Monday, June 29, 2015

How To Mulch A Tree Or Shrub

Mulching seems natural.  After all, mulch helps re-create a forest environment, where decaying leaves, twigs and branches blanket the ground.  As they break down, they slowly feed plants and they help the soil stay moist.  Plus, the natural carpet looks nice.

What is unnatural is the current practice of making gopher mounds of mulch around the base of plants.  Not sure what I mean?  Drive around your neighborhood and look, especially at newly landscaped areas.  There they stand - poor, helpless trees and shrubs being swallowed by wood-chip piles the size of the Great Pyramid (well, almost).  Not only do those mounds look unnatural, but they also hurt plants by depriving roots of air and water.  

Below are the basic steps to mulching the right way.  Use whatever mulch works for you - bark, compost or shredded leaves, for example.  But no matter what you choose, make sure that it is fully composted.  
Uncomposted mulch will tie up soil nitrogen as it decomposes, starving your plants and it may steam, or 
create heat and acid that will burn tender new plant roots.

•  KEEP MULCH SEVERAL INCHES AWAY from the trunk.  Mulch helps to hold moisture; that’s a good thing  except when mulch is piled against a plant base.  Stems, unlike tree roots, are not adapted to being moist all the time.  By putting mulch too close to the stem or trunk you risk problems with moisture-loving insects, fungi and rodents.

•  APPLY MULCH so that when it settles, the layer is no more than 2 to 3 inches deep.  If mulch is applied too deeply (or has a fine texture like sawdust), air and water may have a hard time penetrating the mulch layer.  Deep mulch is especially problematic for plants with fine root systems, such as Azaleas, Rhododendrons and Japanese Maples.

•  SPREAD MULCH all over the ground directly below the canopy.  (This area is known as the drip line).  Doing so keeps weeds and grass from competing with roots.  It also prevents injury to the stems due to close shaves with the lawn mower or string trimmer.  Finally, it allows more of the root system to benefit from the moisture-conserving advantages of mulch.

Information courtesy of Organic Gardening

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Growing Vegetables In Containers

Would-be vegetable growers in urban areas have alternatives to the challenges to outdoor gardening.  If you have a passion for vegetable gardening, you need not give up as there are alternatives such as growing vegetables in containers.  Vegetables and even flowers and herbs grown in containers can be placed or moved to any spot such as windows, balconies, patios and doorsteps where there is sun.

There are several types of containers that can be used for growing vegetables.  These include 
polyethylene plastic bags, clay pots, plastic pots, metallic pots, milk, jugs, ice cream containers, bushel baskets, barrels and planter boxes.

It is very important to use containers that can accommodate the roots of the vegetables you want to grow as the vegetables vary in size and root depth.  The container also needs to have good drainage, and should not contain or be made up of chemicals that are toxic to plants and human beings.

Vegetables suitable for container gardening are the ones that require small space, particularly the dwarf or determinate types, or bear fruit or other harvestable parts over a longer period of time, require full sun or partial shade, and plants that will make the landscape look beautiful.

Use potting mix (soil-less media) in vegetable container gardening as these mixes are light, disease-free, weed seed-free and have good drainage.

Some potting mixes have pre-mixed plant nutrients but its very important to read information on the label about how long the pre-mixed nutrients will support plant growth before you start applying fertilizers.  
You can also make your own two bushels of potting mix by using the following recipe:  one bushel of shredded sphagnum peat moss; one bushel of vermiculite; 11/4 cups of ground limestone; one-half cup of 0-20-0 phosphate fertilizer or one-fourth of a cup of 0-45-0 fertilizer; and one cup of slow-release granular fertilizer such as 5-10-5.  

Most vegetables grown in the backyard can be grown in containers, although container diameter and depth need to be considered.  The plant density (number of vegetable plants per pot) depends on the individual plant space requirement and rooting depth.

