April 19, 2018

Mayflowers, Preserving Our Native Plants and A New Book Arrives Just In Time

A new book arrives for gardeners interested in native plants - just in time for spring (if spring ever arrives!)

If you're like me, you are waiting and waiting for the gardening season to begin. Here in New England spring is a bit late arriving, which on one hand is helpful for procrastinators like me, but also worrysome as most of us know that it will probably swing from cold, snowy weather and chilly, near-freezing temperatures to hot and humid weather practically overnight! But it is a good time to catch up on reading and inspiration, and I can think of no better way than with a good book.

Just in time, a new book has arrived written by two employees of the New England Wildflower Society. 'NATIVE PLANTS FOR NEW ENGLAND GARDENS' by New England Wildflower Society's Botanic Garden Director MARK RICHARDSON and my good friend DAN JAFFE, propagator and stock bed grower for the New England Wild Flower Society who also photographed the book. I always enjoy books written by plant people, and since these two are horticultural geeks from a leading botanic garden and plant preservation society, well- you can imagine the valuable information contained within the covers of this book.

Dan Jaffe and Mark Richardson - authors of the new book Native Plants for New England Gardens at their book signing last month in Framingham, MA.

If you love wildflowers, native plants, ferns, shrubs, trees and other native plants and wildflowers of not just New England, but much of the northeastern US and Canada, this book will become a valuable asset to your library. You can find the book on Amazon. It breaks plants out by ecoregions for New England, but also by plants that are good for birds or shade, or if one wants to choose plants that are best as pollinators.

Most readers will find the book inspirational, and helpful in making planting lists for their Northeastern US garden. It proves to be particularly useful if one is planning to set-up a pollinator garden, but it also could be used as a field-guide of sorts, if one is in need of identifying wildflowers.

Mayflowers in our entrance garden of native woodland plants are seed-raised plants which have established themselves into a large colony that allows me to pick a few bunches if I so dared, even so, I rarely do.

A button from around 1915 promoting the campaign.

So after attending the book opening and talking with Dan Jaffe again, I became more curious about the New England Wildflower Society. I've been familiar with the society for years, after all, they are located not far from our garden but my knowledge of the society was slim. Mostly I thought of the society an organization that operated the beautiful Garden in the Woods, a public garden located in Framingham, MA about 30 minutes from use towards Boston.

After spending some time with their executive director Debbi Edelstein over dinner a few weeks ago I realized that while I certainly knew about the society, I had no idea about some of the many initiatives they have accomplished or are undertaking. Debbie shared with me a few (well, more than a few!) of the many projects, missions and even the amazing history of the New England Wildflower Society. To say that I was blown away might sound cliche, but its the truth.

I said: "I live just a half-hour away from all of this, and for some reason, I don't know anything about the history or these projects! It's embarasing! (then again, I;ve never been to the Arnold Arboretum either!). I now have a new appreciation for this old society which is much more than their well know 'Garden in the Woods' garden in Framingham MA, and more than just a plant society. SO much more. Consider the Seed Ark campaign - a 5 million dollar initiative to collect and permanently store the seeds of all the regions' imperiled plant species by the year 2020. Or their GoBotany website (OK, really, I should have known about that!). Pollinate New England (their response to the pollinator crisis) and Trillium collection which was granted a prestigious accreditation by the North American Plant Collections Consortium  and the American Public Gardens Association Plant Collections Network (one of only 67 of the 500 plus public gardens in North America who have received this accreditation.

That said, their popular TRILLIUM WEEK is coming up soon (May 6-12). Visit and see 21 of the 39 species of Trillium - perfect for nature lovers, plant lovers and anyone who wants to get into spring in a hurry.

What I was most curious about however was how the society was founded and why. To know that story we have to go back in time a hundred and 20 years ago when few cared about wild flowers or native plants. Why should they? They were 'wild' and seemed endless.

In the early 20th century the (then) New England Wildflower Preservation Society took on its first mission - that of public awareness, sharing a vision of the future.

While I knew about some picking, as my dad would share with me what an issue it was even during his childhood in the 1910's and 1920's, I never realized the scale of woodland plant picking until I started looking at some old plant-lists from catalogs from the late 1800's.

