Sunday, May 21, 2017

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



Sunday, May 21, 2017

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.  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).  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.

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.
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.

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.

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.

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.

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

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Everything you need to know to grow squash


Zucchini bush in center

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Bush type zucchini squash
Squash is amazing.  It spans from huge pumpkins to small petit pan squash.  From the summer kings like zucchini to the fall princes like pumpkins.  They have an amazing array of sizes, shapes, and tastes.
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.  These three support each other's growth.  Beans provide nitrogen to the corn and squash.  The corn provides the stalks for the beans to grow up on.  

The sprawling squash vines crowd out any weeds.  
Squash love organic matter.  If you throw a few seeds in your compost pile, you will be rewarded with exuberant vines.

Zucchini is full of nutrition.  It contains antioxidants, carotenes, lutein, folates, potassium, vitamin A, vitamin C, and B vitamins.  For more specific nutritional information, Summer squash nutrition info
Plant when nighttime temps are 55F or warmer consistently.  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.
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 and you will be on your way to zucchini overload before you know it!
Baby acorn squash, blooms still attached
There are two basic categories of squash-winter and summer.  
Winter squash are those that take until late fall to ripen and can be stored inside for months.  My butternut squash will last until June in the pantry.  Winter squash includes butternut squash, acorn squash, spaghetti squash, Hubbards, turbans and pumpkins.  Each vine does not produce many fruits.  We got 3 butternuts off our vine last year, which is a decent yield.
Winter squash you typically leave on the vine until the vine dies and the fruit loses its sheen.   Then bring inside and store in a cool, not cold, dark place.
Turban squash





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............  


From left to right-hubbard and butternut squash

Baby zucchini squash, blooms still attached

Summer squash can be harvested all summer long.  I have grown them successfully for years in a pot.  This year I am planting in the flower bed and they have started blooming.  Summer squash include the ever popular zucchini, cushaw, pattypan, and yellow crookneck.
If growing summer squash in a pot, look for the bush varieties.  These are much more manageable.  I would recommend putting in a pot with a water reservoir as well as zucchini's love moisture.
Zucchini is notorious for getting huge overnight.  It is important to pick summer squash when smaller.  As they grow large, they become very seedy and just don’t taste nearly as good!  Check them daily.  If left to grow too large, you can always use them for zucchini bread which is delicious.

Since summer squash produces so many fruits, it needs to be fertilized and watered regularly in dry conditions.  I fertilize with an organic, granular fertilizer at least once a month.  I'll use tomato fertilizer on all my fruiting vegetables when I fertilize my tomatoes as it is good for all fruiting vegetables as well.  


The two biggest pest problems are squash bugs (left) and squash vine borer (below left are eggs and right is the adult).  Inspect the plant for squash bugs.  You can wear gloves, pick them off and throw them in a bowl of soapy water.

The squash vine borer is best thwarted by planting early or late.  They fly in mid-June.  If planting early, be sure to inspect regularly the stems for any eggs.  Scrap off any that you find.  When the eggs hatch, the catepillar will dig into the vine and eat its way through its length.  You will have a strong plant one day and a wilted on the next.  You can wrap the stem base as a preventative.  The good news is that your plant does get infested, you can replace with another one.  They grow quickly in warm temperatures and soils of summer.


The cucumber beetle can infect the plant with a bacterial disease called wilt or cucumber mosaic virus.  The cucumber beetles we get here look like yellow/green lady bugs (left).  There are also striped varieties (below).

Again, the gloves, pick and throw in soapy water technique works.  Or if you are not squeamish, you can just squish them.

In late summer in areas with high humidity, you can get powdery mildew.  This can be treated by spraying with baking soda, copper or fresh whey.  When watering be sure to not get the foliage wet and water in the morning so any extra is quickly evaporated.  I have found that planting a second plant around the first of July is the best approach.  This plant will be kicking in as the second starts slowing down.

With zucchini, you are begging people to take them come mid-summer.  I found some great ways to use all that extra  What to do with all that zucchini?!   I make into spaghetti noodles, use as a substitute for lasagna noodles, stuff, dry, and freeze.  You can also pickle or high pressure can.  There are many ways to creatively use and to preserve your zucchini harvest!  

If you bought a heirloom or open pollinated variety, you can easily save the seed to grow next year's plants.  From your best plant, let one get large, remove from the vine and leave it out in the garden bed.  the inner flesh will deteriorate leaving the seeds.  Just scoop out the seeds, put in a plastic baggie, date and keep in the frig for next year.  You can also scoop out the seeds from the fruit right off the vine and leave indoors the seeds indoors to dry.

If there is a variety that you love the looks and/or taste of from the store or farmers market, save the seeds and grow some of your own next year!

