Monitor soil temperatures before planting

Soil temperatures have been cool enough during April that it has slowed down plant growth. My winter rye cover crop looks to be a week behind last year at this date and last year was later than normal as well. So that means we’re really behind. The apple tree buds have finally, slowly opened.

This may be the year to monitor soil temperatures more closely than usual if this cooling trend continues.

Some vegetable crop seeds can be sown into cold soil and do quite well under those conditions while others will not germinate or grow at all. There are certain minimum temperatures that seeds need in order to germinate. Seeds languishing in cold soil will be damaged or more likely, rot in place before they sprout.

For example, at 35 F you can expect spinach, onions, parsnips and lettuce to germinate. We’re well past that point by now.

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Although not as durable, a kitchen thermometer makes an adequate replacement for a soil thermometer

Beets, cabbage, cauliflower, Swiss chard, radishes, turnips, peas, and broccoli will all germinate at 40 F. Even though they are not technically seeds, seed potatoes will begin to grow at that temperature too.

Sweet corn requires the soil temperature to be at least 50 F. If they are pinched for time, some farmers will plant corn at lower soil temperatures but they always use seeds treated with fungicide to keep them from rotting in the soil.

A minimum soil temperature of 60 F is needed for warm weather crops like beans, cucumbers,melons,pumpkins and squash seeds to sprout.

Keep in mind that these are minimum required temperatures. Optimum germination temperatures may be five, ten or even twenty degrees higher in some cases.

You may have noticed that I didn’t include many common vegetables like peppers or tomatoes in these lists. That’s because in our growing area, those plants are generally grown as started transplants, not from seeds planted directly into the ground.

Bob

Soil temperatures

Soil temperatures have been cool enough during April that it has slowed down plant growth. My winter rye cover crop looks to be a week behind last year at this date and last year was later than normal as well. So that means we’re really behind. The apple tree buds have finally, slowly opened.

This may be the year to monitor soil temperatures more closely than usual if this cooling trend continues.

Some vegetable crop seeds can be sown into cold soil and do quite well under those conditions while others will not germinate or grow at all. There are certain minimum temperatures that seeds need in order to germinate. Seeds languishing in cold soil will be damaged or more likely, rot in place before they sprout.

For example, at 35 F you can expect spinach, onions, parsnips and lettuce to germinate. We’re well past that point by now.

.
Although not as durable, a kitchen thermometer makes an adequate replacement for a soil thermometer

Beets, cabbage, cauliflower, swiss chard, radishes, turnips, peas, and broccoli will all germinate at 40 F. Even though they are not technically seeds, seed potatoes will begin to grow at that temperature too.

Sweet corn requires the soil temperature to be at least 50 F. If they are pinched for time, some farmers will plant corn at lower soil temperatures but they always use seeds treated with fungicide to keep them from rotting in the soil.

A minimum soil temperature of 60 F is needed for warm weather crops like beans, cucumbers,melons,pumpkins and squash seeds to sprout.

Keep in mind that these are minimum required temperatures. Optimum germination temperatures may be five, ten or even twenty degrees higher in some cases.

You may have noticed that I didn’t include many common vegetables like peppers or tomatoes in these lists. That’s because in our growing area, those plants are generally grown as started transplants, not from seeds planted directly into the ground.

Bob

Reproduce forest floor soil for new trees

Spring is the best time of year to plant trees. During the winter the dormant buds and roots are in a kind of holding pattern until the right growing conditions happen in the spring. Then they have the entire growing season to establish themselves before next winter.

No doubt you’re aware of the requirements for a proper sized planting hole and the need to water the young tree after planting. Proper planting depth is also very important. I’ve mentioned in previous posts how important it is to remove the wrapping from the root ball, even though it can be a hassle.

I always set aside any sod and never use it to back-fill the planting. Actually, I don’t use the topsoil to back-fill either. I just use the subsoil from the hole for back-fill and save the topsoil for the very top of the hole. That way the original soil profile is maintained.

After I’ve taken great pains to get the tree into the ground, there’s one more thing I like to do to and that is to create an artificial forest floor covering.  It’s something I’ve been doing for decades and I like the results.

It’s really a way of mulching that small trees seem to respond to. I first apply a thin layer of partially decomposed wood chips around the newly planted tree, over the topsoil,  maybe a couple of inches deep. Then I cover that with a layer of chopped leaves. Chopping the leaves prevents them from matting down which can slow down rain water penetration into the soil.

