Tuesday, January 9, 2024

It’s a Numbers Game

Fertilizer is confusing, and no wonder. Shelves are stacked with more types of fertilizer than supplements in a health food store. All are in brightly coloured packaging adorned with pictures of gorgeous flowering plants and unblemished vegetables. 

There are fertilizers for tomatoes, ones for roses, another for perennials and so on. All you need to do is match the plant to the fertilizer, right? It couldn’t be easier, except if you grow roses, tomatoes, and dozens of other types of plants, you’ll soon have a full shopping cart. The truth is, you could get by with only one type of commercial fertilizer, or even none if it’s for the garden. By using compost and mulch there, you’d still be fertilizing, but as nature does it.

You’ll note packages of fertilizer always have three numbers. These represent the three main nutrients plants require — nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium, noted as N-P-K. If the K is throwing you off, that’s because it comes from the scientific term, kalium. These numbers indicate the percentages of each element in the package or bottle. 10-15-10 means it contains 10% nitrogen, 15% phosphorus, and 10% potassium.

You might be wondering why there are so many different proportions listed, and why manufactures can’t agree on those proportions. Next time you’re shopping for fertilizer, ignore the glossy images that were shot in a studio and compare those numbers.

You’ll immediately see they differ from brand to brand even though they’re specified for the same type of plant. I’ve seen brands of fertilizer formulated for tomatoes with the numbers 6-12-12, 4-6-8, 8-24-8, and 18-18-21. No wonder the consumer is confused.

Now you might be wondering how they came up with the numbers in the first place. When plants were first analyzed, it was found they contained different proportions of these three nutrients. It was then assumed that each type of plant required fertilizer in the same proportion, except plants don’t use nutrients the same way at the same time as they’re growing. They take up what they need from the soil when they need it.

It’s much like going to the grocery store when you’re out of milk, butter, or eggs. You buy what you need rather than stuffing the refrigerator. A balanced fertilizer, that is one with equal percentages, say 5-5-5 or 10-10-10, is fine in most situations, but by juggling the numbers manufacturers were able to make their products appear unique. And that’s when marketing with numbers began. But do you really need all that fertilizer? If you’re growing in pots and planters, indoors or out, yes you will need it, as most soil-less mediums have little or no nutrients, unlike real soil.

In the garden it’s a different matter. Remember that middle number, the one representing the phosphorus percentage? The soil in this area began with a limestone base, and as it degraded over time we were left with plenty of phosphorous in the soil. Garden soil doesn’t need any extra. In fact, so much has been added waterways are being polluted by it. 

As for the last number representing potassium, it’s only likely to be deficient in light, sandy soils, not in the typical clay soils we have in our gardens. This leaves nitrogen, the first of the trio. Nitrogen does not stick around in soil, which is why we’re forever fertilizing lawns. By adding compost and mulch, nitrogen and other nutrients are returned to the soil as the organic material is broken down.

Bottom line: If your plants are growing poorly, fertilizer is rarely the solution, and too much can be deadly.Your pots and planters will need it, so use the fertilizer of your choice, ideally, one with a ratio corresponding to 3-1-2 that lists additional micronutrients. These are important and usually found in the fine print.

Finally, do heed the directions. Like soap powder in the washing machine, more is not better. 

Saturday, December 2, 2023

How to Motivate Your Plants

Ever talk to your plants? I chat with the schefflera in the corner of my living room occasionally, but outdoors I restrict myself to walking around muttering. Naturally, I swear at weeds, but who doesn't? And I do try to keep it down because the neighbours are a little sensitive.

Now Edgar, the fellow next door, is serious about this plant communication as he calls it. It all began on a winter evening a couple of years back. He was up late nursing a sick philodendron (and I suspect a large scotch). Said he'd been chatting to the plant a bit — swears it helps.

