Friday, August 28, 2015

You Know You Need One

Zucchini — it can be a tricky word in a spelling bee. But it’s not a tricky plant; it’s a terrific plant. The zucchini contains valuable antioxidants and is a good source of vitamins A and C and potassium. It’s also low in calories making it an excellent choice for dieters.

The trouble with zucchini begins when it comes time to dispose of the crop. Place a few zucchini out on the sidewalk with a FREE sign on them and next day your pile will have increased. To avoid unwanted donations, people in my neighbourhood make darn sure they lock their cars each night. If you happen to arrive at harvest time with more zucchini than you can find homes for, remember that the food bank will always be able to use them — and anything else your garden produces. In fact, an extra row or two planted especially for them is a worthwhile venture.

The origins of zucchini lie in Mexico where they were grown as far back as 7,000 to 5,500 BCE. They were an integral part of the ancient diet of corn, beans, and squashes. These foods, known as the three sisters, are still the mainstay of Mexican cuisine. Because the climate there is ideal for these plants, I imagine the Mexican people must have the same problem with overly productive zucchini as we do, so if you happen to vacation there, it’s a good idea to check your luggage before leaving.

This is probably how zucchini made it to Europe, secretly stuffed into the packs of returning explorers, along with cheap Aztec souvenirs and three or four years of dirty laundry. The zucchini eventually found its way to Italy where it received its current name. In France it’s known as the courgette, a name the folks in the UK have adopted, although they refer to a larger and plumper variety of zucchini as a vegetable marrow, apparently because it resembles bone marrow — I’ll stick with zucchini, thank you.

Farmers today are developing lots of hybrids. We no longer have to settle for plain old green. Look for yellow ones or a combination of green and yellow. There are round ones too, and one that is a cross between zucchini and the fluted patty pan squash.

Zucchini are a warm season plant and will shrivel at the first hint of frost. This has been a cool, wet spring, but now that the soil is warming up it’s about right to plant a few — two or three are plenty. Like all members of the squash family they can be started easily from seed, but it may be getting a little late. Depending on how early frost comes in fall, the fruit may not have time to develop, so I’d go with plants. They’re inexpensive and available at many garden centres.

Plant zucchini a couple of feet apart where they can receive plenty of sunshine — the more the better. As for soil, they won’t complain as long as it’s well drained. Add organic matter if you can, but they are light feeders. Feeding zucchini with a high nitrogen fertilizer will only encourage over-production of leaves and stems, and a well fed one can easily take over a veggie garden, so don’t use up the lawn fertilizer on them.

They like to be watered regularly, and deeply, but zucchini hate to be wet as mildew can develop on the large flat leaves. To discourage this, avoid watering with a sprinkler. This is where mulch such as wood chips or straw is useful — I like to use straw myself. Besides keeping weeds down and moisture in the soil it will keep fruit clean and healthy.

As the plant begins to grow, the flowers, precursors of fruit, won’t appear until the plant has developed fifteen or so leaves. The first to appear will usually be male and won’t produce fruit. If you can spot a small swelling at the base of the flower, it’s a female and will grow on into a fruit. If there’s only a prickly stem, it’s a male. The male flowers can be picked off and eaten in a salad, but some are required for pollination of the females. Insects, primarily bees, will take care of this job. If bee activity is low, female flowers are likely to drop.

Other insects will take up pest duty. The cucumber Beetle is the worst of the bunch, attacking any members of the cucurbita family. Cucumber Beetles are either striped or spotted, and like to feed on the leaves of the plants. They can cause a lot of damage as they spread disease from one plant to another. Thrips and cutworms will also have a go at your plants too. I’d use insecticidal soap to discourage them.

Zucchini are susceptible to powdery mildew and bacterial wilt, diseases that are most common in hot and humid weather. A strong, healthy plant will be more resistant to these problems. Blossom end rot can also be a problem in dry weather. Zucchini seem to keep on growing without too much trouble. They’re best picked before they get too large because the bigger ones can be tough and lacking in flavour. But if you do want to try for the record, it’s around 2.5 meters — almost nine feet long.

Zucchini are such productive plants that first time growers, especially children, on seeing the rate at which the plant grows and the bounty it produces will be spurred on to try other plants that are much easier to spell, like peas and beans.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Quis est nomen illius planta?

