Robin-Lee

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No Mercy, Alnus

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A year goes by quickly!

Especially when it’s been four months.

We got the call late one night that our place not only had been on the market but that it had also, interestingly – and I use interestingly here very incorrectly — been sold.

The landlord, whose identity will remain anonymous and synonymous with the worst of shitstains after a Taco Bell 5-layer burrito, had gone to Florida with big dreams of making it in real estate. Florida was hard, he said. As a result, money was tight, he said. Real estate turned out to be weally weally hard. He didn’t know it would be so difficult in Florida in real estate. He said.

There are books in the library covering the disastrous state of Florida real estate, I said.

You put us through the wringer because you thought we would leave the place early and prove to be typical, terrible young renters. I said.

And now we’re without a support to hold us up, scrambling and reaching for any prospect of a decent living situation nearby and within budget.

Irony aside and damning the circumstances, our patio and housefront have never looked chuffier. The real late-summer winner has been the cardinal climber (Ipomoea x multifida), grown from seed and which has wound its way around every fence post in the alleyway and through the front-step rail and mailbox.

According to a very unique site dedicated to climbing/twining plants*, “Ipomoea is from the Greek ips, which means ‘a worm,’ and homoios which, means ‘resembling,’ referring to the wormlike twining habit.”

The long, tubular red scarlet flowers seem to be a product of coevolution, perfect for the long beaks of hummingbirds — which, on second thought, might mean the hummingbird’s beak came to be specialized due to the flower’s structure. And it’s probably no mistake that a hummingbird’s vision, very different from ours, is attuned to the red hues of the light spectrum. The pleasingly shredded-looking leaves are a result of the hybrid between the cypress vine and a red morning glory.

What’s truly remarkable about this species — and any mentioned in The Climbers Project website, for that matter — is how it grows, how it reaches out to grasp and twine around the nearest object without the aid of eyes or any sort of guidance (such as the chemicals in odors, which some vining and twining plants use to detect nearby supports). In Daniel Chamovitz’s book, What a Plant Knows, the author devotes a chapter to a plant’s “sight”, which is really the interplay of gravity and light, the tiny particles known as statholiths that influence the direction of plant growth (gravity) and the chemical auxin literally changing the morphology of the stems (growth toward light).

This goes back to Darwin, cutting the nips and tips off of plant stems and roots, trying to figure out how the devil plants “knew” how to grow and where to grow. Thank god rabbits don’t photosynthesize.

The curiosities of later scientists gave the opportunity for plants to travel to space, beyond the wildest aspirations of a coconut dreaming of crossing the Pacific Ocean. Root and stem growth theories were confirmed with the absence of gravity, but what was still puzzling was the twining motion (including the “circumnutation”, or helical movement of such plants, demonstrating in the gyration of a sunflower). Here’s a video not of a sunflower demonstration this so-called heliotropism — I just loved the jazzy French gypsy music.

Which brings me back to my original anecdote: my roommate and I had our tips cut off. Well, that’s gross. But in any case, we suddenly had no support and were suddenly uprooted with no prospect in sight. But like a plant whose flowers are constantly decapitated by a brutal mailman and that somehow inexplicably wildly yet calculatedly strain themselves to find another solid support, we found a suitable place to call home and where we’ll spread our seed all over the place.

Again, gross. But for those of you who want our new address and to see more gratuitous photos of plants driven by narcissism, ego, and a touch of interest in plant science:

1915 S. Alder St., Philadelphia, PA 19148

 

 

 

*Burnham, R.J. (2008-2014). “CLIMBERS: Censusing Lianas in Mesic Biomes of Eastern RegionS.” <http://climbers.lsa.umich.edu&gt;.

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Written by Robin Lee Dunlap

September 17, 2017 at 7:43 pm

And the PHS Gardening and Greening Contest Award goes to…

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Not us!

Two months ago, I entered our front and backyard spaces in PHS’s Gardening and Greening Contest, which so exists to celebrate “the accomplishments of gardeners in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware.”

Alleyway before & after. Even some of the dirt in the before picture was added — this was originally a garbage pit and was spanned by broken-down wooden slats, which my roommate cleverly used to make our existing vegetable-garden planter. In this plot, we have growing Ipomoea sloteri, purple Salvia, stonecrop, coneflower, Cleome, Shepherd’s needles, and other wildflowers.

