greenthumbpete.com


   Mar 04

Happy Soil

Wouldn’t it be great if we could just dig a hole in the soil, drop in the plant and walk away; leaving everything else to nature? For two hundred thousand years, our hunter gatherer ancestors had that relationship with plants. The expression “If you get hungry just pick up something to eat along the way,” dates to that period.

Plantae had the system down pat. They produced pretty flowers and delicious food to attract animalia who pollinated the seed, picked the food and dispersed the seeds of future generations across their migratory paths. Then, Early European Modern Humans (formerly known as Cro-Magnons) decided to stop gathering and became farmers. What a mistake!

For 1.7 Billion years plantae, fungi and micro-organisms converted the lifeless sand silt and clay into a nutrient rich water retaining soil capable of supporting plant growth. In just a little over ten thousand years we managed to mess it up. “If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it,” recognize that expression?

Fungi and bacteria play an important role in helping plants (and humans) thrive and reproduce during the growing season; they are the core of a healthy immune system. 30,000 to 1, that is the ratio of good micro-organisms to bad; 1 trillion, the number of these little buggers in a teaspoon of garden soil; and a whole mess, the number of microbes in your yard.

These microbes are pathfinders, dissolving minerals and marking the way for roots. They are the defense shield protecting the plant from detrimental bacteria and viruses. In return, the plants provide these micro-organisms with the surplus photosynthesized sugar stored in their roots.

One level up are tiny insects that breakdown decomposed organic matter into microbe sized bites, and above them are worms and bugs who breakdown the leaves and twigs into tiny insect sized bites. In reality, our yard is a giant compost bin. That pile over in the corner out of sight is just a sad reproduction of what nature has been doing for a long, long time.

The soil temperature will soon be fifty degrees and these microbes will be awake and hungry. The best thing we can do is feed them. Peat moss, manures, compost, the leaves and grass clippings you have been piling up on the other side of the stone wall; all of this “Debris” is a microbial buffet. You can never add too much organic material to your soil. Ask the people cutting your neighbor’s lawn and chipping trees. If your Town operates a composting facility go fill up some buckets.

If you take care of the soil, the soil will take care of you. Black Mold, Powdery Mildew, even Blight will be nothing worse than a minor irritant if you keep the microbes happy. Viruses invented stealth technology, cloaking themselves inside plant friendly cells. A healthy plant’s immune system easily recognizes the disguise and repels the attack.

 Less watering, less weeding, less chemicals ending in the letters CIDE; it almost makes you willing to forgive that Cro-Magnon who gave up the hunter gatherer life.


   Sep 24

An Ounce of Prevention

A couple of weeks ago I suggested waiting until the first killing frost before digging up the tender bulbs. At the time I did not anticipate that the frost would be accompanied by six inches of snow.

Fortunately the soil has remained warm despite the freezing night temperatures so the tubers and bulbs should all be good. So far I have not lost a single plant; well that isn’t a true statement. TheBartlettpear tree split in half, and now it is just a memory.

When we are injured our wounds heal. When plants are injured their wounds seal. Within the tree bark there are growth cells called meristems. These cells are active at the branch and root tips and are responsible for the growth we see during the summer. Inactive or latent meristems are at the nodes where branches attach to the tree. They become active when the branch is pruned to quickly build a callus over to cut, the callus looks like a bagel.

When tree bark is damaged, the exposed wood is in a world of hurt because it contains no living cells. Between the bark and the wood is a layer of tissue called the cambium, this is the live part of the tree during the growing season. At the end of very season it dies and becomes another ring of wood.

Wood serves only two purposes; it is the water highway from the roots to the leaves, and it holds up the tree. So the importance of sealing the wound is evident, if the wood rots the tree falls; simple as that.

If you had serious tree damage, where large sections of bark and wood ripped off when a branch broke; then you should consider taking the tree down. Disaster may not occur for several years, but in the interim you are inviting nothing but trouble in the form of insects and disease.

If the wounds are small or the branch has only partially separated from the trunk consult an arborist. I’ve seen successful surgeries incorporating some woodscrews, lag bolts and wire, but you and I are not qualified to make that call. As I said in a previous article; spending a little money now will save a lot of money and aggravation later when you have to call the insurance company.

What is important for your yard right now is cleaning up any mess caused be the snow storm. The snow matted down the leaves of peony and other herbaceous plants and it only took a few days for the bad guys to move into their winter homes. We need to put up a “No Vacancy” sign by cutting back this year’s growth and tossing it into the compost bin.

When I wrote earlier about not losing a single plant, I meant the tender bulbs; so far they are all coming up okay. I only wish I could say the same about the appliances in the house after the power surge passed through. Darn Trees.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, attributed to Ben Franklin, but even he acknowledged the proverbs found in his “Poor Richard’s Almanack” were gleaned from the “wisdom of the ages and nations.” I think about that quote often, especially these past few years when severe storms damaged and toppled trees, destroyed property and left so many homes without power.

In my profession, I have been Valued Analyzed, Valued Engineered, Quality Circled, Total Quality Managed, Integrated Processed Teamed and Six-Sigmaed. I’ve thought outside, inside, over and under the box; and I’ve drawn so many fishbone charts that I almost gave up seafood. I predict that after all of the special committees complete their exhaustive studies; the root cause (no pun intended) of the problem related to broken power lines will be the trees.

We plant trees with all kinds of good intentions. We might prepare the soil prior to planting and coddle it as a sapling, but then we ignore and abuse it. What we forget is that a tree is a plant, a really big plant but still a plant. It requires the same cultivating support we would give to our hydrangeas or roses. Serious damage to small plants that are quickly addressed by us are delayed or ignored on a tree. We down play the damage do not have the time to repair it our self, or the resources to pay someone else to repair it. We just forget all about it, that is, until a devastating event occurs.

Trees planted under or next to power lines do screen them from our view. As they grow into the lines however Towns and utility companies are forced to prune the branches, usually to the detriment of the tree. The pruning is performed to protect the wires, not for the health and beauty of the tree. Damage from automobiles or lawnmowers, pruning incorrectly, or removing large diameter limbs can prevent wounds from sealing. Over time, exposure to the elements and insects rot the wood, and then the birds and animals hollow it out to make a shelter. All that weight above the hollow and nothing to support it. “What happened to the lights?”

Trees planted next to the house do look nice and provide shade in summer. As they reach their mature size however droppings from overhanging branches damage the roof and siding, the roots destroy the driveway, crack the foundation or grow into and clog the sewer line.

And we leave groups of volunteers alone because we want that woodland effect or they create privacy, blocking the view from the street. As they grow, the upper branches shade out and kill off the lower branches; the trunks never achieving full width potential. When they reach their mature height they look like a bunch of pencils, tall and skinny. They are also top heavy and are easily knocked over by high winds.

The end result of all of this usually turns out bad for the tree and our wallet. Before winter, do yourself a favor and inspect your trees. Prune, repair or remove them now while you are in control. It will be a lot cheaper and certainly less painful than a telephone call to the insurance company.

Storing tender bulbs – All good things come to an end, and with tender bulbs the end coincides with the first killing frost. I cannot believe that my dahlia are still going strong; heck it’s the end of October and we are still picking peppers, can you believe that?

But in a few weeks it will all be over except for the clean-up. So if you grew begonia, caladium, calla, canna, elephant ear, dahlia or gladiola this year and want to save the bulbs for next year then this is your call to action.

 Some bulbs, gladiola, have already finished their growth cycle and can be pulled immediately. Shake off the soil and wash the balance off in a bucket of bleach water (1/2 cup to a gallon of water). Then remove the stem leaving about one-inch attached to the bulb. Let the bulbs cure for a couple of weeks in a warm dry location and store in paper bags without packing material.

Begonia, caladium and calla are approaching the finish with their leave turning yellow, it is your call to pull them now or wait for the frost. The frost will turn the foliage into something like cooked spinach, so I prefer to dig them up now. I clean the caladium and calla as I did the gladiola, I do not wash the begonia bulb. All of these bulbs are cured with the stems attached. In a few weeks they will dry and easily detach from the bulb, at that time, I store the caladium and calla in sawdust and the begonia in peat.

The canna bulb is really a thick rhizome that grows in all directions from the base of the plant. Some people just dig up the plant in the morning, shake off the soil, let them dry in the sun all day and then store it as is in an open box. I personally am not interested in the little crawly things that are in the soil wintering in my basement, so I hose off as much of the soil as I can before bringing them. At the end of the day, I store them in an open container packed with sawdust. If you grew canna in containers and plan to grow them there again, you can just remove the stems and store them as is.

Elephant ear are a toss-up, you can pull them now or wait until after the frost. After you clean and wash the bulb cut the foliage back as far as you can. The stems are a lot thicker so it takes longer for them to dry, that’s okay you can leave them on the bulb. Store them in an open container in sawdust.

I use a long handled fork to loosen the soil around the dahlia before I pull the plant. The tubers are like potatoes, having a narrow neck attaching them to the stem. The neck connects the tuber to a tiny bump on the base of the stem that is next year’s plant. If the neck breaks, the tuber is worthless.

I leave enough stem on the plant to use as a handle while I clean and wash the tubers. Then I dry the plant outdoors upside down to allow water to drain out of the stem. I bring them inside that night and the next day store them packed in peat in a covered but not air tight container.

All of the bulbs should be stored at a temperature between 40 and 60 degrees. Come March you will have happy rested bulbs ready to start another season.


   Aug 27

Spring Classes and Lectures

February 23: Got faked out by the weather forecasters and cancelled the classes this weekend, they are re-scheduled for the next two Sunday mornings.

February 10: Classes begin next Sunday. Spring is only four weeks away. I will be turning beds in March.

I provide lectures and classes in the Greater Boston area. If you are a garden club or nursery preparing your 2013 schedule, or a homeowner interested in hosting a session contact me for details. mastergardener@rcn.com

Classes this year are scheduled for Bedford, Billerica, Burlington, North Reading, Lexington, Reading, Wilmington and Woburn. Here are the class descriptions:

GROWING PLANTS FROM SEEDS Why wait until April to play in the dirt. Save money and plant something different in your garden this year by starting and growing flowers and vegetables indoors from seed. This three-hour course will provide the information needed to improve germination rates and grow healthy seedlings indoors for spring planting. The session will cover seed selection, growing mediums, and how to create a micro-climate favorable for plant growth. Try something new this growing season.

 NO-MAINTENANCE GARDENING And other lies you want to believe about caring for your plants and lawn. This three-hour session is filled with tricks and tips that will make your yard work much easier this summer. The dialog session will cover the reasons behind your favorite subjects: planting, watering, fertilizing, and lawn care. Warning: Gardening is addictive. At the conclusion of the course, you may find yourself enjoying your yard.

THE REAL DIRT ON GARDENING Prune your shrubs and prune your expenses, minimize your yard work, have a great lawn, and save the planet by developing a basic understanding of plants, vegetables, and gardening techniques. Learn simple tricks to make yard work enjoyable as you improve your plant-growing skills. Save time and money by increasing your knowledge of soil-preparation, plant-selection and propagation, lawn care, landscaping, and yard maintenance.

Class dates and locations are available on the Town website, their contact information is:

Billerica Recreation Department  http://recreation.town.billerica.ma.us  Telephone: 978-671-0921

Bedford Recreation Department http://www.town.bedford.ma.us/index.php/departments/recreation Telephone: 781 275-1392

BurlingtonRecreation Department http://www.burlingtonrecreation.org/ Telephone: 781 270-1695

LexingtonRecreation Department http://www.lexington-ma.gov/recreationdepartment.cfm Telephone: 781 862-0500 x262

North Reading Recreation Department http://www.northreadingma.gov/Pages/NReadingMA_Recreation/index Telephone: 978 357-5216

Reading Public Schools  http://www.edline.net/pages/ReadingPublicSchools/District/Adult_Education Telephone: 781 942-9136

Wilmington Recreation Department http://www.wilmingtonma.gov  Telephone: 978 658-4270

Woburn Recreation Department  http://www.woburnrec.com Telephone: 781 897-5805

Participation is not limited to residents of these Towns.


   Jul 10

The Independent Gardener

Back to Our Roots

Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison were Founding Fathers and our first four presidents; what else did they have in common? They were land owners and farmers. Now Adams only worked 400 acres inQuincy, whereas the other three had a comma in their number, but he was a farmer none the less.

Today we refer to them as gentlemen farmers because they held a second job addressing a minor problem. You might rememberWashingtonwas assigned to a subcommittee managing a war; but even then, much of his correspondence toMount Vernonwas about the farm and his gardens.

We cannot underestimate the influence of agriculture on how our constitution and government was shaped. More than half of the 55 attendees to the 1787 Continental Convention inPhiladelphiawere gardeners. These people spent a sweltering summer behind closed doors and windows, crafting the document that still governs us today.

Washingtonchaired the convention andMadisonwas the un-official recording secretary. Absent, but in constant communication via sail-mail were Adams and Jefferson. They were inEnglandtrying to rekindle a relationship with our former and only trading partner.

Something that we can relate to today is that the attendees quickly agreed the Articles of the Confederation, the document that held us together during the Revolutionary War, wasn’t working; but they could agree on how the new government should be organized. The difference between then and now however is that with compromises offered on all sides they made it happen; in just four months.

These people developed life long friendships several years earlier while serving in the Continental Congress during the war; their common bond was gardening. When the war ended they shared letters, seeds and plants across all of the states; andEurope.

Jefferson, who was stationed inParisat the time, traded throughoutEurope, requesting seed boxes from the states and sending back anything that had potential to sustain the population. One of the most successful was rice, still grown along thePalmettoCoastinSouth Carolina.

So, during the Convention, arguments were heated but not personal. The location for cooler heads to prevail and discuss compromises was at William Bartram’s garden, 100 acres of plants along the SchuylkillRiver. This place could have been the blueprint for our Arnold Arboretum; it hosted plants from the thirteen states, all thriving in one location. (www.bartramsgarden.org)

Ironically, at the same time, Adams and Jefferson were frustrated with the trade negotiations. (Englandbelieved we were not going to survive as a nation and would soon be offering an apology along with a request to return to colony status.) They decided to leaveLondonand tour the exotic gardens on the English estates; and what they soon learned was that the “Exotic” plants were native toAmerica.

That was a eureka moment; on both sides of the pond. The convention attendees recognized the land’s natural resource sustainment potential and the trade delegation realized we didn’t needEnglandin order to survive. Our strength, ability to sustain ourselves, and produce a trade item was agriculture.

It seems to me that a nice way to honor these people would be a home vegetable garden.

In honor of our founding fathers

When in the Course of a growing season it becomes necessary for gardeners to dissolve the marketing bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of their backyard entitle them; a decent respect to the opinions of neighbors requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to garden.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all gardeners are created equal, that they are endowed by their ancestors with certain unalienable rights that among these are knowledge, ability and the pursuit of the weed free garden. That to secure these rights the Agriculture industry, deriving their powers from our spending dollar, need to know; that whenever any grower introduces a new plant variety, it is the right of the gardener to just say No on the principle that the yard is only so big, and most likely to effect our Safety, Happiness, and probably Marriage.

Prudence, indeed, dictates that 10,000 years of plant cultivation should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience has shown that gardeners are more disposed to suffer when new plants, tools and products are introduced, pursuing invariably the same objective; to reduce our savings. It is our right; it is our duty, to tell the Marketer where to go, and to provide new guards for a healthy garden.

Such has been the patient sufferance of us gardeners; and such is now the necessity which constrains us to alter our former growing techniques. The history of the Agriculture Industry is one of repeated introductions, all having the objective the establishment of an absolute plant buying addiction.

To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world. They promote must own noisy strap on, sit on, ride on power tools to replace healthy quiet hand tools. They convince us that fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides eliminate the requirement to compost and keep the yard clean. They dictate style as having the newest plant varieties; heirlooms and previous introductions being so “Last Year.”

At every introduction and advertisement we have stated in humble terms that the yard is full and the bank account empty; but our responses have no impact. We want the industry to keep progressing. We have reminded them that we garden because we want to and like it. We have attempted to instill in them our wants and needs, but it has fallen on deaf ears. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our separation and hold them, as we hold our fellow gardener; competitor for first and largest tomato yet still friend and neighbor.

We, therefore, the Gardeners of the united States of America, blog assembled, appealing to the gardeners of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do solemnly publish and declare, that we are united, and of right ought to be free and independent, that we will keep our planting beds clean of debris, that we will cut our lawn to prevent annual summer weeds from going to seed, that we will deadhead and prune for the health of our perennials.

We are absolved from all allegiance to Madison Avenue; and that as free and independent gardeners, we have full power to just say No, and to do all other acts and things which Independent gardeners may of right do.

And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of our fellow gardeners, we mutually pledge to each other our assistance, seeds, and produce.


   Jul 10

Recipes

Dark Rye Bread – I read an article about all the foods that are good for you; nuts, chocolate, coffee; and I remembered this recipe.

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons dry yeast
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 3 tablespoons molasses
  • 3 tablespoons melted butter
  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup warm milk (about 110o F)
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 cup ground walnuts
  • 1½ cups rye flour
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1½ tablespoons cocoa powder
  • 2½ tablespoons instant coffee  
  • 1 teaspoon vegetable oil
  • 1 large egg, beaten

Directions

  1. Combine the yeast, sugar, melted butter, egg, molasses, cocoa, instant coffee and milk in the bowl.
  2. Finely grind walnuts in food processor.
  3. Add the salt, rye flour, and all-purpose flour. Mix until the mixture forms a ball and leaves the sides of the bowl.
  4. Knead the dough into a ball and place it into an oiled bowl, turning it to oil all sides. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside in a warm, draft-free place until it doubles in size.
  5. Remove the dough from the bowl and invert it onto a lightly floured surface.
  6. Knead the dough again for a couple of minutes.
  7. Cut in half and place the dough into greased loaf pans. For dinner rolls cut the dough into 12 pieces and place into greased muffin pan.
  8. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside in a warm, draft-free place until they double in size.
  9. Bake at 350O F until lightly brown, 30 to 35 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool on a rack. Serve warm with butter.

 

Eggplant Appetizer – Eggplant is incorporated into many dishes. This recipe makes a great appetizer.

2 Tablespoons Olive oil; 1 Onion, medium, finely chopped; 2 Garlic clove, minced; 1 Cup Eggplant, cut into ¼ inch cubes; 6 Sun dried tomatoes, finely chopped; 1 Cup Canned crushed tomatoes; 1 Teaspoon Capers, finely chopped; 1/3 Cup Black olives, pitted and chopped; 2 Tablespoons Parsley; 1 Tablespoon Basil; 2  Tablespoons Pine nuts, coarsely chopped; Salt and pepper to taste

  1. Place medium sized saucepan over medium heat.  Add the olive oil and heat.  Stir in the onion and cook, stirring often, until barely softened, about 3 minutes.
  2. Add garlic, cook 1 minute more, and add the remaining ingredients except for the nuts.  Gently simmer the relish for 3 to 4 minutes, until heated through.
  3. Stir the nuts in and refrigerate.

 Serve at room temperature on little cross cut toasted French bread.

