Getting Ready for Spring

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Plum tree in the snow

As I write it is wet and snowy out, but I can see the swelling of the buds on the plum trees. There is a lot to do, if you want to be ready for the warm weather. I am a little late in writing this for my area, but for those of you north of me, still timely.

Fruit trees

nearly pruned apple tree 2 225x300 Getting Ready for SpringNot too late to prune. See my earlier article on that.

Spray dormant oil spray, which will smother emerging insects with a physical barrier rather than a poison. You will need a sprayer, and there are many kinds. If you have just a small garden you can get a small sprayer which holds a gallon or so, but I find a backpack sprayer frees your hands. You can get one for about $40-60, and 4 gallons is about all I can carry anyway. It has a hand pump on the side which you can work away at while scrambling around the trees. (Definitely prune before spraying.) The spray is sold concentrated, so designate a measuring tablespoon and hang it far from the kitchen. When using a sprayer be sure not to get any grass or dirt in it as this clogs the tip and then you have to stop and clear it. I use my sprayer a lot, primarily for applying a kaolin clay emulsion called Surround which I rave about- totally inert- you can eat it- but that can clog the sprayer occasionally.

With the oil spray- at our hardware store they sell Vollk- just mix in the oil, shake it a bit, pump your sprayer up to pressure, and wet each tree all over. If yo get a breeze- but try for a still day-, stand to windward. A fine spray gives better coverage to the smaller twigs. Do it now, as soon as you have pruned, and again after the buds open but before the blooms open. Then it will be time to stop freaking out about fungicides such as sulfur, copper, bacillus subtilis, and neem. In Maryland that is an issue. Here is the last article I wrote about sprays.

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Never mind the garden now- if you planted a fall and winter garden that will soon be giving you delicious greens and salads. You won’t be able to do more than scratch the dirt by hand for a while yet, but you can have seedlings ready to go when it warms up. I seeded onions, leeks, tomatoes and peppers indoors- see articles- in late January. February is still fine but we are going to Ecuador and I want them to be potted out and in the greenhouse before we go.

January 2014 192 300x225 Getting Ready for SpringSince I have an unheated greenhouse we eat greens all winter, but unless you get your lettuce to the eating stage by October, it will just sit there. However once the days lengthen my Egyptian onions, which are kind of perennial, and my broccoli start to take off, followed by the arugula and Chinese cabbages, which are planning to bolt shortly. Now the little lettuces which sat by all winter looking miserable are starting to grow, and I need to seed more. If I have too many I will tuck into the garden, since I noticed not too much of the lettuce I threw at the garden actually came up last fall. I will also seed some red cabbage

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amazing color and symmetry of a red cabbage

since the ones I seeded in the falll are actually heading up in the greenhouse. Brassicas can take a certain amount of frost- it actually sweetens them. Things like that should go in the garden once they are about 6 inches tall and the soil is workable. Here that would normally be late March early April, when it is cool and wet but not bitter, so they actually do some growing and establish their rooots. Be careful seeding too early; in very cool wet weather your seed may rot.

Using mulches to ready the garden for spring planting

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Note carpet mulch

I am gone a lot so I have gotten very inventive at avoiding weeding. I lay strips of old carpet between rows, which kills and composts any plants beneath them. Come spring, I simply pull up the strips and lay them on top of whatever I need killed, using the bare strip beneath to plant in. All winter it has been frost heaving so it has somewhat uncompacted itself after being walked on all summer. Now I take a weeding hoe, (favorite tools article) which is a nice little four pronged cultivating rake, scratch up the soil enough to plant seeds, and I’m done. If you rototill wet soil, it turns it to concrete, crushing all soil structure. Likewise with bone dry soil. Hoeing wet soil is difficult and has a similar effect. My solution works pretty well. The carpet strips I have used seem pretty stable as they have not come apart after eight years. Newspaper decays well, and they do use soy inks nowadays so that isn’t a problem, but you must use 3 layers for it to be effective, and it is time consuming and likes to blow away if not very securely weighted down with dirt or pinned down with landscaping pins, which then are lost all over the garden. I mostly tuck it between tomato and pepper plants, between pieces of carpet. Cardboard takes a long time to decay and may have plastic tape on it, so it isn’t a good solution for this purpose. It is however a great way to smother weeds if you are going to build a raised bed on top of it.


