Posts Tagged tomatoes

Spring Veggie Updates+

Enjoy with your eyes, not your taste buds.

Enjoy with your eyes, not your taste buds.

OK, it’s not a vegetable, but it is gorgeous, yes? That’s a Pink Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium acaule). Thirty years or so ago, it was easy to stroll through local forests (now covered by concrete) and find hundreds of these native orchids blooming beneath the canopy trees. Stumbling onto such a spring display never failed to lift my spirits.

Over 20 years ago, a friend of mine invited me to rescue any natives I desired off her family’s land before it was sold. The property included a rich woodland full of treasures, including the increasingly rare Pink Lady’s Slippers. They are reputed to be very difficult to move, so Wonder Spouse dug a wide circle around the plants, and we moved them, soil and all, to a spot beneath our tall pines, much like the spot where they had been growing. They bloomed reliably for many years, but that area is no longer as open as it was 20 years ago. Understory shrubs and trees were robbing the orchids of the light they needed to flourish. So last year, I moved them to my deer-fence-enclosed north slope, tucking them in with my new trilliums, transplanted bloodroots, Solomon’s Seals, and other spring ephemeral treasures.  To have the little plant bloom well the very next spring was very satisfying to this gardener’s heart, and it confirmed my instinct that this orchid needed a better growing site.

That orchid is just one of the ZILLIONS of flowers blooming in my yard. Some have already come and gone. I’ve taken hundreds of pictures, but because I’m outside tending veggies and choking on pollen, I am behind on sharing the beauty with my kind readers. Another post, soon, I promise, will show you more of what has been going on.

Today, I want to report on the progress of my spring vegetable garden. I am hoping that showing my methods and results may help some newbie gardeners out there. Spring vegetable gardening in the southeastern US piedmont region can be tricky business because of our wild weather swings. After a week of 80+-degree days, for example, the weather seers are now forecasting thunderstorms followed by below-normal temperatures, with lows dipping back into the low 40s. At my house, that likely means the upper 30s. Translation: Don’t plant your tomatoes outside just yet, folks.

First, on behalf of my spud-obsessed Wonder Spouse, we are happy to report that the Great Potato Experiment appears to be working according to plan. After loitering beneath the surface of their planting bags for several weeks, all three varieties are now pushing out leaves. Here’s a shot of the bed with all three bags:

This photo is almost a week old. The plants are more visible now -- and covered in yellow pine pollen.

This photo is almost a week old. The plants are more visible now — and covered in yellow pine pollen.

Here’s a closer view of the bag containing the fingerling potatoes. They were first to emerge:


Fingerlings are delicious coated in olive oil and roasted until tender, perhaps accompanied by some lightly sauteed spring sweet onions.

The greens growing beneath Wonder Spouse’s improvised canopy are thriving, although this week’s heat wave seems to have slowed their growth a bit. I’m hoping the spell of rain and chilly weather will revive them. We’ve already devoured several fabulous salads created from this colorful mix of spring goodness.

See the yellow splotches on the leaves? Pine pollen. At least it washes off relatively easily.

See the yellow splotches on the leaves? Pine pollen. At least it washes off relatively easily.

I always worry about the veggies I must direct-sow. Carrot and beet seeds are small, and I can’t control their germination environment the way I can inside my little greenhouse. Despite my worries, all varieties are now up and beginning to grow visibly. First up were both beet varieties. Beet “seeds” are actually clusters of seeds. It’s the way they grow. So I always end up with little grouplets of seedlings that need to be thinned. I’ve saved some space in one bed, so that I can move at least some of the thinned plants there, rather than compost them all. Waste not, as the saying goes.

The red stems make it easy to distinguish beet seedlings from weeds. I'm waiting for next week's chill to thin them in the hopes that this will reduce transplant shock.

The red stems make it easy to distinguish beet seedlings from weeds. I’m waiting for next week’s chill to thin them in the hopes that this will reduce transplant shock.

The first carrots to germinate were the unpelleted varieties I got as free trials from Renee’s Garden Seeds. I hypothesize that the clay pellets surrounding the varieties from Johnny’s Selected Seeds require time to dissolve into the soil, thereby slowing germination.

I am never able to sow unpelleted seeds thinly enough. I'll address this issue during next week's cool spell.

I am never able to sow unpelleted seeds thinly enough. I’ll address this issue during next week’s cool spell.

Even though I carefully spaced my pelleted carrot seeds, they ended up coming up a bit clustered. Not as much as the unpelleted varieties, but enough to require some thinning. I suspect that hard rain moved some of the seeds. And I also suspect that the pelleting process doesn’t always coat single carrot seeds. They are tiny; I can imagine whatever machine is used to coat the seeds might easily group and coat several together.

Thinning the pelleted carrots will be much easier work, because the clumps are smaller.

Thinning the pelleted carrots will be much easier work, because the clumps are smaller.

Meanwhile in the greenhouse, I have transplanted all the tomato and pepper seedlings to the pots they will occupy until the weather settles enough to move them to their outdoor summer beds. As usual, germination rates for the varieties I tried were nearly 100% in all cases. When I transplant the seedlings, I add just a bit of an organic fertilizer specially formulated for tomatoes and peppers. This will be enough to keep them happy until the weather settles.