He eventually fell asleep, as he usually does. When he awoke, it was around 2 a.m. and the TV was still playing. He was in a kind of middle of the night stupor, trying to decide whether to go to bed or finish the night on the couch, when the show on TV caught his attention. It was one of those self-improvement programs. The host was a motivational speaker, babbling on about positive thinking and how to motivate growth.

When Edgar heard the words “motivating growth,” he perked up. He poured himself another drink while he thought about what the fellah was saying. It made a lot of sense. Edgar didn't particularly want to become a motivational speaker, but it occurred to him that if the techniques being described could motivate people to grow, they might work on other things — like plants.

Well, thanks to the guy on TV, the scotch, and the philodendron coming out of intensive care, Edgar became a believer — and a few hundred dollars poorer. He whipped out his credit card, grabbed the phone and ordered the whole package of books, tapes, and videos. Everything he'd need to change the world, or at least his small part of it.

Edgar spent the rest of the winter practicing. He practiced and practiced until he knew everything possible about motivational speaking, body language, vocal techniques, and eye contact — everything he'd need to rouse an audience to action.

He practiced on his dog (ignored him), he practiced on his teenage boys (hopeless failure), and he practiced on the mailman (junk mail increased). He even tried motivating his wife (I understand she went to stay with her sister for a while). But when he practiced on the philodendron — success. Surprisingly, it flourished.

By spring, Edgar was ready. I watched as each morning at dawn he went down into his vegetable garden to give the young plants the full benefit of his new skills. Edgar had a captive audience. He flipped over an old half-barrel planter to use as a podium and put on an amazing performance, just like the fellah on TV.

He'd jump off the barrel and run out into his audience. Next, he was on his knees, beseeching them like a TV preacher. Up and down the rows he went, cajoling, encouraging, cheering them on, making eye contact with every single plant — and of course, motivating: "Yes, you can do it carrots, just a little longer! Come on sprouts, sprout! Beans, be all you can be!"  Talk about flowery speech! And yet it was a success.

Of course, just like any other seminar, those paying the most attention gained the most benefit. Judging by the state of his lawn, the weeds must have been hanging on his every word. But Edgar swears it was a success. I'm not so sure. I was surprised how well the cabbages did, and they might have grown bigger if he'd been able to keep it up all summer, but by June the neighbours were being difficult again — they called the cops.

 Edgar is still practising his oratorical skills — they don't seem to help much; he still has trouble getting served in the coffee shop. He's still watching late night TV too. He tells me there's this woman with a Chia pet that she stands inside a pyramid surrounded with rare crystals — swears she gets three crops a week. It seems expensive though. I think I'll stick to spreading it on real thick — compost, that is.

Monday, November 13, 2023

You probably don’t need to know this

Here’s a little trivia to share, however, it might only elicit a few murmurs of huh, okay, or how about that — if you’re lucky. The only occasion when it might be worth repeating is when a conversation has stalled and is almost beyond recovery. It might help if there’s an amaryllis handy, preferably in bloom, or at least sprouting leaves.

It’s then you could pipe up and say, "Although we might call them amaryllis, the correct name is Hippeastrum, a genus of plants from South America.” Right, you needn’t have bothered because few give a hoot about the botanical nomenclature of plants. Botanists do, although they don’t always agree. They long debated whether the ones we know and love belong in the genus Hippeastrum, a group of plants native to South America, or should they be classed as Amaryllis belladonna, a plant from southern Africa?

The argument went on until 1987 when the 14th International Botanical Congress decided our seasonal houseplant was indeed from the genus Hippeastrum. Fortunately, they agreed amaryllis would be a “conserved name”, meaning it was okay to continue calling it what we always have done.

Regardless, these plants that brighten our homes as days shorten are all the result of hybridisation of Hippeastrum species from Central and South America. They’re selected and bred for flower size and ease of forcing in a gorgeous range of colours that continues to expand.

