Monday, April 25, 2016

Spring Flowers for the Bees

All of my seeds are planted!  The weeds in the garden have been telling me for some time the growing season has begun. 

One plant in particular has been flowering for weeks in the garden-The dandelion. A few years ago I read that leaving the first batch of flowers gives a fabulous start for the bees as the start their year collecting nectar. I dutifully obliged but didn’t read the bit about not letting the flowers go to seed. As a consequence I now have dandelions growing out of every crack and crevice. Still if it feeds the bees, then I can put up with them.

I’m not an expert on bees and just let them get on with things. I leave the real knowledge to people like Paddy McCartney in Greencastle for advice.  I do know that honey bees won’t fly below 50-55°F (10-13°C). Because honey bees overwinter in the hive they are ready to go much earlier in the season. I also know that bees can be trained to find drugs at airports. If nectar is mixed with the drug they are looking for they will sniff it out like a dog would. I’m not sure on the complexities of this but I am under the impression they are attached to tiny leads and airport security follow them around. You couldn’t make it up.

That’s where my knowledge ends; I do know a bit more about what plants they enjoy in spring though.

Pollen or Nectar
Many trees that are in flower in spring such as the hazel and alder provide pollen but no nectar.  One of the few tree species that does offer nectar is the willow (Salix) Nectar provides an important energy source (carbohydrate) and a complex range of sugars, pollen on the other hand gives vital protein and fats. Paddy will tell you more.

Spring Bee Flowers

Bluebells-The bright colour of bluebells is irresistible to bees, which rely heavily on the flowers' nectar in early spring. Hoverflies and butterflies will also flock to these tiny blue blooms.
Bugle-The ajuga, or "bugle" plant blossoms in April or May, and is a good plant for attracting both bees and butterflies.
Cherry trees-Flowering cherry trees provide a welcome burst of spring colour, but are also a good source of nectar.
Crab apple trees-These trees' attractive pink or white blossoms and abundance of nectar makes them another popular choice in springtime.
Crocuses-One of the most popular early spring flowers is also an important source of food for bees after winter.
Flowering currant-Flowering currant (ribes sanguineum) produces bee-attracting bright, scented flowers in the spring.
Forget-me-not- This tiny plant provides a good source of nectar throughout the spring.
Hawthorn-Hawthorns tend to blossom in May, producing fragrant flowers that are enjoyed by many nectar-feeding insects.
Helleborus niger-Hellebores find favour with gardeners and bees alike.  The dusky dames provide nectar with a high sucrose content for the bees so is particularly valuable to them. 
Lesser celandine-is either great groundcover or pervasive weed depending on your position but on a sunny day (and preferably in a sunny position) honey bees can be seen enjoying the sugary rewards where it has been allowed to grow.
Pulmonaria-Bees love to forage for nectar in tube-like flowers like the pulmonaria.
Rosemary-Most of us love the smell of rosemary, so it's no surprise bees do too. They're also attracted to the plant's small flowers, which tend to appear in spring or summer.
Thrift-Armeria maritima or "thrift" usually growing in rockeries produces attractive clusters of pink leaves and plenty of pollen in springtime.
Viburnum-Spring-flowering shrub viburnum is popular with both bees and butterflies.
Pussy willows-Pussy willows trees tend to flower early. Their furry catkins are a magnet to bees.

Pussy Willow Legend
There’s a popular legend about how the ‘pussy willow’ got its name. According to an old Polish story, many springtimes ago, a mother cat was crying at the bank of the river in which her kittens were drowning. The willows at the river's edge longed to help her, so they swept their long graceful branches into the waters to rescue the tiny kittens who had fallen into the river while chasing butterflies. The kittens gripped on tightly to their branches and were safely brought to shore. Each springtime since, goes the legend, the willow branches sprout tiny fur-like buds at their tips where the tiny kittens once clung.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

My Seeds Have Come

My seed order came through the post today.  I decided to shop online this year and have dealt with a new company that offer hundreds of different organic (and non-organic) vegetables, so I was like a kid in a candy shop and ordering probably far too much. A few flower seeds made it onto the list, It’s just the  usual giant sunflowers, glorious smelling stocks and sweet peas, but they will fill the gaps nicely with a bit of colour and fragrance.

The luffa seeds were the first ones to inspect after opening the large envelope. They are a member of the gourd family so the seeds are very similar to courgette seeds. They will be the first ones to plant. 

I also have a packet of asparagus seeds, which is also a vegetable I have never grown before. The main reason is that asparagus take quite a while to be productive and because moved around so much I never thought it was a viable option for me as they would be establishing as I moved home.
Asparagus from seed will take even longer to bear the edible stems large enough to eat, but I feel I have a bit more time in this garden that before so I am going to give them a go. Usually they are bought as crowns in much the same way you would but a bare rooted hosta then wait for two years until they crop. I am quite sure it’ll be four years until these mature, but it’ll be worth it as asparagus are one of many vegetables that really command a high price on the supermarket shelves.

