Sunday, August 19, 2018

Tomatoes 101, everything you need to know to grow great tomatoes



Sunday, August 19, 2018

Tomatoes are Americans favorite vegetable to grow.  There really is no comparison between a home grown tomato and a store bought tomato.  There are just a few tricks to know about growing great tasting tomatoes. 

The first is knowing what type of tomato to purchase
There are two types of tomatoes-indeterminate and determinate.  Determinate grow to a set height and the fruit sets all at once.  These can be a great candidate for canning if you would like to get your tomato canning done all at once.  Indeterminate continue to grow and yield fruits (yes, the tomato is actually a fruit) until frost.  These are the best for fresh tomatoes all season long.
Choosing which tomatoes to grow

I grow only indeterminates.  For what we don’t eat, I freeze whole in quart freezer bags for chili and salsa until fall.  Come fall, I start canning the surplus.  I like growing a variety of tomatoes, with different colors, salad tomatoes, slicers, and paste tomatoes.  I like adding paste tomatoes to each freezer bag as they give a silky sauce.  And colors are just fun!  I always have red and purple tomatoes in the garden.
The Power of Purple

Right before the first frost, I pick all the tomatoes left on the vine and put in a dark place for them to ripen.  We have fresh tomatoes into December.  They are definitely not the same as summer tomatoes, but better than anything you can buy in the store!  For more tips on preserving the tomato harvest:  Preserving the tomato harvest

There are "storage" tomato varieties.  You can pick these at frost and they will keep for up to 4 weeks longer than typical tomatoes.  One option is Red October.  The downside is they are a hybrid so will not come back true to the parent with seeds from this year's crop.
Tomatoes kept in pantry at Christmas
All tomatoes are chock full of antioxidants and lycopene.  They contain vitamins A, C, E, K, and B-complex as well as potassium, manganese, and copper.  For a full listing of nutrition, SELF magazine has an informative nutritional database:  tomato nutrition

Tomato supports/cages
With indeterminate tomatoes, they definitely need something to help them grow upwards (although not required, it does make harvesting much easier and takes up less garden space).  A very sturdy pole can be used and the plant tied onto it as it grows.  The more popular option is a “tomato cage” that the tomato grows up in to.  This is what we use.  It is important to get the cage on while the plants are small or severe damage may ensue when you try to force the gangly plant into it’s cage.  Be sure to get a strong cage for large tomato plants.  I also add a stake to the really big tomatoes to give extra support.

If you grow dwarf or patio tomatoes, they may not need any support at all.  I did end up using a stake for each plant as they put on large tomatoes which caused the plant to lean when I grow the patio types.  
Staked dwarf tomato
Tips when planting
Tomatoes are susceptible to blossom-end rot and fungal diseases.  End rot is typically caused by not having enough calcium in the soil.  Fungal diseases remain the soil.  It is important to rotate vegetable plants and not plant them in the same spot every year.  

Another preventative of disease is to provide the right fertilizer and nutrients when planting.  In each planting hole, I add a handful of worm castings, balanced fertilizer, and dusted the roots with mycorrhizal life support which contains mycorrhizal, vitamins and minerals.  This blend improves soil fertility and the plants ability to take in the nutrition it needs.  It is not all about just the big 3-nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium.  They are important but vitamins, minerals, and particularly living soil makes a huge difference in how healthy and lush the plants become.  I use fertilizer made specifically for tomatoes so that they get the calcium they need.  As your plants take up minerals, you will get these minerals when you eat your garden produce.
The next step in garden production and your nutrition-soil minerals

When you plant your tomato, make sure to plant it deeply.  I take off all the limbs except the top couple and bury the plant up to these stems.  Roots will grow from where the removed and buried limbs were.  This gives the plants a much stronger root system to support growth.

I also like to plant early in the season and then again in the middle of the summer.  When the new plants come on strong, the early planted ones are slowing down.  It keeps the harvest going strong.

Pruning tips
Now that your plants have the right start, pruning is the next step.  To get the highest yields, some say it is important to prune your tomatoes.  You want no branches below 12” (some recommend 18”).  You also want to prune the plant to only 2 branches, the center stalk and one side stalk.  You want to keep the “suckers” cut or pinched off as well as the tomato grows.

