Fight the tyranny of spring!

Here in Michigan, spring is coming. Crocuses, snowdrops, and reticulata irises are in full bloom. Hepatica, forsythia, and daffodils will be coming on before long. Soon, garden centers and nurseries will be opening and gardeners driven mad by the long winter will rush out to buy every plant they can find with a flower on it. In the mad feed frenzy for flowers, we gardeners will sadly look over countless beautiful fall-flowering perennials and shrubs simply because they don’t happen to be doing their thing when we are shopping.

And that, my friend, is the tyranny of spring. We Northern gardeners all too often let our spring fever skew our gardens to all spring bloomers, totally ignoring and missing a vast array of gorgeous plants that give color and interest the rest of the year.

aesculus

So, don’t give in. Try, for example, planting a bottle brush buckeye (Aseculus parviflora) a shrub which will thrill and delight with elegant white sprays of flowers in August when all the spring bloomers are looking tired and sad.

hostaclausa

Or plant the lovely Hosta clausa which won’t impress with plain green leaves in the spring, but has a later summer flower display you won’t forget.

So this year, don’t give in to the siren song of spring. Add some late bloomers to the garden. You won’t regret it.

Joseph Tychonievich

 

Tree of Heck

We have about 3000 sq ft of mixed border surrounding (in multiple layers) our 1500 sq ft home.  We take care of everything ourselves, in our spare time (ha!!).  Thus, our maintenance schedule BARELY includes cutting back perennials and ornamental grasses Feb-March, plus any pruning needed for woodies…then some fits of weeding throughout the growing season.

Most of this stuff has been in the ground for five to eight years, and we have a high tolerance for nature taking its course.  We’re surrounded by deciduous forest, so of course trees pop up where they’re not supposed to, especially oaks and the occasional hickory, which I dearly love and hate to remove. But I do. Because seedling trees are about impossible to just yank out like a weed – a whip just a few feet tall will have a taproot as long.   With our stringent maintenance regime, they’re usually tall enough to poke up over the Panicum or loom over the Leucanthemum by the time I notice, so then digging becomes the only option.

Or, wait, maybe just cut it back really hard, like below the soil line.  That’ll kill it, right? Nope?  Back again? Chop, chop, hack, hack.  Most saplings will give up after a few years. Except this one:

Ailanthus altissima a.k.a. “Tree of Heaven.”

Most of you know this is a totally invasive doody-head of a tree.  Google for details if not familiar.  I thankfully have not had much experience with it, until the past few years – there must be a mature one in the area.  It would pop up here and there in our borders and blueberry field, but I didn’t think much of it. Grab the loppers, cut it back.  BIG mistake.

Behold, the most ridiculous root:shoot ratio ever:

ailanthusrootBunny, our pensive 40 lb whippet, for scale. 

I had lopped this individual back three years in a row. All I could see were the pale, unbranched shoots, not very imposing at all, so chop, chop.   But finally, after a heroic effort last evening, it was successfully ripped from the heart of our main perennial border. Joel had to use our John Deere 950 tractor with a brush grabber chain to get this out of the ground, even after 20 minutes of his digging around the root to get the chain attached.

Like some kind of sea monster, my repeated attempts to kill it apparently just made it angry.  And stronger.

It’s still out there, on our burn pile.
A dog barks in the night.
0_o.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rogues gallery

You know the word “rogue” as a noun and adjective, and probably from when Sarah Palin “went rogue” during her time as vice presidental candidate.

But you may not know that it also a verb. That’s the way I use it most often. I rogue plants and I complain — often — about seed producers not doing enough roguing.

To rogue means to weed out inferior or off-type plants. It is a critical part of producing and maintaining seed selections of plants. Whenever you are growing fields of plants for seed production, be it tomatoes or zinnias or corn, you get off types. Chance mutations, seedlings produced from errant grains of pollen from another variety, or just change of the diversity within the population. So one has to rogue — walk through the fields and pull out flowers that are the wrong color, corn plants that aren’t yielding enough, all the unexpected variants to keep the variety true to type.

The annoying thing is that a lot of seed producers cut corners — particularly, it seems, for annual flower seed — and don’t bother. The results can be very frustrating.

The worst are flowers in mixed colors. Maintaining a good mix of multiple colors requires careful roguing to ensure one color — due to greater vigor or just chance — doesn’t come to dominate. Lots of companies just don’t seem to bother.

