Planting now will result in a great summer harvest. Photos by Doug Oster.

Gardening Green with Doug 

Getting Your Garden Started

By Doug Oster


May 13, 2024

The creamy white petals of dogwood blossoms gently float down to the forest floor, covering the deep green, rain-soaked leaves of native mayapples. It’s another transition in the garden, cool spring mornings are giving way to long warm days which in turn, signals the time to plant tender plants. There’s no hurry though, things like tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, impatiens, begonias, and more will survive cold temperatures, but they won’t be happy with cold, rainy nights.

There used to be important dates for planting different varieties, which were written in stone, as our weather patterns have changed, even jaded veterans like me are perplexed as to when these plants can safely be put in the ground. Sneaking a few things out here and there, with the ability to cover them is sound thinking until we’re past Mother’s Day, although my mom always preached waiting until Memorial Day.

Looking at weather records for the past three years, they reveal some very cold nights and occasional frosts deep into May. When all chance of frost has passed though, it’s time for the fun to start. Compost is the key to getting the most out of any plant. Always add the soil amendment to the planting hole before planting anything. It can be found in bags at nurseries or by the truckload. The compost gives the plants everything they need, when that happens, they do a much better job at fighting off pests and diseases.

Using soil amendments like compost are part of healthy organic gardening practices. One of the reasons to garden organically is to protect and encourage pollinators. If we help them, they will help the garden. With World Bee Day on the horizon (May 20), it’s good to remember to plant flowers which help honeybees, but just as important, our native bees. One of my favorites is borage, an easy to grow annual herb, which often self-sows, sprouting yearly from last season’s seeds. The blue flowers are beautiful and taste like cucumbers.

Some other good choices to plant from seed include zinnias, cosmos, sunflowers, and dill. All of these varieties do well when direct sowed into the garden through May.

One plant, which can be hard to find is tithonia or Mexican sunflower. Although it can also be direct sowed, it’s a late bloomer, so for earlier blossoms can be added to the garden as a plant. ‘Torch’ is probably the most popular variety, it’s a 1951 All American Selection. The plant will grow anywhere from six to 15 feet tall and will be covered with three-inch, orange flowers which are irresistible to most pollinators. The plant will grow in full sun to part shade and needs nothing from the gardener.

In the vegetable garden, things started from seed include beans, cucumbers, and other vine crops, radishes, carrots, peas, corn, zucchini, lettuce, arugula, and many others. Nurseries will offer plants of some of the varieties too. For so many gardeners, tomatoes are the backbone of the vegetable garden. When shopping for plants, look for early, mid, and late season varieties to extend the harvest. Look at the plant tag to determine how many days after planting the tomatoes should be ready.

Choosing a variety of plants will also help when dealing with pests and disease as each cultivar reacts differently. Some wonderful quick producing tomatoes include ‘Sungold,’ ‘Early Girl,’ and ‘Fourth of July.’ Midseason varieties include ‘Celebrity,’ ‘Cherokee Purple,’ ‘Husky Red,’ and ‘Super Bush.’ For late season, many of the heirloom beefsteaks like ‘Limbaugh Legacy Potato Top’ tomato (info below), ‘Brandywine,’ and others will be one of the last to pick, but worth the wait.

Early blight and septoria leaf spot are two diseases that plague gardeners, especially during a wet, cool spring. Rain will splash fungal spores on to the bottom of tomato leaves and when they stay wet for 24 hours or longer, the spores work their way into the plant. Gardeners have no idea, as the diseases manifests themselves in late June or early July. The foliage yellows, with brown spots, starting at the bottom of the plant and continues to the top of the plant. These diseases rarely kill the plant but slow it down.

Here are some tips to keep tomatoes healthy:

  • Grow disease resistant varieties like ‘Defiant’, ‘Mountain Magic,’ ‘Sungold,’ ‘Matt’s Wild Cherry,’ and others.
  • Remove the bottom leaves before planting. This allows more distance between the spores and foliage.
  • Leave plenty of space between plants, three to five feet and grow the plants up stakes, a trellis, or in cages.
  • Use an organic fungicide before seeing signs of damage. Bonide’s Revitalize is a good choice.
  • Succession plant by leaving room in the garden after the first planting in May. Tomatoes like a dry hot season. My last planting is on July 4th, putting in early producing tomatoes like those listed above. This has been my most effective way of preventing fungal diseases.

It’s thrilling to get the season started, the work done now will pay off with a bountiful harvest this summer.


Doug’s free garden classes continue

Check out Doug’s free, interactive online classes every Thursday at 5 p.m. for Farm to Table Buy Fresh Buy Local. Here’s all the information.

Join Doug for the 21st Annual Doug Oster Plant Swap and Garden Hullaballoo Sunday June 2, 2024 at 1 p.m. at Soergels Garden Center in Wexford

For 21 years we've been getting together to trade plants. It's so much fun!

It’s a place for gardeners to trade with each other, share tips and stories too. Bring divisions from your garden to swap, be sure plants are labelled, and please don’t bring anything invasive. I’ll also have lots of ‘Limbaugh Legacy Potato Top’ tomato plants to pass out while supplies last. One plant of each per family please, as many people believe it’s the best tasting tomato they have ever tried. Be sure to arrive before 1 p.m. as the swap only lasts for about a half hour and it’s crazy!
Soergels is located at 2573 Brandt School Rd, Wexford, PA 15090. There’s more information here.

Beans come in many colors and types. They are best direct sowed into the garden.
Borage is easy to grow from seed and will self-sow, dropping seeds that sprout every season. It’s a great plant for the bees.
The ‘Limbaugh Legacy Potato Top’ tomato is large (1-2 lbs.) pink, meaty tomato with a wonderful, old-fashioned flavor.
Dogwood petals fall on mayapples after a spring rain.
Early blight and septoria leaf spot are two fungal diseases that can confound gardeners.
Tithonia (Mexican sunflower) ‘Torch’ is an easy to grow pollinator plant.


Doug Oster writes a column for The Green Voice Monthly Newsletter. He is also the host of The Organic Gardener Radio Show every Sunday morning at 7 a.m. on KDKA radio 1020AM.

To see more garden stories, photos and videos go to