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Posts Tagged ‘tomato’

As Gardening Season Ends

Tomatillo from my community garden plot

I started six tomatillo plants from seed and they were very happy in the community garden. I’d never grown them, and was impressed at how prolific the plants were. I harvested mid-summer and canned many pints of salsa verde which, by my estimation, is more about the onions and peppers than about the tomatillos. Unfortunately, chemo has suppressed my sense of taste, so I’ve no idea whether the salsa verde tastes good. The tomatillo plants continue to grow and produce, and I may have left more than 100 fruits to rot in the garden. It seems unlikely I’ll plant tomatillos in next year’s garden.

It has been a hard season. I’ve faced two huge challenges to maintaining my kitchen garden:

1. It has been unusually dry this year. What little rain we’ve had came over a two-week period in August and did more damage than it did good.

2. I had major surgery before the season started to remove a tumor from my pancreas. Subsequent chemotherapy failed, and an alternative chemotherapy regimen has kept me weak and nearly constantly uncomfortable with gastric distress.

I had some help from my wife and some friends. My wife prepared one end of the main vegetable bed where I planted peas and carrots. She erected trellises for the peas, and we both harvested when peas were ready.

When my wife was away, a group of friends visited one weekend and removed an enormous amount of weeds from the main vegetable bed.

Conjoined paste tomatoes

All 68 tomato plants are still growing well, but late summer brought quite the onslaught of tomato fruit worms. Most tomatoes remaining on the plants are getting devoured, but I’m still harvesting about a half gallon of decent ones every four or five days. This is a single, unusual tomato on a plant that usually produces pepper-shaped fruits. It looks as though two tomatoes merged at birth.

What truly kept me in the game was signing up at a community garden. There I got two 10’ x 20’ plots where the garden’s management applies composted manure, plows it in, and plows again a week or so later to stop the first growth of weeds—all before gardeners have access to plant.

It was crazy easy for me to plant my prepared community garden plots. The soil was loose and raked smooth; I had only to press seeds into the soil or set seedlings in holes I could dig with my fingers.

The community garden helped me manage the dryness challenge as well: There are faucets and hoses that reach every plot and I was able to water my plants every 2nd or 3rd day.

I’ve gone rather light on blogging about the garden. The cancer has diminished many activities that used to be easy or even fun. Rather than catch up on all the most interesting moments of the season, this post is about where the season’s ending. Photos tell the story.

Three gallon tomato harvest

This was a typical harvest—three gallons of tomatoes and a few sweet peppers—about every three days until august. I’ve canned gallons of tomato pieces, whole tomatoes, and tomato sauce. Oh, and chili sauce and salsa in which tomatoes are a major ingredient.

Pruned tomato plants

Happily, the dry season discouraged common tomato plant diseases. I saw no early or late blight on my plants, though late summer rain fired up some bacterial disease that worked its way up the plants from the ground. I pruned affected leaves for several weeks, turning the tomato patch into a rather weird landscape.

Ten-foot tomato plants

My tomato trellises top out close to seven feet. The plants have grown three feet above the trellises… though this photo shows them a bit shorter. Tomatoes in the highest growth won’t ripen before frost, but there are a few just below the seven foot level that have a chance.

Small neck pumpkin

By early July I had grown squash seedlings under lights indoors and I planted them out at the community garden. One hill of neck pumpkins has barely performed; I must have set it on a bad patch of soil. Still, there are two rather tiny neck pumpkins maturing on the vines.

Small Kitchen Garden squash

Three years ago, without asking permission, my garden cross-bred a neck pumpkin with a fairytale squash. Unknowingly, I harvested seeds from a hybridized neck pumpkin and planted them in the next season’s garden. They produced gorgeous squash that I hoped I could stabilize through two seasons. Last season, they seemed to breed true. However, seeds I planted this year have produced three distinct varieties of fruits. The variety in the photo is the most prolific. The skin becomes creamy brown when ripe, a bit lighter than a butternut squash. Perhaps this version will breed true for next season’s garden.

Supposed purple cayenne peppers

I don’t recall where I got it, but last winter I picked up a packet of cayenne pepper seeds. It was a mix of seeds that would produce peppers in a variety of colors. Purple cayenne peppers, I think, are cheaters. The fruits start out purple but ripen to a bright red. Other colors in the packet were red, yellow, and orange. Sadly, I failed with cayenne. The plants were prolific early when I was dealing with a bumper crop of tomatoes and sweet peppers. Most of the cayenne peppers ended up in the crisper drawer and became anything but crisp.

