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

Make plant tags from broken window blinds

A new winter gardening project presented itself yesterday. The frame on one of our window blinds snapped as I was pulling on the cord to open it and the whole works crashed to the floor.

As it turns out, mini-blind slats make fine pot markers, you know, those small white tags that gardeners use to identify trays and pots of seedlings. The slats are just about the same width as the markers that are sold in gardening departments every spring.

One big advantage homemade markers have over the garden-store variety is that you can easily cut them with a pair of scissors to whatever length you need, short ones for flats of seedlings, or longer ones for potted plants.

Just this one set of window blinds will provide enough material for dozens of plant tags
Just this one set of window blinds will provide enough material for dozens of plant tags

Homemade tags decreases the chance that seedlings will be mislabeled. Since each set of blinds will yield dozens of markers, you won’t be tempted to skimp on labels, that way every pot or six-pack divider can have it’s own tag.

Re-purposing old blinds reduces the amount of plastic debris that eventually finds it way into the landfill. And you save a few bucks along the way. Plus, it’s fun making your own gardening supplies and this happens to be a very easy project.

I’m looking at that high-quality braided pull-cord on those blinds too, but I haven’t figured out a use for that yet.

Bob

Insecticides work in different way

Winter is a time of planning for gardeners. I decided during the deep, dark days of the dead of winter to take inventory of my fertilizers and pesticides. That got me thinking about some of the different insecticides and how they work.

Chemical insecticides have been around a long time. Fortunately, modern chemistry has eliminated the need for most of the nastiest chemicals we used to use in food products. The lead-based and arsenic-based materials used in the nineteenth and early twentieth century  were made obsolete by more sophisticated chemicals introduced into the marketplace after world war two. Take for example the organophosphates, they were the by-product of chemical warfare research done in Germany during WWII. I remember using some of those products from time to time during heavy insect outbreaks in order to save a crop. I’ll tell you one thing, they sure did the job. Unfortunately, many gardeners used them constantly and on everything. I guess they thought if it was legal and on the market it was fine to use it like that. Sometimes they even eyeballed the amount to use instead of carefully measuring it before mixing. While a few organophosphates are still on the market, most of the harsher ones are no longer available for use in the home garden.

Different insecticides work by different means. For example, the contact insecticides kill when the insect comes in contact with it, either by being directly coated by it or walking across an area on the plant that has been treated.

Stomach poisons work when an insect consumes the material and it enters into the insect’s digestive system. The biological insecticide Bacillus thuringenses  is a stomach poison. It’s commonly use in organic gardening.

Bacillus thuringiensis was the first bacterial insecticide approve for use in home gardens.
Bacillus thuringiensis was the first bacterial insecticide approve for use in home gardens.

Some insecticides are absorbed by plants and are moved to all parts of the plant and remain inside the plant for a relatively long time. These are the systemic insecticides. They are often used on ornamental plants that are not intended to be eaten. I used systemic insecticides many years ago when I had over two hundred roses bushes to care for. The systemics work great for controlling rose pests.

The translaminar insecticides insecticides move just a short distance into the leaves and are not carried through the entire plant. Think of a leaf being constructed of a number of different layers, like a piece of  laminated plywood. A translaminar insecticide only moves into the first or second layer of the leaf. The organic pesticide spinosad is a translaminar material.

Some insecticides work by a combination of two or more of the these modes of action. Often manufactures combine insecticides in order to gain the advantage of multiple modes.

Because an insecticide can act differently on various types of plants, it’s important to closely follow the printed label and not try to extrapolate other uses on your own. This holds true for both conventional and organic insecticides.

Of course we’re not applying insecticides to our gardens right now but it’s not too early to remind ourselves of these things well before the gardening season.

Bob

Check those plants you moved indoors for scale insects

With Christmas and other hectic, holiday happenings over, now is a good time to check those plants you brought inside for winter.

When potted plants live outside during the summer, they become susceptible to infestations of all kinds of insects. Usually, if they are in reasonably good health they can tolerate a moderate insect attack. And natural predators like lady bugs and lace wings will keep the bad insect population to a minimum. But when plants are moved indoors, they loose the protection of those natural predators which can allow the insect population to grow.

