You Can’t Always Get What You Want

Seed growers generally do a good job of providing accurate information about what kind of plant will grow from the seeds that you purchase from them. Yes, the descriptions are sometimes a little exaggerated and written in “flowery” prose that push the edge of credulity. However, when describing the growth habit of the plant and the kind of fruit or flower that the plant will produce, they’re usually spot on.

But this year I grew one plant that wasn’t even close to what it was supposed to be.

IMG_2299I picked up a packet of Burpee’s Candy Cane zinnias at Lowes. The packet was beautiful – even the cashier remarked about what a pretty flower this was – so I decided to give it a try. I planted them in the front of the house and couldn’t wait to see the plants in bloom. I knew they might not be exactly like the picture on the packet but I expected them to at least be close


Candy Cane Zinnias????

The reality was of this zinnia was something else entirely! Instead of large red double flowers with white markings on fairly short plants, I got a hodgepodge of single and semi-double zinnias in white, pink, orange and red on gangly, sparse plants One plant had small fully double flowers that were white with a few red markings but nothing like the seed packet. The butterflies were attracted to them so I let them grow for a time. However the ugliness of them eventually caused me to pull them up and plant something else in their place!

When it comes to short zinnias with double flowers, I think I’ll stick with the Magellan series. They might not have striped blossoms but they grow well and are always filled with blooms. These plants actually look like the picture in the seed catalog!

Magellan Zinnias

Magellan Zinnias

The Candy Cane zinnia seeds were cheap so I’m not upset about their terrible performance. This just goes to show that occasionally what you plant isn’t always what you get!


Parsley Caterpillar to Chrysalis

Black Swallowtail Butterfly

Black Swallowtail Butterfly

I’ve been noticing a lot of parsley caterpillars on my young carrot plants. As these are the larval stage of the black swallowtail butterfly and there are lots of these butterflies in the garden, I wasn’t surprised to see them.  I decided to take one and experiment to see if I could watch the process of metamorphosis.

In looking online I’d found that the 2″ green and black caterpillars were the final instar of the caterpillar’s growth. Earlier instars are small and often look like bird dropping – a great method of camouflage!

Parsley Caterpillar

Parsley Caterpillar

This final stage before metamorphosis has a little trick up its sleeve to protect it if it comes under attack. If the caterpillar is disturbed or threatened, a little yellow “forked tongue” called an osmeterium shoots out of the caterpillar’s head and can startle a bird or other threatening animal. In addition, it’s said to release a scent that can deter predators. It only took a couple touches to the caterpillar to cause it to use its osmeterium against me!




But back to my experiment…

I put the parsley caterpillar in a large jar with a number of parsley and carrot leaves. It spent the first day eating but the next day was very different. The caterpillar stayed on a branch of the parsley and didn’t move. It was bowed out slightly from the branch, attached by the two ends of the caterpillar. I wasn’t sure if it had died or if it was getting ready to form a chrysalis (cocoon).



The very next morning my question was answered. The bright green caterpillar was gone and in its place was a brown chrysalis. I’m amazed how quickly this all happened. Overnight the transformation occured.


Chrysalis in a Jar

Chrysalis in a Jar

I’ve trimmed off the leaves of the parsley stem that the chrysalis is on and placed it back in the jar. I’ll be looking for any changes along the way and hoping to see the emergence of a black swallowtail butterfly.

Passion Flower and the Bees

I’ve never grown a passion flower plant before but at the end of the season, a local gardening center had the passion flower “Incense” at a great price so I decided to give it a try.

Passion Flower Incense

Passion Flower Incense

The plant didn’t do much for the first month; it just sat there in the garden, working to get established.

But now it’s starting to grow and is becoming filled with flowers.

Yesterday I noticed something about the way a bee interacts with a passion flower. It’s clear that the bee wants to get to the nectar and the nectar appears to be found in the center of the flower. But in making its way to the center, something interesting happens.

The male reproductive organ of the flower – the stamen – has two parts: the filament and the anther. The filament is simply the stalk that supports the anther. The anther is what produces pollen.

Passion flowers have five anthers and each of them open facing down. That means that when the bee crawls into the center of the flower, its back gets coated with pollen from the anthers.


The female part of the flower is the pistil and the end of the pistil, the stigma, is where the pollen needs to land in order for the flower to be fertilized. The way the passion flower is set up makes it hard for the pollen to get to the stigma; that is, unless a bee is present.

After digging around in the center of the flower, the bee is coated in pollen. When the bee takes flight or lands on another passion flower, there’s a good chance that it might bump into one of the three stigmas of the flower with its pollen covered body. And when it does, fertilization takes place.


I’m liking the passion flower plant. The flowers are interesting and seeing the bees pollination them is even more interesting!




Flowers for the 4th

The garden is starting to really bloom and here are some of my favorites.


