Legumes are nitrogen-fixing plants that produce many of the foods we eat.
Peas and beans are common legumes. Peanuts, chickpeas, alfalfa, clover, lentils, vetch, mesquite, carob, tamarind, lupins, wisteria, and soybeans are also legumes. The unique behavior that makes legumes so valuable is that most of them are able to convert atmospheric nitrogen into a form that is usable by other plants.
Over 80% of our atmosphere is made up of nitrogen. Plants are greedy for nitrogen, but they can’t use atmospheric nitrogen. Some plants, our beloved legumes in particular, have developed mutually beneficial relationships with certain bacteria that live on or in their roots. These bacteria are able to combine atmospheric nitrogen with hydrogen to create ammonia, which is then converted into a usable form of nitrogen. This is called the Nitrogen Cycle and is what makes legumes an important part of crop rotation and cover crops. Some people claim that marigold plants interrupt the nitrogen-fixing ability of legumes, but I have not found any research to support those claims.
With so many family members, it should come as no surprise that there is plenty of variety. Some legumes grow low to the ground in a spreading habit, while others vine, and other stand upright. All legumes are dicots, which means they produce two seed leaves before true leaves appear. It also means that the seeds tend to be made up of two halves. The fruit, nut, or seed of legumes is technically called a pulse. Pulses are grain seeds held within a pod, or simple dry fruits, that develop from a single carpel. Most legume seeds have a “zipper” along one side that opens up when the seed is ripe. This behavior is called dehiscence. These seeds are often rather large and fast-growing, making them an excellent choice when gardening with children.
Legumes as soil amendment
Legumes can be used as a green manure, cover crop, or an edible harvest. When used as a green manure, plants are allowed to reach the flowering stage and are then cut and left where they fall to decompose. This returns valuable nutrients to the soil and improves soil structure. Other legumes are grown as a cover crop to prevent erosion. Most legumes have strong, deep roots that help aerate compacted soil.
Legumes as food
Legumes are a high protein, high fiber food source. Fava beans, wax beans, lentils, lima beans, and wheat are all just a few of the legumes we eat on a daily basis.
Pests and diseases of legume crops
While the pests and diseases of most legumes are more species specific, nearly all legumes are susceptible to Fusarium wilt. Bean mosaic and powdery mildew are common bean and pea diseases. Stinkbugs enjoy legumes and, what makes them worse is that they can also transmit tomato bacterial spot. Weevils and treehoppers are common pests of legumes.
Adding legumes to your garden or landscape can improve the soil, feed nearby plants, and they provide a delicious harvest. Give legumes a try!
We’ve all seen those cans of yellow wax beans in grocery stores, but these plants are easy to grow, they add nitrogen to your soil, and the crisp sweetness of a freshly picked bean far surpasses anything canned.
Wax beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) actually refers to several different yellow-podded members of the common bean family. This family also includes lima beans, kidney beans, pinto beans, and immature ‘green’ beans. It is believed that wax beans got their name because the yellow color looks similar to beeswax, but no one is really sure. Wax beans are available in both bush and pole varieties.
How wax beans grow
Beans are self-pollinating annuals. These plants are fun and rewarding to grow. They grow quickly enough to work well as a children’s activity, reaching maturity in only 60 days. What’s really fun about these plants is that they can be grown pretty much anywhere: on a windowsill, in a container, in a straw bale, and in partial shade. Of course, they prefer sunny raised beds or traditional garden rows, but, the point is, these plants are EASY. Like other legumes, wax beans are able to ‘fix’ atmospheric nitrogen, making it available not only to themselves, but to nearby plants. Of course, this only works until the plant starts producing seeds, then the free lunch is over.
How to grow wax beans
Like other beans, wax bean seeds are mostly endosperm (plant food). Plant seeds one inch deep and 2 to 4 inches apart. If you grow bush beans (not the canned barbecue product), your plants will get 18 to 24 inches tall and about a foot wide, so thin accordingly. Pole beans, however, can be trained up trellising, fences, lattice, sunflowers, trees, pretty much anything they can wrap their tendrils around, without thinning. They can also be used in the traditional Three Sisters Method, with corn and squash. Trellising pole beans on something that goes over your head looks really nice, with ripe beans hanging down, from overhead. It’s makes picking easy, too! Some people say that planting marigolds nearby can be a problem, claiming that they interrupt the nitrogen-fixing capabilities of legumes, such as peas and beans, but I don’t know if this is true.
