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  • Seeds Germinate Surprises

    August 27, 2007

    This year I got a reminder that we never exactly know what we’re going to get when we put a seed in the ground. As a professional horticulturist, I run into many people who share stories of collecting seeds from favorite plants they’ve grown in their gardens or just encountered in their daily journey through life. What so many people don’t realize and are often shocked to learn is that a plant’s seed may not end up producing a replica of that plant. Perhaps this comes from seeing so many plants in nurseries that are homogenous. Or maybe it comes from never learning the plant part of the birds & the bees stories. I haven’t figured out if there’s a common thread to that big surprise, but what I am realizing is that more & more people who are interested in gardening have little idea how plants reproduce (& are being produced by humans).

    The short story is that plants have a sexual reproductive system that is aided by pollenators. A bee lands on a pollenating flower, picks up some pollen, moves to another flower & drops that pollen grain on the female reproductive part of the second flower. Male part meets female part. Seed is formed, often enclosed by a delicious piece of fruit. The fruit is eaten by (say) a bird. The seed is pooped miles away; a new plant emerges.  Okay, so let’s be honest, that’s an over-simplification, but it tells an honest tale.

    The key to this sexual reproduction is that the male and female components that build this seed come from two different plants. Yes, the plants are more than likely the same kind of plant — a daisy will pollenate a daisy, for instance. But, each of those daisies comes from a different genetic make up. So, by pairing two different sets of daisy genes, the genes of the new seed are a combination resulting from the mixture of both parents’ heritages. Eventhough the seed is taken from the “mother” plant; the seed has two parents, and the resulting “child” plant may perform more like the father you’ve never seen.

    So, how do nursery growers manage to get plants that look exactly like another plant? Plants can be propagated through vegetative means. This means that a cutting of some sort is taken from the parent plant and used to create a new plant altogether. However, because the cutting comes from only one parent, the genes of the child are clones of the parent.

    Okay, so I admit these are all gross simplifications. I also acknowledge that there are plants, like ferns, that reproduce by spores. And then there’s grafting where one plant may actually be created from cuttings from many parents.  There’s surprise sports  that result in new cultivars, and so much more. But let’s not confuse things too much right now. Let’s get back to the point of sexually produced seeds…

    When a client tells me, “I want to grow some lavender from my sister’s lavender farm. I have seeds from her plants.” I begin by encouraging them to go ahead and start the seeds. (And likely I need to look in my propagation manuals to see what, if any stratification is needed for lavender since I’ve never grown it from seed.) Still, I then have to provide the client with the explanation of how seeds are produced. If her sister grew fields & fields of the same lavender, odds are she’ll get something that looks like her sister’s lavender. But, if her sister grew fields & fields of many kinds of lavender, who knows what she’ll get. The crosses (actually in any uncontrolled field situation) are impossible to predict.

    So why was I surprised when some of my vegetables didn’t come out as advertised? I purchased some of my summer vegetables as starts (meaning someone else selected the seeds & got the plants going); some I purchased as seeds. I’ve realized over the years that starts are often a roll of the dice. Most young tomatoes all look about the same. Same with squash.  This year, I bought my squash as starts. My green beans and cucumbers I purchased as seed. Boy, did I get some surprised in both cases!

    The squash starts turned out to have two different squashes in a 4-pack container. One ended up being a virus-ridden, but delicious delicate yellow squash. Unfortunately, I had to remove it so the virus didn’t spread. The other ended up being a knotty-warty gourd that would look better dried than it tastes. Its kind of tough and definitely has horrible flavor. So much for my summer squash! This problem could have been the result of many things — a lazy planter, a mixed up seed bag, a mis-labeled container. Who knows?!

    My green beans…well, they turned out to be yellow wax beans. And, they were supposed to be bush beans, which I suppose they are. They don’t want to climb, but they aren’t really busy. They’re fairly leggy and not appropriate for their position in my tiny garden. The fruit (yes, bean pods are technically a fruit) are delicious. I think I like them better than my usual green beans.