The amount of pruning is controversial among tomato growing connoisseurs.  Some swear by pruning, others say it makes no difference.  If you live further south, keeping the greenery helps protect the fruits from sun scald.  If your plants seem to get fungal diseases, doing some pruning to open up the plant for air circulation can be beneficial.  For plants up north, increased greenery helps the plant have more energy going to its fruits.  I have tried both and for my garden, very limited pruning has worked the best.

Watering and fertilizing
Now, to on-going watering and fertilizing.  Many think more is better when it comes to watering and fertilizing.  Not so for tomatoes!  What you end up with are tons of greenery, mushy tomatoes, and very few of them.  Some tomato afficiados recommend a deep watering and fertilizer at planting, then again at flowering, and that is it.  I do water when there is a long dry spell.  Overwatering or erratic watering can also cause the fruits to crack.  

For the tomatoes in the garden, I fertilize when planting, again when the first flowers appear, and monthly thereafter.  If growing in containers, I fertilize every other week with a liquid fertilizer when flowering.  I also add either kelp meal or Azomite every season to make sure the plants are getting all the trace minerals they need.  The first time I added Azomite, my plants seemed to grow and bush out within a few days.  If they respond favorably, then they really needed those nutrients.

If your plant will not flower and fruit with lush green foliage, quit fertilizing and watering.  A little stress should jump start it into producing flowers and fruits.

Although tomatoes love hot weather (they will not flower until night time temps get above 55), they also don’t like it too hot.  If daytime temps get above 90 and nighttime temps above 76, the plant will drop its flowers.  Not to worry, as soon as temps come back down, your plants will begin flowering again.
 Summer garden tips

Growing in containers
If you want to grow tomatoes in a container, you need to either have a really big container for full size tomatoes (5 gallon) or plant varieties that are adapted for containers. Tomatoes for containers would be labelled as dwarf, patio, container.  Some varieties that fit this bill:  BushSteak, Patio Princess, Bush Early Girl, Tumbler, Bush Big Boy, Baxter’s Bush Cherry, Lizzano, Sweetheart of the Patio, Tumbling Tom Yellow or Red, Bush Better Bush, Balcony (look for bush/patio/container types), Husky Bush.

If you grow in containers, you will need to water weekly or maybe even more depending on the container and plant size combo used.  For more on container gardening and types to purchase for pots, Decorative container gardening for edibles

Seed saving

If you are growing open pollinated or heirloom tomatoes, you can save the seed from the best fruits and plants to grow for next season.  If you are growing hybrids, the seed will not produce a plant like the parent.  Why save seed?  Saving seed from the plants that produce the best fruits year on year will give you plants acclimated to your garden conditions and the best producers.  Save seed from plants that have the characteristics you want in future plants.  The ones with the best fruit, the largest fruit, the best tasting fruit, the earliest producer, the latest producer or the best producer.  You get to choose what you want in your future tomato plants.
Seed saving-fun, easy and a cost saver

Monday, August 13, 2018

Natural, organic pest strategies and how to make your own bug sprays


Cucumber beetle
Monday, August 13, 2018

There are good bugs and then there are the bugs that eat up your harvest or give your plants diseases.  You have to be extremely careful in applying any insecticides (bug killers) as they will kill off the beneficial insects (like bees) that pollinate your veggies and increase your harvests.

The best approach is to let nature take its course.  If you have bad bugs, the good bugs will quickly follow and provide equilibrium in the garden.  When I went organic, there was significant reductions in bad bug pressure by the second year.  I did several things to help accelerate the balance.  I purchased good bugs to release in the garden, planted flowers that deter bad bugs and attract pollinators, applied milky spore strategically, attracted birds to the garden, and used natural sprays and powders judiciously as a last resort judiciously.

You can purchase beneficial insects via mail order or some nurseries carry them.  If you go this route, be sure to release them immediately.  If ordering on line, be sure that you will be at home when they are delivered so that you can get them released that day.
Edible garden filled with returning zinnias and sunflowers
You can encourage good bugs by planting flowers either around your vegetable patch or actually with your vegetables.  I have my vegetable garden actually in my flower garden.  Marigolds are a bad bug deterrent so I added these all around the flower beds.  My flower garden is in bloom from spring all the way through fall.  Many varieties are also edible like the day-lilies, borage, and roses. 
Flowers that are edible

To encourage birds to your yard plant trees, shrubs and flowers that attract birds.  Keeping a bird bath with shrubs nearby so the birds can hide in the shrubs is a great way to get birds into your yard.  We also have a bird feeder that keeps a steady stream of birds at the edge of our garden.  We get an occasional peck on the tomatoes, but this is minor compared to the entertainment of watching the birds and their help in pest control!
Chickens free ranging
This year we also got chicks in April and keets in June.  We let the chickens free range in the evening.  We tried letting them go on their own, but they quickly discovered the garden and how tasty squash and tomatoes were!  Now we only let them out when we can watch them.  The guineas are not yet old enough to let free range.  They are reported to not touch the veggies and love insects so we will give them a try in about another month.
Using a garden hose to dose down the insects can be a good strategy; just make sure that you are not watering a plant’s leaves that are susceptible to fungal diseases such as tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchinis, roses or peonies.  

