Saturday, May 16, 2015

A Tour of Pinelands Nursery

As a birthday gift to myself, I signed up for a free tour of Pinelands Nursery and Supply as part of the Native Plant Society of New Jersey. They're a wholesale nursery who's doors are closed to the public except for the occasional gardening club and horticulture related events.

While on the tour though I was thrilled to learn that the owner's son is starting up a branch for smaller orders meant for the general public. It's called Pinelands Direct and I can happily say I'll be ordering from them in the future. Their website could use a little work and they don't have as big a selection as the main Pinelands Nursery, but they are selling some hard to find plants such as Seaside Goldenrod, along with more typical native plant nursery plants.

Regardless of which nursery you're buying from, though, you'll be getting plants grown from local seed stock native to New Jersey, PA, NY, DE, and generally a 250 mile radios around their nursery. Some native plant gardeners and conservationists find that important. Personally I don't, I'm not that picky but it is nice growing something that tends to be better adapted for the local area. 

Speaking from experience, I buy from a lot of online nurseries and sometimes when I order from a nursery based in Florida the plants don't always survive the winters. So growing from local genotypes has its benefits. When you do find success though it's sometimes fun to mix and match genotypes to extend the bloom or encourage fall color at different times of year. The Black Eyed Susans grown at the Mt. Cuba Center in DE bloom right alongside Symphyotrichum laeve 'Bluebird' (click more photos), whereas back at my house in NJ, they've finished flowering long before most asters have even flowered. However I do happen to have two genotypes of New England Aster. The local one found here in NJ blooms a solid month after the one I ordered from a Massachusetts nursery. Their bloom is so far off that one is setting seed while the other is flowering.

After the tour, there was a native plant sale. We didn't get full reign over the place like we did at the New Moon Nursery but I got my Seaside Goldenrod (and 8 other plants) so I was happy. The quality can't be beat for the price we paid. The plants are in a 4 inch square pot (I believe it's a quart) and they all had thick solid stems, they were very huge and overall healthy for the price paid. Some of the plants I got were a little root bound but frankly I get that from every nursery that sells anything larger than a plug size, and it's a simply fix too, just cut off the offending roots and loosen up the sides so I don't fault them for that. I'm very happy with the plants I got! (And added a link to their site on the side bar.)

It was implied they take field trips and go well out of their way to collect seeds. Sometimes they're in boats. Each of the white drums (right) he said probably held a 1 to 3 thousand dollars worth of seeds depending on the species inside and how dense they packed it.  

Several of the species they offer, they grow in fields to make seed collecting easier. He owns several farms for that purpose across multiple states. The deer are a problem for some of their sites but not this particular location. Apparently hunting is allowed in the forest pictured in the background.

One crop of some sort of grass looked to be dead and they were watering the hell out of it. I assume it's a warm season crop but the fact they were watering worried the owner quite a bit. It hasn't rained in NJ for a month now and he joked during the tour that if the skies suddenly opened and a torrential down pour happened he wouldn't exactly have been mad at the situation. 

A mixture of sand, ground up coconut chips, wood bark, and maybe two or three other things I'm forgetting, go into the pots and plugs they use there. This is the "Pinelands" nursery after all so Sand is very important. Along with offering good drainage though it's also the heaviest medium to put in a pot, which I really hadn't though about. He also commented on how you'll see plants in nurseries, how the medium seems to have settled or sunken in a good inch or three. That's mostly because the medium they used decomposed which he viewed as not being good, though I'm note convinced it really matters.

Depending on the size of the pot or flats they're filling the media gets mixed up and loaded into one of two machines. And he emphasized that they fill their pots up to the brim. This machine in particular is meant for size 1 or 2 pots... I say size 1 or 2 because apparently you can get sued for calling them 1, 2, or 3 "gallon" pots because they technically don't hold 1, 2, or 3 gallons of liquid. (Also a 5 dollar foot long may in fact not be a foot long.) So the wood in the back is a boxed in area where they mix the soil up. A conveyor belt takes it to the green bin (right) which then dumps it into the second bin as needed (middle) and that travels up another conveyor belt dumping down through a grate that the empty pots move under. The excess soil is scraped off the top and yet another conveyor belt collects it and sends it back up into the middle bin (left).

