Category Archives: Tools for the Organic Gardener

Transplanting Tomato Seedlings

It’s moving day for my tomato seedlings — their first moving day, actually.

Tomatoes ready for transplant

Tomatoes ready for transplant

My seedlings move a total of 3 times after they emerge, first into 3 inch pots then, into 5 inch pots and finally, into the garden.

This year I am growing four different varieties but two of my favorites – Atomic Grape and Fox Cherry  are indeterminate so they need to be transplanted before the other two varieties.

Tomato seedlings in cells

Tomato seedlings

Starting my seeds in the grow trays has advantages. I can get the soil warm, quickly and I can keep it consistently moist. Heat and moisture help speed up the process of sprouting for tomato seeds.  The one disadvantage is that indeterminate tomato seedlings outgrow the cells very rapidly.

At the age of 3 weeks and 3 days, these babies are ready for new digs. I start all my seeds in an organic soil specifically created for seed starting. It gives them an edge at the beginning of their lives and makes my life a bit easier too. But when it comes time to transplant, I add a little something something to make the soil lighter – coir.

Coir is coconut husk and it really adds value to the growing process. It improves soil structure by aerating it which is good for baby roots. And coir manages water – regulating water by holding it or dissipating it as needed.

I start by putting a spoon of my soil mix in the bottom of each 3 inch peat pot.

Soil and egg shells in peat pots

Soil & eggshells in peat pots

I also sprinkle just a bit of chopped egg shell on top of that for slow release feeding of the baby plants.

As I take each tomato seedling up out of its cell, I strip off the bottom two leaves and lay the plant at the bottom of the peat pot.

 

Then, I slowly pack soil around its stem until I fill the peat pot to the top. Sinking the seedling to the bottom of the pot lets the stem put out more roots and ground the tomato plant into the pot.

Tomato transplants in peat pots

Tomato transplants in peat pots

Once in pots, I water in each baby tomato to ensure there are no air pockets around the tiny roots of each plant. Then I move them onto trays and over to my plant stand.

They will look a bit battered for a day or two but recover quickly and start to grow into their new homes.

About a week after transplant, I will give them a feeding of very dilute fish emulsion and water. By the 3rd week of April, I will be transplanting all of them, again.

Tomatoes last transplant

Tomatoes’ last pot before the garden

This time, they go into 5 inch wide, 6 inch deep plastic pots (reusable) following the same process – small amount of soil and egg shells, strip off leaves, pack into the new container, water in, rest and a bit of fish emulsion in a week.

Currently I have 44 tomato plants humming along in my basement – that’s about 20 more than I have ever planted but, every year, I give the extra away. My sister-in-law, my niece and 2 gardening friends get 4 or 5 hand-raised, heirloom, organic, non GMO tomato plants to play with.

I love the process of growing tomatoes and I think I love sharing them almost as much!

FYI, I’m also hardening off the tatsoi, kale and lettuce I started in my basement in February.

Kale, spinach and tatsoi

Kale, spinach and tatsoi transitioning to the garden.

It will go in the ground just as April begins. Here’s hoping that the worst of the winter weather is behind us!

Advertisements

Seed Starting Made Easy

My palms are itching. My toes are tapping. My heart is beating faster! It’s time to start the seedlings.  Not all of them, you understand but it’s  enough for me to start the cool weather babies — lettuce, kale, tatsoi and spinach.

Starting seeds indoors is easyIt’s still very cold outside but I am heading to the basement and pulling out my trays, my seed starting soil and my seeds.

Seed starting is really easy as long as you pay attention to a few basics including the right seed, the right starter and the right planters.

Buy the right seed. Now what in the world does that mean? Seed is seed, right? Not in today’s world. Unless it’s certified organic, you could be buying seeds infused with herbicides and pesticides. And guess what? The herbicide and pesticide actually grow right into your plants and right into your produce.

So, only buy 100% certified organic seeds. Where? My favorite outlets for healthy and happy seeds are:

  1. Seeds of Change
  2. Seed Savers Exchange
  3. High Mowing Seeds
  4. Hudson Valley Seeds
  5. Territorial Seeds

These folks have healthy seeds that ensure you grow healthy plants and healthy produce. And they have ideas, tips and equipment for getting started. NOTE: you do NOT have to buy a whole lot of “stuff” to start gardening.