Manual removal of bad bugs can be very effective.  Just go insect and catepillar hunting and pull off the insects and throw them into a bowl with soap and water.

For Japanese beetles, I use an attractor that is quite a distance from the vegetable garden.  They love roses so I go hunting for them on our roses every day.  We also applied milky spore to keep the grub population down around the roses so we have fewer adults in the summer.  Milky spore is a microscopic bacteria that takes a couple of years to be effective so get started today.  I saw a huge difference in the Japanese beetle population by applying milky spore around my roses.  I am not seeing many Japanese beetles in my garden now so I am not using an attractor.

For ants, you have to control the aphids.  A recipe for catching the ants and aphids:  2 cups of vinegar, 2 cups of sugar, 2 cups of water in a gallon jug with a lid.  Drill 3 small holes in the lid, large enough for the ants and aphids, but too small for a little bee.  Place in trouble areas.

One non-chemical approach I really like is diatomaceous earth.  It is a white powder of tiny aquatic fossils.  The fossils have tiny rough edges that we cannot feel or see, but cut the insects outer "skin" causing dehydration and killing the insect.  Again, DE doesn't know a good from bad bug so use carefully.  I would use DE only sparingly and not on any flowering plants to spare the bees.

If you are unfortunate enough to have grasshoppers, DE is a good option.  Here is a link to other strategies for these ancient pests  Natural control of grasshoppers

Lately, I have had extensive caterpillar pressure on my sprouting broccoli plants (last year they were also very happy on all my broccoli plants).  I tried the "let my garden come into balance" but that hasn't yielded results.  I have tried the caterpillar hunting, but am still seeing my sprouting broccoli be ravished.  The best thing to have done was to not grow any broccoli plants this year so that their favorite food would not be around.  These plants came back in their pots this year from last year.  Crop rotation is key to keeping pests at a minimum!  Crop rotation made easy for small gardens

For caterpillars, BT dust is a good option.  The caterpillars ingest it as they are eating the plant and they eventually die.  This is my next move!  Make sure to dust the undersides of leaves so that first rain or dew wash off the dust.  You can get a "puffer" that you can put powder in to dust the undersides.  You just fill it up and compress the container and it "puffs" out the dust.  Much easier than turning each leaf upside down to dust!  I bought mine on Amazon and it was called "pest pistol mini duster".  I imagine it is going to take a few rounds to get them under control.

Here is a nice reference for caterpillar identification  Caterpillar identification.   You can check to see if the caterpillar munching on your parsley is a bad bug or a Black Swallowtail butterfly caterpillar.

Here are some make your own insect deterrents.  Make sure you test on a few leaves to insure that it won’t adversely affect the plant you are trying to protect.
All purpose spray.  1 garlic bulb, 1 onion, 1 teas dry cayenne pepper, 1 teas liquid soap, 1 quart of water.  Mix water, garlic, pepper and onion together in a food processer, let steep an hour or so, drain through cheesecloth, add liquid soap and you are ready to spray away!
Hot pepper spray.  Good for repelling insects, squirrels, rabbits, and other curious mammals.  1 cup of hot peppers in a quart of water.  Mix in food processor, strain through a cheesecloth and you are ready to use.  Be careful to not get the liquid on your hands and then touch your eyes or mouth.  It will burn.
Tomato-leaf spray.  This is toxic to soft bodied insects like aphids.  It also attracts beneficial wasps.  Take the leaves off the bottom of your tomato plant, 2 cups.  Put in food processor with 1.5 quarts of water.  Let steep overnight, strain out leaves.  Spray on affected leaves, especially the undersides where they like to hide.

