Summer, our busy time, has arrived and now our work begins in earnest. Homeowners have lawn chores to tend to and gardeners are busy setting out seeds and seedlings. Here are some suggestions for how to best approach some common tasks.

We’ll begin with gardens. Let’s assume that your garden soil is tilled, fertilized and ready to plant. And now, with the threat of frost gone, it’s time to plant your seedlings. Most everyone plants tomatoes, so we’ll begin with them.

How deep to set your tomato plants depends upon the state of the seedlings. Fairly short plants, with thick, rugged stems, can be set higher than tall, spindly ones. But either way, remember that tomatoes typically set out aerial roots along any part of the stem that is buried beneath the ground.

This means that no matter how deeply you plant your tomato seedlings, the plant will thrive, because it will develop a strong root system. And if you started your own seedlings and find that they are tall and thin, “leggy,” as they are called, these plants will need to be deeply set, otherwise the stem will not have strength enough to hold the top growth. So for these kinds of seedlings, we need to dig a trench and then place the roots and also a good portion of stem in the trench before covering with soil.

I like to bury leggy tomatoes to the first set of leaves. And if the first leaves are small and rudimentary, disregard them and go further up the stem to the first set of well-developed leaves. Also, when digging your trench, dig it on an angle so that you will only need to slightly bend the above-ground part in order to encourage upright growth.

And even if more than half of your seedling is below ground, that will only help the plant to develop a thick, healthy root system. The biggest mistake people make when planting tomatoes is to just set the roots below ground and hope for the best. But that makes for a week plant, so don’t be afraid to set the plant as deeply as needed. You will thank yourself later in summer, when your tomato plants begin producing loads of juicy, ripe tomatoes.

Green peppers

Green peppers, a member of the nightshade family and related to tomatoes, eggplants and potatoes, are noted for high productivity. Typically, people new to gardening tend to plant more peppers than they need. If having an unlimited supply of green peppers works for you, then by all means go ahead and plant as many as you wish. Otherwise, circumspection is called for.

In my case, four pepper plants give me fresh peppers all season, plus more than enough to freeze and use all winter. So for one person who likes peppers but doesn’t need an over-abundance of them, two plants should suffice. The trouble is, most outlets sell green peppers by the “six pack.” Six plants yield way too many peppers for one person and are more than adequate for two people. A few scattered sources sell their green pepper seedlings in 4-packs, a much more reasonable number for two, or even three, persons.

Finally, here’s an old-time tip for supercharging your peppers and getting the best yield. When setting out seedlings, place five or six paper matches in the hole with the seedlings. The match heads will supply something like a time-release fertilizer that peppers love.

I’m sure some folks will find this a bit unusual, but even so, the matches won’t hurt a thing and they will help your peppers grow. So give it a whirl and see for yourself.


Perhaps you have decided that this is the year to begin composting. If so, here are some points to consider. Far too many homeowners and gardeners try to compost coarse material. Branches and similar matter will eventually break down, but not in anything like a timely manner. To achieve the heat needed to break down plant matter in your compost pile, the material to be composted needs to be compacted. A dense compost pile will heat up fast, but a pile of loosely stacked material will never heat up. And it takes lots of heat to break down that organic matter.

The kind of stuff to put in your compost pile is limited only by your imagination. Just remember that too-thick matter won’t break down and it’s a waste of time trying to coax it to become compost, because that just won’t happen.

For starters, nothing beats grass clippings for a new compost pile. Rake the clippings, or better yet, if your mower has an attached bag, just keep emptying it on your compost pile. You can keep adding clippings to your pile throughout the season and by summer’s end, you’ll have a gardener’s “black gold.”

It’s OK to check on the progress of your compost pile. Just lift up a good amount with a fork or spade, and if you see something like gray ash, that’s a telltale sign that your pile is heating up and breaking down the organic matter as it should.

So just remember, use finely chopped material such as grass clippings. Garden waste, as well as table scraps, can go in the pile too. Just make sure to chop it up with a hoe or other garden tool before adding to the pile.

Small engines

Lawn mowers, rototillers, weed whackers and other power tools all come into play now that summer has arrived. But gasoline containing ethanol raises havoc with small engines, causing fuel line deterioration and ruining carburetors. People in the oil and gas industry will say this isn’t so, but if you have any doubt, just visit any small engine shop and ask the technician about ethanol-laced gas. You’ll quickly learn that the stuff is anathema to small engines.

We have two ways to circumvent the damage done by ethanol gasoline. The first is to always add fuel stabilizer to the gas can. But don’t use just any fuel stabilizer. Choose only marine-grade, the kind meant for outboard motors. Good quality marine-grade stabilizer can keep your gas fresh for several months.

But adding stabilizer with every fillup is not only one more needless step, it costs money. Marine-grade fuel stabilizer isn’t cheap. For some, there is a better way.

If any store or outlet within reasonable driving distance carries ethanol-free gas, it‘s well worth anyone’s time to buy a large gas can and keep it filled. Non-ethanol gas costs considerably more than the ethanol-laced kind, but it is more than worth the extra expense. Your motors will run better and won’t suffer the kind of damage inflicted by using fuel with ethanol.

No matter which kind of gas you use, it pays to do some maintenance on your machine before pulling that starter cord for the first time. In the case of lawnmowers, the underside of the mower deck should be checked for grass buildup. If this was neglected for any length of time, the deck probably has a thick layer of black-looking, caked-on grass. Here’s how to deal with it.

First and foremost, remove the spark plug wire from the plug so that the engine doesn’t suddenly come to life, something that can tear up hands and fingers. So with the spark disabled, tilt the mower in order to gain access to the bottom of the mower deck. It might help to use some kind of supports to hold the mower in place. Also, it is best to do this before filling the gas tank for the first time this season, because tipping the mower can cause gas to seep up into the carburetor and engine head, causing it to flood.

Now, with the mower safely tipped and supported, try pulling any loose grass off with a gloved hand. But if the grass is tightly packed, which is usually the case, it will require a tool to dislodge it from the deck. I’ve found that the best tool for this is a putty knife. With it, you can scrape the bottom of the deck down to bare metal.

After cleaning the deck, you are ready to fill the tank and start the engine. With new gas, the engine should roar into life on the first or second pull. If it doesn’t, that probably means you forgot to reconnect the spark plug wire. Don’t feel bad if that happens, because it happens to everyone, including me. And by the way, now is a good time to check the spark plug for fouling. A badly fouled plug should be discarded and replaced with a new one. It is possible to wipe the grime off a slightly fouled plug, but that’s only a temporary fix. Better to replace the plug now so as to have problem-free starting for the rest of the season.

Garden tillers

What applies to lawnmowers also applies to tillers. That means checking the plug and replacing if necessary.

Next, the tank should, hopefully, have gone through the winter empty. So add non-ethanol or stabilized, ethanol-laced gas and the tiller should start with no problems. But before starting, take time to clean any debris from the tiller’s tines. It is possible to transfer weeds from one garden bed to another by going from one bed to another with a tiller full of old weeds. So make sure the tines are scrupulously clean.

Tom’s tips

Sure, May's over and gardens should be planted by now. But if you were late, don’t worry, because success depends upon soil temperature more than anything else. Gardens planted sometime in early June will grow just fine and in fact, may not only catch up to gardens planted earlier, but even surpass gardens that were planted earlier.