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

 

 

Best tasting potato variety?

I just finished digging the last of our potatoes last week. They were growing in a well-drained, sandy area so I was able to let them sit there in the ground for quite a while after the vines died down. Since I couldn’t get to them right away, leaving them right where they were was the best option. A few weeks in the ground did them no harm.

German Butterball potatoes are a bit smaller than our other potatoes.
German Butterball potatoes are a bit smaller than our other potatoes.

I’m always excited at potato harvesting time, it’s like digging for buried treasure. You can’t see what you grew until it gets dug up. The excitement starts when you lift the first cache of potatoes from the soil. It’s pretty neat that the humble potato can give such a thrill. I have to admit though, the excitement begins to wear a little thin when my back starts to ache and there’s still a long row to dig.

These potatoes are particularly treasured, they’re the wonderful ‘German Butterball’ variety.  They are absolutely the best potatoes I have ever tasted. The yield is small compared to standard potato varieties but the flavor and texture more than makes up for the smaller harvest.

They are so tasty, that in years past, I’ve had raccoons dig them up and devour them while leaving perfectly fine standard varieties alone. They dug up the Butterballs, ate them until they were all gone but then never came back for the other potatoes.

The flavor is hard to describe but trust me they will delight even those who are ho-hum about potatoes. And the texture — wow! You’ve probably heard that the perfect potato should be crisp on the outside and mealy on the inside. These go way beyond that. They tend to form a delicate outer crispness when baked in wedges. The inside texture is so finely textured, it is almost creamy. What a taste experience!

Because of the comparatively low yield, I would not suggest growing this as your main crop, especially if you are trying to grow potatoes for storage. They do however, make a wonderful addition to the flavor palate of a vegetable garden.

Now you know one of my best kept gardening secretes. If you have a favorite potato variety that you think is better than German Butterball, share it with us in the comment section below.

Bob

 

Rye as a cover crop in the garden

I closed the garden down during the third week of October this year hoping that the weather would stay mild so my cover crop of rye would germinate and make some good growth before winter sets in.

Rye is one of the best winter cover crops for our area. You can let your garden grow for a full season and still have time to plant your cover crop after the garden has stopped producing. Fall-planted rye will make good growth and do very nicely over winter, especially if we have a covering of snow to protect the plants from harsh winter winds.

On sloping sites, cover crops such as rye, stabilize the soil keeping it from washing downhill. On flat sites, cover crops keep wind from blowing away your hard-earned topsoil.

It’s true, you can just leave those small fall growing weeds in your garden and they will do much to control erosion but rye has another huge advantage.  A cover crop of rye will reduce the bio-mass of weeds by 80-90% vs an area with no cover crop. Because it grows so fast in the fall, rye will smother weeds that are trying to grow. Not only that, its roots produce a compound that keeps weed seeds from sprouting. Compare that to a garden that is covered with small over-wintering weeds waiting to grow again in the spring and you’ll see what an advantage that is.

 You can’t actually see it with your eyes but soil nutrients can get washed down into the soil profile by autumn rains and melting snow far enough where it is no longer available to your garden plants. As it grows, rye will capture soil nutrients retaining them in the form of roots, leaves and stems.

Another fascinating thing about rye is that it has the ability, unlike many other plants,  to extract usable minerals directly from raw soil particles. It then uses the minerals for its growth and development — essentially making its own fertilizer. In the spring, the rye plants are tilled into the soil. As they decompose, these new minerals are released into the soil for garden plants to use.

This about how for apart the seeds were after I broadcast them.
This about how for apart the seeds were after I broadcast them.

I prepare my garden for its cover crop by first removing much of the existing plant material, mostly the stuff that tends to get caught up in the tiller tines. Then I’ll run the tiller over the garden to mix in the plant debris. At that point the area is ready for seeding. I evenly broadcast about three pounds of rye seed per thousand square feet evenly over the area. Then I make a very shallow pass with the tiller to mix the seed into the top couple of inches and I’m done.

Keep in mind you are not planting a lawn here. Too much seed will give you a dense rye plant population making it very difficult to till under your rye crop in the spring.

Bob

Near organic apples

Regular readers of this blog know that I like to talk about the idea of growing near-organic apples.

With the near-organic method, you spray as little as three times early in the season when the apples are still very small — starting when they first begin to grow. Then two more sprays are applies spaced about ten days to two weeks apart. If it is rainy during that time period, then another spray may be needed. After the third spray application, you stop spraying. By the way, I sometimes do a very early pre-blossom spray.

I use a general, all-purpose orchard spray mix, one with both fungicide and insecticide in the formula.

The reason why this technique works as well as it does is because it takes advantage of the life-cycles of orchard pests. Generally, the insects that cause the most damage to apples emerge early in the season. The spray knocks back the population of pests. Then once the spraying is over,the population of beneficial insects begins to grow and help keep pests in check. At least that’s one theory I’ve heard.

Minor cosmetic surface blemishes were the only problem with our near organic apples.
Minor cosmetic surface blemishes were the only problem with our near organic apples.

