Feel the Heat: Temperature and Germination

 

In most parts of the country it is time to dust off the seed starting trays, pick out your favorite seeds, and get a little plant propagation going on.  There’s definitely a lot of science (and perhaps a bit of art) to successful seed starting.  While the process starts (and relies on) the imbibition of water, one of the biggest factors that affects the success, efficiency, and speed of seed germination and propagation is temperature.  Germination relies on a number of chemical and physical reactions within the seed, and the speed and success of those reactions is highly temperature dependent. Respiration, where the seed breaks down stored carbohydrates for energy, is probably the most notable process involved that is temperature dependent (source).   Think of it in terms of a chemical reaction you might have done back in your high school or college chemistry class – there’s an optimum temperature for the reaction and any lower and higher the reaction might slow down or not happen at all.

Thinking of it this way, seeds and germination are just like Goldilocks and her porridge – there’s too hot, too cold, and “just” right.  Seeds are the same way – there’s a “just right” temperature for germination. The seeds of each species has a different optimal temperature for germination with a range of minimum and maximum temperatures for the process.

Why is important that seeds are started at their optimal temperature?

The optimal temperature is the one at which germination is the fastest. This may seem to only have consequences for impatient gardeners, but slower germination speeds increase the days to emergence for the seeds, which in turns means that the seeds and seedlings have a greater chance of failure. The early stages of germination are when seedlings are most susceptible to damping off, which can be caused by a number of fungal pathogens (Fusarium spp., Phytophthera spp., Pythium spp., etc.) that basically cause the seedling to rot at the soil level. These pathogens (as well as decomposers in some cases) can cause seeds to rot or decompose before emerging as well.  That’s why you’ll sometimes see seeds that are slow to germinate (or traditionally direct sown like corn, beans, and peas) treated with those colorful fungicides.  The fungicide gives the seed and seedling a little bit of protection (for a week or so, depending on the product), which is handy if you accidentally sow them before soil temperatures are optimal or if the species is slow to germinate.

If emergence is really slow, there’s also the possibility of stunting or failure due to exhaustion of the stored carbohydrates that the seed relies on until it begins photosynthesis.  So the closer to the optimal temperature the seed is, the faster the emergence and the highest percentage of germination success.

Image of graph showing relationship between soil temperature and seed germination.

What does this mean for home gardeners?

Whether you are starting seeds indoors or direct sowing outdoors, knowing the germination temps can help increase your likelihood of success.  You can find a variety of resources for the optimal germination temperature for your selected crops.  In general, most warm season plants, like tomatoes, peppers, and summer flowers are in the 70-80 °F range.  This is why most of the warm season crops are started indoors – so temperatures can be controlled to higher levels.

For vegetable crops, here’s a good resource for basic germination temperatures.  And here’s one for a few annual flowers.

Many of the cool season crops germinate at much lower temperatures, which means many of them can be directly sown early in the season rather than started indoors.  Crops such as spinach, lettuce, and other leafy greens have these lower germination temps and typically perform better if germinated at lower temps.

Germinating a variety of plants for our 2018 All-America Selections trials

It should be noted that this is for the soil temperature, not the air temperature. If you’re starting seeds in your home, most people don’t keep their homes in the 75 – 80 degree range in the winter.  Many commercial operations use warmed tables or beds for seed starting, rather than heating the whole facility to the necessary temp – it would be expensive.  For home growers, supplemental heat mats can help increase soil temp without having to heat a whole room.  In a pinch, you can even clean off the top of your fridge and keep seedlings there.  It is higher up in the room (heat rises) and most refrigerators create some amount of external heat as they run.

For any seeds that you’re direct sowing outdoors, whether they require higher or lower germination temperatures, you’ll have more success if you plan your sowing around soil temperatures rather than calendar dates (planting calendars can be good for estimation, though).  Investing in a soil thermometer can offer detailed information on the specific temperatures in your garden soil.  Or, if you have a good weather station nearby many of them have soil temperature probes that could give you a good idea of what the soil temperatures are in your region.

Direct-sown lettuce germinating for a fall crop

But don’t let the cool/warm season crop designation fool you – the Cole crops like cabbage and broccoli actually have an optimal germination temperature on the warmer side, but grow better in cooler temperatures to keep them from bolting (flowering).  This is why they need to be started indoors for spring planting, but you can start them outdoors (even trying direct sowing) for fall crops – they germinate in the heat and then slow growth as the temperatures drop.

Understanding mysteries of plant diseases: Diagnosis and Detection (Part 2 of 3 in this blog series)

Something is wrong?

Sometimes its subtle sometimes its not–like here with powdery mildew on coast live oak.

Do you ever have a feeling that there is something wrong with a plant? It’s just not healthy looking, or it has not grown for awhile? As we discussed in the last blog, disease is a process–it occurs over time. When in the disease time-line you notice the process, can be quite varied. Some astute gardeners may know something is wrong before there are symptoms, others may not take notice of the process until the plant is dead. Your disease detection acuity, or disease intellect, is largely dependent on your ability to recognize when the disease process is happening.  Early recognition gives you a chance to interrupt or limit the progress of disease or “control” it.  This blog is all about enhancing your disease detection acuity.  In the last of the series, I will cover what we can do about plant diseases, their prevention and control.

