Thursday, August 30, 2007

Tomato Musings

I recently wrote about my tomato failures. Not only is revelation of these failures a bit of "truth in blogging", but I also like getting the helpful tips from readers.
"Sugary" grape tomatoes: most are split after recent rains.
I have been wondering if I should change my tomato expectations. My in-laws live further south in Saskatchewan and report picking their tomatoes green and ripening them indoors, as if this were the natural thing to do with tomatoes. "A-ha", I thought, "so Saskatchewaners don't actually grow RED tomatoes." Then I talked to a long-time La Ronge gardener, who starts his plants indoors, moves them to a greenhouse, then outdoors. His short-season small tomatoes have finished already and the regular big types are just starting. "So you CAN grow red tomatoes here!", I exclaim. Growing tomatoes in northern Saskatchewan is nothing like growing tomatoes in the semi-arid warm conditions in the Okanagan Valley, where I've experienced much simpler and successful tomato culture.

Well, I'll try again next year, but I still think growing tomatoes under a metal halide light in the basement would be more successful (though definitely more expensive). Resident-lawnmower-man hasn't agreed to this yet. Sigh.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Gardening Keeps the Post Office Busy

The people at the post office know us by name and at least one of them knows our box number by memory after putting so many parcel notices in our box. "I know you", he says, "you've got box xxxx!".

Other than the hot deals on ebay, our box gets some business from the fall gardening-related mail orders. Okay, I guess some of the ebay stuff is garden-related too. I get sucked in by novelty vegetables -- who can't resist an impulse purchase of purple carrots (seed, of course)!
The bulbs and fall plants haven't started arriving yet, but I did just get some red cozy coats and a large capillary mat from Lee Valley. The cozy coats are water-containing plastic frost shields for the tomato plants. I will try these after experiencing year THREE of tomato failure. I have eaten 5 cherry tomatoes from my 3 plants so far! Last year, I ending up picking all the tomatoes green just before frost and ripened them in my kitchen cabinets. You successful tomato growers should feel special! If I only had a greenhouse...

The capillary mat is a new addition to the indoor light garden. I have purchased new trays and plan to make the system self-watering, with a capillary mat wicking water from a reservoir (a shallow bucket or something) into the trays. Plastic pots sitting in the trays can soak up water through their drainage holes. This may make going away for short holidays an easier proposition. I'll try it out and let you know how it works.

Monday, August 27, 2007

End of August Flowers

I have been digging in composted manure and heaving out old perennials. This is good for the gardener's soul! I had been having a dysfunctional relationship with some tired, overgrown, and underachieving perennials and finally allowed myself to get rid of them. Of course, the nicer plants have gone to other gardeners (mainly plants which didn't fit my changing color scheme), but some of the wildflowers just didn't suit the semi-formal flower borders. I left only one Filipendula hexapetala/vulgaris and chucked the rest into the compost.

Lupinus polyphyllus Gallery Series Yellow: It is probably still flowering because I deadheaded it. The foliage still looks fantastic at the end of summer. This is a great plant! It has produced several seedlings and I'm interested to see what their blooms are like next summer.

Viola "Sorbet Lilac Ice"
I dug out plenty of catmint, which spreads itself around like a promiscuous rodent. The smell of the recently hacked-up plants must have drawn the tabby cat I saw in there yesterday. I saw it slink across the yard and then jump up into the catmint, rolling around in euphoric ecstasy. If only the cats could dig up some plants and take them away!

Echinacea purpurea "Ruby Star", which is semi-dwarf and has non-drooping petals and red cone. I am really liking this flower, which reminds me of the perky, perfect flowers of the Gerbera daisy. Behind it are some white Echinacea with yellow cones, name unknown.
Echinacea purpurea "Jade": This coneflower variant has a green (vs. yellow-orange) cone and non-drooping white petals. It is also shorter than my wild Echinacea. I planted this plant in the spring of this year and this is its first bloom.

What do we have here? A double-decker Monarda?

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Indoor Edibles for the North

The air outside is cooling and I've heard of gardeners observing morning frosts in other parts of the province. My, oh my! Of course, this is good for my little purple violas, which are enjoying the wetter, cooler weather.
Reblooming Campanula carpatica (Carpathian bellflower)

Violas and two kinds of Heuchera (Coral bells)

I am still waiting for mutant micro mini tomato plant seeds, but in the meantime I've started some more greens and herbs in the basement. This is the perfect solution for the gardener itch in the off-season. I dream of serving fabulous meals adorned by the frilly Lolla Rossa Italian red lettuce and tender watercress floating over an artistic splash of balsamic vinegar and virgin olive oil. "Where did you get such lovely greens?", my guests will ask. Oh, the sweet bliss of fresh greens in a place where fresh red peppers cost $10 each in the winter! Think that's bad? I've heard of watermelons going for $40 in the fly-in communities north of us.