Here are some general guidelines:
~ Half gallon containers:  parsley (one plant)
~ One gallon containers:  cabbages (one plant); cucumbers (two plants); green beans (two to three 
plants); leaf lettuce (four to six plants); spinach (direct seed, thin to one to two inches apart); 
Swiss chard (one plant); cherry and patio tomatoes (one plant).
~ Two gallon containers:  beets (thin to two or three inches apart); carrots (thin to two to three inches 
apart); eggplant (one plant); pepper (two plants); radishes (thin to one to two inches apart).
~ Three gallon containers:  standard tomatoes (one plant)

Vegetables require full sun, except for the few that are grown in partial shade.  Most fruit-bearing vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash and eggplant require full sun.  Leafy vegetables such as lettuce, cabbage, collards, mustard greens, spinach and parsley can tolerate partial shade better than root vegetables such as turnips, beets, radishes, carrots and onions.

Put the containers in a spot where vegetables can receive at least six hours of sunlight per day.  Plants grown in containers need frequent watering because the containers dry quickly.  Watering on a daily basis is necessary to provide adequate moisture for plant growth.  Apply enough water to reach the bottom of the container and allow the excess to drain out through drainage holes.  Avoid wetting the leaves when watering as this will encourage the development of foliar disease.

Do not allow the containers to dry out completely between watering as this will lead to flower and fruit drop.  Do not over water as the container will become waterlogged and the roots will lack oxygen leading to poor growth and eventual plant death.

Container grown plants require more frequent fertilization than field grown plants because of the limited space within the container.

Nutrient solution can be made by dissolving soluble fertilizer such as 10-20-10, 12-24-12 or 8-16-8 in water following label directions.  The nutrient solution is applied once a day when the plants are watered.  Frequency of watering may vary with vegetables, but once a day is adequate.

Leach the unused fertilizer nutrients from the potting mix once a week by applying tap water.  It is also important to water occasionally with nutrient solution containing micro nutrients such as copper, zinc, boron, manganese and iron.  Follow label directions in order to give plants the right amounts.

Vegetables grown in containers can still be attacked by insect pests and diseases.  Inspect the plants periodically for insect pests and diseases.  Use recommended insecticides and fungicides or contact your local Extension office for assistance.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Attracting Hummingbirds To Your Yard

Here in Central Pennsylvania, bird-watchers await anxiously the return of the Ruby-Throat Hummingbirds each year.  These little jewels are the smallest of birds, and are fascinating to watch as they busily feed from flowers or a feeder provided for that purpose.  Hummingbirds also eat tiny insects and small spiders.

Contrary to popular myth, hummingbirds enjoy perching on a small bare branch or sturdy weed that is high enough for the bird to survey his territory.  Hummingbirds have little fear of man or anything else; their speed makes them inaccessible to cats and other would be predators.  Hummingbirds have a feisty disposition, and are known to drive off much larger birds.  The males often fight for territory and stage ‘dogfights’ displaying their tremendous agility and acrobatic prowess.

Hummingbirds breed in our area, with each female typically laying two eggs no bigger than a pea.  Their nests are about the size of a half dollar.  They like to nest above a creek or stream, on a 
down-sloping branch anywhere from five to twenty feet above the water.  They locate their nests on the saddle of a horizontal twig or branch.  The nests are built of plant down, spider webbing, lichen, and young oak leaves typically.

Hummingbirds migrate from Costa Rica and Mexico in the winter to our area as spring flowers start to open.  They are particularly fond of columbine in the early spring.  The males precede the females.  Females will return to their nesting spots each year.

Hummers are fond of red flowers, as well as a host of wildflowers.  Some plants, like Cardinal-Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) depend on hummingbirds for pollination since their flowers have such an elongated tube that other pollinators cannot reach their nectar.  Here are a list of other flowers that attract hummingbirds.

