Smashing Pumpkin Myths: Bleaching to extend shelf (and porch) life

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Scrolling through social media in September and October and you may see those basic signs of the season: scarves, pumpkin spice lattes, sweaters, and Halloween ideas galore.  One of those Halloween ideas is to extend the life of your pumpkins, carved or otherwise, by giving them a treatment with household bleach.  Keep scrolling and you might see another post decrying the use of bleach as inhumane and poisoning for wildlife.  So which is it?  Is bleach safe to use as a sanitizer on your jack-o’-lantern or are you poisoning the neighborhood squirrels?  Let’s use our gourd to explore the science.

The bleach acts as a sanitizer, neutralizing fungi and bacteria on the surfaces of the pumpkin that will cause decomposition and rot.  Even un-carved pumpkins will eventually succumb to degradation under the right conditions.  But if bleach kills fungi and bacteria, will it kill wildlife? The answer is – not if it is used correctly.  Bleach, and sodium hypochlorite (the active chemical in bleach) are toxic if consumed directly in concentrated amounts, however, dilute solutions break down quickly in the environment.  Products containing sodium hypochlorite, including plain household bleach, are actually approved and labeled for use as a sanitizer by produce farmers to reduce both human pathogens and decomposition microorganisms and extend the shelf life of produce that finds its way to the grocery store, farmers market, and any other avenue from the farmer to the consumer.  These wash water sanitizers are used more for reducing cross contamination of from pathogens introduced to the water from dirty produce, but it can reduce the microorganism load on produce items. If used correctly to sanitize the surface of the pumpkins, bleach DOES NOT pose an increased risk to wildlife (or human) health.

What is the proper way to use bleach in sanitizing that pumpkin so that it doesn’t face an early demise?

  1) Make sure the pumpkin is clean by washing with plain water or a mild detergent to remove any soil or debris.  Sanitizers like bleach are quickly neutralized (used up) on dirty surfaces (this is a good lesson for home cleaning, too – you cannot sanitize a dirty surface). 

2) Prepare a DILUTE solution of plain household bleach (unscented, and not “splashless”). The recommended concentration is 200ppm sodium hypochlorite, which you can achieve with 1 Tablespoon of bleach per gallon of water.

3) Apply the solution to the pumpkin using a spray bottle.  Alternatively, you can prepare enough solution to dunk the pumpkin(s) and immerse them in the solution.  If you are sanitizing a carved pumpkin, I would opt for the spray method – dunking may result in infiltration of the solution in to the exposed flesh. It will still break down since it is a dilute solution, but it will slow down the process since it protects the bleach atoms from air and sun exposure.

4) Allow the pumpkin to air dry.  Sanitation is not immediate (keep that in mind for sanitizing surfaces in the home, as well) and wiping can cause cross contamination

If I can do this with a pumpkin, should I be doing this with my other produce?

The short answer is NO.  It is not recommended that home grown or purchased produce be washed with any sort of detergent or chemical in the water.  Fresh cold water and friction should be sufficient for removing soil and pathogens on the surface.  Proper protocols, equipment, and training are needed to make sure sanitation is done properly. Knowing which produce items can and cannot be washed with a sanitizer is important. However, if you are harvesting produce like pumpkins or winter squash for long-term storage you may want to consider sanitation using the above methods.

I don’t want to use bleach, can I use something like vinegar?

There are many sanitizers approved for use by produce growers for sanitation, so bleach is not the only option.  For home consumers there aren’t so many options.  Vinegar is often mentioned as a wash for produce.  I found no direct mention in produce handling guides of using vinegar on pumpkin, but most produce wash solutions use vinegar at a much higher concentration because it is much less effective at sanitation.  I found rates ranging from 1/3 c vinegar to 1 c water to 100% undiluted household vinegar for use as a produce wash.

Sources:

Sanitizers Labeled for Use on Produce (Produce Safety Alliance)

Produce Wash Water Sanitizers (UMN)

Guidelines for the use of chlorine bleach as a sanitizer in food processing operations (OSU)

Saving for the Future: Seed Saving Tricks and Tips

As summer winds down and the summer crops and flowers start to slow down many gardeners start thinking about saving seeds. Who doesn’t love saving seeds from that favorite tomato or beautiful coneflower?  Not only do you have some for next year, but you can also share with your friends! There are definitely some things to consider and some myths out there when it comes to seed saving, so let’s talk about how to do it right. 

You’ll get the most consistent results from open pollinated or heirloom varieties that are self-pollinating.  These plants have genetics stable enough that the seeds you save will come out looking and acting like a close approximation to the plants from the previous season (with some variation based on your selection of the “best” plants you save seeds from. Self-pollinating species are: tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, beans, peas, peanuts (note, peppers and eggplants have more open floral structures that can be cross pollinated).  Most tree fruits like apples and pears are cross pollinated and they are notorious for not “breeding true” – even if you hand pollinate to ensure that the mother and father are both the same cultivar you’re likely to get surprises.  Stone fruits (peaches, plums, etc) are less variable but still not true-breeding.  Bee pollinated plants are also notoriously hard to save seed from, since they can cross pollinate with different varieties and cultivars from miles away.  It is especially interesting for plants that look totally different but are the same species (like pumpkin and zucchini).

A puccini – or a zumpkin? Either way, it was nasty.

Myth: You can’t save seeds from those new modified hybrid plants. They’ve been made to be sterile

First off, hybrids aren’t genetically engineered and there are no GE plants available to home gardeners (most home garden crops don’t even have GE versions).  Hybrid plants do in fact usually produce viable seeds.  However, you won’t get the consistent results you will with open pollinated/hybrid varieties.  Hybrids are the F1 generation of a specific cross between a mother and father plant.  The offspring from that F1 generation (the plants from the seeds you save) is called the F2 generation will be a mix of traits – some will look like the F1 generation, some will look like the mother, some the father, and some the milkman.  So you’ll be in for a mixed bag of surprises.  According to our former GP colleague Joseph Tychonievich’s book “Plant Breeding for Home Gardeners” you can even develop a stable open pollinated variety from hybrids by saving seeds over a few seasons, selecting seeds from the plants that most resemble the cultivar you’re trying to save. 

You’ll want to make sure that the fruit/flower head that you’re saving seed from is mature.  This can be tricky for some vegetables, because we eat them in their immature states.  Peppers need to change from green to whatever their color is (red, yellow, orange, purple, etc),  cucumbers and zucchini (and other squash) need to turn into those massive, bloated fruits that often change to yellow or orange.  Beans often need to change to yellow or tan (and may have stripes).  For flowers, the seed heads or fruiting structures often need to turn brown and dry or start to open. 

If the weather cooperates, you’ll want to collect seeds from dry fruits/structured (beans, some flowers, etc) before significant rainfall so that seeds don’t become wet and potentially mold or break dormancy.  Collect seeds and place in a warm, dry location to let them continue drying out (if they’re small you want to put them somewhere they won’t blow away).  After drying, store seeds in envelopes or containers and put them in a cool dry place.  I often tell people to store seeds in the freezer – the cold temperature slows down respiration in the seeds and can extend their lifespan (the fridge is too moist/humid).  If you do that, drop your envelopes or containers down into a sealable container or bag to help keep condensation minimal when you pull them out of the freezer next year.

