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Green Thumbery: Flower Power

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Planting officially underway!

Things have been quiet on the Green Thumbery series because I’ve been watching my plants anxiously. The lengthy winter we experienced has made for a sluggish start and it was touch-and-go for a few weeks. But I’m getting ahead of myself; I should take a few steps back and bring you up to speed.

We last left off with my enthusiastic plan to germinate seeds using the paper towel method. Well, I wasn’t prepared for how well it would work. Or the trouble that I might have transferring the sprouts. Basically anything that was a tiny seed was nearly impossible to separate from the paper towel. In a few cases, such as with the basil, I wound up cutting the paper towel into squares and buried the swatch. They did well and I was hopeful the paper towel will disintegrate with time. I had also soaked a batch of Lobelia seeds for two days and then poured that water into a container, covered it with some clear plastic wrap, and waited. Three days later I was rewarded with a lush growth—so the lesson there is smaller seeds should probably be directly sown.

Or rather, that was one lesson. The big lesson ultimately was that I just don’t have the space to start seeds, and I’m better off relying on transplants. I had to concede all of my seedling attempts to learning this year. Almost everything succumbed to either damping off or curious cats. The rest took so long to get going that there was no way they’d be ready for this growing season. The bottom line is that we just don’t have the space indoors or a proper set-up to encourage healthy seedlings. I may come back to it again but while we’re in this house, I’m going to have to go the ready-made route.

During our buy-transplants-for-Mother’s-Day trip to the nursery, I went ahead and picked up the varieties I was trying to grow: yellow fig tomatoes, Caribbean scotch bonnet peppers, and strawberries. I scrapped the eggplant and okra for this year, and instead replenished my herb supply including Genovese basil, golden and regular sage, silver and lemon thyme, rosemary, and marjoram. This year, I’ll move these plants indoors in the fall to try to overwinter them.

The new garden layout is:

Bed A

Lavender Hidcote | Bell Pepper | Bell Pepper | Dragon Tongue Bean | Flower | Bell Pepper | Bell Pepper | Flower | Lavender Hidcote
Lavender Hidcote | Basil | Sage | Basil | Flower | Sage | Basil | Sage | Lavender Hidcote

Bed B
Yellow Fig Tomato | Borage | Chadwick Cherry Tomato } Ground Cherry | Yellow Fig Tomato | Borage | Yellow Fig Tomato
Scotch Bonnet Pepper | Scotch Bonnet Pepper | Scotch Bonnet Pepper | Ghost Pepper | [Empty] | Scotch Bonnet Pepper | Scotch Bonnet Pepper

2014 Garden Beds. Bed A in the foreground. Bed B in the rear.

After our Mother’s Day lunch, I put all of those little guys into the ground and watered them in. The tomatoes got a scoop of Epsom salt in the bottom of their holes which is reputedly good for the roots. It looked promising: the peppers were lush, the basil wasn’t drooping, and I had replanted the peas. I had buried the tomatoes deeply as several sites has recommended, but in about a week, it became clear something was wrong. The tomatoes were distressed and the bottom leaves were yellowing and drying up. I lost two plants this way. Soon other plants in both beds began to show similar symptoms: yellowing or motley type leaves. I was sure I’d lose the peppers and the basil.

What is wrong with this tomato plant?!

Or this one?!

I couldn’t figure it out. I was watering them once a day. They had sunlight. What more could they need? Luckily, S gifted me with a device called Flower Power. It looks a bit like a twig, but you insert it into the dirt near your plants, and it analyzes the soil saturation and the fertilizer levels. It can also measure sunlight and temperature. With these four readings you can have a fair sense of why your plants may not be as healthy as they should be. This data is transmitted via bluetooth to an app that you need to download and program by telling it what plants you have the device monitoring. After an initial 24 hour analysis period, the app will begin to make suggestions based on the data it’s getting. For example, it may tell you to move a plant for more sunlight or indicate that soil saturation is low and you should water.

Hopefully this little device will help me better understand my garden beds.

I quickly learned that my plants were thirsty—and hungry! I began to water them twice a day which helped but they were still drooping. The fertilizer helped with that. I’m not using anything spectacular. I went back and forth between an organic brand and a popular commercial brand and went with the commercial brand is used last year. I’ve been fertilizing once a week for about three weeks now and things are looking better. Flower Power also offers a real-time data feed, but you need to be within range of the device for this to be useful. It is sort of fun to access while I’m sitting in the backyard—what can I say? I like data.

Real time data from Flower Power.

I removed two tomato plants that could not recover from the loss of their leaves and replaced them with a ground cherry and a cherry tomato plant. And I’m learning a lot about my beds from the Flower Power. For example, it seems the line where the tomatoes were planted does not get enough sun. The plants are shaded by a nearby tree, which may be causing some of the problems they’re experiencing. Since I can’t move these plants, I’ll have to watch and see what the result is. It’s interesting because the peppers are planted in front of the tomatoes, and they seem to be getting more than enough sunlight.

The tomatoes aren't getting enough sunlight, but since they're int he ground, there's not much I can do.

But the peppers are doing fine!

If we’re still in this home next year, I may look into creating a raised bed in a sunnier location, but only if I’ll be able to dismantle it and take it with me. A raised bed may be the answer for a few reasons. I’m beginning to seriously doubt the quality of soil in the secondary bed—I’m hoping to test the soil this weekend to determine if high acidity may be a problem. I’ve also had a recurrence of small brown mushrooms throughout the beds, which may be the result of the rains we’ve been having but it could also be something in the soil.

The Flower Power also provides me with a watering schedule—and sends me push notifications to help keep me on track. What I’ve learned from this exercise is that just as I need to drink more water than I think, my plants need more too. It’ll be interesting to monitor the data over this growing season and see what I can learn.

Now that I’m hopefully back on track, the coming weeks will bring discussions about the plants and fruits they’ll bear and the people who grow them.

What does your garden look like?


You might also like:
Green Thumbery: A Gardening Series and Winter Sowing
Green Thumbery: The Seedlings are Coming!
Green Thumbery: Death and Destruction

For more on food, check these out:
Burger with a Side of Toys: How is Fast Food Being Marketed to Children?
What’s Stopping Us From Eating Insects?
You are What You Eat: The Truth in Food Records
The Cost of Healthy Eating

Krystal D'Costa About the Author: Krystal D'Costa is an anthropologist working in digital media in New York City. You can follow AiP on Facebook. Follow on Twitter @krystaldcosta.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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