Organic Gardening

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3/18/2015

Snap peas interplanted in a spinach bed

Many claims of benefits from companion planting (growing two crops together) are no more than wishful thinking. Tangible benefits, however, come from intercropping (also known as relay planting, interplanting or undersowing), which is when one crop (or cover crop) is sown or transplanted in the spaces between the standing crop before it is finished. Don’t worry about whether the two crops benefit each other, just look at how the gardener benefits! Growers who like to get maximum productivity from their land or the length of their growing season are drawn to intercropping. It is a way to maximize the diversity of insects and other beneficial organisms as well as increasing the productivity of the land. There may be other benefits such as sharing row cover, or irrigation.

Sometimes a small or quick-growing crop is planted between slower growing crops to use the space not yet needed by the slower crop. Sometimes a tall crop and a sprawling crop are planted together. Sometimes a later, slower, crop is given a chance to get started before the first crop is cleared. The first crop may act as a “nurse crop” in providing some shade, or some soil-holding roots. It is important that the intercrop not be allowed to outcompete the main crop, and that no weeds get any chance to compete with either crop. High soil fertility is needed to make this work.

Some intercropping gardening tips include planting spinach with peas, chard with lettuce or scallions, okra with cabbage, peanuts with lettuce. Using relay planting enables a cover crop to get established in a timely way that would not be possible if we waited for the food crop to be finished first.

Here I’ll write about relay plantings in the early spring vegetable garden. In the future I’ll cover late spring intercropping and late summer and fall undersowing of cover crops.

Interplanting peas in spinach beds saves time and space and makes good use of resources. Being a legume, peas do not need high levels of nitrogen in the soil, so interplanting in a standing crop without adding any more compost will work fine in soils with good fertility.

Sugar Ann dwarf snap peas

Because spring heats up quickly here in central Virginia, we have a short season for peas – we have to start as early as possible, or it’s too late to get any. We plant a single or double row of peas in the middle of each spinach bed and take care of the two crops together, with the spinach gradually giving way to the peas as spring advances. The crops share the rowcover, the warmer soil, the cultivations, the compost and, above all, the space. One tilling is eliminated and the bed is doubly productive. Having two crops together keeps our attention on the need for weeding and harvesting.

The trick is to plan ahead when planting spinach. We leave a slightly wider central space between the inner rows of spinach (less than a whole extra row’s worth, as peas are a vertical crop). We’ve found the Row Marker Rake from Johnny’s to be a very worthwhile investment for making consistently parallel rows, and making faster hoeing possible. In the fall we plant beds of spinach with four rows in a 4-foot (120 cm) bed. When winter arrives, we cover the beds with sturdy double hoops and thick rowcover, to save the spinach from getting weather-beaten and to help it grow fast. We also transplant more beds of spinach in early spring.

Here’s how to grow the peas: because the beds are already warm under the rowcover, we can sow earlier than in uncovered soil. We aim to sow ours on March 1st, or whenever the forsythia blooms. Snap pea seed is more vulnerable to rotting in cold soil than shelling peas, probably because the seed is higher in sugars as opposed to starches. Shelling peas can be sown earlier.

In preparation for planting peas, we soak the seed overnight and hoe and weed the spinach. Before we make the furrows for planting the peas, we harvest the bigger leaves from the inner rows of spinach. We make one or two shallow drills (furrows) down the bed middles, sow the peas and replace the row cover.

By the time we want to stake the peas, we’re also ready to uncover the spinach to slow down the bolting, and we need to use the rowcover elsewhere for newer crops. We do another round of weeding and install the pea stakes. We harvest spinach leaves throughout the spring, about once a week for each bed. As they prepare to bolt, we harvest whole plants. We clear the spinach in April and May and continue growing the peas. Eventually we are left with a bed of peas only. One year we discovered the built-in, fail-safe feature of this method: if you fall behind with string-weaving the peas and removing the bolting spinach, then the tall spinach flower stems will support the peas!