Sycamore anthracnose disease has vein-following necrosis as one of its foliar symptoms.

Symptoms and signs
Plants respond to challenges from a disease agent by producing symptoms. Symptoms are physiological changes in plants which we can see. Yellowing leaves, necrotic (dead) areas of leaves, stems, flowers or roots are common for many diseases. Some symptoms are very subtle. Slowed growth may be the first symptom of a systemic disease that is spreading within a plant’s vascular system or destroying its roots. Some plants can have 75% of their roots killed by pathogens without any visible symptoms on foliage. Most of the time when symptoms are this subtle, the plant is not growing at the same rate it would if it were healthy. Absence of new foliage, short internodes (distance between leaves), lack of initiation of flowers can all be symptoms of disease. Another subtle symptom is an overall color change that takes away a Plant’s “brightness” or healthy glow. I think most gardeners recognize this, but may not associate color dullness with disease. When subtle symptoms are detected, it is always a good idea to check the roots to see if they are functional (not rotted).

Overt symptoms are easy to distinguish. Fire blight is a good example—the bacterium Erwinia amylovora is spread by bees to flowers where it invades the floral nectaries. Bacteria migrate into shoots and stems and turns them pure black.

Early infections of the fire blight bacterium kill the peduncles of flowers

The disease proceeds rapidly in springtime during bloom and the symptoms (necrosis) are striking. Blights, anthracnose diseases, and canker diseases all produce necrotic tissue symptoms that are easily distinguished from healthy tissues. Even root rot is overt if you take the time to look at the roots!

Fungal hyphae of Armillaria fuse into a mycelial mat under the bark of Peruvian pepper.

Signs are the causal agents of symptoms. Fungal hyphae (collectively mycelium) growing under bark or on plant surfaces are easily observable signs. Just like symptoms, signs can be overt or cryptic. Armillaria mushrooms form in large clusters around the bases of infected trees and are easily identified, but the fruiting bodies of canker diseases (pycnidia) are very small and look like small pepper granules on the surface of a dead twig or branch. Plants often form galls (a symptom) that form around insects or bacterial pathogens (signs). Observing plants carefully to look for signs can be quite diagnostic. For instance if you observe the symptom of distorted new growth on your grape or rose and then carefully examine the tissue with a hand lens you may find the sign of mycelium from powdery mildew. Symptoms often develop after signs and many signs only form in the dead tissue or after the disease has produced much damage.

Fruiting bodies appear as black dots in this necrotic coast redwood tissue. Also note signs of white mycelium

Since signs are often reproductive structures of a pathogen, they are very helpful in pathogen identification. Many microbes have signs and cause significant disease but their signs are microscopic and thus hard

Phytophthora mycelium and chlamydospores are impossible to see in garden soil. These signs are not visible in-situ.

to observe.  The mycelium and spores of many Phytophthora spp. that cause root rot of trees, crops and flowers are invisible in-situ.  They can only be visualized by isolation in the lab.

Internet searches and labs
So you have observed symptoms, you think you have signs but are not sure. What next? There are thousands of plant diseases, and we see new diseases at an ever increasing rate as we explore growing new plants in new places.  Accurate disease diagnosis is beyond most gardeners.  Certainly you can narrow things down by looking at google images of diseases listed for the plant in question. But you can also be misled by google searches.  I would trust only University-based web pages, as there is a lot of mis-information from other sites that are inaccurate or outright incorrect in their diagnoses. In many states Cooperative Extension offices have personnel that will look at samples for you, or may refer you to a diagnostic lab that can examine or isolate the pathogen from your plant sample for a fee.

If you go to a lab for diagnosis, it can rapidly degrade into incorrect or inconclusive findings. Lab analysis, isolation and pathogen identification work well if you already have a suspicion of what your pathogen is.  You are just seeking confirmation.   Samples sent to a lab found without pathogens may not not indicate the plant was not diseased.  Samples degrade as soon as they are taken, they may not be examined right away at the lab or they may not have been transported correctly (ice chest away from sunlight). Sometimes pathogens just don’t survive well in samples, and will be hard to detect in lab settings. And most frequently, the lab usually does not get a sample with the pathogen in it.  A good example is branch die-back symptoms on a tree.  So the gardener brings in dead twigs, but the twig dieback is actually caused by extensive root rot.  The gardener never even thought to look at roots, because the twigs were the dead part. The lab of course finds no pathogens, only saprophytic organisms, which it lists and leaves the sample submitter confused and wondering if they are pathogens.   Labs are best used to confirm something you already have strong suspicions about. You have the fruiting bodies (signs) the symptoms match on-line versions of the disease you are looking at, on the same host, and everything seems right, but you want to be sure. Then a lab is useful. Especially if they get a good sample with signs present.

There are some useful test kits that home gardeners can use to confirm their diagnoses.  Lateral flow test strips are available that detect pathogen analytes. These are especially useful in testing for plant viruses and the diseases they cause.  While the cost of each test is low, there is usually a requirement to purchase a number test strips, so the cost can be over $250 to purchase a number of lateral flow test strips. The test for Phytophthora (root rot organism) is quite effective, gives results in five minutes and requires no special chemistry or long incubation periods. Some of these diagnostics are species specific, some like the Phytophthora kits, only detect the genus, not the species of Phytophthora involved. Test strips are specific to the disease at hand, so you would already need to be pretty certain of what you have if you are using these. Like a lab, they can confirm what you suspect.

