Posts Tagged tomatoes

The Agony of Success

Lovely, aren’t they? Due to a childhood filled with perpetually pink gifts from a well-meaning grandmother, I’m not usually a big fan of pink. However, these daffodils were freebies from the same company that gave me the pink hyacinths I showed you here.

Both sets of bulbs have prospered. And in my fantasy garden land where I stay on top of all my chores, they would have been divided and spread around several years ago to prevent the crowding that inevitably leads to diminished blooms. These bulbs are rapidly approaching that limit. Will I get to them? Unless friendly garden elves suddenly appear to help me, probably not.

Most days on my five acres, I am so besotted by the beauty I encounter at every step that I manage to ignore all the to-dos clamoring for their turns. Today, as creaky joints and aching muscles protest my every move, the beauty is being outshouted.

I spent the last two days finishing the initial planting of the spring vegetable garden. I was pushing hard to exploit a window of absurdly mild, dry weather that preceded today’s morning rain (a mere 0.28 of an inch). This weekend, temperatures will dip a bit below freezing — not enough to slow my well-watered and tucked in spring veggies.

Remember the greens I started that needed transplanting? I last showed them to you here. Now they are all tucked into their final destination:

Mulched greens

I was delighted by the number of earthworms I annoyed as I prepared this bed on Wednesday and planted it yesterday. If you click on the photo to enlarge it, you can just make out the wire hoops over the bed that support the weight of the garden fabric that you can see here:

No varmints or cold spells will bother them now

I realize the cloth isn’t exactly draped elegantly. The wind was blowing in a cold front, so I settled for functionality and disregarded aesthetics.

After I got them in, I direct-sowed seeds of beets, two carrot varieties, two more lettuce varieties, a package of mixed mesclun greens, and another spinach variety. They don’t look like much yet, but here they are freshly buried and watered:

And here:

You can see that I am not compulsively neat. Functionality is my concern. I’ve found that these crosswise initial planting rows usually work well. I sowed the seeds relatively thinly, but if the plants germinate well, I’ll need to thin them. That’s why I left spaces between the planting sites. If I end up not needing the space for greens, I’ll tuck in flowers and herbs there.

The greenhouse looks much emptier without its crowd of robust greens. But the remaining seedlings are — mostly — doing well. I always start six plants of each tomato and pepper variety. I plant out two, and find good homes for the rest. That’s never a problem; I’ve found that few folks say no to free tomato and pepper plants.

Indigo Rose only yielded two excellent seedlings and a puny-looking third — 50% germination. I’ve sowed new seeds in the spaces that didn’t produce. Here they are sitting by themselves in the germination chamber:

Indigo Rose germination disappointed

However, Super Marzano — my other new tomato variety this year — yielded a 100% germination rate. For some reason, I lost my mind and planted twelve seeds. Here they are with my four reliable tomato varieties, all of which also germinated 100%. The Super Marzanos are the big ones in back that had a two-week head start over the others.

The peppers and basils did not disappoint me either. Here they are raring to go on the greenhouse shelf beside the tomatoes:

Note the purple-colored Amethyst basils at the top right.

The Super Marzano tomatoes will need to be upgraded to individual pots very soon. And it’s almost time to sow more flower seeds in the greenhouse. In fact, it’s probably time right now. After the upcoming chilly weekend, next week’s temperatures are predicted to soar into the upper seventies, with nighttime lows not dipping below forty. That’s crazy talk for mid-March; much more what I’d expect for middle to late April.

The good news? I am well-prepared with an abundance of enthusiastic veggie seedlings to try to wrest spring and summer veggies from too-warm, too-dry soil. And as soon as I am able to once again walk fully upright without limping or groaning, I’m going to get right on that.

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Vegetable Garden Update

Today's harvest

Thirty seconds of water every other day. That’s what every vegetable plant in my garden was getting for the last three weeks. The shallow well I use for the vegetable garden was mostly gone. By alternating days and severely limiting the amount of water each plant got, I was able to coax the well to produce a small stream of water — just enough to keep most of the vegetables from surrendering to the record heat (numerous 100+ degree days in a row, multiple weeks) and unrelenting drought. Every watering day was a race to see how many plants I could water before the stream emerging from the hose began to thin and cough.

