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Preventing Tomatoes From Cracking and Splitting

After months of anticipating ripe, sweet tomatoes, my first harvest came a week ago. Unfortunately, several of the inaugural ‘Sun Gold’ cherry tomatoes were cracked around the equator, exposing healthy flesh underneath. Why did this happen and how can it be prevented?

Cracks and splits are a fairly common occurrence. They can start at the stem and run down the side of the fruit, or circle the width of the fruit, like mine did. The good news – the fissures are not the result of a disease, virus or insect. The cause? At least in part – me! On the bright side, I can easily fix it.

Tomatoes crack due to fluctuations of moisture and/or temperature that occur when the fruit is nearly fully mature. In my case, forgetting to water or underwatering a container grown plant on the first few 100 degree days, followed by “forgive me” overwatering for the next few days is the culprit. (Another tip – tomato plants don’t like to get heat wilt. Mine did that too.)

Here’s what happens to cause the fruit to split – during the dry spells, the exterior skin (epidermis) of the fruit toughens. When the plant is watered again, the fruit rapidly takes in the moisture and the fruit plumps up. This expansion causes the toughened skin to burst. Cherry tomatoes and large beefsteak varieties are particularly prone to these stretch or growth marks.

These tips will help prevent tomatoes from cracking and splitting:

  • Tomatoes like consistent moisture at regular intervals. Think of Goldilocks – not too much, not too little. Sounds simplistic, but the point is there’s a delicate balance. Watering on a regular schedule really helps.
  • Use natural mulch such as grass clippings or shredded leaves to keep the plant roots cooler.
  • Fertilize with low dose, slow-release fertilizer; high nitrogen fertilizers stimulate growth which can increase cracking.
  • Pick fruit just before it is fully mature and allow it to ripen on a sunny windowsill.

Some tomato varieties are bred to have more flexible skin and therefore are less likely to crack. When researching next year’s garden tomatoes, look for varieties labeled crack or split-resistant. You may want to give them a try.

Perhaps most importantly – is it OK to eat a cracked tomato? It really depends. Don’t take a chance if the split is deep, the fruit has been on the vine for a long time or you simply aren’t sure. Bacteria can develop in the opening with time. But if the crack has just appeared and the fruit looks healthy despite the scar, it is likely fine. Did I eat mine? I did. And it was worth the wait!

Additional reading: https://hortnews.extension.iastate.edu/faq/why-are-my-tomatoes-cracking

Photo Credit: Pixabay.com

Posted by Linda McDonnell, Denver County Master Gardener

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Mosquito Control: Separating Fact From Fiction

Mosquitoes seek me out in a crowd, leaving behind swollen, ridiculously itchy welts. They seem to ignore everyone around me. Admittedly, this is an annoyance and not a serious medical condition. However, nearly a billion people are affected by mosquito-borne diseases worldwide, so controlling mosquitoes is a serious and much researched topic.

There are definitely ways to lessen the chance of being the mosquito’s victim and a few popular beliefs which are not widely supported by research.

The scented geranium (Pelargonium citrosum, “Van Leenii”) has become known as “The Mosquito Plant.” Unfortunately, repeated studies have proven that the plant has no mosquito repellent properties, either in plant form or when the leaves are crushed to release the volatile oils. While the leaves have a lemon scent, they do not deter mosquitoes. Grow this scented geranium to enjoy it, not for bug protection.

Likewise, fragrant plants  such as rosemary, catnip, lemon thyme, eucalyptus and peppermint will not repel mosquitoes. According to Colorado State University, although widely touted for repellant abilities, there is no reliable data to support that these plants or the oils released when the leaves are dried will repel mosquitoes.

The volatile compound from the citronella grass (a hard to find tropical plant) does have satisfactory mosquito properties, discussed below.  But it can’t be stressed enough: simply growing any plant in the landscape won’t deter mosquitoes.

So what is effective?

Eliminate standing water. Stagnant standing water is an invitation for the female mosquito to lay her eggs. She can breed in as little as one teaspoon of water.  The egg-to-adult stage takes just four days. With one human bite, the mosquito extracts enough protein (our blood) to lay up to three hundred eggs. Yikes.