When will that be, you ask? When the string of 80+-degree days started, I was thinking I might plant out the summer garden by next week. Now I’m thinking it will be the following week, or maybe even early May, before I can trust that nighttime temperatures will remain above 50 degrees at my house.

Fifty degrees is the critical temperature for tomatoes and peppers. Studies have shown that total fruit production for plants drops when temperatures go below this number. Now that I’m growing fewer plants, maximizing productivity is more of a concern for me than it was during my days of growing three dozen or so tomato plants per summer.

The transplants showed no signs of shock. The greenhouse will keep them warm and growing during next week's below-normal temperatures.

The transplants showed no signs of shock. The greenhouse will keep them warm and growing during next week’s below-normal temperatures.

I’m hoping to direct-sow my bean seeds this weekend. The cool air temperatures won’t be an issue during the week or so it will take for the beans to germinate. The key to that is soil temperature, and I’m certain the beds are warm enough to stimulate rapid bean germination.

I’ll also be sowing squash seeds in my greenhouse this weekend. Although you can direct-sow squash seeds, I’ve found I start with healthier, more vigorous plants if I pamper them in my greenhouse for a couple of weeks before transplanting them to their summer homes.

Finally, sometimes when you hear hoofbeats, it is a zebra. A medical truism favored by physicians states that symptoms usually point to the most common malady associated with them: If you hear hoofbeats, it’s probably horses, not zebras.

But this week in my yard, among the gazillion Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterflies swarming over my blooming blueberries, one yellow butterfly was not like the others. Zebra Swallowtails are much pickier about larval food choices. Their caterpillars only dine on our native Pawpaws. Fortunately for me, a stand of about two dozen trees grows on the same steep slope overlooking my creek where my Bloodroots grow. This week, a single Zebra Swallowtail taunted me by nectaring on the abundant Henbit growing in my lawn. This common weed with purple flowers is hated by some, but pollinators love it, it’s not invasive, so I don’t argue with it unless it is in my way.

Unlike Eastern Tiger Swallowtails, Zebra Swallowtails do not tarry long at any individual flower. Just about the time I almost had my camera focussed on my visitor, it would dash off to another flower. Apologies for the somewhat blurred photo, but it is clear enough to see the diagnostic red markings that distinguish the Zebra from the Tigers.

I'm fairly certain I heard this butterfly snickering at me as I chased it all over the yard trying to photograph it.

I’m fairly certain I heard this butterfly snickering at me as I chased it all over the yard trying to photograph it.

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To graft or not to graft?

Do the advantages compensate for the extra cost?

Do the advantages compensate for the extra cost?

Actually, I’m not planning on grafting my vegetables myself. Spending time grafting annuals for a small home garden is not efficient for my situation. However, everywhere I turn — in catalogs and gardening magazines — the big buzz is about the advantages of planting grafted vegetables.  All the catalogs want to sell me these higher priced darlings.

If you use your favorite search engine to learn about the advantages of grafted veggies, you will get many, many results. A quick perusal on my part this morning was instructive. Apparently, the Japanese, especially greenhouse operations, have been grafting melons, squash, tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers for quite some time. Fruit production is supposed to be higher, as is the length of productivity — more fruits over a longer period.

For those unfamiliar with this ancient horticultural technique, grafting usually involves putting together two different cultivars of the same species. Fruit growers have been doing this for centuries. They look for a tree with a vigorous root system and less-than-spectacular fruits and a tree with great fruit quality but perhaps weaker roots. They take a cutting from the top of the tasty plant (called a scion) and plug it into the lopped-off top of the plant with vigorous roots (called the rootstock). When done correctly, the two pieces grow together nicely, leaving just a bit of a scar line where they join. The grafted fruit tree scion generally becomes able to produce more, healthier fruit, because it is growing on the vigorous rootstock.

Often, rootstock plants are more resistant to diseases than the tasty fruit plants, so when the rootstock is able to impart this advantage to its grafted top, fruit production improves. This propagation process makes perfect sense to me for long-lived perennials and trees. But for annuals in a home garden? I’m just not sure, which is why my 2013 garden will feature an experiment.

Tomato growers are hyping grafted heirloom plants as the solution to heirloom tomatoes’ notorious susceptibility to diseases, most of which linger in the soil for years. They claim that an heirloom tomato growing on disease-resistant rootstock will give growers much more vigorous plants, and prolonged crops of tasty Brandywines, Cherokee Purples, etc.

For some situations, this may be true. For example, if your garden space is so small that you can’t manage to rotate your crops each year, grafted veggies may help you. When you rotate crops, you avoid growing members of the same plant family in the same spot every year. I am blessed with a large garden area. I only grow the same plant family in the same spot after growing other plants there for the previous two years. This may not eliminate every vestige of lingering disease spores, but I think it helps a lot.

Squashes are members of the cucurbit family.

Squashes are members of the cucurbit family.

For those who may have forgotten, squash, melons, and cucumbers are all members of the cucurbit family. Tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and potatoes are all members of the Solanaceae family, and peas and beans are legumes. Rotating where you grow these family groups makes it harder for their diseases and predators to lay in wait for them.

I have also read research that suggests that stressed plants produce more chemicals that make them less appealing to bad bugs and diseases. Grafting does stress plants, in that it requires them to allocate resources to heal the graft wound. Maybe this revs up the plant’s vigor?

