At this point in the season, tomatoes are either doing great or tipping toward disaster. So in addition to offering some growing tips to help make tomatoes happy and healthy, I’ll explain some of the common things that can go wrong.
Probably the most important thing you need when growing tomatoes is sunlight—8 hours or more is best, but 6 will allow plants to produce a fair amount of fruit. If you don’t have a spot that gets even 6 hours of sun and someone is home a lot during the day, consider buying a few round, rolling plant stands. I got mine (which look like metal Frisbees on wheels) at Ikea, but most garden centers sell them now, too. Put your tomatoes in large pots, set them on the rolling plant stands and move them into the sun as it moves throughout the day.
Soil is key to tomato success too. They thrive in healthy soil, so it’s a good idea to work some compost and composted manure into the area before planting. If you’re planting in pots, just add those things into your potting mix. Halfway through the season, scratch a little more compost into the top of the soil around plants, but don’t add more manure. Too much nitrogen (N) will give you lots of leaves and little fruit. You want a fertilizer with more potassium (K) than nitrogen in it. Phosphorous (P) can also be on the low side, usually, since compost supplies a good amount of that. Product labels always show the N-P-K ratio like this: 10-10-10 or 5-2-1. You want something more like: 1-0-4 or 1-1-3. Seaweed (powdered or liquid kelp) is a great choice and is usually 1-0-4.
Tomatoes like water, but not too much. Water plants deeply but not so often, or so much, that you end up with soggy soil. That can lead to disease problems and, later in the season, to tomatoes that don’t taste like much because all that water got channeled into the plant’s fruit. If you’re growing tomatoes in pots, stop watering when you see water running out of the bottom of the pot. Watering consistently, every few days in hot weather—more often if plants are growing in pots—will also help prevent the dreaded blossom end rot. You know you have this common problem when your tomatoes have black spots on their bottoms. Consistent watering allows the fruits to get the calcium they need from the soil to develop properly.
Did you bury the stem at planting time? If not, do that next year by gently plucking off the plant’s branches below the top flush of leaves. Depending on the size of your transplant, you’re usually burying 2 to 6 inches of stem, and that’s a good thing because new roots will sprout all along that stem and help your tomatoes be strong and healthy.
Pruning tomatoes doesn’t need to be as complicated as it is often described. Tomatoes are classified by growth habit: determinate tomatoes—also called bush tomatoes—are bred to be more compact, usually about 4 feet tall while indeterminate varieties—also known as climbing or vining types—can grow to 6 feet tall or more. Determinate tomatoes don’t need much pruning beyond removing all of the suckers below the first flower cluster. Indeterminate tomatoes benefit from some pruning, but you don’t need to grow crazy. Basically, if you pinch out suckers and pare plants down to around stems, you’ll get bigger fruit and less sprawling growth. If you let plants be more unruly than that, you’ll get more fruit but you’ll have to deal with a more tangled mess of vines. Either way if fine, so don’t sweat it a whole bunch.
Are the leaves on your tomato plants curling up in hot weather? Don’t worry, that’s probably not a disease. It’s just how some tomato varieties react to the heat. This type of leaf roll usually starts on lower leaves and works its way up. It doesn’t look great, but it shouldn’t affect fruit development. Watering regularly and mulching the ground beneath your tomatoes can help keep this problem at bay.
Come on over gardener friends! It’s time once again to start sharing seeds at the Little Free Seed Library at my house. As many of you know from all my going on about it, the top shelf of our Little Free Library morphs into a place to share seeds every spring and fall. The library is located on the boulevard on the corner of 45th Street and Washburn Ave. S. in Linden Hills. (For more information and photos, check out this blog post from a couple of years ago.
I’ve already started putting seeds in there from my garden, but it would be great if many of you could bring some seeds too. If you do, please bring them in envelopes or baggies labeled with the name of the plant—one type of seed per container. If you would like to, and have the time, the label (or a piece of paper taped to the envelope or baggie) could include helpful tips like whether the seeds should be direct sown in fall or spring or started indoors before planting. That stuff isn’t necessary, though, if you just want to bring seeds, great!
When I started the Little Free Seed Library, I envisioned having all sorts of information inside about individual seeds and things like saving, starting and storing seeds. Three years on, I haven’t done that yet. I’m having trouble coming up with a way to make that stuff shareable without killing a zillion trees making handouts. I’m thinking about doing some laminated pages that people could look at without taking them. But if your brains are like mine, what you read probably won’t stick long.
Maybe people with smartphones could take pictures of the pages to read later? And yet, I hate to make things reliant on having a phone in your hand all the time. It’s not like I hate technology or anything, quite the opposite. But it makes me sad for the world to see so many people walking around this beautiful, amazing planet with their eyes glued to a stupid phone screen when they could be checking out a cool plant or bird, or maybe even talking with the real-live humans walking right beside them.
