Saturday, February 19, 2011

Having to Contain Myself

I did a lecture this past week for a local civic organization. They are wanting to bring back the old victory gardens. I am not old enough to remember them, but I have read about them. Preparedness was the overall theme for the evening. I asked them, and they were very receptive, to me adding a little twist on all of this.....Growing everything in containers.
Why grow everything in containers?
Let me give you a few reasons:
1) You have a small space or no yard. Even people that live in apartments and have a balcony can grow a tomato plant and some herbs.
2) You rent. This is one of my big reasons. I rent and if I want to take my plants with me in the case of wanting or having to move, they can be picked up and thrown in a truck. My lease, as I suspect many others, states that anything planted in the ground must stay in the event of moving.
3) You get bored with the way your yard looks. I know many people that like to re-arrange their living room furniture often. My brother comes to mind. If you are the same with your yard, growing everything in containers makes that a whole lot easier to accomplish.
4) Lengthen your growing season. Even in my Zone 8, Winter is a fact of life. I enjoy seeing things grow, but in 28 degree weather, there is not much of that going on. I can pick up my containers and put them in my greenhouse or if you don't have one of those, a garage, unused bedroom or any place else that can stay warm and well lit. Even if you have to use grow lights.
This can also give you a jump start on the other end of the season. The soil in containers warms up faster than the ground. Seeds and plants grow faster in warmer soil.
What can you use for a plant container?
The easiest answer is, Anything that can hold soil and has good drainage.
It needs to be big enough to house the mature plant. It also needs to be strong enough, or made of something, that will last at least a full season of growing. Cardboard boxes do NOT make a good plant container.
Here is a good example of what I am talking about.

It might be a little difficult to see, but behind the containers of Onion and Garlic is an old bathtub. Yes, you read that right, a bathtub. It actually has Asparagus growing in it. We had our bathtub replaced and instead of throwing it away, instant plant container. It has everything a good container needs, it holds soil, will not fall apart in a single growing season, will hold the mature plant and has drainage. I have toyed with using a toilet for something right next to it, but haven't gotten that far yet.
I have seen old crates used, pickle buckets, laundry hampers, giant tires, just use your imagination and remember the keys, drainage, soil holding, stability and size.
I even found this online:
This could definitely be a conversation starter. Please insert your own jokes here.
There is also the conventional horticulture trade size plastic containers. Here is a little hint as to where you can get some of these, possibly for free. The next time you see a landscaping crew working in your neighborhood, stop and ask them if they have any containers they are wanting to get rid of. Many times they will point to a pile and tell you take what you want, they don't want to haul them back to their shop. What is the worst they can say, "No".
What can be grown in containers?
Again, easy answer: Pretty much anything!


CITRUS (I AM the Citrus Guy after all!)

If you are saying, what about vines and climbing plants?

Trellis' also are used for things like Cucumbers and such.
If you like it, more than likely it can be grown in a container. Sometimes a very LARGE container might be needed, I don't think a 100 foot Coconut palm will do very well in a pot, but hey, I am always willing to try anything.
How to get started?
I will assume you have secured some kind of container, and have decided what you want to grow by now. What kind of soil should you use?
This is definitely a personal choice. There are many, many different kinds of potting mixes available on the market these days. Each one being better suited for one thing than another.
If you want to make your own, here is a simple recipe. This is not rocket science, nor are you baking a cake, these ingredients can be mixed and matched to suit your taste.
2 parts compost
2-4 parts peat
1 part each sand, vermiculite, or perlite
Most of these can be found at any of the big box stores or local nurseries.
Feed me and I will feed you!
Fertilizers are a little trickier in a container than they are for in ground growing plants.
Nitrogen, the first number on any fertilizer package, is probably the most used by your plant. It is also the one that leaches out of the soil the fastest. Every time you water, Nitrogen is leaching out of the soil. There are a number of ways to counteract this problem. Water soluable, i.e. Miracle Grow, should be used on all your annual plants. Things like tomatoes, herbs, carrots, etc. The reason is, a slow release fertilizer, like Osmacote, does not break down fast enough for the plants to use it. The slow release is fine for Citrus, Blueberries and any other perennial plant, but not for the annuals. You can either apply the water soluable every 3-4 weeks or use a 1/4 strength solution every time you water.
Points to keep in mind.
There are a couple of other things that you should keep in mind when growing plants in containers. Plants in pots will dry out much faster than their in ground counter parts. When the soil is dry up to your first knuckle, it is probably time to water. Make sure it is a good, deep watering. You want to see water coming out of the drainage holes. Make sure the soil is being saturated and NOT just running down between the soil and the container side.
The root zone can also get very hot in the Summer time. It is not uncommon for the temperature to reach 120 degrees around the roots. To alleviate this, either paint the pot white using a paint for plastic, or, plant other plants around the base of the container.
This may not be the way our parents or grandparents had their Victory Gardens, but I find it much easier to be in control this way. Soil, water, placement, and lots of soil borne illnesses can be controlled and fixed much faster than if everything was planted in the ground. I will leave you with one last picture of some of MY container Victory Garden. This is two kinds of Okra, some Beans and the corn you saw earlier.

