Volunteers and Clementine Boxes

Celery Volunteers for Me

I’m always on the lookout for volunteers in my garden, whether they’re people, fungi, plants, or any other organisms. The relationship is usually symbiotic. Human volunteers gain some knowledge and experience; I get some help in my ever-growing farmden. Fungal volunteers work with my plants, drinking in some of the sugars and other goodies plants produce. In return, the fungi protect plants agains certain pests and, in the case of mycorrhizal fungi, fungal threads ramifying through the soil act like extensions of plants’ roots so plants can absorb more nutrients.

  But what do plant volunteers get out of our arrangement? Plant volunteers usually arrive in droves so only some can stay. Those that stay get to enjoy especially good growing conditions.

Which brings me to celery. Volunteer celery plantsFor the past few years, I’ve allowed celery in the greenhouse to go to seed each fall. The seeds drop and, within a few months, sprout to furnish plenty of seedlings for early summer celery in the greenhouse and later celery out in the garden. All of which is most welcome because celery seedlings are very slow to germinate and grow. Before celery volunteered around here, I had to sow seeds in early February in seed flats, keep the flats warm and moist until the seeds sprouted, transplant the sprouts into individual cells in another flat, and finally transplant the seedlings, after about 10 weeks of care, out into their permanent homes.

  Robust celery seedlings have sprouted and are now growing in a greenhouse bed and in the paths near near that bed, all without any help at all from me. I just lifted clumps of them, separated the seedlings carefully to minimize root disturbance, and “plugged” them back into the ground 8 inches apart. Pest problems are minimized because their new home is a greenhouse bed where celery hasn’t grown for the past two years.

Seedlings from another clump when into individual cells of the APS Propagator; they’ll go outside into the garden in late April. I pulled a few leaves off all these transplanted seedlings so that they don’t lose too much moisture while waiting for their roots to settle into their new homes and get to work.Pricking out celery seedlings
  A lot of celery volunteers are still standing there in the paths and old celery bed. They are now weeds.

Ventura is the One for Me

Slow germination and growth, along with the need for a very rich and constantly moist soil, make celery more of a challenge to grow than most other vegetables. Which is one reason that I grow it!

  And there’s more. If seedlings are exposed to temperatures that are too cold for too long (55° or less for 10 days or more), the plants bolt, sending up seed stalks instead of growing thick, succulent leaves. Older books also talk about blanching celery, that is, piling soil up around the leaf stalks so they turn pale and tender from lack of sunlight. My celery rarely bolts, and I never blanche it.

  One reason for my success with celery (besides, I hope, a greenish thumb) is the variety I grow: Ventura. This variety doesn’t need blanching and is grow thick crisp stalks with rich, but never harsh.Self-sown Ventura celery
  The best celeries I’ve grown were fairly large volunteers that I moved from the greenhouse path into a greenhouse bed one fall. I covered the plants for a few days to increase humidity while the roots were taking hold. All winter, those plants made the juiciest, longest, tastiest celery stalks ever.

Clementines are for More than Just Eating

Clementines are as tasty as the boxes they come in are useful. I can’t bear to throw those boxes out so have a stack of them waiting to be of use.

One box is home to my seed starting supplies: various dibbles and spatulas for lifting small seedlings to replant into larger flats; various sized pieces of plywood for firming soil in seed flats, some with dowels glued to their bottoms to lay out mini-furrows; tape and marking pens for labeling flats; popsicle sticks, also for labeling.Onion seedlings
  Two other boxes are now being used as seedling flats – for onions and leeks, sown in early February and now well on their way. Each box has 5 mini-furrows in which I sprinkled about 7 fresh onion or leek seeds per inch. The seedlings will grow in those boxes until transplant time, which is a couple of weeks before I’ll be planting out the Ventura celery.



