Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Tomato Patch: Do Plant Protectors Work?

Wall O' Water and Better Boy tomato plant
You’ve seen the ads in gardening magazines, seed catalogs, and online—ads for plant protectors called Wall O’ Water, which claim they can speed up tomato growth and fruiting by several weeks.

I’ve read those ads for years: Fill the protector with water. Sun warms water which warms soil. Add small plant 6 to 8 weeks earlier that you normally would. Harvest longer. Easy to use. Reusable, three to five years. Great for tomato, squash, pepper, pea, and other veggie plants down to 16° F.

Actually I have two three-packs of Wall O’ Water protectors in our garage—packages I’ve bought over the years but never used. Why? I don’t really know. I actually took them off the shelf and planned to use them this year—but didn’t.

When I was walking through Westside Community Gardens of Columbia Gardeners, Inc., I saw a gardener planting tomatoes. Behind him were taller tomato plants growing in Walls O’ Water.

“Do they work?” I asked Stan Purwin, who’s gardened at Westside for eight of his 35 gardening years.

Stan Purwin and his two Better Boy
tomato plants
“Yes,” he replied, inviting me into his fenced plot of raised beds. “I have two Better Boy tomato plants that I planted side by side on May 9. They were the same size. I put a Wall O’ Water around one and not the other. After less than three weeks, the one with Wall O’ Water is several inches taller now than the unprotected one.”

Sure enough, the two Better Boys, side by side, were different heights. I wrapped some yellow marking tape around their cages to mark the top leaves in each. Stan measured them. The one in the Wall O’ Water was eight inches taller.

“I notice your Walls O’ Water don’t have any water in them,” I said.

“The water wasn’t turned on yet here at Westside Garden Plots when I transplanted in early May, and actually the Walls O’ Water aren’t easy to fill with water, so I just circle the plants with the empty protectors. If I filled the protectors with water, I’m sure my plants would be even taller, by another inch or two.”

Walls O’ Water—maybe in this case we should call them Walls O’ Waterless—work for Stan’s tomatoes. I’m convinced that they work too, now that I’ve seen his Better Boys side by side.

Stan said he buys some of his tomato plants and starts some from seed too. This year, in addition to Better Boy, he’s raising these varieties: Pruden's Purple, Big Mama, Green Zebra, Early Girl, Box Car Willie, Brandywine, San Marzano, Porterhouse, Sweet 100, Whopper, Sugary, Defiant, Wickline, Roma, Aunt Ruby Green, Juliet, Mountain Magic, Celebrity, Big Beef, Rutgers, Aunt Ginny Red Beefsteak, Red Plum, Sugary, Valencia, Sungold, and Virginia Sweets.

Whoa, 27 varieties?

“Yes,” Stan affirmed, “about 54 plants.”

I must have just stumbled into Tomato Heaven—or maybe Tomato Haven.

Why so many?

“I tend to get carried away, and I usually try to plant at least two of each variety in case one fails.”

What does Stan do with all the fruit?

“We eat some. I give some to neighbors and friends and other gardeners here at Westside if their plants haven’t been successful. I give the rest to Grassroots, a nearby local crisis intervention center for individuals and families.”
Will Stan's Green Zebra tomatoes
be ripe on July 4?

“I’ll be picking tomatoes by the Fourth of July,” Stan said. “Come back on the Fourth, and you’ll see.”

I’ll be picking my first tomatoes two or three weeks after that. Really, next spring I must start some of my tomatoes a month earlier than I usually do and set them out in late April or early May in Walls O’ Water.

And I’ve got to get back to Westside around the Fourth to see what Stan’s picking—real-life tomatoes, many of which I’ve only salivated over as I looked at their photos in seed catalogs.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Mount Vernon's new garden

New from this year at George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate is the revamped Upper Garden. The difference between the old version and this new one is that this newest one shows how George Washington the man lived and not about George Washington-the myth. The other garden, the Lower Garden always shows an idealized Colonial Revival fruit and vegetable garden.

Adrian Higgins wrote an article in the Washington Post on May 30, 2011 on this subject.

The victory garden, still a winning idea

As seen in the Washington Post on May 26, 2011, Adrian Higgins wrote about the victory garden model as a winning idea to a more sustainable food system and to be more close to the source of the veggies we eat.

