Almost no-till potatoes

This year I’ve decided to try a minor experiment with my potatoes. I guess you might call it a kind of no-till planting.

There are a couple of reasons I thought it might work well. First, the spot where they’re going was recently an area where some of my older chickens were penned in. I purposely kept them confined to a relatively small area to help clear it from weeds. They did a great job eliminating all of the existing weeds and keeping new ones from getting a foothold. Chickens enjoy grazing on fresh green plants and those wild greens provide plenty of vitamins.

Even though they are small, chickens can disturb a lot of soil in a short period of time. That makes them destructive if they get loose into a flower garden or other valuable spot and start scratching. Believe me, I had plenty of experience shooing chickens out of  flower gardens. It’s that relentless scratching that makes them such good helpers in the garden before planting time.

The area where my no-till potatoes are going there were no visible weeds. Under the surface however, there were thousands of recently germinated seedlings ready to pop up into the sunlight. Instead of using my rototiller, I used my sharpened swan hoe to skim along top half inch or so. I was able to cut off the weed seedlings before they had a chance to get started.

The theory is that while roto-tilling will destroy young weeds, at the same time it also drags up new seeds to the soil surface where they will germinate and grow. Shallow hoeing will kill weeds but not drag up new seeds. That Sounds like a good idea but there are plenty of dormant weed seeds waiting to take the place of their lost cousins. But over time, if done consistently, you can eventually reduce the number of viable seeds.

Back to my potato patch.

The second reason why I feel my quasi-no-till will work is because the soil is a sandy loam that really doesn’t need tilling to provide a good seed bed. If it was a finer textured soil with more clay content, I would probably not plant them without tilling.

Instead of using a trowel or shovel to dig the planing holes, I got out my two-handled post hole digger. That way I was able stand straight up to do the digging and I got a great upper body workout to boot.

The holes are plus or minus a foot apart with the rows around 28 inches apart.  At that planting density, the potato plants should eventually grow together enough to shade the soil surface keeping it cool and shading out weed seedlings.

I made sure the rows were straight and the holes evenly spaced.

I know I’ll have to keep up with my hoeing through the season, “no-till” doesn’t mean “no-work”. I’ve seen many inexperienced gardeners learn that the hard way. Real no-till involves the use of herbicides to control weeds but I’ve never used herbicides in my vegetable garden and plan to keep it that way.

While hoeing will be my main method of weed control, I’ll mulch what I can.

Bob

Divide perennials in early spring

The best time of year to divide perennial flowers is early spring just as their new shoots begin to peek up through the soil. That time is right now.

Gardeners have different reasons why they might want to divide their perennials. Maybe the plant is getting too old or too big for the space they’ve been growing in. Another gardener may want to  build up the number of plants they have to expand their planting. Still another may want to give away hard-to-find plants to friends.

From a practical point of view, dividing perennials is most often done because the plants age and their flower displays start to wane. As a perennial plant grows, it adds new growth to the outer portion of the clump of plants. This works fine for the gardener up to a point. Eventually the clump expands so much with new growth that the center of the clump will turn woody and non-productive.  That’s when dividing needs to be done to revive the plant.

It’s the new growth area of a plant clump that you want to save. You do this by removing the new growth from the old, replanting it and discarding the old portion.

Start by using a garden fork to loosen the soil all the way around the plant before you do any actual digging. Then use a garden spade to cut the clump into pieces small enough to handle, usually in thirds or quarters. If you cut too small of a piece, the new plant may not be able to compete very easy with the other existing plants and you’ll spend extra time nursing it through the season.

Some fine-rooted perennials like dianthus can be separated just using your hands. For tougher plants you’ll need help from a spade or garden fork. One trick I use is to take two garden forks placed back to back into the root area. Then push against the handles to lever the clump apart.

Two garden forks placed back to back can be used to wedge apart stubborn roots.
Two garden forks placed back to back can be used to wedge apart stubborn roots.

Lift up the cut part of the plant you want to move and clean off all dead leaves and any broken or damaged plant parts. By the way, this would be an excellent time to add compost, fertilizer or any other soil amendments to the area before you set the plants.

For fastest plant recovery, plant the clump right away in your newly prepared spot. Set the plant at the same level it was originally growing and water it in well, don’t skimp on this first watering. Take any left over clumps and pot them up to give away to friends and family. You don’t have to be too picky about potting them if the recipient is going to plant them soon.

