28 June 2009

A Month in Production

A quick glimpse at the calendar followed by an unbelieving double-take tell me that July is just around the bend, ready to pounce on me unawares and I find myself once again asking the question, "What'd I do with my Felcos?". Wait, wrong question...I had it here a minute it is..."Where does the time go?" That's more like it.

Just four short weeks ago I started a new work rotation in Greenhouse Production and already the time is a pleasant blur on the film reel of my memory. The month started over in the nursery and, as it is Mum Season at Longwood, several of us were tasked with potting up a bazillion rooted cuttings that will make their debut in the gardens come fall. It was a pleasant job; we were outdoors enjoying each other's company and witty conversation but it soon became obvious that potting up bazillions of mum cuttings would eventually tip the enjoyment scale to Extreme Tediousness. We began to get a bit punchy after a while and joked about being marooned in the mum field. I decided to leave some evidence of our existence should we perish there between the serried ranks of peat pots:

Day 1 - Potting up mum cuttings. Just when one flat is finished, more appear. With four of us working, surely will be done by day's end.

Day 2 - Still in the mum field. Still potting. Looking at the empty field, it seems no dent has been made. The cuttings keep arriving with no end in sight.

Day 3 - More mums! I fear the toil is beginning to wear on us; Greg is wearing a peat pot on his head. Must find a way of escape before we all go completely potty!

And so on.

These are the mums, which arrive as rooted cuttings. Each cultivar is tagged with the name and number of cuttings in each pack. They're potted two to a pot, watered in, and schlepped out to the never ending Mum Field.

Fellow inmates, I mean work-mates, Greg, Jess, and Naoko (who is obviously feeling the toll of the endless stream of mums!).
And then we start to go a little doolally...We did actually get to spend some time in the nursery greenhouses. Here, we're battening down the hatches in anticipation of an approaching storm. The sky doesn't look too ominous yet but minutes after this was taken we enjoyed an amazing spectacle of blinding lightning, deafening thunder, and pelting rain. The power even went out momentarily. Good times!

The storm didn't phase these two (Nurseryman Matt and fellow PG Kenny).
Every work place has its own brand of silly.One day Greg and I were given a pardon, I mean transfer, to the large production greenhouses behind the conservatory and spent an educational day learning the why's and how's of various greenhouse growing mediums. We were to pot up some baby lemon trees but needed to produce the correct medium first. This green monster is the soil machine. It is capable of mixing any number of mediums for growing any number of different plants in containers with any number of soil requirements. Each hopper is filled with peat moss, compost, garden soil, perlite or vermiculite, sand, fertilizer, lime, etc. A computer program stores all the different soil recipes so once the hoppers are loaded and ready to go, all you do is click and voila! You've got soil! Greg, well upholstered and masked, prepares to load peat moss into the hopper.
Meanwhile, out in the garden, our protracted spring continues to bring unexpected delights. Out for a stroll in the gardens one day, I was stopped by this cardinal who landed in the path before me and just sat there watching me (where's a zoom lens when you need it?).

One rare sunny afternoon in my student garden brought quite a surprise. I kept hearing this strange whooshing noise and couldn't figure out where it was coming from. I found myself stealing covert glances toward the water tower at the west end of the field, wondering if it was about to explode. Then the noise was suddenly louder and came from the north. Next thing I knew, this balloon loomed over the shrubbery and was headed smack dab for The Row!

It appeared to narrowly miss one of the houses by a few feet, floated over the gardens gaining altitude, and disappeared over the Boiler Room Woods. I remembered that Boz Scaggs was performing in the Open Air Theater that night and wondered if that was his theatrical entrance - there's definitely enough room in the Cow Lot next to the theater to land a hot air balloon, and that is something I would LOVE to see - but my housemate Jamie told me later that the balloon landed in the open field next to the picnic area across the road.
Marveling at this unexpected twilight spectacle, I returned to gardening and walked a bucket of weeds down to the compost area where one of the bee hives is located. Through the tall grass I noticed something covering the bottom of the hive and crept closer for a better look.
The bees were all coming in after a long day collecting pollen and this is the resulting traffic jam!
Back in the greenhouses, some of the interns and PGs were treated to a crash course in training standards. Sharon, a fourteen-year veteran of greenhouse growing at Longwood, showed us how standards are trained, grown on, pinched, shaped, coaxed and otherwise tortured into shape. As an added bonus, we were each given two plants to train and grow (I suddenly had flashbacks to a high school health science class project!). This is my mum standard (Gah! More mums!?), a cultivar called 'Gum Drop'. Can't wait to see what the flowers look like! I also chose to train a Rosemary standard, which is nothing more than a single stem at this point. Once it reaches the top of the bamboo cane in the pot, I'll pinch the tip to encourage branching and start to shape it. The whole process takes months, sometimes years. If you're into instant gratification, training standards is not for you! You cannot say you have not been warned!

