Organic Gardening Tip of the Week

The summer blooming “bulb” is a term used for plants that develop from structures that are not true bulbs but rather tubers, corms, rhizomes or tuberous roots. The difference is that true bulbs planted in the fall (tulips for example) actually require cold temperatures to develop properly. Summer planted “bulbs” are tender and cannot over-winter in the ground where harsh winters (where the ground freezes) are a norm. If you have flowering summer plants in your landscape and live in an area with very cold winters, continue reading. Some beautiful summer flowers/plants like dahlia, gladiolus, tuberous begonia, canna, calla lily, and Elephant Ear are actually either subtropical or tropical plants. Their bulbs, corms, rhizomes or tubers will not survive if your ground freezes and they should be lifted before that happens. These can be dug up after the plant is killed by frost or after the foliage has dried up. After curing or a drying out period, place in sphagnum peat or vermiculite and store in a cool (45–50°F), dry location over the winter. If you have problems with rodents, protect your “bulbs” by storing in a rodent proof container. Monitor over the winter and remove any rotting pieces. You could also transfer to soil in a pot and move into a greenhouse or shed, but do not allow soil to freeze. Read more about lifting tender “bulbs” in our article.

Steps for Planting Seed Garlic in the Fall

Garlic is easy to grow but follow some simple steps to make sure you will get the biggest bulbs the following summer. Plant at the right time; October is a great time to plant garlic in your garden, November is a late for roots to get established. Select the variety that is right for your growing region. Hardneck garlic makes the biggest bulbs if grown in colder winter regions. If you want to grow hardneck garlic in a mild winter area, you should place your garlic in the refrigerator (vernalization) for about 4 weeks before planting. This will give the garlic the cold treatment that it needs to produce big bulbs. Softnecks are more suited to mild winter climates. Another tip is to plant the biggest cloves, they will produce the biggest bulbs. Don’t toss out the smaller cloves–grow them to use as garlic scallions. Next, don’t plant them too close together, give them at least 6” between cloves (don’t break apart your bulbs into cloves until you are ready to plant). Gophers love garlic, so if you have gophers, use gopher baskets or gopher wire to protect from hungry pests. Keep your garlic bed well weeded, garlic does not like to compete with other plants. Add a thick layer of mulch to your garlic bed, 6-8” if you live in a very cold region. For more information about growing garlic, download our Garlic Growing Guide.

Tips on Planting a Fall Cover Crop

Whether you are growing vegetables on a large scale or as a home gardener, planting cover crops is a good thing to do for your soil’s health. Cover crops not only increases microbial activity, but helps prevent soil erosion, increases water infiltration, provides weed competition and if your mix includes legumes, it will add nitrogen to the soil. Cover crop seeds can be easily broadcast, raked in and covered with a thin layer of compost or a mulch like straw. Cool-season seeds can be planted in the fall and allowed to grow over the winter and turned under in the spring. The seeds will need to be watered until the fall rains arrive and allowed to establish before freezing temperatures arrive.

Get the Most out of Your Cover Crop

Raw legumes in your cover crops need to be inoculated (coated) with rhizobia bacteria in order to fix nitrogen on their roots. Inoculate your seeds right before you are ready to plant. Put your seeds in a bucket or big bowl and either moisten with non-chlorinated water or a mixture of milk and molasses (one quart and 2 Tbs, respectively). Adjust the amount of liquid you add to just moisten the seed. Sprinkle the inoculant over the seeds and stir to coat. Don’t skimp on the inoculant, more is better than not enough. Plant the seeds right away. The bacteria on the legumes’ roots in your cover crop will take atmospheric nitrogen and fix it in small nodules on the roots. When the roots break down, the nitrogen will be released into the soil.

Read our full article for more information on the benefits of planting a cover crop and watch the video on how to plant it in the fall.

Site Preparation and the Best Time to Plant Wildflowers

We all love the beauty of a field of wildflowers and so do all the pollinators. How do you prepare your site for planting and when is the best time to plant? Wildflowers do not compete well with weeds and the area you are planting should be weed free. So you want to encourage germination of surface weed seeds by watering the planting area. Once the weed seeds sprout, remove them with a hand weeder or spray with an organic herbicide. This process may need to be repeated to remove all of those weeds. If your soil is very compacted, incorporate some compost at this time.

Now when to plant–most areas can plant in the late fall but you can wait until the spring to plant but flowering will be a little delayed (some seeds should be stratified prior to planting). Some wildflowers need to go through the winter in order to germinate, so this is why late fall planting is a good practice. In the West where fall rain is spotty, you may want to water, but if seeds start to germinate, you will need to continue watering until Mother Nature takes over. Wildflowers will grow just fine in native soil, so no need to fertilize or amend. Unless specifically buying a shade-loving mix, wildflowers like full sun. But they don’t like soggy, wet feet, so a good draining location is a must. Many wildflower seeds are very small so it is best to mix with an inert material like sand (not sea sand) or vermiculite in a 1:10 ratio and add to a seed spreader to broadcast. After seeding wildflowers, roll area to get good seed-soil contact, or you can press down with a piece of plywood.

