Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Busy Time of Year

If you're not busy this week, you're not gardening! I've been working around the rain showers all week. We transplanted tomato and parsley plants, and planted cucumbers, corn and beans. We have a second round of tomatoes and our pepper crop to pot up to four inch pots from the cell trays in which they germinated about three weeks ago. And it is time to start more basil and parsley seeds for transplanting in late June or early July.

I find it is hard to have too much of either parsley or basil during the summer months. For one thing, both go great with tomatoes and cucumbers, the king and queen of the summer veggie garden. Parsley is also a preferred host plant for the black swallowtail butterfly. Hardly had I put my four new plants into the garden when they were visited by a female black swallowtail, deftly placing individual eggs here and there on my plants. I don't mind, as the colorful green, yellow and black striped caterpillars don't usually kill the plants. After the caterpillars are done, the parsley usually bounces back and provides plenty of leaves for the table. I do try to give them a little cottonseed meal or other nitrogen source, to help things along.

The relationship of parsley and parsley worm involves more than eating and being eaten. The chemicals that give parsley (and other members of the celery family) its distinctive flavor provide the caterpillar with raw materials for an interesting defense against its predators. When disturbed, the caterpillar rears up and exposes a specialized scent gland, the osmetarium, releasing an unusual odor, faintly reminiscent of...parsley. The osmetarium looks like a pair of antlers, yellow orange in color. Besides parsley, the caterpillar feeds on carrots, dill, celery and golden alexanders. You may see the caterpillar on Queen Anne's lace, which is a feral carrot.

The corn variety we selected this year is Ambrosia. It is a bi-color, sugar enhanced hybrid cord that bears early. In other words, purely the creation of plant breeders. Modern hybrid sweet corn, however, is not only easier to grow than older types, it is much more forgiving to the novice gardener who may not be sure when to pick. With, for example, Silver Queen, the window of perfection may only be a couple of days. With Ambrosia, you can be off by a week and still have an acceptable quality ear. Corn takes a lot of room and a lot of nitrogen, and you can buy it for $5 a dozen at the farmer's market. But there is nothing like truly fresh sweet corn for summer flavor.

We are growing an old standard cucumber, Boston Pickling. I intend to convert at least six pounds of our crop into a batch of my grandmother's sweet pickles. Last year was a lousy season for cucumbers. We are hoping for better results this year.

We planted Bush Romano and Goldrush beans. The former are long, flat Italian-type beans that are loaded with flavor and can stand up to long cooking. The latter are yellow wax beans that are perfect for summer salads after a brief blanching. Beans can be planted every two weeks from now until the middle of July, for a continuous harvest. Later plantings are more subject to bean beetles than are earlier ones.

UT Gardens Farmer's Market Now Open
Last Wednesday, May 15, I had the pleasure of staffing a question-and-answer table at the UT Gardens Farmer's Market. Thanks to the efforts of market director Becca Mattingly and a great group of local farmers and craftspeople, the kickoff was a huge success. The market is open every Wednesday from 4:00-7:00 PM at UT Gardens off Neyland Drive. Parking is free, there is music and food, a tent-full of activities for the kids, and the area is pet friendly. You can tour the gardens, grab a Vietnamese spring roll or a Tennessee fried pie and shop for dinner all in one place. I tried the Thai-style iced tea and loved it. Wildflower honey and organic beauty aids all await your perusal from Honey Dew Naturals of Strawberry Plains. Baked goods from great local vendors like Hillside Bakery and VJ's complement all the fresh produce and cut flowers on display by multiple growers. I or another person will be there to answer your gardening questions every week, so please drop by and say hello.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Time To Plant Tomatoes

No doubt some of you have already rushed the season, but for the rest of us, the traditional time to plant tomatoes is around Mother's Day. With all the rain we have had, this weekend could provide the perfect opportunity, except that the temperature is going to drop on Sunday night. While not desirable, the brief bout of cold probably won't hurt the plants much, if you go ahead and plant today or tomorrow.

