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Monday, May 30, 2011

Compost and Your Compost Pile, Part 1

Compost is just about the best thing you can do for and have in your garden. Both a verb and a noun, compost should be a part of your gardening vocabulary. Creating compost is easy to do, is good for the environment, and saves money. Today I'll provide some basic information about composting and how it works.

One of my compost piles

So what is composting? All organic matter will decompose due to bacteria and other microorganisms that naturally occur all around us. The basic concept behind composting is that you control the natural decomposition process. By giving the bacteria food, water, and oxygen you provide an environment for them to become little factories that turn yard, garden, and kitchen waste into a rich dark compost. And compost is the perfect material for improving garden soil and supporting better plant growth.

For composting to be most effective you need to start with a large mass of organic material. The larger the mass, the more effective the composting. Typically, this mass is called a compost pile. A minimum pile size of three feet by three feet by three feet is recommended, though I suggest a pile with dimensions of four feet by four feet by four feet. When the microorganisms begin decomposing organic matter they generate heat and that heat helps the organisms to multiply and accelerate the decomposition. The bigger the pile, the faster it turns into compost.

The compost pile can be literally a pile that you place in a corner of your yard or garden. It can also be contained in a structure of wood or plastic. There are many products on the market for holding the organic material while it turns into compost. They fall into two basic categories: those that are open and those that are closed. The container or structure isn't nearly as important as the material and the size of the mass.

A fellow gardener's pile

While all organic matter will eventually decompose, an effective compost pile should have a blend of material. In composting parlance we're talking about "green" and "brown" organic material. The decomposition process requires nitrogen and green plant material is high in nitrogen. Too much nitrogen, or green matter, is inefficient so it needs to be balanced with brown material that is high in carbon, the basic building block of living organisms. With a mix of greens and browns, nitrogen and carbon, decomposing microorganisms have the perfect smorgasbord and can turn waste material into compost.

The only other things they need are water and air. Food, water, and oxygen are the basics of life. The organic material is the food, rain and water from your hose supplies the second component, and the air all around us provides oxygen. You don't need to buy anything to make a compost pile and start the little buggers working; everything needed is already prevalent in nature.

Be aware of the concept of greens and browns and always try to have more browns than greens, but there should always be a blend. If your pile seems to have a lot of greens, add some brown; if it has a lot of browns, add a little green. What does this really mean?

Greens that you would compost are fresh-cut grass, weeds that you just pulled, banana peels and vegetable scraps from your kitchen, and any other plant material that is fresh. Browns that you would compost are dried leaves, straw, shredded newspaper, pruned branches, and any other plant-based material that is old and dried out. On the surface, if the material is green, orange, yellow, or red, it should probably be considered a green/nitrogen component. If it is brown, black, or tan, it should be considered a brown/carbon component.

As you create your compost pile the ratio of greens to browns is important, but you'll see many different recommendations for what is best. Colorado State University suggests starting a compost pile with alternating six to eight-inch layers of green and brown, a 1:1 mix. I've seen one reputable source that suggests 30 parts carbon to one part nitrogen, a 30:1 mix. Another recommends four parts brown to one part green, a 4:1 mix. If it seems confusing it is, because everyone seems to have a different formula. What is consistent in all recommendations is that nitrogen, the green, should not be the dominant material; too much green material can become smelly and not decompose well. Conversely, too much brown material will take a very long time to break down.


I propose that you not worry too much about what ratio you use in your pile. Just start composting. Take your yard and kitchen waste and throw it in a heap in a spot that you designate as your compost pile. It should be near your garden so you don't have to travel far to add to it and take from it. The space should be large enough to contain a pile that is four feet high, wide, and deep. Throw some twigs on the ground, add some dried leaves, toss in some fresh grass, and dump on the scraps from last night's dinner salad. You now have the beginnings of a compost pile.

Layers of green and brown

Unless you've planned well in advance, you won't have enough material to create a pile that starts out with the four-feet dimensions I recommend. So start with what you have. Throw your yard and kitchen waste on the pile. As you build it be aware of the green-brown mix and modify your additions appropriately. When I mow my lawn I use a mulching mower and leave the clippings on the grass; it's good for your lawn to do that. If I find that most of what I have in my pile is brown material, I'll put the bag on the mower to catch some of the clippings and add them to the pile. If I find that I've added a lot of green material recently, I'll make a point to throw in some straw or dried leaves that I saved from fall clean up.

Keep adding to the pile and it will eventually reach suitable mass. As it grows it will begin decomposing, but it really starts to cook when it reaches about three feet in size. And cook is a literal term. The temperature in a compost pile can easily reach 120F to 150F degrees. The bigger the pile and the better the blend of green and brown, the hotter it gets. At those temperatures the microorganisms are incredibly efficient. They're like college students on spring break in Mexico; they can't stop eating and multiplying in the heat. By the time your pile reaches four-feet in size, everything is in place for the creation of rich, black compost.

It's at that point that I stop adding to the pile. The whole point of the pile is to create compost and if you're always adding to it it is never fully decomposed. When it reaches optimum mass, let the organisms do what they do best, eat. The pile will decrease in size; the volume of the material is reduced by 50 to 75 percent. What used to be grass, and leaves, and vegetable peels will no longer be identifiable as it all begins to look dark brown and crumbly.

Because you've added material to the pile over time, some of it will be more decomposed than the rest. You'll have a mix of small, fully decomposed pieces along with partially decomposed, bigger pieces. Eventually all of the material will decompose into small particles that resemble a fluffy soil.

When it has decomposed to a point that you're ready to use it, use it. I will take some of the partially decomposed compost, when the pieces are still chunky and big, and use it as mulch in my vegetable garden. It does all of the good things that mulch does and when I turn over the soil in fall or early spring it becomes a soil amendment. I'll use fully decomposed compost to amend the soil at planting time.

Of course, I have more than one compost pile. When I stop adding to one because it reaches appropriate size, I begin a new pile. Just about the time the second pile is full, the first pile is fully decomposed and ready to use. I use this two-pile system to deal with the amount of organic waste my household and garden produces. More waste can support more and bigger piles.

My two-pile system

If you do nothing but add organic material to your pile, it will turn into compost in about a year. If you take action to create a highly efficient pile, you'll have compost in about a month. In my next article I'll discuss what you need to do to manage your pile.
Compost is just about the best thing you can do for and have in your garden. Both a verb and a noun, compost should be a part of your gardening vocabulary. Creating compost is easy to do, is good for the environment, and saves money. Today I'll provide some basic information about composting and how it works.

One of my compost piles

So what is composting? All organic matter will decompose due to bacteria and other microorganisms that naturally occur all around us. The basic concept behind composting is that you control the natural decomposition process. By giving the bacteria food, water, and oxygen you provide an environment for them to become little factories that turn yard, garden, and kitchen waste into a rich dark compost. And compost is the perfect material for improving garden soil and supporting better plant growth.

For composting to be most effective you need to start with a large mass of organic material. The larger the mass, the more effective the composting. Typically, this mass is called a compost pile. A minimum pile size of three feet by three feet by three feet is recommended, though I suggest a pile with dimensions of four feet by four feet by four feet. When the microorganisms begin decomposing organic matter they generate heat and that heat helps the organisms to multiply and accelerate the decomposition. The bigger the pile, the faster it turns into compost.

The compost pile can be literally a pile that you place in a corner of your yard or garden. It can also be contained in a structure of wood or plastic. There are many products on the market for holding the organic material while it turns into compost. They fall into two basic categories: those that are open and those that are closed. The container or structure isn't nearly as important as the material and the size of the mass.

A fellow gardener's pile

While all organic matter will eventually decompose, an effective compost pile should have a blend of material. In composting parlance we're talking about "green" and "brown" organic material. The decomposition process requires nitrogen and green plant material is high in nitrogen. Too much nitrogen, or green matter, is inefficient so it needs to be balanced with brown material that is high in carbon, the basic building block of living organisms. With a mix of greens and browns, nitrogen and carbon, decomposing microorganisms have the perfect smorgasbord and can turn waste material into compost.

The only other things they need are water and air. Food, water, and oxygen are the basics of life. The organic material is the food, rain and water from your hose supplies the second component, and the air all around us provides oxygen. You don't need to buy anything to make a compost pile and start the little buggers working; everything needed is already prevalent in nature.

Be aware of the concept of greens and browns and always try to have more browns than greens, but there should always be a blend. If your pile seems to have a lot of greens, add some brown; if it has a lot of browns, add a little green. What does this really mean?

Greens that you would compost are fresh-cut grass, weeds that you just pulled, banana peels and vegetable scraps from your kitchen, and any other plant material that is fresh. Browns that you would compost are dried leaves, straw, shredded newspaper, pruned branches, and any other plant-based material that is old and dried out. On the surface, if the material is green, orange, yellow, or red, it should probably be considered a green/nitrogen component. If it is brown, black, or tan, it should be considered a brown/carbon component.

As you create your compost pile the ratio of greens to browns is important, but you'll see many different recommendations for what is best. Colorado State University suggests starting a compost pile with alternating six to eight-inch layers of green and brown, a 1:1 mix. I've seen one reputable source that suggests 30 parts carbon to one part nitrogen, a 30:1 mix. Another recommends four parts brown to one part green, a 4:1 mix. If it seems confusing it is, because everyone seems to have a different formula. What is consistent in all recommendations is that nitrogen, the green, should not be the dominant material; too much green material can become smelly and not decompose well. Conversely, too much brown material will take a very long time to break down.


I propose that you not worry too much about what ratio you use in your pile. Just start composting. Take your yard and kitchen waste and throw it in a heap in a spot that you designate as your compost pile. It should be near your garden so you don't have to travel far to add to it and take from it. The space should be large enough to contain a pile that is four feet high, wide, and deep. Throw some twigs on the ground, add some dried leaves, toss in some fresh grass, and dump on the scraps from last night's dinner salad. You now have the beginnings of a compost pile.

Layers of green and brown

Unless you've planned well in advance, you won't have enough material to create a pile that starts out with the four-feet dimensions I recommend. So start with what you have. Throw your yard and kitchen waste on the pile. As you build it be aware of the green-brown mix and modify your additions appropriately. When I mow my lawn I use a mulching mower and leave the clippings on the grass; it's good for your lawn to do that. If I find that most of what I have in my pile is brown material, I'll put the bag on the mower to catch some of the clippings and add them to the pile. If I find that I've added a lot of green material recently, I'll make a point to throw in some straw or dried leaves that I saved from fall clean up.

Keep adding to the pile and it will eventually reach suitable mass. As it grows it will begin decomposing, but it really starts to cook when it reaches about three feet in size. And cook is a literal term. The temperature in a compost pile can easily reach 120F to 150F degrees. The bigger the pile and the better the blend of green and brown, the hotter it gets. At those temperatures the microorganisms are incredibly efficient. They're like college students on spring break in Mexico; they can't stop eating and multiplying in the heat. By the time your pile reaches four-feet in size, everything is in place for the creation of rich, black compost.

It's at that point that I stop adding to the pile. The whole point of the pile is to create compost and if you're always adding to it it is never fully decomposed. When it reaches optimum mass, let the organisms do what they do best, eat. The pile will decrease in size; the volume of the material is reduced by 50 to 75 percent. What used to be grass, and leaves, and vegetable peels will no longer be identifiable as it all begins to look dark brown and crumbly.

Because you've added material to the pile over time, some of it will be more decomposed than the rest. You'll have a mix of small, fully decomposed pieces along with partially decomposed, bigger pieces. Eventually all of the material will decompose into small particles that resemble a fluffy soil.

When it has decomposed to a point that you're ready to use it, use it. I will take some of the partially decomposed compost, when the pieces are still chunky and big, and use it as mulch in my vegetable garden. It does all of the good things that mulch does and when I turn over the soil in fall or early spring it becomes a soil amendment. I'll use fully decomposed compost to amend the soil at planting time.

Of course, I have more than one compost pile. When I stop adding to one because it reaches appropriate size, I begin a new pile. Just about the time the second pile is full, the first pile is fully decomposed and ready to use. I use this two-pile system to deal with the amount of organic waste my household and garden produces. More waste can support more and bigger piles.

My two-pile system

If you do nothing but add organic material to your pile, it will turn into compost in about a year. If you take action to create a highly efficient pile, you'll have compost in about a month. In my next article I'll discuss what you need to do to manage your pile.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

How to Plant a Vineyard

"The journey of thousand miles begins with a single step," said the Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu. "The planting of a vineyard begins with a single vine." That second one originates with me. I had the privilege of participating in the planting of a new vineyard recently and was enraptured by its simplicity and grandiosity.

Planting grapes

Placing a single grapevine in the ground is easy, I've done it in my own garden. But when planted enmasse, in long rows, the individual plants attain an enviable status. Though I personally planted a few dozen vines as my contribution to the vineyard, that effort seemed dwarfed by the hundreds of vines already in the ground and the hundreds more to follow. It's a massive undertaking to establish a vineyard, but each of the components of that effort can be done by any dedicated gardener.


