Category Archives: Tools for the Organic Gardener

Free Organic Gardening Book – How To Harden Off Before Transplanting

Tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, cucumbers and zucchini wait for transplanting

Veggie plants waiting for transplant.

Is it planting time yet?

Every single year, that is the question I ask myself.

Why? Partly because I want to put my hands in dirt and partly because I am surrounded…by plants. They are everywhere…

This is my office…cum plant nursery.

Yesterday the temperature was 82 degrees; this morning, it’s 42 degrees. The weather seems to be even more capricious than ever and that means planning a planting date is pretty much impossible. The upshot is that this gardener remains indoors with trays of plants crowding the top of her desk and claiming space on the floor.

Zucchini, cucumbers, peppers and eggplant being baked in the sun.

Plants being burned by the sun.

Well, the plants and I are indoors except when we are both, literally going outdoors, for a few hours, every single day.  I put them out in the morning but by 2:30 PM, all of them are back, inside, feeling the burn.

This is the dance I like to call the “hardening off” cha cha! 

Peppers, cukes, zukes and eggplant baking on the patio.

Veggie transplants baking in the sun.

Hardening off is necessary to move the plants from a controlled environment into the world of wind, sun, rain and changing temperatures. Don’t harden off and your plants will die. 

So, for the next 2 weeks or maybe even 3, I will be lovingly, carefully and constantly toting trays of plants in and out of my office door.

At some point, I will have to make a decision to put them in the ground then stand by my raised beds, saying small prayers over their little green bodies.

After all, planting time here in Eastern Pennsylvania is usually early May, the merry, malleable and every changing month of May! So here’s hoping I get my garden in the ground by May 6th and the wind and snow head North for their last blast of winter!

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Free Organic Gardening Book: How To Grow Onions

Organic onions are easy to grow.

Organic onions & beets enjoying summer.

In my early gardening years, way back in the dark ages when I had a stick and some dirt, I never, ever considered raising onions in my garden.

I didn’t use a lot of onions in my cooking, well to be honest, I didn’t cook much, either.  I was a road warrior and spent most of my life in a plane, on a train or riding in a limo.  There was no dirt under my nails, no canning jars in my pantry and no garden in my back yard.

Besides, my Mom never raised onions or garlic.  But then, my Mom wasn’t married to an Italian.  So when I traded in all my gold credit cards and came home to life on the homestead, I decided to give onions a try.

Getting Onions In The Ground
My first experience with raising them was hilarious. I decided to start them from seed.  One cold and windy day in early March, I went out, worked the soil loose with my hand rake and spread seeds.  I was a little liberal with the amount of seed I put down but I’d never done it before. 

Onion seed is small and dark and disappears right into the soil.  I covered what I thought were the seeds with a tiny bit of soil, covered the bed with a fence section and a sheet, went back inside to thaw out and promptly forgot I’d planted onion seed.

Four weeks later, in the middle of April. I was preparing a bed for beets.  There is no finesse involved in prepping and planting these babies and the seeds are so big, I didn’t need my glasses, I thought.

I knelt down by the bed and was stunned to see a ton of baby grass growing in the bed.  I grabbed handfuls and began madly tearing out what I thought were seeds.  About 3 minutes later I froze; I was tearing up baby onions! I tend to use sets, now.

Seed or Sets
Raising onions from seed is easy as long as you remember that you planted it and don’t rip it out, willy nilly.  Once the seeds sprout and the onion babies get to be 3 inches high, all you have to do is thin and transplant them using the same technique I use for baby beets.

Raising onions from sets is even easier but your choices are limited to what your favorite, organic seed company is growing.

Growing organic onions is easy

Organic onions love sun and good soil.

I prefer red onions so I usually end up with Stuttgart or Candy Red.  Both are good tasting, sweet onions but only the Stuttgart is a long keeper.

FYI onions like cool weather so you can put seed  or sets in the ground as soon as you can work the soil in the spring.  If you’re going for sets, the best time to order your sets is early.  If you don’t order early, you may not get the varieties you want.  Raising onions in the backyard, especially organic onions, is getting more popular and nurseries run out of sets pretty early.

White, Red or Yellow
Onions come in quite a few colors – that would be your first choice.  They also come in long day, short day and intermediate.  Clearly, the names refer to how long the onions take to mature.  And picking the right onion for your zone and growing season is important to how well the onions grow and how big and healthy they are. 

Like many plants, onions grow roots and leaves first then begin to form bulbs but only when daylight hours reach a particular length.  Onions are what’s known as “photoperiodic.”  That means they regulate their growth by the duration of light and dark at the time of year they are growing.

