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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January 31st, 2012
When Bulbs Wake Up Too Early

We’re barely halfway through winter and already I see the tips of daffodils and hyacinths poking through the mulch. This weekend I even saw some crocuses in bloom. Do I need to do anything?

blog-dougDon’t underestimate the fortitude of bulbs that bloom in early spring. They’re used to nasty winter weather. As long as the flower buds stay safely belowground, the worst that can happen is the leaf tips will be singed. Daffodils with brown leaf tips may not be what you were hoping to see in spring, but the damage is superficial and won’t prevent the bulbs from flowering.

It’s not unusual for these tentative sprouts to appear long before the bulbs bloom. So long as the weather stays cold, the leaves grow no further. If you wish, you can add a layer of loose mulch to insulate the exposed shoots and protect them from winter burn.

But when warmer weather causes the flower buds to emerge—and especially once the buds show color or open—the potential for damage increases. Bulb flowers are more fragile than the leaves, more likely to be harmed by snow, wind, or just plain cold. Enjoy those crocuses while they last!  —Doug Hall

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January 24th, 2012
Apples for Cider

I read the article “A Taste of History” about hard cider in your magazine. Now I’m interested in learning what varieties of apples are used in making cider.

blog-dougAs reported in our article, traditional alcoholic cider is making a comeback, led by a group of American “micro-cideries” that ferment apples in small batches. Hard cider is a crisp, clear beverage, not to be confused with the sweet, cloudy, nonalcoholic juice that is sold in fall as apple cider.

Just as each variety of grape produces a wine of distinct flavor and character, the many types of apples give rise to a wide selection of hard ciders. Cider makers blend apples, including those with bitter and tannic flavors, to create the right balance of sweetness and acidity. Cider apples are grouped into four classes based on their flavor characteristics: sweet, sharp, bittersweet, and bittersharp.

Cider makers often look to the past for their inspiration, selecting heirloom apple varieties. But many are also experimenting with newer cultivars, such as ‘Jonagold’, ‘Lady’, and ‘Golden Delicious’. The websites of two of the regional makers mentioned in the article list the apple varieties that go into their ciders. They are Farnum Hill Ciders of New Hampshire and Tieton Cider Works (associated with Harmony Orchards) in Washington.  —Doug Hall

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January 10th, 2012
Look for the OMRI Label

What is the significance of the “OMRI Listed” label I see on some gardening products?

blog-dougThink of the OMRI logo as an organic seal of approval. The initials stand for Organic Materials Review Institute, a nonprofit group set up to evaluate products based on the standards of the USDA’s National Organic Program. OMRI reviews materials that are used in the growing and processing of food crops (as well as fiber crops). Those that are added to the OMRI list can be used when growing foods that will be sold as organic.

Earning the right to display the OMRI logo isn’t easy. OMRI inspectors review product formulas and even visit manufacturing plants to assess compliance with National Organic Program standards. The USDA officially recognizes OMRI decisions.

OMRI’s list of approved materials (presented in a searchable database at omri.org) includes brand-name products as well as generic materials, such as sphagnum moss, Epsom salts, and alfalfa meal. Some products are approved for certain uses but not others. Organic growers must follow the OMRI guidelines meticulously if they are to maintain their organic certification.

Home gardeners are well advised to look for the OMRI logo, too, when they’re shopping for fertilizers or other gardening products. Unlike some other marketing buzzwords that appear on labels, like “natural” or “sustainable,” the OMRI listing carries weight.  —Doug Hall

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January 6th, 2012
Nature’s Antifreeze

How is it that some plants survive temperatures below zero, when my tomatoes turn to mush at the first hint of frost?

blog-dougPlants that live in cold climates have developed the ability to withstand below-freezing temperatures without damage. When you consider that each living cell is filled mostly with water, this is an amazing feat.

Plants such as your tomatoes—as well as other tender annuals and tropical plants—can’t survive freezing. When the water in their cells turns to ice crystals, cell walls rupture and the tissues die.

Hardy evergreens, on the other hand, fortify their cells with sugars and other dissolved substances as winter approaches, turning water into an “antifreeze” of sorts. The foliage of both broadleaf and needle evergreens usually has a waxy layer that offers extra protection. Hardy deciduous trees and shrubs can also freeze-proof the sap in their woody tissues.

You’ve probably noticed an interesting side effect of the autumn buildup of sugars in plant cells. After the first light frosts of fall, cool-weather vegetables like broccoli, kale, and Brussels sprouts begin to taste sweeter—evidence that the plants are bracing for cold.

But even antifreeze has its limits, and that’s where the USDA Plant Hardiness Zones come in. These hardiness ratings give gardeners a good idea of just how much winter cold each species can tolerate.  —Doug Hall

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December 27th, 2011
Mulching With the Christmas Tree

Can I use my Christmas tree for mulch?

blog-dougThe boughs of fir, pine, spruce, and other evergreen trees are a good insulator for dormant perennials. Unlike some winter mulches, like unshredded leaves, they don’t pack down into a solid, oxygen-excluding layer. And when spring comes, they’re easy to rake aside.

