Thursday, January 26, 2012

Dryish and cold, but not frigid, weather: What else is there to do outdoors, gardenwise, but mulch? (Pruning is best left until after the coldest nights of winter have passed, in late February.) Arborists dumped a large pile of wood chips near my neighbor’s garden and he spread all he could in paths and among berry bushes. What’s left is for me.

Not that I hadn’t myself been spreading mulches all through autumn. Compost went on the vegetable beds, wood chips from my own pile (long gone) beneath my berry bushes and around trees, and horse manure mixed with wood shavings beneath the young row of dwarf apple trees.

Mulch is one of those things in life that you can’t have too much of -- if you’re a gardener -- so I forked the neighbor’s wood chips into my garden cart and hauled five loads over to my apple trees. The apples would be thankful because, as dwarf trees, they need the best possible soil conditions to keep them growing vigorously, vigorously for dwarfs, that is. Also, manure left on top of the ground in winter, especially manure left exposed to the elements, loses some its goodness as its nitrogen evaporates into thin air. Barring snow, not in the offing as of this writing, the wood chips blanket should minimize that loss.

One other benefit of wood chips are that they look nice. They are dark brown, similar to dirt. Unfortunately, the five cart loads was enough to cover only half of the 150 foot row of apples.

I like to get on top of any gardening fad as it comes down the pike, although not necessarily to embrace it. One such fad concerns wood chips, not any old wood chips, but “ramial wood chips,” defined as wood chips made from wood no larger than about 3 inches in diameter.

Is there anything magical about ramial wood chips? These chips are surely better than the chunks of bark or wood mulch, some of it dyed red, sold in plastic bags. Ramial wood chips are cheaper, often free and, having smaller pieces, are more biologically active and better at smothering weeds and maintaining soil moisture than chunks. As compared with local, arborists’ chips that would include chips from from larger diameter wood, ramial wood chips, with their  higher proportion of bark and living tissue, would be higher in nutrients.

Still, no reason to snub your nose at any and all wood chips (except for those bagged chunks). When used as mulch, a dynamic interface of decomposition develops where the bottom layer of raw chips meets the top layer of decomposed material. Nutrients are concentrated as microbes gobble up the materials and carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen are breathed away as carbon dioxide and water, so the nutritional advantage of ramial wood chips over run-of-the-mill arborists’ chips is lost.

Some people tout ramial wood chips as promoting beneficial fungi in soils, allegedly to the liking of trees -- such as apples -- naturally found in forests. But when any old kind of wood chips -- any organic materials, for that matter -- is laid atop the ground, it is worked upon by a naturally orchestrated sequence of microorganisms, fungi included. Yes, fungi are promoted, but so are bacteria and other organisms, standing ready to gobble up the more readily accessible foodstuffs after fungi have finished with them. No need to use special kinds of woods chips for special effect.

So, enough about ramial wood chips! Wood chips of every stripe are available free or cheap as a waste product. They’re all beneficial. I use any and all that are offered, and that’s what went on the ground beneath my apple trees.
To quote Thoreau: “Simplify, simplify.”