Contenders could win in one of several categories, including Children’s Garden (we have far too many poisonous plants and far too few children to be considered, it seems), Combination Garden, Container Garden, Flower & Specialty Garden, Garden Block, Public Space: Plantings/Parks, Urban Farm (ineligible as we do not sell our fruits of labor…yet), and Vegetable Garden.

Gods alive! Our leafy friends have really thrived in this humid summer. In the left-hand corner, my ace-in-the-hole Mucuna Pruriens is hopefully vining, twining, and waiting for the right timing until its big show… Bottom left-hand corner: Mothra

While I’ve listed the categories now, I didn’t take it upon myself when entering the contest to read the fine print of the rules, regulations, and possible winning categories. Had there been an “Entirely Green Foliage” or “Drunk Garden Design” category, we would have surely won. That being said, we did our damnedest, and I’m proud that my roommate and I worked together to put some green against the otherwise bleached concrete of 1109 Mercy Street. I’m also chuffed that we managed to keep most plants alive throughout a week of scorching sun and some strange man who our neighbor informed us was peeing in a particular plant at four in the morning (which, incidentally, is now dead).

Lesson learned: Borage deserves a bigger bed

While we’ve been busy with our own green space, I’d been meaning to take a stroll around South Philadelphia to show off some of our neighbor’s beautiful front-porch/yard/patio green spaces. I’ve met a few of them, and they certainly know their plants. First up…

Christ, this place. The owners looked down on me from their upper deck veranda — sitting in white, Victorian chairs, drinking wine out of marble goblets and savoring cheeses and capers — and told me to scamper off like a good little urchin, before I had a brief glimpse of a nude Minerva with water arching from her teats into a pool of porcelain koi.

No. Not right. I didn’t see these people at all, and I’m betting they’re absolutely lovely. At the least, they take extraordinary care of their magical courtyard, and it must have been years of attention to train the now-bursting grape vine and some careful thought into establishing the soft-colored pines that preside over their unbelievably Spring-green lawn.

You’ll see from the photos of our own front green space that I’m partial to purples, pinks, blues, and greens. I am not a fan of yellows, reds, and oranges. Yet, this house just up 11th street has some definite interest and a well-thought-out plan (heat- and sun-tolerant varieties) with its cascading Lysimachia, well-matched Coleus, and Amaranthus tricolor, a striking red-yellow-orange pigweed I’ve never seen before.

 

Again with the orange hues in the photo above, but these owners have cleverly used an elevated tub and a smart, symmetrical arrangement as well as some interest in the right, lower-hand corner with a blue oat grass and an unknown vine.

Not far from the red-yellow-orange house, this front appeals to me with its old-fashioned street lamp and entirely red-green theme with Elephant Ear plants and mandevilla.

 

I imagine this neighbor vied for the container competition. He’s also the one who gifted me the purpletop vervain and bronze fennel (now sadly passed) on my walk with the dog a month ago. And I can never resist a good use of pines and Lantana.

We met our neighbor on the corner a few nights ago as we were arranging our own front yard green space. Cigarette dangling from her mouth, odd curlers still in hair, she said she had been training her clematis and ivy for over 10 years. The stunning double clematis variety which she disdains, as it takes on a rather ragged and dried appearance after a short flowering period, peeps out from the pink roses and Japanese stone fountain hidden below the trellis.

So there we have the finest of South Central Philly, and it narrows down both the possible PHS winner and whose plants on which I’ll be increasing the pH balance.

 

Written by Robin Lee Dunlap

July 23, 2017 at 5:19 pm

New Buds & Blooms in the Mercy Lee Botanical Garden

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The Rival of Longwood Gardens

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…and all of the world’s botanical gardens.

It’s been over a month since I made my daring move to South Philadelphia — which is actually not bad despite my bullet-riddled body — and I’ve been going gangbusters on my front- and backyard botanical collection. Soon, I’ll be able to charge five quid for entry. No friend and family discounts.

