Monday, 28 February 2011

There's not enough orange in February

Tonight I was sorting through photos from our trip to New York last fall and had to pause on this image. After a long winter the sight of a Monarch perched on a bright orange zinnia will do that to you. This one was at the Queens Botanical Garden--a wonderful place. It's not huge, but it's a real gardener's garden. And, apparently, a pollinator's garden too!

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

The Truth About...

Over the last week or so I’ve read two books by Jeff Gillman, a professor in the department of horticultural science at the University of Minnesota. The books were The Truth About Organic Gardening: Benefits, Drawbacks, and the Bottom Line, and The Truth About Garden Remedies: What Works, What Doesn’t & Why, both from Timber Press.

What I found refreshing about these books was the reasoned approach Gillman took. He approached his subject scientifically and provided either reports from scientific studies or conducted studies himself and reported the results. This is a more rational treatment of these subjects than I've seen anywhere else.

The most important myth he investigated and shattered was that organic pesticides are completely safe and/or are always safer than synthetic pesticides (i.e. the "if it's organic it's natural so it must be safe" school of thought.) We're reminded that many natural things are dangerous. Cyanide for example.

Gillman makes it clear that he is not in favour of using any kind of pesticide (synthetic or organic) willy-nilly, and indeed infers that using no pesticide would be the best case. But he recognizes that large scale food production (we’re talking farmers, not residential gardeners with a sandbox sized plot.), both conventional and organic, does require the control of pests and diseases in some manner.

In The Truth About Organic Gardening Gillman walks the reader through organic and synthetic/conventional approaches, products, and practices, and clearly summarizes the benefits, drawbacks, and bottom line for each. It’s well worth a read, although one of his conclusions made me wonder whether it we’d all have to resort to growing our own food:

“Taken as a whole, the available information points to the inescapable conclusion that it’s highly likely that organic produce, and especially organic produce from plant species that need to be sprayed a lot in conventional production systems, contains residues of organic pesticides that may be just as harmful as their synthetic cousins, or, as in the case of some toxins like rotenone, perhaps even more so. Once we realize that pesticide residues of one sort or another are probably on at least some of our food, the question then becomes how dangerous these residues actually are to us—and the answer, unfortunately, is that nobody knows." (p. 183)

This book equipped me with the knowledge to make more informed choices if I decide I need to use a pesticide of some form in my garden--I can now weigh whether an organic or synthetic product will do the least amount of harm to people and the environment. My final tidbit from this book is watch out for rotenone—it’s organic and widely available but Gillman’s bottom line assessment was “Why would any sane person use this pesticide?” After reading this book, that's enough to make me run the other way!

In The Truth About Garden Remedies Gillman takes on everyone’s favourite home made and commercial garden remedies: flame throwers to control weeds (can work, but you’ve really got to be careful), egg shells to control slugs (No. This surprised the author so much he repeated his test a couple times but reached the same conclusion,) baking soda spray for fungus (spraying water was just as effective), etc. This is a handy book for any avid gardener to have around. I think I’ll be buying a couple copies as gifts.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Adventures in Seeds

It’s nice to finally have a winter where the garden has a decent blanket of snow to insulate it. My plants looked so exposed and cold without it.

My first attempt at serious indoor seed-starting is moving along. I have now assembled the light stand and have started to give some thought as to what I might plant. Growing my own flats of impatiens or other easily and cheaply available plants doesn’t seem like it would be worth the trouble so I’ve been on the hunt for unusual things I might have difficulty finding elsewhere.

Last fall I read an article on ground cherries (Physalis pruinosa), which one source describes as a “small orange fruit similar in size and shape to a cherry tomato. The fruit is covered in papery husk. Flavor is a pleasant, unique tomato /pineapple like blend. The ground cherry is very similar to the cape gooseberry, both having similar, but unique flavors.” The article said they grew very much like tomatoes but, unfortunately, were extremely hard to find—only one or two nurseries in North America carried them. Hmph. So when I stumbled on a package of ‘Aunt Molly’s Ground Cherry’ seeds in the rack at Canadian Tire a few weeks ago I immediately grabbed them. They may end up being inedible but the birds and squirrels can have at them if we don’t like them. These plants need a really early start so I’ll probably get them going next month.

During gardener Ken Brown’s talk at our society last year he showed us slides of a climbing zucchini, tantalizing us with tales of massive zucchinis that were still tasty, and all on a climbing plant. Eureka! I listened carefully and took notes as he said the only place he’d found seeds was through and they didn’t seem to be in the store displays of that brand of seeds, but only by mail order. I bookmarked the website and figured I’d place an order later. Well, again, I lucked out and found these seeds on a rack at the shop in the Toronto Botanical Garden. The package recommends Climbing Italian Summer Squash (Trombetta di Albenga) be planted directly in the ground, but I may start them a week or two early, inside, to give them a fighting chance against my ravenous slugs.

I may pick up a package of yellow zucchini seeds. Firstly, because the “yellow zucchini” plants I purchased at Canadian Tire last year turned out to be green. And secondly, because I seem to have a problem growing enough zucchini. Yeah, I know everyone else plants one zucchini and ends up with carloads, but my garden is “blessed” with striped cucumber beetles, and they spread a virus that zaps my zucchinis before I get enough. I sprayed beneficial nematodes last fall, so maybe there’ll be less of the beetles, but I won’t know until later in the summer.

Also on my “to grow” list (which is way more fun that a “to do” list!) are Rattlesnake pole beans (they have patterned pods), Purple pole beans (they’re purple, as the name suggests), and “Amazon Jewel” Climbing Nasturtiums. The seed packet description made me buy the nasturtiums: “This spellbinding nasturtium offers unusual variegated vining foliage and brilliant spurred blossoms in exotic and unusual shades of pumpkin, painted peachy-rose, ruby, gold and pale lemon.” Spellbinding—how could I resist a description like that?

So that’s my little seed packet collection to date. Are you planning on growing anything from seed this year?