Monthly Archives: October 2012

Grow So Easy Organic: How To Protect Tomatoes from Disease & Bugs

Close up of Blossom end rot tomato dissection

Close up of Blossom end rot tomato dissection (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tomatoes, like every other living thing, can come down with some maladies that are easily recognized.  The bad new  is that once you know what the disease is,  there is often little that you can do about it.  The good news is that most of the fruit can still be eaten if affected portions are removed.

Here are the most common diseases that can afflict tomatoes.

Blossom end rot
This one is very common problem on organic tomatoes. If a brown, spot about the size of dime appears on the blossom end of the fruit, your tomatoes have it.  Blossom end rot is caused by a calcium deficiency coupled with fluctuations in moisture. Remove the affected fruit so other fruits on the plant will develop normally.  And if you’re going through a dry spell, start watering the plants to ensure they get 1 to 2 inches a week.

Cracking
Cracking is another problem that occurs when soil moisture fluctuates. Select varieties that are crack-resistant, and keep them adequately watered at all times. Keep in mind that soil drying followed by watering encourages cracking.

Cloudy spots
If you find irregular, grey or white spots just under the skin, you’re tomatoes have been attacked by stink bugs.  The damage can be done at any stage of the fruit’s development so keep a weather eye out for these bugs and crush them with wild abandon when you find them.

Flower drop
Flower drop is a problem directly related to air temperature.  It usually happens when temperatures fall lower than 55 degrees at night but higher than 95 degrees during the day.  It can also happen when night temperatures remain above 75 degrees. The problem usually disappears and fruits set normally after the weather improves.

Sunscald, poor color
Remember I said not to prune leaves too vigorously?   If you remove too many leaves you risk exposing the fruit to too much sun, raising the temperature of the tomato and causing scald and uneven color. Good foliage cover helps prevent sunscald.

Catfacing
I’ve never had catfacing but I’ve heard of it.  Symptoms are badly formed tomatoes on the blossom end that usually have a rough spot that looks like scar tissue. Cold weather at time of blossom set intensifies the deformities. Catfacing is most common in the large-fruited, beefsteak-type tomatoes.

Bugs That Bug Tomatoes
Here is a list of common insects that can cause damage to tomatoes.  I have only had a few problems with insects.  If your plants are healthy and you are vigilant, you probably won’t have many of these problem bugs chowing down on your tomatoes, either.

  1. Aphids – Small, pear-shaped insects that like the top growth and undersides of leaves. Spray insecticidal soap and remove any weeds in the area which may serve as hosts for aphids.
  2. Cutworms – fat gray, black or brown worms up to 1-1/4 inches long, cutworms chew through stems of plants close to the soil surface.  Use a toilet paper roll to make a collar that you place around transplants or around the base of young plants as you set them in the ground.
  3. Flea beetles – Tiny black beatles about 1/16 inch long that attack young transplants and leave them looking as if they have been shot full of small holes.  Crush them with your fingers but move quickly, these babies are Olympic jumpers!
  4. Hornworms – Large green worms up to 4 inches long that eat foliage and fruit. Handpick the worms if only a few – remember the pliers.  Or buy parasitic wasps and let them lay their eggs on the hornworm.
  5. Spider mites – Tiny tan or red mites that are almost invisible to the naked eye, mites cause small yellow specks and fine webs. Forceful water sprays and insecticidal soaps may be used for control.
  6. Stalk borers – Creamy-white to light purple larvae that eat tunnels in the stem, causing the plant to wither and die. Remove and destroy weeds where the insect may breed. Locate the hole in stem where the borer entered, split stem lengthwise above the hole, and kill the borer. Bind the split stem, and keep the plant well watered. Spray to prevent further infestations.
  7. Stink bugs –On my top ten most hated bugs, these babies can be brown, tan, green or black shield-shaped bugs that give off a foul odor when startled or crushed. They suck juices from the plant and cause hard whitish spots just under the skin of the fruit. They fly, multiply fast and eat anything, so find them and their eggs and crush them.
  8. Tomato fruitworm – this is one I’ve never seen but my Rodale book says it’s green, brown or pink  and it eats holes in fruit and buds. If you look at the base of the fruit stem and find a darkened hole, remove the fruit and cut it open.  You should find tunneling caused by the caterpillar and sometimes caterpillar itself.  Kill the fruitworms before they become moths.  Parasitic wasps like the Trichogramma are natural enemies and will use these worms to host their eggs, too.

