Blog search results for Tag: Horticulture

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How do flowers use fragrance to attract pollinators, and how do pollution and climate change hamper pollination? Professor Geoff Dixon tells us more.

‘Fragrance is the music of flowers’, said Eleanour Sophy Sinclair Rohde, an eminent mid 20th century horticulturist. But they are much more than that. Scents have fundamental biological purposes. Evolution has refined them as means for attracting pollinators and perpetuating the particular plant species emitting these scents.

There are complex biological networks connecting the scent producers and attracted pollinators within the prevailing environment. Plants flowering early in the year are generalist attractors. By late spring and early summer, scents attract more specialist pollinators as shown by studies of alpines growing in the USA Rocky Mountains. This is because there is a bigger diversity of pollinator activity as seasons advance. Scents are mixtures of volatile organic compounds with a prevalence of monoterpenes.

Environmental factors will affect scent emission. Natural drought, for example, changes flower development and reduces the volumes and intensity of scent production. The effectiveness of pollinating insects, such as bees, moths, hoverflies and butterflies is reduced by aerial pollution.

SCIblog - 10 March 2022 - image of Pheasant's Eye Daffodil

Pheasant’s eye daffodils (Narcissus recurvus).

Studies showed there were 70% fewer pollinators in fields affected by diesel fumes, resulting in lower seed production. Pollinating insects do not find the flowers because nitrogenous oxides and ozone change the composition of scent molecules.

Extensive studies of changes in flowering dates show that climate change can severely damage scent–pollinator ecologies. Over the past 30 years, blooming of spring flowers has advanced by at least four weeks. Earlier flowering disrupts the evolved natural synchrony between scent emitters and insect activity and their breeding cycles. In turn that breaks the reproductive cycles of early flowering wild herbs, shrubs and trees, eventually leading to their extinction.

SCIblog - 10 March 2022 - image of Lilac bush

The lilac bush, known for its evocative scent.

Heaven scent

Scents provide powerful mental and physical benefits for humankind. Pleasures are particularly valuable for those with disabilities especially those with impaired vision. Even modest gardens can provide scented pleasures.

Bulbs such as Pheasant’s eye daffodils (Narcissus recurvus) (illustration no 1), which flower in mid to late-spring, and lilacs (illustration no 2) are very rewarding scent sources.

Sweetly perfumed annuals such as mignonette, night-scented stocks, candytuft and sweet peas (illustration no 3) are easily grown from garden centre modules, providing pleasures until the first frosts.

SCIblog - 10 March 2022 - image of Sweet Peas

Sweet peas are easily grown from garden centre modules.

Roses are, of course, the doyenne of garden scents. Currently, Harlow Carr’s scented garden, near Harrogate, highlights the cultivars Gertrude Jekyll, Lady Emma Hamilton and Saint Cecilia as particularly effective sources of perfume. For larger gardens, lime or linden trees (Tilia spp) form profuse greenish-white blossoms in mid-season, laden with scents that bees adore.

Written by Professor Geoff Dixon, author of Garden practices and their science, published by Routledge 2019.

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How much soil cultivation do you need for your vegetables? Professor Geoff Dixon explains all.

Cultivating soil is as old as horticulture itself. Basically, three processes have evolved over time. Primary cultivation involves inversion which buries weeds, adds organic matter and breaks up the soil profile, encouraging aeration and avoiding waterlogging.

Secondary cultivation prepares a fine tilth as a bed for sowing small seeded crops such as carrots or beetroot. In the growing season, tertiary cultivation maintains weed control, preventing competition for resources (illustration no. 1) such as light, nutrients and water while discouraging pest and disease damage.

SCIblog - Professor Geoff Dixon - Soil Cultivation - image of Lettuce and seed competition

Lettuce and seed competition

The onset of rapid climate change encouraged by industrialisation has focused attention on preventing the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Ploughing disturbs the soil profile and accelerates the loss of carbon dioxide from soil.

It is also an energy intensive process. Consequently, many broad acre agricultural crops such as cereals, oilseed rape and sugar beet are now drilled directly without previous primary cultivation. An added advantage is that stubble from previous crops remains in situ over winter, offering food sources for birds. The disadvantages of direct drilling are: increased likelihood of soil waterlogging and reduced opportunities for building organic fertility by adding farmyard manure or well-made composts.

