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Archive for October 2011

How to Grow Lemongrass-Indoors or Out

October 25th, 2011

If you are reading this, then you probably already know about the myriad uses for lemongrass, both in your own kitchen and in the kitchens of the best chefs. You also no doubt know that the lemon-grass herb plant is used widely in the perfume industry, but also as a natural mosquito repellent and as a calming, medicinal herb. It can, of course, be used dried or powdered, but it is when lemongrass is fresh that that lemony essence is most pronounced.

But…finding it in your local grocery store can be a challenge, if not an impossible feat, not to mention the expense and the waste from having to purchase so much at one time when only a small amount is necessary.

The solution? Grow it yourself!

lemongrass herb plant growing outside

Lemon Grass is actually really easy to grow! First of all, it is a perennial, which means that it will come back year after year in many climates, growing all year long in the warmest ones. It also lends itself well to both growing outside and inside, so where it is the coldest or when you want to have fresh lemongrass year round, you can move it indoors or outside as needed.

Growing Lemongrass Outside

Lemongrass is actually a tropical plant, so those of you who have warm weather year round can  easily grow lemon-grass plants as part of your landscape. In ideal conditions lemon grass will reach 3 to 6-foot high and do double-duty as a decorative ornamental grass. Lemon grass forms a rhizome, or bulb, but does not aggressively spread, so normal harvesting and occasionally cutting back of the longest top growth will satisfy the more formal gardener, though most people will just let it grow au’naturalle to wave in the breezes.

Lemongrass prefers sandy, well-drained and fertile soil, though it will grow well in all but the heaviest or constantly wet soils. Sun, on the other hand, is a must. Plant it in the sunniest location, unless you live in the desert, where lemongrass will prefer partially shaded afternoons. Most herbs (lemongrass is no exception) prefer to have constant moisture, so don’t allow it to dry out completely between waterings. In the desert, your lemongrass plants will benefit from heavy misting in the morning.

Your lemon grass plant will also thrive beautifully with regular feeding, once monthly or so, of a nitrogen-based fertilizer, such as High-Yield Garden Fertilizer 8-10-8, though this may not be necessary if you plant your lemongrass in beds that you compost or add organic materials to regularly. If however, you grow your lemongrass in a pot, fertilizing will be needed. As always, mulching will retard weed growth while maintaining moisture around your lemon grass plants.

Growing Lemongrass Indoors

Lemongrass growing indoors

Lemongrass is very adaptable to growing indoors, though it will do its best when allowed to “breathe” outside during the warm seasons. Due to its potential size, you should plant it in a pot equal to or close to five gallons and in the sunniest location possible, preferably in a south or southwest facing unobstructed window. Lemon grass plants can be kept under control and grown in a smaller pot by harvesting more often, which means removing the stalks, bulb and all, along the outside of the plant. You can always pass these along to friends or even take them to your local farmer’s market if you have an abundance. Lemongrass plants that are kept exclusively indoors have been known to adapt their size to smaller pots, though the harvest potential, of course, won’t be as large. You should also regularly feed your indoor plants, being even more diligent when they are in smaller pots. The potted lemongrass plants will quickly deplete nutrients, as do any potted plants, and rely upon you for their sustenance. Soil condition also deteriorates over time, so amending your potted plants’ soil with Earthworm Castings on a regular basis will prevent you from having to re-pot again and again. And watering will usually be more frequent. Depending upon the size of the pot and the size of the plant, you may have to water 2 to 3 times a week to maintain a good moisture level for healthy growth. If this sounds like too much work or you are contemplating a vacation, then work Terra Sorb into your soil, following the directions at the top of this page.

And Finally You Harvest!

First, be aware that most insects will turn their nose up at this pleasant lemony scent, but that cats seem to find it most attractive. Lemongrass plants are naturally pest resistant, but other methods may need to be utilized to fend off the neighborhood feline prowlers.

Now, you can start trimming leaves (for tea and soups) once the plant is at least one foot tall; if you like a “clipped and uniform” appearance, you can keep the top cut and dry what you don’t use right away. The snipping also releases more of the lemony essence, so cutting before a get together can be beneficial. You can start harvesting the stalks when they are at least 1/2-inch in diameter. You should always use a sharp knife to cut them off at the level of the soil, rather than trying to break them off or pulling them up, as you can inadvertently damage the rest  of the plant.

Lemongrass stalks after being harvested

The outside leaves are usually tough and may have to be removed before use, though bruising them and adding them to recipes, and then removing them before serving, is common practice. The lemony essence is quite strong, so start with very small amounts before adding more. Entire stalks can be kept in the fridge for several days by keeping them in a plastic bag with a damp paper towel. Some people also chop pieces of the stalks and freeze it for later use. The leaves preserve best when dried.

