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Abloom in Your Small Kitchen Garden in July 2010

Yes, some of the broccoli has gotten away from me. I’ve planted the same variety for two years, and in both years it has produced tiny heads. I kind of loose interest in it, though we do eat most of the side shoots. This winter I’ll be shopping around for a breed of broccoli that makes giant heads… the tiny yields I’ve had lately aren’t worth the garden space.

It’s Garden Bloggers Bloom Day, an event that happens on the 15th of each month. Founded by Carol over at May Dreams Gardens, Bloom Day beckons garden bloggers the world over to post photographs of what’s abloom in their gardens. Most of these posts have pictures of beautiful flowers in gorgeous ornamental gardens. Alas, my small kitchen garden isn’t about pretty.

Still, I love the blossoms nearly as much as I love the vegetables… and seeing them heightens my anticipation for the harvest that’s likely to follow. Things are doing extremely well this season. Early heat followed by drought has finally relented to several days of rain and more typical summer temperatures.

Here are the flowers I photographed this afternoon in my small kitchen garden:


I haven’t planted dill this year, but there are many dill weed blossoms in my small kitchen garden. The flowers attract all kinds of insects. If I let the dill go to seed as it did last year, I imagine the planting bed will be a veritable lawn of dill sprouts in the spring.


The oregano jungle has rebounded from some autumn and spring culling. The flowers are delicate and they provide beautiful contrast for nearly half the growing season. Still, I need to be more aggressive culling this fall; the oregano patch increases about a third in size in a season.


Onion blossoms make me happy. The globe of tiny flowers emerges in late spring and lingers for weeks. I cut a bouquet of onion flowers for the dining room table, and they’ve filled the room with a delicious onion aroma for nearly a month. I don’t encourage you to harvest your onion flowers; I had missed a few bulbs last fall, and what sprouted this spring needed to go to make way for the 2010 crops.


We’ve eaten bell and poblano peppers from the small kitchen garden this year, and there are dozens of banana peppers ready to harvest. Happily, there are many pepper blossoms which portend a massive harvest. I expect I’ll pickle a lot of peppers… and probably give away a whole bunch of them.


This sad specimen is an early cucumber blossom on a plant growing in a container. This is the first time I’ve grown cucumbers, so I’ll probably do some research to learn about what bugs eat cucumber blossoms… I haven’t seen this kind of abuse on my winter squash blossoms in past seasons.


The potato blossoms here stand above the background of the cardboard tube in which the plants are growing. I wrote about this project in a post titled Plant Potato Towers in your Small Kitchen Garden. In two of three planters, the potato plants have grown up through an accumulated 3 feet or more of soil. I’ve stopped adding soil, and the plants have gone on to grow well above the containers and produce flowers. One of my neighbors has asked me to invite him when I tip the containers over and dig out the potatoes. He’s as curious as I am to see how things come out.


Oh, the tomato blossoms abound! This has been the season of the great seed-starting debacle: I planted a whole bunch of seeds indoors, and they didn’t sprout. So, I planted again as many. This second batch sprouted about when the first batch sprouted; I ended up with double the seedlings I’d intended. After giving away many tomato seedlings, I crammed 84 plants into my small kitchen garden where I have traditionally planted 24.


While photographing flowers today, I found the very first barely pink tomato of the season! This may be the largest chili-pepper-shaped paste tomato I’ve harvested, and many more on the plants are just as big. Why did I pick it when it’s so under ripe? I explained last season in a post titled The Vine-Ripened Tomato Lie. This baby will finish ripening on my dining room table.

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Small Kitchen Garden Seed-Starting Shelf

Before I started this simple project, my larder was a mess: two shelves of canned goods and empty jars jumbled every which-way. The lower shelf, I decided, could hold all the canned goods if I put the empty jars in boxes and stored them out of the way (actually on the very highest shelf where I’d stored several dozen empty jars I’d bought on sale at the close of 2009’s canning season). Once cleared, the upper shelf would become my seed-starting station.

I’m ready to start seeds for my small kitchen garden! I recently posted about my epiphany that I could clear a shelf in my larder and use it to start seeds. Today, I did the heavy lifting: I consolidated the canned goods onto one shelf, packed the empty jars into boxes, and cleared the way for seed planters.

I’m showing the setup to encourage you: you don’t need anything particularly fancy to start your own seeds prior to planting outdoors. I was lucky to have a shelving unit that I could repurpose, but last year I’d used a ping-pong table. There are only three critical issues you must address:

Seedlings Need Plenty of Light

Standard incandescent or fluorescent light sources aren’t adequate unless you can get them very close to your seedlings. Last season I planted tomato seeds in a table-top greenhouse, and positioned fluorescent lights about eight inches above them. The seeds sprouted in only two days (I’d expected it to take a week or more), and almost immediately grew too tall and slender reaching toward the light.

