Sunday, December 30, 2012

'Tis The Most Wonderful Time Of Year!

Well, the holidays are over. There is not much that can be done in the yard right now. But as a gardener it is an exciting time!
As you can see by this picture, I get a bunch of them.

This is just what has come in so far, I am pretty sure there are still a few missing.
How many of you gardeners out there do not just sit and drool over the pictures of ripe tomatoes, pretty peppers, and golden ears of corn?
Granted, there is a bunch of crossover. Most of the catalogs sell the same varieties. I will go through them and order what I want from the one(s) that have what I want the cheapest.
WHY do I receive so many? Especially when they all pretty much sell the same things?
The wise crack answer is, “because I can”.
The true answer is, because each one will have a couple of “exclusive” or “unusual” varieties that the others don't.
However, today's article is not about what I am going to order (not sure yet anyway). No, today I am going to try to help some of the newbies to gardening. The ones that want to join us in the dark side and grow their own veggies.
All those catalogs look inviting. The pictures look great. The seeds are reasonably priced. It is almost too much to tolerate, I want to plant now!!
Wait a minute. I don't understand some of the terminology being used. Determinate/Indeterminate? Are they not sure of themselves?
Those letters after the name: VFFNTA. Are they trying to learn their alphabet?
Good questions. What in the world are these companies trying to tell you?
Most of this terminology is used for Tomatoes, though the letters can be also relate to Peppers. I will be sticking with Tomatoes today.
Determinate and Indeterminate first.
The majority of Tomatoes you will see, probably 90%, will be indeterminate. These are usually considered a vining type. They can reach lengths, or heights if staked up, of 6-10 feet. It also means, if they are well taken care of, they will continue to grow, flower and set fruit until the frost kills them. The fruit (yes, it is botanically a fruit) will ripen over a long period of time. If you LOVE a good old Tomato sandwich or like a little 'mater in your salad, these are the types you should look for.
Determinate Tomatoes are more commonly known as "bush" Tomatoes. These Tomato varieties are compact and generally grow to a height of about 3-4 feet. Determinate Tomatoes will actually stop growing when the top bud of the plant sets fruit. All of their crop will ripen near the same time over a period of 1-2 weeks and then the plant, having completed its life cycle, will begin to die. Determinate Tomatoes are good candidates for growing in a container. Those aluminum tomato cages you buy at the garden center are designed to support these kinds of plants. If you like to can your own Tomato sauce or make salsa, you need to grow these kinds.
Now for the alphabetically challenged ones.
All of those letters tell you that particular plant has been bred to resist some kind of disease or other problem.
Let's tackle a few of the big ones.
“V” Which is for Verticillium wilt. This is a disease caused by the fungus, Verticillium albo-atrum, which lives in the soil. It is often confused with fusarium wilt, bacterial canker, or early blight. Symptoms are similar in all these diseases. The fungus works its way up through the plant’s roots spreading a toxin that wilts and creates spots on the leaves. It prevents water from reaching the branches and leaves, thus starving the plant.

Courtesy of

Some things to look for include: Yellow spots appearing on the lower leaves, followed by brown veins. Leaves then turn brown and fall off. Plants may wilt during the day and recover at night. If you were to split the main stem it shows discolored streaks about 10-12 inches above the soil line. It can attack at any stage in a Tomato plant’s growth, but is most common when the plant is producing fruit. To date, there is no chemical treatment available. 

“F” This one stands for Fusarium wilt. This disease is caused by the fungus, Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. Lycopersici, which also lives in the soil. It is often confused with Verticillium wilt because both produce similar symptoms in Tomatoes. One of the main differences of these two diseases is, the first signs are yellowing and wilting on only one side of the plant – a leaf, single shoot, branch, or several branches. Yellowing and wilting spread throughout the plant as the fungus spreads. There is no chemical control for this one either.

Fusarium Wilt Virus

If you see two FF's, that particular plant is resistant to two different strains of the Fusarium virus.

 “N” Nematodes. Better known as Root-knot nematodes, which are microscopic worms that live in the soil and in plant roots. In a resistant variety, Nematodes fail to develop and reproduce normally within the root tissues, allowing plants to grow and produce fruit even though nematode infection of the roots has occurred . Some crop yield loss may still happen however, even though the plants are damaged less and are significantly more tolerant than that of a susceptible variety.

Typical Nematode Damage

“T” This letter is for the Tobacco Mosaic Virus. This disease can be a problem when resistant varieties are not used and frequent handling of plants is involved. Many strains of the virus exist, affecting many unrelated plants in different families. Handling plants often such as transplanting, staking them up, and pruning can effectively spread the virus. Infected leaf and root debris as well as seeds are common sources of the virus The virus can survive in the plant debris for varying periods, up to 2 years under dry conditions. This is why it is important if you are a smoker to make sure you wash your hands very well before handling your Tomato plants, it can actually remain in your cigarettes and be transmitted that way.
Symptoms first appear about 10 days after plants become infected. Symptoms appear as light and dark green mottled areas on leaves. Leaves on infected plants are often small, curled, and puckered. Plants infected early in their development are stunted and have a yellowish cast. Symptoms may vary depending on virus strain, time of infection, variety, and environmental conditions. The virus can reduce size and number of fruit produced. The earlier a plant becomes infected, the greater the loss.

