Saturday, February 12, 2022

Beauty in Decay

 I came upon this dancer, broken and gone, yet graceful in her demise. 

There is beauty yet in her decay, life in her death.

Highlighted in snow, one last bow, perpetual, until she collapses into decay.

There is beauty here, yet. Life in her decay.

A rotting corpse feeds the tiniest ones, which in turn feed roots and seeds, feeding stems and leaves.

A single tree no longer one, continuing to live on in many.

The magic, the beauty of the cycle.

Beauty, life, from one many, and on.

PS The day before this photo, when I first saw her, her arms held more snow and made a more striking scene. She was more obvious. But there yet is beauty here.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Snowy Days

 Snow moved in Friday night and blew through Saturday morning. The day was gray and cold, cold, cold. A lovely fog shrouded the world beyond the woods this morning and the afternoon turned sunny.

I went for a walk in the woods, looked for animal tracks (deer, birds, house cat, mouse?), hugged a giant Osage orange tree, and watched the snow that had collected on branches of the red cedar trees melt, sparkle and glitter as it dripped in the sunlight. I came in with twigs and red cedar leaves stuck in my hair. A great afternoon.

In my last post I noted that the germination test on the leek seed was a resounding success. It looked as if all of them had sprouted. Since it's about time to start my leek plants, I planned to go ahead and plant them. 

Three days later I went to do just that and found that not only did all of the seeds have tiny roots poking out, but had produced itty bitty greenery, as well. No problem. I went ahead and planted them anyway. However, instead of just dropping the seeds onto the soil and sort of patting them in, knowing the little roots would know which way to go, I poked holes into the soil and dropped in each seedling one by one. That took a little more time than my original plan would have, but it worked.

Initially I made the little holes with my fingers, and then decided I needed a tool. A chopstick works

nicely for that task. With the tip of the chopstick in view, you can see how tiny the little seedlings were. 

On that same day I started germination tests on some other seeds and checked them yesterday.

The six-year-old Orangeglow watermelon seed germinated 100 percent, it looks like. This seed I collected from watermelon growing in my garden. I am not sure what melons from this seed will be like. I first planted Orangeglow in 2014, along with at least one other melon variety and they likely cross-pollinated. A melon somehow got missed, or I spit seed into the garden, not sure, but a watermelon vine or two grew there the next year. I didn't realize it had produced any melons until I started clearing away cover crop. It was a huge melon, orange and sweet inside.

But I can't depend on that being the case when I plant these seeds. We will see what comes of these. 

I will stick a few of these sprouted seeds in a pot and hope I have a nice little melon plant or two when the Extension Master Gardeners Garden Show comes around in two months. I'm in charge of the Edible Garden table.The watermelon plants might be too leggy and pale for a nice display along with the cabbage plants, tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, nasturtiums and begonias. (Begonia flowers are edible.) 

When I started the germ test on the watermelon seeds I also started one on some six-year-old carrot seed (just for fun), six-year-old jalapeno seed and seven-year-old cayenne seed. Only a few seeds of each had put out little tails. It will be interesting to see how many actually sprout. I don't plan to plant any of these seeds, but I was curious to know whether they were still viable.

Besides, what else gardening related is there to do in January?

Start onion and cabbage plants! Buy seeds! 

Sunday, January 9, 2022

Test Results

 The results are in... mostly.

After I wrote my last post I started germination tests on several different seeds. 

Of greatest concern were the snap peas. I have lots of seed in two different containers and no idea when I bought them.

Germination was successful, with a high percentage for both batches of peas. Yes! I will have snap peas again... barring a horrible infestation of cutworms, such as took out my peas two years in a row several years ago. The peas were the first seeds to send out a radicle.

The Roma II bush beans also germinated successfully, taking a couple of days longer than the peas.

The leeks also showed nearly 100 percent germination. Since it's about time to start my leek plants, I'll go ahead and plant these little seeds. The leek seed was purchased in 2019, and supposedly leek seed has a life expectancy of only a couple of years, which is why I tested it.

The Brandywine tomato looks iffy. So far only two seeds out of probably 30 are showing signs of life. I'll give  them a few more days.