Thursday, January 19, 2012

As if to ring in the new year, scale insects are starting to make their presence known. These insects crawl around as babies, find nourishing spots on leaves or stems, insert their feeding tubes, and then spend their days sucking plant juice. Carbohydrates and sugars are what result when sunlight and chlorophyll get together, so longer days may be making plant sap sweeter and more plentiful, much to the liking of these suckers.
I encounter two kinds of scales on my houseplants. Each armored scale looks like a small, raised, brown tab. Cottony cushion scale looks like a small tuft of white cotton. As either kind feeds, it exudes a sweet honeydew that drips on leaves, furniture, and floor, and eventually becomes colonized with a fungus that airbrushes those sticky drippings an unappealing smokey haze.
(Scale insects are often problems on trees and shrubs outdoors. I’ve never had any problems outdoors probably because I avoid toxic sprays so predators, of which scale insects have many, can do their job. Once indoors in autumn, houseplants generally lose the benefits of these natural, outdoor predators. )
Repeated sprays last autumn of “horticultural” oil smothered the creeping, crawling baby scales as they were looking for homes on houseplants. I do all this spraying outdoors,  where it is most convenient, before the plants come indoors for winter. None have turned up yet on the kumquat, staghorn fern, or gardenia, all three of which have been scale magnets in the past. I don’t see any on the bay laurel, another magnet, but I do see and feel the tell-tale sticky honeydew.
Cute, little white tufts of cottony cushion scale are starting to dot the undersides of strawberry guava’s leaves. It’s not surprising: I received this plant last autumn, already with scale, and it was too late then to start spraying with oil. As autumn progressed, the undersides of its leaves became increasingly covered with those white tufts.
Repeatedly, over the last few months, I have fought back the buggers mano a mano by dipping cotton swabs in alcohol and methodically cleaning them off each leaf. (The plant is young and its leaves are large and few.) The last cleaning was especially thorough but some eggs evidently survived. Time to get out the alcohol and swabs again.
I feel the distant tug of spring and spring seed orders are complete. With most vegetables and flowers, I’m pretty picky about variety so have to rely on mail order sources for my seeds.
And especially so with tomatoes: I refuse to waste time and space growing anything but the best tomatoes (to me), which makes me very wary of trying new varieties. My own tried and true varieties -- flavor is what I’m after -- include Belgian Giant, Sungold, Anna Russian, San Marzano, Amish Paste, Rose de Berne, Nepal, Valencia, Cherokee Purple, and Blue Beech. Every year I’ll also grow a few others, but only if they come highly recommended from a reliable source and especially if they are an “oxheart” or “black” fruited variety. Not even worthy of consideration is any “determinate” variety because their leaf to fruit ratio is too low for good-tasting fruit. The seed catalog or seed packet itself should say whether a variety is determinate or indeterminate. This year’s tomato newbies include Honeydrop Cherry and Black Prince, both recommended by
I highly recommend growing tomatoes from seed. It’s easy, especially if the seeds are sown in a timely manner, which is about 6 weeks before the average date of the last killing frost of spring -- about April 1st here in USDA Hardiness Zone 5.
It’s really not all that early to be ordering seeds. My date for sowing onion and leek seeds is February 1st. New York Early, Varsity, and Prince were three new onion varieties that did well for me last season. Last summer’s onions hang in braids from the basement rafters, ready to be pulled off as needed to chop into a pan for roasting with sweet potatoes, into the soup pot with chickpeas and kale, and other savory dishes for weeks to come. 

