Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Practical Plants

A new website launched in the last month that could be a powerful tool for Permaculture designers worldwide. At Practical Plants, produced by a web developer and a writer who are together also building an organic farm in northern Spain, the huge database provided by Plants For A Future has been forked in a wiki format, while retaining database-search functionality and adding a beautifully-styled new interface, so that hopefully the information brought from that old database can be improved by weeding out inaccurate or incomplete information and using better sources.
Practical Plants beta homepage
While PFAF has primarily focused on species appropriate for a temperate climate, Practical Plants aims to cover information on species in all climates on Earth, while adding other useful structural information to the database such as companion-planting guilds. Various practical uses of each plant will now be linked clearly to relevant parts of the plant, for instance to help people avoid eating unpalatable or toxic bits of some plants. This extra structure needs some tidying to install though since it wasn't already in the existing database structure, so why not help out when you have a moment?

In yet more exciting news about actual practical plants, a European research and development group for alternative sources of natural rubber have hit a benchmark recently as one of their partner companies prototyped natural-rubber tyres, made from two plants that can be grown in temperate climates - Guayule in warm-temperate regions and Russian Dandelion in cold-temperate areas such as here in Scotland.
Tyres from weeds by Dutch firm Apollo Vredestein :)
A great advantage of using latex from those plants is that it doesn't contain allergens like latex extracted from the tropical Rubber Tree does.
On more practical temperate plants, from what I've tried here so far, germinating tree and large shrub seeds still seems to be very hit-and-miss. After I had only two strawberry tree seeds germinate out of about a couple dozen tiny seeds sown (they were so small that trying to count them looked pointless), the first one to germinate didn't grow more than its initial pair of leaves, then later shrivelled up and died from what looks like a fungal infection.
Two Arbutus Unedo seedlings, 1 month after sowing. Re-potting the right-hand one after its original container got knocked over was likely another factor in its demise, though its growth was already stunted by then.
My only surviving Arbutus Unedo seedling up close, soon to be re-potted. Fortunately they are self-fertile, so I just hope this one is as fruitful as it is disease-resistant.
While many of the oleaster seeds that I have been chilling have caught a fungus like the sugar maple seeds did, the black mulberry seeds seem to have been luckily unaffected.
After sowing a tray of 24 mulberry seeds, 12 germinated within a week while a 13th one seems to be lagging behind weakly.
Also shown above are a new row of siberian pea tree seeds potted at the back, which I have had no success in germinating yet, and a couple of larger brown pots each with one of a few oleaster seeds that I picked out to try and curb the spread of mould in their jar. Now seems to be around the earliest that I should sow them, since the supplier suggested anywhere from 10-30 weeks, while PFAF quoted 12 weeks' cold stratification.

While disposing of monkey puzzle seeds that had failed to germinate, I noticed one thing that might have been a factor in me only getting 1/4, as there was what looked like a thick tap-root trying to grow straight down from one of the failed seeds, which of course didn't get far before it turned a right angle on the bottom of its pot, since I was quite stingy with some peaty potting mix when I sowed them.
Monkey Puzzle taproot (trimmed slightly).
Taking a lesson from this, I've now tried sowing my last 4 monkey puzzle seeds, filling narrow pots nearly to their brim with a much lighter compost. I'm determined not to over-water them and will surely report what I find.

So, more than half of the various dormant seeds that I have tried to cold-stratify in a fridge have been afflicted by mould, though all the jars used were washed with boiling water before they were soaked. My best guess is that either the seeds already had such fungi and bacteria on them when they were dropped in to absorb water, or that airborne spores entered the jars when they were opened to put seeds in and later drain water out before chilling.
Since creating an even more scrupulously sterile atmosphere for the seeds would involve a disproportionate increase in effort, this lead me to wonder whether some natural fungicide could be put in containers used for cold stratification, so I'll be testing that with my next few batches of seeds that I keep for sowing next spring. From this study, clove or cinnamon essential oils sound like promising candidates.

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