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Features (Gardening)

Fall gardens want compost

It is highly unlikely your garden has used up all the fertilizer you applied this spring. This is especially true if your garden soil is rich in organic matter and you used lots of compost.
    Compost raises soil temperatures, while its organic matter releases nutrients at a rate nearly equivalent to the needs of plants. The roots from the previous crop are also decomposing and releasing nutrients.
    If you used your own compost or one based on yard debris, your plants will benefit from an application of nitrogen. But if you used compost from lobster waste or crab waste, you’ve almost certainly got all the nitrogen your fall crops will need.
    If you are an organic gardener, blood meal, cottonseed meal and fish emulsion are good sources of nitrogen. Other sources of nitrogen include calcium nitrate, ammonium sulfate, ammonium nitrate and urea. Don’t apply slow-release formulas on fall vegetable gardens.
    Fall gardening is an excellent time to maximize your use of compost. If you are tilling the soil to control weeds, incorporate compost into that surface layer of soil. With soil temperatures into the upper 70s, the compost will instantly start releasing nutrients at just the correct rate to promote good steady growth of plants. As the soil begins to cool in mid-September, the release rate of nutrients from the compost will decrease. At the same time, the nutrient requirements of maturing plants will be less. After soil temperatures drop into the 30s, the compost will stop releasing nutrients, thus reducing nutrients lost to leaching. As soon as soil warms in the spring, the organic matter in the compost will start releasing nutrients.
    Another advantage of applying compost in the fall is that spring garden tilling will incorporate the residual compost more deeply into the soil, where it will help reduce the bulk density of the soil and improve its structure.
    Organic matter does so much good for soils. In addition to providing nutrients and reducing the density of soil, compost also has disease suppression properties most effective when applied in late summer. Soil-borne diseases are most prevalent when soil temperatures are high. Applying compost to your garden soil in time for planting the fall crop helps maximize all of the benefits compost has to offer.
    Only where you’re planting carrots do you want to skip the compost. Carrots grown in composted soil will look like clusters of fingers. That’s because high levels of organic matter tend to cause multiple roots to develop on tap-rooted plants. I reported these findings from studies I conducted in the mid 1970s on the use of compost in the production of black walnut trees. This effect was beneficial for producing walnut seedlings for transplanting but not good for growing carrots, where a single root is preferred.


Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. Please include your name and address.

Cool-weather vegetables are ready to plant mid-summer

Now that spring-planted lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Chinese cabbage, kohlrabi and potatoes have been harvested, it’s time to prepare your fall garden. Many spring vegetables can be repeated. Beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots cauliflower, lettuce, peas and snap beans love the cool weather of fall. Most can be planted in the garden from late-July to mid-August.
    Unless your garden is heavily infested with weeds, there is no need to till or plow the soil.  If the weeds have taken over, mow them first with the lawnmower or weed-wacker. Then till as shallow as possible to destroy the weeds. Shallow or no tilling helps conserve soil moisture and delays the formation of plow pan.
    Seeds of fall beets, carrots, peas and snap beans can be sown in the garden during the last two weeks of July.
    If you are growing your own transplants of broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, Chinese cabbage and kohlrabi, it’s also time to sow those seeds indoors in air-conditioning. As soon as the seeds germinate, move them outdoors to grow in full sun.
    Delay the sowing of lettuce seeds until the second week in August.
    To maximize production, I sow beets, carrots and peas in double rows six to eight inches apart. To reduce the need for thinning carrots, I mix equal parts by volume of carrot seeds with dry ground coffee. Ground coffee has approximately the same bulk density and size as carrot seeds.
    To minimize having to thin beets, I mix equal amounts of sawdust and beet seeds before sowing.
    Soon after sowing the peas, I install 48-inch-tall chicken wire supported by bamboo stakes for the peas to climb.
    Since I grow my own transplants, I direct seed using cell packs and commercial potting mix. Direct seeding means placing two seeds in each cell. This method reduces the need to transplant and results in larger plants because the growth of seedlings is not delayed. I sow the seeds at least one inch apart. If both seeds germinate, I save the larger seedling and either snip away the other seedling or carefully remove it to transplant into a cell where the seeds failed to germinate.
    If you are purchasing transplants, do so soon after they appear on the market, and plant them promptly in the garden. The longer you keep those plants in the cell packs, the longer they will take to become established in the garden soil. If the transplants are growing in peat pots, tear away the tops of the pots before planting them. If the top edge of the peat pots is allowed to remain above ground in the garden, the root balls are likely to dry out because the exposed peat will wick away water from the root balls.
    If you see a dense mat of roots on the outer edge of the root ball when you lift the plants from the cell pack, crush the root ball to force the root to grow into your garden soil. Root-bound plants establish slowly.

