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Fruits & Vegetables

Dear Victory Garden

I just recently decided to have a garden for the first time in my backyard. The problem is I didn't use a sod cutter to take up the grass. Instead I used a rototiller to take up the grass and to till the soil at the same time. Now I have a mess of grass to clean up as it is all mixed in with the soil. Is it ok if I just leave some of the uprooted grass in the garden as I plant or do I need to rake every bit of grass clumps out? It's an area 15 feet by 20 feet and I am going to grow corn, kohlrabi, tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, peppers, etc. Do you have any advice if I have to get all the grass out? It looks like quite a tedious task to try and rake it all out. Thanks. — Brian, Chesterton, Indiana

Dear Brian,

Whether or not you have to get all the grass out depends somewhat on what you're trying to accomplish. The photo-ready vegetable gardens one sees in magazines are completely weed free (in that moment in time). If you want this look badly enough you need to get out every clump of grass.

An alternative is to focus on garden production. Grass in a vegetable garden has good points and bad points. The bad news is that it can shade out low sun-loving plants (like unstaked cucumbers). It also takes water and nutrients that would otherwise be available to the vegetables. And it can cool the soil—corn, tomatoes, and others like warm soil. It can also lower air circulation—air circulation slows some of the fungal diseases.

The good part of having grass in the garden is that it offers a broader environment for both the "good" bugs and the "bad" bugs in the garden. Aphids, caterpillars, etc. may decide to eat some grass instead of your plants. Good nematodes, ladybugs, praying mantises, etc. may be more abundant in a less disturbed environment. Also, if the grass is naturally low-growing, it can act as mulch and choke out taller weeds that would compete more with the vegetables.

Taking all this into account, most gardeners tend toward a more weed-free garden. Occasional, low-growing weeds are not a problem and not worth fretting about. The goal is to minimize the effort on your part required to get good vegetable production, and that means eliminating most weeds.

This year as your garden is actively growing, we'd encourage you to pull the more aggressive weed clumps bit by bit (e.g. go out every day and collect 10 clumps). By the end of summer, you will have significantly reduced the amount of grass without having really disrupted the garden.

This winter you have an interesting decision to make. If you re-till the soil it will break up some of the remaining clumps of grass, making them easier to pull up, which is good. It will also bring to the surface many dormant weed seeds and half-dead clumps of grass that have been buried. In the presence of sunlight these will grow exuberantly next spring and that is bad. I think if it were me, I would use the winter to top-dress with good organic matter and otherwise try to disturb the ground as little as possible. Good luck!

Dear Victory Garden

First of all I really like the vegetable garden part of your program. My question is that I have a plum tree that I planted about four or five years ago and I was wondering if it had to be a certain size before it starts to produce fruit or is there something I could do for it. It's healthy and it produces nice green leaves. It's about six feet high now so I'm hoping it will produce fruit this year. Thank you. — Patricia, Sydney Mines, Nova Scotia, Canada

Dear Patricia,

Many people get frustrated when fruit trees seem to take forever to bear fruit. It can take years for a fruit tree to become established enough to produce flowers, let alone fruit. Standard size plum trees take from three to six years to flower. The amount of sun can make a difference: fruit trees can survive in partial shade, but they will take longer to begin bearing fruit. Fruit trees require some nutrients to survive, but excessively rich soil or heavy fertilization may encourage branch and leaf growth at the expense of fruit production. All fruit trees benefit from annual pruning, if done in moderation. Pruning rejuvenates fruit trees and encourages the growth of fruiting spurs. Lack of regular, moderate pruning is one of the most common causes of no fruit production. Lastly, a particularly cold, windy winter can damage susceptible flower buds. Or they can be damaged by a late spring frost, especially if the buds have already begun to swell.