Impatiens Nicotiana
Trumpet-Vine Salpiglossis
Salvia (Scarlet Sage) Hollyhocks
Red Honeysuckle Gladiolus
Bee Balm (Monarda) Balcon Geraniums
Jewelweed Fuchsia
Phlox Wild Honeysuckle
Petunias Penstemon
Lilies Mimosa Trees
Nasturtiums Yucca

In addition, hummingbirds will also feed on fresh sap from a hole made by a wood-boring bird.

There are a variety of hummingbird feeders available to supplement flower feeding. Most are constructed of plastic and have red tops or plates to help the hummingbirds zero in on the nectar.  You may buy hummingbird nectar, or make your own.  To make your own, use a ration of one part white sugar to four parts water.  Boil the water, add the sugar and let it cool.  Store unused portion in the refrigerator.  It is important to clean your feeder at least once a week to keep mold from forming.  Clean them with hot water and a little vinegar.  Rinse thoroughly before refilling.  Do NOT use honey to feed hummingbirds - it grows a fungus that can infect the tongues of hummingbirds.

Other insects are also attracted to hummingbird feeders, and hummers have been known to fight bumblebees for food.  To keep competition at a minimum, spray your feeder daily with water.  It discourages insects, and hummingbirds love to dive in and out of water drops.  In fact, spritzing water fascinates these little birds, and they enjoy taking baths regularly.  If you are fortunate enough to have a fountain, it can make a nice centerpiece for a hummingbird garden.

Even those that live in town can enjoy hummingbirds by planting containers and window boxes full of their favorite flowers.  A bird bath can provide water and a large tree can be used for cover.  On suburban lots, a grassy expanse ringed by medium-sized trees that is under-planted with shrubs provides the type of cover hummingbirds seem to enjoy.

Hummingbirds make a chatter that sounds like a squeak, followed by a ‘tsk’ sound.  Most often, their approach is hear as the flutter of rapidly beating wings.  They are very curious, and will often hover around a person with a bright red shirt or red hair ribbon.

Monday, June 8, 2015

How To Grow Strawberries

Few fruits are as delectable as a strawberry grown to perfection and picked fully ripe.  They are easy to grow, and if you grow the everbearing types (including the popular day-neutrals), they will reward you quickly, bearing fruit the same season they are planted.  The June-bearing types should form strong plants their first season and fruit the following year.
Regardless of the type of strawberries you grow, expect a quart of fruit from each plant.

Choose your planting site carefully.  Strawberries grow best in moist, well-drained soil in full sun.  If you can, avoid low-lying areas where spring frosts are apt to injure the early blossoms.  If you can’t avoid such a site, you will have to protect your plants with a blanket or plastic sheet when frost threatens.  It’s also best to avoid ground where grass, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants or potatoes were growing recently, as these plants harbor pests that may linger in the soil and damage your strawberry crop.  If you have no choice, go ahead and plant your strawberries anyway on the chance that pests aren’t present.

1.  PREPARING THE SOIL.  The soil in even the best of sites often needs preparation.  Work when the soil is moist but not sodden.  Till it to a depth of half a foot or more, removing as many perennial weeds and their roots as possible as you go.  Doing so now will save you work later, for strawberries have shallow roots that cannot compete with weeds and are easily damaged by hoeing.  Strawberries’ shallow roots are also incapable of reaching very far for water or nutrients.  To help the soil retain water and to supply some nutrients, spread a two-inch layer of organic matter (peat moss, leaf mold, compost or well-rotted manure) on top of the bed.  Further supplement your plants’ diet by sprinkling on a granular 10-10-10 fertilizer at the rate of three pounds per 100 square feet.  Thoroughly mix these amendments into the soil with a shovel or rototiller.

If your soil drains poorly, rake the prepared soil into a raised bed six inches high and two feet wide.  If you’re making more than one bed, leave 18-inch paths between them.

2.  PREPARING THE PLANTS.  Strawberry plants are usually sold in bare-root bundles.  If you cannot plant them 
immediately, moisten the roots and store the bundles in a plastic bag in the refrigerator.

