Monday, February 23, 2009

All About Peppers!

Last year I planted tomatoes, hot peppers & herbs. My hot peppers did OK, but not spectacular. I think this issue was using yard dirt for the container. Perhaps if your yard isn't composed primarily of clay, like you have good fertile soil, this won't be an issue for you. I also didn't really fertilize at all. So, between the poor drainage and the lack of food, I'm pretty surprised we got any peppers.

But, seriously, we got like 10 peppers each from our jalapeno & cherry pepper plant. And those plants were like $5 each. And, I guarantee you I could have gotten more hot peppers at the grocery store for $10! So, this year, I'm doing my research. And starting from seed. Because I'm wild & crazy like that. (Just kidding. It's mostly because I'm cheap! Ha!) Here's what I've found:

Growing Requirements:

For starters, peppers--whether hot or sweet--need full sun. And, full sun, as I'm sure you know, means 6-8 hours of direct light per day. Now if you're in the South or anywhere where your summers get brutal (I like NoVA meets this description in July & August), high temperatures plus hot summer sun can cause sunscald on your peppers. (pssttt...You know your peppers have sunscald when they have black, velvety appearance or bleached, sunken appearance. A fungus does this but it's caused by exposure to hot, hot sun. Yeah, I didn't know that either.) So, growing peppers in containers is actually a really good idea because you can have them in bright light in May & June & then move them over to a place with afternoon shade in July & August. If you plant them in-ground, just make sure they get afternoon shade by either planting something tall (like corn) that will grow to shade them or by selecting a spot that naturally gets some shade.

Soil? Well draining is key. pH should be 5.5-6.9, if you care to know. Most counties, state agriculture departments or universities with a school of agriculture will do soil testing for free or cheap. Otherwise, you can buy a kit online or at your local garden center. For Virginia, here is info on how to submit soil samples. Merrifield Garden Centers and Meadowlark Botanical Gardens definitely have the packet of forms you need.

Planting? You should plant 2-3 weeks after your last frost. Rodale's recommends planting 2-3 plants per person. We're going to do 5 plants of sweet peppers and 6 hot plants (2 each of 3 varieties). At least, that's the plan right now. It needs to be formalized. Rodale's also recommends putting a cup each of bonemeal & kelp meal into each planting hole. This is something I'm going to try this year to try to increase my yield. Look at the planting guidelines (meaning how far to space apart) on your packet or plant tag of the variety you get. Sweet peppers generally require more room than hot. Also, you might want to stake your pepper plants so that the stem doesn't flop over with heavy (fingers crossed!!!) veg.

Fertilize? Rodale's recommends giving each pepper plant of fish emulsion once a week until they start growing well. You could use compost tea as well, but I'm always wary of doing that. You just don't know the concentration. I'm probably mix the fish emulsion with water...I'm afraid of scorching the plant with fertilizer.

Hints & Tips:
  1. Um, yeah. Don't use yard dirt if it's clay. If you're doing a container garden, use potting soil. If you're planting in the ground, just make sure your soil is well-draining.
  2. Not fertilizing wasn't a good idea. Feed your peppers, so they can feed you.
  3. You'll need to water containers in the peak of summer constantly. Going on a vacation in July? Start sucking up to your neighbors now so they'll come over & water your peppers while you're away. Or promise them some of the bounty!
  4. Cherry peppers aren't that hot. But they are pretty good.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Oops! Mistaken Identity

In our yard, we often get these little clusters of wild onions. They spring up in the darnest places and leave your yard with a faint onion smell. Needless to say, I'm not a fan. Even when they do flower. So when something bulb-like started sprouting all over our front planting, I was suspicious. And, erring on the side of caution, decided to rip it out. AND THEN...

We went to Meadowlark.

They had a large area of stuff that looked like the plants I removed. They weren't wild onions. Or weeds. They were actual flowers that people plant on purpose. Newbie mistake. Happens to the best of us, right?

What are they?! Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalus), the first blooming bulb of spring! HOLLA! They are hardy as well, which is lucky because I could save the ones I had pulled out earlier & replanted them. I think they have a good chance of survival. And, since they don't mind being divided while they are in bloom, I was able to separate the clumps and replant in a larger, more controlled area.

