Monthly Archives: March 2014

It’s Spring – Inside, Not Outside

While the calendar says spring, I look out the window right now and it’s snowing! Sure, it’s not much but still, enough is enough. I want spring to arrive.

The one thing that’s keeping my spirits up is that while it might not seem like spring outdoors, indoors I have a lot of plants that are full of blooms. I’m sharing a few of the flowers that are reminding me of spring while I wait for the natural world outside to catch up!

Streptocarpus

Streptocarpus

 

Phaleonopsis

Phalaenopsis

 

African Violet

African Violet

 

Amaryllis

Amaryllis

 

Agastache Update

In the beginning of the month I planted three different kinds of agastache to try out some new varieties of this plant in the garden.

Agastache Seedings

Agastache Seedings

This plant is in the mint family so I knew the seeds would germinate quickly. What surprised me is that each variety took a different length of time to germinate. The conditions were all the same but the pot of Arcado Pink germinated in three days, Apache Sunset germinated two days later and the last to germinate, Tango, needed two more days.

I’d been growing the plants in small yogurt cups under fluorescent lights. They all growing quickly so I knew  it was time to transplant them into trays in which they’ll remain until I plant them outside.

Agastache Seedlings

Agastache Seedlings

The biggest surprise was when I pulled the Apache Sunset plants apart. As soon as I did, I was hit with a wave of scent that smelled like root beer! The packet of seeds had said that these plants had a root beer scent but I didn’t know how powerful it would be. Also when I took one Tango plant and crushed it between my fingers, a strong smell of licorice was released. I’ll be able to tell these two varieties apart easily by just smelling the leaves.

ag5Here’s hoping that the local rabbits don’t like either root beer or licorice!

Do You See What I See?

A friend posted the following picture on Facebook:

school

I like the message of the picture. As a former “farm boy,” I often forget that many children have no idea how the food they eat is grown or from where it comes. I had the benefit of seeing crops in the field and garden grow, be harvested and end up on the dinner table. The beef we ate had a name because it came from dairy cattle that had been in the barn for years but, when their milk production dropped, they were butchered and filled our freezer.

I think schools should have gardens to allow children the opportunity to see how plants grow and to be able to eat the produce from the seeds that they helped to plant.

But there’s a little problem with this picture making the rounds of Facebook. Can you see it?

The children are harvesting lettuce but if you look closely, you’ll see that almost all of the lettuce has bolted. The plants are well past their prime and if they eat this lettuce, it’ll be bitter. Instead of instilling interest in natural food that’s grown before their very eyes, these children are about to experience lettuce that tastes terrible. They might end up learning that lettuce is better from the store than from the garden!

School gardens can teach children a lot about how their food grows. But they also need to have teachers who know when to harvest a crop so that the children’s experience with naturally grown food will be a good one. If there isn’t someone in the school who’s familiar with growing vegetables, there’s always help available from the Cooperative Extension office within the school’s district.

Just saying…

Mycorrhizal Inoculants – Help or Hype?

v1764While I was exploring what mycorrhizae are, I found that they’re available not only in potting mix. Park Seeds sells “Myco Blast” which is touted as a probiotic for your plants – the plant version of Bifidus Regularis®  in Activia yogurt! Territorial Seeds has “Myco-Edge Endo Myco.” I typed “mycorrhizae” into Amazon and found all sorts of mycorrhizal supplements.

All of this made we wonder if I’d missed an important component of gardening for all the years I’ve been growing plants. Is this the new frontier of gardening? Do I need to get these formulas in order to grow a good garden?

After exploring it, I’ve come to the conclusion, that for me, the answer is no!

(The only plants for which mycorrhizae are necessary for their survival are trees and shrubs that have endomycorrhizae such as pine trees. If you purchase a pine tree to plant in your yard, it already has the necessary mycorrhizae or it wouldn’t have grow to the size of a transplant. Also all of the inoculants that I found for sale were for ectomycorrhizae.)

A lot of organic gardening sites purport that tilling of the soil and the use of inorganic fertilizers and various pesticides have reduced the amount of zygomycete spores in the soil and therefore limit the number of mycorrhizae that can form in plants. That might be true though I have to admit that I have a some doubts about this claim – fungi spores are not only ubiquitous but also tough. I have a hard time believing that the ones that produce ectomycorrhizae don’t already exist in most soil.

But there are other reasons that cause me to question the use of these various formulas of “mycorrhizae.”

The first is that a number of common plants in the vegetable garden don’t form mycorrhizae even if the soil is full of zygomycete spores. Plants of the goosefoot family (Chenopodiaceae) and cruciferous plants (Brassicaceae) never form mycorrhizae. For me, that’s a large part of my vegetable garden, including spinach, beets, chard, broccoli, cabbage, radishes and more. Using a mycorrhizae inoculant on these plants will do nothing because they don’t form mycorrhizae.

But the biggest reason why I don’t think I’ll be using these products is because of something that research has found. Mycorrhizae help to extract water and nutrients from the soil and are particularly helpful when the soil is marginally fertile. But it’s been shown that plants which in the wild form ectomycorrhizae don’t form them if the soil is fertile.

