Molly Hackett

Molly Hackett

Q: How do I know when my rhubarb is ready to cut?

A: There are only two rules to follow: Pull a stalk when its leaf looks flat, no longer puckered. And pull no more than a third of the stalks on a plant at one time. Give the rhubarb a week to rest in between harvest days.

And yes, the operative word is "pull." A jerk upward will remove the whole stem cleanly at the base, leaving no open wound where insects or diseases could get inside the rhubarb plant. Only stalks which have a flower spike on top will not pull easily. They should be cut or broken, though, and discarded. You want the rhubarb to put all its energy into growing stalks and not into making flowers and seeds, although floral designers do like to use rhubarb flower spikes as filler in arrangements.

Rhubarb should be making edible new stalks for another month. I like to stop pulling rhubarb by the Fourth of July, an easy cutoff date to remember. If the new stalks are smaller before then, stop when you notice that they are shrinking. Small stalks mean that the roots are running out of energy and need to rest.

A rhubarb plant will continue to make new stalks all during July, storing up the food which will produce next spring's rhubarb. Then the plant will go dormant. Leaves will die and stalks will collapse long before the first frosts. The rhubarb has begun its long winter nap, but it will be among the first plants to appear next spring.

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Q: The leaves on my tomatoes started drooping and the edges curled under when I first began to harden them off. I was trying to get them ready to plant in the garden. What should I do?

A: The tomatoes were telling you that they felt stressed out. Be sure to harden them gradually. Put them outdoors in the shade at first, and do not put them out on any day until the temperature begins to warm. When their stress level goes down, the leaves will look more normal.

Those tomatoes will grow and produce as usual, although they will take a little longer to ripen fruit than ones which never had to overcome stress. Next year, if the hardening process is more gradual,  the tomatoes will deal with change more easily. Even after they are growing in the garden, a cold night can make tomato leaves droop and curl their edges for a day or two.

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Q: My onions had maggots last year, and everyone gives me a different answer for what to do. Do you know a way to keep worms out of the onions?

A: Yes, an easy one. A small fly lays her eggs on the ground, next to onion stems. When the eggs hatch, the maggots crawl down the stems and begin feasting on the bulbs underground. Cover the onion plants with insect netting, lightweight row cover, or any fine mesh to keep the flies out. Use hoops to support the cover so that its weight does not distort the onion tops. The covering should reach the ground, but its edges need not be sealed down. Onions grown under cover will be unblemished, since the flies could not reach the stems.

Leave the covers in place until at least July. After two or three years of covering the onion crop, it may be worthwhile to try growing without protection. Onion flies are not ubiquitous, and the flies in your garden will move elsewhere in search of a new home. Incidentally, these flies attack only onions. Maggots in other vegetables are different flies.

Rechargeable batteries

I have just learned that the rechargeable batteries for outdoor equipment will last two or three times as long if charged once a month during the season when they are not used. Recharging my Nicad batteries will go onto my winter list of monthly chores; I am looking forward to having the batteries last four or five years.

Master gardener Molly Hackett, whose motto is “Never trust a gardener with clean fingernails,” welcomes your questions. Send them to 1384 Meridian Road, Victor, MT 59875; call 961-4614; or email mhackett@centric.net. Please include a garden-related subject line in emails. Hackett writes a twice-monthly Dirty Fingernails opinion piece for the Missoulian.

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