Blog posts categorized as: Grow Vegetables & Fruit

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.

When it Comes to Strawberries, Sometimes Bare is Better

Mar 7, 2016

It doesn’t matter that it might get cold again or it could freeze a few more times. At some point you just have to pull the gardening trigger or you’re going to miss out! I’m not sure how one could resist getting out into the garden with the gorgeous weather we’ve been having, but if you haven’t perhaps I can offer up some motivation: Strawberries.

If you want them, now is a great time to get them in the ground. I just dropped a whole new crop of bare-root strawberries in the ground this past Sunday. Why bare-root you ask? Often, your best shot at getting a good selection of varieties is by going bare-root with berries. Plus, it’s more cost-effective.

Last spring I managed to score some of the new albino Pineberries in plug-form online (that means they arrive without a pot). I can’t tell you yet how they will perform in our Texas summers, but who could resist such a beautiful berry? Especially one that’s supposed to taste like a cross between pineapples and strawberries. I’m SOLD. The crazy green discs are strawberry plant supports I tried out, from Gardener’s Supply Co.

You can pick up handy packets of a variety of bare-root strawberries at local garden centers right now. They’ll be sold out soon, so don’t wait. Yes, you can buy potted strawberry plants later in the season, but you’ll often be limited on variety. Plus, late-winter and fall are the best times to plant in our climate. Be sure to follow the instructions on the packet for planting your bare-root berries. They’ll need lose soil (raised beds are best) in a sunny location.

Time to Prune Fruit Trees in Texas

Feb 4, 2016

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.

Originally published on D Home blog.

Forage for Edible Flowers in Your Garden

Jan 31, 2016

Just because you don’t have a dedicated vegetable garden, doesn’t mean you enjoy eating from plants you’ve grown yourself. Springtime is the perfect time to discover edible flowers already growing in your landscape.

You’re probably familiar with common edible flowers, such as violas, which are often used candied or to decorate pastries. Nasturtium are another common garnish in salads. But you may not be acquainted with some of the other unexpected edible blooms growing right under your nose.

  • Have Gardenias potted on your patio or growing in your shady garden? Gardenia flowers have a fresh, light and sweet flavor.

  • Honeysuckle plants have popped into bloom all over Dallas. These fragrant sweet flowers are perfect tossed into salads for some added sweetness.

  • Are your Citrus plants still blooming? Add a lemony flavor to dishes with a few citrus flowers.

  • Pineapple Guava is one of my favorite “exotic” looking landscape plants. The beautiful flowers taste just like the fruit -sweet!

  • Hibiscus and Marigold flowers are also edible. Hibiscus blooms are wonderful steeped as a tea and marigold flowers have a spicy flavor.

  • Chives are a favorite garden perennial of mine. the flowers taste much like the leaves and make a wonderful garnish.

  • The tiny blue flowers on Rosemary plants are not only pretty, but have a bright savory, sweet flavor.

Have the weeds got you down? If so, you can get your revenge by popping off a few of their heads. Dandelion flowers not only make a potent wine, but are fine food as well.  Fry them up in butter and they taste just like mushrooms. Clover flowers have a sweet licorice flavor.

While there are many other edible-ish blooms in our Dallas landscapes, some contain chemicals that can irritate your system or exacerbate certain conditions.  Many, many of our landscape plants are poisonous if consumed. Also, take note that if you’re harvesting garden flowers to eat, avoid plants that have been sprayed with pesticides.

DON’T EAT THESE FLOWERS: azalea, crocus, daffodil, foxglove, oleander, wisteria

Originally published for DHome Blog.

Pollination Powerhouses

Oct 28, 2015

Full article published in October 2015 Produce Grower Magazine.

Whether you’re looking to save on labor, improve pollination rates or shift production to more sustainable practices, nature is here to help. Bumblebees are a powerhouse of pollination and could be just the solution you need to improve production rates on your edible greenhouse crops.


freeimages.com
 

Fruits of your labor

As more produce production moves indoors to be grown hydroponically, the job of pollination becomes much more labor intensive. Once you move fruiting crops into the greenhouse, man must take the place of wind and pollinators to get the job done.

On crops such as tomatoes, growers typically use manual pollination or mechanical vibrating shakers to move the pollen around properly. Tomatoes are normally wind-pollinated outdoors, but the effect is difficult to replicate inside a greenhouse with limited air flow. The shaking has to be performed about every two days when temperatures and humidity are just right. To make things more labor intensive, shaking the whole plant with mechanical stimulation isn’t as effective as shaking or vibrating each truss individually. That takes a lot more time and effort. A truss is a cluster of smaller stems where the flowers and fruit develop.

Rising labor challenges and costs are causing some growers to turn back to nature to lower costs and improve yields.

Read the entire article HERE.

Garden Look Nasty Post-Summer? Yep, Time to Refresh!

Sep 25, 2014

August has a tendency to get nasty with our landscapes. Come September when things start to cool down and we venture back out in to our gardens, it can look less than shiny. So, let's all get out there and start ripping stuff out, ok? It may still be a tad warm, but it is time to start getting cool season vegetable crops into the garden. You should start finding transplants of cole crops like broccoli, cabbage, kale and more at the garden centers now. You can also direct seed lettuce and Fava beans into your garden beds.

But before you get all planting-crazed, let's take a step back and make sure we're boosting the soil before we plant for fall. Now's the time to refresh your beds with organic compost, some humus and composted manures in the vegetable garden. Don't forget that even though you amend the soil, you still need to add in a fertilizer before you plant, especially for veggies. Organic matter has to be broken down my microbes first before nutrients are available to your plants, so don't expect the compost to "fertilize" your new plants right away.
 

Cocktail Gardening: Blackberry Basil Mojito

Jul 1, 2014

You can only make so many pies when you're up to your ears in blackberries. Sometimes you just need to throw them in something that's adult rated!  Up next in my parade of garden cocktails is the blackberry and basil mojito.

Fresh picks from the garden: 4 cups fresh blackberries, 1 cup fresh basil leaves. You can also mix fresh plums if you have them...mine are all et up already!

From the store: 4 lemons (mine aren't ripe yet), 3 cups vodka, 1/2 cup sugar to make a simple syrup, club soda

In a bowl, mix blackberries, basil leaves and the juice from the 4 lemons. Stick in the fridge for a day or two. To make the simple syrup, mix 1/2 cup sugar and 1/2 cup water in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Make sure sugar is completely dissolved then remove from heat to cool. You can either mix the vodka in with the fruit and let sit in the fridge together or keep them separate until serving time. If you do the later, then when it's time to serve, mix together the fruit, vodka and simple syrup in a punch bowl or large glass container. Mix well.

To serve, ladle 1/3 cup of mixture (that's about the volume of a regular punch ladle) into the glass - be sure to get some of the berries too. Fill the glass halfway with ice, then top with club soda and garnish with fresh basil leaves.

Love this one, it's a keeper!


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