» Archive for May, 2008

Summer Vegetables

Monday, May 26th, 2008 by Jenny Watts
    • Colorful Gerberas with their large, daisy flowers are a standout in containers. Water them infrequently and give them plenty of sun for flowers all summer.
    • Spray roses every two weeks to keep them healthy and prevent leaf diseases. Neem oil is a new safe alternative to the chemical fungicides.
    • Asparagus plants should be fed with good, rich compost when you have finished cutting spears. Keep the bed mulched and weed-free all summer, and the soil moist.
    • Ivy geraniums make wonderful hanging baskets for partially shaded spots where they will bloom all summer.
    • Tropical-looking cannas give you a big, bold look in sunny flower beds. Plant them now for bright flowers this summer.

Muskmelons from Persia

The muskmelon (Cucumis melo), like watermelon, is hardly a vegetable, but it is an important garden crop. The most popular type of muskmelon in America is the small, oval, heavily netted kind commonly called a cantaloupe. However, no cantaloupes are actually grown commercially in the United States, only muskmelons.

Cantaloupes are actually a subgroup of muskmelons. Known as Charentais, this sweet melon from Europe has a smooth light-green skin with deep ridges, while muskmelons have the characteristic netting on the fruit rind. Other subgroups of muskmelons include Honey Dew, Casaba, and Crenshaw types; the Oriental Pickling Melon, and such odd varieties as the apple melon and Armenian cucumber.

Muskmelon is so named because of the delightful odor of the ripe fruits. Musk is a Persian word for a kind of perfume; melon is French, from the Latin melopepo, meaning “apple-shaped melon” and derived from Greek words of similar meaning.

Muskmelons originated in Persia (Iran) and Pakistan, and they are also grown in India, Kashmir and Afghanistan. Although truly wild forms of Cucumis melo have not been found, several related wild species have been noted in those regions.

The oldest supposed record of muskmelon goes back to an Egyptian picture of the period around 2400 B.C. In an illustration of funerary offerings of that time appears a fruit that some experts have identified as muskmelon, although others are not so sure.

Cantaloupe should be planted when soils are warm (65°F), after all frost danger has past. Plant 4-6 seeds in mounds 4 feet apart in full sun. Water deeply and infrequently, 1-2 inches per week.

Many gardeners wonder why the earliest melon blossoms do not set fruit. The first flowers developing on the vines are male or pollen-bearing flowers. Only the female flowers are capable of developing into fruit. As the vines mature, both male and female flowers are produced at the same time and pollination occurs with the help of bees and other insects.

Allow melons to ripen on the vines.  When ready to harvest, the stem will loosen and break away from the plant. The melon will also develop a ripe golden color. You need to watch closely as they will crack open and rot very quickly if left too long on the vine. Once the melon cracks open, bugs quickly attack the melon and you have waited too long.

Muskmelon will not cross with watermelon, cucumber, pumpkin, or squash, but varieties within the species intercross freely, however this cross-pollination is not evident unless seeds are saved and planted the following year.

Heirlooms in the Garden

Tuesday, May 20th, 2008 by Jenny Watts
    • Alpine asters, columbine, sea pinks and Tiny Rubies dianthus are outstanding plants for spring bloom in the perennial border.
    • Fuchsias in hanging baskets make beautiful patio plants. They bloom all summer and attract hummingbirds to their pendulous blossoms.
    • When you plant your tomatoes, put a handful of bone meal in the bottom of the hole to help prevent blossom end rot on the fruit later on.
    • Feed roses to encourage a beautiful display of color later this month. Treat plants to prevent insect and disease problems.
    • Earwigs are out and about and hungry. Control them with diatomaceous earth sprinkled around the plants or go out after dark with a flashlight and a spray bottle of Safer’s Insecticidal Soap. One squirt will put an end to the spoiler.

Heirloom and Heritage Plants
What are they and why should we be concerned about them?

Heirloom plants are all around us: ancient oak trees towering over our parks, antique roses growing wild in the cemetery, the cascading Bridal Wreath Spiraea that came with your home, California poppies on the hillside, Tiger lilies along the fence row or Butternut squash in the market. So what makes a plant an heirloom?

It is generally agreed that heirloom flowers are open-pollinated varieties that originated fifty or more years ago. Heirloom vegetables are open-pollinated varieties that were commonly grown during earlier periods in human history, but are not used in modern large-scale agriculture.

Many gardeners consider 1951 to be the latest year a plant can have originated and still be called an heirloom, since that year marked the widespread introduction of the first hybrid varieties.

Open-pollinated plants are fertilized by insects, hummingbirds or wind, and the resulting seeds will produce plants that are identical or very similar to the parent plant. Open pollination allows the same cultivar to be grown simply from seed for many generations.

