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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 New Milestone – Thanks to All My Readers

I just noticed that I’ve hit a new milestone – over 4000 views in one month with over 3000 visitors. Now I know that this isn’t a lot of traffic for many sites but for my little blog with its strange mix of botany, gardening and photography, I’m pretty impressed.

Stats for May 2015

Thanks to all who have visited and here’s to breaking the 5000 views/4000 visitors in one of the coming months!

My Love-Hate Relationship with Mixed Color Flower Seed Packets

downloadAs I’m spending time looking through seed catalogs and starting seeds inside, it seemed like the right time to talk about my mixed feelings about flower seeds that come in mixed colors.

When there’s a named variety of some flower, e.g Profusion Zinnias, you have a choice of buying a packet in a single color like deep apricot or coral pink or buying a packet of seeds that contains a mixture of colors. While a groups of flowers in a single color can be visually impactful, I like mixed colors as well.

But there’s a little problem when you get that mixed color packet of seeds. Sometimes you plant them and when they start to bloom you find that instead of having an even mixture of five or six different colors, most of the plants are one or two colors. Often one or more of the colors that are supposed to be in the packet of seeds are nowhere to be found in your flower bed.

So is the seed company misrepresenting the seeds that it’s selling? No, that’s not the problem. The cause of this often has to do with vigor and selection.

Let’s take an example. Let’s say that there’s a flower called X that in its natural state has red flowers. Over the years, breeders have worked to introduce different colors into the genome of X. After years of breeding, there will still be red flowers but they might also have developed white, pink, and orange flowers.

The odds of genetics are pretty good that each of these colors will have a different degree of vigor. In this example, let’s say that the red and white varieties of X germinate more quickly and establish themselves faster than the pink and orange varieties. The pink and orange varieties of X will still bloom well and be as large as the red and white varieties at maturity, but they just take longer to get started.

In the garden, when you plant a row of X, you’ll plant the seeds and then thin the plants once they start to grow. And when you thin, what plants are you going to keep and which ones will you pull out? I think everyone would keep the bigger, healthier plants and pull out those that are smaller and weaker. Or, if you started the seeds of X inside, when it comes time to separate the seedlings and pot up the ones that you plan to keep, all of us would keep the bigger plants. 

So when X starts to blossom, you’d expect to see red, white, pink and orange flowers, but in this example, it’s almost certain that the bed of X will be red and white with few if any pink or orange plants. The vigor of the red and white and our selection of the biggest and strongest seedlings has led to the elimination of most of the pink and orange flowers.

Now I know that’s a long example but it happens whenever you try growing a mixed color packet of flower seeds. All of the colors are not going to be equally vigorous and if you chose only the biggest seedlings, you’re sure to limit the variety of colors.

That’s why I have a love-hate relationship with mixed color flower seeds! I love the mixed colors, but I hate the fact that when I thin the plants, it’s almost a guarantee that some of the colors will be lost.

Dahlia Seedlings

Dahlia Seedlings

Now if I was really concerned with having all of the colors of a given flower represented in the garden I could buy a single color packet for each of the colors that I wanted, but that would be expensive and very wasteful. So I have another trick. While it doesn’t guarantee that every color in a mixed packet of seeds will be represented, it definitely increases the odds!

I just transplanted some mixed color dahlias that I started inside the house. Some the plants were smaller than others. Since I wasn’t transplanting all of the seedlings (I only wanted 8 plants), I made sure that I chose a few of the smaller seedlings. By doing this, I was making a conscious effort NOT to select for vigor and therefore increasing the chance of having truly mixed color dahlias.

Three Different Amounts of Anthocyanin in Dahlia Seedlings

Three Different Amounts of Anthocyanin in Dahlia Seedlings

I was lucky with these dahlias because some of them exhibited the red pigment anthocyanin in their stems. I was careful to choose some seedlings without anthocyanin (probably yellow or white flowering) and others with varying degrees of the pigment (pink, orange, purple or red). The odds of mixed colors are getting greater!

So when it comes to growing a packet of mixed color flowers, you never know what kind of a mixture of colors you’ll end up with in the garden. But if you make an effort to keep a few of the smaller plants and also take advantage of any pigment differences that you might be able to see, the odds of a truly mixed color bed of flowers increase.

I’ll let you know how the dahlias turn out!

The Biggest Orchid

I have a number of phalaenopsis orchids that I’ve picked up over the years. I feel like I’ve finally mastered growing them. But this year I’m surprised at how well they’re doing.

One in particular is doing better than I would ever have expected. While this phalaenopsis had two branches last year, this year it has four branches coming off of the main spike. This isn’t happening because this is some fancy variety of phalaenopsis that I’m growing; this one came from the “renowned orchid supplier” known as Sam’s Club!

IMG_1734I think there are a few reasons this plant’s doing so well. One is age; this plant is maturing as the years go by.

I’ve also found that potting these orchids in a clay orchid pot with a mixture of 1/2 long fiber sphagnum moss and 1/2 orchid bark potting mix works well. The mixture of moss and bark allows the medium to be moist but also aerated. In addition, the clay pot is permeable to gases and helps with aeration as well. I also like that the clay pots are heavy and support the weight of the orchid.

During the summer I kept this plant in a bright spot and was careful about watering. But what I really think made the difference was that I fertilized the plant twice a month with 1/2 strength African violet fertilizer from Miracle-Gro during the spring and summer. I cut back on the fertilizer to about once a month during the fall since the orchid was slowing down in its growth.

