Monday, October 29, 2012

Garden Q and A: Ripening Green Tomatoes, Peppers, and Avoiding Over-Tilling

This weekend a reader emailed me a few questions she had about my post 5 Fall Things To Do to Prepare the Vegetable Garden for Spring.  I thought that other gardeners may be interested in hearing the answers to those questions as well so for today we'll begin an intermittent series of garden questions and answers!  Feel free to chime in your recommendations or observations in the comments.

Question: Should I harvest all my tomatoes while they are green so they will not be ruined by the frost?

Answer:  You can harvest them before and after a light frost.  Frost can damage the tomatoes themselves so avoid any that may be damaged.  Ideally you should pick them before a frost but you can still use any undamaged tomatoes you find after a frost has hit your garden.  Small and very immature tomatoes may not ripen up at all when brought indoors but you can always make other delicious things with them like fried green tomatoes or green tomato salsa!

Question: Can you ripen tomatoes with a  brown paper bag?

Answer: Yes you can!  Paper bags can be used to ripen tomatoes. Cardboard boxes left open also work well.  Ripening is triggered by a gas called ethylene. Sticking another ripened fruit nearby the tomatoes like an apple will also help to trigger ripening.


Question: I have a number of pepper plants that were supposed to be red, orange, yellow but only one plant has the peppers changing color. Should I leave them on the plant or remove them and store them somewhere to change color?

Answer:  With frosts coming (and cooler temperatures) it is unlikely that leaving the peppers on the plant will encourage them to ripen up to their colors.  Try the tomato ripening techniques above to get those peppers to ripen.


Question: This was my second year of gardening and both years I used a rototiller prior to planting. Your latest post seemed to suggest that maybe I should skip that step next spring, is that correct?

Answer: Sometimes your garden soil does not need tilling.  Tilling is a great technique to use when incorporating organic matter like a cover crop into the soil but over tilling can actually damage the soil structure.  You want a soil structure that holds water and drains well and provides a healthy environment for soil organisms.  Over tilling will break the soil into fine particles which then hold together and make a soil structure closer to brick than soil!  That being said, a once a year annual tilling at the beginning of the season probably will be fine - just make sure you are adding something beneficial into the soil to improve its structure.  Compost, leaf mold, grass clippings, soil conditioner and other organic additives will help the soil become exactly what you want it to be - a living community of beneficial organisms!


Question: Is there any benefit or negative outcome of just leaving all the plants in the garden where they are to decompose on their own?

Answer:  Yes and no.  If your plants are diseased then leaving them in the soil will allow soil based pathogens to gain a greater hold on that location in your garden.  I highly recommend removing all diseased plants from the garden.  For other plants that were otherwise healthy there really isn't an issue with allowing them to decompose in the soil.  One potential benefit to leaving your plants alone at the end of the season is the gradual decomposition of the root systems.  Dying plants with decaying roots will gradually create openings for water and air to enter the soil which is good for that aforementioned community of beneficial organisms.  This is one reason why cover crops are used to great effect.


What do you think?  Do you have any tried and true techniques to ripen your green tomatoes or peppers?

Friday, October 26, 2012

5 Fall Things to Do to Prepare the Vegetable Garden for Spring

The fall season is a busy one.  We're all busy cleaning up the outside areas of our homes and gardens to prepare for colder days ahead.  The list of things to do this fall isn't a short one but if you can fit a few more items to your list you will save yourself some time in the spring!  Let's take a look today at a few things you can do this fall to prepare your vegetable garden for spring.