When you are ready to plant, take a pair of scissors and cut all the roots of each bundle back to four inches.  Shortening the roots in this manner makes planting easier.  Old roots will become nonfunctional anyway as new roots form higher up.

Next, open each bundle and inspect the plants.  If they have leaves (they may not), pull off all but two or three of the youngest ones on each plant - this will reduce water loss when the plants are in the ground.  As you work, keep the plants in a pan with a little water in the bottom and drape a damp cloth over them.

3.  SETTING THE PLANTS IN THE GROUND.  An individual strawberry plant requires a square foot of space.  Strawberries produce runners (horizontal stems with new plants along their length), so if you set the plants a foot apart, you’ll need to trim off all runners as they form.  Alternatively, you can set the plants a couple of feet apart and allow the runners to fill the spaces between.  Your first harvest will be greater with the former plan, but you’ll have to purchase more plants.

(Note that June bearers produce more runners than everbearers do).

Plant by plunging a trowel straight down into the soil with the concave side facing you.  Pull the handle toward you to open a slit in the ground.  Fan out the roots and place them in the opened slit, taking care they don’t bend as you set them in.  Then set the top of the crown just above the soil line.  Any deeper and the crown will rot; any shallower and the roots will dry out.

Remove the trowel and firm the soil with the heel of your hand to ensure good contact between roots and soil.  Give each plant a pint of water to settle the soil and to get it off to a good start.  Finally, double check the planting depth.

4.  CARING FOR THE PLANTS. Strawberries enjoy cool, moist soil, so tuck a two-inch layer of straw or pine needles around each plant.  This mulch also will suppress weeds and will keep the berries clean when they appear.

Soon your plants will begin to grow, producing leaves and flowers.  Diligently pinch off all flower buds to force the plants to put their energy into growth instead of reproduction.  Pinch everbearers for about three months, then stop and allow subsequent flowers to go on to produce berries.  Pinch June bearers until flowering ceases in early summer, and expect a bountiful harvest the following year.

EARLIGLOW June Bearing - Earliglow are early producing, medium-sized strawberries with 
fantastic flavor.  They are considered the best flavored of all the widely grown commercial 

OZARK BEAUTY Everbearing - Sets lots of large, delicious berries with sugar-sweet taste and a temptingly juicy texture.  Plenty for processing - produced over 12,000 quarts per acre in trials - but oh, so irresistable fresh from the garden!  Withstands leaf spot and leaf scorch.

Surecrop June Bearing - Surecrop produces deep red berries all through, rich but sweet flavor.  Berries hold well on the vines or picked.  Ideal canner.

Quinalt Everbearing - Large, soft, delicously sweet fruit ideal for preserves for fresh eating.  Produces from late spring through fall.  Developed by Washingon State University, this variety is popular everywhere for its delicious berries that are perfect for home gardens.  Plant so that crown is just above soil level.  Set transplants 18 inches apart.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Growing Tomatoes

Tomatoes rank among the easiest and richest food.  Pot or tub grown patio and cherry tomatoes provide fresh salad making.  A half dozen plants in the garden will do for a small family.  Using plastic cover sheets, the bearing season can be extended 6-weeks in the open garden to early November.

BEST LOCATION - All day sun, good air circulation and soil drainage are a must; use a fast warming sandy loam soil if possible.  All soils are suitable when enriched with organic matter.  To help offset disease, plant in different part of the garden each year and destroy plants when finished.  Do not use these in compost or allow to remain on the ground to decay.  For pot use only fresh soil mix.

SPACING - Allow 18 to 36 inches between plants in the row, with rows from 3 to 5 feet apart.  If plants are to be trained to stakes, set stakes first; these must be firm in soil and stand 6 feet.  Gardeners with limited space can use tomato towers.  Least work is by allowing plants to bush or sprawl out at will.

