Growing Well at the Community Garden

Continuing our topic of What’s Growing Well in the Garden, Kathryn Hamilton and Charles Murphy share stories of their successes. Both of these Extension master gardener volunteers garden at the Briggs Avenue Community Garden. They maintain their own individual plots as well as assist the community with bigger tasks. Charles minds the orchard and Kathryn minds the composting. — Andrea, Blog editor

Kathryn’s awesome year

I have had an awesome garden year. Beginning with snow peas planted in January and harvested through May, and including winter crops (cabbage, cauliflower, and broccoli) harvested through the beginning of May. The summer, though not nearly through, has been equally robust. I have totaled 191 pounds of produce. This does not include what was given away at the garden before I got to weigh it. Some of the summer highlights: 107 pounds of cucumbers; 9.6 pounds of mostly Japanese style eggplants, 17.3 pounds of zucchini, and 36 pounds of tomatoes, as of today. A new crop of cucumbers has been seeded along with a new set of zucchini, four different kinds of string beans, and snow peas which are on their way from the seed house.


Peppers lead the pack for Charles

I have had consistent good results with peppers of all sorts – green and purple bells especially, mild banana peppers and really hot cayennes – for a number of years. All my plants were set out as seedlings in April, and are producing well in mid-July.

Peppers, like many garden plants, prefer loamy, well-drained soil and the raised beds at Briggs work well. Frequent watering while seedlings are growing is good, as is a light application of a low-potency (e.g., 5-5-5 or 5-4-5) fertilizer as the plants reach mature size. Mature plants like water, but will tolerate dry conditions for longer than some other veggies, and are less susceptible to hot weather damage with temps in the low to mid 90s like we have had for the last two weeks. Bells show rich green, or other (purple, yellow) colors when ready to pick and can be used even when they are medium size. The banana peppers mature as light green fruits three to five inches long, and cayennes will turn red, but are just as spicy before they change color.

A typical picking of peppers and eggplants. Harvest every 4 to 6 days for best results. Photo by Charles Murphy

The peppers I’ve grown have had less pest damage, e.g., Japanese beetles, etc., than most of the garden crops, and tend to be low-maintenance. I’ve also had good results with the “Ichiban” variety of eggplants (caution: they are susceptible to a variety of predacious critters, so watch them closely.)  Regular watering, light fertilizing and regular cutting of fruit at six to seven inch lengths help to keep healthy plants producing longer. Peppers and eggplants co-exist in the same bed quite well, though it is a good idea to rotate planting sites from year to year.   

Other success crops for me include English peas and cucumbers. This year I put in pea seeds in early March, and could have done that earlier, expecting a mature crop in late May to early June. The variety I chose was listed as bush type on the seed packet, but I prefer to set up a trellis for the plants to climb. That makes harvest easier, and keeps pods off the ground. I chose a medium-size fruit cucumber variety (don’t remember the name), and set seedlings out in early May. Cucumbers don’t like cold weather, so wait until after last average frost date to plant. Trellised them, again to make them easier to harvest and to keep fruit off the ground. Cucumbers peas and peppers need  regular harvesting to keep fruit production going.

Learn more about vegetable gardening in central NC:

Growing Well in the Garden

It’s August and my garden (and myself) are showing signs of weariness. So I turned to my fellow Extension master gardener volunteers to find out what is growing well in their gardens. There are plant picks and care tips in the vignettes that follow to inspire us all; and if too late for this year, then definitely for next year! All photos were taken by the master gardeners.  — Andrea, Blog editor

Missouri Primrose

I seeded these indoors in early 2018 and planted outdoors after April 15th in 2018. For the past six weeks I have awakened to new blooms every morning and they have exceeded five feet in height. As a bonus the solitary pollinators sleep in them at night to be ready for the morning harvest! Missouri Primrose will have a perpetual place in my garden. – Brandon W.
 

Caladium and Coleus

My front porch plants are doing well. I have been planting caladium and  coleus every summer for 30 years. I love the combination and it also goes really well with the pink knockout roses in front of my porch. I think this year I will try to save my caladium bulbs for the first time ever. — Kerry H.

Coral bells and hostas

Coral bells (Heuchera sanguinea) loves the shady side of my house. It has thrived in this spot for about five years and never fails to surprise and delight. It’s an evergreen plant with maximum height of a foot-and-a-half and a spread of slightly less. The hostas are doing well, too!  — Carol T.

