Tag Archives: gardening

April Tips for Planting and Growing

It’s Earth Week, and late April is the perfect time to start planning your garden!

This year, consider planting heirloom bean and tomato varieties which, according to author and farmer Bill Best, are a more sustainable gardening option and are also an important element of Kentucky’s history and agricultural tradition.

seedsIn his new book, Kentucky Heirloom Seeds: Growing, Eating, Saving Bill Best provides an evocative exploration of the seed saver’s art and the practice of sustainable agriculture. Writing with Dobree Adams, Best shares tips for planting and growing beans and describes his family’s favorite varieties for the table. Featuring interviews with many people who have worked to preserve heirloom varieties, this book vividly documents the social relevance of the rituals of sowing, cultivating, eating, saving, and sharing.

In this excerpt from Kentucky Heirloom SeedsBill Best gives his top tips for planting, growing, and saving heirloom beans and tomatoes:


Practical Tips for Growing and Saving

We gardeners and farmers love to sit around and tell tales about our successes and sometimes our failures. We are always talking about something we tried this year that worked well, or maybe it didn’t. This is what makes gardening and farming so fascinating and challenging. Every piece of land is different, with different soil and a different orientation to the sun. So what works just great for me may not work so well for someone else. Then, of course, there is always old-man weather. No two years are ever the same. And once gardening has skipped a generation, it is unfortunately necessary to start from scratch: knowledge passed on for hundreds of years has to be relearned, accompanied by trial and error.

The best thing to do is make good notes every year: what you planted, when you planted it, how it grew, what the harvest was, and of course, how it tasted! Here, I offer a few practical tips from my perspective.

Cornfield Beans

BILL BEST AND LEATHER BRITCHES

Author Bill Best with “Leather Britches” (Dried Beans)

With beans, it is good to know that a few things have happened in the last few decades that have forced traditional practices to change. Traditionally, cornfield beans have been planted with corn so the cornstalks could provide the “poles” for the bean to climb. But with the advent of modern hybrid varieties, the cornstalks are too weak to support the bean vines. At best, hybrid cornstalks, both sweet and field, can support only one or two ears of corn and will collapse under the weight of bean vines. Therefore, most people who are serious about growing climbing heirloom beans use poles or a trellis to support the bean vines, or they grow them on heirloom varieties of corn such as Hickory Cane. Trellises should be only as high as you can reach without using a ladder to pick the beans.

Another way to support bean vines is to construct a bean tower made from a stout pole with a bicycle tire rim on top. Strings are attached around the perimeter of the wheel and then attached to the bean vines on the ground. These bean towers need to be at least ten feet tall. You can use a stepladder to reach the beans growing higher than your head. Bean towers are an excellent way to save seeds and “get a start” if you have only half a dozen or so seeds. The tower, allowing for ample vine growth, makes it possible for the maximum number of pods to form and to produce the most seeds from the smallest number of plants.

Cornfield beans need to be planted at a rate of two seeds per eighteen inches. The two seeds help each other break through the soil at germination and then “spread their wings” as side branches quickly develop on the main stem. Virtually all modern seed companies give bad advice when they promote the sowing of bean seeds at a rate of every two inches or so. Mechanical planting devices also space them far too close together. Of course, commercial seed companies are in the business of selling seeds, not promoting good vine growth or growing quality beans.

Once the beans mature on the vines, it is important to save the seeds at the appropriate time; otherwise, the seeds can be damaged by weather conditions. If the weather is clear and dry at the time of maturity, the bean pods can be left on the vines for several days until the pods become dry, at which point they must be removed from the vines. If it is rainy when the bean pods mature, it is best to remove the pods and spread them out in a dry area to complete the drying process. A greenhouse or high tunnel works well, assuming the pods are spread out on plastic on the ground or placed on greenhouse benches covered with bedsheets or some other cloth.

Beans and Tomatoes

Beans and Tomatoes growing in the field (Dobree Adams)

Drying can also be accomplished by spreading the pods over the floor of any dry room in the house or barn. The most important thing is to prevent the pods from getting wet during the drying process, as the seeds will sprout or mold within the hull. If this happens, the seeds will never sprout in the ground and won’t be good to eat either, even as dry beans.