For home gardeners, it may not matter that you get plants next year that exactly copy the ones you saved seeds from – the fun can be in the surprise.  Who knows, you may discover a new variety – at least one that is exciting to you.  It can be fun seeing the variation in your new plants and finding something that you love. 

Epilogue: A special case – tomatoes

Most of the vegetable crops we grow don’t need any special treatment to break their dormancy (you’ll have to research flowers on a case-by-case basis) – save the seed and plant it next year and it will pop up.  Tomatoes are a bit of a special case.  If you scrape the seeds out of the fruit you’ll notice they’re still covered with the “goo” from inside the tomato which is called interlocular fluid (interlocular = between seeds).  The coating persists on the seed even if you wash them.  It has long been held that this coating retains some of the hormones of the fruit (like abscisic acid) that inhibits germination (though not all experts agree). So many sources will tell you to go through some process to break down the coating left on the seed, most commonly by placing the seeds and associated goo in a container, adding a bit of water, and letting them ferment for a few days.  You can dump them out and wash off all the gunk. Whether or not this is required to break dormancy is up for debate, but it does provide you with clean seeds that you can store easily.  There is also some evidence to suggest that this fermentation process helps remove pathogens on the exterior of the seed (heat treatment can help remove interior pathogens as well).

Some people just scoop out the seeds and smear the goo on a paper towel and try to scrape them off next year.  Some people add the step of washing, but this will still not remove all of the goo coating the seeds. This works if you’re not trying to share (or sell seeds) since they will stick to the paper towel. My guess is that the in the day or so that it takes for the goo to dry there is enough fermentation or decomposition going on to break dormancy.  If you don’t want the seeds stuck to a paper towel, you can use wax paper or some other non-binding surface, but you’ll still have dried goo on your seeds.

Some like it hot… but most do not: How high temperatures delay pollination and ripening

Ah, summer – vacations (pre-COVID), swimming pools (pre-COVID), ice cream, vegetable gardens, and, in many places, really high temperatures.  These things all go hand-in-hand (or at least they did before the pandemic). Many gardeners feel that the heat of mid-summer goes hand in hand with garden production; those high temps driving production on those fruiting plants like tomatoes and peppers.  But…..could they be wrong? 

We’ve had lots of extra hot days this summer in Nebraska, so it stands to reason that we should have really great production on those garden favorites like tomatoes, right? Then tell me why our extension office has received numerous questions this year about why tomatoes aren’t setting on or ripening.  Heck, we even had a Facebook post about tomatoes not ripening in the heat go viral (well, for our standards – 300,000 views/2,000 shares).  Could it be a disease?  Nope – it’s the heat. High daytime temperatures can have a big effect, but the effects are compounded when nighttime temperatures are high as well.

Tomatoes not ripening? You're not alone. Temperatures above 85 degrees will slow down the ripening process. Temperatures above 95 can stop the process all together. #NebExt #NeWX

Posted by Nebraska Extension in Douglas-Sarpy Counties on Wednesday, July 22, 2020

It turns out that high heat does two things in many of those fruiting vegetables (and of course fruits) that we grow.  First, it inhibits pollen production, which in turns reduces fruit set.  Second, heat inhibits gene expression for proteins that aid in ripening/maturation of the fruit.  Heat stress also reduces photosynthesis (Sharkey, 2005) in many different plants, which would slow down plant processes (such as fruit development and ripening) as it reduces the availability of sugars to fuel these processes.  So high heat can not only reduce the number of fruits developing on the plant, but also slow down the ripening process for fruits that have already set.  And if you think that these effects only happen at super extreme temps, most of the research studying temperature effects of this nature use a common “high ambient temperature” of 32°C/26°C for daytime/nighttime temperatures. For us U.S. Fahrenheit-ers, that’s 89.6°F/78.8°F, which isn’t really all that hot for most of us.

Many studies show that application of this “high ambient temperature” to crops such as tomatoes, beans, and corn during the pre-fertilization phases of reproduction (ie – flower/pollen development) can negatively effect fruit set.  The introduction of Porch and Jahn (2001) gives a pretty good overview of literature detailing the effect in beans (Phaseolus vulgaris).  I’ll sum it up here: heat stress while the pollen is forming (called sporogenesis) led to pollen sterility and failure of pollen to release from the anthers (dehiscence).  It also led to flower abscission (basically the plant aborts the flower) and reduce pollen tube formation (how the pollen nucleus gets through the stigma to the ovule for pollination) when applied during the period of pollen sac and ovary development.  And application during flower opening (anthesis) resulted in pollen injury (sterility) and reproductive organ abscission.  All of these effects lead to reduced fruit/seed set in beans.  (Interestingly, heat stress at the ovary development phase also led to parthenocarpy – basically the pods developed, sans seeds, without fertilization). 

However, we get the most calls about tomatoes (they’re the top crop for most home gardeners).  Is it the same issue?  Yep.  Numerous studies (Sato, et al., 2000; Pressman, et al., 2002; Abdul-BAki, 1992) show the same effect in tomatoes.  Pressman, et al. (2002) linked the effects on pollen to changes in carbohydrates in the anthers (reduced starch storage and carbohydrate metabolism). 

Tomato pollination and how to increase it in high tunnels
Tomato floral structures

To add insult to injury, high temperatures also slow down or stop ripening of crops like tomatoes.  Picton and Grierson (1988) found that 35°C (95°F) temperatures altered the gene expression in tomato fruits – inhibiting the expression of polygalacturonase, which softens cells walls, allowing the fruit to ripen.  Reduced photosynthesis would also reduce the availability of sugars for fruit development and ripening.

But there’s hope, both this season and in the long term!  The effect on the plants is not permanent. When temperatures drop below that “high ambient temperature” threshold pollen production, and therefore fruit set, will return to normal (as long as the plant is healthy).  Sato, et al. (2000) found that pollen release and fruit set resumed within a few days after heat stressed plants were “relieved” and temperatures dropped back into the optimal range of 26-28°C/22°C (78.8-82.4°F/71.6°F).  So many of those plants will become productive again (good news for my own tomatoes and beans, which had an initial flurry of production then went on vacation), especially as we head into fall.  And efforts are under way to develop and test heat stress resistant cultivars. 

This last point may be more important than you realized.  These production problems plague many areas around he world at current climactic norms.  Many fear that increasing temperatures will limit the productive capacity of many areas of the world that are already struggling.  It is easy to see how the difference in just of just a few degrees can take your veggie production from prolific to paltry.

You can also try to reduce the heat a bit yourself for an immediate fix. Shade cloth can help reduce temperatures a little bit, which may make all the difference in your garden if you’re just slightly over the “high ambient temperature” threshold.

Tomatoes under shade cloth | Tomatoes under shade cloth | Flickr
Tomatoes under shade cloth | Source: flickr.com

But in the meantime, if your vegetable garden has taken a summer siesta it will get around to producing again one day.  You’ll just have to take good care of the plants in the meantime.  And perhaps it’s a blessing in disguise – when its that hot I don’t want to be out working in the garden much, either.