The beginnings of a vineyard
Grapevines are purchased from commercial growers around the world. If you're growing a vineyard, you can choose from any of the well-known wine varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Riesling. Not every grape will grow in every region, however. Some types like Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec are best suited for long, hot summers, while others like Riesling and Pinot Noir prefer cooler conditions.

Because of a simple pest that attacks grape roots, all of Europe's grapes were devastated in the 19th century. The root louse Phylloxera migrated to Europe from the Americas and was to blame. Luckily for the world's wine producers, American grapes were resistant to the insect. Today, virtually all of the world's wine grapes are grown from American rootstock with a European grape variety grafted to it.

The plants arrive as dormant, rooted cuttings. They're stacked horizontally in cardboard boxes and shipped by the major delivery companies. Like most bareroot plants, the grape roots should be soaked
in water for a few hours before planting. This helps reverse any desiccation from the shipping process and supplies the roots with extra moisture so they can get a good start when planted. The plants should remain in the water until ready to be put in the ground.

The vineyard owner opening the box of vines

When planting a large number of plants, of any type, it works best to have all of the holes dug ahead of time. In the case of this vineyard, the owner used a hydraulic auger to bore hundreds of holes between two and three feet deep, spaced about six feet apart. With the holes ready, the vines could be planted easily and quickly.

Placing the vine in the hole

There is no mechanical planting when it comes to grapes. Each vine is planted one at a time, by hand. The dormant vine is placed in the hole, the roots are gently fanned out, and soil is replaced to fill in the space. As with all bareroot plants, it's important to eliminate air pockets that may form around the roots so gentle tamping of the soil while filling the hole helps. Packing down the soil isn't recommended because compaction is a root's worst enemy, just firm the soil around the roots. Pouring water into the hole at stages while adding soil also helps eliminate air pockets.


Filling in the hole by hand
Whenever you plant in a large hole you can expect the soil to settle over time. Typical yard soil is compacted and you've fluffed it up by digging it out. You can use this to your benefit if you like a natural bowl forming around the plant to collect water. You should anticipate it and place the plant high enough so that the settling doesn't adversely affect it. The grape vines were placed with the grafting point about five inches above the soil level.

One in a long row of vines

With the plant in the ground, extra soil is spread around it and it's watered well. Grapes are famous for the depth that their roots can grow, but for young plants it's important that they are regularly watered until strong, with their own established root systems. As always, watering well does not mean saturating the soil. Roots can drown if they are immersed in water. A moist soil is a good soil.

Watering the planted vine

In just a few weeks the vines should bud and begin producing long, green shoots of leaves. It will be about three years before fruit production begins. The plant needs that time to grow a strong root system with enough energy to support grapes. My Concord grapes began producing abundant fruit in the fourth year. It takes patience waiting for the clusters of grapes, but it's well worth the effort.

Grapes can be grown almost everywhere. It's is important to research which types will do best in your region. Colorado vineyards grow a number of different varietals and Colorado State University offers guidance for growers, including a free PDF download of "Colorado Grape Grower's Guide" (see link below).

Grapes are a great addition to any garden. You don't need to plant hundreds of vines and establish your own vineyard to enjoy fresh fruit. A single vine or two is enough for a family and they don't need to be wine grapes. My two Concord vines allowed me to make dozens of jars of delicious Concord grape jelly every year.

My Concord grapes

I've now had the pleasure of growing my own grapes and planting vines in a vineyard. Both are experiences I highly recommend.

Link to Colorado Grape Grower's Guide

 
"The journey of thousand miles begins with a single step," said the Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu. "The planting of a vineyard begins with a single vine." That second one originates with me. I had the privilege of participating in the planting of a new vineyard recently and was enraptured by its simplicity and grandiosity.

Planting grapes

Placing a single grapevine in the ground is easy, I've done it in my own garden. But when planted enmasse, in long rows, the individual plants attain an enviable status. Though I personally planted a few dozen vines as my contribution to the vineyard, that effort seemed dwarfed by the hundreds of vines already in the ground and the hundreds more to follow. It's a massive undertaking to establish a vineyard, but each of the components of that effort can be done by any dedicated gardener.


The beginnings of a vineyard
Grapevines are purchased from commercial growers around the world. If you're growing a vineyard, you can choose from any of the well-known wine varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Riesling. Not every grape will grow in every region, however. Some types like Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec are best suited for long, hot summers, while others like Riesling and Pinot Noir prefer cooler conditions.

Because of a simple pest that attacks grape roots, all of Europe's grapes were devastated in the 19th century. The root louse Phylloxera migrated to Europe from the Americas and was to blame. Luckily for the world's wine producers, American grapes were resistant to the insect. Today, virtually all of the world's wine grapes are grown from American rootstock with a European grape variety grafted to it.

The plants arrive as dormant, rooted cuttings. They're stacked horizontally in cardboard boxes and shipped by the major delivery companies. Like most bareroot plants, the grape roots should be soaked
in water for a few hours before planting. This helps reverse any desiccation from the shipping process and supplies the roots with extra moisture so they can get a good start when planted. The plants should remain in the water until ready to be put in the ground.

The vineyard owner opening the box of vines

When planting a large number of plants, of any type, it works best to have all of the holes dug ahead of time. In the case of this vineyard, the owner used a hydraulic auger to bore hundreds of holes between two and three feet deep, spaced about six feet apart. With the holes ready, the vines could be planted easily and quickly.

Placing the vine in the hole

There is no mechanical planting when it comes to grapes. Each vine is planted one at a time, by hand. The dormant vine is placed in the hole, the roots are gently fanned out, and soil is replaced to fill in the space. As with all bareroot plants, it's important to eliminate air pockets that may form around the roots so gentle tamping of the soil while filling the hole helps. Packing down the soil isn't recommended because compaction is a root's worst enemy, just firm the soil around the roots. Pouring water into the hole at stages while adding soil also helps eliminate air pockets.


Filling in the hole by hand
Whenever you plant in a large hole you can expect the soil to settle over time. Typical yard soil is compacted and you've fluffed it up by digging it out. You can use this to your benefit if you like a natural bowl forming around the plant to collect water. You should anticipate it and place the plant high enough so that the settling doesn't adversely affect it. The grape vines were placed with the grafting point about five inches above the soil level.

One in a long row of vines

With the plant in the ground, extra soil is spread around it and it's watered well. Grapes are famous for the depth that their roots can grow, but for young plants it's important that they are regularly watered until strong, with their own established root systems. As always, watering well does not mean saturating the soil. Roots can drown if they are immersed in water. A moist soil is a good soil.

Watering the planted vine

In just a few weeks the vines should bud and begin producing long, green shoots of leaves. It will be about three years before fruit production begins. The plant needs that time to grow a strong root system with enough energy to support grapes. My Concord grapes began producing abundant fruit in the fourth year. It takes patience waiting for the clusters of grapes, but it's well worth the effort.

Grapes can be grown almost everywhere. It's is important to research which types will do best in your region. Colorado vineyards grow a number of different varietals and Colorado State University offers guidance for growers, including a free PDF download of "Colorado Grape Grower's Guide" (see link below).

Grapes are a great addition to any garden. You don't need to plant hundreds of vines and establish your own vineyard to enjoy fresh fruit. A single vine or two is enough for a family and they don't need to be wine grapes. My two Concord vines allowed me to make dozens of jars of delicious Concord grape jelly every year.

My Concord grapes

I've now had the pleasure of growing my own grapes and planting vines in a vineyard. Both are experiences I highly recommend.

Link to
Colorado Grape Grower's Guide

 

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

How to Plant Tomatoes

Tomatoes are the favorite backyard crop in the United States. The reason that gardeners focus on this fruit above others usually comes down to taste. No other produce has such a varied spectrum of flavor. Supermarket tomatoes have the texture and taste of cardboard, if they're lucky to have that much flavor. Tomatoes fresh-picked from the garden burst with color and deliciousness.


Fresh garden tomatoes

Most home gardeners transplant tomato plants. Few regions have the warm temperatures and season length to allow growing tomatoes from seed sown directly in the soil. Seed choices are great and many of us start our seeds indoors and transplant the plants. Those who don't start their own seeds tend to buy plants from nurseries or garden centers. Either way, it's tomato plants and not seeds that most of us put into the ground.


Planting tomatoes in your garden is easy. You've probably done it before and will again. The process is basic, but there are a few things you can do to get the most out of your plants.

The most important aspect of planting tomatoes is doing it at the appropriate time of year. Tomatoes are a warm-season plant originally from tropical regions and therefore can't handle cold weather at all. Waiting to plant until two weeks after your Last Frost Date is very important. The warmer the conditions, the better for the tomatoes.

Air temperature should be consistently above 50F (10C) degrees; that includes night time too. Soil temperature should be at least 60F degrees and ideally around 70F; roots will not grow below 50F soil temperature. If you plant with the air or soil temperature too low, you can expect issues with your plants. Growth and fruit may be sparse, they may become more susceptible to disease and pests, and they may be stunted and small. Waiting just one extra week until conditions are right can make the difference between success and failure. If unexpected cold temperatures hit after planting, it's important to cover the plants with a blanket, tarp, or plastic sheet to retain warmth.

The location of your planting is the next most important component. Tomatoes need sun. Full sun, for the whole day. Seven hours of full sun is a minimum. Even a little shade can make the difference between abundant fruit production and a sparse harvest so put tomatoes in the sunniest spot in your garden.

Plant selection is important, but not critical. There are two different types of tomatoes, determinate and indeterminate. Determinate tomatoes are often called "bush" tomatoes. They grow until they begin to put on their flower clusters and then they stop growing taller. Determinate tomatoes tend to mature earlier, set fruit earlier, and produce all of the fruit at about the same time for harvest. Indeterminate tomatoes will continue to grow throughout the season and are what we think of as tomato vines. They grow longer, mature later, and will continue to produce flowers and fruit until the first frost in fall.

The cultivars of tomatoes are numerous. You can get tomatoes that mature in as early as 45 days to as many as 80 days; that's the time it takes to produce fruit after planting outside. "Early Girl" is a popular cultivar that produces fruit close to the 45-day point, "Better Boy" and "Celebrity" produce fruit mid season at about the 60-day point, and many heirloom tomatoes like "Brandywine" or "Mortgage Lifter" take a full season of 80 days to bear fruit. When you select tomato plants, look at the plant tag or ask a nursery worker to find out how many days it will take for tomatoes to ripen. Compare that to your growing season length and select one that gives you plenty of time to enjoy your harvest.

Harden off the plants before transplanting

Transplanting tomatoes in your garden is just about the same as with any other plant (see my blog "How to Transplant, Part 2"). The primary difference is that the planting hole should be deeper for tomatoes. Tomato plants will sprout roots along the entire stem that's placed in the soil so bury about two-thirds of the plant. The extra roots give the plant a better foundation for growth and help it absorb the maximum amount of water and nutrients. If you start with a plant that is nine inches tall, place it in the hole so only three inches are above the soil level. You can also bury the plant a few inches deep in a shallow trench with the plant almost horizontal on its side. This is good if only the top few inches of your soil is amended and it also keeps the roots growing in the soil level that stays warmest because of direct sunlight.

Burying deep

Before you place the plant in the hole, pinch off the lower leaves. Leave three or four sets of leaves at the top depending on the size of the plant; these will remain above soil level. You only want the stem buried; don't bury leaves that are still connected to the stem. There are mixed opinions about this and you'll find some gardeners who say you don't need to remove the leaves before burying. This is true, but no roots will grow from the leaves and as long as they're on the plant, they'll receive nutrients, even when buried. Removing the lower leaves allows more energy to go into root and new leaf development. Pinching off the leaves can also expose the layer of cells along the stem that develop into roots, accelerating the process.

Removing the lower leaves

Adding some compost or balanced fertilizer at planting time can help give the plants a boost, particularly if your soil isn't well amended. Just sprinkle some granules of a 10-10-10 fertilizer, or something similar, into the hole. Or throw in a handful of compost. It's a good way to amend your soil one plant at a time.

Sprinkling a little fertilizer

You want to space the plants between 18 and 36 inches apart. If you're in a humid area you should give them extra space so there will be plenty of air circulation around the plants; this will help reduce fungus and disease issues. If you live in a very hot region you can plant closer together to allow the plants to shade each other and help prevent the fruit from being sunburned.

With the plant in the ground, water it well. Don't allow the soil to dry out after you place it in the hole. If you're planting a number of plants, this means watering each one after it's in the ground. Expect to use between a quart and a gallon of water per plant, depending on its size. Until the root system is fully established the soil should remain moist. Moist, not saturated. A primary reason for tomato plant failure is overwatering. Even though they have a tropical origin, tomatoes don't like to be waterlogged.

At some point you'll need a stake or cage to help support the plant. You don't need to worry about that at planting; I usually do that a few weeks after planting. You'll also want to mulch the area with straw, grass, or pine needles, but that can wait a week or two as well.

The last step, if you didn't do it earlier, is to mark the plant. Use some type of tag, stick, flag, or marker to allow you to identify the plant. Especially when planting a number of different cultivars of tomatoes, it's nice to know which ones are which. At the end of the season you'll know which plants did the best. This allows you to grow the successful ones again.

