Blueberries are a notoriously difficult plant to establish and keep alive in Central Pennsylvania. If you, in the past have killed one, try not to feel bad about it; it is more complicated than buying a plant from a big box store and plopping it into the ground.
Blueberries require a pH of 4.5-5 to survive. For those of you who don't have fish tanks, pH is the measure of acidity or alkalinity of a solution. Below 7 is Acidic, above 7 is Alkaline. Most plants we grow in the garden like to be at around 6-7. Our soils in Centre County are usually around 7.5.
Lowering pH is no picnic, and certainly cannot be done overnight. The Pennsylvania State Extension suggests to just remove all the soil where you will be planting a blueberry bush and replace it with your own. I mix a healthy amount of peat moss with compost and some of the parent soil. I then use a mixture called Flour of Sulfur, which is elemental Sulfur that lowers the pH.
Flour of Sulfur is not a magic bullet and is not usable by the plant, it requires soil microbes to convert it into Sulfuric Acid. These soil microbes require warm moist soil, and time, but mainly time.
The best time to start this process is now. I just visited a blueberry planting that I started last October. I dug 10 holes, filled them with peat moss, compost, and Flour of Sulfur and waited, for months.
A new blueberry plant should not be planted until after the danger of the last frost has passed in the spring. These blueberries were planted in June, after a spring of the soil microbes working on the Sulfur. Each and every one of these are healthy after their first season in the ground.
Alternatively preparing the holes for planting in March works too, I also did this for a client this year and the results are still successful, I just like it less.
The only thing a plant needs to survive is having exactly what it needs at exactly the right time. If that takes a few extra months, I am happy to oblige.
Blueberries like constant moisture, but do not like to have wet feet. Other than the pH issues, our soils are mostly clay, which hold moisture creating this environment of “wet feet”. Blueberries should be thickly mulched to avoid fluctuations of moisture.
And now you know!
Rain, Rain go away, I want to install my garden today.
This past spring was wet, really really wet. In May, the month new gardeners begin to think about starting a garden, it rained 17 out of the 31 days. March had 14 days of precipitation, April had 17 and June had 14.
This weather was absolutely perfect to plant my returning client's gardens. Carrot, Beet, Spinach and Lettuce seeds germinated in a few short days. Tomato, Pepper, Cabbage and Broccoli transplants spread their roots in the moist soupy soil leading to some of the largest peppers plants I have seen to date.
Soupy soil is not soil that should be disturbed with a shovel or a rototiller, which means gardens should not be installed during periods of wet weather. Even walking through wet soil very quickly leads to compaction and boots full of mud. You can read a previous post about soil compaction here.
Soil tilled during the proper season is light and airy, with an adequate amount of pore space for oxygen and water to supply a plant's root system. Tilling wet soil creates hard dense clumps, which do not allow the proper exchange of oxygen and water. Tilling wet soil can be compared to mixing concrete and the results are very similar; a tilled soil that was wet will dry into a dense hard mass that will not allow anything to grow well in.
By now you may be searching for a solution to this new garden quandary, and the solution is quite simple, install your garden in the fall before your first planting season. When installing in the fall there is no pressure to have it completed before planting, planting will not occur for months. If we get a week of rain during the fall, we can wait until it drys out and install the garden then. If the same thing was done in the spring, you may have missed the window to plant your tomatoes.
Last Autumn I installed a large number of the gardens I planted this spring. I was able to treat these gardens like returning clients; I arrived on the first day that was good to plant and within an hour the garden was growing for the season. Even while I was being rained on.
A crumb cake is like a perfect soil, moist, but crumbly when you touched. Too wet and it is a mushy mess, too dry and it is hard as a rock.
Soil compaction is a serious issue for farmers who use machinery, but is real problem in the garden as well. Soil compaction usually occurs when soil is worked when it is too wet.