If you are just overrun with the bad bugs, you can look on OMRI web site to see what the organic insecticides are:  OMRI approved list  I use Safer Insecticidal Soap, Neem Oil, and Bt for my indoor plants.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

What's happening in the August garden

Garden in the morning
Sunday, August 12, 2018

August sees the full swing of the summer, warm season garden harvests.  Late sweet corn (plant corn in succession and different varieties to lengthen the harvest), summer squashes (like zucchini), peppers of all types (sweet to hot, hot), tomatoes, Mediterranean herbs, cucumbers, okra, apples, peaches, pears, grapes, beans, melons, figs, eggplant, honey, artichokes, blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, onion, and fennel are all in season in the Midwest.  

This year for warm season veggies, I am growing zucchini, tomatoes, peppers, herbs, greens, sprouting broccoli, Egyptian walking onions, eggplant, cucumbers, goji berry, green beans, and stevia.  I planted my zucchini late and it has not started to produce yet.  For zucchini, it is a good idea to replant at the beginning of August to keep the harvest going.  Many do the same with tomatoes.  I did plant 3 tomatoes later and they all look really healthy.

If you are not growing summer veggies in your own garden, your local farmers market is a great place to pick up these seasonal veggies to either eat or preserve.  The best buy on any fruit or vegetable is when it is in season.  You can get even better deals on any produce that has a few blemishes which have no effect on the flavor.  If you are going to can, freeze or dry them, just be sure to remove any blemishes first.

I pick what to have in our garden based on the harvest per foot of garden space needed.  Our garden is incorporated into the flower garden mulch bed and in pots, so we have to be choiceful on what to grow.

In pots, we have had great luck with  Egyptian walking onions (which can be harvested year round), peppers, eggplant, zucchini, cucumber, greens, fig, columnar apple, passion flower, sweet bay, greens, mint, goji berry, lettuce and celery.

I harvested the winter squash I grew in the last week, spaghetti squash.  
Spaghetti squash sitting on hummingbird vine
I have tried sweet and hot peppers in pots and the garden.  Overall, they seem to do the best in pots.  I am growing a couple of hot peppers-a pequin type, cayenne, Jalapeño, and Ancho.  I’ll use the tiny peppers in my season salt I make, the cayenne for hot sauce, Jalapeño in salsa, and the Ancho for chili powder.

My sweet peppers are doing well.  I  have gotten many peppers off my Pimento and several off the sweet pepper plants.  I planted all my peppers very late this year so they are doing well for how long they have been growing.

My first summer squash died from the vine borer.  Plant after June 1 to miss this insect.  The zucchini Cocozelle was planted later.  It is huge and has many blooms but no fruits yet.

I have one tomato in a pot that stays small.  Look for compact varieties if growing in a pot or in limited space in the garden.  Weekly care for plants in the ground is sufficient.  A pot with a water reservoir in the bottom is the best solution for lengthening the time between waterings when growing in pots.

I grow all of our herbs in the ground except sweet bay.  Sweet bay is a tender perennial and will not survive winters outside so I keep it in a pot to bring in each fall.    I had one last year that was supposed to be hardy in our zone and it didn’t make it.  I put my new ones in pots and will overwinter them in our unheated garage this winter.  Fall is a good time to plant perennial herbs.

Rosemary is also tender.  I have tried the several varieties that are supposed to be able to survive a Midwest winter and have yet to find one that will last past 2 seasons.  I have tried to also keep in a pot and bring in each winter, but have not had good luck with this approach, but many do.  So, this is an herb I will buy each spring if overwintering does not work out, plant in the garden, then preserve for the winter by harvesting late in the season and drying.

Flowers are doing great right now in the garden.  The zinnias, marigolds, dahlias, Hummingbird vine, and Cock's Comb are putting on a big show.
Red zinnia
A quick reminder, save the seeds from your best performers to plant next year.  You can replant seeds from any heirlooms or open pollinated plants.  Not only does it save you money, but it also gives you the plants that do the best under your garden and zone conditions.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Harvesting winter squash

Butternut squash
Saturday, August 11, 2018

It is winter squash harvest time!  
Winter squash are ready to harvest after the vine completely dies in late summer or fall.  Be sure to harvest your fruits before it gets too cold.  A frost or two is the max cold to leave them out in.  Definitely don't let them  sit through a freeze.

Squash originated in Mexico.  There are cave drawings from 8000 to 6500 BC depicting squash. Squash was grown extensively by Native Americans as part of the “Three Sisters”-squash, corn and beans.  Winter squash is chock full of vitamins, minerals, and fiber  Winter squash-one of the world's healthiest foods


Winter squash are those that take until late summer into fall to ripen and can be stored inside for months.  They include butternut squash, acorn squash, spaghetti squash, Hubbards, turbans and pumpkins.  Each vine does not produce many fruits.  We typically get 3 butternut or spaghetti squash off our vines, which is a decent yield.

