Friday, December 18, 2009

The ABCs of Beekeeping

In January, I’ll conduct a beginner’s beekeeping course in Doylestown, PA. It will just be the ABC’s…not the ABCs’ and XYZ’s of beekeeping. The latter is the title of a famous and (still published ) book on beekeeping. The registration information is posted on the web . Or you can give us an old fashioned phone call at Penn State Extension, 215-345-3283 and request a brochure if you think you are interested.

Interest in bees and beekeeping has grown tremendously in the last several years. Probably as a result of the widely publicized Colony Collapse Disorder. As a beekeeper, I find it very heartening that so many folks pay attention to this and are concerned.

Interest in honey bees is not new. It is a hobby that has been entertaining and rewarding people for thousands of years. A Philadelphian named Lorenzo Langstroth really got things going when he invented the modern hive with movable and interchange parts in the 1850’s.

Apparently some folks are so concerned about the plight of bees that they want to start hobby beekeeping. I imagine that for others, there was a dormant desire to learn about bees that was awakened by bees in the news. Some gardeners feel that they need to keep bees to ensure pollination for their crops… especially as they notice fewer and fewer honeybees visiting flowers. But our native pollinators (honey bees are not native to North America) actually do a very good job of moving pollen in small gardens. It is the big-time fruit and vegetable producers that really need honey bees. Maybe you’ve heard that more than a million colonies of bees go to California each spring for almond pollination.

There are about 25,000 honey bee colonies in Pennsylvania and 2 million nation-wide. Most of these are maintained by commercial beekeepers. On the other hand, my estimate is that more than 95 % of all beekeepers are hobbyists. If you have an eye for the stacks of 16 by 20 inch boxes that kept bees generally live in, you’ll finds bee hives everywhere. City beekeepers are common in San Francisco, New York, Paris and most cities.

My bee course will be conducted on four consecutive Tuesday evenings beginning on Janaury 26. Interestingly, My co-hort, Tom Butzler, in Clinton County Extension, will be conducting a bee keeping course on- line in January also. Since you are on the web maybe this also appeals to you. Or do both! For more info on Tom's course see this.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Hoe, Hoe, Hoe...Holiday Shopping for Gardeners

Gardening is supposed to be America’s most popular hobby. So, chances are, you know a gardening enthusiast well enough to be thinking about a holiday gift for them.

Here are some ideas in case you are still wondering what to get them.

OK, I guess I have to say it because I work for Penn State but you really can’t go wrong with a Penn State soil test kit. The “kit” is not a “do it yourself “ deal but a service provide by Penn State. Cost is reasonable (nine bucks) and it is guaranteed to be useful. Unique, too. Soil test results tell gardeners about the nutrient needs of their gardens. If you want to splurge, go ahead and get that optional organic matter test for a few bucks more. Check out the details at Penn State's Ag Analytical Services or contact your local extension office . Soil test kits make good stocking stuffers.

Books …. Here are a few that are sure to please.

Every gardener deals with weeds. My favorite weed book is Weeds of the Northeast. 300 pages of color pictures and descriptions of the most common weeds found in the northeast U.S…all for about 30 bucks.

Woody plant lovers generally consider Manual of Woody Landscape Plants by Dirr to be the most useful and comprehensive book on woody plants in the U.S. I use it weekly. The fifth edition is 1100 pages…. a winner. Dirr has companion picture books that bring the text to life. Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs is one of them.

Another great tree book is Trees for American Gardens by Donald Wyman. A oldie but a goodie is A Natural History of North American Trees by Donald Culross Peattie… part poetry, part botany. Nothing else like it.

If you have a hard core botanist in the family… consider The Plants of Pennsylvania by Rhoads and Block. About 3000 Pennsylvania plants are described.

You aren’t likely to find any of these texts in the local book store or even the big box-book stores but you will find them online.

It is a bit tricky to get the right tools for gardeners but I don’t know any gardener who wouldn’t like a pair of Felco hand pruners. They are the “gold standard” in pruning equipment and Felco has an amazing array of options… did you know lefties need custom pruners and that small hands need smaller tools? Check it out.

Other stuff… how about a membership in the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society, Morris Arboretum or passes to Longwood Gardens? Garden centers offer gift certificates.

Has someone been naughty this year? Arrange for a load of mulch to be dropped in the driveway Christmas morning.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Witchhazel, a Blooming Fall Treat.

Just when you thought the last flower had bloomed… along comes Witchhazel. The picture here is of Hamamelis virginiana, Common Witchhazel growing on a mountain top in central Pennsylvania. It sure lights up the woods on a fall day. It is not that the bloom is extremely large… but the fact that nothing else is blooming makes it special.

I don’t see Common Witchhazel in too many nursery/garden centers but what you will find are Hamamelis x intermida hybrids. The most common is 'Arnold Promise' and for good reason. It produces beautiful ,strap-like, yellow flowers in mid-winter and that certainly gets your attention….especially if there is some snow to provide a contrast. Nothing like bloom mid January to get your juices flowing.

There are red flowering hybrids, too. I have observed the cultivar 'Jelena' for several years and its’ coppery colored red flowers are very distinct. It also blooms in early to mid winter.

There is a nice specimen of 'Arnold Promise' planted along the walk way leading to the Bucks County Extension office. It is part of our fledgling Almshouse Arboretum. Penn State Master Gardeners have planted more than sixty trees on the grounds of Neshaminy Manor Center since 2007. Many of these plants were provided by Tree Vitalize , a private-public program with the goal of enhancing tree canopy in Pennsylvania.

In fact, just a week ago a hardy crew of Penn State Master Gardeners planted nine more trees. (Normally I assist them but I was in the woods looking at Witchhazels.

This reminds me that it is still a great time to plant trees and shrubs. We have planted about half of the Almshouse Arboretum trees in the fall with a 100% success rate. So, check out your local garden center and make a deal on good quality trees and shrubs.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Lady Bug, Lady Bug... Fly to Someone Else’s Home!

Good week for encounters with lady bugs… the Multicolored Asian Lady Beetle, Harmonia axyridis , to be exact. On Tuesday, I noticed them as they flew to my arms near a sunny orchard. On Wednesday, the local TV station called to get the story on “swarming” lady beetles invading homes. Sure enough, a Perkasie home had thousands of beetles on the sunny south side of the house. Warm days, following cool nights, (light frost in Perkasie Monday)seems to inspire them to seek overwintering quarters.

Most of us are familiar with the native, red beetle with black spots that probably inspired that children’s ditty. I can’t locate the literary reference. (Help someone!). Almost everyone looks fondly on the red lady bug and gardeners know that they are beneficial in the garden. They eat aphids and other destructive insects.

But the bug of the week is a relatively recent introduction. Literally. The multi-colored Asian Lady Beetle was purposely introduced to the USA as a beneficial insect, designed to apply some biological pressure to destructive, introduced pests. In Pennsylvania, introductions were made in the 1970s and 80’s. They’re good bugs…. tell that to folks who have thousands in their homes.