Big Eye keeps the birds away

For years I have covered my blueberry plants with bird netting just before the berries start turning blue. The netting was suspended from wires stretched on top of eight-foot-tall piles.  After harvest, the netting had to be removed and returned to storage. This was a demanding job that required most of a day. Despite my best efforts, mocking birds and robins always managed to eat the berries. They entered the cage on their own, but once in they were stuck until I freed them. Occasionally, a black snake would become tangled in the bird netting, and I had to spend time cutting it loose without being bitten.
    The bird netting could survive only four or five growing seasons, so purchasing replacement netting was a regular expense. Then I’d have to hand-sew several sheets together to match the measurements of my blueberry patch. Sewing bird netting is quite tedious because it is always catching on something and the material is very flimsy. The job wasn’t over yet because to make certain that the netting was properly positioned each season, I sewed a three-quarter-inch-thick rope at one end. I used the rope to roll the netting for storage and tagged it at one end with the word south to indicate the direction of placement.
    Never again.
    Last year a friend gave me five bright yellow and one black inflatable polyethylene balloons, each measuring 18 inches in diameter when inflated. Each balloon has five large painted eyes, each with bright aluminum centers. Dangling below each balloon is an aluminized plastic strip a foot long and an inch wide. Tied loosely to wires above plants, the balloons move with the wind.  
    Since these balloons have been hanging above the blueberry plants, I have not seen one bird come within 50 feet of them. I only wish the Japanese beetles, which are feeding on my nearby raspberry plants, were as afraid of those balloons as the birds are.


Share the Bounty
    Remember to contribute your surplus fresh produce to local food banks or pantries to avoid waste and allow others to benefit from your gardening skills.


Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. Please include your name and address.

When water replaces air in the soil, plants die

If plants are wilting in your gardens despite all of the rain we have been having, it is due to a lack of oxygen in the soil. This is a bigger problem in heavy-loam soils than in sandy loam or loamy sands. Heavy soils become saturated with water faster than sandy soils because the pores are smaller and thus exclude all the air.
    The roots of plants need oxygen to function. We have received so much rain that air in the soil has been replaced by water. If the problem persists for more than a couple of weeks, there is a good possibility that root rot will kill plants. Under these conditions, it is not uncommon to harvest carrots with rotted taproots. Or to see tomato plants developing roots near the base of stems to replace the dying roots killed by excess water in the soil.
    The problem is worse in gardens that have been plowed and/or rototilled at the same depth year after year. Working the soil to the same depth once or twice each year causes a plow pan to form below the tilled or plowed layer. Plow pans are a compacted layer of soil that prevents the downward movement of both water and roots.
    Plow pan can occur in both sandy and heavy loam soil but happens more rapidly in heavy soils. To determine if your soil has plow pan, try pushing a half-inch-diameter piece of pipe or dowel into the soil. If you have plow-pan, you will most likely be able to force the pipe only six inches deep. In many instances, I have uncovered plow pans so dense that I was not able to penetrate them with my stainless steel auger.
    The problem can be solved by sub-soiling with a special tractor-mounted attachment, by double digging or by varying the depth of plowing or rototilling season to season.
    Sub-soilers are plow-like attachments that penetrate the soil to a depth of 18 to 24 inches, forcing the soil upward and fracturing the pan layer. Sub-soiling should be done when the soil is as dry as possible to maximize fracturing of the pan layer.
    If you spade the garden by hand, double digging means that when you first press your spade in the ground, you remove a spade full of soil and place it to one side, followed by removing another spade full of soil from the same hole. In other words, you are digging into the sub-soil, thus removing the pan layer, then blending it with the surface layer of soil.
    You can delay the formation of the plow pan by varying the depth that you plow or rototill. One year you plow or rototill at a depth of three inches, the next four inches, the next five inches and the next six inches before returning to a depth of three inches.