If you try a long day onion in the deep South, you’ll get great tops but very small bulbs which will be killed when exposed to too much heat.  A short day onion that’s planted in the north will try to produce bulbs before the leaves have formed.  Without leaves to supply food, the bulb won’t be able to develop and size of the bulb will be limited. 

Onions growing in July

Onions in July

So, rule of thumb, plant long day varieties if you live north of latitude 36º — roughly the Kansas/Oklahoma border.  Plant short day types south of this line.  Put long day varieties in the ground as early as possible in the spring.  Put short day onions in the ground in the fall to give them a head start in the spring.

Planting Onions
If you are putting onion sets in the ground, most organic companies will ship them to you in the fall and within 2 weeks of the optimum time for you to plant.  When the sets arrive, they may appear wilted but they are pretty hardy and should do well if you plant them quickly. NOTE:  if you cannot plant as soon as they arrive, just put them in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.

When you are ready to transplant, simply trim the tops to about 3 inches high and the roots to ¼ of an inch.  I use a sharpened pencil to create a hole for each set that’s about 1 to 2 inches deep – deep enough to cover the white part of the baby onion.   I plant the sets about 4 to 6 inches apart, in rows about 18 inches apart.  

Make sure you plant the baby onions as directed above because they don’t like to compete for foods and fertilizer with each other or other plants, including weeds.  In fact, there’s a saying in the onion business – you can grow onions or weeds but not both.

If planting in the fall, mulch heavily – I use 14 to 18 inches of straw to cover the whole bed. Mulching keeps the plants from sprouting during the January thaw and prevents the freezing and heaving cycle when warmer days play tag with the cold temperatures of deep winter.

In the spring, when forsythia start to bloom, pull the stacked straw off the plants but leave a light layer of mulch.  The mulch suppresses weeds.  Put a light cover over your baby onions if frost is predicted.  I use old sheer curtains.  Water onions regularly; they need about an inch of water a week.  And that’s about it.

Harvesting & Storing Onions
Onions are ready for harvest when the tops turn yellow and begin falling over.  For those that are not quite ready, you can finish bending the tops so they are horizontal to the ground using your hand.  Bending the leaves stops sap from rising into the leaves and forces the bulb to mature.

When the outer skin on the onion dries, remove from the soil, brush the earth off each onion, clip the roots and cut the tops back to 1 inch from the bulb.  Store onions in a cool, dry place and try not to let them touch each other.  If handled properly, onions can last up to 1 year in storage.

Onion Pests & Diseases
Onions are pungent so they tend to repel most pests.  Onions can also be inter-planted to repel pests from other plants, too.  The bigger risk for onions are fungal diseases.  It is also a risk that is very easily mitigated.

Smut, downy mildew and pink root are common problems encountered while raising onions.  The easiest way to avoid all three of them is rotation.  Do NOT plant onions or garlic in a bed where other allium crops have been planted the year before and, preferably, two years before.

In fact, the longer you can avoid planting onions in a bed that was used for raising alliums, the better.

By the way, if you want to find out everything about onions…just visit the National Onion Association read the FAQs and browse the types, colors and recipes.

FYI – Growing garlic is just about as easy as growing onions as I shared in an earlier post.

Happy Easter, everyone!

Recipes
I love raw onions in salads, on the top of black bean soup and on dishes of beans and feta cheese.  But my favorite way to eat onions is caramelized.  A stick of butter in a cast iron pan, toss in about 8 onions and just cook until they are the color of caramel and salty/sweet.  They are good plain, they are great on hamburgers. 

And they are great in Onion Frittata — a recipe that owes a whole lot of its flavor and richness to caramelized onions.

RECIPE:  Onion Frittata

INGREDIENTS:
8 large eggs
1 cup grated parmesan cheese
3 basil leaves torn in pieces
3 minced sage leaves
1tsp minced rosemary
3 T olive oil
1 or 2 c sliced onions
1 ½ to 2 cups ricotta cheese
Kosher salt and fresh pepper to taste

DIRECTIONS:

Preheat oven to 400°
Put olive oil in large, cast iron frying pan and heat.
Put onions in frying pan and cook until just turning brown and starting to caramelize.
Reduce heat to low.
While onions cook, whisk eggs, parmesan cheese, basil, sage, rosemary salt a pepper together.
Pour egg mixture into frying pan over onions.
Spoon dollops of ricotta over the top and cook on the stove top until frittata begins to set.
Place frying pan in oven and bake for 7 to 9 minutes until it is set.
Slide frittata onto plate or serve from frying pan by cutting into slices.  Serve hot or cold.

 

Free Organic Gardening Book: How To Grow Eggplant

Organic gardening tips

Organic gardening is so easy.

Another week and another free chapter of my organic gardening book, Grow So Easy; Organic Gardening for the Rest of Us!

