The last few days have been mild if a bit gloomy here. Most of the snow is gone again, but as I gaze out my office window I can see it’s snowing here again. There have been incredible swings in temperatures and some really unusual weather in many parts of the country. I know many gardeners are anxious about how their gardens are holding up.
Gardeners and farmers are at the mercy of nature in most cases. All we can do is hope our plants survive and if they don’t, well, it’s an opportunity to start fresh. There’s still a lot of winter left, unfortunately, but when it’s over we’ll take stock and move on, because we are gardeners, and gardeners are resilient people. We will persevere, like the daisy growing in the crack of the sidewalk.
Bury yourself in garden catalogs and plans. Start some seeds or buy a new houseplant. I’ve been pulling houseplants for a good grooming, cutting out dead leaf tips, removing faded flowers and dusting leaves.
My puttering led me to clean off the top of the refrigerator- because I wanted to move a spider plant there that wasn’t getting enough light. Way at the back of the refrigerator top I found a plastic tub. It had some seeds I had been looking for – a couple years ago. Yes, it’s been a while since that frig top got cleaned off and I’m a short person.
Inside the tub I was excited to find the very tiny, dried pumpkin-like fruits that I had bought from a farm market vendor one year. Last year I thought I had found the correct plant to produce those tiny pumpkin look -a- likes, but it turns out the eggplants I grew called “pumpkin on a stick” were a bit bigger. While the pumpkin on a stick fruits were pretty in fall arrangements they didn’t dry as nicely as I would have liked.
I think I remember the vendor telling me the tiny seed pods I found in the tub were a type of pepper. I am guessing it has been 7 years (I brought the tub from my old office when I retired, it hasn’t been on the frig 7 years) since I bought those little fruits and I have only a slight chance of growing anything from the seeds inside. But I am going to try. There were also several opium poppy seed heads in there, which had spilled a lot of tiny black seeds. I can’t remember why I collected those, whether it was some special variety someone gave me or what. But I’ll try to grow some of those too.
Humidity and houseplants
If you are having trouble with browning foliage on indoor plants, especially on leaf tips, flower buds that shrivel and fall off and houseplants that just don’t look good your plants may be suffering from low humidity in your home. Spider mites, which cause leaf yellowing and make small webs across leaves and in leaf joints, are also more likely to occur when humidity is low.
Warm air can hold more moisture but the heat in our homes in winter months is more likely to result in low humidity inside. That’s because most modern furnaces remove moisture from the air as they heat it. The colder it is outside the more the furnace runs. If you have a humidifier on your furnace you may not have to worry but many people don’t have this feature.
People in warm climates may experience low humidity when air conditioners run constantly also. Air conditioners remove moisture from the air even more than furnaces. Raising the thermostat setting so the house is warmer will raise the humidity.
Most houseplants, with the exception of desert cacti, need humidity levels above 40%. Some do best at much higher levels. The average heated home in the winter with no humidifier will often range in the 30% range or less. Air conditioned homes also run around 30% humidity. This is stressful for plants and not too good for humans either. A good humidity range for most houseplants is 60-80%.
Plants rarely suffer from too much humidity indoors but the ideal humidity for plants may not be the ideal humidity for you and your home. When humidity levels inside are higher than outside condensation may form on windows. High home humidity can cause mold to grow and people with allergies to mold will experience symptoms. Some viruses and bacteria grow better in high humidity. However, homes that are too dry can cause dry skin, cracked lips, sinus problems, asthma attacks and other allergic problems. Some viruses, notably colds and flu, spread better in dry air. Dry air feels colder than moist air. There’s a balancing act between keeping things good for plants and keeping things good for people.
So how do we balance what’s good for people and what’s good for plants?
Experts on human health seem to think homes should be kept between 30- 40% humidity but most plants would prefer 50-60% humidity or more. So what can you do to keep everything happy? You can buy cheap humidity gauges, often combined with thermometers, in most hardware stores. People with houseplants need these in various rooms with houseplants if you don’t have a whole house humidifier. Some rooms may have higher humidity than others. These gauges will help you regulate humidity.
First try to get your home humidity up to that 40% level or slightly higher. Do this with humidifiers, either room size units or whole house furnace add ons, and perhaps lowering your inside temperature a bit so the furnace runs less. Cool air humidifiers save energy and may be better for your health.
