Thursday, June 30, 2011

I'll get back to you on that...

I say that often and then I forget to post updates... so this is either a self-indulgent way of keeping track of my own garden's triumphs and failures, or (just possibly) information you're impatiently waiting for.

The experimental squash in Leaf-Gro bags are half-successful so far.  The Galeux d'Eysines and the Naguri have pretty much collapsed.  I checked the vines for borers and... well, it's inconclusive, but I'm pretty sure the Naguri at least is just dying of thirst.  It's hard to keep those bags sufficiently watered, perhaps harder than with a more standard container.  The butternut is doing well, healthy with a couple of small fruits - butternuts seldom get borers, so again, no sure conclusion; it's had no more water than the others but the leaves are shading the roots nicely - and the Jarradale is surviving.

The pomegranate is doing well and now has two fruits - !!! - with the promise of more.

My two salad table bean plants are smaller than normal but have lots of flowers, so perhaps beans soon (enough to throw into a stir-fry with some other stuff).

Early in the month I planted four short rows of lettuce between my tomato plants, and the tomatoes (growing tall now) have produced some shade, so the lettuce hasn't bolted yet, and we've had two salads out of it.  I think it might hang on for a third; really I should sow more.

I made a start at reorganizing my compost over the weekend, and along the way rescued two mystery squash and four mystery peppers that were growing out the sides of the "temporary" bin that had been sitting on the driveway for three years.  Naturally, because I am no more inclined to planticide than Donna, I tucked them into the garden where I'd removed some nice fat kohlrabi and some broccoli that never quite got to flowering.  We'll see what happens.  Growing the brassicas (which were also mystery plants, since I lost the labels from the seedling pots) was great fun; I hadn't grown any in several years because we were trying to make the fence groundhog-proof (so far, crossing my fingers, it is this year) and I didn't feel like losing the whole crop overnight.  Interesting to see that after the gap "beginner's luck" kicked in again and I had not a single insect pest on the plants.  Alas, they will find me again next year.

The path widths are just as unreasonably narrow as you might expect at this time of year, but I have started harvesting potatoes so that will help a bit.  Here's two plants' worth of Red Thumb fingerlings:

Plus one Purple Sun that got in there by mistake.  It's a great year for potatoes; if only they hadn't just told us they were fattening!

Back to the demo garden next time, for the Not-Really-a-Mystery of the Wascally Wabbit and the Disappearing Bean Plants, or some other tale.  I'll get back to you on that...

Time to plant veggie seeds

Now’s a great time to plant vegetable seeds.

What? Didn’t we do that in March, April, and May?

Well, yes, our spring seed-sowing frenzy made us feel great, and we’re eating the veggies we sowed then. Our little cool-weather veggie patch has given us carrots, beets, chard, and three varieties of lettuce. I’ll pick a handful of green beans this weekend.

But the sizzling weather of July and August will rapidly take its toll on cool-weather vegetables planted in the spring. Now that we’ve passed the summer solstice and days are beginning to shorten, it’s time to start thinking of the cooler nights that will come in August and the great veggie-growing days of September, October, and November.

I’ll confess that I think fall veggies are the most flavorful of the year. Many veggies that struggle and then go to seed in summer heat grow vigorously as the days gradually cool into fall.

If you haven’t planted fall vegetables in the past, I suggest you check the University of Maryland Extension’s free flier, “Planting Dates for Vegetable Crops in Maryland.” I’ll add a link at the end of this posting so you can read it or save or print a copy.

The “Planting Dates” publication lists more than 50 vegetables and their spring and fall planting dates for Central Maryland. Note that many can be planted through August and some even into September.  A footnote explains that you should “advance or delay planting dates … for other areas of the state.”

I planted seeds for six veggies on Wednesday: Goldtender summer squash (Burpee), Plato hybrid zucchini (Johnny’s), Diva cucumber (Johnny’s), Cylindra beet (Burpee), Short ‘n Sweet carrot (Burpee), and Tenderpod green beans (Burpee).

This was my first planting of the two squash varieties. I usually wait until late June to plant squash seeds so I don’t have to worry about squash borers killing the plants. The borers are the larvae of a moth that ends its major breeding cycle in early to mid-June. My squash seeds can now sprout and grow without great danger that the borers will attack.

The “Planting Dates” flier gives these dates for the other veggies I planted: snap beans, July 1 to August 5; beets, June 20 to August 1; carrots, June 15 to Aug. 1, cucumbers, June 15 to July 10; and summer squash, June 1 to July 15.

I was two days early for the beans and right on schedule for the rest. And if space frees up, I can plant a third crop later in July or early August for some of the vegetables. In fact I’ll wait until late July or August to plant late crops that will grow well into the frosty weather of late October and November—lettuces, chard, carrots, and beets.

The forecast for the Fourth of July holiday weekend calls for sizzling weather. But think beyond the heat of summer to the increasingly cool days of late-summer and fall when the vegetables you plant during the next six weeks will thrive.