This week I will share some tips and secrets for growing great eggplants! When you think of the most popular vegetables to grow in the back yard, you probably don’t come up with eggplant.  In fact, when Mother Earth News did a survey of who was planting what, the most popular homegrown vegetable was the tomato., which was followed by peppers, green beans, cucumbers, onions, lettuce, summer squash, carrots, radishes, and sweet corn.  Eggplant didn’t even make the list!

Okay, so eggplant is not a favorite with a lot of gardeners but the reason just may be that most gardeners have never had young, sweet flavorful eggplants plucked off their own plants.   Instead they’ve tried those large, purple cylinders they buy in the grocery store.  I was the same way until I grew a few plants and discovered there is no comparison.

Bianca Rosa eggplant

Bianca Rosa eggplant enjoying the heat.

There are three tricks to getting full-flavored fruit from an eggplant; buy the right seeds, start the plants early and harvest the eggplant when they’re small.

My favorite eggplant is the round, striated one called Bianca Rosa from High Mowing Organic Seeds.   This is a Sicilian eggplant with light pink fruits that are streaked with white and violet. The flavor is mild and creamy with no bitterness and a low number of seeds.

How To Grow Eggplant
Growing eggplant is a bit like growing peppers – both like warm summer days.  In fact, I think eggplant is even more cold-sensitive.  To get eggplant to flower and set fruit, you need warm soil and a long, warm growing season – from 100 to 140 days with temperatures consistently between 70° and 90°.

Bianca Rosa love sun and heat

Italian eggplant love sun and heat.

If you want to get healthy eggplant plants you need to start them from seed and very early. By early, I mean at least 10 weeks before my last frost date.

Like all my seeds, I start them in cells.  I don’t soak them overnight before putting them in the cell but you can to shorten the time to sprouting.

Once the eggplant seedlings get their second set of leaves, I transplant them into 2 inch peat pots, raise the tray up off the heating mat (I use two bricks – not high-tech but cheap and easy) and keep them warm.

Bianca Rosa and any eggplant for that matter need heat to thrive.  When they get to between 4 and 5 inches high, I transplant them again, this time into 4 inch peat pots.

Why not go directly from cell to the 4 inch peat pot?

Eggplant, peppers, cukes, and zukes hardening off on the patio.

Veggie transplants hardening off

Remember, eggplant like warm soil.  Take them from warm, moist soil and stick them in cold dirt and they get shocky – I know, I tried.  All my eggplant were stunted and fruit came late in the season.

So unless I plan far enough ahead to prepare the 4 inch pots and put them over the heat map to warm the soil (that’s unlikely), I just go from cell to 2 inch then 4 inch peat pot.

Once they have settled into the new pots and are thriving, I move the trays off the heat mats and onto my lighted plant stand (which I bought used almost 20 years ago and am still using).

When To Transplant Eggplant
Eggplant have the same needs as those of bell peppers.  Transplants should only be set in the garden after all danger of frost is past.  Remember, warm soil, warm air and warm days, lots and lots of all three are what eggplant need to thrive.

Eggplant like support from tomato cages

Eggplant growing in tomato cages

If your eggplant are happy, they will need more space than you might anticipate.  Eggplant should be spaced about 2 feet apart.  I don’t plant them in rows, I zigzag them.  Like pepper plants, eggplant can be pulled over by the size and weight of their own fruit so I use tomato cages for support.

Space plants 18 to 24 inches apart in the row and stagger them so you can get 6 to 8 plants in less space.   Make sure you leave about 2 to 2/12 feet between rows, especially if you are planting in raised beds like this old truck bed. This way, you can get to the plants and the fruit, easily.

Care
Once in the ground, give the transplants a good watering to settle them into the ground.  I always mulch eggplant but before I do, I put a ring of composted soil around each plant to feed it.  Then I mulch with straw or grass clippings or both to keep the weeds down.

You can also use a nitrogen fertilizer if you don’t have any composted soil, feeding the plants when they are half-grown and right after you harvest the first fruits. But being a lazy gardener, I prefer using composted soil.

Once the plants are established, eggplant love the heat of the summer.  You only have to water if you are in a persistent dry period then wait for those lovely, sweet eggplant to start emerging from each lavender flower.

Fresh eggplant parmigiana

Freshly made eggplant parmigiana

Harvest 3 or 4 of your eggplant, marry them to your own tomatoes and basil and make yourself the most delicious eggplant parmigiana you have ever tasted!

 

Free Organic Gardening Book – How To Grow Peppers

Pepper seedlings ready for transplant

Pepper seedlings

It’s way too cold to put any warm weather plants out including peppers. But it’s not way too cold out to figure  out if you want to grow peppers and if you do, what kind you want to grow.

