Monthly Archives: August 2013

Container Garden Winners 2013 – Miscellaneous Begonias

I do a lot of container garden, almost all of it flowers. This is the time of the year when I look around at the various containers and decide what’s grown well and what hasn’t been so good.

This year the clear winner in the container gardening category is a variety of begonias.

Big™ Begonia

Big™ Begonia

A large pot in a location that gets afternoon shade from a tree is home to three Big™ begonias that I started from seed in February. The variety I’m growing is rose with bronze leaves. This plant is just amazing. It’s a hybrid that’s part angel wing begonia and part fibrous rooted begonia. Unlike fibrous rooted begonias of the past, it can take full sun or partial shade. Like it’s angel wing parentage, the plants are huge, growing up to 2′ tall and wide. This begonia has been blossoming since late spring and it’s shown no sign of slowing down. The only thing I would do differently next year is that I’d just one plant in the pot – three is a overkill!

Angel Wing Begonia

Angel Wing Begonia

In addition to the Big™ variety, I also have a pot with a tradition angel wing begonia. This begonia gets its name from the shape of the leaves – they look like angel wings. While Big™ is an upright grower, angel wing begonias drape over the side of the pot. In full sun, one plant in a large pot blossoms from spring until fall.

Santa Cruz™ Sunset Begonia

Santa Cruz™ Sunset Begonia

The other begonia is  Santa Cruz™ Sunset. This plant with a mounding/trailing growth habit is amazing. It’s filled a pot and has been putting out an endless flow of orange/red flowers on plants that remain neat and clean – no need for trimming or dead-heading. Here in PA it does well in full sun though hotter parts of the country might need to give it a little shade. The leaves have a little texture to them unlike the glossy leaves of Big™ and angel wings, adding an interesting contrast.

All of these begonias have been blossoming non-stop since spring. I’ve had no problems with insects or disease. I’m planning on growing more of the Big™ variety from seed next year. While these are catching on around the country, they’re still a little hard to find in garden centers. I’m thinking of taking a cutting of the Santa Cruz™ Sunset begonia to see if I can keep alive over the winter. If not, I know I can find it to plant again next year.

Begonias for the garden used to be limited to small fibrous begonias and tuberous begonias. Both of these grew in the shade and were prone to various diseases. Begonias have come a long way since the 60s and 70s.  Now they’re strong plants that resist disease and grow in sun and shade. And for me, they’re the winners of this year’s container gardens.

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Mighty Sweet Tomato – Close but No Cigar!

I was so excited this year when I saw that Burpee was finally offering a determinate grape tomato – Mighty Sweet Hybrid. I love grape tomatoes. Their size is great for salads and snacking and the tomatoes last a long time. The only downside is that up until this point, all of the grape tomato varieties were indeterminate.

In tomatoes, determinate varieties have much smaller vines because after a certain point in time, the growing tips of the vine “terminate” growth and produce an inflorescence. The vines usually stop growing at about 3-4′. Once the plants stop growing, they put all of their energy into ripening the fruit that has set.

The growing tips of indeterminate tomatoes never transform into an inflorescence; the vines just keep growing and growing and growing! For year’s I’ve been growing the grape tomato variety Juliet and by the time the late blight and other diseases have decimated the plants, they’re well over 10′ tall. To keep them under control you have to do a lot of pruning, staking and tying – it’s a lot of work.

I gave up growing standard tomatoes that were indeterminate years ago; it wasn’t worth the time and effort. I only grew the indeterminate grape tomatoes because I liked the fruit. When I saw that Burpee now offered a determinate grape tomato, I thought I could finally stop the hassle of caring for 10′ tomato vines.

Mighty Sweet Hybrid Inflorescence

Mighty Sweet Hybrid Inflorescence

Mighty Sweet Hybrid grew well during the season and the inflorescences were made up of 15 or more flowers. I was impressed with how well the plants grew. When I started to harvest ripe fruit I noticed that the tomatoes weren’t as meaty as the Juliet variety and the flavor wasn’t anything special. But if that was the trade-off for having determinate grape tomatoes, I could live with that.

As as the season has gone on, I’ve experienced two problems with Mighty Sweet that are deal breakers for me.

The first is that once the fruit is ripe, the tomatoes separate from the pedicle (the small branch that attaches the fruit to the plant) with barely a touch. When you reach into the vines to harvest the tomatoes of Mighty Sweet, any ripe fruit that are shaken at all will separate and fall to the ground. While we haven’t had one, I imagine that a wind or rain storm would send a shower of tomatoes onto the ground.