I feel bad for entomophobic (insect fearing) people. There are so many insects in the world. More than a million species. Books say that there are more species of insects than all other animal species, combined. Most of them are pretty and interesting. A few are not appreciated by people because they destroy crops, sting or carry disease. A few are appreciated for their beauty (butterflies) or utility (honey bees). But insects are just “bugs” to most people and for some reason are not loved. All have a role to play in the grand scheme of things, I suppose. So give a bug a break. Play a game of finding their names and then see what they are all about. (How about it, Amy?) You might be pleasantly surprised.

So, back to the bug of the week. Good bug… eats aphids and scale insects that harm plants. Bad bug,… gets in the house because it is seeking overwintering quarters in you warm home. In their native habitat (Asia) they use warm cliff faces as overwintering quarters. The sunny south side of our houses must seem similar.

The good news is that they are not harmful to people (minor exceptions) or our structures; they do not reproduce inside our homes. Seal up cracks and crevices to prevent their entry, just as you would do to prevent invasions of Brown Marmorated Stink Bugs or Box Elder Bugs. Insecticides are not usually effective. Once inside, a vacuum cleaner, fitted with a stocking to collect them works well. Some folks are so bug loving they save them and release them next spring. See this for details. Now that’s loving a bug!

Thanks to Iowa State University for the bug pic. There are loads of articles on this insect if you want to search the web. Stick to .edu sites for the best info.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Morris Arboretum… A Horticultural Gem in our Backyard

This week I joined the Philadelphia Branch of the Professional Grounds Management Society (PGMS) for a visit to Morris Arboretum. PGMS is the professional home for the people who manage grounds at schools, universities, public and private gardens, municipal parks and other such places. Did you ever stop to wonder who was making those places look so nice? Visiting interesting sites is part of the professional development this group enjoys and twenty-five of us took part in the visit to Morris. Past PGMS National President and pal Kevin O’Donnell, Superintendent of Grounds at Villanova University, arranged this event.

We had a real treat when Jan McFarland, Education Director at Morris and her colleagues gave us a behind the scenes tour. Morris Arboretum is associated with the University of Pennsylvania and is the official arboretum of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. After learning about the educational programs that Morris offers to professional horticulturists and the public we took off to the tree tops. Perhaps you’ve heard about “Out on Limb”, the unique feature at Morris Arboretum where visitors can scramble around like a squirrel in at tree-top height, securely of course. Indeed, a whole new way of looking at trees.

Jason Lubar, Director of Urban Forestry, lead the group I was in. Jason took us to a fantastic grove of Dawn Redwoods, (Metasequoia glyptostroboides… why is it that I can spell this but not squirel?) which appear to be ancient. Tree people know that this species was not known in the western world until the 1940’s so these trees are actually only about 60 years old. Hard to believe, but true. These trees are some of the first to be planted outside of China, its recent, native habitat. References say it was on our continent 15 million years ago and has been on earth for more than 100 million years.

Morris Arboretum is renowned for introducing interesting new plants to the West. We also stood beneath one of the largest Katsuratrees (Cercidiphyllum japonicum, native to Japan and China) I’ve ever seen and took in the unique fragrance of its fall foliage. Believe it or not, most folks agree it smells like cotton candy!

One thing that makes an arboretum different from a walk in the woods is that the plants are labeled… a great thing if you want to learn plant names. At Morris, the origin and age of plants is also displayed. There are more than 13,000 labeled plants in all so you may need more than one visit to take it all in. Fortunately, members of the Arboretum have unlimited admission year round. Membership also provides reciprocal admission to more than 200 gardens nationwide and invitation to special events. I think I heard Jason say they had a beer tasting recently. Hmmm. I know that I only scratched the surface of this wonderful horticultural gem. I’ll be back.

Morris Arboretum is located in the farthest northwest territory of Philadelphia County and is open seven days a week. Check it out!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Can I Compost those Diseased Tomato Plants?

Yes. That’s the short and simple answer to a question that is on many gardeners minds. The disease that concerns most gardeners this year is late blight, Phytophthora infestans, which plagued so many gardens and farms this year. I have spoken to too many gardeners who are wasting time solarizing tomato vines, planning elaborate crop rotations or sending tomato debris out with the trash. Compost them. It’s also good to know that most diseased plants can be composted without the fear of aggravating the disease situation next year.

Let’s take late blight first because it is easiest. The late blight organism requires a living host to survive. Since tomatoes cannot survive our winters, any late blight fungus will die along with the plant. May as well compost the diseased plants. Or you could simply turn them into the soil. For that matter you could let the dead tomato skeletons hang out all winter on their stakes. Dead tomatoes = dead late blight. Late blight does not form overwintering spores in Pennsylvania that could cause new infections next year.

Potatoes are another story. Late blight infected potato foliage can be treated like tomato foliage. But infected tubers should not be put into the compost pile. Tubers may survive the winter and start up new infections next spring.

Most other tomato diseases do have the ability to survive and infect tomato again next year. Early blight, Septoria leaf spot and anthracnose can survive either on plant debris, in special fungal survival structures, on other plants and even on pots and containers. Crop rotation provides some small measure of control but you can expect these diseases to return each year regardless of crop rotation. And let’s face it, we often have limited ability to rotate crops in our small vegetable gardens. Do it, as a good general pest management strategy, but realize it will not eliminate re-occurrence of disease.

Back to that compost pile… since the environment in the compost pile is much more competitive for fungal pathogens than soil, and these disease organisms will survive thru other means, why not compost those diseased plants?
There are a few garden diseases that surely should not go into the compost pile. Fusarium and Verticillium wilt come to mind, but they are relatively rare these days because of good plant breeding. If you suspect that these are involved then trash them. Otherwise… everything into the compost pile.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Pretty Yellow Fall Flowers

Inquiring minds want to know…. What is that pretty, yellow, daisy-like flower that is blooming now? It’s commonly found in wet ditches. I’ve been asked that question many times in the last week or so. Several species in the genus Bidens, commonly called tickseed-sunflower are found in Pennsylvania. I am not sure exactly which species I’m seeing near Bedminster, probably Bidens aristosa. They are called “tick seed” because they produce seed bearing structures that stick to you like ticks (related species are called beggar’s ticks).
If you take autumn walks in the woods and fields you are probably familiar with these two-pronged plant parts.

The showy “ray” flowers look like their relatives the Sunflowers. You can see how the common names of plants are both useful and potentially confusing. It is worthwhile to learn the Latin names of plants if you are more than a casual observer. All plant identification books use the Latin names because it provides nomenclature (names) that are definitive. Plants belong to families that are composed of related genera and this can be helpful as you try to sort out plant names. Both Sunlfowers (Helianthus) and Tickseed Sunflowers (Bidens) are in the Aster Family (Asteraceae).

For that matter, Goldenrods (Solidago), Asters (Aster) White-snakeroot (Eupatorium rugosum) are also members of the Aster family that bloom in the fall. In addition to being pretty, they provide forage for bees of all sorts that are important pollinators.

When I want to sort out details about plants in Pennsylvania, I usually end up looking in... .The Plants Of Pennsylvania, an illustrated (line drawings only) manual written by Ann Rhoads and Timothy Block, botanists at the University of Pennsylvania. It is a fantastic reference.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Fall is for Planting… Trees, Shrubs, Bulbs and Vegetables

Yea, I know. I blogged about this last year. But this message is worth repeating because fall is such an outstanding time to plant trees, shrubs, bulbs lawns and, as I wrote in mid August, many vegetable crops, too.

