Showing posts with label Gardening basics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Gardening basics. Show all posts

Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Advantages of Starting Vegetables From Seed After the Summer Solstice

Many of us have been there. We start out with great intentions. We're going to grow our own food. We have plans and tools and seed catalogs. We can almost taste the luscious vegetables we are going to harvest from our gardens.

And then stuff happens. Other things come up that require our attention. The weather is too something - hot, cold, wet, dry - and we don't get the garden planted. Or maybe we do get it planted, but our crops  "bolt," start going to seed too early, resulting in disappointing flavors and textures. So here it is, the end of June, it seems too late to start a garden and we give up on our dream of growing vegetables.

But according to Ryan, the Garden Coach at Botanical Interests (a Seattle Garden Ideas affiliate), many vegetables do better when planted now, after the summer solstice. These include: vegetables in the Brassica family (broccoli, cauliflower, etc.), vegetables that form heads (lettuce, radicchio and others), and vegetables that like cooler conditions (carrots, beets, spinach, etc.)

Ryan explains why this is a good time to be sowing vegetable seeds in this article, "Second Chances." There are several factors, including day length and soil temperature, that make it likely that planting now will result in a better harvest than was possible earlier in the year. And of  course, if you need seed, Botanical Interests is an excellent source. They carry many organic and heirloom varieties. Absolutely NO GMOs.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Fall Is The Time To Plant Spring Flowering Bulbs

If you are one of those people who dreads winter, try skipping past it in your mind and start thinking about spring. Imagine early blooming Crocusesfollowed by Daffodils Hyacinths and Tulips. Picture the fields of color that dazzle us every year during the Skagit Tulip Festival. Then get outside and plant some bulbs!

A field of daffodils blooms near  La Conner, Washington, at the
beginning of the annual. month-long Skagit Valley Tulip Festival.
Fall is an ideal time for planting in the Northwest. The weather is mild enough that working outdoors is comfortable. Plants have a chance to gradually settle in before spring. Fall and winter rains keep everything watered.

A frequently asked question is, "How deep should bulbs be planted?" The answer varies, depending on the size of the bulb and where your garden is. Here at sea level, I plant bulbs about twice as deep as they are tall. So a 2" tall daffodil bulb would sit with its bottom 4" into the ground. Tiny bulbs like crocus, I would plant about 3x as deep as the bulb is tall. In the foothills of our mountain ranges, I would plant bulbs deeper, to keep them from freezing. Give them at least another inch of soil on top.

Bulbs are easy care plants. About the only thing you need to do to keep them thriving is to add Bone Meal to the soil at planting time and as a top dressing after the flowers bloom.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Help! My Tree Is Dying!

It is normal for western red cedars
and other conifers to lose some
leaves in autumn.
I have received frantic calls from clients at this time of year because they fear they are losing their favorite evergreen trees. They look into the canopy of a pine, a Hinoki cypress, Douglas fir or western red cedar and see brown needles or leaves - sometimes a lot of them. And they are sure the tree is dying.

But nearly always, the tree is just fine. It is normal for conifers to shed old leaves and needles in the fall. A tree is called an "evergreen" because it has green foliage year around. People often take that to mean that the tree never sheds a leaf, which isn't the case. Older leaves on the inside of the plant, close to the trunk, turn brown and fall in autumn. The rest of the tree, of course, remains "green."

The time when brown foliage on a conifer is a sign of trouble is when the growing tip (the outer end of the branch) turns brown. If you have concerns about the health of your trees, consult with a certified arborist.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

3 Things You Should NOT Do in the Garden in Fall

If you are not overly fond of gardening chores, you may be relieved to know that there are things you simply shouldn't do right now. You're off the hook, at least for the time being. 

Here's what you should NOT be doing in fall:
1. Pruning. Pruning stimulates growth. If you prune trees and shrubs now, they will react by sending out new shoots. That new growth is very tender and susceptible to frost damage. If we have an early freeze, which has been the pattern the past two or three years, that new growth will be damaged. This weakens the plant and makes it less hardy overall. This goes for roses, too. They might look leggy and ragged right now, and you're tempted to go over there and clean them up, but wait until February. For more information, read this post on when to prune

2. Fertilizing. It's time for your garden to slow down and rest. Lawn and general purpose fertilizers stimulate growth, and this is not the season for that. If you are planting bulbs, a top dressing of bone meal is fine, but otherwise, fertilizing is like drinking an energy drink just before bedtime. 

