Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Garden Professing

I'm blogging somewhere new! I have recently joined the team over at The Garden Professors and am blogging periodically for them, along with the rest of the good folks there. I'm very excited, it is a terrific group of people, and I'm really enjoying interacting with and writing with them! I'll still (probably) blog here from time to time on things of a more personal nature, but my "sciency" posts will all be over there from now on. My latest post there is here, and an earlier one I'm rather happy with is here. You can of course follow that blog, and also check out the garden professors facebook page and group for all your sciency garden discussion needs.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

My favorite vegetable varieties this year

We've had a cool, rainy summer this year here in Michigan, which I have loved, but it has been hard on the traditional vegetables of summer, the tomatoes, peppers, and squash, that love a little heat. But poor growing conditions can be nice in one way: They serve to highlight the very toughest varieties that really perform no matter what. Here's what I'm loving in the garden this year:

Tomato 'Matt's Wild Cherry'
I've long been a huge fan of this tomato. The flavor is off the charts -- sweet, rich, juicy and wonderful. It even beats the always delicious 'Sun Gold' as my very favorite tasting cherry tomato. But what really puts it over the top is the sheer vigor, yield, and disease resistance. Cool wet weather like we've had this year is an invitation to every fungus in the garden to beat up on the tomatoes, and all my other varieties are a mass of ugly brown blighted foliage. But not Matt's Wild Cherry -- it is green and pristine, not a speak of blight or leaf spot.

Pepper 'Flavor Burst'
This is a new variety for me this year, and I'll confess I bought it just for the name. I mean, Flavor Burst! How could I pass that up? In reality, I have to say that the flavor isn't particularly noteworthy, good, but typical bell pepper, but the performance! Big bell peppers always grow for me, but with my cold, short summers, I don't usually get much of a crop from them, usually just a few peppers that I can harvest full ripe and colored up, the rest are still green when frost arrives. But Flavor Burst has not only been the earliest ripe of ALL my peppers, sweet or hot, this year, the plant is also nearly twice the size of any of my other bell peppers, and loaded with way more peppers than any of them. This is my new gold standard for bell peppers for the north.

Zucchini 'Costata Romanesco'

I've been in love with this variety for a long time... and every year it proves yet again that no other zucchini can come close to matching it. The zucchinis this produces have a wonderful nutty, rich flavored. And the texture! Most zucchini, if you even think about cooking it too long, collapses into a pool of wet mush... this holds up firm with an excellent creamy texture even after prolonged cooking. Another plus, it produced about half the yield of a normal zucchini, which means you have enough for nearly every meal, but not so much you resort to throwing it into the open windows of passing cars. Finally, it is lovely and distinctive looking. The ribs down the zucchini means that when you slice it, the forms little star shapes. Can. Not. Be. Beat.

Squash Mini Red Turban 

Another new variety for me this year, and one I will certainly be doing again. First, this is a Cucurbita maxima variety, which is great because this species has great flavor and a very long storage life so you can eat them all winter. Second, it is lovely. Pretty enough to be displayed for fall decoration, to be sure. Third, it isn't too large, so I can cook up just enough for a meal instead of having to figure out what to do with a massive squash all at once. And fourth, it is producing like MAD. I've never had a winter squash yield so heavily. I think I'm going to have 20 maybe even 30 of these things by the end of the season... and that is in a summer that has been generally terrible for squash! 

So... those are my winners this year. Any favorites you have that I should try out next year? 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Native, gorgeous, and very much under appreciated

Let's just start with  photo:

Meet Mentzelia decapetala! (EDIT: Panayoti says this is actually Mentzelia nuda, and I think he is right.) I've been growing this plant a couple years, and it is officially one of my top plant crushes. It is native to a big swath of the middle of the US, basically the plains states... Notably tolerant of harsh, dry conditions, I feared it would simply rot in cool, soggy Michigan (which has been even cooler and soggier than usual this year) but I couldn't have been more wrong:

It has settled right in and has been pumping out these gorgeous flowers since the beginning of July. There are only two things you should know about this plant before getting yourself one: First, it is an evening bloomer. For me, the flowers open around 4 or 5 in the afternoon. Which I honestly rather like... there is something charming about the garden taking on a different character in the evening, and of course the pale blooms just glow in the evening light. The other thing is that, like many prairie plants, it is a bit floppy, probably especially so in my wet soil. That's easily solved, though, simply cut it back early in the season and it will grow into a nice bushy, compact, three-foot sphere of these amazing blooms.

Here is my other beloved and much under appreciated US native:

Salvia azurea. I LOVE THAT SHADE OF BLUE SO MUCH!!!!
Ahem. Sorry about that. Let me calm myself.
But you have to admit, that is a pretty darn dynamite shade of blue.

