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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.