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.

Starting the Seed Starting

Starting onions and cold season flowers

I start my first seeds about mid February.  I start onions and some of my flowers including some perennial flowers. I also gamble on an early crop of broccoli, cabbage and lettuce – always hopeful that we’ll have an early spring

For the onions, I start them in small pots or flats (recycled yogurt cups here).  I plant the seeds in moist seed starting mix and cover the container with Press-n-seal (I like that I can re-use it) until the seeds germinate.  Once they are up, I take off the cover and put them under grow lights or into the greenhouse window to grow on. Its important to use a sterile seed starting mix to avoid damping off disease.

If the onion little plants get a bit ungainly and start to tangle up, I just trim their tops.  They will be ready to go in the vegetable garden end of March (weather permitting).  I just break apart the clump and plant them individually. They go in as kind of wimpy little threads that you don’t think can survive.  But they do.  They’re tougher than they look!

Some flower seeds need a pretty long period of growth indoors (some 10 weeks). The more cold hardy ones (like snapdragons) can actually be planted out before the last frost date provided you harden them off first. So for some flowers its not so crazy to start them in February. Pay attention to the seed packet instructions though. Starting seeds too early can result in weak spindly seedlings by planting time. Bigger is not always better.

I start these kinds of flower seeds the much same way as the onions, but pay attention to the growing instructions because some flower seeds need light to germinate and should not be covered with the starter mix.  I also give the flower seeds some bottom heat with a seed starting heat pad to help them germinate.

Once they get a few true leaves I’ll transplant them into flats to grow on before going outside in April or May. 

I resisted this for a long time. It seemed like so much more work to do the transplanting instead of just starting the seeds right in the cells of the flats.  But it actually works so much better for me, especially for extremely small seeds or ones the germinate erratically.  I waste less seed and I can transplant the strongest seedlings – so I end up with a strong plant in every cell of the flat.

I start cabbage, broccoli and lettuce in mid February too.  It’s a bit early, but I want to be ready in case of an early spring.  These I seed directly into a self-watering flat with 2-3 seeds in each cell.  If more than one germinates, I’ll cut off the weaker ones and let the strongest seedling grow on.

After growing for a month and a half they will (hopefully) go into the garden in March.

Choosing Tomato Varieties

How to select tomato varieties for your growing conditions

By Brenda Troutman

Tomato seedlings

Tomatoes are the number one fruit (technically speaking) grown by home gardeners and the most popular vegetable in the world. Climate change has led to more weather extremes in cold, heat (especially), drought and rain creating challenges to growing specialty crops. Environmental stressors reduce the quality of plants and their ability to set fruit. When deciding which tomato plants to grow there is an abundance of choices.  Some tomato varieties are better suited for temperature extremes then others.

Tomato plants are warm blooded and should not be planted outside until the soil temperature is above 60 degrees during the day (50 degrees night) and all danger of frost has past. Springs unpredictability and fluctuating temperatures can frustrate an over zealous gardener like myself who started tomato seeds indoors in January. These bush (determinate) or vine (indeterminate) plants do best when temperatures are between 65-85 degrees and the plants receive six or more hours of full sun daily. When temperatures drop below 65 degrees the plants will suffer, stunting plant growth and delaying fruiting. “Blossom drop” occurs when the days are warm but the nights dip below 55 degrees. The flowers fall off before being pollinated, and no fruit is set.

Pollination usually occurs between the hours of 10 AM to 2 PM. When summer temperatures reach 90 degrees during the day and do not drop much below 76 degrees at night (add in high humidity) pollen granules burst, preventing pollination. The plants go into survival mode, losing their flowers to conserve moisture.

Providing shade during the hottest part of the day, mulching to keep soil cool and moist and extra watering will help tomatoes beat the summer heat. Determinate varieties that have shorter “days to maturity” or “days to harvest” will have mature fruit before the summer heat kicks in. Once the flowers are pollinated and the fruit is set, the bulk of the tomatoes will ripen within two weeks after which the plants will start to die back.

Luckily, there are tomato varieties (hybrid and heirloom) referred to as “cold set” or “heat set” that can tolerate temperature extremes.

A partial list of varieties that will set fruit at or below 55 degrees (cold set) includes, Early Girl, Celebrity, Gold Nugget, Bush Beefsteak, New Yorker and Glacier. Many of these varieties also mature in a shorter amount of time 52-70 days making them a good choice for a late season fall planting. When temperatures do threaten to fall below 55 degrees, covering the plants with clear plastic can warm things up by as much as 20 degrees.

Just like there are cold tolerant varieties, there are tomato plants that can take the heat. Examples of hybrids are Bella Rosa, Big Beef, Florida, 4 of July, Heatwave, Homestead, and Sweet 100. Some heirloom varieties are Green Zebra, Sioux, Quarter Century and Arkansas Traveler. But even these varieties have their limits. When temps reach mid 90’s during the day and do not fall much below 80 degrees at night, production is hampered.

Choosing tomato varieties that best match your growing conditions can maximize the yield from your garden.

Seed Catalog Bounty

Things to think about when purchasing seeds.

Seed catalogs

They arrive during the coldest, shortest days of the year when gardeners are at their most optimistic (and vulnerable)…

THIS! This will be the year when the garden is perfect!  The flowers will boom profusely unmarred by powdery mildew and Japanese beetles.  The vegetable garden will be abundant (all of it, not just the zucchini) and the slugs will take themselves off leaving the seedlings whole and the cabbage unmolested. 

If it’s going to be that great, I better order some extra stuff…. 

Sigh, hope springs eternal.  Especially when looking at all those lovey, glossy pictures in seed catalogs while snow swirls outside..

I try to rein myself in, but it’s hard sometimes.  I especially have a weakness for seeds.  What harm could a few extra packs do? My only control mechanism is to force myself to plan out where I will put everything I buy.  I still end up with too much stuff, but it’s not as bad as it could be!

Seeds are a great way to grow plants, but there are a few things to think about before purchasing seeds…

  • As I said, have some idea of where you’ll plant the seedlings you intend to grow – matching the growing conditions required (amount of sun, moisture and soil type) with the spaces you have in your yard.
  • Can the seeds be directly sowed in the garden or do you need to start them in advance inside the house? Seedlings need good light to get a strong start and you may need to add supplemental lighting. With inadequate light, seedlings will be thin, leggy and weak.
  • Seedlings need your care and attention while they are growing large enough to be planted out. Do you have the space and the time to care for seedlings for 6, 8 or even 10 weeks? The seed catalog should have information on how much time a particular seedling will need. Some seed suppliers have seed starting calculators to help you plan. (You can find the last expected frost date for your area here.)
  • Consider the source of the seeds. Seeds coming from hardiness zones similar to where you live may be better adapted to your growing conditions.
  • You will need containers and a sterile growing medium to start your seeds if you are starting them indoors, plus well lit room for all those little pots.

Starting seeds can be extremely satisfying, especially when you see those lovely blooms or bite into that juicy tomato from a plant you started from a wee little seed. But a little advance thought and planning will help avoid frustration.

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