Check drip trays, gutters and downspouts frequently. Birdbaths and water features are big breeding grounds. Change the water often (twice a week is recommended) or use a bubbler to keep the water moving.

Mosquito dunks, a larvicide which is harmless to organisms other than mosquitoes, can be added to ponds to kill mosquito larvae. Rain barrels should be installed with a protective cover and spigot.

Encourage beneficial visitors. Spiders and other insects feed on mosquitoes so avoid or limit the use of insecticides. Bug zappers which indiscriminately target the “good guys” have been shown to have little effect on mosquitoes, too.


DEET repellent. Skin lotions and sprays containing DEET, a highly effective chemical compound, have been used since the1950’s and are often combined with citronella oil.  While not without its detractors, DEET offers relief to many. Apply it on top of sun protectant and not under clothing. Always wash it off when you go inside.

Dress defensively. Mosquitoes won’t bite through clothing. Closed shoes, socks, long sleeves and long pants do help. Clothing treated with permethrin also offers some benefit. 


Burn citronella candles.The smoke or vapor from citronella candles provide some protection in the immediate area, such as a patio. 

Create air movement. Mosquitoes dislike moving air so a fan on a porch or patio will discourage visits.

I’ve not had the first bite of 2019 yet and by practicing some of these tips, I’m trying to reduce the bumps and lumps left behind by these buzzing nuisances. Here’s hoping…

References:

Mosquito Management. Drs. Frank Peairs and Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University 

Do Plants Repel Mosquitoes?  Plant Talk Colorado #1400-20

Controlling Mosquitoes. University of Maryland Extension

Written by Linda McDonnell, Denver County Master Gardener

Image courtesy of Pixabay.com




Apprenticeship and the Know-Nothings

An emotional dichotomy of actual knowledge vs. expectation.

Image by monica_vatalaro via McKenna Hynes

Hello friends. My name is McKenna, and I’m a plant murderer. There. I said it. Got it out of the way. It’s the sentiment that creeps on me whenever I find myself in the company of OG MG’s. I often feel fraudulent, or like I won’t ever have enough information, or that I’m simply wrong. Vulnerability can be quite uncomfortable, can’t it? So, in this maiden post, before I can publicly embrace my love for gardening, and how I’m still pretty bad at it–I’ve just got to get this one out of the way. Mastery is a misnomer, I’m here to learn and connect, and grow–ideas, feelings, and hopefully some plants.

I am a 2019 Apprentice Colorado Master Gardener and have been patiently awaiting the new growing season (I think we’ve finally made it, right?) by stewing in my own self-doubt and wild ideas. What about moss instead of lawn? Why do my houseplants always struggle–let’s be real, 50/50 shot of survival–after I transplant? I’ve wanted to be a Master Gardener for ten years, and when I finally acquired a flexible schedule, I dove right in and devoured the curriculum. When classes were over, I took pause and thought I don’t feel any smarter. Or better. In fact, I feel like I know less now because now I know the breadth of how impossibly huge the knowledge base for this light, relaxing, and joyful “hobby” can be. Merely dabbling in entomology, ornithology, edaphology, biology, and botany. No worries. No things to be worried about here. Just taking on some of the most vast and complicated sciences for fun on the weekends sometimes. Gulp. Cue the continued fraudulent feels.