To see the University of Maryland Extension’s “Planting Dates” list, CLICK HERE.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Pat's 792-square foot garden

As many of you out there have discovered, you can still grow your own food even if you have little space or soil.  UME Master Gardener Pat Lynch, in Montgomery Village, Maryland, lives in a townhouse with a 792-square foot paved backyard, and enough covenant restrictions to choke a horse (short answer: no food plants in the front yard.  And it isn't very big anyway).

Nevertheless, her little brick garden is full of vegetables, herbs and ornamentals in pots and raised beds, growing enough to supplement meals for herself and her husband while still leaving room for wide pathways and a place to sit and enjoy the garden.  "You do have to choose," Pat says.  She likes to try "one of everything" but even with lots of trellising and other vertical growing strategies, and careful choice of plants to suit the conditions, some space-hogging plants aren't on the list, and she often has to store a harvest in the fridge until there's enough to prepare.

But there's nothing like growing your own fingerling potatoes, and Pat's looking forward to a good harvest from this fabric container.

The plants do need plenty of watering, but it's easy to keep track of any insect and disease problems.  Deer (common in the neighborhood) don't jump the wall, but some small animals do get in.  In the last year Pat has played host to a chipmunk that liked eggplant fruits, and a rabbit that likes eggplant foliage.  Flea beetles are less of a problem!

Sun exposure, use of warm microclimates (such as by a brick wall), spacing and aesthetics are considerations in a small-space garden.  Pat's tomatoes are all grown on "ladders" that keep the plants from flopping into other plants' space.  Squash varieties have to be bush-type, not vining.  Spring plants can get a head start in the warmest areas, but those spots can be hot and dry in the summer.

Pat swears this combination of variegated sage, Pretty in Purple pepper, thyme, and Vardaman sweet potato was accidental.  I think it looks great!  The sweet potatoes are also grown in a fabric bag - which she hopes will accommodate the growing tubers!
Pat also wanted me to share this photo of her trellised Malabar spinach which has tied itself in a knot - no human intervention!

(Photos by Sam Korper)

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Do Tomatoes Get Cold Feet?

No, tomatoes really don't get cold feet but, then, why do they need socks? For protection from the ubiquitous Brown Marmorated Stink Bugs!
Two Maryland Food Gardeners have submitted photos of the "Tomato Socks" they created to protect their tomatoes.
First, Julie Wolf's Tomato Socks...
On the cherry tomato plant, you can see one tomato cluster in a bag and another next to it which
had been covered with an old sock (which is what I tried first).

Both seem to work well to keep off bugs and squirrels, but it's easy to knock off the
developing fruits while getting the sock over them, which is sad.

You can see how the bags look in the garden--a little silly, but anything to save the tomatoes!
In the pic, I have pepper and tomato fruits covered with bags or with the old socks I mentioned
(in the background are raspberries, loosely covered with row cover to keep the birds off--but
I found it too difficult to try to seal off entire plants from insects).

If you sew larger bags, you can fit a whole cluster of fruits into one large drawstring bag. I also make smaller bags, because only some of my varieties form clusters, others form single fruits. I also make some extra-long ones to accommodate Carmen-type long peppers.
Here's what the bags look like when sewed--basically a pillowcase with the edge of the opening folded over
and secured after placing a drawstring. It takes me about 5 minutes to make one bag, which isn't too bad considering that I am not an accomplished sewer.

I think they could also be glued together instead of sewed, but you would want to pick a glue that is waterproof and will work with the row cover composition (I am using Agribon + Ag-19 from Johnny's,
which is made of "spun bonded polypropylene").

To quickly cut out and sew these:
Note--the rowcover fabric is thin so it can get caught up in your sewing machine, be careful for that.

1. Fold over the straight edge of your row cover fabric, so that the width of the fold is how wide you want the bag to be (see pic).
2. Cut out a rectangle with the fold making one side (see pic).
3. The folded edge will form a side of your bag, so you can then use a straight stitch in an L shape:sew the bottom, lift presser foot of sewing machine with needle mid stitch to turn fabric 90 degrees, and continue to sew side seam in a single go.
4. Once you've sewn the bottom and side so that you have a bag shape, cut a piece of string about times the width of the bag's opening, minimum (I make mine a lot longer).
5. Fold over the top edge of the bag all the way around, to make a 'cuff' about 1/2 inch wide.
6. Cut a small (< 1/8 inch) hole right at the top/outer edge of the cuff.
7. Feed the ends of the string through the hole and tuck the string under the cuff so that it is lying flat and pushed to the top edge of the cuff, then
8. Sew (or glue) the bottom edge of the cuff, all the way around the bag.
9. To finish, turn the bag inside out--now all the clumsy seams and cut edges are inside and the string ends are outside.
10. Also recommended--tie big knots in each end of the string so it can't accidentally be pulled inside the fold.

Happy sewing or gluing and gardening!

Now, take a look at Wendy Feaga's creation out of window screening...

We had stink bugs destroy 100% of our tomatoes. I finally devised little socks made of fly screening which I stapled around individual tomatoes and finally these protected tomatoes to ripen without rotting.

