20 March 2013

Story of a Plant

Everyone knows that I'm a fan of free plants, and part of my job is driving around, so I have the opportunity to find them before they go to the landfill.  There was a dry spell for me for a couple of years as far as finding free plants, but the past year has been really good.  Last spring I picked up a couple hibiscuses and a potted palm.  Later in the summer I picked up a number of houseplants.  In the fall I found a number of alliums and another hibiscus.  Since I don't have good sun in my house, I don't really buy tropical plants.  I pick them up and enjoy them during the warmer months and let nature take its course.  I may spend a little bit of time shuffling them in and out of the garage when freezing weather hits, but usually there's one that I miss and they all die.  With the exception of the first hibiscus I picked up, most of those plants have survived - a few became Christmas gifts.

I found my first free plant of the spring and it is a whopper.  Someone was cleaning out a house and there was a huge planter full of aspidistra (Cast Iron plant) on the curb with the rest of the yard waste.  Since the owner was nearby, I asked if I could have it.  She said I could and offered to help get it in my truck.  I didn't realize how heavy it was - the large clay pot filled with aspidistra must have weighed well over fifty pounds.  Then she said, "I'm glad I cleaned out the wasp's nest before I put it on the street".  I had to drive around for another hour and kept wondering about the wasps - especially after I saw one and killed it, and another and killed it, and another and killed it!

Only three wasps - that wasn't bad, but then I began to worry about if it would fit in my car - I just got a new, smaller car the other day.  Well, it's not that it's smaller, but more like it's less versatile - and being very clean on the inside made it harder for me to wantonly stuff plants into it, knowing that the soil would go everywhere.  I managed to get it home in one piece and keep my car clean (it got dirty when I went to the feed store later), but I had to find a place for it.  Temporarily it is in about the shadiest part of the yard, and I plan to repot it, maybe into two pots, it's so big.  But that will have to wait until my back feels better.  Ouch!

17 March 2013

Last Expected Frost Date

Trying to figure out when the first expected frost in your area will be can be frustrating.  The problem is that no one knows for sure.  Everyone is guessing - some using historical weather data, others not.  A good bit of the information that I found is old, whether it be taped to a desk at the Master Gardener's office or online in a 1988 NOAA report.  Another source I have for this information is Gardening in the Carolinas by Bob Polumski.  I'm going to lay out some of this information and let's see if we can reach a consensus.

MG Office - Average First and Last Frost Dates
Charleston Airport     November 20th     March 15th

NOAA - 50% Frost Chance Table
50% chance of Frost on or after the spring date indicated
50% chance of frost on or before the fall date indicated
Charleston AP            November 12th     March 18th

NOAA - 10% Frost Chance Table
10% chance of Frost on or after the spring date indicated
10% chance of frost on or before the fall date indicated
Charleston AP            October 30th         April 6th

Gardening in the Carolinas by Bob Polomski
average date of first fall freeze 11/21
average date of last spring freeze 3/11 or 3/16

What does all of this mean?  Let's start with the MG office information.  First of all, I don't know the source.  I believe it to have been reliable when it was taped to the desk, but I can't say when that was, but the dates are in the ballpark.  The info in the Polomski book is a little dated, but it's also a little hard to interpret.  Like the MG office, it's an average, but it's also a couple of graphics of NC and SC with wavy lines.  Once again, these first and last average frost dates are in the ballpark - see for yourself.

When I first started writing this, I wanted a clear answer - the NOAA information seemed too vague.  But now that I've reached this part of the article, it makes the most sense.  No one is going to know for sure when it will freeze, until it does, but the table gives a good estimate.  On November 12th, you should be planning on it to freeze, if it hasn't done so already.  The same thing goes in the spring - by April 6th there is very little chance that it will freeze again.  Like I've said before, none of this is exact, but it's the best we've got - unless you want to go by the farmer's almanac.

13 March 2013

When To Apply Preemergence Herbicides - Spring 2013

Here in coastal South Carolina, we are approaching the time in the spring when preemergence herbicides need to be applied.  What are they, you ask? Herbicides are chemicals that kill plants.  Most people are familiar with post-emergent herbicides that kill actively-growing weeds.  Preemergence herbicides do their job as the weed seed is germinating - that's why the timing of their application is critical.  Too early and it is washed away.  Too late and the weed is past the point of being affected by the herbicide.