PLANTING TIME - Planting can usually begin by mid-May, after the last frost.  If plants get too tall or leggy from early started seedlings, lay on side in a shallow trench and cover all but the top 3 or 4 inches with soil.  Roots form readily all along the stem.  Water with a starter solution such as “upstart” by Ortho.  Shade plants for a few days.  Plastic covers are not usually needed after June first.

SUMMER CARE - Avoid high nitrogen fertilizers which cause excessive foliage growth.  Tomatoes need some pruning anyway, whether staked or not.  Usually the first 2 or 3 branches from the base are retained, all others nipped off as they appear (except for determinate types).  In stake training, it may be best to keep only one stem; tie to stake at ten-in.  Intervals using 2-inch wide strips of cloth.  When first blossoms appear, fertilizers and mulches can be applied.  Tomato plant food is used at intervals to September 1st; mulches of black plastic can be laid, or 8 to 10 inches of clean straw to blanket walks.  Mulches help conserve and level off moisture supply and control weeds.  Under no circumstances cultivate no more than an inch deep as roots sprawl just below surface.  For larger, cleaner fruit, support your tomato plants.

CUTWORMS - At time of planting, place a collar around plant to fend off cutworms which feed at night (common on sandy soils).  Half a milk carton, pushed firmly into soil, works well;  don’t allow leaves to touch the ground outside, as worms climb.

WEED KILLERS - Such as used on lawns in the neighborhood; drift causes abnormal distorted foliage and stunting.

HORN WORMS - With warmer weather, green worms to 4 inches long feed  on leaves and fruit, one or two only per plant.  Pick off and destroy; if it is out of sight, shade bush and listen for ticking.  If by chance you find a worm covered with tiny cocoons (white), leave it; these are helpful parasites at work and your worm is dying!  Or use organic pesticide.

FRUIT WORMS - Large hole in fruit, many worms inside.  Pick fruit and burn, or bury.  Apply spray or dust with Sevin or Tomato vegetable dust by Ortho.

BLOSSOM END ROT - Black bottoms, enlarging.  Often on first fruit only; some varieties more susceptible.  Not a disease.  Thought to be caused by irregular moisture conditions, lack of lime.  Maintain even soil moisture.  
SUNBURN - Fruit top or shoulders yellowed or hardened.  Very light foliage cover needed, constant moisture.  Most notable on staked and rigidly pruned plants lacking sufficient foliage.  

BLOSSOM DROP - and no developing fruit:  night temperatures below 55°F, too much rain, prolonged humid conditions.

GROWTH - Indeterminate means that the blossoms and fruit develop progressively and the harvest lasts several months.  Determinate means that the blossoms and fruit develop on the vine at the same time.

BEEFMASTER VFNASt  80 days, fruit is tolerant of cracking
WHOPPER VFFNT  70 days, outstanding
SUPERSTEAK VFN  80 days, indeterminate, beefsteak type
BIG BOY VF  78 days, 12-16 oz. fruits, indeterminate, vigorous plant
BETTER BOY VFN  72 days, smooth, high yields, indeterminate
CHAMPION VFNT  10 oz. fruit, resistant, excellent, 62 days, 
CELEBRITY VFNTASt determinate, 72 days, large, glossy fruits
EARLY GIRL 65 days, indeterminate, earliest, good for slicing
PATIO VASt, 70 days, determinate, good for containers, 
3-4 oz. fruits
SWEET 100 VF  65 days, 1” cherry fruits
LA ROMA VF1 & 2N, 70 days, determinate, plum shaped fruits
RUTGERS VFASt, 7-9 oz. fruits, indeterminate
SUPERSONIC 80 days; mid season; hearty yield, crack resistant
GERMAN JOHNSON 80 days; indeterminate, low acid, slicing

For a complete listing, see our 2015 vegetable list.

***Letters preceding plant names indicate they are resistant to the following diseases: 
VF-Verticillium and Fusarium Wilt
N - Nematodes
T - Tobacco Mosaic
A - Alternaria Alternate
ST- Stemphylum

Days given indicate time from setting out plants to first fruit harvest.