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.
    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!


Heat Stress – Protecting Gardens and Gardeners

By Ann Barnes, EMGV

It’s hot out there! Every summer, stretches of humid 90°+ days leave plants and their gardeners feeling thirsty and wilted.

Plants lose water through leaves and must take up water from the soil to replenish what was lost. If there isn’t enough moisture in the soil, or if it is hot enough that the plant can’t replace lost water fast enough, the plant will wilt. Often, plants wilt during the heat of the day but recover when temperatures cool in the evening. (Look for more about wilting in a later blog post).


This hydrangea’s roots are unable to take up enough water to keep the plant from wilting during the day. The plant recovered by evening.  – photo: Ann Barnes

Wilting is not the only hot weather challenge plants face. Cool season turfgrass such as fescue can become dormant when temperatures are in the 90s and may begin yellowing. Flowering plants may have smaller blooms or may flower for a shorter time. Tomatoes and other garden staples do not set fruit well when temperatures are high for extended periods. Some trees begin to show fall colors or drop leaves. Scorch, the browning of edges of leaves throughout the plant, is another condition brought on by heat stress. Gardeners can give their plants an advantage by using good watering practices.

To help your garden make it through a heat wave, make sure plants have enough water. One inch per week (including rainfall) is recommended.  Plants in containers, new plants, and those in particularly hot, sunny places may require more. Watering in the morning is ideal so that plants have a supply of water before midday heat arrives. If early morning isn’t possible, be sure to water early enough that leaves can dry before the sun sets to reduce chances for fungal diseases. There is no need to water daily – watering deeply a few times a week is better for plants because it encourages deeper root growth. Overwatering causes its own set of problems, so check your soil to make sure your garden isn’t already moist enough before you start moving hoses and sprinklers.

In addition to watering properly, mulching will help plants beat the heat. Mulch holds moisture and acts as insulation, keeping the soil cooler. Mulch also helps to keep weeds down. Weeds compete with garden plants for water and nutrients, so removing or preventing weeds will keep them from taking precious moisture from your plants.

Gardeners can also suffer from excessive heat. Be sure to water, weed, mow, and perform other garden chores early in the day whenever possible. Drink plenty of water and take extra rest breaks indoors or in shade. Know the signs of heatstroke and heat exhaustion and seek medical attention if necessary.







Wise Watering Tips

by Andrea Laine

Welcome to August. It’s hot and it’s dry.  And while our area does receive plentiful rain (we are above average for the year), it may not always fall in your neighborhood or at regular intervals. Your lawn, vegetable garden or landscape plants may be thirsty.

As gardeners we know that water is essential to plant growth.  An ideal soil is composed of 50 percent solid materials, 25 percent air, and 25 percent water. Water dissolves minerals in the soil and transports these nutrients upward from the roots and throughout the plant. Water is responsible for the firmness and fullness of plant tissue. Even drought-tolerant plants need water every now and then to survive.

So, it may be time to water your garden. However, be aware that it is also possible to abuse our plants with water.  One of my “a-ha” moments during Master Gardener training came when I learned that you cannot water a plant too much at one time, yet you can water it too frequently. Yes, we can kill our plants with what we perceive to be kindness!

Frequent watering prevents newly planted lawn grasses or young shrubs and trees from building strong root systems.  And overwatering will eventually cause the roots of any plant to rot as the abundance of water in the soil leaves too little room for oxygen.  Once the roots rot, there’s no saving the plant.  Less frequent, yet longer and slower watering motivates roots to grow deeper, which is very important for new plants. And, watering this way will penetrate the root zone of established plants.

Knowing when to water, how to water, how much, and how often to water can make or break your garden.  Here are a several tips about watering:

  • First, get yourself a rain gauge so you’ll know exactly how much water Mother Nature has contributed before you add more. Rain gauges come in an array of designs and sizes from strictly functional and inexpensive to highly decorative and more expensive. I have an inexpensive plastic one that simply inserts into the ground. When it fills up with water the numbers are magnified which enables me to easily read it from my kitchen window.
  • Early morning hours are the best time to water, especially for lawns. Starting early allows the sun to completely dry the blades of grass before dusk.
  • Water the soil, not the leaves. Leaves do not absorb water. Wet leaves invite rot and a weak plant invites disease and insects.
  • A drip water hose is ideal, but effective watering is still possible by hand.  A drip hose will deliver up to four gallons of water per hour.  A hose will deliver two to five gallons per minute.
  • The goal is to add a total of one inch of water per week to your garden.  One inch of water will soak the soil to between six and 10 inches.
  • When watering by hand stop when the water stops being absorbed into the ground. Wait an hour, then plunge a long screwdriver or space into the ground to check that the soil is moist to a depth of six to 10 inches.
  • Know your plants water requirements and act accordingly.

Cultivate good watering habits and your garden will reward you with healthy plants that live a long time.