Posts Tagged ‘tomatoes’
In mid-October, I harvested about two-and-a-half gallons of fingerling and red-skinned potatoes. I’d left the potatoes in the ground way too long; rodents had tunneled under the tubers and had eaten many of them—perhaps almost as many as I harvested.
October 23 was the community garden’s “drop dead” date. I received an email at the beginning of October telling me I had to be done with my plots by the 24th; management would mow the plots and plant barley on that date.
I couldn’t get motivated to take things down in the weeks leading up to the 24th. The average first frost date in this area is October 21, but forecasts were for warm days into November.
Unfortunately, I had a chemotherapy session scheduled for Monday, October 17th. The Friday, Saturday, and Sunday after chemo are particularly brutal: my muscles feel as though I’ve been marching for a week without rest, I feel as though I should be sleeping, and my digestive tract is making me guess whether and when access to plumbing might be necessary.
I’ve been trying to establish a new variety of winter squash using seeds I harvested from a hybrid that happened accidentally in my small kitchen garden several years ago. These are the fruits from this year’s effort. Sadly, I believe the discoloration on the skin is black rot. The flesh is still edible, but black rot is systemic meaning it can live in the cells of the plants. Seeds from these fruits are likely to carry the disease, so it would be wrong to share them with other gardeners. I’m afraid disease has made my new squash variety a dead-end.
Nope. I didn’t let chemo dictate my behavior. I’m deadline-oriented, so naturally I waited until the weekend to finish taking down my community garden plots. It was a forced march.
Back on October 10th, I had dug potatoes and harvested squash and sorghum seed heads. Much remained. Tomatoes and peppers were at various stages of ripe, sorghum stalks still stood, canna lily roots still supported leaf and flower stalks, and tomato trellises needed to come down.
My Small Kitchen Garden Falls
On Sunday morning (probably more like early afternoon), I drove to the community garden and dragged myself, painfully slowly, through the remaining tasks. The worst of it was removing tomato trellises.
With hanging string trellises, some 68 7-foot lengths of binder twine hung from a wooden support structure. At home, I’d simply cut the strings off the trellises and let them drop to the ground along with the tomato plants they supported. They’d winter under leaves and rot into the soil through the 2017 growing season (I don’t till the soil).
I harvested about 2 gallons of sweet peppers on October 23rd. I’m afraid they’ve remained in the bag you see in this photo and have experienced many too warm days and several too cold days. I hope to feel well enough this week to work through stuff I harvested on October 23. With luck, I’ll find a few still-usable peppers to put up in the freezer.
At the community garden, it seemed risky to leave the binder’s twine wrapped around the tomato plants. A mower blade would most certainly catch the twine and wrap it around the mower’s drive shaft. I didn’t want to create extra work for someone else, so I untwisted the binder’s twine from the tomato plants… this took more than an hour.
I disassembled the wooden support structure for the hanging string trellises and loaded the wooden stakes into the bed of my pickup truck. Then I harvested the sorghum stalks and loaded them into the truck. Finally, I dug the canna lilies. It felt as though I’d worked for twentyten hours, though it was closer to three.
Tomatoes and peppers would have continued to ripen for another three weeks. It made me sad to have given up on them so early, but rules are rules, and the community garden is an awesome resource—particularly for a gardener challenged by illness. Photos tell the story of my last day of the season when I took down my vegetable garden.
From a package of “Festival Mix” cayenne pepper seeds, a plant produced purple peppers that turned red when fully ripe. Sadly, the plant was laden with under ripe fruits when I had to shut down my community garden plots.
Some of the last tomatoes on my vines this October were the mystery paste tomatoes I acquired years ago from a local gardener. I harvested these along with Roma, Stupice, and a few varieties I couldn’t identify, and left them for three weeks in a bucket on an end table in the living room. Finally, a few days ago, I sorted the rotten tomatoes from the healthy ones. If all goes well, I’ll process the ripe ones this week and serve up the green ones as fried green tomatoes.