Green Green from the Start: A History of Gardening in Greenbelt

The Greenbelt Museum in Greenbelt,MD, has an exhibit on gardening! It runs until January 2012, and features lectures and a WWII Victory garden.

Find more info at: http://greenbeltmuseum.org/exhibits/

Mail-order disease-resistant tomatoes plants

This year we did something different with our tomatoes. In our garden, early blight (fungus) is a real problem. My wife doesn’t want the tomatoes covered badly with liquid copper because she’s usually the one harvesting the tomatoes and she’s awfully tired of having brown/green fingers (and she wrote this sentence (: ). Fortunately, Burpee Seed Co. fixed our problem (we hope).

New this year, we ordered early in March three Mountain hybrid tomato plants. Burpee claims these are the most disease resistant tomato plant available on the market and they are not available yet in seed packages. We received the plants on time to put in the ground by Mother Day’s weekend, after all danger of frost was gone.

These plants will produce saladette tomatoes and are indeterminate versus determinate cultivar as
Mountain Fresh, Mountain Supreme, and Plum Dandy to have resistance to early blight.

Presently, at the end of May, we see no early blight on the Mountain hybrid tomato plants versus some on our potato plants and on the “volunteer” Super Sweet 100 Hybrid cherry tomato plants. (These have the tendency to grow like weeds since we fail to clean up every last cherry at the end of each season. We keep one or two for an extra harvest.)

On the other hand, we didn’t take a chance and following our previous observations, we seeded at mid-April to have 2 Summer Salsa tomato plants in full fruit by mid-August. These plants are not quite disease resistant to early blight as proclaimed, but we hope that leaping over June and July, they will be less prone to summer heat and early blight than if we had planted them in the ground by Mother’s Day.

Wish us luck, and we’ll keep you posted!

Growing potatoes but not in-ground ( Part #2 )

This is an update to my Yukon Gold potato plants growing on my deck. They are presently flowering exactly 2 months after planting. When the flowers die, and if I need a potato, I can harvest new potatoes from a plant by digging them out gently without disturbing the soil too much. The real harvest will be in one month.

Black Raspberries ( Part #4 )

As was said in an earlier post, it’s possible to grow black raspberries in a container. To do it, you need a 25-35 gallon container, a tomato cage, and frequent watering.

As seen in the picture above, the primocanes – new shoots – stand around 30 to 32 inches high. It’s now time to pinch off (head) the tips of the new canes. Tipping is done by removing the top 2 to 3 inches of new shoots as they develop. See photo below.

This will induce growth of side branches and results in plants that are stocky and self-supporting and have a large amount of fruit-bearing wood. See photo below.

Fun stuff:

As you know, black raspberry canes grow on a 2 years period but sometimes Mother Nature permits a new black raspberry cane to grow and bear fruits on the same year. This is a situation that happens to me every year.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Path widths in the veggie garden

How wide the paths should be in a well-designed vegetable garden is an issue that often gets neglected until it's too late.  Read what the ever-delightful Carol at May Dreams Gardens has to say on the subject.

Personally, my main path is wide enough for my garden cart to maneuver down and (just barely) turn sideways to dump a load of compost/whatever into my raised beds, so about 3 feet.  Between the beds I have smaller paths (about 18 inches).  Between the 3x3' beds in which I currently have potatoes, the paths are too narrow (less than a foot) and I really need to relocate the beds next year.  You should have seen them when I had tomatoes in them two years ago.  Jungle!  By the way, don't grow potatoes in 3x3 beds that are already full of soil.  Digging "trenches" and relocating the soil for hilling up is a challenge, to say the least.  Though my taters are doing brilliantly, as long as I keep up with the three-lined potato beetles attacking them, and I know they already have mini-tubers on them, since I had to dig down into the soil to burrow out the Jerusalem artichokes that were coming up where I was sure I'd removed all of last year's.  Ha.

Potatoes earlier this month; note the too-narrow paths

Potatoes last week; where did the paths go?

Friday, May 27, 2011

Tomato Patch: Drip irrigation and mulch

Drip-irrigation buckets strategically placed
I must be a glutton for punishment. Wednesday I transplanted 23 tomato seedlings into our garden. After I looked at the 3-day forecast, I installed drip-irrigation buckets in the Tomato Patch and mulched most of the plants yesterday (Thursday) morning.