Another handy way to diagnose disease is to use a host index. This is basically a list of diseases occurring on a list of different plants. Cynthia Westcott published the most important host index for ornamental plants, but it is long out of print now, and no longer published. Her plant disease handbook can still be found occasionally at Library book sales. The host index by Farr and others, “Fungi on plants and plant products in the United States” produced back in 1994 by the American Phytopathological Society is still in use by most plant pathologists because in its twelve hundred pages, you can likely find what you are looking for.

So after looking at symptoms, perhaps some testing and examining a host index, you think you have your diagnosis. So what? What can you do with a diagnosis? Well this is a jumping off point for reading the literature on a particular disease and its causal agents. Understanding the disease, its processes and timelines for disease progression will assist you in building an effective control program for your plant or garden.  At least you can decide if you dig it up and start over, or weather there is a chance of saving your plant and helping it to resist and recover from the pathogen at hand.  Astonishingly, many plants are treated (even by professionals) without an accurate diagnosis.  Know your pathogen and you will know the range of its effects on your garden plant and you can research ways to limit its damage and spread.  Next time I will talk about actions to keep garden plants healthy.

Tuning up for Pruning Up–Care, Maintenance and Utilization of Hand Pruning Tools

A. J. Downer

Fall is passing into winter and the bare sticks in my deciduous fruit orchard are calling to my annual fruit tree pruning chores.  I can prune my entire orchard with very few tools: a good pair of bypass clippers, a similar set of loppers

Illustration 1. Tri-edge saw blades are made from stainless steel and are not easily sharpened. When dull or bent they should be replaced.

(optional) and a high quality “razor” or “tri edge” saw.  Most hand tools require some maintenance especially the clippers and loppers.   Clippers are easily sharpened but modern saw blades can not be sharpened by gardeners. I usually just buy a new saw, replacing the old one when blade eventually dulls or bends from over zealous use (illustration 1).

Illustration 2. To sharpen bypass clipper blades follow the angle of the bevel. Do not sharpen the flat side of the blade

Before using your pruning tools inspect them for signs of damage. Blades should be sharp and straight.  Loppers should have their rubber “bumpers” intact otherwise your knuckles will be smashed after exerting force on a difficult branch.  Sharp tools offer less resistance and actually decrease injury to users. One exception here is with the modern “tri-edge” or “razor” saws. These saws can cut so quickly that you may pass through the branch you are cutting and continue on to some part of your anatomy quickly ripping your flesh open. I have suffered more cuts (some serious) from these saws than from any other gardening activity (although I was recently impaled by a frog metal art sculpture!).  They should be used with careful precision, not with the wild abandon and pruning fervor of the craven academic desperate for real world pruning experiences.  A thick long sleeved shirt and gloves will also help prevent cuts from hand pruning equipment.

Bypass clippers are so termed because the blade passes by the hook. To sharpen these, find the bevel on the edge of the clippers and align a small file to the same angle of this bevel, and file the bevel until you can feel the sharpness with your finger (Illustration 2).  Never sharpen the back side of the bevel—this will create a gap, and every time you cut, a flap of tissue will remain. Back bevel sharpened clippers will require blade replacement or grinding until the back bevel is gone. The hook does not require sharpening, do not attempt to file it. Repeat this process with lopper blades.

When you are done pruning for the day, wipe the blades of your clippers and loppers with an oil soaked rag or apply a few drops of oil and rub it into the blade. Most modern saws blades are made from stainless steel and require no oil protection.

As a Cooperative Extension Advisor, one of the most common questions I receive is: “Should I sanitize my clippers between cuts or between uses on various plants?”.  Indeed, many publications, extension leaflets, gardening columns, and other sources make broad recommendations to sanitize clippers after every cut. Some articles even compare various products for their killing efficacy.  Blind recommendations are often made to sanitize clippers when the pathogen is not  known or specified.  It is not necessary to sanitize your clippers when pruning most garden plants and fruit trees.  There are a few pathogens that are spread by moving plant debris, but published evidence that they are spread by hand pruning equipment (especially clippers) is nil. One exception is palm wilt caused by Fusarium oxysporum f.sp. canariensis which is easily spread by saws. Some of the canker fungi caused by Botryosphaeria can also be spread by pruning equipment. With many of these pathogens, a wound is required for infection so it may not be that the clippers are spreading disease so much as providing an entry point (infection court) so that pathogens have a way to enter.

If diseases are present in or near the plant already, sterilizing pruning equipment will simply provide a clean entry port for the pathogen—infection can still follow after the cut is made with a sanitized tool.

In my garden, I never sanitize clippers between cuts.  However, conditions vary across the US, and in some places rain, humidity, and temperature are more favorable for disease development.  If you have concern about spreading pathogens, prune during the dormant season, when the likelihood of pathogen activity is lowest. Apply dormant sprays containing copper to limit the onset of new fungal diseases that may enter pruning wounds.  If you still feel you need to protect wounds from dirty clippers I like to use the flame from a plumber’s torch to sanitize.  A few seconds along the cutting edge front and back kills all pathogens (Illustration 3).  The process is similar for a saw but efficacy is increased if the saw gullets are wiped clean with a cloth and then the flame applied. The only time I take these measures is when I know I am working with plants that can be inoculated by pruning (which is rare).