Share the Bounty

    Let others benefit from your gardening skills by contributing surplus fresh produce to local food banks or pantries. The Bay Gardener donates his surplus vegetables to SCAN Food Bank at St. James Episcopal Church on Rt. 2, which is open for those in need on Thursday and Saturday from 8am until noon.


Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. Please include your name and address.

Okra, for beauty and taste

Okra likes it hot.  Soon the cool-loving cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and kohlrabi will have been harvested, leaving a large empty space in the garden. Lots of nutrients still in the garden can be used for growing a crop of okra.
    To get a jump, start young okra plants in three-inch pots.  After filling the pots with potting soil, place two okra seeds in each. I prefer Clemson Spineless, but there are many varieties available. The seeds will germinate in five to eight days, especially if the pots are outdoors in full sun. Keep them well watered. After the seedlings are about three inches tall, take a sharp knife or nail clippers and cut out the smallest.
    As soon as the area in the garden is cleared, transplant the young okra two feet apart in rows at least three feet apart. Or plant them in your flower bed. Purple varieties produce very attractive foliage. As they can grow to a height of four feet, they are best used as a background plant. But make certain they are accessible for harvesting the pods.
    Okra is a member of the hibiscus family. The plants will start producing beautiful pale yellow hibiscus flowers with purple or red centers within three to four weeks after transplant­ing. Within two to three days after the flowers have wilted, some of the pods will be ready to harvest.
    To assure quality and tenderness, okra pods should be harvested three to four times weekly, especially during hot muggy days when the plants are flowering daily and growing rapidly. Pods longer than five inches will be woody and not palatable. But with some imagination, they can be dried and used in floral arrangements or Christmas tree decorations. Pods can grow to eight to 10 inches long.
    Okra plants will continue to produce pods into mid to late September. However, the later pods tend to become warty looking and are generally not tender.
    Okra can be breaded and fried, brushed with olive oil and baked for about 15 to 20 minutes in a 400-degree oven and sprinkled with salt, used in making gumbo, pickled or added to a tomato, hamburger and onion sauce. When using okra in sauces, always add the cut okra just before serving to avoid the slimy texture that results from over-cooking.
    I have grown okra in my garden in Deale for the past 24 years without failure. I could never grow it when I gardened in New Hampshire because the summers were too short and cool.


Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. Please include your name and address.