As for Amaryllis belladonna, the one that caused all the confusion, it’s a plant that you’d more likely see growing outdoors. In more temperate regions around the world, it’s become naturalized. One of the common names for it is naked ladies, so named, not after the band, but because the flowers bloom before the leaves appear, like the fall crocus. It could be grown in our gardens as a summer flowering bulb, that is if you can find it.

I’m afraid my suggestion of a garden plant that you can’t easily buy is about as useful as the bit of trivia, so back to our good old amaryllis. You might be unloading one with the groceries right now as they’re currently being sold everywhere. If you also bought a monster garlic or some kind of exotic root vegetable, make sure it’s the amaryllis that goes in a flowerpot, not the soup pot because it is somewhat toxic to humans, but only if you eat a lot. Dogs and cats, however, can become quite ill if they were to chew on a bulb or eat the leaves.

Now that I’ve sorted out the plant that no one was confused about until I brought it up, here’s how to care for it. Some come ready planted with complete instructions, but if you’re starting out with a bare (don’t mention naked) bulb, choose a pot that is slightly larger than the bulb, preferably a heavier one to avoid tipping.

Don't bury the bulb completely in the pot, just two thirds to three quarters deep leaving the shoulders exposed. A specific potting soil isn’t necessary. Place in a warm, sunny location and water sparingly at first as too much can cause rotting. Gradually water more as the leaves and flower bud appear and fertilize every couple of weeks. To prolong blooming, move it to a still bright but slightly cooler location.

Pinch off the blooms as they fade but keep the leaves growing for as long as possible to replenish the bulb. To get it to flower again next winter, sink the pot in the ground outdoors in spring. Cut off the foliage after it dies back, then leave it be until September.

Repot in fresh soil, bring it indoors, repeat the process as above and you can look forward to it blooming a second time — how about that, huh?

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Creepy plants for Halloween

Call that scary, kid, you with the blood drenched costume and your buddy with the axe? I have far scarier things in my garden. You wouldn’t get out of my backyard alive after chomping on some of the plants I grow, and my shed is fully equipped with zombie fighting weapons. Gone are the delightfully fragrant flowers. It’s a plant cemetery now, filled with their decomposing remains.

The garden is now at that stage of annual decay, but it’s still a fascinating place and I have no fears of anything residing there. As for corpses, I do have one plant that does smell like something rotting, and I don’t mean from normal decomposition. It’s alive and flowering, and looking quite healthy. It’s a carrion plant, one of those unusual creations in nature that emit the, should I say fragrance, of rotting flesh.

You may be thinking of the famous ones that make headlines every time they flower, usually in a conservatory at a botanical garden where they’re typically grown. That’s the titan arum, or Amorphophallus titanium, also known as the corpse plant, and mistakenly described as the worlds largest flower. It’s certainly a huge plant. The current record of one in captivity is 3.2 metres. It reached that height in the Botanical Gardens Bonn, Germany in May 2013. The titan arum grows from a corm, and one set a record at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh weighing in at a remarkable 153.9 kg (339 lb). As for being the largest flower, well it does produce the largest bloom in the world, except it isn’t a single flower, but an inflorescence, that is a cluster of hundreds of tiny flowers.

The real champion in flower size is Rafflesia arnoldii, a strange plant that grows only in the rainforests of Sumatra and Borneo, where this brown speckled plant that looks a little like a fungus pokes up from forest floor to bloom for only a few days. It has no visible parts other than a single flower that can be as much as a meter across.

What all these plants have in common is the odour they produce to attract insects to carry out pollination, and because of that they’re known as carrion or corpse flowers. Amorphophallus konjac, or voodoo lily, is another one, and it’s quite a stinker. I made the mistake of growing one as a houseplant and to the dismay of the rest of the family it flowered while I was away. I returned to find it in the garage beside the garbage can. I still have a couple in the garden that are hardy enough to survive there. Fortunately, they can’t compete with all the sweeter smelling flowers.