Wax bean pests and diseases
When it comes to bean pests, it’s all the usual culprits: cutworms, bagrada bugs, cucumber beetles, weevils, thrips, wireworms, leaf miners, and dried fruit beetles. As delicious as fresh wax beans are, it’s no wonder so many critters are after your harvest. Bindweed can also choke out your bean plants. Common wax bean diseases include anthracnose, bean mosaic, and fusarium wilt. Wax beans should not be planted near soybeans to reduce the likelihood of stem blight.
The large floral disk of sunflowers, jam packed with seeds, hardly needs description, but there is a lot more to this cheery bloom than meets the eye.
Ancient history & sunflowers
Sunflowers are native to North America. Recent research has shown that they were also growing in Central America way back into antiquity. There are some interesting name exchanges in primitive languages that lead archeologists to believe there were far more cultural exchanges between the two regions than was previously thought. According to researchers at the University of Cincinnati, “sunflowers were domesticated thousands of years and hundreds of miles apart” making them an interesting topic in human history. More currently, sunflowers are one of the world’s top oil producing plants. Each year, nearly 45 million tons of sunflowers are grown worldwide!
The sunflower family
Sunflowers are part of the Daisy Family (Asteraceae). This includes asters, artichokes, dahlias, yarrow, marigolds, endive, dandelions, and Echinacea, just to name a few. Sunflowers can be annual or perennial, depending on the variety, microclimate, and growing conditions. Some varieties grow as a single fat, hairy stalk, while others grow several branches. There are eleven species of sunflower (Helianthus annus) in California. Some dwarf varieties are only a foot and a half tall, while others can reach a height of twelve feet!
Benefits of sunflowers
If the happy blooms and tasty seeds weren’t reason enough to add them to your garden, sunflowers also attract many beneficial insects. Honey bees, lacewings, butterflies, hoverflies, and parasitic wasps enjoy the nectar, pollen, and prey insects found on and near sunflowers. Personally, I love the tiny finches that are so fond of eating the wide, spade-shaped leaves. Local squirrels and seed eating birds can become problematic, or you can simply plant a few extras near the fence line.
Heliotropism refers to a plant’s ability to track the sun’s movement and sunflowers are masters of heliotropism. Sunflowers use phytohormones called auxins and an internal circadian clock to follow the sun across the sky each day. During the night, they turn their west-facing blooms back toward the east, in anticipation of the dawn. Scientists were surprised to discover that bringing outdoor sunflowers indoors, with a constant overhead light source, the plants still went through their east to west cycle for a few days. (I wonder if the plants were confused or unhappy?) It was also found that certain genes tell the east side of the plants grow more quickly during the day, while the west side of the plants grows more at night. As the plants mature, this movement slows, leaving most sunflowers facing east, rather than west. The reason? Scientists found that eastward facing flower heads (capitula) heated up more quickly than their westward neighbors. This added warmth attracted FIVE TIMES more beneficial insects, for better pollination and pest protection!
Sunflowers and children
Sunflowers grow quickly and often to impressive heights, which makes them an excellent choice when gardening with children. In fact, if you plant your sunflower seeds properly, you can create a fort, a maze, or a magic castle right in your own back yard! Or, to watch germination as it occurs, you can place sunflower seeds inside a clear glass with a dark colored sponge. Place the seeds between the glass and the sponge and add water. Before you know it, the magic happens! Then take your sunflower sprouts and add them to a salad or plant them in the garden! In either case, they make a healthy snack and provide your children with a sense of ownership.