The only pepper I saw in my mother’s garden was the green, bell pepper.  And I never liked them.  The taste was too strong, bitter, almost biting.  So I never planted peppers until I found red and yellow bells.

Discovering peppers of color led to what is now my favorite pepper of all time, the Italian sweet pepper.

Italian Sweet peppers have a rich green color that gradually turns brilliant red.  The flesh of the pepper is medium thick and the fruit is slightly curved, tapering to a pointed end.

These peppers can grow as long as 12 inches but are usually between 7 and 8 inches long.  Raw, they are sweet all on their own or as an addition to a salad.  Cook Italian sweet peppers and add sweetness, richness and depth of flavor to just about any dish.

So, even though I still raise red and yellow bell peppers, I make a lot of space in my garden for the Italian sweet pepper also known as (aka) the frying pepper.

Starting From Seed
Peppers are a warm weather plant so I always start them from seed.

Start pepper seeds indoors in March

Start peppers indoors

And I always start peppers 2 to 3 weeks earlier than the date specified on the seed packets.  Why?

In my zone, peppers that are started 8 weeks before my last frost (around May 15th) just aren’t big enough or strong enough to set fruit before the middle to end of July.

As a result, if I started plant when the seed packet said to, I’d only get a few peppers from each one. If I start the plants indoors and early, I get a glorious crop from all my plants!

I use 24-cell APS starter kits from Gardener’s Supply and I highly recommend them.  Funny thing is, I’ve been using cells for seed starting for years and now, recent research revealed that growing peppers in larger tray cell sizes or containers will produce larger transplants.

Seed starting in cells

Cell system for seed starting

There are a couple of other reasons I use these kits.

For one thing, I’ve had the same kits for more than 20 years and only one has failed in that entire time.  For another, the kits ensure that your seeds and seedlings get just the right amount of water while sprouting and growing.  Not too much – not too little — because they use capillary mats in the cell system and take advantage of osmosis.  Because of the system design, I never have to contend with damping off when using these kits.

I fill the cells with Gardener’s Supply germinating mix, place 4 seeds in each cell…two in opposite corners.  Then I cover each cell with a bit of sphagnum moss, put on the plastic top and set the tray on my heat mats. I fill the tray with water and then check every day for water level and, in 4 or 5 days, to see if the seeds have sprouted.

As soon as the seeds sprout, I lift off the clear cover and drop the light to within an inch of the cells.  As the plants grow, I keep the trays watered and I keep the light as close to the seedlings as I can without touching them.  If the light touches them, even a fluorescent light, it will burn the baby’s leaves and slow its growth.

When the seedlings have two full sets of leaves, I give the plants a very mild fertilizer called Plant Health Care for Seedlings, also from Gardener’s Supply,

Once the plants are 3 to 4 weeks old, I transplant them into 2 inch peat pots.  NOTE:  If all the seeds sprout, either separate the seedlings and put one in each peat pot or clip the smaller of the seedlings off with nail scissors so the remaining seedling has more room to grow.

Transplanting Peppers
Before you put your pepper plants in the ground, make sure you are NOT planting them in the same area where you had tomatoes, eggplant or potatoes last year.

Peppers are in the Solanaceae plant family and are botanically related to these popular garden vegetables.  Because they are related, peppers can share the same spectrum of pest problems and should not be rotated into soil recently lived in by their kissing cousins.

Also, whether you’re growing from seed or using transplants (unless they were outside when you bought them), you have to “harden off” your plants before you stick them in the garden.

Hardening off seedlings

Hardening off seedlings

Hardening off does NOT involve tools or torture.  It just means that you have to introduce your transplants to the outdoors, gradually.

Five or six days before you want to put them in the garden, start setting them outside for a couple of hours the first 2 days and keep an eye on them.

Make sure they have water and are not staked out in high sun or high wind.  Then leave them out all day for 2 days then overnight for one night.

NOTE:  also, when hardening off, stop fertilizing.  If the plants have small flowers or fruit on them, pinch both off.  You want to help the transplant direct all of its energy to rooting in the soil before it tries to set flowers or fruit.

Remember, peppers like warm earth and warm air – even warmer than tomatoes.  So the optimal temperature for them to go into the ground is 75 to 85 degrees. Peppers are typically transplanted about two weeks later than tomatoes, for me that’s early June.

Peppers can be planted in single rows or twin (double) rows on a raised bed.

Peppers in tomato cages

Peppers in a tomato cage

Space the pepper plants 12 to 24 inches apart and space rows about 4 feet apart. If you decide to use a double row, make the rows about 18 inches apart on the bed and put the plants in the ground in a zigzag pattern.

