Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Tips For Starting Your First Backyard Garden

If you're new to backyard gardening and want to start growing vegetables, 

    here are some tips:
Location, location, location: Give the garden a sunny spot. Pick a garden location that gets at least six hours a day of full sun. Good drainage is key. That's why raised beds are so popular (that, and the soil in raised beds warms up sooner in the spring). Make sure a source of water is nearby. And, a location that is easily seen on a regular basis from a house window (esp. the kitchen), is a good reminder of what's out there and what needs to be done.

Know your soil. Do a pH test (which measures the relative alkalinity or acidity of the soil), or a full soil test. One of the best bargains for a complete soil test is the University of Massachusetts. They will analyze your soil for under $20 (at this writing). They also include an interpretation of what all those measurements mean to you.

• Amending the soil with a good quality compost is a great idea, if your soil has never been amended. Rototill in a cubic yard of compost for every 300 square feet of garden. That is a rule of thumb that I follow. After the first growing year, no rototilling is necessary. Just add a few inches of compost to the top of the soil; let the winter rains work the compost in.

• Fertilize the soil. I prefer to use low-dosage organic fertilizers, such as a mix of fish emulsion and sea kelp. There are plenty of great all-in-one organic fertilizers on the market labeled for use in vegetable gardens. Be sure to follow the label directions. If using a non-organic granular fertilizer (such as a 10-10-10- formulation), put a tablespoon in the bottom of the planting hole, cover with a couple inches of soil, and water in thoroughly. Don't let the sensitive roots of the tomatoes and peppers come in direct contact with the fertilizer. If you'll be using a water soluble, non-organic fertilizer on an every-other-week or monthly basis, use half the recommended amount for this first feeding.
Oregon Spring V

Good sources of information:

The UC Davis Vegetable Research and Information Center is a good website with more garden starting info.

For California gardeners, the Farmer Fred interactive Vegetable Planting Calendar is a good guideline for when to plant. Also, clicking on the individual vegetables brings up information on how to grow it.

That's the basics! What you plant is up to you and your family's appetites. 

Read on for more detailed gardening information for the first timer:

Peppers spaced 2 feet apart. They WILL fill the bed! Trust me on that.
For tomatoes and peppers:

• Plant tomatoes deeply. Pinch off the lower leaves of the plant and bury the tomato deeply, leaving only the top four sets of leaves above ground. New roots will form along this underground, stripped section. If it's a very tall plant, dig a trench, lay the plant on its side in the trench, and bend the top section up (carefully) to stand above the soil level; fill in the trench.

Tomatoes spaced three feet apart. They also WILL FILL THE BED.

  • Give tomatoes room. Full-size tomatoes grow on vines that can reach five feet high or more. Plant them three to four feet apart. Prepare a staking system now while they're still manageable.

  • Plant peppers no deeper than the soil level of the pot it came in. Peppers can be spaced two feet apart.

Water. Don't let the soil dry out while the roots are getting established. During the warmth of summer, water tomatoes and peppers regularly, keeping the soil evenly moist. One common problem with tomatoes, blossom end rot (the bottom of the tomato turns brown and mushy), can be traced in part to irregular watering habits. Deep, infrequent waterings (once or twice a week) with drip irrigation or soaker hoses work great. An added benefit: drip systems and soaker hoses can be hooked up to a battery operated timer, watering these summertime treats while you're vacationing.
When deciding where to plant your vegetable garden, choose the best available location by keeping the following factors in mind:

When is the soil ready to plant? You may have little choice concerning the soil type available to you, but you can use a simple test to find out whether your soil is in good condition for planting. Squeeze a handful of soil to test for moisture content. If the squeezed soil forms a clump, the soil is too wet to work. If you work soil that contains this much moisture, it might form into hard, cement-like clumps, which can cause problems for the remainder of the year. If the soil crumbles easily when it is squeezed, it is in an ideal condition to work. However, if that handful of soil is bone dry, water the area thoroughly a day or two before working or planting the soil.

Broccoli in the Winter Garden
 The Year-Round Garden. In California, there are 3 to 4 seasons, depending on your location, in which vegetables can be grown. Yet, many gardeners grow only summer crops. By planting a spring crop, a summer crop, and a fall crop, a gardener can get 3 crops from the same space.