My drip irrigation system wasn’t expensive. In fact, it was free. I use recycled plastic buckets. I’ve drilled four half-inch holes in the bottom of each bucket. I set the buckets three to four inches deep in my Tomato Patch, strategically placed in the rows between plants so each bucket will serve two, three, or four plants and so I can easily hose water into the buckets.

My tomato mulching system is also is simple. I use a small garden rake, newspaper, water, a trowel, and straw. Mulch benefits my Tomato Patch in several ways. It keeps my patch weed free most of the summer. No weeds mean less work for me in the hot, summer sun. Mulching also conserves moisture, which means I will seldom have to water. More water in the soil helps the calcium intake of my tomato plants, which helps prevent blossom-end rot. Also, over time mulch decomposes, enriching the soil.

Tearing a hole to fit around a tomato stem
After I install the drip-irrigation buckets, I use my small rake to level the soil around the buckets and the plants, so the newspaper I’ll use as the base of the mulch will make good contact with the soil. Then I place newspaper two sheets thick around each plant. I use full pages on each side of the plant, with a hole torn in the middle of one edge of each page. The sheets overlap down the middle, with the torn hole surrounding the tomato stem. I used to use three or four sheets but observed they often didn’t decompose over winter, so now I use only double sheets. The photos will give you an idea of how I use the paper.

After I position the two sheets of double-thick paper around a plant, I use my hand or a trowel to pull soil over the edges of the paper to help keep it in place.

Newspaper, overlapping, pieced around tomato
That worked well yesterday for about an hour until a breeze started to rearrange some of sheets that I had positioned around plants. That’s where water helps. I turned on a nearby hose and began spraying the sheets as soon as I put them down. Wet newspaper doesn’t blow easily. A watering can would work just as well.

When the breeze came up, I decided to put the straw on top of the paper as soon as I had paper positioned around a plant because sunshine dries even wet newspaper in a few minutes. I use straw because it is clean, relatively inexpensive, and decomposes well. A bale lasts me two or three years. You can use almost any kind of mulch, including grass clippings, but don’t use grass clippings if you’ve recently applied a broad-leaf herbicide to your lawn. Tomato plants are sensitive to such herbicides.

I shake straw in and around the plants and position it by hand. How much do I use? If I can read headlines through the straw, I add a little more straw. If I can see a glimpse of paper here and there but can’t read headlines, or see no newspaper, that’s OK.
Job completed
After I add the straw, I hose it gently to settle it. I’ll wet it another time or two over the next few days, but it usually settles well and seldom blows away, even in summer thunderstorms.

Do I have to somehow pick up all that paper in the fall or next spring? Not if the sheets are just double. Once they are moist and in contact with the soil, natural decomposing of the paper—which is made of wood fiber-- begins. Summer showers and rains encourage the process. If I notice large pieces of paper in the fall, I chop them with a shovel. I seldom find paper the next spring.

I installed eight drip-irrigation buckets and mulched 19 of my 23 tomatoes in about three hours. By then I was dead tired and glad I had to stop mulching because I had run out of newspaper. Why not save some fun for tomorrow--right?

The temperature was nearing 90°F. and I was soaked with sweat. As I all but stumbled up the sidewalk to return my tools to storage, I thought, “Why am I growing 23 tomato plants—for two people?”

Why, indeed?

Well, I enjoy doing it, despite minor aches and pains. The tomatoes will be delicious. Friends love the extras. And gardening keeps me tuned in to the cycle of life, lets me participate from seed sowing to harvest, an experience most people don’t have today. My badge of honor: dirt under my fingernails.

But then an ache—or was it a pain?—reminded me that my bones and joints are ageing. Perhaps I should cut back on the number of tomato plants next year.

Yes, I should cut back, just a bit, mind you, next year.

I’ll try to remember that … next year.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Tomato Patch: Setting out the plants

Ready to transplant
Surprise: I set out my tomato plants last evening. The plants were growing so fast I had to transplant them into our garden five days before I originally planned.

In earlier Tomato Patch postings, I explained that I had planted the seeds indoors on April 25 and planned to transplant them into the garden on Memorial Day, exactly five weeks after I dropped the seeds into the cups in which they grew under fluorescent lights in our basement utility room.

