Monday, October 14, 2013

Looking Back: Heavy Lessons on Thinning Young Fruits

Peaches in my garden - summer 2013 

Too much of anything is not a good thing.  There is balance to be observed between that which is beneficial and that which is permissible for a healthy life - plants included.   This year we were delighted to see a beautiful crop of peaches which is attributed to the absence of leaf curl infection.  The drier weather from late winter to early spring was not conducive for the proliferation of the pathogen Taphrina deformans.  In previous years, the tree would lose all its early leaves leaving the developing fruits to starve until the new set of healthy leaves come out.  Sometimes the fruits also get infected which results not only in low yield but poor quality crop.  

As the fruits grew larger under the summer sun, the problem slowly surfaced.  The slender stems laden with fruits began to hang straight downwards.  One of the larger branches was so heavy. I was afraid that it might break.  We had to prop it up with three pieces of 2x4x8 lumber.  I admit that my tree is not in its best form.  Pruning on this tree has been mainly for the purpose of making sure it does not arch into our neighbors' yard.  (I doubt they appreciate peaches falling into their swimming pool.)  This effort has led to the formation of a lop-sided tree.  It is a nice tree but it not strong enough to bear a heavy crop.  
A heavy fruit load can be detrimental to the tree.

Based on the situation described here, the problem that needed to be addressed is excessive fruits.
Under favorable growing conditions, such as what we had this year, fruit trees set more fruits than they can support adequately.  And this problem is magnified when trees have not been properly pruned in the previous season.  A heavy fruit load can result in branch breakage.  When there are too many fruits competing for carbohydrates, the fruits cannot reach their optimum size.  The tree also gets nutritionally deprived and weakened - making it more susceptible to pests and even sunburn damage.  Another possible effect of excessive fruits on trees is alternate bearing (the cycle in which the tree bears a heavy crop in one year and a skimpy or no yield in the next).  This phenomenon happens when the tree is nutritionally deprived while supporting its fruits - a situation that will continue to plague my tree until I will muster enough discipline to remove the excess fruits when they are young.  

Rule for fruit thinning:  Mature fruits should not be touching each other.

Peaches are among the fruit trees that require fruit thinning for best results - superior quality fruits are produced while maintaining a healthy tree.  As a general rule, allow room in between fruits so that at maturity fruits should not be touching each other.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

HortiCOOLture - Designed for Dispersion

Bitter Melon fruits are dehiscent - they crack open when ripe.

Plants continually amaze me.  The designer of life, I personally believe it to be God, made sure that each one is uniquely equipped with everything it needs to succeed.  For plants, success means to be able to reproduce their kind.  They photosynthesize and grow in order to flower.  Flowers eventually turn into fruits.  Fruits bear the seeds.  The seeds are dispersed to begin a new life.  And the cycle goes on.  Unlike other organisms plants do not have the mobility that would facilitate dispersal of seeds.  Nonetheless, plants have the ability to lure other life forms and the environment into scattering their seeds.  In the wild world where cultivation is not an option, plant seeds are dispersed by animals, wind, and water.

Case Example
Bitter melon (Momordica charantia L.), a member of the Cucurbitaceae family, produces fruits that are characteristically bitter.  Unaided, this unpalatable plant has a chance to grow only on the same place over and over again.  That would be a losing proposition.  But this plant is equipped with a mechanism that compensates for the bitterness of its fruit.  First of all, this plant is equipped with dehiscent fruits.  Dehiscent fruits are those that split open at maturity.  Most plants in the Cucurbitaceae family produce fruits called pepo with thick rind like that of the watermelon, pumpkin, and cucumber - they are indehiscent fruits.   But the bitter melon is one of the rare exceptions.  The fruits crack at maturity.  Secondly, as the fruit opens, the seeds that are encased in sweet red membrane are revealed to the rest of the world inviting all to come and have a taste.  Animals cannot resist the succulent and sweet seed-covering but they leave the seeds elsewhere.  At this point, seed dispersal is complete.

Have you observed any special plant features that aid seed dispersal lately?