Start your seeds in the right dirt. I know, dirt is dirt. But is it?

Seedlings get a good start in healthy dirt.

Healthy dirt means healthy seedlings.

And what difference does dirt make to growing healthy, happy plants and healthful food? Dirt is everything.

This is one thing I buy every year. Why? Because dirt for starting seeds has to be organic. I get mine from Gardener’s Supply – employee owned and US-based, their seed starting mix has stood the test of time for more than 25 years!

Have the right equipment and tools. Most of my gardening stuff was used when I started. It still is. My favorite seed starting tool are my seed starting kits.

Grow trays are best seed starting tools.

Grow trays are perfect for starting seeds.

I bought these 25 years ago and they are still working great!  The small cell of dirt heats up fast. The base and mat ensure the seedlings never dry out but they also never get too wet or damp off.

If you’re just starting out, don’t invest too much before you start growing. Look around. Use stuff you already have . Check Craigslist to pick up gardening equipment for a song!

I found most of my tools and you can too so don’t let the cost of tools scare you off. (The post on finding tools was written 5 years ago but it still stands as does its companion post on garden tools that are nice to have.)

Getting started is so easy. I hope you take a chance. Grow your favorite vegetable on your patio, in a pot on the back porch or in a plot in the back yard.

Green and organic garden in summer.

My garden in July, 2016.

Give it a shot and just 5 months from now, you could be looking at gorgeous, healthy veggies growing on your very own plants!

Looking for more tips on seed starting? Margaret Roach, one of my most favorite gardening gurus, offers her own seed starting wisdom, too.

Join in. Get your hands dirty. And start growing your own food. It’s fun and it really is easy!!

Happy Spring (almost) everyone!

Homemade Ketchup & Other Garden Goodies

Ratty tomato plants in September

My tomatoes

I know, it’s been awhile since I posted. I’ve been busy!

My garden is looking a bit ratty, especially the tomatoes. Because of all the rain we have had, you can see that almost every plant has Septoria.  The yellow-ringed brown spots cover many of the leaves and the ones farthest gone have turned brown and died.

Septoria damage on tomatoes

Septoria

 

Despite the bout with disease, the absolutely drenching rains and the wonky temperatures, as you can see, these plants continue to produce. I am getting 2 to 3 quarts of Fox Cherry, Atomic grape and Genovese tomatoes every 2 or 3 days!

And I have a volunteer Fox Cherry that decided to plant itself in my compost bin and this baby is producing fruit that is just now starting to ripen. Oh my, more tomatoes! I’ve already made sauce, salsa, scallopine and paste!

Fox cherry volunteer tomato

Volunteer Fox Cherry is huge!

Today, in self defense, I am making ketchup. This is a first for me but I am LOVING what I see and smell.

There are a lot of recipes online for homemade ketchup but the one I liked best was by Pioneer Woman.

Homemade ketchup

Ketchup bubbling away!

This recipe has the least amount of sugar and the subtlest spicing done with fresh onions and garlic, also from my garden.

Homemade wine vinegar

Homemade wine vinegar

 

 

And I got to use some of the wine vinegar I made and bottled last year. The color, flavor and taste of this vinegar is superb — a full mouth feel and soft wine finish.

The recipe for this amazing and rich tasting ketchup is below!

Blueberry, blackberry and cherry jams are lined up on my pantry shelf. Blackberry and cherry brandy are aging in gallon jugs.  And I’ve put up eggplant, green beans, made salsa, scallopine, tomato sauce and tomato paste!

Linus loves the garden.

Linus loves the garden.

So this has been a very good year for my garden. And for my volunteers…who include this new rescue Westie, Linus!

Linus joined our family a short 8 weeks ago after the tragic death of one of our Westies, Spike. He has settled in and is really loving the back yard!

One last thing to share. This is a bite I sustained last Tuesday. It is most likely that of a brown recluse spider. The pain was immediate and immense. Almost simultaneously, my arm stared to itch. There was a single strike mark which raised into a 1/4 inch high blister surrounded by a 2 inch square of rapidly rising smaller blisters.

