Highlights from our chat with a Master Gardener

This Thursday, we had a special guest join us in a live online video chat to answer your questions.  Master Gardener Liam McDonnell responded to your inquiries about plant upkeep and protection.

Liam has been a certified master gardener for 15 years with the Austin Horticultural Society.  He started gardening as a teenager with his neighbor to make some extra money and developed a strong appreciation for being able to literally eat the fruits of his labor.  More recently, he has a special interest in container gardens because of their versatility.

Check out some of your questions and Liam’s answers below

What’s the best way to transfer my plants?

There is not one right answer.  It really depends on what you are growing and how you are growing it. Even for full grown plants, most horticulturalists agree that commercial fertilizers should be used at half the recommended rate stated on the bottle. Commercial fertilizers are salt fertilizers which can burn plants when too much is used. It is best to dilute commercial fertilizers, especially with seedlings. If you start with a good quality growing soil that is designed for seed shouldn’t need to use any additional fertilizer at all for 8-10 weeks.   My best recommendation is to keep it simple and let nature do some of the work. If you feel you still need to use some, stick with natural fertilizers such as seaweed/kelp, fish emulsion, etc.  In the end, compost (comprised from at least five different sources) is the absolute best fertilizer you can use. You can’t use too much of it, it’s already at the proper pH, and it’s free if you make it!

What should I fertilize with and how much should I use?

First, make sure your plants are hardened off.  Also make sure they are well watered before you transplant so they’re completely hydrated before the move. This will reduce shock. Literally submerge the pots in a bucket of water, wait until there are no longer air bubbles coming up, and then sit them in another bowl for at least 20 minutes. Your plants will thank you.

If your plants are outdoors, transplant in the evening, on a cloudy day, in the shade, or before a rain. Avoid transplanting in full sun or windy days which creates optimum stress on plants. Also, know your soil. If they’re going into the ground, get your soil tested so you know exactly what your soil needs.

When transplanting, be gentle with the root system. Try to maintain the integrity of the soil structure to prevent shock, better safe than sorry. If you’ve got a multiple plants you are transplanting, don’t take them all out and leave the roots sitting out in the sun or wind. Transplant one at a time. If you’re planting into pots, keep the pots in the shade for a couple of days so your plants can adjust to their new environment.

Lastly, water immediately after transplanting. This will help the roots settle into their new home.

What’s the best way to harden off a plant?

For seedlings whose lives began on a sunny windowsill, the vegetable patch is no bed of roses. Before they can handle the wind, rain and strong sun of the great outdoors, tender young plants need a period of gradual adjustment. The simple but crucial process of acclimating seedlings to life in the garden is called hardening off.

Begin hardening off your seedlings about a week before their transplant date. (It varies depending on the variety of plant.) Keep the seedlings well watered throughout the process. Set the containers (whether flats or individual pots) in a sheltered, shady spot outdoors. A covered porch is an ideal starter spot, so is a table or bench under a leafy tree. Bring the plants back inside at night, and bring them in at any time of day if the weather turns cold, windy or rainy. Expose the plants gradually to more sun. After two or three days, you can safely keep them in the sun for half a day, then return them to the shade. By the end of the week they’ll be tough enough to soak up the rays all day. Transplant the seedlings to the garden on an overcast day to ease the shock of transition from pot to ground. If a light mist is falling, so much the better.

In regards to water, allowing seedlings to wilt has the same effect as gradually exposing them to the elements. Starting about 2 weeks before your transplant date, don’t water your seedlings until they start to wilt. At this point, water normally, then wait for them to wilt again. After 2 weeks of this process, seedlings should be ready to transplant.

I’m growing an indoor container garden and I don’t have to worry about pesticide run-off, so why should I worry about organic pesticides?

First of all, commercial pesticides contain toxic materials and if you have them in your home, you are exposing your family and pets to these toxins. Some commercial pesticides have been linked to cancer.  Obviously, this does not mean you avoid pesticides, but if you choose to use a commericial pesticide you need to pick them with care and read the labels carefully paying special attention to Active Ingredients.  Second, the pesticides do make their way into what you are growing and so you are ingesting remnants of the pesticides in your food regardless of the type of garden you are growing.  Lastly, at some point you will dump the soil in your containers and while the pesticides do break down over time, there is still some chance of the pesticides or their broken down products maintaining some toxicity which will then be released during its disposal, leeching into the water.  Pesticides indoors actually breakdown slower than they do outdoors because they do not encounter the environmental factors that contribute to their breakdown.

After my seeds germinate and start growing, the little seedling just turns brown and collapses at the soil level. What is the problem and how can I treat it?

It is caused by a soil borne fungus called pythium. There is no treatment for this disease once the seeds are planted. Soil sterilization is the only prevention and treatment against this disease. Soil sterilization can be accomplished by solarization.

I read somewhere that it is better to water your plants during certain times of the day.  Is that true? And if so, why?

Yes! There is a preferred time to water your plants if they are outdoors.  The best time of day to water is early morning before the temperatures begin to rise. This gives the plants a good supply of water to face the heat of the day. Early morning also tends to be a time of lower winds and lower temperatures reducing evaporation.  Lower evaporation means you can keep your water usage reasonable, which is great in regions that don’t get a lot of rain, such as Texas.  It also keeps your water bill down.

If you cannot water in the early morning, very late afternoon also works. It is important to water early enough so that the leaves have time to dry before nightfall to avoid development of fungal diseases.

While we are talking about watering your plants, I want to mention something else. Be careful, for those of you who have outdoor plants, to watch the amount and pressure of the water.  Gushing water can wash your soil away and it doesn’t really get to your plants’ roots, but is wasted by running into other areas.

Thank you Liam for offering your time and expertise!  You were a big help to all of our gardeners!

Don’t forget, next week we will be meeting at a special time to head to the Eastside Cafe for a tour of the garden followed by brunch!  Meet in the Eastside Cafe parking lot at 11 am.

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