Timing Is Nearly Everything


Early autumn used to be the best time to sow seeds of cool weather grasses in most of the country, and early spring was the best time to sow seeds of warm weather grasses, primarily in the South. There were local variations on what kind of grass seed to sow where, and as always with gardening, rules of thumb were not carved in granite. Since the timing of early autumn and early spring vary around the country, it might be simpler to consider the Mid-Atlantic states as an example, where early autumn sowing was best between September 1 and October 15, and early spring sowing was best between March 1 and April 15.


In the twentieth century, much of the Mid-Atlantic region was in the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) hardiness zones 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7. The southern part of the region was also in the transition zone for cool weather and warm weather grasses. Gardeners and landscapers typically planted both types of grass and sowed grass seed of both types in spring or fall as they preferred, though most found the greatest success with cool weather grass seed sown in the fall. That has all changed noticeably over the past 30 years and it is well past time for prudent gardeners and landscapers to adjust to the new climate.

F. W. Bolgiano, seedsmen have won confidence for ten years (16186099958)
F.W. Bolgiano, a grass seed company based in Washington, D.C., in the heart of the Mid-Atlantic region, recommended in their 1899 brochure sowing a blend of seed types in spring and autumn, though without specific details on the seeds or the timing. Photo scan from the digitized illustrations collection of the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL).

The USDA adjusted its hardiness zone map in 2012, moving all of them north from where they were in the 1990 map. The Mid-Atlantic is now covered by zones 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8. Gardeners being students of nature, they didn’t really need the USDA to tell them what was happening with their plants and how things had changed. Still, it can be hard to set aside old habits tied to the calendar, such as sowing and planting times. Adjusting to changes in the types of plants that will do well in a particular area is also difficult and can take some getting used to, but people must adjust or they will see their time and efforts wasted on planting the wrong plant in the wrong place at the wrong time, rather than doing the opposite as good practices have always dictated.

Farmers know this because their livelihood depends on it. Professional landscapers are beginning to understand it as well, though in many cases they perform their work on behalf of well-to-do clients who don’t necessarily care about taking a loss on forcing a favored plant to survive. The landscapers themselves need to operate at a profit, but their clients may not mind throwing good money after bad in keeping a zone 5 plant alive in what has become a zone 6 environment. Home gardeners typically don’t have such resources, and often have better sense. For years they sowed seed of tall fescue, a cool weather grass well suited to Mid-Atlantic growing conditions, and they had success sowing it between September 1 and October 15.

Lawn Maintenance Sign At RHS Wisley Garden Surrey UK
Sign at the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) Wisley Garden in the county of Surrey, south of London, England. Photo by Si Griffiths.

But not anymore. Now it is best to wait at least two weeks. Now the season lasts from September 15 to October 31. There may even be little harm in sowing grass seed right up to Thanksgiving in the southern portion of the Mid-Atlantic region. It could also be time to reconsider whether to keep up a cool weather grass lawn at all. Perhaps it’s better to plant Zoysia grass, or to let the bermuda grass take over, which it has been trying to do for decades now anyway, creeping into everything, especially in the heat of high summer, when the tall fescue faints in the hot weather without extra water to sustain it. Maybe now the favored time for sowing grass seed should be the early, early spring, from February 15 to March 31, and maybe that grass seed should be of warm weather grasses. Gardeners in the North who have friends and relatives in the South will have to ask those gardeners to pass along their rules of thumb for tending new plants in these new times.
— Izzy


To Every Thing There Is a Season


People enjoy their home grown tomatoes so much more than store bought that they try to extend the growing season and stretch out the harvest. The primary limiting factor is the weather, and secondarily the genetics of tomato varieties. Tomato plants prefer temperatures between 55 and 95 degrees, and in most of the continental United States that means they do their best between June and September. Summer is their season. Genetically, full-sized tomato plants, as opposed to dwarf or cherry tomato varieties, fall into two groups – determinate or indeterminate. Determinate plants grow to a certain point, set fruit, and then are done for the season. Indeterminate plants continue growing and setting fruit throughout the season.


There are conditions and variables to all these factors, and they play an important part in seeing that, hard as a gardener may try, most of their tomatoes will ripen over a shorter period than plant information tags would have them believe. Plant tags give maturation dates for the tomato varieties they describe. They are only rough guides, not to be taken at face value! Too many gardeners believe the tags and think that by planting tomato varieties with as wide a spread of maturation dates as possible they will be ensured a lengthy harvest season. Not necessarily! The weather plays the biggest part in dictating when you will get ripe tomatoes and over how long a period. The next most important factor is whether the plant is determinate or indeterminate, since determinate varieties will almost always be the first to fruit and the first to stop bearing. The maturation date on the plant tag is the least reliable factor and is nearly useless.


Lufa Farms Strawberry Tomatoes
Strawberry tomatoes at Lufa Farms, the world’s first commercial rooftop greenhouses, in the Montreal, Canada, neighborhood of Ahuntsic-Cartierville; photo by Benoit Rochon.