OK, the basics one more time, then some particulars… the reason fall is such a good time to plant: soil temperatures are warm which is good for root growth; air temperatures are cooling and rainfall is usually plentiful which reduces the need to do maintenance irrigation; deciduous plants are dropping leaves but roots remain active long afterwards which allows for establishment; winter dormancy is followed by Spring, another season of cool, moist weather that aids establishment before the stresses of summer; plant material at nursery/garden centers is plentiful and often a bargain as retailers try to shed inventory.

This was such an outstanding year for turfgrass growth that the number of people feeling the need to re-seed is probably lower than normal. However, if you want to re-seed a lawn, Penn State has outlined the steps is this publication. The key is to suppress the weeds, raise the fertility and then seed the correct species by lightly incorporating the seed into the soil. A “slit seeder” available at most good rental places is the ideal tool. It cuts a small groove into the soil and drops seed in one operation.

Penn State has dozens of publications on lawn management that deal with fall lawn care. Besides planting, there are other chores that are best performed in the fall such as broadleaf weed control, liming, fertilizing and aeration. Check it out.

Penn State Master Gardeners will be planting trees in our little Almshouse Arboretum at Neshaminy Manor Center in November. We’re hooked into the Tree Vitalize program that provides” bare root” trees to public areas in an effort to re-vitalize tree cover in Southeastern Pennsylvania. We’ve planted more than fifty trees, both spring and fall, with a one hundred percent success rate. Here’s a link to specifics on tree planting instructions. Buy good quality plants and you, too will have great success.

Finally, back to the vegetable garden. Last night I seeded spinach. I was waiting for soil temperatures to cool down a bit because spinach germination is adversely affected by high soil temperatures (above 85 degrees). Some of that spinach will be harvested this fall. Some of it I’ll allow to overwinter, providing an early harvest next spring.

There are still about 6 weeks until our first frost and we often experience a long warm period of growing weather after that first freeze. That’s what make the fall vegetable garden so nice and productive. The leafy vegetables, root crops and cole (cabbage family) crops all thrive in the cool fall air.

My first broccoli is ready for harvest and a bunch more is on the way. Brussels sprouts buds are beginning to swell, lettuce plantings are up and more are on the way. Broccoli rabe always germinates in about 3 days and I look forward to my own sausage sandwich, South Philly style in a few weeks with that rabe on top.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Vegetable Garden, Round 2… the Fall Garden

Spots, rots and blights be damned… keep planting! That’s my advice to vegetable gardeners. We are about to enter Round Two of the gardening season and it can be very rewarding. I’m talking about the Fall garden. Sure, it’s still summer but by taking a few simple steps now you can be way head come September and October.

Rip out those blighted tomatoes, monster squash plants, ragged cukes and weedy patches. Then seed ‘em. I’m talking about beets, carrots, turnips (yes, turnips are tasty) lettuce and cilantro. Fall spinach is wonderful and September plantings will overwinter and provide spring crops. Transplant cool weather, cole crops (cabbage family).

The entire cabbage family thrives in the fall garden. Right now you can find six-packs of broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts (yes, Brussels sprouts are tasty) and cabbage in some garden centers. Get these transplants into the ground in mid-August and you’ll be enjoying nice harvests in late September and October. Many years the quality of the fall crops is better than spring.

Because fall air temperatures and day length are moderate and declining, the fall garden is very different that the spring version. Crop growth slows and quality holds very well. Weed growth slows and even stops in some cases, with the first frost. It’s a pleasure to work outside again without working up a sweat.

What to do with all of those dead and diseased plants? How about the wheelbarrow loads of weeds? Compost them! That’s right, compost them. Almost every composting book and manual warns against this. Nonsense! (most of the time). The vast majority of the diseases that affect our vegetable crops will not be spread, enhanced or aggravated by composting the affected foliage. Several reasons. First, the compost pile is a very vicious place. Good fungi destroy the bad. Even simple soil incorporation of dead plants works in your favor. There are a few exceptions but don’t sweat it. Compost that stuff.

Consider the farmers. Do they put diseased plants in the trash? Nope. They plow them down and rotate crop location. Sure, our rotation options in a small garden are limited. Makes composting diseased stuff a smart move. Finally, understand that our most common fungal, bacterial and viral pathogens survive in or near the garden naturally. Even if you tried extreme sanitation, you’ll be visited by the ancestors of 2009 powdery mildew, early blight and botrytis in 2010.

What about those weeds. Two potential problems… weed seeds and the fleshy storage organs of perennials. Yea, it would be nice to eliminate weed seeds but I’d be willing to bet that a lot of those weeds in your garden have already set and dropped a lot of seed. When you pull them up even more will shed. Are you going to pick them up? Didn’t think so. So what’s the dif if they go into the compost pile where they have less chance of survival? The perennials? I don’t know what planet those folks are from that talk about perennials surviving composting. Even a cold compost pile that is turned a few times will destroy perennial roots, rhizomes and stolons. So compost away! I think the warning about not composting weeds comes from the common experience of importing compost or manure from remote locations and discovering new weed species the next year. Yep, this bound to happen…. weed seeds. Some are annuals, some perennials. But the weeds we are pulling in our gardens this year have already taken up residence. Recycling them thru your compost does not make the situation worse. Compost ‘em!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Thousands of Flower Cultivars on Display at Penn State's Trials near Lancaster

Sometimes you just need a break from the gloom and doom of mid-summer plant disease epidemics (late blight) and want to look at pretty flowers. So that’s what I did this week and visited Penn State’s Southeast Pennsylvania Research and Extension Center, near Lancaster.

Each year, more than 1000 different cultivars of flowering annual plants are established and evaluated by Sr. Extension Educator, Alan Michael. Quite an undertaking. The results are of great interest to plant breeders, salesfolks, garden center managers, greenhouse operators, and plant lovers in general. As I write this, hundreds of folks are attending the open house which is held each July. I snuck out a day early to avoid the crowds. My pal Al gave me a personal tour of the trial highlights. One of the great things about the research center is that you, too, can drop in for a visit any weekday between 8 a.m and 3 p.m. The plants are well labeled and you are welcome to do a self-guided tour. I highly recommend it. Or do a virtual tour by visiting this website.

I am more of a fruit and vegetable guy than a posy lover but man does not live by bread alone so I also try to learn something about the ornamental plants. The Coleus and Petunia cultivars are knockouts. It is worth the trip just to see ‘Pretty Much Picasso’ Petunia. Begonias for full sunlight are stunning. Do you know Angelonia? Torenia? How about Calitunia (a Petunia x Calibrachoa cross). A handy cultivar list provided at the trials makes note taking easy.

So before the summer is over, take a day trip to the Flower Trials at Penn State’s research farm. Stop in Lancaster for a whoopee pie. If you’re free this Saturday, July 25, check out the “Summer Garden Experience”. It includes free lectures, Master Gardener demonstrations, a native plant sale and, of course, the flower trials.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Late Blight of Tomato Continues to Spread

You’ve been warned. Late blight is here and continues to affect commercial and home plantings of tomato and potato. A farmer friend called me minutes ago to report a farm right across the river where tomato was confirmed with late blight.