Through the season, as the apples grow in size, pesticide residue is washed off with the rain and breaks down in the sunlight, hence the name “near-organic”.  There is no official term as “near-organic” but it helps to describe how the apples were grown.

The apples often have some discoloration due to harmless fungi on the outside surface of the skin. I just wash off what I can (or rub it off on my shirt) and eat the apple whole.

I’ve been using this method for many years and have had great success with it. It’s not a guarantee that it will work in your situation but it would be worth a try if you are aiming to reduce your use of pesticides while still having half way decent apples.

I certainly would not recommend it for someone who’s livelihood depends on their apple crop, but for a few trees in the backyard, it may be worth trying.

Bob

Gardening as an investment

In our garden this year we had two hills, with five seeds per hill, that produced over 60 pounds of winter squash. Considering the seeds cost 14¢ each that is a tremendous return. However there are other expenses besides the price of seed that should be looked at.

Buttercup squash gave us a very high return on investment in the garden.
Buttercup squash gave us a very high return on investment in the garden.

The largest expense would be the labor involved in preparing the soil, planting the seeds, caring for the plants, harvesting and storing the crop. Some people would also factor in the opportunity cost of their labor. In other words, “what could I be doing with that time that may make me more money?” If gardening is looked at as part of person’s recreational or exercise time, then there are no labor costs. It certainly has more income potential than watching TV.

Now, on the other hand, if we hired someone to do the tilling and irrigation the costs would jump up dramatically.  If you were to make these calculations on your own plot of land, those costs would have to be taken into consideration. Business people would look at other things such as value of the square footage of the land, property taxes for that area, equipment amortization, and other items.

Even if all of the other expenses are factored in, the return on investment is still very high especially compared to other activities. A CEO of a large, well-known horticultural business figures the return in a garden can be up to 25,000% annually. Of course we’re looking at production on a small plot of land tended by a person during their off-hours.

So why aren’t all farmers multi-millionaires if the return on investment is so great? Once you start scaling up production the economics changes. At that scale much more needs to be invested in machinery, energy, labor, taxes, interest on borrowed money and all of those other things that go into operating a farm.

For us gardeners though, we can have the satisfaction of knowing we are such shrewd investors.

Bob

Poor planting habits result in poor root growth

This week a friend showed me something that he pulled from his vegetable garden while doing his end of season clean-up. It was the stem and root of a cabbage plant.

The cabbage that developed from that original root system did produce a head but it was much smaller than normal. I would guess it also was more prone to attack by pests because of its weakened condition.

Almost every spring, at planting time, I hear an argument whether or not you need to loosen the roots of  transplants grown in cell packs.

One school of thought says it takes too much time and is not necessary because the plant roots will spread out once the plant is in the soil. The other side says you absolutely need to separate the roots because they will not grow properly if you don’t.

Which side are you on? I used to be very casual about transplanting. If I wasn’t in a hurry, I’d make the effort to separate the roots. Most of the time though I’d just pop in the transplants just as they came from cell pack.

I’ve long since changed my ways and always make sure the roots are off to a good start.

Roots can’t straighten themselves once they are in the ground, they just expand in the direction they started. They can form new root shoots but that takes extra energy from the plant.

These cabbage roots grew in the direction they started at.
These cabbage roots grew in the direction they started at.

So why not help your plant get the best start possible? Then it can use its energy efficiently to grow into a productive plant.

My friend’s cabbage plant was pretty strong proof that you really should take care to release the roots before planting. We’ll keep that in mind next spring.

Bob

 

Warty French heirloom pumpkin

I’ve grown a lot of different varieties of pumpkins in the past, big, small, orange,white, striped and everything in between. None ever got the number of comments that my warty pumpkins have.

It’s easy to understand why people are so interested in them once you see them up close and personal. I get many people asking,”what’s wrong with them?”.  Well, there’s nothing wrong with them, that’s just the way Gladeux d’Eysine pumpkins grow. Most varieties pumpkins of course, are orange and round. Some are flattened, some are striped, some are white, these happened to be warty.

To tell you a secrete, I wasn’t even expecting to see these pumpkins in my garden. I got the seeds from some one who was giving away some envelopes of unlabeled seeds. Even she didn’t know what was in the envelopes.

French heirloom variety
French heirloom variety Gladeux d’Eysine

I planted the seeds as I usually do, five or six seeds to a hill. They came up and grew like common pumpkins, growing pretty good sized vines. Nothing about growing them was out of the ordinary until the pumpkins started to mature and grow those interesting bumps.

Gladeux d’Eysine is a French heirloom variety that French chefs use for soup and  baking. Some people consider them a kind of winter squash, others call them pumpkins, I’m prone to referring to them as pumpkins because of the large, pumpkin-like stems they have. Either way, as do all pumpkin and squash, they belong to the gourd family Cucurbitacea.

I’m looking forward to doing something with them in the kitchen this fall, squash soup most likely. I also plan to save the seeds to plant and give away next year.

