Saturday, February 18, 2017

Upcoming Herb Gardening Workshop

Sponsored by
Virginia Cooperative Extension

Conducted by
Heart of Virginia Master Gardeners

Thank you to B & M Greenhouse for partnering with us on this project,

Join the Heart of Virginia Master Gardeners on Saturday, March 25, 2017 at B & M Greenhouse in Farmville, Virginia, for a hands-on herb gardening workshop.

"Cascading Herbs Workshop" will feature a short talk on the ABC's of herb growing. Participants will also plant their own container garden choosing from a selection of herbs available. 

There is a fee of $20 to cover materials and supplies, and pre-registration is required. For more information or to register, please download the flyer found on the HOVMG website.

We hope to see you there! 

Friday, January 20, 2017

All Those Seed Catalogs!

Marigold seeds can be saved in the fall from your own garden plants.

Is your mailbox flooded with seed catalogs? I know that mine is, and I'm loving every minute of it. There's something magical about seeing beautiful photographs of colorful flowers, juicy fresh-picked vegetables, and all types of plants when the weather outside is gloomy and cold.

But before you start ordering, take a few moments to get to know your seed catalog.

  • Review the icons: Most seed catalogs have icons near the product description. These icons provide useful information such as how much sun, shade, or moisture the plants need. If you're unfamiliar with the species or variety, double check this information and compare it to what you have available in your garden. If all you have is shady spots left to fit more plants in, purchasing seeds for sun-loving annuals isn't smart.
  • Know what you have stored already: If you're like most gardeners, you probably have many half-opened seed packages stored in your basement or garage. Some of those seeds may still be viable. Take a brief inventory of what you have already so you won't double-order things you already have (and forget to order things you need).
  • Decide what makes sense to buy: Some plants, such as root vegetables, are easier to plant from seeds. Other plants, such as flowering annuals, are so inexpensive to purchase as healthy plants from your local nursery and garden center that it may not be worth the time, space and effort to grow them from seed. Many gardeners choose to start seeds of specific varieties or types of plants that may be difficult to find in the store, such as rare, antique, or heirloom varieties of flowers and vegetables. Choose what makes sense to start from seed for your needs, tastes, and garden.
"Window shopping" from the myriad seed catalogs and websites is one of January's great gardening pleasures. Be sure to read up on proper seed starting techniques and learn more from Virginia Tech's publication, Seed for the Garden, available to download as a PDF.

Bachelor buttons (Centaurea cyanus) are easy to start from seeds.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Preparing the Soil for Winter

It's hard to believe that winter is just around the corner! Your garden needs special care at this time of year so that it will be ready to flourish again the spring.

Here's what you need to do to prepare your garden for winter, according to a publication from Virginia Tech:

  • Pull up any dead plants, especially annual vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, etc. that are finished for the season. Leaving dead plants in the garden provides a safe haven for damaging insects and disease organisms. 
  • Discard diseased plants in the trash. Do not compost them. This can spread disease organisms back into the soil.
  • Work compost into the soil after you finish your garden clean up.
  • Raking leaves? Add them to your compost pile!
  • Cover crops decrease erosion and help retain moisture in the soil. Good cover crops are mixtures of legumes. In the spring, till the cover crop into the soil for added nutrients.
  • Think spring! Finish planting tulips, daffodils, crocus and other spring-blooming bulbs in the fall. You can continue planting them until the ground can no longer be worked.

It is also a good idea to drain hoses, fountains, and bird baths, and put them inside for the winter. Terracotta and stone pots should also be stored in a dry place. Water can seep into the porous surface, freeze, and crack, causing damage.

Lastly, don't forget to service your lawn mower and gardening tools such as edgers and trimmers according to the manufacturer's directions. 

Photo credit: (c) Jeanne Grunert. 

Friday, September 16, 2016

Cold Frame Gardening Can Extend the Season

The weather still feels like summer sunshine, but fall's frosts will be here soon. For vegetable gardeners, fall is bittersweet. On the one hand, fall's frosts make broccoli and Brussels sprouts extra sweet and tasty. You can grow lettuce well into the fall. But on the other hand, it's the end of tomato season. So as with everything in life, it's trade off.