Spaghetti squash sitting on Hummingbird vine
Winter squash is left on the vine until the vine dies and the fruit loses its sheen.
You should be able to poke the squash with your fingernail and it should just dent it, not puncture the skin.  Be sure to leave 2-4” of stem attached when you harvest.  Place in a warm, sunny place to allow the skin to toughen.  Then, store in a cool, dark location until ready to eat.

There are some amazingly diverse and cool winter squashes/pumpkins, from the bumpy and blue hubbards, to traditional pear shaped butternut to the exotic "turban" squash, so named because of the hat it appears to be wearing............  

Depending on the variety of winter squash, it can store well for months.   Butternut and spaghetti squash are long lasting common winter squash.   I have eaten butternut squash into June the following year! 
Acorn squash sitting in the window sill to toughen the skin
If you decide you want to grow winter squash next year, here are some tips.

Since it originated in a temperate zone, winter squash requires a long growing season.  It is best to start them indoors in the spring. Squash love organic matter and warm temperatures.  If you throw a few seeds in your compost pile, you will be rewarded with exuberant vines.
Plant when nighttime temps are 55F or warmer.  Add a fertilizer rich in phosphorous a week after transplanting, when flowers first appear and again when fruits begin to form.  They love water, too.  If growing in a pot, keep well watered and don’t let dry out.  Summer garden tips
Don’t panic when the first blooms fall off without producing any fruits.  There are male and female flowers.  If yours falls off, it was likely a poor guy that withered without the love a gal.  There can also be some false starts with malformed fruits.  Don’t worry, the plant will put on more blooms.  Everything you need to know to grow squash

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Time to harvest basil

Basil in the foreground
Sunday August 5, 2018

Basil is a native of Africa and other tropical areas of Asia where it has been cultivated for over 5,000 years.  It is a culinary herb that sends cooks into poetic rapture.  It is probably the favorite of the “sweet” herbs and well known from its use in Mediterranean cuisine.  It has a spicy bite when eaten fresh.

Basil contains a chemical that might help inflammatory bowel disease and arthritis called BCP, (E)-beta-caryphliene.  Basil is also great for taking the itch and swelling out of a mosquito bite.  Simply crush a leaf and run onto the bite.  It goes to work immediately while releasing its wonderful aroma at the same time.  For more information on vitamin and mineral content,   basil nutritional info

Basil and cilantro are the only annual herbs I grow.  All the rest of the herbs in the garden are perennials, meaning you plant them once and they come back every year.  I even had some basil "volunteers" return from last year's Cardinal basil.  I just dug them up from where they sprang up and replanted where I wanted them.

Herbs are the easiest to grow and what I started with before growing veggies.  Since most are perennials, you can start them spring, summer or fall.  Start a kitchen herb garden!

Harvesting Basil
For basil harvest, the key is to harvest before the basil gets too woody.  The best strategy to accomplish this is to not let the plant go to flower.  Just pinch off the flowers and use the fresh basil in a dish or salad.  

You get multiple harvests from each plant in a season.  I get three harvests in our Zone 7 garden.  Cut each stem back to the last 4 leaves. Give each plant a good dose of fish emulsion after harvesting to support quick leaf regrowth.  Bees love basil flowers so I plant Holy Basil and Cardinal Basil just to let them flower and keep the bees happy.

Basil plant after harvested
Basil before harvesting
Preserving Basil
You can freeze, dry, make basil into pesto, basil butter, basil vinegar, or basil oil.  

For freezing, you can freeze chopped leaves into ice cubes to be able to pop into sauces. You can also blanch and freeze.  If you don’t blanch, the frozen herb does not keep its color or flavor.  Blanching is simply throwing the herb leaves in a pot of boiling water for about 30 seconds and then quickly plunge them into a bowl or sink of ice water.  Dry the leaves then put the leaves on a cookie sheet, place in the freezer and when frozen, remove and put in quart freezer bags.  Now you can have fresh basil anytime you need it!

Harvested basil stems
For drying, I place the cut stems into a paper bag that I put in a dry, warm place.  You can also tie in bunches and hang upside down to dry.  Be sure to leave lots of open space between stems to discourage any mold.  When completely dry, I remove the leaves and place in canning jars.