I turns out, I sort-of knew some of the histories of endangered wildflowers as my dad was very active with the Audubon society back in the 1930's and 1940's, and he illustrated many of the environmental issues of that era in pen and ink for newspapers (A trip to one of our closets upstairs and all I had to do was to pull out some flat files and it wasn't long before I found hints of what was happening with our native wildflowers of New England.

Why save the wildflowers? Here is one example of a catalog from the turn of the last century - notice the Epigeae repens at $20 for 1000 plants. This sort of mass collecting was common through the 19th and early 20th century. Even today some wild-collected trillium and other woodland wildflowers threaten populations.

Debbi had explained to me that it was this indiscriminate picking wildflowers from the woodlands that became a rallying cry for the organization in the early days of environmental awareness (probably along with stopping the Victorian collecting of bird eggs and the collection of features for millinery use (hats) during the same period. Rampant wildflower collecting was quickly escalating and  endangering the native populations. You can learn more about the amazing history and future plans as well as some of the many initiatives of the New England Wildflower Society here at their website.

I think many of us forget how the nursery business used to work a hundred years ago. While many of us bemoan the advent of commercial nurseries, patented plants, plant breeding and mass-market propagation (Proven Winners, etc) and new propagation techniques like micro-propagation, plugs flown in from across the planet, we forget that plants were often collected in the wild and sold via plantlists.

Particularly at risk were native woodland plants, which are often notoriously difficult to germinate and grow. Old plant catalogs often sold wild collected roots of rarities like trilliums, ferns and precious alpine or woodland plants that were collected in the forests of North America and sold both here and overseas. I dare admit here that there are a few nurseries who still might do this, but would never admit it, and I have heard rumors of even some well-known and respected plant enthusiasts who are still collecting plants like White Trillium (T. grandiflorum) for sale overseas to the UK where they are highly valued.

The fragrance of Mayflowers can be described as sweet 'like cotton candy', and with warmer temperatures, the pale pink blooms as they age are lovely.

Here in New England, there was a time when many gardeners would have dug a few plants especially the earliest wildflowers from the forests to set out into the home garden. If you were raised anywhere between Michigan, Quebec to the Carolinas you surely know about wild trillium species, lady slipper orchids, and bluebells and about the risks not just in damaging native populations but in trying to cultivate such plants in a home garden, and most will fail.

No flowers were as sought out in spring as were the Mayflowers, however. Most likely because they are the earliest blooming, sometimes in bloom as early as January but most likely by March. While not legally classified as 'endangered' they are a 'protected; or 'at risk' species in many states and provinces in the east where they grow on rocky outcroppings in acidic soil in open oak or pine woodlands. As such it is generally illegal and a fineable offense if one picks them.

Known by another common name 'Trailing Arbutus', Epigeae repens is precious yet rarely seen. Truly the first flowers of spring if not winter, their fragrant tiny blossoms are often hidden by the leaves of the forest have been treasured for centuries, picked by the earliest colonists who surely needed some hope of spring sometimes as early as January (I've even had them bloom as early as Christmas in mind winters). I am grateful for a colony growing in our front garden which came to us via a botanist in Quebec who had been propagating the genus by seed for years.

Our colony in the front garden is now nearly 20 years old but our soil is special here and undisturbed, highly acidic and under the cover of white pines and native blueberries.

For those of us who were raised in New England, upstate New York, Eastern Canada like Nova Scotia,  or even in Wisconsin or Michigan,  know about the legendary Trailing Arbutus or Mayflowers (yes, of the famed Pilgrim ship name).

Mayflowers also started a movement. One of which helped start the New England Wild Flower Society back at the turn of the 20th century. You see, most 19th century Americans were nuts about the Trailing Arbutus. Because it represented early spring, hopefulness and perhaps because it was pink and the only thing blooming in the woods, it's scent was considered romantic and valued in products ranging from talcum powders to bathing salts. It;'s image was featured on Easter greeting cards and was often the flower associated with Mother's Day. It's no wonder that young children couldn't resist picking a bunch or two from the forests for their dear mum when the entire world seemed brown and dormant.

It was the magic of early-blooming fragrant flowers from the woods that fueled a craze in the 19th century for Trailing Arbutus - Epigeae repens, or the Mayflower. It scented everything from talcum powder to soap.

The real damage, however, came from the early florists, hikers, and nurserymen who picked trailing arbutus by the thousands, if not by the millions to sell as garden plants. A common practice until the mid 20th century. This mission was magnified by the early New England Wildflower Society then known in 1900 as the New England Wildflower Preservation Society. which was founded in 1900 and which is the US's oldest plant conservation organization.