My most recent experience with a carrion plan was this summer when a friend offered me a small Stapelia variegata, a houseplant also known as starfish cactus. I wasn’t familiar with it and left it outdoors until the beginning of this month when I moved it indoors where it surprised me by producing buds. I was so excited until it flowered, then the smell. Being a small plant, it wasn’t that noticeable from a few feet away, but up close it’s a nose wrinkler. I quickly moved it back outdoors before anyone else noticed — I didn’t want to find another plant beside the garbage again.

Despite the odour (it isn’t that bad) it is a fascinating plant. It’s a succulent, a plant that stores moisture in its leaves, but it’s not a cactus, despite looking similar. The flowers are flattened slightly like a starfish, and the ones on mine are speckled brown, although there are other cultivars in other colours. It’s a plant from southern Africa, and although the odour isn’t strong, I can’t imagine what it would be like to stumble into a huge patch growing on the veldt.

Too bad the timing is off. It would have been the perfect plant to set on the porch with the pumpkin. It might not scare anyone, but it would sure put them off the candy.

Saturday, October 7, 2023

Lotsa leaves -- indoors and out.

Leaves are falling in abundance, and not just outdoors. Chances are they’re clogging up the vacuum cleaner in the living room, too. When plants arrive indoors after returning from summer vacation on the deck, we shouldn’t be too surprised if they begin to shed a few leaves.

As days get shorter and light levels fall, it’s a signal to plants to slow down, even stop growing for the winter. Outdoors it happens slowly, but when a plant that spent the summer outdoors is suddenly dragged indoors where light levels are considerably lower, the plant is thinking winter, already? What happened to fall?

Between the shock and the panic it shuts down, stops growing and the leaves begin to fall. Leaves that weren’t healthy in the first place soon turn yellow and drop off. After a week or two the plant adjusts and rests awhile until late winter when it will begin to produce new growth.

Sometimes the plant owner panics as well, immediately reaching for the fertilizer in the mistaken belief the plant is starving to death, except force feeding a plant has the opposite effect. Instead of producing healthy leaves, guess what — they turn yellow. Fertilize only when there is active growth.

Yellowing leaves may be due to disease — bacterial, viral, fungal — and without a thorough examination by a Doctor House houseplant doctor, it can be hard to determine the cause. More than likely, if the plant was reasonably healthy outdoors, it’s less likely disease is the cause. More likely insect pests have hitched a ride indoors.

If left outdoors, most insects quickly succumb to frost, but when transported indoors they think they’re wintering in Florida, and since there’s usually a bit more action happening on a winter vacation, it only takes one pair of amorous bugs to begin producing offspring and soon enough they’re swarming over the plant, sucking the green life out of the leaves.

It’s not always obvious there are bugs on the plant as (a), they are frequently green, making them hard to see, or (b), they’re too small, making them hard to see, or (c) they’re green and small . . .

The usual suspects are aphids or spider mites — or both. The aphids tend to cluster around the stems and at the tips of new growth, if there is any. They are easy to see when clustered together, but by then they’ve already been reproducing like crazy, and worse still, aphids don’t need a mate to start a family.

The other pest, almost invisible to any one over fifty, is the spider mite. They love warm, dry homes, so conditions are perfect for them to start a new family. They can be found mainly on the underside of leaves and look like tiny reddish specks. Here’s where a magnifying glass helps considerably. Look closely and you’ll see that these tiny specks are moving about. They’re not true spiders; in fact, a real spider might keep them in check, but if one also happened to hitch a ride indoors, chances are it was flattened on sight by a half-crazed arachnophobe.

 When bringing plants in for the winter, it’s essential to check thoroughly for hitch hikers. Even then, they can be missed, so give the plants a good soaking with a 40-parts water to one-part natural soap solution — not detergent. Best place to do this is outside or in the sink for small plants, otherwise into the shower with them. Spray every part of the plant — over and under stems, leaves, branches and even the soil surface.