As I am pretty limited for space there will only be one variety of broccoli and kale this year. I’m trying a dwarf variety of kale as they will take up less room as I am limited for space. I have just enlarged the growing area in the polytunnel though so I will be able to fit in the hot chilli peppers and Chadwick variety tomatoes. Although the work area is a bit smaller than last year, I have left myself enough room for the sun lounger chair to be fully reclined, for my quieter moments of working in the garden. The plastic cover on the tunnel is opaque enough now for me to recline and snooze blissfully without being seen from outside.

Other seeds ready to plant out now are the salad variety of lettuce and basil. I’ve also got some annual rocket and will be digging up most of the perennial variety as it’s taking over the tunnel. As attractive as it is as a plant, it doesn’t have the same fresh flavour of the annual type so it has to go. I just haven’t really got the space for ornamentals in the tunnel.

The runner beans, mange tout and peas are new organic varieties for me this year. I have grown these earlier in the season in the past, putting each pea and bean into small module pots. This year I as I am intentionally so late with the planting they will be going straight outside. One of the best spots for these nitrogen fixing plants will be in an area I have emptied a compost bin onto.  I was pretty unceremonious with it; I just tipped the whole thing over and leveled it off like a mulch to make a bed. It won’t win any design awards but it’ll do the trick I’m sure. I did put a few shovels full of compost that was full of worms back into the bin to start the whole process again.

I have all of the seed trays ready for sowing and will be starting this week hopefully. Initially I do look quite organized with all of the module trays lined up to receive the seeds. On closer inspection though you can see that apart from tipping the compost bin sideways for the dog to have a rummage, I actually haven’t done any preparation work on the beds. Self-set foxgloves, creeping buttercup, couch grass, ivy and a whole array of annuals have all made themselves at home in the soil. I’m not concerned though as a bit of a tickle with my trusty Dutch hoe will soon turn them into compost. 

No Division
I have decided to take the carpet paths that divided the beds up away this year. They were put there to walk on in wet weather, but they just took up valuable growing space. As you might have gathered by now, I don’t really do any work in wet weather anyway so they were a bit of a waste of time. I’ll make small paths as wide as my shoe in between the plants. I can tiptoe around on these this year. I am anticipating such a bumper crop, the plants will be flowing onto the path anyway so I can just harvest the veggies as I go to have a snooze on the camp bed in the sunshine. I can dream can’t I?

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Grafting Trees and Tomatoes

This grafted tomato plant is doing very well after only 16 days. Pics: Chris Kafer

This week a few people have asked me why shoots are growing from the base of their ornamental trees.  They are a bit bemused because the leaves coming from the fresh shoots bear no resemblance to the top growth.  This growing of two types of trees on one stem happens because of a process called ‘grafting’.

Grafting has been practiced for thousands of years. It was in use by the Chinese before 2000 BC. This is a horticultural technique whereby tissues from one plant are inserted into those of another so that the two sets of tissues join together.

In most cases, one plant is selected for its roots and this is called the stock or rootstock. The other plant is selected for its stems, leaves, flowers, or fruits and is called the scion or cion. This is the bit that has the desired fruit, leaves and flowers. There are a few different methods such as stem or bug grafting.

Fruit trees are a popular grafted tree and are god because:
  • If they were grown on their own root system, many would be too vigorous.
  • Cultivars will not usually come true from seed.
  • A fruiting plant can be produced in a shorter period of time.
  • A weak-growing cultivar can be invigorated and produce far more fruit.

Ornamental shrubs and trees are also grafted, especially when:
  • It is difficult to propagate by other means, such as cuttings or cultivars do not come true from seed.
  • It’s needed to strengthen plants that grow weakly on their own root systems.
  • When we need to  produce a larger flowering plant in a shorter period of time.
Acer palmatum, Hamamelis, Wisteria, Thuja and Picea are examples of commonly grafted plants.

Most apple trees in modern orchards are grafted on to dwarf or semi-dwarf trees planted at high density. They provide more fruit per unit of land, higher quality fruit, and reduce the danger of accidents by harvest crews working on ladders. Care must be taken when planting dwarf or semi-dwarf trees. If such a tree is planted with the graft below the soil, then the scion portion can also grow roots and the tree will still grow to its standard size.  The roots of the stock plant will also grow stems, especially if they are damaged by mowing around the tree. Some cherry tree growth can appear metres away from the main trunk. 

All of the main rootstock growth can be cut of and rooted again.  If you ever fancy doing a bit of grafting yourself, you will have the rootstock to play with. Probably better just to compost them though.

In areas where soil-borne pests or pathogens would prevent the successful planting of the desired cultivar, the use of pest and disease tolerant rootstocks allow the production from the cultivar that would be otherwise unsuccessful. 

Joining together
Tree branches and more often roots of the same species will sometimes naturally graft; this is called inosculation. When roots make physical contact with each other they often grow together. A group of trees can share water and mineral nutrients via root grafts, which may be advantageous to weaker trees, and may also form a larger rootmass as an adaptation to promote fire resistance and regeneration.

A problem with root grafts is that they allow transmission of certain pathogens, such as Dutch elm disease. Inosculation also sometimes occurs where two stems on the same tree, shrub or vine make contact with each other. This is common in plants such as strawberries and potato.

