Friday, March 28, 2008

Spring Growth at Mosswood Gardens

Despite the unexpected snow that is still falling, Mosswood Gardens is bursting with new growth. Greenhouses #1 and #2 filled to the brim with choice perennials, herbs, and a luscious assortment of annuals that are already beginning to bloom; our gorgeous and unique dish gardens will be making an appearance at the Cairo-Durham high school in support of the junior class fundraiser; our handcrafted faerie habitats have excited national interest; and, most exciting of all, greenhouse #3 will be arriving today to accomodate our stepped-up production in response to our acceptance into the Kingston Farmer's Market!

For the time being, greenhouse #3 will serve as a cold frame to house younger perennials and half-hardy annuals. In the future, it will also function as an unheated germination chamber. Seed flats will be warmed from below by heat mats and protected from cool nighttime temperatures by globed covers. To preserve the natural aesthetics of our location, this greenhouse will be placed to the left of our other two greenhouses, leaving the graded area to the right available for our impressive display of annuals from the spring through the fall, surrounded as it is with trees and the trill of birds.

Curious? Stop by on April 4-6 or April 11-13 for a look, and save 15% on everything in our gift shop in our two-weekend-only spring sale!

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Unexpected Stress in the Greenhouse Industry

Owning a nursery is usually one of the most rewarding experiences I can imagine. I would not hesitate to recommend this profession to anyone who seeks true quality of life, as being around growing things for the better part of each day is truly a zen-like experience. Nevertheless, just as in any business, there are unexpected moments of intense anxiety that can arise, and about which the would be nursery owner should be aware.

Apart from the constant battle against the ravages of pests and diseases that can quickly decimate a whole season's earnings is the fear of loss of heat. Successful growing depends on careful monitoring of the temperatures within your greenhouses. Not only do some plants require highly consistent temperatures, which are usually regulated by thermostats, but nearly all of the plants grown in a commercial greenhouse, particularly during germination, are tender enough to sustain heavy damage or be lost entirely if the temperature drops below 55 degrees. Should the thermostat fail or a fuel delivery be delayed, this can happen very rapidly, especially if this occurs during the middle of a frigid winter night (note: do not rely on automatic delivery schedules for your greenhouse fuel; instead, keep an eye on your fuel levels and contact your provider immediately if you consume fuel more rapidly than their schedule predicts). Therefore, most serious growers possess remote alarms that monitor the temperature within the greenhouse and deliver a sharp alert to the sleeping owner should it drop dramatically. More than one nursery owner has consequently spent a sleepless night of anxious vigilance out in the greenhouse, armed with a slew of space heaters.

One of the greatest stresses for the typical grower can involve crop failure. When seeds fail to germinate, or a provider of live plant material such as cuttings or plugs fails to deliver, a real problem arises, particularly in the case of plants that are in high demand or that have been specially ordered by request. Assuming the seed for a lost crop is even still available by the time the failed germination is confirmed (which is often not the case), some seed companies can take several weeks to ship your order. By the time the seed arrives, there may not be enough time left in the season to grow the plant in time for its demand. The same is true when an expected shipment of live plants is not forthcoming or arrives damaged. Unfortunately, while these orders must typically be placed at least six months in advance of the expected delivery date, the provider may not feel compelled to provide any advance notice of failure in return, and the nursery owner may not discover the loss until the shipment is actually received. Because of the lead time required to fill such orders and the heavy demand at the time of year the issue arises, the lost plants may be impossible to replace at a later date.

The proper watering of nursery stock can also be a source of stress, although many owners actually find the process, which can consume all day, every day, to be relaxing. Growing beautiful plants depends on even watering. Should a drought or long period of heavy rains occur, outdoor plants may wither or rot. The same is true where an improperly trained employee is set to the task of watering, as it involves far more than simply waving a sprinkling hose back and forth over pots or trays. Each variety has its own particular moisture needs. Some, such as succulents, should not be watered until they are completely dry. Others, such as ligularia, should never be allowed to dry out completely. Geraniums flower heads will be quickly destroyed when wet, and asters will be far more prone to powdery mildew when the leaves are wet. Where plants are grown under cover and watered with dripline irrigation, soaker hoses, or other automated systems, many of these problems can be avoided, although this may not be practical or possible for the smaller grower.