I really like these two little propagating trays with domes. There are adjustable openings on the top for ventilation. I put the heating mat under them to aid germination. The shop light heights are easily adjustable and I set them as low as possible, to maximize growth of the seedlings. Thanks to resident-lawnmower-man, the bottom two-thirds of each pot is filled with worm compost.

Patio containers with little watering can ornament given to me by my mom, quite a few years ago.

RLM usually has nothing to do with the worms, but when I wanted to throw the contents of an entire worm box outside on the flowerbed, he protested. "What? You're wasting perfectly good worms? What if my sister wants some?" I had left that box to completely compost, leaving only worms and worm castings. I rationalized that there were plenty of worms in the second box to repopulate the first box. Conclusion of the story: RLM saved all the worms, his sister definitely did NOT want some, the compost went to good use, the box is back in active use.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Wedding Marigolds: Part 2

I am still growing my wedding guest favours from the July 1 weekend. Resident-lawnmower-man's brother got married and had marigold seedlings on the tables for guests to take home. Here they are as seedlings in the little basket:

Here they are now:

I left them in the little basket for too long, but now they're living in pots under the basement grow lights. There is a little bit of worm compost in their pots. I'm hoping for lush marigolds for, well, Thanksgiving time? Go little marigolds!

So Few August Blooms

It's windy and cloudy today, but that didn't stop the kids from La Ronge who got to talk to Canadian astronaut Dave Williams this morning! Yes, from space to La Ronge, Saskatchewan. Apparently, Williams has roots in Saskatoon.

In more terrestial news: the garden seems so dull in August. Sigh. At least other garden bloggers note similar feelings at this time of year. I don't feel so alone. The cleome were a fantastic idea though; they light up the back of the flowerbeds.

Here are some blooms and colors I did manage to capture:

Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) from last year's plant that self-seeded, to my delight. I planted Digitalis mertonensis next to these seedlings and those should bloom next year.

Fall colors creep onto this large Bergenia cordifolia.

Gayfeather (Liatris spicata) has feathery purple spikes and combines well with purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) and Monarda didyma (both seen in the background). All three are wildflowers that can live in dry soil and are fantastic for attracting butterflies and bees.

Threadleaf coreopsis: very delicate-looking pale yellow flowers float above a plant that appears to be composed mainly of air! These flowers bloom in August, adding some much-needed color. They spread only minimally and seem to need a sunny, open location.

Blanket Flower (Gaillardia grandiflora "Yellow Queen"): This plant produces large numbers of flowers and spreads by its roots to form huge clumps. I have realized that I need to divide or remove large portions of the clumps to keep the plants healthy and blooming.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Burpless or Fartless Cucumbers?

I sit up late at night with a troubled digestive tract, pondering the cucumber I ate at supper time. It was from a neighbour's garden and looked like one of the ordinary american slicer-type cucumbers. Then I wondered about the term used to sell certain cucumbers in seed catalogs: "burpless". What in the world is a burpless cucumber? I hate to be crude here, but I think the concern isn't so much for the upcoming burps but the flatulence that follows. This is not only uncomfortable but downright unsociable!

I googled this brilliant piece of primary research on the burpless cucumber, in which the researchers set out to determine if "burpless" cucumbers actually produced less digestive upset. First of all, they clarify that "burpless" may just be the north american marketing term for oriental trellis cucumbers. Other varieties of cucumbers are the american slicer, american pickle, and middle-eastern slicer.

From the methods section:

"Judges were grouped (three each) into susceptible or resistant to burping based on their previous experience with cucumbers. Fruit were evaulated for burpiness using 6 judges eating a 4 inch (100 mm) length of fruit per cultivar per day."

Did you know you could divide people based on cucumber-burping-susceptibility? Resident-lawn-mower-man seems to be on the cucumber-resistant side. In the end, the researchers determined that the burpless cukes did produce less upset.

For me, this is still an issue of marketing that avoids the whole truth. Would it not be more useful to call these mild-mannered vegetables "Fartless Cucumbers"? So far, a google search for "fartless cucumbers" produces zero results. Well, I guess it won't anymore!