Overall, primary and secondary cultivation benefit vegetable growing. The areas of land involved are far smaller and the crops are grown very intensively. Vegetables require high fertility, weed-free soil, good drainage and minimal accumulation of soil-borne pests and diseases.

SCIblog - Professor Geoff Dixon - Soil Cultivation - image of Frost action breaking down soil clods

Frost action breaking down soil clods

Digging increases each of these benefits and provides healthy physical exercise and mental stimulation. Frost action on well-dug soil breaks down the clods (illustration no. 2). Ultimately, fine seed beds are produced by secondary cultivation (illustration no. 3), which encourage rapid germination and even growth of root and salad crops.

Tertiary cultivation to prevent weed competition is also of paramount importance for vegetable crops. Competition in their early growth stages weakens the quality of root and leafy vegetables, destroying much of their dietary value. Regular hoeing and hand removal of weeds are necessities in the vegetable garden.

SCIblog - Professor Geoff Dixon - Soil Cultivation - image of Raking down soil producing a fine tilth

Raking down soil producing a fine tilth

Ornamental and fruit gardens similarly benefit from tertiary cultivation. Weeds not only provide competition but are also unsightly, destroying the visual image and psychological satisfaction of these areas.

Lightly forking over these areas in spring and autumn encourages water percolation and root aeration. Once established, ornamental herbaceous perennials and soft and top fruit areas benefit greatly from the addition of organic top dressings. Over several seasons these will augment fertility and nutrient availability.

Written by Professor Geoff Dixon, author of Garden practices and their science, published by Routledge 2019.

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Gardens in December should, provided the weather allows, be hives of activity and interest. Many trees and shrubs, especially Roseaceous types, offer food supplies especially for migrating birds.

Cotoneaster (see image below) provides copious fruit for migrating redwings and waxwings as well as resident blackbirds. This is a widely spread genus, coming from Asia, Europe and northern Africa.

Cultivated as a hedge, it forms thick, dense, semi-evergreen growth that soaks up air pollution. In late spring, its white flowers are nectar plants for brimstone and red admiral butterflies and larval food for moths. Children and pets, however, should be guided away from the attractive red berries.

SCIblog - 7 December 2021 - The December Garden by Prof Geoff Dixon - Caption 1 image of Cotonester franchetti fruit

Cotonester franchetti | Image credit: Professor Geoff Dixon.

Medlars (Mespilus germanica) offer the last fruit harvest of the season (see image below). These small trees produce hard, round, brownish fruit that require frosting to encourage softening (bletting).

Its soft fruit can be scooped out and eaten raw and the taste is not dissimilar to dates. Alternatively, medlar fruit can be baked or roasted and, when turned into jams and jellies, they are delicious, especially spread on warm scones.

Like most rosaceous fruit, medlars are nutritionally very rich in amino acids, tannins, carotene, vitamins C and B and several beneficial minerals. As rich sources of antioxidants medlars also help reduce the risks of atherosclerosis and diabetes.

SCIblog - 7 December 2021 - The December Garden by Prof Geoff Dixon - Caption 2 image of Medlar fruit (Mespilus germanica)

Medlar fruit (Mespilus germanica) can be turned into jams and jellies | Image credit: Professor Geoff Dixon.

Garden work continues through December. It is a time for removing dead leaves and stems from herbaceous perennials, lightly forking through the top soil and adding granular fertilisers with high potassium and phosphate content.

Top fruit trees gain from winter pruning, which opens out their structure, allowing air circulation when fully laden with leaves, flowers and fruit. Fertiliser will feed and encourage fresh root formation as spring progresses.

The vegetable garden is best served by digging and incorporating farm yard manure or well-rotted compost, which adds fertility and encourages worm populations. The process of digging is also a highly beneficial exercise for the gardener (see illustration no 3).

SCIblog - 7 December 2021 - The December Garden by Prof Geoff Dixon - Caption 3 image of turning the soil

Turning the soil isn’t only good for your garden - it boosts your wellbeing | Image credit: Professor Geoff Dixon.

Developing a rhythm with this task supports healthy blood circulation and, psychologically, provides huge mental satisfaction in seeing a weedy plot transformed into rows of well-turned bare earth.

