Puttering In The Potager -Week 17,

(Week 17 is  April 26th to May 2nd)

It is time to boogie! On April 19th my peas, beets, spinach, radish, and lettuce seeds have germinated and have all shown themselves in the garden. Better than that, my soil temperature has reached 61° which means I can now plant more of what we call the cool loving plants in the cabbage family as well as one of my favorites – Swiss chard.

While I will still be planting succession seeds for radish, beets, carrots, spinach every three weeks or so most of my plants for the spring season will be purchased as seedlings at the garden center. So in the next week I will be planting cabbage, kohlrabi, Swiss chard, and some herbs.

Hardening Off Seedlings

So now I have two jobs. I need to harden off the seedlings I have purchased by keeping them outside during the day but bringing them inside at night if there is a threat of frost. This exposes them to wind and to fluctuating temperatures before they are stuck into the soil.

At the same time I am setting up a number of walls of water in which I plan to house some of my new seedlings; but not all of them. I have four cabbage seedlings. I will plant only two in walls of water. That way I will have two heads of cabbage maturing two or three weeks before the unprotected heads of cabbage mature. Pretty sneaky, huh?

Tips When Buying Seedlings

If you buy transplants from the garden center, choose seedlings with perky, rich green foliage and thick, sturdy stems.  Avoid plants like tomatoes that already have flowers, as they are likely to be suffering stress.  Make sure there are no woody patches on the main stem that may indicate that seedlings were over-watered or over-fertilized in the greenhouse.

Planting Vegetable Seedlings

Planting a vegetable seedling same as for annual flower

Seedlings should be at least four weeks old and have two to four leaves and a stem half as thick as a pencil.  Plant them about two to three weeks before the expected last frost date for your area. You can plant those same seedlings p to three weeks past th last frost. Mix slow-acting granular fertilizer into the soil when you prepare the planting area. Dig holes in the planting bed about 12 inches apart, depending on the crop.

While these seedlings can handle cool weather, it is best to protect them from a surprise late frost.  Be prepared to cover the tender plants temporarily with white polyspun garden fleece or newspaper cloches.  Better yet as I am doing, plant some of them in Walls O Water to be absolutely protected from unexpected frosts; especially hard frosts.

Soaking Seeds

When I start seeds for succession planting, — veggies such as beets, carrots, spinach, lettuce, and radishes — with Nancy’s close instruction and supervision I soak the seeds I intend to plant ahead of time. As you can see in the photo we wrap up the seeds in a folded paper towel that has been soaked in warm, strong tea. The seeds in the photo have been soaking for only two days and as you can see the radish seeds have already sprouted. Today they go in the ground. Three weeks from now I will do the same thing.

Nature Report for Week 17

The feisty little house wrens return; put a wren house near your garden and thousands of pest insects will disappear during the  season.  Baltimore orioles return; they love oranges.

Nancy’s Tomato Chronicles -Week 16 of 2010

The number of tomatoes produced on a single tomato plant in a season is tough to predict. The numbers vary according variety and good or bad weather can have a big impact. Indeterminate plants continue producing tomatoes throughout the season while determinates set their fruit within a few weeks and which  ripens within about a 4 to 5 week period. Therefore indeterminate plants tend to produce more tomatoes than determinites.

You get a variation as a function of which variety you have planted and you get all kinds of changes as a function of the weather. At the same time we can make a general guess so we can reasonably plan on how many plants we want to go into our garden this year.

A determinate tomato, you remember, is the one that grows to only three or 4 feet tall and it produces its entire crop over a period of four or five weeks. You can estimate that you’re going to get something between 20 and 40 tomatoes over the season from one of these plants.

A on the other hand the indeterminate tomatoes are the ones that can grow up to seven or 8 feet tall and will produce continually from mid July to the first frost. These plants, if everything goes well, can produce 80 to 100 fruits during the season; that’s a lot of tomato salads.

So while it is imprecise to estimate exact numbers, if you plan two or three plants per adult and one plant for each child you will likely have sufficient fresh tomatoes for the entire season. That number goes off the wall if you intend to process canned tomatoes or make tomato sauce that is also put up.