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Tomatoes in September

Fig. 1   Harvest ('Sun Gold' and 'Super Fantastic' -  September 18,2013)

Today my husband brought in these tomatoes from the garden.  They are still producing and the fruits are still sweet and juicy.  Here in our area, as long as we continue to tend to these indeterminate tomatoes, we can expect to have fresh tomatoes until early November or Thanksgiving depending on the weather.  

Fig. 2  Super Fantastic showing flower buds as of September 18, 2013

As seen on the growing tips of the indeterminate 'Super Fantastic' tomatoes (Fig 2) flowering continues even as we approach the end of summer.  In fact, they will continue to flower until the temperature gets too cold. (Determinate tomato varieties, on the other hand, will cease to flower in spite of favorable growing conditions.)  At some point however, even when the flowers set, low temperature will hinder the fruits from growing into reasonable-size tomatoes as they will also fail to ripen.  This is the reason for fried green-tomatoes in my kitchen.

Fig. 3  Beautiful fruit set

I also noticed some signs of tomato worm damage in the tips of the tomatoes.  Fortunately, because we have resident Blue Jays in the garden, the damage is not extensive at all.  

 How are your tomatoes doing this month?

Friday, September 6, 2013

Pride of Madeira

 Echium candicans
Common Name: Pride of Madeira
Family: Boraginaceae
Plant Type: Annual or Biennial or Shrub
Country of Origin: Portugal (Madeira), Spain (Canary Islands)
Zone: 14-24

First encounter
Every year, for one reason or another, we would find ourselves roaming or driving along the coast of California enjoying the wet salty breeze on our skin.  This is what inland-Californians do, I guess.   And almost always, my eyes seem to be awakened and drawn towards an elegant shrub covered with purplish blue flowers flower heads that point to the sky.  The Echium candicans is a very delightful plant overall.  I fall in love with it every time I see it.  I can remember seeing it first a long time ago (before internet was open to everyone) in Carmel while on the 17-Mile Drive.  Looking at it from a distance I knew I saw something good that I wasn't looking for.  From that time on I saw it again many times but it was when my family was visiting the Mission San Luis Obispo that I came very close to the "Pride of Madeira" (its American nickname). The temptation to have this plant rushed all over me that I could not resist to break off a tiny branch from the shrub. Wrapped in a moistened paper towel tucked it in a plastic bag, the branch came home with me.   I gave all the necessary tender care and it rewarded me by showing me some roots and then new leaves grew.  The plant lives!  But when winter came that year, the plant died.   And I didn't even know its name.  

Funnel-shaped flowers are borne on spike-like panicles.

Facts about the Pride of Madeira
It was only when I started working at the nursery that I came to know more about the plant.  I found out that this plant has the following attributes:
  • Large gorgeous plant (5-6 ft tall and 6-10 ft wide)
  • Beautiful purplish-blue flowers from spring to summer float above foliage.
  • Evergreen (green and grey-silver) leaves
  • Attracts butterflies, bees and birds.
  • Drought tolerant in the coastal areas 
  • Tolerates poor soils
  • Deer Resistant
  • Poisonous (all plant parts)
  • Reseeds - it can become a weed if unchecked.

New branches do not grow on old wood. 

Factors to Consider in Growing Pride of Madeira

  • Sun - Full Sun or part shade in hot climates (like mine),
  • Soil - moderately fertile; sand, clay or loam; well-drained soil.  Neutral or alkaline pH.  Rich soils can hinder good flowering.
  • Fertilize during growing period.  No fertilizer is required in winter.
  • Pruning for shape is not necessary.  If you need to prune only within the branches that have leaves.  The plant branch only on new stems.  
  • Deadhead to avoid reseeding.
  • The plant naturally forms into a round shrub.
  • Protect from frost in situ with frost cloth.  Young growths are susceptible to freezing temperature.
  • Potential pests include snails and slugs especially when the shoots are young.

Recently, my family visited Angel Island and again "Pride of Madeira", in full bloom all over the island, captured my heart. (The pictures featured in this post were all taken from the island.) The sad truth is - this plant is not adaptable to my Zone 9 climate.  But I will try to bring her to my garden one more time.