That makes perfect sense. This mycorrhizal symbiotic relationship does cost the plant some energy in the form of carbohydrates that the plant provides to the fungi. When fertility is low, this cost to the plant is offset by the benefit of nutrients that the fungi are able to extract from the soil (particularly phosphorus). But when the soil is fertile, mycorrhizae offer the plant no benefit so they don’t form.

I fertilize my vegetable and flower beds so there’s plenty of nutrients in the soil for the plant to absorb. The odds are pretty good that even if I added mycorrhizae inoculant, mycorrhizae wouldn’t form because the plants don’t need it. Also most of the plants that grow in the vegetable and flower garden aren’t bred to live in marginal conditions where mycorrhizae show their greatest benefit. They grow best in fertile soil, the very conditions that limit the formation of mycorrhizae.

If I was planting a field of wildflowers that I never planned to fertilize – a native, natural garden – it might be of benefit to add one of the mycorrhizae inoculants to the soil. But then again, there would probably be all of the necessary fungi spores already in the soil.

All of these mycorrhizae products certainly don’t hurt anything and they might help. They’re also fairly inexpensive so it won’t break the bank to give them a try. But I can’t help but think that a lot of the so-called benefits from these products are little more than the placebo effect. You can say you added mycorrhizae to the soil and your plants grew better but without a microscope you can’t see the mycorrhizal associations so any “benefits” from these products can’t be proven to be the result of mycorrhizae.

I might learn more over time that’ll change my mind but for now, I’m glad to know about mycorrhizae but I don’t think it’s something with which I need to concern myself in the vegetable and flower garden.

I’d rather spend the money that these mycorrhizal products cost on good fertilizer to boost the fertility of the soil. I know that’ll benefit my plants!

Mycorrhizae… Wait, Myco-what?

A few weeks ago I needed some potting soil. When I got the bag of Pro Mix home, I noticed that it said it contained mycorrhizae. I knew that mycorrhizae had something to do with fungus and roots, but that was about it. So I did some research online and it’s led me on a journey of discovery about fungus, roots, water absorption and the latest hype targeted at gardeners.

IMG_1484aLet me start off by saying that the label on the bag of potting mix is a little misleading. The word mycorrhizae (pronouned mīkəˈrīzə) comes from two Greek words – mykós  meaning fungus and  riza meaning root. Mycorrhizae  is the symbiotic relationship between certain kinds of fungi and the roots of some plants. Since the term described the relationship between fungi and roots, it’s impossible for a bag of soil to contain mycorrhizae; what it contains are spores of the various fungi that, in the presence of roots, can form mycorrhizae.

OK, enough of my word usage obsession! What I’ve learned is that often in nature, the mycelium of some fungi (the vegetative parts of a fungi that’s made up of thread-like hyphae) can become interconnected with the roots of plants in order to help the plant absorb water and nutrients. This association is what’s called a mycorrhiza. Just as root hairs increase the surface area of the root, when the roots of plant become connected with the mycelium of fungi, suddenly the entire mycelium of the fungus becomes surface area for the plant to absorb water. While the fungi of mycorrhizae aid the plant, the plant provides the fungi with carbohydrates that the fungi can’t produce because they’re not photosynthetic. This is why mycorrhizae are symbiotic – both parties are benefiting from their association.

Ectomycorrhizal Sheath (from http://en.wikipedia.org)

Ectomycorrhizal Sheath
(from http://en.wikipedia.org)

There are two major types of mycorrhizae found in nature: edomycorrhizae and ectomycorrhizae. Ectomycorrhizae are less common in nature but are associated with members of the beech, willow and pine family. Many of these mycorrhizae fungi are in the class basidiomycetes, the fungi that we associate with toadstools and mushrooms. In ectomycorrhizae the fungi forms a sheath around the fine roots of the plant and the mycelium extends out into the soil to aid in the transfer of nutrients and water to the plant. Many of these plants have evolved along with the fungi and don’t produce any root hairs – they don’t need them since the mycorrhizae substitutes for the root hairs.

While ectomycorrhizae may not be a huge concern for the home gardener, they’re very important to the gourmet cook. Many of the mushrooms that are prized by chefs are the fruiting bodies of the fungi of ectomycorrhizae. Truffles, morels, chanterelles and others are all edible mycorrhizal fungi. Because of the complex relationship between tree roots and fungi which produce these mushrooms, cultivating truffles or morels is difficult if not impossible. These mushrooms grow in the wild and their prices reflect this fact.

Endomycorrhizae  (from http://sdhydroponics.com)

Endomycorrhizae
(from http://sdhydroponics.com)

Endomycorrhizae are far more common and occur in about 80% of all plants. Instead of forming a sheath around the root, in endomycorrhizae, the hyphae of the fungi penetrate between the cell walls and also penetrate the cells of the root, forming coils and branched structures. There are only about 30 kinds of fungi that form endomycorrhizae and all of them are from the class zygomycete, the fungi class that causes black bread mold. In endomycorrhizae, the fungi along with root hairs aid in transferring water and nutrients from the soil to the plant.

