Saturday, June 29, 2013

Keep on planting

Follow-on crops to those spring and quick maturing crops already harvested from the garden are the order of late June. Don't let recent above average temperatures in the mid to upper nineties F deter you. If you use hot weather seed germination techniques, summer direct seeding in the garden isn't hard.

Carrot seedlings germinated under
polyester floating row cover fabric.
I recently germinated notoriously slow-to-germinate carrots under germination fabric. This is the same material that many people call floating row cover fabric, simply used for a different purpose. It is readily available in garden centers and will last for many seasons.

Plant seed shallowly as normal, cover bed with cloth, bury edges with soil and/or use bent wire U pins punched through fabric to hold down the middle from winds. Water frequently but in small amounts right through the fabric. Remove fabric upon germination. My carrot seed germinated in 10 days.

If you are interested in more follow-on gardening techniques for late summer and fall growing, join me for my July 10 class at Denver Botanic Gardens (see class list at right).

Photo credit: Carrot seed and Carrot seedlings under row cover fabric - both Carl Wilson

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Weather Changes to Too Hot

In typical high altitude fashion the weather has gone from too cold nights to too hot days for vegetable crops along the Front Range of Colorado. A new record high of 99 degrees F was reached in Denver on June 10 and more temperatures in the nineties are expected to follow the rest of the week.

Lettuce now bolting
Tomatoes will stop growth at temperatures over 95 degrees F. These hot days have arrived just when we have plants established and want them to grow vegetatively to develop a good sized frame to set blossoms. Moderate temperatures between 65 and 85 degrees F are best for tomatoes and the last few weeks illustrate why the Front Range is less than ideal for growing them.

The cool season crops will quickly wane with hot weather. Spinach bolts and goes to seed at high temperatures especially under long days. High temperatures cause lettuce seedstalks to develop and quality to decline quickly as this photo taken a few days ago shows. 

'Indian Red Giant' mustard starting to bolt  -
 photo taken two days before post
Several of the oriental brassicas have a tendency to bolt under the following conditions. Low temperature in the early stage of growth is thought to be the single most important factor. If seedlings log enough heat units before the low temperatures, bolting is prevented. The long days of June are another risk factor. Stresses such as transplant shock, lack of or excess water, and temperature shocks increase bolting risks.

Once bolting begins, salvage leaves immediately before quality declines further. Choose bolt resistant varieties next time or use bolt-prone varieties as cut-and-come-again seedling crops to avoid the bolting issue.

Low humidity and drying winds of 10 to 30 mph this week will make conditions difficult for young vegetable plants and seed germination in progress. Frequent, light waterings and wind protection if available are in order.

Photo credit: Lettuce bolting and 'Indian Red Giant' mustard bolting - both Carl Wilson

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Tough Weather Week for Vegetables

This past week was a tough one in Front Range vegetable gardens from several standpoints. For establishing tomatoes, we had five nights of overnight low temperatures in the forties F with a sixth night predicted tonight. The official early morning low on June 1 was 42 degrees F. [Postscript - the sixth night June 2 low was 39 degrees F - brrrr!]. This long stretch of lows under fifty degrees F will stop growth of tomatoes and take more days for growth to resume once lows are again in the fifties the first week of June. Can you say lost days for your tomato growing season?

Tomato transplants held for June planting 
Of course if you have your plants in nighttime heating water walls this has not been a problem. The other option some people have taken is keeping their plants "on the shuttle", bringing potted transplants in at night and setting them outdoors by day. June 2 will be the day to plant for those who have waited as this will be the first nighttime low over fifty F. If you timed growing transplants not to become too large, you will have success with holding as plants have stayed in active growth mode.

Remember tomato transplants can be planted deeper than they were growing in the pots and will root out along the stem. This only works if you have a deep depth of decent soil or use the horizontal-planting-with-upturned-top method in shallower topsoil.

Chances are very high the last spring freeze will have passed at this point. Remember the average last freeze in Denver is May 5 with the latest freeze occurring June 8, 2007. For kicks I'll throw in that the latest date of the last measurable snow in Denver was June 12, 1947 (data from NOAA National Weather Service Denver/Boulder office).

The second reason this was a tough week for vegetables was several days of winds in the twenty to thirty mph range. This dried foliage of newly established transplants or germinated seedlings. Careful watering and setting up wind protection structures were in order.

Photo credit: Tomato transplants held for June planting - Carl Wilson

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Transplant timing decision & Hardening off

Hardening off tomato transplants near house wall
Betting on when the last spring frost date has past isn't your only gamble in transplanting warm weather tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, etc. These plants are also sensitive to cool night temperatures above freezing but lower than 50 degrees F.

