Maryland Grows

Time to thin our raspberries

I really don’t like thinning new canes of our red raspberries. Removing about half of them seems counter-intuitive. More canes, more berries—right?

No, more isn’t always better in our gardens. Why?

The reasons are similar for many fruits and vegetables. Good spacing increases air circulation and helps prevent diseases. Thinning also promotes stronger plants and higher yields—sort of like suckering tomatoes or thinning beets.

So last Thursday I got out my pruners and cut off the extra canes where they emerged from the soil, leaving the remaining canes six inches apart in all directions—well, more or less. As I tossed the cuttings into piles, I tried to convince myself once again that the remaining canes will produce bigger berries than the crowded canes would have.

When an Alberta clipper come roaring through next winter and a “secondary low” sneaks up the Atlantic coast and dumps a few feet of snow on our driveway, I’ll go to our freezer, take out a bag of frozen Heritage raspberries, put a handful of the beautiful red berries into each of our cereal bowls, then cover them with hot oatmeal, and add a modest halo of milk.

Yummy. I won’t even remember my reluctance to thin the canes in April.

Big Day at Government House

Saturday was the official planting day at Government House. The first Lady joined Master Gardeners and Apprentice Gardeners to plant broccoli, cabbage, lettuces, arugula and chard.

Mrs. O’Malley also presented a proclamation from the Governor proclaiming April as Grow It Eat It month. Dr. Wei from the University of Maryland was on hand to accept it.

Chef Medford Canby made mint tea and snacks using herbs from the garden. I’ll forward a recipe from him next time!

The best news of all? The first Lady announced that there will be classes presented in the garden at Government House beginning in May.

For a list of classes and to sign up, link to the first Lady’s website.

Explosion in our blackberry patch

Bad Bob. This year in general I’ve done an above-average job of keeping the flourishing winter weeds under control. But somehow I did an under-average job in the blackberry patch, which is to the south of our house and out of sight, out of mind, so to speak, because our routine activities don’t take us to that side of the house.

And then I walked that way. The blackberries were in great shape. They have put out beautiful, deep-green leaves, first hints, I hope, of a good crop to come. But then my heart sank. A quarter of the bed was covered with hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsute), a winter, spring, summer, and fall weed, the first crop of which already has bloomed and started to go to seed. (Click on photos to enlarge.)

Hairy bittercress is doubly subversive because it tempts gardeners to ignore it. Its leaves pretty much hug the ground—easy to overlook. The flowering stems are quite fine—not as eye-catching as a stand of chickweed. But one feature of hairy bittercress is attention-getting—its seed capsules. As they mature, they coil in such a way that they “explode” and propel seeds up to nine feet when disturbed by a gardener, an animal, the wind, or a wandering garden gnome.

So there was my fine crop of hairy bittercress. When I looked closer and noted that the seed capsules still had a hint of green, I hoped they weren’t quite ready to scatter at the slightest touch. I reached down, grabbed the biggest plant, and pulled.

A shower of seeds bounced off my pants legs and rained down on nearby soil. For an instant, I thought of summer rain falling on my great-grandmother’s tin roof. Back to the reality of unwanted weed seeds, I shook my head in despair and redoubled my effort at “gentler” removal. Luckily, most seed capsules were not ready to explode—so I kept on pulling.

I’ll have to be vigilant all summer to make sure I uproot the crop of bittercress seedlings that inevitably will emerge. A reference work—“Weeds of the Northeast” by Uva, Neal, and DiTomaso—indicates, the plants may produce “several generations” over one growing season. Vigilance—weekly vigilance—is the price of freedom from hairy bittercress.

Sigh, sigh. Weed, weed. Pull up hairy bittercress—and, oh yes, uproot my two other blackberry patch nemeses—common groundsel (Senecio vulgaris), another winter weed whose yellow flowers already had gone to seed and which floated away on fluffy parachutes as I pulled them, and mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris).

Mugwort, sometimes called chrysanthemum weed because of the shape of its leaves, is difficult to eliminate because it reproduces mostly by rhizomes, or underground stems. Whenever I try to remove it, root sections that break off seem to establish a new plant within a few days.

In an hour the job was done. The bittercress, groundsel, and mugwort were gone—for now.