The structure of soil is composed of soil particles, water and air (or rather, gasses). When a soil is saturated it is holding as much water as it can. When a tractor tire or your foot compresses this soil, the soil particles press closer together and the pores holding the water are made smaller. This dense soil makes it harder for roots to grow and will impede growth. The technical term for this is "Bulk Density". Bulk Density is the amount of oven-dry soil in a standard volume. The higher the mass, the higher the density, and the less room for water, gasses and roots.
Soil pores are what allow water to infiltrate. The larger the pores, the more water will be allowed to enter the soil. These pores move water throughout the soil strata and make the water available to the plants you have growing. These same pores allow for the exchange of gasses in the root zone.
Here is how you avoid soil compaction:
1) Do not till or walk in your garden when it is wet.
Walking on wet soil is not only a good way to get your shoes caked with mud, but also it is the best way to compact your soil.
2) Add organic matter such as compost.
Compost has a low bulk density, there is a lot of pore space in its soil structure and therefore it can hold a lot of water. Amending heavy soils with compost is the best way to improve its density.
3) Mulch walkways
High traffic areas are the most susceptible to compaction. Mulching your garden with woodchips (not mulch) will greatly reduce the compaction happening below your feet. As you walk, the woodchips will absorb much of the pressure being exerted. Playgrounds put woodchips to absorb the pressure of a child falling onto the hard ground; mulched walkways work in the reverse of this.
4) Convert to using a tool like a broadfork to cultivate your soil rather than a rototiller
Rototillers make very nice seedbeds. They also chop up everything in their zone of impact. This includes worms and other life. Over time, a hardpan will occur below the maximum depth of the tiller. The tiller only reaches 8" maximum, right below that is soil that never gets tilled. After repeated tillage this soil becomes heavily compacted and forms a "plow pan." A broadfork is a wide tool with pointed tines that break up the soil rather than mixing it. This tool helps establish deep pores and improves the soil structure.
5) Drainage systems
In extreme cases of soil compaction, installing drainage systems may be the only option. Water infiltrates layer-by-layer in the soil spectrum. Which means it first fills the top layer until saturation then, starts to work down to the next lower layer, then the next lower layer. By trenching into the subsoil layer and adding a drain pipe, crushed stone or other drain, the water will move to that point after saturating the upper layer removing the long term puddles of a compacted soil.
And now you know!
When the seed packets start getting delivered in the spring it is very hard to not start throwing everything into the ground at once. I want peas! I want carrots! I want tomatoes! Every plant however, has its own personal space and will not perform if that space is not given.
On the back of those seed packets there is some information that is very important to read. The first is the planting depth. The rule of thumb is you plant the seed as deep as it is large: for a carrot seed this is just below the surface, for a bean this is about an inch down.
The second piece of information to look for is the plant spacing. It will read something like, "sow 1 seed every inch in rows spaced 12" apart" that would be a safe bet for a carrot. Often after this line reads something like "thin to 6 plants per foot" which is also very important. Thinning is just as important as proper spacing!
Spacing is important because plants require water, light and nutrients. When carrots, for example, are planted but not thinned they are competing for the same root space, the same water and the same sunlight. This yields the same, very small, carrot roots. When provided with a few inches to grow it roots and shoots, and far enough away from the next plant so that it has its own water supply, it can thrive.
Every crop has its own requirement, and you will learn these with experience. Tomatoes cannot be planted a foot from each other. That is how diseases happen.
Companion planting is a great concept, but when it is poorly implemented your garden turns into a mess. There are books about companion planting that can help you be successful. Allow me to use the title of the book "Carrots Love Tomatoes" as an example. Carrots are slow growing, and do not like to be crowded. Tomatoes also grow relatively slowly and like to grow vertically. When planted at the same time, the carrots get ample light and water while the tomato is young. By the time the tomato reaches maturity the carrot is done growing and ready to harvest as well.
Now allow me to use the fictional book "Tomatoes hate to be planted 6 inches from peppers" as an example. Tomatoes and peppers need to be planted on at least six square feet per plant. This is a roughly a square of 2.5 x 2.5. Unknowing practitioners of square foot gardening may think, "a square for a tomato, a square for a pepper, a square for a tomato, a square for a pepper." More than likely the peppers will not produce and the tomatoes will die from diseases if this is done.