Drying Tomatoes - One thing about a home vegetable garden is that you do over estimate the quantity of plants needed to feed your family and end up sharing a lot with your neighbors. Zucchini clearly wins the prize for most overgrown and joked about vegetable, but right behind it has to be the tomato.

Now I love tomatoes, and I have to admit that I’ve really gotten hooked on heirloom varieties. A few years ago, at a Farmer’s Market, I purchased one of every variety and conducted a taste test with my family when I got home. We settled on five varieties that we liked and I saved the seeds.

Taste is one thing, how well plants grow and produce in the garden is another. Green Zebra is a delicious tomato, but after years of associating the color red with ripe tomatoes, the brain cannot make the same link with the color green. So, I have since dropped that and other varieties and added new ones. In order to properly conduct a field test, you need to grow several plants of each variety. This year I am growing six different varieties. At three plants each, that’s 18 plants. Years ago when we were five people living at home I only had about six plants and always had a surplus. Now with just two of us you can imagine what the harvest looks likes.

The residents of BuñolSpainhave an interesting solution.  Every year on the last Wednesday in August at the end of their festival they hold a two-hour tomato fight. This event attracts thousands of visitors and presumably a lot of tourist dollars, though I have to wonder what the clean-up costs are. Fun as that might be, if we tried that here I think people would find other things to throw. Practical person that I am, I prefer to make sun dried tomatoes.

The traditional recipe for sun drying tomatoes requires old ladies in white aprons, a south facing hill, wood slats to lay the tomatoes on, cheese cloth to cover them and three sunny days. While there is a white apron somewhere in the house, there is also an easier way to dry tomatoes. It is called an oven.

It really is very easy to dry tomatoes. Spread them on a cookie sheet, place in an oven set at very low heat (2250F) and read a book for a few hours. The type of tomato is irrelevant, I like plum or oval shaped varieties sliced lengthwise. Baseball sized tomatoes can be quartered. Even Beefsteaks can be dried. The secret is to dehydrate, not cook.

Let me set the stage. A cool August day, the windows are open and the tomatoes are in the oven. As they begin to dehydrate concentrating their sugars, the aroma spreads through the house. After a few hours you begin to check them, removing the pieces that have become rubbery. Assuming you didn’t eat them as they came out of the oven; when all of the slices are dehydrated, put them in a sandwich bag and place them in the freezer.

Garlic Scape Pesto - A garlic scape is the seed head growing from the plant. It is removed before it blooms to focus the plant’s energy on the underground bulb and is edible-from the flower (seed head) through the curly stalk. It is milder than regular garlic, but still has the flavor. This pesto is good on pasta or vegetables.

½ pound Garlic scapes, 1 cup Olive oil, 1 cup Parmesan or Romano cheese, grated, 3 tablespoons lemon juice

Puree the scapes and olive oil in a blender until smooth. Pour into a bowl and mix in the cheese and lemon juice. Store in the refrigerator for immediate use, or freeze for later use.

Garlic Scape Penne Chicken – If this doesn’t sell you on growing your own vegetables, nothing will.

3 or 4 Chicken breast, skinless, 1 cup garlic scape pesto, ¾ cup sun dried tomato, 1 onion, halved and thinly sliced, 1 Tbl capers, 1 pound           Penne pasta, cooked al dente

Melt one tablespoon of butter with two table spoons of olive oil in a large frying pan, and brown the chicken breasts. Remove the chicken breasts from the frying pan and sauté the onion. While the onion is sautéing, cut the chick crosswise into ¼-inch thick slices. Add the pesto, tomato and capers to the onion; stir in the chicken slices. Toss together the pasta and chicken pesto in large serving bowl.


   May 25

Pest Management

Pest Prevention and Control (June 2012) - If you were to make a list of the garden pests starting with the worst offenders it would look like this: 1. You, 2. Children, 3 Pets, 4. Wild animals, 5. Insects, and 6.Diseases

You – A little surprised to be on the top of the list, well don’t be. Every time you bang a tree trunk or scrape a shrub with the lawnmower you create an opening for insects and diseases to enter the plant. The pile of debris from last year’s garden; the one left to break down in the planting bed instead of the compost pile. It has warmed up nicely to become a great bug hotel and they can’t wait to attack this year’s plants. Your social calendar is so full; you probably have to schedule mowing the lawn. You’ve cut it so often it’s timed to the minute; the directional turns, how and where to push it under the shrub, when to raise the front to avoid damaging the blade on the exposed rock or tree root.

Children – A tiny you. Hey you want them playing in your yard not the street; and tree climbing is a right of passage; but strengthening their baseball swing by taking a bat to a tree trunk and improving eye foot coordination by dribbling a soccer ball through the iris bed is a little over the top. Have you ever looked at your spouse and said, “Tell me again why we decided to have children?” No, I’m not going there. You either want a child friendly yard that has pretty plants and flowers or you want a botanical paradise interspersed with statues and water features. You can’t have both. Ask yourself this question. When my children bring the grandkids here how do I want them to describe their childhood memories?

Pets – Consider this, if a sign “Vegetable bed just seeded” means nothing to a teenager what do you think it means to your dog? You may think your pet understands verbal commands, but that just means they trained you well. Cats are natural hunters, and they thank you for letting them run around outdoors by bringing you offerings. They are also kind enough to do their business in the litter box. Dogs, on the other hand, insist on killing the entire lawn one brown spot at a time.

Wild Animals – Deer, chipmunks, woodchucks, rabbits, squirrels, moles; all have to eat. You can mark your territory with wild animal scent, or you can use your own; but you have to do that continuously all season. You can spend a lot on mirrored glass hanging from tree limbs, topless drink bottles sunk in the ground, and low frequency noise emitters. Or, you can take the easy alternative and put up a fence. Another alternative is to share the food. I once received a call from a gardener wanting to know how to get rid of snakes in her garden. I told her that the snakes were there because they had an ample food source of moles and chipmunks. If she wanted to get rid of the snakes she needed to get rid of the food source. She said she liked the chipmunks but not the snakes. We talked in circles for a half-hour with no resolution, and you will do the same year in and year out if you try to avoid the obvious.

 Insects and Diseases – Two points: it is important to remember that some bugs and insects are your friends; the ratio of good micro-organisms to bad is 30,000:1. Sanitation and proper plant spacing will almost eliminate this problem.

Does that mean you should just give up gardening? No, it just means you need to spend a little more time on prevention to have a lot more time for enjoyment. If you could eliminate the majority of your pest problems, reduce maintenance and save the mower in the process would you do it? I think you would. Here is what you do;

  • Clean all planting areas of debris. Debris harbors diseases, weeds and insects as it decomposes. It is a five-star hotel for pests.
  • Create a mulch ring around the trees and shrubs; providing a barrier between the mower and the plant, preventing damage to both. It looks nice, eliminates competition for nutrients between the grass and plants, and normalizes soil temperature and moisture providing a better growing environment.
  • Move plantings to the yard perimeter. Give the kids more unrestricted play area and run that mower in nice straight lines.
  • Put up some border fencing. It will not prevent balls from going into the plant beds, but it will make your child stop long enough to remember not to step on a plant.
  • Maintain proper spacing; crowding plants weakens them, reducing air circulation and creating a moist humid environment favorable for disease development.
  • Water during the day allowing enough time for plants and leaves to dry; eliminating a moist humid disease development environment

Animal Repellent – I put this together after researching an awful lot of  ingredient lists. These ingredients seem to be the most commonly used.

Ingredients; 10 Garlic Cloves, 1 Cup Habanero Hot Sauce, 1 Cup Fresh Mint leaves, 2 TBL Ground Cinnamon, 3 TBL Ground Rosemary (or 1 cup of fresh), 3 TBL Ground Sage, 2 TBL Ground Cayenne Pepper, 2 Cups Water

Directions

  • Add all ingredients in a blender and puree for several minutes
  • Pour into a large container and add enough water to equal one gallon
  • Cover and let sit for a few days to allow solids to settle
  • Strain through a coffee filter
  • Clearly label the container Animal Repellent
  • Use in a sprayer bottle, adding 1 Tablespoon of liquid dish detergent

Suggestions

  • Place teaspoons of the remaining solids from the coffee filter around the perimeter of your beds
  • Do not spray on a sunny day or in the afternoon; spray early morning or evening when it is cooler
  • Try the spray in an area where if it causes damage it won’t be noticed

The Rabbit Freeze – (April 2011) Have you ever had one of those days when you planned some time in the garden and as you walked out the door the plans disappeared into a black hole? That happened to me last Saturday. I was organized and focused, my plan was to transplant some Kale and lettuce seedlings into the garden, sow more lettuce seed, and prune winter damage off the shrubs.

I had been moving the seedlings in and out of the sunroom the previous week, hardening them off by gradually extending their time outside to avoid shocking their system when they finally got transplanted. The planting beds were also prepared in advance with two inches of compost spread and turned into the soil. Yes, I did use a string line to make sure the beds were strait and level. I know some people would argue that with all this prep work I must have a Type-A personality, but I disagree; I like to think that over the years I’ve mellowed into a Type-B+.

So anyway, I grabbed my tools and headed out to the garden. As I approached I noticed that the fencing was falling from the poles and had to be re-attached; the hinge on one of the gates was broken; the 12-inch strip of black plastic that runs along the fence making the garden stealthy needed to be installed; the garden hoses were still in the shed. Heck, the water was still turned off in the basement. I’m telling you, I just stood there frozen; like a rabbit when you catch then off guard in your yard, “If I don’t move I am invisible; that guy can’t see me.”

I probably stood staring across the garden for about three hours, and vaguely remember hearing Janet calling me to lunch. I knew what I planned to do, I knew what I wanted to do; and unfortunately, I knew what I had to do. Maybe, if I just stand here the fence will fix itself. Maybe the animals will stay out of my yard this year. Maybe a neighbor will spot me, recognize the telltale signs of Rabbit Freeze and help me to a recliner. Or maybe, just maybe I have to separate the Wants and Needs and take care of the Needs first.

The freeze really only lasted a couple of minutes, I knew what I had to do. It is called throwing the hat over the fence. If you throw the hat over the fence and want it back, you have to climb the fence to get it. If you have maintenance work to do around the yard and you know the work has to be done before you do anything else; you have set the other tasks aside, go get the maintenance tools, and do the repairs; and that is what I did.

All of the available gardening information about the protection and prevention of pest damage focuses on wild animals, insects and bugs. Yet the biggest pest in our garden is us. If a woodchuck gets into your garden through a hole in the fence, or because there is no fence, whose fault is it? Exactly. The little bit of extra time that we invest now preparing the gardens and planting beds will save us hours of work during the summer when we want to enjoy the yard, grill some food and eat the vegetables; and I am all for that. Then the only freeze I will need to worry about will come from the ice cream.

Pepper Sprayed – (July 2011) Is it just me, or did Chipmunks come out of hibernation a little early this year thinking they were rabbits? I’ve never seen so many, especially in my backyard. A typical litter is 4-6 pups, but this must be the bonus year. The pups are grown, mommy has kicked them out of her borrow and they are eating everything. The lilies and beans used to have blossoms.

Normally I don’t mind sharing, but normally there are only a couple of the chipmunks; and they book it when they see me coming. This year they are not showing any fear. One climbed a lily stem next to me while I weeded. “Chip, chip, chip; I’m so cute, take my picture.” That was it I ran in the house, grabbed the jar of cayenne pepper and emptied it on what was left of my lilies.

As I was shaking the jar over a group of plants my thoughts were on a permanent solution to this pest problem, when suddenly a red beetle came out from under a leaf. My mind immediately changed gears, “Red beetle, friend or foe?” I was not wearing my glasses and bent over for a closer look, right into the cayenne pepper cloud. That’s right, I pepper sprayed myself. Adding insult to injury, it appears that my chipmunks like their food spicy because that night they ate everything I seasoned.

 I’ve had a few days now to reflect on what has happened and the steps that need to be taken to avoid another eating frenzy on my plants. I can shoot, trap and release, or repel them. Considering the damage they’ve done, I prefer the former but I am going with the latter.

Given the size of our yards, trap and release is not an option. It is illegal to live-trap an animal on your property and let it loose someplace else other than your property. If you trap it you have to release it in another part of your yard. According to 321 Code ofMassachusettsRegulations; Problem animals which are captured alive shall be disposed of by destruction in a humane manner, or by immediate liberation at the site of capture.

I am not going to kill the chipmunks humanely or otherwise, and their foraging area is larger than my yard; so neither of these is an option. My only option is a repellent. Repellents sell in two formats; the first is a scent that simulates a predator a like coyote or bobcat. The other is a foul tasting blend of hot peppers, cayenne pepper, vinegar, and other things. I am inclined to make a foul tasting home brew but remember, my chipmunks like their food spicy and I am not there personal chef.

I did my usual web research and made telephone calls to manufacturers, and decided to use a predator scent. My decision came down to something one of the manufacturers said. Given the choice between starving and eating something foul tasting any animal will eat the foul tasting food. Given the choice between eating and being killed by a predator animals will forage someplace else.

I hope they go someplace else.

Do you have a gardening question? Send it to mastergardener@rcn.com. Peter Coppola is a principle master gardener and gardening advocate; he teaches and lectures on the subject in the Burlington area.

Lily Leaf Beetle – (May 2012) A reader e-mailed me last week with a heads up about the Red Lily Leaf Beetle. He already found some on his Asiatic lilies and tried picking them off with little success. What should he do?

First off, good observation; I usually don’t see the beetles until May, but they have been seen throughout the area as early as the first week of April. For my part, I am color blind and my wife usually has to point them out to me, so maybe they are vacationing on my lilies in April and I just haven’t seen them.

Anyway, here is the deal. If you have the lily leaf beetle AND you have lilies (Asiatic, Oriental, Tiger, Trumpet), AND you don’t do anything; THEN you wont have lilies much longer. We have had the problem since 2002/2003 and a lot of gardeners have chosen to dig up the plants rather than fight the little buggers; I am not giving up and you shouldn’t either.

Know your enemy, always the first rule. The adult three-eights inch long scarlet red lily beetle over winters in the soil and plant debris. They come out of the ground pumping pheromones and a week later larvae are chomping on leaves. This cycle repeats itself about every three weeks through the month of June and by the end of their mating season the plants have been turned into giant poop sticks.

At this time unfortunately there are no natural remedies. I would have thought, and have been hoping, that after ten years birds would have developed a taste for them but they haven’t. My robins do a great job patrolling the yard and feeding on anything that moves, but they refuse to go near the beetles. I don’t know why, maybe it is a brotherhood of red bodied animalia or maybe the beetles don’t taste good. Either way, the beetles are here flaunting their redness (to those who can see it), daring us to do something.

The non-chemical solution is a pair of tweezers, a water filled can, and white paper. The beetles quickly move to the “V” of the leaf and stem and are difficult to pick with your fingers without breaking the leaf; hence the tweezers. They also drop to the ground and flip over on their backs, hoping that their black stomachs make them invisible against the soil. If the ground is white, as in paper, you defeat their attempt at stealth.

The chemical solution is tactical smart bombing not “Shock and Awe.” The beetle earned its’ name from the host plant, so there is no reason to spray the hydrangea, peonies or any other plants. If you mix up and use more than a half-gallon of pesticide, then you are making too much. I admit to using this approach. The lilies get protected and the robins stay fat and happy eating other bugs.

Regardless of your method of choice, understand that you have to go on the offensive in order to protect the lilies. The beetles will not negotiate, neither should you.

Peter Coppola is a principle master gardener and gardening advocate teaching and lecturing on request. His e-mail address is mastergardener@rcn.com.

The Four D’s – (May 2012) Last year we had an over population of rodent pests; especially those cute little chipmunks that everyone thinks are harmless. The invasion was predicted based on the large amount of acorns the preceding year, but someone forgot to tell us about it in advance to allow us time to prepare.

As a result, our defense arsenal was limited to reacting to the attacks on our plants. I am not saying that prevention products weren’t available; we just did not anticipate the need. This year will be different.

Over the winter, I reviewed my facility security files, studied the rodent repellent manufacturer’s Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS); and prepared an Integrated Yard Defense Plan (IYDP).

The rules for perimeter security are called the Four D’s; Deter, Detect, Delay, Detain. The simple and obvious deterrent is a fence; but here you have to ask yourself, “What am I trying to protect?” The trend lately has been to ring the property with a six-foot stockade fence; and that will certainly keep the deer out and maybe some people too. Rodent dens however are under our lawns, a stockade fence deters them from leaving; the opposite of what we want.

So, my deterrents will be a combination of a new vegetable garden fence and repellents strategically placed around the flower beds. Repellents come in two forms; foul smelling and tasting stuff containing things like cayenne pepper, capsaicin (the ribs and seeds from hot peppers), and putrescent eggs which I’m pretty sure is another word for rotten. The other form is predator urine, which is just that.

One repellent says, “Doesn’t this taste awful, go eat someplace else,” the other says, “Stay here and I will eat you.” Now, I’m just tossing this out, humans are predators.

Detection means becoming aware that an intruder is on the property. For us that means keeping the beds raked and clean so we can see if attempts were made to break in. Rodents will try to dig under a fence and around flowering plants to get to the bulbs. A small pile of soil next to a hole tends to stand out in a raked bed.

Delay means slowing the intruder down long enough for you to react. Burying some of the fence, or some other physical barrier, around the garden; or putting a piece of chicken wire over the bulbs before you back fill the hole, will delay the pest providing you with enough time to take the last step.

Detain, sometimes succeeded by, or substituted with Destroy; is my conundrum.Massachusettslaw dictates that if we catch (detain) an animal on our property have to release it somewhere else on the property. We cannot release it in some other animal’s foraging area.

The alternative is to kill (destroy) it humanly. The Commonwealth does not identify humane methods of killing rodents, but the use of a firearm is not recommended. However, we can take a page from the military and hang the sign, “Use of deadly force is authorized beyond this point.” Don’t you wish rodents could read?

Peter Coppola is a principle master gardener and gardening advocate teaching and lecturing on request. His e-mail address is mastergardener@rcn.com.


   Apr 23

Weed Me a Riddle

The definition of a weed is a plant growing where you don’t want it to grow. The operative word here is plant. It can be an iris, tulip, marigold, squash or tomato; if it is growing where you don’t want it, it is a weed.

With respect to gardening, some people are convinced that if you look up the word weed in the dictionary it is spelled dandelion (I did and it isn’t); but the word dandelion is defined as “A plant, widely naturalized as a weed in North America.” If the dandelion is growing in their lawn, then by definition it is a weed; and if you want to declare war against it then I say, “Know your enemy.

Dandelion, Taraxacum officinale, Teeth of the Lion, a bitter herb sold in the marketplace; is of Arabic origin (though some texts place it in China). It migrated from the Middle East to Europe and then here to North America where it naturalized and is now considered a native plant. A perennial, it dies back to the crown in winter; storing food for next year’s growth underground in its’ tap root.

The entire plant has uses. Leaves are eaten in salads or cooked in soups and medicinal teas. They are reputed to rival other greens as a good source of calcium, potassium, vitamin A, and vitamin C. I am not about to dispute any of the claims; the plant has been cultivated for thousands of years so there must be some truth there. When dried, the tap root can be roasted and used as a coffee substitute. The flowers can be used to make dandelion wine; a subject I remember reading about in 1978.

