Sunday, November 28, 2010

NFB short: A Chinese vegetable farm in Ontario

Filmed at the Wing Fong Farm in Ontario, this documentary follows the tilling, planting and harvesting of Asian vegetables destined for Chinese markets and restaurants. On 80 acres of land, Lau King-Fai, her son and a half-dozen migrant Mexican workers care for the plants. For Yeung Kwan, her son, the farm represents personal and financial independence. For his mother, it is an oasis of peace. For the Mexican workers, it provides jobs that help support their children back home.
Via @TheNFB

Saturday, November 27, 2010


About 1" of the fluffy white stuff accumulated overnight.

Dirty and stinkin': Damping off and self-watering fail

I am on high alert after losing two egg cartons' worth of seedlings in the germination / propagation station to damping off Thursday.

I think I figured out the causes of the seedlings' premature deaths this morning when I inspected some geranium and other transplants that I had set up last weekend to be self-watering: the area is too humid due to the water reservoirs, and the transplants' soil is a constantly wet. I don't sterilize my seed-starting mix and potting soil (although I do sterilize my pots and tools), so in addition to an ambient temperature that varies between 16 and 20°C, almost all of the ideal conditions for promoting fungal growth are there.

In fact, I saw this morning that the surface of the transplants' potting mixture was covered in tiny white specks, and there were fine white filaments coating the below-soil portion of the popsicle sticks that I was using as markers.

I'm not sure what I should do about this. Except for what could be attributed to transplant shock, the geraniums, potato vines, sedums, and unidentified herby greens look all right. In fact, the herby greens are thriving, if a little leggy from being so far from the light.

The Web did yield some non-chemical techniques for controlling fungus attack which I will be trying:
  1. Let the soil dry out
  2. Apply ground cinnamon (it's the brown stuff in the pictures above)
  3. Water with dilute chamomile tea
In the long term, I will definitely be sterilizing my potting and seed-starting soil in the oven before using it. This involves baking it at no higher than 180°F or 80°C for 30 minutes.

But in the middle term, I'm sort of stuck for a solution to keep the plants in the propagation / germination station happy for all the weeks that I will be unable to water them. Clearly, the combination of medium (straight potting mix) and wick that I'm using in this self-watering setup is inadequate in that it's too moist, but I won't have time to experiment with this before I leave. I'm also wary of re-transplanting them into "clean" containers so soon after having transplanted them in the first place. Perhaps I should ditch the self-watering component, chance not watering the plants for the duration of my travels and let Darwin sort 'em out?

Some resources:

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Monster self-watering station and post

I wasn't sure how to take care of my plants with the prospect of some holiday travel on the horizon. I needed at least two weeks' worth of watering power. I immediately ruled out my nearby friends and neighbours who, as much as I like them, have less green thumbs than me if that's possible.

I did a brief experiment with AquaGlobes and my chili pepper plant which wasn't very successful. The gadgets were fiddly, dispensed water erratically, the reservoirs were empty within a couple of days, and they made the planting medium kind of soggy. And while the established geraniums might be able to survive two weeks with no watering, I wasn't sure about the less robust plants.

The solution? Turn the propagation and germination station into a big self-watering structure with the help of two 10-gallon Rubbermaid tote boxes, a bunch of milk crates, and some old t-shirts. I'm sort of confident that this will do the job for at least two weeks' absence.

Transplanted all of the ivy geranium and sedum cuttings into plastic pots with torn-up strips of old t-shirts dangling into the filled totes. They appear to be working successfully so far, but I am totally regretting using these particular t-shirts as the grow / computer room smells distinctly of eau de sweaty gym now.

Notable is the fact that the red ivy geraniums put out roots more vigorously than the pink ones, and the cuttings that were growing in perlite / sand mix put out better roots than those growing in potting soil. This, despite the fact that the perlite / sand had virtually turned into concrete.

As for the basil rooting hormone experiment, I think it's safe to say at this point that the untreated basil cuttings are performing the best. They're much more than twice as tall, with stems that are twice and thick, and foliage that is many times bushier than the treated cuttings. I suppose it has to do with the better, more natural root development that I saw in the untreated cuttings.

Untreated cuttings behind, towering over the treated cuttings in front
The Crocus speciosus bulbs continue to send up new flowers even as the first blooms fade. I'm amazed. It's disappointing that it looks like the Sterbergia lutea and saffron crocus bulbs decided not to bloom this year, but it looks like the Sterbergia wasn't being lazy: I see new leaves poking out of the soil in places where I definitely did not plant any bulbs. I'm looking forward to many blooms next fall from this one.

Did some rearranging on the balcony and added some bags of fallen leaves to try to protect the cedar planters that contain the fall and spring bulbs from the worst of the winter. Hopefully this works.

Just for fun, I decided to stick some cloves of garlic into the soil of the balcony trellis garden. After only a couple of days, I have a forest of shoots. Not sure what I'm going to do with them in the spring, as I plan to change out all of the medium come spring, but if I have room next fall, and considering how dead simple it appears to grow, I will definitely be planting garlic.

Finally chopped down the last remaining sunflower. It hasn't finished blooming, but we had some freezing rain last night that definitely did some damage, and so I cut the flower, composted the stems, and brought it inside.

After an encouraging start, most of the seeds that I'm trying to germinate in egg cartons aren't doing so well. The basil has been showing true leaves for about a week now, but seems stalled and the leaves have turned a little brown. The lone Hungarian pepper sprout of the four I planted is distinctly not green. Strongly suspect that all of it has to do with the lack of humidity (i.e., I forgot to water them yesterday); all except the burdock seeds look pretty sad right now, and none of the jalapeno or datura seeds have even sprouted. Undaunted, I'm trying to use some donut containers. Considering how much seed I've bought for next year, I might cave and buy myself a heating pad and some of them fancy domed germination trays as well.

