Do-it-yourself Heated Propagation Bench

It’s a good thing that my hobby is neatly divided into seasons. It gives me time to forget how foolish I was to buy and save all those seeds last year, and how hard pressed I was to find warm places to germinate them. My wife Lisa (who I may have mentioned having the patience of a saint) tolerated it when my seedling trays migrated into the house, but drew the line after all the appropriate windowsills and nearby table tops reached capacity.

At some point those early-season seedling trays need to migrate out the greenhouse – not only for the sake of my marriage, but also because the plants benefit from the better lighting conditions of the greenhouses. I won’t confess here which was my greater motivation.

The difficulty: at the time when I’m starting many of my seeds (February, March) weather conditions can still be quite variable, and if I put newly sprouted seedlings out on an unheated bench, a bitterly cold night could knock them right down.

All of this explanation is by way of justifying another heated greenhouse bench. Here’s the video of us building it:

I won’t spend a lot of time recapping what I already said in the video, but I will say this: root heating has an incredibly beneficial effect of young plants. It increases root development in those vital early weeks, which in turn means a quicker, healthier plant. The nursery I work for uses a much larger an more robust boiler system with microtubes to distribute heated water to all the benches – and the results are phenomenal: big healthy plugs that are ready to transplant and finish in a larger pot within weeks.

I can’t duplicate that entirely, but I do get good results on these inexpensive benches. Because of the insulation, and because all the heat is released relatively close to the roots, they actually don’t take much electricity to get a good result. Later in the season, I use the same benches for rooting my semi-hardwood rose cuttings.

Overwintering perennials

Even if you only know me casually, you’ve probably caught on that I’m a bit of a plant geek… I mean, more than just the roses, tomatoes and squash. In fact, my real expertise (at my day job) is regarding perennials. I’ve learned a lot there about how to grow each crop to finish for sales in the spring, but the trickiest growing is on those crops I have to tend through the winter.

I made a quick video about it:

When it really comes down to it, the tricks to successfully overwintering any hardy plant in a container are pretty similar:

  • Start with clean plants – remove dead and diseased foliage early to avoid later problems
  • Protect them from cold winds that would dry their tissues
  • Shelter from the coldest temperatures. For some of the less hardy plants, this may mean heating – but for many perennials in the mild winter climate of the Fraser Valley, this just means a layer of protection (snow, crop cover, or an unheated greenhouse)
  • Try not to let your greenhouse heat up during sunny days
  • Provide decent air circulation
  • Don’t keep the plants wet all the time, but do water ahead of the coldest weather to prevent desiccation
  • Even if you start with clean plants, do inspect them frequently for any signs of disease or rot. As foliage dies down, in most cases, it’s advantageous to trim it away from the plant

And because this is a website about roses, I’ll add this: while I don’t recommend much winter pruning for roses in the landscape, I perform a moderate pruning on the container roses in my greenhouses. Where they have a little protection, they tolerate the winter pruning fairly well – I combine the pruning with stripping off the old foliage. This sanitation protects from winter rot, but also gives new foliage in the spring a fresh start, with no old leaves to carry over black spot or powdery mildew.

And here I am, enjoying a sunny January day in our garden! The days have been getting longer since December 21 – but I recently heard a climatologist quote a different measure: the dead of winter, which sounds more ominous than the way he explained it. The dead of winter, measured by local weather history, is the point in the year when your area has the very lowest average temperature. Every day after that is statistically more likely to be warm. I can buy into that! Here in the Fraser Valley, it’s around January 4th.

So we’re over the hump. As a rule of thumb for me, I begin seeing my greenhouse plants wake up around Valentine’s day. There’s still a lot of winter that can happen in a month, but it’s nice to have the finish line in sight.

 

Winter project – greenhouse benches

Thanks to the support of our local customers, 2016 was a year of real progress for Fraser Valley Rose Farm. We hosted a successful farm tour, attended a number of new events, and plant sales in particular were much improved. We still have a long way to go, but we also have many reasons to be optimistic.

One pressure of the increase plant sales was growing space. Or bench space, to be more particular.

We actually still had a fair amount of available room on the floor of the greenhouses, but our greenhouse benches were overfull.

So why should that make such a difference? Wouldn’t it be just the same to grow our plants on the floor?