Zinnias

Almost all of the plants in my garden are perennials. For the first time since I was a child living in hot and dry Texas, I decided to plant Zinnia seeds this year- as a nod to a childhood long past. Thank goodness I did; It is practically the only flower blooming along the edges of my mostly shade garden. It is definitely drought tolerant and deer resistant and planting them will make every child feel like a successful gardener! Also, it is a simple delight to see what color might unfold on top of their tall  sturdy stalks during the course of this hot dry summer.  — Cy G.

Agastache

Both Agastache foeniculum (anise hyssop) and Agastache rugosa ‘Golden Jubilee’ are in this photo. I wish you could see the multitude of bees and butterflies that are feeding on the spiky blooms. Throughout the blistering heat wave, these plants have been alive with pollinators. This is my second year with them. They get a bit “floppy” late in the season, so I’m going to try aggressive deadheading this year and see if I get more new growth and less flop. During the hot, dry weather I make sure they get one good soaking a week. — Tina F.

Cleome

Cleome or spider flower (Cleome hassleriana) is a fragrant, sun-loving annual. Mine are still growing tall, producing blooms and lots of seeds. – Cathy L.


Lesser known

Solomon Seal (Polygonatum spp.) on left, is a native herbaceous perennial that grows well in shady areas. Quarter-inch blue-black (poisonous) berries dangle from the stem in the fall. Pictured here is one with variegated leaves. Weeping love grass (Eragrostis curvula), on right, is an ornamental grass whose leaves turn yellow to bronze in winter. It is used as erosion control on highway right-of-ways. – Beth A.

Learn more about the characteristics of each of the above mentioned plants at https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu.

Fennel

Year after year our bronze fennel is host to swallowtail caterpillars. Since rethinking our lawn care routine, the fennel has a bigger following than ever with a variety of bees, other insects and even a praying mantis who’s motives might be suspicious. The fennel is easy care with an occasional drink and it readily reseeds to keep the patch going strong. — Lynne N.

Beginner’s Luck?

My gardening interests are primarily focused on creating an aesthetic and pollinator friendly landscape, along with a few herbs. This year I decided to try a tomato plant. I bought a golden tomato shrub plant at the farmer’s market. It is doing so well! I’ve lost two tomatoes to blossom end rot, but have harvested a dozen already and have 30 more on the plant.  — Kerry H.

Tomato ‘German Johnson’

Here is one of my German Johnson tomatoes, a really sweet, pink variety. I planted some in the garden and put one plant in my homemade self-watering bucket. I really like the self-watering bucket. All month (July) I have had tomatoes. This is the first time ever I have had an indeterminate really continue bearing. It is eight feet tall and blooming. I think having uniform moisture is the best thing about the self-watering bucket. – Linda D.

Coming up on Thursday, more “Growing Well.”

Ten Lessons Learned

By Kathryn Hamilton EMGV

As master gardeners, we learn things. But we don’t learn everything, and because we are human, we often forget what we learn or think we are so smart that we are smarter than what we learned. I find each growing season to be a lesson in humility, but also an opportunity to learn … sometimes it’s something I knew, sometimes it’s relearning what I’ve learned. Here are 10 things I’ve learned or relearned in 2018.

  1. You can start tomatoes too early. Last year, I started my tomato seeds on Christmas day. In a sense it was a gift to myself, but I was also determined to have the biggest, strongest tomatoes to put into my garden in May. Although I planted, and transplanted, and have a south-facing location for them, I got leggy tomatoes that didn’t necessarily grow into the big, bad boys I’d hoped for, and I didn’t really get a jump on the season.
  2. Take the time to keep track of what you’ve planted. Last year, I planted two different kinds of cucumbers. General Lee, which is recommended for the South, and Tokiwa, “Tokyo Green” which was researched by a friend of mine. By the time I had gotten my “started-too-early” plants to the garden, I’d lost the markers and decided I’d be able to tell which cuke was which. Fat chance. Too bad, because one of them produced fantastic, sweet cucumbers well into August. I’ll have to try again this year.
  3. Plants need water to thrive. My first home had a well, which continues to make me inordinately careful about how much water I use, even though today I have city water. Someplace in the middle of last summer I realized I could capture the condensation from my air conditioning unit which gave me 10 “free” gallons of water a day. (Rain water collection is not permitted here.) After watering my rose bushes, my trees, my hydrangeas, and cleaning my patio, I began to toss the excess water onto my gardenias. Although they had been planted in the right location in terms of sunlight and we had quite a bit of rain, in three years, they hadn’t really blossomed, and I didn’t have the time to figure out why. Suddenly with regular water, I had flowers. Said a friend: “They were using whatever water they had to survive, they didn’t have enough to bloom.” And he wasn’t a master gardener.
  4. It’s not necessarily wise to be greedy. I had

