After working my halfday on Saturday, I came home and Michael and I headed out to the nursery to pick up compost for the garden. I was exhausted and could have just as easily slept the rest of the day away. I roused myself because I knew that I'd already lost time by not getting the garlic in and I really, really want to grow more garlic.
I love the soil yard at Natural Gardener. I wished I had worked my halfday there instead of in town. Some people have all the luck. I enjoy a little light banter. I always ask the hair stylist which is the most popular celebrity hairstyle at the moment; Saturday I asked which was the most popular compost. The soilman told me that it was undoubtedly the Revitalizer, "It's all in the marketing I guess. People love the name."
My garden needs to be revitalized but I'll pass on the popular stuff and stick with turkey. That stuff is "black gold" as the Clampetts would say, but I'm not talking oil, I'm talking nitrgogen. My plants love turkey compost and thrive in it. We came home with eight bags and I'm already planning on making another trip for another eight. Oh, to have a truck. One load. Done. Maybe in another life.
The black-eyed peas have been turned under, the cucumbers have been clipped and composted and the new compost mixed in. We're going to have a beautiful garden this fall and winter. I can already see it. Garlic, chard, lettuce and beets in the large bed; carrots, more lettuce and brocolli in the smaller beds. They will be full and productive. It will be worth the painful elbow, the stiff back, the creaky knee. In three months time I won't even remember the pains of today. I'll stop by the grocery after working my halfday and walk past the produce knowing that I have fresher, better food at home in my backyard.
I spent ten hours doing some serious gardening yesterday. I haven't spent ten hours in the garden for weeks. It's the heat. This time of year, when the temps reach the triple digits, I retreat. But yestderday, the temps dropped and rain was expected. I thought it wise to take advantage and pull out spring's debris - old tomatoes, peppers, diseased basil, zinnias. I also did my quarterly flipping of the compost. The pile spiked to 120° today, thank you very much.
I discovered a red version of my nemesis, the leaf-footed stink bug. Maybe he thought if he dyed his wings I wouldn't recognize him. Little did he know, I'd recognize those fancy chaps anywhere:
What you don't want to find is the long segmented row of eggs they lay. I few weeks ago I found several rows and cut them out. I never put them in the compost. They go into the trash. This is what leaf-footed bug eggs look like:
I'm happy to report that I only found one Japanese Beetle in my bed. I gave that to the hens.
After eight hours outside I decided to go in for a glass of water. When I came back out I found this:
All but one of the hens was taking a dust bath in my garden bed. Even the guinea was rolling in the dirt. Tiny and one Sussex were the only holdouts. The Lone Sussie was gorging herself silly at the compost bin and Tiny was trying to watch over her and the bathers at the same time. He had his work cut out for him.
I did no writing. I couldn't help but feel disappointed with myself. I felt as if I had not prioritized it and the truth is, I hadn't. The tending, the cleaning and the sowing were at the top of the list. In two months time I should have three rows and a 4x4 bed full of Queen Anne Cowpeas. In a month I will put in the garlic. The days just cascade, one into the next.
I went back and forth feeling annoyed with Michael for not helping me. In all fairness, I did not ask for help. Eventually I found my own rhythm and the momentum drowned out any fussy feelings.The gardening is my thing and I don't know why I'd even expect him to get involved, other than the fact that I felt at one point as if I were going to keel over from exhaustion sraight into an ant pile. He'd feel really bad if he looked out the window and saw that in his backyard. The gardening is hard work and I needed a good purging and the alone time.
Now there is rain. Just a little, but enough. Rain really does make good weather for reflection. I'm happy with the way things went yesterday. I don't feel too terribly sore today and I have a very strong sense of accomplishment. In two months time, I think I'll be able to rally Michael to help shell peas. Fingers crossed.
My garden dried up and I thought it died. The squash leaves drooped, the bell peppers hit the ground and wrinkled, the okra was wilty and the cotton was sad. You know it's hot and dry if the okra is wilty and the cotton is sad. I soaked everything on Saturday evening all the while apologizing profusely. By Sunday morning it looked as if all was forgiven.
I made my way around the beds and shook my head in awe at how quickly the plants had responded. The Jimmy Carter bed even gifted me with peanuts! I've had my eye on one plant in particular. It's leaves are a little paler than those on either side of it. I thought that might be a sign that it had done everything that it could do and I've been trying my best just to leave it alone. By Sunday I could no longer resist.
