Update on the Container Tomatoes

Leaf curl and blossom end rot have been problems for my container tomatoes, but not serious ones — at least so far.  Despite the heat, humidity and rain of the early summer, it looks like this will be a good year for tomatoes.

First, the facts: As of mid-July, Minnesota has seen the highest combined levels of heat and humidity ever recorded. Ever. Recorded. That means, in terms of heat AND humidity, it is worse than 1936 or 1988, two years that were noted for their terrible heat and large number of 90+ degree days.  This time, it’s not just the heat, it really is the humidity. Fortunately, the last couple of weeks have been down-right pleasant for people and plants.

Green pear tomatoes on vine
Chocolate Pear tomatoes ripen on the vine.

So, how are the tomatoes doing?

With one exception, the container tomatoes (five plants total) look good. (I have another tomato in the ground that’s growing well.) They have adequate, healthy looking foliage with no signs of blight or spots on the leaves. I am seeing leaf curl, which can be caused by many things, but in my case may be simply because of inconsistent watering. We have had a lot of rain — often in short periods — and this can cause leaves to curl as a defense mechanism. I have watered the tomatoes daily during the dry periods at the soil level to keep watering consistent and prevent splashing soil up on leaves. I’m also giving them regular doses of fish emulsion because nutrients are probably running out of the soil with all the rain.

One of my tomatoes—a yellow pear—really, really did not like growing in a container. Its leaves always curled more than the other plants and its fruit had more blossom end rot than any of the others. One day last week, I threw in the trowel.

“You want out of the container—fine!”

I had a spot near our fence that gets decent light and didn’t have anything growing in it. I dug a big hole — the plant was large! I pruned the plant back to reduce the amount of foliage it had to support; added some organic tomato fertilizer to the hole, pulled it out of its pot and dropped it in. I gave it a good watering and added back the soil to make the fit snug. Frankly, I’m not sure how it will do . I’ve never heard of transplanting tomatoes at this size, but it actually looks happy. It has produced some new flowers since the transplant, though and that’s a good sign.

Yellow pears are one of my favorite tomatoes, because I like to make Thomas Jefferson’s jam with them. In the past, they have produced well into the fall.

Blossom end rot

Bleech! Blossom end rot.

Sorry for the gross photo, but that’s what I’m seeing on some of my tomatoes. Blossom end rot  is also related to inconsistent watering. Because most of the over-watering has been done by Mother Nature, there isn’t a lot you can do. I have been picking any tomatoes that show signs of blossom end rot off the plant as soon as I see it. Why have a plant put the energy into producing rotten fruit? It’s early enough in the season that the plants will continue to set flowers and produce healthy fruit.

Harvest Time?

We are getting into peak harvest season for tomatoes. So far, I’ve picked a half a dozen or so, mostly plum and cherry tomatoes. A couple of my big slicers have fruit that is ripening fast, so I’m hopeful I’ll be enjoying a big BLT within  a week or so.

How are your tomatoes doing?

 

 

Delayed Spring? Pros and Cons for Northern Gardeners

With about 4 inches of snow on the ground already from our current storm and another 2 to 4 predicted during the day, it seems a good time to consider the pros and cons of a delayed spring.

For those not from Minnesota, since the beginning of 2018, we have had two days (yes, just two) with a high temperature of 50 degrees or higher in the Twin Cities. Both of those days were in March—and neither of them topped 55. Currently, we are in a broken record of 30-degree days with nights in the 20s interrupted only by intermittent snowstorms. Some weather forecasters have said this will last into mid-April. Others say we get a break next week.  (I hope these guys are right.)  So what happens in the garden when spring takes forever to arrive?

A couple of pros of a delayed spring come immediately to mind:

Less chance of freeze damaging fruit crops. Back in 2012, we had an extremely early spring, with my cherry tree (and lots of apple trees) blooming in early April—about four weeks ahead of usual. When the inevitable frost came, many fruit crops were severely damaged. That won’t happen this year.

Adequate soil moisture. This year, Minnesota has had an average amount of snow or a bit higher. Since there has been some thawing of the ground, these late season snows should give us decent soil moisture going into the planting season.

I’m sure there are some other benefits to a slow spring, but there are plenty of cons, too.

