By Betty Vanderwielen

Hackett plants seed of gardening fervor


April 11, 2019

Betty Vanderwielen, Pathfinder

Master Gardener Molly Hackett shows the commercial product called "walls of water." Once each tube is filled with water, the structure forms a mini tee pee around each plant. The product allows gardeners to get an early spring start.

SEELEY LAKE – For a second year, Clearwater Resource Council's Clearwater Partners Workshop hosted author, newspaper columnist and Master Gardener Molly Hackett. As she had the previous year, Hackett drew a large crowd to the Seeley Lake Community Hall April 6. She talked for 20 minutes about planting season extenders and then answered questions for another hour and a half on a whole range of gardening questions.

Rightly, assuming audience members would be interested in ways to get plants started as early as possible in the spring, Hackett came prepared with samples of light row cover, heavier frost blanket and "walls of water" which act as an individual green house for each plant. She talked about the advantages and disadvantages of each extender, how many degrees of warmth each could provide for seedlings and exactly when and how to use each of them.

Questions came quickly about using plastic covering and about cold frames. Hackett named two problems with plastic: it is impermeable to water and it holds in too much heat. She said plastic could, however, be useful in warming up the ground prior to seeding.

As for cold frames, she said they could be homemade but for those who preferred to purchase, she highly recommended Jewell brand as being sturdy but easy to assemble, disassemble and store. She said she controlled the temperature in hers by lining them on all but the south side with water-filled, two-liter, plastic pop bottles, which raised the temperature 8 to 10 degrees.

Some of the audience members expressed concern about vegetable plants that had an abundance of leaves but undersized or poor fruit production. Hackett said the problem is almost always too much nitrogen. She explained the three numbers on a commercial fertilizer bag. The first is the amount of nitrogen, which is for leaf growth; second is phosphorus, for root and fruit growth. The third number is potassium and Hackett said it can be zero because in the Rockies, soil is naturally high in potassium.

Hackett also spoke about composting fertilizer which, because it consists mainly of decomposing leafage, will also be high in nitrogen. Phosphorus is a bit of a problem because there is no really good source of natural phosphorus short of baking bones and crushing them up. Hackett said she once tried commercial bone meal and she had every dog in the neighborhood digging in her yard.

Other questions were about growing specific vegetables:

Lettuce - Hackett said since she likes salads, she grows lettuce throughout the whole growing season. She started her first set of lettuce seeds a week ago, planting them in six-packs. Next, she will thin, then transfer the seedlings to cold frames. In three weeks she will start another set and continue every three weeks until mid-July. In the middle of summer it is too hot to start them outside, so she starts them in the house. Once the first shoots appear, she puts them outside under the shade of a tall plant such as corn until they are big enough to put in the ground. She said lettuce seed is "really fussy," but once it gets started it is hardy and easy to maintain.

Carrot - Planting a pinch of seeds three inches apart makes it easier to thin than spreading the seeds down the row.

Potato scab - Hackett said it is almost impossible to eradicate because the scab-causing element lives in the soil for years. Her advice: buy scab resistant starters and don't ever again plant a potato in the spot where scab appeared.

Zucchini/cucumbers - Powdery mildew can become a problem if there is inadequate air circulation. Hackett said to cut off any leaf that has even a spot of mildew on it. Mildew spores spread rapidly. Her other recommendation was to "spray the heck out of the leaves early in the afternoon, because the spores cannot drill into a wet leaf."

Spinach - Spinach is very sensitive to length of daylight. Seed packages that say "slow to bolt" do best in this far northern climate. Hackett said to put spinach shoots in the ground as soon as possible and plant 8 – 10 inches apart, even though the package says closer. About mid-May, start shading in the afternoon with shade cloth attached to a frame.

Tomatoes - Hackett said tomato plants grow very tall in this climate. If the plant is producing good tomatoes, it doesn't matter how tall it gets. Put a wire cage about 40 inches tall and 18 inches in diameter around it. She uses tent stakes to hold the bottom in place.

Hackett also highly recommended a tomato variety named Pink Berkeley Tie Dye. She said, "It sounds like a refugee from a college campus and is very strange looking – splotchy red, yellow, green. It's even splotchy on the inside, but the flavor is out of this world. The best tomato I have seen in 20 years."

Miscellaneous other questions people asked generated a discussion about seed companies, seed catalogues and harvesting seeds from one's own plantings. Hackett offered things to watch for and to watch out for.

In general Hackett prefers employee owned companies. She said to beware of a company that has been bought out by a larger one, or two or more catalogs coming from the same general area as they probably all belong to a bigger corporation. 

Other questions on specific areas included:

Watering methods – Is it better to water leaves or the base of the plant? Use overhead or drip hose? Hackett answered, "We differ from a lot of the country because we don't get fungus disease here. We're not that humid, so we just don't have a problem. So you can water any time of the day, you can water overhead or at the base, it doesn't really matter." She added the only danger is if the hose has been out in the sun so long the water has become hot, then it would be necessary to run it until it is cool. Her rule of thumb: when the top inch of the soil is dry, give the plant a big drink, then let it dry again.

Soil testing – Hackett recommends testing the soil only if there is a problem. The accuracy of the results is questionable because soil samples 12 inches apart can differ in chemical content. The test results are only accurate for the sample spot.

Beginner gardening – What plants are easiest? Hackett said, "Just grow what you want. The important thing is to control the size, four feet by eight feet is plenty for the first year." An audience member added, "Put up a fence. If you don't have a fence, you are feeding the deer." Hackett agreed some type of barrier was an absolute necessity.

Amid applause, Hackett ended by declaring, "Now everybody is going to have a better garden this year."

Hackett writes a monthly column for the Pathfinder that appears the first Thursday of the month. She welcomes reader questions related to gardening, pest management, plants, soils and anything in between. Submit questions to, call 406-961-4614 or mail questions to 1384 Meridian Road, Victor, MT 59875.

Betty Vanderwielen, Pathfinder

After an hour and a half of answering audience questions, Molly answered more questions from individuals who came up to her afterwards.


Reader Comments


Powered by ROAR Online Publication Software from Lions Light Corporation
© Copyright 2019