The first variety of tomato to ripen in my small kitchen garden was also one of the last to produce viable fruits. I harvested these Stupice tomatoes on October 23 just before I tore down my hanging string tomato trellises.
A theme of this article is that my community garden plots didn’t agree with the mid-October cease-and-desist order. This sorghum seed head makes the point: the seeds aren’t ready! I had already harvested any ripe seeds, but there were many young stalks at various stages of the reproductive cycle.
When I cut the mature sorghum stalks, I discovered emergent shoots; more shoots from each plant than had grown to harvest. This leads me to think that in the tropics, sorghum may be a perennial. Perhaps you can harvest the seeds to make flour or porridge, cut mature stalks to extract sugar, and then wait four months and do the whole thing again.
Another holdout against the cease and desist order: a squash blossom. I believe this flower was on one of my hybrid-derived squash plants, but there were also flowers on the zucchini I had planted back in May! In fact, on October 23, I harvested two beautiful zucchini squashes from six-month-old plants. In past years, I’d started a second planting of zucchini mid-summer after the spring-planted vines had withered.
Despite bacterial disease, aggressive hornworms, and disgusting tomato fruit worms, many of my tomato plants were trying to remain relevant on October 23rd. There were at least a dozen blossoms through the tomato patch, and many buds about to open. Sadly, it all had to make way for the mower and seed-planter. I hope to garden the same two plots next season. I may be grumbling for having been forced off of my normal gardening methods, but it’s all for the good of the soil. I truly appreciate the quality effort with which the county manages its community garden.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This one’s not at the community garden. My wife did some prep in the home garden, and I planted three double rows of peas. She erected trellises, and we’ve had at least two rabbit incursions, but still there are pea plants—and they’re just covered in blossoms.
My blog has told very little of the story of my first season growing food at a community garden. To summarize: I wrote an article for the local paper about area community gardens in early spring of 2015. I rented a plot in one of those gardens—a 30’ by 30’ plot among about 100 plots.
The plot was barely more developed than a patch of meadow with a rabbit fence around it. I hauled an enormous amount of mediocre compost to the plot, laid down sheet mulch (newspapers) and held it in place with the compost. I dug as little as I could, and put in an onion patch, a 25’ double row of peas, two hills of zucchini, two hills of neck pumpkins, 60 or more tomato plants, a dozen or so sweet pepper plants, and the largest potato patch I’ve ever planted.
The community garden was 30 minutes away and I tried to manage it with weekly visits. I worked hard and got a decent harvest, and I’d planned to work it again this year. My pancreas said “No.”
The Whipple—the operation intended to remove a pancreatic tumor—is major surgery, and common problems in the first year include ripping apart your re-routed intestinal tract by over-exerting. Moving a single wheelbarrow of compost to my plot at the community garden could land me back in an operating room.
I had to give up the community garden.
Gardening close to home
Also at home, my garden sage is flowering. There’s a song Burl Ives used to sing that includes the lines, “I long to be in Texas, When the bloom is on the sage.” This isn’t the sage about which he sang, but it comes to mind.
I had learned last spring that the Union County Community Garden is only five minutes from my home. A few things distinguish it:
1. There is no charge to have a plot at this garden
2. The county uses the community garden in its work-release program. Meaning: people who have been convicted of minor crimes and sentenced to community service can help out at the garden to work down their debt to society.
3. If you’re physically challenged to work your plot, the county may assign someone on work-release to help you.
4. The county prepares your plot for you. They apply composted manure, plow the manure into the soil, wait a few days, and plow again. They leave a plot raked relatively smooth.
5. A plot at this garden is 10’ by 20’ and you can have two of them.
If I was going to work in a community garden post-Whipple, this was the one!
Photos show my progress… with a few shots from my yard as well. I hope your gardens are in good shape this year.
I posted this photo earlier on Facebook. It shows ripening black raspberries in the patch I planted last spring. Sadly, about 1/3 of the plants got seriously chewed by a wild animal—probably a rabbit or three—but there may still be enough berries this year for a batch of black raspberry jelly which is by far my favorite jelly variety.
