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Forcing The Issue

Forcing The Issue

Spring Blossoms

Spring Blossoms

If you have a firm case of the winter doldrums, here is a little antidote for your blues: Force a few branches of flowering shrubs and trees into bloom! Many different types of woody plants can be coaxed into an early floral display by cutting them and bringing them indoors.

Pussy willows are perhaps the easiest to force. Trim a few branches, plop them into a vase of tepid water, and Presto! Instant spring! Others are a bit more challenging and take a little more prep work to trick them into flowering. But, don’t let that discourage you. Just read on a little more to learn how to successfully force branches into bloom.

Most buds are set on woody plants during the fall of the previous year. After a period of winter cold dormancy, they will flower the following spring. One rule of thumb is to harvest cuttings closer to the plant’s normal bloom season for quicker and easier forcing. For example, if you cut the branches of a lilac in January, chances are you will have a difficult, if not impossible, chance of forcing this early May bloomer into flowering. However, if you cut the branches of early-blooming forsythia in February, your chances of successfully forcing the buds into flowering will significantly increase.

Mid to late winter is an ideal time for taking branches for forcing. This is when many of those who garden in the Southern Great Lakes region tackle pruning chores. Instead of taking those clippings to the compost pile, take the thinned cuttings of fruit trees, shrubs, and ornamentals indoors to force. Here is the general technique that works for most of these branches:

1. Prune during the warmest part of the day and on a day when the temps are above freezing. Force these branches no earlier than about six to eight weeks before their normal bloom period. For example, if forsythia normally blooms for you by late March, then wait until very late January on to harvest the branches.

2. Cut and prune just above a bud or node. Take care to prune using good technique and sharp pruners to avoid injury to your plant. About 12 inches is a good length for your cuttings.

3. Avoid withered-appearing cuttings or those with dried buds. Flower buds should be firm to the touch. These are generally larger, plumper, and more rounded in appearance than leaf buds. Once again, the closer to normal bloom time, the quicker and easier the branches will be to force.

4. Once indoors, recut the stems, about a half-inch, under warm water. You can also hammer the ends of the branches to splay them open to receive water. Immerse them in 3 to 4 inches of very warm water for about 1/2 hour. Place in a vase. Fill with warm water and add a few drops of household bleach or hydrogen peroxide to to prevent bacterial contamination. Plan on replacing the water with more of the same solution every two days

5. Keep the branches in average warmth but away from bright light. Mist the stems to prevent excessive moisture loss. It might take between one week and a month for them to respond, depending upon the type of cutting and when it was harvested. Continue to follow this routine and they should break dormancy and bloom!

6. Once the buds are swollen and they begin to break, move them into bright, indirect sunlight. Enjoy the preview!

A Timetable For Forcing Branches For Indoor Bloom
(The Southern Great Lakes Region)
Plant When To Take Cuttings
Forsythia Harvest cuttings from late January on
Plum and
Pussy Willow
Harvest cuttings from early February on
Witch Hazel Harvest from early February on
for winter or spring flowering varieties only
Viburnum Depending upon species, cultivar.
late February to early March
Rhododendron and
Honeysuckle
Harvest cuttings from late February on
Apricot and Peach Harvest cuttings from last week of February on
Redbud and
Flowering Almond
Harvest cuttings from last week of February on
Pear, Apple, or Crabapple Harvest cuttings from early March on
Dogwood and
Magnolia
Harvest cuttings from early March on

A Seed Starting Primer

A Seed Starting Primer

Seed Starting

Sooner or later, many gardeners will venture into the realm of seed starting. Many will also become a bit discouraged. While it is true that there is more to seed starting than popping a few seeds into moistened starting media, seed starting need not intimidate anyone. I encourage everyone to try their hand at starting a few plants this year “from scratch”. It is rewarding, and a great way to while away the waning days of winter.

Why start your own seeds when there are so many wonderful greenhouses, garden centers, and other places where you can purchase started plants? For me, the biggest factor is money. Seeds are less expensive than purchasing young plants or seedlings. Close on the heals of saving money is variety. Many new plant varieties simply are not available as started plants. If you want to grow unusual vegetables, annuals, or perennials, oftentimes seed starting is the only option for the home gardener to acquire these unusual or newer varieties of plants.

For a basic outline on how to start seeds, there are several things that must be present to ensure success: proper containers, proper growing media, proper moisture, proper light, proper temperature, good air circulation. A big must is cleanliness. Just as you would not dare can preserves or anything for that matter in jars with lids that were not absolutely sterile and clean, you must follow the same idea with seed starting. Containers must be clean and free of fungus spores, planting medium must be sterile, etc. The idea is to prevent disease formation in young seedlings, particularly damping off.

