Blog posts categorized as: Grow Vegetables & Fruit

Mason Bees are Powerful Pollinators

Mar 6, 2017

If you grow vegetables, berry bushes or fruit trees (or all of the above) then you already understand the importance of successful pollination. Flowers need to be pollinated in order to successfully produce a fruit. Even if you don’t grow your own produce in your backyard, your trips to the grocery store would be pretty bleak without pollinators. While there are many pollinators in the insect world, honey bees have traditionally been the workhorse pollinators of agricultural crops. But it’s not just our food crops that need pollinators.  According to published research, cross-pollination by bees supports at least 30% of the world’s food crops and 90% of wild plants. Bottom line: We need bees.


A baby blue orchard bee emerges from its cocoon in my garden. Hello!

You probably know that urbanites have taken to beekeeping with more interest in the last few years. I personally keep several honey bee hives myself. While we need more beekeepers, the reality is that beekeeping is not for everyone. It’s costly, requires hands-on education and a serious commitment to tend your hives and continue learning. If you have small children that regularly use your yard, then you may not be able to accommodate beehives on a small urban property. Here in the city, you also have to take more precautions to safely keep bees, being that we all have neighbors close by. So then what do you do if you want to increase your home garden yields and help the overall bee population, but you’re not prepared to become a beekeeper? Mason bees are the answer.

Did you know? There are thousands of bee species in North America other than the European honey bee. If you’ve ever spent time watching the blooming plants in your garden, you’ve probably seen many different types. If we can boost all of their populations, our food supply will be in much better shape. In fact, by boosting populations of other species, we can help mitigate some of the pressures on honey bees. Mason bees are a group of what I call “gentle super pollinators”. They don’t produce honey, but they don’t sting or require hive maintenance. While the females do have a stinger, they rarely if ever use it. The Blue Orchard Bee, which occurs naturally in our area, is one such mason bee.

Now is the time that baby mason bees will begin hatching out of their winter cocoons. You can pick up dormant cocoons of blue orchard bees and nesting materials right now at local garden centers (call ahead to check availability or have them order for you). Mason bees, unlike honey bees, don’t build honey comb in a hive. They simply nest in narrow holes or tubes they find in wood and hollow twigs. I’ve even seen them nesting in holes in my home’s exterior brick. You can purchase mason bee houses, which you fill with paper or reed tubes. It can take several seasons for your own little mason bee population to build up and that hinges on you providing nesting material. Other than the nesting material, all you have to do is sit back and let these powerful pollinators do their thing!

Pruning Your Fruit Trees

Jan 30, 2017

It’s just about that time to prune your fruit trees, while they’re still dormant. Fruit trees are treated a bit differently than shade trees when it comes to pruning. While we never want to over-prune or over-thin our large shade trees, smaller fruit trees are often heavily pruned each year in order to produce the best yields of fruit. Timing your fruit tree pruning can be a bit tricky, especially with our fluctuating weather here in Dallas. Your goal is always to prune as late as possible, but before any bud break occurs on your tree. Some fruit trees will start blooming by mid-February, so now’s the time you need to start pulling out your pruning gear.

Each variety of fruit will bloom at a different time. The best approach to timing your pruning is to prune the later blooming trees first, followed by the earliest bloomers. That means you’ll  start with apples and pecans (although large pecans should be pruned by a professional tree care company). Peach and plum trees will follow, as they bloom the earliest here in Dallas.

Hard pruning of fruit trees should begin the first year they are in the ground. Hard pruning to properly shape the tree continues each winter for the next several years. As trees mature, you’ll perform lighter maintenance pruning. Depending on the type of tree, you’ll either train it using the central leader method, or the open center method.

Apples, pears and plums should be pruned using the central leader method. This means you allow the tree to grow a central main trunk that is tall than all the surrounding branches. The rest of the tree is shaped into a pyramidal form.

Heavier fruiting trees, such as peaches, nectarines, apricots and almonds, perform better when pruned using the open center method. By removing the central leader branch, you’ll create more of a vase shape to the tree. This allows more sunlight to reach all of the central branches and reduces branch breakage.

You’ll also need to do some “thinning” and “heading”.  When you thin branches, that means you’ll remove them at their base. This allows more light into the interior of the tree. “Heading” involves pruning off the tip of the branch in order to encourage more fruiting lateral branches.

If you have fruit trees and have fallen behind on necessary pruning, or you’re thinking about planting new fruit trees, now’s the time to pick up a fruit tree pruning book to learn the best techniques.

Haven’t planted fruit trees yet? Now’s the perfect time. Local garden centers should have a good stock of fruit trees that are appropriate for our climate and can give you a primer on pruning.

Grow Tomatoes in Your Closet?

Dec 20, 2016

It's freezing outside. But living without fresh tomatoes? That's just not an acceptible condition. So this underused closet in my home is now a tomato growing closet!