And now that I have some more space and I’m feeling far too confident in my ability to garden, I’ve tried out some species that I’ve seen abroad or on Amazon, which reminds me that I need to stop drinking while looking at plants on Amazon.

I’ve found borage to be ridiculously easy to germinate, though it droops promptly in the blasting sun; Safflower pops up readily and sturdily, although I think that might be ivy; a boxed Thalictrum can survive a lob across the room from a buffoon of a coworker who can’t read “Fragile” on the cover; quinoa seedlings just look like leggy weeds; and bleeding heart leaves are just downright gorgeous and look great next to anything. On the other hand, Mucuna pruriens takes its sweet time growing and has attracted every thug slug in the block to come and chomp on it and our basil. (Though beer traps have proved pretty successful.) And the Canna lily cutting I’ve had since my doomed job at the greenhouse just keeps hanging on, mocking me for my poor horticultural skills.

I’ve even guerrilla gardened our good-looking neighbors’ front-window flower box with some striking white and purple salvia interspersed with silver mound Artemisia. My efforts have proved beneficial on two fronts: I can enter our street into the Philadelphia Horticultural Society’s green street competition, and the neighbors never close their curtains.

Zing.

The real beauties — and biggest challenges — that are newcomers to our Mercy Lee Botanical Garden are Hoya ‘Strawberries & Cream’, Gloriosa superba, and Daphne odora ‘Maejima’. I smelled the latter before I saw it in Koriyama, Japan, and it’s one of the most attractive and beautifully fragrant plants I’ve ever encountered. Unfortunately, I’ve read that it’s one of the most difficult to transplant and care for. Gloriosa happens to be an incredibly toxic plant, so I’ll need to keep it in a Beauty-and-the-Beast bell jar.

As of 10 minutes ago, the botanical garden had 74 confirmed species. Since then, the collection has increased by two, after taking a quick break to walk Nico (pictured on the right, taking a piss) and meeting a neighbor who was ecstatic that someone knew about purpletop vervain and bronze fennel and on the spot uprooted a few and put them in a pot for me to take home.

Longwood Gardens, look out…

Written by Robin Lee Dunlap

June 12, 2017 at 6:15 pm

Weeks 6 & 7 Under the Greenhouse: Soilless Soil & Seeds of all Sizes

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“Soil?” Happy Friendly Mist Guy said (to keep names confidential, we’ll stick to job titles plus personality trait). “Well actually, this is soilless medium. This whole operation we’re running is basically hydroponics — that’s why we have to mist the cuttings so much throughout the day.”

What’s all this? Soilless medium.

The Canna in question

The Canna in question

According to Upstart Farmers Network, soilless medium like ours contains “…no inorganic matter like sand, silt, or clay involved, which means that the mix technically isn’t soil.” The greenhouse’s particular brand states that it contains “long-fiber sphagnum peat moss, perlite and vermiculite.”

Perlite in particular, with it’s tiny, irregular grooves, has been demonstrated to have excellent water-retaining properties, leaching out the water when needed by the plant. The substance is actually volcanic glass and expands under high heat conditions and is inert, so it has no harmful effects on the plants.

All of which makes me feel very stupid for crushing the white pellets, thinking I was helping the plant take up the nutrients better – although it does feel pleasing to crush those pellets.

The other ingredient in our soilless mix is one of some controversy, being that it is also a nonrenewable source but comes from the bottom of bogs, some the biggest reserves being in Western Siberia and Canada.

While in the early 2000s, many papers came forward dooming the earth’s atmosphere from overharvesting peat bogs (peat bogs are carbon sinks, and it’s been argued that harvesting releases too much of the gas) like the very confident report, The Myth of Permanent Peatlands by Linda Chalker-Scott, there are scant reports of negative impacts of harvesting and instead reports of rehabilitated bogs and sustainable harvesting practices, especially in Canada.

The small, ridged seeds of Daucus carota (either wild or the cultivated form we’re all edibly familiar with), difficult to grasp or suction mechanically

Anyhow, back to our greenhouse medium — while the plants in the greenhouse are routinely misted and kept in high humidity under T5 fluorescent grow lights, the medium is important from the get-go and explains why every mint cutting I’ve taken home has failed to root in the rich, thick potting soil I purchased from Home Depot; the soil tends to become waterlogged, suffocating the roots and allowing fungus to flourish on the leaves. I also need to stop bringing home so many discarded cuttings — I think I’m developing an unhealthy addiction.