On May 20, I moved the plants outside to harden off—to get used to life outdoors—gradually increasing their daily dose of direct sunlight. But the last week has been extra warm—both days and nights—and the plants grew about an inch a day. By Tuesday it was obvious I had to transplant them soon. By Memorial Day the plants would be “leggy” or “spindly” and would take extra care in planting.

Because our garden actually consists of many small squares and rectangles, most semi-terraced, near the top of a hill, I use simple hand tools for my gardening work. The first photo shows what I used for this job. I worked in the evening to spare the young plants a double shock—the transplanting itself plus a whole day in today’s sunshine with a predicted temperature of 90°.

My most important transplanting tool is a warren hoe, which has a triangular blade. (Look for its bluish blade in the right corner of the photo.) I use that hoe as a plow to loosen up the soil where I plant my veggies, to make a deep furrow for the plants, and then to hill the soil back up around the plants. Power for the warren hoe comes primarily from my arms. Experience has taught me that using the hoe to till is easier on my old back than digging and turning the soil with a shovel, spade, or garden fork.

I also use an old mop handle to space the transplants. The wooden handle just happened to be 48” long, and I nicked it with a saw every 12”, and I use it to space the plants every 2½ or 3 feet in the first row of a planting area. Over the years I’ve left several metal tape measurers outside to rust in the dew or rain, but it’s pretty hard to overlook a yellow measuring stick.

It took me about two hours to plant 23 tomato transplants. Here’s my basic procedure and why I do what I do:

Remove lower leaves
I use scissors to cut off lower leaves of each plant so I cover the lower 2 or 3 inches of the stems with the garden soil. The seedlings will put out roots where soil covers the stems and will help the plants grow and fruit vigorously over the next few months.

I use the warren hoe to plow the row areas. I no longer turn over every inch of the garden—just the areas where the plants will grow. If I plow and don’t plant, something will grow in the tilled but unused areas—things called weeds.

After I through the basic plowing, I use the warren hoe to make furrows about 8” deep. I sprinkle pelletized dolomitic lime and fertilizer into the furrows and mix them lightly into the soil with the hoe. Then I place plants 2½ or 3 feet apart, using the mop handle for spacing plants in the first row. Then I use the warren hoe to pull just a little soil around the root balls of the transplants, to stabilize them while I use the hose to dribble water around the root ball of each plant.

Why the water at this point? I add the water to make sure the lime that I sprinkled in the planting trench is damp and can begin to dissolve. Lack of calcium causes blossom-end rot in tomatoes. I try to minimize that problem by making sure my young plants have an available calcium source—the lime—as they begin to grow in the garden.

And note that I “dribble” water around the plants. Lots of pathogens are endemic in garden soils just waiting to splash onto tomato leaves and begin the process that can eventually kill the plants. I’ll watch the weather forecasts closely so I mulch the young plants before we get an afternoon downpour that coats the lower leaves with garden soil—and pathogens.

The fertilizer I use is a typical 10-10-10 formula that I bought in a bag at a big-box store. I use just a sprinkle, as I added compost to the garden in late winter. I’ll add another sprinkle along the rows just before I mulch, and that will be it as far as fertilizer is concerned.

Cutworm preventers
After I wet the plants, I use the warren hoe to complete the initial hilling process, and then I use pieces of toilet-paper rolls or coffee-cup insulators to wrap around each of the stems, installing the tubes so they’re roughly an inch below and above ground. This is a simple precaution that prevents cutworms (larva of a moth) from wrapping around the stems just below soil level and cutting off the young plants, sometimes as efficiently as a chainsaw would do the job. And then I dribble water around each plant a second time.

Job done. Put tools away. Two hours. 23 plants: 2 Defiant, 2 Virginia Sweets, 1 Wow!, 3 Sungold, 2 Juliet, 1 Big Mama, 3 Super San Marzano, 3 Brandywine (Sudduth’s), 3 Brandywine Red, and 3 Yellow Plum. I’ll tell you more about the different varieties as the season progresses. As I was transplanting, I realized I forgot to start seeds of one of my favorite variety, Celebrity. Oh, well, there’s always next year.

Ready to grow
And what happened to all the other plants that I started? I gave most of them away to other tomato growers. And I have five left as potential replacements if disaster strikes during the next week or 10 days.