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nopales and verbena bonariensis

Honestly, you really need to seed many wonderful fowers outdoors in the fall or early spring, when seeds would naturally fall. Definitely read the package for each seed you plant.Some actually need to get cold. Many seeds are very tiny and must be pressed into the surface only.  I like to fill those plastic salad boxes with soil, seed them, and put the lid back on, writing date and contents with a permanent marker. Later you can punch holes in the bottom and use the lid as a saucer. Check whether they need light to sprout, and what temperature they like. Tiny plants like impatiens and nicotania need constant moisture to sprout and then misting. Really easy ones are zinnias, morning glories, sunflowers, snapdragons, hollyhocks, nasturtiums, sweet peas- all those great cottage garden flowers. Cardinal vines and moonflower vines are easy but you should give them a little scarification (scratch up the seed coat with an emory board, or rub them on concrete with the flat of your finger) and soak overnight in hot water first. If you get them going 6-8 weeks before they go in the garden, you’ll have flowers sooner.


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This is the most vicious black peppermint; mentha piperata var. nigra

Many herbs are easiest grown from a rooted cutting, but if you want to start a lot, as in for a big bed of thyme, start you seeds now. I use my salad box flats for thyme, lavender, ashwaghanda, and basil. Thyme and basil don’t mild a chill; in fact basil sprouts better when it isn’t too cold, but lavender is not fond of cold, soggy soil, and ashwaghanda likes heat. I usually start fennel, parsley and dill directly in the garden, since I have it in the greenhouse all winter anyway.

Other stuff

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artichoke plant

I really love artichokes, and with care and good drainage we can grow them in Maryland. Although I have been told that artichoke seed should be put in a bag of potting soil in the fridge for 6 weeks, and they do germinate very well that way, I have also seen them germinate without all that fuss. They have a tap root, so if I could I’d direct seed, but I can’t, because they need a long season. I start them in pots and plant them in my best, sheltered spot with the best drainage and all the honor I can convey. They are gorgeous- architecturally so, like a giant white thistle with brilliant purple chokes, if you let them blossom. One we had up against the house made about 40 buds, which we enjoyed enormously. It came back the next year, but died after that. A lady I know grew one for three years. This year I have one under a peach basket with a carpet over it.  It has been a hard winter so I am holding my breath.

As for all the other warm weather stuff, like cucumbers, melons, okras, etc., wait on that. You are going to get a more natural root structure if you direct seed, so do that if you can.

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Flowering quince in the snow


Fungal Blights and Organic Sprays

blog etsy and spring 2013 185 300x225 Fungal Blights and Organic Sprays Hi folks- I have been, and am, really busy with the spring garden as well as life so I have a lot backed up to write about!

What was really urgent for me today was saving the plums. If you follow me you know this tree, because I wrote about pruning it earlier. I went ahead and cut down the Santa Rosa, by the way, after it finished blooming. I have planted another plum which should be big enough to pollinate the Methley next spring.

We have had the coldest, wettest spring anyone remembers, – I still have radishes and the first ever Michili (Napa) cabbages! Now that it is warming up, and continuing to rain, the brown rot is hitting my plums hard. Actually, it loves warm humidity even more, but since it is now endemic, it just attacks when the fruit starts to ripen. Brown rot is pretty self descriptive. First you see a small dark bruise on the fruit, then it becomes a brown spot, then the spot spreads, and finally it creates little powdery bumps all over the rotten fruit. That’s when it is sporulating and contaminating more fruit.

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Brown rot spreads through affected fruit

Plums often grow in clusters so it spreads that way too. It creates a stickiness so that it can stay in the tree and mess up your crop next year too. Diabolical! I do collect the damaged fruit as much as I can, but so much is hiding in the grass that I can’t get it all. Of course the sprays do drip on the fallen fruit. Still, it stands to reason that if I see brown rot spreading from one fruit to another, if I remove any plums I see with signs of rot, that may save some fruit. It seems to work.

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25 lb bag of Surround

I have two chemical free weapons for this; Serenade and Surround. Serenade is a bacillus subtilis product which seems to stop the brown rot enough to save the crop. I mix 1/3 c. per gallon in my backpack sprayer. It smells a bit yeasty and looks like brown slime. The package says to cover up, use safety glasses and a mask. I tend to think that’s because that’s what people do when they spray chemicals. Perhaps it would be bad to breathe in b.subtilis. I cover up anyway, but I can tell you that I feel a whole lot less nervous getting Serenade on me than Captan or some such toxin.

