Sunday, January 31, 2010

Gardening Tips and Tricks: Planting Lotus Seeds

The new semester has begun and I am back on campus. For much of the last week I was busy choosing classes, ordering text books, and running various senior thesis-related errands, hence my failure to post anything during the last couple days. However, I have been meaning to get this post up for over a week now, so I set it as my very first task for today. This is really a chronicle of a little horticultural experiment I carried out while at home during my break. Having read various accounts of people growing lotus plants (Nelumbo nucifera) from seeds contained in the lotus seed heads often used for dried floral arrangements, I decided to give it a try myself. The lotus is one of my favorite plants and I have long dreamt of growing it myself so I am not entirely sure why this did not occur to me earlier. In any case, here are some of the websites I have consulted for inspiration and guidance during this little project:,, and

The seeds on the first day

I went to a Michaels Craft Store to get myself some lotus pods to get started and actually ended up getting the last two they had in the store. They already looked a bit beaten up and were mounted on fake stems that are presumably more sturdy than the natural stems of the pods but they did contain fourteen seeds and cost only $3.99 so I decided to take them anyway.

After about a week the first seed begins to break open

Once I got home I broke open the seed heads to take out the seeds, which had been hot-glued into the pods. It took some effort to get off all the little shards of pod and even more scraping to get rid of as much of the glue as possible but after about half an hour the seeds were reasonably clean. Then I had to somehow nick the seeds' very hard seed coat. It is recommended that one do this so that the seeds can soak up water more quickly which in turn speeds up germination. At first I tried it with a nail file but I dramatically underestimated the toughness and the thickness of the shells of these seeds. In the end I used a rather coarse wood file from my dad's tool kit which worked relatively well, and filed a little hole into the shell of each seed until I could see the somewhat lighter layer underneath.
Within a few days, more seeds begin to germinate

Next I washed the seeds one more time with moderately warm water and them placed them in a bowl with warm water - not scalding hot but warm enough that it felt pleasantly warm to the touch. I used a glass bowl, mainly so that I would be able to watch the progress of the seeds from all sides but I am sure this is not a must.

After a week and a half, more than half the seeds are germinating

I then placed the bowl with seeds in a bright spot close to the window in my mom's office, which happens to be the warmest room in the house at this time of the year, with the temperature usually hovering around 72 degrees Fahrenheit (ca. 22 degrees Celsius). Pretty much all the accounts and instructions I found stressed the importance of warmth for germination, so I figured that room would be my best chance.
Once they appear, the sprouts get more vigorous by the day

The most important task once the seeds are "planted" is to change the water on a daily basis so that they do not begin to rot before they germinate. One should always use warm water and it is a good idea to rinse and rub the seeds a little when changing the water so that algae and microbes to not settle on the shell.
The little seedlings began to be a bit crowded so I divided them between two bowls

When germinating, the seeds begin cracking open lengthwise and a green shoot begins to emerge from one end which soon elongates, carrying a tiny rolled-up lily pad at its tip. For me, this began to happen about a week after I had first put the seeds in water but apparently it can happen much faster under warmer conditions.
Out of fourteen seeds all but two germinated

Within a few days of the first seed cracking all but two of the seeds started sending out shoots. Do not be alarmed that the seeds only seem to send out leaves; it appears that they develop about three leaf shoots before roots begin to form on the little stem just outside the seed.
The petioles of the first little leaves keeps elongating while the second and third leave are already emerging - soon these will be ready to be potted.

When roots begin to develop the seedlings are ready to be planted in soil. For this one should choose sufficiently large containers, such as buckets or very large bowls, and a heavy, loamy soil, not potting soil rich in peat moss and other organic materials. The little plants need a sufficient water depth since the first leaves will float on the water like normal lily pads so the containers have to be deep enough to accommodate a good 6" (ca. 15cm) or so of soil as well as 6-8" (ca. 15-20cm) of water. Unfortunately I did not get to pot my seedlings before I left so this task now falls to my parents but I am nevertheless excited to find out how my little lotus seedlings will progress...

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Planning for Spring: New York Times Article on Seed Shopping

If you plan to start plants from seed this year, you might find this article from The New York Times interesting:

The article has lots of suggestions for great vegetable and flower varieties from various avid amateur as well as professional gardeners, and there are also lots of links to interesting mail-order seed companies.

