Why some plants are “fooled” by a warm December and some aren’t

Here in Michigan – and, it seems, most of the Eastern US – we’ve been having unseasonably warm weather and there are odd things afoot in the garden. Some plants that would normally be dormant coming back into growth. But perhaps odder is that while some plants have been “fooled” by the unseasonable heat, others are still resolutely dormant and not pushing any growth at all despite the warmth. Why is that?

A wild rose with buds still tightly dormant despite unseasonable warmth
A wild rose with buds still tightly dormant despite unseasonable warmth
A 'Knock Out' rose pushing growth during a warm spell.
A ‘Knock Out’ rose pushing growth during a warm spell.

There are a lot of factors that determine when a plant is dormant and when in active growth, a key one in this context is whether they have a vernalization requirement or not. In simple terms, some plants, once they go dormant for the winter, will refuse to come back into growth until they’ve experienced a period of cold temperatures. Once they’ve been through that cold, the plant is termed to be vernalized and will then burst into vigorous growth as soon as the weather warms up again.

You’ve probably run up against a vernalization requirement in terms of bulbs like tulips. That requirement is why you need to give tulip bulbs a cold treatment in order to force them to bloom indoors, and why southern gardeners without sufficient natural winter cold have to pre-chill their tulips in order for them to bloom. The adaptive advantage of this is obvious in a year like this, as it prevents plants from jumping the gun in a mild December and getting damaged by the real cold when it arrives.

So why do are some plants lack this adaptation and come into growth in a freak warm spell? Some are adapted to life warmer climates and sometimes it is the work of humans. Modern hybrid roses, for example, have had their vernalization requirement bred out of them. The downside is that this makes them more susceptible for winter damage sometimes, but the plus side is that it is part of what causes them to bloom all summer long rather than just once in the spring the way most of their wild ancestors do.

An idea worth stealing: Mesh pots for bulb collections

Last year I was in England, and a snowdrop obsessive there (aka, a Galanthophile) showed me this cool trick, using mesh pots to keep her vast collection of different varieties organized.

meshpot

She puts her bulbs in these pots (designed for use in hydroponic systems, I believe), and then sinks the entire pot down in the ground, so that the pot is invisible. The pot keeps the bulbs contained and easy to find so you can dig them up to divide or share even when dormant, and keeps different varieties growing next to each other from getting mixed up. But unlike a regular solid-sided pot, the open mesh allows roots and water to move freely so the bulbs grow just as easily and with as little care as if they were planted directly in the ground.

Corydalis turtschaninovii
Corydalis turtschaninovii

I’m not a snowdrop lover, they frankly bore me, but I have been getting more and more obsessed with bulbous corydalis, selections of C. solida and the amazing true blue Corydalis turtschaninovii. The tiny bulbs are impossible to find once they get dormant, and my collection is already beginning to get mixed up as the different varieties begin dividing and encroaching on each other… I’m going to start planting new editions in mesh pots to keep everything organized.

Joseph Tychonievich

The “safe seed pledge” is meaningless

The seed catalogs have started showing up in the mail, and a great number of them include something like this on the first few pages:

safeseed

Here’s the thing: NO ONE is selling genetically engineered seeds to home gardeners. There is one company, funded by kickstarter, that is trying to sell genetically engineered seeds of a glow-in-the-dark plant sometime in the future (though, like a lot of kickstarter project, the actual release date keeps getting delayed) but other than that, genetically engineered varieties are only being sold to commercial farmers, and only after the farmer has signed a pretty comprehensive licensing agreement.

You can go to the store and buy food made from genetically engineered varieties — essentially anything that contains corn and isn’t labeled as organic will be — and you can stop by the pet store and pick yourself up a fish with jellyfish genes, but no one is trying to sell you genetically engineered seeds.

So those pledges in seed catalogs promising they contain no GMO seeds are technically true, but also pretty meaningless. So if you are worried about accidentally getting a GMO variety, don’t be. And if you wish you COULD grow one, sorry, you are out of luck, unless that kickstarter project ever actually gets up and running.

— Joseph Tychonievich

Cold Stratification for seeds

You may think of spring as the time for seed sowing, but I do a lot of seed planting now, in the fall. The reason is that most of the cold hardy perennials, trees and shrubs that I like to grow produce seeds that require cold stratification.
This simply means that they require a period exposed to cold temperatures while the seeds are moist and hydrated before they will germinate.