The risk Epigea faces is real, even more so today but not by picking as much as by its habitat being destroyed. Even our neighbor behind our house (who is clearly permit-averse), has plowed over and filled-in the wetland behind our house - all this for a swimming pool and a few sheds for his trucks and tools. I asked him if he knew that he was destroying some wetland habitat, but he just laughed. I would report him but it's also my position that neighbors don't do that sort of thing, so I am torn (of course, I am writing it here, though!). I can only imagine the plants that were lost here in our own backyard not to mention how often this happens elsewhere.

My dad who was an illustrator back in the mid 20th century often featured the picking of Mayflowers with a very similar message. Here is one of his earlier sketches from the Newspaper from around 1946.

All of this has reminded me of the drawing my dad had created for newspapers back in the 1930's and 1940's when the issue of picking wildflowers was still an issue. It's sad that 70 or 80 years later we are still seeing ignorant people destroying habitat. At least we arent indiscriminately digging up native plants as much as we were back then.

If you live in New England, consider visiting the New England Wildflower Society, visit The Garden in the Woods,  especially in May during full spring glory, or support one of their many initiatives. Their new book  Native Plants for New England Gardens is available on Amazon or from the New England Wildflower Society directly.

April 9, 2018

I'm Back! OK, Spring, we're ready.

After a few month hiatus so that I can focus on finishing my upcoming book 'Mastering the Art of Vegetable Gardening' (Dec. 2018) I am back.  I must be rusty at blogging as it took me three days to write this and then when I tried to post it this morning, I lost everything, and now have to rewrite the entire post. Well, maybe that will allow me to edit a bit more and keep this first 'return' post shorter.

The Hammaellis are late this year, as everything is due to some extraordinarily cold weather, and a very snow winter here in New England. What else is new?

This is where I've been spending my time lately. Sometimes for 14 hours a day for a few months. I thought that I would use my new office upstairs which I created out of a spare bedroom but it seemed that the new counter in the kitchen was nicer (and warmer as a radiator sits underneath this window~!).

Our exceptionally cold January held-back many greenhouse plants including the camellias which are just now starting to put on a show. It's so late in the greenhouse season that the sun is strong enough to burn them on sunny days but with late snow storms arriving every few days we cant put shade cloth up yet as it will hold the weight of the snow. Such as weird winter or spring.

This is how it looked two weeks ago with a dump of heavy, glue-like wet snow of just over a foot that broke and split most every Japanese maple and the following winds near hurricane force pulled down some hemlock trees, one hitting out chicken coop.

Last week, another foot of wet snow covering the onions in the garden and again breaking many trees. Luckily nothing hit the greenhouse.

Inside the greenhouse things are pretty toasty though as the radiant sunlight heats it even on overcast days.

The last camellia season is still welcome maybe becasue the snow is still falling outside? 'Margaret Davis' is a particularly nice one and this year it sent out a few all-white sports.

This camellia without a label is exceptionally floriferous this year. It's been in bloom since January.

The tiny blossoms on the tuberous nasturtiums from Chile are back again and welcoming/ No bigger than a pea they come by the hundreds on this Tropaeolum brachyceras.

Outdoors things are much later than normal. THe snow melts in just a day or two and doesnt harm the early flowering cobs of the Japanese Butterbur (Petasites japonicus ssp giganteus). A favorite mid-winter pollinator for the earliest bees/

Crocus love this weather, and these where bargain-basket 50 cent ones that I bought at Home Depot last January. They still grew and I planted hundreds becasue they were such a value. If these were tulips, forget about it, but often narcissus and crous can handle a bit of abuse.

Alpine plants though are designed for this weather. This saxifrgaga growing in a piece of limestone rock relishes a late snowfall. I've seen these in the high alps in July blooming in snow. If you love rare or engangered plants consider the high elevation saxifrages in a colletion (get them from Wrightman Alpines) or at one of the spring plant sales hosted by local rock garden societies. As anyone at a table at one of these sales and they can direct you.

Saxifrages as hardy and tough, especially if grown in tufa rock - a porour limestone rock in which once they are rooted and set into a trough garden can last for years. Most of mine are over ten years old, and while a bit of a challenge to find if you fine the right place for them, they are rather care free. These troughs that sit on our deck are basically left alone year round.