Happy Growing!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Don't Pick on the Pear!

I often have conversations with many of my fellow Master Gardeners and other gardeners about planting native species, or don't plant this or that, due to certain conditions. One of the big ones I get fussed at is my defense of the poor Bradford Pear. I know they have their problems, but I think they are also getting a bad rap.
Bradford Pears are a variety of a pear native to Korea and China, Pyrus calleryana, which was first introduced to Western horticulture in 1908. The actual cultivar 'Bradford' dates back to 1963, when the USDA introduced it commercially. It was first brought here in 1919.
The tree was supposed to be the perfect street tree, with profuse early bloom, a restricted pyramidal shape, and good fall color.
If you have never seen them in bloom, look at this:
Pretty nice huh?
I will admit, there is some objection to the odor all those flowers put out, but I don't find it that bad.
Fall Color? Check this out:

Many landscapers, and homeowners agreed with this thinking and today it can be found almost everywhere.

So why then do so many people have a problem with this tree?
A combination of plant physiology and physics makes the Bradford very susceptible to wind and ice damage. The angle of the Bradford's branches is generally too narrow, and as the tightly-crowded branches grow in girth, the tree begins to push itself apart. At the first strong wind or heavy ice storm, the tree self-destructs.
Average lifespan is about 20-25 years.
Fully grown the Bradford Pear grows 30 to 50 feet tall and 20 to 30 feet wide. It is a very fast grower, averaging 1.5 feet per year. This is part of the problem with it having weak wood. They grow best in full sun but will tolerate part shade. It can handle all kinds of soil types and will tolerate drought and very wet conditions for a short period of time.
Bradford Pear is fairly resistant, although not immune, to most diseases, including fire blight. Fire blight is a common problem of ornamental and edible pears. This is where the ends of twigs and leaves become blackened as the disease progresses further down the branches. The Bradford pear is relatively free of insect problems.
One reason I have these discussions and get fussed at with people is because Pyrus calleryana and other varieties of ornamental pears are on the Invasive Plant Pest Species of South Carolina list. Although the ‘Bradford’ pear was originally bred as sterile and thorn-less, they readily cross-pollinate with other varieties of callery pears, and subsequently produce fruit. The ripened fruit are eaten and spread around by birds, which supposedly results in very thorny thickets of wild pear trees. I personally have not seen these thickets.
Yes, they do produce fruit:

And the birds do love them! Check out this Cardinal enjoying lunch in one of my trees:

They also love to nest in them. A female Dove made her home in mine this past April:

Aren't we suppose to help our fellow creatures? That is always my argument. You feed birds sunflower seeds, those things pop up EVERYWHERE, but nobody argues about that! I know, they are annuals and will die in the Winter, unless they go to seed?!
Back to the Bradfords. I have seen old ones and they look great! One of the keys is to pick one out with a strong central trunk, kind of like these:
These are my trees also.
I am sure I will get arguments opposed to my blog. There are many more trees out there that can and will give you the same effect. Yes, there are. There is also many more ways to feed the birds and yet people insist on feeding them millet. THAT stuff is invasive and messy! So to each their own.
I will give you a few substitutes however. Flowering Crab Apples (Malus spp.) and Japanese Cherries,(Prunus serrulata) such as 'Kwanzan', are good alternatives. For smaller trees, Dogwoods (Cornus florida) and Redbuds (Cercis canadensis) are excellent.
As for me, the Bradford Pears I planted are now large, provide much needed shade, food for the birds, and places for me to put many of my hanging potted plants. So, they are staying!
Happy Growing!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Winter vs. Summer

No, this is not going to be a Battle Royale between the seasons, besides, Summer would win hands down anyway. Nope, with planting season just around the corner, I am starting to get some rather interesting questions.
The other day I got asked about the planting times for Squash. I sent them a link that explained when and all that kind of stuff. They then came back and asked why Summer Squash and Winter Squash have the same planting dates, that being March here in Zone 8, what is the difference between the two?
I thought this was a GREAT question! What really got me to thinking about it was, this came from a good friend of mine who knows A LOT about gardening. If he was wondering, I am sure there are plenty of others.
Squash is native to North and South America and many of the types are believed to have originated in Mexico and Central America where they were eaten 7,500 years ago. American Indians shared many varieties of squash with the European settlers, who took the seeds back to their countries. Today, squash and pumpkins are grown all over the world, and are wildly popular in many Eastern European countries.
Both Summer squash and Winter squash are fruits of vines that belong to the cucumber family (Cucurbitacaea). These plants include cucumbers, melons, and gourds. Squashes are members of the gourd group.
The difference between Summer and Winter is actually very easy. Summer squashes are those types eaten when the fruit is immature and the skin tender. Winter squashes are those types which are allowed to mature before being harvested.
Lets start with Winter Squash. Only because I am tired of Winter and want it to be gone. Ha-Ha.
Some varieties Winter Squash

