Setting Out Spring Annuals

Memorial day is the traditional planting out day in western Pennsylvania.

Earlier this spring I described the process of starting seeds indoors for things like
tomatoes, peppers, and flowering nicotiana. So now that you’ve got your seedlings started, what do you do with them?

The simple answer is take them outside and plant them!

In fact this is what my co-workers and I did last earlier this week when we slipped some
papste tomatoes, beefsteak tomatoes, some jalapeno peppers, and some unidentified flowers into
the ground in front of our workplace.

The devil is in the details though, and there are some steps that you can take to improve the odds for
those little plants.

The first thing to be aware of is that plants grown indoors are typically exposed to much lower light levels and
far less air movement than they are outside. This means that the leaves are likely going to wind or sunburn fairly easily.

This shouldn’t be a mystery. If we take the average couch potato and rip him from in front of the TV, tossing him into
bright spring sun for 4 or 5 hours, we can be pretty certain that he will sunburn. Plants do the same thing, and for the
same reason. Gradually exposing them to the sunlight for increasing lengths of time will allow the leaves to darken, toughen,
and handle the sun better. Fortunately plants adapt faster than humans. Start them off with a couple hours of early
morning and evening daylight, and in 2-3 days they should be toughened pretty well.

Windburn is pretty much the same thing, and the same approach that hardens the plants to sunburn will work here as well.
The only real difference here is that it isn’t the ultra-violet from the sun doing the damage, it is the wind sucking precious
moisture from the thin leaf surface.

Soil preparation is important. My co-workers and I turned the soil over with a garden fork, dug holes within this, and carefully
set the plants into the soil. We were careful to make sure we broke up large clumbs of dirt near the roots, so as to minimize air pockets.
Last spring I provided tips for a no-till approach to soil preparation. In essence you trade off some time, cardboard or newspaper, and plenty
of mulch in place of turning the soil. It takes longer to prepare the bed, but the soil will be healthier for it, and healthy soil makes
for healthy plants.

Trap the soil down firmly around the plants. Again you are looking to eliminate air pockets, which will dry roots and endanger the young plants.

For tomatoes, don’t be afraid to set the plants down in deeper than they were originally. Any portion of the tomato stem that ends up below
ground will strike roots and create a stronger, healthier plant.

Once the plants are in the soil, water them in well. Coming from a more protected environment, they are going to lose water faster and take
it up slower than they will once they get settled in, so plentiful water in the garden bed is particularly important right now.

Top dress the plants with an inch or so of well aged compost or double ground wood mulch.

Now step back and watch them settle in for the next week or two! Soon the roots will start to explore out into the soil, and it will be time to fertilize.

Remember that sunlight fuels plant growth, and plants usually alternate between root growth and leaf growth. Don’t be surprised if the plants take a week
or two to start really growing. They need to get those roots anchoring into the soil first!

Setting Out Spring Annuals

Fun with Fruit Trees in the Spring

Plants that are both decorative and fruitful are near and dear to my heart. Apple and pear trees fit that slot perfectly.

This past week I found myself rather belatedly pruning some fruit trees on the family farm. Normally winter pruning is something done on apples in late winter or very early spring. This spring has been rather warm and everything seems a bit ahead of itself. I would have liked to have been out there doing the pruning in early March. Still the leaves are still young and the flower buds hadn’t started to break just yet, so when I found myself on the farm with a bow saw, pruning shears, and a little spare time, I made the best of it.

Pruning of the pome fruits, apples, pears, and the lesser known quince, is one of those things that is both easy to get started on, yet can look like magic from the outside. The ultimate goal is to help balance the tree with regards to new growth and older, fruiting wood. Without new growth each year, the tree can stagnate or become cyclic in its fruiting cycle. When it goes cyclic, it will often bear very heavily every second or third year, and bear next to nothing the other years.

Pome fruit trees fruit best on second year growth, fruiting spurs (short branchlet looking things a few inches long at most), or in some cases the shoot tips. Watching where fruit forms on your tree will provide clues as to how to prune in the future.

Another goal of pruning is to contain the size of the fruit tree. It isn’t an accident that fruit is often borne most heavily on the highest branches. Those branches get the most sun, and are the farthest away from ground dwelling herbivores that might consume the fruit before it is ripe and falls down to their level. By pruning upwards pointing branches, you can guide the tree into an easier to harvest form. By clipping the tip of a young, unbranched tree you stimulate more growth in the side branches. Clipping a newly planted fruit tree at about 4 to 5 feet in height will typically guarantee a fork in the tree at that height.

Another important goal in pruning fruit trees is to improve their health. This might be the simplest approach to start learning as well. When branches cross, literally grow across each other and touching, they will rub against each other and wear holes in the bark of the branches. Because the branches are rubbing in the wind, these injuries tend not to heal properly. By clipping out branches that are crossing and rubbing, you help keep the bark intact, and disease out.

You can also clip out blighted branches. Cut the branch at least 5 to 6 inches back into healthy looking wood, ideally back at a joint so that you remove an entire diseased branch cleanly. A solution of 10% bleach or 70% rubbing alcohol can be used to sanitize the shears or saw between cuts, and this is particularly important when trying to remove an infection from a tree.

