Ask The Gardener: Growing lettuce, starting lilacs, root crops and more

Posted on: July 23, 2019 | Written By: Doug Oster | Comments

Everybody Gardens 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.

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

lettuce seeds

Question 1: Starting lettuce seeds

Alicia: I am saving seeds from this year’s garden to use next year, and I’m still experimenting with lettuce. I have grown some lettuce from seed that I purchased at Walmart and I do like the end product. I believe I have two varieties of lettuces, Romaine and Green Leaf Lettuce. How do I gather seed from these plants to use next year? Also, is there a trick to growing iceberg lettuce? I bought a pack of iceberg lettuce seeds last year, and it did not grow iceberg lettuce. I really would like to try again with iceberg.

Doug: When saving seeds the first thing to know is if the plant is a hybrid or open pollinated. It will say on the seed package. If you don’t know, and it’s a hybrid, the plant will not grow true. It would be the same exact cultivar, reverting to one of the parents used to cross with. Sometimes a hybrid seed will produce something very close to the plant it was saved from, but other times produce something completely different.

When saving seeds from lettuce, we want to use the plant which went to seed last — that’s a trait we would like to perpetuate. Keep an eye on them when they flower; soon after they will produce seed. The idea is to make sure the seed is mature, so we get it right before the plant drops it. You’ll be able to figure it out when you see the plant start to shed seeds. There will be more than you could ever use. The seeds should be stored in an airtight jar in a cool place.

Iceberg lettuce can be a challenge, especially from seed. It needs rich soil that’s evenly moist through the season. You could start some now as long as it gets watered when rain is scarce. If you could find some fresh plants at a nursery in about a month, that would work too. There are also butterhead varieties that are easier. They form a looser head, but are tasty. ‘Ithica,’ ‘Crispino’ and ‘Great Lakes’ are all good varieties to try for head lettuce.

Question 2: Starting lilacs

Jonna: What’s the best way to start a lilac? I tried rooting a tiny branch in a glass of water. That didn’t work. My mom gave me a little tree she started from hers when we bought our house. I’d like to give my friend one, too.

Doug: Taking cuttings is part science and part art. It can be complicated. For a lilac, it would be easier to dig up a sucker from the bottom of the plant and use that as a way to propagate the plant.

There are softwood and hardwood cuttings to take from shrubs and trees. Softwood is the newer green growth; hardwood is the later growth. It’s easiest to take the softwood cuttings. You’ll be cutting from the tips, so if there are buds on there, they will have to be removed and in doing so, you’ll be removing next year’s flowers.

Take a bunch of 4 to 6-inch cuttings from the ends of the branches and strip the lower leaves off. Dip the ends in a rooting hormone and then put them into a moist, but not soaking wet medium. Some people use a commercial potting soil, while I prefer vermiculite.

Push the bottoms of the cuttings into the medium and put them in an area that’s warm, but not in direct sun. Cover the cuttings with clear plastic to keep the environment humid. In about three weeks, remove the plastic and gently tug on a few of the cuttings. If they have rooted, they will resist. When that’s the case, pot them in a good planting mix. If not, put the plastic back on and check once a week to see if they root.

Question 3: Root crop problems

John: I have trouble with nearly all root crops — they don’t form bulbs. Radishes, beets, and turnips seldom form the edible bulb part. I have trouble growing decent onions, too. I’m thrilled if I get one to grow 2 inches across. I’ve mulched the garden for years with horse manure and compost and wonder if the soil is TOO fertile.

Doug: My first guess would be a pH issue, but it could be a fertility issue too, with too much nitrogen. Luckily both problems have the same solution. Get a soil test from your county’s cooperative extension office. They are inexpensive, around $10. The instructions will have you taking soil samples and sending them to their lab. The resulting report will tell you the level of nutrients and the pH along with solutions if they are too low or high. Now you’ll have some scientific data to use and get the garden growing right. Here’s a link to the Penn State Cooperative Extension soil test, to give you an idea.

Question 4: Tree options

Mary:  I listen every Sunday to your radio show and heard you mention trees that should be planted more, but I can’t remember what they were. My sister lost a pear tree to lightning and wants a not too large decorative tree in 60 percent sun. Could you please make some recommendations?

Doug: Here are a few of my favorites. Stewartia is a beautiful, relatively small tree with pretty flowers, nice shape and exfoliating bark. Serviceberry is an early bloomer and puts on edible fruit. Variegated Kousa dogwoods are pretty all season, have nice flowers and big red seed heads in the fall. Those are just some of the trees I like, but I recommend you go to a local garden center and poke around to find something you might love, too.

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