    small veggies tiny but tasty december 30 harvst
    Even though they were small, I chose to harvest these at the end of December rather than try my luck for “even bigger” produce. Photo Kathryn Hamilton

    four beautiful heads of red sail lettuce and refused to pick the outer leaves in quest of the biggest head I could grow. In the end all four matured at the same time and were on the verge of bolting. Yes, I had some heads to share with my neighbors, but I also missed those fresh leaves every day and was forced into several days of red leaf lettuce salad. Not necessarily a bad thing … but I could have enjoyed it all season

  5. Know when it’s time to “fold ‘em.” A plant that’s at the end of its life and is literally hanging on by a few thready stems isn’t going to produce any good fruit. Doesn’t matter that there’s an heirloom tomato “on the vine.” Still not going to taste very good.  I had a similar story with eggplants. Rather than pick them mid-sized, I pushed them to the max and had seeds.
  6. DO NOT over-plant your tomatoes. I know VERY experienced gardeners who still do this. The tomatoes will compete for food, water, and air. You are not likely to have a bumper crop.
  7. Plant your spinach in a hurricane. Spinach is one of those crops that has thwarted me at every turn. No matter what I do, I can’t get this vegetable to start from seeds. This past summer out of desperation, I threw a bunch of seeds into a planter during the hurricane. Within a handful of days (poor record-keeping again), I had spinach. At first I thought it was the wet, wet, wet conditions. But other spinach seeds sown under the same wet conditions went nowhere. I haven’t done a full set of experiments on this, but I’m thinking it’s a combination of wet and warm that helps the seeds jump start. The conundrum around starting spinach seeds in the summer is that they like cool growing weather. I’m sure we ate the spinach that sprouted … but then again, no records.
  8. Start your lettuce on sponges under lights.

    small-lettuce-9-days
    Cutting the sponges into smaller sections allows you to start a variety of seeds in a small space. Growing here: Two romaines and a red. Photo: Kathryn Hamilton

     

    Starting lettuce from seeds has been another stumbling block for me. One day I decided to experiment by growing them on a sponge. I put the soaked sponge in a cleaned out (10% Clorox solution) plastic domed container (you can often get them when you buy cooked chicken at the super market but be SURE to sanitize them). Under grow lights (no heat on the bottom), I’ve seen the lettuce sprout in 2 – 3 days, compared to “never” before. This lettuce is nine days old. I also buy new sponges whenever I grow lettuce. If they are thick I cut them in half lengthwise so they are not so deep. If I’m planting several varieties at once, I cut the sponges into little cubes, one for each variety. A friend, who is not a master gardener but owns a garden shop, says he mixes his seed with packaged cow manure and broadcasts it. In addition to providing nutrition, he says the cow manure also holds moisture.

  9. Pay attention to soil temperature. Even if against all conventional wisdom, you start seedlings like peas indoors, without the right soil temperature they will struggle at est. (And don’t forget to water.)
  10. If you get into a battle of wills with Mother Nature, she will likely win. I have a history of trying to grow things in the wrong spot … simply because I wanted to them to go there. Of course, I had minimal luck at best. How rewarding to know that the gardener’s mantra: “the right plant for the right spot” can be a very rewarding rule of thumb. (And don’t forget to water.)

This winter, take time to reflect on your last year of gardening and consider what changes you can make as you begin anew in 2019. Happy New Year!

 

Growing Rabbiteye Blueberry Bushes: Plan Now, Plant Later

by Andrea Laine, EMGV

Fall is for planting! We master gardeners say that all the time. It is true for most plants, yet not for  blueberry bushes as I have learned from Bill Cline, an NC State Extension specialist on blueberries. The best time to plant or transplant blueberry bushes is when they are dormant. In Durham County, February is a safe bet.

I planted three Rabbiteye blueberry bushes several years ago in an open wooded area; two survive but far from thrive. I wanted to know what I did wrong and, more importantly, what I needed to do right. The payoffs would be sweet juicy fruits a short walk from my front door and a bushy landscape plant with crimson autumn color.