Recipes
Got a lot of tomatoes and don’t know what to do with them?  Here are two of my favorites for ripe tomatoes and one for all those green tomatoes you will have at the end of the growing season.  Mangia!

Mucci’s Spicy Barbecue Sauce

INGREDIENTS:
24 large peeled, cored, chopped tomatoes
2 c chopped onion (red)
2 c chopped sweet red peppers
2 chopped hot peppers
2 cloves chopped garlic
1 c cider vinegar
2 tsp fresh ground pepper
1 T dry mustard
1 T smoked paprika
1 tsp salt (or to taste)

DIRECTIONS:

Put all ingredients in a non-reactive pot and stir to mix together.  NOTE:  For milder bbq sauce, hold off on adding the dry mustard, pepper and paprika until 1 hour before jarring the sauce.

Bring to a boil then cook for 12 to 15 hours at a slow simmer, stirring occasionally to prevent burning.

Sauce should reduce by half during this time and should have the consistency of thick ketchup when it is ready for jarring or use.  If the sauce is still too thin, just keep cooking it but stir it more often as it will burn as it gets thicker.

JARRING:
Pour hot sauce into hot, sterilized jars, leaving ½ inch head space.
Cap and tighten by hand.
Process pints and half pints for 20 minutes in a boiling water bath.
Remove from water bath and set on cooling rack.  Do NOT move until jars are completely cool.
Once cooled down, check tops to make sure they sealed.  Remove rings and wipe off the outside of each jar.
Label and store.

Best Ever Homemade Salsa

INGREDIENTS:
30 tomatoes peeled/chopped
8-10 Italian peppers – chopped
10 c chopped onions
6 large cloves garlic – chopped
3 to 5 banana peppers
¾ c brown sugar
2 c cider vinegar
1 T pickling or sea salt
2 tsp black pepper
2 T cumin
2 to 3 T chili powder
2 – 6 oz cans tomato paste – optional – will help make salsa a little thicker

NOTES:
I do NOT add salt – don’t’ think it needs it – but you can taste and add as needed.  You can spice this up using more hot peppers, hot pepper flakes or a prepared spice mix like Ball’s or Mrs Wages.  I would NOT add the entire bag but taste as you go along.

DIRECTIONS:
Put all the ingredients in a non-reactive (not aluminum) pot.
Bring to a boil then cut the heat down and simmer for 2 hours until the liquid in it is reduced a whole lot.
Jar while very hot and process in water bath for 35 minutes for pints and 45 minutes for quarts.
Makes up to 17 pints.
Remove from water bath and set on cooling rack.  Do NOT move until jars are completely cool.
Once cooled down, check tops to make sure they sealed.  Remove rings and wipe off the outside of each jar.
Label and store.

Green Tomato Relish

INGREDIENTS:
2 lb green tomatoes (2 c chopped)
1 lb chopped red onions
1 lb chopped Italian peppers
½ lb chopped tart apples
6 cloves garlic – chopped
1 c organic cider vinegar
1 tsp sea salt (add to taste)
1 tsp ground cumin
3 to 4 hot peppers – chopped – optional
2 T chopped cilantro – optional

NOTE:  if veggies and apple are chopped into ¼ inch bits, you should NOT have to process in a blender or food processor before jarring.

DIRECTIONS:

Put all ingredients BUT the cumin, hot peppers and cilantro in a non-reactive pot.
Bring ingredients to a boil then reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until mixture thickens – 90 minutes.
Add cumin, jalapenos, and cilantro and cook for 5 to 10 more minutes.
Ladle into hot jars leaving ½” headroom.
Process in water bath for 15 minutes for pints and 25 minutes for quarts.
Remove from water bath and set on cooling rack.  Do NOT move until jars are completely cool.
Once cooled down, check tops to make sure they sealed.  Remove rings and wipe off the outside of each jar.
Label and store.