5 Fall Things To Do To Prepare the Vegetable Garden for Spring

  1. Clear out your summer garden.  Maybe you've already done this but I haven't.  We were still getting tomatoes and peppers from the garden and I didn't want to stop a good thing!  
    Don't put any diseased foliage or branches in the compost bin.  In the past I've burned the dead and dried tomato stems in a fire pit.  Once the ashes cooled I tossed them into the compost bin.  If you were to put diseased materials in your compost you will probably just spread it around to other plants next year.  
  2. Add compost to your garden beds.  Compost and the organic matter it contains are one of the best amendments you can add to your garden.  The organic matter keeps the soil loose and is great at retaining moisture.  It also contains living organisms that work hard to bring usable nutrients to your vegetable plants.  You can till compost into the soil if you like or simply spread it on top of the beds and rake it in lightly.  Over tilling soil can destroy the soil structure so try to use the tiller a little less often.  Spreading the compost on top of the soil will allow the rain (or snow) to wash the compost into the soil.  Don't forget to keep composting over the winter.  I know the trek to the compost bin might get chilly at times but your plants will thank you!
  3. Mulch your beds!  After you've spread compost on the vegetable garden cover it with a thick layer of natural mulch.  One of the cheapest and easiest to find mulches is available right now on your lawn - leaves!  I highly recommend using a bagging mower to collect the leaves since the mower will dice the leaves into small bits and pieces which are easier to break down in the garden.  If you happen to get a bunch of grass clippings to go with the leaves then that's great too.  A balance of green and brown materials is ideal blend to make compost!  I use grass clippings all the time for the vegetable garden.  I do avoid Bermuda grass clippings since those are prone to rooting - I'm fighting a Bermuda grass battle anyway.  Also avoid using grass that has been sprayed with pesticides or herbicides.  You don't want that stuff on your food, in your food, or around your food!
  4. If you haven't already done so make a crop rotation plan.  While the locations of your plantings are still fresh in your mind write them down.  Next year don't plant the same thing in the same spot.  Diseases that effect one family of plants may not effect another but can persist in the soil for several years.  If you rotate the crops in a 3-4 year rotation you'll be better able to avoid those diseases.  This requires good note taking or a 100% accurate photographic memory.  I don't know about you but I don't have the latter!
  5. Write down the good stuff from the vegetable garden.  If something was outstanding - write it down!
    That tomato that produced prolifically, was disease free, and tasted awesome is one you want to plant again and again.  So write it down and you will never forget it! You can make a list of things you didn't like too, to help you avoid those plants next year.  It makes no sense to keep replanting a vegetable that never grows well, doesn't taste good, or you just don't want and have no use for!
Now it's time for me to take my own advice and get busy in the garden!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Colors from Chattanooga

Chattanooga, TN is one of the most beautiful places to visit.  It's near the mountains in the south eastern corner of our state along the Tennessee river.  The natural hilly area is full of all kinds of trees which make it a perfect area for Emily Rose to photograph and share with us for the Fall Color Project! Stop by and pay a visit to Chattanooga and say hi to Emily as she enjoys her cottage in the woods!




Some Maple Tree Fall Color

There are few trees that are more colorful in the fall than maples!  The Acer genus really has cornered the market on autumn brilliance.  That's not to say that there aren't other trees just as dazzling but its hard to actually beat maples for the color show this time of year.  The colors they show range from gold to red and every shade in between.  Here's a look at a few maples I took pictures of yesterday.

This mature maple off in the distance really stands out long after the hackberries and other early leaf droppers have lost their leaves.


This golden orange colored maple was along the back of my mom's property.  



A closer look at it's leaves reveals more than just an orange color.


This red maple was planted by my dad several years ago.  It's grown quite a bit over the last several years.  Dad planted a lot of trees in his yard.  He wanted to develop a forest like atmosphere around his home.


Red maple (Acer rubrum) 


Of course there are Japanese maples too!  This one is loaded with seeds which are called samaras.  I've collected quite a few Japanese maple seeds to stratify and sow over the winter and spring.  Japanese maples grown from seed do not always look the same as the parent plant.  Some varieties come extremely close while others don't.  It never hurts to experiment though!  One thing I hope to try in the future is grafting and for that I need a good root stock.



There's more fall color to come!  I hope you'll join me in sharing fall color where you are through the 2012 Fall Color Project!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A Monarch Butterfly Visit

Yesterday we had the good fortune to witness a Monarch butterfly stopping by our 'Clara Curtis' mum for a fill-up.  Monarchs are on their way south now to find their winter homes and have to stop for nourishment along the way.  We usually see them a couple times a year passing through looking for places to lay their eggs or just stopping by for nectar from the flowers.  They love to use Aclepias purpurascens as a host plant for the larvae which is also known as purple milkweed.  It grows native near us but so far we don't have any in our garden.  We do have Asclepias tuberosa or Butterfly weed which is also another viable food source for Monarch caterpillars.



Is it a Male or Female Monarch?


If you look carefully in the above picture you will notice two black dots or splotches near the back of the Monarch butterfly's body.  Those spots mean that this is a male butterfly.  I learned that yesterday in a conversation on The Home Garden Facebook Page.  It's always great to get into interesting conversations!


The 'Clara Curtis' mums are a great last minute source of nectar for these butterflies.  Gulf fritillaries and skippers have been feasting on it's nectar for a couple weeks before the Monarch butterfly visit.  Bees of all kinds have been enjoying it too.  I think it has an advantage over other mums in that it is easier to reach the pollen due to the daisy-like flowers.  'Clara Curtis' also blooms fairly late in the growing season when many other plants have already gone to seed.


Have you seen Monarchs on their migration this fall?