Sources

  • Abdul-Baki, A. A. (1992). Determination of pollen viability in tomatoes. Journal of the American Society for Horticultural Science117(3), 473-476.Porch, T.G. and Jahn, M. (2001), Effects of high‐temperature stress on microsporogenesis in heat‐sensitive and heat‐tolerant genotypes of Phaseolus vulgaris . Plant, Cell & Environment, 24: 723-731. doi:10.1046/j.1365-3040.2001.00716.x
  • Pressman, E., Peet, M. M., & Pharr, D. M. (2002). The effect of heat stress on tomato pollen characteristics is associated with changes in carbohydrate concentration in the developing anthers. Annals of Botany90(5), 631-636.
  • Sato, S., Peet, M. M., & Thomas, J. F. (2000). Physiological factors limit fruit set of tomato (Lycopersicon esculentum Mill.) under chronic, mild heat stress. Plant, Cell & Environment23(7), 719-726.
  • Sharkey, T. D. (2005). Effects of moderate heat stress on photosynthesis: importance of thylakoid reactions, rubisco deactivation, reactive oxygen species, and thermotolerance provided by isoprene. Plant, Cell & Environment, 28(3), 269-277.

Falling forward: Time to plan and plant the fall veggie garden

While most of the country is in the middle of a heat wave and the mercury is creeping past 100F on many thermometers, lets do a little exercise to help you feel cool as a cucumber (though not straight out of the garden, those cucumbers would likely be hot).  I want you to think about a crisp September morning.  You’re out walking through your vegetable garden and you stop to appreciate a big, emerald green head of broccoli.  Just a few feet away, stalks of Brussels sprouts, those miniscule cabbages that have somehow overcome years of revulsion to become sexy and desirable (they must have a good agent) shoot up like skyscrapers around the rest of the plants.  Lush lettuce fills in a bed nearby, and some cucumbers and beans that you planted late are looking as fresh as a newborn chick. 

Sounds beautiful, doesn’t it?  Well I’m here to tell you that you can actually make this a reality.  You can have a super productive garden this fall, and for most areas of the country the time to start planning and planting is now.  Right now, when a cool refreshing fall morning seems as far away as a trip to the moon.  Of course, the exact timelines and planting schedules differ by region due to the length of growing season, but most places in the US (and the northern hemisphere) can start thinking now about planting crops for the fall.  For exact timing in your area, you may want to connect with your local extension system for gardening guides. 

While many experienced gardeners may know this and practice fall garden planting, there’s a lot of people out there who have yet to have the pleasure.  And given the huge number of first time (or first time in a long time) gardeners, these garden basics might be helpful to get the most out of those pandemic plantings. 

In fact, fall is one of the best times of the year to garden.  Aside from cooler temperatures making it more pleasant to garden, there’s often less pressure from diseases and insects to ruin crops.  In addition, many of those cool season crops, like the ones I mentioned above, actually are more productive in the fall than if planted in the spring.  Even though they get a hot start in mid- to late- summer, the cooling temperatures of fall around the time many of the crops come into maturity extends the harvest period and improves overall quality of the produce.  You also have the benefit of removing some of those spent and diseased warm season plants and swapping them out for something fresh and new– a garden revival of sorts. 

Swiss chard and leafy greens are great additions to the fall garden

Unfortunately, since fall vegetable gardening isn’t as widespread as planting summer gardens, plants and seeds can often be hard to find when it is actually time to plant (so planning ahead is helpful).  Mid-summer is usually the time for most regions to start seeds for those slower growing cool season crops like broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and their kin. They can be started indoors, but the need to do so isn’t as great as it is for those warm season crops we start indoors in late winter.  You can start them in pots/flats outdoors as long as you have somewhere that isn’t so hot and sunny that they’ll be continually drying out (some shade would help).  They should be ready to transplant by late summer.  You can skip the seed starting/transplanting if you want to try direct seeding into the garden, but as they say “your mileage may vary”. 

Some of the fast maturing warm season (frost tender) crops are also good candidates for a mid-summer planting as a way to refresh the garden if you have space for it.  Beans are a good candidate for late-summer planting, but you’ll need to make sure they are a fast-maturing variety (there’s a wide range of maturity times in beans). Bush beans are usually the quicker growers. Pole beans and lima beans usually take a longer period, so those don’t do as well later in the season for places that have frost and freezes. 

It is also a possibility to squeeze in a late crop of cucumbers or summer squash as well. This can be good if your cukes and squash succumb to disease, squash vine borers or cucumber beetles. Planting late can often mean that you are missing the primetime for specific pests. For example, squash vine borer adults actively lay eggs in the early season but largely disappear later on.  A late planting means you could miss them entirely. 

Fall is the best time to grow leafy green vegetables.  Lettuce, which does not fare well in the summer, thrives in the cooling temperatures of the fall.  Other leafy greens, such as chard, spinach, and kale are also winners in the fall garden.  Many of the root vegetables, such as turnips, carrots, beets, and radishes are also part of the fall garden revival.  You’ll want to wait until temperatures have chilled a little to get these started, but not so late that the season ends before you get good growth. 

You gotta know when to sow ‘em

The key to fall planting is to know how many days it takes for the crop to mature. Check out the seed package or the plant tag — there should be a time to maturity on there. Just count backward from the first frost date. Be sure to add a few weeks to account for slower growing in cool weather and to allow for a reasonable harvest time.

For example, if I wanted to plant a late crop of beans, I might select the cultivar ‘Contender’ which matures in about 55 days.  I want to add at least a few weeks onto that for maturity and harvest time, so lets say I need 75 days (I can go shorter if I want to accept the risk of an early frost).  Let’s also say that my first frost date in the fall is October 20.  Counting back 75 days from October 20, I get August 6 – I should plant my beans no later than that date to get a harvest.

Most of the cool season crops can tolerate a frost (and some even a freeze) so their growth dates can extend beyond the first frost date.  You’ll just want to have them mostly grown and close to maturity before it gets cold enough to stop their growth.  I covered frost and freezes and which crops can survive those cold temps in this previous GP article

You can give yourself a little more time if you plan on incorporating a season extension practice in the garden. Using a row cover or constructing a low tunnel can give you several more weeks of growing time. It can be possible to enjoy a fresh tomato or green beans straight from the garden on the Thanksgiving table, or some fresh broccoli or kale at Christmas even in some of our colder regions. But it all starts with a little planning in the heat of summer.

And if you choose not to plant a fall crop, I would suggest using a cover crop in garden beds as you remove this year’s plants.  A cover crop will help keep weeds to a minimum and preserve soil structure and nutrients through the winter.  Winter wheat, rye, and crimson clover are good winter cover crops.  Next spring you just cut them down and till them in if you’re not practicing no-till (and you should be if at all possible). For annual cover crops, you can usually cut them down or break them over and leave them in place as a mulch. You can also pull them up and compost them to add directly back to the garden, especially if (since it is hard to till or mow in a raised bed).  This GP article is an oldie but goodie for using cover crops in the vegetable garden. 

Water Wise Gardening: Conserving and Irrigating Responsibly

While we can’t ever control or even predict the weather, in most places it is important to have a plan on how to deliver water to our home gardens during the hot, dry months of the summer.  Aside from reducing water need through some good management practices, delivering water in an efficient and sustainable way is important when planning and planting our home gardens. 