Image via McKenna Hynes

I acquired my first hours as an apprentice CMG at the Colorado Cactus and Succulent Society’s annual plant show in April. I knew no one and wasn’t a member, but somehow got word of the show and volunteered anyway. The show is magnificent; put it on your calendar for 2020. There was a cactus that was over 20 ft tall, cacti over 25 years in the making, blooms in every shade of wow, and some of the finest ceramicists slinging their genius with complimentary repotting. Ten minutes before the doors opened for the mob to pillage the room, I hear a man in a brightly colored, southwestern-ish shirt and a funky Australian-looking cowboy hat start shouting that he needed a volunteer. I don’t recall his name, but he was one of the vendors who raised and planted gorgeous succulent baskets. He needed assistance in applying the price tags to several flats of plants. While quickly pricing the items, he abruptly asked me if I was a biologist. I nearly guffawed at the thought and said no, but I am an Apprentice Master Gardener. He had no idea what that was and asked what I like about plants. I blurted that I liked knowing about them and learning how to care for them, and I experiment somewhat unsuccessfully. He stopped, made deliberate eye contact with me, and stated with the seriousness of Stalin, that “plants have been thriving for millions of years without us. If there’s something wrong with your plants, it’s your fault.” I was a bit dumbfounded… then embarrassed… then conceded. He’s totally right. What a relief! Somehow, I still find this comforting, and use it to further propel my desire for more discourse. It’s that just keep swimming idea.  

I work full-time so, out of necessity, I needed to find alternative ways to get some hours. I connected with this blog and decided to put my insecurities and self-doubt aside to start posting. I’m going to write about my own path to the garden, Colorado, water-wise gardening, creativity in design and functionality, mindfulness and plant identification, and lawn removal! I flooded my own inbox with ideas and links and resources and then stared into the chaos without blinking for several minutes wondering how a person gets started.

And then, I procrastinated. I sat down to write and couldn’t. Ah yes, again, hello incertitude. All of a sudden, the struggle to get anything down was perpetually defeated by my own insecurity that I have no expertise, I don’t know anything, I have nothing to offer, and I can’t write. And I’m probably a terrible human being. Hold. Up. Take pause, woman! This isn’t real, and it certainly isn’t true. A quick rabbit hole visit to explore Imposter Syndrome, and I’m back in the saddle. Blog post or not, here it comes….

The title [Apprentice] Master Gardener holds a lot of expectation, maybe for ourselves, but also for our community. A shift at a farmers market will show you that folks see our sign and make a beeline to talk plants–or honeybees without stingers in Costa Rica; or relatives who work for the Extension Office in another state; or to ask the world’s most complicated diagnostic question, to which you have no idea where to even begin except to breathe and look about furtively for another CMG for backup. But we are also volunteers, and many of us are quite new to the field; armed with eagerness, child-like wonder, and a passion to share what we’ve learned. I’m always amazed when a fellow CMG comrade can pull the most perfect answer out of their hat that is informative, accurate, and easily digestible. So grateful to be in this with folks like you.

Hello, my name is McKenna. I’ve killed a lot of plants. I’ve also learned a lot about them. I’ve shared bold ideas, and resources, and connected with new friends with the information I’m learning. Did you know there is a magical woman in Denver who has a hydroponic garden on top of a building downtown where she is growing oodles of greens to be used in her restaurant? (As far as I’m concerned, she is a mythical creature that I’m trying to track down. PM me with serious leads only, please.) I’ll be posting on this blog here and there to supplement my own education, to investigate some of my wild ideas, and to encourage others to talk to one another and connect and share. That initial writer’s block was plain and simple fear. But I’m finding just noticing it and calling it what it is, helps me realize my goal as a(n) [A]CMG is not at all to be an expert or to provide expertise. I’m here to explore and share what I’ve found. Happy Monday, folks. Let’s do some learning.

By McKenna Hynes

Apprentice Colorado Master Gardener since January 2019

New Mexico Chiles

serrano-peppers pixabay.com

Serrano peppers Pixabay.com

Twenty one varieties of New Mexico chile peppers, Capsicum annuum, will be  on sale on May 18-19 at the CSU Master Gardener Plant Sale held at Denver’s Harvard Gulch Park.  Grown from the University of New Mexico’s Chile Pepper Institute’s (CPI) seeds, the fruits range from mild and flavorful to bold, smoky and hot.

poblano

Poblano peppers New Mexico State University Chili Pepper Institute

The plants will mature in late summer and grow well in Colorado conditions. Mild selections include ‘Conquisstador’ (nonpungent, smooth fruit, strong vines) and ‘Trick or Treat’ (no heat with habanero flavor). ‘NuMex Heritage 6-4’ (award winning fruit, great for green chili), ‘NuMex Joe. E. Parker’ (high yield, excellent for red and green chili) and ‘NuMex Sandia Select’ (high heat level) are among the hot cultivars we’ll have on hand. Find the complete plant list here.