Small Kitchen Garden Larder & Seed Starting Shelf

The lower shelf holds seven gallons of applesauce, five quarts of squash, a quart of red pepper relish, a gallon of salsa, two gallons of tomato sauce, two quarts of halved tomatoes, about three gallons of assorted jams and jellies, a quart of black raspberry syrup, and about two quarts of pickles. When I took the photo, I’d already hung a shop light above the upper shelf. The four-foot by one-and-a-half-foot space will be plenty for the number of seeds I plan to start indoors this winter.

When seedlings emerge, the light should be within three inches of them… and as the seedlings grow taller, you need to maintain the light source just a few inches from the leaf-tops.

If you want to grow large seedlings… or even grow plants that are flowering by the time they can move outdoors… a single light source above the leaves may not be adequate. While the top layer of leaves may get enough light, lower leaves won’t, and the plant could have weak stems, withered leaves, and other growth problems.

For typical seedlings started four-to-six weeks before your area’s last frost, lights a few inches above the plants will be adequate.

Seeds and Seedlings Need Warmth

Small Kitchen Garden Seed Starting Shelf

With one light fixture mounted, my seed-starting shelf could already accommodate three starter trays holding more than 200 seeds. I hung two light fixtures so one can illuminate the shortest seedlings while the other handles taller plants.

This is less intuitive than the light issue, but it’s more important at least until your seeds sprout. Some seeds will sprout when the soil temperature is above 40F degrees while others wait until the temperature is 70F degrees or higher. A tomato seed that takes seven-to-ten days to sprout at 70F degrees may sprout in two days at 85F degrees.

After sprouting, seedlings may not grow robust if the temperature is low. Tomatoes and peppers, for example, originate from warm climates and do best in summer heat. Chances are you don’t keep your house anywhere near as warm as these plants would like; it’s important to compensate on your plants’ behalf.

Last year, I’d used picture-hanging wire to dangle one shop light from the suspended ceiling in the kids’ play room, and twine to hang a second shop light. It took a few minutes to tie those lights to the frame of one of my larder’s shelves. It will be short work to raise or lower the lights to optimal heights above the seedlings that emerge in March.

Last season, I pushed the ping-pong table against a wall above a baseboard radiator. Warm air from the heater kept my seed planters warm. This year I’ll probably put a heating pad on my seed-starting shelf; I keep my office about 62F degrees, and I don’t want my seedlings to have to meet the world with cold feet.

Seeds and Seedlings Need Moisture

Of course you need to keep the soil moist as a seed puts out roots and then a seedling. It’s also a good idea to keep the air around the seedling moist. The tiny peat pellets or starter pots people typically use to start seeds can dry out very quickly. By keeping them in a moist environment, you reduce your need to water.

I may wrap my seed-starting shelf with plastic to trap in heat from the lights and moisture evaporating from the seedlings. By erecting a tent around the plants and lights, I’ll create a greenhouse environment that should make young seedlings very happy indeed.

Small Kitchen Garden Tomato Starts

With both shop lights mounted, the first four residents of my seed-starting station moved in. A few weeks ago, I decided to test the tomato seeds I harvested last season. I planted four in a single peat pellet and all of them sprouted. I’m determined to keep them alive until I can move them outside… in April or May. The plants are already stressed from being crowded, so I’ll be transplanting them into pots later today or tomorrow.


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Seed-Starting Epiphany for my Small Kitchen Garden

This is where I set up the ping-pong table and started seeds indoors last March. The cardboard boxes and other items are props for an Odyssey of the Mind (OM) team’s upcoming performance. OM is a youth competition in which teams follow detailed instructions to build things, create stories, write scripts, and put on performances… all with no instruction from adults. I love the organization (my kids obviously love participating), but I hate what it does to my basement for three or so months each year.

For every small kitchen garden in the northern hemisphere, it’s time to get organized for the coming growing season. In hardiness zones seven and warmer, you could already have seeds starting indoors, while folks in zones six and colder should at least be getting organized to start seeds.

I’ve been musing about last year’s seed-starting: Last year I set up the ping-pong table and hung shop lights from the suspended ceiling in the kids’ play room. However, I didn’t start seeds until mid-March… pretty much after the annual Odyssey of the Mind disaster cleared out of the basement.

This year, I want to get seeds going a little earlier. Actually, I already started four tomato plants that are ready for “potting up.” That is: they’ve outgrown the peat pellet in which I planted them (yes, four seeds in a single peat pellet), and they’re ready to go into individual nursery pots. After that, I’d like to start broccoli and cauliflower within the week so I have some well-established plants I can set in the garden when the ground thaws.

My larder is at least as messy as the kids’ play room. However, if I consolidate everything from two shelves onto one, and store all the empty jars in boxes, I can clear a shelf to hold my seed starting planters and some fluorescent lights. I might even wrap the space above the seed-starting shelf with plastic and add a heating pad to create a warm, humid space that will coax tomato and pepper seeds to sprout.

