Monday, August 30, 2010

Study on Seed Starting Finally Completed!

A month ago or more I received an e-mail from a blogger I'd never visited before wondering about the seed starting project I discussed last spring and whether I had published my findings.  Oh for shame!  What kind of researcher proposes a project and even contemplates government funding for it, but then never publishes her results?  Although I rejected the idea of asking for a public handout to support my research, I did want to share my findings with anyone interested for the general betterment of gardens everywhere.

If you missed my initial research proposal on starting seeds indoors, you can click here.  Or if you're short on time, I'll give you a brief overview.  After two years of less than successful results with indoor seed starting, I decided to document the various factors involved, in an attempt to determine how one might achieve more success in growing seedlings indoors.  Light, temperature, and potting mediums were all variables that were studied.  Unfortunately, by the time I had planted all my seeds and moved seed cells around to share light, the control groups were so mixed up that instead of Groups A, B, and C, I wound up with groups that could be more accurately called AC/DC or CRAP.   As if that wasn't bad enough, I used pieces of cardstock as labels which disintegrated after several waterings, and soon I wasn't sure if I was growing salvia or gaillardias.  (My son saw my set-up of trays under shop lights in the basement one day and was worried Mom was growing something else:) )

The end results were better than in past years, but still rather disappointing.  Some seeds didn't germinate, and of the many that did, some didn't seem to grow past a certain point.  But most discouraging was the fact that many of the seedlings that did survive eventually grew leggy and didn't survive transplanting.  If anyone has suggestions on tips for the final stage of seedlings, I would appreciate it.  One bit of good news--no damp rot this year!

The main reason I have waited so long to share my findings with you is because I wanted to see how the plants fared after some time in the garden.  So here are a few of my successes;

The tomato plants did very well, but I was disappointed that the seeds from 'Sugary Grape' did not germinate at all.  But wait--I do have grape tomatoes!  Not sure what happened here, but all the tomato seedlings looked alike to me.

'Victoria Blue' salvia, a favorite annual of mine, grew well with its start on the heatmat.  But a funny thing happened when I planted it--can you see it at the back of this planter?  No, and it's not just because it's a bad photo--the tall stem whose bloom is cut off in the photo is not salvia, but Verbena bonariensis!  Planted in several pots instead of the missing salvia, it adds a little more vertical interest than I had intended.

And those Zahara zinnias I drooled over in the catalogs last spring--'Starlight Rose'--somehow turned into Profusion Yellows!   The butterflies don't seem to care, but I'm still wondering what became of the 'Starlight Roses.' Obviously, proper labelling is one variable that needs to be corrected if this project is to be attempted again.

But the worse case of incorrect labelling has to be the seedlings I shared with friend Beckie.  I was so proud of the gray-headed coneflower seedlings I started and shared a few with Beckie, informing her that this native flower was so quick to germinate and surely would be easy to grow.  I began to have my doubts, though, a few weeks later when I noticed some similar seedlings beginning to grow in my vegetable garden.  Yes, you guessed it---the coneflower seedlings were actually . . .


Now, seriously, the kohlrabi, 'Crispy Colors Duo'  from Renee's Garden and the gray-headed coneflowers were a last-minute planting indoors, and I know I labelled them right.  I'm beginning to believe Carol's garden fairies have been visiting my house . . .

Seriously (or maybe not), here are some of the things I learned from this year's seed starting project:

Just a portion of one day's tomato harvest this past week.

1. Tomatoes are very easy to grow from seed.  That being said, I probably won't start any tomatoes again next year, unless there's an heirloom variety I really want to try.  I'm just too cheap frugal a person to make myself throw out excess seedlings, and I don't want 20+ tomatoes of the same variety again next year.

2. The newspaper pots inspired by Fairegarden seemed just the right size and worked quite well, especially since growing seedlings could stay in them until time for transplanting.  Since the investment has already been made in the wooden pot maker, this means no money needs to be expended on peat pots or trays with cells next year.  And I'll be recycling besides!

3.  Seeds started indoors need daily attention.  If you can't find the time for a few minutes of misting or monitoring the seedlings every day, then don't even bother planting them.  All it takes is one day or two for a seedling to dry out, and then it's a goner.

4. Related to #3, do not plan to take a one-week trip to Portland, Oregon to visit your youngest daughter and leave seedling care up to Mr. I-Don't-Care-About-Flowers-Just-Tomatoes.  To be fair, he did try, I think, but I'm not sure he remembered them everyday.

