Just Do the Soil Test

You’ll be glad you did

Soil test picture

Do you have an area of your yard that is not doing as well as you’d like? Or maybe you’re considering creating a new planting area? Have you tested the soil in your vegetable garden in the past 5 years? Or ever?

A soil test can give you valuable (and sometimes surprising) information. Proper soil nutrients create healthy plants that are better able to fend off diseases and pests without any intervention. Knowing the state of your soil can help prevent the expense of excess fertilization, not to mention the environmental damage that excess fertilizer can cause.

Now is the perfect time to get that soil test.  If the soil test indicates that your soil is too acidic, you can apply the lime in the fall so it has time to alter the soil pH over the winter. If your soil is low in organic matter, you may decide to grow a cover crop over the fall and winter.

 Any needed fertilizers should be added in the spring before planting.

Soil test kits can be purchased from the Penn State Extension Office in Smeadley Park. Follow the directions for sampling carefully – your test results are only as good as your sample.  You will receive a soil report sent directly to your home with all the recommendations for improving your soil.  If you have any trouble interpreting your test report, you can always contact the Master Gardener Hort Line for help.

Want more information? Here are some links:

Penn State Extension: Soil Testing Overview

Penn State Extension: Don’t Guess… Soil Test

Penn State Extension: Interpreting Your Soil Test Reports

Penn State Extension: Soil Test Results: “What’s Next?” Guide for Homeowners

Glorious Garlic

Garlic is planted in the fall – the same as ornamental bulbs like tulips and daffodils. In Southeastern PA, garlic is generally planted in mid-October. The timing is based on giving the bulbs time to create a good root system before cold sets in, but not so much warmth that they sprout before winter.  

There are many varieties of garlic which fit into two main types, hardneck and softneck. Hardneck varieties are generally more hardy and easier to grow in our climate, but it never hurts to experiment.  Garlic bulbs for planting can be purchased from many places where you would purchase fall bulbs.

Garlic bulbs should be broken into individual cloves and planted about 2 inches deep, 6 inches apart in an area with fertile, well-draining soil in full sun.  Like other bulbs, your garlic will sprout in spring and grow through the beginning of summer.  To get the largest bulbs, keep your garlic well fed, watered in times of drought and weed free. The flower stalks (or scapes) of hardneck garlic should be removed to maximize bulb size.  They are edible!

Garlic is harvested when the leaves start turning brown. You want at least 4 of the leaves still have some green, otherwise the bulbs will split open, start to lose their papery wrappers and will not store well. Garlic is usually ready for harvest in our area by mid-July.

Harvest the bulbs carefully as they bruise easily when fresh. Allow them to dry for two to 3 weeks in a well-ventilated, shaded area. Then brush off any soil, cut off the dried tops and roots and store in a cool, dark location.

You can save some of your garlic bulbs to plant again next year. Save the largest bulbs to get the biggest crop.

Want more information? Here are a couple links:

Penn State Extension: Growing and Using Garlic

Penn State Extension: Garlic Production

Gardening by Phone

Article by A. Goldman

Phone photo

With the plethora of new gardening gadgets, there is one that pretty much everyone has in their pocket or purse; your phone…or more specific the camera on your phone.

Since we are winding the garden season, now is a good time to document both your garden and also your purchases for the 2019 season. 

When purchasing plants throughout the season, I group the plant tags together and snap a picture just in case they are lost.  If you are extremely diligent, this can be done for specific planters, especially if the combos are ones you like and want to replicate next year. 

I also document plants that I might want to buy in the future but may not remember the name or cultivar.  You can also research a plant easily while still in the store using any search engine.  This may or may not save you money! Flowerchecker  is an app for handy identification as well as NatureGate which will ID plants, birds, fish, and butterflies. 

Everyone’s garden goes through many changes both good and bad so take a few pictures of areas that you are really pleased with, plant combos that worked out, plants you think you should buy more of or need to repeat again for a continuous look, areas that could use some spring, summer, or fall bulbs, or maybe even some garden art to spice things up. 

Areas of your garden that are looking peaky (rundown), overgrown or in need of something different, having a picture with you can help you make wise decisions when shopping those fall ½ sales!  Just looking at a picture sometimes will give you a fresh perspective on what that area needs.

