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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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July garden tips & tasks

Things are heating up! Here’s a to-do list to keep the garden at its best this month.

Early in the month

It’s time for summer tomatoes! The fruits tend crack when watering is inconsistent, so keep the soil around tomatoes evenly moist.

 

ColeusColeus’ beauty is in the foliage, so when it begins to bloom, pinch off the flower spikes to encourage the plant to grow fuller and bushier. Wax begonias also benefit from periodic pinching to keep them from becoming leggy.

For the best flavor, pick squash and cucumbers while they are still small and tender. You can plant a second crop of bush beans, zucchini and cucumber, summer veggies that grow quickly.

Continue reading

June garden tips & tasks

June is the garden’s high season, “the time of perfect young summer,” said gardener designer Gertrude Jekyll. Here are some garden tasks to enjoy during this “perfect” time.

Early in June

Tomatoes do best with consistent moisture as they begin to ripen.

Tomatoes do best with consistent moisture as they begin to ripen.

Summer tomatoes will begin ripening soon. Make sure they receive consistent moisture. Use mulch around the plants to keep them from drying out quickly. Replenish mulch around in all garden beds to help keep plants’ roots moist as the weather heats up. Continue reading

The heat’s on: August garden tips & tasks

Gardeners in Middle Tennessee (where The Garden Bench calls home) know that August can be brutal, and some days it’s best to stay inside. Here’s a tip: Get out early – before 7 a.m. if you can – and get those necessary tasks done. Then enjoy the rest of the day indoors, and remember that cooler days will be here soon.

Early in the month

RudbeckiaKeep deadheading daisies, coneflowers, black-eyed Susans and other summer-flowering perennials.

Many things stop blooming when it’s 90 degrees and above. As things cool down slightly, flowers in the beds and vegetables in the kitchen garden should be blooming again. Provide ample water if it doesn’t rain.

Continue to watch for Japanese beetles. Pick off any you find on your roses or other prized plants, and plunk them into a bowl of soapy water.

Save your prized tomatoes from the birds. Pick them before they are fully red and let them ripen indoors.

If petunias are looking scrappy, cut them back and provide a light dose of fertilizer. They should soon re-bloom.

Continue to harvest and use basil frequently to keep the plant from setting seed too early.

Mid-August

vegetable gardenBegin cleaning up vegetable beds. Remove dead or dying foliage and any rotting vegetables. A tidy garden bed means fewer places for destructive insects to overwinter.

Watch for spider mites on roses, which thrive in hot, dry weather and can quickly defoliate a rosebush. A strong spray of water on the undersides of the leaves every two or three days for a week should help keep them under control.

If you saved your potted amaryllis bulb from last winter and it has spent the summer outdoors, move it to a cool, dark place and let it dry out. Amaryllis needs a dormant period before it blooms again next winter.

There’s no need to water your lawn every day. Experts advise deep watering every few days rather than a shallow sprinkling every day.

Try to keep ahead of the weeds. But if you can’t, at least snip or pinch off the tops to keep them from flowering and setting seed.

Later in the month

Parsley curledLate summer is a good time to thin iris beds. Cut back the foliage, dig up the rhizomes and brush off as much dirt as you can. Discard any roots that are rotting or soft, then replant the rhizomes.

Avoid planting new trees and shrubs in the hottest part of summer. Be sure that trees, shrubs and perennials planted this spring are receiving enough water during long hot spells.

Some summer herbs can be frozen to use later. Try freezing fresh sprigs of parsley, oregano, sage, tarragon and dill. Rinse the herbs and pat them dry, then place them in separate freezer bags or containers with tight-fitting lids. Use them within four months.

Begin gathering seeds of annuals or vegetables to plant next year. Dry seeds thoroughly and store them in a place that’s cool and dry. Be sure to label them before you put them away.

Plant a cool season kitchen garden late this month — spinach, greens, kale, lettuces and other favorites. Keep beds or containers watered as seeds sprout, and watch for late-summer insect pests.

July garden tips & tasks

Summer is in full swing. Here’s how to enjoy the garden and it’s July bounty:

Early in the month

Geraniums

Cut geraniums and other summer annuals to encourage them to grow fuller.

In the kitchen garden, pick zucchini, summer squash and cucumbers while they are still small and tender.

Plant a second crop of those summer vegetables that grow quickly: bush beans, squash and cucumbers are easy favorites.

Watch for Japanese beetles. Experts don’t recommend Japanese beetle traps, which may attract more beetles to your landscape than would normally visit. Pluck them off the plants and drop them into a pan of soapy water.

If summer annuals such as coleus or geraniums are getting leggy, cut them back to encourage them to grow bushier. As a bonus, root the cuttings in water to have even more plants.

