23 January 2013

Getting Your Gourd...Seeds

A while back, I wrote about growing and preserving bottle gourds - today, I want to share how to harvest the seeds.  I know it seems fairly straightforward, but since Robin found a few decorative gourds at Goodwill, some that still had seeds in them, I decided to do some seed saving.

Unless you're going to make a ladle or a birdhouse, it's probably best to make a small hole at the bottom of the gourd to collect the seeds.  You need the hole to be large enough for the seeds to fit through, but not enough to ruin whatever you may want to make with the gourd in the future.  I got out my electric drill and used a 9/16 inch bit - these are larger bits that look more like Neptune's trident than the spiral ones we're used to seeing.

I wasn't sure if this would crack or break the gourd when I drilled into it, but, almost without exception, I ended up with very round holes.  On one of the gourds a small piece chipped off the edge of the hole, but it was pretty small.

Once there is a hole in the gourd, it's pretty simple after that.  I put a bag over the gourd and shook the seeds out.  That's it.  Once it's empty you can use it for your craft project, whether it is a birdhouse, a ladle or carving designs into it, like the ones we have.  There are so many choices.

20 January 2013

Winter Casualties - 2013 Edition

This past year I picked up a number of tender or tropical houseplants that I planned to enjoy during the summer, but would let them die when the cold weather hit.  I know this sounds harsh, but there are a few things you need to know:  I didn't pay for them - these are plants that I rescued from the trash.  And I get no sun in the house to keep them over the winter.  I've done this for many years and it can be hard work - moving a dozen plants in and out as the temperature fluctuates, and it only take one missed time to kill every plant.  I've been lucky this winter, having only a few instances of freezing weather.

I have to say that I've been experimenting with them a little - testing their cold-hardiness.  When there's a definite freeze coming, I will schlepp them to safety, but if it's just mid-30s, I'll risk it.  Most of my plants have held up well - some, like a night-blooming cactus, tropical palm, a few succulents, and a tuberous begonia, are in a protected place, but others, mostly the same types of plants, are out in the open.  We've reached the mid- to high-30s and everything has been fine, except the begonia - the leaves and stems wilted, but overall I think it will recover.  Even the peperomia did fine.

Sometimes this gives you a false sense of security - that one's plants are more hardy than you thought - but that can go wrong at any moment.  The last freeze we had, I was maybe over-confident about our tropical hibiscuses surviving the freeze.  Needless to say, they didn't - which I regret now, but I did do a scratch test* and it seemed to be alive.  I just don't know when to expect it to come back to life.

(A scratch test is where you scratch the bark off woody plants with your fingernail.  If it reveals a green color, then the plant is alive.  If not, then it is likely dead.)

I have been taking special care of our poinsettia - I wrote before that I was determined to keep that plant alive and I have.  I try to put it outside as much as possible, but I keep it inside when lows reach the 50s, which has been a lot lately.  It needs to spend a little more time outside soon, but we have another cold front coming through.  I'll try to give it what it needs without letting the cold get it, just like the rest of them.

13 January 2013

Beekeeping Fun

I'm still regrouping after the holidays, so I'm re-posting an older post that some of you may not have seen.  Enjoy the slideshow and I hope to have brand-new posts in the next week.

Recently Kristen French invited me to her house to get a better look at her bee hives. Ever since reading her blog, The Queen Bee, I've been fascinated by them - even wanting some myself. This was my opportunity to learn more about them and become more comfortable in close proximity to them,
I'm not spooked by the random bee, but I was a little apprehensive around several hives, mostly because I haven't spent any time around large numbers of them. I wanted to get as close as I could without getting stung. Kristen was very cautious with us around the bees. "Us" included Ella, who irrationally feared bees, and Kristen's daughter, who, at six years old, knows more about bees than I do.

Once the hive in her back yard was open, I was able to get a better look and saw it overflowing with beeswax and honey. Kristen left the top upside down on the ground so the bees could reclaim the honey and wax left on it.

She opened up her two other hives to inspect them as well. They were still storing honey, but she wanted to make sure they had enough honey for the winter. In late summer she had harvested, something like fifty pounds of honey from the hives. The bees in one of the hives in the front yard were easily angered, so we didn't get a good look at those.

The visit to Kristen's hives was very enlightening, and it made me want to get bees even more. Kristen mentioned that if she divided her hives in the spring, she could help me set up a hive at our house. It was tempting, but I needed to know more about bees first. After Christmas, the Charleston Area Beekeepers Association announced a beginning beekeeping class for this weekend. I signed up, but I needed to get the time off of work first. After I really thought about it, I decided it needed to wait. I had enough uncompleted projects around the yard that needed my attention, and it turns out I was unable to get the time off from work. When I got an email about the class, they mentioned bringing your veil and smoker, etc. I don't have any of those, so it's best that I wait. I'll put it on the calendar for next year.

For a photo slideshow of my bee experience, click here.

09 January 2013

Diatomaceous Earth

Another activity for the online class I took was the following:  Look in your garden shed or online at the label of a pesticide (organic or inorganic is fine) you use in your own garden from time to time.  "Dissect" the label and discuss the following:
-brand name
-active ingredient
-type of formulation
-percentage of inert materials in the product
-locate and describe the signal words and symbols on the label- what do they mean?
- are there any environmental hazards you were unaware of?
-note special precautions the applicator should use when applying the product

Instead of talking about a mainstream product, I will be discussing something a little non-traditional.  I discovered this product years ago and thought it was a miraculous in its many uses.  I'm more realistic now, but I still think its very useful - diatomaceous earth, or DE.  I was able to find a label online that answers most of questions this activity asks for.

