Friday, August 28, 2015

cereus fruits

Last Saturday, Steve's former colleagues Louise and Marsha came by to pick him up for an event. They were fascinated by our huge cereus,* which happened to be bearing a number of fat buds as well as some spent blossoms in various stages of dilapidation. We speculated about whether any would turn into fruit. Since Louise is a faithful reader of this blog, I started talking about a post I'd written last year about the fruit that had formed then. Louise said she hadn't seen it, so I thought I'd look it up and send her a link.

To make a long story somewhat shorter, my search was fruitless. I could visualize the photos I'd taken of the cereus fruit, but evidently I'd never even started a draft of the post or uploaded the photos into the draft. Some of the words I'd intended to use were still floating around in my head, but none had been written.

It was easy to find the photos, which I'd stored on the Internet on August 22, 2014. Let's look at them:

On the left is an unripe cereus fruit, and on the right a ripening fruit. The black things on the ground are dead blossoms, and the holes in the blossom ends of the fruits are where the pistil hung for several days after the other parts of the flower had dropped off. I know it's hard to believe that the darker fruit is the unripe one, but bear with me here.

The stem end of the ripe fruit shown above has fattened up to strengthen its bond with the plant, and the fruit shown below has started to open up. I think it looks like some weird hors d'oeuvre (tomato stuffed with cream cheese and poppy seeds?), or maybe 'Pac-Man' rudely talking with his mouth full:

At last, the final shot, where our Pac-Man appears to be frothing at the mouth:

Steve bravely tasted the gooey substance and said it was quite sweet. I'm grateful that he lived to tell the tale and that Louise told me she hadn't read it.

Am I chagrined that I had not brought this story of plant procreation to light last year? Not especially. I think anyone who is serious about writing has a mental stash of texts, and sometimes there's a fine line between those that have actually been written and those that exist only as phantasms. 

For years I struggled to write a poem about the phenomenon of gardenias blooming in our garden in November and, after a lot of over-intellectualizing along with references to Platonism and Victorian literary theory, I came up with this haiku:

                  Spring bloom in fall month 
                  draws wonder and suspicion
                  yet smells sweet as June's.

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 * This venerable plant has appeared in two previous posts on this blog -- it's cereus (August 2012), and cereus business (November 2013)  -- but, as in so many of my botanical and horticultural ramblings, it merely provided a vehicle for other subjects: procrastination, the importance of theme in writing, the poetry of Thomas Gray, etc.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

return of the sisters

Fantasy and failure marked my gardening efforts in 2010. I bought a plethora of seeds, set out innumerable tomatoes, and reaped almost nothing. Perhaps my most pathetic failure was the Native American three sisters tableau (corn, beans, squash) I started in the front garden, where only the pervasive, quasi-perennial scarlet runner beans (SRB) survived to haunt me this year.

Older and wiser, I sorted my seeds this spring and found many from 2010's shopping spree. All these, along with any purchased before 2014, have gone to the landfill to sprout or rot as conditions allow. I envision a tangle of SRB infesting someone's moldy sneaker.

Last fall, as you may be aware, I had an epiphany on the value of companion planting, and this, followed by my attempts to grow chayote squash and my success with Peruvian red lima beans (I try to remember to pronounce it LEE-mah, but cannot overcome my central Ohio heritagein the general area of LYE-muh). Thus when I transplanted three struggling chayote plants to where they could climb a south-facing wooden fence, I purposely created a pre-Columbian environment for them by giving each one a companion Peruvian lima bean. Additional pole beans and cukes have joined the party, which may also accommodate a few stalks of corn when all is said and done.

Where the chayotes had originally been planted along a north-facing fence, I have gone almost whole hog with the three sisters concept: corn, bush beans, miniature pumpkins, and yellow crookneck squash. I say "almost whole hog" because half of the bush beans are edamame, native to Japan. According to Wikipedia, "The earliest documented reference to the term edamame dates from the year 1275, when the Japanese monk Nichiren wrote a note thanking a parishioner for the gift of edamame he had left at the temple." Pre-Columbian, indeed! Could it be that beans, carried along by the south-bound immigrants who grew them and passed them along to the Conquistadors, were brought to the Western Hemisphere via the prehistoric land bridge from Asia? But, if so, why didn't they take the edamames?

