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Friday, October 11, 2013

When to Plant Bulbs in Fall

Though they bloom in spring, flower bulbs that are planted in fall are known as "fall bulbs". Popular spring-flowering plants like daffodils, tulips, crocus, and hyacinth are fall bulbs. Allium, scilla, anemones, and Asiatic lilies are planted in fall too. With a seasonal range of three months, when to plant fall bulbs is a question many gardeners struggle with.

Daffodils are a welcome sign in spring

Timely fall planting allows roots to develop before the ground freezes and prepares the plant for quick spring growth and flowering. If you plant too early the bulbs may use critical energy reserves and can begin to send up new shoots, exposing the young growth to winter kill. Prolonged exposure to warm, moist soil may promote fungal problems and rot. Plant too late and root growth may not be enough for the plant to flower properly.

To flower in spring, fall bulbs require exposure to cold temperatures. This chilling period triggers them to break dormancy when temperatures warm in spring. It's all about planting early and warm enough for the bulbs to begin developing, but late enough for them to stop developing shortly after to start soaking in the cold.

Tulip bulbs need to be planted in fall

There is no single right time for all gardeners. The proper time for planting fall bulbs may be September in Wyoming or North Dakota, October in Colorado or Kansas, November in Oregon or Nevada, and December in Virginia or North Carolina. Gardeners need to find out what's right for their individual gardens; one-size-fits-all advice from gardening books or magazines may lead to incorrect guidance.

Cooler soil temperatures are a primary indicator for proper planting time.  Ideally, soil temperature needs to be below 60F; a temperature of 55F degrees is perfect. The problem for the average gardener is that few gardens come with soil thermometers. As a guideline, soil temperatures usually cool to this target after a few weeks of nighttime temperatures regularly between 40 and 50.

There are also natural indicators that some gardeners use:

Plant just after fall foliage peaks
Plant when you no longer hear crickets at night
Plant when you see flocks of birds heading south
Plant when you regularly need a jacket to work in your garden
Plant the week after you smell your neighbor's fireplace for the first time
Plant when you have to turn your car heater on in the morning
Plant when your dog moves from the shade to the sun
Plant when your grapes are ripe
Plant on Columbus Day, Halloween, Veteran's Day, or Thanksgiving (depending on your zone)
Plant garlic on the first day of school
Plant after you blow out your lawn sprinklers

These suggestions are very unscientific and rely on local conditions that may not match your climate. But if you find a natural indicator that works for you, use it.

Some gardening experts recommend planting bulbs six weeks before a hard, ground-freezing frost. That's a little too hard to predict for many regions. If unseasonal warm weather lingers, bulbs may end up waiting in the ground for the cold to arrive for two months or more. That's much too early.

Planting within a few days of your average first frost date is a good guideline. That's what I typically use. The average first frost date means that historically half of first frosts occur before that date and half occur after. For me, that's the first week of October. By that time cool nights have cooled the soil but there are still enough warm days ahead to keep the soil warm enough for root development.

Check with local gardening experts for recommendations on planting fall bulbs. Diane Brunjes, Certified Colorado Gardener and the gardener for the Horticultural Art Society of Colorado Springs, recommends October planting versus September for our area too. In our climate, "It's too warm early in the season," she says. She's right.

A little too late is usually better than a little too early. There is a four to six-week target window for planting bulbs, but as long as you can still work in the soil it's probably not too late. Crocus, scilla, and snow drops do better planted earlier. Daffodils, hyacinth, and tulips can handle late planting. In fact, tulips can be planted in frozen ground and will probably still do fine.

Irises aren't true bulbs and do best planted in late summer or early fall

If you miss the ideal planting time and still have bulbs you purchased, plant them anyway. Most bulbs will dry out and be worthless if left to sit in their bag over the winter. They stand a chance of growing while in the ground. Plant them and hope for the best; you may be surprised by the results.

If you're still wondering when to plant your bulbs take a look around your garden. When you walk outside at night are you cold without a jacket? Have your pepper and tomato plants withered from frost? Are your raspberries fruiting? Are mum flowers drying on the plant? These are all signs that the season is changing and winter is coming. Don't delay too long. It may be the perfect time to put those bulbs in the ground.

“The simple answer is that bulb planting season starts once your soil temperature reaches about 55 degrees Fahrenheit,” says Tim Schipper of Colorblends, a Connecticut-based flower bulb wholesaler that sells direct to landcare professionals and home gardeners across the country.
“The problem is, who knows what their soil temperature is?” he adds.
Schipper knows that nature provides other indicators that tell us when conditions are just right for bulb planting. To him, fall planting season begins when nighttime temperatures average between 40°F and 50°F.
He recently asked his customers to share their own “natural guidelines.” Here are a few of their tips for knowing when it’s time to plant bulbs:
•    Fall foliage has moved just past peak
•    Crickets no longer chirp
•    Squirrels are digging in acorns as fast as they can
•    Birds start to group and depart
•    You start turning on the heat in your car
•    The air smells of wood smoke
•    Grapes are ripening on the vine
•    You blow out the irrigation system before the winter freeze
•    The hostas start to lie down
•    The air has that organic, decaying leaf smell
•    The dog moves from a cool to a sunny spot in the yard
•    The kids start putting on their jackets without being nagged by you
“Of course life doesn’t always go on schedule,” admits Schipper. “Though it’s not great to plant too early, you can usually get away with planting a bit late. Once soil temperature reaches the optimal level, you still have a six to eight week window to get bulbs in the ground before it freezes hard. So whether you forgot to order, or decide you want more, it’s generally not too late to buy and plant if you can still work the soil.”
- See more at: http://www.hortmag.com/weekly-tips/how-to-know-when-it-is-time-to-plant-bulbs?et_mid=639548&rid=236992853#sthash.VMChhMHB.dpuf

“The simple answer is that bulb planting season starts once your soil temperature reaches about 55 degrees Fahrenheit,” says Tim Schipper of Colorblends, a Connecticut-based flower bulb wholesaler that sells direct to landcare professionals and home gardeners across the country.
“The problem is, who knows what their soil temperature is?” he adds.
Schipper knows that nature provides other indicators that tell us when conditions are just right for bulb planting. To him, fall planting season begins when nighttime temperatures average between 40°F and 50°F.
He recently asked his customers to share their own “natural guidelines.” Here are a few of their tips for knowing when it’s time to plant bulbs:
•    Fall foliage has moved just past peak
•    Crickets no longer chirp
•    Squirrels are digging in acorns as fast as they can
•    Birds start to group and depart
•    You start turning on the heat in your car
•    The air smells of wood smoke
•    Grapes are ripening on the vine
•    You blow out the irrigation system before the winter freeze
•    The hostas start to lie down
•    The air has that organic, decaying leaf smell
•    The dog moves from a cool to a sunny spot in the yard
•    The kids start putting on their jackets without being nagged by you
“Of course life doesn’t always go on schedule,” admits Schipper. “Though it’s not great to plant too early, you can usually get away with planting a bit late. Once soil temperature reaches the optimal level, you still have a six to eight week window to get bulbs in the ground before it freezes hard. So whether you forgot to order, or decide you want more, it’s generally not too late to buy and plant if you can still work the soil.”
- See more at: http://www.hortmag.com/weekly-tips/how-to-know-when-it-is-time-to-plant-bulbs?et_mid=639548&rid=236992853#sthash.VMChhMHB.dpuf
“The simple answer is that bulb planting season starts once your soil temperature reaches about 55 degrees Fahrenheit,” says Tim Schipper of Colorblends, a Connecticut-based flower bulb wholesaler that sells direct to landcare professionals and home gardeners across the country.
“The problem is, who knows what their soil temperature is?” he adds.
Schipper knows that nature provides other indicators that tell us when conditions are just right for bulb planting. To him, fall planting season begins when nighttime temperatures average between 40°F and 50°F.
He recently asked his customers to share their own “natural guidelines.” Here are a few of their tips for knowing when it’s time to plant bulbs:
•    Fall foliage has moved just past peak
•    Crickets no longer chirp
•    Squirrels are digging in acorns as fast as they can
•    Birds start to group and depart
•    You start turning on the heat in your car
•    The air smells of wood smoke
•    Grapes are ripening on the vine
•    You blow out the irrigation system before the winter freeze
•    The hostas start to lie down
•    The air has that organic, decaying leaf smell
•    The dog moves from a cool to a sunny spot in the yard
•    The kids start putting on their jackets without being nagged by you
“Of course life doesn’t always go on schedule,” admits Schipper. “Though it’s not great to plant too early, you can usually get away with planting a bit late. Once soil temperature reaches the optimal level, you still have a six to eight week window to get bulbs in the ground before it freezes hard. So whether you forgot to order, or decide you want more, it’s generally not too late to buy and plant if you can still work the soil.”
- See more at: http://www.hortmag.com/weekly-tips/how-to-know-when-it-is-time-to-plant-bulbs?et_mid=639548&rid=236992853#sthash.VMChhMHB.dpuf
Though they bloom in spring, flower bulbs that are planted in fall are known as "fall bulbs". Popular spring-flowering plants like daffodils, tulips, crocus, and hyacinth are fall bulbs. Allium, scilla, anemones, and Asiatic lilies are planted in fall too. With a seasonal range of three months, when to plant fall bulbs is a question many gardeners struggle with.

Daffodils are a welcome sign in spring

Timely fall planting allows roots to develop before the ground freezes and prepares the plant for quick spring growth and flowering. If you plant too early the bulbs may use critical energy reserves and can begin to send up new shoots, exposing the young growth to winter kill. Prolonged exposure to warm, moist soil may promote fungal problems and rot. Plant too late and root growth may not be enough for the plant to flower properly.

To flower in spring, fall bulbs require exposure to cold temperatures. This chilling period triggers them to break dormancy when temperatures warm in spring. It's all about planting early and warm enough for the bulbs to begin developing, but late enough for them to stop developing shortly after to start soaking in the cold.

Tulip bulbs need to be planted in fall

There is no single right time for all gardeners. The proper time for planting fall bulbs may be September in Wyoming or North Dakota, October in Colorado or Kansas, November in Oregon or Nevada, and December in Virginia or North Carolina. Gardeners need to find out what's right for their individual gardens; one-size-fits-all advice from gardening books or magazines may lead to incorrect guidance.

Cooler soil temperatures are a primary indicator for proper planting time.  Ideally, soil temperature needs to be below 60F; a temperature of 55F degrees is perfect. The problem for the average gardener is that few gardens come with soil thermometers. As a guideline, soil temperatures usually cool to this target after a few weeks of nighttime temperatures regularly between 40 and 50.

There are also natural indicators that some gardeners use:

Plant just after fall foliage peaks
Plant when you no longer hear crickets at night
Plant when you see flocks of birds heading south
Plant when you regularly need a jacket to work in your garden
Plant the week after you smell your neighbor's fireplace for the first time
Plant when you have to turn your car heater on in the morning
Plant when your dog moves from the shade to the sun
Plant when your grapes are ripe
Plant on Columbus Day, Halloween, Veteran's Day, or Thanksgiving (depending on your zone)
Plant garlic on the first day of school
Plant after you blow out your lawn sprinklers

These suggestions are very unscientific and rely on local conditions that may not match your climate. But if you find a natural indicator that works for you, use it.

Some gardening experts recommend planting bulbs six weeks before a hard, ground-freezing frost. That's a little too hard to predict for many regions. If unseasonal warm weather lingers, bulbs may end up waiting in the ground for the cold to arrive for two months or more. That's much too early.

Planting within a few days of your average first frost date is a good guideline. That's what I typically use. The average first frost date means that historically half of first frosts occur before that date and half occur after. For me, that's the first week of October. By that time cool nights have cooled the soil but there are still enough warm days ahead to keep the soil warm enough for root development.

Check with local gardening experts for recommendations on planting fall bulbs. Diane Brunjes, Certified Colorado Gardener and the gardener for the Horticultural Art Society of Colorado Springs, recommends October planting versus September for our area too. In our climate, "It's too warm early in the season," she says. She's right.

A little too late is usually better than a little too early. There is a four to six-week target window for planting bulbs, but as long as you can still work in the soil it's probably not too late. Crocus, scilla, and snow drops do better planted earlier. Daffodils, hyacinth, and tulips can handle late planting. In fact, tulips can be planted in frozen ground and will probably still do fine.

Irises aren't true bulbs and do best planted in late summer or early fall

If you miss the ideal planting time and still have bulbs you purchased, plant them anyway. Most bulbs will dry out and be worthless if left to sit in their bag over the winter. They stand a chance of growing while in the ground. Plant them and hope for the best; you may be surprised by the results.

If you're still wondering when to plant your bulbs take a look around your garden. When you walk outside at night are you cold without a jacket? Have your pepper and tomato plants withered from frost? Are your raspberries fruiting? Are mum flowers drying on the plant? These are all signs that the season is changing and winter is coming. Don't delay too long. It may be the perfect time to put those bulbs in the ground.