Read on to learn more about New Mexico chile origins, research and growing techniques.

Chiles are native to South America, where they are perennial shrubs. In the United States, with few exceptions such as southern California and parts of Florida and Texas, the plants are grown as annuals. It has been said that New Mexico is to chile peppers what Napa Valley is to wine grapes. The area’s arid climate, hot summers and soil make chile growing conditions ideal. Given Colorado’s similar conditions, the plants grow well here, too.

Scoville_Wilbur_Prof_med

Wilbur Scoville, 1865-1942 New Mexico State University Chile Pepper Institute

Heat and flavor of chile varieties vary greatly and have been studied extensively.  In 1912, mild-mannered appearing Wilbur Scoville developed a system for measuring the feisty flavor of chiles that is still in use today.

According to the CPI, “The heat level of a chile pepper is expressed in Scoville Heat Units (SHU). Scoville Heat Units are intended for comparison only because heat levels can fluctuate greatly from location, and even from pod to pod on the same plant. Chile peppers range in heat from 0 SHU (Bell Pepper) to more than 2,000,000 SHU (Trindad Moruga Scorpion).”

Chile peppers contain chemical compounds called capsaicinoids.  When ingested, capsaicinoids send a message to our brains that the pepper is hot. In large doses capsaicin can burn and irritate humans and mammals. As birds do not have the brain receptors to register this heat sensation, they feel none of the adverse effects of the compound. Because of this, birds are responsible for spreading wild pepper seeds.

The seeds are often, but erroneously, touted as the hottest part of the pepper. In reality, the white flesh near the seeds contain the most capsaicin. When cooking with peppers, leave or remove the ribs depending on your sensitivity.

Beyond heat, chiles offer a wide range of complex flavors. Dr Paul Bosland of the CPI identified five heat profile components. Chile lovers have surely experienced these sensations:

  • Development: Is the heat sensation felt immediately or 5, 15 or 30 seconds later?
  • Duration: How long does the heat linger?
  • Location: Where is the heat sensation felt? Lips, front of mouth, tip of tongue, throat?
  • Feeling: Is it a pin-prick sensation or an overall sensation or does it coat the area?
  • Intensity: Measured by Scoville Heat Units and commonly called mild, medium or hot fruit.

If you’re eager to plant your chiles right now, a word of caution. Plants should be hardened off after the danger of frost by exposing them to outdoor temperatures for longer periods of time daily. Plant in the ground when daytime temperatures hover around 70 degrees and over night temperatures are reliably above 55 degrees.

Before planting, incorporate compost to fortify the soil. Throughout the season, use a balanced fertilizer (5-10-5 or 10-10-10).  Watch for the inevitable dry spells  as plants need at least 2 inches of moisture a week, especially after fruit sets. Night time temperature is critical for flowers to set and is ideally between 65-80 degrees.

What’s your favorite chile pepper? Please share in the comments!

For more information:

Plant Talk Colorado: Chile Peppers

Growing Colorado Peppers, Colorado Farm to Table/Colorado State University

“What’s So Hot About Chili Peppers” Smithsonian Magazine, April 2009

Posted by Linda McDonnell, a Denver County Master Gardener

 

 

Heirloom and Modern Tomatoes at CSU’s Master Gardener Plant Sale

The 14th annual CSU Master Gardener plant sale fundraiser will take place at Denver’s Harvard Gulch Park, 888 E Iliff Avenue (at Emerson) on Saturday, May 18 from 8 am to 3 pm and Sunday May 19 from 10am to 3pm or till sold out.

In preparation for the sale, Denver Master Gardeners have been busy nurturing over 7200 fruit and vegetable plants from seed in the City of Denver’s City Park Greenhouse. When the plants make their debut you’ll find a dizzying selection of strong, healthy specimens for your summer garden. Herbs, annuals and perennials round out the offerings.

