Field of Science

High speed rail comes to Lincolnland?

Taking advantage of its topographic featurelessness, Lincolnland is attempting to make trains more efficient and faster.  Trains are one of those areas where Europe totally tops the USA. Our beer and bread are improving, but the trains, not so much, even out here in the flat lands.  At any rate tracks are being installed for high speed rail service, but you know somehow something seems amiss. Doubt the speed of our trains is going to be improved based on the general condition of the new track.  In Europe the rails tend to be evener, more parallel, and smoother than these, which look more like the tracks of a amusement park ride. Based on these observations high speed rail is going to take awhile folks,and you'd better be careful how you hold your drink. Actually one of the fancy high speed trains came to town a couple of years ago, but it was towed in by a clunky old Amtrak diesel engine, again someone was missing the key concept.  

Yard smart

About 50 people spent an hour touring the Phactors' gardens this morning.  They were coming to see how are gardens looked when sustainable gardening practices are used, a program called Yard Smart. This cute little sign is in our front garden. Our lawns are diverse, which means weeds, although sometime some areas get spot treated to give some grass a fighting chance. The use of pesticides is very minimal.  Right now Japanese beetles are eating the crap out of big landscape purple cannas, so all is good, the cannas will outgrow the herbivory and the beetles would be eating other plants if not these. If the apple trees start getting chomped then the trees will get covered with insect netting (sometimes used as bridal veil). Ecological practices make the yard wildlife friendly, but safe for people too.  Fencing keeps bunnies from being too bad. One large hosta bed has been mulched with leaves gathered last fall.  Wood mulch helps preserve water and protect soil especially around shrubs. The kitchen garden is mulched with straw covering 2 layers of newspaper; zucchini and other squash really like this. A floating row cover keeps cucumber beetles (and bacterial wilt) away from cucumbers; if the beetles weren't disease vectors, there would be no problem.  TPP even goes so far as to hand pollinate the female flowers (netting keeps away pollinators too). It's not too onerous; how many cucumbers can two people eat? The neighbors have potatoes growing and the flea beetles like the potato vines more than egg plant, which they like more than tomatoes and peppers (see the taxonomic theme?), so no insecticides are needed unless the beetles get way more common.  Note: plant one potato as the sacrifice to the flea beetles, and you other nightshades get a pass. A bigger problem are squash/pumpkin vine borers; larvae of day flying moths that eat your squash vines from the inside.  However you only have to spray Seven on nothing but the stems for 2-3 weeks in July mostly, so pollinators are quite safe to visit the unsprayed flowers. Little things like these add up and cumulatively make your garden a lot more ecological, greener so to speak.  Now if only each of those visitors had pulled a hand full of weeds as the price of admission, what happy campers we all would be. Consider starting such a program where you live.

Summertime, and the gardening isn't easy

It's been a hot June so far, and almost too dry.  Highs in upper 80s and low 90s dry out the soil and wilt plants quickly. Any plant that doesn't recover from the afternoon wilts needs watering.  The real problem is when you've planted quite a few new plants it keeps you busy, and uses a lot of water even if rains are adequate.  Last two rainy spells have been just in time, coming after a week or more of dry, and because our rain comes in thunderstorms you can get missed.  This time the area was fortunate. More violent weather passed to the south going east; you don't want to trade rain for hail or wind gusts. About dawn a front of thunderstorms arrived, not too violent, but enough to make a scared black cat clingy.  It dropped at least 1.5 inches so far, enough for a good soil soaking. It takes at least half an inch of water a week to keep a garden going, and if using containers, watch your plants closely because they require more frequent watering. The lawns were getting crunchy (they never get watered) and annoying chiggers have appeared, a few have gotten their blood meal at TPP's expense already.  
In other news the potting mix used for the tomatoes has too much nitrogen in it (didn't notice) and TPP has some magnificent vines, which is not the point. Vines may pay off later, but at the cost of early fruit set. The cherry tomato, an indeterminate type, may need pruning.  Grew a monster vine years ago and had to prune it back.  That 3-4 foot diameter column of vine produced over a quart of cherry tomatoes a day! Eggplant are doing well if flea beetles can be kept at bay. Next problem to watch for are squash vine borers.

Currant events

Really hot, dry weather, and a bad encounter with bumblebees (again unappreciative wildlife) left Mrs. Phactor looking for a less stressful garden job this weekend.  Just such an opportunity presented itself  because late June is when one of our perennial fruit crops ripens: red currants.  The plants do OK in partial shade and 3 bushes form a transition zone between a flowering tree/shrub garden and the kitchen garden. They are mostly a trouble free plant, even the birds leave the fruits alone (probably a good thing the cedar waxwings have moved through the area much earlier in the year).  The berries take quite a bit of patience and persistence to harvest, and since it just isn't berry jelly making weather, the currants are striped off their racemes, washed, spread on a baking tray and frozen.  They are then bagged up and left frozen as individual berries until such time as it's cool enough to cook jelly that comes out as pretty as the berries. Note you can also use cranberries along with currants for jelly, or even black raspberries as they latter ripen at just about the same time.

Friday Fabulous Flowers - June is for lilies

Just a few years ago, a friend and colleague got herself married in June, and Mrs. Phactor decided to provide flowers, so a lot of lilies were planted throughout her perennial garden. Now each June the garden bursts into a riot of colorful lilies, big ones, tall ones, short ones, speckled ones. Most of the other summer perennials are just starting so the lilies bridge over a somewhat dull flowering period. A photographic selection is provided for your enjoyment.