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Quick tip-What to start in the May garden

New seeds in pot
Thursday, May 18, 2017

There are many heat lovers you can plant in the mid-May garden.

The heat lovers to start in the garden now:  Beans-bush, vine and lima, Beets, Cantaloupe, Carrots, Corn, Cowpeas, Cucumbers, Eggplant, spring Kale, Lettuce (heat tolerant varieties), Okra, Peas, Peppers, Potatoes, Pumpkins and other types of Winter Squash (Acorn, Butternut, Turban, Hubbard, etc), Radishes, Summer Squash (Zucchini, Pattypan, Yellow Crookneck, etc), Sweet Potatoes, Tomatoes, Turnips and Watermelon.

Just be sure to keep the soil moist until sprouted and not to dry out until the seedlings are a nice size with a couple of sets of "true" leaves.  These are the leaves that develop after the initial set of leaves.

Just follow the seed packet instructions for how deep to plant and spacing.   I like to put the large seeds like squash, cucumber, beans and peas directly into the garden.  For the smaller seeds, I will start in a pot and then when they are a sturdy size, transplant them into the garden bed.

Chard and lettuce ready to be transplanted to the garden



Sunday, May 14, 2017

What's happening in the mid May edible garden

Herbs and lettuce in the garden

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Mid May is a wonderful time in the garden.  There are many greens for salads or steaming.  Herbs are growing robustly.  By this time of year, we no longer need to purchase produce from the grocery store and can get fresh herbs to add to ordinary dishes that make them taste wonderful.

The greens we are eating-French sorrel, chard, spinach, dandelion greens, salad burnet, corn salad, chick weed, sweet clover, green onions, tyfon, Giant Red mustard, sprouting broccoli leaves, snow peas, turnip greens.

Herbs to add to dishes and salads-chives, cilantro, parsley, rosemary, oregano, thyme, horseradish, overwintered leeks, Egyptian onions, tarragon, sage, dill, young garlic. 
The fruits and veggies-turnips, beets, strawberries carrots.

The flowers that are blooming-irises, marigolds, roses and the herbs and veggies going to seed-yellow flowers of the sprouting broccoli, white flowers on the cilantro, the sage has beautiful purple flowers, the white flowers of thyme, lavender chive flowers.  All veggie and herb flowers are edible.  A fun way to add flavor and beauty to salads or other dishes.

The lettuce is beginning to bolt so soon there will be the white, yellow and blue flowers from the different kinds of lettuce.  A couple of the carrots are starting to bolt, too.  If not pulled, they will have beautiful flowers resembling Queen Ann's Lace, which they are from the same family.  

The peonies and late blooming tulips came and went early this year.  

Potted lettuce
This week end, I weeded in the garden and pots.  We got some horse manure compost from a local rancher and it appears it was quite full of grass seeds.  Most were smothered by the mulch, but some managed to make it through.  Small price to pay, though, for that great organic matter.  I also added Azomite, which is chock full of minerals, and an organic fertilizer to all the edible plants.  It has been about a month since my last fertilizing.  

It is a good idea to wait 10 days after planting new plants before you give them much fertilizer.  It has been that long for the pepper and tomatoes.  I used Espoma's Tomato-Tone on both since they are both fruiting vegetables so have similar needs.

There has been an insect feeding on my tomato leaves and something chewing off a few of my transplants at the ground.  I sprinkled diatomaceous earth (de) on and around only the plants that were being bothered.  De is not discriminate between good insects and bad insects so I use sparingly.  I would not use on a plant that is flowering to avoid killing pollinators.

Once the plants get up to a decent size, they will no longer be at risk of being killed or stunted from being an insect's meal.   
Foreground is Giant Red mustard, in the middle are summer veggies, background are onions

I have also had a very enterprising mole in the garden.  The good part of this is that they do a great job of loosening up the soil.  The bad part is that if there tunnels go under your plant, there is a good chance, the plant will die.  I got out the mole deterrent and put it in the garden.  It is just a round metal tube that vibrates and makes a buzzing noise a few times a minute.  Hopefully, it will keep the mole from the garden!

I have been harvesting the extra greens and freezing them to use when needed.  By harvesting, it stimulates the plant to grow even more leaves.  My spinach did much better this year in the pot and garden.  I was very generous with the fertilizer!  Preservation garden

I do have a handful of plants that did not make it when transplanted or were an insect meal.  I have replacements started in the pot.  Planted the seeds a few days ago.  Should sprout in 7-10 days then I'll let them get there first real leaves on and to a nice size before transplanting them back into the garden. 
Seeds planted in pot

Sunday, May 7, 2017

My 2017 Edible Garden Plan

Mid-May garden
Sunday, May 7, 2017

There are veggies and herbs I keep in my garden year after year and then there are the “experiments”.  I have my standby’s but I love trying new things each year.  New varieties or just new kinds of edibles.  I try new varieties to find the ones that are most prolific for my garden conditions and taste.