Dear Victory Garden

Do you have any info on growing fig trees? I planted a golden fig several years ago. It has not yielded any fruit. What am I doing wrong? — M.A., Fanwood, New Jersey

Dear M.A.,

Figs (Ficus carica) can be planted in the ground or containers. They normally require some protection from winter winds and cold temperatures if left outdoors in your area. Figs require at least eight hours of sunlight during the growing season. It is important to select cultivars that are tolerant of your conditions in the Northeast. Figs recommended for your climate include 'Brown Turkey,' 'Celeste,' 'White Marseilles,' and 'Conadria.' Of these, 'Celeste' is a little more tolerant of the cold. It is important to remember that the cultivar you select should be self-fruitful, not requiring cross-pollination. Many times, if plants are killed to the ground, they will re-grow from root sprouts.

It is not uncommon for figs to fail to set fruit or ripen properly. Figs have a long juvenile period, or length of time in which a plant will not produce fruit—possibly four years to five years. It is important to not over fertilize plants. A spring application of an organic fertilizer is sufficient for plants in the ground, but potted figs may require periodic feeding with a dilute, balanced fertilizer during the summer. Extreme heat and dry weather can cause poor fruit production and reduce quality. Specific varieties of figs may not pollinate in your area (e.g., California types). Heavy winter pruning will reduce fruit production.

Repot and root prune the plants every two to three years. Containers should be shaded in the heat of summer to reduce root damage and water loss. Bring the containers inside in late fall and keep them in a cool location with moist soil. After spring frosts, the containers can be brought outside once again and placed in a southern exposure.

Dear Victory Garden

When is a good time to trim limbs off of a flowering pear tree? — Kim, Miamisburg, Ohio

Dear Kim,

Most flowering pear trees are pruned in June or July after they have flowered. However, if you are taking an entire branch off the tree, almost anytime except winter will work. If a branch is diseased or damaged, even winter removal is satisfactory.

Dear Victory Garden

Can I use pressure-treated lumber to build a raised vegetable garden? — Joanne, Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania

Dear Joanne,

Until recently, the chemical most commonly used to preserve wood used outdoors was chromated copper arsenate, also known as CCA. Arsenate is a form of arsenic, a substance that is present naturally at low levels in soils and at even lower, trace levels in water, food, and air. Over a period of time, rain can leach arsenic from CCA-treated wood and potentially result in arsenic levels in the underlying soils, which might not be safe. This wood is also called "pressure-treated wood." In 2004 the EPA banned the use of CCA to preserve wood for residential use. An exception is that it can still be used for permanent wood foundations.

New EPA-approved chemicals without arsenic have replaced CCA for home and garden use. Most of new chemicals rely on copper, which isn't cheap. So to keep the cost reasonable, lumber now is treated according to its intended use, with the copper content in the preserving chemicals varying from around 20% to 95%. The price also varies accordingly. Tags listing appropriate end-use categories are stapled to the ends of the boards. It is still not clear if these are safe for long term use.

For more information, see http://www.toronto.ca/health/factsheet_ptw.htm.

Dear Victory Garden

How do you know when artichokes and eggplants are ready for harvest? — Pao, Los Angeles, California

Dear Pao,

The artichoke is actually an edible bud. It is harvested at an immature stage and selected for size and compactness. Overdeveloped artichoke buds begin to open or spread; the bracts may have a brownish cast and are tough and stringy; the artichoke hearts have a fuzzy, pink to purple appearance. Artichoke harvest begins in late July or early August and continues until frost. Once the flower buds form, do not stress the plant. Harvest buds when they reach full size but before the bracts (bud leaves) begin to open. Cut off the bud with two to three inches of stem. Continue to water and feed the plants.

Harvest the eggplant fruits when they are six to eight inches long and still glossy. Use a knife or pruning shears rather than breaking or twisting the stems. Many eggplant varieties have small prickly thorns on the stem and calyx, so exercise caution or wear gloves when harvesting. Leave the large (usually green) calyx attached to the fruit. When the fruits become dull or brown, they are too mature for culinary use and should be cut off and discarded. Over mature fruits are spongy and seedy and may be bitter. Even properly harvested fruits do not store well and should be eaten soon after they are harvested.