Illustration 3. A plumber’s torch will rapidly sanitize saws and blades when pathogens are present in plant tissues.

When pruning garden plants, there are a plethora of recommendations on how to make cuts. Rose experts have extolled the virtues of an angled cut so water runs away quickly, flush cuts used to be recommended by arborists as the highest quality cut. These examples are without research foundation. Cuts on woody plants should made to create the most circular exposure that leaves the smallest surface area possible. We abandoned flush cuts many years back because they cut into protective zones that limit decay in trees. Some gardeners feel compelled to cover their cuts with a pruning paint and there is a similar paucity of research to support this practice. Leave pruning wounds unpainted.

Grow Garlic – Keep the Neighborhood Vampires at Bay

While most of those gardening tasks are coming to an end, in most parts of the US it’s time to think about planting a few things in the veggie garden to bring a flavorful bounty next year – garlic (and a few related alliums).

I often reference Halloween and vampires when I talk about garlic, not just because traditional lore says that garlic repels vampires, but because it is a good reminder of when to plant garlic in the garden. October is the prime time for adding the alluring allium to the garden. You can also remember that you plant garlic during the same period that you plant spring flowering bulbs.

Why do vampires hate garlic?

Yes.  Vampires are fictional (unless someone finds some empirical evidence of their existence, since you can’t prove a negative 😉 ).  These bloodsucking creatures of folklore may actually have a basis in fact that could explain their aversion to garlic. Way back when people didn’t have science to understand things, they often invented explanation for things that were supernatural.  Sometimes these explanations may have actually had some truth to them.

In this case, the symptoms of vampiricism could have evolved from the symptoms of porphyria – a set of rare disorders of hemoglobin (there’s the connection between vampires and blood).  Symptoms of porphyria include shrunken gums (that could make teeth look like long fangs), painful sensitivity to sunlight, and….and averse reaction to garlic. The reaction comes from the effect of garlic on the blood – it can stimulate red blood cell turn over and increase blood flow, both of which can exacerbate symptoms of porphyria and cause acute, painful attacks.  There’s also an allegorical connection – vampirism was considered a disease (or represented the spread of disease in some literary cases) that was spread by a causal agent and garlic was seen as a curative for disease (it does have some antibacterial properties).  Note: other possible symptoms of porphyria can be excessive hair growth in random areas of the body, which gives it a connection to lore around lycanthropy.

On to the gardening

Now that we’ve covered some trivial, albeit interesting, info lets get on with the gardening!

While many people are accustomed to the single variety available in grocery stores, there are several different types of garlic that all have different flavor characteristics. These types can be classed in two categories; hardneck garlic has a hardened central stem when it dries, and softneck garlics remain soft and pliable. Softneck varieties are the ones that lend themselves to being braided into those hanging garlic braids. Softneck varieties are also longer-storing than hardneck varieties.

It can be tough to find garlic in local garden centers to plant. Those that do carry garlic, often carry it at the wrong time of year for planting when it is shipped in on the spring garden displays. If you don’t have friends to share their garlic with you, or a local farmer to buy some from, you are going to have to go the mail order (or online order) route.

Once you have your garlic bulbs, split them up into cloves, being sure that you have a piece of the basal plate (the part that holds them all together) on the clove. This one clove will turn into a whole bulb over the growing season.

Plant the cloves tip up about 4 to 6 inches apart and about 2 inches deep in loose, organic soil. Mulch after planting with about one inch of straw or shredded newspaper.

Garlic is a relatively heavy feeder, so it would benefit from a good balanced fertilizer treatment with nitrogen after it is established. You can also plant them in the garden where you grew beans over the summer – the bacteria that colonized bean roots adds nitrogen to the soil.

After that, just be patient. It may pop up before winter if the weather is mild, but don’t worry – it can survive even if a freeze kills the growth back to the ground.  Garlic requires little maintenance, and only requires water if the weather turns very dry. Harvest it once the leaves start to die in mid-summer (around July, unless it is an early-maturing variety). Be sure to save some to plant next year and store the rest for use in the kitchen.

Aside from garlic, there are some other odoriferous onion relatives you can plant this time of year like shallots and perennial onions in the vegetable garden or edible landscape.

Shallots have a mild onion flavor and are great because they form cloves like garlic (meaning you don’t have to cut up a whole bulb if you just need a little bit) and store well. The beauty of shallots is that they can also be planted in really early spring — they are a multi-seasonal crop. You can also start them from seeds in the spring.

Shallots are technically perennials, as they will grow over many years if left undisturbed. However, to harvest them, you have to dig them up so they are usually grown as annuals. Once you dig them up, use the larger bulbs for cooking and save the smaller ones for replanting.

Multiplier onions, sometimes called “potato onions” are another fall-planted perennial. These plants produce clusters of bulbs (hence the name “multiplier”) that are harvested in the early summer for bulb onions.

One of the benefits of these and other perennial onions is that you can harvest the green blades of the plant for use as green onions or scallions throughout most of the winter and spring.

