30 July 2009

The Pansy Chronicles - More Pansies!

Four weeks ago I sowed a packet of seeds and now look at them!

This particular mix of Pansies is my seed crop for the course in Greenhouse Management. The ultimate goal is to produce a commercially viable crop to sell at our fall plant sale. Lest you think it's just a matter of water and fertilizer, let me tell you what all goes on in Pansy-Land.

We sowed the seed and placed the trays on the mist bench until we saw signs of germination (about 6 days). The trays were then whisked off to our assigned benches for growing on. Once the cotyledons, or seed leaves, were all present and accounted for - and even some of the first sets of true leaves (about 9 more days) - the teeny seedlings were pricked out to cell flats (a plastic liner consisting of 12 6-packs).

Gavin demonstrates the fine art of transplanting seedlings My requisite three trays (July 17) with some to spare

Once the newly transplanted seedlings had some time to acclamate to their new surroundings, the science of Pansy growing began. Each week we engage in a ritual known as root media pH and EC monitoring. Huh? Soil pH is a measure of the acidity or alkalinity of the soil substrate. Measured on a scale of 0 - 14, 7 is neutral. Anything less is acid, anything more is alkaline. Soil pH can be adjusted up or down by the addition of certain elements. Pansies happen to enjoy a bit of an acid trip and prefer a pH between 5.4-5.8 for the type of root media we're using.

And what is EC, you ask? EC stands for Electro-conductivity. Simply put, it's a measure of the soluable salts in the soil solution (say that five times fast!). You see, soil nutrients are present in the soil solution as charged ions. There are positively charged ions called 'cations' and negatively charged ions called 'anions'. The nutrient ions are transferred across the negatively charged root surface into the plant cells. Too much salt (high EC) impedes this exchange which can, in turn, negatively influence plant growth by burning the tender root tips, which further restricts water and nutrient uptake.

Conversely, too little salt (low EC) and the plant will suffer from lack of fertilizer. Nitrogen and Phosphorus in particular are not taken up by the plant and it becomes malnourished, stunting growth.


Think of it this way, Pansies like it 'just right' so we monitor the pH and EC to keep it that way. This entails saturating the root media, collecting the leachate (water that runs out the bottom of the flat), measuring the amount collected, then testing the EC and pH with a handy-dandy little probe, and adjusting our fertilizer regime accordingly. Tracking the numbers this way allows us to make adjustments before the plant begins exhibiting outward signs of nutrient stress.

As if that weren't enough, we have the additional challenge of growing this crop in the greenhouse. In the middle of summer. When a power outage caused the greenhouse to reach 102 degrees F. The trick is not to let the plants get too tall and leggy, which is a balancing act between the amount of fertilizer, temperature, and light.

Don't get me started on Plant Growth Regulators; trust me, you'll be sorry.

The same plants as above (July 29)

20 July 2009

Ceci n'est pas un jardin

Poet Laureate Alfred Austin once said, "Show me your garden and I shall tell you what you are." It's been fascinating to watch our student gardens grow and to note how much they reflect the personality of the designers. Since I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm no designer, my ornamental garden has been more of an experiement. A collection. A non-garden, if you will.

When faced with 225 sq. ft. of nothing I did what any intelligent non-designer would do; I procrastinated! Consequently, my garden is lagging a bit compared to my esteemed classmates' gardens but then I'm the only one from west of the Rockies and my sense of when to plant what in zone 6b is slightly askew. So, after much dithering on the lawn, I finally set about making my garden.

The beginning: a square, some brick, a container, and a tree. I was rather pleased with my 'draw bridge', which is nothing more than a long stone slate set ever so slightly outside the boundary of the garden. The sharp edging forms a slight depression under the stone where I hope a friendly bad-bug eating toad will condescend to make his home.
Initially I thought it would be fun to have a distinct theme in each quadrant but that light bulb in my brain refused to fire up no matter how many times I flicked the switch. The other issue was the bounty of plants generously donated by Longwood in the form of production extras or plants past their prime and not fit for display in the public gardens. Not being one to refuse free plants, the idea of a theme had to be chucked out the window because I couldn't count on receiving a collection of, say, ornamental grasses gratis. I could, however, put an exclamation point in each quad with the plants coming my way.