After about fifteen minutes, rinse off the soap. Repeat a week later to be sure you got all the beasts. Oh, and if you have other plants indoors, quarantine the newcomers or you’ll be needing the garden rake indoors.

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Shred Those Leaves

It's fall, and once again I have designed and built my very own leaf shredder. This one is the Mark Three model. The Mark One and the Mark Two were failures . . . well, not failures, just a little too risky to operate. Using them could have got me featured in one of those TV shows on extreme sports. This model is much safer.

I first began designing and building leaf shredders about five years ago. The Mark One used an old electric lawn mower that I tried to modify by cutting a hole in the top and mounting it on a wheelbarrow.

The idea was that I'd stuff the leaves through the hole where they'd be finely chopped by the whirling blades below before falling into the barrow for composting. It did work, but only one handful at a time, and after seeing what it did to the wheelbarrow when the mounting came loose I quickly remembered that I had only two hands -- each containing five, very useful, fingers. I junked it; there are some things you don't want to discover when turning compost.

The Mark Two was much more promising; it almost resembled a store-bought shredder. I built it with parts from an old washing machine. I was able to use the drum as a hopper and the motor to drive the shredding rod. With a few modifications to speed up the rotation, the mark two looked as though it might do the trick, but I never did get the chance to toss any leaves into it. As soon as I plugged it in the thing took off down the yard like a Star Wars pill bug battle droid.

What surprised me was the illusion I'd built artificial intelligence into the Mark Two. The way it zeroed in on Mrs. Fellini's cat was astonishing. I didn't even know the cat was skulking around behind the spirea. When the cat leapt the fence in a single bound the shredder immediately changed direction, rolled up its extension cord and unplugged itself.

Fortunately, the length of the cord limited its range otherwise I would have had some explaining to do to Mrs. Fellini. I dismantled it right away before it figured out how to plug itself back in. The last thing I need is a barren wasteland and a leaf shredder thinking it's smarter than I am.

Now I have the Mark Three. I made this one with a large plastic barrel that I'd planned to use for storing rainwater and the motor from a hot tub pump that I decided might be a tad powerful for the pond.

This one is a much simpler design than the Marks One and Two, and I'm sure it will be a winner. All I’ve done is attach the motor to the bottom of the barrel and added legs.

At last I'm ready to shred, and I can't wait. All I have to do now is find enough leaves to begin performance trials. Did I mention it resembles a huge food processor?

It's funny how actions that would normally be considered uneventful can be seriously misunderstood when performed out of sequence. As a gardener/inventor it seemed perfectly logical to me:

             (a). Leaves needed to test out new leaf shredder.
             (b). Collect leaves.
             (c). Leaves have not begun falling yet.
             (d). Leaves grow on trees.
             (e). Collect leaves.

I shouldn't have climbed the tree. All right, it may have appeared a little unusual, but I don't think there was any need for the neighbours to call the emergency response team. It was so embarrassing, and I had a fair bit of explaining to do.

At first I told them I was trying to rescue a cat, but they heard Mrs. Fellini snort when I said it, and when I dropped the bag of leaves they had me. They were all for taking me downtown (Mrs Fellini was yelling encouragement), but I was able to convince them to let me demonstrate my leaf shredder and prove that I wasn't nuts.

Lucky for me it worked perfectly first time. It might have been better if I'd let the leaves dry out a bit first, but it did a terrific job. I flicked on the switch and dumped in the bagful of maple leaves; it pureed the lot in two seconds flat. The emergency guys were so impressed they went and used the ladder truck to collect more leaves.

They all wanted to try my new shredder, and then they had to see what it would do to tomatoes -- cleared out the veggie garden. They were having so much fun I couldn't get rid of them. A couple of them want the plans so that they can build their own. One is into wine making and the other is crazy about pesto.

Funny, in no time at all I went from a code twenty-three to a harmless eccentric to a brilliant inventor. I may have to patent the mark three.