Monday, April 20, 2009

Getting Started

Good Morning Gardeners!

With the bad weather we had yesterday in Alabama, I'm glad I got my tomatoes in the ground on Saturday. It's also nice to see them get a free watering. In general, my spring planting marks the end of any rain until fall. You see, my dear little plants don't seem to like that icky free water that falls from the sky. No, they like the expensive, treated stuff that comes out of the hose. One year while I was at the beach and the phone rang. "Hmm, who is calling me at the beach?", I thought. It was the water department asking if I had filled a pool that month. That's how much water I had used trying to keep my plants alive. It was a very dry year. How embarrassing.

Anyway, as I was planting my tomatoes, it occurred to me that some people might like some advice on how to do it. Let's cover the basics...location, bed preparation, cages, watering, fertilizer, plant selection and planting.

1. Location. You need a nice sunny spot. I mean REALLY sunny. Tomatoes can't get too much sun. They like it really hot.

2. Bed Prep. I live in North Alabama where we have heavy red clay soil. Millions of years ago, this whole area was under water. The space and defense industry brings people here from all over the world, and they always think our soil is awful. Honestly, it's good soil and just needs a little help to be great. I have a raised bed, which many people find tempting to fill with nothing but glorified potting soil. Do not do this! You need your native soil, even in a raised bed. I used about 70 - 80% red clay, amended it with peat moss and compost (I don't make my own, so I like mushroom compost from the home improvement store) and then tilled it really well to mix it in. Make an effort to learn what the soil in your area needs.

3. Cages. You need good cages to grow tomatoes. I just do not like those spindly things from the hardware store. If you were only going to grow a three foot tall plant, that would be fine. I have higher hopes than that. My cages are six feet tall, really sturdy and collapse flat for storage. Email me if you want specifics. You can see them in the picture. It is also popular to make them out of sturdy chicken wire. Something galvanized that won't rust. As the plants grow, you can tie them to sides of the cage for support. You can use pantyhose or something else soft, but I prefer the velcro type stuff.

4. Watering. If you live in dry area, watering is critical. Tomatoes like regular water so their skins don't split. I have a special hose that runs down the middle of my bed, that you can also see in the picture. It is made so that you can push little sprinkler heads into it wherever you need them. You can get this in the home improvement place in the same area where they have the underground sprinkler systems. I think this is sturdier than just drip hoses, but the water is just an inch above the soil, so it's similar in function. You don't want to water most vegetables from above, because wet leaves can lead to diseases.

5. Fertilizer. All soil is different, so you might want to get a test kit to see what your soil needs. Plants need three basic nutrients...nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus. My red clay soil is plentiful in all but the nitrogen. Before I plant, I just sprinkle a good amount of blood meal over the soil and turn it in by hand. This provides slow released nitrogen all season. What you DO NOT want to do with veggies is load them up on quick release nitrogen fertilizers all summer. What you will get is all leaves and no fruit whatsoever. In fact, if you have been plagued by big, healthy-looking plants with no fruit, that is most likely the problem. And herbs just, straight up, thrive on abuse. Don't over water them, never fertilize them. Treat them like you want them to die and they will grow like crazy just to spite you. I love herbs.

6. Plant selection. Some things are easier to grow than others. If you are just starting out, let me suggest onions and radishes. Seriously, anyone can grow an onion. And it's great to have fresh green onions in the summer. Potatoes are also easy. I grow heirloom tomatoes, which are supposed to be fussy, but I don't think so. Black Krims are a great choice. In general, cherry-type tomatoes are "indeterminate", which means they keep growing all season, as opposed to growing to a certain height and stopping (which are "determinate"). A really easy cherry type is the Yellow Pear tomato. Honestly, this is more like kudzu with fruit. Mine have always gotten huge and tend to spread to nearby tomato cages and the fence. Your neighbors will love you when they find bags of these on their doorsteps. Hot peppers, like jalapeno and cayenne are also easy and fit in well with tomatoes. Herbs are also easy, and they are so expensive in the grocery store, you'll be glad you did. Beware the mint. It is also super invasive.