By the way, peppers and tomatoes don’t work and play well together so don’t plant tomatoes on one side of your trellis or fence and peppers on the other.  The pepper plants will grow but their growth will be stunted.  And the peppers themselves will be small and prone to rotting.

Feeding The Peppers
If you don’t want to use fertilizer on your transplants, here’s a little trick I learned from a farmer friend.  Crush up eggshells and put about ½ of a cup of them in the bottom of the hole. Toss a bit of soil on top of the crushed shells before you put the pepper plant in so the baby roots (cilia) are not cut.

Crushed egg shells are slow to break down but will feed the plants.  And they are free so I love using them as my fertilizer.  By the way, you can also use crushed egg shells to stop slugs…just by sprinkling them around the base of your plants.

Peppers have shallow roots so water them when they need it and don’t hoe too close.  Also, stake peppers so that when fruit loads are heavy, the plants don’t topple from weight or high winds.  I use old, inverted tomato cages.  That sounds odd but the cages work better than anything else I have tried.

I put the tomato cage over the plant with the wide ring on the ground and fasten the ring down with ground staples.  Then I gather up the tips of the cage and secure them with a wire tie.  The pepper plant stays inside the cage, grows up straight and is supported even in the heaviest wind or thunderstorm.  And I don’t have to tie the pepper plants up.

NOTE of apology: due to a family emergency, I was out of town last week. I apologize for missing a post and hope you enjoy this one about growing peppers.

 

Free Organic Gardening Book – How to Grow Beets

One season gardening used to be all I did.  Put in the plants in the spring, harvest in July, August and sometimes in September and clean up in October.  Then the price of organic produce shot through the roof and I started thinking that there had to be a way to get more out of my dirt than tomatoes, cukes, peppers and eggplant. My adventure with growing more and longer began a bit late in my gardening life but I’m glad it did.

Beets ready for transplant

Beets are easy to grow.

Truthfully, I probably will never get as far as master gardeners like Eliot Coleman of Four Season Harvest fame but I am enjoying cool weather crops like fresh lettuce, spinach and beets from March through October.

My mom raised the absolute best beets I have ever eaten.  Every time I drove to her farm in the far end of Virginia, she would somehow know exactly when I was arriving.  There, on the table, steam rising, butter melting, would be a big bowl of sliced beets, just for me.

But I never planted beets in my own garden.  Not before she died, not after she died.  Then, one day, while browsing through GrowItalian.com, I saw Chioggia beets.  Beautiful, round and ruby red on the outside but when you cut them open, there are concentric white bands all the way through each slice.

I was in love with beets, again especially since I know how easy it is to grow them.

Baby beets grown indoors from seed.

Starting beets indoors is easy

I’ve had beets in my garden now for the last 10 years and think they are among the easiest plants to grow.  But if you Google “growing beets,” you will literally get more than 11 million entries.

Don’t be scared!

There are only a couple of things you need to know to raise not just 1 but at least 2 crops of beets every year. (That’s how many I can grow in Zone 6.)  WARNING: if you ignore what you are about to read, you will get red marbles…that will not cook or eat easy.  I know.  My first crop was used in a game of ringer.

The Dirt
This is one of the most important requirements of beets.  It’s also the bit of information I didn’t have when I raised my first crop of red marbles.  Beets really, really like loose, well-drained soil. They will put up with soil that’s not rich but it has to be loose.

So do some soil prep if you can. It may take a bit of time and effort but it’s worth it; I know.  And if you get the soil right, it’s smooth sailing to harvest time.

Remove stones since they will hinder growth.  If you’re growing in clay, add compost to loosen the soil and keep the soil from crusting after watering or rainfall.  And make sure your soil is acidic – beets like a pH range of 6.2 to 6.8.

Climatic Requirements
Don’t plant in the middle of your summer season.  Beets won’t like it.  They are a perfect cool weather crop.  Although they can live through the heat (like the rest of us), they prefer a temperatures of 60 to 65 F and bright sunny days. They can also survive cold weather as long as they don’t get caught in a freeze.  So, beets are a great, “long-season” crop.

Planting the Seeds
Beet seeds are outdoor babies from the get go.  As soon as your soil can be worked in the spring, you can plant them.  The seeds aren’t really just one seed – each of these little jewels contains a couple of beet seeds.

Sow the seeds 1/2-inch deep and I drop each seed about 3 inches away from the other seeds.  I also plant in rows about 12 inches apart.

Beet seeds are pretty slow to germinate so make sure you keep the bed moist until you see their little heads peeking out of the soil.  I usually water a bit, every day.  Once they start to pop up through the soil, I keep watering but usually every other day.

Once they are established, just make sure that you don’t let them dry out.  But don’t over water either.  Too dry or too wet and your beets will not be happy.

Transplanting
TIP:  I don’t thin; I transplant.

