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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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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

Kale for cool-season gardens – and a seed giveaway!

Kale 'Wild Garden Frills'

Kale ‘Wild Garden Frills’

I’ve never grown kale, but I want to try it in my kitchen garden this year. Is it better to start with seeds or transplants? When is the best time to plant it?

'Darkibor' kale

‘Darkibor’ kale

Kale has become a culinary star for its flavor and its reputation as a nutrient-dense superfood. Fortunately, it’s a vegetable that’s easy to grow. It’s also one of those early-season garden favorites that thrives in cooler weather, so you can plan to begin planting it in early spring, as soon as the soil can be worked (in Middle Tennessee — USDA Hardiness Zone 7a, where The Garden Bench calls home — that could be late February or early March). It’s even better as a fall crop. Plant it again in late summer to grow and harvest into winter.

You can plant transplants, but it’s just as easy to sow seed directly in the prepared garden bed. Like most vegetables, kale grows best in full sun. Plant it in loamy soil that you may amend with high-nitrogen fertilizer. Sow in rows, or broadcast the seed over the area, spacing the seeds an inch or two apart. Cover with about ¼ inch of soil and keep the soil moist as the seed germinates. The seed company Renee’s Garden provides a video about planting kale that you can watch here. You can also grow kale in containers.

Portuguese 'Tronchuda Beira' kale.

Portuguese ‘Tronchuda Beira’ kale.

Thin seedlings as they begin to sprout; you can use the small, tender leaves in salads. Harvest by cutting the outside leaves of a plant as they get large enough to use; the crown of the plant will continue to grow.

Kale is a member of the same family as cabbage, broccoli and other Brassicas, and as such may need protection from cabbage worms and cabbage loopers. Row covers can keep adult insects from laying eggs on the plants as they grow.

There are several varieties of kale – smooth and curly leaf types, large, sturdy leaves and smaller, tender leaves, dark green, light green and purple-green varieties. (Ornamental kale, usually sold in fall to enhance landscapes with its frilly, brightly colored leaves, is edible but not as tasty as the leaves grown for culinary use.) There are dwarf varieties suitable for small plots and containers.

Seed giveaway – grow kale!

'Tuscan Baby Leaf' kale.

‘Tuscan Baby Leaf’ kale.

Growers at the seed company Renee’s Garden are introducing Tuscan Baby Leaf kale for 2015, a milder, more tender kale that is good to use for salads and stirfry. Owner Renee Shepherd has offered two packets of the seeds for readers of The Garden Bench.

Leave a comment at the end of this post about your favorite ways to use kale (in stirfry? Salads? Soup? Smoothies?), or just say “I want to grow kale!”). Respond by 6 p.m. Friday, Feb. 27, 2015 and your name will go into a drawing to win a packet of Tuscan Baby Leaf kale seeds, just in time for spring planting.

 

Garden with greens

I don’t care for turnips, but I love turnip greens and I’d like to grow them myself this fall. When is it time to plant them?
GreensThe time to begin planting turnip greens – and many other kitchen crops that thrive in cool weather – is now! Prepare a bed in full sun with well-drained, fertile soil. You can sow the seeds in rows about 1½ feet apart and cover with about ½ inch of fine soil, or you can broadcast the seeds over a prepared bed. August heat in some areas can be brutal on fall plantings, so for all summer-sown fall vegetables, keep the soil moist while seeds germinate. Thin the plants when they grow to about 2 inches tall.

Among the fast-growing, greens-only varieties are All Top, Alamo, Seven Top, Shogoin and Topper.

Don’t stop with turnip greens! Mustard greens, spinach, collards and kale are among the other types of hearty greens you can try. For a longer harvest, sow in successive plantings two weeks apart.

And don’t give up on turnips just yet. My favorite way to enjoy them is drizzled with olive oil and roasted with a variety of other root and winter vegetables. One secret is to harvest turnips while they’re still small, when they seem to have a milder flavor.

Here’s a recipe adapted from a Bon Appétit magazine recipe at Epicurious.com:
Roasted Root Vegetables
Butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into ½-inch pieces
Yukon gold potatoes, unpeeled, cut into ½-inch pieces
Beets, trimmed but not peeled, scrubbed, cut into ½-inch pieces
Medium red onion, cut into ½-inch pieces
1 turnip, peeled and cut into ½-inch pieces
Garlic cloves, peeled
Olive oil

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Oil a large rimmed baking sheet. Combine all ingredients in a large bowl and toss to coat the olive oil. Spread vegetables evenly on a prepared baking dish and sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Roast vegetables until tender and golden brown, stirring occasionally, about 1 hour, 15 minutes.