7. Planting. Most plants need a hole big enough to sit in where the soil comes up to where the stem meets the dirt in the pot it is already in. Tomatoes and peppers are different. They will form roots all along the stem, where it touches the soil. In the photo of the tomato plant in the hole, you can see that I pulled off the bottom set of leaves and planted it several inches deeper than it was in the pot. The other is what it should look like after you put the soil back around it and tamp it down well. (How did these pictures end up on their sides? I have a lot more to learn about blogging!) This is a beautiful plant from Tasteful Garden. The plant will send out roots along that stem and it will be stronger and healthier. One last note is to give your plants a little breathing room. I always plant something between my tomatoes (like alternating them with basil or hot peppers), instead of having them right next to each other. The plants can spread diseases from one to the other if they are touching.

Go good luck with your planting. I hope I didn't make it sound too complicated. It really isn't. You just need a little knowledge and some good hardware to start. Just jump in there and you'll figure it out. There is so much information available, you'll have lots of resources to help you.

"Till" Next Time,


Wednesday, April 15, 2009

My Good Luck Garden

Hello Fellow Gardeners and Wannabe Gardeners.  I am so happy to be able to participate in this blog from the Tasteful Garden.  This should be a fun summer project.  

I've been gardening with varying degrees of success for about ten years.  It's great to be able to share a little of the hard won knowledge from those past years.  Having not grown up in a gardening family (which I am trying to change with my own kids), I went through a lot of trial and error.  Who knew you have to grow vegetables in the sun?!  Lots of people I'm sure, but not me.  Well, I finally figured out some things after a couple of years and have had lots of successes, and still a few failures.

This picture is of my garden now.  I was looking through the other blogger's sites and saw one patch of bare dirt that made me green with envy.  And here is mine with tomato cages and their dead tomato carcasses hanging from them.  Like a botanical crime scene photo.  Many of the green things in the front bed are herbs and not weeds, so I'm proud of that.   Some were hard to tell...tarragon looks a lot like bermuda grass when it's little, so weeding can be a challenge.  My poor garden goes completely feral about midway through the summer.  To make it worse, the veggie garden is about 8 feet from my pool.  Hmm...pull weeds or go for a swim?  Last fall, I didn't even clean it out at the end of the year.  Which explains the weeds and tomato cages that you see in this picture.  New gardeners should know that this is not a good practice.  It could spread diseases among your plants for the next season.  Do as I say, not as I do!

I have high hopes that keeping up with the blog this year will also force me to keep up the garden.  When it's 98 degrees in the shade, it's all I can do to crawl out there and pick my tomatoes, much less pull weeds and pinch back and all that.   I also have a number of other beds for flowers, a shade garden, etc.  None of them are more rewarding than the vegetable garden.

Currently I have two raised beds for veggies (that I built with my own two hands, so I'm not a total slacker).  The back one is for tomatoes, peppers and basil.  Sometimes cucumbers.  The front bed is for herbs, onions and whatever I am experimenting with.   I try to grow something every year that I haven't grown before.  One year was watermelon.  Disaster.  They needed much more room that I gave them and were inches away from growing into the pool!  Although I did harvest one from under a lounge chair that was, no lie, fifty pounds.  Last year I tried potatoes for the first time.  I found true love.  Fluffy, delicious freshly dug potatoes.  Mmmm.  I am finding as much room as possible for them this year.  I am also going to put in a new little patch for blueberries.  We'll see how that goes.  

My Tasteful Garden order is sitting on the back porch acclimatizing, and waiting for me to clear enough weeds to plant them.  I am a fanatic for heirloom tomatoes.  In my opinion, you cannot do better than a Black Krim for slicing and eating.  Every day of the summer I can eat a sandwich of whole wheat toast, thick slices of black krim and sharp cheddar cheese.  If that was the only thing I grew, it would be more than worth the effort.  My favorite cherry tomato is the Sungold.  I am trying the Persimmon tomato and the Granny Smith for the first time this year.  We'll learn together how well it goes.  I am also trying some beans (Edamame and French Filet) which I have had varying degrees of success with in the past.  

Now it's time to do the walk of shame out to garden and get to work. 

Oh, and why is my garden the "Good Luck" garden?  Because, even though I try to give my plants the best possible start, I put them in the ground and say "Good Luck".  Anything that needs tons of babying, pruning, de-bugging, etc. isn't going to make it and will be replaced by something else that is less needy.

And Good Luck to all you gardeners out there.  Spring is here.  Ready. Set. Plant!