Here you can see the result of their machine that fills the flats up with dirt. For some species of plants they'll actually mix the seeds in with the soil and load it up into the flats (one assumes smaller flats than the ones pictured above).

Here they were trying different methods to get Ferns to grow. Ferns reproduce by spores which have to develop into different types of microscopic organisms before what we would consider to be an adult plant forms. I'm not big on ferns and I don't particularly understand it but it sounded similar to getting Orchids to grow. This particular method involved collecting spores, sending them to a lab to be grown into tissue samples, putting them into a blender and then soaking the contents in a sponge material and then hope something grows. He's had a moderate amount of success with this method but believes he needs to get the price down somehow.

Flats of this that were placed outside in the greenhouses show some success, but it was unclear if these were from that method or something different. He did have greenhouses that were just filled with ferns as far as you could see so clearly something is working.

Of course all plants, whether seed or spore, get planted in a flat and taken out to one of the greenhouses.

It was neat seeing them being watered, and he actually runs heating coils underground. Other nurseries I've been to use gas boilers to pump in the heat manually. His watering method seemed more costly though but really I'm not sure. Some places I've been to had their own water towers setup and just use gravity to create water pressure.  

He grows aquatic plants too, mainly used for restoration projects. Their seed has to be submerged in water to germinate. Also I'm not sure what it is about the mud in these beds but they smelled awful but not unlike bogs I've been to in nature.

He talked a little about why he's not more open to selling to the public. The benefit of wholesale is how automated he can be. They collect seeds by the millions and germinate them all at once. He gets huge orders of plants. The minimum order is $1,000, and it's not uncommon for people or order plants 1,000,000 at a time. Taking the phone call for that order takes up about the same amount of time as it does for someone only ordering just 10 so it's REALLY not worth his time.

It was great seeing his son stepping up to the plate and running the retail side of things though. I wish his selection was as good as his the wholesale... actually I'm not sure why it isn't, (maybe those are the only plants they keep in stock year round?) whatever the case, I think they're the only nursery that really sells Seaside Goldenrod over the internet.   

For those of you who don't know about Seaside Goldenrod, Solidago sempervirens, this is the last nectar plant Monarch butterflies get before leaving New Jersey and crossing the Delaware river in their migration south. That's the ocean in the background of this photo. This species grows in 100% sand, is extremely salt tolerant, and grows right along the beach.

Thousands of these plants were planted along the coastline of Cape May, NJ, as a restoration effort to help safe the Monarch. It's thanks to the tireless efforts of nurseries like Pinelands Nursery that thousands of these plants can be planted for that purpose, and thanks to Pinelands Direct I can finally plant this at my home. And it makes it extra special that I can do this with a local genotype too... although I don't live at the beach so now the fun becomes seeing how well this plant can tolerate clay soil and seeing if I need to add sand. (I dug a hole and filled it with play sand which other sand loving species seem to be doing alright in.)

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Pawpaw Flower

Pawpaw, Asimina triloba. I've had trees of this species for years now with mixed success. Basically I'd buy saplings and plant them in various places throughout the yard. Mostly the didn't survive the winter though and I'd have to start all over. I'm not certain on the reasons why they all died because I see images of them growing in full sun locations in yards, being used as a shade tree but it seems this really isn't where this tree wants to grow. It's likely the more sun they receive, the more water they require, and I just wasn't watering mine enough. When I finally got one to survive the winter it was situated beneath the shade of two oaks in the former vegetable garden before the oaks shaded that areas out. In nature this is an understory tree, sending up suckering stems to form its own grove. Cross pollination is essential to getting them to fruit, so once I'd found a successful location I planted a second sapling right next to it. I've read it can take up to 10 years before they flower but thankfully mine didn't take that long. It generally waited until it was 5' tall and will likely surpass that height this year. The second sapling is still only 3' and it's going to be a flip of the coin if it flowers next year which I hope it does because I'd love to finally taste this native fruit it's taken so long to grow. I believe you can get them to flower sooner if grown in containers.