In the natural world, the fungi that can create mycorrhizae are ubiquitous and most plants growing in a natural environment have mycorrhizae. While you can see the sheath of ectomycorrhizae, the hyphae of endomycorrhizae are too small to be seen with the naked eye.

It’s clear that mycorrhizae are very important in the life of plants; in fact, it appears that this has always been the case. Paleobotanists have shown that endomycorrhizae are present in the fossils of early vascular plants. This symbiotic relationship between green plants and fungi appears to be vital to plants and their growth.

But does potting mix for house plants need to have the spores of zygomycetes mixed into it? Should gardeners rush out and buy some of the “mycorrhizae” inoculants that are on the market? Are mycorrhizae something that the home gardeners needs to think about?

Those questions are for the next post!

The Wonder of Root Hairs

I’ve been thinking a lot about roots lately – welcome to my mind and its strange obsessions! (FYI, the next post will explain where this obsession started). So I wanted to start a series of post by writing about the part of the root that brings water from the soil into the tissue of a plant.

Everyone knows that roots absorb water but many probably don’t realize that there’s a special part of the root that generally makes this water absorption possible. Without these unique cells, most plants wouldn’t be able to survive. The cells I’m talking about are root hairs.

Tip of a Growing Root (from voer.edu.vn)

Tip of a Growing Root
(from voer.edu.vn)

The very tip of a root is covered by a root cap, a mass of cells that protect the growing part of the root and aids in allowing the root to push through the soil. Directly behind the root cap is the apical meristem, the area where new, undifferentiated cells are formed. This is the area of cell division.

Behind the area of cell division is the zone of cell elongation in the root. Just as the name implies, this is the part of the root where the cells elongate and grow. Behind this zone is the zone of maturation. Here the cells mature and take on the function that they’ll have throughout the life of the root.

Root Hairs on Germinating Agastache

Root Hairs on Germinating Agastache

In the zone of maturation, some of the epidermis cells – those making up the exterior of the root – elongate and give the root the appearance of being covered with fuzz or hairs. These are the root hairs.

Each root hair is a single cell that only lives for a short time. The purpose of them is to increase the surface area of the root so that it has more contact with the soil and can better absorb water. The area of the root that has root hairs is only about 1/4 of an inch long and occurs right behind the growing tip. All of those root hairs increase the surface area of the root by more than 100 fold.

Root Hairs on Germinating Agastache

Root Hairs on Germinating Agastache

As the root grows, that 1/4 inch zone of root hairs continues to develop right behind the growing tip of the root. Older root hairs die as the root grows. For a plant to have good water absorption, the roots need to continually be growing and producing new root hairs.

The mechanisms of how water is absorbed by the root hairs and moves into the plant are very complex, involving water potentials, active absorption, passive absorption and a host of other processes. It’s enough to know that the vast majority of absorption of water occurs within the root’s zone of maturation and is a result of the presence of root hairs.

I think this is pretty amazing. Every plant that you have (with a few exceptions), whether growing in the yard or in a pot, has to be continually growing new roots with new root hairs in order for the plant to absorb water. Beneath the surface of the soil, roots are growing, old root hairs are dying and new root hairs are forming, all for the purpose of keeping the plant’s cells hydrated.

Agastache Varieties for the 2014 Garden

Last year I wrote the post Agastache – A Plant I Really Want to Like!, describing the anise hyssop plant (Agastache foeniculum) that I have growing in the garden. This plant is ignored by the rabbits and it attracts a ton of pollinators. The problem is that it’s ugly!

I checked some garden centers to see if there were other varieties of agastache that looked better but I couldn’t find any plants that caught my eye. So this year I looked online and found a number of varieties of agastache that were available as seeds.

Swallowtail Garden Seeds had eleven different varieties. I ordered three of them to see how they would grow. One is a hybrid variety and the other two are different species of agastache. While all of these plants are perennials, the varieties I ordered are supposed to bloom the first year if they’re started inside during the late winter.

Arcado Pink Agastache

Arcado Pink Agastache

 

The first variety is Arcado Pink (Agastache x hybrida), a 2′ high plant with pink blossoms that’s hardy here in zone 6 but can be grown as an annual anywhere. (Note – all the pictures come from the Swallowtail Garden Seeds website)

 

 

 

Apache Sunset Agastache

Apache Sunset Agastache

 

The next is Apache Sunset (Agastache rupestris), another 2′ high plant with blossoms that are shades of peach, orange and rose. This plant is said to be longer lived than other agastache and the leaves have a root beer scent!

 

 

 

Tango Agastache

Tango Agastache

 

 

The final variety is Tango (Agastache aurantiaca), a 14″ plant with orange blossoms.

 

 

 

 

I planted these seeds about a week ago and was pleased how quickly they germinated. Within a few days I was moving them off of the radiator (my version of a heat mat) and placing them under fluorescent lights.

I’m not sure how these plants will do in the garden but if they’re able to combine the rabbit resistance and the pollinator attraction of the anise hyssop with a prettier flower, they’ll be keepers. I’ll let you know how my agastache trial goes!