Seasonal Gardening: Public Gardens Supply a Local Source of Unusual Plants

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Don't eat bitter squash! On rare occasions, a zucchini or a yellow straightneck plant will produce quite bitter fruits.

The Seasons of the Garden column shares seasonal gardening information and tips with MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers, including a suggestion to visit public gardens where growers and staff members often help home gardeners obtain starts to unusual plants.


How many times have you tried unsuccessfully to locate a
commercial source for some interesting plant you saw in a
nearby public garden or arboretum? Perhaps you’ve not
thought about trying to obtain that seed, cutting, or graft
from the obvious source–the garden where you saw it!
We have found that both large private growers and staff
members at public gardens are usually eager to aid home
gardeners in securing starts of hard-to-find plants.

If you are an amateur seeking aid, it’s very important to
do your “homework” on the appropriate propagation
techniques for the plants you’re interested in. And you
cooperate fully with the donors. This means
no collecting without asking! You should not
bother other gardeners for starts of common
plants, of course; nor should you ask for patented or
otherwise protected materials.

You’ll find extraordinary educational benefits from
interacting with experienced growers; most of these people
are all but bubbling over with new ideas, tips, and useful
suggestions. Just remember: After you’ve established your
own private garden with the aid of local professionals, you
have an obligation to help other gardeners get plant


If the squash is bitter, don’t eat it. On rare occasions, a
zucchini or a yellow straightneck plant will produce quite
bitter fruits. According to horticulturists at the Alabama
Agricultural Experiment Station, bitter squash has high
concentrations of cucurbitacin E, which is highly toxic to
humans and which probably results from chance reversions to
ancestral forms or from pollination by wild species.
Because even a tiny amount of cucurbitacin E can be
harmful, don’t eat any squash that has a bitter taste;
instead, save its seeds and send them to the Horticulture
Department at the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station
(Auburn University, Auburn, AL) to aid research on
the causes of bitter squash.

“Dry light” for stored potatoes. If you’ve had trouble in
the past with the sprouting of stored potatoes, take a tip
from Canadian researchers: Store your tubers in a place
that is not in total darkness and where the
humidity is as low as possible. In experiments at the
University of Regina, Saskatchewan, sprout growth of
potatoes stored at room temperature was significantly
reduced by keeping relative humidity at 40% and by
providing moderate light (typical indoor lighting or a room
with daylight is fine, but avoid direct sunlight).

Stake young trees loosely! Experiments at the University of
California at Davis have shown that if young trees are
allowed to bend somewhat with the wind, they generally
develop more trunk strength than do trees staked rigidly.
To help your trees “help themselves” to better
self-support, use flexible stakes or ties.

Blueberries: Early fall pruning = delayed spring bloom.
According to researchers at the University of Rhode Island,
highbush blueberries pruned in mid-September bloom up to a
week later the following spring than do bushes pruned in
either mid-November or mid-February. (Use caution with
early pruning if you have extremely low winter
temperatures–experiment first on just a few plants.)
If you live where late spring frosts are a problem, the
slight delay in blooming might make a big
difference in crop yields!

Newspapers with colored inks are safe to use for mulching.
Most gardeners have heard that newspapers with colored inks
have high concentrations of lead and are unsafe to use as
mulch. But an agronomist at the U.S. Department of
Agriculture has found that colored-ink newspapers actually
pose no significant threat of heavy-metal contamination.
And the publisher of the Baltimore Sun has
confirmed that the colored inks currently used are made
from organic chemicals and contain negligible lead. So
don’t be afraid to use all the news for mulching!

Poly bags extend okra shelf life. Okra tends to lose its
quality very rapidly after being picked, particularly when
stored at room temperature. Researchers in India found that
unpackaged okra had a shelf life of 2 days; they increased
it to 15 days by keeping the harvested vegetable in
nonperforated polyethylene bags (perforated poly bags gave
a shelf life of 7 days).

Gassy beans? Try sprouting them! If you have a fine crop of
beans (especially soybeans) but are wary of their tendency
to produce intestinal gas and cramps, be advised that
experiments in India with sprouting several kinds of legume
seeds–including common beans, chick-peas, mung beans,
and fava beans–have shown that the oligosaccharides
responsible for the gassiness of legume seeds are
eliminated within 72 hours after germination. So enjoy your
beans this year–sprouted!

EDITOR’S NOTE: Greg and Pat Williams raise most of their own food on a small farm and publish HortIdeas, a fine newsletter on gardening research and products (available for $10 a year from G. & P. Williams, Gravel Switch, KY).