I generally use peat pots filled with moistened sterile soilless mix. I also use cell packs or 2×2 plastic starting pots. If I use containers that have been used previously, I clean them and then dip them in a solution of bleach and water, 1-2 Tbsp of household bleach to the gallon. Dip the scrubbed containers in this solution to kill any spores, then let dry thoroughly. If you are using old margarine tubs, whipped topping containers, be sure to poke at least three or four holes in the bottoms to allow for drainage. Don’t make the holes too large, though; the idea is to maintain drainage, but not so large that water and planting mix drain out. A good tool for doing this is an awl or the tip of a hot glue gun. Just use the tip, don’t force the larger part of the barrel tip through.

Start planning what you want to grow and purchase the seeds as early as possible. Some seeds require extensive time indoors for germination and growing. Be sure to refer to a seed-starting chart for length of time and the best method for germination and growing on indoors. Be aware that some seeds require pre-chilling, or stratification. Some seeds require nicking the surface, scarification, or benefit by soaking for a while before sowing. Some require bottom heat, and some require total darkness. Read up before purchasing so you will be prepared on how to properly start your chosen plants. If you are in a garden center, read the backs of the seed packet labels for the proper method and time to start seeds.

Find out what your average last frost date is. If a given variety of seed needs to be started 10 to 12 weeks before the last frost date, count back that time to when you can safely plant the seeds. For example, if April 30 is your last average frost date, then from about February 12 to 19 would be about right for something requiring 10 to 12 weeks for starting indoors.

Now for planting mixes or medium: Forget about sterilizing soil in the oven. It is messy, not the best medium for indoor seed starting, and stinks to high heaven while sterilizing! Be sure to use a good, sterile seed starting mix. I used to blend my own with milled sphagnum moss, perlite, vermiculite, and whatever else. Now, I am just as content to let others blend a good mix, and I am willing to pay the price. Most soilless mixes are relatively inexpensive, so why bother with some magic blend? My time is precious, as I am sure yours is, too. Follow the directions on the bag for moistening the medium, and fill your containers, as directed.

The best “tool” for starting some of the larger seeds is a pencil. Pop the point into the medium the required depth, and add the seed. Cover with sifted medium and spritz the top to moisten, not douse! For finer seed, adding a little sand to the seed packet will help to evenly distribute the seeds when planting. Press dust like seeds onto the moistened surface. Place your containers on trays, and add saran wrap or some other plastic wrap over the top of the containers and trays to seal in the moisture. Now, bottom heat is very helpful to absolutely necessary in order for most seed to germinate. You can supply bottom heat with a heating mat, or place trays of planted pots on a water heater or my favorite, on top of the refrigerator. Keep your plantings away from cold windowsills or drafty areas. If total darkness is required, then place newspaper on top of the plastic-covered containers, or place them into a dark trash bag before placing on top of the refrigerator. Check for signs of germination. When most of the seeds have sprouted and are showing their first set of leaves, or seed leaves, remove the plastic cover. Keep them moist, not soggy. Now is the time to add supplemental lighting.

Lighting is crucial. If you do not have a greenhouse or extremely bright southern exposure, you will need supplemental lighting. There are many different lights that can be used. Flourescent lights and grow lights that offer full spectrum lighting are the best choices for a reasonable price. LED lights are available, but often costly. Forget standard incandescent light bulbs. They do not supply the lighting required for strong plant formation and they give off too much heat. You can purchase pre-wired light stands for megabucks, or you can rig your own system.  I have a storage shelf system that I bought from a discount store for under $30. I used thin plywood panels cut to the size of the shelves, screwed in cup hooks, and added chains to suspend the attached lights so I could raise and lower them as needed over the seedlings. It is inexpensive and has served a good purpose for many years. I have used both grow lights and fluorescent lighting with this system with good success. When I use fluorescent, I combine one warm light with one cool light tube for the proper light spectrum. Also, I change my light tubes  every other year. After a while, the light spectrum does decline, although it might not be apparent to the naked eye.

When using a lighting system, keep a few principles in mind: Aim for about twelve hours of supplemental lighting per day. Just be sure the lighting is within a few inches, not feet, of the tops of your seedlings. As your plants continue continue to grow, the lights can be raised up a bit. Plants should be within two to three inches of the light source, but not touching.

If you do choose to use a bright windowsill, keep an eye out for cold drafts and spindly growth. Also, you will need to rotate your plants every day to keep them growing straight, as they will tend to bend towards the light source from your windows.

Once seedlings start to develop true leaves, thinning becomes an issue. If seedlings are not properly thinned, they are more susceptible to diseases such as damping off and will be competing with each other. Snip the excess seedlings with a pair of scissors so the remaining seedlings will not be disturbed.

Water from the bottom of your pots, and check the moisture levels every day. Warm winter homes means dry air. Seedlings will become stressed if they are allowed to dry out excessively. While they do not require the constant moisture level as starting seeds do, seedlings do require even, not soggy moisture.