How to grow sunflowers
Most sunflower plants are grown from seed. A few species also propagate using creeping roots, which makes them a noxious weed in some agricultural areas. Sunflowers need lots of sun, water, and nitrogen, but they are less picky about soil than many other plants. Seeds can be started in cell flats or other small containers and then transplanted, or they can be directly sown into the garden or landscape, after the last chance of frost has passed. Seeds should be planted one inch deep and watered daily until they sprout. After they have sprouted, plants will need an inch of rain or irrigation each week, depending on the weather. For optimal growth, space your sunflower 2 ½ to 3 feet apart. Dwarf varieties only need 6 inches. Seedlings often need protection from birds, squirrels, slugs and snails. Sunflowers can take up to 3 months to reach full size. Sunflowers need lots of nutrients, so adding aged compost to the planting area will help them to get a good start. They do, occasionally need staking. Sunflower seeds contain a chemical that is toxic to grass plants, so you should harvest the seeds before they start falling on your lawn or near other members of the Grass Family (Poaceae), such s corn, millet, wheat, barley, or bamboo. You can also plant sunflowers much the way Native Americans did, using the Three Sisters Method, by replacing corn with sunflowers. The squash or melon leaves will shade the ground around your sunflowers and pole beans will climb the stalks and provide a nitrogen boost before they go to seed themselves.
Sunflower pests & diseases
Sunflowers tend to be sturdy plants that fend for themselves rather well. Keep a look out for ant trails going up the stalks that can indicate an aphid problem. Sticky barriers can be used to block the ants, which makes the aphids more vulnerable to their natural enemies. Other sunflower pests include dried fruit beetles, cutworms, carrot beetles, some foliage-feeding caterpillars, leaf beetles, spider mites, thrips, and the dreaded sunflower bud moth. Fungal diseases, such as crown gall, downy mildews, powdery mildew, rust, and Verticillium wilt can be a problem, but this occurs more in agricultural fields than in backyard gardens.
Once your sunflower head has reached full size, it will probably be bent over and surprisingly heavy. If you stroke the face of the flower head with your hand, dozens of tiny dried bits (pappus) will fall away. Personally, I give all my sunflowers a quick rub to dislodge potential pests and to remove these bits. Before removing the head from the stalk, use your fingernail to nick out a few seeds and open them up. Are the seeds plump? If not, give them some more time. You certainly don’t want to harvest a head of empty shells! Seeds have normally reached maturity around the same time the petals start to fall from the flower. You can protect immature heads from birds with netting or large paper bags. Once the seeds have reached maturity, cut the stem an inch or two below the flower head. Seeds can be allowed to dry in the head, or they can be rubbed loose over a newspaper or old sheet. Be sure to blow away any chaff that may harbor pests or disease. I always save several of the largest, healthiest looking seeds for next year’s crop. After that, allow seeds to dry out completely before storing in an airtight container. You can also salt and/or roast your seeds. If you suspect seed pests, freezing your sunflower seeds will kill off any eggs that may be lurking in the shells. Sunflower seeds stored in the refrigerator or freezer are good for a year, while raw seeds stored at room temperature are only good for 2 or 3 months. Roasted, shelled seeds have a shelf life of 3 to 4 months, and unshelled roasted seeds can last 4 to 5 months.
Sunflower oil can be used as a horticultural oil, but I definitely prefer it as sunflower butter on toast or in place of peanut butter in cookies. Yummy!
One variety, the giant whorled sunflower (Helianthus verticillatus) was first seen in 1892. Then it was believed to be extinct until 1994 when it was discovered by Vanderbilt University student, Jennifer Ellis. The giant whorled sunflower is currently listed as an endangered species and is only found in Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee - the birthplace of the sunflower species.
In the 1500s, Spanish conquistadores banned the use of sunflowers in Mexico, believing that they were an aphrodisiac.
Add some sunflowers to your garden today! (No matter what the Spaniards said!)
Bats in the garden? Let’s hope so!
While bats can be vectors for diseases, such as rabies, more often than not, bats are a gardener’s friend. In just one afternoon, you and your kids can build a bat box that just might attract these garden predators for many years to come.
It is estimated that a pregnant or nursing bat will consume 2/3 of their body weight in insects each night. According to UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources (UCANR), bats protect over $23 billion of American crops each year. That’s a substantial impact for a flying mammal that weighs in around 1/3 of an ounce!
A little bat history
Bats started flying around over 50 million years ago, after the dinosaurs died off, but we know surprisingly little about them. One thing we do know is that their numbers are in serious decline. According to the U.S. Forest Service, “Currently 56% of the bat species present in North America are listed or being considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act.” Loss of habitat and human prejudice are mostly to blame.
