Field of Science

Weird news - a real stopcock

This is sort of weird medical news, but it also sort of makes sense. Some one has invented a device, a real stopcock of sorts, actually a flow switch, and when the device is surgically inserted into the vas deferens it can be opened permitting the normal release of sperm or turned off preventing the release of sperm, thus allowing the implanted, or who ever has their hand on the switch, a choice in terms of the ability to impregnate or not. This also gives new meaning to the concept of getting "turned on". All to keep interested readers informed.

Garden photography - winners

Here you go.  Something to wake you up after surviving the stupor bowl. Something to cheer you in the February depths of winter. Award winning garden photography. The lupines are super nice because of all the shades of lavender, but the garden harvest still life just has a great quality to the whole thing, and here is where the photographer matters.  All these new digital cameras can indeed adjust to low light, but TPP finds that they make everything too bright, and that's the problem with auto pilot photography.

Iowa Crocuses

TPP tries to stay abreast of current events, but often still feels out of it.  So he must admit his confusion with all the talk of and commotion about Crocuses in Iowa. There is nothing of note to say about the Crocuses of Iowa.  They are all native to the old world, and all this talk about winning crocus and losing their crocus makes you think Iowa has a gardening problem, one that only pops up every 4 years or so because otherwise you never hear about Iowa or their crocus. It seems too early in the season for the Iowa crocuses to be of any value especially elsewhere. And you would think everyone would be more upbeat as crocus bring such cheer to the spring.  But one thing is painfully clear, our country would be in better shape if more of our potential leaders had such an interest in native perennial gardening, and less interested in cultivating, what is it again, all American selections?  Something like that. As the season progresses, TPP will endeavor to keep you informed of the blooming process.

Fun with Fungus

The F1 and her Boy gave TPP a "Mushroom Farm" for Christmas, a pretty nifty little kit for growing oyster mushrooms. The first harvest provided a fairly decadent pasta for Sunday night dinner. This is not a cheap economical way to get fresh mushrooms, but you can't buy oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) in the market either, although more varieties of mushrooms are currently, regularly available than ever before here in the USA, where there is way more mycophobia than in Europe or Asia. What you get is a block of sawdust inhabited by a oyster mushroom mycelium (the fungal "plant"). Usually you find Oyster mushrooms growing on the sides of trees in great numbers in the fall. After soaking the dead wood block in water for a few hours, fruiting bodies, mushrooms, begin forming within a few days, and they grow quite quickly. Here's some images showing the initial appearance of the mushrooms, and then 2 days and 4 days later. Shortly after this last image they stop growing and it's harvest time. The mycelium should yield another crop or two. This would be a fun thing for curious kids or adults. If you decide to try this, shop around a bit for the best price. Thanks kids! Now about that other "grow your own" kit?  Are you sure that's legal?


This is February?

OK TPP checked his calendar app and it is the oneth of February. In the upper Midwest this is the heart, the dead center of winter. It's 45 F outside and it was 51 F yesterday, which was good because TPP had to restack a firewood rack that had fallen over. A bit of a thaw is not that unusual, but this warm in the middle of winter has not been common place. This won't hurt plants unless they break their dormancy and begin growing when it is a virtual certainty that more cold weather will come before it is really spring. Having a good mulch layer around trees and shrubs keeps the soil cold and frozen even when the air warms up for a few days. This helps plants stay dormant. So far a few very early spring bulbs are being stupid, but they'll survive no matter what, but in particular gardeners worry about fruit trees being fooled and flowering too early. It looks like the X-country skis will stay in the garage attic for the whole winter at this rate, and Mrs. Phactor says its because she got super toasty warm mittens for winter walking.  So far this area has had exactly one snow event that required shoveling, and the nasty ice storm. This is pretty minimal, the rest of the winter precip has come down liquid.  If things keep going this way, it's going to be one super mild winter.

Is rhubarb a fruit? Let's check a seed catalog.

A reader sent along a picture from seed catalog and to no one's surprise, rhubarb was placed in the "fruit" section. For those who like such things, fruits are flowers at the stage of seed dispersal. Rhubarb is a vegetable that is used as a fruit, but that does not make rhubarb a fruit. Specifically rhubarb is a petiole or leaf stalk; this is fairly obvious because of its U-shape in cross section. Some people think it's a stem but what we pluck is the whole leaf, but then the green blade is cut off, which is good because it's toxic. The fleshy sour-sweet leaf stalks are most commonly used to make pies, and one old nickname for rhubarb is "pie-plant", and divisions of mature clumps would be given to newlyweds to help them establish their garden. Boy, those were the days, when getting a barn built and planting your garden were top priorities.  And speaking of seed catalogs, Johnny's Seeds catalog (Winslow, Maine) showed up in the mail today, and if you can't find what you want in it's 240 pages then it really isn't for sale. This is a great catalog for browsing, but it's ridiculous for us micro-gardeners. This is really a catalog for small farmers, so to make up for them sending me this monster, I've provided the link for some online shopping. In particular, baby bok choi (or pak choi) is hard to find in most garden seed displays at shops, so TPP has to order seeds on line, and this is probably how the mailing list was constructed. This catalog features around 50 different kinds of microgreens, over 40 different "baby" greens for salad mixes, but be careful, some are sold in quantities up to 25 lbs. and that's a lot of greens my friends. Some aren't even sold in individual packets; they start at a price per ounce, and that's still a lot of seeds.They provide more information about germination and disease resistance than any catalog, TPP has ever seen. At any rate if any of you have a favorite seed catalog, let us all know in the comments. Mrs. Phactor has said the TPP will get an Italian seed catalog that she requested, so something to look forward to. And it's getting to be that time of year to place your seed orders. 

