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.


Too much rain causes waterlogged garden soil

Gardeners in our area are having to deal with unusual amounts of water in their gardens. The amount of water in the soil is more like what we would see in early spring after the snow melt rather than late June or early July.

Driving around I see standing water all over our area with no place to go. Soils in many places are waterlogged which means big trouble for plants.

Most plants are able to cope with a day or two of flooding but after that, complications start to set in. The biggest problem is a lack of oxygen in the soil. Plant roots need oxygen to function.

All types of soil contain air spaces between soil particles. Fine textured soils with a lot of clay, have very small air spaces while sandy soils have large air spaces. This is very important because plant roots need access to soil air, they can’t efficiently use the oxygen dissolved in water.  When we have too much rain, these air spaces fill with water. Once that happens, the plant roots begin to drown and eventually die.

A water damaged plant, curiously enough, shows symptoms exactly like a plant that has been growing in a drought. In the case of a drought, there is not enough water for the roots to absorb so the upper part of the plant wilts. With a waterlogged plant, the upper part of the plant also wilts because can’t the roots have stopped working so no water gets moved into the upper parts of the plant.

After a the soil returns to normal, plants need to be watered more often because they have fewer roots. Often, if the damage is not too bad, the plant will recover by growing more roots to replace the ones lost by drowning. If it the damage is too great, the plant will be stunted and never be able to live up to its potential.

Raised beds are helpful in low lying areas.
Raised beds are helpful in low lying areas.

Another problem, especially with a vegetable garden, is the potential for contamination. In urban or suburban neighborhoods where all sorts of properties are nearby, there is the potential for flood waters to carry contaminants like bacteria or chemicals. Think of that dog kennel down the street or that parking lot with runoff water carrying motor oil and other debris.

You may want to think twice about eating vegetables exposed to contaminated flood water.


Snow cover helps plants through harsh winter

Our second bitterly cold winter in a row is finally over. Even though this winter was not as cold as last year’s, it still made the record books as one of the top twenty coldest. It’s kind of surprising to me how quickly it ended. Just a few days of moderate temperature erased the snow.

The plants in our area look to be in pretty good shape despite those cold temperatures. We can thank the continuous blanket of snow that was covering the ground all winter.

Snow is nature’s insulator. I’ve heard people say they were worried because snow would freeze their plants. I’ve had to point out to them that snow is a gardener’s best friend , especially if you have perennial flowers and small fruit such as strawberries.

Farmers who grow winter wheat — which is planted in the fall — pray each year for snow cover so their wheat crop is not damaged by exposure to cold temperatures and desiccating winter winds.

Despite the fact that I neglected to mulch my strawberries as I usually do, they look to be in great shape.

The garlic I planted last fall looks good too. There was no covering on those either except what nature provided in the way of snow. I got lucky this time skipping the mulch, I don’t plan on ever taking a chance like that again.

The mud season around here was pretty short too, it lasted only a few days. The mud I’m talking about is that mud that forms when the surface layer of the soil thaws but the lower layers are still frozen. That surface water has no where to go so just turns into mud especially if poultry or livestock are walking over it.

Since the soil was not frozen very deep around here — again thanks to the continuous snow cover — it was able to thaw out very quickly.

One other surprise I found was a couple of rows of spinach that were still green and beginning to make good growth. Without that snow, they would have been frozen out way back in November.

The snow cover provided plenty of protection for a small row of spinach.
The snow cover provided plenty of protection for a small row of spinach.

It looks like we’ll be eating an early salad from the outdoor garden this year.

Unheated hoop house no match for record cold winter

I promised to update you on how my lettuce did through the winter. Things were going quite well, I was harvesting lettuce after the first round of the Arctic Vortex.

Even after the second round of the vortex, most of the plants were doing well. This was mainly due to the secondary, inner plastic covering I added as the temperatures got colder.

Later, I started using bubble wrap insulation at night to try to keep the plants from freezing, it worked pretty well too — for a while.

I picked plenty of lettuce even after the second round of the Arctic Vortex.
I picked plenty of lettuce even after the second round of the Arctic Vortex. The blue material is plastic bubble wrap.

Eventually, the protracted, record-breaking cold did them in. During any other winter I’m convinced I’d still be harvesting lettuce.

Now it’s time to look forward to planting early spring lettuce in there.



A rainy growing season

It sure looked like it was going to be a banner year for my potatoes. I planted three rows, sixty feet long, in the deepest darkest garden soil I have.

The cool temperatures and regular rain at the beginning of the season pushed them along — I never had such a beautiful looking potato patch. I was already worrying about what to do with my bumper crop.

I mounded up my potatoes early on so that the rows sat about six inches above the garden bed. This was going to give them plenty of space to produce lots of spuds.

Then the rains kept coming and the potato patch started getting pretty wet. The soil was so wet that I couldn’t walk in that area without rubber boots.

The last straw came when a storm dumped over four inches of rain all at once. The potatoes were standing in water for days — the raised rows looked like islands in a pond.

Even though the roots on my potato plants rotted away, they attempted to make potatoes anyway. The plants ended up producing these small potato-like tubers.
Even though the roots on my potato plants rotted away, they attempted to make potatoes anyway. The plants ended up producing these small potato-like tubers.

Now, what once looked like a surplus of  potatoes, is now a crop failure. I’ve gardened in that spot for many years and never had a water problem like that in July.

You never know what a new garden season will bring. Next year it may be a plague of insects. Or, maybe it will be a bumper crop — that’s what keeps it interesting.