Dear Victory Garden

What is the best way to prepare my vegetable garden soil for spring planting next year? I have turned the soil and added peat moss. Should I add lime? — Wayne, Claymont, Delaware

Dear Wayne,

Although peat moss is a great soil conditioner, improving tilth and moisture retention, it doesn't really contain the nutrients that plants require. Since you have already added peat moss, you should now concentrate on adding compost, particularly compost that includes manure or other high-nitrogen material. Planting a cover crop of winter rye is another very good way to enhance your garden soil—it should be turned under very early in the spring. Adding dolomitic limestone on a yearly basis, generally speaking, is also a good idea because it provides calcium and magnesium and keeps the pH in the range most vegetables prefer, about 6.5. Generally speaking again, you will want to add some kind of balanced fertilizer in the spring prior to planting.

Dear Victory Garden

I want to build raised beds in my vegetable garden. What is the best material to use for the retaining wall? — Bob, Westport, Massachusetts

Dear Bob,

In the ideal world, my vegetable garden would have raised beds retained with 18-inch-high stone walls. Stone is imperishable, which means that once the walls were in place they would last for generations, at least. What's more, at a height of 16 to 18 inches, I would be able to garden sitting down! The garden I worked in this summer had large logs retaining the beds, and they might last 10 years or so, depending on the tree species that produced them. But frankly, provided the beds are well drained, are raked flat, and are not stepped on, retaining walls are not necessary at all. I used to tell people I didn't have raised beds, but rather sunken paths created by the pressure from my feet. Gravity is all that's really needed to keep a raised bed in place.

Dear Victory Garden

When should I plant Irish potatoes and sweet potatoes and how do I choose what variety to plant? When do I dig them up? — Rosa, Hillsborough, North Carolina

Dear Rosa,

In regard to planting times, it is usually best to ask an experienced grower in your local area, but there are a couple of things I can tell you. Irish potatoes can be planted a couple of weeks before your frost-free date, because you will be covering your seed potatoes with a couple inches of soil and it will take a few weeks for the sprouts to emerge. Sweet potatoes must be planted after your last frost, and companies that sell sweet potato slips usually ship them at that time. Choose varieties according to their catalog descriptions, going by stated qualities that appeal to you. If you are disappointed, then try different varieties the next year. Or ask a gardener in your area for recommendations. Irish potatoes can be harvested as soon as "new" potatoes form by rummaging with your hands under the growing plants. You will know the crop is as good as it is going to get when the plants begin to die down. Sweet potatoes are finished growing once frost has killed the vines.

Dear Victory Garden

I have seen past episodes where a winter cover crop is planted in the vegetable garden to restore nutrients to the soil and keep it in good condition for the spring planting. What types of crops are those? Can you plant seeds? — Laurie, Los Angeles, California

Dear Laurie,

In New England the winter cover crop we use is called winter rye. It doesn't actually restore nutrients to the soil, but it assimilates nutrients already there and preserves them till spring when the rye grass is turned into the soil as green manure, providing a beneficial dose of organic material. However, I'm not sure that winter rye is appropriate for your climate. You should contact a local organic growers association to find out what works best for coastal California. Buckwheat perhaps? This is something we would use as a summer cover crop. All cover crops are sown directly from seed.

Dear Victory Garden

I grow garlic every year and nice green shoots come up but never produce a bulb like the ones we buy in the supermarket. What should I do? Also, my pecan tree produces a good number of pecans, but they all fall off before the nut inside is developed. Advice? — Saleem, Sugar Land, Texas

Dear Saleem,

First of all, garlic is a heavy feeder and requires rich soil, with fertilizer and organic material, which should be prepared prior to planting. I suspect that you are planting your garlic cloves in the spring. Plant them in the fall, as you would tulips or daffodils, but only an inch or two deep. Mulch the bed with several inches of straw immediately after you plant. Green shoots should poke through the mulch in a few weeks. Harvest your garlic after it flowers and the leaves begin to turn yellow. As for pecans, we can't grow them here in New England, and so I know little about them. But pecans are an important commercial crop in the Southwest, and I'll bet someone at a regional agricultural college can help you solve your problem.