This week with temperatures in the eighties and nights in the fifties F has made it appear that summer has arrived and we're in the clear for transplanting. A closer look at next week's forecast reveals several days of night temperatures expected to be in the mid forties F. Such fluctuations are typical in high elevation, semiarid climates like ours.

Cool nights slow growth  for warm weather plants and recovery takes days. This knocks time off your growing season and raises the question about waiting until night temperatures are consistently warm. I choose to keep plants actively growing by keeping plants indoors and plan to transplant later in the month. Of course if you transplant plants into water walls to raise night temperatures transplanting is a viable option.

Whenever you decide to transplant, do harden off plants by moving them outdoors on warm days and indoors at night. Place where protected and shaded to minimize winds and UV exposure until plants can toughen and develop self-protection against chlorophyll breakdown from UV rays. A location near a house wall under eaves or on a covered porch is fine. A week of hardening off to acclimate transplants to the outdoor environment is usually sufficient.

Photo credit: Hardening off tomato transplants - Carl Wilson

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Comparitive Phenology for this Season

Freeze damage on apple. Late flowering
or leafing fruit trees may avoid freeze
damage in most years.
Phenology is the study of periodic life cycle events in plants and animals including such things as date of emergence of plant leaves and flowers. It is influenced by seasonal variations in climate (chief among these temperature) as well as location factors such as elevation.  This year there has been much discussion among gardeners about how "late" the Front Range season is in terms of plant emergence. Is it really?

Phenology is applied to crops in terms of dates that flowers will bloom or crops reach maturity. This is often expressed as a minimum number of "growing degree days", a measure of how much warm weather you have at your site. It's obvious that in springtime this applies more to fruit trees flowering or leafing out than vegetables but it could apply later to vegetables in terms of length of growing season.

So what's the story this year? Are we having an unusually late flowering and leafing out of fruit trees (as well as shade trees and shrubs)?

Looking at Denver weather data and running the formulas, degree days accumulated by the first week of May show we are 1 day ahead of the 30 year normal. Compared to 2012, we are 32 days behind and compared to 2011 we are 20 days behind.

What this means is that we have gotten spoiled. We have been used to plants leafing and flowering 3 to 4 weeks ahead of average so that in an average year like 2013 we think the growing season is off to a late start. Enjoy a normal growing season for once.

Photo credit: Freeze damage on apple - Carl Wilson

Friday, May 3, 2013

New Classes Added!

Thanks to everyone I saw in my April Veggie Keys and Berries and Grapes classes at the Denver Botanic Gardens. The response was so great we couldn't accommodate everyone and DBG has asked me to repeat both classes in May.

As you can see in the class listing at the right, the added "Keys to Home Vegetable Gardening" class will be on May 18th and the "Berries and Grapes for the Front Range" class on May 21st. I hope many of you who couldn't get into the April classes have a chance to join me in May - simply click on the DBG link to register.

I am also teaching a new "Follow-On Vegetable Gardening" class July 10 to help you turn vacant, mid-summer garden spaces productive for fall and winter. Another new "Water-Wise Landscape Planning" class for these drought times has also been added for July 20. I look forward to meeting you in one of my classes.

Hope your transplants are growing well and were snug indoors this week during the 19 degree F record low we experienced in Denver overnight on May 1st. At those temperatures, it even strains the capabilities of water walls to protect early-planted, warm season vegetables. Water walls are generally fine down to the low twenties F. Will the weather soon turn warm? Chances are with us as we get close to our last average spring frost date, May 5. Can you believe the last freeze in 2012 was April 16? Of course in 2010 it was May 13.

Photo credit: Tomato seedlings - Carl Wilson

Monday, April 15, 2013

Asian Greens

If you haven't investigated the world of Asian greens, they will surprise with their versatility and tastiness. The striking appearance of many are a welcome addition to the garden. Cool season types such as those mentioned here can be planted now.

'Brisk Green' pak choi
Pak choi (a.k.a. pac choi, bok choy, Chinese celery cabbage, Chinese white cabbage) Brassica rapa var chinensis, is generally a cool season vegetable though improved heat tolerance has been bred into some. The green leaf stalk types like 'Shanghai' and particularly the F1 varieties 'Mei Qing' and 'Brisk Green' with more heat and bolt resistance are good candidates for us. They can be sown in place and the young greens cut in 20 days while thinned plants left to mature in 45 or 50 days depending on variety. Pak choi may be eaten raw, stir fried, grilled, steamed or added to soups.

