Friday, January 29, 2010

Aww, thanks!

A big thanks to Commonweeder for passing along this award! I am delighted to receive it!

As part of the award, I am to describe seven things about myself/my blog and link to blogs I like, but I'm taking the easy way out and referring an earlier post on a similar meme. That post has seven facts about me and some of my favorite blogs.

Thanks again to Commonweeder!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

How to Scarify & Stratify Seeds

Scarify: To nick or lightly scour a seed coat to facilitate the absorption of moisture.
Stratify: To expose seeds to cold temperatures and/or moisture to encourage germination.
Note: These are my definitions, not from a particular dictionary or necessarily reputable source.

Essentially scarification and stratification are ways to get seeds to sprout. Not all seeds need these forms of preparation, but some, especially those you gather yourself, often benefit from one or both of these activities. If you think about it, it makes sense: in a natural setting, seeds are scattered from a spent flower and then buried in the ground over the winter where they are bumped and jostled by soil, gravel, ice, and any other matter in the ground. Or they are eaten by birds or other animals and then passed through their digestive tracts. Any seed wanting to survive that ordeal had to evolve a seed coat strong enough to withstand stomach acids. And in cold places like here (zone 5), the winter was a normal part of plants' life cycles, to which seeds also had to adapt.

But I like to collect seeds from my plants rather than leave them at the mercy of Mother Nature. Consequently I help them along by cold stratifying them in the refrigerator for a few months, and, for those that have a hard seed coat, I scarify and moist stratify them before starting them. It's really not that hard, either. Here's what I do:

These are the things you need. Really, not that much stuff. I will be scarifying two types of seeds (in the envelopes): columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) and nodding wild onion (Allium cernuum). The latter are blogalong passalong seeds from plants I got from Mr. McGregor's Daughter. Both of these envelopes have been (literally) chilling for three months. I have one piece of sandpaper, two paper towels folded up, two ziploc bags and a marker to write on the bags. That's it! (And you will need a refrigerator but if you're reading this on a computer, I figure you would already have such a basic appliance as a fridge.)

Many seeds of native plants from temperate climates benefit from cold stratification (i.e., leaving them in the fridge for a couple months). But as I mentioned before, not all seeds need to be scarified or moist stratified. The ones that do need this treatment have hard seed coats, like these columbine seeds (enlarge for best look):

See how they reflect the light? That's their solid, thick seed coat. Here's an even better example, the alliums:

They have a very tough coat. As a result, nicking this outer covering allows moisture to get inside and help the seed cells to germinate. Now here is an example of a seed that does not need scarification or moist stratification, purple hyssop (Agastache foeniculum):

Please enlarge that for a better look. It's hard to really see this unless you're holding the seeds in your hand, but they're smaller and not reflecting the light with a thick, hard coat. If you scarify a seed like this you can damage it. Moist stratification can do the same thing. I found that out the hard way one year when I moist stratified seeds from my tall coreopsis (C. tripteris), and they literally disintegrated. All coreopsis, purple coneflowers, and black-eyed susans are just a few of the native plants that do not need moist stratification. But if you have seeds with a thick, hard seed coat, here are the next steps:

Put the seeds on the sandpaper. This one is a fine-grained sheet, but I've used coarser grained too.

Lightly rub the seeds with the sandpaper. You can see I'm not grinding away at them; I just used my open palm to move the sandpaper over the seeds with light pressure for about 10 seconds. That's all there is to scarifying!

Now place the seeds on a moistened paper towel. Make sure it's just damp, not soaked.

Fold the seeds inside the moistened paper towel.

Seal the paper towel in the ziploc bag and mark what it is and when you prepped them. I put these back in the fridge where they'll stay for four weeks. After that I'll start them like any other seeds in soilless potting medium and a sunny window.

That's all there is to it! If you'd like to learn more about cold and moist stratification, here is a link to a helpful page on Prairie Nursery's website.

If you like collecting your own seeds, this is an easy way to help them along. Remember, do try this at home!

Monday, January 25, 2010

Hyacinths happening

Late last week I moved my pot of hyacinth bulbs from the cool, dark garage to my front window, which unfortunately hasn't been too bright lately but is still technically providing light. It had been ten weeks in the dark--a little less time than the handy guide that came with the bulbs recommended, but I have read Elizabeth Licata explaining that she moved forced bulbs into the light after ten weeks when they showed vigorous root growth and good sprouting. I'm happy to say these hyacinths met both of those criteria, and if it's bulb-related and EAL says it, I'm buying it.

So now the waiting game continues! You can see a future flower stalk (or something) growing between the leaves. All of them are showing this same growth but that was the clearest picture I could get. Two of these are 'Blue Jacket' and two are 'Woodstock', but they got mixed up in the bag on my way home from the garden center and I will have to wait until they bloom to see where they ended up. Somehow quite serendipitously, I seem to have planted the same cultivars across from each other. Notice how two are very tall and two are shorter?

I've watered them once and am eagerly hovering over them. Please, let's have blooms in February!!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Look out! It's a bird, it's a plane, it's garden!