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Thai Garden Update

I really like Thai food...those crisp fresh veggies with sweet and hot sauces, rice noodles, grilled skewers of herbed lime-marinated chicken, peanut sauces, searing hot soups with prawn and lemongrass...yummmm! Now, if I could find a way to grow mangos here, that would be ideal. But aside from that, I am in the process of growing some of the ingredients for my own Thai cooking. Growing them in the indoor light garden, that is.
Lemongrass, started a few weeks ago. So far, it has been easy to grow. Looks like grass!

"Heat Wave" Chili peppers. I'm not sure if you can pinch off the tops of peppers to promote bushier growth? I obviously can't have them growing really tall or they'll hit my shop lights. I put worm compost in the bottom half of the containers, which are deeper than my usual perennial containers, since peppers apparently need deep containers.
Tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, potatoes and peppers have extensive root systems and need larger and deeper pots than other container-grown plants. I'm not sure if I'll need to transplant these peppers into bigger pots. This is the first time I've really tried growing peppers indoors!

A Hosta for the Sun

While hostas are usually a shade plant, I've learned that there are a few ones called "sun tolerant", such as this one called "August Moon". It has bright yellow leaves and it looks nice next to the Lady's mantle (Alchemilla mollis). It is recommended that this hosta should get enough sun to keep the leaves the desired yellow. Mine get afternoon shade. People will comment on this hosta, presuming it's sickly or something. I tell them it's meant to look like that!

Other hosta tidbits I have learned:
  • The blue hostas should not be grown in full sun because the blue color results from a waxy coating on the leaf that will break down in sunshine.
  • The hostas with white variegation on the leaves shouldn't be grown in deep shade because only the green parts of the leaves are able to use sunlight to make food for the plant. Deep shade would starve that hosta.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Woodpecker and Vines

It's gently sprinkling outside and I've been searching the net for fall specials from mail order companies. Also, my Carmine Jewel tart cherries have a problem with pear slugs (sawfly larvae) again and I've been looking up creative ways to kill them. I'll try some insecticidal soap first, once it's done raining.
Woodpecker on column feeder

While I was at the computer, I heard a loud bird call and knocking on the outside wall (covered in cedar siding). I ran outside and saw the woodpecker move from wall to wall and then to the column birdfeeder. We've had this birdfeeder for nearly three years and this is probably the third bird I've seen land on it. Birds really dislike it. We've tried moving it around the yard, supposing that location was a problem. We have had no luck with it. I wonder if the birds don't like the cold metal perches? Who knows.

Morning glory "Star of Yelta"

Here are my morning glories, climbing up a deck support column. I started them indoors about a month before planting out, to ensure I got blooms to enjoy for the summer. I started them in peat pots, which works well for plants that are usually direct-seeded into the ground.

Last summer I grew Thunbergia alata (Black-eyed susan vine) up an obelisk and Asarina scandens (Twining snapdragon) up a bamboo trellis, but these took a long time to flower, despite being started indoors. Also in the vine category, I haven't noticed any blooms on my pole beans yet. That would have been a good thing to start indoors!

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Slow Farewell to Summer

I don't want to admit it, but our summer will be over soon. There will be no more transplanting perennials as if it were a botanical game of musical chairs. I've made some fall bulb orders and am waiting a while until I order the rest, so at least they will be spread out on two different credit card bills.

Butterflies and bees are loving the Liatris spicata "Floristan violet", Echinacea purpurea and Monarda didyma at this time of year. I cut my delphiniums back to the ground and they are producing new foliage. Last year they rebloomed in September.

You can click on this photo to see it enlarged!

A elegant-looking white Echinacea purpurea.

Echinacea purpurea "Ruby Star", remarkable for its dark red central "cone". I also noticed the stems on this plant to be dark red.
Monarda didyma (Bergamot, Bee balm) in full bloom, buzzing with bees! This clump was started from seed two years ago.
Zinnia "Profusion cherry" along with other annuals in a barrel planter.

I am getting bored with some of the perennials I planted in large numbers last year. I ripped a few out, leaving spaces as an excuse to grow some new ones from seed. Sound silly? I suppose it is. I really need some more flowerbeds! The need to garden is getting out of control and I am already plotting some new plants for mom's yard.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Fig Bonsai

Disclaimer: I am no bonsai expert and I don't claim to have any special bonsai artistry. I've never even been to a bonsai show, although I'd really like to go. I have read about bonsai on the internet and own a book on bonsai culture. I excitedly photographed the bonsai specimens at Kew gardens in London, England, where I jumped up and down in front of their bonsai Amelanchier canadensis. Some would say I need to get a life...

