Saturday, April 10, 2010



Got a problem with cats-dogs-kids-squirrels...whatever digging in your
garden beds? To the rescue comes chicken wire! This handy, reasonably
inexpensive fencing is easy to cut into pieces that will fit between
existing plants or strips you can lay atop as-yet unemerged plantings.
A little mulch will conceal the wire, and the wire itself will prevent
nearly every digging effort. In most cases, you won't need to attach
the wire to the ground, but if you do, just drive a U-shaped piece of
clothes hanger wire into the ground at the center of the fencing.

Winter is not traditionally regarded as the best time for creating
compost. You probably don't have the grass clippings, leaves, and
garden debris that normally fuel your compost pile. You may not feel
like hauling kitchen waste outside when it's cold. And you've probably
heard that in order to effectively decompose the material and kill
weed seeds, you need to maintain sufficient heat and moisture levels
in the pile--not necessarily a viable task in winter. But you CAN
create cold-weather compost. (After all, it's going on without human
intervention, in "untended" compost piles in forests and fields all
over the planet right this minute.) Here are a couple of ideas to help
you compost more effectively during the winter season: Pile on the
nitrogen by adding already-finished compost, bloodmeal, composted
manure, or commercial bioactivators. Also, boost your supply of green
materials by checking with the produce manager at your local grocery
store to see if you can have any fruits and vegetables that might be

If you plan to start seedlings indoors or protect them outdoors, now's
a good time to begin collecting plastic milk jugs. Rinse them
thoroughly and hang onto the caps. Then what? You can cut strips of
plastic to make plant labels; cut off the bottom third to create a
mini-flat for seed starting; and cut off the bottom surface and use
the top as a little greenhouse for individual plants. And that's only
the beginning!

As you prepare to put in this year's vegetable garden, keep in mind
the importance of crop rotation. As we've discussed before, it's
enormously helpful to the health and vitality of your plants if you
relocate them from one season to the next. This prevents heavy feeders
from using up nutrients in one spot, and it foils a lot of diseases
and insect pests that favor one type of crop or another. 

When you're trying to determine when you'll be able to plant seeds and
seedlings outdoors--or you need to count back from that date to figure
out when to start seeds indoors--it's essential to know the "last
frost date" in your region. Of course, these dates are just averages,
but they'll give you a jumping-off point when you plan your garden. To
find out the last frost date in your area, just contact your local
cooperative extension agent.

You can get a whole lot more out of a garden if you practice
"succession planting." In essence, this technique involves growing the
quick-maturing crops first and then replacing them with something that
needs a bit more time to develop (possibly followed by a fall or
winter crop). What types of crops can you assign to the first shift?
Try early beets, spinach, and cabbage, lettuce, onion sets, peas,
radishes, mustard, and turnips. (These crops typically make good
late-season candidates as well.) For that second shift, you might
consider bush and pole beans, corn, cucumbers, eggplants, tomatoes,
peppers, melons, potatoes, pumpkins, and squash.

 Thinking about starting your own tomato seedlings this year? Most
tomato seeds require you to start them a month and a half to two
months prior to the last frost in your area--and you'll need to give
them exactly what they need. First, sow the seeds in a moist soil mix
in flats and place them in a warm spot. The top of the fridge seems to
be a popular choice. It's also a good idea to loosely cover the flats
with plastic, such as a dry cleaner bag. In five to 12 days, you
should see the seeds germinate. Now it's time to move the flats to a
sunny spot--and be sure to remove their covers and keep the soil
Once the seedlings begin to crowd your flats, you can transplant them
to 2-inch peat pots. Again, use a soil mix, covering them all the way
up to the first set of leaflets. Now for the tricky part: These babies
need as much as 12 hours of direct sunlight, or they'll grow leggy and
never thrive. To supplement the available natural light, you may need
to use grow lights. However, given sufficient care, you should wind up
with seedlings that are ready to transplant outside when the weather
starts cooperating. Just remember to give the plants a few days of
sitting in a sheltered spot outside to harden them off before you put
them in the ground.

You can encourage many beautiful butterfly species to hang out in your
yard and garden by growing flowers that supply the food and nectar
they need. If you have a wildflower garden, alfalfa, clovers, Queen
Anne's Lace, and teasel will be particularly attractive to
butterflies. Planting parsley will attract swallowtails (their larvae
will eat the plants; so plant extra for your kitchen needs!). Other
butterfly favorites include
 -  ageratum
-  hollyhock
-  asters
-  buddleia
-  daisies
-  coreopsis
-  zinnias
-  daylilies
-  bee balms
-  phlox
-  lavender

If you want to be selective, you can purchase a butterfly
identification book that tells you the specific types of plants each
species favors. You'll also boost the butterfly population overall by
providing sheltered spots, low-growing groundcovers for them to sun
themselves, and shallow sources of moisture for drinking.

