Saturday, April 30, 2016

How to Grow Cucumbers

What are the secrets to avoiding bitter Cucumbers? Here are some things you can do to grow perfect cucumbers.

Cucumbers planted in the garden are very prolific producers and can be great for pickling or eating fresh in salads or just freshly peeled. Cucumber, Tomato and Onion salad in an Italian dressing has always been one of my favorites. Cucumbers eaten on a regular basis are a great way to get re-hydrated during the summer months. I often find myself grabbing one off of the vine while I'm working outside in the summer heat.
Since it is a warmer season vegetable, cucumbers should be planted, as with most other vegetables, after the last chance of frost.  Check the date on the seed packet for the expected last frost, as it is different across the United States. I keep the USDA’s website as a favorite on my computer for a variety of information.

*** I cannot stress the importance of having good soil to support these prolific producers. I work a LOT of compost or manure into the soil the previous November (here in North Central Texas) and let it rot throughout the entire fall and winter months. I loosen the soil two weeks before planting my seeds.

Planting by seed has always worked best for me. I plant multiple seeds in groups four feet apart and then thin all but the strongest one plant. 
Spacing between rows should be at least six feet as the plants can easily grow together. If you are planting so the cucumbers can climb a sturdy fence, I would plant seeds about 4 inches apart and thin to the best plants about one foot apart.

In my home state of Texas, if I am going to plant a second crop I make sure I have plenty of time for the cucumbers to reach maturity prior to the first frost late in the growing season. Cucumbers usually need about 2 months to reach harvesting size.
If you’d like to produce great looking and tasting cucumbers, you’ll need to mulch heavily; approximately four inches of straw,  water regularly; about an inch per week spread throughout the week and harvest before they get about 8-10 inches long. If you let them grow bigger, or fat, they tend to get pithy and dry on the interior.

If you are using fertilizer from the local nursery or hardware store, I would fertilize more often at half of the normal rate each time. I would fertilize with about one pound per 100 square feet of row and apply it as often as every 2 to 3 weeks. I then water the fertilizer in very well each time.

Personally, as stated above, I use compost or manures in the fall months and do not need to add additional material during the growing season.
A salad cucumber on top and a pickling cucumber on bottom.

You can scatter finely ground finished compost underneath the plants if you desire, however, this can get cumbersome, as you’ll need to lift the plants to place the compost. You risk plant breakage applying compost this way.

Insect problems consist of cucumber beetles (spotted or striped), spider mites and squash bugs (true bugs). You can identify a problem if you see evidence of chewed leaves, tan colored mottling. The leaves typically turn very crisp, indicating spider mite damage. Control spider mites with a miticide. Mildews can be controlled with fungicides.
Check out my article on canning up "Refrigerator Pickles"

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

How to Use Mulch in the Garden

Throughout history, man has used manures, fallen leaves, grass clippings, wood chips and many other natural materials for mulch in the garden. There are so many more types of mulch than this article can elaborate on, so we will cover the types that may be most readily available. The mulch mobile is filled and ready to head out to the vegetable garden.
It is a well-known benefit that mulches help to retain even moisture in the soil, so that plants are not going through dry periods between watering.  Mulches are also known for their ability to slow down weed growth and for those weeds that do make it through the mulch; they are easier to remove from the garden soil. Here's a photo of pine shavings used as a mulch on newly planted Blackberry plants.
Although living mulches are also known as cover crops, green manures or catch crops, these will not be discussed in this article. Plastic mats and rolls, rocks and ground up rubber tires, and similar mulching products, will also not be discussed here. This article will cover mulches that you can turn back into the soil after use.

Mulches make the garden look clean and neat; they keep soil off of garden vegetables that grow on or near the ground.  Once the mulch has done its job for the season, they are simply turned into the ground, and add to the soils tilth and structure. In addition, when mulches become part of the soil, they add nutrient and microbial activity to the soil as they break down.

Mulches can break down very rapidly, or they can stay in the same spot for years, returning to the soil very slowly.  An example of mulch that breaks down quickly is finished compost. Compost that has been allowed to complete the composting process, cool down to acceptable and usable temperatures, and be run through a fine mesh screen can be used as mulch at about three inches thick. It will break down within one season. This application may also be considered a side dressing for the benefit of nutrient in the compost.
On the other hand, mulch that lasts for an extended period of time in the vegetable garden might be something like wood chips. Unless the chips are shredded down into very small particles, they will take more than one season to break down. The bulkier the material you use, typically the longer it will take to return to the soil. Leaves will break down fairly quickly; however, shredded leaves will break down faster.

There are other considerations when using different types of mulch in the garden. If you use fresh manures as mulch directly under the plants, you are likely to burn your plants. Some manure is better left to dry out or to be composted prior to use.  Chicken manure is considered hot and will certainly do damage to your plants, so compost it first. Rabbit manure is considered a "cold" manure and can be added directly to your plantings. 