But I’ve learned a lesson that I’ve apparently failed to learn in scores of previous springs: don’t let winter weeds go to seed in your veggie garden.

Perhaps the three blizzards and the record snowfall in Maryland during winter 2009-2010 made me a bit complacent about winter weeds this year, but they were under the snowdrifts, insulated from the frigid Canadian air, waiting for the warming sun of February and March to stimulate their growth.

Next year I really will keep winter weeds under control. In fact, if I could only find a pencil I’d jot down my first New Year’s Resolutions for 2011.

It’s transfer time….again.

Ah, it’s good to be back! I haven’t posted for two weeks. My seedlings are growing very nicely. I had to transfer my okra and sugar snap peas into larger pots.

They are growing by leaps and bounds. I placed the sugar snap peas in one gallon pots and gently tied them to two foot stakes to give them a little support. As you can see, my cat gave me her personal approval…AFTER checking my work.

I also placed my okra into larger flower pots. I think they are going to do very well. They look very strong. They were a bit leggy, but I just buried the stems, so I think they will be alright. Since okra plants are heat lovers, I have to keep these beauties thriving indoors until mid-May or June 1st.

Speaking of thriving, there are plans in the works to get the garden cage repaired this weekend! I will be sure to post lots of pictures of the rebuild. I am relieved that we are finally getting this done as my cold crops need to get in the ground and grow nice and big for the market!

Ok, back to the plants. I have been saving all of my eggshells. Eggshells are a great source of calcium for tomato plants. You don’t have to do anything special with them, just let them dry out on a paper towel. I usually throw them in the hole with the tomato plants at transplanting time. However, this time, I crushed some of them up very finely and sprinkled them on the soil around my tomato plants.

Here’s a little growing tip for your plants. You may be tempted to plant tomato, pepper or cucumber plants outdoors now since all of the garden centers are selling them. In a word: DON’T. Tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, watermelons, eggplants, cantaloupes and others are heat loving plants.

Although the days are starting to warm up, nighttime temperatures are still in the low 30s and 40s and can kill your plants quickly. The only plants that can go out in the garden now are cold loving plants like lettuces, radishes, spinach, kale, collards, and mustard greens.

That’s all for now folks! Until next time….happy garden thoughts!

Why I Grow Vegetables


Welcome to my very first ever blog post! I’m Donna, and I’m a Maryland Master Gardener. I thought I’d start this blogging thing off by telling you a little about why I grow vegetables.

There are many reasons people grow their own vegetables – they taste better than that store-bought stuff, they are healthier than that store-bought stuff (studies have been done!), you can get more varieties, it’s a fun way to get outside and get moving, it’s cost-effective. While I certainly gain all these benefits from growing my own, the truth of the matter is that I grow vegetables because of my Dad.

When I was a little girl, every summer I was always out working in our little backyard vegetable garden with Dad. He taught me how to grow tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, cucumbers, beans, and others, I’m sure. This was just the way of things back then. Everybody had a garden. In fact, to this day I cannot buy zucchini in the grocery store because ‘you are supposed to grow your own’.

I was 13 years old when my Dad passed away suddenly. I vaguely remember trying to have a garden for a few years after that, but without him it was no longer a priority. Anyway, I was busy trying to grow up – go to college, get a job, get married, buy a house (not necessarily all in that order!). It was when the house came, and I had my own land, that I was drawn again to growing vegetables. This was just the way of things, remember. I started small: a tomato in my flower garden, a hill of zucchini over there…Slowly but surely, each year my garden expanded, slowly replacing all the (inedible) ornamental plants that were taking up precious usable space.

As time went on, I found myself thinking more and more about my days out in the garden with Dad. Today I realize that some of the best memories I have of him were while we were out there, growing vegetables. When I’m out in my own garden, somehow I feel closer to him. I am honoring his memory, and carrying on his traditions. I still grow zucchini on mounds, like he did. I tie up my tomato plants with strips of old cloth, like he did. And when somebody asks me why I do these things, I proudly reply, ‘because my Dad did it that way.’

Plowing New Ground

New blogger here and a Baltimore County Master Gardener.