Tips on How to Grow the Biggest Garlic Yet

Garlic is one of the easiest veggies to grow, but sometimes those big green tops yield a harvest of disappointingly small heads. After nearly a year of patiently watering, weeding and fertilizing, we all want large flavorful garlic for our favorite recipes! We suggest following these 9 steps from selecting the right type of garlic for your growing zone, soil preparation before planting, clove selection for planting, spacing, watering, keeping garlic cool in the summer, weeding, trimming those scapes and when to harvest. Read the entire article, pre-order your garlic and grow the biggest and best crop of garlic yet!

How to choose the right garlic to grow

There are two basic types of garlic available to plant–hardneck and softneck varieties. So how do you decide which one to grow? If you live in a region with very mild winters, the softneck garlic will perform better than hardnecks. Softnecks store much longer and have a milder flavor. Hardneck garlic requires colder winter temperatures to make large bulbs, so plant this variety if you live in a region with very frigid winters. If you live in a warm winter region and want to grow big hardneck bulbs, you will need to vernalize them first (place bulbs in a really cold refrigerator for a minimum of 3-4 weeks).

So now you have settled on either a hardneck or softneck, how do you choose within those groups. Well, hardnecks can be mild to very, very spicy. Read the description before buying to get the flavor you desire. If you want something really mild, and you live in a mild winter region, plant some Elephant garlic. It is not even garlic but a member of the leek family, but it smells and tastes like garlic. If you are unsure about what to grow, consider ordering our Garlic Combo Pack. It contains a mix of hardneck, softneck, and elephant garlic along with French Red Shallots.

How to Tell When Melons are Ripe

Summer is a wonderful time for eating homegrown melons, but sometimes it is hard to tell when the melon is ripe. For cantaloupes and other melons with netted rinds, the color under the netting (ground color) will change to a golden color. When ripe, the melon easily separates from the stem (slipping). They will also smell sweet and the end will be slightly soft. Honeydew melons are a little different, they don’t easily detach from the vine or develop a strong aroma. The rind will change from green to a creamy yellow. Don’t try to pull the honeydew from the vine, remove it with snips. For watermelons, look for when tendril and the spoon have dried up. The tendril is a curly part of the vine that emerges from the stem and the spoon is a small, spoon-shaped leaf (looks different from the other regular leaves). Also where the melon sits on the ground, this spot remains green, as melon ripens it turns a yellowish color (as long as you don’t turn the melon). Watermelons also don’t slip off the vine, they need to be cut off.

Best Ways to Store & Preserve your Garlic

Garlic can be stored as whole bulbs for a few months to a year, depending on the storage conditions and the variety, softnecks store longer than hardnecks, but all your garlic can be preserved for longer storage by freezing or dehydrating. Store whole, unbroken heads in a cool (about 60 to 65 degrees is ideal), dry, dark place with moderate humidity. Keep them in a mesh bag, paper bag or cardboard box for good air circulation. If you braided your garlic for curing, you can leave it in the braid for storage as well, just cut off the heads when you’re ready to use them starting at the bottom of the braid. Do not store bulbs with damaged cloves, as they spoil easily, use these up first. These should instead be used right away, or preserved by drying or pickling. Dehydrating is also a great way to preserve your garlic and make your own garlic powder. For more information on preserving garlic, read our blog How to Store and Preserve Garlic. Don't let your homegrown garlic spoil before you can use it ... preserve it!

Summer Prune Your Berries to Stimulate Growth and Increase Yield Next Season

Most blackberries have two kinds of canes, floricanes (2nd year primocanes that bear the fruit) and primocanes (first year canes that will bear next year’s fruit). The primocanes grow really tall during the summer and they should be topped off between 4–5 feet or the same height as their support structure. The removal of the growing tip will stimulate more lateral growth and increase the fruiting potential the following year. Towards the end of summer the lateral shoots can also be pruned to about 18”. Semi-erect blackberries can be tied up to the support. Thin to about 3–4 primocanes per plant, selecting the strongest, biggest canes. If you are growing trailing blackberries (Olallie or Marion), do not tip prune the primocanes. After the fruit has been picked the floricanes can be pruned down to the ground to make room for new shoots to emerge. Keep weeds removed around your plants and since berries have shallow root systems, it is better to pull them by hand. Keep a thick layer of mulch (straw works great) around the base of the plant to help conserve water and keep weeds down.

Which Cool Season Seeds to Start for a Fall/Winter Harvest

Fall is around the corner and now is a great time to start veggies for a fall or early winter finish. You can use our Planting Calculator to see what can be planted in the fall and the times to plant. Just put in your first expected frost date then click calculate. The general planting guide will give you date ranges when you can direct sow seeds. As an example for zone 9, the approximate first frost is November 16 (Calculated from the Colfax Calif. Weather Station). The Fall Planting Dates are generated and some seeds that can direct sown now are broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, carrots, cabbage, chard, most greens, peas, kohlrabi, kale, and lettuce (hot regions may need to plant under some shade cloth, or start seeds indoors). Later in September-October you can plant your radishes, turnips, onions, shallots, and garlic. Read your seed packs for the soil temperatures that are needed for germination. Seeds like spinach will not germinate if the soil is too hot (above about 75°F), so you may need to start them indoors or outdoors in a cooler spot. Have some Agribon rowcover on hand in the fall for those early unexpected cold nights. A low tunnel with greenhouse plastic can also be placed over your beds to grow into the winter.