Sorghum approaching harvest

A first for me, and still in progress: sorghum. I bought a packet of one hundred and fifty seeds and planted them in a tight square at one end of the bed. The plants have flourished. The seed heads are full and, I’m sure, ripe. Everything I’ve read suggests harvesting the seeds as close to first frost as possible and leaving the stalks to get some frost bite. Then harvest the stalks and squeeze the sap out of them to boil into syrup. Frost may be two weeks away, so I won’t be messing with the sorghum right away. In fact, my next big harvest needs to be potatoes. The above-ground parts of my potato plants never stopped growing until they were overrun by squash plants.

Cannas in the community garden

On a whim, I reserved several canna lily roots that we didn’t need to complete our “Hawaiian corner” behind the rock garden this year. I stuck the spare roots in my community garden plot among squashes, onions, and potatoes where the cannas wouldn’t interfere with other plants. It was quite late in the season, so the cannas are late bloomers, but there have been several flower spikes so far. In a few weeks, I’ll pull the roots and save them for next year. Knowing how many we need behind the rock garden, I’ll set aside a few extra to add flare in next year’s community garden plots.

 
Small Kitchen Garden – As Gardening Season Ends

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Tomatoes Under Lights

First tomato sprout of 2015

It took just over four days for my first tomato seedling of 2015 to emerge.

Saturday and Sunday, March 21st and 22nd, I planted 73 tomato seeds in five planters. The planters are under lights in my office.

The 73 seeds represent 18 varieties of tomatoes – six varieties I brought back from last year’s garden, and 12 I bought from seed companies this spring. The first seedling emerged on March 26, just five (or four) days after planting. I snapped photos but here it is about 36 hours later and I’m just creating a post.

A lot happens in 36 hours! At last count, 67 seeds had sprouted. My planters have gone from bare to heavily-forested in just a day-and-a-half. I’m very excited to set the seedlings into my garden, but that won’t happen until June (unless the weather forecast is excessively rosy in May).

I love starting my garden indoors under lights!

Tomato jungle under lights

In about six days, all but six of the tomato seeds I planted in containers have sprouted. Unfortunately, only one out of four Great White seeds is up, so I may do a second planting of that variety. Those leafy things way in the back on the right are cardoon and artichoke plants. I started artichokes about February 10th, and cardoon about March 5th.

 

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Tomato Fruitworm in my Small Kitchen Garden

I wanted this to be a Beet Armyworm, but from what I could find online, Beet Armyworms won’t make it through the winter. So… this is probably a Tomato Fruitworm – more destructive than a Beet Armyworm

My small kitchen garden keeps me on my toes. It’s not enough that certain tasks must happen within a few calendar days each season. There are also diseases such as rust and blight, nutritional issues such as low nitrogen or high acid in the soil, watering challenges having to do with drought or excessive rain or both, weed issues, and insect imbalances—either too few pollinators or too many fruit- and vegetable-eaters.

I recently shared a story of Tobacco Hornworms and a Cardinal. This post isn’t so much a story as it is a “look!” I discovered a tomato pest of which I had known nothing until this past week when I found it in my small kitchen garden.

Pests my Kitchen Garden Doesn’t Need

As you can see in the photo, this worm chewed a hole through the skin of a tomato, then chewed a strip of skin down from the first hole and started on a second, deeper hole. That’s when I caught it in action.

I’ve seen this kind of damage on tomatoes in the past, but had never spotted the culprit. From casual research, I’ve decided this is a Tomato Fruitworm though it eats more like a Beet Armyworm does (from what I read here). Beet Armyworms aren’t supposed to range as far north as I live, so I’ll blame this worm’s behavior on timing: had I not found it when I did, it might have taken residence inside the tomato it was sampling.

I moved the worm into the meadow across the street but I suspect there is at least one other Tomato Fruitworm enjoying my tomato patch. Several fruits on one of my volunteer plants at the opposite end of the garden from this tomato have round holes in their skins. Ugh.

 

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White Tomatoes for Post Produce!

Black, red, orange, and white tomatoes (with a little diced onion) were the base for a salad I made earlier this month. I love the colors though white tomatoes have yet to win me over: it’s weird to eat a tomato that looks like that.

The main issue for August’s Post Produce at Your Small Kitchen Garden is tomatoes! Sure, there are gorgeous purple jalapenos, a few bell peppers finally turning red, more zucchini (frost probably won’t even shut down those plants), carrots, plenty of herbs, and even the last of the cucumbers. But tomatoes usually make my gardening season, and this has been a terrific year.

I bought seeds this year to grow tomatoes of many colors: black, red, orange, yellow, and white. The earliest tomatoes were black followed quickly by white and orange. Actually, we’ve had tomatoes of all the colors (except yellow) from early in August.

