Friday, May 22, 2015

Uneven Spring Growth? Could be the MGM

Manufactured Growing Medium (MGM) is the stuff urban gardeners and farmers often use when soils are degraded, compacted, infertile, or missing in action. Leafy greens can be produced in 100% compost or leaf mould (as long as they are watered and fertilized as needed) but most other crops grow best in a blend (MGM) of two or more ingredients such as compost, soilless "potting mix," and topsoil. MGMs vary based on the type and amount of individual ingredients.

I visited a small urban grower this week who was seeing some growth variation in leaf crops grown in a compost-topsoil blend. The transplants were uniform in size and appearance, and grown in a commercial greenhouse. Weeks later the grower noticed that all plants had good color but some were smaller in size and these seemed to occur randomly. Soil pH was 7.0- no problem there. Drainage was ok and there were no signs of root or stem diseases, or insect feeding.

The MGM contains small pieces of bark and wood, along with pebbles, clumps of clay, and partially decomposed organic matter. The physical, chemical, and biological properties of the MGM may vary enough to cause growth differences depending on the location of the plant and its root system in the beds. This problem will probably smooth out over the next year with cultivation, freeze/thaw cycles, addition of fertilizers, and further breakdown of the organic components.

Same site. These three 1/2 barrels were filled with MGM from the same large pile. Kale plants in the container on the right are much smaller than kale plants on the left.  A non-uniform MGM could cause uneven growth!

MGMs are going to become more important as urban food production expands. Before making a purchase ask for test results and  examine the product closely.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Wisdom from the Pizza Garden

Ashley Bodkins (University of Maryland Faculty Extension Assistant & Master Gardener Coordinator, Garrett County) gave a great presentation yesterday on creating a pizza garden, the latest installment in the series Garrett County Vegetable Gardening Classes and EventsA pizza garden is not the successor to spaghetti growing on trees J; it’s a theme garden based on planting toppings one might want for a pizza (sorry, no pepperoni). The basic idea is to take a circular plot and section it off into six “slices” and then plant something in each section. The typical “ingredients” in a pizza garden are tomatoes, onions, peppers, parsley, basil, and oregano. If you want to build a bigger pizza garden, additional possibilities include garlic, rosemary, and wheat.

Nearly every attendee shared a piece of gardening wisdom:
  • Plant onions close together, and then harvest every other one for spring onions
  • If you want a perfectly developed onion, look for 13 leaves—the larger the leaf, the larger the bulb will be
  • If you have limited space, try a high producing variety of basil such as Pesto Perpetuo (Ocimum basilicum citriodorum)—these columnar plants can grow up to 4 feet tall!
  • If you take steps to protect your parsley over the winter, it will come up the second year (even in Garrett County!).  Otherwise, this biennial is an annual
  • The more you pinch oregano, the bushier it will get
We even had a couple of pieces of wisdom on the additional “ingredients”:
  • Hardneck varieties of garlic produce a false flower stalk called a scape—pick the scapes when they start to curl and then chop them and use them in place of garlic or spring onions (FYI, there are a number of interesting posts on garlic scapes on the blog—just search "scape" in the singular and plural)
  • Most home gardeners are not going to grow, harvest, and process wheat but winter wheat would make an awesome cover crop for the whole pizza garden 
I’m going to twist Ashley’s arm to post a summary of the information she presented on tomato diseases—stay tuned!

Thursday, May 14, 2015

100 square foot garden - Derwood 2015!

This is a guest post by Mary Anne Normile, Montgomery County MG heading the 100 square foot garden team at our demonstration garden.

As you walk down the main path of the Derwood Demonstration Garden, you may have noticed something different about the 100 Square Foot Garden. The last few years, the team has tinkered with variations on a basic four-square design, planted intensively to try to maximize vegetable production in a small space. This season a new design, conceived by MG and 100 Square Foot gardener Hope Dieckhans, allows for better flow and makes it easier to reach into the center of beds while providing greater visual interest.  The four corner beds, plus the central circular bed, total 100 square feet of growing area.

Our objective has changed slightly, too. Rather than demonstrating how to maximize production in a small space, this year we are trying to demonstrate ways to bring creativity into a small garden while growing a broad variety of vegetables and showcasing intensive techniques.

This year’s garden is an international garden, with each of the four corner beds devoted to growing vegetables found in Italian, Latin American, French, and Asian cuisines. The center circular bed is home to the “International Hub of Veggies,” with a bamboo teepee for growing vertical crops like peas, beans, or cucumbers. Using succession planting, a three-season garden is planned.