Egyptian walking onions are another perennial that can be harvested either for its bulb or as a green onion. The name comes from the bulbils that form at the top of the flower stalk. When they mature, they get heavy enough for the stalk to collapse and fall over, creating a new bunch of onions away from the mother plant. You can allow them to do this to fill in an area, though most people limit it by harvesting the bulbils before they fall.

There are also perennial leeks that have a flavor similar to leeks and can be harvested as green leeks through the winter or dug up as small, tender leeks in the spring.

If you love growing perennial vegetables that add flavor to just about any dish, give these tasty plants a try. They’re really simple to grow and can keep your garden and your kitchen full of fun and flavors for years to come.

A quick primer on types of garlic

Hardneck Varieties

  • Purple Stripe — bulbs have purple on the outside. Some of the tastier garlics that become deliciously sweet when roasted.
  • Porcelain — popular gourmet variety. Usually has a more robust and spicy flavor. Bulbs are typically large and have large cloves.
  • Rocambole — Rich, complex flavors popular with chefs. Their scapes (edible blooms) form a double loop. They do not do well where winters are warm.
  • Asiatic/Turban — Do not store for long periods. Mature earlier in the season (late spring as opposed to summer) than other types. Flavors are usually strong and hot.
  • Creole — Attractive red color. Performs well where winters are warmer. The flavor is similar to (though milder than) Asiatic/Turban Varieties.

Softneck Varieties

  • Artichoke — the grocery store garlic (California White) is an artichoke garlic, though other varieties have more complex flavors. Bulbs tend to have multiple layers of cloves.
  • Silverskin — often the last in the season to mature, these are the longest-storing garlics.

Elephant Garlic

This is a common “garlic” planted by many gardeners because it has large, easy to use bulbs with a garlicky flavor.  Though it is technically not a garlic species – it is a type of perennial leek.

Root washed perennials – 3 months later

You’ll recall that in July I posted about root-washing perennials before planting them in the middle of our typically hot and dry summer in the Pacific Northwest.  I wanted to update everyone on how they performed now that we’re heading into our cooler and wetter fall months.

Just to remind you, here’s a photo of the garden right after planting:

South-facing pollinator garden

And here is the same garden, 3 months later:

Made it through the summer!

No plants died; in fact, as you can tell, they all thrived. They were watered twice a day during the hottest months and now are rain watered only.  (The underlying soil is an excessively drained glacial till, which is why we water frequently during esablishment and why we don’t worry about the drainspout. Water doesn’t stay around long.)

I used no fertilizer. I did add the soilless media from the root washing to the top of the soil and then covered with woodchip mulch.

There was, of course, a period of about 6 weeks post planting where there was no above-ground growth. But all of these plants retained their flowers, which kept our bees and other pollinators (butterflies and hummingbirds) happy. In August, the plants started to put on new growth at a furious rate now that roots have established.

Native bumblebee on salvia.

Take some time and go back to the original post (which is linked in the first sentence. Look at the roots – before and after washing and pruning. Now look at the results.

Why wouldn’t you plant this way?

My cucurbits won’t stop having sex.

Not really a botanically-correct statement, but you know what I mean. John Porter’s previous blog post did a great job of explaining cucurbit reproduction (loved the Pucchini). Though I was surprised to learn “not getting any fruit” is actually a problem. Can’t say I’ve had an issue with that, ever. We have a really vibrant bee population and they’ve been super busy.

I love growing squash of all sorts, despite not being a terribly gifted vegetable garder. Past Garden Professors posts have addressed this issue. One might ask, why on earth would a two-person household need a 60-foot-long row of zucchini? Because we can!  Though if I recall, I intended to go back and thin the row. Whoops.

The zucchini hedge. And those aren’t weeds, they’re *biodiversity*.

By late summer, we usually end up with gummy stem blight, powder mildew or squash stem borer  No sign yet, though any of these goodies could show up next week. The plants are all healthy and ridiculously enormous. It’s been very warm and dry, but we have a nice drip irrigation system in place.

So guess what happened when we got too busy to check on them for three days?   Many more were still on the plants when I snapped this pic. I’ve worked zucchini in some form into every meal except breakfast. Joel’s still being a good sport. Next step is anonymous *gift* bags to folks at the office. Though I think I’m getting a reputation.

Normal-sized zucchini at top of photo for reference.  Aargh.

Not all zucchini taste alike, as true fans know. The pale hybrid Bossa Nova, right, has very creamy and tender flesh with seeds that are really only noticeable when it gets, er, hefty. Bossa Nova is a recent All-America Selection and perfect for use with those spiralizer thingies.  The ribbed/striped variety is Costata Romensco – an heirloom variety with really wonderful flavor. Humongous plants though, probably not the best choice for square foot gardening fans. Tigress is the white-flecked green selection, allegedly more disease resistant than most. Bright and sunny Gold Rush, an old-school AAS selection, adds some color and is a bit sturdier/keeps longer than yellow summer squash.

I won’t be trying to save seeds – as John noted, can be very tricky/futile when there are other cucurbits about. Plus it’s too much fun to pick out next year’s selections from the winter seed catalogs, when the prospect of bountiful zucchini stacked like firewood actually sounds appealing.

