Maryland Grows

The Garden Thyme Podcast – Putting Your Garden to Bed for the Winter

Episode 12: Putting Your Garden to Bed for the Winter

This is our last episode of 2020! We hope you, your family, and friends have a safe and happy holiday season and we look forward to more great episodes in 2021!

In this month’s episode, we talk about getting ready for winter by putting your garden to bed, caring for holiday plants (8:25), and some less known native fruits and vegetables (21:25).

Native Plant of the Month: Big bluestem Andropogon gerardii (33:50) Bug of the Month: Crane Flies (36:05) Garden Tips of the Month: (40:15)

f you have any garden questions you like us to talk about you can email us at UMEGardenPodcast@gmail.com

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Food gardening between growing seasons

Late fall feels like a bridge between growing seasons. Walking in my garden I love to feel the earth and see the big and small day-to-day changes. I also think about the ups and downs of the 2020 growing season and what I’d like to change in the coming spring. The pandemic and the social, political, and economic turmoil have made me even more certain of the specialness of food gardening spaces. They feed people and connect us to the land and each other. Here are some chores, tips, and thoughts for this time of year:

Prep areas for planting small fruits, like blueberry, gooseberry, and blackberry in early spring. Soil testing is especially important if it’s a new bed or if you are growing blueberry and need to lower the soil pH.  Cover turf and weeds with cardboard, compost, and mulched leaves to create new beds. Research the types and cultivars of small fruit plants you are considering. 

Blueberry leaves turn purple, red, and mahogany in fall.

It’s too late to plant cover crops. Instead, protect exposed soil with a thick layer of tree leaves (preferably mulched or shredded leaves). The mulch can be pulled aside to plant in spring and then re-applied around seedlings and transplants.

Overwinter the growing mix from vegetable containers by emptying the containers on a tarp and removing leaves, roots, and other debris. Store the growing mix outside in heavy-duty black trash bags or trash cans. Re-use the growing mix next season by mixing it 50:50 with fresh soilless growing media and/or compost. Fertilize container plants as needed. 

Garlic- to mulch or not to mulch? Most gardeners and many commercial growers mulch fall-planted garlic with organic mulches, like straw and chopped leaves. Mulch can prevent erosion, smother weeds, and protect young plants from heaving and extreme cold weather. But thick mulches can also slow growth in spring, reduce bulb size, and possibly improve conditions for bulb diseases and pests. There are few published studies comparing mulched and un-mulched garlic. Warming winter temperatures may be making mulch less crucial in warmer areas of Maryland. 

Comment below or email me (jont@umd.edu) about your experiences growing garlic with or without mulch.

Ground ivy and weeds
Ground ivy and other weeds need to be removed in this garlic bed whether or not mulch is to be applied.

Extending the season– leafy greens stop growing around November 15th when day length is less than 10 hours. But higher fall temperatures due to climate change has increased garden productivity- there are more tasty and tender leaves to harvest per square foot of garden space. Kale, spinach, mizuna, beet greens, and other semi-hardy leafy greens can be harvested into December when protected with floating row covers.

A double layer of row cover material accelerates growth in fall and protects plants over the winter. 
Arugula planted in early October is ready for harvest and will re-grow in early spring due to row cover protection.
It’s a great time to clean tools with a wire brush, file the cutting edges of hoes and shovels, and protect wood handles with linseed oil.

Online gardening hacks– one can get lost for hours in the world of “look no further… this is the absolute best way to ______ in your garden.” There are lots of good tips out there if you can ignore the ads and snake oil. I found a site from a small urban grower that extolled the virtues of plastic Ts for trellising plants that I happily used this year.

These 1 ½ in. PVC T-fittings are perfect for setting on top of metal fence posts to accept horizontal supports, like 1 in. electrical conduit. The posts, fittings, and conduit will last many years. 
The fittings (circled in yellow above) just sits on two T-posts 9 ft. apart. The 10 ft. piece of conduit extends over the ends and easily supports cucumber plants.
The fittings (circled in yellow above) just sits on two T-posts 9 ft. apart. The 10 ft. piece of conduit extends over the ends and easily supports cucumber plants.

Reflect on the 2020 growing season: What major problems did you have? What caused them? Can they be prevented next year? Re-think crop choices and plant locations. Did I really need to grow 30 tomato plants and three kinds of eggplant that no one in my house will eat? 

Grow it and give it– plan to share more of your garden with people in need. Contact local food banks and feeding programs this winter to find out how you contribute your fresh produce. 

Keep on learning…

Many new and revised pages have been added to the HGIC website. Examples:

Jon Traunfeld, Extension Specialist

Allegheny Spurge: a recommended native Pachysandra groundcover – Featured Video

Our native pachysandra, Pachysandra procumbens, lacks the aggressive nature of the more common Asian species. And that is good! The Allegheny spurge has marbled, deep green foliage that is much prettier too!

Garden Thyme Podcast – Scary Plants #2

Garden Thyme Podcast player

It’s hard to believe that our little podcast is a whole-year-old this month. Thank you all for your support. Since Halloween is a favorite holiday of ours here is a mini-episode with three more spooky scary plants.

