Flowers, Jorge, Plants

cherry-tree-flower-in-winter

Plants are intelligent inasmuch as they only flower when the light, age and energy conditions are appropriate to allow the plant to reproduce successfully. To do this, they have developed at least 20 different senses to monitor the complex conditions in their environment and are able to take into account factors like humidity, gravity and even electromagnetic fields. Plants differ greatly in their evolutionary strategy, and possess a diffused brain of sorts as to process information. This is why unlike, say mammals, plants are able to survive a significant loss of body mass.

Most plants flower in the spring or summer when the heat-sensitive bees are ready to facilitate conjugation with trees nearby. Spring is usually preferred because it gives the resultant fruit more months to soak in the heat and sunlight to produce fructose, which feed the sugar-crazed mammals and birds that the plant needs to spread its off-spring far from the mothership. Winter doesn’t work so well as the worker bees are otherwise occupied maintaining the temperature of the queen bee.

bluebells-flower-in-winter

Some, however, such as snowdrops and bluebells, have carved out a niche that allows them to gain a step up over their competitors. By flowering in winter, they are able to survive quite happily in real-estate that most plants can’t – that is, under the heavy bows of large deciduous trees, deep inside the ancient woods. In places where even grass can’t grow, these plants thrive as they utilise their bulbs as an energy storage device that they fill up in the early spring when the sun is weak and the trees leafless. By the time the big trees are fully-leaved, the plants have done their work for the year and their dark leaves are already dying off by the end of spring. The sugars produced by photosynthesis are converted to starch and withdrawn deep into the earth-bound bulb for protection. And by choosing this tactic – the protection of the mighty deciduous trees – they’ve avoided competing with the most ruthless of summer plants like grass.

But what of the winter-flowering trees like the Mahonia and Cherry tree? Most likely, the winter-flowering trees found just a few insects to spread the pollen. And because there were no other flowers around at the time, the winter-flowering trees had hit on a limited but good-enough niche.

mahonia-flower-in-winter

And what are the winter-pollinating insects and why do they seek out flowering-plants in winter? Recent research has shown that one of the UK’s most common bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) is achieving comparable foraging success in winter on plants such as Mahonia to that achieved in summer months. There are also a few moths that, just like many plants, have evolved antifreeze in their blood to prevent the formation of ice-crystals when the temperature falls below zero.

So, therefore just like the winter-flowering plants, insects have crafted themselves their own niches to ensure the survival of their species.

bombus-terrestris

The Science

Many plants flower in time for a particular season by responding to the length of day, a process known as photoperiodism. While scientists do not fully understand how plants do this, it is accepted that when a plant flowers is related to its genes and external environment.

In plants, scientists have identified the CONSTANS and DNF (DAY NEUTRAL FLOWERING) genes as the key mechanisms that regulate a plant’s flowering time in response to day length. In the Arabidopsis plant, scientists recently identified a faulty DNF gene that led to abnormal flowering times in mutant plants. The DNF acted to repress the activation of the CONSTANS gene until light levels rise above a certain threshold in daytime. Hence, once a functional DNF was introduced into the plant, the abnormal flowering was corrected.

In a separate study, scientists identified the sugar molecule trehalose-6-phosphate (T6P) in the Arabidopsis thaliana as playing an essential role in controlling flowering time in relation to energy reserves. As such, once a certain day length was perceived by the plant’s leaves, a mix of photoreceptors and other proteins would lead to the expression of the FLOWERING LOCUS T (FT) gene that would migrate proteins to the tip of the shoot, triggering the expression of flowers. However, as a failsafe, once the plant reaches a certain age, it would begin to flower anyway regardless of day length. As flowering is an extremely intensive process for the plant, energy too must also be available in the form of sugar. Here, the T6P sugar molecule would act as a signal for energy levels, regulating the production of FT protein. Thus, the T6P acts to influence both of the two most important pathways to flowering – the expression of the flowering gene and the production of the flowering protein.

Ultimately, greater understanding of the complex pathways that control flowering times will allow farmers to reduce uncertainty and thus boost their agricultural output.

Jorge at PrimroseJorge works in the Primrose marketing team. He is an avid reader, although struggles to stick to one topic!

His ideal afternoon would involve a long walk, before settling down for scones.

Jorge is a journeyman gardener with experience in growing crops.

See all of Jorge’s posts.

Forcing Plants, Gardening, How To, Jorge, Plants

forcing vegetables

Forcing fruit and vegetables in winter is fun way to ensure you have a steady supply of fresh greens for your family. It involves producing crops out of season through replicating the environmental conditions necessary for plant growth. This quirky custom dates back to at least the 1600s, but achieved peak popularity with the Victorians, when the better off sought to impress their friends with spring salads.