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Cold weather and short days have put a not totally unwelcome lull in the gardening year. Nonetheless, I wander into the greenhouse occasionally just to drink in the sight and smell of lush greenery suffused in warmth and humidity, and to pull some weeds. The figs, I see, haven’t been pruned; they are dormant and leafless and need all stems cut back to 3 to 4 feet in height.
Gardening lull or not, I can’t just toss those cut stems away, putting them to waste. Each stem can make a whole new tree, and fairly easily. So I set up a little propagator for rooting some of these “hardwood cuttings.”
Being leafless, the cuttings lose little water so have no need for the high humidity demanded by so-called softwood cuttings, which are cuttings taken while plants are actively growing and leafy. Any cutting, hardwood or softwood, does need its bottom portion, where roots will form, cozied in moisture and air. Some people just plop stems into a glass of water. That works for easy-to-root plants, like fig, as long as the water is occasionally changed so bacteria don’t build up and the roots get a fresh charge of aeration. Roots formed in water are morphologically different from those in soil, so the eventual and inevitable transfer to soil must be done with care, with attention to root breakage, aeration, and moisture.
Here's my propagator for cuttings, in this case with figs.
My cuttings will root directly in soil, or a “soil” of some sort, actually a soil-less soil similar in makeup to most commercial potting mixes. That soil is nothing more than a mix of equal parts perlite, a “popped” volcanic rock, and peat moss. The perlite is for aeration; the peat moss is to hold moisture. (Coir, a byproduct of the coconut industry, or leaf mold could be substituted for the peat moss.)
Now here’s the cool part: After filling a large flowerpot with the rooting mix, I scooped out the center and put into the hole a smaller flowerpot. That smaller flowerpot has to be terra cotta and unglazed. It also needs it’s drainage hole plugged; some moldable wax, saved from when my daughter had braces, worked well. (I knew I had saved that wax all these years for something!) Rapping the large pot and pressing lightly on the soil ensured good contact and a continuous capillary connection between the water in the inner pot and the surrounding soil between the inside and outside pots.
I slid the cuttings into the circle of soil with only one or two upper buds showing. Until leaves appear, and there’s no rush, the only attention the pot needs is to keep the inner reservoir of soil filled with water. Once leaves appear, the cuttings need light.
Sometime I’ll have to figure out what to do with all my new fig plants.
New plants in the wings could have been the spark for a horticultural dream the night following setting up the propagator. In this dream, I lived in a large, modernistic house, the most significant features of which were its 3 stories and large, south-facing windows. I evidently wasn’t all that familiar with the house because I wandered around in amazement.
Not a bad guava harvest -- two delicious fruits!
And most amazing were the plants sitting in the windows: potted fruit plants of all sorts, everywhere I turned. In one window was a potted pawpaw tree, in another a peach, then a guava, and still other fruits in other windows. Turning to go down the stairway from the uppermost floor, I came upon small pots of strawberries. (The floors themselves were broad expanses of polished wood and furniture was sparse or absent.)
Most amazing was the shadow of a lush plant hanging in front of a shaded window. (In my waking life, I had that day put up a new window shade.) Coming closer, I saw that the plant in the hanging basket was a grape vine, a grape vine with a compact growth habit and that was loaded with tight bunches of delicious, ripe grapes.
The kumquats are almost ready for harvest.
In fact, much of the dream is not far-fetched. True, I do not live in a large, modernistic house of 3 stories. But some of my windows are, in fact, home to edible plants such as bay laurel and rosemary. I even have some fruiting plants, tropical and subtropical ones such as kumquat and guava rather than pawpaw, grape, and other temperate-zone plants that need to experience winter.
I harvested a guava a couple of weeks ago and the kumquats will start ripening next month. Fruiting takes energy, so these fruit plants sit near sunny windows. Indoor fruiting by a shaded window only works in dreamland.
In that same dream, I was in school. (I spent an inordinate number of years in school.) In the dream, I couldn’t keep track of my school assignments, even what classes I was taking or where. I was too preoccupied with caring for all those plants in all those windows at home.
It was good to wake up to a gardening lull.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Cold has yet to throw a wrench into salads fresh from the garden -- even though December 16th saw a night-time low of 12°F. Yes, the lettuce would be mush if unprotected but under the sheltering clear plastic and wooden sides of my 5 foot square cold frame, the plants are barely scathed. Just a few leaves wilted at their edges. Spinach that I sowed between the lettuce plants, for harvest after the lettuce is finished is still looking spry.
Plastic tunnels supported by wire hoops are offering almost as much cold protection over 3 garden beds. Beneath them, mustard greens, endive, and arugula don’t exactly thrive, but do survive.
A few fresh greens are even surviving out in the garden without any sort of protection whatsoever. That would include some arugula that was never covered as well as kale, what’s left of it, and mâche, the most cold-hardy of all salad greens.
Once temperatures plummet or the ground is blanketed with snow, fresh salads will come from the greenhouse, which, with night temperatures never allowed to drop below 37°F., is packed with lush greenery as if it were May.
Update: Lettuce in the cold frame is flagging after a night-time low of 8° a few days after that 12° low. Unprotected out in the garden, only mâche and kale survive.
The holiday tree, only a half a foot tall and ornamented with 3 silver balls, is cute as a button. It’s a Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla), a free gift I received a couple of weeks ago from a mail-order nursery. This tree will green up the darkest days of the year for year after year because it’s a tropical species that does well in the eternal warmth and somewhat dry air, in winter at least, of any home.
Over the years, the tree will lose its impishness and develop a straight, upright trunk off of which will grow relatively widely spaced, whorled tiers of horizontal branches, all clothed in green needles. With age, the plant becomes quite majestic. Too majestic, in fact, for any home. I have seen the spreading branches of this tree towering 40 feet or more over the tiled roofs of homes in tropical climates.
So what’s a gardener to do with such a plant, after years of nurturing it and watching it grow? One option, of course, is to bite the bullet and walk it over to the compost pile. Or it could be gifted to a friend with a higher ceiling, but that just shifts responsibility and puts off the inevitable. How about giving it to grandma for her front lawn in Florida?
A natural inclination for any real gardener in this situation would be to try to keep the plant going, not as its original self but in the form of a cutting. The rooted cutting, then, is genetically the same as the original plant, only a smaller version. Norfolk Island pine does root from cuttings especially, as with many conifers, if the cuttings are taken from young growth.
This plan has one problem: fixed plagiotropism. This botanical mouthful signifies the tendency for a horizontal shoot of certain plants to always retain its horizontal growth habit. Put more simply, if a cutting is rooted from one of Norfolk Island pine’s horizontal stems, that stem will always grow sideways to creep along a windowsill or wherever else the plant is growing. 
The solution to this problem is to take a cutting from the leading, upright stem. It the mother plant isn’t destined for composting, though, cutting out that leading stem does ruin its form. Also, because young cuttings root best, you might end up with only one cutting, perhaps two, from that short length of young, leading stem. Not much insurance for a plant that doesn’t root all that easily.
The leading, upright stem, of a plant can have the opposite inclination: fixed orthotropism, a permanent, upright growth habit. With other plants, their plagiotropism or orthotropism may be temporary.
Not so for Norfolk Island pine’s plagiotropism. I’ll figure out how to cross that plagiotropic bridge, or not, when I come to it.
(For further discussion of topophysis, which encompasses plagiotropism an orthotropism, and related topics on plant growth, see Plant Form: An Illustrated Guide to Flowering Plant Morphology by Adrian Bell and Alan Bryan.)