Interplanting chard with a fast-growing crop such as lettuce or scallions (green onions) is another possibility, as an alternative to mulching the chard. Transplant the chard at the usual in-row spacing, with about 16 inches (37 cm) between rows. Transplant lettuces or clumps of scallion plants between the chard rows. Keep these crops growing fast and harvest the scallions and lettuce after about five weeks, before the chard gets too big.

Pam Dawling is the garden manager at Twin Oaks Community in central Virginia. Her book, Sustainable Market Farming: Intensive Vegetable Production on a Few Acres is available at Sustainable Market Farming. Pam's blog is on her website and also on Facebook. Pam often presents workshops at MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIRS, and also writes for Growing for Market magazine.

Photos by Kathryn Simmons (peas and spinach), Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.



12/1/2014

Today I'm sharing stories about the successes and failures of this growing season. Sorry that it's been so long since I posted. I allowed a slow personal economy and a series of family troubles to distract me from writing.

Vigorous Carrots and Parsnips

In Racing the Weeds I suggested that it would be nice to select among the carrots and parsnips for seedlings that grow vigorously so that they can out-compete the weeds. I am content to say that was a stunning success this growing season! A patch of carrots was grown without weeding or thinning. They didn't grow as big or produce as abundantly as the patch that was weeded and thinned only one time, but both patches produced food for the table and roots to be grown for seed next year. The parsnips were also grown without weeding. They are still in the ground. The smaller plants can be culled in the spring before the patch flowers. The surviving carrots and parsnips have shown that they can handle the weeds. The photo of a recently weeded carrot row shows the huge differences in growth that can exist between strains. I don't see the value in keeping the slow growing plants. They would continue to grow slowly for the entire growing season.

Selecting carrots for vigor

Skunks Attack Corn!

Skunks ate 2-3/4 patches of sweet corn. My corn varieties were developed in fields that are not bothered by skunks, so when planted into a new field they were decimated by a new pest. No worries. A quarter of the plants in one variety passed the survival-of-the-fittest test and overcame the skunk predation. They had stronger stalks, or higher cobs, or other traits that kept them from being eaten. I'll replant the survivors into the same field next year with the goal of developing a skunk-proof, or at least skunk-resistant, sweet corn.

Tomatoes Getting Frisky

Open tomato flower

Great progress was made on the project to develop Promiscuously Pollinated Tomatoes. A number of varieties were identified that have loose or open flowers. The shorter season specimens were combined into a new grex. Then F1 hybrids were created between them and my earliest tomato. The hybrids are currently growing indoors under lights in hopes that they'll produce F2 seed to plant in the spring. The second generation after a cross is the most exciting. That is where the most diversity shows up.

Melons & Squash vs. the Rain

Mixta Squash

We had unusually long and repeated monsoonal rains this summer. The muskmelons and watermelons suffered. Ripening was delayed. Plenty of muskmelons were left in the field – or turned into wine – because they popped from absorbing too much water. There was mildew on the squash leaves! Out here in the desert we mostly forget that mildew even exists. Nevertheless, the squash produced abundantly, including about 9 different types of mixta squash. The total harvest of mixta squash in the previous 5 years of trying was one fruit. I am really looking forward to growing the mixta squash next year.

Named the Beans

This year the dry bean landrace was well enough adapted to my garden and way of doing things that it was given a name. It is consistently performing very well these days and not changing much, it seemed like it was time for a name. We watch for naturally occurring bean hybrids. They get trialed for a year or two. The best get added to the landrace. The rest get eaten. The new additions are about 10 percent or less per year.

Grew Some Trees

To continue the Fruit and Nut Trees From Seed Project, a few hundred hazelnut seeds were planted. About a dozen plants survived without being weeded. A half dozen pecan trees were grown from seed. Some of the more promising walnuts were identified for transplant into a slightly colder micro-climate. Scions from feral fruit and nut trees and friends yard's were grafted into existing trees. My grafting skills could definitely use some refinement.