Typical Tobacco Mosaic Virus Damage (noticed the puckered leaves)

A” The last one I will cover today is Alternaria Leaf Spot also known as Early Blight. This is caused by various fungi in the Alternaria family. Lesions are round to irregular spots on older leaves. Spots enlarge and concentric rings in a bull's-eye pattern can be seen in the center of the diseased area. It is best to use a variety that has been bred to resist this disease, but if it is severe enough to warrant chemical control, select one of the following fungicides: maneb, mancozeb, chlorothalonil, or copper fungicides. Follow the directions on the label, this is the law!

Alternaria Leaf Spot Damage

There are many other diseases that affect Tomatoes. This list is just some of the things that have been bred into them to help resist the problem. As you can see, finding one that has some resistance to a certain disease could be very useful.
There are also many cultural practices that you should be following already. Things such as rotating crops. I know this is difficult if you have a small area to garden in. Ideally you will want to plant things that have no relation to what you planted the previous year. Avoid planting Tomatoes in the same place as well as Potatoes and Peppers. Corn or Beans would be a good alternate crop.
Sanitation. This is a big one I have been harping on for a long time. Clean up any fallen leaves or fruit. Especially if you think you might have some kind of a disease problem. DO NOT compost. Destroy the debris completely or remove them from the area.
Plant in a well drained area. Make sure there is ample sunlight. Do not plant too close together so they can have good air circulation. Common sense is one of your biggest tools in your arsenal.
I hope this has cleared up much of the confusion when you open up a seed catalog. Once you know the lingo, it really is not hard to understand. As always, if you have any questions, please feel free to e-mail me. But for right now, I am going to take my leave of you, I think I just heard the mailman and he might have another catalog for me!
Happy Growing!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Just Trial It!!

In the about me section on the left hand side of my blog, I have the words “Hopefully Always Inspirational”. Well today, we are going to go for some of that.
Last night was the first time this season that my yard suffered through below freezing temperatures. We have had some frosts, but this was the first time it dropped below 32 degrees. It actually went all the way to 29. The extent of time at the below 32 mark was somewhere in the 5-6 hour range, that is important and I will delve into that here shortly.
Why do I bring this up?
Well, anybody that has been following me or knows me, knows that I grow many unusual, not from around here, type of plants. I live in a Zone 8 and probably half of my plants can barely survive a Zone 9 garden.
Yes, I have a greenhouse, but I still have been doing a lot of “trials” as it were this year. Okay, truth is, they didn't all fit into the greenhouse this year...amazing thing, the plants either grew or the greenhouse shrunk....The intelligence report is still forth coming on that.
Anyway, after the wicked cold we had, I was sure there was going to be a bunch of very unhappy plants. There are.  
There are also a bunch of them that, by all rights, should be dead as a doornail!
Here are a few examples of the ones that don't look so good:

 Black Leaf Elephant Ear

 Dwarf Banana
 African Blue Basil
Yellow Brugmansia

Not much of a surprise there huh?
Well, here are the ones that shook it off like it was nothing:

 Macadamia Nut Tree
 Peanut Butter Fruit Tree
 Mexican Petunia
 Surinam Cherry

There are a couple of things at play here, let's take a look at a few of them.
The plants themselves.
When we think of many “exotic” fruit trees, we think of the shores of Hawaii or maybe down in Brazil or even Southern most Florida. Let me use the Surinam Cherry as an example.
The plant is native to Surinam, Guyana and French Guiana to southern Brazil (especially the states of Rio de Janeiro, ParaƱa, Santa Catharina and Rio Grande do Sul), and to Northern, Eastern and central Uruguay. Sounds pretty mild, almost like a tropical oasis, right? They probably don't have too many ski slopes or uses for ice scrapers. Yet, through trial and error it has been discovered that young Surinam Cherries can be damaged by temperatures below 28 degrees, and well-established plants have suffered only superficial injury at 22 degrees. Do they actually get that cold there or can plants adapt to more than we give them credit for?
Duration. I mentioned above that the killer cold was here for maybe 5-6 hours. This can be critical. Plants have the uncanny ability to protect themselves for brief periods of time. After that time is up, then the plant will die. My Citrus is a good example of this. They will go semi dormant. They do not lose their leaves like, say a maple tree does, but it still hunkers down and gets ready for the cold. As long as a plant is well watered and healthy, it can possibly survive brief encounters into the very cold abyss.
There is also another reason for the “so far” good luck in the survival rates of my exotic plants, Microclimates.
A microclimate is the climate of a small area that is different from the area around it. It may be warmer or colder, wetter or drier, or more or less prone to frosts. Take another look at the Peanut Butter Fruit Tree. It is right NEXT to the house and tucked slightly under some other trees. Both of those things offer some protection from the cold and frost. There are other things that effect microclimates. On a large scale, bodies of water will keep surrounding areas warmer. As will roads, buildings, walls, even large rocks can absorb heat during the day and give off a couple of degrees of protection at night. Heavy clay soils can act much like paved surfaces, moderating the temperature near ground level.
If you live in a valley, you will be cooler than your neighbors up hill. Cold air is heavier than warm, so it settles down into that open area.
Long time gardeners in an area have learned to take advantage of these type of areas. If you are just moving into a place, it will be difficult to know where the micros are. A couple of pieces of advice, look at your neighbors, see what they are growing. Investigate the yard at different times of the day, month and year, it will consistently be changing. I understand, that one is time consuming, so don't be in a hurry to plant a whole bunch of stuff until you learn what you have. You can also ask around, check with your local extension agents.
If you don't feel like doing any of those things, or want to experiment with some plants that just don't sound like they will do well where you are and PLEASE, use some common sense here.....I promise, a coconut palm tree will NOT grow in Maine.....remember the title of this article...Just Trial It!!
Happy Growing!