Pak choi 'Brisk Green' bolting mid-June
Seed of pak choi is available from general seed companies such as Johnny's, Nichol's Garden Nursery and Territorial as well as specialty Asian vegetable seed suppliers like Kitazawa Seeds. Sow directly in the garden in April and again in early July for a fall crop. As with other cabbage family members, flea beetles and cabbage caterpillars can be troublesome. Try floating row cover fabric to screen them out.

'Indian Red Giant' mustard
Asian mustards, Brassica juncea, are fast growing cool season crops. A particular beauty is 'Indian Red Giant' mustard, 40 days to maturity or half that time for baby salad greens. This maroon leafed plant forms a welcome addition to lettuce or spinach mesclun mixes and can also be used as wilted greens and in soups and other cooked dishes. The peppery flavor and texture of the leaves are very different than American mustards. Originally thought to come from India, it is popular in many places in Asia. Seed can be obtained from local Broomfield based Botanical Interests.

Photo credit: All story photos credit Carl Wilson

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Bees to pollinate your Vegetables and Fruits

Digger bee coated with pollen - Whitney Cranshaw
Devoting valuable growing space to flowers to nurture bee pollinators may seem like a waste of time to vegetable and fruit growers. Perhaps it's time to rethink and plant some low-care perennial flowers for bees.

Pollinators have been in decline with increasing urbanization and the mysterious honey bee colony collapse disorder. We need bees to pollinate our food. Vegetable growers need to be concerned about pollinators for their vine crops: cucumbers, melons, squash and pumpkins. Fruit growers are even more dependent on pollinators for brambles, strawberries and tree fruits.

Sweat bee and honey bee - Whitney Cranshaw
Although you may automatically think of honey bees, don't sell bumble bees and solitary bees short when it comes to pollination. There are a whole variety of native solitary bees to consider.

Some of the better low water and low care perennials to consider growing for bees are:

  • Sunflower (Helianthus sp. but not pollen-free florist types or fancy doubles)
  • Catmint (Nepeta extend flowering by cutting back after first flowering for a second flush of bloom)
  • Beardtongue (Penstemon sp. including Rocky Mountain penstemon, P. strictus)
  • Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia)
  • Mint (Mentha sp.)
  • Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
  • Blue mist spirea (Caryopteris x clandonensis)
  • Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
  • Silverheels horehound (Marrubium rotundifolium)

Also consider succession of bloom over the growing season. Don't know when perennials bloom? Click to find a helpful publication from Utah State University Extension complete with flower bloom time chart that is highly applicable to us in Colorado:  Gardening for Native Bees in Utah and Beyond.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Transplant Seeding

The time is near to start seed if you're planning to grow transplants of tomato family plants. Count backwards from your desired date to plant out your transplants to determine a seeding date. Beginning gardeners often start plants too early and end up with overly large plants of declining quality that have outgrown their pots.

Tomatoes require 5 to 7 weeks to grow a transplant. Peppers and eggplants require slightly longer, perhaps 7 to 8 weeks. Remember to allow a week longer if growing on a windowsill or under low light conditions. In a greenhouse with good light and temperature control, a shorter growing time is needed. If planning to transplant out the last week of May in Denver, the first or second week of April is a good target date for seeding.

Other typical transplants, primarily vine crops, should be seeded later. Squash, cucumber and melons require only 2 or 3 weeks to produce the small-sized transplant needed. The root system on large vines does not transplant well on these crops.

Just a note if you haven't already acquired seed of tomatoes. Tomato Fest out of California is a good source of heirloom tomato seeds that is not well known in Colorado. This is my source for seed of 'Azoychka', a yellow tomato that is well adapted to our area as I've written in previous posts.

'Azoychka' (see photo)  produces 3 inch tomatoes with good acid to sugar balance and nice citrusy flavor notes for those who like yellow tomatoes. It is a 70 day indeterminate type that comes from Russia. This variety rated in the top ten heirlooms sold by Tomato Fest and deserves a try in your Front Range garden.

Photo credit: Planting seed to grow transplants and 'Azoychka' tomato, both Carl Wilson

Friday, March 22, 2013

Lettuce got variety

In the centuries since the early Egyptians and then Greeks and Romans first cultivated and selected lettuce, a wonderland of forms and colors have been developed. Now that Front Range soil temperatures have generally reached 40 degrees F consistently, it's time to seed lettuce and other hardy cool season vegetables.

The mesclun mix pictured above left shows some of the variety to be found in lettuce and many mixes are now on seed racks and in catalogs. Even so there is something to be said for growing a single variety both in the way it looks in the garden and in the salad bowl. Here are a few you may want to try. All photos are of lettuce growing successfully in Denver.