So far I have been talking about people who would be considered to be fairly sane. There are among us however, including myself, tomato gardeners who have no control whatsoever. There are only two of us in this household and last year we had more than 20 tomato plants; some would think that is a little crazy and it probably is.

Here is my rationale. I know that there are certain varieties of tomato that are going to grow extremely well in my area. And on the other hand there are varieties which do very well on the East Coast or on the West Coast but not so well here in the Midwest. So I figure the only way to discover those best varieties is to plant each year 5 to 10 varieties that I have never grown before.

Obviously we have lots of tomatoes to share with friends and neighbors and the food kitchens. You will have to figure out for yourself whether you want to be sane or crazy.

Jeff’s Secrets For A Perfect Lawn – Week 16 of 2010

(Week 16 comes between April 19th and 25th)

Look At The Grass Itself

Check the Color of Grass Blades

A healthy lawn should have a nice uniform green color. It is more important that the color be uniform, than show a deep, dark shade of green in order to indicate health.

The deep green color that has become the standard and is promoted by advertising photographs is typical only of Kentucky bluegrass recently fertilized with a quick acting nitrogen fertilizer. Then, grass plants are briefly bursting with top growth and are as green as they can get. For this reason this rich color is actually an artificial standard. It is unrealistic to expect grass to look this way all of the time. Grass that is properly cared for and living in healthy soil rather than being hyped with fast acting fertilizer is more typically a medium green color.

The color of grass also varies somewhat according to its variety, the weather over the year, and the condition of the soil. For example, while grass tends to be slightly yellow green in the spring when it newly emerges from dormancy, at other times, the same bright, pale green color indicates that it is receiving excessive amounts of nitrogen fertilizer. A lawn suffering from poor soil may have a splotchy look with deep green spots and light green spots. Over time, previous owners may have spot seeded with different varieties of grass, giving the lawn a mottled look. A healthy lawn has a uniform color of medium green over its entire surface. That is what you are looking for.

Notice the Density of Grass Plants

A healthy turf may have as many as 800 plants in a single square foot of soil. When they are that dense, it is almost impossible to see the soil when you get down on your hands and knees and spread the grass plants apart. If you see soil between the plants in your lawn, then you can assume that something is wrong, because healthy grass normally fills in spaces over time. So, thin grass suggests that either your soil is in poor shape, or your grass is tired and needs replacing. Overseeding with new grass may be all that is necessary.

Check Depth of Grass Roots

The roots of your grass plants will tell you a whole lot about the condition of the soil, especially whether it is compacted. Believe it or not, one single grass plant is capable of generating 375 miles of roots with as many as 14 million individual root strands, having a total surface area of 2,500 square feet. That’s just one (healthy) grass plant! Isn’t that amazing? Since a square foot of vigorous turf typically has up to 850 of those plants, grass roots are extensive and pervasive in the soil.

The point here is that it takes that many roots to provide a grass plant with sufficient nutrients every day. Only in healthy, active, well drained soil can grass plants develop such extensive root systems. Grass that is cut too closely and/or grown in compacted soil is not able to do this. It struggles to survive with only a small portion of its potential root volume which severely reduces its capacity to get nutrients from the soil. So, the depth of the roots of your grass will indicate how badly your soil is compacted.

The best way to check grass roots is to dig a sample core from the turf. Choose a time when the soil is moist. Using a trowel or sharp knife, dig down as far as the tool allows (preferably 4 to 6 inches) and extract a chunk of sod–turf, roots, and some dirt. Examine how deeply the roots penetrate the soil. If they go down less than 4 inches into the soil, chances are it is because the soil is too compacted. Jeff was shocked to discover that our grass roots were only two inches deep. He later learned that, unfortunately, that is typical of most lawns.

Count Your Weeds

One of the inevitable results of having a thin turf is lots of weeds. Weed seeds need light and space to grow. Thin grass, and grass that is mowed short allow sunlight to penetrate to the soil surface and germinate weed seeds that lie in wait for these ideal conditions. Therefore, when you eyeball your lawn and see lots of weeds, it is time to repair the grass. The percentage of weeds present in the lawn actually determines how much work is necessary.

