Field of Science

Magnolia vine

One of the stranger plants in our gardens is the magnolia vine (also called the 5-flavored fruit vine)(Schisandra chinensis)(Schisandraceae). As readers well know, TPP has a thing for magnolias, and anything with that name included. As many readers will not know the flowering plants have three basal lineages referred to as the ANA lineages. The first A is for Amborella, a genus that is native to New Caledonia only, a bit of old Gondwana.  N is for Nymphyaeales, the waterlilies and their close relatives. The 2nd A is for the Austrobaileyales, which includes the magnolia vine. These lineages have ancient common ancestries with the rest of flowering plants. So when you have taught plant diversity and plant taxonomy for so long, you like having these specimens around. A second, and more mundane reason is that at the corner of our house is an old, but very sturdy TV antenna tower from the pre-cable days.  It has two current functions: one, it's an emergency escape ladder from a bedroom's balcony, and two, it serves as a trellis for the magnolia vine where it regularly climbs well above the roof line. At any rate it flowers in the spring although the flowers are not very large (about 1 cm across) or very colorful (sort of light greenish to cream colored).  But the floral parts are spirally arranged rather than in whorls. While supposedly dioecious, our vine is monoecious probably selected for producing fruit with only one vine. The flowers are "unisexual", either having pistils or anthers. The image shows one flower of each "sex" (the pistils are green). Eventually, the pistils will ripen to red fruitlets (very tart) and if like members of the rose family, the fruit would look rather like a raspberry, but the post-pollination elongation of the receptacle spatially separates the fruitlets so that they look like individual fruits on a flowering stalk, a feature that may be present in some of the earliest fossil flowers.

Date the 100th plant flowered

It been a pretty average spring so far; maybe just a bit dry. Yesterday the 100th plant flowered, not the 100th individual plant, but the 100th different type of plant, mostly different species. So 100 different plants flowered by April 28th. Since beginning this data gathering a lot of plants have come and gone, so it isn't the same species list, but let's assume it hasn't been biased toward one direction or the other. The earliest the 100th plant flowered was March 25th in 2012, an exceptionally early spring. The latest the 100th plant flowered was May 5th in 2013 and 2014.  In 2010 the 100th plant flowered on April 21st and in 2011 if was on April 29th. TPP is struggling to get all this data out of notebooks and into a nice data base, but it isn't easy and is time-consuming. Things are listed in a goofy mix of common and scientific names, plus bloody cultivars and hybrids, and that takes time to sort out. Some people find it hard to believe that our gardens contain so many different plants. And things do surprise us at times. Last year a new Erythronium x "Pagoda" grew quite well and a nice display was expected this spring, but thus far it's a no show. So what happened? Don't know.

Senior cell phone 876 area code scam

TPP's new cell phone just rang (or doodly-doed) and that's still a pretty new thing since very few people have his number (except maybe from a previous cell number life), and so rather than just answering reflexively, TPP glanced at the device, and beneath the caller's phone number sporting an 876 area code was the word "Jamaica".  Very few people in Jamaica ever call; in fact none.  So figuring people can always leave a message ("Yah, moan."), the call went unanswered. A quick look around the internet indicated TPP has good instincts; calls from the 876 area code are often scams directed toward senior citizens.  Why? Is we more gullible? Oh, yes, we gots money.  Good thing skepticism seems to come quite naturally to biological scientists, so consider this a warning y'all. Good thing the iPhone indicated the origin of the phone call!    

Bored with nothing to do?

You know it was a busy weekend if you need a Monday to rest up.  The weekend started with a TGIF with friends and a walk in the garden.  A little cool, but the smoked trout was excellent with a tart NZ chardonnay, and several spring flowering plants were looking quite nice (look for a blog later this week). Saturday was cold and wet with rain all morning. TPP found the last butternut squash in the cool cellar and since it was still in good condition transformed it into a curried squash and apple soup (this isn't exactly the recipe but close), perfect for a cold, wet day, but it hasn't been eaten yet. When you can't garden, why not garden shop? A Mrs. Phactor motto that makes her such a favorite with our local garden shoppe proprietor. Went out to dinner with friends to try a restaurant that was new to us - Escobar's (E. Columbia, Champaign, IL); it is very much worth a visit.  Sunday was much nicer, so the garden spring clean-up continued with pruning, shifting of bunny protection cages from shrubs to emerging perennials, fertilizing, pruning of trees and shrubs, and the first mowing of some lawn (avoiding the blue lawn-green slime Scilla dominated areas).  Found time to make a ground lamb ragu pasta for din-dins.  Ended the day with a very heavy nostalgia trip by attending a gray hairs' concert by the Nitty-Gritty Dirt Band who still perform well and sound pretty good.  Whoosh! Where did the weekend go?  And best of all didn't hear or see anything about a single playoff game of any sport!  No such boredom 'round here.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Redbuds