Finally this past weekend — the miracle that every drought-plagued gardener prays for — rain! Real rain. Not the ten-second showers that only wet the tops of the canopy trees. This was two days of off-and-on bona fide, blessed rain. All told, we got 2.13 inches. Yes, so much water so fast has caused some of the tomatoes to split as the skins are unable to stretch fast enough to accommodate swelling fruits. But that’s not a big problem.  The best strategy is to pick the splitters before they’re fully vine ripe and allow them to finish reddening on the kitchen counter.

The addition of soil-reviving moisture throughout the garden has caused the veggies that were limping along to surge into high gear. Productivity of the tomato plants especially is verging on the ridiculous. My fifteen plants (I pulled out a dying Purple Russian over a month ago) are over a foot taller than my seven-foot trellises, and fruit production does not seem to be slowing appreciably. Here’s a shot of a part of the garden to show you what I mean:

Moist veggies are happy veggies

That’s a wall of tomatoes in the back. In front are some ripening Carmen (Italian bull) peppers surrounded by basils and marigolds. As you can see, it’s a party out there.

And the Fortex pole beans? Have mercy! They topped their six-foot trellis over a month ago. Now they’ve fully grown down the other side, and they’re starting back up again. That’s over 12 feet of bean vine, and I planted a lot of beans. Here’s a shot of the bean wall I took this morning:

Be careful what you wish for...

The zucchinis all surrendered to the heat and squash vine borers. The Honey Bear acorn winter squashes are limping along. After we harvested the first four mature fruits, they flowered again and produced two more. It’s a race to see whether these fruits will be able to fully mature before the vines expire.

But the other member of the cucurbit family I’m growing this year is still hanging tough. These are the late-sown Diva cucumbers. During the height of the heat wave and drought, I wasn’t able to give them enough water to help them form fully perfect fruits. But the rain has changed that. Fruits are lengthening fast, and the vines are still actively growing. What a surprise they’ve been. Here’s a shot from this morning:

Diva cucumbers running out of trellis

And not to be outdone are the sunflowers. I bought the packets locally and promptly lost the names after I sowed the seeds. But you’ve got to admit they’re looking mighty impressive:

Sunflowers sparkle in the morning sun

You need a close-up to fully appreciate these lovely flowers:

Sunflower Duo

And finally, the totals for today’s harvest. In that basket at the top of this post were 35 Sweet Treats cherry tomatoes, 20 Viva Italia plum tomatoes, 9 small slicing tomatoes (a mix of Ferline and Italian Goliath), 4 big slicing tomatoes (Big Beefs and Early Goliaths), 9 beans (7 Jade bush beans and 2 Fortex pole beans), and 1 Apple sweet pepper.

I’m off to make and freeze tomato sauce, so that we can taste a bit of summer’s bounty when winter’s chill frosts the windows. Here’s hoping the rains will be more frequent, now that they’ve found us again.


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On the Cusp of Tomato Season

Happy Summer Solstice, everyone! My region is welcoming in summer with a Code Red Air Quality Alert, thanks to a southerly wind that is blowing forest fire smoke directly on top of us.  I am blessed with strong healthy lungs, but even I am coughing a bit indoors as the smoke saturates Summer’s arrival. Yuck.

I managed to get in two hours of gardening this morning just after sunrise before the smoke arrived, and I am delighted to report that I believe the first tomatoes from our garden will be fully ripe tomorrow — the first entire day of Summer. They will be our cherry tomato variety — Sweet Treats. Here’s one of the nearly ripe beauties that I photographed yesterday.

A nearly ripe Sweet Treats cherry tomato

I expected the cherry tomatoes to ripen first. After all, they are smaller fruits, which gives them an advantage. However two other tomato varieties are showing signs of ripening: Ferline and Purple Russian. You may recall that I sowed the seeds of these two varieties in my greenhouse two weeks before the other varieties due to space limitations. I chose these two varieties because their catalog descriptions said they’d take the most number of days to produce ripe fruit. That two-week head start has allowed them to near ripeness first. It will be interesting to see how long it takes for the other varieties to catch up. Here’s a Ferline tomato starting to color up.