Cool weather keeps spring-flowers bulbs blooming

Many gardeners have been enjoying the cool spring this year — especially those who spent days and days last fall planting spring-flowering bulbs.

In years past, I planted as many as 20 thousand tulips, daffodils, and hyacinth bulbs in one fall season. For many years I considered 10 thousand bulbs to be a light planting year. It took my helper and me several weeks to get those flower bulbs into the ground before winter arrived.

Then, I would wait until spring to see the results of all of that work. Most of the time spring progressed normally and the bulbs put on a show that lasted for weeks. Every once-in-a-while a week of summer-like weather would occur in early spring. All of the bulbs would shoot up out of the ground, bloom, and die-back all within about a week’s time. How disappointing those springs were — one week of spring-flowering for six weeks of hard work in the fall.

Cool spring temperatures keep bulbs flowering much longer.
Cool spring temperatures keep bulbs flowering much longer.


This year we’re having a nice, slow start to spring. Our bulbs are slowly opening and their flowers look like they will stay fresh for sometime.

Spring bulbs are the best reason to hope for a cool spring.


Wide temperature swing not good for plants

The warm weather we had earlier this week was a welcome break from the winter temperatures, but it may have caused problems for some plants.

During the winter, a couple of days in a row with abnormally warm temperatures, will cause dormant plants  to lose their tolerance to cold.

If a warm spell is followed by a quick drop in temperatures down to the single digit range, damage is likely to occur in some plants.  The temperature in many locations in our area did drop that low — well over a 40 degree difference.

Plants will get back their cold tolerance if the winter temperatures stay cold.   We’ll have to wait until spring to find out if any plants actually were hurt.


Syringing and Soil Surfactant Save Garden Water

Because of the heat wave and lack of rain, I’ve had to water the garden just to keep the plants alive.

To conserve water, I’ve been syringing the plants one at a time with a watering wand.  Syringing — placing water at the base of each individual plant — uses much less water than spraying the entire area with an oscillating or impulse garden sprinkler.  It also helps keep the weeds down in between the plants since the soil there is so dry.



The soil in my garden is so dry it has become hydrophobic. This means the water,  instead of soaking into the ground, beads up on the surface  like water on a newly-waxed car hood.  So when I try to syringe a plant, instead of going down into the soil where the plant can use it, the water just runs off into the garden path. This is a common problem in many soils when they get too dry.

When my soil gets in this condition, I use a surfactant to help the water move into the soil. I keep a box of biodegradable dishwasher detergent in the garden shed just for this purpose.  About a tablespoon or so of the detergent to a couple gallons of water does the trick in my soil.



I use my watering can to apply the solution right at the base of the plants. You can see the change it makes as the water sinks right in instead of running off. This saves even more water.



You won’t need to add a surfactant every time you water. The surfactant won’t last all season. So far, the application I made a few weeks ago is still working.



Worried About Warm Weather

The warm spell in our area has broken all of the weather records. You don’t have to be an experienced gardener to see that everything is way ahead of schedule with all of the spring flowers blooming.

We’re so far ahead of schedule that the National Weather Service has decided that the growing season has started. They even plan to issue frost and freeze warnings. Usually we don’t see those for another several weeks.

Gardeners are rushing to finish up spring garden chores like pruning. I wrapped up pruning my fruit trees and grapes today. It looks like I finished just in time since they are budded out and are beginning to grow. Now I need to get an early insect spray on those plants. I missed the dormant oil spray because of the weather.

Insect pests are ahead of schedule too. While pruning the grapes I spotted  grape flea beetles. This little pest can be very destructive when grapes first bud out. They feed on young tender buds as they open. I’m sure we’ll find other insects out in the garden as well.

Not only are grape flea beetles feeding on the buds — they’re mating too.

A freeze later in the season is another worry. Open buds on fruit trees are very susceptible to cold weather damage. Freezing temperatures in April could ruin the fruit crop — buds that get frozen won’t produce fruit.

We won’t be out of the woods until the end of April or early May. The only thing we can do is wait it out and protect our plants the best we can.




Ground Hog Day

Ground Hog Day is here already.  Most people probably look at this day as a quirky PR stunt dreamed up by the city fathers in Punxsutawney PA.  In Howell, they have Woody the Woodchuck.

I’m not sure, where or when Ground Hog Day got started but farmers in our area used to use this day as a reminder to check their hay and livestock feed supply.  If the storage bins were more than half-full, then they were in good shape until spring.  If not, then they would need to think about buying more feed because they might run short later on.

This all fits in with phenology, the science of observing natural events in the environment.  Phenologists record the dates of things such as when certain flowers bloom or when crickets first start to chirp in the spring.

Information like this, logged over many decades, may show certain trends like earlier blossoming of spring flowers.  Date like that could indicate a trend toward a warmer climate.

I remember when I was a little boy listening to farmers saying they needed to plant corn when the oak leaves were the size of squirrels ears. If you look at young oak leaves in the spring, you’ll notice that is just about the right time for field corn to go into the ground. The corn planting date changes somewhat from year to year depending upon weather conditions and that is reflected in the growth rate of oak leaves.

A well-known practical use of phenology is the timing of crab grass control. The blooming of forsythia is the signal for applying crab grass herbicide.

I wonder if professional phenologists argue that Ground Hog Day isn’t really phenology.  It probably doesn’t matter too much since meteorologists have already gone ahead and claimed this as their special day.