Now it seems a matter of time before we see wholesale injury to this popular crop. Although relatively dry weather has prevailed recently, morning dew in enough to support late blight infection.

I could say more but my co-horts in Lehigh Co have done a great job. See this link.

The best pictures I've seen are from Cornell.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Late blight of tomato and potato arrives early this year

I had hoped that I would not write about late blight this year. Usually it is August or September before late blight rears its head in our area. So writing about it in early July is a bad sign for gardeners and farmers. But it is here. A perverse combination of the widespread sale of infected tomato plants and abnormally cool, wet, weather in June was the perfect storm. The disease has been confirmed in almost all Northeastern and mid-Atlantic states, including in Lancaster and Lehigh counties in southeastern Pennsylvania.

This devastating fungal disease is a threat to all tomato and potato growers. It is the same fungus that was involved in the Irish potato famine of the 1840’s. While no one will starve in 2009 due to late blight, it appears that we are in for an unusually early and wide spread epidemic. Plant pathologists are reporting that this is the earliest the organism has been found in such a wide spread area of the Northeast U.S. The problem is, this fungus can travel many miles in the air, settling out on host plants and spreading infections. Apparently, widespread sale of infected transplants has inoculated the northeast. Many of these locations will be home gardens where it will go unnoticed until it is too late. Nearby commercial plantings are at risk.

The fungal pathogen involved in late blight disease is Phytophthora infestans. It thrives under cool (60-70 degree) moist (dew rain, humidity) conditions. Host plants include tomato, potato, other tomato family plants and, believe it or not, petunia. Foliage, stems and fruit blackens. Unlike the slow progression of early blight described in the previous blog, late blight moves like lightning. That’s why plant pathologists watch like hawks for its emergence and alert commercial growers to its presence.

Fungicides can protect plants and limit the spread of the disease. Famers have good options but must be vigilant and proactive. Gardeners have the fungicides chlorothalonil and copper. Copper is a poor second choice but some forms are organically approved. More details, instructions and pictures from Cornell University can be found here. And at this Penn State site. Plant pathologists recommend treating now, rather than waiting for signs of infection. This fungus is amongus.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Spots and Rots and Blights...Oh My! Plant Diseases 101

You might find lions and tigers and bears frightening but farmers and gardeners would disagree. Groundhogs and rabbits and deer can be more destructive. And then there are the fungi. Early blight, late blight and anthracnose. Black spot and mildew and scab. Rusts and rots and wilts. It’s a jungle out there!

Fungi are certainly the most common organisms associated with plant disease. I say “associated” because the pathogen, by itself, does not equal disease. A susceptible host plant and the proper environment are also necessary.

Here’s a timely example. By now, tomato growers are probably noticing brown spots and perhaps yellowing of the lower leaves. On closer inspection, you may see that the “spot” is actually a lesion that has concentric rings of dead tissue. There may be tiny black dots in the dead tissue. As the season progresses more and more foliage is killed. Fruit infections cause soft spots and rots. All of these symptoms describe the common tomato disease called early blight. The disease also affects potato and eggplant. Some of you will be happy to learn that two weeds, horse nettle and black nightshade, are vulnerable, too. Since all of these plants are related, it is not surprising that they are susceptible hosts for the same pathogen. Note also that the early blight pathogen has no effect on asparagus, beans, cucumbers or you. (Sometimes folks ask if it is OK to eat diseased vegetables. It is.). The pathogen has a scientific name Alternaria solani.

OK we have a susceptible plant and a pathogen. The final ingredient needed for disease is the proper environment. This pathogen thrives and reproduces well under warm, moist conditions. The weather in the month of June, 2009 in Southeastern, PA was about perfect for early blight. Especially for tomatoes that were left to sprawl on the ground rather than trained to a support system which favored air movement and leaf drying.

Bingo! Early Blight of Tomato!

Maybe that was more than you wanted to know about early blight but it is useful. You can manage this disease (and all others) by thinking about three key disease ingredients: pathogen, host and environment. Sometimes it is possible and effective to eliminate the pathogen. But it can be equally effective to grow non-susceptible host plants or modify the environment. Disease resistant varieties have been developed for many of your favorite plants. Look for them when buying seed. Learn about the conditions that favor disease. Do what you can to change it. For most fungal diseases that means increasing air movement and reducing leaf wetness.

For a descriptions and gory pictures of common vegetable diseases, type “vegetable disease” into the search box at

For a complete guide to growing tomatoes and info on more tomato diseases go to

Thanks to University of Minnesota Extension for the nice image of early blight shown above.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

April Showers Bring May Flowers but… June Monsoons are not a Boon for Most Plants

Just checked a weather web site and it confirms the feeling most of us in Southeastern PA have…soggy. Only three days out of the last eighteen did not have measurable precipitation. Six inches in the last 30 days; this is 160 % of normal. Minimal sunshine. Below normal temperatures.

My farm friends are hurting. Can’t plant. Too wet. You might not be thinking of Halloween yet but farmers are because pumpkins are a 100-day crop that needs to be in the ground now in order to make fruit by this fall. The sweet corn you enjoy in August is planted in June. Perishable crops such as strawberries that are at peak maturity are melting in the field. Weeds thrive in these conditions and it is impossible to cultivate wet soil. Saturated soils and continually wet foliage are ideal for many plant diseases. Ever seen plant wilt because it’s too wet? I have.

Mother Nature can be cruel to folks trying to grow stuff …. gardeners and farmers. As hard as this can be on gardeners, consider the farmer whose income is dependent on favorable weather. Most fruit and vegetable farmers will take a dry year over a wet one, especially if they have access to irrigation.

Any upside to all of this? Well your lawn probably looks great. If you planted trees this spring the watering chore has been minimal. And this can’t last forever. Gardeners and farmers have to be optimists because if it ain’t one thing it’s another when you are playing ball with Mother Nature.

For those growing ornamental plants, Penn State has a very helpful web site describing plant diseases and their management. Check it out.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Poison Ivy

As I drove into our office complex today I noticed a member of the grounds crew cleaning up stems that had been sheared from a privet hedge. Most of it was privet, but I also knew that there was plenty of poison ivy in there, too. I had been observing it for a few weeks, thinking about the challenge of killing poison ivy that is entwined in landscape plants.

I stopped and chatted with him to be sure that he knew what he was dealing with. Sure enough, his arms were blistered up from previous encounters with this weed. We shared remedies for the itch, methods to control the weed and ended up wondering if there was anything positive about poison ivy. I know that bees and other insects collect its nectar and pollen; birds eat the seed. The grounds man thought there might be some therapeutic, whole-body effect from having the rash… what a great attitude!