The tomato plants are definitely one of the stars of the show – forty seven varieties in all – including heirloom and modern (hybrid) cultivars.

What differentiates a heirloom from a modern tomato?

Horticulturists define heirloom seeds as those that are “open pollinated” by  insects, birds, wind or other natural means and retain the same traits from generation to generation. Seedlings will produce the same size and color fruit on a plant with the same growth habit and the same flavor from one generation to the next.

Depending on the variety, heirloom tomatoes can be red, purple, green, yellow, speckled or bi-colored. The fruit can have smooth skin but many varieties have a beautiful ribbed surface. Popular indeterminate (produce fruit throughout the season after maturity) heirlooms available at the sale include:

 

‘Brandywine Red’ – a large, flavorful red-pink beefsteak fruit which matures in 90 days.

‘Purple Cherokee’ – pink-purple fruit with a rich, sweet flavor. Excellent in salads and on sandwiches. Matures in 80-90 days.

‘San Marzano’ – Favored by Italian cooks for a meaty, complex, sweet flavor which is especially delicious on pizza and in sauces. Matures in 85-90 days.

‘Aunt Ruby’s German Green’ – Large (up to 1 lb!) green fruit with a strong, sweet fruity flavor. A frequent taste test winner which slices especially well. Matures in 85 days.

Many experts define heirloom seeds as those introduced prior to 1950. By contrast, modern (hybrid) varieties were introduced to the market after World War II for the purpose of improving disease resistance and increasing shelf life and yields. The modern varieties became popular because the home gardener could avoid battling tomato diseases and commercial growers could count on reliable, cost effective crops.

If you are thinking that modern tomatoes lack classic, true tomato taste, you are not alone. Some hybrids sacrifice flavor for other traits. However, in fairness, taste is highly subjective!  

Modern varieties are popular taste-pleasers and are definitely worth adding to your garden. We’ve grown ten hybrid cultivars including two crowd pleasing indeterminate cherry varieties.

‘Cherry Sun Gold’ – Prolific golden-orange cherry-sized fruit with high sugar content. A frequent taste test winner which can be grown in a large pot. Matures in 70 days. Kids eat ‘em like candy!

‘Chocolate Cherry’ – Clusters of 1” port wine fruit with a rich, tangy flavor. A productive plant which matures in 70 days.

As Plant Sale Chair Maureen Horton explained here, two heirloom marriage tomatoes ‘Cherokee Carbon’ and ‘Genuwine’ are new this year. Heirloom marriage tomatoes are hybrids that cross two heirloom varieties to produce a tomato with the best qualities of each heirloom.

Truly the “best” tomatoes are the ones you enjoy the most and thrive in your garden. It’s also fun to introduce a new variety to your garden and palette. If you join us for the sale, master gardeners will help you make your selection and share tips for success.

For more information:

www.facebook.com/CSUDenverhort

CSU Fact Sheet: Recognizing Tomato Problems

Written by Linda McDonnell, a Denver County Master Gardener

Colorado Blueberries: A Success Story

Blueberries grown in peat moss bales

Make no mistake about it, blueberry plants want what Colorado’s soils can’t deliver – high acidity. Attempts to grow them in our alkaline soil will frustrate the most accomplished gardener. However, research at Colorado State University found the plants can be grown successfully in this region when planted directly into a bale of peat moss, which has been tucked into the garden bed. The process is described in detail here.

Five years ago, armed with bales of peat, solid research and determination, Denver Master Gardener Jill Fielder decided to add blueberries to her raised beds. Given the proper environment, regular care and careful plant selection, she’s been enjoying berries every summer since.

According to Jill, “Blueberries are both insect and wind pollinated and the bees love ours. Most experts believe that blueberries set great yields when there’s cross pollination with another variety that flowers at the same time, so we have a couple different cultivars.” Northcountry Blue (small, flavorful berries, upright habit), Bluegold, (productive with a somewhat sprawling habit) and Bluecrop (large berries, the newest addition) are 3.5′ to 4.5′ feet tall and doing well. Northblue didn’t produce well and was replaced.