Where to Start my Small Kitchen Garden?

Odyssey of the Mind is in full-swing in the kids’ play room; there’s no chance of setting up the ping-pong table until after March 13th. So, I’ve been musing about where to fit a seed-starting operation into the rest of my messy life.

In the meantime, I continue to create photos and videos that I might some day incorporate into blog posts… and yesterday I took some shots of my larder: there’s a story there about how full my larder was in November, and how empty it has already become in January.

Actually, my larder is no emptier than I expected it would be. I put up dozens of eight-ounce jars of jam and jelly during the growing season, figuring they’d vanish in December as my kids and my wife gave them to teachers and coworkers. That nearly cleared one storage shelf, while our steady consumption of canned tomatoes, apple sauce, syrups, jams, jellies, squash, and pickles has cleared quite a bit more space.

The shelves are messy as I’ve grabbed jars randomly, and put back the empties. But when I was taking pictures of the clutter, I had this epiphany: If I consolidate full jars onto one shelf, and box up the empty jars, I can clear a shelf and start seeds there!

The steel grill shelving of my larder provides plenty of places to tie up four-foot-long fluorescent shop lights. In case you’re looking for a dedicated seed-starting place, I want to emphasize: it’s hard to provide enough light for plants—particularly for plants you hope to eat some day. When sprouts emerge, they should find either full spring sunlight shining on them… or light from a fluorescent bulb or tube mounted within two or three inches of the leaves.

A Kitchen Gardener’s Seed Starting Setup

My canned goods sit on a steel shelving unit. I can hang fluorescent shop lights from one shelf so that I can easily raise them as plants grow tall. I’ll line the shelf under the light with something to catch spills, and set my seed-starting pots and containers there. Setting this up will be very simple, and caring for the seedlings will be convenient as my larder is in my office where I work nearly every day.

I especially like the idea of using my larder shelves for starting seeds because of the continuity it highlights: The shelves become the birthing room for the plants that will eventually provide food I’ll can and store on those same shelves. It’s the circle of life!


More articles about starting seeds

  • GlowPanel 45 LED Grow Light Seed Starting Shelf – I have 8 GlowPanel 45 LED grow lights on this rack (2 per shelf). I’ve been using them to start my seeds in peat pellets, then move them up to my bottomless pipe pots which are sitting on capillary mats, with a water reserver under them …

  • Design*Sponge » Blog Archive » small measures with ashley … – I saw this clever seed starting shelf and thought, ‘I bet ikea has something that would work!’. The addition of bottom heat is essential! …

  • Pure-N-Simple Gardens: Whats Growing On Under Those Lights? – You can view my step by step instructions on how to build a seed starting shelf here. This is a very simple building project that will allow you to easily assemble, and disassemble your shelving unit each year without having to unscrew …

  • Seed Starting 101: Seedling Heat Mats and Inexpensive Alternatives – Whether you buy a seedling heat mat or put together a DIY alternative, I hope you’ll consider adding extra heat to your seed starting shelf this winter. The results will amaze you! For additional information on seed starting, …

  • A Few Seed Starting Tips – I’ve just turned the seed-starting shelf lights on for the first time this season. I would have turned them on yesterday, but with the lack of outlets in my basement, it would have necessitated me emptying out the basement chest freezer …

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Packaging Seeds from my Small Kitchen Garden

I laid out seeds, envelopes, and envelope labels on a table in my billiards room. While I’m giving away Blue Hubbard squash, neck pumpkin, and paste tomato seeds, I also collected seeds from butternut squash, dill weed, and several types of peppers. Most of these will go to The Dinner Garden, a charity that provides seeds to family’s starting gardens in response to economic difficulties.

Two weeks ago, Your Small Kitchen Garden offered up sets of seeds to visitors who asked for them. I’ve been pleased by the response; more than 40 people have left comments requesting seed sets. A complete set includes six seeds of Blue Hubbard squash, six seeds of neck pumpkin, and twenty seeds of chili-pepper-shaped paste tomatoes.

In that post I joked that I’d judge comments on creativity and humor, and I’ve enjoyed the humor in some of the comments. However, the only criteria for receiving seeds are:

  1. Leave a comment explaining which seeds you most want to grow
  2. Complete a “Contact Us” form with your mailing address
  3. Do these things before the seeds run out.

The Small Kitchen Garden Seed Project

I’ve been packaging seeds. To do this, I set up a small table in the corner of my billiards room and laid out all the seeds I saved last season. I designed and printed simple labels and stuck them on coin envelopes. As I started to count out seeds and package them it occurred to me: what if the seeds aren’t viable? I’d feel rotten to learn I’d sent seeds to so many people, and none of those seeds sprouted.