That's all there is to it. Your plants are in the garden and on their way to producing a bumper crop. There are still many more things to do until harvest and I'll cover those in the months ahead.
Tomatoes are the favorite backyard crop in the United States. The reason that gardeners focus on this fruit above others usually comes down to taste. No other produce has such a varied spectrum of flavor. Supermarket tomatoes have the texture and taste of cardboard, if they're lucky to have that much flavor. Tomatoes fresh-picked from the garden burst with color and deliciousness.


Fresh garden tomatoes

Most home gardeners transplant tomato plants. Few regions have the warm temperatures and season length to allow growing tomatoes from seed sown directly in the soil. Seed choices are great and many of us start our seeds indoors and transplant the plants. Those who don't start their own seeds tend to buy plants from nurseries or garden centers. Either way, it's tomato plants and not seeds that most of us put into the ground.


Planting tomatoes in your garden is easy. You've probably done it before and will again. The process is basic, but there are a few things you can do to get the most out of your plants.

The most important aspect of planting tomatoes is doing it at the appropriate time of year. Tomatoes are a warm-season plant originally from tropical regions and therefore can't handle cold weather at all. Waiting to plant until two weeks after your Last Frost Date is very important. The warmer the conditions, the better for the tomatoes.

Air temperature should be consistently above 50F (10C) degrees; that includes night time too. Soil temperature should be at least 60F degrees and ideally around 70F; roots will not grow below 50F soil temperature. If you plant with the air or soil temperature too low, you can expect issues with your plants. Growth and fruit may be sparse, they may become more susceptible to disease and pests, and they may be stunted and small. Waiting just one extra week until conditions are right can make the difference between success and failure. If unexpected cold temperatures hit after planting, it's important to cover the plants with a blanket, tarp, or plastic sheet to retain warmth.

The location of your planting is the next most important component. Tomatoes need sun. Full sun, for the whole day. Seven hours of full sun is a minimum. Even a little shade can make the difference between abundant fruit production and a sparse harvest so put tomatoes in the sunniest spot in your garden.

Plant selection is important, but not critical. There are two different types of tomatoes, determinate and indeterminate. Determinate tomatoes are often called "bush" tomatoes. They grow until they begin to put on their flower clusters and then they stop growing taller. Determinate tomatoes tend to mature earlier, set fruit earlier, and produce all of the fruit at about the same time for harvest. Indeterminate tomatoes will continue to grow throughout the season and are what we think of as tomato vines. They grow longer, mature later, and will continue to produce flowers and fruit until the first frost in fall.

The cultivars of tomatoes are numerous. You can get tomatoes that mature in as early as 45 days to as many as 80 days; that's the time it takes to produce fruit after planting outside. "Early Girl" is a popular cultivar that produces fruit close to the 45-day point, "Better Boy" and "Celebrity" produce fruit mid season at about the 60-day point, and many heirloom tomatoes like "Brandywine" or "Mortgage Lifter" take a full season of 80 days to bear fruit. When you select tomato plants, look at the plant tag or ask a nursery worker to find out how many days it will take for tomatoes to ripen. Compare that to your growing season length and select one that gives you plenty of time to enjoy your harvest.

Harden off the plants before transplanting

Transplanting tomatoes in your garden is just about the same as with any other plant (see my blog "
How to Transplant, Part 2"). The primary difference is that the planting hole should be deeper for tomatoes. Tomato plants will sprout roots along the entire stem that's placed in the soil so bury about two-thirds of the plant. The extra roots give the plant a better foundation for growth and help it absorb the maximum amount of water and nutrients. If you start with a plant that is nine inches tall, place it in the hole so only three inches are above the soil level. You can also bury the plant a few inches deep in a shallow trench with the plant almost horizontal on its side. This is good if only the top few inches of your soil is amended and it also keeps the roots growing in the soil level that stays warmest because of direct sunlight.

Burying deep

Before you place the plant in the hole, pinch off the lower leaves. Leave three or four sets of leaves at the top depending on the size of the plant; these will remain above soil level. You only want the stem buried; don't bury leaves that are still connected to the stem. There are mixed opinions about this and you'll find some gardeners who say you don't need to remove the leaves before burying. This is true, but no roots will grow from the leaves and as long as they're on the plant, they'll receive nutrients, even when buried. Removing the lower leaves allows more energy to go into root and new leaf development. Pinching off the leaves can also expose the layer of cells along the stem that develop into roots, accelerating the process.

Removing the lower leaves

Adding some compost or balanced fertilizer at planting time can help give the plants a boost, particularly if your soil isn't well amended. Just sprinkle some granules of a 10-10-10 fertilizer, or something similar, into the hole. Or throw in a handful of compost. It's a good way to amend your soil one plant at a time.

Sprinkling a little fertilizer

You want to space the plants between 18 and 36 inches apart. If you're in a humid area you should give them extra space so there will be plenty of air circulation around the plants; this will help reduce fungus and disease issues. If you live in a very hot region you can plant closer together to allow the plants to shade each other and help prevent the fruit from being sunburned.

With the plant in the ground, water it well. Don't allow the soil to dry out after you place it in the hole. If you're planting a number of plants, this means watering each one after it's in the ground. Expect to use between a quart and a gallon of water per plant, depending on its size. Until the root system is fully established the soil should remain moist. Moist, not saturated. A primary reason for tomato plant failure is overwatering. Even though they have a tropical origin, tomatoes don't like to be waterlogged.

At some point you'll need a stake or cage to help support the plant. You don't need to worry about that at planting; I usually do that a few weeks after planting. You'll also want to mulch the area with straw, grass, or pine needles, but that can wait a week or two as well.

The last step, if you didn't do it earlier, is to mark the plant. Use some type of tag, stick, flag, or marker to allow you to identify the plant. Especially when planting a number of different cultivars of tomatoes, it's nice to know which ones are which. At the end of the season you'll know which plants did the best. This allows you to grow the successful ones again.

That's all there is to it. Your plants are in the garden and on their way to producing a bumper crop. There are still many more things to do until harvest and I'll cover those in the months ahead.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

How to Transplant, Part 2

You're ready to put your plants in the garden. You’ve been getting things prepared for a long time and you’ve determined it’s planting day.  You know how to transplant seedlings into bigger pots (see my blog "How to Transplant, Part 1"), now it's time to move those plants and pots to their new home.

Plants ready to go

Putting a plant in the ground is easy. Chances are you've done it many times. Whether you bought plants or grew them yourself, the process is the same. Though it's simple, for general planting and transplanting there are a few things I recommend to ensure your plants have the best chance at success.

First, harden off your plants (see my blog "Hardening Off -- How to Harden Off Your Plants"). If all of the conditions are perfect when you plant, hardening off may seem like a waste of time, but conditions are rarely perfect. Too much sun on a tender plant's first day in the garden could wither it past the point of recovery. Wind, rain, and cool nights might also cause too much stress on plants. Take a few days and harden off the plants so that they're exposed to challenging conditions gradually.

Check the soil temperature before you put plants in the ground, especially if you're planting soon after a stretch of cold or cool weather (see my blog"Yes, Soil Should Be Warm to Sow Seeds"). You may think the plants are ready for the soil, but the soil may not be ready for your plants. Taking a few minutes to confirm that the soil is warm enough for the plants will ensure that their roots can begin growing right away. If the soil is too cold it may take longer for the roots to grow than the few days of waiting for it to warm up.

Soil temperature check

Plant in the morning or on an overcast day. Plants need sun, but not in excess when they're most vulnerable. Like hardening off, putting the plants in the ground when conditions are mild allows them a chance to get established in their new environment before confronting harsh conditions. Try to choose a time that has minimal wind, reduced sun, and no extremes in temperature.

Have the soil ready. You don't want to wait until the plants are lined up and drying out in the sun to think about your garden soil. Have the soil amended well with organic material (see my blog "Soil Amendments in the Garden"). Water the planting area a day or two before putting plants in the ground. Don't water the day of planting before you plant. You want the soil to be moist at the depth of the roots and not wet. Digging in wet soil is a very bad idea and should be avoided.

Mark where the plants will go. You should have a plan for which plants go where. Try to follow your plan by laying out the plants where they will go or by marking the location for each plant with a popsicle stick, plant marker, rock, or pine needle bundle. To be precise, use a tape measure. It's better to know that the planting holes are exactly 18 inches apart (or whatever is required) before you plant than to guess and find out later that your plants are too close together.

Leeks laid out in their newspaper pots

Dig a hole the appropriate size for the plant. You can dig all of the holes at once or one at a time; I like to work with three or four plants at a time. Unless you're planting a long row of shrubs and are using an auger, planting is the time for you to get your fingers dirty and get in touch with your soil. Using a trowel or large spoon, dig a hole just big enough for the plant you're putting in. Check on the specific requirements of the plant:  tomatoes should be planted deeper than the pot size so roots can develop along the stem; strawberries and rhubarb can rot if the plant crown is buried; most plants do well if planted at the same level as the surface of the potted soil.

Fertilize at planting. If your soil is well-amended and healthy you may not need it, but most soils and plants can benefit from a little boost of fertilizer. For most vegetable garden plants sprinkle a small handful of a balanced fertilizer (10-10-10 or 12-12-12) into the planting hole and mix it with the soil in the hole. You can spread a great amount of fertilizer around the whole area and till it in, but focusing on just the planting zone can save time, money, and energy. For flowering plants you may want to use a fertilizer that is higher in phosphorus, the second number on the box (5-30-5 or 2-12-8).
 
Handle the plant gently. When putting the plant in the hole, think about how you're holding it. Most young plants don't like to be held by the stem; you can damage it. For very small seedlings, it's usually best to hold them by their leaves and lower them into the hole. If you've thought ahead by growing or buying plants in peat or fiber pots that will decompose, you can hold the plant by the pot and place the whole thing in the ground. If you have to remove the plant from a plastic pot or other container, you want to disturb the roots as little as possible. Try to retain as much of the soil around the roots as you can and plant the entire root ball; I try to cup the root ball in my hand and use my palm to hold it all together.

Plant in the hole and filling it in with soil

Backfill the hole with soil. Using your hand or the trowel, fill in the hole around the plant with soil. You will have more soil leftover than you started with because the soil in the pots will fill most of the hole. I use this time as an opportunity to spread the extra soil over the entire planting area to get it as level as I can. When it comes to irrigating you want the ground to be level so you don't have excess drainage into low spots.

Water well. After the plants are in the ground, you want to give them a good soaking. If you're planting a large number of plants it's a good idea to water plants as you go. You don't want the first plants to have to wait hours for a drink until you've finished with the last plant. When I have a full day of planting planned I use a watering can to give individual plants a soaking before moving on to the next group to be planted. When they're all planted water the entire area. If you have your irrigation source in place you can use it, but this is one time I water everything with an overhead spray from my hose nozzle. Use care that you don't spray too forcefully; use a gentle shower of water to avoid injuring the plants you've spent so much effort on.

Now your plants are in the ground and ready for action. I'll cover mulching and irrigation in future articles. For the first few days the plants will need to be watered often so the soil stays moist; once they're established they can handle it drying out a bit. Keep your eye on the weather. If a severe storm hits soon after planting, the young plants may not be able to handle hail or heavy rain; be ready to cover the plants, if you can, to avoid damage.

The months of planning and preparing are complete once your plants are in the ground. Next comes the months of properly caring for them. For now, enjoy having made it this far.
You're ready to put your plants in the garden. You’ve been getting things prepared for a long time and you’ve determined it’s planting day.  You know how to transplant seedlings into bigger pots (see my blog "How to Transplant, Part 1"), now it's time to move those plants and pots to their new home.

Plants ready to go

Putting a plant in the ground is easy. Chances are you've done it many times. Whether you bought plants or grew them yourself, the process is the same. Though it's simple, for general planting and transplanting there are a few things I recommend to ensure your plants have the best chance at success.

First, harden off your plants (see my blog "Hardening Off -- How to Harden Off Your Plants"). If all of the conditions are perfect when you plant, hardening off may seem like a waste of time, but conditions are rarely perfect. Too much sun on a tender plant's first day in the garden could wither it past the point of recovery. Wind, rain, and cool nights might also cause too much stress on plants. Take a few days and harden off the plants so that they're exposed to challenging conditions gradually.

Check the soil temperature before you put plants in the ground, especially if you're planting soon after a stretch of cold or cool weather (see my blog"Yes, Soil Should Be Warm to Sow Seeds"). You may think the plants are ready for the soil, but the soil may not be ready for your plants. Taking a few minutes to confirm that the soil is warm enough for the plants will ensure that their roots can begin growing right away. If the soil is too cold it may take longer for the roots to grow than the few days of waiting for it to warm up.

Soil temperature check

Plant in the morning or on an overcast day. Plants need sun, but not in excess when they're most vulnerable. Like hardening off, putting the plants in the ground when conditions are mild allows them a chance to get established in their new environment before confronting harsh conditions. Try to choose a time that has minimal wind, reduced sun, and no extremes in temperature.