Poppies are back in my small kitchen garden! I sowed poppy seeds in our yard year-after-year without success until, finally, a few plants emerged and matured. These came back for several years and formed an ever-enlarging clump that I blogged about once or twice. Then, one fateful day, an unfortunate lawn mowing incident ended those poppies. I’ve tried for years since to get more poppies established, and this most recent effort involves seedlings I bought in Ithaca and planted near the “rain garden” two years ago. I thought the plants died in that first year, but they sprouted last year, looked miserable for a month, and then died back without flowering. This year, they sprouted again, looked slightly less miserable, and between the two of them produced a single flower stalk. It was a gorgeous bloom with purplish reproductive parts—not the classic poppies of my earlier success. It lasted two days. I got two plants to start from seeds under lights this spring, and I’ll soon set them out in the same area.
The first items I planted at the community garden were onion sets, potatoes, and zucchinis. Later, I set pepper seedlings which you can see in the top-right corner of the photo. Things have come through transplant shock in fine shape and the garden is looking good.
I set 70 tomato plants in one 10’ x 20’ plot—well, six are actually tomatillos. 7 of the plants are Romas and I put cages around them. The rest are indeterminate varieties—all heirlooms. These I’m managing on hanging string trellises with aggressive pruning; I’m plucking all suckers. I’ve set plants a foot apart in double rows that are also about a foot apart. In just three weeks many plants are already tall enough to need support. I’ve written a few posts about how I manage tomatoes. Here’s an overview that includes links to further articles: Tomato Plant Maintenance in my Small Kitchen Garden
Here’s one of my crazy projects for the year: I’m growing sorghum. It looks a bit like corn or even more like weed grasses I usually pull from around my actual vegetable plants. I bought a small envelope of seed hoping to get a modest stand from which to harvest sap. Getting the sap is a challenge: you’re supposed to run sorghum stalks through a mill that crushes them paper thin. You then cook the sap into syrup—a lot like making maple syrup. For want of a press, I may take a hammer to the stalks and then boil them in a small amount of water, eventually straining out the solids and cooking down the liquid. I’ve read that sorghum produces copious seeds, so I may collect some for the kitchen and more to plant next year.
I try to keep my main planting bed covered in leaves through the winter. In spring, it’s fairly easy to rake the leaves aside and scrape furrows in the moist soil to hold pea seeds. This year, my wife made the furrows. I set and buried the peas. If the leaf cover has done its job, there are almost no weeds to remove, and I dig only where I’m planting.
This blog has traditionally been about how to grow and prepare food and it means to stay that way. I’ve taken detours of late because of family issues (my dad moved out of his house and I spent a lot of time cleaning up after him) and because of health issues (I’m recovering from a Whipple—surgery that removed a pancreatic tumor and re-routed my digestive tract).
Here’s a brief “how-to” to keep the blog on course:
It’s spring, plant!
With help from my wife, I’ve started three rows of peas in the garden. I plant a lot so we have peas to eat until July with plenty left over for the freezer. I once posted a video that shows the method I still use – Small Kitchen Garden Pea Notebook. I also wrote a post explaining how-to – Enough Peas to Preserve.
Peas handle frost well, and will even survive a freeze into the 20s. They aren’t as hardy in hot weather. In my experience, a variety called Wando handles early spring heat better than most. So, given we’re in a streak of hottest months on record, hedge your bets and try to plant Wando peas this year. They grow at least five feet tall, so make sure you rig trellises for them.
I just started seeds for my summer vegetables. My setup this year is on our seldom-used ping-pong table: I used the kids’ cardboard bricks to support a four-foot shop light across the five-foot-wide table. The planters are the bottoms of plastic one-gallon milk jugs filled with a commercial seed-starting mix. I set 16 seeds in each planter, for a total of 112 seeds. Soon, I’ll add a second shop light and start a few other seeds; once the first planting emerges I’ll note what failed to germinate and try again with the same varieties.
