Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Foxgloves (29 NOV 2011)

This photo taken at the end of April is my favourite of this year so far. I remember how in awe I was with the scene; the cherry blossoms scattered over the "woodland" garden, the bluebells were in their prime, the foxglove spires on the point of emerging ...

April 2011 - Foxgloves about to bloom in the "woodland"
These are two of ten mixed hybrid foxglove excelsior plants that I raised from seedlings for an experiment on growing conditions.

The spires of the self-sufficient foxgloves in the woodland grew tall and slender while those in the sunny flower-beds were squat, they would have died without extra watering.

May 2011 - dappled shade in woodland
May 2011 - sunny flower-bed

However, the experience and experiments were marred by my biggest (gardening) disappointment to date, the appearance of black bean aphids which preferred to suck the juice from the soft buds, stems and leaves of my precious foxgloves over any of the other plants. I held back for a while hoping that ladybirds would feast on them, but they didn't so I resorted to spraying with soapy water, which worked temporarily. When the aphids returned and started to grow wings, I gave up. The puckered damage that they effected didn't stop the foxgloves blooming and producing seeds though.

black bean aphids grew wings
ladybird napping next to a foxglove seedpod

The majority which bloomed in spring were pink, speckled with burgundy; two of the weaker seedlings which didn't look so promising to start with developed into unique specimens with white and lime-green bells. I harvested their seeds to grow second generation seedlings, still keeping them suspended in the seed-tray to persuade them to develop later and lengthen next year's foxglove-flowering-fest.  


In March, before all the photos above were taken, I had sown more seeds from the original packet in preparation for next year's experiments. While most of the other seedlings succumbed to slug attack, the foxglove seedlings were unscathed. I moved them to a sheltered nursery patch, watering them till they settled in, then my attention was distracted by the annuals during late summer and autumn.

As that affair draws to an end, I decided that the foxgloves, which by this time were choking each other and sheltering unimaginable creepy-crawlies, could not be ignored any longer. Last week I dug up the flower-beds, thinned out the foxglove nursery and re-planted the excess all around.
more foxgloves grown from last year's packet seeds
June 2011
foxglove nursery
November 2011

foxglove nursery - drying out after thinning
... excess plants transferred to new locations

So there are more than enough foxglove plants, growing vigorously and suspended, to participate in whatever experiments I plan to conduct next year ...
While contemplating whether or not to rake out the fallen cherry blossom leaves from the woodland before transferring more plants from the nursery, I noticed foxglove plantlets already dispersed right up to the rear wall, children of the two plants in the top photo. According to the results of my 2011 experiment, this area is the prime location in the garden for growing foxgloves, with just the right exposure to shade dappled with sunshine. These conditions, combined with the weedy undergrowth, keep the soil consistently moist.       

parent foxgloves in November 2010
accidental foxgloves - November 2011

It struck me how similar the spacing of accidental seedlings compared to my forgotten nursery, maybe it wasn't choked after all. I wonder if foxgloves produce so many seeds intentionally, to create sacrificial plants which only exist to cover the ground and keep it moist for the reproducing ones.

The foxgloves that I raised are more mature and larger than the accidental plants. I could dig up the latter and replace them with a couple of the finest, hand-reared specimens as planned. However, in the grand scheme that might be an accident - I'll leave them be for now.

I'll be linking this post up to Donna's meme Word4Wednesday :  ACCIDENTAL.
Check out  http://gardenwalkgardentalk.com tomorrow for more Accidental posts.
©Copyright 2011 b-a-g. All rights reserved. Content created by b-a-g for http://experiments-with-plants.blogspot.com/2011/11/foxgloves-29-nov-2011.html

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Cottage Garden Annuals (20 NOV 2011)

What's in a name?  That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
- William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

A row of unlabelled roses, planted in the flower-beds along the right border many years before I owned the property, is the enduring legacy of the previous gardeners. I don't even know their names, but they certainly took care to choose plants for all seasons including a cherry blossom tree which provides shade to a miniature woodland garden.

When I'm on my knees weeding between the crooked paving stones, I wonder why they decided to raise and pave the bottom half of the garden with steps leading down to a handerkerchief lawn at ground level near the house. It may have seemed a good idea at the time, but if only they could see it now.

I can only judge them by what they created and the fish-shaped bird bath that they selected. It's broken and dated, but still treasured now.

At first I blamed everything that was wrong with the garden on them (Who planted a rampant wisteria right next to the helpless cherry blossom tree?).  Gradually, as the seeds that I have planted here have grown and bloomed, I have taken ownership by fostering the inherited plants (except the clerodendrum which recovered luckily and is here to stay) and doing my best to enhance rather than change the work that has already been done. 