When there is scarcity, it is necessary to conserve. Several years I got to see scarcity in person on a sustainable agriculture tour of New Mexico.  Farmers in New Mexico have only limited access to water from irrigation canals, to flood irrigate their fields, or even wells for drip irrigation.

This severe lack of water got me thinking about how much we take water for granted in our own gardens.  We often apply as much as we want or need in an inefficient manner (using sprinklers, sprayers, etc.) because we think it will always be there when we turn on the tap. 

Where I’m located in Nebraska we are also blessed to have water falling from the sky. Sometimes there’s too much, and at others there’s not enough. But that’s much better than in some places – I visited some parts of New Mexico on a farm tour where they get seven inches of rainfall in a normal year. Seven.  Total.

Thinking about conserving what water we have means that we are good stewards and are ready for when issues do arise. And let’s face it, there are some times in the summer that are dry where water conservation will help reduce using water, which can also save money.

When we talk about conserving water, there are two ways to go about it. First, look for ways to reduce the need for water. Then, look at ways to reduce water waste and usage whenever you need to use water on your lawn, landscape or garden.

Reducing the need for water

During dry times, it can be necessary to provide water to the garden to keep it growing healthfully along. However, there are many ways to reduce water loss or increase the amount that stays in the soil around the plants.

Mulching not only reduces weeds, but also helps hold moisture in the soil. Having one to two inches of mulch on landscape beds can reduce evaporation from the soil and decrease the amount of water you need. Newly planted trees should be mulched for the first few years to help hold moisture in the root zone as well.

Mulching is also important in the vegetable garden. Using straw or shredded newspaper are simple ways to conserve moisture, beat weeds and even reduce diseases. Note that this is shredded newspaper used on top of the soil for a mulch, not whole sheets applied below another mulch or on top of the ground.  That process is called “sheet mulching” and we typically don’t recommend it here at the GPs because it limits air movement into the soil and can disrupt the soil microbiome. Stick only to shredded newspaper as a top dressing. (See the bottom of the article for journal articles discussing paper and straw mulches).

Shredded newspaper in my tomato bed. There are 2ft woodchip mulch walkways between 4ft wide beds.

You can use woodchip mulch in the vegetable garden, but it can be difficult to manage when you are frequently planting, replanting, or harvesting crops.  If you accidentally incorporate it into the soil, it can tie up nitrogen available to plants and cause deficiencies.  As long as you are good at keeping it on the surface, it isn’t as much of an issue.

Large scale gardens or farms make use of black plastic as mulches to do much the same thing. Plastic mulches are typically beyond the scale needed for home vegetable gardens and have their own set of drawbacks such as limiting water and air movement, but for those struggling with difficult weeds or with issues limiting manual removal (disability, limited movement, etc) it may be explored for smaller scale production. There are now even biodegradable plastic and paper mulches available. Use of these does require drip irrigation beneath the mulch, as rain cannot penetrate to the root zone. With the issues associated with them, plastic mulches would be considered a last resort for all but the largest home vegetable gardens, and many of my GP colleagues recommend against them for all home garden situations – but they can have their very limited place in the home garden toolbox.  And we definitely recommend against the use of plastics and landscape fabrics in ornamental beds and landscapes.   

Choose plants that require less water. There are many plants available that have lower water requirements. Ornamental grasses, Liatris (blazing star), Kniphofia (red hot poker) and sunflowers come to mind. Most native plants are commonly thought to have lower water requirements, but this isn’t always the case and natives may not thrive in altered ecosystems (urban settings or even managed landscapes). Most bulbs also are water efficient and do not require extra watering, as are most culinary herbs.

Mowing less often in the hot and dry summer also can conserve water if you are one who waters the lawn. I’m not a big fan of watering lawns, since it is such a large water usage, but I know there are those who prefer to have their lawns lush and green at all times. Instead, when the summer gets hot and dry, leaving the grass on the taller side can help it stay green even without water. Many of the grasses we grow here are cool-season and go semi-dormant in the heat. Stopping mowing when the heat starts slows down growth and the need for water.

Irrigating Efficiently with Drip

When it comes to getting water to the garden, there are definitely more efficient ways to make it happen.

Unfortunately, the most common method — using sprinklers — is also the least efficient. It is hard to direct the water to the right place, and during periods of high heat evaporation takes up much more water than you think. But there are ways to get water to your thirsty plants without running up the water bill.

Drip irrigation is probably amongst the most efficient and sustainable ways to water your landscape or vegetable garden. This method allows you to apply water directly to plants in a controlled manner, rather than spraying an entire area with water.  Also, since the water is applied directly to the ground rather than sprayed through the hot summer air, the water is much less likely to evaporate. 

Drip irrigation tubing. Each drip opening emits on this version emits 1 gallon of water per hour.

There are a few different types of drip irrigation systems available.  Probably the easiest to install is a drip tape system.  This is a deflated tape that already has water-emitting slits cut into it.  While each slit applies a precise amount of water over a given time period, the pre-determined regular placement of the slits makes this system better for plants grown in rows, like vegetables, rather than landscapes where plants are of differing sizes and spacing.  And while it can be used for vegetable gardens, probably the easiest system for a landscape would be one where there are tubes you can cut to various lengths and insert controlled drip emitters at customized locations.  Another use for this type of drip irrigation could be for containers on a porch or deck – you can easily run the tubing out of sight along a bannister or railing and direct individual emitters to individual containers.

It all sounds complicated, and larger systems can be, but there are small and simple kits you can easily find at many garden centers or online retailers available for home gardeners to install their own within a matter of hours. You will need to have some skill at reading directions to install them, but the process is pretty simple. 

For information on setting up drip irrigation for your home garden, check out these great resources from Extension institutions across the country:

Drip Irrigation for Home Gardens

Building and Operating a Home Garden Irrigation System

DRIP: Watering the Home Garden

Soaker hoses are a similar concept to drip irrigation, but instead of small drips these hoses just emit water all along the hose. Still better than sprinklers, these hoses are quite a bit less efficient than drip, since you can’t direct the water exactly where you want it.  They are also easy to apply too-much water to an area since they can emit large volumes. Installation is pretty simple, though, since you just lay the hose down where you want it.

One great benefit of both drip irrigation and soaker hoses is the application of automation.  Using a timer can make it easy to keep the garden watered through the season. Timers can be as simple as a dial to manually run the irrigation for a specified time or fully automatic to run the irrigation for various lengths of time on different days of the week.  Some more advanced timers also have rain sensors or soil probes to reduce or avoid running when rain makes watering unnecessary (if you don’t have a sensor, remember to stop automatic running until the soil has dried).  And in today’s emerging technology, there are also timers or flow controls that can be automated or controlled from a phone app.  The timer that I’m now using at home connects to my Wi-fi, and in addition to allowing me to control and observe the watering status from anywhere in the world, connects to local weather data to automatically set a “smart watering” schedule taking into account rainfall, temperature, wind speed, and other factors. 

My fancy water timer.