The flowers are pollinated by carrion flies and beetles. The petals even resemble dead flesh a bit. Even with two plants flowering, I've read pollination can still be an issue. Those that grow them in containers swear by hand pollination which I might do to start. There was a tip posted somewhere saying to hang chicken skin among the branches... though that's just going to attract the neighborhood cats and other hoodlums to the yard. 

Each afternoon as the sun goes down, little flies and things start showing up at the flowers. At a lecture with Eric Toensmeier, who is a reasonably big name in the Permaculture field, I asked him if it's worth it to plant things like Trillium viridescens and other fly pollinated plants beneath these trees. They actually flower at the same time of year. His response was really it's best to manually pollinate them yourself. And his reasoning makes sense, why risk a poor crop that you've waited the better half of the decade to try. 

Another thing worth noting is that wildlife love the fruit even more that you do and often big bites are taken out of them before they're ripe. That's an issue I'll figure out how to tackle when that road comes. For now though I can simply enjoy the flowers... that smell of rotting fish.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Wild Hyacinth

Wild Hyacinth, Camassia scilloides, is quickly becoming one of my favorite plants. At least it better be because I forgot I planted bulbs last years. I then ordered a flat of it on Prairie Moon Nursery... sometime during the winter lull, couldn't find it in my purchase history and saw it was no longer being offered in flats, so I assumed they canceled my order so I ordered another 32 bulbs. Planted the bulbs, had another 32 show up already growing in flats... and also the plants from last year came up and are flowering. So in theory I have 96 plants somewhere in the yard. 

The ones I had forgotten I planted last year are doing the best. I wasn't 100% sure where they'd do good in my yard though so they're occurring in scattered clumps, and I'm certain the rodents have eaten some. This is one of those loves being wet, but not soggy, but needs to be well drained, and can't freeze in the winter plants. So good loose garden soil ideally on a slope... where good loose garden soil likes to erode away.

The best patch I have is in a pit I dug and filled completely with sand. Everything I put in here is immediately shocked and stressed out looking, until they get enough of their roots pressed down into the layer of clay below. It's otherwise been a huge success of a garden. Pictured above and below is one that is growing along the edge of my meadow garden. The plants are hard to focus on as most of the foliage is grass-like down below with a single flowering stem standing erect on top.

What's really got my attention is the fact that the flowers all began opening as white, then something triggered them all to fade blue, so now the new ones that are opening are opening up as blue instead of white. And not all of them are doing this, some still open as white. So wherever they're growing in mass you get this neat effect of a light mixing of colors and transitioning. I also love their color directly next to some other natives such as Wild Geranium, Jacob's Ladder, Bluets, Waterleaf.

And of course what would a wildflower be in my garden without ants stealing nectar from the flowers. Growing in the background is a Wild Geranium which also has some color variance between old and new flowers.

A Wild Geranium for color comparison.

Assuming the ~96 Wild Hyacinth I planted all flower next year I should be in for a spectacular floral display. My only complaint with them so far is the individual flowers are short lived, so the smaller flowering stalks are almost finished flowering for the year already.

Black Swallowtail Laying Eggs on Golden Alexander

When Native Plant Gardeners decide to add Golden Alexander to their landscape, they're often disappointed to see a lack of Black Swallowtails. Perhaps Monarchs boldly laying dozens of eggs all over Milkweed and their easy to spot black and white caterpillars spoil them. A couple of things are going on here.