Last year I bought a packet of Zinnia ‘State Fair’, an old, and wonderful seed strain, which was supposed to come in the full mix of zinnia flower colors.

zinniarogue

I got pink. That’s all. Just pink. My whole row was pink. Not my favorite color of zinnia. Clearly the pink plants slowly came to dominate the fields of whoever is producing these seeds, and instead of roguing out some to bring the color mix back into balance, they just let them go rogue, and I got stuck with just one color.

The ‘State Fair’ zinnias were also supposed to be double, like this.

doublezinnia

They weren’t. Single flowered forms will almost always come to dominate seed strains unless rogued out because they’re easier for insects to pollinate and thus tend to produce more seed. Clearly no one bothered, because every plant I sowed out gave me just a single row of showy petals.

I’ve had similar experiences with countless other varieties of seed annuals. The picture looks great on the packet, but sow them out and mostly what I get are rogues, not the variety I was after. The lack of roguing is a plague… bad enough that a friend in the horticulture industry once mentioned casually to me that, of course, cosmos varieties are only worth growing when they are first introduced. A few years without good roguing, and their desirable characteristics are mostly lost.

So more roguing please. I love growing big blowsy annual flowers from seed. I’m tired of them all going rogue.

Creative Lighting for Seed Starting

As we get close to the time to start tomato, pepper, and other seedlings indoors, I thought I’d share this picture of my older sister’s seed starting setup from few years ago:

lamps et al

Two desk lamps with compact florescent bulbs. Not traditional, but worked great. Just a reminder that you can get creative when it comes to lighting for seedlings, using whatever fixtures and layout works for your space. The only rules are to use florescent or LED bulbs, not those old fashioned incandescent bulbs which have poor light for plants, and err on the side of more light rather than less to make sure you get compact, healthy plants that will transition to the sunny outside world without drama.
Joseph Tychonievich

 

Allium Fever

Ornamental onions are hot patooties.  From big, bold, purple globes to small pink half-moons, there is no end to ornamental onion-y goodness out there with 30+ species and cultivars in the trade.  There’s no substitute for ornamental onions in regards to architectural drama – the perfect geometric foil to wispy grasses, floral spikes, and umpteen daisy-thingies.  The seed heads from the sturdier species will persist and add interest to autumn and winter perennialscapes (not sure if that’s a word).

Art-of-Gardening-COVER-3D-1
Not one but TWO cultivars of Allium on the cover of the fabulous new Chanticleer book…

All are members of the Allium genus, just like those onions sprouting in your kitchen counter veg basket – hence the deer- and small mammal- resistance factor.  However…there are some issues.

  • Can be short-lived.  I have first-hand experience with this – plant, enjoy for a year or two, then…where did they go?
  • Bloom time is rather vaguely defined.  Most catalogs list “early summer” or “late spring” for most cultivars.  But if you want continuous purple orbs, what’s the order of bloom?
  • Can be expensive. Bulbs for some of the mammoth “softball” sizes will set you back $5-$7 each (the bulbs themselves are huge).  This is of particular concern due to the first item.
  • Foliage failure.  For some of the largest species and cultivars, the foliage starts to die back around (or even before) bloom time.  Not a lot of time to put the necessary energy back into that big honkin’ bulb.

We already have a multi-year lily perennialization trial going in conjunction with Cornell and some other institutions.  I thought I might try the same thing with Allium.

Student worker Lauren, after a long day of taking data on a gazillion lilies.
Student worker Lauren, after a long day of taking data on a gazillion lilies.

Unfortunately, I had this bright idea in November – well into the bulb-ordering season.  I tried to compile as complete an inventory as I could, ordering from several vendors.  Ended up with 28 species and cultivars – as much as the space prepared (check out that nice soil!)  could hold, at our urban horticulture center near campus (Virginia Tech is in Blacksburg, USDA Zone 6, about 2000′).  We put five or seven bulbs (depending on size) in each plot, and replicated the whole thing three times.

Ready to plant!
Ready to plant!

We’ll take data over the next three years on time of emergence, bloom time and duration, foliage duration (have a nifty chlorophyll meter that can help quantify that), some growth measurements, and perennial tendencies (or not).  My hope is to end up with a really specific chronology of bloom times plus life expectancy.  Yes, this was just a patented Holly wild hair; luckily I had some general funds to cover it. But I do think our little onion project will be of interest to more than a few folks, whether professional landscape designers or home gardeners.  I know I’m excited to see the results ($30 for five bulbs – yeek)!

