Monday, June 30, 2008

Graham's Garden Inspirations

Sometimes you have to get out of your own back yard to get new gardening ideas. Every year I visit my good friend and gardener extraordinaire, Graham (Crackers) Bell for inspiration. I got started with raised beds years ago after seeing his. He showed me how easy it is to grow garlic. He has made me a passionate advocate for composted sheep manure. So, when I make my annual visit to his Rhode Island garden, I expect to see something new and useful.

This year it was the tomato support systems. One nifty trick was planting the tomatoes near a fence and then snaking soft twine around the stems as they grow. Tie off the other end to a fence. The other was a two-tiered, heavy gauge, wire combo that the plants grow through (just double click on these images for a detailed look). Both beat the stake and twine system I use. I guess what really matters is getting the plants off of the ground. If you aren't staking your tomatoes give it a try. Yes, you can buy cages and pre-made made systems. But as you can see, devising your own can be just as good. One of the benefits of staking is improved air/light circulation around plants which leads to reduced disease. Also, tomato fruit are lifted off the ground which lessens slug damage and soil borne disease contamination.
Recently, I blogged on and on about raised beds. Check out Graham's rock-raised beds and that beautiful garlic. Well, those are a few of the gardening highlights from my pilgrimage to garden Guru Graham. Next year I hope to master his technique with the martini shaker and find out how to grow borage.

P.S. On my return to Pennsylvania I found Japanese Beetles feasting on my Zinnias and red raspberries. More later on beetle management but if you are seeing beetles on you plants, act now before they invite friends to their dinner party.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Growing Great Garlic

Growing Great Garlic is the title of a book I keep by my bed. Maybe it keeps the vampires away if I haven’t had my daily dose of garlic. It’s a great book but you probably don’t need to buy it. Garlic is real easy to grow and Penn State has a nice pamphlet on growing bulb crops such as onion, leek and garlic that tells you what you need to know… unless you are planning to go into the garlic business or become so enthused about garlic that you just need more information. Then you may want the book.

Garlic is on my mind now because as we approach the 4th of July I know that garlic harvest time is near. Usually by the 4th the leaves on the bottom half of the plants have died and turned brown. This is a sign that the bulb is near optimum maturity. Harvested too soon, the cloves are not well defined and full-sized. Harvested too late and the cloves separate…quality and storage life decline.

Ok, I’m about to harvest but how did I get to this point? Garlic is planted in the fall, so late last October individual cloves were planted about an inch and a half deep in good, rich garden soil. Bum some garlic from a friend or order from a source in the northeastern United States. Do not plant store-bought garlic. Maybe you can find some at a local farmers market that was locally grown (and thus well adapted to our region).

I plant my garlic in raised beds, about six inches apart in both directions. Be sure to add plenty of soil nutrients before planting.. I’d suggest a Penn State soil test to determine nutrient needs. Garlic is a “heavy feeder” as they say. Poor soils do not make great garlic.
A few leaves emerge in late fall. Add some weed free straw as a winter mulch when the ground freezes hard and you are set until spring.

There’s not much to do between spring and harvest. Just pull the odd weed that gets thru the mulch and give them a shot of nitrogen in April. Organic folks can use dried blood (extra vampire deterrent) as an N source. Others can use nitrate of soda or urea.
There is nothing like the taste of fresh garlic... and home grown is especially satisfying. You can start looking for locally harvest garlic in July. Get it while you can. Eat some and save some for planting in October. Then you'll be "off the grid"... garlic-wise.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Lymantria dispar, Lymantria dispar, where for art thou or... Where are those gypsy moths?

Many people in Bucks County fearfully awaited the 2008 crop of gypsy moths. In 2006 and 2007 this leaf eating caterpillar caused significant damage in isolated Bucks County locations... Buckingham, Bedminster, Doylestown. Since the infested areas were small, co-ordinated aerial spraying conducted by the Department of Environmental Protection was not in order. Folks with several acres of trees were sweating it out. Their properties are too small to treat by air and too large to treat from the ground.

But the anticipated devastation has not materialized. Why? Score one for Mother Nature. Those cold, wet nights in mid-May helped the natural enemies of gypsy moth do their work. A fungus and a virus that weaken and then kill the caterpillars is at work. Shrunken, oily caterpillars hanging upside down are infected with the fungus. Those that appear kinked in the middle were had by the virus. Penn State's Extension entomologist, Greg Hoover, and I chatted about this yesterday as we marveled at the collapse of this destructive pest. Greg says this is happening in several parts of the state.

So, a bullet dodged. Actually, this is a normal occurrence. When pest populations peak, they are soon prey to natural enemies. Happens all the time. Just in time this year.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Oil is cheap! And Effective!

I'm talking about horticultural oil... the kind that is used to kill soft bodies bugs on plants. Many folks still think of oil as a dormant treatment but for more than 20 years professional landscape managers have been using low rates of highly refined oils (plant and mineral) to control aphids, mites, scale crawlers and other soft bodied insects.