Scale insects are the ones I have the most problem with. When I start to find a sticky coating, called “honeydew”, on the lower leaves, table, nearby furniture or floor, I know that the scale insects are ramping up their feeding. They can get out of hand quickly at that point and do some real damage to the plant– not to mention the mess they make. Honeydew is sometimes mistakenly called “sap” because the plant owner thinks it is the plant leaking sap all over the place. It’s not always easy to spot a scale infestation if you’ve never seen it before.

The brown ovals are the outer shells of the scale insects. The clear substance is honeydew.
The brown ovals are the outer shells of the scale insects. The clear substance is honeydew.

Scale feed by poking their “beak” into the the plant and feeding on the nutrients from the plant juices. Like most other animals, they excrete waste. In this case it is in the form of that sticky, syrupy  honeydew. Honeydew contains a high concentration of sugar. But how and why do scale insects produce so much sticky residue? The answer is that they pick their feeding spot very carefully. If you remember from middle school biology, plants have two basic types of tubes inside. Those that carry water from the roots up into the plant are called xylem. The other tubes that carry nutrients manufactured by the leaves to the rest of the plant are called phloem.

It is the phloem where the scale insects like to poke their beaks. If they pierced a xylem tube by mistake, all they would get is mostly water and some dissolved minerals. The phloem sap contains sugars for energy, proteins for growth and other things necessary to sustain plant and animal life.

The scale can’t use all of the sugar dissolved in the phloem juices so they excrete the excess sugar which then falls all over the immediate area. Since it is primarily sugar, it is water soluble and fairly easy to clean up with a damp cloth. Small plants can be rinsed off in the sink or bathtub.

My citrus trees are way too big to rinse off in the bathtub and too heavy for me to move to the shower. Instead I use a damp cloth — or even my bare fingers– to rub off the scale from the leaves and branches whenever I find them. I find that if I do a few leaves every day, I can usually keep up with the multiplying insect population, especially if I remember to start early. If you wait too long, it can turn into a tedious, frustrating job.

One other by-product of honeydew is sooty mold, a black, powdery mold that grows om the surface of leaves and other surfaces. All of that sugar provides food for sooty-mold fungus which will grow and leave sticky surfaces with an unsightly black film that can rub off onto clothing.

Even though you may feel overwhelmed by the holiday rush, remember your plants, they will thank you for it.

Bob

 

Protect potted perennials from winter cold

Just about every year, going into winter, I have perennials or other potted plants left over from the growing season that never got planted for one reason or another. I usually have plans for them so I like to keep them over winter.

It’s a good idea to keep plants out as long as possible in the fall. An occasional short cold snap doesn’t bother the plants at all. This year the mild fall weather lasted so long that I just now got most of them put away into their winter storage spots.

The most valuable plants I worry about are my bonsai.  They are several years old, my false sequoia is well over 20 years old. All the bonsai are hardy trees that require a cold dormant period to complete their annual life cycle so have to be kept outside during the winter.

There’s a spot under my mature pine trees where the bonsai spend the winter. There I dig a hole and place them in the hole on their sides. Placing them sideways keeps snow melt water (which we get sometimes) from accumulating in the pots. That reduces the chance that the terracotta pots will crack when the water re-freezes. Soil excavated from the hole gets banked up over the pots and the crown of the trees. I then rake plenty pine needles over the tops to insulate them from the cold winter temperature and wind. The entire storage area gets covered with a tarp or other kind of covering.

 

I put the rest of my perennials in various places around my property. I have a number of  left over grape cuttings that I rooted this spring. Those I tucked away in a well-drained spot in the vegetable garden. A few miscellaneous perennial flowers are mixed in there with the grapes.

Pots in trench

A few years back I had some potted elderberry plants that I overwintered in the ground. I buried the pots as usual but put them in a new place, somewhere way out of the way. When spring arrived I was so busy that I forgot I even had elderberry plants. It wasn’t until late June that I saw a group of elderberries growing out of the soil that I remembered I stored them there the previous fall. I learned how a squirrel feels when it forgets where it buried its acorns.