Jeff decided a few years ago that he could live with some weeds in the lawn. It seemed a reasonable trade-off for the savings in time, energy, money and environmental impact that a more low maintenance lawn–one that tolerates some imperfection– provides. Having made peace with that decision, he discovered that when we achieved an otherwise healthy, dense turf, as many as 10-15% weeds evenly distributed throughout the grass, were barely noticeable. The cost of trying to attain a perfect lawn, one that is virtually weed free, does not seem to us to be worth it.

However, when the percentage of weeds in a lawn sneaks over %, it is time to re-evaluate. Depending on the type of weed, this larger proportion of weeds is likely to become obvious, even to the casual observer. It may be time to take some remedial measures. There are a couple of strategies.

If the weeds in your lawn are noticeable, but do not comprise more than half the green turf area, solve the problem by killing just the weeds with an appropriate herbicide and overseeding the lawn with new grass seed to fill in the spaces and thicken the turf to discourage new weeds. If weeds comprise more than half of the green turf area, we have found its worth it to kill the entire turf and install an entirely new lawn. Measuring the percentage of weeds does not have to be precise. Just look at a small section of your lawn and guess. You are the final judge. If you think it looks okay, then that is all that matters. If it doesn’t look okay, then you know you need to address the problem.

Nancy’s Tomato Chronicles — week 16 of 2010

Four weeks ago I planted seeds indoors for the varieties July 4th and Legend and now they are large enough to be transplanted from the seed starting tray to individual foam cups. I will leave these seedlings in the cups until they are ready to be placed outside into the garden in Walls O Water in about three weeks. In the meantime I put the seedlings out on our front porch whenever it is warm enough so that the seedlings will be for really hardened off when they go into the ground.

As you can see I am also using some fleece to protect the ceilings during the day if it gets chilly and windy. Yesterday it got cold enough to force me to put my ceilings back down cellar under the fluorescent lights. It may seem like a lot of trouble but I am confident I will have fresh tomatoes by the Fourth of July.

It sure doesn’t hurt even though the temperatures are still cool to have the bright faces of the spring daffodils popping up around the yard.

Tool Of The Week – Week 16

We love this hand tool!!! The Radius Weeder features a patented specially curved ergonomic grip that provides more leverage with less wrist stress.
When held properly the wrist is in what’s called a “wrist neutral position”, unlike the wrist position on a straight handled tool. After testing it in our miserable clay soil, we’ve both concluded that this is a unique tool that really means business.

The aluminum blade has a sharp tip and serrated edges for easy weeding and is surprisingly light yet remarkably strong!
Great for popping out deeply-rooted weeds like Canadian thistle. We do not sell tools; just review them.  For a retailer near you go to www.radiusgarden.com.

Puttering In The Potager – Week 16 of 2010

(Week 16 comes between April 19th and 25th)

Radishes First Up In 2010!

Very few vegetable gardeners make effective use of vertical growing techniques, with the possible exception of the ubiquitous tomato. Vertical gardening is not really a secret, but the barrier is the reality of rigging a trellis, a tepee or some kind of poles that do not fall over when the plants are mature and the windy day happens.

Why Grow Vertically?

Produce More Food In Same Space — The most important reason for using vertical space in the vegetable garden is to save horizontal space – space that can be used for growing additional vegetables without having to make the garden any bigger. Most folks don’t realize that bush beans weren’t developed because they taste better but simply because commercial farmers couldn’t find a machine to harvest pole beans. Pole beans taste as good, freeze as well, and produce longer than do bush beans. The disadvantage of growing pole beans is finding an easy way to set up some kind of device on which they can grow. Pole beans will produce twice as much as bush beans in the same space.

Tomatoes, as everyone knows, if left to sprawl will take up to 10 times as much space as those that are trained to grow vertically. The same is true for winter squash, melons, and cucumbers. Growing these crops vertically makes them eligible for even a modest vegetable patch.