Thank you all again!

– Emily, Mikaela, and Rachel.

The music found in this episode is “Monster Parade” by Loyalty Free Music.
Image: Hydnellum peckii, – Bellamonte (TN), by B.Baldassari

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The Garden Thyme Podcast is a monthly podcast where we help you get down and dirty in your garden, with timely gardening tips, information about native plants, and more! The Garden Thyme Podcast is brought to you by the University of Maryland Extension. If you have any garden questions, you can email us at UMEgardenpodcast@gmail.com. For more Hosts are Mikaela Boley- Senior Agent Associate (Talbot County) for Horticulture, Rachel Rhodes- Agent Associate for Horticulture (Queen Anne’s County), and Emily Zobel-Senior Agent Associate for Agriculture (Dorchester County).

Semi-novice Gardener – Raised Bed Vegetable Garden Adventure (vol. 5)

Current garden shot

And thus concludes my most ambitious growing season yet. I learned a lot, got a decent amount of vegetables to eat, got some exercise and building experience, and had a few challenges. For this final post, I will do a quick recap of what I learned and how I might approach my gardening next year.

Read previous updates: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

The final state of the garden

Since my last post, we basically became lazy and gave up on the garden. No more maintenance was done, certain plants were being eaten by critters that can hop our fence (deer, likely), weeds were growing, and we mostly didn’t even water it. Our tomato plants began looking pretty unruly and sad but somehow were still producing quite a few fruits (albeit with cracks in them).

We did find some curious mushrooms in the garden at some point a few weeks ago.

Several mushrooms popped up

Even though our tomatoes were still producing, we had had our fill and were ready to be done with the garden. I pulled up all the plants, took down the supports, and disassembled our fence, as we will likely revise our garden defenses next year.

To protect our raised bed soil for the winter, I threw a layer of mulched leaves into the raised beds. I just raked some piles of leaves, drove my mower over them a couple of times, and scrooped them into the beds. According to this Maryland Grows blog post,

We can improve soil health in gardens and on farms by:

  1. limiting soil disturbance (tillage)
  2. planting a diversity of plant species
  3. keeping soil covered throughout the year

These practices reduce erosion and nutrient run-off, build organic matter, and increase carbon storage in soils which helps mitigate the effects of climate change.

We had considered growing a living cover of crimson clover, but we would have had to plant it much earlier and our garden hadn’t quit producing yet.

Things we learned or will try to do differently next time

Squash vine borer larvae in zucchini plant

We want to be more vigilant in protecting squash from vine borers. We’ll likely follow these tips from our blog post:

You can prevent flying adults from laying eggs on your plants in May and June one of three ways. Wrap a collar of aluminum foil around the lower stems. Dust or spray with spinosad or pyrethrum. Or, cover your plants with floating row covers until they flower.  

I need to both provide better support for my tomatoes earlier and work harder at pruning them regularly. My plants became way too voluminous and flopped over often before (and after) I had sufficient support built. I had some basic cages and then makeshift boards with twine strung across them, but I will likely build something more ambitious next year, and earlier.

Overgrown tomato plants
Overgrown tomato plants

We wanted to make sure we had flowers near our crops to attract pollinators, so we planted ornamentals in the raised beds. However, some plants crowded others, and since we now have the rest of our garden path and enclosure, next year we will just plant some flowers in pots nearby.

Pollinators

We are going to increase our garden defenses next year. I believe our short fence worked well for short animals, but eventually deer got the memo about the tasty stuff in the garden and easily hopped the fence. We are going to consider augmenting our short fence with tall fishing line fencing, or perhaps just create PVC frame row covers just for certain vulnerable plants.

low tunnel covers

Low tunnel covered with floating row cover

Final thoughts

I had a lot of fun sharing these updates with the blog, and it also pushed me to do better and stay focused. I’m looking forward to using these experiences to do a better job next year! I also found a ton of useful information on the HGIC website and hope that I was able to point out the breadth of information at your fingertips available on our site.

I’m looking forward vegetable gardening next year and possibly sharing the process again!

Dan Adler
HGIC Web and Communications Manager

Vanilla and food: not plain when it comes to pollination

You decide to bake some cookies. You have your butter stick ready to go, you open your pantry to look for the ingredients. There is flour, oats, sugar, chocolate chips; things look good. You then realize that you’re missing that one ingredient, the one that makes it all come together: vanilla! Luckily, you can quickly buy some fresh vanilla pods or vanilla extract. In a couple hours you are there, enjoying your cookies and the pretty fall landscape.

This is all good, but have you ever thought how that spice – vanilla – gets to your pantry? And who is allowing for that to happen? In today’s blog, the second in our comfort food series (part 1 is here), we will talk about this spice that is so present in our lives that we may not even think about it. Let’s talk about vanilla and how appreciating it is tightly linked to understanding pollination and the key role of pollinators in our food system.

What is vanilla?