Spring buds

Plants were purchased on-line from reputable growers and were planted in the spring. The plants are feed monthly during the growing season with a water soluble fertilizer for acid-loving plants. A drip irrigation system provides moisture.

Jill’s raised beds are in a protected area of her yard, bordered by a fence and garage so she has not covered or wrapped the plants in the winter. However, winter protection is recommended in less protected areas. Late in the winter, plants are trimmed to remove dead or damaged wood and maintain shape.

If you’re looking for a new gardening challenge and can commit to the specific needs of these plants, why not give them a try?

Posted by Linda McDonnell, a Denver Master Gardener, with thanks to Jill Fielder for supplying inspiration and photos.

 

 

 

Meet the Garden Squad

Meet the Garden Squad is a new blog feature and a way to get better acquainted with some of our CSU Extension Master Gardener volunteers.

Maureen Horton has volunteered with CSU Extension as a Master Gardener since 1999. (Photo credit: Maureen Horton)

Meet Maureen Horton

The first CSU Master Gardener Plant Sale was a small community event on a Saturday in May. Only a few hands planted seeds for the 1400 plants available that year.

Over the last 14 years, the fundraiser for Denver Master Gardeners has grown to include 25 pairs of volunteer hands planting and tending more than 7,200 fruit and vegetable plants. The sale dates are May 18 and 19 this year.

While many things about the sale have changed, there’s something that’s remained the same: the work of Master Gardener Maureen Horton. She’s volunteered every year of the sale since the very beginning. She’s taken on the important task of coordinating all the planting in the City Park Greenhouse for the plant sale.

“I love filling the pots, planting the seeds, nurturing them and watching them grow,” she said. “It’s almost like a mother thing, nurturing them and then they go away, like your children.”

Maureen Horton (left) and a team of Master Gardener volunteers get to work in the City Park Greenhouse. (Photo credit: Merrill Kingsbury)

Maureen joined the Master Gardener program around 1999, but she’s been interested in nurturing plants since she was 5 or 6 years old. Her earliest gardening memories are of walking with her grandmother and uncle to tend the family garden plot in New Hampshire.

She recalls her grandma explaining the shoveling and watering to her, as well as harvesting lettuce and “lots and lots of potatoes.”

Now her Denver garden includes xeric plants, roses and her favorite ‘Purple Cherokee’ and ‘San Marzano’ tomatoes, among others.

Maureen’s approach to her own garden is all about nurturing, too. “Once I plant it, I nurture it to its maturity with care and the proper nutrients to grow the healthiest plant possible. It’s all about loving the soil and earth.”

She must really love the soil to commit to leading the greenhouse planting effort over six months each year, from November to sale day in May.

“We start in November and go through all the seeds we didn’t use the year before,” she explained. “We’re cost conscious and want to use all the seeds we can.”

Then the what-to-grow lists are compiled. One list includes the most popular plants from the previous sale. There’s another list of plants that are researched to find new, reliable varieties to add to the sale. Because of the heat and extreme weather from last summer, heat-tolerant tomatoes were researched for this year.

That list includes favorites like ‘Yellow Pear’, ‘Red Brandywine’, ‘Burbank Slicing’, ‘Costoluto Genovese’, ‘Great White’, ‘Green Giant’, ‘Marble Stripe’ and ‘Purple Calabash’.

In addition, two new heirloom marriage tomatoes are now growing for the sale: ‘Cherokee Carbon’ and ‘Genuwine’. Heirloom marriage tomatoes are hybrids that cross two heirloom varieties to produce a tomato with the best qualities of each heirloom, plus the disease resistance and improved yields of a hybrid tomato.

Chile pepper research also figured into the list for this year’s sale. Of 23 pepper varieties, 21 are from New Mexico State University’s Chile Pepper Institute in Las Cruces.

“We’ve really babied those peppers,” Maureen said. “We’re introducing 18 new varieties of chile peppers to the sale.”