I heard there is such a "sock" available commercially for fruit. Does anyone know what they are called and where I can buy them? Submitted below is a picture of one of my "fruit socks" and another of the unprotected and rotted tomatoes.

The third is a nicely ripened tomato in one of these socks.

A hearty THANK YOU to both Julie Wolf and Wendy Feaga for sharing their innovative ideas with GIEI and the Maryland Food Gardening Network!

Who-dun-it: Case of the Toppling Potato Plant

Photo: Susan Levi-Goerlich
Susan Levi-Goerlich wasn’t a happy gardener. Something was eating her snap peas about three inches above the ground—and then chard leaves began to go missing.

Hmm, she thought, mice. Then—both on the same day—a beet and a potato plant fell over. Susan, who gardens at the West Side Community Garden of the Columbia Gardeners, Inc., checked the potato plant that had fallen over and discovered that the young potatoes had been eaten underground.

Voles, also known as meadow or field mice, she concluded. They’re cute, stocky, short-tailed mice-like creatures that have a sweet tooth—especially for sweet potatoes—and, as Susan found out, for potatoes and other root vegetables and some above-ground veggies too.

Voles love potatoes
Photo: Susan Levi-Goerlich
“I pulled up all four varieties of my potatoes, including Yukon Gold and Red Pontiac varieties,” she said. “The voles had eaten all the largest potatoes, and they seemed to favor my expensive French fingerlings.”

Susan confirmed her suspicion about voles by emailing a query and a photograph of damaged potatoes to the University of Maryland Extension’s Home and Garden Information Center, which recommended baited snap traps as a remedy.

Susan put out some humane traps—live traps—because she doesn’t want to endanger birds that might be attracted to baited snap traps.

“I’ve already caught two voles,” Susan explained when I met her at her plot early Monday morning. “One expired in the trap before I found it. The other I took for a long ride in the country and released it in a meadow far from any house, farm, or garden.”

Susan baits a trap
Susan likes the larger traps because she thinks voles are more likely to enter them. She showed me how she baits them with a mix of peanut butter and rolled oats and then set them into her garden near her beets.

That was Monday morning at 7:30. Just before 10:00 she emailed me: “Caught 2 more right after you left! Youngsters. And saw two more right near or in my compost bin. I’ve got to get more traps.”

Susan probably has a grand battle on her hands. If she’s caught four voles in her plot and seen more, how many more live in the many plots at West Side Community Garden, which the voles probably call West Side Five-Star Restaurant, with plenty of hiding places and a couple of acres of soft gardening soil in which to burrow.

Baited humane traps? Snap traps? Where are all the hawks, foxes, and blacksnakes when you really need them to eat voles for lunch?

Traps near Susan's beets
For small areas, some gardeners give up on traps and surround vole-vulnerable crops with hardware cloth sunk six-inches into the ground. At their demonstration garden at the Agricultural Farm History Park in Derwood, Montgomery County Master Gardeners show how it’s done by digging a trench around a sweet potato bed and installing a barrier of 24-inch hardware cloth.

Erica Smith, vegetable garden leader, explained how the Master Gardeners build the barrier: “Basically the hardware cloth is shaped into an oval (because that's easiest; could be another shape) and set into a trench dug about six inches below outside soil level. Inside, the soil is piled up about 8 inches or more before the plants are set in. The fence is 2 feet high altogether so extends 1 1/2 feet above ground and 6 to 10 inches above the planting level. It does a great job keeping out the voles and other critters. Sometimes the plants do grow through it underground and those sweet potatoes get chewed on.”

To access a blog posting about the demo garden that includes a photo of the trench around a sweet potato bed, CLICK HERE. To see a posting that includes a photo of the completed barrier, CLICK HERE. To access information about the demonstration garden, including hours and a map, CLICK HERE.

To learn more about voles and what they look like, CLICK HERE to access the University of Maryland Extension’s Fact Sheet 654, “Reducing Vole Damage to Plants in Landscapes, Orchards, and Nurseries.”

Monday, June 27, 2011

Update on row covers and stink bugs

Six weeks ago I planted tomato and pepper plants in the Grow It Eat It demonstration garden at the Home and Garden Information Center in Ellicott City-

The plants were covered by three different styles of frames that support floating row covers (FRC). The idea is to see if FRC can be left on all season to prevent brown marmorated stink bug (BMSB) feeding. Here’s what I have observed-

1. Tomato plants grew rapidly and flowered heavily. Although I did not observe flower drop, fruit set is reduced due to the elevated temperature under the covers (5-15 degrees F. above ambient) and possibly reduced air movement which is needed for pollination. The twelve tomato plants – eight determinate plants under a pvc low tunnel and four indeterminate plants under a tall frame- have only 2-6 fruits per plant.

2. Pepper plants have grown poorly. This may be due to a combination of factors, such as higher temperature and humidity under the covers, and bacterial leaf spot that was observed shortly after transplanting.