This 3 x 3 closet is now fitted with reflective film, to maximize light delivery, as well as a Sun System dual watt digital ballas light fixture, which operates both High Pressure SodiHium (HPS) lamps and Metal Halide (MH) lamps. The 250 watt HPS lamp currently in the fixture provides the light spectrum necessary for good fruiting. The young vegetative seedlings, however, are grown under a "cooler" spectrum of light using high output flourescent lamps.

What are you Modern Homesteaders growing in your closet?

Indoor lettuce

Dec 18, 2016

Salad greens are one of the easiest crops you can grow both indoors and out. While lettuces are a cool season crop for those of us in southern parts of the country (hot summers, mild winters but with freezes), and you can start lettuce outdoors in the fall to grow through winter. But by the time December rools around, temperatures can get too cold for good lettuce seed germination. So seeding lettuce indoors during winter is a great way to keep your harvest growing.

To speed up germination, use a humidity dome and a seedling heat mat to get things moving. Then set your lettuce seedlings under grow lights once they germinate. High Outpot T5 flourescent lamps are great for growing lettuce and other vegetative crops.

It's important to know that lettuce seeds need light to germinate, so don't bury them under the soil when you sow them.

You can sow lettuce seeds into seed plugs or 4" pots. Always drop 2-3 seeds in just in case one or two don't germinate. Thin out extra seedlings after germination.

One of my favorite varieties? 'Black Seeded Simpson'.

Fig Newton Trees

Jun 23, 2016

When we lived in Little Forest Hills, my husband and I had two-mile route we walked regularly through the neighborhood. Around the corner from our house was a lovely mature fig tree. One day, during one of our walks, he commented on the tree and asked what it was. “Well honey, that’s a fig tree” I replied. “You mean, like Fig Newtons??” he asked in all seriousness. “Yes dear, that’s a Fig Newton tree.” I laughed, he laughed, and to this day every fig tree he sees is a “Fig Newton tree”. This story reminds me that not everyone is that well acquainted with figs or how to grow them.

Fig plants need a full sun exposure to produce fruit. Full sun means a minimum of 6-hours of direct sunlight, but more is better. Make sure to find an open site with sun most of the day. If possible, plant figs on a southern exposure where the early developing fruit will be more protected from winter cold.

Mature trees are cold hardy to about 15 or 20 F. However, we often drop below 15 F in Dallas during winter months, which can kill all of the top-growth on your fig plants. Most often they’ll grow back from the root zone, but it does set you back in terms of fruit production.Depending on the variety, they can quickly reach 15 – to 30-feet tall. While figs tolerate many different soil types, good drainage is key. Don’t plant them in low spots in the garden where excess moisture accumulates.
Note that in times of heavy rainfall, plants may experience a growth spurt and push off developing fruit. So if you’ve lost many fruits at one time, it’s most likely due to excess watering or rainfall in a short period of time.

Some of the best common fig varieties for Dallas are ‘Celeste’, which is very cold hardy, ‘Brown Turkey’, ‘Alma’, ‘Magnolia’ and ‘Kadota’. We have four Fig Newton trees in our current garden, including ‘Brown Turkey’, ‘Celeste’ and ‘Italian Black’.

Fig Fact: Common figs are unique in that they do not require pollinators for the fruit to develop. What you’re actually consuming when you eat a fig is modified stem tissue, rather than mature ovary tissue. In common figs, both the male and female flower parts are inside the stem tissue. What you find in the fruit that look like “seeds” are actually just unfertilized ovaries that did not make fruit.

Basil: Plant and Grow Your Own Pesto!

Jun 17, 2016

The basil is coming on strong in the summer garden and it’s time to start harvesting.

While its closest association is with Italian cooking, basil is actually native to India and used extensively in Indian cuisine. This fragrant and flavorful member of the mint family was originally only used for medicinal purposes. Basil tea was used to treat anything from digestive problems to headaches and anxiety. Today, basil is a culinary essential and there a multitude of varieties and flavors to choose from. With more than 150 species of basil currently grown around the world, the choices can be almost overwhelming. Scents and flavors range from lemon and anise to cinnamon. There are large-leafed sweet basils that grow large and bushy, small-leafed upright varieties such as ‘Sweet Aussie’ and even a tiny-leafed miniature variety called ‘Boxwood’. No matter your space or size of container, there is likely a Basil variety just right for you.


Basil ‘Boxwood’ has tiny leaves and a natural globe shape.

If you’re as addicted to making fresh pesto as I am then a regular supply of fresh basil in the garden is a must-have. Once you’ve made your own pesto, store-bought pesto just won’t do. The challenge with basil can be its tendency to go to flower and seed quickly and abundantly, leaving you with leggy plants that won’t continue producing much if any foliage. You’ll need to keep flower buds deadheaded proactively to keep plants producing new leaves. ‘Pesto Perpetuo’ is a variety that doesn’t flower, leaving you with an endless supply of fresh foliage to harvest.

If you haven’t yet planted your basil, you can do so all summer-long. Plants can be grown in patio containers or mixed into your ornamental and vegetable gardens. Basil needs a full sun location and semi-regular waterings to thrive.