One of the new varieties is ‘NuMex Trick or Treat’. This pepper looks like a habanero and has all of the flavor of one, but with none of the heat. Another unusual pepper is ‘NuMex Twilight’ chile, an edible ornamental with peppers that mature in color from purple to yellow, then orange to red.

Once the seed order is placed, Maureen figures how many total flats of seeds to plant and the number of flats for each variety. Much of that is determined by how many benches the greenhouse allocates to the Master Gardeners for the sale.

In exchange for the space in the greenhouse and the use of a couple of their machines, the greenhouse also benefits from the help of Master Gardener volunteers.

Once the call for volunteers goes out, “people come running. It may be 40 degrees outside, but it’s 72 degrees in the greenhouse,” Maureen said. “It’s wonderful in there.”

While the planting is serious business, there’s always time for a few laughs. “We love it. There’s a lot of camaraderie and there’s a passion for it. Everyone works hard during their three hours to meet the goal of planting 40 flats.”

Once planting is complete, there’s twice weekly maintenance needed right up to the time the plants leave the greenhouse headed for the sale.

Last year the plant sale raised $36,000 to support Master Gardener programs in the community. More than half of that total came from selling the plants grown in the greenhouse.

It’s easy to imagine a high level of stress goes with the responsibility of nurturing more than 7,000 plants for the biggest fundraising event of the year.

“From doing it all these years, there’s not much stress,” said Maureen. “You have to roll with the punches. The only stress is if a flat of seeds doesn’t come up.”

By Jodi Torpey
Master Gardener volunteer since 2005

How Long Will Seeds Last?


Do you have a stash of old seed packets tucked away with your gardening gear, thrown on a shelf in the garage or mingling with this-and-that in a drawer? I bet you do. Do they hold the promise of healthy plants or are they past their prime?

Seed packets have a sell-by date, but depending on the seed type and the storage, they can be viable far longer.

According to Colorado State University, flower and vegetable seeds can be stored at room temperature for a year without significant loss of germination. Given optimal dry and cool conditions, some seeds can be viable for up to ten years. Colorado’s semi-arid climate is advantageous for seed saving as moisture shortens seed’s shelf life. This CSU publication contains details on seed saving, the longevity of common plant seeds and germination rates.

If you want to know if your past season’s seeds are worth planting, you can easily find out by doing a germination test. Count out 10, 20, or 30 seeds and spread them on several layers of moistened paper towels. Carefully roll them in the paper so the seeds stay separated. Place the roll in a plastic bag and store in a warm spot without direct sunlight, such as the top of the refrigerator.

Check your seeds for signs of sprouting after 2-3 days and daily after that for about two weeks, keeping the towels moist. After that time, divide the number of sprouted seeds by the number you started with and you have the germination rate. You’ll likely find that the rate is reduced, but the seed is still useful if you plant more seed than you need, using the germination rate as a planting guide.

If few seeds sprout, they are too old and not worth saving. By doing the test, you’ll avoid being disappointed by poorly performing plants in the garden.

February is a great time to take stock of your seed stash and purchase what you need for the year. And if you have some still-good seed you don’t want, consider sharing them with a gardening friend or donating them to a school or community garden.

Image: Pixabay.com

Written by: Linda McDonnell, Denver County Master Gardener

Meet the DMG Garden Squad

Meet the DMG Garden Squad is a new blog feature and a way to get better acquainted with some of our dedicated volunteers.

Jan Appelbaum has volunteered with CSU Extension Master Gardeners since 2004.

Meet Jan Appelbaum

Most Master Gardeners know the value of making their own compost. But Jan Appelbaum discovered there’s more to compost than a good soil amendment.

“My best success last year grew out of the compost bin. There were three or four tomato varieties that grew out of the compost, and they were prolific.” She harvested hundreds of tomatoes from tomato seeds that decided to sprout and grow on their own.

Jan’s tomatoes planted themselves in the compost bin. (Photos by Jan Appelbaum)

Jan joined the CSU Extension Colorado Master Gardener (CMG) program in 2004, after retiring from a 30-year teaching career in Douglas County. She thought the program would be a good way to provide some structured activity to fill her time.