3. Watering. OK, this seems obvious, especially since we've had some rain in the past couple of weeks. But some people with automatic sprinkling systems get so used to not having to think about watering (or not watering) that they forget to turn them off until late in the season. Established gardens need little or no supplemental watering after September 1. (New gardens, ones planted this year or last, may need more water if we haven't had rain.) If you water by hand, water less frequently as fall approaches. Dry conditions, along with cooler night temperatures and shorter days, are a signal to plants that it is time to start slowing down, hardening off and preparing for winter. 

Monday, September 26, 2011

5 Things To Do In The Garden In Fall

Fall color in the Arboretum at South Seattle
Community College
It is raining in Seattle today - a slow, soaking rain. After this kind of rain, the weeds are easier to pull and the wet leaves rake nicely into a pile that stays put until you get them into the compost or yard waste bin. 

I love gardening in the fall. The temperatures are cool so I don't get overheated when I work.  Fall is a long season in Seattle with three full months of color, and being outside, watching the landscape change is good for the soul. 

Here are 5 things to do in the garden now:

1 - Tidy up. Start by clearing away dead foliage on perennials. Rake leaves. You may have to do this a couple of times before fall is over because don't plants go dormant here all at once. Do a thorough weeding job - you will thank yourself next spring. 

2 - Mulch beds. Most horticulturalists will agree that mulching in fall is a good idea. But we don't all agree on the best way to do it. Some people rake piles of leaves into their planting borders and call it good. I prefer to use a composted product like Steerco  (available from Sawdust Supply in Georgetown). I've tried the leaf method and found that after a lot of rain, the leaves stick together, forming a solid mat that smothers ground covers. If the leaves aren't raked off of the crowns of perennials early enough in spring, the new shoots go off in strange directions and the plants fail to do well. Steerco, on the other hand, provides a blanket that protects plant roots from the cold while allowing air circulation. It also looks a lot better. 

3 - Winterize sprinkler systems. It seems obvious that sprinklers should be shut off in the fall, so I am surprised by how many people overlook this necessary chore. Sprinkler lines are shallow and often burst in cold weather. This creates a big problem, and not just for the homeowner, as this mudslide story on the West Seattle Blog from last December shows. 

4 - Plant trees and shrubs. This gives plants a head start on next year. Root systems will start getting established well before the busy growth season in spring. As an added plus, local nurseries have terrific plant sales going on right now.

5 - Plant spring blooming bulbs. If you want daffodils, crocus, tulips and hyacinths next year, you have to plant them now. 

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Fertilizer Facts

When you visit your local hardware or garden supply store, you will find lots of fertilizer products. How do you choose the one(s) that are right for you? Here's some basic information to help you decide.

The main nutrients contained in most fertilizers are Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Potassium (chemically speaking: N, P and K). On the front of the package, you will see three numbers, usually in large print, that tell you the percentage of each nutrient contained in that product.
A 20-20-20 fertilizer, for example, is one that contains 20% of each major nutrient; a 30-10-10 contains 30% nitrogen, 10% phosphorous and 10% potassium.
To decide which fertilizer you need, you first need to know what each of these nutrients do for a plant.

  • Nitrogen promotes leafy, vegetative growth
  • Phosphorous promotes flowering, and therefore fruit production, and stimulates root growth
  • Potassium promotes root growth and benefits the general health of the plant, making it more resistant to disease.
In general, evergreens and lawns need fertilizers with a higher percentage of nitrogen. Blooming plants need more phosphorus and potassium. Good nutrient ratios to look for are: 3-1-2 for lawns and 1-2-2 for flowering plants.
NOTE: Fertilizers with a high percentage of nitrogen will suppress blooming, so don't use lawn fertilizer in your perennial beds!
It isn't necessary to buy different fertilizers for every kind of plant, so don't be taken in by the myriad of products on the shelf. You don't need rose food and tomato food and bloom "boosters." A single, all-purpose fertilizer will take care of all your vegetables and blooming plants. Besides that, you will need a separate formulation for your lawn. (Choose a lawn fertilizer that has less than 30% nitrogen or you will spend most of your time mowing grass.)

