Q. Last year, I planted beets from seeds and was very disappointed in the weak, spindly seedlings that emerged. Some of the beets never produced roots at all. I would like to try again.
Q. I am growing ornamental gourds for the first time and would like to know when to harvest them.
Q. I am interested in starting a vegetable garden this year and wonder about the advantages of planting heirloom seeds.
Q. I am growing acorn and butternut squash for the first time this year. When do I harvest them, and how do I store them after harvest?
Q: My tomato plants did not perform well last year. I’m planting recommended varieties, but I was disappointed in the number of tomatoes. What can I do?
Q. Please explain the difference between a "determinate" and an "indeterminate" variety of tomato.
Q. When I clean up my vegetable garden this fall, should I add any amendments to the soil?
Q. Are there any vegetables I can plant in September that can be harvested in fall?
Q. I understand rotating crops in a vegetable garden can help cut down on insect and disease problems. Should I apply this method to my small backyard vegetable plot?
Q: How do I start tomato seedlings indoors?
A: To grow your own tomatoes for transplanting outdoors, sow the seeds indoors four to six weeks before the usual last frost (around May 15 in the Chicago area).
Use a sterile seed starting mix and any containers that will hold soil, provide drainage, and accommodate growing roots. Moisten the soil, place two seeds in the pot, and cover lightly with more soil mix. Cover the pots with clear plastic to keep the soil evenly moist and place the plants in a warm location until germination occurs.
Q: What do the letters VFNT mean on the tomato plant labels?
A: Tomatoes are prone to a number of diseases and pests. Tomatoes have been hybridized to be resistant to common problems. The following letters represent disease/insect resistance and may appear alone or in a combination:
V = verticillium wilt resistance (fungal disease)
F = fusarium wilt resistance (fungal disease)
N = nematode resistance (insect)
T = tobacco mosaic virus resistance (viral disease)
Q: How do I prevent my tomatoes from cracking?
A: The main cause of skin cracking is fluctuation of soil moisture, especially as tomatoes ripen. If soil becomes dry, and plants then receive heavy rainfall or amounts of irrigation, the plants will take up water quickly and put on a growth spurt. This type of fast growth causes the skin to crack. Tomato cracks can be avoided by applying a few inches of organic mulch around the plants to prevent the soil from becoming overly dry. The best time to water tomatoes is in the early morning.
Q: Is it safe to compost rhubarb leaves?
A: Yes. Although the leaves of rhubarb plants contain a high level of oxalic acid and should not be eaten, they are safe to add to the compost pile. The oxalic acid degrades rapidly in the pile and has no impact on compost quality.
Q: When is the best time of year to plant garlic? Can I plant whole heads purchased at the grocery store?
A: Garlic should be planted in early to late September in the Chicago region. Purchasing bulbs from the grocer that are not sold specifically for planting is not recommended as those varieties are not reliably winter hardy in our region. Garlic heads should be divided into the individual cloves for planting. Use the larger, outer cloves for best results.
Q. How do I know when my pumpkins are ready to harvest?
A. There can be several reasons to explain low fruit production:
• Sometimes flowers drop off the plant during periods of fluctuating temperatures. Temperatures above 90 degrees Fahrenheit during the day can cause the blossoms to drop without setting fruit. If evening temperatures fall below 55 degrees, remain above 75 degrees, or if the humidity is too high, blossoms can also drop prematurely.
• Tomatoes are pollinated by wind or insects. During extreme weather conditions, there can be low populations of insects, which will result in low fruit production.