"Quis est nomen illius planta?" I heard that frequently during the couple of days of my open garden last month. It wasn’t spoken in Latin, which is just as well as I probably wouldn’t have understood the question anyway. My command of Latin is pathetic. Most often, the plants for which I do know the botanical names are the ones that haven’t been given a common one, at least none that I’m aware of.

One in particular that attracted a lot of attention was a vine on the trellis. It has small, maple-like leaves and sprays of red flowers that turn yellow as they mature. I grew it easily from seed this year and it’s performed rather well. Naturally, the question arose — Quis est nomen illius planta? — about a couple of hundred times. I was happy to answer, but the only name I had for the plant was the botanical name from the seed packet that I had stuck in my back pocket (be prepared).

The plant in question is Ipomoea lobata and it’s a member of the morning glory family, except it doesn’t look anything like a typical morning glory. Hence the Latin, except it made me sound so pretentious. I’ve since learned, however, that it’s also known as firecracker vine or Spanish flag, but since no one else appeared to know it by either of those names, I’m going to make up my own. Henceforth, in my garden, it will be known as the ‘question’ vine.

On the other hand, the true name of certain plants is used more often than the common one, especially if it doesn’t sound too botanical. I was frequently asked about a plant in the perennial bed. It has sword-like leaves and show stopping red flowers. I was happy to reply that the plant was Crocosmia. It’s sometimes called copper tip or falling stars, but those names don’t seem to be in use around here, so I’ll stick to the botanical name.

Crocosmia is a great plant and deserves to be grown more often. There are only a few varieties available, ranging from yellow to red. Cultivars go by the names ‘Lucifer’ (orange-red) ‘Jenny Bloom’ (orange buds open yellow), ‘Meteor’ (yellow tinged with orange), ‘Red King’ (red with orange-yellow center), and ‘Emily Mckenzie’ (orange). ‘Jacanapes’ is red and yellow while ‘Golden Fleece’ is lemon yellow. In a group planting, they’ll pop out flowers for a month or two, and they’re also excellent as a cut flower.

Crocosmia are small corms and are usually sold in time for spring planting. Look for them in bulb catalogues if you don’t spot them at a garden centre. They may not flower the first year, but then they reproduce nicely. Interestingly, they’re not supposed to be hardy in this region, and it’s often suggested they be lifted for the winter, 
yet mine have been coming back year after year without the slightest care. They aren’t too fussy about soil as long as it’s reasonably fertile and well drained.

If you have any doubts about their hardiness, plant them against the house in full to part sun, but I have hundreds of witnesses who can confirm that mine grow just fine in the middle of the garden, and they all know the correct botanical name, should anyone ask.

It's a pleasure to share, to discuss plants, and to answer questions from so many garden lovers, like "What’s the name of that plant?" Why, I frequently replied, it's Anonomenthanum something or other.

Friday, August 14, 2015

The Ruthless Gardener

I confess, I have a dark side. I’m ruthless when I have to be. I don’t like admitting this even if it is a character trait that’s admired in some quarters — sport, business, shopping, but in the garden? Sadly, yes. To be a successful gardener, it’s essential to be ruthless. Plants will test your patience. They can be fickle, stubborn, uncooperative, and downright frustrating.

Give some an inch and they’ll take over your garden; give others their own premium location and they sulk. It’s too bad plants aren’t sentient enough to realize that if they don’t grow as expected in my garden, there are severe penalties — and I’m a tough love judge, a three strikes and you’re out judge, a hanging judge. In fact, I make Judge Judy look like Mother Theresa on valium.

Oh yes, my garden may look peaceful and serene, a botanical sanctuary, but it didn’t get that way by me being a sentimental wuss. Insensitivity goes a long way in garden care. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of opportunity for rehabilitation, and the three strikes and you’re out policy is relaxed if it isn’t three consecutive strikes, which a few plants appear to have figured out. They play dead for a couple of years then give a gold medal performance. I praise them, I reward them with an extra layer of compost, and then the following year they look like they fell off the final sale rack outside the grocery store. Then I have to start over and give them another chance.

