Seen at The Festival of the Tree

...if you would be happy all your life, plant a garden ~ Chinese proverb

Friday, 24 October 2014

Salad Days: An Autumnal Experiment

Seed trays with various salad leaves

This year I'm trying an experiment with my late sown lettuces. I usually grow them in pots and some old sinks in my cold frames. Everything is fine initially, but the height of the front of frame is too low for the pots placed there and things get a little mushy.

This year I'm trying seed trays instead. These will give the leaves more headroom, but I'm not sure there's sufficient growing media to sustain them for the whole of the winter. However, that can be remedied easily if my fears prove well founded.

I made a relatively late sowing in early September of 2 rows of lettuce seed per tray - 'Merveille des Quatre Saisons', 'Lollo Rossa', 'Little Gem' and 'Salad Bowl', made easy with the use of seed tapes. That's why my rows are so even.

I've kept the trays on the sunniest part of the patio to maximise the light and warmth the trays receive, but as you can see I'm unlikely to be cropping much from them until early spring. They've also suffered the onslaught of the annual Birch seed 'snowstorm' and gained the odd autumn leaf.

I'll put them in the cold frame once the frosts start with a vengeance and I also have some fleece on standby just in case.

'Indigo Rose' update

My 'Indigo Rose' tomatoes are still cropping and I can report their flavour has improved slightly this late in the season. I've now bought the rest inside to keep us going for a couple more weeks.

Last week saw the first BUG talk of the season, given by Alice Doyle from Log House Plants in Oregon. She took us on a fascinating, whistle stop tour through the vegetable varieties she considers worth growing, which includes the IndigoTM varieties of tomatoes.

It turns out Alice is a member of the collaborative breeding programme which is developing further new varieties under the IndigoTM banner. There are around 20 in the pipeline, of various hues, shapes and sizes. Alice mentioned another variety in her talk - IndigoTM 'Delicious'. It sounds like at least one better tasting variety is on its way.

A set of posters on the Log House Plants website (link opens as a PDF) gives us a foretaste of what is to come and introduces some of the breeders involved. This includes Tom Wagner, who I met in Oxford a few years ago.

Looking back on my blogged notes from that day, I should have guessed he'd be involved as he talked about developing anthocyanin rich varieties of both potatoes and tomatoes. I asked Alice about his potato work and she confirmed it continues.

It's a small world!

Monday, 20 October 2014

Daffy Dahlia

Photo of a large yellow dinner plat dahlia with a red streak on one of the petals
My daffy dahlia - posing for its photo in the large terrace bed 

Whilst I was out in the garden last week, I noticed something slightly different in one of my bright yellow "dinner plate" dahlias. This plant is in its third season here and it's the first time I've seen a streak of red on any of the petals.

Just one flower is affected, so what's going on?

Four possible reasons spring to mind: environmental impact, genetic mutation, reversion, or a reaction to a virus.

Environmental impact

I wrote about how environmental factors affected My Crazy Petunias last year. I found the Crazytunias I grew were sensitive to light and temperature and this in turn affected their flower colouration. I also uncovered a number of other examples (like my Salvia 'Hot Lips') which can differ in response to a number of environmental factors or stress. I don't think that's happening in this case as it's just a single streak of red and it hasn't happened before.

It's all in the genes?

Genetic mutation which gives rise to a different looking plant aka a 'sport' is a well-known way of obtaining new plants. I've already seen a couple of these here at VP Gardens, most notably my Mystery Clematis. It could be a sport this time, but somehow I don't think there's enough of a variation for this to be my favoured explanation.

Going back to mum or dad

Reversion is where a plant goes back to a different form found in its parentage. The most well-known example is where variegated plants revert to pure green leaves. This is happening currently with some of my Euonymus shrubs in the front garden. It could explain what's happening here, but without knowing this particular dahlia's breeding, I have no way of knowing whether there is any red in its genetic parentage.

Give them a break

Virus infections giving rise to colour breaks in flowers are very well known, particularly with tulips. They can produce some spectacularly mottled and striped flowers resulting from infection by the Tulip breaking virus. It was these variations which helped fuel "Tulip mania" in Europe during the 17th Century. I've found one reference to this also happening with dahlias, so this possibility - like reversion - needs further research.

Next steps

In the meantime, I'll apply my Dahlia Duvet as usual this winter and hope I can continue with my observations next year. At the moment I'm tending towards reversion as the cause as the difference is so limited on one bloom. One of my large variegated Euonymus shrubs has just a single small branch which has reverted. If it was a virus, I would expect a more dramatic change, unless the infection is very light.

Quite often with a virus, infected plants get steadily weaker until they no longer bloom. This is what happened to some of the popular tulip varieties in the past. So next year I'll look for more red streaks on blooms and/or any signs of weakening of the plant.

