Protopian Portulaca Propagation: Michigan Edition

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Heart of the Portulaca blossom by PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0

Readers of my adventures with Beanstalk Children’s Garden in Kansas City, MO may remember my stint with the Portulaca Witness Protection Program. I was deeply invested in transplanting volunteer Portulaca grandiflora (moss rose) seedlings from the cracks between the garden path bricks into new homes at the base of our raised beds. The relocated plants turned out to be pretty successful at thriving at the new sites!

I also eventually figured out how to propagate portulaca plants from cuttings, though these ended up in flower pots on my deck rather than back in the Beanstalk Garden.

Here in Michigan, I’ve decided to put some of that portulaca cloning to work in my summer garden plot at the community garden. I started with a few portulaca seedlings that I purchased in flats at local nurseries. I planted these in the gaps between the bricks of my raised bed.

 

 

After the initial stress of being transplanted, the portulaca plants recovered and began producing new sprays of fleshy leaves.  I broke off some of the smaller tufts of new growth to produce cuttings for propagation.  From the cutting itself, I also removed the leaves  from the stem portion that would be covered by the rooting medium.

 

 

In an old aluminum foil baking pan, I mixed vermiculite and coir (coconut fiber) with water to create a rooting medium. (Kind of looks like brownies!)  I tucked the cuttings into this substrate, kept it moist and out of direct sunlight until they developed some roots.

 

 

After about 2 weeks, the cuttings’ roots had grown large enough for me to attempt transplantation back into the garden.

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Cutting with roots ready for transplant! by PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0

Portulaca are hardy plants with succulent leaves/stems that do well in sandy/well-drained soil, as well as tight places like cracks between bricks. In my experience, it’s easier to transplant a small portulaca seedling (volunteer or cutting with developed roots) into a gap than smoosh a whole plant (i.e. from nursery flat) into a larger space.

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Rooting seedlings transplanted to their new homes. PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0

If the portulaca seedlings take to their new homes, the growing plants will spread out across the bricks, creating a beautiful “carpet” effect, as well as providing nectar to insects. I never keep track of the flower color of the parent from which I take the cuttings, so it will be a surprise to see what colors combinations emerge.

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At Beanstalk Children’s Garden. Portulaca blanket by Protopian Pickle Jar (2015) on Flickr. https://flic.kr/p/QR7jXb

I haven’t had much luck making a cutting and immediately sticking it directly into the soil. The cuttings always seem to dry out too quickly and wither, unless they have a set of well-developed roots. Even with roots, the transplants must be watered frequently for the first few days.

Putting in the baby portulaca seedlings only managed to feed my vision of portulaca carpeting the outside of the brick raised-bed.  So I made some more cuttings from the original parent plants. Still didn’t keep track of colors.

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Round two of portulaca cuttings! PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0
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Dirt Rental

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I am Protopian Pickle Jar! Look upon my works, ye buzzy ones, and pollinate! (With apologies to Percy Bysshe Shelley) by PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0

My newest adventure this spring has been my adoption of a raised bed in the local community garden. While I have extensive garden experience, my labor has always been in the service of an organization’s particular vision and purpose (i.e. education, food pantry, CSA). This season is the first time I decided to plant a garden for myself.

It all started over the winter, when I saw a notice in the Parks & Rec brochure that community garden plots were available for rental by township residents. Some years ago, an Eagle Scout worked with the township to create a collection of raised beds located at the local park. These were designed for apartment dwellers (like me!) to plant their own vegetable gardens.

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The frozen winter garden as of March 1, 2017. PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0

As I read the notice, daydreams of tomatoes and herbs danced in my winter scarf-ed and be-hatted head. “Yes,” I might have whispered to my vegetal fancies. “You shall be mine!” I made a note on the calendar to reserve a plot with Parks & Rec on March 1st, and slipped back into my winter routine.

Then in January, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Rusty patched bumblebee as an endangered species. My social media feeds were inundated with articles and information about the dire plight of native bees and other pollinators. I was very worried. Without bees, there wouldn’t be any tomatoes. Without bees … I didn’t even want to think about it.