As a child I remember my father pulling off the road to let my grandfather pick chigordias. We couldn’t pick and eat the plants from our yard because they were too bitter, but the dandelions growing on the roadside with the lubricant runoff, lead gasoline fumes and asbestos brake pad dust were just fine.

Now, before you declare all of this information as ancient history, and I am not; there are several catalog houses still offering dandelion seeds. You can purchase a package for your garden, or buy it by the pound for your farm. My guess is that these people are not planting the seed in their lawns, and my question is, “Why buy the seeds when you can just move the plants from your lawn to the garden.”

The earliest declaration of the dandelion as a weed I could find was in Henry T. Finck’s epic text, Gardening with Brains, Harper and Brothers, 1922. Coincidently the declaration was in reference to the plants growing in the lawns of theLong Island estates.

Weed? Flower? Weed? Flower? Well they are growing in my lawn and I do not want them there; so they are weeds. Some people will immediately reach for herbicides in the spring, but with perennials, herbicides applied in the fall are more effective when plants are storing energy in their tap roots for the next season’s growth. Springtime affords other options.

My approach to disease, weeds, and pests is to start organic and escalate from there. The last thing I want to do is spread herbicides or pesticides on my entire lawn. For now, I am hand pulling the dandelions; using a long handled four tined fork buried strait down about four inches from the plant. When I pull the handle back, the dandelion rises in the center of a clump of grass and when the tap root snaps (about ten inches down) the plant is easily lifted out. In addition to being easy on my back I am loosening and aerating the soil, and I have all those greens to make a salad.

April 23; My Eureka Moment

When it comes to using chemicals, those things that end in CIDE, I am a minimalist. I have herbicides, pesticides and fungicides on the top, out of reach, clearly marked, shelf of the shed; and I have separate spreaders for these weapons of mass destruction. My preference however is to only use them when I have no other choice.

That was the position I thought I was in last year when I looked across my lawn and saw a sea of yellow. The dandelions had taken over and were moving into the planting beds.

Now I grew up hating the dandelion weeder. Aside from the fact that it doesn’t do a very good job, I am convinced that the twelve-inch long tool was invented to torture people over six-feet tall. Stringing a line and need a stake? Prying a rock out of a hole? It is a great general purpose tool. Pulling weeds? Not so great.

A lot of people must share my view because there are so many no hassle chemical weed killing products on the market; but I am not convinced that they work as well as advertised, especially when the manufacturers feel obligated to remind you that the “New weeds” blew in from your neighbor’s yard.

The problem is the dandelion’s tap root; all of the energy needed for the plant to grow is stored there. It has lateral roots that help anchor the plant and if the weeder doesn’t cut through those laterals, then when you pull what you end up with in your hand is one or two inches of root; or more often, just leaves. Either way, the dandelion will come back.

One tool that I had been using in my planting beds was the long handled spading fork. Inserted a few inches from the weed, as I pull back on the handle the four ten-inch tines loosen the soil and pop the entire tap root out.

Weeding cannot get much easier than that. “Why not try it on the lawn?” I know, but sometimes it requires an intervention, and that is what happened. When I opened the shed door the fork was the first thing I saw.

Eureka moment? Not really, more like a “Hey I have an idea” moment, and this is what I did. Every night after dinner I walked the lawn pulling weeds with the spading fork. Five nights, two hours, and seven five-gallon buckets later there were no more dandelions.

An unintended benefit of the exercise was that I also aerated the lawn. That little bit of gardening last year has returned huge dividends this year. I’ve only had a handful of dandelions so far. This technique works great on other weeds like Wild Violets, Broadleaf Plantain, Curly Dock and Pigweed.

Neither the spading fork nor the weeder works on spreading weeds like Purslane or Wild Geranium. Then, even I know it is time to reach for the weed killer; but I use it as a smart weapon targeting the weeds only, not one of mass destruction.

 


   Apr 23

Lawn Care Made Easy

August 18:

Lawns, lawns, lawns; why do I get so many questions about lawns? A pox on the house of the Englishman who first brought grass seed here; and the Long Island aristocrats who made it fashionable to have a lawn. If we took the money we spend every year on lawn care products and services, we could probably pay off the national debt. Well maybe not that much; it doesn’t matter I just had to vent. I’m okay now.

We have this fixation about walking barefoot on a soft carpet of dark green grass, and our instant gratification gene keeps telling us that we can have that if we just spend more money on chemicals, an irrigation system, and lawn care service.

The questions I receive are from people who have spent the money or put in a lot of hours and just can’t get that magazine cover lawn. Here are a few along with some tips.

Soil condition – Let’s get this out of the way first. If you do not have a good combination of sand, silt and clay; if the pH is off; if there is not a good amount of decomposed organic matter in the soil; then you are already starting with a handicap.Sandy soil lets the water and fertilizer percolate faster than the grass can absorb them. Clay soil hardens to pottery when dry and the water and fertilizer run off into the storm drain. Organic matter stabilizes the too much/too little roller coaster.

When is the best time to start a lawn? The ideal time is mid-August when the warm season weeds begin to die off and the cool season grasses that make up your lawn begin to green out again. It all has to do with shading out the sun to minimize weed seed germination. If you sow the grass seed in the fall it will have two growing cycles, this fall and next spring; resulting in a thicker lawn the following summer. If you sow in the spring the lawn will have only one growing cycle and will not be developed enough to prevent a lot of weed seed germination.

What is the best grass seed mix? Your goal is a healthy lawn that will withstand drought, and attack from insects and disease. The way to accomplish this is by sowing a blend of fescue, blue and rye grasses. These grasses have different tolerances; that means more green lawn, less brown out, and less chance of disease or insect damage. If you have areas that receive a lot of use, you should include tall fescue in the mix. All of these grasses are identified on an ingredients label on the back of the package. Ignore the annual grasses; they are a one season crop. If you plant it in the fall it will provide a quick green lawn, die, and will not grow back next spring.

How do I grow grass under my trees? Cut the tree down, especially if it is a Norway maple. Just because a grass variety is shade or drought tolerant does not mean that it prefers the shade. All plants need to make their own food through the process of photosynthesis and sunlight triggers the process. Water, consisting of hydrogen and oxygen, other key components of photosynthesis enters the plant through the roots. Grass just cannot compete with a tree for these components. You can water more often and thin out some tree branches, but you will not get the ideal lawn under a tree. If you insist on fighting a losing battle, plant the tall fescue seed.

Should I de-thatch the lawn first? If you bag your grass clippings, probably not; if you use a mulching mower, maybe; if you cannot remember the last time you thatched, definitely. Get down on your hands and knees and drill your index finger through the thatch to the soil. If you have to go past your first joint to get there, you need to de-thatch. Keep in mind that the thatch has been holding and shading out weed seed, so you might see more weeds than usual next summer.

How often should I water? The secret of successful seed germination is that once you get the seed wet you have to keep it wet. August marks the beginning of the tropical storm season so you do not have to water as often as you would in the spring. Once the seed has germinated, you may not have to water at all.

The only negative to a fall started lawn is that it is too cold in October to be walking on it barefoot.

August 3: Remember last summer when the heat and humidity were just too oppressive for us to go outside and take care of the yard? As a result the annual weeds that thrive under those weather conditions were able to complete their life cycle; going to seed and spreading their offspring all over the yard. Now, I am paying big time in the flower beds and lawn for a problem that could have been avoided last year by me simply pulling the weeds and cutting the grass.

The end of July and early August is when our perennial cool season lawn grasses; the ryes, fescues and blue, go dormant. They are replaced by the light green leafed warm season annual that we call crabgrass. Unlike the lawn grasses that grow straight and tall, crabgrass grows in a more horizontal direction.

Here is the setup; as temperatures rise lawn growth slows down allowing us the luxury of cutting the grass only once a week. Then, going into dormancy, it browns out and gets replaced by the crabgrass. We either don’t cut it at all or just once in a while because it doesn’t look like it needs to be cut. By the time we do get around to cutting it the grass has gone to seed ensuring more weeds next year.

Many people minimize this problem by using a weed killer either separately, or mixed with fertilizer. I try to limit the used of chemicals around my yard, and with respect to annual weeds like crabgrass I know that all I have to do is prevent them from going to seed. That means just continue to cut the grass through the hot summer days. In the cooler end of August weather the crabgrass will die, never having produces seed and the lawn grass will come out of dormancy.

I am not suggesting that you take the heat stroke challenge and cut the grass mid afternoon. It is hot outside, but a single crabgrass plant can produce tens of thousands of seed. If you don’t prevent it from going to seed you will be kicking yourself next year like I am doing now. So cut it early in the morning or late afternoon when it is cooler.

Speaking of annuals, don’t forget to deadhead the marigolds, zinnia, and all of the other annuals you planted back in April. The same rules apply for all annuals, weed or flower; they want to complete their life cycle in one growing season.

If you leave the spent blooms on the plant the focus will be on storing energy in the seeds contained in the spent blooms, not in the production of new blooms. You need to trick the plant into believing it still has work to do, and you do that by deadheading. It forces the plant to keep producing blooms and seed for next year’s growing season.

Don’t forget that vegetables are annuals too. Pick the fruit just before or as soon as it ripens. Yellow and red peppers are green before ripening; pick them just as they begin to show color. Cucumbers are the laziest, as soon as just one fruit ripens it stops producing. Pick cucumbers while they are still green, before they reach their mature size.

July 10 – Summer, when the heat and humidity is just too oppressive for us to go outside and take care of the yard. As a result the annual weeds that thrive under those weather conditions are able to complete their life cycle; going to seed and spreading their offspring all over the yard. Now, we are paying big time in the flower beds and lawn for a problem that could have been avoided by simply pulling the weeds and cutting the grass last year.

The end of July and early August is when our perennial cool season lawn grasses; the ryes, fescues and blue, go dormant. They are replaced by the light green leafed warm season annual that we call crabgrass. Unlike the lawn grasses that grow straight and tall, crabgrass grows in a more horizontal direction.

Here is the setup; as temperatures rise lawn growth slows down allowing us the luxury of cutting the grass only once a week. Then, going into dormancy, it browns out and gets replaced by the crabgrass. We either don’t cut it at all or just once in a while because it doesn’t look like it needs to be cut. By the time we do get around to cutting it the grass has gone to seed ensuring more weeds next year.

Many people minimize this problem by using a weed killer either separately, or mixed with fertilizer. I try to limit the used of chemicals around my yard, and with respect to annual weeds like crabgrass I know that all I have to do is prevent them from going to seed. That means just continue to cut the grass through the hot summer days. In the cooler end of August weather the crabgrass will die, never having produces seed and the lawn grass will come out of dormancy.

I am not suggesting that you take the heat stroke challenge and cut the grass mid afternoon. It is hot outside, but a single crabgrass plant can produce tens of thousands of seed. If you don’t prevent it from going to seed you will be kicking yourself next year like I am doing now. So cut it early in the morning or late afternoon when it is cooler.

Speaking of annuals, don’t forget to deadhead the marigolds, zinnia, and all of the other annuals you planted back in April. The same rules apply for all annuals, weed or flower; they want to complete their life cycle in one growing season.

If you leave the spent blooms on the plant the focus will be on storing energy in the seeds contained in the spent blooms, not in the production of new blooms. You need to trick the plant into believing it still has work to do, and you do that by deadheading. It forces the plant to keep producing blooms and seed for next year’s growing season.

Don’t forget that vegetables are annuals too. Pick the fruit just before or as soon as it ripens. Yellow and red peppers are green before ripening; pick them just as they begin to show color. Cucumbers are the laziest, as soon as just one fruit ripens it stops producing. Pick cucumbers while they are still green, before they reach their mature size.

Fertilizer – Have you noticed that just about every fertilizer manufacturer now offers their version of a four step lawn application process? Essentially, step one contains equal amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus, and some herbicide to prevent crabgrass. Step two almost doubles the amount of nitrogen, significantly reduces the amount of phosphorus, and adds some herbicide to kill broadleaf weeds. Step three maintains the same amount of nutrients and substitutes the herbicide with pesticide; and step four is just nutrients and filler material.

Each package contains directions on how and when to apply the fertilizer. That is really funny, because everyone knows that real men don’t read directions. Where would the fun be if we read the directions? “What; wait for a windless day? Wear a dust mask, goggles and gloves? The pesticide kills bugs, not people.” Hey, I’m on your side. If the manufacturers wanted us to read the directions they shouldn’t put them right behind the spot on the box where it says “Don’t cut here.” So, what I am offering here is my four step lawn care direction suggestion.

Step one – Pull out all of your lawn equipment and inspect, clean, sharpen, repair or replace everything. If you do this up front, then you only have to go to the hardware store once, all summer. Why go through the aggravation of stopping in the middle of a project on a hot summer day just because you forgot to replace the _____ you were going to buy last fall. Throwing the broadcast spreader across the yard will not fix it; besides, being proactive means you get to claim that you reduced your gardening carbon footprint. That may be an oxymoron, but don’t worry about it.

Step two – Take a pencil, paper and tape measure outside and accurately calculate the amount of lawn you really have. A 10,000 square foot lot does not equal a 10,000 square foot lawn. Little things like the house footprint, driveway, walkways, swimming pool, shed, deck, patio and planting beds add up. Know what the square footage of your lawn is before you purchase the fertilizer.

Step Three – Eliminate the biggest gardening pest from the maintenance list before the season starts. That would be you. I don’t make this stuff up; in order the top three pest problems in our yard are: us, our children and our pets. So, remove the grass from around the tree trunks for at least two feet, and do the same just beyond the drip line of all of the shrubs; add soil over exposed tree roots, and remove large rocks.

Sure, you can tilt the lawnmower against the tree trunk and let it slide down the bark, and you can push it into the shrub; but all you are accomplishing is permanent damage to the plants. Hit a tree root or rock with the lawnmower and you will be replacing more than just a blade.

Step Four – Keep it simple. If your idea of a successful gardening season is a perfect lawn, that is okay; just don’t go overboard with artificial life support. Fertilizer is good, too much fertilizer is bad; lawns need one-inch of water per week, not per day; and a few weeds popping up along the sidewalk does not mean the entire lawn needs an herbicide spray. Get more exercise by mowing at least twice a week during the growing season, and use a mulching mower.

Lawn grasses have survived for millions of years without our help; they can make it through the summer. What you need to do is pour a drink, sit down, and read the gas grill assembly instructions.

April 23; Less is Best

This is the time of the year when we feed our lawns, sparing no expense; after all when it comes to fertilizer more is better, right? Well not quite, not even almost right; no, it’s wrong.

We all want to have that deep green weed free lawn that looks just like the outfield at a major league ballpark, who doesn’t? A lot of work goes in to maintaining lawns at ballparks and golf courses; fulltime crews check and water the grounds daily, and mow every other day. If you think gardening is work, then you are not going to embrace lawn maintenance.

Fertilizer recommended for spring application contains over thirty percent nitrogen. This primary element of plant protein is responsible for those green blades and fast growth. When you consider that there are over 1,100 grass plants in a square-foot of lawn, or 8 plants per square inch; then it makes sense that there is a lot of competition for nutrients. So, okay you should fertilize; but do you need to use up the whole bag? And there’s your problem.

There are a whole lot of microbes that dedicate their lives to processing nitrogen gas in the soil into something the grass can absorb. In exchange, the grass provides them with some of the excess sugar stored in its’ roots. When we use fertilizer we throw that relationship out of balance; so less is best.

I am not saying don’t fertilize; but before you do, measure your lawn. No, really, grab your tape measure and figure out how many square feet you actually have. I guaranty you that it is less than you think. So you probably don’t need a 15,000 sq-ft bag, and you certainly don’t need to empty it all in one application.

Cut that Grass – (July 2011) Remember last summer when the heat and humidity were just too oppressive for us to go outside and take care of the yard? As a result the annual weeds that thrive under those weather conditions were able to complete their life cycle; going to seed and spreading their offspring all over the yard. Now, I am paying big time in the flower beds and lawn for a problem that could have been avoided last year by me simply pulling the weeds and cutting the grass.

The end of July and early August is when our perennial cool season lawn grasses; the ryes, fescues and blue, go dormant. They are replaced by the light green leafed warm season annual that we call crabgrass. Unlike the lawn grasses that grow straight and tall, crabgrass grows in a more horizontal direction.

Here is the setup; as temperatures rise lawn growth slows down allowing us the luxury of cutting the grass only once a week. Then, going into dormancy, it browns out and gets replaced by the crabgrass. We either don’t cut it at all or just once in a while because it doesn’t look like it needs to be cut. By the time we do get around to cutting it the grass has gone to seed ensuring more weeds next year.

Many people minimize this problem by using a weed killer either separately, or mixed with fertilizer. I try to limit the used of chemicals around my yard, and with respect to annual weeds like crabgrass I know that all I have to do is prevent them from going to seed. That means just continue to cut the grass through the hot summer days. In the cooler end of August weather the crabgrass will die, never having produces seed and the lawn grass will come out of dormancy.

I am not suggesting that you take the heat stroke challenge and cut the grass mid afternoon. It is hot outside, but a single crabgrass plant can produce tens of thousands of seed. If you don’t prevent it from going to seed you will be kicking yourself next year like I am doing now. So cut it early in the morning or late afternoon when it is cooler.

Speaking of annuals, don’t forget to deadhead the marigolds, zinnia, and all of the other annuals you planted back in April. The same rules apply for all annuals, weed or flower; they want to complete their life cycle in one growing season.

If you leave the spent blooms on the plant the focus will be on storing energy in the seeds contained in the spent blooms, not in the production of new blooms. You need to trick the plant into believing it still has work to do, and you do that by deadheading. It forces the plant to keep producing blooms and seed for next year’s growing season.

Don’t forget that vegetables are annuals too. Pick the fruit just before or as soon as it ripens. Yellow and red peppers are green before ripening; pick them just as they begin to show color. Cucumbers are the laziest, as soon as just one fruit ripens it stops producing. Pick cucumbers while they are still green, before they reach their mature size.

Do you have a gardening question? Send it to mastergardener@rcn.com. Peter Coppola is a principle master gardener and gardening advocate; he teaches and lectures on the subject in the Burlington area.


   Mar 30

Outdoor Activities

March 19: Mother Nature can be soo crule. Ten-inches of snow and it is still falling. So much for sowing peas this weekend.

March 13: As predicted, the vegetable beds are now clear of snow and heating up in the sun. If it dries enough by this weekend I will be planting peas and lettuce next Tuesday.

March 8: 8 inches of snow on theground and it is still falling; but I will still sow peas in two weeks.

February 10: Just finished rounding out the driveway corners and a storm drain before the rain comes tomorrow. The snow is over 26-inches deep in the vegetable beds but I will be sowing peas in four weeks.

February 9: What a difference a few days make. I just finished shovelling 30-inches of snow off the driveway.

February 1: Saw daffodils popping up through the soil. This is easily four weeks early for our zone.

December 17: I am not complaining, but finaly the ground is covered by a few inches of crusted snow. Now everything underground will stop being confused about what season it is. 