5.  And related to #4,  do not assume because the month of April was unusually warm that May will be the same and put all your seedlings outside to make watering easier for Mr. IDCAFJT.  Naturally, we had a couple nights of frost while I was away, and although I had placed a blanket within easy reach on the porch which Mr. I did use, some of the seedlings still died, though whether from frostbite or suffocation, I'm not sure.

6. Finally, LABEL, LABEL, LABEL all seeds with permanent markers!  Heavy paper or cardboard just doesn't cut it after being watered several times.  I'm still looking for something small and more durable next year; any ideas would be appreciated.  I'm thinking of using toothpicks with duct tape, kind of like little flags--what do you think?

At last!  I hate to have unfinished projects lying around, so it's such a relief to finally have completed this one.  Although completion of this project was unavoidably delayed, at least you can be reassured that none of your hard-earned tax dollars were used to fund this study.  However, I am thinking about looking for a little part-time work--do you think I can put research project coordinator on my resume??

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Three Wildflowers for Wednesday and Thursday

It's time for Wildflower Wednesday once again, a monthly discussion of wildflowers started by native enthusiast Gail at Clay and Limestone.  Two years ago I couldn't tell the difference between a cup plant and a compass plant, so it has been an enlightening and enjoyable experience to learn about wildflowers from Gail's and now others' posts.  I have become more aware and curious about the plants growing freely around me and have begun to do some research on my own to learn more about them.

I didn't have to look far, though, to find three choices for today's posts--all of these are blooming in my garden right now:

This is the first year for blooms on my Physostegia virginiana, otherwise known as 'False Dragonhead' or 'Obedient Plant.'  A member of the mint family, Obedient Plant has single-branched stems that can grow up to 4 feet tall. The flowers are tightly clustered in long spikes at the top of the stems.  Blooms are usually rosy pink or purple, especially in cultivated forms, while the native wild forms are usually white with some pink or purple tints.  The name 'Obedient Plant' comes from the flowers' tendency to stay in the same position, even if moved to the side.  'Obedient Plant' is pollinated by bees and visited by other insects and hummingbirds.

Neither of my sources* mentioned that this is an aggressive spreader, other than in moist sites, but I can attest to the fact that it does spread rather easily.  Last year I planted one lone plant, purchased from the local Prairie Plant Society.  Before it grew much past two feet tall, a rambunctious Sophie knocked it over and  broke off the stem.  I thought that would be the end of it, but apparently it had had time to set some seed because this year I have a whole cluster of Obedient Plants at the back of my Butterfly Garden, as seen in the top photo.

Also blooming at the back of the Butterfly Garden right now--and behind the barn and the sheds, next to my compost pile, and pretty much anyplace with undisturbed soil--is the native Goldenrod.  This is not your neat, dwarf cultivar, but  probably  Solidago Canadensis, or Canada Goldenrod, a native perennial common throughout Illinois, despite its Canadian name.  This wildflower can grow up to 7 ' tall; its hairy stems are topped with flower heads arranged in a pyramidal cluster on the upper side of the branches.  Blooms last for about three weeks from late summer to early fall.

Fortunately, more and more of the public is now aware that Goldenrod is not the allergy culprit it was once accused of being.  In fact, Native Americans used to make a tea from it to treat kidney problems and chewed the crushed flowers to treat sore throats.  A wide variety of insects are attracted to this plant, including species of wasps and flies who play an important role in insect control.  Several species of birds as well as deer and rabbits are also attracted to Goldenrod. I found this out for myself while taking pictures for my last post--each plant was full of bees, butterflies, and other insects.

And now, since tomorrow is Cindy's "Three for Thursday" and I usually don't post two days in a row, I hope you don't mind that I do double duty here by adding a third wildflower for Thursday as well.  Asclepias tuberosa, or 'Butterfly Weed,' is a native perennial and one I know most of you are familiar with.  As its name implies, it is popular with butterflies, especially the Monarch, which is why I planted it.  The larvae consume the leaves, and the adults feed on the nectar.  I've never been able to photograph a Monarch on it, but I have seen them sipping the nectar, and evidence can be found of their feasting by the chewed off stems.  It also attracts long-tongued bees and hummingbirds. 

Once called 'pleurisy root,' because it was considered a cure for pleurisy, Butterfly Weed was also a favorite of some Native American tribes, who used it to treat a host of physical ailments.