Spring dividing is mostly for summer-flowering perennials like asters or sedum.  Those that bloom in the spring, like peonies or columbine are best divided in the fall.

Bob

Planting homegrown grape cuttings

This is another episode in the grape vine cutting story that began last spring. At that time I took some pieces of grapevine that I cut off the vines during pruning and used them to start new grapevines. You can browse through my older blog posts to find out about those grapes.

I stuck the cuttings into a soil mix and grew them through the summer. Nearly all of the cuttings developed a good set of roots and had nice tops. Then last fall I buried them in a trench in the garden to help protect them from any potential harsh winter weather. As it turned out, this winter was so mild they probably would have done just fine in their pots with some mulch banked up against them.

The best cuttings had strong leaf buds and plenty of roots.

Earlier this spring I dug them out of their trench, set them in a shady spot and made sure they were watered well. I ended up with 15 good plants which was about half of the cuttings I started with.

Last week I planted them into their permanent spots near the edge of the garden. They’re off to a good start in their new location.

Retail prices for grape plants like these can run nine or ten bucks each — before shipping.  Taking grape cuttings can save you lots of money if you’re interested in starting a vineyard. The biggest drawback is that you have to wait a year for the cuttings to turn into plants.

Come to think of it, this grapevine story started way before last year.  Those vines I pruned and took the cuttings from last spring were themselves started from cuttings 15 years ago.

Bob

Poor planting habits result in poor root growth

This week a friend showed me something that he pulled from his vegetable garden while doing his end of season clean-up. It was the stem and root of a cabbage plant.

The cabbage that developed from that original root system did produce a head but it was much smaller than normal. I would guess it also was more prone to attack by pests because of its weakened condition.

Almost every spring, at planting time, I hear an argument whether or not you need to loosen the roots of  transplants grown in cell packs.

One school of thought says it takes too much time and is not necessary because the plant roots will spread out once the plant is in the soil. The other side says you absolutely need to separate the roots because they will not grow properly if you don’t.

Which side are you on? I used to be very casual about transplanting. If I wasn’t in a hurry, I’d make the effort to separate the roots. Most of the time though I’d just pop in the transplants just as they came from cell pack.

I’ve long since changed my ways and always make sure the roots are off to a good start.

Roots can’t straighten themselves once they are in the ground, they just expand in the direction they started. They can form new root shoots but that takes extra energy from the plant.

These cabbage roots grew in the direction they started at.
These cabbage roots grew in the direction they started at.

So why not help your plant get the best start possible? Then it can use its energy efficiently to grow into a productive plant.

My friend’s cabbage plant was pretty strong proof that you really should take care to release the roots before planting. We’ll keep that in mind next spring.

Bob

 

Damage caused by twine left on balled and burlapped tree

The balled and burlapped method of planting trees is very popular because it allows nurseries to dig, move and sell larger specimens than if the trees were bare-root or potted. It also makes it easier for homeowners and landscapers to plant. In landscaping, like in any other business, time is money which is why it can be tempting for some to cut corners when planting trees.

The most common of these cost-cutting items is dropping a balled and burlappped tree into a hole, replacing the soil, then mulching the new tree. From the outside everything looks wonderful but not taking care of the burlap or twine can prove to be devastating to a tree.

Wire, burlap and twine does not decompose in the soil as readily as some landscapers would like you to believe. To keep roots growing to their full potential, wire must be cut and removed from the root ball. It will not “rust right away” as we are often told.

I had an experience many years ago when someone asked me to move a tree for them that was planted five or more years earlier. It was going to be a big job. When I uncovered the top layer of soil I discovered that the landscaper had left the wire basket on the rootball. It was a simple matter for me to hook a chain onto the wire basket and just lift the entire tree out of the hole with a front end loader on my tractor and carry it to its new location. The tree looked like it just came from the nursery. The wire was still sturdy and the burlap was sound with no roots growing through.

Severe damage to a tree trunk by twine.
Severe damage to a tree trunk by twine.

The twine tree growers use to tie the top of the burlap does not deteriorate very fast either and will eventually cause major damage to or even kill a tree if it is not removed. As the tree grows in diameter, the twine stays in place and acts as tourniquet strangling the tree. It may take many years for symptoms to show.

A callus formed around the twine as the tree tried to minimize the damage.
A callus formed around the twine as the tree tried to minimize the damage.

Finally, the burlap cloth itself should at least be slashed to allow roots a place to grow into the surrounding soil — removing it completely would be even better.