Yesterday, Bucks County's trusty and eagle-eyed Master Gardener coordinator, Betsy-Sue Schneck, spotted discoloration on some plants in the demonstration gardens at our office . Closer examination revealed lots of two-spotted spider mites on the underside of the leaves. A shot of horticultural oil , diluted to a 1 % solution (2.5 tablespoons per gallon) knocked them out in 12 hours. Of course we had to use a sprayer that would direct the spray to the undersides of the leaves where the mites were living. Oil only kills the insect it hits and it has almost no residual activity. In a day or less it has evaporated. But it did the job. Lots of dead mites on those leaves this morning.

So, as summer progresses and aphids, adelgids, mites, mealy bugs, lace bugs, scale crawlers (soft bodied immature stage) begin to damage plants, consider horticultural oil as a treatment option. The benefits: It is cheap! It is easy on beneficial bugs; very low toxicity for the applicator; organically approved, and it works well on certain pests.

Limitations: As I mentioned above, you only kill the bug you spray. Thorough coverage is essential. There is no residual activity so pest populations will rebound and a follow up treatment in 7-10 days is usually necessary. Many insects are not controlled by horticultural oil. Borers, Japanese beetles and bagworms (which have just hatched by the way), to name a few.

As always, read and follow label instructions. Oil can cause plant damage if applied to drought stressed plants and under certain other conditions. Watch those rates... plant safety requires careful measuring. You'll find both plant derived and petroleum based oils available in garden centers.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Love those raised garden beds

How do I love thee... let me count the ways:

You are always mellow.

You are twice as productive as my ex.

You are warm and mosit, but never wet.

I don't have to bend over ( forwards or backwards ) to work with you.

Yes, I am in love with my raised garden beds. And anyone I know who has started gardening in raised beds never goes back to "in-ground" growing. So, there has to be something to it. Let's take a closer look at what makes this such an easy and productive gardening style.

First, let's define raised bed. It is simply soil (or other growing media) raised above the natural grade of the soil. Farmers find that raising planting beds, even just a few inches, results in improved yields and quality. Check out those fields of melons, tomatoes and strawberries some time you're near a farm. You'll see what I mean. Home gardeners usually go a step farther... raising the beds eight, twelve or even twenty-four inches above ground level.

Why are raised beds so productive? Most of it has to do with the soil. Soil in a raised bed drains better (gravity at work). And poor drainage is a major reason for plant failure. Raised beds warm up more quickly in the spring, allowing for early planting and growth. Soil in raised beds is spared the compaction that occurs when we garden "in-ground". Think about how hard bare soil becomes when it is walked on repeatedly. Then you use a tiller to relive the compaction, which further destroys soil structure, and on and on....You won't be walking in the raised beds. And your tillage implements are likely to be your fingers. Very handy. They are always where you can find them.

You get to radically amend the soil that the beds contain. A good rule of thumb is to use about 1/3 to 1/2 of your native soil and mix it with good, finished compost. This results in a very mellow ( soft, loose crumbly) growing medium that plants love. Organic gardeners can boost soil fertility by choosing composts with high levels of plant nutrients (aged manures). Even lousy, clayey soils or uber-porous soils are improved in this way because of the magical properties of organic matter... it aerates heavy/clayey soils and improves moisture holding capacity of light/sandy soils.

OK, you've got a well-drained, aerated, moisture-holding, warm growing medium. If you're a plant, what's not to love? A little fertility (organic or otherwise) and you're going to grow to your full least until the rabbits, ground hogs, bugs and diseases appear. But that it another story.

What are raised beds structures made of and how big should they be? Here is where you can get creative. No one says they have to be square or rectangular. If that works for you, fine. A buddy of mine has serpentine raised beds made of rocks. Beautiful and functional. I've got beds made of black locust, dawn redwood and white oak. Make them any dimension you want but here are a few tips. Don't make them any wider than twice your reach or you won't get to the middle. Even this may be a stretch. So a maximum width of forty-eight inches makes sense and there is nothing wrong with beds as narrow as twelve inches. I think mine are thirty-six. If I stretch I can reach the other side. How about height? Eight to twelve inches seems to be common. Six is OK and you can stack beds and make the whole thing as high as you want. It is lovely to garden standing up.... or sitting in a chair. If you end up with the typical, low bed, get one of those cushioned pads to kneel on and you're in business.

What kind of wood should you use? I won't enter the pressure treated lumber controversy. Lumber treated with copper, chromium and arsenic (CCA) was popular for years. Certainly plants had no problem with it (unlike wood treated with creosote or pentachlorophenol). Yes, arsenic is a toxic substance but it is likely that your exposure to this was minimal. Now, other preservatives are available and CCA is not an option unless you inherited some. After many long conversations with gardeners about the relative hazard of CCA treated wood I came to this conclusion: anything that takes away from the potential for you to enjoy your garden (or is going to make you gag as you bite into your first born beet) ain't worth the benefits. So just find a material that you are comfortable with. There are lots of options. If you can find black locust and have the patience and strength to make beds out of it... your great grand children can use them. Put it in you will. Don't ask me where I got my twelve-inch dawn redwood boards. I ain't telling. It is light, apparently durable and a pleasure to nail and screw. Time will tell if it will compete with black locust for durability. I kind of doubt it. Saw mills are getting few and far between but they are still out there and can sell you rough cut lumber for beds. Hey, you can order pre-cut, rot resistant cedar boards for raised beds on-line if you have the money. You've got options. Cement blocks work.

