Thursday, February 24, 2011

Snow is a Four-Letter Word!

A late-winter storm is coming down from the Gulf of Alaska to give us one more blast of winter. Here at the nursery, that is a serious emergency. Forecasters are calling for several snow accumulations of 3-4 inches each over a two day period, and then two nights of intense cold. The snow is an inconvenience, but the 18 degree nights that are predicted are a serious problem for us here.

We have lots of perennial plants in bloom at the nursery, and their foliage and flowers could be severely damaged by those temperatures. We also have many, many crops that we would have moved outside by now - all our gallon perennials except the tenderest, like salvias and hebes. We normally would have our 4" perennials in the field by now, or have their moving well underway.

Because of the record cold temperatures we have experienced in the past few years, we grew our 4" perennials in a different manner this year. Usually, we sow them in 288 cells from July to October, depending on seedling size and vigor, and then plant them to their finished containers in unheated houses in November. This year, we sowed them in 105 cells - a substantially larger unit - and kept them in houses that could be heated if necessary until after the first of the year. All were planted in their final containers in January and early February, and there was room to put them back in houses that could be heated. Our customers' advertising schedules are the drivers here - not the needs of consumers.

Many perennials that are in unheated houses are at risk from the coming cold temperatures. We have covered them with a non-woven frost protection cloth, which will stay in place until the weather changes. They are growing in an unheated coldframe - usually perfect for winter protection of perennials, and spring production of cold-conditioned annuals. 18 degrees would be nothing at all in many parts of the United States - it's 10 degrees in Spokane as I write - but the demand for marginally hardy plants in the Pacific Northwest has influence what we grow. And, we need to have really good perennials early in the season to keep our place in the market.

Here are some steel hoop houses that have 2x4 lumber crutches in place t0 reinforce their bows and ridge. All of our steel houses have had some damage in the past from snow load - of course, they are inexpensive structures that would have no utility whatsoever in harsher climates.

When we had our crazy snowstorm a few years ago, with 16" of snow over several days, we actually removed the polyethylene from most of our unheated greenhouses. We ended up cutting the polyethylene from 13 coldframes to save the structures. It was not extremely cold during that weather event, and all that snow was a great insulator for the crop. There is actually a nursery in the Skagit Valley that owns a snow-making machine - the kind that ski resorts use to supplement low snowfalls - that they use to cover their crops with snow in advance of Arctic air masses and low temperatures.

Guys have come into work today to help with snow removal. These unheated houses can easily carry the snow that is on them now, but we are concerned about the possibility of more accumulation. We've had situations in the past where a few inches of snow were on greenhouses roofs, and then freezing rain occurred. The snow on the roofs took up the water like a giant sponge, multiplying the weight, and then more snow fell. Nasty! That was the first year we ever cut poly to save greenhouses.

Only Chi and all the little kids that get to stay home from school really like snow here in western Oregon. For nursery operators, it means many hours of cold, wet work. And the 18 degrees? Months and months of careful cultivation can be destroyed over night. With all our precautions, temperatures in the unheated houses, under the thermal blankets, should go no lower than 25 degrees, and we will probably have modest damage to our crops if any.

Let's just hope that we'll have a beautiful spring this year, and that it starts next week!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

First Perennials are Starting To Flower

Today is a beautiful day here in western Oregon, and I had to get out of the office and poke around in the greenhouses. I even whacked on my roses a bit, and moved (with help!) a couple of pretty good sized bamboo plants that weren't in the best spots.

There are a few crops blooming up in the cold houses, the cheeriest of which are these bellis. They are in gallon pots, and ready to go to market. Bellis is a plant that has value in the earliest days of spring, but may not have much presence in the garden in warmer months. I think it should be treated like a hardy annual or biennial; enjoyed in its' moment and then removed to make way for summer flowering plants. These plants haven't had a bit of heat this winter, and will bloom for another six weeks at least. Bellis is great in early season pots with pansies and daffodils.

Here are some perennial scabiosas that are looking very nice. You have to look closely to see their plump, beautiful buds. They are a good perennial for a small scale garden... but for flower beauty I prefer the annual scabiosas. My Mom used to raise them for cutting, and we always have a few in jumbo trays at New Leaf in the spring, hoping that our customers will remember their wonderful flowers and ask for them. They have long, wiry stems, and are great cut flowers. As a child, I especially loved the black annual scabiosa with white stamens - its' common name is "Pincushion Plant."