Before you leave for vacation, arrange for someone to water annual, vegetable and perennial beds and container gardens while you’re away. Make it easy for them: set up sprinklers in strategic places and hire a neighborhood youngster to turn on the faucet if it doesn’t rain.

Mid-July

Zinnias

Cut zinnias often. The more you cut, the more they bloom.

Bearded irises can be divided every three to five to years; mid-July is a good time to do it.

Lawn growth may slow down in the heat, but you may still have to mow. When you do, only cut about a third of the lawn’s height.

Cut chrysanthemums back in order to delay flowering until fall.

Herbs, annuals and perennials growing in containers need water every day when it’s hot. Don’t let them droop.

Keep cutting summer flowers such as zinnias and cosmos often; the more you cut, the better they bloom.

Later in the month

Tomatoes

Keep the soil evenly moist for tomatoes.

It’s hot, so get out early in the day to work in the garden. Drink plenty of water, wear a hat and use sunscreen.

Keep the soil around tomato plants evenly moist. Inconsistent watering can cause tomatoes to develop cracks.

Some summer flowers that grow tall may need staking to keep them from toppling in a heavy rainfall.

Continue to deadhead plants – cut off the spent flowers – to extend the blooming period.

Don’t forget about shrubs and trees planted this spring; they need an extra dose of attention in this heat. Give them a slow drink from a dripping water hose once or twice a week. A layer of mulch around newly planted threes and shrubs helps keep the soil moist longer.

Check the mulch in perennial and annual beds. Add more if it’s beginning to look thin. A good layer of mulch will help keep soil moist longer in the summer heat.

Enjoying a bit of Tranquility: Franklin’s Cornelia Holland nurtures the shade garden

Cornelia Holland, Photo courtesy University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture.

Cornelia Holland, Photo courtesy University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture.

she calls Tranquility at her home. She has donated plants to the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture in Knoxville to establish Tranquility – The Cornelia B. Holland Hosta Grden at the University of Tennessee Gardens. Read the story in Saturday’s Tennessean.

 

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.

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.

 

Good bugs vs. Bad bugs

Question: I have found several big green caterpillars covered with something that looks like white eggs on two of my tomato plants. What are they? How can I get rid of them?

A tobacco hornworm covered with wasp cocoons, and one without.

A tobacco hornworm covered with wasp cocoons, and one without.

What you are seeing is a good example of Nature helping you to control some of the pests in your garden. The green caterpillars are tobacco hornworms, which can chew up big portions of a healthy tomato plant before you even know they’re there. The white things are the cocoons of braconid wasps, parasitic wasps whose larvae feed on the hornworm, ultimately killing the caterpillar. The wasps, which are very small and not a stinging type, are considered beneficial insects in large-scale agricultural production and in home gardens.

Here’s how it works: A female braconid wasp lays eggs under the skin of a hornworm. The eggs hatch, and the larva begin eating the caterpillar’s insides and chew their way out through the host’s skin when they mature. On the outside, they spin the little oval cocoons along the caterpillar’s back and sides. By the time the adult wasps emerge, the hornworm is weakened and will soon die.

If you see a green hornworm on tomato plants – and they’re hard to spot, being exactly the color of tomato leaves! – pluck it off and dispose of it. But if you find one with white cocoons all over its back, leave it in place. It’s hosting another generation of parasitic wasps that will seek out and destroy hornworms on your tomatoes.

Tomatoes: How late is too late?

QUESTION: I have some tomato transplants from spring that have not been planted. They are tall and skinny, but still look healthy. Is it too late to plant them now?
tomatoes green

Ideally, healthy tomato transplants should be planted in mid to late April or early May (or after the last frost date in your area). To wait until late June to get the transplants in the ground is asking for trouble, but if you have the space to plant and the time to coddle them through the summer heat, you might as well try. Plant them deep, or dig a trench and lay the stem on its side with the leaves at the top of the stem above the soil. Provide a dose of water-soluble fertilizer, water them well and keep the soil moist.

Planting in the heat of summer, you are likely to encounter problems with insects, slower growth, delayed blooming and soil that dries out too quickly for the young plants to grow well. But if the plants pull through the worst of it, you may be rewarded with a small crop of fall tomatoes.

If you’re late to start a garden this year and still want to have home-grown vegetables and herbs, consider these quick-start choices that should come up right away from seed: cucumbers, bush beans, summer squash, beets, carrots, scallions, basil, dill. Keep the bed moist after you sow.

And look ahead to fall when you can plant lettuce, turnip and mustard greens, cabbage, spinach, kale, and other favorite cool-season vegetables.

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.

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.