Poison ivy, Toxicodendron radicans, is a native, perennial, woody vine that is the major cause of allergic dermatitis in the Eastern U.S. according to Weeds of the Northeast, (Cornell University Press). It is very commonly found in Pennsylvania and easy to identify, despite the fact that its leaf characteristics vary somewhat, depending on where it is growing. “Leaflets of three, let it be”, is a saying that begins to draw your attention to key characteristics. The center leaflet extends on a relatively long stalk. The upper surfaces of the leaves are often quite shiny, especially when growing in full sunlight. The leaflets are usually lobed or coarsely toothed. Mature plants climb trees with the aid of aerial rootlets and the older stems become rope-like and quite hairy. But poison ivy is often found running along the ground in the forest understory, and there, the leaves are dull green. Both the newly emerging spring growth and fall foliage are red. Contact with any part of the plant causes a skin rash in most people.

Since poison ivy is perennial, it is not easily controlled by mechanical methods such as mulching, pulling or mowing. In woods and other unmanaged areas, just learn to recognize it and enjoy its beauty in all seasons. If it is growing in places where you or others (unsuspecting kids) are likely to bump into it, you can control it chemically.

Two herbicides, glyphosate (sold a Roundup and many other trade names) and triclopyr (Sold as Brush-B-Gone and others) will kill poison ivy. I think triclopyr is most effective. Glyphosate products will kill or injure any green plant that it contacts. Triclopyr will not injure grasses and this may make it useful in some settings. Both products are applied to the foliage of target weeds. In fact, healthy weed foliage is important for maximum uptake and translocation of the herbicide. Neither product is root absorbed so you can be quite selective by applying the herbicide only where you want it. As long as desirable plant foliage is not contacted it is safe from injury. Read the labels for complete instructions.

So, before the year is over, and once the poison ivy re-grows from the hedge (which it surely will) I hope to help the grounds crew selectively and carefully wipe one of these herbicides onto the poison ivy growing in the privet, avoiding all privet foliage.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Swarm Stories

One of Nature’s most interesting reproductive behaviors is honeybee swarming. Honeybees are very social animals and some experts have even suggested that a colony of honeybees can be more properly thought of as a “super-organism”, collectively, rather than individual bees. Honeybees cannot exist for long on their own. They must belong to a colony. Of course, reproduction of individual bees does occur but always for the purpose of restocking the colony with functional individuals who play a role in the bigger “organism”, the colony.

Reproduction of the colony occurs by swarming. One egg-laying individual (a queen), several thousand workers (sterile females) and a few fat fellows (drones) split off from the established colony, leaving behind a new queen and most of the workers. The swarm is seeking a new home, preferably a high and dry hollow space. Hollow trees, chimneys and voids in walls of buildings are fine.

Swarms always make a brief lay-over after leaving the hive and before arriving at their final destination. This is usually a tree limb, shrub, mailbox, car bumper or fence post. That’s when it gets interesting, even for people who usually don’t give insects a second thought. There is nothing like a 3 pound mass of bees to get folks excited. And the take-off and landing is bizarre… a cyclone of stinging insects, moving with purpose.

Most people who get to see a honeybee swarm arrive or depart feel fortunate to have witnessed it. It’s hard to describe. You kind of have to bee there to appreciate it.

Practical matters… honey bees in a swarm are not inclined to sting. They are most interested in getting settled into a permanent home. Most swarms remain at the lay-over spot less than a day.

So, if you encounter one, just enjoy it and soon they’ll be gone. If they end up staying more than 2 days, find a beekeeper to remove it. In fact, beekeepers are almost always interested in picking up swarms, provided they are reasonably close to the ground (less than 10 feet high). Beekeepers provide good homes to wayward bees. Usually, by the time you contact the beekeeper and he makes his way to the swarm, it has moved on. In any event, swarms are generally harmless and temporary. It doesn’t do much good to try to make them do what you want unless you are a beekeeper or trained exterminator. Certainly spraying them with water or insecticides is not productive.

Swarm season in Pennsylvania lasts from about mid-May until mid-June. Enjoy it while you can. Click on swarm picture above for a close-up look.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A Bit Nippy?

I heard a familiar sound Tuesday morning, May 19, at about daybreak… someone scraping frost off of a windshield. I pulled up the covers and went back to sleep. My tomatoes and blooming strawberries were also nestled under warm blankets, protected from the cold. Later, I read my min/max thermometer and saw that the overnight low was 30 degrees… enough to kill bloom and flatten tender vegetable plants. My farming friends confirmed that it was below freezing. They protected acres of tender plants with row covers or sprinkler irrigation. Areas west of here reached 23 degrees by some accounts. Wow!

Row covers are a great way to get a few degrees of frost protection. Most garden catalogs sell them now. They are very light weight blankets made of spun-bonded polypropylene. Got my tomatoes thru the night and protected blooming strawberries from crop failure. Easy to apply and last for years. Add a wire hoop and you have mini greenhouse. Pictures above show a farm field with a more advanced version of row covers as well as the lightweight version in a garden bed.

Was this late frost the nasty side of Mother Nature? Maybe…its but not unexpected. Official records tell us that frosts have occurred throughout Bucks County until the last week in May. May 13 is the “frost-free” date for southern Bucks and May 28 in Northern Bucks. “Frost-free” means that after this date, 90 % of the time, there will be no further temperature below freezing. So, in fact, some of us have to sweat it out for another week, given the 1 in 10 chance of frost. But the weather woman says we’ll be OK. Summer temperatures are predicted for the rest of the month. Some folks use Mother’s Day as the green light to plant tomatoes another tender crops and that is a good guideline… but I always check the 10 day forecast about Mothers’ Day and plant accordingly.

And frost is not the whole story. Tomatoes do not thrive when night temperatures are in the low forties or colder. Peppers and eggplant are even more cold sensitive. And those folks seeding cukes, zukes and melons before June 1 are asking for trouble. There is a difference between surviving and thriving.

Want to get a jump on the growing season with the cukes, zukes and melons? Start seeds in peat pots or other small containers NOW. Plant in 10-14 days. You’ll have healthy plants with a leaf or two and minimal window-space disruption. In fact, start the plants on top of the fridge or any other spot that provides bottom heat. Move to light as soon as they germinate. Plant about June 1. Then watch out for cucumber beetles. Nobody said gardening was easy… they just said it was fun and interesting.

Monday, May 11, 2009

A fungus among us

Cedar apple rust is is full bloom. OK not bloom; it is shedding spores from its "telial horns" if you want to get technical about it. Folks brought lots of samples into the Extension office last week.

If you look at our native Eastern Red Cedar, (which is actually a juniper, Juniperus virginiana)you'll see these nifty orange, gelatinous masses of fungal tissue. The warm, wet weather we had recently was ideal for them to burst into maturity. The spores that are released from these slimy galls are carried in the air to the alternate host for the disease... apple. In fact there are several related rusts which affect hawthorn and quince as well. The deciduous, alternate host (apple, etc) will develop bright orange spots on leaves later this spring and fruit on these plants may become rusty, russeted and malformed.

So, cedar-apple rust and it's relatives are very interesting plant diseases. Two unrelated plants sharing a disease. And for most of us, that's all there is to it.. an interesting disease. It sometimes causes damage to Junipers in landscape settings; unless you are growing apples to eat, the leaf spots it causes are not a big deal. Backyard fruit producers have a couple of options. Spray fungicides (last week would have been perfect) or grow apple varieties that are resistant to this disease. There are crabapple varieties that are resistant, too.