Asclepias tuberosa lacks the milky latex sap typical of other members of the Milkweed family, and is the only orange milkweed in Illinois.  While the orange blooms have provided a lovely display in my garden all summer,  its fall appearance is pretty cool, too.  Vertical seedpods develop atop the plant, as seen in the previous photo, and then open, displaying the seeds.  (I just had to enlarge these last two photos because i thought they were so cool:) Notice the milkweed bug to the right center of the photo.)

When the seed pod is ready,  a host of seeds attached to silky threads burst forth, ready to be scattered by the wind.  I really should collect some of these seeds before they spread to who knows where.  Butterfly weed is so easy to grow, though is slow to develop and may not survive the winter if a young plant's taproot is planted too close to the surface.  Although I learned this from my sources, I also learned it through experience.  A few years ago I planted two in my roadside garden; only one survived.  Last year I planted two in the Butterfly Garden; only one survived.  But both plants have really taken off this year, the older one in particular, and for me, they are as appealing for their aesthetic value as for their butterfly magnetism. Definitely a plant to include in your garden plans!

*All specific information here comes from two of my favorite sources: Illinois Wildflowers, by Don Kurz, a book I checked out over and over again from the library last summer until I finally broke down and bought my own copy, and a website, Illinois Wildflowers, a source I've noticed that even Gail and others have also used.  Even if you're not from Illinois, you will find both of these sources very useful.  The book has excellent information, accompanied by color photographs of nearly 400 species of wildflowers in the Midwest. My favorite feature of the book is that it is organized by color of blooms, which is certainly useful when you see a wildflower and can't identify it.  The website is also well-researched with color photographs, usually more than one of a plant.  The only problem I have with this website is that the index is organized by botanical names, which makes it a little difficult if you can't identify the plant in the first place.  But if you can determine the botanical name from somewhere else, it is a wealth of information.  And be sure to check out the photographs--almost all were taken in East Central Illinois, in locations very near where I live!

Check out other Wildflower Wednesday postings at Gail's site, and why not join in next month?

And tomorrow, be sure to check out Cindy's creative "Three for Thursday" post!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Too Many Distractions . . .

After complaining all summer about the heat, I'm happy to report that we had three beautiful days at the beginning of this week with temperatures in the low 80's and cool, sunny mornings.   Of course, the heat is back again and seems intent on staying, but for three glorious days I finally felt like working in the garden--well, one day was spent with the three older grandkids, enjoying one of their last free days before school starts.  So make that two glorious days to get all the weeds pulled, flowers deadheaded, etc., etc.

The first order of business was to start on the Butterfly Garden, which has turned into the Garden of Chaos this summer.  I was happy to see so many plants reseed themselves this spring, but it has meant my original careful plans for planting last year have been scrapped, and the volunteers have taken control of the garden.  To add to the chaos, I wasn't always able to identify seedlings.  Thus, flowers were inadvertently hoed out, and weeds were often allowed to stay.  The seedlings that grew taller and taller for the past few months found me scratching my head--were these weeds or could they be asters?  As it turns out, they were members of the aster family (what isn't??), but not desirable ones.  The tall plant at the left of the photo above towering over even the cosmos and Joe Pye weed is a horseweed, or as my Dad calls it, mare's tail.

Now the horseweed does have some rather pretty flowers, as you can see, but it is a weed after all, even if it is included in my Illinois Wildflowers book, so it must come down.  Armed with long-handled pruners--a machete would have been more useful--I tiptoed through the jungle of plants to cut each plant down.

Two down . . . oh, look at this little bee feasting on the cosmos blossom.  Let's just put the pruners down for a moment and grab the camera, conveniently tucked inside my pants pocket.

And what are these fluttering wings on the nearby Susans?  I think they might be Pearl Crescents, tiny little butterflies that I've never been able to photograph.  Be very still . . .

Ah, patience is rewarded.  Aren't these sweet?

I think he must like me after all, to stay so still.  And look, he even has a friend . . . or at least I hope that's a friend, not some predatory wasp.  Fly away, little Pearl!

Ok, back to the horseweed on the other side of the garden and some other unidentified weeds . . .

Still not sure if one weed-looking plant is an aster, but one mystery is solved.  Yes, this IS goldenrod, and it's blooming already!  I think this out-of-focus insect is a soldier beetle, often seen in my garden. Let's put the pruners down again for a moment and get some better pictures of the goldenrod.

Well, now that's a little better.  The bees obviously love this plant . . .

. . . as do the Sulphurs.  But then the Sulphurs seem to like every type of flower--there are literally clouds of them flying about every flowerbed I have.

