Monday, February 25, 2008

Doomsday Seed Vault

This is an interesting news story about Norway's international seed vault, containing seeds of food crops grown around the world. It is located deep in a mountain under tight security. I imagine a James Bond movie could have a plot involving this remote impenetrable seed bank - where an heirloom seed potato might save the world!It was pointed out that Iraq and Afghanistan's seed stores have been decimated in recent times, and that this could have devastating consequences for those countries. Apparently, the Taliban destroyed Afghanistan's seed bank just because they wanted the plastic containers the seeds were stored in. How sad and disgusting!

News story located here.

The CBC radio program "The Current" had a discussion about this seed vault today. I caught it while travelling in the car. There were interesting discussions with the vault's executive director and with critics who think that important agricultural seeds should be continuously grown, not warehoused where they don't adjust to the climactic and disease/pest challenges. Heirloom seeds were praised. GMO seeds are not allowed in the vault, due to Norway's ban on any import of such seeds into the country.

Here's the overview of the radio program. I'm hoping it comes out on a podcast soon (CBC shows available on iTunes). It was a very interesting program.

Gardening Failures and Lessons Learned

A good gardener shares her failures, so here are my recent "learning opportunities":

#1. My solitary Primula auricula seedling germinated quite nicely, then promptly died in a limp heap atop a generous topping of vermiculite. I discussed this with BB, pre-eminent local garden sage, who pointed out that vermiculite retains water and that P. auricula does not like excessively damp conditions. Perlite would have been better.

Aha. Perlite purchased. New P. auricula seeds sown.

#2. Curry leaf tree cuttings also looked initially promising then succumbed to fungal fuzz. The root stimulating gel didn't have time to act in the face of aggressive fungus that attacked the stem in the glass of water. I suppose there wasn't much circulation around the cutting (I read that high humidity would help, so put it in a humidity dome). Hmmm.

Besides, I've noticed a few of the impatiens seedlings falling over despite the "No Damp" spray. I've re-installed the oscillating fan in the basement, which did wonders with previous year's plants.

Silene saxifraga
- One of several seedlings destined for my new rock garden.

I'm speaking of the rock garden currently in my imagination, but hopefully to be constructed by RLM this spring. We recently stayed up late one night discussing the essential features of my rock garden and the exact definition of an "alpine" plant. I presented 3 fantastic books on the topic. RLM just wanted to look at pictures, without listening to "drainage needs" and "gritty topdressing".

Osteospermum sinuata "African Sun" -- they don't look like they need pinching yet.

Rogue compost worm - escapee from the tomato plant pot.

Micro Tom Miniature Tomato -- fully grown and nearly done producing fruit. Its fruits are getting smaller, nearly the size of a pea. There's not much juice or flavour, not suprisingly.

More seeds in ziploc bags -- my germination method of choice.

Having failed at these small gardening projects, I am even more determined to try again. I bought P. auricula seeds from a gentleman in England (on eBay) and those seeds went into soil (with LOTS of perlite) last night.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Garden Blogging from Northern Canada

What is it like to garden in northern Canada? What is unique about my town? Here are my answers, so you southern gardeners can feel all jealous! This is a response to the garden blogger geography challenge, as posted by prolific garden blogger Jodi, over in Nova Scotia.

1. I garden in La Ronge, Saskatchewan. We are located at 55 degrees, 6 minutes north latitude. We would get the same day length as other parts of the globe at an equivalent latitude: Northumberland (northernmost county of England), southern Denmark, Lithuania, and Moscow.

View from the air of the government building, hotel, and a few local businesses:

2. We are in hardiness zone 1b. Yes mother, there are some hardy lichens and rocks that can grow here! (mother lives in southern British Columbia) Just kidding, I actually do grow mostly perennials.

The terrain looks like water with bits of land poking out of it. Interestingly, the land bits all appear to have a north-south orientation, so you can really imagine glaciers travelling across the landscape in a north-south direction thousands of years ago.

3. Winter is darn cold here. The coldest recorded temperature in La Ronge occurred in 1973, when it got down to -48.3 C (-54.9 F) in January of 1973. During this time, the plants are protected by a great blanket of snow, which protects them from the snowmobiles. In the winter, there are more ski-planes and snowmobiles than cars driving past our house! Winters are cold and snowy, but we get a lot of sunshine all winter. So if clouds get you down, come up here!