 

 

 

 

Sex and the Single Squash: A study in plant sex, sexuality, reproduction, and seed saving

In the 1960s, author and future Cosmopolitan magazine Editor Helen Gurley Brown scandalized the country with her book about independent single women called “Sex and the Single Girl.”  Taking a page from Ms. Brown, we can have a discussion about “Sex and the Single Squash.”  Here, we can talk about plant floral structure and reproduction and its effect on fruit production and even seed saving.  A true discussion of the “birds and the bees” if you will. This is especially important in the vegetable and fruit realm, since reproduction is why we get tomatoes, peppers, apples, plums and such in the first place.  It also is important for producing seeds, as those arise from the reproductive process as well.

Whether you knew it or not, flowers are not just different in appearance from plant to plant, but the ways in which they are pollinated and turn into fruit are different as well.

Some plants have what are called “perfect” flowers where both male and female parts are present, such as roses, apples and dandelions. In a way of speaking, you could say that these flowers are hermaphroditic.  These flowers may or may not be self-pollinated.  Depending on species genetics, some plants can self-fertilize (like tomatoes and beans) and others require cross-pollination (like apples).

Other flowers are “incomplete,” meaning that they have separate male and female flowers.  Some plants with “incomplete” flowers are called dioecious (Greek, meaning “two households”), and have distinct male and female plants such as ginkgo trees, holly bushes and kiwi vines. Some “incomplete” plants are monoecious and have distinct but separate male and female flowers on one plant — like squash, cucumbers and corn.

So, here’s where the vegetable garden comes in — one of the questions that I get every year without fail has something to do with why most of the flowers on a squash or cucumber or other cucurbit (that’s what we call plants in this family) plant do not produce fruit.

There are a few explanations – high heat causing aborted flowers or fruits or improper pollination, absence of pollinators, or, most likely, the fact that some of those flowers were never going to set fruit because they were male.  In answer, I have to explain that about half or more of the flowers on the plant are male and are, unfortunately, anatomically incapable of producing fruit.

There are a few ways to tell male and female flowers apart when it comes to members of the cucurbit family.

First, look at the base of the flower. If the base is swollen and looks like it is a tiny version of the mature fruit, then it is a female flower.

If the base is just a straight stem (in flowers, this stem is called a peduncle), then it is a male flower.

The second method is to look inside the flower. If there is one large central structure, called the pistil, that indicates the flower is female.

Male flowers will have several, smaller stamens inside. Female flowers also tend to be larger than male flowers.

Image result for squash flower male female

In the world of the single, available female squash blossom, life revolves around attracting honey and other native bees that have also recently visited male flowers to assure pollen transfer.

All members of the cucurbit family require this pollination tango to make sure that the female flowers produce fruit.

Each species and even variety of squash have a different ratio of male to female flowers. The ratio is usually about 1-to-1, but it is not unusual to see varieties with many more males than females.

Many of the plants also produce an abundance of male flowers early in the season, sort of as a teaser to make sure bees are attracted to the plant later on to pollinate the female plants.

So if a majority of flowers die early in the season without setting fruit, or about half of the flowers die throughout the season, there is nothing to worry about.

If female flowers are dying throughout the season without producing fruit, though, there is a definite problem. This means that there are no bees available to pollinate the plants.

If fruits have shrunken parts or misshapen, then there could be an issue of incomplete pollination from not having bees around. This could result from not having enough food for them in the area to encourage their presence, or from weather being too cool or wet for bees to get out and pollinate.

The lack of bees could also be the result of improper use of pesticides in the area.

If it seems like the birds and the bees aren’t happening in your garden, there are ways that you can ensure fruitfulness by taking matters into your own hands.

Transferring pollen from male flowers to female flowers can be accomplished using a small artist’s paintbrush or by simply pulling off a male flower and using it to apply pollen directly.

Gardeners who want to save seeds from plants in this family should also pollinate flowers by hand, and actually go so far as to protect the female flower from outside pollen using some sort of cover.

In fact, this method is often used by plant breeders or those who want to save seeds of crops that easily cross-pollinate.  Hand pollination followed by bagging the flower to keep pollen or pollinators away to avoid accidental unwanted pollen is often used to produce.

Believe it or not, several members of the squash family that look or taste nothing alike are the same species and can cross-pollinate. For example: Zucchini, summer squash, pumpkins, scallop squash, decorative gourds and acorn squash are all in the species Cucurbita pepo and can cross with each other.

A few years ago, one of my Master Gardeners came up to me at the end of a meeting and asked me what was wrong with her zucchini. She handed me an object roughly the shape of a zucchini, only a bit larger and splotched with orange. She had saved the seeds from the year before.20151104_200712

I immediately answered that her zucchini had crossed with a pumpkin. Both of these plants are the same species and can easily cross pollinate. Even if you don’t have pumpkins in your garden, bees can travel 2 miles or more in search of food.  So she was left with what I would call a Puccini.

Easy cross-pollination of varieties is why the most common heirloom crop varieties you’ll find are tomatoes and beans. Both of these crops have closed flowers that help resist cross-pollination.

They are most likely to be self-fertile, meaning that the flower will pollinate itself without outside assistance. This helps the plant breed true — so next year you end up with something that’s roughly the same as what you had this year. These plants can be just a few feet away from a different variety and they will not cross pollinate.

