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Don't just talk to your plants: listen to them!

Gardeners: listen to your plants! Learn to recognize the signals they send. Any change in leaf or stem shape or color indicates that development is off-course, and action must be taken to correct the problem.

Cauliflower clues

Cauliflower is an example of a cool-weather vegetable best grown as a fall crop in most parts of the country, although it can be grown as a winter and spring crop in the South and West. When grown in too much light or with too long a day length, the plants will remain much the same size until the day length becomes shorter and the ambient day and night temperatures drop. With too much light the foliage turns yellow and dries out the plant, and heads will not develop. Therefore, cauliflower should be started after the summer solstice.

Vegetable plants in general are grouped into three types: fall harvesting (those that need decreasing radiation), spring and fall harvesting (relatively low radiation requirement and tolerance), and summer prospering (relatively high levels of radiation required).

Tomatoes like sun

When tomatoes are grown in too shady a location, all parts of the plant begin to elongate: the stems, petioles, and leaf blades. The lengthening is a response to the lack of radiation.

Any vegetable plants growing in limited sunlight should be given ample space, to prevent root competition and to avoid shading each other. Fertilize moderately and with a more balanced NPK ratio than you would use for a rapidly developing plant in full sunlight. Water sufficiently to maintain growth but do not flood.

Excess salts result in stunted spinach plants with small dark green leaves. Greater concentrations of salts may injure the root system and bring about iron chlorosis, causing leaf margins to appear burned. Severe wilting occurs even when moisture is adequate.

Watermelons do not grow well in heavy soils, particularly those that are too alkaline. They thrive in a soil with a pH as low as 5.0.

Long-term changes can be brought about by treating the soil with powdered sulfur. In the home garden it's difficult to calculate how much to add, or how often. Instead, I recommend adding 2-3 inches of peat moss or compost to the garden every year and incorporating it into the top six inches of the soil. The acid generated by this organic matter will not only lower the pH of the soil, but will also help render essential elements such as sulfur available to plants.

Leaf crops and pH

Leaf crops like spinach and root crops like beets and parsnips grow much better when the soil pH is in the range of 6.0 to 6.7 than in soil that is more acid. Below a pH of 6.0, these plants remain much the same size for many days on end. The foliage may also be lighter green than normal and might develop a purple edge, indicating a phosphorus deficiency. The surface of such soil will begin to develop a covering of moss and other acid-requiring plants.

Some vegetables, such as potatoes, carrots, and turnips, are tolerant of a soil pH as low as 5.2. In fact, injury from potato scab is severe unless the pH is below 5.5.

The poor growth of plants in acid soil can be corrected by applying ground dolomitic limestone. The amount of lime required to establish a specific pH level depends on both the initial pH and the type of soil. More lime is required to change the pH of soil high in organic matter or clay than in a sandy one.

Root crops don't like wet feet

Root crops--carrots are a common example--are particularly sensitive to waterlogged soils. Excess water in the spaces between soil particles reduces the soil's capacity to release carbon dioxide and to provide plants with needed oxygen. The plants are thus unable to take up sufficient water to develop rapidly. Even though ample water is available, the plants look very much like they are experiencing a water shortage: the foliage is much smaller than is typical of the species, the edges of the leaves develop tan margins, and flowering and fruiting are delayed or inhibited.


Peas, one of the most widely-grown cool-weather vegetables, stop growing when the night temperatures go above 65 [degrees]. The plant remains green and existing leaves continue to function, but no new leaves develop. No matter how much water and organic fertilizer are supplied, the plants just will not grow or develop. Ultimately, the leaves dry on the plant and the plants die without reaching maturity.

Plants like broccoli, cabbage, endive, kohlrabi, lettuce, onions, parsley, peas, radishes, spinach, and turnips develop best when planted as soon as the ground can be worked in spring. They grow better in raised beds or ridges that warm early but do not become as hot as soil mulched with black plastic. Some light shade in the middle or late afternoon will also prolong the fives of these cool-weather vegetables.
COPYRIGHT 1994 Countryside Publications Ltd.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Miller, Crow
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:Jan 1, 1994
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