November 7; The soil temperature is below 50 degrees, all mirco organism activity is shutdown for the season. Now everything outside is asleep until the winter solstice. A couple of hours finishing the leaf raking, pulling up the turnip, and maybe one more pass over the lawn; and I am pretty much finished outside.

I was cleaning up around the hydrangeas and while pruning off the dead mopheads I noticed that next years’ leaf buds were already formed, just waiting for the spring before they swell up and open. How do they do that?

How do plants know when to grow and when to go dormant? It isn’t just the hydrangeas; the azaleas, forsythias, rhododendrons, the trees; they are all the same. It is as if they belong to some plant socialist state arguing for a better growing season, “We are not sprouting any more leaves until we get new mulch.” How do they know that the mulch was delivered?

Humankind has been cultivating crops for over ten thousand years but it was only about 400 years ago that we starting questioning the four element theory. The idea that Earth, Air, Fire and Water were the basis of all life on the planet wasn’t cutting it in the Age of Enlightenment. Something else was involved in the development of plants.

It took 100 years of experimentation for someone to figure out that the very thin green skin (the Cambium) between the wood and the bark was responsible for the distribution of food and information to the entire plant. In the late 1700s Carbon, Hydrogen and Oxygen were identified as major elements in the plant’s composition. These are the elements in sugar, the plants food source. Shortly after that Nitrogen, the key ingredient in proteins, was added. These four elements, CHON, make up over 95% of all carbon bodies, which includes us.

By the turn of the last century we figured out that sunlight was necessary for photosynthesis but plants made growing decisions at night. The amount of darkness influenced the decision to produce more leaves or convert the production line to producing flowers; a breakthrough for the flower industry to artificially change bloom times to coincide with holidays.

Left to their own devices and given a more moderate climate, our winter season leaf dropping and go to sleep plants grew year round and bloomed randomly. So how did the plants do that? The growth cycle is temperature influenced but not temperature controlled. How do plants know that killing temperatures are approaching and they need to prepare?

In the 1960s researchers identified the growth substance abscisic acid (ABA) as the plants’ regulator. Whenever plant growth needs to slow the production ofABAincreases; slowing down the entire plant not just leaves and blooms. As winter approaches levels ofABAincrease, signaling the plant to shut down. In the spring,ABAlevels decrease and the plant comes out of dormancy. So what triggersABA?

The on/off switch is a pigment called phytochrome. When we pass the summer solstice plants are already aware that daylight hours are decreasing. July may be the hottest summer month, but the plants are beginning to prepare for winter shutdown.

All of this makes sense when you think about it. These plants have finished flowering by June and are pretty boring to look at the rest of the season. Now I know the reason why I get depressed on June 21st, my ABA levels increase.

October 31; The yard survived the storm. The soil is saturated, but there is no standing water. A quick pass over the lawn when the grass dries is about the extent of the clean-up needed. I am glad so many people cleared their trees away from power lines. 

October 26; It is amazingly warm I am still cleaning beds and dividing irises. If this keeps up I will begin receiving 2013 seed catalogs before the 2012 season ends.

October 23; Free. I like that word free, especially when it doesn’t have any strings attached to it. “A free tank of gasoline when you purchase…..” Really? Even sending away for your free coupons cost the price of a postage stamp. No, I’m talking about the free that doesn’t cost money; and this time of year it literally falls out of the trees.

That’s right, I’m talking about leaves. I know, I know, leaf bags aren’t given away at the store and what about the cost of labor? Surely your personal time has a price tag? Well, it depends on your point of view.

If you view the leaves as yard waste that needs to be bagged up and carted away to who knows where, then it is an expense. I on the other hand view leaves as an organic resource; pre-packaged nutrients that breakdown over time and feed the plants; something that is better than free because I don’t have to buy those bags.

As mulch, I spread the leaves around the compost bins to keep the weeds down and slowly decompose in place. Every few years I scrape off the top inch or so and spread it around the planting beds.

They are also useful around the base of newly bedded plants to prevent them from heaving out of the soil over winter; and for covering rose bushes to protect the bud union (the swollen area where the plant stem is grafted to the root stock) and minimize winter kill.

In the spring, partially decomposed leaves can be mixed into the soil. You know those little tags that come with the plants, the ones with the planting directions that you don’t read? Some of them recommend mixing in leaf mold prior to planting. That’s right, leaf mold and composed leaves are one in the same.

If you are planning to expand a flower bed or put in a vegetable garden next year spread the leaves over the future planting area to smother the grass. It will make it easier to turn the area in the spring. Back in the last century when I was growing up my neighbor would collect as many bags of leaves as he could and till them in his vegetable garden. I had no idea of why he was doing that, I just thought he was a little off center. Now I know better and so do you.

 If you use a mulching mower and don’t have a lot of leaves covering the lawn, save your back and use the mower instead of the rake. You returned the grass clippings back to the soil all summer why not kick in some leaves.

I really cannot come up with a reason for not saving the leaves; they are just so beneficial throughout the garden. Oh, about the personal labor price tag. Remember during your last physical when the doctor suggested you get some exercise; you could spend money to join a club, or just go workout in the yard where the cost is free.

October 20; Everything is dug up; calla, canna, dahlia, glads, pineapple lily. The dahlia were cleaned and stored in peat, the other bulbs are curing in hte sunroom for two weeks. The temp is supposed to hit mid-seventies today (how crazy is that), a good day to work on the raspberry beds. See my Storing Tender Bulbs notes in the An Ounce of Prevention post

October 13; All the tender bulbs are frozen; a good thing that everything is labelled. I will be spending hte next three days digging them up for storage.

October 11; A hard frost is predicted for tonight. Time to make sure all of the house plants are in. Found some Christmas Cactus cutting hiding behind a fern. I stuck them in the ground back is June to see if they would root, and sure enough I now have six plants to give away.

October 7; By October, a lot of people have already packed away their outdoor furniture, folded up the pergola tarp and hung their gardening tools out of reach; but there is still so much to do and enjoy in the yard.

In the vegetable garden all the seeds sown in July are producing lettuce, kale, peas and turnip. The parsnip and carrots are ready to be pulled; and the remaining beans can be harvested and dried, saving the seeds for soup or planting next summer. The dahlia are still going strong and need to be deadheaded and the cool season grasses are back so the lawn has to be mowed. Hey, the Red Sox are not in the playoffs so look at the bright side, you don’t have to worry about missing a game.

Early October is a great time to transplant peony and rhubarb. Many people say that peony should never be dug up period. I just ask them to explain how the plant got from the nursery to my yard if it wasn’t dug up. The peony planted near the maple sapling ten years ago was nice; but now that the drip line of the maple tree is six feet beyond the peony it is time to move the peony.

Remove all of the stems to about two-inches above the soil line and dig about six-inches beyond the plant to minimize root damage. After the plant is dug up, hose off the roots and you will see the eyes which are next year’s stems. If you are planning to propagate the peony then each root segment should have at least three eyes. That will ensure blooms in the 2013 season.

Prepare the soil by turning in a bucket of the compost you made this summer. The finished planting depth should be no more than two-inches. The original soil line can be seen on the old stem ends you left on the plant before you dug it up. Those old stem ends will also be a marker next spring so you won’t accidently dig up the plant as you prepare the beds.

Rhubarb is even easier to transplant. To propagate, its’ fibrous root can be cut with a knife or the shovel. Work in more of that compost and the planting depth sets the crown (where the stem meets the root) just below the soil line.

The raspberry rows need to be cleaned up. All two year old canes, the ones that fruited this year, need to be cut to the ground. All new canes that are smaller than a pencil in diameter need to be removed. The remaining canes should be topped off at about four feet, just above a node; that will encourage more side growth and produce more fruit next year. The last step is to thin out the canes spacing them about four inches apart.

You will be harvesting compost to amend the soil when you transplant, and you will be adding all the yard waste to the compost pile as you clean-up. Since you cannot add and subtract at the same time, at least not in the compost pile, this will be a good time to start a second pile. Think about it.

Septermber 26: Going Dormant, I was cleaning up around the hydrangeas and while pruning off the dead mopheads I noticed that next years’ leaf buds were already formed, just waiting for the spring before they swell up and open. How do they do that?

How do plants know when to grow and when to go dormant? It isn’t just the hydrangeas; the azaleas, forsythias, rhododendrons, the trees; they are all the same. It is as if they belong to some plant socialist state arguing for a better growing season, “We are not sprouting any more leaves until we get new mulch.” How do they know that the mulch was delivered?

Humankind has been cultivating crops for over ten thousand years but it was only about 400 years ago that we starting questioning the four element theory. The idea that Earth, Air, Fire and Water were the basis of all life on the planet wasn’t cutting it in the Age of Enlightenment. Something else was involved in the development of plants.

It took 100 years of experimentation for someone to figure out that the very thin green skin (the Cambium) between the wood and the bark was responsible for the distribution of food and information to the entire plant. In the late 1700s Carbon, Hydrogen and Oxygen were identified as major elements in the plant’s composition. These are the elements in sugar, the plants food source. Shortly after that Nitrogen, the key ingredient in proteins, was added. These four elements, CHON, make up over 95% of all carbon bodies, which includes us.

By the turn of the last century we figured out that sunlight was necessary for photosynthesis but plants made growing decisions at night. The amount of darkness influenced the decision to produce more leaves or convert the production line to producing flowers; a breakthrough for the flower industry to artificially change bloom times to coincide with holidays.

Left to their own devices and given a more moderate climate, our winter season leaf dropping and go to sleep plants grew year round and bloomed randomly. So how did the plants do that? The growth cycle is temperature influenced but not temperature controlled. How do plants know that killing temperatures are approaching and they need to prepare?

In the 1960s researchers identified the growth substance abscisic acid (ABA) as the plants’ regulator. Whenever plant growth needs to slow the production ofABAincreases; slowing down the entire plant not just leaves and blooms. As winter approaches levels ofABAincrease, signaling the plant to shut down. In the spring,ABAlevels decrease and the plant comes out of dormancy. So what triggersABA?

The on/off switch is a pigment called phytochrome. When we pass the summer solstice plants are already aware that daylight hours are decreasing. July may be the hottest summer month, but the plants are beginning to prepare for winter shutdown.

All of this makes sense when you think about it. These plants have finished flowering by June and are pretty boring to look at the rest of the season. Now I know the reason why I get depressed on June 21st, myABA levels increase.

September 12: We are approaching the Fall Equinox next week. The spring perennials have already set their buds; too late to prune now. Will have to wait until next summer.

September 5: Winter Squash Harvest. Here is what is left after the family helps with the harvest. A few Jack-Be-Little, Sweet Dumpling, Sweet Lighting and Waltham Butternut. Those “Ornamental” are actually very tasty.

Winter Squash Harvest

Winter Squash Selection

August 31: Yarde Long Beans are. I grew Yard Long Beans this year, and they really are. These pods are past picking for eating, but in a few weeks they will dry, providing seed for next year.

Yard Long

Beans hanging on vine

August 29: Iris Propagation In my quest to plant it and forget it I have killed just about everything you can think of. All plants require periodic inspection and maintenance because insects and diseases can destroy a maple as easily as an iris. You have limited options trying to save a tree, and it usually requires hiring an expert; but irises can be problem free for years by just investing a few hours.

Tall bearded irises are the spring show stopper; commanding you to get up close to look at their flower; but they have two enemies, the Iris Borer caterpillar and the Soft Rot bacteria. Their synergistic relationship causes enough damage to make gardeners give up growing these beautiful plants altogether.

The caterpillar goes to work in April when the eggs hatch. They enter the leaves near the top and chew their way down to the rhizome; then it is an all you can eat buffet that continues to mid-August, I’ll write that again, MID-AUGUST. When they crawl out and pupate in the soil. Four to six weeks later a grayish-brown moth emerges, lays eggs on dry garden debris and dies.

Soft Rot enters the iris through any wound in the plant, and the wound is usually created by? Leaves will appear watery and pull off the rhizome easily; you will know then that the plant has been hit with the one-two punch. Confirmation comes when you dig up the iris. As soon as you get whiff of the foul smelling goop that used to be a rhizome you will understand why people stop growing it.

Prevention is the cure and the best time to start is now, when the plants are shutting down for the winter. Every three to four years irises need to be dug up and the plants separated; this is propagation by division. Overcrowding depletes the soil of nutrients; bloom production drops and the bad guys above take over. This is our opportunity to improve the soil and put up a No Vacancy sign.

Shake off all loose soil, cut the rhizome where it joins the main original rhizome, cut back the leaves into a fan shape about 5-inches long and the roots 4-inches long, and wash the plant in a liquid dish detergent/bleach solution (one-third cup of each to a gallon of water). Let the plants dry for at least one day.

Irises ready for division

Irises ready for divisionDivided plants ready for replantingRake up all dead plant material from the planting bed and remove any weeds and roots as you turn the soil and water the bed with some clean bleach solution. Turning kills many of the pupating caterpillars and removing the dead plant matter eliminates places for the moths to lay their eggs.The next day incorporate compost or peat into the soil and rake the bed. When planting make sure the top of the rhizome is exposed level with the soil, and do not mulch over it. Keep the beds weed free, remove dead plant matter in the fall and you will not have to worry about the borer.Irises replanted in new bed

Peter Coppola is a principle master gardener and gardening advocate teaching and lecturing on request. His e-mail address is mastergardener@rcn.com.

August 24; Picked all my Sweet Dumpling winter squash today. Each weighs a little over one pound; just the right size for two people.

August 22; I’ve been picking beans for three weeks and I haven’t touched the pole beans yet. I never realized how much damage the chipmunks were doing until this year. This will be my largest harvest ever.

August 12; The winter squash is taking over the garden. I am training the vines to stay on their beds, keeping the paths open; but they are into the dried beans that haven’t completed their growth cycle. The peppers aren’t happy either, I had to cut squash stems to prevent the peppers from being shaded out.

August 7; August is one of those half empty half full months. A lot of perennials have bloomed and gone but the dahlias are only beginning to show their beauty. The tomatoes are going great but the peppers aren’t. The woodchuck left the beans alone but ate all of the kale. The pessimist wants to turn everything over and plant grass, the optimist still has hopes that the squash will recover from the vine borer.

August is also arguably one of the busiest gardening months. Remember this past spring when I suggested that you inventory the irises; noting the colors and deciding what to keep, where to relocate them and what to give away? Well, this is the month it happens.

Some people complain that their plants only bloom for two weeks, PESSIMIST; the statement is correct if you only have one variety. The best way to extend your bloom period is to add more varieties and color, OPTIMIST; talk to your neighbors and offer a trade. Promote a street party/plant swap; the house with the in-ground pool should be the host site.

There isn’t really a right time and wrong time to transplant; but there are best times and late summer/early fall is best for early season bloomers. The plants I move this time of the year are; daylilies, lilies, irises and spring bulbs (if I can remember where they are).

When you dig up your plants take the opportunity to rebuild the soil by adding compost.  If you don’t have compost use peat moss or cow manure. You can never add enough organic matter and your success rate goes up with every shovel full you add. Fertilizer is not necessary now; you do not want to stimulate new growth.

Irises – By now the iris leaves have almost completely died back. The plants multiply off a central bulb called a rhizome. Cut the individual plants from the main rhizome; then cut the leaves back to about a 4-inch fan, and trim the roots to about 5-inches long. They are now ready for re-planting. Some people dip the end of the rhizome where the cut was made in a fungicide or bleach solution; others wait a day to let the wound scab over. When replanted, the top of the rhizome is at soil level.

Daylilies – Cut the daylily leaves in half, and do not cut the roots. If the clumps are very large, interlock two long handled forks back-to-back and insert them into the center of the clump. Pushing the handles away from each other will split the clump in half. Continue the process until you have clumps of two or three fans each. When replanting, spread the roots and cover the crown (where the roots meet the leaves) to about 1½ -inches.

Lilies – If you are relocating the lilies, you want to make sure you don’t leave any little bulbs in the soil. The soil should be sifted through a ¼-inch screen. Only remove the top of the lilies where the flowers were, leaving the rest of the plant as is. Replant at the same depth (6 – 8 inches) as it was growing.

Always think in odd numbers when replanting; place 3, 5 or 7 plants in a group. And be optimistic, it will rain right after you replant everything.

August 7: I ate a green bean yesterday. That doen’t sound like much, except that the bean was thirty inches long.

July 31: The winter squash is overgrowing the pepper plants. The tomato plants are taller than me, approaching seven feet. I quess that is the reason they are in-determinate, they don’t stop growing.

July 26: The garden has made a great recovery from the woodchuck smorgasbord last month. I have been picking summer squash, tomatoes and kale, and the beans will begin providing in a few days. The winter squash is vining like crazy; I might have to remove some leaves around the pepper plants.

July 18:  July is a transition month. Cool weather crops like broccoli, peas and lettuce have been harvested, creating space to sow seeds for a fall harvest. I like to plant turnip and rutabaga along with more bush beans and lettuce. The blueberries are already being picked, the raspberries are right behind them and the daylilies are blooming like crazy. Just about everything that is going to happen in the flower beds has. The only thing to look forward to now is in the vegetable garden.

With that sad thought in mind, July is also the latest month of the growing season to apply granular or slow release fertilizer around perennials or tender bulbs. It is hard to believe but the plants are already preparing for next year. As August and the cooler nighttime temperatures approach, they stop producing new leaves and stems and begin to store energy in their roots. This year’s new grow hardens in order to withstand the cold winter temperatures.

Remember those light green stems at the end of the branches back in April? They were so soft that you could wrap them around your finger without breaking them. Now they are dark green or brown and they snap under a little pressure. That is what you want at the end of the season, strong hard growth.

Fertilizer applied now will stimulate new growth that will not have enough time to harden. Translation; you will have a lot of dead branches and fewer blooms next spring. We call that winter kill. That is what you do not want.

This problem will be even more pronounced on your tender bulbs like dahlias, calla, and canna; any plant that you dig up in the fall. They will retain too much moisture and will rot in storage. If you purchase new bulbs every year this probably does not bother you; but if you grew a particular plant that you want to save and propagate next year, then you need to hold back on the fertilizer.

One of my favorite vegetable is garlic. Snickering aside, nothing seems bothers it; it is disease free and the insects and wildlife give it a wide berth. Garlic is planted in the fall and the cloves overwinter in the frozen soil; so we have to grow the stiff neck varieties in this region; and I think that is great because it gives me two harvests.

At the end of the month I will make my second harvest; pulling the plants, selecting the bulbs that I will replant in October, sharing some with my family and neighbors, and curing he rest for winter storage.

The first harvest though is the one I most look forward to. I am talking about the scapes at the end of the flower stock. These scapes can be cooked and served as a side dish; but I prefer to puree it with olive oil and grated Parmesan or Romano cheese to make a pesto. Combine the pesto with sun dried tomatoes and chicken; serve it over pasta and once you taste it you will, well, ah, let’s just say that you will put garlic on your planting list. The recipe is in the recipe post.