Redbuds are a fantastic spring flowering tree, dark-barked shrubs and small trees festooned with lacy pink flowers (and the less said about all the seedlings the better).  Redbuds are the species Cercis canadensis, a member of the legume (bean) family. Their flowering is unusual in northern temperate climes because they flower on old wood (cauliflory), which is a much more common trait in the tropics. Our gardens have about a dozen redbud trees, and presently the redbuds are competing with the crabapples and dogwoods to grab our attention. Our university campus, an official arboretum, has lots of redbuds, but for reasons to be explained, a smallish one next to our teaching glasshouse caught TPP's eye.  It was different, somehow, redder for certain (image above).  A quick comparson determined that the flowers were over twice as large as our native redbud. Ah, yes, a check in with our woody plant horticulturalist confirmed that this specimen was Cercis chinensis, Chinese redbud, a very handsome plant, but not one in the local horticultural trade, but when has that ever stopped TPP?

Voting your professor out of the university

Zounds!  Here's another terrific idea for improving a university education: Let students vote "poor" professors out of the university. In other words, fire professors who get low teaching evaluations from students. What political party does this legislator represent? Anyone?  Anyone? Not having done the homework, the class simply waits for the answer to be given. TPP moves on. A hand is raised, a question posed, "Well, which party?" Ah, yes, well, you were able to get that from the article (see link above) you were assigned to read. Bing, dropped a tenth of a point right there. So many fallacies and misunderstandings are presented in this article TPP checked to see if it came from the Onion, but no, the Chronicle of Higher Education. Close. So where does one begin? Let's just take the most obvious. This hawk-eyed  legislator thinks 18-22 year olds are qualified to make such decisions because they are spending thousands of dollars for this instruction. Who is spending the money?  Mostly parents.  OK, TPP has 40 years of teaching evaluations that argue students really aren't qualified to determine what is and isn't good teaching. They know what they like and what they don't like. High on that list of dislikes is working to learn, studying. Many students end up in your classroom with the attitude that it's your job to educate them no matter what. And even if they make little or no effort their failure to learn is your fault. "I was so turned off by his attitude that students needed to work harder that I didn't learn nothing." And even in a low-stakes contest of determining faculty raises, in which teaching evaluations play some factor, some faculty shamelessly pander, and lots of students just eat it up. The highest teaching evaluations TPP has ever seen were "earned" by a colleague who was very entertaining and very, very easy. When team-teaching with this colleague my own evaluations suffered in comparison, and when teaching the same material without this colleague, my evaluations jumped up more than a whole point on average on a 5 point system. As an undergrad, TPP had one professor who was an arrogant SOB, a difficult and demanding teacher with an insufferable manner, but after a few years, TPP recognized that the man was simply a brilliant teacher who was way ahead of the curve in science education. He'd give you instructions for a lab, which of course we didn't read. There was a problem to solve. He'd walk into the lab, smile, and say, "Any questions?"  Nobody asked anything, so he'd say, "Good, good." And he'd leave, checking on the class at intervals. Some students simply got up and left too. Some of us decided to finally read the assignment. When we finally had decided what to do, discussed how to proceed, and finally had some questions, he was quite helpful. If students had used today's system of evaluations, no telling how low his evaluations might be, but his teaching influenced my own teaching for a whole career.  Now don't get TPP wrong, there are poor teachers and there are discerning students who recognize it and pandering when they see it. But they aren't the majority particularly in those larger lecture courses. You know maybe if 18-22 year olds voted in greater numbers this legislator wouldn't be so eager to put his fate in their hands. And there's much more that could be said about this legislator's misunderstanding of higher education, e.g., his failure to understand the role of research and scholarship in teaching, but TPP just recently touched upon this issue. Oh, yes, another suggestion from the party fixated upon improving higher education, the GnOPe.

