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February 28th, 2012

Growing Vegetables in the Wind

My wife and I are going to plant all our vegetables and herbs in planters on a back patio—the only place on our property with full sun. It’s also the windiest spot throughout the year. Are windy conditions bad for plants in containers, and if so, what should I do?

blog-dougHaving grown up on the wind-buffeted high plains of Kansas, I can tell you that it’s quite possible to grow vegetables in windy locations. In fact, good air circulation helps to discourage many fungal diseases. If it’s windy enough to tip pots over, just be sure you’ve chosen hefty, broad-bottomed containers and added a good dose of sand to the potting medium for weight.

Depending on the strength of the wind, you may need to change the way you grow your vegetables. The trick is to encourage a ground-hugging profile so the wind skims over their tops. Instead of staking tomatoes vertically or using tomato cages, let the vines sprawl on a bed of straw, or train them on low trellises that angle away from prevailing winds. Choose bush beans instead of pole beans. Let cucumbers and melons sprawl horizontally instead of growing them up a trellis.

Plants tend to dry out faster when it’s windy, so keep an eye on soil moisture. An automated drip irrigation system is easy to construct and will save time in the long run.

If your patio is so windy that leaves are shredded, then consider adding a barrier or screen of some sort to buffer the wind. Picket or lattice fencing or a leafy hedge on the garden’s upwind side will help to diminish the wind’s force.  —Doug Hall

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February 14th, 2012

A Procrastinator’s Guide to Planting Bulbs

I dragged my feet this fall and failed to plant my daffodils. Is there a problem planting them during the February warm spell?

blog-dougWhat do you have to lose? Plant them and hope for the best—but don’t delay any longer. If your soil is workable, plant the daffodil bulbs outdoors. If the ground is frozen, get a bag of potting soil and plant them in pots.

As you know, spring-flowering bulbs—daffodils, tulips, hyacinths, crocuses, and the like—are planted in fall so they have three or four months to establish root systems before blooming. Your daffodils will be getting a very late start at that, so if they bloom at all it will likely be later than normal. The key to their future success is their ability to produce sufficient leaves this spring to recharge their energy reserves—and you won’t know for sure if they’re able to do that until they begin growing. Whether they flower or not this spring, they will probably get back on a normal flowering schedule in subsequent years if they put up a good stand of foliage this first year. Daffodils are known to thrive for decades in their preferred growing conditions: a sunny exposure and soil that drains quickly.

Another variable to this situation is where you’ve been storing the bulbs. If they’ve been kept in a cool and humid spot, such as an unheated basement, and the bulbs still appear firm and not shriveled, they are more likely to overcome late planting than if they’ve been stored at room temperature. Good luck! And don’t feel bad; after all, who among us has not discovered an unplanted bag of bulbs in February?  —Doug Hall

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February 8th, 2012

Damping Off and Seedlings

One ingredient in your recipe for seed-starting mix is screened compost. Shouldn’t the compost be sterilized somehow to prevent fungus? Everything I’ve read tells me that damping off will occur with young seedlings if the starting medium contains fungus or harmful bacteria.

blog-dougThe seed-starting blend we use when we grow seedlings for the Organic Gardening Test Garden is about 50 percent compost. We do not sterilize the compost because to do so would kill all the beneficial soil microorganisms as well as the few organisms that are potentially disease-causing.

That means we have to use some extra common sense and diligence to prevent damping off. We avoid adding any obviously diseased plant debris to the compost piles. We take care to grow our seedlings where they get plenty of sunlight and air circulation, and we space them to avoid crowding in the flats. We rarely have problems with damping off, and when we do, it’s usually our fault from overwatering.

Damping off is a fungal disease of very young seedlings. If seedlings suddenly topple over (and appear pinched at the base of their stems), it’s probably damping off. If this happens, immediately transplant the survivors to fresh potting mix. If damping off is a chronic problem for you, try using a seed-starting mix that has more sphagnum peat moss in it, and cover the seeds with pure milled sphagnum instead of more seed-starting mix. You can use sphagnum from a bale of peat moss, which is typically ground fairly fine. It’s easiest to dust it over the seeds dry and then lightly mist the surface to moisten it.

When you think about it, soil outdoors is just as full of microorganisms as our unsterilized seed-starting mix—yet seedlings in nature manage to prosper and grow. It’s only when we have given them less-than-ideal growing conditions that damping off becomes a problem.  —Doug Hall

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