Once the garden season is over and winter sets in, download and establish files for plants and sections of your garden for future reference.  Winter is a good time to start your lists for next season’s garden, which can easily be done with your phone’s apps.  When the 2020 garden catalogs start arriving, I sometimes snap a picture of a new variety to be on the lookout for.

Your phone can help you in the garden in many ways but try not to lose it in the garden.  It will be of no use then. 

End of Season Plant Sales

The good, the bad and the ugly

Those end of season plant sales can be very exciting. The prices are so great, you can finally fill all those “holes” in your landscape.  But how can you tell if a great price is also a great value? Here are a few things to consider.

Make sure the plant in question matches the planting conditions you have, is hardy in your zone and will fit into your landscape. Its not a bargain no matter the price if you can’t grow it well in your yard.

While you can expect some leaf and branch damage by the end of the season, wilting or burned plants, or rotting ones, that have obviously not been cared for are risky. Extremely stressed plants may not survive in spite of your best TLC.

Don’t be surprised if perennials have been cut back. The stems may be shorter but they should still be intact. A gentle tug may tell you if stems are rotting. The exception to this are spring ephemeral perennials that are going dormant. These may have naturally lost many of their stems making it a bit more difficult to access the health of the plant. Nursery staff should be able to tell you if a plant is a spring ephemeral.

Check carefully for any pests or diseases you do not want to introduce into your garden. In some cases this can include noxious weeds (Hairy Bittercress – I’m looking at you!).

Don’t be afraid to carefully slip the plant from its pot and check the root system. There should be evidence of live roots. At the end of the season, you can expect some root wrapping around the pot edges, but if a plant is extremely root bound and feels hard as a brick, consider carefully. You will need to cut and tease those roots out in order to plant properly. This is difficult with extremely root bound plants.

Be aware that clearance plants may not have the same warrantee as full price plants, best to check with the nursery.

Try to plant your finds as soon as possible so they can begin establishing themselves. Mulch them, but do not fertilize.  You may be able to divide some perennials that have been growing in a pot all season when you plant.

Be sure to keep the plants watered throughout the fall.  Squirrels are notorious for digging up transplants in the fall so keep an eye out. Sometimes fall planted specimens are more susceptible to frost heave so be prepared to tuck them back in during winter thaws if need be.

Want more information? Check out this Penn State article.

Penn State Extension – Garden Bargain or Bust?

The Fall Vegetable Garden

Broccoli

Believe it or not, now is the time to start thinking about your fall vegetable crops. 

The fall vegetable garden can sometimes be a bit challenging in our climate because soils are often hot and dry in July and August. This can prevent seeds of cool season crops from germinating. 

One way to get around this is to start these vegetables indoors where the temperature and moisture can be controlled. Start the seeds in mid-July and then transplant the seedlings into the garden in mid-August. Be sure to properly harden off the seedlings before transplanting.

Plants that respond well to this technique include broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, collards, kale, lettuce and spinach.

If you would prefer to direct seed all you crops in the garden, there are a couple things you can do to increase the chance of success.

Make sure the seeds are kept moist until the seedlings are well established. On very hot days, this may mean watering more than once.

If possible, provide some temporary shade for your seed bed until the seedlings are well established, particularly during the hottest part of the day. You may be able to plant some of the seeds in places where they get some afternoon shade from existing plants.

If some of your warm season crops (cucumbers, beans, summer squash) are looking a bit tired or worse for wear, you probably still have time to plant another sowing of seeds and harvest another crop.  Just look at the days till harvest on your seed packet and make sure you have enough days until the first expected frost. You can find the first expected frost date for your exact location here.

Want more information? Here are some links:

National Gardening Association – When to plant vegetables

Cornell Extension Vegetable Growing Guide

Delaware Cooperative Extension –Vegetable Garden Planning Schedule

Garden Chores for March

A month of managing mud

Weather wise, March can be a very unpredictable month. Sometimes you can tackle some early spring chores and sometimes you just need to sit on your hands and wait until the weather cooperates.

The biggest problem is wet, soggy soil. When doing garden work, avoid standing, walking or driving over wet soils as much as possible. Wet soils compact much more easily. It is extremely important not to till soggy soils, especially with a rotary tiller. Its not worth risking the soil structure of your planting bed just to try to gain a couple of weeks gardening time.

