» Archive for May, 2010

Seed Complexities

Wednesday, May 26th, 2010 by Jenny Watts
    Feed roses to encourage a beautiful display of color later this month. Treat plants to prevent insect and disease problems.
    • Beautiful African Violets will decorate your indoor spaces with their masses of flowers in all shades of purple, blue and pink.
    • 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.
    • It’s time to put out oriole feeders. You can also attract them with fresh orange halves.

Open Pollinated, Hybrid, or GMO Seeds

Each time I plant a seed and watch it germinate several days later, I experience the magic and wonder of Nature. The complex information, which is carried in each and every seed, that tells it how to create one certain kind of plant, color of flower or size of tomato, is truly awesome. Most of the time we take this for granted and are just thrilled with the number of choices of tomatoes and peppers available to us. But a look behind the scenes shows us that even the scientists are just beginning to understand these complexities.

Let’s take corn, for instance. Twenty years ago, Golden Cross Bantam was available on all the seed racks and was by far the most popular variety of corn for homeowners. When you harvest this corn you “get the pot of water boiling first, then run out to the garden, pick the ears, and throw them into the boiling water.” That’s because as soon as the corn is picked, the sugar cells begin turning to starch, so time is of the essence. A nice benefit of Golden Cross Bantam corn is that you can save an ear of corn, dry it and plant the seed the following year. This is an open pollinated variety. Most of the seeds on seed racks are open pollinated varieties. Heirloom seeds are varieties that are at least 50 years old and they are generally open pollinated.

To create a hybrid corn, two varieties are crossed with each other by removing the tassels of one kind so that the second kind pollinates the first. To produce hybrid seed, parental lines are grown side by side in the field, and the cross must be repeated every time the seeds are produced.

In the early 1950s it was discovered that corn kernels that shriveled stored less starch and many times more sugar than the kernels of normal sweet corn. In 1961, they created a “supersweet” hybrid of “Iochief” and named it “Illini Chief.” From there they developed a three-way hybrid named “Illini Xtra Sweet,” which became the first commercially available supersweet corn. This corn lacked the enzyme which converted kernel sugars to starch after harvest.

Once grocery-store produce buyers learned about the extended shelf-life of supersweet corn, almost all the growers of sweet corn switched over to supersweet varieties. Canneries were also happy to process supersweet corn, which required no additional sugar. Other crosses have been made which make sweet corn resistant to fungus diseases such as rust and northern leaf blight. And the development continues as researchers make new hybrids with high sugar content, long shelf-life and creamy texture. Organic seeds are collected from plants that have been grown organically and can be either open pollinated or hybrids.

But these are all quite different from GMOs. A GMO is a plant that has been genetically modified through the addition in the laboratory of a small amount of genetic material from other organisms through molecular techniques. You won’t find GMO seeds on any seed racks.

GMO corn does not cross two types of corn, it crosses corn with a bacterium or fungus. In the case of Bt corn, the bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis, is injected into the corn gene to produce a protein that kills European corn borer, to reduce pesticide use. This sounds like a good idea however, along with the Bt gene, a gene which is not killed by antibiotics is injected, so that they can determine which genes successfully received the Bt gene. So this GMO corn has in it a resistance to antibiotics, which may be passed on to us when we eat it. This does not sound like such a good idea. In addition, the corn borers are now developing a resistance to Bt which may make this useful, mild pesticide ineffective.

In any case, there is a great deal to be learned about GMOs. FDA scientists have warned that genetic engineering differs from conventional practices and entails a unique set of risks. Long term studies have not been carried out. This is a very new technology and many scientists believe this whole area of GMOs needs more research. Because of these concerns with GMOs we should proceed with more caution before they are released into our environment.

In the mean time, enjoy your supersweet corn with dinner tonight.

Hostas for Shade

Wednesday, May 26th, 2010 by Jenny Watts
    • The “Wave” petunias make wonderful hanging baskets for full sun. They come in purple, bright pink, reddish-purple and pale “misty lilac.” They can also be used for a colorful summer ground cover.
    • Spray roses every two weeks to keep them healthy and prevent leaf diseases. Neem oil is a safe alternative to chemicals.
    • Attract hummingbirds to your patio this summer with hummingbird feeders, so you can enjoy their iridescent beauty and charm.
    • Hydrangeas have giant pink or blue flowers. They will brighten the shade garden all summer.
    • “Topsy Turvy”®Tomato and Pepper Planters are a fun and convenient way to enjoy these popular vegetables hanging right outside your kitchen door.