If you struggle with miniscule lettuce seeds, you might consider
buying "pelletized" seeds instead. What's a pelletized seed? Pretty
simple, really. It's a seed that's encased in a layer of clay. This
coating makes the seeds easier to see and handle, but it splits open
after absorbing moisture in the ground--so the seed is off and
running. One good source of pelletized seeds (and lots of other great
stuff) is Johnny's Selected Seeds. You can visit the Web site at  

It offers a big selection of pelletized lettuce seeds, including
popular varieties such as Medallion, Red Sails, and Simpson Elite.
 The homegrown tomato season is just around the corner for many of us,
and it's about time. So in honor of this imminent delight, here are
just a few tomato tidbits to get you ready for the season:

 -  The average American eats 13 pounds of tomatoes a year (plus 20
pounds a year in the form of ketchup, salsa, soup, and BBQ sauce).
-  A 5-ounce tomato has only 35 calories.
-  Even though tomatoes contain only moderate amounts of vitamins A
and C, they rank third in our source of the vitamins, since we eat so
much of them!
-  There are more than 1,000 varieties of tomatoes currently being
grown in the U.S.

Have you seen it or perhaps considered using it? Red plastic mulch is
supposed to significantly boost your tomato yields. The mulch was
developed by the USDA and Clemson University, and got the nod by
Consumer Reports magazine. But why is it red?

This special mulch is 1-mil-thick red plastic that--like other plastic
mulch--warms the soil and conserves moisture. But the red plastic does
a lot more. Apparently, it reflects far-red light wavelengths (hey,
ask Clemson) upward into the plants, which triggers a protein that
stimulates enhanced growth and development. Interestingly, our sweep
through various online gardening forums yielded positive comments on
growing tomatoes and perennials in red cups instead of white ones.
Coincidence? Maybe worth pursuing!

We recently came across a suggestion for shaping your garden beds to
be lawnmower-friendly--and it's a very sensible approach. When you're
in the planning stages of a new bed, design the shape so that you can
mow around the edges without having to wrestle your lawnmower into
tight corners or around tough angles.
One simple way to do this is to use an ordinary garden hose to mark the perimeter of your new bed. Just drag it into the shape you want, defining the desired area. You
can even do a test-run with the lawnmower, taking care not to run over the hose. If you encounter any difficult spots, simply adjust the position of the hose to redefine the shape of the bed to accommodate your mower.

Slugs have been the ruin of many a fine garden, and attempts to get
the upper hand don't always work. But as is so often the case, the
best way to win is often to simply change the playing field. In this
case, that means growing things slugs don't like. Among the sun-loving
plants that slugs tend to avoid:
 -  Balloon flower
-  Candytuft
-  Coralbell
-  Moonbeam coreopsis

Of course, the tougher challenge is finding shade-loving plants that
slugs eschew. (That's ESchew!) Some of the possibilities include:

 -  Bleeding-heart
-  Foxgloves
-  Lenten rose
-  Jacob's-ladder
-  Hardy begonia

In past tips, we've discussed a few methods for getting tiny seeds, such as lettuce and carrot seeds, planted as effectively as possible. For instance, we've suggested creating homemade seed tapes and buying pelleted seeds. But here's another technique that many gardeners swear by: Use a salt shaker that has holes big enough to dispense the small
seeds. Of course, you're not going to get perfect dispersal, but you'll gain more control, since the seeds won't be sticking to your hands and hiding between your fingers as you shake them into the garden bed.

Smoking gardeners, beware: You may be putting your tomato plants at risk! In fact, you might a threat to your eggplants, potatoes, and peppers, too. These plants are all related to tobacco--and are therefore vulnerable to the same diseases that plague tobacco crops,
including tobacco mosaic. To make sure you don't introduce any of these diseases to your garden, it's recommended that you don't smoke in the vicinity of those tobacco-related plants. In addition, it's a good idea to wash your hands after smoking if you plan to handle the plants.

 Do you have a stump or two in your yard you'd like to get rid of? You have several options, from digging it out (oof) to pulling it out with a chain attached to a riding mower or other vehicle. You can hire an arborist to use a stump grinder (a circular saw that reduces stumps to sawdust), although that can be a little pricey. And if you live away
from the city, you can even burn out a stump (check your local ordinances!).
 But maybe you're not in that kind of hurry, and you'd  rather let nature handle the job for you. Eventually, stumps will decompose all by themselves. If you see rotten spots and fungus growing on a stump, you know you're in business. And if you'd like to give nature a little help, drill a number of holes into the stump. This allows water and air to penetrate, which will hasten the decomposition process.