Contrary to popular myth, most bats are not vampires. Vampire bats are only found in Latin America and they prefer the blood of animals to that of humans. Most bats are insectivores. The rest of them eat fruit, mice, or other small mammals. These fruit eaters are frequently considered a “keystone” species. This means that the plants which rely upon bats for pollination and seed dispersal are critical to the survival of other animals and birds. Bats are the major pollinators of agave. You know, the stuff used to make tequila. And the Mexican Free-tailed bat is responsible for pollinating most of the sugarcane used to make a well known brand of rum. [Take a closer look at the label and you will see the bat!]
Many years ago, while volunteering at Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, I worked with fruit bats in the Nocturnal House. Larger than our native bats, the zoo’s fruit bats were sweet tempered, gentle, and loved being scratched around the face and ears. Not what you expected, right?
Scientists are still debating bat classification. One camp believes that all bats evolved from a single mammalian flying ancestor. Others classify bats into two groups: megabats and microbats. Megabats are found in Asia, Australia, Africa and the South Pacific. The largest megabat species has a 5’6” wingspan! This group evolved from lemur-like animals and they do not have the gift of echolocation. Microbats are found everywhere except Antarctica and are believed to have evolved from shrew-like animals. Microbats do use echolocation to navigate. All bats have an excellent sense of smell. Worldwide, there are 925 bat species. There are 23 to 50 species of bat found in California, depending on who you ask, spread out between three different bat families:
There are 16 species in the greater Bay Area. The most commonly found include:
Benefits of bats
All bats in the Bay Area are insectivores. A single bat can consume hundreds of insects in an hour and they may live for 5 to 30 years, depending on the species. While research has shown that bats do not have a significant impact on mosquito populations, they do help control beetles, moths and moth larvae, wasps, ants, and cockroaches.
Bats generally mate in fall, but females hold onto the sperm for several months, until conditions are more favorable for their young. Then conception occurs. A single pup is born each year around May or June, blind and hairless. The pup is diligently cared for until it learns to fly after a month or two. Young bats will try to eat pretty much anything. Unfortunately, they do not like banana slugs. Like dolphins, microbats are believed to use the Earth’s magnetic field to find their way. Many microbat species migrate over 1,000 miles each year, the same way salmon do, returning to their place of birth.
Each year, many bat pups starve to death when humans try blocking bats from entering, not realizing that the young are already inside. Result, less bats in the world and dead bats in your attic. If you really must get rid of bats, hire a professional. A better choice would be to build your own bat house and lure your guests away from your home while taking advantage of their voracious appetite for garden pests. That being said, bats can carry diseases that are dangerous to humans, so wild bats should NEVER be handled. This is for your safety and theirs.
How to build a bat box
Bat boxes are simple to make. Since bats prefer tight, skinny spaces, a bat box is, for the most part, several sheets of wood separated by thin boards. To make the most out of your bat house, be sure to avoid these common problems:
Bat Conservation International has the best bat house plans I have seen. When placing your bat house, keep in mind that those hung on poles or in trees are almost never used because they get too cold at night, or opossums and raccoons will eat the bats. Chimneys work well, but then there’s the issue of guano (bat poop) accumulation. Guano should never be handled without skin and respiratory protection. Guano may contain lots of nitrogen, phosphate, and potassium, like most fertilizers, but it can also make you really sick. It is used to make gunpowder…
No self-respecting baked potato would consider its raiment complete without freshly snipped chives. Chives can elevate even the simplest dish and they look lovely, growing on a window sill.
Chives are members of the onion family. Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) are edible perennial bulbs. Their tender green spikes are frequently offset by purple spherical blooms that are equally edible. Many beneficial insects are attracted to the flowers, as well. Plant them once and they will provide many years of flavorful beauty.
How to grow chives
Chives are so easy to grow that they are an excellent children’s activity. Chives prefer well-drained soil with a pH of 6.0-7.0 and full sun. I have had chive plants perform equally well in partially shaded clay. This herb is tenacious - I’ve even had chive plants return after being decimated by chickens! Plant seeds 1/4 inch deep and water well. Light is not needed, at first, but seeds must be kept moist and at a temperature of 60-70 °F to germinate. Chives make excellent container plants and they transplant easily, once seedlings are 4 to 6 inches tall. Established plants can and should be divided periodically to avoid overcrowding. To divide a chive plant, gently dig the entire plant out of the ground and pull it apart into smaller clumps, or you can leave it in the ground and sink a shovel down through the middle, removing a portion to be transplanted elsewhere. You will want at least 5 - 10 bulbs in the clump to be moved. Once established, your chive plants will readily self-seed.
