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July 11, 2015

Saturday Gardening Thread: Favorite Things [Y-not, KT, Weirddave]

Y-not: Good afternoon, gardening morons and moronettes!

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Welcome to your Saturday Gardening Thread, brought to you by Julie Andrews:


Today's thread is inspired by a question I had from a member of the horde who is contemplating a move from the Midwest to Southwest. He wanted to know what flowers grew well in my area of Utah, which led me to think about my favorite plants from the different parts of the country where I've lived.

Seemed like a good topic for a lazy Saturday afternoon. I'd love to hear which plants you like best from where you live, especially if they speak to you of "home."

I've mentioned before that I'm in Zone 7a at roughly 4,500 feet. At that altitude, the aspens in our neighborhood (and in my yard) do well. (I believe they prefer even higher altitudes, but ours are large and healthy.) So if I had to pick one plant that says "Utah" to me, it would be aspens.

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Here are my other favorite plants from my travels:

Southern California, Zone 10a

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We were blessed with an abundance of fragrant trees, shrubs, and vines in California -- it's very hard to choose just one. If pressed, I think I'd go with jasmine. We had a particularly impressive vine growing on the pergola outside our master bedroom -- so delightful.

Indiana, Zone 5a

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Poison ivy! OK, just kidding... although that would be appropriate. Our home in Indiana was on a hill that was covered with poison ivy... as my (highly allergic) husband sadly discovered!
On to my "favorite" plant, I remember there being a lot of lovely peonies in our neighborhood, including in our yard, so I guess I'll go with them.
Peony.jpg

Texas, Zone 9a

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There are many great choices from Texas, but I'd probably go with azaleas, which make Houston absolutely glorious in the early Spring.

Massachusetts, Zone 5b

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I'd probably go with Lily of the Valley, which I always associate with my grandparents' house and my mother, who grew up there.

Illinois, Zone 5b

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That's a tough one. I was living in the city and spending a lot of time in the lab, so I didn't pay much attention to the plants back then. The University of Chicago had a lot of nice trees, including the one above, an elm planted in honor of George Washington.

Vermont, Zone 4a

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Is there any other choice but the sugar maple?

Maryland, Zone 7a

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No doubt about it, the flowering dogwood. Runner up would be magnolia.

How about you? Tell us your location (past or present), including hardiness zone, and then the one plant that says "home" to you.

And now, without further ado, here's KT:

Being Green

The drought continues. It is not that easy being green around here. Our problem is a little different from the one that prompted existential musings on the part of Kermit the Frog.

I once knew an older gentleman named Kermit, from a Toastmasters Club. His typical response to "How are you" was "Fine and Dandy". Of course, he did not have to struggle with being green. But I think that this particular gentleman would have been "fine and dandy" even if he WERE green. Sometimes perspective matters. If Kermit can be happy being green, maybe I can learn to embrace my non-green surroundings.

Sometimes reality matters, too. Even before the drought became as serious an issue as it is now, I knew that I could not grow a big garden this year. One of the first plants I decided to skip was watermelon, for two reasons: (1) I have never been much good at growing them and (2) they take more water than some crops.

But I managed to buy a really excellent watermelon for the Fourth of July. I thought I might get some pointers from The Horde on growing them in the future -- say, if a big El Nino replaces our current drought with flooding. Not that watermelons can live in standing water.

Why not throw in some advice on another green-skinned fruit, the Winter Melon? I have never grown them successfully, either.

Old Fashioned Watermelons with Seeds

My first experiences with watermelons in the garden involved accidents. One year my mother planted both roundish Lemon Cucumbers and Sugar Baby Watermelons. She accidentally picked baby melons as cucumbers for a while because she was not sure what the cucumbers should look like. Later, neighbor kids accidentally helped us out by picking almost-ripe melons. No watermelons that year.

Fortunately for us, members of a farming family who came to our home fairly regularly to practice for musical events later supplied us with great watermelons. The sandy loam on part of their farm was perfect for watermelons, and they knew just when to pick them.