3. As expected, weeds grow more rapidly under the covers. Hand-pulling and hoeing have been used to manage weeds.

4. Many spiders of different species have been attracted to the habitat under the row covers.

5. Green peach aphids managed to get under one of the row covers and are feeding on two tomato plants. The population can grow rapidly with no predators or parasitoids to control them.

6. No fruit feeding injury from BMSB adults or nymphs feeding on three tomato plants growing in unprotected 5-gallon plastic buckets.

I plan to remove the covers over the peppers and compost the plants because they are growing so poorly. I’m not sure what I will do with the tomato plants. If I keep them covered I will attempt to control the aphids with organic pesticides.

I would like to hear from others about their experiences so far. I’ll share the information in the blog and on the GIEI website. If your tomato and pepper plants are completely covered with FRC, I recommend that you closely monitor the temperature underneath with a thermometer. When temperature exceeds 95 degrees F. remove the cover completely or pull it up from the sides of your plants so it just covers the tops. This may still afford some protection from stink bug feeding.

Being There

Visitors to the Derwood Demo Garden often say, “It must be great to work in this garden!”  And it is.  We’ve got great soil, lots of space to play with, and the knowledge base and company of our fantastic Master Gardener crew.  But there’s one major disadvantage, one way in which home gardeners - and community gardeners too - have it much better.  We can’t visit the garden every day; in fact we often don’t get there more than once a week.

My number one piece of advice for both new and experienced gardeners?  Be there.  In the garden.  Here’s why.

  • Even if you have an irrigation system set up, your garden, or particular plants in it, may need supplemental watering.  Or may be getting too much water.  You can’t tell, or do anything about it, if you’re not there.
  • You have a much better chance of IDing diseases, bugs and critters that are damaging your plants if you can inspect them frequently.
  • You’ll be able to harvest beans before they’re tough or zucchini that’s not baseball bat size if you visit every day or two.
  • It’s much easier to accomplish organized succession planting, or move plants that are too close together, or reseed where germination failed, if your next planned visit isn’t a week from now.
  • Weeds grow really fast.
In other words, your garden will be better with you in it.  This doesn’t mean hours every day; most of us don’t have time for that.  But do try to stop in whenever you can, even if it’s for a few minutes.

 You may not have the chance to check under all your squash leaves for eggs, but if you do a few leaves every day you’ll get through them all in a week, and meanwhile a quick glance will tell you if squash bugs have hatched and are eating your plant.  You might not be able to water everything, but you can water those new cucumber seedlings that are in danger of wilting.  You can pick those three cherry tomatoes before they fall on the ground, and fix the hole in the fence where the #%*&! rabbit keeps getting in, and put in new bean seeds to replace the young plants it ate.  And you can make lists of bigger tasks to accomplish when you have time to spare.

Barbara Dunn watering on Hat Day - photo by Darlene Nicholson

I have to say I enjoy gardening with company, though.  I’m more likely to stick it out despite heat and humidity and frustrations, and though I enjoy a quiet garden, talking is nice too, and so is sharing information back and forth.  I wish I lived closer to the Demo Garden so I could pop over and check on things, but we do manage (as do people with vegetable gardens at weekend homes).  And we have fun; we’ve just had our first annual Hat Day and T-shirt Day, somewhat in the style of high school Spirit Weeks, though I promise not to inaugurate Pajama Day or Dress In MG Colors Day.

But I do wish, sometimes, when popping into my home garden to pick (ahem!) the first mouse melon of the year, or to pull a few of the many weeds that are taking over because I haven’t finished the mulching, that I didn’t have to spend time and gas money to Be There in my other garden.  It’s a great place to visit; wish I could do it more often.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Are Garlic and Salad Greens Good Companions

In early Spring I wrote with joy about the lovely salad greens growing amongst my garlic. See photo from April, on right. It seems so efficient and looks great. But I did notice that the garlic plants themselves did not look as strong as my other bed where I had only garlic. So I removed some of the salad plants to ensure that there would be plenty of room for the garlic.

By early June I noticed that the garlic plants with salad greens were visibly weak relative to the garlic plants that were growing by themselves, without greens, in a different bed. See pictures of both beds--both were planted on the same day last Fall.

Harvest time was early, because the weaker plans were lying dead, effectively finished. I harvested both batches at the same time out of curiosity, a few days ago. The difference in garlic size is significant. The three smaller garlics in the picture are from the plants that grew alongside the salad greens, and the three larger ones are garlic that grew independently, without other plants. I believe the salad greens took up all the water because they are so water-intensive. Both sites are comparable in soil and sun exposure and got about the same watering, although I may have used more water on the bed with the greens. See below for difference in garlic size.

If anyone has evidence to the contrary, I would like to know, as the idea of growing the salad greens as companions to the garlic is very appealing visually and practically.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Salad Science Parties!

Cedar Grove Elem. salad harvest
Some of you may recall that this winter we laid rest to a little brouhaha here in Montgomery County about growing edibles in school gardens.  Since then, many educators have accessed Montgomery County Public Schools' Growing Edibles in Containers website, and gardening has been happening!