"History ain't what it used to be.*" When most of us were in school, American history started with Columbus, east was east and west was west, and we knew where our beans came from. 
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*I'd like to attribute these words to someone, but the best I can do is refer you to Another History Blog. If you think Yogi Berra said it, you're close. His words were similar in style but different in content: "The future ain't what it used to be."

Saturday, July 18, 2015

nasturtiums restrained

In April of 2012, I learned that the 'Weed Watch' campaign includes nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus) among the species NOT to plant if we are to "Stop the Invasion" of plants that "fuel wildfires, degrade grazing land, contribute to soil erosion, clog streams and rivers, and increase the risk of flooding." Therefore I have exercised considerable restraint in allowing nasturtiums to appear in my garden. In winter and spring I let them take over the strip devoted to herbs and veggies and climb to the top of our chain link fence. When peas, beans, and tomatoes need the space, I rip the nasturtiums out and let their bouncy seeds fall to the ground, where they will almost immediately germinate. This 'second coming' of nasturtium plants is thinned repeatedly but allowed to play their traditional role as companion plants to attract pests away from wanted plants.

In the photo below, you can see how this works. Two well-camouflaged green worms appear to be relaxing on the nasturtium leaf at upper left, possibly dreaming of the day they will morph into white moths. Meanwhile the tomato leaf at upper right remains untouched.

Though it shows oregano, tarragon, and marjoram to good advantage, I do not like this photo. The sun was so bright that all I could see on the screen of my smart phone was my own reflection. I showed the worms and the photo to Steve, and he wisely offered a solution: "Why don't you take off the leaf?" Why, indeed? So I carried the leaf and its little sunbathers inside and placed them on a piece of band music. What a lovely setting:

After snapping this photo, I gently placed the nasturtium leaf, worm-side down, in a compost digester. A couple of hours later, the worms had vanished while the leaf was virtually unchanged.

Though I often choose a politically correct option when facing a moral dilemma, I feel no guilt about harboring nasturtiums. I have repented my old way of letting them run rampant, but I have have never believed that, in the context of my urban, self-contained garden, they would "fuel wildfires, degrade grazing land, contribute to soil erosion, clog streams and rivers, and increase the risk of flooding." Even so, I keep an eye on them. A good way to see a flower or two.

This photo, taken earlier this morning before the sun hit this part of the garden, shows at least two nasturtiums keeping watch over some small Swiss chard. Unfortunately in this case the pests seem to prefer the chard.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

year of the bean

I haven't blogged about growing beans since June of 2010, when I wrote look at them beans in the misguided state of euphoria I experienced after getting scarlet runner beans and hyacinth beans to grow on our chain link fence. By January of 2012, I had given up my fascination with hyacinth beans and their alleged magic, and today I view the scarlet runner bean (SRB) as a threat to civilization as we know it.

When I re-read look at them beans this morning, I was astounded to see that I had bought four SRB plants as soon as we finished putting up the fence in 2009, and had saved the seed to plant the next year and, indeed, just about every year since. In other words, all the SRBs I have grown here are descendants of four plants. I still love to see their blossoms appear on our side gate:

The huge pods, however, attract a thick powdery mildew that fills me with fear and loathing. The photo of the ungainly specimen below was taken after I had cut the vine at ground level so that the nearby leaves had totally shriveled:

The green leaves at the right belong to a much better variety of bean, the Worcester Indian Red Pole Lima (aka Peruvian Lima), grown from seed I had ordered on line from Amishland Seeds in 2012. According to Amishland's descriptive catalog, the Incas dried these beans and ground them into flour. I let them dry on the vine and then use them to make soup or stew along with other veggies, usually spiced with East Indian sambar masala. I enjoy the juxtaposition of a pre-Columbian New World bean with an Old World spice.

When I ordered bean seeds from Amishland Seeds, they were offering a promotion: one free variety with four. How could I resist? I don't remember which was the free one, but I was delighted when I received five packets of 10 seeds each in the mail: Peruvian Lima, Amish Gnuddel, Lazy Wife, Anellino, and Cascade Giant. Of course I should have planted them right away, but for some reason I waited till fall of 2014 and then chose the Peruvian Lima.