Bob

Giant ragweed

Earlier this week I spotted a stand of giant ragweed growing next to a parking lot. That brought back memories from long ago when I had a small farm and was growing corn and soybeans. Back then there were a lot of those types of small farms around.

I was a young guy and was excited about my first crop of field corn. It was only 40 acres worth of corn, quite small even back then. I took the first truck load to the local grain elevator. The owner took one look at it and said he would not buy my corn. He told me it was contaminated with a small amount of giant ragweed seeds. He said he had only seen them once before in his entire career — lucky me.

The problem with giant ragweed seed is that although it is shaped differently, it is about the same size and weight as a kernel of corn. The seed cleaning equipment at that time could not remove ragweed seed from corn.

Nowadays, giant ragweed is all over the place. You can spot it in fields and in ditches along the roadways and competing with farm crops like corn and soybeans. It’s become a major problem on many farms.

Not only is it a major weed on farms but in certain areas, it is also a major contributor to the amount of ragweed pollen in the air. A single plant can produce ten million pollen grains a day or about one billion during its lifetime. Compare that to a another plant which produces large amounts of pollen, the corn plant which sheds two to twenty-five  million pollen grains its entire life.

Giant ragweed is not as common as its cousin the common ragweed. Because the population of common ragweed is much higher than giant ragweed, most of the pollen in the air is of the common ragweed variety.

Ragweed buds will eventually grow into seeds.
Ragweed buds will eventually grow into seeds.

Giant ragweed is native to north america. It usually doesn’t show up in an area unless the soil has been disturbed for some reason, like tilling a field, or in this case, building a parking lot.

Fortunately, the grain dealer eventually took pity on me and bought my grain. Regulations allow a shipment of corn to contain a tiny percentage of weed seeds, not enough make a difference in the final product. So much corn was coming in during that harvest season that when my minuscule crop was mixed in to the rest, it virtually disappeared into the tons and tons of corn from other farms.

Bob

 

Different approach to controlling field bindweed

I came across an old publication about dealing with weeds in farm and garden situations. The author discussed why weeds grow where they do and how we can use that knowledge to reduce weeds naturally without the use of herbicides. Needless to say, that is a large and complex topic, too big to go into detail here.

One item that did jump out at me was a unique way of killing field bindweed.

Field bindweed is one of the most tenacious weeds we have in the garden. If you have ever had a bindweed infestation in your garden, you know what I’m talking about. It grows from a net work of underground roots that will grow several feet deep and have a lifetime of twenty years or more. I’ve blogged about this weed in the past.

Even after being cut back all season, this field bindweed still managed to push its way through mulch.
Even after being cut back all season, this field bindweed still managed to push its way through mulch.

Other than using chemical herbicides, the traditional way of controlling bindweed is to starve the root system by cutting back the tops whenever you see them. That may mean as often as every few days or so, especially early in the season. By cutting back the tops, you remove the leaves stopping all photosynthesis. That forces the plant to use stored energy as it sends up new shoots. Eventually, the plant runs out of energy and dies. That process may take a few years.

The author of the weed publication offers a different take on bindweed. He mentions, almost in passing, that dahlia roots secrete a substance that kills field bindweed. I’ve been trying to think back to all of the hundreds or even thousands of dahlias I’ve grown in the past and can’t seem to recall ever seeing bindweed growing with dahlias. I’m not growing dahlias this year and have not grown them for several years.

You would still need to control other weeds in your dahlia area.
You would still need to control other weeds in your dahlia area.

If the dahlia vs bindweed theory is true, that gives gardeners a new ally against this noxious weed. It would mean taking a piece of ground out of normal production and growing dahlias there for a season, which would not be all that bad of a thing I suppose.

Growing enough dahlias to cover a large area presents a whole new set of challenges. That is a topic for another time.

Bob

Netting on grapes

We had to get our bird netting on the grape vines this week.

The grapes have been turning purple very quickly and are getting sweeter by the day. That whole process  of ripening is known as veraison  in the wine making world. But for me and the neighborhood birds, it’s just plain ripening.

The birds are starting to sample the grapes and I can tell more fruit was missing every day. They are not eating a lot of grapes just yet. Even though the grapes are becoming a deep purple color they are still not sweet enough. Birds start eating grapes when the sugar content reaches about 15%. Grapes need to be around 22% in order to make wine. A little simple math tells us the grapes will be long gone before they ever get sweet enough to make wine or even grape jelly for that matter.

We use Concord grapes for making jelly.
We use Concord grapes for making jelly.

Really, the only way to keep birds from decimating a grape crop is to install a barrier so they can’t reach the fruit. That’s where the netting comes in. This year we invested in new, premium polypropylene bird netting. The netting is 14 feet wide and 45 feet long — two panels will cover the row.

We unroll, then drape the net over the vines. Then we fold the bottom edges up and fasten it back on itself to enclose the entire  grapevine.

Once we get the vines covered and they are protected from the birds, we’ll be able to taste test the grapes at our leisure and pick them once they have sweetened up to our liking.

Bob