I always used to think that all the really pretty salvias weren't hardy. But this is the exception to that. S. azurea is native, again, mostly to the plains states, though the range comes further East, and it is an absolutely tough, hardy, and effortless to grow plant. It is a late summer/fall bloomer... and how about that luscious shade of blue with some good hardy mums? Can't be beat.

I love this plant so much that I have (of course...) started doing a little breeding with it. The plant pictured above is my very earliest flowering one, quite a few weeks earlier than most of the species. I'm also breeding for shorter plants that don't flop over, which the species is pretty prone to.
This is my best seedling for that trait -- a nice compact three feet tall. You can see the more usual loose, sprawly habit of the plants in the background... This one will be later blooming as you can see, but I'm very happy with that growth habit.

And then unexpected things pop up, as they do in breeding projects...
White flowers! I'm not sure how I feel about that exactly... I mean, the blue color is what I love so much about this plant. But the white IS kind of pretty too. What do you think? Would you ever grow the white one, or stick with the blue?

Friday, August 1, 2014

Podcasting with Ken Druse

I had a blast chatting with the legendary Ken Druse on his podcast this week! Check it out here.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

My new favorite website: Encyclopedia of Life

I'm pretty much head over heels in love with this website: Encyclopedia of Life. It is a massive effort to create one huge database for information about all of life. I'd stumbled on the website once or twice before, I think, but it must have been early in the stages of development, because I came away unimpressed. But recently I was contacted be the director of operations to see if I could give some feedback on the project (and when someone's contact information includes the words "Smithsonian Institution" you don't say no) and I am BLOWN away. Such an incredible resource for plant lovers!

The site is great to find good information on incredibly obscure plants... for example, my friend Kelly Norris recently has been gloating on facebook about his Silphium albiflorum. It is a lovely plant I know basically nothing about...

Type that name into eol, and I get tons of great stuff:


Pictures, ranging from herbarium sheets to the whole plant habit to close ups of the flowers!

Maps, showing where exactly this has been observed in herbarium records, giving an approximation of the range of the plant:
No, you aren't going blind... there are just TWO tiny spots there in texas. Not a big range on this thing.

These maps a really useful when I'm trying to figure out how hardy something might be. For example, I'm all gaga for Ononis right now, but most of the things I'm growing are basically not in cultivation, so it is hard to get information on how hardy they are.

Type Ononis spinosa into EOL, and...

Those yellow spots go PRETTY far North... don't think winter cold is going to be a problem.

Ononis cenisia (syn, O. cristata) on the other hand...
Doesn't look to promising. We'll see. But I'll be sure to give it some extra protection just in case.

EOL also rocks because it is just for organisms... So you can search for plant names without getting a lot of other clutter.

For example, a Google search for Fabiana gives me this:
Um... NOT quite what I was looking for...

But EOL gives me this:
MUCH better.

The other thing I love about this is getting the proper names for plants. As I learned in my podcast about the naming of plants, there is no organization that decides on one official scientific name for a plant. Rather, if a scientist thinks as name should change, they publish a paper saying so and why, and if other scientists think that makes sense, they start using the new name, and if they don't, they don't. Official names are arrived at by slow consensus... which makes it confusing for the poor gardener who just wants to know the dang name is.

So... if I want to know about, say, bleeding heart, I type Dicentra spectabilis  into EOL, go to the names tab, and I see this:

Three different sources, all listing the possible names of this plant, with the name they prefer marked with a green spot. So, I can see that one has switched to the new Lamprocapnos, but the other two are sticking with Dicentra, which makes me feel fine about staying with Dicentra as well, even though the only reason I don't want it to change is because I can't SPELL Lampro-whateveritis.

But when I do the same thing with Anemonella... turns out they all agree it is Thalictrum now. Guess I'm going to have to get used to that one...

Other cool things to do with EOL:

Find pictures that drive my ever growing obsession with Gladiolus into even wilder frenzy:

And browse randomly to discover useful facts like that a Koala weighs 0.36 grams at birth, or discover that raccoons first appeared between 1.8 and 4.9 million years ago, and there are TWO references which say that raccoons feed on american alligators! That is has got to be a bad ass raccoon. 

In short, it is a delightful rabbit hole of delightful information! I'm thoroughly entranced.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Accidental petunia gene theft.

I think I'm accidentally stealing patented genes. Of a petunia all things, too!

I always say that I hate petunias... it is a classic case of graduate school research induced loathing. Spend enough time doing research on them, and you'd hate them too. But I do have a few in my garden every year. Not the normal ones -- I grow a raggedy, sprawling mess, descended from hybrids between Petunia axillaris, P. exerta, with a wee bit of P. integrifolia for good measure.
They're nothing like the neat, tidy little moundy commercial varieties, but I like them, especially because they're powerfully fragrant. Every year I sniff them all, note the most fragrant ones, and save seed from them for the next year, along with some seeds of anything else that I like particularly well. This isn't a breeding project aimed at commercial release, just a pleasant side note in my garden.