Along with peas, this is a good time to plant lettuce, spinach, onions, carrots, and potatoes. All prefer to grow in cool weather and can handle frost—though young potato plants may die back in the cold, they’ll quickly make up for it on warmer days.
Start seeds indoors
We’re at the threshold for indoor seed-starting. That is, if you don’t start yours soon, you’ll lose the advantage you get from indoor starts. Ideally, start tomato, pepper, tomatillo, eggplant, and okra seeds indoors six-to-eight weeks before the average last frost in your area. Turns out, if you start eight weeks early—especially with tomatoes—your seedlings will probably need to be transplanted into larger pots before it’s time to set them in the garden. That’s fine if you have the space to manage it.
Around here, the average last frost is mid-April, so I just planted 72 tomato seeds, 8 tomatillo seeds (a new gardening experience for me), and 32 pepper seeds. It’s very easy to do; I’ve written several posts about it over the years:
Start Your Own Seedlings (this is how I start my seeds)
Small Kitchen Garden Seed-Starting Shelf
Start Seeds in Pellets for Your Small Kitchen Garden
Start Your Small Kitchen Garden from Commercial Flats
Really? Start Seeds Indoors for Your Small Kitchen Garden?
Start Seeds in Pots for Your Small Kitchen Garden
When I assembled photos for my landscapes photo challenge, my set of favorites from 2015 included way more than the requisite seven shots. Rather than choose seven from among 40, I added a Waterscapes photo challenge to my list—and was pleased to learn that “waterscapes” is a real word meaning what I wanted it to mean.
I’ve posted seven waterscapes here. Like the landscapes of my previous post, I captured these photos in central Pennsylvania and in central upstate New York—near Ithaca or on the way to Ithaca from Lewisburg.
This photo isn’t about art so much as it is about Mom. Mom kept a “life list” of birds she spotted through the kitchen window. Years after I left home, she and my dad bought a shack on a cliff above Cayuga lake and spent summers cleaning, painting, and making it into their vacation lake cottage. I enjoyed visiting the cottage, but I didn’t fall in love with it until 2015. I finished emptying and repairing my dad’s house, and tenants moved in. That left me with two options when I visited: sleep on my dad’s sofa in his tiny independent living unit, or stay at the lake cottage. Stoking a fire in the wood stove to hold off cold autumn nights called back years of semi-rustic living. Waking up at the cottage to sounds of rustling leaves and nautical activity was meditative.
It’s possible my mother never saw the birdhouse in this photo. However, seeing it hanging along the stairway down to the lake made it easy to imagine my mom pausing on those stairs to watch birds come and go. I hope to spend time at the cottage this year absorbing the same sensations that lured my parents there.
There are few places that make my dog Nutmeg happier than she is at the local dog park. Far from the park’s parking area, there’s a stream in which Nutmeg tests her Labrador breeding… and fails. She’ll chase sticks into the water and bring them back as long as she never gets in deep enough to swim. Last August, grass seed heads caught sun against the dark waters of Nutmeg’s favorite stream.
Mansfield, Pennsylvania is halfway to Ithaca from the Cityslipper ranch. Mansfield boasts a nature preserve with hiking trails, a picnic area, and a boat launch, and I love to stop there to capture photos. Water at the boat launch is a weird shade of blue that makes me wonder about agricultural runoff, but were that not the case the waterway would still be surreal. In this photo, the white flowers lining the river are knotweed—an invasive that looks awesome in bloom. Depending on cloud cover and the time of day, different features pop, so I always discover something new when I stop in Mansfield.
South and west of Mifflinburg, Pennsylvania there are many waterways that flow to the Susquehanna River. I’ve photographed these streams, creeks, and rivers at so many places, I’m not always sure which is which. It’s compelling to me that I could drop a canoe in one of the streams and float in it 140 miles to the Chesapeake Bay and then into the Atlantic ocean.