There are a few specialty nutrients you should know about. Some evergreens, most notably rhododendrons, suffer from an iron deficiency that causes their leaves to turn yellow. This is quite common and can be corrected by using a chelated (pronounced KEY-lated) iron product or a fertilizer formulated for acid loving evergreens.
Bulbs are heavy users of calcium (bone meal) and like a top-dressing of it after blooming and a bit of it worked into the soil when they are planted. 
Roses and tomatoes need extra magnesium -- check the package when you buy all purpose fertilizer to be sure magnesium is included as a trace element.

There are several forms a fertilizer can take: granular, liquid, spikes. Which form is best?

  • The granular types that you mix with water and pour around the base of the plant are quickly and easily taken up by the roots. (They are a good choice for treating those yellow rhododendrons.) The disadvantage is that the nutrients can leach through the soil quickly in a rainy spell, moving them deeper into the soil profile and out of the reach of your plant's root system. 
  • Foliar sprays are also quickly taken up by plants, but their effects are not long lasting. (And the spray apparatus can drive you crazy -- they clog too easily.)
  • Dry, granular products that you sprinkle on the soil do a good job of slowly releasing nutrients. They are especially useful in wet weather. If you apply them in dry weather, water them in or they can burn your plants.
  • Time-release fertilizers, such as Osmocote, come in round pellets (they look like white or green caviar). These fertilizers are expensive, but do a good job of slowly releasing nutrients over several months. This type of fertilizer is often used in the nursery trade for their container stock. 
  • Avoid using fertilizer spikes. As water dissolves them, they create a concentrated pool of fertilizer which will burn the roots adjacent to the spikes while providing little or no benefit to other areas of the root system. Stick with the dry fertilizers and liquid mixes that you can spread evenly over the surface of the soil. 
Think you have over-fertilized? Water, water, water. This will dilute the fertilizer and wash it down below the root zone.

How Much Mulch?

Ever wonder how many bags of mulch, soil, compost or gravel to buy? Would it make more sense to have a yard of material delivered? Or will you need that much? End the guesswork.  Measure your space and use this table to calculate how much to buy.

1" depth
2" depth*
3" depth
4" depth
Bag Volume: 2.7 cubic feet --- 10 bags = 1 cubic yard
*Recommended depth for most effective mulching

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Here's the Dirt: Part 2 - Different Types of Soils

When we talk about types of soil, we are usually talking about whether the soil is predominantly sand, silt or clay. It is important to know the difference because gardening in sandy soil is quite different from gardening in soil that is mostly clay.

The reason for this is that the size of the soil particles is very different. A particle of sand is much bigger than one of silt, which is much larger than a particle of clay. To illustrate this, I've lined up some items on the windowsill to help you get a visual sense of the differences.
The cherry tomatoes on the left represent the large particles found in sandy soil, the rice (center) is like the much smaller particles of silt and the flour, at right, has tiny particles similar to clay. (Don't hold me to these exact proportions: this photo is just to give you way to think about this.)

Now imagine what happens when it rains. If you have sandy soil, it's like putting the cherry tomatoes in a colander and running water over them. As soon as you turn off the faucet, water runs right through those big pore spaces, leaving just a thin coat of moisture on surface of the tomatoes. If you are gardening in sand, you know this - without organic material added to the soil to soak up and hold onto water, it dries out in no time. 

You can think of silty soil as being like the grains of rice. When you run water over rice, it drains slowly, leaving quite a bit of moisture both coating the grains and held in the small spaces between them. 

Clay particles behave a lot like flour. They are so tiny that they pack in tightly together with very little space between them. If you pour water on flour, it will just sit there until you mix it in. Once you've mixed it in, however, it is very hard to completely dry it out. 

OK, so that's how soil particle size affects water retention. Particle size also matters when it comes to nutrients. Ions of nitrogen, potassium, phosphorous, calcium, magnesium, sulphur, etc. cling to the outer surface of soil particles where they can be taken up by plants. Smaller particles, like silt and clay, have far more surface area per volume than those big particles of sand and therefore can hold a lot more nutrients. 