More than a week after planting, one of the three tomato seeds I planted to test viabiity sprouted. By the time I finished this post nearly 2 days later, all three seeds had sprouted. I’m mailing out more than 40 packs of these seeds in the coming week. If you left a comment on my post Free Seeds from Your Small Kitchen Garden, did you also send your mailing address to me via the web site’s Contact Us form? I noticed many visitors overlooked that important step.

So, I test-planted some tomato seeds and waited. Last March, when I started tomato seeds indoors, I had sprouts two days after planting! This January, there were no sprouts for over a week. Finally, on Monday, the first tomato seed sprouted. On Tuesday, two more sprouts appeared. These seeds are viable!

As the cutoff date for my seed giveaway approaches, I’ve packaged up several dozen sets of seeds. I’ve more to package, and I haven’t yet addressed all the envelopes, but I’m confident these seeds will perform when treated properly.

I’m excited to share the seeds; I hope that many of the people who receive them will write once or twice to tell me how their seeds do, and to tell me what they think of the produce they grow.

In the meantime, I’ve already started this year’s small kitchen garden; I’m going to try to keep my tomato seedlings alive indoors until April. I’ll build a tent around them to trap in some moisture and heat, and I’ll flood the tent with light. If things go well, I’ll transplant into larger containers once or twice, so I’ll have very large plants when it’s time to move them outdoors.

By “potting up” the plants this way, I may get a 30-day or better jump on the tomato-growing season. Who knows? Maybe I’ll harvest a few tomatoes in early July this year.



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Friends for a Kitchen Gardener

italian tomatoes

When I first posted about these unusual tomatoes, I called them “Italian” tomatoes. Since then, other people have suggested they are “Dutch” tomatoes. I had not heard the term “paste tomato” by 2008, but I understand now that the category of paste tomatoes includes those that are mostly meat with relatively little liquid. These are paste tomatoes. What’s more they have a striking resemblance to the Andes tomato I found in an online seed catalog. My neighbor has been growing them for years.

I started writing Your Small Kitchen Garden in August of 2008, and that emboldened me to visit a neighbor whose garden I had eyed from the road for more than a decade. I wrote about that neighbor’s garden in this blog on September 15, 2008 in a post titled A Large Kitchen Garden.

I very much enjoyed meeting these neighbors, and was fascinated with the unusual chili-pepper-shaped tomatoes they were growing. I was moved a bit when they handed me two of the curious tomatoes insisting that I should save the seeds and grow them in my own small kitchen garden in 2009.

Tomato Luck in my Small Kitchen Garden

I needn’t remind anyone what a miserable growing season 2009 presented in the northeastern and the southwestern United States. I got lucky: while late blight destroyed tomato patches all over Pennsylvania, I harvested several bushels of tomatoes before lesions appeared on my plants.

Among the tomatoes I harvested were dozens and dozens of those chili-pepper-shaped treats grown from seeds I saved from my neighbor’s gift. I raved about those tomatoes in my blog. They are awesome-sweet and flavorful, and I served many of them in my favorite tomato salad. As well, I canned gallons of sauce, diced tomatoes, and tomato halves. After all that, I also dried tomatoes using my toaster oven’s dehydrate setting.

I saved seeds. In fact, I collected seeds from, perhaps, a third of the uninfected chili-pepper-shaped tomatoes I harvested in 2009.

Growing Pains for Kitchen Gardeners

By the time blight hit my small kitchen garden, I had seen its effects on many other local gardens. Driving past my neighbor’s yard nearly daily, I watch his garden evolve through tilling and early growth and then go right into death throws. I never saw tomato plants there rise above surrounding vegetation and I wondered: did he lose his entire crop? Worse: did this miserable growing season break his streak of growing those lovely chili-pepper-shaped tomatoes? I wondered whether he had harvested seed… or whether he had seed left over from 2008 that he might try again in 2010.

lima bean

My neighbor grew lima beans two years ago, but told stories of a giant variety of lima beans that they used to grow until the crop failed on year. I’ve seen giant lima bean seeds in catalogs, so I’m going to track some down and do some seed-sharing.

So, while preparing seeds to mail to readers who have participated in my free seeds giveaway, I thought I’d take a packet of seeds to my neighbor. I figured he might be glad to have fresh ones from 2009 so he could grow more of those cool tomatoes.

Gardening Friends

It had been a year and a half, but it took only a moment for my neighbors to remember me. We talked a bit about what a horrible season 2009 had been for kitchen gardeners, and I learned that their garden had suffered a lot from the constant rain. Turns out, being an in-ground bed, their garden doesn’t drain, so it does best during very dry years when everyone else must add water to get decent results.

It wasn’t clear whether my neighbors were seedless, but they seemed genuinely grateful for the seeds, and quite happy to talk about their garden and the coming season. He will be 82 years old next month, and still he’s figuring to manage his large garden bed.