Level ground is best for growing vegetables. It is easier to prepare, plant, and irrigate than sloping ground. If you must plant on sloping ground, run rows across the slope, not up and down, to keep the soil from washing away during irrigation.

Preparing a Garden Plan
It is best to plan on paper before planting your garden. A well-planned garden can provide fresh or preserved vegetables for use all year.  

Plant perennial crops, such as rhubarb and asparagus, to one side of the garden so that the plants are not disturbed by preparations for future crops. Plant tall crops, such as corn and pole beans, on the north side of the garden so that they will not shade low-growing crops.

Trellising and staking. Do not grow horizontally what you can grow vertically. Twining crops, such as tomato, squash, cucumber, and pole beans, use a great deal of space when allowed to grow along the ground. Trellises, stakes, or other supports minimize the ground space used and increase garden productivity. Support materials can consist of wood, extra stakes, twine, or a nearby fence.


For the beginning vegetable gardener, choose more hybrid seeds than heirlooms. Hybrid vegetables are bred to have more disease and pest resistance, as well as larger yields. Heirloom varieties have more unique shapes and flavors, but can be problematic for the first time gardener. Sure, buy some heirlooms for the flavor; but for your first garden, plant mostly hybrids. After that, you may prefer the flavor of the heirlooms. I still plant a mix of both.

Succession planting consists of sowing seeds of a given crop at 1- to 2-week intervals to produce a continuous supply of vegetables. Corn, beans, lettuce, turnips, and beets are well suited to this practice.

Intercropping involves planting early-maturing crops between the rows of late-maturing crops to increase production in a small area. For example, beans, radishes, green onions, spinach, or leaf lettuce may be planted between rows of tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, or corn. The quicker-maturing crops will be harvested before the others become very large.

What to Plant
Plant enough of each vegetable crop to meet your family's needs for fresh, stored, and preserved supplies. When choosing vegetable varieties or hybrids, consider such factors as disease resistance, maturity date, compactness of plant, and the size, shape, and color of the vegetable desired. Refer to the individual vegetable links on the Farmer Fred Interactive Vegetable Planting Calendar for variety recommendations.

You only need a few, good quality tools for a small home garden:

Trowel. One of the handiest garden gadgets, it is useful for transplanting and for loosening soil around plants.

Shovel. Use a round-edged shovel for digging.
Spade or spading fork. Use to turn the ground, to turn under organic matter, and to break up large clumps of soil.

Rake. Use to smooth out the soil after spading and after preparing the seedbed. You can also use it for clearing up rubbish and removing small weeds.

Hoe. Use to remove tough weeds and to cover seeds after planting. When turned sideways, you can also use a hoe to dig a V-shaped row for planting.

Following these simple guidelines will keep your tools in good condition:

Clean tools after each use. A putty knife, jet nozzle on a hose or a wire brush is good for scraping off dirt. If tools get rusty, soak them in kerosene for a few hours, then use a wire brush or fine sand to scrub off the rust. Oil them with a light lubricant after cleaning.

Keep cutting tools sharp. The basic sharpening tool for hoes, pruners and shovels is an 8" mill file.

Keep tools in a dry place to prevent rust.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Seed Starting Tips for Tomatoes, Peppers

Every summer, I make the same promise to myself: "Next year, fewer tomato and pepper plants!" And every winter around this time, I try to start small. But somehow, things get out of control...

Late January through February is the ideal time here in Northern California for starting tomato and pepper seeds indoors. And while you're at it, why not start a few others, such as more cool season leaf crops and summer annual flowers from seed. Those leaf crops (lettuce, spinach, chard) can be transplanted outdoors after about three weeks worth of growth indoors (take a few days to gradually introduce them to the outdoors, perhaps bringing them and their containers back in at night).

Those tomato and pepper plants, along with the summer flowers you started from seed? Keep them protected, indoors, until mid-April. Then, gradually acclimate them to the outdoors as well.

The main problem with outdoor planting of tomato and pepper plants this time of year? Soil temperature. Those summer vegetables do not start actively growing until soil temps reach the mid-60's, and don't really take off with food production until soil temperatures are above 70. Right now? Soil temperatures are hovering around 50 degrees here in the Sacramento area.

Another good reason to delay outdoor planting of those young vegetables until late April-early May: the wind. March is a very windy month in the Central Valley, with northerly winds hitting 20-30 miles per hour, for several days.