The only way to learn more is to try some of these new-fangled plants, so I have ordered two grafted plants: a Brandywine and a Goliath. I have never had much success with seed-grown Brandywines in my garden. I usually get a few nice fruits, then the plant is overwhelmed by disease. I usually pull them out of the garden before the hybridized, disease-resistant tomatoes are halfway done. If the grafted Brandywine I plant this year really performs better, I will be a believer in the concept, although I’m still not sure it is enough of a return on investment to justify the cost.

The other grafted variety I’m trying is Goliath. This hybrid, disease-resistant tomato has always produced magnificently for me from seed-grown plants. I cannot imagine that grafting will improve its productivity in my garden, but it will be interesting to see.

Of course, I must have control plants to measure against the grafted ones, so I’ll also grow Brandywine and Goliath tomato plants from seed as usual. I’ll plant them at opposite ends of the trellises to minimize any cross contamination. May the best tomato win.

Fans of grafted tomatoes wax positively poetic about how disease-resistant rootstocks will prevent diseases from overwhelming tasty, disease-susceptible heirlooms. I am a doubter for my garden, because the root systems of all my tomatoes are always vigorous, and <knock on wood> I don’t have a nematode problem in my garden soil.

Most of the diseases that hit my tomatoes correlate with weather — hot humid summers breed fungal plagues — and insect infestations — spotted cucumber beetles, stink bugs, and other sucking insect predators insert diseases into plants when they suck out their juices. Unless the act of grafting in itself is the key to such improved vigor that even insect-introduced diseases are repelled, I doubt I’ll see much, if any, difference between my seed-grown controls and grafted test subjects.

Similarly, many of the soil-born wilts reach leaves when they are splashed up off the ground by watering or heavy rain. If you use organic mulch around your tomatoes, as I do, eventually soil-based fungi will find their way onto lower leaves, then work their way up from there. I don’t see how a disease-resistant rootstock will save a grafted heirloom in that scenario.

One more point for those who may have read about my tomato-planting technique in previous posts. I always dig a deep hole, maybe 8 inches below ground level, so that I can plant tomato seedlings deeply. The newly buried length of stem almost instantly begins to sprout roots, which may explain why my tomato plants always have vigorous, plentiful root systems.  However, for the grafted plants, I won’t be able to do this.

If I buried the grafted plants so that the graft line was below soil level, the buried stem of the scion (top part) would sprout roots. Because those roots would be from a plant that is less disease-resistant, any advantage conferred by the graft would be negated. This is another reason I’ll be surprised if the grafts win the productivity race. Their root systems will almost certainly remain smaller than their seed-grown competitors. If roots are the key piece of this puzzle, my money is on the seed-grown, deeply buried plants.

I’ll keep you posted as the season progresses. I’ve ordered all my seeds and plants, and I’ll be prepping my greenhouse soon for seed production mode. It will be most interesting to see the results of this experiment.

Have you ordered your seeds yet? If not, get busy. Seed sales are up as more folks are trying to grow some of their own food. To get the best selection, ordering soon is your best option.

Don't forget the herbs and flowers when you order your veggie seeds. A diverse garden is always healthier.

Don’t forget the herbs and flowers when you order your veggie seeds. A diverse garden is always healthier.

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More answers to your questions

Harvest from July 25

Faithful readers of this blog may recall that last month I wrote an entry in which I tried to answer some of the questions from search engines that lead people most frequently to my blog. For example, frequent searches still find my blog while seeking information on tomato ‘Indigo Rose’ and how to tend your garden during record drought and heat waves. Lately, a few other topics have been recurring regularly, so I thought I’d directly address some of them for you today.

First, check out the top photo. We finally got some decent rain last weekend (2.5 magnificent inches), and that moisture rekindled enthusiasm among my vegetables.  All but one of my squash plants surrendered to the heat and bugs several weeks ago. But one zucchini ‘Spineless Perfection’ continues to survive and produce fruit against all odds. A close examination of the stem shows clear evidence of Squash Vine Borer intrusion, but this plant has outwitted  the bugs by taking advantage of the fresh mulch that Wonder Spouse and I applied to all the paths between the veggie beds. This plant flopped itself over one side of its bed and into the path, and everywhere its stem touches the mulch, it sprouted new roots. Eventually, the borers will overcome this defense, but for now, I’m still picking a few zucchinis every week.  I will definitely be growing this variety of zucchini again.

When tomatoes receive a lot of moisture in a short time, sometimes the fruits will split, because they try to expand faster than the skins can stretch. I’m happy to report that the 60 seconds of water my tomatoes were getting every third day during the heat wave/drought, combined with the deep mulch in the paths, prevented my tomatoes from exploding from the recent surge in moisture. As you can see from the photo, all varieties are producing well, and the Carmen and Merlot peppers are also cranking bigtime. Yes, I am cooking down tomatoes into sauce for freezing on a regular basis so as not to waste a single red globe of goodness.

Now, on to a couple of questions.

Princess Tree (Paulownia tomentosa)

In the last month, several searches have found my site searching for a “tree with heart-shaped leaves and seed pods.” Sometimes the search says “giant heart-shaped leaves,” which is why I’m fairly certain these searchers are wondering about Princess Trees.

