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  • Upcoming events in Middle Tennessee

     

    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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Plant potatoes in early spring

This year I’d like to grow potatoes in our raised bed garden. Can the seed potatoes be planted this early in the spring?

Potatoes in bloom.

Potatoes in bloom.

Growing your own potatoes is a good way to try varieties that you won’t find in the grocery store, but make sure you get the timing right. Potatoes that are planted in soil that is too wet and cold won’t grow, but if the likelihood of a hard freeze is no longer a danger in your area, then now is a good time to plant them. Continue reading

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.

 

 

Flowers now, tomatoes later

I remember reading somewhere about removing the early blooms on the tomato plants. Is this recommended?

tomato blossomThe general consensus is no, you don’t need to remove the early flowers of tomatoes, but there are two or three sides to the question. Some say to remove any blooms that may be on tomato transplants before you put them in the ground; some say to remove the first flowers after transplanting. The reason for pinching off any flowers at all would be to allow a very young transplant to focus on developing into a stronger plant before it puts energy into fruit production. But most resources (and all homegrown-tomato gardeners I’ve talked to) say it’s not necessary to remove the flowers at all.

There is also discussion about whether the tomato is a determinate variety (in which the tomatoes set fruit, ripen and are harvested all at once) or indeterminate (they ripen throughout the summer, until frost). If the tomato is a determinate variety, there’s a chance that you reduce the ultimate size of the crop if you pinch off the flowers. In general, there is no need to remove the flowers of either type if they are sturdy plants.

It is usually recommended to remove the suckers that grow as the plant grows. These are the shoots that grow from an axil, that point where a branch grows out of the stem. Removing them helps keep the plant more compact.

Making their debut: New shrub varieties

Last year I was invited to sample some new varieties of shrubs from Proven Winners® ColorChoice® that are making their debut in garden centers this year. They’ve been growing for a year in my garden now. Click over to the garden journal, Turning Toward the Sun, to see how they’re doing.

June Garden calendar

It’s the month for daylilies in Middle Tennessee, and the Middle Tennessee Daylily Society is holding its annual show and sale later this month. Find the June Garden Calendar listing this month’s garden events, tips and tasks at Tennessean.com.

 

Sowing seeds indoors: get a jump on the season

Question: When is the time to start vegetables and annual flowers indoors to plant outside in spring?

Start seeds indoors soon to plant in the garden this spring.

Start seeds indoors soon to plant in the garden this spring.

The time to start seedlings indoors depends on plants’ individual growth rates and the recommended dates in your area for putting plants in the ground. To figure the seed-starting date, start with the recommended planting time, calculate the plant’s germination and growing time (often noted on the seed package), and count back the required number of weeks to reach the date for starting the seeds.For example, to grow seedlings of a warm-season flower like zinnias in Middle Tennessee (where The Garden Bench calls home), we can plan on putting transplants in the ground after mid-April, the area’s last average frost date. The approximate growing time for zinnia seedlings is about 4-6 weeks, so you can sow zinnia seeds indoors early- to mid-March. Tomato seeds, another warm-weather favorite, can be sown in flats indoors 5 – 7 weeks before it’s time to transplant, so we can plan on starting them early in March.

To start cool-weather vegetables indoors, begin much earlier. For example, some leaf lettuces can be started indoors 4 weeks before the soil outdoors can be worked; bigger, tougher cool-season favorites like broccoli and cauliflower need 5 to 7 weeks to reach transplanting size. Sowing indoors now until the end of January can provide transplants ready to go in the ground at the end of February.

Give the seedlings plenty of light and the recommended moisture as they grow, and harden them off – expose them gradually to outdoor weather – before planting them in the ground.

 

The garden’s second season

QUESTION: When should we start planting a vegetable garden for fall?

seed packetsStart now! As summer vegetables begin to dwindle and fade, make space in garden beds for kitchen garden favorites that grow in cooler weather. Here are suggestions and tips from garden authors and extension agents:

Broccoli: If you can buy transplants, make sure they are short and compact and have good, green color. Be sure they’re not transporting pests or disease. Plant them in full sun about 18 inches apart, with about 36 inches between rows. Water as needed to keep the plants from wilting, and apply a complete fertilizer when they are about 10 inches tall.

Cabbages: Set out transplants in full sun and well-drained soil. Space the transplants 12 to 18 inches apart with 24 inches between rows. Fertilize the plants when they’re about half grown, and harvest when the heads reach full size. For the best flavor, use it fresh.

Collards: Sow seeds or set seedlings in full sun and well-drained soil, 12 to 18 inches apart, with 20 inches between rows. Provide regular water (about an inch of water a week) and harvest by cutting the outer leaves as they reach full size.

Leaf lettuce: Begin now to sow seeds in successive plantings every two or three weeks. Sow in rows 12 inches apart, and thin to 4 – 6 inches apart when seedlings appear. Seeds can also be sprinkled over the soil in large pots and planters. Harvest when the leaves are large enough to use.

Spinach: Sow seeds in full sun in rows that are 12 inches apart, and thin then seedlings to one plant every 6 inches after they begin to grow. Provide regular water, and harvest when the leaves are large enough to use.

