was originally growing and water it in well, don’t skimp on this first watering. Take any left over clumps and pot them up to give away to friends and family. You don’t have to be too picky about potting them if the recipient is going to plant them soon.

Spring dividing is mostly for summer-flowering perennials like asters or sedum.  Those that bloom in the spring, like peonies or columbine are best divided in the fall.

Bob