By now many of you have probably heard of Caitlin Flanagan's Atlantic article about school gardens. If you haven't read it already, please see the preceding link, although I will spoil it a little by telling you that in this article she decries what she believes are the many nefarious impacts a school garden has upon the children tending it.

A number of people have spoken up to refute Flanagan, and I won't attempt to re-hash the many cogent and passionate arguments they have made. A handful of the best are Ed Bruske's blog, Salon, and a rebuttal on the Atlantic's website.

All I would like to say is that the hyperbole in Flanagan's article, and in the cultural/political/internet spheres in general, is annoying because of the wide strokes with which people paint their subjects. Flanagan is all steamed up that students at King Middle School in Berkeley, California, spend an hour and a half each week in their school garden. She is convinced that the gardening-related activities taking place are assuredly and cruelly robbing the students of the means to an education and a better life in general. Really? The garden is doing that?? I'm just going out a limb here but I bet the basically decrepit public education system in California and the (ahem) misguided tax policy that brought it to its knees are the bigger monsters here. I would also wager that the social and economical disadvantages faced by the students Flanagan is supposedly championing are much more pernicious than the 20 minutes a day they might spend weeding or watering some vegetables.

However, I don't think a school garden is an educational panacea. In a defense of Flanagan, Mr. Brown Thumb at Chicago Garden adds, "When I leave the house at night I'm not worried about getting mugged or shot by out of work doctors, lawyers and teachers." Fair enough. There are certainly some schools where the extremely dismal graduation rate probably couldn't be saved or even helped by a garden, and the best remedy would be to "strip away every program and resource that is not essential to the mission of schooling" (Sizer, in Flanagan). And yes, Flanagan's vision of the children of farm-hands studying to become farm-hands themselves is disturbing. But I have to ask, is that really what's happening? In the face of all the other threats and challenges faced by disadvantaged, or heck any, students, is a garden really the worst bogeyman they must contend with?

If I had to choose, I would side against Flanagan, only because I have seen first-hand the curiosity and excitement the garden generates in my own preschooler, and I know that at the bottom of that curiosity is science-related subject matter (biology, chemistry, agronomy, etc.). Flanagan is wrong to pick gardens as the focus of her wrath (which is probably more for effect than any real conviction on her part; look at how much internet chatter this has engendered and you'll get the idea). There are far more insidious foes she should be lambasting for the poor quality of California public schooling. Likewise, school garden supporters should examine each school objectively and not through the lens of "gardening fixes everything." Some things have rotted all the way to the roots and need to be completely pulled out and rejuvenated (there, I made a gardening metaphor for those who would need it to have that point illustrated).

The world is not usually painted in black and white, as much as we would like it to be so easily done so. It's most often in shades of gray, and I for one hope that school gardens can still be a part of that picture.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Operation: Aloe Rescue

This is a time of year when I like to be proactive with my houseplants, for a number of reasons. First, I really miss the garden at this point but it's too early to start seeds. Second, the holidays are over and thus the houseplants have returned from their annual Christmas-tree-induced exile. Lastly, the days are finally getting longer, even if only by a little. I don't like to do anything like re-potting or fertilizing the houseplants before the winter solstice (or immediately thereafter) because pushing growth in the dead of winter seems antithetical to plants' nature. Even tropicals slow down in the winter--why fight it?

But now it is beginning to stay light past 4 pm, and as usual my neglect followed by guilty overwatering has led to disaster. Ready? Check out this horror show:

This is unacceptable! I have had this aloe for years, and it's grown into a clutch of many aloes, which are clearly languishing.

Want to see the really scary part? Look at these roots... can actually see the root rot taking place!

Not only am I emotionally attached to this plant, I also use it medicinally when I burn myself (all too common since I'm kind of a clutz in the kitchen), and I mix the juice with sweet almond oil to make hand moisturizer when my skin is cracking horribly in the dry winter air. So action had to be taken!

As I've admitted, I have a habit of overwatering. Compounding this was the fact that these aloes were in regular potting soil, or, at least I think that was aggravating the problem. So I finally invested in some cacti/succulent potting soil and I broke apart the tangled mess of rotting roots. After gently cleaning them, I evaluated which ones had semi-decent roots left and then re-potted those that I felt had the best shot of survival. Here they are following surgery:

Another look:

I made a point of not completely drenching the soil when I potted them. I tried to anchor them deep enough to keep them from lolling sideways again.

As for those that I felt were too far gone, I cut open the leaves and extracted as much juice as possible. I'm not sure how long it will keep, but I'm trying to assure that those poor aloes haven't died in vain.

Keep your fingers crossed for healthy aloes in the New Year! What can you tell me about caring for succulents? How can I stop overwatering? What else should I know?

Monday, January 4, 2010

Picture This, January 2010

This month at Gardening Gone Wild, guest judge Alan Detrick is calling for images of winter's beauty that make you smile. This little sedge, Carex hystericina, made me do just that when I found it bravely poking its still-green culms above snow-covered leaves in the rain garden. This was taken recently, after one of our major snowfalls, of which there have now been four or five, I think. Already I'm losing count this winter!

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