Sunroots Get Award for Most Improved

The sunroot landrace showed remarkable improvement this growing season. Last year the feral sunroots were crossed with a commercial clone. The seeds were replanted. About 40 percent of them grew vigorously and survived the growing conditions and the farmers. Half of the plants were not agronomically pleasing and were culled. The others produced vigorous plants with pretty, easy to harvest tubers, and high productivity. They have been replanted into a seed-production and trail bed.

Steady As She Goes for Potatoes and Popcorn

The potatoes and popcorn continue on each year with a little bit of refinement here and there. A few nice cultivars among the potato seedlings were added to next year's seed crop. The popcorn is refined each year for better popping ability, easier shelling, and taste that is more pleasing to me. Popcorn hybrids were made to add more colors and more carotenes. I figure that more colors equals higher nutrition. Slow and steady is the working meme for these crops.

New Garlic Varieties

The project to produce true pollinated garlic seeds, and thus new varieties of garlic, produced 26 pollinated garlic seeds, and 9 new varieties of garlic. I'm intending to post on that topic this winter.

Other New Crops

In order to assure Food Security Through Biodiversity, work continued on adapting new species to our growing conditions. I felt inspired by William Woys Weaver's blog post so I grew and ate dahlias this summer. They need some work, but there's lots of potential there. Respectable amounts of favas and garbanzos were harvested. I've only been working with them one or two years, so they are still in a rough draft stage. This was the third year of working on an okra landrace. The first year the plants grew to just above my ankle and 99 percent of the plants failed the survival-of-the-fittest test by not producing seed. The second year a few plants reached knee high and only 95 percent of the plants failed the survival-of-the-fittest test. One of the plants survived the first fall frosts. This year one of the survival-of-the-fittest tests was performed in the greenhouse by selecting for vigorous growth of seedlings. About 80 percent of the seeds were culled before setting out. This year one of the successful plants grew taller than the farmer, and there was an abundant enough harvest to share okra at the farmer's market. Some of the plants were still producing food when I tilled them under 52 days after the start of our fall frosty season. The third year of a landrace development project often seems magical to me. Frost tolerant okra grown in my cold mountain valley? How clever.

Conclusion

In spite of the complete neglect that some crops suffered, they nevertheless provided food for my people. They produced offspring that seem very capable of providing food next time there are economic or family problems. This is part of the reason why I believe that landrace gardening is a path towards food security through common sense and traditional methods.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.



4/7/2015

Planting A Future: Profiles from Oregon’s New Farm Movement spotlights 18 Oregon farms and farm supporters who are committed to a return to ecologically sound agricultural practices. This group reflects the diversity of people, both young and old, who are reshaping our state’s food system and reclaiming our right to eat well. In their stories you will hear how they came to be where they are, learn something about the challenges they face, and share their happiness at the successes they’ve enjoyed thus far. The following profile has been excerpted from Planting A Future.

Read Your Backyard Farmer, Part 1.

Donna Smith and Robyn Streeter harvesting produce

“There have been a variety of people come into the Portland market and try to do what we do – we actually taught a couple of them – but they were in and out. This is very different from regular farming where you have the same piece of land to farm for 20 years and you take care of that soil and have something that’s stable.

“In urban agriculture the way we do it, although we do have a number of farms we’ve been farming since 2006, we also have new customers coming every year, which means we are continually faced with a certain amount of unstable soil. I think that’s a big difference.”

Robyn expands, “It also takes a lot of organization. You’ve got 25 locations and each one of them needs something different. You have to remember each task, as well as keeping everyone on schedule so all farms are growing crops optimally.”

Donna adds, “And you’ve got to consider microclimates. On a big farm there will be several places that have different microclimates that must be dealt with. For us, every single place we farm has different microclimates and soil structure. So urban agriculture has some unique challenges a lot of farmers don’t want to deal with. Plus, they don’t want to bring soil in to every new place each year.

They don’t want to carry their tools with them everywhere they go. In some ways this is like being a small contractor who hauls their workshop with them. There are a lot of unique requirements. And even we have our limits. If we had to do all year long what we do in the Fall and the Spring, we wouldn’t be doing this, because that’s not the fun part.”