Oh, but wait!  This little butterfly is not so common, and I've never gotten a photograph of it.  I'm not sure if it's the Eastern Blue, but it looks very much like it.  I wish I could get a better picture, but it just won't stay still and it is so tiny.

Wow, I didn't realize that goldenrod attracted so many creatures.  I'm not sure what either of these is, but the one on the left looks a lot like the cicada killer wasp pictured in my insect book.

Perhaps it is looking for this.  The cicadas are thick right now, their loud song providing a sort of buzzing lullaby each night.

I seem to have lost interest in weeding . . . maybe I'd better go water some of the containers before the sun dries them out again.

At least while I am watering, I can lock the hose into open position and put it down if I get distracted.  An orange butterfly has been eluding me for the past several minutes, flying away each time I put the hose down and get my camera.  I think it's a fritillary, but where did it go?  No, this isn't it--it's a butterfly I haven't seen before, and in fact, I have no idea what it is. Hmm, interesting. 

Put the camera away, Rose, and finish up the watering, for heaven's sake.  At least the porch planter won't be so distracting; the butterflies don't seem to like its shady environs as well.  Oh, but look at this cute little hoverfly burrowing into the petunia blossom. 

"Hey, aren't I pretty enough for one of your pictures?"

"Well, of course, you are, Mr. Mantis!  You know you're one of my favorite subjects, especially since you sit still so nicely for all photos."

Ok, the watering is done.  Time to get back to those weeds in the Butterfly Garden . . .

Oh, but I have to take just one little photo of this swallowtail on the orange cosmos!  I've been bragging about what great pollinator magnets these cosmos are, and what better example could there be than this.  Please, Ms. Swallowtail, could you move just a little to your right?

Better . . . but I still can't see your face . . .

Ah, perfect!  Thank you so much!

Ok, the perfect photo has been taken; now it's time to get back to weeding.  But wait, it's lunchtime already, and then I might just have to take a little afternoon nap after working so hard all morning.  

I just don't understand why I don't seem to get much done in the garden:)

Sending wishes for a Happy 85th Birthday to my Dad today!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

August GBBD: Deja Vu

It's time for another Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day, the day each month when we show off what is blooming in our gardens.  I've noticed lately that there seem to be two distinct camps among garden bloggers--those that have the "I'm sick of the heat, and I don't feel like getting all sweaty and fighting mosquitoes in the garden, and I'm almost too unmotivated to blog" attitude, and those that have the "It may be hot, but look at these lovely blooms that thrive in heat, and aren't you glad it's not winter?" attitude.  I'm afraid I belong to the first category, but for today only I'm going to try to take the high road and look positively at what is blooming in spite of the heat, the lack of substantial rain, and the inattention of the lazy head gardener.

The purple coneflowers may be fading and looking rather tattered these days, but the Black-eyed Susans are still going strong in the butterfly garden, attracting all kinds of creatures.  It's hard to believe that these cheery faces didn't exist in my garden until last year.

The butterfly garden really is a garden of chaos this year.  So many plants re-seeded themselves, like this cosmos, that it was hard to weed until I knew for sure what each seedling was.  I pampered some very tall seedlings, as I racked my brain to think what they were, only to discover eventually that I had cultivated some fine examples of mare's tail, or horseweed.  Not a good thing.

The emerging leaves of 'Cosmic Orange' cosmos, from seed from Tina, were also originally mis-identified, but fortunately were left alone until their unmistakable blooms appeared.  These are also happy self-seeders, and the pollinators love them.

This is the first year for a successful planting of verbena bonariensis, but judging by how well they're doing this year, there should be a vigorous re-seeding of these next year as well, which makes me happy.

One plant that is not blooming is the Obedient plant.  I was really disappointed until I looked up information on this native plant and discovered that it doesn't bloom until late summer or fall.  I hope that's true, because I have a throng of these plants, all from one little plant that was knocked over by Sophie last summer before it ever had a chance to bloom.  With luck, maybe all of these will finally bloom in time for Wildflower Wednesday later these month.

What little energy I've had for gardening lately has been spent on the vegetable garden, where tomatoes are ripening so fast they need to be checked every day.  Often overlooked here, though, are the modest blooms of marigolds, planted to keep pests away and to camouflage the weeds that were sure to grow behind them.  These are either "Golden Guardian," a seed I purchased, or seeds from Frances in the seed swap this past winter, or maybe both . . .  Breezy mornings have made it difficult to photograph anything other than a single bloom held steady by the photographer.