Preparing Your Soil for Planting Garlic

Fall is still two months away but if you want to plant seed garlic, it is time to start preparing your soil. Planting large seed garlic cloves will produce larger bulbs but another consideration should be amending your soil. Preparing the soil properly is also key to a successful garlic crop the following summer. First is to make sure you are rotating the area where you are planning to plant garlic; make sure it is not the same location you planted the previous year. Amend your soil with organic matter, either by adding compost, or planting a summer cover crop. Buckwheat is a great choice and will be finished in about 45 days and will not only add organic matter to the soil it will pull insoluble phosphorus out of the soil which will be released when the plant decomposes. Make sure your soil has a good level of phosphorus by adding soft rock phosphate, bone meal or another high phosphorus fertilizer (but low nitrogen). For more information on preparing the soil you can read our gardening blog.

Why are my tomato blossoms drying up and dropping?

Now that your tomatoes are bursting with growth and flowers and you are waiting for the fruit to ripen, you find flowers dropping or withering on the plant. Why is that happening? The problem is called blossom drop. The main reason is that the flowers are not getting pollinated. Tomatoes have perfect flowers, meaning both male and female flower parts are in the same flower. The pollen is moved from the male part (stamen) to the female part (pistil) by wind movement of the plant or by vibration of the flower by bumble bees or other pollinators.

So what are the causes of lack of pollination?

One of the main causes is from daytime temperatures exceeding 85°F or nighttime temps rising above 70°F or dropping below 55°F. You can put up some shade cloth (30% should be enough) over your tomatoes, positioned so it is shading your plants during the hottest time of the day. To learn more about other causes of flower drop, you can read the blog Why are My Tomato Flowers Falling Off and Not Making Fruit?

Preventing Blossom End Rot on Your Tomatoes and Peppers

Tip of the Week: Blossom Rot

If you see black or rotting bottoms on your tomatoes, peppers or eggplants (less common), it is most likely blossom end rot. Tomato varieties that set all of its fruit at once (determinate) are commonly affected; cherry tomatoes rarely get blossom end rot. It is caused by a calcium deficiency in your plants caused by soil deficiencies or from uneven watering (calcium is not taken up).

To help prevent this, mulch around your plants to help conserve soil moisture, keep your plants evenly watered, and make sure your soil has sufficient amounts of calcium. If your soil has sufficient calcium, then no supplement is needed. Don’t over fertilize your plants with high nitrogen either. Excessive nitrogen will lead to more foliage which will reduce the amount of calcium available to the fruit. Remove the damaged fruit.

For more information on growing tomatoes, see our Growing Guide in the Resource Center.  We have many types of tomato seeds for sale!

Is it Time to Harvest Your Garlic?

After your garlic has produced scapes (hardneck varieties) your bulbs are really starting to size up. Once your garlic has a couple of dead bottom leaves you will want to stop watering. You can dig your garlic in a couple of weeks. If you are unsure if your hardneck garlic is ready to harvest, look for about 3-4 dried leaves at the bottom of the plant. Dig up a test bulb to see how well the bulb has sized up. If it is nice and large, you can dig up the remaining bulbs. Don’t harvest too soon or you may have small bulbs, too late and the wrappers may have broken down and your garlic may not keep as long. If this happens eat those bulbs first. Softneck garlic is a little different than hardnecks. Softnecks are ready for harvesting when the top of the plant falls over, similar to onions.

Once your garlic is ready to harvest, dig the bulbs up carefully with a garden fork or shovel. Remove most of the soil, being careful not to hit the bulb (it bruises easily), leaving the roots & stems. Tie the garlic with twine in bunches of 6 to 12 plants. Hang the bunches in a place out of direct sun and rain. Temperatures should be around 80°F and garlic should be cured for at least two weeks. Once cured, trim off the leaves (don’t cut too close to the top of the bulb) and roots, leaving about 1/2” of roots. Store in mesh bags at around 60-65°F in an area with some air circulation.

Pruning out Suckers on Your Tomato Plants

Now that your tomatoes are growing like weeds it is time to prune out the suckers. The advantages to pruning out the suckers on your tomatoes are increased fruit size, better air circulation, which will help with disease prevention and earlier fruit development. The suckers are the stems growing out of the leaf crotch. You should remove the suckers from the bottom of the plant up to the first flower cluster. Remove them before they get too big, less than 2-3” long is a good rule of thumb. You will need to keep an eye on your tomato plants throughout the season and prune the suckers as they get big enough, look for new growth coming up at the ground too and cut those out. Also you want to remove the yellow or dead leaves (especially seen on the bottom of the plant). Only prune the indeterminate varieties; determinate varieties should not get pruned, you can leave the suckers on those plants.

If you are supporting the plants with an overhead trellis with string or wire supported at the top you can allow your plants to develop two leaders or more commonly, it is pruned to a single leader. Prune out suckers along the plant to allow for better air circulation and less weight. You will have a reduced yield, however, the tomatoes that are left will develop earlier and will be bigger. Read the whole article on tomato pruning.

Time to Thin Your Fruit

The removal of fruit may seem counterintuitive, but it will actually give you a better crop and will help prevent biennial bearing (producing fruit every other year). Thinning will help prevent limb damage, improve size of the remaining fruit and discourage early fruit drop. June is a good time to thin out your fruit set on your apples, pears and stone fruit. Your tree will naturally drop fruit but it is also a good idea to do more before the fruit gets too big. Thin the fruit in the clusters (like apples and pears) and thin between the fruit (for peaches, nectarines, plums and pluots). For apples or pears, thin to 1-2 fruit per cluster. Nectarines, peaches, plums, pluots, pluerries and apriums can be thinned to one fruit every six inches and thin any fruit growing in pairs. Pick up any aborted fruit on the ground and if there are no signs of disease, you can add it to your compost pile or worm bin or your chickens might enjoy a fruit salad. If you have not fertilized your fruit trees, it is not too late to do so this season.