If you live in New York City or nearby, this is a great sale to hit. Alpine plants are not only important to save as our high-elevation zones are at risk from climate change and skiing resorts, these plants are perfect city rooftop or terrace plants (after all - tall buildings are just like mountains). These are plants that can handle wind, severe weather and most anything a balony can throw at them. They talke some knowledge to master but it's fun and interesting. Consider joining your local chapter of the North American Rock Garden Society as well (Far more than rocks! The society brings together folks who love woodland plants, native species, trees, shrubs, bulbs, ferns and most plant geeks join too!).

My dear friend Abbie Zabar who is a long-time member of the Manhattan chapter of NARGS designed this poster for them. Aren't they lucky in New York to have such generous talent? I first met Abbie at a NARGS national meeting in NYC about - oh geesh - maybe 18 years ago now. Boy, does time fly!
In teh veg garden the first crop bold enough to face the weather has been the perennial bunching onions.

In the greenhouse, I've revised much of what I raise from seed given new knowledge which I write about in my book. I've stopped raising brassicas in early spring, no brocolli, cabbage or brussels sprouts once I learned why we shouldnt sow them now and things like snapdragons are kept dry between waterings to encourage thick stems.
Parsley is a fav around here, but I learned much about researching parsley. I am growing six varieties as there are many fine types, and none are available at retail it seems. I want top chef restaurant quality. These won't see the outdoors until the temperatures warm to above 60 degrees, for I dont want parsley that will bolt and go to seed by July like those plants being sold right now at the nurseries will. Parley and fennel will stop growing foliage and bloom if plants are exposed to temps below 50° F for even a few days. Pansies yes, parsley? No. Are you listening Lowes and Home Depot?

One thing I learned last year was that chile pepper enthusiasts often save some types indoors, wintering them over in pots to continue growing the following season. It works best with the tepins and the rocotto-types, and mine are just starting to come out of this false dormancy. Kind of amazing.

The Reticulata Group Iris often sold in catalogs as simple 'Iris reticuta' are early blooming bulbs that often emerge just after the snowdrops. "Katherine Hodgekins' is a perennial favorties of many gardeners, and this one is no exception.

The species or snow crocus 'Prins Claus' is in a pot, but while hardy enough for the snowiest spring weather, in the greenhouse it can be apprecieated at a completely different level. It looks like a catalog photoshoot subject here.

February 13, 2018

Chemicals - The Good, the Bad, and Why You'll Want To Start Your Own Vegetable Seedlings

Happy Valentines Day - which reminds me that our hearts should be focused on healthy vegetable gardening - why not consider growing our own from seed this year? Here is a pretty good reason why you might want to bother growing your own seedlings this year.

Tell me if this has ever happened to you. You decide to start your own tomatoes or peppers at home. You take time finding the perfect variety, you sow your seeds at the right time - not too early nor too late. You take all of the precautions needed.
You set up a lighting unit.
You buy a plant timer.
You use a propagtion mat.
You use the best organic potting soil.
You monitor temperatures closely and even fertilize with a good organic fish emulsion.

Then, Just as the warmer spring weather arrives ...it happens.

You see some sixpacks of the same variety at your local Home Depot and they look million times better than your own plants.

Not able to help yourself, you them and begin to think "Why did I bother?"

All's OK, right? I mean, it was fun to try growing them anyway, right?

Yet here's the problem.  Those plants from the garden center that look infinitely healthier than your skimpy seedlings are more like Russian Olympians drenched steroids.


These snapdragon and pepper seedlings in my greenhouse are being grown the old-fashioned way, Allowed to dry out between watering which helps their roots grow stronger and reduces the risk of mildew, and they have not been treated with any growth regulators so common with both of these crops elsewhere.

No some of you might be thinking "well, I'm OK with that. I get that these plants were probably coddled better than mine, that they were fed some special secret diet and offered life in a fancy greenhouse and all....". But no. That's not what happened.

It's notbecause the growers had access to better seed or better varieties than you could get. T

The answer is a a little more disturbing, and its one which few people are aware about.  You've been seduced by healthy looking tomato plants because they've been treated with PGR's, or Plant Growth Regulators - chemicals that offer no benefit to the plant other than to make them appear stocky and thus look healthier.

