Tomatoes, Tomatoes, Everywhere Tomatoes

Spring Fever! 

Everyone has it. The nurseries have been selling tomato starts for weeks already even though it is still so, so early. With the unseasonably warm, dry weather I think we’ve all started getting the garden itch earlier than we normally would. 

The last week of March is the earliest I’ll even consider planting tomatoes here. Our average last frost date is February 29th, but I like to play it safe. Along with that, even if frosts end early (or not even show up for the second half of winter like this year) the soil temperature and the nighttime temps won’t be high enough for good tomato success. What you want is nighttime temps to be at least 50 F and the soil temp to be 60 F. 

Planting tomatoes can be relatively straight forward – just dig a hole and plop them in the ground. Or you can take a little more care in planting them which will give you bigger, healthier, more productive plants. 

plant

First you want to start with a healthy plant that isn’t root bound. If it has flower buds developing it’s probably been in the pot for awhile, has run out of root space and is now trying to reproduce because it believes it has reached it’s full size. Turn the plant over and if you can see roots dangling out of the drainage holes it’s most likely out of space. If the pot it is in is very firm you’ve got a severely root bound plant. 

roots

When you pull the plant up out of the pot it is OK to see the roots, but you don’t want them circling the soil medium. This plant has good root development without being root bound. We generally up pot our tomato seedlings into these deep pots planting them as deep as we can so that we start with nice deep root systems like the one above. 

hairs

While a lot of plants are sensitive to being planted deeper than where they began, tomatoes relish in it. See all the little hairs on the stems? Those can develop into new roots and the deeper you plant the deeper the root system will be. This is beneficial especially this year with the drought because you can focus on deeper, less frequent watering because the roots are deep in the soil. When planting deeply just pinch off the lower leaves and branches before burying it. 

oystershell

If blossom end rot is an issue for you even with proper watering, now is the time to make sure that your tomato (works for peppers and eggplants as well) has access to plenty of calcium. We use either crushed egg shells or oyster shell (the same oyster shell that we feed our chickens). We have some salinity issues in our soil, which effects the ability of the tomato plants to uptake calcium. Sandy soil can also be a problem since it has low water retention. 

sprinkles

When planting the tomatoes I dig a deep hole in well amended, loosened soil that can take not only the roots of the tomato, but also the stem that I’ve plucked the leaves and branches from. I then sprinkle a couple tablespoons of oyster or egg shell into the hole and then plant the tomato. The oyster shell will break down over time releasing the calcium for the plant to take up. 

planted

Once the plant is in the ground just cover with soil and give it a good watering to reduce transplant shock. Overcast days will also help reduce shock as will handling the roots gently. 

cage

Tomatoes generally need support. The standard tomato cage is a pathetic attempt at support. They almost always collapse from the weight of the plant. There are now more sturdy ones but they are really pricey. Instead we use concrete reinforcement fabric which is a welded wire grid that comes in 7′ sheets. We just pull it into cylinder and wire it together. The grid is 4″ square which is a great size for getting your hands in and getting big tomatoes out. They last for years. We still have the first ones we made 8 years ago. 

Tomatoes are pretty resilient and don’t need a lot of care, which is probably why they are the #1 garden vegetable grown. But add a few extra steps to planting and you’ll get bigger, more productive plants that can handle the drought with even more resilience. 

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Seed Starting 101

seedlingsBeginning gardeners tend to rely mostly on transplants purchased at their local garden center. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Seed starting can be intimidating and failure does occur. Letting someone else deal with that and just getting your hands dirty when you start gardening is a great way to limit discouragement among new gardeners. But if you’re feeling particularly brave, have some gardening experience under you belt, or just want to try new types of vegetables that just aren’t available as transplants, starting your own plants from seed is a fantastic way to go. And really, it’s not as scary as it sounds. There are just a few rules you need to keep in mind.

Getting Started

Have you ever been to a big box store or even just a hardware store and perused their garden center? Lord knows I have, even though I know better. They are a good place to start dabbling in growing plants, but definitely not a good option when you want to get serious. If you want to get serious you need to go to plant nurseries or start getting stuff online. Basically you need to buy your growing supplies from people that actually know what the hell they are doing.

Here is the ubiquitous seed saving kit. It has a bottom tray, cell packs that go inside and then a clear cover that fits over the top. Now I have a greenhouse to start all my seedlings in so there’s no need for me to use the top cover. Also, because it’s outside, I don’t need to have the bottom tray to contain the water. But that bottom tray isn’t harmless. the problem with it is that it holds the water. That’s the intended purpose of it after all. But with seedlings, holding water isn’t really a good thing. You want that water to drain away from them. If the cells stay even partially submerged in water they’ll develop fungal problems (even when using sterile seed starting soil) which invariably lead to:

Damping Off

Damping off can wipe out all of your seedlings if you aren’t careful. Of course this doesn’t mean you should let your seeds go bone dry but you should allow the top surface of the soil go dry between watering and don’t allow them to sit in water. It can also help to put a layer of perlite on the top of the surface of the soil.

If you do need to start your seedlings indoors and can’t just let the water run all over you will need to make sure to empty out the water from the tray after every time you water so you don’t have them soaking in it.

Light is also an important aspect of seed starting. Placing your seedlings next to a bright window just won’t cut it. You’ll end up with weak seedlings that become leggy. What you will need is a grow light. Don’t worry, you don’t have to wander into a shady hydroponics store to find one of these. They are readily available at any local hardware store or online. A fluorescent hanging light with plant or full spectrum bulb is all you need. You will need to make sure that the light is on a timer and that it hangs just a few inches from the tops of the plants. As the plants grow, adjust the height of the lamp.

