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    Save the Date: Perennial Plant Society’s 30th Plant Sale is April 4, 2020, 9 a.m. – 1 p.m. at the new Expo 3 Building at The Fairgrounds Nashville. Here’s where you can find the newest varieties of perennials, shrubs, vines and annuals from local growers, along with long-time, never-fail favorites, ready for spring planting. Learn more at the PPS website.

     

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Watermelon: Don’t harvest too early

QUESTION: How can you tell when a watermelon is ready to harvest?

WatermelonIt’s tempting to cut that beautiful watermelon from the vine as soon as it looks like it’s big enough, but size is not the only clue to ripeness. Before you cut the melon from the vine, turn it over and note the color of the ground spot – where the melon rests on the ground. The spot should be creamy yellow. If it’s white, the watermelon is not ripe enough to cut.

A tendril grows at the end of the watermelon. If it’s still green, wait a few more days before you harvest. If it is half-dead, it’s likely the melon is ripe. The age-old method of giving the fruit a thump may also work; a ripe watermelon sounds hollow when you thump it.

Cantaloupes and other small melons don’t have the tendril or a significant soil spot, like watermelons, but there are other clues to gauge its ripeness. Cantaloupes develop a golden color under the netted rinds when the melon is ripe. They also soften at the end opposite the stem when they ripen, which you can feel if you press gently. Ripe cantaloupes also have a sweet fragrance, and the melon will separate easily from the vine.

 

 

What’s blooming indoors? Meyer lemon

I have a Meyer lemon tree that I keep indoors. It’s often full of blooms and the flowers smell wonderful. I’m always looking for lemons to start growing, but the flowers dry up and fall off and I never get any fruit.

meyer lemon flower closeup 3As long as the tree is indoors where the air is still and there aren’t any insects flying around, your Meyer lemon will most likely continue to be a delightfully fragrant but non-fruit-bearing plant. What the flowers need to produce fruit is the process of pollination.

You’ve heard of the birds and the bees, right? Outdoors, flying insects (bees and other pollinators) go from flower to flower, dipping into the pollen on the stamens – the cluster of thin filaments — and spreading it to the stigma at the center of the flower.

Indoors, if you want fruit, you’ll have to take care of that little detail yourself. Lemon trees are self-pollinating, meaning that the flowers shed pollen directly onto the stigma, but they still may rely on wind or insects — or human intervention, if necessary — to shake things up.

Here’s how you can help: As the flowers open, use a cotton swab or a small artist’s paintbrush to collect pollen from the anthers (the tips of the stamens), then rub the stigma with the swab to transfer the pollen. It’s a slow process, but the tree should begin to produce lemons (which grow fairly slowly, by the way).

Meyer lemons growing indoors where winters are cold need a lot of sunlight, and they also benefit from time spent outside when the weather warms up. Place a lemon tree in a protected spot outdoors, moving it gradually into full sun, when nighttime temperatures stay above about 50 degrees. Outdoors, the bees will do the job of pollinating the flowers, of course.

In general, Meyer lemon trees thrive in good potting mix in a container that drains well. Make sure the soil doesn’t dry out completely, but don’t overwater it, either. Fertilize regularly with an organic fertilizer designed for citrus, following directions on the label. (I’ve used Espoma’s Organic Citrus-tone citrus and avocado food, with good results).

Melons: Ripe and ready

QUESTION: I am growing melons — watermelon and cantaloupe – for the first time. How can you tell when the fruit is ready to pick?

Nothing could be more frustrating than cutting into a freshly picked watermelon and finding that it is not completely ripe. Before you cut the melon from the vine, look for these clues:

Turn the watermelon over. The ground spot (where the watermelon rests on the ground) should be creamy yellow. If the spot is white, the melon is not ready.

On a watermelon, there is a tendril growing at the end of the fruit. If it is still green, give the melon a few more days to ripen. If it is half-dead, it’s likely the melon is ripe or nearly so.

Give it a thump. A ripe watermelon sounds hollow (though some say it’s difficult to really hear this).