The celery test must start over. Because I thought celery seed needs light to germinate, I put the damp coffee filter with the seeds out flat an stuck in a plastic bag. I forgot to check them for a couple of days and today they were dried out. So, start over. Apparently celery can take two to three weeks to germinate, although I don't recall it ever taking that long when I planted it in soil. Do I want to mess with getting new seed or just take my chances? I don't want to wait three weeks to order seed. 

Decisions, decisions.

That wraps up the necessary germ tests, more or less. I think I'll probably order more Brandywine tomato seed, unless the germ tests gets radicles soon. 

I have some other old seeds earmarked for testing, but that will just be to satisfy my curiosity as these are not seeds I'll replace. One packet contains five-year-old purple haze carrot seeds. I didn't care for the way they grew, but I'm curious if carrot seed that old will germinate. I'll test some seven-year-old jalapeno seed and eight-year-old cayenne seed. I only need two or three plants of each, so I've just been buying plants instead of starting them. Plus I have some six-year-old Oranglow Watermelon seeds that I collected from watermelons growing in my garden. Not sure if I'll plant any if they still germinate, but I'm curious. Science, you know.

I'll let you know how things go.

Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Seeds for Thought

It's that time of year again. I'm thinking about seeds, seeds, seeds.

Seeds are incredibly amazing beings. Each seed, no matter how tiny, is a miniature plant curled up inside a protective shell. Each seed has a tiny root (radicle), a stem (hypocotyl), and miniature seed leaves (cotyledons). 

At left is a little drawing I did of the interior structure of a seed. The green part is the cotyledons, seed leaves, that contain food to nourish the little seedling once the seed coat cracks. 

Although the seed appears to be sleeping, lots of enzymatic and chemical actions take place to prepare the seed to germinate and grow. 

No matter how tiny the seed is, it contains the same structure and processes as much larger seeds, like that avocado pit you just tossed into the compost bucket.

The seed waits for the right conditions -- the proper amount of moisture absorbed, the appropriate soil temperature, and who knows what else the seed is waiting for that will disintegrate the germination inhibitors that all seeds contain. All seeds and/or the fruits they form within, contain germination inhibitors, otherwise they might germinate at a time or place the seedling cannot survive. When the germination inhibitors are gone, the radicle is the first to emerge, digging into the soil. Then the little seed leaves unfurl, soaking up sunlight. And you have a plant.

The photo at the top of this post is of the refrigerator drawer where I store my seeds. When stored in proper conditions seeds can remain viable for quite some time. Just how long seeds remain alive depends on what plant they come from. Melon seeds, for example, remain viable for much longer that seeds of leeks and onions. So I can stock up several years worth of melon seed, but only a couple of years' worth of leek and onion seeds. However, seeds will survive past the expected life expectancy when stored properly. According to "The Seed Garden," published by the Seed Savers Exchange, okra seeds have a life expectancy of just two to three years. Yet I had 10-year-old okra seeds germinate almost 100 percent. Then we have ancient varieties of beans and squash that germinated after thousands of years in buried clay pots. Some of these, such as the "Cave Bean" featured in Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds catalog, have been propagated and shared, reviving those old varieties.

None of the seeds in my refrigerator drawer are thousands of years old, or even 10 years old, but some are six or seven years old.

Tonight I started germination tests on some of the older seed so I know whether I need to replace it, or whether I can plant it for another season. A germination test is pretty simple. Basically, you need water, a paper towel, and seeds. Here are step-by-step instructions and pictures on a blog post I wrote for our Extension Master Gardeners' Web site. 

Not all of my seeds are those I've purchased. For a number of years I've saved seeds from cultivated flowers, like poppies, and some wildflowers. I pretty much stick to those that are easy to gather, like poppies and celosia, or columbines and royal catchfly.

At right are some of the seeds in this year's collection, Royal Catchfly, Clammy Weed, two kinds of celosia, and something I can't identify in this photo. 

At some point I will shake the seeds loose from their pods and capsules and store them in much smaller containers for planting and sharing later. For now, however, they are in bags, buckets and other containers in the garage. I have only a little more than a month to do this if I want to take any to the local seed fair to share.

This year I hope to start saving some vegetable seeds. Those of beans and peas are pretty easy to collect and save. You just wait until the pods have dried, then separate the seed from the pods. Pepper seed also is easy to collect. The seed is mature when the peppers have ripened to their mature color, which is when I think they taste best. Spread them out to dry before putting them into storage. You don't want them moist enough to mold.