July 16: Picked our first red raspberries Friday and some blackberries yesterday. The raspberries are sweet, but the blackberries are juicier. We have been harvesting yellow tomatoes, Little Blond Girl and Sungella, for over a week; this is the first year for Sungella and I think it is a keeper. The squash and bean plants have fully recovered from the woodchuck feast last month.

April 22; Where does the time go? The peas and lettuce are up, the flower beds are mulched, the vegetable garden fence is replaced, one compost bin emptied, tender bulbs planted; a crazy month. I understand why it is considered the busiest gardening month of the season. 

It is a Marathon – (May 2011) One of the items on my bucket list is thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, a 2,147 mile marathon stroll fromGeorgia toMaine. I remember reading about the first psychological challenge coming within only a few days of starting. Aching muscles, a few blisters and the reality of what a four month commitment is to complete the hike discourages many people and they abandon the challenge.

What does that have to do with gardening? Well, gardening is also a marathon. It begins in April as soon as the soil can be worked and continues into October and the first killing frost. Six and half months of labor preceded and ending with a few weeks of preparation and clean-up. 

May is arguably the busiest gardening month of the marathon. Sure, in April you may have already edged your planting beds, raked and fertilized the lawn, sowed peas and lettuce, and spread mulch; but that is nothing compared to the activities that you have this month.

May separates the hard core gardener from the hobbyist. The addicted and I am not saying that I am one of them, are already harvesting lettuce and picking asparagus. They have completed the marathon many times and know how to pace themselves so they can enjoy the fruits of their labor.

The hobbyist will squeeze a months worth of preparation into the Memorial Day weekend. They will buy a couple of six-packs from the box retailer, pull muscles they didn’t know they had clearing weeds and planting flowers, and report to work declaring their frustration with or enjoyment of gardening. That’s nice, but within a couple of months their beds will be crowded with weeds and the plants dead from over fertilizing or under watering. These are the people who drop out of the race.

This article is for the hard core gardener. Some of you are still into power tools and chemicals, that’s okay you will mellow out. You understand that gardening is a marathon and want to make it to the finish line; you just have to get past May.

 If you sowed cool season vegetables; broccoli, carrots, lettuce, spinach, turnips; the plants should be up and need to be thinned. Do not leave them between the rows to decompose in place that is not good sanitation. Put them in the compost bin, or toss them in a salad. Sow more lettuce seed for a late June harvest. The spring bulbs have passed; dead head the flowers but let the leaves continue to produce energy for next year’s bloom. If you are planning to relocate some bulbs, dig them up now and heel them in to cure in your nursery bed.

The soil is warm enough now to plant the tender bulbs; caladium, calla, canna, dahlia, elephant ear. Cool season vegetable plants, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, should already be in the ground. Tomato and cucumber plants can also go into the garden now. Annuals can be transplanted or seeds sowed. Mid-month, sow herbs and beans.

Do you have a gardening question? Send it to mastergardener@rcn.com. Peter Coppola is a principle master gardener, a lifetime gardener and gardening advocate; he teaches and lectures on the subject in the Burlington area.

March 30; Preparing the soil

Wouldn’t it be great if we could just dig a hole in the soil, drop in the plant and walk away; leaving everything else to nature? For two hundred thousand years, our hunter gatherer ancestors had that relationship with plants. The expression “If you get hungry just pick up something to eat along the way,” dates to that period.

Plantae had the system down pat. They produced pretty flowers and delicious food to attract animalia who pollinated the seed, picked the food and dispersed the seeds of future generations across their migratory paths. Then, Early European Modern Humans (formerly known as Cro-Magnons) decided to stop gathering and became farmers. What a mistake!

For 1.7 Billion years plantae, fungi and micro-organisms converted the lifeless sand silt and clay into a nutrient rich water retaining soil capable of supporting plant growth. In just a little over ten thousand years we managed to mess it up. “If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it,” recognize that expression?

Fungi and bacteria play an important role in helping plants (and humans) thrive and reproduce during the growing season; they are the core of a healthy immune system. 30,000 to 1, that is the ratio of good micro-organisms to bad; 1 trillion, the number of these little buggers in a teaspoon of garden soil; and a whole mess, the number of microbes in your yard.

These microbes are pathfinders, dissolving minerals and marking the way for roots. They are the defense shield protecting the plant from detrimental bacteria and viruses. In return, the plants provide these micro-organisms with the surplus photosynthesized sugar stored in their roots.

One level up are tiny insects that breakdown decomposed organic matter into microbe sized bites, and above them are worms and bugs who breakdown the leaves and twigs into tiny insect sized bites. In reality, our yard is a giant compost bin. That pile over in the corner out of sight is just a sad reproduction of what nature has been doing for a long, long time.

The soil temperature now is above fifty degrees and these microbes are all awake and hungry. The best thing we can do is feed them. Peat moss, manures, compost, the leaves and grass clippings you have been piling up on the other side of the stone wall; all of this “Debris” is a microbial buffet. You can never add too much organic material to your soil. Ask the people cutting your neighbor’s lawn and chipping trees. If your Town operates a composting facility go fill up some buckets.

If you take care of the soil, the soil will take care of you. Black Mold, Powdery Mildew, even Blight will be nothing worse than a minor irritant if you keep the microbes happy. Viruses invented stealth technology, cloaking themselves inside plant friendly cells. A healthy plant’s immune system easily recognizes the disguise and repels the attack.

Less watering, less weeding, less chemicals ending in the letters CIDE; it almost makes you willing to forgive that Cro-Magnon who gave up the hunter gatherer life.


   Mar 23

The Tool Bag

An Ounce of Prevention Within all living organisms there is a molecule, adenosine triphosphate (ATP). It is responsible for delivering energy released during respiration to wherever it is needed in a plant or body. In an oxygen rich (aerobic) environment this energy is distributed to allow plants, and us, to go about our normal daily life.

In an oxygen poor (anaerobic) environment we die, but some plants make adjustments; trying to survive the life threatening situation. In the case of crocuses, they convert the energy to heat; allowing them to grow through the frozen soil, melt the snow around them; exposing them to the fresh air.

This whole subject of ATP and the beautiful images of crocuses growing through the snow could be interesting and would fill this week’s column, if nature cooperated and put some snow on the ground. It is pretty clear though that the growing season will begin early this year.

I usually sow my pea’s mid-month. One year I was not able to sow them until March 30th, last year I sowed them the first weekend, two weeks ahead of schedule. So we need to focus beyond starting seeds and start preparing for outdoor activities. To me, that means dumping out the contents of the tool bag onto the potting table.

I need to inventory the mess, clean and sharpen the tools, evaluate their usability and taking note of those that need to be replaced; for example, the bypass pruner. This is arguably the second most abused garden tool in the bag, the first being the trowel.

The most popular size bypass pruner is designed to cut live woody branches up to one-half of an inch in diameter. In reality it is used as a hammer, a trenching tool, a wire cutter and a root (rock) cutter. It is used to cut dead wood, and if you rotate it back and forth, remove it and re-insert it; you can cut a live one-and-a-half inch branch. Admit it; you have done that and a lot more. The tool is abused.

The bypass pruner is designed to slice through the wood like a pair of scissors. As you cut, a sharp curved blade passes by a thick unsharpened crescent shaped bottom blade. The crescent is designed to prevent the branch from sliding out as you cut it.

Anything beyond cutting live wood is the job of a different tool. Kitchen shears clip coupons, snips cut wire and pruners cut wood. Every time a piece of dead or oversized wood gets caught between the blades it bends them out of alignment. Eventually you lose the ability to make clean cuts and have to replace the pruner.

Exercise your ATP. If the tool comes apart, take it apart; clean it, oil it, sharpen it and put it back together. If the tool has a point or cutting edge, sharpen them. If it has wooden handles, sand and oil them. If the pruning saw is dull, replace it; along with any other cutting tool blades. If you cannot make the tool serviceable, replace it.

Bringing Old Things Back to Life: Some of the best gardening hand tools were manufactured after the turn of the last century. All metal, some with wooden handles. They were easily dis-assembled for repair and maintenance and nearly indestructible.

Here is a pair of shears picked up out of a junk pile full of rust. I took it apart and sanded out the rust; replaced the spring and painted the handle. I’ve been using them now for five years. The image is recent, following re-painting the handles and sharpening the blades.

Seymour Smith & Son Shears

I found these hedge shears in a barrel at an antique shop.

Shears fresh from the barrel

They are WISS Professional Pattern from the mid-1960′s. Suggested retail price from the company catalog, $6.95. I paid $4 and invested a couple of hours to bring them back to life. This is what it looks like now.

After Sanding and Painting

 This rubber bumper was an innovation to reduce muscle fatigue.

Neoprene shock absorber

 I shaped a rubber bottle stopper on the band saw to replace the broken shock absorber.

New shock absorber

Within all living organisms there is a molecule, adenosine triphosphate (ATP). It is responsible for delivering energy released during respiration to wherever it is needed in a plant or body. In an oxygen rich (aerobic) environment this energy is distributed to allow plants, and us, to go about our normal daily life.

In an oxygen poor (anaerobic) environment we die, but some plants make adjustments; trying to survive the life threatening situation. In the case of crocuses, they convert the energy to heat; allowing them to grow through the frozen soil, melt the snow around them; exposing them to the fresh air.

This whole subject of ATP and the beautiful images of crocuses growing through the snow could be interesting and would be a great subject this time of year, if nature cooperated and put some snow on the ground. It is pretty clear though that the growing season will begin early this year.

I usually sow my pea’s mid-month. Last year I was not able to sow them until March 30th, now I might sow them this weekend, two weeks ahead of schedule. So we need to focus beyond starting seeds and start preparing for outdoor activities. To me, that means dumping out the contents of the tool bag onto the potting table.

I am not a hoarder, but there are a few items that I do not throw in the recycle bin. All of my hand tools, used and abused, are on display reminding me of the tasks they were not designed for; and it only took thirty years to figure it out.

Already having a collection makes it easy to justify adding to it. I focused on antique castoffs; going back to a time when horsepower was determined by counting the number of animals pulling the combine. I am amazed not just by their quality and ability to take abuse, but also by how much more efficient and easy they are to use. I was able to take a few completely apart, sharpen the blades, paint and oil them up, and had them working like new. Something else you can’t do with newer ergonomic plastic versions.

I need to inventory the mess, clean and sharpen the tools, evaluate their usability and take note of those that need to be replaced; for example, the bypass pruner. This is arguably the second most abused garden tool in the bag, the first being the trowel.

When I first started gardening, I had three tools in my bag; a trowel, cultivator and bypass pruner. Once I was on my knees I wasn’t getting back up; so I used the cultivator to loosen the soil, the trowel to dig holes, edge grass, pry out rocks and chop roots; the pruner took care of the roots and unseen rocks that I could not chop.

By the end of the weekend I had blisters on both hands; and by seasons end I needed a new trowel and pruner. It took me a long time to figure out that the tools were designed for specific uses and when used properly lasted forever. Now that I understand that concept, my bag has a lot more tools; and I don’t need a few of the noisy power tools anymore. At a minimum, your bag needs six tools.

Pruners; two bypass pruners for live wood cuts, one for branches up to one-quarter inch and one for up to three-quarters of an inch; one anvil pruner for cutting off dead branches; the difference between the two types will be apparent with the first cut.

The most popular size bypass pruner is designed to cut live woody branches up to one-half of an inch in diameter. In reality it is used as a hammer, a trenching tool, a wire cutter and a root (rock) cutter. It is used to cut dead wood, and if you rotate it back and forth, remove it and re-insert it; you can cut a live one-and-a-half inch branch. Admit it; you have done that and a lot more. The tool is abused.

The bypass pruner is designed to slice through the wood like a pair of scissors. As you cut, a sharp curved blade passes by a thick unsharpened crescent shaped bottom blade. The crescent is designed to prevent the branch from sliding out as you cut it.

Anything beyond cutting live wood is the job of a different tool. Kitchen shears clip coupons, snips cut wire and pruners cut wood. Every time a piece of dead or oversized wood gets caught between the blades it bends them out of alignment. Eventually you lose the ability to make clean cuts and have to replace the pruner.

Pruning saw; an eight-inch folding pruner to allow cuts that cannot be made with a bow saw. If the bow is banging against the bark while you are trying to make a cut then you should not be using it.

Trowel; since we do abuse this tool we might as well purchase one that is up for the task; a stainless steel blade with a ruler on the face, saw tooth on one side knife edge on the other, forged or riveted tang. Press formed aluminum or chrome plated metal blades will not make it through the season.

Cultivator; this is used to break up the soil crust to facilitate watering, and cut weed seedlings before they have a chance to take hold. If you use it to pull out shrub roots, the only thing you will pull is your lower back.

Exercise your ATP. If the tool comes apart, take it apart; clean it, oil it, sharpen it and put it back together. If the tool has a point or cutting edge, sharpen them. If it has wooden handles, sand and oil them. If the pruning saw is dull, replace it; along with any other cutting tool blades. If you cannot make the tool serviceable, replace it.

Throw in heavy duty shears, a folding knife, small sharpening stone, ball of cotton string, markers and you have something that will make your activities a lot more fun.


   Mar 14

Opening Day

My gardening season officially starts on March 24th this year. That was the day I will sow the peas. Sugar Snap, Mr. Big, Knight andLincoln; three 12-foot rows on a raised bed. Two hours of quiet time turning soil and counting worms.

People can argue that the season begins when the seed catalogs arrive in your mailbox in December, but that is just off-season anticipation. At that time I am still crunching numbers from last season. Did I keep the lettuce in too long? Did I bring out the peppers too early? Was it a mistake going with just one variety of eggplant? Did the mid-season acquisition of the container tomatoes increase my yield?

This is heady stuff, how do I improve on last year? Do I barter with another seed saver and make some block buster trades? Am I willing to spend extra money for larger gladiola corms or lily bulbs? Am I just going to used compost or will I bring in some peat moss to improve soil conditions; and is it going to all of the beds or just the farm team? Is this the year I exceed the square-footage cap and turn some more lawn into another flower bed?

What about the seedlings growing under the lights in February and March, surely that the beginning of the growing season. That’s spring training. I still don’t know how many plants and variety of each I will be fielding. I am currently in talks with other gardeners and might make some trades when the seedlings are transplanted to individual pots. Those trades will be finalized after the plants pass their physicals to ensure they are free of insects or diseases.

All of that will soon be out of my control, the season will start and I will have to go with the plants on hand. In the vegetable garden beets, parsnip, peas, radish and spinach can be sowed. In a couple of weeks, broccoli, garlic, lettuce (plants and seed), onions, gladiola and lily can go in. As soon as the soil warms about 50OF, you’re looking at the tender bulbs; dahlia, elephant ear, calla and cannas.

April is the busiest time of the year for gardeners. As soon as you turn that first spade full of soil you will not stop until everything is planted. In what little time you have left, you should be purchasing, cleaning and sharpening your tools; especially the lawnmower blade. Lay out and clear new planting beds now, you never know what the garden centers are bringing in.

The bugs and insects are coming out and looking for places to hang out; don’t be an enabler. Prune all of the dead and broken branches from your shrubs. That is for the compost pile, not the yard waste pick-up. Rake up the leaves and dead plant matter from last year’s daylily, iris, and peony. Turn some of the planting beds now to expose larva to feed the birds. You will be amazed at how much easier it is to pull a dandy lion now versus the end of the month. A little effort now saves a lot of work later.

For the record, last year the lettuce did go to seed, two pepper plants died, I did spend the extra money for larger bulbs, and I am going to pay a Honey Do tax for exceeding the square footage cap.


   Mar 09

Still Cold Outside

Spring is here, the crocuses, tulips, daffodils and hyacinths have broken ground, and there is only a little white stuff left. So it must be time to go outside, take in some fresh air and start planting right? Not so fast there green jeans type person it is too early to start digging outdoors. “What do you mean it is too early? The flower shows are in full swing, I bought my seeds and the box retailers are selling plants and bulbs.” Well that’s true. “And what about the hardware stores, the gardening tools, grass seed and fertilizer are all on the shelves?” Yeah, you are right about that also.

“So why can’t I put on my muck boots, rain gear, heatsulate gloves and go have fun?” Well there’s your problem, cabin fever has gotten the best of you, and given you an itch you can’t scratch. Be strong, there are two very good reasons you should not be tromping across the lawn and digging around the growing beds; too cold and too wet.

The majority of seed from plants we grow have an ideal germination temperature range of between 50O F and 70O F. That’s soil temperature, not air temperature. In the Middle Ages, people were taught to pick up their loincloth and sit on the ground. If their bare bottoms were uncomfortable then it was too early to plant. I am not suggesting you perform the same test today; just understand that if you sow seeds now they will rot in the ground before they can germinate.

Yes, there are some vegetables that are cold hardy; peas, radishes, spinach; and you can sow their seed earlier. I have had seasons where it has snowed after the seed were in the ground, but I did not sow those seeds until the soil was ready for cultivation; and that brings us to too wet.

Micro organisms and plant roots need oxygen to survive. They get it from the “soil air” located in the little pores between the soil particles. Air is constantly moving trough the soil, passing oxygen in and carbon dioxide out. Water restricts that movement.

Water is also a lubricant. It coats the soil particles. When you walk on wet soil, you compress the particle together, eliminating the pore space as the water is forced out. The same thing happens when you turn the wet soil that movement alone reduces the pore space and you want just the opposite.

The simple test is to pick up a handful of soil, squeeze it into a ball and poke it gently with the other hand. If you squeeze water out, or the ball holds together then the soil is too wet to cultivate. If it crumbles, then knock yourself out.

Until then, and we are only talking about a couple more weeks at most; consider starting some plants from seed indoors. Now is a good time to start the warm temperature crops like tomato, pepper and eggplant.

Even better, go out and buy that garden tool bag you always wanted. Gather your tools together and examine, clean and sharpen them. You will be amazed at how much more fun it is when your pruner actually cuts.


   Feb 14

Composting

February 7: Dirt and soil, soil and dirt; often used interchangeably when describing outdoor gardening activities. Adults work the soil, children to go play in the dirt; gardeners prepare the soil for planting and get dirt on our hands while doing it. Just what is it?

The dictionary only slightly clarifies the difference: Dirt – Earth or soil, Soil – A particular kind of earth. So, all soil is dirt, but not all dirt is soil. Is this just semantics? Maybe it is, if you are not gardener; but it is a very important difference to those of us who are. Especially if we are starting plants from seed, and by the way now is the time to start.

Soil is finely ground up rock; a combination of sand, silt and clay. They contain earth metals, the elements that we refer to as nutrients needed to support healthy plant growth. Soil does not contain any organic matter like decomposed plants and alive/dead micro-organisms, bugs and insects.

Over millions of years organic matter accumulated on and became incorporated into the top layer of soil an area which is now commonly referred to as Top Soil. Good stuff out in the garden beds, but deadly for starting seeds indoors.

Seeds and seedlings started indoors in fresh topsoil or compost are susceptible to fungal illnesses that are collectively referred to as damping off disease. Damping off disease is not a concern when direct sowing into the garden or transplanting after hardening off. The higher indoor temperatures just give the fungi an advantage that the seedlings cannot overcome.

