Thursday, February 24, 2011

I was so excited today to receive a box full of leafless sticks by mail. The exciting thing about those sticks is that each one of them can – will, I hope – grow into a whole new plant from whose branches would eventually hang luscious apples and grapes.

And how do I know the fruits will be luscious? Because last autumn I was at an experimental orchard photographing fruits for a new book I’m writing. Of course, I also tasted them, and that’s why Chestnut Crab, Honeygold, Mollie’s Delicious, and King of the Pippins will be joining the two dozen or so other varieties of apples already here. Cayuga White, Bertille Seyve 2758, Steuben, Lakemont, Wapanuka, Himrod, Romulus, and Venus will be joining my grapes.

It is “totipotence” – of the plants, not me – that allows unlocking the potential treasures within today’s mailed sticks. Within a plant, every cell except for reproductive cells has the potential to become a root, a shoot, a flower, a thorn, a fruit, any other part of a plant. For that matter, the same is true for humans and other animals. All that’s needed are the right conditions to get the various parts to grow – and there’s the rub.

A little art and science puts totipotence to work. In the case of the apples, I’ll graft those stems onto my existing trees or onto small rootstocks. Existing trees or rootstocks provide nothing more than roots to nourish shoots that will eventually sprout from the sticks. The plant beyond the graft remains genetically that of whatever variety is grafted upon the rootstock. Grape sticks will get plunged into the ground where they will grow their own roots, shoots, and everything else. Apples aren’t so amenable to growing their own roots.

Nothing is happening yet. Warmth will awaken those sticks. For now, they’re being kept cool and dormant.

I should be tasting the first fruits of my labors in 3 years.
Although I have gardened for decades, I’m a relative newbie to greenhouse gardening. Sure, I dabbled in various greenhouses over the years but I’ve only experienced the intimate vagaries of my own greenhouse for the last 10 years. It took all this time for it to finally dawn on me that Murphy’s Law – “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong” – also applies in the greenhouse. In retrospect, why wouldn’t it?

I had my brush with the law one evening a couple of weeks ago when I went to pick some lettuce for a salad. Methinks, “Hmmm, quite nippy in here.” But then, except from when sunlight is beaming through the plastic covering, it’s always nippy in there in winter. Salad greens, kale, chard, and celery thrive in those cool temperatures. (The in-ground figs stay dormant and leafless.)

Still, temperatures felt nippier than normal so I checked the thermometer to confirm and, yes, it was getting down to the high 20s. I then checked the propane heater, which ignored me as I twisted the dial on the thermostat clockwise.

I propose an amendment to Murphy’s Law: “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong -- at the worst possible time!” Temperatures the night before had plummeted below zero. No wonder a water line had burst that morning. I assumed that frigid temperatures had made only that corner of the greenhouse too cold. Fortunately, after a lot of nail biting, the gas man and I determined that the pilot light had blown out in the heater. Most plants survived the cold.

One event does not a Law make. Thinking back to last year, I remembered a more serious freeze in the greenhouse. One day everything looked verdant; the next day mush. (The gas company had forgotten to re-fill the propane tank.) After that event, I rigged up a backup electric heater, just in case temperatures dropped below freezing.

Perhaps yet another Murphy’s Law Amendment is needed. On the night of the most recent freeze, the electric heater was, of course, hooked up. Except it wasn’t poised for warmth. The thermostat was directing it to wake up, but I had forgotten to flip the heater’s “on-off” switch to “on.”

Live and learn: The sun is now setting, the mercury is now plummeting, and high winds could, I assume, blow out the pilot light again tonight. When I go out to pick some lettuce, celery, and parsley, I will: Check propane heater, check electric heater, check that the water line is off. And remember to latch the door closed on my way out -- really!

Friday, February 18, 2011

A day like this, a gray sky and 5 inches of fresh snow laid gently atop the almost foot of snow already blanketing the ground, hardly turns my mind to gardening or plants. Even the greenhouse, usually a cheery, verdant retreat in winter, is dark and cold. Snow on the plastic roof blocks what little light peeks through the gray sky, and the heater doesn’t come alive until the temperature drops to 37° F.

And then I reach into my mailbox, and out comes summer! More seed and nursery catalogs oozing with photos of fresh carrots, heads of lettuce, juicy peaches, and sunny sunflowers. I’ve already ordered all my seeds, or so I thought until I started thumbing through more catalogs. Offerings in vegetable seeds, in particular, seem to get more interesting each year.

Take carrots, for example. Carrots have long been available in all sort of shapes and sizes. Now, I see that I can also buy seeds for white carrots (White Satin variety), carrots deep purple through and through (Deep Purple variety), and purple carrots with orange centers (Purple Haze variety).

Caulifower is also getting colorful. Its curds need not be white. The variety Cheddar is the color of orange cheddar cheese. Graffiti is a purple variety, unique among purple cauliflowers for retaining its color after being cooked. For years, I’ve grown Violet Queen cauliflower, which turns green after being cooked and tastes very good.

I’m not saying that any of these interesting varieties taste better than less flamboyant varieties. I’m just sayin’ . . . they’re interesting.


Besides perusing summer-y seed and nursery catalogs, another antidote for a gray winter day is to get outside and enjoy it. I also did that today, kicking and gliding through wooded paths on cross-country skiis.