Chive pests and diseases
The only pest I have seen on my chives is an infrequent visit from individual slugs. Onion maggots and thrips are said to cause problems, but I have never seen them. Damping off disease, powdery mildew, and pink root are also said to attack chives, but not in my experience. I think, in this case, the chive plant is the anti-pest. In fact, European gypsies traditionally hang bunches of dried chives to ward of evil and illness!
Snip off however much you will be using, as close to the base as you can without damaging the rest of the plant. If your chive plant starts looking worn out, especially in late winter, you can cut the entire plant to a height of 2 or 3 inches to stimulate fresh growth. If you harvest more chives than you need, you can snip them into small bits, lay them between layers of cloth or paper towel to dry and then store in an airtight container.
Herbs are excellent additions to an edible landscape or a windowsill garden, and chives are the easiest of the edible herbs to grow. Get yours started today!
Vascular bundles are similar to the human circulatory system. They are the visible veins seen on the back of leaves, but vascular bundles also make up the majority of a plant’s structure.
Parts of the vascular bundle
Vascular bundles are made up of the xylem and the phloem. The xylem carries water and dissolved minerals up from the soil, through the roots, to stems and leaves. The phloem carries dissolved food, especially sugars, down, from the leaves, to storage tissues in the stems and roots. There are various arrangements of vascular bundles, depending upon the typer of plant.
Diseases of the vascular system
The flow of water and nutrients is critical to a plant’s health. Many pests and diseases take advantage of this fact. Damage to the vascular bundle can cause wilting, chlorosis, or even death. Common pests and diseases of vascular bundles include:
Fun with the vascular system
You're never too old to enjoy this one and your kids are sure to enjoy it - put some celery stalks in a cup of water with food coloring and watch the dye move through the stalk's vascular system. Try it with other plants and show us pictures!
If you slice into a stalk of celery, you will be able to see vascular bundles that carry water, nutrients and hormones throughout the plant. These vascular bundles, or veins, are made up of the xylem and phloem.
The xylem mostly carries water. Xylem is Greek for wood, so an easy way to remember the word meaning is to think “water wood”. The xylem also carries some mineral salts, but that is mostly the job of the phloem. Generally, the xylem is found closer to the center of a stem, while the phloem is closer to the outer edge.
The most interesting thing about the xylem is that it pulls water upward from the ground, against gravity. If you’ve ever picked up a bucket full of water, you know this isn’t always easy. There is some debate about how this actually occurs, but most botanists agree that it has a lot to do with surface tension.
Water molecules like to stick together. As a plant breaths, evapotranspiration occurs, reducing the amount of water in the leaves and stem. The water in the ground in then pulled upward by the water in the above ground portion of the plant. The structure of the xylem helps support the water molecules as they are drawn up.
Xylem vessels are actually made up of elongated cells that are dead. Weird, right? These cells are arranged end to end, with little openings between each cell. There are secondary xylem cells that contain lignin. Lignin is found in cell walls and it is what holds plants upright.
Diseases of the xylem include Fusarium wilt, root rot, damping-off, and tomato spotted wilt.
Children's activity: This is crazy easy and the kids seem to really enjoy it. Simply take several celery stalks and place them in separate cups or glasses. To each cup, add some water and a few drops of different colored food coloring. As the stalks pull the water up, they bring the dye too, and the color changes can be striking. (It works faster if you trim the base of each stalk to create fresh openings for the vascular tissue.)
In honor of Lily Hardy Hammond’s 1916 book, In the Garden of Delight, planting it forward means adding plants to a landscape that can be gifted to others. It also means designing a garden or landscape that provides year-round food and color.
As one season passes and another arrives, a whole new set of conditions take the stage. Sunlight hours, temperatures, and rainfall make it easier for some plants and harder for others. Planning a garden design for year-round food and flowers can increase biodiversity and pollination, while reducing weeds, pests, and erosion. It also makes a landscape look lovely every month of the year.