This week I planted out an asiatic pear tree. In October of 2008 a co-worker passed me a pile of very excellent asiatic pears, and I started the tree from a seed from that batch. In mid April of 2012 the tree was over 7 feet tall, in a 5 gallon bucket of soil, and the roots were grown through the drain holes into the bottom of the greenhouse.

I pried up the roots as best as I could with a broadfork, carted the tree out into the back, and planted it firmly into the ground. I pruned it down to about 5 feet, clipped off several large branches that were growing in the wrong direction, and staked it straight. Pruning the tree at planting helps balance damage done to the roots, fewer roots, fewer branches for the roots to support.

At the same time I tied down a couple of the side branches. Pear trees tend to produce heavily, and large branches can snap off under the weight of the fruit. By training the branches to grow at a wider angle, there is less chance of the branch breaking later in life.

I piled on several inches of undyed, double ground mulch to a circle about 4 feet across. This helps hold in moisture, provides a buffer zone for when the lawn mower passes by, and the double ground wood mulch provides an excellent base for proper soil microbes to form a symbiotic relationship with the tree. The red, black, or brown dyed mulch all work great as well. I find that away from the house, the undyed mulch forms an aesthetic framing for a fruit tree without drawing attention away from the tree.

Happy Gardening out there!

Spring Planting for Perennials

One of my co-workers caught me off guard a week ago when she asked me what she could plant in her garden right now.

My mind started running through the early crops, beets, peas, onion sets, lettuce can all go in very early in the spring. Before I could organize a suggestion she asked me about leeks.


Perennial veggies are an excellent addition to a garden. Food that doesn’t have to be replanted years after year appeals to me. I double checked to make sure she meant leeks, and not the ramps that will be available a few weeks from now. Either one can be grown in the garden, but regular garden leeks are probably a little more tolerant of cultivation. Their wikipedia entry suggests that they have been cultivated for at least the last 4,000 years.

Leeks, ramps, scallions, onions and garlic all have a lot in common. They tend to grow best in cool, moist conditions, usually benefit from a fertile soil, and are generally perennial. Top setting for garlic, setting seed for non-garlic plants, or for some onions very cold temperatures might bring an end to the plant. Leeks and ramps can be planted most any time of the year, but right now with cool temperatures and lots of moisture is a great time to get them into the ground.

One of my favorite seed dealers, J.L. Hudson, advertises four varieties of leek seed this year. Hudson is also offering a selection of onion seed, some of which will overwinter nicely here in Pennsylvania. Seed can be planted outdoors in tilled soil, or lay down 8-10 layers of newsprint covered with several inches good fine mulch, and place the seed on top of the mulch. The seed doesn’t need to be covered, or cover it very lightly. Rows 8 inches apart are fine.

Leek plants can also be purchased locally, Classifieds lists a number of people selling garden leeks right now. They can be planted right now along with onion sets, and in much the same fashion as onion sets.

In addition to members of the onion family, this is a perfect time to get fruit trees and bushes into the ground. There are lots of local nurseries that carry an abundance of fruiting plants. One of the advantages of shopping at a local nursery is that they tend to stock plants they’ve found to do well in the local area. It doesn’t work well for them to have people bringing them back dead plants over the next couple of months, and so they’ve got a lot of trial and error in offering plants that are likely to do well right out of the gate.

This spring I’ve worked in a number of raspberry bushes, gooseberries, currants, and some edible honeysuckles. As you move further out into lesser known plants, the advantages of mail order nurseries kick in. Where as the local nurseries are going to take pains to offer error-proof options, they are not going to want to expend valuable stock space into plants that will have a limited following. Most nurseries will carry heritage, bristol, and lathram raspberries, but if you want a Fall Gold, Anne’s Gold, or KiwiGold you might have to mail order them. Yellow Delicious apples and D’Anjou pears can be found at most nurseries, but Arkansas Black apples and Korean Giant pear are likely going to be mail order plants.

I planted raspberries for the first time last year, and decided to expand a little this year. I dropped this year’s plants in 10′ away from last year’s row, and put the plants 2′ apart in the row. I hope in a couple of years to have a solid hedgerow of Fall Gold.

Edible honeysuckle can also be known as haskap or honeyberry. Edible honeysuckle, at its best, is said to resemble blueberries. The advantage is that they barely care what sort of soil they grow in, compared to blueberries being fairly particular about a low nutrient, acidic and moist environment. Honeysuckle also tends to be faster fruiting, faster growing, and far more tolerant of shade and competition from other plants.

The down side is that honeysuckle has been bred for ornamental purposes as much or more than for eating, and it can be a gamble getting plants with berries that are tolerable, much less comparable to blueberries. Another gotcha lies in the fact that even eating quality honeysuckle really needs to completely ripen on the plant before harvest. Blueberries picked a day or two early won’t have quite the depth of flavor and sweetness, but honeysuckle berries picked a day or two early are hardly worth eating.