No, there are worse fungi among I. Apple scab, anthracnose, powdery mildew.... spores of all of these diseases are thicker than pollen in our current atmosphere. Their signs of infection will be showing up soon. Stay tuned for pictures and horror stories from the world of plant disease.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Pretty Yellow Flowers

There is nothing like a splash of color in the landscape after a long dreary winter. So you’d think that folks would be excited and happy to see Lesser Celandine, Ranunculus ficaria which started blooming a couple weeks ago. It is still blooming now. You will most likely see it in low lying, moist areas such as stream banks. For a close look, go to the park in Edison along the Neshaminy Creek or the North Branch of Neshaminy Creek where it crosses Rt 611, south of Plumsteadville.

Besides the eight petaled, yellow flowers that rise slightly above the foliage, you’ll see that the very dark green, shinny leaves are kidney/heart shaped and somewhat waxy. Below ground you’ll find finger like tubers. Late in the season, cream colored aerial bulblets will form along the stems. You’ll only see it from March until June; then it fades away. It is often found in large, expansive masses. Once you have an eye for Lesser Celandine you’ll see it in other places. A friend’s entire small back yard is composed of it at this time of year.

This exotic (not native), invasive plant is called a spring ephemeral. It emerges before the hardwood trees leaf out, grows enough foliage to store energy in underground tubers, produces flowers and above ground bulblets and then fades away.

Ephemeral. But very invasive and does not play well with other plants. It will out-compete less aggressive ephemerals. The pretty tout lily is emerging now too and it does not appear to have a chance to win a battle for space and light with lesser celandine. That’s the problems with these invasive exotics. They are better adapted to their new home than the natives.If you see an isolated lesser celandine plant, kill it... or plan to enjoy it forever.

If this plant is getting the better of your landscape, you can apply glyphosate (Roundup, other names) now and get some control. If there are infestations near-by or if you live along a steam you’ll probably get re-infested via aerial bulblets. In drier, isolated landscape settings you might will the battle. Where very small infestations exist, just shovel it out. Be sure to get the tubers.

Thursday, April 9, 2009


Some crops are ready earlier than others. Horseradish is the first thing my garden yields each spring. I dig dormant roots from the garden and join some fellows who have a spring ritual of grinding up the roots in a food processor with a bit of vinegar and salt. That’s it. You’ve got a very unique condiment. (oh, peel the roots first). Excellent on ham or beef. A friend says she puts it in egg salad. A staple at a Seder. You can take it neat for a cheap thrill.

We processed this year’s crop last week. The 2009 vintage seems to be a bit milder than 2008, but with fruity hints of plum and licorice. I’m kidding…but it does seem a bit milder this year. Maybe that’s because we had to resort to using some store bought roots.

Horseradish may be the least demanding of the vegetable crops. It will grow almost anywhere. I’ve got mine in a soggy back end of the garden. A place where nothing but weeds will grow because it is so wet. Since all we want are roots, even some shade is not a problem. I guess the only potential problem is that since it is perennial it may become weedy. It has creeping underground roots.

If you can’t find a friend to give you a few pencil diameter roots about 6 inches long, you can mail order them from the same places that sell rhubarb and strawberries. Make a planting trench about five inches deep and lay the roots in with the top near the surface, spacing individual roots a least a foot apart. Cover the trench. I have even established new plants from just the crowns of roots that were harvested. As I mentioned, horseradish is a weed. In a year you’ll have roots to harvest. The better they grow, the thicker the root. Warning: The plants are big, coarse and ugly.
There are a few subtle details to horseradish making. Not much more on the growing. I found more advice than I could use on-line.
Next up, rhubarb!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Grow Your Own Fruit

Interest in home food production is booming. Maybe it’s the economy. Maybe it’s an interest in locally produced food. Hey, even the president (or his wife and kids) now has a garden!
Most folks start with a vegetables and then graduate to fruit production. All of the fruit producing plants are perennial. This means more planning and more attention to site details. And complications such as cross pollination and rootstock emerge. Let’s face it… anyone can grow a tomato. It takes dedication and skill to produce your own apples, blueberries and peaches. But it can be done.
Before I get into details about some specific fruiting plants, here’s some good news. Penn State has produced an outstanding publication called Fruit Production for the Home Gardner. You can read the whole thing on line, order a copy from Penn State (814-865-6713) or stop by our office and pick up a copy for twelve dollars. Its 186 pages packed with practical fruit growing information.

If you are itching to try your hand at fruit production, here are some suggestions.

1. Start small. Make your mistakes on a small scale and add more if things are going well.

2. Make a realistic assessment of your site. You’ll need at least 8 hours of sunlight a day and soil that does not retain excess moisture. How can you tell? The sunlight part is easy. As for moisture… if your site has standing water for more than 24 hours after rainfall it’s probably too wet for perennial fruiting plants.

3. Think about deer. Deer will absolutely destroy new fruit plantings. If not in the growing season, then during the winter. Do not underestimate them. There are no shortcuts to deer control. If you have deer pressure only an 8 foot fence or hot lead will stop them. Don’t think about fencing individual plants. Think about fencing the entire fruit planting. Not always a pretty picture. If deer pressure is low to moderate, the odor repellents offer some temporary help.

4. Use dwarfing root stocks to control plant size wherever it make sense. Good size controlling rootstocks exist for apple, pear, and sweet cherry. Not so for peach and other tree fruits. I know, they sell them….but we don’t recommend them. You can control peach size by proper pruning.

5. Consider the brambles (raspberry and blackberry), blueberries, currents and strawberries before the tree fruits. They require less space, yield very well and come into production more quickly. They event tolerate a little shade.

6. Soil test, adjust soil pH and nutrient levels and work in organic matter into the entire planting site prior to planting. Dropping some amendments into the planting hole does not do the job. Spend the time and money to prepare the site well, even if this means delaying your planting one year. In the long run, you’ll be ahead.

7. Our local garden centers are great places to by many kinds of plants and supplies… but in my opinion, they are not the place to buy perennial fruit plants. Buy directly from the best mail-order nurseries (not those listed in the Sunday newspaper). The Penn State fruit publication has an extensive list of good nurseries.

8. Plant as early as possible in spring. Frosts are not a problem for the plants. Frosts will potentially affect bloom … but that’s down the road a bit.

9. Be realistic about pest control. Strawberries, blueberries, currents and the brambles have minimal pest problems and they are generally manageable with organic or low impact pest control measures. The tree fruits and grapes are a different story. Be prepared to make multiple pesticide sprays on these species or you will not be rewarded with anything edible.

10. Pay attention to cross pollination needs. There is not enough room here to go into the details. See references for guidance. Don’t worry about bees. Plant it and they will come.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Breaking New Ground

It was a wonderful thing to see First Lady Obama and some kids starting a vegetable garden at the White House. I can imagine her first garden journal entry…”Sure was fun starting the garden. Kids had fun. Need to get better gardening clothes… maybe some bib overalls and decent work boots. Also, sure wish I had access to this site last fall. I could have done something about that sod. Raking sod is no joke. That bald guy looking on and shaking his head got me wondering if that was the best way to go about preparing a new garden. I wonder why we didn’t start with raised beds. At least we sent off our soil test sample on January 2 and have our results back already. That Extension Service is a wonderful organization. I wonder if they have any ideas on this?"