Most advice online and in books says you have to thin beets rather than transplant. Wrong! Despite what people will tell you, you can transplant beet seedlings and almost double your crop. And it’s easy to do. Just wait until the leaves on the plants are about 2 inches long before transplanting.

Beets and lettuce are cool weather crops

Baby beets ready to grow.

The night before the big move, I water the bed thoroughly.  Then, early in the morning, armed with a #2 pencil, I head to the raised bed where my beets live.

I look for beet plants that are too close together. Because I’m not be most patient person when dropping seeds in soil, I usually find 3 or 4 beet babies clumped together.

DON’T PULL THEM OUT ONE BY ONE!

Once I’ve found the baby beet clump I want to move, I gently dig around the whole clump and bring up a shovel full of soil with the beet roots intact.  Then I push my pencil into the ground, making holes spaced about 3 inches apart, for each of the babies.

Teasing the roots apart, gently, (a trick I learned from my Amish neighbors) I drop each beet baby into its own hole, pack dirt gently around it and move on to the next clump.

I have not lost one beet baby using this method and I practically double my yield.  Oh, and beets are a twofer in my garden – I also eat beet greens in salads.  Wait until the leaves are 3 to 4 inches high, then cut a couple off each beet plant.  The beets will keep growing and you’ll have some truly delicious greens for lunch or dinner.

Care & Feeding
Like I said, beets are easy peasy.

I have never fertilized my beets and they grow like champions.  It could be because I enrich my raised beds with a bit of compost every spring.  I do put a bit of mulch – straw – down around the plants once I divide and transplant them.  It helps hold moisture during the hotter, summer days.

Keep The Beets Coming
I plant in March, April, May then hold off until early August when I start putting in seeds, again.  I do that to avoid asking the beet seeds to germinate when the daytime temperature is above 80 degrees.  They don’t like it.  Plant in early August and within 55 to 70 days, you should have your next crop.

Nowadays there are so many varieties of beet to choose from — Early Wonder, Detroit Dark Red, and Red Ace.  You can even add some color to your beet dishes with the lovely striped Choggia (which started me on my life of beet crime) or Burpee Golden and Albino White

By the way, one of my favorite resources when I am trying to get solid, informed, basic growing information is the so-called “land grant” colleges like Penn State and Ohio State.  They usually offer fact sheets like the one on beets that was posted by Ohio State. http://ohioline.osu.edu/hyg-fact/1000/1604.html

Try beets. No matter how you slice them…they’re a great addition to any garden.

 

Practical Organic Gardening – Free tips on Growing Lettuce

Red Butterhead lettuce ready for harvest.

Red Butterhead lettuce makes a soft, beautiful head that’s perfect for salads.

I love raising my own lettuce.  It’s a love born out of hate.  That sounds like an oxymoron but it isn’t.

I started raising lettuce when the price for 12 ounces of the organic stuff hit $5.98 a bag.  For me, that’s $18 a week for under two pounds of green leafy lettuce.

Do the math.  I was spending almost $1000 a year on lettuce!  Try doing that on a fixed income.

I hated paying the price so I stared planting and growing my own.  And guess what?  Lettuce is one of the easiest crops I have ever raised.  And, it’s a
two-fer! Save your seeds and pay no more (well maybe you’ll have to buy every 3 or 4 years).  Just keep planting and harvesting.

So, let’s start with seeds.  I am pretty particular about whose seed I buy.  I want organic seed, especially if I plan on saving and sowing.

Organic red leaf lettuce

Organic red leaf lettuce grows quickly and tastes sweet by itself or in salads.

And I want flavorful leaf lettuce — not head lettuce you have to chop with a cleaver. And I definitely do not want Genetically Modified (GMO) seed.

There are three places I buy seed:

Hudson Valley Seed Library –  the variety they offer is impressive.  Their seed is  locally grown in a climate and soil not unlike mine here in Zone 6b.  And this company helps support school and community gardeners with donations of seeds.

Territorial Seeds – kind of the granddaddy of organic seed growers, this company was organic before organic went mainstream.  Family-owned, Territorial Seeds has a fantastic reputation for the seeds it sells and the customer service it brings to the table.

Grow Italian – I discovered this company more than a decade ago and it’s my go to seed company for all things Italian including lettuce and mixed greens.  When you buy a packet of lattuga from them, you get high quality, high-germinating seeds and a lot of them.

I think the hardest part of growing lettuce is picking the kinds you want to try. But once you have your seeds, planting is so easy, you’ll wonder why you didn’t do it sooner. I tend to sow the seeds right in the garden bed.

One problem when planting lettuce is that the seeds are small and lightweight and they tend to drop into the dirt in clumps or blow off my hand. I used to have a hard time getting them to spread out on the soil but here’s a trick my sister taught me.