Cantaloupes and other small melons don’t have the tendril or a significant soil spot, like watermelons, but there are other clues. Cantaloupes, which have netted rinds, develop a golden color under the netting when the melon is ripe. They also soften at the end opposite the stem when they ripen, which you can feel if you press gently. Ripe cantaloupes also have a sweet fragrance. It will also separate easily from the vine

 

Grow the best blueberry bushes

QUESTION: I have had blueberry bushes for 2 years and they still look awful. I’ve been told to put coffee grounds around them but they don’t grow or produce fruit.  We have them in a bed with some calla lilies which are doing very well. The plants were healthy plants from the co-op.  I have a friend in Clarksville that has lush bushes with lots of fruit.  I asked if they did anything special and she said “no”.  Any tips to help us would be appreciated. — Karen in Donelson

Blueberries need sun, water and the proper soil pH to produce a good crop.

Blueberries are pretty finicky about what they need to grow well and produce, so I’ll let you know what those needs are, and you can decide if they’re getting what they require.

Do you know what the variety of your plants? Different types are adapted for different regions, and in Middle Tennessee, the varieties called rabbiteye and southern highbush blueberries are the most reliable choices.

Furthermore, they are not always self-fertile, which means you need more than one variety for cross-pollination to take place (and the insects buzzing around to pollinate them at the right time).

Now, the soil. Blueberries require acid soil, with a pH level of 4.5 to 5.6, so if you don’t have that information, have the soil tested. Coffee grounds are acidic, and that’s why the addition of coffee grounds may have been suggested. The fact that the calla lilies are doing well suggests that the pH might be part of the problem; they grow better in soil that is more alkaline. Blueberries also require soil that is well-drained, so make sure they’re planted in a place that doesn’t stay wet.

They need full sun, and they don’t like to compete with grass and weeds, so mulch around them with shredded bark or compost to keep weeds under control. They also suffer during times of drought because of their shallow roots, so make sure they get sufficient water (about once a week in dry weather, suggests garden expert Felder Rushing in his book, Guide to Tennessee Vegetable Gardening).

Blueberry bushes benefit from the same type of fertilizer as azaleas (which also need acid soil to grow well). Apply fertilizer, following label directions, in the spring.

Your friend who has lush bushes and lots of fruit may not be doing anything special, but it sounds like her plants are the right type for the area, in soil they like, and are getting plenty of sun and enough water. With a little more care and attention, yours may also re-gain their health.

 

Mulching trees; and a stack of new books

QUESTION: How should mulch be put around trees — piled high or spread even with the ground and good edging to keep water within?

Unfortunately, this is not the best way to mulch trees.

There are many good reasons to use mulch around trees in a landscape. It keeps the soil warmer in winter and cooler in summer; it helps the soil retain moisture; it helps control weeds, and improves soil fertility by adding organic matter. It keeps mowers and string trimmers at a safe distance from the tree trunk, plus, it looks nice.

There are a few “rules” for proper mulching, but none of them include piling mulch up high around the trunks of trees. In fact, it’s a bad idea. Here’s why:

Plants need oxygen in the soil, and mulch that is too thick – more than 4 inches – restricts the soil oxygen exchange, according to the UT Extension’s publication on mulching trees and shrubs. Roots will grow up to find more oxygen, instead of down and outward through the soil. Too much mulch also causes too much moisture in the root zone, making roots susceptible to rot, insects and diseases. Cracking in the bark creates an entry point for insects and fungal growth, and invites rodents to chew the bark and damage the trunk or even girdle the tree – destroying the bark all the way around, which is a quick cause of a tree’s demise.

Unfortunately, this so-called “volcano” mulching, with the mulch placed in a cone around and next to the trunk, is a common practice. Here’s the proper way to place mulch, according to UT Extension (and other good sources):

Apply mulch in a ring no more than 2 to 4 inches deep, at least 4 to 6 feet in diameter around the base of the tree. Place it so that it tapers out to the ground level at the edge of the ring. Do not pile the mulch around the trunk; pull it several inches away so that the base of the trunk is exposed and air moves freely.