These pepper seedlings are not a bushy and thick-stemmed as those found at the nursery, but I know that they havent been treated with growth regulators, and will soon be loaded with naturally induced flowers and fruit. I dont care if they need staking, I dont really want to eat any more chemicals.

Are these plants healthier (or less healthier) than those you can raise at home? No one is really all that sure yet.  At least I think that this is the case after researching more for my book on vegetables and discovering that most every corporate seed supplier offers guidelines on how to apply growth regulators  (not just on petunias, snapdragons and annual flowers as I had once thought) but for use on vegetable seedlings.

That bothers me to no end, and why doesnt anyone seem to know this?

Now you know me. I am not one who typically raises red flags especially about things like GMO's or any horticultural practice which seems to be under scrutiny today. Heck, I'm not even that innocent myself.  Like many horticulturists, I support the use of some insecticides and even responsible use of neonicotinoids.  I have a greenhouse.  I get it.

Yet, I would never use any of these on crops which I am going to eat. That just doesnt seem safe at all. Right?

The guys at http://arborjet.comArbor Jet came out and treated out Hemlock trees with some serious insecticide, but in a most interesting way - injection. While not thrilled about using a neonicotinoid, I am smart enough to know when it is useful. I use them in the greenhouse only as a worst case scenario - scale on a rare tree or something like that. Injection with trees beats how this used to be treates 10 years ago - by spray and drench. This is specific and localized chemotherapy. And, the US Park Service used them too. Thanks ArborJet.

I had to struggle a bit this autumn as we had to make a big decision about a grove of Eastern HEmlock trees on our property. They've been suffering from an infestation of the Wolly Adelgid, with nearly every needle affected.  They look like mealy bugs and the trees were scheduled to be cut down this comng spring, but I wanted to try one more thing. Injection.

The scary part was that the injection would include Imidacloprid. More about that in a later post but mind you, this wasnt easy to accept, but, with some research as guidanve by tree surgeons and those in the industry, I accepted that this was like chemo. On a warmish day in Novemberm our trees were injected with the pale pink fluid. A last-ditch effort to save 10 trees over 100 years old just to fight an attack of the Wooly Adelgid. It seemed worth the risk for a number of reasons, but since it had no contact with soil, and there appeared that there wouldnt be an irruption of winter finches (which woudl feed on the cones, yet again, there havent been any cone crops for about 5 years now), we decided to do it.

Our Eastern Hemlocks, which sit in a grove which has been there since 1900 sits just north, behind our greenhouse. The branches even hang over parts of the greenhouse which is disconcerting as well. After an exceptionally cold winter last year and a very wet summer, the adelgid population seems compromised a bit and some new growth on the branch tips encouraged us to try one last ditch effort to save these trees which were about to be cut down.

It was fascinating to watch the liquid be taken up into the trunk in just 30 mintues.  Imidacloprid is deadly for insects, less so for humans and dogs - at least, that what the data says, and as a science geek I tend to trust it. We know this as sometimes I have to use it in the greenhouse. USed wisely, its effective a safe. But use it on a food crop? Never. Use it outside in the garden? Never. Maybe we might inject a lily bulb to fight the lily beetle but that's it. We keep honey bees, we know the risks.

Yet with plant growth regulators, its just not something I want sprayed on my vegetables. It's bad enough that they use it on our annual flowers which I also prefer to raise myself from seed if only becasue of this fact. Im sick of buying apparantly stocky cosmos or zinnias only to have to stay dwarf and stocky in the cut flower garden. I was tall snapdragons and cosmos that are 5 feet tall like in the gardening magazines.

The ArborJet proprietary system was fascinating. The liquid enters the tree slowly, but one can see the tree actually drinking it up. Like a flu shot. Seeing it all happen in real life reminded me that these trees are living objects. I feel confident that this booster shot will help the trees overcome this infestation . 

All that said, I believe in the proper use of chemicals when nothing else works or when an organic method proves to be ineffective. I'm also a big supporter of organic food, organic food production and never ever use insecticides in the vegetable garden. I support and buy organic produce whenever possible and encourage others to do so as well.  It's all a balance, and we all have to make our own decision on where our ethical line is. Mine is on food crops.

Tomatoes, pepper snad eggplants are the seedlings most often treated by plug growers and vegetable transplant growers with something called PGR's or Plant Growth Regulators. It's hard to find even a single commercial grower or nursery who doesnt use these chemicals on our vegetable seedlings. Should this concern you? I'm not sure yet.