Dear Victory Garden

I'm replacing a six-year-old perennial garden with a vegetable garden next year. Besides pulling up the plants and the roots this fall, is there any other conditioning I need to do to the soil? — Catherine, Kittery, Maine

Dear Catherine,

Fall is the perfect time to establish a gardening space for use in the following spring. The best thing you can do is to incorporate lots of organic material into the soil: compost, leaf mold, decomposed manure, and, if the soil is particularly hard and lean, even peat moss. You can do this with a rototiller or with a spading fork. Since most New England soils are on the acid side, adding dolomitic limestone is probably a good idea. If you want to go the extra mile, then plant a cover crop of winter rye, to protect the soil from erosion and compaction during the winter—but remember, the ryegrass will have to be inverted with a spading fork come spring, and that's a lot of work, but well worth the effort if you are up to it.

Dear Victory Garden

I'd like to know more about creating an edible garden. Since we are moving to a small property, I want to make good use of the space. — Jan, Blyth, Ontario

Dear Jan,

If you are talking about using vegetables in the landscape, I have to say that I do not endorse the idea (because, for one thing, the cultural requirements for vegetables are quite different from those for landscape plants), but here are some ideas for growing edible plants in a limited space. It doesn't make much sense to grow ungainly crops such as winter squash, storage cabbage, or potatoes. I would grow greens such as mesclun, lettuce, and Swiss chard. I would also grow herbs. One plant of summer squash will pretty much supply all of that kind of fruit a family can use in a summer. Tomatoes are a must and determinate varieties with compact vines are a good choice for small spaces. A five-foot row of green beans, picked religiously, will provide a side dish two or three times a week for a month or more. If I hoped to have something to save for the winter, then I would grow a patch of storage carrots. It would be a good idea to read up on the French Intensive method of growing vegetables.

Dear Victory Garden

This summer I planted basil in an old cement tub. It did wonderfully. How can I store the excess basil, and is it safe to transplant one of the plants to a pot and bring it indoors so that I can have fresh basil all winter? — Joyce, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Dear Joyce,

Basil is easy to store. Run it through a food processor with a bit of olive oil, and then put it in plastic bags and into the freezer. Some people like to freeze it in ice cube trays before bagging it in order to have small portions available. If you want to make pesto in the wintertime, just thaw what you need and put it into the food processor again along with garlic and whatever type of nuts your recipe calls for. It's certainly safe to bring basil plants indoors for the winter, but I don't recommend doing so. Basil plants get rank and lanky, and produce too many flowers at the end of the season. If you want fresh basil in winter, then start some new plants from seed in the fall.

Dear Victory Garden

I like your accurate and straight-forward advice so far. Could you help me; I am having terrible trouble trying to start dill, marjoram and basil indoors. The seeds sprout, but they are so thin, seem to reach for the sun (southern exposure), are alive for a bit, and then they wither and die. I especially would like to grow lavender; my ancestors lived in Provence, France, and it grew on their property in profusion years ago. Thank you so much. — Adrienne Acton, Maine

Dear Adrienne,

Thanks for the compliment, and I hope I can help. The problem you have sounds very much like a fungal disease called "damping off" common to young seedlings. The fungal spores, which are often present in un-sterilized soil, attack the seedlings' stems just above the ground level, and for all intents and purposes, simply mow them down. It's very discouraging, and there's really no cure once the process has begun. The trick is to prevent the problem in the first place: use sterilized soil-less mix (available at garden centers) and make sure you have clean pots and garden tools. (Old pots and tools can be washed with a light bleach solution to clean them.) For good measure, especially for certain plants like petunias, which are prone to damping off, I like to use a common liquid fungicide (also available in garden centers), which you water into the seeds after planting. This practically eliminates the problem.

Dear Victory Garden

What herbs and fruits can thrive in desert locations? — Elisabeth, Tucson, Arizona

Dear Elisabeth,

Many herbs and fruit will thrive in the desert (and I don't just mean prickly pears) as long as they receive sufficient water. I have seen rosemary plants used as edging in residential neighborhoods of Tucson. I have eaten lemons and pomegranates harvested in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains, and I see no reason why you shouldn't be able to grow figs in this region as well. You owe it to yourself to pay a visit to the Tucson Botanical Gardens, where they maintain an herb garden. While you're there you may be able to get advice and more ideas from people who are actually experts on desert gardening.