I seem to have continued the family tradition of watermelon failure as an adult. When we had access to enough land to grow watermelons, Mr. Bar-the-Door dreamed of growing giant invite-all-the-neighbors-over Black Diamond-type watermelons, but our attempts have been disappointing so far. Often we have had problems growing watermelons on clay soil. Even when we got a few undersized melons, we had difficulty deciding when to harvest them. The rules about brown tendrils or leaves next to the melons don't seem to work in our garden.

Our (legal) friend from Mexico decided one year that we needed to "give air" to the roots of our little watermelon plants at about the time they first bloomed. He dug a narrow trench several inches deep with his finger, several inches from the row of plants. This did not seem to help the plants. Maybe it helps Mexican watermelon plants.

We still dream of someday growing and harvesting a really great watermelon. I became familiar with some interesting cultivars through the Willhite Seed Company in Texas, They bred a lot of big old-fashioned watermelons, specializing in orange and yellow ones.

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Orangeglo Watermelon

They later started breeding hybrid watermelons and muskmelons. We discussed this seed company's travails with a new watermelon disease, Watermelon Fruit Blotch, in an earlier episode of the Saturday Gardening Thread. The real problem was actually our litigious society. I think this company remains a good source for seeds, especially for small growers. Don't expect fancy packaging, though it was once possible to buy large quantities of seed canned at their facility.

Big melons like those bred by Willhite can be lots of fun in the South, but in the North, small to medium-sized watermelons are more practical. An open-pollinated melon of interest for northern gardeners is Blacktail Mountain, bred by Glenn Drowns of Sandhill Preservation when he was living in the mountains of Northern Idaho. He started its development when he was 17 years old. The watermelon list at the Sandhill link above also includes the distinctive Cream of Saskatchewan, which reportedly originated in Ukraine.

My piano teacher always stored a few Winter Queen Watermelons on her cool back porch from a late harvest -- by farmers. She was a flower gardener and did not grow her own watermelons. The melons had sweet, light pink flesh and big seeds. Sandhill carries two similar watermelons for storage, King Winter and Wintermelon. Gardening Morons and Moronettes in the desert may wish to try Red Seeded Navajo, which has a reputation as a storage melon. Or you could try yellow-fleshed Desert King, reputed to hold well on the vine.

There are some enticing F1 hybrids among old-fashioned watermelons with seeds, too. Sweet Beauty is a small oblong melon. I can believe that its plants are vigorous, but I have my doubts about 3 foot tall watermelon plants. Had anyone grown this one?

I am still waiting for someone to develop a watermelon that turns yellow at the peak of ripeness. The open-pollinated ones I have tried have been disappointing. Has anyone in The Horde tried Diana?

DavesMelons.jpg

Where do seedless watermelons come from?

Last fall, Y-not snapped a photo of some Autumn Crocus flowers. These plants are the original source for colchicine, a chemical used both to treat gout and to double chromosomes in plants. In nature, most watermelons are diploids, with two sets of chromosomes. Plant breeders like to double the chromosomes of many types of plants to get tetraploid versions, which can still make viable seeds.

In order to breed a seedless watermelon, you need to cross a tetraploid female with a regular old-fashioned diploid male parent. The resulting triploid hybrid is sterile. Because both the pollen and the female parts of the flower are sterile, the triploid plant must be crossed with a normal diploid plant in order to stimulate fruit formation. North Carolina State University has an interesting article on the challenges of breeding and growing seedless watermelons.

MadScientist.jpg

This is a job for a Mad Scientist
And for some more methodical scientists, too.

The costs of developing suitable parent lines (plus the considerable costs of crossing them for seed production) makes the seed for seedless watermelons expensive. The plants are also more challenging to grow than regular watermelons. Commercial growers typically plant one diploid "male parent" plant for each two triploid "female parent" plants. Both parent plant types will produce watermelons, but only those from the triploid plants will be seedless. It may be difficult for home growers who are growing just a few plants to get adequate pollination of the triploid plants if bees are not especially active.

