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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Prune It or Lose It

One year old lavender plant, 24 inches wide, 18 inches tall.

February is the month for pruning. Grape vines should be cut back to the main trunk in order to produce the new growth needed to produce grapes. Muscadines, those Southern grape cousins, can be treated just like regular grapes, cutting off all of last year’s vines back to the main trunk.

Peach and apple trees get their pruning this month, as well. One old gardener told me  years ago that a peach tree should be gleaned of all the interior limbs so that, “You can sail your hat right through the middle.” If sunlight can’t get into the interior of the tree, you’ll only have peaches on the outer branches.
Half the plant has been pruned. Notice how much of the plant I am removing.

Because I grow considerably more herbs than I do fruit, I’m keen on pruning those plants now, as well. Waiting too long can damage the plants, so most things are pruned while still dormant, like now. Sage, lavender, santolina (some call it “lavender cotton”), hyssop and thyme - especially the taller, French thymes, are all cousins in the same overall plant family. Natives of the Mediterranean, and left to their own devices, these plants like to wander over rocks and cliff faces. The sprangly limbs root in the soil and the old centers of the plants die off. It’s a normal thing for sage and lavender to do that, and the others in the list, as well. If you’ve wondered why your garden sage plants only last about 3 or 4 years in the garden before unexpectedly die, that’s the reason. They have to be pruned to keep them alive.
A small, one-year sage before pruning. It's about 20 inches wide and 16 inches tall.
The same sage, after pruning. I cut away two thirds of the plant.

I prune lavender, sage and santolina, all in February, just as the tiniest signs of new leaves are forming down deep in the plant. I cut back two thirds of the height and width of each plant. The first time you do it, you’ll likely think the plant won’t come back, but in the next month or so, you’ll see plenty of new growth from the base of the plant. Not only will these plants be more vigorous, they’ll bloom better and the flavor of the leaves will be much better than on old plants that weren’t pruned.
French thyme plants. This one is 24 inches or more across and about 15 inches tall.
The thymes have been cut back by half and the lower hanging limbs removed, too.
Green santolina, partially pruned.

French thyme and hyssop both get cut back by about half, again in height and width. Those, like the other plants I mentioned, will die out in the center. All of these herbs will live for many years if renewed each year by pruning. February is also a good time to add an application of garden lime to the top of the soil in the beds where these specific plants are growing. All thrive in soil with lime and even though we think of the Ozarks as being full of limestone, it’s not in a form that plants can use.

I hope you'll vsit my regular garden blog, too:

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Truth About Marigolds

French marigolds (Tagetes petula)

I’ve been hearing tales for years about how one should always plant marigolds in the garden to keep away inspect pests. Never quite believing the stories, I decided to search for the truth. Like many stories and myths, there is a grain of truth inside this one. Fortunately lots of research has been conducted on the subject. I looked at research from the Universities of Florida, North Carolina, Louisiana, Arizona and California. Here’s what I learned.

First, companion planting, meaning scattering marigold plants among vegetables, has no proven beneficial effects. Second, what marigolds truly are useful for, is combating root nematodes. Root nematodes are microscopic, not seen by the human eye and whether you have them or not can only be confirmed by a soil nematode analysis from a University Extension Office.

All soil has nematodes and some of them perform good soil-building functions while. others will attack the roots of vegetables. The symptoms are excessive wilting, with stunting or weakness in a plant. (Once that is observed, provided the cause is root nematodes, there is no treatment other than to remove the plant and destroy it).

What is true and proven about planting marigolds is this. First determine that you have nematodes with a soil analysis. Next, devote the entire bed or that part of the garden to growing marigolds as a cover crop for one season. Nematodes don’t thrive when soil temperatures are below 64 degrees F., so you could potentially grow a spring crop of peas, radishes, lettuce, etc. As soon as those are done, plant that entire bed in a variety of marigolds that are proven to combat root-knot nematodes. It’s recommended you plant a marigold every 7 inches, in all directions and keep the area weeded. Weeds attract destructive nematodes, so keep them pulled.

