Monthly Archives: September 2012

An Unusual Fall Harvest

Over the past few years, I’ve regularly planted a fall vegetable garden. In August I plant things like kale, chard, lettuce, beets and carrots. All of these plants do well in the cooler fall weather and they make use of the space in the garden where the summer crops once grew.

But yesterday I brought in an unusual harvest for late September. I picked a pint of strawberries, a couple zucchini and a nice bunch of green beans – not your typical fall harvest.

The strawberries came from the day-neutral plants that I set out in April. They’ve grown well this year and the fall harvest has been good. I thought they might not have a true strawberry taste but that isn’t the case. The berries are great and the cooler weather is limiting the picnic beetle damage.

I’m harvesting zucchini because I planted some seeds in late July. This year the earlier plants had been killed by borers and not bacterial wilt. The borers aren’t a problem after early July so I thought I’d give a late planting a try. The plants grew well and started producing very early. I’ve noticed that the cooler weather has slowed the growth of the fruit but that’s actually a good thing. Instead of being inundated with squash, I’m picking a few squash each week. The plants have developed some fungus on the leaves but aside from that they look good.

During the season I sowed a few plantings of beans. They did OK but the plants were very small due to the dry summer that we had. I had read that you can plant beans in this area until the beginning of August so I tried a late planting. The seeds germinated quickly in the warm soil and plants are the best of the season. We’ve had some nice rain and the beans are producing well. The only difference from a summer crop is that I don’t have to pick them as often. In the heat of summer I’d be picking them every few days; now I’m picking them about once a week.

It seems a little strange to be harvesting these summer crops in September but I’m not complaining. It’s nice to have the taste of summer on a cool autumn day.

Sunflowers Up Close

Sunflowers make me think of the end of summer. The large blossoms and autumnal colors look so good in September. This year I planted some sunflowers in the ground that was vacant after I had pulled the pea plants. This was around mid-July and I have to say that I’ve been really pleased with the plants. Planting in the heat of summer meant that the seeds germinated quickly. Also the shorter days are forcing the plants to bloom more quickly than they would have if I had planted them in the spring. I think I’m going to start keeping a packet of sunflower seeds on hand to plant in the summer for some late summer/early autumn blooms.

Today I was taking some pictures of a sunflower and realized that this is an amazing flower. I pulled out my old botany books and brushed up on the morphology of this familiar bloom

Cross-section of Sunflower Inflorescence

Like a lot of flowers, the sunflower blossom isn’t really a blossom at all; it’s an inflorescence with hundreds of individual blossoms. The tightly packed arrangement of the individual flowers on a fleshy receptacle leads to this kind of inflorescence being called a composite inflorescence. A lot of very common garden flowers have composite inflorescences – marigold, zinnia, chrysanthemum, aster, cone flowers, daisy, etc. Because of the size of the sunflower, it’s easier to see the parts that make up the inflorescence.

In a composite, there are two kinds of flowers – ray flowers and disk flowers. The ray flowers are the ones with a “petal” attached. The yellow or orange “petals” of the sunflower aren’t petals at all but part of the individual ray flowers. These ray flowers are usually around the exterior of the inflorescence head and in sunflowers, they’re sterile.

Disk Flowers with Ray Flowers in the Background

The disk flowers are in the center of the sunflower. They begin to open from the outside and the continue to open into the center of the inflorescence. These flowers start out as black or brown buds but as they open, you can see the yellow pollen that’s being released. Later the branched, feathery stamen (the part of the flower that receives the pollen for fertilization) is visible.

Pollen Covered Bee

While the stamen and the pollen from one disk flower aren’t present at the same time, it’s not a problem. At the base of each flower is a nectary which produces nectar and nectar attracts bees. As the bees move across the head of the inflorescence, they’re moving from one disk flower to another, getting coated with pollen. The pollen rubs off on the stigmas and the individual flowers get pollinated.

Disk Flower Buds – the yellow spots are pollen from open disk flowers

From a distance you notice the ray flowers of the sunflower. But when you look closely, you can see that while the disk flowers aren’t as showy, they have a beauty all their own.

I’ve always like sunflowers. Now, having looked at them more closely, I like them even more!

Buckwheat Cover Crop

I’m trying something new this year. I’ve never grown a cover crop or “green manure.” A cover crop is a plant that you grow that will be tilled into the ground before it sets seed. The benefit of cover crops is that they can choke out weeds, prevent erosion, trap nutrients and prevent leaching and, when tilled into the soil, increase the amount of humus in the ground.

I’m growing a cover crop to add more organic matter to the soil. I already add a good amount of organic matter to the garden in the form of straw mulch and chopped leaves in the winter. But when it comes to organic matter in the ground, more is better. I’ve often read about cover crops and this seemed like a good time to give them a try.

Buckwheat Seeds

I decided to grow buckwheat. I wanted a plant that was easy to till into the ground and also one that grew quickly. Buckwheat is usually grown as a summer cover crop that planted in the spring but I figured that planting it in August would give it enough time to grow before I tilled the garden in late fall.

After the determinate tomatoes had stopped producing fruit, I tilled the ground where they had been growing and then scattered the buckwheat seed on the soil. I used a rake to mix the seeds into the ground.

We had a rainy week after the buckwheat was sown and it germinated quickly. Right now the plants are growing well. I’m waiting to see if rabbits like buckwheat – if they do I might not have a very good cover crop!

Buckwheat Seedlings

Also, it’ll be fun to see how this plant grows.  Buckwheat is grown as a crop by some farmers – that’s how we get buckwheat pancakes. While it’s harvested for its seeds which are used to make flour, buckwheat is called a pseudocereal because true cereal crops, like wheat, are grasses. Buckwheat isn’t a grass but is instead related to rhubarb. I was surprised to learn this but it makes sense because the buckwheat seeds look like large rhubarb seeds.

Cereal or pseudocereal, I won’t be letting the buckwheat set seeds. Instead, when it starts to blossom, that’s when I’ll till it into the soil in order to add more humus to the ground. It’ll be interesting to see how this works!

Making a Case for Gladioli

If there’s one flower that often is put down and denigrated, it would be the gladiolus. I’ll be the first to admit that this tall flower that grows from a corm can be a little messy in the garden, especially if it isn’t staked or supported. The flowers don’t last very long and if you want glads throughout the summer, you have to plant a succession of corms. Also, to a lot of people, glads are funeral flowers. Glads have gotten this description because florists have overused the glad as a line flower in funeral mache arrangements.

I understand the negative image that the glad has gotten but I think the following pictures make the case that glads have a beauty all their own. When you look closely at the individual flowers, the sensual nature of the humble gladiolus is revealed. Up close, this is no funeral flower!