Some gardeners think that by staggering the planting dates of their tomato plants they will stagger the harvest dates as well. Not necessarily! Again, the weather is the most important factor in how quickly or slowly your tomato plants grow. Plants started later in the spring will often catch up to ones planted earlier. Plants started too early in the spring will often sit there and do nothing until the weather warms up. You can’t fool Mother Nature!

The best way to lengthen the growing season, and therefore the harvest, is to make use of either a cold frame or a greenhouse, or both. Of the two, a greenhouse is the better option because it is ultimately more useful. A cold frame is useful mainly for starting plants, though it can also be used for low-growing vegetables and fruits like lettuce and strawberries. A greenhouse should be tall enough for fully grown tomato plants, even when they are in raised beds. A greenhouse is not a hothouse. A hothouse is, of course, heated. That would be stepping up another level in expense and trouble, which for a home gardener with a ten by twelve foot greenhouse would make every tomato unnecessarily expensive. No, a simple and inexpensive home greenhouse is primarily useful for extending the growing season from summer into spring at the front end, and autumn at the back end.

Roger Cook of This Old House helped this Mississippi homeowner build an inexpensive backyard greenhouse. At the end, Mr. Cook tells the homeowner he should be able to grow vegetables year round in the greenhouse. Since the greenhouse will be unheated, year round use would be possible in Mississippi, most of which is in winter hardiness zone 8a. Use in your location may be limited to three seasons.

There are home greenhouse kits on the market, and a gardener could spend over 1,000 dollars for a nicely appointed one. The very cheap ones are not worth even their low price, and will cause you more trouble than they’re worth. The greenhouse depicted in the This Old House video here is a solid, utilitarian model that should cost less than 500 dollars. It won’t win any awards for looks, but that would probably present an obstacle only for homeowners association members. One suggestion to improve upon the construction method in the video would involve using weather stripping or batting between the plastic and the staples to distribute the force of the plastic against the staples, reducing the chances of the plastic tearing loose in the wind. 1/2 inch staples would hold everything well, and to reduce frustration a quality staple gun is a must. As with a tarpaulin or any other lightweight material used outdoors, the plastic needs to be stretched tight to lessen its movement in the wind. After all that work and expense, you can look forward to a longer tomato harvest season, and to tomatoes that don’t cost a small fortune. You may even save a few dollars over the long haul, though it might be a stretch to say you could pay off your mortgage early, the way Radiator Charlie of West Virginia did with his ‘Mortgage Lifter’ tomatoes back in the 1940s.
― Izzy


The Lilac of the South


Describing Lagerstroemia species starts with what to call them in English, whether crepe myrtle or crape myrtle. Both spellings are correct and have their adherents, and even a botanical pedant would have no basis for sneering at either preference. It is a multi-stemmed small tree originally from southern and southeastern Asia, but to stop there is to ignore the enormous variety of size, flower color, and shape of this plant that has become so ubiquitous in the southern United States that it has become known as the Lilac of the South.


The hardiness zones where crepe myrtle takes over from the common lilac, Syringa vulgaris, are 6 and 7, or roughly a horizontal line through the country’s mid-section. Besides differences in cold hardiness, there are differences in size and shape, with lilac being more of a large, rounded shrub, while crepe myrtle ranges from a small shrub to a medium-sized tree and is generally vase-shaped. Lilac flowers in spring and its flowers are always fragrant; crepe myrtle flowers in summer and, depending on variety, its flowers may or may not be fragrant. Some crepe myrtle varieties, like the white flowered “Natchez”, have exfoliating bark that adds to their winter interest. Lilac is not known for any particular winter interest. Differences aside, each plant holds a favored place, North or South, that marks them out as special and at the same time as necessities in every garden.


Crepe myrtle tree at Univ. of VA IMG 4278
Crepe myrtle trees on the grounds of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia; photo by Billy Hathorn.

Red Myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica)
Crepe myrtle flowers, showing their crinkled appearance; photo by Flickr user Hafiz Issadeen.

What a shame then that every late winter crepe myrtles throughout the South are subjected to topping by “professionals” on landscaping crews and, like the practice of volcano mulching also carried out by “professionals”, homeowners then feel encouraged to mimic the skulduggery of the “professionals” in their own yards. Topping crepe myrtles this way is known as “crepe murder”, and it is not a good or wise practice.

People can of course do what they like to their own crepe myrtles. They should not, however, continue to be able to get away with spouting bogus reasons for murdering their innocent, flowering friends. If they wanted to keep its size in check, they could have planted a shorter variety to suit the location in the beginning, rather than subject the poor plant they did choose to violence year after year. Don’t let them try to claim the high ground by saying they are pollarding, either, because 99% of these knuckle-draggers couldn’t identify a proper pollard if it descended out of the trees and bit them on the buttocks. No, they are doing it strictly from a deep-seated monkey see, monkey do limbic reflex that is not subject to conscious control. And giving the reason of promoting flowering is also bogus, though because four to six months elapse between butchering and flowering, and the American attention span is very short, almost no one thinks to disprove this claim. To honor the memory and teachings of Dr. Alex Shigo, the Father of Modern Arboriculture, the Lilac of the South deserves better.
― Izzy

Winter interest created by the branch architecture of a well-pruned, or at least unmolested, crepe myrtle; photo by Berean Hunter.