This non-native, highly invasive tree plagues 25 eastern states in the US. It was introduced deliberately as an ornamental tree, and some lumber companies are now actually growing plantations of these invaders for their lumber, which the Japanese adore. In the spring just as invasive Chinese Wisteria is finishing its blooming period in my area, these trees produce large upright clusters of purple flowers that resemble wisteria flowers from a distance. I suppose some might call the flowers pretty; I call them trouble.

The problem lies with the papery seeds that lurk within the abundant clusters of seed capsules. Experts have determined that one tree produces 20 MILLION seeds in one year. These light-weight seeds float far on wind and water, invading disturbed areas like roadsides and newly logged land. These trees can grow 15 feet in one year, and after they are established, it takes serious perseverance to eradicate them. It can be done. The link above offers instructions and more information on this aggressive invader.

Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)

Some folks want to know what’s eating the petals of these lovely, tough native wildflowers. The short answer is that any number of bugs may be nibbling on your flowers. In my gardens, where this wildflower thrives on my total neglect, petals do get nibbled. But I have so many that you don’t notice unless you get right on top of them. And I’ve never had a case in which all the petals were devoured. I can always find a plant or two worthy of a photograph.

I’ve also seen questions about whether these flowers multiply, and if they do so every year. In my sandy loam garden soil, my coneflowers multiply vegetatively at least a little every year. From the base of the mother plant, new plants sprout from her roots. When these new plants have a few leaves — usually in late fall — I gently separate them from the mother plant and plant them elsewhere. If I don’t get around to doing this, the baby plants usually manage to grow and flower right where they were born.

Because the central “cones” of the flowers are so showy even in the winter landscape, I don’t cut them off when the flowers fade. I also leave them because the seeds of this native are deemed desirable by goldfinches and several other seed-eating birds. I let the birds devour as much as they want. Inevitably, they scatter some seeds on the ground, at least a few of which sprout to become new plants the following spring. Sometimes, an entire seed head is overlooked by the feathered ones. I can always tell when this happens, because I’ll get a zillion tiny coneflower seedlings sprouting in one spot the next spring. I separate them and transplant them to ensure a continuing supply of these beauties.

Recently, someone found my entry on coneflowers while searching on “my purple coneflower grew a white flower.” Yes, it probably did. In fact named cultivars of white-blooming purple coneflower are sold commercially. ‘White Swan’ is a commonly sold cultivar of this species. If you bought what you thought was a purple-blooming plant from a nursery and it produced white flowers, your seller was careless during propagation. Named cultivars of plants are mostly propagated vegetatively, meaning they grow cuttings from a known desirable plant, or remove offsets from mother plants, as I described above.

But if you grew your coneflowers from seeds, it is entirely possible that one or more of them would produce white flowers. White flowers are a recessive color trait in this species, meaning that two purple coneflowers can produce a white coneflower baby if both carry this recessive color gene, much as two brown-eyed people can produce a blue-eyed child, if both parents carry the recessive gene for blue eyes.

In my gardens, white coneflowers pop up regularly in small numbers, because I do allow the seed heads to complete their life cycles where the plants grow. Personally, I think the white coneflowers contrast nicely with their dominantly purple siblings, adding a little variation to the landscape. I took the following photo of my front garden last year. As you can see, a recessive white-blooming flower grows with its more common purple siblings.

A recessive white purple coneflower with its dominant purple siblings

If you bought a named purple-blooming cultivar of purple coneflower from a nursery, you have a right to complain, but if you’ve been letting your coneflowers reproduce on their own, consider the white one a happy addition — a blue-eyed child in a brown-eyed family, if you will.

More answers to your searches in future entries.

Happy gardening to all.

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Houston, we may have a problem…

A tomato miscalculation?

I thought I was being clever by pushing ahead my greenhouse planting schedule. After all, temperatures soared to May levels by mid-March. Native flowers were blooming three weeks ahead of schedule. Soil temperatures were above 60 degrees. Yes, average last freeze for my area isn’t until April 15, and frosts can occur a couple of weeks after that. But surely not this year, right?

Um, well, maybe not. The weather forecasters just came out with the temperature forecast through mid-April. My region is now forecasted to have a better than 50% chance of below-normal temperatures. This after the warmest March on record, of course.

On the one hand, this is great news. Maybe my spring vegetable garden will be one of my most productive ones ever. Of course, the Sugar Sprint Snap Peas still haven’t produced one flower bud. But maybe it’s been too hot for them, even though they have been climbing their trellis. Maybe now they’ll be happy and make peas for me.

On the other hand, the tomatoes in my greenhouse are already so large that I’m having trouble moving in there without snagging one and nearly pulling it down on top of me. And it’s only April 4.

For comparison, I went back and looked at my records for last year. According to this post, my tomatoes were about the same size as they are now on May 17. No, that’s not a typo. We’re talking five weeks later. Time for Plan B — or is it Plan C. This has been the most improvisational gardening season I’ve experienced in, well, forever. I can’t remember ever being faced with such problems.

Meanwhile, the natives and ornamentals are still hurtling through the season as if midnight is approaching and their coaches are becoming pumpkins. Case in point: I found this on the ground today when I was walking around:

Tulip Poplar flower

Last year, I took a photo like that on April 24 as you can see here.