If you don’t have space in your house, garage, basement or shed to start seedlings another option is to get a mini greenhouse or use cold frames. I used one for years with great success until I outgrew it. If you have just a standard home vegetable garden, though, these should work fine for you. If you live in a cold climate your best choice will be ones that use polycarbonate greenhouse panels which are insulated as opposed to the plastic sheeting that some of the cheaper versions use.

A Word on Soil

What you choose for soil can make all the difference in the success of your seedlings. Garden soil, that is, soil pulled right out of your garden beds is probably the one you definitely don’t want to go with. As mentioned above, damping off is a serious concern for seedlings. If you are doing a small amount of plants from seed you can get bags of sterile seed starting mix. Peppers are the exception. For whatever reason, pepper seeds, which are temperamental to begin with, don’t like a lot of peat moss in their seed mix. Instead, I start them in Orchid mix (not the same as orchid bark) which doesn’t contain peat or sphagnum moss. If you are doing larger amounts of seedlings I just use Rose Care mix to get them going and have had great luck with it.

Starting the Seeds

There are several ways you can start seeds. For some plants like carrots, beets, parsnips, radish and other root vegetables (not including onions, leeks, etc.) and corn, arugula, looseleaf lettuce and beans direct sowing, or planting them directly in your garden soil, is the best way to start them. Carrots require a bit more consideration due to being planted near the surface but also needing to stay moist for germination to occur. The best way to handle this is to cover the bed right after sowing and watering with either cardboard or plywood until they start to come up. Parsnips also require something a little different. They tend to have poor germination rates so I start them on a damp paper towel in a plastic bag or tupperware container. Once I see the little tail of root popping out from the seed I will carefully plant it in the garden. I’ve found that this gives me much higher rates of success.

Squash, melons, watermelons and cucumbers can be either direct sown or started. Care should be taken when starting them indoors as they have very sensitive root systems. Never allow them to become root bound and when transplanting them, do not disturb their roots. If you want to get a jump start on the season start them in 4″ pots and once they germinated and break the surface plant them very carefully. This will reduce the likelihood of transplant shock.

For plants like peppers, tomatoes and eggplants you can either start them in 4″ pots if you don’t have many, or if you produce hundreds of them, like us, start them in flats and then transplant them into 4″ pots.

For smaller plants like head lettuce, spinach, onions and chard (beets I also like to start this way) and also for peas (to get them nice a big before exposing them to slugs and snails), and brassicas, you can start them in flats. Make sure that the flats have holes in the bottoms so they can drain. I prefer the flats because I can plant a bunch of plants all together and then just tease them out when it’s time to plant. I almost always end up with extra plants which I then pass on to other people. Generally the cool season vegetables don’t get put in the greenhouse and are fine being started outside.

tomato

When it’s Time

I’ll admit that I’m bad at hardening off. A combination of being busy and being lazy I never get around to doing it. For the more frost tender plants I’ll just leave the greenhouse door open in increasing increments until I am sure that the last frost has come and gone. Since the cool season vegetable are started outside, I don’t really have to worry about them. If you want to be a bit more methodical than I am with hardening off, simply ease your plants into being on their own outside. Let them spend a few hours each day in a sunny spot. Increase the amount of time they are outside on their own until you have them out there almost the entire day.

Try to plant out when it’s either overcast or later in the day if it’s warmer so as not to completely shock the seedlings. Don’t try to over handle the roots and only plant out the plants that have a nice large healthy root system but are not root bound. The exception is to transplant squash, cucumbers, watermelons and melons before they have a large root system.. Also it’s key to water them well right after planting them out. I don’t use any B-1 or transplant starter because you don’t really need to. Don’t over water either. They will get wilty no matter how much water you give them. Just offer them some shade if you can and let them bounce back on their own.

Starting your own seeds is rewarding, will save you money and expand your horizons. Give it a try. If it doesn’t work for you the nursery will still have what you need.

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Tomato, Pepper and Eggplant Varieties for 2014

We will soon be starting our eggplant, pepper and tomato plants in the next month or so. They will be available in late March until we run out (which is pretty quick, so make sure to come early).  We won’t be offering as many hot peppers varieties this year, mainly because I’m having a hard time locating seed for them from a single source (prefer to not have to make a bunch of small orders, which drives up shipping costs). We will be offering more tomato varieties though! We’ll have some of the old favorites but will also be adding in some new interesting varieties. I don’t have photos of them all since it’s a work in progress.

Most varieties we offer are ones we have grown successfully. If there are varieties you want I will be taking pre-orders so you are guaranteed to get what you want before they are sold out. Just email me at rachel at dogislandfarm (dot) com or leave a comment and I will email you.

Eggplant Varieties

Caspar – I adore this eggplant. It’s a long Japanese style eggplant with white skin and very creamy white flesh. If you aren’t a huge fan of eggplant (like myself), this is definitely one to try. It may just make you a convert.

Diamond – A good, productive Japanese style eggplant. Very good sliced, marinated and grilled.

Pepper Varieties-Hot

anaheim peppers copyAnaheim (Nu Mex Joe E. Parker) – These are the perfect roasting peppers. The thick skin easily blisters and can be peeled away after roasting. They are mild to medium heat. Not quite as productive as the smaller hot peppers, but they do give a good harvest when picked continuously.