Caring for Garlic in Late Spring

After your garlic has produced scapes (hardneck varieties) your bulbs are really starting to size up. Keep your garlic weeded throughout the growing season as it does not compete well with weeds. Since garlic is a heavy feeder a dose of a good organic all purpose fertilizer (higher in phosphorus) can be worked into the soil. You can start cutting back on the amount of water they are getting (if you irrigate), but you don’t want your garlic to dry out. Once your garlic has 3-4 dead bottom leaves you will want to stop watering. You can dig your garlic in a couple of weeks. If you are unsure if your hardneck garlic is ready to harvest dig up a test bulb to see how well the bulb has sized up. If it is nice and large, you can dig up the remaining bulbs. Don’t harvest too soon or you may have small bulbs, too late and the wrappers may have broken down and your garlic may not keep as long. If this happens eat these bulbs first. Softneck garlic is a little different than hardnecks. Softnecks are ready for harvesting when the top of the plant falls over, similar to onions.

How to Make Compost Tea for Your Plants

Throw your plants a compost tea party this spring! Compost tea can be applied as a foliar or soil drench. It is easy to make with just a few components and can be customized to your plants' needs. Compost tea takes all the goodness from your compost and makes it even better. We have a great video showing you step-by-step on how to make it. There are so many versions of compost tea recipes but you can “brew” your own version. The basic components of compost tea includes water, compost (or you can use arctic humus or worm castings) and a tea catalyst. Additions can be made to your tea–liquid kelp or maxicrop (a kelp extract), or liquid fish are great to supplements your compost tea. You can customize your brew according to the stage of growth your plants are in (growing, blooming or fruiting). The additions can be added at the end of the brewing process. You can apply the tea using a watering can or sprayer (clean).If foliar feeding, dilute the tea to one part tea to 10 parts water (dechlorinated water). Or if applying to the soil, dilute one part tea to 5 parts water (dechlorinated water).

Which Seeds to Direct Seed in the Spring

Spring is a great time to start planting (zones 7 and up) in the garden but the weather can be very unpredictable so you don’t want to jump into direct seeding your warm weather seeds until conditions are right. Two important tools to have on hand in the spring is a soil thermometer and some floating row cover for the cold temperatures that warm-season seedlings do not favor. Most common warm season seeds that are direct seeded are beans, corn, cucumber, melons, okra, pumpkins, squash. These seeds grow fast and do not need to be started ahead of time, unless you live in a region with very short growing season. For information about soil temperature, see the back of your seed packs. If you live in a region that stays cool, beets, carrots, radishes and greens can also be direct seeded. In general, if the soil is 70°F, these seeds will germinate. If you soil has not warmed up enough, you can put down a plastic mulch to speed up warming the soil. Watch the nighttime temperature as well.  If it is forecast to dip below 45°F, then you will want to cover your seedlings with a floating row cover such as Agribon. This will give just enough protection for the tender seedlings.

How to Improve Soil Biology

What is meant by soil biology? Isn’t soil just a bunch of minerals? The answer is no and your soil contains so many living organisms, most of which are not visible with the naked eye, but all are important for the soil’s ecosystem. The visible organisms are earthworms and small mammals like gophers, moles or voles, however the vast number of organisms are only visible with a microscope such as bacteria, fungi, nematodes, protozoa and more. What does all of this biology have to do with the health of my garden? Well the answer is without soil biology, your plants will have problems accessing nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus, both essential for growth. What can be done to improve and increase your soil’s biological makeup? Well they need adequate organic matter, good aeration, proper moisture, and a fairly neutral pH. One of the easiest things to do to improve your soil biology is to work in some good quality compost. The compost will help hold onto moisture, help aerate the soil by maintaining soil porosity and supply nutrients to the microbes already living in your soil.

Another important practice that will help improve soil biology is to plant a cover crop in areas that you are not actively growing in. Cover crops can be planted in the fall and cut down in the spring, or grown in the summer and finishes in the summer. Don’t forget to inoculate your cover crops if they contain legumes and inoculate legumes you are growing for food, like bush beans or pole beans. The Rhizobium bacteria in the inoculant forms a symbiotic relationship with the plants’ roots and converts atmospheric nitrogen into a plant usable form, in turn the plant supplies the bacteria with carbohydrates needed to live. Any extra nitrogen the plant does not need is stored on the roots and can be used by the following crop. 

If you are interested in reading more about soil biology, you can read our articles Weaving the Soil Food Web or The Dirt on Mycorrhizae.

Choosing the Right Irrigation for You

If you are just setting up your drip irrigation system for your garden or yard, there are quite a few things to consider when choosing the type of irrigation you want to use. Drip systems can be made up of either drip tapeemitterlinesoaker hosedrip emitters or a combination. If you are watering straight, flat rows then drip tape is a good choice. Unless you have a low pressure system, you will need to put a pressure reducer on your drip tape system. If your property has a slope, then you may want to use emitterline (works best with higher pressure). Soaker hose is great if you want to wind it around your landscape plants (not sharp curves). Drip emitters can be plugged right into your 1/2” poly or attached to 1/4” poly and run to your plants. There are so many options with drip irrigation, check out our selection to choose the right system for you.