Even the roots were damaged from the twine.
Even the roots were damaged from the twine.

If you landscaper tries to tell you that that leaving twine and burlap on the trees is standard practice, don’t believe it and insist they do it right.

Bob

Fall planted plants are off to a good start this year

Now that normal winter weather is here, it’s easy to forget about the mild fall and early winter we had. That mild autumn and early-winter will probably turn out to be a real bonus for gardeners especially for those who did any kind of fall planting.

The roots of most fall planted plants continue to grow as long as the soil is not deeply frozen. A long, moderate fall and early winter like the one we had this past season, was ideal for fall root growth. That means the plants are now well established and will be raring to go this spring.

Garlic is one crop that is normally planted in the fall. I’m going to predict that this year your garlic crop will be better than normal. We should see larger than normal bulbs with larger and more cloves per bulb at harvest time. That’s assuming all other factors such as weed control, fertilizer and soil moisture are the same as usual.

Our tulips, daffodils, hyacinths and crocus should produce great flowers this spring too.

The same hold true for trees and shrubs. Any woody plants planted this past fall should be in great shape to make excellent growth in the spring. Anyone who planted fruit trees this fall will have effectively  gained nearly an entire growing season — as far as root growth goes.

If we have one of those springs where we quickly jump from winter right into hot weather (which sometimes happen around here) those fall planted tress will be able to shrug off the stress. On the other hand, spring planted trees under hot, dry conditions will not fare as well.

Keep in mind that spring is still the best time of the year to plant tree and shrubs. This year however,  el nino helped us out by allowing a moderate fall and early winter.

The US Department of Agriculture has developed digital tools that farmers can use to track developments like those of el nino and others, allowing farmers to make better planting, harvesting, storage and marketing decisions. As gardeners we can piggy back on that research and apply it in our own little corner of the world.

I plan to make a note in my garden journal to keep an eye for the next developing el nino and plan accordingly.

Bob

Harden-off plants before transplanting into garden

Memorial Day weekend is traditionally the time when gardeners buy many of their plants to transplant into their gardens.

Most plants sold in garden centers, especially the small plants in trays, have spent their whole lives growing under glass in a greenhouse.  As a result, they are quite tender and not always able to handle the conditions outdoors.

 

Symptoms of sunburn show up as light spots on the tips of these tomato plants.

 

You can help your new plants get off to a good start by acclimating them to your garden. The horticultural term for this is “hardening off”.

Here’s what I do with new plants: After bringing them home, I water them and set them in a sheltered area under partial shade for the first day.

On the second day, they get moved to a spot that gets a couple hours of direct sunlight; the rest of the day they’re back in partial shade. Each day after that, I expose the plants to another additional couple of hours of direct sunlight until they get full sun for an entire day. I usually stretch the process out over four to seven days, depending on the condition of the plant.

By the time the conditioning period is done, the plants are tough enough to handle the sun, wind and rain.

If you don’t have days to wait before planting, even a couple days of hardening off is better than nothing.

Bob

Check soil temperatures before planting this spring

“Plant your potatoes on Good Friday, ” the old farmers used to say. That usually was good advice even though the date of Good Friday changes from one year to the next. It arrives as early as March 20 and as late as April 23.

Potatoes can sprout and grow under relatively cool conditions, which is why the Good Friday advice worked so well. It looks like this is one of those years when that rule of thumb won’t work.

Now-a-days we use a more scientific method for judging when to plant, and I’m not talking about the farmer’s almanac. Agronomists learned a long time ago that plants, including potatoes, need a specific soil temperature in order to sprout and grow.

In the case of potatoes, the soil temperature in your garden needs to be at least 45 degrees F or higher. With any temperature lower that that, you risk having the seed potato rot in the ground. At best, it will take a long time for the plant to emerge from the soil and start growing. So, you really don’t gain anything by planting too early in cold soil.

It looks like cool temeperatures will be with us for awhile so, unless we get warm weather soon think about checking the soil temperature with a thermometer before doing any planting later this spring. This is true with all plants and seeds not just potatoes. For example pumpkins require soil temeratures above 60 degrees F while sweet potatoes need at least 65 degrees F.

If you don't have a soil thermometer, use a kitchen thermometer to check soil temperature.
If you don’t have a soil thermometer, use a kitchen thermometer to check soil temperature.

To find soil temerature requirements look at the growing information on the seed packages. Many seed catalogs list this information too.

Bob