Tomatoes are trickier, as you must "ferment" the seeds in the pulp, then clean and dry them.

Saving seeds begins when you are planning where to plant things. Plants that rely on insect pollination have long "isolation distances." That is the distance you must have between different varieties of one species to avoid cross pollination. Wind pollinated plants, such as corn, also might require long isolation distances. Corn varieties, for example must be separated by 800 feet to a half mile. Self-pollinating plants, such as tomatoes, require much less distance for isolation. Tomato varieties need be only 10-50 feet apart. So it is important to find reliable information about how to plan for saving seed. "The Seed Garden" is an excellent resource, but I am certain you can find a lot online, as well.

One benefit of saving seeds is having a reliable supply that costs you nothing. If you want to put in more effort, you also can select seed only from the healthiest plants that exhibit the best desirable traits. Over the years, then you are cultivating plants better adapted to your garden's conditions, and exhibiting the traits you most desire.

Never save seed from unhealthy plants or splotchy fruits because the seeds could carry disease from one generation to the next.

I'll let you know how my seed saving goes. Let me know what your seed saving experiences are.

Monday, December 6, 2021

Trees to Save the World


A few years ago I fell into a deep, unshakeable funk. Maybe it was because it was winter and I had a significant case of no-sunshine-on-my-face-or-dirt-between-my-toes. Whatever. All I know is that my mind kept revolving around climate change and "what can I d?", I'm not doing enough." Of course I had taken more than a few steps to help reduce my footprint on the planet. I mean, doesn't growing so much of my own food count for something?

But it wasn't enough.

It wasn't enough, I kept thinking.

I've got to do more.

All the doom and gloom stories I read about climate change just made it worse. I quit reading them. Unless a headline indicated I might get helpful information about, or contained something positive, I didn't read them. I already know it's bad.

That didn't help much. The funk remained.

I tried writing about my funk in a journal. That helped some, but not enough.

I kept reading things that said, "Plant trees."

"Plant trees."

That was at least part of the solution.

Plant trees.

I can plant trees.

So planting trees became my personal "save the world" project.

I didn't go out and buy a bunch of trees, though. I bought a few, but they weren't necessarily part of my save-the-world project. Instead I planted seeds and started digging up seedlings the squirrels had so generously planted in my garden.

The fact that I collected the seeds of some of these trees myself made this project more than a save-the-world project. It is quite fun. Many of my little trees also will eventually provide food for me, and, without a doubt, for wildlife.

Paw paws and persimmons were the first seeds planted. I had received paw paws to eat at a music festival and saved the seeds. Later I received seeds from local paw paws. At the same festival I found an American persimmon tree full of ripening fruit, ate some fruit and saved the seeds. I also dug a couple of little chinquapin oak seedlings some generous squirrels had planted in the garden. 

My favorite bit about pretty much all of the trees in my little project is that they are native here. I may be at the far western edge of the range for persimmons, but I am not that far west of the area where I found the fruiting tree. 

The site where I planted the paw paws isn't ideal, but I do have a grafted tree that I planted seven or so years ago that appears to be doing well there. It has not provided fruit because the few paw paw trees I've seen in the woods seem to have died, and the pollinators for paw paws, which are flies instead of bees, are not terribly efficient. However, this year my paw paw produced three little fruits on a puny branch at the bottom of the tree. You can bet I saved and planted the seeds.

Likewise, my site isn't ideal for persimmons, but that's never stopped me with anything else. American persimmons (a Chinese persimmon also exists) are dioecious, meaning that male flowers grow on one tree and female flowers grow on another tree, so you need both female and male trees to get fruit. Except when you don't. I have a young grafted persimmon that is a self-fruitful variety. And sometimes a tree will produce "perfect" flowers, meaning that one flower has both male and female reproductive structures. Apparently a tree of one sex also might suddenly start producing flowers of the other sex. So they seem a bit "gender fluid."

The persimmons you find in grocery stores are invariably of the Chinese species, as the fruit is much larger than that of the American species.

Until this year I've only relocated chinquapin (also spelled "chinkapin") oak seedlings rather than planting the acorns myself. However, a couple of months ago I found several dozen little acorns lying on the road and gathered them up. I don't think I stored them properly, though, as when I cracked on open to test the flavor it was hard and dry, but tasty still. I think I should have put them in a plastic bag in the fridge instead of in a paper bag. They might not be able to grow, but I planted some anyway. I will crack open the rest and maybe soak them or grind them before eating. All acorns are edible, but require a leaching process to remove the excess of tannins. However, chinquapin acorns contain far less tannin and can be eaten without leaching.