If you have further questions about growing lemongrass or any other gardening questions, you are welcome to Ask Our Master Gardener, a service that is completely free and always helpful.

Happy Gardening!

GHS Guide to Soil and Soil Testing, Part 2

October 18th, 2011

handful of garden soilSoil is the earth’s living skin, as fragile in some ways as human skin. In this second newsletter about soil, we’ll tell you what you can do about “problem skin,” such as if your soil is too sandy or has too much clay. But to do that, you’ll need to know what’s in your soil, and we’ll explain how to perform a free and simple soil composition test.

Soil Composition

Soil composition is the mixture of silt, clay, sand, and organic matter found in your soil. It’s important to know what the mix is within your garden because it will affect the type and amount of fertilizer you use, how well your soil drains, how well it holds what you plant in it, and how likely it is to wash away in heavy rains or blow away in high winds. Finally, soil composition indicates how alive your soil is—and the more alive it is, the better it is for growing things!

Hollywood should make a movie with people shrunk down to the size of microorganisms and then placed into some rich soil. Viewers would then see that every square inch contains billions of bacteria and fungi, as well as worms, insects, spiders, and other many other critters. The presence of such biological activity is good news: it means that the soil is fully capable of supporting and nurturing whatever plants are placed into it. But this kind of biological activity only occurs if there are good amounts of water, air, and organic material in the soil.

We’re not talking about watering here—you can pour water on a rock for days and no water will get in. We’re talking about how porous the soil is, and that depends on the size of the particles that make it up.

Sandy soil allows for water and oxygen to penetrate easily because sand particles are large. However, water drains away too quickly, taking with it any fertilizer you may apply. In this case, the fertilizer you apply—and the money you spend on it—goes right down the drain!  On the positive side, it holds plenty of oxygen, plant roots have no problem traveling through it, and it’s easy to dig.

Clay soil presents the opposite problem: because clay particles are so small, they make it hard for oxygen to get in, and whatever water gets in will have a hard time getting out, resulting in poor drainage. This type of soil is difficult for plant roots—as well as spades and hoes—to penetrate.  But don’t despair: this type of soil is generally richer in nutrients than other types of soil, so once you break it up, you won’t need to fertilize as much.

Silt predominating in your soil is good news; such soil is ideal for gardening because silt particles are medium sized and usually result in good soil drainage and aeration.  All you have to do is make sure your silty soil contains ample organic matter.

Soil Wash Test

The soil wash is an easy test you can perform that will tell you the approximate proportion of sand, clay, and silt in your soil. Of course, you can pay a lot of money for a laboratory to perform a professional analysis, but for most gardeners this rough-and-ready test will tell you everything you need to know.

mason jar showing different levels of garden soil

Take a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid (a Mason jar will work or any large rounded jar) and put a cup of soil into it. Then fill the jar most of the rest of the way with water. Shake it for 30 seconds and then let it settle. Repeat three times, so the soil is well diluted with water.  Then let the jar sit for three days.

The thickness of the layers indicates the proportions of sand, silt, clay and organic matter. As R.C. Harris explains, “With each mixing, more and more coarse particles will drift to the bottom and more and more clay particles will drift to the top, with silt settling out between them. Some of the clay particles may not settle out for several days with this garden soil test: they are so fine they form a colloidal solution in water.”

When you take a look at the jar after a few days have passed, you will get a rough idea as to what general type of soil you have, based on whether there’s mostly sand at the bottom, clay at the top, or silt floating around. If the results are not clear, R.C. Harris provides more detailed instructions, as does Paula Lovegren. A big thanks to George Weigel for providing us the mason jar photo!

Improving Your Soil

The short answer is that whether you’re dealing with sandy soil or clay soil, the remedy is the same: add compost.  One of our previous newsletters, A Rind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste: The GHS Scoop on Composting, will tell you everything you need to know. And if you don’t want to make your own compost, we sell 32 qt. bags of BioMax 3-in-1 Garden Mix, a fine product that combines sea-based compost with black earth and Canadian sphagnum peat moss.

One thing not to do is add sand to clay soil or add clay to sandy soil. It would seem like this would be the easiest solution but due to the varying pH and magnetic charge of the particles, they might end up binding together, causing your soil to be as hard as a rock. Anyway, clay likes to bind to itself, and this alone can cause problems.

If your soil is too high in clay, the best thing to do (in addition to adding organic matter) is to add gypsum to help break it up.  If you have problems with drainage and this doesn’t fix them, you might need to dig a trench or take other more extensive actions.

If your soil is compacted because it is high in clay (or for some other reason such as a bulldozer going over it too many times), aeration will help a great deal. This can be done either by renting a machine called a core aerator or by hiring a lawn or landscape company to aerate it for you. For more information, read the Virginia Cooperative Extensions article on Aerating Your Lawn.

