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Posts Tagged ‘tomato’

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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Friendly Visitor to my Small Kitchen Garden

By late summer, squash and pumpkin plants dominate in my small kitchen garden. There are bush wax beans, carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, broccoli, and cauliflower still producing, and they’re all packed in so tightly that it’s nearly impossible to navigate among the leaves.

Within a few weeks of starting Your Small Kitchen Garden blog, I realized it had taken me somewhere I’d always wanted to be: out in my garden with friends. Within days of my first post, Your Small Kitchen Garden had visitors. And, as I’ve posted more of my gardening experiences, more visitors have come. I’ve enjoyed the comments and the conversations, though seeing the number of visitors, I often wish more of them would leave comments, suggestions, or questions.

Where to Find Gardeners on line

When I wrote my first post, I had no idea that there are, perhaps, thousands of gardening blogs. You can find these by reading blog rolls—lists of the blogs bloggers like to visit. (I recently started a blog roll to which I’ll be adding more sites over the coming weeks; you may need to scroll down quite far to find my blog roll, but please check it out; I hope you’ll enjoy some of the blogs I enjoy.)

My “Imaginary” Gardening Friends

You can also find gardeners on Twitter. There, home gardeners, landscapers, farmers, nursery owners and workers, gardening magazine and book writers, garden products producers, and radio and television personalities exchange thoughts and encouragement. Connect with one or two of them, and the interaction will lead to hundreds of others. Float a question to the gardeners on Twitter and you’re likely to get some helpful answers within a few hours.

I’ve interacted with several hundred gardeners and garden-focused folks on Twitter, but because I haven’t met them in person, my daughter refers to them as my imaginary friends.

Imaginary Becomes Real

Someplace along the on-line gardening path, members of the community find ways to meet in person. So far, two of my imaginary friends have become real. Each visited me in my isolated homestead in central Pennsylvania.

Yes, I had an awesome tomato season, despite the trench foot and the very late expression of late blight. We’ve eaten a lot of tomato salad, various pasta dishes with tomato sauces, risotto with tomatoes, and sandwiches with tomatoes. On top of all the great tomato dishes, I’ve put up 36 pints of tomato sauce and 18 pints of diced and whole tomatoes. Still, there is about a half bushel of tomatoes awaiting attention, and, perhaps, two or three more gallons on the vines.

I’m pleased that an upshot of one of these visits is that my no-longer-imaginary friend, Punkrockgardens (Laura Mathews is her given name) has featured my tomatoes in her blog. In her post, Tomato Tidbits: Why do we do all this? she captures the motivation of home tomato growers, and highlights some of the quirks of this nearly past growing season.

I enjoy Laura’s blog because she reports at-large about the gardening scene in central Pennsylvania… which is where I live. I also enjoy the photos she includes with her blog posts; she is a professional photographer with a thoughful and creative eye.

Expand Your Small Kitchen Garden

Please check out the Punk Rock Gardens blog, and visit other blogs on my blog roll. As you browse my blog posts and those of other garden bloggers, leave comments and bookmark entries that you find useful; comments are just about the only measure bloggers have of whether they’re reaching their audiences.

But don’t stop with blogs. Join Twitter if you haven’t yet, and participate in the gardening chatter. Follow me as @cityslipper and you’ll quickly find hundreds of gardeners and gardening enthusiasts with plenty to share.


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The Vine-Ripened Tomato Lie

From a tiny yellow blossom: a grape-sized tomato, a golf-ball-sized orb, or something the size of a grapefruit? The size of the blossom doesn’t tell you much about the size of the fruit that’s on the way.

Tomatoes are coming on full-force in my small kitchen garden, and I hope you’re having the same kind of luck with yours. I understand that cool and wet weather has challenged many tomato plants from the Midwest into the Northeast. The lucky folks, apparently, have lost some fruit to blossom-end rot. The unlucky ones have seen late blight decimate their plants.

Whether your tomatoes are growing strong, coming ripe, or dying on the vine, you’ve probably been involved in at least one conversation about tomatoes this year. The one I hear repeatedly is about how terrible are the tomatoes you buy in grocery stores. Invariably, everyone in this conversation agrees, and someone offers up that those tomatoes come off the vines green and travel cross-country while ripening… and if it doesn’t ripen on the vine, it’s just no good.

I respectfully submit: That last observation is complete hogwash.

Water regularly, and your tomatoes will likely come out OK. However, one ill-timed rainstorm could cause cracks that lead to rot, insect infestations, and mildew.

Genetics Makes a Lousy Tomato

If you want a tomato that tastes horrible and has lousy texture, start by planting seeds for the “tastes horrible and has lousy texture” tomato. That’s what commercial grocery suppliers do. Plant breeders spent decades developing varieties of tomatoes that hold up incredibly well when stacked and jostled during harvest and transport. They paid no attention to the flavor and textural appeal of these tomatoes.