And, oh, yes, this morning I planted one of the extras in an unfenced perennial flower bed—and sprayed it with Deer Out, the repellent I’m experimenting with this year. Gardeners in Deer Country know that bambits love tomato plants, and just about every other veggie you can think of.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


Or, the muse seized me.  Explanations before poetry.

I'll be telling you more about our North American Greens and Herbs Bed (I think that's what we're calling it) which is a little sample of plants in those categories that were used by Native Americans in North/north-Central America before any European plants arrived.

But what I want to mention now, because everyone asks, is why in the heck we are growing weeds in there, specifically Chenopodium album or lamb's quarters, also called chual.  It's in there because it's a nutritious and native plant and a mainstay of Native American diets along with those of colonists.  However, it is a little, um, assertive - so we'll be keeping an eye on it, promise.

I did have a what-am-I-doing moment recently while weeding out pigweed from among the lamb's quarters... huh??  And pigweed is one of the great, useful, and free-spreading Amaranthus genus -- and yes, we planted grain amaranth in the back of the bed.  Maria Wortman, our esteemed leader, keeps asking me if I really want to do this, and she has a point.  Amaranth is just one of the many plants that really do have virtues but you may curse yourself for planting as they self-seed or grow enormous or spread underground by runners.  We've avoided many of these at the demo garden (if not at home - mumblepeppermintmumble), but we do have our problem plants that are wonderful in moderation, except that moderation is not in their vocabulary.

I was thinking about this the other day when for some reason Lewis Carroll's poem "Jabberwocky" started going through my head, and then I had to... well, this.  Dedicated to Maria and to the Derwood Demo Garden Weeders.


'Twas workday, and the feverfew
Did wander amongst the parsley;
Superfluous the lamb's ears grew
And the garlic chives not sparsely.

"Beware the amaranth," she urged,
"The seeds that drop, the sprouts that spread;
The lemon balm should all be purged--
Don't plant it in your bed."

But we did plant Pycnanthemum,
How bold could native plants become?
"Robust growth" - what's that denote?

We took our Ho-Mi blades in hand;
Sought larkspur and Solidago;
Then rested we 'neath the maple tree,
And complained of our lumbago.

Oh, no--we may have met our match!
Please tell us it's a joke.
No: we must halve the teeming patch

One, two!  One, two!  And through and through
The shovel blade makes grim blows.
We'll leave it clear, and while we're here,
Uproot some evening primrose.

"And hast thou slain the artichoke?
And done it without Round-Up?
Now compost it," she kindly spoke,
"But make sure it is ground up."

'Twas workday, and the coriander
Bedeviled the garden in small ways.
What makes us want to utter slander
Is that fennel will be with us always.

Poison ivy: Bye, bye

Leaves of three, let it be!
Birdie, birdie, in the sky,
Dropped a poison-ivy seed in my garden….

For some reason I never memorized epic poetry. But apparently a bird ate a poison ivy seed and deposited it in our garden. I found the new plant growing closely to the trunk of a butterfly bush when I was mulching, but I find them even in my veggie garden at times.

Leaves of three, let it be! Yes, the old folk saying is right on target. Up to 80% of people develop a rash when they come in contact with urushiol, the irritating oil in poison ivy. When I was a kid, I often ran through patches of the noxious weed that grew near Alloway Creek, “down back” from our home on West Main Street in Alloway, N.J. I didn’t get a rash then, but in the last several years I’ve become fairly sensitive and get rashes if I’m exposed.

So the poison ivy had to go—quickly, while it was young and relatively shallow rooted.

Spray it with 2,4-D or glyphosate? No, that would be overkill—and drifting spray might do major damage to nearby plants. I’ll pull it out—which should be relatively easy because the plant is small and mostly free standing.

But I’m super-sensitive, right?

Ok, here’s how I do it.

Put pulling hand inside ventless plastic bag
I take the narrow plastic bag off the morning’s Washington Post. I put my hand and lower part of my arm into the bag. With the bag between the poison ivy and my hand, I run my hand down the poison ivy, grab its main stem at soil level, and firmly pull the plant straight up and out of its garden bed.

The pulled plant in protected hand
The plant then is in my bag-gloved hand. I next pull the open top of the bag back down my arm and over the poison ivy so the bag ends up inside out with the poison ivy inside the bag. I knot the bag and put it into the trash—not my compost pile or anywhere else where it might re-root.

Poison ivy, bye, bye
Poison ivy: gone. Bob: no danger of rash. Newspaper bag: recycled in a good cause.