Firstly, Black Swallowtails are native to North America, so much so that they're sometimes referred to as the American Swallowtail. Golden Alexander was their primary host plant among a few other members of the carrot family, but when western settlers brought with them delicious Parsley, Dill, and yet more members of the carrot family, suddenly the American Swallowtail had a lot more hosts to choose from. Parsley and Dill in particular were bread for their pungent odor and flavor, and likely possess more of the chemicals in the plant Black Swallowtails use to make themselves bitter tasting. Not only do the caterpillars mimic bird shit in the first few instars, but they want to taste like it too! This is likely why Parsley and Dill tend to be heavily favored as host plants.

Monarchs are down right poisonous to consume, and they want to go out of their way to show themselves off. Causing a mother bird to throw up the contents of her crop is one less meal her baby birds will get. It's a swift lesson and birds quickly learn not to bother with black and white caterpillars.

Golden Alexander has other pest problems such as Aphids. Parsley gets aphids too but not the same kind. These aphids are better about attracting Ants, which are more than happy to consume butterfly eggs, as well as young instars caterpillars. The plant itself also excretes extra floral nectar on its leaves which ants will "nectar scrape" for food, to further get ants crawling all over the plant. Golden Alexander is also a more open, airy plant, which wasps have an easier time exploring to hunt. Some types of parsley are dense with leaves.

One thing Golden Alexander can boast though is that it's a spring ephemeral. Seen here at 2 - 3' tall it's produced almost all its foliage for the year, whereas Parsley and Dill flower in late summer and autumn, and thus have quite a bit of growing to do. So Golden Alexander is usually a better choice as a spring host plant because even nursery born Parsley and Dill are barely this tall.
Admittedly I can only recall two instances when a female has bothered to lay eggs on our Golden Alexander patch in the past 5 years. I'd probably do better to plant something else in the patch but I keep the plants around all the same. 

One thing I noticed was a preference to lay directly on the flower clusters as opposed to stems or leaves. There may be other reasons Golden Alexander is favored in the spring that I don't know about.

Either that or she's playing a clever game of Where's Waldo. Note the tiny egg planted among the flower buds.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Ant War at Mt. Cuba

While walking the paths at Mt. Cuba I came across a little ant skirmish. This is odd because I rarely see ants there at all. I've been tempted a few times to ask if I could setup bait stations to see what would come out, and I'm sure the leaf litter there might yield interesting results.

The Formica I believe is Formica subsericea. This is a semi-common lawn and road side ant that make some pretty sizable colonies. They're reasonably large (about 8mm - 1cm long) fast moving. They're a generalist scavenger you sometimes find tending aphids or nectar scraping the leaves below.

Prenolepis imparis, Winter Ants, get their name from their extreme tolerance to cold temperatures. They're out foraging later in the winter and earlier in the spring than any other ant genus in North America. They also hold nuptial flights on the first few warm days of the year as early as February! But more commonly in March and April. They usually nest in woods or along forest edges where they can be close to trees. Their foraging lines are usually bustling with activity venturing well up the tallest trees to feed on sap from new growth, extra-floral nectar pours and aphids. Workers balloon up like the Honeypot ants we have out west but remain mobile and often contain fat bodies instead of nectar (which doesn't taste good).

The Winter Ant foraging line was getting bombarded by the Formica workers who swiftly bit their prey into submission. Occasionally the Winter Ants would present their acidopore and spray formic acid in the Formica's face. Ants spraying acid rarely looks as cool as it sounds because the dose they're spraying is just enough to blind or kill the other ant and not itself. They more or less sprites each other with mace. The Formica can spray acid too, in fact that's what their genus is named for, but biting them seemed more effective. Other Formica species that produce large thatch mounds are better examples of spraying acid, because their colonies have to deal with Bears and other large mammals attacking the nest.

And of course what would a woodland garden be without Aphaenogaster. This genus is likely what's planting the wildflower seeds the gardeners there miss.