Keeping a pot of watering simmering on the stove or on top of a wood burning stove can help humidify air. Aquariums and indoor fountains also add humidity to the air. Locate plants near them.
We can help our plants by providing zone humidity, keeping the humidity highest where the plants are at. Kitchens and baths have higher humidity levels than other parts of the home. You may want to move plants that require the highest humidity to those rooms. Also grouping plants together can raise humidity around them.
Humidity trays can be used under plants. These are filled with water and pots set on top of them. The bottom of the pot should not touch the water, the pots are set on grates above the water or rocks added to the tray to keep pot bottoms above water. These trays should be dumped once a month and scrubbed to keep mold from growing. The pots plants are in must be able to drain freely.
The double pot method can be used to increase humidity. Fill a large pot with moist peat or sphagnum moss and place the pot with the plant in it. Keep the moss/peat moist but don’t overwater the plant.
Should you mist plants? Some experts advise against it, saying the wet foliage is more prone to disease. But if the home is very dry misting the plants once a day can be very helpful and is unlikely to raise disease levels. It’s especially helpful to plants with buds, to keep the buds from drying and falling off. However, try not to mist the buds directly, mist the foliage around them. Most plants with hairy or fuzzy leaves should not be misted.
|Prayer plant like high humidity.|
If spider mites are a problem you can take plants to the shower and give the foliage a good spraying, including the underside of leaves. Then mist frequently, even daily. This often controls the spider mites without having to use any pesticides.
Finally, if you have plants with high humidity requirements you may want to give them their own room in winter, which you can keep humid with a humidifier. These plants have high humidity needs, most ferns, gardenias, camellia, caladium, Acalypha ( Chenille plant), African violets (don’t mist these), Allamanda, Aglaonema (Chinese evergreen),Anthurium, Aphelandra ( Zebra plant), Croton, Coleus, Columnea (Goldfish plant), Cyclamen, Dizygotheca (False Aralia), Episcia, trailing and creeping types of Ficus, Gloxinia, Medinilla, some Maranta species( Prayer plant) most orchids, Venus Fly Trap,
From poison arrows to prophylactics
Centuries ago the people of East Africa were known to dip arrows in a poison that when injected by the arrow into flesh caused the heart to stop. The poison that the arrows were dipped in was made by boiling one of 2 species of plants, Acokanthera schimperi and Strophanthus gratus into a thick black tar-like substance. The arrows were used for hunting and later to try and stop the invasion of Europeans.
Europeans were always curious about plants, especially ones that were a potent poison like these. They brought plants home to experiment with and scientists were eventually able to identify the substance that caused the heart problems, a chemical compound named Ouobain. Some doctors began to experiment with using the drug to actually help people with bad hearts. Even today there is a German heart drug that is used for certain heart problems which contains Ouobain. American doctors have sometimes championed the drug despite its being banned here.
In the last century researchers discovered that the human body also produces Ouobain, in very small amounts. It’s produced by the adrenal glands and is used to regulate blood pressure and electrolytes in the blood. This has led to increased interest and study of the compound for medical use.
One of the possible uses of Ouobain is as a male contraceptive according to a report published recently in ACS' Journal of Medicinal Chemistry. (See reference.) In an animal study Ouobain that had been modified to limit its heart toxicity caused male sperm cells to have little or no mobility. If sperm can’t swim they can’t fertilize an egg.
The Ouobain based treatment only affected mature sperm, which means that if the chemical treatment was stopped immature sperm would mature normally and fertility would be restored. In animals the modified Ouobain had no effect on the heart or other systems.
This new Ouobain based medicine has only been tested on animals but if its effects are the same in humans it could mean a major breakthrough in contraception. An effective male contraceptive has long been needed.
People should not experiment on their own with the plants Ouobain is produced from. A very small amount of Ouobain can stop the human heart in 3-10 minutes.
Reference: Design, Synthesis, in vitro and in vivo Evaluation of Ouabain Analogs as Potent and Selective Na,K-ATPase α4 Isoform Inhibitors for Male Contraception. Journal of Medicinal Chemistry, 2018; DOI: 10.1021/acs.jmedchem.7b00925
That Zone thing
The planting zone concept is often hard for new gardeners to understand. And truthfully I find some people who have been gardening a while don’t seem to understand what a gardening zone is. It’s very important to know what planting zone you live in so you don’t waste money buying plants that won’t grow or won’t over winter in your garden. Here’s the scoop on planting zones.