Forcing Rhubarb

forcing rhubarb

Forcing rhubarb is an easy way to start experimenting with forcing plants, and can be done throughout the winter, although it works best in January and February. Simply start by removing weeds and leaves around the rhubarb crown, and place some fresh mulch. Then use large cylinder (preferably a pot) to cover the crowns, plugging any holes in the process. This exclusion of light will start frenzied growth, and the stems should be ready in only eight weeks, provided the soil is kept moist! You can harvest when the stems hit the roof of the pot, although 20-30cm of growth is to be expected.

It is recommended that you use established plants as the young ones may not have sufficient energy reserves, and that you do not force again for 2 years as the process leaves the plant susceptible to disease. If you are in colder climate, or are expecting a harsh winter, insulating the pot will be necessary. The warmer it is, the faster the plant will grow, and 18-20°C is the optimum temperature. Unsurprisingly, as the rhubarb is deprived of the light, it will be unable to photosynthesise, and will appear paler than usual. Also noticeable, is how the resultant stem is decidedly less bitter, supposedly due to less sugar.

Forcing Strawberries

forcing strawberries

Forcing strawberries can be a little more difficult, but the key is to expose the plant to the cold until at least February, before moving it to a warm environment. This extended cooling is necessary to convince the plant that an extended period of warmth is about to begin, thus signalling the changing of the seasons. When choosing which strawberry plants to force, you can try older plants that perhaps performed poorly in the year, but if you are really keen, you can plant runners up to a year and a half early, and cultivate the plant’s root system through picking off its flowers.

Now, what kind of warmth are we talking about? An unheated greenhouse can produce a small crop, but instead it is better to use a either a propagation mat or a greenhouse heater to raise the temperature a small amount. Now, if you wish to keep your strawberry plants outside, you can use a cloche that can be removed on the milder days to attract bees.

paintbrush-pollination

Once you decide to move to the plant into the warmth, it is now time to apply some TLC. First remove dead leaves, runners and weeds and give them a dressing with mulch. Then as it is cold outside and there are no bees, you’ll have to do the pollinating. Grab yourself a paintbrush or cotton swab and rub it over each of the flowers as often as possible. (Some gardeners do this daily!) Finally it’s time to start the watering regimen, that is until the fruits finally ripen, when you should let the earth dry out. (This helps concentrate sugars in the fruit.)

Forcing doesn’t just have to be used in winter and other vegetables that are historically forced include Chinese Beansprouts, Chicory, Dandelion and Seakale. For fruits, gardeners have reported success with tomatoes and even pineapples. Do you have any experience with forcing fruit? If so we would love hear from you. Post in the comments below!

Jorge at PrimroseJorge works in the Primrose marketing team. He is an avid reader, although struggles to stick to one topic!

His ideal afternoon would involve a long walk, before settling down for scones.

Jorge is a journeyman gardener with experience in growing crops.

See all of Jorge’s posts.

Alex Mungo, Gardening, Grow Your Own, How To, Planting

Have you ever wondered why you can go in a shop and buy lovely potatoes and onions throughout a long and very cold winter that have been grown right here in the UK? Actually, it’s all in how they are grown, harvested and stored that makes a difference. You, too, can grow your own potatoes and onions with just a few tips so that you know when and how to plant them and, of course, when and how to harvest and store.

Growing your own potatoes
It isn’t as difficult as it may seem, but you will need to be aware of a few well-placed bits of advice from farming experts such as Carpenter’s Nursery and Farm Shop who make it their mission to provide the best products and information specific to UK growers.

Choosing and Planting Your Seed Potatoes

The first thing you need to know about growing potatoes is in how to choose your seed potatoes to ensure you have virus-free, certified seed and that you’ve prepared your soil approximately two weeks prior to planting. Of course, you also need to have previously placed your ‘seeds’ in trays that are well ventilated with the eyes facing upwards and outwards.

Allow them to grow to at least ½” to 1” in length, or if you prefer metric, 12 to 25 mm. This will take a few weeks, but when they have grown to a good length, you can now plant them in soil that was properly prepared and ready to accept your crop.

Growing potatoes at home

How Long Before You Can Harvest?

This is a question most asked by those who are planting potatoes for the first time. There are actually various times you can harvest and the exciting thing to learn here is that you don’t need to harvest the entire crop at the very same time! You can scrape off a bit of soil to expose the upper potatoes and once they have grown about the size of an egg, you can safely harvest a few new potatoes.

This is approximately 12 weeks, or a bit longer, into the growing season. The rest of the crop will take 6 to 8 weeks longer and at that point you will need to learn how to ‘lift’ them from the soil so that you don’t damage the tubers.