Old roses and trees are usually referred to as “heritage” plants. Heritage roses are roses that originated in the mid 19th century or earlier. Varieties that date from 1860 or earlier are also referred to as antique roses.

Heritage trees may be trees of exceptional size, form, or rarity; a tree recognized by virtue of its age; or trees that are landmarks of a community. When trees are designated as heritage trees by city ordinance, it gives them protection from being severely pruned or cut down.

The term “heritage” is a much broader term than “heirloom” and can mean whatever you want it to mean. For example, Heritage Perennials® is the name of a line of perennials which includes many new hybrids whose “unlicensed propagation is prohibited.” Such a plant would not be classified as an “heirloom” plant.

In California, the term “heritage plant” is used to refer to plants that still exist from the time of the padres.

So why should we be interested in these plants? What draws many gardeners to heirloom vegetables is flavor. They want a tomato that tastes like a real tomato, not a plastic one. Many of them taste wonderful, look beautiful, and are easy to grow. There are, however, varieties that take a more experienced hand to grow well. Some are local or regional varieties that may or may not be suited to conditions in your back yard. Others are susceptible to problems unknown to earlier gardeners.

Growing heirloom flowers helps make certain that every generation can enjoy the blossoms that were grown yesterday and long before that. They offer a living connection with gardeners of the past: the pioneers, Thomas Jefferson, medieval monks, Chinese emperors, or maybe your own grandmother.

The attractiveness of old roses grows from their disease resistance, their wonderful fragrances, and perhaps most important of all, their graceful growth habit which makes them ideally suited for the informal garden.

Many heirloom plants are rare, endangered, and in need of your help — since the only way to preserve these living artifacts — and their incredible genetic resources — is to grow them!

Spring Trees in Bloom

Wednesday, May 14th, 2008 by Jenny Watts
    • Dahlias, lilies and gladioli come in a wide variety of colors. Plant the roots now for flowers this summer.
    • Mulch blueberry plants with aged sawdust and feed with cottonseed meal or an acid fertilizer.
    • When you plant your vegetable garden, why not grow a little extra to donate to the food bank this summer.

The Beautiful Dogwood Family

The Eastern dogwood (Cornus florida) is the species most people think of when the word dogwood is mentioned. Although it is the favorite of the dogwood trees, there are other species that grow here as well.

Members of the dogwood family are fine ornamental shrubs and small trees that are beautiful in every season of the year, but are most conspicuous when in flower.

The Eastern flowering dogwood, Cornus florida, grows in the shade of other trees in the forests of the eastern United States. In the landscape it usually reaches 20 to 25 feet tall and has a graceful, layered branching habit.

Over sixty varieties of this tree have been named, offering a variety of leaf and flower colors. Flowers bloom in April and May and come in white, pink or red. Actually, these are bracts, which are colorful leaves that surround the real flowers. The leaves are usually green but some cultivars offer variegated leaves. The fall color is a brilliant scarlet before the trees drop their leaves to reveal picturesque branches.

The Japanese dogwood, Cornus kousa, is very similar to the Eastern dogwood, but blooms about three weeks later as the leaves are coming out. The tree is more vase-shaped than the Eastern dogwood, and the mature bark has an attractive mottled look.

The Pacific dogwood, Cornus nuttallii, is native to the forests around Willits. It is a beautiful tree but, unfortunately, very hard to grow. A fine variety, Eddy’s Wonder, is a cross between the Eastern and the Pacific dogwoods and makes a handsome tree that grows very well here. It has large white “flowers” on a vigorous tree.

The “Stellar” dogwoods are a cross between the Eastern and the Japanese dogwoods. They are very vigorous and make a tree 20 feet tall and wide in 20 years. “Stellar Pink” is particularly lovely with its bracts of pale pink flowers that cover the tree.

Dogwoods can also be shrubs. Cornelian cherry, Cornus mas, tends to be multi-stemmed and is formed more like a shrub than a tree. It is slow-growing to 20 feet tall and 15 feet wide, and is a rounded, multi-stemmed shrub or small tree. The Cornelian cherry produces showy yellow flowers in late winter and early spring, before the leaves emerge. Fruits are bright red and edible, used for tart jellies and attractive to birds.

The beautiful red-twigged dogwood, Cornus sericea, has bright red stems which intensify in color during the winter. Small flowers bloom with white bracts in clusters in the spring followed by bright red berries that attract birds in the winter. It makes a beautiful addition to the woodland landscape. A closely related variety, ‘Flaviramea’ has bright yellow stems.

Flowering dogwoods prefer an acid, well-drained soil high in organic content. They grow naturally in partial shade, but will also grow in full sun with ample summer watering. Too much shade will cause them to produce fewer flowers.