When spring is delayed

Enjoying our first day above 55 F in quite a while here in mountains of Southwest Virginia. We’ve had far-below-average temperature and three significant snow events over the past four weeks.

Saturday, April 7, 2018 at our farm (Newport, VA).  Not making me want to garden.

For much of the Mid-Atlantic, Northeast, and Midwest, spring has been very slow to arrive. The jet stream has been riding mighty low, and is taking another dive next week. For gardeners, this is frustrating (see above), though here in USDA Hardiness Zone 6b, we’re still well within the “last freeze” window.

For ornamental plant nurseries, greenhouses, and retailers/garden centers in these regions, this is darn close to devastating (the South has fared much better).  For growers and retailers, spring is the busiest time of the year – many see 70-80% of their annual sales between March and early June.  Of that amount, at least 50% of retail garden center sales will happen over the weekends.  IF it is nice.  Folks stay away in droves when the weather stinks. And this has repercussions down the supply chain.

Chris Beytes, the editor of GrowerTalks and GreenProfit (two highly subscribed-to publications within the greenhouse and garden center sector), has been keeping track of spring sales for years.

Growers and garden centers self-report a weekend rating on a scale of 1 (dreadful) to 10 (can’t keep product on the shelf, happily exhausted, planning vacation in Tahiti).  Not all states end up represented – either they’re too busy selling (Florida!) or too depressed to report (possibly Ohio!).

Here’s last week’s map (click for a link to Chris’s newsletter column)

Lots, lots of gray.

Closer to home: I took my Ornamental Plant Production and Marketing students on a field trip last Friday. We toodled up I-81 to visit a container nursery (woody plants) and a wholesale greenhouse focused on quality bedding plants and baskets for the independent garden center (IGC) market.

The greenhouse was absolutely packed to the gills with market-ready annuals, herbs, veggie transplants, and hanging baskets.

And it was eerily quiet.

A Friday afternoon in April, and the only folks in a wholesale greenhouse…were the owners. THIS IS NOT NORMAL.  There should be workers, carts, trucks, beeping, yelling, transplanters cranking, etc.

Weather over the previous weekend and early week had been spectacularly crappy. Because the garden centers across the region had not moved enough product to restock, there was no shipping. Because there was no shipping, there was no space freed up to put anything else.  Because there was no space, no transplanting could occur, and seedlings/liners were still in their trays.  Calls were probably being placed to the propagation greenhouses that grow the plugs/liners, asking them to hold off on shipping until the finishing grower could clear out the backlog of plug trays.  Plus perfect plants stay perfect only so long. Pesky things tend to grow/flop/get pests and pathogens.

I love for students to see the real-world hustle/bustle/insanity of spring that growers face each year. The act of growing plants is what sparks the interests of the students – but  understanding the supply chain and market behavior is just as important. We did get great tour – along with a  lot of fodder for class discussions.

Hopefully things will warm up; garden centers across the regions will be jam-packed, and all will be well. If this paralysis continues much longer, the window of opportunity will start closing.  It gets warm/hot, schools let out, folks go on vacation…and lose that got-to-garden feeling.

You can help repair this logjam (yes you can!). Regardless of the weather this weekend (because you’re a tough cookie/Garden Professors reader), get thee to your favorite garden center or retail greenhouse this weekend. And buy! Buy! Buyyyyy!

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 Handy Dandy Dibber

A dibber, also called a dibbler (the garden tool, not the small nocturnal marsupial),  has many uses in the garden and greenhouse.  It also offers the opportunity to announce your intentions of dibbing (or dibbling). I’m a huge fan.

For example: just planted the last of my fall bulb purchases.  One of packs remaining was Allium unifolium, left over from installing our Allium field trials. (28 species and cultivars – woo! Beats doing research on soybeans or something.)  These little bulbs are about the size of nickel – even the smallest hand spade is overkill. I think I’ll just grab the dibber!

dibsandalliumHSFor the uninitiated, a dibber or dibbler is simply a very sturdy, pokey thing, with a nice ergonomic handle.  To use, simply scatter bulbs (never, ever in rows)…  scatterandpokePoke and plop. Went about 5″ to 6″ deep for these wee bulbs. Goes really fast once you’ve honed your dibbing skills.

holesAs a bulb-planting strategy, I like to leave them all uncovered until I’ve got the whole batch situated.  Then make like a squirrel and cover the bulbs!

doneVoila.  Done in 60 seconds! Though I’ll probably forget where I planted them within 60 minutes (which does make for a pleasant surprise come spring time – “Oh look! Alliums!”)

 

 

Just like it said on the seed package!