For entertainment, I grew a disproportionate number of white tomato plants. The plan was to cook down several pints of sauce using just white tomatoes. I would eventually use the sauce in traditional dishes such as spaghetti, pizza, or lasagna. At best, I figured, this would be a conversation starter. At worst? A conversation starter.

Things couldn’t have gone better (though I’ve yet to use any of the white tomato sauce I preserved). The photos tell the story.

Here’s the tomato that started me dreaming of white tomato sauce. Cream Sausage is a paste tomato that starts greenish white on the vine and ripens to a somewhat reddish white. The vines seem to be determinate which I didn’t know when I planted them. I’ll grow these again, but I’ll support them with tomato cages rather than with a hanging string trellis.

White Queen is a white slicing tomato. You can tell when it’s ready to eat because it looks “warmer” as it ripens. I used a bunch of these in my tomato sauce along with the cream sausage tomatoes.

I filled a 4 gallon pot with cut-up white tomatoes, simmered it for several hours, and put the cooked tomatoes through a food mill. I cooked the milled tomatoes a bit longer until I had just over a gallon of sauce, and then I canned the sauce. If you’d like to see how this all works using red tomatoes, have a look at my video titled Make and Can Tomato Sauce from Your Home Kitchen Garden.

The slightly off-white color of my white tomatoes didn’t hold through cooking and canning. Still, few would guess that these canning jars hold pure tomato sauce. My next batch will be red. Depending on how quickly I get to it, I might follow that up with orange tomato sauce as well. There’s no significant difference in flavor from one sauce to the other, but having different colors from which to choose adds a bit of whimsy whenever I cook with tomato sauce.

Now You Post Produce

What edibles are you consuming from your garden? Write about it on your blog, then use the Linky widget below and link back to your post. Visit other posters’ blogs to see what homegrown goodies they’re consuming.

 

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Tomato Spacing in My Small Kitchen Garden

By the time I planted tomatoes weeks earlier than usual, peas, broccoli, and cauliflower (to the right in the photograph) had a good start in my small kitchen garden and we were already harvesting lettuce (at the top-left in the photo).

I set tomato seedlings in my small kitchen garden starting in mid May this year… fully two weeks earlier than central Pennsylvania’s “last frost date.” Given the lack of winter, some uncomfortably hot weather, and more than 14 consecutive frost-free days leading up to mid-May I felt pretty safe putting in summer vegetables so early.

Tomatoes in Small Planting Beds

I’m frustrated by the lack of gardening space in my yard. The house came with a modest raised garden bed that I doubled in size one season. I also took over the kids’ sandbox for gardening when they stopped using it, and I’ve more than doubled the area it covers. Finally, I maintain several planters on my deck and on the kids’ otherwise unused play set.

I’ve prepped a double row for my tomato seedlings. Holes are one foot apart (from the center of one to the center of the next), and the gap between the rows is a foot wide. After digging the holes and before setting in the seedlings, I filled each hole halfway with compost, sprinkled in crushed egg shells and Epsom salt, and tossed it together with soil.

If you click the photo to zoom in, you can make out egg shells in the holes and also spot freshly-planted and watered tomato seedlings to the right of the prepared holes.

With all that, my vegetables don’t fit. To plant with the spacing recommended by seed retailers, gardening books, and the USDA, I’d need more than double the planting beds I already have. So, I “plant intensively.”

The vast, inverted, underground tree that is a tomato plant’s root system will spread through the soil evading impenetrable objects. What difference can it make if some of those objects happen to be roots from other tomato plants? Sure, the roots will compete for water and nutrients, so key to success with intensive planting is to provide adequate amounts of both.

How Close to Space Tomato Plants?

For the past several seasons, I’ve left just twelve inches from one tomato plant to the next within rows, and I’ve created rows in pairs twelve inches apart. From one pair of rows to another I leave a 30 inch wide gap which is just shy of comfortable for working among the plants once they reach the tops of the trellises (about seven feet).

  • Growing tomato plants so close together simplifies maintenance.
  • I can reach past plants near a walking corridor to tend plants in the “back rows” (less moving about).
  • I use far less mulch per plant.
  • Water and fertilizer for any one plant benefits several.
  • It’s short work to apply antifungal powder or solution.
  • The walls of plants provide shade that reduces the occurrence of green shoulders on ripening fruit.
  • Trellising requires far fewer materials.

The downside of spacing tomato plants so closely is that diseases and insects can pass among them easily. Wider spacing can buy you time to protect unaffected plants if you discover problems with any plants.