I wonder if I will be able to resist the urge to plant some seeds this spring, living as I do in a college dormitory most of the time these days...Last spring I ended up growing impatiens (Impatiens walleriana), black-eyed Susan vine (Thunbergia alata) and coleus (Solenostemon scutellarioides) on my bedroom window sill, the common room window already chock-full with my collection of houseplants. I brought the plants home to Michigan at the end of the spring semester, and two of the coleus plants, one with chocolate-brown leaves edged in chartreuse and one with bright pink ones with light green and white edges, are still going strong in my bedroom window here in Michigan.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Plant Care Profile: Red Valerian (Centranthus ruber)

Though commonly called red valerian, Centranthus ruber is actually only distantly related to true valerian (Valeriana officinalis) and is also known as Jupiter's beard. It is, however, a great perennial for sunny beds and borders which needs very little care and flowers almost continuously for much of the summer. Very adaptable, it can even grow in the cracks of of old stone walls and has apparently become naturalized in Great Britain as well as the southwestern United States, the Pacific Northwest, and Hawaii. The airy pinkish-red flower clusters are very attractive to butterflies and for planting schemes in which tones of red would not fit well there is also a white-flowered cultivar.
Centranthus ruber in the frontyard of my parents' previous home in southeastern Michigan

Origin: Centranthus ruber is native to the Mediterranean region.
USDA Hardiness Zone: According to most sources, Centranthus ruber is hardy to Zone 5a, and in my own experience it is hardy at least to Zone 6a.
Centranthus ruber growing in cracks in a retaining wall in the Katz'sche Garten in Gernsbach in southwestern Germany

Size: Centranthus ruber can reach up to 3' (ca. 90cm) in height, though the plant will often lean outward quite a bit and as a result remain lower. Individual clumps can reach a similar diameter, but if given less space they will usually remain smaller. Even though it is a fairly vigorous grower, Centranthus ruber will rarely overwhelm neighboring plants unless they are significantly smaller.
Flowering Time: Depending on the local climate, Centranthus ruber will begin to flower in late spring or early summer - in southeastern Michigan it usually begins to flower in early June. Given regular deadheading, flowering will continue until fall.
Close-up of a flower cluster

Light Requirements: Centranthus ruber needs full sun.
Soil Requirements: This plant will grow in most normal soils but needs moderately good drainage. It is also very tolerant of alkaline soil conditions, which is one of the reasons why it grows well even in the cracks of the mortar of old walls.
Centranthus ruber in the front border of my family's Michigan home early in the season

Siting in the Garden: Centranthus ruber needs a sunny spot with decent drainage but is otherwise quite adaptable and can be planted in perennial borders, informal, naturalized plantings, rockeries, and even in the cracks of stone walls.
Care: A good amount of compost or organic fertilizer such as bone meal incorporated into the soil at the time of planting does the plant well, as do occasional top dressings of compost and a good layer of leaf mulch later on. However, none of these treatments are absolutely necessary and they are obviously impossible if the plant is being grown between rocks or on a wall. During extended periods of drought Centranthus ruber might need to be watered but otherwise the main care the plant needs is bi-weekly deadheading during the summer months. This keeps the plants tidy and flowering continuously.
Propagation: Centranthus ruber is easily grown from seeds which are formed in abundance if one stops removing spent flower clusters. The seeds have little parachutes like the seeds of dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) and if the formation of seeds is allowed the plants will often self-seed. However, seedlings tend to appear in moderate number and relatively close to the mother plant so that the species usually does not spread aggressively. If self-seeding is not wanted but you still want to grow additional specimens of the plant, harvest the seeds as soon as their little parachutes start unfolding. This does not happen to all the seeds on a cluster simultaneously, so you might have to collect the seeds over the course of several days. In spring the seeds may be started in doors in a bright window and the seedlings planted in the garden once temperatures warm up or they may be sown directly in the garden in late spring. Division is not advisable as a method of propagation for this plant since it tends to form a woody base that cannot be split without harming or even killing the plant.
Centranthus ruber in my parents' frontyard once again
Use in the Garden: Colorful, tough, and adaptable, Centranthus ruber can be used in many ways in the garden. It makes a great choice for the middle level of perennial borders and mixed beds but also looks beautiful billowing over the edge of a path or retaining wall. It is also suitable for informal and naturalized plantings, rockeries and gravel gardens and can even be made to colonize stone walls and cracks in paved or tiled areas.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Gardening Traditions: Ottoman Cemeteries in Istanbul

