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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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Fall leaves = free mulch

Question: We have several maple trees that blanket the lawn with leaves in the fall. Can we rake these off the lawn into the garden beds to use as mulch?

 

fall-leavesFall leaves are a good source of mulch for garden beds. As they decompose, they improve the soil structure and return nutrients to the soil, and as mulch, they help retain moisture in the garden beds and slow the growth of winter annual weeds that may pop up.

You could just rake them or blow them off the lawn directly into the beds, but it’s better to shred them before you pile them on top of the perennials and around trees and shrubs. Leaves that have been chopped up will decompose faster. A thick layer of unshredded leaves may also become matted and smother plants underneath, and may prevent water from reaching the soil. You can chop the leaves by mowing over them and collecting them in a bagging attachment, or by using a leaf shredder.

Here are guidelines for using leaves as mulch are from the UT/TSU Extension office:

*Use a 3- to 4-inch layer of shredded leaves around trees and shrubs in annual and perennial flower beds.

*Mix leaves into kitchen garden beds and in beds where you plant annual flowers. Most of the leaves will decompose before planting time next spring. A bonus: if you have heavy clay soil, a thick layer of leaves tilled into the soil will improve the soil structure.

*Be aware that oak leaves may change the pH of the soil over time, making it more acidic, so you may have to apply lime to maintain a favorable number. If your beds are mulched primarily with oak leaves, you should have the soil tested about every three years. Oak leaves are also tougher and decompose more slowly, so it’s especially important to chop them before you use them to cover your perennial beds.

Leaves can also be added to compost as one of the carbon-rich “brown” ingredients. If, after you’ve chopped and used as much of your bounty of leaves as possible on the garden beds, save the rest to use later in the compost, or for mulch again next spring. Bag the leaves and keep them dry so they don’t decompose by the time you need them again in a few months.

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.

For great new garden beds, start with the soil

Question: We are building a new house and would like to have flower gardens around it. How and when should we start a new garden?

soilTo start new flower beds, begin with the basics. The first step is to decide where, what shape and how large you want the beds to be, considering design elements, how you plan to use the garden and how the beds fit into your overall landscape plans. That may sound overwhelming, but if you’re a do-it-yourselfer, you can start small and build and expand over time.
Start with the most basic element, the soil. Investing a little effort into it at the beginning ensures that the beds will get off to a good start and get better over the years.

The ground around new construction is often packed down and littered with nails, chunks of cement, wood chips and other building detritus, so start by cleaning up as much as possible. Then take the time to have a soil test done. This will let you know what nutrients the soil contains and what amendments may need to be added for what you are planning to plant. Your county’s extension office can provide the necessary materials and instructions and will test the soil for a small fee.
You may also need to improve the soil’s texture. The best soil for growing most plants is loamy, and holds together somewhat when you squeeze a handful of it, but crumbles easily. You can improve tight-clumped clay soil or loose, sandy soil by working in organic matter, such as compost or peat moss.

The soil improvement phase can be done soon, after the ground is no longer frozen. Later, when it’s time to select plants for the beds, consider the growing conditions (how much sun or shade, whether it’s a wet or dry area, etc.) along with what you like and what fits with your overall plan, your budget, and the time commitment you want to make in terms of watering, deadheading and grooming the beds.

Become familiar with the growth requirements, expected growing height and habits of the plants you plan to use. Consider that some perennials and flowers grown from bulbs may offer shorter bloom times but grow and develop over a period of time, while annuals can offer more quick-growing color, but are gone after one season. With a little planning, you can have flowers in bloom in your beds throughout spring, summer and fall.

A great garden starts with the soil

QUESTION: Last year my small tomato garden did pretty good, but some of the tomatoes began to rot on the bottom. Someone told me it was because of the lack of lime in the soil. What do I need to put in the hole in order to have good soil for growing tomatoes?

soilIt sounds like your tomatoes developed the condition called blossom end rot. It’s generally due to a lack of calcium, but other factors could also contribute. Tomatoes need adequate moisture as they grow, but they should also be planted in soil that drains well and that contains the nutrients they need. So you may have to do more than just putting something in the hole.

In fact, any good garden begins with good soil. If the soil in your tomato bed is clay or sandy, you can improve it by working in compost, leaf mold, rotted manure or other organic matter. I’ve heard garden experts describe good soil to be the texture of moist, crumbly chocolate cake.

Before adding lime, it’s a good idea to have the soil tested to see what amendments may really be needed. Your county’s Extension service can provide the necessary instructions on how to have that done. A soil test also shows the soil’s pH – the measure of the acidity or alkalinity in the soil (tomatoes prefer slightly acidic soil, with a pH level between 6.0 and 7.0). The cost of the test is reasonable (a basic soil test at the Soil, Plant & PestCenter in Davidson   County, Tenn. is $7 per sample, and includes the soil pH, phosphorus, potassium, calcium and magnesium in the soil).

Back to that question about what to put in the hole: I’ve heard some gardeners say they crush a couple of eggshells and place them in the bottom of the hole when they plant tomatoes. You could try it; it wouldn’t hurt, especially after you’ve improved the soil with all that other good organic matter.