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George Ellmore Shares Some Gardening Wisdom

Last Wednesday, Professor George Ellmore gave a wonderful talk about the life of plants, how and when to plant seeds, and his experiences as a gardener in Massachusetts.

Ellmore is a professor in the Biology Department at Tufts University. Not only is he an expert at gardening in New England, but he also does awesome experiments that take gardening where no man has gone before.

He started his talk by walking us through plant life history: the plant spends its first 10 days as a seed. It then takes 2 months for a plant to develop its roots and leaves and 3 months for the plant to flower. After 4 months, the flower is pollinated and the ovary of the flower makes fruits.

Planting in the greenhouse can begin as early as April 1st. The plant only needs warmth (70 degrees F) and humidity. Leafy plants (lettuce, swiss chard, spinach, and cabbage) make leaves in June and continue until November. Fruits (eggplants, okra, tomatoes, zucchinis, and peppers) are hardest to grow because they require the longest duration of care. Mild winters do not alter this timeline.

Plants in the greenhouse must be checked on at least twice a week. They can be checked by weighing the lightness of the box; if it’s light, the plant needs to be watered. It takes about a month for plants to outgrow their container and for the soil to be depleted of food if 4-6 seeds are planted per container, so plants should not stay more than one month in the greenhouse. Their growth slows down as plants run out of food and run into each other.

When plants are transferred, they should be dipped in water so that the dirt dissolves away, then picked up by their tops. The roots are delicate and will probably tear, especially at such a young stage.

According to Ellmore, June is an excellent month for gardens because the bugs are not out yet, but by August, the plants will look terrible. Don’t let appearance distract you; all that matters are the fruits, which contain all the sugar of the plant.

The latest to plant is September/October, which will result in a December harvest. The first frost occurs in October, which actually makes plants sweeter because they use their sugar as an antifreeze. If spinach is planted in Sept/Oct, it grows super fast because of the cold, then stops growing in November and sits, sweet and ready to eat.

Ellmore also discussed cold frames, which are simply plastic boxes that keep frost off of plants. Cold frames extend growing season from March to December. He experimented with them this winter and grew surprisingly sweet and delicious cabbages. He warns against glass, which can crack in extreme cold.

A neat tip he showed us was to use a calendar as a garden log.

In terms of plants, peas are traditionally planted on St. Patrick’s Day every 2 inches in rows 4 inches apart. Half of them are lost to rot in the cold, wet soil. However, the early planting means the peas will be ready in June. March is an excellent time to grow red beets because they taste sweeter when grown in cold weather. They’re ready in June – mid-July. Fast-growing vegetables include radishes, which love cold weather and grow in 3 weeks. Red beets need only one month in the greenhouse, then 2-4 weeks outdoors.

To plant seeds, Ellmore swears by commercial potting soil. It does not have fungi and bacteria that could kill seeds and it allows oxygen to filter through more easily. He also recommends planting in square or rectangular boxes to make it easier to plan out seeds and placing a paper towel on the bottom to prevent soil see seepage. Make sure to take time to place seeds and make holes evenly spaced so that each seed has a chance to grow.

Ellmore also shared anecdotes about gardening experiences in France and the consternation of his neighbors over his unbelievable garden, giving an informative yet entertaining talk. Thanks to his advice, we have high hopes that our garden will flourish this year!

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