Can You Say Gesneriaceae?

Last summer while strolling through the Paola Farmer’s Market, I stopped to look at plants for sale. One booth had an interesting plant with pink, cream, and green variegated leaves set in an old-timey aluminum pot. The plant was gorgeous, the pot horrendous, and when I figured out I was looking at an African violet (Saintpaulia ionantha), I had to buy it. The seller told me that the gorgeous foliage made up for the fact that the plant rarely bloomed.

I brought the plant home, put it in an east-facing window, and it bloomed. Immediately and profusely.

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Encouraged by my handiness with this one African violet, I decided to purchase a couple more. I found one at the grocery store that I liked. It was in bloom when I bought it and is blooming still.

Branching out, I found some online African violet vendors and bought a few more plants – some standard and some semi-miniature. I received plants with three leaves. They’ve all grown new leaves from a plant stand in a west-facing window.

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Next, I learned about self-watering pots, both ceramic and plastic. By using self-watering pots, I never have to touch the leaves with water – great invention (or so I thought)!

Finally, I ventured out to see the Kansas City African Violet Club’s plant show and sale. I came home with a couple more African Violets and a couple flame violets (Episcia).

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Yesterday I attended the last of our Extension Master Gardening classes: three hours on houseplants. What did I learn? Never put plants, especially low-light plants like African Violets, in the window. When watering – and this is true of all houseplants – water to saturation and then let the soil dry to allow the plant to breathe. Although the presenter backed off a bit when asked about drip watering. I imagine my self-watering pots are a lot like drip watering.

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African and flame violets are from the same family of plants, Gesneriaceae. Quite the mouthful! I visited http://www.howjsay.com/index.php?word=gesneriaceae to learn how to pronounce the word.

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I wonder which plants will live and which will bloom. Now that the 2014 growing season is done, this little project will keep me gardening through the fall and early winter. Soon I’ll be thinking about planting veggies from seed again – although didn’t I swear off that process last year?

http://www.hort.purdue.edu/ext/ho-10.pdf

http://www.ag.auburn.edu/hort/landscape/Aviolet.htm

Cover Cropping

I’ve gardened this season in the five raised beds that Jim and I built last fall. While we both agreed that raised beds would – and did – produce better results than the in-ground garden we tilled ten years ago or more, we wondered what to do with that garden.

Our first goal was to destroy the weeds! In early summer, we inveigled the grand kids into helping us cover the garden with clear plastic, held in place with bricks. Not an easy task since the garden is about 400 square feet. Laying the plastic in a Kansas wind was quite a sight! Between the wind and rain, the plastic was in shreds by mid-August and the garden once again choked by weeds.

My first inclination? Let’s make more raised beds! But in one of our vegetable gardening classes, I learned about cover crops.

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The approach is simple. Plant something in the garden that acts as an organic mulch, controls both weeds and erosion, and adds nutrients to the soil. Farmers have used cover crops as part of crop rotation cycles for decades.

Once I did a bit of research, choosing a cover crop was easy enough. Legumes add nitrogen to the soil, which I need to add according to my soil test. I picked red clover (Trifolium pratense L) and we planted it in late September.

The Kansas Extension article on cover crops said that legumes work best with summer vegetables (tomatoes, peppers, corn, and melons, among others). Since Jim plans to plant melons – watermelons, cantaloupe, and maybe a few honeydew – I’m sure red clover was the right choice.

We’re planning to use a ‘strip tillage’ approach, leaving the clover as living mulch. Maybe we’ll have weed-free paths through the garden. And although we may be creating a different kind of weed problem, we want to see the clover in bloom! A different kind of crop – my master gardener mentor tells me that red clover tea is soothing and the flowers are good in salads.

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Now my only remaining question is whether to plant a ‘trap crop’ of squash to attract the squash bugs and keep them away from the melons!

Interested in cover crops? My research may be of interest:

http://www.soilandhealth.org/03sov/0302hsted/covercropskansasstate.pdf

http://extension.missouri.edu/p/g4638

The Acid Test

My blueberries are not growing. Surviving not thriving? I’ve used a powdered soil ‘acidifier’ since planting them last fall, but I started to wonder. Was it doing the trick?

Since learning about the need for soil tests, I got out my trusty trowel and dug up soil from that bed. The results? My pH is 7.5 – way on the alkaline side of things. Since I planned to plant hydrangeas on the east side (same bed), I added sulfur pellets to the soil, side-dressing the blueberries.

And while out picking up the sulfur, I found two “pee wee” Hydrangea quercifolia (oakleaf hydrangea) that according to the nursery will not require a highly acid soil. We’ll see.

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I love the burgundy color and leathery look to the leaves, although the red is this plant’s fall color. I imagine the new leaves this coming spring will be dark green.

If you wonder how to amend your soil this fall, you may be interested in soil testing. Here are the how’s and why’s from the Kansas State Research and Extension office. Your State Extension Office may offer free soil testing too!

My House an Example of What Not to Do!

Oh dear!

