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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Over the next weeks we will be exploring the world of tomatoes. They are the most popular plant in community gardens. But tomatoes can be problematic. Together we will share the good, the bad, and the delicious of tomato growing. Please share your experiences. To begin our tomato journey we are going to look at some tomato terminology.
Determinate vs. Indeterminate
When deciding on what type of tomato plants you want to grow, choose if you want determinate or indeterminate varieties. Determinate plants bear all of their fruit at one time. The plants tend to be more compact and easier to manage. You will probably still need to support them with a tomato cage or staking. Determinate varieties are popular with growers who want to preserve the fruit, make tomato sauces, or salsas as they get all the fruit at once.
Indeterminate varieties bear their fruit throughout the growing season. The plants tend to sprawl and will definitely need support by staking or caging. Growers who like to eat fresh tomatoes throughout the summer prefer indeterminate varieties.
Tomato Disease Resistance
Due to successful tomato breeding gardeners now can choose tomatoes that show resistance to the common diseases that plague all tomato growers. A note of disclaimer here – remember that disease resistance does not mean disease proof. You can easily determine the disease resistance of a particular variety by the initials after the name:
V – Resistance to the fungus that causes Verticillium wilt.
F, FF, or FFF – Resistance to the fungus that causes Fusarium wilt. Sadly, some of the fungi developed immunities to the resistance qualities of the initial “F” tomatoes, so breeders developed cultivars that are resistant to the newer fungal races so now you may see “FF” and “FFF”.
N – Resistance to nematodes
T – Resistance to the Tobacco Mosaic Virus
TSWV– Resistance to the Tomato Spotted Wilted Virus
A – Resistance to the fungus that causes Alternaria Stem Canker
St – Resistance to the fungus that causes Grey Leaf Spot, Stemphylium solani.
Big Boy VFN shows resistance to Verticillium wilt, Fusarium wilt, and nematodes. Tomato plant sellers in your area should stock the tomatoes with the resistance you need. Look for the resistant cultivars in seed catalogs as well.
Don’t rely on planting disease resistance cultivars as your only line of defense against disease. Good cultural practices like proper irrigation, mulching, soil building, fertilization and removal of diseased plants are examples of the integrated pest management (IPM) you should be using.
If you think your tomatoes have one of these diseases contact your local UGA Extension office for confirmation. Georgia Home Grown Tomatoes is an excellent publication for tomato connoisseurs.
With the recent warm temperatures it is easy to be seduced into planting your summer crops now. It is tempting to plant our vegetable transplants and seeds; we can’t wait for that first juicy tomato are a crunch pepper! Be aware that soil temperatures are very important for success with your early summer plantings.
Soil temperatures need to be 60-65 degrees F and rising at the 4 inch soil depth before you plant your summer crops.
If you install a transplant too early the roots won’t grow and the plant will just be sitting in the soil. If we have a large amount of rain, which seems to be the norm this year, your new plant will just be sitting in wet soil. This could mean early disease issues.
This morning the Ballground weather station, near my home, indicated a 4-inch soil temperature of 54.6 degrees F. In Griffin the 4-inch soil temperature was 56.8 degrees F while Valdosta reported 63.5 degrees F.
If the soil temperatures are not warm enough for seed germination, early seed plantings could rot.
The roots need to be actively growing to absorb water and nutrients.
If we plant and fertilizer summer vegetables too early we will be wasting fertilizer. The plant roots simply can’t absorb it. This fertilizer could get washed away, wasting your time and money. Also, this leached fertilizer could be problematic for our watersheds.
With the long-lasting cold winter temperatures and snow (snow!!) this winter how does your food garden look and can it be salvaged? According to Home Garden Vegetable Specialist, Bob Westerfield, we are better off just pulling up spent broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and leafy greens. Leaving them in the garden creates a harbor for disease and insect pests. Brussel sprouts is an exception. If your Brussel sprouts look good, you can leave them and they may still produce.
Since playing in the garden is limited consider soil testing now and making your Spring garden plan. You will be able to plant new cool-season plants soon enough!
Recently I attended a presentation given by a scientist who is known for her expertise in plant genetics. Her lab was one of the first to do work in what we now call genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Between the explanations of plant biochemistry and the future of our food system she snuck in a statement that was so profound it is worth sharing. She said, “plants are magic.” Yes, plants are magic.
One of my first memories involves plants. At about six years old, I received a science kit as a gift where seeds germinated in a substrate so that the grower could see the root radical and shoot as the seed sprouted. I was hooked. Plants were magic.
I have never lost that feeling of awe when dealing with gardens. Most of you are shaking your heads in agreement as you read this. The way flowers survive our droughts and our own mismanagement. The way a tiny seed pushes through our hard clay soil. How small seeds yield large amounts of food. You know it; plants are magic.
As we go into the new year and we are planning our 2018 gardens may we never lose that magic. I look forward to gardening with you in the next year.