Cracked Might Sweet Hybrid Tomato

Cracked Might Sweet Hybrid Tomato

But the biggest problem for me is that Mighty Sweet cracks like crazy – and not small cracks but wide open crevasses in the fruit. If a tomato isn’t crack-resistant, fluctuations in the amount of water in the soil can cause the skin of the tomato to crack which opens the tomato to fungus and insects. This is especially a problem after a heavy rain. We haven’t had a heavy rain but the Mighty Sweets are cracking – I’m throwing out about 1/2 of what I’m picking because of the cracks.

The breeders got it right in developing a determinate grape tomato. But what can I say? I want more! I want fruit that stays attached to the plant and I want crack-resistance. While I loved the determinate vines of Mighty Sweet, I won’t be growing it again. I’m going back to Juliet. The vines might be 10′ in length but at least the fruit stays attached to the plant and the tomatoes don’t crack. Plus, they taste better.

I guess I’m still going to be staking tomatoes for a while longer.

My Bodacious Experiment

A couple of months ago I wrote about all the different varieties of corn that are now available for the home gardener – standard, sugarenhanced, supersweet and others. After writing the article I decided I had to try growing some sugar-enhanced corn.

Bodacious Sugar-Enhanced Corn

Bodacious Sugar-Enhanced Corn

I planted the corn variety Bodacious in late June, some in a bed that had first been filled with peas and beets and more in a raised bed that had been the home to day-neutral strawberries that weren’t producing any longer. This is about a month later than I would have usually planted corn but I knew there was still time for it to mature.

I have to admit that I didn’t do a very good job of preparing the soil in the bed that had the peas and beets. I basically dug some shallow trenches and planted the seeds. They germinated fine but the growth wasn’t very uniform. One row was a lot larger and healthier while another row lagged behind. This wouldn’t be a problem for most vegetables but because corn is wind-pollinated, you want the plants to grow uniformly so that when the silks appear, the tassels will be shedding pollen.

That happened in the corn that I planted where the strawberries had been but not in the other plot. Instead, plants were tasseling and silking randomly. I doubted that I’d get any corn from these plants.

Ears with Spotty Pollination/Fertilization

Ears with Spotty Pollination/Fertilization

The surprising thing is that both locations produced corn. The ears from plants in the old strawberry bed were fuller and more evenly pollinated. But I was still able to get ears from the other location; the pollination was a little more hit and miss and the ears certainly wouldn’t make the cover of a seed catalog but they were usable.

The one thing I have to say is that the taste of Bodacious wasn’t very bodacious. I was expecting to be shocked by how much better it tasted than corn from the local farmers’ market. I was underwhelmed! The corn was good but it didn’t taste that much different from the traditional corn varieties.

I’ve been thinking about it and I have a few guesses why this Bodacious corn was just OK. I planted it after the longest day of the year and the plants didn’t get very big. I’m thinking there might be some effect of photoperiodism going on here. Because of the days getting shorter, the corn plants might have pushed to produce ears before they were full-grown and established. Also we’ve had a cool August. Corn does its best in the heat of summer and these corn plants developed ears during a time when it felt more like autumn. Also there’s always the possibility that I, as the under-fertilizer that I am (!), just didn’t fertilize the plants enough. Corn needs a lot of fertility to grow its best.

These things might have had an effect on the taste of the corn. But then again, maybe sugar enhanced corn is just a lot of hype! I don’t know at this point in time.

What I do know is that I want to try growing sugar enhanced corn again. While I can’t control the weather, next time I’ll plant the seeds in May once the soil has warmed. I’ll make sure to do a good job of preparing the soil and I’ll follow the fertilizer recommendations for corn. This should give it the best chance to be as good as it can be.

In other words, next year I’ll give Bodacious one more chance to prove that its name isn’t hyperbole!

Dear Garden Guy… What??? (Part Two)

As I wrote in the last post, the Facebook listing from a local garden center has really gotten me thinking. Here’s the post once again: If your veggie plants are flowering but not producing, Garden Guy suggests squeezing each blossom gently to knock some pollen onto the stamen of the flower to pollinate it. Below this post was a picture of a summer squash plant.

While the misuse of the word stamen was easy to understand, the central message of this post has me confused. Squeezing flowers to pollinate them might work with some plants but it’ll never work on a squash plant because of the kind of flowers that it bears.

The vast majority of plants bear flowers that are perfect. This term has nothing to do with aesthetics; perfect in this case is all about functionality. A perfect flower is one that has a functional stamen and a functional pistil. In other words, it has both the male and female organs. Some perfect flowers are morning glories, roses, peas, beans and tomatoes. However, not all plants have perfect flowers; some have separate female (pistil only) and male (stamen only) flowers.

