Monthly Archives: March 2012

Angiosperms Gone Wild!

Asian Pear Blossom

As I drive around the area, I’m amazed at all of the color and beauty that’s on display. Rodgers and Hammerstein might have written that June is bustin’ out all over, but here in PA, March is doing a pretty good job as well.

The variety is amazing. I’m seeing all kinds of flowering trees: magnolia, cherry, Bradford pear, quince, and most recently, eastern redbud and dogwood. The spring bulbs are up and blooming. Yesterday I even saw a bearded iris in a sunny, protected spot. The spring weeds are putting on quite a show. Even the less obvious blossoms of the oak are doing a good job of coating my car with pollen. It’s amazing how many plants are blossoming.

Eastern Redbud

All of these blooming plants are of the class angiosperm. Angiosperm means “covered seed” and these vascular plants produce seeds in a closed ovary or fruit. The other major class of seed producing plants is the gymnosperm (“naked seeds”). These plants produce seeds that aren’t protected by an ovary but are usually encased in a woody cone. Gymnosperms include pine and fir trees.

While gymnosperms are nice additions to the garden, angiosperms are the real show-offs. Their blooms set them apart from other plants. Angiosperms make up more than 80% of all plant species; within many gardens, they make up close to 100% of the plants.


Angiosperms’ one mission in life is to reproduce and that means flowers. I never cease to be amazed by these plants. In the springtime, the wild, radical, no-holds-barred abundance of nature is on full display. Think of the thousand or more blossoms on a single flowering tree – it’s overwhelming! No wonder angiosperms fill most gardens. When the time and conditions are right, angiosperms do their thing: they begin the process of producing seeds in a closed ovary. And the first step in that process is a flower.


Easter Lilies – With or Without Anthers

It’s the time of the year for the best smelling flower (in my opinion)  – the Easter lily.

Easter Lily without Anthers

Easter lilies are very easy to keep inside of the home. They need a spot with bright light and the soil should be kept moderately moist. When the flowers have died, the plant can be put into the garden in a sunny spot and it will blossom in the summer for a number of years.

When you look inside the blossom of a lily you get a quick lesson in the structure of a flower. An easter lily has 6 stamens, the male parts of a flower, which are made up of a filament and anther.  The filament is a  slender stalk that supports the anther, the pollen producing part of a flower. The female part of the blossom is the pistil which has three parts: stigma, style and ovary. The stigma of a lily is triangular, sticks out of the flower a little and is often covered with a sticky liquid. The stigma receives the pollen during pollination and the sticky coating helps the pollen to adhere. The ovary is deep inside the blossom and has the embryonic seeds inside of it. The style simply connects the stigma and ovary.

Easter Lily Beginning to Open

There is one little bit of grooming that I perform on my Easter lily flowers. When the blossoms begin to open I carefully pull off the 6 yellow anthers before they release their pollen. I added the word carefully because lily blossoms are easily bruised and rough handling can leave dark marks on the petals. You don’t have to remove the anthers but if you leave them and allow the pollen to be released, the inside of the lily can get coated with a layer of yellow pollen. I like my lilies to stay white so I always pick the anthers.

Removing the anthers can also prevent some cleaning problems. If an open anthers falls on a tablecloth, the pollen will cause a bright yellow stain that’s very hard to remove. When I was working in a flower shop we would always pick the anthers of lilies to prevent this possibility. Our fingers were always stained with lily pollen but at least the customer’s tablecloth wasn’t!

So this spring, enjoy the flower of the season. Pick those lily anthers if you want clean, white Easter lilies and enjoy the smell of these beauties.

Weed(s) Du Jour – Henbit and Purple Deadnettle

When I made the decision to “learn my weeds,” I was sure it would be pretty easy. I thought I could identify a weed by just flipping though the pages of my copy of Weeds of the Northeast and finding a picture that matched. I’ve since learned that it’s not always that easy!


I wanted to identify a weed that I’ve been seeing everywhere. You only notice this weed in the spring and fall. The leaves often have a purple tint and the flowers are a bright pink/purple. It grows in clumps that are about 6-12″ high. Weeds of the Northeast had a picture of henbit (Lamium amplexicaule) and I thought I’d found my answer. But the book also had a picture of purple deadnettle (Lamium purpureum) and it too looked like the weed I’ve been noticing. So which one was it – henbit or purple deadnettle?