A gardening zone is determined officially by the United States Department of Agriculture but a few other places have developed their own zone charts. The charts are revised every 10-15 years. The latest map was issued in 2012. Zone maps can help you decide what plants you should purchase for your garden.
A zone chart divides the country into areas by the coldest winter temperatures they may experience and numbers them. That’s called your winter hardiness zone for gardening. There’s another USDA zone chart for heat hardiness but it is little used. Each gardening zone may be further divided into part A and part B.
The colder the winter, the lower the number assigned to the zone. In the US mainland area, we currently have zones three to eleven. A state can have several planting zones. For example in Michigan, the cold hardiness zones range from 6, in the Detroit area and along some southwestern coastlines, to 3, in tiny areas of the upper lower peninsula and the U.P
The USDA gathers data from numerous places around the United States to determine an average maximum low temperature from an area. The newest gardening zone chart that the USDA published in 2012 has taken into consideration the data from a much greater number of places than previous zone maps. Even without climate change, the increased range of data may have changed the zone map from previous ones for your area. Always consult the latest zone map.
Where to find your gardening zone
Gardening zone maps are available from a variety of sources such as garden reference books available at your local bookstore or library, but these may be outdated. A great source for a free, up to date gardening zone map is your favorite gardening catalog. Here’s a link that will allow you to find your garden zone by state or zipcode. http://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/PHZMWeb/
Some places devise their own gardening zone maps, such as the Arbor Day Foundation and Sunset Gardening Publications. Since most plant sellers use the USDA chart to rate the hardiness of their plants it’s probably best to look up your gardening site on the official USDA zone map.
How to Use the Gardening Zone Map Information
The gardening zone chart is used to inform consumers which perennial plants will survive the winter in their area. Most plant labels and gardening catalogs will put the zone hardiness rating somewhere in the plant description. When you choose plants for your garden choose plants that will grow in your zone or a lower numbered zone.
If you are a gardener in zone five you will want to choose plants that are rated hardy to zone five, four or three. (Zone three is about the coldest area of the mainland United States.) A plant rated hardy to zone seven would probably not survive the winter in your garden.
While most plants that have been in the market for a while will be accurately assigned to their gardening zone, new plants may be less accurately placed. When new plants are put on the market they will probably have been trialed in many places, but until thousands of gardeners are growing the plant, the information about their zone hardiness may be only a guess. When purchasing new plants, even new varieties of familiar garden plants, be aware that the zone hardiness may not be accurate.
How to Cheat a Gardening Zone
What if you live in gardening zone five and you really, really, want a plant that is listed hardy to zone six. You may be able to cheat nature. In every yard there are areas we call micro-zones, areas where the climate is just a little different from the surrounding area. It may be up against the south side of the house, in a courtyard, or in a sheltered pocket surrounded by heat holding rocks or cement. A zone six plant might survive there.
There are other gardening tricks to try too. Deep mulching or a protective cover might do the trick. Sometimes plants that manage to survive a few milder winters in your zone will acclimate enough to survive a harsher one. Start with small plants of the variety you want to try and plant them in the spring. Only spend what you can afford to lose on the plant too.
If you have always wanted to grow certain types of plants in your garden but you don’t live in the right gardening zone, don’t despair. New varieties of the plant you are interested in may be developed that expand the gardening zone range.
And when you have been successful in getting a plant to grow in your gardening zone that wasn’t rated hardy for it, share the information with gardening friends and organizations. That may inspire others in your zone to grow the plant and ultimately get the gardening zone rating changed.
Starting a plant based business- consider a niche market
If you are wanting to start a plant based business you have many choices. You can start a conventional greenhouse, selling tomatoes and petunias or you can specialize in succulents or orchids. You can plant evergreens for Christmas trees or rare and unusual conifers for collectors. You can grow wheat or amaranth, strawberries or goji berries. There’s nothing wrong with starting a retail greenhouse if there are no greenhouses for 20 miles and a population near your greenhouse that might be interested in buying your product. But if the population in the area is small and there’s already a well-established greenhouse nearby you may struggle to make your greenhouse profitable.
