Tiny Topics – Plant Spacing

Today we continue our series on tiny topics and we are exploring plant spacing. We all want to get as many plants as possible in our garden space. That is understandable, especially when you garden in a small 4′ X 8′ community garden plot. More plants equals more vegetables, right?

These tomatoes are planted way too close together.

Reasons plant crowding is problematic:

#1 Seedlings planted close together do not have room to grow and develop. Tall plants can actually lean on small plants. This can cause damage to the smaller ones. I have seen tomatoes planted too close to bush beans. Inevitably the tomatoes arch over to the beans breaking stems, leaves, and blossoms off of the beans.

#2 The plants in your plot are competing for resources, especially soil nutrients like nitrogen. If individual plants are suffering because of lack of nutrients this could mean a less healthy plant and less food production.

#3 Plant crowding creates a microclimate where plant leaves do not have enough air circulation to dry out. As we all know wet leaves lead to (say it with me) disease!

The takeaway is to think about what each individual plant needs as it goes into your garden. Happy Gardening!

Tiny Topics – Watering Practices in the Georgia Garden

I hope everyone enjoyed a wonderful thanksgiving! Today we resume our series “tiny topics.” Our next tiny topic is watering. How we water our plants can make a huge difference in our plant health. There are three things every gardener needs to know about watering:

#1 Avoid watering overhead if possible. Many of our plant disease-causing pathogens thrive in wet conditions. By wetting the leaves and plant blossoms we are creating an ideal environment for the spread of disease. Most community gardeners do not have drip irrigation systems that add water at the soil line and that is okay. Just be mindful when you are watering to focus the water on the soil line and not the plant leaves.

Drip irrigation systems are ideal but not always practical.

#2 The best time to water is in the early morning. This allows the plant leaves to dry off as the sun comes up. Again, water spreads disease! For most community gardeners this is not possible. Many gardeners head to the garden in the evening after work. Just knowing that you don’t want plants going through the night with wet leaves will help you be a better waterer.

#3 Don’t work in the garden while it is wet. There is no better way to spread disease then by working in a wet garden. Not only is spreading disease a problem but walking on wet soil can create soil compaction.

You may have heard these best management practices before today. But hopefully by knowing why these practices are important will allow you to modify your habits and your garden will thank you!

Happy Gardening (Watering)!

A Community Garden Thanksgiving Story

Years ago I was privileged to visit a community garden full of senior citizens that loved to garden. Most of them were women of the old Southern tradition. Their leader, Mrs. Banks, was dedicated to the garden and called me “honey” when I visited. It was a special place. Thank you Fred Conrad for introducing me to it.

The garden had the support of their larger community and that allowed them to grow needed food for their tables. This garden facilitated neighbors visiting with neighbors and sharing meals. Very good stuff.

One year the entire group was growing collard greens to share on Thanksgiving. As all Southern gardeners know, collard greens are only good after a frost. We had an early frost that year so the crop seemed promising. The gardeners woke up on Thanksgiving morning to find that their collards had been ripped from the garden, stomped on and destroyed. There Thanksgiving feast was ruined. What had happened?

The group discovered that a young man, visiting his grandmother for the holiday, had done the damage. The group had a choice. They could notify the police. The young man could be charged with a crime that could follow him as he became an adult. The group decided they would handle it on their own. They had the vandal clean the garden and they put him on garden chore duty for quite a while. Thinking about it facing the police may have been easier than facing an angry Mrs. Banks!

I have thought about that young man. What kind of person is he as an adult? I suspect that his encounter with this group of Southern gardeners had a positive effect on him. By handling the problem themselves they showed him some very tough love. I think he was the better for it.

On this Thanksgiving I am thankful for the ladies of this garden, thankful for gardens like this everywhere, and thankful that community gardens are only partly about the food but more about the community.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Tiny Topics – Microclimates in the Georgia Garden

Over the next few weeks we are going to explore “tiny topics” in the garden. These will be garden topics that are more in-depth than a horticultural overview. My goal is to have us all thinking about gardening in a more deliberate way. Our first topic is microclimates. What are they? How can they make a difference in your garden?

Most gardeners are familiar with the USDA plant hardiness zones. These are based on average annual extreme minimum temperatures. For example if your average annual extreme minimum temperature is 10 – 15 degrees F your plant hardiness zone is 8a. These zones are based on past climatological data. Suggested planting dates and many plant recommendations are based on these zone assignments.

But what if your garden is located close to the south side of your home? At this location the temperatures don’t get quite as cold as if the garden was located in the middle of an open field. This is a microclimate. By planting mint right next to the south wall of my home in an area also protected by a porch wall I am taking advantage of a microclimate that allows me to have fresh mint most of the winter.

On the other hand a garden located on a rooftop in Atlanta is brutally hot in the summer. The full sun in an area where building materials create radiant heat and reflected sun light means that cactus are happy there. Another microclimate.

This microclimate in Atlanta means a cactus garden.