I will take all of my dried herbs for the season and make it into "Herbes de Provence" that I use on and in everything!  I simply mix all my dried herbs together to make an herbal mix that tastes great on everything.  Make your own "Herbes de Provence"

My favorite way to preserve basil is to make pesto.  Pesto is a mixture of fresh basil, traditionally pine nuts (but I use any kind of nut I have on hand-walnuts, pecans, sunflower seeds, cashews), parmesan cheese, a few cloves of garlic, and olive oil.  You can add spinach or parsley.  Just throw them all together in a food processor and ta-da pesto!

I use about 8 cups of packed leaves (be sure to not include any tough stems), 1/2 cup nuts, 1 cup of olive oil, 1 and 3/4 cup of Parmesan, 8 cloves of fresh garlic and a teas of salt.  After processing, I put half in a quart freezer bag, lay flat in the freezer until ready to use.  Just thaw and toss with your favorite pasta or add to pizza, bruschetta, sandwiches or sauce for a quick and tasty meal.  
Pesto ready for the freezer
For basil butter, chop the basil and mix 1 Tbl, or to taste, into softened butter.

For basil vinegar, choose a white vinegar so that the taste of the basil shines through.  Place fresh basil leaves into an empty bottle and cover with vinegar.  Place in cool, dark area for a month.  Shake daily.  Strain out leaves and use!  You can accelerate the infusion process by covering the leaves with boiling vinegar.  Your creation will be ready in a week.

For basil flavored oil, chop 1 cup of leaves.  Heat 1 cup of oil on low, add herbs, stirring for 3-4 minutes.  Strain out leaves and keep oil refrigerated.  

Lots of options!

Basil turns black when temps get close to freezing.  Be sure to harvest all leaves when it looks like you are getting a frost.  You can also take the the tips and place in water to grow roots and pot indoors for winter harvests.  You can also dig up the plant and re-pot to bring indoors.  Be sure to put in a sunny window.  Basil won’t thrive indoors, but you will get enough to use as seasoning in your favorite dishes.


Growing Basil
Basil is easy to grow.  It loves warmth and melts when temps get even close to freezing.  The only watch out is too much water.  You’ll get the best flavor when you are stingy with water.

They don’t require much in the way of fertilizer.  Just fertilize at planting and once/month.  A good organic choice is blood meal.  Nitrogen encourages green growth which is what you are after when it comes to basil.  I also use Espoma's all natural fertilizer for vegetables, Garden-Tone.  It is a balanced fertilizer.

Basil grows well in pots indoors or out. If growing indoors, be sure to put in a sunny window.  Basil is a good companion plant to tomatoes so I place my basil plants next to my tomato plants in the garden.

It smells amazing when you brush up against it.  You can place next to a garden path to enjoy its fragrance every time you pass by.  To deter deer, plant fragrant herbs like basil around the perimeter of your garden.  Deer navigate with their sense of smell and avoid areas of strong smells.

When flowers appear, pinch them off.  This will encourage bushy growth and keep your basil from getting woody.  The flowers are edible and great adds to sauces or as a zing to salads.  The bees just love the small flowers.  Harvest any time you need.  Be sure to add to the dish at the very end of cooking to keep the strongest flavor.
Cardinal basil flowers
Sweet basil is used in Mediterranean cooking.  Popular types are Genovese (probably the most famous for Italian cooking), Mammoth and Lettuce Leaf.  Purple Ruffles is more decorative than culinary, but adds fun color as an infusion to vinegar.  Thai, lemon and holy basil are used in Asian cooking.   Cardinal basil has the most beautiful flowers.  I have both sweet basil and Cardinal basil in my garden every year.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Preserving peppers

Potted pepper plant
Saturday, August 4, 2018

For preserving the pepper harvest, you have some options-drying, freezing, pickling. I have also seen creative pepper jelly and preserve recipes for canning.  They sound really fun.  I may have to try a couple of them this fall.  Canning is much nicer to do when it has cooled off.  Peppers keep producing until a hard frost so there is lots of time left to experiment with preservation options!