“The simple answer is that bulb planting season starts once your soil temperature reaches about 55 degrees Fahrenheit,” says Tim Schipper of Colorblends, a Connecticut-based flower bulb wholesaler that sells direct to landcare professionals and home gardeners across the country.
“The problem is, who knows what their soil temperature is?” he adds.
Schipper knows that nature provides other indicators that tell us when conditions are just right for bulb planting. To him, fall planting season begins when nighttime temperatures average between 40°F and 50°F.
He recently asked his customers to share their own “natural guidelines.” Here are a few of their tips for knowing when it’s time to plant bulbs:
•    Fall foliage has moved just past peak
•    Crickets no longer chirp
•    Squirrels are digging in acorns as fast as they can
•    Birds start to group and depart
•    You start turning on the heat in your car
•    The air smells of wood smoke
•    Grapes are ripening on the vine
•    You blow out the irrigation system before the winter freeze
•    The hostas start to lie down
•    The air has that organic, decaying leaf smell
•    The dog moves from a cool to a sunny spot in the yard
•    The kids start putting on their jackets without being nagged by you
“Of course life doesn’t always go on schedule,” admits Schipper. “Though it’s not great to plant too early, you can usually get away with planting a bit late. Once soil temperature reaches the optimal level, you still have a six to eight week window to get bulbs in the ground before it freezes hard. So whether you forgot to order, or decide you want more, it’s generally not too late to buy and plant if you can still work the soil.”
- See more at: http://www.hortmag.com/weekly-tips/how-to-know-when-it-is-time-to-plant-bulbs?et_mid=639548&rid=236992853#sthash.VMChhMHB.dpuf

“The simple answer is that bulb planting season starts once your soil temperature reaches about 55 degrees Fahrenheit,” says Tim Schipper of Colorblends, a Connecticut-based flower bulb wholesaler that sells direct to landcare professionals and home gardeners across the country.
“The problem is, who knows what their soil temperature is?” he adds.
Schipper knows that nature provides other indicators that tell us when conditions are just right for bulb planting. To him, fall planting season begins when nighttime temperatures average between 40°F and 50°F.
He recently asked his customers to share their own “natural guidelines.” Here are a few of their tips for knowing when it’s time to plant bulbs:
•    Fall foliage has moved just past peak
•    Crickets no longer chirp
•    Squirrels are digging in acorns as fast as they can
•    Birds start to group and depart
•    You start turning on the heat in your car
•    The air smells of wood smoke
•    Grapes are ripening on the vine
•    You blow out the irrigation system before the winter freeze
•    The hostas start to lie down
•    The air has that organic, decaying leaf smell
•    The dog moves from a cool to a sunny spot in the yard
•    The kids start putting on their jackets without being nagged by you
“Of course life doesn’t always go on schedule,” admits Schipper. “Though it’s not great to plant too early, you can usually get away with planting a bit late. Once soil temperature reaches the optimal level, you still have a six to eight week window to get bulbs in the ground before it freezes hard. So whether you forgot to order, or decide you want more, it’s generally not too late to buy and plant if you can still work the soil.”
- See more at: http://www.hortmag.com/weekly-tips/how-to-know-when-it-is-time-to-plant-bulbs?et_mid=639548&rid=236992853#sthash.VMChhMHB.dpuf
“The simple answer is that bulb planting season starts once your soil temperature reaches about 55 degrees Fahrenheit,” says Tim Schipper of Colorblends, a Connecticut-based flower bulb wholesaler that sells direct to landcare professionals and home gardeners across the country.
“The problem is, who knows what their soil temperature is?” he adds.
Schipper knows that nature provides other indicators that tell us when conditions are just right for bulb planting. To him, fall planting season begins when nighttime temperatures average between 40°F and 50°F.
He recently asked his customers to share their own “natural guidelines.” Here are a few of their tips for knowing when it’s time to plant bulbs:
•    Fall foliage has moved just past peak
•    Crickets no longer chirp
•    Squirrels are digging in acorns as fast as they can
•    Birds start to group and depart
•    You start turning on the heat in your car
•    The air smells of wood smoke
•    Grapes are ripening on the vine
•    You blow out the irrigation system before the winter freeze
•    The hostas start to lie down
•    The air has that organic, decaying leaf smell
•    The dog moves from a cool to a sunny spot in the yard
•    The kids start putting on their jackets without being nagged by you
“Of course life doesn’t always go on schedule,” admits Schipper. “Though it’s not great to plant too early, you can usually get away with planting a bit late. Once soil temperature reaches the optimal level, you still have a six to eight week window to get bulbs in the ground before it freezes hard. So whether you forgot to order, or decide you want more, it’s generally not too late to buy and plant if you can still work the soil.”
- See more at: http://www.hortmag.com/weekly-tips/how-to-know-when-it-is-time-to-plant-bulbs?et_mid=639548&rid=236992853#sthash.VMChhMHB.dpuf

Friday, August 23, 2013

Understanding AHS Plant Heat Zones

What are AHS Plant Heat Zones? They're the counterpart to USDA Plant Hardiness Zones. USDA Plant Hardiness Zones are based on average cold temperatures of winter and the AHS Plant Heat Zones are based on average hot temperatures of summer. Hardiness Zones help gardeners determine if a plant can survive their region's winter extreme temperatures while Heat Zones help determine if a plant can survive their summer extreme temperatures.

The American Horticultural Society coordinated with the same people who helped develop the USDA Hardiness Zone map to develop a Heat Zone map based on temperature data from the National Climactic Data Center. Daily high temperatures from National Weather Service stations throughout the United States were compiled for the years 1974 through  1995. In 1997 they produced a national map representing their findings.

The result is a map that color codes the country into 12 zones that indicate the average number of days when the temperature is above 86F degrees (30C). These are "heat days". Zone 1 has an average of less than one day per year above 86 degrees while Zone 12 has an average of more than 210 days above 86 degrees.

Why 86F (30C) degrees? That is the point that many plants begin to experience distress and potential damage from sustained heat. Above this point plants can drop blossoms, drop leaves, fade in color, reduce fruit development, and possibly die. Some plants won't die right away but will be stressed for so long that each year they perform less productively than the year before.

Many plants will wilt in heat, but will recover once temperatures fall. Sustained heat can have a serious physiological impact on some plants and triggers a lingering decline to ultimate death. Knowing how a plant will handle hot days is the reason for the AHS Heat Zone Map.

Most gardeners are familiar with the USDA Hardiness Zone system and look for the number on a plant tag when selecting new plantings. I live in Zone 5 and always make sure new perennial plants are at least hardy down to -20F degrees that the zone represents. I prefer plants hardy to Zone 4 for the occasional extremely low temperatures we get that approach -30F in winter.

I'm in AHS Plant Heat Zone 5. That represents 30 to 45 days above 86F degrees. I prefer to select plants for at least Zone 6 for the recent hot summers we've had; Zone 6 allows for 45 to 60 days above 86F. This year we're definitely encroaching on Zone 6 heat days.

Plant growers and distributors that include AHS Plant Heat Zones on tags will list both zone ranges. You'll now find a listing like "3-9, 6-1". That means the plant is suitable for USDA Hardiness Zones 3 through 9 and is suitable for AHS Heat Zones 6 through 1. Many plant catalogs are also including this information in their plant descriptions.

For me, an ideal plant would be something like "4-9, 7-1". That means it can handle the cold of the Hardiness Zone 4 and the heat of Heat Zone 7. My garden is well within both ranges and the plant should do well.

There are some limitations with the AHS Heat Zone map. Because it is relatively new and unknown, there aren't many resources available to make it easy for you to identify your zone. You have to try and determine exactly where your city falls within the zones on the national map. Apparently the AHS had a tool for determining exact locations, but the zone finder application is nowhere to be found now. I haven't been able to find any other source for finding Heat Zones by zip code like the USDA map has.

You can look at the map at: http://www.ahs.org/gardening-resources/gardening-maps/heat-zone-map

At gardening resources.com I found a breakdown of the Heat Zones by state, which was a little easier to read. You can find it here: http://www.gardeningplaces.com/heatzonemap/

Over 15,000 plants have been coded for heat tolerance. As more plants are coded and more companies begin listing both USDA and AHS zones on plant information, you can expect more gardeners to become familiar and comfortable with the conversion to a two-zone system.

For many of us we choose our plants, put them in our gardens, and then see how they do. For various reasons some plants do well while others struggle. Using both zone maps for selecting plants can help us put in plants that will not only grow well, but will thrive.

If some of your plants didn't do well in summer it may be because they weren't able to tolerate your garden's hot days. That may be an indication that they're inappropriate for your region. Understanding and using the AHS Heat Zones can help prevent similar problems in the future.

Link to the AHS Heat Zone map: http://www.ahs.org/gardening-resources/gardening-maps/heat-zone-map

Link to gardeningplaces.com state maps: http://www.gardeningplaces.com/heatzonemap/

What are AHS Plant Heat Zones? They're the counterpart to USDA Plant Hardiness Zones. USDA Plant Hardiness Zones are based on average cold temperatures of winter and the AHS Plant Heat Zones are based on average hot temperatures of summer. Hardiness Zones help gardeners determine if a plant can survive their region's winter extreme temperatures while Heat Zones help determine if a plant can survive their summer extreme temperatures.

The American Horticultural Society coordinated with the same people who helped develop the USDA Hardiness Zone map to develop a Heat Zone map based on temperature data from the National Climactic Data Center. Daily high temperatures from National Weather Service stations throughout the United States were compiled for the years 1974 through  1995. In 1997 they produced a national map representing their findings.

The result is a map that color codes the country into 12 zones that indicate the average number of days when the temperature is above 86F degrees (30C). These are "heat days". Zone 1 has an average of less than one day per year above 86 degrees while Zone 12 has an average of more than 210 days above 86 degrees.

Why 86F (30C) degrees? That is the point that many plants begin to experience distress and potential damage from sustained heat. Above this point plants can drop blossoms, drop leaves, fade in color, reduce fruit development, and possibly die. Some plants won't die right away but will be stressed for so long that each year they perform less productively than the year before.

Many plants will wilt in heat, but will recover once temperatures fall. Sustained heat can have a serious physiological impact on some plants and triggers a lingering decline to ultimate death. Knowing how a plant will handle hot days is the reason for the AHS Heat Zone Map.

Most gardeners are familiar with the USDA Hardiness Zone system and look for the number on a plant tag when selecting new plantings. I live in Zone 5 and always make sure new perennial plants are at least hardy down to -20F degrees that the zone represents. I prefer plants hardy to Zone 4 for the occasional extremely low temperatures we get that approach -30F in winter.

I'm in AHS Plant Heat Zone 5. That represents 30 to 45 days above 86F degrees. I prefer to select plants for at least Zone 6 for the recent hot summers we've had; Zone 6 allows for 45 to 60 days above 86F. This year we're definitely encroaching on Zone 6 heat days.

Plant growers and distributors that include AHS Plant Heat Zones on tags will list both zone ranges. You'll now find a listing like "3-9, 6-1". That means the plant is suitable for USDA Hardiness Zones 3 through 9 and is suitable for AHS Heat Zones 6 through 1. Many plant catalogs are also including this information in their plant descriptions.

For me, an ideal plant would be something like "4-9, 7-1". That means it can handle the cold of the Hardiness Zone 4 and the heat of Heat Zone 7. My garden is well within both ranges and the plant should do well.

There are some limitations with the AHS Heat Zone map. Because it is relatively new and unknown, there aren't many resources available to make it easy for you to identify your zone. You have to try and determine exactly where your city falls within the zones on the national map. Apparently the AHS had a tool for determining exact locations, but the zone finder application is nowhere to be found now. I haven't been able to find any other source for finding Heat Zones by zip code like the USDA map has.

You can look at the map at: http://www.ahs.org/gardening-resources/gardening-maps/heat-zone-map

At gardening resources.com I found a breakdown of the Heat Zones by state, which was a little easier to read. You can find it here: http://www.gardeningplaces.com/heatzonemap/

Over 15,000 plants have been coded for heat tolerance. As more plants are coded and more companies begin listing both USDA and AHS zones on plant information, you can expect more gardeners to become familiar and comfortable with the conversion to a two-zone system.

For many of us we choose our plants, put them in our gardens, and then see how they do. For various reasons some plants do well while others struggle. Using both zone maps for selecting plants can help us put in plants that will not only grow well, but will thrive.

If some of your plants didn't do well in summer it may be because they weren't able to tolerate your garden's hot days. That may be an indication that they're inappropriate for your region. Understanding and using the AHS Heat Zones can help prevent similar problems in the future.

Link to the AHS Heat Zone map:
http://www.ahs.org/gardening-resources/gardening-maps/heat-zone-map

Link to gardeningplaces.com state maps: http://www.gardeningplaces.com/heatzonemap/

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Sow Cool Season Plants in Summer for a Fall Crop

Two harvests in the same growing season are easy to accomplish. Many gardeners sow and plant in spring, spend summer tending to their crops, harvest in early fall, and then wrap it all up and wait until spring to repeat the same process. With little effort you can double your garden's output with sow, tend, sow, harvest, tend, and then harvest again. Then you can spend winter satisfied that your garden played double duty to produce all it could.

Chard is a great fall crop

In late summer you sow seeds for cool season plants that will grow as temperatures begin to decline. They'll be ready to harvest after the first frosts have appeared and long after the last tomatoes were pulled from the vines. There is no need to create new gardens; you use the same beds you do now.

Cool season crops are primarily the ones that provide leaves, stems, and roots for harvest. These crops include:

Arugula, beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, chard, collards, endive, fennel, kale, kohrabi, leeks, lettuce, mustard greens, onions, peas, parsnips, potatoes, radishes, spinach, turnips

Peas, especially snow peas, are good in fall

Many gardeners grow these plants in spring and hope for a slow start to summer so the plants will mature and be ready for harvest before high heat causes them to bolt and their taste turns bitter. We take advantage of their natural ability to tolerate low temperatures by planting early.

We can also use that ability to plant late. The mature plant tolerates the low temperatures of fall, there is no risk of bolting, and many people believe many of these crops taste superior after exposure to frost.

Those of us who sow in early spring and hope the soil has warmed enough to initiate germination are ready for a percentage of our seeds to never grow. Those of us who sow in late summer are pleased that the warm soil provides speedy germination with little seed loss.

Early seed and plant care is different when you plant late. In spring there is less need for extra watering; lower temperatures mean less evaporation and there is always a chance of rain or late snow. In summer, the heat requires more gardener attention to maintaining moist soil conditions for seeds and young plants; you may need to mist or water the plants two or three times a day in harsh sun.

Temperatures above 80F (27C) will cause broccoli and spinach to bolt quickly. Sowing in a shady spot or setting up a row cover can reduce this concern.

Once the plants have a few sets of leaves the need for watering becomes less than in late summer. While early plants need more water to combat the increasing summer heat, later plants require less water as the decreasing temperatures bring comfort. The plants are less stressed in fall. They grow in the conditions they like best; they're called cool season plants for a reason.

As long as the day temperatures remain about 10 to 15 degrees above freezing (40F - 50F, 4C - 10C) you can expect the crops to continue growing and producing. When the day temps remain below 40F (4C) the plants may begin to suffer. Careful harvesting will still produce results. The center of the plant may still have new, tasty leaves while the exterior leaves look frazzled.

Hard freezes, cold days, and icy conditions will adversely affect most cool season crops and will spell the end for your second harvest, but you can delay winter by mulching heavily with straw and using a season extender like cold frames, cloches, or plastic tunnels. I use my hoophouse system to harvest well into November and even December.

Broccoli and beets ready for overnight protection

Some crops like cabbage, kale, and spinach can do well, even in snow. With heavy mulching, beets, leeks, and parsnips can often be overwintered and harvested in spring (I've done this). 

Use your entire vegetable garden for fall planting. If you have a cool-season spring bed for broccoli, spinach, or lettuce and then let that bed remain filled with bolty, straggly, dried plants throughout the summer, rip those plants out and sow again for a fall crop.

Your tomatoes, peppers, and melons will decline in cooling weather. Anticipate their decline and sow seeds among those plants, in the same beds. When the first frost zaps your tomato plant, cut it out and let the cabbage and broccoli growing nearby overtake that space.

Root crops won't be as big as spring plantings, but may be tastier. Try growing small, thumb-sized carrot varieties or harvest them young before the ground freezes. Beet roots will be harvested when they're just a few inches big, but the beet leaves can be harvested continually.

Beet leaves are edible and tasty

Garden pests can be less of a concern for a fall garden. Many insect pests are less active, if not gone, in fall. The weeds will spend all summer attacking aren't active in fall. Even deer seem to be scarce as they make their way to find a winter bed.

While growing a second crop in the same season sounds like extra work, it doesn't need to be. Summer garden beds should be cleaned up before winter so insects don't have a place to overwinter. That clean up works well to prepare the beds for fall crops.