Grafting Tomatoes
Tomato Grafting has been utilized worldwide in Asia and Europe for greenhouse and high tunnel production and is gaining popularity in the rest of the world.  Typically, stock or rootstocks are selected for their ability to resist infection by certain soilborne pathogens or their ability to increase vigour and fruit yield. The scion of the grafted tomato represents the upper portion of the plant and is selected for its fruit quality characteristics. There are several methods for grafting tomatoes , most of them are pretty difficult and require really clean equipment and perfect growing conditions. 
The main reason for grafting is soil borne disease resistance.  Many desirable tomatoes are susceptible to pathogens like Fusarium, Verticillium and nematodes.  These can be devastating pathogens that lead to total loss. Many commercial hybrids have been bred to resist these pathogens.  Great for commercial growers but not so great if you want to grow heirloom varieties which typically lack any disease resistance, but some argue are the tastiest.  I have loads of self-set ones in the tunnel again this year (my favourite weed) so I am going to have a play. You never know it might be a new variety, although maybe not as strange as the pomato. These are a grafted potato rootstock onto a tomato top. Two crops in one.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Growing Luffas

I’ve decided on my new plant to grow this year. My new vegetable of choice is the luffa, or loofah as it’s also known.  They are a member of the cucumber family and as I have had a lot of success with those in the tunnel over the years I think loofas make an ideal choice. 
We are probably all familiar with the loofa plant without knowing it as the dried fruit is often used in the cosmetic industry. I first saw one when I was a child and the two foot length of stiff fibrous plant was in the bathroom being used as a back scrubber. At the time I thought this was very tropical looking and came to the wrong conclusion that it was from the sea and similar to sponge.

The luffa fruits are edible when young and are a popular vegetable in China and Japan and In Paraguay, panels made out of luffa are combined with other vegetable matter and recycled plastic, which  can be used to create furniture and construct houses. Loofa’s can also be used as a pan scrubber, a skin exfoliator, a metal cleaning pad, hydroponic plant growing, cool looking plant pots and as a painting tool.

The sap from the plant also seems to deter pests and the flowers will attract a lot of pollinators.  The powdered luffa fibers have been an ingredient in traditional Chinese herbal medicine. One Egyptian study found the seeds of luffa reduced blood glucose levels in animals, but I’d consult the experts if you were using the plant for this purpose.

Varieties and plant material
There are two species of luffa – Luffa acutangula, best for flavour, which looks like a fluted green barrage balloon about 28cm/10in long and L..cylindrica, which looks very similar to a courgette, except that the skin is smooth, shinier and fairly hard rather than slightly bristly. Both have similar leaves, deeply lobed and sprawl rather than climb, using tendrils. The flowers look similar to a courgette and can also be eaten; we deep fry our courgette ones in batter.)

Luffas need a long growing season so I’ll need to plant now (April to May). There is some evidence that soaking the seed for 24 hours in lukewarm water before sowing encourages germination.
Emergence rates are often low even with fresh seed, so I’ll plant twice as many as I need. I’ve been told they can get heavy so I’ll see how they do running along the ground, it this takes up too much space I can tie them to the frame of the polytunnel, if they are anything like cucumbers they won’t climb particularly well and might need a bit of help.

Easy Care
Established plants can grow to 7m/22ft but often reach less. Luffas aren’t very demanding in their soil requirements thankfully , and don’t need as rich a soil as other cucurbits, but once flowers appear weekly feeding with comfrey liquid should improve the fruiting. 

Male and female flowers are carried independently on the same plant, but in poor conditions only male flowers may develop.

A well-grown luffa plant can support about 6 or 7 fruits to maturity, although as with courgettes if you keep picking the plants will continue cropping throughout the season.

Luffas are reasonably healthy but can suffer from the same problems as other cucurbits, especially powdery mildew if the weather conditions are suitable, especially during late summer with humid nights and dry soil. Watering the plants well and removing the worst affected leaves will help control the disease. Plants grown indoors can be prone to develop spider mite infestation in hot summers, so I’ll need to look out for the signs.

Harvesting and storage
It looks like luffas for eating are better when they are 30cm/12in long, as otherwise they become tough and bitter. Some seeds sold for growing here may taste bitter anyway, because they are for strains selected for sponge production. Peeling and sprinkling the cut flesh with salt may help remove some of the bitterness but if you find you have one of these you might as well grow yourself a back-scrubber rather than try eating the inedible.

It looks like the fun bit of growing them for scrubbers is to wait until the skin is hard and just turning colour if you want a pale coloured sponge, or allow the gourd to turn brown if you want a dark-coloured fibre. The skin is hard but brittle so throwing the fruit hard against a brick wall or concrete path is an easy and rewarding way to crack it. Then peeling off the split skin using a sharp knife and rinse the pulp under a running tap outside until the seeds and skeleton of fibre are revealed seems to be the popular way of revealing the fibres. 

If the remaining fruit is placed in a bucket of cold water to soak for a week the remaining flesh will begin to rot and can be removed completely, revealing the cleaned loofa. Combine this with a piece of soap and you have the perfect present for people.

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