And my beautiful deciduous azaleas? They are blooming so early and fast that one finished before I could even document it here. Right now, the Alabama azalea is at its peak. Here’s the whole shrub:

Alabama Azalea in full bloom

That’s the Ashe Magnolia in the back left corner. It’s just beginning to open its buds. Here’s a close-up of the Alabama Azalea flowers so you can appreciate their beauty:

Last year, I documented peak bloom of this specimen on April 22, as you can see here.

One more example and I’ll stop for today. I documented the gorgeous blooms of Rhododendron ‘Pastel #20’ last year on April 14. It’s at maximum bloom this year today, as you can see here:

Rhododendron ‘Pastel #20″

And here’s a close-up:

It smells wonderful too.

All the oak trees except the big Black Oak have finished blooming. The Northern Red Oak that towers over my house is raining fat caterpillars. I always wonder if they leap off the tree to avoid birds. Why else would they abandon their food source before they’re ready to metamorphose?

Most of the oak leaves — and the leaves of other native trees too — are rapidly achieving near-summer size. I’m hoping — praying, actually —  this means that they’ll have time to toughen up enough to avoid being killed by a late freeze.

The good news? The same long-range forecast for my region has my area right on the line between above-average and normal precipitation. Maybe if it stays cloudy — and ideally rainy — the cold temperatures won’t drop low enough to kill my precocious plants. Of course, below-normal temperatures and above-normal precipitation could also mean snow. It has happened here in April — not lately — but it has happened. A light snow probably wouldn’t kill spring growth. But it doesn’t solve my biggest problem.

What I am going to do with the gigantic tomato plants in my greenhouse?


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Warmest March Ever

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail enjoying Verbena ‘Homestead Purple’

That’s what the local weatherman proclaimed on the TV today — we’re having the warmest March ever. We’ve blown every existing temperature record to smithereens. Of course, I didn’t need the weatherman to tell me that. The plants in my yard have been telling me since about the time the deluded groundhog promised six more weeks of winter.

In all my 40+ years of gardening in the Piedmont region of North Carolina, I have never seen trees, shrubs, and perennials bloom so early, nor have I ever seen them bloom all together, as many of them are doing this year.

Take, for example, Redbuds, Dogwoods, and my Two-Winged Silverbell. Until this spring, I could rely on an orderly progression from Redbud bloom to Dogwood Show to Silverbell finale. This year, all the native Redbuds except one finished blooming last week. The one exception grows in a significantly cooler microclimate in my yard, nestled against a backdrop of towering Red Cedars, as you can see here:

That’s the top of my little greenhouse in the right front corner.

In normal years, as the Redbuds fade, the native Dogwoods begin to open their showy four-petaled bracts, first a creamy yellow, then bleaching to white in the spring sunshine. This year, the Dogwoods started opening last week. If you click on the link above to my Redbud account for last year, you’ll see that the native Redbuds had barely begun blooming last March 13. The Dogwood link above will show you that last year’s bloom peak was around April 5. I predict this year the peak will be in a day or two.

As for the Two-Winged Silverbell, last year it peaked around April 15. This year, the first flowers are open now, and judging by the size of the rest of the flower buds, it will peak in two more days. That’s about the same time as the Dogwoods, not two weeks later, as is usual. Here’s a shot of the Halesia flowers and buds that I took this morning:

This is just plain ridiculous! At this rate, summer foliage will be out in three weeks. The deciduous azaleas, ferns, mayapples, anise trees, and myriad other plants are also way, way ahead of schedule. I’ll show you photographic proof in another post soon.

But today I want to close with a veggie garden update. Here are the spring greens after the 3.5 inches of rain (that’s not a typo) we got last week:

I will be picking more goodies for another spring salad tomorrow. Tonight, I’ve covered them again with the floating row cover. We’re under a frost advisory tonight, and my yard often goes ten degrees below the official reporting station. The frost probably wouldn’t hurt them, but why take a chance with such potential deliciousness?

The Sugar Sprint peas are now producing tendrils. I expect flower buds any second. Tonight’s predicted frost will actually make them happier, so they don’t get covered.

Flowers needed ASAP to beat summer’s impending heat

This past weekend’s rain kept me mostly indoors watching the grass grow, but I did manage to finish transplanting all the tomatoes and peppers in the greenhouse to larger pots. They’ll remain in these until it’s time to put them into the garden. Here’s a shot of the newly transplanted veggies:

The Super Marzano tomatoes that I planted two weeks ahead of the other summer veggies are enormous, even showing tiny flower buds. Look at them overpowering this shot of the greenhouse bench:

Their turn in the garden will come soon enough — assuming I manage to pull out enough of the cover crop of crimson clover on their beds to make room for them. The crimson clover has never grown to such gigantic size before. Usually winter freezes knock it down. That didn’t happen this year, so it grew, and grew, and grew. Soon the plants will be covered in red flower spikes that draw every pollinator in a five-county radius.

For good or ill, I’ll have plenty of warm weather for garden chores. After tonight’s frost and a chilly Tuesday, Wednesday is forecasted to be back in the mid to upper seventies.

Don’t even get me started on the pollen avalanche. March Madness indeed.