What we consume as vanilla is the fruit and the seeds of an orchid, the vanilla plant. This fruit comes in the form of a pod, and the tiny “dust” that comes off it is the hundreds of tiny seeds that this plant produces in each fruit. Vanilla orchids have a vine habit and in the wild are found clinging to trees in the forests of Central and South America. Considering this natural habit, all vanilla cultivation is done vertically, using different types of support.

vanilla plants

Vanilla orchids have a vine habit, and the pollination of their flowers leads to the development of the pods and the tiny seeds we consume. Photos: M. Paredes, M. Manners, Joy.

Although vanilla is now cultivated in several parts of the world, it is accepted that all cultivated varieties/species are Meso- and South American. Indeed, the plant species had been known to be selected and used by Natives of those regions prior to the arrival of Europeans in the New World, but it is only following that arrival that Europeans created a strong demand for the spice. From this respect, if we can today enjoy our yummy cookies and cakes (and more!), recognition is due to the ancient selection done by Aztecs, Totonac, and Mayas in the current Mexican territories.

vanilla vines and pods with a historical description about use

Each plant produces several pods that are harvested and dried before commercialization. Historical descriptions (here, from 1651) indicate that the plant we know today was cultivated by Natives in current Mexico, who called it “Tlilxochitl” or “black flower”. Images: Hernández (1651), Foam.

Today, vanilla is produced mostly in Madagascar, Indonesia, and Mexico, and is the second most valuable spice in the world (after saffron). Its production, however, experienced a bumpy road and still today goes through regular difficulties, which leads to extreme annual fluctuations in vanilla prices. In fact, vanilla plantations occur in regions regularly affected by extreme weather events, such as cyclones, which can destroy a whole year of production. These events lead to large variations in yield from year to year, leading to crazy changes in vanilla prices, going for example from $20/kg in 2010 to the current $350/kg.

How is vanilla produced?

Although vanilla became a European favorite quickly after it was first introduced to the continent, the production of vanilla pods remained elusive for a long time. Indeed, people realized very quickly that without active transfer of pollen to the stigma of the flower, the flowers would not develop into fruits (see how that works), and thus the much-searched-for vanilla beans would not develop at all!

In fact, after much observation of the plants in their natural habitat, people realized that their pollination required especially the visit of a group of bees restricted to the New World, the euglossines, or orchid bees. Restricted to South and Central America, these bees have strong associations with orchids, from which the males are known to collect floral scents they use for courting females (this is super fascinating, and worth a future blog post). Some species of this group of bees are currently suspected to act as pollinators of vanilla flowers in the wild. During their visits, they passively deposit pollen on the stigma of the flower, which leads to the vanilla bean development. Although these bees do pollinate, flower visits by these bees are not common, so even in regions with bee populations, fruiting rates remain relatively low.

bee approaching a vanilla flower

In their natural habitats, vanilla flowers are thought to be pollinated by beautifully metallic euglossine bees. Photo: Gil Wizen, www.gilwizen.com.

Adding to this, once vanilla was “discovered” by Europeans, it was introduced into a variety of colonial lands, especially to Indian Ocean islands (e.g., Madagascar, the Comoros, la Réunion) and to French Polynesia. However, and because as I said before, the pollinators of this plant are restricted to the Americas, vanilla production was not successful in those regions. Plants would flower, but the lack of pollinators would lead to virtually no pod production. This changed when a solution was found. Indeed, there had been some early attempts to develop human-based pollination methods, which were as complex as impossible to use. It was finally a slave from the Réunion Islands, Edmond Albius, who developed a simple method to pollinate the flowers by hand, helped with a stick and his own fingers. It was only after this method development that vanilla production could bloom (actually, fruit 😉) to reach its current extent.

hand pollinating a vanilla flower

Edmond Albius was the Réunion slave who revolutionized vanilla production, developing the hand-pollination method still currently used today across the globe. Photos: Antoine Roussin (1863), F. and K. Starr.

Although one may expect the techniques to have changed since the first development of this method, the vast majority of today’s global vanilla production is still hand-pollinated following Albius’ technique! In other words, the production of the second most valuable spice in the world is currently based on pollination done by hand. And this is what I wanted to stress today. We hear a lot about the importance of pollinators, but I feel that the case of vanilla is such a clear example of how important pollinators are to maintaining not just food supplies, but also global economies: take the pollinators away and you lose basically the whole vanilla bean production chain and market. Doesn’t that make you feel especially thankful for pollination and pollinators for that great flavor in your cookies?

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

By Anahí Espíndola, Assistant Professor, Department of Entomology, University of Maryland, College Park. See more posts by Anahí.

Vegetable garden successes

One of the joys of this otherwise largely depressing year has been hearing the stories of first-time vegetable gardeners who took the step of growing some of their own food due to economic insecurity, extra time on their hands, a desire to give back to a community via food donation, or a need to be outdoors more. Welcome to the club! We would have a secret handshake, but that’s not such a great plan right now. Distance elbow bump pantomime!

The fall months are a good time to look back on the season and assess what worked and what didn’t. In this post I’m going to mention some of the plants and cultivars that produced well for me this year. I emphasize me and this year because a secret of vegetable gardening is that each year is different and each garden is different, so I’m not guaranteeing these will be as great for you, or even for me next year. But if the descriptions sound good to you, they may be worth trying.

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