RabbiteyeRed
Crimson-colored autumn foliage makes blueberry bushes attractive landscape plants. Even this spindly one in my yard. Photo by Andrea Laine.

About the Species

Blueberry bushes are deciduous woody perennials that are members of the Heath family and Vaccinium species. They are acid-loving plants native to North America and related to azaleas and cranberries. They are pollinated by insects. A winter chilling period is required for fruit to form.

Types of blueberries that can be grown in North Carolina are Highbush, Rabbiteye and Southern Highbush. The Rabbiteye (Vaccinium virgatum), however, is native to the southeast and easiest to grow. It is the one that does best in home gardens in the Piedmont. Rabbiteye berries will ripen from mid-June to mid-august and there are many cultivated varieties.

Powder blue fruit
Fruit on a ‘Powder Blue’ Rabbiteye blueberry bush. Photo by Bill Cline, NCSU. Used with permission.

Growing Conditions

Pay close attention to three conditions for your Rabbiteyes to thrive: Full sun, acidic soil and good drainage. If sited anywhere with less than full sun, the plants will struggle. If the pH is not within the range of 4 to 5, nutrients may not be absorbed. Planting bushes in a raised bed fashion in soil amended with pine bark will help lower the pH and improve drainage. Cline notes that a lack of aeration in the soil is a problem he sees often in home gardens. Mix and mound the amended soil and mulch the area with bark, wood chips, pine straw or black plastic to suppress weeds and hold in moisture.

At planting time

At planting time (late winter), remove all flower buds and prune canes to six inches. Keep only three or four upright shoots. This will encourage the plant to branch out and form a vegetative, multitrunk bush. Removing the flower buds will prevent fruiting the first year and build a stronger plant. It may be three years before you harvest a crop. If you are transplanting an existing bush as I am, cut the top off and just move the root ball. Water the plant regularly the first year.

Pruning

Pruning stimulates growth of young and productive shoots. Selectively prune the bush every year during winter.

 

blueberry bush
Blueberry bushes in need of a good pruning. Don’t be timid! Photo by Ann Barnes, used with permission.

BeforeAfterBlue Pruning

Don’t be timid! Remove old, weak or diseased canes. Remove twiggy matchstick wood and take a few larger canes out each year. Strive for an upright plant. Annually remove 40 to 50 percent of flower buds; this will encourage bigger berries. Cline notes that no one should need to climb a ladder to pick blueberries; on a properly pruned bush the majority of fruit will be beneath knees and shoulders.

 

Tips

  • An insect must visit each flower or a berry will not form. Plant two or more cultivars for cross-pollination and to stretch the fruiting season and increase the yield. Standard Rabbiteye cultivars are: Premier, Tifblue, Powderblue, Climax, Brightwell. Newer ones are: Alapaha, Vernon, Ochlockonee, Columbus, Onslow, Ira.
  • Make every effort to keep bushes healthy through the spring and into summer months. Flowers need to survive in order for fruits to develop.

    Tifblue flowers
    Flowers on a ‘Tifblue’ Rabbiteye bluberry bush. Photo by Bill Cline, NCSU. Used with permission.
  • Pick your berries and collect them in shallow buckets so that fruit isn’t crushed. To increase quality and reduce rot, pick all ripe fruit at each harvest and do not pick or handle fruit when it is wet.
  • Test your soil before fertilizing.

Alas, I probably cannot produce the ideal growing conditions for blueberry bushes in my landscape, so I have adjusted my expectations. Rather than adding more bushes and creating a blueberry patch, I will transplant the two I already have to the sunniest part of my yard (half day at best) and follow all the tips above with the hope that my bushes may succeed as ornamental plants if not great fruit producers. And, as long as there are farmer’s markets in Durham, I’ll be berry happy.

Five ways to enjoy fresh blueberries:

  1. Bake into a pie. Here’s an award-winning recipe from the 2015 NC State Fair.
  2. Sprinkle on a green salad.
  3. Add to a breakfast bowl of oatmeal or yogurt.
  4. Straight up as a snack.
  5. Add antioxidant power to a smoothie.