Monday, October 22, 2012

Growing in the Fall Vegetable Garden

Fall vegetable gardening can certainly be interesting in Tennessee!  You never quite know how the weather is going to shape up.  Is it going to frost early?  Late?  Will the temperatures be normal or extra warm like we'll be having this week?  You just never know.  For gardening weather this October we've had a couple light frosts but nothing damaging which means our summer garden still has more to give - and we're going to happily harvest until the end.  With temperatures set to be in the 80's this week with no frost chances we have a good chance of continuing to get summer vegetables through the end of October!  Tennessee is a great place for a vegetable garden!



This morning I picked a few orange bell peppers.  I didn't realize I had this many still coming.  In fact I had given up on the peppers a couple weeks ago thinking the weather was about to turn.  Glad I was wrong!  Peppers are very easy to grow.  Once planted they take some time to produce and we usually don't get much until late July or August. I've had very few pest problems on our peppers.  This year though I had a bunny that apparently had a taste for jalapenos - still haven't quite figured out if it liked them or it just had a very short memory.  Perhaps it thought that the next pepper it tasted might not be so spicy.  I suspect it found out differently!
I still have a whole bunch of Tabasco peppers to harvest although I haven't a clue how I'll use them.  Perhaps the tomatoes I still have on the vine and Tabasco peppers might make friends in some delicious October chili...

I have potatoes growing again.  I didn't intend to grow a fall crop of potatoes - or not consciously at least. I must have left a few potatoes in the ground from spring since now we have about 12 plants growing strong.  I'll cover them through the next couple light frosts then dig and see what we have just after a hard freeze.  They may be small potatoes - but often those are the tastiest!



Pak Choi
The actual fall vegetables I planted are doing well, I grew them from seed in this raised bed.  I've watered only a couple times so far, since we've had some rains.  We have pak choi, two types of lettuce, spinach, kale, and chard.  The other half of this bed still needs planted.  I have several PVC pipes that are curved to use for a row cover over the winter.  Hopefully we can keep the plants actively growing through December and into January.  If nothing else we'll have some great looking plants when spring comes around.

This weekend was beautiful here in Tennessee.  I hope you had a chance to enjoy the outdoors!


Saturday, October 20, 2012

Fall Color - In the Garden - from Woodlawn TN!

The peak fall color this year is on its way and Tina has a great post for us with lots of Autumn color to share!  Tina writes the blog In the Garden and lives in Woodlawn, TN which is north of Nashville and just south of Kentucky.
What fall color does her garden have to offer?  How about a Korean maple - its hard to beat a maple for fall color!  Or perhaps her low-gro sumac?  Or maybe the crabapple berries?  Or even her bottle tree!  There's lots to see at Tina's blog so go visit her Fall Color Project post and see the colors in Woodlawn, TN!


Read this post to join in the Fall Color Project 2012!


Friday, October 19, 2012

5 Great Reasons to Visit Cheekwood Botanical Gardens!

I wanted to share a few more pictures from my visit to Cheekwood Botanical Gardens the other day but also wanted to give you a Friday 5 post so I thought why not put the two together?  For today I'll give you 5 Great reasons to visit Cheekwood and show you some of the great features I saw during my brief visit on Monday.

Awesome plantings that are changed with the seasons!  What could be more seasonal this fall than the quintessential mum?  Cheekwood has an amazing display of mums planted enmass.  Backdrops of other perennials really enable the colorful mums to pop out at the visitor.  Nearly any time something is planted in a mass planting it impresses! The backdrops in the picture to the right include canna lily and Salvia leucantha.
Ninebark
Ninebark
Cheekwood is a great place to learn about new plants, different plants, or how to use a plant.  Nearly every plant or plant group is labeled to help visitors identify them.  The plant diversity is amazing.  I overhead one person mentioning how when they were first gardening they came to Cheekwood to identify plants from her garden that she did not know.  Not only do you learn the identity of the plants but you also can see how they were used in the gardens and what plants they were planted with which is extremely helpful.

Themed events happen all the time at Cheekwood.  Right now themed scare crow decorate the garden ranging from books like "Where the Wild Things Are ", to local art production groups, and even to local doctors offices.  OK...you may not think a local doctors office could offer much as far as a scarecrow is concerned, but when it's in the form of a giant syringe man who looks more happy to give you a shot it could be pretty scary!  They have had trains featured at Cheekwood this year in addition to tree houses and a pumpkin patch.


The Japanese gardens are stunning too.  I didn't get to travel through them since I had to drive my son in his stroller over steps and gravel walkways but even from a distance the Japanese garden was impressive!  Rounded hills nestle plantings of evergreens and perennials while Japanese styled structures give the area the proper dose of character!



Tranquil water features make great locations for photos or just for having a picnic.  A stream with bridges feeds into two ponds that are connected by a waterfall. Cheekwood achieves a good blend of open spaces, planting areas, and landscape features.