Robyn: “Soggy days aren’t that fun.”
Donna: “When you’re hauling huge amounts of soil.”
Robyn: “Moving soil eight hours every day.”
Donna: “That’s where it can be really physical work. We don’t use any really big machinery so everything is done by hand.”
Robyn: “Grunt work.”
Donna: “And people go, ‘wow, how do you do that?’
Robyn: “You just do it.”
Donna: “And then you’re done with it. A lot of people don’t want to work that hard. But I can’t imagine, and neither can Robyn, doing anything different than what we do. Yeah, it’s hard sometimes and we don’t like each other sometimes, but ninety-nine percent of the time we do, and that’s what it takes.”

Your Backyard Farmer CSA garden

So these two women, year after year, keep putting in the work. The benefits are substantial. One fixed fee covers everything for a 37-week CSA running from the first part of March to the last of October. The farm agreement includes preparing the soil, setting up the trellising and water systems, the weeding, transplanting, seeding, and harvesting, as well as helping customers set up their compost systems. All this at a cost which makes it clear Donna and Robyn aren’t running a get-rich-quick scheme.

Plus, because Your Backyard Farmer’s customers keep all the food produced in their yards and no mechanized harvest or distribution energy is involved, the company’s carbon footprint is actually quite small.

The things that Your Backyard Farmer don’t do are any type of non-food-producing landscaping or raising animals. In both cases, the business would require different licensing. They can, however, offer suggestions.

Donna explains, “We don’t do animals but we guide people on becoming more sustainable on their own property. That’s our goal. We’re going to provide you with your food source. In addition to that, we’ll tell you, ‘This is how you compost. This is how you raise chickens.’ And because they don’t have to worry about producing their food, we’re giving them the opportunity to create some of these other things on their own. We can’t do it for them, but we’ll talk to them about it and help them understand what they need to do.”

With all the health and ecological benefits available to people who own a farmable yard, it seems like the world could use a lot more backyard farmers. Donna and Robyn have pointed out some of the challenges, and they also emphasize that this is not an endeavor designed to make you rich.

Rather, it is a passion project. A way of life focused more on the journey than the gold. A perfect fit for those who love to get their hands dirty and work with nature to bring the world to life.

Your Backyard Farmer CSA squash

So for those who think this sounds like a love affair they could embrace, how could they get started? What steps should they take? Is it possible to become a backyard farmer anywhere in America?

Donna cuts right to the chase, “People should just call us. If they tell us they want to do this in their community, we’re going to do what we can to help. There are a lot of ways to go about it. All of the people we’ve taught do things a bit differently.”

Robyn says, “None of them are identical to what we do, which is how it should be. It’s not a matter of this is how it should be, because every place has unique requirements.”

Donna continues, “Portland’s pretty progressive, so what we do may not work in more conservative communities. It can still be done there, but maybe a bit more contained. We can usually help people through the beginning stages, although they’ll have to know what their community will allow. We feel like it’s a fairly simple concept, but that’s partly because we know it so well.

“It’s time to stop thinking of a farmer as only someone who has 400 acres and a cow or 4,000 acres of corn. There are all kinds of farmers. Some of them are urban farmers, and the world could use a few more of them.”

Order your copy of Planting A Future: Profiles from Oregon's New Farm Movement.

(Top) Photo by Lisa D. Holmes: Donna Smith and Robyn Streeter, owners of Your Backyard Farmer, harvest produce from one of their urban farms.

(Middle) Photo by Lisa D. Holmes: A backyard farm in suburban Portland. Your Backyard Farmer uses organic methods to grow vegetables of all types. Plus, they can train homeowners to grow their own food.