Veggies Grown Vertically Are Healthier

Vegetables that are grown off the ground are cleaner and avoid problems like soil rot and many crawling insects such as slugs and sow bugs. The leaves of vertical plants have more area exposed to the sun, and the improved air circulation around a vertical crop reduces the changes of disdease. Vertical crops tend to dry off faster after a rain, and this further reduces disease problems.

What Will Grow Vertical?

Depending on the design of your trellis system, you can grow the following vegetables vertically:

Garden or Snap Peas, 
Pole Lima, Snap or Roma Beans,
Some Melons, Acorn squash, and 
Butternut squash

If you click on any of the vegetables in the above list, you will go to the section in Yardener.com discussing the details for growing that vegetable vertically.

Soil Temperature Report

The soil temperature this morning was 59 degrees, almost ready for cool weather brassicas like cabbage.

What’s Happening In Nature In Zone Five

The Forsythia is in bloom which means this is a good time to prune your roses. The leaves on the sugar maple tree should be coming out in the next week or two. For those of us lucky to live near a swamp the Jack in the Pulpit will be in bloom. The hostas should be about 1 inch tall and therefore it is time to start attacking the slugs. The real ladybugs are returning from Mexico and California (aphids beware). You’ll see the honeybees starting to forage and again in the swamp we will hear the frogs peeping their heads off. This is the time to put the hummingbird feeder outside.

Jeff’s Perfect Lawn Care Secrets- Week 16 of 2010

We yardeners have some planning to do for the coming lawn care season.  We need to evaluate our lawn to determine whether we might need to add some grass seed sometime in late May.

Few mature lawns in the this country have turf that is as dense as brand new sod, but that should be the goal.  Dense means when you spread the grass blades apart with your hands, you cannot see the soil.  There are at least three reasons to take steps to make your turf as dense as it can be.

Thick turf mowed tall (over 2 inches) seldom has any weeds including crabgrass.  Every square foot of lawn will have anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 weed seeds in the top two inches of soil and all they need to germinate is light. When the grass is thin and mowed short, the most common situation in American lawns, weed seeds will germinate in large numbers, especially crabgrass.  Thick dense turf grass has few weeds.

Turf that is dense and mowed tall will become habitat for the three most important groups of beneficial insects in the home landscape – ants, spiders, and ground beetles.  If the grass is thin and cut short, there are few good guys in residence because they are vulnerable to their own predators.  If the good guys are in camp, because they are protected by thick grass, they will consume 80% of all the eggs laid each year by the three most common insect pests in the lawn – Japanese beetles, chinch bugs, and billbugs.  Thick dense turf grass has few pest insects.

Finally, a lawn with dense turf will always look better than a lawn that is thin, especially right after it has been mowed.  Thick dense turf grass has lots of admirers.

The only way to make a lawn as dense as sod, is to plant more grass seed.  That process is called “overseeding” and should be a routine every four or five years.  However, overseeding is hardly ever performed on home lawns.  That is strange because golf course managers and athletic field managers will overseed every year to keep their turf dense.  For some reason, the importance of that technique never filtered down to us yardeners.

Overseeding can be done in the spring, around Memorial Day, or in the fall, around Labor Day.  While I’ll discuss overseeding in more detail in a few weeks, the basic steps are to mow the grass as low as your mower will go.  Then rake up all the debris.  Next spread grass seed and then water it twice a day for two weeks.  The lawn can be mowed when the grass reaches three inches in height. Now mow tall.

If you have two acres of lawn, you are not likely going to be overseeding that entire area all at once.  I suggest folks with large lawns spread the task over a few years.  In the spring overseed the front of the house.  In the fall overseed one side and next spring overseed the other side.  When you get time you can then deal with the back yard.  It may seem like a lot of work, but the benefits are worth the effort.  Once a lawn has become dense, the overseeding job four years from now is much easier.

There are two issues to deal with before the overseeding process.  If your lawn has more than 20% weeds, you will need to take care of them first; about two weeks before the overseeding job.  If your lawn is uneven with bumps and dips, you can even things up by filling in the low spots with top soil.

