Question: Our pet rabbit, Bernie, loves to eat tree branches. Is this okay?
–Andrea, age 10, Franklin, Tennessee
Farmer Jason: Yes, giving Bernie some young tree branches is very good for him. Like most rodents, rabbits have two long front teeth called incisors. It is good for them to exercise those teeth, along with their mouth and head muscles. Also, rabbits need to have their minds stimulated. Dragging branches around, turning them over and gnawing on them helps their minds stay active.
Question: What is the easiest vegetable to grow in Tennessee?
–Ben, age 13, Nashville, Tennessee
Farmer Jason: That is an excellent question, and an important one. When you first start gardening, there is a lot to learn. It is best to try growing plants that are naturally suited to the hot humid climate here in Tennessee. I usually recommend you start with a few tomato plants. With a little watering and TLC, anyone can grow a tomato if you start with transplants. Just make sure to stake or cage them—this keeps the fruit off the ground. Another easy vegetable to grow in Tennessee is the yellow crookneck squash. The big hardy seeds grow quickly and will produce yummy fruit in four to six weeks. They don’t need staking. Just make sure to water and weed them frequently.
Question: Are watermelons filled with water?
–Ernie, age 6, Helena, Montana
Farmer Jason: Yes, watermelons do have a lot of water in the red part that you eat, but they also have lots of other good things for you like fiber and vitamins. Just make sure to not eat the green part. Eating that will make you sick. So eat the red part of the watermelon. It will help your mind and body grow.
TIP THE FARMER (Useful gardening tips for busy parents)
When you put in your spring garden, stay patient! Warm-weather veggies like corn, tomatoes, beans, summer squash and peppers won’t really respond to early planting. May 1 is a good date to plant your main garden. Before that, the soil is simply too cool to germinate the seeds. In fact, corn seed will likely rot if you plant it in April. If you use transplants, the frost risk is also an issue before May 1.
Question: What do toads eat?
–Kelsey, age 10, Nashville, Tennessee
Farmer Jason: Toads and frogs eat bugs, mostly flying ones like flies and mosquitos. To catch them they sit very quietly making no sounds or movement. When a flying bug gets close to them, they can catch it with their sticky tongues. Believe it or not, their tongues move so fast when catching bugs that the human eye has trouble even seeing the motion. It is an amazing thing. Because toads eat bugs, they are a very beneficial animal to have in your garden, and lots of fun to watch when they hop around in the evening or early morning.
Question: What is the difference between summer and winter squash?
–Justin, age 12, Kingston Springs, Tennessee
Farmer Jason: Summer squashes (mainly yellow squash and zucchini) have soft skins, which are edible. The plants grow fast and produce very quickly compared to winter squash. They do not store well and must be eaten within a week or so. They are excellent steamed, fried or in casseroles. Here in Tennessee, you can grow two or even three crops of them. If you stagger the plantings every month you can have summer squash from June to November, right out of the garden. Winter squash—usually butternut or acorn—is very different. The plants take longer to grow, sometimes as long as four months. The skin is hard and not eaten. Planted in the spring, it is ready to harvest in early fall. The fruits of the vine can be stored for several months. Winter squash is usually baked, and one of my favorite garden dishes. However, some folks make butternut squash into soup, which is absolutely delicious. Winter squash is easy to grow, but you must watch out for squash bugs. There are organic methods of controlling them, but the best method is to simply squash (no pun intended) their egg sacks before they hatch.
Question: Do ’possums really play dead?
–Ashley, age 7, Lafayette, Louisiana
Farmer Jason: Yes, they do that! Many predators will not eat a dead animal. So the ’possum will act like it is dead when attacked by a fox, coyote or human. It sounds like a crazy way to defend yourself, but apparently it does work!
TIP THE FARMER (Useful gardening tips for busy gardening parents)
In the fall, you can get a great radish or lettuce crop here in Tennessee. Our autumns are very mild, heavy frost comes late in the year and sunshine is abundant. As soon as the hot weather moderates in September, plant the lettuce and radishes, making sure to keep the ground and seeds moist in the summer weather. I use raised beds and cover the beds with old boards to shade the seedbed until the seeds come up. Once they do come up, if we get a stretch of hot weather I will put a screen or lattice over the plants to mitigate the hot sun. That is the most important part of growing fall cold weather veggies: You have to protect the plants from heavy heat. Once established, by late October you will have deli- cious radishes and lettuce. I believe they taste better than the spring crops.
Question: Last year my mom and I planted yellow squash and zucchini next to each other. They created a hybrid. How do you stop that from happening?
–Olivia, age 8, Gordonsville, Tennessee
Farmer Jason: That is such a great question! When I was eight I had no idea about hybrid plants! This has happened to me, as well. Sometimes zucchini and yellow squash will cross-pollinate and create a weird-looking veggie that doesn’t taste very good, either. The best idea is to separate yellow squash and zucchini as far apart as possible, or plant them at staggered times. Good luck, Olivia. It is so cool to see a child your age think so deeply about the science of garden plants!
Question: Why is rain good for plants? Why is too much rain bad for plants?
–Aiden, age 6, Nashville, Tennessee
Farmer Jason: All living things need water, even cactus in the desert! Plants, though, especially need water because it carries all their food to their systems. They get all their nutrition and vitamins from the ground through their roots but water is what carries those goodies to the plant. There are times when plants can get too much water, too. In your garden, for example, if it rains so much that the plants are covered with water for more than one day, it can kill the plants—they smother.
Question: I love flowers. Why are flowers so pretty?
–Diana, age 7, Champaign, Illinois
Farmer Jason: Believe it or not, flowers are beautiful to attract bees to them. Bees love bright colors and nice smells. When bees come to the flowers, they help the flower connect the different parts of the flower, which makes the seed. So bees help flowering plants live on through their babies.
Question: My mom is afraid of snakes but Dad says they are nice. What do you think?
–William, Franklin, Tennessee
Farmer Jason: I side with your Dad most of the time on this question. While yes, it is true that in rare cases snakes are poisonous and can bite you, most snakes in fact are afraid of us as much as we are afraid of them. They do eat mice and rodents that can harm garden plants, which does help us farmers and gardeners.