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!

Success in Planting Small Seeds

Fall planting often involved handling small seeds. Lettuce, spinach, carrots, radishes and all types of greens are started from small seeds and success with these seeds can be a challenge. Often it is a problem with seed germination. To help you with success we have compiled some tips to help you plant small seeds with confidence.

The seeds of kale and other greens are small and can be a challenge to work with.

Tip #1 Once you have planted your seeds use a tamper to gently tamp the seed bed. A tamper uses the right amount of pressure to ensure good seed-to-soil contact while not compacting the soil. If you think on a small level it is possible for small seeds to get lost in air gaps in the soil. Think like a small seed! Seed-to-soil contact is imperative for good seed germination.

A tamper is a useful tool when planting small seeds.

Tip #2 Mulch, mulch, mulch. Cool-season planting happens when our temperatures are still warm and rainfall is not plentiful. Sun can bake a bare soil affecting soil temperatures and moisture content. The right mulch can even out soil moisture and temperatures while protecting small seedlings. Using bark chunks for mulch is not advisable. Small germinating seeds cannot easy push a bark chunk out of the way. Again, we have to think like a small seed! Pine straw or clean wheat straw (with no wheat seeds!) is preferable.

Pine straw is a common mulch. Use a light coverage for your seed bed.

Tip #3 Know that your seed bed needs to stay moist until germination. Water your seeds in and aim to keep the seed bed moist but not soaking. If you visit your community garden plot only once a week to water and we don’t receive any rainfall, your seeds will dry out. On another note, if you experience an extreme rainfall event, like hard rains from a hurricane, your seeds will probably wash away. Not too much water and not too little water is the goal.

When working with community gardeners across the state I have found those who follow these three tips have a much greater chance of small seed success. Let me know how it goes!

Happy Gardening!

Planting Kale in Your Georgia Garden

If you are kickin’ it with kale this fall you will want to grow a large and delicious crop that your students will enjoy eating. Luckily, kale is easy to grow in Georgia during the fall! Growing cool-season crops in Georgia means less disease and pest pressure.

You may be interested to know that the flavor of your kale can change depending on your soil chemistry. According to Tim Cooling, UGA vegetable specialist, many of the bitter compounds we associate with kale are due to the amount and availability of sulfur in your soil. This could be the start of a great school science project!

There are several varieties of kale that are recommended for Georgia gardeners. Vates, Dwarf Siberian, Blue Armor, and Blue Knight are all proven winners in our state. Kale seeds are small and can be hard to handle during planting. For school and community gardens, broadcast seeding is a great option:

After spreading the seeds across your prepared soil:

Sprinkle a small amount of soil on top of the seed bed and tamp down. Tamping ensures good seed-to-soil contact and is an important part of planting small seeds.

Cover the plot with a layer of mulch. This time of year mulch is imperative to keep temperatures and soil moisture even. Avoid heavy mulch like wood nuggets. The small seedling cannot push those nuggets out of the way when they emerge from the soil.

Water well and keep the plot moist as the seeds germinate. With late summer heat you will definitely need to water your seed beds.

Keep an eye out for weeds as they can sneak into your monocrop of kale. Learn what a kale seedling looks like so you can remove everything else that comes up in your plot.

Your crop may need thinning. If so, you can eat the thinnings!

A delicious kale meal starts with healthy kale plants!

Keep an eye out for pests and start planning those kale recipes. Contact your local UGA Extension agent if you have any questions or problems.

Happy Gardening!

Flea Beetles in the Garden

I have seen several outbreaks of flea beetles on eggplant as I visit community gardens around Georgia this summer. Their damage is easy to identify as leaves become skeletonized due to the feeding of adult flea beetles.

If the eggplants are mature, the damage can be tolerated by the plant and you should be able to have a fine eggplant crop. If the infestation is severe or the flea beetles have found young, small plants the beetles can severely damage the plant and cause a reduced yield.

Close up of a flea beetle on an eggplant leaf.

You will notice the small beetles will jump if they are startled, which is how they came to be called flea beetles. Female beetles will lay eggs around the plant. Emerging larvae will head into the soil and could possible feed on plant roots. The mature beetle will emerge to feed on your plant leaves. The insects overwinter as adults in plant debris and litter in the top of the soil. There will be more than one generation per year.

There are chemical controls available and you should contact your local UGA Cooperative Extension office for recommendations. After your eggplants are finished definitely remove all plant debris from the soil bed. I would caution in planting collards or any other leafy green in that same soil this fall. Since you are growing leafy greens for the leaves, you will want to avoid flea beetle damage. Any larvae left in the soil after your remove eggplant debris could emerge to find your greens a tasty meal.