  That first display of spring-blooming bulbs, like daffodils and tulips, is always a welcome--and often dazzling--sight. However, before long, the flowers start to fade and you may be tempted to cut back the leftover foliage. In a word--don't. Not if you want the bulbs to store food for another display next spring. In order to produce the food necessary for the following year's blooms, bulbs need eight weeks of leaf growth. Wait until you see the foliage turn yellow and start to flop over before you cut it. And by the way, some folks have been known to bundle or braid clumps of foliage to keep them tidy while
they ripen. Again, this is not a good idea. Doing so cuts down on the air circulation and sunlight that the plant needs.

If you're planning to grow watermelons this year, here are a few pointers. First, watermelons need toasty soil temperatures to germinate--75 to 80 degrees is best. You can start the seeds indoors, a few weeks before it gets settled and warm outside. However, be very gentle when the time comes to transplant the seedlings--watermelon
roots are extremely fragile. Watermelons like loose, well-drained soil, and they're heavy feeders, so be sure to incorporate a lot of compost in the bed. Growers also recommend use of black plastic mulch, which heats up the soil, expedites ripening, and protects the roots from becoming waterlogged during periods of excessive rain. Another recommendation is to use floating row covers, which help retain heat and prevent attacks by cucumber beetles (which carry bacterial wilt). But don't forget to remove the covers when the blossoms appear; otherwise, bees won't be able to pollinate the plants.

  If a lack of garden space has prevented you from trying to grow potatoes in the past, here's a technique that might work for you. Start by creating a round cage out of metal chicken wire, about two feet in diameter. Then, place six inches of soil and compost inside it. Put two or three seed potatoes on top of the soil and cover them with another four inches of soil/compost mix. Now, wrap the outside of  the cage with burlap or an old sheet. This will keep out the sun. Every week for the next six weeks, add another inch of soil and compost, and water a couple of times a week if it doesn't rain. You
can also pour on a little "compost tea" every three weeks or so. At the end of the season, when the foliage has all shriveled, you can dump the contents out from the cage and harvest all the potatoes that tumble out.

If you use those handy peat pots to start your seeds, you can simply plant the whole pot when the time comes to move the seedlings outside. This is good news for the plants' roots, since they don't have to be disturbed in the process. However, you should be careful of one thing: If the rim of a pot sticks up above the soil, it can draw all the
moisture away from the roots and completely dry out your transplant. Be sure that you cover the entire pot when you start putting those seedlings in the ground!

 Have you ever had the stem of a prized flower get bent or broken in the garden? Maybe you stepped into a bunch of blooms, or maybe you can blame a hailstorm or a canine intruder. But regardless of the culprit, you may be able to salvage the stem. If the damage isn't too severe, try creating a splint using a plastic drinking straw. First, cut the
straw to the desired length--a bit longer than the damaged part of the stem. Then, slit the straw lengthwise. Open the straw along the slit and place it around the broken stem. Tape it shut, make sure the plant is sufficiently watered, and hope for the best! In many cases, the straw will provide enough support and protection to allow the stem to heal.

A lot of flowers smell good, but some smell really REALLY good. If you'd like to incorporate some of the more fragrant varieties in your garden, here are a few reliable choices. Among annuals, try:
  -  Sweet peas
-  Sweet alyssum
-  Nicotiana
-  Four o'clocks

Fragrant perennial selections include:
  -  Lily-of-the-valley
-  Dianthus
-  Sweet violets

Have you ever spent a day pulling weeds and then had a day or two of  pain, burning, or tingling in your hand? It turns out that computer users aren't the only ones who may run into problems with repetitive wrist motion. If you pull a lot of weeds, you, too, could be at risk of carpal tunnel syndrome. If the condition is mild, you might be able to alleviate the problem by wearing a hand splint. However, the best way to avoid the pain altogether is to pace yourself in those weedy patches. Take frequent breaks and stretch the muscles and tendons in your wrist. And don't try to do to much in one sitting, particularly if it's early in the season and you're a little out of condition.

Do you shy away from using marigolds in your flower arrangements because of their strong fragrance? If so, you're missing out on a wonderful addition to your cut-flower bouquets: Marigolds are versatile and bright, and they last a long time in water. But if you just don't want to bring their scent into your home, here's an idea. After you cut a batch of marigolds, set them in water with a couple of  teaspoons of sugar. Let them sit overnight, and the next day, the smell should be gone and you can add them to your favorite arrangements.

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