(Bottom) Photo by Lisa D. Holmes: Summer squash helps make every garden feel extra productive.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


5/23/2013

cold frame with seedlingsCold frames are wonderful places to produce transplants to set out in your garden. They are most often made of wood, but not necessarily. The one you see in the photo is made from 1½” thick pine that has been primed and painted. It is 3’x6’ because that’s the size of the piece of glass I had available to make the top. The new one I’ve built is 4’x8’ and has four 2’x4’ lids that are easier to manage. The design I followed is in Eliot Coleman’s Four Season Harvest. My cold frames stay in one place and are part of my garden design. I painted them white because it looks nice and to keep anyone from stumbling into them, particularly in the evening as the sun is fading. Set on top of 3½” thick solid cement blocks so they don’t get waterlogged in the early spring, my cold frames are “landmarks” in my garden.

 

Coleman has a new design that is shown in The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook. It is for a 4’x4’ model that he suggests moving around the garden as needed. In that case it is used to cover a whole crop, not necessarily different varieties of seedlings for transplanting. If you had a small movable cold frame you could have it in one bed for the year and move it once each year with the rotation of crops, or you could move it around every few weeks. If you did that, rather than have a whole frame to move, you might want to have wide boards that hold together with hooks and eyes. They would be easy to move and, when not in use, the boards would stack in one pile. The tops can be made from wood frames covered with plastic.

I use movable season extension made with hoops and plastic for cold weather greens, but for growing transplants, I prefer my wooden cold frames that have an established home in the garden. With the tops off for much of the year, there is no build-up of pests. Whenever I plant a new batch of seeds, I add compost to keep the fertility up and to give the seedlings the probiotics they need for a good start. The planting season begins in January or February, with the first round of seeds being onions, the cabbage family, and sugar snap peas, all for transplanting. Whatever had been in there before, needs to be out by that time, so this is not the place for winter harvested greens, which would still be going strong. Lettuce, planted in September and held into the winter, would be past its prime by that time. If roots — carrots, beets, and parsnips — had been planted there earlier, they would all have to be harvested by the time the first seeds go in after the New Year. These root crops do not need the protection of a cold frame in my Zone 7 climate.

By late winter, and the cool season crops have come up, and the lid can be opened. By the time these seedlings are ready to be planted in the garden, the top would have already been off the cold frame for an extended time. Next would come the warm weather crops, such as tomatoes and peppers. I start these seeds in the ground in the cold frame about a month before my last expected frost. Of course, the covers for the cold frames would need to be back on. I like to have two cold frames in operation so that I can treat them differently—cover on for the warm weather plants and cover off for lingering cool weather crops. Otherwise, I would transplant the cool weather crops into wooden flats, before adding warm weather crops to the cold frame, if they still needed some time before transplanting in the garden.

It is after the warm weather crops have been transplanted out, that cold frames might fall into disuse. I want to encourage you to keep planting. As room opens up in your garden throughout the summer, you can fill it with transplants from the cold frame. By then, the covers would have been put away for the summer and you are only using it as a dedicated space for starting seeds. If my summer seedlings can benefit from some shade, I will put plastic hoops over the cold frame and attach a piece of shade cloth with plastic clips that will hold shade cloth or plastic sheeting to round pipes.

You can find more information about getting the most out of your cold frame at Homeplace Earth. With some experience, you can develop a rotation for your cold frame, just as you would have a rotation for your garden beds, so you know what to expect and how many cold frames you might need. With a little planning, you can have a never ending supply of transplants.

Learn more about Cindy Conner and what she’s up to at www.HomeplaceEarth.wordpress.com.

 



4/7/2015

Garden Plan

Oh, the possibilities! The choices seem endless these days. All those beautiful seed and plant catalogues. So many heirloom, hybrid and new varieties available these days. What about the grafted options? Grafting has been around for centuries. Use a really strong, robust root stock that you graft the tasty variety on top. This gives you a hardy plant that produces lots of the tasty fruit you love. How about all the dwarf varieties? All the great flavor on plants of a diminutive size that fits perfectly in your small space or container. So many choices!

How Do I Choose?