Baobabs on the bucket list

Baobabs are remarkable trees, and TPP wants to see these badly, so they are on his plant bucket list. Note that the dopey photographer has the lizard in focus not the trees, rather a typical sort of plant near sightedness. But these trees are in Madagascar, not an easy place to visit.  The Phactors have seen some different baobabs in South Africa and the baobab like bottle trees of Queensland. But these bottle tree baobabs are just the coolest trees.  It's hard to believe these aren't a made up scifi alien tree.  These and the ones in S. Africa are species of Adansonia and while a species does occur in Australia the bottle tree there is a species of Brachychiton. The general term for trees that grow like this is pachycauly, thick stems.  For many years TPP had a fig that grew as a pachycaul and it was pruned to look like one of these baobabs. It was a pretty cool bonsai tree, just like this one from Dave's Garden. But still not quite the same.

Breaking long time resolutions and not your back

Quite a few years ago, quite a few apartments ago, and quite a few roommates ago, TPP swore he was not going to move any more hide-a-bed couches up or down stairs for the F1. This was just a common sense, survival sort of resolution so TPP had be good at keeping it. So it generated a certain degree of dread and foreboding when Mrs. Phactor announced that a loveseat hide-a-bed had outlived any limited usefulness it ever had and would not survive the transformation of a small bedroom/library into her retirement office. With the exception of a long-haired kitty-girl, no one ever found this particular piece of furniture very comfortable for sitting let alone sleeping, again with the exception of afore-mentioned feline who wisely eschewed the seat and mattress for the pillow top back.  So this seat is not as impossibly heavy and awkward as a full-sized hide-a-bed, but balanced against its smaller size is the fact that TPP is a lot older since his last hide-a-bed move. Part of the problem is the particularly odd door to this room, narrow and set at an angle to purposely make all ingress and egress difficult. Getting it in the room took a certain amount of brute force combined with an ignorance of physics and geometry, getting it out was no different, but fortunately the stairs are quite wide so standing the seat on its end and sliding it down one stair at a time did not require hefting its bulk. This proved quite successful, but then at the bottom you end up having the whole thing just hulking there, much to the pleasure of said cat who decided she could happily live with this new arrangement and perched herself upon the upmost end for  gazing out the window. Hopefully later today a couple of hulking brutes, or at least younger backs, will come to haul the object away for a new gig with someone needing just such a seat, probably one of 3 people in the known universe. Most happily TPP's back will survive this glad parting. And Mrs. Phactor is pleased with the outcome.

Botany within your reach. 3. Potato tubers are stems.

It's always nice when other people help the cause.  So here's a link to a nice discussion about potato tubers. When things grow underground there arises considerable confusion about whether they are roots or stems. There are three kinds of subterranean storage stems: horizontal ones often near the surface are called rhizomes (ginger)(labeled "ginger root" but it's a rhizome), short erect ones called corms (taro), and elongate to globular ones are called tubers. Tubers can also grow aerially.  So like all good stems potatoes have leaves, highly modified, and buds ("eyes")that give rise to branches. This is well illustrated at the link above.  And then these branches can give rise to roots, and ultimately to new plants. This was an idea TPP was going to do for his BWYR series, but this blog was just too good to pass up.  HT and many thanks to the Botanist in the kitchen blog. TPP provides a regular feed so you can just look for them in the blog roll side column.
For the record sweet potatoes are roots but have a stemish quality at their proximal end. True yams are tubers, but in North America, yams are a variety of sweet potato. 

Fat Bushy-tailed Tree Rats

These are not our favorite animals as their functions in life seem to be 1. eat everything, 2. chew on everything, 3. dig up everything, and mostly in that order. This is the largest squirrel native to N. America, the so-called fox squirrel, and everyone but gardeners think them cute and handsome. Our estate is home to a dozen or so individuals at any given point in time. Often anywhere from 8 to 18 can be seen here and there around the gardens. If you have any that are fatter than these you'll have to prove it because it may not be possible. These are midwestern corn and squash seed, along with sunflower seed fattened squirrels. This particular fellow is disposing of stale, ancient raisins, so they do have some trivial uses as food disposals. If times ever get too tough squirrel stew will be on the menu. One of our residents this year has 3 or 4 prominent whitish scars that look as though they were caused by talons, a close call with a red-tailed hawk perhaps. The worst thing they do is chew the bark from tree limbs to get at the inner bark, and many of the limbs that fall show evidence of such limb-damaging or limb-killing girdling activity. Even worse than the bun-buns, the bark gnawing takes place way up in the canopy, so no caging will help. And they are not fast learners; they'll eat a magnolia flower bud, find it distasteful and move to the next as if the outcome might be different, and one year they chewed all but one flower bud on a big-leaf magnolia, and about then you begin thinking about squirrel stew again. They do provide diversion, a sort of cat TV entertainment for the kitty-girls. We had a big, big cat who seemed to delight in treeing squirrels and then hanging around to listen to their shrill scolding. Does your wildlife need to be diversified?  Let us know.