Q & A: Vegetables

green tomatoesGot a gardening question? Ask Susan! What follows are reader questions. Each time a new one comes in, I’ll add it to the top. To ask a question, drop me a note at Susan@susansinthegarden.com.




Q: This time of year it is difficult for me to find garlic that has not started sprouting. What few bulbs I have left from my 2017 harvest are not worth using.   Even the grocery store garlic has the bitter little green sprout.  Have you planted a variety that keeps until your new crop is ready to harvest in the fall? JM, Spokane

A: Softneck garlic keeps longer than hardneck garlic. We’ve found that ‘Inchelium’ lasts well, although it will eventually develop a small sprout inside, which we just cut out when we’re cooking with it. We’ve never found a variety that lasts all the way until the next crop is ready, unfortunately!

Q: I have been gardening in raised beds for the past 2 years. I’d love to know more about soil testing…I bought a kit from Gardens Alive last year and my kids and I tested our beds in the spring… not sure I did it right, but I tried to amend my soil appropriately. How do you test your soil and how often? Which kit do you recommend? R.N., Spokane

A: If your plants have been growing well over the past 2 years, and if you are amending the soil annually, you probably don’t need to test your soil. By amending it with organic materials such as compost, grass clippings from an untreated lawn (no weed-n-feed), or a small amount of chicken or rabbit manure, or shredded leaves, etc., you are helping rebuild the soil. You’ll notice I didn’t mention horse or steer manure above. That’s because there is a very persistent herbicide that doesn’t break down and it will wipe out your entire garden and contaminate your soil. So I recommend avoiding those 2 types of manures, just to be safe. Each type of vegetable crop that you grow has different nutritional needs, so they can deplete the soil of those nutrients over the course of a growing season. For example, leafy plants like lettuce, cabbage, spinach and broccoli, use a lot of nitrogen. Plants that bloom and set fruit (tomatoes, melons, cucumbers, eggplant, squash, etc.) need a lot of phosphorus. And root crops such as onions, turnips, beets, carrots and parsnips use both phosphorus and potassium. That’s why it’s important to amend your soil either at the end of the season or before the start of the new season. If your plants aren’t doing that well, then I would definitely recommend a soil test. I haven’t had enough experience with the different soil test kits available at garden centers, so I can’t really recommend a specific brand. But they will generally tell you how much nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are in your soil at the time of testing, and perhaps also the soil pH. Another option is to have a soil test performed. Here in Spokane, the Spokane County Conservation District offers soil tests that are quite detailed. I think they cost $30. Here is a link to their website: http://sccd.org/. And here is information on their soil testing service: http://sccd.org/departments/soil-science/soil-testing.

Q: I planted about 9 different tomato plants and watered them in the summer twice a day by hand. Half of all the tomatoes had end rot. And towards the end, a couple of plants’ tomatoes had circled white rings (and cracks). Can you help?

A: I’m not surprised about the blossom-end rot. Lots of folks had this problem due to our very hot, dry summer. It sounds like you did a great job keeping them watered but I’ve found some varieties are more susceptible to BER than others. So far, the 2 varieties I’ve grown that seem immune to BER are ‘Sungold’ cherry and ‘Amish Paste’. The cracking usually occurs after rainstorms because the fruits swell a bit but the skin doesn’t stretch so it splits open. It’s a frustrating problem. I found an online article that explains this a bit better: Why a Tomato Cracks and What to Do About It.

Q: Thank you for all the great gardening tips.  Today’s article raised the following questions:  I have a banner crop of sweet onions.  I pulled them today and will let them dry.  Do I allow the tops to dry to the point of falling off?  Where and how long will they store?  I also have butternut squash for the first time.  Like acorn can they remain on the vine until frost? JR, Spokane

A: Onions: when you say sweet onions, I’m thinking of varieties like Walla Walla and Yellow Sweet Spanish. If it’s the former, it will only keep for about a month. If it’s the latter, it should keep for about 4 months. So it varies, depending upon the variety. You want to dry them until the stalks and outer skin of the onion are completely dry and papery. Then you can safely cut off the stems and store them. I would keep them in a cool, dark place such as a basement, garage or closet. Squash: You should be able to leave your butternut squash on the vine until it frosts. They can usually handle a light frost but I would keep them out for a heavy frost as that can damage the skin and flesh of the squash, thereby affecting its storage potential. If you saw my video today, you know about the “thumbnail test” to determine if a squash is mature. If you haven’t seen it, here’s a link: Everyone Can Grow A Garden #27: When to Harvest.