One thing you don't have to trade off in the fall and winter is your love of vegetable gardening. If you're passionate about growing veggies at home, a cold frame, row tunnel or homemade hothouse can keep the garden just warm enough to grow many cold-tolerant vegetables well into the winter.

Image used under license/(c) Nicola Avery

What Is a Cold Frame?

Purdue's Cooperative Extension defines cold frames and hot beds as a frame that provides protection for growing crops. The difference between the two is in the source of heat. Cold frames derive heat from sunlight only, while hot beds remain warm from a combination of sunlight and another source. Old-time farmers used to line hot beds with fresh manure; the heat from decomposing animal manure kept the temperatures slightly warmer and supplemented the sunlight.

Today, most gardeners choose a cold frame as their method of choice for growing crops into the wintertime. A frame can be built using the wall of your house as the fourth wall. Make sure it is on a warm, sunny side of the house - southern exposures are ideal. The more sunlight, the better.

Purdue recommends fashioning the cold frame into two sections with a hinged lid so that one side can be ventilated or closed, as the need arises. Two sides separated by a dividing wall also gives you enough space to grow seedlings on one side and mature crops on the other. As the crops mature and fade, you can pull them out and plant your seedlings, reversing the sides.

Full construction details, including a little plan with measurements, is available from the Purdue Cooperative Extension. For many vegetable gardeners, building a cold frame is an ideal way to extend the season and continue putting fresh vegetables on the table well past the new year. Plan your building project now!

Friday, August 19, 2016

Choosing Tulip Bulbs for Your Garden

Tulips may be a sign of spring, but they are actually planted in the fall in anticipation of spring. The bulbs require several weeks of chilly weather in order to grow and bloom. Now is the best time to shop for tulip bulbs. The local nursery and garden centers have the best selection, and you can take your time picking the best of the bunch for your garden.

Tulip bulbs actually hail from Turkey and cooler Asian climates. Traders brought them to Holland, where they seemed to flourish in the cool, moist climate. By around 1637, tulips were all the rage, with new colors like the "Rembrandt" striped and striated flowers causing a run on the market, with prices soaring in a short while. Fortunes were made and lost as speculators bid their wealth on the precious bulbs. Sound familiar? People never change!

Today, we are fortunate to live in an era when hybridizers and growers have selected the best among each of the categories of tulips and bred them for specific characteristics such as color, resistance to wind and weather, repeat blooming and so on.

Most tulips should be treated as annual flowers, or at best, short-lived perennials. Although I have some Darwin hybrids (above) that return in the garden, with each year they do diminish, and eventually the flowers are much smaller than in their original years. The plant puts energy into the bulb to reproduce, and eventually, unless you dig up the bulbs, split them, and lovingly tend them for a few years, they won't bloom again.

Gardeners, myself included, rarely have the time, patience or space for this, so I simply plant more and enjoy the show.

If you're interested in naturalizing with tulips, or finding tulips that might return for repeat blooms, choose from among the Tulipa kaufmaniana, Tulipa fosteriana, and Tulipa gregii hybrids. Like species tulips, these tend to bloom earlier and are less showy than the cottage, Darwin, parrot and lily-flowered tulips that add so much variety to the garden.

As you shop for your tulip bulbs, read the package label. Consider the estimated blooming times, and add a few species that bloom as early as March and as late as May so that you have a continual show in the garden. You can plant different species in the same planting hole. The tulips don't mind.

Choose the biggest bulbs you can find. The larger the bulb, the bigger the flower - or at least that is what a Dutch bulb grower once told me when I worked in a garden center! And after your tulips are finished blooming in the spring, let the leaves die back naturally. Don't cut them back or hack them down to the ground. The leaves are the food factories of the plant. Through the process of photosynthesis, they produce carbohydrates in the leaf cells which act as nourishment for the plant. Cut the leaves off of the plant and it dies.

