26 November, 2010

garden article

Hopefully by now the triptofan has worn off and we have all made it back across the river from Grandma's house. Our gardens and many furry creatures that habitate near our gardens have all but gone to sleep for the winter. The closest we get to enjoying the winter off is the afternoon nap after getting filled up on turkey. Another close call is so called elusive long winters' nap. I never get the long winters' nap probably because I would look kind of foolish putting on a cap before going to bed. Probably would not sleep well either as the brim of said cap would always be in the way or I would fumble around looking for it after it fell off somewhere between the good dream and the nightmare.

Which brings us to the subject of long winters. Any season the precludes gardeners from playing in the dirt is a long one. Winter for gardeners starts with the last bulb planted or garlic harvested and ends with the last mud pit drying up. Mud pits in my back yard clay can last until May in a rainy season. So what to get the gardener on your shopping list this holiday season? I know that gardeners get itchy when the seed catalogs come in which would make buying a garden gadget for a gardener seem more like punishment than a present of good thought.  Fact is though we like getting seed catalogs. I spend my lunch hours in January at the local book store looking through all the new garden magazines, catalogs disguised as magazines and garden books looking for what is new. Fact is I already what is new having seen many new items at all the trade and garden shows I attended the previous fall, eleven to be exact. What is refreshing to see is the items I chose made the cut and appear in the magazines in January. One of the pit falls of being responsible for purchasing items for sale is visiting the bone yard, the corner of the warehouse, where items that seemed like a good idea end up when they turn out not to be good idea.

First and foremost every gardener needs a good pair or two of pruners. If the gardener on your list has a lot of cut flowers on the table from their garden they need a pair of bypass pruners. These work like a pair of scissors with two moving blades that are sharp enough to cut through tender foliage without crushing tender stems. Anvil pruners, the ones with a fat blade on the bottom are not the kind to buy the cut flower gardener or someone who like me does a  lot of soft stem cuttings to make new plants. The gardener who has a lot of woody trees, shrubs and other such ornamentals can certainly benefit from the anvil style of pruners. A flat blade on the bottom holds the stem in place so the the cutting blade coming down from the top can get through the thicker and often dead branch being removed. Trying to prune pencil thick or fatter dead or woody plant tissue with bypass pruners will damage the pruner and the plant. Just like trying to cut through to many pieces of paper with scissors the blades will separate and become useless. The pages will shred and so will plant tissue  causing acute and chronic damage to the plant.

Gardeners love to dig. A round point shovel is the worst digging tool ever used in a garden. The end result is a bowl shaped hole that is narrow on the bottom and wide on the top. Plants come in containers with straight sides and need holes the same shape. Gardeners who like to dig to plant also like to dig things up as well. A round point shovel used to transplant spreading perennials or herbs cuts off a majority of the important feeder roots. No feeder roots on transplanted material stunts and can kill the plant. The proper digging tool for gardeners is spade, basically a shovel with straight sides. Much more root structure is dug up with a spade making the transplant success rate much higher. Spades also dig holes that look like the pots plants come in, straight sides.

Any gardener would love to garden all year. These days we can at least pretend we are in a greenhouse with the slew of new grow lights on the market. Gone, or at least on the way out are older style tube lights. They are being replaced by smaller tube lights called T5s. They put out twice as much light and use 40% less energy. Being smaller they easier to ship and put less strain on landfills when the burn out, in 125,00 hours or so. The fixtures are much more attractive and come in blue spectrum for seedling or foliage growth and red spectrum for flowering/fruiting plants. Next on the horizon are LED grow lights. They use even less energy than T5s and are even more compact. A really cool unit I have seen lets you change the blend of red and blue lights according the stage of growth your plant is in.

And of course for really high tech indoor gardeners hydroponics continues to head towards mainstream acceptance. With the right set up it is possible to grow tomatoes and herbs year round on a window sill or a full fledged grow room. HID, high intensity discharge lighting systems, up to 1,000 watts can light up a 10 x 10 room with sunlight quality light for all one's growing needs. The mixture of nutrients and measuring devices, meters and pumps and stuff will make any smart phone groupie want to grow something not just know something.