I think I'm going to love these little guys: They thrive in part-sun, bloom early and are almost unkillable. What's not to love?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

From the Ground Up: Seed Starting (Part 1)

Yesterday I went to Merrifield Garden Center's seminar on seed starting. It was very informative & I recommend attending any of the Merrifield seminars. Heck, they're free! Anywho, this is what I learned about what info and equipment you need to start your seeds:

Light source. At first, seeds don't need light. But, once their leaves come out they will so it's best to think about it ahead of time. If you'll be starting seeds when it's still freezing temperatures outside, setting seeds on a window sill may be too cold for them. Personally, none of the windows in my house get full sun (seedlings need 16 hours of daylight), so I bought a portable grow light system. You can make your own by suspending a florescent light fixture by chains above your plants. The chains will allow you to raise and lower the light to accommodate growing plants. I would have gone this (cheaper) route if I knew where I'd permanently set up my seed-growing station. But, because we're still figuring things out in our new home, I decided to go with a less permanent, more portable solution.

Heat. Seeds, like baby humans, like to be warm & snugly, which is why a cold windowsill is not an ideal growing situation. Most seeds need their soil temperature to be between 65* to 80* at all times (it should say on the seed packet what it needs). One way to achieve this is to get a seed starting heat mat. Another way to do that would be to place them in a warm place like the top of the refrigerator. Or, if your house is 70*+ 24 hours/day, then there's a good chance the soil temp. will be warm enough (but don't turn up your thermostat to 70* when it's cold out. It will be cheaper in the long run to just buy the heat mat.) Using plastic wrap or reusing those plastic bags you put your vegetables in at the grocery store (after you clean them of course!) will help insulate seeds, but be sure to take off the plastic as soon as growth emerges.

Water. Never, never, never let your germinating seeds dry out. Ever. And, never, never, never use cold water. Ever. It can take up to 24 hours for the soil temperature to get back to normal if you use cold water. Keep the seeds snugly by using warm, tepid water. A spray bottle with a misting mode is a great way to water seedlings.

"Soil." I say "soil" because you'll need a potting mix. And most of those don't actually contain soil. I'll be using Merrifield Potting Mix because that's what I have. You do want to use FRESH "soil" that has never been used before. You want to keep everything as sanitary as possible.(Although note that most potting mixes aren't sterile. You want good bacteria with the bad.). You may also want to sprinkle milled sphagnum moss on top of the soil covering your seeds. Sphagnum moss is an organic, naturally-occurring anti-fungicide and will help save your seeds and seedlings from damping off. And it's like $4 for a good sized bag, so it's some of the cheapest "insurance" you'll ever buy!

Containers. You don't really need pots. I'm a big fan of reusing objects to reduce waste. Old strawberry containers make lovely little greenhouses. Yogurt containers, old plastic pots, or anything else you can grab from around your house will work if you poke or drill drainage holes in the bottom. What you will want to do, however, is sanitized everything in a 1-part-bleach-9-parts-water solution. Clean pots is one good step towards disease-free plants.

You may want to purchase a sturdy rimmed plastic tray from your garden center to place all your containers on so that they aren't draining all over the table. Or, if you're giving up baking for a few months, you can use a jelly roll tray.

Food. While fertilization isn't needed right away (seeds carry around all the food they need to germinate), it's worth going ahead and getting some. When your seedlings emerge, you'll be ready to give them nourishment since potting soils have little to no food in them. You can use organic fertilizers like fish emulsion (that is what I'm going to use) or kelp meal. Or you can go the conventional route with Miracle Grow. You do want a liquid fertilizer though because those are faster acting. More on when & how much to fertilize in another post...

Air Circulation. As soon as the growth emerges you want to make sure that the seedlings have good air circulation. Otherwise, fungus or other diseases will thrive on the warm dampness the seeds are growing in. A small fan on low gently blowing across your containers will do the trick.

Labels. You need something to stick in the pot that will let you know what's planted in there & when you planted it. Garden centers sell these or you could use a toothpick with a label affixed like a flag.

Part 2 will be posted in a few weeks when I start my seeds. Expect step by step photos!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

African Violets: The Pet Plant

Meet Mabel, the newest addition to the Dirty Radish family. My mom had a roomful of these things when I was growing up. Some people collect them.

Houseplants, especially African violets, are like pets. I mean, you feed them, water them, watch them grow, name maybe that last one is just me! :)

Some say African violets are hard to grow. Some say they are fussy. I say they are the perfect plant for anyone that forgets to water plants. If there's one thing African violets hate with every leaf of their being it's too much water. But I'm getting ahead of myself. To learn more about these lovely plants, I did a little research. This is what I found:

Are African Violets from Africa?
Yes! East Africa. Think Kenya & Tanzania.

So, If They're from Africa, How Can They Survive Inside My Home?
Sure, when you think of Kenya you think of hot, sunny weather. But that's not the part of Kenya & Tanzania African violets grow! They grow in the forests, especially in the East Usambara Mountains. Forest + mountain = cooler, shadier habitat than the stereotypical Kenya.