Lastly, as you're planting tulip bulbs, remember to plant them with the pointy-side up, like a Hershey's chocolate kiss. Dig the hole as deeply as the package directions tell you to do, for the plant needs it, and the deeper holes discourage squirrels from digging the bulbs up entirely. Make sure you place a plant label or a marker on the spot so that you remember what you've planted there. It's easy to forget during the long winter months and dig up your precious bulbs in your haste to plant spring annuals later.

Although I don't think we'll see "Tulipamania" the way the Dutch did during the Dutch Golden Era, I sometimes feel a kinship with the burgermeisters of times past who gambled fortunes on flower bulbs. As I empty my wallet on the store counter, packing bag after bag of tulips away as if they were treasures of gold, I understand how one humble flower could inspire a mania. I share the passion!

RESOURCES for Your Enjoyment

Friday, August 12, 2016

Hydrangea Care

I love hydrangea. This praying mantis in my garden seems to love them, too. But I find it challenging to grow hydrangea here in south central Virginia. Too much heat, not enough rain...sometimes they seem fussier than roses.

For those looking for a quick primer on hydrangea care, I've included tips derived from a great Cooperative Extension publication. Virginia Tech offers a free download called Hydrangea Selection, Pruning and Care that was very helpful to me as I struggled to figure out why the leaves on my hydrangea are turning black (probably over-eagerness to fertilize on my part) and why the color changed on one plant. It's definitely worth downloading if you love hydrangeas.

A few notes on hydrangea care from our friends over at Virginia Tech: (These tips apply to Big Leaf Hydrangea, which is what you normally see blooming in people's front yards at this time of year or so.)

  • No flowers? Don't prune your shrubs late in the season. Hydrangeas bloom on last year's woody stems. Prune older stems in late June or early July and don't prune too much away. You can also prune in late winter if you missed your opportunity in the summertime.
  • You can influence the color of the blossoms by changing the soil pH. A drench with an aluminum sulfate mixture (see the link above) changes the color to blue. Hydrated lime mixed with water changes it to pink. Please be sure to read the Virginia Teach pamphlet for the correct proportions of solution to water.
  • Hydrangea thrive in rich, moist and well-drained soil. If they are struggling, have your soil checked. It could be too dense to allow for drainage. Our local clay soils may need amendments before hydrangea find them acceptable.
Hydrangea are beautiful landscape plants and a treasure in the garden. Here's to a beautiful bloom this year and more!

Friday, August 5, 2016

Cracks in Tomatoes

There's nothing quite like the taste of a fresh garden tomato. I love growing tomatoes, and am still learning the best ways of growing them. Virginia Tech has a great free tip sheet on growing tomatoes that can help beginners improve their cultural practices and grow gorgeous tomatoes all summer long.

Let's talk about one problem that I'm seeing frequently in my garden this year: cracks, specifically cracks that radiate longitudinally from the stem of the tomato and radiate down into the fruit. These are called growth cracks, and they can be common among large, beefsteak varieties of tomatoes.

According to the Cooperative Extension, these cracks appear when environmental conditions cause rapid growth of the tomato. A drought, followed by a heavy downpour, is an example of natural conditions that can cause these cracks.

Think of it this way: a tomato's skin is like a plastic grocery bag. If you fill a grocery bag too full of cans or boxes, cracks appear and the bag breaks. It can only expand so far to fit your purchases inside. A tomato is like that. The exterior skin can only grow so fast, but when a rush of water hits the garden, the greedy roots drink deeply, pushing water to the growing tomatoes. The skin can't expand fast enough, so what does it do? It cracks.

You can prevent growth cracks to some extent by watering your plants on a regular basis. Of course, you can't control nature. A downpour after a thunderstorm, a welcome rain storm after a drought - that's life in Virginia in the summertime. Into every life a little rain must fall.

Tomatoes with cracks are fine to eat. Just cut away the cracked part, and keep an eye on the area where the cracks appear. Microorganisms can enter and start rot, which of course ruins the tomato.

But in the meantime, you can still enjoy those fine summer tomatoes. Rain or shine, nothing beats a fresh garden tomato on a hot August day.