Another effective way of providing water to your garden is through water catchment.  Water catchment is just a fancy way of saying that you use a rain barrel. Here you are collecting rain runoff to use in place of water from the tap. There are some ultra-low-flow drip irrigation systems that you can use with rain barrels (if they are raised high enough to get water pressure), but this use is usually for watering by hand. For larger gardens, the large IBC totes that hold 200 or more gallons can make good water catchment barrels.  Just make sure that if you are using them (or any other barrel) for fruit or vegetable production that they are made of food-safe plastic and their previous contents were also food safe.  (Check out our guide on Building a Rain Barrel)

Selected references:

Comparisons of shredded newspaper and wheat straw as crop mulches

Soil Temperature, Soil Moisture, Weed Control, and Tomato (Lycopersicon esculentum) Response to Mulching

Newspaper Mulches for Suppressing Weeds for Organic High-tunnel Cucumber Production

Viral Vegetables? Growing (and Buying) Produce in the age of COVID-19 (and reducing fear with facts)

Now that much of the world’s attention is focused on limiting the spread of pathogens, well one pathogen, it seems like a good time to talk about some of the questions or concerns we’ve seen regarding vegetable gardens, community gardens, and farmers markets.  It’s a good time to talk about some of the practices that we should be doing to prevent other human pathogens from handling produce, like E. coli and Salmonella, and how those might fit into preventing the spread of COVID-19. 

First things first

First off, we have to remember that SARS-CoV-2, which is the virus that causes COVID-19, is not a food borne illness.  I repeat: COVID-19 IS NOT A FOOD BORNE ILLNESS. This means that it is not spread through the consumption of contaminated food like E. coli and Salmonella.  I’ve seen many instances of people spreading fear about food online, with many suggesting using soap or bleach on food to minimize risk.  Those steps are both unnecessary an actually pose a poisoning risk.  There is currently no evidence to suggest that COVID-19 is transmittable by food or food packaging.

The risk from food (which is considered minimal by experts) is from cross-contamination from food or packaging onto hands or onto surfaces that are then touched by hands.  The virus would then have to go from a persons hand to mucous membranes in the respiratory system by something like touching your face or picking your…..well, we won’t go there.  The best defense against this isn’t necessarily sanitizing all the food you buy, but washing your hands after you handle it and sanitizing any surfaces that packaging or shopping bags touch. 

Factsheet: Is Coronavirus a concern on Fresh Produce?

But while we’re on the topic of pathogens and food safety, it’s a good time to talk about some general guidelines that can not only help stop that potential SARS-CoV-2 cross contamination but also food borne illness in general.

Minimizing the risk from produce even further

Whether you grow it in your own garden, buy it at a local farmers market, or purchase it at the grocery store, produce has a minimal risk when it comes to COVID-19. 

Factsheet: COVID-19 and Food Safety – Shopping and Handling Groceries

To minimize the very small risk of cross-contamination even further and (probably more importantly) to also reduce any risk from common food borne illnesses, proper washing of the produce should be practiced.  But do you know how to do that?  Maybe…and maybe not.  Here are some steps to help out. 

  1. Wash your hands. The most common pathway of contamination for produce is from human touch.
  2. You should use clean water that you would use for drinking (like out of the tap) and not use any bleach or soap. 
  3. Providing gentle friction with your hands or a produce brush or by rubbing the produce together is sufficient. 
  4. If you’re washing a lot of produce at once, say from a large harvest, and you’re using a tub full or sink full of water to wash multiple “loads” of produce, keep an eye on how dirty the water gets and refresh it when it gets discolored.  Remember that washing produce in a tub or sink of water can also present a cross-contamination issue where contaminated produce contaminates the water. 
  5. When in doubt, discard produce you may think is contaminated or wash it separately. 
  6. To reduce risk of cross-contamination, consider a “single pass” washing technique where you spray the produce with water and it doesn’t sit in water with other produce. 
Image

Food Safety in the Garden

There are a few things we can do in the garden to help stop the spread of human pathogens.  Most of them are common sense things that most people don’t even think about.  Devout GP readers may remember my little missive around this time last year about the food safety risks of using manure in the vegetable garden (See: The Scoop on Poop).  Beyond those musings on manure, though, gardeners can take some additional steps to reduce potential contamination.  Those are:

  • Wash your hands.  I know it sounds simple, and maybe even more so now that it has been drilled into our brains, but washing your hands before you garden is one of the best ways to reduce the spread of pathogens.  It is especially important to wash your hands before you harvest produce or handle harvested produce.
  • Use clean containers for collecting and storing produce.  Using harvest baskets, tubs, and totes is common, but the ones that are best in terms of food safety are those that can be washed and sanitized.  This is one tactic that many farmers are encouraged to use as well.  Plastic tubs, totes, trugs, and crates are probably best as they can withstand washing and the use of a sanitizer like bleach.  Wooden or woven baskets may be cute, but they’re harder to clean and can hold on to pathogens. 
  • Look for signs of wildlife in the garden.  Aside from eating more than their fair share of produce, wild animals can also present a food safety risk especially from their droppings.  Look for signs of animals in the garden and especially take note of any droppings.  Don’t harvest produce that has signs of droppings on them.  Many of the big produce recalls over the last decade have been a result of wild animals like birds or wild hogs. 
  • Keep pets out of the garden.  As much as you like to have Fluffy or Fido in the garden, they present a risk just like wild animals do. 
  • Wash produce using proper techniques (previously discussed).

Best practices for minimizing COVID-19 risks at Community Gardens (and Farmers Markets)

You can practice handwashing anywhere. You can buy portable hand washing stations or build this DIY Model. Plans: https://www.youngfarmers.org/fsma_resources/portable-handwashing-stations/

One other aspect of gardening that could provide some risks for the spread of COVID-19 are the more social aspects of gardening, such as community gardens.  I’ve had several local gardens reach out for best practices relating to minimizing risks in the garden – from handwashing stations to shared tool use.  Thankfully, NCSU Extension was quick on the draw with resources for lots of aspects of the food system in terms of reducing risks from COVID-19 and they graciously allowed other universities to distribute these resources.  Below are some links to the resources that would be helpful to gardeners:

COVID-19 FAQ for Community Gardens

And since some gardeners may sell at (or at least visit) farmers markets:

COVID-19 FAQ for Farmers Markets

Click here for all the resources developed by NCSU

Planting Prognostication: Understanding last frost and planting dates

Except for areas of the US that are more tropical like southern Florida or Hawai’i, most gardener’s planting schedules are set around winter weather and the possibility of frost or freeze.  And even for gardeners in those more tropical areas, planting sometimes needs to be planned to schedule around the extreme heat of summer.  Understanding these planting times can really lead to success or failure, especially for vegetable gardens, tender annuals, tropicals, and non-dormant perennials.  There are a few tools that help us understand weather patterns and predict critical temperatures for planting, namely the USDA Hardiness Zone map and the Average Last Frost/Freeze dates.  The USDA Hardiness Map shares data on what the average coldest temperature is, which is key for selecting perennial plants that you want to survive the winter.  However, to know when to plant we look at the average freeze and frost dates.  There seems to be a little bit of mystery, and even confusion, around the dates and how to interpret them, so let’s take a little time to understand them a little better.  And since my background is in vegetable production, I’ll share a bit more detail there in terms of plants – but you can translate the information to ornamentals, especially those that are frost tender pretty easily. 