  1. Get some soil – take it from your garden if it’s rich and light or grab some potting mix.
  2. Fill a quart jar about 2/3rds full of the soil.
  3. Put lettuce seeds in the jar.  I put different types together so I grow my own “mixed greens.”
  4. Shake the jar until all the seeds are mixed, uniformly, through the soil.
  5. Gently shake the soil out of the jar and into your beds. If you can still see some of them, put just a tiny bit of dirt over the visible ones.
  6. Water the seeds in.

Then all you have to do is water every day until the seeds spout.  Then water weekly and wait for the lettuce to grow.

A few more tips:

Don’t plant in the summer!  Lettuce, like beets, likes cool weather.  You can plant in the spring and again in August for harvest in late September and October.

Start lettuce plants indoors if you want.  I use 40-cell growing trays.

Seed starting in cells

Cell system for seed starting

And I start mine in early February.  When I transplant, I cover the babies with a small tunnel to protect them from frost.

When you cut lettuce leaves, don’t cut them down to the ground.  Cut about an inch from the bottom and you will get a second crop.

If you want to save the seeds, plant for a spring harvest but only cut the first crop.  Let the second set of lettuce leaves grow up and flower.  Then wait.  It will be tempting to take the flower heads off when they get their puffy, white hair.  DON’T.

The seeds need to mature.  Wait until the heads are dry, brown and about ready to burst.  Then pull the seed heads off, take the seeds out and let them dry in a small strainer for a couple of weeks.  I refrigerate mine once they’re dry and plant them in the fall.

Practical Organic Gardening – Growing Tomatoes!

fox cherry tomatoes

Fox Cherry tomatoes are a staple in my garden.

As promised, it’s time to start thinking about what to plant. Most gardeners, me included, rely on one summertime favorite, the tomato, to grace their gardens every year!

Why tomatoes?

Tomatoes are pretty hardy plants.  And they’re happy growing in containers.  They’ll even grow hanging from a hook, upside down.    So, even if you don’t have any space for a garden plot, even if you can’t grow anything else, you can grow tomatoes.

If you’re new to gardening, you might want to start with a few tomato plants instead of starting seed. Why?

Tomatoes from seeds

Tomato seedlings growing indoors.

Most warm weather crops  like tomatoes, should be started 10 to 12 weeks before your last frost.

In my zone, Zone 6a, that means I am in the basement, filling peat pots and dropping in seeds in the second week of February.

From the moment the seeds go into the pots until I get them ready for transplant, I have to pay attention – keep them warm, water them, feed them and ensure they are healthy and happy.

So, if you’re just starting out, buying plants may be a lot easier and a lot less risky.

Tomato Basics
Before we talk about the hundreds of varieties of tomatoes available today, let’s talk about a couple of categories that you should know about when you pick seeds or buy plants, namely determinate and indeterminate.

Tomatoes come in both these varieties.  What’s the difference? Determinate varieties bear their crop all at once and tend to be more compact.  Don’t have much space?  Try these.

Indeterminate tomatoes bear fruit all season and grow longer vines.

Organic tomatoes on a trellis

Tomatoes enjoying their trellis.

These vines require support (staking or caging) over the growing season.   Got room and a couple of fence sections?  Try these.

I usually plant both so I can make tomato sauce, paste and barbecue sauce with the determinate varieties and eat the indeterminate tomatoes all summer long.

Now let’s talk about types of tomatoes?  From this organic gardener’s chair, I think of tomatoes as coming in three types – plum tomatoes, slicers and cherry or grape tomatoes.

 

  1. Plums – these are the kind you can use to make great tomato paste or pasta sauce with.
  2. Slicers – these are great for burgers or sliced and served with just a salt shaker.
  3. Cherry or Grape Tomatoes – these are tiny bundles of tomato flavor that taste great right off the vine.

Again, I plant a few of all three types because I love them.  You can pick and choose the ones you like the best and plant those.

Tips on Planting Tomatoes
Tomatoes are warm weather plants; they really don’t like cold soil or cold air.  You can plant them out on the ragged fringe of your last frost date but putting them in the ground too early may just stunt their growth.  So tomatoes should not go into your ground until the soil temperature is at least 60 degrees.

Tomatoes should be given some room to breathe.  Plants should be 2 to 3 feet apart and rows should be 3 feet apart.  This gives the tomato plants room to spread out, especially the indeterminate ones that can grow vines that are more than 9 feet long.

NOTE:  Overcrowding is a mistake I make over and over again and by August, I can’t reach my plants and bugs are having a field day dining on ripe tomatoes. Space them better and get better crops and fewer pests.  (Now to get me to follow my own advice….)

