Saturday, March 29, 2014

Get Your Garden Going!

If you are not planning on doing some gardening next week, you should be. The weather in the Valley is predicted to be gorgeous, birds are singing, bees are buzzing, and buds are bursting on fruit trees. The month between the equinox and the average frost date of April 20, is the prime time for planting cool season crops, either from seed or started plants. The weather (hopefully) will not heat up until June, so you have roughly 70 days for crops to mature. That is enough for peas, lettuce, spinach, carrots, beets, radishes and green onions to be direct seeded, and sufficient for broccoli and cabbage transplants from the garden center to go in the ground.

Now is also the time to plant cilantro and parsley seeds, or to transplant starts of these cool season herbs. Quick maturing greens, like arugula and various mustards, will also have time to crop before the weather gets too warm and they go to seed. Don't forget that spring-planted cilantro will bear an abundant crop of coriander seed in July if it is allowed to bolt. I always plant extra just for this purpose.

Most parts of East Tennessee are receiving rain this weekend. That, together with the warm spell coming next week, should bring earlier seeds out of the ground. Be sure to thin radishes almost as soon as they are up, for best root production. Keep them about 2 inches apart each way.

Thin green crops like spinach and lettuce to stand at least four inches apart each way. Improved air circulation around the plants helps prevent fungal attacks.

Vegetable gardeners who use raised beds should bear in mind that one DIS-advantage is their tendency to dry out rapidly. Check below the soil surface every day or so in dry weather, and irrigate before plants begin to show signs of stress.

Cool spring weather is ideal for flea beetles, which may attack newly-emerged potato foliage, filling the leaves with pinholes. A floating row cover over the bed helps prevent the beetles from gaining access to your plants. Because they are chewing insects, flea beetles are susceptible to ingestion poisons like nicotine, spinosad, pyrethrins, and neem oil. All these are suitable for organic vegetable production when used according to label directions.

And finally, I know everyone is just dying to plant tomatoes, but wait at least another month. If the soil is too cold, they will just sit there, anyway, and you won't get tomatoes any earlier. Tomato geeks who want to employ extraordinary measures like the "Wall O Water" are welcome to have at it, but the rest of us should just wait until the soil warms up. There will be plenty of time for late tomatoes, peppers and beans to follow all the early crops that will finish up in June, also.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Root Crops and Dwarf Berries

Get those root crops in the ground! March is a great time to plant beets, carrots, onions, turnips, potatoes and radishes. If you planted radishes last week, chances are they are ready to thin. As we discussed on "Garden Talk" this morning, thinning is essential for many types of food crops. Although it is often difficult to convince beginning gardeners to do so, thinning actually increases yield, because each plant has enough room to perform at its best.

In the case of radishes, they should be thinned early, before true leaves have appeared, for the best quality roots. Leave about two inches between plants. Carrots also demand thinning, and the delicate seedlings should not be left crowded too long. Carrots planted this week will probably not appear above the surface until early April. Besides the approaching cold snap, natural germination inhibitors keep the seeds dormant until they have been wet a few times. Thin carrots to stand three or four inches apart for the largest, most uniform roots, unless you are growing a smaller variety, such as 'Little Finger.' Do this as soon as the feathery true leaves begin to appear. In the case of both radishes and carrots, it is best to snip off the excess seedlings at soil level, rather than pull them, because pulling may injure the roots of neighboring plants.

Radishes and carrots may be planted together in the same row. By the time the carrots germinate, the radishes will be almost mature. The emerging radish seedlings break the soil surface, making it easier for the weaker carrots seedlings to follow them. When you harvest the radishes, you will automatically thin some of the carrots.

For gardeners who just hate to thin, I suggest using seed tapes. They are available for many popular varieties of vegetables with small seeds or that are difficult to thin. Essentially, seeds are evenly spaced out between two thin strips of paper tape. You simply lay the tape in the row and the seeds end up at the correct spacing. This is a big time saver, but the tapes are expensive compared to loose seed.

March and early April provide perfect weather for transplanting nursery stock, and all varieties of fruit and flowering trees and shrubs are showing up in local garden centers. This year, check out the Brazel-berry varieties of blueberries and raspberries that have only recently been introduced into the market. "Brazel-berries" are dwarf varieties of raspberry and blueberry, suitable for small garden spaces or even patio containers. 'Raspberry Shortcake' offers the added benefit of being thornless. Grow it in neutral soil in full sun and harvest berries in mid-summer. The two new brazel-blueberry varieties being offered at Stanley's Greenhouse this year are 'Peach Sorbet' and 'Jelly Bean.' Like standard blueberries, these shrubs prefer acid soil, and can be included in the landscape alongside sun-loving azaleas, such as Encore(TM) types. All the brazel-berry fruits can be grown in large containers, making control of the soil pH simpler than in-ground growing. Besides the obvious benefit of fruit, all these shrubs add color and interest to the landscape. Blueberry foliage turns pink and purple in the fall, too. More information and images at

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Spring Planting Tips

Tonight the Full Worm Moon will illuminate the landscape, provided the clouds clear out to enable us to see it. Spring arrives officially this Thursday, and, coincidentally, Thursday, March 20 is one month prior to the average frost date (for my location), April 20. Rain began overnight and continues to fall, irrigating our raised beds, now bursting with green onion, leek, shallot and garlic tops from last fall’s planting.