Ferline tomato showing some color

Ferline is my tomato experiment this year. I chose it based on its catalog description that touts its resistance to late fungal blights, which always destroy my tomatoes as the season progresses. The plants have been impressive from the moment they sprouted. Thick, almost burly vines stand so tall and straight that I’m mostly tying them to the trellis to support the weight of their abundant medium-sized fruits. They are gorgeous, profoundly robust plants.

However, all seven tomato varieties are performing spectacularly so far this season. Wonder Spouse built me two magnificent tomato trellises this year. He attached seven-foot-tall deer fencing to eight-foot tall posts. We thought this would be the year the tomatoes didn’t reach the top of the trellis and tumble over the other side. I’m thinking we were wrong about that. Here’s a shot of one end of one trellis that I took yesterday. See the white top of the metal post at the left top of the picture? See the fencing material coming off the top? Now note the height of the tomato vines. Have mercy!

Tomato Trellis nearly topped!

This weekend I’ll be buying some kind of step stool that I can use in the garden to reach the top of the trellis. Even Wonder Spouse is having trouble reaching the top to tie these enthusiastic vegetables.

You can see the size of the deer fencing mesh in the Ferline picture. It’s working pretty well. We’ve only had to liberate a few fruits that grew stuck into the squares. The plastic mesh is easier to manipulate than the wire trellises we had been using previously. I think the tomatoes prefer this trellis. They seem to weave themselves through it without any prompting from me. As I said, I’m mostly tying the increasingly heavy fruiting branches to try to prevent the weight of the fruits from breaking the tomato vines.

I’m going to try to keep a running count this year of how many of each variety I pick. However, as all sixteen (yes, I know I’m overenthusiastic) plants begin producing, my ambitions may be cast aside in the name of efficiency. They aren’t the only vegetables I’m growing, you know. The beans — pole and bush — are flowering now, as are the cucumbers, and I’ve been picking zucchinis for a week; they’re just approaching serious production mode.

As long as the shallow well we use to water the garden holds out, I’ll continue to water. However, with temperatures approaching 100 degrees Farenheit predicted for the next few days, I’m worried that my garden may shrivel and die just as it begins to produce significantly.

Here’s hoping that Summer’s searing start will soon be softened by abundant, frequent rain.

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Ruled by Weather

Any serious, long-time gardener pays close attention to weather — not just the forecast for the current day. We watch the long-range forecasts, noting temperature and precipitation trends, so that we can coordinate our activities with optimal weather conditions.

In the Piedmont region of North Carolina where I garden, the last few weeks have been astonishingly temperate. We’ve actually had a bona fide spring this year — the first one in decades.  Wonder Spouse and I had yet another wonderful spring salad from the garden last night: fresh lettuces, mesclun, spinach, Sugar Ann snap peas, and even some delicate chive leaves from my recently transplanted bumper crop of seedlings.

The carrots, beets, and onions are progressing nicely, but are not ready to eat yet. That’s OK. I planted them in the part of the vegetable garden that gets afternoon shade. As long as the rains keep coming, the root crops will achieve tasty maturity.

But after gardening 40+ years in this climate, I know this prolonged spring cannot last much longer. In fact, the weather seers are calling for mid to upper 80s and summertime humidity levels by this weekend. And that’s why I’ve been wearing my old joints to nubs trying to get the summer garden planted and mulched while the cool weather lasts, and before this next round of rain drives me indoors. Besides beating the weather, I had good reason to hurry.

This was the state of my tomato plants in the greenhouse a week ago:

Tomatoes hitting the greenhouse ceiling

Two weekends ago, Wonder Spouse (with help from his lovely assistant, moi) constructed the tallest tomato trellises he has ever built for me. He used 7-foot tall plastic deer fencing material attached to tall metal poles. Maybe, just maybe this year my tomatoes won’t grow taller than my trellis. As it is, I think I’m going to need some kind of ladder to tie the plants as they near the top — and to harvest fruits too.