Such a deal for you! Books on trees, and pruning, and more.

Alex Shigo was a singular fellow, a noted tree pathologist, and he really knew his trees.  TPP was a postdoc on a project collaborating with Alex, not to mention working with befriending his son-in-law, Dr. Chips, and his daughter along the way.  At any rate just a few blogs ago, the topic dealt with tree injury and TPP provided a link to Shigo and Trees Associates as a source for information on pruning and tree injury.  So not only do they have highly informative books and pamphlets written by Alex, but mention The Phytophactor and get a discount!  TPP doesn't get anything, so this blog remains unsullied by money, the deal is for readers, not TPP.  You can even get a Touch Tree bumper sticker.

Summer heat - AC - what could go wrong?

The Phactors are not big fans of AC; open windows and fresh air are preferable.  But sometimes it just get oppressive. Yesterday brought the first real heat of summer so before the house heated up too much, the AC was turned on and for a few hours functioned fine.  And then it wasn't functioning at all.  So first you check to make sure it's plugged in; no blown breakers apparent.  Make sure the batteries in the thermostat are fresh; check.  Then you call a technician and wait.  A window fan and the ceiling fans functioned to adequately provide comfort over night. Ah, tech just called so now we'll find our what went wrong. That was damned quick as the call for help only went in 2 hrs ago.  

Friday Fabulous Flower -An Unknown

It doesn't happen often, but every now and again TPP runs into a plant in a garden he doesn't know. This particular plant was growing in a semi-formal terrace garden at the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY (one of 1001 gardens you should see before you die).  It looks to be a perennial herb with finely divided leaves a bit like yarrow. The flowering scapes were two feet tall, but boy this doesn't ring any bells even to a family level.  So here's your chance to impress TPP with your plant prowess.

Happiness is a new plant

Nothing makes a botanist happier than a new plant particularly if it is something a bit unusual, a bit out of the ordinary, a bit rare.  Well, looky, looky what TPP has gotten as a gift from a colleague, a dwarf, African water lily, Nymphaea thermarum.  Here's a link to the Kew Gardens web page about this plant. It's pretty new to science so it's great fun to have such a plant, but it's extinct in the wild.  This is such a great plant, the world's smallest waterlily, and the only one to grow on the surface of hot mud rather than in water. TPP likes examining how unusual plants grow, and to see if they have any particular adaptations for their particular way of life. You only find out about such things by watching them grow and reproduce very carefully. 

Old homes

It was an old homes day. First of all, driving through several of the Erie Canal "port" towns let's you view a number of grand old homes from the era.  Then to check off one more of the 1001 gardens we should see before we die, the Phactors visited the George Eastman House on East Ave. in Rochester NY.  Historically, for both the man and photography, it is worth the visit.  And they had locally-made very good gelato to really excite Mrs. Phactor (let's see: blackberry, coconut, lemon sorbet, orange).  The gardens are only in part restored, but they certainly were nice enough looking, and you could see how they gardens were positioned to augment the house. The surrounding neighborhood is filled with pretty large houses with unique architectures. Many are multiple family residences now.  Some of the huge lots have been filled with condos and other criminal acts. On the way out of the city the huge Kodak ghost town loomed sadly beside our route.  Later we finished up by driving by 2 of the 3 houses TPP lived in as a child.  Gardens at the last one were in rough shape; no effort at all, although the stone smokehouse remains in good shape.  It isn't a heavy nostalgia trip, but a 50th HS reunion is sort of a heavy trip; how is it possible?  Also made a brief stop to find parents' and paternal grandparents' graves; it's a pretty enough, old cemetery in a little old town. Surprised how good the memory was to find such things and it underscored that this was nothing desirable. Now to see a bunch of classmates that haven't been seen in 50 years.  Only kept up with a couple of them; should be interesting.

Niagara Falls. Slowly I turned ... step by step ... inch by inch ...

TPP is visiting in western upstate NY where he grew up, and since it had been decades, why not visit Niagara Falls.  OK, title explanation: Niagara Falls! "Slowly I turned.... step by step.... inch by inch..." Why did my brain associate this phrase with the falls?  TPP should make you do your own pop culture research, but apparently this is the long lasting influence of an Abbott and Costello routine where the words, "Niagara Falls" triggered a remembered retribution from a stranger reliving a traumatic event now visited upon the hapless Costello. And all he said was...
No idea how many times TPP has been to Niagara Falls; numerous, but it has been a long time 20-30 years or so since the last visit. Perhaps on the way home form botanical meetings in Toronto?  The Falls are still spectacular, although the city of Niagara Falls, NY surrounding the NY State park has seen much better days.  Presently the city can charitably be called shabby. The park is nice although presently under quite a bit of renovation limiting access. And US-Canada crossing have gotten onerous particularly coming back, so the border was not crossed.  Oh, for others the Niagara River separates the USA and Canada between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. The falls started off an escarpment near Lake Ontario, but has carved a canyon several miles long as it has retreated toward Erie.
Still even after all the water removed for hydroelectric, the volume of water is rather stupendous, and the mist from the falls still can be seen from quite a distance, and if the wind shifts suddenly you get drenched as if in a rainfall. Lots of rainbows around on sunny days, and lots of tourists too.  It was quite fun, full of memories this day. The American Falls is in the foreground and the Horseshoe Falls in the back; Goat Island is in between, a good place to start your exploration should you visit, and Canada beyond.