 

 

PoblanosAncho Gigantea (Poblano) – Relatively mild, productive pepper that is great dried or roasted. This is the standard pepper for stuffing. Green peppers are called Poblanos and red peppers are Anchos.


 

Cayenne Slim - Very productive plant of HOT peppers. Walls are thin so they dry quickly. We dried the peppers (they readily dry on the plant) and then ground them into red pepper flakes. We now call them Satan Flakes because of their excessive heat.

Cayenne Slim – Very productive plant of HOT peppers. Walls are thin so they dry quickly. We dried the peppers (they readily dry on the plant) and then ground them into red pepper flakes. We now call them Satan Flakes because of their excessive heat.

 

 

Habanero - If you want your peppers to be spicy make sure to grow them next to a habanero plant. This was a trick I learned from a friend and was surprised to find out that it works! These are productive plants with EXTRA HOT peppers.

Habanero – If you want your peppers to be spicy make sure to grow them next to a habanero plant. This was a trick I learned from a friend and was surprised to find out that it works! These are productive plants with EXTRA HOT peppers.

 


Pimiento de Padron (not pictured) – This is a new variety for us that I’m really excited to try. They are usually a mild, small Spanish pepper that is traditionally fried. Sometimes you’ll get a hot one. They are fantastic stuffed with a bit of goat cheese before frying.

serrano peppers copySerrano – Another very productive pepper with thick walls that are perfect for making hot sauce. The original variety used to make Sriracha Hot Sauce. Also very hot, but not as hot as the Cayenne Slim.

 

 

 

Pepper Varieties-Sweet

California WonderCalifornia Wonder – The standard green and red bell pepper for California. Good production with thick walled fruits.

 

 

Italian Sweet Pepper – This is a new sweet pepper for us. From the descriptions we’ve read, I’m hoping that this will be thicker walled than the Corno di Toro or the Red Marconi peppers we’ve done in the past.

Orange Bell – As the name suggests, this is an orange bell pepper. Not as productive as the California Wonder but hands down the sweetest pepper I’ve ever eaten. They got gobbled up too fast before I could get a decent photo.

Quadrato Asti Giallo – This will be a reboot for us. I got some seed last year but it was too late in the year for them to mature enough before the coming frosts. The plants did do very well and I’m sure we would have gotten a good crop if we had more time to allow them to mature. This is an Italian bell pepper that is green slowly ripening to yellow.

 

 Tomatoes (all tomatoes are indeterminate)

Ananas Noir (Black Pineapple)- This is another reboot variety. I had bought this as a start but I suspect it was mislabeled because I didn’t get any tomatoes that were even remotely close to this very unique variety. If you can’t make up your mind about what color tomatoes to grow, this might be the one for you. Green, red, orange, yellow and purple all rolled into one tasty beefsteak-type tomato. Rumor has it each color has a distinct flavor.

Black Krim – A purple-black beefsteak with a hearty, rich flavor. Fruits get darker when exposed to sunlight. Productive.

Brad’s Black Oxheart – Similar in flavor to Black Krim but a large oxheart shaped tomato. Large productive plant.

Brandywine (Sudduth’s Strain) – The beefsteak that all beefsteak tomatoes should be judged by. Big, red fruits commonly over a pound but can reach two pounds are rich and intense.

Cherokee Green – A green beefsteak that has a bold, bright flavor with acid. My husband says it’s “zingy.” Best flavor of the green tomatoes. Very productive plant. Just keep an eye on it so you don’t wait too long to pick the fruits which will have a yellow hue with ripe.

DrWycheesYellowDr. Wychee’s Yellow – Big, beautiful yellow beefsteak with green shoulders. Productive plant of 1lb fruits or larger. Rich tomato flavor with a meaty interior.

 

 

Green Zebra – Small 2-1/2″-3″  salad tomato that is green with darker green stripes. Fruit is sweet and “zingy.” Very productive plant if you can find all the fruit! The light green will have a yellow hue when ripe. Makes a really good green pesto bruschetta.

HillbillyHillbilly – Big yellow orange beefsteak with red streaks. Husband describes it as “rich, meaty, tomato-y goodness.” The favorite tomato around here. Few seeds and very fleshy.

 

 

Indigo AppleIndigo Apple – A very high anthocyanin (good stuff – antioxidant) producing tomato. Fruit that has been exposed to sunlight is dark purple to nearly black. If not exposed the fruit will be red. Medium sized fruit is sweet and productive with a long harvest period.

 

isis candyIsis Candy – Orange cherry tomato with red starburst. Very productive of small sweet, fruity tomatoes that you can just pop in your mouth.

 

 

Kellogg’s Breakfast – Big orange beefsteak tomato. Similar in flavor to Dr. Wyche’s Yellow but with a bit more sweetness.

Mortgage Lifter – Red beefsteak tomato that produces a good crop of 1-2lb tomatoes. Meaty and rich with a good tomato flavor.

Opalka – This will be a new variety for us. It is a red paste tomato from Poland circa 1900. Said to have excellent flavor and few seeds.

pineapple heirloom copyPineapple Heirloom – An orange beefsteak with red streaks that often reaches 2lbs. Productive plant of rich, old-fashioned tomato flavor with hints of tropical fruit.

 

 

Rosso Sicilian – Another new variety for us. This is an Italian heirloom with medium sized ribbed fruits that are firm and meaty and perfect for making sauce and paste. Bruises easily.

