The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, March 19, 2010

Gardeners gear up for spring, share tips

With the temporary arrival of mild temperatures, a lively discussion on gardening techniques was held at the Conservation Coffee on March 9. It was fitting that the refreshments (banana bread, Irish soda bread, bagels, grapes, cheese and, of course, coffee) were farm hardy and generous. A panel that included new Foss Farm Assistant Managers Ed Humm and Carol Foster led the 15 or so audience members through topics such as seed selection, planting techniques, and canning.

New Foss Farm manager Jack O’Connor stands behind new assistant managers Carol Foster and Ed Humm. (Photo by Ellen Huber)

Humm started the discussion by suggesting a vegetable garden site should receive at least six hours of direct sunlight a day. He said someone once asked him what they could plant on a site that receives only two hours of sun. Although very few vegetables will do well in low sunlight, he noted that pumpkins may have a chance since they can thrive while grown between corn stalks. He encouraged gardeners to keep weeds down, noting that shallow-rooted vegetables such as onions do poorly if competing with weeds. He suggested gardeners test their soil. “We add lime” to the soil, he said, “because soil in New England is on the acid side.” He said he also adds magnesium because “it is good for tomatoes.”

Planting tomatoes

He displayed a book on tomato diseases. “If you read it you wonder why we can grow them at all,” he said. He noted that in general, heirloom tomatoes are more susceptible to diseases. He suggested when shopping for seeds it is helpful to bring a seed catalog to the store. “It helps to read the descriptions” while choosing seeds, he explained. He recommended the Fedco Seeds catalog, which supplies untreated vegetable, herb and flower seeds.

Humm buys small tomato plants in six packs at the beginning of May, and transplants them into one-quart containers. “The six-packs cost only $2 or $3,” he pointed out, saving around $20 per six plants, “so it pays off. It’s a better investment than the stock market.” Humm puts the transplanted plants in a cold frame, which is an unheated outdoor box with a clear lid. During warm days the lid can be lifted to allow ventilation, but the lid is closed in the evening. An audience member said he had used a gallon milk carton as a single plant cold frame. He cuts the bottom off the bottle, and uncaps the bottle to allow ventilation. Foster said she starts tomatoes from seed around April 1, and expects the plants to be ready to plant outside by the end of May.

The crowd expressed concern that last year’s tomato blight fungus (Phytophthora infestans) will return. It was pointed out that plants or fruits left on the ground would have frozen during the winter, killing the pathogens. However, the fungus can overwinter in potato tubers if they are buried deep enough to avoid a frost. Humm suggested mulching around tomato plants to keep soil-borne blights from spreading. The mulch acts as a shield, so when plants are watered the soil-based pathogens won’t splash onto the plants.

Foster suggested removing poorly performing plants as a way to keep the blight from spreading to healthy plants. “If in doubt, pull it out,” she said. “I always have something growing and ready to go” to replace a failed plant, she said.

Foster said she learned from Ed Humm that “there’s no need to rush to get tomatoes planted.” Humm said frost-sensitive plants such as tomatoes should wait until all danger of frost is past. “Never plant tomatoes before May 31,” he added.

Secrets to a green thumb

Sylvia Willard asked what the secret was for growing cucumbers at Foss Farm. Beverly Humm said, “Plant them late, at the end of July.” Her husband agreed. “They were doing quite well until the frost got them.” He said it was hard to plant cukes last year. The weather was cool and rainy for much of the summer. Lee Tatistcheff said she waits until the pine pollen is finished coating everything before planting cucumbers.

Marilyn Harte was thrilled to learn that her year-old chicken manure was ready to be used on the garden. Humm noted that feeding plants organic matter can keep them healthy.

When Beverly Humm cans tomatoes she said she adds lemon juice to the mixture. Tomatoes have changed over the years, she explained. “There’s not as much acidity” in the newer tomato varieties. Canning is a hot job, she added. “Usually when the tomatoes come in it’s 90° and I’m asking, “Why am I doing this?”

Foster said she learned that as soon as basil begins to flower, the leaves turn bitter. She recommends removing flowering basil, instead of pinching the flowers back. Tatistcheff said she freezes basil, thyme and rosemary. “They turn black, but they taste great.” She chops pieces off to use in cooking. She said herbs can be frozen in oil to keep the color, “but that can get expensive.” Ed Humm noted that when harvesting basil, the plant can be placed in water and it will continue to grow. ∆

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