One project that I was fortunate enough to see the end result of was the Salad Science program initiated by Audubon GreenKids.  This program introduced elementary school students at seven schools to the science of growing their own food, using seeds for salad mix donated by Grow It Eat It.  Funded by a grant from TogetherGreen, GreenKids staff members Diane Lill and Jenny Brown (Jenny is also a UME Master Gardener) provided the teachers with the materials they needed to complete the program, managed planting days and answered questions along the way (with help from MGs).

Planting day at Whetstone Elem.
The salad tables were built by local Scouts for an Eagle Scout project and featured foldable legs and a planting area just the right height for the children.

Table at Cedar Grove
The teachers and students collected data on growth and weather, and harvested their crops for salads.

Whetstone's salad table
 All the schools had wonderful salad parties at the end of the project. I was able to attend two of these, at Cedar Grove and Whetstone Elementaries, and they were absolutely charming events.  The children harvested their lettuce and Swiss chard with scissors, waited patiently for their turns to serve themselves salad (with extra delicious vegetables provided by GreenKids), ate with enthusiasm, and drew some lovely gardens as well!

Harvest day at Harmony Hills Elem.
This was a fantastic educational project, and I hope it can be expanded to more schools next year.  Check out these two pages for more great photos (may load slowly):

Salad Greens for First Grade Gardeners

Our Healthy Harvest

Blog photos courtesy Jenny Brown and Claire Gardner.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Stink bug update, June 22, 2011

'Relax!  No silver bullet!'

The latest news about the brown marmorated stink bug is that there is no news.

The Maryland Department of Agriculture today (June 22) updated its information about the bugs with a news release that includes these sentences of interest to gardeners:

“While many research institutions are working to find ways to eradicate the pest, there is currently no quick or certain way for homeowners or farmers to control this pest, and there are no chemical recommendations currently available for homeowners or farmers to follow. Results from lab insecticide tests, showed that the stink bug only appeared to be dead after being exposed to an insecticide. After living in a coma-like state (or ‘moribund state’) for a week, the bugs appeared to come back to life, their bodies having broken down the insecticide.”

What’s a gardener to do then when stink bugs invade?

A simple option is to inspect your veggies and fruit and drop any stink bugs you find into a jar of soapy water. You’ll find another option in the University of Maryland Extension’s Home and Garden Information Center’s fact sheet and its video showing how floating row covers may be used to keep stink bugs off your garden plants. To access the fact sheet, CLICK HERE. To access the video, CLICK HERE.

To access the Maryland Agriculture Department’s complete June 22 news release, CLICK HERE.

Tomato Patch: Lemon or lemonade?

Curled & blistered Virginia Sweets leaf
“When life gives you a lemon,” the optimist says, “make lemonade.”

In a previous Tomato Patch posting, I described how super-hot weather in early June, new transplants with poorly developed root systems, and fumes from petroleum-based driveway sealant combined to damage many of my young tomato plants. Older leaves curled and blistered under metallic-looking shine. Newer leaves and yellow blossoms shriveled.

I coddled the damaged plants for two weeks, hoping they would show signs of recovery. I sent updates and photos to the University of Maryland Extension. Three Super Marzano plants showed definite signs of new growth. Several Juliet and Sungold plants showed positive signs, but several didn’t. Two Defiant and a Virginia Sweets looked, well, terminal.

Shriveled leaf of Defiant plant
On Friday morning Jon Traunfeld, a specialist at the Extension, came to check out my mini-disaster. He examined plants, took photographs, and measured distances. “I’ve never seen anything quite like this,” he said.

And then I made a metaphorical pitcher of lemonade out of three of my “lemons,” three of the most severely damaged tomato plants. I gave them to Jon to take back to the nearby Extension for examination and study by plant pathologists and diagnosticians. I also said I’d let one of the most damaged plants continue to grow, if that’s the word, and periodically report on its status.

Jon later sent a note of thanks and commented, “You made a contribution to our knowledge of tomato growing in this modern world—although unwittingly.” Ah, isn’t that sweet lemonade?

After Jon left, I looked at the empty cages in my Tomato Patch and hopped into my pickup truck and went to nearby retailers that I thought might still have a tomato plant or two left. I didn’t find anything I wanted at the veggie-plant sections of a fine, local nursery and the neighborhood hardware store. A local farm that grows tens of thousands of veggie transplants every spring closed its greenhouses two weeks earlier.

But at Sun Nurseries in nearby Woodbine I found a table of overgrown, tangled, but basically healthy-looking tomato plants on close-out special--99¢ each. “I’ll help you find what you want and untangle them,” a helpful clerk said.

As pathetic as Charlie Brown's Christmas tree?
Soon I was headed home with two Celebrity and two Juliet tomato plants that were 28” tall and root-bound in 2.5” pots. Hey, beggars can’t be choosey—at least gardeners who are looking for tomato plants nearly a month after most other gardeners have stopped shopping.

As another customer exclaimed as I was checking out, “What are they—tomato plants?” Yes, they were a remarkable sight, the tomato equivalent of Charlie Brown’s pathetic Christmas tree.