What you need to start your seeds:
• A sunny, indoor window or greenhouse.
• Small pots or flats with good drainage. Clean thoroughly.
• An easy draining, pathogen-free soil mix, preferably soilless.
• No greenhouse? Use good quality light fixtures.
• Air movement.
• Small amounts of fertilizer.
• Seed heating mat (optional).

If you are starting your seeds indoors, you would benefit from an extra lighting system, such as fluorescent bulbs hung a few inches above the plants. If the light source is too far away, the plants will get leggy.

I like to use 3"- 4" azalea pots for starting seeds of tomatoes and peppers. I will plant three or four seeds per pot. When they come up and put on two sets of leaves (about three weeks after germination), I'll transplant them to their own pot.

(NOTE: this is how a small number of plants becomes wayyyyy too many, in a hurry!).
Those old six packs and partitioned flats are ideal for starting green, leafy crops. Thin out the seedlings so that there is only one remaining in each cell.

The real key to seed starting success? The soil. More exactly, the soilless mix. Using soil from your garden to start seeds is filled with threats to seed survival: competition from weed seeds, soil-borne diseases, and too heavy a soil. Damping off, a common malady of new seedlings, is due to cool, wet, heavy soil, a perfect environment for pathogens, especially pythium.

Using a soilless mix to start seeds helps avoid introduction of those pathogens. You can purchase bags of "Seed Starting Mix" at your favorite nursery. 

Or, make your own. The recipe I use:

4 parts well aged compost
2 parts peat moss or coir (be sure to thoroughly moisten the peat moss first)
1 part perlite (aids drainage)

If you are worried that the mix you are using is too heavy, you can help your seeds get off to a good start with bottom heat, via a seed heating mat. These are especially useful for germinating pepper seeds, which need higher temperatures to germinate.

Put the seed starting mix in each pot or flat, and then thoroughly soak it. Although it isn't necessary for starting seeds, you can add a diluted liquid fertilizer at this time. I tend to use fish emulsion (5-1-1 NPK) and a sea kelp product, which promotes root production. Generally, there is no need to fertilize until the seed has produced two sets of true leaves. 

"True Leaves" look like the finished product. The first two leaves that emerge from a seed are usually oval shaped cotyledons, which are embryonic leaves.

The seeds are planted just below the soil surface in each pot, no more than a half inch deep.

Once the seeds are up and growing, introduce some air movement into the room, such as a house fan. This helps the new plants avoid diseases. And, air movement can help strengthen tomato stems, according to Debbie Flower, professor of horticulture at American River College, where they use fans in their greenhouses, for up to 16 hours a day.

Coming in March: those containers of tomato and pepper starts will easily become many more containers of tomato and pepper plants, after separating out the three or four starts per container.

Yep, another year of too much.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Growing Blueberries in Containers

Last year was a bit of a disappointment for summertime tomato growers here in Northern California. An abnormally long, cool spring and summer led to a late, small crop of those desirous red orbs. The weather, however, was perfect for the latest addition to many backyard gardens here: blueberries!

The 2011 blueberry harvest from our six plants was outstanding; there was plenty for us, as well as the birds (note: this spring, add netting).

The development of southern highbush blueberry varieties meant we could start growing this tasty fruit. Up until about 15 years ago, blueberry growing was relegated to the cooler, more humid climates.

 According to the UC Cooperative Extension, rabbiteye blueberries grow in the southeastern part of the country and thrive in hot, humid weather but are not cold hardy. Lowbush blueberries grow in the northeastern states and Canada. Northern highbush blueberries grow from Florida to Maine and the northern tier states and have a high chilling requirement that limits their adaptability.  

Southern highbush blueberry varieties have a low-chill requirement and are heat tolerant. Although they are self-pollinating, blueberry fruit set will increase and berries will be larger if two varieties are planted together. Most varieties grow 4 to 6 feet tall here. A few, such as Sunshine Blue (3'), are more compact.

A UC Master Gardener variety trial in Santa Clara found that the following varieties grew the best, produced the biggest crops, and had good to excellent flavor: ‘Reveille’, ‘Misty’, ‘Sunshine Blue’, ‘Bluecrop’, ‘Georgia Gem’ and ‘O’Neal’. Other varieties that may also work well include ‘Blue Ray’, ‘Cape Fear’, ‘North Blue’, ‘Ozark Blue’, and ‘Sharp Blue’. 