It was in fall 2014 that I first planted veggies following the principles of companion planting and crop rotation. Previously I had relied solely on aesthetic principles: if I had four boysenberry plants, I spaced them evenly along the fence. Same thing with tomato plants and bean or pea seeds. It didn't work very well, and so last fall I moved the boysenberry plants into the same section of of the bed. But beans are supposed to be good companions for any other veggie, and besides they 'fix' nitrogen. And so I started my saved SRB seeds and my new Peruvian Lima seeds indoors in toilet paper tubes and planted them evenly all along the fence in November or December. They soon started producing tiny white and yellow blossoms:

Fortunately 100% of the Peruvian Lima seeds germinated, and they turned out to be extremely prolific. I pick some dried pods practically every day, and when I get enough to cook I make sure to save at least 15 for seed. Here's today's harvest:

Of those saved for seed, some have become companions for chayotes, and some for gourds. Because the seed pods 'shatter' when mature, some have come up volunteer on both sides of the fence. I cannot imagine planting a garden without Peruvian Limas, though I've learned that boysenberries dislike pole beans. I took out all the pole beans from the berry patch and I think the problem was competition for space on the fence. Anyway the boysenberries are looking happier, even with tomatoes encroaching a bit.

What of the other four Amishland bean varieties? Due to my having aged them so long, the germination was spotty at best. I currently have ONE Amish Gnuddel plant, THREE Lazy Wife plants, and THREE that may be either Cascade Giants or Anellinos. A report on their progress, if any, must wait until another day.

Monday, June 15, 2015

poppy progress

In spring surprises . . ., posted on April 22, I lamented the total absence of California poppy blossoms or even buds in our front garden, yet "darling buds of May"* finally appeared and produced four lonely blossoms -- one at a time. Last Saturday, June 13, I photographed the laggard fifth. Somewhat darker than official state-flower standard, it had descended from the plants in a four-inch pot of mixed-color poppies we'd bought along with a pot of standard poppies at least four years ago at the Theodore Payne Foundation.

Meanwhile, the previous four blossoms had produced mature seedpods, and I started thinking about how best to ensure a good crop of poppies for 2016. It shouldn't be difficult, with the strong possibility of a rainy El NiƱo season ahead. I decided to pick two pods and scatter their seeds, and leave two to scatter their own seeds naturally. Here are the harvested two:

Maybe it's wishful thinking, but these pods seem to me to be longer than most, and so I included the quarter as a gauge of their size. Thomas Jefferson, our horticulturalist president, would surely approve, and the coin's 'heads' position invokes his blessing on the experiment. The pod on the left, BTW, is from the only one of 2015's new plants that has bloomed.

Finally, I used my thumb nail to open the pods onto the manila file folder where they had posed for their picture. The seeds rolled easily into the folder's central crease, which would have made it easy to pour them into a container.

Over dinner, Steve and I debated the merits of waiting for rain before scattering the seeds. He finally convinced me that the remaining pods wouldn't wait for rain before they opened. Feeling a bit like I was feeding the birds, I flapped my manila folder over a bare but well mulched patch where several poppy seedlings had appeared in February and March. If birds do eat any of the seeds, of course each one will be replanted along with a small portion of organic fertilizer.

Now to let nature take her course.
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*Shakespeare's Sonnet #18 ("Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?")

Saturday, June 13, 2015

holey calandrinia!


Two years ago I wrote about "white gardenias . . . mingling with cerise calandrinias" as bedfellows in our front garden. Above at left is a photo from that post. Below, at right, is a photo I took last Saturday, June 6:

The most obvious difference here is that the second gardenia hasn't opened yet, but let's look more closely at the two calandrinias. A honey bee graces the upper one, camouflaging herself cleverly against stamens and stigma, while a perfectly round hole in the lower one (look at 10:30) suggests that a less beneficent insect has come and gone.

It took me several days to figure out what had happened.

Early last week I was sitting at our little bistro table, contentedly watching a calandrinia blossom bob up and down on its long stem. I noticed what appeared to be a white spot on one of the petals. Closer inspection revealed that the spot was actually a hole framing a white object in the distance, possibly a white car parked on the street. On Friday (I can identify the day because there are trash bins at the curb), I spotted the ultimate calandrinia perforation: six holes spaced evenly among the flower's five petals. Each of the larger two was about 1/8" in diameter, while the smaller four averaged about 1/16" in diameter:

On Saturday, the day after sighting the holey calandrinia shown above, I decided to survey the entire calandrinia population: possibly eight flowers open at that time, each one on a long, separate stalk. That was when I found and photographed the one-holed blossom shown at the top of this page. None of the others seemed to be afflicted. The perforated calandrinia shown above had folded up and been replaced by the bud that's peering over its shoulder in the picture. But wait! There was something strange about that new flower. A little yellow-green grasshopper was perched on it. I tried to take a picture, but the insect was too fast for me. I was happy to have scared him away from a flower that was still unscathed, but strongly suspected that he would return as soon as my back was turned.