Yet while writing my new book, which my publisher told me this week while I attended an international sales meeting for it that I could and should start promoting - the Mastering the Art of Vegetable Gardenings (Dec. 2018), I've been spending days in horticultural society libraries and universities researching, discovering some disturbing trends.

A gypsy moth lays it ugly egg case last July on some of our birch trees. While I know an outbreak is coming this year, there is little I can do about it, I could spray these tres but that seems wasteful, dangerous and not worth the risk to both the environment and this natural outbreak. I was fascinated however by titmice and chickadee's who have been cacheing sunflower seeds into these cases for eating later.

I support much of big agriculture. As a plantsman, I am not against GMO's (not yet) or even the big seed companies like Ball Seed, Sakata, and Pan American. I support plant breeders, and much of the industry involved with horticulture, but there is one thing which concerns me more than non-GMO food. And that is the use of PGR's or Plant Growth Regulators on food crops. Right now, only one is approved for use in a very limited way, but others are coming down the pike if the commercial trade magazines are correct, and most growers are asking for more approval for their use on vegetable transplants for spring sales.

Don't get me wrong, Ball, Sakata, and Pan American are very good companies and I trust that they are being very safe of what they suggest their growers do, but its not in their hands really. They are merely offering how growers can optimally raise a crop that will be, well, perfectly sellable. A grower could choose to raise something organically too, or just in a healty, reasonable way with as few chemicals as needed.

This is more a statement about the entire industry and where it is moving to, often in a response to what we the consumer is telling them through our purchasing habits. In many ways, we are to blame. We who tend to buy the larger tomato plant (albeit far too early in the spring) at the local Lowes or Home Depot when the pansies are out. We who by the larger eggplant in a 1-gallon pot just because it has a fruit on it already, or we who choose to buy the thicker-stalked seedlings over a packet of seeds.

 Some blame does fall on the growers too. But then again, they are in business and need to justify their sales. If no one is buying seedlings from the grower who raised his or her plants without PGR's, what choice do they have?

In a sense, this is virtual product design, and we the consumer are informing the growers what we want. Why would they grow anything else?  OF course the big retailers should know better, but lets be honest - the buyer from one of these big box stores more often than not knows little about agriculture or plants aside from a baseline knowledge that 'tomato plants must be planted out in the spring" and "Oh good, we have super healthy looking tomatoes that are much better than our competitor has.". 'Maybe I'll get a good bonus so that I can go golfing this spring".

Sorry, Mr. Plant Buyer. But now that I'm not wearing a polo shirt with a corporate logo on it, I can say it.

I've been immersing myself in reading the trade magazines for the industry and a couple of the leading greenhouse management magazines have featured articles about potential safety concerns with the use of Plant Growth Regulators and their use by growers on vegetable transplants. This irritated me and concerned me as I read on, not only because now I have proof that those stocky tomatoes were chemically induced, but here is what growers seemed to be complaining about - - that there wasn't enough research about their worker's safety. They were more concerned with how their employees should apply the product - the proper equipment to use and how to ventilate their greenhouses better to avoid overexposure.

Hmmm. I care about them too. How about stop using them?

Sooooooo......What about us the consumer?
Because we're eating the plants.

What about the lady who was buying parsley at the Home Depot or Lowes and who might cut some off and eat it when they got home? What if she picked that green tomato?

The chemical companies are kind-of covered here, for they provide some very strict rules and guidelines for wholesale growers on how soon they can spray a crop before it goes to market - but do I trust that 22 year old told to spray his bosses greenhouses on a Friday afternoon  that he is going to avoid certain crops?

Not really.

What about drift? I asked a friend of mine who works for one of the largest plug growers outside of Boston if they pay attention to what annual or vegetable gets sprayed, and he laughed. "The entire bench or greenhouse is just sprayed."  They'll avoid some crops which are sensitive, but mostly everything gets treated the same way. Certainly all of the peppers and tomatoes.

The crazy thing is at first I didn't react much about this. Plant Growth Regulators don't even really scare me all that much.  I never liked their use on ornamental annuals, but since I prefer to raise my own snapdragons and other annuals which are most commonly sprayed, I could work around it. beleive me, I too have been seduced by ridiculously healthy snapdragons only to realize that my skimpy seedlings out performed them.

Starting ones own seeds remains the best way to maintain crop safty at home. WHich reminds me - this week I started my sweet pea seeds. Spring is on its way.