Friday evening I did something I’d never done before—planted four tomatoes in my Tomato Patch in cages and through mulch to replace damaged plants that I’d pulled.

But maybe that’s one of the great attractions of gardening—that we gardeners always are meeting new challenges and learning about something we’ve never encountered before. That gives meaning to the old saying, “As the Garden Grows, So Shall the Gardener.”

Monday, June 20, 2011

Transplants for the Fall Garden

I know it's hard to believe since the summer solstice is tomorrow, but it's time to start your fall transplants for the fall vegetable garden. While a lot of fall vegetables (kale, spinach, lettuces, turnips, etc.) can be started from seed in the garden, a number of vegetables (broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collards and celery) must be started now, in order to have transplants available in the first weeks of August. For more information on starting seeds, see the Home and Garden Information Center's video on seed starting.

Referring to the Home and Garden Information Center's publication HG16 and using broccoli as an example, broccoli transplants can be planted in the garden in late July through the first three weeks of August. Since it takes five to six weeks to raise broccoli from seed to transplantable size, starting broccoli seeds now will produce broccoli transplants in the last week of July or the first week of August.

For more inquisitive gardeners, here are the particulars of how to calculate when you should start your fall transplants. First, pick a date when you want to start harvesting your fall broccoli or use the first frost date in your area, say you want to start harvesting on October 10 and continue to harvest side shoots throughout the fall. From October 10, subtract 14 days for so called short day factor (after the summer solstice, the period of daylight each day shortens so plants don't grow as fast). You also need to take into account the suggested number of days it takes to raise the broccoli from transplant to maturity. In the case of the premium crop broccoli I'm growing this fall, it's 55 days from transplant to maturity. So that means the transplants should go in the ground 69 (14 + 55) days prior to my October 10 harvest date or about August 2. Since it takes five to six weeks to get broccoli from seed to transpantable size, subtract that number of days from the August 2 date (I'll use six weeks or 42 days in my example), so you should start your seeds on June 21. The formula is, harvest date minus short day factor (14 days) minus days to maturity minus days to grow from seed to transplantable size equals seed starting date.

Tomato Patch: Pinch that Sucker?

Sucker at tip of arrow
Leaf stem to left of sucker
Main stem to right of sucker
I am a sometimes sucker pincher. Sometimes I pinch them. Sometimes I don’t. Every year I vow to pinch them, but usually I pinch them early in the season and forget about weekly followup.

You’re reading something that indicates Tomato Patch in the headline, so you know suckers must have something to do with tomato plants. But just what are they?

Here’s how the chapter on vegetables in the University of Maryland Master Gardener Handbook defines them and why you may want to pinch them: “Suckers are shoots that arise from axils (the angle where a plant stem and leaf branch meet). These shoots will eventually produce flowers and fruit. However, moderate pruning will increase fruit size, hasten ripening, and keep your plants more manageable. Prune staked tomatoes to one to three main stems (plant spacing can be reduced in these situations). Remove all other suckers weekly. It is especially important to remove suckers that emerge from the plant base. Pinch shoots off with your fingers.”

Brandywine Red before pruning
Johnny’s Selected Seeds gives similar, but slightly different, advice on its website: “Prune your indeterminate tomatoes (but not determinate varieties). Prune to one or two main branches or "leaders" which will ideally be about the same size. This is accomplished by removing side shoots or "suckers" that grow in the leaf axils between leaves and the stem. If you want two leaders, which is often recommended in case the main stem is damaged, leave one sucker directly below the first flower cluster. Prune all other suckers that grow on both stems. After that, prune off all new suckers. The suckers should be snapped off when they are no larger than 2-3" long. Larger suckers may need to be cut off with pruners. Pruning should be done about every week to 10 days to stay ahead of sucker development.”

If you read 10 articles on suckers, you probably will get basically similar information but differing details. Here are several differences and my take:

Suckering is important on indeterminate tomato varieties—the “tall” plants that continue growing until frost kills them. By definition, determinate, or “short,” varieties are limited in their growth, have few suckers, and will not leave you groping for sunlight in an overgrown jungle of tomato leaves.

Pinch the suckers when they’re young and tender. Just snap them off with your fingers. The “wounds” will heal quickly. However, the stems of suckers become tougher as they age and may not come off as cleanly with your pinch. That’s when you may need to use your pruners or scissors, though some sources say their use may introduce pathogens to cut tissue.

Brandywine Red after pruning
Some sources emphasize pinching of lower suckers because they usually are shaded by higher leaves and usually produce little fruit. Another reason is that leaves closer to the ground are at higher risk of diseases that are endemic in local soils that can splash onto lower stems during rain or watering if plants aren’t well mulched.

How many suckers should you pinch from each plant? Intensive growing systems, such as Mel Bartholomew’s “Square Foot Gardening,” recommend that you remove all suckers. For general gardening situations, the consensus seems to be to let one or two suckers grow, so each becomes a leader with leaves, flowers, and fruit of its own.