In my travels, I came across plants flaunting winter weather and showing signs of life. Those plants were the native witchhazels, known as common witchhazel (Hamamelis, virginiana), that still had some strappy yellow petals showing. The flowers don’t exactly jump out at you so you have to get up pretty close to even notice them. Still, they are a sign of plant life in the depths of winter.

The flowers I saw were hangers-on. Common witchhazels typically begin blooming in September and finish by December. How seemingly foolish! It’s been hypothesized that they bloom when they do so as not to compete with another species, vernal witchhazel (H. vernalis), where both are native. Vernal witchhazel, is at home in the midwest and south, begins blooming in January and might continue until spring.

Even without that competition, not much reproduction is going on with common witchhazel. It has a motley crew of pollinators: tiny wasps, fungus gnats, bees, flies, and winter moths. And even with all those matchmakers, less than 1% of flowers go on to form fruit and make seed. The seeds, 2 per fruit, are shot out of the fruits in autumn. After weevils, caterpillars, wild turkeys, and squirrels have had their fill, only about 15% of those few seeds survive. It’s a wonder I came upon so many witchhazels in my winter glide.

Looking over plant and garden notes from last year, I see that my cultivated witchhazel, the variety Arnold Promise, bloomed in my front yard in mid-March last year. That variety is a hybrid of Chinese and Japanese species. It blossoms later and its blossoms are much, much showier and more fragrant.


I’m supposed to plant onion seeds today or sometime soon. Yes, seeds. Seeds are the only way to be able to choose from the widest selection of onion varieties. Those witchhazel flowers are not enough to well up in me that urge to plant anything. Tomorrow will be sunny; that should do it.

Friday, February 4, 2011

I wonder why my houseplants look so unattractive, at least compared to some other people’s houseplants. Like those of my friend Sandy. I was recently awed by the lushness and beauty of her orchid cactii, begonias, and ferns. I also grow orchid cactii and ferns, so what’s with mine?

Perhaps the difference is that other’s houseplants have a cozy, overgrown look. Mine don’t. Most of my houseplants get repotted and pruned, as needed, for best growth. Every year, every two years at most, my houseplants get tipped out of their pots, their roots hacked back, then put back into their pots with new potting soil packed around their roots. In anticipation of lush growth, stems also get pruned to keep the plants from growing topheavy.

Rather than being scattered willy-nilly throughout the house or clustered cozily in corners, as in Sandy’s house, my houseplants get carefully sited. For best growth, plants, especially flowering and fruiting plants, need abundant light, something that’s at a premium this time of year. So my houseplants huddle near south-facing windows like baby chicks near a heat lamp. And then in summer, when light, even indoors, becomes more adequate and the plants could move a bit back from the windows, I move them all outside so that summer sunlight, rain, and breezes can really get them growing.

What can I say? I’m too focussed on good growth, and that’s not necessarily what makes for the prettiest houseplant. It’s the difference between a lush plant packed into and overflowing its pot, along with elbow to elbow neighbors, versus one that’s had its soil refreshed frequently, its stems thinned out and pruned back, always with younger stems raring to grow. I can’t help myself.

Choice of houseplants also comes into play. Houseplants that are prettiest for the longest period of time -- and need less light -- are those valued for the shapes and colors of their leaves. I gravitate to houseplants with fragrant flowers or fruits, or -- even better -- fragrant flowers and fruits. Pumping out lots of flowers and, especially, fruits demands much more energy from a plant than just growing leaves. And that energy comes from sunlight and young leaves that are efficient at working with that light. Hence the repotting and clustering near sunny windows of my houseplants.

Perhaps it’s also a matter of the “grass is greener,” to me, in Sandy’s house. I’ll start looking at my houseplants more with the eye of an appreciative visitor.
The temperature was 9° and we were on our way to go cross-country skiing when my friend Jason asked if there was any benefit to the cold weather. Plantwise, that is. We knew the weather was good for skiing. Interesting question, and the answer is “yes.”

The first benefit that comes to mind is the effect of cold on diseases, certain diseases, at least. The cold kills them. Peach leaf curl, for instance, is a disease that overwinters in peach buds, resulting in leaves that unfold thickened and twisted and eventually yellow and fall so fruiting and growth suffer. Except in cold winters. Our winters are usually cold enough so this disease is rarely a problem.

Remember the awful late blight of tomato that went on the rampage here and throughout the Northeast a couple of summers ago? That disease can’t spend the winter this far north because it’s too cold. In that past summer and some other summers, the disease hitchhikes north on infected plants brought here or, when winds and humidity are just right, hopscotches along north from one infected field to the next.

Insect pests that overwinter in the soil are more damaged the colder the soil gets, and bare soil gets colder than mulched soil, all of which highlights the balancing acts necessary in gardening. Pests notwithstanding, bare ground isn’t good for plants and soil. Plant roots are more likely to be damaged by the increased exposure and, especially evergreens, are more apt to dry out because more water will evaporate from bare ground and because roots have a hard time drinking in water from frozen ground. Bare ground is also subject to erosion and nitrogen loss. On the other side of the coin, bare soil goes through more cycles of freezing and thawing, which breaks up and moves around soil particles, in effect tilling the soil. Back to the previous side of the coin, that freezing and thawing can move soil around enough to heave plants, especially small or newly rooted plants, up and out of the ground.

So, I like cold weather for my plants. But I mulch heavily. And I especially like it, as do the plants -- and, admittedly, some pests -- when there’s an additional blanket of snow over the ground. It also makes for good skiing.