On trips to Ithaca, I sometimes drive north to Corning, NY, and then up route 414 to Watkins Glen. The road follows a valley with farmland guarded by wooded hills that put on quite a display in autumn. Last October, I stopped to capture photos where wetlands cover much of the valley floor.
Perhaps stretching the definition of “waterscape,” this is one of dozens of waterfalls at a Pennsylvania nature preserve called Ricketts Glen. We hosted two Japanese students for nearly three weeks in August, and shared a hike with them along the Glen’s most popular trail.
I lingered below a waterfall at Ricketts Glen where the roots of a tree felt their way over rocks to find soil in the creek bed. If you want a photo session in Ricketts Glen, clear the day, go alone, and stay all day… though it’s fun to share the trip with a group.
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!
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.
Anywhere I point a camera at the pear tree it captures an image with many pears. I’ve never seen so many pears on the tree in a season. If they reach maturity, I’ll have a lot of preserving to do!
As I rushed around a week ago Friday getting ready to drive to Ithaca, I captured images that demonstrate food is happening in the garden. I was happy seeing so much progress early in the season but I must not have been wearing my reading glasses.
You see, when I capture photos, I can’t tell immediately whether they’re well-framed, in focus, or properly exposed. Even with reading glasses, the tiny view screen on my camera can make blurred images seem sharp. I discovered when I reached Ithaca that the tiny view screen conceals all kinds of unexpected details. The shocking truth appears in the last photo of this post.
I wish I’d downloaded the photos before I left home so I’d spotted the problem while I could do something about it. I remain optimistic. Perhaps this was an isolated problem that will simply have gone away by the time I get home. No, I don’t believe that. What I believe is that someone else has beaten me to the first peas of the season. Rats.
With only a few plants mature, we’ve eaten a reasonable amount of lettuce salad—mostly from plants I’ve removed to thin the patch. I planted nearly exclusively romaine varieties this year. I like the crispness and it seems every year there are more shades of romaine from which to choose.
One of my favorite sprouts, basil, came on strong about six days after I set seed. This is a purple variety, and there is classic green Genovese basil about six inches to the right (not in the photo). I planted six varieties, most from seeds Renee’s Garden gave me to try.
This is totally crazy, but there are already blossoms on my tomato plants. Well… only the Stupice plants have blossoms, but that’s as it should be. Stupice is a “cool weather” variety that matures in about 55 days! There’s some chance the first will ripen by June 30th, but most certainly I’ll be harvesting in July. That has never happened in my small kitchen garden.
If tomato blossoms in early June aren’t crazy enough, I found a sweet pepper on its way to maturity. This must have developed from the one flower that had opened before I set the seedlings in the garden. Still, I’ve been impressed that my pepper plants didn’t seem to notice I ripped them out of communal planters and set them into my planting beds. There was no wilting and no apparent slowdown in growth.
The photo that made me shudder when I loaded it onto my computer and looked at it full-screen is of my first pea pod of the season. One plant flowered about three days ahead of the others. On this day (June 6), two pea rows were green hedges smothered in white flowers. In the middle of it all was this tiny green pod I captured in pixels. Casual inspection of the closeup revealed quite a community of aphids apparently enjoying the little pod.
One week old tomato seedlings grow under lights in my office. While I planted 16 seeds per container, some didn’t sprout. There are, perhaps, 70 going strong. To the right are pepper seedlings barely visible under their shop light. That light is so much closer to the plants because I lifted the fixture above the tomatoes to fit the camera under it for the photograph.
Sprouts are up! One hundred and six sprouts grace my seed-starting shelf. Most are tomato plants though about 24 are pepper plants and another 8 are lettuce.
I live in USDA hardiness zone 6b or 7a, depending on how you squint at the most recent map. While it felt more like zone 3 this winter, the temperature might have just brushed minus 5 – the minimum low to qualify as zone 6b. What was unusual is the cold hung on day-after-day; we had a six-week period during which it was a relief if the temperature spiked into the low 20s.