The perennials in the garden are your back bone.  They come back year after year with no effort on your part.  They are the first up in the spring and the last to leave in the winter.  If the winters are not harsh, many are harvestable year round.  Midwest Perennial Vegetable Garden

Edible perennials in our garden:
Herbs-lavender, bay laurel, rosemary, thyme, sage, mint, thyme, oregano, salad burnet, common chives, tarragon, horseradish, garlic, Elephant garlic, and leeks.  For more on growing herbs, Start a kitchen herb garden!  I am adding a creeping thyme with various flower colors this year.  Our rosemary did not make it through the winter, even though it is hardy in our zone.  I am trying two new hardy varieties Tuscan Blue and Arp.  The sage was so large that I was able to take a good part from a self-rooting stem and replant at my mother-in-laws.
Vegetables/Fruits-Goji berry, potato onions, Egyptian walking onions, French sorrel, blood veined sorrel, chard, cultivated dandelions, strawberries, apples, figs.  Corn salad, cilantro and sprouting broccoli both came back from their own seed.  I also had many self seeders come back: carrots, tomatoes, corn salad, lettuce, and cilantro. 

I have annual herbs, flowers and vegetables that I grow each year.  Most I have to either start from seed or purchase bedding plants from the store.  There are some that self sow and will come back year after year with no effort on your part.  Self-seeding crops, plant once and forget 'em
Large seeds are started in peat pots with starting soil and small seeds in the Aerogarden on right
Edible annuals I can’t live without that I have in my garden this year:
Herbs-celery (Utah), cilantro (Slo Bolt since our springs are short), basil (Lettuce Leaf and Genevose for cooking and pesto), borage, Wild Zaatar oregano (from Jordan/Israel), two new varieties of sage (Blue Monday and Salvia Sirius Blue mainly for their blue flowers), dill, English thyme and chervil for cooking and adding to body oil.  I have to have parsley in the garden.  It is a self-sower and usually comes back each year, which it did this year so no more are needed.  
Vegetables/Fruits-Solid red Terra Rose and solid blue Purple Majesty potatoes (started from seed potatoes), sweet peppers (Sweet Yellow banana, overwintered Ancient Red, Pizza, Feher Ozon paprika, Healthy), hot peppers (a Sicilian pepper Bocca Rossa, Ancho and Poblano for chili powder), summer squash (Early Prolific Straightneck and Cocozelle), green beans (vine types-Romano II, Scarlet Runner, Golden Sunshine Runner, Purple Podded and Bean Blauhilde), storage beans (Portal Jade, Good Mother Stollard and King of the Garden lima beans) and tomatoes (Cherokee Purple, Italian Red Pear an heirloom paste, Principe Borghese, Chocolate Pear, small and medium yellow storage tomatoes from Sicily, Black Vernissage, Lucid Gem, Patio Princess for the pot, and Rosella).  I always keep cayenne and jalapeƱo peppers in the freezer for salsa and cooking.  Right now, I don’t think I need to restock so I’ll wait and see on planting this year.

Other veggies I am doing this year are carrots, turnips (Purple Top and Golden), beets (Chioggia), tyfon for greens, Red Rubin brussels sprouts, many varieties of chard (Verde de Taglio, Bright Lights, Rainbow Neon Glow, Fordhook, Golden, Perpetual), Radish Rat's Tail, Spaghetti squash, Red Burgundy Okra, cucumbers (Mini White, Homemade Pickles, and Jaune Dickfleischige) and eggplant (Turkish Orange, Casper, and Kazakhstan).

For greens, I always plant and start a variety of lettuces, spinach and Giant Red mustard.  Lettuce plants purchased: Red Romaine, Buttercrunch, Red Leaf, Paris Island Cos, and Crisphead.  I'll need to start heat resistant types soon like Jericho Romaine and Simpson Elite loose leaf Bolt-free, sweet summer lettuces   I'll also have to so some Grand Rapids as it was one my Granny grew in her garden.  If you let your lettuce go to seed, you can save them and never have to buy lettuce seed again.  Never ending salad from one packet of seeds  I am also growing Dwarf Moringa.  It's a small tree that leaves are chock full of protein and can be used as a green.
Flowers interplanted with herbs and edibles
Annual flowers seeds started:
I always add flowers to the garden.  Not only do they look nice, they attract pollinators that increase yields.  Cock’s comb from seed my dad gave me years ago, Hummingbird vine from seed a neighbor gave me years ago, marigold (great deer and pest deterrent), sunflowers, Love Lies Bleeding amaranth, zinnias, Moonflower vine, blue morning glory, hollyhock (Summer Carnival and Peach), Roselle Red Hibiscus and delphinium.  For fun, you can add edible flowers to the garden.  Growing and using edible flowers

I started the most of the small seeds in the Aerogarden and the large seeds (squash, beans, Moonflower, cucumber, sunflower) I started in peat pots on a heating mat.  I planted the beans directly in the garden.