I decided that I was going to research and create a pollinator-friendly garden. Yes, the bumbles needed me! I was going to have the happiest darn visiting pollinators in Wayne County, Michigan.

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My target audience. Photo by Protopian Pickle Jar (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0

(Tangent: Turns out that the abandoned homes and vacant lots in Detroit increased habitat for the benefit of native bumblebee populations. )

“It’s okay to plant flowers, not just vegetables?” I asked the Parks & Rec staff member, when I paid my garden rental fee for my reserved spots.* “Sure!” she said. “Just as long as you don’t plant any noxious weeds!” (*The city allowed each family to rent up to 2 beds. I took them up on it.)

As the Michigan spring gradually warmed, I was eagerly anticipating May 15th: The first day residents could work their raised garden beds. I watched enviously on social media as friends in warmer climates shared pictures of newly weeded, tilled and planted gardens. I checked out library books on gardening and pollinators and native plants. I bought a kit of garden hand tools from the grocery store seasonal aisle. I still only had the vaguest notion of what I was doing.

Since the Parks Dept has already tilled the soil, I only had to pull out a few weeds to make my beds ready for planting.

Filling my bed with seedlings was an entire process unto itself. Since I live in an apartment and have limited space for starting seeds indoors, I decided that purchasing transplants was the best way to go. I was trying to source plants not treated with neonicotinoid pesticides (systemic pesticides that get taken up into the plants’ tissues) to protect my pollinators from getting stoned by sublethal doses. (This adventure will be the topic of another post, as it proved more complicated and challenging that I expected.)

Eventually,  I did manage to buy  mixed flats of transplants (veggies, herbs and flowering plants) to put into the beds. The garden plot also was the beneficiary of some friend-donated Yukon Gold and Purple seed potatoes.

After my training at the Beanstalk Children’s Garden, I knew that a good layer of mulch would help maintain soil moisture and keep down weeds. At the garden, we had used cotton burr compost, which was a great mulch/soil amendment, but was often unpleasantly stinky.

I wasn’t able to locate cotton burr compost locally, but another gardener suggested cocoa hull mulch, made from the discarded outsides of of cacao beans. Unlike the composted cotton burrs, it smells wonderful (sun-warmed mulch redolent of chocolate!) However, because it is made from chocolate by-products, may be toxic for doggos who like to eat mulch. (I hope dog-adjacent humans visiting the park don’t let their canine buddies wander into the garden for this and other reasons.)

The garden (like all gardens) is a continuous work-in-progress. I keep squeezing new and interesting plants that appeal to me, creating a melange of edible herbs & veggies, pollinator-attractors, yummy smells, textures, and brightly colored flowers.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been spending a lot all of my free time working at the garden, watering the garden, admiring the garden, acquiring plants and supplies for the garden, and when I’m not doing those things, thinking about the garden. It increases my physical activity, improves my mood tremendously and fuels a strange sense of accomplishment.

I love checking in at the garden every day to see what changes are occurring, as well as the various visible visiting creatures. Once camp starts next week, my available brainpower for garden-related activities decreases, but I am looking forward to keeping the blog updated with garden developments.

Edited July 3, 2017: You can keep up with the growing garden in photos via my Dirt Rental Flickr Album.

Snow Hike

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Steps closed for winter by PPJ (2017) CC By-SA 2.0

Shakes head at news. Closes computer in disgust. Puts on many layers, then snowpants, snowboots and parka. Goes for a hike in the snow. It is 25 deg F in Ann Arbor, MI.

A short time later, hiking around trails at Matthaei Botanical Garden:

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Winter Stream Running by PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0

Me: “This feels much better!”

Hears strange chittering in the woods. Is it a bird?  No. Is it a frozen tree trunk squeaking in the wind? No.

There!  Three squirrels (maybe Fox Squirrels?) chasing each other around the branches of a very large tree.  Attempts to focus with cell phone camera prove futile.  Oh wait, there are now just two squirrels chasing each other.   Now they’ve stopped. … Oh, that is what is happening. I’ve turned into a squirrel voyeur!

