Mother’s day plant sale at Matthaei Botanical Gardens this weekend

The Matthaei Botanical Gardens – Nichols Arboretum annual Mother’s Day Plant Sale is coming up this weekend, May 13 and 14.

About three weeks ago I visited the Gardens and got a sneak peek at the plants growing in the greenhouse. I can tell you that these are no ordinary, anonymous plants grown by an impersonal factory growing operation. They are lovingly grown and tended by Adrienne O’Brien and her helpers right in the greenhouse at the Botanical Gardens. When I was there, the plants were still young but were growing strong and looked absolutely wonderful.

Horticulturist Adrienne _________ leads team of plant grower at Matthaei Botanical Gardens - Nichols Arboretum
Horticulturist Adrienne O’ Brien leads her team of plant growers at Matthaei Botanical Gardens – Nichols Arboretum.

 

A month ago Adrienne was worried that the plants were ahead of schedule.
A month ago Adrienne was worried that the plants were ahead of schedule.

Now the plants are ready to go home to Mother’s house.

The plants will be sold in the same greenhouse that they were grown in.
The plants will be sold in the same greenhouse that they were grown in.
Wide variety of beautiful hanging baskets
Wide variety of beautiful hanging baskets
Container plants make a great gift for Mom on Mother's Day.
Container plants make a great gift for Mom on Mother’s Day.
Whimsical planters like these are lots of fun.
Whimsical planters like these are lots of fun.

 

The sale runs from 10:00 am to 4:30 pm both days (9:00 am if you are a member). Matthaei Botanical Gardens is located at 1800 N. Dixboro Road, south of Plymouth Road, Ann Arbor.

Bob

Planting strawberries

Our strawberry plants were delivered last week, I got them into the ground as soon as I could. After a long ride through the postal system, they were glad to be tucked into our new strawberry bed.

Beginning gardeners may not know that nearly all strawberries are grown from not from seed but from transplants. Strawberry plants reproduce naturally by sending out runners that form plantlets called “daughter plants” that quickly take root. Those new daughter plants themselves will send out more shoots and produce even more daughter plants. Eventually you end up with a dense mat of strawberry plants.

Strawberries should be planted in a well-prepared bed, ideally one that was cleared and tilled at least a year in advance. That will eliminate perennial weeds that will choke out your strawberries before they have a chance to get established. It also will greatly reduce the number of root damaging insects like grubs and wire worms. My new bed is in an area that has been part of the vegetable garden for several years now. I’ve also let the chickens run in this area during the off season. They’ve really kept that spot clean.

In a perfect world, we would plant the strawberries about 18 – 24 inches apart with the rows about two to three feet apart. My row spacing was a bit closer than that because I had more plants than I had room.

You can think of the plants as having three basic parts: the leaves; the crown, which is the center, bulky part; and the roots. The leaves grow from the top of the crow while the roots grow from the bottom. It’s very important to plant at the proper depth. The soil should just cover the roots without burying the crown. That is how a new daughter plant grows naturally. On the other hand, no roots should be sticking up above the soil line exposed to the air. It’s a matter of about a half an inch between too deep and not deep enough. Make sure there is plenty of room in the planting hole so that the roots are straight down and not curled up at the bottom.

At this stage strawberry plants are mostly roots, but the crown and a few leaves can be seen too.

Once your newly planted strawberries establish themselves, they will begin to produce runners and daughter plants. You can shuffle the daughter plants around to a more organized configuration to help maintain rows. That will make it easier to weed and pick later on. Or just let them take root wherever they want.

Pluck the flowers off as they appear, that will keep the plants from wasting its energy producing fruit instead of stronger daughter plants. All those new daughter plants will produce your strawberry crop next year. So the stronger they are, the better your harvest will be.

Keep your bed free from weeds and well watered throughout the growing season. Later, at the end of the season they will need to be mulched. We’ll discuss mulching when the time comes.

Bob

Planting homegrown grape cuttings

This is another episode in the grape vine cutting story that began last spring. At that time I took some pieces of grapevine that I cut off the vines during pruning and used them to start new grapevines. You can browse through my older blog posts to find out about those grapes.

I stuck the cuttings into a soil mix and grew them through the summer. Nearly all of the cuttings developed a good set of roots and had nice tops. Then last fall I buried them in a trench in the garden to help protect them from any potential harsh winter weather. As it turned out, this winter was so mild they probably would have done just fine in their pots with some mulch banked up against them.