This year I’ve vowed once again to pinch suckers weekly. I started Friday, perhaps two weeks behind schedule. Some of the suckers already were a foot long, and when I pinched them, sometimes they pulled small strips of tissue from the main stems. That’s a good reason and also a reminder to pinch suckers when they are young and tender.

Photo 1 shows a sucker growing in the axil where tomato stem and leaf join. Photo 2 shows one of my Brandywine Red plants before I pinched suckers. Photo 3 shows the same Brandywine Red after I removed all the extra growth. The difference is remarkable—sort of like when I get a haircut after four or five weeks.

Since I was doing “catch-up pinching,” it took nearly an hour and I carried an armload of pinched suckers from my Tomato Patch. But if I pinch regularly, future maintenance will be both quick and minimal.

Should you pinch your suckers? I like the way John Page puts it in the little booklet “Grow the Best Tomatoes” (Storey Publishing): “Prune them if you are a sucker-pruner. Pinch them if you are a sucker-pincher. Let them go and things will get pretty dense and green, often requiring some topping.”

Here are two short videos that will show you how to pinch suckers. To watch Jon Traunfeld of the University of Maryland Extension in “Pruning Tomato Suckers” (3:17 minutes), CLICK HERE.  To watch Johnny’s Selected Seed video, “How to Prune Tomatoes (2:52 minutes), CLICK HERE.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Floating row cover update

PVC low tunnel for medium-sized crops
Want to know how to use floating row cover in your garden to protect against brown marmorated stink bugs and other pests?  Check out our new informational page at the Grow It Eat It website.  See descriptions of structures you can build to hold up the row cover over different-sized plants (it can also lie directly on top of some crops) and read lists of plants that don't require insect pollination, so you can leave the cover on all season, as well as those from which you have to remove the cover.  Check it out!

They're back: Popillia japonica!

First of the season

It must be mid-June in central Maryland. I was weeding Wednesday afternoon morning and there, sunning itself on a Shasta daisy bloom, was Popillia japonica—the Japanese beetle.

This is the month adults emerge from the ground, look for some tender fast food, and then head off to a single’s bar to find a mate.

Food, did you say? Yes, Japanese beetles dine on 200, 300, or 400 different plants—depending on the source you consult.

For veggie and fruit gardeners, common beetle foods are the leaves of green beans, brambles (especially blackberries), and stone fruits such as peach, cherry, and plum. Flower gardeners often find them dining on their roses and zinnias.

What to do?

Solutions abound. Hand pick them or flick them into soapy water is a traditional favorite. Floating row covers may keep them away from your favorite plants. Registered insecticides will do the trick—and you will follow directions, won’t you?

And then there are the yellow traps that lure the beetles with sex pheromone. But do you really want to entice all the Japanese beetles in your neighborhood to come to your garden? But you could buy a trap and give it as a gift to a neighbor. No, no—you wouldn’t do such a nasty thing, would you?

The list of remedies is a long one. You may not have heard of some of the newer approaches—such as imported parasitic wasps that prey on the beetles. If you want to be the expert on your block about Japanese beetles, I suggest you read “Managing the Japanese Beetle: A Homeowner’ Handbook,” by the Animal and plant Health Inspection Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (Program Aid 1599). To access the booklet, CLICK HERE.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

A Pomegranate Blossoms in Maryland

For Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day, let me introduce you to my dwarf pomegranate, Punica granatum 'Nana'.  I got it about three years ago and since then have been dutifully putting it on the deck every summer, repotting into larger pots, and lugging it inside every fall.  It has bloomed nicely more than once a year, dropped all its leaves on the carpet in the winter, regrown them in the spring, and never once successfully set fruit.  (And yes, it is self-fertile.)

This year I decided Nana was going to have to make it on its own.  Most sources list pomegranates as being hardy to zone 7 with protection - more 7b than 7a, I suspect, but close enough.  So I chose a quiet, sunny spot in my vegetable garden and planted it.

I think it likes the new situation, no?  That blurry thing in the photo is a fruit, which I hope will continue to grow and eventually ripen.

'Nana' is actually a nice small shrub to have just for the flowers and foliage (except the indoor deciduous bit), but fruits, even if small and infrequent, will make it even more special.  Now, if I can get it to survive the winter... a little fence, some insulating leaves to stuff around it, a blanket or some row cover when it gets really cold... we'll see.  I've seen full-size pomegranates thriving at Colonial Williamsburg, and I think survival further north is feasible, but if anyone has experience growing this plant outside in zone 7a/6b or cooler, I'd love to be reassured.

Shrub in place: currently about two feet tall, could put on an extra foot if it lives.

Aside from that excitement, this has been Blueberry Extravaganza Week: blueberry muffins, blueberry soup, and plenty into the freezer for later.  Blueberry pie for Fathers' Day is a must!

While we're talking dessert, this is my favorite pomegranate recipe.  Two ingredients: melted chocolate and pomegranate seeds (arils).  Explodes deliciously in the mouth (and on the carpet, if you're not careful).