In 2015, crocus were blooming in my yard on March 31. In 2016, they were blooming on March 15. This year, nothing but snow so far.

When things bloom, it will be a bloom explosion! When spring comes on gently and slowly as it did last year, blooms emerge gradually in a steady parade of color from the yellows of forsythia to creamy magnolias, pink rhododendrons, redbuds, fruit trees and lilacs. Bulbs do the same.  In the best of years, this unfolding of color can start in late March. A delayed spring means everything rushes to bloom at once—boom. It’s marvelous when it happens, but wow, it doesn’t last long. And, for people with allergies, all that blooming means lots of types of pollen all at once. On the upside, the pollen count in my neighborhood today is zero!

A pansy pile up at the local garden centers! I visited a couple of garden centers during a slightly warm day 10 days ago, and the pansy bowls were piled up in the greenhouses. While pansies can tolerate temps down to 26, it’s best not to put them outdoors fulltime until nighttime temperatures are reliably in the 40s. So, hold off for at least a week. After that, rush to your local garden center, because you will be starved for color!

I wrote a profile of this DIY greenhouse for the November/December 2017 issue of Northern Gardener. This would be a great year to have a greenhouse!

A slow start in the vegetable garden. This would be a great year to have a greenhouse, because it’s going to be awhile before the soil temperature is warm enough to plant even cool-season crops such as lettuce and peas.  Seeds for vegetables such as radishes and lettuce will germinate at soil temperatures as low as 40 degrees, but it takes a lot longer to germinate at 40 than it does at 50 or 60 degrees. So, fire up those indoor light systems and give your vegetables a head start inside. Just for perspective, the soil temperature in my raised beds right now is 35 degrees. We’ve got a way to go.

Hungry birds. I haven’t seen any robins yet though they could be around, but I have definitely noticed more birdsong in the morning. If you garden for birds, keep the feeders full and put out some water for them. It will be awhile before they can nibble on insects in the garden.

Speaking of insects, a long winter is unlikely to affect populations of Japanese beetles, emerald ash borers and other insects gardeners consider pests. Bummer.

Enjoy the snow day!

 

 

 

 

January Light

Like a lot of northerners, I find our low-light times of the year a tad depressing. Getting up in the dark and having the sun set before most people are out of work makes you feel like a mole. I know it could be worse than we have it in Minnesota—my husband worked for several months in Uppsala, Sweden, and when we first got there in late January, the sun rose between 8:30 and 9 a.m. and set by 3:30 p.m. Imagine dusk lurking in the background not long after lunch. Grim.

January sun stretches across the floor.

So, usually about this time of year, I start watching the sun. I know that by mid to late January, the sun will start rising by 7:30 a.m. and set after 5. More importantly, it seems higher in the sky, so that when we have a sunny day, the light in the house gets noticeably brighter and deeper.

I noticed this change of light recently, and while we are having a severe snowstorm as I write this, I know that flicker of brighter sunlight means we are not too far from the backside of winter. Our new home in St. Paul has a bay window in the living room and it faces due south. We’ve put most of our houseplants there—a Meyer lemon tree, some rosemary, a few succulent type things, some bulbs I’m forcing and my husband’s bonsai. They love the light and when it stretches across the floor I can’t help but think about seed starting and the new gardens I’ll be adding this summer. For me, that stretch of light is the start of the garden season.

From above, houseplants soak in the sun.

It’s been said many times before, but one of the biggest benefits of gardening is that it pushes you toward awareness of the natural world and its rhythms. Sure, I noticed long and short days before I took up gardening, but it was as a gardener that I started to watch the arc of the sun across the sky from winter to summer and back again, to notice where in the yard the light fell at which times of year, to feel its intensity in June and its weak power in November. As a gardener, I really started to listen to bird songs and the rustle of tree branches against each other. (Time to prune?) I started to see the differences in dirt—from the sandy soil in one garden bed to the baked clay in another—and smell more intently the herbs I grew. Nothing smells fresher than lemon balm.

As a practical Minnesotan, I know we have at least two more months  of winter at our feet, but the light of January brings its own cheer. Spring will come.