Have the soil ready. You don't want to wait until the plants are lined up and drying out in the sun to think about your garden soil. Have the soil amended well with organic material (see my blog "Soil Amendments in the Garden"). Water the planting area a day or two before putting plants in the ground. Don't water the day of planting before you plant. You want the soil to be moist at the depth of the roots and not wet. Digging in wet soil is a very bad idea and should be avoided.

Mark where the plants will go. You should have a plan for which plants go where. Try to follow your plan by laying out the plants where they will go or by marking the location for each plant with a popsicle stick, plant marker, rock, or pine needle bundle. To be precise, use a tape measure. It's better to know that the planting holes are exactly 18 inches apart (or whatever is required) before you plant than to guess and find out later that your plants are too close together.

Leeks laid out in their newspaper pots

Dig a hole the appropriate size for the plant. You can dig all of the holes at once or one at a time; I like to work with three or four plants at a time. Unless you're planting a long row of shrubs and are using an auger, planting is the time for you to get your fingers dirty and get in touch with your soil. Using a trowel or large spoon, dig a hole just big enough for the plant you're putting in. Check on the specific requirements of the plant:  tomatoes should be planted deeper than the pot size so roots can develop along the stem; strawberries and rhubarb can rot if the plant crown is buried; most plants do well if planted at the same level as the surface of the potted soil.

Fertilize at planting. If your soil is well-amended and healthy you may not need it, but most soils and plants can benefit from a little boost of fertilizer. For most vegetable garden plants sprinkle a small handful of a balanced fertilizer (10-10-10 or 12-12-12) into the planting hole and mix it with the soil in the hole. You can spread a great amount of fertilizer around the whole area and till it in, but focusing on just the planting zone can save time, money, and energy. For flowering plants you may want to use a fertilizer that is higher in phosphorus, the second number on the box (5-30-5 or 2-12-8).
 
Handle the plant gently. When putting the plant in the hole, think about how you're holding it. Most young plants don't like to be held by the stem; you can damage it. For very small seedlings, it's usually best to hold them by their leaves and lower them into the hole. If you've thought ahead by growing or buying plants in peat or fiber pots that will decompose, you can hold the plant by the pot and place the whole thing in the ground. If you have to remove the plant from a plastic pot or other container, you want to disturb the roots as little as possible. Try to retain as much of the soil around the roots as you can and plant the entire root ball; I try to cup the root ball in my hand and use my palm to hold it all together.

Plant in the hole and filling it in with soil

Backfill the hole with soil. Using your hand or the trowel, fill in the hole around the plant with soil. You will have more soil leftover than you started with because the soil in the pots will fill most of the hole. I use this time as an opportunity to spread the extra soil over the entire planting area to get it as level as I can. When it comes to irrigating you want the ground to be level so you don't have excess drainage into low spots.

Water well. After the plants are in the ground, you want to give them a good soaking. If you're planting a large number of plants it's a good idea to water plants as you go. You don't want the first plants to have to wait hours for a drink until you've finished with the last plant. When I have a full day of planting planned I use a watering can to give individual plants a soaking before moving on to the next group to be planted. When they're all planted water the entire area. If you have your irrigation source in place you can use it, but this is one time I water everything with an overhead spray from my hose nozzle. Use care that you don't spray too forcefully; use a gentle shower of water to avoid injuring the plants you've spent so much effort on.

Now your plants are in the ground and ready for action. I'll cover mulching and irrigation in future articles. For the first few days the plants will need to be watered often so the soil stays moist; once they're established they can handle it drying out a bit. Keep your eye on the weather. If a severe storm hits soon after planting, the young plants may not be able to handle hail or heavy rain; be ready to cover the plants, if you can, to avoid damage.

The months of planning and preparing are complete once your plants are in the ground. Next comes the months of properly caring for them. For now, enjoy having made it this far.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Birds in the Garden

Birds and butterflies are the two most likely creatures you want to attract to your garden. While much time is spent by gardeners deterring deer, squirrels, and gophers, an equal, if not greater, amount of time is spent on attracting the colorful and lively aviators. That's a good thing. Today's focus is on the birds.

While many birds will visit your landscape, getting them to stay is where your work begins. Songbirds are the ones many people prefer to attract, but there are birds that never sing a note and are beautiful to behold. It's difficult to design a garden to attract just one kind of bird so try to attract as many as you can.

Birds are looking for three basic requirements when they land and consider claiming a new territory: food, water, and protection. Look around your garden with a bird's viewpoint. Is it inviting? If you were a bird would you want to stay?

Does this look inviting?
A typical suburban landscape doesn't offer a lot to a bird that is passing through looking for a nice spot. Close-cut, chemically-sprayed lawns offer no protection from predators and, except for the occasional worm, offer little in the way of food. Deadheaded flowers aren't a food source and sheared shrubs aren't a good nesting site. There are few food sources and no place to hide when needed. Are you surprised that they aren't impressed?

Birds eat a lot. Even more so during the cold months. If your garden doesn't supply the food they need, they'll move to some place else. So the first step in attracting birds is giving them a food source. This can be as simple as a tray on a table or a feeder hanging from a tree. Or you can plant flowers, fruits, and vegetables for the purpose of attracting birds and offering them sustenance. I grow many sunflowers for their beauty, because my wife asks me to, and because they are a great food source for birds (see my blog "Sunflowers are for the Birds").


Finch socks
In my garden I have bird feeders around every corner. There are socks filled with seed hanging from a pine tree for the finches. There's a big tray on an old picnic table filled with a seed mix that is a smorgasbord for all types of birds; the jays and magpies pick out the big pieces, the doves follow, and the sparrows and chickadees clean up the small bits. Hummingbird feeders hang in different sections of the garden. My wife and I share the effort of keeping the feeders filled. With so much food available we have an abundance of avian activity.


Bird seed for lunch

There are also the plants to add nutrition to their diets. The colorful flowers like penstemon and agastache for the hummingbirds, the berries on the elder, and the cones from the pines for the bigger birds. When I select a new plant for my garden I think about the ecological impact it adds. If I have a choice between a flower that attracts hummingbirds and one that just looks nice, I typically choose the first one. When planting shrubs and bushes, I pick ones that produce berries. The extra color is always nice to see, but the birds need them more than me.

Water is another important requirement. Birds need to drink and take an occasional bath. Shallow water features add sound and interest to your garden while they supply water to birds. Just setting a pan on the ground to catch a few drips from your faucet will provide a wonderful source. Concave stones add visual interest and don't take long to fill with water.

You can install a functioning birdbath, but it shouldn't be more than two or three inches deep. If cats roam your neighborhood the birdbath should be in an open area so birds can see a predator approaching; if hawks or other predators are more likely, a birdbath should have some cover. I leave a water dish out for the dogs all year and it's often visited by birds, even in winter. If you set out a birdbath or water dish, be sure to empty it and clean it every few days to keep algae and bacteria from developing.

See the birdbath behind the horseradish?

Birds also need a place to land when confronted with weather, potential predators, or to sleep. Trees are an obvious stopover place, but they also like bushes, tall grasses, and all manner of evergreens. Arborvitae, junipers, and hollies add color to your garden year-round, and supply food and cover. Consider making a corner of your yard a bird sanctuary by allowing the plants to become overgrown. If you have the space, create a brush pile in an out-of-the-way spot where birds can nest or hide. I have a big pile of brush pile my compost pile.

My bird brush pile

Birds will come to your garden. If they find food, water, and protection, they'll stay. If you want to watch them from the comfort of your home, provide these necessities just outside your window. If you want to enjoy them while you immerse yourself in your garden, add a bench or sitting area in the middle of the bird-friendly landscape.

Sure, birds can be pests when they feed on your newly-sown seeds, when they ravage your corn, and when they eat your strawberries, but they also feed on caterpillars and other insect pests. When given an easy food source they're less likely to disrupt your garden. Regardless of the troubles they might cause they add interest, and interest in your garden is one of the reasons you have it. Attracting birds is easy and something you should consider.
Birds and butterflies are the two most likely creatures you want to attract to your garden. While much time is spent by gardeners deterring deer, squirrels, and gophers, an equal, if not greater, amount of time is spent on attracting the colorful and lively aviators. That's a good thing. Today's focus is on the birds.

While many birds will visit your landscape, getting them to stay is where your work begins. Songbirds are the ones many people prefer to attract, but there are birds that never sing a note and are beautiful to behold. It's difficult to design a garden to attract just one kind of bird so try to attract as many as you can.

Birds are looking for three basic requirements when they land and consider claiming a new territory: food, water, and protection. Look around your garden with a bird's viewpoint. Is it inviting? If you were a bird would you want to stay?

Does this look inviting?
A typical suburban landscape doesn't offer a lot to a bird that is passing through looking for a nice spot. Close-cut, chemically-sprayed lawns offer no protection from predators and, except for the occasional worm, offer little in the way of food. Deadheaded flowers aren't a food source and sheared shrubs aren't a good nesting site. There are few food sources and no place to hide when needed. Are you surprised that they aren't impressed?

Birds eat a lot. Even more so during the cold months. If your garden doesn't supply the food they need, they'll move to some place else. So the first step in attracting birds is giving them a food source. This can be as simple as a tray on a table or a feeder hanging from a tree. Or you can plant flowers, fruits, and vegetables for the purpose of attracting birds and offering them sustenance. I grow many sunflowers for their beauty, because my wife asks me to, and because they are a great food source for birds (see my blog "
Sunflowers are for the Birds").


Finch socks
In my garden I have bird feeders around every corner. There are socks filled with seed hanging from a pine tree for the finches. There's a big tray on an old picnic table filled with a seed mix that is a smorgasbord for all types of birds; the jays and magpies pick out the big pieces, the doves follow, and the sparrows and chickadees clean up the small bits. Hummingbird feeders hang in different sections of the garden. My wife and I share the effort of keeping the feeders filled. With so much food available we have an abundance of avian activity.


Bird seed for lunch

There are also the plants to add nutrition to their diets. The colorful flowers like penstemon and agastache for the hummingbirds, the berries on the elder, and the cones from the pines for the bigger birds. When I select a new plant for my garden I think about the ecological impact it adds. If I have a choice between a flower that attracts hummingbirds and one that just looks nice, I typically choose the first one. When planting shrubs and bushes, I pick ones that produce berries. The extra color is always nice to see, but the birds need them more than me.

Water is another important requirement. Birds need to drink and take an occasional bath. Shallow water features add sound and interest to your garden while they supply water to birds. Just setting a pan on the ground to catch a few drips from your faucet will provide a wonderful source. Concave stones add visual interest and don't take long to fill with water.

You can install a functioning birdbath, but it shouldn't be more than two or three inches deep. If cats roam your neighborhood the birdbath should be in an open area so birds can see a predator approaching; if hawks or other predators are more likely, a birdbath should have some cover. I leave a water dish out for the dogs all year and it's often visited by birds, even in winter. If you set out a birdbath or water dish, be sure to empty it and clean it every few days to keep algae and bacteria from developing.

See the birdbath behind the horseradish?

Birds also need a place to land when confronted with weather, potential predators, or to sleep. Trees are an obvious stopover place, but they also like bushes, tall grasses, and all manner of evergreens. Arborvitae, junipers, and hollies add color to your garden year-round, and supply food and cover. Consider making a corner of your yard a bird sanctuary by allowing the plants to become overgrown. If you have the space, create a brush pile in an out-of-the-way spot where birds can nest or hide. I have a big pile of brush pile my compost pile.

My bird brush pile

Birds will come to your garden. If they find food, water, and protection, they'll stay. If you want to watch them from the comfort of your home, provide these necessities just outside your window. If you want to enjoy them while you immerse yourself in your garden, add a bench or sitting area in the middle of the bird-friendly landscape.

Sure, birds can be pests when they feed on your newly-sown seeds, when they ravage your corn, and when they eat your strawberries, but they also feed on caterpillars and other insect pests. When given an easy food source they're less likely to disrupt your garden. Regardless of the troubles they might cause they add interest, and interest in your garden is one of the reasons you have it. Attracting birds is easy and something you should consider.

Friday, May 13, 2011

What is the Last Frost Date?

The Last Frost Date can be confusing for gardeners. It's a definitive date, but doesn't offer definitive expectations. In other words, it implies that there will be no more freezing weather after that date when in actuality there is still a chance of freezing weather well past that date. See why it can be confusing? I'm here to help offer some definitive guidance.



Snow just a few days before the Last Frost Date

A search of the internet will give you a wheelbarrow load of information about the Last Frost Date and much of it is erroneous. I found one popular gardening site which defines the Average Last Frost Date as "the last day in the spring that you might have a killing frost." WRONG. A gardening site that places high on Google searches says the Average Last Frost Date is "the average date in which the last frost usually occurs in your area." Not technically accurate, and redundant, vague, and not very helpful.

When you ask your local Extension office or look to NOAA or the USDA, you can expect to get three different dates for the Last Frost Date and none of them are the date that you will definitely see no more freezing temperatures.

