Friday, August 28, 2015

Inteview with a Veggie Veteran

Scott T., Veggie Guru
As August winds down it may be tempting to think the only thing left to do in the veggie garden is harvest. Don't overlook planting "cool season" crops, says my favorite vegetable collaborator, Scott Thalmann.

Scott is a retired policeman, working at Chalet, 2 suburbs north of Chicago. Scott's recommendations are based on 43 years of experience. His main garden is 28 x 28', with a 6 x 8' plot just outside his back door for easy harvest of salad greens. His vegetable garden was featured in Chicagoland Gardening magazine in 2006. He's been helping aspiring veggie growers at Chalet for the past 14 years. He's responsible for choosing Chalet's vegetable seed selection.

Tony:  It's the end of August, what are you personally harvesting now?
Scott:  Tomatoes, pole beans, zucchini, peppers and chard.

T:  What fall cool season crops do you grow?
S:  We're at September, so with our first frost date bouncing back and forth I tend to play it safe and know I'll be guaranteed a return on lettuce and radishes.

Cool crops
T:  What do you do to prepare for your cool season crops?
S:  I've been adding compost to my garden for so long that I've really changed the structure of my soil. It's    very loamy and rich. So, I have the luxury of just adding a bit of compost to the areas I'm planting.

T:  If someone just started a new veggie plot this spring and are adding compost or dehydrated manure, what  fertilizer would you recommend?
S:  I like Dr. Earth's Tomato, Vegetable & Herb or Espoma's Tomato-Tone.

T:  What fall cool season crops would be easiest for the first time veggie grower?
S:  Spinach, leaf lettuce (not heading varieties) and radishes.

Buttercrunch lettuce and cabbage
T:  For your garden, what is the drop dead date after which you say let's forget seeding _________ for the  year?
S:  End of July: Carrots (must have uniform moisture, especially in heat), broccoli, cauliflower, "early  varieties  of cabbage (if you can keep if going through summer heat).
     Mid-August: Lettuce, spinach, chard, beets, kale
     Mid- September: Radishes, beets (for greens)

Botanical Interests seeds
T:  Brussel sprouts?
S:  They really need all season, even if from transplants.

T: You've been instrumental in bringing different types of garlic to Chalet. I'm not sure new vegetable growers would know that fall is the time to plant.
S:  As you know, I love cooking with garlic. I really like the "hardneck" types.

T:  As someone who goes to any length to avoid turning on a stove (me), what are the basics of garlic  growing?       
S: Typically they're available for sale around September 10. They're very easy to grow. Soil temperature  should be below 60 degrees F. before planting. Incorporate lots of compost so the soil is loose. The day of  planting break the cloves apart and plant individual buds 2-3" deep and 4-6" apart. Water well at the time of  planting. If it's a dry fall water as needed until the ground freezes. As the ground freezes cover with a 12"  depth of leaves or straw.  

T:  Next spring after removing the mulch?
S:  About the time a third of the leaves have yellowed it's time to harvest the cloves (usually mid-June until  the end of July in Chicago). I also cut the flower spikes off as soon as they show (but buds still tight) about  6" down and saute them. Delicious!

T:  Favorite varieties?
S:  'Music' is noted for its large cloves, longevity in storage and cold weather tolerance. I'm also fond of  'Peskem River', which is a great hardneck, too.

T:  If you were coaching someone new to fall veggie gardening, what tips would you offer?
S:  *  Don't be afraid to try things- A packet of seed is not a big investment.
     *  Timing. Keep records from one year to the next and adjust planting dates based on your experience.
     *  I have two red lettuces that I think are well worth trying: 'Marvel of 4 Seasons' and 'Bronze Arrowhead'.  

T: Scott, thanks for sharing your vegetable gardening experience!

Friday, August 7, 2015

The "Key" to Seeding a Better Lawn


Spring has sprung, but fall hasn't fallen as far as lawn renovation goes. People are often surprised to learn that mid-August through mid-September is the very best time of year in northern Illinois to seed for a better lawn.

Why is it the best time? Because our dominant lawn grasses, Kentucky Blue (for sun) and fescues (for partial shade) are cool season grasses. They flourish in the cooler conditions of spring and fall. They slow growth or go dormant in extreme heat and/or summer drought unless we irrigate. Fall also means dramatically less weed competition for newly seeded lawns than spring.

How to seed? The Key

A. Assess the lawn, lawn seems "thin"

Does the lawn have less than 50% desirable grass? Is it overrun with aggressive perennial weeds (tall fescue, creeping Charlie, etc.)? Consider a complete kill, then rototilling or slit-seeding* and starting from scratch.

To buy seed, determine:
1. Total number of hours of full sun and shade the site gets.
2. If there is shade, is it dappled with sun coming through trees, or is it sunlight-free?
3. Approximate number of square feet of area to be seeded.
4. Whether you need sun, part shade, shade and a dense shade mix. All are available.

* Slit-seeding involves the use of a heavy walk-behind machine that slices through soil or lawn, dropping seed directly into furrows in the soil. It's awesome as far as I'm concerned, whether you're seeding bare soil or into the thatch of a problem lawn. The best parts of my lawn are where I did a total kill, then slit-seeded with a high quality seed. Seed is an inexpensive part of the solution, so buy the best.