What Do African Violets Need to Survive?
For light, they need part sun. Completely in shade or very low light they will likely survive, but they won't flower. For water, they don't like being wet. So, to go along with the pet analogy, African violets are kittens. These are NOT the type of plants you need to constantly water; let them dry out. Ignore them for a bit. When the top soil seems dry and the leaves are a little wilted, your African violet is thirsty.

How Do I Water It Without Killing It?
Drowning is the most common cause of death for African violets. There are 2 ways to water them: carefully from the top or gently from the bottom. I say "carefully" from the top because you don't want to get the leaves or crown of the plant wet or it may rot.

If you want to water from the bottom, fill your kitchen sink with a few inches of water. Place your African violet pot in the sink & let sit for 30 minutes. Remove & let drain on a saucer. Discard any water that drains into the saucer.

Personally? I am a careful top water-er. But whatever method you choose, don't use ice cold water. If you wouldn't want to take a bath in it, neither would your cat-like African violet. Room temperature, warm or tepid water is much better.

What About Soil? Stuff From the Backyard OK?
No, not really. Especially in Virginia where backyard = clay soil. You need a well draining soil because, remember, they HATE being wet. Like a cat. Most nurseries sell African violet potting soil but I've used "regular" potting soil and it turned out OK. that it?
Almost. Your African violet needs food. Those potting mixes don't contain a lot of nutrients and you don't want to starve the poor thing! There are numerous African violet fertilizers on the market. Use as directed or do a half- or quarter-dose each time you water. But don't OD your African violet on fertilizer. Too much of a good thing is bad (ever had a hangover from those fruity tasting martinis? Then you know what I mean).

And, one last thing, if your home has ridiculously dry air (probably only happens during the winter), you may need up up the humidity around your African violet. You can either place little saucers around the plant (as the water evaporates, it will create humidity) *or* get a rimmed tray larger than the saucer your African violet sits on, put some stones or gravel on it, place your African violet (which is on top of a saucer) on the rocks, and water the rocks. Essentially, you've made a rock sandwich: rocks between a tray & your African violet. This second method is like the first, it just takes up less counter space.

And, that's all you need to know about keeping an African violet alive! Someday I'll trying cloning little Mabel. And it's not as hard, or creepy, as it sounds...

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

All About Tomatoes!

Ahhhh....tomatoes. The taste of summer. And homegrown tomatoes or those from the farmer's market TASTE like tomatoes. They SMELL like tomatoes. Those from the grocery store rarely do. Thus, I am a strong proponent of everyone who values all that is juicy, red and delicious in this world devote a corner of their balcony, yard or deck to the honorable tomato! Honestly, it's the thing I look forward to the most out of the garden.

Now, there are 2 basic types of tomatoes: determinate and indeterminate. The determinate varieties are busy & compact. They set fruit within a 2 week period and then start their decline. Here is a selection of determinate seeds. Indeterminate tomatoes are probably what you think of when you envision a tomato plant. This type grows tall and must be supported by a stake, tomato cage or tepee of twigs. Here is a selection of indeterminate seeds.

Growing Requirements
What do tomatoes need to thrive and grow? A good amount of sun, for one thing. Like 6-8 hours of direct light (aka full sun). However, if you're in a hot climate like Florida, you'll need to have partial shade in summer afternoons otherwise your darling tomatoes will get scorched dead. You also need a neutral soil pH (5.5 to 6.8). Most counties, state agriculture departments or universities with a school of agriculture will do soil testing for free or cheap. Otherwise, you can buy a kit online or at your local garden center. For Virginia, here is info on how to submit soil samples. Merrifield Garden Centers and Meadowlark Botanical Gardens definitely have the packet of forms you need.

Plant tomatoes one week after your last expected frost. If you live in a cooler climate you can speed up the warming of the soil by covering the planting site with plastic bags weeks ahead of plant date. If you're starting from seed, sow indoors 6-8 weeks before the last frost date. The packaging of your seeds should say exactly how many days your variety will mature. Rodale (my garden bible) recommends planting 2-4 plants per person.