Did you know?  Echium candicans is poisonous.  This is probably why it is deer resistant.  

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Garden Bunny

It's been almost two years ago since Lexy, the bunny, came to be part of our family.  My youngest child wanted a pet when her big sister went to college.  We adopted one of the rabbits that have been abandoned by their original owners. We chose Lexy because she's litter box-trained and looked docile which meant that my daughter could pet her.  She's a house bunny - we had to sign an agreement that we will not let her live outside the house.  But even a house-bunny needs to be in a cage because there are cords lying around that are in danger of being chewed into pieces.  

Discovering the secret spaces in the garden.

This house bunny is a garden bunny by day.  She gets the necessary dose of sunshine and enjoys a little bit of freedom being with the rest of nature out there while nibbling on some fresh greenery.   When no one is there to keep her in line, she is confined in her outdoor cage on the shady area of the lawn.  She used to be scared whenever the neighbor's dog barked from the other side of the fence. Watching her ears twist as they listen to the source of unusual sounds around was quite entertaining.  But now she feels secure - observant but not easily startled.  She has a box she can run into whenever she needs the security of an enclosed space.

Lexy sits in her cage on the lawn.

There have been some changes in the garden, of course including the increase of nitrogen levels on some areas of the backyard.  The wood pellets from her litter box are being used as mulch for the acid-loving shrubs in the yard such as roses and boxwood.  All that is needed is to add extra nitrogen fertilizer necessary to feed the hardworking microorganisms during decomposition process.  These wood pellets mulch are also very effective in suppressing weeds.

Nibbling on everything but spitting out the unpalatable.

Lexy is a quiet bunny but she adds life in the garden - socially and organically.  How is your own pet changing the course of nature in your backyard?

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Bitter Gourd

Momordica charantia L.
Family:  Cucurbitaceae
Common Names in the US*:  Bitter Melon; Bitter Gourd; Balsam Pear

One vegetable vigorously growing in my garden at this time in the season is the bitter gourd (Momordica charantia L.).  This vegetable was a part of my everyday diet in my earlier years.  Sadly, it has increasingly become a rarity since I moved to California.  But this trend is soon to be reversed. With my success this year, bitter melon may yet become a regular item in my summer garden.

Bitter melon is an important vegetable crop in the Philippines and all of Asia.  The fruits and leaves are edible - both bearing a strikingly bitter taste that varies in intensity depending on variety.  

In my village, bitter gourd is believed to be purgative.  Newborn babies (before their first taste of their mother's milk) are given a teaspoon of bitter melon tonic - pure extract from the leaves of the plant. This blackish-green delight is bitter enough to squeeze every facial muscle of the infant.  As if this is their initiation into the world.  However, this does not diminish the fact that bitter melon is an acquired taste even to Filipinos.  For my grandmother, the more bitter the parya (Ilocano word for bitter melon) the better it is.  But to my grandfather, parya and food did not go together.
In the bigger world, bitter melon has gone a long way.  Extensive research has led to understanding the medicinal properties of the plant down to molecular levels.  Bitter gourd has emerged to be one of the most significant botanical remedies for type 2 diabetes.  Recently,  AVRDC - The World Vegetable Center spearheaded a project called the Bitter Gourd Project which "aims to improve the incomes and health of the poor in developing countries, particularly the quality of life of diabetics, through scientific research on bitter gourd (Momordica charantia L.)."  But as for me, bitter gourd or bitter melon is just one of my favorite vegetables in the world.  

Now let's talk about the plant. 

Bitter gourd is tender perennial - in this area it is treated as an annual plant.  The vine grows eight to ten feet in length with robust branching and foliage growth.  It looks delicate but its every node bears a tendril that allows the plant to secure itself easily on trellises or other plants.  The palmately lobed leaves are beautiful.  

The flowers are bright yellow and very fragrant.  Just like all other plants in the Cucurbitaceae family, the bitter gourd is a monoecious plant - having separate male (staminate) and female (pistillate) flowers on the same plant.  Only the pollinated female flowers turn into fruits. 

