Helping Community and School Gardeners Succeed!
This gardening blog is put together by Becky Griffin, Extension Community and School Garden Coordinator. It is designed to help community and school gardeners succeed by connecting them to UGA Extension and other research-based resources. Here you will also find information about programs designed to improve pollinator health in the garden.
Over the next few weeks we are going to talk about seed starting. I did three in-depth posts last year and I am going to rerun them this year by request. Spring is coming….
Just flipping through one garden seed catalog I found 89 varieties of tomatoes, 21 varieties of cucumbers, 20 varieties of eggplant and 26 varieties of sweet peppers, including three types of lunchbox peppers. Compare that to the different types of vegetable plants that you would find at your big box retail store. Add some variety to your life and try starting your own seeds!
The rule of thumb is to start your warm-season seeds 6-8 weeks before planting time so over the next weeks we are going to explore indoor seed starting in-depth. For beginners, follow along with me as you start your first seeds. For seasoned seed-starting veterans, you may pick up a trick or two. I also encourage you to share your experience through the comments.
Let me begin by writing that there are many effective ways to start seeds indoors. I am going to share with you the way that I like to do it. I have been starting seeds indoors for decades and I have found a way that works best for me. You may find a different way that works best for you and that is terrific. I look forward to learning from you all as well.
To start, I like these re-useable plastic trays. They are easy to store and come in many sizes. I have friends who save their old plastic milk jugs and trim them down for seed starting; that works well for them.
Any plastic trays MUST be disinfected before adding soil media and seed. I use a solution of 9-parts water to 1-part bleach. This step is important to eliminate any pathogens that have been overwintering on remaining soil particles. Starting with clean trays is an important step towards healthy seedlings. Don’t skip it.
I like to use the peat moss discs for my planting media. As a bonus, the peat moss contains properties that discourage fungal growth. This helps prevent the disease damping off which is a real problem for seedlings.
These pellets are readily available and are easy to store. Add water and the pellets expand. I use warm water to create a favorable environment for the seeds. It is important here to not oversaturate the discs with too much water. Too dry is better for the seeds than too wet. Too wet means that the seeds could rot or disease will become a problem. You want the planting media to be just damp. If you can wring water out of the media, it is too wet. If this happens you can let the discs sit outside the tray for a few hours so that they can dry out a bit. You will get the hang of how much is too much as you practice.
Okay, gather your seed starting equipment, and play around with the pellets. Next week we will talk about planting the seeds.
Today we continue our series on a good replacement for tomatoes in our summer community garden plots. Today’s crop to consider is corn.
Usually corn is avoided in the community garden. The tall stalks shade other plants, there is not much yield in the amount you can grow in a small space, and corn takes a large amount of water. That being said, I sometimes find community gardeners who really want to grow their own corn. They remember eating corn fresh from a grandparent’s farm or working the corn patch with their parents. Often these gardeners are now city dwellers and the corn means a great deal to them.
Instead of totally abandoning the idea of growing corn, why not think about trying some of the short growing varieties? Several of the seed companies offer shorter varieties. Burpee advertises a corn for growing in a patio container called On-Deck Hybrid. The description of this type states that it grows 4 – 5 feet high. Compare that to Silver Queen which stretches 8 feet tall.
Park Seed offers a shorter variety called Early Sunglow Hybrid. Stalks from this corn are expected to top at 4 feet. Another thought is popcorn. Seed Savers offers Tom Thumb popcorn which grows only 3-4 feet tall. I have grown popcorn many times. It is fun to grow and fun to pop with children or grandchildren.
I will caution you that more than a few stalks need to be grown to get any kind of yield. Many stalks yield 1-2 corn ears per plant. If you are serious about trying corn in the community garden consider allocating at least half of your 4’X 8′ garden bed for the crop. Also, remember that the crop is wind pollinated. It does not hurt to shake those corn tassels yourself to make sure the pollen moves around.
The #1 crop grown in community gardens is tomatoes. I don’t remember visiting a community garden where I didn’t see tomatoes in the summer. I understand! There is not much better than a tomato from the vine warmed from the sun. BUT, growing tomatoes in the same space year after year creates disease and pest problems.