An Easy Orchid

Orchids are one group of plants I’ve regularly sidestepped. It seemed to me that if you grew orchids, you became crazed over orchids, to the exclusion of other plants. You then fill your home with as many of the over 20,000 species as you can cram onto your windowsills. I feared being led down that path.

My sidestepping took a turn into orchid-land 25 years ago when a local orchid enthusiast gave me a plant of Odontoglossum pulchellum, which I today learned has also been called lily-of-the-valley orchid. But more importantly today, the plant is in bloom. Blossoms from this plant are no rare occurrence; it’s bloomed every year for about the past 20 years, some years around now and other years waiting until February to unfold.Odontoglossum pulchellum orchid

Odontoglossum pulchellum doesn’t sport knock-your-socks-off, traffic-stopping blossoms; instead, they have a soft, subtle beauty. Right now, delicate, arching flower stems rise up from clusters of torpedo-shaped, green pseudobulbs that are perched up out of the “soil.” Eight to 10 dainty, waxy, white blossoms line up along each flowering stem and waft a sweet fragrance, more like paper-whites than lily-of-the-valley to me, that transports me to spring.

I get all this for very little effort and without becoming orchid-crazy. For years, I didn’t know the name of my plants so couldn’t even look up how to grow them. Rather than pot them up in any special orchid soil, I merely mix an equal volume of wood chips from my outdoor pile into my regular, homemade potting soil, along with a bit of soybean meal for extra nitrogen. I keep the plants in a sunny window in winter and sometimes move them outdoors in summer, dividing and repotting the pseudobulbs to make new plants.

For this bit of effort, I get fragrant, white blossoms every winter, and they last for at least a month. Odontoglossum pulchellum is easy to multiply yet I’ve happily managed to restrain myself to keeping only 3 or 4 plants after I’ve divided and repotted them each spring.

Easy Celery

Growing good celery demands a gardener’s greatest skill, and this year, in the greenhouse, I have the finest celery I’ve ever tasted or grown. The stalks are large, thick, juicy, even a little sweet. Unfortunately, I’m not sure I can take credit for this horticultural achievement.

Every summer I sow celery seed to transplant into my minimally heated greenhouse to provide stalks for salads and soups throughout winter. I do take credit for selecting a good variety: Ventura. I also take credit for providing good soil conditions; each year I slather an inch or so of ripe compost on all the beds in the greenhouse. And I’ll take credit for providing timely watering, with drip irrigation until a couple of weeks ago and by hand through winter.Self-sown Ventura celery

Ventura is an open-pollinated, rather than a hybrid, variety, which means that I can save my own seed for replanting each year. Beginning a few years ago, I’d allow one or two of the greenhouse Ventura plants that began to form flower umbels to do their thing and make seed, which they did prodigiously. I’d collect seed for planting the following season’s outdoor and indoor celery.

Some of those seeds would drop to the ground and germinate right in the greenhouse. These “volunteers” sometimes grew into seedlings as good or better than the plants I would later transplant back into the greenhouse.

So a couple of years ago I decided to let the celery self-sow freely in the greenhouse. Later in winter, I’ll transplant some of those seedlings into pots for eventual planting out in the garden.

In the greenhouse, I thin out excess seedlings, keeping the largest ones, which are already large enough for harvest. The stalks, especially welcome in winter, are, as I wrote above, “large, thick, juicy, even a little sweet.” I like to think I had a hand in horticultural achievement.

And Nothing To Do (For Now)

Nothing like a little snowfall to clean everything up in the garden. December 11th was the date of the first snow, followed by a second one on the 17th. The white blankets covered the pile of crocosmia leaves lying on the ground and waiting to be carted over to the compost bin, some weeds that sprouted in the mulched area beneath the dwarf apples, some of the smaller plants I haven’t yet cleared from vegetable beds, and numerous other messy distractions. The whole view was knit together in the sea of whiteness.Winter garden scene

Spells of warmer weather and bright sunshine have eroded away some of the snow, mostly taking the fluffy, white lines and dots that rested atop fences and their fenceposts. The ground, as I write, is still pretty much covered in a white blanket. While I’m enjoying the wintry scene, I can forget about about the few odd jobs still left to do that are patiently waiting beneath the the snow.