Growing Onions at Home

Like potatoes, onions should be planted sometime between mid-March through mid-April but unlike potatoes, you need to be very careful not to have manured the ground too close to planting. While potatoes can go into ground which has been manured two weeks prior to planting, soil prepared for onions should be prepared a good bit earlier than that as freshly manured soil can easily lead to rot and you surely don’t want that!

Growing onions at home

A Few Closing Words

While potatoes are technically tubers and onions are a root variety plant like garlic and shallots, both will have the main ‘edible’ under the soil. What you have just read through is but a brief idea of just how easy it can be to grow your own potatoes and onions and since both are planted and harvested at about the same times of year, it helps to learn how to do both as it saves you unnecessary steps when preparing and planting your garden.

Both can be stored over a long winter and both are hardy if you start with certified seeds and bulbs. This year, why not plant your own potatoes and onions and enjoy home-grown, organic crops. It’s fun, easy and absolutely rewarding.

Alex MungoAlex is a professional writer with a keen interest in gardening. He currently contributes written articles to various gardening websites such as Carpenters Nursery & Farm Shop.

Composting, Garden Tools, Gardening, How To, Plants, Weeding, Zoe

There are mixed opinions about whether you should bother to sterilise your compost. Some gardeners choose not to, which is fine, but we believe there are many benefits to this very simple process:

  1. It kills off harmful bacteriaSome may argue that in turn you will be killing useful bacteria but this is not the case. The only way you will kill of beneficial bacteria is by baking your soil at a temperature that is too high; we talk about this in more detail later. Professional nurseries sterilise their compost, and there’s no reason you shouldn’t either.
  2. It’s proven to keep away pests such as thrips that are particularly annoying when using compost in your home and sterilisation can prevent such unwanted house guests.
  3. Prevention is the solution. Prevent disease in your compost before the problems arise, rather than skipping past the sterilisation stage and then making the situation a lot worse later on.
  4. Sterilised soil ensures that your plant will be happy and healthy, and this means the best optimal growth.
  5. Better safe than sorry. The methods outlined in this blog are super easy to do, and will make sure your compost is definitely safe for your plants. So why wouldn’t you want to give it a go?

    Making Compost

    Outlined here are three easy methods to sterilise your compost from your home:

     

    Oven

    Using your oven at home you can sterilise your compost easily; be warned that baking compost can create a smelly odour, so you may wish to open your windows whilst doing this.

    • Firstly, you need to use moist soil, do not over water the soil however you only want a slight dampness.
    • Use an oven safe tray and fill it with your soil until it is around 10 cm (4 inches) deep.
    • Cover the tray loosely with foil.
    • Put your tray in the middle of a pre-heated oven that’s around 80° For a more accurate result use a thermometer in the centre of the tray and bake between 80-90°c
    • Do not exceed the temperatures stated above, at temperatures above 90°c is when the good bacteria is killed and toxins are produced.
    • Bake for 30 minutes before taking out, make sure to take the foil off and leave it to cool for a while before handling the soil.

     

    Microwave

    The easiest and quickest way to sterilise your compost is with your microwave. We suggest using an old microwave in your garden shed or greenhouse to prevent bringing compost into your home, and this way you can get on with other gardening jobs whilst it’s baking.

    • As before you will need moist soil, but not too wet that it is slushy.
    • Find a microwave safe container and fill this with your soil.
    • Do not use foil in the microwave, instead cover with cling film with holes for the steam to escape or a plastic lid with air holes.
    • For every two pounds of soil will need 90 seconds in the microwave.
    • After it’s pinged, leave the soil to cool before handling.

     

Alternative method:

  • Place two pounds of moist soil in a polypropylene bag
  • Leave the bag slightly open for ventilation
  • Zap in the microwave for 2-2 ½ minutes on full power before removing and cooling

 

Pressure Cooker

  • Start by pouring a few cups of water into the cooker
  • Next add your pans of soil, be careful not to add more than 4 inches, and pop it on the top rack.
  • Make sure to cover these with foil to help insulate the soil.
  • Close the lid for your cooker but make sure you leave the steam valve

For every ten pounds of soil, leave it to steam for 15-20 minutes.

Voila! You now have sterilised soil that will be sure to sprout stunning plants in no time! If you prefer shop bought compost, read our Primrose Guide to Compost for further advice and information.

Sterilised Compost

Zoe at PrimroseZoë works in the Marketing team at Primrose, and is passionate about all things social media.

After travelling across Europe and Asia, Zoë is intrigued by different cultures and learning more about the world around her. If she’s not jet setting, Zoë loves nothing more than curling up with a good book and a large glass of red wine!

She is an amateur gardener but keen to learn more and get stuck in!

See all of Zoë’s posts.