Continues galumphing through snow for another hour. Am happy and cold and sort of tired.

Spots alien-like skunk cabbage sprouting at edge of stream.

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Skunk Cabbage crop (2017) by PPJ CC BY-SA 2.0

Enters Conservatory lobby. Removes parka & several layers, which are temporarily stowed on coat rack. Opens door to Conservatory, the smell of tropical plants and damp soil predominates.

Admires orchids.

Goes home. Opens computer. Starts to upload photos from walk and conservatory to social media. Starts to look at news again

Me: “Wait…”

Edit 2.9.17: Edited for formatting (replacing asterisks with italics) and correction of typographical errors.

Visit to the Conservatory

When I imagined what Michigan looked like in the winter, it was something like this:

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Icy Marsh at Crosswinds by Protopian Pickle Jar (2016) CC-BY-SA 2.0, on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/PKfTvB

Turns out, as long as you put on long underwear, snow pants, sweaters, parka, hat, mittens and boots, it’s pretty fun to romp around outdoors in the snow on a sunny day. Even when temperatures are well below freezing.

But sometimes, the interminable stretches of cloudy days, intense (and not-so-intense) cold, snow and ice just start to *get* to me. Even though I put snow tires on my car, put a happy light in my living room and increased my dietary intake of Vitamin D, I begin to wonder if winter is my punishment.

To deal with the bleakness, I have been longingly poring over photos of gardens in high summer or ogling observations of tropical flora and fauna posted on iNaturalist.

After a rough few weeks, I think I have found another method of coping with Michigan winter: The Conservatory at the Matthei Botanical Gardens.

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Pink flower pop by PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0

I had a meeting early on Friday morning in Ann Arbor, but decided to check out the Conservatory directly afterwards. The temperature on the thermometer on my car dashboard read 13 deg F (-11 deg C). I entered into the main lobby of the Conservatory and gradually unbundled from my coat and other insulating layers. (They provide a handy coat room to stash winter accoutrements.)

As I opened to the door to the conservatory itself, I was greeted with a blast of warm humid air and the smell of green growing things. Towering green palms and bright color pops came into focus. It felt like entry into another world.

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cacao pod closeup by PPJ (2017) CC By-SA 2.0

My body (and my soul, too) soaked in the surrounding warmth, humidity and lushness of the tropical biome section. However, I couldn’t resist long before taking out my cell phone to record images to tell the story.

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Fluffy pink flowers by PPJ (2017) CC By-SA 2.0

My amateur smartphone photography expedition made it through the temperate and desert biomes before I finally ran out of battery.

For more images of my brief escape from winter (and the strange organisms that live there!), you can check out Protopian Pickle Jar’s Flickr Album Conservatory at Matthei Botanical Gardens.
 

Git along, little dogies

On our walk on Monday at the Nichols Arboretum in Ann Arbor, we noticed the milkweed plants (Asclepias spp.) along the edges of the prairie were looking a little ragged. The leaves were chewed up with caterpillar-munched holes, and there were also hordes of little orange yellow aphids having a party drinking the milkweed sap.

Ants and aphids on milkweed. Protopian Pickle Jar (2016) CC-BY-SA 2.0
Ants and aphids on milkweed. Protopian Pickle Jar (2016) CC-BY-SA 2.0

We tentatively identified the aphids as Aphis nerii, the oleander aphid. A scatter of ants inspected the lines of aphids clustered along the leaf veins, which reminded me of tiny cowboys surveying a herd of grazing cattle. Presumably, the ant ranchers were milking the aphids for their honeydew, a sticky sweet substance that aphids secrete from their butts.

However, something troubled me about this bucolic scenario. These aphids from the Mediterranean feed on poisonous plants such as milkweed (Asclepias spp.) and other members of the dogbane Family (Apocynaceae), so they can store the toxic cardenolides (aka cardiac glycosides) that deter predators.