After the seeds have become dry, shelled out, and hard to the touch, it is important to remove the disfigured or insect-damaged seeds from the batch. If some seeds are a different color than the others, these seeds can be planted separately the following year to see if they breed true. If they do, then you might have discovered your own bean variety. This is the process by which we have developed thousands of varieties of heirloom beans.

Heirloom Tomatoes

To achieve good production with a minimum of rot and sunscalding, tomatoes need to be staked or trellised. It is also possible to use cages made from concrete reinforcing wire, fencing wire, or any other wire that can withstand considerable weight. This gets the tomatoes off the ground and provides plenty of shade to pre- vent sunscald of the ripening fruit.

Tomato seeds can be saved in several ways. One of the traditional methods is to let the tomato ripen completely, even to the point of beginning to rot, and then remove the seeds with a spoon and spread them on a piece of cloth or paper to dry. Some people spread them out on a paper towel, let them dry, and then plant the paper towel and seeds together in potting or germinating soil.

best2

Heirloom red tomatoes are high in acid and are pleasing to a lot of people. Best’s favorite red tomato is the Zeke Dishman, a very large and tasty tomato that often weighs over two pounds. It was developed by Zeke Dishman of Windy in Wayne County over several decades.

A far better way to save tomato seeds is to use the fermentation process. The tomatoes are allowed to overripen to the point of beginning to rot and then quartered or cut up so that the seed cavities can be scooped out and put in a bucket or some other container. You can do this with one tomato or with many, depending on the number of seeds you want to save. The tomatoes are then stirred one or more times per day for three or more days until the mixture is soupy. Fungal growth will appear on top of the mixture as fermentation takes place, but that is no problem. During stirring, the seeds dislodge from the gel and sink to the bottom of the container. Water is then poured into the mixture, allowing the pulp and the bad seeds to rise to the top and ow over the side of the container. The good seeds sink to the bottom. Once the water becomes clear, pour what’s left in the bucket into a finely meshed strainer. Only the seeds will remain in the strainer. Then spread the seeds out on a at surface, such as a slick paper plate, to let them dry. My own preference is to spread the seeds on wax paper and put it under a slow-moving fan until the seeds are dry, which usually takes no more than twenty-four hours. Once the seeds are dry, you can scrape them o the paper with your finger and separate any that might be stuck together. I then put the seeds in a tightly sealed plastic bag, dated and labeled, and store the bag at room temperature, making sure it is not in direct sunlight or in a hot part of the room. Using this method, I have had good luck germinating tomato seeds saved for up to ten years.

When sowing tomato seeds, it is important not to plant them too deep—half an inch is adequate. Keep the soil mixture warm and moist but not wet. Most tomato seeds germinate within four to seven days. They need a lot of sunlight at this early stage to prevent the plants from becoming elongated and weak. Commercial full-spectrum grow lights placed close to the germinating plants work best for producing early transplants. The plants should be ready to transplant within six to eight weeks. As soon as suckers appear on the plants, break them to below the first bloom clusters, which will now mature much earlier. Suckering also keeps most of the foliage off the ground, helping to prevent disease.


Bill Best, professor emeritus from Berea College, is a Madison County, Kentucky, farmer and one of the charter members of the Lexington Farmers’ Market. Widely known as a saver, collector, and grower of heirloom beans and tomatoes, he is the author of Saving Seeds, Preserving Taste: Heirloom Seed Savers in Appalachia.

Dobree Adams is primarily known in the region as a fiber artist and photographer. She gardens and farms on a river bottom of the Kentucky north of Frankfort.

For more on growing, eating, and saving heirloom varieties, you can purchase Kentucky Heirloom Seeds HERE.

Planning a Native Habitat Garden

Gardening for the Birds by Thomas G. BarnesThis post was originally published May 2016.

Derby day is behind us, which means one thing in Kentucky: It’s time to get outside and garden! Many people are interested in landscaping to attract birds, butterflies, and other wildlife to their backyards, but may be unsure about where to begin.