Spring reading

There are several new gardening books out this spring. Here’s a roundup:

* I’m slowly making my way through Women and Their Gardens: A History from the Elizabethan Era to Today, by Catherine Horwood (published by Ball Publishing, an imprint of Chicago Review Press). Focusing on the fact of history that women have often been excluded from the serious study of plants, Horwood brings these women into their rightful place in the horticultural spotlight. At more than 400 pages, there is much to be discovered about these pioneering women. I have just learned, for instance, that in 1897, Beatrix Potter was snubbed in her attempt to present research on spore germination of a rare form of fungi. She went back to private research and to her other specialty, detailed watercolor illustrations. A hundred years later, the artist famous for her beautiful childrens’ book illustrations was honored by the Linnean Society with a distinguished lecture entitled “Beatrix Potter as Mycologist.” So there.

* You may remember Graham Kerr as a cookbook author, TV personality and chef who called himself The Galloping Gourmet. His new book is Growing At the Speed of Life: A Year in the Life of My First Kitchen Garden (published by Perigee Trade Paperbacks). He acknowledges from the first page – from the cover, really – “As the Galloping Gourmet, I cooked just about everything that grows – but I’d never grown a thing I’d cooked.” He set out to change that, and the book outlines much of what he learned in that year, and what he expects to learn about growing food in the years ahead. It’s a charmingly personal account, and with a shout-out to “First Lady Michelle Obama putting spade to turf on the White House lawn.” His focus is on the basics, the favorite vegetables and most-used herbs, and with recipes, of course.

* Local gardener and garden blogger Barbara Wise, author of Container Gardening For All Seasons (published by Cool Springs Press) makes assembling gorgeous containers easy by providing, cookbook-style, “recipes” and shopping lists and assembly instructions for about 100 container combinations. (My thanks to Barbara, because I heard about the book just as I was compiling information on container planting for the “Grow a Green Thumb” class I’m leading right now for Lipscomb University’s Lifelong Learning series. What a great resource!)

* For the more ambitious gardeners who include fruit-growing in their garden and landscape plans, there is Grow Fruit Naturally: A Hands-On Guide to Luscious, Homegrown Fruit, by Lee Reich. In my semi-sunny garden, strawberries (apparently, to feed the rabbits) and blueberries (for the birds) are about as far as I’m willing to venture into fruit-growing territory, but if you’re serious about getting fruit from tree to table, this book is for you. It helps you plan, choose and maintain plants in the garden or in containers, and learn ways to control (or avoid) common pests and diseases without toxic sprays. I did just buy a ‘Meyer’ lemon shrub to add to our container collection of things that need to be pampered, so maybe this will help us keep it alive. The eye-candy photos make leafing through the book a pleasant distraction. It’s published by Taunton Press.

* Speaking of nice photos, Rodale Books has published The Photographic Garden: Mastering the Art of Digital Garden Photography, by Matthew Benson, a professional photographer and contributing editor to Organic Gardening magazine. Since part of the joy of gardening is taking pictures of what you grow and sharing them with other gardeners, it would be lovely to know how to do it beautifully. Read the book before the next time you take your camera out, and maybe your garden photos will jump to the next level right away.

* Finally, in the stack of new books: Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way: 18th Century Methods for Today’s Organic Gardeners by Wesley Green (also published by Rodale). Do you grow salsify? Have you ever heard of skirret? These may not be at the top of everyone’s list of favorite vegetables, but in the 18th Century they were likely growing alongside the onions, garlic, melons, chives, sweet potatoes, beets, parsley and many other things that are familiar in our gardens, and they grow now at Colonial Williamsburg, one of the nation’s best historical preservation sites. The focus in this book is the traditional cultivation methods that are still good for today’s organic gardens. Green, the author, founded the Colonial Garden and Plant Nursery in the Historic Area of Colonial Williamsburg and he and another gardener, Don McKelvey, study and interpret 18th-Century plants, tools and techniques. This book is the beautiful record of that impressive work.