This recipe makes about 3 pints.  You can double or triple if you want.

Next week, we move to another garden favorite, cucumbers!  Another “easy-to-raise” vegetable that has its own challenges!

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Grow So Easy Organic: How To Start, Raise and Grow Tomatoes

This gallery contains 2 photos.

Now the fun begins.  This is the first in a series of posts on how to raise various vegetables, how to feed them, defend them, harvest and use them.  We start with one of my favorites and a vegetable that … Continue reading

Grow So Easy Organic – Knowing What YOU Can Grow

This might seem like putting the cart before the horse….but before you buy seeds and lay out your fantastic garden, you might want to give a bit of thought to what you want to put in the ground.

This isn’t about zone or space, this is about time, money and actually enjoying what you grow instead of doing battle with it.

Plants or Seeds
The most basic question is do you want to put plants in the ground or raise your own plants from seed?  The most basic answer is how much time do you have?

If you’re like me and you’ve been gardening for a while (or you have a friend who is a hard core gardener), you probably do both.  But if you’re new to the gardening game, you may want to start with plants.

Buying plants gives you a chance to see if you really do like this gardening thing before you invest time and a bit of money in raising your own plants from seed.  I tend to do both.  I buy plants from the Amish farmers but I also raise vegetables from seed.

Growing from seed has some advantages, for example, you can plant heirlooms that you just can’t buy anywhere.  And you can condition your seed, by planting and harvesting for a couple of years which makes them even more suited to your soil.

I love growing from seed but there are a couple of things to keep in mind:

  1. It does add a bit of time to your schedule because you have to start them indoors, in February and March (if you live in Zone 6b as I do).
  2. The seeds may not sprout so you would have to buy plants, anyway.
  3. You need a controlled environment – temperature and air movement – when the seeds are sprouting and until they get their second, true set of leaves.
  4. You will have to pay attention to the seeds – keep them moist but don’t drown them.  (Here’s where an osmotic planting system like the one sold by Gardens Alive comes in handy.)

Heirloom or Hybrid
By the way, if you want to save seeds from your plants this coming year and use them in the garden the following year, make sure you don’t buy hybridized seeds.  Why?

The simplest explanation is hybrid seeds are produced through cross-pollination, the mixing of plants of two different types for a specific reason, such as bigger fruit, disease resistance, a different look, etc. But the problem with hybrid seeds is you won’t be able to harvest further seeds from the fruit they produce.

Buy some tomato seeds of a specific variety, grow them and then harvest the fruit. Save the seeds, and you may get the same sort of tomatoes…or you may wind up with a different variety altogether. Or worse still, the seeds may be sterile.

Heirloom seeds, on the other hand, will produce the exact same type of fruit year after year, generation after generation.

Playing With Plants
I’m aces with tomatoes — all heirloom or organic seed — from Grow Italian or Territorial Seeds.  My blueberries yield over 60 quarts every year and my Montmorency cherries are a close second with 50 plus quarts.  Pear trees are just starting to bear fruit and the pluots are eagerly anticipated every summer.

But my fig trees are good one year and not so good the next.  And the peach and apple trees bear really bad fruit – spotty and buggy.  Cantelope grow beautifully in my soil but taste like dirt.  Broccoli Rabe comes up fast and easy but flowers before I can harvest it.

Potatoes love the soil but always fall prey to Colorado Potato Beetles and wire worms.

Knowing what I can’t grow upset me when I was a younger gardener but this old girl understands that knowing what she can’t grow is even more important than knowing what she can.  Why?

I no longer waste time or space on those veggies and fruits that just are not going to produce.  I spend that time honing my skills at growing and harvesting the myriad of foods that like my soil, my weather, my temperatures, wind and rain.

This is where I really experimented and where some of the worst carnage of my early gardening days happened.  But here’s a bit of advice that I got from my mom.

Mom Really Does Know Best
My mother’s garden in Virginia was 5 times the size of mine, literally.  At the age of 82, she was still out there in the early morning mist, hoeing her rows, weeding, watering and talking (yes, talking) to her beans, tomatoes, cabbage and corn.