You may want to grow vegetables for the farm market. If you live near a thriving farm market which is close to a densely populated area you may be able to make decent sales at that market with your conventional garden produce, even with many other vendors selling similar produce. But you might consider a slightly different approach from other vendors by growing Asian vegetables, unusual fruits, specialty peppers and so on, and make even better sales. You might want to turn your blueberries into jam or pie. When competition is stiff and even when it’s not, a niche business is often more profitable than more common ones.
What is a niche business?
A niche is a small, defined market. Demand for a product may be limited because of cost to the consumer, because the product is scarce, because it is unknown, or because it appeals to only certain people. A niche or specialty market is a small business that is producing an item that is uncommon because of its variety, method of production, quality, or uniqueness in the market place. Many niche markets that are plant based involve food products although there are many non- food items that can be profitable when produced by a niche business. Niche businesses are generally run by a family or small partnership.
Niche businesses sometimes evolve into larger enterprises and products produced by them may be taken over by larger markets as demand for the product increases. For example ten years ago anything organically produced was largely a niche market product. As more and more Americans become willing to pay for organically produced food, some organic foods are being produced on what only can be called large scale farms.
Niche businesses can produce a product that was never available before, at least in a specific area, or they can take an old product and produce it in a better way. Everyone will not pay $5.00 for a loaf of organic, specially made bread, there will still be a market for $2.00 a loaf, white, sliced bread found in the supermarket. But there are many places where a person producing a quality, delicious bread from organic flour will be able to make a good profit.
In niche businesses the profit lies with making each item produced achieve the maximum profit per unit through added value. In traditional farming and greenhouse/nursery operations the focus is on producing volume, with each individual item producing only a small amount of profit. More corn per acre, instead of unusual or high-quality corn per acre for example. Hundreds of 10 inch hanging baskets in white pots instead of unique plant combinations in hand made pottery containers.
Niche businesses make their own market to a large extent. If there are hundreds of people producing geraniums and the market is full of geraniums to purchase for example, a large buyer will be able to set the price he wants to pay for geraniums and producers will have to sell geraniums for that price if they want to sell at all. The niche business can set the price they want to get for their goods (within reason) because they have something that few other people are offering. The niche business goal should be to produce a product that has value independent of traditional markets.
Having a unique product is key to a successful niche business. That doesn’t mean that the product has never been produced before. Apples can be a unique product of they are a rare heirloom variety sold in a special gift basket. Niche products may be unique to your area, they may be unique because of how you sell or process them, or they may even be something no one has seen on the market before. Uniqueness will only take a product so far however. If the food product doesn’t taste good and isn’t a quality product, it will quickly lose its appeal to the customer. If the perennials you offer aren’t really perennials in your market area people will stop buying from you.
If a product is successful it will soon become less unique as others try to emulate your success with it. A niche business only fills a niche as long as there is a niche. That means when demand for a product becomes widespread enough that many people are producing it in large quantities, the niche business owner is either very rich or has went on to another product.
There is one thing I must mention here about uniqueness. If something you are trying to sell is completely new to the customers you will be trying to attract, you must be prepared to do some clever marketing. You may have to offer samples of an unusual fruit, or take some of your beautiful unusual succulents to display at garden clubs and shows. When deciding on niche products one must also consider the typical buyer in your market. If you are at a farm market where college students are frequent shoppers, for example, selling organic tomatoes individually will probably work better than selling bushels of tomatoes for canning.
Empathize on quality not quantity
A niche market succeeds because the customer believes that the product has limited availability. If he or she could get it anywhere why should they buy it from you? If the product is a common product, such as petunias which can be bought outside the supermarket, why seek out the niche seller?
Niche markets thrive because the product they produce is of a higher quality than what conventional agriculture produces. The niche petunia seller will offer big, beautiful plants and rare varieties and colors. When someone sees those petunias in a pot somewhere and asks the owner where they got them, the quality must be so obvious the customer is willing to seek out the seller. A niche business owner must constantly empathize that the product is of high quality and it simply must be of high quality to succeed.
This leads us to the artisanal concept. Your product is produced in a particular environment in a way only you produce it. The water, the potting medium you use, the oven you bake in, the attention you pay to detail, all those things are part of your unique product. It is like a dozen painters all looking at the same scene and painting a picture of it. Each painting will be different. Some artists will paint a picture that will command a higher price. They may be more skillful, they may take more care, they may just be lucky in that they produced a picture that people find more appealing.