Plant what you love: I always plant what we love to eat. Pick varieties that give you the most for your space: I want to maximize the harvest in the space I have. This results in less space, less water, less care required for the same amount of food. I look for the most productive varieties. Look for key words that tell you that the variety you are looking at is a strong producer. “Prolific” is what I like to hear in descriptions.

Leverage dwarfs and bush varieties: I look at how much I need from a plant. For slicer tomatoes, a dwarf is a great option because it gives a few tomatoes each week which is all we need for burgers. I look for bush types for zucchinis and cucumbers. These bush varieties can be grown in the garden or a container. They stay compact and give us just the right amount we need.

Grow what likes your garden: As you try different varieties, you find that some do better in your garden than others. Saving seed from the best tasting, best producing is just a smart thing to do. This is what our ancestors did. It saves money and develops plants that are perfectly suited to your climate and soil. You can get a head start by using seeds from neighbors or veggies you buy from your local farmers market.

Grow the number of plants for what you eat: This can take some trial and error to figure out how many of each type meets your consumption. There are charts that can help. Just estimate how much you eat and then you can look up tables that tell you the number of plants you need. Here is a link to one: Plan How Many

Here Is What I Have Decided To Grow this Year

Herbs. I have a new garden this year so the first order of business is making sure all my perennial herbs I planted in the fall make it to spring-savory, lavender, thyme, rosemary, salad burnet, marjoram, oregano, bay. I will plant annuals too-chervil, cilantro, cilantro (a more heat tolerant type of cilantro), basil, and parsley.

Broccoli. I am going to grow sprouting, 9 Star and Sea Kale (both perennials), Apollo and Rudolph for 9 months of harvesting.

Flowers. Gem marigolds, calendula, zinnias, loves lies bleeding, dwarf sunflowers, nasturtiums, and moonflower. Flowers play an important part in garden beyond just beauty. They attract beneficial insects and pollinators. They can significantly increase your garden’s production.

Fruits. I planted strawberries last year which are perennials. This year I am going to plant goji berry vine.  My hubby wants to plant some berry bushes.

Nuts. My husband is going to replace our Bradford pear trees with pecan trees. I have been supporting the Arbor Day hazelnut project and will have 5 hazelnuts bushes arriving this spring to plant.

Peppers.I love green peppers and humus. This year I am going to go with red and yellow banana peppers and a yellow heirloom pepper. For the spicier peppers, we’ll plant Pimento, Jalapeño, Cayenne, and Ancho peppers.  The Pimento is for salads. The Jalapeño and Cayenne is for salsa and hot sauce. The Ancho for chili powder.

Zucchini. Since I discovered new ways to use zucchini, I think we will plant 2 zucchini plants. I really loved making zucchini into pasta. I’ll freeze it for use throughout next winter and spring. Zucchini typically wears out about the middle of summer. I’ll do two plantings to keep the harvest going through fall.

Eggplant. I am going for a white variety like Casper and Turkish Orange. Casper doesn’t get bitter during hot, dry weather. Turkish Orange had great taste all season long and looks great.

Legumes. Will go for snap peas in the spring. Romano type pole and bush beans for green beans. Will also throw in some runner beans on trellis’. They have pretty flowers and the beans can be used as green beans or dried beans.

Cucumbers. I think I will do two vining types. I will plant on decorative trellis so they will have a very small foot print in the garden. One will be for fresh cucumbers in salads and the other for pickles.

Greens. Lettuce, orach, and kale. Arugula is a perennial so it will come back year after year.  Chard is also a tender perennial so if the fall planted chard did not make it through the winter, I will replant. Will do succession planting for lettuce about every 3 weeks.  Starting out with cold tolerant varieties, move to heat tolerant varieties at the beginning of May, and switch back to cold tolerant varieties in July for fall harvests.  Kale can be planted in spring and fall.

Cabbage. Thinking of doing Napa to use as wraps in the place of bread.