I decided against broccoli, cabbage or cauliflower this year because the beetle pests were awful last year.  All three of these are in the same family.  Without their preferred food this year, the pests should die off and I’ll plant back in the garden next year.

I plant the crops that like cool weather on the north side and where there is more shade to extend the season.  The heat lovers I plant where they get the most sun and won’t be shaded by others as they grow. 

I like to interplant flowers and crops.  This keeps the pests down by not planting one type of crop all together.  The flowers attract pollinators and can even repel pests. Get the most from your space-plant intensively!  Place this year’s crops in a different spot than they were last year.  Practicing crop rotation does two things.  Each type of plant uses different minerals and nutrients from the soil.  Smart rotation will keep your soil from getting depleted of what your crops need.  Rotation also keeps the pests down.  Crop rotation made easy for small gardens

For more on preparing your soil for plant (and crop) nutrition, check out this blog.  The next step in garden production and your nutrition-soil minerals

Last summer, my veggies just didn't seem to do as well as years past.  We got a lot of rain so that wasn't the problem.  By the end of the summer, we finally figured it out.  The rain was washing away the fertilizer faster than usual.  I applied a triple dose and everything perked up.  This year, I am going to keep a close eye on the growth of our plants and when they slow down, I'll be sure to give the plants some more food.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

For year round steamed greens, grow chard!

"Bright Lights" chard
Saturday, May 6, 2017

Chard is a wonderful green, chock full of vitamins.  It can be eaten when small in salads.  The large leaves can be harvested for steamed/cooked greens.  The stems can be steamed or braised as a substitute for celery.  Chard has been around for centuries.  It hails from Sicily and was known as sicula.  No one is quite sure how it became known as Swiss Chard.

It is also ornamental if you pick one of the many beautiful colored ribs-shades of red, orange, pink, yellow.  They grow tall when planted in the ground so make a great focus in the back of the garden bed.  Chard also does well in containers for small spaces.
Potted chard
It is a tender perennial in our Midwest garden.  It grows in all seasons.  One of the hardiest Swiss Chard is the heirloom Fordhook and Perpetual.  Only the coldest weather kills it back to the ground, if not covered.  It is one of the first greens to sprout in the spring.

Chard can grow in about any condition or soil, even shade.  For the mildest taste, plant chard in fertile soil and do not let get water stressed.  It appreciates shade in the hottest time of summer; heat stress can cause it to take on a bitter taste.  As it gets warmer, the white ribbed chard in our flower bed, "Perpetual Spinach", remains mild in taste, more spinach like than chard.  It is also the most cold hardy, surviving through Zone 6 winters.

Chard handles the summer heat.   Like most greens, the more you harvest it, the longer before it bolts.  Even with seed heads, the taste does not become too strong when steamed.  You should harvest the outer, lower leaves frequently to stimulate new center leave growth.  For the most succulent leaves, harvest in the morning or right after a rain.  Growing summer salads

Chard is easy to preserve.  Simply harvest the leaves, clean, dry and freeze.  I lay out my leaves on a cookie sheet and quick freeze, then put into freezer bags.  Freezing the extras for winter  Don't forget to label with the type and date; frozen greens all look about the same.  You'll want to use the oldest first.


Baby "Perpetual Spinach" Chard

Chard is a power house of nutrients.  It is an excellent source of vitamins A, B6, thiamine, C, and K; contains fiber, carotenes, chlorophyll, and several minerals-potassium, iron, manganese, calcium, selenium, zinc, niacin, folic acid and even protein.  To top it off, chard is very alkalizing for the body and considered one of the most potent anti-cancer foods.  SELF has a cool nutritional database for details on nutritional values of food.  For chard, Chard nutrition info

You can either start chard from seed  Indoor seed starting tips  Outdoor seed sowing seed starting times  Or you can pick up plants at big box stores or your neighborhood nursery.  Nowadays, they have many colors and varieties available as plants.  If you want more unusual types, seeds are a great way to explore.

If this is your first year gardening, here are a couple of gardening blogs to help you get started.  For a garden bed, Easy kitchen garden  For a pot garden in a small space, Decorative container gardening for edibles