Moreso, since this soilless soil is so much more aerated than my store-bought actual soil, cuttings are easier to stick and can grow out their roots, apparently even transplants from starter trays that get smooshed into the the larger tray holes. One of my favorite and easiest to transfer is Canna, a plant that vexed me and my massive Facebook fanbase – my mother and a very correct former (and excellent) high school teacher of mine.

Initially, I had it from one authority at the greenhouse that the blue ball was the Canna seed itself — Happy Friendly Mist Guy, who I now defer to for all my botanical questions, confirmed my teacher’s comment that the blue layer is rather technically a coating, which is applied in a process known as pelleting.

While Canna does, not all seeds come in globular form, a form that so happens to make it easier for both machines (see video below) and people to grip the seed and place into the soil. Some are astoundingly minuscule, for example the seeds of Begonia species, one source measuring each at 1/100th of an inch (the frustration of planting of such seeds just gives me one more reason to hate on Begonias). Other record breakers include Petunias as well as mustard and orchid. Orchid species have claim to the smallest known, while mustard was once thought to be from biblical references.

And while it’s not the case for our Cannas at the greenhouse, some pelleting is applied for pesticidal purposes. Non-pesticide coating binder (holding the coating material together) can consist of “various starches, sugars, gum arabic, clay, cellulose, vinyl polymers, and water” according to the formula listed by one pelleting company.

So there, the mystery solved: no exotic birds with a penchant for 400-nm wavelengths, although we know plants that do use color to attract specific pollinators and vectors such as bees. But I’m all the wiser, and I now have a font of knowledge, Happy Friendly Mist Guy, who’s happy to attempt answering the infinite questions I have at the greenhouse, and an equally wise high school teacher who I’m now worried is shaking his head over my abysmal blog writing and use of “font of knowledge”.

So many cultivars of Canna! Salmon, Burgundy, Tropical Rose, Variegated, Dwarf, and on and on and on.

So many cultivars of Canna! Salmon, Burgundy, Tropical Rose, Variegated, Dwarf, and on and on and on.

Week One Under the Greenhouse

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Last month, I managed to wheedle my way into a greenhouse job north of Philadelphia, and, following my first week on the job, I can report that week one was nowhere near great nor promising. On that same note, I’ve learned a tremendous amount in a short time, and, on a separate note, joined a community band.

My new job is in the cuttings department of the greenhouse operation – it’s here where cuttings are received and planted in trays to be carted out to specific sections of the greenhouses to be misted and grown under special lighting for specific amounts of levels and time, treated with pesticides and hormones as necessary, sent to hoop houses to be subjected to some cold treatment for hardiness, then shipped out to retailers and private buyers.

The job is both simple and complex, simple in the fact that the process is exactly described as above and complex in the way that anyone just walking into the greenhouse would have to quickly become familiar with rooting hormones, specific designated areas within the greenhouses, specific order of processing incoming shipments (in addition to temperature recording, tray-size assignments and pre-setup of trays to be placed on conveyor belts), handling surpluses, detriments, and damaged incoming shipments of cuttings, and, lastly, working with both individuals with either a long employment at the greenhouses, those with a deeper background in horticulture, and Cambodian seasonal workers with little a lick of English.

As someone just walking into the greenhouse, I have not exactly cottoned on quickly enough to assure my supervisor of six years’ greenhouse savvy that I was the best candidate for the job.

In spite of what could be a very short career stint and my first firing ever, I’ve had the pleasure of “sticking” (planting cuttings in a soil medium in specific-sized, plastic growing trays) everything from fuchsia (actually nearly pronounced the way you want to say it) and New Guinea impatiens to Scaevola and Thunbergia. There are also the more needy types requiring rooting hormone before sticking such herbs as Rosemary and Lavender.

It’s all very fascinating, and so long as I last there and ending on a positive note, you can also come to see me perform in the Southampton Community Band after I relearn my trumpet scales.

Written by Robin Lee Dunlap

January 8, 2017 at 8:17 pm