Thursday, January 30, 2014

Garden Catalogs: How to Use and Understand Them

You buy one little pack of seeds or perhaps one small plant and suddenly you're on the list. The catalogs come rolling in.  Now, reading catalogs and comparing varieties is a good way to educate yourself and a fun pastime, just understand that all seed catalogs are not created equal.

The really good catalogs spend lots of time and effort to make sure that you get those items that will absolutely grow the best for you. Most seed and plant catalogs will provide the growing zones best suited for your area. In Virginia, most of us are in zone 6 or in zone 7. If this is all the information you have, beware! Your chances of wasting money just went up.

What is some of the other important information you may want to know? Sun or shade, soil type, growing conditions, plant uses, dry or moist conditions, and certainly when and how much to plant is essential information.

Catalogs come from different parts of the country and even different parts of the world. Look for information on where your catalog originated. Chances are a catalog coming from the north will focus on varieties suited for that area. The same is true for southern publications. They focus on plants that grow well in the south. The Northeast, the Great Lakes region, the Pacific Northwest, and they all offer wonderful varieties. The question is: will they grow in my area? Pay very close attention to what a catalog says about adaptation and even closer attention to what they don’t say. You can learn a lot by reading between the lines.
Plant selection is harder than it once was -- and that’s a good thing. Today we have more varieties bred to grow under special circumstances than ever before. You can find new crosses that germinate in cool or warm soil. There are plants designed to grow at different parallels. Plants have been designed to set fruit at unusually high temperatures or that have a longer field or shelf life. Buy from catalogs that freely offer this information to save yourself a lot of frustration and money.

Perhaps more money is wasted on onions than on any other plant in the garden. The practice of growing onions from sets or small bulbs has been a common one for our area. The problem is these onions were planted last year at very high density rates. This keeps the bulbs small and suitable for replanting the following spring. The onion, being biennial, wants to grow slightly and then set seed. Large onions are hard to grow this way.

A better way of growing onions is from seed or plants. Here’s where you need to pay attention. Onions are classified into short day, long day, or intermediate day classifications. Short day onions are sweet but hard to keep---Vidalia type. Long day onions are the long keepers found in your supermarket. Intermediate day onions are a cross with some sweetness and a two to four month storage window. Below Virginia’s southern border short day onions grow quite well. From Maryland north, long day onions thrive. That leaves us right in the middle with intermediate day varieties. Intermediate onions are really good but the selection is limited.
Where onions grow best is basically a function of light based on our latitude line.  A catalog should give you the onion type, but even then, there are overlapping zones. Some short day and selected long day onions will grow for us. Look for specific latitude zone information for the best results.

Corn presents a similar situation. Varieties have been selected for northern areas, southern areas, or chosen because they grow in many areas. Again, look for the information or read between the lines.

Today’s expanded seed and plant selections come in three basic categories. Those are: heirloom, hybrid, and genetically modified (GMO) varieties. Heirloom varieties are older, seed-stable varieties from which you may save seed and reproduce the variety. Hybrid simply means that two or more plants have been cross pollinated to produce your new variety. You could make the same crosses if you knew which crosses to make. But: don't count on the seed companies telling you. That’s how they make their money. 

Genetically modified varieties involve gene splicing. The book is still open on these. Some catalog companies will make a blanket statement that their products do not knowingly contain any GMO material. If unstated, look for the term “Roundup Ready”. This statement almost always signals a genetically modified variety.
Most catalogs will carry a mix of both heirloom and hybrid varieties. Some catalogs specialize. You will find some really interesting plants in catalogs devoted to seed saving from heirloom varieties. These are our base of plants from which we created the hybrids. There are specialty catalogs for beans, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, fingerling potatoes and exotics.

Sometimes we overlook the fact that those things right in our own backyards are best. That leads us to local catalogs. Most of these are found within our area or region. You’ll find them at your local farm supply, seed store, or garden center. The varieties found in these books may not be the latest new thing but they are tried and true. Plant from these catalogs and you are almost certain to find success barring any natural calamity. For the beginning gardener or for one with limited funds, these are the ones to choose. In addition, you will probably be buying from an experienced gardener with local insight.

Look in your mailbox. Look online. Look in your local community. Wherever you look you are going to find the best selection of fruits, vegetables, trees, and exotics in the history of mankind. Plant varieties too close or deliberately cross pollinate your own varieties and you may be creating the next new thing or perhaps starting your own seed company. Remember, the man that created the “Mortgage Lifter” tomato paid off his debt by selling the seed. What a story!