The aphids’ bright orange-yellow aposematic color serves as “Don’t Eat Me or You’ll be Sorry” warning. (One famous example of this is the notoriously noxious-tasting Monarch Butterfly.) The aphids can also secrete the cardenolides from their cornicles (organs on their butts)to get predators to back off.

So why the heck would ants be cultivating these toxic little critters as a honeydew source?

I did some research.

Ant/aphid relationships can get complicated. The aphid species A. nerii and A. asclepiadis both coexist and feed on milkweed, but according to Smith et al. 2008, only A. asclepiadis establish a mutualism with ant caretakers.

In contrast, other studies have observed the Argentine Ant (Linepithema humile) tending A. nerii aphids under field conditions in California (Bristow 1991, cited in Pringle et al. 2014.)

So what’s going on in my photo?

A few possibilities:

1) The ants aren’t actually herding the aphids for honeydew production, but are there for some other reason.

2)The aphids that I identified as A. nerii are really another species, such as A. asclepiadis. Here is a good photo showing the color contrast between the two species. Fun fact: A. nerii orange aposematic coloring is an ancient gene transfer from a fungus!

3) I haven’t identified the ant species. They could be Argentine ants (or another ant species that herds A. nerii for honeydew. However, as far as I can tell, L. humile doesn’t live in Michigan (it’s too cold!)

4) I also haven’t identified the milkweed species of the leaf. Aphids feeding on different species of milkweed metabolize the cardenolides differently. Pringle’s experiment suggested that ants may be prefer aphid colonies that produce honeydew with lower cardenolide content.
Maybe this particular milkweed produces a mellow-flavored honeydew?

At any rate, I still don’t know what these ants are doing. But this little project has provided me with hours of entertainment and a new appreciation for tritrophic interactions!

More about the Oleander Aphid from the University of Florida.
Some nice pictures of aphids from Living with Insects .

Gone to Seed

Milkweed pods gone to seed
Gone to Seed by Johnathan Nightingale (2014) CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr. https://flic.kr/p/oSE4at

As the summer ends, I have been thinking a lot about the phrase, “gone to seed.” Literally, it refers to the plants in a garden. They are taking all their energy from growth and greenery activities and putting it instead into developing their seeds. Because of the energy diversion into seed production, the plant and flowers become tattered, shabby, and worn-looking. The plant/fruits may become bitter, hard and inedible. To humans, the plant looks ready for the compost heap.

The figurative meaning of “gone to seed” captures this negative connotation, “to decline in looks, status, or utility due to lack of care.” (Idioms by the Free Dictionary). Or even more starkly, not just to be “shabby,” but to be synonymous with “dissipated” or “corrupt.” (fromThesaurus.com).

These past few weeks, I felt as if I had gone to seed. The intense heat and humidity sapped my strength and enthusiasm from my work at the Children’s garden. I came home every day, shucked my garden clothes and collapsed into a long nap. When I realized that we still had an intense week of summer camp organized for the last week before school, I didn’t know where I would find the energy to do more than show up. I felt like a desiccated flower head, crunchy and brown, ready to blow away in the breeze.

However, as camp grew closer, I mustered some more enthusiasm as I reviewed schedules, supplies and activity plans. When the kids arrived, my training and excitement kicked in to help me don my larger-than-life Garden Educator persona. My kindergarteners (“The Basil Buddies”) and I (“BasilBot”) had a fantastic time exploring the garden. While I was certainly exhausted by the end of the week, I also managed to tap into my kids’ excitement and curiosity to help keep myself going.

I also began to think about the positive aspects of the phrase, “gone to seed.” Lola Gayle over at Hush, Lola! has a gorgeous post about saving the seeds from balloon flowers in her garden. Making seeds (on the plants’ part) and saving seeds (on the humans’) is a major investment of resources. It is also a way of continuing a legacy, creating intention for next year’s garden, and as in Lola’s caption, making “a promise for tomorrow.”