The requirement for cold is a pretty straight-forward adaptation to life in cold climates. Seeds that ripen in the summer and fall might not have time to get established before winter if they germinated right away. The requirement for cold means the seeds don’t actually sprout until spring, giving them a full growing season to get ready for the next winter.

seedbed
An outdoor seed bed is an easy way to stratify seeds

You can — and I used to — give seeds this cold period in the refrigerator. Three months in the fridge in a plastic bag with a damp paper towel to keep the seeds moist is long enough for most everything, though the exact period of cold required varies by the plant. The fridge works, but I think it is way easier to just do it outside. So the past few days I’ve been busy sowing seeds out in my outdoor seed beds. They’re just raised beds, filled with potting media, and covered with a screen lid to limit the number of weed seeds that blow in and keep disruptive animals out. I plant my seeds in the fall. Come spring, after the seeds have had their dose of cold, they sprout.

Dianthus seedlings ready for transplanting
Dianthus seedlings ready for transplanting

Once the seedlings have grown on a while, I dig them out, separate the individual plants, and put them out into their final locations in the garden.

Individual seedlings separated and ready for planting
Individual seedlings separated and ready for planting

I do this with more and more seeds every year, even for perennials that don’t require a cold period to germinate, simply because it is so easy. No fussing around with lights or checking the calendar or even much watering. Just plunk the seeds in, and dig out the plants once they are big enough.

Microclimate follow-up

Last year I talked about using cheap min-max thermometers to get a handle on the specifics of the micro climates in my garden, and I was reminded recently that I never followed up on what I actually found out, so that’s what I’m doing today.

Remember that these results are just ONE data point, specific information about conditions in my particular garden. Your conditions will probably be different, so don’t try and extrapolate from these to your garden. Instead, if you are curious about your micro-climates, get a few thermometers, scatter them around, and see what happens.

20141104_130607

What I did:

I placed thermometers three different locations – up in the air on the north side of a shed, on the ground out in the middle of an open area, and on the ground up against the south side of a shed. I expected the ground thermometers to be warmer, thanks to the insulation of snow, and the one on the south side of a shed to be warmer still, thanks to the added heat from the sun.

What I found

I was surprised on several fronts. First, the south side of the building was, for me, only warmer during the day. I recorded higher high temperatures, but at night, it dropped down exactly as cold as everywhere else. This may be partly because we have extremely cloudy winters here in Michigan, so there isn’t a whole lot of sun to warm up the south side of anything. The wall is also an unheated shed, so there was no extra heat leaking out from inside the way there would be up against the walls of a house, particularly if it is old and poorly insulated.

Ground level, under the snow, was as I expect warmer than the air temperature above. Much warmer than I had expected, in fact. We had about a foot or so of snow during the coldest part of the winter, and that snow kept thing more than 20 degrees F (~11 degrees C) warmer than the air temperature above the snow line. Keep in mind that the USDA hardiness zones are based on 10 degree F differences, so that thick layer of snow kept things almost two zones warmer. I knew snow was a good insulator, but I didn’t realize it would make that big a difference. Thank you Lake Michigan for all the frozen white stuff!

What I’m doing with the information:

I’m no longer trying to put tender plants against the south wall – Instead, I’m piling on a layer of mulch after the ground freezes to augment the insulating power of the snow. And given that south facing wall is much warmer during the day, I’m using it to grow heat loving plants that tend to pout in my cool, Michigan summers. Melons, peppers, and eggplant all adore the extra 5-10 degrees F (~2-5 degrees C) that south wall adds to my daily high temperatures.

Easy Overwintering

I love growing tender plants as annuals over the summer. But I don’t like buying them again every year, so I try to overwinter as many as I can indoors once frost threatens. However, I have pretty limited windowsill space, so I can’t keep many plants in active growth all winter. Luckily, I’ve found a simple hack that works for a surprising number of plants.begoniaoverwintering

The above begonia is on a high dark shelf. It will sit there all winter, getting essentially no light, and I won’t water it. All those leaves will drop off, leaving nothing but dead looking stems. But come spring, when I put it back outside and water it again, new leaves will start growing and it will come right back.

Quite a lot of tender plants can do this. Just keep them dry, preferably on the cool side (unheated basements are perfect), and they’ll go dormant, usually dropping their leaves, and wait patiently for spring. I personally have done this with both cane begonias (as pictured) and the rhizomatous rex begonias, pelargoniums (the annual “geraniums”), and lots of succulent plants like agaves and cacti. I’ve seen first-hand other people using the same method with great success with brugmansia, bananas, and tender shrubby hibiscus. It seems like it is works most often with plants with thick, woody or succulent stems, but I keep trying it with new things and being surprised when they come through just fine. So if you’ve got some cool tender plant you’d love to over winter, but no window space left, shove it in the basement and see what happens. If it comes back fine in the spring, please comment on this post so the rest of us can learn from your experience!