Not exactly. If you’re interested in the reasons why, go ahead and watch the following video I we made on the topic:

Given the need for new benches, we followed the basic design of the old ones: treated 2 by 4 lumber, topped with 1″ wire mesh. We built 5 in total – one of which I’m converting to a heated propagation bench. I’ll post a quick video on that when I have all the supplies ready.

Anyhow – with nearly twice the bench space, we’re well prepared to increase our young plant production for 2017. Catch us at the Mission Farmers Market starting in May (in our brand new location!) to see what’s new and interesting.

Why squash?

We’re a rose farm – it’s right in the name. But it’s not an exclusive relationship. The roses seem to be okay with the fact that I grow other plants, and I’ve come to peace with the rose’s reputation for getting around in other people’s gardens.

Speckled Hound and Marina di Chioggia
Speckled Hound and Marina di Chioggia

On our old suburban lot in Abbotsford, I’m not sure how soon I would have come around to growing squash. Space was at a bit of a premium, and ornamental plants took up the majority. Here on Nicomen Island, however, there was an empty field behind the house that was always threatening to be overtaken by weeds. One summer, on a bit of a whim, I bought some pumpkin seeds. I figured that the sprawling nature of these squash would make for good competition to the weeds.

The good news: it worked for the summer

The bad news: there are three other seasons in a year

Oh, and then there’s also my slight tendency towards overindulgence when it comes to plants. I should have knows that growing couple of common varieties would soon lead to an exploration of all manner of squash.

Sweet Meat, Red Kuri and Spaghetti
Sweet Meat, Red Kuri and Spaghetti

So we’re currently up to 30 varieties from four different species. My favorites for flavor this year were Long Island Cheese and Winter Luxury, but that may change as the winter progresses… I have a lot of recipes and a lot of squash to try.

In the pumpkin field now, fall and winter mean that the weeds are back in play. I’m trying to be chill about it. When it comes to edible plants, lamb’s quarters, purslane and wild turnip aren’t probably the worst things that could take over a patch of land. Buttercups and bindweed, on the other hand, make me a bit nervous. My current strategy is to establish some Bocking 14 comfrey, faba beans, and crimson clover, all of which can be “chop and drop” mulches to fertilize my next year’s crops. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Braggar (I think)
Braggar (I think)

So, while I’m confessing to a full-blown case of squash mania, I may as well admit that the tomato crop we put into one of the greenhouses this year has kicked of another minor obsession. We’ll see how this one goes… but I’m already up to 26 varieties, so yeah. I may be hooked.

Updated list of roses on the farm

We’ve been holding steady at around 150 roses for a while now, but that doesn’t mean that we’re not adding to our assortment: it just means that we’ve been able to kill roses off at about the same rate!

Since adding the rose field as a way to keep our stock plants, there have been some winners and losers. No surprise, the old garden roses have done better in the ground than they did in containers. David Austin roses as well as those bred by Griffith Buck have appreciated the field as well: Folksinger still attracts powdery mildew, but now has the energy to grow and flower through it rather than just sulk.

Some the of the losers have been modern hybrid teas and miniatures. The ones that lacked vigor after the winter were culled early in the season.

Below is an updated list of our roses. Many of these I propagate and sell at the local farmer’s market:

Abbaye de Cluny
Abraham Darby
Alain Blanchard
Alba Meidiland
Alba Semi-Plena
Alfred Colomb
Altissimo
Amadis
America
Anisley Dickson
Apricot Clementine
Arthur Bell
Austrian Copper
Ballerina
Baron Girod de l’An
Belinda
Belinda’s Dream
Betty Will
Blanc Double de Coubert
Blaze
Bonica
Buff Beauty
Buttercup
Caramba
Cardinal de Richelieu
Carefree Delight
Chapeau de Napoleon
Charles de Mills
Chicago Peace
Chloris
City of York
Comandant Beaurepaire
Common Moss
Complicata
Copper Kettle
Crepuscule
Darlow’s Enigma
Daybreaker
Delaney Sisters
Distant Drums
Double Delight
Eden
Electron
Elina
Emily Gray
Excellenz von Schubert
F.J. Grootendorst
Fairy Moss
Falstaff
Ferdy
Flower Power
Folksinger
Gallica officinalis
Ghislaine de Feligonde
Gingernut
Gizmo
Golden Showers
Graham Thomas
Hansa
Hansen’s Hedge
Hazeldean
Home Run
Hope and Joy
Hot Cocoa
Iceberg
Indian Summer
Intrigue
Jens Munk
Jeri Jennings
John Davis
Joseph’s Coat
Julia Child
Kardinal
Kosmos Fairy Tale
La Belle Sultane
La Sevillana
Laura Ford
Leda
Livin’ Easy
Long Arifa
Lovely Fairy
Loving Touch
Madame Hardy
Magic
Melody Parfumee
Morden Ruby
Morden Sunrise
New Dawn
Nostalgie
Olympiad
Orange Starina
Orlando
Pascali
Pat Austin
Paul Neyron
Pink Grootendorst
Playboy
Polka
Pomponella
Portlandica
Prairie Peace
Purple Pavement
R. blanda
R. davidii
R. eglanteria
R. foetida
R. hugonis
R. moschata
R. moyesii
R. roxburghii
R. rubrifolia
R. rugosa ‘Alba’
R. spinosissima
R. woodsii
Rainbow Knock Out
Robert le Diable
Roberta Bondar
Robin Hood
Robusta
Rosa Mundi
Rose de Rescht
Sally Holmes
Scarlet Moss
Snow Pavement
Sophie’s Perpetual
Souvenir de Docteur Jamain
Stanwell Perpetual
Starina
Stephens’ Big Purple
Suzanne
Sweet Haze
Teddy Bear
The Reeve
Therese Bugnet
Topaz Jewel
Tropicana
Trumpeter
Tuscany Superb
Veilchenblau
Vineyard Song
Voodoo
Warm Welcome
Westerland
Whisky Mac
Wild Blue Yonder
William III
William Lobb
William Shakespeare 2000
Winnipeg Parks

Now for those of you who have your own collection of roses, please note that I’d be happy to consider trades. The only catch is this: it has to be a rose I’m already interested in. I actually keep a wishlist of around 150 other roses I’d like to grow. If it’s not on the list, I’d be reluctant to trade for it – but you may convince me otherwise if you’ve been successful with a rose in your garden. Drop me an email or see me at the market, and we’ll see if we can work out a deal.

Egyptian Walking Onion

A wide variety of both culinary and ornamental plants are members of the genus Allium. Onion, garlic, chives, leeks, scallions, ramps are all representatives of the culinary type. As for ornamental types, the genus ranges from the little yellow Allium moly, the medium sized drumstick allium (great for cut flowers), and on up to the massive Globemaster with 10″ round heads!

I grow all of the varieties listed above, but the one I’m singling out for attention today is the Egyptian Walking Onion. Aside from having a very marketable common name, this onion also has the advantage of living up to is description. You see, it’s a top-setting onion. Look at this picture:

Topsetting walking onionThese bulbils bulk up to the point where the scape can no longer support their weight. Once the stalk bends down, and the bulbils are on the ground, they root – forming a new patch of walking onions. In this way, from year to year, the onions “walk” from place to place in the garden.

In botanical latin, the plant is Allium cepa var. proliferum. You could probably guess that the “proliferum” part of the latin name refers to this variety’s reproductive capacity, and you’d be right. Not only does the onion “walk”, but it also multiplies at the base, forming a clump of bulbs at the base of each onion. This means that once you have established a patch, you’re likely to be able to harvest from it regularly without ever having to replant. As a hardy perennial, you can just leave whatever you don’t eat in the ground over winter, and pick up harvesting again in spring.

The onion itself is mild, and flavored much like a shallot. The greens are a good flavor, and so are the top-setting bulbils, for that matter.  Overall, it’s just a very interesting and productive plant that doesn’t need a whole lot of fussing. I generally take a whole bunch of bulbils off and pot them into 9cm pots for farmers market, so if you’re looking to try this one, let me know.

 

New Zealand Yam

I had a hard time locating this plant locally – and this scarcity pretty much guaranteed that I’d go to unreasonable lengths to find it. I never did find anyone who was willing to send me tubers in Canada, so my solution was to buy seed. After much internet searching, I found a very cool web site for a vegetable breeder in Washington State who grows some quite uncommon veggies. The site, in case you’re interested, is Cultivariable.