Speckled Roman – A new variety for us and hope that it is as good as Roman Candle, which we couldn’t find seed for this year. Very productive plant is said to produce large orange fruits with yellow stripes that are perfect for processing and eating fresh.

Stupice – This very early tomato blew me away this year with it’s productiveness. Small tomatoes, but not quite cherry size are born as early as late June and continues through until the frost. Sweet and flavorful.

WPeach2Wapsipinicon Peach – A small yellow tomato with an unusually fuzzy skin. Productive plant of very, very sweet, mild fruit with a hint of peach. Husband says “sweetest tomato I’ve ever eaten.”

 

 

 

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Heirlooms are Great but…

Some heirlooms like January King Cabbage grow great for us.

Some heirlooms like January King Cabbage grow great for us.

I’ve kind of always been a purist when it comes to what I grow in my garden. I prefer heirlooms, the rarer the better, over pretty much everything else, including regular open pollinated plants.

So here’s the lowdown on all the different types of seed you will come across:

Open Pollinated seed means that when you grow that plant you can save the seed and the offspring will be true to form.

Heirlooms are all open pollinated but are generally older varieties. The age of the variety is debatable but I generally think of heirlooms as pre-WWII varieties. Why WWII? That was about the time we started to transition to growing food with petrochemicals and started breeding more for uniformity and shipping ability, rather than taste and nutrients.

Hybrid seed is just a cross between two varieties. It’s not transgenic (also called GMO), so let’s just get that straight. If you see (F1) next to the seed’s name or description, it means it is the first generation of the cross. Of course you can continually save seed through multiple generations and end up with a stable variety – and that is when you get an open pollinated plant.

I have come to the realization, however, that maybe all heirlooms isn’t the best way to go. Sometimes you have to choose between being able to successfully grow it or buying it at the store. I would much rather purchase a hybrid and grow it here than have to resort to buying it at the store because the heirloom varieties available just don’t work for my area.

The heirlooms plants that I’ve come to find don’t work for me are mostly Brassicas. While heirloom varieties of cabbage and cauliflower do great for me, it’s the Brussels sprouts and broccoli that I have a horrible time with. Usually I get a very small harvest of broccoli and absolutely nothing from the Brussels sprouts.

Since the selection of available heirloom varieties for both broccoli and Brussels sprouts is very limited, and I’ve tried most of them, I think it’s time for me to finally admit that I need to switch to using hybrids for these two crops.

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What I’ve Learned 2013 Edition Vol. 1

Summer is officially here and it’s time for me to finally get around to writing down some of the things I need to remember. Hopefully this list can help you too in your quest for gardening perfection (pssst….it doesn’t exist).

strawberriesReplace your strawberry plants every few years.

I’ve heard this said over and over but I’ve always kind of been like “yeah, whatever, they are perennials.” Well, I finally have to admit that I was wrong. Every few years those plants drop in production…like a lot. Last year we harvested 35lbs of strawberries from our little 4′x10′ bed. Quite impressive. This year? I haven’t added it up yet but I’ll be surprised if we broke 5lbs. The berries this year are also substantially smaller than last year as well. These plants gave us a good 3 year run but even fertilizing didn’t help use out and we’ll need to replace them next year. The question is what varieties should I replace them with? Do you have a favorite strawberry variety with outstanding taste (#1) and production (#2)?

Update: While I was writing this it came to my attention that while the harvest is lower it has been made even more low by Squeak the Super Dog who has found an undying love for the taste of strawberries.

People love their big beefsteak tomato plants

This year we tested the waters selling plant starts. The tomatoes were the biggest hit by far. We only grow heirlooms and are picky about the varieties – only choosing those that grow well for us. While I thought Stupice – the heirloom tomato’s answer to a fog-tolerant Early Girl – would have been a big hit, it was the Black Krim and Hillbillies that stole the show. We actually sold out of Black Krim and 90% of our Hillbillies before we even started tabling at Moschetti Coffee. We also got a lot of requests for red beefsteak tomatoes so we’ll be looking at including more of those – probably Brandywine, Italian Heirloom and more Mortgage Lifter plants. Paste tomatoes were also a popular request so I’ll need to include some of those as well. Next year I hope to increase the amount of plants we grow substantially. We will also be using real plant pots as the red cups tip over too easily. Unfortunately it means we’ll have to charge a bit more to cover the cost.

….but are not so hot on hot peppers

As much as I LOVE hot peppers I should probably have realized that the general populace doesn’t share that love with me. While I was able to sell most of them, the sweet peppers sold out pretty quickly. Also, I’m hoping that next year the Anaheims do better so I’ll actually have some of those to sell.

Direct seeding doesn’t always work but sometimes it’s the seeds

We had a problem with direct seeding melons, watermelon, cucumbers and some of the squash. Most refused to germinate. After doing some investigative digging I found that the issue for some was that something was eating them right when the root would start to come out. So for those I ended up germinating them in the greenhouse and planting them as soon as they were up so as not to have issues with being root bound. However, the Bidwell Casaba melon seeds I couldn’t even get to germinate in the greenhouse. I tried pots outside. Still no go. I ended up going through 4 packets of seeds and after planting every single one I only got 2 plants to show for it. They weren’t being eaten, they just weren’t coming up. So I decided to try a few other varieties of melon and every single one I planted came up within just a few days. I’ve planted Bidwell Casaba before and had great luck so I suspect there was something wrong with this year’s batch. Next year I plan to start seedlings about a week before the earliest date I can put them in to avoid this mess again.