So, when should you apply preemergence herbicide in the spring?  Where I live, it is typically during early March, but there is a universal way to get the timing right no matter where you live.  When dayime temperatures reach 65-70 degrees for four consecutive days, it is time to apply the preemergence herbicide.  This will control seed germination of summer annuals.

Here in coastal South Carolina, we are about at the right time for a spring application.  With the exception of Thursday, we are in a week-long-plus warm spell that meets the criteria set out above.  High temperatures most days will exceed 65 degrees.

What about fall?  Here,  PE is applied around March 1st, but, for everyone else,  it is when nighttime temperatures reach 55-60 degrees for four consecutive days.

Florida Betony
Since we're talking about applying chemicals to lawns, I thought I would talk about something that some of the master gardeners feel very strongly about:  Don't use "weed and feed" products.  These products have both a preemergence herbicide and fertilizer in a single product.  They should not be used on lawns in our area, and probably throughout the south.  As discussed before, PE typically will be applied around March 1st, when weed seeds are germinating.  Fertilizer should not be applied to lawns until the grass has completely "greened up", probably in late April.  If it is applied early, it will control weed germination, but will burn or stress the still-dormant grass.  If applied later, the effect of the PE will be significantly diminished.  The best course of action is to buy separate products, applying the PE earlier, when temperatures warrant it, and the fertilizer after the lawn has greened up.

06 March 2013

Advice to a Transplanted Maine Gardener

Awhile ago I put a "Have Gardening Questions?" link on this blog, hoping someone would email me - I get a lot of practice answering random questions at the Master Gardener's office, and I always learn something when I do.  Despite doing this, no one has contacted me, until today. Out of the blue I received an email this morning, asking for loads of gardening advice:

I'm new to Park Circle, having moved here from Maine in September. We finally have our beds made and filled, and yesterday I did a little planting. I'm very excited to try my hand at veggies since there's such a long growing season (compared to Maine!). I do have a few questions, and thought maybe you could help me out.

I'm looking for a nice nursery that sells a variety of gardening supplies and plants. I've been to Abide A While and another place in Mt. Pleasant. They're both lovely but I found one a tad pricey and the other more gifty, if that makes sense. Do you have a favorite?

I have to say that I don't have a favorite garden center. I don't frequent them and most of them seem gifty and pricey to me too. Besides box stores, the other store that came to mind was Hyam's on Folly Road on James Island. You may find them similar to Abide-a-While, however, I got a pair of garden clogs from them that I love. I had to search the internet to find anything similar to those places in our area, and the only other place I found was Hidden Ponds Nursery in Awendaw, north of Mount Pleasant. Their website boasts of their "mile of grand pathways", and for us to "come take a walk in the woods". It sounds like it would be worth the drive just to look around.

 I'm looking to grow potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, and asparagus - all things that should be grown from starts or seedlings. Where can I get these?

Oh, if only you had emailed me a month ago!  Around here Clemson Extension recommends planting potatoes in early February, onions in during February as well and asparagus crowns during January and February.  You'll have another chance to grow onions in the fall and it may not be too late to plant asparagus.  It is a perennial so it will grow and produce spears for more than a single year. Because of this, you'll have to devote permanent space in your garden to it.  It is also recommended to let them become established for 2-3 years before beginning to harvest.  Not all is lost - you have until mid-April before planting sweet potatoes.  I've never grown these before, but it looks as if you can buy transplants from a garden center - you may have to call around to see who offers them.  For planting times, see HGIC 1256 Planning a Garden.  That site is my go-to place for information on all things gardening.

As far as where to get these. I have a few suggestions.  For potatoes and onions, I tend to go to feed and seed stores.  They are nearly the only places that carry a large quantity and variety of these.  Other places have had these in the past, like local hardware stores, but I would stick with the feed and seeds.  For my recommendations, click here.  I have talked about other sources in the past.  If you search for "feed and seed" on this blog, you will find those as well.  I used to drool over the seed catalogs every winter, but I've decided that it may be too much choice.  My two favorite feed and seeds have a good selection of seeds that I will continue to buy, unless I need or want something special.