Harden Off Your Seedlings Before Transplanting Into the Garden

“Hardening off” is the process of acclimating your pampered vegetable starts to the outdoors. The process should be gradual and can take place over a weeks time. Take your starts outdoors and introduce them to an hour of sunlight (morning sun is best) and increase the time by an hour each day. By the end of the week they will be have been exposed to 7 hours of continuous sunlight and are ready to go into their permanent location. Avoid putting them out on windy days and when temps are going to be below 45°F. It is also important to slowly decrease the amount of water they are getting, but not to the point that they will wilt. Do not fertilize your seedlings during the process as well. You want to slow down their growth rate a bit during the hardening off process.

Control Adult Flies and Larvae Early

Spring is here and so are the flies. When controlling flies, it is important to control the larvae (maggots) and the adults. To control the larvae, fly parasites are the answer. If you have livestock (including chickens), the fly parasites should be released every 2 weeks throughout the season. Monthly or weekly shipping can easily be set up for you in our Order Department so you don’t miss releasing the parasites on a regular schedule. Release them near a fly breeding site, like a chicken coop or stable. Adult flies can be caught with traps. Most traps use a smelly bait to lure the flies into the trap, then they can’t figure out how to get back out. You can use the Peaceful Valley Fly Bait or make your own. Place the traps in the sun and near your livestock.

When to Cut Down Your Cover Crop

If you planted a soil building cover crop in the fall and about half of the plants (the peas and vetch) are blooming, it is time to cut it down. The easiest and fastest way to incorporate all of the goodness of the cover crop is to cut it with a weed eater or mower, apply a product to speed up decomposition like our Biodynamic Field Spray, and turn it under with either a rototiller or garden fork. If you don’t add the Field Spray, then the cover crop should be allowed to decompose for about 3 to 6 weeks before planting your next crop. It’s important to wait because your cover crop will be decomposing and during this decomposition process you will temporarily lock up some of the nitrogen in the soil. If you don’t want to wait, the plant material that you cut down can be added to your compost pile to decompose. To also speed up break down is to cover it with some weed fabric or a silage tarp. This will heat up the soil and chopped cover crop and help increase decomposition. We have a great video on cutting down your cover crop in the spring.

How to Monitor Codling Moth Activity in the Spring

Codling moths can ruin your apples, pears or walnuts and who wants that? Codling moths will start emerging, (depending on your temperatures) in March or April. A good way to monitor for their activity is to put out a trap with a codling moth lure. The male moths will be attracted to the pheromone in the lure and get trapped in the sticky substance on the inside of the trap. If your populations are low, then the sticky traps may be enough to disrupt the mating process. If the infestation is heavy then you will want to use a combination of monitoring traps and insecticides that are labeled for codling moths. Another solution is to apply a barrier around your developing fruit so the codling moth larva cannot penetrate such as our Maggot Barriers. For more information, check out our video on Controlling Codling Moths.

How to Take a Good Soil Sample

Getting your soil tested is a great idea and it all starts with taking a good sample. First of all start with a clean trowel; don’t use ones made of brass or soft steel and never use your hands. Have a clean plastic bucket or pail to use, don’t use galvanized steel or rubber. Do not sample your soil if it is wetter than you would want for tilling. Take about 10–12 subsamples in your garden soil or raised beds to get a good composite of your soil. Clear away any debris or organic material from the top of the soil. Dig down about 6” or as deep as you are planning to cultivate. Dry soil should be submitted for analysis, so if your soil is too wet, spread out on a newspaper and allow to air dry (and out of direct sunlight). Watch our video on How to Take a Good Soil Sample for Soil Testing for more information.

How to Use Soil Blockers for Starting Seeds

Soil Blockers are a great way to start seeds without using a pot. Soil block makers are sold in basically three sizes–a 3/4" mini block (for small seeds), a 2" medium block and a 4" large block. You can use all three and move up from the mini block to the medium block and finally the large block, or the 2" medium block will work for most seeds. We have a great video on how to make the soil blockers using our Quickroot seed starting mix. If you want to make your own soil blocker mix, check out our article How to Make a Soil Mix for Your Soil Blocks

How to Use the Seed Starting Calculator

Seed starting is just around the corner for some folks. If you are unsure of when to start your seeds indoors or when to direct seed, try our Seed Planting Calculator. Go to the top of our site and click Resource Center, that will take you to our Organic Gardening Resource Center. Scroll down to the bottom of the page to find the Seed Planting Calculator. The calculator will determine spring or fall planting times based on either your last or first frost of the season. If you are unsure of your frost dates follow the directions on how to get your last and first frost dates. We have a helpful blog on how to use the Seed Starting Calculator. Planting dates given for spring or fall planting dates are estimates only. For more information about growing conditions needed for seed germination and growing, such as soil temperature, check the back of your seed packs.

