April 11, 2011
Hobby Farms readers have difficult questions for Jessica Walliser
Courtesy iStockphoto/Thinkstock
Water anemones well in the first season to keep the roots from drying out.

Come this time of year, gardeners are out in full force, preparing their vegetable and flower beds for a productive season. This week—April 10 to 16, 2011—we’re celebrating National Garden Month and encouraging gardeners to learn something new as they are busy with their planting chores. Whether you’re a novice gardener or an old pro, the garden is always full of new discoveries, as Dirt on Gardening blogger Jessica Walliser can attest. To help get you in the gardening spirit, she’s answered a few questions that have Hobby Farms readers stumped.

Keep Deer Out
Q:
What is the best non-fence alternative for keeping deer out of the garden? ~Christy Franklin, Facebook

A: My favorite non-fence and non-spray deer-repellent system is a motion-activated sprinkler called The Scarecrow. The sprinkler connects to your hose and shoots a sharp, sudden burst of water in the direction of the activity. (It works great for dogs, cats and sneaky teenagers, too.) 

With a range of 1,000 square feet, one or two Scarecrow sprinklers will cover the average vegetable garden. I suggest you move the system every few days to keep the deer on their toes. The only major downside is that you can’t use it in the winter or if you don’t have a hose bib nearby. It runs on a single 9-volt battery.

Growing Anemones
Q: Why can I not grow Japanese anemones and all my neighbors can? They’re downright invasive in their gardens, and I can’t get a one to survive. Don’t say soil pH—I already know that one, and mine is correct. I’m a Master Gardener, and I’m stumped! ~Linda Reeve, Vanleer, Tenn.

A: Fall-blooming Japanese anemones are lovely plants indeed, and yes, if they like where they are, they have the tendency to take over the garden and become invasive. You already know that anemones prefer alkaline soil—that’s good. Next, I wonder how you have started them in the past. 

Japanese anemones don’t do well from seed for me nor do fully grown plants from the nursery.  They tend to suffer from transplant shock. I have had the greatest luck growing anemones from very small divisions. The two patches I have now were started from a friend’s plant. To make a successful division, they should be lifted in early spring when the new growth is only 1 or 2 inches tall. Each division should have a developing shoot system as well as a piece of spindly, brown root, at least 2 inches long. 

It’s very difficult to dig out a division and keep any soil on the root, so it’s extremely important that as soon as you dig up the division, you immediately replant it in either a pot of potting soil or directly into your garden. Choose a site with dappled shade, if possible. The next important step is to keep it very well watered through the first season. Because it will take several months for that spindly root piece to develop into a supportive root system, it’s important to keep it from drying out.  

Fruitful Tomatoes
Q:
My tomato plants last year were big and beautiful, but did not bloom or put out fruit. Why? ~Becky F. Friedrich, St. Augustine, Ill.

A: Nearly every time a horticulturist hears about a plant with a whole lotta green and very little fruit, they’ll blame it on the soil (and then on the gardener—sorry!).

There are three primary macronutrients a plant uses to grow: nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (the N-P-K on every fertilizer bag). They are called macronutrients because they are needed in the greatest amount to support plant growth. Although no less important to plant growth than, say, boron or magnesium, they are the ones that we need to pay more attention to because they are needed in more substantial quantities. 

Each of the macronutrients performs different functions within a plant. (You’ll see where I’m going with this in a second, I promise!) In a nutshell, the nitrogen is responsible for making new, green growth. The phosphorus supports a good root system and helps develop fruits and flowers. Potassium raises plant vigor and helps make them tough and hardy. When a plant, like your tomato, makes a lot of green and no fruits or flowers, it usually means there’s too much nitrogen in the soil and, perhaps, not enough phosphorus. 

I’m thinking you may have fertilized with a high-nitrogen product or manure within the past year or two and the nitrogen needs to be balanced out.  The only way you’ll know how to do that is to take a soil test. You’re county cooperative extension agent should offer testing or point you to a lab that does. They’ll probably suggest you top-dress with bone meal or another phosphorus-rich fertilizer.  

Pile It On
Q:
Why are many melons, squash and the three sisters garden seeds planted on mounds? We have very sandy soil, and the water just drains right through. ~Julie Bannister Chen, Harrison, Tenn.

A: The purpose of using mounds depends on where you live. Folks who garden in clay-based soils use them to increase drainage. Gardeners, like you, who have sandy soils, build mounds to keep the soil from draining too quickly. You’re probably saying, “Huh? How can they both increase drainage and decrease it at the same time?” The answer lies in your soil type.

Properly made mounds in both clay-based and sandy soils contain plenty of organic matter. Organic matter helps contain soil moisture in sandy soils, giving the water something to cling to and holding it much like a sponge. In clay-based soils, organic matter helps break up and separate the clay particles, opening up drainage channels and allowing water to move through it more readily. In order for the mounds to function appropriately for your soil type, build the mounds out of lots and lots of organic matter—like compost, well-aged manure or fully rotted leaves—mixed with some of your native soil. Mounds are also the perfect solution for plants, like those you mention above, whose seeds are prone to rot in poorly drained soils.



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