The southeast quad is home to what I hope will be a towering Cardoon. Since I planted it late and the weather's been slightly left of normal, it's not shooting up as quickly as I thought it would. I anticipated it to take up quite a bit of space, hence the bareness around it. Salvaging yet another rebar tree, I started seed of a Thunbergia alata 'White-Eyed Susie' to grow on it, thinking the white blossoms would glow in the moonlight and be a soft backdrop for the jagged leaves of the Cardoon. Below the tree are planted some Caryopteris ‘Inoveris ‘ Grand Bleu ™, a gift from one of Longwood's Mum experts, Yoko, in the nursery. In time they will become a nice little hedge with misty blue flowers.On the southwest side, another nursery gift, the Cercidiphyllum japonica, takes center stage. This tree will eventually reach 40' - 60' in height and width. We saw a jaw-dropping specimen at the Morris Arboretum that could easily house a Swiss family of Robinsons. It is reputed to have spectacular fall color and the scent of caramel or cotton candy. Since this tree was unknown to me until I came to PA, I can't wait to find out!

Also in this quadrant are some Hemerocallis 'Stella d'Oro' from my friend and future boss Gavin, some green zinnias I grew from seed which came from my housemate's garden in suburban Philly, a couple of Phlomis tuberosa 'Pink Flamingo' (one isn't doing so hot - I suspect it got trampled by a nocturnal critter with evil intentions), some Shasta Daisies and a Sulphur Buckwheat. The Phlomis and Shastas are also taking their sweet time but should fill up quite a bit of space once they decide to get on with it.The northwest lot is the wild child, which I tried to keep somewhat contained with a boundary of Marigolds.
The Verbena bonariensis is going gangbusters and the Asclepias plugs from the nursery are starting to compete. They're also beginning to attract aphids but I refuse to spray with anything because there are also Monarch caterpillars in residence (oh, sorry, forgot my entomology training already - Danaus plexippus larvae). There are Easter Lilies planted along the rear border that should be trumpeting this time next year as well.
Some Ratibia columnifera 'Mexican Hat' and Tanacetum coccineum 'Robinson's Dark Crimson' lend a meadowy feel, while I was pleased as can be to watch two humming birds duke it out over the blue Salvia.

