Belle of Dirt

Missouri Ozarks mom, mover of earth, photographer, maker and plant enthusiast


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Baby it’s COLD outside  

BRRRR! I got spoiled with our mild October weather. Today really FEELS like winter is on its way. It feels like it for my garden too. Everything that wasn’t covered last night is wilted and frost-nipped today, but the REAL cold hasn’t even truly hit us… yet. It’s supposed to get down in the 20’s this weekend, followed by several nights of at or below freezing temps. The garden is taking a true dirt-nap, any annuals that have struggled along are now down for the count. 010
I have a few things around the yard that are perennial, but they need a bit of help surviving a Missouri winter. Mostly I buy plants that will be suitable for zone five or below, even though the Lake area is in a tiny hot spot of zone 6b. Sometimes though, even plants that are properly zoned can use a little extra help for a year or two until they get deep root systems established. Also, I don’t like digging up my elephant ears every fall, (it’s a pain to pot and store all of them) so I’m going to try caging them year and see if the bulb can survive in the ground till spring.

It doesn’t take too much work or cash to see a tender plant through the winter. I’ve caged a very small rose bush, two little crepe myrtles (a new type, supposed to be cold hearty to zone 4, but until they’re bigger, I’m 009not risking it!), my Japanese Maple that Tom and E bought me (it’s the graft site on this that concerns me) and the elephant ear. I save my cages from year to year and use them as compost towers in the garden during the spring/summer/fall. They made some great compost this year to toss on top of the garden mounds and served as an convenient place to toss organic waste while I worked in the garden.

These cages are nothing more than a bit of that plastic coated garden fence (3 to 4ft), formed into a cylinder and held in place with yard stakes. I use the leftovers I have lying around from where we fenced the yard years ago, but they do sell it in smallish rolls at the garden center if you don’t have any scrap handy. My cages are only about a foot or so across, so a 3 foot long section will make a single cage. For the elephant ear, I made a new one that was about 3 feet across. This took a section of fence about 5 feet long. I snipped off one end with wire snips, leaving the long horizontals, these can be used to wrap around the fence after you roll it into a cylinder- no extra wire needed.


I carefully place the towers over the plants I want to protect. The bigger the plant, the bigger your cage is going to have to be. I used cardboard this year to line the cages before stuffing them with leaves. Last year I lost almost 50% of my leaves to breakdown and wind before spring. By the time it started warming up; the tips of my plants were showing through the top. The crepe myrtle and rose are no more than a foot tall. The graft on the maple is about 2 feet up and the elephant ear, I’m really only protecting what’s in the ground. I use about 3 garden stakes per tower, kind of weaving them through the fence a couple times before shoving them in the ground. You want to do this BEFORE the ground freezes!

Towers in place, I raked the sidewalk. This filled about a tower and a half, so I had to mow the back yard and use that to finish off the rest. Mowing has the added benefit of chopping up the leaves and adding other coarse yard material. Leaves are excellent insulators. Just ask any kid that has climbed into a giant pile of leaves, raked up in the fall. They are nice and warm under all those little layers of air. The cardboard adds another layer. I stuff the towers from the bottom up, packing them firmly, but not ramming the leaves down so hard that it snaps branches or crushes the plant. You want to protect it from freezing, not ram it into the earth.

Mowing the yard to get leaves gave the added benefit of my not having to rake massive piles and then figure out what to do with them after. Burning leaves sets off my asthma in a big way, so I hate having to burn those huge piles every fall. I spent all of 20 minutes raking this year and we have a BIG yard. The only intensive raking necessary with the mulching mower is to get the leaves away from the fence so they can be chopped up. (Mulching mower isn’t some highly specialized machine BTW- it’s simply a push mower with a grass bag attached)
I did rake the yard lightly after mowing, to get up any remaining leaf bits, thatch (common with Zoysia grasses) and little rocks that have surfaced. 20 minutes of raking and my yard looks like this.
After I’d filled up my leaf towers, I used the rest to put mulch rings around our trees.

If I remember this summer, I’ll try to re-post here about whether or not the leaf tower worked for the elephant ears. They are zoned for 8-10, but I’ve had them survive winters in the past by keeping them right up next to the foundation of our house. This one is on the foundation, but it’s on the North side not the South- which means it doesn’t benefit from the warmth of the sun- EVER. One more note on the towers… I can imagine some people find these cardboard and leaf towers standing in the yard to be an eyesore. Wrap them in burlap or black weed barrier fabric if you like. It will add an extra layer of protection and hide the ugly. I put Christmas lights on mine last year. 🙂

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My daughter put in Frozen for us to watch today, built a tiny 3 inch snowman from last night’s flurries in our yard and made snow cones out of collected snow and Gatorade. The radio is playing Christmas songs, every other commercial on TV is about holiday shopping. I have to concede that my growing season is over and the chill is here.

Stay warm folks.

B


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A Shady Problem

FrontWalk2003When we moved to this property over 15 years ago, the previous owner had lost it to repossession. I guess he decided he wasn’t letting the bank have anything that wasn’t in the original deal, so he tore the back porch down that he’d built, ripped the gutters off the house, etc. The yard was pretty much a blank slate of clay and rock, barren of even weeds in most places.