Q: About 2 months ago, I planted a packet of Ed Hume “French Cinderella” pumpkin seeds in my garden on the South Hill.  Lovely vines sprouted with multiple yellow flowers (which hosted bees aplenty). I have only one well-developed pumpkin, about ready for harvest.  I’m hoping 2 babies will keep on maturing.  Otherwise, I can’t understand why most of the flowers dried and shriveled on the vine.  Can you figure why so few developed? Earwigs? Heat?  I didn’t over-water or fertilize. M, Spokane

A: I think there were two big challenges this season: heat and drought. It sounds like the latter wasn’t a problem since you were good about watering your plants regularly. But 
when it’s so hot for so long, plants that need to flower and set fruit just don’t function normally. It doesn’t sound like a pollination problem to me, since you commented on having so many bees on and around the flowers. So I would have to say that the heat may have caused primarily male flowers to bloom, and perhaps not so many female flowers. If that was the case, then the flowers that dried and shriveled up were male flowers 
and pollination didn’t take place.

Q: I planted a 12 foot row of turnips and another one of spinach in the same raised bed in May, separated  by 12 inches.  I got no usable items from either.  The turnips were full of small worms.  It was not like an onion or radish that might have a small hole that you cut away to use the rest.  It was totally unusable.  The spinach, rather than making leaves that we eat, grew tall and flowered. SS, Spokane

A: Regarding the turnips, it sounds like they had root maggots in them. Next time you grow them, you might try covering them with some floating row cover as soon as you plant them in order to keep the adult fly from laying its eggs on them.There is an information page in my Organic Pest Control Guide that explains how row covers work. Regarding the spinach, it could be that the weather was just too darned hot for them. Spinach is a cool-season crop, so it’s best to grow it in the spring or fall. When a plant creates flowers, that’s its way of making seed so there will be a next generation… and it certainly sounds like the heat caused the spinach plants to bolt to seed.

Q: My wife and I enjoyed the recent video tour of your garden. I noticed 
you use a red weed barrier covering for one of your raised beds. Why 
red? And where did you get it? JP, Spokane

A: It’s called red plastic mulch, tomato mulch or “SCRM” mulch. 
It serves 2 functions: it is a part of the color spectrum that reflects the
maximum amount of sunlight up into the plant, and it also increases the soil
temperature. I primarily use it on my tomato bed, but also like to use it
for growing melons, peppers, eggplants and winter squash. When I switched from using black plastic mulch to red, I easily had about a 30% increase in the plants’ productivity, which was very impressive! So I’ve used it ever since. This year, I’m also testing a green-colored mulch just to see how it performs. You should be able to locate the red plastic mulch locally, at a well-stocked garden center such as Northwest Seed & Pet in Spokane. Online sources include: Lee Valley.com, HarrisSeeds.com, JohnnySeeds.com and GardensAlive.com.

Q: Susan, do you know of any organic spray to stop leaf miner activity?  I forgot to put a floating row cover over the pony-pack of chard, and now the leaves are being eaten up one at a time. TM, Spokane

A:  That’s a shame! I don’t know of any organic spray that will work, esp. since the leaf miners are in between the cell layers of the leaves. Maybe you can pull off the infested ones, cover the plants, and see if they’ll do OK from that point on? And for next year, be sure to use a floating row cover as soon as you plant your chard (or spinach or beets, for that matter) so you won’t have to deal with those pesky insects.

