ERROL CASTENS: Free garden, advice, worth twice the price

By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal

Not in a million years would I claim to be a horticultural expert, but I’ve made enough mistakes – and seen some others that I hadn’t yet made – to save less-experienced gardeners some grief. Here are a few cautions:
• Plant corn in blocks, or at least in clumps. Corn is a wind-pollinated crop, which means if you plant only one or two rows, it’s likely to produce very poorly. Some folks joke, “Don’t plant any outside rows; they never make a crop,” but of course what that means is to plant several rows so the inside ones pollinate well.
And those corn plants that are showing up on store shelves? Unless it’s a supersweet (su) variety, it’s relatively easy to get a crop by direct seeding – not to mention much less work and expense.
• Some other vegetables don’t like to be transplanted – especially beans, peas and most root crops other than sweet potatoes.
• Tomatoes actually seem to benefit from being transplanted several times over a period of weeks – from a tiny seed cup to a small pot to a well-dug hole in the ground or a really big pot.
• As tempting as it may be to let indeterminate tomatoes (the kind whose vines keep growing for months and months) run on the ground instead of tying them to a vertical support, you’ll get far more yield if you do trellis them. Tomato fruits are subject to rot if they touch the ground.
• There’s a maddening condition that tomatoes and peppers can get called blossom-end rot. The technical explanation involves water, fruit load, calcium uptake and other stuff that can’t be altogether controlled. The good news is that calcium chloride will prevent the problem. As a foliar spray it’s organic-allowable, and one bottle will last most of us for years.
• Cabbage loopers and tomato hornworms are another easily prevented problem. Bacillus thurengiensis is an organic-listed, bacterial insecticide that comes in a spray or a dust under various brand names, and it affects nothing in the environment except the caterpillars that eat it. Because the bacteria is living, I err on the side of caution and buy a new bottle each year.
• Some of us think it’s easier to plant a new hill of yellow crookneck or zucchini every couple of weeks than to fight the quixotic war against squash borers and squash bugs. By the way, yellow crookneck typically yields less than straightneck, but it seems much tastier to my tongue.
• It’s weird to most folks, but a few of us prefer the flavor of field corn over sweet corn. Any of the crop that gets too hard for roasting ears can be left to mature for cornmeal – or at least squirrel corn.
Contact Daily Journal Oxford Bureau reporter Errol Castens at Just don’t expect him to reply until he comes in from the garden.