Yesterday’s afternoon EMG class was all about landscape design. The presenter started off with a photo showing what not to do. And there, on the screen, was a picture similar to the one you see below. That’s my house!

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Now I know those yew hedges flanked by what I think are dwarf Alberta Spruce do not make a particularly imaginative landscape. But does it look THAT bad? Too 1970′s? Too ‘the dreaded’ 1990′s?

Fortunate for me, I can honestly claim that I had nothing to do with that particular landscape design. It was here when I arrived. In fact, I’ve softened it up a bit with a planting around the single hydrangea near the front door.

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So yesterday’s afternoon class was a bit of a downer for me. The morning class on vegetables was much better. I’ve ordered seed to plant a cover crop of red clover for my husband’s garden, which currently sports a nice crop of weeds.

Salve!

I didn’t much care for my fifth grade teacher – let’s call her Miss K. A large woman, Miss K bounced around a classroom making remarks that left a person feeling uncomfortable about herself. She even made the boys cry. Maybe you’ve had a teacher like her.

At that age – for some reason I was a year younger than everyone else – most of her remarks went right over my head. I just knew that Miss K did not like me as much as she liked other kids in the class.

Walking home from school one day (now in the eighth grade and about to enter high school), Miss K stopped and asked if I wanted a ride. I didn’t, but I also didn’t know how to say ‘no.’ So I said yes. Here’s our conversation:

Her: So you’re going to high school.
Me: That’s right.
Her: Are you taking Latin?
Me: No. French and German.
Her: (Sniff). Of course you’re not taking Latin. You will never need it.

Allium Christophii

Allium Christophii

Back then, I had no idea what she meant by that. I did ‘get’ the disrespect.

Now, some 50+ years later, I understand the comment. Thing is, it’s beside the point! As a gardener with a tiny grounding in botany, I sort of need Latin. Here is some.

Zinnia elegans

Zinnia elegans

This is what we learned in last week’s EMG class. Kingdom – Division – Class – Order – Family – Genus – Species. And I have to say, I’m glad I’m not a botanist! But I am using Latin…

Clematis Claire de Lune

Clematis Claire de Lune

Just so reading the Blog won’t be a complete waste of time for you, the more important lesson from our botany class was about matching the plant to the environment.

My example? I have a lovely place under one of my pin oaks that is calling out for hellebores (Helleborus orientalis). I’ve planted several different types from a couple of different nurseries, including one that I know for certain is hardy enough to survive out of my friend Lenora’s garden. As of this morning, they are all dead. Clearly the environment was not right for helebores. I planted some daffodils (Narcissus Icelandic Pink) instead.

And by the way, if you want to know how to pronounce those Latin names, the Missouri Botanical Garden site will let you hear the correct pronounciation online. Just click the microphone to the right of the name!

What I Shoulda Done

This week I ripped out my red and yellow day lilies. After five years of frequent bed cleanups, I decided to plant the bed with my favorite bush, hydrangeas. Of course, I wanted compact hydrangeas instead of the kind that get overgrown and messy.

In addition to reducing the mess and cleanup quotient, I remembered that hydrangeas love acidic soil, much like blueberries. And you guessed it! Last spring I planted blueberries ‘around the corner’ from the bed where I plan to plant hydrangeas. With hydrangeas HERE and blueberries THERE I can acidify the soil to my heart’s content. Easy!

We won’t talk about the clematis already established in that bed. They are doing fine and maybe can stand a little acid.

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But this week, I found out what I didn’t know. Tuesday was our first extension master gardener class. Dennis Patton from the Johnson County Extension Office talked about soil. To digress, once he finished discussing the definitions of ‘soil’ and ‘dirt,’ I thought I should change my Blog tag line from ‘Let’s play in the dirt’ to – yes, indeed! – ‘Let’s play in the soil.’ But it doesn’t pack the same punch.

So, soil. What I shoulda done was get a pH test for the soil in that bed. For two years, I’ve been sprinkling some product that claimed to acidify the soil. I shoulda known the name of the product, what it does, how much to use, those kind of things. But growing plants isn’t like baking a cake, right?

Oh so wrong. I still need to follow the established recipes! My blueberries are not liking their spot. Too little sun? Too little acid? Too wet? I don’t know…

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Tuesday I learned that the Extension Office will do a free soil test once a year. Knowing my pH will help me know what I can do – if anything – to make the soil acidic enough for blueberries and hydrangeas. Although I just read that the real acid-loving hydrangeas are blue.

Sometime in midsummer, I spotted a red hydrangea cultivar outside the grocery store and thought I’d make it my ‘test’ hydrangea for that bed. It’s had brown spots on the leaves since the end of July, and I kept telling myself that it was due to a lack of acid in the soil. But no. What I shoulda done was to Google ‘brown spots on hydrangea leaf.’ I would have learned that I probably have something called cercospora leaf spot, an infectious leaf disease. Since I have more hydrangeas on the way, the question is whether I pull that plant out or try to fix the problem with a fungicide.

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So glad I’m taking these classes. I’m still hoping that the summer of 2015 has fewer blues!