Help these fruit trees recover from two bad winters

The winter of 2013-’14 killed the stems of most of the figs in southern Maryland. However the roots were still very much alive and generated an abundance of new stems from the ground. The robust roots produced stems that were able to produce a few figs. But most stems produced no fruit. They would have this year, except for another killing winter this past year.
    At the northernmost range for growing figs, we have to face the fact that extremely cold winters can mean no fruit.
    Don’t expect to harvest any figs this summer. If the winter of 2015-’16 is equally severe, it is unlikely that roots will be able to generate new growth.
    If your fig plants were killed back again overwinter, by now you should see an abundance of new sprouts originating from the roots. Help your fig recover by pruning out dead stems as close to the ground as possible. To encourage the development of strong sturdy stems, break off all weak, thin stems growing from the roots. It’s better to break off the stem than to prune it. If you cut away the stem with pruners, chances are a vegetative bud will develop in the axis of the stump of the stem and the root, resulting in the growth of a new stem. Allow at least ___ feet between the best-growing stems.
    To break a stem from the roots, I use a four-inch-wide board that’s three to four feet long. I place the end of the board near the weak stem and kick it. This causes the weak stem to shear from the roots, making it highly unlikely that another stem will grow in the same area. Do this while the young stems are green. The roots will be pushing up new stems, so you’ll have to repeat at least twice monthly to remove the previous weeks’ spindly stems.
    Once the stems have started to grow, they will benefit from an application of fertilizer at the rate of approximately one pound per 100 square feet. I generally do not recommend fertilizing figs because it makes them grow too tall, producing less harvestable fruit.
    Plant fig trees on a slope facing south or against the south wall of a building to provide maximum winter protection. I have all of my figs growing again the south wall of a brick house. This exposure provides more warmth from reflective heat from the building and early warming of the soil, especially when the ground is not covered with snow. The soil in a slope facing south always warms sooner than the soil on a slope facing any other direction.


Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. Please include your name and address.

It’s harvest time

If you planted garlic last fall, the tails should be at least 24 inches tall, and you should be seeing the tops of the bulbs by now.
    If you, like me, planted elephant garlic, flower heads will now be developing at the end of its tall cylindrical stem.
    Most German, Italian and other soft-neck garlics do not flower. 
    On hard-neck garlic, look for swelling and a pale ring forming near the tip. As soon as the swelling appears, remove the flower head using a sharp knife. A friend removed the flower buds by giving the tail a quick snap. In so doing, he pulled the bulbs partially out of the ground, causing his elephant garlic to produce only small cloves. The cloves and entire bulbs were no larger than those of the Italian white garlic growing next to the elephant garlic.
    As soon as the foliage starts turning yellow-green, push it to the ground using the back of a rake or by dragging a log or timber over the plants. This will help prevent neck rot, which can result in substantial loss in storage.
    Whether hard-neck elephant or German, Italian and other soft-neck varieties, garlic can be harvested for cooking at any time after the stems have fully developed. Cloves will be smaller when harvested early.
    Garlic will be fully developed as soon as the foliage starts turning from yellow to brown. If you intend to store some, delay harvesting until most of the foliage has turned brown.
    Braid soft-necked garlic and hang for drying. It is impossible to braid hard-neck garlic, so it is best to tie the stalks in bundles of three and create a chain of them to hang for drying. I hang my garlic in a shady area in an open garage so air can circulate freely. Allow three or four weeks for drying before placing them in storage.
    All garlics are short-day plants, which is why they have to be planted in the fall when they can be exposed to short-light days after initiating growth. If you wait to plant garlic in the spring, you won’t harvest much of a crop.
    Poor crops are why this will be the last year I try growing short-day onions. Over three years, I’ve found the harvest unworthy of the expense, time and effort. Last fall, I planted some in an outdoor bed, some in a cold frame and some in my greenhouse. Only the plants in the cold frame produced decent-sized bulbs.
    Our winters are much too cold for growing short-day onions outdoors without some protection. A deep cold frame or tunnel is required. Nor do short-day onions perform well in a heated greenhouse. My recommendation is to grow long-day or intermediate onions, planting in the spring and harvesting in August.
    If you planted either this spring, the tails should be at least 12 inches long and growing.
    Of the long-day onions, I find Copra to be the best keeper. Our crop of Copra harvested last August lasted through March. Candy and Superstar are sweet and mild but not good keepers. Big Daddy is the best variety for onion rings.
    As with garlic, push the foliage to the ground to prevent neck-rot and help your crop store better. After harvest, braid the onions and hang — mine are in the garage with the garlic — until the weather turns cold in the fall.


Neck Rot Strikes

Help please! The stems of my garlic and of a friend’s have fallen this year and are lying limp on the ground.