Winter squash typically need a long growing season, as most take 70 to 120 days from planting to harvest. Winter squash and pumpkins can be planted either in late Spring or in midsummer. Pumpkins (usually grouped with Winter Squash) which are being used for ornamental use should be planted in mid to late Summer depending on the time needed for the variety selected. Some of the more common types of Winter squash are: Acorn, Butternut, Buttercup, and Spaghetti.
Winter squash will keep from two to six months or more depending on the variety and storage conditions. They are usually stored over the Winter months, hence their name. Mature Winter squash have very hard skins that cannot be punctured with your thumbnail. They typically have very hard seeds also. In addition, the fresh, bright, juvenile surface sheen will change to a dull, dry-appearing surface. Being that they have such hard shells,the skin of Winter squash is inedible. It must be peeled before cooking/eating, or the flesh should be scooped out of it after cooking.
Many people will tell you there is only one way to prepare Winter Squash, and that is to cut it up into chunks or slices and cook. There really are two easier ways to cook Winter squashes of any size. The fast way is to prick a squash with a sharp knife, place it in a microwave and allow it to cook on high for at least ten minutes. Many will require more time, depending on size of squash and power of your microwave. You’ll have to keep checking until the squash is soft and pliable. This will steam the squash. Cut it in half, discard the seeds and scoop out the interior. Now it’s ready for freezing, turning it into a casserole, pie,or mixing with mashed potatoes.
The other way is in the oven, Prick the skin and roast at 350 degrees for about one hour.

Some varieties of Summer Squash

Summer squash grows quickly and can be harvested about 55 days after planting. They are generally divided into four groups, crookneck, zucchini (green and yellow), straightneck, and scallop (pattypan). They have thin, edible skins and soft seeds. The seeds can be scooped out or left in. The Summer squash will spoil rapidly after picking and you should cook it and eat it as soon as possible. Because of their high water content, they do best when cooked with dry-heat methods such as stir frying, grilling or sauteing to avoid turning them into mush, unless you like that. Of course, cooking by steaming, simmering in a sauce, baking or deep-frying are also fine.
Having them grow in your garden is relatively easy.
All types of squash and pumpkins are highly susceptible to frost and should be planted in the garden after all danger of frost is over. Squash seeds do not germinate well in cold soil. Plant squash in full sun. They can be planted in rows spaced 3 feet apart or they can also be planted in hills. Rows should be spaced 4 to 6 feet apart, with hills 3 to 4 feet apart within the row. Place two or three seeds in each hill.
Watering should be done to provide uniform moisture, extremes between wet and dry will affect your crop. Water sufficiently to moisten the soil to a depth of 6 inches. Light sprinklings will encourage shallow rooting of the plants. The critical period for moisture is during fruit set and fruit development.
A problem with Summer squash is the rotting of the blossom end of the fruit, called blossom-end rot. The main symptom is a dark-colored dry rot of the blossom end of the fruit. Blossom-end rot is caused by a lack of calcium in the developing fruit. It may be an indication that calcium is lacking in the soil or that the plant does not have the ability to take up adequate amounts of calcium from the soil.
The most common diseases of squash and pumpkins are bacterial wilt (spread by cucumber beetles), powdery mildew, downy mildew, fruit rot, and anthracnose. Powdery mildew can be a particular problem on late-planted squash. It is the most common and damaging disease of pumpkins.
Insect problems include spotted cucumber beetles, striped cucumber beetles, pickleworms, squash vine borers, aphids and squash bugs. Aphids are a major problem because they can also transmit viruses to the plants. Squash vine borers can cause total collapse of the plant. Plant early because squash vine borers and pickleworms are problems later in the season.
Please, don't let these diseases and pests deter you from growing Squash. If you want another reason to grow them. One of my mothers favorite foods does not even come from the squash itself. She likes the flowers.

The blossoms from Summer and Winter squash are edible. Choose blossoms that have closed buds. They will be somewhat limp, but this is normal. Store them, refrigerated, for no more than one day. They can be eaten raw as garnish, in salads, battered and fried or stuffed and baked.
Ricotta Stuffed Blossoms


I know what some of you are saying, I would LOVE to grow some Squash, but I can't. I have limited space. I have the answer for you! There are some varieties that have a bush-type of growth instead of the vining habit, which is useful if your garden is small. Some of these varieties that you can look for include: Gold Bar (a yellow zucchini), Starburst (a yellow patty-pan), Bush Crookneck, Bushkin Pumpkin and Burpee's Bush Table Queen, just to name a few. Make sure you look in your seed catalog, they should tell you whether they are bush or vining.
One last suggestion would be to grow them on a trellis.

Well, I hope this has given you some inspiration to try something new this year in your garden or to revisit an old friend that you haven't grown in years. I also hope that I have explained the difference between Summer and Winter squashes so when you get put on Jeopardy, you will can win it all! I'll bet Alex Trebek can't tell you the difference!?
Happy Growing!