I found my short-handled cultivator nearby and I ever so gingerly raked at the surface of the soil beneath the plant. I put my fingertips in the loose dirt and felt around like I do when I'm feeling for an egg under a hen. And there it was, a woody little shell. I dug some more and found four peanuts near the surface. I pulled them free and went back to the house.
I think Michael knew I was trying to hide something behind my back.
"It's hotter than hell out there, " I told him. And then the big reveal,
It worked. My Virginia Carwiles sprouted and grew. They're a nice looking plant; mostly healthy with very little insect damage. I'm going to give them another few weeks and then I'll cut back on the watering before pulling them up.
I'd like to send a few to Jimmy as a show of gratitude for responding to my letter. The only thing stopping me is paranoia and an overactive imagination. In my mind I very neatly address a small box and enclose a handful of peanuts contained in a baggie. I include a brief letter and tape everything tight. But even with the care I've taken, the little package is suspect and intercepted. It is shaken and xrayed and sniffed by dogs, only to be destroyed in an open field or on a tarmac somewhere. I don't have enough peanuts to spare for out and out destruction. I'm just going to have to shell them on the porch while sending warm thoughts of peace and love to Georgia.
A little bit of Texas with a little bit of Georgia...
A summer garden meal will almost always include tomatoes, I've discovered. My first banner year growing tomatoes was the summer of 2012. It seems so long ago now but it was just last year. I purchased transplants from a community garden plant sale: Cherokee Purples, Black Krim, Costoluto Veronese and Celebrity. We had one mystery plant that volunteered to join the party; a small, yellow pear tomato that popped up alongside the rail of the raised garden bed. I named him Willie.
My measure of success as a gardener is being able to repeat a healthy yield from one year to the next. I'm proud to say that I was able to harvest another counter top full of tomatoes for 2013. Here are a few things that I've learned along the way. Most are pretty basic but often overlooked. Consider this a very brief primer to growing tomatoes.
Whether you've visited a nearby Home Depot or your local garden center, you've discovered that there are many, many tomato varieties available. So, how does one choose? Believe it or not, I can help you narrow down your choices.
To begin with, we’ll divide our tomatoes into
two broad categories: determinate and indeterminate.Yes, I added a third but we'll consider that a subcategory, alright?
Determinate: Think of these plants as having a pre-determined growing habit. They will get just so big (about 3’ – 4’), and yield just so much and then they’re done. I have a large galvanized container that I like to put a determinate tomato plant in each year. Determinates are great for just this sort of thing – containers and small garden areas. They don’t need to be managed the same way their brethren, the indeterminate, needs to be.
If you think you might like to try canning and you’re looking for an abundance of tomatoes to ripen all at once, determinates may be a good choice for you. I grew a Hungarian determinate this year, a Magyar Piros Boker. It’s delightful. The fruit has dense flesh, a pretty red color and nice round shape. I don’t know the exact number but I’ll guess that it has produced nearly a dozen tomatoes for me.
Indeterminate: Indeterminates can be beasts! These are the tomatoes that take over garden beds, flop over onto pathways, vine up the side of the house and peek into your windows at night. I love the fruit but I’m not a fan of their growing habit. They never seem to stop. I use tomato cages and by the time these vines are fruiting the cage gets lost. Indeterminate tomatoes are why I started buying brightly colored tomato cages, just so I could find them under all the foliage. I am learning the hard way that these tomatoes need room. I gave my transplants about 30” inches distance but they still ended up creating a single solid mass.
Indeterminate does not describe the fruit at all. You can have small, cherry tomatoes or large Big Boys on an indeterminate vine. I’ve had the best luck with the Cherokee Purple. It’s usually the first to produce. The tomatoes are large with purple skin and deep green shoulders. I’ve also enjoyed Black Krim, Azoychka and Paul Robeson, all indeterminates. Clearing out the garden bed of indeterminate tomatoes is horrible work. You’ve been warned.
Indeterminates will produce for a longer period of time than determinates, but remember that you need space for these.
Semi-determinate: sometimes referred to as strong determinates. They are somewhere in-between the two categories. They have a bushy growing habit but produce fruit a little longer into the season.
Other things to take into consideration when choosing your tomato plants are color, shape, size, heirloom vs. hybrid and use.
Color: There are so many colors of tomatoes to be had that one company, the Baker Seed Company, actually divides the tomato section of its catalogue by color. Yellow just may be the new red, but you can also choose from green, white, rose, orange, purple and pink. And don’t forget the striped ones!
Shape: I’m going to venture to guess that most people think of tomatoes as round, and red for that matter. Now think outside the box. Tomatoes come in many shapes: some are pear-shaped, some are flat (Costoluto Genovese), others are long (Icicle) and yes, some are even round (Bonny Best).