Note: Don’t use a vented plastic bag, such as some veggies and fruit come in. The small vent holes may allow poison ivy’s irritating sap to come into contact with your hand or arm. And if your poison ivy has been growing in place for some time, it may not pull easily, so you may want to consider nuking it with an herbicide labeled to kill poison ivy.

Leaves of three?

Bye, bye.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Big Fat Earth is finished

Hello again garden gals and guys! I've been telling you about the big garden that I am planting and I know you've been waiting for pictures so here they are! I call this garden Big Fat Earth...well, because it's MUCH bigger than my garden at home which is now Little Fat Earth! :o)

I am sooooo excited about everything that's growing!! We've got: Crimson Sweet watermelons; Gold Star cantaloupes; bell peppers; habaneros (really hot peppers); cucumbers (straight eights and a variety that grows in a bush); tomatoes (too many varieties to name but I have cherries, beefsteak types and romas); eggplant; zucchini; onions; Sweet Georgia collards; basil; oregano; and parsley!

Well, enough talk here are the pictures! This first one is the land after it was tilled--5000 square feet of wonderful soil! This was before the gardening began:

This is me and my secret garden weapon beginning to build the mounds:

While we working, the chickens came over for a visit:

Let me tell you a little about what I was doing. I broke the 5,000 square feet up into four rectangles, with each rectangle consisting of about nine to ten long mounds. Each mound row has several plants in it.

I did the rest of the work alone, which is why it took soooo long to finish. OK, this is the tomato rectangle, sans tomatoes (hey....it took a LONG time to just dig those beds!):

Here is a view from the middle of the garden looking at the completed cantaloupe patch (rectangle closest to you) and partially completed watermelon patch:

I then dug another rectangle for peppers, eggplants, onions and cucumbers. I left a nice wide rectangle in between the watermelon and cantaloupe patches to give them room to sprawl and crawl.

Here are several piks of the plants in the ground. Yeah, they are small but they are going to shoot up quickly now that the heat is startin' to kick in!

This is one of my watermelon plants:

This is my miscellaneous patch (the cukes, peppers, onions and eggplants although you can't see the onions in this shot):

(In my best southern drawl) Here's them Georgia collards:

Here is the watermelon patch:

Another shot of the beds:

Then the mulching began. Tote that barge, lift that bale!

I mulched the melon beds first because, according to my dear hubby, they are the most important crops!

Melon beds completed:

Mulching the tomato bed:

OK and this is me planting sweet potatoes in the bed in between the cantaloupe and miscellaneous beds:

And that's it folks! It took about two weeks to get it all done and mulched. Now I just have to watch for cucumber beetles and stink bugs and care for these babies til harvest time!

Stay tuned though because I harvested lettuce from Little Fat Earth and I'll be showin' you what's growin' on here on the home front!

Until next time garden gals and guys....

Happy gardening!!!!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Stinkbug update: News from the Battlefront

What’s the latest news about the battle against the brown marmorated stink bug (BMSB)?

Finding the answer was one of my goals when I attended two 90-minute sessions in which entomologists addressed the BMSB issue at the Annual Training Day for Master Gardeners at the University of Maryland, College Park, last Tuesday.

The news is both positive and discouraging. Research at numerous universities is almost on a “war footing” basis, but overall the news is not good for the 2011 crop year.

I’ll make no attempt to repeat technical information or quote specific presenters but will make a list of general statements that I believe accurately summarize what I heard:

1. The BMSB may be the worst pest in 40 years. The mid-Atlantic states are the current epicenter, but the bug is a good hitch-hiker and has been found in more than 30 states, where BMSB populations are expected to increase each year. BMSB’s probably have two generations per year in the mid-Atlantic states but may have up to five generations per year in states with milder climates.

2. Fifty scientists in several states are studying various aspects of the problem. Pesticide trials begin in about two weeks. Scientists will meet next month to report research findings.

3. Crops affected include apple, pear, peach, tomato, pepper, eggplant, corn, soybean, berries, cucumber, and cotton. Flowers include chrysanthemum, snapdragon, sunflower, and zinnia. Woody plants include maple, gum, and nandina.

4. Organic growers are at greatest risk, and some, especially fruit growers, this year may be faced with near-total crop failures.