You'll spend a few more days in the garden watering and harvesting, but is that really a bad thing? Fall gardening allows you to do more of what you like and for me that's a good thing.

Link to "Extending Your Growing Season with Mini Greenhouses"
Two harvests in the same growing season are easy to accomplish. Many gardeners sow and plant in spring, spend summer tending to their crops, harvest in early fall, and then wrap it all up and wait until spring to repeat the same process. With little effort you can double your garden's output with sow, tend, sow, harvest, tend, and then harvest again. Then you can spend winter satisfied that your garden played double duty to produce all it could.

Chard is a great fall crop

In late summer you sow seeds for cool season plants that will grow as temperatures begin to decline. They'll be ready to harvest after the first frosts have appeared and long after the last tomatoes were pulled from the vines. There is no need to create new gardens; you use the same beds you do now.

Cool season crops are primarily the ones that provide leaves, stems, and roots for harvest. These crops include:

Arugula, beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, chard, collards, endive, fennel, kale, kohrabi, leeks, lettuce, mustard greens, onions, peas, parsnips, potatoes, radishes, spinach, turnips

Peas, especially snow peas, are good in fall

Many gardeners grow these plants in spring and hope for a slow start to summer so the plants will mature and be ready for harvest before high heat causes them to bolt and their taste turns bitter. We take advantage of their natural ability to tolerate low temperatures by planting early.

We can also use that ability to plant late. The mature plant tolerates the low temperatures of fall, there is no risk of bolting, and many people believe many of these crops taste superior after exposure to frost.

Those of us who sow in early spring and hope the soil has warmed enough to initiate germination are ready for a percentage of our seeds to never grow. Those of us who sow in late summer are pleased that the warm soil provides speedy germination with little seed loss.

Early seed and plant care is different when you plant late. In spring there is less need for extra watering; lower temperatures mean less evaporation and there is always a chance of rain or late snow. In summer, the heat requires more gardener attention to maintaining moist soil conditions for seeds and young plants; you may need to mist or water the plants two or three times a day in harsh sun.

Temperatures above 80F (27C) will cause broccoli and spinach to bolt quickly. Sowing in a shady spot or setting up a row cover can reduce this concern.

Once the plants have a few sets of leaves the need for watering becomes less than in late summer. While early plants need more water to combat the increasing summer heat, later plants require less water as the decreasing temperatures bring comfort. The plants are less stressed in fall. They grow in the conditions they like best; they're called cool season plants for a reason.

As long as the day temperatures remain about 10 to 15 degrees above freezing (40F - 50F, 4C - 10C) you can expect the crops to continue growing and producing. When the day temps remain below 40F (4C) the plants may begin to suffer. Careful harvesting will still produce results. The center of the plant may still have new, tasty leaves while the exterior leaves look frazzled.

Hard freezes, cold days, and icy conditions will adversely affect most cool season crops and will spell the end for your second harvest, but you can delay winter by mulching heavily with straw and using a season extender like cold frames, cloches, or plastic tunnels. I use my hoophouse system to harvest well into November and even December.

Broccoli and beets ready for overnight protection

Some crops like cabbage, kale, and spinach can do well, even in snow. With heavy mulching, beets, leeks, and parsnips can often be overwintered and harvested in spring (I've done this). 

Use your entire vegetable garden for fall planting. If you have a cool-season spring bed for broccoli, spinach, or lettuce and then let that bed remain filled with bolty, straggly, dried plants throughout the summer, rip those plants out and sow again for a fall crop.

Your tomatoes, peppers, and melons will decline in cooling weather. Anticipate their decline and sow seeds among those plants, in the same beds. When the first frost zaps your tomato plant, cut it out and let the cabbage and broccoli growing nearby overtake that space.

Root crops won't be as big as spring plantings, but may be tastier. Try growing small, thumb-sized carrot varieties or harvest them young before the ground freezes. Beet roots will be harvested when they're just a few inches big, but the beet leaves can be harvested continually.

Beet leaves are edible and tasty

Garden pests can be less of a concern for a fall garden. Many insect pests are less active, if not gone, in fall. The weeds will spend all summer attacking aren't active in fall. Even deer seem to be scarce as they make their way to find a winter bed.

While growing a second crop in the same season sounds like extra work, it doesn't need to be. Summer garden beds should be cleaned up before winter so insects don't have a place to overwinter. That clean up works well to prepare the beds for fall crops.

You'll spend a few more days in the garden watering and harvesting, but is that really a bad thing? Fall gardening allows you to do more of what you like and for me that's a good thing.

Link to "
Extending Your Growing Season with Mini Greenhouses"

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

How to Make a Garden Gazing Ball

I used to think garden orbs were a little kitschy until I decided to make one myself. Every gardener personalizes their garden in their own way and it seemed like it was time for a garden orb in mine.

My gazing ball

Gazing balls, garden orbs, gazing globes, and garden balls are all names for a shiny sphere that adds an element of color or reflection to a garden space. They can be made from a number of different materials in a variety of sizes, but for mine I used a bowling ball that I purchased from a local secondhand store.

The first step is cleaning the ball. I used isopropyl alcohol to remove years of bowling alley oil and palm sweat from the ball.

Cleaning the ball

Second, the finger holes and engraved letters need to be filled. I used wood putty. Not all wood putties are the same; some aren't intended for large holes and will crack when dry. I used a wood putty formulated for filling gaps with minimal shrinking and cracking. You can also use plaster or caulk.

Fill the holes

You want to leave one hole open for mounting the ball in your garden. I left the thumb hole open because it's larger than the others and gives more options for mounting.

To reduce the amount of putty I needed, I filled each finger hole with rolled newspaper first. This left a depth of about 1/4 inch to fill rather than the original two-inch hole. You may need to do this in a couple steps. Fill most of the hole, let it dry, and then add a final fill.

Newspaper fills the space

After the putty dried I sanded it. The idea is to have the filled hole flush with the exterior curve.


Sanding the dried putty
After driving a length of rebar into the ground I set the thumb hole on it and began painting the ball. Be sure to choose an exterior paint because the orb will probably be exposed to weather outside. For this ball I selected a metallic gold paint.

Painting with spray paint

For extra weather protection you can cover the ball with polyurethane after the paint dries. You need to use spar varnish that is specifically formulated for exterior use. Simply brush it on the entire ball.

Use spar varnish for exterior applications

At this point you can consider the project finished and display your shiny, colored ball. My problem is that many used bowling balls have gouges and scrapes that detract from the smooth, shiny surface I desired. For this gazing ball I opted to add color and texture with the addition of colored glass stones from a craft store.

Using a clear, exterior grade caulk, glue the glass stones to the ball. It just takes a dollop of caulk. Press the stone to the ball firmly. The weight of the glass will cause it to slide down the curved surface if you don't hold it in place for many minutes. I found that a large rubber band placed around the middle of the ball not only marked a straight line, but also helped hold the stones, reduced their slide, and didn't require me to waste time applying continual pressure.

Placing glass stones

You'll need to let the first layer set up and dry before moving on. The weight of more than one row will be too much for the rubber band and many pieces will drop off, but with the first row intact it provides an anchor for successive layers. After a few hours of allowing the caulk to set it should be strong enough.

Continue adding rows of stones. I found it best to do two or three rows at a time and let the caulk set before moving on with more rows. After the upper half is dry, turn the ball over and finish the second hemisphere. I used an egg carton to support the ball while I was working but a large bowl, pan, or wood template would work too.

Covering the ball with stones

This project took about four days to complete with me completing layers periodically through the day.

When the entire ball has had a few days to dry completely it's ready to place outside. Rebar is an easy mounting rod. Galvanized pipes can be used and can be painted to match the ball. Copper pipe adds a nice touch and brings an eclectic look when is develops a patina.

Their is no limit to the colors and designs that you can use to make gazing balls. After the gold ball with colored glass I made a silver one with clear glass stones.

My silver gazing ball

Next I'll break up an old mirror and grout the edges after mounting the pieces to the ball. It will be a truly reflective orb.

With a little imagination, a bowling ball, and minimal crafting skill, you can have a gazing ball of your own.


I used to think garden orbs were a little kitschy until I decided to make one myself. Every gardener personalizes their garden in their own way and it seemed like it was time for a garden orb in mine.

My gazing ball

Gazing balls, garden orbs, gazing globes, and garden balls are all names for a shiny sphere that adds an element of color or reflection to a garden space. They can be made from a number of different materials in a variety of sizes, but for mine I used a bowling ball that I purchased from a local secondhand store.

The first step is cleaning the ball. I used isopropyl alcohol to remove years of bowling alley oil and palm sweat from the ball.

Cleaning the ball

Second, the finger holes and engraved letters need to be filled. I used wood putty. Not all wood putties are the same; some aren't intended for large holes and will crack when dry. I used a wood putty formulated for filling gaps with minimal shrinking and cracking. You can also use plaster or caulk.

Fill the holes

You want to leave one hole open for mounting the ball in your garden. I left the thumb hole open because it's larger than the others and gives more options for mounting.

To reduce the amount of putty I needed, I filled each finger hole with rolled newspaper first. This left a depth of about 1/4 inch to fill rather than the original two-inch hole. You may need to do this in a couple steps. Fill most of the hole, let it dry, and then add a final fill.

Newspaper fills the space

After the putty dried I sanded it. The idea is to have the filled hole flush with the exterior curve.


Sanding the dried putty
After driving a length of rebar into the ground I set the thumb hole on it and began painting the ball. Be sure to choose an exterior paint because the orb will probably be exposed to weather outside. For this ball I selected a metallic gold paint.

Painting with spray paint

For extra weather protection you can cover the ball with polyurethane after the paint dries. You need to use spar varnish that is specifically formulated for exterior use. Simply brush it on the entire ball.

Use spar varnish for exterior applications

At this point you can consider the project finished and display your shiny, colored ball. My problem is that many used bowling balls have gouges and scrapes that detract from the smooth, shiny surface I desired. For this gazing ball I opted to add color and texture with the addition of colored glass stones from a craft store.

Using a clear, exterior grade caulk, glue the glass stones to the ball. It just takes a dollop of caulk. Press the stone to the ball firmly. The weight of the glass will cause it to slide down the curved surface if you don't hold it in place for many minutes. I found that a large rubber band placed around the middle of the ball not only marked a straight line, but also helped hold the stones, reduced their slide, and didn't require me to waste time applying continual pressure.

Placing glass stones

You'll need to let the first layer set up and dry before moving on. The weight of more than one row will be too much for the rubber band and many pieces will drop off, but with the first row intact it provides an anchor for successive layers. After a few hours of allowing the caulk to set it should be strong enough.

Continue adding rows of stones. I found it best to do two or three rows at a time and let the caulk set before moving on with more rows. After the upper half is dry, turn the ball over and finish the second hemisphere. I used an egg carton to support the ball while I was working but a large bowl, pan, or wood template would work too.

Covering the ball with stones

This project took about four days to complete with me completing layers periodically through the day.

When the entire ball has had a few days to dry completely it's ready to place outside. Rebar is an easy mounting rod. Galvanized pipes can be used and can be painted to match the ball. Copper pipe adds a nice touch and brings an eclectic look when is develops a patina.

Their is no limit to the colors and designs that you can use to make gazing balls. After the gold ball with colored glass I made a silver one with clear glass stones.

My silver gazing ball

Next I'll break up an old mirror and grout the edges after mounting the pieces to the ball. It will be a truly reflective orb.

With a little imagination, a bowling ball, and minimal crafting skill, you can have a gazing ball of your own.


Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Best Tips for Growing Tomatoes

Tomatoes are the number one home garden crop in the United States. As a result, tomatoes are the home crop that can cause the most trouble for gardeners; something is always wrong with our tomatoes. We all want the perfect tomato, but getting it to harvest can be troublesome. Here are a few tips to help you get the most from your tomato crop by understanding more about this wonderful red (or orange, purple, yellow, or green) orb.


1. Tomatoes are either determinate or indeterminate.

Not all tomato plants are the same so it's important to know what kind you're growing. Determinate tomatoes are also called bush tomatoes. They seldom grow more than three or four feet tall and often don't require any additional staking or support. All of the fruit reaches maturity at about the same time so the harvest will only last over a period of a few weeks. If your plant suddenly stops producing flowers and fruit, even when everything else is perfect, it's probably a determinate variety.

Indeterminate tomatoes may also be called vining tomatoes and can grow as much as eight feet tall. They don't produce fruit all at once but rather they provide fewer fruit at any one time, but over a longer period of time. Indeterminate tomatoes will usually give you a harvest until the first frost in fall.

How you grow these different types of tomato can impact how successful you are. For container gardening, like in pots on a patio, determinate tomatoes are the way to go; indeterminate ones can quickly overrun your space. If you like to "put up" tomatoes in quart jars or as tomato sauce, determinate plants will provide a harvest that you can can right away. If you like to have a few tomatoes to enjoy with your meals throughout the summer, indeterminate is the way to go.


2. Select the best heirloom or hybrid tomatoes for your garden.

Many gardeners believe heirloom tomatoes taste better than hybrids. That can be a matter of personal preference, but there are other obvious differences between the two. Typically, heirloom tomatoes have more problems with diseases and pests; hybrids have been developed to overcome these limitations. Heirloom tomatoes tend to take a long time to reach maturity and harvest; hybrids can be selected with very short "days to harvest".

If you have a garden in an area susceptible to tomato diseases, you may want to select a hybrid tomato with letters after its name (like VFN); the letters identify resistance to disease. If you garden with a short growing season, you can select hybrid varieties that will ripen early.

Hybrids tend to follow a pattern of red, round fruit. If you want to grow purple, orange, yellow, or striped tomatoes, you'll probably want to look for unique heirlooms. Determine what you want in a tomato and then find the variety that fits, whether its heirloom or hybrid.

3. "Days to Maturity" and "Days to Harvest" are important.

Seed packets or plant tags should give you an idea of how long it takes the plant to reach harvest. That is the number of days from the time you put the transplant in your garden, not the time from when the seed was placed in soil. Even a robust plant from a nursery can take more than two months to provide fruit. If you garden in a region with late springs and early falls, you may only have about four months to adequately grow tomatoes (my season is about 134 days). If you select an heirloom plant that takes 120 days to harvest, there will only be a few weeks for harvest before the first frost and if it's an indeterminate plant there will still be many unripe fruits on the vine when cold hits.

Match the plant with your garden for best results. A tomato that takes "80 days to harvest" can provide fruit for two months more than an heirloom beefsteak tomato. Of course, if you have a very long growing season your choices are virtually endless.

4. Tomatoes need sun and air.

Selecting the proper location for your tomatoes can make the difference between healthy plants and sickly ones. Tomatoes need full sun; that means at least 10 hours a day and more is better. Even a little afternoon shade can have a big impact on plant growth and harvest. Of all your garden plants, tomatoes should have the sunniest spot.

