Local gardening expert explains how to have continuous crops

Published Jun 5, 2013 at 6:44 am (Updated Jun 3, 2013 at 11:39 am)

This time of year, gardening is a hobby enjoyed by many – but keeping the garden looking good and producing vegetables all summer long and in to fall can be a challenge. Recently, the Bridgeville Public Library held, in conjunction with its annual spring plant swap, a program featuring Pittsburgh-based gardening expert Doug Oster. Oster told the crowd of more than 20 people in attendance on June 1 how to get the most out of their gardens.

Oster said like most folks, he learned how to garden from his parents and grandparents, but it wasn’t until he decided to make his garden “organic” that he went to his local library in search of ways to garden that were chemical-free.

“Everybody was an organic gardener before World War II,” Oster said. He said the basis of a good garden that will keep producing is good soil and succession planting – not planting everything at the same time – so the garden will produce better and longer.

First, Oster said the key is starting with good soil. “Instead of feeding the plant, I’m feeding the soil,” he said. Oster stressed the importance of using compost in the garden as the best way to feed plants without the use of chemical fertilizers. He added that compost is a natural fungicide and will help prevent fungus from forming on plants. Oster said with the cold, wet weather and then very warm weather so far this spring; fungus may be an issue this year, especially with tomatoes.

Oster said successively planting tomatoes, like planting one crop early in the spring around Memorial Day and another in the middle of June and another around July 4 will help yield a good crop of a variety of tomatoes. He added that tomatoes planted when the soil is consistently warm do better than when the nights and days are cooler.

“Tomatoes and peppers love warm soil. They want it 50 degrees or warmer,” he said.

With lettuce, Oster plants about eight crops per year, starting early in the spring. He starts crops of lettuce as late as September or October and, depending on how cold the winter gets, Oster said he can pick the lettuce all winter long. Planting lettuce in the hot weather, which the plant traditionally doesn’t like, can also be achieved by planting the lettuce seeds in the shade of a tomato plant.

As far as cucumbers, Oster said a crop planted in the middle of May could be affected by cucumber beetles, so he plants additional cucumbers around June 15 and again June 30. “That way, you’re guaranteed to pick cucumbers no matter what happens,” Oster said.

For those who like to plant annual flowers, Oster suggested starting out with pansies in pots or baskets early in the season, around the middle of March. By July, the pansies will be ready for the compost bin because they don’t like warmer weather.

Oster said it’s around July 4 that he heads to his local greenhouse to buy often-discounted annuals. At that time, he buys what he refers to as “boutique plants” so he can experiment with what’s new that season. He said annuals will last until the first frost, and right after that he goes back to the greenhouse and gets more pansies, which can last until December and even all winter long, especially if your pots are near the house for protection.

“Every gardener does it differently,” Oster said. He said there are 100 different ways to do something, and “they’re all right if they work with you.” He added, “If it’s working for you, don’t stop it.”

After the program, those in attendance were able to “swap” plants and other garden supplies, such as pots and watering cans.

Joni Smith of Bridgeville, who brought some Solomon seal, widow’s tears and hostas to the plant swap, said she came to the program to “learn more about plants,” even though she’s already an avid gardener.

“I’ve got the dirt under the fingernails to prove it,” she said.

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