Archive for the ‘PlantSense’ Category

Spider Mites Invade the Botany Lab!

Thursday, May 5th, 2011

In between the endless hours of writing code, meetings and answering emails most everybody at PlantSense happens to be avid indoor gardeners as well. We have a Botany lab in our office where we conduct experiments and trials with our sensor.  But there is plenty of space for us to  grow various types of indoor plants, fruit trees and some flowering annuals…and we do!   Everything from Poinsettias, Calibrachoa to Avocado trees find their home in that room… including a couple of plants I’m pretty sure I pull up as weeds in my garden, but they can rest assured they won’t be eradicated from their new happy home.  So over time quite an Oasis has grown right in the middle of our computer filled office.  Now being that our lab is  an enclosed room in an office building we have created an isolated environment that lacks the defenses that nature provides in the outdoors.  So if a nasty bug gets in there it tends to reproduce exponentially, since nature’s balance is lacking in an enclosed room with lots of tender plants and cozy temperatures with no natural predators.  So basically it is the perfect environment for aphids, spider mites, white flies or any other plant pest that manages to get in to procreate without the consequence that something above them in the food chain is going to knock them off once they have reached a tasty sized population!
Recently some spider mites found their way into the botany lab on a plant that was brought in from a PlantSense employee’s home.  Within a few weeks those spider mites on that one plant managed to spread throughout our entire lab, happily sapping the strength out of our little oasis.  Our lab provides the perfect environment for spider mites to go from egg to adult in one week.  Adults lay up to 20 eggs a day so when you do the math you realize it doesn’t take long for the problem to get out of hand.  The signs of Spider mites was obvious with the flecking on leaves, spun tiny webs everywhere, and leaf yellowing.   The mites feed from underneath all the green leaves, scraping away at the leaf surfaces so they can reach the juicy interior of the leaf.

Tiny webs are a sure tell sign of spider mites

Because they are so small discovery of these symptoms are how they are typically found. We actually found them at the tops of the Easy Bloom sensors crawling around making webbing between the petals, obviously feeling quite at home and safe from hungry predators.  Since the lab is in our office we wanted to stay away from any harmful pesticides to control our new found nemesis….plus how fun is that!?   We knew we wanted to go green, so with my experience with using them in the past I decided our best option would be to release beneficial insects such as predatory mites.  Predatory mites eat pest spider mites while not harming plants, pets or people. They are raised at commercial insect farms and sold to consumers to control pest mites on plants. Predatory mites are smaller than the pest spider mites but they are ferocious and hungry killers.  An adult predator eats 5 adult spider mites or 20 eggs in a single day. There are several different types you can buy depending on the temperature and humidity where you plan to release them. Retailers often do a good job explaining which ones to purchase for your area and or give a variety of mites in your purchase to make sure all your bases are covered.  Our specific package of mites offered three types of predator mites that all have a slightly different comfort zone for them to thrive in.  So if our lab was perhaps a little too humid for one of those mite species, you could count on the other two species to thrive and do the task at hand…eating spider mites!   Once the pest spider mites are  eaten and the food source is gone the predatory mites simply die off.

Say hello to my little friends!

Releasing predatory mites early before an infestation gets bad helps to insure a quick solution.  If an outbreak gets bad predators may need to be released a couple times.  We had a pretty bad infestation considering we had webbing and mites frolicking around at the top of our Easy Bloom and PlantSmart sensors. At this point we are trying to get away with only one release of predators.  We’ve been monitoring the situation, and to this point with only the one release of predatory mites, the pest spider mites appear to be under control.  The prior heavily infested plants now have no new webbing, and new tender growth on the plants  is not showing any symptoms of spider mite damage. There are still pest mites running around (now for their lives!) but they are far less easy to find while the happy predatory mite population is getting larger.  We will continue to monitor the situation but so far it appears the green solution to our spider mite problem is working.  And yes we had our entire office engrossed in this project and checking out the progress of our new little friends… I think they had a lot more fun doing this than avoiding a lab that had to be fumigated or pesticide sprayed on all the leaf surfaces.  Let the mites do the work for you and stay green my friends!

A more detailed article regarding Predatory Mites can be found at:

Quivira Winery – A Study on Biodynamic Farming Part 1

Monday, May 2nd, 2011

What is Biodynamic Farming?