Fruits of bitter gourd are generally warty with colors ranging from dark green to white.  They can be small and rounded (one-inch diameter) to large and elongated (3-inch diameter and 15-inch long).  The plants growing in my garden have small and elongated fruits with an average length of 3 inches.  

Growing Bitter Gourd
  1. Choose sunny location - afternoon shade in hotter climate like mine.  Bitter gourd can be grown directly into the soil or in containers. Mine is growing in a five gallon bucket.
  2. Incorporate compost or decomposed animal manure into soil.  
  3. Plan and install support structures for plants (I attached wire mesh on the fence but you can used bamboo stakes or trellis). 
  4. Direct sow plants in warm soil after the last frost.  Water the seeds thoroughly.  It takes about a week for seeds to emerge.  
  5. Protect seedlings from snails and slugs - I've learned it the hard way.
  6. Water regularly to keep soil moist but not wet.  
  7. Mulch to conserve soil moisture and reduce weed growth.
  8. Fertilize bitter gourd when there are two tendrils stretching out of the stem.  Repeat every two to three weeks. 
  9. Yellowing of the leaves can be a sign of nutrient deficiency.  Remember:  Low-dose fertilizer applied frequently is better than high dosage at a less frequent interval.  
  10. Check for pest and diseases regularly.  
  11. Harvest fruits when they are green and shiny.  When fruits begin to turn yellow then it is too late.

Have you ever grown bitter gourd in your garden?  And have you eaten bitter gourd before?  What did you think? 

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Dioscorea macrostachya

 Dioscorea macrostachya 
Synonym: Dioscorea mexicana
Family:  Dioscoreaceae
Common Name:Tortoise Plant
Country of Origin: Panama, El Salvador, Mexico

Fig. 1  Caudex on close-up view - resembles a tortoise shell.

The caudex which is the thickened and enlarged base of the stem is what gives this plant an extraordinary visual appeal.  Part of the caudex grows above-ground exposing a hardened outer layer that resembles a tortoise shell .  As the caudex expands, the hardened layer breaks into almost regular polygonal plates that becomes protuberant with age leaving deep furrow in between (Fig. 1).  

Fig. 2  Flowers and leaves on long vines

The pictures here are images of the specimen Dioscorea macrostachya at the Conservatory of  Flowers in San Francisco.  From the appearance of the stem and leaves, this perennial plant looks like and ordinary vine (Fig. 2).  Capable of growing up to 36 feet in a year, this plant is a vigorous grower.   Unless you take the time to  guide your eyes to follow where the vine originates, it would be so hard to imagine that the caudex below (Fig. 3) is related to the far-reaching vine with the heart-shaped leaves.  

The plant  

Fig. 3    Branches arising from the caudex.

As a normal sequence of events, every year, a new set of branches emerge from the apical end of the caudex and dies back at the end of the season depending on growing conditions.  In the tropical forest where this plant would be found in nature, the caudex would be sitting in the shade where it prefers to be with lots of water.   Sunlight requirement for this plant is relatively moderate.  The new vine would then have to reach up above the other plant canopies to access to direct sunlight.  Thus a rapid growth of the vine is necessary for existence.  The rate of growth of the caudex is a function of the photosynthetic rate on the foliage.  

Fig. 4      The Caudex: Tortoise-like

Dioscorea macrostachya is grown as an ornamental plant as it adds oddity to any plant collection.  

Suggested reading on Caudiciforms:

Find time to walk in a garden today.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Japanese Tea Garden - San Francisco

Stone Lantern

My family was in San Francisco for a weekend getaway last week.  Guess what places ranked high on the list of preferred destinations.  Gardens.  January is not the best time to see flowers but it is definitely a great time to see the bones that makes a beautiful landscape.   We toured most of the horticultural points of interest inside the Golden Gate Park.  One of the places we went to see was the Japanese Tea Garden, which is claimed to be the oldest public Japanese garden in the country.  