In Gardening for the Birds, Thomas G. Barnes offers tips that will help even novice gardeners use native plants to create attractive, low-maintenance habitat gardens for wildlife. Such landscaping, Barnes notes, can be as simple or as complex as the homeowner wants to make it. Today we’re sharing an excerpt from this classic book that outlines five simple steps for designing and planting a native wildflower garden:

Planning Your Garden

1. Determine the environmental conditions of your planting site. To reap all of the  conservation benefits of using native plants in the landscape, rely on species adapted to the environmental conditions of the planting site rather than trying to adapt the site to a set of pre-selected plants. You reduce labor and costs of site preparation, have much greater success, and minimize post-planting maintenance. As Ken Druse states in The Natural Habitat Garden, “Don’t fight the site.”

Depending on past land use, soils may need to be restored to make them capable of supporting native plants. Soils are often compacted and lack topsoil following construction activities. If the soil is inadequate, loosen it to improve aeration and drainage properties and replace lost nutrients before planting. Sites currently supporting landscape plants of any kind are probably capable of supporting native plants with little additional preparation.

Plan for a Butterfly Garden:Butterfly_Garden

2. Choose an appropriate natural community as a landscape model. A natural community is an assemblage of plants and animals that co-exist in nature because they have similar requirements for natural resources and are able to compete successfully with each other for those resources. A natural community is usually characterized by its plant and animal species. We can predict the type of natural community that will develop on a site based on climate, soils, topography, and other environmental conditions. Natural communities are excellent landscape models because they are self-sustaining and support a diversity of plant and animal species. Once you have defined the environmental conditions of your planting site, determine the natural community type that occurs under similar conditions in your region of Kentucky. Plants characteristic of that community will grow well in your habitat garden.

Although many types of natural communities exist in Kentucky, they can be classified generally as upland or lowland forests or prairies. Most of the Kentucky landscape originally was forested, and, in the absence of grazing and fire, most sites eventually regenerate to forest. Various management techniques such as mowing, grazing, or burning are needed to maintain open landscapes in most of Kentucky. For landscaping purposes, it is helpful to know the light and soil conditions common to forest and prairie communities.

In a natural forest, overstory trees create a canopy that filters the amount of sunlight reaching the forest floor. The leaf canopy creates conditions of dappled shade and sunlight. In some forests, little direct sunlight reaches the forest floor. Shrubs and herbaceous plants that grow in a forest are adapted to varying levels of shade. In a deciduous forest, the floor receives full sun throughout the spring until the leaf canopy develops. This sun promotes new spring growth of ferns and wildflowers. A backyard with mature shade trees creates conditions of shade similar to that of a natural forest. In contrast, the shade on the north side of a building is a dense shade not desirable for most plants, but many native forest shrubs and wildflowers do fine in dense shade if drainage and air circulation are adequate.

Forest soils generally have a high organic content. Leaves, bark, stems, and other plant debris litter the forest floor each year and begin the process of decomposition that builds the forest soils. This process can be replicated in the backyard by mulching with leaf litter and amending the soil with compost, peat, or other organic materials.

In contrast to the forest, a prairie is an open grassland characterized by a high diversity of grass and wildflower species and few tree or shrub species. It is a more extreme environment than a forest because it receives full exposure to the sun and elements. Most prairie plants tolerate a wide range of moisture conditions and are drought-tolerant. The bluestem prairie, which once covered millions of acres in Kentucky, ranged from wet to dry. In a wet prairie, plants are generally tolerant of saturated soil conditions (soil at maximum water-holding capacity), but most are also able to withstand dry periods of varying lengths. In dry prairies or glades, plants are tolerant of well drained to excessively well drained soil conditions. These plants are highly drought-tolerant and excellent choices for xeriscaping (landscaping to conserve water).

Prairie soils vary greatly from one community to the next. Most prairie plants are extremely efficient at utilizing available soil nutrients and do not require highly fertile soils. Some prairie plants grow in shallow, rocky soils, but getting them established in such soils can be difficult.