Understanding Average Last Frost Date

What is the average last frost date and how is it figured?  The average last frost date is exactly what it says it is – the average date at which the probability of frost has diminished.  Just how diminished really depends on the source, so we’ll follow up with that in a bit.  The data is computed by NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration) and the National Weather Service to determine the probability of temperatures relating to frost and freezes based on weather data for an area over the last 30 years.  They compute the likelihood of a light frost (36 F), frost/heavy frost (32 F), or freeze (28 F) at three different probability levels – 90% (the temperature is very likely to happen), 50% (the possibility is 50/50), or 10% (the temperature is unlikely).  This tool from NOAA provides a chart with probabilities for locations throughout each state.  

This data is typically collected and analyzed every ten years or so.  I’m not exactly sure when the last data was analyzed, but I did find some maps on the NWS referencing the period 1980/81- 2009/20 (below).  Therefore it is likely that new data will be released either this year or next year.

Temperature hardiness of common vegetables

Awareness of tolerance is especially important for vegetable crops, as the growing season and expected productivity of the plants.  The following chart is a general guideline, and your mileage may vary based on cultivar difference, microclimates, and other factors.  Also note that these temperatures are for both planting in spring and fall kill temperatures.  Some of the more tender plants, like tomatoes, may withstand colder temperatures when they’re mature so they may be less susceptible to frost at the end of the season vs. the beginning of the season. 

Season extension techniques, such as row covers can be used to protect tender plants in the spring and extend harvests in the fall.  Row covers can be selected by the degrees of protection they deliver.  For example, a row cover may offer 4 degrees of protection.  This allows the protected plant to withstand air temperatures 4 degrees colder that what it would unaided. For fall crops, note that plants may stop growing well before the kill temperature but will hang out in “stasis” until they are killed. The above NOAA chart provides probabilities for both spring and fall – allowing you to not only plan for spring planting but also for fall crops.  For scheduling fall crop planting dates, find your first frost date, count backwards the days to maturity (from the seed packet or tag), and add a few weeks for a harvest window and for the slowing growth as temperatures drop.

The Problem with Probability

These probabilities are based on past weather data, so keep in mind that these dates are used as a prediction not as a guarantee.  It is especially important to remember this as weather uncertainty increases with climate change.  Last frost could occur well before or even well after these predictive dates.  This also begs the question – which probability should you use?  Looking around at different sources, you might find sources that use either the 50% or 10% probability statistic, and there seems to be a bit of disagreement as to which one should be used.  Based on the data for my region, I’ve seen sources share both dates.  It really comes down to how much of a gamble you want to take or how much you want to push up harvest or maturity.  If you plant on the earlier 50% probability date you may end up having to cover the plants a few times to protect them from frost.  But each day that passes means that the chance of frost or freeze decreases.

Whenever I give a talk here at home in Omaha, I often ask my audience to guess what the average last frost date is for planting.  Invariably, the answer I get is Mother’s Day…which I guess works as a guidepost in general.  However, looking at the data (below), we can see that the 10% probability date for a 32 degree (killing) frost is May 4.  The light frost date is May 11 – plants may be damaged but not killed unless they’re very tender.  And the 50% probability date for a killing frost is actually April 21, which is the point where the probability of frost is 50% each day (and the probability shrinks each day.

Sometimes produce growers may opt to go early to get vegetables to market – which extends the sales season and allows them to charge a premium price if no other growers are selling.  Season extension techniques like high tunnels have also pushed back farm production dates.  As climate change makes weather more unpredictable, we may all be finding ways to alter the growing season as a norm rather than an exception.  Until then, we’ll rely on the data we have to make the best predictions.   

Sources:

https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/freeze_damage_in_fall_vegetables_identifying_and_preventing

http://www.gardening.cornell.edu/homegardening/scene0391.html

https://www.weather.gov/iwx/fallfrostinfo

https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/cgi-bin/climatenormals/climatenormals.pl?directive=prod_select2&prodtype=CLIM2001&subrnum%2520to%2520Freeze/Frost%2520Data%2520from%2520the%2520U.S.%2520Climate%2520Normals

When Good Seeds Go Bad: How long can you store seeds?

Many gardeners, myself included, have that stash of old seed packets or saved seeds from garden seasons past, just waiting for the right time to be planted. They may be shoved in a drawer, a box, or in the fridge/freezer. Maybe you’re pulling some out of storage to start this spring – will they even germinate? Are those seeds good indefinitely? Do they ever expire? The answer to that really depends on what plant it is and how they are stored. While there isn’t a date where all the seeds go bad, they will eventually go bad over time. Why is this? And how can I make sure to use my seeds before they’re gone? Let’s find out!


Why Good Seeds Go Bad
While we think of seeds as perhaps inert, dormant, or in stasis they’re still very much alive and therefore are still undergoing processes like respiration, though at a much lower rate than a growing plant. During respiration, the seed (and plant within) are converting the stored sugars and starches in the endosperm to release energy. Once the germination process starts with the imbibition of water, the respiration rate increases drastically. A large amount of stored energy is needed to get through germination and sustain the seedling until it has its first set of true leaves and can photosynthesize on its own.

Seeds need to retain enough stored energy to sustain seedlings until they develop their first leaves and start photosynthesizing.

The shelf life of seeds is determined by the amount of energy that is stored, the amount used during storage, and the amount needed from germination to leaf development. This means that there’s a limit to how long a seed can stay in storage. After a while the seed loses viability if it doesn’t have enough energy stores to get it far enough along to photosynthesize on its own or to have that first burst of respiration at the initiation of germination. When searching for resources, keep in mind that viability refers to the ability of the seed to produce a robust seedling while germination refers to breaking of dormancy. The terms are inter-related, but the rates are not necessarily the same.

Some seeds have evolved to sit dormant for a long time, while others have a very short lifespan. It usually turns out that the seeds that last longest in storage are weeds that have evolved to wait long periods of time for an opportunity to germinate. Garden seeds tend to be on the shorter end of the storage time scale. A now 140-year old ongoing experiment at Michigan State University has given some interesting insight. In 1880, William Beal (one of the fathers of horticulture) buried 20 vials full of a variety of seeds (garden and weed) in secret locations around campus. The plan was to dig one up every 5 years and see what germinated. However, after the fist few rounds the cycle was bumped to 20 years. A vial was opened in 2000 and only one species, a weed, still germinated. This year is another germination year – we’ll have to wait and see if the mullein will germinate again this year.

How long will my seeds last?

Data from Nebraska Extension publication.

There are a few good sources that pull data from a variety of sources. The figure below lists some life expectancy times for common vegetable crops published by Nebraska Extension, using two common manuals on seeds as sources. You’ll also find some likes to other data, including average storage times for flowers, herbs, etc. in the references section (while we don’t typically promote commercial sites, the guide from Johnny’s Select Seeds has a good list of plants and has a variety of extension and academic sources listed). Like the MSU experiment, most of this research was done a while ago, but the data is still a good generalization. Most sources say that these time estimates are based on storage in optimal conditions. According to Johnny’s Select Seeds, “The actual storage life will depend upon the viability and moisture content of the seed when initially placed in storage, the specific variety, and the conditions of the storage environment”.

