Sunday, August 30, 2009

Novice Gardeners Become “Extreme” Gardeners, All in One Season
BOISE, Idaho—Although the growing season has lurched heartlessly from too cold to too hot, University of Idaho Extension educators say Idaho gardeners—even novices—haven’t yet turned lukewarm on growing their own produce.

“Our novices are having luck with many of the crops in their gardens, despite some early-season setbacks,” said Ariel Agenbroad, an Extension educator in Canyon County who taught “Idaho Victory Garden” classes this spring. “And the problems they are having are generally easy to avoid or correct next year.”

One such problem has been healthy, vigorous plants that aren’t putting on fruit. “People are saying, ‘I don’t have any tomatoes/corn/squash on my plants!’” said Agenbroad. “When it’s tomatoes, we look at too much nitrogen, too much shade or very hot temperatures. When it’s sweet corn or squash, the reason is usually poor pollination.”

Agenbroad advises gardeners to plant sweet corn in blocks, circles or mounds—rather than in solitary long rows—to ensure adequate pollination by wind. Squashes, which have separate male and female flowers, are a bit different: “If the flowers are not open at the same time—or if they’re open when insects aren’t active—you get tiny fruit that shrivels up or no set at all,” she said. “Be patient: eventually you’ll get plenty.”

But if gardeners hold out for baseball-bat size squash, they won’t hit their overall production out of the ballpark, Agenbroad cautions. “Frequently picking small fruit encourages more production. If you’re letting baseball bats develop, the plant puts its energy into those and doesn’t need to produce more.”

Agenbroad encourages gardeners who encounter blossom-end rot in tomatoes or bitterness in cucumbers to note which varieties they planted. “Both of these physiological problems are strongly linked to variety,” she said. “If gardeners report which varieties were most susceptible, we can pass that information on and suggest alternatives.”

In Lewiston, Extension educator Lydia Clayton says home-grown food production is “working out well” for novice gardeners. “They had a lot of questions, but they got answers to most of them,” she said.

Plant diseases have been unusually prevalent this year in north central Idaho, Clayton says. She advises gardeners to toss infected plants into the trash—rather than composting them—and to make sure remaining plants have good air circulation. Next year, Clayton plans to offer additional classes in pest—including disease—management for gardeners.

“Teaching gardeners is a lot of fun,” she said. “You get to watch people go from feeling nervous about growing plants to realizing that they are very good gardeners and can grow things they like to eat.”

In Sandpoint, Extension educator Mike Bauer suspects a surge in interest in older tomato varieties underlies an increase in such leaf-curling and stunting tomato viruses as cucumber and tobacco mosaics . “Older tomato varieties don’t have a lot of virus resistance bred into them,” he said. “The only thing you can do—like I had to do with my own plants—is to pull them out and start over with resistant ones.”

Still, Bauer said, “We’ve had a good summer, with sorely needed rain, and things have gone well for our beginning gardeners.” In fact, they’ve gone so well that large-scale community gardens are being well-tended. “Community gardens are a real barometer for how frustrated people can get—and people are sticking with them.”

To help area gardeners cope with one of their key frustrations, Bauer and his Master Gardeners have installed a deer-deterring demonstration garden at the Bonner County Extension Office, complete with a diverting sunflower “catch” crop, shimmering CDs and a scarecrow mounted on a motion-detecting sprinkler. With only light deer pressure in the demonstration garden, Bauer suspects a combination of these techniques could prove effective.

In the Magic Valley, Extension educator Jo Ann Robbins says what’s plaguing gardens the most is heat damage from gardeners’ inability to keep up with watering. “It’s been beastly hot,” she said. “I hope we have a nice, long, protracted fall, because tomatoes really thrive when temperatures are below 90 and evenings are cooler.” But Robbins reminds gardeners that, “Even if it’s cooler, everything needs to be well-watered because the plants are bigger and will be using lots of water.”

Wayne Jones, Extension educator in Bonneville County, says Idaho Falls-area gardeners hope they don’t see Jack Frost before late September. “Temperatures have been too extreme for tomatoes to set, and corn, squash and peppers are all late. If we luck out, we’ll get our crops.”

“It’s been a tough year for beginning gardeners,” Jones said, “but if they can beat the challenges and get a crop despite the weather we’ve had, they’ll be pleased with themselves.”

His tips for next year: “Plant as early as you possibly can” and use season-extending strategies in both spring and fall.

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