Dear Victory Garden

I have several terra cotta pots that have contained plants that have died. I would like to reuse these pots. Should I clean the pots? If so, what should I use to clean them? I would like to use the pots for herbs and vegetables. What kind of soil should I use and what kind of plants would work best? I live in an apartment, so space is limited. I have a deck that faces the west, so my plants will get lots of afternoon light. Thank you for your help. — Sarah, Bellevue, Washington

Dear Sarah,

Of course you can reuse your pots. Cleaning them never hurts! Rinse them out with a mild bleach solution and lots of water.

Vegetables, unlike a lot of ornamentals, require a lot of soil volume to be grown successfully. Use a larger sized pot that's 18-24" in diameter. Soil-less mix is a terrific planting medium that's the best choice for containers. For good results, mix up to 1/3 part compost into the soil-less mix. Be sure to add a balanced fertilizer as well, as most vegetables are heavy "feeders." What to plant? Generally, vegetables that can be harvested over a long period are probably a good choice. Tomatoes, lettuce and other greens for cutting are great. Herbs work exceptionally well in containers, and you can use smaller pots for an attractive display. These can also be brought indoors for use throughout the winter.

Dear Victory Garden

I really appreciate the resource you provide. I'm a novice gardener and would like to learn more about growing an apple tree from seeds. There's a tree here that produces the ugliest, tastiest apples I've ever come across. The trees are about 40 years old, I think, and no one in this area (Provo, Utah) seems to know what they are. They're firm, about half green and half red, and taste like a crisper Granny Smith. I'm relocating to Idaho, and would like to take them with me. I have seeds, but how do you start a tree? Is it like growing anything else? How would I go about this? I would really appreciate any information you could give me. — Shaun, Firth, Idaho

Dear Shaun,

Without a picture, it's hard to tell, but the variety you describe sounds much like Wolf River. To quote Creighton Lee Calhoun, Jr.'s wonderful Old Southern Apples: "Wolf River originated with William A. Springer, a Quebec lumberman. About 1856, Mr. Springer moved his family by wagon from Canada to Wisconsin. On the way, on the shore of Lake Erie, he bought a bushel of large apples, probably Alexander. Mr. Springer saved some seeds and planted them when he reached his farm, which was located on a little stream called Wolf River near Fremont, Wisconsin. Wolf River originated from one of these seeds. ... The fruits are large to very large ... often irregular ... angular and ribbed; the skin is pale yellow or greenish ... with splashes of red." Not only does this description fit the apple in question pretty well, but the story of how the variety came about illustrates the difficulty in growing apples from seeds. As each apple is a product of a random cross-pollination, the only way to assure getting the same variety is to take a slip of your tree and start a new one from the graft. While this sounds complicated, it really isn't, and there are dozens of good guides out there that can take you step by step through this process.

Dear Victory Garden

I just moved into my current home last fall and now that spring is here I have a plant that looks and smells like some variety of basil. It is growing randomly in one patch. How can I know if it really is basil? Thanks. — Jennifer, Peterborough, New Hampshire

Dear Jessica,

Buyer beware on this one: basil is a tropical plant that never winters over in Peterborough, New Hampshire. It is possible that some seeds might have made it through the winter and sprouted, but I certainly wouldn't trust it. You could take the plant to a local garden center for an ID, but personally, given the fact that basil costs pennies per plant, I would simply sow a few plants of my own from a known source, and admire your "wild" basil from afar.