What are these “optimal” conditions? Generally the conditions are low humidity and low temperature. Low humidity ensures that the seed stays dry, avoiding potential initiation of germination. Low temperature reduces the respiration rate, slowing down usage of stored energy and increasing longevity. Optimal temperature for storage is below 42°F (15°C). Relative humidity should be between 20 and 40%.

The relationship between temperature and humidity seems to be inverse – meaning that as storage temperature goes lower, humidity can be higher and vice versa. However, storage times increase as both go down. Many sources state that seed longevity doubles for every one percent drop in humidity or five degree (F) drop in temperature. The relative humidity of the air affects the moisture level in the seeds. Germination usually starts at 25% moisture (and above). Ideal moisture levels for storage range between 8 and 12 percent and levels between 12 and 25 can lead to degradation of seeds, growth of fungi, etc. On the flip side, moisture levels below 5% can decrease vigor. Organizations like seed banks and germplasm centers that store seeds long term often will desiccate seeds to around 8% humidity to extend storage, but this isn’t usually needed for home gardeners.

Image result for seed vault
You don’t have to replicate conditions at the Global Seed Vault to have seed saving and starting success

Storage tips
Knowing that we need low temperatures and low relative humidity to extend seed life gives us some clues on how to store seeds to get the longest shelf life. This is key info if we’re trying to start seeds in spring that have been stored, or if we need to store extra or saved seeds. For the needed temperature levels, your standard home refrigerator is acceptable. Storage temps for cold foods are around the 40°F mark. However, humidity in a refrigerator is very variable. Humidity can skyrocket when doors are open, as condensation settles from warm room air settling on surfaces accumulates. Auto defrost cycles can also alter humidity. You’ll want to think about a desiccant like those silica packs to ensure that your seeds don’t get too moist. Store them in a plastic bag with the desiccant, and for added protection I always put mine in a sturdy container like a plastic box (or even a canning jar). Storing seeds in a freezer may help with the humidity issue, as any moisture that enters is frozen. You might also want to think about letting your bag or container warm up to room temperature before opening so that you don’t get condensation on the packets or the seeds themselves.

Sources:

Vegetable Garden Seed Storage and Germination Requirements – Nebraska Extension

Principles and Practices of Seed Storage – USDA

Seed Storage Guide – Johnny’s Select Seeds

Smith, R. D. (1992) Seed storage, temperature, and relative humidity. Seed Science Research 2, 113-116

120 Year Old Experiment Sprouts New Gardening Knowledge – MSU

Fail to Plan or Plan to Fail? Planning for a year of garden success

It seems like we’re always adhering to one schedule or another these days.  We have devices and planners to keep track of our appointments, our work schedules, kids schedules, and more. Heck, even the antique seed company clock in my office is telling me to order seeds.  It can seem overwhelming, so you might laugh if I tell you that coming up with a schedule, or a plan, for your garden can be beneficial.  It is especially helpful for vegetable gardeners or those who like to any kinds of seeds. 

Developing a yearly plan for the garden can help you keep ahead of the big tasks, help you stay on top of issues like weather, as well as make sure you get seeds started on time and transplanting done when it makes the most sense.  While some of this may be a review for seasoned gardeners, the number of questions and calls we receive at Extension (and the number of oopsies we see) means that the information could be helpful for many. 

Since my background is in vegetable production, I’ll focus there with some bits and pieces added for ornamentals when they fit. 

Do you have garden goals?

Whenever you are planning your annual vegetable garden, or planning on adding any ornamentals to your gardens or landscape, you should ask yourself a few simple questions.  When you’re dreaming of your garden during the winter is a good time to think of these goals.

1. What are my goals for the garden?  Do I have long-term goals?  What short-term goals can you set for this year to build momentum toward your long-term goals?

2. What resources am I willing to invest in the plants I’m ordering (money, time, water, space)?

3. What are the things I most want to grow?

4. What has worked (and what hasn’t) in your garden in the past?

While it may sound funny to say that you are going to set goals for your garden, it really isn’t all that far-fetched.

If you are planning to add ornamental plants to your landscape, you should think about what you want from those plants — are you looking for color or for structure? how about perennials vs. annuals (or biennials)?

When you are planning a vegetable garden, you should ask yourself not only what you want to grow, but how much. Are you just planting for fresh-from-the-garden eating, or do you want to preserve some through canning, freezing or drying? Are you growing just enough potatoes to eat for a month or two after the garden season, or do you need to select a variety that keeps well so you can store it?

Tips for Planning a Successful Garden

After you set your goals and decide what you want to plant, developing a schedule of when to do what is a good idea to stay on top of everything.  I can’t tell you how many years I had been planning on planting this or that, but then forget to buy what I need or start seeds on time.  A plan can help with that, as well as helping you space activities out over time rather than trying to get everything done in a hectic sprint.  This is especially helpful to new gardeners or busy folks who may forget to start or plant certain things at the right time (I wouldn’t be speaking from experience here.  Nope, this gardener has never been guilty of that.  I meant not to plant all of that garlic that I bought last fall.) To borrow the method used in a popular self-help book, you’re “scheduling the big rocks” as one of the habits of highly effective gardeners.

Keep in mind that it can be hard to “garden on a schedule” as weather always plays a factor in what we can and can’t do in the garden.  Given the wide variability in weather over the last few years in many parts of the country, which many scientists attribute to changing weather patterns due to climate change, it can be even more difficult to pin garden tasks to specific dates.  A plan can help you keep track of everything you need to do, but it should be flexible to take weather into account.

Starting Seeds Indoors

Germinating a variety of plants for our 2018 All-America Selections trials

If you’re starting seeds indoors, decide when you’re going to transplant them to the garden.  You can usually find this information on a seed packet, but you can find resources or consult your local cooperative extension office for guidance.  Keep in mind that warm-season plants typically need to be planted after your average last frost date (unless you’re adventurous and don’t mind gambling with a potential loss).  Cool season crops such as Cole crops (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, etc.), leafy greens, and bok choi can be planted before the last frost date, but usually after the risk of a hard freeze has diminished.  For a map of the average date for last spring freeze/frost, check out https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/news/when-expect-your-last-spring-freeze.  Note that these ranges are determined by analyzing the last frost dates over a 30 year period and the actual dates can vary due to weather variations (made even less predictable by climate change).

Choose the timeframe you wish to plant in the garden and count backward to when you need to start plants indoors. Put both the planting dates and the seed starting times on your calendar.   Also keep in mind that this is the earliest that you can plant warm season crops, but you can plant them later if it works better for you.  While we don’t typically share commercial links on this site, the best resource I’ve found for planning your seed starting and transplant dates for both vegetable and common annuals is https://www.johnnyseeds.com/growers-library/seed-planting-schedule-calculator.html

Direct Sowing into the Garden

For some crops like root crops, beans, leafy greens, and even some squash and cucumbers, direct sowing sees into the garden is ideal.  You can add timeframes to your plan based on previous practice, like knowing that you’ll sow carrots toward the end of March or early April, but keeping an eye on the weather can be even more helpful here.  Success here is more about temperature than timing.  Most plants have optimal germination temperatures, so you want to sow outside when the soil temperature (not air temperature) is at or near those levels.  The following resource has germination temperatures for common crops: http://sacmg.ucanr.edu/files/164220.pdf

If you’re lucky, you can search for local web-connected weather stations that have soil temperature probes.  For example, we have one at our office that we share with clients to make gardening decisions (http://mgextensionwx.com/).  If you can’t find one, NOAA has a few in each state for official climate data.  https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/crn/current-observations.  Putting “check soil temperature” should be on your garden to-do list regularly until the temps get into good gardening range.