I have to accept it’s not always the fault of the plant. It might have had a lousy childhood in a greenhouse, or it could be in the wrong type of soil or in the wrong location. The soil in this area is generally alkaline, but up in cottage country or in boggy areas it can be more acidic. Stick a Rhododendron or azalea in soil that’s too alkaline and it will refuse to grow well. If a plant likes sandy soil, it won’t appreciate clay for its roots. Some like moist soil, others like it dry.

It might be too hot, too dry, too wet, too windy, too sunny, or too shady for a particular plant’s liking. There are variations between species. For instance, blue or green hosta prefer more shade while the gold or yellow types like more sun. This is why, even though I may be ruthless, I take all these factors into consideration before sentencing. 

I often move plants around, sometimes two or three times until I find a spot the plant is happy with, but then what happens? It grows like it’s on a mission to replace the lawn and I have to dig three quarters of the plant out before there’s no room for anything else in the garden. For instance, I have clumps of daylilies that I seem to recall adoring, but they’ve begun to annoy me and will have to be dug and divided, or even disposed of. 

If, after I’ve done everything possible to provide perfect conditions for a plant and it still doesn’t bloom or show any sign of enthusiasm, I’ll stick it in a corner out of the way and ignore it for a while. Finally, I’ll offer it to someone else to see if they can grow it, otherwise it’s onto the compost heap. Then what happens? It lies there gasping in the sun for half a day and suddenly pops out a single, amazing flower, as though to mock me. And what do I do? I hastily stick it in a pot and try to coax it back to life. Yes, I’m ruthless when it comes to gardening. 

Friday, August 7, 2015

Start 'em Young

In Gardening news recently, I came across the results of a survey and subsequent stories that were hardly flattering to young gardeners. The survey found most can't recognize Latin names for flowers, while almost nine in ten are unable to identify a hoe, and nearly half do not know what a perennial is. 

But is this a problem? By gardeners, did they mean those who garden somewhat seriously, or did they mean casual gardeners who might only buy a few plants to stick in the ground each spring? I suspect the latter. The fact that a huge number are unable to spot a hoe tells me only that they’ve never used one. I mean, a hoe is hardly something you’d forget if you’d spent any time at all on the end of one. I have, but as I now mulch wherever possible, I find I rarely use a hoe. Again, I’m sure most regular gardeners, young or old, know what a perennial is, but anyone new to the hobby could be forgiven.

As for the Latin, I’m surprised anyone can recognize the botanical name for plants. I have enough trouble myself, even though many assume I know the Latin name of every plant in my garden. Have I got news for you!

Just last week, when I opened my garden for visitors, there were the inevitable questions about the identity of plants, and in many cases I’d either forgotten or never knew. To avoid embarrassment I might occasionally have mumbled a phony Latin word like anonamenthenum, or casually said I’m not sure, but I believe Shakespeare called it hedgehog bane. Fortunately, no one has ever asked which play.

Common names are certainly useful, but can be confusing and inaccurate. For instance, I once made the mistake of saying my Aunt Violet called a particular plant bachelor buttons. The curious visitor told me that it didn’t look anything like the bachelor buttons she was familiar with, and next thing you know we were arguing about half the plants in my garden.

But seriously, when studying or writing about plants, the correct botanical name is essential. Latin is a universal language with strict rules of grammar and has remained virtually unchanged since Roman times, which makes it very useful for keeping order in the plant world — genus and species, followed by non-Latin variety — one plant, one name, and no confusion.

And yet I’m sure we gardeners don’t spend a lot of time thinking in Latin when in our own gardens. In fact, we’re probably not thinking in words much at all. When I’m deciding where and how to place a plant, I’m visualizing; when it blooms for me I feel — I feel pleasure, satisfaction, and sometimes astonishment. That’s why I garden. 

In my own back yard, I’m always trying new things, and as most planting takes place in spring, I’m always in a rush — empty pot goes one way, trowel another, and if I’m lucky, the tag ends up beside the plant. Eventually, I get around to retrieving the tags and recording what’s where, and I do note the correct botanical name, but as for memorizing every single one, I’ll happily confess that it’s a challenge. It doesn’t help that gardening is so seasonal. When it’s under a foot of snow, I lose the familiarity and by spring many names have faded a little. So take heart fellow gardeners, botanical names are important, but what’s more important is that you enjoy your garden.

Carpe rutrum (seize the spade).