Saturday, February 22, 2014

Happy Birthday, George!

Today is George Washington’s 282nd birthday, and my thoughts turn to cherry trees. Growing cherries for fruit is not an easy task in the Tennessee Valley region, as hot summer weather stresses the trees and leaves them susceptible to disease. Nevertheless, for the gardener willing to expend some extra effort, cherry trees will produce a delicious crop for a decade or more.
The most popular cherry variety in North America is ‘Montmorency,’ named for the region of France where this cultivar originated. Trees are available on dwarf rootstock, an important consideration for the home gardener because you will need to cover them with bird netting when the fruit begins to ripen. Otherwise, your feathered friends will get the lion’s share of the crop. Although Montmorency is self-fertile, plant two if you have the room, as cross-pollination will increase fruit set.
Sweet cherries are even less accommodating than sour varieties, but can be grown here with diligence. Care is the same as for sour cherries. Many varieties of sweet cherries exist.
Cherries need full sun and organically rich, well-drained soil. Waterlogged soil will kill them quickly. A layer of mulch around the base of the tree, extending to the drip line, is beneficial. Make sure you do not pile mulch at the crown of the tree, which encourages bark damage. Mulching the base helps to prevent bark damage from lawn mowers and string trimmers. Keeping the tree’s bark intact prevents infections.
Plant cherry trees anytime after fall dormancy and prior to spring bud swell. February is your last chance, in most years. After your cherry trees have been in the ground one full year, you should begin an annual pruning program. Prune during winter, and before the buds have broken dormancy. Aim for horizontally spreading branches with space between them. This promotes good air circulation and allows sun to penetrate into the canopy. Each year, prune out any drooping or weak branches. These won’t produce good fruit, anyway.
Brown rot is a fungus disease that is a problem for all types of cherries. Control is possible using sulfur sprays, which must be applied multiple times during the spring season. Brown rot is an important pathogen of all types of stone fruits, and numerous chemical controls are also available. Managing brown rot also means removing all unusable fruit from the trees at harvest time, rather than leaving it to drop, and scrupulously cleaning up plant debris and fallen leaves in the winter. Cherry debris should be burned, not composted, to help control the brown rot fungus.
Onion sets and cool season transplants are appearing in garden centers now. Broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower, along with onion sets, scallions, and leeks can go into the ground any time over the next month. The earliest plantings may be threatened by late cold snaps, so it is good idea to have a row cover available to toss over them, in case of severe cold. A light frost does no harm to established plants.
Sow pea seeds now for the earliest crop. Snow peas, snap peas and shelling peas all produce excellent crops in the Tennessee Valley, when planted early. Make sure to provide a sturdy trellis. Some varieties can grow over six feet tall.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

February Planting Time

This week, we planted arugula, celery, chervil, cilantro, corn salad, curly parsley, Italian parsley, and scallions. The arugula and corn salad will be grown to maturity indoors, while the others will be ready for transplant to the garden in early March. This sowing is part of our evaluation of the LED lighting system I have mentioned in previous posts. 

Leek seedlings have grown beautifully with this light source. They were sown in January and are averaging about 4 inches in height. The plants exhibit no sign of yellowing or etiolation. Preliminary results, therefore, are encouraging. The use of LEDs in horticultural lighting remains somewhat experimental, but holds great promise. Electricity consumption is greatly reduced without sacrificing light intensity, making LEDs much more energy efficient than either fluorescent or metal halide sources, the two most commonly used in horticulture. The 20-watt unit I am evaluating adequately illuminates an area roughly the size of two standard nursery flats, sufficient for my backyard garden’s transplant needs.The difference in the size of the seedlings between the two photos is the result of only four days' growth.

If you were planning to add fruit or nut trees or berry bushes to the garden, February is an ideal time to transplant them. Strawberry plants should also be appearing in garden centers this month. Everbearing varieties will give you a decent crop this year, if planted early. Pick off and discard the blooms that may appear in late spring, to give the plants a chance to build a root system. This will not only improve the fall crop, but increases productivity for next spring and fall. If you’ve never grown strawberries, try ‘Sequoia,’ a widely available everbearing variety that produces big, flavorful berries all season once established. We are going to be renewing our planting of this berry this season. The strawberry patch needs relocation about every three years.

Other berry crops that perform well in the Tennessee Valley are blackberries, raspberries and blueberries. Among nut trees, native hickory and black walnut are good choices if you have plenty of room and patience. American filbert is more suited to the backyard garden, but typically only bears every two or three years. Fruit trees require attention to perform well here. June-bearing apples are perhaps the best adapted to our climate, but fall apple and pear varieties regularly appear at the local farmer’s markets. Local peaches also show up at the markets, too. Attention must be paid to pruning and pest control for fruit trees.

One fruit we seldom see in the market is cherries, which is surprising, because my grandparents always had an abundant crop from two sour cherry trees that my grandfather planted in the early 20th Century. We also had a massive sweet cherry tree, far from the house, that undoubtedly had been planted by my great-grandfather, as it was a foot in diameter when I was a boy. All these cherries eventually succumbed to disease and were removed. They remain a challenge to grow here, owing to a plethora of diseases, but it can be done with dedication. For the backyard gardener willing to take up the challenge, ‘Montmorency’ is a traditional cultivar.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Seed Starting Time

February is here already, and it is time to start seeds for early spring transplants. Broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, celery, and cool season herbs should all be started between now and February 15, so they will be ready to transplant during the last two weeks of March.

I plan to start celery, cilantro, parsley and scallions this weekend. These are all slow-growing when small, and spring crops need to be planted early so they can mature before hot weather sets in. This year, I am testing a new LED lighting system from Italy that has the potential to revolutionize indoor growing. The accompanying photo shows the unit, along with my makeshift capillary mat system for watering the pots. Each pot gets planted this weekend with a different variety of seed, and I will be keeping tabs on the progress of the plants every week. The LED unit only consumes 20 watts of electricity, but provides as much plant illumination as a 250-watt metal halide lamp. It should effectively illuminate at 20 by 20-inch area, sufficient for two standard nursery flats.

We are harvesting Meyer lemons this month. This tree, which is now in its second year in my possession, has been the most productive of the indoor citrus we have tried. If you have never grown citrus, it is certainly worth a try. Use a container that you won't mind lugging in an out, because you have to protect the trees from temperatures below about 35 degrees. An unheated garage with a south facing window offers the best winter home, unless of course you have a greenhouse. Citrus has enjoyed increasing popularity with home gardeners in recent years. You can find a great selection of trees, along with potting mix, fertilizer and advice, at Stanley's Greenhouses.

Meyer lemons are sweeter, larger and juicier than standard lemons, and botanically are actually more closely related to tangerine. The pith of Meyer lemons is not bitter, so the entire fruit can be used. It is a popular choice for making preserved lemons, a staple of Middle Eastern cuisine. Here's a typical, simple recipe:

Preserved Meyer Lemons

2 Meyer lemons
1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons salt
1 small bay leaf
1 whole clove
2 whole coriander seeds
2 black peppercorns
lemon juice, from two additional Meyer lemons

Wash the lemons well, trim off the ends, and slice lengthwise into quarters, not cutting completely through one end, so they lemon opens up like a flower. Sprinkle the cut surfaces with some of the salt, close the lemons up and place them in a small jar, after adding about half the remaining salt to the bottom of the jar. Drop in the spices, sprinkle the rest of the salt over all, and add enough fresh lemon juice to cover. Cap the jar and store in the refrigerator for up to 6 months. Wait about a month before opening, to allow the flavor to develop.