4. Despite the extreme conditions, there is some amazing wild flora including the pink ladyslipper orchid, Cypripedium acaulis. It grows only on the rocky granite outcroppings of the Canadian shield.

5. There is no commercial agriculture here, well...other than the harvesting of wild rice. We bought a 10 pound bag wild rice from a harvester a few years back and we're still working on it (wild rice pudding, wild rice casseroles, wild rice stuffing, etc.). It is harvested by rice boats, which are aluminum boats fitted with a big fan on the back for propulsion and a large tray on the front. It seems that they collide with the plants at the edge of lakes, and the seeds drop into the trays. The wild rice is not a native plant; it was introduced in the 1920s. It requires no maintenance once established.

Inside Robertson's trading post, iconic general store and fur buyer of the north:

6. I am greatly outnumbered as an monolingual English-speaking person. Most of the local population is aboriginal and speaks Cree. Fur-trapping is still a means of making a living here. The local afternoon radio program regularly reports the going price for beaver, muskrat, and marten.

I cracked up at a story I heard from a coworker who sent a summer student out with a trapper for some unique local experiences. The trapper found a trap containing a furry critter and the student asked him what it was. "Marten", the trapper replied. Not being familiar with local wildlife, the student replied "Really? That's really neat. Do you give names to all the animals you catch?". I suppose the student expected to find a George, Robert, Dwayne, and Stan in the next traps.

Ancient aboriginal rock paintings viewed from the Churchill River, just north of La Ronge. I can only guess this had something to do with hunting big game?

7. There is virtually no natural soil here, only muskeg and lichened rock. Our yard grows things only because we had a semi-truck haul in dirt from 300 km south of here and I add bags of manure and potting soil every year. If a little bit falls out of the raised beds, I carefully scoop it up and put it back in place. The natural soil is acid, so acid-loving perennials do better here.

While the dirt is "poor" for my purposes, northern Saskatchewan's ground is full of money. Did you know that the majority of the world's uranium comes from northern Saskatchewan? The public health people keep telling us the fish aren't radioactive (they are tested), but sometimes I ponder the health effects of eating northern fish.

Huskies in last year's dog sled race. I tried watching for some teams yesterday, but at -30, I waited only 45 minutes and then had to go home to warm my toes.

8. As I have written at the top of my blog, "the bugs are large". They are also bloodthirsty. Well, the dragonflies don't want your blood, but they do thrive on some of the healthiest populations of mosquitoes known to man. Then there are the "no-see-ums", bloodthirsty bugs so small that they get through clothes and bugmesh. Don't forget blackflies too, the blood-suckers that aren't deterred by bug repellent. They particularly like biting eyelids, and the inside of noses and ear canals (from personal experience).

Check out the dragonfly who liked my purple shirt. Honey, does this dragonfly make my waist look small?

9. Other people's invasive plants are my reliable perennials. I hear that Polemonium caeruleum is a menace for gardeners in Vancouver, but it certainly hasn't taken over my neighbourhood yet.

10. Our growing season is painfully short. I don't know what the exact frost-free period is for La Ronge, but Prince Albert (just over 2 hours south of here) has a 95 day frost-free season. We must be a few days less than that. I try short-season tomatoes every year but have yet to grow a successful crop of tomatoes that got red while still on the vine (vs. in a box in my garage). I buy tomato seed packs that proclaim things like: "bred for growing in a military base in Greenland".

Well, half of our northern summer could have flown past in the time it took my to write that post! Congrats if you actually read it all! You have the patience of a northern gardener!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Happy Valentines, and Stay Warm!

It is February 14 and half my basement light garden is full with seedlings already. I am holding onto these Jiffy pellet trays for annuals I will start in a few months. Do you like the Jiffy pellet heart? Nice huh?

Osteospermum, strawberries, and impatiens:

We had heart-shaped buttermilk pancakes for breakfast. They were good for warming the heart, especially since it was -42 degrees Celsius outside! Honestly, that made me gasp this morning, since the Canadian Challenge dogsled race started yesterday in Prince Albert, a city south of us. The 8 and 12 dog teams are currently racing towards La Ronge. It is a 500+ km (320 mile) race and is a qualifier for the bigger races like the Yukon Quest and Iditarod.

