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Posts Tagged ‘tomatoes’

Start Your Own Seedlings

You Can Grow That!

Tomato seedlings under lights

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.

Inexpensive seed starting light and stand

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!

Making a milk jug seed planter

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.

Preparing to start seeds

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.

Planting seeds in a milk jug starter

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.

Label your seed planters if you plant many varieties

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:

 

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Seeds Have Left the Cityslipper Ranch!

Packing Vegetable Seeds

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.)

Seed sets ready to mail

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.

Canning orange tomatoes

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!

 

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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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Garden Bloggers Bloom Day, Aug 2012!

Bean blossoms look far too complicated; I’m glad bees can figure them out. The green bush beans I planted this year have pink blossoms; a nice change from the white bean blossoms of past years. In the bottom-right of the photo, you can see a bean starting to develop.

Garden Bloggers Bloom Day originates from Carol Michel’s blog, May Dreams Gardens. She wants to see blossoms all year long, and the garden blogging community rallies: post blossoms on your blog, then link to it from her blog. It’s simple, and it helps other people find your blog!

Please enjoy my Bloom Day post. Then, come back on the 22nd and participate in Post Produce. Just as Carol does, I’ll write my Post Produce post and include a Linky widget before I go to bed on the 21st. On the 22nd, you write your own post about what you’re eating from your garden, then link to your post from Your Small Kitchen Garden. I hope you’ll join me on August 22nd and Post Produce.

Here’s what’s abloom in my garden today:

If it’s Bloom Day and tomatoes are in bloom, you’re going to find at least one tomato blossom in my post! This photo is more about hairy stems than it is about blossoms. I’ve harvested about a bushel of tomatoes so far. Barring a late blight incident, I may see three or four bushels from my plants this year.

My thyme plants are struggling a bit this year. One has some seriously involved fungus that I’ve treated a few times with the copper-based fungicide I use on my tomato plants. Amazingly, the stems of that plant touch the stems of a perfectly healthy-looking thyme plant. Too much information? This flower stalk is from the healthy thyme plant.

The mint has been in bloom for weeks. It has overwhelmed the planter holding it, and blossoms hang over the sides. I fear an impending mint invasion and will be vigilant for plants that decide to germinate next to the planter.

Bush cucumber plants I set in a deck planter have grown vines as long and tendrilly as the non-bush cucumbers I planted in my garden. Cucumber blossoms look happy against the deck flooring.

Pepper flowers are among my favorites.

For flower drama in a vegetable garden, you can always count on squashes! This is a butternut blossom, and it clearly understands flower sex. For this photo, it attracted four pollinators, though the reliable pollinator was holding the camera. Despite all the bee activity among my summer and winter squash blossoms, I hand-pollinate every female flower. The bees didn’t budge when I brushed this female flower’s “parts” with a male flower’s “part.”

 

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What’s Eating What’s Eating my Tomato (or Pepper) Plants?

Shooting obliquely through a window at dusk and zoomed to the max, I captured some poor-quality photos of this cardinal after it plucked a hornworm from my tomato plants. While the image is sketchy, there’s no mistaking the shape and color of the delicacy in the cardinal’s beak.

Birds seem to love my small kitchen garden, so I’m rarely surprised to see some flitting about when I glance out the window. Sometimes I look up while working in the vegetable bed and there’s a catbird or goldfinch poking about within 15 feet of me.

This year, for the first time, I noticed a cardinal showing great interest in my plantings. Oddly, during dinner one evening, a cardinal alighted in our lilac bush and then made its way cautiously onto our deck. There, about eight feet from our dinner table, it snooped around the tomato plants growing in a deck planter. What, I wondered, was so alluring about my tomato plants?

The Cardinal Scores a Hornworm

The next evening, near dusk, I glanced out at the garden and saw the cardinal on the fence near my tomato forest. The cardinal hopped onto the plants out of sight and I watched as the leaves and trellis trembled until the cardinal emerged and landed back on the fence.

The cardinal had something in its beak! What did it grab from my tomato plants? I needed a binocular to answer the question: The cardinal had scored a tomato hornworm! (A link in a tweet from @wormsway since has demonstrated that this was a tobacco hornworm, not a tomato hornworm.) I hadn’t yet spotted any hornworm damage on my tomato plants, but there was the cardinal chowing down.

What an awesome sight! I had no idea cardinals eat hornworms much less that they know to hunt among tomato plants. Goodness, hornworms grow so large, I’d think they could choke a chicken … and a cardinal’s throat must be much smaller than that of a chicken. Hornworms are hard to spot, and you’re not likely to find one until there is tell-tale damage to your plants. I’m so glad to know that at least one cardinal has assumed ownership of hornworms on my tomato plants.

Hornworms on Peppers

The day after the cardinal snagged a hornworm, I noticed one of my sweet pepper plants looked ragged. Rain was falling, and I wanted out of the rain, so yet another day passed before I could examine the plant. The photos tell the story and give you a pretty good idea of why you might want a hornworm-eating cardinal to hang out in your small kitchen garden.

Tomato Hornworm Damage

I noticed that a huge amount of one of my lilac bell pepper plants was missing; clearly the work of a creature that chews on leaves.

Tomato Hornworm Damage to a Pepper

I was suspicious that perhaps a hornworm was involved with my pepper plant; after all, peppers are in the same plant family as tomatoes. Then I saw that someone had eaten a large chunk of one of the peppers! I’d never known a hornworm to eat a tomato; would a hornworm eat a pepper?

Tomato Hornworm Poop on a Pepper

Then I saw the poop pineapples. These are unmistakably output from a tomato hornworm. I promise, if you grow tomatoes insecticide-free for enough years, you will come to recognize hornworm poop. Where oh where was the hornworm? (A tweet I spotted after posting this story pointed out how similar tomato hornworms are to tobacco hornworms. It turns out, this particular hornworm is a tobacco hornworm – apparently, both like plants related to tomatoes.)

Tomato Hornworm Under a Leaf

Knowledge I gained in the past week: It’s a lot easier to spot a hornworm on a pepper plant than it is to spot one on a tomato plant. First, my pepper plants are way smaller than my tomato plants. Second, a hornworm had converted at least a third of this particular pepper plant into hornworm poop so there wasn’t a lot to examine. I got down low, bent a few leaves this way and that, and there was the culprit!

Tomato Hornworm

My very well fed tomato hornworm (actually a tobacco hornworm) was longer and fatter than my index finger. I must have turned a blind eye for my pepper plant to host such a “worm” from cradle to monster (a hornworm isn’t a worm; it’s the caterpillar phase of a hummingbird moth). Woe to the cardinal that tries to gulp down something as big as this. Still, perhaps if I can explain to the cardinal that peppers and tomatoes are in the same plant family, the cardinal will keep my whole garden clear of hornworms.

 

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