But I digress. Maybe laminated sheets are the way to go. If you have better ideas, I’d be grateful to hear them so please email me at my blog. If you come to get seeds and find some you’d like, there are small envelopes inside the box to put them in. You’ll also find pencils so you can label what you’re taking home. As I write this, the library so far includes these seeds: Royalty Purple Pod heirloom bush beans, Pot of Gold chard, Straight Eight heirloom cucumbers, blackberry lily, tropical milkweed (an annual milkweed), red swamp milkweed, black-eyed Susan, Queen Anne’s lace, hyacinth bean, white cleome, purple cleome, gray-headed coneflower and anise hyssop. There will be much more coming soon, and I leave seeds out for sharing until later in November when the whole library gets turned over to books once again.Read More»
You know me: I often write about the prevalence of bad gardening advice so, hey, here I go again. This time, let’s talk about how often we gardeners hear stuff that’s either dangerous, or stupid or both. Got a tree stump you need to remove? “Pour gasoline on it,” I’ve heard more than one gardener advise. PLEASE don’t do that. Need to get rid of moles? “Stuff Juicy Fruit chewing gum in their holes,” advise ill-informed people who believe the story that the gum, lord knows how many sticks, will cause intestinal blockage. It won’t, but even if it did, don’t do this either.
And here’s another thing you ought not do—use mothballs outdoors. (Honestly, though, who wants to wear sweaters and use blankets that smell like mothballs either?) Anyway, I have no idea who first started running about telling gardeners that mothballs are great for curtailing outdoor pest problems, but the strategy has been around a long time and is still going strong, according to my latest Google search. The trouble is, though it does work, it’s a federal offense to use mothballs for an off-label reason such as animal control. And there are a lot of good reasons for that.
Regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, mothballs are pesticides capable of harming all living things, including children and pets who may mistakenly eat them thinking they’re some kind of treat. Mothballs are also harmful to the environment because, as they deteriorate, they contaminate groundwater, soil and plants (the pesticides in mothballs bind to soil and are taken up by plants).
Labeled for use to kill moths and other pests that destroy fabric, mothballs are supposed to be used only in airtight containers. That’s because the vapor from their active ingredient, usually naphthalene or paradichlorobenzene , is toxic. As the fumes build up inside a closed container, the pesticide reaches a level that kills the moths.
When we smell the terrible stink of mothballs, however, we are the ones breathing in the pesticide fumes. And those fumes can affect our health in truly sucky ways, depending on which active ingredient the mothballs contain. Adults exposed to naphthalene or paradichlorobenzene vapors for short periods, for example, may experience nausea, dizziness, headaches and/or vomiting. Longer exposure has been linked to the development of hemolytic anemia, as well as kidney and liver damage. Naphthalene, according to the World Health Organization, may also cause cancer.
Young children exposed to mothballs containing either pesticide can develop fever, diarrhea and abdominal pain, especially if they have eaten them. Dogs who ingest naphthalene mothballs may become lethargic or experience diarrhea or tremors. Paradichlorobenzene mothballs have been linked to kidney and liver damage in pets.
If you want to learn more about the health effects of mothballs, go to the National Pesticide Information Center’s website.
Want to grow vegetables and herbs even though you don’t have full sun? No problem. You just need to choose edibles that don’t depend on six hours or more of baking sunlight to thrive. So, yes, tomatoes are out, as are peppers, squash and eggplant, because plants grown for their fruit really do need a minimum of six hours of good sun per day.
But that still leaves a wide variety of edibles to choose from as long as you’ve got more than deep shape to work with—not much will grow under a maple tree’s canopy. But plants grown for their roots and flowers will produce with as little as three to six hours of full sun or consistent dappled sun. Beets, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, onions, turnips and radishes, for example, can be successfully grown with four to six hours of sun. And though they produce fruit, I get a pretty good crop of cucumbers in 5 hours of sun.
Leafy veggies like kale, spinach, leaf lettuce, arugula, mustard greens and Swiss chard can get by with only two to four hours of sun—though they will grow more lush in sunnier locales. If you have a garden that offers both sun and shade, one of the advantages of knowing what can take less sun is the ability to increase your harvest by tucking these plants in along shaded borders that are often though of as wasted space.
Sure, there’s a lot to be said for the power of sun, but there are some benefits to growing vegetables in part shade. Crops like broccoli and cauliflower won’t bolt as quickly as they would in full sun, tender lettuces will last longer and you won’t have to water constantly, which is always a plus. That said, though, it is important to monitor moisture levels in shade gardens carefully because these sites are often located beneath big trees or shrubs, as well as the overhang of the house or garage. So even when it does rain, the water may not reach your garden, and much of what does fall will likely be taken up by the root systems of greedy trees and shrubs.Read More»
Of all the things in our landscape, I think the galvanized cattle troughs (also known as stock tanks) in our backyard get the most attention. Even in the winter when nothing is growing in them, their shapes and sheer size turn heads and provoke questions. We added them to what we’re now calling “our little farm” a couple of years back when we lost a huge oak, and I figured I’d take advantage of the sun to grow some vegetables. After starting with one trough, we added another last year and we’ll be getting one more in the next few weeks.
If you want to grow some food on a small, urban lot, you can’t beat these troughs for being easy to get going. You don’t have to build anything, and you don’t have to deal with turning depleted urban soil into something safe, nutrient-rich and workable enough to grow food in. They’re also affordable, durable and tall enough to be out of the way of hungry critters and peeing dogs.
