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Memorial Hall Library

Gardening Questions and Answers

gardening stuff


The Andover Seed Library at Memorial Hall Library has expanded its services to include a panel of local, experienced gardeners who have offered to answer questions submitted by other gardeners. Email questions to andoverseedlibrary@mhl.org. Here are some recent ones.

Seeds and Seed Starting

Is it best to grow seeds inside first, if so, for how many weeks?

If you have the tools to grow seeds indoors—a sunny window or grow-lights, starting seeds indoors in February, March or April (check your seed packets for information about when to start) can be very rewarding. It never hurts to give it a try and if you don’t succeed, be prepared to buy organic seedlings later. If it does work, this is a cost-effective way to start your seeds and feels very rewarding on cold, bleak days!

Do you recommend a light bulb to help grow indoors if your direct sunlight is questionable?

One brand of grow lights is Agro-brite grow lights, but there are others. You are looking for very bright (high lumen) fluorescent or LED lights. This is fairly costly solution, though.

When is the best date to plant seeds (6 weeks after last frost?) in Andover?

Seeds are as variable as people in their requirements for healthy, vigorous growth. Each variety of seed has a different optimal germination/planting date. We have a chart posted on the website that gives the best planting dates for commonly grown seeds. Some seeds have such a long growing season that in our area they must be started indoors. Some seeds can be sown directly into the garden bed because they require fewer days to reach maturity. All seed packets that you buy should have information specific to the seeds you are most interested in planting. Vegetables can generally be grouped into either an early or regular planting schedule. Many greens, such as peas, can be planted outside before the frost-free date but after the soil has warmed up a little, see our soil-temperature blog post.

Growing in New England

What are the best herbs and vegetables to grow in New England?

As a beginning gardener, I suggest that first you decide what flowers, vegetables and herbs you’d like to grow this year. Look each one up to learn their growing requirements and make decisions based on how much daily sunlight you have available to you in your balcony or yard. These sites have excellent cultural information on individual plants.

Once you have decided on what to grow that will suit your family the best, begin plant and seed shopping. We have several good garden centers in our area that carry locally grown plants, seeds and gardening supplies. Plan to purchase perennial and annual plants that need long growing seasons, don’t try to begin them from seed this year. Annuals that have a shorter growing season can be seeded directly into garden beds and containers. This is a good UNH gardening site Planting a Victory Garden.

Indoor Plants

What are the best indoor plants to grow and maintain year-round in New England?

As far as I’m concerned, the very best website to read and follow for all houseplant information is Summer Rayne Oakes’ Homestead Brooklyn. She lives in a small blue house in Brooklyn with over 600 houseplants. A trained horticulturist, she is the leading authority on houseplants and more than willing to share her knowledge with anyone who asks.

Plants & Pets

I find mixed answers on toxic and nontoxic/pet friendly plants. What are a couple of the BEST indoor plants for cats who like to nibble on greenery?

If you have an indoor cat, one of the best things to grow for it is a pot of cat grass, a mix of sprouted oat, wheat and rye seed that your cat can munch on when they feel the need for greens. If you are concerned about the cat accidently being poisoned by nibbling on houseplants, check the toxic plant list posted by the American Society for the Prevention to Cruelty to Animals.

Planting

I still have leftover weeds from last year, do I pull everything and add new soil to my containers?

Yes, definitely remove last years’ soil and spent plants. Clean your containers thoroughly and refill them to within one inch of the top with new potting soil. For the best growing results, buy organic potting soil with compost in it, or mix a bag of good compost in with a bag of organic potting soil, so you have a roughly 50/50 mixture. If you really are a plant and water kind of person, one way to avoid weeds this year might be to experiment with companion planting. So that less soil is left exposed, plant ‘friendly’ but different plants close to one another so that exposed soil is minimized. Another method that minimizes exposed soil is square-foot gardening which you can look up online. The science is a little mixed on this, but this is a good year to experiment. Here are some companion planting resources:

Critters in the Garden

Can you recommend some perennials that rabbits are less likely to devour? We have shaded and sunny areas that need some filling in and some color.

I know you asked for perennials, but I will start with a few annuals that could help. We have LOTS of rabbits in our yard and the following have worked work well for me.

Re-seeding annuals: cleome, calendula, alyssum, nicotiana, forget-me-nots, Chinese forget-me-nots, brunnera (especially Jack Frost).

Annuals to seed or set out: marigolds, ageratum, geraniums, lantana, verbenas, snapdragons

Perennials: lungworts, astilbe , primulas, Epimediums, hellebores, daffodils, hyacinths, blue comphrey, foxgloves, delphinium, salvias, catmint, day lilies, native lobelias, snakeroot, Solomon’s Seal, all alliums , astranchia, lamiums, thymes, sage, tarragon, lily of the valley, bloodroot, all milkweeds, globe thistle, anemones, iris, Rudbeckias, mums, Agastache, ladies mantle, hens and chicks, mertensia.

Tomatoes

I've grown tomatoes for 4 years, usually 10 plants, half cherry and half small plum tomatoes. The first year the tomatoes grew exceptionally well. Starting in year 2, the lower leaves of the plants started to turn brown and curl up. The problem has gotten worse every year. Last year, I still got a fair number of tomatoes, but the plants did not look good. I think it's tomato blight and I'm wondering what to do about it. Should I stop growing tomatoes? Someone recommended putting copper wire through the stem of each plant. Would it be better to till copper pennies or pieces of copper pipe into the soil? Do you think it's tomato blight?

It does sound like tomato blight. Assuming that you can't move your tomatoes to another area, they might be helped by being planted through a fabric cloth barrier to keep the fungal spores from bouncing up from the soil onto your plants. And I would spray weekly (starting at transplant time) with a solution of 1 teaspoon baking soda and one drop of liquid soap in a quart of warm water as an anti-fungal treatment. Remove (and put in the trash-not compost) any diseased leaves that develop. Copper does work as an antifungal in a spray, but I wouldn't count on the pennies solving your problem. On a serious note, anti-fungal sprays containing copper, even if the product is labeled for organic use,  can leave toxic residues that need to be washed off before ingesting the fruit or vegetable. Tomatoes can be fussy plants to grow! Tomato blight is a common problem in New England. This article from the UNH extension service is a great introduction to tomato diseases and how to identify them. This is an excellent UNH guide to growing tomatoes.

A few things to remember about tomatoes: They are heavy feeders, need a consistent watering schedule and require good air circulation to help prevent diseases. Plus, of course, they also want nice warm nights, good sunny days and a long leisurely growing season! Good luck!