The solution to a bumpy lawn is not to roll it with a lawn roller.  Lawn rollers do more damage to the structure of the soil under a lawn than any other tool I know.  Yet, every spring I see gardeners and yardeners alike out there rolling out their lawns before the soil dries out thinking they are doing a good thing.  In fact, rolling a lawn when the soil is wet causes such serious compaction that even aerating cannot fix.  Get rid of your lawn roller.

This was a great winter for bird watching. The snow cover brought the birds out in droves and the white curtain made them stand out for easy viewing.

The more I watched the birds over the winter the more I wondered what they do when they weren’t eating at our feeders.


I want to encourage birds into my garden because they are not only pretty to look at and delightful to listen to, they eat lots of bad bugs. Even the seedeaters collect bugs in spring to feed to their young.  So having them around can put a serious dent in the pest population.

If you’ve ever listened to a bird singing atop a tree and wondered what he or she was chirping about The Singing Life of Birds (Houghton, Mifflin $28.00) is the book for you.

For centuries man has questioned why birds sing and what they are saying and in this book, author, scientist and renowned ornithologist Donald Crossman takes his readers on a listening adventure to help us understand the living dramas going on in our backyards. He puts his reader inside the mind of singing birds, exploring not only how and why they sing, but also how we can better understand them through their songs.


Some birds sing in dialects while other have a single song. Some sing during the day, but others chirp only at night. And, why is birdsong sung mostly by the males of the specie?

Kroodsma, professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts shares the answers to these and other burning questions from information garnered over more than three decades of recording and analyzing the songs of bird in this intriguing instructional book.

Included is a high quality CD featuring birdsongs taped at both normal speeds and slowed to 1/2 and 1/4 speeds allowing listeners to pick up discreet sounds that help with interpretation.

House Wren

Are you a baffled bird watcher, always struggling to put names to the feathered friends that inhabit the neighborhood and hang out at the cottage? Having trouble telling the difference between a purple finch and a house finch or a wren from a sparrow?   Not to worry. Identify Yourself: The 50 Most Common Bird Identification Challenges  (Houghton Mifflin $19.95) by Bill Thomas III and the editors of Bird Watchers Digest (800) 879-2473, www.birdwatchersdigest.com, may just change your life and turn you into a bird watching whiz.

Offering tips, techniques and tricks that make bird identification both easy and fun, this informative book chronicles the subtle differences one must look for when looking at a hard to distinguish bird. Its garnered rave reviews from professionals and hobbyists alike.

The Best Gift for Gardening Moms

Mother’s Day is coming soon but if the special lady on your gift list is a gardener, there’s no need to panic. Gardeners are a snap to shop for especially at this time of year. Gift certificates may be considered impersonal for some but to a gardener, a pre-paid shopping spree at a garden center at planting time is “the best.”

If mom is an avid plant collector or loves to shop for yard art and pottery, consider a chauffeured mystery trip to some top-notch garden centers Mom has never shopped.

Nancy’s Tomato Chronicles – Week 15 of 2010

Sungold Cherry Tomatoes are a must-grow in my garden. They are the eat-them-with-abandon-and-without-guilt candy of the garden. They have been a favorite in my house for almost 20 years.  These coveted Sun Gold tomatoes were an amazing breakthrough by a Japanese breeder in the early 1990s. Just about that time I started growing Sungolds from seed sold by Thompson and Morgan. My late husband Hank would take a bag of Sungolds to work almost every day to serve as snacks for him and his colleagues. We grew them beside a fence that separated our house from the next-door neighbor. The plants grew so tall that our neighbor enjoyed as many Sungolds as we did.

There still isn’t a variety that comes close to its flavor, beauty and long-lasting production. This exquisite gem ripens from green to dark gold, but isn’t fully mature until it becomes pale apricot-orange. Watch carefully for the subtle color change, then savor the intensified taste: uniquely rich and sugary, with a hint of tropical fruitiness. Round 1” tomatoes attached to draping, symmetrical limb-like trusses, are borne on indeterminate vines growing to about 3’. A bit slow at first, it yields reliably non-stop until the first frost. And it has good disease tolerance (resistant to verticilium and fusarium wilts, tobacco mosaic virus and nematodes). It is everything you could ever ask from a little cherry tomato.