The first published date is the historical date when 10 percent of the time there are no more days below freezing (32F or 0C degrees). Note that it is a date when the temperature is below freezing, not just a frost. Frost can occur above the freezing point. In Colorado Springs, according to NOAA (CSU Extension is a few days later), the 10-percent Last Frost Date is April 24. It doesn't really mean much for most home gardeners except to say that there is a 90 percent chance there will still be freezing weather, so don't get your planting hopes up yet. It's a teaser date.

The second date is the Average Last Frost Date and is truly an average date. That's the point in the calendar that separates the historical weather data. Half of the freezing days occur before that date and half of the freezing days occur after that date. It is the definitive 50/50 point. It's not the average date that frost "usually" occurs, but a statistical point. If you like to play roulette, you can use that date in your planting calculations. Picking red or black in the casino gives the same odds as choosing to plant tender plants on that date and expecting them to see no more freezing temperatures. The Average Last Frost Date in Colorado Springs is May 4.

The third date is the one you will see most often as the Last Frost Date. That's the date when historical data show there will only be a 10 percent chance of any more days below freezing. It's important to note that the definition still allows for freezing temperatures. It gives you 90 percent probability of warm temperatures, but no guarantee. The Last Frost Date in Colorado Springs is May 15. That's the date that nurseries, gardening experts, and the local newspaper identify as the Last Frost Date. It's a pretty safe bet, about what most casinos pay out with their slot machines.

But the Last Frost Date really isn't the last frost date. Ever notice that there are a lot of people who lose money playing slot machines? There is still a 10 percent chance of freezing weather after the "official" Last Frost Date. Over time, you will see freezing temperatures after that date.

So what is the True Last Frost Date? That's a term I've coined to identify when you are 100 percent sure you won't have any more freezing temperatures. The problem is that it doesn't exist in any official record. And it is a very difficult date to find. NOAA offers a listing of record low temperatures and you can search your area for record lows for each month. It shows that Colorado Springs has seen a temperature of 32F degrees in June, but not on a specific date. I wasn't able to find any source that listed the specific True Last Frost Date for my area, or any other location. Luckily our local newspaper publishes monthly weather temperature charts at the beginning of each month and I pay attention.

Colorado Springs has seen a record low temperature of 32 degrees on June 1. I haven't seen it in the 14 years I've lived here, but it has happened. So, historically, June 1 is the True Last Frost Date for my home. You can do similar research to determine your True Last Frost Date. Why is this important and why doesn't anyone seem to know about it? There are experts that tell you this information, but you have to know how to decipher it.

Look at a seed packet of a warm season plant like pumpkins or melons and you may notice that they recommend planting two weeks after the Last Frost Date. Look at my True Last Frost Date above and you may notice it's just about two weeks after my official Last Frost Date. So you can estimate your True Last Frost Date to be about two weeks after your Last Frost Date.

Local, experienced gardeners wait until the Memorial Day weekend at the end of May to plant tomatoes and other warm season crops, a two week buffer. They've determined from experience when it's safe to plant.

Planting warm season plants after the True Last Frost Date is important because many of them can't handle any temperatures close to freezing. You can look at long-range weather forecasts to determine the best time to plant, but I think using the calendar gives you a better opportunity to develop your plan. Picking a date at least two weeks after your last Frost Date is a good estimate of your True Last Frost Date and as close to a 100 percent prediction as you can make. I call that a safe bet.

 
 
The Last Frost Date can be confusing for gardeners. It's a definitive date, but doesn't offer definitive expectations. In other words, it implies that there will be no more freezing weather after that date when in actuality there is still a chance of freezing weather well past that date. See why it can be confusing? I'm here to help offer some definitive guidance.



Snow just a few days before the Last Frost Date

A search of the internet will give you a wheelbarrow load of information about the Last Frost Date and much of it is erroneous. I found one popular gardening site which defines the Average Last Frost Date as "the last day in the spring that you might have a killing frost." WRONG. A gardening site that places high on Google searches says the Average Last Frost Date is "the average date in which the last frost usually occurs in your area." Not technically accurate, and redundant, vague, and not very helpful.

When you ask your local Extension office or look to NOAA or the USDA, you can expect to get three different dates for the Last Frost Date and none of them are the date that you will definitely see no more freezing temperatures.

The first published date is the historical date when 10 percent of the time there are no more days below freezing (32F or 0C degrees). Note that it is a date when the temperature is below freezing, not just a frost. Frost can occur above the freezing point. In Colorado Springs, according to NOAA (CSU Extension is a few days later), the 10-percent Last Frost Date is April 24. It doesn't really mean much for most home gardeners except to say that there is a 90 percent chance there will still be freezing weather, so don't get your planting hopes up yet. It's a teaser date.

The second date is the Average Last Frost Date and is truly an average date. That's the point in the calendar that separates the historical weather data. Half of the freezing days occur before that date and half of the freezing days occur after that date. It is the definitive 50/50 point. It's not the average date that frost "usually" occurs, but a statistical point. If you like to play roulette, you can use that date in your planting calculations. Picking red or black in the casino gives the same odds as choosing to plant tender plants on that date and expecting them to see no more freezing temperatures. The Average Last Frost Date in Colorado Springs is May 4.

The third date is the one you will see most often as the Last Frost Date. That's the date when historical data show there will only be a 10 percent chance of any more days below freezing. It's important to note that the definition still allows for freezing temperatures. It gives you 90 percent probability of warm temperatures, but no guarantee. The Last Frost Date in Colorado Springs is May 15. That's the date that nurseries, gardening experts, and the local newspaper identify as the Last Frost Date. It's a pretty safe bet, about what most casinos pay out with their slot machines.

But the Last Frost Date really isn't the last frost date. Ever notice that there are a lot of people who lose money playing slot machines? There is still a 10 percent chance of freezing weather after the "official" Last Frost Date. Over time, you will see freezing temperatures after that date.

So what is the True Last Frost Date? That's a term I've coined to identify when you are 100 percent sure you won't have any more freezing temperatures. The problem is that it doesn't exist in any official record. And it is a very difficult date to find. NOAA offers a listing of record low temperatures and you can search your area for record lows for each month. It shows that Colorado Springs has seen a temperature of 32F degrees in June, but not on a specific date. I wasn't able to find any source that listed the specific True Last Frost Date for my area, or any other location. Luckily our local newspaper publishes monthly weather temperature charts at the beginning of each month and I pay attention.

Colorado Springs has seen a record low temperature of 32 degrees on June 1. I haven't seen it in the 14 years I've lived here, but it has happened. So, historically, June 1 is the True Last Frost Date for my home. You can do similar research to determine your True Last Frost Date. Why is this important and why doesn't anyone seem to know about it? There are experts that tell you this information, but you have to know how to decipher it.

Look at a seed packet of a warm season plant like pumpkins or melons and you may notice that they recommend planting two weeks after the Last Frost Date. Look at my True Last Frost Date above and you may notice it's just about two weeks after my official Last Frost Date. So you can estimate your True Last Frost Date to be about two weeks after your Last Frost Date.

Local, experienced gardeners wait until the Memorial Day weekend at the end of May to plant tomatoes and other warm season crops, a two week buffer. They've determined from experience when it's safe to plant.

Planting warm season plants after the True Last Frost Date is important because many of them can't handle any temperatures close to freezing. You can look at long-range weather forecasts to determine the best time to plant, but I think using the calendar gives you a better opportunity to develop your plan. Picking a date at least two weeks after your last Frost Date is a good estimate of your True Last Frost Date and as close to a 100 percent prediction as you can make. I call that a safe bet.

 
 

Monday, May 9, 2011

Ants In My Plants

Ants become visible in the spring after spending the winter underground and can raise concern among gardeners. In the last week I've been asked by three different gardeners about the sudden explosion of ants in their gardens. Unless you happen to live next to an atomic bomb test range in New Mexico, you shouldn't be too concerned about ants, even big ones.

Carpenter ants in my firewood

Most ants are beneficial. They control pests like caterpillars and termites, eat weed seeds, and can improve soil with their tunnels and nests. They clean up plant debris and dead insect bodies. They can help pollinate flowers. They'll move flower seeds, giving them a chance to germinate in a new location. They're an important part of the ecosystem in your garden.

Of course, it's not all good. They can create a colony underneath your favorite plants and produce an unsightly mound. They'll eat plants and roots that are in their way. Some ants will corral aphids and actually protect them as they suck the sap from your plants; the ants feed on the excretion of the aphids, a "honeydew" sweet liquid that ants love. They can invade your home seeking food. Seeing ants in places you don't expect to see them can be a little unnerving, but they're not all bad; California has over 200 species of ants, and only considers less than a dozen as pests.

Dealing with ants is a good opportunity to practice Integrated Pest Management (see my blog,"Integrating Integrated Pest Management"). First determine if the ants really are a problem in your garden. If they're just walking around, checking out the area after waking up, then leaving them alone is easy. If you see a large mass of ants, don't panic, wait and see where they go and what they do; they may just be moving to a new home.

I rarely try to kill or reduce the number of ants in my yard. When I do, it's usually because large numbers have moved into a territory that I've identified for another purpose, like the middle of a vegetable bed. As long as it's not a harmful species like fire ants, disturbing the nest with a shovel may be enough for the little creatures to grab their eggs and move elsewhere. (Important note: if you really have fire ants, they should be reported to your county agriculture agent for identification and control).

If you begin to see actual plant damage due to ants or the aphids they're cowboying, it may be time for action. If they're in a location that is a problem, you probably want them gone. Take some time to determine where their nest is. This may mean following a line of ants, or even a single one, until it leads you to its home.

You may not need to kill a single ant to alleviate your problem. Ants seek out food and then return home by following a scent trail that they made. By disrupting the scent trail you can reduce the likelihood that the ants will return to the food source, like your kitchen. Soapy water will work; sponge off the area that the ant was walking to eliminate the trail. Outside you can spray it with a hose, but plain water is not completely effective, so using a bucket of soapy water is better.

For best control realize that you need to deal with the ants that you can't see. Spraying or dealing with the few on your plants or in your kitchen won't remove the problem. You need to choose a method that attacks them in the nest.

If you feel you need to eliminate the nest, you can use a few methods that are not completely toxic. Diatomaceous earth will act to desiccate the ants and kill them. It's commonly used to control slugs and snails so you just may have some in your garden shed. Sprinkle it around your garden beds and the ant nest.

You can make your own ant poison by mixing boric acid with sugar, honey, or jelly. Place it near the nest to avoid attracting other ants to the area you're trying to clear.

If you decide to use a commercial ant poison you should identify what kind of ants you have. Each region can have dozens of different species and some are easier to remove or kill than others. Ants generally look alike, but upon close examination you'll see that some are brown or black while others are yellow or red. You also want to be sure you don't actually have termites, which are often confused with ants. Do an online or library search to identify the species you're dealing with.  The University of California, Davis has an online key (see the link below).

The reason for identification is that different ants react differently to the standard ant poison you can buy. While the poison may kill many of the ants in a garden, it won't kill all types and may actually cause some to move from the original location to other areas, like under or in your house.

Generally, ant baits work better at killing ants in the nest than pesticide sprays. The sprays will only affect the ants that come into direct contact with the pesticide while the baits will be carried into the nest by workers and transferred mouth to mouth and ultimately kill most of the ants.

The initial reaction by many people when they see ants is to want to kill them. I recommend that you stop and analyze their effect on your garden. Chances are they're having a beneficial effect. Don't assume that they're causing a problem. Even if there is a problem, don't rush to kill all of the ants. Ants are an important component in a garden's life force and eliminating them may disrupt the natural circle.

If you choose to take drastic action, practice smart pesticide practice. Deal with the ants directly and don't wantonly distribute harmful chemicals in your garden.

Be aware that there are ants throughout the world. The attractions that brought ants to your garden are still present and removing a nest just opens up space for different ants to move in. Once you begin trying to control ants, you may start a course of action that takes up a lot of your gardening time.


Link to my blog,"Integrating Integrated Pest Management".
The University of California, Davis online key here


Ants become visible in the spring after spending the winter underground and can raise concern among gardeners. In the last week I've been asked by three different gardeners about the sudden explosion of ants in their gardens. Unless you happen to live next to an atomic bomb test range in New Mexico, you shouldn't be too concerned about ants, even big ones.

Carpenter ants in my firewood

Most ants are beneficial. They control pests like caterpillars and termites, eat weed seeds, and can improve soil with their tunnels and nests. They clean up plant debris and dead insect bodies. They can help pollinate flowers. They'll move flower seeds, giving them a chance to germinate in a new location. They're an important part of the ecosystem in your garden.

Of course, it's not all good. They can create a colony underneath your favorite plants and produce an unsightly mound. They'll eat plants and roots that are in their way. Some ants will corral aphids and actually protect them as they suck the sap from your plants; the ants feed on the excretion of the aphids, a "honeydew" sweet liquid that ants love. They can invade your home seeking food. Seeing ants in places you don't expect to see them can be a little unnerving, but they're not all bad; California has over 200 species of ants, and only considers less than a dozen as pests.