Once the seedlings are up and running, so to speak, they will need to be thinned. Thinning assures that the strongest plants grow on and helps prevent the spread of disease and allows for better circulation as they grow on. Thin when the first true sets of leaves develop.

After the first true sets of leaves arrive, your seedlings will require food. Feed a half-strength solution of sea kelp, fish emulsion, or complete organic fertilizer. Add by bottom watering. As the plants develop, many will appreciate a foliar feeding as well.You may need to transplant your seedlings several times. If they become pot-bound or overly big for their containers, they will begin to suffer and weaken, so this is an essential step. Transplant them into larger containers and use more of the soilless medium. You may need to transplant your seedlings several times. If they become pot-bound or too big for their containers, they will begin to suffer and weaken, so this is an essential step. Transplant them into larger containers and use more of the soilless medium.

Keep good air circulation between your seedlings. Again, this helps prevent the spread of disease.

When it is time to transplant, you will need to harden off your seedlings. Do this by moving them outside for a few hours each day. Put them in a shaded, protected area. Gradually increase the time outdoors and increase the exposure to sunlight until they are basically outside during the daytime hours in the same light and exposure they will be when transplanted.

You can literally save hundreds of dollars by starting your own seedlings. It is a great way to spend the waning days of winter and a sure cure for cabin fever and a great way to get in a “dose” of gardening before the main gardening season begins!

Celebrating Thanksgiving with the foods & plants of the Americas

Celebrating Thanksgiving with the foods & plants of the Americas

 

Thanksgiving Dinner

New World Foods: Thanksgiving Dinner

Many plants we take for granted that originated in the New World have become such important food staples and have affected nearly every culture’s cuisine. So much so that we often forget that foods we associate with different countries had their origins in the Americas.

The same can be said for many ornamental plants now grown in gardens around the world.

So, I think it would be fun this Thanksgiving to look at some of the foods we eat for this holiday and the plants we use to decorate our homes, all of which makes this a truly American holiday and tradition.

The feature of the Thanksgiving Day Menu is, of course, the turkey. The largest game bird in North America, the turkey did not originate in Turkey, as some believe. So, how did it get its name? The Spaniards came back to the Old World with numerous plants and animals, including the turkey. At that time, many goods came to the rest of Europe via Constantinople, a major distribution center that was strategic in its location on the trade routes between Asia and Europe. The North American bird we now know as “turkey” eventually worked its way East and was distributed to the rest of Europe through Constantinople, modern-day Istanbul. Because almost anything coming out of Constantinople in Turkey would have a tag of “Turkey” attached to it, like Turkish rugs, etc., the name attached to the turkey by the English was Turkey coq, later shortened to turkey.

If we proceed down through the menu, probably the most universally featured side dish on the Thanksgiving Dinner menu would be mashed potatoes.

Although we often associate potatoes with the Irish and Ireland, potatoes actually originated in South America. They are an important food staple around the world, so much so that the country of Ireland adopted the potato as its own, both to its benefit and its downfall. The potato was such an important crop that it allowed the Irish to thrive and helped to contribute to a population explosion in Ireland. The Potato Famine of the mid-19th century, which was brought on by Potato Blight,  so obliterated the crop that many in Ireland moved to North America in a vast migration that left more Irish in the US and Canada than in Ireland itself.  So, if you have Irish ancestors, when you sit down to grub on those mashed potatoes, consider how you and your family have come to celebrate an American holiday this Thanksgiving.

Another featured item on the menu is the cranberry. Whether in relish, whole sauce or jellied, cranberries are  purely North American in origin. Previously, cranberries were pretty much used only around the holidays. With the many health benefits as an antioxidant and a urinary tract cleanser,  the cranberry is a staple as juice or a food source year-around.

Candied, mashed or baked or in a pie, sweet potatoes are another staple on the Thanksgiving menu.

A distant relative of the regular potato, sweet potatoes also originated in South America, but in the more tropical, frost-free regions. Columbus found the local Native Americans growing them in the Caribbean islands he discovered, so they were already spreading from their countries of origins even then.

Other items commonly found on the Thanksgiving Day menu include green beans or corn prepared in different ways. Often the corn is prepared in a casserole also featuring another New World food: diced sweet  peppers.

Of course, Thanksgiving would not be complete without the traditional pumpkin pie. Pumpkins, a member of the squash family, are also a very American food.

Now, the decorations at the Thanksgiving table might include pumpkins and various leaves in arrangements including the leaves of the sugar or red maple, various gourds, cattails.  And if you are lucky,  the arrangement might also include American Bittersweet, which is a plant so rare that it is on the endangered species list.

Another plant that you might find around this time of the year is the Thanksgiving Cactus, a relative of the Christmas Cactus that originated in Brazil.

So, there you have it!  Celebrate the food and plant contributions of the Americas this Thanksgiving, and a Happy Thanksgiving to one and all!