When planting tomatoes in the ground:

  1. Pick a nice sunny spot that drains well.  The slight slope in my garden ensures that the roots of the tomato plants are wet but don’t drown.
  2. Remove all containers (plastic or clay) from the plants except peat pots.  If using peat pots, just grasp the bottom and start to close your fist.  That pincer movement punches small holes in the bottom that roots can slide through quickly.
  3. Strip off all but the top set of leaves.
  4. Make sure you dig a hole that is deep enough to bury the stem up to the very last set of leaves at the top.  Yes, I really do mean bury them deep.  The stem that you put underground will send out roots and very quickly anchor the plant and give it a lot of opportunities to take up nutrients and water.
  5. Fill the hole with the dirt you removed and tamp it down to make sure there are no pockets of air around the roots.
  6. Water the transplants in by pouring 1 or 2 cups of water on the ground at the base of the stem of each plant immediately after transplanting.  NOTE:  You can use a very weak liquid fertilizer (2 tablespoons to a gallon of water) if you want but I don’t fertilize until about 2 weeks after I have transplanted.
  7. Mulch with straw around each transplant.  Mulching also makes for a weed free garden – the only state I want to be in when it comes to gardening.  It also ensures that moisture is retained and to make sure rain water doesn’t splash up on the leaves of the tomato plants.  Water that splashes up off the soil can cause verticulum wilt or mosaic tobacco virus, the two most common diseases in the tomato family.  By the way, never smoke in your garden – you can make your plants sick, literally.

Stake your tomato babies when you plant them.  Tomatoes grow fast so if you wait, it may be too late to get a tomato cage or a stake in place.  Staking prevents some diseases and improves your yield.  It also makes it much easier to pick once the plants start producing fruit.

staking tomatoes

Staking with found items

What should you use for stakes?  Visit any gardening or hardware store and pick up wooden stakes or, my favorite, metal stakes.  I also use old fence section and have been known to use an old box spring on occasion.

If it doesn’t rain and/or if it is very hot during the first week after transplanting, make sure to check the plants to see if they are drooping or wilting and pour another cup or two of water on them if they are.

Once your tomato babies are in the ground and have weathered the first week, there are only a couple of things you need to do to ensure a good crop:

Always pinch off the first flowers on all your tomato plants.  The plants are still trying to get established in the ground.  They don’t need babies to distract them from growing into strong, healthy plants.

When the second set of flowers appear on the plants, mix 2 tablespoons of Epsom salts into one gallon of water and use one cup for every foot of height the plant has – 2 feet = 2 cups.  Epsom salts provide magnesium and sulfur – both needed to produce chlorophyll and allow for proper absorption of phosphorous and nitrogen.  NOTE:  Don’t use too much Epsom salts.  If you do, you will get lots of beautiful, green leaves and bushy plants but not many tomatoes.

Tomatoes should get 1 to 2 inches of rain a week.  If it doesn’t rain, make sure you water them.  I use soaker hoses.  Soaker hoses save water and prevent the spread of soil borne diseases.

Tomato horn worm eating tomatoes.

A tomato horn

Keep an eye out for the tomato hornworm – a big green caterpillar that likes to eat tomato plants.  If you see one munching through your garden and you don’t have trichogamma wasps, use pliers if you have to but pull it off and kill it.

If you have trichogamma wasps, sit back and watch the show.

Trichogramma wasp eggs on hornworm

Wasp eggs on hornworm

The wasp lays eggs on the hornworm. When the larvae hatch, they dine on their host. It’s not pretty but the wasps are an effective and natural control for these destructive pests.

If you planted indeterminate tomatoes, take a few minutes a week to check for and remove the axillary or side shoots that come off the plant.  But don’t go crazy and strip off a whole lot of leaves.  Tomatoes can get sunburned – really – and burned fruit just doesn’t taste all that good.

So trim lightly. Keep the plants from getting too bushy. Use their energy for  production.

Fertilize your tomato plants when the fruit are an inch or more long. I use fish emulsion mixed with water and poured around the roots of every plant.  This is sometimes called “side-dressing” a plant.  Another free fertilizer is crushed eggshells. Just put about 1/2 cup of crushed shells around the base of each plant.

You can side dress the second time right after picking the first ripe fruit and make a 3rd and final application a month later.

When it comes to harvesting your tomatoes, you can do it by look and feel or you can do it by temperature.  If the average daily temperature is around 75 degrees and the fruits are red, they are ready to be picked.  And don’t refrigerate tomatoes.  The flavor and quality of the tomato will be much better if it is kept at room temperature.

One of my favorite resources for learning about tomatoes is online.  Although it is a Missouri extension office, the basic information works for any gardener, almost anywhere.

And that is how to grow tomatoes.