With much anticipation last Saturday I gathered up the clan with mom / grandma and headed out to Healdsburg to visit the impressive gardens of Quivira Winery.

Along with the always gorgeous landscaping of most wineries Quivira has taken the next step and have added an entire biodynamic estate garden along with a very happy flock of chickens adding their contribution to the green efforts.  Now I am no stranger to this famous little corner of Sonoma wine country, many a time I have taken the West Dry Creek Road and enjoyed immensely the row of high end wineries from Rafanellis, Belvedere, Hop Kiln, Rochioli and their tremendous Pinots, to Lambert Bridge winery makers of my favorite Viongier!  In fact I would have to say this is my single favorite stretch of wineries in all of wine country & I’m from Napa!  Quivira is just a bit north on West Dry Creek Road so I have tended to miss this winery as I always headed south….I will certainly be adding this facility as a must visit winery from now on!
Now let’s start with a little background information on this wonderful little winery.  Quivira, along with precious few other wineries, are true pioneers in the field of biodynamic farming for both their vineyards and their estate gardens.  In fact their mantra is ‘Biodynamics maintains that nature is very powerful… if you let it reign.’ They generally feel that the core of biodynamics is the creation of the best soil possible.  So with a mix of science and a little spiritual attitude mixed in they have built a standard of horticultural practices that would be a major boon to the environment if practiced by the wine industry in general.  The norm in the industry is to mono crop acres of vines, use devastating chemicals which together do not create a natural balance at all in the vast amount of vineyard areas that dominate Sonoma, Napa, and Mendocino counties!

The Biodynamic Gardens of Quivira

So what is Biodynamic farming?  Is it a fancy term for organic farming or sustainable farming?  Or is it a unique entity that has its own standard of rules and practices?  As mentioned above the main focus of Biodynamics is the soil and how to build it to a healthy sustaining entity that thrives with living organic activity.   Normal farming practices generally deplete and sap the soil of its vitality, eventually only able to sustain crops with heavy doses of chemical fertilizers to get them to grow in this now poor soil devoid of any organic material.  With no natural ecosystem in place copious doses of  pesticides and herbicides must be applied throughout the growing season to ensure there will be a crop at the end of the process!   No Good!   Biodynamic farming strives to put back into the soil what was taken from it. The end goal is to make the farm, as a whole, a healthy self-contained, sustainable entity that is reliant upon the plants, animals, soil, and us humans to make it work.  So yes it is organic, and yes it is sustainable …but these are just individual factors that make up Biodynamic farming in general.
So how exactly is Biodynamic farming carried out?  For it to be true to its definition it must really be a farm …..a farm as we all picture in our minds as it should be.  With lots of diverse and beneficial plantings of crops and non crop plants that bring in a diverse population of insects that will carry out the natural order of things.  If you lack these plants that house these beneficial insects that prey on the very bugs that dine on your crops you leave your ecosystem out of balance resulting in a lack of vitality in your plants and biosystem in general.  What else do you see on a farm?  Animals!   At Quivira it is the chickens and bees that

Busy Busy Bees!

are making the biggest impact …along with a little help of their bovine friends.   They prepare natural spray applications that are generated from their animal manure, herbs, and essential minerals.  These application formulas are quite diverse as they have nine different concoctions of different ingredients that are timed to be applied at certain times of year to focus on the life cycle of their plants and grapevines.  These are focused specially for rebuilding the soil, stimulating root growth, feeding beneficial microorganisms, and aiding the plants in photosynthesis.   Specific examples are given at Quivira, which include:

  • To stimulate microbial life in the soil in the springtime they create a spray that is developed starting in the fall when they bury cow horns stuffed with cow manure.  These remain buried all winter long and dug up in the spring after they have gone through an entire biological transformation and are teaming with beneficial microbes and broken down micro elements.
  • They grow stinging nettle in their gardens (so be careful of what you touch!) to harvest and bury in containers in the ground to decomposed.  The end resulting material is added to the compost piles, which when applied to the vineyards supplies unique nutritional elements that are vital for peak health of the vines.