The front walkway has evolved over the years with the yard, but I’ve never really found quite the right solution for it. The first couple years, we just threw down straw to keep from tracking mud in the house. Then I let the weeds grow and just trimmed them short so that you could tell where you were supposed to walk of you came in the front door. I had built a concrete walk for the back, which we used and the front walk remained ugly and ignored for years. My first attempt at building a raised bed from rocks was under this window. I planted it full of elephant ears, which was really pretty, but then they got so big after a bit that they were hanging over the walk. Then we had an especially cold winter and the elephant ears were no more.

I finally got around to leveling at some point and building a  walkway. At first, the sides were only filled with gravel I’d robbed from the driveway. I sprayed the weeds that popped through with Roundup once a season. I was mostly content with that for a couple of years, but every time it rained or snowed, rocks from the edges of the walkway wound up scattered all over the place. I finally got sick of raking them back into place and put landscaping bricks around the edges to separate the walkway from the surrounding area. I took the gravel out when the brick went in, thinking I would plant some sort of perennial garden in the two strips along the walk and it would look fabulous in a couple year’s time.

FernWalk 005So I bought dirt, mulch and about $60 worth of seeds, planted everything and then it started to rain. And rain. And rain. And… it rained for a freaking month straight. Most of my dirt packed down and stayed in the beds, but nothing else did. The seeds washed away or drowned. The mulch wound up in the driveway and eventually down in the woods. I was left with barren dirt beds that the house was now digging a trench in each time it rained, because we’ve never put gutters back on the house.

I didn’t want to fill it back in with gravel, but that flower bed has been a real pain in the ass before, even when there was no real sidewalk. I’m limited as to what will grow in this strip along the house. Until 10 am, it gets no sun. Then from 11am-12 noon it’s full sun. Around 1pm, it’s back in full shade until the next morning. Right around the corner of the house, FULL SUN. Elephant ears was one of the few plants that tolerated those conditions well. Hostas did ok… sometimes they would get sun scorched though during those couple hours around noon.

This past summer we spent a lot of time down in our woods, riding the four-wheeler, looking for rocks for the fire-FernWalk 002pit, planning a camp-site. I already knew there were thousands upon thousands of ferns in our woods, I’d just overlooked them as a usable resource. I made trips to the woods with buckets, brought up a few ferns and stuck them around the back edges of the sidewalk with some flowering clover. They have been very happy there all summer and are filling in nicely. I decided today that I’d do the same with this ugly, washed out, shady problem spot. Except instead of just ferns and mulch, I also added larger river rocks to stop the rush of water off the house from flooding this bed and sending everything down the walk into the driveway when it rains.

FernWalk 004There are two different kinds of ferns in our woods- a tall, delicate kind that grows on thin stalks (I think this is a Bracken Fern?) and a broader leaf kind that sends up curly fronds that flatten out as they mature (Christmas Fern). I’ve seen both reach a foot in height and spread. It took 4 buckets full to give me enough plants for this bed, probably about 25-30 ferns in all. If I’d had to pay for these, this would have been a MUCH more expensive project.

Same with the rock, I made 4-5 trips to the dry creek beds in our woods for rock. Not that I don’t have rock near the house, I have plenty. But the ones in the creek bed have that riverbed, old, worn, fossil look that I wanted with the ferns. I mostly took ferns in the path that were in danger of being run over by the ATV anyway. As you can see from the picture, I left PLENTY of them in the woods. I also brought back some rotted tree and leaf compost.

I dug holes in the bed and planted the ferns, mixing up the two kinds. Mostly I kept the broad leaf ones near the back. This is the part of the flower bed that takes the most abuse from falling water and since the other kind were more delicate, I placed them in front near the sidewalk.FernWalk 006

I had some cardboard boxes saved that I hadn’t burned and used this between the planted ferns as a weed barrier. Cardboard is one of the best free weed barriers you can put in your garden/flower beds. It breaks down over time, but doesn’t shred like that black plastic yuck you get from the garden centers. Worms love it and it holds moisture at the root level of your plants.

Placing the river rocks was sort of like a jigsaw puzzle. I just fitted them in where they looked best to me. Again, I kept the bigger rocks right under the roof-line, since they’ll be taking the worst beating from falling roof water.

FernWalk 008

I saved the compost and what little mulch was left in the bed to toss on top of everything. It falls down between the rocks and hides the cardboard where it might show through between rocks and plants.

Anytime I’m building a new bed like this and especially with transplants, I give it a REALLY good drink right after planting and water it well for several days after. This helps get air pockets out of the soil that can dry out plant roots, helps the soil settle back in so it doesn’t get washed out by heavy rain and encourages the plants to establish to their new space quickly. FernWalk 009

 

Once they’re settled, these ferns will need next to no maintenance (The ones I planted in spring are doing wonderful without any intervention on my part all summer). When I dug them up from the woods today, they were growing out of rocky, dry soil that didn’t look like it had much nutrient value. Most of the websites I’ve visited for fern care recommend well drained, humus rich (humus is compost- hence the rotted tree I brought back with them) soil. I dump chopped up dead leaves on mine whenever I get a FernWalk 011chance. I figured that was the closest mulch to what they are adapted to in nature.