When the weather turns wet, windy and wintery it provides opportunities for cleaning, oiling and sharpening tools, inspecting stored fruit and the roots of dahlias kept in frost-proof conditions.

Finally, there is always the very relaxing and pleasant task of reading through seed and plant catalogues and planning what may be grown in the coming seasons.

Written by Professor Geoff Dixon, author of Garden practices and their science, published by Routledge 2019.

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How has climate change changed the way our gardens grow and what can be done to alleviate its effects? Professor Geoff Dixon tells us more.

Climate has changed on Earth ever since it solidified and organic life first emerged. Indeed, the first photosynthesising microbes changed the atmosphere from carbon dioxide rich to oxygen rich over millions of years. What we now face is very rapid changes brought about by a single organism, mankind, through industrialisation.

The effects of change are very evident in gardens. Over a generation, leaf bud breaking and flowering by early spring bulbs, herbaceous plants, shrubs and trees has advanced by at least four weeks (see main image of Cyclamen hederifolium).

Latter spring displays have advanced by at least two weeks. This is caused by milder, wetter winter weather, encouraging growth. The danger lies in the increasing frequency of short sharp spells of severe frost and snow. These kill off precocious flowers and leaves which trees especially cannot replace.

desiccated cracked soil

Desiccated, cracked soil.

Increasingly, the summer climate is becoming hotter and drier. Since the Millennium there has been a succession of hot droughts. These seriously limit scope for growing vegetables, fruit and ornamentals unless irrigation is regularly available. Drought also damages soil structure especially where there is a high clay content by causing cracking and the loss of plant cover (see image of desiccated, cracked soil above).

Cracking disrupts and destroys the root systems of trees and shrubs in particular. The effects of root damage may not become evident until these plants die in the following years. 

Climate change is apparently advantageous for microbes. Detailed surveys show that fungal life cycles are speeding up, increasing the opportunities for diseases to cause damage. Even normally quite resilient crops such as quince are being invaded during milder, damper autumns (See image of brown rot on quince fruit below). Throughout gardens, the range and aggressiveness of pests and disease is increasing.

Brown rot on quince fruit

Brown rot (Monilia laxa) on quince fruit.

However, each individual garden or allotment, no matter its size, can contribute to reducing the rate of climate change. Simple actions include the removal of hard landscaping, and planting trees and shrubs reduces carbon emissions.

Using electric-powered tools and machinery in place of petrol or diesel has similar advantages. Tumbling down parts of a garden into native flora, and perhaps encouraging rarer plants such as wild orchids or fritillarias, mitigates climate change. Such areas may also form habitats for hedgehogs or slow worms, increase populations of bees, butterflies and moths and encourage bird life. 

Written by Professor Geoff Dixon, author of Garden practices and their science, published by Routledge 2019.

All images from Professor Geoff Dixon.

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Lilies provide gloriously beautiful and well scented flowering border plants. Choose flowering size bulbs in the garden centre or from a catalogue. Grow these through the winter potted in a general garden compost placed in an unheated greenhouse or cold frame. By March or early-April, substantial green shoots will have formed from the bulbs and they can be transplanted into the garden.

Lilies need a sunny border and very fertile soil to encourage vigorous root growth capable of supporting the flowering spike and ancillary bulbs as they are initiated. This produces magnificent flowers and an increasing colony of bulbs that will spread and become established over future seasons.

SCIblog - 21 September 2021 - Looking after your lilies - image of Lilium longiflorum / Easter Lily

Lilium longiflorum, often called the Easter lily | Image credit: Professor Geoff Dixon.

Regular watering and feeding with nutrients are needed, especially potassium, which encourages root and shoot growth. Stake the flower spike as it grows, giving support for the flowers because they are heavy when fully open and easily damaged by winds.

Rewards come in mid-summer with magnificent colourful flowers and wonderful perfumes on warm evenings. Apart from severe winters, lilies are hardy garden plants unless they are from groups specified as tender and requiring protection. In the autumn, simply cut down the flowering spike and remove any fallen foliage.

SCIblog - 21 September 2021 - Looking after your lilies - image of lily buds

Buds developed on lily scales after culturing | Image credit: Professor Geoff Dixon.