Let It Be?

“Let it be, let it be” went the old Beatles’ lyric, and this could very well be a mantra in gardening. Sometimes, sometimes a little, and sometimes not at all.
Take, for instance, the climbing hydrangea cloaking the north wall of my brick house. Even now, bereft of leaves and flowers, the finger-thick vines, with their papery peeling, tan bark are a pretty sight weaving their way across and up the russet red wall. Come spring and through summer, bricks peek out from behind a cloak of heart-shaped, glossy green leaves. In summer, white flowers open on short, horizontal stems that reach out from the wall, the whole effect, with the leafy background, like twinkling stars against a dark sky.
I planted the vine about 7 years ago, knowing that it’s slow to get started and that it can coexist with trees or brick walls, damaging neither. My plan with this vine has been to “let it be” although I did wonder what might happen once stems reached roof eaves and corners of the wall. Now I know: A couple of years ago, stems began to reach around the two corners to start their journey to the other house walls and initially thin stems also began to work their way beneath roof fascia.
The house would look cool thoroughly enveloped in this beautiful, ever-expanding vine, but could the structure handle it? I drew the line, with pruning shears, loppers, extension shears, and ladder, at roof eaves, wall corners, and windows (also threatened), lopping or breaking off errant stems. Climbing hydrangea is just too pretty to remove completely. I can “let it be,” but not too freely.
For the past few weeks, Whenever I sit down to eat I also give an occasional, worried glance at the bare bulb sitting on a plate at the far end of the table. A pointy shoot a couple of inches long pokes out its top. Has it grown longer?
I’m wary because I had this plant once before, decades ago. I knew I could “let it be.” The bulb doesn’t need to be planted! Even without soil, the shoot will stretch upward and then an eerie purple “flower” will unfurl, much like an upside down skirt. Up the center of the flower will rise a long, pointed, purple stalk (which is actually a spadix on which are the true flowers). So far, so good.
The problem is that Amorphophallus, the botanical genus of this plant, is pollinated by carrion insects, and the fully open flower attracts its pollinators by reeking of dead flesh. To spare my very sensitive nose, I have to stand ready to cover the plant’s head in a plastic bag and whisk it down to the basement at the first hint of carrion-ness, just like I did with the plant I had decades ago. Or just lop the head off.
I accepted a recent offer of this plant, which multiplies readily, because it’s so interesting and so attractive, sort of. Once the bulb calms down from flowering, it does need soil, either in the ground in spring or in a pot. Then comes a leaf stalk, pale, olive-green with dark-brown splotches. When the snake-like stalk reaches a couple of feet in height, a single leaf unfurls into three leaflets that spread out like spokes of a wheel. At this stage, the plant is quite attractive and still eerie. 
Last night at dinner, as I was eyeing Amorphophallus, I was enjoying a fresh, very, very local salad; the ingredients travelled 75 feet, from my greenhouse. A welcome crunch to these fall and winter salads is fresh celery.
Celery is not the easiest vegetable to grow. The tiny seeds germinate slowly and take a long time to mature into succulent, crunchy stalks. And then, for best eating the plant topnotch growing conditions: cool, moist soil rich in nutrients and organic matter.
Celery may be difficult, but I can just “let it be.” I don’t even have to plant celery anymore. This winter’s stalks, seedlings from last winter’s stalks, will go to seed as summer approaches. The four to five foot seedstalks will mature in midsummer, then bow their seed-laden heads over and drop seeds to continue the cycle. Seeds sprout late each summer, seedlings thrive in cooling temperatures of autumn, and by early winter — that is, now — I have plenty of mature celery that will grow slowly to keep me in stalks until spring. “Let it be, let it be.”