It’s all Beansabout the manure

Our garden is going gangbusters right now. Plants are all huge, producing a ton and we aren’t having any disease or pest issues. Last year we had a pathetic harvest due to being skimpy on the manure spreading. This year we tripled the amount of manure we put down and what a difference it has made! The only patch of ground that we didn’t amend very well is where we have beans planted and the difference between that patch and another patch in another location that was planted at the same time is very notable.

The only "clear" walk down to the end of the yard

The only “clear” walk down to the end of the yard

….but there is a downside and we planted too much of it

We can barely get down to the walkways because the uber-happy squash has taken over everything, including the pathways. We need to grow fewer squash next year because of this and also because they seem to want to take over all the other plants. Plus I have absolutely no idea what we are going to do with that much squash. I figure this year will just be the year where we determine what our favorite varieties are and then next year we will reduce the amount we grow. So far we know we will be growing Howden pumpkins and Trombocino squash. What I really like about the Trombocino is that it’s eaten like zucchini but the majority of it is seedless except for the bulb at the very end. This means that if one gets away from you it is still just as edible as it was when it was smaller. It also makes fantastic pickles because it’s less likely to get mushy in the canner. Of course it will be awhile before we can choose the winter squash variety we like the most (besides the pumpkins).

 Hot weather makes for early harvests

We harvested our very first June tomatoes this year. Usually we don’t get tomatoes until the end of July – mid-July at the very earliest. We’ve even got tomatillos ready to go. It’s been unseasonably hot the last month or so. While our normal weather pattern is around the upper 70s with morning fog, we’ve been getting a pretty consistent stream of upper 80s to 100s. It finally cooled down to decent upper 70 weather this week but it was pretty brutal for awhile. Because we weren’t expecting it, some of the harvest got away from us and now we’re scrambling to process stuff. I processed a dozen quarts of zucchini pickles on Friday. I also processed 36 8-oz jars of apricot jam, 6 quarts of halved apricots and 2 quarts of apricot syrup.

I think for now I’ll stop here. Watch for Volume 2 later in the season.

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The Hugelkultur Bed Experiment Update

hugelLast fall we decided to convert part of a garden bed into a low  hugelkultur bed to see how it would work for us. To compare we prepared the bed right next to it using a rototiller. In both beds we used the same mix of soil amendments and we planted the exact same varieties in the same configuration. They are also hooked up to the same water line. So other than one being a hugel and the other being tilled, they are, for all intents and purposes, exactly the same.

The season is still fairly early but I’m already seeing some differences.

tomatoesThe tomatoes are slightly larger in the hugel bed compared to the tilled bed.

peppersSame with the peppers. Especially the habanero, which is notorious for being a slow growing variety.

eggplantsThe eggplants are doing equally well.

watermelonWatermelon germination was the biggest difference. I had much faster and better germination rates in the tilled bed compared to the hugel.

Of the squash plants that germinated at about the same time, the ones in the tilled bed are bigger and more vigorous.

bedsThe biggest difference though is a substantially smaller amount of weeds in the hugelkultur bed.

The season has just started and production hasn’t even started yet and that will be the real test to determine which bed works the best.

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Buying Before it’s Time

Now is not the time to plant these.

Now is not the time to plant these.

This morning I saw tomato and pepper plants for sale. This morning I also saw frost on the ground at my house, which has a much milder climate than where I saw these plants for sale. What do peppers and tomatoes hate? You guessed it. Frost.

So why in the world would some nurseries be trying to sell frost sensitive plants while there is still frost? Come on now, we live in a capitalist society, we all know the answer there. They don’t care if your tomato plants get ruined, they want to get a jump on selling the most popular vegetable plant around.

Don’t be fooled. Just because the nurseries have it does not mean it’s time to put it in the ground. Even some of the best nurseries can make you fall victim to buying before it’s time. Spring is here, the seed catalogs are out. It’s time to plant!!!!

Hold on a second. What’s your last average frost date? Not yet? Then don’t buy those frost sensitive plants. Actually I wouldn’t even buy them within 3 weeks of the average frost date. Remember, it’s an average, so some years it will be later in the year.  Our last average frost date is supposed to be sometime in February but I’m not buying it. As I said, we had frost last night and I know last year we had frost as late as mid April. Since then I’ve learned that February is NOT our last frost date and I won’t plant until after mid April.

Now, you can very well plant them early if you have season extenders, but mid-March still seems excessively early to even use those. Tomatoes and peppers aren’t just frost sensitive but they LOVE heat and prefer their nights to not go below 55 deg F. Planting them too early can stunt them or just knock them back so they don’t get a good start.

Nurseries do a disservice to gardeners by selling plants before they can safely go in the ground. Beginning gardeners trust nurseries to know when planting times are so if tomatoes are in they think that it’s time to plant them. Then they plant them and the plant dies because it’s still too cold still. And nothing discourages a new gardener like a dead plant when they just start out.

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Putting a Value on That

Recently I tagged along with my mom to the grocery store. She was in town visiting and she’s a fantastic cook and was planning on making an amazing meal for her best friend who she was staying with.

It wasn’t just any grocery store, though. We were entering the yuppie-hippie grocery store. A full third of the store was just produce so I figured this was a good time to check out prices for the in season, organic produce.