In our yard, we have had success with Sharp Blue, Jubilee, South Moon, Blue Ray,  Sunshine Blue and Misty.

The southern highbush blueberries will thrive in containers, as long as you keep a few basics in mind:

• Plant blueberries in a good-sized container. You can start them off in five gallon containers, but a 15-gallon or larger is preferable. We use watering troughs from the local farm supply store. With holes cut in the bottom, of course.

• Give them acidic soil. Use a one-third mix of potting soil intended for camellias and azaleas, peat moss, and small pathway bark, along with a handful of soil sulfur. This will give the blueberries their ideal pH growing range of 5.5.

• Blueberries need consistently moist soil, but be sure the pot has good drainage.

Blueberry flowers
• Because containers can heat up here in the summer, place them where they can get some afternoon shade.

• Feed blueberries with an organic fertilizer. Apply during the blueberry-growing season, late winter through summer.
Organic fertilizers such as blood meal, cottonseed meal, fish meal, and alfalfa meal can be applied at a rate of 1 pound per plant.

• Having several containers with different varieties will improve pollination and give you an extended harvesting season. If you want a sure choice, go with Sunshine Blue. Although a smaller shrub (about three feet tall), it has very low winter chill requirements and tolerates higher pH soils better than other varieties.
Ripening Dates for San Joaquin Valley (source: UC ANR)

The University of California advises growers of blueberries in containers to replace the soil with fresh potting mix as well as root prune the plant every 3 to 4 years.

Pruning Blueberries. Even though most of the blueberry bushes intended for here only get about five feet tall, they would benefit from some judicious pruning. According to the American Horticulture Society book, "Pruning and Training", blueberries should be pruned in late winter, when the fruit buds are readily distinguishable. Prune back the shoots growing horizontally and any weak growth, cutting to an upright shoot or low bud. Prune out the oldest and weakest wood near the base of the plant to encourage strong new growth and remove any growth spreading out toward the ground. Cut out no more than a quarter of the bush annually.

However, as we know, all gardening is local. That pruning advice is intended as general guidelines for a nation of blueberry growers. What about the blueberry gardener here in the Central Valley?

Ed Laivo, Sales Manager at Devil Mountain Nursery in Clements, has some different ideas, based on his own experience. "For our area, the southern highbush blueberry varieties are best," says Laivo. "Most advice refers to the northern highbush blueberry. The southern highbush blueberry is more tolerant of our heat and lower humidity, doesn't require as much winter chill and has been bred to be planted in the ground in full sun here."

Blueberry branches have a limited number of productive years, perhaps two or three. Laivo says to remove them after Year Two. "For major pruning, I wait until February, before the buds open," advises Laivo. "Then, I'll prune back the plant lightly after harvest to keep the plant in bounds."

Contrary to the advice in the American Horticulture Society book, Laivo says that the winter pruning can be as much as 50% of the plant. "But try to remove totally any branch that is over three years old. Those won't be very productive. By pruning those out, you'll spur new branch growth at the base."

And if a blueberry planting is in your future garden plans, Laivo says to get more than one. "Blueberries will yield a much bigger crop when paired with another variety," he says.

Laivo also advises planting blueberries in large containers, not in the ground. That way, you can give the plants the exact soil they need. "The trick is the soil mix," says Laivo. "Blueberries like a low pH around 5.5. And they like to grow in actively decomposing organic matter."

That's an important point for those who plant the southern highbush blueberries in the ground. Blueberries benefit by incorporating well-decomposed organic matter into the soil. And the best organic amendment? Compost. Blueberries are in the same family as azaleas and rhododendrons (Ericaceae); wherever those plants are thriving in your yard is probably a good location for the southern highbush blueberries.

In a year or two, your biggest concern after planting these shrubs may be: what can I do with all the fresh blueberries? 


How about blueberry smoothies! 

Our recipe for this quick to make treat:

1 Cup Blueberries
2 Cups Orange Juice or Apple Juice
1 ripe banana
1 Cup Yogurt
1/4 Cup skim milk
1 Tbs protein powder (optional)

Blend, and enjoy!

Sources for southern highbush blueberry information:
Dave Wilson Nursery
Fall Creek Nursery