While visiting one day, after a particularly large potato disaster in my garden – death by Colorado Potato Beetle – I whined that I would never be as good a gardener as she was.  Nothing ever died in her garden.

Mom laughed, leaned on her hoe and said, “Of course things die in my garden: I just turn them under and plant something else.”

Mom had to close my mouth because my jaw dropped about a foot.  It was like an epiphany – Mom killed plants too!  There was hope for me.  And there is hope for you, too.

So let’s dive into what I learned while wiping out whole populations of plants!  Maybe what I share will help decrease the number of “interments” in your fruit and veg plots.

Next week, an organic gardening favorite, tomatoes — how to start them, raise them, feed them, protect them and oh, yes, eat them!

Grow So Easy Organic: The Magic Is In The Dirt

If anyone ever asks you what the magic is in your garden – why you can raise so many healthy, happy plants, tell them it’s in the dirt.

Fall is not the time that most people think about making their soil better but it should be because this is the easiest time of the year to enrich your garden plot and give all of the plants you are planning to raise next summer a really solid foundation in their lives.

If you garden, you know that soil counts.  You also know that you don’t have to have perfect soil to get started.  I started in pure, clay silt!  In fact, the dirt in our yard was so soft that when we planted a 3-year-old maple tree, we had to tether it to our lawn tractor for a year to keep it from falling over.

The soil in my garden was an absolute disaster.  But I just kept adding composted soil from my bins, grass clippings (worth all the work to rake up and save), newspaper and straw. And my soil just kept getting better.

Today, the soil in my garden is dark, loamy, rich and sweet-smelling and I didn’t have to spend a dime to get it.  All I did was add organic matter and let it rot in place.  Voila! Soil any gardener would kill for.

So, what is soil, anyway?

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), soil is the, “…unconsolidated mineral or organic material on the immediate surface of the Earth that serves as a natural medium for the growth of land plants.  It is the unconsolidated mineral or organic matter on the surface of the Earth that has been subjected to and shows effects of genetic and environmental factors of climate including water and temperature effects, and macro- and microorganisms, conditioned by relief, acting on parent material over a period of time.”

What a definition!

Bottom line for gardeners, soil is NOT the stuff you buy in bags at your local big box store.  It is the stuff we walk on, the stuff plants, bushes and trees sit in.    Soil is the stuff we start our seeds in, transplant our baby plants into and set our ready-to-grow plants into in our gardens.

Soil is the place that harbors worms and micro-organisms that enrich the earth in our veggie plots and make our plants hardy and disease resistant.

How do you make good soil?  How do you keep it good once it’s enriched?

Add organic matter.

Wow, that was easy.  And it really, really is easy.  The single most important way to improve soil conditions is to add organic matter- compost, grass clippings, straw, newspaper, straw – to the garden and letting it break down.

Right about here, a lot of gardeners might say, “You can’t just dump it in the garden and leave it.  You have to, “…till it in.”

NOT!

You might want to use a large fork (not out of the silverware drawer but one with 4 tines and a big wooden handle).  It’s called a deep spader and generally has 4 big tines and a top bar you can stand on to drive the tines into the dirt.

The spader loosens soil to a depth of 12” to 16″, allowing garden roots to reach deep for nutrients and moisture.

There are two advantages of using a spader instead of a roto-tiller:

  1. The spader breaks up rather than tears up the soil, so that your surface organic matter is not buried and that layer of micro-organisms and beneficial fungi does not get destroyed.  A tiller rips into the earth, scatters and mixes the top layer into the deeper soil and disturbs the eco-system that helps get and keep soil health.It also chops up worms which, contrary to the popular opinion, do not regenerate. Cut one in half and you have a dead worm.  And worms are vital to your soil’s health.  They keep it soft, they regurgitate it, enrich it.
  2. The spader is a whole lot cheaper than a good tiller.  The top-of-the-line spader will cost you just over $200.  A top-of-the-line rototiller, more than $2000.

By the way, DON’T till…unless you have to.  I like this advice because, frankly, tilling is pretty hard work.  But the real reason not to till is more important than the relief.

Tilling destroys the micro-culture in the top 12 inches of soil.  It’s this micro culture that harbors beneficial nematodes and bacteria.  Also, if you have a good worm population, you will do some real damage if you till.