I find the hobby fascinating and I have been putting my amateur efforts into this little fig tree. It started out as a 3 foot specimen at a grocery store -- three years ago. Actually, there were three plants in the pot and this one seemed to have the most potential. That was, if it lived despite being hacked to a few inches tall. I have been pruning and bending it in accordance with my own mini-tree asthetic for three years now. If anything, it looks cool sitting on the table next to my 6 foot tall fig tree with a trunk the size of my calf. As you can see, I have tried to make sure the branches radiate in all directions when you observe the tree from above. I wire the branches with anodized bonsai wire to make them grow more horizontally, giving the appearance of an aged heavy branch.

It is a challenge to grow bonsai in the far north, because you are limited to tropical shrubs or trees (such as the fig) that live at indoor household temperatures year-round, unless you have a greenhouse or conservatory. The temperate climate trees -- such as maples and pines -- need some sort of cooler winter period, but could never survive outside in our harsh winters.

Are you a garden-blogger-bonsai-grower? Are there any northern growers with bonsai success stories?

Monday, August 06, 2007

Can Gardening Kill You?

A few months back, I posted about medicinal plants in my yard and neighbourhood. Then I thought about the particular hazards of gardening - reasons why we might need to put those medicinal agents to work! This combines two topics I know something about (gardening being the one I know less about) and is an intriguing assortment one doesn't often see in the gardening magazines:

(1) Tetanus - caused by the ubiquitous soil bacteria, Clostridium tetani. It is easily prevented by a tetanus shot every 10 years (are you up to date?). Can be caused by soil contamination of any cut. Slow death by tetanic spasm of all your muscles. Gruesome.
(2) Sporotrichosis - Death by a rose: are you a rose fancier with a chronic ulcer on your hand? Moss, barberry bushes, and roses are common sources of the fungus Sporothrix schenckii. Infection is more common in those with poor immune systems (chemotherapy, AIDS, diabetes). Here's a good reason to have thick leather gloves when working with roses!
(3) Skin Problems/Dermatitis - Irritant, Phototoxic, and Allergic:
e.g. Berloque (phototoxic) dermatitis - Mark of the lime: the oil of the bergamot lime has been used in perfumes and causes a skin response similar to an overactive sunburn, turning areas brown after sun-exposure. Perfumes are now required to be bergapten-free because of this problem. Photodermatitis can also be caused by contact with celery, parsley, parsnips, giant hogweed, or carrots plus sunshine.
e.g. Irritant and allergic dermatitis - Euphorbia (spurge) and primulas commonly come with a warning about skin irritation caused by touching the plant. "Tulip fingers" or "Garlic Fingertip Dermatitis" are caused by frequent exposure to these plants, just as florists can be sensitized to Alstromeria. Poison ivy, poison oak, poison sumac: most gardeners should know to avoid these!

(4) Allergic cross-reactions- Did you know that an allergy to ragweed can be associated with a reaction to chamomile tea? Asthmatics may be severely affected. Botanically, ragweed and chamomile are quite close (both in family Compositae). For that matter the cross-reaction can also apply to bananas and canteloupe.

(5) Insect bites and stings - They are annoying to the most of us and deadly for those with anaphylactic reactions to bees and wasps. Perhaps an Epi-Pen should be one of your gardening tools. We northerners can rejoice that the mosquito that carries West Nile Virus hasn't ventured this far north.

(6) Back injuries, tendonitis, sprains and you stretch before gardening? I don't, but maybe I should. Maybe I should also leave the hauling of large boulders to machines and stronger people.
(7) Hernias - Again, leave the heavy lifting to the appropriate people/machines.

(8) Parasitic infestation - I recall a case of some Vancouver city folk who decided to fertilize their garden with their own excreta and shared vegetables with the neighbours. The carrots tasted fine, but then the neigbours came to the ER with foot long Ascaris lumbricoides worms in a jar, wondering where they picked these up. Moral of the story: Don't poop in your garden and don't let the dog do it either. Frighteningly, 4 million Americans are believed to be infected, though most probably don't know it. Ascaris is indigenous to the rural southeastern US, where cross-infection by pigs infected with A. suum in believed to occur. Contact with cat feces can cause Toxoplasmosis, an infection hazardous to pregnant women and persons with AIDS.

(9) Problems related to ingestion of pesticides - diverse effects; a good reason to try cultural methods before resorting to chemicals.