 

 

Upside-down growing

I was poking through old photos and came across this oddity:upsidedowntrees

What you are looking at is Japanese maples (Acer palmatum) being grown hanging upside down. I saw this year ago at a nursery in Japan. (You are also probably looking at a disaster of girdling roots in those tiny plastic pots, but that’s another topic) When I asked about them, I was told that they are weeping forms, and grown this way temporarily before being planted in the ground right-side up.
Looking at the image, it makes me think that the particular variety grown here might have a mutation that makes them negatively gravitropic, and so respond to the pull of gravity in the opposite way a normal plant would. (For more on that see my earlier post on gravitropism in corn) Growing them upside down would allow them to produce a fairly normal branching pattern, and then once plants, new growth would, presumably, cascade down from the established trunk and stem.
Anyway. That’s your oddity for the day.
Joseph Tychonievich

Love notes of genetics and physiology for Valentine’s Day

A St. Valentine meme compliments of my "friend" the self-styled Rev. Apostle, and Bishop to the Stars, Joel L. Watts.
A St. Valentine meme compliments of my “friend” the self-styled Rev. Apostle, and Bishop to the Stars, Joel L. Watts.

Ahhh….’Tis the time of year when we celebrate romantic love in homage to a 3rd Century priest who came up a head short for performing unsanctioned Christian weddings.  (It is also of note that St. Valentine, or Valentinius as his friends called him, is the patron saint of bee keepers but, strangely, not of birds, flowers, or trees).

In celebration, many suitors, partners, spouses, fling-seekers, and woo-wishers will flock to florists, grocery floral counters, and even gas stations to purchase flowers, namely roses, that have likewise been beheaded.

Those roses, with all of their tightly wound petals, look nothing wild-type roses. Modern roses are the product of many centuries of breeding that started independently in China and the Mediterranean region.

So if the wild-type rose has a single row of five petals, how do breeders get all of those extra petals?  They can just come from nowhere, you know.

The simple answer is that tissue that turns into stamens in the wild-type flower are converted to petal tissue.  While early (and even contemporary) plant breeders may not understand the mechanism responsible for the doubling (gene expression), research is showing that the same gene is responsible for the doubling in both the Chinese and Mediterranean set of species/subspecies.

In a nutshell, what happens is that the different regions of the flower – sepals, petals, stamens, carpel – develop in response to the expression of a set of genes.  It isn’t just the genes acting alone, though; it is their interaction in the tissues that makes the difference.  These genes are grouped by the floral part they affect and are grouped as A-Function, B-Function, C-Function, and E-Function.

If you want to learn a whole lot more about it than I can ‘splain (it has been a few years since my last plant physiology class), this paper thoroughly explains the gene expression and evolution of the flower.  Their figure depicting the flower model is informative, yet simple.  I’ve included it (and its accompanying caption) below.

The ABCE model of floral organ identity. Sepals are produced where A function acts alone, petals where A and B functions overlap, stamens where B and C functions combine, and carpels where C function acts alone. In the eudicot genetic model Arabidopsis thaliana, APETALA1 (AP1) and APETALA2 (AP2) are the A-function genes, APETALA3 (AP3) and PISTILLATA (PI) together specify B function, C function is specified by AGAMOUS (AG), and multiple SEPALLATA genes provide E function
The ABCE model of floral organ identity. Sepals are produced where A function acts alone, petals where A and B functions overlap, stamens where B and C functions combine, and carpels where C function acts alone. In the eudicot genetic model Arabidopsis thaliana, APETALA1 (AP1) and APETALA2 (AP2) are the A-function genes, APETALA3 (AP3) and PISTILLATA (PI) together specify B function, C function is specified by AGAMOUS (AG), and multiple SEPALLATA genes provide E function.  http://www.pnas.org/content/107/52/22570

 

In the paper “Tinkering with the C-Function: A Molecular Frame for the Selection of Double Flowers in Cultivated Roses” researchers show that in lines from both regions of the world produced double flowers as a result in a reduction of expression of the C-Function gene AGAMOUS (RhAG) leads to double flowers.  In Arabidopsis (every plant lab bench jockey’s favorite model plant), this reduction shifts expression of the A-Function genes toward the center of the plant, turning stamens into petals and carpels into sepals.

Now, one question I get from time to time is “why don’t these roses smell like the old-fashioned roses?”  One answer is that as we breed for looks, we are breeding out genes responsible for scent oil production.  So Shakespeare was actually wrong when he said that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”  That isn’t true these days.

So, I wish you a perfectly lovely Valentine’s Day, no matter how you celebrate. Just remember to whisper sweet nothings of floral gene expressions in your sweetheart’s ear.  And remember to stop and smell the roses – if it is a variety that has a decent scent.