The best cuttings had strong leaf buds and plenty of roots.

Earlier this spring I dug them out of their trench, set them in a shady spot and made sure they were watered well. I ended up with 15 good plants which was about half of the cuttings I started with.

Last week I planted them into their permanent spots near the edge of the garden. They’re off to a good start in their new location.

Retail prices for grape plants like these can run nine or ten bucks each — before shipping.  Taking grape cuttings can save you lots of money if you’re interested in starting a vineyard. The biggest drawback is that you have to wait a year for the cuttings to turn into plants.

Come to think of it, this grapevine story started way before last year.  Those vines I pruned and took the cuttings from last spring were themselves started from cuttings 15 years ago.

Bob

Looking at basic soil test results

You’ve read it here in this blog, you’ve heard it from your neighbor, even your Aunt Bootsie told you to get a soil test for your garden.  I’ve always recommended using the soil testing lab at Michigan State University, it’s the “gold standard” of soil labs in Michigan. For most gardens a basic test will provide you with all the information you’ll need.

In past blogs I’ve described how to properly take a soil sample for testing and what to do with it once you’ve collected it, so we won’t discuss that today. Instead we’ll look at actual soil test results.

Once you’ve rounded up a bag of dirt, sent it to the lab along with your payment, the MSU soil lab will test your sample, processes the results and send you the test results either by email or by mail. That usually happens within ten days.

Let’s take a peek at an actual soil test readout I received last fall.

Results from a soil test
Results from a soil test

The first test result is the soil pH. pH describes how acid or how alkaline your soil is with “7” being neural. In this case the sample result is 7.6 which is somewhat alkaline. So right away we know we won’t have to add any lime to raise the soil pH since most garden plants grow best in a slightly acidic soil.

Next is the result for phosphorus, the “P” in NPK. The result came back at 58 ppm (parts per million) which, according to the graph is well in the optimum range.

Following P we see that is the potassium (K) is 67 ppm which we see is below optimum. Magnesium (Mg) at 202 ppm is above the optimum range.

Calcium(Ca), shown in the additional results section is 2443 ppm which helps to explain the relatively high soil pH reading since calcium will raise soil pH.

The next result is CEC (cation exchange capacity) this tells us how well the soil is able to retain soil nutrients. A reading of 14.1 tells us we can add fertilizer to this garden without having it leach out of the soil. Usually, soil types with a higher percentage of clay in their make-up have a higher CEC and therefore are inherently more fertile because of all the retained nutrients. Very sandy soils have low CEC values. It is very difficult to change the CEC of a soil. On the other hand, we can easily raise the NPK values by simply adding fertilizer.

Those cations (positive-charged ions) that are being described in the CEC reading are mostly K, Mg and Ca. There is a section in the readout providing the percentage of each of those. Phosphorus is not listed there because it exists in the soil as negatively charged anion (PO4 3-).

Nitrogen (N) is not tested for at MSU because soil nitrogen levels change with the temperature and other variables so you would never get an accurate reading.

We don’t have room here to discuss the soil science behind the results. Fortunately, the soil lab boils it all down to some simple recommendations at the bottom of the readout.

The nutrient needs are listed as actual pounds of each element per 1000 square feet. Since fertilizer is not sold as pure nitrogen, phosphorus or potassium, the precise amount of any type of fertilizer must be mathematically calculated. Back in the olden days when I was an MSU Extension Agent and the results were printed with a dot-matrix printer, I made those calculations by hand on hundreds of test results. Nowadays MSU has an online calculator that you can use to figure out how many pounds of fertilizer you would need to apply.

With the planting season rapidly approaching,I suggest you get your soil sample to the lab ASAP. Much like your income tax return; the sooner you send it in the sooner you’ll see your results.

Bob

 

 

 

Gardening in a post-apocalyptic world

“Because survival is insufficient”

Last week I had the pleasure to participate in a panel discussion sponsored by the Agora, the student newspaper at Monroe County Community College. It was part of their “One Book One Community” series in which a book is chosen and as many people as possible read the book, then events such as panel discussions are held.

