Saturday, April 26, 2014

Welcome the Warm Season

We took time off for Easter, and enjoyed a beautiful spring weekend. Hopefully, you did, too.

Now that the frost date (April 20) has passed, we can breathe easy, and get going with warm season crops.

I am planting our first tomato plant this weekend. It is the fast-maturing, indeterminate hybrid ‘Whopper.’ The plants were started by Stanley’s Greenhouses, and are the perfect size for transplanting. To ensure the formation of a good root system, remove all leaves, leaving only the top two or three leaf clusters, when you transplant tomatoes. Bury the stem all the way up to within about an inch of the lowermost leaves. Also pinch out any bloom clusters present at transplant time. You want the plants to direct their energy into establishing a sturdy root system before fruiting begins. Apply a dark colored mulch, or black plastic, around the base of the plants to help warm the soil, which will still be on the cool side for tomatoes.

Whopper matures in 70 days, so we should be enjoying them after the Fourth of July.

Install tomato supports while the plants are small. This makes the job of tying them later far more easily accomplished. Indeterminate tomatoes will grow to the height of their support and then, if topped, will spread horizontally. Make sure the support you provide is sturdy enough to handle the weight of both the vines and the fruit, even in bad weather. Thunderstorms are likely in late afternoon all during the warm season. You don’t want wind gusts bringing down your tomato planting. The bed in which I am planting Whopper is surrounded by wood posts, to which I plan to attach wire cages to increase the height.

All commercial wire cages are too short for indeterminate tomato plants, and must be supported with additional stakes or posts. Serious gardeners should consider permanent trellises made of the steel mesh used to reinforce concrete. It comes in pieces about 4 feet wide by 7 feet long and can be held upright by various means to create a permanent vegetable trellis.

Not only tomatoes, but also pole beans, cucumbers, winter squash, melons, peppers and peas will benefit from the support provided by this type of trellis.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

A Busy Time in the Garden

Although we are not out of the woods yet, in terms of frost danger, we can begin thinking about warm weather crops. And it is a busy time for vegetable gardeners. Already we are beginning to harvest greens, green onions, and asparagus, while getting ready for the main season.

Basil seeds can be started now for transplant in May.

The window for lettuce and other salad greens is closing. Select fast-maturing cultivars like Black Seeded Simpson. Start seeds for Romaine lettuce, which is more heat tolerant, in cell trays for transplant in three weeks. They should mature in June with no problems. One of the best heat-tolerant Romaine types we have grown is Jericho.

Scallions can be started from seed and will be ready to harvest along with lettuce planted now.

The traditional time in East Tennessee for planting beans is Good Friday, April 18. Beans with brown seeds will germinate better in cool soil. Wait another month before planting white-seeded beans.
Tomatoes can be seeded now in small pots and will be ready to transplant by mid-May. Hold off on peppers, especially chili-types, until after the end of this month.

Cucurbits can be started indoors now, using peat pots to prevent root disturbance. If you cannot provide bright light and warmth, you will have better luck with direct seeding during May and June.
You still have time to get in a crop of potatoes. Select a fast-maturing variety, such as Irish Cobbler, if you want to use the space for another crop later in the season.

All herb plants, with the exception of basil, can go into the ground now. Be prepared to protect tender varieties, such as some rosemary cultivars, with a cover, should we experience a late frost. Parsley and cilantro will both tolerate light frost with no problem.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Welcome Rains

We had an unusually dry March, typically our wettest month. The rain that arrived this week to start the month of April has resulting in visible growth in the garden. Plenty of time remains for planting early crops, and some venturesome folks are planting cucumbers and summer squash. This is risky, not only because we could yet have a frost, but also because the soil remains cool and seeds may simply rot.

Cucurbits can be started indoors in peat pots, allowing them to be transplanted without root disturbance. Cucumbers, summer and winter squashes, melons and gourds can all be handled this way, giving you the earliest possible harvest. As with all such attempts to "beat" the season, you run the risk of losing the plants to a late cold snap, but you do have the opportunity to replant should that happen.

If you do start warm season transplants indoors, make sure to give them as much sun and/or artificial light as possible. Cucurbits, tomatoes and peppers all need strong light to develop properly. If you cannot provide good light for the seedlings, you will have better success with plants purchased at the garden center. Weak seedlings seldom recover their full potential, even after transplantation.

Plenty of time remains to plant lettuce, other greens, beets, radishes, carrots, potatoes, leeks and onions. Continue succession plantings of annual herbs, such as parsley and cilantro, but hold off on planting basil, which requires warmth. Parsley established in the garden now will continue to provide leaves for cutting until next winter, if not harvested too heavily. Try to have enough plants so you can gather a nice bunch with only one leaf taken per plant. If you use a lot of parsley, make room for a dozen. Flat-leaved Italian parsley grows best through summer heat.

Good Friday, April 18, is the traditional time to plant beans in the Tennessee Valley region. As a hedge against a cold snap, choose a brown-seeded bean for your early crop. These varieties are less likely to rot in cold soil than are white-seeded beans.

If you choose to push the season on warm-weather crops, it may be worth investing in floating row cover, available at most garden centers. This lightweight artificial fabric provides a few degrees of frost protection while allowing light and air to reach the plants. It is best to support the cover with metal or plastic hoops across the growing bed. Complete kits are widely available, or you can fabricate your own using PVC pipe.