Many of the disease, virus, and fungal problems that plague tomatoes can be corrected by increasing airflow around the plants. Don't plant too close to other plants. With air circulation the leaves can dry out and not fall prey to the diseases that require moist conditions.

Disease is always ready to strike

5. Garden soil needs to be warm to plant.

Tomatoes are a warm season plant and need warm soil and warm nights to begin growing. If planted too early, the plants can be stunted and even killed by cold soil temperatures. Some gardeners recommend planting when the air temperature remains above 50F degrees (10C), but that may be troublesome because the soil temperature at root level, six inches and more, can still be below that. Research has found that the best soil temperature is 70F; tomato roots will not grow at all below 50F.

I recommend waiting a few weeks after your last frost date to put in transplants. I also suggest using a temperature probe in your soil. Wait until the soil is closer to 60F to plant; at least 55F. You can accelerate soil warming by covering your garden bed with a plastic sheet for a few days before you plan to dig.

Check soil temperature

6. Well-drained soil is nice, but amended is better.

Tomatoes do best in amended soil. A well-drained soil is nice to avoid pooling water, but if the water drains too quickly the plant and fruit can suffer. Tomatoes will grow in clay soils as long as they don't remain soggy. The best way to correct poor soil is with organic amendments like compost. A loose, healthy, amended soil will grow bigger and better tomato plants.

7. Pinch off flowers and fruit when you plant.

Many gardeners select young plants with flowers or small fruit on them when looking for tomatoes in the belief they'll get fruit faster; nurseries grow and price them accordingly to entice you. You can actually delay the development of future fruit by choosing a too-mature plant for your garden.

The main role of the plant is to produce fruit and it will expend most of its energy to that task. However, for new transplants root development is the most important task. If you put a plant with flowers and fruit in your garden bed, root development will be reduced while the plant focuses on ripening the fruit. That means that your plant may not be strong enough to handle the heat of summer and all remaining fruit development can suffer. You'll get a better harvest if you let the plant grow strong in its early days

8. Bury the plant when planting.

Tomatoes can grow roots along the stem and you should use that ability to your advantage. More roots tend to make for a stronger plant. Placing the plant in the soil with more stem buried than in the original pot will ultimately provide better results.

Pinch off lower leaves next to the stem, leaving the top four to eight groups of leaves at the top. If you have amended soil in a region with steady rain, place the plant vertically in a deep hole with only the leaves above the surface. For poorer soil and in regions where your irrigation may be the only water source, place the plant in a slanted trench so that the stem is horizontal; you can gently bend the top towards vertical and hold it in place with a small soil berm.


9. Tomatoes don't need as much water as you think.

Consistent moisture levels are more important than amount of water. Many gardeners think of tomatoes as tropical plants that need watering every day. Diseases, blossom end rot, and cracked skins can be the result of poor and inconsistent watering practices. Frequent, light watering can result in poor root systems.

Tomato soil should be moist all the time, but not wet or soggy; think of the moistness of a wrung-out sponge. With amended soil you may only need to water every three of four days. Of course, very hot and dry conditions will require more watering, but physically check the moisture level of the soil before assuming more is needed.

10. Overhead watering can encourage disease problems.

When you water, try to avoid sprinklers or hand watering from above. Almost all of the diseases that affect tomatoes are soil borne. The fungal spores and bacteria are just waiting for a way to reach low leaves and splashing water is the perfect mechanism. Even a drop of water falling from a lower leaf can release these tiny organisms from the soil surface and infect the plant.

Drip irrigation and soaker hoses can drastically reduce tomato diseases. These watering methods get water directly to the roots without any of the nasty side effects of overhead watering.

11. Mulch can help produce perfect fruit.

Mulching with a light, organic material can reduce the problems with soil and watering. Mulch helps to maintain a more consistent soil moisture level. Mulch also acts as a protective barrier so any water falling off the plant hits mulch and won't release soil-borne pathogens.

I like to use straw or herbicide-free grass clippings for tomato mulch. The light material allows air and water to reach the soil while helping to keep soil temperature and moisture more consistent. It will also decompose and amend the soil for the next season when I till it in at the end of the year.

12. Fertilizer may hurt your harvest.

Proper fertilization is critical to getting a harvest and improper fertilization may result in no harvest at all. With rich, amended soil you may not need any additional fertilizer. If you do fertilize, you need to do it differently at different times.

As mentioned above, root development is important for young plants. Adding a fertilizer high in phosphorus to the soil at planting can help in that development. As the plant grows and nears fruiting, a potassium fertilizer will help in fruit development.

The problem most gardeners encounter when fertilizing tomatoes is by using a fertilizer high in nitrogen. Nitrogen encourages big, bushy plant growth at the expense of flowers and fruit. If you fertilize and get a beautiful plant with no fruit, this is probably your problem.

Look for a fertilizer with higher numbers in the second and third position. The numbers on a bag or box of fertilizer represents the percentage of nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium (N-P-K). A higher first number will spell doom for your harvest. You'll find specialized tomato fertilizers with ratios of 3-4-6, or 5-6-5, or 4-7-10, or 18-18-21. Note that the first number (nitrogen) is never the highest. In my opinion, better tomato fertilizers would be 15-30-15, or 6-24-24, or 8-32-16.

13. Heat can reduce harvest.

If days and nights get too hot, tomatoes will drop blossoms and no fruit will form.  Tomatoes grow best when the temperatures are between 70F and 90F degrees. When day temperatures are above 95F, or night temperatures remain above 75F, fruit won't develop. You can take every step above, but if it's too hot in your garden you won't get any tomatoes.

14. Pinching suckers may not always be the best idea.

Many gardening "experts" say to pinch off all suckers that develop in the crook between the main stem and branches. While this won't hurt the plant, it may not be as necessary as proposed. The key is knowing whether the plant is determinate or indeterminate.

Indeterminate tomato plants can get very big. Pinching the suckers can focus growth where you want it so the plant doesn't become too cumbersome while focusing plant energy for developing large fruit along main branches. Leaving the suckers on the plants will produce more foliage and potentially smaller fruit. Because the fruit is produced over a longer period, allowing it time and energy to grow big may be beneficial. Fewer, bigger fruits can be a good thing.

Determinate tomato plants don't require any pruning and removing suckers can actually reduce harvest. Tomatoes can develop on the branches that grow from the suckers. Because a determinate plant produces all of its fruit at the same time, more branches and more flowers means more fruit. For many gardeners wanting to preserve their tomatoes, more may be better than bigger.

15. Use a strong trellis.

There are many options for trellising tomatoes and it's worth spending the time and money for a sturdy one. While a single metal rod or flimsy wire cage will support a young plant, a mature indeterminate plant loaded with fruit will soon flop to the ground, damaging fruit and exposing the plant to all of those disease-causing soil pathogens.

I like to use heavy-gauge steel cattle panels to form a curved trellis over the entire bed. Home improvement centers sell steel lattice panels used for reinforcing concrete; these can be cut and bent into strong towers to support tomato plants. 4 x 4 wood posts set in the ground can be used to train vines on strong wire strung between them. Whatever you use, ensure it can handle the weight of a big plant.


16. Rotate the location of your tomatoes.

As mentioned earlier, the pathogens affecting tomatoes reside in the soil. Once a plant is infected the soil is infected. Continuing to grow tomatoes in that same location the next year means that those new plants are very likely to be infected.

If your garden space allows, it is best to avoid planting tomatoes in the same bed as recent tomatoes. Time will dissipate the pathogens' viability. Wait at least three years between plantings in the same bed. Ideally, wait at least seven years between plantings. The more you can rotate with longer periods between, the less likely you are to encounter the same diseases.

17. Harvest before the fruit is overripe.

Tomatoes should be harvested when they're ripe but before they soften. Left too long on the vine, tomatoes can become mushy and bland. Green tomatoes can continue to ripen after they're picked. For that reason it's better to pick a little early rather than a little late.

The fruit may crack or develop circular rings near the stem when they've been left on the plant too long. Because the fruit often grows in clusters, you can use these signs on one fruit as a signal to harvest nearby fruit.

As indicated by these tips, tomatoes can be a finicky crop. A little too much water, a little too much heat, and a little too much fertilizer will affect your crop. I grow in a very challenging environment and I regularly meet gardeners unwilling to try tomatoes again after a disappointing season or two. It can be a challenge, but there's a reason tomatoes are the number one home garden crop. When you do it right, few other garden crops can be so satisfying.


Tomatoes are the number one home garden crop in the United States. As a result, tomatoes are the home crop that can cause the most trouble for gardeners; something is always wrong with our tomatoes. We all want the perfect tomato, but getting it to harvest can be troublesome. Here are a few tips to help you get the most from your tomato crop by understanding more about this wonderful red (or orange, purple, yellow, or green) orb.


1. Tomatoes are either determinate or indeterminate.

Not all tomato plants are the same so it's important to know what kind you're growing. Determinate tomatoes are also called bush tomatoes. They seldom grow more than three or four feet tall and often don't require any additional staking or support. All of the fruit reaches maturity at about the same time so the harvest will only last over a period of a few weeks. If your plant suddenly stops producing flowers and fruit, even when everything else is perfect, it's probably a determinate variety.

Indeterminate tomatoes may also be called vining tomatoes and can grow as much as eight feet tall. They don't produce fruit all at once but rather they provide fewer fruit at any one time, but over a longer period of time. Indeterminate tomatoes will usually give you a harvest until the first frost in fall.

How you grow these different types of tomato can impact how successful you are. For container gardening, like in pots on a patio, determinate tomatoes are the way to go; indeterminate ones can quickly overrun your space. If you like to "put up" tomatoes in quart jars or as tomato sauce, determinate plants will provide a harvest that you can can right away. If you like to have a few tomatoes to enjoy with your meals throughout the summer, indeterminate is the way to go.


2. Select the best heirloom or hybrid tomatoes for your garden.

Many gardeners believe heirloom tomatoes taste better than hybrids. That can be a matter of personal preference, but there are other obvious differences between the two. Typically, heirloom tomatoes have more problems with diseases and pests; hybrids have been developed to overcome these limitations. Heirloom tomatoes tend to take a long time to reach maturity and harvest; hybrids can be selected with very short "days to harvest".

If you have a garden in an area susceptible to tomato diseases, you may want to select a hybrid tomato with letters after its name (like VFN); the letters identify resistance to disease. If you garden with a short growing season, you can select hybrid varieties that will ripen early.

Hybrids tend to follow a pattern of red, round fruit. If you want to grow purple, orange, yellow, or striped tomatoes, you'll probably want to look for unique heirlooms. Determine what you want in a tomato and then find the variety that fits, whether its heirloom or hybrid.

3. "Days to Maturity" and "Days to Harvest" are important.

Seed packets or plant tags should give you an idea of how long it takes the plant to reach harvest. That is the number of days from the time you put the transplant in your garden, not the time from when the seed was placed in soil. Even a robust plant from a nursery can take more than two months to provide fruit. If you garden in a region with late springs and early falls, you may only have about four months to adequately grow tomatoes (my season is about 134 days). If you select an heirloom plant that takes 120 days to harvest, there will only be a few weeks for harvest before the first frost and if it's an indeterminate plant there will still be many unripe fruits on the vine when cold hits.

Match the plant with your garden for best results. A tomato that takes "80 days to harvest" can provide fruit for two months more than an heirloom beefsteak tomato. Of course, if you have a very long growing season your choices are virtually endless.

4. Tomatoes need sun and air.

Selecting the proper location for your tomatoes can make the difference between healthy plants and sickly ones. Tomatoes need full sun; that means at least 10 hours a day and more is better. Even a little afternoon shade can have a big impact on plant growth and harvest. Of all your garden plants, tomatoes should have the sunniest spot.

Many of the disease, virus, and fungal problems that plague tomatoes can be corrected by increasing airflow around the plants. Don't plant too close to other plants. With air circulation the leaves can dry out and not fall prey to the diseases that require moist conditions.

Disease is always ready to strike

5. Garden soil needs to be warm to plant.

Tomatoes are a warm season plant and need warm soil and warm nights to begin growing. If planted too early, the plants can be stunted and even killed by cold soil temperatures. Some gardeners recommend planting when the air temperature remains above 50F degrees (10C), but that may be troublesome because the soil temperature at root level, six inches and more, can still be below that. Research has found that the best soil temperature is 70F; tomato roots will not grow at all below 50F.

I recommend waiting a few weeks after your last frost date to put in transplants. I also suggest using a temperature probe in your soil. Wait until the soil is closer to 60F to plant; at least 55F. You can accelerate soil warming by covering your garden bed with a plastic sheet for a few days before you plan to dig.

Check soil temperature

6. Well-drained soil is nice, but amended is better.

Tomatoes do best in amended soil. A well-drained soil is nice to avoid pooling water, but if the water drains too quickly the plant and fruit can suffer. Tomatoes will grow in clay soils as long as they don't remain soggy. The best way to correct poor soil is with organic amendments like compost. A loose, healthy, amended soil will grow bigger and better tomato plants.

7. Pinch off flowers and fruit when you plant.

Many gardeners select young plants with flowers or small fruit on them when looking for tomatoes in the belief they'll get fruit faster; nurseries grow and price them accordingly to entice you. You can actually delay the development of future fruit by choosing a too-mature plant for your garden.

The main role of the plant is to produce fruit and it will expend most of its energy to that task. However, for new transplants root development is the most important task. If you put a plant with flowers and fruit in your garden bed, root development will be reduced while the plant focuses on ripening the fruit. That means that your plant may not be strong enough to handle the heat of summer and all remaining fruit development can suffer. You'll get a better harvest if you let the plant grow strong in its early days

8. Bury the plant when planting.

Tomatoes can grow roots along the stem and you should use that ability to your advantage. More roots tend to make for a stronger plant. Placing the plant in the soil with more stem buried than in the original pot will ultimately provide better results.

Pinch off lower leaves next to the stem, leaving the top four to eight groups of leaves at the top. If you have amended soil in a region with steady rain, place the plant vertically in a deep hole with only the leaves above the surface. For poorer soil and in regions where your irrigation may be the only water source, place the plant in a slanted trench so that the stem is horizontal; you can gently bend the top towards vertical and hold it in place with a small soil berm.


9. Tomatoes don't need as much water as you think.

Consistent moisture levels are more important than amount of water. Many gardeners think of tomatoes as tropical plants that need watering every day. Diseases, blossom end rot, and cracked skins can be the result of poor and inconsistent watering practices. Frequent, light watering can result in poor root systems.

Tomato soil should be moist all the time, but not wet or soggy; think of the moistness of a wrung-out sponge. With amended soil you may only need to water every three of four days. Of course, very hot and dry conditions will require more watering, but physically check the moisture level of the soil before assuming more is needed.

10. Overhead watering can encourage disease problems.

When you water, try to avoid sprinklers or hand watering from above. Almost all of the diseases that affect tomatoes are soil borne. The fungal spores and bacteria are just waiting for a way to reach low leaves and splashing water is the perfect mechanism. Even a drop of water falling from a lower leaf can release these tiny organisms from the soil surface and infect the plant.