What if your garden is in a bit of a valley in your landscape? You may notice fog settles there or dew seems to last longer in the mornings. In this microclimate you need to look out for fungal diseases that occur with cool moisture. Downy mildew may be a problem for you.

I recently visited a community garden in the North Georgia mountains. Even after officially reported night time temperatures of 32 degrees F the gardeners were still harvesting peppers. The group took advantage of a microclimate next to a shed that prolonged the growing season.

Late peppers in North Georgia

Using plastic to artificially warm up the soil in the early spring creates a microclimate that allows seeds to germinate early. I have used this technique in the past to plant squash early in an attempt to outwit squash pests.

I hope these examples have you thinking about the microclimates in your own garden. They may allow you to grow crop varieties that you would never have tried before or you may extend your growing season.

Happy Gardening!

Why Don’t More Georgia Gardeners Plant Cool-Season Vegetables?

I am often amazed at the number of community garden plots that remain empty during the fall, cool-season growing time. Many times the plots are simply abandoned with warm-season crop debris mixed with growing weeds. Why aren’t these spaces full of edible leafy greens?

After speaking with many of these gardeners and garden managers, my anecdotal research reveals that gardeners are simply tired. I have heard it many times. They have spent many summer hours in the garden and they want a break. They associate a garden with tomatoes, squash and cucumbers instead of lettuce, onions, and broccoli. It is a shame because cool-season growing is often superior to summer gardening.

1. Pest and disease pressure is lessened.
2. The hot outdoor working conditions are over.
3. We can grow many types of vegetables in the cool-season garden.

On the other end of the spectrum I have met gardeners who plant a cover crop in the summer, purchasing their tomatoes and cucumbers at the local Farmers Market. They would rather take the summer off and do their planting in the cool-season.

I would like to challenge you to garden a bit differently in 2019. Try growing something new, grow in a different season, or expand your garden knowledge. Over the next several weeks we are going to explore these topics to have you all prepared to challenge yourself in the coming year.

Happy Gardening!

Fall Festivals and Your Community Garden

October means fall festivals and seasonal events across the state of Georgia. From Blue Ridge to Savannah, from Augusta to Columbus everyone is celebrating fall. What is your community garden doing to celebrate? This time of year is perfect for emphasizing the “community” in your garden. Some suggestions:

Host scarecrows in the garden! This is done with flair at the Atlanta Botanical Garden and the Research and Education Garden in Griffin. Why not your garden? Ask local businesses, civic groups or schools to create a scarecrow to exhibit. This could be a contest where visitors vote and a local celebrity awards the prize. For a twist have the exhibitors create/decorate crow birds which can perch with a spooky flair in the garden. Craft stores sell crow bird props at low prices, easy to decorate.

Season storytelling in the garden for all ages. Enlist some garden members or community leaders to lead a spooky storytelling event in the garden. Reading an Edgar Allen Poe story or poem dressed in period costume would create excitement for sure. If your garden is large enough you could station readers around the plots.

Have a pumpkin decorating contest. Even if your garden does not grow pumpkins you could purchase some from a church pumpkin sale. Or, you could use other vegetables. Have visitors decorate a pumpkin/vegetable and take the opportunity to educate community members about growing vegetables.

Celebrate with an open house. If your community already has a scarecrow exhibit or other events simply add an open house to be part of the larger town effort. An open house does not to be much work on your gardeners and would be an excellent opportunity to let your town know about your beautiful space.

Whatever you decide to do, enjoy the fall season! You’ve earned it!

Flooding in the Community Garden

Many of our community gardens are located in floodplain areas (which is why the community is not using that land for something else!) or near creeks or rivers. Recent weather events may have left parts of your community garden flooded. UGA food safety experts ask us to think about the safety of our produce from the impact of flood waters. Farmers have to think about this on a large level and it is a concern for us. Experts from UGA released important harvest information for farmers ahead of this hurricane. Also, the FDA has guidance for flood affected produce.

If a flooding creek encroached on your garden what did that water bring with it? Possibly contamination from pathogens harmful to humans. What about chemical hazards from another site that washed into your garden? These could be serious. If flooding did occur in your garden, I advise you to speak with your local UGA Extension agent for advice from a food safety perspective.

Thinking of the gardeners and farmers in the path of the storm today.

Thoughts on Plant Disease in the Georgia Garden

Every year seems to bring a new set of challenges for the Georgia gardener. Some years the drought leaves our gardens in the dust and some years it never seems to dry out. Some years we break record heat waves and some years fall comes early. However, plant disease never seems to give us a break. As we try and coax healthy cool-season crops out of warm soil I thought it might be nice to take a look at some disease facts so we can come up with strategies to help ourselves.

