Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Roll the Credits

Funny how Frost causes all my foliage to melt.  My yard looks as though it has weathered nuclear fallout.  It’s time to roll the credits.

I’ll be honest.  I welcomed the frost.  Although the idea of moving south to the Land of Mild Winters and Long Growing Seasons appeals to the idealist in me, the realist faces the music:  I haven’t even got the stamina for Zone 5's demands.  August is about my limit, so you can imagine what my garden looks like by the time November rolls around.  Frankly, Old Man Winter will do me a favor: he'll weed my garden free of charge.

The credits are rolling on this column as well.  As winter’s icy grip seeps into Kankakee county, my gardening inspirations are going dormant.  The wily weeds, the bothersome bugs, the persnickety plants: they're all bedding down for a long winter’s nap.  And as a wise man once said, "When in Rome....".  Really, as a mother to three rambunctious kids, hibernation is just naturally appealing.  It doesn't take much to convince me to take a rest (especially with flannel sheets cozying up the deal).  The time has come to give my aching Zone 5 fingers a break from the keyboard, but I’ll rev up the writing once again come spring, as my muses arise from their slumber.  I bid you adieu and wish you a Happy Thanksgiving, a Merry Christmas, a Joyous New Year and a Romantic Valentine's.  Hopefully St. Patrick's Day will find us all well rested.  On that note, I leave you with my 2011 garden awards recognition, also known as:

The Golden Glove Awards
(Not to be confused with any related Boxing awards)

The Tough Nut Award goes to our John Deere push mower.  It's been mistreated by the mechanically-challenged (me).  It's waded through excessively moist, excessively long grass.  It's wrangled with creeping Charlie and driven over doggie doodles.  It's been rammed into the picket fence repeatedly.  After all this, it still runs.  A machine like that deserves more than an honorable mention.  It deserves a 6 month vacation.

The Bad Guys We Love to Hate Award goes to the ridiculously rampant grass that attacked every one of my beds.  You may have declared victory this year, but I'll be on my toes and armed with hoes come spring.  

The Miracle Grow Award goes to my entire herb garden.  By my back door lies a patch of soil littered with huge buried chunks of concrete (after many attempts, I can tell you, removal is not recommended).  In this inhospitable, shallow sprinkling of dirt, Thyme, Oregano, Basil, Lemon Balm and Lavendar have taken hold (without any help from Miracle Gro!).

The Horticultural Camouflage Award goes to the vibrant display of Vinca and Alyssum by my front steps.  It did an admirable job of dressing up the continuing porch renovation.  Who knew camo came in pink and purple?

The Lewis and Clark Award goes to my son, Tyler.  Judging by the size of the gorge he dug in my back garden, I am forced to deduce he was trying to reach China.  In the future, Junior Explorers will be required to get work permits from their garden-Mama.    

The Delayed Gratification Award goes to my Hellebore.  I'm pretty short on self control.  When I spend money, I want to see results now (as opposed to 6 months later), so this was a very determined purchase.  When the first petals peek out of the snow this March, I will be jumping for joy in my flannel pajamas.

The Going Down in Flames Award goes to my Serviceberry tree.  Fall color simmered through the leaves like a Caribbean sunset.  After delighting in a full show of spring flowers and summer berries, I was amazed to see it had saved the best for last.

What Golden Gloves would you hand out in YOUR garden?

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Prolific Plants

Boy meets girl.  Since the beginning of time, this story has fueled lyrics in every language, marketed clothing trends, sparked a war or two, and made Disney an empire.  It’s a tale of attraction and commitment and it’s a story we never tire of hearing.  Plants, too, have an insatiable appetite for romance.

Flowers, in all their glory, are simply looking for a date.  The nectar, the petals, the fragrance, they’re not for us.  No, the real catch is a matchmaker (also known as a pollinator).  Plants, being rooted in the ground as they are, find it difficult to get out into the dating scene.  They must rely on birds and insects to make their love connections.  A flutter here, a wiggle there, bada bing, bada boom: pollen meets stigma.  Before you know it, there's a baby (fruit) on the way.  Everytime you slice a tomato, slurp a watermelon or crunch on an apple, remember: a little romance made this deliciousness possible. 

And while romance blossoms all over the garden, plants don't rely solely upon love connections for re-creation.  In fact, plants are like the gymnasts of the reproductive world.  They would win the Reproductive Olympics, if there were such a thing.  Consider one superstar: Hemerocallis a.k.a. Daylilies.  In addition to their romance-based seedheads, Daylilies spontaneously generate divisions (new plants developing at the root level) and proliferations (new plants developing on the flower scapes).   