Q: I just planted my tomatoes last week and have floating row cover on them.  How long should I keep it on? RM, Spokane

A: To give my warm-season crops a nice start, I like to cover them with floating row cover right after transplanting them into the garden. I leave it on for 2 to 3 weeks, depending on what the weather is doing. But for any of these crops (melons, cucumbers, pumpkins, winter squash and tomatoes), the cover needs to be removed when they start blooming so the pollinators can get to the flowers.

Q: I don’t understand what half strength dilution means referring to the
fish fertilizer.  Could you tell me how much to use per gallon of
water? OLR, Spokane

A: When I fertilize young seedlings with fish fertilizer, I like to use it half-strength to avoid burning or overfeeding them. This means using half as much fish fertilizer from what is recommended on the label. So, for example, they recommend 2 tbsp. of fish fertilizer to a gallon of water for vegetables, bedding plants, bulbs and annuals. That means I will use 1 tbsp. of fertilizer to a gallon of water.

Q. I was wondering where you get all your seeds. I have looked at NW Seed and cannot find a lot of the seeds you listed in the paper. JD, Spokane

A: While I do order a lot of them online, I stay in touch with the gal who orders the seeds for Northwest Seed & Pet’s Sprague & Altamont store. She does a great job of ordering the ones I write about. If you can’t find them there, do a web search on the name of the variety to see who carries them.

Q. Do you rotate (the plantings in your) beds every year or use the same ones and amend the soil yearly?

A: Yes, I am very careful to rotate what’s planted in the beds (by plant family) to cut down on the chance of insect and disease problems. I also amend the soil yearly, based on what will be growing in each bed. For example, if onions or other root crops will be planted in a bed, I add bone meal to the soil to increase the amount of phosphorus to help with root development.

Q: Could you write about the difference between hard- and soft-neck garlic? There are so many choices out there – what should we look for in our area? RM, Spokane

A: My husband is a garlic aficionado and plants our garlic every year. He prefers hard-neck garlic, specifically ‘German Red’ and ‘German Porcelain’, because they have large cloves. You can’t braid together hard-neck garlic, though, so if that something you want to do, you would go with a soft-neck variety. Bill says that ‘Inchelium’ is the go-to variety for soft-neck. It has small cloves, which works well for recipes that call for small cloves.

Q: I’m growing onions for the first time this summer. My Walla Walla Sweets are ahead of the red and yellow as their tops are drooping over. I gently fingered the bulb part and they are a somewhat smaller than a tennis ball. Maybe like a big golf ball. So is this the time to reduce watering? Will they continue to get larger? BN, Coolin, ID

A: When the tops flop over, that’s when you should stop watering them. Just pull up the bulbs and leave them on top of the soil to dry out a bit. If there’s the threat of rain, move them to a protected area so they won’t get wet. You’ll want to use up the Walla Wallas first since they don’t keep well. The red and yellow varieties will take a bit longer to mature than the Walla Wallas. If all 3 types of onions are growing in the same bed, though, I wouldn’t cut back on watering the reds and yellows. If the WWs haven’t completely fallen over, keep watering them till they do.

Q: How can you tell when your watermelon is ripe, what’s the trick? KW, Spokane

A: I’ve heard that the area of the melon that was lying on top of the ground turns yellow when it’s ripe. I’ve heard other people swear by “thumping” on the melon; if it sounds kind of hollow, it’s supposed to be ripe. Those are the only 2 methods I know of!

Q: My ‘Early Girl’ and ‘Sweet 100’ cherry tomatoes are growing a bit wild,
bushy and about 4-5 feet tall.  Should I snip the new shoots to
channel growth into the green tomatoes I see? JT, Spokane

A: I usually don’t start trimming my tomato plants back until the first week of August. I just shorten the plants a bit with the first pruning. Then I’ll do another pruning about 2 weeks later, removing a bit more. And then in Sept., I really remove a lot of growth so what’s left are the branches with the tomatoes on them, pruned right above. I think you can coast a bit longer before “terrorizing” your plants!