To plant the tree seeds I filled gallon-size pots with wet potting soil and pushed the seeds in about an inch (two centimeters) deep, ideally one seed to a pot. However, I put two or three seeds in each pot because I know some might not germinate. The pots live on the north side of the house, which allows the seeds to experience the natural freezing and thawing of winter. This enhances germination. I will water them periodically to keep everything moist and may devise covers for them to help prevent drying. Soaking them prior to planting might help, but I'm not in a hurry for them to sprout. 

Seeds I planted three years ago no longer live in pots. At some point they all graduated to five-gallon buckets with holes drilled in the bottom, because I wasn't ready to plant them after a year. Initially I wanted to plant them out last fall. That didn't happen. Then I wanted to put them out this spring.

That didn't happen, either. However, they got planted this fall. Ta da! Most of them were surrounded by chicken wire, even though the area they were planted in is surrounded by concrete reinforcing wire. Rabbits, which will eat little seedlings, can get through the six-inch squares of the taller fencing, and the chicken wire will keep them out.

Now I just need to keep them watered, and maybe provide a little shade for the baby paw paws this coming summer.

I have no illusions that my little project will have a huge impact on climate change, but every little bit helps. We've lost half of the world's trees in the past century as jungles and forests were/are cleared for agriculture, industrial uses and the spread of towns and cities. Everything helps.

Tropical zone trees suck up far more carbon than temperate zone trees, but I live in a temperate zone. To "plant" trees in the equatorial area I have donated to a fabulous organization called Tree Sisters. They not only plant trees, but work with local populations to make sure the trees are cared for, which often means providing assistance that enables them to support themselves without cutting down trees, or teaching them to properly manage their use of trees. In some areas, their programs also empower women. You can make a one-time donation, or set up a monthly donation. Check them out and plant some trees. Future generations thank you.

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Summer's Finale


The beautiful arch-trellis my husband built for me as an entrance to the garden. Loofa gourds, bitter
melon and malabar spinach climb either side, with giant loofa gourds hanging inside.

The first frost of the season arrived about three weeks ago, dusting the grass with rainbow sparkles and silver. These photos were taken the day before the frost to preserve the late autumn beauty that first manifested in summer.

Even though the grass sparkled with frost, the temperature had not fallen below the freezing point. Here the National Weather Service explains how we have frost without freezing temperatures. So the following day nothing appeared to have changed. But a real freeze arrived a little more than a week later and I was glad to have preserved these last bits of summer.

This is the final (I thought) harvest of summer vegetables -- Peppers (peppers and more peppers in a large basket) eggplant, Sun Gold cherry tomatoes, jalapenos, Carolina reapers, and a couple of okra pods.

I thought surely the frost would take out the eggplants, even if it didn't freeze. However only the tops were a bit burned and I cut a few more small eggplants a few days later.

I also picked a few more Sun Golds later. Some of the peppers are still in my refrigerator's vegetable drawer.

I also filled a couple of vases full of flowers -- zinnias, marigolds and a few snapdragons. But I couldn't save them all. So here are a few. (The snapdragons are still going, even after yet another freezing night.)

I love these beautiful scarlet zinnias.

And these Candy Cane zinnias.

The marigolds lasted through the end of October.

These outrageous amaranths were a great surprise to me. The seed was in a small bag simply marked "amaranth," so I did not know what to expect. The plants grew to at least five feet tall and sported these fabulous flowers.

No one expects to see iris in the fall. I certainly didn't the first fall after I planted these beauties. It came as somewhat of a shock. But twice-blooming iris are a real thing. They bloom a couple of weeks earlier in the spring than other bearded iris and then again in the fall. 

Unopened buds even survived the first real freezing weather, to bloom a few days later.

And so ends the final review of summer, a little late, but here all the same. 

Saturday, October 23, 2021




What says "October" like big orange pumpkins?

Maybe apples?

