Central Virginia Organic Gardener

"And 'tis my faith that every flower enjoys the air it breathes." - William Wordsworth, 1798

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Wednesday Lagniappe: I Covet.

This is a Wardian case, filled with small orchids, miniature ferns and mosses, on display in the library at Lewis Ginter Botanical gardens in Richmond, VA.  My title says it all, I covert a Wardian case!  In the 19th century, botanists were unable to transport certain plants long distances, especially tropical ones that required humidity and climate control, like orchids. Or at least they were unable to ship them and have them arrive alive.  Nathaniel Ward invited the Wardian case in 1829 in London.  This invention marked the start of modern horticulture (with its good and bad consequences).  Wardian cases became a feature of drawing rooms during this era.
Happy gardening!

Monday, February 25, 2013

Self-Watering Planters

Last week I wrote about those tree-watering bags and some concerns I have with them, including root rot. Today I want to discuss some concerns I have about "self-watering" planter, and using saucers under your outdoor planters. You have probably seen these "all-in-one," "self-watering" or "water reservoir" pot systems for your outdoor potted plants.  Planters dry out quickly and these products are supposed to be labor saving and supply a steady amount of water to the potted plant. They do this, but there is a real problem with these products:  they often keep the soil too moist, inviting fungal disease, especially root rot.  Root rot will either kill or weaken the plant.  Have you ever had a potted plant up and die, only to find weak, rotted or few roots in the pot when you tipped it out? This is probably root rot.

Plastic saucers under plants pots, especially deep ones, can do the same.  Many people use saucers to protect their decks, but they often hold too much water near the root zone of the plant, with bad results.

There are a few conditions I might use these types of pots: for hanging plants, which are subject to greater air-drying than pots on the ground, and window boxes (ditto).  But these pots are often pricey.  I would rather mulch my pots, make sure I was using a good quality potting mix and water often in hot weather.

Happy gardening!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Wednesday Lagniappe: Orchid Abomination

I have posted on this topic before...
I love botanical gardens, and the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden is no exception. However, I think these gardens should be dedicated to plants as they exist naturally, or as created through traditional methods of plant breeding (for example, no GMO's for me).  This includes the orchids pictured here in shades of purple, cyan, and green, made by an apparently patented method (called Colorfuze) in which the veins of the plant are injected with color to produce hues not found in these plants.  White moth orchids are used to fully show this artificially introduced color.
Isn't natural color grand enough as it is?  Weigh in, readers! (I think the cyan blue is especially horrible).

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Tree Watering Bags

     We've all seen them on trees: those plastic watering bags.  They go by a variety of trade names and are easy to find and buy on line.  But I have always wondered if they are a good idea.  It seems to me that these bags, while they probably do provide water to the trees, also keep the soil and the tree bark consistently damp.  I don't see how this can be good for the tree, and will only invite fungal rots and other infections, plus insects, to attack the tree and the roots.  In addition, it seems that these tree bags could create a nice cozy home for various small rodents that may girdle the tree and potentially kill it.  I did some online research and could not confirm these suspicions, but recently heard Mike McGrath, the organic garden guru, on his show on NPR "You Bet Your Garden" suggest the same thing.  He said the the best way to water a newly planted tree is to let a hose drip next to it overnight (just a slow drip) and that watering bags can do more harm than good (for the reasons I mentioned).  Instead of an open hose, I like to use a soaker hose that is in a circle shape specifically designed to slowly water new trees and shrubs.  I might turn it on to slowly drip soak for 6 to 8 hours once or twice a week for a few weeks, then weekly thereafter until the tree seems established.
     One more note:  it is best to plant trees in the fall, but most nursery stock is best in spring with greater variety available.  I don't hesitate to plant in spring, as long as I am committed to watering the tree regularly throughout the growing season (hiring a garden helper when I go aay on vacation).  Mike McGrath gives his full tree-planting advice, worth reading, at:  http://www.gardensalive.com/article.asp?ai=1241

(U. Minnesota Extension Service has a photo of a growing bag, which they recommend, even though I do not agree with their advice, at:   http://www.extension.umn.edu/yardandgarden/YGLNews/YGLNewsAugust12007.html  ).  Seems like we need someone to really research this practice!

Happy gardening!   Spring is coming!