What "pests" am I going to run into? I can already guess squirrels. Anything else i should be looking out for? And do you have recommendations for eradicating them?

My experience has taught me that pests vary greatly by yard.  I had minor problems with leaf-footed squash bugs the last few years, but a friend who lives south of Charleston had tomato hornworm invasion.  A woman called the Master Gardener's office about the "kudzu bug" or bean platispid ravaging a tree of hers.  There is something called "Integrated Pest Management" that some of us try to practice.  It's about preventing problems before they happen.  Chose disease resistant varieties of plants.  Rotate crops to prevent pests and diseases from reaching a critical level.  Cleaning up dead plant material to limit the spread of disease.  Heat and humidity are also problems to be dealt with.  As questions or problems arise, I'll be happy to help.  In the meantime, feel free to check out HGIC 2755 Integrated Pest Management, or their IPM site that I just found.

How do you feel about the quality of the Bees Ferry compost? I filled my beds with this but I'm concerned - pulled out plastic fork tines and shredded plastic bags. It's what I got so I planted, mixing in a little lobster compost we brought with us from Maine.

If anything, I'm a frugal gardener.  I have always gotten compost from the landfill.  In the past it had a lot of plastic in it (see a photo here), but recently the county mandated that paper leaf bags be used instead of plastic and it has eliminated(?) that problem.  It was more of a business decision for them - they are now able to sell larger quantities because of its higher quality  According to extension agent Amy Dabbs, Clemson University "certified the compost from Bees Ferry for use in organic farming operations, a first in the state. (The compost itself cannot be 'certified organic.' That term is reserved for agricultural products consumed by humans.)"  You can read her article here.

Think of compost as a soil amendment, something you add to your soil.  If your beds are all compost, you will be missing key minerals and other nutrients that are in soil, but not available in organic materials.  You can take soil from your yard or buy bags of sterilized garden soil, or even get a truck load of topsoil from local businesses.  I had to explain this to someone at the MG office recently - there are thousands of weeds seeds in any soil, from your yard or brought in.  When you buy garden soil in bags from a garden center, it has probably been sterilized - cooked to kill all the weed seeds and potential pathogens.  The problem is that all the beneficial organisms in the soil were killed as well.  At your first opportunity, you should get a soil test to see what it needs.  It is likely similar to mine, but only after getting your results will you know for sure.  Here's how to do that: How To Get A Soil Test. Another option is to try sheet composting, also known as lasagna gardening.  It is especially good for starting raised beds.  Oregon State University has a good guide to doing it.

Any tips or tricks for having a successful growing season in the south?

I haven't taken a poll, but I know one other person who agrees with me - summer is my least favorite time to garden.  At my house the gardening year starts off in January when I plant peas.  I planted them in February last year and it was too late.  This year I planted them in mid January and I have a feeling it may get too warm for me to get many peas.  I may have to plant them right after Thanksgiving, like I heard another master gardener does.  In February I plant onions and potatoes.  I never know what to do in March.  According to some charts, our last expected frost date is around March 15th, but experience tells me that there is usually a frost the first week of April.  It's also the first best time to sow seeds, like beans, squash and corn, directly in the ground, but watch that frost! Serious gardeners are growing seedlings at this time, to transplant into their garden after the last frost, but since I'm not set up for that, I twiddle my thumbs a little bit right now.

April is when I transplant veggies like squash, tomatoes and peppers, and start a second crop of seeds.  May and June is when it really starts to heat up.  Potatoes are ready by that point and hopefully you've gotten the first fruits of some of your vegetables.  By July it's too hot to do anything - plants won't produce fruit when it's this hot, but you can always dream of cooler weather.  August is when they say to start your cool-season vegetables, but that's the last thing I'm thinking about then.

Once October gets here you can get serious about cool-season crops.  Onions get planted again.  Garlic, for harvest next fall, can be planted.  Broccoli and collards can be transplanted.  Despite a few frosts and freezes, winter is rapidly becoming the best gardening season here - if you like leafy greens and root vegetables, like lettuce, spinach, collards, broccoli, turnips, carrots, and radishes.

Good luck with your garden and, I hope this has given you a dose of what it's like to garden in our part of the world.  If I can help in nay way, please let me know.