Erysimum Bowles Mauve is a great perennial plant in every way, and one of the first to come into color in spring in western Oregon and Washington. Unlike bellis and the scabiosa depicted above, erysimum is a plant that has real presence in the garden and a long period of bloom... usually February through July. The flower stems, or spikes, continue to elongate and new flower buds are created as they grow. Plants will become quite woody, and live for many years. Plants I've planted typically mature at about 36" wide and 30" tall, and provide beautiful deep lavender flowers in abundance. It's a crucifer, a member of the cabbage family, and like all its' cousins it likes rich soil, sun, even moisture, and cool temperatures.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Making Standard Fuchsias, Getting Started....

Every couple of years, we make some standard fuchsias here at New Leaf Greenhouse. It takes about 9 months to make a nice standard, or tree fuchsia, and it's lots of fun. We like to offer them in our retail store, and independent garden centers buy them. We don't represent them as being suitable for planting in the ground here in the Northwest - they are a strictly a container plant that needs heat in the winter to live over, even if they are hardy varieties like June Bride. That's the variety that is depicted in the image.

We start with a clean, vigorous tip cutting in late May or June. Once rooted, the cutting is planted in a 4" pot. Some growers treat the cutting with gibberelic acid to promote stem elongation, but we have never found that to be necessary. After the cutting has gotten hold of the soil, and has begun to grow, we carefully pinch off each shoot that arises in a leaf axil. I prefer to cut the shoot off leaving about a 3/16" stub. If the shoot is torn away, there will be a proliferation of shoots from that point as the wound heals.

As many of you have probably observed, fuchsia are quite unique in their ability to generate bud after bud in their leaf axils. Most plants, geraniums in particular, have only one bud in each leaf axil. This ability generate shoot after shoot is one of the reasons that fuchsias are so much fun to grow in hanging baskets. Properly fed, they will grow and bloom beautifully on all those new shoots, generally about six weeks following a pinch.

The plant is tied very loosely to the support with green vinyl plant tie material. Do not use wire ties.

The most important part of raising standard fuchsia is this - never remove the leaves that come directly out of the stem. If those leaves are removed when the shoots are trimmed away, the stem - the future trunk - will not grow straight and strong, and the plant will not have enough vigor to make a good standard. You can see that the young standard fuchsia in the picture has a number of leaves up the stalk. These leaves often become large and leathery. We leave them on the plant until well after the stalk has reached the top of it's stake - about 48" tall from ground level - and the shaping of the head has begun.

For commercial production, the container used for the standard fuchsia is very important. This is the container configuration that we have worked out over the years here at New Leaf Greenhouse. We like a square container to start with. They are less "tippy" than many round pots. We cut a 2"x 2" stick of pressure treated lumber to the exact width of the pot. Then, we drill a hole in the 2"x 2" that will accommodate a piece of 1/2" EMT conduit. The conduit threaded through the 2"x 2" and a long screw is passed through it to secure it. Then, the 2"x 2" is screwed to the sides of the pot, using finish washers on the outside to join to the plastic pot in a stronger fashion.

This container protects the standard if it falls over, and the standard can be moved easily by grasping the conduit. We have had standard fuchsias at New Leaf Greenhouse that have lived for many years, one attaining a trunk diameter of more than 2". Using a plastic pot, pressure treated lumber, and an aluminum support ensure that the pot will last as long as the tree fuchsia lives.

Can a standard fuchsia live for years in it's original container? Yes... providing that it is fed properly. And if you don't have a greenhouse, the fuchsia will have the have the right place to overwinter. Perhaps I'll do a post soon about winter care of fuchsias, and standard fuchsias in particular.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Fabulous Flowers and Little Green Plants

Here are some beautiful baskets of Calliope interspecific geraniums growing in our house 3 today. The weather is chilly and bright, and it will be cold tonight. The baskets are just about perfect for their age-state, and will be just right to sell in early April. We'll have to move them to their final hanging positions within a week or so or their form will be affected by crowding.

We're feeding these everytime they are dry - about once a week right now.

No flowers? Just fine with me... we are busy cutting flowers off other geraniums right now so botrytis can't grow where the petals fall onto the leaves. We also use plant growth regulators on our geraniums to stimulate branching, and to keep leaf size small. This reduces humidity in the plant canopy, and helps suppress fungal disease.

Some of my personal pet plants are in bloom right now. The pink cymbidium is a profuse bloomer, and easy to care for the rest of the year. The plants get big, though, and aren't suited to windowsill growing. This plant has more than 20 spikes, and will bloom for months.

I don't know the name of this orchid, but it is in bloom right now and still has bud spikes emerging from the base of the plant. It is intensely fragrant, and was a gift from Patricia, my orchid-expert pal. I'll send her the pic and ask her for the name.