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Wonder Spouse uncovered this beautiful ring-necked snake while raking leaves away from the air-conditioning unit two days ago. The AC unit was roused by our 80+ degree weather and needed to be cleaned and checked for what promises to be a long, hot summer. The snake, however, was not quite convinced that its active season had begun. Its lethargy presented a photo opportunity, so I dashed inside and grabbed my camera.

Ring-necked snakes are common residents of my Piedmont woods. They live in leaf mulch and other decaying vegetation, where they prey on earthworms and salamanders. I think they are especially attractive snakes, sporting vivid yellow bellies with golden necklaces to match. This one was about 16 inches long. They are harmless to humans, of course. And the red-shouldered hawks that hunt on the floodplain forest find them quite delicious.

Fully awake and enjoying a sunning session on a floating log, this big fellow seems to be king of all he surveys:

I think it is a bullfrog, because I can’t see any of the ridges that adorn the bodies of most of our other native frogs. But I’m not sure. This fuzzy shot was taken with my camera’s zoom feature, because as I got closer, it plopped into the water with a resounding splash. I like the way this fellow seems to be admiring his reflection in the water. Bullfrog tadpoles take two years to metamorphose. I can see a dozen or so enormous ones loitering in the shallows of the pond here.

Bird migrators are coming and going, often stopping to refuel in my yard. Three dozen Cedar Waxwings have loitered for over three weeks. Their flight patterns remind me of fish schools in the way they can change direction on a dime without breaking formation. The Cowbirds returned three days ago. Their melodic gurgling call that sounds like falling water to my ear is unmistakeable. They hog my bird feeders until they pair off for nesting.

Flocks of boisterous Robins have been coming and going for over a month. Another group descended on us yesterday. They were having so much fun splashing in a mud puddle in our driveway that I had to honk the horn to get them to leave so I could exit my driveway. I think they like our yard for its abundance of earthworms — much like the ring-necked snakes, I guess.

Since childhood, I have always loved weeping cherry trees in bloom. They were always in every landscape scene I drew with crayons and pastels. So, of course, when I had a place for one, I could not resist. Here is what it looked like yesterday:

That’s the evergreen dogwood behind it, and the ‘Magic Carpet’ spirea just beginning to leaf out in the foreground. The cherry flowers hummed with honeybee visitors yesterday. Someone near me must be keeping bees again — good news for my garden to be sure.

And the greenhouse seedlings are making it clear they are ready to be upgraded to larger pots. Roots of tomatoes, peppers, and basils are creeping out the bottoms of their starter pots seeking roomier accommodations. Weather permitting, they are next on my to-do list.

Tis the season to be up and out and growing. Get busy, or get out of the way!

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Warp Factor Spring

In mid-March, this is what I expect to see: vivid crocus blooms. This year, these two are stragglers, blooming later than their crocus comrades by more than three weeks.

My blooming trees are at least a week ahead of last year. Prompted by our absurd eighty-degree weather, Magnolia ‘Butterflies‘ has exploded into flower. Look how vividly yellow they are in the early morning as they just open:

And here’s what the tree looked like as I stared up its trunk from ground level:

I couldn’t stay too long. The potent perfume of the zillions of flowers was overwhelming.

My Chinese redbud is at peak bloom. Here’s a close-up:

And now the native redbuds are getting into the act. Here’s what the branches of one of my larger specimens looked like this morning:

And, yes, the sky really was that blue.

The winterhazels are nearly at peak bloom. Here’s a view of branches obscuring one of my bird feeders:

And here’s a close-up of winterhazel flowers:

I think their vivid color makes forsythias look dowdy.

There’s lots more, of course, but I want to give you a brief veggie update. Yesterday, I transplanted the Super Marzano tomatoes to larger pots. They didn’t miss a beat. Here they are looking like they’ve always lived in these pots:

And here are the other tomato, pepper, and basil seedlings:

Their roots are mostly hitting the bottom of their pots now. So they’ll be getting upgraded to bigger pots very soon.

Today, I sowed seeds of many of the free flowers that I got from Renee’s Garden as a benefit of my membership in the Garden Writers’ Association. I’ll be reporting on how they do throughout the growing season. I also sowed more basil seeds, because I’m planning on giving away some plants to a community garden. I’ve got the greenhouse and the seeds; I figure I should share the wealth.

Last weekend, Wonder Spouse double-shredded a big pile of fallen leaves that we had collected last winter. These broken-up leaves make the absolutely best mulch in the world for my vegetable garden. As fast as Wonder Spouse shredded it, I was tucking it around my sprouting sugar snap peas and onion plants. The peas responded instantly by growing taller. Here’s what they looked like this morning:

I am worried about our heat wave. We are predicted to remain 20 degrees above normal several more days, then we back down to a mere 10 degrees above normal. Even though I got my spring garden planted earlier than ever before, if the heat persists, I won’t get much of a yield from it.

For now, I’m watering often, in hopes that plenty of moisture will help the spring veggies thrive despite the heat. Our area remains in moderate drought, so every time I’m watering, I’m also praying for significant, frequent rain. And cooler temperatures, of course. Eighty-four degrees in mid-March is too much for any of us to handle for long.