Last fall I decided to take the plunge and start a major vegetable garden. A few years back, I planted 1,000 sunflowers, one by each, and the deer ate them to the ground before they reached 6 inches. So I learned my lesson that a deer fence is not a nicety but a necessity. A huge fan of recycling, I was delighted to find old pipe that could be re-purposed into fence posts in a farm dump along with a massive welded-pipe gate.

A landscaper drilled 2 1/2 foot deep holes and set the pipes, putting cement into the two posts for the gate to give it added stability. Sadly, the pipes are so fat, no hardware was available to make the gate usable. That project is still carried on my TO DO list.

I’m also an experimenter and always eager to try the latest techniques and so, rather than plow, I thought to biodrill with daikon radishes, a ‘no-till’ method developed by our own University of Maryland which I learned about in Master Gardener class. The seeds went in late, probably did not have a good supply of nitrogen and other nutrients either, and did not accomplish their job. Where the soil had not been scratched up to break the sod, it seems there was no way for them to even take hold. Did I mention that my garden is on a farm field that has not been touched except for mowing for at least 50 years.

This spring I faced the reality of a garden that needed drastic measures so I convinced a reluctant farmer to plow for me. His only comment was that ‘it should have been plowed in the fall’. Here’s a picture of Mr. H. disciplining my sod which was 6″ thick. He later came back and ran a tractor mounted tiller over it and while there are still clumps of field grass in there, it is workable and starting to look like a real garden.

Ignoring the advice embedded in the Grow It Eat It classes that I taught for beginning vegetable gardeners to START SMALL, I made this garden 50′ x 50′. In for a penny, in for a pound.

I’m currently hanging the deer fencing, have one row of peas planted, the corn plot is marked out and one 17′ x 17′ section is planted with, yes, daikon radishes. I am determined to make these things grow. It’s also doubtful that I will be able to plant the entire garden this year so the daikon will hopefully keep the weeds at bay and enrich the soil for next year.

Perennial Vegetables

My gardening book to-be-read pile keeps getting larger, but one item that jumped to the top of the heap recently (not only because it was a library book and had to be returned on time) was Eric Toensmeier’s Perennial Vegetables. It’s a fascinating look at a category of food plants we often miss while we are putting in our fruit trees and shrubs, and our annually-planted kale and tomatoes (both of which can be short-lived perennials given the right variety and/or climate).

And now I want to grow… well, not all of the plants in the book, since many of them have limiting factors, for example that they can only be grown in climates more tropical than Maryland (including, alas, the pepino melon, but I have transplants that will be sizable by mid-May, so I’ll keep hoping), but more than I’m growing now.

So far I’ve tried:




Sunchoke or Jerusalem artichoke


Walking Onion, of which I have no picture, and while we’re on alliums, my garlic might as well be considered perennial since I never manage to dig it all up so it springs up in every bed it’s been planted in. And I’ve started sea kale this year, and (rather unsuccessfully so far due to interfering squirrels) cow cabbage.

Some other plants I’ve grown are perennial in warmer climates, for example sweet potato, hyacinth bean, and both Malabar and New Zealand “spinach.” In fact, some plants that die here when it gets cold are invasive pests in warm climates; Toensmeier either does not include these or explains carefully and with adequate warnings why he is making an exception. He also makes distinctions between truly invasive plants and those that are aggressive within a garden but don’t spread into the wild if you keep after them (running bamboo is an example). I am tempted by Chinese artichoke, a spreading plant grown for its edible tubers, but then I see its Latin name is Stachys affinis (Stachys byzantina, lamb’s ear, is a soft, furry bane of ornamental gardens, very difficult to get rid of once you have it, and all Stachys are part of the mint family) and it is described as forming large colonies. So only if I have a place I want smothered in ground cover, I guess.

However, I think I will try wintering over some of the scorzonera we are growing in the demo garden this year (shouldn’t speak yet since we only planted seeds Thursday, but I hope it will succeed!). And perhaps find a suitable microclimate to perennialize scarlet runner beans (Toensmeier claims them hardy to zone 7 with lots of mulch). And groundnut would be fun to try, given a large enough trellis (4-8 foot vines).

Here’s one more picture, again from a vacation, this time to Belize, where we saw this pepper growing on a small tree. Peppers are perennial, yes! But not in Maryland, sorry.

(Cardoon and pepper photos: Nick Smith; Jerusalem artichoke: Katherine Lambert; the less good ones are mine.)