So why would I go out of my way to buy New Zealand Yam? Well, have a look at the tubers:

Oxalis in my handI couldn’t very well pass up the chance to grow something this unique. But let’s get some other interesting facts out there:

  1. New Zealand Yam is not from New Zealand. It’s from South America. My initial snooping on the internet tells me that it was bred by the same fine folks who brought us the potato. In South America, it’s called Oca.
  2. New Zealand Yam is also not a yam. It’s not closely related to either the true yam (Dioscorea) or the Sweet Potatoa (Ipomoea). It’s actually in the Wood Sorrel family, and is in the same genus as an annoying little weed, Oxalis corniculata.
  3. The tubers are edible. Raw, they taste starchy, like an uncooked potato, but also a little “lemony”. This acidic tang comes from the oxalic acid in the tuber. I find the flavor quite pleasant and fresh tasting, but for those who don’t like the tang, cooking neutralizes the acidity – and the tubers taste much like potatoes.

This was my first go at growing New Zealand Yam, and I was pretty happy with the results. Here’s what I harvested:

Oxalis harvestIt wasn’t enough to bring to the farmer’s market as a food crop, but it does give me a fair amount to play with for next year’s plantings. I’ll probably have some left over to bring to market as starts for other people who want to try growing something unusual.

Some notes on growing, just in case you’re inclined that way:

Oca begins forming tubers when the days get shorter than 12 hours. For us in the Fraser Valley, that means we have from late September until first frost – end of October if we’re lucky. Not a lot of time for tuber formation! There are two solutions I can think of for this, and next year, I’ll probably try both. One is to fool the plants by shading them in August – giving them a 12-14 hour “night” to force early tuber formation. The other solution is to grow them in a cold frame or with some other protection to extend the season past the first frost.

I spaced my plants at around 10 inches apart, and I didn’t think that “mounding” was necessary, so I just let the plants do their thing. Next year, I think I’ll give them a little more space (say 18″ apart). I also noticed that most of the tuber formation happened at the points where the side stems touched the ground. I’m thinking I might be able to encourage a better yield by adding some loose soil around these trailing stems.

Farmers Market Dates Spring 2014

We’ve been to one Farmers Market already this year, and my enthusiasm for the subject is high – Seedy Saturday at the Mission City Farmers Market was incredible for us. Sales were good, customers were great, and this without us having much in bloom yet! It really sends the message that people are ready and willing to come out and support local agriculture.

We’re pretty excited to increase our presence in local Farmers Markets this year. For the first time, we’ll be bringing roses across the bridge to the Abbotsford Farm & Country Market. And just because reading any post without pictures is boring, here’s a cool picture my daughter took from beneath the Mission bridge (from the Abbotsford side):

Mission bridge from AbbotsfordAs of next weekend, you can find us at a Farmers Market every weekend until at least July 5th. Here’s the list:

  • April 19   Abbotsford
  • April 26   Abbotsford
  • May 3     Mission – Opening Day
  • May 10   Abbotsford
  • May 17   Mission
  • May 24   Abbotsford
  • May 31   Mission
  • June 7    Abbotsford
  • June 14  Mission
  • June 21  Abbotsford
  • June 28  Mission
  • July 5     Mission

After Mission opens, we’re alternating markets, so if you see us on one side of the Mission bridge one week, you can find us on the other side the next week!

Now, since I don’t always get in front of the computer to update this site, I thought I’d throw in a few pictures from around the farm. As much as I love roses, the early spring belongs to flowering shrubs, bulbs and spring ephemerals. Eh-fem-ah-wha? Okay, in case you’re not familiar with them, spring ephemerals are plants that take advantage of a short window of warm, moist, sunny spring days — but before the deciduous trees and shrubs put on all their leaves to shade the ground and begin competing for moisture in the soil. Here’s one:

Mertensia virginicaThis is Virginia bluebell – which is unrelated to some of the more common plants known as “bluebells” which are more like Hyacinths. This one is in the family of Pulmonaria, Brunnera and Borage. It shoots up with those striking matte green leaves and purple-through-blue hanging flowers, and then the plant more or less disappears as the trees above it fill in and the soil becomes drier in the summer. Here’s another:Anemone nemerosa

Anemone nemerosa, the wood anemone, is from the buttercup family. Unlike some of its more rambunctious cousins (think clematis) it doesn’t aspire to world domination. It seems satisfied to use this little window of spring to flower, spread some underground roots, and then come back the following year as a somewhat larger patch. Even though the wood anemone will eventually spread to cover an impressive area, because it disappears somewhere in mid-spring, it never chokes out the plants it shares space with.