The Lilium genus has about 100 species originating worldwide mainly from north temperate areas of Europe, Asia and America. The colour range includes white, yellow, orange, pink, red and purple. Plant breeders in The Netherlands, Japan and North America have produced a huge range of multi-coloured hybrids.

Taxonomically, Lilium is divided into divisions, of which the Turk’s Caps, Martagons and American hybrids are popular. The most destructive pest is the scarlet lily beetle (Lilioceris lilii) which devours foliage, flowers and bulbs. The first signs of trouble are shot holes in the foliage. Picking off beetles and larvae is an effective means of dealing with low-level infestations.

SCIblog - 21 September 2021 - Looking after your lilies - image of lily bulbil comparison

Comparison of lily bulbils growing from scale leaves, immature bulb and flowering size bulb | Image credit: Professor Geoff Dixon.

Asexual propagation is a simple and enjoyable occupation. Divide a good-sized bulb into its scales. Choose healthy scales from the outer rings and place these in a plastic box containing damp kitchen paper and place in an airing cupboard. After about 10-12 weeks, small bulbils will have formed on each scale.

Select the boldest mother scales and bulbils and plant in a tray of seedling compost and grow in the greenhouse. After two or three months the most vigorous young plants can be potted individually. Eventually these are planted in the garden and will develop into flowering size bulbs after two or three years.

Written by Professor Geoff Dixon, author of Garden practices and their science, published by Routledge 2019.

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Main image: Pea crop | Image credit: Geoff Dixon

Peas are a very rewarding garden crop. Husbandry is very straightforward, producing nutritious yields and encouraging soil health by building nitrogen reserves for future crops.

Rotations usually sequence cabbages and other nitrogen-demanding crops after peas. This is a sustainable way to use the organic nitrogen reserves left by pea roots resulting from their mutually beneficial association with benign bacteria. These microbes capture atmospheric nitrogen, producing ammonia, nitrites and nitrates in a sequence of natural steps.

Peas originated in the Mediterranean. They were cultivated continuously by ancient civilisations and through medieval times, and are now the seventh most popular vegetable.

SCIblog - 26 July 2021 - Peas please - image of pea seeds - photo by Geoff Dixon

Illustration 1: Pea seeds | Image credit: Geoff Dixon

In bygone centuries, peas provided a protein source for the general population as cooked meals of pea soup and pease pudding helped keep famine at bay before the introduction of potatoes. In the 18th century, French gardeners working for the aristocracy produced fresh peas using raised and protected beds of fermenting animal manure. The composting processes produced heat and released carbon dioxide, stimulating rapid growth.

Generally, however, eating fresh peas only gained popularity in the 20th century as canned and then quick-frozen foods were invented, and large-scale technological development enabled mechanised and automated commercial precision cropping. In recent times, retail market demand has returned for unshelled podded peas – a manually picked crop known colloquially as ‘pulling peas’.


How to grow peas

Seeds can be sown directly (illustration 1) or transplants (illustration 2) can be raised under protection, giving an early boost for growth and maturity. Peas are cool season crops. They grow best at 13-18°C and mature about 60 days after sowing.

SCIblog - 26 July 2021 - Peas please - image of pea seedlings - photo by Geoff Dixon

Illustration 2: Pea seedlings | Image credit: Geoff Dixon

Some cultivars such as Meteor can be grown over winter, preferably protected with cloches for very early cropping. The spring sown The Sutton cultivar group (CV) gives rapid but modest returns, and main crop CVs, such as Hurst Green Shaft, deliver the heaviest returns (illustration 2). This cultivar forms several long, well-filled pods at the fruiting nodes.

Sugar peas or mange tout – where the entire immature pod is eaten – is a popular fresh crop, while quick-growing pea shoots that mature in 20 days from sowing are excellent additions for salads or as garnishes for warm cuisine.

Human health benefits significantly by including peas in the diet. As well as being an excellent protein source, they produce a range of vitamins and nutrient elements. Their coumestrol content aids the control of blood sugar levels, helping combat diabetes, heart diseases and arthritis.

So, it’s certainly worth finding a spot for this versatile vegetable in your garden.

Written by Professor Geoff Dixon, author of Garden practices and their science.