I agreed to track down seeds for super giant lima beans and visit again before it’s too late to plant them. Apparently, my neighbors grew such lima beans years ago but things didn’t work out one season and they’ve lost the strain.

In any case, as I’m sure most gardeners would attest: talk with gardeners about gardening, and you’re making friends. That’s how it felt yesterday, and I’m looking forward to another visit.



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Free Seeds from Your Small Kitchen Garden

FREE SEED OFFER HAS EXPIRED. Please note: The next-to-last paragraph in this post reads: This offer is good through February 5, 2010.

This 20 pound neck pumpkin went into canning jars and so far has produced a delicious pumpkin cake. I can’t promise your neck pumpkins will grow so large, but they’ll have a chance if they are offspring of this bad boy.

FREE SEEDS! Your Small Kitchen Garden blog is giving away a bunch of seeds to encourage kitchen gardeners everywhere, and to spread some fun. Do you remember that Neck Pumpkin and the Blue Hubbard squash I wrote about in November and December? Or, maybe you read about the amazing chili-pepper-shaped paste tomatoes I grew in 2009?

While you’re planning your 2010 kitchen garden, consider this: Until I’ve no more to distribute, I’ll mail a modest set of seeds to each person who leaves a qualifying comment in response to this blog post. A seed set will include six Blue Hubbard squash seeds, six Neck Pumpkin seeds, and 20 or more paste tomato seeds. It’s not a lot of seeds, but it should be enough for you to start your own tradition with these squashes and tomatoes (should you decide to do so).

Someone told me they read that a Blue Hubbard squash was the model for the alien pods in one of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers movies. This Blue Hubbard weighed in at 27 pounds. Leave a qualifying comment for a chance to receive six seeds from this squash.

Qualify for a Seed Set

Here’s how to get your seed set: Leave a comment in response to this blog post telling me you want to receive seeds and explaining (in one or two sentences) which of the three plants you most want to grow and why. While your comments will be judged on the basis of creativity and humorousness, the only criterion for selection is the order in which I receive them.

A neighbor has been growing chili-pepper-shaped sauce tomatoes for decades and these are from that family line. The tomatoes are nearly all-meat, and they taste terrific raw. Plants are indeterminate, and fruits can weigh from eight to 16 ounces.

In other words: first-come, first-served. When I run out of complete sets, I’ll send whatever combination of seeds remains until all the seeds are gone. I expect the Blue Hubbard squash seeds to run out first, then the Neck Pumpkin seeds, and finally the sauce tomato seeds, so if you want all three, leave your comment early. Oh, and please keep it at one seed set per person.

Receiving Your Seed Set

Once you leave a comment to this post, use the Contact Us form to drop me a note that includes your snail mail address. Make sure you include the same email address that you use in your comment; I’ll use email addresses to match each Contact Us form to a comment… so if the addresses don’t match, you might not receive your seeds.

This offer is good through February 5, 2010.

My Australian friend who goes by @GardenBy on Twitter brought to my attention that there may be issues with mailing live seeds to international destinations. I once researched import laws of shipping seeds to Australia and was discouraged by what I read (mostly that there was so much to read and interpret and I could never do an adequate job research such issues on a country-by-country basis). So… I regret that I must amend this giveaway with the restriction that I will ship seeds only to people in the United States of America and Canada. Thanks for understanding.

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Watering Your Small Kitchen Garden Revisited

Your Small Kitchen Garden blog recently received a question about watering. The question was fairly general, and I ended up writing a detailed answer that would make a good post. So, here it is:

Rain in a Small Kitchen Garden

In early spring, young spinach sprouts pop out in the bottom of a furrow in my small kitchen garden. I deliberately plant in furrows and basins so water will collect around the plants and soak in there.

Ideally, it will rain on your garden, and that will reduce your need to water. Sadly, it may rain too much on your garden as it did for most of us in the northeastern United States in the summer of 2009. Once you’ve planted your garden, there’s little you can do when it rains too much; roots may drown where water collects and foliage may rot. Molds such as late blight thrive in wet growing seasons.

So, plan your garden with torrential rain in mind: don’t place beds in low spots. Better still, build raised beds that assure roots won’t steep in standing water should it rain heavily one year.

Optimize Water Use

Your plants will appreciate good drainage. As a favor to the environment (and to your finances if you use tap water in the garden), optimize the garden’s use of whatever water it gets. Assuming the garden bed drains well even in torrential rain, set your rows deeper than the surrounding soil. This means your plants will grow in the bottoms of troughs. For an individual plant such as a tomato, eggplant, squash, or pepper, create a small depression—a basin—with the plant in the middle of it. These low areas will collect rain or hose water and give it time to soak in around the plants’ roots.