Magellan Zinnia

Cheyanne Sunset Echinacea

Cheyanne Sunset Echinacea







Flowering Thyme

Flowering Thyme

Trumpet Lily

Trumpet Lily

Trumpet Lily

Trumpet Lily

Passion Flower

Passion Flower



Some Blooms for the Start of June

The cool, wet weather of April and early May has finally come to an end. It’s June 1st and the flower garden is starting to come to life. Here’s a sampling of what’s in bloom!


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Salvia Close Up

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Red Knock Out Rose

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Pink Knock Out Rose

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San Francisco Begonia


Night Sky – Not Your Grandmother’s Petunia

I haven’t grown petunias for years.

Back in the 60’s and 70’s,  I grew a lot of them, usually starting from seeds. I grew multiflora and grandiflora varieties, singles and doubles. They were such an easy plant to grow.

Then in 1989 the Wave petunias were introduced. These plants are short (6″) but they spread into huge sheets of color, sometimes reaching up to five feet across. They were, and still are, a great plant to grow.

But in time I lost my love of petunias.

One reason is that rabbits really love petunias. As the rabbit population increased, growing petunias got harder and harder.

The other reason is that garden centers and seed catalogs started to offer so many new and interesting flowers to grow that were never available decades ago. I found myself getting tired of petunias in the same way that I’ve gotten tired of geraniums. They’re so 20th century – flowers that your grandmother grew!

Night Sky Petunia

Night Sky Petunia

That is until this year.

I found a new variety of petunia that caught my eye. It’s called “Night Sky” and it’s something I’ve never seen before. The purple blooms are spotted with white and each one is different with a unique pattern.

night sky 2I’m growing it in a tall container so that the rabbits can’t reach it. It’s tucked in with calibrachoa, lemon grass and a marigold. I’ll be watching to see how it grows and holds up during the summer.

But for now, I like it. It’s a petunia, but it’s certainly not your grandmother’s petunia.

UPDATE 7/5/2016

I’ve heard from one reader who found that their Night Sky petunia was getting more white with time. I’ve noticed that the one I have is getting more purple. So what’s up with that?!

I found a video from the company that developed this petunia and it appears that temperature affects the flowers. Warm days and cool nights will bring about more white in the flowers while warm days and warm night will make the flowers more purple. Also there are some growth regulators that grower use to being about the “perfect” mix of white and purple. That’s why the plants have a great mixture of white and purple for a time. Once the growth regulators wear off, then the temperature will determine the combination of colors.

I’ll keep watching this plant to see what it does during the growing season. Even with the changes in color, it still seems to be a good petunia.

Social Media, the Allium Leaf Miner, the PA Department of Agriculture and Me

Last week I was scrolling through Facebook and noticed a post by Northeastern IPM (Integrative Pest Management) Center. In it, they described a new invasive insect named the allium leaf miner (Phytomyza gymnostoma). While this insect is common in Europe, it has now been detected for the first time in the Western hemisphere, with Lancaster county PA being the first reported case. Since this initial identification, the allium leaf miner has also been discovered in Lehigh, Chester, Dauphin and Delaware counties.

I though that this was interesting but I didn’t give it too much thought.

Three days later I was working in the garden and noticed that the onion plants looked strange. The leaves were wavy and they felt like they were wilted. Since we’ve been having so much rain I knew that they weren’t dry but I pulled one up to see if there was a problem with the roots. Maybe all of this rain had caused some kind of root rot.

Onions with Allium Leaf Miner Damage

Onions with Allium Leaf Miner Damage

When I pulled up an onion, it was clear that it had a healthy set of roots and there was no evident of root maggots. But I noticed that there were marks on the leaves and when I pulled the leaves apart and looked into the stem, there were a number of small maggots tunneling through it. Then I remembered the Facebook post and realized that this looked like the allium leaf miner and it was now in Lebanon county.

I pulled up all of the onions and used a few to take pictures. I didn’t want this pest to spread so I put the onions into the garbage instead of the compost bin.

Later, as I thought about it, I realized that I should let someone know about my discovery. If this new invasive insect was in another county, the authorities needed to know this. So I sent an email with pictures attached to the entomologist at Cooperative Extension and he instantly forwarded my email to the PA Department of Agriculture. I heard back from the gentleman there quickly; he thanked me for the pictures and asked some additional questions.

When you’re a gardener and an amateur entomologist, it’s exciting to be a part of the early stages of discovery of a new invasive insect. But there was one thing that I should have done that I didn’t think of at the time. Pictures are nice but for a confirmed identification, the Department of Agriculture needs a sample of the insect. I should have saved a few of the plants and delivered them to the local extension office for testing. Oops!

When I go out to the garden again, I’m going to see if the chives or garlic are showing signs of this insect. If they are, I’ll certainly be collecting samples. Also, in my next post, I’ll be describing this new (to the Western hemisphere) insect.

But for now, I’m just grateful for social media and the information it provided me about the allium leaf miner. I’m also happy to help provide information to those tracking this new insect pest.