It is critical that you minimize competition from cultivated grasses and agricultural weeds. Most prairie plants thrive in a good garden soil if competition is minimized. Fertilizing with nitrogen only promotes the growth of annual invasive weeds. If there is a severe deficiency of phosphorus or potassium or if the soil needs liming (as determined by a soil test), apply these fertilizers following soil test recommendations. If a site supports a lawn or a healthy growth of weeds, it should be adequate for growing most prairie plants.

If your site contains overstory trees and is shady much of the day, model your garden after a forest community. If the site receives six or more hours of direct sun, particularly during the hottest time of the day (late morning to late afternoon), a prairie community is a better model. If the site stays wet much of the growing season or is prone to seasonal flooding, a lowland community is appropriate. The savanna community (or barrens on drier upland sites) might be a suitable model for large sites or sites with some shade and some sun. A savanna is an open meadow with scattered individual trees or groves of trees and is very park-like in appearance.

It is possible to plant trees to create shadier conditions or remove trees to create sunnier conditions. Creating wooded conditions is a worthwhile, if long-term, process of great value to wildlife. Establishment of trees might be expensive, but maintenance is minimal. Any healthy, native tree should be considered a valuable landscape and wildlife asset. A single mature (30-foot-tall) hemlock tree purchased from a nursery can cost $12,000. A 60-year-old white oak is worth tens of thousands of dollars. Unless a tree is severely diseased or weedy and invasive (tree of heaven, for example), removal is not recommended. It is better to maintain existing trees whenever possible and convert already sunny sites to native prairie plants.

Hummingbird Garden:Butterfly_Garden

3. Create plant menus for each habitat garden. Create a menu of plant species for each landscape. Native plant nursery catalogs provide availability and cost information, and many contain detailed habitat and cultivation information for the species they offer. Consult a field guide or botanical book for more information and to see drawings or photographs of the species you intend to establish.

A plant menu can be a simple list of plant species but has more value if composed as a matrix containing functional and physical attributes for each species. Such information is crucial when you begin the landscape design process. Include plant type, sun tolerance, soil moisture tolerance, aesthetic characteristics (flowers and fruits, bark, form, autumn color), period of bloom, wildlife value, and potential uses (shade, evergreen screen, erosion control).

Rock Garden:Rock_Garden

4. Use diverse plants. Most wildflowers and other native plants have distinct flowering and fruiting periods that last a few weeks, rarely longer. For lots of color as well as nectar, fruit, and nut production, use a diversity of plant types (trees, shrubs, ground covers) and species. Diverse plant types provide assorted habitat elements that can be used by a variety of wildlife species. Select various species that bloom during spring, summer, and fall and plants that hold their fruits into winter. Native grasses provide good color in the garden in autumn and excellent wildlife cover in winter. In Kentucky, most forest wildflowers are spring-blooming, so add later-blooming species of woodland phlox, lobelia, aster, and goldenrod. Most prairie plants do not bloom until late spring. Some of the earliest bloomers include coreopsis, wood mint, sundrops, and downy phlox. Offering areas of both forest and prairie in your landscape provides year-round food and cover for wildlife.

5. Use clustering for enhanced beauty and wildlife value. Some wildflowers have large, showy flowers and can be used individually or in small groups with dramatic effect. Many wildflowers, however, are most attractive when planted in species clusters, or drifts. In nature, the most striking wildflower displays result from a tendency for species to grow in clumps. This tendency is influenced in large part by their methods of self-propagation and seed dispersal. Even in a garden, each species rearranges itself over time according to its own propagation patterns. One wild columbine is pretty for close-up viewing beneath a tree, but a drift of columbines in a wildflower border creates a solid block of color and texture visible from a distance. Planting species in clusters of several to dozens lends a natural quality and beauty to the landscape.

Clustering is also beneficial to wildlife. With the maximum amount of food in a single location, animals expend minimal energy to acquire it. Imagine the energy you would use if you had to go to one restaurant for an appetizer, another for the main course, and a third for coffee and dessert! Now think about a hummingbird—a bird with an extremely high metabolic rate—having to fly from one neighborhood to another just to find enough food for lunch. By planting large clusters of favorite foods (phlox, columbine, bee balm, cardinal flower) and hanging an artificial feeder or two you can feed many hummers with little effort on their part.