How much Water is Enough?

As for knowing when you’ve watered enough? I wrote an earlier post on the topic titled Watering Your Small Kitchen Garden. My approach isn’t rigid; I simply try to keep the plants alive with the least amount of watering they’ll accept happily. I note the weather and I watch the soil and the plants. If there has been no rain in several days and the soil looks dry… or worse, leaves are starting to droop… I water heavily. If there is a sustained dry spell—several weeks or more with little or no rain—I change my watering strategy: I water lightly every morning. The idea is to provide just enough water on top so that any moisture that is already below the surface stays there.

Whenever I water, I target the soil line of my plants. If it’s a tight row of greens, carrots, peas, and such, I distribute water evenly along the row. If I’m watering individual plants such as tomatoes, squash, and peppers, I make sure the water lands where a plant emerges from the soil. There may be a relative desert between my tomato plants, but the soil extending a foot from the stem of a plant receives several light waterings a week during a dry spell.

Spot Water Your Small Kitchen Garden

It’s important to note: when I water, nearly every drop ends up in the depressions in which the plants grow. For heavy watering, I try to fill the trench that defines a row, or the basin holding an individual plant. After that soaks in, I fill the trench or basin again. For light watering, I may not fill the trenches and basins, but I direct the water into them.

Finally, I can’t emphasize enough the advantages of mulching close to your plants, and mulching heavily. Having a lawn, I believe, is a horrible affront to Planet Earth. However, as long as I have a lawn I’ll use grass clippings to mulch my small kitchen garden. Lawn clippings, fallen leaves, newspapers, cardboard, black plastic, pine needles, pine bark… come up with something that’s easy enough to manage that you’ll actually manage it. Mulch lets water through to the soil and significantly reduces the amount that evaporates on dry days.

I shot this sequence of photos one day when I was watering some newly-planted tomatoes. The photo on the left shows a tomato plant in its own basin freshly filled with water. Subsequent photos show the basin over the next 40 seconds as the water soaks in around the plant.


Further thoughts about watering and responsible ways to conserve water:


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Commercial Tomato Woes

If you visit Your Small Kitchen Garden blog often, you’ve probably seen this photo of diseased tomatoes on the vine in my garden. Home growers were particularly distressed by tomato diseases, but some commercial growers also lost crops.

I’ve written much in Your Small Kitchen Garden about the woes of home tomato growers in 2009. As you might expect, some commercial operations also suffered this year. While most apply chemicals to stave off late blight and bacterial infections, some don’t. What’s more, conditions were so bad this season that even chemically-treated crops might not have escaped disease.

Our local paper ran an article yesterday about a crop-sharing group that lost money because of the tough tomato-growing weather. It’s fascinating to see the figures the commercial growers cite in the article. For example, the growers expected to harvest 31 tons of tomatoes per acre; instead they reaped only 19.42 tons per acre.

Another telling statistic: Because of low temperatures and excess moisture, it took 42 days for tomato plants to grow significantly after planting compared to seven days last year, and only four days in 2007! Everyone in the eastern united states seems to have had this type of weather, but apparently your plants might have faired better if you planted them later in the season.

Buying shares in crops can be an economical way to get fresh produce for non-growers… though some crop shares pay out only in cash (as the ones in the article seem to). Crop shares are also a terrific way for farmers to spread risk for years when things don’t go quite right. This was one of those years.

The article is an interesting read. Please check it out: Tomato gamble withers on vine


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After Late Blight in a Small Kitchen Garden

Late blight infections in 2009 spread all over the eastern United States, wiping out many small kitchen garden tomato crops. Late blight can express itself as brown discoloration on tomatoes – green or ripe.

As the plants fade in your small kitchen garden, the temptation grows to get out there and clean things up. If the plants aren’t going to produce more, why keep them around? The question became more complicated for many this year when late blight destroyed tomato plants all over the north eastern United States.

I posted about late blight in an article titled Tomato Strife in Small Kitchen Gardens Everywhere, and subsequent conversations got me curious about late blight. I did some research and learned stuff about late blight that every tomato- and potato-grower should know.

Late Blight is Mold

For years I’ve heard late blight referred to as fungus, but last month at a tweet-up with a group of gardening enthusiasts in upstate NY, Bridget McManus (@b_mcmanus on Twitter) put me onto an article that identifies late blight as mold. So, late blight is mold, but it’s susceptible to chemicals that kill funguses.

Pretty much any place a late blight mold spore sticks to living tomato tissue, a lesion will emerge in four to six days. By this time, chances are spores have infected other nearby plants and tomatoes.

There’s vaguely good news about late blight: most late blight in the United States is of one strain or another so in a particular infection, every mold spore is genetically identical. These identical molds can reproduce only asexually resulting in spores that can’t survive beyond about four hours without a living host… unless they’re in the soil. To make durable spores, mold must breed sexually—that is, it must breed with a strain of the mold that is genetically different from itself.

