Monday, May 17, 2010

Beautiful Gardens... Near and Far

In the past month, I have visited two of the best public gardens in the world….one in our backyard, Longwood… the other across the Atlantic, Keukenhof. Lucky me.

I was in the Netherlands visiting family in early May and it was tulip time at Keukenhof. Perfect timing. Keukenhof is a 76 acre garden that features spring flowering bulbs. Supported by the bulb industry, their website says it is the most photographed place in the world. I can believe it. Every step through the garden compels you to snap another picture. With all due respect to Longwood, it is the best public garden I have ever seen. There are more than 7 million hand planted bulbs on display. Four million tulips, not to mention the daffodils and grape hyacinth… 20, 000 lilies.

Wow. If you ever find yourself in Europe in April, don’t miss it.

Back at work… Penn State President Graham Spanier conducts a very nice program for new and newly tenured faculty at Penn State called the Roads Scholars Tour. About 50 faculty witness Penn State’s presence and impact across Pennsylvania. They visit Commonwealth Campuses (there are 19 of them across the state), Hershey Medical School and other places where Penn State has had an impact. This brings us to Longwood Gardens. There are lots of Penn State graduates on the staff here and I learned about many cooperative research ventures involving Penn State and Longwood. My pal Dr. Casey Sclar, Plant Health Care Division Leader at Longwood led the Roads Scholars and President Spanier on a great tour of this world class garden. Casey said Longwood was about to present the largest lily collection in the world. I guess there will be more than the 20,000 at Keukenhof. Yikes!

Unlike Keukenhof, Longwood is open 365 days a year. What a challenge for the horticulturists there. If you have not visited lately, put it on your “to do” list.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Tomato Time

Ask most vegetable gardeners what single thing they would not live without in their garden and it is probably the tomato. Makes sense, tomatoes are easy to grow and reliably produce lots of fruit; they are tasty, good for you and bear from July till frost. There is a huge selection of varieties to choose from so tomato growers don’t get bored. And it is just plain satisfying to pick a big, fat, ripe tomato and fix yourself that first sandwich or salad.

Growing tomatoes is so easy I hesitate to offer advice but here goes. Even veteran tomato growers got a surprise last year with late blight and I’ll offer a few thought s on this disease. Here’s a link to Penn State’s tomato growing guide. See page 55.  It contains lots of good detail on tomato culture…and its relative, the eggplant.

Grow your own transplants or rely on the local greenhouse? That is a big question. Certainly growing your own plants gives you more control over what varieties you’ll enjoy. But many of us just don’t have the time, growing conditions or skill to produce a good transplant. I find that small, local greenhouses offer the best chance at getting an excellent quality plant as well as decent variety selection. Try your local farm market, too. Sometimes farmers start more transplants than they need and sell the rest.

Tomatoes are heat loving plants. They will not tolerate a frost so we wait until mid-May in Bucks County to plant them out, unless you have some device that will protect them or are willing to gamble that Mother Nature is looking out for you. By Mother’s Day, we are almost always past danger of a hard freeze, so that’s a good tomato planting guideline. Makes sense to look at that 10 day outlook and adjust as necessary. You can plant out earlier using low tunnels, wall-of-water, row covers and other heat retention devices if you are the kind of person who wants that first tomato on the block.

Varieties… the list is endless. Entire websites are devoted to tomato seeds and varieties. Here are a few suggestions based on Penn State evaluations, personal experience and high praise from knowledgeable tomato people.
Brandyboy… an improved Brandywine type will give you excellent size and flavor without the downsides of straight Brandywine that heirloom folks praise. Fabulous…is just that, a fabulous, tasty slicer that will not disappoint you. Celebrity is an early fruiting, smaller but reliably good slicer. Mortgage Lifter is a good choice if you are in the heirloom market; and how can we overlook a variety called Bucks County from Burpee.

Plant breeders have been taking the best qualities of heirloom types and combining them with traits that improve yield uniformity and disease resistance. I’m not talking about those hard, red cardboard tasting things you find in the mega-mart. Plant a Brandywine and a Brandyboy side by side and judge for yourself. Space is limited so I’ll leave it to you to explore the plum, cherry, grape Roma and other small types but I will drop a name…Mountain Magic is reported to be a superb new “salad” size tomato that will be available in limited quality this year. In addition to yield and flavor it is resistant to late blight.

Ah late blight… the tomato/potato disease that took a lot of the fun out of last year’s garden. You may recall tomatoes turning a greasy, black color and croaking about mid July. For a more detailed discussion of the disease, check out previous blog entries.

Bottom line… no reason to expect late blight to be the scourge it was in 2009 but keep your eyes open and let us know if you see it. Gardening-wise, there are no special gardening practices that you can employ to prevent late blight. No need to sterilize soil, tools tec. Rotating planting location is always a good practice but will have no effect on late blight.

More likely, our old nemesis, early blight and Septoria leaf blight, will be infecting plants. Neither are the devastating fruit rotter and plant killer that late blight is but they overwinter her very well. Stake or cage plants to encourage quick drying and you’ll see less of these diseases. Inspect plants when you purchase and bypass those with spotted or yellowing leaves.

A final thought… consider planting through black plastic mulch. It is amazing what it does for soil heat and water retention, weed control and overall soil physical prosperities.