Peppers love summer warmth.  Surprisingly, when it gets too hot (in the 90’s) they can start to drop flowers and get sunburned.  So, don’t be surprised when they are not as perky as earlier in the season.  They will come back when the temperatures get out of the stratosphere.  During extreme heat waves, they appreciate some shade.
Sweet pepper plant in the garden
If you have your peppers in pots, you can just roll them into a spot that gives some relief.  If they are in the ground, you can use a shade cloth, or a piece of picket fence or screen on the south or west side of the plant.  Or just wait for nature to take its course.
I have tried peppers in the ground and in pots.  They seem to do the best in a pot.  All the hot peppers I have ever tried are much more prolific than any sweet pepper I had tried.  I kept trying new types of sweet peppers, looking for a type that loves my garden conditions.  I finally found one.  I grew out some plants from the seed of a hybrid sweet yellow banana pepper.  I got yellow, orange and maroon sweet peppers from the seed that do great in my garden.  I now save the seed to re-grow in the garden.  
The small hot pepper that I overwinter is doing well called Chiltepin.  It is the oldest form of capsicum annum species and is very hot.  These tiny hot peppers, I just put on the counter to dry.    When completely dry, I will put in a jar.  I use these peppers in the grilling mix I make. 
I gave a boost to all our garden plants with Espoma Gardentone and Azomite last week end (for a make your own boost I have also used bat guano, feather meal, and kelp meal).  Potted plants should be fertilized a couple of times a month and garden bed veggies, once a month.  

Ancho/poblano pepper
Peppers dry easily.  The quickest way is to put in a dehydrator.  Just slice in half and pop in.  If you don’t have a dehydrator, you can use your oven on its lowest setting.  This year, I have just been leaving them on the window sill and they appear to be drying just fine.  You can also put on a screen in the sun or hang in a dry place.  The watchout for drying outside is the level of humidity.  In high moisture, they may spoil versus dry.
Dehydrate or sun dry your extra veggies

I am growing Ancho peppers for chili pepper.  My hubby loves lots of chili pepper in his chili.  I have been harvesting them for about a month now.

The bigger hot peppers I freeze whole to use in salsa throughout the winter and spring.  Quick, homemade salsa  I chop and freeze the pimentos to use in salad.  It is a key ingredient in the salad we love from the Pasta House restaurant.  For the recipe, see  Homemade salad dressing recipes with garden herbs   Typically, any food gets soft when thawed.  The Pimentos I have chopped and frozen retain their firmness even after thawing.

I also make hot sauce from the hot peppers.  It is super easy by slicing and placing in apple cider vinegar.  I typically use Cayenne peppers for hot sauce but any hot pepper that you like will do just fine.

If you have a pepper plant that did great this year, there are a couple ways to make sure you have them in your garden next season.  You can save seeds from your favorite peppers for next year's garden.  Just dry the seeds and put them in a freezer bag in the frig.  Be sure to save the seeds from the best fruits.  Seed saving-fun, easy and a cost saver  

Peppers are perennials that you can bring in to the house or garage to overwinter.  It gives them a jump on next season.  This has worked well for my hot peppers and not so well for the sweet peppers I have tried to overwinter in the garage.

For more tips on growing peppers, Peppers are for every taste and garden.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

The next step in garden production and your nutrition-soil minerals

Hummus-rich garden soil

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Ever wonder why we need added vitamins and minerals beyond what we get through our food?  Over the decades, the food we eat has gone down in nutritional value as the soil has gone down in fertility.  Truly, we are what we eat.  The nutritional value of what we grow is part the type of vegetable it is and a whole lot of what the plant is “fed” from the soil in which it grows.  

It really all starts with the soil.  Plants grow to the lowest constraint.  Like people, plants need a balanced diet with beneficial microbes, minerals and nutrition.  Veggies can't create minerals, but they can take them up from the soil if they are there.  Healthy veggies can take up more from the soil and create more nutrition in the plant.  A healthy plant will have the most nutrition.

Saying all a vibrant, robust vegetable plant needs is NPK (nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium) is like saying all a person needs is carbs, fat, and protein.  Those things are needed to survive, but you need much more to thrive.  Life is much more complex than three compounds!

When we think of the bouquet of the vitamins and minerals we need to be healthy, where do we think this comes from?  We can’t get it from osmosis!  We have to get these from what we consume.

I read a book recently by Steve Solomon and Erica Reinheimer called “The Intelligent Gardener; Growing Nutrient-Dense Food” that does a nice job of giving all the details about how minerals affect the tilth of the soil and the ability of the soil to support healthy, robust plants.  Steve is the guy that founded Territorial Seed Company.  