Bear in mind that this is a very simple explanation of soil types. It is enough information to help you make some reasonable decisions about how to improve your soil, which I'll talk about in the next post on soil amendments. But it by no means covers the subject. Healthy soil is more than particles, it includes organic material and many living organisms working together. I strongly recommend that gardeners learn more about that fascinating world under our feet. James Nardi's book, "Life in the Soil: A Guide for Naturalists and Gardeners," is a good place to start. 

Remember that unless you are right on a sandy beach, your soil is likely some combination of particles. If you aren't sure whether it is mostly sand or clay, you can do the "squeeze" test. Pick up a handful of moist soil and try to make it into a ball. If it packs nicely into a ball, it has a lot of clay in it. If it crumbles without holding a shape, it is mostly sand.
Wondering how much mulch, soil or compost you should buy for your gardening project? Check out this handy table.
Read part 1 of this series - Here's the Dirt: Introduction

Friday, May 20, 2011

Picking Out the Pines

Do you have trouble telling one conifer from another? Do pines, cedars, firs and spruces all look the same to you? Well, after you read this post, you'll be able to tell the pines, at least, from all the others.

Here's how: pay attention to evergreen trees in your neighborhood this week. You'll notice that some of them have new shoots emerging from the tips of their branches that look like fingers pointing toward the sky.

These shoots look as if the tree is making the kind of rude gestures that humans do when they've been cut off in traffic. But don't take this personally, because these "fingers" are simply the beginnings of this year's growth for the pine tree. No other conifer produces shoots that look like these, so when you see them, you know the tree is a pine.

Over the next few weeks, these shoots, called "candles," will grow longer and shortly after that, new needles will appear along them. Depending on the type of pine, this will add anywhere from one to eighteen inches to the size of the tree.

You'll notice that some pines have white candles. (My guess is that these white shoots are what inspired people to start calling them candles.)

And that some have yellow candles. But they all work the same way.

You can shape a pine tree over the years by pinching the candles to stop or slow the growth of a branch. If you don't want a branch to add any new growth for the year, cut the candle completely off. If you want it to add some growth, but not too much, cut off just a portion of the candle. This technique is used in formal Asian gardens to train pines into a specific shapes.

As a bit of pine trivia, you might be interested in the fact that pine trunks offer a sort of record of the amount of rainfall from year to year. If you look closely at the tree on the left, you can see that there's bare trunk for several inches, then a whorl of branches, then more bare trunk, another whorl of branches, and so on. The distance from one whorl to the next is one year's growth. In rainy years, the trees grow more and the distance between whorls is longer; in drier years, it is shorter.

There are many pine varieties that grow well in the Seattle area. If you want to know more about them, the Sunset Western Garden Book has a lengthy section on types, growth rates, habits and more.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

When Is The Right Time To Prune?

I recently wrote a post about pruning roses. But what about the rest of the plant material in your garden?  When is the optimal time to prune those plants? The right time to prune depends on the plant. Here are some general guidelines.

Winter pruning (January, February)
In general, prune dormant, deciduous plants in winter, such as:
  • Deciduous ornamental trees
  • Fruit trees - note that these are pruned very differently from ornamental trees to maximize fruiting spurs. Be sure to consult a pruning guide before proceeding.
  • Roses - there are different types of roses and each is pruned differently
  • Wisteria is cut back hard in winter and then again in summer after blooming
  • Certain vines - check pruning guides for when and how
  • Winter is also a good time to prune conifers (pine, fir, cedar) to minimize sap "bleeding."

    Early spring (March, April)

    • Hydrangeas (shrub form) after frost danger is past
    • Most hedges, such as laurel, privet, Leylandii cypress
    • Red and yellow twig dogwoods are cut back hard now to stimulate the colorful new growth that will light up next winter's landscape
    Late spring, early summer pruning
    In general, prune spring blooming plants right after they bloom. Pruning them earlier often guarantees that you cut off all the flower buds and miss out on that year's display. Specific plants include:
    • Rhododendrons - these and many other plants start setting flower buds shortly after the current flowers fade, so don't dilly dally. If your rhododendron needs shaping, get to it right after bloom so the plant has time to set flower buds for the coming year.
    • Camellias
    • Forsythia
    • Rock Rose
    • Peonies
    • Pieris
    • Shear spent flowers on herbs such as lavender, rosemary, thyme and oregano
    Summer pruning
    For the most part, summer pruning is a matter of deadheading and light trimming. Some people give their Japanese maples a bit of a hair cut in summer, because they get so twiggy, but that's optional. 