Horse and cow manure may contain pathogens, so they should be left to dry out for a season, or composted to kill off these troublemakers.  You can also turn manures under in the garden in the fall and let them decompose all winter long. 

Here are some quick notes and things to consider with the following mulches:

It’s best to compost it before use, or to let it rot. Cow manure may contain a lot of weed seeds, so I always compost first. Horse manure may contain microscopic worms and other pathogens, so I compost first or turn under in the fall when I’m not growing anything. If you do decide to use horse manure as mulch during the growing season, use no more than 3 inches thick, as it will mat once it is wet, and will not allow water to penetrate very well. 
Manures are also known for being the cause of E.coli. All vegetables harvested from areas in the garden that used fresh, or uncomposted manures must be washed well prior to being eaten. When you work with any kind of manure, you should always wash your hands well before coming in from the garden.

Straw is excellent mulch, and does a great job at retaining moisture and keeping the garden area relatively free from weed growth. This material is very high in carbon, so it may take away nutrient from the soil as it breaks down. I usually spread a high nitrogen fertilizer prior to placing straw mulch. Once the season has ended, straw mulch can be turned under and left to decompose through the winter months. You can usually find straw at your local feed store for a low enough prices that justify its use. Here's my YouTube video on using straw mulch
Grass clippings:
Grass clippings are full of nitrogen and break down quickly. I never use more than three inches of this kind of mulch, as it will mat down and may eventually begin to smell bad. Use only cool season grasses as mulch. If you use Bermuda, or any other trailing type of grass clippings, you are bound to grow a nice lawn in your vegetable garden, and you don’t want that. I try my best to keep any kind of grass clippings out of the garden and out of the compost; unless I’m certain that they are a cool season type like fescue or rye grass.

Wood chips:
Wood chips are also great as a mulch to use when you need one to keep the weeds to a much reduced level.  They are also very high in carbon, and take a long time to decompose. Fertilize prior to applying this mulch around your fruit trees. I’ve connected with multiple sources that provide me with an endless supply of wood chips for free. 

I try to keep a pile in the back yard all year long, so I have them on hand when I need them. I turn them under in new garden plots that I won’t actually be using to grow vegetables for a year or so, to add tilth to the soil. When mixed with horse manure and turned under, they break down very well over the winter months.
Leaves also make excellent mulch. Most leaves can be used directly as mulch in the garden.  Avoid using sycamore leaves unless they are shredded and composted first. Shredding leaves first avoids any matting of leaves and also helps to avoid any diseases brought on by matted leaves. Eucalyptus or Oleander leaves are also not good mulch. Do not use these in your vegetable garden.

Pine Needles:
Although I’ve used pine needles in the past, they just are not available to me here in the Dallas, Texas area. I would typically use them in the landscape rather than the vegetable garden. I would compost them before mixing that finished compost in my garden.  Pine needles are known for adding acid to the soil, but you’d have to add the needles for many years to have even a small increase in the amount of acid in the soil, so just add them to your compost pile when they are available.

There are so many more types of mulches available to you in your area. Give them a try and see what works best for you. Remember, just like it is important to use a variety of plant matter and manures in your compost heap, it is equally important to use a variety of mulches in the garden, You will be providing a variety of nutrient to the soil when you turn the mulch under. 

Sunday, April 3, 2016

How to Grow Broccoli

Broccoli is considered a cole crop and can be grown in late summer and grown through the fall, or it can also be started in early spring. Broccoli is one of the most popular vegetables; however, it also gets a lot of negative comments about its taste from children. It is very easy to grow and should be planted in gardens across the USA.

You can direct seed your broccoli into the garden in both the spring and the fall because you need a good lighting system in the house if you are going to start your own transplants. The seedlings tend to get leggie very fast if you don't control the lighting consistently. Plant seeds in your fall garden by about August 20th in Texas, but sometimes it's still too hot, so, you might need to adjust accordingly. You may need a shade cloche to protect the young seedlings until they are strong enough to handle the late summer sun.

You can plant seeds about 1-2 weeks after the last frost at springtime, and plant transplants at about the same time. Plant seeds about 15-16 weeks before the first frost in the fall/winter. Planting seed should be done at no more than a half inch deep, approximately 2 feet apart. If you are planting more than one row of broccoli, plant the rows 3 feet apart.

Keep the ground around your broccoli plants evenly moist by adding a 6 inch layer of straw mulch under the plants. You may consider laying a soaker hose down the middle of the row at the base of each plant, and then cover with the mulch. There are many types of mulches that you can use in the garden but consider using straw mulch for your entire garden, as it retains a lot of moisture and keeps the plants and garden looking clean.

Fertilize once per month with a balanced fertilizer, watering it in heavily after applying. Use about one pound per 50 foot row. If fertilizer is not available, or costs are prohibitive, side dress with newly finished and screened compost. If you have a large garden, you may already have a large compost heap cooking for future use.