Maple syrup, the waffle antibiotic

Here's a research news report from McGill University touting the antibiotic properties of maple syrup. This is not surprise to TPP because honey has long been used as a wound dressing, but here probably it's the osmotic properties of honey that probably fight infections. Perhaps that's why the study found that maple syrup worked best with other antibiotics, enhancing their affect.  Most people have no idea what real maple syrup is, or how good it tastes. "Pancake syrups" these days don't contain any at all, and while some use an artificial maple flavoring, it's awful. The Phactors are pure maple syrup people; yes, it's expensive but you don't need to use all that much and we just don't eat waffle, pancakes, etc. all that much either. Of course in the process the F1 was spoiled. And we've converted a number of German students who often return home with maple syrup as gifts for family & friends, at least that's what they claim. On the bad news side, this is another nature friendly product that might become way more expensive because of global warming affecting the distribution and growth of sugar maples.

Earth Day Bouquet

Mixed lettuces: Bibb, black-seeded Simpson, oakleaf, harvested today and in the sink for washing.

Happy Earth Day!

It's Earth Day and TPP doesn't know whether to celebrate or cry. You see TPP remembers the first Earth Day because he was a senior, and it was spring, and he was going to graduate school, and he had a great girl friend who he had figured out he was going to marry one day. But all that hope and good fortune was tainted by the protests over the Vietnam War that led to Kent State and all the rest. All these things remained inextricably linked in memory. Environmentalism seems to be losing ground as corporate power over government increases, and while corporations might have a religious conscience that they are allowed to impose upon their employees as if their religious freedom meant nothing, few have any environmental ethic at all. It's a cool, but actually quite pretty spring day here in the upper midwest; a good day to enjoy all the flowering trees. Yet, here in Lincolnland GnOPe legislative bubbas from the far southern reaches of the state are proposing, successfully so far, hunting bobcats, a non-game species just now recovering its population due to long-standing protections. The bobcat boys legislators know nothing about how big the populations are ("I've seen lots of them every time I'm out in the woods.") or how much hunting the population can stand, or even what is know of bobcat biology ("They're blood thirsty killers of dogs and cats."). This is just plain stupid legislation based on ignorance and willful disregard for what bobcat biology is known. But then they don't care. Such is their regard for nature that their only thought upon seeing wildlife is shooting it. Locally another gun-owning lover of nature shot an eagle nesting above a nearby river. The news keeps reporting about the drought in California as if changing weather patterns (a prediction of global warming models) were not wide spread and having a global impact. Your water rights don't automatically provide you with precipitation, so farmers fight over the scraps and no one seeks real solutions.  Helpfully (not) religious conservatives bray that it is God's punishment for the wickedness of giving people equality and since the end times are so near (a former GnOPe congressperson said it) no need to protect nature at all.  How can we elect such pathetic non-leaders?  TPP finds it all too depressing at times especially on Earth Day. Now to spend the rest of the day doing something hopeful.

April Flowers

April has been quite mild, even warmish, so the gardens (and field work) are charging along at an alarming pace. This must be pretty close of peak flowering, whatever that may mean. So far over 75 different plants have flowered in our gardens, and a long-time friend upon hearing this at a brunch said, "That's inconceivable." And yes, for that person, that many different flowering plants is inconceivable. You see, it's like this: Trillium - nivale, recurvatum, flexipes, erectum, sessile, and 2 more to go. Magnolia - loebneri, stellata, salicifolia, liliflora, soulangiana, x acuminata "butterflies" and 2-3 more to go. Things like that begin to add up. Right now the crabapples, lilacs, and flowering dogwoods are just beginning. This is the first year that the yellow-flowered magnolia produced a big floral display, and it was not a disappointment. Of course there are many other things that aren't so noticeable like the blue cohosh hidden among a profusion of bluebells. But just knowing they are there makes you feel good. While most things survived the winter, including a Sinocalycanthus seedling, some of the survivors are showing signs of some die-back so they will need some evaluation.   