I haven’t updated it in awhile – here it is February and I still haven’t finished 2012′s totals – but on the right hand column we keep track of what we spend and save running our urban farm. I base the prices on the unit costs for a similar item if I was purchasing it elsewhere – whether it was the farmers’ market, the grocery store or a roadside stand. If I see similar items at different prices I take the average.

Since I don’t make it into a grocery store very often, especially one with such a large selection of (organic) produce I figured I’d start jotting down some of the prices of items I normally don’t find at the farmers market (or the normal grocery store, for that matter) but that I grow at home. If the produce came in a bunch or was priced individually I weighed it to figure out the cost per pound.

As I went through row after row of vegetable, weighing and jotting down prices I quickly began to realize that there is no way in hell I would ever spend that much money on produce. Cute little of bunches of arugula that only weighed a 1/4 lb were going for $2.49 or $9.96/lb. Nearly $10 for a green that practically grows wild in my yard with no known pests. For realz? Do people actually spend this much for arugula? Well, now that I think about it, a similar amount sold at my local farmers market goes for $2 a bag or about $8/lb. That can’t be right. The dandelion greens (yes, they even had those) were half the price of the arugula, and in my (not so) humble opinion they are harder to find commercially. They too grow like a weed in my yard, and I can say I wouldn’t pay $5/lb of them either.

There’s a balancing act when you grow food yourself. I grow it because I wouldn’t pay what this yuppie-hippie store charges for the items that cost me just a couple of dollars in seeds for a year’s supply. If I didn’t grow it I probably still wouldn’t buy it so am I really saving money? Probably not. But there are items that I would buy, like apples (they have them for $3.99/lb, but at the farmers’ market they are $1.50/lb for organically grown), I just wouldn’t buy them at that particular grocery store. So which price do I go with? The farmers’ market price, of course.

The other side of the coin is when I think an item is worth more than what they sell it for. Potatoes, corn, onions, garlic and winter squash should be more than the $0.99-$1.99/lb just because they require so much more space, time and skill to grow. But the cost is what it is so in fairness that’s what I use in my spreadsheet. I’ll be honest though, it pains me to enter the low numbers.

As I peruse the farmland listings and calculate how much it would cost us to have a farm I really have to wonder how the hell we would ever make enough money selling vegetables to pay for the farmland it’s grown on? While that $10/lb for arugula sounds like it could do it, it’s important to realize that the farmer that’s growing it is lucky to get $2/lb for it. The remaining $8 goes to transport, distributors and the grocery store. Direct sales would have to be the way to go and lots of high value crops (*cough* heirloom tomatoes *cough*) to make up for the lower value crops.

 

 

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Picking the Right Irrigation System and Installing it

Reader Question:

I wanted to know if there is a drip irrigation system that you guys would recommend!  I don’t have such a big garden just a few raised beds! I seen your system and is huge but i just need something small! It would be really helpful! Thank You!

Choosing Your System:

Part of my day job description includes putting together irrigation construction documents for construction projects. Usually these documents are for huge sites with extensive systems involving thousands of feet of piping, dozens of valves and sometimes multiple controllers.

You’re probably scratching your head trying to make sense of what you just read. That’s OK because the typical home garden is not going to require all this fancy talk, but it will require a few necessary items to work well.

I like to set it and forget it, meaning I really don’t want to have think that much about watering. Of course, having a garden that would require several hours to water every other day is the reason for that, but even with smaller gardens you might want to think about going this route because sometimes life gets busy and you might not be able to water for a few days. If you have automatic irrigation you won’t have to worry about losing your garden that you’ve spent months nurturing.

I’m also of the mind that you should have a system even if you don’t necessarily need it. This was highlighted last summer with the severe drought in the Midwest  My mom, who lives in Ohio, depended on summer rains to water her garden but the rains never came. The heat did though. She had to spend large amounts of her time hand watering just to keep everything alive. When you don’t need it you can just turn it off and when you do need it it’s nice to just be able to turn it back on and let it do its thing.

There are so many different types of irrigation how in the world do you choose one? My first word of advice is put down the pre-assembled “garden drip” irrigation kit at the big box store. Every site is unique and those kits do very little to accommodate even the average one. Second you’ll need to figure out if you want to do drip irrigation or overhead irrigation (which I won’t be covering here).

I recommend drip for several reasons.  First it is low flow and the water is put directly on the soil at the rate the soil can absorb it. This reduces evaporation and eliminates drift from wind.  It also reduces fungal diseases that can be caused by overhead watering while also being less likely to cause puddling and soil erosion. In addition, you’re less likely to have weeds when you control where the water is going through drip. The weeds have a tendency to congregate at the point source rather than spreading out across your entire bed. The downside of drip, however, is that it can be clunky to handle and it gets in the way of digging, hoeing, and raking the soil. It also doesn’t last as long and has to be checked over thoroughly before every season. To me, however, the saving in water (and $$$) is well worth these minor headaches.

Designing & Installing:

You will either need to draw up a site plan of the area you want to irrigate or get some construction marking paint (spray pain that can be applied when the can is upside down – usually comes in fluorescent colors). The main purpose of this is to find out how much PVC irrigation pipe you are going to need between your water source and the places you want to water. Generally the pipe will only need to run to the end of each bed closest to your water source. Rainbird, a popular irrigation supply company, has some design manuals online that you can use to help with your irrigation layout.

valve setup

Basic valve setup. Click picture to enlarge.