Spreading the planting and harvest through the season

If you’re aiming for harvests throughout the growing season, practice relay planting where crops mature in shifts throughout the garden season rather than all at once. If you’re planning on preserving some of your harvest for winter, planning on larger harvests at certain times in the season can get you the amount of produce you need for a big batch at the time that you need it. Some plants are good at producing through the season, but others, like determinate tomatoes and many beans have a one-time flush of production.  Of course, we also have the crops that are once and done, like carrots and radishes, that only have one harvest.  If we space out planting over weeks rather than planting all at once, harvests (or flowers if you’re growing annuals) can be spread out over a longer period of the season rather than everything maturing at once.  There’s generally a several week (to several month) window for planting crops.

For example, tomatoes can be planted as early as the average last frost date, but can be planted for several weeks afterward.  To figure out how late you can plant a crop, look for the first frost date and count backwards using the “days to maturity” information for the crop.  You’ll want to add on a few weeks to a month to account for having a harvest window and slowing growth as temperatures drop.  Keep in mind that many of the cool season crops can last well into the fall and winter, withstanding frosts and even light freezes, so replanting them for a fall harvest is ideal.

Planning out when to plant annuals, perennials, trees, and shrubs can also help make sure you get those plantings off on the right foot and can allow you to prepare in advance.  For example, if I want to add a tree to the landscape, taking the time to research trees and planting techniques, scheduling any prep of the planting area, sourcing the tree, and planting at the right time could all go on your calendar – that way you are prepared and ready to plant at the correct time.

Other garden tasks

While much of the work of a garden plan is front-loaded to the spring, there’s lots of tasks that we should be planning on doing regularly.  Scouting for and controlling insects and diseases, removing spent plants, mulching, compost turning, and more all come to mind.  Putting these on your schedule rather than  doing them when you think of them can really improve your likelihood of getting them done.  Also think about some of those big things you might have identified in the goals you set for the year.  Do you want to build a compost bin or develop new garden beds?  Plant some trees?  Take a soil test?  Putting these on your calendar can not only help you remember them, but plan ahead as well.  What do you need to do before you build that compost bin?  Do you need to buy supplies and tools (and look for bargains if you’re planning ahead)?  By planning when you’re going to accomplish these tasks, you can plan for success throughout the gardening year, improve your successes, and feel a little less hectic when the planting and growing goes full swing. 

Why soil tests matter: lessons from my vegetable garden

Regular blog readers will remember that we moved to my childhood home a few years ago. With an acre or so of landscape I finally have enough room to put in a vegetable garden. My husband built a wonderful raised bed system, complete with critter fencing, and we’ve been enjoying the fresh greens and the first few tomatoes of the season.

Jim puts on the finishing touches to our first raised bed garden.

We filled these raised beds with native soil. During a porch addition I asked the contractor to stockpile the topsoil near the raised beds. The house was built almost 100 years ago and at that time there were no “designed topsoils” (thank goodness) – soil was simply moved around during construction. Some of this soil had been covered by pavers and the rest had been covered with turf. [You can read more about designed topsoils in this publication under “choosing soil for raised beds.”] There had been no addition of nutrients for at least 7 years so I was confident that this was about as natural a soil as I could expect.

Our native soil, ready for adding to our raised beds.

I’ve always advised gardeners to have a soil test done whenever they embark on a new garden or landscape project, so before I added anything to my raised beds I took samples and sent them to the soil testing lab at University of Massachusetts at Amherst (my go-to lab as there are no longer any university labs in Washington State for the public to use).

What I already knew about our soil was that it’s a glacial till (in other words it’s full of rocks left behind by a receding glacier). The area is full of native Garry oak (Quercus garryana), some of which are centuries old. The soil is excessively drained, meaning it’s probably a sandy loam. And that’s about all I knew until my results came back.

Some of our massive, centuries old Garry oaks.

Because nothing has been added to this soil for several years, and because I had removed all of the turf grass before filling the beds, I assumed that the organic matter (OM) would be quite low. Most soils that support tree growth have around 3-7% OM. Hah! Ours was over 12%! All I can figure is that centuries of leaf litter has created a rich organic soil.

I never expected this level of OM.

So here’s lesson number one: Don’t add OM just because you think you need it. Too much OM creates overly rich conditions that can reduce the natural protective chemicals in vegetation. This means pests and diseases are more likely to be problems.

I think these may be the lowest P levels I’ve seen in home garden soils.

I was pleased to see our P level was low. First soil test I’ve ever seen in my area where P was below the desirable range! Does that mean I’m adding P? No – because there is no evidence of a P deficiency anywhere in the landscape. And my garden plants are growing just fine without it.

No sign of any nutrient deficiencies here (though the mesclun mix got out of control).

Or here either.

Lesson number two: Just because a nutrient is reportedly deficient, look for evidence of that deficiency before you add it. It’s a lot easier to add something than it is to remove it.

Likewise, our other nutrient values are just fine, and I was pleased to see that lead levels were low. Given that this is an older house that had lead paint at one time, and given the fact that the soil being tested was adjacent to the house, I was prepared for lead problems.

Surprisingly low lead given the original location of this soil next to an older house.

However – we do have high aluminum in the soil. Exactly why…I don’t know. Perhaps the soil is naturally high in aluminum? There’s no evidence that aluminum sulfate or another amendment was ever used. In any case, that was an unexpected result that does give us some concern for root crops. I’ll be doing some research to see what vegetables accumulate aluminum.

The aluminum levels may bear some watching if I’m growing root crops.

Finally, note our pH – 4.9! This is completely normal for our area, which is naturally acidic. In addition, the tannic acid accumulation from centuries of oak leaves has undoubtedly pushed the pH even lower. Are we going to adjust it? Again, no. There is no evidence of any plant problems, and even our lawn is green. Why would we adjust the pH if there is no visual evidence to support that?

No, this is not a typo.

Which leads to lesson number three: Don’t adjust your soil pH just because you think you should. If your plants are growing well, the pH is fine. Plants and their associated root microbes are pretty well adapted to obtaining the necessary nutrients. If you have problems, don’t assume it’s a pH issue. Correlation does not equal causation! You’ll need to eliminate all other possibilities before attempting to change your soil chemistry. And remember it is impossible to permanently change soil pH over the short term. Permanent pH changes require decades, if not centuries of annual inputs (like our oak leaves).

The cat agrees – no pH issue with this lawn.

Will I test my soil again? Probably not. I have the baseline report and since I don’t plan to add anything I don’t expect it to change much. If I had a nutrient toxicity I would retest until the level of that nutrient had decreased to normal levels. But with everything growing well, from lawn to vegetables to shrubs and trees, there really is nothing to be concerned about.

Viburnum plicatum (I think) is one of many established shrubs on the property.

Lesson number four: Unless you have something in your soil to worry about, don’t.