Where agricultural technology doesn't work - rice terraces

This is a very handsome image of human transformed land. TPP's initial impression was that this was a marvelously fluid work of stained glass art. This image shows rice terraces in Yunnan China that literally show the topography of a valley most people would think is too steep for agriculture. This tells you how valuable land is in some places that people would go to so much trouble for agricultural use. Clearly any modern agricultural equipment bigger than a rototiller is simply useless. It's also interesting to see how the paddies are at different stages of production mostly in the planting stage. Imagine how much maintenance is needed to keep these paddies intact. Could the human impact on the land get any more intense? Well, yes. Here in the maize and soybean desert of the upper midwest.  HT to Stoat whose blog called this to my attention. The original has a higher resolution and is posted on the Wikimedia Creative Commons and is attributed to Jialiang Gao,

Any help with apple experiment?

TPP is ready to begin a new apple experiment; the last one was a failure. With limited space, TPP has been looking at the columnar dwarf apple trees, basically a central shoot with lots of flowering spur branches. These are probably not ideal, but worth a try. The applke varieties that originally came in such columnar forms have not sounded particularly good; the descriptions make them sound like soft-fleshed apples of the McIntosh sort. A decent apple until you grow up. A local nursery had some very stout looking trees of the Colonnade trademark and a apple variety called Flamenco, which is described as a tart-sweet, crisp late-season apple.  Now this sounds pretty good, but that's the only variety they had. "What about a pollinator? asks TPP. The blank silence that followed indicated that TPP was the only person there who knows that most apples require a pollinator. The so-called Urban Apple trademark says to plant at least 2 varieties, and they had three. Perhaps one of these (Blushing red looked the best, but they gave no description of the apple! This tells you something and it isn't good.) could pollinate the Flamenco. So before this experiment goes too far does anyone out there have any experience with growing any of these apples? Remember TPP thinks Northern Spy is a great apple. Give me your wisdom. Give me your advice.

What's in a name? They're blue and bell-shaped.

A pox on common names is certainly deserved in that they are never precise and often terribly confusing. Still people prefer a fuzzy, whuzzy, common name no matter the consequences.  While walking through our gardens, a friend asked TPP a question as a case in point, "Are those bluebells?"  Yes (In reference to image below.).  "Well, they looked a lot different in England."  How very true; how very observant. There you have it in a nutshell. There are no conventions on common names and so every flower that is blue, and nods, and is even vaguely "bell-shaped" could be called bluebells, and there are a lot of those. Here in eastern North America the so-called bluebell is a member of the borage family, Mertensia virginica. The flowers are bell-shaped in a trumpet sort of way. The English (and the closely related Spanish & Italian) bluebell is a member of the former lily family, Hyacinthoides (Scilla) non-scripta (hispanica, italica), and yes, they look rather like a hyancinth (Hyacinthus), and both genera are now in the asparagus family.  There are also Scottish bluebells, Texas bluebells, desert bluebells, and Australian bluebells (TPP thinks. Maybe a reader can confirm.)  All in different genera, all in different families, and it still doesn't stop because TPP once saw grape hyacinth (Muscari), which is neither grape nor hyacinth, labelled a bluebell, a very apt description, but not a very apt common name. 

Coloring book for up-tight flower people

Today is the last day of tax season, a date closely watched at the Phactor household; now it's time to help Mrs. Phactor unwind from the stress and work load of tax season. Perhaps there are more of you out there, not necessarily just tax preparers, but other people with stressful lives, people who need some help to relax, to cope. Well, here's just the thing a great mandala coloring book. A lot of the images are floral because such designs are based upon floral forms which themselves are based upon similar fractal maths and they are traditionally representations of the universe. The idea is to lose yourself in the satisfaction of coloring in these designs, to lose your stress within their dimensions. Mandalas (Link for your listening pleasure) are common place decorations to be contemplated in Indian temples. What calmness will pervade your being. Be one with these little universes.

Electric cargo tricycle

A regular reader just called TPP's attention to this news article on the BBC about a really nifty electric cargo tricycle.  Totally cool, but TPP is out in front on this one having blogged about that same machine over a month ago!  Do try to keep up with me readers. ;-)  But nonetheless TPP appreciates it when readers send along interesting items or call interesting topics to his attention.  Usually it's TPP who is way behind and out of the loop.