Mason Bees are Powerful Pollinators

Mar 12, 2016

If you grow vegetables, berry bushes or fruit trees (or all of the above) then you already understand the importance of successful pollination. Flowers need to be pollinated in order to successfully produce a fruit. Even if you don’t grow your own produce in your backyard, your trips to the grocery store would be pretty bleak without pollinators. While there are many pollinators in the insect world, honey bees have traditionally been the workhorse pollinators of agricultural crops. But it’s not just our food crops that need pollinators.  According to published research, cross-pollination by bees supports at least 30% of the world’s food crops and 90% of wild plants. Bottom line: We need bees.

You probably know that urbanites have taken to beekeeping with more interest in the last few years. I personally keep several honey bee hives myself. While we need more beekeepers, the reality is that beekeeping is not for everyone. It’s costly, requires hands-on education and a serious commitment to tend your hives and continue learning. If you have small children that regularly use your yard, then you may not be able to accommodate beehives on a small urban property. Here in the city, you also have to take more precautions to safely keep bees, being that we all have neighbors close by. So then what do you do if you want to increase your home garden yields and help the overall bee population, but you’re not prepared to become a beekeeper? Mason bees are the answer.


A baby blue orchard bee emerges from its cocoon in my garden. Hello!
Mason bees are gentle. This just-hatched blue orchard bee takes its first bath on my hand.
 

Did you know? There are thousands of bee species in North America other than the European honey bee. If you’ve ever spent time watching the blooming plants in your garden, you’ve probably seen many different types. If we can boost all of their populations, our food supply will be in much better shape. In fact, by boosting populations of other species, we can help mitigate some of the pressures on honey bees. Mason bees are a group of what I call “gentle super pollinators”. They don’t produce honey, but they don’t sting or require hive maintenance. While the females do have a stinger, they rarely if ever use it. The Blue Orchard Bee, which occurs naturally in our area, is one such mason bee.

Now is the time that baby mason bees will begin hatching out of their winter cocoons. You can pick up dormant cocoons of blue orchard bees and nesting materials right now at local garden centers (call ahead to check availability or have them order for you). Mason bees, unlike honey bees, don’t build honey comb in a hive. They simply nest in narrow holes or tubes they find in wood and hollow twigs. I’ve even seen them nesting in holes in my home’s exterior brick. You can purchase mason bee houses, which you fill with paper or reed tubes. It can take several seasons for your own little mason bee population to build up and that hinges on you providing nesting material. Other than the nesting material, all you have to do is sit back and let these powerful pollinators do their thing!

March: It’s tomato time in Texas

Mar 9, 2016

Regardless of the chance of a late freeze, it’s time to get serious about tomatoes. Growing prize-worthy tomatoes is a bit of a right of passage for most gardeners. In fact, tomatoes are typically the first the go-to-fruit for beginning gardeners. They’re easy, right? In some parts of the country, that may be the case. In Dallas? Not so much. North Texas doesn’t exactly offer up the easiest of growing conditions.

While many parts of the country have one condensed edible growing season that spans mid-spring through summer, we have several distinct growing seasons. Less heat-tolerant veggies, like spinach and lettuce, need to be grown fall through winter. Heat-lovers like peppers and eggplant won’t budge an inch until it gets hot. Tomatoes…well, they’re somewhere in between. While tomatoes are a tropical plant and are not frost hardy, they don’t reproduce well once our intense summer heat comes on.

The trick to good tomatoes is timing: Getting them planted such that they squeeze into those “in-between” times in our growing seasons. We have to plant spring crops before it gets too warm and fall crops before it gets too cold.

Here in Dallas, prime time for planting spring 4” tomato transplants is right about mid-March. However, if you hedge your bets and plant earlier, you’ll often get a better harvest. I typically plant mine before March 15th.  Once April 1st hits, it’s not advisable to plant 4” tomato transplants. If you live north of Dallas, say up in Frisco, you can probably get away with planting a week or so later. If you’re south of Dallas, then be sure to get plants in the ground by March 15th as a good target.

There are varieties of tomatoes bred to be more heat-tolerant. When you see the word “heat” somewhere in the cultivar name, the plant will most likely fare better in our climate. A couple of years ago a new line of grafted tomatoes called Mighty ‘Matos hit the market. Hybrids and heirlooms have been grafted onto a hardy rootstock in order to make these tomato plants more tolerant of diseases. Plants are vigorous and definitely worth trying in your garden this spring.

You’re sure to find some of the best selections of fresh plants and varieties out at your local garden centers this coming weekend. Be sure to get your soil prepped with plenty of organic compost and composted manure before you plant. Add a tomato or vegetable fertilizer at planting time. Once developing fruit reaches about ¼ it’s mature size, you’ll want to feed plants every two weeks with an organic, dry fertilizer. If you are feeding with a liquid feed, apply to the foliage and roots every week.


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