Tomatoes. My plan is 1 large fruiting variety (Cherokee Purple), 2 small fruiting varieties, (Chocolate, Chocolate Pear) 1 early variety like the 4th of July or Summer Girl, and 1 winter storage variety like Red October. This will give plenty for eating on burgers and salads, enough to make sauce, enough to freeze for salsa, and a variety that is a long keeper indoors for tomatoes through December. I am going to go for the chocolate and black varieties for the large and small fruiting types that I saved seed from last year’s crop.

Tea. Will plant a tea bush this year. It is hardy in Zone 7 which should work in our Kentucky garden with generous winter mulch. Otherwise, you can grow in a pot and bring into the garage or house for the winter.

This is my plan. Of course, I will see things I just can’t live without and buy. I’ll look through my refrigerated seed collection and run across varieties I just have to plant. There will be great successes and a few that don’t do well. It is all part of the gardening adventure!

For more tips on organic gardening in small spaces and containers, check out Melodie's blog Victory Garden on the Golf Course

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All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.



6/12/2014

Transplant Tomato Plants

Few other vegetables represent summer as a sun-ripe, homegrown tomato does. Even gardeners with limited space seem to prioritize tomatoes and we have many friends in urban areas that grow tomato plants in pots on their balcony or roof top. June here on Deer Isle has already been warmer than I would ever ask for. Our hostel – the Deer Isle Hostel – is picking up pace and most of the garden is planted. The tomatoes are all in the ground and now all we can do is to stand back with our fingers crossed that they will keep looking as good as they've done all along.

Starting Tomato Plants From SeedTransplanting Tomatoes

I start my seedlings in my neighbors house around the 3rd week of April. Her house stays warmer than ours that at that time often gets down below 50's at night. I start them in six-packs (pots with six slots) with two seeds in each slot. After about two weeks I transplant them to a 3 inch x 3 inch pot and at this time I also bring them home and have them on our kitchen table in front of a big south-facing window. It can still get pretty cold at night, but I consider that a benefit since my plants tend to be hardier and less prone to shock once planted outside compared to seedlings raised in heated spaces.

Spring can be cold and wet here in Maine and some years it's hard to find a good window of nice weather for when to transplant the tomatoes to the garden. I use the 10 day forecast and once it'll stay in the 50's day and night I usually take the chance. Upper 40's is ok, as long as it doesn't get too wet. Tomatoes are fine with some cold, but reacts poorly to being damp. Most years the plants grow very big in the small pots before I can put them outside. If I had 10 or less plants I probably would move them to bigger pots if I couldn't put them outside once they got big but I have too many for that to be practical. If I start them later that would not be an issue but then I'm running the risk of not having enough time to replant if the seed germination would be poor.

Instead I do my best to keep the plants healthy and to reduce stress. I keep them on our kitchen table at night and bring them outside in the morning. I have cold frames that I put the seedlings in so they get to be in a really warm space and even on cloudy days I bring them outside where it's still brighter than in our house. I pick all the flower buds off to reduce the amount of energy expended by the plant. I also remove all yellowing leaves and if the leaves develop brown spots (a sign of early blight) I pick them off to and try to isolate that plant from the rest to not spread the disease. Even still there's been years when I've almost lost all my plants to stress and disease caused by the cold weather and just because I couldn't bring myself to pull them out the plants were left in the ground and as by magic came around and produced a beautiful crop.

How to Plant TomatoesTransplanting Tomatoes In The Garden

Tomatoes are heavy feeders and we can maximize the yield from each plant by using one of the free, abundant and natural resources we have here on Deer Isle – the seaweed. We plant our tomato plants by digging a big hole – say 16 inches deep and about as wide across, putting a fork full of seaweed in the bottom and planting the tomato right in the seaweed. Most tomato growers probably don't have a source of seaweed to utilize but the technique works just as well with compost or animal manure or any other mean for fertilizer – as soon as the roots starts to grow they grow straight into something rich. I avoid getting the seaweed up against the stem, since it might make it rot.

Dig the hole – add fertilizer – plant the tomato – fill the hole with soil. I dig the hole deep, and bury the tomato plant to their neck (usually just below the 2nd or 3rd set of leaves) so that the whole stem will turn into roots. We also use the seaweed as mulch and put a thick ring around each plant to keep the soil moist and weed free.