— Joseph Tychonievich

Add one species, get four new ones

Here’s an interesting twist on the whole native, non-native discussion… sometimes the introduction of new species of plants can trigger the evolution of new species of insects! Sometimes, in fact, a whole bunch of them, as is described in the coolest new research paper I’ve read in ages (Actual paper, behind a pay wall) (A brief Summary)

Introduce apples, trigger the evolution of four new species of insect
Introduce apples, trigger the evolution of four new species of insect

Basically, there is a fruit fly, Rhagoletis pomonella, native to Eastern North America that lays its eggs on the ripe fruits of native hawthorns. It is part of a whole group of species of flies that each go after a different kind of fruit – blueberries, snowberries and dogwoods each have their own species of closely related fly. When Europeans arrived and introduced non-native apple trees, the hawthorn fly started laying eggs on the apples as well, and got the name of apple maggot. But here’s the crazy bit: The hawthorn flies didn’t just expand their diet, they actually evolved to a new race, a new species in the making, that live exclusively on apples.

These flies have very brief life spans, so the adults must emerge at exactly the right time or there won’t be ripe fruit to lay their eggs on. But apples and hawthorns ripen nearly a month apart, so the apple targeting flies have evolved to emerge several weeks earlier than the original hawthorn flies. In addition to diverging in time of emergence, the two types of flies have changed their preferences in smells. The original fly is attracted to the smell of hawthorns, and avoids the smell of apples, while the new flies show the exact opposite behavior, each homing in on their target host, be it new or old.

The final piece of these two types of flies becoming two different species is that they each now mate only on the fruit of their tree of choice. This is important, because now the apple and hawthorn flies don’t interbreed due to their preference of mating location, and being a reproductively isolated group is the most commonly accepted definition of a species. Now the two types of flies will continue to diverge, as the lack of interbreeding means more and more genetic differences between the two populations will build up over time.
All of this is very cool, and has been long understood. Here’s the EVEN COOLER part from this new research: The divergence of one kind of fruit fly into two is cascading through the ecosystem. There are three species of parasitioid wasps that lay their eggs on the hawthorn fruit fly that have diverge into new forms that specialize in the new apple fruit fly. Just like the fruit flies, the timing of their life cycle, their preference and avoidance of the smell of the ripe fruit, and their mating habits have shifted to create different apple and hawthorn specific races. So where there was one fruit fly and three wasps, the introduction of the European apple has lead to the evolution of one additional fruit fly, and three new wasps.

I’m not sure what import this has, if any, in the ever raging native-versus-exotic debate in horticulture, but it sure is cool – the evolution of new species happening right before our eyes.

Joseph Tychonievich

Cactus grafting fun

I’ve been grafting cactus this summer, and made this:

grafted cactus

It is a seedling of the gorgeous hardy cactus Echinocereus reichenbachii, grafted onto Pereskiopsis spathulata, an odd, leafy cactus I wrote about earlier.

Why do this? Other than the fact that it is darn cool? Well, because that vigorous, fast growing rootstock pumps a lot of energy into the cactus grafted on top, making the grafted cactus grow a LOT faster than left on its own roots.

grafted cactus startThis is a (terrible, blurry) picture what the graft looked like when I first made it back in July. Just three months later it has grown to enormously, while the seedlings I left on their own roots look pretty much the same. I’ll let it grow on the graft for a while, then probably next year some time, cut it off, and move it into the garden, getting me to a reasonably sized plant in a reasonable amount of time.

So… if you want to speed up the growth of a pokey cactus, try grafting it. The process is crazy easy, lots of fun, and very thoroughly explained here.

 

“Lazy” corn and gravitropism

Inspired by Linda’s post about thigmomorphogenesis, I decided today I would add the word gravitropism to your vocabulary. It simply means growth in response to gravity. Shoots of plants grow up, because they are negatively gravitropic, they grow against the pull of gravity, while roots are positively gravitropic and grow down towards the pull of gravity.

And why is that so important? Well… this is what happens when gravitropism is missing.

cornlazyplant

To the left is normal old corn. The plant to the right was not sat on by a raccoon or anything, it simply has a mutation in a gene called lazy plant1. I’m not kidding. That’s the official, scientific name for this gene. Geneticists have fun with their names, though fruit fly geneticists are for sure the kings of silly gene names. This gene got that name because, as you can see, without a functioning copy of that gene, the corn plant no longer can detect the pull of gravity and so flops down in a “lazy” manner.

This corn is just odd, of course, with no real value (though it was fun to grow) but similar mutations are what give us some of the “weeping” or trailing forms of popular ornamental trees and shrubs.