If your soil is too sandy, it will need lots of compost. However, compost alone isn’t enough; you’ll also need to introduce an earth-based matrix. As mentioned, clay isn’t a good choice, but Premier’s BioMax 3-in-1 Garden Mix would be ideal in this case, because it contains black earth as well as sea-based compost and Canadian sphagnum peat moss.

Finally, keep in mind that improving the composition of your soil will take time. It’s something that you have to work at, year after year, but you will see results, even early in the process. The closer your soil gets to being rich and fertile loam, the more productive your garden will be.

Caring for the Good Earth

We hope this newsletter will help you to better care for your soil through understanding its composition. For more information, read Soil Testing Part 1 and Soil Testing Part 3.

Until then, happy gardening from all of us at Garden Harvest Supply!

The Great White…Tomato That Is!

October 16th, 2011

Great White Heirloom TomatoThe Great White tomato is exactly what it sounds like. Producing a harvest of creamy white globes that can reach up to 2-pounds, but average about a pound each, the overall consensus of backyard growers is that this is a keeper.

An heirloom variety, I could find no information on the approximate date it was first introduced, which I can only deduce, means that it is a very old variety. The customer reviews of this unusually colored tomato have me agreeing that it is worth growing.

The Great White tomato is a beefsteak type of heirloom tomato that is amazingly meaty, while being incredibly juicy at the same time. Gardeners tell of its having only small pockets of seeds close to the outside, while the interior is almost completely solid with sweet, juicy meat. The flavor is most un-tomato-ish. Of course, anyone in-the-know knows that tomatoes are considered a fruit, but most tomatoes don’t closely taste like any type of fruit that is common today. The Great White tomato, however, is a tomato with a fruity taste. Described as sweet, juicy, kind-of citrusy and “almost impossible to describe”, one producer describes the flavor as reminiscent of fresh cut pineapple, melon and guava, all at one time. Hmmmm. I wonder if you could make wine out of these. An interesting idea, since tomatoes are chock full of vitamin C and antioxidants!

So, the proponents for the Great White tomato tell of the many compliments they receive, once people get past the unusual color. You may have to blindfold someone to get them to take the first bite! But…once they do, they will most likely be at least willing to admit that they are pleasantly sweet and tasty, while most will want plants for their own gardens. Their size makes them good for slicing and their color makes them an interesting addition to a sliced tomato plate. I can picture them on a blue plate, alternated with slices of a red beefsteak for the 4th of July picnic. I can also visualize them cut in tiny pieces in a baby spinach salad, maybe served with a raspberry vinaigrette dressing. A couple of customers have actually made them into marinara sauce and remarked on how much their friends enjoyed it, though it was a little weird eating white marinara sauce.

As far as growing them, they can be grown like any other tomato.. The Great White tomato is an indeterminate variety, which means it will produce fruit all season. It is important to provide support for these plants due to the weight of the fruit they will bear and the heights they will achieve, easily topping 3 or 4-feet. They are also quite leafy, which is a good thing, as the dense foliage protects the white flesh from getting sun-scorched. In fact, the Great White tomato has a better tolerance to heat than many other varieties and definitely much better than most whites, with very little cracking or splitting, if any.

One grower commented that he was in a competition with his wife and babied his in 18-gallon pots, with a combination of planting mix and manure, carefully building an arrangement of laths and cords to support them, only to have just one of his ten plants produce fruit. While…on the other side of the yard, his wife planted her tomatoes in partial shade, right in the ground, with no fertilizer and right next to the pumps for their saltwater swimming pool and managed to get about 60 pounds of tomatoes off of just three plants. I think that we can conclude that the Great White tomato plant does not need to be babied and is not at all fragile, regardless of its color, which might lead you to believe otherwise. I wonder if the ground vibrations from the pumps had anything to do with the heavy production.

Your Great White tomato plants will arrive in a 3-inch pot. We have grown them in our greenhouses, with high quality planting soil and have provided them the essential nutrients necessary to develop strong root systems. Tomatoes stand up remarkably well to the stresses of shipping and transplant, but our short video will give you some transplant tips. Here in our greenhouses, and in our own personal gardens, we use Neptune’s Harvest when transplanting any of our plants from the pot to the garden, and we use Espoma Tomato-tone® to provide the best possible nutrients for optimal tomato growth. These organic products provide assurance that your family is only getting nutritionally sound produce from your garden, without ingesting chemical traces, and without the worry of ground water contamination.

Try the Great White tomato this summer! I can almost guarantee you will enjoy the flavor, even if you are not already a tomato lover!

Will Yoder Mums Survive Indoors?