But this year I'm afraid they've crossed into legally murky territory... Because of this:
This is one of my plants this year... and honestly, I kind of love it. The color is cool, but more importantly, it is by far the best and strongest scented petunia I've grown, even during the day (most petunias are most fragrant at night). But the problem? It looks to me a lot like the variety 'Dusty Rose'. Which the couple next door grew in my old neighborhood. I'm fairly confident that this color pattern popped up because a bee or moth carried pollen from their 'Dusty Rose' to my rambly, weedy, petunia patch.

Which normally wouldn't be a problem. But 'Dusty Rose' is protected by a utility patent.

Most patented plants have "Plant Variety Protection" -- which means you aren't allowed to clone the variety (cuttings, division, tissue culture) without permission of the patent holder. So you can't take cuttings of a 'Knock-Out' rose without permission of the breeder. But, you can collect seeds from your 'Knock-Out' and grow them and even, if you wanted to, get your own plant variety protection on the seedlings.

But increasingly new annuals like petunias are being protected with utility patents, which prohibit not just unauthorized cuttings of the plant, but any unauthorized breeding with the plant. So you can't save seeds, or pollinate another plant, or, you know, let the neighborhood bees slip some pollen into your population. This is famously the type of patent used on genetically engineered varieties of corn and soy beans, but is now increasingly being used for conventionally bred varieties of petunias, impatiens, even lettuce.

I'm pretty sure that the patent holder, (Ball Horticultural in this case, though all the big breeding companies are using these types of patents now) owns the rights to this petunia... To be sure, they almost certainly don't care as long as I don't try to make money off this seedling or any of its siblings. It wouldn't be worth their time or money (or bad PR) to sue me for a silly seedling in my garden.

But still... I kind of don't like feeling like a company has ownership over my very personal weedy, rambling, fragrant, petunia patch. I could yank out the individuals with the tell-tale yellow centers to the flowers, but that wouldn't actually guarantee that the patented genes aren't in other individuals in the population. And it IS kinda pretty. So I think I'll keep it. Hopefully I don't get sued.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Hardy artichokes!

Is it just me, or does "Hardy Artichokes!" sound like it should be a folksy expletive?  Hardy artichokes Batman! Well. Anyway.
Artichokes are delicious but rather annoying to grow. They're perennials, but not big fans of hot summers, and not very winter hardy either. Which is why 99% of the commercial production is in cool summer parts of California. You can also grow them as an annual, but that is sort of a pain, as you have to make sure you give the seedlings a dose of cold temperatures when they're young to ensure they flower. More work than I'm really willing to do, particularly in the already insanely busy period if early spring.
What the world needs (and by "the world" I mean, of course, me) is a fully zone 5 hardy artichoke you can just plant once and then harvest from every year.
So I decided to make one. It started several years ago when I requested seed from every variety of artichoke (and cardoon, which is the same plant, just selected for tasty leaf stalks instead of flower buds) I could get, and planted them in the warmest, most sheltered spot in my old garden, along the South wall of my very poorly insulated house.
Baby artichoke plant huddling for warmth by the south wall of my old house
As luck would have it, that first winter was incredibly mild, and though most of the plants died, a few -- the most cold hardy -- survived!

It's alive! Despite appearance to the contrary.
These artichoke plants look rather rough when they first emerged that spring, but they were alive, so I greeted them with joy, in all their mushy weird-looking glory.

If you don't eat the artichoke, it turns into this. 
They flowered that summer, and I let the bees cross pollinate all my toughest survivors, collected seeds, and sowed out another generation. The next winter came, and my little babies faced -17 degrees F (-27 C) and...

Two survived! Two! Yay! Then this past winter came, and apparently all the Pure Michigan ads trying to lure tourists to this fair state worked, because the polar vortex came for a couple week vacation, causing temperatures to drop to -24 F (-31 C), and for a full week temps barely got above 0 F (-17 C)... I figured for sure my "hardy" plants were goners.

But gone they most certainly aren't! BOTH of them pulled through, and there you have wee little artichokes just beginning to develop! Zone 5 hardy artichokes, baby!

Now, I must confess that the artichokes themselves are quite small. I've got quite a bit more work to do on these to get them as big and beefy as the regular tender 'chokes, but I'm still quite euphoric. I've cleared the biggest hurdle, the rest will be easy, if a bit time consuming.

In other seemingly good news, this spring I also had two plants from my project to try and breed zone 5 hardy perennial kale survive the winter as well!


Then the groundhogs found them. Grrr... Chicken wire fence is now in place. Hopefully they'll recover. Have I mentioned that I hate groundhogs? And deer? And rabbits? And squirrels? And... well, honestly, most herbivorous mammals?

Anyway, cold climate artichoke lovers, rejoice! Hardiness has arrived! Unless you live in zone 4. Or 3. In which case... sorry about your luck. I've gotten them to 5. You'll have to take it from here.