Which Trees to Prune in the Dormant Season

Fruit trees should be pruned from the time they are planted. Early pruning will shape the tree into a desirable structure and will encourage better fruit production and less broken branches later in life. There are three types of pruning systems, Central Leader, Vase or Open Center and Modified Central Leader. The type of tree will dictate the pruning system chosen. Central Leader is best for apples, pears, persimmons and pecans. Apples, pears, peaches and nectarines can be pruned during the winter, but wait until summer to prune apricots, cherries and pluots. Do not prune when rain is forecast–you want dry weather for the cuts to heal over. If your trees have started to bloom or buds are swelling, it is a good idea to wait until either next dormant season or until you are ready to do your summer pruning. Make sure your pruners are clean and sharp. Clean up leaves and dropped fruit on the ground to decrease potential overwintering spots for pests and disease. For more information on pruning apples and pears, watch this video, or our other video on pruning a peach tree. We have compiled links to all of our fruit tree videos and articles at Fruit Tree Central, check it out for a wealth of information from planting, pruning, pest control and more.

Best Trees to Use for Creating an Espalier

Espalier is a beautiful and functional way to grow fruit trees. In our video, Tricia talks about the techniques needed to prune and train an espalier. Espaliered trees and plants may be time intensive to maintain but they repay you in high fruit production in a very small space. If you're considering adding an espalier to your garden, the first step is planning. If you have a space that is narrow but gets good sun exposure, an espalier would be a good choice. Also if you want to create a stunning privacy screen or cover to a large blank wall, training a tree or plant is a great solution. Choose a shape you find beautiful and appropriate for the space you're filling. Next choose a tree to shape. Applespears and figs are great choices to espalier. We have a great blog, Gallery of Espalier Forms, to show you different ways to shape your espalier. You will need to put in the time to train and prune your fruit tree, but it will be worth the time with the all the fruit you will get from your espalier.

Seeds to Start Early for Your Summer Garden

Seed starting is just around the corner for some folks. If you are unsure of when to start your seeds indoors or when to direct seed, try our Seed Planting Calculator. Go to the top of our site and click Resource Center, that will take you to our Organic Gardening Resource Center. Scroll down to the bottom of the page to find the Seed Planting Calculator. The calculator will determine spring or fall planting times based on either your last or first frost of the season. If you are unsure of your frost dates follow the directions on how to get your last and first frost dates. We have a helpful blog on how to use the Seed Starting Calculator. Planting dates given for spring or fall planting dates are estimates only. For more information about growing conditions needed for seed germination and growing, such as soil temperature, check the back of your seed packs. Some seeds are slower growing and should be started ahead of the faster growing ones. Tomatoes, peppers and eggplant are slower to get growing than seeds from cucumbers, melons or squash. You can start them at least 8-10 weeks before your last frost date. The basic things seeds need to get started is heat, light and moisture. We have a wide range of seed starting systems that will get you growing over the late winter. We also have Growing Guides that will provide helpful information on growing vegetables and herbs from seed.

Fruit and Nut Trees Need to Chill Out for Winter

As fruit and nut trees go into fall, shorter days and cooler temperatures stimulate a hormone which triggers the trees to go into dormancy and stop growing. Cold temperature breaks down that hormone and when the tree experiences enough cold temperatures, dormancy is broken and the tree starts to grow again, by flowering and developing leaves. The period of cold temperatures needed to break dormancy is the cumulative chill hours, temperatures between 32- 45°F from November to February. What happens if your tree does not get enough chill hours? The tree will produce leaves later, blossoms may not open or just drop and therefore your fruit tree will not produce fruit. One the other hand why not just plant trees that have a much lower chill requirement? If you plant low chill trees in a high chill area your trees will break dormancy too early and the blossoms will be killed by cold temperatures and you have the same result, no fruit. Chill hours needed are not an exact number, it is usually a range. If you don’t know the chill hours in your area, consult your local Farm Advisor, Master Gardener or even a local nursery may be able to help. We have an article on chill hours, however, the links included to find your chill hours are only for California counties. If you live outside of California, you will need to search the internet to find sources, weather stations or county Ag Offices that can assist you. There is another site you can use, but it will take a little bit of work since the chill hours can only be looked up 10 days at a time. But once you get your chill hours calculated you are done. Might want to look at chill hours for several periods, since it does fluctuate. Just start from November 1 and go through February of the following year.

Dormant Pruning Your Blackberries & Raspberries

Raspberries really benefit from winter pruning. Once the second year canes fruit they will die and can be cut back right after fruiting or in the dormant season. Remove damaged, weak or dead canes by pruning at ground level. Leave canes that are robust (about 1/4” in diameter), but thin out canes to about 6” apart. You should keep your raspberries to about a 2’ wide hedgerow. Since raspberries spread by underground runners, the berry patch can get quite large if not thinned out. Dig up any plants that have escaped the 2’ wide row. You can either plant these in another area of your yard, share them with friends or put them in your compost bin.

Blackberries have three possible growth habits—erect, semi-erect or trailing. The way to train and prune them will depend on the type. If you did not top the new canes during the late summer, you should top them to about 5’ (or the height of your trellis or fence). Dormant pruning of erect blackberries entails removing dead canes (color is brown vs a newer green cane) and cutting back laterals to 12–18”. Semi-erect blackberries should be thinned to 5 to 8 of the strongest canes, shorten the laterals to 12–18” and remove any growing on the lower 3’ section of the main canes. Tie to a fence or trellis to provide support. Trailing blackberries are less cold tolerant and in cold regions the canes can be left on the ground and protected with rowcover or mulch over the winter. In spring the canes can be lifted and tied to a trellis at 3’ and 6’.