5. Biological controls in the form of small, Asian wasps (“stingless” for humans) that prey on the BMSB may be the best solution. The USDA is experimenting with several species, but they may be released in 2013 at the earliest, and only if they do not negative impact on native species. Potential North American insect predators have not yet affected BMSB populations in significant amounts.

6. Most pesticides are not labeled for BMSB control. Current, less risky pesticides may be less effective than older, high-risk pesticides. Pesticide risk often is also high to beneficial insects. Insecticidal soap causes high mortality of BMSB nymphs, but not of adults.

7. Companies may begin selling traps originally designed to attract BMSB’s for study. These yellow traps will be studied to see if they, as adapted for sale, are effective controls. At this point the pheromone used in the trap as a lure is that of a BMSB relative, not of the BMSB.

8. Here’s a link to the latest fact sheet (March 2011) for garden centers from the University of Maryland Extension about BMSB. It contains color photographs and information on the following subjects: life cycle, feeding habits, protecting indoor plants, dealing with BMSB in houses, outdoor control options, and a report on research involving parasitic wasps. CLICK HERE.

9. Here’s a link to the University of Maryland Extension Home and Garden Information Center’s publication on the BMSB. CLICK HERE.
Additional information: Here’s a link to a recent (May 20) University of Maryland Extension’s Grow It Eat It blog posting describing a “low tunnel” made of PVC pipe, rebar, floating row cover, clothesline, twine, stakes, duct tape, and bricks (as anchors) to protect “short” veggies from the BMSB. CLICK HERE.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

A new bed for less work

It used to be that when I wanted to eat away at the lawn a little more and make a new bed for planting in, we'd rent a sod cutter and remove slices of grass (and/or weeds) with their roots, and then dig in compost until the soil was right for planting in.  Now I'm using the no-dig sheet composting method, which is easier on the back and works just as well.

Here's how I created a new shade to sun bed for small trees, shrubs and perennials last September.

I decided on the shape of the new bed, which covered an area on the property line between us and our neighbors and extended a previously-established (and jointly-planted) shade bed but continued into a partly-sunny area.  The "lawn" I was reclaiming was pretty much weeds.  I mowed it short and then started laying down newspaper; you need about 8 pages of newspaper but I don't bother counting, just put down sections and overlap them.  Save your papers for a while if you're planning to do this.  You can revisit the news while you work (I have papers on the bottom of my pile from the 2008 election - that will be interesting!).  Cardboard also works but takes longer to decay.

I kept a hose handy and sprayed the newspaper with water as I worked so it didn't blow away.

Finally the entire shape of the bed was laid out.  Time to plant!

I could put my larger plants in right away because the soil underneath was good.  If you have solid clay you probably want to wait until you've created some new soil above the paper.
I arranged the pots in the bed, imagining the full size of the grown trees and shrubs, and then made cuts in the newspaper and dug holes to plant them - not too deep, because soil would be covering the paper.

This counts as a Grow It Eat It bed because I put in a fig tree and a pawpaw.  If I want fruit on my pawpaw I'll need to put in another one... somewhere.  Not sure where yet.  The other plant you see is a bayberry.

Next I started the layering process.  On top of the newspaper I spread some compost and, as the autumn progressed, fallen leaves and grass clippings.  Lots of materials could go to make a sheet composting bed (see page 3 of HGIC's Backyard Composting fact sheet for more information); if you are planting in it right away as I did, you need to use already finished compost and keep fresh materials like grass clippings away from the new plants.

My poor little Celeste fig tree looked dreadful in September.  It had sat in the Whole Foods parking lot for several weeks while I dithered over buying it, and when I brought it home it dropped all its leaves but one.  But I planted it anyway, gave it a little fence but no other protection over the winter, and it came through just fine (I took this photo last week).  I'm hoping it grows up and produces lots of figs.

Later last fall I put in a few perennials and some small bulbs, and I've continued to plant this spring, but it'll take a while to fill up the bed.  Meanwhile I'm mulching and I'll add more compost in the fall along with some leaves.  Last fall's materials have decayed into a loose rich soil.  I have had to pull out a lot of weeds... and I have a large patch of columbines coming up in the middle that I didn't plant.

Here's the bed, still very sparsely planted, with mulching ongoing.  I'll see what I come up with to fill in some space.  Perhaps some herbs in the sunniest area; not much else in the Grow It Eat It realm since deer, rabbits and groundhogs come through pretty often.  Hot peppers, perhaps.

