Gardening Tip of the Week
Time to Plant Strawberries
Strawberries are hardy perennials that come back to produce fruit for 3 to 5 years. They can be planted in spring or late fall. Make sure to select a sunny, well-drained site. You can plant them in a raised bed, container, or in the ground as long as there is lots of sun and well-draining soil.
There are three main types of strawberries, June-bearing, Everbearing, and Day-neutral. June-bearing strawberries will produce one big crop of large berries around June. Everbearing will produce a large crop around June and a smaller one in the fall. Day-neutral has smaller berries but can produce berries for a prolonged season in both the spring and fall.
Secure bare-root or container-grown plants. When planting, locate the crown at the center of the plant and bury the roots so that the soil line is just at the base of the crown and the roots are spread out. Any deeper and you risk the crown rotting, too shallow and the plant may dry out. Spacing can vary by variety but it is usually around 12” between plants.
Mulch between all strawberry plants with straw or chopped leaves. This will help to prevent the strawberries from rotting (a common problem when the fruit is in direct contact with the soil) and it will help the soil from drying out. Water thoroughly and keep the bed mulched and weeded through the growing season.
Most strawberry varieties produce runners, which can be trained to take root in a bare batch or, once rooted, transplanted to populate a new bed. However, clipping runners and pinching off early flowers will direct the plants’ growth into their roots, making for a more vigorous plants and better harvests later (but less fruit early in the year). With June-bearing varieties, it is best to pinch off the first season’s flowers. Though difficult, sacrificing the first year’s harvest underwhelming harvest will greatly improve the second year’s harvest.
To harvest strawberries make sure to pinch off the stem versus pulling off the strawberry. Around every other day, pick ALL ripe ones, and any that are diseased or misshapen. In wet or humid weather, cut infected strawberries daily. After picking diseased ones, compost or store separately, and wash hands before picking ripe ones.
Starting Tomatoes Indoors
If you haven’t yet started your tomatoes indoors, now is the perfect time. Tomatoes typically should be started indoors 6-8 weeks before being transplanted, and transplanted about 1-2 weeks after the last frost date for best success.
Keep seedlings warm using a propagation mat (or by putting the planting tray on top of the fridge). Most tomato varieties need about 75⁰ F for best germination rates. Remember that close lighting (1-2 inches) will keep them from getting leggy.
Transfer tomato seedlings into larger pots when they are 2-3 inches tall and have several sets of leaves. At this point, you’ll want to decrease watering to allow some drying to occur between watering. Also, take care to keep the foliage dry to limit the risk of fungus and disease outbreaks.
Onions: Good for More than Just Eating
There is a lot of questionable information and old wives tales circulating about companion planting. Some pairings work well in very specific circumstances and not in others and sometimes the science behind successful pairing is not well-documented. However, one of the tried-and-trues is planting onions among or around your other crops to deter pests – insects and rabbits. The strong scent of onions and all plants from the allium family confuses pests by driving off some pest or by disguising the scent of another crop. Specifically, research has shown they work well at repelling aphids and white flies.
Even if you are not terribly interested in onions as a crop themselves, they are easy to grow interspersed with other crops. And they store well once harvested.
There are a couple of ways to grow onions – they can be started from seed indoors in late winter or direct sown outdoors in early spring. You can sometimes find seedlings to plant as well.
However, the easiest and most common is onion sets, which are young onion bulbs grown from thickly sown seeds (the plants were not given enough room to grow full-size onions). These can be re-planted and with adequate space they will grow into full-size onions. Plant the sets with the point is just level with top of the soil about 4-6 inches apart (or vary depending on what you are planting next to). Like most root crops, onions like a soil that is consistently moist. At Gateway Greening we plant onions in a row border around our Kale, Cabbages, and Collards. This way they don’t take up much space and they provide a border.
We generally use St. Patrick’s Day as our rule of thumb for when to plant potatoes. As with all rules of thumb, it is primarily used for ease of reference rather than its preciseness. There is a wide window of time in which you can plant potatoes in early spring but we associate potatoes with the Irish and so the week of St. Patrick’s Day it is.
However, rather than strictly adhering to the calendar, what you are looking for is friable soil, or soil that is about the texture of a moist cake that crumbles with you work it in your hands. As we’ve had a warmer past couple days, the soil is ready assuming it is not too wet from this past weekend’s rain.
Get certified seed potatoes from a good source (such as Gateway Greening) and cut them into 2-inch chunks that have at least two eyes on each of them. Ideally, you would cut them a day or so before you intend to plant and place the chunks in a single layer, allowing the cuts to “heal” before planting. In addition, before you cut them, you can green sprout them or allow the eyes to develop a more substantial shoot. Neither green sprouting or healing isn’t absolutely necessary but it can reduce the loss to rot, particularly if the soil is wet or cool.
To plant, you dig a trench in your bed and plant chunks about 6” deep in good, friable, well-drained soil. Cover the hole or trench with a little less soil so the seed potato is covered by about 3-4” soil.
As the plants grow, pull soil from around the plant and hill around the base and develop tubers. This will allow better rooting and decrease sun exposure of the potatoes that will want to stick up from the soil. If you run short on soil, amend with compost as you go. Straw also makes an excellent hilling material.
You do want to make sure your potatoes are covered because potatoes exposed to the sun for too long, they develop chlorophyll – turning them green – and solanine. While the green from the chlorophyll is not a problem, it indicates that solanine is present and solanine is toxic to us. If enough is ingested it can lead to an upset stomach. It is rare to eat enough to cause problems because it is bitter but in either case, allowing potatoes to green ruins the crop.
Once the plants bloom, you can steal a few “new” potatoes by carefully reaching into the hills and removing some tubers from the roots. Wait until the plant foliage dies back to dig out mature potatoes.
Get a Jump on Spring Planting with Row Covers, Hoop Beds, and Cold Frames
Small lettuce plants underneath row cover that is being held up by PVC pipes
You can start your cold-weather crops outdoors in the next couple of weeks if you add row covers, hoop beds, or a cold frame to your garden. Covers, hoop beds, and frames are all designed to warm the soil and protect early crops from frost. Don’t rush to put out tender plants just yet, but plan ahead and your cool weather greens will flourish with a little extra warmth and protection.
Adding a hoop cover to an existing raised bed in an easy and inexpensive project. Feed 1/2″ PVC pipe through pipe straps attached every 3-4′ to the outside of a long side of the bed frame. Bend the PVC over the bed and feed it through corresponding straps on the opposite side of the bed.
Lay plastic sheeting (minimum of 3.5 mil thickness) over the PVC frame and weigh down long edges with bricks, stones, or filled water bottles or milk jugs. Alternatively, sandwich the long edges of the sheeting between two pieces of wood and secure the wood to the outside of the bed. This has the added benefit of providing a rigid core to roll the sheeting up to access the bed and for storing over the summer.
Use clamps to gather and close ends for easy access and venting on warm days.