By far my favorite part of Greenhouse Production was working in the propagation house. Here is it is in all its misty glory (it's always nice to be in the propagation house leaning close to the little plants checking your work when the misters come on and douse you without warning!).

One of my favorite jobs in the greenhouse was sticking cuttings. Several stock plants are kept and propagated, the new plants grown on for use in the display gardens. So one day I got to propagate Coleus, Plectranthus, and Osteospermum. George, who's in charge of the propagation house, told us that you can stick Coleus upside-down and it'll root, which kind of takes some of the challenge out of it for me, but I was glad to be able to practice my propagation skills on such a willing specimen! The number of cuttings required from each stock plant is noted on the crop list so from this one I took 25 tip cuttings, stuck them in a cell flat, then sat back and admired the neat little plants.
There's only one problem with propagating Coleus. After taking the requisite number of cuttings for production, I had to take more for myself! It's all in the name of education, after all, and I am here to acquire new horticultural skills, am I not? Unfortunately, it's become something of a sickness and now I have not one, but two flats of various cuttings on the mist bench waiting to root in!

Just think of all the fabulous new plants these will make! It calls to mind a passage from one of my favorite garden authors, Beverly Nichols, who had a unique way of viewing propagation by cuttings:

"Do you not realize that the whole thing is miraculous? Surely, you would be surprised if, having snipped off your little finger, and pushed it into a flower pot, you were to find a miniature edition of yourself in the flower pot a day later."

Deciding against snipping off my little finger but having gotten a taste for multiplying plants, I wanted more! The most exciting day was when I was given the opportunity to do my first bud graft! Not being one to shy away from a blade (gosh, I miss my epee!) I jumped at the chance to perform botanical surgery!

What is grafting, you might ask? In short, it's a method of asexual plant propagation where the tissues of one plant are encouraged to fuse with those of another. Many commercially grown plants are grafted: most roses, for example, are grafted (ever notice the knot at the base of a rose? That's the graft point). The plant chosen for its roots is called the rootstock and the plant with the characteristics that the grower wants to replicate is called the scion (remember those terms, there will be a quiz later).

The Christmas displays at Longwood are nothing if not lavish and feature more Poinsettias than you can shake a candy cane at. The purpose of this grafting exercise was to produce Poinsettia standards (and the two lessons merge into zen!). The rootstock is a tall, upright variety and grafted to it about 6 or 7 feet from the base is a variety with a more droopy habit. Some grafts were made a few weeks prior and a few didn't take, so new grafts are being made as back ups. You can see the wound left where a failed graft was. The one below it is still green so there's a good chance it will take.

To do a bud graft, you first assemble all the tools and cuttings needed.

Taking a really sharp sterilized knife, a 'T' shaped cut is made in the stem of the patient, er, root stock at the desired height (part of me really wanted to don a white lab coat, latex gloves, surgical mask, and bark out 'scalpel!' to a waiting assistant). Then a sturdy bud is chosen and carefully shaved from the scion. The flaps of the cut are gently teased apart and the new bud is inserted. Ideally, the top part of the scion bud would be inserted as well but in this case, the root stock is pretty woody and it would be difficult to make the cut larger without increasing the chance of susceptibility to infection from pests or disease.

Jill learns the fine art of bud grafting while Lindsay looks on.
And then it was my turn - My first plant surgery!

Once the new bud is in place, we wrapped it with stretchy paraffin film to keep moisture in and help ensure good contact with the root stock. The film is then secured with rubber bands, the bud is sternly admonished to grow, dammit! and the plant is spirited back to the greenhouse where it will be watered, fed, monitored, sung to, etc. until the bud decides whether or not it's going to cooperate.