In some plants these male and female flowers are on separate plants. One plant will produce only female flowers while another plant will produce only male flowers. These plants are called dioecious. An example of this is the holly plant. Only a female holly plant will produce red berries; the male plant only produces pollen.

Zucchini Flowers -  Male on Left Female on Right

Zucchini Flowers –
Male on Left
Female on Right

Other plants are called monoecious. These plants have separate female and male flowers but they’re both on the same plant. The cucurbits (squash, gourds, pumpkins and melons) are generally monoecious. It’s easy to tell which are the male and female flowers in these plants. The male flowers grow on a stalk (peduncle) while the female flowers have at their base a small fruit.

With this background I can now address the Garden Guy’s suggestion. If you’re going to squeeze a flower to pollinate it, that flower has to be perfect – it has to have male and female organs. A gentle squeeze would likely knock some pollen from the stamen onto the stigma of the pistil in a bean or tomato flower. But I’ve never had a problem with either of these plants being pollinated. Between insects and the shaking of the flowers caused by the wind, pollination happens naturally.

Pollen Covered Bee Leaving a Male Squash Flower

Pollen-Covered Bee Leaving a Male Squash Flower

In the case of squash, the female flowers are pollinated by insects. A bee visits a male flower and gets covers with pollen. It then lands on the female flowers and some of the pollen rubs off onto the stigma of the pistil and voilà, the squash in pollinated.

But if there aren’t bees in the garden to pollinate the squash, you can squeeze those blossoms forever and nothing is going to happen. If you squeeze a male flower you’ll put pollen all over the inside of the blossom but there’s no pistil to receive the pollen. Squeezing a female flower won’t do anything either since there’s no pollen in that blossom. If you’re squeezing flowers you might end up with enough pollen on your hands to inadvertently pollinate a female flower but if you do, it’s just luck that it happened. The squeezing didn’t do a thing.

zucstigma copyIf insects aren’t pollination your squash, forget squeezing. Instead, in the morning pick a male flower, tear off the fused petals and then rub the exposed stamens onto the pistil of the female flowers. Or take a small paint brush and collect some pollen from the male flowers and then brush the pollen onto the stigma of the female flower.

Gently squeezing a flower will only pollinate it if and only if the flower is perfect. If the picture attached to the Facebook post had been of a tomato plant, I wouldn’t have been so confused. But when squeezing flowers is linked to a monoecious plant like summer squash, it make no sense.

In my garden, insects and wind pollinate all of the perfect flowers and the bees do a great job on the cucurbits. But if the squash aren’t being pollinated, I won’t be squeezing anything. I’ll be taking a male flower and brushing it against the female flowers in order to pollinate them. That’s the only sure way to make pollination happen.

As far as the Garden Guy, I’ll keep reading his posts; I pick up tips and ideas from many of them. And even when there’s a post with which I disagree – like this one – it gives me things to think about and explore. Thanks to this post I reacquainted myself with flower morphology, perfect flowers and dioecious and monoecious plants. So thanks for the post, Garden Guy!

Dear Garden Guy… What??? (Part One)

A few days ago a local garden center put the following post on Facebook: If your veggie plants are flowering but not producing, Garden Guy suggests squeezing each blossom gently to knock some pollen onto the stamen of the flower to pollinate it. Attached to the post was a picture of a summer squash plant.

I sat here at the computer and read that post about five times, scratching my head and saying “What? You should knock pollen onto the stamen of the flower? That makes no sense.”

After thinking about it for a while and checking to confirm the definition of stamen (just in case I got it wrong!), I come to the conclusion that the Garden Guy got a little mixed up on his flower morphology terms, specifically the male and female parts of the flower.

Parts of a Flower (from www.amnh.org)

Parts of a Flower
(from The American Museum of Natural History: http://www.amnh.org)

The male organ of the flower is called the  stamen. It’s made up of two parts: the anther which produces pollen and the filament which supports the anther and connects it to the receptacle.

The female organ of the flower is called the pistil and it has three parts. The top of the pistil is the stigma, the place where pollen lands and grows so that it can fertilize the ovules (embryonic seeds). The bottom of the pistil is called the ovary and it contains the ovules and is attached to the receptacle. The style connects the ovary and the stigma.

The Garden Guy said to knock some pollen onto the stamen of the flower to pollinate it. That’s impossible because the stamen is what produces pollen; the pistil is what receives it.  I can understand how someone could make this mistake; I have to think for a moment to not confuse the stigma and the stamen. The little trick I use is this: stamen has the word “men” in it so it’s the male organ of the flower.