Monday, December 10, 2012

Water Woes

The last article I wrote dealt with sunlight and what is considered “Full Sun”. It was inspired by questions that I get when someone has an issue with a fruiting plant that is not producing fruit. Today's article has also been inspired by questions that I get when a plant is not doing well. It is probably the number two most common problem I deal with as a Master Gardener.

Many of the websites and articles that I read have a sentence in there that drives me crazy! It goes something like this, “This plant needs one inch of water per week” or something along those lines.
WHY, does that sentence bother me so much?
Lets run a couple of scenarios.
You have your favorite plant, it doesn't matter what it is for this example, it has a tag or you have read that it requires one inch of water per week. Okay, fine. What if this plant is in a very sandy soil? Water drains exceptionally well in sand, because it has little to no water holding capabilities. That one inch of water will be gone in hours, the plant is not getting any water 3-4 days later.
Let's reverse it. The plant is in a very heavy peat based soil. Peat holds water very well. That one inch of water may still be around in a week. Then you water again. It continues to build up until the plant literally drowns. More on that in a minute.
So you need to be aware of the type of soil it is in. What about the pot itself? 

A terracotta or clay pot is very pretty. They are nice and heavy and help to stabilize the plant. That clay or terracotta actually wicks the water away from the soil. So here again, one inch of water will be gone in a shorter period of time than one week.
Plastic pots tend to retain the water better. You guessed it, one inch of water per week might be too much.

There are numerous other things that need to be taken into consideration. The type of plant is a big one. A Cactus will need MUCH less water than a Philodendron. I know, the Cactus label does not read one inch of water per week. I have actually met somebody that watered theirs every other day, their's a plant and they need water. Of course, there was also the case of a woman that literally...I can't make this stuff up...watered her large Cactus one tablespoon of water every 6 months and wondered why it was looking poorly.
Size of the plant is another good example. Which do you think will need more water in full sun, a four inch pot or something the size of a trash can?
How about the weather? Do you think a week of cloudy, overcast, cool weather will need more water or less water than 95 degrees, cloudless sky, and windy?
It will also matter greatly if it is in the ground or in a pot.
Hopefully that has given you some idea of why you need to know your plant and the situation it is trying to be grown in.
What is that you say? How do you know if you are over-water or under-watering?
EXCELLENT question!
Sometimes when plants start to show symptoms of stress, i.e. wilting, the first reaction is to water, but sometimes over-watering can be just as detrimental to a plant's health as under-watering. Symptoms of both over and under-watering can look very similar. Leaves turn brown and wilt. Often times, when this happens to under-watered plants, those dead leaves will be dry and crispy. While with over-watering, those leaves may still be soft and limp.

Here is a test: Is this from over-watering or under-watering?
Tough to tell huh?

With under-watering the plant tries to conserve what little water it has by keeping the stalk green and the roots moist, but the leaves will turn yellow and wilt and eventually dry up.
With over-watering, plants need to breath. They breath through their roots and when there is too much water, the roots cannot take in gases. It is actually slowly suffocating.
Both over and under-watering can lead to other things, such as stunted growth, and lack of fruit or flowers.
Many people like to use a water meter on their plants. If you are not familiar with these, it is usually a probe that you stick in the soil and it will tell you whether you need to water or not. One of the types looks like this:

 I don't like them because they are very unreliable. I tried one once, I stuck it into a pot of extremely dry soil, I know it was very dry because it fell out in one piece and was very light. The meter said it was fine, do not water.
You actually have a reliable water meter with you right now. Scientifically it is called “the index finger”. Stick that scientific device into the soil, about 1-2 inches....if it feels dry, water...if it is damp, don't and check again tomorrow. Pretty cool huh?!
For smaller plants there is another method. Water the plant very well, make sure there is water coming out of the drainage holes. Then, lift the pot up. Get that weight in your head. After a couple of days, lift the pot again. If it feels much lighter than the other day, water, if it still feels heavy, check again in a couple of days.
I have been known to use both methods. I will stick my finger in a pot, then lift it. I very seldom have a water issue problem.
Hopefully, this has shed some light on the subject of watering. If you MUST err one way or the other, do so on the under-watering side. Many plants are much more drought tolerant than we think and will recover from too little water. There are not many that will come back from a dip into the deep end of a pool, unable to swim, with no life preserver!    
Happy Growing!