Drip irrigation and soaker hoses can drastically reduce tomato diseases. These watering methods get water directly to the roots without any of the nasty side effects of overhead watering.

11. Mulch can help produce perfect fruit.

Mulching with a light, organic material can reduce the problems with soil and watering. Mulch helps to maintain a more consistent soil moisture level. Mulch also acts as a protective barrier so any water falling off the plant hits mulch and won't release soil-borne pathogens.

I like to use straw or herbicide-free grass clippings for tomato mulch. The light material allows air and water to reach the soil while helping to keep soil temperature and moisture more consistent. It will also decompose and amend the soil for the next season when I till it in at the end of the year.

12. Fertilizer may hurt your harvest.

Proper fertilization is critical to getting a harvest and improper fertilization may result in no harvest at all. With rich, amended soil you may not need any additional fertilizer. If you do fertilize, you need to do it differently at different times.

As mentioned above, root development is important for young plants. Adding a fertilizer high in phosphorus to the soil at planting can help in that development. As the plant grows and nears fruiting, a potassium fertilizer will help in fruit development.

The problem most gardeners encounter when fertilizing tomatoes is by using a fertilizer high in nitrogen. Nitrogen encourages big, bushy plant growth at the expense of flowers and fruit. If you fertilize and get a beautiful plant with no fruit, this is probably your problem.

Look for a fertilizer with higher numbers in the second and third position. The numbers on a bag or box of fertilizer represents the percentage of nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium (N-P-K). A higher first number will spell doom for your harvest. You'll find specialized tomato fertilizers with ratios of 3-4-6, or 5-6-5, or 4-7-10, or 18-18-21. Note that the first number (nitrogen) is never the highest. In my opinion, better tomato fertilizers would be 15-30-15, or 6-24-24, or 8-32-16.

13. Heat can reduce harvest.

If days and nights get too hot, tomatoes will drop blossoms and no fruit will form.  Tomatoes grow best when the temperatures are between 70F and 90F degrees. When day temperatures are above 95F, or night temperatures remain above 75F, fruit won't develop. You can take every step above, but if it's too hot in your garden you won't get any tomatoes.

14. Pinching suckers may not always be the best idea.

Many gardening "experts" say to pinch off all suckers that develop in the crook between the main stem and branches. While this won't hurt the plant, it may not be as necessary as proposed. The key is knowing whether the plant is determinate or indeterminate.

Indeterminate tomato plants can get very big. Pinching the suckers can focus growth where you want it so the plant doesn't become too cumbersome while focusing plant energy for developing large fruit along main branches. Leaving the suckers on the plants will produce more foliage and potentially smaller fruit. Because the fruit is produced over a longer period, allowing it time and energy to grow big may be beneficial. Fewer, bigger fruits can be a good thing.

Determinate tomato plants don't require any pruning and removing suckers can actually reduce harvest. Tomatoes can develop on the branches that grow from the suckers. Because a determinate plant produces all of its fruit at the same time, more branches and more flowers means more fruit. For many gardeners wanting to preserve their tomatoes, more may be better than bigger.

15. Use a strong trellis.

There are many options for trellising tomatoes and it's worth spending the time and money for a sturdy one. While a single metal rod or flimsy wire cage will support a young plant, a mature indeterminate plant loaded with fruit will soon flop to the ground, damaging fruit and exposing the plant to all of those disease-causing soil pathogens.

I like to use heavy-gauge steel cattle panels to form a curved trellis over the entire bed. Home improvement centers sell steel lattice panels used for reinforcing concrete; these can be cut and bent into strong towers to support tomato plants. 4 x 4 wood posts set in the ground can be used to train vines on strong wire strung between them. Whatever you use, ensure it can handle the weight of a big plant.


16. Rotate the location of your tomatoes.

As mentioned earlier, the pathogens affecting tomatoes reside in the soil. Once a plant is infected the soil is infected. Continuing to grow tomatoes in that same location the next year means that those new plants are very likely to be infected.

If your garden space allows, it is best to avoid planting tomatoes in the same bed as recent tomatoes. Time will dissipate the pathogens' viability. Wait at least three years between plantings in the same bed. Ideally, wait at least seven years between plantings. The more you can rotate with longer periods between, the less likely you are to encounter the same diseases.

17. Harvest before the fruit is overripe.

Tomatoes should be harvested when they're ripe but before they soften. Left too long on the vine, tomatoes can become mushy and bland. Green tomatoes can continue to ripen after they're picked. For that reason it's better to pick a little early rather than a little late.

The fruit may crack or develop circular rings near the stem when they've been left on the plant too long. Because the fruit often grows in clusters, you can use these signs on one fruit as a signal to harvest nearby fruit.

As indicated by these tips, tomatoes can be a finicky crop. A little too much water, a little too much heat, and a little too much fertilizer will affect your crop. I grow in a very challenging environment and I regularly meet gardeners unwilling to try tomatoes again after a disappointing season or two. It can be a challenge, but there's a reason tomatoes are the number one home garden crop. When you do it right, few other garden crops can be so satisfying.


Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Planning a Deer Resistant Garden

There is just one way to have a deer proof garden -- plant everything within the borders of a strong fence eight feet tall. For the rest of us, the best we can hope for is a deer resistant garden. Like all animals, deer have foods they prefer, foods they tolerate, and foods they avoid. The key for gardeners desiring a beautiful garden that deer walk past is to select plants in the latter category.

Shasta Daisies look great and are deer resistant

Let me qualify what "deer resistant" means. A deer resistant plant is one that deer do not eat as a primary food source. They may chew a few buds and occasionally pull off a leaf or two, but the plant is allowed to reach maturity with little molestation. Deer are browsers and will nibble on what they find; deer resistant plants are the ones they test and then walk away from.

It's important to acknowledge that deer, like all animals, will eat anything if they're hungry enough. Deer resistant plants are not a normal part of their diet, but under drought and low vegetation conditions deer will devour plants they have ignored for years. A doe with a new fawn won't venture far from it, so she will feed on less-than-desired plants nearby. Also, there are plants that hungry deer will only eat in winter and leave alone the rest of the year.

Purple Coneflowers are usually left alone

It's also important to acknowledge that deer will go out of their way to indulge in a garden offering plants they consider delicious. A garden loaded with roses, azaleas, geraniums, hosta, tulips, and fruit trees screams to the deer that the smorgasbord is open. The problem is that many gardeners also desire those same plants in their garden. Trying to maintain this kind of garden in the presence of a local herd can be nerve-wracking.

A deer resistant garden can be abundant and beautiful, but it requires careful plant selection. As I begin planning the landscape for my new house my focus is on gardens that will give me everything I want while denying the numerous deer a tasty lunch.

Deer tend to avoid Black-eyed Susan

As with all garden planning, there are important steps to take to get it right. An analysis of sun, shade, water, soil, USDA Hardiness Zone, and available space is critical to a good garden plan. Plants will do best when they're matched with the proper soil and location for their growth habits. Once this analysis is done, plants can be selected.

Generally, deer don't like plants with a strong aroma or with thorns or spines. They tend to stay away from decorative grasses. Many native plants are resistant to deer in areas where deer are native.

An assumption in growing deer resistant plants is that there are other food sources available to local herds. When deer have access to water and plants they like, they'll leave less desirable plants alone. When their only food sources are deer resistant plants, then that's what they'll eat. That's why there are so many conflicting discussions by gardeners as to whether a plant is deer resistant. For every gardener who has never had deer eat his plants there is another gardener who has deer eat every one of hers.

Salvia is universally acknowledged as deer resistant

Let's begin with deer resistant plants for full sun locations. Lucky for me, many of the plants I like to grow are naturally deer resistant; I have a minor deer problem at my current house and have never had a problem with these plants:

  • Agastache
  • Allium
  • Artemisia 
  • Barberry
  • Columbine
  • Coneflower
  • Coreopsis
  • Daffodil
  • Dianthus
  • Foxglove 
  • Gaillardia
  • Hens and Chicks
  • Lantana
  • Lavender
  • Penstemon
  • Potentilla
  • Rose Campion
  • Rudbeckia
  • Russian Sage
  • Salvia
  • Shasta Daisy
  • Snapdragon
  • Spirea 'Magic Carpet'
  • Yarrow
  • Yucca

There is no lack of color, texture, and variety in this list. All of them are very resistant to deer in most landscapes. Many of them require little irrigation, which is a plus in my arid region.

Here are some plants for shade or partial shade areas.

  • Allium
  • Ajuga
  • Astilbe
  • Bleeding Hearts
  • Coral Bells
  • Fuchsia
  • Monkshood
  • Peony

I don't currently grow these plants but will in my new landscape. I also plan to add:

  • Apache Plume
  • Buddleia
  • Fountain Grass
  • Miscanthus
  • Pampus Grass

The key to identifying deer resistant plants for your landscape is to conduct a little research. Many county Extension offices have fact sheets for local deer resistant plants. The internet allows cross referencing this government information. I easily found that New Jersey, Minnesota, and Colorado Extension information matches my own experience with the plants listed above.

Daffodils are on everyone's list of deer resistant plants

One of the best sources for local information about deer resistant plants is to ask a fellow gardener. Find out what your friends have trouble with and what they have success with when deer are involved.

I have a gardening friend who likes to grow Arborvitae and has to fence in each plant to prevent damage; Arborvitae is on the list of plants deer like to munch. I've tried to grow cherry, apple and plum trees in my current landscape and the deer have devastated them; they'll even push through the protective netting to nibble the buds. Those of us who have built structures to try and keep deer out will gladly share our experience.

Asking for advice can save valuable time, energy, and money. Geraniums cover the gamut of deer preference. Some varieties of geranium are like candy to deer while others are like vinegar. Find out what your friends are growing and copy their successes. I haven't seen Asian Lilies on any deer resistant plant list, but in my neighborhood they leave all of mine alone.

My lilies are left alone by deer

It's possible to get away with tricking deer. A few plants that they might eat may survive if they're planted among groupings of plants that they avoid. They'll tend to leave the whole group alone when they see an abundance of deer resistant plants.

I also believe in creative sacrifice. If you want to grow plants that deer may like to eat, also grow plants that they definitely like to eat. Grow plants like wild strawberries, raspberries, Virginia creeper, and sunflowers as a friendly offering. When they venture into your yard they'll gravitate toward those tasty morsels and are more likely to leave your treasured plants alone.

My offering to save my vegetable garden

With proper planning and plant selection, maintaining a successful and beautiful landscape in the presence of deer is not only possible, but easy. Choose deer resistant plants and let your gardens prosper.


There is just one way to have a deer proof garden -- plant everything within the borders of a strong fence eight feet tall. For the rest of us, the best we can hope for is a deer resistant garden. Like all animals, deer have foods they prefer, foods they tolerate, and foods they avoid. The key for gardeners desiring a beautiful garden that deer walk past is to select plants in the latter category.

Shasta Daisies look great and are deer resistant

Let me qualify what "deer resistant" means. A deer resistant plant is one that deer do not eat as a primary food source. They may chew a few buds and occasionally pull off a leaf or two, but the plant is allowed to reach maturity with little molestation. Deer are browsers and will nibble on what they find; deer resistant plants are the ones they test and then walk away from.

It's important to acknowledge that deer, like all animals, will eat anything if they're hungry enough. Deer resistant plants are not a normal part of their diet, but under drought and low vegetation conditions deer will devour plants they have ignored for years. A doe with a new fawn won't venture far from it, so she will feed on less-than-desired plants nearby. Also, there are plants that hungry deer will only eat in winter and leave alone the rest of the year.

Purple Coneflowers are usually left alone

It's also important to acknowledge that deer will go out of their way to indulge in a garden offering plants they consider delicious. A garden loaded with roses, azaleas, geraniums, hosta, tulips, and fruit trees screams to the deer that the smorgasbord is open. The problem is that many gardeners also desire those same plants in their garden. Trying to maintain this kind of garden in the presence of a local herd can be nerve-wracking.

A deer resistant garden can be abundant and beautiful, but it requires careful plant selection. As I begin planning the landscape for my new house my focus is on gardens that will give me everything I want while denying the numerous deer a tasty lunch.

Deer tend to avoid Black-eyed Susan

As with all garden planning, there are important steps to take to get it right. An analysis of sun, shade, water, soil, USDA Hardiness Zone, and available space is critical to a good garden plan. Plants will do best when they're matched with the proper soil and location for their growth habits. Once this analysis is done, plants can be selected.

Generally, deer don't like plants with a strong aroma or with thorns or spines. They tend to stay away from decorative grasses. Many native plants are resistant to deer in areas where deer are native.

An assumption in growing deer resistant plants is that there are other food sources available to local herds. When deer have access to water and plants they like, they'll leave less desirable plants alone. When their only food sources are deer resistant plants, then that's what they'll eat. That's why there are so many conflicting discussions by gardeners as to whether a plant is deer resistant. For every gardener who has never had deer eat his plants there is another gardener who has deer eat every one of hers.

Salvia is universally acknowledged as deer resistant

Let's begin with deer resistant plants for full sun locations. Lucky for me, many of the plants I like to grow are naturally deer resistant; I have a minor deer problem at my current house and have never had a problem with these plants:

  • Agastache
  • Allium
  • Artemisia 
  • Barberry
  • Columbine
  • Coneflower
  • Coreopsis
  • Daffodil
  • Dianthus
  • Foxglove 
  • Gaillardia
  • Hens and Chicks
  • Lantana
  • Lavender
  • Penstemon
  • Potentilla
  • Rose Campion
  • Rudbeckia
  • Russian Sage
  • Salvia
  • Shasta Daisy
  • Snapdragon
  • Spirea 'Magic Carpet'
  • Yarrow
  • Yucca

There is no lack of color, texture, and variety in this list. All of them are very resistant to deer in most landscapes. Many of them require little irrigation, which is a plus in my arid region.

Here are some plants for shade or partial shade areas.

  • Allium
  • Ajuga
  • Astilbe
  • Bleeding Hearts
  • Coral Bells
  • Fuchsia
  • Monkshood
  • Peony

I don't currently grow these plants but will in my new landscape. I also plan to add:

  • Apache Plume
  • Buddleia
  • Fountain Grass
  • Miscanthus
  • Pampus Grass

The key to identifying deer resistant plants for your landscape is to conduct a little research. Many county Extension offices have fact sheets for local deer resistant plants. The internet allows cross referencing this government information. I easily found that New Jersey, Minnesota, and Colorado Extension information matches my own experience with the plants listed above.

Daffodils are on everyone's list of deer resistant plants

One of the best sources for local information about deer resistant plants is to ask a fellow gardener. Find out what your friends have trouble with and what they have success with when deer are involved.