This pumpkin didn't grow in my garden, but the apples grew on our trees. You can tell that they were grown in truly organic style because they are warty and spotty with little "worm" trails, some more than others. When we first started our orchard we researched how to do it organically. We read "The Apple Grower," by Michael Phillips (a great book) and found an organic spray schedule and recipe that included liquid fish, kelp, neem oil, and maybe a couple of other things that I can't recall. This was supposed to not only keep pests at bay, but also help prevent diseases and feed the trees.

We sprayed one time (the schedule calls for spraying several times a season). My husband operated the spray wand while I stood in the pickup bed and kept the sprayer engine going. 

I got sprayed in the face once -- maybe twice. Fortunately I was wearing sunglasses and the spray contained nothing toxic, but it was smelly.

After that we decided it was too much work and we'd put up with a few "worms" in our apples. After a while even routine pruning fell by the wayside (life happens, y'know). But the trees keep producing, not spectacularly, but they make apples, wormy and spotty and sometimes not worth cutting into. But this was a good year and the squirrels didn't get too many. 

Before planting 25 or more trees, we did a little research on varieties. We looked for disease resistance, ability to grow well here in Kansas, and flavor. So we tried lots of different kinds.

The apples in this photo represent two different varieties. The one on top is Tydeman's Late Orange. The bottom one is Liberty. 

Tydeman's actually would grow better in the northeast. We knew this when we planted it, but the flavor description could not be ignored. The apples, when allowed to ripen on the tree are truly delicious. However, the tree, healthy as it is, produces sparsely. This year was its best year in 12 years. We're glad we tried it, but we would not recommend it if you're only going to grow two or three trees.

The Liberty, though, comes highly recommended. It has a wonderful flavor and is indeed disease resistant. It may get a few spots of cedar apple rust, but it is not much bothered by it. It must be partially self-fertile, as for the past several years it has been the only apple tree up by the house, and yet it produces every year. Even though the books and online information say that Liberty apples tend to be more attractive to pests than other varieties, these apples have fewer worm trails and damage than the others. Perhaps because it's the only apple up by the house? All the other trees are a good distance away, at the bottom of the hill. The best flavor develops when you wait until early October to harvest these. One year the little tree bore so many nearly perfect, dark red apples that it looked as if it had been hung with Christmas tree ornaments. Never since then, but it does produce relatively well.

My second recommendation is Enterprise, another disease-resistant variety. It also is best picked in early October or a little later. However, we picked ours way to early. Another disease-resistant apple in our orchard, Freedom, ripens on the early side. I was waiting for late September to get them at their ripest. Then my husband noticed that the red apples began disappearing (dang squirrels). So on the Autumnal Equinox we took the tractor down to the orchard. I rode in the front loader and my husband raised me up so I could pick the highest apples. We picked from all of the trees except the Tydeman's. I wish I would have left the Enterprises as well. They were still green enough that I think the squirrels would have left them. They still had a nice flavor, especially after sitting in the refrigerator for two or so weeks. Enterprise has always produced the largest apples in our orchard and they seem less bothered by pests than the others.

Thousands of other apple varieties exist besides the seven varieties in our orchard and the two or three other varieties that once grew there. In 1900 an official publication listed 14,000 different varieties -- and that's after some varieties went away. What is this love affair we have with apples? I am not sure. They've always found a place in my refrigerator. I grew up eating homegrown apples. My siblings and I would snack on green apples as we played. We climbed the apple trees and ate homemade, homegrown apple pie.

When European settlers came to this continent they brought cuttings from their favorite apple trees, and seeds. If you plant an apple seed, you have no idea what you'll get.

Of course, it will be an apple tree, but what kind of apple? Will it be tasty or hard and bitter? You never know. Careful cross-pollination and serendipity both have brought us various kinds of apples. Some lucky orchardist will find a seedling in his orchard producing large, delicious fruit and make a fortune selling scions for grafting and propagation. Or, years of cross-pollination and failure will yield an extra special apple. It's a gamble, always. And it's why we once had 14,000 apple varieties.

So why did my husband and I plant 25 or more apple trees 12 years ago? Because we love apples. And we weren't very smart. We're smarter now. Please don't start off planting 20 plus trees and struggling to care for them. It's ok to dream of having that many and more, but unless it's going to be a business, start smaller. Plant three or five. Find out how much time it takes to care for them properly and efficiently, then plant more, or not. I'm glad I got to taste so many different varieties. Those Red Delicious in the grocery store just can't compare to the the complexity of flavor some of these varieties offer.

But, if I had it to do all over again.........