Hapless grocery store shoppers buy those horrid things because those shoppers have grown up believing real tomatoes taste horrible and have lousy texture. OK… that horrible flavor becomes an acquired taste if it’s the only tomato you ever eat.

If the tomato cracks early, it may try to heal itself. Once healed, it won’t attract insects and disease, but there will be a section you’d rather not chew.

These tomatoes aren’t bad because they’re picked green. They’re bad because they’re a lousy breed. Put a decent tomato on a truck and ship it 3,000 miles, and it’ll be a smooshed tomato at its destination.

Vine-Ripened is Over-Rated

On the flip-side of this discussion is the erroneously perpetuated belief that a tomato must ripen on the vine to be good. I’m confident that the belief exists because no right-minded gardener would pick a tomato before it’s ripe (unless there was threat of frost). Yet, would the right-minded gardeners of the world pick some un-ripened tomatoes for the sake of comparison, they would learn an astonishing and happy truth: vine-ripening is way over-rated.

In fact, vine-ripening tomatoes is one of the most challenging of all gardening tasks… yet experienced gardeners so often suggest tomatoes as the ideal beginner’s crop: Tomatoes are so easy to grow, we say, and they’re so superior to store-bought. But unless you have absolute control over how much rain falls in your small kitchen garden, and how often it falls, growing beautiful ripe tomatoes is a bit of a nail-biting proposition.

This tomato cracked because it got too much water during ripening. The cracks healed, but then the tomato received too much sunshine, so it developed green shoulders. When I slice this up for salad, I’ll probably cut off some of the green stuff, leaving less to eat.

Perfect Tomato Culture

When a tomato first emerges from its tiny yellow tomato flower, it’s hard to visualize the monster it may eventually become. Still, over the course of a month, the little green ball grows larger as it sucks water from the tomato plant. To produce a perfect, ripe tomato, the plant must draw from a steady supply of water. If there is no rain, you should water two or three times a week. Ideally the weekly total will be a full inch of water over the area defined by the outstretched leaves of the plant.

If you can manage that, you may also need to control the amount of sunlight that reaches the individual tomatoes; a tomato that gets excessive direct sun may not ripen evenly.

Cracks and Hard Spots (Green Shoulders)

So, you’re controlling the amount of water and sunlight your tomatoes get, and then it rains. Your tomato plants don’t mind too much of a good thing; they suck up the additional burst of water and the young, green tomatoes get larger. Here’s the rub: tomatoes that have started to ripen aren’t as resilient as younger, greener tomatoes. As they expand under the new load of water, their skins are likely to stretch and tear.

A tomato that gets extra water during its last week or two of growth can develop stretch marks and cracks in the skin. Left to finish ripening, the cracked tomato can attract fruit flies and other sugar-loving insects, fungus and mold, and bacteria that rapidly reduce the tomato’s innards to smelly slime.

Even without the rain storm, sunlight striking the top of a tomato on the vine can prevent ripening there while the bottom and sides of the tomato sweeten, soften, and turn bright red (or whatever other color represents ripe for the varieties you grow). These “green shoulders” detract considerably from the flavor and texture of an otherwise ripe fruit.

This tomato has just started to show pink; I‘ll let it ripen on my dining room table and it will be ready to use in seven-to-fourteen days. It will taste every bit as good as a cracked tomato with green shoulders that ripens on the vine. Actually, it’ll taste better, because it won’t have green shoulders!

So, Don’t Vine-Ripen!

Earlier I said, “…unless you have absolute control over how much rain falls and how often…” You do have such control! Quite simply: don’t let your tomatoes ripen on the vine. When pink first appears on a tomato’s skin, pick the tomato and set it inside out of direct sunlight.

Unless I get busy and miss a few days, I pick each tomato when it starts to change color. Typically, this means that every second day, I harvest anything showing pink. I fill a large stainless steel bowl with the day’s pickings, and set it on my dining room table. About seven-to-ten days later, the tomatoes reach peak ripeness without torn skin and without green shoulders… and every tomato is just as delectable as any tomato I ever let ripen on the vine. In fact, every tomato is nearly perfect… and I could never say that in the days that I left them on the plants.

I picked these tomatoes about two weeks before I photographed them. They ripened on my dining room table, and they are as red, juicy, sweet, and delicious as any vine-ripened tomato.

Oh, Yeah? (an Anecdote)

I visited with a farmer once who managed an impressive kitchen garden. Before touring his garden, his wife and I discussed various gardening techniques. At one point, she insisted: “Oh, we let all our tomatoes ripen on the vine. They’re just not as good if they don’t.”

I countered: “I’ve found if I pick them when they start to ripen, they never split or develop green shoulders… and you can’t taste the difference.”

Her reply: “A farmer can taste the difference… and our tomatoes never crack.”

When we reached the garden, every red tomato on every tomato plant had one or more cracks in its skin. (No, I didn’t comment about it… that would have been rude. But I’d sure like to put my tomatoes up against hers in a taste-test with farmers.)


Here are links to other articles that discuss green shoulders and cracking tomatoes:


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