Got some basil, burdock, as well as some of the aster I collected and blogged about previously planted. Hopefully, they don't die.

(cross-posted from Folia, which doesn't let you have inline photos)

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Seedy times

There is ripening seed all over the neighbourhood, and lately I have gotten in the habit of carrying around safety scissors and Ziploc sandwich bag to collect samples.

To collect seed from late season aster-like plants (100-0592 and 100-0670100-0360 not shown) flowers were snipped and put in water. As the flowers slowly fade, dandelion-like seed heads develop. Eventually the fluffy seeds drift onto styrofoam fruit trays placed beneath them.

This technique doesn't appear to be working for these pretty flowers (100-0588), though; no seed heads appear to develop as the flowers fade. It's a shame, as I rather like them. Maybe because they aren't asters; I'll have to do some research. In the meantime, anyone want to hazard a guess?

I found some flowers that I thought might be feverfew (100-0590) but some Googling has put some doubt in my mind. If not, then what? Whatever they are, I can't get enough of the delicate spiderwebs cradling the seeds.

The find of last Saturday (100-0660) was a collection of intriguing seed pods from a plant in front of a recently abandoned building. From browsing through The Seed Site, my initial guess is that the plant could be some kind of iris or other plant that grows from bulbs.

The plant itself had long, narrow swordlike leaves, with a single stem growing to 3 or 4 feet with two or three seed pods at the end. Dry leaves were golden in colour, while the stems and pods were dark brown.

The pods themselves are elongated footballs, woody, and require some force to pry apart. The seed pods are not closed; some are open enough that you can pour out the seeds. Base of the pods had black, raised speckles. Not sure if this is due to disease or just the normal appearance of the plant.

Inside the pods are many irregular disc-shaped seeds that rattle around in the pods.

Some Googling has led me to believe that they are indeed iris seeds (flickr pic).

Sadly, germination is said to be difficult and erratic, and whatever emerges, according to another site, won't appear like its parent. My seeds don't look very fat either ... are there sterile cultivars?

Finally, this gentle houseguest drifted onto my balcony screen door one sunny afternoon. Sadly, I seem to have misplaced it, so I'll never know what it was or will be.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Three in one

Some neat variations in phenotype seen on different branches of one lemon thyme plant on my balcony: no variegation, the store-bought amount of variegation, and super variegation.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Seed collection: How the pros do it

I found a thread where a respected seed collector talks about about collecting, cleaning, testing, and storing seeds at the Scottish Rock Garden Society Web site. Fascinating stuff.

In most cases, she does say that seeds are to be "dry stored in a cool, dry place ... Shelf life can vary from a few months to some years, with the average being 1-2 years. All seed that tolerates dry storage is an ideal candidate for storage in the freezer, both short and long term. Seed must be completely dry, ideally packed in paper and placed in freezer containers with tight-fitting lids" (PDF).

So while it doesn't address the whole paper vs. plastic thing directly, it does provide some insight into what critical factors for seed storage success.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Seed Saving: Why is storing seeds in plastic bad for them?

I spent last Saturday morning cleaning, sorting, and storing about twenty different neighbourhood and park-collected seeds with the help of some materiel liberated from my last employer, including some handy dandy 50mL polypropylene conical tubes.

I learned today that I can store seeds in paper or glass containers, but never plastic. I haven't been able to find any justification for this, other than that plastic containers will encourage the growth of mold thanks to the lack of air circulation and the moisture from the seeds. But wouldn't this also be a problem in a glass container or, for that matter, those foil envelopes that retail seed is sold in?

The day before yesterday, I received a shipment of seeds from the lovely folks at Seeds & More, all in little plastic ziploc baggies. Should I transfer them immediately into something else before they're ruined forever?

So, Interwebs, I ask you: are my seeds doomed to fail if they're stored for several months in my polyprop tubes, and if so, why? What's the ideal storage container?

Friday, November 5, 2010


I kind of thought that my little balcony garden was immune to critters of the walking kind, but I was wrong.

I have no idea how this squirrel got on my balcony because, after 15 minutes of chasing it keystone kops-style around a 10 foot by 4 foot space filled mostly with garbage bags of leaves, it finally leapt off of it onto the street below and ran away. Crazy!

Thankfully, it only managed to tuck into the peanut butter and bird seed apple, and left all the bulbs alone.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Autumn lilac crocus

Crocus speciosus day 2
Originally uploaded by Dirt Gently
I'm so excited! After spotting the furled-up flower emerging yesterday, the first of (hopefully) six Crocus speciosus bulbs went into full bloom today. One of the baby bulbs attached to this one is also showing signs of being ready to open up.

The sky was clear and the light was perfect this afternoon, so I spent an inordinate amount of time snapping pictures of this little guy. The full set's over at Flickr.

Hitching a ride

Wordless Wednesday

I love the colour gradient snaking up the tree. Taken with my camera phone. I really wish I had my camera with my to take this picture, even if it is a point-and-shoot with auto-everything. I guess this post wasn't really wordless, was it?

Monday, November 1, 2010

Made a little treat for the neighbourhood birdies

Last week I took a walk out west to a neighbourhood that I hadn't visited in years. I saw some lovely stands of ornamental grasses in the new (to me) Parc des Faubourgs ... 

and clipped some of the fluffy stalks to brighten up one of the cedar planters on my balcony. The other day, I noticed a sparrow perched on my balcony railing, nibbling at them (I wasn't quick enough to snap a picture so this'll have to do) ...

So I decided to give them a little treat. Between this peanut butter and bird seed apple and my Halloweenie Terrarium, I think I'm regressing into first grade.

I wonder what my next arts and crafts project will be?