Discarded Christmas trees appear curbside at an ideal time for adding winter mulch in my Zone 6 garden. By late December, the ground has chilled (if not frozen an inch or two deep) and plants are dormant. Hopefully, any field mice in the neighborhood have settled down elsewhere for the winter and won’t find habitat in my mulch. I scavenge the neighborhood before trash day, bringing home five or six trees to cut apart.

It’s quick and easy: Just snip the tree’s branches off with loppers. Place the boughs over the crowns of perennials or around roses.

The purpose of winter mulch is not to keep plants warm but to keep them consistently cold and dormant. Unmulched plants are exposed to temperature fluctuations, alternating between overnight freezing and daytime thawing when the sun hits the soil. Some plants shrug off these repeated temperature changes, but anything of marginal hardiness will appreciate the extra protection it gets from a layer of evergreen boughs.  —Doug Hall

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December 20th, 2011
What’s That Bug?

My vegetable garden is crawling with all kinds of insects. Should I be worried? I’m new to this and I don’t want to use chemicals if I don’t really need to.

blog-dougThere are millions of species of insects, so don’t feel bad if you don’t recognize them all. Most insects have no direct impact on the plants in your garden, even when you see them crawling on a leaf. Some insects provide valuable services by pollinating fruits and vegetables or by preying on pest insects. A few—the minority, really—are pests that can reduce the yield of crops or spoil the appearance of ornamental plants.

In my garden, instead of focusing on every insect that passes through, I keep an eye out for insect damage to leaves and fruits. When I spot some damage, my next step is to identify the culprit. Books, websites, and experienced gardeners (including the ones who are helping each other with gardening dilemmas in the discussion forums on this website) are helpful in identifying pests. Once I know what is causing the problem, I can do some online research to discover the best course of action. Some pests cause only superficial damage that doesn’t affect crop yields or quality. Many can be controlled through nontoxic means—a shot of water from the hose, hand-picking, or sticky traps, for example.

Once you know what insect pests are common in your region, you can prepare for them with growing techniques that protect your harvest: using floating row covers to exclude insects, for example, or timing crops to avoid the worst periods of pest pressure. As a last resort, you might want to consider spraying with an organic pest control, such as insecticidal soap or neem oil. Read the product label to make sure it is appropriate for both the plant and the insect involved, and take care to protect beneficial insects from the spray.  —Doug Hall

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December 13th, 2011
Sugar as a Soil Supplement

Someone told me that sugar is good for plants. I sprinkled some around my vegetable garden this year but didn’t notice anything different. How much should I apply?

blog-dougPlants don’t need you to add sugar to their soil; they make their own. Through the process of photosynthesis, which is powered in nature by energy from the sun, plants turn water and carbon dioxide into sugars. Plants use their self-made sugars as a fuel for growth and reproduction.

Sugar you add to the soil will instead feed soil microorganisms, such as bacteria and fungi. These naturally occurring microbes are nature’s recyclers; they help to nourish plants by breaking down the bits of organic debris in soil into their nutrient components—including the potassium, magnesium, nitrogen, and other elements that are essential for plant life. In this sense, sugar could benefit the plants in your garden by boosting the microbial population, thereby speeding up the rate at which nutrients become available.

But plants already have a process for encouraging microbial life. Soil scientists have discovered that plant roots exude sugars—sugars produced by photosynthesis—as a way of developing mutually beneficial relationships with microbes. By controlling the types and amounts of sugars they release, plants can select which kinds of microorganisms will colonize the soil around their roots. Not coincidentally, plants choose to feed the microbes that will provide them with the nutrients they need most. Compared to this sophisticated à la carte system, a sprinkle of processed sugar from your pantry is just junk food for bacteria.

By the way, there’s another reason some gardeners haul the sugar canister out to the garden. Sugar added to the planting holes of vegetable transplants is said to discourage root knot nematodes, a destructive soil-dwelling parasite that plagues many Southern gardens.  —Doug Hall

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December 6th, 2011
Winterizing a Strawberry Bed

As a new gardener, I’m not sure what I need to do to get my strawberry bed ready for winter. Do strawberries need protection?

blog-dougA layer of loose mulch over the crowns of strawberry plants in winter shelters them from temperature fluctuations and keeps them dormant until spring arrives. Mulch also conserves soil moisture for these shallow-rooted plants. The only regions where winter mulch might not be needed are places with dependable, winter-long snow cover and, at the other extreme, places where the temperature never falls below 20°F.

Straw is the obvious choice for mulching a strawberry bed, but other lightweight mulches like pine needles and evergreen boughs also work. Don’t use mulches that become soggy and heavy—leaves, for example.

Allow your strawberries to go dormant before applying mulch. Applied too early in fall, the mulch can delay dormancy and become a haven for rodents. Wait until a hard freeze—between 20°F and 25°F—has flattened the leaves, then scatter 2 to 5 inches of mulch over the entire strawberry bed.

As growth resumes in early spring, rake the mulch into the pathways between beds—but keep it handy in case it’s needed to protect from late frosts.  —Doug Hall

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