Dealing with ants is a good opportunity to practice Integrated Pest Management (see my blog,"Integrating Integrated Pest Management"). First determine if the ants really are a problem in your garden. If they're just walking around, checking out the area after waking up, then leaving them alone is easy. If you see a large mass of ants, don't panic, wait and see where they go and what they do; they may just be moving to a new home.

I rarely try to kill or reduce the number of ants in my yard. When I do, it's usually because large numbers have moved into a territory that I've identified for another purpose, like the middle of a vegetable bed. As long as it's not a harmful species like fire ants, disturbing the nest with a shovel may be enough for the little creatures to grab their eggs and move elsewhere. (Important note: if you really have fire ants, they should be reported to your county agriculture agent for identification and control).

If you begin to see actual plant damage due to ants or the aphids they're cowboying, it may be time for action. If they're in a location that is a problem, you probably want them gone. Take some time to determine where their nest is. This may mean following a line of ants, or even a single one, until it leads you to its home.

You may not need to kill a single ant to alleviate your problem. Ants seek out food and then return home by following a scent trail that they made. By disrupting the scent trail you can reduce the likelihood that the ants will return to the food source, like your kitchen. Soapy water will work; sponge off the area that the ant was walking to eliminate the trail. Outside you can spray it with a hose, but plain water is not completely effective, so using a bucket of soapy water is better.

For best control realize that you need to deal with the ants that you can't see. Spraying or dealing with the few on your plants or in your kitchen won't remove the problem. You need to choose a method that attacks them in the nest.

If you feel you need to eliminate the nest, you can use a few methods that are not completely toxic. Diatomaceous earth will act to desiccate the ants and kill them. It's commonly used to control slugs and snails so you just may have some in your garden shed. Sprinkle it around your garden beds and the ant nest.

You can make your own ant poison by mixing boric acid with sugar, honey, or jelly. Place it near the nest to avoid attracting other ants to the area you're trying to clear.

If you decide to use a commercial ant poison you should identify what kind of ants you have. Each region can have dozens of different species and some are easier to remove or kill than others. Ants generally look alike, but upon close examination you'll see that some are brown or black while others are yellow or red. You also want to be sure you don't actually have termites, which are often confused with ants. Do an online or library search to identify the species you're dealing with.  The University of California, Davis has an online key (see the link below).

The reason for identification is that different ants react differently to the standard ant poison you can buy. While the poison may kill many of the ants in a garden, it won't kill all types and may actually cause some to move from the original location to other areas, like under or in your house.

Generally, ant baits work better at killing ants in the nest than pesticide sprays. The sprays will only affect the ants that come into direct contact with the pesticide while the baits will be carried into the nest by workers and transferred mouth to mouth and ultimately kill most of the ants.

The initial reaction by many people when they see ants is to want to kill them. I recommend that you stop and analyze their effect on your garden. Chances are they're having a beneficial effect. Don't assume that they're causing a problem. Even if there is a problem, don't rush to kill all of the ants. Ants are an important component in a garden's life force and eliminating them may disrupt the natural circle.

If you choose to take drastic action, practice smart pesticide practice. Deal with the ants directly and don't wantonly distribute harmful chemicals in your garden.

Be aware that there are ants throughout the world. The attractions that brought ants to your garden are still present and removing a nest just opens up space for different ants to move in. Once you begin trying to control ants, you may start a course of action that takes up a lot of your gardening time.


Link to my blog,"
Integrating Integrated Pest Management".
The University of California, Davis online key here


Saturday, May 7, 2011

Wall O'Water, Aqui-Shield, and Other Season Extenders

Wall O'Water revolutionized gardening several years ago. The plastic, tubular, plant protection system allows gardeners to plant warm season plants like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants several weeks earlier than usual. With the success of the product, other gardening companies followed suit and there are imitators available. Burpee offers their own product called Aqua-Shield. You can find similar, generic products at home centers and nurseries.

The concept is simple: surround plants with a wall of water that collects sun energy during the day and releases it at night, protecting the plant from cold temperatures. It's like a mini greenhouse with extra insulation.

Wall O'Water advertises that you can plant six to eight weeks early, without fear of freezing. Burpee suggests using Aqui-Shield up to one month early. As efficient a system as it is, I feel more comfortable with the one-month guideline.

You begin by planting your plant normally. Tomatoes prefer a soil temperature of at least 60F degrees. Below 50F degrees and roots won't grow. If your soil hasn't warmed sufficiently, cover the bed with plastic for a few days to help raise the soil temperature.

Plastic warming the soil

After the plant is in the ground, cover it with a five-gallon bucket. This is the support you need for the plastic. Don't try to fill the tubes with water without a bucket in place. You'll make a mess, probably break your plant, and waste a lot of effort.

Covering the plant

Arrange the plastic season extender around the bucket. It doesn't need to be perfect, just try to space it as evenly as you can. Fill each of the tubes about two-thirds full with water. I recommend using a hand-controlled hose nozzle. You can just let the hose run free while you fill the tubes, but it will create a mess. Control is better.

Filling the plastic tubes

With water in each tube, carefully remove the bucket, making sure you don't snag or injure your plant.

Removing the bucket

The tubes will collapse at the top, forming a teepee. This is the key to early season protection. The plant is full enclosed by the plastic and water and the temperature inside stays nice and toasty, just what the warm season plants like.

The finished teepee

In a few weeks you can expect the plant to start peaking through the top of the teepee. Average day and night temperatures will be warmer and you won't need full enclosure of the plant. At this point, fill each of the tubes to the top with water. The extra water will expand the plastic and create a cylinder with the top open. The plant will be able to grow through. You may need to add water every few days to keep them filled.

You still need to water the plant too, though it shouldn't be as often as other unprotected plants. The plastic teepee will help keep the moisture levels of air and soil higher. Don't assume the plant is doing okay with this protection. Check the condition of the plant and of the soil moisture regularly.

Watering through the top

After all danger of frost is past, at least two or three weeks after the last frost date, it's time to remove the season extender. This can be a little tricky because you have a great deal of water in the tubes and the plant is almost certainly growing out the top. I recommend laying a mulch like straw around the base of the plastic and squeezing the tubes to try and push out as much water as you can. This helps avoid a muddy mess. As carefully as you can, without breaking or injuring the plant, slide the plastic up and over the plant.

With the plastic system off and out of the way, drain the water out and lay it in a place where it can dry out completely. You'll be able to reuse it for years, but you don't want to put it in storage if there is still water in it; mold will definitely develop. If you are impatient and it's not drying quick enough, you can try using a blow dryer on the cool setting to blow air into the tubes.

These season extenders definitely work. In conjunction with a mini-greenhouse hoop system like I showed in my blog, "Extending Your Growing Season with Mini Greenhouses", I think you could plant six to eight weeks early as long as the soil temperature is warm enough when you first plant. Especially in very cold regions with short growing seasons, these extenders will allow you to grow plants you might not be able to grow otherwise.

At a cost of between four and five dollars each, they're affordable and considering that they can be reused for years, you're investing an extra dollar or so on each plant. The extended season that you gain should more than repay that investment with additional produce.

Wall O'Water revolutionized gardening several years ago. The plastic, tubular, plant protection system allows gardeners to plant warm season plants like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants several weeks earlier than usual. With the success of the product, other gardening companies followed suit and there are imitators available. Burpee offers their own product called Aqua-Shield. You can find similar, generic products at home centers and nurseries.

The concept is simple: surround plants with a wall of water that collects sun energy during the day and releases it at night, protecting the plant from cold temperatures. It's like a mini greenhouse with extra insulation.

Wall O'Water advertises that you can plant six to eight weeks early, without fear of freezing. Burpee suggests using Aqui-Shield up to one month early. As efficient a system as it is, I feel more comfortable with the one-month guideline.

You begin by planting your plant normally. Tomatoes prefer a soil temperature of at least 60F degrees. Below 50F degrees and roots won't grow. If your soil hasn't warmed sufficiently, cover the bed with plastic for a few days to help raise the soil temperature.

Plastic warming the soil

After the plant is in the ground, cover it with a five-gallon bucket. This is the support you need for the plastic. Don't try to fill the tubes with water without a bucket in place. You'll make a mess, probably break your plant, and waste a lot of effort.

Covering the plant

Arrange the plastic season extender around the bucket. It doesn't need to be perfect, just try to space it as evenly as you can. Fill each of the tubes about two-thirds full with water. I recommend using a hand-controlled hose nozzle. You can just let the hose run free while you fill the tubes, but it will create a mess. Control is better.

Filling the plastic tubes

With water in each tube, carefully remove the bucket, making sure you don't snag or injure your plant.

Removing the bucket

The tubes will collapse at the top, forming a teepee. This is the key to early season protection. The plant is full enclosed by the plastic and water and the temperature inside stays nice and toasty, just what the warm season plants like.

The finished teepee

In a few weeks you can expect the plant to start peaking through the top of the teepee. Average day and night temperatures will be warmer and you won't need full enclosure of the plant. At this point, fill each of the tubes to the top with water. The extra water will expand the plastic and create a cylinder with the top open. The plant will be able to grow through. You may need to add water every few days to keep them filled.

You still need to water the plant too, though it shouldn't be as often as other unprotected plants. The plastic teepee will help keep the moisture levels of air and soil higher. Don't assume the plant is doing okay with this protection. Check the condition of the plant and of the soil moisture regularly.

Watering through the top

After all danger of frost is past, at least two or three weeks after the last frost date, it's time to remove the season extender. This can be a little tricky because you have a great deal of water in the tubes and the plant is almost certainly growing out the top. I recommend laying a mulch like straw around the base of the plastic and squeezing the tubes to try and push out as much water as you can. This helps avoid a muddy mess. As carefully as you can, without breaking or injuring the plant, slide the plastic up and over the plant.

With the plastic system off and out of the way, drain the water out and lay it in a place where it can dry out completely. You'll be able to reuse it for years, but you don't want to put it in storage if there is still water in it; mold will definitely develop. If you are impatient and it's not drying quick enough, you can try using a blow dryer on the cool setting to blow air into the tubes.

These season extenders definitely work. In conjunction with a mini-greenhouse hoop system like I showed in my blog, "Extending Your Growing Season with Mini Greenhouses", I think you could plant six to eight weeks early as long as the soil temperature is warm enough when you first plant. Especially in very cold regions with short growing seasons, these extenders will allow you to grow plants you might not be able to grow otherwise.

At a cost of between four and five dollars each, they're affordable and considering that they can be reused for years, you're investing an extra dollar or so on each plant. The extended season that you gain should more than repay that investment with additional produce.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Upside Down Tomatoes

Yes, you can grow tomatoes upside down. Based on the claims in the large number of newspaper, magazine, and television ads, you'd think it is the best way to grow tomatoes. I conducted a test last year using methods as scientifically consistent as I could manage. The results ran counter to the advertising claims.

The concept of growing tomatoes upside down is interesting and intriguing. You put a plant in the bottom of a hanging bag, fill the bag with soil, water it, and you have an abundance of disease-free and pest-free tomatoes. Wanting to see if it really worked, I tried it.

An upside down tomato plant

Using two tomato hanging bags, I planted a "Better Boy" tomato plant in one and a "Sweet 100" tomato plant in the other. I also planted the same two varieties, purchased from the same tray in the same store, in a raised bed. The primary difference in the beginning was that the hanging bags were filled with a name brand potting soil that contained some balanced fertilizer, while the raised bed was filled with soil amended with compost and no fertilizer.

The hanging bags after planting

All of the plants were located relatively close to each other and received the same amount of sun and other weather. I watered the plants regularly and similarly. The hanging plants did receive more water because the water tended to drain out faster and the bags dried out sooner.

It was noticeable right away that the hanging plants grew faster, but not bigger than the ones in the raised bed. By the end of the season, the plants in the ground were bigger, bushier, stronger, and bore more fruit.

The hanging plants flowered and set fruit, but in dramatically smaller numbers. For the "Sweet 100" plants (a cherry tomato) I harvested nine tomatoes from the hanging plant and more than sixty from the plant in the ground (there were many more unripe tomatoes on that vine when the first frost hit). For the "Better Boy" plants I harvested four tomatoes from the hanging plant and more than 20 from the plant in ground (it too had many more unripe fruits that were affected by the frost).

Mid-season growth; other tomatoes are on the right

The obvious conclusion is that tomato plants in a raised bed will produce much more fruit than ones grown upside down in a bag. I didn't notice any difference in taste.

To be fair to the makers of the upside down growing system, they don't directly compare their promised results to traditional garden beds. They do say that you can expect bigger and better fruit, but that is a bit vague. They are marketing to people who don't have desire, time, or space to grow in the ground.

Topsy Turvy, the one you see advertised so much, guarantees 50 pounds of tomatoes from their Tomato Tree set that holds multiple plants. That averages out to a little more than 12 pounds of tomatoes per plant, not a lot. If you look closely at their advertising photos you can see that the individual plants only have a dozen or so tomatoes on them when fully grown. I'm used to more than that on my garden plants.

Online reviews from many of the customers of these systems seem to show similar results to those I had. If you plant upside down and expect abundant fruit, you'll probably be disappointed. However if you plant upside down on a deck or patio because you don't have garden beds, then it gives you the chance for tomatoes that you wouldn't have otherwise.