A few final things that make raised beds fun. You can convert a raised bed to a cold frame easily by attaching something that will support light transmitting plastic. Beds become mini-greenhouses for pennies. Now you are extending your growing season dramatically. Floating row covers work nicely too but offer less heating potential.

Weeding, a chore even for garden fanatics, is so much easier in raised beds. Weeds still emerge but pulling them is child's play. And because your crop plant density is so much higher in raised beds, their competition reduces weed growth dramatically. By the way, this plant density accounts for much of that two-fold yield increase over in-ground gardening.

Tools get smaller. There are nifty cultivation and planting tools for raised beds. Nothing is motorized. And fingers can do most of the planting. Instead of a hoe you'll be making seed planting rows with your pinky.

I suppose I could go on and on but those are the high points.

Any downside to raised beds? Well, despite all of that nice organic matter, raised beds do dry out quickly. So watering becomes important. Maybe even critical. Since they have high organic matter content the contents of the beds "shrink" during the course of the year as the organic matter decomposes. So you have to refill beds annually. Do it in the fall after the harvest season and let Mother Nature get things setteld in over winter. Other than that, I can't think of a negative. And even watering is really just adding a level of garden management that pays off.

Ok I gotta go. I have a date with Romaine.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Lettuce bolting... tomatoes smoking

Lettuce is a wonderful garden crop. Easy to grow. Makes a crop in as little as 28 days. And if you find a good seed catalog you'll find dozens of lettuce types... stuff you don't even see in the stores. Almost nothing bothers lettuce except the occasional slug... and hot weather. The recent heat wave and lengthening daylight periods has caused my lettuce to "bolt". Bolting is the natural inclination of lettuce to form seed stalks under long days and high temperature. So there was a mass harvest in my garden and everyone I know is getting a bag full. Fortunately, I have seeded lettuce several times and the less mature plants are still coming on. Plant breeders have improved heat tolerance in lettuce varieties and this helps. For tips on growing lettuce check out Penn State's nifty fact sheet called growing leafy vegetables.

Some like it hot. Tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and melons thrive under the conditions we're having right now. You can just about see tomatoes plants grow before your eyes! Even the most tender vegetable crops should be in the garden now. Many gardeners used row covers and other devices to get a jump on the growing season, especially with these cold sensitive crops.

Tomatoes are almost as fool proof as lettuce, but we had a call in the Bucks County Extension office today describing a complete disaster. Twenty-five tomato plants went in... twenty-five are wilting. Same thing happened the previous year. While you will read and hear about Verticillium wilt and Fusarium wilt, these tomato diseases are now a rare occurrence because plant breeders have done a fantastic job breeding for resistance to these problems. So what was up? A quick look at our references came up with a possible cause. Question? Was there a walnut tree growing next to the tomato patch? Answer. Yes. Mystery solved! Walnuts produce a toxin in their roots (as well as leaves and other plant parts) that is deadly to tomato. Doesn't happen often but there it was. A CSI moment. Our web-based tomato fact sheet appear to be under revision but we'll mail you an old fashioned paper copy if you call 215-345-3283 and request it.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Strawberries are hot!

Strawberries are "in-season" right now in Southeastern Pennsylvania. So there is no better time to get a taste of a locally grown specialty. I know of at least 15 farms in Bucks County where you can pick your own or buy pre-picked, luscious strawberries. (I'll tell you how you can find them in a minute.)
I think many folks miss the opportunity for a gourmet treat by going to the grocery store rather than the farm for berries.. not to mention a lot of other locally produced food. You just CANNOT beat field-ripened fruit.
Strawberry season will only be "in' for another couple of weeks and this hot weather is condensing the picking season, so if you want some of these delicacies, get them while they're hot.
If you want to enjoy fresh strawberry taste all year long, preserve them. Penn State's Let's Preserve fact sheet series will tell you how to make jams and jellies or freeze that fresh flavor. A little strawberry jam in January goes a long way to beating the winter blues.
OK, want to find a local berry farm? Call us (215-345-3283) for the 2008 Fresh From Farms market directory. It lists 63 places where you can find Bucks County grown berries, sweet corn, peaches, eggs, meat and other good stuff. Check it out on the web at:

Monday, June 9, 2008

It's June... why are my tree's leaves falling?

No, it's not normal for tree leaves to begin falling in late Spring.... but it happens. If you've been observing sycamore trees lately you'll see what I mean. A fungal leaf disease called anthracnose causes stem cankers and leaf disease that results in premature leaf drop.

Should you be concerned? Think about it. Those big old sycamore trees have probably had anthracnose many times. They survived it. So although it looks bad now, obviously they can tolerate this. Why? When summer temperatures arrive the disease stops and trees re-foliate. Certainly the trees have been stressed but they usually recover.