I did add a comment on Facebook regarding this post:  I think you mean knocking pollen onto the stigma of the pistil – that’s what receives the pollen. The stamen (specifically the anther) is what produces the pollen.

The Garden Guy never responded to my comment – oh well! I’ll admit that I’m a bit of a botany nut and the terms for the parts of flowers and plants are important to me. I feel better having corrected this terminology error but there’s something else about that original post that make no sense to me.

That’s for “Dear Garden Guy… What??? Part Two”!!!

Bells of Ireland Seeds – A Lesson in Geometry

Open Bells of Ireland Flowers

Open Bells of Ireland Flowers

I recently noticed that the lower “flowers” on the bells of Ireland are beginning to lose their green color and are turning a straw-like color. I write “flower” because the true flower of this plant is short-lived. The green bell is actually a fused calyx (a collection of sepals) and it is very long-lasting. As the individual bells lose their color, they dry and the inflorescence can be used as a dried flower.

Seeds inside Bells of Ireland - note that one seed is still green

Seeds inside Bells of Ireland – note that one seed is still green

I took a closer look at a few of the bells and was surprised by what I saw. At the center of each individual bell was a round feature divided into four equal parts. It was green in the younger bells and dark brown in the more mature ones. It took me a minute to realize that I was seeing the seeds of bells of Ireland.

Each single flower produces four seeds though I’m sure if I looked at all of them I could probably find one with three or five seeds – nature almost always throws in those little surprises… like a four-leaf clover! What caught my eye was that these four seeds are equal in size and when looked at from above, each is a perfect slice of a circle with a 90° angle.

Seeds Attached to the Receptacle

Seeds Attached to the Receptacle

When you peel back the bell and look at the four seeds together you see that each is 1/4 of a cone. That’s why bells of Ireland seeds look a little strange. Their rounded bottom, pointed tip, one rounded side and two sides at a right angle to each other seems strange until you see how they grow.

Bells of Ireland Seeds

Bells of Ireland Seeds

As the seeds mature, they separate from the receptacle, the tip of the pedicle that supports the various structures of the flower. They fall onto the ground and start another cycle of bells of Ireland. I’ve noticed that the majority of the seeds wait until spring to start growing.

The seeds of bells of Ireland are a great example of the symmetry found in nature. On this one plant you can see a perfectly divided circle and a cone in four segments. You have to look closely but when you do, you just might be reminded of geometry class!

The Green June Beetle

Recently I noticed a large green beetle in a butterfly bush. It was a dull hunter green color with brown stripes. I’ve seen a few of them in the past but I didn’t know what they were. It didn’t take long to learn that these beetles are green June beetles (Cotinus nitida).

Green June beetles are common to the eastern US, especially in the south. While these insects haven’t received a lot of attention in the past here in PA, they have now been recognized as a turf pest in southeastern and southwestern Pennsylvania.

Green June Beetle

Green June Beetle

The adults are 3/4 -1″ long and have a velvety green to dull brown color with stripes of green with yellow-orange margins. The underside of the green June beetle is either a metallic gold or green. Adults also have a distinct flat horn on the head. The adults are active fliers and sound like a bumblebee as they move through the air.

While the adult can attack some fruits, the real problem of this insect is its larval stage. The female green June beetle lays eggs in turf in the summer and these eggs develop into grubs. The grubs feed on organic matter in the soil and the roots of grass. Active grubs will burrow to surface of the soil in the evening and often leave piles of accumulated soil on the lawn’s surface that look like earthworm castings. While the damage to a healthy lawn is minimal, stressed lawn may be damaged by the grubs feeding habits.

Green June Beetle - Note the Small Horn on the Head

Green June Beetle – Note the Small Horn on the Head

When the weather turns cool, the grubs burrow deeper into the ground and overwinter. They resume feeding in the spring and then pupate in the soil during May and June. After pupating, the grubs are transformed into adults which emerge from the ground to mate and start the cycle once again.

A well maintained lawn will be able to survive the damage of green June beetles. If the grubs are causing a problem, there are insect-parasitic nematodes that can be applied to control the grubs naturally. Also green June beetle grubs are parasitized by a type of digger wasp, Scolia dubia. This naturally occurring wasp can be seen flying above turf with a green June beetle infestation, seeking grubs in which to lay its eggs. There are also chemicals that can control severe infestations of green June beetle grubs. You can check with your county extension agent for recommendations.

I’ve never noticed mounds of soil on the grass from the green June beetle grubs. I also haven’t seen that many adults. It’s obvious that I don’t have a green June beetle problem. Maybe there are enough digger wasps in the area to keep this insect in check. What I do know is that I now can give a name to this beetle – the green June beetle.