Grass seedlings emerging from slit-seeding

B. Seeding bare soil 
Buy 1# of seed per 250-300 sq. ft. of area.
1. Best results come by cultivating and loosening the soil to a depth of 3-6".
2. Rake level, doesn't have to be "potting soil-perfect". Large clods should be broken up.
3. Depending upon the size of the area best seeding results will be achieved with a spreader. Use the spreader setting specified for the brand and spreader type you have. Settings aren't interchangeable from one company's spreader to another!
Common mistake - Don't be tempted to apply seed too heavily. It shouldn't be clumped. You should be able to see a small amount of soil between seeds.

Proper distribution of seeds

4. After spreading the seed, lightly raking or gently tamping the soil surface is a good idea to make sure the seed is in good contact with the soil. Don't bury it. If you want, you can add a thin, thin layer of topsoil or compost, NOT peat moss.
Important - Use a starter fertilizer containing the phosphorous seed needs to develop strong roots. Phosphorous is the middle number in the analysis 24-25-4 or 3-6-3. And nope, it doesn't matter whether you put it down before or after seeding that same day.

Watering now becomes the most important thing you can do to ensure a successful seeding.
1. Gently dampen the soil surface regularly.
2. When the soil surface lightens in color you should water.
3. On a hot day with drying surface winds you might have to dampen morning and evening.
4. Don't flood- dampen means water isn't standing and seed isn't floating.

Depending upon seed type, weather and moisture conditions it will take 7-21 days to germinate and show green "fuzz". That's when you must keep up the dampening until the root system is established. Consider mowing when the grass reaches 3" or so.

C. Overseeding (seeding into existing grass to thicken it up) is done at half the rate of bare areas. If the lawn has 50% or more desirable lawn grasses you have choices.
1. Lawn is not compacted, has less than 1/2" of thatch (the spongy layer of undecomposed stems) at the soil surface. Then rake lightly, use a starter fertilizer and follow watering instructions.
2. Lawn is compacted, has more than 1/2" of thatch, is generally thin. This is where you need to consider core-aeration. A core aerator is a neat (and heavy) machine that has empty tines that pull plugs of soil as it is pushed over the lawn. The soil plugs drop onto the surface of the soil, leaving shallow holes in the soil. This allows air, water, nutrients and seed to get right into the root zone. In my humble opinion, well worth doing ... professionally. After core aeration use a starter fertilizer and follow watering instructions.

Core aeration plugs

A better lawn is just a few key steps away!
                                                                               
     

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Plant Buzz Words


I recently attended a great horticultural conference in Columbus, Ohio. I was fascinated with some dry erase boards that had been put up for passers-by to graffiti their response to several questions. To be sure, the attendees were all plant geeks enthusiasts. Anyway, the responses were totally positive and some almost spiritual. "Plants make me feel: complete/at peace/connected to God" and "Plants are important because: they transform me." Pretty moving stuff, wouldn't you agree?

I started thinking about how some people new to gardening might fill in those blanks. I know people that would say "intimidated", "scared that I'll kill them", "nervous", etc. I wondered, too, what would cause that reaction in something so crucial to our survival and the quality of our lives. I realize part of it may be the terms that plant people use, making the assumption that everyone knows what they mean. Shame on us! Let's rectify that assumption and demystify some key garden terms.

Annual - n. A plant that grows, flowers and completes its life cycle in one year. Or more simply, it needs to be planted every spring. Examples: Marigold, petunia, begonia.

Perennial - n. Can be grown from seed or division of another plant. Can have a "regular" root system, or can originate from a bulb, and is often confused with annuals. Plant a perennial and it lives for multiple years. Examples: Peony, Iris, daisy, Hosta, ferns.

Biennial - n. As you might suspect, falls sort of in between annual and perennial. Good to know, but there aren't a lot of them. Grows from seed and makes a mound of leaves one year, flowers, produces seed and fulfills its destiny the second year. Then, it's gone. Examples: Some foxgloves, hollyhocks.

Deadheading -  v. The removal of spent flowers and part of the stem. If the flowers are allowed to stay on long enough the plants will set seed. Once that happens new flower production slows or stops. Deadheading encourages rebloom of annuals and those perennials that have rebloom potential. You also enhance the aesthetics of your garden when plants aren't cloaked in discolored, water-soaked, petal-dropping flowers.

Cosmos before and after deadheading
Deadleafing - v. The removal of unattractive, diseased or dying leaves. You could deadleaf a rose with black spot-infested leaves or a daylily that was losing leaves after summer bloom is finished. Again, serves a hygiene function as well as an aesthetic one!

Disbudding - v. Is different than deadheading. It's an optional practice that increases flower size. For example, dahlias, tuberous begonias and peonies have a large center bud flanked by smaller secondary flowers on either side. Careful removal of the secondary buds (as soon as you can handle them) directs energy to the remaining central flower, making it larger. Want more color? Leave all flowers on and don't disbud. Want larger, but fewer, individual flowers? Disbud.

Dahlia not disbudded, left. Disbudded, right

Tuberous begonia not disbudded, left. Disbudded, right

Amendment - n. Any material (preferably organic) that is incorporated into soil to improve structure and enhance microbial activity. Examples: Compost, dehydrated manure, leaf mulch, cotton burr compost.
     
Mulch -  n. Any material (preferably organic) that is applied to the soil surface to: reduce weeds, watering and compaction, buffer soil temperatures, improve soil structure (as it breaks down) and frankly, look good. Examples: leaf mulch, shredded: hardwood, cedar or pine bark, compost. You're right, the answer is yes, some materials can be used for both amending and mulching.

Feeling less intimidated? Good, because plants and planting make you feel ______________________ . What would your write-in be?
    
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