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The Agony of Success

Lovely, aren’t they? Due to a childhood filled with perpetually pink gifts from a well-meaning grandmother, I’m not usually a big fan of pink. However, these daffodils were freebies from the same company that gave me the pink hyacinths I showed you here.

Both sets of bulbs have prospered. And in my fantasy garden land where I stay on top of all my chores, they would have been divided and spread around several years ago to prevent the crowding that inevitably leads to diminished blooms. These bulbs are rapidly approaching that limit. Will I get to them? Unless friendly garden elves suddenly appear to help me, probably not.

Most days on my five acres, I am so besotted by the beauty I encounter at every step that I manage to ignore all the to-dos clamoring for their turns. Today, as creaky joints and aching muscles protest my every move, the beauty is being outshouted.

I spent the last two days finishing the initial planting of the spring vegetable garden. I was pushing hard to exploit a window of absurdly mild, dry weather that preceded today’s morning rain (a mere 0.28 of an inch). This weekend, temperatures will dip a bit below freezing — not enough to slow my well-watered and tucked in spring veggies.

Remember the greens I started that needed transplanting? I last showed them to you here. Now they are all tucked into their final destination:

Mulched greens

I was delighted by the number of earthworms I annoyed as I prepared this bed on Wednesday and planted it yesterday. If you click on the photo to enlarge it, you can just make out the wire hoops over the bed that support the weight of the garden fabric that you can see here:

No varmints or cold spells will bother them now

I realize the cloth isn’t exactly draped elegantly. The wind was blowing in a cold front, so I settled for functionality and disregarded aesthetics.

After I got them in, I direct-sowed seeds of beets, two carrot varieties, two more lettuce varieties, a package of mixed mesclun greens, and another spinach variety. They don’t look like much yet, but here they are freshly buried and watered:

And here:

You can see that I am not compulsively neat. Functionality is my concern. I’ve found that these crosswise initial planting rows usually work well. I sowed the seeds relatively thinly, but if the plants germinate well, I’ll need to thin them. That’s why I left spaces between the planting sites. If I end up not needing the space for greens, I’ll tuck in flowers and herbs there.

The greenhouse looks much emptier without its crowd of robust greens. But the remaining seedlings are — mostly — doing well. I always start six plants of each tomato and pepper variety. I plant out two, and find good homes for the rest. That’s never a problem; I’ve found that few folks say no to free tomato and pepper plants.

Indigo Rose only yielded two excellent seedlings and a puny-looking third — 50% germination. I’ve sowed new seeds in the spaces that didn’t produce. Here they are sitting by themselves in the germination chamber:

Indigo Rose germination disappointed

However, Super Marzano — my other new tomato variety this year — yielded a 100% germination rate. For some reason, I lost my mind and planted twelve seeds. Here they are with my four reliable tomato varieties, all of which also germinated 100%. The Super Marzanos are the big ones in back that had a two-week head start over the others.

The peppers and basils did not disappoint me either. Here they are raring to go on the greenhouse shelf beside the tomatoes:

Note the purple-colored Amethyst basils at the top right.

The Super Marzano tomatoes will need to be upgraded to individual pots very soon. And it’s almost time to sow more flower seeds in the greenhouse. In fact, it’s probably time right now. After the upcoming chilly weekend, next week’s temperatures are predicted to soar into the upper seventies, with nighttime lows not dipping below forty. That’s crazy talk for mid-March; much more what I’d expect for middle to late April.

The good news? I am well-prepared with an abundance of enthusiastic veggie seedlings to try to wrest spring and summer veggies from too-warm, too-dry soil. And as soon as I am able to once again walk fully upright without limping or groaning, I’m going to get right on that.

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Vegetable Garden Update

Today's harvest

Thirty seconds of water every other day. That’s what every vegetable plant in my garden was getting for the last three weeks. The shallow well I use for the vegetable garden was mostly gone. By alternating days and severely limiting the amount of water each plant got, I was able to coax the well to produce a small stream of water — just enough to keep most of the vegetables from surrendering to the record heat (numerous 100+ degree days in a row, multiple weeks) and unrelenting drought. Every watering day was a race to see how many plants I could water before the stream emerging from the hose began to thin and cough.

Finally this past weekend — the miracle that every drought-plagued gardener prays for — rain! Real rain. Not the ten-second showers that only wet the tops of the canopy trees. This was two days of off-and-on bona fide, blessed rain. All told, we got 2.13 inches. Yes, so much water so fast has caused some of the tomatoes to split as the skins are unable to stretch fast enough to accommodate swelling fruits. But that’s not a big problem.  The best strategy is to pick the splitters before they’re fully vine ripe and allow them to finish reddening on the kitchen counter.

The addition of soil-reviving moisture throughout the garden has caused the veggies that were limping along to surge into high gear. Productivity of the tomato plants especially is verging on the ridiculous. My fifteen plants (I pulled out a dying Purple Russian over a month ago) are over a foot taller than my seven-foot trellises, and fruit production does not seem to be slowing appreciably. Here’s a shot of a part of the garden to show you what I mean:

Moist veggies are happy veggies

That’s a wall of tomatoes in the back. In front are some ripening Carmen (Italian bull) peppers surrounded by basils and marigolds. As you can see, it’s a party out there.