From the beginning of my gardening adventures, I debated whether to fill the flower-beds with perennials. It seemed a sensible, low-maintenance solution but I was wary because of warnings that perennials are for life, not just a season.

While I made my mind up, I decided to plant annuals for a summer spectacle. The first batch of seeds which I had chosen individually were mostly killed by slugs; the second batch of cottage garden annual mixed seeds were germinated in my kitchen and planted late, with crossed fingers. I still remember the day when I looked at the pinch of different-shaped seeds in my palm thinking that I had missed the boat, but took the chance anyway.
Due to the unusually wet summer and late frosts in autumn, some are still in flower now ...

If I had known that the soil where the foxgloves and nicotiana had flourished previously was already impregnated with germinating seeds, I would have thought twice about superimposing more seedlings on top. Nevertheless these annuals refused to be stifled ...

unknown 1

I presume that sunflowers would thrive in the sun-trapped area of the garden rather than next to the fence and between two bushes, however these seedlings grew perfectly in the shade. I'll leave the plants in situ, in the hope that they will self-seed and put on a repeat performance next year. (Who needs perennials ? ...)

sunflower 1
sunflower 2

On the other hand, a seedling planted next to them turned out to be lavatera. It surprised me, growing taller than the surrounding bushes, surpassing the giant hollyhock, to get closer to the sun.


Meanwhile these plants trailed horizontally for at least a glimpse of the sun's rays, conjuring a day-dream of my flower-beds packed so full that plants overspill the bordering walls. 

unknown 2
snapdragon - thanks for the name Janet@Plantalicious

I've seen violet cascades of lobelias numerous times in hanging baskets, but I'd never stopped to admire the beauty of each tiny flower. It wouldn't occur to me to plant a single lobelia seed in the same way that I would plant a poppy seed. Unnamed, they were given the same opportunity to shine.

lobelia - thanks for the name Alistair@AberdeenGardening

double poppy

©Copyright 2011 b-a-g. All rights reserved. Content created by b-a-g for http://experiments-with-plants.blogspot.com/2011/11/cottage-garden-annuals-20-nov-2011.html

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Hydrangeas (09 NOV 2011)

Last winter I took cuttings from plants in my mother's garden, the ones that I had grown up with. Some of them were in my subscious from as far back as I can remember being alive. They were transplanted in pots in my garden and fared so well through the winter that I was abnormally cocky, wondering why people bothered buying plants when it was easy to propogate cuttings. Then we experienced an unusually hot period during spring when the garden dried out and they gradually wilted and died, watering only speeded up their demise, except for one.

Here's the parent in my mother's garden at the end of October. It's a lace-cap hydrangea which has inflorescences of tiny fertile flowers (with stigmas and stamens) surrounded by infertile flowers which are collared by leaf bracts coloured like pink petals to attract insects :

....  and here's the cutting in my garden.  I expected the flowers of parent and cutting to be the same but they're quite different : the showy infertile flowers are absent, the fertile flowers are more prominent. 

The elevation of the male pollen-coated anthers above the female stigmas is called reverse herkogamy. It's thought that some plants evolved this way to maximise precious pollen export for cross-pollination without the sticky stigma interfering or getting clogged.

Other plants have developed even further in their efforts to diversify their genes, exhibiting dichogamy, changing sex effectively to maximise both pollen export and ovule fertilisation. Pollen and ovules are protein-rich, their production expending much energy, but the plants are prepared to exert themselves as their sole aim in life is to produce as many seeds as possible.

Clerodendrum, otherwise known as mexican hydrangea, has been the highlight of my autumn garden. We have a love-hate relationship ... it grows uncontrollably, up through the patio a few feet away from the major clump and popping up on the other side of the neighbour's fence too. I cut it down to the ground last year, not bothered if I never saw its huge, sinister, foul-scented leaves again ... my feelings have softened since.

I didn't notice the intricate purple veining last year or how the heart-shaped leaves tried to woo me ....

When the flowers unfurl they are gender neutral.

The white style supporting the retarded stigma looks similar to the white filaments of the stamens except it has a brown tip.

It holds back while the anthers at the ends of the stamens start to produce pollen during the male phase.

Once their work is done, the stamens bend over.

The brown-tipped style elongates as its stigma becomes more receptive during the female phase.

In the wild, ideally insects fly from one plant in its male phase to another in its female phase, cross-pollinating them. Some seeds may inherit the weakest characteristics of their parents, some the best.

However, evolution has stopped in my garden as there is just a solitary plant.