(10) Legionnaire's disease - this severe lung infection is generally associated with contaminated air conditioners, but in 2000, there were the first documented reports of potting soil being the common source in a group of infections in the United States.

(11) Eating poisonous plants - hopefully, your plant identification skills will steer you away from the Digitalis (Foxglove), Aconitum, and Ricinus (Castor bean).

(12) Sunburn and skin cancer - Melanoma, basal cell carcinoma, and squamous cell carcinoma are all at least partially-related to sun-exposure. Hats, clothing, sunscreen, and sunglasses are great ideas. Besides, sun exposure ages skin prematurely and we all want to be beautiful old gardeners!

(13) Other animal bites - snakes, dogs, cats, bats (my dad was bitten by a rabid bat - was treated, lived to tell about it) etc.

(14) Bumps, scrapes, and slivers - we put up with alot for the sake of our gardens!

P.S. I see that the caring government of Canada has established a website on garden safety that covers a few things I've left out.

Wow! I can't believe I came up with 14 categories of garden hazards. Congratulations if you actually read that whole list. Now go out and garden...with caution.

Critters in my Saskatchewan Garden

I had a couple fascinating encounters with critters of the insect kind today.

I was out photographing plants when this fellow landed on my shirt. You would not believe how difficult it is to get a photograph of something that lands on your belly button! These busy prehistoric-looking helicopters of the insect world are beautiful and I hadn't been able to photograph a blue one until now! I posted pictures of a red one a few weeks ago, but that one was tiny compared to this monster. I estimate this one to be about 4 and 1/2 inches (19 cm) long. Shortly thereafter, I saw this plump critter inching past my green garden shoes. I can't quite identify it. Does anybody know what it is? There are online pictures of sphinx moth caterpillars that look similar. It lacks horns, has a brown head, and has about four diagonal white stripes on its sides. It has a more prominent diagonal white stripe that crosses over the top of the back end of the caterpillar.  Thanks to internet references, this seems to be a poplar sphinx moth caterpillar.  
Poplar sphinx caterpillar
Oh yes, and a pretty butterfly on an Echinacea flower! This bed contains several flowers attractive to bees and butterflies: purple Liatris, Echinacea purpurea, and Mondarda didyma (Bergamot, Bee balm).

Saturday, August 04, 2007

They Don't Make 'Em Like They Used To

This is the second broken hand trowel in a year! I blame it on the Campanula persicifolia. It is a freakishly tenacious plant, resisting my efforts to oust it from the garden. Now the benefits of my reliance on hard work rather than herbicides will be rewarded by the generation of more garbage. Maybe the spade was made in China -- there seems to be alot of recalls on Chinese items recently...

Raised Beds and Rock Garden

The "rock garden", which is more or less just a collection of perennials keeping the sloped gravelly soil stable. I gave several of them a good "haircut" a few days ago, removing the spent flowerheads.

Here are the stacked-rock stone wall raised beds. These are almost entirely filled with perennials, most of which I have grown from seed. I have realized that I have little space left in my beds and I really want resident-lawnmower-man to agree to ripping up more lawn to create a new flowerbed.

I want to incorporate the trees in the center of the lawn into a bark-mulched bed filled with no-fail shrubs and perennials.

I had no idea the blue oat grass bunches would grow so large, yet I love the swaying seed heads of the grasses in this raised bed.

Early August Flower Garden

I woke up and went out to get some pictures just after 7 am this morning. The sky is overcast, distant thunder rumbles, and raindrops land on my Tilley hat. The lighting is perfect. I crouch down among the plants near the front walk. I wonder if drivers-by think I'm aiming to break into the house. Nobody has called police yet about my crazy plant obsession.

Echinacea purpurea, bought as a pink variety, but clearly it is not! It was labelled "Ruby Star", but I think the dark-red-stemmed plant next to it is the real "Ruby Star".

Monarda didyma, started from seed 2 years ago. I haven't had any mildew problems here, as is common for this plant. It creeps slowly, spreading to form a large bunch, but is not really invasive in my garden. It is very attractive to bees and butterflies. Thalictrum rochebruneanum "Lavender Mist" (a meadow rue). A visitor to the garden commented that this perennial looks more like a tree. It certainly is taller than me! Papaver somniferum seed heads with purple Cleome spinosa in the background.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Today's Blooms

Some regular Echinacea purpurea that I grew from seed. There always seem to be new colors and shapes of Echinacea, but the original is still beautiful in my opinion.

Unknown cantaloupe-colored lily. I have no idea how a lily of this color got into my garden -- it must have been some bonus gift with a purchase!