 

Now that I’ve finally established a working plant bed for the shady side of the sidewalk, I’ll have to come up with a plan to fill in the other side. Phlox would be the lazy fix. Maybe I’ll do some research…

 

-B


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Brown Lawn in Summer? You CAN keep it GREEN! Ask me how!!!

We moved to our current home in March of 2001. My husband looked at the yard and saw a barren mess; dusty in summer, brown in fall, mud-pit any time in rained. It has taken me over a decade to coax the natural beauty out of this place and turn our yard into a spot to relax and play, rather than just a space we have to walk through in order to get to the cars from our house.
Our soil is about 90% clay, 10% rock and anything growing in it when we got here was weeds or crabgrass. This picture was taken sometime around 2003, when I had already put two years of constant work into the yard. I begged plants from anyone and everyone I could get them from. I tilled and tilled and tilled some more, picked up rocks, tried to fertilize, spent a fortune on grass seed. Used a mulching mower… all those things I’d heard were supposed to give you a nice yard.backyardbefore

My greatest frustration was the lawn. I couldn’t get grass to grow, no matter what I tried. I bought bag after bag of seed, all promising a beautiful, lush green lawn and guaranteed to grow. I covered the yard in straw. I covered it in mulch. I covered it in chopped up leaves. I dumped compost on it several years in a row. I even bought bags of potting soil and poured those on the yard in desperation, determined that I would have grass SOMEHOW.
It didn’t happen. Everything I tried worked for a while- I would have beautiful, promising patches of green- only to watch them die the next year, or get choked out by the masses of crabgrass as soon as it emerged in late spring. I finally just let the crabgrass take over and mowed it. At least it was green… until late summer anyway.

It wasn’t until around the time I had my daughter (she’s 5 now) that I finally sat down, did the research and figured out how to get real grass in our lawn. I didn’t want my little one playing in a yard full of rocks and crabgrass, I envisioned her tiny feet walking barefoot in a thick green carpet green- so full and deep that she could tumble over and it would cushion her falls. Children playing in our yard previously had been hurt on the tiny little rocks that seemed to appear year after year from just under the surface of the soil (ahem-dust). I’d rake them off; a new crop would replace them the next year. There was also the matter of our yard dropping off into a steep ravine; a dangerous 10 to 20 foot spill into larger rocks and blackberry briars. My husband and I fenced the yard. We did it with garden fence and T-posts, since a wood or chain link fence wasn’t in the budget. Then I tackled the crabgrass.

I had learned from years of trial and error that you don’t till clay soil to plant in it. It just turns it up- it dries out, loses all its nutrients and becomes little hard balls of concrete and dust. I had planted irises around the edges of the yard to help keep all my soil amendments from washing down the hill, but it was still in pretty sad shape. I’d learned the grass seed wasn’t going to ever give us the lawn we wanted. I found my salvation in an online nursery that sold Zoysia grass plugs by the 100-count.

Infomercial-style claims aside, this stuff actually works wonders folks. I took the pictures below today. It’s the 1st day of August; Missouri is once again under a moderate to severe drought and 99% of the lawns on my street look like the one on the left. They are dried out, crunchy and turning to dust. In the August heat, seeded grasses like annual rye grass or Kentucky blue go dormant. These cool-season grasses can’t hack it when the heat and dry is on; they take a nap and go brown. You get pretty, green grass in the spring months and early summer with these. I’ve seen sodded yards do the same.
Grasses like Zoysia and Bermuda grass are grown from plugs, not seed. We actually burned our drill out using it to put in all those tiny little holes for our plugs when I first put in the lawn, but I’d go buy a new drill again, it was worth it. We spent about two days, putting in 200+ plugs. It was a pain in the butt and I had serious doubts that the effort would pay off. Everything I’d tried up to that point had ended in crabgrass. The Zoysia didn’t disappoint. The first year it spread enough to cover the entire planted area sparsely. It didn’t quite give me the thick, toddler fall-breaking carpet I’d hoped for when our daughter was two- but it’s there now. The picture on the right, I took of our yard today. I’ve mowed it a total of 3-4 times since the beginning of the summer season and I’ve watered it ONCE. No kidding. Once.
This stuff can tolerate heat and drought like nobody’s business.CheesyGrassAd
I did do my best to shade this yard so my daughter doesn’t have to be coated in sunscreen every time she steps outside. It gets full sun in the morning hours, but is in shade most of the afternoon and especially during the hottest part of the day- from 2 till 5pm. Zoysia spreads like mad, but it doesn’t grow very high and get stalks like regular grasses, so I have to mow about half as much as my neighbors do.