I love these ephemerals, but the classic concern is that they leave a gap in the landscape after they senesce. The solution is usually to pair them with plants like ferns, that come on a little later and are happy in a shady location. Another good companion might be something like Epimedium (barrenwort) which can also take a good bit of dry shade.

Anyone else local have some cool spring ephemerals? I’d be happy to work out a trade for anything cool enough. And I do have some nice roses…

 

Thornless roses

As I write this post on roses and thorns, I have a song stuck in my head.

I wish I were  classy enough to instead be reflecting on one of these famous quotes on the topic:

Anne Bronte wrote “But he who dares not grasp the thorn should never crave the rose” and Alphonse Carr mused: “Some people grumble that roses have thorns; I am grateful that thorns have roses.”

But no, I have the power ballad by Poison in my head. You know the one. What can I say? I’m a product of the eighties.

It’s mostly true that every rose has its thorn. It’s basic to the nature of the shrub – this dichotomy of pleasure and pain that would make it an appropriate symbol for love, even if you ignored all of the cultural associations.

You might think that my own opinion on the thorniness of roses would be influenced by the amount of time I spend handling them, and the uncommon amount of cuts, scrapes and punctures I’ve taken on my hands, arms, and legs. Actually, no. I hardly think of the thorns unless they’re poking me at the moment. The presence of thorns is such a given that when I’m asked to recommend a thornless  rose, I have to stop and think about it for a minute.

‘How about Zephirine Drouhin?’, customers ask me, usually by email, because who wants to actually try to pronounce that? Well, yes, that’s the most famous, and sometimes available in stores. I love the flower form and scent. It was indeed thornless in my experience when I grew it. But even though I love old garden roses, I find the Bourbons (and Zephirine in particular) to be extremely susceptible to mildew. I don’t really spray, so a couple of times a year, this rose completely defoliated itself in the garden.

I may try it again, but I’d be hard pressed to recommend it to one of my customers. So what would I recommend?

There’s a beautiful deep pink climber called ‘Amadis’ that I like a lot. Also, I grow a gorgeous almost-blue rambler called ‘Veilchenblau’.  Both are thornless in my garden (or so nearly so that I haven’t noticed different), but they do lack scent, and their blooming season is limited.

 

After that, I have to think a bit. ‘Alfred Colomb’, ‘Cardinal de Richelieu’, ‘Chloris’, ‘Complicata’, ‘Crepuscule’, ‘Lady Hillingdon’,  ‘Paul Neyron’, ‘Sophie’s Perpetual’, ‘Therese Bugnet’. All wonderful roses, and there might be others, but they’re not jumping out at me right now. As a quick disclaimer, I’ll can’t say that these roses lack thorns entirely. ‘Therese Bugnet’ for example usually has thorns lower down on the shrub, but is quite smooth on the newer red canes high on the bush.

If you’re reading this article through, it’s probably because you have a good reason for wanting a rose with fewer thorns. When I ask my customers for the “why?”, they’re usually quite sensible in their plans. Who wants a heavily armed rose right next to front entrance or patio, where guests are liable to be snagged? And customers with younger children are rightly concerned about a tumble into the bramble.

I will ask, however, that you also consider the charms of a more heavily fortified rose. Take a look at ‘Prairie Peace’ – a Canadian treasure, and quite rare in gardens – and tell me that it isn’t gorgeous in its own right, with the reddishly bristled stems a part of its dangerous charm.

 

My suggestion would be to plant your smooth rose at the front of the border, and thornier specimens deeper in the garden bed. At a safe distance, you might even forget the thorns are there – until it’s pruning time, of course. There are so many nice roses with unique features, it would seem a shame to disqualify the majority of them for just because they have a tendency towards violence.