Assuming it does (and it better, by gum, because my name is now on the tag and my reputation is at stake!) it will be patiently trained into a beautiful standard like these. In three or so years it'll be big enough to star in the Christmas display!

So that was the short version of June. Thanks for reading and come back again soon, y'hear? And now a word from our Sponsor:

The Longwood PG Program Wants YOU!

27 June 2009

Totally monoecious, dude!

It's a Boy! uh, Girl! No, it's a boy and a girl!

Sow date: May 17, 2009
Germination date: May 25, 2009
Bloom date: June 27, 2009

Male flower of Zucchini 'Black Beauty'

Female flower, same plant.

26 June 2009

Flower Friday

Yes, yes, I know I'm overdue for a Flower Friday post. I've been having fun, I mean working hard, and trying to blog about all the other stuff going on, too. Like the beetles eating my zucchini (Rar!). But I happen to know at least one reader who really likes the pretty posies so without further ado:

The lilies in front of my house are ready for their close-ups (don't know the cultivar, though).
A lovely Hydrangea in Pierce's Woods

Actaea racemosa (Black Snake Root or Black Cohosh), formerly known as Cimicifuga racemosa, which I think is much more fun to say. This plant was used by Native Americans as a remedy for arthritis, muscle pain, sore throat, cough and indigestion. Yet another common name, Bugbane, refers to its insect repellent qualities (this is why you need to learn the botanic names for plants! Imagine the confusion if you were to go to your local nursery and ask for Bugbane when they only knew it as Black Cohosh, or vice versa. Even worse, imagine asking for Snake Root and having the sales person give you funny looks. It's bad enough when I insist on calling it Cimicifuga and the nursery help has never heard of it at all!). 'Course, some of the noted side effects of using this herbal remedy are far worse than the original condition, so think twice before you rush out and start gnawing on your garden!

Not a flower, I know, but the foliage sure is perty! And with a name like Coleus 'Fishnet Stocking', how can you resist? I couldn't, and took several cuttings while working in the propagation house this week!

This is one of the plants we have to know for our Deciduous Flowering Shrubs class. Can you see the fussy little headless chickens?How about now!?
I always get excited when I manage to come even remotely close to identifying a new plant so when I correctly guessed that this Stylophorum diphyllum (Celandine Poppy), seen at Jenkins Arboretum, was in the poppy family I gave myself a nice "Atta-girl"! Another common name for this one is Wood Poppy, probably because it likes the dappled shade that a woodland environment is happy to give it. There's a noxious weed in these parts called Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata) that was introduced by European settlers who used it as a culinary herb. It decided it really liked the eastern side of the US, especially those dappled woods, and promptly took over. The roots produce alellochemicals (oooh...big word) that harm the micorrhizal fungi (oooh...even bigger words) in the soil that many of our native plants rely on for growth. Consequently, it's threatening many species in the woods out here from huge trees to this poor little Wood Poppy. The Garlic Mustard also confuses the West Virginia White Butterfly and the Mustard White Butterfly because it so closely resembles the native Dentaria (Toothwort; don't you just love these common names!) on which they lay their eggs. The butterfly larvae can't survive on the Garlic Mustard because it's toxic to them. So I say, Down With Garlic Mustard! Save the Wood Poppies and Butterflies!

Spigelia marilandica (Indian Pink)
Aesculus parviflora (Bottlebrush Buckeye)
Asclepias syriaca, commonly called Common Milkweed, Butterfly flower, Silkweed, Silky Swallow-wort, or Virginia Silkweed. This pic isn't nearly as awesome as the one Emma got of the bee coming in for a landing.

22 June 2009

How Does My Garden Grow? (or The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly of Gardening)

It certainly has been a challenging season, or so I'm told. Everyone keeps saying how it's been an unusually wet spring and summer. Coming from LA, anything over the annual 12.8-inch average is unseasonable but so far this year, we've gotten that much if not more in just a few short months. To be honest, I've gotten spoiled by the rain - it means I don't have to remember to water my garden!
So while all my So Cal gardening friends turn green with envy, let me take you on a Weeder's Digest tour of my garden. Remember that bare bit of earth back in April?
Not so bare any more...
This is what it looked like a few weeks ago. I planted tomatoes under each of the bamboo tee-pees but one of them carried a disease from the grower. I've since replaced that plant with two others but the first one imported the disease to the soil and the two replacements have each croaked. I've had to give up on tomatoes in that spot so I planted a vine on the tee-pee instead. In the beds behind the tee-pees I have an Artichoke and recently planted some 'Turks Turban' squash (don't get me started on what the dastardly striped cucumber beetles are doing to the poor helpless seedlings!). In the bed opposite, the 'Mottistone' lettuce, white onions, and two kinds of cabbage are filling in nicely.