How to "improve" university professors and destroy higher education in the process

The GnOPe in particular wants to destroy the one remarkably good thing the USA ever constructed: a public education system. The cynical view is that a party that governs by ideology rather than knowledge doesn’t really want a public capable of “critical thinking”.  And in the case of higher education, the GnOPe so dislikes higher education especially that they are willing to toss the economic baby out with the academic bathwater. Of course a lot of people might get upset if a political party actually came right out and said, “we’re out to destroy public education and those expensive universities in particular”, so the plan is to kill them with a thousand small cuts. North Carolina, one of the academic powerhouses of the “south”, is showing just how this is to be done. Under the guise of “improvement” you demand that professors, all professors, have a high teaching load or 4 courses per semester. You may think that doesn’t sound like too much, but then you haven’t calculated how much time is needed for class preparation and evaluations (grading).  In the case of biology, a single 4 hour class generates six hours of class time, 3 lectures and a 3 hour laboratory. Even with a graduate student assistant to help, it took at least 2 hours to assemble and set up a laboratory class and another hour to put it all away. Fresh materials and other supplies took another 2 hours of shopping every week.  And the lab guide, the instructions, had to come from somewhere especially if you are not teaching labs like a cookbook. At a university lectures are not supposed to be a simple guided tour of a textbook. In TPP’s classes he generally knew more and expected more than was delivered in a textbook, and if you know textbooks, especially science textbooks, the conceptual forest is often totally hidden by the factual trees. Now to fulfill a 4-4 load in the sciences a professor would have to teach 3 such courses (and then each three hour lab counts the same as a 1 hour lecture, a for real accounting!).  It boggles the mind. Now please remember that science is not just a subject, a body of knowledge, science is also a very successful process for learning. You learn to do science by the ancient method of apprenticing, but doing science with a master. Science just eats time for lunch, and there are a limit to how many students you can have working under your supervision. So what can be concluded? One, too many of the current crop of politicians either have no idea what science (or other scholarly endeavors) is, or if they do know, they don’t think it’s very important. Two, these politicians don’t understand education at all, but that isn’t stopping them from meddling in a negative way. Three, this has the potential to be the most ruinous political activity ever, one that actually does put our nation, and its international standing, at risk. Too many of these fools think a nation’s status is determined solely by how many boom-booms it has.  Four, many of these anti-education politicians think many fewer professors are needed doing research if you just cut out all those stupid, useless research programs and focused on real human needs. Oh, TPP could say much more about the type of personalities that think research is all and only about us, but this only shows you how little they understand the basis of doing basic research just to satisfy curiosity, the need to learn new things, because if they did know how research worked, they’d know that with a remarkable frequency, “useless” knowledge becomes important for unforeseen reasons.  In places (corporations) or in countries where research has to be focused on “important” or “needed” outcomes, you often see the most humdrum, unimaginative sorts of research, projects pursued without any intellectual passion or creativity.  So wise up people; this has nothing to do with “improving” education. It has everything to do with destroying higher education. 

It's a miracle! It's chocolate!

This recent revelation explains a lot about the Easter bunny. As a kid, there were a couple of German chocolate makers in our little town who came out of hiding once a year to fill their soda fountain shop with chocolate rabbits like you only dream about because no matter how big none of them were hollow! This was definitely a spiritual thing to receive one of these bunnies. Theologically some more time spent with the Chronicles of Cadbury are definitely in order.  After all Easter was a miracle!

Spring cleaning

One problem with herbaceous perennials is the spring cleanup. Most herbaceous perennials need to have last years aerial shoots pruned off before this season's new shoots really get going. This process is complicated in our gardens by all the leaves collected by all of last year's shoots. The amount of plant litter that needs to be removed and gotten out of the way is quite voluminous both because of the number of herbaceous perennials, the size of the gardens, and the amount of leaves particularly those dropped only recently by our uncooperative oaks. Other artifacts are uncovered: very much used tennis balls from the golden retrievers next door, a short soaker hose for watering what was a newly planted tree about 12 years ago, some perviously useful pruning shears. And the work has only just begun. Part of the problem here is that until April 15th Mrs. Phactor hasn't got any time for gardening. This clearly demonstrates that the IRS is not very supportive of gardeners. There actually should be some major deductions for gardeners to encourage gardening and make the world a better place, but instead the deductions primarily benefit bad-hair plutocrats.  It's all about priorities. This was a pretty mild winter so the gardens don't seem to have suffered any serious losses. It was also time to take the straw mulch off the strawberry bed, and good thing they were so mulched because the particular freezing and thawing this winter resulted in considerable amounts of heaving to which strawberries are particularly prone. Most of the woodland perennials handle a leafy mulch without much help. The wild ramp in particular, as well as the bluebells (of the borage sort), have the ability to push up though a massive mulch of leaves. So no rest for the wicked. Wicked?