    So, what’s my point? I guess just to illustrate that plant life is incredibly diverse. We can hope to get the exact cultivar advertised (cultivar = cultivated variety), but there are many uncontrollable factors can contribute to the plant that finally emerges when we put its seed into the ground! The diversity of the plant world is amazing. As much as I wish I had delicate summer squash, I’m looking at this as an opportunity to learn how to dry gourds. Maybe they’ll make a nice decoration on a thanksgiving table!

  • How to Get your Gardening Done when You Have Zero Time

    August 25, 2007

    My solution this time of year? Invite my Mom to visit!

    As a gardening professional, I’m finding less and less time to get my own gardening done during the “high season”, which would be summer — now! I’m so busy helping others with their gardens that I rarely have time to get out and work in my own. Yes, I do get out to do watering. But deadheading? Catching stray weeds poking their seedy little heads (or big heads) above my otherwise filled beds? There just isn’t enough time in the day it seems right now.

     So, enter Mom. She’s my first garden coach. She taught me much of what I know about gardening. She taught me things that have been priceless in developing my own garden style, and she taught me things that I’ve since learned aren’t actually good gardening practices. (And, she listens when I offer her new options & adjustments to her older practices.)

     Mom now lives on the East Coast (to my West Coast location). August is a great time to leave her area to escape the weather and enjoy Seattle. When she comes, I try to make as much time as possible available to her, but sometimes I have to work. When I’m working, she dives into my garden with zeal. She pulls weeds, deadheads, strips old leaves off late bloomers and works them into the soil. She harvests fruits & vegies. She sweeps my patio. Its wonderful! I wish I could hire her to work in my garden full time.

    Mom has left from her visit, but I’m reminded of her visit when I sit on the patio after work and notice no weeds in the garden (or let’s be honest, very few), when I can see my carex because she cut back a straggly euphorbia, when I admire my re-blooming phlox that she deadheaded, when I lay down for some yoga poses on my somewhat clean patio. I can’t thank her enough.

    Okay, so you don’t have a mom of your own to put to work in the garden? Well, take heart! Fall clean up is just around the corner. What I love about Fall clean up is the fury with which I can clean. There’s no deadheading (or very little); its time to cut back, mulch and get ready for winter! And, if you don’t get it all done in the fall, winter helps knock top growth back so its even easier to clean up in the Spring!

  • Granite Stone Seats – A Team Effort

    August 06, 2007

    Snowy winter before the granite We’ve done many different designs in our front garden. First we tore out tired old lawn & junipers. Then we busted out a useless, narrow concrete path & remade the aggregate chunks into a patio space. Quickly, we learned this “patio” was 1) not installed properly (by us) so it didn’t work out in the long run 2) this space has great “sunset” exposure in the summer 3) we wanted something stunning, functional with privacy from the street. Rocks dumped in yardI looked at several ideas to create a seating area to go with a patio in this space — we considered a COBB (straw bale) wall, a dry stack stone wall, wooden benches, steel walls with affixed  stone or wooden benches, and finally we settled on large granite boulders randomly set at seating height. This photo shows the a winter view of the area, area dug out and spaces defined before any stone was brought in. The bench gives a sense of scale. This Spring I selected several pieces of granite outcropping stone to fit the space. It was delivered and dumped into place by a rock setting truck. The plan was to have a rock setting crew come out and hand set the stone into its final position as the rock truck wasn’t able to do the full setting. Weeks, then months, passed by. A dusty, weed patch grew in, filling the space that is to become a patio, eventually.

    Roped to pull What now? I finally pulled together the best crew I know — my husband and his buddies — to help me wrangle the stone into position. I helped a bit, but because of a groin injury, mostly I took photos and consulted.
    They did an amazing job — talk about being up to the challenge! Three guys, not professional rock guys, worked about 3 hours each, each day (6 hours each, 3 guys, so 18 man hours) to tackle a huge task. Its so wonderful to see the project clicking along. There are a few corrections left to make on one stone & a last one to position after that, but I’m thrilled so far. HEAVE!The guys worked as a great team looking at the space, thinking about the stones, discussing angles, vectors and what “might happen, if we do such & such”. For the most part things just worked. I wonder how sore their arms and backs are today?! (Bob was planing trim for our hallway in his “off time”; Jason & David took a 30 mile bike ride on Sunday, after the rock chore. The guys love to be busy!)