Luxuriant Hostas for Shady Ground

Hostas are carefree plants that provide beauty and colorful leaves for the shade garden. Their lush foliage creates a restful and inviting scene when planted under a canopy of trees. Add a bench for sitting and you will have a tranquil place to relax at the end of the day.

Hostas have dramatic leaves and attractive flowers. Their broad blue, green, gold or variegated leaves are typically heart shaped, shiny and distinctly veined. Variegation can be white, cream, or yellow and can occur on the edges of the leaves, in the centers, or streaked throughout the leaf. They will grow in bright or dappled shade, but must be protected from hot summer sun.

Variegated hostas with white or cream margins combined with white flowering plants can look especially beautiful in the evening light. Combine them with solid blue varieties for an attractive color combination.

Clusters of trumpet-shaped flowers, which are often fragrant, are borne on flower stalks which rise above the foliage. Most flowers are white or light lavender, but some varieties have deeper lilac flowers. They are late bloomers, sending up their stalks of lily-like blooms from July to October. Though the flowers last for several weeks and add an delicate highlight, the leaves of hostas are their true appeal.

Hostas are very hardy and prefer a rich, moist soil that is not soggy. They need regular watering throughout the summer and, if growing in the shade of large trees, may need additional waterings to help them compete with the tree roots.

Slugs and snails love hostas, so you should bait around them once a month. They go dormant in the winter, dying back almost to nothing. Fresh new leaves grow from the roots in early spring.

Hostas do well in containers and variegated types will brighten the shady deck. Group them around a water feature for a natural effect.

In the ground, hostas expand in size and shade out weeds. They can be planted with coral bells, bleeding hearts, astilbe, hardy geraniums and Japanese anemones for a variety of contrasting foliage and flowers. They also do well among ferns and Japanese maples in woodland settings. Use flower color from plants like impatiens to contrast with hosta leaves.

Hostas, also known as plantain lilies, are perhaps the most popular perennial for shade. With their amazing leaf patterns, they add color and interest to the shade garden and a lush, tropical effect.

Watch Out for Plant Diseases

Wednesday, May 26th, 2010 by Jenny Watts
    • Tomatoes are the most popular summer vegetable. Choose from the many varieties available now so you can enjoy delicious home-grown flavor.
    • Petunias can be planted now. Their bright flowers will bloom all summer in hot, sunny locations and they will take a light frost.
    • Plant an herb garden in a container near the kitchen door for convenient fresh spices like basil, oregano, parsley and thyme.
    • When you plant your vegetable garden, why not grow a little extra to donate to the food bank this summer.

A Year for Plant Diseases

Any plant can be attacked by disease organisms. During wet spring weather, plant diseases are very common. Bacterial infections, fungi and viruses may be attacking some of your plants, so keep a sharp eye out for problems.

If soil is waterlogged, plant roots may deteriorate rapidly, largely due to the lack of oxygen in the soil. Waterlogged soil also favors the development of diseases such as damping-off and root rot fungi. Stems of annual and perennial flowers and vegetables, may darken and get soft, causing the plants to die. There is no cure for this problem.

Leaf diseases can be due to either fungi or bacteria. Powdery mildew, fungal leaf spots, and rusts are fungi which are spread by rain. You can’t remove the problem from the leaves it is on, but you can protect new growth and uninfected leaves by spraying with a preventative spray. Neem oil is a non-toxic spray that has proven to be quite effective.

Peach leaf curl is a fungus that infects the leaves before they open in the spring. The puckered and blistered leaves turn bright red with a white powdery layer over the leaf surface. Affected leaves will drop prematurely and a second set of leaves will come out that are usually not affected. Preventative spraying must be done during the dormant season and in severely wet springs, such as this, it may not be very effective. Remove the curled leaves, preferably before the white powdery spore layer develops, and dispose of them.

Bacterial leaf spots are very common in wet weather. These black or dead patches may be surrounded by a yellow margin. Usually when the weather dries out, the new growth will be unaffected, but it is a good idea to remove infected leaves and clean up dead leaves under the plant.

Bacterial canker often affects plum and cherry trees. Typically, a tree will push out new growth in a normal manner, then suddenly the leaves wither and die. The plants cannot pull up moisture into the leaves because the canker has girdled the trunk or branch of the tree. There is not much you can do about this condition, except prune out affected branches in the summer.

Viruses can also affect plants. Many viruses do not harm plants, such as those that cause variegation on leaves or flowers. But some can distort leaves or fruits, and the only control for these is to destroy infected plants and wash hands and tools so that you do not spread the problem to other plants.

If you see a disease problem that you need help with, pick several leaves in different stages of development, seal them in a plastic bag, and take them to your local nursery for identification and help. You may find some unusual plant problems in the garden this year.