Prior to the industrial age, when most families farmed to sustain themselves, seedling loss was compensated for by over planting. As the population increased and farming became a business, farmers had to improve their germination rates. They had been sterilizing the top soil by cooking it, a practice still used today by organic gardeners; though I would caution that if you try this, you use an old lasagna pan and the outdoor grill. The problem became one of scale; you need a lot more sterilized soil to start 2,000 tomato plants than you need for 20.

At the beginning of the last century, farmers began experimenting with soil-less mixes; growing mediums that did not contain sand, silt or clay. They evaluated composted materials and peat; which were good for retaining moisture, but fell short in other areas. In addition to providing the micro nutrients, the irregular shape of the sand silt and clay create voids for air to move around. So a soil-less mix had to satisfy all requirements; moisture retention, nutrients and air.

The needs were addressed by incorporating pearlite or vermiculite (both nature provided organic materials) to create air pockets and absorb moisture, and water soluble fertilizer for nutrients. In today’s soil-less mixes, or Potting Soil, you might find peat, compost, coconut coir pith, white foam pellets, pearlite, vermiculite, water soluble and slow release fertilizer.

So, since a Potting Soil does not contain soil why don’t they just call it dirt? Well, would you pay $10 for a bag of dirt?

July 26, 2012, Compost What? It is becoming an annual ritual; time to discuss composting again. I know, I know; you don’t want to do it, you don’t know how to do it, you shouldn’t be doing it, your neighbor shouldn’t be doing it, the Town shouldn’t be doing it. My response is wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong and totally wrong.

During garden lectures I have experienced trowel totting organic gardeners who readily spoke up in class, offering all kinds of suggestions to save the planet and grow plants organically. When the subject turned to composting, they went silent.

I understand that there are gardening activities people just don’t want to do; heck if grass grew to an even four inches high and didn’t go to seed I would be one happy guy. Throwing yard waste onto a pile does not require a lot of effort, so why do people avoid having one.

I believe part of the problem is that composting proponents are always debating the subject from a defensive position; debunking urban myths head on rather then bending, weaving and bobbing them into submission. For example, instead of just saying:

You can compost cooked foods, how about; I compost all of my kitchen scraps; fruit and vegetable peelings, egg shells (brown and white), paper napkins, coffee grounds and filter, teabags, even cooked food.

You can compost meat products, how about; meats and fats are excellent compostable material, if you choose to compost them spread them throughout the pile and work them in; that will minimize any adverse odors and reduce the possibility of receiving unwanted visitors.

You can compost diseased plant matter, how about; our yard contains microbial life forms, the ratio of good to bad is 30,000:1. The compost pile is a great equalizer, a place for the good guys to bring the bad guys back down to a controllable level.

Don’t compost weeds, how about; plants that have gone to seed, flowers, vegetables and weeds, can be composted. Some of the seed may survive the decomposition process but should not be a problem when incorporated into your planting beds.

Compost piles are not ugly, how about; compost bins can be a focal point in the landscape, surrounded by perennials or placed inconspicuously beside a row of raspberries it identifies the gardener as someone who cares about the environment.

When we decided to stop maintaining an artificial garden many years ago, we went through three years of serious pest and disease problems. All of that changed when the amount of organic matter; cow manure, peat moss, and COMPOST worked into the soil reached the point where the plants received enough water and nutrients to grow strong enough to take care of themselves.

Yes, eliminating pesticides increased the insect population, but it also brought back the birds that patrol the yard and eat the insects. None of that would have happened if we did not take advantage of the organic matter produced in the compost pile.

So before placing the barrel of yard waste on the curb for pick-up, consider starting a compost pile.

 

The Engineer’s brain is clearly wired differently than those of normal humans. Our mouths open, the words come out, and people stare at us as if we were speaking a foreign language. Pick a subject, any subject, world peace; we will immediately identify a technical solution, crunch numbers, tell you how to achieve it and provide a roadmap to get there. That’s just us. As some of you have already pointed out about my other posts, that same logic appears to apply to gardening.

I screened one of my compost bins last spring and harvested about 170 gallons of the best soil amendment you can use on your planting beds.

Many years ago I made the decision to cold compost, just tossing organic matter on top of the pile in my homemade 4x4x3-foot high bin and letting nature take its course. I sift the compost through a ½-inch screen, also homemade, twice a year and I am good to go.

So as I was filling 5-gallon buckets with the sifted compost did my thoughts go to mulching the tomato plants, top dressing the containers, or turning it into the squash beds? Nope, I was already over how much time and effort I saved by cold composting versus the almost daily exercise of tossing and turning necessary for hot composting. Or how handy I was making my own bins and screen. What I wanted to know was how much money was I saving by not purchasing processed organic matter.

Here is the equivalency roadmap; 1 cubic foot equals 1,728 cubic inches. 1-gallon equals 231 cubic inches. 1 cubic foot (1,728) divided by 1 gallon (231) equals 7.48 gallons in a cubic foot. I harvested 170 gallons of compost.

Sphagnum peat moss is my first purchase choice soil amendment; it sells for about 40¢ a gallon, so I saved $68! Now sphagnum peat is a great amendment and it absorbs and retains ridiculous amounts of water. The down side is that it provides minimal nutrients, has zero biological activity, and the pH is in the happy blueberry range of 3.0 to 4.0; way too low for most plants. So I saved a couple more dollars by not purchasing fertilizer and lime to augment the peat.

Cow manure is closer to compost; it has a neutral pH, contains nutrients, and has good water retention. At an average price of 50¢ per gallon, I saved $85.

Then there is premium top soil; prepackaged with sphagnum peat, both granular and slow release fertilizer, and other stuff; selling at $1.87 per gallon (but consider the time you save not having to mix all these things yourself), my savings $318, Jackpot!!!

Forget the math for a second. Compost, peat and manures all have their advantages and should be incorporated into our garden beds. I store my dahlias over winter in peat and turn it into the soil before I plant the tender bulbs in the spring. I mix top soil with peat and compost for my container plantings. The compost is mostly reserved for the vegetable garden, and I still augment it with a general purpose fertilizer.

The thing I like about compost is that it is alive with the micro-organisms, fungus and bacteria needed to help plant roots multiply and absorb water, and nutrients needed to support plant growth; kind of like a plant pro-biotic. When I incorporate compost into the planting beds, I know that I do not have to be as diligent about checking soil condition and moisture as I would have to be if I used processed material.

The best part about using compost is that I know and control what organic matter gets tossed into the pile. Wait, that’s the second best part; the best part is that it is free.

Engineers, you’ve got to love us. Hey, did I mention that I have two compost bins? Now let’s see, 340 gallons of compost at…

Where can I purchase composting worms? This question got me thinking so I did some hands-on research. I dug several holes around the yard and in my compost piles, checking the qualifications of every worm I found. Not one of them could produce documentation that they were certified to work in my garden; very disappointing.

Now I am wondering; are the fishing worms sold at bait shops are certified? And what about bookworms, are they really reading?

Seriously, I did a web search and identified several businesses that raise and sell worms; you can purchase as few as 1,000 for $19.95 plus shipping. You can buy night crawlers, red and brown worms; brown, like the ones you already have in your yard. So then why do you need to buy more worms?

These worms are raised for the vermiculture industry. They are placed in a raised bed and covered with animal dung and/or vegetative waste. They eat 24/7, their castings drop out the bottom of the beds, are bagged and sold as vermicompost. High volume and big bucks!

What is important here is that the worms are captive and cannot leave the beds, even when the food supply slows down. Your compost operation is different; the bin probably sits on the ground. What do you think 1,000 worms are going to do when the food supply runs low, and during the winter? That’s right; they are going south and moving out, where you already have worms.

Save your money and cultivate the free worms in your yard now. To paraphrase a popular commercial; “Free worms are happy worms and happy worms have better castings.

Are coffee rounds good to compost? Yes, absolutely. Any plant material, including coffee, can be composted. Nationally we consume enough coffee to support a coffee ground aftermarket. It has been used or evaluated for animal feed, bio-fuels, additives to building materials, and for its’ health benefits as an antioxidant, and the ability to treat waste water.

Some research suggests coffee may be too acidic, and only recommend using it as a mulch around plants like rhododendrons and azalea. There is also discussion about coffee grounds disrupting the symbiotic relationship between micro-organisms and feeder roots.

Composting materials is like blending your own coffee, where you can add flavor or minimize bitterness according to your taste. In the compost pile, materials on opposite ends of the pH scale are neutralized. Likewise, high concentrations of any one type of material are diluted as you turn the pile.

So go ahead and compost the grounds.

Do you have a gardening question? Send it to mastergardener@rcn.com. Peter Coppola is a principle master gardener and gardening advocate; he teaches and lectures on the subject by request.

 


   Feb 10

Plant recommendations

Dahlias Rule: I learned a long time ago that the best way to stretch the blooming period of any perennial is to grow several varieties of the plant. Just about every perennial has been cultivated to produce dwarf, medium and tall heights in a rainbow of colors with early, mid and late season blooming periods.

Back in the last century, my BWF imposed a 2-dozen rule. If I find a plant that I like and I already have 24 varieties of that plant, then I have to decide which one I am giving up before I can purchase the new one. I’m not saying that I have an addiction, but there is a reason why I am not allowed to go to a garden nursery by myself.

I was on a gladiola kick for many years. They are one of the more foolproof tender bulbs to grow, come in a large variety of colors, require minimum attention during the growing season, and are easy to dig up and store.

Now I grew Glad for over ten years, always mindful of the 2-dozen rule but not tracking the total number of plants. I would place the corms in long three-foot wide rows and support the sword like leaves and flower spike with volleyball nets turned sideways and suspended a couple of feet off the ground. Then one year I did an inventory, 17 varieties and over 600 plants. That was the red flag, stoplight, time for a change, find something else to grow moment; and that something else was the Dahlia.

The thing I like best about the Dahlia is that it will continue to bloom when all of the other plants are shutting down for the season, and it does not stop until the first killing frost. Yes, annuals will also continue to bloom as long as you keep deadheading, but how many annuals produce flowers that are bigger than your “dinner plate”? One of my Dahlias, Gladiator, not to be confused with Gladiolus above, has 11-inch diameter blooms. Tell that to your marigolds.

That is another thing I like. The border Dahlia is prettier, hardier, and blooms better than most annuals. Regardless of bloom size, from golf ball to basketball; height, under a foot to taller than me; or color combinations; they are still one type of plant. That means only one growing requirement to remember.

Dahlia is also a tender bulb and has to be dug up for storage over winter, but I figured if I didn’t kill 600 Glad I should be reasonably successful with Dahlias. The only significant difference is that Glad corms are coated with a bulb dust and stored in a open containers while Dahlias tubers are covered with peat moss and stored in a closed (not air tight) container. You want to keep the corms dry to prevent rotting, the reason for the open container; and the tubers somewhere between wet and dry, let’s say humid. Stored in an air tight container they will rot. Stored loose in an open container they will dry out. Either way, they are dead. Burying them in peat keeps them in their happy place.

I can report that I am under the 2-dozen cap and only have 19 variety of Dahlia, less than 100 plants; but can you believe it, the nurseries are already promoting selections for 2012. Talk about enabling. 

I teach several gardening courses in the spring and provide a lot of hand-outs. One is a seed sowing table for zone 6a; listing information like indoor/outdoor sowing dates, planting depth, spacing and some comments. One of the questions that I can take to the bank is a plant recommendation.

I think the better question is; are there any plants that I don’t recommend growing. I cannot visit a garden center and not make a purchase. My lack of willpower and inability to walk away is so bad that I have a spouse imposed a two-dozen rule. It is like a gardening salary cap. No more than 24 varieties of any one plant; buy a new iris, one of the old irises has to go. I am talking 24 of each; (calla, dahlia, hosta, lily, peony …), fortunately, she doesn’t walk around the yard taking count.

So rather than offering recommendations, I suggest a process; buy what you know, buy what you like, and experiment with one different plant every year. Adopting the process increases confidence and probability of success.

Know – When you buy a plant that you know and recognize you already have some knowledge about its growing conditions and maintenance requirements. I cannot tell you how often I killed plants that I had limited knowledge about by; choosing the wrong location or performing inadequate site preparation. I could have read the printed growing directions provided with the plant, but guys don’t read labels.

Like – When you buy something you like, you have an emotional connection. Chances are that you will invest the time to learn more about the plant and adopt a care and maintenance program to ensure its success.

Experiment – As your gardening knowledge increases a metamorphosis occurs. All of those activities augmenting the soil, pulling weeds before they went to seed, edging the lawn and mulching has reduced maintenance hours; providing you with the time to take on a challenge. So become adventurous and try something just for the heck of it.

You never know; for many years I thought the oriental lily was beyond my gardening capabilities, and then about ten years ago I gave one a try. Now, I am growing them under the two-dozen rule.


   Feb 05

Home Grown Vegetables

December; The soil temperature has dropped below fifty degrees and the micro-organisms are going into hibernation. That is my cue to put the tools away and look back on the growing season for lessons learned that will make next years gardening easier and more enjoyable.

Did you know that a woodchuck is nothing more than a fat squirrel, capable of climbing? I replaced my worn and rusted chicken wire fence around the vegetable garden with a taller more sturdy rabbit guard. It did a great job keeping the rabbits out, but it also made it easier for the woodchuck to climb in. All those years of making sure they couldn’t dig under the fence, and they were going over the top.

I never did determine the life cycle of an indeterminate tomato, but for this experiment I learned that instead of letting it grow up; I should have let it grow out. The tomato plant is a vine. We train it to grow vertical in order to keep the fruit clean. My tomato stakes topped out at six feet so I tied the vines together as self supporting bundles. That got me to eight feet after which they made a u-turn and the bed got ugly.

Lesson learned; grow tomatoes on a ten foot trellis, no; let tomato vines meander along the garden bed, no; top the plant at seven feet and avoid problems, yes.

Speaking of tying, hand surgery in July prevented me from tying up the dahlias; dahlias need to be tied up.

Many people had to pull their tomato plants because of blight, yet I had minimal damage and was picking tomatoes up to the killing frost. I sprayed the plants and soil every week with my dish detergent and ammonia solution; and I believe that solution, along with good sanitization practices prevented the problem. Lesson learned; keep the garden beds clean.

When I was weeding two years ago and a chipmunk climbed a lily next to me to eat the flower buds, I knew that détente was over. Last year, I experimented with repellents and had some success. The reality is that when an animal is hungry they will eat anything, even when it has a foul taste.

This year I declared war on both the chipmunks and woodchucks (plural yes, I had three). Following State guidelines, I waited for them to become a nuisance; one night of gorging on the entire vegetable garden. Leaving out the details, let’s just say that; a five gallon bucket half filled with water topped with sunflower seeds works; woodchucks do have an addiction for bubble gum; and holes only have to be dug one shovel full deep.

All those years of questioning my gardening skills for flowers that did not bloom like the plants in the magazine photographs. Years of wondering why my harvests were nowhere near what was promised in the seed catalogs. Suddenly, with just one environmental correction, I’m Mr. Greenjeans. Lesson learned, sometimes you have to be the bad guy.  

December; At the end of the season, just before I open the new seed catalogs and start working on next years’ garden, I like to check my notes and reflect on the season and lessons learned.

Three feet of snow on the ground in February 2011 did not delay the start of the growing season. Heavy rainfall melted the snow, exposing the raised beds that heated up in time for the usual March sowing of peas. Now the ten inches of snow that fell after the sowing was something I had to work around.

People can argue all they want about global warming being caused by industrialization or just the natural planet climate cycle change. What I know is that I am sowing seeds earlier and harvesting crops a lot later in the season than I did a decade ago. Next year I will increase the amount of my second crop of cool season vegetables.

There was a direct correlation between the large amount of acorns harvested in 2010 and the chipmunk population explosion the following summer. The homesteaders in my yard emptied the pea pods and ate most of the bean, winter squash and lily blossoms.

There was also a synergistic relationship between the chipmunks and the woodchuck. The chipmunks tore my plastic wall of invisibility giving the woodchuck a clear view of the vegetables behind it. Minus the stealth, the rusted chicken wire fence was easily broken by the woodchuck and the garden became the victim.

Applying rodent repellents and predator urine after the fact was a case of too little too late. The few vegetables that did survive the chipmunk food fest were eaten by the woodchuck. Clearly the adage – one for the mouse, one for the crow, one to rot and one to grow, did not apply to them. Next year the garden gets a new sturdier fence and the opaque plastic wall of invisibility will be taller.

One plant that came out untouched by ravenous wildlife, insects or disease was the garlic. A little research identified garlic as a natural antibiotic used to treat nose, ear, chest and throat infections and a treatment for colds and flu. I don’t understand how our ancestors made the leap from viral infection to vampire repellent but there is a lesson here and I am braiding some necklaces.

The availability of water was not an issue this year. The past few years, watering bans were in effect in a number of communities and in anticipation of another ban this year I made two rain barrels to capture the runoff from my roof. Who knew that total rainfall would be nine inches above normal? I quickly learned that rainfall from a single storm can overflow the barrels and ended up leaving the valves partially open.

This lesson learned about investing time and money to minimize the impact of an event, in this case a watering ban, only to have the opposite happen resonated with me and I already applied it by purchased a snow blower.

July 10 – Last Call

July is a transition month. Cool weather crops like broccoli, peas and lettuce have been harvested, creating space to sow seeds for a fall harvest. I like to plant turnip and rutabaga along with more bush beans and lettuce. The blueberries are already being picked, the raspberries are right behind them and the daylilies are blooming like crazy. Just about everything that is going to happen in the flower beds has. The only thing to look forward to now is in the vegetable garden.

With that sad thought in mind, July is also the latest month of the growing season to apply granular or slow release fertilizer around perennials or tender bulbs. It is hard to believe but the plants are already preparing for next year. As August and the cooler nighttime temperatures approach, they stop producing new leaves and stems and begin to store energy in their roots. This year’s new grow hardens in order to withstand the cold winter temperatures.

Remember those light green stems at the end of the branches back in April? They were so soft that you could wrap them around your finger without breaking them. Now they are dark green or brown and they snap under a little pressure. That is what you want at the end of the season, strong hard growth.

Fertilizer applied now will stimulate new growth that will not have enough time to harden. Translation; you will have a lot of dead branches and fewer blooms next spring. We call that winter kill. That is what you do not want.

This problem will be even more pronounced on your tender bulbs like dahlias, calla, and canna; any plant that you dig up in the fall. They will retain too much moisture and will rot in storage. If you purchase new bulbs every year this probably does not bother you; but if you grew a particular plant that you want to save and propagate next year, then you need to hold back on the fertilizer.

One of my favorite vegetable is garlic. Snickering aside, nothing seems bothers it; it is disease free and the insects and wildlife give it a wide berth. Garlic is planted in the fall and the cloves overwinter in the frozen soil; so we have to grow the stiff neck varieties in this region; and I think that is great because it gives me two harvests. At the end of the month I will make my second harvest; pulling the plants, selecting the bulbs that I will replant in October, sharing some with my family and neighbors, and curing he rest for winter storage.