–Bill Lambrecht, Fairhaven

 

The garlic should have been harvested as soon as the stems started turning yellow green. It has a bad case of neck rot. Harvest the garlic ASAP and separate the cloves from each bulb, dry them at room temperature and store them in the top shelf of the fridge.


Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. Please include your name and address.

There are better ways than mulch

Do you think the only method of controlling weeds is mulching?
    If so, you’re likely to add another layer of mulch every time you see weeds growing through the last layer. From there on, mulching becomes a habit.
    Mulches control weeds by suffocation and by shading the soil, thus denying the weed seeds the red waves of sunlight. The red wave band of the sun’s spectrum stimulates weed seeds to ­germinate.
    But thick layers of mulch also prevent oxygen, necessary for good plant root growth, from entering the soil. Thick layers of mulch also absorb the first quarter-inch of rain or irrigation, keeping it from reaching the soil.
    Never apply a layer more than an inch or two deep each per year. Before applying a new layer, always incorporate the previous year’s mulch into the surface soil. Where azaleas, rhododendrons and mountain laurels are growing, it is best to remove the old layer. Pine bark is the exception; incorporating it with a steel rake may be adequate.
    If the color of the old mulch is not satisfactory, consider spraying it with liquid mulch. Liquid mulches in the same dies used to color the raw wood chips are available from suppliers such as A.M. Leonard.
    If weeds are a severe problem, consider covering the ground with landscape fabric before applying mulch. However, if Bermuda grass, pigweed or nutsedge are present, these must be irradiated before applying the landscape fabric because they will grow through the fabric, making it impossible to remove.
    Avoid using black plastic around shallow-rooted plants. Unlike landscape fabric, plastic inhibits the movement of oxygen into the soil.
    Small weeds in the landscape can be controlled by spraying with horticultural vinegar. Horticultural vinegar contains 20 percent acetic acid and will kill weeds up to about three inches tall. It is also available from A.M. Leonard. If the acetic acid accidently comes in contact with the foliage of desirable perennials, it will not cause any permanent damage.
    Before you use an herbicide, know how it works. Preen, for example, is a preemergent herbicide you can use only on clean cultivated soil. As it contains only fluoride, it kills primarily germinating seeds of grass and only a few broadleaf weeds. So it is safe to use near and around ornamental plants, but it is effective for no more than six weeks. Always follow manufacturer’s recommendations when applying any herbicide.


Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. Please include your name and address.

What’s good and bad for what

Never use colored mulches near annuals, shallow-rooted trees and shrubs or herbaceous perennials. These mulches are made using raw wood that serve as a source of food for microorganisms once it comes in contact with the ground. Microorganisms are better able to absorb nutrients in wood than are the roots of plants. As a result of the competition, plants — including weeds — starve and die. 
    Use colored mulches only around well-established deep-rooted trees and shrubs, for making pathways, sitting areas and playgrounds.
    Use hardwood bark mulches with caution.
    Unlike pine mulches, hardwood bark mulches contain up to 60 percent cellulose, which means they will decompose and rob nutrients from plants. They will also raise the pH of soils, making them less acidic. Repeated applications of hardwood bark can also result in the accumulation of manganese. When this occurs, the roots of the plants lose their ability to absorb iron and plant growth declines. Over the years I have seen numerous instances where the manganese and pH levels in the soil were so high that the only solution was total replacement of the soil.
    As you shop for pine bark mulch, be aware that not all bark mulches contain 100 percent bark. Some are made by blending one part pine bark and two parts wood chips. These blends are kept moist and turned periodically until the entire mass turns brown like bark.
    The truth is revealed if a piece of its wood reveals a yellow to light-brown center when broken. Once applied, fake bark mulches are more easily identified: After they have weathered a few weeks, the tannin-treated raw wood begins to lose its dark brown color.
    If that’s what you’ve got, the brown-colored raw wood will feed microorganisms, not plants.
    I was once called to investigate problems resulting from a mulch sale sponsored by a grocery chain. A large trailer load of double-shredded hardwood bark mulch had been trucked in and sold at cost. Buyers were immediately returning the mulch, complaining that it was killing their plants instantly.  Inspecting the load of mulch remaining in the trailer, I found it contained wood alcohol. I proved the presence of alcohol by cutting open a bag and throwing in a lighted match. The mulch immediately caught on fire. The mulch had been bagged while it was composting under anaerobic conditions, resulting in the formation of wood alcohol.
    Marble chips should not be used around plants that require acid soils. Marble chips are essentially chunks of limestone rich in calcium oxide, which will result in making the soil less acidic and eventually alkaline. That will be the death of acid-loving plants such as azaleas, rhododendrons, mountain laurels, andromeda, skimmia and Japanese hollies.
    Marble chips are safe around alkaline-preferring plants such as junipers, yews, pines, spruce and cherry laurel.
    Avoid using bluestone. I have seen numerous cases where plants have been killed after bluestone mulching. Like marble chips, bluestone contains high levels of calcium oxide. It may also contain metal contaminants, including nickel. The symptoms often go undetected for several years, by which time the damage is irreversible.


Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. Please include your name and address.

It’s not there just to look pretty

Good mulch should be dark brown, persist for at least one growing season, be compatible with all the plants in the landscape and control weeds by suffocation only. Superb mulch does all that plus providing slow-release nutrients to feed the plants it is mulching.
    Mother Nature provides us with an abundance of mulches every fall. Fallen leaves and pine needles are excellent mulches satisfying every standard except being dark brown.  I have never purchased a bag of mulch in my life. Leaves are my mulch. When they decompose, nutrients are released into the soil, thus feeding the roots of mulched plants.
    Bark mulches do not contain any of the major nutrients used by plants except for calcium. But bark can contain essential trace elements, such as manganese, that can accumulate in the soil and cause problems. Thus it is important to choose mulch that is compatible with the species of plants being mulched.
     If you insist on purchasing brown mulch, I recommend pure pine, spruce or fir bark mulches. These contain 90 to 100 percent lignins, a source of carbon not easily digested by microorganisms. Thus they do not decompose readily and last on the surface of the ground one to two growing seasons. These mulches also contain polyflavanoids, which are beneficial because they help make essential trace elements available to the roots.
    Pine bark is available as nuggets, ground or as pine fines. The nuggets and ground mulches are the most preferred. Pine fines are generally only recommended as a soil amendment to increase the organic matter and help in lowering the pH of soils. Pine mulches are acidic in nature.
    Pine needles can be used as mulch but have a limited life, lasting only two to three months.
    Pea stone makes good mulch providing it is laid over landscape fabric. Brick chips, volcano slag or crushed granite are also usable mulches. But because of their density, they will sink into the soil unless they are placed over landscape fabric. 
    In the vegetable garden, straw — not hay — works as mulch. Even newspapers can be used, applied in 10 to 15 layers and soaked with water immediately to stop them from being blown away. I use shredded paper because it is easier to spread and, once soaked with water, remains in place better than sheets of newspaper. You need not worry about the ink because most black ink is made from soy while the colored inks are organic. I would prefer the old zinc ink because most of our soils here in the East are low to deficient in zinc, a mineral important in our diet.
    Shredded cardboard also makes good mulch. The advantage of using straw, newspapers, shredded paper and cardboard is rapid decomposition without creating nutrient stress. As they are opaque, they control weeds by the shade they create.
    Black plastic and landscape fabric also make good mulch. Black plastic mulches prevent the loss of water by evaporation. But these must be removed at the end of the growing season. Landscape fabric has another drawback in that weeds such as Bermuda grass, pig weed and nut sedge can grow through the fabric, making it impossible to pull them without damaging the fabric. Removing the fabric at the end of the season is also harder because of weeds that have grown through it.
    Next week, I’ll give you more reasons to avoid other mulches.


Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. Please include your name and address.