What a living botany lesson my garden is turning out to be. There's always something new to observe and learn, so I'm adding a new Botany label to the blog - to gather together my lessons from VP Gardens.

Update 23/10

I popped into the RHS show in London yesterday to ask their advisory service about my dahlia. It's a chimera, i.e. material which is genetically distinct from the rest of the plant. Apparently this phenomenon is often seen late on in the season in plants like my dahlia, and it's usually a reaction to environmental factors such as temperature fluctuation. 

There are other ways in which chimeras occur, most of them linked with a genetic mutations of some kind. Many of our variegated plants are chimera, with the paler foliage genetically distinct and living alongside the green. As the pale foliage has no chlorophyll, it is dependent on the green foliage for its survival.

Some grafted plants are chimera too and that's the exception to the cause being genetic. It's great to have got to the bottom of the cause so quickly and to have something so interesting happen at VP Gardens.

Friday, 17 October 2014

VP's VIPs: Our Flower Patch

Photo of Sara Wilman and Cally Smart from Our Flower Patch
Sara (left) and Cally of  Our Flower Patch
Picture credit: Clare Green and
Western Daily Press
It gives me great pleasure to feature my latest VIPs -from Our Flower Patch, a joint venture between Cally Smart and Sara Wilman. I've known Cally for ages as she's one of my Local Vocal bloggers and I met Sara last year when she, Cally and I went on our Gardeners' Question Time adventure.

Cally and Sara are keen supporters of the British Flowers movement and earlier this year launched Our Flower Patch. They're so excited and passionate about what they're doing, I've decided to divide our interview into three parts. I didn't want to cut out any of their enthusiasm and I'm sure what they have to say is of interest to many of you.

So without further ado, here's how it all started...

How did you meet?

Several years ago in a flower arranger's garden. We were at an event for women in business. Sara had started growing cut flowers as a hobby and I was working as a freelance teacher running educational activities in primary schools and writing a blog.

Sara offered to send me some pictures of her sunflowers to use on the blog. Bringing up children took over for the next few years but we reconnected again a couple of years ago on Twitter.

How long have you been growing cut flowers/working in education?

I’ve been growing flowers on and off since I was a child but started gardening in earnest when I was a young teacher living in North London in the early 1990s. I had a balcony where I grew lots in pots and then started doing a bit of guerrilla gardening in the secondary schools where I taught. 

When we moved to Wiltshire and the children were born, more time and less money led me to grow more and more. When the children started school I volunteered to run a gardening club and eventually realised that the crop we grew which fitted best with the school terms and which sold best was cut flowers. Selling flowers enabled us to run gardening activities in a self sustaining way at school. In these times, where many schools are cash-strapped, this is a definite bonus.

I’ve always been interested in gardening and used to help my Nan in her garden as a very young child. I bought heathers and other plants to pretty up the bland patio at my student shared house in University, and loved buying my first house as I could really make my mark on its garden. 

Growing flowers specifically for cutting started as a bit of an accident when I was offered an allotment. I bought “a few” flower seeds, as I didn't think I could fill an allotment with veg, and soon realised I had more flower seeds than veg seeds! So my own cut flower patch was started on a separate piece of land a friend owns near my house. It has expanded several times since and is now growing as a business [My Flower Patch - Ed].

How did the idea for Our Flower Patch (OFP) come about?

I was interested in developing activities for my school gardeners specifically on growing more cut flowers for sale and asked Sara to help. She agreed and we met for a coffee. The idea grew from there. OFP was born in a coffee shop in Devizes, where we were taking advantage of their free wifi. We got through a lot of coffee and by the end of the morning we had a business name, a domain name, a long list of ideas for educational activities and a seed supplier on board.

We realised that growing flowers in schools fits really well into the school term set up, as there is something to do as soon as the children come back in September. They can be straight into sowing hardy annuals for earlier blooms next year, and with further seed sowing in the spring, there will plenty of blooms for them to harvest before they break up for the summer. There is always something to be done when you are growing flowers, so it is ideal for young people who like to be involved in a project, see it develop and follow it through.

How long did it take to get from idea to launch? What (if anything) changed along the way? 

We launched on St David’s Day (March 1st) 2014 - perfect for two Welsh girls who love flowers -with a view to spreading the word and signing up members from the start of the Autumn term. It took us about 4 months from idea to launch.

We thought we’d write a package of printed materials at first but decided that teachers value ongoing support, advice and networking opportunities and bite size chunks of information so decided to make everything available online and to build a community of growers. 

Our Flower Patch was born as a membership website with some publicly accessible sections and now, an additional blog where we post information, advice and ideas for growing flowers and getting children outside doing things and having fun. 
Thanks Cally and Sara. It's great to have an insight into how OFP was born and how quickly your ideas grew in that first meeting.

We'll be catching up with them again in 2 weeks time to find out more about their work and have a further bathe in their enthusiasm.
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