Tomatoes are among the most popular back yard vegetables, and no wonder. They are tasty, nutritious, relatively easy to grow, and the grocery store fruits simply never taste as good as home grown. Follow a few simple steps to grow great tomatoes:

First, select a site that receives at least 8 hours of sun every day. Shelter from the prevailing wind is desirable, as staked or caged tomato plants are subject to wind damage. Soil should be amended with organic matter, well-drained, and not extremely rich. Too much nitrogen at the wrong time can reduce productivity. Add a quart of well-composted cow manure to each planting hole at transplant time, or side dress the plants with a commercial organic fertilizer at the rate recommended on the package. Stop fertilizing when blooms appear, however, or you will reduce yield.

Select healthy, stocky plants for transplanting. (Note: You can also start tomato plants from seed between now and July 15 for a fall crop.) To improve the lot of leggy plants, or just to ensure that any plant produces a good root system, strip off all but the top three or four pairs of leaves and bury the stems up to the lowermost remaining pair. Water the soil around the plants well after transplanting, avoiding getting the leaves wet. Wait until the soil warms up thoroughly, then apply a deep mulch of straw, leaves or pine needles around the base of the plants. Mulch helps keep the soil evenly moist, an important factor in tomato production. Covering the soil also prevents splashing dirt on the leaves, often a source of fungal diseases.

Use cages or stakes to support growing tomatoes. Even the smaller, determinate varieties do best if staked, because they grow luxuriantly in Tennessee's warm, humid summers. Use soft string, strips of panty hose or another soft material to secure the stems to the support. Don't tie them too tight, or you risk garroting the stem.

Pests and diseases attack tomatoes, but your best defense is to provide good growing conditions and the plants will usually take care of themselves. Many fungal diseases can be avoiding by growing resistant varieties, such as Celebrity, Big Boy, Better Boy, and Rutgers. Resistant types have the letters "V," "F," or "N" or some combination of these after the name on the label. The letters indicate resistance to verticillium, fusarium, and nematodes, all important tomato scourges. Tomato hornworm and fruitworm caterpillars can be controlled with Bt sprays. I have found neem oil helpful in deterring squash bugs, which sometimes move into the tomato patch and damage fruits with impunity.

Depending upon the variety, you can expect your first tomato crop around the Fourth of July, just in time for slicing on hamburgers.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

New Radio Frequency and More

Beginning with this morning's broadcast, "Garden Talk" has a new radio frequency. We are on 850 AM, WKVL, "The Voice of Knoxville," at 8:00 AM every Saturday to take your calls. My co-hosts are Andy Pulte (The Garden Guy) and Dr. Sue Hamilton, Director of UT Gardens.

Our Plant of the Week this week is Chinese Hardy Ground Orchid, Bletilla striata. This is an under-appreciated plant in the Tennessee Valley region, but it blooms and grows as reliably as daffodils. Unlike their tropical cousins, these orchids from temperate Asia are hardy as far north as Zone 5. Magenta blooms have an interesting ruffled lip and a light fragrance reminiscent of hyacinths.

Contact me for information on where to obtain plants.

Set container-grown plants in full sun to partial shade in any well-drained garden soil suitable for perennial flowers. Amend heavy clay soil with organic matter to improve aeration and retain moisture. They grow very well in containers, also.
Plants should receive irrigation if rainfall is insufficient, up until the time the blooms fade. After blooming, they can get along with less water. Plants in full sun may develop brown leaf tips if water stressed during the hottest part of summer. This does not appear to harm them.
Feed a balanced, all-purpose fertilizer once a season, in spring as the leaves unfurl. Plants grown in containers should be fertilized with a liquid product monthly.
When foliage dies back and the ground is cold, usually after Thanksgiving, mulch the plants with three or four inches of autumn leaves or pine needles. This is not absolutely necessary, but it helps to prevent early spring emergence. New growth that appears too early can be damaged by a late frost, making the leaves less attractive. The plants usually recover and bloom normally.

Still Time for Cool Season Veggies

You still have time to plant carrots, scallions and radishes for early summer harvest. Leafy greens, especially heat tolerant ones like Romaine lettuce, can also be planted now.

We have likely had our last frost of the year, although we are not completely out of the woods. We have had frost in May, but only rarely. Go ahead and transplant tomatoes, but wait another couple of weeks before transplanting peppers, cucumbers or other heat-loving crops.

Hosta Society Sale

The local Hosta Society is having their annual sale tomorrow, May 5, in the UT Gardens parking lot from noon until 4 PM. Find many varieties of hosta, as well as ferns and other shade lovers, on sale from members. Rain or shine.