Hints & Tips
  1. I learned last year tomatoes need a consistent level of moisture. If they go from dry to soaked often they will have poor calcium intake and develop blossom-end rot (a brown mushy part at the bottom of the tomato). To prevent this, mulch & make sure plants are constantly watered and soil has sufficient calcium levels. Adding egg shells will help up calcium content.
  2. Tomatoes in pots require almost daily watering. This is related to #1, but worth calling out on its own. And, if you're wanting to grow your tomatoes in containers, you can use a 5 gallon bucket with a hole drilled in the bottom for drainage or a really big pot.
  3. Birds like red. Or maybe it was a squirrel. But a few lovely, bright red tomatoes had a bite taken out of them/hole poked in. I ended up covering my tomato cages with netting and harvesting fruit just before it was fully vine ripen. I just placed it on my kitchen window (which gets part shade) and it finished ripening in a few days. Less than ideal but you gotta do what you gotta do!
  4. Plant tomatoes deep. If you're buying a tomato plant, strip off bottom leaves and plant it so that it's only ultimately like 4 in. tall. Where the leaves were roots will grow giving you a sturdier plant. You can do this by digging a trench if you're planting in a yard.
  5. Make fried green tomatoes at the end of the season. Here in Arlington it can get cold before the tomatoes are still green. When life gives you green tomatoes, fry them up! I'll share my recipe with y'all when the time comes.

Monday, February 9, 2009

The 2009 Game Plan

Last year we had just moved into our house in late April so it was too late to start from seed. That and, um, I had to unpack. Being new to the house, I decided to grow everything (basil, rosemary, oregano, 2 types of tomatoes and 2 types of hot peppers) in containers so that I could move them around until I found the best spot. This turned out to be genius because my first guess was really wrong.

What I learned from my 2008 container garden:
  • Know your location. Whether it's a yard or deck, know the sun coverage. You can change just about everything else: the soil fertility, the soil pH, the annual precipitation. You cannot, however, change the sun.
  • Know your USDA Zone. It will let you know what will grow in your area and when, generally, the first and last frost dates are.
  • Container gardens outside require more water than you'd expect.
  • You should really use potting soil/medium and compost from the garden center (I am a big fan of Merrifield Garden Center 'round these parts. I can spend HOURS there) instead of digging up CLAY from your backyard.
  • Slugs are the devil. (A story for another time)
  • You got to constantly harvest basil for it to really grow into a bush. I would wait until there was "enough" to take a good handful for pasta. Bad idea. But proper basil harvesting is for another post...

After not killing my plants last year I gained enough (over) confidence to expand the garden and grow 99% of it from seed. Am I crazy? Naw, just a little over eager and excited to experiment. And easily seduced by the seed catalog. I figure, the seeds are rather cheap so if something doesn't quite work out, no big deal. There's always next year!

Here's what will (hopefully) be going in my garden around Mother's Day 2009 (when Arlington, VA is outta the frost danger zone):

Why did I choose these plants? Some I chose out of love. Like the Cherokee Purple Heirloom Tomato. I love those ugly little buggers. Some I chose out of usefulness. Like the cayenne peppers that we can dry for future homemade chili powder. And some I chose because they just sounded wicked cool. Like bergamot.

When's this all going to go down (in the ground)? It's easiest to work your way backwards from the planting date. The plants will be transplanted outdoors mid-May. Then, you need to allow for a week of hardening off. And, since most of my seed packets say they take 55ish days to germinate, Sunday March 7th is the day I'll do the deed. All and all, I figure I should start the seeds approx. 2 months before transplanting.

If you haven't yet thought about what you are going to plant next year, now is the time to do that and order seeds if you're going to go that route. Your local nursery or big box garden center will also have seeds. However, I prefer the better variety online and the relative ease Google'ing for the seeds you want versus wandering around the unorganized displays of seeds for 30 minutes.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

What I'm Reading

The promise of spring has started; today was 67*F and sunny, ie unseasonably warm and lovely. This means that I'm starting to dream about planting gorgeous heirloom tomatoes, picking tulips, and enjoying longer, warmer days.

But, since most of that is, um, 2-4 months away, I'm just left with reading about all the hard work ahead and all the potential rewards!

I am a novice gardener. When I was 3 I apparently had my own cherry tomato plant that I tended. Last year we (Mr. Radish & I) moved into our first house & I was able to produce a few tomatoes & herbs. Other than that and managing to keep shade-loving, drought resistant houseplants alive, I have no other significant tending-the-earth experience. I do, however, have a desire to know where my food comes from and how, exactly, it's grown. So this is where I start my journey. And, since I'm a bit Type-A and bookish, this starts with reading, namely:

You Grow Girl : The book has good, basic information and fun/fabulous craft projects. I'm especially loving the chalkboard clay pots. Brilliant!

Rodale's Garden Answers: Vegetables, Fruits, and Herbs : A novice gardener's must-have book! It includes everything from germination to seasonal care to harvesting to common pests (and how to deal with those). Basically, everything you need to know. In one book.

Virginia Gardener's Companion : To get background information on gardening in my area.