I realize that featuring a cemetery on this blog might seem a bit a morbid but in many cultures cemeteries have long evolved into true gardens in their own right, complete with their own unique design and plant vocabulary. During my stay in Istanbul this summer I came across quite a few old cemeteries from Ottoman times in the older parts of the city. Most where attached to a mosque complex - most of these pictures where taken in the graveyard next to the beautiful Süleymaniye Mosque whose interior was unfortunately closed for renovations - but there were also some plots that did not seem to be connected to any mosque, or were perhaps once connected to a religious complex but now stood alone due to subsequent urban development.
What struck me about these old cemeteries was their elegant, understated beauty, beginning with the slender headstones cut from very light stone and adorned with very delicate carvings. Most were decorated mainly with bands of intricate calligraphy and while I could read very little of what the inscriptions said many, if not most, featured the word جنّت jannat meaning "garden", "paradise", or "heaven". Originally جنّة jannah in Arabic, this same word has incarnated with that very meaning as cennet in modern Turkish and as جنّت jannat in Urdu and जन्नत jannat in Hindi. Of those few tombstones that were not covered with calligraphy, quite many had simple yet beautiful carvings which continued with this theme of the paradise garden, such as the stylized cypress pictured above.
However, the most interesting aspect of these cemeteries from a horticultural perspective is the manner in which they incorporate live ornamental plants. Cypresses (Cupressus sempervirens), Oriental plane trees (Platanus orientalis), and poplars (Populus sp.) are planted in between the grave to provide shade and hybrid tea roses provide color and fragrance.
The roses, as well as occasional specimens of other flowers such as bearded iris (Iris germanica), are only occasionally planted directly in the lawn between the graves. Most of the time, they are planted in special holes in the middle of the large stone slaps that cover most of the graves. There is usually a headstone at each end of the slap so that the flowers end up growing between the thin columns of the tombstones, set off beautifully by the light-colored stone.
I do not know if contemporary Turkish cemeteries follow similar designs but the fact that urban graveyards centuries old continue to be lovingly replanted with new roses and trees makes me hope that they are of similar beauty.
On a side note, Istanbul is also one of Europe's Capitals of Culture ( this year, so the coming months should be a great time to visit this amazing city. Finally, if you want to see some more of the Süleymaniye Mosque, there is a pretty and informative virtual tour at

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Plant Care Profile: Japanese Fiber Banana (Musa basjoo)