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Flora of Virginia

OK, I know this is late (for Valentine's Day and my Wednesday Lagniappe series), but if you have a Virginia Lover who loves the garden and the great outdoors, skip the environmentally unsound, chemically sprayed, hothouse roses with no scent and calorie filled treats and get him or her this book.  Decades in the making, the Flora of Virginia documents every plant in Virginia (excluding some exotic annuals and perennials) that have a recorded presence in the state.  Not "light reading," this book is helpful for identifying plants in Virgina (and nearby states) and is useful for naturalists, gardeners, educators and botanical art enthusiasts!  It also will help you learn your botanical Latin and other terms, ecological regions of the state, and much more!  One of my favorite features is 50 great places to find Virginia plants.  I previously disliked the idea of "bucket lists," but now I have one!
To read more about it:  RTF Flora article

Happy Gardening!

Monday, February 11, 2013

Pruning Window

The window for tree pruning is rapidly closing.  This weekend my husband and I completed pruning on our fruit trees (3 peaches, 1 enormous apple, 2 pears and 3 huge figs).  Fruit trees can take a lot more pruning than other trees and should be pruned fairly "hard" each season.  The general rules are this: first, remove suckers and waterspouts.  Suckers are straight stems coming up from the base of a tree and waterspouts are (non-productive) stems coming up from branches, usually where previous pruning has occurred.  Next, prune off damaged or dead branches and crossing branches.  Then, of what is left, prune the tree to meet these objectives:
1. Open up the interior of the tree to allow in air and sunlight (this reduces the spread of disease);
2. Remove branches that are too high for you to easily pick from;
3. Remove branches that interfere with getting to other branches, again for ease of harvesting and:
4. Remove branches to keep the tree size in check.
Once the tree breaks dormancy (early March for us for fruit trees, except for figs), it is considered to be too late for major pruning, though minor pruning can still be done at this time.
Next up for us is to spray the trees with dormant oil (I am a little late on this too) and liquid copper on the pears to control fire blight. 

We have some ornamental trees to prune too, but some birds will nesting soon and that will close the ornamental pruning window!

Happy gardening!
P.S. Be  kind to your crape myrtles and don't hack them (see my entries on crape myrtle)!  Just give them a light shearing!

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Wednesday Lagniappe: Two Stories in the News: Seed Lending, Compost

Two recent stories caught my eye (and ear) and I want to share them with you. The first is about an effort in a Colorado public library to lend seeds.  Yes, you got it: you get the seeds, grow the plants, collecct more seeds and return some to the library.  Probably some kinks to work out (like with biennial and open-pollinated plants).  The link is via NPR at: Public library lends seeds!

The next article is about the push in various municipalities to begin curbside compostabe pickup.  It was in the Washington Post.  Imagine a world where compostable trash is picked up twice a week, and non-compostable trash every 2 weeks?

Happy garden reading!

Sunday, February 3, 2013

What is BT?


Sometimes people ask me for what product to use to stop some sort of pest.  I do not use a lot of these organic pesticides, preferring barriers, hand picking or squashing (not for the squeamish), blasting them off with a spray of water, growing resistant varieties, and/or rotating crops (this last practice reduces recurrence of infestations).  I also try to grow plants that attract beneficial bugs.

There is one organic product, technically a pesticide as it kills pests, that I do use and am experimenting with: BT, also BTk.  What is BT?  It is Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a bacteria that produces crystals toxic to susceptible insects, almost all caterpillars, those pests that like to munch their way through your broccoli, cabbage, squash and other plants.  (Btk is BT kurstaki, a variant that works best in most garden applications).  These crystals are toxic to nothing else, do not harm people, pets, bees or birds.  In order to die from the toxin, then caterpillar must eat it, and then the toxin causes it to stop feeding.  It dies in a day (unlike chemical pesticides which kill on contact).  Toxic Free NC has a page dedicated to one of these BT susceptible pests, the cabbage worm, at:

If you want to buy this product, you cannot just ask for "BT" (I have done just this and been given blank stares).  You have to look at the labels of "organic caterpillar killer" to see if they contain  BT (they probably do).  Brand names are Dipel and Thuricide.

So if you don't like hand picking, or do not have the flexibility to be vigilant abut this (twice a day with big infestations) try BT.

Happy Gardening!
Oh, and Happy Belated Groundhogs' Day!  Mechanicsville Mike says spring is just around the corner!