    Done for the dayAt the end of the second work day, we had three of five stones totally set. The fourth needs a little more attention. The fifth will be set once the others are completely done. The stubborn “fourth” rock is a challenge for all the guys. None of the guys want to be “beaten by a stupid rock”, so my guess is they’ll “get Egyptian” on it again in a couple of weeks. (Yes, the pyramid-building jokes were out in full force during this job!) After they were done for the day on Sunday, Bob enjoyed a snack out on one rock & did not want to be photographed!

    Chaise Lounge!So, what happens next? Well, after the stubborn rock issue is finalized and the fifth rock is then positioned, we’ll re-establish our patio levels, order in crushed stone for our patio base & begin filling & tamping in that material. Depending on budget, we will order in flagstone and set that as well…or that might wait for next year after our bank has recovered. Staging in projects is something I’m constantly doing at home and for my clients. For now I’m thrilled to just be able to kick back on a beautiful stone, demonstrating how comfortable a rock can be when properly positioned in a garden. (It’ll be extra sweet when the rocks are pressure washed, a patio of some sort is in place, an I can wear something less grubby out there!)

  • Form Follows Function – Landscape Design

    July 31, 2007

    Today is a good day to remember the garden design lesson that form follows function.

    This is very present to me today after visiting a client who brought me in to consult on a project after he’d hired someone to build rock walls, patios & do some tiling. And after he’d bought all the materials to do the job.

    I went by today & a tall drystack retaining wall had been constructed. It was shimmed from the front, rocks were wobbling, there were many vertical seams, and it bowed in the middle. I recommended most of it be torn out & rebuilt correctly. That isn’t something anyone wants to hear!

    As well, we got out some landscaping paint and began designating where the new patio would go. This client had already purchased a cut stone patio kit to install. My concern, which is his now too, is that the patio is going to be too small for the function it is going to be asked to perform. We’re working on options to expand the patio, but a couple of hindsight is 20/20 lessons can be something you learn from before you start your project:

    1. DIY techniques are great, but sometimes hiring a consultant before you start will save you loads of agony and money in the long run
    2. Before you buy, know what you’re building. Really know what you’re building. Paint out the area for patios or drag a hose around the perimeter or anything to define your spaces.  Be sure your furniture will work in the space. Be sure the shape is right for view, privacy.
    3. Be patient. If you’re building a garden space, it will take lots of time and money. So, you want to do it right the first time, even if that first effort seems like it takes a long time!
  • First tomatoes & return of the passionflower

    July 30, 2007

    This morning I went out to run my hose bib drip irrigation. I would love to have a fully automated system, but that’s just not realistic for my garden at this point. We have a nice drip & spray head system that does the trick. For me, its fine to get out and check the beds as I run through the various watering zones.

    When I started up the system in one of the vegie gardens, I noticed a squash leaf was blocking a spray head. I went to adjust it, which is pretty simple with this system, and as I peeked behind the leaf, I saw my first two tomatoes ripening. (Yes, I did write about a week ago re: a couple of tomatoes ripening, but I don’t know how much I count those tomatoes. They are on a very stressed plant that won’t do much more.) The tomatoes I found today are on a bush full of fruit, so we’re in for the motherload soon. This plant cultivar is ‘Stupice’. I’ve been growing Stupice tomatoes for about 4 years in a row now. They produce incredibly well in Seattle. The fruit rarely cracks, it has relatively thin skin, the flavor is great, it is disease resistant and the fruit clusters are lovely. Its pretty reliable.

    And, as I was weeding, I noticed that my passionflower vine has found the energy to arise from its deep roots. Some years the top growth makes it through the winter & I would have a vine filled with lovely blooms by now. After a winter like we just had, it has to struggle up from the roots. I didn’t expect much (or actually anything) out of the plant this year, but it looks like we’ll get some late beauty from it this summer/fall.

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