Other great things to use for fungus are wettable sulfur, or Bordeaux mixture. Bordeaux mixture is best used as a preventative, so it is applied once a year in winter. It is not good to use too much copper as it will eventually build to toxic levels. Sulfur is safer, but not as strong. Neem is good too, although I generally sing its praises as a preventative for plum curculio, the evil beetle that makes those little crescent shaped scars at the top or base of the plum which usually make them drop off prematurely. However it is also reportedly a fungicide, and it is made from a tree in India which also is used in toothpaste.

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Surround is completely inert and safe to use

When you spray, make sure you are getting under the leaves as well and are spraying until the leaves drip. The best cheap sprayer I have had so far is a 4 gallon plastic backpack sprayer. I honestly forget the brand, and the label fell off last year. I think it is a Chapin or a Hudson.

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I’m not sure what brand this is; maybe Chapin or Hudson.

 They don’t generally last. Make sure you flush them out after every use.


You sling it onto your back and pressurize it with a handy lever arm on the left side. You have to keep pumping to keep the pressure up while you are spraying though. (There are battery powered ones. )To get up high the best sprayer is a trombone sprayer. Low tech and works. You mix up your product in a pail and put the sucker end in, then start sliding the tube up and down like a trombone. You can get up 30 feet. They are well made, but you will have to take the tip off a lot because if something falls in your bucket it will clog the sprayer tip.

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Surround on plums

I love Surround. It is totally inert; made of finely milled (15 microns) kaolin clay. You could eat it. It works as a particle film barrier to control both pests and fungal diseases. You mix up 3 cups to a gallon of water and pour it through a strainer into your sprayer. For me 2 gallons is enough for a big fruit tree. You can combine Neem with it. The nice folks at Bayer (hiss) don’t recommend mixing Serenade with it, although the guy who sold it to me in Floyd County, VA said he didn’t see why not. (At the time, Seven Springs Farm had the best price for Surround.) Anyway, when you spray a tree or plant with Surround, it looks like it has been slightly whitewashed, although this does not prevent photosynthesis. It confuses flying pests, and chokes the mouth parts and other apertures on crawling insects. It prevents sunscald. I am not sure how it prevents fungus, but it does. Perhaps the pH does it, or it makes the leaves dry faster. A man I heard at one of our MOFFA meetings said it prevents early blight on his Yellow Brandywine Tomatoes. That made me sit up- Yellow Brandywine is my absolute favorite tomato, as you will know if you follow this blog, but she is a bit finicky about dampness and I am always clipping off her bottom leaves. Of course the thing is you have to stay on it. Spray every 10 days is the norm, but if it rains you might have to respray, depending on how well the tree got washed. The gully washer we had last night was definitely a reason. The Surround does cling pretty well though.

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Just give up and eat mulberries

Deciding whether I am going to grow something difficult is an emotional choice, and it probably shouldn’t be. Maryland’s Eastern Shore is a paradise, but our warm, humid climate does make growing many fruit trees a challenge. Our winters don’t really freeze the bugs, and fungus thrives. Southern fruits like figs, which enjoy moisture, do very well, especially Brown Turkey and Celeste. Many old houses have nameless ancient fig trees that people try to propagate from, because they are historical as well as trouble free. The solution, really, is to grow what does well in your climate, and to look for disease resistant cultivars, like the Freedom apples that came out in the 80′s- Jonafree, Macfree, Liberty and Freedom, to name a few. My Liberty apple produces large red blemish free fruit with zero spraying so far. And it is very tart and tasty.  But gardeners long to grow the fantasy- a wonderful antique apple, a tender plum. I long for the crisp, silvery, magical Albemarle Pippin of my childhood. Our 2 Albemarle Pippins have not produced one decent apple in 18 years- they are longing for the Blue Ridge Mountains and have fireblight. I need to get on them with copper sulfate this winter. The moral of the story is, decide how much you want to twist yourself into knots to grow something, and know when you are not getting a good return on your investment.

In the meantime, I spray the safe stuff.