Size: My brain tends to oversimplify. I think of tomatoes as either cherry or bigger than cherry. The bigger than cherries are often referred to as Beefsteaks. Mortgage Lifters and Brandywines are a few examples of beefsteak tomatoes. I would grow Brandywines for the name alone provided I had enough room. Some tomatoes are very small. I bought an Azoychka this year. The label promised beefsteak size tomatoes (8oz and larger) but they turned out to be about the size of a grape. I suspect they may have been mislabeled.
Heirloom vs. Hybrids: “People get really excited about those exotic tomatoes – the Krims and the Robesons. Not me, I like the old standbys like Early Girls and Big Boys,” a co-worker confided to me recently. There are gads and gads of tomato varieties out there. Our local community garden plant sale offered 130 different varieties!
I happen to like heirlooms. They are often misshapen and lack conventional beauty. I also like a tomato with a good story. I like to imagine the provenance, the family that cared enough to save the seeds and pass them down to a younger generation. Heirloom tomatoes are open-pollinated which to me, means natural, simple pollination. You know, the whole birds and the bees thing. The offspring of open pollinated heirlooms will be identical to the parent, unlike hybrid seeds which do not grow true.
Hybrids most definitely have their place. They are often more disease resistant and pest resistant. Some are less prone to cracking. Choosing between an heirloom and a hybrid is a matter of personal preference. No ones judging you.
Other Lessons Learned
I’ve learned to start with transplants instead of starting tomatoes from seed. That was difficult for me because I love to start a plant from seed. I’ve had markedly better success with transplants. But that’s just me. Live and learn.
When putting the transplant into the soil, plant it deep; deeper than you think you’d need to. Sink the rootball plus the stem up to the first set of leaves. Roots will sprout from the stem and the tomatoes will be able to take up more nutrients from the soil.
Tomatoes are all about nutrients. They are what gardeners call heavy feeders. After getting your transplant into place give it a good drink of fish emulsion to reduce the shock and add nitrogen. Then fertilize every 3 to 4 weeks until tomatoes begin to set. I use Garden Tone for fertilizer but there are fertilizers specifically formulated for tomatoes. Once you start seeing tiny green tomatoes form you can cut back on the feeding.
Tomatoes love the sun, hours and hours of it. They require a good 6 to 8 hours of sun so make sure to pick an open spot for them. You don’t want a shady area right next to the house or a fence that is going to put them in the shade for most of the day.
Make sure the soil drains well. You don’t want the roots sitting in wet muck. If they survive the wet muck you may end up with blossom end rot. Blossom end rot is a black spot that forms on the end of the tomato. It can be small (about dime size) or large (the size of a half dollar). I give these tomatoes to the hens.
Water your tomatoes at regular intervals. You don’t want to let the soil dry out and then drench it. This will contribute to blossom end rot and cracking as well.
Give your tomatoes support. Everyone needs a helping hand at some point. There are all sorts of tomato supports. I use cages but I’d like to graduate to something a little more sturdy for my indeterminates. Cages seem adequate for most determinates.
Mulch around the base of your tomatoes. You won’t have to water as often. I use straw. A bale runs about $10 and lasts through the season.
The Tomato Graveyard
As I said earlier, last year was my first banner year growing tomatoes but not my first year giving it a go. I don’t know how many tomato plants have met their demise in my garden. I chalk most of the deaths up to pride and poor timing. I’ve never been able to get the seeds started at the right time. As I mentioned earlier, I remedied that problem by purchasing transplants instead of seeds.
My biggest problems have been with insects. For some gardeners, it is the tomato hornworm that does the most damage, for me, it’s the stink bug. I don’t believe that I will ever have a pest free garden. I just assume they are there, lurking in the soil or on neighboring plants or watching me from under the eaves of the house.
Last year I used Bt (Bacillus Thuringiensis). It is a microbial pesticide and targets a specific group of insects. It is effective against soft bodied insects. The problem I ran into with Bt is that it breaks down in sunlight, and since tomatoes thrive in the sun, frequent reapplication was needed.
This year, I switched to spinosad. Spinosad is an organic insecticide and does not need to be reapplied as frequently as Bt. It is also very effective against soft bodied insects. Be aware that neither product is at all discerning. They will kill both beneficial and pesty caterpillars alike. Caution needs to be used when applying. The draw is the low toxicity to mammals. It is the ingredient used in Comfortis, a once monthly oral flea control product for dogs.