Musa basjoo has been one of my favorite garden plants ever since I first started growing it in my first garden in southwestern Germany. For a lush, tropical look in a temperate garden hardly anything beats these surprisingly hardy, rapidly growing plants. They do need careful siting and quite a bit of winter protection in most places colder than Zone 8 but are otherwise almost care-free. In the milder parts of Germany as well as much of northern France Musa basjoo has become increasingly popular in recent years and it has long been a mainstay of exotic planting schemes in such famous British gardens as Christopher Lloyd's Great Dixter, Alan Gray and Graham Robeson's Old Vicarage, or Heligan.
Musa basjoo in a south-facing border at my parents' previous house in Zone 6a suburban Michigan
Origin: Musa basjoo is native to the Ryukyu Islands in southern Japan.
USDA Hardiness Zone: Leaves are damaged even by light frosts and stems are only somewhat hardier but the rootstock is hardy to Zone 6b according to several sources and at least to Zone 6a according to my own experience.
An old stand of Musa basjoo in the Zone 8a palace gardens in Karlsruhe, Germany
Size: Musa basjoo can reach heights of 15' (ca. 4.5m) and clumps can theoretically reach a similar width but in colder regions the plant's spread is effectively limited by the extent of winter protection one is willing or able to put in place for it.
Flowering Time: Due to winter stem die-back Musa basjoo is unlikely to flower in colder areas. However, in Zone 7b and warmer or if overwintered indoors large specimens can produce huge clusters of yellowish flowers subtended by large greenish-orange bracts at any point during the growing season. These in turn may develop into small, inedible green bananas.
Light Requirements: Musa basjoo needs full sunlight, the more the better.
Musa basjoo resprouting in early May at my parents' previous Michigan home.
Soil Requirements: Due to its rapid growth, Musa basjoo needs fertile soil and plenty of moisture and benefits from a soil enriched with plenty of organic matter as well as frequent top dressings of compost and leaf mulch. However, good drainage is also important since otherwise rootstocks might rot, especially during winter.
Siting in the Garden: Musa basjoo needs a sunny and protected spot in the garden to minimize winter damage and promote lush growth. An ideal place would be a bed or border in front of a south-facing wall, especially in cooler areas. Both in Germany and in southeastern Michigan, I have successfully grown this species in borders backed by the south-facing front of a house. Walls also often provide protection against excessive rain during the cold season, thus reducing the risk of rot. Furthermore, the large leaves of this plant also make it susceptible to wind damage, so if possible it should be planted in a spot where it will be sheltered from strong winds.
A specimen of Musa basjoo in the Katz'sche Garten in Gernsbach, Germany (Zone 8a)
Care: Musa basjoo should be planted in spring or very early summer so that the plant has plenty of time to establish itself before it has to survive its first winter. The soil should be amended with plenty of compost if possible, and a good dose of bone and blood meal should also be worked into the soil, and a good cover of leaf mulch or fine-ground wood chips . Once established, the plant needs little care during the summer months apart from regular watering during dry spells. A bi-weekly feeding with water-soluble fertilizer also helps to encourage strong growth but is not absolutely necessary and should be stopped in early fall in cooler areas. Once the first light frost has caused the leaves to begin to wilt in the fall, a cage of chicken wire and burlap or bamboo mats should be built around the clump and filled with dry leaves for winter protection. Pre-fabricated wire compost bins are also excellent for this. I like the mulch to stand at least 2-3' (ca. 0.6-1m) high but the higher you can pile the mulch the better. Overall, the better protected the rootstocks and stems are the more likely it is that significant stumps of the stems survive which in turn allows the plant to regain size more quickly the following season. In spring, the leaf mulch should be removed once temperatures have warmed up and are no longer likely to drop in the freezing range. Care should be taken while removing the mulch covering since the plant will most likely have sprouted already and the young pale shoots are quite fragile. A good amount of bone and blood meal should be lightly worked into the ground around the plant and a new layer of compost and mulch applied at this time so the plant is set for another season of lush growth.
Propagation: Musa basjoo can be propagated quite easily from the large number of suckers or "pups" the plant produces. To do this shoots at the edge of the clump should be selected and carefully separated from the mother plant once they are about a 1' tall. Care should be taken to preserve as much of the rootstock of the young plant as possible. Clumps can also be divided and divisions replanted but since the corms can get very large and extremely heavy this can be quite difficult.
Early fall picture of young specimens of Musa basjoo planted last spring in my family's new Zone 6a southeast Michigan garden
Use in the Garden: Musa basjoo adds a tropical touch to any planting scheme and makes a great, eye-catching backdrop for a sunny perennial bed but also integrates well into a shrub border provided it receives full sunlight. Where the climate allows it can also be stunning as a solitary clump surrounded by lawn or low ground covers.
Palms Won't Grow Here and Other Myths: Warm-Climate Plants for Cooler Areas by David A. Francko, Timber Press, 2003.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Post-Holiday Bargains

My mom and I stopped by a local garden center yesterday because I needed orchid potting soil to pot up two rather large keiki that had developed on a Dendrobium I had bought at Trader Joe's a few years back. We did not intend to buy anything besides the potting soil but came across a number of perfectly nice plants that were drastically reduced in price. Apparently they had been brought in to be sold during the holidays and were now considered hard to sell.
I would hardly be surprised to see that sort of thing with plants like Poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima), and it also seemed to make sense for the small Norfolk Island Pines (Araucaria heterophylla) of which there were still many. However, many ordinary house plants, such as pothos (Epipremnum aureum) and prayer plants (Maranta leuconeura 'Erythroneura') were also on sale.
My mom and I ended up buying a little Norfolk Island Pine (Araucaria heterophylla) and three tiny little olive trees (Olea europea). Their new home, at least until the spring, is a table in my parents' sitting room, which is has large windows and is fairly bright and cool. Hopefully those conditions will agree with the little saplings. Perhaps from now on, I will pay more attention to post-holiday plant sales. Who knows what other little treasures I might come away with...

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Some Roadside Perennial Borders

Close to where my parents and I used to live in the Michigan suburb of Bloomfield someone has over the last couple of years created some beautiful perennial borders in the green strip next to a small but very busy Hickory Grove Road close to where it intersects with Telegraph Road. Having admired them while driving by for a couple of years, this past summer I finally pulled into the adjacent subdivision one afternoon and got out to take some pictures. The sunny main border was at its early summer best with lush masses of double and semi-double feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) and Shasta daisies (Leucanthemum x superbum), bright red Maltese cross (Lychnis chalcedonica), and lots of orange daylilies (Hemerocallis fulva).