Stone statue

What is A Tea Garden anyway? Originally, a tea garden was intended to be a serene place to prepare the mind prior to entering the tea house.  In the tea house a tea ceremony (as taught by Sen no Rikyu) is performed.  By design, the tea garden avoids artificiality in an attempt to emphasize the natural appearance of the environment.  According to literature, the stone lantern, stepping stones, clusters of trees and shrubs, and gazebos that are incorporated in modern-day Japanese gardens have their origin in the tea garden.

The Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco successfully integrated all the mind-calming elements of a ceremonial garden.  Although they do not offer Tea Ceremonies at this time of the year, they offer an excellent selection of teas at the gazebo.  We tried some of their teas and enjoyed a tray of mochi.  However, with the number of tourists milling around, one can hardly experience the garden-inspired peace and meditation.  Thank goodness we were there for the aesthetics and not the spiritual experience.

Carefully trained trees

The lack of flowers forced me to focus on the characteristics of a Japanese.  I thought about the serene look of the garden and what contribute to all that.  A few things stuck out.  The garden mimics natural landscapes but presented in reduced scale.  The trees are severely clipped and controlled to regulate their size. That is why topiaries are prominent fixtures in Japanese gardens.   Stones, used to mimic larger things in nature, are spread throughout the garden.  I noticed that water is an essential element of the garden. Fountains, ponds, and miniature-falls bring coolness to the garden.

Metal and wood combined give a sense of strength on the gate..

Sound and motion from water fountains contribute to the calming effect of the garden.

Stone-trough and rocks give the impression of permanence while mimicking views of boulders and ponds. 

Intricate details on buildings add elegance to natural construction materials.

Stepping stones suggest a regulated walk in the garden - allowing time to appreciate the surroundings.

Still waters multiply the effects of the garden elements.

Gardens that are mature are a great source of inspiration.  Take the time to stroll them.  

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Super Bowl 2013: Go 49ers!

The Bay Bridge

We were in San Francisco last week visiting some of the horticultural points of interest at the Golden Gate Park.  As we approached the Conservatory of Flowers we saw recent plantings of succulents (Echeveria spp.) on both sides of the stairs that lead to the building.  The city is very proud of its team.  People show their support with their T-shirts, cars, cakes, hats...but the one that I favor the most is the one that is expressed through the gardens.  

Writing with Succulents

 "Rooting" with Succulents  :)

Happy Super Bowl, Everyone!

Monday, January 28, 2013

Succulents: Survivors of the Winter

Aloe spp.

When planning for hot and dry condition planting, succulents are often among the top candidates because of their ability to withstand prolonged periods of drought.  On the other when it comes to planning for winter interests, seldom do they ever get recommended.  This could be because of an unspoken assumption that when a plant is heat tolerant, it does not like the cold.  This assumption is not valid.  Like all gardeners who have grown some of them, I can say that with the appropriate variety and suitable location in the garden, succulents can be among the few interesting plants in the dead of the winter.  While the rest of the traditional plants go into dormancy, some succulents continue to grow changing their colors in response to the temperature and light intensity.

Echeveria 'Neon Breakers' (Fall)

Echeveria 'Neon Breakers'  (Winter)

Succulents cover a wide range of plant species that originated from places of varied climes.  Some have come from the tropics (rain might be prevalent but some succulents grow on trees where the roots cannot reach the ground); arid regions (deserts have low rainfall and high temperatures that limit water supply); coastal areas (water may be available but it is usually loaded with high levels of salts and minerals - beyond the threshold levels for most plants); and the alps (precipitation may come fresh in relatively larger quantities but it is frozen and unavailable for plant consumption).  With that in mind, it is not surprising that some succulents respond differently under varied  environmental conditions. And that is why, some succulents can be winter gems even in temperate areas.

Aeonium 'Kiwi'

      Sedum rubrotinctum 'Pork and Beans'

Succulents is the collective term for drought-tolerant plants with the characteristic thickened fleshy organs (leaves, stems, or roots).  Whether the plants evolved (over the years) to come up with this type of specialized fleshy tissues as survival mechanism or whether they were originally endowed with such characteristics the first time they sprouted in the Garden of Eden, I am not sure.  However, if such character traits of succulents allow them to survive the extreme dry conditions, how much more would they favor the plants that are grown in gardens where almost everything is manipulated to provide favorable conditions for the plants?

