Doug’s mailbag: Planting grass, starting tomatoes, zinnias and more

Posted on: March 17, 2019 | Written By: Doug Oster | Comments

Gardening editor Doug Oster gets asked a lot of questions. A lot. And he doesn’t mind offering gardening advice. But rather than just limiting those answers to the person who asked, we thought it might be a good idea to share that wealth of knowledge with everybody.

There are three ways to send in your questions:

  • Email
  • Submit your question on our “Your Garden” section of our site
  • Send us a message on Facebook.

(The questions may be lightly edited for grammar/clarity/etc.)


Question 1: Planting grass

Patricia: Is it too early to plant grass?

Doug: You could plant grass now. I like to wait a few weeks into April though. It’s always easier to time it with three days of rain, which is more likely then. Be sure the keep the seed moist until it sprouts.

Question 2: Starting tomatoes

Terry: I am ordering some seeds from Monticello and one is Brandywine tomatoes. We currently reside in a condominium community with no place to start seeds; however, we do have ground outside. For container gardening, can we start them later in a small container?

Doug: Monticello is one of my favorite places and they offer some wonderful, historic seeds.

I’d like to start by talking about growing tomatoes in containers. If possible, use something called a self-watering container. The Earth Box is a great one and easy to find at any local garden center or nursery. It comes with everything you need. It’s imperative that the soil stays evenly moist, which can be problematic with traditional containers unless you are able to add water when needed. If the soil dries out the plants can get blossom end rot (it’s where the bottom of the tomato turns black). If that plant can’t uptake calcium when the soil is dry, the condition manifests itself.

My main crop of tomatoes and annuals is started on April 1 inside. In your situation, I would start them in clear clam shell packs outside a little later. (Clam shells are those clear containers from the supermarket with a hinged lid. Just drill some holes in the bottom and fill them with moist planting mix.) The seeds will sprout when ready.

Brandywine is a late tomato, you might want to sprout that one indoors and then protect it outside by growing it under clear plastic. You can’t start tomatoes too early; they will get too big. Figure out a way to get them sprouted around April 1 and then they can live outside with protection. They hate cold weather though. If you had a small grow light, they would be happier on the dining room table until things warm up.

Question 3: Zinnias

Derek: I always grow the BIG zinnias, like “State Fair.” Unfortunately they always get a fungus … never fails.

Doug: That’s a great old variety. Are you growing by direct sowing or starting them indoors/nursery flat? I find that they do better when direct sowed into the soil in late May. Also, this is an opportunity to consider an organic fungicide like Serenade. Since you pretty much know the plant will contract powdery mildew, the foliage can be treated before seeing signs of the disease. It’s always going to be more effective to try and battle fungal issues with early treatment. Serenade is a biological control that will not harm the environment. It works by specifically targeting fungal spores and stopping them from reproducing. Hope that helps.

cardboard doug

Question 4: A little garden help

John: If I put the cardboard Doug Oster in my garden, will everything grow better? 😎

Doug: Of course!

Previous mailbags

Blackberry bush, garlic sprouts and a gardenia tree

Starting peppers, fungus flies and pear tree pruning

Poison ivy, amaryllis troubles, tomatoes and more

Memorial gardens, orchids and tomato advice

Unknown plants, Christmas cactus and raised bed gardens

Christmas cactus, gnats, shredded leaves and more

Leaf size, no-light plants and grubs

Canna lilies, elephant ears, daffodils/garlic and more

Hibiscus care, tomato seeds, daffodils and succulents

Early garlic, pencil holly, hydrangeas and tree locations

Bellflowers, sweet potato vine, deer/garlic and more

Lemon tree, Knockout roses, soil repair and more

Butterfly weed, tomato seeds, rose bushes and more

Roses, Japanese beetles, planting garlic and more

Artillery fungus, heliotropes, crown gall and more

Skunks, pawpaws and a memorial tree

Mushrooms, harlequin bugs, fall planting and more

Beautyberry, nematodes, tomatoes and more

Pokeweed, bug identification and voles/moles

Caterpillars, mystery flower, onions and more

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Doug Oster is manager and editor of Everybody Gardens with a passion for gardening and a love of sharing is experiences with other gardeners. You will also find Doug’s gardening contributions in the Tribune-Review each week. He’s an Emmy Award winning producer, television host and writer. Oster is co-host of The Organic Gardeners Radio show every Sunday morning at 7 a.m. on KDKA radio in Pittsburgh. Oster’s Outstanding Documentary Emmy was awarded for Gardens of Pennsylvania, a one hour special he conceived and produced for the PBS affiliate WQED. Doug appears every Thursday morning on KDKA-TV’s Pittsburgh Today live at 9 a.m. “Gardening is fun, he says, enjoy every day spent outside tending vegetables, flowers, shrubs and trees.”