If you want to save something that is bee-pollinated, like your squash, pumpkins or cucumbers, you might want to do the brush and bag technique. Otherwise you might end up with a surprise in the garden next year.

The heirloom varieties that we often save are open pollinated, meaning that when they cross with themselves their genetics are relatively stable and you won’t see a lot of difference from year to year. (There will still be some difference, so if you save seeds for a long time you can end up with your own strain of a variety suited to your garden and location.)

Hybrids, on the other hand, have less stable genetics than the open pollinated varieties. With the way genetics work, some of those offspring will have traits of the mother plant, some will favor the father and some will be similar to the plant you are trying to save (and some might look like the milkman).

When seed companies sell hybrid varieties, they have to maintain a population of the mother plant and father plant to cross them every year to get the specific hybrid variety.

While the results of saving seeds from hybrids will be unpredictable, it can also be fun. My friend, plant breeder Joseph Tychonievich, points out in his talks and his book, “Plant Breeding for the Home Gardener,” that you can save the seeds from plants most closely resembling the desired plant over several years.

Just keep planting your selected seeds and harvesting the closest one to what you want. After about three or four years, you can end up with a relatively stable, perhaps even open-pollinated variety, that is your very own based on that hybrid variety you love.

And if you end up with a cross-pollination, either purposeful or accidental, you won’t see a difference in the fruit from this growing season (except maybe in corn, but that’s another story)  Those changes won’t be apparent until you grow out the seeds you saved.  So you won’t know until next year if you have one of those pucchinis.

And don’t forget: If you do have an overabundance of male squash flowers, they are edible too. You can put them in a casserole, fry them, stuff them, and more.

The search for bogus info and products continues!

The Garden Professors, led by our warrior princess Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott, continue to ferret out bad advice, bogus information, and worthless products foisted upon the unsuspecting gardener.

I’m assisting in the hunt as well.  See my survey link below.  Looking specifically for :

1) Gardening-related blogs and vlogs (video blogs) that are out there – could be anywhere on the spectrum of misinformation: spewing pseudoscience or just plain malarkey.  Or some of the content is o.k.,  but veers off occasionally into the land of the absurd.

2) PRODUCTS! I’m especially interested in this. There have been some hilariously useless things brought to our attention over the years, but new gardening products are constantly coming on the market to fill this or that perceived niche.  The Amazonification of garden retail is exacerbating the problem.  A brief example is a $94 compost “tumbler” that two heads of old cabbage would  fill.  Now roll around daily and wait…  So let us know of any gardening product that you or a friend have purchased and it just didn’t work as promised (or failed in epic fashion).

Respond to Holly’s brief survey here!

All responses to my survey are confidential with no names used in the input or output, so feel free to include rants along with links. Will share what we gather in a future post (or two).  Survey closes June 20, so don’t tarry. Thank you, and garden on!

Respond to Holly’s brief survey here!

You, too, can be up to your pits in perennials!

(posted by Holly Scoggins)
The Perennial Plant Association (PPA) is a unique group of folks – comprised of plant breeders, educators, propagators, promoters, garden writers, growers, retailers, gardeners, and landscape designers – all under one umbrella. The PPA is probably one of the most vertically-integrated plant organizations out there. If it has anything to do with a perennial plant, there’s a good chance one of our members is involved.

The marvelous/legendary PPA Symposium has been held in all parts of the country. This year’s perennial-fest is in Raleigh NC.  This goes back to my particular roots with the organization – my first PPA experience was in 1997 symposium, also in Raleigh, while I was grad student at NC State. Helped out in a few capacities, including tour bus wrangler (on the surprisingly rowdy bus, no less).

A special feature THIS year in Raleigh will be a one-day plant-geek-fest, open to the public as a separate registration item (of course any perennial freaks are absolutely welcome to attend the entire week of symposium events as well!).

Many/most of you are not located in the Mid-Atlantic/Southeastern region of the U.S. So why I am I touting this here? Because some of my biggest Ah-Ha! moments regarding growing and gardening have happened in places far from my comfort/hardiness zone. And the plants…oh the plants. In searching through my older GP posts, I’ve mentioned the PPA at least 9 times.

Recent examples: In 2016, the PPA symposium was in Minnesota… really opened my eyes, heart, and wallet to some lesser-known prairie species and design concepts. I probably have one of the larger Silphium collections in Southwest Virginia now. Whoops.

Last year’s symposium in Denver, Colorado brought with it awesome alpines and steppe plants – many of which I could grow here, with a bit of assistance from enhanced drainage. Of course there were also examples galore of rock gardening techniques to help make that “enhanced drainage” thing happen.  Beyond the plants and gardens, another highlight is the opportunity to meet the area’s botanical movers and shakers that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. So much positive, fun energy –  helps to remind me why I do this thing!

Joseph Tychonievich experiencing Perennial Overload Syndrome at the 2017 Perennial Plant Association Symposium last year in Denver. Triage included some deep breathing and a Sprite. Plant: Dalea candida. Place: Chatfield Farms, Denver Botanic Garden. Photo: H. Scoggins.

