2018-04-01 / Features

Green Thumbs Up

After a long winter — thanks a lot, March! — most of us are itching to get outside. And though our region typically has a frost date around Mother’s Day, if you want your outside time to include more digging in the dirt, now’s the time to get gardening. But maybe you don’t know where to start — and the knowledge needed for entry seems overwhelming. Not necessarily! We talked to three local experts to gather some tips for beginners — and maybe some tricks for more experienced gardeners as well.
Maggie Anderson

Start a Backyard Garden

Woody Wilson started his company, Wilson Home Farms, with the idea of bringing the CSA to people’s backyards. “I kind of fused lawn care and the CSA to create a farmer that comes to your house rather than you going to the farm,” he says. “It’s similar to what people are used to in terms of someone coming to mow your lawn.” He works with clients to determine their needs and level of desired involvement before creating individualized plans. Here are his tips for first-level backyard vegetable gardens.

• Make Room to Grow
First, make a list of what you would like to grow. Then, consider the space you have available. “There’s a huge population in town that lives in apartments or townhouses and an even bigger population that rents,” Wilson says. “But you can do a lot in a box.” When choosing a raised bed or similar semi-permanent solution, consider soil depth for the plants you want to grow. Wilson says 1 foot deep is optimal.

• Study Up
For beginners, start simple. “Most of the greens are easy,” says Wilson. “Salad, spinach, arugula and kale are all pretty simple greens to grow.” Popular crops like tomatoes, peppers and eggplant are a little more difficult but achievable with some education. “For example, people plant peppers and then just let them grow. Something that helps them thrive is pulling off all the flowers when they’re 6-10 weeks old. It promotes growth and then, later, you have a lot more flowers on a bigger plant that’s more capable of producing peppers.”

• Embrace Change
While planning your garden takes time and care, don’t be afraid to change things up. “People don’t have a willingness to pull things out,” says Wilson. But sometimes the plant is simply done producing at a quality level. “So get rid of it! It’s taking up too much space that could be used for new crops.” Especially as the seasons change, replace crops with those more suited to the coming weather.

Grow a Really Great Tomato

There’s nothing better than a tomato, still warm with sun, picked from your own garden. But the plants are notoriously hard to grow — they’re susceptible to various blights and pests, and their indeterminate nature means they literally don’t stop growing. Here’s how to get a handle on your vines.

• Control the Climb
 “If you’ve ever grown tomatoes in cages,” says Wilson, “you know the cages are about 3 feet tall and the plants don’t even start producing fruit until they’re past 3 feet tall.” To avoid unruly tomatoes spilling out of cages, Wilson builds a trellis and trains the vines up individual strings, like a pole bean.  
Another way to keep the unruly plant in check: “Cut off the suckers — I call them extra arms,” he says. “The tomato is going to have a main branch but it’s also going to put off a lot of other ones as well. Those you need to cut off or you’ll get something that’s top heavy.”

• Keep It Healthy
Trimming excess “branches” will also increase airflow, which is important in avoiding late blight. “All these fungal diseases come as a result of poor airflow,” says Wilson. In addition to thinning the plant, remember to always water at the ground, not on the leaves — wet leaves sticking together is a great place for fungus to grow as well.

Plant a Rain Garden

One of the hottest trends in landscape gardening today is the rain garden, says Curtis Runyon, retail sales manager at Wheatfield Nursery. “There’s been more and more talk of this theory of rain gardens capturing water that’s running off of hard surfaces,” he says. “The main thing they do is get the water back into the plants where that will transpire back into the atmosphere.”

• Location, Location, Location
Choosing the right spot for your new rain garden is essential, since the whole point is to capture runoff. “Find an area that is obviously downhill or downgrade from where your hard surface is,” says Runyan.

• Super Soakers
Then, choose plants that like a wet environment, like something you would find along a stream. “Ninebark, river birch, bald cypress — these are all trees that take a lot of water.”