You can follow the total-bed marigold planting with vegetable crops the next season. However, to be effective, you will have to alternate planting marigolds then vegetables, season to season. Fortunately, most gardeners in the Ozarks aren’t severely bothered by nematode infestations.
Calendula flowers on the left, French marigolds on right, they're not the same plant.

If you do plan to do this crop rotation with marigolds this year, here are the varieties that work best and some to avoid. (Keep in mind, we are talking about the little French marigolds (Tagetes patula) we plant in the flower bed and not the “pot marigold” (Calendula officianalis) some people confuse with marigolds).
Bolero is a good one to use for nematode control.

Red Sophie is another good one.

Bonita mixed, another excellent choice for nematode control.

Best varieties for combating root-nematodes: Bolero, Bonita mixed, Goldie, Gypsy Sunshine, Petite Harmony, Petite Gold, Scarlet Sophie, Single Gold, Petite Blanc, Sophia and Tangerine. Avoid “signet” marigolds (Tagetes signata or tenufolia) IF you have nematodes, because nematodes feed and reproduce on those and will make the problem worse. Included in the signet series are: Lemon Gem, Red Gem and Tangerine Gem varieties.
For controlling nematodes, avoid any in the Signet series.

February is the month to prune grape vines, clean beds and dispose of old garden debris. Turning the soil now is a useful, to help expose grasshopper and cucumber beetle larvae where the sun and cold weather will destroy them. Happy gardening!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Move Over Corn, the Peas are Coming

Early ancestors on their homestead.

I think most people aren’t interested in learning where their ancestors came from, the study of genealogy, until they’re in their 40s or beyond. That was the age when I started wondering where all the Longs came from and started my searching. What I learned was we date back pretty far, 1640 to be exact, and that the various parts of the family moved Westward, every 20 years.

Puzzled by why the whole family would pack up and move with such regularity, first to Pennsylvania, to Indiana, then Illinois, Iowa, Kansas Territory and finally Missouri, I thought they must simply be wanderers. A few years ago I was eating lunch with several other conference speakers at a conference in North Carolina and the subject turned to genealogy. I expressed my concern about my family’s habit of up and moving with such regularity. One of the people at the table said she wasn’t surprised at all, that most families did that. Why, I asked? It’s simple, she said. Corn. It turned out she was a sociologist, one who studies population movements. She went on to explain the method of gardening back then, was to move into an area, girdle or cut the trees and till the land for corn. Corn was the main crop to sustain farm and family. Once the land was exhausted of all of the soil nutrients, the family had no choice but to move on and start all over.

Our Billy, eating corn stalks.
Unfortunately I haven’t applied that lesson to my own garden. I have been raising sweet corn in the same 2 spots in my garden for over 30 years. Sure, I’ve added compost, bags of peat moss, even small applications of vegetable fertilizer over the years, but by and large, my 2 corn plots are severely exhausted. It’s not good to keep growing the same thing in the same place year in and year out. Every year my sweet corn has produced fewer ears of corn, on increasingly shorter stalks.

Cooking corn.
One option, of course, would be applications of chemical fertilizers, which do nothing for building up the soil and only support corn for that one year. I prefer to use more organic methods if possible. While I am not completely opposed to fertilizers, if I can use something like compost and cover crops, it is overall, better for my soil and my own health.

Peas of any kind help rebuild tired soil.

This year I’m doing something different. First, I’ve made new beds for the corn in “new” soil - soil I moved from another location. It has a lot of composted straw and manure and has never had corn planted in it before. Second, my old corn patches are getting planted with peas, lots and lots of peas. I bought several pounds of bulk peas, sugar peas and shelling peas. Peas are good at fixing nitrogen in the soil, so I’m planting them with the sole purpose of building up the soil. When they’re through, I’ll till them under and plant a crop of another cover crop, probably hairy vetch or wheat, which will also be tilled under to help build the soil. The corn beds will get a rest from corn for at least 3 years and during that time, I will work on building the soil.

Peas, by tradition in the Ozarks, are to be planted by Valentine’s Day, so I have mine ready. Onions, peas, lettuce and potatoes are all fair game now, as well. To see links to more information about cover crops as well as earlier Ozarks Gardening columns from this newspaper, go to Happy gardening!