Over the next few weeks we will be exploring some food crops not typically grown in the community gardens. I am hoping that we can provide some options for that tomato garden space.
To get you ready to embrace new plant options, take a minute to view this video on tomato diseases!
Winter is a season of waiting for gardeners. But winter is the perfect time to work on our soil. When is the last time you had a soil test? This week Dr. Jason Lessl gives us a refresher on why and how to soil test. Dr. Lessl writes….
One of the most fundamental, but often overlooked aspects to any successful vegetable garden, flower bed, landscape, or lawn is good, fertile soil. Getting your soil tested by a laboratory is the best and most accurate way to assess your nutrient and pH levels which are vital components of maintaining your soil. The University of Georgia Soil, Plant, and Water lab offers such services (www.aesl.ces.uga.edu).
When you send a soil sample to a lab, you will receive a detailed report of soil nutrients levels along with crop-based recommendations on how to fix any potential deficiencies. The steps required to submit a soil sample are simple and can be achieved through a few items commonly found household items. You can start by contacting your local county extension office to acquire soil bags and get information on how to submit your samples. Locate your county office here: http://extension.uga.edu/about/county/index.cfm or call 1-800-ASK-UGA1.
When to soil test?
Soils can be tested any time during the year, although it is typically best to take samples in the Fall/Winter. This is the time of year when most plants are dormant and the soil is most accessible. If pH adjustments are necessary, it is also the best time to apply amendments as it can take several months for them to take effect. Lime (to raise pH) and sulfur (to lower pH) reacts slowly and, if possible, should be mixed with the soil at least two to three months before planting.
How often do I test my soil?
For intensely cultivated soils (i.e. vegetable gardens), an annual soil test is recommended. Otherwise, for lawns and ornamental areas, after medium to high fertility levels are established along with the appropriate pH, sampling should be done every two to three years.
Steps in Soil Sampling
Recommendations about when and how to apply nutrients are only as good as the soil sample submitted for analysis. To obtain a representative soil sample, the following steps are useful:
Map out the entire property. This will help in record keeping and ensure that the soil sample is representative of the entire area. Divide areas such that each soil sample represents one general plant type. For example, separate vegetable gardens, blueberry bushes, ornamentals, fruit trees, lawn, etc. If you have specific problem spots, sample those areas separately.
Use clean sampling tools and containers to avoid contaminating the soil sample. Collect samples with any digging tool you have available (hand trowel, shovel, soil probe, etc.).
Slightly damp soil is the easiest to work with if you can wait for those conditions. Clear the ground surface of grass, thatch, or mulch. Push your tool to a depth of 6 inches (4 inches for lawn areas) into the soil. Push the handle forward in the soil to make an opening then cut a thin slice of soil from the side of the opening that is of uniform thickness, extending from the top of the ground to the depth of the cut. Repeat this process in a zigzag pattern across your defined area, collecting 8-12 samples to mix together. For trees, take soil samples from 6-8 spots around and below the leaf canopy. Take about a pint (~2 cups) of the mixed soil (after removing large rocks, mulch, sticks, and roots) and fill the UGA soil sample bag. Be sure to label the sample clearly on the bag. If the samples are wet, spread the soil out over clean paper and let them air dry. Otherwise, take your samples to your local extension office for submission. Once the lab has received your soil, it will take 2-3 business days to get your report.
Dr. Lessl is a program coordinator for UGA’s Soil, Plant, and Water Lab. He understands the importance of the garden ecosystem as he is a fellow bee lover!
Spring is coming! Will your soil be ready?
The seed catalogs keep arriving. In my household that is cause for excitement. I save them until I have time to properly enjoy looking through them. What do you do with your seed catalogs after you have looked through them and placed your orders? If you throw them into the recycling bin you are missing out as these gems are full of useful information.
If you are a school gardener, or a community gardener that works with youth, the seed catalogs can be used throughout the year! To start with you can laminate the beautiful photos to use as plant markers.
You can use the information provided in the catalog for lessons:
The seed spacing guide can be used for students to create a garden bed design.
The days to harvest information can be used for students to determine the planting dates of their garden design so that all the produce is ready at the same time.
The cost of the seed packages can be used to calculate the cost of the garden design.