You can always handpick pests but be careful how you dispose of them. I once had a friend who picked hornworm after hornworm from her tomatoes, tossing them into a slow seething pile on her driveway. Once she was satisfied with her collection, she laid a piece of plywood over the heap and jumped up and down on it. She went to town on that board, thrilled at the complete and utter annihilation of the destructive worms beneath. The hornworm’s final revenge was to splatter and cover her legs in gut green slime. Let’s move along, shall we?
You may encounter nutrient deficiencies or disease among your vines. You will wonder why the leaves are turning yellow, curling or spotting. Why the blossoms are dropping off before setting fruit, or why the blossoms sit and never pollinate.
This is where I tell you that there are more questions than tomato varieties. I feel as if I have just learned to ride my bicycle after slamming into the concrete time and time again but now I am finally flying down the street and I want to take you with me!
I have only a few answers, others have more. I’ve learned, simply by gardening in Central Texas, that sometimes it is too hot for blossoms to turn into tomatoes. The pollen will get sticky making it impossible for fertilization to take place. This is why we get our plants in the ground by March, while you, dear gardener in Maine, must wait until June.
Be bold. Ask a fellow gardener, get online and/or buy a book. I usually do all three for any given problem. If you’re lucky two of your three sources will concur and you will be on the right track to finding a solution.
This was the briefest of little primers and if nothing else, I hope it has piqued your interest in gardening and growing tomatoes. Please share your successes and failures. As I’ve said, I love to hear a good story. Let’s hear yours.
I've been earnestly working away on the next segment of A Summer Garden Meal From The Ground Up. I am working on the tomato primer. There. I've gone and told you. I'm no good at secrets but I didn't want you to think that I was some sort of a lounge about already, or that I had lost interest in my serialized blog post idea.
But I got side-tracked. By possums.
Wednesday evening I came home and checked the nest boxes like I do every evening. There were five eggs. Three in the top box, one in the lower and Le Bête, as usual, put hers on the ground. I think she's claustrophobic. I went to the garden and brought in several tomatoes. The Paul Robesons were slow to mature but they've hit their stride this week, plus the leaf-footed stink bugs have gone on vacation somewhere - or had a family emergency - I don't know which but I'm not going to inquire lest they misinterpret my curiosity for caring and come back to keep me company.
The garden gods smiled upon us on Wednesday. And then I pissed them off something terrible. I don't know what I did, maybe I snipped the thyme too close to its stalk or disturbed a string of lacewing eggs. I may never know, but by Thursday the retribution had begun.
On Thursday evening I came home, checked the nestboxes and there was, to quote Edwin Starr of "War" fame, "Absolutely nuthin'!" Maybe Michael picked them up, I thought. Not likely, but possible. Michael is every mosquitos dream meal and Tiny plays a very mean game of "chicken" with the man so the chance that my delicate husband had collected eggs was slim. I checked the basket in the house and sure enough, no eggs had been collected.
This morning I went out to feed the girls and they were working away in the nestboxes. It's quite the operation out there when they are in the full swing of things. Sugar has the most plaintive work song ever and Mean Jo and Lucy are constantly battling out for the upper deck. Things seemed normal and I moved on to the backyard to check the tomatoes. I checked the Hungarian Magyar first and found a tomato starting to blush and then I moved on to the Robesons. I could see that a tomato had fallen to the ground. I got closer and found this:
It was gnawed on both sides. My first thought was Le Bête but it didn't seem like her handy work and she had access to the tomatoes all the time and never did anything like this. The dogs won't eat tomatoes. Grackles? And then I saw this:
There were claw marks on either side of the gnawed part, as if something were holding the tomato with tiny little hands! I opened the backdoor and announced to Michael, "I think we've got possums and they're eating our tomatoes!"
"Oh, I know we have possums. They hang out by the trash bin and I see them on my way home from work at night," he answered. He bicycles to and from work each night and often gives me a midnight possum report. Then he said the most horrifying thing ever.
"It's probably the same possum that ate all the eggs."
The insanity! Why had I not considered that a possum was in our coop stealing the eggs? It was the only thing that made any sense. I should have had at least 4 eggs on Thursday or 3 or 1. I had nothing and it wasn't adding up. Now it did and it was looking a lot like this:
This image is from Michael oversized book of botanical images and I could see that he was very happy to finally be using it as a bonafide source book. It was indeed, exactly the image that came to mind when I thought, "Tomato eating possum who likes eggs, too." He knows me so well.
"War" by Edwin Starr on Small Soldiers