It is important to have garden space if you want to try growing your own seedless watermelons. Watermelon plants are space hogs. It is probably a good idea to get seed from a seed house that tests its cultivars in home garden conditions. Or, you could choose an AAS winner that has been pre-tested.

Around here, immigrants from Southeast Asia and their families grow even great big watermelons on sturdy, tall vertical trellises. They tie the melons in slings as they grow larger. This is one option for increasing pollination success of seedless melons by increasing the number of plants you can grow.

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Growing watermelon vertically

Winter Melons

Asian winter melons are actually gourds. They are not sweet like a melon. They have attractive yellow flowers intermediate in size between those of cucumbers and squashes. They generally grow on rampant vines and need quite a bit of heat. I tried growing them one year in our hot-summer climate and did not get any mature fruits. Maybe I planted them too late. Their seeds resemble watermelon seeds.

The waxy coating on more mature fruits makes them an ideal storage item for winter. Among their many uses is the famous Winter Melon Soup, served in the elaborately carved shell of the fruit on fancy occasions. But this labor-intensive step is not necessary.


How to make Winter Melon Soup

A smaller version of the Winter Melon is known as Mao Gwa, Hairy Melon or Fuzzy Gourd. A few people who are partial to serving it with glass noodles call it The Hairy Godmother. The fruit is often used at a younger stage than Winter Melon, while it is hairy rather than waxy. Wear gloves, as the hairs are sharp.

Willhite sells an Indian second cousin of the gourds above (different genus), the Tinda Gourd. It is picked small, when it resembles a green tomato. I have grown this plant on a fence, where it is attractive. You can substitute the fruit for summer squash in recipes, though it should be peeled or scraped. It can be stuffed. Try some nice Tinda Masala.

Hope you have a great time in the garden this week. Maybe you can join me in a dream about growing something new in the future.

Thanks, KT! Now, here's Weirddave:


As the calendar turns, we find ourselves in mid July, so I thought it was an opportune time to remind everyone of something that often gets overlooked in the heat of full summer: The importance of exercize.

By now your garden has probably sprouted, the plants are thriving and starting to bear fruit or flowers, and everything seems to be going well. The mistake that many home gardeners make, however, is forgetting to give their plants proper exercise. Without it, plants become logy and weak and may not stay healthy into the fall months.

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Just out for a stroll bro

Walking your plants is an excellent way for them to get their healthy exercise and for the two of you to really bond as omnivore and foliage. While it is important to not over do things, you should not be afraid to set a pace that really allows the plant to stretch it's roots. The rule here is the same as for humans in the gym: no pain, no gain.

Many people find walking boring. That's understandable. Have you checked to see if there are any local plant dance classes? The local YMCA here in Baltimore offers many wonderful programs for plants, with various skill levels from beginner to expert. If you do decide to experiment with plant dance classes, make sure to find a location that offers free trials, different types of plants prefer different schools of dance. It would be a shame to pay for a full semester of ballroom lessons if the potato you have prefers disco. Use your money wisely.

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Step..two..three..kick!

Those of you familiar with rule 34 will not be surprised to find that there is a small but active community of folks out there who insist that plants can get all the exercise they need by mating with humans. Those of you unfamiliar with rule 34 should count your blessings and move on to the next paragraph. The National Association of Humans Sexing Trees Yearly ( N.A.H.S.T.Y ) is one of the chief proponents of this. Let's just say that the results have not always been pretty.

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Move along, nothing to see here. Really.

In any event, whatever activity you chose, please chose one and stick to it. Your plants can become neglected and droopy if they don't get proper exercise. I know that it's a lot of work when summer activities like beach, vacation and road trips are calling, but as gardeners we are called upon to be good stewards of the produce entrusted to our care. Don't let your plants down.

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Look how sad he is! He needs exercise!


Y-not: To wrap things up...

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Nice melons!


What's happening in your garden this week?

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