So…trust me when I say driving for 6-8-10 hours or hopping on a plane to the handy-dandy RDU airport will be WORTH IT. Especially if you stick around for core symposium including fab tours to private and public gardens, independent garden centers, behind-the-scenes at wholesale nurseries, and (wait for it) dinner and garden wandering/shopping opportunities at Plant Delights Nursery.

Back to the “Spend the Day with Perennial Plants” opportunity on Monday, July 30 – Check out this lineup for the plant talk day – and note the geographic diversity of the speakers – again, this isn’t just a “Southeast” thing!

– Patrick McMillan is an Emmy Award-winning host, co-creator, and writer of the popular nature program, Expeditions with Patrick McMillan . He’ll highlight Carolina native perennials for the garden in a morning talk. Later that afternoon, he’ll cover Southwestern plants we can use in the Southeast to cope with drought.

– George Coombs manages the horticultural research program at the Mt. Cuba Center in Hockessin, Delaware. This renowned botanical garden focuses on native plants, and their plant evaluations are making a big splash in the industry. Get a peek at the top-performing selections and find out what it takes to stand out in their trials.

– Christian Kress owns a specialty nursery in Austria that focuses on rare perennials from around the world. He’s traveled extensively, authored books, and introduced several beloved perennials to the market. He’ll  bring the knowledge on flocks of Phlox (!) and introduce us to the amazing selections coming out of Russia.

– Judith Jones owns Fancy Frond Nursery in Gold Bar, Washington. She’ll open the world of ferns and inspire a new appreciation for their role in the landscape. [Am hopeful that frond puns will abound.]

Other presentations include iris breeder Kevin Vaughn; John Kartesz on native plant inventory software that generates customizable maps and databases; Larry Mellichamp on the world of unusual, surprising and bizarre plants; and Lauri Lawson on medicinal plants.

ALL THIS IN ONE DAY, PEOPLE.

The whole shebang takes place at the Hilton North Raleigh/Midtown. Advanced registration is required and early bird pricing ends June 1. See the program description and get registration information on the PPA Raleigh website.  Be sure to check out the glorious e-Brochure just posted on the symposium home page. Hit me below with any questions – and would LOVE to see you there!

Costs and benefits of pre-plant root manipulation

Spring has sprung here in Michigan; time to get cracking on lots of projects. One of our new projects is an investigation of pre-plant techniques for dealing with root systems on container grown trees. As many of you know, Linda Chalker-Scott is advocate of bare-rooting trees before planting to correct potential root defects before planting. As some of you may know, I’m skeptical of this approach. It’s not that I think root systems are perfect – far from it. But we lack sufficient information to know whether the costs of bare-rooting (time/effort, stress on the trees) warrant the benefits. We also have little information on how species vary in responding to bare-rooting. From the experience of foresters and bare-root liner nurseries we know that some species are highly sensitive to storage and handling when they’re bare-rooted. When I worked for International Paper, we had little difficulty transplanting sycamores bare-root; whereas we often encountered severe dieback or mortality with sweetgum. Likewise, shade tree nurseries often encounter difficulty establishing oaks, baldcypress, and hackberry from bare-root liners. In fact, J. Frank Schmidt and Sons nursery, one of the largest producers of shade tree liners has discontinued production of bare-root hackberry lines and only produces them as container stock.

As I said, I’m skeptical that putting a tree through the trauma of bare-rooting is worth the potential benefit. But I’m also open-minded and willing to conduct an objective trial to see what’s what. As an aside, I was skeptical about root-shaving before we conducted our own trial and was impressed by the results. For our current study we planted 96 container-grown shade trees last week at the MSU Horticulture Teaching and Research Center. Trees includes three cultivars: ‘Bloodgood’ London planetrees, columnar tulip poplar and ‘October glory’ red maple. We assigned the trees at random to one of four treatments: Control (no root treatment), Shave (outer roots removed before planting) and two bare-root treatments – Bare root – Wash (trees were bare-rooted by washing the roots with water) and Bare root – Airspade (trees were bare-rooted using an airspade). The planting crew consisted of my technician, Dana Ellison; my new Master’s student, Riley Rouse; my undergrad assistants, Becky Pobst and Alex Love; and Linda, who was on-hand to provide quality control on the bare-rooting operations.

For her M.S. project, Riley will be tracking performance of the trees over the next two years. Her measurements will include tree survival and growth as well as measures of physiological responses such as plant water potential and photosynthetic gas exchange. Next fall, after two growing seasons, we will dig a subset of the trees with a tree spade and inspect the root systems to determine the effect of treatments on root system development. In the meantime, here are some photos from last week’s festivities.

 

Right tool for the job. MSU Beaumont Nursery provided a big assist by augering the planting holes.
Tulip poplar roots before shaving
Tulip poplar after shaving
Alex cleans up a planetree with the airspade
Dana’s excited to be washing roots.
Riley washing up a maple – don’t worry the cicling roots come off next…
Light and easy. Becky after airspading a tulip poplar
Wait’ll purchasing sees this… A wading pool is perfect for pre-soaking roots before washing and for storing until planting.
Easy to smile when it’s a Control tree…
Getting a little kinky… Root at the end of the felco’s bending back on itself – corrected after the photo-op.
Looking a little wilty. TheBare-root maples required the greatest root removal and correction
Trial plantation at the end of the planting
Can’t pull off something like this without an awesome crew!