The shade borders were a bit past their spring prime, but a large assortment of different Hosta species and varieties as well as various other shade-tolerant perennials and shaped burning bushes (Euonymus alatus) still provided plenty of visual interest in an understated yet elegant composition of different leaf sizes and shapes, different shades of green, and delicate white flowers.
I have no idea who developed these beds and takes such excellent care of them but they are absolutely beautiful and I hope they will inspire others to undertake similar projects. If you live in the Bloomfield area, take a look sometime!

Friday, January 8, 2010

Places to Visit: The Dolmabahçe Palace and Gardens

I have to admit I am cheating a bit with this one - technically the gardens of the Dolmabahçe Palace should have been part of the 'Summer Travels' series since I visited them this summer during my stay in Istanbul. However, the pictures were on a different computer so I did not have access to them while I was at school but I also wanted to finish the 'Summer Travels' posts before the end of the year and adding this garden at the end separate from the other posts on sites in Turkey would have messed with the chronological order... Long story short, today's post is about the gardens of the Dolmabahçe Palace, which I toured last summer and which are well worth a visit.
The palace was completed in 1856 for Sultan Abdülmecid I and represents a fusion of baroque, rococo, neoclassical, and more traditional Ottoman architectural elements. It constituted part of the modernization and Westernization efforts undertaken by the Ottoman regime at the time and replaced the Topkapı Palace as the primary residence of the Ottoman royal family. After the demise of the Ottoman monarchy the palace was occupied for a while by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish Republic, and he passed away at the palace on November 10, 1938. The complex sits right on the shores of the Bosphorus - in fact, the palace and gardens lie on filled-in land, as indicated by the Turkish name Dolmabahçe, which means "filled-in garden".
The palace itself is monumental and offers a fascinating mixture of Western European and Middle Eastern sensibilities. There are enormous halls and double staircases meant to impress in the fashion of royal palaces in Western Europe but there are also Turkish baths and a harem as well as passages that allowed the women of the court to observe what was happening in the public spaces of the complex without being seen. Similarly, the gardens can hardly be pinned down as belonging to a single specific style but they are nevertheless beautiful and worthy of the visitor's attention. After all, they give the whole complex its name.The first garden visitors come upon after passing through the monumental entrance gate - and where they are likely to wait in line for a while for the next tour of the inside of the palace - is relatively formal and centered around a large central pool. Stretched in front of the palace and open to the Bosphorus on one side, this garden has large lawns broken up by stands of umbrella pines (Pinus pinea), Lebanon cedars, Atlas cedars, and deodar (Cedrus libani, Cedrus atlantica, and Cedrus deodora, respectively), cypresses (Cupressus sempervirens), evergreen magnolias (Magnolia grandiflora) and various other species of trees. Around the central pool one finds some beautiful old crape myrtles (Lagerstroemia indica) underplanted with colorful annuals such as wax begonias (Begonia x semperflorens-cultorum). Furthermore, there are beautiful beds of roses (Rosa sp.), and further hybrid tea roses trained as standards are scattered in groups throughout this part of the park. There is even a floral clock composed of bedding annuals next to another monumental gate, though for some reason I failed to take a picture of it. My farvorite planting, however, consisted of large specimens of pale pink mophead hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla) backed by tall cypresses (Cupressus sempervirens) a tall white-washed fence, and the metallic blue expanse of the Bosphorus.After touring the inside of the palace, one emerges in the narrow strip of garden between the side of the palace and the Bosphorus. Here, too, one finds large cedars, blue spruces (Picea pungens), and Washingtonia palms (Washingtonia filifera), as well as variegated century plants (Agave americana 'Marginata') in large urns and charming small lily ponds with delicate fountains.After reaching the end of the main palace building one turns left and passes through a narrow corridor at the back of the palace filled with bamboo, daylilies (Hemerocallis fulva), agapanthus (Agapanthus africanus), impatiens (Impatiens walleriana), and many more standard hybrid tea roses.At the other end of the passage one reaches what used to be the gardens of the Harem. First up is a beatiful rose garden filled with yet more hybrid tea roses. Then, after rounding the Harem building one comes to a larger garden with a large central pool and fountain and lots of colorful bedding and large conifers. There are also Chinese windmill palms (Trachycarpus fortunei) and aviaries holding varies different breeds of chickens as well as pheasants.
On the whole, the gardens of the Dolmabahçe Palace are elegant and eclectic, and even though the palace is one of Istanbul's main tourist attractions and can get quite crowded, the gardens had a peaceful and intimate feel even at the time of my visit during the height of the summer tourist season.