I have a gardening friend who likes to grow Arborvitae and has to fence in each plant to prevent damage; Arborvitae is on the list of plants deer like to munch. I've tried to grow cherry, apple and plum trees in my current landscape and the deer have devastated them; they'll even push through the protective netting to nibble the buds. Those of us who have built structures to try and keep deer out will gladly share our experience.

Asking for advice can save valuable time, energy, and money. Geraniums cover the gamut of deer preference. Some varieties of geranium are like candy to deer while others are like vinegar. Find out what your friends are growing and copy their successes. I haven't seen Asian Lilies on any deer resistant plant list, but in my neighborhood they leave all of mine alone.

My lilies are left alone by deer

It's possible to get away with tricking deer. A few plants that they might eat may survive if they're planted among groupings of plants that they avoid. They'll tend to leave the whole group alone when they see an abundance of deer resistant plants.

I also believe in creative sacrifice. If you want to grow plants that deer may like to eat, also grow plants that they definitely like to eat. Grow plants like wild strawberries, raspberries, Virginia creeper, and sunflowers as a friendly offering. When they venture into your yard they'll gravitate toward those tasty morsels and are more likely to leave your treasured plants alone.

My offering to save my vegetable garden

With proper planning and plant selection, maintaining a successful and beautiful landscape in the presence of deer is not only possible, but easy. Choose deer resistant plants and let your gardens prosper.


Friday, March 1, 2013

Home Garden Crop Rotation

Growing the same crop in the same location year after year can deplete essential soil nutrients in that area, subject plants to harmful diseases, and adversely affect the crop's growth, health, and production. To avoid this, for thousands of years farmers have practiced two, soil-enhancing, growing methods. The first is allowing a field to lie fallow. Periodically after harvest, plants are turned into the soil and allowed to decompose for a year; essentially it is in-place composting.

The second method is crop rotation. Different crops are planted in different years in a single field. For home gardeners, allowing a garden to remain unplanted goes against the very essence of why we garden so practicing crop rotation to prevent a cycle of diminishing harvest is the best idea.

Crop rotation is used to keep soil from losing nutrients that a specific plant needs. A plant like corn needs a lot of nitrogen from the soil. When it is planted in the same spot repeatedly, it will ultimately deplete all available soil nitrogen, committing a slow suicide. On a commercial level, farmers add tons of nitrogen fertilizer to soil to artificially feed the plants. On a local level, home gardeners add nitrogen fertilizer to their soils when they notice reduced plant growth too.

Effective home garden crop rotation can drastically reduce the need for supplemental fertilization and helps maintain a healthy, balanced, nutrient-rich soil. For organic gardeners it is almost a must.

My garden is different each year with crop rotation

The concept of crop rotation is simple. Crop A is planted in year one, Crop B is planted in the same location in year two instead of Crop A, Crop C is planted in year three instead of Crop A or B, and so on until the cycle is repeated.

The simplest cycle is a two-crop rotation where a plant like corn is planted one year and a crop like peas is planted in the same bed the next year. Then the cycle repeats each year with corn followed by peas followed by corn followed by peas; each cycle is completed in two years. A three-crop rotation takes three years to complete. A seven-crop rotation takes seven years.

The selection of the plants for each year is the most important aspect of crop rotation. To be effective, each successive planting should grow differently than the previous planting. In the two-crop example above, corn grows in a spot, depleting soil nitrogen. The next year a legume like peas is planted to replenish soil nitrogen. Many legumes have root nodules that harbor beneficial bacteria that takes nitrogen from the air and fixes it into the soil.

Peas and similar legumes add nitrogen to soil

In a home garden, legumes are a great choice in an easy crop rotation cycle. Peas, beans, lentils, and soybeans provide a nice harvest while adding nitrogen to soil. Other plants like clover, alfalfa, and vetch don't offer a harvest, but have the same beneficial properties. I use vetch in my garden as part of my crop rotations; the vetch is attractive with pretty little purple flowers. After a season of growth that fixes nitrogen into the soil, the plants are tilled in to add additional organic material.

Vetch in my garden

I like to practice a three-year crop rotation in my garden. In recent years I've done a tomato-pea-cucumber cycle, a garlic-pea-spinach cycle, and a beet-bean-cucumber cycle. In each of those cycles I also grew vetch. Vetch can handle cold weather so I sow it in fall after I've harvested and cleaned up a bed. The vetch grows into winter and again in early spring; I turn it into the soil about six weeks before planting the new season's crops. For plants with early summer harvest, I'll sow vetch and allow it to grow during the remaining summer and early fall.

A basic three-crop cycle of sowing plants that produce nitrogen, followed by plants that are heavy nitrogen feeders, followed by plants that are light feeders is easy to start.

A four-crop cycle is also easy if you divide plants into groups. Fruiting plants like tomatoes, cucumbers, and pumpkins is one group. Leafy plants like spinach, kale, and broccoli is a second. Root vegetables like carrots, beets, and potatoes is a third. Legumes like fava beans, peas, and lentils is a fourth.

Squash will make way for another crop

Another important reason to rotate your crops is to reduce disease and pest problems. Tomato plants are very susceptible to soil-borne pests and pathogens. In the first year of planting a new bed, tomatoes often do very well, but after being in the same spot for a period of years they suddenly seem to have problems with early blight, fusarium wilt, or leaf spot. The fungus or bacteria that causes many potential tomato problems lives in soil.

Once a plant is infected it spreads that pathogen into more soil. Any new plants in the bed will become infected and help spread it further. Crop rotation breaks this cycle. An infected plant may adversely affect soil, but if there is no new plant to spread the fungus, bacteria, or virus, it will eventually diminish and no longer cause problems.

This works because the pathogens are plant specific; tomato disease will not affect corn, peas, spinach, or pumpkins. Crop rotation helps keep plant problems from becoming established in your garden. Before tomato pathogens develop, another plant like beans grow in the bed, then a plant like spinach is planted before bean problems develop.

Knowing what plants you want to grow and the most likely diseases in your region will help you determine the best cycle. Many fungi that affect tomatoes remain viable in soil past three years so a four-crop rotation is recommended. By the time tomatoes are planted again, the threat is gone.

It's important to be aware of plant families when planning and planting. Tomato, eggplants, and potatoes can be susceptible to the same pathogens. Tomatoes and peppers have similar problems. For that reason similar plant families should not be included in a crop cycle; avoid planting tomatoes and peppers or tomatoes and potatoes in the same bed within a single crop cycle.

I practice a three-crop cycle because it's easy to plan and easy to do. It reduces the potential for problems, but isn't foolproof. If I do encounter problems in a bed, like tomatoes, I'll make note and transform that bed's cycle into a four-crop or five-crop model.

Occasionally I get lazy or behind in planting and repeat crops in a bed. Problems don't automatically develop, but I do try to get back on track for the next year.

For virtually flawless results, a seven-crop cycle can be followed. There are very few pathogens or pests that will survive seven years in soil. Extra effort should be taken to insure adequate legumes are added in the sequence. If you have the space and the inclination to develop this more-complicated cycle plan, seven is the magic number.

Home garden crop rotation also provides a great opportunity to amend your garden soil. Because you're cleaning up each bed before planting a new crop, the addition of compost is easy to do as part of soil preparation before sowing or planting. Tilling in the spent plants from the previous season, like I do with vetch, also adds important organic material to soil.

Only perennials like rhubarb stay in the same spot

The combination of crop rotation and soil amending acts to maintain a healthy soil environment. Beneficial soil bacteria and organisms thrive while harmful ones diminish and the microorganisms help make soil nutrients available to plants, enhancing overall garden production.

It does take a minimal amount of extra time to plan and initiate a new crop cycle. Depending on the size of your garden you may have to forgo certain crops in some years if there isn't enough space for a complete cycle for all garden plants. I accept these limitations as a tradeoff for a better garden overall. Occasionally doing without chard or parsnips or butternut squash is okay.

Home garden crop rotation is easy to do and has many benefits. While you're planning your next garden, think about doing it a little different than last time.



Growing the same crop in the same location year after year can deplete essential soil nutrients in that area, subject plants to harmful diseases, and adversely affect the crop's growth, health, and production. To avoid this, for thousands of years farmers have practiced two, soil-enhancing, growing methods. The first is allowing a field to lie fallow. Periodically after harvest, plants are turned into the soil and allowed to decompose for a year; essentially it is in-place composting.

The second method is crop rotation. Different crops are planted in different years in a single field. For home gardeners, allowing a garden to remain unplanted goes against the very essence of why we garden so practicing crop rotation to prevent a cycle of diminishing harvest is the best idea.

Crop rotation is used to keep soil from losing nutrients that a specific plant needs. A plant like corn needs a lot of nitrogen from the soil. When it is planted in the same spot repeatedly, it will ultimately deplete all available soil nitrogen, committing a slow suicide. On a commercial level, farmers add tons of nitrogen fertilizer to soil to artificially feed the plants. On a local level, home gardeners add nitrogen fertilizer to their soils when they notice reduced plant growth too.

Effective home garden crop rotation can drastically reduce the need for supplemental fertilization and helps maintain a healthy, balanced, nutrient-rich soil. For organic gardeners it is almost a must.

My garden is different each year with crop rotation

The concept of crop rotation is simple. Crop A is planted in year one, Crop B is planted in the same location in year two instead of Crop A, Crop C is planted in year three instead of Crop A or B, and so on until the cycle is repeated.

The simplest cycle is a two-crop rotation where a plant like corn is planted one year and a crop like peas is planted in the same bed the next year. Then the cycle repeats each year with corn followed by peas followed by corn followed by peas; each cycle is completed in two years. A three-crop rotation takes three years to complete. A seven-crop rotation takes seven years.

The selection of the plants for each year is the most important aspect of crop rotation. To be effective, each successive planting should grow differently than the previous planting. In the two-crop example above, corn grows in a spot, depleting soil nitrogen. The next year a legume like peas is planted to replenish soil nitrogen. Many legumes have root nodules that harbor beneficial bacteria that takes nitrogen from the air and fixes it into the soil.

Peas and similar legumes add nitrogen to soil

In a home garden, legumes are a great choice in an easy crop rotation cycle. Peas, beans, lentils, and soybeans provide a nice harvest while adding nitrogen to soil. Other plants like clover, alfalfa, and vetch don't offer a harvest, but have the same beneficial properties. I use vetch in my garden as part of my crop rotations; the vetch is attractive with pretty little purple flowers. After a season of growth that fixes nitrogen into the soil, the plants are tilled in to add additional organic material.

Vetch in my garden

I like to practice a three-year crop rotation in my garden. In recent years I've done a tomato-pea-cucumber cycle, a garlic-pea-spinach cycle, and a beet-bean-cucumber cycle. In each of those cycles I also grew vetch. Vetch can handle cold weather so I sow it in fall after I've harvested and cleaned up a bed. The vetch grows into winter and again in early spring; I turn it into the soil about six weeks before planting the new season's crops. For plants with early summer harvest, I'll sow vetch and allow it to grow during the remaining summer and early fall.

A basic three-crop cycle of sowing plants that produce nitrogen, followed by plants that are heavy nitrogen feeders, followed by plants that are light feeders is easy to start.

A four-crop cycle is also easy if you divide plants into groups. Fruiting plants like tomatoes, cucumbers, and pumpkins is one group. Leafy plants like spinach, kale, and broccoli is a second. Root vegetables like carrots, beets, and potatoes is a third. Legumes like fava beans, peas, and lentils is a fourth.

Squash will make way for another crop

Another important reason to rotate your crops is to reduce disease and pest problems. Tomato plants are very susceptible to soil-borne pests and pathogens. In the first year of planting a new bed, tomatoes often do very well, but after being in the same spot for a period of years they suddenly seem to have problems with early blight, fusarium wilt, or leaf spot. The fungus or bacteria that causes many potential tomato problems lives in soil.

Once a plant is infected it spreads that pathogen into more soil. Any new plants in the bed will become infected and help spread it further. Crop rotation breaks this cycle. An infected plant may adversely affect soil, but if there is no new plant to spread the fungus, bacteria, or virus, it will eventually diminish and no longer cause problems.

This works because the pathogens are plant specific; tomato disease will not affect corn, peas, spinach, or pumpkins. Crop rotation helps keep plant problems from becoming established in your garden. Before tomato pathogens develop, another plant like beans grow in the bed, then a plant like spinach is planted before bean problems develop.

Knowing what plants you want to grow and the most likely diseases in your region will help you determine the best cycle. Many fungi that affect tomatoes remain viable in soil past three years so a four-crop rotation is recommended. By the time tomatoes are planted again, the threat is gone.

It's important to be aware of plant families when planning and planting. Tomato, eggplants, and potatoes can be susceptible to the same pathogens. Tomatoes and peppers have similar problems. For that reason similar plant families should not be included in a crop cycle; avoid planting tomatoes and peppers or tomatoes and potatoes in the same bed within a single crop cycle.

I practice a three-crop cycle because it's easy to plan and easy to do. It reduces the potential for problems, but isn't foolproof. If I do encounter problems in a bed, like tomatoes, I'll make note and transform that bed's cycle into a four-crop or five-crop model.

Occasionally I get lazy or behind in planting and repeat crops in a bed. Problems don't automatically develop, but I do try to get back on track for the next year.

For virtually flawless results, a seven-crop cycle can be followed. There are very few pathogens or pests that will survive seven years in soil. Extra effort should be taken to insure adequate legumes are added in the sequence. If you have the space and the inclination to develop this more-complicated cycle plan, seven is the magic number.

Home garden crop rotation also provides a great opportunity to amend your garden soil. Because you're cleaning up each bed before planting a new crop, the addition of compost is easy to do as part of soil preparation before sowing or planting. Tilling in the spent plants from the previous season, like I do with vetch, also adds important organic material to soil.

Only perennials like rhubarb stay in the same spot

The combination of crop rotation and soil amending acts to maintain a healthy soil environment. Beneficial soil bacteria and organisms thrive while harmful ones diminish and the microorganisms help make soil nutrients available to plants, enhancing overall garden production.

It does take a minimal amount of extra time to plan and initiate a new crop cycle. Depending on the size of your garden you may have to forgo certain crops in some years if there isn't enough space for a complete cycle for all garden plants. I accept these limitations as a tradeoff for a better garden overall. Occasionally doing without chard or parsnips or butternut squash is okay.

Home garden crop rotation is easy to do and has many benefits. While you're planning your next garden, think about doing it a little different than last time.



Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Starting a New Garden

Dreaming of, planning, and building a garden are my favorite aspects of gardening. I like selecting plants, tending to them, and enjoying the fruits of my labors, but it's the actual garden development and construction that gives me the most satisfaction. Standing quietly, looking at a bare spot for hours or days, and envisioning the potential that lies in the soil offers me a true connection with the process of creation, growth, and fulfillment.

Many flower, grass, and xeriscape beds have adorned my landscape over the years and planning the steps through completion have evolved with each of them. Staking out a space and bringing it to bloom is fascinating, but it is in the development of vegetable gardens that my true gardening spirit soars.