That is the artisan concept for plant based businesses also. A small farm or greenhouse/nursery owner produces a product that does not always taste or look exactly the same-unlike a big food processor or a plant wholesale operation that sells to big box stores who strives for just that thing. The niche business owner has a close association and interest in the product, which tends to lead to higher quality and a better product.
Many niche markets grow out of a hobby or begin because someone is intensely interested in the product they sell. If brugmansia is your favorite plant and you have dozens of varieties of the plant and you love to propagate them, a niche business in brugmansia cultivars would probably suit you. Most people enjoy buying a product from a creator of the product. They want to talk to the artist that created it. That is part of the value of niche products, the closeness of the producer and the consumer. The most successful niche products capitalize on this concept.
While the relationship between the producer and the seller is important in the niche market that doesn’t mean one cannot develop catalog or on-line sales of a niche product. This can allow you to reach many more potential customers for your specialty product. There may be only 6 people interested in carnivorous plants in your immediate area but thousands across the country. If you don’t have what is known as “people skills” distance marketing may be easier for you. Distance customers may make the difference between a successful niche market and an unsustainable one.
You will need to consider how practical distance selling is for your product, what costs will need to be added to keep a good profit margin, and what additional rules and regulations there will be for selling your product across state lines or country borders. And you will also need to consider how comfortable you are with the technology needed to develop the distance market. You may need to work a little harder to make that special connection with your customers that defines a niche market.
If you are considering a plant based business put on your thinking cap and ponder how you can develop a niche business. The correct product, quality of that product, how it’s marketed and the skills and hard work of the people running the business are what will determine whether a niche business is successful or not. Next week I’ll continue this plant based business topic with an article on adding value to products.
You can make a pie out of just about anything as this pie will attest. This is a custard style pie and uses sweet peppers. But for a twist you could try adding some of your favorite hot peppers too. It might make a good superbowl party dish.
¾ cup flour +3 tablespoons
¼ cup cornmeal
1 ½ teaspoon baking powder
1½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon dried oregano
8 tablespoons – (1 stick) butter
1 ¼ cup half and half or milk
1 large sweet onion, peeled and coarsely chopped
4 medium sweet peppers of various colors, washed, cored, and cut into 1 inch pieces. Hotter peppers can be substituted for some of the sweet peppers. A blend of pepper colors looks best.
For the crust combine ¾ cup flour, cornmeal, baking powder, ½ teaspoon salt, blend well. Cut in 4 tablespoons butter until the mixture is crumbly.
Add a little half and half or milk, about 1/3 cup, and blend until the mixture appears like a crumbly dough.
Press the dough in a 10” pie pan on the bottom and up the sides. Set aside.
Now place the pepper pieces into a pot of boiling water and boil 5 minutes, drain and set aside.
Put the remaining butter in a pan and sauté the onion until golden. Turn off heat. Stir in the pepper pieces, 1 teaspoon salt, 3 tablespoons flour and the oregano. Toss the ingredients to combine them.
Fill the pie shell with the pepper pieces.
Beat the egg with ¾ cup half and half or milk until frothy, pour over peppers in pie pan.
Bake at 400 degrees F about 30 minutes. The top should be golden and the custard filling in the center soft, but set. Let the pie cool for 10-15 minutes before cutting.
Did you know the fear of snow is called chionophobia?
“He who has a garden and a library wants for nothing” ― Cicero
© Kim Willis - no parts of this newsletter may be used without permission.
And So On….
Find Michigan garden events/classes here:
(This is the Lapeer County Gardeners facebook page)
An interesting Plant Id page you can join on Facebook
Here’s a seed/plant sharing group you can join on Facebook
If you have a comment or opinion you’d like to share, send it to me or you can comment directly on the blog. Please state that you want to have the item published in my weekly note if you email me. You must give your full name and what you say must be polite and not attack any individual. I am very open to ideas and opinions that don’t match mine but I do reserve the right to publish what I want. Contact me at KimWillis151@gmail.com
I write this because I love to share with other gardeners some of the things I come across in my research each week. It keeps me engaged with people and horticulture. It’s a hobby, basically. I hope you enjoy it. If you are on my mailing list and at any time you don’t wish to receive these emails just let me know. If you know anyone who would like to receive a notification by email when a new blog is published have them send their email address to me. KimWillis151@gmail.com