The layering combination of subsoil in the hole, with topsoil over that then covered with the chips and leaves mimics the soil conditions of a forest. I don’t mix the layers, I let the soil microbes do their thing. Eventually as the mulch decomposes, humic acid and related compounds are formed providing an environment for a wide variety of beneficial soil microbes. All of that allows the tree to adapt to its new home and grow to its full potential.

The chopped leaves and wood chips here are applied about four feet in diameter.

Not everyone will want to fuss with their trees like this and some will say it’s overkill and I certainly wouldn’t expect a landscaper to do it. but it’s something I’ve found to work for me.

Bob

Fixing seeding mix that won’t absorb water

We’re sowing our seeds right now for growing transplants that we’ll plant out in the garden. It takes some work, but you can save quite a bit of money growing your own transplants.

Another huge advantage that may be even more important is being able to grow the varieties you want rather than relying on what the garden center grows. They usually chooses varieties that are the easiest to grow, not necessarily the tastiest. That makes sense in their business model. People who have success with their plants are more likely to return the following season.

Starting your own seeds is not without its problems. Some of them you can plan ahead for and minimize, others pop up out of the blue.

We’ve had a great start with our seeds this spring, the cabbages and related cool weather crops are up and growing well. We were using the last of last year’s seed starting mix but ran out. The local hardware store had plenty of bags of mix in stock so we bought a small bag so we could keep working. It felt a little light and fluffy when I carried it, that should have been a warning sign but I was in a hurry.

When we got it home and started working with it, we found that it would not absorb water. Even after sitting  in water overnight, not a drop was absorbed by the mix! It was a “hydrophobic” mix; it was repelling water. That happens whenever potting soils dry out too much. Usually manufacturers make sure a minimum amount of moisture is present to keep that from happening or they include a small amount of  a”hydrophillic” ingredient in the mix to help it absorb water.

The container on the left has absorbed water normally. The one on the right is hydrophobic.

One explanation is we grabbed one of last year’s bags of soil that had completely dried out while in storage. But who knows?

To avoid this in the first place, always make note of how heavy the bags are compared to one another. Mixes are sold by volume, not weight so you don’t have to worry about wasting money on buying water. Pick the one that feels a little heavier because it is more likely to have the proper moisture ratio.

If you do happen to pick a bad one, like me, you can still fix it by applying small amount of surfactant. Even professional greenhouse have this problem from time to time. They use specially formulated surfactants that are not available to the general public but dish washing detergent will work just as well.

Here’s the recipe: dissolve one teaspoon (not tablespoon) of liquid detergent to one pint of water. Use the cheapest off-brand detergent you can find, there’s a practical reason for it. The name brands like Joy, Dawn or Palmolive make too many suds for this purpose. I have a bottle of off-brand detergent left over from several bottles I picked up many years ago when Farmer Jack went out of business. How long ago was that?

Place your solution in a spray bottle and spray it on the surface of your mix, that should give you enough surfactant to allow the water to soak in.

Sometimes the soil in a container will dry out and become hydrophobic even when a plant is growing is growing in it. When that happens, the plant will quickly die from lack of water. Your surfactant spray will fix that situation too. Just spritz a light spray on the top of the soil. It will help water penetrate but won’t harm the plant.

Bob

Planting garlic

 

Since I ordered my garlic bulbs way back in the spring, I was not thinking of them at all when they arrived in the mail several days ago.

I got those garlic cloves into the ground right away even though they could have been planted anytime from October through November. Getting them earlier gives them a chance to put down some roots and get nestled in for the winter.

In the past, I’ve had to postpone my garlic planting until well into November and the crop seemed to do quite well despite the delay.

Garlic for planting looks just like a bulb from the grocery store produce department.
Garlic for planting looks just like a bulb from the grocery store produce department.
Cover the cloves with one  to two inches of soil.
Cover the cloves with one to two inches of soil.
Before planting you need to separate the cloves yourself.
Before planting you need to separate the cloves yourself.
Always place the garlic clove with the root end down.
Always place the garlic clove with the root end down.

You have to plan ahead if you want to grow garlic because when planting time rolls around, you very likely will not be able to find cloves to plant. So put it in your calendar for next spring as a reminder to yourself to place your order.

Bob

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