I do apply a pre-emergent crabgrass killer/fertilizer in the spring and I de-thatch in the fall and spring while I’m raking the leaves out of the yard. I pull the occasional dandelion or weed, but the grass chokes most of those out and they seldom get a foothold. Sometimes the dog leaves yellow spots if she pees too much in one place. In spring I’ve watered these areas down a bit more, so the burned spots can recover. (Female dogs are harder on lawns that males- since they tend to put all their pee in one spot, rather than spreading a little here and there.)
For maintenance, that’s IT. I don’t dump a bunch of chemical fertilizer on it half the year. I don’t spray for weeds or bugs. I don’t mow very often, in fact I have to trim the area outside the fence much more often than I do the yard. I wish my flower beds and the sidewalks were HALF as easy to maintain. The best part about these warm season grasses though, is still having a green gorgeous lawn in August when everywhere around us is dead and brown. During the severe drought a couple years ago, I watered the yard 3 times. My trees and flowers I had to water daily.
BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE… If you’re sick of looking at brown grass, order your Zoysia plugs NOW in time to plant for fall and you too can have that gorgeous, green lawn that will be the envy of your neighbors in the hottest days of summer! 😉
And now for the fine print, or that stuff they say really really fast at the end that nobody really pays attention to.

 

Individual results may vary; local laws and restrictions may apply. The photo should have said Cue, not Que. I was too lazy to change it. This product is meant for educational purposes only. Any resemblance to real persons living or dead is purely coincidental. Void where prohibited. Some assembly required.  Batteries not included. Contents may settle during shipment. No other warranty expressed or implied. Do not use while operating a motor vehicle or heavy equipment.Apply only to affected area. May be too intense for some viewers. All models over 18 years of age. If condition persists, consult your physician. No user-serviceable parts inside. Freshest if eaten before date on carton. Subject to change without notice. Times approximate. Please remain seated until the ride has come to a complete stop. Breaking seal constitutes acceptance of agreement. For off-road use only. As seen on TV. One size fits all.  Contains a substantial amount of non-tobacco ingredients. Colors may fade. Slippery when wet. Not affiliated with the American Red Cross. Post office will not deliver without postage. List was current at time of printing.  Not responsible for direct, indirect, incidental or consequential damages resulting from any defect, error or failure to perform. At participating locations only. Not the Beetles. Substantial penalty for early withdrawal. Do not write below this line. Avoid contact with skin. Slightly higher west of the Mississippi. Beware of dog. Use only in a well-ventilated area. Keep away from fire or flames. Some equipment shown is optional. Reproduction strictly recommended. No solicitors. No anchovies unless otherwise specified.  Objects in mirror may be closer than they appear. Do not fold, tear or mutilate.Package sold by weight, not volume. Your mileage may vary. Keep hands and feet to yourself at all times. Do not breathe fumes (it will fry your brain). Some settling may occur (especially as you get older). Watch for falling debris. The water may not be safe to drink or have dog drool in it. Enter at your own risk. No lifeguard on duty. Most users observed slight side effects. There is no medical facility on board. You may experience drowsiness. Not guaranteed to work all the time. Watch for broken glass. Errors must be reported within 72 hrs.  All linens are not laundered after each guest. Watch your step.
This supersedes all previous notices applicable.This disclaimer may not be copied without the expressed written consent of whoever it was stolen from. Thank you for your time.


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Garden Planting Time! (Or Ghetto Greenhouse Part III)

ready to plantOk, HERE is the planting article I started to write before I got distracted by the raised planting bed subject.
Only our peppers and tomato plants were started in the house and transplanted as seedlings, everything else I sowed directly into the garden as seed. The seed planting was fun with the kiddo, but I learned the hard way not to let her handle delicate new vegetable plants, even ones that have been well hardened off. She broke several before I found her an alternate job to do. I left the broken ones in their original plastic bottle containers. Maybe they’ll grow new leaves, maybe they won’t. As you can see from the pictures, I didn’t have any shortage of tomato plants, so I wasn’t too upset about the loss of a few.

These were the plants that I started from seed back in February or March. In the past couple weeks, when it FINALLY stopped snowing here and the night temperatures were above 50F, I began the process of hardening off the plants. Pepper plants shouldn’t be transplanted to the ground until the earth has warmed to at least 50F; to do so earlier could kill them or hinder their growth until warmer weather comes. Tomato plants are a bit more forgiving, but you have to cover or shelter them if there is any danger of frost.
EggshellsHardening seedlings off basically entails getting those house-protected seedlings acclimated to being outdoors in a less controlled environment. The absolute best time to put them out is a cloudy day with a slight breeze. The breeze helps the stems to stiffen up so they can support the plant’s top growth and the cloud cover helps keeps the sun from scorching them. They’ll love all that sun later, but when they first come out from inside, they are a bit sun-shy. If you don’t have cloud cover, just sit them in at least partial shade. I put mine out for a week before transplanting them to the garden, starting off with only a couple hours and working up to 6-8 hours a day. The day I planted was also partly cloudy, which was helpful to avoid a lot of stress during transplant.
I don’t use my plastic containers more than one season. I’m not absolutely sure whether or not those water or Gatorade bottles are BPA-free and since I’ve read that the chemicals can leach into soil or be absorbed by plants when the plastics begin to break down, I just cut them off the roots and toss them when I plant. Cutting them off also means I don’t have to disturb all those tiny little roots any more than absolutely necessary.