The bald guy shaking his head was me and I was watching via newspaper pictures of the first lady doing battle with that sod. And I only hope someone told them about soil testing.

Personally, I’d have had the grounds keeper strip off that sod with a sod cutter and start the First White House Compost Heap with it. Maybe try a little lasagna-style prep (newspaper layers) on sod that will be planted later this year with warm season crops. I certainly would have lobbied for raised beds. Could have killed that sod right in place. When I toured the White House grounds some years ago I noted that the lawn was a well fertilized, tall fescue sod. It ain’t giving up without a fight. It was laughing at the rake. Oh well, I am sure Michelle is gagging on gardening advice by now.

I got to thinking about this right after I got a call asking me when the “first till” date was for Bucks County. You know, "when can I till the garden?" There is no “first till” date but what we talked about was waiting until the soil had dried enough that tillage would not make pottery out of the soil. Wet soil and tillage is a bad combination. Then we had the discussion about using a tiller on sod. Tough way to start. Reminded me of poor Ms Obama and that rake.

I have no doubt that the First Garden will be a success. Hard work will overcome novice mistakes…and teach many lessons. It will be an inspiration to many people and remind everyone involved what an interesting, rewarding and challenging thing it is to grow your own food.

Now on to the First Apiary…”Ms. Obama, I’d suggest three-pound package bees headed by Buckfast queens; ten frame, Longstreth hives with wax (not plastic) foundation. It’s a good idea to…”

Monday, March 16, 2009

Spring Fever

It doesn’t take much to get a gardener’s motors started. Just two consecutive days above 60 degrees usually does it. The forecast isn’t that good yet but my weatherman says that 7 of the next 10 days will have high temperatures in the 50’s. And it should be relatively dry. But it will be below freezing on several of those nights.

Time to plant the tomatoes? Not quite. Many of the things we grow in our gardens are tropical and will not tolerate cool temperatures, not to mention a freeze. In the vegetable world, we’d consider all of the vine crops (cucumbers, zukes, melons) to be most cold sensitive. Tomato, eggplant and pepper will tolerate a bit more cold stress but still prefer temps above 45 at a minimum. So, in Bucks County the vine crops go in about June 1 and the tomato/eggplant/pepper group in mid-May.

So, if you’re itching to plant something, what can you do? Start with hardy perennials. They don’t mind a freeze. All of the fruiting plants such as strawberry, brambles and fruit trees should be planted ASAP…as soon as the soil is fit to work. If you were thinking about planting trees and shrubs in the landscape, now if the time. No worries about cold temperatures here.

In the vegetable realm, think about leafy vegetable crops such as lettuce in a week or two. Onions and shallots can go in then, too. Root crops such as beets and carrots also tolerate early spring weather.

You can enhance the growth of early seeded crops and protect from wind and cold by using cold frames or floating row covers. In addition to cold protection these techniques increase daytime growing temperatures and accelerate growth.

In many areas the soil is still simply too wet to plant regardless of temperatures. Those of us with raised beds have an advantage since they dry out sooner than soil. Never try to work soil that is still saturated. You will destroy soil structure.

So, rake those garden beds, finish pruning fruit trees and shrubs, plant a tree or shrub, start a new compost pile, get a soil test and sharpen your hoe as we wait for planting season.

Pansies have appeared in the gardnen centers and are a great way to liven up a late winter/early spring landscape. They love the cold. Put them in a planter box with potting soil if native soil is too wet.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Spring has Sprung

Ok, officially, Spring arrives on March 20 this year but I have observed several things that tell me it is already here.

Silver Maple is in full bloom. This isn’t a very showy bloom but it means a lot to honeybees who are looking for their first sips of nectar and loads of pollen. Red maples were not far behind. You can easily see the swollen, red buds on this common tree. These species bloomed even before Cornus mas, the Cornelian Cherry Dogwood, which is an early bloomer. In fact, I saw a stunning specimen of this tree on the edge of Morris Arboretum yesterday. Blazing yellow. Just drive a few miles south to Philly if you want to get a preview of what is in store for us in the northern suburbs.

The first summer annual weeds have germinated, too. Prostrate knotweed, which is one of the first to emerge has taken advantage of the micro-climate along the stone pathway leading to our office and has sprouted. By contrast, the winter annual weeds, which began growth last fall, are already beginning to bloom. Purple deadnettle, common chickweed and bittercress are flowering in warm, sheltered areas. These species will form seeds later this spring and then naturally die. The seed that they drop will wait patiently until fall when the cycle begins again. Ain’t Nature wonderful?

I am not much of a bird watcher so I’ll leave it to others to announce the bird signs of spring. I did happen along a lovesick wild turkey last week… dancing in the middle of a rural road.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Countdown to Seed Starting

Although it is only February, folks are getting antsy about planting. I recently spoke to a person who had 50 lbs of seed potatoes scheduled for March delivery. When we had finished talking, that had changed to 25 lbs of spuds and a later delivery date.

This reminded me that lots of folks have questions about when to plant various crops. Part of the problem is that books often give a very wide range of dates or otherwise mislead readers. Books rarely get specific enough for local conditions.

So, where do we start? In Bucks County, the last spring frost usually occurs about mid May. Actually two key dates are useful. The median frost free date (50-50 chance of a frost) is about May 1 and the 90 % frost free date is about May 20, northern Bucks dates being later than southern Bucks. These dates are very useful when determining when to start transplants indoors.

Check out Penn State’s handy guide to seed starting for common veg crops. It details how long certain species should be grown indoors prior to transplanting and when they can be planted outside . Let’s take tomato as an example. If I am conservative and don’t want to risk frost injury, I’ll plan to set out plants on May 15. It takes tomato seed a week to germinate and I will grow it for 5 weeks before transplanting outside. So, working backwards six weeks (1 + 5) from May 15, I see that seeding tomato on April 1 will put me in the ballpark. If I am a bit of a risk taker, perhaps I’ll start them in late March and hope for a warming trend in early May. You get the idea.

Of course, some vegetable crops are seeded directly into the garden. Here you need to know their tolerance for cold. Peas tolerate cold well and can be direct seeded very early (late March/ early April)while plants in the squash family must wait until June.

There are other factors besides temperature involved. Some garden soil remains wet late into the spring. So, although those potatoes will tolerate cool soil… cool and wet soil can spell trouble. Waiting a week or two can be the difference between success and failure.

For a complete set of common vegetable crop fact sheets see this site. They contain information on planting dates as well as varieties, fertility, common pests, harvest suggestions and more.

Thanks to Kansas State University for the image of Broomcorn seed

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Witchhazel blooms

There’s nothing like a bit of bloom to remind us that spring is just around the corner. Today I noticed ‘Arnold Promise’ Witch-hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia) blooming in Doylestown. Its yellow petals are thin and strap-like; held in loose clusters.

There are several Witchhazel species used in landscaping but the most popular are these hybrids of Japanese and Chinese species. ‘Arnold Promise’ may be the most popular and it showed its colors on February 12 after we had a nice day of 60 + degrees.