When she started, the Denver Master Gardeners’ office was located downtown in the Wellington Webb Building. Those were the “good old days” when the pace was quite a bit slower.

“We have the ability to get information faster now, almost instantaneously, and we reach more people now,” Jan said. “But sometimes slow is better, too.”

One of her favorite volunteer activities is interviewing Master Gardener apprentices because there are many different ages, levels of enthusiasm for gardening and levels of expertise. “It’s fun and interesting to hear why people want to be trained to be a master gardener,” she said.

Jan also volunteers as part of the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network (CoCoRaHS) to track precipitation in all 50 states, Canada and the Bahamas. As a CoCoRaHS volunteer, she measures daily precipitation in her yard and keeps track of the results.

She also volunteers at the annual spring plant sale and helps answer questions at the farmer’s market. One of the advantages of volunteering alongside other Denver Master Gardeners is the collaborative spirit. “At the Master Gardener booth, four brains are better than one.”

The farmer’s market is a valuable and sometimes entertaining outreach opportunity. “It’s always fun when people come up to ask a question but have already made up their mind. Or when people from out of town say ‘That’s not how we do it in Michigan.’ But most people appreciate the help we can give.”

Jan grew up in Connecticut where she admits it was easier to garden. She helped in her family’s huge vegetable garden, but had to learn how to garden in a more challenging environment when she moved to Colorado in 1972.

Her advice to new gardeners, and those new to gardening here, is to be patient and learn by doing.

Some of that advice is based on her own early planting efforts. She recalled planting a miniature Japanese maple tree and giving it too much love.

“I thought it needed water because the leaves were curled, and I killed it by overwatering. Eventually I found out they don’t like to have their roots too wet.”

Jan said she’s grateful for the Master Gardener experience because it’s broadened her gardening knowledge. She thinks everyone who gardens should go through the Master Gardener training, too.

“Gardening for me is very therapeutic,” she said. “It helps connect us with the soil and Mother Nature. Having a sense of nature is getting harder and harder to do in the city, but I’m encouraged to see there are more people getting into gardening now.”

By Jodi Torpey
Denver Master Gardener volunteer since 2005

Why Leaves Linger

Here we are in mid-January and  most deciduous trees and shrubs (excluding conifers) have shed their leaves. But long after the last frost and through a couple of modest snow storms, there are still trees around the front range with leaves that are stubbornly hanging on, as you can see from the photos I took in my neighborhood last week.

Marcescence is the retention of dried, dead leaves during the winter. Typically, as woody plants prepare to shed their leaves in the fall, cells at the junction of the twig and the leaf petiole (stem) release enzymes and form an abscission layer, which aids in the separation of the leaf. Marcescent leaves do not develop this thin-walled cell layer and therefore, do not drop readily.

Early severe cold weather can cause marcescence as the development of the abscission layer is halted and the leaves do not release. Front range gardeners will recall an extreme case in November 2014 when an exceedingly mild fall was interrupted by a one day temperature plunge from a high of 58 degrees to a low of 16 degrees. The result was subsequent damage and loss of many hardwood plants the following season and beyond.

Some plants are more apt to hold leaves longer, including several oak species, hazelnuts, American lindens and beech trees.  According to Jim Finley of Pennsylvania State University, “Marcescent leaves are often more common with smaller trees or more apparent on lower branches of larger trees, which in forest conditions would be growing beneath taller trees where the reduced sunlight might slow the abscission process.”  Lower leaves are therefore exposed to cooler temperatures, resulting in leaf retention. It should be noted that upper leaves can also exhibit marcescence.

Marcescent leaves eventually drop, either due to wind, snow load or the push of new spring growth. Under normal circumstances, marscence does not damage trees.

References:

“Winter Leaves that Hang On”, Jim Finley, Department of Ecosystem Science and Management, Pennsylvania State University.

Written by Linda McDonnell, a Denver County Master Gardener