I dug the holes, making them deep enough to plant each seedling at least as deep as it had been in its container- deeper for all the tomatoes, since they will grow new roots along the buried stems. Soil additives are the perfect task for little helpers; I had a bowl full of crushed eggshells and another of used coffee grounds to add to each hole. I instructed my daughter to get a big handful of eggshells and put it in the bottom of each hole. Coffee is a good green soil additive and gives the plant a nitrogen boost; we followed the eggshells with a handful of coffee grounds.PlantTomato
I’ve planted my tomatoes with crushed eggshells since my first attempt at growing tomatoes resulted in about 25% of them getting blossom rot. Blossom rot is fairly common in tomato plants and can often be prevented with good watering practices and adding calcium to the soil. Since eggshells release their calcium slowly, I add some to the hole when planting and top-dress more around the plants throughout the season. You can also save water from boiling eggs, cool it and use it to water the plants. They are also a great slug and snail deterrent; they don’t like to drag their soft little bodies over all those sharp edges. I don’t add extra fertilizers or plant food to seedlings, since I already grow them in soil amended with Miracle Grow Garden Soil and home-made compost.
After my daughter broke several plants trying to separate them from each other, I put her on additive and seed planting duty so I could pull the delicate plants out of their containers- I told her this was a Mommy job since it required sharp scissors 😉 – once the plant was in place, I helped her scoop some dirt back into the hole and pat it down very gently (don’t break the stems) to hold them in place. If you have trellis or stakes to add, you’ll want to do it NOW while your plants are small, even though it may seem unnecessary until they actually need the support. Add it later; you may damage the roots when you jam the spikes or stakes into the ground or snap off the vines trying to weave them through your supports. I have a sort of permanent trellis attached to our house of thin, bendable wire. I originally planned these to support climbing roses, so they are quite strong and support cucumber and tomato plants well. I found I preferred them to cages, since they keep the plants spread out, the fruits are easier to get to, there are less areas for bugs to hide and plenty of air circulation to prevent fungus or mildew. Whatever you use, make sure it’s going to be strong enough to support fully mature plants with fruits on them. I was surprised at first how HEAVY they can actually get!

GardenPlantsSince I was planting full size plants and not direct-sowing seeds, I went ahead and added mulch around the plants. Mulch really helps new seedlings retain moisture since they don’t have deep, established roots yet. The chunky pine mulch also helped some of my floppy plants stand up a bit straighter until their stems strengthen enough to support themselves. I skipped the mulch over the areas where we put just seed, to make sure the new seedlings are able to get enough light and heat to germinate. Once the plants are up and established, I’ll weed around them and add mulch then.

At the height of summer, it easily reaches the 100 degree mark here; I usually have to water at least every third or fourth day if there’s no rain to supplement. Too frequent watering won’t encourage your plants to develop deep roots and they will dry out quickly and have little support for bushy top growth. Soak them really well when you do water. Aside from this, there are really no hard and fast rules on watering; check your soil and watch your plants, a little common sense will tell you whether they are dry and need a drink or not. Morning and evenings have worked best from my experience; mid-day burns off quickly and seems to shock the plants that get doused with cold water when they’re really hot. I’ve read lots of advice about not getting the leaves wet because it causes fungal diseases, etc. This is fine advice if you can avoid it, but if you get the leaves wet, it’s not the end of the world. Rain doesn’t JUST water the roots of a plant when it falls.GardenPlanted
It helps to plant things like lettuce, broccoli and other plants that bolt in hot weather behind your trellised plants to provide them with some shade. Our garden area gets blasted with full sun from around noon-thirty until 4-ish in the afternoon, so the sun really beats down during that part of the day. I’ve noticed that my tomato plants will look a bit wilted during the really brutal summer days, but they always perk back up in the evening when it cools off a bit. I’ve read somewhere that this is a normal defense-mechanism of the plant and nothing to get excited about.
So I guess that’s finally it for the starting plants from seed subject; since I’ve seen them from package into the garden and it’s all maintenance from here. I’ll try to remember and post at least a few photos of our garden once it is well established and producing. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for no beetle horror stories this year in the meanwhile, but we’ll see. 😉


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Still busy remodeling…

So I thought I would at least post a few photos I took of the yard today. Stuff is blooming and the bees and butterflies are very busy. It’s been like summer here the past couple days too, upper 80’s. I’m ready to break out the pool and go swimming!
-BLilacButterfly

Phlox

YardBlooms


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Forsythia

Forsythia BushThe bright yellow cascades of bell-shaped flowers on my forsythia bush join daffodils, hibiscus and magnolias as one of the early bloomers of spring. I’ve watched people at Lowes buy these plants en masse, wondering to myself if they realize just how large they will grow if left untended.

Forsythia are such a common bush in this part of the Midwest that I’ve seen them growing wild and taking over the entire fronts of abandoned houses. This was one of the first plants I introduced to our barren yard when we bought our house in March of 2001. I worked with a nurse that had a massive bush in her yard and was willing to part with a few of the new sprouts, “Take all you want. PLEASE.” She told me. From three tiny new starts with some good roots, I was rewarded with three good sized bushes in only a few years. Ten years later, the bush receiving the most sun (and possibly the best soil) is now the size of a car. I have absolutely no idea which cultivar of forsythia my yard is sporting; there are about 12 different types, all originating from Asia.