October 13th, 2011

Jacqueline Peach Fusion Yoder MumMy question to you is: I bought some “Yoder” Mums. Will these survive indoors? I would love to put them on a huge counter space near a window. Our home does not get over 80 degrees inside. Will they live if I keep them in the house?   Thank you, Cheryl C

Answer: Cheryl, Chrysanthemums are typically grown outdoors for the fall season and then either left in the ground or tossed in the compost pile if they were in containers, but they can be grown indoors with a little care and understanding their needs.

If your plants are just beginning to bloom, they need to be in a location where they can receive direct sun until they are in full bloom. To prolong the life of the blooms, move the plants back away from the sun. Keep them well watered and away from heating vents. Watering with filtered water can help keep them looking attractive. After they have finished blooming, fertilize them about every other week with a general purpose fertilizer.

Getting them to rebloom will require a little skill and effort. Like many other plants, mums set bud based on length of day. They require 12 hours of light and 12 hours of darkness, so if you want them to bloom other than in the fall, you may need to set up an area where you can control the light source.

Mums are generally pest and disease resistant, but when you are growing them indoors they might be a bit more susceptible, so you will want to watch for aphids, mites, leafminers, whiteflies and thrips.

Happy gardening,

Karen

GHS Guide to Soil and Soil Testing, Part 1

October 1st, 2011

Did you know that fall is the best time to test your soil? Test results are affected by the bacterial action in the soil, and during summer and fall, the levels of bacterial action are optimal for getting an accurate reading.

However, experienced gardeners prefer to test in the fall because they can fertilize their soil based on the test results, and then, whatever they add to the soil will have time to “set” over the winter. By testing in the fall and then fertilizing based on the results, your garden will be in the best possible shape when the spring growing season rolls around.

There are two tests that are important to do annually: a pH test to determine whether your soil is alkaline or acid and to what degree, and a nutritive test to evaluate how rich your soil is in nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (N, P, and K). We’ll talk first about the pH test, because it’s the most important.

pH Testing

Plants grow best within a specific pH range. Most plants like slightly acidic soil; others need a greater degree of acidity, and some prefer alkaline soil. What this means in a practical sense is that when you give your plants the right pH, they will best be able to absorb nutrients in the soil. The right pH will also make your plants less susceptible to plant diseases and fungi.

Many of our soil test kits come with a chart that tells you exactly what pH different plants need, or you can consult a chart on the Internet or find one in a gardening book.

Once you have your pH results, you can then amend your soil accordingly. Adding lime is the usual way to make your soil less acidic. Wood ashes mixed into soil will also help to lessen its acidity. Just be sure to use ashes from untreated wood, and keep them dry until you apply them.

Add sulfur, aluminum sulfate, or gypsum to make soil more acidic. Organic soil amendments such as sphagnum peat moss, oak leaves, coffee grounds, and well-composted sawdust also help to make soil more acidic.

Some fertilizers have an acidifying effect, enabling you to take care of your plants’ nutritive needs while lowering the pH a little. Look for a fertilizer designed for acid-loving plants such as Espoma’s legendary Holly Tone.

Keep in mind, though, that it can take several years to change the fundamental pH of your soil. You don’t want to go too fast: no more than 1 pH degree per year. And you’ll want to test each year, until you see that your soil has really settled into being the pH that you want it to be.

Nutritive Test

You’ll also want to do an annual nutritive test to determine how much nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (N, P, and K) are present in your soil.

If you live near a Cooperative Extension, give them a call: they can do soil testing that will test for other nutrients also, for no more than ten dollars, and carry out the analysis using equipment that is too costly even for most farmers. They also have the expertise to interpret the test results, and can advise you as to how to best address whatever issues show up in them.

That said, do-it-yourself soil testing is more economical than ever. In fact, you can get a Rapitest Model 1609CS containing 4 pH and 2 NPK tests for only $5.25. Though not as accurate as the professional tests, the do-it-yourself tests are more convenient and certainly work well enough to get a valid estimate.

Another advantage of the do-it-yourself tests is that they make it easy to retest after you’ve added fertilizer or other amendments. The Rapitest Electronic Soil Tester, Model 1860 does both NPK and pH in less than a minute, and you can stick it in different spots around your garden to customize your amendment strategy. A week or two after amending your soil, take a stroll around to the same spots to see if the NPK and pH levels are where you want them.

One of our previous newsletters, Choosing a Fertilizer,  will help you determine which fertilizer is best for your needs. But don’t wait ’til spring…. seize the season!

Also read our Guide to Soil Testing Part 2 and Guide to Soil Testing Part 3 for information about two simple tests you can do yourself at no cost that will yield valuable information about the composition of your soil. And we’ll talk about what to do if your soil is lacking in organic matter, doesn’t drain well, contains too much clay, is highly compacted, or has other problems related to its composition.

Until then, happy growing from Garden Harvest Supply!

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