A Lackluster Spring

(To those who follow my blog,  I apologize for being away for so long. Late summer, fall and winter was a time of some health issues that took my focus from writing. But I’m thankful for those who still view the site (100 or more views a day) and I’m back!)

This has been a terrible year for spring flowers.

In December we had temperatures in the 70’s and this caused the lilacs to start to bud. But the cold of January brought an end to the budding and the lilacs this year are a bust.

March was a warm month and all of the shrubs and bulbs started to grow. It looked like it was going to be a great season of early blooms but then came April with nighttime temperatures in the lower 20’s. Anything that had started to blossom was damaged and only the toughest of the daffodils survived the cold. The magnolia bush had started to bloom but the cold destroyed them.

peonyThe plant that I find the most interesting throughout this weird weather is the tree peony. By late March the plant was filled with leaves and buds. When the freezing nights of April came, I thought the plant would never recover but it did. A few of the buds opened but all of the rest of them just stayed there in a state of suspended animation.

It’s now the middle of May and the peony is green, bushy and heathy and still covered with buds that have yet to open. Recently I pulled a few of the buds off and cut them in half to see what was going on.

IMG_2222When cut open, I could see the stamens (male reproductive organs) and the pistil (female reproductive organ) of the peony but instead of being firm and health, they were soft and damaged. It’s clear that the cold weather injured these parts of the flower. Since the development of the flower depends on plant growth regulators that are produced by these organs, their impairment meant that flowering wasn’t going to happen. A few buds escaped the damage but most weren’t so lucky.

Yes, this spring was a bust. The weird weather caused all sorts of chaos for the flowering shrubs and bulbs. Flowers are one of the most fragile parts of a plant and this year was too much for them. The good news is that the plants are all fine and will live on to reproduce again another year. I have hope of seeing lilacs, magnolia, tree peonies and spring bulbs all flowering again – next year.

My Little Lettuce Chuppah

I’ve always grown lettuce but for me, it’s been a spring crop. I never tried growing it in the summer or attempted to keep a constant supply of lettuce coming from the garden.

But this year, I decided to try a serious lettuce growing program.

To start, I knew that I needed a mixture of seeds, some that are better in the spring, others for the summer and still others for the fall. On my own, it would have taken a lot of time and effort to search through all of the lettuce varieties and determine which ones to grow. Fortunately, Johnny’s Seeds has developed a head lettuce planting program that lists the best varieties for each season.

I also knew that I needed a location to grow the lettuce that would be easy to control, water and monitor. So I made a 4’x4′ raised bed and divided it into 9 squares. That’s a little larger than the square foot gardening technique, but I liked that it would give the plants a little more room to grow.

IMG_9811I also wanted to provide some shade to the plants. Since I had already put stakes at each corner and wrapped the bed with chicken wire, I had the framework to attach some cloth to the top of the bed. I stretched wire to each diagonal post to make an “X” across the top of the bed. Then I put a piece of floating row cover over the top and attached it to the posts. The end result looked like a little chuppah (!), but it would give the plants some shade while still allowing me to access the bed for watering, weeding and harvesting.

I chose four different kinds of lettuce from Johnny’s program for the summer growing season. I figured that two summer crisps (Muir and Cherokee), a butterhead (Adriana) and a romaine (Costal Star) would give me a good mixture of plants to see which grew the best in the lettuce chuppah. Since lettuce can have thermal dormancy (seeds don’t germinate at high temperatures), I didn’t direct seed the lettuce; instead, I started seeds inside in Jiffy-7s.

Lettuce Bed with Knife Ready for Harvesting!

Lettuce Bed with Knife Ready for Harvesting!

I’ve been starting seeds every 2 weeks and planting four plants to a square in the raised bed. So far, it’s working well. This has been a wet and somewhat cool summer so the plants haven’t been stressed by heat or drought. I’ve started to harvest some of the first plantings and the lettuce is good.

Will this success continue? Time will tell. Warmer days are ahead and we’ll see if the plants bolt or turning bitter. Also, in August I’ll stop starting seeds of the summer varieties and switch to a couple fall varieties of lettuce.

If this experiment continues to work, that little 4’x4′ bed with its chuppah covering might just be the way to keep a steady supply of lettuce coming in from the garden. I could start in the spring and keep planting through early fall using the nine squares to grow lettuce all season long.

Flowers from the Mid-July Garden

‘Tis the season for a lot of the flower garden to be in full bloom.

Some of the best blooms are on the daylilies. This year, with lots of moisture and not too hot temperatures, has led to one of the best daylily displays in a long time.

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Another plant that’s looking especially good this year is the rudbeckia or black eyed susan. This little patch of flowers has been self-seeding for over a decade and they’re back again this year.

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And here are some of the other flowers that caught my eye:



Hibiscus (Rose of Sharon)

Hibiscus (Rose of Sharon)

Dahlia (Grown from Seed)

Dahlia (Grown from Seed)