Fact #1: Healthy plants can withstand disease better than stressed plants. Knowing what healthy plants look like (is that mottling part of the normal leaf or could it be a virus?), what your plants need in the way of fertility and water, and what conditions those plants need to thrive will go a long way in managing disease. If your plants need full sun, plant in full sun. Shade will stress your plants and open up the possibility for disease. Have your soil tested for fertility and use the results to meet the needs of your plants. Take away: Strive for healthy plants

Rust disease on a bean plant leaf

Fact #2: Most of our disease-causing agents are fungi. We do battle some bacteria and some viral diseases but overwhelmingly fungi are our problem. Most fungi need a wet environment. You probably notice during rainy periods disease symptoms seem to magically appear. Community gardeners tend to plant our plots as full as possible limiting air circulation around the plants. Moisture stays on the leaves creating a perfect environment for pathogens. Take away: Limit overhead watering as much as possible. Make sure your plants have adequate air flow around them.

Fact #3: Often pathogens overwinter in garden debris. Many times fungal survival structures, like spores and mycelia, will last for months(years) in organic matter, leaves, and garden debris creating an environment for a reinfection during the next planting cycle. Take away: Clean your garden plots after every season.

Powder mildew fungal spores under a microscope.

Fact #4: Most fungicides are used as preventatives and not as a cure for disease. Once a plant has been infected it is hard to cure that plant. The pathogen is already present, has done damage and gardeners cannot rely on fungicides to fix the problem. Take away: Plan ahead for disease management.

Fact #5: Some pathogens will infect many types of plants but many pathogens have a narrow plant host range. Rusts (Uromyeces spp.) are common among bean plants and powdery mildew (Oidium spp.) always seems to find all types of squash. Take away: Know what diseases normally affect the plants you have in your garden. Learn to recognize the pathogen signs and symptoms. Use your local Extension office to help identify the diseases that plague you. Your agent can also help you devise a plan of disease management.

Upcoming Events for Georgia Community & School Gardeners

Fall is a busy time for gardeners and this fall will be especially busy with several exciting conferences scheduled in Georgia.

September 13th – 16th the American Community Gardening Association will have its 39th annual conference in Atlanta. Events will take place all across Atlanta with the hub of presentations at the Georgia International Convention Center in College Park. The theme is “Tending to the Beloved Community.” There are 36 presentations scheduled, tours of Atlanta area gardens, and a gala at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens. Registration is open. The conference schedule features several notable speakers including Georgia Department of Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black. I have heard him speak several times and he always delivers an entertaining and inspiring presentation.

September 22nd is the Monarchs Across Georgia Pollinator Symposium at the Monastary of the Holy Spirit in Conyers. This event will have fantastic speakers, nature walks, exhibitors and demonstrations. Many of you all feature pollinator spaces in your gardens and this would be a worthwhile day for you! Registration is open.

October 19th – 20th the Council of Outdoor Learning is holding their Outdoor Learning Symposium. It will be held at the Garden School in Marietta, just off the square. The Council of Outdoor Learning, an initiative of the Environmental Education Alliance of Georgia (EEA), is a coalition of organizations and individuals who share an interest in the design, development, maintenance, use, and longevity of outdoor classrooms. COOL serves teachers, parents, principals, and community volunteers as a resource link, providing up-to-date training and information to those interested in building and using outdoor classrooms. This will be a fantastic event for school gardeners and community gardeners who are interested in finding additional ways to use their space.

All three of these events are worth your consideration. Don’t forget to check with your local UGA Extension office for fall classes on cool-season gardening.

Happy Conferencing!

Three Rules of Weeding in Your Georgia Garden

Weeding in Your Georgia Garden

All of Georgia has seen a large amount of rain this summer. Rain is great for our crops and also great for weeds and if you have gotten lazy with the summer heat your plots may have more weeds than crop. You are not alone! This may be a great time to review best management practices for weed control.

Weeds can be a big problem in a community or school garden.  A very big problem.  Knowing how to weed correctly will make this job less of a headache.   An informal poll was taken and we asked experienced gardeners to give their top three rules of weeding and we present them here:

Rule #1:  Get the roots out.

If you just remove the leaves above ground chances are the weeds will come back and you will need to perform the same weeding chore over again.  Many perennial weeds grow from underground roots and tubers.  Those need to be removed as well.

 

Weeding in Your Georgia Garden
Get those roots out!

Rule #2:  Remove the weeds before they make seeds.

If your weeds are allowed to flower and make seeds your work will get much harder.  Weed plants can make an incredible amount of seeds.  For example, common chickweed can produce 800 seeds per plant.  Dandelion flowers can make 40-100 seeds.   Crabgrass can produce 53,000 seeds per plant and pigweed can produce over 200,000 seeds per plant.  Don’t let those weeds flower!

Weeding in Your Georgia Garden
You don’t want this!

Rule #3:  Don’t let weeding get out of hand.

If you don’t routinely remove weeds you could be looking at a plot of weeds that seems overwhelming to tend.  Your vegetable production will suffer as the weeds take up the water, nutrients, and space that should be used for your plants.  And, it will take a lot of initiative to start the long process of taking back that space from the weeds.

Weeding in Your Georgia Garden
Don’t let weeds take over your community or school garden plot.

Knowing what weeds you have could be helpful in coming up with a long-term weed management plan.  Your local UGA Extension agent can help with weed plant identification and help you find strategies to minimize weed issues.

Happy Gardening!