To gardeners, asexual late blight means infections die out along with the plants on which they live.

Small Kitchen Garden Late Blight Management

If late blight can survive only on a living host, why do people fuss about the importance of removing blighted plants from your garden… and not adding the plants to your compost? There are several reasons:

    Late blight shows as brown splotches on stems and leaves, and rapidly spreads over the entire plant, eventually killing it. In the lower-right background of this photo, there is a seriously-infected green tomato… actually quite brown at this point in its demise.

  • Active late blight on any plant can rapidly spread to other plants. In fact, if you see lesions on a leaf, stem, or fruit, there’s a reasonable chance that blight spores have already spread to other leaves, stems, and fruits.
  • A plant may not show signs of infection for four days after becoming infected.
  • A single lesion can release hundreds of thousands of spores every day, each of which can cause a new lesion.
  • Spores, while not hardy, can survive for about four hours without a host—or several weeks if they get mixed into the soil. That gives them plenty of time to ride the wind to neighbors’ plants or to wild plants that might provide a nurturing environment.

So, your attitude toward blighted plants should be about containment: By the time you recognize late blight in your small kitchen garden, it may be too late to save your crops. However, if you remove the plants and bury them six inches underground… or bag them and put them out with your trash, you may slow the spread and spare other gardens from the ugly disease.

The risk of composting is that the compost heap may provide ideal conditions to keep asexually-produced spores alive far longer than they’d live out in the air. Worse: if you also compost susceptible roots or tubers, spores may infect them and winter over.

Put Your Small Kitchen Garden to Bed

With rain and wind, late blight spores eventually spread over the entire surface of a plant, making it look mummified. Amazingly, while every scrap of green on this plant was overwhelmed by late blight, the actual fruit ripened and dried without growing lesions.

Late blight dies along with the plants it’s infecting. So, if you have blighted tomato plants in your garden when killing frost hits, your blight problem may be past. I say **may be** because you might also have potatoes in your garden… or there may be wild plants nearby that can host late blight mold spores.

So, if your tomatoes had late blight, pull the plants out, bag them, and put them out with the trash… or dig a deep hole for them well away from your garden, and buy them under at least six inches of soil. Dig your potatoes… make sure you don’t miss any. The one you leave behind could be the vector for next year’s late blight infection.

Aside from these activities, don’t work the soil in your infected garden bed; once you’ve cleared the plants away, give remaining late blight spores several weeks to die out: don’t cover old, dead or dying plants with mulch (grass clippings and fallen leaves count as mulch). In fact, I’d leave the garden bed exposed to the elements through the winter and plan on adding amendments at the beginning of the next growing season.

Protect Your Potatoes from Blight

Yes, the late blight that went after tomato plants this year is the same disease that can turn potatoes into hideously stinky mush. And, for all the discussion about infected tomatoes, I’m amazed that I heard of not one potato blight infection.

In my research I was fascinated to read that the blight mold doesn’t spread through a plant’s circulatory system. Rather, a lesion starts where a spore comes to rest on the plant and apparently expands over a limited area… except that as more spores form, they alight on nearby living tissue until the mold completely consumes the leaves and stems.

The tubers of a potato plant don’t get infected simply because the leaves and stems of the plant are infected. Generally, tubers develop late blight when spores drop off of infected greens and sift into the soil. You can protect potatoes by planting them deep and topping them up as they develop so the tubers remain more than three inches underground. Also: don’t hoe or otherwise stir up the soil; anything that helps the spores get closer to your potatoes could lead to disaster.

Sad News for Prevention

When last I wrote about late blight, I explained steps you can take to reduce the chances of your plants becoming infected. Sadly, in a wet growing season, those steps may be only marginally effective. The sad truth is, the only reliable way to prevent infections is to treat your plants against fungus throughout the growing season.

Naturally, there are chemical, non-organic sprays that are highly successful. I’ve spoken with several farmers at the local farmers’ market whose sentiment is, “I didn’t have any problems with blight this year because I used chemicals.”

Apparently, the most effective organic preventatives are sprays containing copper… which can build up to toxic levels in the soil. Alternatively, spraying foliage with compost teas has proven somewhat effective according to the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service.

So, the answer to the question, What can I do now to prevent late blight infection next season? is, very little:

  • Hope that your late blight has lived asexually
  • Remove all plant material that could host late blight in and around your garden (potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, and nightshades must go)
  • Leave the soil undisturbed and uncovered for two or three weeks before amending it or mulching it

Next year, you’re not likely to see late blight unless the weather treats you the same as it did this year. If you hate to gamble, you’ll have your best chance of success if you treat your plants regularly with antifungal spray that’s labeled as a late blight preventative. You need to decide what treatments are acceptable to you… and what level of loss you can tolerate should your garden disappoint.