The first harvest though is the one I most look forward to. I am talking about the scapes at the end of the flower stock. These scapes can be cooked and served as a side dish; but I prefer to puree it with olive oil and grated Parmesan or Romano cheese to make a pesto. Combine the pesto with sun dried tomatoes and chicken; serve it over pasta and once you taste it you will, well, ah, let’s just say that you will put garlic on your planting list.

Winter hardy hard neck

Garlic scapes ready for harvest

The quantity and variety of vegetables available at the supermarkets today is off the chart. Asparagus used to be a seasonal favorite in the spring, selling out after just a few weeks and leaving us waiting for the next year’s harvest. Now it is shipped in from all over the world and available year round.

So, given the availability and convenience why bother growing our own vegetables? Well, ignoring all of the health benefits, cost savings, quantity of harvest, neighborhood bragging rights, and just plain fun; I have two reasons, taste and variety.

Did you ever notice that sweet corn that isn’t cooked as soon as you take it home from the market tastes like a potato? That is because the plant cells in the corn are still alive and hungry. Their food source is sugar, created in the process of photosynthesis. When the ear of corn was on the plant sugar was always available. Once the ear was picked, the only sugar available was in the cornels; so they ate it; converting the sugar to starch.

The difference between sugar and starch is one molecule of oxygen. In a couple of days, the great fresh picked taste of any vegetable becomes just an okay flavor. So, how many days does it take fresh vegetables to arrive from California? Chile? China? Exactly!

On any given day at the supermarket you might find three different kinds of tomatoes, a standard, plum and cherry; and two types of beans green and yellow. There are lots of greens though; one kale, one escarole, one chard, one bok choy. That isn’t variety. There are thousands of varieties of tomatoes grown worldwide; many of them have over the top flavor that can turn a turkey sandwich into a Panini. Why would you limit your choice to a couple of dozen when there are thousands of vegetables you could grow from seed.

The Garden – My first vegetable garden 34 years ago was smaller than my shed and was a dismal failure, producing only a softball sized butternut squash. My source of gardening knowledge was one television show with a companion book, and my credo was, “If I can’t eat it I don’t grow it.”

Then, the variety of catalog seed available to the home gardener numbered in the hundreds, and heirloom seeds were smuggled via folded paper napkins along with the message; “Mr. Growsitall gave us some vegetables, they were delicious I saved the seeds for you; don’t tell him!”

Today, my garden is a whole lot bigger and vegetable plants have spilled into the flower beds. There are too many gardening shows on television, and I own more books on the subject than the library.

There is a worldwide effort to acquire and preserve all of the different variety of seeds as a hedge against some future undefined environment or health issue. This effort to maintain the diversity of plants has opened the door for the home gardener to grow just about any kind and variety of plant and I am all over that. We are in the front line of this effort. They are asking us to help, I am asking, “Where were you 34 years ago?”


   Jan 27

Does Fertilizer Go Bad

I received this question last spring. I have old bags of fertilizer in my shed; are they still good, can I mix them together?

Yes, absolutely, don’t throw any of it away and you can mix them together. What is most confusing when trying to understand fertilizer is the word “nutrient.” “Healthy plants need lots of nutrients.” “Your plant leaves are choleric (whatever that means), it has a nutrient deficiency.” So what the heck are nutrients?

In descending order, the nutrients plants need to grow strong and healthy are; carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, calcium, magnesium, sulphur, boron, chlorine, copper, iron, manganese, molybdenum and zinc. “Hey wait, aren’t those elements?” Bingo! Elements, tiny atomic particles that are not going to trade protons or electrons (unless you have the Alchemist’s formula for changing lead into gold), or go bad sitting in the bags inside your shed.

96% of all organic life forms; plants, animals and humans are made up of only four elements; carbon, hydrogen oxygen and nitrogen. Phosphorous adds another 3%; the other eleven elements total only 1%. Bundled together, the top five elements are referred to as Macro-nutrients, and the other eleven as Micro-nutrients.

Plants obtain their macro-nutrients from the carbon dioxide (CO2) in the air, water (H2O) and nitrates (NO3) in the soil. The micro-nutrients are all available as trace elements in the soil. So, if all of the elements are available to the plants in the air and soil, why do we need to add fertilizer?

The simple answer is we don’t. Adding compost, peat and other decomposed plant material continuously to the soil will make our plants happy and healthy. BUT, if you personally are not happy with a yield of only 367 tomatoes and really want 400, then you need to provide more macro-nutrients; and that means fertilizer.

Really, the whole argument for and need to fertilize has to do with production farming. Scientists have been studying and reporting on the relationship between plant performance and the availability of elements since the late 1880’s. The evidence is conclusive that yields increase with the addition of fertilizer; and today, when you are trying to feed a planet of 7 billion people you need a lot of food. We, the home gardener have benefitted from this research.

Now back to those bags of fertilizer, what do you do with all those different kinds? There are so many; Bulb Food, Rose Food, All Purpose, Bloom Booster and Ideal Tomato Food. Then there are those numbers; 10-12-10, 15-5-13, 6-7-7, 10-16-10, 8-10-8; it is like a lottery. If I accidently side dress my tomato plants with Rose Food will it kill the plants?

My question is, how does the tomato plant know that the phosphorus in the soil came from Rose Food and it can’t absorb any of it? Is it reserved for roses only? The answer is that it doesn’t. Elements are elements are elements and it will take it, thank you very much.

Manufactures vary the percentage of nutrients according to the accepted preferred end result. We don’t want lettuce to go to seed, we do want a lot of flowers on our Dahlias. They are trying to make gardening easier and in the end make it more complicated.

Somewhere on every fertilizer package there are three numbers: 10-12-10, 15-5-13, 6-7-7, 10-16-10, 8-10-8; they correspond to the elements Nitrogen-Phosphorus-Potassium and identify the percentage amount of each in the package. These elements are also identified on the package as the N-P-K.

Nitrogen pumps up plant growth through photosynthesis by making the chlorophyll greener. Phosphorus transfers the energy produced by photosynthesis to the “Roots and Shoots”, promoting cell division and growth. Potassium is the catalyst that keeps the plant cells communicating and processing food, thus keeping the plant healthy.

The easiest way to visualize N-P-K is that if you had a 100 pound bag of 15-5-13 fertilizer; it would contain 15 pounds of nitrogen-5 pounds of phosphorus-13 pounds of potassium, and 67 pounds of filler material. Filler material contains trace amounts of micro-nutrients; traditionally they were not in sufficient levels to be identified on the package. Today some packages display lines like; “Contains Sulphur” or “Includes Iron” as a discriminator, creating separation from their competition. If it isn’t listed with the ingredients, it is still just filler material.

Fertilizer is sold to us in three formats; water soluble crystals that dissolve in water and is used as a quick feed or foliar spray; granular particles that are turned into the soil prior to planting or used as side dressing during the growing season; and slow release pellets that are typically mixed in container soil and breakdown over an extended period.

If you are going to consolidate your fertilizer, and want to feel confident that you know the blended N-P-K values; then you should not inter-mix the formats. In other words, keep the water soluble, granular and slow release pellets separate; don’t mix water soluble with granular.

 So, let’s say that you are mixing that 15-5-13 fertilizer with 10-12-10. The easiest why is to combine equal amounts of each in a bowl; volume doesn’t matter, equality does. Now here is the formula:

15       5            13           67           =              100

10     12           13           65           =              100

25     17           26         132           =              200

Divide all of the numbers by 2,

12.5  8.5         13           66           =              100

Oh, you have a third bag of 6-7-7? Then:

  6       7              7            80           =              100

15       5            13           67           =              100

10     12           13           65           =              100

31     24           33         212           =              300

Divide all of the numbers by 3,

10.3    8           11           70.6        =              100

Now here is the kicker. As you mix all of your fertilizer together and calculate the N-P-K, you may notice that the percentages begin to average out close to the same levels. In other words, you will have mixed what is sold as a “General” or “All Purpose” fertilizer; perfectly beneficial for your plants. So maybe you should just buying one bag of 10-10-10 and skip the alchemy.

Got a gardening question? Sent me an e-mail: mastergardener@rcn.com


   Jan 27

Going Organic

I receive a lot of problem questions at this time in the season from people who have decided to garden organically. They subscribed to the magazines, did all of the reading, surfed the web but; their plants aren’t as big as they used to be, there aren’t as many flowers or fruit on the plants, insects, white flies, rust, mold, fungus. What is going on?

I applaud anyone who has the “Think globally, act locally” philosophy; and you cannot get more local than your backyard. Gardening organically however is more than just an attitude adjustment. Our yards are individual little eco-systems. We have theAmazonRain Forest, theSaharaDesert, theGrand Canyon, and our backyard; all eco-systems.

Just as you can follow your Mother-in-Law’s recipe, and never make the sauce as good as she can; you can share seeds and plants with your neighbor and have noticeable differences in the final products. It doesn’t make you a better or worse gardener, but it does say something about your yard.

In the perfect organic eco-system; the soil is full of organic matter, wildlife is plentiful, good bugs are keeping the bad bugs in check, and the plants are so healthy they can shake off a little mold and mildew attack. The perfect eco-system does not happen overnight, well, it doesn’t happen at all; but you can get close, it just takes longer than you think to achieve it.

Manufactured fertilizer, herbicides, pesticides, bagging mowers, power trimmers, sprinkler systems; all are tools that are offered to make our gardening life easier. When we use these tools in our yard however, we artificially change the eco-system; and that is the root cause (no pun intended) of all of the problems people have when they go organic. It takes time for the yard to adjust.

Pesticides are engineered to target specific bugs and insects while not harming others, but it doesn’t always work that way; and even if they did once you eliminate the bad bug food supply the good bugs migrate to your neighbor’s yard where there is food.

Fertilizer, in combination with organic matter incorporated into the soil is an excellent way to provide a steady supply of nutrients to the plants. Fertilizer by itself creates a feast or famine situation. When first applied the plants grow great but as the nutrients are depleted the plants draw from the soil eventually eliminating its ability to support plant growth. In the old days that was referred to as the field being “Cropped out”.

So, how quickly your yard gets to the almost perfect eco-system is dependent on your previous gardening practices. As you work toward making the yard more self-sustaining, plants will be stressed by insects and disease and they will underperform. The important thing is to not panic.

If you have to use a pesticide or fungicide keep it local to the problem, don’t spray the entire yard. Incorporate organic matter into the planting beds as often as possible, you can never add enough. Start and maintain a compost pile, which is where the micro-organisms learn about diversity and getting along.

It may take a couple of years, but you will begin to notice that worms do exist in your soil, plants perform well on their own, and the problems; well, what problems?

Got a question? Send me an e-mail: mastergardener@rcn.com


   Jan 23

The Three Sisters

This is the time of year when there is a lot of traffic on the gardening blogs from people who have heard good things about Three Sisters Gardening. They want to try it, even though they are not sure of what it is exactly, and how to do it.

Essentially, the Three Sisters Garden is a companion planting of corn, pole beans and vining winter squash. The corn seed is sowed first, and when it breaks ground and grows beans seeds are sowed around the stocks. Then, when the beans break ground, the squash seed is sowed. The idea is that the pole bean vines use the corn stocks for support and the leaves of the winter squash plant shade out and suppress weeds, and minimize water loss through evaporation.

Many people believe that they can plant Three Sisters and pick fresh corn and beans as they become available. They can, but I do not believe that was the original intent of the companion planting, and that there are some difficulties; the most obvious of which is that in order to get close enough to pick the corn and beans you need to step on the squash.

Depending on the blog, the origin of the Three Sisters is Iroquois, Mohawk or Cherokee Indian; so I feel safe saving that it is Native American. This suggests to me that the Three Sisters were planted for fall harvest and winter storage. I just think they were more concerned about having something to eat over winter and winter squash, dried corn and beans was the solution.

So as a source of fresh produce, I would not recommend incorporating this into your vegetable garden; but it is a good gardening experiment and great cultural, historic and learning opportunity; something to do with your children. So, here is my version of the Three Sisters.

First prepare the planting beds (at least 5×7-feet per bed) by incorporating as much organic matter as you can. Mother Nature is supposed to provide the water and, if you are trying this as a school project, you probably will not be stopping by during the summer to water the plants. The organic matter will retain moisture and provide some nutrients to the plants. I would also incorporate some 10-10-10 fertilizer, since it is easier and less expensive than burying fish under the corn seed.

Next sow the corn in a 1-foot grid. The plan is to have 4 rows with 6 plants per row. Corn is pollinated by the wind. The pollen in the tassels has to contact each of the silk hairs coming out of the corn husk. Each of the silk hairs is attached to a corn kernel, gridding the corn ensures more kernels are pollinated. The time to sow is when the soil temperature is mid-fifty degrees, as soon as the beds are prepared. For authenticity, try to plant an Indian Ornamental like Smoke Signal or Seneca Red Stalker, or a Popping Corn.

When the corn is at least four inches high, sow the pole beans 6-inches apart between each stock. Leave one lane across the row between plants 3 and 4 open. I think Cherokee Trail of Tears, Rattlesnake and October all have Native American lineages.

As soon as the beans come up, sow three winter squash seeds across the north side of the bed, and the open lane. Here you might want to try Buttercup, Hubbard or Delicata.

Once the squash begins to vine out, you may have to intervene and direct them between the rows and not up the stocks. Other than that, the sisters should take care of each other. Let the corn and beans dry on their plants. Leave the squash until the first frost before harvesting.


   Jan 13

Heirloom Seeds

New Catalogs, Part 2: In January, the crop harvested is gardening catalogs. The agriculture industry, like so many other industries, has experienced its share of mergers and acquisitions. I am aware of three companies that each acquired a half dozen or more operations and still produce catalogs under their original names. So, ordering from one catalog guarantees me receipt of at least five more in the mail.

For these larger companies the catalogs are all about “Branding,” the traditional high end catalogs printed on high gloss paper charge higher prices for the same variety and quantity of seed than their sister catalogs printed in black and white on recycled paper, and a little more for shipping and handling. They do not care about which catalog you order from, as long as it is one of theirs.

I am not suggesting that you steer clear of these or any catalogs; I continue to be a loyal customer to many of them. My problem is trying to decide what to order every year because they make it so difficult to decipher the text.

One catalog offers a tomato that has “Heirloom Flavor with Hybrid Productivity” and another that “Looks Like an Heirloom and Grows Like a Hybrid.” Normally somewhere in the text the plant is identified as an open pollinated or hybrid but here is one description, “a hybrid heirloom.” So, can I save the seeds next fall and get the same tomatoes the following year? I don’t know, because I don’t know.

Another catalog is offering an organic insecticide that is derived from a “naturally occurring soil bacteria discovered on aCaribbeanIsland.” Really, so this bacterium isn’t found anywhere else on the planet? But wait, what if it is unique to just that one small island, a place where it is in balance with the local eco-system. Shouldn’t I be afraid to use it in a different eco-system, a place that I call my yard?

Then there is the organic combination insecticide fungicide that is “effective against a wide variety of bugs, insects and scales.” The Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) has verified that another product sold to “fight the battle against fungal and bacterial diseases on plants” is organic. CIDE means DEAD, should I feel better that I am organically killing the good bugs and fungi along with the bad?

What about the hot pepper spray animal repellent containing cayenne pepper? “One bite and the animals will feed somewhere else.” Except for my chipmunks who this past summer clearly demonstrated to me that they prefer their food spicy. Just saying.

 Finally, the images, the children photographed holding really large flowers and vegetables? They are in pre-school. Many of the images of single blooms are not the actual size; they are either blown up or reduced to fit the page and make you want to buy.

The take away here is to be like me; spend, spend, spend. But before you do; make a list, have a ruler handy, and read the fine print.

New Catalogs: I might not be the brightest bulb on the tree, I might like gardening more than most, and I might be found doing things in the yard even though it is December. Yet even I know it is time to call it a season when the seed catalogs start arriving in the mail, but before you open those catalogs here are a few suggestions.

Check out the clearance isle at the box retailers. Containers and fertilizer are at the top of the list, as is vermiculite and pearlite. Fertilizer does not go bad and the water soluble fertilizer will be needed for the flower and vegetable seedlings started indoors next February. The pearlite and vermiculite will go into your potting mix, and you can never have enough containers.

If you brought in coleus, geranium, herbs and other plants to grow indoors for propagation next season; then it is a good idea to bring in the empty flats and pots now. In eight weeks, when you will need them, the ground will be covered with a blanket of snow and you will have forgotten where under that blanket they are. Sure, I know you are smarter than that; the pots are in the shed. Right, so then you will only have to dig a path to the shed and a hole big enough to get the door open. That is, after you bundle up. You want to enjoy the activity, bring the pots in now.

Do you use the same hand tools indoors and out? You might want to consider cleaning them before you use them indoors. No, don’t consider it, do it. Diseases and pests that are in the soil have hitched a ride into the house; give them the heave ho. While you are at it, wash the pots and flats.

It is the holiday season and amaryllis, paper whites and Christmas cactus are already on the store shelves. Yet right next to them are spring flowering bulbs at ridiculous mark down prices. It isn’t too late to plant these bulbs. There is still plenty of time to put them in the ground or in pots to be brought in the house in February. Bulbs only need 13 to 15 weeks of hibernation. For the same money, you can enjoy a single amaryllis in bloom or dozens of tulips or hyacinths.

By now the all of the plants brought indoors have acclimated to the change of environment. That is great, but you need to keep them healthy and happy. There are many indoor pests that have already set up housekeeping. Spray the plants at least once a week with insecticidal soap or every other day with a home brew (1/4 cup dish detergent to one-quart of water).

Take one last walk around the yard looking for those, “I’ll get it later” items. Somewhere there is a tool, gnome or landscape ornament that you forgot to bring in. It is now “later,” bring them in.

Once you are convinced that you are truly finished with the gardening season; then, and only then, should you open the new catalogs.  

Seed Saving – Free is a word that is tossed around pretty ah…..freely, and there is usually a dollar sign attached to it; but there are still some things that truly are free and they are right in your backyard, flower and vegetable seeds. When I first started gardening I would read the seed catalogs cover to cover, reminisce about plants I grew in the past, select new varieties to try, and re-order some favorites.

Over time I noticed that I was re-ordering more and more favorites and I was okay with that. I knew I wanted to grow what I liked and since I didn’t know hybrid from open pollinated or F1 from 4F, the best way to ensure that was to purchase the seeds. But when I realized that re-ordering the same seed every year was getting more expensive; I decided to start saving seeds.

Since the turn of the last century, the home gardener has been rewarded for producing the earliest, largest, prettiest, most disease resistant plant. We wanted our name associated with the plant that everyone across North America would grow. The nurseries however made their money selling seed to production farmers. They were really interested in plants that ripened and could be harvested at the same time and could ship cross country with minimum damage.

At the time, flowers were naturally pollinated by the wind, birds and bees. This open pollination sometimes produced a new variety plant; a yellow or bi-color blossom in a field of white. The seeds were harvested and the plant was grown the following year to see if it produced the same color flower and had other desirable traits. If so, it was continually grown in larger quantities until there were enough seed available to offer for sale.