I attended a screening of the documentary “Seeds of Time” a couple of weeks ago. It was hosted by Edible KC, a local food organization, and included a panel about grassroots seed saving efforts. The movie is about international seed banking: Long-term storage of different varieties of food crops to preserve diversity of the genome for breeding and adaptation to changing climate and disease pressures. It was fascinating and could have been pulled entirely from the realm of science fiction (Deep freeze with thousands and thousands of seed varieties inside a Norwegian mountain!) I also really enjoyed learning about the work of different organizations cooperating with indigenous potato farmers in Peru to archive and propagate heirloom/traditional seed varieties.

I had my last day at the Children’s garden this week. The weather was absolutely beautiful – sunny and breezy and cool – a perfect day to spent trimming back plants in the garden. I was a little sad to leave my co-workers and the amazing workplace that has welcomed me (wacky ideas and all!) this summer. However, like the seeds, I’m ready to move on to the next stage. I’m starting a new job next week in another city (more details to come!) and have been ramping up the process of sorting and culling possessions that have accumulated around me at my parents’ house.

To the promise of tomorrow! (And next week and the month after that!)

Tangents for this post:
Books about seeds that I read aloud during camp at the Children’s Garden:

The Tiny Seed by Eric Carle

Rooting for you by Susan Hood

Rotten Tomatoes

Tomato rotting on vine
End of Season by TimLewisNM (2010) CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr https://flic.kr/p/8KxiHj

One the downsides of an abundant tomato crop is that the tomatoes ripen faster than humans can organize to pick them. This is especially true of a volunteer-run community garden project. Sunday morning, I agreed to come to help harvest ripe vegetables and to arrange logistics of delivery to food pantries. I hadn’t been to the Mitzvah Garden, a project growing food for local pantries, all summer. I discovered that after working all week at the Children’s garden, I couldn’t force myself to get up early on Sunday morning to … work in another garden. Only a special request from our usual organizer (who would be out of town) got me into my garden clothes for a 6th day of the week.

When I arrived Sunday morning, it was great to catch up with other volunteers whom I hadn’t seen all summer. However, it was finally time to get to work. Other headed for the bell peppers and the cucumbers. I grabbed a “slush bucket” and “good tomato bucket” and headed for the tomato forest. We were both blessed and cursed with a bountiful harvest of tomatoes. The tomato plants burgeoned with ripe fruit, but the humans weren’t fast enough to get them before overripe tomatoes became food for various invertebrates and microorganisms.

As the only tomato harvesting volunteer at first, I realized I need to move methodically down the rows, putting mushy tomatoes in the compost bucket, while keeping the solid citizens in a separate container. Then, I would transfer the good tomatoes to the flats I put strategically at the end of each row. Physically, it was pretty challenging, squatting or kneeling between the rows to reach low-hanging tomatoes.

However, I hadn’t taken into account the sheer … gloppiness of the endeavor. As I reached for tomatoes on the plants, it wasn’t always clear which ones were good tomatoes and which ones were rotten. Putting my hand around rotten tomato often resulted in its explosion, coating my gloves and clothing with stinking, rotten tomato juice. I tried to keep the stinky slush off the good tomatoes (which occasional got splattered) by wiping them off on my pants. Soon, I was completely marinated in a coating of fermented, rotten tomato slime, sweat and dirt.

Eventually, other volunteers joined us to help harvest tomatoes (and then some of them snuck away to do other activities.) I let other people deal with the good tomatoes and focused on the slushy ones. I made 4 separate trips to the compost pile to re-empty my bucket of rotten tomato paste. I also hadn’t counted on the sheer volume of tomatoes I was dealing with: Even with perhaps a 3 to 1 ratio of mushy tomatoes to good tomatoes, we still ended up with 8 flats of tomatoes for delivery! Though there was a silver lining to our adventure, I was too miserable and smelly by the end of the harvest to appreciate the mitzvah.

As I walked in to the house, I stripped off my filthy shoes, hat and clothing. Then I made a beeline for the shower. Maybe scientists will some day discover that rotten tomatoes are actually an excellent skin tonic. However, now I think I know why bad comedians are pelted with them: Soaking someone in rotten tomato slime clearly indicates the depth of one’s displeasure with the object. That is all.