I've enjoyed the effort and success of two major vegetable gardens. One began as a rock-covered slope that evolved into a productive, terraced, lush and verdant space. Over the course of eight years it progressed from barren, sandy soil to an amalgam of beneficial amendments producing healthy plants in a challenging environment.

The gardening site in the beginning

The finished garden

The second garden began as a sun-baked patch of prairie sod and evolved into a deer-resistant, biochar-infused, raised-bed nirvana at 7,500 feet elevation. Three years of labor have just begun to lay the foundation for future growth.

The starting point

A transformed space

Now I have the opportunity to birth a third vegetable garden. Last week we closed the contract on a house back in the city of Colorado Springs and will begin the move in a few months. The new garden spot will be a full 1,000 feet lower in elevation and grant me two to four extra weeks in the growing season. It too has deer and a new challenge, rabbits.

A bunny in the front yard

A previous resident had a good-sized vegetable garden there many years ago, but it is overgrown and in great need of repair. A rusting iron skeleton of hoops cover a large bed that will soon support a plastic cover protecting the plants beneath. The basics are there, and it offers great potential.

The forgotten garden

Huge stands of scrub oak cover the lot in intertwining masses. Dying, spindly pines and harshly-hacked junipers fill forgotten spaces. Ignored lawns are now nothing but eroding dirt. Supposedly-decorative rock smothers large spans of abused soil. It is a perfect gardening palette and I'm thrilled for the opportunity to create a beautiful landscape.

Already I've spent long minutes standing, observing, and imagining. The ground is currently frozen, but the process of clearing the brush, cutting straggly trees, and terracing the slopes will start soon. As soon as the soil is warm enough to work, amending and improving begin.

The barren back yard

As with past gardens, I'll document each step. I'll discuss the missteps and successes. I expect to make mistakes along the way, but also to learn many new things. On these pages, photos and words will share my thoughts and spread my knowledge.

This will be my biggest gardening undertaking to date. An entire landscape screams to be transformed. In the vegetable garden the positive transformation may be quickest to observe, but it won't be the only space encountering a new life. This effort will be years in the making and I anticipate the results with joy.

Join me as the adventure begins.
Dreaming of, planning, and building a garden are my favorite aspects of gardening. I like selecting plants, tending to them, and enjoying the fruits of my labors, but it's the actual garden development and construction that gives me the most satisfaction. Standing quietly, looking at a bare spot for hours or days, and envisioning the potential that lies in the soil offers me a true connection with the process of creation, growth, and fulfillment.

Many flower, grass, and xeriscape beds have adorned my landscape over the years and planning the steps through completion have evolved with each of them. Staking out a space and bringing it to bloom is fascinating, but it is in the development of vegetable gardens that my true gardening spirit soars.

I've enjoyed the effort and success of two major vegetable gardens. One began as a rock-covered slope that evolved into a productive, terraced, lush and verdant space. Over the course of eight years it progressed from barren, sandy soil to an amalgam of beneficial amendments producing healthy plants in a challenging environment.

The gardening site in the beginning

The finished garden

The second garden began as a sun-baked patch of prairie sod and evolved into a deer-resistant, biochar-infused, raised-bed nirvana at 7,500 feet elevation. Three years of labor have just begun to lay the foundation for future growth.

The starting point

A transformed space

Now I have the opportunity to birth a third vegetable garden. Last week we closed the contract on a house back in the city of Colorado Springs and will begin the move in a few months. The new garden spot will be a full 1,000 feet lower in elevation and grant me two to four extra weeks in the growing season. It too has deer and a new challenge, rabbits.

A bunny in the front yard

A previous resident had a good-sized vegetable garden there many years ago, but it is overgrown and in great need of repair. A rusting iron skeleton of hoops cover a large bed that will soon support a plastic cover protecting the plants beneath. The basics are there, and it offers great potential.

The forgotten garden

Huge stands of scrub oak cover the lot in intertwining masses. Dying, spindly pines and harshly-hacked junipers fill forgotten spaces. Ignored lawns are now nothing but eroding dirt. Supposedly-decorative rock smothers large spans of abused soil. It is a perfect gardening palette and I'm thrilled for the opportunity to create a beautiful landscape.

Already I've spent long minutes standing, observing, and imagining. The ground is currently frozen, but the process of clearing the brush, cutting straggly trees, and terracing the slopes will start soon. As soon as the soil is warm enough to work, amending and improving begin.

The barren back yard

As with past gardens, I'll document each step. I'll discuss the missteps and successes. I expect to make mistakes along the way, but also to learn many new things. On these pages, photos and words will share my thoughts and spread my knowledge.

This will be my biggest gardening undertaking to date. An entire landscape screams to be transformed. In the vegetable garden the positive transformation may be quickest to observe, but it won't be the only space encountering a new life. This effort will be years in the making and I anticipate the results with joy.

Join me as the adventure begins.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

How to Read a Seed Packet

Ordering seed packets online or picking up a few as you wander through a garden center is a nice way to get motivated for spring planting. The colorful photos in catalogs and the eye-catching store displays can get our gardening fingers twitching. One of the best things about buying seeds is that almost everything you need to know about the plant you want to grow comes with the seeds. Seed packets house a wealth of knowledge and can make the planting and growing process easy.

Some of last year's seed packets

Reading and understanding what the seed packets say can be a bit daunting and hard to understand for new gardeners. Even experienced gardeners can be thrown for a loop by some phrasing. By focusing on the important pieces of information, you can start sowing your seeds in no time at all with everything you need to know in hand.

A wealth of info on a packet

Some packets will show this information as an image instead of with words, but the information is the same.

Images can replace words

Here are 20 things to look for on a seed packet before purchase and at the time you place seeds in soil. Most of it is usually on the back side of the packet.

1. When to Sow. You'll find terminology for when you can begin growing the seed different on different packets; each seed supplier wants to be unique. Look for key phrases like: "Start Indoors"; "Sowing Indoors"; "Sowing Outdoors"; "Direct Sow". This is where you find out the best time to begin growing the seeds. Some seeds can be started indoors while others should only be sown outside. Finding this out as soon as you buy the packet is important for determining a planting schedule.

Some seed packets will be very specific by saying something like, "start seeds 3-4 weeks prior to your last frost date," or "start from seed indoors 4-8 weeks prior to the last frost of spring," or "sow after all danger of last spring frost and soil has warmed thoroughly." This makes it easy if you know your average Last Frost Date (see the link to "Know Your Last Frost Date" below).

If the packet says something like, "direct sow after danger of frost", that means plant outside only. If there is no mention of starting seeds inside, that also means you should sow outside only.

Others will include information for both starting indoors and for sowing outdoors. For those seeds you can do it either way.

2. Where to Sow. This is a very important piece of information too. If the packet says "sow in fertile soil in full sun," that's what you need to do for best results; don't sow in unamended soil in the shade and expect anything good to grow. "Direct sow in well drained soil" means that full sun isn't as important as the soil. Take the time to prepare the site for your seeds.

For starting indoors, the assumption is usually that you're growing in a nice soil medium or potting soil so packets will rarely tell you to do that. The packet may say something like, "place in a warm location and keep moist" or "do not let the soil dry out." That's an important clue to keep an eye on the seeds and new sprouts so they don't dry out and die.

3. Seed Depth. Different seeds require different conditions to germinate; you can't plant everything the same. Placing the seed at the proper depth will improve germination results. The "Seed Depth" or "Planting Depth" will usually be described in inches. If it's a specific number like 1/2", try to get close to that depth when you sow. If it's a range like 1/2" - 1", you have a little more leeway, but you still need to get within that range.

"Surface-sown" or "lightly cover seeds" means you don't need to place seeds in a measured hole; you can sprinkle them on the soil surface and sprinkle a little soil over them to keep them from blowing away.

4. Seed Spacing. Packets will also be very specific about how far apart the seeds should be sown. This helps ensure that the plants will have enough room to grow. Often it's expressed as a range of inches that the seeds are apart from each other, along with how far apart rows should be. While many traditional gardens may have plants 6"-10" apart in rows that are 2'-3' apart, you can usually plant a block of plants in a bed with everything 6"-10" apart from each other; it comes down to how you garden, with rows or blocks.

The packet may also tell you to "thin plants" to a certain spacing. This provides a number for how far apart the final plants should be. For example, onions can be sown close together and after germination should be thinned to 5"-7" apart for bulbing varieties or 2" apart for bunching varieties.

5. Days to Germination. Knowing how long it takes for the seeds to send a sprout to the surface helps you determine if conditions and seed viability are good. It also tells you if you should relax and not worry while the plants are growing. Some seeds only need a couple days to germinate while others may need a couple weeks. Don't assume something's wrong if you don't see plants right away.

Packets will give a specific range of days for "days to germination" or when "seedlings emerge." Within this range of days you should begin to see little green seedlings begin to break through the soil surface. If at the end of the range you still don't see plants, that's when you should become concerned. The soil heat or moisture may be wrong or the seeds could be bad. Give it a few extra days before you completely sow over again.

A few years ago my squash seeds were late in germinating and I became concerned. Just about the time I began to sow again, the first seedlings emerged. My guess is that we had a few cold nights that lowered the soil temperature enough to delay germination.

6. Soil Temperature for Germination. This information is only available on very thorough seed packets like those from Territorial Seed Company. The soil temperature needs to reach certain levels for all seeds to germinate. As mentioned above, if you sow when the soil is too cold it will affect how well the seeds germinate.

Most seed packets cover this subject with the general information described in "When to Sow" as described above.

7. Days to Maturity. This may also be expressed as "Days to Harvest" and may be the most important bit of information on the packet for vegetable garden seeds. This is how long it takes for the plant to reach the point when it begins to produce fruit. What's critical to know about this number is that it is based on when the plant is in the outside soil. Though seedlings may be growing for weeks inside, the days to maturity don't begin until transplanting outside. For seeds sown directly in the garden, it is the point when the plant has true leaves.

The reason this is such an important number is because many gardeners may not have a growing season long enough for specific plants. Many varieties of garden plants like melons, heirloom tomatoes, and winter squash have very long days to maturity. On average, my growing season at high altitude is about 130 days. If I try to grow a plant that takes 120 days to mature, I'm pushing the limits of my growing season and probably won't get any ripe fruit.

As important as this number is, it is just a guideline and not a definite timeline. Typically it is the number of days when you should expect fruit, assuming everything about your growing season is average. If you've had great conditions and you've done a great job caring for your plants, you may get fruit sooner. If you've had cool weather and the soil is marginal, it will probably take longer.

Before sowing seeds, have a good understanding of whether the plant will grow to maturity in your specific garden.

8. Light requirements. This goes along with "where to sow." Look for "sun", "full sun", "shade/sun", or an image of the sun on the seed packet. This guidance isn't for where you plant the seed, but rather where the final plant needs to be. Consider how the sun moves during the growing season in your garden, particularly if you have trees or fences. You may sow a seed in a spot with full sun, but at the end of the season that spot may end up in partial or full shade. The plant can suffer if it doesn't have the light requirements listed on the packet.

9. Growing Tips. Many seed packets will provide additional information about subjects like transplanting, weeding, how to water, pollination, thinning, and mulching. This varies greatly between seed companies. If there is extra information on the packet you should pay special attention to it because it is unique and probably important.

10. Fertilization. Few seed packets include this information, but it's nice to know. If you find it on the seed packet you're looking at, you're probably dealing with a company that cares about more than just selling seeds.

11. How to Harvest. This is another helpful piece of information found on few seed packets. This can be beneficial for plants like peas or beans that have different tastes and textures depending on when they're harvested. Suggestions for the size at which to harvest squash is helpful too. You'll seldom find this kind of information on seed packets for common plants like tomatoes that are colorful at harvest, but it's nice to find on less common plants like parsnips (A Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company seed packet says to harvest parsnips "in autumn after a few light frosts have mellowed and sweetened the creamy-white roots").

12. Diseases and Pests. Information about diseases and pests may be the rarest information on seed packets, but it shows up occasionally. If a hybrid is particularly resistant to a common scourge it will often be mentioned. It may also be mentioned in the form of acronyms after the plant's name, particularly in tomatoes. "VFN" on a tomato seed packet means the hybrid is resistant to verticilium wilt, fusarium wilt, and nematodes. You can find out what all the codes mean with a simple internet search.

13. Seed specifications. All seed packets should tell for what year the seeds were packaged. This may be the second most important piece of information on the packet and is often overlooked. This is usually printed on one of the flaps that seal the packet, either top or bottom. It may be printed in big letters on the front. Regardless of the location, find it before you buy.

Seeds don't last forever and some only remain viable for a year or two. If you end up buying a packet of seeds that is a couple of years old, you may end up with a very low germination percentage. Try to always buy seeds for the year you plan to plant.

Some packets will list the percentage of germination you can expect and how the long the seed life is. This is helpful if you don't sow all of the seeds and want to save the packet to plant next year. I save many seeds from one year to the next because many packets come with more seeds than I can use; I accept a lower germination rate with older seeds.

14. Botanical name. Many seed packets include the Latin name of the plant so you can increase your scientific knowledge. This can be helpful for conversations with botanists, but in practice I don't know many gardeners who use Latin descriptions on a regular basis. Probably because of that commonality, I'm finding that fewer packets include the botanical description and are opting instead for common names. Even when it is included it is often a generic title; on two different seed packets from Territorial Seed Company, one for shallots and one for Spanish onions, only the common name for bulb onions, "Allium cepa", was listed.

15. Blooms. Like for vegetable fruiting, many flowers seeds will include the blooming period. It is often expressed as "summer", "midsummer", "fall", or something similar. This is very helpful so you know how long it will take for new plants to flower and for how long the flowers will be produced.

Typically this is information on annual flower seeds. For perennials expect information about how long it will take for the plant to produce flowers; it could be one to two years after sowing.

16. Preservation. Ferry-Morse seed packets include a "preserve by" method on packets so you have an idea of what to do with abundant crops. This is great for new gardeners or new preservers so they understand that there are alternatives to eating everything right away.

17. A picture. Almost all seed packets have a picture of what the plant, fruit, or flower will look like at maturity. The picture is often intended to grab your attention for an impulse buy in box stores and garden centers. It may be a photo or drawing; I prefer a color photo so I can know what to look for at harvest.

Be sure to read the text throughout the seed packet to fully understand what you're planting because some companies may post the same picture for different varieties. I have several packets of tomato seeds from Baker Creek with the same display of various tomatoes on the front; only a sticker with the name of each packet’s tomato variety differentiates them.

Some companies like Livingston Seed will have clear plastic on the front of the packet along with a photo. This helps you see the actual seeds so you know their quality and quantity.

18. Weight. It's pretty universal that seeds are weighed in grams. Initially this may not mean a lot to you other than give an idea of how many seeds are in the packet; 3 grams of sunflower seeds will produce a few dozen plants while 3 grams of radish seeds will produce hundreds of plants. I find it most useful when comparing the price of seeds from different companies and for determining how big a packet to buy. I know 1/2 gram of onion seeds will do me fine and I don't need to buy more.

