December 28, 2008

Just when you thought it couldn't get any weirder

I don't think this has anything to do with plants, but I can't resist.
Japanese scientists reproduce images directly from brain scans  You have to love science first reported in a journal called Pink Tentacle, right?  And when it involves fringe science, you have to look.  I have to ask my favorite neuropsychiatrist what he thinks of this.  Pink Tentacle has an image here.
via  Massive Dynamic's Science News

December 23, 2008

Check your mailbox! There's magic in it.

As seed catalogs are filling up mailboxes all around the Northern hemisphere at this season, here is a piece on seeds & seedage I wrote several years ago (2002) for the now defunct North American Cottage Garden Society magazine Small Honesties, edited a bit to bring it up to date.

Growing plants from seed is a chance for experimentation, investigation, and even excitement.  Sometimes we gardeners get a bit carried away with seeds, as I did again starting late last summer.  I ordered madly from Canada, England, Wales, France, Italy, Germany, Russia, New Zealand and the Czech Republic.  Those catalogs from England!  The pictures!  The descriptions! There is so much there one could spend a whole life just trying the seed from one year's edition of the Chiltern list.  And then there's Mr. Fothergills, and Moles, and the Archibald seed list....Who knew there were so many kinds of sweet peas? of pansies? of lilies and Alliums and crocus?  This seed searching fanatic immediately imagines a field dotted with her own crocus raised from seed, never mind the voles who would eat them before they ever bloomed.  I've raised lots of colors & forms of roses and Siberian Iris from seed, I can do anything, right?  Eight kinds of peonies, ten of Iris, five of roses.  Twelve new Delphiniums. Six colors of radishes, four of beans. A handful of Eremurus and gladiolus.  A night-scented geranium, the fragrant pocket melon, rose-scented grass, lemon scented hyssop.  So many things simply unavailable in the US.  How could you not dip in with a big net and see what would come up?

And the envelopes come in the mail, crisp and pretty & official, or crumpled and covered with stickers, postmarks and lovely foreign stamps.  This is the nearest I will get to the Sakhalin Islands, or Chioggia, land of striped beets and big warty green sweet fleshed pumpkins, or Nepal.  The packets are large and showy and covered with Italian and French and Arabic, or cheery (overconfident) instructions.  Some are modest glassine packets with tiny handwriting, some are embarrassingly full.  Suddenly I am the richest woman I know.

Then of course there is the sowing and tending. . .who needs stratifying outside in the winter snow, who needs the comfort of the heat mat, who wants nothing more than to be tossed into the first spring melt?  It is like getting to know exotic divas and learning their every wish.  What pH?- Drainage? Scarification? Timing?  The desk is a festival of paper and cryptic notes from all the research.  (Norman Deno's books and Asle's website are invaluable here.)

And when I open the packets, I swoon again at the pretty little things within.  Some primulas and gentians are so fine I cannot feel them on my finger when I go to sow them and must use a magnifying light to see where they land.  Pansy and viola seeds resemble ivory corn kernels or little pearls, all plump and shiny.  Delphinium seed has a Napoleon's tricorne effect to it and peony seed is about the largest non-vegetable seed I sow, like black corn.  Lavender seed is as fragrant as the flowers or leaves, shiny and the Labiatae family's tell-tale oval shape.  Corydalis and Lewisia seeds are shoe-button black and shiny, adorable little things that slip from your fingers if you exhale too strongly.  A little nervous perspiration is a good thing here.  (And big paper bags if you collect your own Corydalis seed: the pods pop open even more agitatedly than Impatiens, so cut them a bit green & long-stemmed, bag then tail end up and loosely tie the bags shut--soon you'll hear them hitting the bags and if you didn't use a deep enough bag, find them all over the kitchen.  All over. )

Seed from trumpet vine, Campsis radicans, is a thinnest paper envelope like onion-skin from a large architectural woody pod.  Deno advises me to soak and PEEL the things-I try-I cannot.  I sow them under white sand and they germinate anyway-whew.  Many things need scarification (read: scratch/sand/clip--to break the tough coat they wear) before they will sprout.  Iliamna will sprout immediately if not sooner if you do this, or take a year or two (or three) if left to its own devices out of doors.  Except the seeds are about this size: o .  You can imagine how fun this is to do, and how hard, when it is all to easy to cut the seed too and kill the poor things.  I use teeny Chinese sewing scissors, a tweezer, a hand lens, morning light and take the phone off the hook. 

The Penstemons and Primula I am getting more casual with, tucking them in under grit and banking them in the unheated greenhouse or cold porch until further notice.  Further notice comes from a few things that decide to go ahead and germinate in December instead of waiting through a 40-70 cycle as advertised.   Slowly at first, I plant a few pots and trays, then more and more as winter progresses, then the berserk rush in February and March.  And when I begin to get a bit overwhelmed, I need to begin transplanting!  I often meet myself coming and going then.

And then the magic show really starts:  the French purple asparagus is asparagus from the 'git-go', its first tiny shoots the size of a sewing needle but entirely recognizable as asparagus.  No waiting around making a 'seed leaf' nonsense here.  I put down the watering can and call my Mother to exult. 

Doing germination tests of the vegetables, I find that the purple radishes and basil are purple from the start, tiny calligraphic squiggles in bright magenta and violet.  The Dahurian larch seedlings toss off their seed coats like parasols and when I lift the seed pan covers in the mornings I see silvery dots of water tipping all the shoots of Commelina.  The  Cerinthe sprout two per seed, big fat generous sprouts and the only thing I know that does.  Iris and Belamcanda are Irisy immediately, like I'm peering down from a great height.  Peeking into the cold pans on the porch I see Cyclamen leaves about a 1/16 of an inch across emerging from glistening pink seeds-turned-nascent-corms, and on the heat mat the Cinnamon vine shoots are emerging from their little tubers, sleek and shiny and heart-shaped on straight skinny necks like swans.  Giddy from delight, I move from tray to tray and forgive myself all the work to come in transplanting and potting on.

(Note: Last summer the USDA's invasive-weed contingent decided to deny all entry of seed from outside the US w/o phytosanitary certificate of inspection; many countries won't give those w/o first receiving an import permit; one must apply for the permit first from the USDA but of course they no longer read their mail, they just burn it. And some firms can only get the certificate on ounce or larger lots of seed.  A friend tried to get seed from England this spring and got a stiff letter from the USDA.  What the future of seed importation will be I do not know.)

--Today (2008) there is a way to import seeds for the small gardener, though it does require permitting and jumping though the hoops to get the permit; but at least the access to seeds has not been completely shut off.

December 13, 2008

Brrrr! Blizzard! Brr!

Winter finally hit last night.  Oh, it's been cold, in the teens already, and a few skiffs of snow here, with plenty up above on the mountain.  But it dumped a foot overnight, and commenced blowing about 5:00 am, the windchimes tinkling and treetops began to unload.  Supposed to hit 40mph winds this afternoon.  Think I'll stay inside and think seed catalogs....glad I am not on the road to craft fairs today!