'Lollo Rossa' is an Italian heritage lettuce noted for it's frilly leaves. This looseleaf lettuce is ready in as little as 30 days. Pictured is 'Dark Lolla Rossa' which is a garden showstopper when paired with a light green oakleaf lettuce. Oakleaf is another 30 to 40 day type that has been cultivated in America since the 1800's. Both red and green oakleaf varieties can be found.

Another heirloom lettuce cultivated by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello as early as 1809 is 'Tennis Ball'. It's a butterhead type that requires 50 days to maturity.

The Mennonites brought 'Speckles' lettuce to America from Germany and Holland 200 years ago. Another butterhead type, this one matures in  50 days.

If you want to try a head lettuce, 'Pablo' is a Batavian loosehead lettuce with tender leaves that grows in 68 days. It's open pollinated and you can save seeds if so inclined.

Although lettuce is a hardy annual, seed or transplant soon so it can complete growth before hot weather. Hot temperatures cause it to flower ruining the quality of the leaves.

Photo credit: Mesclun mix, 'Dark Lollo Rossa' and oakleaf lettuce, 'Tennis Ball' lettuce, 'Speckles' lettuce, 'Pablo' lettuce, all credit Carl Wilson.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Raspberry pruning time

It's time to finish pruning last year's raspberry canes before new growth begins. The fall types that bear in August on first year canes are pruned to the ground every year in late winter.

Based on information from Cornell University, the best time to prune is from December through early March. Before December, the plant is still moving energy from plant leaves to the crown and pruning canes removes valuable carbohydrates. After early March, carbohydrates have already moved from the crown to buds that may be removed in pruning.

Prune canes as close to the ground as possible so that buds break from below the soil surface. If you leave a stub, buds break on the stub and resulting canes are poorly anchored and subject to breaking in winds. In the photo right, two canes near the head of the pruning shears have been correctly pruned at ground level. The four inch stub at the right of the photo should be pruned again closer to the ground.

Gather all pruned canes, rake fallen leaves and remove all plant materials from the site. This eliminates overwintering aphids and other insect and disease organisms.

While the single crop produced by the fall bearing type raspberries is smaller than traditional summer bearing types that bear fruit over two years, management is much easier. Rather than pruning the two year canes of summer types after bearing in late summer from among new, one year canes, all canes of fall types are easily pruned to the ground in late winter. Eliminating detailed pruning is only one advantage of fall types. Also eliminated are cane thinning, support and tying, cold injury of buds on overwintering canes, overwintering insects and damage from rabbits or voles. For all these reasons the fall bearing type raspberries are recommended.

For more information on growing raspberries and other small fruit, attend one of my classes (see schedule right column).

Photo credit: Pruned raspberry canes, Closeup of pruned canes, Disposal of raspberry prunings - All credit Carl Wilson

Friday, January 11, 2013

Tomato taste information for seed ordering

With all those seed catalogs arriving, lots of tomato varieties look tempting. Which ones taste the best?

A taste test last season in Boulder, Colorado identified some favorite tomatoes. Among 40 salad tomatoes including low-rated 'Celebrity' and 'Stupice', 'Siberian' came out on top with 'Carmello' and 'Cosmonaut Volkov' close behind. Those were followed by 'Jetsetter', 'Green Zebra', 'Early Girl' and 'Valencia' that formed a respectable second tier.

For beefsteak types, the winners out of 23 compared were far and away 'Pineapple' and 'Amana Orange'. Those receiving respectable but far fewer votes were 'Paul Robeson', 'Cherokee Purple', 'Black Krim', 'Black Sea Man', 'Brandywine' and then 'Black from Tula'.

Thirty-one cherry types were taste tested with the winners 'Sungold' followed by 'Yellow Globe', 'Isis' and 'Green Doctors Frosted'. The second tier included 'Matt's Wild Cherry', 'Chiapas', 'Yellow Pear' and 'Green Doctors'. Respectable ratings were given to 'Wow', 'Sweet 100', 'Sunsugar' and 'Black Cherry'.

Eight paste tomatoes were in the test with 'Plum Zebra' winning by far. And yes, standards 'San Marzano' and 'Roma' were in the test but rated very low.

This test will tell you something about how a group of people rated the taste of tomatoes grown locally. It says nothing about how productive, how early, or how disease or crack resistant these varieties are to name a few things you might be looking for. Keep in mind your own production needs when choosing seed to plant.

Photo Credit: Tomato fruit in bowls - Carl Wilson