As I examined how its flowers progressed through their phases, I sniffed a surprisingly sweet scent considering the odour its leaves emitted. Maybe I wont cut it right back.

This week I decided to share the link to my blog with someone from the real world.
At first I kept the blog a secret, I started talking about it in January but I didn't want to share it for fear of getting writer's block. I was amused at the first comment of feedback :
(1) it sounds like I was suicidal until I discovered gardening
(2) no wonder I spend such a long time writing posts
(3) the interaction of the blogging community is lovely


Different methods of pollination :

Pollination of inflorescences :

Botany : an introduction to plant biology   By James D. Mauseth

Hydrangeas under a microscope :

I'm not the only one who thinks that Clerodendrums are invasive :

I'll be linking this post to  :
Katarina's Blooming Friday "Same but Different" (11 NOV 2011) 

©Copyright 2011 b-a-g. All rights reserved. Content created by b-a-g for http://experiments-with-plants.blogspot.com/2011/11/hydrangeas-09-nov-2011.html

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Butternut Squash (02 NOV 2011)

While halloween is still in the air (or in the shops at least), I thought it would be fitting to post about the mysterious premature deaths of my baby butternut squashes  ...

I didn't intend to grow squashes this year but when my neighbour offered two baby plants, I couldn't resist. I never say no to plants looking for a home and usually end up giving them more tlc than my own, feeling under pressure to give a good report in case their birth parents ask after them.

The leaves started turning yellow while the plants were in their pots, so I transplanted them into a bag of peat-free compost. Whenever I visited them, I noticed a strange whiff and couldn't figure out where it was coming from until I poked about in the damp compost one day and couldn't wash the smell off my finger. I happened to glance over the contents of the compost bag a few days later and noticed that one of the ingredients was bonemeal, to compensate for not containing peat I suppose. Yet another reason to wear gardening gloves at all times.


The bonemeal may have contributed to revitalising them; a couple of weeks after the squash plants settled in the compost, they burst into life. The leaves darkened and grew bigger day-by-day. It's possible to over-fertilise, concentrating the plant's energy on growing leaves rather than flowers, but with a bit of beginner's luck, the balance in the compost seemed just right.

Fertilisers usually contain varying amounts of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. Bonemeal has a high phosphorous content, a good all-round fertiliser required for root-growth and setting fruit, and an adequate amount of nitrogen which ensures robust leaf-growth without suppressing blooms.



Many flowers bloomed and some little squashes followed.

Even though the plants looked extremely healthy, the fruit would grow to about two inches long then just shrivel and drop off without any sign of infestation or fungal growth.  (Squashes can host phytophthorafungus or be attacked by squash vine borers, though pumpkins are more likely victims.)
I assumed that the problem was due to lack of fertiliser and accepted it, not wishing to add an artificial product; not because I was precious about being an organic gardener, I just want to understand what happens when nature is left to its own devices.


Only one fruit progressed to maturity (the second photo makes it look bigger than reality). It had a green tinge even after its growth plateaued for over a month. I gave up when the newspapers reported that unripe pumpkins were on sale for halloween due to an unusually wet summer.

While I was researching natural fertilisers, to make notes for my next attempt at squash farming, realising that a potassium-rich fertiliser might have enlarged my squash to supermarket-size, I discovered something that maybe most gardeners are aware of.      Am I really the last to know ? ...

Squashes have male and female flowers. You can tell the difference because the females have a bulge at the base where the fruit starts to form (like a pregnancy). A bee must transfer pollen from a male flower to a female flower in order for a squash to develop and become a seed container. Farmers maximise yields by hand-pollinating.

Guess I should be grateful to the bee which didn't get distracted by the marigolds and allowed me to enjoy one squash this autumn.


To read about the history of squashes, from the Three Sisters farming technique developed by Native Americans to pumpkin beer brewed by the Pilgrims : http://www.allaboutpumpkins.com/history.html

Why grow butternut squashes instead of pumpkins? This web-page seems to make sense :

Why and how to hand-pollinate squashes : http://pumpkinnook.com/howto/pollen.htm
This website also has a comprehensive explanation on fertilisers in the How to Grow section.

Bonemeal contains a high percentage of phosphorous which is a good all-round fertiliser. Potassium (found in bananas) promotes fruit growth :

I baked and stuffed my butternut squash with blue cheese and walnuts and served it with a trickle of honey :

©Copyright 2011 b-a-g. All rights reserved. Content created by b-a-g for http://experiments-with-plants.blogspot.com/2011/11/butternut-squash-02-nov-2011.html
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