I hope you have a chance before these gorgeous fall days we've been having run out to stop by and spend a couple hours in the Cheekwood Botanical Garden!


Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Autumn Scenes from Cheekwood Botanical Gardens

Yesterday I traveled up to the Cheekwood Botanical Gardens to listen to Tina from In the Garden. She was doing a talk on Winter Gardening and all that it entails so we thought it would be a great opportunity for us to visit with her and check out the gardens while we were there. We also visited with Gail from Clay and Limestone at the meeting too. It's always fun to visit with other garden bloggers!

Cheekwood Botanical Garden has to be counted as one of Middle Tennessee's finest treasures. Their programs are always dynamic and interesting like the Chuhuly exhibit last year or the treehouses this year. Unfortunately the light was beginning to fade when we arrived at 5:30 PM and my pictures will be somewhat less than what they could have been with the right lighting but I think you'll be able to see some of awesome job that the Cheekwood crew does.

From where I entered the garden I saw this display.  While still pumping out the blooms some of the flowers had fallen.

Just beyond that display was this group of mums planted enmass.  They used a combination of cannas and Salvia leucantha as a backdrop.







 On the opposite side of the walkway the mums were backed by 'Black Pearl' ornamental peppers.


And further down the coleus served as the backdrop.


Down the sidewalk was this covered walkway area.  Mums lined the pathway on both sides with plantings of elephant ears accenting the shady areas. There were various scarecrows around the gardens on display.  The one to the left was Mama Lama.



At the end of this garden was this tall planter back with arborvitae and ornamental grasses...and of course - more mums!


Cheekwood had treehouses on display this year which have since be moved except for this one.  If I remember correctly it was the Walden Tree House.  I would love this in our backyard - maybe even more than my kids would!


I'll share some more pictures from Cheekwood later this week including some shots of their Japanese Garden and a couple water features!


Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Pak Choi and Other Fall Greens

A few weeks ago I planted our fall greens from seed in the vegetable garden.  I planted a mix of kale, chard, lettuce, spinach, pak choi, and Brussels sprouts.  The seedlings are all located in one of my long 10'x3' beds made from scrape lumber. They were orginally meant to be 10'x2' like in this raised bed layout but I altered the size a little. When the days begin to stay a little cooler, without the peaks of 80 degree weather, I'll install PVC pipe for a hoop house to keep my greens growing. Otherwise the greens need little care at the moment except for occasional watering during the dry spells.  Fortunately rain has been fairly frequent compared to normal this fall.  I sowed the seeds fairly thick but I'll harvest some of the younger greens to thin out the bed.



Earlier in the summer I planted a few pak choi (or bak choi) in another raised bed which are doing good.  There is also some self sown lettuce in the same bed that we'll cultivate and harvest as long as we can.  It's been my experience that lettuce sown in the fall will survive each year until spring even if it doesn't put on growth.  Once spring warms up the lettuce has a great head start.  I'll place a couple hoops over this smaller bed as well and cover to encourage growth for a longer period over the winter.




Are you growing fall or winter greens this year?

Monday, October 15, 2012

Flowering in Fall

Fall is well known for its colorful foliage that paints the country each year but there's still lots to appreciate among the flowering plants!  Here's a few of our current blooming flowers from the garden.  Some don't have much longer to go until the frost declares an end to the show.

The 'Clara Curtis' mums put on a spectacular show by our front walkway each year.  They get a little large and spread via rhizomes so make sure you have space for them before you plant.  These are one of the last blooms in our garden to show off every year. Sure makes for a good finish!





The 'Sheffield Pink' mums look so similar to the 'Clara Curtis' that the only reason I know the difference is because I know where I planted them!




Gaillardia or Blanket Flower is a great repeat bloomer that keeps going thorough out the summer and well into the fall.  If I dead headed it there would be more blooms but I have some seed collecting plans ahead.


The reblooming white iris is putting on some more flowers.  If you like irises you need a few reblooming irises to enjoy all summer!


'Green Envy' zinnias are in the front garden.  I got the seed from Renee's Garden this spring. I think they could have used a location with a little more sun which may have brought out the green coloration better.



I planted these coleus plants from seed and now I'm letting it go to seed.  Within a week I'll collect what I can from them to replant next year.  The leaves on these plants were huge - 6"-8" in some cases - probably due to the compost rich soil I planted them in.



The Fall Colors beginning to turn along the back property line.  It's mostly sassafras trees but the maples are also beginning their seasonal changes.  I hope you'll join us for the Fall Color Project 2012 to share your best fall foliage!



For more October bloom go visit Carol at May Dreams Gardens for Bloomsday!