Wooly Rose (Echeveria cristata 'Doris Taylor')

California is known for its generally mild climates but my garden - being in the foothills of the Sierras - experiences both ends of the thermal spectrum.   We have very hot summers and freezing winters.  Over the years I have observed that only few of the succulents in my collection are susceptible to the cold.  In fact most of them are very resilient and they display very interesting colors during the colder months.

Aeoniums, Sempervivums, Aloes, and Sedums are among the ones that consistently do well in my garden.  Others like Echeveria also do well depending on variety and microclimate. The earlier they get the morning sun, the better - as this would shorten their exposure to freezing temperatures.  Although succulents prefer some amount of shade in the summer, plants that are placed on the south-facing side of the garden have a better chance of withstanding the harsh winter nights.

With the right variety and microclimate, succulents can be the garden gem that sparkles in the winter.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Streptocarpus: My Own Plant

Streptocarpus spp.
Family: Gesneriaceae
Common Name:  Cape Primrose
Country of Origin: South Africa, Madagascar and  Asia

Fig.1    Streptocarpus flowers intermittently throughout the year.

It's been two and half years ago since I first saw a Streptocarpus in full bloom and the plant was not mine.  This time I have a clone of that same plant which has been growing in my kitchen.

Streptocarpus is probably one of the most beautiful flowering houseplants.  It is regarded in high esteem by plant enthusiasts not only because of its pleasing beauty but also because of its durability  as a plant. It is an evergreen, herbaceous  plant that grows well in shade - making it a great indoor plant.  This stemless plant blooms almost throughout the year as long as it is regularly fed with complete fertilizer (preferably with a high phosphorous content). They are related to the African violets but have a different morphological structure that makes them more appealing than their shorter relatives.

Fig. 2     Flower buds originating from the petiole of a leaf.

One of the most interesting observations on Streptocarpus is that flower buds originate from the basal section of the leaves (Fig. 2).  That's right; the flowers emerge from the leaves.   The first flower bud always grows closest to the axil as seen on the picture above.  The flowers come in clusters and indeterminately arranged on long slender peduncles that extend well above the top of the leaves giving the appearance of floating flowers (Fig. 3 and Fig. 1).  The flowers open in succession which allows a prolonged flower show (Fig. 1 and 5).

Fig.  3.  Clusters of unopened flowers.

Fig. 4  Delicate tubular flower on slender peduncle.

The flowers come with a delicate tubular corolla which extends out into deeply scalloped lips that resemble individual petals (Fig. 4).  The tube of the flower is usually clear white with increasing pigmentation towards the lobes with the lower lips being darker than the upper lips.  The peduncle (stem-like structure that supports the inflorescence) starts out curled and slowly uncurls as it elongates to display the ethereal inflorescence (Fig. 4).

Fig. 5     Flowers open in succession

Cultural Management  

1.  Provide sufficient moisture but not soggy soil.  Over watering is a common cause of damage on the plant.  Water only when the top of the soil feels dry.  

2.  Position plants in light but not direct sunlight.  East facing window sills work best.  Putting plants on a hot sunny window sill will cause burning on the leaves. 

3.  Feed regularly.  Fertilize during watering using low fertilizer concentration (about 25% of recommended rate).

4.  Allow sufficient room to grow.  Divide or re-pot only when the pot is full of roots to the next size using peat-based multi-purpose media.

5.  Deadhead regularly.  Remove spent flowers (including dead leaves) to encourage continued flowering and to avoid Botrytis (Gray Mold) infection.  

6.  Monitor the occurrence of pests.   Regularly inspect plants for white and greenflies, aphids, mildew, and mealy bugs. (These pests can be a problem but so far I have not seen them on my plants.)  It is easier to control pests at the early stage of infestation.

Streptocarpus: a sturdy and delightful flowering houseplant.

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