This combination of age, light, potting mixture, water and fertilizer seems to have worked. I’ve counted over 40 buds on this orchid and the spike and branches haven’t stopped growing. I’ll be sure to post a picture when this phalaenopsis is in full bloom!

African Violets Propagation

Back in August I had posted about the soil fungus problem that I was having with propagating African violets. The good news is that a spray or two of a copper fungicide took care of the problem and didn’t cause any harm to the plantlets.

African Violet Plantlets

African Violet Plantlets

In late summer I was able to remove the small plantlets and pot them into individual pots. The challenge was finding pots. African violets can be a little temperamental and you don’t want to put them in too large of a pot. The roots need to be able to fill the soil quickly or you can run into disease problems. I needed some small pots but small pots are hard to find.

3 fl oz Cup as a Pot

3 fl oz Cup used as a Pot

Then I learned a trick for the Facebook group African Violet Nerds. Someone had posted that they use small plastic cups for the initial potting of the plantlets. I found a bag of cups at the grocery store that were 3 fl. ounce and seemed perfect for my violets. Plus I got 150 of them for less than $2 – I could never have found 1 or 2 inch pots at that price! All I had to do was snip a couple of holes in the bottom of each cup and I had all the pots I needed.

After the fungus problem, I was also searching for a potting mix in which to grow the plants. I ended up using three parts Optimara African violet potting mix with one part perlite. Optimara’s a big violet grower so I knew I could trust their soilless mix. I just found it to be a little to heavy for my liking so I added the perlite and have been pleased with the results.

plantlet 3After planting up the plantlets, I wanted to give them a humid location for a few weeks until they started to establish themselves. The best mini greenhouse I could find was a large plastic baby spinach container. The height was perfect and the lid allowed me to adjust it so that there would be some increased humidity but also airflow.

I didn’t lose one plantlet and I haven’t had any more fungus problems. Each plant grew and right now they’re starting to bloom. I’ll share the results of this process in the next post.

The Fall Vegetable Garden

For most of my gardening life, fall wasn’t a time to harvest; it was the time to clean up the vegetable garden and prepare it for the winter.

fall gardenWhile I still prepare the garden for winter, that’s now become a job for mid to late November. Up until that time, I’m still harvesting from the garden. Over the past 10 years, I’ve been focusing more and more on growing a fall vegetable garden.

In July and August, as space opens up in the garden, I think about what can be planted to harvest in the fall. I’ll admit it does take some planning. Storage cabbage has to be sown by the middle of July; other vegetables are planted in August. And then there’s the challenge of getting seeds to germinate in the summer when the soil is warm and dry.

10703546_10204248206619506_754558287945300851_nBut the benefits of planning a fall garden are worth it. Right now I can harvest a plethora of crops: beets, carrots, chard, collards, kale, lettuce, boc choy, endive, snap peas, spinach and parsley as well as some remaining tomatoes and peppers. Yes, a lot of these fall crops are greens but like a lot of people, while I neither grew or ate greens in the past, I’ve learned to love them. There’s also something very satisfying to be able to harvest home-grown vegetables from April until the end of October. (I’m looking to try a few season extending tricks this year in the hope of expanding that harvest window an additional month or two.)

The days are getting shorter. The nights are getting cooler. Fall is in the air. But in the vegetable garden, things are still going strong!

The Best Onions Ever!

Onions are a standard crop in the garden. At home we planted onion sets and I’ve continued that tradition. For the past decade or more I’ve been planting Stuttgarter sets. These small onion bulbs that you plant in the spring reliably grow into medium size flat bulbs that taste good and are OK in storage.

Onions - Candy in back, Stuttgarten in front

Onions – Candy in back, Stuttgarter in front

In addition to sets, I’ve also been trying to grow onions from seeds for the past few years. I plant the seeds inside in February and then transplant the seedlings into the garden in April. The seed onions have never been very successful until this year.

This past winter I started seeds of Candy and Red Defender. These are both hybrid storage onions. Red Defender is a late onion so they’re still growing but I’ve started to harvest the Candy onions and I can’t believe how big they are. The bulbs are between the size of a baseball and a softball. The flesh is perfectly white and the taste is good as well.

So why did the seed onions finally succeed? I think there are three reasons.

1) When the seedlings were growing inside, I made a conscious effort to fertilize them regularly. (If you’ve read some of my other posts, you know that I tend to under-fertilize!) That simple step of fertilizing led to plants that were larger and healthier when they were planted into the garden.

2) While the rabbits in the yard won’t eat chives, they will eat onions. In years past the onion seedlings have often been mowed to the ground by the rabbits. While they would grow back if I protected them, this trauma really set them back and caused the onions to be small.

3) This has been a perfect year for growing vegetables. The weather has been warm but not oppressive and the rain has been regular and consistent. Onions have a shallow root system and if the soil is dry, the bulbs will be small. This year water has been plentiful and the onions are evidence of this fact.

Candy Onion

Candy Onion

I’m grateful for this year’s onion harvest. I feel like I might have mastered the trick of growing onions from seed. It all comes down to fertilizing, blocking the rabbits and making sure the plants are watered. I’ll certainly be growing onions from seed next year but I’ll still be planting some of the Stuttgarter sets as well – I have a proven track record with growing them!