Thomas G. Barnes (1958–2014) was extension professor of forestry and wildlife specialist at the University of Kentucky. He is the author of Gardening for the Birds, Kentucky’s Last Great Places, Wildflowers and Ferns of Kentucky, and Rare Wildflowers of Kentucky.

A Kentucky Summer Gardening Guide

The weather is warm and gardens are in full bloom. If you’re looking to grow your botanical collection this season or if you just enjoy perusing community gardens on the weekends, brush up on your knowledge of the Bluegrass State’s flora and fauna with these great titles. If you’re up for testing your knowledge of Kentucky flowers, take our quiz!

Vascular Plants Of Kentucky: An Annotated Checklist

Edited by Edward T. Browne and Raymond Athey
Lists more than 3,000 plant species and varieties, with complete information on distribution in the state, and reveals the current condition of botanical knowledge on Kentucky flora. LEARN MORE

Weeds of Kentucky and Adjacent States: A Field Guide

By Patricia Dalton Haragan
Because of its central location and geographical diversity, Kentucky is home today to perhaps the richest diversity of non-native plants east of the Rocky Mountains, and weeds make up a large component of the state’s flora and vegetation. Many of Kentucky’s weeds are immigrants that came to the New World from the Old and were brought to Kentucky by travelers, explorers, and settlers. This guide to the identification of 160 weeds commonly found in crops, pastures, turf, and along roadsides provides ecological, geographical, and ethnobotanical information with each species description. LEARN MORE

Gardening for the Birds

By Thomas G. Barnes
An easy-to-use guide to transforming your yard into an oasis for urban wildlife. Which birdseed attracts the most species of birds? What type of feeder is best to use? How do you deter squirrels? Barnes answers all these questions and more. He includes a plant encyclopedia of trees and shrubs native to the Upper South that attract a variety of birds, butterflies, and mammals. LEARN MORE

Wildflowers and Ferns of Kentucky

By Thomas G. Barnes and S. Wilson Francis
Since Kentucky is situated at a biological crossroads in eastern North America, citizens and visitors to this beautiful state are likely to be greeted by an astonishing variety of wildflowers. This non-technical guide—featuring more than five hundred dazzling full-color photographs by award-winning photographer Thomas G. Barnes—is the state’s new, indispensable guide to the most common species in the Commonwealth. With this book, readers will learn to identify and appreciate Kentucky wildflowers and ferns by matching photographs and leaf line drawings to the more than six hundred and fifty species of flowers covered in the book. LEARN MORE

Plant Life of Kentucky: An Illustrated Guide to the Vascular Flora

By Ronald L. Jones
The first comprehensive account of the native and naturalized ferns, flowering herbs, and woody plants of Kentucky. Ronald L. Jones has compiled detailed identification keys to families, genera, and species. The plant family descriptions contain information on wildlife and human uses, important weeds, poisonous plants, and medicinal herbs, and the species accounts provide scientific and common names, flowering periods, habitat, physiographic distribution, state and federal designations, and wetland ranking. LEARN MORE

Rare Wildflowers of Kentucky

By Thomas G. Barnes, Deborah White, and Marc Evans
Rare Wildflowers of Kentucky provides an introduction to Kentucky’s signature rare plants with 220 full-color photographs by naturalist and award winning photographer Thomas G. Barnes. The book draws attention to the beauty of Kentucky’s old-growth forests, prairies, wetlands, and other habitats while focusing on the state’s endangered flora. LEARN MORE

The Olmsted Parks of Louisville: A Botanical Field Guide

By Patricia Dalton Haragan foreword by Susan M. Rademacher, Susan Wilson, Chris Bidwell, and Daniel H. Jones
The first authoritative manual on the 380 species of trees, herbaceous plants, shrubs, and vines populating the nearly 1,900 acres that comprise Cherokee, Seneca, Iroquois, Shawnee, and Chickasaw Parks. Designed for easy reference, this handy field guide includes detailed photos and maps as well as ecological and historical information about each park. LEARN MORE