Here’s what one of the trellises looked like just after I transplanted the tomatoes:

Just-transplanted tomatoes

I dig holes about 8 inches deep and wide for each plant, add organic fertilizer especially formulated for tomatoes, then bury the plants, covering at least the seed-leaf node, and often the next node up as well. Roots will sprout from these newly buried nodes, increasing the anchoring and nutrient-intake systems of the plants.  See the depressions around each plant? Those are little catchment basins that I build to hold water, directing it down to the roots.  Those white markers are ID labels, so I can distinguish between the seven varieties I planted.

This year, the soil was perfectly moist — not wet, but not dry either. In dry years, I add water to the holes after I add fertilizer but before I plant, just to pre-moisten the root zone. Then I bury the plant and add more water.

The final step of this initial phase is mulch. Mulch is essential to the success of a southeast Piedmont vegetable garden. I know old-school farmer/gardeners believe in keeping the soil bare; they use hoes (constantly, all summer long) to hack down the weeds that sprout. Not only is this time-consuming, exhausting work, it’s also much harder on the plants. Root zones become overheated by summer sun, soil dries out faster, and when thunderstorms pound the bare dirt, mud splashes on the plants, creating opportunities for soil pathogens to bounce onto leaves and cause trouble.

Mulching a vegetable garden adds nutrients as the material slowly breaks down. It provides habitat for beneficial organisms like earthworms, toads, and garden spiders. It keeps roots cool, suppresses weeds, and protects soil from eroding during summer downpours.

We use wood chips that have decomposed for two or more years to mulch our veggie beds. I never have enough leaves to use those, although that is my preference. Commercial mulches tend to be treated in ways that make me nervous; I don’t know what has been added or subtracted. I tried hay bales once and only once — summer rains made them sprout into a giant weed patch.

A mulched garden also looks better. Check out my tomatoes with their newly added layer of mulch:

Mulched Tomatoes

Those catchment basin depressions I made are still there, but now they’re filled with mulch. The mulch swells with water, keeping the root zone beautifully cool and moist. I alternate plants on either side of the trellis and tie the branches to the trellis as the plants grow. I find it much easier to keep track of the fruits this way. Tomato cages inevitably become dark green caverns hiding lost fruits.

My method also has the advantage of exposing the work of caterpillars like Tomato Hornworms. Usually the birds spot them before I do, eliminating any need on my part to remove them. Trellises make great perching spots for birds. My bluebirds routinely sit on posts to look for tasty insects.

The tomatoes were just the beginning. I’ve done a lot more in the last two weeks. I’ll show you in another installment, since this one’s running long — much like the increasing daylight as we rush toward another summer solstice.

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Tradescantia x andersoniana ‘Sweet Kate’ and friends

That’s right — I used the R word, as in rain, liquid precipitation, glorious fat drops of falling water.  It has been many, many months — since last year some time — that we received over an inch of rain from one precipitation event on our five acres.  Many areas quite near by got plenty of rain, but not my house, not my increasingly thirsty yard.

Finally, in the wee hours of the morning, my yard got its turn. About 12:45 a.m., a storm slammed into us, bringing ferocious, house-shaking winds, room-illuminating lightning, and a grand total of 1.10 inches of rain. Hallelujah!

Of course, I was a nervous wreck when the pounding winds and lightning rained branches down onto the roof. Fortunately, they were small branches; they only sound like logs when they’re hitting the roof in the dark. And, of course, Wonder Spouse slept through the entire storm.

The number on the rain gauge made my sleep deprivation worthwhile. This was not a drought-breaking event. We would need about one of these events every week for several months to bring us back to optimum wetness. But it’s a tiny soggy step in the right direction — finally.

Now I must redouble my gardening pace. The summer garden must be planted before the weekend is over, so that the plants can settle into pre-moistened vegetable beds. The spring garden must be harvested and fed to encourage continued production. The rain will have made the sugar snap peas swell. The greens will all be larger. I see more tasty salads in our imminent future.