19. Contents. Look at what the packet actually contains. Some packets will actually tell you how many seeds are in them. Along with weight this gives a good idea of the space you need for all of the seeds. Read carefully. I bought a relatively expensive packet of monster pumpkin seeds only to discover three actual seeds when I opened it; it forewarned me if I had looked at weight and contents more closely.

When you're buying a blend, the photo is often misleading. I've purchased flower seed blends that look great on the front, but when you read the contents you find a list of plants that may be far different from the image. Also for flower seeds it's beneficial to read the contents so you don't buy a blend that may include an invasive species for your area.

For vegetable blends, particularly salad blends, reading the contents will help you identify the plants as they grow. It's nice to know you like the purple leaves in your garden, but looking at the contents of the seed packet can help you identify it as "Orach" (this happened to me).

Also note if there's any filler in the seed packet. "Inert matter" is anything except seeds. "90% inert matter" means it is only 10 percent seeds.

20. Company Name. Pay attention to the name of the company selling the seeds. You may find a favorite for quality, price, information, or find that certain packets have limitations. I love the seeds from Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company, but I find their seed packets to be hit or miss. Some of their packets are filled with helpful info with a conversational tone that is easy to read, but others are often stingy with information. It helps that their catalog is about the best in the business.

For beginning gardeners I often recommend the seed packets at garden centers from companies like Burpee or Ferry-Morse. Their packets have nice, visual representations of how to sow seeds, along with the important basics.

Ultimately selecting a seed packet comes down to the gardener buying what he or she wants to grow in their garden, but if you like the seeds and like the information on the packet it helps to remember the company that gave you a good product.

Those are the 20 things you can expect to find on seed packets. I've yet to find a company that includes all of them on a single packet. Decide if certain factors are important to you and look for those factors when you get new seeds. If you don't fully understand a statement, number, or picture, refer to my descriptions above and do a little more research on your own.

I recommend saving seed packets after you've sown all of the seeds. I keep each year's seed selection in a box during that season so I can refer back to the packets if I need to be reminded about a variety or to confirm important things like days to harvest, especially when the fruit is slow to set.

Write yourself notes on the packets so you can refer to them in the future and know which ones you liked, or not.  They're like mini encyclopedias of gardening information. These little envelopes usually provide everything you need to get the seed in soil and begin growing.


 Link to "Know Your last Frost Date"
Ordering seed packets online or picking up a few as you wander through a garden center is a nice way to get motivated for spring planting. The colorful photos in catalogs and the eye-catching store displays can get our gardening fingers twitching. One of the best things about buying seeds is that almost everything you need to know about the plant you want to grow comes with the seeds. Seed packets house a wealth of knowledge and can make the planting and growing process easy.

Some of last year's seed packets

Reading and understanding what the seed packets say can be a bit daunting and hard to understand for new gardeners. Even experienced gardeners can be thrown for a loop by some phrasing. By focusing on the important pieces of information, you can start sowing your seeds in no time at all with everything you need to know in hand.

A wealth of info on a packet

Some packets will show this information as an image instead of with words, but the information is the same.

Images can replace words

Here are 20 things to look for on a seed packet before purchase and at the time you place seeds in soil. Most of it is usually on the back side of the packet.

1. When to Sow. You'll find terminology for when you can begin growing the seed different on different packets; each seed supplier wants to be unique. Look for key phrases like: "Start Indoors"; "Sowing Indoors"; "Sowing Outdoors"; "Direct Sow". This is where you find out the best time to begin growing the seeds. Some seeds can be started indoors while others should only be sown outside. Finding this out as soon as you buy the packet is important for determining a planting schedule.

Some seed packets will be very specific by saying something like, "start seeds 3-4 weeks prior to your last frost date," or "start from seed indoors 4-8 weeks prior to the last frost of spring," or "sow after all danger of last spring frost and soil has warmed thoroughly." This makes it easy if you know your average Last Frost Date (see the link to "Know Your Last Frost Date" below).

If the packet says something like, "direct sow after danger of frost", that means plant outside only. If there is no mention of starting seeds inside, that also means you should sow outside only.

Others will include information for both starting indoors and for sowing outdoors. For those seeds you can do it either way.

2. Where to Sow. This is a very important piece of information too. If the packet says "sow in fertile soil in full sun," that's what you need to do for best results; don't sow in unamended soil in the shade and expect anything good to grow. "Direct sow in well drained soil" means that full sun isn't as important as the soil. Take the time to prepare the site for your seeds.

For starting indoors, the assumption is usually that you're growing in a nice soil medium or potting soil so packets will rarely tell you to do that. The packet may say something like, "place in a warm location and keep moist" or "do not let the soil dry out." That's an important clue to keep an eye on the seeds and new sprouts so they don't dry out and die.

3. Seed Depth. Different seeds require different conditions to germinate; you can't plant everything the same. Placing the seed at the proper depth will improve germination results. The "Seed Depth" or "Planting Depth" will usually be described in inches. If it's a specific number like 1/2", try to get close to that depth when you sow. If it's a range like 1/2" - 1", you have a little more leeway, but you still need to get within that range.

"Surface-sown" or "lightly cover seeds" means you don't need to place seeds in a measured hole; you can sprinkle them on the soil surface and sprinkle a little soil over them to keep them from blowing away.

4. Seed Spacing. Packets will also be very specific about how far apart the seeds should be sown. This helps ensure that the plants will have enough room to grow. Often it's expressed as a range of inches that the seeds are apart from each other, along with how far apart rows should be. While many traditional gardens may have plants 6"-10" apart in rows that are 2'-3' apart, you can usually plant a block of plants in a bed with everything 6"-10" apart from each other; it comes down to how you garden, with rows or blocks.

The packet may also tell you to "thin plants" to a certain spacing. This provides a number for how far apart the final plants should be. For example, onions can be sown close together and after germination should be thinned to 5"-7" apart for bulbing varieties or 2" apart for bunching varieties.

5. Days to Germination. Knowing how long it takes for the seeds to send a sprout to the surface helps you determine if conditions and seed viability are good. It also tells you if you should relax and not worry while the plants are growing. Some seeds only need a couple days to germinate while others may need a couple weeks. Don't assume something's wrong if you don't see plants right away.

Packets will give a specific range of days for "days to germination" or when "seedlings emerge." Within this range of days you should begin to see little green seedlings begin to break through the soil surface. If at the end of the range you still don't see plants, that's when you should become concerned. The soil heat or moisture may be wrong or the seeds could be bad. Give it a few extra days before you completely sow over again.

A few years ago my squash seeds were late in germinating and I became concerned. Just about the time I began to sow again, the first seedlings emerged. My guess is that we had a few cold nights that lowered the soil temperature enough to delay germination.

6. Soil Temperature for Germination. This information is only available on very thorough seed packets like those from Territorial Seed Company. The soil temperature needs to reach certain levels for all seeds to germinate. As mentioned above, if you sow when the soil is too cold it will affect how well the seeds germinate.

Most seed packets cover this subject with the general information described in "When to Sow" as described above.

7. Days to Maturity. This may also be expressed as "Days to Harvest" and may be the most important bit of information on the packet for vegetable garden seeds. This is how long it takes for the plant to reach the point when it begins to produce fruit. What's critical to know about this number is that it is based on when the plant is in the outside soil. Though seedlings may be growing for weeks inside, the days to maturity don't begin until transplanting outside. For seeds sown directly in the garden, it is the point when the plant has true leaves.

The reason this is such an important number is because many gardeners may not have a growing season long enough for specific plants. Many varieties of garden plants like melons, heirloom tomatoes, and winter squash have very long days to maturity. On average, my growing season at high altitude is about 130 days. If I try to grow a plant that takes 120 days to mature, I'm pushing the limits of my growing season and probably won't get any ripe fruit.

As important as this number is, it is just a guideline and not a definite timeline. Typically it is the number of days when you should expect fruit, assuming everything about your growing season is average. If you've had great conditions and you've done a great job caring for your plants, you may get fruit sooner. If you've had cool weather and the soil is marginal, it will probably take longer.

Before sowing seeds, have a good understanding of whether the plant will grow to maturity in your specific garden.

8. Light requirements. This goes along with "where to sow." Look for "sun", "full sun", "shade/sun", or an image of the sun on the seed packet. This guidance isn't for where you plant the seed, but rather where the final plant needs to be. Consider how the sun moves during the growing season in your garden, particularly if you have trees or fences. You may sow a seed in a spot with full sun, but at the end of the season that spot may end up in partial or full shade. The plant can suffer if it doesn't have the light requirements listed on the packet.

9. Growing Tips. Many seed packets will provide additional information about subjects like transplanting, weeding, how to water, pollination, thinning, and mulching. This varies greatly between seed companies. If there is extra information on the packet you should pay special attention to it because it is unique and probably important.

10. Fertilization. Few seed packets include this information, but it's nice to know. If you find it on the seed packet you're looking at, you're probably dealing with a company that cares about more than just selling seeds.

11. How to Harvest. This is another helpful piece of information found on few seed packets. This can be beneficial for plants like peas or beans that have different tastes and textures depending on when they're harvested. Suggestions for the size at which to harvest squash is helpful too. You'll seldom find this kind of information on seed packets for common plants like tomatoes that are colorful at harvest, but it's nice to find on less common plants like parsnips (A Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company seed packet says to harvest parsnips "in autumn after a few light frosts have mellowed and sweetened the creamy-white roots").

12. Diseases and Pests. Information about diseases and pests may be the rarest information on seed packets, but it shows up occasionally. If a hybrid is particularly resistant to a common scourge it will often be mentioned. It may also be mentioned in the form of acronyms after the plant's name, particularly in tomatoes. "VFN" on a tomato seed packet means the hybrid is resistant to verticilium wilt, fusarium wilt, and nematodes. You can find out what all the codes mean with a simple internet search.

13. Seed specifications. All seed packets should tell for what year the seeds were packaged. This may be the second most important piece of information on the packet and is often overlooked. This is usually printed on one of the flaps that seal the packet, either top or bottom. It may be printed in big letters on the front. Regardless of the location, find it before you buy.

Seeds don't last forever and some only remain viable for a year or two. If you end up buying a packet of seeds that is a couple of years old, you may end up with a very low germination percentage. Try to always buy seeds for the year you plan to plant.

Some packets will list the percentage of germination you can expect and how the long the seed life is. This is helpful if you don't sow all of the seeds and want to save the packet to plant next year. I save many seeds from one year to the next because many packets come with more seeds than I can use; I accept a lower germination rate with older seeds.

14. Botanical name. Many seed packets include the Latin name of the plant so you can increase your scientific knowledge. This can be helpful for conversations with botanists, but in practice I don't know many gardeners who use Latin descriptions on a regular basis. Probably because of that commonality, I'm finding that fewer packets include the botanical description and are opting instead for common names. Even when it is included it is often a generic title; on two different seed packets from Territorial Seed Company, one for shallots and one for Spanish onions, only the common name for bulb onions, "Allium cepa", was listed.

15. Blooms. Like for vegetable fruiting, many flowers seeds will include the blooming period. It is often expressed as "summer", "midsummer", "fall", or something similar. This is very helpful so you know how long it will take for new plants to flower and for how long the flowers will be produced.

Typically this is information on annual flower seeds. For perennials expect information about how long it will take for the plant to produce flowers; it could be one to two years after sowing.

16. Preservation. Ferry-Morse seed packets include a "preserve by" method on packets so you have an idea of what to do with abundant crops. This is great for new gardeners or new preservers so they understand that there are alternatives to eating everything right away.

17. A picture. Almost all seed packets have a picture of what the plant, fruit, or flower will look like at maturity. The picture is often intended to grab your attention for an impulse buy in box stores and garden centers. It may be a photo or drawing; I prefer a color photo so I can know what to look for at harvest.

Be sure to read the text throughout the seed packet to fully understand what you're planting because some companies may post the same picture for different varieties. I have several packets of tomato seeds from Baker Creek with the same display of various tomatoes on the front; only a sticker with the name of each packet’s tomato variety differentiates them.

Some companies like Livingston Seed will have clear plastic on the front of the packet along with a photo. This helps you see the actual seeds so you know their quality and quantity.

18. Weight. It's pretty universal that seeds are weighed in grams. Initially this may not mean a lot to you other than give an idea of how many seeds are in the packet; 3 grams of sunflower seeds will produce a few dozen plants while 3 grams of radish seeds will produce hundreds of plants. I find it most useful when comparing the price of seeds from different companies and for determining how big a packet to buy. I know 1/2 gram of onion seeds will do me fine and I don't need to buy more.

19. Contents. Look at what the packet actually contains. Some packets will actually tell you how many seeds are in them. Along with weight this gives a good idea of the space you need for all of the seeds. Read carefully. I bought a relatively expensive packet of monster pumpkin seeds only to discover three actual seeds when I opened it; it forewarned me if I had looked at weight and contents more closely.

When you're buying a blend, the photo is often misleading. I've purchased flower seed blends that look great on the front, but when you read the contents you find a list of plants that may be far different from the image. Also for flower seeds it's beneficial to read the contents so you don't buy a blend that may include an invasive species for your area.

For vegetable blends, particularly salad blends, reading the contents will help you identify the plants as they grow. It's nice to know you like the purple leaves in your garden, but looking at the contents of the seed packet can help you identify it as "Orach" (this happened to me).

Also note if there's any filler in the seed packet. "Inert matter" is anything except seeds. "90% inert matter" means it is only 10 percent seeds.

20. Company Name. Pay attention to the name of the company selling the seeds. You may find a favorite for quality, price, information, or find that certain packets have limitations. I love the seeds from Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company, but I find their seed packets to be hit or miss. Some of their packets are filled with helpful info with a conversational tone that is easy to read, but others are often stingy with information. It helps that their catalog is about the best in the business.

For beginning gardeners I often recommend the seed packets at garden centers from companies like Burpee or Ferry-Morse. Their packets have nice, visual representations of how to sow seeds, along with the important basics.

Ultimately selecting a seed packet comes down to the gardener buying what he or she wants to grow in their garden, but if you like the seeds and like the information on the packet it helps to remember the company that gave you a good product.

Those are the 20 things you can expect to find on seed packets. I've yet to find a company that includes all of them on a single packet. Decide if certain factors are important to you and look for those factors when you get new seeds. If you don't fully understand a statement, number, or picture, refer to my descriptions above and do a little more research on your own.

I recommend saving seed packets after you've sown all of the seeds. I keep each year's seed selection in a box during that season so I can refer back to the packets if I need to be reminded about a variety or to confirm important things like days to harvest, especially when the fruit is slow to set.

Write yourself notes on the packets so you can refer to them in the future and know which ones you liked, or not.  They're like mini encyclopedias of gardening information. These little envelopes usually provide everything you need to get the seed in soil and begin growing.


 Link to "
Know Your last Frost Date"