All of this information can be used to calculate how much produce can be grown per square foot (inch, meter).
Students can look through the catalog and pick a vegetable they have never tried before.
Students could look through the catalog, find a favorite vegetable, and re-write the plant description.
It is a great time of year for gardeners. The seed catalogs are starting to arrive in our mailboxes. What a thrill to open the mailbox and see the hint of one of the beautiful catalog covers. These catalogs are mesmerizing. The photos are works of art and the vegetable descriptions are literature.
Garden Catalog Tips
We have asked Robert Westerfield, UGA vegetable specialist, to give us a few tips on navigating our way through these catalogs and all of the vegetable choices.
Tip #1 If you are gardening for high yields or dependable results, use recommended varieties for your area. UGA’s Vegetable Planting Chart has a list of varieties that have proven to do well in Georgia. These are the least risky choices.
Tip #2 When trying a new vegetable variety order only a small quantity to start. Experimenting is one of the great pleasures of the garden. Succeed or fail, it is fun to try. Just don’t over-invest in seeds until you know how they will perform in your garden.
Tip #3 Remember the vegetables you grew up with may not necessarily be the best ones to plant now. There are many improved hybrid varieties that can hold up to our disease and heat issues. A good example is Silver Queen corn. While popular, it is definitely not the best variety to grow in Georgia. There are many new corn hybrids on the market that are much sweeter and maintain their sweetness longer when stored.
Hopefully, these tips will be a helpful guide as you enjoy making your 2019 garden seed selections. One bonus tip especially for school gardeners – the photos in the catalogs can be laminated and used as plant markers or in gardening lessons.
To finish our series on “tiny topics” I want us to think about mulch. Most gardeners already know that mulching our plant is a MUST. It helps even out soil temperature and moisture and it holds down weeds. But we can improve how mulch works for us if we take a minute to look at it critically.
Choose your mulch type wisely. The first rule of thumb is that you want mulch to be inexpensive and easily available. However, you also want mulch that is free from weed seeds. I have purchased hay as mulch that ends up contributing more weed seed than it prevented.
If you are using the mulch in a seed bed you want the elements of the mulch not to be a hindrance to seed emergence. If a small seed is pushing against a wood mulch nugget that is a problem. Lightweight mulch is best.
Often communities will give free mulch made from old Christmas trees. Be cautious of receiving this type of mulch. It is often full of large tree chucks which will be problematic for small seeds and can damage plant stems.
Consider changing your mulch. Especially if you are growing food crops, consider changing your mulch each season. Disease-casuisng organisms and pest insects can often overwinter in mulch and plant debris. Replace old mulch with new disease-free mulch. Another piece of the integrated pest management puzzle!
I hope with this series you have had a change to realize how even small garden elements can have a big impact on your garden’s health. I have appreciated the feedback and emails about this series!
For our next post on “tiny topics” I want to visit the topic of garden tools. It is easy to take our tools for granted. I have visited gardens where trowels and shovels are just left in the elements. They rust, become lost in garden debris, and blades become dull. Take some time during this slow garden season to evaluate, repair and clean your tools. Stocking the Garden Shed is a wonderful publication if you need guidance on adding to your tool shed.
It may be surprising to discover that how you use your garden tools can have an impact on disease management in the garden:
#1 Making improper pruning cuts or using a dull blade can damage plants and open up pathways for disease-causing organisms to enter your plant. Be diligent in your pruning skills and do not damage your plant. I have seen old pruners actually rip the bark off of a fruit tree because the cut wasn’t crisp. Keep those blades sharp.
#2 Using a tool on a diseased plant and then using that tool on another plant can spread disease, even if that tool is left for several days between uses. Bacteria, viruses, and fungal pathogens are easily moved and in part that count on that for survival. Fungal pathogens can produce structures called survival spores which can be viable for a long period of time. If you make a cut with pruners on a diseased plant or use a shovel to clean up diseased plant debris you could be unknowing transporting some of these spores to a clean, disease free plant.
It is worthwhile to disinfect your tools. Using a cleaning solution of 1 part bleach to 9 parts water is a recommended ratio for proper disinfection. You will find that getting into the routine of proper tool cleaning will be another piece of the puzzle in your integrated pest management system.