Also in the vegetable garden, a lone hollyhock stands sentinel.  Two weeks ago I lamented the lack of hollyhocks this year, but several sprang up in unwanted places and were weeded out.  This one escaped the hoe, fortunately. Other than that strange cutout near the top, it's a perfect pink specimen.

I also lamented earlier the lack of tall zinnias that usually are the highlights of my August garden.  Still no sign of them, so these smaller, but floriferous 'Zahara Yellow' zinnias will have to do.  This is a bit of deja vu--I showed a similar photo of these in July, but hey, you've got to love any plant that blooms so long and does so well in spite of one of the most continuously hot summers in memory.

Also worth repeating is this photo of  'Lucky Lemon Creme' lantana, this time, though, with a new friend also enjoying it.  I've mentioned before that this has been a banner year for butterflies, with the number of species seen as amazing as the total number of butterflies.  While June saw flocks of Red Admirals, swallowtails and Buckeyes are the most numerous right now.  Buckeye sightings are usually rare in my garden, but this August dozens can be found in my garden.

I wish I could show you just one good photo of a plant I've been so happy with--Salvia 'Wendy's Wish.'  But every time I try to photograph it, my camera focuses on something else nearby, or a breeze sends the blooms waving in the air, both resulting in blurry photos.  This less than satisfactory photo will have to do for now.  Similar in color intensity to Salvia 'Black and Blue,' but hot pink as you can see, this plant has been so much more robust than 'Black and Blue' was for me last year.  It's definitely a keeper, but I'm afraid it's probably an annual in my zone 5 garden.  So I'm going to try to collect some seed; if not, I do hope the garden center stocks this again next year.

Also keepers are the two 'Radsunny Yellow' Knockout roses planted this year in the new lily bed.  Now that the Japanese beetles have diminished in number, they are putting out new blooms once again. 

Now here's a bloom I know I've never shown before.  Some people prefer to snip off the blooms of Lamb's Ears, but I think they're kind of cool.

Knowing that the daylily blooms would be a transitory show, I wanted to add some plants that would have all-season interest.  Lamb's Ears and silvery Artemisia, planted at one end of the lily bed, fit the bill perfectly. But the best part about these plants is not what you see, but what you feel.  It's hard to walk by these two without running your hand over their soft foliage.

Like a child with a new toy, I have given the most attention this year to the new lily bed.  The front garden, the first garden I planted, really needs a makeover and isn't very photogenic right now.  Nevertheless, the pollinators still are pleased with it, including this bumble enjoying the Russian Sage.

Watering has been a constant chore since early July, and about the only chore I've been diligent about.  As a result, most of the containers are still looking good, especially the ones in the shade.  This lantana, name forgotten, planted with a coleus and tri-color ipomoea vine would probably do better in full sun, but it still adds a bright spot in a shady area out front.

My favorite plant in the shady containers are the two Illumination Begonias I was thrilled to find this spring.  I found a yellow one like the one I had two years ago, but I couldn't resist also buying this Apricot Illumination.  The blooms start out a deep apricot, then turn to more of a lemony yellow as they mature.  This photo doesn't do it justice, but trust me, it's a beauty.  And every time I look at it, I will always think of Flydragon, who shared my love of Illumination begonias.  Though she lost her courageous battle with illness last year, her witty posts will always be remembered.

Another current favorite is the 'Limelight' hydrangea just coming into its own.  Planted in the fall of 2008, this plant has exceed my expectations, growing to nearly 4 feet tall this year and just as wide.  I wish I could get a decent photo of the whole plant, but this single blossom will have to do for today.

The shade garden is definitely feeling the effects of the continued heat and lack of rain.  The "sea of lamium" has dried up, and I think I may have lost a couple of heucheras.   Oh, sorry to slip into my negative mode there; I was going to stay positive today, wasn't I?  Well, then, let's just end by looking at these lovely hosta blooms.  Just when I thought the hostas were done blooming and ready to go into dormant mood, these suddenly appeared on what was labelled a 'Sum and Substance' (though with much darker green leaves than my known 'S and S').  Another hosta is also sporting some buds, so the shade garden still holds some surprises for the season. 

And best of all, the weather forecast is for a reprieve from the heat for the next few days--woo hoo!  Maybe I'll stop being the neglectful gardener and finally tidy up the garden this week.

To see what else is blooming in August across the country and around the world, be sure to visit our always motivated hostess, Carol of May Dreams Gardens for the monthly meeting of Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day.