The minerals and nutrients we should be concerned about are calcium (Ca), magnesium (Mg), potassium (K), sodium (Na), phosphorous (P), sulfur (S), iron (Fe), copper (Cu), manganese (Mn), boron (B), Zinc (Zn), cobalt (Co), selenium (Se), silicon (Si) and molybdenum (Mo).  There are also other trace minerals that plants and our body needs.  It is a good idea to include Azomite or kelp to your garden quarterly during the growing season to supply the additional trace minerals.  I add 1 tablespoon per plant and water in.

Steve recommends getting a detailed soil analysis at the get-go.  For those just beginning to work with re-mineralization of the soil, he recommends Logan Labs for the testing.  You can get all the information you need on collecting the sample and sending off to the lab at      http://www.loganlabs.com/get-started.html.  Steve recommends the standard sample test.  At the moment the cost is $25.  They can also do a particle size distribution (clay, sand, silt) for an additional cost if you have been curious what your garden's soil type is.

When you get the results, Steve has posted a worksheet that you put your results from Logan Labs and it calculates for you what you need for amendments to get your soil super charged for growth and nutrition.  Here is the link:  http://soilanalyst.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/WorksheetRevision-03.pdf  It uses an acre as the basis.  For those of us doing small space gardening, just divide the number of square feet in your garden by 43560.  This will give you the pounds you need to add to your garden for each mineral on the spreadsheet.

It gives a summary of how to put your soil in balance with a worksheet at the end to enter the results from Logan Labs to calculate exactly what you need to add to your garden to get minerals at optimum levels.  He recommends going slow so as to not get any minerals in excess in your garden.  It is a lot easier to add minerals than take them away!
Victory Garden Poster from WWII
I also liked this spreadsheet from Logan Labs that gives by vegetable type their mineral needs:  http://www.loganlabs.com/doc/General-Guidelines-Vegetable-Crops.pdf  This can be handy if you are focused on one type of crop that you want to maximize your yield.

For most of us backyard/flower bed veggie gardeners that grow a variety, Steve’s spreadsheet is the way to go.  You can also do side dressings of amendments specific to certain veggies to give them a boost.  I do this for my fruiting plants like tomatoes, peppers and eggplants.  Blossom end rot is caused by a lack of minerals which these veggies are susceptible to. 

If the whole spreadsheet thing is just more complicated than you want to worry about, Logan Labs provides a service for giving you what you need to add to your garden.  There is also a listing on the SoilAnalyst web page:  http://soilanalyst.org  You can use an on line calculator from Erica that costs $9.50/year unlimited usage.  Here is the link:  http://growabundant.com/membership-account/membership-levels/  All you have to do is input the numbers from Logan Labs and it spits out the amendments you need.

If you are applying minerals to mulch and not tilling in, I would recommend to add the minerals in early winter and then a balanced fertilizer in the spring.  This gives time for the minerals to get down to where your roots will be growing in the spring.  

As you prepare your bed in the fall or spring, you should add fertilizer.  For a balanced organic fertilizer, here is what Steve recommends from his book for 100 square feet of garden space:
2 quarts oilseedmeal (soybean, cottonseed, or canolaseed meal)
1 pint feathermeal 
1 pint fishmeal
1 quart soft/collodial rock phosphate or bonemeal
1 quart kelp meal or 1 pint Azomite
1 quart agricultural gypsum

Once you get your soil in balance, you can keep it that way by recycling back what you take out by composting and using a balanced fertilizer.  Composting is possible in small spaces or even indoors  We do a combination of making our own and getting more that we need from a local horse farm.  Just be sure that if you get your compost from someone else that they are not using a systemic herbicide on their fields.  Herbicides don't know the difference between a veggie and a "weed".  

A quick chart showing the loss of minerals and correlation to disease:  http://www.ecoorganics.com/sick-soil/  Feed your soil, feed yourself.

If all this is a little too much for you, then be sure to add a nice thick layer of compost, use organic fertilizer per instructions on application rate, add Azomite for minerals per the instructions, and cover with mulch this fall.  By next spring, your garden will thank you.

Fall is a great time to put in any new garden beds you have been thinking of so the bed is teaming with worms and ready for planting the spring.  It is really easy to do.  You simply put down cardboard to smother the grass and then use the layers of compost, fertilizer, minerals and mulch.  Easy ways to make a new vegetable garden bed

Interplant your veggies in your new flower beds and get the added benefit of built in pollinators that come to see your flowers and weed suppression with mulch  Weed free, self fertilizing, till free garden beds