The best thing about this method is how quickly you can move from imagining your new bed to having it, without back-breaking shovel work.  I'm doing part of my vegetable garden this way too, but haven't had time to accumulate materials to build it up yet.  Next year!

Friday, May 20, 2011

Tomato Patch: Hello, cool, breezy world

Seedlings begin 'hardening off'
My tomato seedlings are growing well, thank you. If you recall from earlier Tomato Patch postings, I planted my tomato seeds in cups on April 25 and the first sprouts appeared four days later. Two weeks later, on May 9, I planted seeds in the cups where the April 25 seeds failed to germinate. From April 25 until today, all the cups have been under shop lights with cool-white fluorescent bulbs in our utility room, where the temperature is about 73°F.

Today—May 20—three and a half weeks after I planted the seeds and three weeks after the first tomato plants began reaching toward cool, white light, I introduced all the plants—even those that grew from the more recent sowing—to real life in the cool, breezy world with its warmer days and cooler nights.

Life was near ideal in our utility room for the young plants. The temperature was uniform. No spring downpours pounded the seedlings to the ground. No thunderstorm whirlwinds bent them at 90° angles over the edges of their cups. No frigid nights gave them the shivers. No crows played pranks and pulled them up to die of root exposure.

Today I moved all the cups from the trays in which they sat for three weeks into three plastic storage bins—minus tops, of course. I watered all the cups well with my squeeze bottle, to which I had added a quarter teaspoon or so of Miracle-Gro, a water-soluble fertilizer, and then arranged the cups in the bins and set them on our front porch, which faces due east.

Seedlings at 3.5 weeks
Welcome, to the real world, young tomato plants. Don’t be alarmed at that force pushing on you slightly from the northwest. That’s our prevailing breeze—gentle compared to the gusts that have blown through during the last week—and it will help you develop sturdy central stems. And, yes, that light is bright. It’s the sun. It peeks over the pines about seven each morning. It will help you grow robustly over the next two weeks. Just after noon, however, the shade of the house will keep you from getting sunburned while you’re getting used to the sunshine.

Putting young plants that have been grown inside under lights outside for increasing hours over a week or two before they’re set out in the garden is called “hardening off.” It’s my way of avoiding rubbing sun block on all those tiny leaves. (Yes, that last sentence is attempted humor.) Every two days I’ll move the bins another six inches or so farther from the house, so they’ll get a little more direct sunshine.

In addition to watering the plants every morning, I’ll keep an eye on forecasts while my plants are hardening off. If a springtime thunderstorm threatens with gusts that could upset the bins, I’ll give them some protection by moving them up against the wall of the house, or into the house if severe weather threatens. If I were still working and weren’t here to move them, I would put a brick or two into each bin to thwart the wind.

If temperatures soar, as they may next week, I’ll check the plants during the early afternoon to make sure they don’t dry out, wilt, and die. If I were still away at work during the day, I’d add water to each bin so the level goes about a quarter-inch up the sides of the cups—just to make sure the plants don’t dry out. Different brands of starting mixes have slightly different formulas, and some dry out faster than others. I’m using two different mixes this year, and I’ve noticed one dries out faster than the other, so I’ll be sure to check the cups morning, noon, and night.

You may wonder why I fertilized the plants. One of the starting mixes I’m using contains a small amount of fertilizer, but the other doesn’t. So I’m just being “sure” that all the young plants have enough. Really, though, the plants probably would do well even if I didn’t give them a shot of nitrogen.

I did some rearranging when I moved the cups into the larger bins. After just three weeks of growing, seedlings of some of the varieties are several inches taller than those of other varieties. Also, the later-planted seeds were much shorter. Since I had coded each cup with a permanent marker when I planted the seeds, I don’t have to worry about identifying the plants when I go to plant them or give them away. Every “J” is a Juliet, and every “ByR” is a Brandywine Red.

In another 10 days to two weeks, when I’m fairly certain the temperatures won’t dip below 50°, I’ll transplant my growing tomato plants into our garden. Yes, some gardeners have already set out their tomato plants, but when the warm days and warm nights come, all tomato plants will grow quickly, and by mid-July it will be hard to distinguish those set out on May 15 from those set out May 30, or even later.