Purple Deadnettle Close-Up - Note the Petioles

Both of these weeds are similar species. While the pictures I’ve posted seem to show two very different plants, sometimes these weeds can look almost the same. The one sure way to differentiate them is by identifying how the upper leaves are attached to the stem. In purple deadnettle the leaves are petiolate – this means that there is a small stalk (petiole) that attaches the leaf to the stem. With henbit, the upper leaves are sessile – attached directly to the stem without a petiole. By looking  for the absence/presence of a petiole you can tell the two apart. Since learning this, I’ve realized that the purple flowering weeds I wanted to ID are most often purple deadnettle but sometimes they’re henbit!

The good news is that the basic information about both weeds is the same. They’re winter annuals that germinate when the soil is cool and moist and they thrive in the spring and fall – that’s why I’m seeing so many of them right now. If you pick a stem of either of these weeds you’ll notice that it’s square rather than round. This identifies henbit and purple deadnettle as members of the mint family (all mint relatives have square stems). If you want to forage for your meals, I’ve read that you can eat henbit and purple deadnettle. Personally, I’m not ready for a henbit salad! And while both are common weeds, they can be easily controlled with cultivation or the use of any broadleaf herbicide.

It took me some time but now I finally know what those purple weeds are – henbit or purple deadnettle. To get more specific, I’ll need to look at the leaves.

Easter Amaryllis

Most people think of amaryllis as a Christmas flower. They buy an amaryllis in the fall, pot it up, enjoy the blossoms during the holidays and then toss it out. I did that for years, thinking that getting the bulb to bloom again was difficult.

Reblooming Easter Amaryllis - notice the green lawn and cineraria?

How wrong I was! I’ve since learned that getting an amaryllis to rebloom is pretty easy.

Once an amaryllis has blossomed, I cut off the flower stalk(s) and let the plant grow. I make sure that it gets as much sun as possible and keep the soil moist . When the weather has warmed, the plant is repotted into a larger pot (at least 12″) and moved outside to a spot where it gets some sun and some shade. I’ve found that putting the pot near a tree where it gets dappled sunlight works great.

While growing outside, the amaryllis needs constant moisture and regular fertilizing. During this growing period the bulb is storing energy and the blossoms for the next season are forming inside the bulb. The longer the plant can continue growing and photosynthesising, the better the chances of it reblooming.

When the cooler weather coming in late September or October, I put the pot into the garage or basement and stop watering it. At this point the bulb needs to “rest” for a few months. I leave the bulb in the pot of dry soil and keep it in a cool, dry place where it won’t freeze.

Repotted Amaryllis Bulbs

After about 4 months, it’s time to get the amaryllis growing again. I take the bulb out of its pot, remove all of the old soil and trim the roots a little bit. I then repot the bulb, making sure that the top half is exposed. After watering it and moving the pot to a warm location, it’s then time to wait for the amaryllis to start growing. This usually happens in 2-4 weeks.

Because it needs to grow as long as possible and also requires a resting period, it’s difficult to have an amaryllis rebloom at Christmas. The bulbs you find in garden centers for Christmas bloom are produced by growers who use a variety of techniques to “trick” the bulb into starting to grow earlier than it normally would. With bulbs that I’ve grown, early spring seem to be the time when my amaryllis blooms. So I’ve just changed my thinking a little. Amaryllis are still holiday flowers – it’s just that the holiday when they bloom for me is Easter!

Controlling Crabgrass

Early spring is the time of year to prevent crabgrass in your lawn. I just spread Scotts Turf Builder with Halts crabgrass preventer on the lawn. A few years ago I tried going the organic route and used a corn gluten product that was supposed to stop crabgrass. It smelled nice, like masa harina, the corn flour used in making corn tortillas! The problem was it didn’t work very well for me.


So I’m back to Scotts. The product that I put on the lawn has a high nitrogen fertilizer in it that will help the grass green up quickly. It also has a crabgrass preventer that Scotts calls Halts. I did some checking to find out what  Halts is – it’s the chemical dithiopyr.

In the world of herbicides, there are preemergent and postemergent herbicides. Preemergent  herbicides prevent weed seeds from germinating and/or developing normally. Postemergent  herbicides affect weeds that are already growing.

Dithiopyr is a preemergent herbicide – it doesn’t kill crabgrass that is already growing. Instead it prevents the crabgrass seeds from growing into crabgrass plants. It’s put on the lawn in early spring when the forsythia bushes are blossoming. This is the time to apply dithiopyr because crabgrass seeds haven’t started to germinate but they will begin to grow within the next 2-3 weeks as the soil warms.