Since there are a few insects that like to eat your broccoli as much as you do, use hanging sticky boards around the plants to control the flying insects like cabbage loopers. If the plants are infested with soft bodied insects like aphids, use a simple soap (dish soap) and water solution (about one teaspoon per gallon of water) to spray all over the plants, including under the leaves. If you are going to use a pesticide, please use it according to the label.

Harvesting can be a little tricky if you are doing it for the first time. The key is to wait until just before the flower buds on the head of broccoli open up. Don't let the flower buds swell up too much as it will be too late. Make sure the buds are still tight. Let the buds get as big as they can before you cut them. Broccoli will produce side shoots for multiple cuttings.

Broccoli is used in a variety of ways, including fresh. Lots of recipes for stir frying are available from multiple website cooking resources, as well as pasta, beef and chicken dishes that include broccoli too. It can be blanched and then frozen or canned up using a high pressure canner. No matter how broccoli is stored or prepared, you are sure to enjoy this wonderful vegetable from your own garden.

How to Apply a Pesticide Safely

The best way to apply a pesticide safely is to READ THE LABEL prior to purchasing one! 

All too often you hear that people have had adverse effects to their plants or their person after applying a pesticide. Pesticide labels have been put in place to protect the applicator as well as the environment.

There are people out there who think that if the label calls for one ounce of pesticide to a gallon of water, it must be better to use 2 or 3 ounces per gallon of water. This is not always the case. So, what should you do to protect yourself, your landscape or vegetable garden and your neighbors when applying a pesticide? READ THE LABEL!

While working for the San Diego County Department of Agriculture, I was taught that the label was the law. There’s a variety of information on a pesticide label that will allow you to apply it in the most effective manner. The following is a list of statements, if you will, that help you to make the very best decisions when a pesticide is needed.

First, let me say that the word “pesticide” is an umbrella word that covers insect controls, weed controls, disease controls, bio controls and more. When you are looking for any sort of control for things like rabbits, moles or gophers, you are looking for some sort of “vertebrate” pest control. So the words “pest control” is used to cover a lot of different control methods (methods that will kill or control a pest to an acceptable threshold).

All proper pesticide labels should contain the following:    
The brand name, like Sevin or Roundup.
The active ingredient and the percentage of the mixture.
The weight of the product.
“Keep out of reach of children.”
 A cautionary statement (i.e. Caution, Warning or Danger).
Storage and Disposal information (information that tells you how to store and dispose of the container when empty).
Pre Harvest Interval in days (if allowed to be used of food crops).
A list of the crops and ornamental plantings that the pesticide is allowed to be applied to.
A Precautionary Statement that includes what to do if swallowed, or if on skin or clothing. A note to physicians and First Aid treatments as necessary.
 Environmental Hazards – what the pesticide is toxic to (e.g. Birds and animals).
The rate you are allowed to use on individual pests for best results. (i.e. how many ounces per gallon or how many pounds per acre).
An EPA Registration Number
An EPA Establishment Number (the number given to the establishment that produces the pesticide).

The above list is posted in a variety of ways on different products, so, make sure you read the entire label before purchasing a pesticide. This way you will know if it is the proper product you need for the pest or pests you are trying to control.

Identifying the pest that you need to control is one of the single most important piece of information you can have prior to your selection of a pesticide. Without this information, you may certainly be wasting your time and money, and potentially do harm to someone of something. You do not need an Entomology degree from some prestigious facility of higher education to identify common insect pests. Searching online these days via Google can make you a better vegetable gardener by education yourself in this area.

Ask yourself these questions before you purchase a pesticide:
1. Will the product control the pest I have?
2. Have I read and do I understand the label? Do I understand how to protect myself before, during and after application?
3. Is the pesticide usable on the plants or food crops I am trying to control the infesting pest?
4. What are the safety precautions, reentry times and harvest intervals I should follow before application, during the application, after the application and prior to harvest?
5. What do I do in case of an emergency?
And finally…
6. Have I looked at other appropriate options?

If a product or a recommendation is given to you for a mixture of different home remedies that do not come with a label, I would use extreme caution and sound judgment prior to its use. So called “Homemade Organic Mixtures” are not always the best or safest approach to pest control and often times they may do more damage, or very little control, than traditional pesticide approaches.

Traditional pest control methods may not be the best approach either. It is very important for you to do your homework, and to know that whatever you choose to use to control a pest has a label to indicate all of the things necessary for you to do to control the pest, protect yourself, protect your neighbor and to protect the environment. ALWAYS use a pesticide product according to the label. It is YOUR RESPONSIBILITY TO READ AND UNDERSTAND THE LABEL PRIOR TO PURCHASING ANY PESTICIDE PRODUCT.

Authors Note: This article was written so as to give you information ONLY. The article was written to remind readers that it is the reader’s responsibility to use a pesticide within the limits of the label. The author cannot be held responsible for unsafe actions taken by a reader of this article, who misuses a pesticide outside of the limits of a pesticide label!