People ask all the time where we got the troughs and how to turn one into a raised bed garden, so even though I wrote briefly about this a couple of years ago, I thought I’d explain the process more in-depth here since it’s the perfect time to get raised beds going for the season. Let’s start with where to buy them. Unless you are literally made of money, do not go to a boutique garden center for a livestock trough. You want to go where farmers buy stuff—Tractor Supply Co. and Fleet Farm.
If you want to grow things like tomatoes, peppers, beans and squash, get yourself a large trough. One of ours is four feet long and the other is six feet. Both are 2 feet wide and 2 feet deep, and they cost about $80 and $110, respectively. Aside from getting the things home in the back of the car, the biggest job is drilling holes in the bottom for drainage. Use a bit that can drill through metal that’s about the size of a dime of nickel. We drilled holes every few inches all around the outside edge along the bottom, and then added many more holes going across the bottom of the trough from end to end and side to side. Remove the drain plug, too, since you won’t be needing it.
Once you’ve got your holes drilled, flip the trough over and put it wherever you want it because once you fill it with soil, you won’t be able to move it around without taking most of that soil back out. We don’t like things looking all kittywampus so we used a level to make sure the trough was lined up properly once we got it situated. (You don’t have to do that unless you’re bugged by such things.) Now comes the soil part. My advice—don’t cut corners. Good soil makes all the difference when you’re growing anything.
Because these are containers, albeit huge ones, you want a mix that’s going to drain well. You also want to provide plants with some nutrients that you’ll boost over time by adding compost and fertilizer. You’ll save some money if you make your own mix by combining 1 part topsoil, 1 part compost and 1 part coconut coir or coarse sand (also known as builder’s sand). I’ve done this by combining these things in batches in a wheelbarrow and it worked well. But I’ll admit, it’s a heck of a lot less work to call someone and have a quality potting mix delivered to your driveway. That way, you can just shovel it into a wheelbarrow and take it right over to your trough and other containers.
What do I mean by a quality mix? As I’ve said in the past, I’ve learned a lot about soil and compost over the last few years and I’m now opting to go with products that are organic or at least produced by a company or farmer who is willing to explain their process so I can make an informed decision about whether to use it. (For much more on that topic, see my blog post on safe compost.
Local organic growers give products from Purple Cow Organics, COWSMO and Mississippi Topsoil high marks. Other local sources that come highly recommended are Kern Landscape Resources and Kelley and Kelley Nursery. Compost from our Linden Hills organics recycling program is also pretty good. But because it includes packaging, paper and other odd bits, I don’t use it to grow edibles. That’s just me. Keep in mind that even though it’s costly to fill your trough with quality potting mix the first year, in subsequent years (unless you get some dreaded disease like early blight of tomatoes) you’ll only need to add a bit more compost to keep soil healthy. If you feel like you’re having drainage issues, add more coir or sand. With the hard part behind you—all you have to do is keep growing.
I just want to take a minute to update my recent post, “In Search of Plants That Won’t Harm Bees.” I’ve now had the chance to talk with Bachman’s CEO, Dale Bachman, as well as John Daniels, Bachman’s vice president of production, about how the company is dealing with neonicotinoids (neonics), a class of pesticides that is harming bees.
As of 2014, while various entities continue to research the role neonicotinoids play in the decline of bees, Bachman’s has decided to take the “precautionary step” of removing all neonicotinoid products for home use from their shelves. That includes imidacloprid, a popular neonicotinoid pesticide used for all sorts of things like rose and lawn care, as well as to protect trees from emerald ash borer. (Of course, homeowners can still buy these products elsewhere and hire professionals who use imidacloprid to treat ash trees.)
They have also stopped using neonics in the production of Bachman’s-grown nursery stock and outdoor plants, which means most of their shrub roses and perennials will be neonic-free along with some annuals. As for plants from other suppliers, they are currently talking with vendors about discontinuing the use of neonics and Dale and John says the outcome may cause them to rethink some of their suppliers. Even as they said that, though, they stressed that the neonics issue is much more complicated than it may seem — a fact that becomes more and more clear to me as I interview people on this topic.
For example, in many instances neonics and other pesticides are used in compliance with regulations regarding moving plants and the potentially invasive pests they may harbor across state lines. In the case of large-scale suppliers, discontinuing the use of neonics will mean switching to other pesticides that will come with their own problems and consequences. For now, shoppers looking for neonic-free plants at Bachman’s should seek out a salesperson for help locating plants the company has grown since implementing their new policy.
Take a deep breath. Buying plants at places that many of us like to shop is going to take more work and patience than usual if we want to help bees. If you start to feel frustrated about the slow pace of change, remember that we are part of the problem. Gardeners have come to expect perfect plants on store shelves, so every entity in the plant supply chain has done everything in its power to kill every bug and wipe out every disease imaginable to make us happy. Moving away from chemical treatments that harm people, pollinators and the planet will be costly and difficult for those who care enough to do so. And we’re going to need to learn to live with more mites, aphids and other things than we’re used to. Who’s in?