I’m fascinated by the way this chemical works. Dithiopyr is a mitotic inhibitor of normal cell division in the germinating crabgrass seed. If you remember back to biology class, mitosis is the process by which cells multiply. During seed germination, mitosis is happening at a rapid rate.  Dithiopyr affects mitosis in germinating crabgrass seeds by inhibiting the formation of the microtubules which are necessary for the chromosomes to separate correctly during cell division.  When dithiopyr is present, the germinating crabgrass seeds are unable to grow into healthy plants because its cells can’t divide normally. And that means no crabgrass!

But whether you care about how this herbicide works or not, the important thing is that it works. If you want to have a crabgrass-free lawn, a preemergent herbicide is the way to go.

No Coir for Me

For the past few years, more and more companies are offering coir and coir-based products for seed starting. Coir is a natural fiber that comes from the husk of a coconut.

Coir Seed Starting Mix for Gardener’s Supply


I understand coir’s appeal. It’s natural, long-lasting and very sustainable. It can be compressed into blocks that ship easily. The pH of coir is neutral so when you add it to soil, it doesn’t affect the pH like peat moss, which is very acidic. The other selling point for coir is that it holds water very well.

This last point is why I don’t use coir-based mediums for growing seedlings. A few years ago I tried it as the soilless mix for growing tomatoes, peppers and eggplants. After a few weeks I noticed something.  The tomatoes were fine. The eggplants were growing slowly but they seemed OK.  The problem was the peppers. The small plants started to lose their lower leaves and the leaves that remained were clorotic (yellow). Like many gardeners, I tried fertilizer as the solution (doesn’t fertilizer fix everything?) but it didn’t help. The peppers were alive but they were sad little plants.

I did some checking online and found the problem. If peppers are kept too wet, they’ll drop their lower leaves and the remaining leaves will become clorotic. I’d never had this problem before so what was different?


Coir holds much more water that peat moss and I’d been watering the plants as if they were growing in peat. The tomatoes were fine because they’re not as sensitive to overwatering. The eggplants were a little stunted but the peppers were down-right pitiful because there was too much moisture around their roots. I cut back a lot on watering and everything improved.

I’ve been growing seedlings since I was in grade school. With a peat-based product, I know when the plants need water just by looking at the surface of the mix. When you use coir, you have to water far less and even when the surface looks dry, it often isn’t. For people who sometimes forget to water their plants, this would be the reason to use a seed starting mix with coir. For me, it just led to overwatering and defoliated, clorotic peppers.

I’m not saying coir is bad. It’s a good soil amendment for outdoor beds. It’s great for outdoor pots which can dry out quickly. But for inside seed starting, it holds too much water for me. This old dog isn’t ready to learn the new trick of growing seedlings in coir! I’ll stick with peat moss.

Day- Neutral Strawberries

Tribute Day-Neutral Strawberry

I recently saw something new in the Miller Nursery catalogue, a company in Canandaigua NY that specializes in fruit. In the strawberry section, they had a class of strawberries I hadn’t heard of – day-neutral.

In doing some research I learned that day-neutral strawberries produce three harvests throughout the year: spring, mid-summer and fall. The day-neutral varieties Tristar and Tribute are said to have a high quality berry that maintains its size throughout the season. The thought of picking fresh strawberries in September was something I couldn’t resist so I placed my order for 25 day-neutral strawberry plants.

The term “day-neutral” has to do with a phenomenon called photoperiodism. Photoperiodism is simply a response of a plant to day-length. Actually it’s the number of hours of darkness that really matter but scientists didn’t know this when photoperiodism was discovered. As a result, we have short or long-day plants even though they’re really long and short-night plants!

Long-day plants like black eyed susans (Rudbeckia) only blossom in the summer when the days are long. Chrysanthemums are short-day plants that blossom in the fall when the days are shorter. A day-neutral plant such as the petunia is unaffected by day-length – it blossoms in spring, summer and fall. And sometimes different varieties of the same plant have different photoperiodism reactions. There are long-day, short-day and day-neutral onions and the where you live determines the varieties that you can grow.

Standard June bearing strawberries are short-day plants. While the blossoms appear in the spring, they form within the plant in the fall when the days are short. The blossoming of day-neutral strawberries is not dependent on the length of the day. Because of this, they can produce blossoms anytime during the year which makes three harvests possible.

The day-neutral plants just arrived today. I’m looking forward to planting them this week. While any early blossoms will have to be removed to allow the plants to establish themselves, there should be a summer and fall harvest this year. Here’s to fresh strawberries in September!