These are examples of asexual propagation.  I can boil those eight syllables down to one:  “clone”.  There are several benefits of asexual propagation.  It removes the dependence upon pollinators, and allows the plant to spread autonomously.  Gardeners benefit from these reproductive gymnastics as well.  We can increase the supply of a particular variety quickly and precisely.  How do you think Stella d'Oro daylilies came to be everywhere?  Asexual propagation.  I think of these plants as little 'narcissists', with no room in their life for love (or genetic recombination).  

Daylilies aren’t alone.  Strawberries send runners out to form new plants.  Tomatoes root along the stems to create new life.  Tulips develop ‘bulblets’ at their base.  Members of the mint family, with their rampant spread, could be the poster children for asexual propagation. 

As if the plant’s innate programming to clone weren’t enough, people have gotten in on the act.  We snip off bits of root and stem, dip them in rooting hormone and grow a new plant.  Not many creatures have this level of reproductive ability.  Worms and starfish can compete in the Reproductive Olympics, but Plants take the gold every time.  

Technological advances now allow us to dice a Hosta into 100 pieces and develop 100 plants through a process called tissue culture.  It’s not the kind of thing one does in garden gloves.  Lab coats and sterility are required, which seems counter-cultural to the dirt-under-our-fingernails gardening psyche.  I tried my hand at it in college and decided it wasn’t for me.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that someone likes to do it, because I enjoy the benefits of horticultural mass-production (large supply = low prices = happiness).  It's just that lab coats don't appeal to the romantic in me.   

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Dueling Hummingbirds

After posting about the birdseed battleground outside my window,
I stumbled upon this post from a gardener near St. Louis.
Check out his up close and personal video of the dueling hummingbirds.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Seed's Pocket of Power

Birdseed Boxing Ring
Right outside our dining room window sits a bird feeder.  When I placed it out there, I envisioned serene moments watching nature's beauty.  As it turns out, it’s a bit more like watching Ultimate Fight Club.  Songbirds are surprisingly violent.  Don’t let their pretty colors fool you, it’s nothing more than war paint.  My dining room observations have revealed that even meek sparrows have a mean streak when the feeder is full.  I can’t imagine getting so worked up about seeds.  Having crunched down on my fair share of unpopped popcorn kernels, I can attest to the fact that seed-eating is no picnic.  My teeth can’t take much of that abuse.  Obviously these birds have never tried a Twix bar.  If one must fight to the death over food, it really ought to be oozing with caramel and covered in chocolate. 

In reality, though, when true hunger is an issue, we could teach birds a thing or two about violence.  And believe it or not, much of the fighting would be over seeds.  The human population easily consumes more seed than birds and I'm not just talking about sunflower-seed-spitting baseball players, or granola-baking vegans.  Worldwide, seed comprises two-thirds of the human diet.  Even hulking, red-blooded Americans who live on cheeseburgers, pizza and beer (and only use fiber as a punchline) are hardcore seed eaters.  The secret is in seed's pocket of power.     

Last week I compared seeds to suitcases packed for the trip to germination.  Personally, I never pack for a journey without tucking in some ‘goodies’.  Chips, apples, string cheese, Twix bars, you know, the essentials.  As it turns out, seeds pack a goody bag of their own.  Within each seed lies more than just an embryo.  Tucked in alongside it is a pocket of starchy, nutrient-rich material called endosperm. Like a horticultural Five Hour Energy shot, it provides potent power for the embryo.  Without it, there would be no 'juice' to fuel germination.  After sprouting, roots and leaves will provide a food source, but until then, endosperm is essential.  As it turns out, it's our favorite part of the seed. 

Consider one seed’s example: we remove the seed coat (bran) and the embryo (germ) and then process wheat’s endosperm into white flour.  (Grinding the germ and the bran in with it creates whole wheat flour.)  Just think, without endosperm, there would be no Panera Bread!  I shudder to think of it.  If that doesn’t bring a tear to your eye, consider a world without Uncle Ben, Orville Redenbacher, Almond Joy or Budweiser.  Yes, indeed, all of those rely on endosperm in the form of rice, popcorn, coconut and barley.

With the holidays approaching, I'm already anticipating plates piled high with pure deliciousness.  Without seeds, what would my plate have on it?  Cookies, breads and rolls would be out of the picture, with their flour-based recipes.  Pumpkin pie?  Kiss that crust good-bye.  You might not miss those lumps in your gravy, but without cornstarch (a.k.a. endosperm) you wouldn't have any gravy.  The Atkins Plan might approve, but the holidays would lose some tantalizing luster with this seedless, low-carb diet.  Endosperm might not be covered in chocolate and oozing with caramel, but I guess the birds were right.  Its something worth fighting for.  
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