So read your seed packets and trust them!
And now you know!
Garlic is an easy and rewarding crop to grow, but it requires patience and forethought. Garlic gets planted in the fall, about six weeks before the first frost and is not harvested until the middle of the summer.
Garlic is a perennial crop that is planted and harvested as an annual. If you look closely while hiking sometimes you can spot garlic plants growing in bunches. Garlic sprouts from it cloves, so when wild it is densely packed. In production agriculture we plant each clove far enough from its neighbors to produce large bulbs.
Garlic reproduces both sexually and asexually. The division of cloves is the asexual reproduction. Laissez faire garlic gardeners may have seen the sexual reproduction of the garlic plant in its large pink or white circular flower. The flower will put off very small garlic seeds that are much harder to propagate than the cloves.
The reason I say "laissez faire" is that allowing the garlic plant to produce its flower is not helpful for bulb production, and will actually "steal" energy that would have otherwise gone into the bulb. The flower stem is referred to as a scape, and when plucked at its first growth, can be used in cooking as a garlic substitute.
Garlic is the first plant to pop out of the ground in the spring. It is frost tolerant and comes up relatively early. It grows vegetatively for a few months, reaching full size around Late-May or June, when it pushes out its scapes. The garlic then focuses on bulb production for its remaining months.
Then, one day it dies.
That is to say it has achieved its goal, and created seeds for the next generation. The plant dries out and looks dead. This is when you harvest and cure it for use in the kitchen and for planting next year's crop.
In the future I will write more about garlic scapes, garlic harvesting and the garlic curing process.
And now you know!
What a beautiful and warm March we had! The birds sang, the flowers bloomed, and the fruit trees became confused.
One of the major reasons for not getting fruit from your Apples, Peaches, Cherries and other fruit trees is erratic spring temperatures.
On sunny Friday, I was working in one of my client's gardens and saw a beautiful but unfortunate sight:
This all happened too early in our season for our climate. Trees benefit from the temperatures slowly warming from winter into spring.
The good news for this customer is that the tree had only been planted last year and would not have produced fruit this year any way. The bad news however is that had this tree been older, we would have had to wait until next year's blooms.
And now you know!
Weeks ago I wrote about Cold Frames, the sturdy method for growing vegetables in the deep of winter. Today I will talk about their movable cousin, row covers.
Modern row covers are a lightweight fabric made of spun polypropylene. They are made in various weights for different applications, such as frost protection, insect protection, and light infiltration.
Heavyweight row covers are used for frost protection and can hold about 8 degrees above the ambient temperature. They are thick and therefore do not let as much light through as their lightweight counterparts, but provide superior protection in the cold.
Lightweight row covers can be used for light frost protection, but are better utilized for pest control during the summer. The row cover acts as a barrier between your crop and the insects searching for them. This is incredibly useful for eggplants, of which get annihilated by flea beetles when they are young. The fabric is light enough to not cause huge temperature increases in the summer as a plastic row cover would.
It is important to note that row covers are often called "frost blankets." During a nighttime frost, water in the air condenses on the ground, and then freezes due to the temperature. This is what causes frost damage on your crops. The row cover over your crops becomes the "ground" in which the frost settles, saving your plants.
Row covers are incredibly useful because you can move them around your garden. I often use them early in the season to create a micro-climate for early greens and roots, then move the cover to protect my tomatoes and peppers from late frost, then move them to protect broccoli from cabbage loopers, before bringing them back to use for late season greens.
And now you know!
Libra: Today is a semi-fruitful day, best for planting fragrant flowers, vines and herbs.
Though passé in our modern, scientific world, farmers have been farming based on the moon's position in the sky for millennia. For those of you who skip the horoscopes in the newspaper, here is some background.