There are different grades of DE depending upon its use - it's very common in pool filtration.  There are also a horticultural grade and food grade - yes, food grade.  A lot of people will feed this stuff to their animals, and even ingest it themselves.  The labels I'm working off of today are for food grade DE.  There's probably very little difference between the two, except that the food-grade version may be more pure and has fewer contaminants, since it is eaten by people and animals.

Diatomaceous Earth is a fine powder containing mostly silica, which is derived from mining a fossilized hard-shelled algae called diatoms.  According to the product labels (Diatomaceous Earth Mineral Content, MSDS Sheet page one and two), it is called "Fossil Shell Flour D-10" and contains 95-100% Amorphous Silica - Natural Diatomite.  Although it is a fine dust, it is very sharp to small insects - as insects come into contact with it, DE's sharp edges pierce the insects cuticle or exoskeleton, causing it to desiccate and die.  It is a very good short-term, targeted pesticide - you can spread it around your affected plants or on the insects themselves, and then it will be gone, washing away with the next rain, or watering.

Chemically-speaking it is safe for people and animals, but there are a few precautions you should take while using DE.  Like I mentioned before, it is a fine powder and a little bit of an irritant, so safety glasses and a dust mask should be worn when applying it.  If it gets in your eyes, it's best to flush with water - if the irritation persists, you should call your doctor.  Breathing it is the biggest problem - if you inhale too much, you should get some fresh air.  Long term exposure to breathing DE may cause Pneumoconiosis, also known as "dusty lungs".

My personal experience with DE is limited to a pesticide around my chickens.  I've been adding it to their bedding to deter insects from making the henhouse a home.  And this past summer, when they would leave fly-attracting piles of droppings all over the yard, dusting them with DE was a good control for the fly population.

02 January 2013

Salt Damage or, an Abiotic Pathogen

Let me explain this post:  I was planning to write about salt damage in houseplants after reading about it in The Ortho Problem Solver book.  We had another instance of salt damage brought to us by someone as well.  During the continuing education class I just finished, there was opportunity for me to write about the same topic in regard to abiotic pathogens.  When I finished writing that one, I noticed that I had already written a completely different post about salt damage.  So here you go - two for one.

One day at the Master Gardener's office I was looking through a book that some mentors recommend - The Ortho Problem Solver.  It's a very large book, and a little overwhelming if you aren't looking for something specific.  I wasn't looking for anything specific, but at least I was concentrating on houseplants.  I started noticing that one symptom kept coming up - leaf tip burn.  It seems to be common in houseplants and there are a couple of causes.

Leaf tip burn is actually a drying out of the tips of leaves, because they are not getting enough water.  Sometimes it's caused by not watering enough or the humidity is too low, but there is a more common reason that most people don't realize - salt damage.  In order for them to stay healthy, we need to fertilize houseplants, anything in pots, because they cannot use their roots to find nutrients on their own.  Fertilizers are mostly salts that are dissolved in water and taken up by the plants, but when there are excess salts, they can burn the roots.  This keeps the roots from taking up enough moisture to feed the entire leaf, resulting in leaf tip burn.

So what can you do?  There are a number of things.  Don't over-fertilize - this will cause a higher buildup of excess salts that may cause damage to the plant.  Another option, and probably something you should do anyway - even if you don't fertilize too much - is to flush the excess salts out of the potted plant.  Water heavily, letting the water drain from the pot - after letting it sit for awhile, repeat again.  Some plants may need a third round of flushing to get rid of most of the salts.

So, keep this in mind when you bring your plants in for the winter.  You may want to make it a part of your plant maintenance, flushing them in the spring when taking them outside in the spring, and the same thing when bringing them inside for the winter.

In this Master Gardener recertification / continuing education course I’ve been taking this month, one of the topics we’re studying is plant pathology - specifically plant pathogens.  What is a plant pathogen?  It is “an organism or an agent capable of causing a disease on a plant.”  There are different types of plant pathogens: biotic and abiotic.  Biotic pathogens are infectious living organisms capable of reproducing and spreading.  Abiotic pathogens are non-living, non-infectious - they cannot reproduce or spread.  It is the latter that I want to talk about today.

Abiotic pathogens tend to be a case of extremes - too much or too little sunlight, moisture, fertilizer, too high or too low of a temperature.  We had an interesting case at the Master Gardener’s office recently involving an abiotic pathogen.  A woman came in with numerous leaf samples from her landscape - most of the leaves had brown, dead edges.  She was very concerned, because this was happening all over her yard.  My first thoughts were either that her yard needed more watering or it could be salt damage, but I’m still new at this, so we started asking her questions.  She said everything was fine when she moved in two years ago.  They watered plenty, using water from a well.  Here was a clue - she lived very near a brackish creek, and if her well was not very deep, she could have salt water in her well.  So we were betting on salt damage as her problem, but we had an agent confirm this.  We think the previous owners probably discovered the high salinity of the well and stopped using it.  Not knowing about the problem, the new owners began using it again when they moved in, which caused this problem - too much salt.