Maryland Grows

The world according to Mike McGrath

This past Saturday was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my garden career! I got to meet Mike McGrath, host of the national public radio show “You Bet Your Garden“. He lectured on the seven secrets to successful organic gardening. But if you are thinking “a lecture…how boring” you haven’t heard him speak. He is full of knowledge and makes you laugh–hard–while imparting his garden wisdom.

I was afraid to approach him for a picture, but I did it anyway and he was so very happy to oblige! His lecture confirmed some practices I was already using and gave me some tips for things I also need to add to my repertoire to enhance my organic practices. To sum it all up, use raised beds, feed your soil (I’m talkin‘ compost yaul), invite beneficial insects into your garden, birds are your friends, have something in constant bloom all the time, mulch against weeds, water wisely and (the most important tip) HAVE FUN!

Mike has two great books out. One is called You Bet Your Tomatoes and the other is Mike McGrath’s Book of Compost. He autographed both books for me and even said I was “quite a tomato”….awww thanks, Mike, I’m blushing!

If you want more nuggets on each of these tips, leave a comment and I will be glad to share!

Until next time happy garden thoughts!!

Creative seed starting

Grow It Eat It has a new place for you to share your secrets of gardening success with the other members of the Network – it’s called Growing Great Gardens and you can read all about it and start sending your tips in right now!

This month’s topic is Creative Seed Starting.  So to get you thinking about what you start your seeds in, how you give the seedlings plenty of light and make sure they get to transplant size nice and strong, here’s a little photo essay on one way I reuse something sitting around my house.

I start with a plastic egg carton. 

This kind is very convenient because it has three sections and is all clear, but you can use styrofoam or (for one use) cardboard too, with plastic wrap to cover.

Next I cut the top off the carton:

The smooth top will form the drip tray.
Now to punch holes in one of the egg-holding sections:
I use a large needle such as a darning needle.
Then add moistened seed-starting mix to the cups with holes in them, plant your seeds, and position the trays one inside the other; there will be room for excess water to drip out.  The other half of the egg tray makes a convenient cover to conserve moisture until the seedlings sprout, but you could use plastic wrap instead. 
And a few days later: onion sprouts!  
Now, onions may not be the best thing to grow using this system, unless you can plant the seedlings outside later this month, which given the sodden soil conditions may not be possible.  But they sprouted quickly and showed how well this works.  Good uses for the Egg Carton Method include seedlings that you’ll be transplanting into larger containers when they are a bit bigger.  I have some peppers coming up in egg cartons right now – and some of those were from old seeds, which is another good use: if you don’t want to do a full germination test (with moistened paper towels and counting percentages of seeds germinated), or maybe you only have three seeds left to try with, you’re not wasting very much soil mix if the seed fails here.  And you can write the variety you’re growing right on the plastic egg-bump lid (though don’t forget when you take it off to stick it underneath or something, or you’ll lose your names!).

What seed-starting and seedling-growing methods work for you?  Send your tips in to Growing Great Gardens!  We look forward to hearing from you.

This year I’ll be on time

Last year I missed the boat. Not quite, but I could have done better.

2009 was my first year vegetable gardening on two raised 4-foot square beds and on another larger ornamental bed that I’d rescued from the weeds the year before. I’d intended that former weed bed to become a perennial asparagus bed, but I missed the deadline to plant the crowns.

(Actually, as I found out when I belatedly decided to get that bed’s soil tested, the pH was far too acidic for asparagus. As a result, even though I was late in transplanting tomato seedlings there, fortunately late blight was ALSO late arriving in my Washington County plot. Thus, humans and groundhogs enjoyed a plentiful tomato harvest.)

But that’s how it was… I kept missing planting deadlines all year. Including putting in a fall garden, because I didn’t realize that I had to start thinking about that in the middle of the summer! My most striking example of ill timing — which I left in the ground as an inspiration for 2010 — was my sunflowers. I sowed Mammoth sunflower seeds so late that I had only three days to enjoy the fully grown plants before autumn started to hit.

Those sunflowers taught me that seed packets truly contain useful information. Today’s date + Days to Germination + Days to Bloom = Plant Maturity Date. If that plant maturity date is due to happen after the first frost, we’re out of luck. (That seems obvious, but I had to actually experience it to truly register the lesson!)

So this year I’m paying VERY close attention to planting inside dates, to sowing outside dates, to transplanting dates, and to the information on seed packets. A good planting calendar is one of our most important gardening tools.

And it’s a free! Yesterday I found a very useful resource on a blog called “Little House in the Suburbs.” Their spring planting calendar is really cool, as well as their fall planting calendar and their herb calendar. (Don’t mind the 2009 date: you fill in the dates yourself based on your local frost dates.) And, if you’re more experienced than I with planning ahead, they also offer a really cool succession planting spreadsheet.

To find your spring frost dates in Maryland, visit this page at HGIC, and for fall frost dates, this one. Because I’m still a newbie gardener, in 2010 I’ll be sticking with the 10% dates… at least until I become well versed in the art of protecting my seedlings from frost.

The Seeds are coming! The seeds are coming!

Ahhhh……the growing season is almost upon us! It is officially here for me as I just ordered some of the seeds that I will be growing in my garden this year! Yay!