Turnips (greens or roots) Sow seed in full sun and well-drained soil, ½ inch deep, eight to ten seeds per foot in rows 12 inches apart. When the seedlings are 4 inches tall, thin them to about three inches apart. You should have greens to harvest in about five weeks. If you grow turnips for the roots, harvest them when they are about 2 – 3 inches in diameter.

 

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

 

Tomatoes out of control

QUESTION: I grow tomatoes every year, and in the past I have used cages – first the round ones commonly available at the big box stores, and later some of the square type. Even with the square ones the plants always overcome the cage. They get leggy and end up coming out of the cages on the sides and then bend over the wires. This year I tried staking the plants and did not use cages, but I encounter the same issues, the side growth spreads out and I have to tie them every which way. What am I doing wrong? — Wayne

Tomato plants quickly overwhelm flimsy wire cages.

Those flimsy wire cages – the round ones – must be some kind of joke. Anyone who grows tomatoes knows that they don’t do much to support a full-size plant. Even if the vine doesn’t grow out over the top, the weight of a bumper crop of ‘Better Boys’ will topple those supports. The square cages are a little better, but they still won’t contain all those wayward limbs.

If you want to use cages, the best bet is to build your own, using sturdy wire fencing (or some suggest panels of concrete mesh, which has openings large enough to reach your hand through). Using the cage in addition to a tall, sturdy stake should keep the tomatoes standing upright and within bounds a little better.

Still, if the tomatoes are indeterminate varieties – that is, they continue to form tomatoes throughout the growing season — it helps to do a little pruning. As the plant grows, it will develop “suckers” in the angles between the main stem and the side stems. You should pinch or snap or cut these suckers off to keep the plant from getting too bushy. As the tomato plant grows taller, tie the main stem loosely to the stake.

By the way, it’s best to install stakes and cages at planting time. It’s surprising how quickly a tomato plant can grow out of control. Keep that in mind for next year.

 

Garden seeds: How old is too old?

QUESTION: How long do seeds last? If a seed packet says “purchase by 12/11,” would the seeds still be good for this year?  I’m looking at sunflowers, green beans, and other summer vegetables.

Packed for 2011. Still good? Probably, if they’ve been kept dry and cool.

It’s probably a common experience among gardeners to find packets of last year’s seeds – or seeds from two or more years ago (opened or unopened) stashed in a forgotten corner. They look too good to throw away, but is it worth wasting time and space in the garden to plant them if they may not germinate?

The good news is that many seeds last beyond the “sell-by” or “packaged for” date that’s printed on the packet, especially if they’ve been kept in favorable conditions – dry and reasonably cool. Seeds of parsnips, onions and leeks are among those that will only be good for a year, but seeds of most of the common garden vegetables can last two, three, or some, even five years. Here’s a short list from vegetable researchers atOregonStateUniversity:

Two years: sweet corn, lettuce, parsley, peppers, chard.

Three years: Bush and pole beans, carrots, cucumbers, melons, peas, squashes, tomatoes.

Four years: radishes, turnips.

Seeds of annual flowers are generally good for 1 – 3 years, the researchers say; seeds of perennials can last 2 – 4 years.

You can test the viability of a packet of seeds by placing a few in a moist paper towel in a warm room for a few days to see if they germinate. Seed Savers Exchange provides detailed instructions here.

If you have seeds left at the end of the season, the best way to store them is in a sealed jar with something to absorb moisture (rice or powdered milk are two suggestions). Store the jar in the refrigerator or a cool area in the house, such as a basement.

 

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.

 

Making plans for a great year in the garden

QUESTION: What are YOUR garden goals for 2012? Here are mine:

-Grow more flowers. In my yard, that means finding more flowers that thrive in the semi-shade that’s provided by the graceful maples and the giant, beautiful elm tree in our back yard.

-Keep trying for better success with tomatoes. That means figuring out how to outsmart squirrels. (Maybe I should give up on tomatoes in the kitchen garden out back and move tomato production to my garden plot at Farm in the City, the community garden I belong to downtown.)

-Double the produce by doubling the space for growing. I’d like to take on another raised bed at Farm in the City if there’s one available.

-Grow better peppers. I know that the secret is lots of sun and consistent water. There’s a lot of sun at Farm in the City; I need to work on the water part.

-Okra: plant less, pick more often.

-Grow more pole beans. Grow more cucumbers. Try squash again.

-Plant more shade-tolerant herbs. This is a project I started last spring – finding herbs that can grow happily in the shadiest of the eight raised beds in the kitchen garden out back. Success so far with curly parsley and red-veined sorrel. Hope to plant sweet woodruff and more borage, maybe nasturtium. Still trying to find lovage.

-Make peace with the wildlife in the backyard, while at the same time finding a way to keep the rabbits from eating the hostas.

-Plant more big, blooming perennials and annuals in the three little garden beds at Mom’s house.

-Visit as many public gardens as I can manage (especially interested in visiting Eudora Welty’s home and garden in Jackson, Miss. this spring).

-Enjoy every minute I can spend gardening, and writing, talking and teaching about gardening.

What plans do you have for your garden this year?