Sample a lot of seeds. Plant small quantities until you find those best for you. Have fun and don’t get too serious. Give us a call if the Heart of Virginia Master Gardeners can help. Happy Growing!  

Saturday, January 25, 2014


While we generally think of insects, bats, and hummingbirds as pollinators, the term is actually broader and includes all mechanisms that transfer pollen. Both wind and water can be pollinators too.  Pollinators are important to the well being of global ecosystems. There are around 200,000 animals that serve as pollinators and that’s good since almost 90 percent of all plants need the assistance of animals to transfer pollen. We humans are highly dependent on pollinators too. Animals pollinate about 75 percent of the world’s plants that are used for food, medicine, spices, and fibers.

Bees are important pollinators around the world. Here in the United States, there are about 4,000 species of native bees. With the exception of the bumblebee, these natives are solitary bees. They help pollinate crops, such as strawberries, alfalfa, apples, and blueberries. Flowers pollinated by bees tend to be showy and colorful.  Some plants, such as the rose and sunflower, have large, open blossoms that are easily pollinated. Others, such as the pink lady’s slipper and the foxglove, have more complicated blooms that are much more difficult to pollinate.

There are more than 700 species of butterflies native to North America. The butterfly's life cycle has four stages: egg, caterpillar, pupa, and adult. Adult butterflies feed solely on nectar. They  generally prefer large, colorful, fragrant flowers that have flat surfaces that can serve as landing platforms.

Sphinx Moths
There are far more species of moths than butterflies. Because they are nocturnal, however, they tend to be less well known as pollinators. Sphinx moths are some of the largest moths. They can fly very rapidly and hover in place. Some can even fly backwards. Sphinx moths are attracted to very sweet smelling flowers, such as Daturas, that are open at night.

Certain types of flies help pollinate early spring plants. These flies are attracted to the smell of carrion or rotting flesh. They are drawn to brownish yellow or red flowers that mimic the color and sometimes the odor of carrion. The early blooming skunk cabbage is a prime example. The red trillium is another flower that emits a putrid odor that attracts flies. 
Other types of flies are also highly specialized pollinators. Tiny midges, about the size of the head of a pin, are the only known pollinators of cacao blooms – something to think about the next time you’re eating chocolate.

Because there are so many types of beetles, they help pollinate over 80 percent of all flowering plants around the world. Beetles are often called “mess and soil” pollinators because they perform that function as they eat their way through flowers. Beetles have a strong sense of smell and are important pollinators for very old species of plants, such as magnolias. Beetles prefer blooms that are bowl shaped, white to greenish colored, and have strong scents.

Hummingbirds are nectar-feeding birds that are adapted to feeding on nectar from tube shaped blossoms, such as those of the trumpet vine and cardinal flower.  They are attracted to large red or orange tubular flowers.  These birds do not have a strong sense of smell, and these flowers tend to be odorless. 

Like moths, bats are nocturnal pollinators. They are especially important in the tropics and in desert areas. More than 300 species of fruit, including mangoes and bananas, depend on bats for pollination. Bats are initially attracted to flowers using their sight, smell, and echo-location.  Bats are the only pollinators who make use of an excellent spatial memory in order to visit the same flowers repeatedly.

Pollinators are vital to the health of our ecosystems and yet they are under attack because of loss of habitat and increased use of pesticides. They need adequate sources of food, shelter, water, and nesting sites in order to survive. 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Love Irises? Try Rebloomers

Reblooming irises aren't new. In fact, they've been around for nearly 50 years, but these beauties were largely ignored by gardeners until they were featured in a glossy lifestyle magazine.

These irises bloom in spring and then again in late summer or early fall. Some re-bloom in both summer and fall. They are available in a wide variety of colors -- pink, blue, deep purple/blue, deep yellow. There are bicolors, ruffled falls, standard sizes, and dwarfs. Something for just about every gardener.

To grow reblooming irises in our climate zone, it's important to purchase them from a local grower. Rebloomers grown for warm growing conditions may not perform satisfactorily in cooler growing conditions.

Regular care and maintenance are also important. Plant them in a sunny location in well-drained soil that has a pH of about 6.5. These irises should be divided regularly, every three years is ideal. Watering once a week during hot, dry summers helps ensure lush blooms later in the season. Unlike irises that only bloom in spring, these beauties continue growing until they finish blooming.

Which ones to choose for your home garden? There're lots of choices.Rosalie Figge is a very reliable, tall, deep purple rebloomer. Clarence has large ruffled flowers with white standards and light blue falls. It's also fragrant.