How to Best Plant Your Bare Root Fruit or Nut Tree

Bare root fruit trees have arrived at our warehouse and we are shipping out trees everyday. We will email you with the tracking when your tree ships out. When they arrive please open up the box and inspect your trees. If there are any problems with the tree please email right away. A few broken branches are ok, but check the graft union and make sure there is no separation. If you are ready to plant, follow directions in our video or article. Dig a hole as deep as the root system and about 3 times as wide. Do not plant your trees too deep. You should plant at the same level it was planted at in the nursery (can see a faint soil line on the bark), and the graft union should be about 2-5” above the soil. Don’t mix in a bunch of fertilizer (especially ones with high nitrogen levels). We have formulated a great fertilizer to add to new bare root trees or plants, PrimeStart Bare Root Booster Blend. Mix a 3 lb bag with your soil. It includes small amounts of many slow release minerals and nutrients that your bare root tree will benefit from while establishing itself, in combination with humates and mycorrhizae. If you are not ready to plant or your ground is frozen, follow instructions on how to heel in your bare root trees.

Heeling in Your Bare Root Trees or Plants if You Can't Plant Right Away

When bare root trees and plants ship out to their new homes they need to be cared for upon arrival. Take the trees/plants out of the box and inspect them for any damage at the graft (on bare root trees), some broken branches are fine, they will regrow quickly in the spring. If you can’t plant your tree/plant in the ground right away, they should be heeled in to protect the roots until planting time. This can be done outside if the ground is not frozen, or if it is, put them in a garage, shed, basement or greenhouse; place in a large pot, wheelbarrow or some type of container and cover with loose soil, compost or wood shavings (but not cedar, redwood or rice hulls). Keep the roots moist but not soaking wet. Your trees/plants should be kept between 35-45°F so they will stay dormant until you are ready to plant outdoors. Plant your tree/plant as soon as your weather permits and definitely before it breaks dormancy in the spring (leafing out and blooming). If your trees/plants are potted (figs, almonds, pomegranates, olives…), just leave them in the pot and keep them moist over the winter. If it is warm enough (above freezing), plant them right away. Watch our video for more information.

How to Care for Garlic Over the Winter

Garlic plants can withstand cold weather as long as they are not exposed to a sudden drop of freezing temperatures. To help protect garlic from sudden drops in temperatures, apply a thick layer of mulch such as straw mulch (seed-free); a minimum of 4 inches is recommended, and thicker in regions with harsh winters (up to 8 inches). In the spring the mulch can be pulled back to allow the soil to warm up faster and also helps avoid excess moisture, which can cause rot. Another benefit to mulching is weed control. Garlic does not like to compete with weeds and it will suffer if weeds are not removed. You should not be applying any nitrogen fertilizers over the winter as that will lead to an increase in top growth. After weeding and mulching, now you just have to wait until the spring. Once spring arrives and the soil starts to warm and snows melt, pull back the mulch and feed with an all purpose fertilizer, bone meal or another mix that is high in phosphorus.

For more information on caring for your garlic over the spring, click here.

We have many other tips for winter gardening as well in our Resource Center.

Orchard Care During the Dormant Season

In addition to good orchard sanitation (picking up rotten fruit and raking leaves), applying dormant sprays in the fall and winter is a great way to reduce overwintering pests & diseases in the home orchard. Dormant oils are applied when trees have dropped their leaves and are dormant. The oils can be applied when daytime temperatures are over 35-40°F. Dormant oils control aphids, scale, spider mites and many other insects by smothering eggs and larvae.

Peach leaf curl, also known as curly leaf, curly blight or leaf blister, has been recognized as a common disease since the early 1800s. It is caused by the fungus Taphrina deformans and can affect the blossoms, fruit, leaves and shoots of peaches and nectarines. Peach leaf curl is the most common disease found in backyard orchards and can weaken the tree over time if the disease is not controlled. Cool (48-68°F) wet weather when leaves are first opening favors the disease. Watch our video on Peach Leaf Curl where Tricia shows how to care for your trees.

To control diseases such as peach leaf curl, a fungicide is applied multiple times throughout the dormant season. An easy way to remember when to apply the fungicide is after leaf drop, New Years day (or around that time) and a final treatment on Valentine’s Day (before buds have broken or blossoming). For more information you can also read our blog Peach Leaf Curl Control.

How to Choose the Right Fruit Tree for Your Home

Choosing the right fruit tree involves a little homework and research to find the best one for your yard or orchard. First you need to know your USDA zone. On our website you can find out your zone by putting in your zip code. Next you should know how many chill hours you have. Chill hours are the number of hours in the winter that are between 32-45°F. You can find out your chill hours by checking out a few web sites or asking your local master gardener. Once you know that information, you can narrow down your selection even further by deciding on the size of tree you want–standard, semi-dwarf or dwarf. You can keep your tree small by pruning and training it over the years. If you are renting a home and do not want to invest in a permanent planting, consider buying a dwarf tree and putting it in a large pot. Another important consideration is whether or not the tree is self-pollinating or needs another tree for pollination. Check out our large list of fruit trees, all the information you need to decide is listed for every tree.