Some information for this post came from the Cornell University Vegetable MD Online web site. It’s an awesome resource for kitchen gardeners.

Here are some other sources for information about late blight:

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Tomato Strife in Small Kitchen Gardens Everywhere

A cluster of tomatoes illustrates the ugly progression of late blight through my small kitchen garden. I’m losing about a bushel of tomatoes to the horrible disease.

It’s not news to anyone who owns a small kitchen garden: This has been a challenging year for gardeners in North America. I’m sorry if this was your first year planting a kitchen garden; I hope the aggravation wasn’t enough to discourage you in coming years.

The south western United States experienced sustained heat and dryness; I heard complaints from gardeners that they couldn’t keep plants watered and cool enough to get decent harvests.

The Atlantic coast and clear out to the Midwest had crazy, sustained rains and cool temperatures. Especially in the north—from New York up into Canada, rain drowned the roots of vegetable plants, and the cool temperatures slowed growth.

Late Blight and Tomatoes

Perhaps worst of all this growing season: Late blight, the fungus that created the Irish potato famine in 1845, shipped along with tomato seedlings to big-box garden centers all over the eastern United States. Late blight thrives in the cool-wet, and for the most part, tomatoes didn’t have a chance.

I completely fell in love with these tomatoes in 2009. Shaped like peppers, they grow quite large. They are so devoid of moisture that they float in water where beefsteaks and other slicing tomatoes sink. They taste terrific. Sadly, the last twenty or so still in my garden are infected with late blight.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, late blight is an American export; someone accidentally introduced it to Ireland. I long ago learned that the late blight fungus is pretty much always on-hand, waiting for the right conditions to kick it into action. A gardener’s best defense against late blight is culture:

  • Provide good drainage— If drainage is good, air movement around your plants’ roots is also good; and good for the plants..
  • Minimize moisture— Water only as much as the plants need; I haven’t met a vegetable plant that wants its roots wet constantly.
  • Control moisture— That is, focus watering on the soil near plants’ roots; don’t use sprinklers and spray nozzles that soak foliage with every watering.
  • Don’t crowd plants— You can plant things closer than seed packages recommend and you’ll get great production… as long as everything else goes right. I understand the risks of crowding and I take the lumps when they come… but please choose a level of pain that’s acceptable to you. Crowding traps moisture, blocks air flow, and provides easy pathways for insects and diseases.
  • Make sure air can circulate freely— If there’s a lot of air movement within your garden plot, plants will tolerate crowding better than they will in a well-sheltered area.
  • Rotate crops— Don’t plant the same crop in the same area two years in a row. Ideally, figure a three- or four-year rotation; don’t repeat tomatoes in the same space for three or four years if you can avoid it.
  • Follow a crop only with crops that aren’t closely-related— Tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, and eggplant are all related closely enough that if you plant one in a specific area this season, none should go in that area next season. Please check my small kitchen garden store for books that will guide you to responsible choices for next year’s crops.
  • Prevent the spread of disease— Remove sick plants quickly. Bag them and toss them in the garbage, but don’t compost them.
  • Plant seedlings grown locally— Best of all: learn to start your own plants from seeds about four-to-six weeks before you put them in your garden. If you prefer to leave that hassle to someone else, at least find a local nursery or garden store that starts its own seedlings. The farther you go for your live plants, the more opportunities the plants have to acquire unwanted pathogens.

Gardening Lucky

I feel pretty confident in guessing that this bell pepper is inflicted with late blight. I had been anticipating a second wave of peppers to harvest in early autumn, but the very difficult growing season had other ideas.

I got very lucky this season:

  • I started all my plants from seeds for the first time ever.
  • The micro climate of central PA was cool but “wet enough” meaning we got rain when we needed it, but not to excess. I’m quite sure it was low temperatures that caused the most trouble.
  • Despite heavy crowding, my plants showed no sign of stress until late August.
  • By late August, I’d already harvested about 3 bushels of tomatoes
  • Late blight spread very slowly in my garden; it seems to have missed the potatoes, though it seems to be damaging some of my peppers.

Despite the good luck, in just two weeks, my tomato plants have gone from late-season production of gorgeous fruits to overwhelming melt-down with nearly every fruit showing ugly brown lesions. I’m used to harvesting tomatoes up to the first frost, but this weekend I’ll be pulling all the plants and stuffing them into a plastic bag for garbage pickup.

Keep On Gardening

This was an unusual year! It is my first in fourteen seasons at this address where disease has taken hold… and some of those years were far wetter. My guess is that the temperature was the biggest villain in my garden’s problems; summer seemed to last about two weeks. Those weeks fell between three months of early spring and the sudden onset of autumn.

So, don’t be discouraged. Chances are, next season will be “normal…” and if not, perhaps the season after that will be.



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