Thinking Spring

By Susan Littlefield

It may still be wintry and cold in many parts of the country, but the days are getting longer, signaling that we have turned the seasonal corner and spring is, indeed, in the offing. So now is the time to think, dream, plan, and prepare for all that this year's garden holds in promise. We can review what worked in last year's garden, where improvements might be made, and what exciting new things we want to try.

Try Something New in 2012

One of the most fun aspects of gardening is the opportunity to try something new and different each year. Sure, we want to keep growing the tried-and-true varieties that have done well in our gardens. But there is nothing more exciting than planting a new variety of tomato or corn, or an unfamiliar flower, and perhaps discovering a new addition to our all-time favorites list!

One way to keep things fresh and interesting in the garden is to choose a particular crop to trial each year. Let's say you choose tomatoes to focus on this year. In addition to the varieties you usually plant, include one plant each of several varieties you've never tried before. Then, when plants are laden with ripe fruits, have a taste test. Keep track of other aspects of your crop to compare, such as resistance to disease, time of ripening, perhaps how well plants did in a hot, dry spell. You may not find a new "keeper" every season, but you'll have lots of fun testing and evaluating plants.

If you're really ambitious, get some gardening friends and neighbors to go in together to trial the same type of plant at the same time, each choosing different new varieties to grow. Then hold a monster "taste-a-thon" in late summer. Let everyone sample each variety and weigh in with their opinions on taste. Folks may go home with new ideas on what to plant in their own gardens next year!

At Willhite Seeds, we help you keep your gardening experience interesting by offering new seeds to try each year, from veggies to flowers, as well as helpful new garden-related products. Remember the words of the old song, "Make new friends, but keep the old"? Plant your favorites, but be sure to try some of our new offerings as well.

'Fortune' Summer Squash (39 days) - This straightneck hybrid summer squash is vigorous and productive with an attractive "dark butter" yellow color.

'Knight' Wrinkled Seeded Pea (62 days) - This high-yielding pea bears 4-inch long pods with 7 to 9 peas per pod and shows good disease tolerance.

'Sugar Ann' Edible Pod Pea (56 days) - An All-America Winner that doesn't need staking, it is early and stringless with crisp, delicious, 3-inch pods.

Plan a Taste Test Party

What's more fun than getting together with a group of avid gardeners and vegetable lovers and taste testing the new varieties you trial this year? The focus can be on a particular type of veggie -- tomato taste testing is popular -- or you can sample an assortment. Either way, it can be an enjoyable opportunity to connect with like-minded folks, trade gardening experiences and advice, and perhaps find some new favorites to include in your garden.

Start with a planning get-together this spring to decide what crops to grow, who will grow what, and perhaps even place a group seed order. Then plan for a later summer event to taste the fruits of your labors. The timing will depend on which crop or crops you grow.

Vegetables typically eaten raw, like tomatoes, peppers, carrots, melons, and cucumbers make tastings the easiest. But all you need is a couple of big pots of boiling water or a hot grill to savor the varying flavors of boiled or roasted sweet corn.

Set out labeled dishes with small samples of each variety of vegetable, along with some bread or crackers and some water, so testers can cleanse their palates between tastes. Provide each participant with paper and pencil, or design and print up rating sheets. Then have everyone weigh in on their likes and dislikes, perhaps with a one to ten scoring system. Ask the gardeners to share any pertinent growing information they noted, such as disease susceptibility or resistance or early bearing, for example.

Make it an extra-special event by finishing with a potluck meal showcasing all the vegetables grown in your gardens that year. Have folks bring copies of their recipes to share. Not only will everyone "harvest" new ideas for varieties to try, you all will no doubt find some delicious new ways to prepare and enjoy the garden's bounty.

Question of the Month: Leaf Miner in Spinach

Q: Every year my spinach is attacked by leaf miners, ruining the harvest. Is there a way I can control these pests without using chemicals?

A: Spinach leaves that are marred with light brown blisters, blotches, or tunnels have been attacked by leaf-mining flies. The females lay their eggs on the undersides of the leaves. The tiny maggots that hatch out tunnel into the leaves, feeding inside them. If you pull the leaves apart you may see not only these yellowish-white larvae, but the small black specks of their excrement as well.

An easy way to prevent damage is to rotate the location of your spinach crop in the garden each year. Then, as soon as you sow your seeds, cover the spinach bed with a floating row cover to prevent the female flies from reaching plants to lay eggs. Leaf miners overwinter as pupae in the soil, which is why it's important to rotate your crop's location -- otherwise, flies will emerge under the row covers. Be sure the edges of the covers are well sealed where they touch the ground to keep flies from getting in. Since we harvest only the leaves, letting pollinating insects in isn't an issue, so you can leave the row cover in place throughout the harvest season. If a few flies do happen to sneak past your defenses, pick and destroy infested leaves as soon as you notice them.

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