Edible honeysuckle, like blueberries, is not self pollinating and you need to plant at least two varieties for fruit.

I found edible honeysuckle plants labeled as “Lonicera caerulea ‘kamtschatica'” at a local nursery for $50 each. The ‘kamtschatica’ branding only means that the plants may or may not have had their origin in northeastern asia. Online I’ve found St Lawrence nurseries is now carrying several named, patented varieties from the University of Saskatchewan for $15 each, or not-named-but-bred-for-eating plants for $10 each. To me, this is a win for mail order.

St. Larwence requires orders for spring delivery be postmarked no later than April 10, so if you are thinking of ordering, now is the time.

I’ve also put in some hops within the last week. This is another a seasonally available plant. The obvious purpose of hops is for brewing your own beer. However non-brewers might also find interest in hops. The hops are used in crafting for making pillows. They also produce an absolutely amazing vine. Within the first year they are capable of growing up to six feet, making them an excellent privacy screen. The second year if they are properly cared for they can reach up to 20 feet.

For the plants I’ve mentioned, getting them in early in the spring is a key to success. Cool air helps slow top growth while ample spring moisture and bright sun on the soil warms the roots and helps the plant grow into its new location. The later into spring we go, the less time the roots have to dig in before dealing with the stress of providing moisture for early summer’s growth. Early fall can be just as good, with a cool moist fall, and a cool moist spring before summer hits. The disadvantage is that winter sits between the two, and might cull a plant that didn’t grow in quite fast enough.

Most berry bushes will do well to be planted just a little deeper than they were grown, but raspberries and grafted fruit trees need to be planted at the same level or just a touch shallower. Raspberry crown can rot if planted too deeply, and the graft of the fruit tree needs to be above ground. If you don’t know that the tree is not grafted, it is safe to assume that it is grafted. Berry bushes usually need to have any branch older than 4 years pruned, and having the base of the bush below soil level will help encourage it to send up new shoots on a regular basis. Planting a bit on the deeper side also helps encourage their roots to be a little deeper. For berry bushes with their shallow roots, this can be the difference between skating along through a hot dry summer, and producing a bountiful harvest.

Suppressing weed growth is important. Many fruit bearing bushes and trees don’t handle competition well. Two to four inches of mulch over top with either a commercial weed barrier, a layer of cardboard, or 8-10 sheets of newsprint works great. This also helps make sure that the shallow roots of berry bushes don’t dry out. The double ground style mulch is just about perfect for this. Being an aged, finely ground mulch it tends resist wind and stay in place, hold its color well, and it provides both mild nutrition and healthy building soil materials. Call Scotty here at Snyder Excavating and tell him you want to try some of the double ground mulch this season.

Have a Happy Easter!

No-Till Gardening

Spring is here, and summer is just around the corner. If you don’t already have a garden, now is the time to do it.

You don’t need a rototiller. Pick an area with good sunlight,
and mow the grass short or chop away the weeds. Lay down a single layer of
cardboard. If there is a lot of weed stuble, you might want a double layer.
Plain is fine, but I like to use corrugated carboard.
Many grocery stores will give the boxes away for free. You can also use
layered newsprint. I’ve found that newsprint is not nearly as effective as
cardboard unless a fairly thick layer of newsprint is used. I would recommend
no less than 10 sheets.

Make sure to overlap the pieces of cardboard or newsprint, otherwise the weeds
will find their way up through the cracks.

On top of the cardboard, apply a layer of mulch, 1 to 3 inches.
Then water the mulch pretty thoroughly. This will work its way down
to the cardboard, softening it, and making it conform tightly to the ground.

Between the cardboard and the mulch, you should have nearly eliminated any
weeding through the course of the summer, as well as helping to conserve
moisture during the heat of summer.

If you use the same location for your garden year after year, this layer of
mulch will decompose and act as fertilizer and soil building organic matter.
Top dress with 1 inch of so of mulch each year, adding new cardboard every
other year or so.

By the way, bushes and trees can also benefit from a 1 to 3 feet circle of
mulch, thinner towards the center, thicker at the outer edges.

Aged mulch is better. It has had the chance to compost somewhat, and is not
as nitrogen leaching as fresh mulch. Because it is partially decomposed, aged mulch
usually has a nice natural dark color. Dyed mulch is quicker to produce, but
it is often made of lower grade wood, pallets or demolished home debris. With dyed mulch the
addition of some nitrogen may be necessary to balance the fact that the
freshly decomposing wood will draw some nitrogen from the ground.
I also find the dye tends to stain everything it touches.

In my area I’ve found that it is easy to locate a double ground tree top mulch
that is undyed, and aged for a year before being delivered for retail sale.
This makes an excellent mulch that helps build a biologically active soil.

In the absence of a good wood or bark type mulch, straw can be used.
I’ve used baled straw, taking sections off of the end and laying them over
the cardboard. Every year my wife and mother in law set up a Halloween
display using a couple of bales of straw. By spring time it makes an
excellent, long lived mulch. You can fluff it up to make it look prettier,
but in my mind this makes it a lot less useful as a mulch.