Dear Victory Garden

I have been a gardener for all my 48 years, but for the past two years the squash plants turn white and dry. I use natural compost, dry cow manure, and lime too. The earth is black gold for all my other veggies. Thanks. — Douglas, East Longmeadow, Massachusetts

Dear Douglas,

The most common pest of squash is the squash vine borer, which tunnels into the vines, often causing the entire plant to wilt and die. Since the bugs are inside the stem, they are extremely difficult to see. There are several other insect pests which trouble squash as well; most can be defeated by growing your plants under row cover. Start your plants indoors, then transplant them outdoors after all danger of frost has passed. Immediately protect them with spun row cover. Here at the Victory Garden we make small 3' x 3' tents using heavy guage wire half circles, and cut-out pieces of row cover, with rocks to hold the edges of the fabric down. The plants will soon start to outgrow this protection, but by the time these tents need to be removed, the egg-laying season for most squash pests is already over.

Dear Victory Garden

My zucchini are growing nicely and have many blooms. However, no fruit is developing on the vines. I have tried spraying bloom set on the bloom but it is not helping. Could you please tell me what to try? — Tonda, Las Vegas, Nevada

Dear Tonda,

The blossom set spray you mentioned, which is a natural plant hormone product used mostly on tomatoes, may not be effective, or as effective, on zucchini. It sounds like your problem is a lack of insect pollinators. I would try pollinating the plants myself: take a small brush to remove some pollen from the male flowers and transfer it to the female flowers. (The female flowers are shaped slightly differently than the males, with a small ovary at the base of the stem that resembles a miniature fruit. The male flowers lack this feature.) If you can't decipher which is which, simply spread the pollen from several blossoms to every open bloom, and that should cover your bases. Hope that helps!

Dear Victory Garden

My vegetable garden is not growing. I give it plenty of water and tilled in peat moss before planting. All the plants are staying small and producing small, if any, product. This has happened two years in a row. Some yellowing of leaves has also occurred. I have heavy clay soil but the first year it grew well. Have I leached the soil of nutrients? — Mike, Grand Junction, Colorado

Dear Mike,

If the information you have given is complete, I think I know what your problem is. It's not a bad idea to add peat moss to clay soils, but composted manure in addition to the peat moss is an even better idea because peat moss contains no nutrients to speak of — it's just a soil conditioner. I don't think you've leached the nutrients from the soil; rather, I think your crops used up whatever was there the first year, nitrogen in particular. You should add a balanced fertilizer to your garden every season, or every time you plan to grow a new crop. And the pH of your soil should be checked. Though western soil is likely to be somewhat alkaline, the peat moss you've added may have brought the pH below the ideal 6.5.

Dear Victory Garden

How often and how much fertilizer does a cucumber plant need in order to survive and bear healthy fruits? — Jennifer, Beverly Hills, California

Dear Jennifer,

Like most vegetables, cucumbers are very heavy feeders; plus they prefer a soil rich in organic matter. So before planting, I like to work at least 3 inches of compost into the soil, as well as a slow release fertilizer that will continue to feed all season. (You can find slow release fertilizers at any garden center; simply follow the directions on the label as to application rates.) In my garden we start our cucumbers indoors from seed in the greenhouse; conversely, you may also direct sow or purchase plants from a nursery. In any event, after planting be sure to heavily mulch the area to prevent weeds and conserve moisture. Sufficiently watered and tended, you should have a great crop next year!

Dear Victory Garden

Is there a type of artichoke that will grow in Missouri? Also, what can I do to perk up the growth of my avocado trees? One more question: What can I do to keep armadillos out of my flower beds? — Brian, Branson, Missouri

Dear Brian,

The problem with growing globe artichokes where they are not winter-hardy is that they are biennials; that is, they need two seasons before they can produce those large flower buds we love to eat. However, there is a variety named 'Imperial Star' (available from Johnny's Selected Seeds, FYO) which will produce buds the first year provided that they are vernalized, tricked into "thinking" they have gone through a winter by being exposed to temperatures around 50°F for eight to 10 days. Full instructions are printed on the seed packet. Avocado trees should, like all plants do, respond to fertilizer. You can probably find the specific pH requirement, the proper nutrient ratio, and application rate on the Internet. As for armadillos, that's one garden pest I've never had to deal with. You should ask other gardeners in your area what to do about them.

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Updated March 5, 2009