I don't even mind their use on some disposable crops all that much . I'm a sucker for a super mum with a million buds on it formed into a perfect mound - I know that it isn't natural, but "it's a thing". I get it. Just leave my tomatoes alone.  I know just as I know that some Hollywood boobs are fake (it's true, some are), that tomatoes this husky just aren't natural. Some muscles aren't real either, you know. The same goes for hair, so I've been told.

So what are PGR's?

Plant Growth Regulators are chemicals used to treat many growing plants, especially potted plants. "Chemical's" is a dirty word for many, but not for me. Still, as chemicals, they must be used wisely. There are good uses for many of these PGR's. Science is an amazing thing when you really look into it, and PGR's have proven innovative in many agricultural uses, from research to plant breeding to saving endangered species. While there are many different types, the most common ones used are those which control plants through cell mutation. As one ad in a trade magazine states: (about the only one which is approved for use on vegetable seedlings called - Sumagic, "Controlling Cellular Mutation makes the plant more desirable to the seller and to the buyer.".

Lettuce should never be treated with growth regulators, yet more often than not, they are resulting in what looks like healthy seedlings. Even if it helps performance, who would want to eat that? 

The fact is growers have been using PGR'ssince I went to agricultural college in the late 1970's, and early 80's (yes, I'm that old). The question is are they safe today? Classed as pesticides by the US government the advice clearly strict for those applying the sprays, yet oddly the only articles I could find in trade magazines are those regarding safety concerns - not for us, the consumer, but for those humans in the 'greenhouse who are actually spraying the PGR's. Obviously they are handling stronger concentrations of the chemicals and the risks would be higher, but still, there are risks. Right?  Nothing here was making me feel any better (and I have a pesticide applicators license).

Call me crazy but while I'm slightly OK wearing a space suit to spray for an outbreak of scale, something in me gets nervous when I have to wear gloves to my elbows, suit up head to toe with an aspirator, goggles and a hood just spray my tomato seedlings.

I would encourage any home gardener to sow their own seedlings of every vegetbale to ensure that they are getting the best quality and health benefits from their garden. Even lettuce seed sown outdoors in early spring will look smaller than nursery grown plants, but they will grow into large and healthy plants as soon as the weather warms. This is natural.

Even more concerning was a secondary worry expressed more than a few times in articles by growers that "the use of PGR's might also raise a red flag about food safety as little research has been done on retention and residue on the foliage and fruit of sprayed transplants". All this regarding their use on the three vegetable crops most often treated with PGR's - tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants."


You might be wondering why do growers bother to use PGR's then?

Well, they do make plants look much nicer. I get that, and, plants are a product, and it's a competitive business. If I was a wholesale plug grower or a finished liner grower I imagine that might have to use PGR's just to remain competitive. Tomato plants are a big business and no grower can afford to lose an account like Walmart or Home Depot or they will go bankrupt.  The thing is, these growers won't go out of business if we --  the consumer-- begin to care a little bit more about things that are important, and not gluten, GMO's and fat-free junk. (And yes, it doesn't escape me that I these chemicals are used primarily on 'the nightshades' -- but I don't buy that diet argument either Sorry Elizabeth).

Is the solution here regulation? I don't know. Surely that will scare some folks. The of course, there is the fundamental question is the use of plant growth regulators even safe? I'm, not an alarmist, and while I well know that many phytochemicals can be dangerous which is why I even question the validity and use of triacontanol, when it comes to growth regulators that restrict growth, my antennae go up.

I trust modern science, and I am one of those who still aren't afraid of glyphosate (Roundup) use (yet I would never use it on my vegetables). The entire GMO arguments are useless to me. I make my ethical decisions based on real data and science. Where ever that takes me, so be it. Maybe Plant Growth Regulators needs a good, comprehensive documentary by Michael Pollan?

Home raised seedlings still require some attention, more often than not home growers default to being too 'natural' only using fish emulsion or randomly using a fertilizer becasue it sounded safer without any knowledge of what their particular crop really needs for nutrients. Always do some research yourself. Trust the research universities first before - dare I say it, blogs or articles in magazines. Most repeat bad information. If you only knew the contradictions I've run against researching my book! (you will know about them soon enough!)