This time the book was Station Eleven  a post- apocalyptic novel written by Emily St. John Mandel.  The story is set in the not-to-distant future Great Lakes area, so it has a special attraction for those of who live in this area. An extremely virulent influenza virus has abruptly wiped out over 99% of the world’s human population causing complete collapse of civilization. A performance group called the Travelling Symphony wanders about the shores of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron performing Shakespeare for villagers.

You'll recognize some of the vaguely familiar locations in Station Eleven
You’ll recognize some of the vaguely familiar locations in Station Eleven

Our panel discussion addressed hypothetical questions of how would we survive a catastrophic event and the chaos that would follow. On our panel was Micha a sportsman who is an expert hunter and fisherman; Chase, a young, decorated war veteran who gave his thoughts on self-defense; our director of emergency management Mark Hammond representing the government’s point of view; my wife Judy — who is a retired horticulturist from Matthaei Botanical Garden– and myself shared our opinions on growing and preserving food.

A number of possible scenarios were brought up ranging from a natural or man-made electro-magnetic pulse that takes down the electrical grid to a global pandemic much like the one in Mandel’s novel and everything in between. Most agreed that the most probable disaster would be an electrical grid failure that we could recover from in a relatively short period of time. This was not long after the wind storm in March that knocked out electricity to over a million people in Michigan so it was still fresh in everyone’s mind.

What are three things that you should do right now to prepare for a disaster? There are many possibilities but our Mr. Hammond suggested we look at the FEMA website to get started and always have a “bug-out bag” ready.

Learning the rudiments of hunting and fishing would serve you well in the Great Lakes area if you were lucky enough to survive the beginnings of an extreme disaster. Purchasing proper outdoor equipment, including firearms, ahead of time and learning how to use it is critical if you decide to prepare for that kind of eventuality.

In my opinion, subsistence gardening/farming would be the most productive endeavor in a post-apocalyptic world, especially you decide to settle in down in one spot and not travel. My suggestion to the audience was to take up gardening as a new hobby to learn how to grow your own food. Judy reminded the participants that most garden seed is only viable for one to five years, depending on the type of vegetable and open-pollinated, heirloom varieties would be the only workable option for growing food long into the future.

We all agreed that it would be best to have a group of like-minded family and friends who could band together to share their skills to help mitigate the worst aspects of a disaster. Even some form of entertainment would be welcome. Many years ago a group of my friends discussed that very topic: who would be critical to the survival of the group? After all the practical skills were covered, like woodworking, blacksmithing and such, it was decided to include Greg because he was a talented guitar player and wonderful singer.

Even if civilization is not wiped out during our lifetime, gardening is a healthy, enjoyable, productive hobby.

Bob

 

 

 

 

 

 

A drawback to growing heirloom tomatoes

Heirloom tomatoes have been all the rage for years now and they are still gaining in popularity — for good reason. Not only do they offer a wide variety of taste and texture, they also come in a rainbow of colors.

On the other hand, there are several drawbacks to growing heirloom tomatoes, I’m not going to go into all of them here right now. Their biggest shortcoming in my experience, is the comparatively small yields compared to modern tomato varieties.

Most of the heirlooms are more finicky and demand more time, attention and sometimes more space than the newer varieties. With all of the additional work that you have to put in to growing them, you would hope that would translate to more tomatoes, but it doesn’t. Many gardeners would argue that the extra taste makes up for the lack of tomatoes. It’s a legitimate argument but I’m not sure if I entirely agree with it. Just about any tomato, even the commercial ones, can taste wonderful if left to ripen on the vine and is harvested at its peak.

If you are growing tomatoes to stash away to use later in the winter, you would be much better off choosing a modern variety that will give you a much higher yield and a more consistent, dependable tomato crop. With all of the things that can happen during a growing season to reduce a tomato harvest, I like to give my crop any advantage I can.

It not unusual for me to put up 50 or more quarts during a typical fall harvest, that takes a fair number of tomatoes. Later, during the winter. those whole, canned tomatoes get cooked down even more and with a few garden herbs, get transformed into spaghetti sauce, pizza sauce, ketchup  and other yummy things — tomato soup is one of my favorites.

Modern tomato varieties produce more tomatoes than heirloom types.
Modern tomato varieties produce more tomatoes than heirloom types.

I still grow a few different heirloom varieties for eating fresh during the summer. There are always plenty to give away to family and friends too. Then, if there are any left at the end of the season, I’ll toss them into the canning kettle with the rest.