Even as the snow melted, we had cold. There’s a popular rule of thumb in our neighborhood: plant peas on St Patrick’s Day. I doubt many people succeeded. In fact, cold and rain continued until just two days ago, so anyone trying to plant peas would have been working in mud. I don’t expect to put anything in the garden for another three or four days, assuming we don’t see even more rain.
How I Start Seeds
I recently attended my first seed swap where a presenter recommended that home growers buy celled seed-starting trays. I no longer go that route. I’ve used peat pots pressed out in connected cells, I’ve used compressed peat pellets, and I’ve used old plastic drinking cups. I wrote about much of this some years ago in evergreen blog posts.
Here’s a setup I created with my dad last spring. He found a seven foot section of wire shelving. We marked 17 inches in from each end of the shelving, cut the reinforcement wire along the front edge, and bent the two 17-inch ends down to create a stand from which to hang a shop light. My dad has a cabinet in his living room where he sets up trays and pots in which to start tree seeds. With chains to suspend the shop light, it’s easy to adjust the fixture’s height as seedlings grow tall.
These days I cut up gallon plastic milk and orange juice jugs and use the bottoms as seed planters. In a milk jug, I set 16 seeds, and in an orange juice jug, I set 12 seeds. Sure, roots grow together as the seedlings get large, but teasing (gently tearing) them apart doesn’t seem to bother them too much.
When I set seeds, I create a paper tag to identify which varieties of plants are in a particular container (and where the varieties are). These I tape to the side of the container for quick reference. I refer to the tags when I set seedlings in the garden and make a map that shows where I plant each variety.
The easiest thing to overlook when you start seeds indoors is lighting. Don’t assume a south-facing window can provide enough light to produce healthy seedlings. Instead, get a fluorescent fixture with 850K spectrum tubes (see the box titled Don’t Buy Grow Lights). When you first plant seeds, suspend the light about 3 inches over the surface of the soil. As seedlings grow, raise the light to maintain a 3-inch separation from the tops of the plants.
To start tomato and pepper seeds, keep the room temperature above 70 degrees. Ideally, shoot for 80 degrees which, if you don’t want to turn up the heat, you can achieve by putting a heating pad under the seed pots. I’ve found in a 70 degree room, fluorescent lights parked 3 inches above my planters warm the soil adequately.
Starting seeds indoors is only mildly challenging. If you have space to set up a light and some makeshift planters, don’t buy a flat of seedlings that someone else has started. You can grow that!
I start seeds in planters I create by cutting the bottom halves off of gallon plastic milk jugs. I start a cut by pinching the milk jug between the tips of a scissors and squeezing hard. If the carton proves too tough, I can poke a hole through with one scissors tip. Then I cut around the container on a line parallel to the bottom of the jug.
I buy a bale of potting soil every three or four years from a local garden center. A bale is an enormous amount of soil—compressed to about half its “fluffed” volume. To use it, I wield a butter knife as an ice pick, stabbing one end of the bale repeatedly until a chunk comes loose. I crumble the chunk into a planter and smoosh up smaller lumps between my thumb and fingers.
Note that I don’t put drainage holes in the bottoms of my homemade planters. This forces me to pay extra attention to the moisture of the soil. Before I plant, I add what must be about a third of a gallon of water and leave the planter for 30 minutes or longer so the water soaks in. The soil should be moist on the surface but there shouldn’t be water sloshing around in the container. Note your potting soil might float when you first add water. Worse: some potting soils don’t absorb water without encouragement. If you have such potting soil, stir the water in or it might just pool on top.
I use a chopstick to create 16 indents in the soil of a planter; orange circles in the photo represent the layout. For tomato and pepper seeds, these can be just one-eighth to one-quarter inch deep. I drop a single seed into each indentation and then gently nudge soil over the seeds. With all the seeds covered, I very gently tamp the soil down with the heel of my hand.
My labels aren’t pretty, but they work. This one reveals I have paste tomato seeds in the left two rows (for a total of 8), 3 Amana Orange tomato seeds at the back of the third row with one Tangerine Beefsteak seed in the front of that row, and a final full row of Tangerine Beefsteak seeds.