Then someone cracked the hybridizing code. They figured out how to cross two plants with dissimilar, and often undesirable, traits to grow and harvest seeds that when grown the following year produced beautiful large flowers or vegetables. This first generation, Filial 1, F1 seed won over the production farmers they were developed for and the home gardener who abandoned the seed brought from the Old Country for these better seeds.

Why the tutorial on propagation? Well, if you grew something this year and want to save the seed so you can grow it again next year; then you need to know if the plant was an open pollinated or hybrid variety. Hybrids revert back to one of the un-desirable parents; the big yellow marigold will become the pungent orange French variety, the huge red bell pepper will become a puny jalapeño. This information by the way is from personal experience.

Seed grown from open pollinated plants will reproduce flowers or vegetables that to all of our senses have the characteristics of the parent. For generations, families have grown favorite plants and passed the seed on to the next generation. Over time they became known as heirlooms with names like Radiator Charlie, Lillian’s Yellow, or my favorite, Jimmy Nardello’s Sweet Italian Frying Pepper.

If you grew something this year that you want to grow again next year, then save the seed. If next year one of the plants is slightly different than the others then save those seeds. You never know, there is a reason we have over 1,000 varieties of peppers; maybe you will come up with number 1,001. 

What is an heirloom This is a common question this time of the year when people are reading the seed catalogs. What is an heirloom seed? 

In the wild, plants reproduce through open pollination. That is, the birds, bees and wind take the pollen from the male flowers to the female flowers for germination. Over time individual plants developed growth habits, and insect and disease resistance specific to their environment. So a bean plant growing in northern Europe may be a small bush that completes it’s growth cycle in a couple of months, while the genetically same bean growing in the Mediterranean region might grow into a long vine and have a life cycle that extends over many months.

As humans changed from hunter gatherers to farmers, they began to save the seeds of their favorite plants to grow every year. The seeds were past down from generation to generation, moving to new countries and regions where they continued to evolve into new sizes and shapes.

Eventually, common names became associated with individuals and regions; Hungarian peppers, French marigolds, Aunt Ruby’s green tomato. These are the seeds that we call heirloom. The accepted definition is, any open pollinated seed that can be traced back at least 50 years.

Hybrid seeds require human intervention to cross two different plant varieties that would not normally open pollinate, to produce unique desirable characteristics. It might be bloom size, disease resistance or produce yield. The seeds are typically identified on the package as F1 (first generation) Hybrids virtually guarantying the plant you grow will look like the picture on the package

The down side of hybrids is that the second generation seeds are either sterile, or display the characteristics of the dominant parent. You will not get the same flower or vegetable. So, a hybrid will never become an heirloom.


   Jan 11

Sunroom Activities

February 27: Sowed some cool weather vegetables in flats. Lettuce seedlings will be transplanted by the end of March (I hope.)

February 15: My recommendation to anyone who wants to start a garden is to make a list of things you want to grow, design your ideal planting bed size, and then cut everything in half. I’ve had more failures over the years than I care to admit. Looking back I now realize that I did not; prepare properly, maintain the beds, or take the time to research specific plant growth requirements.

I now believe that gardeners should grow what they know, grow what they like, and experiment with something new every year. For example; about eleven years ago my experiment was a hardy hibiscus, Old Yella, “Creamy yellow buds open to 12″ luminescent creamy colored flowers.” I had not seen hardy hibiscus offered in previous years, so naturally I had to have one.

The hardy hibiscus is not to be confused with the tender sweet scented tropical hibiscus that we overwinter in the house along with their aphids that multiply and infest the other house plants and seedlings, ruining the summer before it begins…; sorry.

No, the hardy hibiscus looks like a peony on steroids; a herbaceous perennial that sends out large stems up to five feet tall, terminating with multiple blooms. In the fall the stems die back to the ground storing energy for the following year’s growth in their roots over the winter.

I planted mine on the south side of the house, giving it full sun exposure. Two seasons later, it was everything the catalog said it would be. Chest thumping, bragging rights; look out!

Then, an elderly neighbor stops by and comments; “Oh, a rose mallow I haven’t seen one in years.” “Excuse me, a rose who, mallow what; this is a hardy hibiscus.” “That may be, but when I was a kid they were called rose mallows and they were everywhere.” I wasn’t going to take that from anyone. I’ll look it up and show her who was right.

It turns out she was; the tropical hibiscus and hardy hibiscus (or mallow), are relatives of the Rose of Sharon. The Wise Garden Encyclopedia published in 1936 identifies new forms of the native species having been developed with large showy flowers popularly being referred to as Mallow Marvels; and the 1949 Garden Flowers in Color calls it the Common Rose-mallow. Common, well just pop my chauvinist balloon.

In my defense, the mallow fell out of favor for a number of years and has come back strong this past decade with; new varieties specially developed for abundant, larger blossom, continuous blooms in spectacular colors. At least that is what the catalogs say.

Last summer we were cruising along Route 1a inMaineand stopped for lunch in a small town. As we walked around we noticed a lot of these plants; confirming to us their renewed popularity. Now that I know what I am growing and like what I grew, I feel like I have to play catch-up. Let’s see, Cranberry Crush, Lord Baltimore, Blue River II; maybe I should do some more research.

February 7; February is normally the toughest winter month, usually the time when cabin fever is the lead topic on the nightly news.

The football season is over and there is a void to fill. I know, I know, we still have basketball and hockey, and the equipment trucks are on their way south; but how do those things fill our requirement for vitamin D?

We can go outside and enjoy snow shoeing and cross country skiing; oh wait, there isn’t any snow. Well, how about pruning the fruit trees? No, I haven’t been sniffing too much fertilizer. Late February early March is the best time to prune fruit trees, and this year we will not have to stand in knee deep snow when doing it.

Fruit trees are notorious for sprouting new growth straight up along the top edge of branches. These sprouts, or “Suckers” do not produce blossoms or fruit; they need to be removed, all of them. While you are at it, remove any broken branches remaining from last October’s snow storm, and any lateral crossing branches. These are smaller branches that are rubbing against or growing into neighboring branches.

If the lateral branches are thicker than broomsticks, just remove those that are, or could, cause problems. If you are alone while you are pruning the tree it is okay to talk to it; say nice things and ask for lots of apples this year; don’t worry, nobody will hear you.

Save the branches. An old gardener’s trick is to stick them in the ground of the pea bed to support the vines. After the peas are harvested everything gets pulled up and composted.

My yard is vertically challenged in winter. Once the perennials die back and the tender bulbs and annuals dug up, there is nothing above soil level. The yard has no visual appeal; in fact there are some areas that are just plain ugly. So I am taking the opportunity to walk around and note improvements that I can make this summer with some shrubs or hard scapes.

The In-box is filling up with questions about starting seeds; “When can I start,” “Can I grow …,” “How do I grow…” The answers are now, yes and do some research. Gardening courses are being offered at schools, recreation departments and garden nurseries; some have already started. Even the Flower Shows have begun, walk the aisles and ask the experts.

Really, get going. Hey, if you want to play baseball in April you start practicing now. Pitchers and catchers are reporting for Spring Training next week and aren’t you secretly working on your backswing? Baseball, golf, gardening, it’s all the same; practice makes perfect; buy some potting soil and germinate a few seeds.

Start cool weather crops; broccoli, lettuce, cabbage; and flowers like calendula, nasturtium and petunia now for transplanting into the garden late March after the snow is gone. The difference between starting some plants now and direct sowing into the garden in April is crisp sweet leaves available all through May versus wilted bitter tasting leaves in June.

January 8: Started sowing seeds for my gradeschool workshops.

January 3: The first seed package came in the mail. I will be starting seedlings for my gardening courses tomorrow.

December 28: I had to moved some tender bulbs out of storage, they came out of dormancy and started growing. Too soon for this.

December 14: I was with a client walking along the corridor in her office building and noticed a number of plants of all types, what we call house plants and some geraniums, on the windowsills. They looked like something out of a low budget science fiction movie. The stems were long and serpentine devoid of leaves except for the tips where they were tiny and stunted. With some miniature furniture placed in the pots they could start shooting film.

A quick look at the shadows outside told me that these were west facing windows and the plants were not receiving enough sunlight, but that was not the only problems.

Somewhere in your employment history you probably had, or still have, a co-worker who filled their personal workspace envelop with plants. A few of these people did a fantastic job maintaining the plants and justifiably earned a Green Thumb label, but for the most part the plants around the office were probably a dismal failure.

I will guess that you remember the brownish green thing in the pot surrounded by a sea of mud, and the owner saying, “It is dying so I am giving it more water to help it come back.” No, it is drowning and you are pushing it under for the third time.

Or maybe the plant was in a desert, the soil dry with white salt outcrops throughout and along the rim of the pot. “I think I over watered and I am letting the soil dry out.” No, all that salt is from over fertilizing and now the soil is sucking the moisture out of the plant. You need to flush the soil with plain water, or repot the plant in fresh potting soil.

 How about the philodendron with leaders following the top of the office partitions like some mutant man-eater seeking prey? Now in its native habitat, the plant does creep along the ground and wraps itself around and up tree trunks; but your office is not some tropical paradise (or maybe it is, but that is the subject of a different column).

The point is that house plants are not some separate type of species. Kingdom, Plantae; Order, Alismatales; Family, Araceae; Genus, House. They are plants that have survived on their own for millions of years and will perform well under artificial conditions provided that they are properly maintained. Artificial is the operative word.

The plants are not in their native environment or close to it outside during the summer months, where the sun is not filtered and the air has some moisture. Inside the air is dry and the sunlight lacks intensity. You have to artificially create the conditions that are healthy for the plants. Take advantage of south facing windows, move them away from heaters, and provide some humidity by laying out pie plates filled with water and misting every other day.

There are many reasons for growing plants indoors; they dress up a room, improve air quality, lower your stress and blood pressure, and make you happy. The smart contractor that I am, I did not offer any advice; I looked at my client and said, “Nice plants.”

December 12: I checked on the tender bulbs in storage yesterday and the dahlia are sprouting; a few did that last year. Other gardeners have had similar experiences this year. Temperatures are running four degrees above normal and the ground still has not frozen, I wonder, if this is the new normal can I leave the plants in hte ground over winter?

November 28; I found some antique handtools this weekend. I plan to take them apart and bring them back to live. Working with a good hand shear is way better than a noisy power tool.

November 21; Hava a few weeks to kick back and relax. I was cutting into an avocado and had a flashback to our first apartment where we germinated a seed. So I decided to try to germinate this one.

November 4; A few years ago our daughter came home with a Christmas cactus; a young plant, nice, compact and in bloom. After the flowers died off, we kept the plant watered and in the summer placed it outdoors against a north facing wall protected from direct sunlight.

We brought it in with the other house plants at the end of September, placing it in the sunroom where it received sunlight in the morning. That year, and for the next few years, it bloomed in November. Friends told us the reason for the earlier blooms was because the plant was not a Christmas cactus, it was a Thanksgiving cactus. Okay, sure; and there is probably a cactus cultivated for every holiday right?

Well this year when the plant bloomed a second time in the spring that I decided to do some research. Did I own a Christmas, Thanksgiving or Easter cactus?

There is a ton of information available, it turns out that I have a Christmas cactus; but the Thanksgiving and Easter cacti also exist. They even have their own fancy Latin names; Schlumbergera bridgessii, Schlumbergera truncates, Rhipsalidopsis gaertnerii respectively. All descended from the same Family, Cactaceae.

The individual plants are identified by their leaves. Christmas cactus has a wide leaf with blunt teeth. Thanksgiving cactus has a longer narrow leaf with sharp teeth, and the Easter cactus has no teeth. If you can believe it growers sometimes substitute one plant for another. The Thanksgiving cactus has a long blooming period running into January so it is sometimes sold as a Christmas cactus. In addition they are thermo-photoperiodic where the bud development is triggered by temperature and daylight. The process is called photoperiodism, the plant activity controlled by relative changes in daylight hours.

Whoops sorry, falling asleep, isn’t that true of all plants? Given their preferred growing conditions they will flower? Exactly, the cacti are grown for market in greenhouses where the water, temperature and lighting can be controlled artificially to have them blooming to coincide with the holidays. For example, those Easter Lilies at Easter and the big purple hydrangea plant for Mother’s Day; check the labels many of them come from greenhouses inCanada, amazing.

Cactus is no different than any other plant. Did you save a Geranium, Coleus or Fuchsia from the compost bin? All of these plants can be grown and brought to bloom over winter. They can all be propagated from cuttings, sometimes accidentally.

This spring the cactus fell and several stems broke off. Just for grins I bunched them together, stuck them in the ground next to a fern, and forgot all about them. A couple of weeks ago when I pulled them they were all rooted. I plan to give them away as gifts, but I have a problem.

When I took the parent plant (remember the original Christmas cactus) into the house, it bloomed, in October. So, when I present these plants to friends should I be referring to them as Halloween cacti?

Oct 2, 2012:  In upstate New York the late winter period is referred to as the Gray Gloom. The Great Lakes do a number on people’s psyche; sending up clouds that block out the sun and dropping tons of snow. Piled up along the roadways, darkened by soot and sand, everything is gray.

Here, north of Boston, at least we have competitive sports teams to divert our attention from the cold weather and shortened daylight hours. Even so, people who do not embrace the winter; skiing, snowshoeing and enjoying other outdoor activities; can be brought down by cabin fever.

One solution is to head south for the winter; a less expensive solution is to bring the outdoors in.

Plants are a great compliment to any room, even the man cave. You don’t need flowers, just a lot of foliage to clean the air and give off some moisture. Something like, oh I don’t know maybe a dracaena, the Mother-in-Laws Tongue.

Shoe envy aside, you can build a walk-in closet for your walk-in closet; but the question on the tour will be about how you got the geraniums to bloom indoors. And when that cooking show host tells you that they only use fresh herbs in their recipes you can tell the television that your chives are doing just fine on the kitchen greenhouse window thank you very much.

The straight lines of built-in bookshelves on the accent wall in the living room will look great with a variegated philodendron; its’ vines falling off one shelf and a tall ficus standing guard on the opposite corner. Coleus comes in a variety of colors and cuttings from your backyard, (or your neighbor’s) root easily to become beautiful accent plants in any room.

You can even create a micro-climate by concentrating several plants in the corner of a room. Indoors or out, plant respiration stays the same. They take water up from the roots, inhale carbon dioxide through the leaves and exhale water and oxygen into the room. Place an easy chair among the plants; sit down with a book, and by page three you will be sound asleep. All that oxygen and humidity making you forget all about cabin fever. Athletes pay big bucks for portable hyperbaric chambers, artificially producing what you are getting naturally.

I remember our first plant, a spider centered in front of the guestroom window. The glass was frosted by the moisture given off by the plant while the radiator under the window provided just enough warmth to keep the spider happy. Stolons cascaded down from the pot with baby plants at the tips ready to take root themselves, and easily accomplished by me placing them in a cup of water; my first propagation.

When we move to Burlington we immediately added a sunroom and a lot more plants. Over the years we continued to make renovations, including taking out the wall between the garage and sunroom and converting the garage into a den. Now it is one big room generating solar heat to half the house.

I was sitting in my corner hyperbaric chamber reading a home improvement article one February afternoon; the snow two-feet deep, sun shining in, frosty cold outside, comfy cozy inside. The article contained many illustrations of different projects and additions that could be accomplished to increase the property’s value. There wasn’t a single discussion about sunrooms or greenhouses.

My immediate reaction was that the authors knew what they were writing about. If sunrooms did not add value they must be money pits never returning anything near the investment cost. What am I going to do? Then, I fell asleep.

Jan 20; Time to start getting ready to plant seeds indoors. Need to clear the potting table and grow light. While I am at it I think I will pull some calla lillies out of storage and pot them up.

Jan 15; The sun is moving higher on the horizon making the sunroom brighter and warmer. The plants are reacting to the change, sending out new growth. It is time to be more vigilant about spraying with a soap mix and inspecting for insect damage.

Jan 19: Cleaned up all of the dead material on the plants and in the pots. Took cutting from my favorite geraniums. The pineapple lily has overgrown the pot. It has already started sending out new shoots so I need to split it. It has been in the same pot for three years, so this is a good time to replace the potting soil. I guess I will be giving out some bulbs in my gardening classes.

Jan 20: I did not realize just how overgrown the lily had become. This is a 10 inch pot, clearly it was time to separate the bulbs. You can see the new growth starting. There was a surprise waiting under the nine bulbs when I took them out of the pot, seven additional bulbs.

Bulbs in Pot Bulbs Removed From Pot

Jan 27: Activities are at a standstill; the cuttings are just sitting in the potting soil, I can’t perform the tug test for a few more weeks; (tug test, that’s a technical term. If the cuttings have developed roots you will have resistance when you try to pull on it. If there are no roots the cutting will come up when you pull.)I separated the pineapple lily bulbs, after the wounds scab over I will share them.The Christmas Cactus is blooming again. Over the years it has bloomed for Easter, Halloween, Thanks Giving and Christmas. I keep reminding it that it is a Christmas Cactus but it won’t listen. 

Jan 31: Took the Delphinium flat out of the refrigerator and placed it under the grow light; have to wait at least two weeks to see how successful I am. Must remember to keep the soil damp. 

Feb 9: I sowed some lettuce seed just for grins a few days ago. I knew I would be waiting a few weeks for the delphiniums to germinate and needed to see something; the little cotyledons are already up.A couple of the calla stems are over an inch long and the geranium cuttings look good. I will be cranking it up starting the cool season crops soon and need to make room at the potting table. It is amazing how much stuff gets piled up in just a few months. Why are there loppers in the house? 

Feb 13: Cotyledons are the seedling energy source. Sometimes referred to as seed leaves, they keep the plant alive until it develops true leaves and can begin generating it’s own food through the process of photosynthesis.

Cotyledons breaking the soil surface

Bibb Lettuce seedlings

Cotyledons breaking the soil surface

In this next image, foreground second seedling from the left, you can see the true leaf growing up between the cotyledons.True Leaves Coming Up Between Cotyledons

Row of Bibb Lettuce seedings

True Leaves Coming Up Between Cotyledons

Here you can see the calla stems have already come up, four weeks after planting.

Calla growing on light table

Callas beginning to appear

The potting table ready for a new planting season. The loppers are out in the shed.Potting table cleaned up and organized

Potting table cleaned up and organized

 Feb 24; transplanted the lettuce seedlings into two-inch pots and started another flat.

Planted 8 caladiums into individul pots. The soil temperature has to be above 60 degrees. The temperature in the sunroom is in the 80′s on sunny days, and stays above 70 at night, so I should be okay.

March 2; sowed coleus seeds Monday and they already germinated. Second flat of lettuce is up. Thinking about sowing some tomatoes next week.

March 14; busy couple of weeks. Got basil, cosmos, bachelor buttons, and seven varieties of tomato sowed in flats. Dissappointed with the potting soil, looked too much like top soil and not enough like soil-less mix. Ended up adding peat and perlite. 

Took more geranium cuttings, pulled the canna and gloriosa lily out of storage.

Caladiums are popping up in their 4-inch pots, have to make sure they do not receive direct sunlight.

March 23; My tomato seedlings are up and beginning to produce true leaves. I may be able to transplant them into individual pots next weekend. I might also sow the peppers this weekend.