I’ve learned through the years that if I want enough tomatoes for canning, I need to grow modern, dependable varieties for my main tomato crop.

Bob

 

 

 

 

Which way to run rows in the garden

Even though the soil out in the garden is still very cold, we can still plant our garden — on paper that is.

There are several advantages to planning your garden on paper or on an app, before setting it out in the ground. The most obvious is you can get a good idea of how much planting material you need such as transplants, seeds or bulbs. And it is handy for calculating how many pounds of soil amendments you may need to add to the soil.

I was once one of those gardeners who never planned ahead very much. When it came to planting, I just picked out my favorite seeds and planted until it either looked like enough or I ran out of material to plant.  I also didn’t pay much attention to which way the garden was facing. Most of the time I had plenty of square footage to use and I could afford some inefficiency. That, however, is not the way to get the most out of a space.

Not long ago, I had a discussion with a friend of mine about which direction garden rows should run.

Sometimes there’s no choice because of the shape of the garden. A long, narrow garden spot may mean the rows have to follow the long axis of the plot. In the past, I’ve had gardens that had an irregular shape so the rows ran in more than one direction because that was the most efficient use of that particular space.

What if you have a square or nearly square garden with one of the sides facing south, should the rows run north and south or east and west?

Imagine the position of the sun in the sky during the growing season. It appears to us to travel across the sky from east to west. As it moves through the sky, the angle of the rays of sunlight changes in relation to the stationary garden plants.

In an east to west configuration,  much more sunlight will strike the south side of the plants than on any other side. In other words, the south side will receive more solar energy while the north side is shaded most of the day.

Rows planted north to south will receive sunlight more evenly. In the morning, the east side of the row receives sunlight. The plant is bathed in sunlight all day as the sun moves until late afternoon when the west side gets sunlight. So the plant receives sunlight on three sides instead of just one.

The cross-hatched areas represent rows of garden plants. The arrow heads represent rays of sunlight. Note how just the south side of the plants in the east to west rows receive sunlight. Sunlight penetrates deep into the rows that run north and south.
The cross-hatched areas represent rows of garden plants. The arrow heads represent rays of sunlight. Note how just the south side of the plants in the east to west rows receive sunlight. Sunlight penetrates deep into the rows that run north and south and contacts more of the surface area.

Not all gardens are situated facing a cardinal direction in an open area. Take for example a southeastern facing garden that is shaded from the afternoon sun. It should have its rows running northeast and southwest to receive the fullest amount of sunlight. Since the garden would get no direct sunlight in the afternoon, it would be a good idea to try to capture as much of that solar energy as possible.

We have a couple of months before our main outdoors planting happens. So now is a great time to sketch out a diagram of of your garden that, in addition to the size and shape, includes direction, and potential sunlight.

Bob

Bees forage on chicken feed during winter warm up

We’re back to near normal temperatures after that stretch of unseasonably warm days in late February.

Maybe you noticed last week all the honey bees that were out flying. They took advantage of the nice days to make their cleansing flights to defecate outside the hive. Bees avoid passing their digestive waste inside the hive whenever possible.

They also worked to remove the bodies of bees that had died during the winter as part of their natural housekeeping behavior.

One thing that surprised me was the number of bees out foraging for pollen. Of course in the middle of February there were very few, if any, flowers to visit. I noticed a few flowers blooming in micro-climates that are located in well-protected south facing areas. That wasn’t enough to really collect much pollen.

I keep a several dozen laying hens on my property. During the winter they’re fed a special recipe that I have specially made at our local grain mill. The bulk of the recipe is locally sourced corn and protein supplement along with some vitamins and minerals. All the ingredients are ground up and mixed together by the mill. The result is a dry, coarse mix that has a wide variation in particle side ranging from slightly cracked corn all the way down to fine grain dust. The dust component is so fine it can easily be blown about by the wind.

Last week I unintentionally left the top of my feed storage open for part of the day, usually I close it right away to keep the rain out. Late in the day when I when to give the hens their afternoon meal I was  startled to see dozens of honey bees flying in and out of my feed bin. They were carrying away tiny loads of very fine chicken feed on their legs where they normally carry pollen.

Bees were flying back and forth all day collecting finely ground chicken feed.
Bees were flying back and forth all day collecting finely ground chicken feed.