For inspiration, check out the rain gardens in front of Schlow Centre Region Library and Growing Tree in downtown State College.

Grow Herbs for Cooking

One of the easiest ways to get into the gardening game is with a small and simple herb garden. “There’s some crops that shouldn’t require a trip into the backyard to get,” says Wilson. “I prefer pots or a window box for fresh herbs that you’re going to throw in at the end of your cooking. It’s really advantageous to have those crops in pots or a flower box as accessible to your back door as possible.”

• Pick Your Placement
Choose containers that make sense for your setting. Classic terra cotta pots work well in all circumstances, but over-the-railing planters are great for back decks. Consider something you can move inside in the winter to keep the fresh in your food all year long.

• Grow Familiar Flavors
Pick herbs you already use in your cooking. Fresh rosemary, thyme and oregano add a different depth of flavor to your favorite dishes. The remnants of store-bought parsley and cilantro bunches no longer need to wallow at the bottom of the crisper drawer if they’re growing right outside your kitchen.

• Big Drinkers
“Pots and window boxes require more frequent watering because they dry out a lot faster than the earth,” says Wilson.

Update Your Landscape

Unless you’re moving into new construction, a change in address usually means a mystery outside your front door. If you want to re-up your landscaping, you’ll need to figure out what’s already in the ground. Watch all the areas around your house for a year, taking note of what grows when, and then make a plan.

• Map It Out
“The first thing to do is get an idea of where you are and where you want to wind up,” says Runyan. “Do an inventory of what you have: what you like and want to save, and what you definitely want to take out.”

• Test the Soil
Before you make any changes, set yourself up for success with a test. “You need to do a soil test and find out what kind of soil you have — what your pH is, what sort of nutrients you have. That’s going to dictate what kind of plants you decide to buy.” Generally speaking, says Runyan, State College soil is fairly basic (high pH), but it’s good to know exactly what you’re working with.

• Make It Yours
Choosing plants is largely up to individual taste, but Runyan has a few favorites that seem to do well locally. “In this area, I recommend Winter Gem boxwood. If you want something smaller, there’s a variety called Franklin’s Gem.” Shrubs help add interest all year round, as do bushes with berries, like holly. And in the spring, Runyan likes viburnum. “They’ll give you a nice fall color, too.”

Plant a Perennial Flower Bed

Though it can take many years to develop, a perennial garden with four-season interest may be the pinnacle of flower gardening — especially if you’d like to enjoy it without replanting every spring. “If you want low-maintenance, perennials are the way to go because they’re going to grow back each year,” says Mary Sturniolo, Master Gardener coordinator for Centre County.

• Know Your Goals
When planning a perennial garden, people should first think about what they want in the long run, she says. “What kind of effort do they want to put into their garden? Do they want to plant something and not have to worry about it? Do they want a lot of color? Do they want to plant for pollinators? There’s so many choices out there.”

• Choose Wisely
Once you know the focus of your perennial garden, do your research. Pay attention to not only bloom time but also foliage, especially in winter. Different textures will add interest throughout the year. “Native plants are always best for this area,” says Sturniolo. “They are used to our climate. A lot of them can tolerate our droughts that we get usually in August every year.”

The Master Gardeners have a publication listing native plants and when they bloom, says Sturniolo. “Anybody can come to the extension offices or contact me for that list of plants. That is really helpful.”


Next month, Centre County is home to multiple one-day plant
sales, many of which feature native plants.

Central Pennsylvania Native Plant Festival
May 5, 10 a.m. – 3 p.m.
Boal Mansion, Boalsburg

23rd Annual Plant Celebration & Garden Sale
May 12, 9 a.m. – 2 p.m.
Centre Furnace Mansion

Plant Sale on the Village Green
May 12, 9 a.m. – 1 p.m.
Lemont Village Green

Centre County Master Gardener Plant Sale
May 19, 9 a.m. – 3 p.m.
Ag Progress Days Site

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