Another bit of advice that a lot of people will give you is that you need to analyze your soil, have it tested to find out just what kind of shape it’s in.  You can do that.  Most Agricultural Extension offices will test a soil sample if you drop it off at their offices and the charge usually nominal.

Or you can test at home.  There are a couple of ways.  You may know about the litmus test from high school chemistry.  Get a litmus test kit.  Follow the directions, dip the litmus strip and the paper will tell you red or blue – acid or alkalai.

I never got mine tested.  I just started throwing organic material at the ground, layering on the straw and grass and sat back and watched nature do all the work. But if you’re new to gardening or if you feel you need to know how good or bad your soil is, by all means, test.

Want to know the easiest method of all?  Scoop two soil samples, in two separate containers. Add ½ c vinegar to one, add ½ water & baking soda to the other. If vinegar one bubbles it’s alkaline, if other bubbles it’s acidic.

If you’re really in to the science of dirt, a soil analysis will tell you exactly what the pH of your soil is – how acid it is or how alkaline it is.  The pH Scale runs from 0, or pure acid, to 14, or pure alkaline.  You really don’t want either extreme.  In fact, most vegetables and fruits do well somewhere in the mid-range of the scale – between 5.0 and 7.0.

Once you get the results of your test, you might have to make some soil amendments to move it up or down on the pH scale.   How you make those changes is dependent on the so-called texture and structure of your soil.  Testing also gives you information about both.

Texture means how much clay, sand, or loam is in the soil.  Structure relates to how the soil acts when you squeeze in the palm of your hand.  Smooth and slick means too much silt.  Sticky and forms a ball, too much clay.  Too sandy?  It will feel gritty.

You can go into a whole lot of gyrations to try to find out just how good your soil is or your could do it the easy way.  Just keep tossing compost – really rich loamy earth, grass clippings, newsprint and straw into your garden and watch the soil take on a life of its own.

Dirt is important.  And it deserves consideration, respect and a bit of help but you don’t have to spend a lot of money to change your dirt into black gold.  As long as I do no harm — no chemicals and not too much roughing up –and add organic matter, dirt will pretty much take care of itself.

Frankly, I’d rather read about dirt than worry about it.  I have two favorite books about dirt.

Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth
Written by William Bryant Logan, this book is my favorite. It is a book woven by a storyteller, one who draws you into what should be a short story about the very stuff we walk on and makes you hungry for more stories, more information, more pages.

I loved this book from the very first story about life beginning in the bed of a deserted pick up truck to the very end when Logan talks about earth and life and civilizations before us.  So did the editors at Publisher’s Weekly.  Here’s their review.

“Logan looks at soil formation and development. His topics range from quarries and the foundations of cathedrals to graveyards and earthworms, from husbandry in ancient Rome to composting in Florida. Logan pays tribute to the dung beetle as a symbol of renewal; he notes that dirt is the source of many drugs that work against infectious diseases (penicillin, streptomycin). He discusses the many forms of clay and the agricultural practices of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and the Iroquois. Dirt is a natural history of the soil and our connection with it. “

Holy Shit: Managing Manure To Save Mankind
This book by Greg Logsdon is also about  dirt but in a little more primordial form.  Logsdon talks about manure – what it is, why it’s important, why all of us should become just a little bit more interested in how to make manure work for us in our overly chemical world.

Logsdon is a story teller too but he is more anecdotal than Logan and a bit more “…down to earth.”

Publisher’s Weekly offered this review:  Common sense and just the right amount of folksy humor make this treatise on feces a pleasure to read whether or not you’ve ever knowingly come within 50 miles of a compost heap.

Logsdon, a blogging farmer in Ohio, offers lots of clear DIY instructions for utilizing waste, draws from his boyhood experience during the days of the privy and his Amish neighbors.  Ultimately, the real coup here is that this book overcomes the yuck factor and illustrates how, as with many things American, we’ve taken a natural, healthy, efficient system and replaced it with something expensive, toxic and marketable –chemical fertilizers.

So while your out puttering and putting your garden to bed, think about adding some organic material to get your soil ready for next year’s planting.