My next stop, of course, was the Internet, where I Googled 'grasshopper damage.' I learned that not all grasshopper damage consists of small holes, and that not all small holes in leaves and flowers are made by grasshoppers. Industry-standard grasshopper eradication, moreover, requires more than one season, as an expensive fungus must be made available when eggs are hatching in early spring. The pesticides favored by organic gardeners -- bacillus thuringiensis (b.t.) and hot pepper in a soap or wax base -- do not claim to deter grasshoppers. Maybe some of the damage to the kale in my little vegetable garden has been caused by grasshoppers rather than the cabbage worms I've been trying to fight with alternating applications of pepper spray and b.t. We live and learn.

I also learned that the best biological control for grasshoppers and many other insects, especially in a small-scale operation, is a little flock of chickens. My friend Michelle has four or five 'rescue' hens who spend much of their time hunting down and devouring insects which are then converted into delicious eggs. I don't remember whether Michelle has any calandrinias, but if she does I'll bet they aren't as holey as mine.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

spring surprises: the wild and the tame

In long dry spell, I touted my high expectations for spring 2015's showing of California poppies: "big drifts of California poppy seedlings have appeared in our cactus and succulent bed and, for the first time, in our parking strip. I have committed myself to keeping them alive until they can bloom and set seed for 2016." To meet this commitment, I have actually started watering our front garden beds for about 10 minutes, using city water from the hose when no saved rain water or 'gray' water is available, in any week when there has been no rain. That is, most weeks, but only ONCE a week!

On April 11, I returned from Idaho to find NO poppy seedlings in the parking strip and NO buds on any of the old or new poppy plants in our cactus and succulent bed. It was obvious that Steve had kept up the new watering regimen, for volunteer sweet peas were sprawling seductively over the phased-out freesias in our bulb bed and the struggling sweet alyssums in the parking strip.

I was not alone in my disappointment over the 2015 poppy season, but I did not know it until last weekend, which is when Antelope Valley's wildflowers are supposed to be at their peak of bloom and when the annual California Poppy Festival takes place. On March 17, a local television station had reported that acres of poppy blooms had been destroyed by a "record-breaking late winter heat wave."

Fortunately, California poppies develop a strong perennial taproot which enables them to survive an annual spring trampling by tourists, followed by a long hot summer when they typically go dormant unless they happen to grow close to the coast as ours do. I hope that at least some of my 2015 seedlings have made taproots and that 2016 will be a better year for poppies.

Meanwhile, I am enjoying my best-ever showing of volunteer sweet peas. I have not planted a sweet pea seed since 2011 but they continue to come up because I pick very few of the flowers and then use the spent vines (along with their mature seeds) as mulch. One might fear that sweet peas would be trampled in the parking strip, where people walk to and from their cars every day. No doubt a few have succumbed, but when they start blooming everyone (dogs and toddlers included) gives them a wide-enough berth, even if they're hanging out over the sidewalk to bask in late afternoon sun.

If you're interested in the history of my efforts to grow sweet peas, see you, gregor mendel (2013), paltry in pink (2012),  a plethora of purple (2011), and perennial sweet pea (2010). In the oldest of these postings, I expressed the utterly misguided opinion that: "The frilly, fluttery annual sweet pea is a prima donna with a short, spectacular life. I expect her perennial cousin to be a somewhat frumpy but more dependable companion." So where have all the perennial sweet peas gone? Back to the east coast where they grow wild, I guess.

What flower seems tamer than a sweet pea? And yet it is going wild for me while the quintessential wildflower resists my attempts to tame it.
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P.S. (added April 23): I was so excited about sweet peas sprawling along the ground and encroaching on the sidewalk that I failed to notice one that had climbed up through the lower stems of a five-foot jade plant:

In the photo, the sweet pea blossom looks white against dark green leaves and crispy brown flowers (another heat-wave casualty). It's actually a very pale pink. I'll deadhead the jade plant and everything will look better.

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POSToccupations by Frances Talbott-White is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License