Putting Your Perennial Veggies to Bed for the Winter

Perennial vegetables need help to survive cold winters

Perennial vegetables like asparagus or rhubarb need protection over the winter to help survive freezing temperatures. Asparagus is hardy down to zone 4 and needs a little care in the fall. When the ferns start to turn yellow to brown, or after the first frost, cut them back to about 2 inch stubs. This will help cut down on disease setting in over the winter.

Apply about 2–3” of compost around the remaining plants and cover with a mulch such as rice straw to a depth of about 4–6”. Rhubarb is a tough plant and only needs to be cut to the ground and covered with a 4–6” layer of compost. Jerusalem artichokes can be if left in the ground until you are ready to eat them.

However, if your ground freezes, you should dig up the remaining tubers and store in moist sand or soil in the garage or a shed (that stays above freezing but below 40°F).

Check out our related article on caring for artichokes for more detail.

How to Plant Fall Bulbs for Spring Blooms

Now is a great time to plant your fall flower bulbs for a dazzling spring display of color. If you live in cold winter zones (1-7), you can plant when the soil has cooled to at least 50°F and your ground is still workable. For areas with warmer winters (zones 8-11) you may not get enough cold temperatures for the bulbs to do well, so the bulbs can be placed in the refrigerator–but not by any fruit that may give off ethylene gas. Bulbs do not need more than about 11-15 weeks of chilling, and the good news is that we store our bulbs in a cooler until they have shipped out, so they have already chilled about 8 weeks! Plant your bulbs in areas that have good drainage, they will not do well sitting in soggy soil. They also like full sun, so since they bloom in the spring when many trees may have not leafed out, you can plant them almost anywhere in your yard!

Follow the planting instructions on the package, and make sure you plant pointy side up. Some bulbs are kind of hard to figure out what is the bottom, so if you can't tell, plant it sideways and the bulb will right itself. No need to fertilize at planting time for new bulbs, but come spring you should give them some quality bulb fertilizer so they will have enough nutrients to return another spring bloom.

If you don’t want to wait until spring for your blooms, many bulbs can be forced to bloom in the winter indoors. For more information on forcing bulbs, read our article “Forcing Flower Bulbs”.

What to Do with All My Green Tomatoes

Tip of the Week: Green Tomatoes

Cooler weather is here to stay, but what about the green tomatoes still on the vine. Not to worry, you can ripen them and maybe even try your hand at fried green tomatoes! Fruits stop ripening when temps drop below 50°F, so if you are still warmer than that during the day, leave the fruit on the vine as long as possible. Remove any flowers & small fruit, and decrease the watering. Once daytime temps are consistently below 50°F and before the first frost, harvest all of the fruit. Place it in a single layer in a box lined with newspaper, and store between 55-70°F. To speed up the ripening process, add a couple of apples to the box. Check weekly for ripened tomatoes and remove any rotted fruit. If some just don’t seem to be changing color at all, try some fried green tomatoes.

Check out the recipe we have posted (under Entrées) for all the details.

For more information on growing tomatoes, see our Growing Guide in the Resource Center.  We have many types of tomato seeds for sale!

Things to Do in the Garden During October

The air has a fall chill to it and the leaves are starting to turn, but there is still plenty to do in your garden and yard. Harvesting the last veggies and flowers, planting bulbs for a spring bloom and putting in your garlic and onions are just a few things that can be done in October. Here are just a few ideas to add to your "To-Do" List. Tricia talks about some things she is doing in her fall garden in our video, October Gardening Checklist.

Things to Plant in the Fall – Spring flowering bulbsgarlicshallots, native plants, cover cropwildflowers, annual flowers like mums, cool weather seeds like lettuce, kale, beets, greens and more! Read the full article, 20 Great Gardening Tips for Your October Garden for more information.

Lifting Tender Summer "Bulbs" in the Fall

Freezing temperatures are just around the corner for some gardens. If you have flowering summer plants in your landscape and live in an area with very cold winters, continue reading. Some beautiful summer flowers/plants like dahlia, gladiolus, tuberous begonia, canna, calla lily, and Elephant Ear are actually either subtropical or tropical plants. Their bulbs, corms, rhizomes or tubers will not survive if your ground freezes and they should be lifted before that happens. These can be dug up after the plant is killed by frost or after the foliage has dried up. After curing, place in sphagnum peat or vermiculite and store in a cool (45–50°F), dry location over the winter. Monitor over the winter and remove any rotting pieces. You could also transfer to soil in a pot and move into a greenhouse or shed, but do not allow soil to freeze. Read more about lifting tender “bulbs” in our article

Dividing Perennials When They Stop Blooming

If your perennial plants are starting to look crowded, overgrown, are not flowering as well as they used to, or you would like to propagate a favorite perennial–it might be time to divide. Many perennial plants benefit from being divided every two to five years. Most perennials can be divided any time of the year. However, you will have the best success in spring or fall for summer-flowering plants, or in late summer for spring-flowering plants. Basically divide the plant after it has flowered. Try to avoid dividing during the hottest part of the summer, and also no less than 6 weeks before the first frost, so that your divisions are not stressed by extreme temperatures while they re-establish their roots. You can water them in with a little dilute mixture of Kelp or Thrive Alive to help offset the stress. How you dig them will depend on how they multiply–either clumping crowns, rhizomes, tubers or tuberous roots, corms, offsets, bulbils or bulbets. Watch our video on dividing perennials or our article on Dividing Perennials to Keep Them Healthy.
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