Gardening Tips: January 22, 2013

Thinking Green
It’s mid-January and I just got my first seed catalogue in the mail. In years past I would have had half a dozen or more by now, but thankfully, these businesses can take a hint when you don’t buy from them for several years. I wish the credit card solicitors would take the same hint! This catalogue is from Burgess, a seed company in Bloomington IL. I love to read the descriptions of the flowers and vegetables offered each season, but by now I have learned that pretty pictures do not always portray reality for the average person. I suspect that people who subscribe to online dating sites may have learned this same lesson. I would caution all of you to take these descriptions lightly. Be suspicious of promises that don’t seem to make sense. Adjectives such as “amazing”, “incredible”, “miracle”, and the like should be red flags for careful consumers.
On the back cover of this catalogue there are two offerings that caught my eye. The first was for a “fruit cocktail tree.” It reads “Amazing one-tree orchard” and proclaims that you will harvest bushels of peaches, nectarines, plums and apricots from one tree that only grows 10 feet tall. While this is botanically possible, since all the listed fruit are stone fruit and may be grafted onto one tree, the likelihood of all of them thriving is close to zero. The same is true for multiple apple or pear varieties similarly grafted. I don’t recommend growing them either. The problem is that each of these fruit have slightly different growing requirements and perhaps the best you can hope for is that one or two will become dominant and you may get some peaches or plums or apricots, but not all the above.

Pest control
The other back page ad is for the “mosquito shoo geranium.” This plant “keeps mosquitoes at a distance.” “No more oil sprays, dripping candles, flaming torches, or crackling bug zappers. This biogenetically engineered plant’s leaves release a pleasant fragrance (like lemon furniture polish) that deters mosquitoes.” I am not sure what “biogenetically engineered” means but I know that this plant is not genetically engineered in the same manner that involves inserting a foreign gene into a strand of DNA for a specific purpose, such as conferring resistance to a herbicide. No, this plant is simply a scented geranium of which there are a half dozen or more varieties commonly sold at your local garden center. This one smells a bit like citronella, a substance widely reported to repel mosquitoes. The fragrance is faint, at best and requires scratching or disturbing a leaf to notice it. I am not so sure I would want a plant that smells like furniture polish anyway. I do like scented geraniums in general though, as some do have a fragrance of lemon, rose, and even chocolate! The scented varieties are not grown for their floral displays however and flowering geraniums are the most popular bedding plants in America.
I don’t mean to malign Burgess in particular. The majority of plants they offer are just fine and it’s fun to browse catalogues and daydream of summer gardens, when it’s miserable outside. Years ago mail order catalogues were a rural necessity because there were so few stores to shop outside of the cities. Today we have lots of places to buy anything we want locally. Of course the Internet is the new shopping mall, not only for rural America, but also for the world in general. I hope that most of you will purchase your garden plants and supplies from local merchants. The big box stores buy their plants from huge wholesalers, which allow them to retail the plants at prices that small businesses cannot compete with. The specific varieties they offer may not necessarily be the best ones for our particular region though. Most local garden centers sell varieties that do grow well here and many carry specific varieties because local customers request them.
Every year Cornell University’s Horticulture department publishes a list of vegetable varieties that are particularly suited to upstate New York growing conditions. Before you order seeds from a mail order company or the Internet, I suggest your peruse the Cornell website. The 2014 Selected List of Vegetable Varieties for Gardeners in New York State is now posted on gardening.cornell.edu in the how-to section under vegetables. I cannot guarantee that these varieties will all be successful for you, but they are your best choice in most cases.