Knowing when it’s time: Season’s end

The last Brandywine

I took out my tomato plants this week. It’s a lot earlier than I’d normally do it, but I had my reasons (which I will discuss below). Picking the last fruits and chopping down the stems made me think about all the decisions we make as gardeners, and how a lot of the questions we Master Gardeners get are about those choices. We might get asked at this time of year, “Am I supposed to take out my tomato plants now?” Maybe with an undercurrent of “Will I get in trouble with the garden police if I do it? Or don’t do it?” but in any case with uncertainty about doing the right thing. And the disappointing answer we long-experienced garden gurus usually give to questions like that?

“Well, it depends.”

Or, even more frustratingly: “It’s up to you.”

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What to do when your seedlings grow too big

I started my peppers too early.

Every year I warn fellow gardeners not to rush on getting seeds into pots for warm-weather vegetables. Tomatoes, in particular, outgrow their indoor space under lights much faster than you’d think, but you can make this mistake with many plants that shouldn’t go outdoors until the chance of frost is past and the soil temperature is at least 60 degrees F. There’s often a several-week gap between the average-last-frost day that you used to count back from when calculating start dates and the actual day that it’s safe to put the plants in the garden. That can go either way, of course, but unless you’re inclined toward taking risks, it’s better to err on the side of later planting. The seedlings will grow faster under warm conditions and catch up with their early-planted peers.

So, there was no reason to put the pepper seeds in as early as the very end of February, but I did it anyway. We all have those moments. Mid-March would have been fine, but I know I was feeling anxious about other things and probably projected those feelings onto my peppers. And now I have some large strong well-grown pepper plants that are more than ready to go into the ground–which some of them are going to do this week, soil temperatures notwithstanding.

Some of my large pepper plants hardening off, guarded from inside by a helpful cat

If you have been in this situation, which most of us seed-starters have, here are some things you can do, more or less in chronological order. This applies also to plants you may have bought a while before you could plant them–we all do that too!

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Grow It Eat It in Montgomery County, May 14

April greetings, and that freeze we had earlier this week was no joke, right? Hope none of your plants got zapped. I was grateful for my own procrastination; my brassica seedlings won’t go into the ground until this weekend.

The uncertain temperatures of early spring make me think longingly of the more settled weather of mid-May (before I start complaining loudly about how hot it is). Another reason to look forward to May: the return of Montgomery County’s big Grow It Eat It open house on May 14!

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Cress and tomatillo: zesty flavors for your garden

Casting around for a topic to write on this month, I thought to look through my box of seeds (it’s a file box with hanging folders) to pick out a couple of plants that gardeners might not be considering as vegetable garden additions. I landed on two: cress and tomatillo. In most ways, they are opposites: cresses like cool weather while tomatillos thrive in the heat. Tomatillos are native to the Americas (Mexico, in particular) while the various cresses migrated over here with the help of European settlers, then went wild. The plants are very different in size and shape. And they taste different and are used differently in the kitchen, but I’d say they both add zest to your meals in a similar way.

Let’s start with cress. Or rather, with the cresses, since they belong to different species, though they’re similar in flavor. Most people have heard of watercress (Nasturtium officinale) and probably have eaten it, but it wouldn’t be my first choice for growing in your garden. It doesn’t actually require a flowing stream, but it does need a constant supply of water. I’ve been too daunted to try it myself.

However, there are several other types of cress that feature that same peppery crunch and are great additions to sandwiches, salads, or many other dishes. And they are easy to cultivate, as long as you remember to plant them in cool weather. They grow quickly, so there’s time to harvest a crop in spring or fall.

Look for seeds of plants in the species Barbarea verna or Lepidium sativum. They may be called garden cress, upland cress, peppergrass, or wrinkled crinkled cress. The leaves may be smaller or larger or differently shaped; they’re all good, so pick the one that’s available or most appealing to you. Plant in March (or September) either in good garden soil or in soilless mix in a container; they may take a while to germinate, so keep watering. Harvest at a few inches tall. If you like growing indoors, they make great microgreens. You could also try turning them into a ground cover around other plants. Discerning rabbits may enjoy them, but they are kind of spicy (the cresses, not the rabbits) so they might be left alone.