You might notice the forlorn little stem in the center. That was supposed to be the Exclamation Mark. I started some Heirloom Titan giant sunflowers from seed that would have reached up to 12' tall...until Bambi invited some friends over for supper. It's a goner, so in its place will go a nice Pennisetum from Gavin's collection. There are three other sunflowers behind the herb bed and so far they haven't been nibbled but next year they're getting planted with some sturdy lengths of bamboo to hold them up. The storm that rolled through last week really did a number on them. Don't even get me started on what it did to my corn!Probably my favorite corner is the Herb Garden. Surrounding the container garden are a variety of herbs, some of which I'd grown before, some not.
The Borage were a gift from my new friends the Rebers, and had self sown in their garden. Now that they've filled out and are bedecked with lovely blue flowers, they absolutely throb with bees. The Fennel was intended to attract butterflies and their larvae but I've yet to find any. Meanwhile I enjoy the feathery texture and sunny blooms.
The Chamomile is in full bloom and the Stevia is happy as can be. I've been using Stevia powder to sweeten my coffee and tea for ages, so I'm interested in learning how to harvest the plant for its sweetening abilities.In the container, the smoky foliage of the Pennisetum glaucum 'Purple Majesty' plays well with the two Datura (one dark, one light) and the Salvia discolor. A couple of container tomatoes succumbed to the deer but the variegated silver Thyme has moved in to fill the void.
One of my favorite ornamentals, which is actually in the veg garden, is this Mina lobata, also called 'Firecracker Vine' or 'Exotic Love Vine'. I first saw it at Great Dixter in England and knew right then and there I had to have it. I bought seed from Dixter's shop and voila! A bit of England in my garden. The inflorescence starts off with the colors of the sunset that fade to pale cream as the flowers mature. The hummingbirds adore it, but so does Bambi and friends.
As the student gardens are meant to be teaching as well as learning gardens, labels are a mandatory accessory. The only rule was that we had to have them, what we made them with was entirely up to us. Shannon used pieces of cork, Gavin used seed pods from the Kentucky Coffee Tree and a silver Sharpie, Steven paid exhorbitant sums for fancy copper labels, Suzanne made hers on the computer and laminated them. I recalled the black plant labels I saw in the garden at Coton Manor and how sharp and sophisticated they looked. They also blended into the background during the winter months and weren't as obtrusive as glaring white labels. Another bit of England I had to have! Apparently, only England sells them because I couldn't find a US distributor so I did the next best thing and bought a can of black spray paint. Several painted wood stakes and a white paint pen later, I had labels!
So, my garden is limping along while I learn more about the climate here, how plants I know behave differently than in zone 10, how plants I don't know behave period, and what I enjoy growing. Just between you and me, I'm getting such a kick out of being a first time farmer that the ornamental garden tends to get short shrift. Which is why I'm already planning for next year. In the meantime, I'm still in awe of how quickly things change - every week it's a new garden! And I get a kick out of watching the variety of birds and how they immediately made themselves comfortable on my steel trees.

The thing I'm still unsure of is what, exactly, my garden says about me (other than I'm a schizoid non-designer plant geek). I wonder what Alfred would say...

14 July 2009

Botany flourishes here most abundantly

Yesterday my classmates and I went on a botanizing trip to the New Jersey Pine Barrens with our fab Hort. instructor Jeff Jabco. The area is reputed to be the largest undeveloped area on the East Coast and we were going to see some awesome plants in their native habitats. It was something we had been looking forward to all summer long.
Gavin was so excited, he couldn't wait to get there
When we arrived, Jeff had us pose for this the "Before" photo. Before what?

Then we all climbed this super tall fire tower...

And had this amazing view of the Philadelphia skyline...
Looking down was kind of scary...
And I liked the view from the ground much better...
Obi Wan Jabco: "Just imagine how long it takes to prune these things!?"
Greg spots a wild blueberry bush
On our way down the hill we stop to sample the local fare
Emma to Shannon: "Should we tell him there's poison ivy in there?"
Then we continued on to the Pygmy Forest
Where the pines weren't quite so tall
Emma to herself: "Where'd everybody go?"
Shannon to Steven: "You know, what if those weren't blueberries?" And then it was on to The Bog...

"I don't know if we want to do this", says Deb...

Greg to Suzanne: "Where is Jeff taking us, anyway?"
To a picturesque bog
With carnivorous plants

Sundews and Saracenias and Sphagnum, oh my!

Ewww....I don't want to get my feet wet...
Greg: "Come on in, the water's fine!"
Gavin, to no one in particular: "Which way out? How did I get in here?"
Hudson cleverly discovers the deep spot

Nate makes a discoveryNate to Emma: "Over here is the orchid I was telling you about.""I'm sure glad I wore white clothes!"
A group shot in the bog...before... was every man for himself...And Shannon is still cleaner than the rest of us!

Hudson, on the other hand... We couldn't understand why no one would offer us a ride...

A quick dip in the ocean on the NJ shore and we were clean again. It was the best day ever! Thank you, Jeff!!!

*special thanks to Gavin, Nate, Emma, and Jeff for sharing their photos since I had just returned from LA and forgot to take my camera out of my suitcase! And thanks, Jeff, for some of the inspiring commentary!