And the Fortex pole beans? Have mercy! They topped their six-foot trellis over a month ago. Now they’ve fully grown down the other side, and they’re starting back up again. That’s over 12 feet of bean vine, and I planted a lot of beans. Here’s a shot of the bean wall I took this morning:

Be careful what you wish for...

The zucchinis all surrendered to the heat and squash vine borers. The Honey Bear acorn winter squashes are limping along. After we harvested the first four mature fruits, they flowered again and produced two more. It’s a race to see whether these fruits will be able to fully mature before the vines expire.

But the other member of the cucurbit family I’m growing this year is still hanging tough. These are the late-sown Diva cucumbers. During the height of the heat wave and drought, I wasn’t able to give them enough water to help them form fully perfect fruits. But the rain has changed that. Fruits are lengthening fast, and the vines are still actively growing. What a surprise they’ve been. Here’s a shot from this morning:

Diva cucumbers running out of trellis

And not to be outdone are the sunflowers. I bought the packets locally and promptly lost the names after I sowed the seeds. But you’ve got to admit they’re looking mighty impressive:

Sunflowers sparkle in the morning sun

You need a close-up to fully appreciate these lovely flowers:

Sunflower Duo

And finally, the totals for today’s harvest. In that basket at the top of this post were 35 Sweet Treats cherry tomatoes, 20 Viva Italia plum tomatoes, 9 small slicing tomatoes (a mix of Ferline and Italian Goliath), 4 big slicing tomatoes (Big Beefs and Early Goliaths), 9 beans (7 Jade bush beans and 2 Fortex pole beans), and 1 Apple sweet pepper.

I’m off to make and freeze tomato sauce, so that we can taste a bit of summer’s bounty when winter’s chill frosts the windows. Here’s hoping the rains will be more frequent, now that they’ve found us again.


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On the Cusp of Tomato Season

Happy Summer Solstice, everyone! My region is welcoming in summer with a Code Red Air Quality Alert, thanks to a southerly wind that is blowing forest fire smoke directly on top of us.  I am blessed with strong healthy lungs, but even I am coughing a bit indoors as the smoke saturates Summer’s arrival. Yuck.

I managed to get in two hours of gardening this morning just after sunrise before the smoke arrived, and I am delighted to report that I believe the first tomatoes from our garden will be fully ripe tomorrow — the first entire day of Summer. They will be our cherry tomato variety — Sweet Treats. Here’s one of the nearly ripe beauties that I photographed yesterday.

A nearly ripe Sweet Treats cherry tomato

I expected the cherry tomatoes to ripen first. After all, they are smaller fruits, which gives them an advantage. However two other tomato varieties are showing signs of ripening: Ferline and Purple Russian. You may recall that I sowed the seeds of these two varieties in my greenhouse two weeks before the other varieties due to space limitations. I chose these two varieties because their catalog descriptions said they’d take the most number of days to produce ripe fruit. That two-week head start has allowed them to near ripeness first. It will be interesting to see how long it takes for the other varieties to catch up. Here’s a Ferline tomato starting to color up.

Ferline tomato showing some color

Ferline is my tomato experiment this year. I chose it based on its catalog description that touts its resistance to late fungal blights, which always destroy my tomatoes as the season progresses. The plants have been impressive from the moment they sprouted. Thick, almost burly vines stand so tall and straight that I’m mostly tying them to the trellis to support the weight of their abundant medium-sized fruits. They are gorgeous, profoundly robust plants.

However, all seven tomato varieties are performing spectacularly so far this season. Wonder Spouse built me two magnificent tomato trellises this year. He attached seven-foot-tall deer fencing to eight-foot tall posts. We thought this would be the year the tomatoes didn’t reach the top of the trellis and tumble over the other side. I’m thinking we were wrong about that. Here’s a shot of one end of one trellis that I took yesterday. See the white top of the metal post at the left top of the picture? See the fencing material coming off the top? Now note the height of the tomato vines. Have mercy!

Tomato Trellis nearly topped!

This weekend I’ll be buying some kind of step stool that I can use in the garden to reach the top of the trellis. Even Wonder Spouse is having trouble reaching the top to tie these enthusiastic vegetables.

You can see the size of the deer fencing mesh in the Ferline picture. It’s working pretty well. We’ve only had to liberate a few fruits that grew stuck into the squares. The plastic mesh is easier to manipulate than the wire trellises we had been using previously. I think the tomatoes prefer this trellis. They seem to weave themselves through it without any prompting from me. As I said, I’m mostly tying the increasingly heavy fruiting branches to try to prevent the weight of the fruits from breaking the tomato vines.

I’m going to try to keep a running count this year of how many of each variety I pick. However, as all sixteen (yes, I know I’m overenthusiastic) plants begin producing, my ambitions may be cast aside in the name of efficiency. They aren’t the only vegetables I’m growing, you know. The beans — pole and bush — are flowering now, as are the cucumbers, and I’ve been picking zucchinis for a week; they’re just approaching serious production mode.

As long as the shallow well we use to water the garden holds out, I’ll continue to water. However, with temperatures approaching 100 degrees Farenheit predicted for the next few days, I’m worried that my garden may shrivel and die just as it begins to produce significantly.

Here’s hoping that Summer’s searing start will soon be softened by abundant, frequent rain.

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