I've spent time in greenhouse ranges over the past year, some which are very responsible even though they have dozens of acres under glass. One even impressed me with how they were moving towards more organic or natural controls on insects which were very progressive and interesting. I sense a movement with many growers to a more responsible use of chemicals.

PGR's like Sumagic or Uniconazole do have some online guidelines which are very strict, you can look at them here.  The chemical companies provide very strict guidelines on controlling the amount used on vegetable plants, and how many treatments are considered 'safe'. Their corporate guideline states that applications can be applied 2 weeks before a tomato plant can go to market. Since no one can guarantee that the grower did this, I remain suspicious.

Now, there are natural ways to control height and to create a sturdier plant but they are costly for most transplant growers. One method often talked about on gardening blogs is called 'brushing', it involves a mechanical arm that actually brushes each plant which simulates wind, or stresses the cells in the stems and foliage to grow sturdier. One can, and should do this at home if ones own seedlings to make them grow sturdier - brush them daily with your hand carefully, especially if they are being raised under lights in warmth.

PGR's have their good uses. Melons and cucumber crops use them to stimulate more female blossoms this increasing yeilds. 

I do believe that PGR's have their place though,. I consider myself a science geek and can appreciate the proper use of both insecticides and even PGR's. I use some PGR's myself to aid germination of rare or endangered seeds, and the use of gibberellic acid is common amongst plant people,, some seeds are extremely difficult to germinate without it. I just don't find its use on annual crops that we eat acceptably. Maybe the graphic designer in me should design a logo that can be used to identify plants where PGR's have not been used.

Some peppers from an out-take or a 'making-of' picture from my book. By raising one's own peppers from seed, the diversity and certainly the size and health of the plants can be controlled. Many wholesale growers treat peppers all as ornamental plants, treating them with extra doses of PGR's to both stimulate blooms and more potential pods at the time of sale.

Start one's own seedlings at home.  We can accept the fact that they might appear a bit leggy or not as healthy looking as the steroidal beasts at the nursery. They are supposed to look that way.

One can always ask a good nursery, as there are some who refuse to use any growth regulators. A mom and pop nursery who cares about the varieties they grow and their product will generally be proud of this fact, so ask. As for data out there on the safety of growth regulators, I have yet to read any that make me comfortable. Some state that the PGR's becomes inactive after a period of time, but even so, I don't want my vegetable plants stunted or mutated just because I am too lazy to stake them.

All pepper plants can be considered ornamental but left without growth hormones, they can grow to enormous size. This pot on the right is 30 inches in diameter and the plant nearly 4 feet tall. I would never dream of spraying it. Yet most hot peppers at nurseries have been treated to remain stocky and short. If you dont have to stake your peppers, something was wrong.

The use of PGR's with ornamental plants does concern me a bit. Last year I noticed that many of the perennials found at garden centers are treated to make them short and stocky, and to produce more blooms. This seems like the consumer is being misled, but may be legally growers or seed companies are exempt from lawsuits as many assume that their pots of fall asters or chrysanthemums are just temporary display plants. I suppose I can accept their use on mums but when I read in the trade magazine that their use is recommended on many crops including ornamental grasses and 5-gallon perennials that I am buying for my perennial border, then I am concerned. If I want a tall clump of monarda or campanula, then I want it to grow tall.

Another out-take from my book showing some of the many eggplants that I raised this year. Each plant, 3 of nearly 20 varieties was raised in 5-gallon pots, never sprayed with growth regulators, I had to stake them all but look at the harvest and the diversity.  Yes, I couldn't help but to grow them all.

In the end, the choice is up to us.  It was eyeopening for me to discover most every propagation guide from a major seed distributor outlined methods for wholesale plug growers and vegetable transplant growers on how to apply Uniconazole (Sumagic) to their tomato, pepper and eggplant seedlings. PGR use is already used in many food crops to stimulate tuberization and flowering, so it's a slippery slope. Their use on cucumbers and melons to encourage more female blossoms concerns me less, and their use on seed crops to help create certain hybrids hardly worries me. Again, I can appreciate good science. Their uses here are practical and specific - to increase more male or female flower or to improve fruit set and seed production.

But their use on making my eggplant seedling a little more 'healthy looking" nope. I'm good.

The lesson here is to raise your tomatoes, peppers, chili's and eggplants from seed at home, and if you want really tall 40-inch snapdragons too.

A bit of a tease. This isn't the design, just my take for the sales meeting this week.