Stick with 3/4″ Schedule 40 PVC pipe unless you’re doing a really large area on drip or you’re using spray. Then you’ll need to do pressure loss calculations but I’m not going to go into that here. Pipe is pretty cheap so if you purchase  more than you need (which you will) it won’t break the bank. In addition to the pipe you’ll also need the joints (elbows, tees, 4-way, couplers, etc.). This is why a drawing is helpful. Keep in mind that any turns in the pipe are usually going to have to be at 90 degrees.

The photo above shows how we set up our valves. The valves are what turns the water on and off automatically (there is a manual switch as well). They are connected to an irrigation timer (also known as a controller) that is in our water tower by low voltage wire. When you enlarge the picture you can see the wires that you connect on the top of the valve (they haven’t been hooked up yet in this picture). If you just have a few raised beds you’ll probably only need one valve. We have three different watering zones – fruit trees, vegetable beds (we require two valves due to water pressure loss), drought tolerant landscape – which all require different watering schedules so we need to have four valves for our backyard.

It might look complicated but once you have all the parts you need it’s really not. Everything gets put together rather quickly. The hardest part of installing irrigation is digging the trenches for the pipe and electrical wires in my opinion.

For the threaded joints you’ll want to purchase plumbers/Teflon tape – a thin relatively stretchy white material that’s not sticky to the touch. With this you’re going to wrap the threads in the same direction you’ll be screwing on the fitting. This tape fills in any gaps in the threads, sealing it from leaking. Wrap it around about three times but don’t let it extend past the end of the threads as it can potentially clog your system if a small piece breaks off. For the PVC slip joints you’ll want to get pipe cement and primer. Some people claim that you can skip the primer, however, this is only true for systems that will not be pressurized. With drip systems the lines will have pressure when they are on so make sure to use primer first, otherwise you’ll end up with a lot of leaks that you can’t always fix. Primer is generally purple in color and you apply it first to the inside of the connector and the outside of the pipe. Allow it to dry a bit. You then apply the cement in the same fashion and insert the pipe into the connector. It should have a firm hold to finish connecting within a few minutes but don’t plan on running water through your system for at least 24 hours to allow the joint to cure.

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Irrigation hookup at each bed. Click photo to enlarge.

You’ll want to run pipe to your beds. Connect them with female slip joints and cement. I prefer the pipe riser for each bed to be located on the outside of the bed, though some prefer them on the inside. If the bed is already in place and filled it will have to be on the outside. On the left is what you need for each bed. The ball valve is important because it allows you to turn off individual beds when they aren’t planted. I like to use the threaded gray risers as they contain carbon to help make them more resistant to UV. You can use PVC though if you want to. just remember that if you use the threaded pipe you’ll need elbows with one end being threaded.

Now that you’ve got water to your beds you’ll want to get the dripline down in your bed. There are several options regarding the type of line you want to use. I personally like dripline with inline emitters because it’s easier to handle. You can get these in 1/2″ and 1/4″ size. With each of these sizes there are different emitter spacings within the line. The 1/2″ dripline’s smallest spacing is 12″ which might be too far for vegetable beds. The 1/4″ size comes in 6″ spacing so go with that. Some people like to use the porous soaker lines which look like black spongy material that “weeps” water when it’s turned on. If you have hard water or even just well water this type clogs really easily and you’ll need to replace it before the season is over (trust me, I’ve had to do this). The inline emitter dripline use turbulent flow to help keep the emitters from clogging.

Another option is drip tape. Drip tape is inexpensive and puts a good amount of water down in a relatively short time frame. Unfortunately it doesn’t last long. By our 2nd season we spent a good portion of our time repairing blown sections of it. It also requires a much lower water pressure to run correctly, which requires difficult to find pressure regulators.

C:UsersRachelDocumentsbed.dwg Model (1)Once you figure out which type of dripline you want to use you’ll need to layout how you want to water it. I prefer to run the water source on the end of the long side versus the center of the short side. From the source you run 1/2″ poly across the short side and then cap it. At ever 6-9″ (spacing is personal preference and also depends on the width of your bed) you’ll insert a barbed 1/4″ tubing connector. There’s a poly tubing hole punch gun that makes this job MUCH easier. Connect 1/4″ dripline tubing to the barbed connector and run it to the end of the bed. Crimp the end and stake it down. You can buy end clamps or just use zip ties.

One more thing you’re going to need to consider – when dealing with poly tubing you want to either use universal fittings or fittings that are the same brand as the tubing. Different manufacturers vary the size of the tubing ever so slightly so the fittings of another manufacturer (unless they are universal) will not work on their tubing. The links in the following list are just to give you an idea of what you’re looking for. They don’t necessarily work together. Your best option is to purchase everything from the same store, which will generally have compatible parts.

 

The Basic Supplies for Automatic Drip Irrigation

 A word about controllers

With controllers you can go cheap or you can go expensive, but either way, it will most likely be your most expensive piece of irrigation equipment. The more costly a controller is, the more features it will have such as being able to attach rain sensors, soil moisture sensors, or more programs and stations. The one I’ve linked to is the one that I own and have been very happy with it. It has a rain delay and a rain shutoff switch so I can turn it off during the winter and when it’s time to run it again, it keeps all my previous programs. The programming is relatively easy to do as well.

One thing I will caution you against is getting battery operated controllers that also double as a valve. In my opinion (and experience), these are not reliable and go out regularly. The worst is when you’re on vacation and the battery goes out with the valve open (yeah, this happens more than you’d think).