Happy Gardening!

Insect Scouting is an Important Part of Vegetable Growing

Whether you work a large family farm, a home vegetable garden, or a 4’X8’ community garden vegetable plot, routine scouting for insects should be an important part of your vegetable growing plan. Insect pests can be a costly problem on vegetables and the lifecycles of some of our insect pests are so short that missing a week of scouting can lead to damaged crops and increased pest numbers.

Scouting involves carefully and deliberately walking though the garden looking for insects on a routine basis. Inspect the leaves and fruits/vegetables. Look on the undersides of leaves and on the stem. Evidence of boring insects can be seen on the plant stem while insect eggs are often deposited on the leaf undersides. If you are unsure of an insect identification, contact your local UGA Cooperative Extension agent for assistance. Do not automatically reach for an insecticide!

Insect eggs are easily removed. Simply remove the entire leaf and fold the leaf over on itself and smash the eggs. Or, if you want to preserve the leaf, use sticky tape to remove the eggs. Place tape on top of the egg mass and gently pull removing the eggs. Fold the tape on itself and smash the eggs.

Squash bug eggs are easy to remove.

Eggs like these are easy to miss if you don’t routinely scout your garden! Dealing with squash bug eggs is easier than managing the 30+ pest insects that could mature from these eggs. A helpful video goes through the easy steps.

Learning about the insects that are common pests for the food crops you are growing can be very helpful. Leaf-footed bugs (Leptoglossus spp.) are a problem for tomatoes while squash bugs are pests in cucumbers, squash and pumpkins. Aphids (Aphidoidea superfamily) are a common problem especially when plants are full of liquid, after a rain, or when plants are growing quickly. Mexican bean beetles (Epilachna varivestis) can easily destroy a bean crop but these insects have been mistaken for beneficial lady beetles.

Pest Mexican bean beetles can be mistaken for beneficial lady beetles.

It is estimated that only 3% of insects are pests so the insects you find in your garden are not always problematic. Don’t assume every insect you find is a “bad bug!” Take time to learn about beneficial insects such as assassin bugs, parasitic wasps, and lady beetles. These can be tremendous allies in your garden. Often these insects need floral resources and the plants you have added to attract pollinators will also help other beneficial insects.

The copper colored ovals in the photo below are aphid mummies. A helpful parasitic wasp laid an egg inside an aphid pest (green insect below). As the egg hatched the resulting larva consumed the aphid insides for nutrition. When the wasp matured it emerged from the aphid leaving the empty shell, aphid mummy, behind. Adult wasps will be looking for some nectar so your pollinator garden will be useful here.

Aphid mummies mean that parasitic wasps are working for you.

Scouting is just one tool of an integrated pest management (IPM) program. Other tools include:

¥ Altering planting time to miss large insect populations
¥ Using trap crops
¥ Starting with healthy soil
¥ Keeping the garden clean of debris
¥ Hand-pulling weeds
¥ Creating habitat for beneficial insects and pollinators
¥ Watering wisely
¥ Using plants that are proven to do well in your area

Happy Gardening!

Tomato Planting 1,2,3

Now that you have chosen your tomato plants it is time to put them in the ground. There is a trick to planting tomatoes that helps them get through a long, dry, hot Georgia summer.

Snip off the lower leaves.
Snip off the lower leaves.

Step 1: Tomatoes need full sun, 8 hours, for setting fruit.  They also need well-drained, porous soil with a pH of about 6.2.  Plan on giving them at least 2 feet X 3 feet of growing space.  You will need to stake the plants or use wire cages to contain the plant growth.  Once you have your site ready, start with a healthy plant with a strong stem.  Notice the stem seems hairy.

Step 2:  Gently remove the lower leaves with snippers or by pinching them off with your fingers. Be careful not to make tears along the stem which would create wounds.  Leave the top two or three leaves.

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The hairs on the now buried stem will become roots creating a strong root system to better handle periods of drought.

Step 3:  Dig the hole deep enough so that you can bury the stem up to the remaining top leaves.  The part that is planted under the soil will develop roots creating a strong, deep root system that will help the plant better handle dry periods.

Press the soil around the plant so that a slight depression is formed for holding water.  These steps should get you one step closer to that BLT!

For more information about growing tomatoes see Robert Westerfield’s publication Georgia Home Grown Tomatoes.  For the best information for your area, contact your local UGA Extension Agent.

Happy Gardening!