Lettuces that were started in cells trays last week are now up and will soon have true leaves. I am growing them under the LED light I have mentioned previously. I note that the red-leaved varieties color up soon after germination, an indication they are getting plenty of photo-energy.

St. Patrick’s Day, Monday, March 17, marks the traditional time to plant Irish potatoes in East Tennessee. I also find this memory aid helpful in reminding me when to place a sweet potato root into a jar with water, so that I will have slips ready to plant around Memorial Day. Sweet potatoes require heat, so sprout them in the warmest, sunniest spot you can manage indoors. Otherwise, you will be better off to purchase slips, which will appear at better garden centers at the appropriate planting time. Two good bets for the Knoxville area are Mayo Garden Centers (several locations) and Knoxville Seed and Greenhouse Supply (Rutledge Pike).

This week is a good time to plant root crops, according to the traditional practices based on the moon. When the moon is waning, plant vegetables that bear below the ground: beets, carrots, onions, potatoes, radishes, and turnips. Note that Asian radishes are likely to perform better here if fall-planted, but salad radishes seem to do best in spring.

You still have time to transplant cabbage and broccoli, but the window is pretty much closed by the equinox. Spinach, also, will soon not have time enough to mature before the weather gets hot.
If you have not planted asparagus, you should get roots in the ground by the equinox, also. Otherwise, you may find the stock at the garden center has already begun to sprout. Not a good thing, because if you break one of those tender shoots, you rob your plants of vitality needed to establish a healthy root system. Good roots are crucial to productivity during the second season of growth. If you already have an established asparagus bed, now is the time to apply a balanced organic fertilizer, topped with an inch or so of good compost or composted manure, such as Black Kow™. Top that with an inch of mulch, such as straw, pine needles, or shredded bark. Doing so now gives the nutrients time to be decomposed by soil bacteria, making them available to the asparagus plants when they begin sprouting a few weeks hence.

Don’t forget to tune in to 94.3, WNFZ, Knoxville, for “Garden Talk,” every Saturday morning at 8:00 AM. I’ll be there to talk about vegetable gardening and other topics with Dr. Sue and Andy the Garden Guy. Our sponsors are Stanley's Greenhouse and Ellenburg's Nursery. Visit your local, independent garden center for plants, supplies and good advice!

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Spring Planting Time

Spring does not begin officially for another 20 days, but March 1 marks the beginning of spring vegetable gardening season in the Tennessee Valley. Although we are far from out of the woods as far as frost is concerned, the spring temperature oscillations are not likely to bother the most cold-tolerant crops.

Chief among these is spinach, which will germinate in cold soil. Plant in succession from now through the middle of April. Thin plants to stand at least six inches apart for the largest leaves. Thinned seedlings can be transplanted and will be ready to pick a week or ten days later than the ones left undisturbed.

Arugula and corn salad can also be planted now. Arugula only takes about 3 to 4 weeks to be ready to pick, and small succession sowings should be made every few days, as often as you think you'd like to eat arugula. Corn salad grows more slowly and tolerates less heat, so you can only get in a couple of sowings before the weather gets too warm.

Now is also a great time to start lettuce seedlings in cell trays for transplanting in 2 to 4 weeks. Sow three seeds on the suface of the growing medium, water thoroughly and place under artificial light or in a south-facing window. When the seedlings have true leaves, thin to one per cell. Transplant to the garden when they 2 inches tall or larger. The secret to growing lettuce is to start a few plants every week or so, for a continuous crop. As with arugula, the amount to sow each week depends upon how much salad you plan to eat. Mature butterhead and loosehead lettuce typess will make two salads per plant, as a rule.

Broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower plants can also be transplanted during March. Be sure to keep them dusted with Bt powder to prevent damage by cabbage worms. Bt is a bacterial insecticide approved for organic gardening.

Anyone who has lived in the Tennessee Valley for very long knows we have unpredictable weather in early spring. It is wise to have some means available to protect your plants from frost, because our spring warm spells encourage buds to swell and flowers to bloom. When one night of frost returns, the show can be ruined for good. You can purchase frost blanket, which is about the same as floating row cover material. You can also use old bed sheets. One of my favorite ways to protect emerging plants is to cover them with three or four inches of loose pine needles. The fluffy needles provide frost protection and can be left in place as mulch. They are also easy to remove with a leaf rake, and they look much better than cloth covers. Pine needles work well for perennial flowers and small shrubs. Larger shrubs and flowering trees with require the artificial covers.