Last but not least remembers gardeners are a hearty but sensitive bunch. We will get over the winter blues quicker than golfers and baseball fans who cannot wait for the grapefruit leagues to start.

13 November, 2010

Water Worries in Pottery Land

Pretty pots can enhance the look of a plant in the indoor or outdoor environment. It is well understood that the black plastic or green containers plants are purchased in are utilitarian and not really attractive at all. The first decorative, rather functional, pots are basic terra cotta. The value to the plant placed in a clay pot is that the earthen material from which the pot is made breathes. This breathing allows for a somewhat limited exchange of oxygen and transpires excess water to the atmosphere around the plant. This benefits the grower and the plant since 80% of all plants die due to over watering.
Even with breathable clay that lightens when dry we still over water our herbaceous friends. Over watering leads to water draining out the bottom of the pot onto the surface the pot is sitting on. This could be a family heirloom table, an Antique Road Show first prize Louis The XIV original or even the hardwood floor in the living room. Water dripping or flowing onto such surfaces leaves water stains that often cannot be fixed easily. Water can ruin the value of such tables, desks and floors making them unworthy of appraisal on  prime time PBS.
To combat water running onto the floor decorative clay was glazed then painted. The result was a planter even more suitable to the environment in which it was placed. The result for the plant in such containers, often with no drainage holes, was death from.....you guessed it, over watering. Except in this case, drowning.
Logic has told indoor gardeners to combat the lack of drainage holes in such pots place a layer of stone at the bottom of the planter. This is supposed to create a pace for the water to collect and save the the roots by leaving them out of harms way. This is one of the oldest Old Wives' Tales in my Directory of Old Wives' Garden Tales. If this OWT were an old coin or piece of paper currency it would be worthy of incredible value just due to the low serial number alone. Drainage stone in pot bottoms to alleviate water damage to roots is cataloged as OWT #00001.1 . No subsection letter or number as my other OWTs warrant.
Drainage stone placed at the bottom of plant containers DOES NOT STAVE OFF DROWNING. In fact it could make it more likely to happen. This fact was discovered and written on way back in the 1930's in college level soil science texts. Here is why drainage stones in plants, no matter how well intentioned, is not doing anything except hurting your back with the extra gravitational pull of heavy rocks.
Water moves down in soil by gravitational pull for the most part. It is more complicated by simplicity in the garden rules in my yard. So if water is pulled down through soil by gravity what then makes soil go up, both into plant systems and evaporation? 
Capillary action. The same way that our circulatory system works. Except in the plant world no pump, aka heart, is forcing the issue. Water is very cohesive meaning it stays together and generally where it is put. That is why sucking through a straw idseasier with liquid then a slurry of solids like mud. While soil does not really have vessels to create a physical capillary network what is does have is air space between every particle of soil. Water flows through the air space not through the soil particle. So in essence there exists in soil a vast network of capillaries in the form of air.
The continuity of these air pockets determines how far and how fast water moves any direction up or down in the soil strata. As long as the air pockets are of a similar size moisture flowing through this virtual capillary network is even and predictable. But....break that network open by changing the size of air space abruptly and the flow of moisture is interrupted drastically. This radical change in air space, drainage stones under a layer of fine soil, breaks the cohesion factor of water almost stopping the push me pull you flow action. Basically the moisture becomes confused, scared and stops moving.
Studies have shown, with dramatic photographic evidence (NSFW for faint office environs) that the soil in contact with drainage stones and immediate above it is saturated, has low oxygen content and is often anaerobic in content causing roots to rot.  Think of it this way. Spill some water on the floor. Attempt to soak it up with "The Quicker Picker Upper" except that the Quicker Picker Upper" is fused on the upper  half with a towel of poorer quality, like larger weave brown industrial paper towels,  and you will see the water will not continue its'  upward capillary action
into the cheaper "Slower Picker Nothing Upper."
Solution to the no drainage but the pot is pretty anyway? Careful watering using a moisture probe all the way to the bottom of the pot to ensure no swamp is being created. In addition frequently lifting the plant out of that Ming Dynasty Vase to check the health of the roots. If the roots are whitish to whitish yellow and you don't drop the antique you are fine. If the roots are brown, smelly and putrid looking choose the Ming or the Marigold but you can't have both.