The photos tell the story of this spring’s planting effort. There are six rows, each of which holds 12, 13, or 14 plants for a total of 76. Varieties include Black Krim, Beefsteak, Nebraska Wedding, White Queen, Nyagous, Valencia, Noonglow, Manyel, Cream Sausage, Jonatta Banana, and the unidentified paste variety I’ve grown for many seasons.

I’ve written several posts about growing tomatoes over the years. Here’s a list of articles and links to them:

 

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Tomato Controversy at Your Small Kitchen Garden

This beauty isn’t quite ready to harvest. Yes, it’s a tomato. I believe it’s of the Andes variety… it’s a paste tomato with very little gel, few seeds, and delicious flesh. Pick a green tomato at your own peril. You can coax a green tomato to ripen, but the results are rarely satisfying.

Vine-ripened tomatoes are NOT better than tomatoes that ripen off the vine. Still, there is such passion for vine-ripening that kitchen gardeners perpetuate the lie; they claim a vine-ripened tomato is noticeably better.

Ripen Tomatoes Well

Last summer, Your Small Kitchen Garden blog challenged the conventional wisdom that store-bought tomatoes are horrible because they ripen off the vine. I argued that store-bought tomatoes are lousy because they are lousy cultivars: ripened on or off the vine, they grow up to be flavorless and wanting in texture.

Then I explained how I harvest, and I insisted that my “picked-pink” tomatoes are just as good as their vine-ripened counterparts… in fact, that picked-pink tomatoes are better because they don’t crack or develop “green shoulders.” Please read the original post here: The Vine-Ripened Tomato Lie.

I’ve enjoyed the insights from readers who have shared their opinions. Some are adamant that vine-ripened tomatoes are dramatically tastier than picked-pink tomatoes… and I won’t argue with their experiences. In my experience, if there is a difference, It’s insignificant and I’d be happy to prepare a scientific double-blind taste-test of several varieties of tomatoes both vine-ripened and picked pink. I’m confident that 99% of participants in such a test would not be able to distinguish between the two.

Tomato Nutrition

One person who read my original post on this suspiciously declared that picked-pink tomatoes lack the nutritional qualities of vine-ripened tomatoes. The visitor went by the name “Dr. Tomato,” lending a sense of authority to his or her comments. I conceded that it’s possible there are nutritional differences, and asked Dr. Tomato to provide links to the research that supports the claim.

My first tomato harvest of 2010 is a very large paste tomato that I’ve picked-pink. The tomato has just started to change color, and it will finish on my dining room table. Had I left it on the plant, a rain storm could have caused it to crack… and direct sunlight could have made it develop green shoulders.

Dr. Tomato probably wasn’t listening, because the links never materialized. Then, yesterday another commenter “sided” with Dr. Tomato. This left a bad taste in my mouth: I hate arguing about facts. If something is so, then opinions about it are meaningless. When a yardstick is 36 inches long, you seem a little silly to say, “In my opinion, the ruler is 37 inches long.” A simple measurement can settle the issue, so why take sides? I went in search of facts about tomato nutrition.

What Science Says

Turns out food science enthusiasts have done some research on ripening tomatoes off the vine. I read several (incredibly dull) studies full of science-writing gobbledygook and have reduced the obtuse language to a few simple factual statements:

1. There is no stastically significant nutritional (including vitamin C and Lycopene) difference between vine-ripened and picked-pink tomatoes. (Conclusion of the study Colour of post-harvest ripened and vine ripened tomatoes
(Lycopersicon esculentum Mill.) as related to total
antioxidant capacity and chemical composition
.)

At the peak of tomato season and then some, there are hundreds of tomatoes ripening on my dining room table. In this photo, the youngest tomatoes are in back, with the oldest – ready to eat – in front.

2. Some picked-pink tomatoes develop MORE lycopene (the antioxidant) than vine-ripened tomatoes do, others develop LESS lycopene. This seems to depend, in part, on the temperature at which you ripen the picked-pink tomatoes, and, perhaps, on whether you’re growing the tomatoes hydroponically.

3. You can harvest tomatoes well before they become fully ripe without loss of lycopene. (Conclusion of the study Lycopene Content among Organically Grown Tomatoes.)

So, you won’t become malnourished if you eat picked-pink tomatoes. Because there are so many advantages to harvesting tomatoes this way, once again I encourage you to try it and decide for yourself: When a tomato starts to turn from green to red—when it already has pink skin—pick it and set it in your house to finish ripening (I fill bowls with picked-pink tomatoes). When it’s fully-ripe, taste it next to a freshly-picked vine-ripened tomato.

If you taste a difference, is it enough of a difference to make you pass on the advantages of picking pink? Whatever you decide I hope we can still get along… and thanks for considering this heretical suggestion.

 

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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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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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