Fascinating Foliage

I don’t know about you, but when it’s cold out, I tend to pull in on myself—shoulders go up, chin comes down—it’s as if I’m trying to make myself smaller in order to  stay warmer. I thought of that recently as I’ve been observing the fascinating foliage on the P.J.M. rhododendron near my front door.

As the season changes, the rhododendron has been telling me how cold it is outside each morning. On chilly days — say in the teens or 20s — the leaves of the rhododendron are turned down and rolled in, sort of like a tube. If the weather is warmer—high 30s or 40s—the foliage is in its usual flat shape.

It was 18 degrees the morning I took this picture.

Rhododendrons are broad-leaf evergreens. Unlike deciduous shrubs, they do not lose their leaves over the winter. The buds for next year’s flowers and the leaves hold on through most of the winter. According to the University of Minnesota, the curling action is a way to hold onto water during the dry, cold parts of the year.  Sometimes curling is caused by disease, but that often happens during the growing season and this rhodie looked fine all summer long.

Rhododendron at 25 degrees

We’ve had a wet fall and this is a long-established shrub, so I don’t think it is struggling for water either. It’s perhaps just upset about the suddenly cold weather we’ve had! Are the leaves on your rhododendrons curling too?

Rhododendron at 40 degrees

Are We in for a Real Winter?

As I write this, it is Nov. 10 and the temperature outside is about 15 degrees. That’s cold, man! Even for Minnesota in late fall. The rather sudden drop in temperatures over the past couple of weeks has many gardeners wondering if we are in for a “real winter,” meaning one with lots of cold and snow.

The last time we had a significantly cold and nasty winter was 2014, when Minnesota schools were canceled for five days because of vicious wind chills. In 2016, I experienced the earliest first bloom in my Northfield garden ever with a bloom on March 13. That was also the longest growing season on record and we did not even have a frost in the Twin Cities until Nov. 7.

The National Weather Service has predicted the possibility of a weak La Nina system affecting weather here, which indicates it will probably be cold and wetter than normal. What does this mean for gardeners?

On Oct. 27, my alley garden was blanketed in snow, including the still blooming ‘Heavenly Blue’ morning glory.

If you still have fall garden work, get it done! I still have a few garden chores to do, including adding shredded leaves to my beds and cleaning out a few pots of annuals that I have not gotten to yet. It looks like this coming week will have a few slightly warmer temperatures and I plan to get out there ASAP to finishing things up.

Why I don’t spray—nasty Japanese beetles (top) and helpful bees coexist.

Fewer bugs??? Well, that’s the hope when we have a cold winter—that it will be cold enough to zap the Japanese beetles and other invaders that spend winter in the soil. Experts say that how much of the population of pest insects are killed by cold weather depends on 1) how cold it is and for how long; and 2) how much snow cover we have and when we get it—cold weather without snow cover is more likely to kill grubs nesting in soil. This article notes, however, that cold, dry winters also kill beneficial insects and, sadly, that Japanese beetle grubs can go very deep in the soil. Sigh.

More plant losses? Well, maybe, maybe not. We had a lot of rain this fall, particularly in October, which means plants are well-hydrated going into the winter season. With this early freeze, you could mulch around tender plants to make sure they don’t heave out of the ground during the inevitable thaw-freeze cycles. But, if we get some decent snow in December, we may just be in for a long, long winter.

Time to make some tea and get out a book!

 

 

 

Earliest Ever First Bloom

Iris reticulataSunday (March 13) I noticed this little Iris reticulata blooming in my front garden. This plant is often the first one to bloom in my Minnesota garden, and 2016 is the earliest ever for it to bloom.

In 2012, a notably warm spring, the plant bloomed on March 15. However, in many years, it is well into April before it blooms. Here are the bloom dates I have noted in the blog in the past:

2009 — April 16
2010 — March 25
2011 — April 4
2012 — March 15
2013 —  April 22
2014 — after April 20 (no exact date noted)
2015 — last year I dropped the ball and did not note when the iris bloomed.

As you can see, there has been almost six weeks in variation when the iris blooms. I’m actually hoping we get some cooler weather over the next couple of weeks—spring needs to slow down. One thing I remember from 2012 is that the fruit trees bloomed early. Later there was a freeze, causing devastation for apple growers around the state.

Is anything blooming in your garden yet?

 

 

 

Blooming in November?