Once planted, the tomatoes don't need much tending to until the grow big enough to need support for the vines. The one thing I do is to keep picking off all flower buds until summer solstice – in this way the plant have time to properly set roots before spending energy growing flowers. If I left the buds I'd probably get fruit a little bit earlier but I believe that strong roots makes for strong plants and that a plant can't both set roots and fruit and the same time.

Come August and September I will have 6-8 feet tall plants heavy with that sure sign of summer few things are as a tomato on the vine. As June goes by under the cloud free sky, my dreams of freshly sliced tomatoes warm from the sun grows with each passing day.


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5/23/2013

sunshine tea ingredientsFinally it's warm enough outside to drink iced tea! We all know how easy it is to brew sunshine tea, using a jar and some teabags left steeping in the sun. But there's actually some science to making really good sunshine tea, tea that has the best taste and most health benefits.

For tea is a health food: tonic and yet calming, cleansing, saturated with life-prolonging compounds. Made fresh daily and handled correctly, the flavor of sunshine tea is crisp and the liquid is clear. Done the wrong way, iced tea has a musty or even moldy taste and can even look cloudy or slightly oily. Yuck.

For starters, the building blocks of iced tea are the teas you use, and in the proper proportions. I never make more than a quart in one batch, although if company is expected I will make up two quart Mason jars of tea, rather than one half-gallon batch. Sunshine tea has a short shelf-life, and leftover tea quickly loses its great taste; there's invariably too much leftover tea with a half-gallon batch in a two-person household.

In a quart jar I generally use one jumbo made-for-iced-tea teabag, plus one regular-size teabag that has some flavor, like Constant Comment, Russian spiced tea, or Jasmine tea…or if there's no flavored tea on hand I use two jumbo teabags or three to four regular size bags. And then I add either a teabag or two of mint tea or if the mint in my garden is big enough, a sprig of mint. I might add a sprig of lemon balm or other fresh sweet herb too. Using some green tea in the mix can add healthful properties.

Always use a lot of tea bags to a quart of water to get the full-strength experience. There's a reason to use all that tea or even more. For perfection, sunshine tea must be poured into a tall glass of ice, and the melting ice will soon dilute the tea. So start with a strong tea.finished sunshine tea

I find that Asian grocery stores have the widest and most economical selection of green, black, and flavored teas.

Water: Use room-temperature filtered water, or let your tap water sit in an open container overnight to "de-gas" and lose any residual taste of chlorine; that goes mostly for urban and suburban water systems where chlorine is part of sanitation treatment. Using filtered water assures that you will only taste the tea (and any sweetener or lemon slices).

The actual "making" step is simple. Let the tea bag strings dangle outside the jar, fill the jar with water, screw on a lid, and then set the jar in the sun. I like making sunshine tea as soon as the morning sun has burned off the dew, and I set the jar on a concrete step where it can warm up fast for the steeping tea.

Leave the tea outside only half an hour or at most an hour, even if the weather is cloudy. When the color is like, well, dark tea, bring it in, squeeze the tea bags to release the last bit of concentrated flavor, and then dispose of them. Re-seal the jar and put the tea in the fridge and store it there. That quart of tea I make in the morning is a daily dose for two of us.

Tea will begin to ferment if left long enough, sometimes in just a few days, especially if it has been sweetened, and that process can impart the unpleasant taste.

Now as far as sweeteners, I don't use any at all, just a slice of lemon. Even though I have lived in the South for more than 30 years, I've never developed a taste for "sweet tea," which is the default beverage of the summertime South. There's so much sugar melted into it that I can't taste the tea at all.

Nan K. Chase is the author of  Eat Your Yard! Edible trees, shrubs, vines, herbs and flowers for your landscape. She has an actual tea bush, Camillia sinensis, growing in her yard in Asheville, N.C., as an experiment in urban "tough love" gardening.



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