Forsythia are very forgiving and easy to grow, even for the most novice gardener. They do require some pruning to maintain shape; some cut them into hedgerows of squares or rectangles to use as a privacy fence. I always thought this looked rather odd and very unnatural however, I prefer them a bit wild and rambling. Forsythia drop tiny winged seeds in fall, yet in the twelve years I’ve had my three, I’ve yet to see a rogue bush sprout in the woods from seed. They can propagate by cuttings of green wood after they flower; the easiest way to get some (other than potted from a nursery) is to simply dig up some of the side shoots of an adult plant with a bit of root. Forsythia can be encouraged to create rows and spread simply by anchoring limbs to touch earth; roots will sprout from the anchored branch and begin to grow another plant next to the original. They can also be trained to espalier on a wall or trellis. In planting beds, they will need constant pruning to keep the growth habit in check; otherwise they can easily overwhelm the bed in a couple of seasons, growing up to 9 foot wide and 15 foot tall on a single bush.Forsythia Flowers

Forsythia are great plants for borders and slopes, they aren’t particularly selective of soil type, are deer resistant and the branches make gorgeous vases of cut flowers. The tight buds can be brought inside in winter and put in a vase of warm water to force blooms. The recommended care requirements list a minimum of 6 hours full sun, zones 4-9, occasional application of fertilizer and moderate watering. I can vouch for them being fairly drought tolerant; they showed little stress compared to other plants last year during the worst drought I’ve seen since we’ve owned our property. Mine are also planted in rocks and clay, I’ve never personally bothered with fertilizer, just the occasional application of mulch in the fall.

I don’t use my plants for anything other than ornamental purposes, especially since I’m not sure of the particular species. The Chinese use the species Forsythia Suspensa as a fundamental plant in herbology. The fruit is boiled and the essence is extracted for use in treating skin infections and boils, intestinal worms and to control menses. The roots have been used to treat colds, fever and jaundice; essence of the leaves and twigs are said to be useful in treating breast cancer. Laboratory studies have confirmed forsythia to have anti-tumor, anti-bacterial and anti-inflammation properties.

Here in the Ozarks, our forsythia are simply the heralds of spring. I watch them in anticipation of warmer days ahead; as soon as I start to see the tight buds open up a bit, I know spring is just right around the corner. J


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TOmato, ToMAto

Tomato01I’m just going to start by saying there is a MEGA PSYCHO-CRAP TON of information out there on growing the perfect tomatoes. I ran into several forums where they were practically ready to kill each other in the debate of which form of calcium is the best soil additive for tomato plants. I’m not a scientist folks; I’m not a farmer, not even a master gardener. I’m a mom that gets tired of worrying about where my food has been, who it was picked and packaged by and whether any of them bothered to wash their hands in the process. I also get sick of paying ridiculous prices for stuff that should have been thrown in a hog trough instead of being put on my daughter’s plate. We’ve had tomatoes from the store that looked ok on the outside, only to slice them and discover moldy seeds inside (I did NOT feed these to my daughter, in case you were wondering) or that they were half green- some looked beautiful, but had absolutely zero flavor.
A friend told me that they saw a tomato fall off a truck on its way to the store and it actually bounced and remained completely intact, going down the highway at 60+ mph. You have to wonder, what in the world have they genetically engineered into those? If you’ve experienced any of the above or similar issues with your produce, you too might be considering growing a few of your own groceries. Tomatoes are one of the first veggies people usually start with.

Tomatoes are fairly easy to grow successfully, even for a novice. They’ll grow in containers, in the ground, even upside down in bags. You can start them from seed or plants. There are tons of different varieties and types so there’s a little something for every taste. To keep this halfway readable and hopefully curb some of my tendency to ramble, I’m going to write this post in individual tips.

Let the sun shine in!
All varieties of tomatoes will benefit from full sun; recommended is 10 hours of light in summer, minimum of 6 hours direct sun per day. Seedlings should be in direct sunlight for 8 hours or get 14-18 hours under grow lights. If your tomato seedlings don’t get enough light, they’ll be leggy. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean they’ll be top models, but it does mean that the stems will be weak and won’t support the weight at the top of the plant. The closer to the light seedling is, the stronger and bushier it will be.
Plants bought from a store generally are grown under ideal conditions: the stems are strong, the plants have plenty of leaves, root systems well developed and they’re already hardened off and ready to plant. Many first time gardeners may prefer to go with plants, they require less trial and error. Garden centers will tend to choose proven performers that grow well in your local climate and are disease resistant.

Roll over, I’m crowded…tomatoseedlings
Seedlings and young plants don’t like to be smushed together so that they can’t get air. Too little space between plants will create lazy, slow growing seedlings. As soon as they get a set of leaves, I move mine from egg cartons or a community flat into small individual containers. For tomato and pepper plants, I use 17 oz. plastic water bottles with the tops cut off. I’ve seen pins on Pinterest of people using cardboard toilet paper rolls. If you don’t feel like recycling or reusing a container, most garden centers sell individual pete pots that you can plant directly into the ground when the seedling is ready for transplant. Seedlings will benefit from being placed outside for a few hours on a warm, windy day or set in front of a fan. This helps the stems strengthen up and resist breakage when you kick them out of the house and they’re on their own.
If you plant seedlings in pete pots or cardboard containers- be certain that no portion of the container is above ground and exposed to air. If it is, the container will act like a wick, drying out the root ball and either stunting the plant’s growth or killing it outright.
When choosing seedlings in a nursery or garden center, don’t pick the most crowded, lush leaved plants you can find. These are the plants that will actually get slow starts when transplanted. Pull the plant out of the container slightly and look at the root system. A strong, well developed root system will do more for a new seedling that all that showy top growth.
If you grow your plants from seed, the new seedlings will need to be hardened off before transplanted to the garden. You don’t need to slap them around, just take them outside for a few hours each day. This is easiest to do if you have all your little containers on one big tray or trays- take your seedlings outside each day, gradually increasing their outdoors time. A slightly cloudy day with a bit of wind is the ideal first day; but the main point is, adjust them gradually. If they show signs of shock, like dropping leaves or wilting in too much sun, move them to the shade for a bit. Once they can tolerate some full sun, leave them out overnight, so long as the temperature is over 50-degrees F.