August in the garden: Find more about this month’s garden tasks in my August Garden Calendar and Garden Events and Tips at Tennessean.com.

Tomato troubles: Blossom end rot

What can I do to keep tomatoes from forming a black spot on the bottom? They look beautiful, then you turn them over and see it. Are the tomatoes safe to eat if you cut the spot out?

 

Tomatoes

Young tomatoes may be susceptible to blossom end rot.

The black spot on the bottoms of tomatoes is a condition called blossom end rot. Rodale’s Vegetable Garden Problem Solver provides a concise explanation:

Blossom end rot is usually caused by water stress due to lack of moisture, which hampers the plant’s ability to take up enough calcium from the soil. But it can also be caused by too much water, soil pH that is too acidic or too alkaline, too much nitrogen fertilizer, or other problems. The area first turns tan and leathery, and then other pathogens can invade and cause the rot (it turns black and soft).

Rodale suggests removing any tomatoes that show signs of rot so the plant can put energy into developing new, healthy tomatoes. If the soil is dry, water it well and use mulch to conserve moisture. Throughout the season, keep the soil evenly moist by watering as needed.

At the end of the season, be sure to clean up any fruit that falls to the ground, as it may contain secondary rot organisms. And next year, prepare the bed to encourage the plants to develop good root systems – plant in loose, fertile soil, and check the soil pH to see that it measures above 6.5. Add lime as recommended to raise the pH to 6.5 to 6.8, Rodale suggests.

The experts at Rodale suggest to compost the immature fruit that is beginning to show signs of blossom end rot, because they probably won’t ripen properly anyway, but it also looks like it doesn’t hurt to cut off the spot and use the tomatoes if they’re at a stage that you want to do that. In my experience, once they start to rot, they go quickly, though.

By the way, blossom end rot can also affect peppers, eggplant, squash and melons.

July in the garden: What to do with that bounty of herbs? See the July Garden Calendar at Tennessean.com for herbs information, plus this month’s events, tips and tasks.

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.

 

Plan your squirrel deterrents

We’re about to plant tomatoes again in our small garden, and it reminds me that last year the squirrels got most of the tomatoes before they had a chance to get ripe. Is there anything we can do to keep that from happening again?

This tomato might be tempting to a thirsty squirrel.

This tomato might be tempting to a thirsty squirrel.

When you find that several of your green tomatoes has disappeared from the vine overnight, it’s a pretty good bet the squirrels have been at work. What’s even worse is finding half-eaten green tomatoes on the ground. I’ve had it happen, and I’m sure most other tomato gardeners have, as well.
Suggested deterrents range from blood meal or cayenne pepper sprinkled on the ground around the garden, to bird netting cages built to enclose the plants as they grow.
Some gardeners say that they leave a pan of water near the garden to provide the moisture the squirrels are looking for, hoping they’ll leave the tomatoes alone. Others hang aluminum pans and other shiny objects around the garden to scare the squirrels away. Those things may work for a little while, but squirrels are pretty clever and will realize quickly that they’re harmless, so it’s not a long-term solution. Last year, I draped a large inflatable snake over one of the cages, and that may have spooked them a bit; I moved the snake around every couple of days to try to keep them guessing.
Other ideas? Readers of The Garden Bench: If you’ve tried things that work to keep squirrels from grabbing the tomatoes, tell about them in the comments. They’re ideas worth sharing before tomato season arrives.

The squash and the bees

I planted squash plants among my flowers. They look great and are blooming, but they’re not setting any squash. The blossom falls off before the squash begins to grow. Any help?

Squash grows after it has been pollinated by insects or by hand.

When squash plants bloom without producing squash, it probably means they need help with pollination. Squash plants produce male flowers at first, followed by female flowers a few days later. (You can tell the difference this way: male flowers have a single stamen in the center; female flowers have a four-part pistil, and appear swollen just beneath the blossom.)

According to information at GardenGuides.com, if the female flowers drop off without growing a squash, it means that it didn’t get pollinated by the bees or other pollinators that visit the garden.

Squash flowers are big, so if the bees aren’t doing an adequate job, you can do it yourself.  Use a cotton swab or a small, soft brush to gather the pollen from inside the male flower, and transfer it to the female flower. Or pick a male flower, remove the petals and swirl it around inside the female flower. (Look here for pictures of how this is done). With luck, a squash is born!

 

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.