Another side to Biodynamic farming practices that are lacking in the organic and sustainable models is a bit of the cosmic and mystical element.  So when they are doing these applications to the vineyards and gardens, Quivira sticks to a strict schedule that is supplied by the astronomical calendar.  This includes all horticultural practices that take place at the winery estate including pruning, cultivating, and harvesting.   The end result of all this nurturing and care are impressively healthy vineyards and crops that are naturally more resistant to pests and disease. How about you? Do you know a farm or family that is practicing Biodynamic activities to grow their crops? I would love to hear their or your story of maintaining gardens in balance with nature…naturally!

High on Grass Part 2

Tuesday, April 19th, 2011

High on Grass Part 1

Small and medium sized Grasses

In this second part of the series of ornamental grasses[a] I will be talking about some of my favorite small to medium sized ornamental grasses I love to use in the field.

Small Grasses

Small in size but definitely big on impact is one of my favorites Festuca ovina var. glauca ( Zone 4-8) or blue fescue. This little guy may make it to about 10 inches high, but I doubt it! Its wonderful grey-blue color in its tight tufted form will provide a nice contrast to other plantings in your yard. Fantastic planted in small groups amongst a rock garden or at the front border of a planting bed, or use along pathways and in drought-tolerant and or Mediterranean-themed gardens. This grass is a native of temperate regions of Europe, but should not be invasive if planted in your yard.

Another grass that has some impressive coloration would be the Japanese blood grass (Imperata cylindrical ‘Red Baron’ Zone 5-9). This little guy stands around 16 inches high and has impressive coloration with bright red tips that may extend on some blades all the way to the ground creating wonderful contrast within the grass itself. Very effective planted en masse (although be aware it can get invasive if it is quite happy!) or in small clusters to create a dramatic focal point in your garden.

Blood Grass & Blue Fescue creating fun contrast and texture in this yard

A wonderful North American native that is well worth having in your garden would be the Mexican Feather Grass (Stipa tenuissima) (Zone 7-11). This grass is a must to plant in large groups as its impossibly hair-like filament grass blades reach about 2 feet above ground with its wispy, feathery seeds capturing every puff of breeze to creating the impression of ripples moving through a still pond. Gorgeous! Despite its delicate looking nature, this is actually a tough customer and can withstand drought wonderfully (being a native of Mexico, New Mexico, and Arizona). This is another grass that can be a little too happy in some yards and can easily get invasive if allowed to. Not always a bad thing though, as it is a fantastic solution for erosion control on sunny dry slopes!

Small, clean, and fun with its playful, relatively large, feathery seed heads dancing above its clean 10-inch long grass blades Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Little Bunny’ (Zone 6-9) is too cute to pass up for your yard. Effective if planted by itself, but even better with a few in a group. Or plant this Aussie native in containers as it has year round beauty being an evergreen within its climate zone.

Mid Size Grasses

Now we are getting into some true foundation type grasses that can make a dramatic statement. My all time favorite ornamental grass would have to be Stipa arundinacea or New Zealand Wind Grass (Zone 8-15). This grass has perfectly formed upright, bright chanteuse green, grass clumps that reaches about 18” high above ground. By midsummer the feathery, bronzy tinted, feather seed panicles float majestically above the grass to create a surreal effect…especially when a breeze is moving though a stand of these New Zealand natives. These seed heads are great to be added to fall cut flower arrangements for a festive, fun look. This grass gets about 3’ high with seed panicles in full bloom.

Another favorite of mine, but was sometimes a tough sell to my clients, is the Carex flagellifera or Bronze Sedge (Zone 7-9). I suspect my clients’ main issue with this plant is that its natural color is an earthy brown…but don’t knock it until you try it! Its wonderful wire-like grass blades sets such an impressive foundation that all your other plant choices will stand out and look just that much more dramatic when they are all tied together. We love it for its drought tolerance and year round appeal being an evergreen (or ever-brown in this case). It can reseed itself but I haven’t seen it ever get to an invasive status.

Check out this transformation mainly using grasses and sedges for low maintenance and year round color and texture for this circular driveway

I will next be talking about some wonderful large grasses that are some favorites of mine. But before we leave the topic of the smaller ornamental grasses…I would love to hear from you about your favorite smaller grasses and how you use them in your landscape?

High on Grass Part 1