    Fall pruning
    Avoid this practice. I know many people were raised in households where pruning trees and shrubs was part of fall cleanup and preparation for winter, but it is not a good horticultural practice. All pruning stimulates growth and new growth is very susceptible to cold damage. If a plant is exposed to a sudden, early freeze, as we've had in Seattle the past three or four years, the new growth may be killed and the overall health of the plant jeopardized. 

    What about storm damage?
    Remove dead, broken or damaged branches any time of year.

    These are very basic guidelines. For more specifics I refer you to the American Horticultural Society's book, Pruning and Training and Cass Turnbull's Guide to Pruning. Be sure you have proper tools, and if you are handling roses or berries, a pair of thorn resistant gloves

    Tuesday, February 15, 2011

    3 Pruning Tools You REALLY Need (and 3 That Are Optional)

    To prune properly, you need very sharp tools so that you can make clean, precise cuts. This is important because jagged cuts and torn bark provide good avenues for insect infestation and disease. To do the job well, you don't need lots of tools, you just need good ones.
    Here are my well-used  favorites, the tools I use for 95% of the pruning I do. At top, my 19 year old hand pruners, a folding saw and a pair of bonsai scissors.
    Here's why these are the must-haves:
    • Hand pruners. Unless you are doing significant tree work, most of the pruning you'll do is with hand pruners. It is worth it to spend a little extra money on pruners that feel good in your hand and are sturdy enough to last. Felco is the brand I prefer because they offer high quality and a choice of sizes and features. The pair I have is designed for small hands like mine. I no longer get cramps from trying to use pruners that are too big for me.  Felcos come in larger sizes, of course, and there's a version for left-handed gardeners, too. All of these are bypass pruners, which are preferable to anvil pruners because they make cleaner cuts. Anvil types tend to crush stems, especially as they lose their sharpness. 
    • Folding pruning saw. I like folding saws because you can fold them up and slip them into a pocket (or a tool holster) to keep them handy. They are small and easier to maneuver in cramped spaces than larger saws. These saws are fine for cutting branches up to 2-1/2" - 3" diameter. Better brands have blades that can be replaced. 
    • Bonsai scissors. When I bought these scissors 15+ years ago, I didn't think they would be as useful as they have turned out to be. They are ideal for tip pruning shrubs and roses. I use them to deadhead pretty much everything, including bloomed-out herbs like lavender and thyme. They are the perfect tool for deadheading rhododendrons because the pointy blades can slip into the tight space at the base of the faded flower without damaging the new growth emerging below it.
    OK, those are the "must haves" -- now here's a few tools that you might need for specific situations. If you are a beginning gardener, add these as you come across a project they are suited for. There's no need to spend money on them until that time. None of these are precise tools. The length of the handles of loppers and pole pruners can make for wobbly cuts. The bow saw is hard to maneuver in tight places. You use these in cases where you want to remove lots of foliage and branches quickly so you can get to the specific areas where you will make precise cuts with smaller tools.

    • Loppers are excellent for projects like clearing out blackberry overgrowth or dismantling shrubs you want to remove. They are also good for "lopping" off big hunks of foliage and get them out of the way so you can  get to the place along the trunk where you need to cut off a branch.
    • Bow saw. Bow saws are best used to make quick work of large diameter branches. They can be a bit unwieldy because of their size and shape, which can make for irregular cuts. Good for clearing away storm debris or removing trunks and branches of trees you want to remove. 
    • Pole pruner. Again, these are tools that have some use if you need to remove the outer portions of broken branches. But it really isn't possible to have precise control over a cut made holding a tool with such a long handle - there's going to be some wobbling going on. That said, there are places where ladder work is not practical (slopes, e.g.) and these pruners might be the best or only choice. 

    There you have it, the lowdown on pruning tools. There's just one more thing to add -- good information on how to prune. If you live in the Seattle area, consider getting some hands-on training from Plant Amnesty. Check their website to find out when and where classes are being held. Or get a copy of Cass Turnbull's pruning guide, which is the next best thing. Cass is the founder of Plant Amnesty.