Make a bed they’ll be happy to lie in
All successful plants start with a good foundation. This is where I saw the greatest argument on forums and other sites related to successful tomato planting; they debate to the death whether soil should be tested, what additives to put in, etc., etc.
I suppose you could get all scientific about it- test your soil, adjust PH, start adding chemicals, fertilizers, lime, calcium and so forth. I’ve read detailed recipes of using starter solutions, mixing 8-8-8 fertilizers, phosphorus, lime, peat moss, apply this every two weeks, apply that at the start of the season…

If this is all sounding more like a science experiment than growing food, I’m with you, I thought so too. I had about 5 plants last summer; 3 cherry tomato, two roma- one of the cherries was even left in a pot because I was going to give it to someone and they decided they didn’t want it. I was too lazy to take it out and dig a hole, so I just sat it next to the house. I didn’t use fertilizer. I didn’t do a soil test; add lime, chemicals, or starter solutions. I used potting soil, some kitchen scraps and a compost bin. That’s it. If you have a neighbor with livestock or chickens, you’re golden. Go scoop some poop, mix it with some crushed leaves and work into the soil. Some of the absolute BEST store-bought tomatoes I’ve ever had were from our local Farris Fruit market. They sell these HUGE Mennonite tomatoes every year. I’ll bet you that the big secret behind the flavor and size of these beautiful, awesome tomatoes is probably nothing more complicated than… horse shit.Tomato02
I start my plants in Miracle grow potting soil. We have clay and rock for earth here naturally, so it has to have something added to it or you get one of two states: muck or concrete, depending on if it’s wet or dry. One of the absolute BEST garden tools I have is my compost bin. I dump yard clippings, chopped leaves, cardboard, kitchen vegetable scraps and livestock poo (when I can get it) in the compost bin. That is the ONLY fertilizer or additive I’ve put on my yard or garden for years. I don’t have to worry about keeping the animals or children off my lawn or washing everything to death before we eat it to avoid the chemicals, because there aren’t any. Use what you have. You can start a compost bin or pile in a relatively small space. You can even throw a little of the stuff directly in the garden and mulch over it, if you have it fenced and don’t have to worry about critters, it will break down naturally.
Tomato and pepper plants LOVE warm soil; a great way to prep your planting space ahead of time is to put down your scraps, leaves, etc., then cover the entire planting area with some cardboard and a layer of black landscaping fabric or plastic. Do it a few weeks before you intend to plant, or better still, do it in the fall and let it sit that way all winter. This also has the added benefit of baking the hell out of the weed and crabgrass seeds so you’re not hoeing or weeding right away.

Tuck them in and give them a blankie
So- your garden plot is ready, your seedlings are ready, now what? Dig a hole and plop them in? Eh- close. Just a couple things first…
Dig your planting holes deep enough to bury seedlings up to the first set of leaves. If you’re buying plants from the store; do the same, even if it means putting them deeper than they originally were in the pot. New roots will develop along the bare stem. I read some silly rhyme about more roots equals more fruits, but silly or not- it’s basically true. The stronger and deeper your root system is, the better the plant will produce. So give them lots of root space and bury them deep. Seedlings that are too wobbly can even be trenched: Dig a trench, pull off all but the uppermost leaves and bury the stem under 2-3 inches of soil. Don’t pack it too tightly around the upper portion to prevent breaking it off and be careful when driving your cages or stakes so you don’t puncture the plant. Don’t worry about them growing sideways, the plant will develop roots all along the stem and straighten up as it moves towards the light.
Even if you aren’t trenching your plants, they may benefit from removal of the bottom leaves once they are about 3 ft. tall. These are the leaves that get splatter from the soil when watered and are usually the first to show fungus issues.
Once your plants are all tucked in and the soil has warmed up (mulch will keep cold soil cold longer) cover them with mulch. Mulch is a young plant’s best friend. It prevents root burn, retains moisture, attracts worms to your soil bed (unfortunately armadillos too and I’ll be writing about this later) and helps hold all those carefully worked-in nutrients in place when you water or it rains. Leaf, straw and wood mulches also break down into the soil over time and add to your compost. Some claim that red mulch reflects red light wavelengths back up onto your tomato plants, which supposedly stimulates their growth. If you can’t find red, it’s ok; regardless of its color, mulch is beneficial to your plants.