I've tried to analyze the results and have a few conclusions. Though the claims are that the system uses gravity to draw nutrients into the vine and fruit and make them bigger and better while it allows roots to grow up, this is counter to the natural way plants grow. The tomato vines in my upside down planter were still trying to grow "up", using extra energy and distorting the vine, while the roots also tended to grow "down" and not expanding well within the container; this led to fewer flowers and less fruit.

The weight of the fruit put them low while the vines grew up. The foliage was thin and didn't shade it normally. This exposed the fruit to more direct sun and some of them developed sunscald. Sunscald is a white or yellow area on the fruit and can render it inedible. Though growing upside down is supposed to shade the fruit with the additional mass of the growing container, I didn't find that to be the case. The plants in the ground shaded the fruit well.

Exposed fruit

While the hanging tomatoes did have better exposure to air flow and should consequently have fewer fungus and disease issues, there is less heat to blanket the plant. This makes a difference in a region like mine when the nights start to cool off early. Plants in the ground can use the heat of the soil to help moderate night temperatures. Hanging plants cool off faster and late fruit and flowers are less likely to develop in cool conditions. You should expect fruit later into the season with plants in the ground.

Plants in the ground are obviously bigger

The bigger mass of the plants in the raised bed raised the overall temperatures near the plants and that may have helped produce more flowers. I also saw more bee and fly activity near these plants than in the hanging containers. That may also help explain why more fruit developed in the bed.

It was an interesting experiment. I can recommend upside down growing only to gardeners who have no other options. Based on previous experience, I suspect that tomatoes grown in a large pot will grow better than in an upside down bag. If given the choice, plant and grow tomatoes in a raised bed with amended soil. Sure, you may have to stake and tie the vines to keep them from sprawling on the ground (one of Topsy Turvy's negative claims), but that gives you the opportunity to help your tomatoes grow best.
Yes, you can grow tomatoes upside down. Based on the claims in the large number of newspaper, magazine, and television ads, you'd think it is the best way to grow tomatoes. I conducted a test last year using methods as scientifically consistent as I could manage. The results ran counter to the advertising claims.

The concept of growing tomatoes upside down is interesting and intriguing. You put a plant in the bottom of a hanging bag, fill the bag with soil, water it, and you have an abundance of disease-free and pest-free tomatoes. Wanting to see if it really worked, I tried it.

An upside down tomato plant

Using two tomato hanging bags, I planted a "Better Boy" tomato plant in one and a "Sweet 100" tomato plant in the other. I also planted the same two varieties, purchased from the same tray in the same store, in a raised bed. The primary difference in the beginning was that the hanging bags were filled with a name brand potting soil that contained some balanced fertilizer, while the raised bed was filled with soil amended with compost and no fertilizer.

The hanging bags after planting

All of the plants were located relatively close to each other and received the same amount of sun and other weather. I watered the plants regularly and similarly. The hanging plants did receive more water because the water tended to drain out faster and the bags dried out sooner.

It was noticeable right away that the hanging plants grew faster, but not bigger than the ones in the raised bed. By the end of the season, the plants in the ground were bigger, bushier, stronger, and bore more fruit.

The hanging plants flowered and set fruit, but in dramatically smaller numbers. For the "Sweet 100" plants (a cherry tomato) I harvested nine tomatoes from the hanging plant and more than sixty from the plant in the ground (there were many more unripe tomatoes on that vine when the first frost hit). For the "Better Boy" plants I harvested four tomatoes from the hanging plant and more than 20 from the plant in ground (it too had many more unripe fruits that were affected by the frost).

Mid-season growth; other tomatoes are on the right

The obvious conclusion is that tomato plants in a raised bed will produce much more fruit than ones grown upside down in a bag. I didn't notice any difference in taste.

To be fair to the makers of the upside down growing system, they don't directly compare their promised results to traditional garden beds. They do say that you can expect bigger and better fruit, but that is a bit vague. They are marketing to people who don't have desire, time, or space to grow in the ground.

Topsy Turvy, the one you see advertised so much, guarantees 50 pounds of tomatoes from their Tomato Tree set that holds multiple plants. That averages out to a little more than 12 pounds of tomatoes per plant, not a lot. If you look closely at their advertising photos you can see that the individual plants only have a dozen or so tomatoes on them when fully grown. I'm used to more than that on my garden plants.

Online reviews from many of the customers of these systems seem to show similar results to those I had. If you plant upside down and expect abundant fruit, you'll probably be disappointed. However if you plant upside down on a deck or patio because you don't have garden beds, then it gives you the chance for tomatoes that you wouldn't have otherwise.

I've tried to analyze the results and have a few conclusions. Though the claims are that the system uses gravity to draw nutrients into the vine and fruit and make them bigger and better while it allows roots to grow up, this is counter to the natural way plants grow. The tomato vines in my upside down planter were still trying to grow "up", using extra energy and distorting the vine, while the roots also tended to grow "down" and not expanding well within the container; this led to fewer flowers and less fruit.

The weight of the fruit put them low while the vines grew up. The foliage was thin and didn't shade it normally. This exposed the fruit to more direct sun and some of them developed sunscald. Sunscald is a white or yellow area on the fruit and can render it inedible. Though growing upside down is supposed to shade the fruit with the additional mass of the growing container, I didn't find that to be the case. The plants in the ground shaded the fruit well.

Exposed fruit

While the hanging tomatoes did have better exposure to air flow and should consequently have fewer fungus and disease issues, there is less heat to blanket the plant. This makes a difference in a region like mine when the nights start to cool off early. Plants in the ground can use the heat of the soil to help moderate night temperatures. Hanging plants cool off faster and late fruit and flowers are less likely to develop in cool conditions. You should expect fruit later into the season with plants in the ground.

Plants in the ground are obviously bigger

The bigger mass of the plants in the raised bed raised the overall temperatures near the plants and that may have helped produce more flowers. I also saw more bee and fly activity near these plants than in the hanging containers. That may also help explain why more fruit developed in the bed.

It was an interesting experiment. I can recommend upside down growing only to gardeners who have no other options. Based on previous experience, I suspect that tomatoes grown in a large pot will grow better than in an upside down bag. If given the choice, plant and grow tomatoes in a raised bed with amended soil. Sure, you may have to stake and tie the vines to keep them from sprawling on the ground (one of Topsy Turvy's negative claims), but that gives you the opportunity to help your tomatoes grow best.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Hardening Off -- How to Harden Off Your Plants

Young plants are pretty wimpy. They've been coddled since they sprouted from a seed and though they might look tough they're really quite tender. Just like teenagers before they venture away from home, plants need to be hardened off before surviving on their own.

Tomatoes hardening off on an overcast day

Hardening off is providing new plants a chance to acclimate to their future home before actually putting them in the ground. Without hardening off, plants might not be able to handle the rain, wind, sun, and temperature swings that they'll be exposed to. Get them toughened up and they'll be better for it.

The process is pretty simple. Over the course of a week you expose them to the outdoors for a few hours a day and then extend that exposure until they've experienced a full 24-hour period outside. At that point they're ready to transplant.

Hardening off needs to be done for all plants before you place them in soil outside. Plants you buy at the nursery or garden center may look strong and healthy but they started growing in a greenhouse and have been protected their entire lives. If you take them from the comfort of a store or covered growing facility and plop them in your garden bed, it's a bit like you getting off the warm couch on a cold winter night and walking outside barefoot. It's a sudden shock and unpleasant enough to cause important parts to shrivel.

Plants that you started from seed are probably even more coddled. They've had perfect light, temperature and water that you oversaw personally. Transplant them without hardening off and all of your efforts will be wasted. Transplant your seedlings without this effort and they probably won't survive.

Begin hardening off by selecting a protected area outside. A deck or patio near the house, a spot under a tree, or a shady location next to a fence are all good. You want the area to be relatively free from wind and harsh sun. If you can begin on an overcast day, you get bonus points. On that first day put the plants out for just a couple hours. Make sure they're well watered; you don't want them drying out. You're just trying to show the plants what they can expect in the days ahead. After the brief exposure, bring them back inside to the warm, well-lighted area they came from.

For the next couple of days put them in the same protected area and leave them out for a little longer each time, increasing exposure to the sun gradually. By the fourth day you can put them in a spot that isn't so protected and let them soak up most of the late morning and early afternoon sun. Mild wind will help them get stronger. Keep them watered and don't fertilize them.

About day five, start leaving them out all day with exposure to full sun and reduce the amount of water you give them. Start letting the soil dry a little, but don't let it dry out completely. This is really the point that you're telling them to toughen up. Life is going to be hot and dry and they better get used to it.

Take a look at the weather forecast and if the night temperatures will be above freezing and not too windy, plan to leave them out overnight on day six or seven. If they look strong in the morning, they're ready for life in the big outdoors. Don't water them the day that you plan to put them in the ground unless the soil in the pot is bone dry. You want them to be a little parched and ready for water. They'll get that needed drink after you transplant them in their new bed.

If after a week the plants look a little ragged in the morning or if the forecast calls for extreme weather, like hot and windy or cold and snowy, go ahead and continue the hardening off process for a few more days before planting. You don't want their first day in the ground to be too harsh.

The whole process takes about seven to ten days normally. Bigger plants that may have had outside exposure at the nursery or garden shop may require less time to harden off, but you should still do it so they acclimate to your garden. Smaller and more tender plants may need a more gradual hardening off that will take longer. You have to assess the condition of your plants each day and determine if they're ready for extra exposure on the next day.

Young leeks and shallots almost ready to transplant

After hardening off the plants are ready to transplant in their new location. They'll be able to handle sun, wind, and weather right away. They're not invincible though. In the first few days if a sudden freeze or hail storm is in the forecast, cover them with a blanket or plastic cover; they may not be strong enough to survive.

Hardening off is the same for all plants. Annuals and perennials and flowers and vegetables will all benefit from the effort you take on their behalf. It can be a lot of work if you have a lot of plants, but it's necessary. Scrimping on hardening off may keep your plant from growing up to its potential.
Young plants are pretty wimpy. They've been coddled since they sprouted from a seed and though they might look tough they're really quite tender. Just like teenagers before they venture away from home, plants need to be hardened off before surviving on their own.

Tomatoes hardening off on an overcast day

Hardening off is providing new plants a chance to acclimate to their future home before actually putting them in the ground. Without hardening off, plants might not be able to handle the rain, wind, sun, and temperature swings that they'll be exposed to. Get them toughened up and they'll be better for it.

The process is pretty simple. Over the course of a week you expose them to the outdoors for a few hours a day and then extend that exposure until they've experienced a full 24-hour period outside. At that point they're ready to transplant.

Hardening off needs to be done for all plants before you place them in soil outside. Plants you buy at the nursery or garden center may look strong and healthy but they started growing in a greenhouse and have been protected their entire lives. If you take them from the comfort of a store or covered growing facility and plop them in your garden bed, it's a bit like you getting off the warm couch on a cold winter night and walking outside barefoot. It's a sudden shock and unpleasant enough to cause important parts to shrivel.

Plants that you started from seed are probably even more coddled. They've had perfect light, temperature and water that you oversaw personally. Transplant them without hardening off and all of your efforts will be wasted. Transplant your seedlings without this effort and they probably won't survive.

Begin hardening off by selecting a protected area outside. A deck or patio near the house, a spot under a tree, or a shady location next to a fence are all good. You want the area to be relatively free from wind and harsh sun. If you can begin on an overcast day, you get bonus points. On that first day put the plants out for just a couple hours. Make sure they're well watered; you don't want them drying out. You're just trying to show the plants what they can expect in the days ahead. After the brief exposure, bring them back inside to the warm, well-lighted area they came from.

For the next couple of days put them in the same protected area and leave them out for a little longer each time, increasing exposure to the sun gradually. By the fourth day you can put them in a spot that isn't so protected and let them soak up most of the late morning and early afternoon sun. Mild wind will help them get stronger. Keep them watered and don't fertilize them.

About day five, start leaving them out all day with exposure to full sun and reduce the amount of water you give them. Start letting the soil dry a little, but don't let it dry out completely. This is really the point that you're telling them to toughen up. Life is going to be hot and dry and they better get used to it.

Take a look at the weather forecast and if the night temperatures will be above freezing and not too windy, plan to leave them out overnight on day six or seven. If they look strong in the morning, they're ready for life in the big outdoors. Don't water them the day that you plan to put them in the ground unless the soil in the pot is bone dry. You want them to be a little parched and ready for water. They'll get that needed drink after you transplant them in their new bed.

If after a week the plants look a little ragged in the morning or if the forecast calls for extreme weather, like hot and windy or cold and snowy, go ahead and continue the hardening off process for a few more days before planting. You don't want their first day in the ground to be too harsh.

The whole process takes about seven to ten days normally. Bigger plants that may have had outside exposure at the nursery or garden shop may require less time to harden off, but you should still do it so they acclimate to your garden. Smaller and more tender plants may need a more gradual hardening off that will take longer. You have to assess the condition of your plants each day and determine if they're ready for extra exposure on the next day.