Friday Fabulous Flower - Liverleaf

Liverleaf is one of TPP's favorite early spring woodland wildflowers.  Interestingly enough the common name liverleaf, and it's genus, Hepatica, derive from the similarity between the plant's three-lobed leaf (H. acutifolia), which is a dark reddish-purple color in the early spring having persisted from the previous season, and a liver. One of such leaf appears just below the flowering stalks at the lower left.  Such associations were actively sought based on a traditional medicine belief system of "likes cure likes".  They don't, but the names have persisted as a relict of that era. This is a fairly easy, trouble-free wild flower to cultivate if you have the right location. In nature the plant is usually found just at the top shoulder and down a slope, often near the base of trees. In TPP's experience the plant doesn't like being buried in leaf litter. In a garden lacking a slope, they grow best at the base of large trees especially between roots. In a garden lacking large trees and slopes, a rock garden would work in a shady area.  The flower color is generally white to lavender, but sometimes you can find a very pink flowered plant. The flowers pop up quickly in the very early spring and are then followed by new trilobed leaves.

How unfortunate! Poodle pruning is a no-no.

One of the shrubs that you should never, ever poodle prune is 
Forsythia. When pruned properly Forsythia is an open shrub with some gracefully arching branches with a lacy look in when in flower. Sometimes an unruly shoot does grow straight up, but they are easily removed. When poodled the shrub is an ugly blotch of yellow when in flower and when not in flower it has no saving grace at all. The problem is that
it's actually a fairly large shrub and takes quite a bit of room. The un-poodled shrubs were terribly over grown and cut back severely two years ago. Now they returned to their usual shape and a reasonable size. One problem is that Forsythia branches whose tips touch down can "layer", root down, nice if you want another shrub, but if you let them so spread they will form a thicket. So put away the hedge trimmers, and actually prune your Forsythia, or someone may be saying, "How unfortunate!"

Winning the plant lottery

You don't shop at big box stores for the best plants.  Sometimes even the labelling is iffy and the plants are not necessarily in the best condition. So TPP seldom shops in such stores, but then 2 years ago, a big box was the only store, the only nursery, the only plant purveyor who had red currant plants. While shopping for something else, TPP was lured by the end of season plant sale, and there were some nicely shaped magnolia shrubs for $20. And the label said, Magnolia x loebneri, which TPP did not have.  Generally this magnolia is similar to star magnolia, which is one of the parents, and it isn't easy to tell them apart in the vegetative condition. But for $20 the worst that could happen would be you get another star magnolia cheaply and the shrubs had a nice shape and they were in good shape for the time of year. It also goes without saying, that when it comes to new plants, all gardeners are basically cheapskates always looking for a deal. Well, this spring the new magnolia is waking up, and the flowers are a lovely pink. Yes! It's like winning the plant lottery. Generally, Loebner's magnolia does have pinkish petals, but this particular plant has really pink flowers and is quite handsome, especially for $20.

Electric bicycle casts a long shadow

Electric bicycles have long been possible, but the trailing cord was a real problem. So here's an electric bicycle with the solar panels built into the disks of the wheels where there is a considerable amount of surface area but an unfortunate orientation. This bicycle's inventor is from Denmark, so that explains a lot.  At latitude 56 degrees north the sun is always sort of low in the sky.  Now here in the upper Midwest at some 40 degrees north, in summer the sun is considerably higher and correspondingly these wheels will capture less solar energy.  If you live in the tropics, well, you just out of luck because you'll have a electric bicycle that needs to be on its side to function well at capturing energy, but non-functional as a vehicle. However you can park the bicycle in such a manner as to capture solar energy for your ride home, but no some thought must be put into the orientation and placement of bicycle racks and to the orientation of the bike in the rack. And those of us who always looked for a shady spot to park our bikes must learn some new habits. 