 

Resources and Further Reading

NCSU’s blueberry portal:
https://blueberries.ces.ncsu.edu/

Growing blueberries in the home garden
https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/growing-blueberries-in-the-home-garden

Principles of Pruning the Highbush Blueberry
https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/principles-of-pruning-the-highbush-blueberry

22-minute video of hands-on blueberry pruning workshop
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wkFhMwoiUDQ

Blueberry pruning diagrams
https://blueberries.ces.ncsu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/blueberry-pruning-diagrams.pdf?fwd=no

Fresh blueberries are extremely perishable and easily damaged by rough handling and adverse temperatures
https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/postharvest-cooling-and-handling-of-blueberries

https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/nursery-list-of-small-fruit-cultivars-for-home-use-in-north-carolina

An overview of growing Rabbiteye bluberries from Alabama cooperative extension
http://www.aces.edu/pubs/docs/A/ANR-1078/ANR-1078.pdf

Recipe for Blueberry Pie
http://statefairrecipes.com/2016/09/2220/

 

 

 

Struggling with Lettuce: Germination

by Kathryn Hamilton, EMGV

By rights, I should never have to buy lettuce. I own heat pads and grow lamps. I have both a patio and a covered porch that face south and are warm in winter. I have exposures east and north. I buy every lettuce seed packet that waves at me. By any stretch of the imagination I should have at least one pot of lettuce growing some place at any time of the year. But, my nemesis has been getting seeds to sprout.

Lettuce needs light and water to germinate. It is supposed to germinate in seven to 10 days. In my experience a generous sprinkling of seeds on top of soil-starting medium might generate two or three weak sprouts after weeks of tender care and gentle spritzing to keep the seeds moist.

Over the last several years, I’ve started all my

After-6-days-little-forrest
Seeds sprinkled on top of a sponge covered with a dome. Germination in three days; within five days a little forest of sprouts.

other seedlings in a domed enclosure that relies on sponges as growing medium. Knowing that the seeds need light to sprout, I never considered dropping the tiny lettuce seeds into the little sponge holes. But after another frustrating failure with seed-starting medium, I decided to try placing the seeds on top of the sponge plugs. And within three days, sprouts. Within five days, a forest of healthy lettuce starts. By the two-week mark, sprouts healthy enough to transplant.

At the same time, I decided to experiment with a low-tech approach. I found an old low-tech-plasticsponge, cut it in half so it wouldn’t be too thick and sprinkled the seeds. A big advantage of sponge over plugs was that I could clearly see where the seeds were sprinkled and using the tip of a knife they could be spread out. I put the sponge in a clean plastic container from roasted take-out chicken. I poked holes in the top, wet the sponge and added water to the bottom of the container.

All seeds were grown indoors, in a temperate environment that was low-to mid seventies. I started four experiments: two high-tech (sponges and domes from a seed house) and two low-tech  (chicken take-out plastic and household sponges) at the same time.  All seeds were started under grow lights, but one of each set was placed on a heat pad.lineup-cropped

Within two days my heart sank. It looked as if the low-tech

After-2-days-not-mold
Not mold! Plants with furry stems breaking out of their seeds.

container without heat had turned into mold. But, on closer examination, my seeds had begun to sprout. The high-tech seeds took a little longer to sprout. In both cases, those without heat did better than those with heat, especially in the low-tech plastic. Those in the high-tech sponges got their second set of leaves a day or so before the low tech and in general, looked a little stronger. After they sprouted, I watered with a highly diluted fertilizer. Fifteen days after the seeds were planted I transplanted the high-tech sprouts into cell-packs.  Getting the tender sprouts out Roots-through-spongeof the sponges was at times a little tricky. Rather than pull the seedlings I had to cut around the sponge, and I often planted part of the sponge with the seedling, being sure to bury the sponge below the soil line. In the end I had 54 plants that I put back under grow lights until they could get over transplant shock.

 

36-hour-seedlings
Perking up 33 hours after transplant.

For this experiment I used Marvel of Four Seasons (Lactuca sativa), a butter-head lettuce described as “delicious and tender, very easy to grow.”  Once these are strong enough and I can reclaim my grow lights I am planning to try several other varieties including iceberg, which is difficult to grow in North Carolina, and Tennis, a small-head heirloom variety I couldn’t resist.

Best lesson learned: The optimum temperature for lettuce germination is 75 degrees. The low-tech chicken container was less-insulated than the high-tech dome and none of the seeds emerged, but germination in the high-tech container was high with or without heat.

Here’s where you can find some additional information on growing lettuce:

https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/lettuce

https://extension.psu.edu/seed-and-seedling-biology

http://www.aces.edu/pubs/docs/A/ANR-1061/ANR-1061.pdf

http://www2.ca.uky.edu/agcomm/pubs/ho/ho56/ho56.htm