This multi-stemmed shrub is a nice addition to almost any landscape and is adapted to a range of growing conditions. It will grow in full sun or partial shade and get to be about 12 feet high and wide with an upright growth habit. Its best characteristic is the early bloom but the summer foliage is a nice, medium green color and it is virtually pest free. The blooms even have a bit of fragrance.
There are other Witchhazel species. For the native plant lover, look for Common Witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana). It’s the last plant to bloom, by my reckoning; usually in mid-November. It also has beautiful yellow, strap-like flowers. Sometimes they are obscured by the fall foliage but I usually get to see them lighting up the woods after leaf drop. This plant will get even larger than the hybrid described above and has a more horizontal growth habit. Seems to tolerate moist sites. Would be great in a naturalized border setting.

Next on my woody plant bloom list… Cornus mas. Maybe next month. Spring is coming.

PS image by Al Dolson

Friday, January 30, 2009

Wood ash... the wonder trash.

There’s an old saying…"If you heat with wood it warms you twice. Once when you cut and split it and again when you burn it.” There is a final benefit to heating with wood if you are a gardener…. wood ash.

Wood ash is high in several plant nutrients, most notably potassium. Most references say that wood ash contains about 5 % potash… slang for potassium oxide, K2O in the fertilizer biz. That puts wood ash right up there with many conventional bagged fertilizers as far as nutrient content goes. It would be (is) a 0-0-5 fertilizer. No nitrogen or phosphorus but a nice slug of potassium.

Potassium is one of the “Big Three” or primary elements that plants need in order to grow and thrive. It is always listed in third place in the sequence of three numbers on a fertilizer bag.

There isn’t much “organic” about wood ash since all of the organic matter is burned off in your fireplace or wood stove. But most organic gardeners are more concerned about the natural part of stuff so wood ash is accepted. So everything is hunky-dory, right? Maybe.

First be sure that what you burned was wood, not stuff that might leave nasty remains. And that includes pressure treated wood, which until recently usually contained arsenic. Next, it is important to realize that wood ash is quite alkaline which means that it will increase soil pH (lower the acidity). It acts like a liming material. Still with me?

The practical matter is, while wood ash does contain essential nutrients, you can have too much of a good thing. If you have a big wood burner and a small garden you can drive soil pH into an extreme range and over apply potassium. Neither is good for plants. So how much should you apply? Depends on what you’re growing and the current status of your soil fertility. If you really want to know, get a Penn State Soil test. If you have to take a guess, don’t apply more than a pound or two of wood ash per 100 square feet until you get more information. If you just want to get rid of the dang stuff, sling it around the lawn. Wood ash is light and with the right technique you’ll be applying such small quantities that it will be hard to over apply it. Since wood ash is alkaline, avoid applications to areas where you are growing acid loving plants such as azaleas and blueberries.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Saving Seed

There’s nothing like a cold winter day to get you thinking about spring. So last weekend when it was 2 below zero (still zone 6, see previous blog entry) I did a seed inventory. I was about to start filling out an order from my favorite catalog when I realized that I still had a lot of left-over seed. So I sorted and evaluated my stock. Wow! Do I ever have a lot of lettuce seed! Some of it from 2005.

The question is: will that seed still germinate? It depends on the species and the storage conditions. In the case of lettuce, my references say it is one of the best at remaining viable… maybe 5 years under good conditions. My left over onion seed from 2003 on the other hand, is mostly dead.

What are good storage conditions? In a nut shell, cool, dry and dark. About 40 degrees F and very low humidity. Temperatures in your fridge are fine; the enemy is moisture. Sealing dry seed in air tight jars with silica gel packets or another moisture absorbing material is best. Dry powdered milk might be handier for many of us than silca gel. Just put a couple of tablespoons in tissue paper, seal with rubber bands and add to your airtight seed storage jar.

Is that how I store my seeds? Sadly, not. They’ve just been in the garage… dry but subject to a range of temperatures and fluctuating humidity. So I’ll lower my expectations. Experience tells me that for most species, germination percentage may be down but enough of the seed is viable enough to warrant keeping it. Just sow a bit thicker than with fresh seed. If I had the time (or if the stakes were higher)I’d do a germination test by putting seed on moist paper towels at room temperature and recording the percentage that sprout. I probably won’t get around to that either.

Ok, here’s what the books say about seed longevity under good storage conditions. 1 year : onion, parsley, parsnip. 2 years: okra, pepper sweet corn. 3 years: bean, carrot, pea, broccoli, spinach. 4 years: beet, cabbage, cauliflower, eggplant, pumpkin, tomato. 5 years: collards, cukes, melons, lettuce, radish.

Note that what happens is that germination percentage declines over time. They don’t all die at once. And storage conditions have a big effect. One reference I read described seed of many vegetable species with germination rates over 50 % many decades after being put into ideal storage.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

How Cold Was It?

That’s a question that gardeners and farmers ask each other all of the time. The talk really heats up at several key times of the year: mid winter, when extreme low temperatures occur; late spring, when frosts can damage tender new growth and blooms; and again in the fall, when the first “killing freeze” signals the end of the growing season.

It is supposed to get a bit chilly later this week so I am sure there will be lots of conversation about the season’s lowest temperature, to date. The weather women (a major improvement over the weatherman) are talking about single digits on Thursday and Friday nights. Since most of Bucks County, PA is in USDA Hardiness Zone 6, that’s normal. In fact, if temperatures stay above minus 10 degrees F we are still within the normal average range for zone 6.

If you are not familiar with the concept of hardiness zones, click on the USDA link shown above and educate yourself. Zone designation is based on records of average low temperature that occurred from 1974-1986. The country is divided into 11 zones. The lower the number, the colder it gets.

Believe it or not, there is weather outside of the USA. I recall taking a stroll in Skibbereen, southern Ireland, a few years ago and admiring the Fuscia hedges. They were obviously hardy perennials there. This is Zone 9. The locals said it rarely went below freezing. The hardiness map says the average low temperature range is 20-30 degrees F. I note that my gardening pals in Nuremberg, Germany are zone 6, just like us. I would expect that the procedures I use for growing garlic would work there as well. Cold hardiness is a useful, international concept.

However, cold hardiness is only one important factor in plant growth. For instance, although the average low temperatures in southern Ireland look good for figs, I wonder if they get enough heat to ripen a crop. Rainfall, day-length and many other factors play a role in plant survival. I’m told that although Norway Maple is cold hardy in the southern states, it struggles under the high temperatures. Same thing with currents and gooseberries.

There isn’t much you can do about the weather but it’s important to consider winter hardiness when deciding what plants you are going to grow. Professional horticulturists and plant sellers use the USDA hardiness zones as an official and useful guide.

Of course, gardeners are always pushing the limits. I’ve got a fig tree and crape myrtle in my yard and they are both of these are zone 7 plants. I expect them to be severely injured by low temperatures now and then. Both have been killed to the ground. They re-grow from below ground parts that were not exposed to the killing temperature. Pushing the limits of hardiness zones is OK for the amateur but you’d be nuts to start a fig farm in zone 6.