Broccoli and arugula in the Italian bed
Asian bed with bok choy, mustard, komatsuna and mizuna
Spring crops are currently featured, with arugula, broccoli, and fava beans in the Italian bed, cilantro, onions and lettuce in the Latin American bed, leeks, radishes, beets and spinach in the French garden, and Asian spring greens like mustard, choy and snow peas in the Asian bed.  Color is introduced with the addition of red lettuces, mustard, and Red Komatsuna (spinach mustard).

Latin American bed with onions, lettuce, cilantro
With the current warm weather, summer crops are beginning to be planted. Bamboo teepees support tomatoes, and a trellis is planned to accommodate cucumbers, pole beans, and cherry tomatoes.  We hope that you find the 100 Square Foot Garden an inviting place to visit and get ideas for your own small vegetable gardens.

Sunday, May 10, 2015


It seems right to blog about a dioecious plant on Mother's Day, so here's a kiwi update.

If you've forgotten what "dioecious" means, it refers (in the botanical world) to having male and female flowers on separate plants, so that you need both for reproduction. Actinidia kolomikta, the Siberian kiwi, is a dioecious species. I have three plants, one male and two female - the male is the one going wild on the left side of the arbor, while the females are quietly advancing up the other side (having put more energy into bearing fruit). But they are a good five feet tall now, which is great. And everyone is in flower at the same time, with bees buzzing, so pollen exchange is happening.

Closeup of the male plant with flowers and leaves:

Those white blotchy leaves will turn partially pink in a week or two. It's an odd kind of look but really quite attractive.

This is what the fruit will look like when it forms this summer:

I usually only get a couple of handfuls that ripen over a month or so, but it's still fun to pick as a snack. The tiny fruits taste just like the fuzzy kiwis you buy at the store, which are not quite hardy enough to grow here. If you want a larger harvest, you can grow Actinidia arguta, but those plants require much stronger trellises and plenty of space for the vigorous vines. Most argutas are also dioecious, though the variety 'Issai' is self-pollinating. We are growing this one at the Derwood Demo Garden, along with Siberians that unfortunately keep widowing their partners; right now we have just the male.

My Siberians are doing fine on a regular rose arbor on the northeast side of my house. They prefer afternoon shade and sometimes end up looking a bit tired by the end of a hot summer, but come back each spring with renewed enthusiasm.

I think the species name sounds good as a mysterious toast, so: "Kolomikta! Happy Mother's Day!"

Friday, May 8, 2015

Native Plant Festival (and yes, Goldenrod is your friend!)

The Mountain Maryland Native Plant Festival will be held Saturday, May 9, 10:00 a.m. - 3 p.m., at New Germany State Park.  The Garrett County Master Gardeners will have a booth with a "friend or foe" game for visitors to label local native plants as "friends" and invasives as "foes."

We won't have my favorite native plant on display (Solidago caesia) because it's a late bloomer, but I want to share some facts about it because it is such a good friend to our garden pollinators.  Solidago caesia (Blue-stemmed goldenrod, Blue-stem goldenrod, Bluestem goldenrod, Wreath goldenrod) is a butterfly magnet, a source of nectar and pollen for many other insects including native bees, and an attractant for songbirds.  Best of all, it is deer-resistant! 

This North American native herbaceous perennial is ubiquitous in the meadow, roadside, and woodland landscapes of Garrett County during the late summer / early fall.  Solidago caesia has bluish or purplish stems and dark green lanceolate leaves, with clusters of bright yellow blooms in the upper leaf axils.  Its pollen is heavy and sticky, and is moved from bloom to bloom by bees, butterflies, and other insect pollinators.  A common misconception about Solidago caesia is that it is the scourge of allergy sufferers.  It does not cause hay fever; hay fever is an allergic reaction to airborne pollen.

This plant is especially important in our area for migrating monarch butterflies.  Caroline Blizzard, Director of the Discovery Center at Deep Creek Lake State Park, notes:
Goldenrod species for adult butterflies can be as important as the host plant milkweed is for larval monarch caterpillars.  As a nectar plant for adult butterflies, goldenrod is a late blooming and provides vital food for monarchs on their migration south.  The fat a monarch puts on by nectaring during its migration is the fat that it will live off of while it is overwintering in Mexico. They don't eat during their time there so a plump healthy butterfly is the goal!
Solidago caesia prefers moist, well-drained soils in full sun to shade, but is not fussy about soil or light conditions.  Unlike other goldenrod species, it does not spread aggressively.  In the home garden, Solidago caesia adds beautiful color and is a great source for cut flowers. Try pairing it with fellow butterfly attractants Monarda didyma (Bee balm), Lobelia cardinalis (Cardinal flower), Symphyotrichum laeve var. laeve (Smooth blue aster), and Eurybia divaricata (White wood aster).  It also performs well with Gentiana clausa (Bottle gentian).