While temperature control, crop failure, and watering issues are some of the most common concerns of the typical nursery owner, they are far from the only ones (the effect of the economy could well be the subject of many lengthy articles to come). Nevertheless, most small nursery owners will tell you that they continue to grow not because they expect to get rich, but for the love of the process. I, for one, can think of nothing more enjoyable than to see the first tiny sprouts break through the walls of the seeds in which they are imprisoned, spreading their new leaves eagerly to bask in the warmth of the sun.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Plant propagation and the law

We at Mosswood Gardens grow all of our own plants. This is not to say that every one of them is started from seed, as this is not always the easiest or most expeditious place to start. In many cases, growing from seed may not even be an option, as many of the beautifully colored and disease-resistant strains of plants such as geraniums or chrysanthemums are only available to us as cuttings.

Propagation, or the creation of new plants from an original plant, can be accomplished in a number of different ways. The most common methods used by the average home gardener are division or by sowing seeds. Seeds may be collected from many plants from their flower heads, after they have bloomed, or in the form of pods or berries.

Another method is to plant bulbs, tubers, rhizomes, or corms, which are treated similarly but are not the same thing (the difference between these terms will be the subject of a different article). These underground growths store the food the plant will need in order to grow in successive years. As the plant matures, the storage tanks begin to produce smaller offshoots that may be divided or separated from the parent and planted intheir own right. In the case of flowers like tulips or daylilies, such separation is essential to prevent overcrowding and ensure continued future blooms.

When it comes to plants with woodier stems, propagation is usually achieved by taking cuttings. In this method, a short section of an actively growing portion of the plant is cut from the parent, usually at a diagonal to create the maximum rooting surface area, after which it is treated with a rooting hormone and placed in a rooting medium such as moist sand (more on cuttings in a future article).

Another propagation technique is called layering. This may be accomplished in one of two ways. The traditional method is to stake down branches, vines, or canes, so that they are partially covered with soil at a distance from the parent plant. Over time, they will begin to produce their own roots, at which point they may be severed from the parent and planted independently. An alternative method, called air layering, is to cut partially through a branch, vine, cane, or stem, apply a rooting hormone, and then affixing a plastic bag containing a rooting medium over the cut.

Regardless of how a plant is propagated, home gardeners (and especially nurseries and garden centers) who do not first do a little research into the original plant may be inadvertently breaking the law. Many of the fabulous new colors and strains of plants that have been developed and brought to the market are patented and their propagation by any technique is prohibited without a specific license. Nurseries who seek to offer these plants must pay royalty fees, most often on purchased rooted or unrooted cuttings that they intend to grow on for the consumer. These fees go to support the vast amounts of time and painstaking research that went into the development of the new plant variety, so that scientists and growers may continue in their efforts to introduce exciting new strains for growers, producers, and home gardeners.

While it is unlikely that the typical home gardener will be visited by the "patent police," it is ultimately in their best interest to avoid propagating patented plants, which undermines the work that goes into plant research and can compromise the market. In the case of seed, efforts to propagate patented plants may even be an exercise in frustrating and time-consuming futility, as some of these plants are bred to have sterile seed. Even where the seed is not sterile, the offspring of the parent plant frequently bears little, if any, resemblance to the parent.

Thus, despite the somewhat hefty price tag even for us, just as we are dedicated to promoting fair trade in our gift shop, we at Mosswood Gardens are proud to showcase the most beautiful and improved varieties of plants available, and encourage our customers to support the work of plant developers so that we may continue to bring you the most luscious new plants on the market.

Monday, March 3, 2008

In like a lion!

The first day of March came in with a traditional roar at Mosswood Gardens. Nevertheless, we were open for business, to the delight of one of our most loyal customers, who was searching for a unique gift. In addition to the lovely books of photography that she found, she also treated herself to a whimsical hand-beaded dragonfly necklace.

At market, our customized dish gardens, pairing unusual found and re-purposed containers with assorted cacti, succulents, and tropical foliage (along with the occasional miniature rabbit, frog, or hedgehog!) were a success as usual, and we look forward to increasing the exposure of our gardens in the coming seasons.

With spring on the horizon, seeding continues at a furious pace. This year we started such fast-growing crops as basil (as well as other herbs) unusually early. While they will be ready to harvest before the danger of frost is safely past, we intend to offer potted herbs at early markets for those who simply can't wait to begin to enjoy fresh green sprigs that herald the arrival of summer bounty. These herbs may be safely kept in a sunny kitchen window for the time-being as a reminder of warmer days to come.

After Memorial Day (at the latest, in most areas), your potted herbs may transplanted outdoors, assuming they have not been razed by then by an over-enthusiastic chef like myself. If that is indeed the case, our customers are in luck, as we will be re-seeding many of our herbs in regular two-week intervals throughout the early part of the growing season. Whether purchased once or repeatedly, our potted herbs are in inexpensive indulgence with a return that is a bargain at any price.