Garden design 101
A few sheets of paper and a garden book or two can help you create a year-round garden design. Begin by drawing a rough draft of an area. Next, pencil in existing perennial plants, structures, lawns, and walkways. Everything else is fair game. You can color code the garden design to include sun and wind exposure, access to water, mature plant height, and color to create a workable garden design. This will also help you to select the best plants for each spot. Also, water use can be significantly reduced by planting varieties with similar water needs together. Put taller plants against a fence, medium-height plants in front of those, and then shorter plants closest to walkways. This makes full use of available soil without blocking anyone’s view.
Garden books, online resources, and local Master Gardeners can help you select plants that will provide flowers, food, and greenery for each season. As one season’s plants wind down, the next season will be coming in, providing year-round food and color. Containers, vertical gardens, and raised beds offer extra growing space and extend the growing season.
Edibles & ornamentals
Bay area weather makes it possible to grow edible and ornamental plants year-round. Cool season greens and cruciferous vegetables prefer our winter and spring. Potato plants offer greenery in the landscape from spring to summer, and harvestable potatoes in the fall. Perennial edibles, such as asparagus, fruit trees, bramble fruits, grapes, kiwi, and rhubarb are excellent anchor points in a landscape. Ornamental plants can provide many different shades of green, along with other colors.
Planting it forward - for others
Life is rarely restrained. Most plants generate far more seeds than are ever expected to survive. You can harvest those seeds and plant them. Cosmos and marigolds go to seed easily. Those and other seeds can be collected and planted as gifts to family and neighbors. They also make welcome gifts to individuals in hospitals and retirement homes. Melon and squash seeds can be started in small pots and gifted to neighbors and local food charities. Succulents are durable in drought-prone areas and they nearly propagate themselves. This is an excellent children's activity for several different reasons and it costs practically nothing.
So, make the most of your landscape and share the wealth!
Germination is the point at which seeds start to put out shoots and roots, after a period of dormancy. Germination can only occur when light, temperature, moisture, air and seed viability are exactly right. If one aspect isn’t correct, the seed will remain dormant until conditions change, improving the chances that the young plant will survive. Germination is activated by certain enzymes within the seed. These enzymes start converting starchy endosperm into energizing sugars and the miracle begins!
If preemergent herbicides are applied, this process can be halted before it begins. This may be a quick fix for defeating weeds, but it also puts chemicals into your food supply. Postemergent herbicides will not prevent seeds from germinating. Applying mulch is a far better method because it blocks germinating weed seeds from ever reaching the sun and mulch adds nutrients to the soil as it breaks down. Even if weeds sprout in mulch, their stems and roots are not as well attached to the earth, so they are easier to pull.
Propagation & heat
Some seeds, such as peppers and tomatoes, need quite a bit of heat to germinate. They also need long growing seasons to reach full flavor. You can start pepper seeds indoors, on heating mats specially designed for seed germination, to get a head start on the growing season.
This activity is what turned me on to gardening many, many years ago. It is simple, inexpensive, and a lot of fun for junior gardeners (and the rest of us, too!)
1. create a tube out of the paper or foam and place it in the cup, allowing it to expand to touch the sides of the cup
2. curl the kitchen sponge so that it holds the paper or foam in place and touches the bottom of the cup
3. place each seed between the cup and the paper, making sure to point each one in a different cardinal direction and keeping the seeds separate from each other
4. add enough water to wet the sponge
As moisture is absorbed (imbibed) from the sponge into the seeds, they will begin to expand. You will need to monitor the sponge, making sure that it remains moist, but not soggy. Within 2 weeks, if conditions are right, tiny sprouts will begin to emerge! Encourage your child to draw pictures of how each of the seeds behaves differently and to measure the growth every few days. When the seeds have outgrown their cup, you can transplant them to a sunny location and watch them become giants in the garden!
It still amazes me, even though I now understand the chemistry involved, how each seed, regardless of its initial orientation, always sends the roots (radicles) down and the shoots (plumules) up.
I hope this information inspires you to grow more of your own food. You can ask your garden questions on my Home page.