Tidewater Gardening - May 2009

Vegging Out


K. Mac Teffeau

   The most popular gardening trend right now is the increased interest in vegetable gardening by the general public. After a flat sales level for the last couple of years, early retail garden center numbers indicate a jump in vegetable seed sales and more vegetable transplants being purchased. Even the White House is getting into the act. Who would have thought that we would see the First Lady digging in a vegetable garden on the White House grounds? Maybe, as this movement continues, we will see organic lawn mowers (sheep) on the White House grounds.
    The most obvious issue driving the increased interest in home vegetable gardening is the economic impact of the recession. People want and need to reduce their grocery costs.
    There are other issues, however, that I think will support this trend for the long term. One is the recent outbreaks of illness from a contaminated food supply. Bacteria on fresh produce like lettuce, peppers, contaminated peanut butter and now pistachios are a concern to consumers.
    Also, I don’t think the average consumer understands the drought situation in California and how it is having a major, long-term structural impact on that state’s ability to grow fresh produce.
    A related consumer movement is the ‘Slow Food’ emphasis of locally produced food. A take off on this trend is the ‘Slow Gardening’ movement. In addition, the requirement for labeling of country of origin of fruits and vegetables I think will produce a wake-up call to the consumer on how much of our food supply is off-shored. And, given the farm labor issues in the U.S., I am afraid that this “off-shoring” will continue.
    So, what’s a body to do? Well, join the trend and grow your own. There is no reason you can’t have a small vegetable patch or container garden somewhere to produce the fresh tomatoes, lettuce and cucumbers for your salad.
    If you are vegetable gardening, May is the most active month. The soil is warming up and the last frost date has passed, so we can get to some of our spring plantings. Make your first sowing of green beans, cucumbers, squash, sweet corn and a second seeding of lettuce. Transplants of tomatoes, eggplants and peppers can be placed in the garden.
    To prevent cutworm damage on the transplants, cut the tops and bottoms from small-sized coffee cans. Place the cans over the transplants in the early evening. Next morning, remove them so the plant can get full sun. Repeat this practice for about a week until the plants become established. A telltale sign that you have cutworms in the garden is pencil-diameter holes in the ground. The cutworms come out at night and clip the transplants off at ground level.
    Other early spring insect pests active now include aphids, cabbage worms, cucumber beetles and Colorado potato beetles. Aphids seem to appear overnight and suck the sap from the leaves and tender new growth, but usually cause little permanent damage.
    A number of parasites and predators, notably the ladybird beetle, help keep this insect pest in check. A forceful spray from the garden hose will also help to keep aphids under control. For serious infestations, try using an insecticidal soap.
    Keep an eye out for cabbage worms in the cabbage and broccoli you planted in April. They can ruin the heads if not kept under control. How many times have you gone out to the vegetable garden, picked a couple of nice heads of broccoli, brought them inside and steamed them for dinner and then found a couple of blanched cabbage worms in the dinner plate? Don’t worry, the cabbage worms are a source of protein, but most of us prefer being served protein in the form of a steak. Use a biological control called B.t. or Dipel to control these worms.
    Striped and spotted cucumber beetles are voracious feeders on many vegetables including squash, corn, cucumbers, melons and beans. They also transmit the bacterial wilt disease that causes the plants to rapidly wilt and die. These must be controlled early with floating row covers. Protection in the early stages of growth is important, however, when the plants start to flower, especially squash and cucumbers, you will need to remove the row covers to allow bees access to pollinate the flowers.
    Try using a homemade spray made from horseradish roots and leaves, garlic, peppercorns, hot peppers and green onions. Blend these ingredients up in your blender and then place in a pail and add one cup of liquid detergent. Stir and let set overnight. Use ½ cup of the solution to 1 quart of water and spray on the plants.
    Perennial flowers are in active growth now. If you did not do it earlier, a little clean up is in order. Prune out dead flower stalks, remove old leaves and re-mulch if needed.
Dahlias, gladiolas, tuberous begonias, lilies and cannas and other summer flowering bulbs can be planted this month. Gladiolas bulbs may be planted at 2 week intervals until the first of July to provide you with cut flowers until the first frost.
    If you are looking for plants that flower each year, require little care and are rarely bothered by pests or disease, try some of these perennials: coneflower, bleeding heart, coral bell, daylily, gerum, hosta, bergenia, Virginia bluebell and Veronica.
    If you are a perennial plant lover, check out the web sites developed by Walters Gardens. They recently launched two new consumer web sites: www.PerennialResource.com and www.GrowDesignerPlants.com, both containing an impressive amount of information. PerennialResource.com features an encyclopedia of more than 1,500 perennial varieties. GrowDesignerPlants.com is dedicated to Walters Gardens’ Designer Collection of hostas and daylilies. Both sites have a retail locator to help consumers find local sources for plant material.
    Now is the time to set out marigolds, petunias, ageratums and fibrous begonias in the flower garden. All are good border plants. Multiflora petunias withstand heat much better than other types and are more attractive throughout the summer. They are more resistant to botrytis, a disease that cripples petunias, especially in damp weather, and they branch more easily, meaning less maintenance.
    Multifloras are most useful for massed effects in beds. You can also set petunia plants among fading tulips and daffodils to hide the unsightly wilting leaves.
    Remove the spent flower stalks of spring flowering bulbs after the foliage begins to fade. Tie the leaves in gentle knots to neaten them, but don’t remove them until they have dried completely.
    Old plantings of daffodils may be divided and moved when they have finished blooming, but treat them as growing plants and use care to protect the foliage and roots. Water them thoroughly after transplanting. It is best not to dig or move other spring flowering bulbs until their foliage has ripened and died back.
    Early flowering deciduous shrubs such as forsythias, weigela and spiraea should be pruned back when they have finished blooming. Cut back a third of the oldest canes to ground level, then cut back one third of the remaining branches to a third of their height.
    Remove the wilting seed heads from rhododendrons and azaleas so that the plants’ energy can go to foliage growth and next year’s flowers, rather than seeds. Work lime in the soil around your hydrangeas to produce pink flowers or aluminum sulfate for blue. Lilacs should be pruned lightly after they finish blooming, removing sucker growths and dead blooms.
    Happy Gardening!!