Garden cress (Lepidium sativum) as microgreens (Wikimedia Commons)

Moving on to tomatillo (Physalis philadelphica), which goes into your garden in mid-to-late May at the same time as peppers. They are cousins, as it happens, along with other members of the nightshade family like tomatoes and eggplant. Tomatillos are even more closely related to ground cherries, a.k.a. Cape gooseberries (they are neither a cherry nor a gooseberry), with which they share a genus and a cute little husk covering their fruit. Like other nightshades, they aren’t seeded directly in the garden, but started indoors or bought as transplants.

You may be familiar with tomatillos for making salsa verde, but not know how easy they are to grow. If you can grow tomatoes and peppers, you can grow tomatillos. A lot of people have tried and given up, though, including me once upon a time, because they don’t know that unlike other nightshades, tomatillos require (or at least strongly prefer) cross-pollination. You can’t grow just one plant; you have to grow at least two. That does take some space, since they are large plants, but if you can spare it, you’ll be rewarded with a massive harvest.

Any variety is fine, including your basic small green types. We grew a large-fruited green variety called Gulliver in the Derwood Demo Garden for several years, but I don’t see it listed for sale now; it appears to have been replaced by some other large types, which are worth trying. I’ve also enjoyed growing the purple ones, and a delicious yellow variety called Amarylla. Harvest when the fruit is filling up the husk. You can make various salsas with raw or cooked tomatillos, add them to salads or cooked dishes for a bit of zing, or (my favorite) roast them.

Roasted ‘Amarylla’ tomatillos

Tomatillos may be subject to some of the same pests as tomatoes, including flea beetles, stinkbugs and hornworms, and a few fungal diseases. They usually grow vigorously enough, given healthy soil and a bit of fertilizer, that you’ll still get a crop even with challenges. They are basically weeds.

If you have space, try tomatillos! If you don’t, you can fit in some cress anywhere.

By Erica Smith, Montgomery County Master Gardener. Read more posts by Erica.

What’s going into Erica’s garden this year?

I have ordered (and received) my seeds! I may end up with more, at seed swaps and from friends, but I’ve made the basic purchases to fill in needs. For the first time in ages, I didn’t order any tomato seeds–I know, shock, horror–but I still have plenty and I’m going to cut back on the number of tomato plants this year in favor of peppers and other summer crops. Will everything I’m thinking of planting actually fit, either in my community garden plot or in containers at home? Only time will tell.

Anyway, I thought I’d give you all a glimpse into the reasons I chose a few of the plants I plan to grow. Below I will profile Amara Ethiopian Kale, Yellow Cabbage Collards, Dario Cocozelle Zucchini, Zipper Cream Cowpeas, and Nadapeño Peppers. I’ll link to the companies I ordered them from so you can read more, but doing so is not an endorsement by University of Maryland Extension.

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Don’t grow these edible plants! (unless you really want to)

It’s seed catalog season! If you’re anything like me, you’re paging through them right now marking possible purchases for the 2022 growing season. (Happy New Year, by the way.) On my first pass, I always mark much more than I can plant in my own gardening space, and now that I’m no longer choosing what to grow in the Derwood Demo Garden, my selections are further limited. I have to make sensible choices, darn it. Nothing too big or aggressive, or that takes too long to produce, or is marginal in our climate, or that I’m not sure I like to eat. Good thing I’ve had all that practice trying and failing.

Now, I would never limit anyone else’s choices, or tell them they won’t succeed at what they’re attempting. I’m usually all for stretching the boundaries. So the spirit of the list below is not to discourage; it’s just to pass on what hasn’t worked for me. Maybe some of these plants have done great for you, or you’re convinced you can get past the challenges. But if your space and time is limited and you have to be realistic, feel free to make use of my what-not-to-grow advice.

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