Young leeks and shallots almost ready to transplant

After hardening off the plants are ready to transplant in their new location. They'll be able to handle sun, wind, and weather right away. They're not invincible though. In the first few days if a sudden freeze or hail storm is in the forecast, cover them with a blanket or plastic cover; they may not be strong enough to survive.

Hardening off is the same for all plants. Annuals and perennials and flowers and vegetables will all benefit from the effort you take on their behalf. It can be a lot of work if you have a lot of plants, but it's necessary. Scrimping on hardening off may keep your plant from growing up to its potential.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Using Seed Tapes

Seed tapes are strips of paper that have seeds embedded along their length at specific spacing, appropriate for precise planting. You can buy them in many gardening or seed catalogs and at many nurseries. Because the seeds are neatly laid out on the paper strip, all you have to do is place the tape in a furrow, cover it with soil, and water it like any other seed. It's an easy way to ensure your seeds go where you want them, with the spacing they require, and at a consistent depth.

Seed tapes are wonderful for plants that have specific planting distance requirements like beets, carrots, radishes, and onions. Planted and grown too close together, these vegetables can become stunted or misshapen. They're great for plants like lettuce, spinach, and chard that also have spacing needs. Seed tapes are designed to provide the necessary spacing with no need for thinning.

One of my favorite catalogs, Gardener's Supply Company, offers a number of effort-saving gardening tools and supplies. They sell three, five-and-a-half-feet long seed tapes for about five dollars (US). That's enough to plant two rows in a typical eight-feet-long planting bed. Assuming an average spacing of about three inches per seed, you should get about 70 plants per package. However, the selection of seed varieties is limited to just a few types.

If you're willing to spend the time and effort, you can make your own seed tape for a fraction of the cost, using recycled newspaper. You won't be limited by seed variety; you can choose any seed you like. And you can make them any length you desire.

Begin by cutting sheets of newspaper into strips about one-inch wide. The strips will be about two-feet long. You can use them at this length or paste or tape them together into longer strips like the ones that Gardener's Supply Company sells.

Take a tablespoon or two of white flour and mix it with an equal amount of water to make a smooth paste. Consistency isn't important; you just don't want it to be runny.










Using a toothpick, chopstick or similar-sized utensil, place small drops of the paste at regular intervals along the newspaper strip. The spacing you choose is dependent on the seed you've chosen. Check the seed packet for proper spacing.


Carefully drop a seed into each drop of paste. You can use the toothpick or utensil to gently push on the seed to embed it in the paste.


Label the strip so you know what seeds are on it. You can do this step before you place the paste if you want.


Set the strip in a location where it can dry for an hour or two without being disturbed.


When you're ready to plant, dig a furrow of the correct planting depth as stated on the seed packet and lay the strip in it. It isn't critical whether the newspaper is on the bottom or top because it won't hinder the growth of the seed when it's wet. I place it with the newspaper side down. Cover the strip with the appropriate depth of soil.


That's all there is to it. You now have a neat row of seeds ready to germinate and burst forth.

You can save a great deal of money by making seed tapes yourself. I purchased 250 beet seeds for $2.25, for an average cost of less than a penny per seed. The recycled newspaper and flour paste adds a few pennies to the overall project. Spacing them at three-inch intervals on a homemade seed tape, I can produce over 60 feet of beet seed tape for just over two dollars total cost. An equivalent length when purchased would be over $20.

Using seed tapes can be a good idea for very small seeds. When you sow on open soil, it can be difficult to see where the seeds land; you may miss the furrow completely. It can be tough getting the spacing right, so open sowing often requires using a lot of seeds and then thinning the plants because they end up too close together. Using seed tapes allows you to see exactly where the seeds are planted and ensures you have proper spacing, thereby limiting wasted seeds.

You usually don't need seed tapes for large seeds like squash, melon, and corn. For plants with large spacing requirements like tomatoes, cucumbers, or peppers, seed tapes aren't necessary either.

Seed tapes can be very useful for mid-season and successive planting without disturbing plants already in the ground. You can place a length of seed tape in between rows of other plants during the summer. As the initial plants are harvested, the new ones from the tape are beginning their growth. Many cool season seeds are planted at intervals so you have continuous harvest later on. Placing a new seed tape of radishes or lettuce at two-week intervals can give you a steady harvest with little effort.

If you haven't used seed tapes before, think about adding them to your bag of tricks. You can buy them or make them. Either way, they are a perfect, no-waste method of sowing seeds.
Seed tapes are strips of paper that have seeds embedded along their length at specific spacing, appropriate for precise planting. You can buy them in many gardening or seed catalogs and at many nurseries. Because the seeds are neatly laid out on the paper strip, all you have to do is place the tape in a furrow, cover it with soil, and water it like any other seed. It's an easy way to ensure your seeds go where you want them, with the spacing they require, and at a consistent depth.

Seed tapes are wonderful for plants that have specific planting distance requirements like beets, carrots, radishes, and onions. Planted and grown too close together, these vegetables can become stunted or misshapen. They're great for plants like lettuce, spinach, and chard that also have spacing needs. Seed tapes are designed to provide the necessary spacing with no need for thinning.

One of my favorite catalogs,
Gardener's Supply Company, offers a number of effort-saving gardening tools and supplies. They sell three, five-and-a-half-feet long seed tapes for about five dollars (US). That's enough to plant two rows in a typical eight-feet-long planting bed. Assuming an average spacing of about three inches per seed, you should get about 70 plants per package. However, the selection of seed varieties is limited to just a few types.

If you're willing to spend the time and effort, you can make your own seed tape for a fraction of the cost, using recycled newspaper. You won't be limited by seed variety; you can choose any seed you like. And you can make them any length you desire.

Begin by cutting sheets of newspaper into strips about one-inch wide. The strips will be about two-feet long. You can use them at this length or paste or tape them together into longer strips like the ones that Gardener's Supply Company sells.

Take a tablespoon or two of white flour and mix it with an equal amount of water to make a smooth paste. Consistency isn't important; you just don't want it to be runny.










Using a toothpick, chopstick or similar-sized utensil, place small drops of the paste at regular intervals along the newspaper strip. The spacing you choose is dependent on the seed you've chosen. Check the seed packet for proper spacing.


Carefully drop a seed into each drop of paste. You can use the toothpick or utensil to gently push on the seed to embed it in the paste.


Label the strip so you know what seeds are on it. You can do this step before you place the paste if you want.


Set the strip in a location where it can dry for an hour or two without being disturbed.


When you're ready to plant, dig a furrow of the correct planting depth as stated on the seed packet and lay the strip in it. It isn't critical whether the newspaper is on the bottom or top because it won't hinder the growth of the seed when it's wet. I place it with the newspaper side down. Cover the strip with the appropriate depth of soil.


That's all there is to it. You now have a neat row of seeds ready to germinate and burst forth.

You can save a great deal of money by making seed tapes yourself. I purchased 250 beet seeds for $2.25, for an average cost of less than a penny per seed. The recycled newspaper and flour paste adds a few pennies to the overall project. Spacing them at three-inch intervals on a homemade seed tape, I can produce over 60 feet of beet seed tape for just over two dollars total cost. An equivalent length when purchased would be over $20.

Using seed tapes can be a good idea for very small seeds. When you sow on open soil, it can be difficult to see where the seeds land; you may miss the furrow completely. It can be tough getting the spacing right, so open sowing often requires using a lot of seeds and then thinning the plants because they end up too close together. Using seed tapes allows you to see exactly where the seeds are planted and ensures you have proper spacing, thereby limiting wasted seeds.

You usually don't need seed tapes for large seeds like squash, melon, and corn. For plants with large spacing requirements like tomatoes, cucumbers, or peppers, seed tapes aren't necessary either.

Seed tapes can be very useful for mid-season and successive planting without disturbing plants already in the ground. You can place a length of seed tape in between rows of other plants during the summer. As the initial plants are harvested, the new ones from the tape are beginning their growth. Many cool season seeds are planted at intervals so you have continuous harvest later on. Placing a new seed tape of radishes or lettuce at two-week intervals can give you a steady harvest with little effort.

If you haven't used seed tapes before, think about adding them to your bag of tricks. You can buy them or make them. Either way, they are a perfect, no-waste method of sowing seeds.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

You Don't Need a Green Thumb

Most successful gardeners don't have a green thumb, literally or figuratively. Many people have commented on my "obvious" emerald appendage when seeing my gardens or photos of my gardens. It's not false humility when I diplomatically decline the compliment. It's a realistic assessment and I'm being honest when I reply that they could do it too.

A successful garden

Successful gardening isn't about genetics, or luck, or innate talent. Successful gardening is about knowledge, effort, and perseverance.

I've killed many, many plants over the years. The large majority were unintentional. If I truly had a green thumb there wouldn't be so many vegetative ghosts in my garden. The deaths were caused primarily by my lack of information, lack of work, or lack of patience.

Even after months of study and tests to become a master gardener I still occasionally make mistakes and my plants suffer for it. To my credit, I've had many successes since I learned about what it takes to grow plants properly. Since becoming knowledgeable about gardening, the death rate in my garden has declined dramatically.

The basics growing plants are simple. Garden plants need soil, light, water, air, and nutrients. How strong they grow is determined by the quality of each of those components. Water and fertilizer in abundance won't help a plant in bad soil, just as they won't help a plant living in darkness. Perfect soil is useless without water, air, and sun. Successful gardening happens when the gardener is able to provide the correct balance.

Left to themselves, most garden plants would perish. Native plants in every region have adapted to survive without any intervention by man, but few plants in a typical garden are native. Your plants need your assistance. If you supply them with the aid they require, they'll reward you and themselves with sustained growth, flowers, and fruit. Pay too little attention or effort and they'll suffer.

Those are the first two components of successful gardening: knowledge and effort. You have complete control over gaining the information you need to garden in your area and spending the time to make it happen. Selecting the correct plant, putting it in the correct location, and giving it the correct attention happens because you find out about the specific needs and then make it happen.

The successful garden five years before

Even when you seem to do everything right, you still may not have gardening success. That's where perseverance comes in. It's the old axiom about try, try again. Successful gardeners identify deficiencies and overcome obstacles. If a plant fails one year, it doesn't mean it will fail the next. Abundant harvest one season does not guarantee abundance the next. It's all about keeping at it, gardening for the enjoyment of gardening.

That's all there is to it. Successful gardening is simple. Not easy, but simple. I'm still learning new things about gardening so that I can continue to have success with it. I spend time planting, fertilizing, weeding, harvesting, and propagating. I try new things. And I keep at it even when things don't turn out as planned. Gardening always offers new challenges. That's one of the reasons I love it.
Most successful gardeners don't have a green thumb, literally or figuratively. Many people have commented on my "obvious" emerald appendage when seeing my gardens or photos of my gardens. It's not false humility when I diplomatically decline the compliment. It's a realistic assessment and I'm being honest when I reply that they could do it too.

A successful garden

Successful gardening isn't about genetics, or luck, or innate talent. Successful gardening is about knowledge, effort, and perseverance.

I've killed many, many plants over the years. The large majority were unintentional. If I truly had a green thumb there wouldn't be so many vegetative ghosts in my garden. The deaths were caused primarily by my lack of information, lack of work, or lack of patience.

Even after months of study and tests to become a master gardener I still occasionally make mistakes and my plants suffer for it. To my credit, I've had many successes since I learned about what it takes to grow plants properly. Since becoming knowledgeable about gardening, the death rate in my garden has declined dramatically.

The basics growing plants are simple. Garden plants need soil, light, water, air, and nutrients. How strong they grow is determined by the quality of each of those components. Water and fertilizer in abundance won't help a plant in bad soil, just as they won't help a plant living in darkness. Perfect soil is useless without water, air, and sun. Successful gardening happens when the gardener is able to provide the correct balance.

Left to themselves, most garden plants would perish. Native plants in every region have adapted to survive without any intervention by man, but few plants in a typical garden are native. Your plants need your assistance. If you supply them with the aid they require, they'll reward you and themselves with sustained growth, flowers, and fruit. Pay too little attention or effort and they'll suffer.

Those are the first two components of successful gardening: knowledge and effort. You have complete control over gaining the information you need to garden in your area and spending the time to make it happen. Selecting the correct plant, putting it in the correct location, and giving it the correct attention happens because you find out about the specific needs and then make it happen.

The successful garden five years before

Even when you seem to do everything right, you still may not have gardening success. That's where perseverance comes in. It's the old axiom about try, try again. Successful gardeners identify deficiencies and overcome obstacles. If a plant fails one year, it doesn't mean it will fail the next. Abundant harvest one season does not guarantee abundance the next. It's all about keeping at it, gardening for the enjoyment of gardening.

That's all there is to it. Successful gardening is simple. Not easy, but simple. I'm still learning new things about gardening so that I can continue to have success with it. I spend time planting, fertilizing, weeding, harvesting, and propagating. I try new things. And I keep at it even when things don't turn out as planned. Gardening always offers new challenges. That's one of the reasons I love it.