Then......and now.I do get a little help from my friends, too. One of my rounds of bug hunting turned up this little guy. Since I couldn't immediately identify it as friend or foe I spared its life until I could figure out which it was. Good thing, too, because this is a Pyractomena angulata, otherwise known as a firefly.
A word about fireflies: we don't have them in So Cal but I can remember visiting my grandparents in Arkansas and catching the little critters in mason jars. When I came to Longwood, I really didn't even think about what sorts of entomological specimens I would find but the night I walked into the garden and saw them sparkling with soft yellow lights was one of the most magical sights in recent memory. There are few things as romantic as working in the garden at dusk by the light of the fireflies (except maybe candle-lit dinners, long walks on the beach, or a box of dark chocolate on Valentine's Day, preferably 70% organic cacao). I'm convinced that when it comes to fireflies, we're all just little kids inside and I view these twinkling bugs with great fondness. As far as I'm concerned, they can hang out in my garden any time.

Another good guy that's one of my favorites is the Praying Mantis. I had many of them in my garden in LA and always enjoyed watching them watch me. When I found an egg sac attached to a twig in the meadow, I decided that it would be better off in my garden and brought it home. It hatched recently and one of the former residents and I came nose to nose when I was inspecting the lettuce.
Meanwhile, I kept noticing another garden visitor with increasing frequency. A little rufous bird would park on the rebar tree or atop the bamboo tee-pee and chatter away while I worked.

It seemed that every evening when I went out the garden he would be there waiting for me to turn the soil and reveal a tasty new snack. Knowing that an inch-long Praying Mantis egg sac can easily contain hundreds of little baby Manti (Mantises?), and having seen only the one, I began to suspect that my new bird friend was getting fat on my beneficials! It took a while to identify him but I finally managed to figure out he's a Chipping Sparrow. So I named him Chip. This from a person who had a pet rabbit named Bunny. I'm obviously very creative in the pet name department.

You've already met the evil striped cucumber beetles. I noticed that they were going to town on a weed that popped up in the mulched path so I left the weed there in the hopes that the bugs would eat it and leave the squash alone.

In spite of their voracious appetites, the squash is picking up speed and putting on new flowers and fruit daily.

My other market crop, the onions, are getting by just fine. Seemingly impervious to pest or disease, they're going crazy and seem to be earning their keep by repelling any pests that think they might nibble on the basil or parsley.

On the other end of the insect spectrum is this slug. This wasn't your average garden variety slug, this was a slug on steroids. This thing could have been in a Godzilla movie. It was HUGE!

I wasn't about to squish this monster with bare hands so it received a complimentary flying lesson and was launched into the adjacent field.

Over in the Honeymoon Suite, these cabbage moths were enjoying each other's company.
Their progeny are these cabbage loopers that make an otherwise pristine cabbage leaf look like Swiss cheese. They get a squeeze whenever I see them.
Other pests that damage crops are slightly larger and more difficult to deal with. Like deer. Who think my garden is their personal salad bar.
I wanted to do a little experiment since this is my first foray into lettuce farming and let some of the heads bloom. Lettuce flowers are reputed to be quite lovely as well attractive to many species of Lepidoptera so I was eagerly anticipating the show.
And then Bambi came by...

I did harvest some lettuce and make a tasty salad for myself.
The various corn fields are happy and thriving. The sweet corn is about thigh-high now and the broom corn is growing fabulously! Pretty soon I'll be on the lookout for craft fairs and making weekend pilgrimages to Amish Country in search of some artsy handmade brooms so I can study up on construction methods and materials.That's Bambi's foot print in the broom corn. Rar!!!

My giant sunflower seedlings are living up to their name and following the sun.

That's the latest installment on my adventures in farming. According to the weather forecast, sunny skies are coming which means things should take another leap. That's the fun of gardening in a climate like this one - every week it's a new garden!

I am Chip and I approve this message.