I may have to “pot up” the seedlings later which I do by gently tearing each one away from the root ball and then setting 8 into a milk-jug-derived planter. Of course, I create new labels for the new planters, and eventually I use those labels to inform a map I draw so I know where each variety ends up in the garden. I posted a video that shows the potting-up procedure when I made my seed-starting planters slightly differently… but the video is still relevant:
I wasn’t in great shape when it was time to pack and mail seeds. Happily, I had enough complete seed sets for everyone who qualified in the giveaway.
It has been a rough month: harsh punctuation to a difficult year. As my annual seed giveaway closed, I jumped from garden conference to garden conference and crashed with a sinus infection when I should have been mailing out seeds. Despite the plugged pipes, I managed to get seeds in the mail, and they should all have arrived at the homes of their new gardeners.
Start Your Peppers and Tomatoes!
For pretty much everyone in the United States, it’s time to start tomato and pepper seeds. Actually, it’s a little late for people in the south. In hardiness zone 6b, seedlings go in the garden around June 1st (though our last frost date is, supposedly, May 15).
Ideally, peppers will have two full months from seeding to transplant into the garden. Tomatoes will do fine with six weeks from seeding to transplanting. I encourage you to seed winter squash in late May or early June and transplant it to the garden in July.
I’ve written many posts about starting seeds, so rather than repeat myself, I’ve included a list (see box) of articles to provide help in case seed starting is all new to you.
Thanks for Participating!
It’s a privilege to have readers who take time to participate in my giveaways. As with most giveaways, I asked participants in this year’s to tell stories that would make me laugh. Honestly, things swung hard the other way! Many entrants told stories of how their gardens failed. Whether family pets, wild marauders, or hapless spouses destroyed a garden, I felt sad with each such story. Perhaps next year I’ll ask entrants to share gardening successes; those, at least will make me smile… though they might not make me laugh. (Stacia Brooks’s cucumbers made me smile.)
The box of envelopes minutes before I took them to the post office. I’ve heard from several readers already that they’ve received their seeds.
Sorry I’m so hard to amuse, but thank you all for your efforts. Susie Yarbrough tickled me a bit with her story of her 4-year-old son scavenging all her cherry tomatoes. Handy Helen also got a small chuckle with her story of slow-to-sprout seeds.
Debi Marti’s groundhog made me sad. (I’ve seen a 14 foot row of mature broccoli vanish into a groundhog in just a few hours.) Tamar Apkarian’s Super Bowl reference was timely, but her rabbits were discouraging. I was sad to hear that last year’s squash seeds failed for Una Walker, and the tomato seeds did only slightly better… and to hear that her sweet Italian peppers never made it to red! Sigh.
I ended up choosing Moonglow as the “mystery tomato.” The photo shows one way I’ve used orange tomatoes: I once canned 9 pints of combined Moonglows and Valencias. The packed jars glowed gorgeous orange and provided accents in several dishes through the year.
David Moffitt? Well… we’ve had beers together. What else can I say? Bobbi Thomas made me very sad by reminding me of the many years I’ve planted too early and had to drape my garden with large plastic sheets to protect wimpy plants from late frost.
Tim Brenner’s admission that the giveaway instructions were overly complex confirmed what I said in the instructions. I might make it easier next year and simply ask everyone to leave comments and mailing addresses, but it seems important to encourage participants to invite others also to participate… I guess I’ll figure this out next February.
Birds, pickle worms, contractors, seeds that didn’t germinate, clumsy cats, dreams of giant-killing, stubborn husbands, banana plants and syrup bottles, green paint on your thumbs (won’t fool your plants…), more dogs, weeds, prehistoric outhouses (septic fields are great for gardening as well), a steer (moo), soap-flavored cucumbers, manure plunges, and plant-killing crows, were all good stories. Thank you for sharing and best of luck with this year’s vegetable 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.
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.