 

Flower pollen is highly variable in food value. Protein content ranges anywhere from just a few percent to 40 percent or more. Many factor determine the amount of protein present in pollen; plant species, growing conditions, and rainfall among others. Protein content may even change somewhat during the growing season.

My chicken feed recipe is about 18-20 percent protein which falls in the lower range of pollen. It’s not as high as real pollen but it also contains vitamins and minerals necessary for chicken as well as bee growth.

I guess the bees decided since there were no flowers, they’d do the next best thing and collect a pollen substitute to take back to the hive. Heck, they were out flying anyway so, why go back empty handed?

Inside the hive, the bees will pack the grain dust into honey comb cells where it will ferment, just like real pollen.  The process is sort of like what we do make pickles, cheese, sauerkraut or beer. The fermentation process breaks down the indigestible components into an edible form that young bee larvae can more easily digest.

Once the flowers start blooming, the bees will probably lose interest in the chicken feed. They’ll happily go back to collecting their preferred protein source, flower pollen.

Bob

Winter cover crop update

We’ve all heard that old expression, ” It’s like watching grass grow”. We’ll that’s kind of what this blog post is about. No, wait, that’s exactly what this post is about. Not to worry though, I’ve done all the boring work for you by watching that grass grow. So there’s no need to click away from here yet.

The grass I’m talking about is the rye I planted in the garden last fall as a cover crop. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, go back a few pages in this blog and  you’ll find a couple of posts about it.

Just by looking at the rye, not much has changed visually except much of it was grazed by geese, rabbits and other small animals. That won’t hurt it though. It’s not as bad as animals grazing on your lettuce for example.

Winter rye provides a source of winter food for wildlife.
Winter rye provides a source of winter food for wildlife.

Although you can’t see it, the rye has undergone a major transformation. Because of the effects of the cold winter temperatures, the plants have experienced a process called “vernalization”. This cold period radically changes the internal processes of the plants enabling them complete their lifecycle by growing flowers and eventually forming seeds.

Without those several days of freezing temperatures, rye plants would not be able to reproduce. Other cereal crops like winter wheat and winter barley require similar vernalization. Oats on the other hand are not winter hardy therefore don’t require vernalization to form seeds.

I had a discussion with a soil conservation technician last fall. He mentioned this was one of the few times he’s come across a garden with a winter cover crop. Maybe he has not been looking in the right places, I’m sure many readers of this blog use cover crops in their gardens. You’re welcome to share your cover crop experiences with other readers in the comment section below

To me watching grass grow is not boring at all — watching paint dry, well, that’s a whole different story.

Bob

Greenery color is in for 2017

The folks who help drive popular culture have finally acknowledged what gardeners have known all along, green is the color of the year for 2017. Actually green has been the color of the year every year for gardeners. More specifically, for non-gardeners, this year the color is Pantone “Greenery 15-0343“, a very specific shade of green.

Pantone color engineers describe this shade of green as “nature’s neutral” since it can appear wherever plants predominate.  When choosing a color, they make a serious attempt to reflect what they see as happening in the world — a “color snapshot” of our global society at a certain point in time.

It may seem frivolous to some to have a color of the year, but when you realize that people are very much visual creatures, it makes a lot of sense.

As someone with a background in biology, I see green as the color chlorophyll. Without chlorophyll, there would be no photosynthesis and without photosynthesis, there would be no life on earth as we know it. To fuel photosynthesis, leaves absorb red, blue, purple, yellow and all of the wavelengths of sunlight except green to gather energy from the sun. Green is no use to plants so they let it bounce off their leaves instead of absorbing it.  And that is the color our eyes see making the leaves appear to be green to us.

There are of course many shades and hues of green in the natural world, Greenery 15-0343 happens to be one of them. Gardeners use leaf color to design their plantings as well as flowers. The bright, eye-catching, chartreuse-green of Marguerite Ipomea is one well-known example of using leaf color as a design feature.

A plant’s leaf color is a fairly accurate indicator of its general health. Many disorders have symptoms that show up as changes in leaf color. For example, a nitrogen deficiency will cause lower leaves to turn a lighter shade of green. An observant, experienced gardener will know that something must be done quickly to bring the nitrogen levels back into balance before serious damage is done to the plant.

Manufactures, graphic designers, architects,fashion designers and others have geared up for a Greenery year. If you keep your eye open, you’ll notice this color popping up all over in 2017 and not just in the landscape.

Bob