If you want your plant to be a lush, give it a drink
Every plant needs some form of moisture to grow, even cacti and succulents. Tomatoes need a fair amount of supplemental water, unless you’re lucky enough to live in an area where it rains like clockwork. Last year, our little part of the world had not only record high temps, but a very long lasting and severe drought. We wound up at the end of the year with a 14 inch or so rain deficit.tomato04
I watered our entire garden almost every other day this past summer. The ideal is to water your plants deeply (6-8 inches deep) once a week or 2-3 times a week at the height of summer. Consistency is one of the keys in tomato watering.
I heard SO many complaints about blossom rot on tomato plants last year and one of the most common causes of blossom rot is poor watering practices. The other is calcium deficiency in the soil, which can also be caused by too much watering. Under-watering and then suddenly giving too much water can not only create conditions for blossom rot, it can split fruits as well- causing them to absorb too much water too fast.
Too frequent watering doesn’t allow the sugars to develop in the fruit; so you won’t get maximum flavor potential from your tomato. Consistency, consistency, consistency- if you can’t be bothered, or remember to water regularly and deeply- then you should attach your hose up to a $10 timer. If the plants are stressed from lack of water, especially if you see wilting at the leaves, they may drop their blossoms or their fruit. Caveat to this: I have read that if the plant wilts a bit in the middle of the day that this is normal because tomatoes will close their stomas in the hottest part of the day to prevent water loss by transpiration. If they look like this in the morning though, they need water.

I save my egg shells for a couple months prior to planting tomatoes and add the crushed up shells to my soil when I move my seedlings into the garden. This helps to slowly release calcium into the soil in the event that it is washed out by too much water. Egg shells are also good slug and snail repellent, they don’t like dragging their soft bodies over all those sharp little edges.  I didn’t have any issues with blossom rot until the very end of the season last year, when my egg shells finally began to be depleted. (I also got lax in my watering practices, which could also have been the culprit) If you’ve been watering consistently and are pretty sure calcium is the problem, I’ve heard that a little antacid (calcium carbonate) crushed up and side-dressed (added to the soil next to the plant’s roots, not directly to the roots) into the soil can be a great quick fix. Side-dressing prevents burning tender roots, especially when adding fertilizers. For long term calcium control, I swear by my eggshells- and if you’re already eating the eggs in them, re-using the shells costs you nothing.

Help them hold their heads high
I’ve seen lots of methods of staking tomato plants and even some growing methods like the Topsy Turvy that can ignore staking altogether. It’s just the nature of the plant, they grow heavy fruits on thin stems and the plant needs supplemental support to keep from sitting on the ground where the fruit and leaves will rot.Garden2012
You should stake or cage your plants right after you put them in the ground. Just about anything can be used; wooden stakes, poles, teepees or wire cages. I grew cherry tomato plants on my yard fence last year, letting them vine along the fence just like a morning glory would. Instead of cages and trellis or teepee supports; I’m growing my tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, roses and anything else that climbs right up the side of my house. Our siding is butt-ugly, so I put screws in the house in about a 1 ft. block pattern from ground to roof and strung pliable galvanized wire on the screws. Not all of you are going to want to put permanent trellises directly into your siding, I realize.
There are TONS of options for tomato cages out there, it simply comes down to personal preference and aesthetics, which method of support you decide to use. The only thing you really need to remember is that the cage should be strong and sturdy enough to support the weight of a fully grown tomato plant- you’ll be surprised how heavy these little suckers can get! Recommended is 5.5 – 6 ft in height of concrete reinforcing wire or pasture wire for cages.
For ties, any material that won’t cut in to the plant’s stems is ok- I’ve seen everything from panty hose to pipe cleaners.

Ow quit it! Pinching and Picking
Non-fruiting suckers that develop in a crook between two stems can be removed to encourage development of the rest of the plant, especially toward fruit growth- which is kind of the whole purpose for planting tomato plants in the first place. Let the big leaves alone. (I started to write: “Leave the big leaves alone, but that sounded redundant) Removing too many leaves can let the sun burn your fruit, but a little pruning off the top and removal of suckers is helpful.tomato3
Pick your produce often to encourage the plant to produce more flowers and fruit. Taste is also a factor, some cultivars can develop an odd texture if left on the vine too long.
Store your picked fruit in a cool, dry place- not the refrigerator, it will cause them to loose flavor and I’ve found some garden tomatoes just turn to instant mush in the fridge. Try different varieties to see what suits your palette best. Last year we grew romas and cherry tomatoes. This year, I’m trying an heirloom beefsteak variety and a grape. In the fall, right before first freeze, you can harvest even your green tomatoes and store them for later. They won’t have the flavor of vine-ripened, but mine were still better than store bought. I put the greens in a brown paper bag and removed the ripe ones every few days until we’d eaten them all.
If you store your stakes, cages or ties inside- they might benefit from a bleach water wash before using them again the next season.

I didn’t delve into a lot of the tomato pests and diseases here, since this is primarily meant to be a guide to grow them under the best conditions to prevent many of those issues in the first place. However, Wiki has a very comprehensive list of tomato plant diseases and problems here:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_tomato_diseases if you’d like a good guide.

Hope all this was helpful! I’d love to see comments about methods, your tips & tricks or growing success.
-B