Of course, weed growth will outpace the growth of desired plants, making my chore list that much longer. And the “lawn” that we mowed on Sunday will now shoot skyward sooner than we’d like. But I’ll take more weeds and a taller lawn as long as the blessed rain keeps coming.

All of last night’s liquid goodness will make my lovely Chartreuse Spiderwort, ‘Sweet Kate’ even lovelier than she was when I took the above photograph a few days ago. She’s mingling with some of the other perennials that surround our little water feature that I told you about here.

Sweet Kate was developed in England, and she’a hybrid between two native US species, so I consider her one of us. She thrives on neglect, even multiplying enthusiastically but not excessively. Several of the small speciality nurseries in my area sell this plant. Even when she’s not blooming, she makes her presence felt with those knockout leaves.

As spring morphs into summer, Sweet Kate will continue to show off her vibrant flowers sporadically until frost.  But I’ve no time to admire her many fine qualities when I have all of these plants looming large in the greenhouse, waiting for relocation to their permanent summer homes:

Impatient tomatoes and other summer vegetables awaiting transplantation

I think I’d best get busy…

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Tantalizing Tomatoes

I confess I have self-control issues when it comes to choosing tomato varieties. Okay, spouse is laughing at me, because, let’s face it — I have self-control issues when it comes to choosing any plant variety. I want them all. But it’s worse with tomatoes.

I blame the seed catalogs. They arrive in late December/early January when the days are dark and cold and the ground is frozen. Full of pictures of plump, ripe fruits and glowing descriptions of their flavor and productivity, how can I resist?

My impulse control issues escalated after spouse built the greenhouse — an entire room designed for growing plants. We enlarged the vegetable garden to what I realize in retrospect were probably ridiculous dimensions. I justified it by providing a summer supply of produce to nearby kinfolk without garden space.

And I went a little nuts when I ordered tomato seeds that first year. I think I ended up with fourteen (it might have been sixteen) different tomato varieties. Because I was accustomed to the less-than-optimal germination rates of my pre-greenhouse days, I planted eight seeds of each kind.  Of course, almost every single seed enthusiastically germinated. You do the math. That’s a lot of tomatoes.

I was able to give away some seedlings, but I couldn’t bring myself to compost the excess. I planted all of them. Everyone we knew that year enjoyed our bounty. We carried tomatoes to work, where they vanished from breakrooms in mere minutes. We gave some to food kitchens. We made tomato sauce and froze it. And we ate tomatoes every day, usually twice a day.

Since then, I have gradually exerted more self-control, and this year, I only ordered seven different kinds of tomato seeds. I’ve also learned to rely on near-100% germination rates, so I only sow four seeds of each kind. We plant out two of each variety and give the excess seedlings to friends. I know — that’s still fourteen tomato plants. Baby steps, but still, steps in the right direction.

This year’s varieties are Early Goliath Hybrid, Big Beef Hybrid, Sweet Treats Hybrid, Viva Italia Hybrid, Italian Goliath Hybrid, Ferline, and Purple Russian. The first four are repeats from previous seasons. We’ve decided we can’t live without them.

Purple Russian is also a repeat from last year. This tomato breaks my rule against growing heirloom varieties, and its lack of disease resistance did bring them to a relatively early demise. But before the plants succumbed, they produced the most amazing deep purple plum tomato fruits we had ever devoured.

Spouse wanted to try Italian Goliath, because it produces later than the Early Goliath we’ve enjoyed so much. Goliath is actually a series by a tomato breeder, and we’ve come to trust the brand.

Ferline is a total unknown. I chose it because the catalog description claims it is highly resistant to the late blight fungus that usually plagues my crop as summer begins to wane. I’ll let you know if it lives up to its hype.

And in case you’re wondering where I find all these varieties, you should know that entire seed catalogs devoted to tomato and pepper varieties exist to tempt you. Links to two of my favorite sources are below.  But when you find yourself ordering a dozen or more varieties, don’t blame me. You have been warned.



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