Here we are in the first week of November, with several days of 60s and 70s ahead, and my poor Minnesota garden does not know what to do. We’ve only had a couple of freezes so far, and several plants just keep on blooming.

What’s blooming in November? These guys.

The Garden in Spring

While mowing the yard the other night, the vibrant green of the lawn and all the plants in the garden beds seemed to radiate growth. We’ve gotten about 2 inches of rain over the last week or so, and the plants have responded with enthusiastic growth.

Borage has dainty blossoms on a monster plant.
Borage has dainty blossoms on a monster plant.

The borage I planted next to my vegetable garden last year shot up about a foot overnight, going from a pleasant, if nondescript, mound of green to a monster herb in full bloom. I’m glad it’s happy in its place.

Tree peony blooms are brief but beautiful.
Tree peony blooms are brief but beautiful.

Nearby, the Jacob’s ladder has been covered with purple-blue blooms for almost three weeks now. Its variegated foliage perfectly compliments the Garden Glow spireas in front of it. The tree peony nearby finished its flush of bloom shortly after the rain this week. That is the nature of peonies, a splash of rain and they melt. But before that happened more than 20 big, fluffy deep pink/red blooms with yellow centers covered the plant. The bees were very happy.

A little out of control, but great food for hummingbirds and bees.
A little out of control, but great food for hummingbirds and bees.

Up front, the weigelas have more blooms than I’ve seen before, pink trumpets covering the plants. The chives, as always, bloom prettily this time of year and I will be needing to thin them shortly. For now, I let them run wild. Hummingbirds have been visiting them the past few days. One of them buzzed my head the other night — I think I was between the bird and its meal.

My new bigroot geraniums are living up to their reputation of being super hardy. The bright pink flowers were a surprise for me — I bought them mostly as a foliage groundcover.

Finally, the baptisia, which for reasons I can’t figure out are more contained than usual, are just beginning to open up. This is another favorite plant of the bumblebees.

Spring has definitely sprung in my garden. How about yours?

 

A Beautiful Year for Spring Bulbs

Maybe it’s because it has not warmed up too fast, or we had moisture at the right times (though parts of Minnesota are technically in a drought), 2015 has been a good year for bulbs in my garden.

crocus
Mixed crocus

Over the past couple of years, I’ve planted more bulbs in the fall for spring bloom, including lots of crocus*, Siberian squill in the yard and garden beds, new big daffodils*, more tulips and cute, little Chiondoxa (glory of the snow). For later bloom, I have two kinds of allium as well. So far, the early spring bulbs are blooing except the tulips, which will be colorful until mid-May or beyond.

First tulips in bloom.
First tulips in bloom.

Bulbs brighten up the early spring landscape and are a great addition to northern gardens. Since we often aren’t sure when spring will occur in Minnesota or how long it will last, bulbs guarantee a bit of color before that explosion of spring flowering trees and early perennials that occurs in May.

glory of the snow
Glory of the Snow

They are easy to plant and take care of, too. In early October, I dig a big hole to place large groups of bulbs. The larger groups have more impact in the landscape and placing them in one hole is easier than digging individual holes for each bulb. I give them a little fertilizer, but otherwise just leave them alone and wait for spring. I’ve been fortunate that the many critters we have around our house have not gone after my bulbs. My neighbors have had that happen and switched to mostly daffodils, which for some reason the little monsters don’t like.

How are your bulbs looking this year?

I’m pretty sure these were test plants sent to me at no charge from Longfield Gardens. (I lost the paperwork between October and now.) The bulbs are fantastic.

The Good Thing About Snow

Two inches here, three inches there, now we’re talking about decent snow cover. While shoveling the snow is a chore — although one I don’t mind — and driving in it can be hazardous, northern gardeners should rejoice with every inch. According to U of M Extension, snow is the best insulation for perennials. Kathy Purdy of Cold Climate Gardening points out that gardeners from areas that experience a reliable snowfall can often plant perennials that might not survive otherwise.

Unfortunately, snow cover here has been unreliable the past few years. A so-called wimpy winter often means warm weather that melts the snow just before subzero temperatures hit.  Garden experts advise putting down a layer of mulch on perennial beds as the ground is freezing. We’re fortunate this year to get a little extra help from the snow.