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Q&A: Gardener Toni Farmer
Toni Farmer tackles your gardening questions
By Elyse Notarianni

If you are anywhere near SJ Mag’s Facebook page this summer, you can watch Moorestown’s Toni Farmer teaching Marianne Aleardi everything she needs to know about gardening, from helping her plant tomatoes to installing an Instagram-worthy raspberry trellis. It’s all part of our video series, “The Goal is to Become a Gardener.” As the Facebook series entered its second year, lots of SJ gardeners have been sending questions about their own gardens. We asked Toni to tackle a few.

 Q: My tomato plants turned yellow brown and died. What happened?

– Mel Vanderslice, Mt. Ephraim

My tomato plants turned yellow brown and died. What happened? – Mel Vanderslice, Mt. Ephraim Anyone following the gardening series will know that South Jersey has a very common soil-borne illness called blight that is very dangerous for tomatoes. It hides in the soil, and then you plant your tomatoes and next year’s crop of tomatoes catches it. It starts at the bottom and grows up, killing the plant. We can’t get rid of it, but we can control it by mulching really heavily and keeping the leaves from touching the soil.

Q: Is there anything I can do about squirrels?

– Pat Stadthaus, Barnegat

Squirrels are jerks. They are curious, and they’re attracted to color. When you plant your tomato plants or anything beautiful, and it’s green, they leave it alone. Then it shows the slightest touch of color – and I mean the slightest little blush of pink – and they’ll pick it and take a big bite. Then they’ll remember, “Oh I don’t like tomatoes,” and they’ll drop it on the ground. Jerks. The quickest and easiest way to deter them is to wrap your plant in tinfoil and poke a hole in the bottom so water can run out when it rains. They’re turned off by the sparkly reflection.

But I will say this – a lot of animals have had their habitats and food sources destroyed, so if an animal is hungry enough, nothing is going to deter it.

Q: Why does all my cilantro keep dying?

– Beth Stengel Bahm, Tabernacle

This is probably the number-one question I get every single year. Cilantro is associated with South American food, but it doesn’t like heat, which really confuses people. So people plant in the spring, and as soon as it gets warm it dies. The best time to plant cilantro is in August, and then it will grow all the way through the fall, winter and spring while it’s still cool. I was harvesting perfectly healthy cilantro from under a blanket of snow last year.

Q: If I’m a complete gardening beginner, how do I even start?

– Megan Callahan, Marlton

Think about what you’re always buying at the store and start there. Focus on a few plants at a time, and in that first year you’ll learn so much. It also helps to find a mentor – just someone with a lot of good information. Our series on Facebook can help. Marianne was a complete beginner, and now she’s growing tomatoes!

Q: What can I plant in August?

– Robin Sedlak, Little Egg Harbor Twp.

This is usually when I plant carrots, beets, lettuce, spinach, arugula, kale, cilantro – all those leafy greens are so happy now, even through the winter. People don’t realize you can grow food until Christmas and sometimes beyond in South Jersey.

Q: Do I need raised beds?

– John Hamlin, Moorestown

You don’t necessarily, but the reason I recommend it is because you can control your soil. I don’t know what is in your backyard, but when you have a raised bed that you know is getting rich compost and sand and peat, you know that soil is filled with nutrients.

Plus, you won’t accidentally ruin your plants. There’s nothing worse than nurturing a plant from a seed and then accidentally running over it with a lawn mower because you don’t realize it’s not a weed.

Q: Is it best to water with a sprinkler in a raised garden bed?

– Vicki Cronin, Medford

Generally speaking, no. First, it’s going to get the leaves wet, which you don’t want, and second because it often waters by night when the sun isn’t out to evaporate that excess water. The water then sits on the leaves and forms mildew.

Buy a soaker hose and bury it in the ground, so a couple of times a week you can turn it on and water the roots, not just the leaves.

Q: What vegetables can I grow in small spaces?

– Teri Hatcher, Brooklawn

You can grow almost anything in a pot. The only trick is that pots don’t have access to groundwater, which means you have to commit to checking water every single day. Otherwise, it would be like expecting them to grow without food. It just isn’t fair.

Q: What can you do about deer?

– Laura Cleary, Vineland

Nothing. There really is no combating deer unless you build an 8-foot fence around your yard. You could try an electric fence, which you can get from a tractor supply store and isn’t very expensive. But if you live in an area with deer, there’s no miracle solution to keeping them out.

Q: Can I save any seeds from my garden this year and use them for planting next year?

– Melissa Schroen, Atlantic City

It depends. For squash and peppers, you can’t because they are – and I love to say this – they’re promiscuous. They will cross-pollinate with anybody, so you can plant them next year, but you may have some kind of pumpkin-zucchini Frankenstein in your garden. If you have dozens of acres to plant, that might be fun, but if you have only a finite amount of space, stick with saving tomato seeds, sunflower seeds, basil seeds. But it really is specific, so if you’re growing something, I’d take the time to look up whether it’s worth it.

Q: What is the most frustrating part of gardening?

– Madison Giles, Audubon

People can be so condescending about the value of gardening. “Oh that’s so cute. You’re growing a garden.” But the truth is, it’s a huge part of our history and national identity. During World War II, almost 40% of the food we ate in the United States came out of backyard gardens because food was rationed. We’re capable of feeding ourselves out of our backyards, we just lost the skillset to do it.

August 2021
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