Dishing The Dirt: Under a Blanket of Blue
By Jeff and Eileen Bidwell
Isn’t it amazing? Not so long ago we were all lamenting the seemingly endless rainy season. Then, as quickly as it arrived last fall, the dark spell was broken as Mother Nature waved her magic wand and the skies were transformed to clear and blue, decorating our Ballard landscape in luminous colors that come in all shapes and sizes.
It was under this blanket of blue that the Ballard Master Gardeners opened our Gardening Clinic at the Ballard Sunday Farmers Market.
Growing Vegetables Successfully
We began our fifth year on Sunday, May 6th, and spent that day and May 13th answering questions from our Ballard neighbors under stunning blue skies. The first question of the year came from a woman who wanted to know the best time to start a vegetable garden, and what to plant. In various forms, this was the most commonly asked question on both clinic days.
If you are able to visit us on a Sunday, you will find a wealth of free information, including numerous Community Horticulture Fact Sheets published by the Washington State University Extension. We generally display and give away Fact Sheets of seasonal interest, but most can also be downloaded and printed from our website, kingcountymg.org. On the topic of Vegetable Gardening, our most popular Fact Sheets are: Fact Sheet #1, Choosing a Garden Site and Deciding When to Start Your Garden; Fact Sheet #8, Starting Crops Outdoors/Starting Crops Indoors (this one is especially helpful, as it includes a chart with Planting Dates, Seed Depths and Transplant Dates); Fact Sheet #2, Deciding What to Plant in Your Garden; Fact Sheet #32, Vegetable Cultivars for Western Washington; Fact Sheet #9, Vegetable Seed Starting and Spacing; Fact Sheet #52, Tips for Growing Tomatoes; and Fact Sheet #13, Organic Pest Control in the Vegetable Garden. If a Fact Sheet is not available to download, call 206-85-5104 and request that one be mailed to you.
Several Ballardites asked about planting veggies in containers. If you have limited space, don’t despair--you can still enjoy a lush garden with healthy, delicious vegetables, and save money, too. Simply consult Fact Sheet #39, Container Vegetable Gardens, which offers information on selecting containers, soil, fertilizer, crop selection, insects, diseases and weeds, watering requirements, and expert tips to enhance your success. This Fact Sheet even suggests what can be grown successfully in pots of various sizes.
For serious vegetable gardeners, we highly recommend Extension Bulletin EBO-422, entitled Home Vegetable Gardens, a comprehensive guide to growing edibles in our part of the world. Although we have mentioned this before, this extraordinary resource bears repeating.
Beautiful (and not beautiful) Bamboo
Another hot topic from our first two clinics was “How do I stop bamboo from taking over my lawn?”
Basically, there are two kinds of bamboo, running and clumping. Running bamboo is invasive, sending out underground runners, similar to grass, and spreading quickly across an area. Clumping bamboo is non-invasive and cold hardy. While it may still spread, it typically does not spread dramatically, and thus will not engulf your lawn or garden in a relatively short time.
The first step toward protecting your yard from a bamboo invasion is to install a barrier, available at garden centers, to contain the plants. If you spot bamboo sprouting up in your lawn, you can apply a spray of undiluted white vinegar to each sprout. Do not spray on a windy day, and avoid spraying the surrounding lawn, as vinegar will also kill grass. The vinegar is absorbed systemically throughout the underground mat. If properly applied, it will kill the bamboo without harming your lawn.
A non-invasive, low-maintenance alternative to bamboo is Nandina, or Heavenly Bamboo. While some varieties of this species grow to four or five feet, the mounding varieties maintain their shape with minimal pruning. Many Nandinas are also prized for their brilliant fall foliage.
Favorite Topic: Tomatoes
Now, more about tomatoes, the most overwhelmingly popular topic of conversation at our early season clinics. Patience is the operative word for growing healthy, high producing plants. Tomatoes require warm soil temperatures of at least 50 degrees. We generally plant our tomatoes around June 10th, when conditions are best. Blossoms become sterile in cold temperatures.
There are two types of tomatoes, determinate and indeterminate. Determinate tomato plants are bushier, producing all of their fruit within 4 -6 weeks. Indeterminate tomato plants grow taller and look like vines. They flower and fruit as long as they are healthy and the weather remains warm. Plant determinate varieties at least 2’ apart, and at least 3’ for indeterminates. Indeterminate tomatoes need generally require stakes, trellises or cage. These should be placed at planting time. Make sure these devices allow for adequate air circulation.
Due to our short growing season, select short, sturdy plants with 75 – 85 days to reach maturity. Whether your plants are grown indoors from seeds or purchased as starts, it’s essential to acclimate them. Place plants outdoors during the day a week prior to planting them in the ground, and bring them indoors at night. Avoid placing them in direct sunlight, as this may cause leaves to yellow.
When planting, choose the warmest, sunniest area of your garden. At least six hours of sunlight a day is optimal. Remove the lower leaves and bury up to 2” – 3” of the stem below the top leaves. Apply organic vegetable fertilizer (5-10-10) in either liquid or granular form.
To establish and strengthen root systems, it is important to pinch off early appearing blossoms and fruit, as these take away valuable energy from roots.
Apply mulch once plants are established to keep out weeds. Because tomatoes have shallow root systems, avoid weeding near the roots.
Tomatoes need an inch of water per week. Water your plants thoroughly at root level twice week. To prevent fungal disease, avoid getting the leaves and stems wet. Tomatoes in containers may need more frequent watering. Over watering discourages fruiting and affects the taste of the fruit.
At our first clinic, one Ballard neighbor asked us what to do with all the summer veggie starts she had recently purchased. We suggested she place them indoors in a warm, sunny place until the days and nights are warm enough for them to thrive outdoors. As our second clinic opened following some chilly Northwest nights, she returned to graciously thank us for the sound advice.
Enjoy a wonderful and productive gardening season, Ballardites!
See you at the market.
Jeff and Eileen Bidwell are King County Master Gardeners and long-time Ballard residents. You can find the Master Gardener Plant Answer Clinic at the Ballard Sunday Farmers Market every Sunday from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m., May 1st through September 25th. Read past articles, here.