I believe I’ve spent approximately $1,000,000 on seeds over the years.  Plant and seed catalogs are usually addressed to “Gullible L. Scoggins.” I really suffer (on many levels) during the darkest days of winter; this makes me highly susceptible to seed catalogs filled with delicious descriptions and enhanced photos.

This spring, I sorted through my massive bin of partially used seed packets and ruthlessly (ruthlessly!!!) chucked everything dated prior to 2012 (like normal people do).  A large portion of the expired packets were for squash and zucchini. I love squash of every ilk – glossy dark zukes, gold crooknecks, pattypan-anything. Squash and tomatoes are summer incarnate.

My absolute favorite is the heirloom Italian variety Costata Romenesco with its dense, nutty flesh – it really tastes like something on its own.  The huge rambling vines put out relatively few fruit, so not the best for a compact garden.

But variety is the spice of life…so how to try several varieties and not end up with either a mountain of squash (as happened to me a while back) or a bunch of seeds left over?  California seed purveyor Renee’s Garden does a very cool thing – one pack of seeds with three (3!) varieties – the “Tricolor Mix”.  Brilliant! You get a gold-bar type (Golden Dawn), the dark green one that will go berserk (Raven), and a lovely pale gray-green Clarimore.

The zucchini trifecta from Renee's Garden seeds.  That's Costata Romanesco on the far left.
The zucchini trifecta from Renee’s Garden seeds. Plus Costata Romanesco on the far left.

The seeds are color-coded with just good ol’ food coloring, so you know what you’ve planted.  I got 100% germination (whoops) and a delightful variety and volume of zucchini.  And NO LEFTOVER SEEDS – so I will feel completely justified next February when ordering more. Hurrah!

Can Permaculture and Good Science Coexist

Several years ago I posted a four-part discussion about permaculture and my concerns with the blend of philosophy, science and pseudoscience that it contains. (Here are links to Parts 12, 3 and 4.) So I was pleased to be part of an Extension tour group that visited an established permaculture farm in the San Juan Islands earlier this spring. This gave me an opportunity to see whether there was any perceptible shift in the permaculture community towards practices based on applied plant and soil sciences. Specifically, I chose to look for invasive species identified as noxious weeds that many permaculturists cultivate rather than eradicate.

Bamboo may not be a listed noxious weed in Washington State, but the yellow archangel beneath it is.
Bamboo may not be a listed noxious weed in Washington State, but the yellow archangel beneath it is.

Our spring came early this year, and the islands were blindingly yellow with the Scots broom that runs rampant there (and throughout the West). This species is a Class B listed noxious weed in Washington State and has been mandated for control by San Juan County. So I was surprised and disappointed to see it and other related broom species not only present at this farm but used actively as nitrogen fixing species.

Other brooms were actively blooming and setting seed.
Other brooms were actively blooming and setting seed.

The practice here is to plant broom or some other nitrogen fixing species right next to a fruit tree as a “companion plant.” While the idea is logical, the choice of species is not. There are many other plants, including legumes and alders, which grow well in our area and would provide the same benefit.

Scots broom (a class B listed noxious weed in Washington state) used as a “companion plant” for a fruit tree (both are encased in wire).
Scots broom (a class B listed noxious weed in Washington state) used as a “companion plant” for a fruit tree (both are encased in wire).

There is nothing that can excuse the deliberate use of a listed noxious weed that’s mandated for control by local government. Permaculturists should endeavor to be good citizens and not infringe on the rights of their neighbors who don’t share their philosophy.

English holly is on the noxious weed monitor list for possible listing.
English holly is on the noxious weed monitor list for possible listing.

 

WSDA noxious weed listings for species mentioned in this post:

Scots broom
French broom
Spanish broom
Yellow archangel
English holly

Five little lavenders…four years later

If you’ve been following us for a while, you might remember a post from August 2009 when I got cranky about a pot of lavenders with horrendous root systems.  I intervened with my Felcos and planted out the patients, hoping for the best.
Lavender #2 before root pruning

In July of 2010, I gave an update on their progress.  At that point, one of the lavenders had died but the other four were perking along. And now it’s time to show them in their floral glory:

Root washing is still controversial, as is corrective root pruning.  However, all five of these plants would have died had I not corrected the spiraling root systems.  Published and ongoing research at several places around the country continues to support the practice of bare-rooting and correcting root flaws of woody plants.

Is this a practice that the landscape industry will adopt?  Probably not on a large scale: it is time intensive and requires careful work.  But home gardeners can do this themselves and have done so successfully.

If you’re interested in more information on how to do this, you can download this fact sheet.  Until production nurseries change their practices to avoid these fatal root flaws, it will be up to home gardeners and a handful of landscapers to repair the damage.