Garden Talk: July 14, 2011

From NGA Editors

Topnotch Asters

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Asters are one of the delights of the fall garden. But there are also asters that add color to the summer garden, even a few spring-blooming species. How to choose among all this horticultural richness? To help gardeners narrow down their choices, the Mt. Cuba Center in Greenville, Delaware, a non-profit organization committed to promoting the appreciation, use, and conservation of plants native to the Appalachian Piedmont region, conducted a three year performance evaluation of asters. Fifty-six commercially available species and cultivars were evaluated for three years and rated on floral display, winter hardiness, cultural adaptability, and disease and pest resistance. Plants were given minimal maintenance to simulate the kind of care they'd receive in most home gardens.

One of the things noted in the evaluation report is all the name changes that have gone on recently in the Aster clan. While "aster" is still considered a valid common name, it is, alas, no longer such a widely valid scientific one. Botanically speaking, Aster species are now only found growing in Eurasia. In North America, this easy to remember and spell generic name has been replaced with a host of names that will challenge the memories of even the most devoted gardeners, including Symphyotrichum, Ionactis, Eurybia, Seriocarpus, Doellingeria, Ampelaster, and Oclemena -- whew! But many nurseries and plant catalogs continue to offer these plants under their now outdated, but more familiar botanical names, or list both old and new.

No matter how you name them, the study identified 14 top-rated asters and 8 "honorable mentions." Although the plants were specifically evaluated for their use in the mid-Atlantic region, the best performing asters are also likely to be good choices for gardeners in many other parts of the country. One of the highest scoring was 'Bluebird' smooth aster (Symphyotrichum laeve, formerly Aster laevis), shown blooming with goldenrod in a fall garden. Covered with abundant violet-blue flowers with yellow centers in September and October, this vigorous aster is usually mildew free and rarely needs staking. Prairie aster (Symphyotrichum turbinellum) and 'October Skies' aromatic aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium 'October Skies') also received high marks.

To read about all the recommended asters, go to: Asters for the Mid-Atlantic Region.

And You Think You've Got Garden Problems!

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Here at NGA, we're always reminding gardeners, when using any pesticide, fertilizer, or garden chemical, to always read and follow the instructions and precautions on the label exactly. The experience of some farmers in China recently is a good example of why this is so important -- and a pretty weird example of what can go wrong if you don't!

Watermelons grown in eastern China began exploding in the fields after farmers, in an attempt to increase their profits, applied a growth accelerator call forchlorfenuron. But they put it on too late in the season and when the weather was too wet. This caused pressure to build up internally in the watermelons and they literally blew themselves up in the fields. Some farmers saw their entire crop lying in shattered ruins.

While this highlights the increasing problem in China of farmers using improperly applied or illegal substances on their food crops, it also brings home the need to always pay careful attention to label instructions, restrictions, and precautions when using any garden chemicals. Even those products listed as suitable for organic gardening, such as plant-based pesticides or copper fungicides, need to be applied in accordance with the label to be safe and effective.

To read more about this explosive situation, go to: Exploding Watermelons.

Warming Nights

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We hear a lot about climate change and global warming these days, and as gardeners, we wonder not only how these trends will affect the world as a whole, but what it will mean for the plants growing in our own backyards. Some of what we can expect will be clearer when NOAA's National Climatic Data Center releases its latest version of the U.S. Climate Normals this month. In a recent article in NOAA's Climate Watch Magazine, Jennifer Freeman, a science writer with the American Meteorological Society, takes a look at how the figures have changed and what this may mean for plants in our gardens and in the wild.

Updated every decade, the climate normals are 30 year averages of weather information. As each new decade's figures are added in, those of the trailing decade are dropped. Starting this month, "normal" weather will be a little different than what was considered normal over the past decade.

The new 30 year climate normals period now runs from 1981 to 2010. Since the decade of the seventies was unusually cool and the past decade was the warmest ever recorded, it's not surprising that the average temperature for most locations rose. But what is surprising is that many parts of the country actually had cooler average maximum temperatures in July in the 2001-2010 period than they did 30 years earlier. It was the average overnight low temperatures, not the daytime highs, that changed most compared to the 1970's, resulting in an overall average temperature increase for all states.

How will these warmer nights affect plants? Some pest problems may increase. For example, the woolly adelgid that threatens hemlocks in the East and the pine bark beetle that is attacking forests in the West may both benefit from warmer winter nights. The growing range of some plants may change, with some species surviving farther north than before, while others may see the southern limits of their range shrink northward. Pollination patterns may change as plants bloom earlier in the spring.

To read more about the new climate normals and plants' response to warmer nights, go: The New Climate Normals.

Feel the Burn

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After a long day out in the garden weeding, planting, and mowing, it sure can feel like you've burned a lot of calories. But if you want to figure out if you expended enough to earn a big serving of strawberry shortcake made from your home harvested berries, you can check the Calorie Count website and figure out just how many calories you used in the garden.

From carrying, digging, and weeding to raking, laying sod, mowing, planting trees -- even picking fruit off trees -- you can figure out just how many calories are expended with these activities and note the equivalent calories in food, both junk and healthful. For example, according to the site, a 150 pound person will use up 306 calories per hour planting trees. This is the same amount of calories as in 10.2 carrots -- or less than half (.4) of a Big Mac with Cheese. And think how much better you'll do if you grow those carrots yourself!

Just in case you need to burn a few more calories than your gardening activities afford, there is also a section with information on exercise and exercise plans.

To find out how many calories you're burning in the garden, go to: Calorie Count.

 
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