Enjoy your fruits!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Tomato Patch: Setback or disaster?

Curled tomato leaf
Sickly—that's the word. Thirteen of my 23 tomato plants look sick, very sick. Is this a disaster—or just a setback?

I set out my plants on May 30, and they seemed to flourish. I mulched and caged them and watered them regularly. Within a week of when I transplanted, our paving guy came to repair several cracks in our driveway and to apply a petroleum-based sealant. Fumes from the sealant were strong, so strong I opened the garage doors for two or three days to air it out. And then came those record-breaking days—99° and 100° F., or were they higher? Leaves of my 13 plants nearest the driveway began to curl, stems to twist, young leaves to shrivel, blossoms to droop.

Most affected were plants near the asphalt—Super San Marzano, Big Mama, Defiant, Virginia Sweets, Juliet, Sungold, and Wow! But two adjacent rows grew normally—three Brandywine (Sudduth’s) and three Brandywine Red, and just 25 feet downhill in another patch, a Virginia Sweets and three Yellow Plum plants flourished.

What’s going on here? I can’t recall reading an article in a gardening magazine about such trauma.

Did the plants wilt in the fumes of the petroleum asphalt sealant? Did the horrendous heat wilt the plants before they became well rooted in the garden soil? Did the heat and fumes combine to injure the plants? Did the asphalt intensify the heat to damage the nearby plants?  Or was there another cause?

I researched on online. I used the index and found relevant information in the University of Maryland Master Gardener Handbook. I went online ( and submitted a question to the consultants at the University of Maryland Extension’s Home & Garden Information Center.

The consensus is that there are multiple possible causes, so it’s difficult to pinpoint the cause with certainty. Because the leaves curl up, rather than down, herbicide (such as drifting 2,4-D) is not the answer. The most likely suspect is the effect the extreme heat we had last week had on the newly set-out plants. The sealant fumes are hard to factor in because they’re not a common cause of such problems, but in my case, plants between the asphalt and the tomatoes were not affected—peonies, daylily, spotted mint, allium, crape myrtle, butterfly weed, and Shasta daisy.

What am I going to do? I’m going to monitor my sick plants closely. HGIC asked that I report if the situation gets worse.  I plan to report next week.

Will these blossoms turn into tomatoes?
While I was mulling over possible causes of my sickly tomato plants, I had another troubling thought. Tomatoes—peppers too—have maximum fruit set between 65° and 80° F. They have reduced fruit set at temperatures greater than 95°. Temperatures last week were above 95° several days.

Did those high temperatures do double damage on my tomato plants? Did those temperatures, more like those of July and August than June, wilt my young plants and delay their growth? Did those super-hot days damage the pollen in the first blossoms—so I will have few early tomatoes if the plants do revive?

How much drama can we stand, tomato growers?

I knew I should have done a Ph.D. in botany. “Dr. Nixon, Dr. Nixon. Please report to the Tomato Patch. Code Wilt. Code Wilt.”

Ah, fantasies—always good for a smile—as would be an enclosed Tomato Patch—perhaps a greenhouse with central heating and air-conditioning—so I could keep the temperature at exactly 78° F.—for maximum fruit set.

IFO Sightings (Identified Fruiting Objects)

IFOs have been spotted in my garden! gals and guys identified fruiting objects have been spotted and I am SO happy to see them!

I went to the big garden to water and weed and of course to bug patrol (have to watch for stink bugs ...and I did *gulp* see one on my pepper plant). As I was looking at my maters, I noticed some tiny little fruits!

These are my sungolds which are cherry tomatoes:

There are about thirty or so that I saw and many more flowers as well. I am hopeful that there will be a bumper crop of all kinds of maters!

Here is a picture of the sungold plants. They are getting so big! I need to stake them, I know.

And here is a picture of three Big Beef maters happily growing on the vine:

As I walked merrily over to the cantaloupe patch I spotted these babies:

The peppers are also doing quite well. Lots of flowers but no fruit yet:

Here's a funny one for you. I left some spindly looking tomatoes, a pepper and some basil in pots that just didn't seem to be doing well. I forgot to throw them away and they just sat there. Well, they've busted through the pots and are rooted in the ground....AND doing quite well I might add! I call them "the forgotten ones". They are like my little garden mafia:

I figure if they are thriving I'll let them be!

Now on to the creepy crawlies. Ick. This first little guy was camera shy. Every time I tried to take a picture he would go to the underside of a leaf. I finally said "I just want a picture" and then he came up on the leaf and I think he smiled for me:

Now....ever wondered what a Colorado potato beetle looked like? Wonder no more. I killed two of these in my garden and checked the undersides of leaves to be sure they left no eggs:

They feed on tomatoes, eggplants, potatoes and other plants. They feed on the leaves and will totally decimate your crops! The females are very prolific and can lay up to 800 eggs on the undersides of leaves. The eggs are usually orange and are in clusters. So if you see this bug any where near your garden, kill it! Then check the undersides of your plants for eggs and if you see any you need to put your garden gloves on and smoosh those eggs!