That said, here are some chores you might be able to tackle.

In much of Delaware County, this month is the time to start seeds for warm season vegetables and flowers that need 8 weeks of growth inside – things like tomatoes and marigolds. You can also start cool season crops like lettuce and broccoli to give them a head start for planting out in mid-April.
Some cold season vegetables (like peas, potatoes, spinach, carrots, radish, onion sets and directly seeded lettuce) can be planted in the garden near the end of the month provided the soil is not too wet to work. The soil should crumble when handled.

You can begin cleaning up garden debris. Rake excess debris carefully off beds that hold earliest bloomers first – bulbs and spring ephemerals.

Trim the old foliage from ornamental grasses before they start new growth.

Trim old foliage from very early spring blooming perennials like Hellabore and Epimedium.

Finish pruning fruit trees and some woody ornamentals. Rejuvenate some overgrown shrubs and hedges by cutting them back. This article provides guidance on what to prune when.

Ornamental shrubs can be transplanted while dormant provided – you guessed it – the soil is not too wet.

Plant pansies and violas in the garden.

Direct sow poppy seeds in the flower beds. Make sure to mark them so you don’t disturb them cleaning up beds later.

Carefully push any perennials that have heaved out of the soil due to freeze-thaw cycles back in place to avoid root damage. Take note of any perennials that will need to be divided next month.

Clean out any bird houses or nesting boxes to be ready for a new season.

Enjoy all the fresh air and sunshine that you can!

Potting up seedlings

Potting up seedlings – one person’s technique

So many baby plants…

I started these seedlings by sowing a bunch of seeds together – each type in one container.  At this stage its been about 3 weeks since the seeds were sown.

The seedlings have some true leaves now so its time to move them to individual cells to grow on.

To get this far, I just followed the directions on the seed packet. Pay attention to the timing when you start the seeds so the seedlings are the optimum size to plant out. Also, note whether the seeds need light to germinate and do not cover those types with seed starting mix, just surface sow them.

In the past, I would try to start seeds like these in individual cell packs because it seemed like more work to start them in one container and then transfer them.  But over time I discovered this method is actually easier for me for certain kinds of seeds.

Sometimes the seeds are so tiny it’s hard to get just a couple in each cell, so you end up with “clumps” you need to thin. (Not to mention wasted seed and the heartbreak of ruthlessly destroying all the extra baby seedlings.)  Some of the seeds germinate erratically (I find this more true with perennial flowers than annuals) so you end up with a bunch in one cell and none in another.  With this method I can grow on the strongest seedlings and have one in each cell.

To pot them up, first I fill a cell flat with sterile seed starting mix and make a hole in the center of each cell.  I want to have a new home ready for the seedlings before I remove them from their old one

Then I gently remove the soil and seedlings from the tray where they are growing by tipping it upside down into my hand and setting the soil clump down.  Break it apart gently to free the seedlings.

They’re OK… really
Cute little guy…

Then pluck out a seedling.  Make sure you handle it by a leaf – not by the stem.  If the leaf gets a little squished or torn, no big deal. But if the stem gets damaged it can be the demise of the seedling.

Then just tuck the little guy’s roots into the hole in the cell and gently push the soil in place.

In their new home

Once I have all the seedlings in the flat, I water them with a very gentle stream of plain water. I use a watering can but cover most of the hole with my finger to get a very small stream.  You could also use a spray bottle.  The water from the top helps settle the soil around the roots of the seedling.  Sometimes they tip a bit when you water, you can straighten them back up but they often straighten on their own.

The seed trays need to be placed back under good light to grow on, either grow lights or a very sunny window.

I like to use self-watering seed starting trays although other containers are fine, you just need to be more watchful. Self-watering trays make my life so much easier because I can go for a while between filling the water reservoir. As the plants get bigger, you may be surprised at how often you need to water them. They look small but are growing quickly and the grow lights or sun light can dry the soil quickly.

At this stage I start using some liquid fertilizer in the water because the seed starting mix does not have much nutrition for the plants. I mix it about one quarter strength.

Here is my set-up with self-watering trays and grow lights. You can see I still use recycled yogurt cups too! I try to get the seedlings as much light as possible by lowering the light close the to seedlings. I also have it on a timer to get 16 hours of light a day.