Sungold Tomatoes are started easily from seed six to eight weeks prior to the last frost date in your area. Start them in sterile seed starting soil mixture with a bit of bottom heat to aid germination. Keep them in a warm, brightly lit, well-ventilated area.  (Tomato seedlings need bright, strong light~regular windowsills are not bright enough and the plants will get leggy and flop over as they stretch for the light.) Fertilize lightly and increase the pot size as needed. After your last frost date, harden off the seedlings by gradually placing them outside for incrementally longer periods of time over the course of a week to ten days. Prepare fertile tomato beds in full sunlight with lots of compost and/or well-rotted manure. Transplant the seedlings into the prepared bed, burying them one leaf deeper than initially grown. Feed them occasionally as needed and keep them well-watered by soaking the soil and not the leaves~this helps to keep disease off of their leaf surfaces.


Secrets of Jeff Ball’s Perfect Lawn – Week 15 of 2010

The arrival of spring is supposed to be a happy event, freeing us from cabin fever.  Unfortunately, when the snow melted this year, spring brought bad news to many  homeowners.  Parts of their lawn looked like some alien used a laser beam to leave a squiggly maze-like message on their lawns.  Unfortunately it was earthly creatures — voles — that had their way with many of our yards.

Voles look a lot like mice.  While mice have pointy noses and long tails, voles have blunt noses and short tails.  Voles experience a major population explosion every four or five years, This phenomenon is rarely noticed unless it coincides with a winter like we had this year, with extended snow cover in many parts of Michigan.

The vole damage manifests itself several ways. Sometimes it looks like wavy paths of dead grass about 2 inches wide.  More often, the paths become little ditches of bare soil about ½ inch deep. The devastation can cover 500 square feet or more.

And there’s more bad news. When the snow melted, the voles didn’t go away.  They’re still on the property, living under mulch, in weedy areas, or somewhere undercover hiding from their predators —  cats, hawks, and owls.

Voles are vegetarians and they can munch their way through a lot of additional plants after messing up lawns.  So if you did suffer vole damage on your lawn, keep an eye on your perennials this spring, especially  hostas.  If they don’t come back, they were probably lunch for some voles.  Tulips planted last fall that don’t show up this spring were probably snacks.  Voles also love to dig down and eat the tender roots of newly planted trees, shrubs, and flowers, so keep an eye on new transplants. The good news is voles don’t eat daffodils

Getting rid of voles is the next step to saving what’s left of your lawn and garden if you’ve been victimized.

Some folks rig barriers around trees and shrubs using hardware cloth, but that approach requires a fair amount of time and trouble.  While there are repellents to get rid of voles, they haven’t worked very well for me.

I recommend trapping voles with those old fashioned wooden snap traps, just like the ones my grandmother used to catch mice behind the wood stove 60 years ago.  Voles won’t go near a trap set in the open.  It has to be covered with boards leaning on a stone or even better in upturned clay flower pots.  While peanut butter bait is often effective, apples are a special treat for voles.  The technique begins with putting a slice of apple under five or six upturned clay flower pots set at least 10 feet apart in areas where you suspect voles to be hanging out – garden beds, weed patches, or mulched areas adjacent to the damaged lawn areas. Set a brick or rock on top to keep the raccoons from interfering.  If in a day or two, you find an apple slice with little teeth marks, you then place a snap trap under the pot with apple for bait, but do not set the trap.  After providing the voles a buffet for two or three nights , you set the trap. That is when you begin a serious reduction of your vole population.  This  may seem like a lot of work but you are dealing with cagey critters.

Do this again in late September and October and you can reduce the chances of being faced with lawn damage next spring.

Meanwhile, don’t assume that those vole paths in the lawn will disappear naturally as the grass plants reproduce.  If you don’t do anything, you’re just inviting weeds to grow in the bare spots. The area damaged by voles needs to be overseeded.  Don’t do that job until the weather and the soil warms in May.