The soil is still unfrozen thanks to our recent mild temperatures but that probably won’t last long so those plants into the ground now while you can.

Bob

Fall rye cover crop growth progress in the garden

Our mild autumn temperatures have accelerated the growth of fall-planted, over-wintering, cover crops.

Back in October I wrote about planting cereal rye as a cover crop in my garden. Since then the crop has germinated and made excellent progress toward establishing itself.

When rye seed germinates, it emerges out of the soil as a single shoot. As time goes by and temperatures are conducive to plant growth, leaves begin to form on the main shoot.

This picture was taken at the end of November. The rye is a bout 3-4 inches tall.
This picture was taken at the end of November. The rye is about 3-4 inches tall.

After a couple of weeks of growth, the plant enters the “tillering” stage of development.

Rye is a bunch grass, a self-descriptive term meaning that the plant grows in tuffs or bunches instead of spreading by over-the-ground stems called rhizomes. To spread and take advantage of growing space, the bunch grasses form extra stems called tillers. Tillers grow from the main stem of the plant.

When you look at a rye plants and see it staring to form dense tuffs, that growth you see is the tillers. Each tiller has the ability to form it own roots. In that way the plant has the ability spread vegetatively, essentially producing baby plants along side the main plant.

Farmers are concerned about encouraging tillering because the more fully-developed tillers the crop has, the greater the yield.

Extra tillering allows the plants to fill in bare areas thereby compensating for thin stands or weak germination.

My rye is is in the early stage of tillering and should be in fine shape going into the winter.

Bob

Why does a jade plant bloom?

One of our jade plants has started blooming this week. Anyone with a jade plant knows this is fairly uncommon. I have had a few jade plants through the years that produced flowers but not very many. So whenever it happens, I get a little excited about it.

Jade plant flowers are white with a pink hue near the edges and are about 3/4 inch across.
Jade plant flowers are white with a pink hue near the edges and are about 3/4 inch across.

There seems to be no way of predicting when a jade will blossom. Lots of people, horticulturists included, have their theories about it. Some folks on the internet say they have it figured out. If that were the case, we’d be seeing truckloads of jade plants in the stores blooming just in time for Mother’s Day or Valentine’s Day — pick your favorite holiday.

Flower production in plants can be a complex proces. Before a plant can flower, it has to go through several steps before vegetative cells change into  reproductive cells, ie. a flower bud.

A basic principle in botany is that a plant, like most other organisms, will not reproduce until they reach maturity. One familiar example of this is an apple tree which might not bloom for six or eight or even ten years.

We forget sometimes, that our houseplants’s ancestors originally grew out in the wild with no help from people, thank you very much. Jade plants belong to the genus of plants called Crassula. Many Crassula species go through an annual a rest period in their native habitat. In their part of the world, the rains stop for a while and the Crassulas  go into a rest period. It’s critical for the Crassulas that the humidity falls to an arid, desert-like condition during this time.

Once the dry period is over, the plants resume growing and that completes one lifecycle. So, to induce flowering, it would make sense that we try to reproduce those types of conditions found in the wild.

OK, so here is my theory of the erratic flowering of jade plants. Many gardeners or houseplant fanciers love their plants and don’t want to hurt it, I don’t blame them. So they keep watering and feeding the plant all year ’round which keeps the plant in a continuous growth stage. The jades never get a chance to rest and they never get a chance to complete a full annual life cycle. This either delays maturity or fails to trigger the reproductive response.

Many factors are involved in stimulating plants to flower: fertility, moisture, intensity of sunlight, length of daylight, temperature extremes both warm and/or cold, length of time exposed to temperatures, air movement, insect damage, and others. The timing of all or any one of these factors can determine if and when a plant will bloom. Some easy-blooming plant species will bloom despite not growing in ideal conditions. Others, like jade plants I’m guessing, require a more complex sequence of events in order to produce flowers.

All that being said, I have noticed that jade plants are more likely to bloom is they are slightly pot-bound. So does this mean that the plants have been growing long enough that they’ve reached reproductive maturity? Or does crowding their roots induce flowering? Maybe sometime in the future a budding horticulturist will discover the secrete.

Bob