Spring bits and pieces

Here's some bits and pieces that have popped up along with the spring flowers. First, remember when planting new trees and shrubs, especially those that have been grown in plastic pots, to tease out pot bound roots. A large blunt screw driver or a large plastic tent stake work effectively to dislodge and tease out pot bound roots before planting. Teasing out roots is rather like combing out tangled hair or like getting a lump of chewing gum out of the coat of a Maine coon cat. The cat doesn't chew gum, and the child had no idea how such a thing could happen, but some local anesthetic was needed, in this case a couple of sardines. When a cat's nose & mouth are so occupied they notice little else.  So if  you want successful transplants you would do well to untangle root balls. 
Second, now is the time to plant early kitchen garden crops. Broccoli, spinach, lettuces, and the like, do very well in cool weather especially under a floating row cover. To maximize yield with minimal space use some interplantings. TPP's best such trick is to plant broccoli at about 18" spacing, and then interplant with bibb or romaine lettuce seedlings. The lettuce will mature and be ready to harvest before the broccoli would crowd it. 
Third, this is the time of year to prune things. Sorry TPP can easily show you how to prune, but it's hard to describe, hard to use hard fast rules because trees and shrubs vary. It's so easy when you know how woody plants grow but so hard to transfer that knowledge verbally. 
Fourth, nothing says spring as much as woodland wildflowers, perennial ephemerals that grow fast, flower, and fruit before the leaves above close the canopy. Our earliest are liverwort, trilliums, and bloodroot. Nothing is more cheerful than finding these small plants poking up through the leaf litter. If you have a shady, tree-covered portion of your property, then this is one of the easiest of all natural gardens to develop.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Blue lawn addendum

OK, who hit the publish button on the FFF blog on Thursday?  Dang, no one else to blame, but my dear readers you will get another installment of blue as a result. While strolling through our blue lawn (Scilla version), someone wanted to know how many plants a blue lawn takes. Well, who knows, thousands and thousands; they been out there reproducing for a long time. So you sort of get used to them everywhere, and then one catches your eye, and TPP said, "That one is different." Closer inspection, i.e., get down to their level, revealed that TPP's sharp botanical eye has not dimmed in the least because indeed, among the many Scilla, was still another genus that is also bright blue, Chionodoxa, glory of the snow.  This genus is (or was, the former lily family has been in upheaval.) placed close to Scilla, but they are pretty easy to tell apart.  Not having planted this volunteer, an unconscious gift from some neighbor, the species is uncertain, C. forbesii perhaps, a common cultivar. As can be seen the petals are also bright blue, but some cultivars can be nearly white or purple. Here's the easiest difference; Chionodoxa has dilated stamen filaments, meaning flat, standing side by side making the center of the flowers white.  The flowers also turn upward more, while the flowers of Scilla nod. Glory-of-the-snow can be pretty plentiful, but they never quite get as crowded as squill. And no, TPP isn't checking all the others.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Light blue lawns

Unlike in the burbs, the Phactors live in a historic district with old houses and old lawns, owned by old people (actually only a few of us) and here abouts, old lawns sometimes means blue lawns, virtual carpets of Scilla (squill) appear in the early spring.  On a couple of previous years, TPP has treated you to views of our blue lawn (here and here).  Our lawn will reach peak blueness either today or tomorrow, but these blues are quite cheerful. Lawns get this way when these little bulbs continue to reproduce unchecked for decades.  A couple of yards away a neighbor has a light blue lawn, which is really quite novel because the bulb is much less well known and much less commonly planted, and of course, these were planted some decades ago too. This is the genus Pushkinia.  This genus is native to the Middle East and is named for a Russian botanist.  The common name, although you seldom see it, is striped squill because of the bluish tint on the whitish petals is more or less a stripe. Some of these grow in one of our lawns, but it remains predominately blue.  Pretty cheerful, don't you agree? And some people only have grass.

No April fools around here

The governor of Hoosierhome, the state that keeps Lincolnland from bumping into Ohio, really tried to put a prank over on us in this morning's news by saying that the Religious Freedom Act he recently signed into law wasn't about discrimination.  Wonder if he fooled anyone? As an April 1st prank it was too obvious. After all the language of this law was carefully changed from versions passed in other states to clearly allow individuals to engage in discrimination by simply saying their sincerely held religious beliefs to be a bigot were being infringed upon. And as governor he surely read and understood the language in the bill prior to signing it surrounded by some of Hoosierhome's up standing religious freedom advocates who he didn't want to identify to the press.  No sir, around here everyone knows that religious freedom is a euphemism for bigotry Hoosier style (and AK style too). So try harder next time because there are no fools around here, well, actually there are, just not as many as live next door, maybe.