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Molly Hackett

Molly Hackett

Q: Last year my tomatoes had tough skins. Was it the weather, or did I do something wrong?

A: Probably neither was the cause of the tough skins. Some varieties of tomato have that unfortunate characteristic; no matter how skillfully they are grown, their skins are thick and chewy. As always, when any plant is bred for a particular characteristic, other desirable traits are lost in the breeding process. Tender skins sometimes disappear in tomatoes bred to ripen very early.

As long as you know the variety that had a tough skin, simply avoid it in the future. There are other early tomatoes with tender skins. Since new kinds of tomato plants appear on the market every year, it is a good idea to keep two lists, one of the best kinds and one of the kinds never to grow again . I cannot remember their names from year to year, even though I am sure that I will. A written record is my only salvation.

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Q: Last fall I repotted my African violet to give it plenty of space for its roots. It has grown new leaves all winter long, but it has not bloomed for months. Can I assume that it will start blooming again as spring comes, or is there some other problem?

A: I suspect that you and the African violet disagree on the ideal pot size. Most house plants, African violets included, will make flower buds only after they have filled their potting soil with roots. What seemed to you like cramped space seemed to the violet to be comfortable.

When an African violet — as well as other house plants — wants more root space, it lets you know by multiplying its crowns. If a plant has divided its growth and created several stems, it is good to cut the crowns apart with a sharp knife, trying to keep some roots with each crown. Put all the healthy crowns in separate pots, small enough that their roots can soon fill the soil.

If your African violet has only one crown, why not tip the plant out of its pot? See how much potting soil has been colonized by roots. I imagine that you will find quantities of empty soil. If so, set the violet in a smaller pot which is just the right size for the root ball. You should see flower buds within weeks.

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Q: I would like to grow several kinds of vegetables this summer, but it is too complicated to figure out when to plant what. Isn't there any easy way to know when to plant?

A: There is. Divide your vegetable seed packets into two piles, one for plants (like lettuce) that can survive an occasional light frost, the other for plants (like beans) which will die if they are touched by frost. Plant the seed for the tough kinds about May 1; plant the seed for tender plants a month later, at Memorial Day.

If you use season extenders in your garden, like cold frames or walls of water or plastic tunnels, plant the seeds four weeks sooner.

If you live at high altitude, plant at the standard dates but be prepared for cold nights. You may need to cover your plantings on clear nights, or you may want to grow them for a while beneath some kind of season extender. 

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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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