Astrology divides the night sky into 12 30-degree segments of which a constellation is assigned. The twelve constellations are Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Leo, Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius, and Pisces. Each sign is associated with one of the classical elements: Air, Earth, Fire, and Water.
When the moon is waxing, going from a new moon to a full moon, and in a favorable sign, it is good to plant above-ground crops. When the moon is waning, going from a full moon to a new moon, it is good to plant root crops.
The water signs are the most favorable for planting, these are: Cancer, Pisces, and Scorpio. The moon's gravitational power has the strength to affect the tide; this power is thought to also assist plants in pulling water up and growing.
The earth signs are also favorable for planting, these are: Taurus, Virgo, and Capricorn.
The barren signs are the fire signs: Leo, Aires, Sagittarius, and the Air signs: Gemini, Aquarius, Libra. Libra is thought to be an exception. When the moon is in these signs it is best to harvest, till, prune, and weed.
Planting by the signs originated in ancient times, but Appalachian farmers from the country’s founding to modern times prominently practiced it. I first stumbled upon the concept while reading The Foxfire Book and then noticed The Farmers' Almanac had an astrological symbol listed for each day in the column right before the Sun Rise Time.
Though, obviously not scientifically proven or supported, it is important to note. Many factors affect our gardens and lives that we cannot see with our eyes. The moon and stars are always moving, unworried if we are looking up at them.
And now you know!
Have you ever heard of The Farmer's High School? In 1855 in Centre County, Pennsylvania it was opened to educate the state's young farmers. In 1863 it was chosen to be Pennsylvania's Land Grant University. Today it is called The Pennsylvania State University.
Land Grant Universities were established in 1862 under the Morrill Act, which gave every state 30,000 acres of federal land to fund a university that promoted Agriculture and Engineering for the state's population. In 1887 the Hatch Act started a partnership between the federal government and state governments to establish agricultural experimentation stations. These stations lead state specific agricultural research.
After this educational foundation was set, in 1914 The Smith-Lever Act sought to disseminate the information of the experimentation stations to farmers and homemakers in the state. Extension has evolved to include the 4-H program as well as the Master Gardener's program.
Extension is important because it keeps normal people up-to-date with current issues. They disseminated the information on the emerald ash borer that was affecting Pennsylvania's woodlands and helped Pennsylvania avoid the Avian Influenza that caused some states huge losses in their chicken flocks. I constantly refer to the publication, "Fruit Production for the Home Gardener" to determine which varieties are suggested for our climate and what insects and diseases are effecting the plants.
The Pennsylvania Cooperative Extension Service is currently a victim of the budget crisis. Governor Tom Wolf vetoed all funding for extension, funds that are shared between the College of Agriculture, Extension and its many research and education programs. If left unfunded, roughly 1,100 jobs will be lost, as well as countless years or research will be left unfinished. Pennsylvania farmers will have to contract consultants rather than rely on the free dissemination of education that Smith-Lever Act created.
And now you know!
Weed seeds are everywhere. Dandelion and Thistle seeds blow in with the wind, Grasses spread their roots into your garden. The hardest way to deal with your weeds is to pull them one by one by hand as they pop-up.
Stale seed bedding is a technique that helps to eliminate the seed stockpile in you soil. The basic idea is to permit the weeds in you soil to grow then kill them. The first step is cultivating your soil, and preparing your soil as though you would plant crops in it. Then you water and wait.
The fast weed seeds begin to germinate very quickly. In a very weedy soil the cultivated patch will become a green blanket. After adequate germination has occurred you kill all the weeds at once. To kill the weeds you can rototill them into the soil; which will return their nutrients back to the soil.
If you want to plant a weed-free crop into your stale seedbed a flame weeder is useful for this application. The flame weeder kills all the weeds without disturbing the soil, which would cause more seeds to germinate.
Stale seed bedding is a useful technique for crops that are directly sown like: leaf lettuce, spinach, arugula, beets, carrots and radishes. These crops would otherwise have to be hand weeded after germination, which, as you many know, is painstaking.
And now you know!