I find dog sledding fascinating, and I also admire these people and their cold endurance. They have to sleep outside with their dogs during this race, for goodness sake! I read through the rules this morning and noticed that the mushers are NOT allowed to have radios, cell phones, satellite phones, or GPS. I think I heard that the Iditarod is allowing GPS this year, though. Oh yeah, and the dogs may have to submit for urine drug testing if performance-enhancing drugs are suspected. Hmmmm. I hope my dog doesn't get messed up in that steroid-abusing-dog crowd.

The yard at 10:30 this morning -- the sled teams will arrive not far from here.

While warm conditions (warmer than -10 C) are dangerous for racing dogs, the conditions were really cold 2 years ago and the mushers were putting little jackets on the dogs and underwear on the males, because their genitals were freezing. In fact, you couldn't find any underwear in town that weekend, because the stores were bought out.

My Paphiopedilum "Magic McNavy" orchid starting to bloom.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Blotanical and Northern Garden Bloggers

Have you checked out Blotanical (the international garden blog directory) yet? There is a tool you can use to search for blogs in different regions of the world, so I searched for TRULY northern bloggers:

1. Most northern garden blog in Europe: A Finnish blog from 66 degrees north latitude,
Puutarhaprojekti, which warms my heart with its pictures of snow, snow shovels, late springs, spindly trees, and plants that look very familiar. Alas, there is no English here.

2. Another northern Finnish blog (Quu's Garden): Actually this one is designated my sister blog, coming from 65 degrees north latitude in Oulu, Finland. This creative gardener has several gardens in a few different locations, from what I can determine. She has the most beautiful pictures of blooming spring bulbs and some impressive collections of perennials too. She always puts an English translation on her posts.

3. Myself (Northern Exposure Gardening) in La Ronge at 55 degrees, 6 minutes north latitude: I am in the top two most northern Canadian bloggers on Blotanical, with the blog in Hythe, Alberta technically being just a smidgeon north. I can see from Google Earth that Hythe is an agricultural community, with vast cultivated fields making a grid around the town. La Ronge is as "agricultural" as New York City is rural.

**Note: You garden bloggers from Russia, Yukon, NWT, and Alaska need to get onto Blotanical's directory ASAP. I know you're out there!

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Hardy Primulas, An Obsession

I have found myself thinking about primulas alot lately. Maybe it's in anticipation of spring, which is still a few months away. While there are so many types of primulas, we must stick to the hardiest of these dainty flowers up here in the north. There are a few flowers one could easily develop an obsession over, wanting to collect every color and type available. Primulas are one of those. Generally, they prefer shade to part sun and don't like drought or extreme heat (hey, that's exactly what conditions I prefer as a feeble fair-skinned human).

I've tried a few primulas here since 2006, but I haven't been really dedicated to selecting the hardiest types, so some of these didn't make it through the winters. Most are Polyanthus primroses (Primula X polyanthus):

A pertinent article on hardy primulas for Saskatchewan is Sara William's article on the University of Saskatchewan Gardenline website:
Edmonton's Devonian Botanic Garden has an excellent guide to growing primulas:

I am currently starting some Primula auricula "Viennese Waltz" from seed (from Thompson and Morgan). They don't require cold treatment to germinate and they should be hardy. I also started a bunch of Primula saxatilis from seed given to me by another La Ronge gardener. I know those are hardy here, because they thrive in her yard.

Primula saxatilis
in BB's yard:

Last year, I ordered a double flowered Primula auricula (plant, not seed) from Wrightman Alpines. It should be hardy here. I am also trying to germinate a non-hardy primula from Thompson and Morgan called Primula obconica "Twilly Touch Me". RLM thought this was one of the stupidest plant names he'd ever heard of. The name highlights the fact that this primula is free of primine, the chemical in primulas that causes skin irritation when they are touched.

Currently, there are 3 large specimens of Primula denticulata (the drumstick primrose) grown from seed under lights in the basement. I'm hoping they will flower for spring. Maybe Kate in Regina will have some tips about Primulas in her garden!

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Trying a Venus Fly Trap

I just discovered a perfect use for the small terrarium that is sitting unused in the basement: growing a Venus Fly Trap. I have some seeds from Thompson and Morgan which I hadn't really looked at seriously until now.
I did some internet research about the soil, humidity, and watering requirements and I think I might give it a try. Although it would be much easier to just pick up a plant at Walmart (and maybe I will if this fails), I'm going to try growing a Venus fly trap from seed just for the horticultural fun of it!