 

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2013 Garden Planning

melon

Bidwell Casaba Melon

I’ve spent the last few weeks carefully going through all of our seed catalogs to figure out what we’ll be growing this coming year. Surprisingly, we’re making quite a few changes even though I’m always saying that I need to stick with varieties that we know work. This past year was a success for some things and a total failure for others which is probably where this desire to mix things up is coming from. We’re also expanding the growing of some crops while eliminating others. The primary crops we’re expanding are beans, corn, potatoes and squash – crops that can store well. I’ll link the varieties we’ll be using so if they sound interesting you won’t have to go searching for them.

Most of the beans will be dry beans but we’ll also be adding in Romano beans, which I’ve heard nothing but great things about. The variety of Romano we’ll be growing is Supermarconi. I’m excited to add Tepary beans to our garden. Tepary beans are native to the Southwest and Mexico making them very drought and heat tolerant. I’m hoping to successfully grow these without any summer irrigation. In addition we’re bringing back runner beans, which are a perennial in our area and prefer cooler temperatures. Not technically a bean, we’ll be trying out cowpeas, Blackeye Peas being the most commonly known variety. We’ll be continuing with Cherokee Trail of Tears, Speckled Cranberry, Anasazi (a variety shared with us but difficult to find commercially) and Purple Podded Pole.

We’re not going to be growing Bloody Butcher corn this year. It’s a nice dent corn that works well for fresh eating and gets HUGE – over 12′ tall – but we want to expand our corn varieties this year. Instead of dent corn, which is a rather difficult corn to work with, we’re going to do a flour corn, Mandan Bride, which is better for making flour rather than meal, which tends to be courser. We’re also going to do a fun popcorn called Bear Paw that has split cobs and a dwarf sweet corn called Blue Jade. It’s one of the few corn varieties that can actually be grown successfully in pots.

squeek pumpkin

Squeak and her Howden Pumpkin

Our potato varieties will be some of the same but some new ones. We’ll still be growing All Blue, Russet Rio Grande, and German Butterball as these usually do really well for us. New varieties for us will be Yukon Gem, Kennebec White and Desiree which are all said to be high yielding varieties.

The pumpkin is coming back! We’ll be growing Howden pumpkins again but I’m also going to be adding Winter Luxury Pie pumpkins, which I’m very excited to have finally found space for as these are considered the BEST pie pumpkin around. We’re still going to grow Marina di Chioggia, which, in my humble opinion, is the best tasting squash out there. I want to also grow smaller winter squash including Delicata, Triamble, Butternut rogosa violina ‘Gioia,’ and Vegetable Spaghetti. In the summer squash variety we’ll be doing Trombetta di Albinga, also known as Trombocino. We’re not going to do our usual Golden Zuchhini because…and this may come as a surprise…it doesn’t do very well for us. Four plants couldn’t give us enough summer squash for our needs. What I like about the Trombocino – which we have grown before – is that it’s a vertical climber freeing up space for other plants. I also find it exceptionally flavorful compared to traditional summer squash. The seeds are all contained in the bulb of the squash so you can pick it any time without worrying whether it’s gotten too seedy and pithy. It’s also tasty as a winter squash.

We won’t be doing fennel again this year as we just don’t use it enough to give it space in the yard. I’ve also been kind of on the fence about parsnips for the same reason so this year I’ll be skipping them.

Some of our favorite varieties will be staying. Orangeglo watermelons, Bidwell Casaba melons, Five Color Silverbeet Swiss Chard, Gigante di’ Inverno Spinach, Yellow of Parma onions, arugula, Cimmaron and Tango lettuces, Golden beet, Berlicum 2 carrots, Tendercrisp celery, Oregon Sugar Pod II peas, Verde tomatillos, White Icicle and Pink Beauty radishes, Giant of Naples Cauliflower, Calabrese Broccoli and Perfection Drumhead Savoy Cabbage.

Dr. Wychee's Yellow Tomato

Dr. Wychee’s Yellow Tomato

Of all the tomatoes we normally grow, we’ll only be changing out two varieties and adding in a new one. We did Pineapple Pig last year but it was too late of a variety for us to really get any useful fruit off of it. We’ll be replacing it with Pineapple Heirloom, which a friend in town had really good luck with. That same friend also had really good luck with Cherokee Green so we’ll be adding that one as well. We’ll also be eliminating the Isis Candy, which did fine but cherry tomatoes are just too much work for us to harvest when we have some much other things to harvest as well. Instead, we’ll be doing Stupice, which is a 2″ earlier tomato that is said to outperform San Francisco Fog in cooler climates. The varieties that will be sticking around will be Wapsipinicon Peach, Mortgage Lifter, Hillbilly, Black Krim, Kellogg’s Breakfast, Indigo Apple, and Dr. Wychee’s Yellow.

We’re keeping hot pepper varieties Anaheim, Habanero, Cayenne, Serrano Tampequino, Sante Fe Grande; and sweet pepper varieties Orange Bell, Red Marconi, Corno di Toro Rosso and California Wonder. We’re getting rid of Jalapeno and replacing it with Corne de Chevre.

The hardest part of dealing with all of these varieties was figuring out the layout of them in our planting beds. Usually I just do crop layout but I always regret being so generalized later in the season when I can’t remember which varieties are which. This year I drew up our plans in a much more concise way splitting up varieties and keeping similar varieties separate. The placement is mostly based on companion planting. You can click the image below to see what our plan looks like this year.

C:UsersRachelDocumentsGarden2013.dwg Model (1)

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