So here’s what will be arriving in a few days:

Sweet Baby Girls (cherry type)
Tomatoberry (size and shape of a strawberry)
Rutgers Jersey (a sandwich type and a tribute to my homestate–Go Jersey!)
Roma (a tribute to my grandmother and my Italian heritage)

Cantaloupe: Ambrosia hybrid; Cucumber (Streamliner hybrid); Hot Pepper Caribbean Red (habanero); Mint: chocolate mint. I also bought some tomato seeds that will supposedly produce plants that reach 8 feet tall in 90 days and produce 60 pounds of tomatoes…each!

Oh and I plan to buy more! I am going to purchase the rest of my herb seeds, onions, garlic, potatoes, carrots and a few other things. It’s going to be great! I can just see it all now and my taste buds are beginning to water already.

It’s going to be a great growing season for us all. I can feel it in my bones. Until next time, everyone.

Happy garden thoughts!

Companion Planting: Space Saving at its Finest

When you think of saving space in the garden do you have the health of your plants in mind? When I first started using various space saving techniques, I certainly did not think that there were benefits for the plants. I just wanted to grow more in the limited amount of space that I have. But here’s the thing: by planting certain crops together you benefit the health of the plant above and below ground while simultaneously increasing your yields.

Native Americans are the pioneers of companion planting with their ‘Three Sisters’ technique of growing corn, beans and squash together. These three plants, when grown together, have a mutually beneficial relationship. The corn stalk provides the beans with a support to grow on and the leaves of the squash act as a living mulch to discourage weeds.

Companion planting is basically growing plants together that “like” each other. This method of gardening allows you to maximize your garden space by growing things more closely together, but the plants also benefit from the chemical reactions that occur by making certain plants neighbors.

It works like this: every plant releases different chemicals either from its leaves or from its roots and those chemicals either attract or repel insects. These same chemicals also either encourage or inhibit a plant’s growth and yield. Each plant also gives off a sort of signal, called a molecular vibration. Insects, both good and bad, use this vibration to find plants in your garden. Companion planting makes it more difficult for insects to establish themselves and find food (Avant-Gardening: Creative Organic Gardening).

There’s a lot that goes into companion planting, but don’t let it overwhelm you. A little research about each plant’s needs can help you plan out what will go where in your garden space.

The list of companion plants is too long to put here. There are plenty of web sites that have lists of what plants go well together. Just to wet your whistle a little here are a few: beans, cabbage and broccoli provide great shade for celery, lettuce and spinach; leeks and onions can be planted with carrots, parsley, pepper and eggplant.

So just remember, with a little planning companion planting will not only save space. It will create a mutually beneficial relationship between your soil and your plants. If the soil is happy and the plants are happy, the possibilities are endless!

What becomes of the broken garden?

The worst snow storm on record. I was ready. Went out and got plenty of groceries (I was all out so I wasn’t going just for the snow), filled the car up with gas and was even ready for a power outage (which thank God I did not have). I didn’t think of one thing: the garden cage.

I still recall the horror clearly. After the snow had passed my husband looked out the window and said “I was afraid this would happen.” My heart sank. I took a few deep breaths and then looked outside. Yup. The weight of the snow on the chicken wire collapsed the roof of my garden cage. Now, I was not a physics major as my husband was, so the fact that the cage might collapse didn’t dawn on me. I gave him a dirty look and said “if you thought this was going to happen you could have told me….I would have gone out and cut the chicken wire from the roof of the cage!” Of course I know this wasn’t his fault. But someone had to be the target of my misdirected anger and that cowardly snow miser certainly was nowhere to be found.

I cried. Yes, I really did. My husband said “the main supports are fine. We’ll go out, cut down the roof before the next snowstorm and in the spring I will make it better and stronger and bigger.” Bigger? Ohhhhhh I’m planning what to do with those extra square feet already!

So though my heart feels much like my beautiful garden cage looks, I know that she shall rise again like the Phoenix. The positive in all this–besides the extra square feet I will be getting? It will give me LOTS to blog about!

But in the meantime, if you see this guy….tell him I’d like to have a word with him.

Until next time. Happy garden thoughts!

Why do I want to think about summer today?

Oh, that could be why.

A great weekend to look at seed catalogs and consider which seeds need to be started inside when. One unusual (for this country) plant I may try again, although it wasn’t quite a success last year, is Solanum muricatum, the pepino melon.

Pepino melon, as some of you can guess from the Latin name, is a member of the wonderful Solanaceae family, and a close relative of tomato and eggplant. It is native to South America. It’s not a melon, botanically, but it tastes sweet like one. Or so I hear. The plant that grew beautifully for us in the demo garden did produce fruit, but a frost started to blacken the leaves before the fruit was fully mature. Here’s what it looked like just before that:

(photo by Katherine Lambert)

We picked the immature fruit anyway, hoping it would ripen like a green tomato does inside, but it stayed hard. I did finally cut mine open and try it; it tasted like, um, an unripe melon. But it promised to be good when ripe.

You can see a fully ripe pepino melon cut open at this link.

I think I’ll try growing them again, starting plants inside sometime this month so they are sizable by the time we transplant them into the garden in May. The plants are about two feet high at maturity, and grow well in standard tomato cages (you know, the ones that are too flimsy to work for tomatoes). In their native climate they are perennial and evergreen; not here.

Anyone have experience either growing or eating these?