Week old brown recluse spider bite

Week old spider bite

I did not consult a physician but did use my family’s tried and true remedy for all bites – a baking soda paste, applied immediately to the wound.

The pain and the itching were completely controlled but this bite mark is persisting and will probably leave a scar, maybe in the shape of a heart!

So, in this very wet summer, please make sure you keep your eyes open, be careful and enjoy the fruits of all of your labors.

Recipe: Pioneer Woman Homemade Ketchup

INGREDIENTS
8 Tablespoons Olive Oil
12 cloves Garlic, Minced
4 Medium Onions, Diced
8 Quarts processed tomatoes
1/2 cup Brown Sugar
1/3 cup molasses
1 & 1/3 cup Apple Cider or Wine Vinegar
4 Tablespoons Worcestershire Sauce
2 teaspoons Chili Powder
1 teaspoon each of Powdered Ginger, Ground Allspice & Cinnamon

NOTE: if making large batch of ketchup, simply determine total ounces of tomatoes and increase all other ingredients, accordingly.

Directions:
Process tomatoes using the Vittorio juicer to remove seeds and skins. Put tomatoes in large, non-reactive sauce pot and cook overnight on very low flame to reduce and boil off water.

Heat a large, non-reactive frying pan over medium heat. Add olive oil and onions, sauté until translucent, about 8 minutes. Add garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 2 minutes.

Add sugar, molasses and vinegar to the onion mixture and bring to a slow boil, lower to a simmer and cook for 10 to 12 minutes while the sauce reduces and thiikens slightly..

Add the onion mixture to the tomatoes and continue to simmer, uncovered overnight until very thick. NOTE: Because there is added sugar in this recipe, make sure to keep an eye on it and stir it to keep it from scorching.

Jar and, depending on jar size (pints or quarts) water bath appropriately. Cool, label and store.

 

 

 

 

July Garden Update!

Today, I will write with pictures, not words. So here is the pictorial update on my garden…and how it’s growing.

Despite cool nights (high 50’s and low 60’s, still), there are wonderful things are happening in my backyard.

Onions in May

Onions in May

Onions ready for harvest

Onions ready for harvest

 

Asparagus crowns need trenches

Asparagus trenches-April

Asparagus Growing-July

Asparagus Growing-July

Bianca Rosa Eggplant-July

Bianca Rosa Eggplant-July

Bianca Rosa Eggplant

Bianca Rosa Eggplant-June

Tiffen Mennonite Tomato

Consueleto tomato-June

Consueleto Genovese ripens

Ripening Consueleto-July

How to Trellis Tomatoes

Tomato trellis in bamboo

Tomato trellis in bamboo

Every year, I grow indeterminate, heirloom tomatoes. Every year, my tomato plants reach heights of 9 feet to 12 feet!

For the last 4 years, I have created a trellis for these monster tomato plants using bamboo poles and small green balls with connecting slots in them.

Each year, I am challenged to make the trellis straight and strong so it can hold up the weight of the fruit from more than a dozen very vigorous tomato plants.

This year, I lost the challenge.

In fact, this year, you could say I made a series of ill-fitting, trapezoid like structures that strong winds consistently knock awry! What you’re looking at is supposed to be a straight line…but it clearly flunked geometry and so did I!

Not so straight tomato trellis

Not so straight trellis

I was a bit desperate so I asked my husband (who is “…not a man of the soil”) to help me make a trellis using PVC pipe and connectors and he came through, as he always does.

The materials for this trellis cost $78 at Lowes. It is easy to put together as all of the vertical poles are the same length – 7 feet. All of the cross pieces are 3′.

Mr. Pat bought 14 PVC pipes that were 10 feet long. He cut 3 feet off each one to make both the verticals and the cross pieces. He then used elbows and tees to connect the verticals to the cross pieces.

The finished trellis looks a bit like something that clanked its way out of War of the Worlds!

New tomato trellis

New tomato trellis!

But it is lightweight and easy for the two of us to move. And it can easily be taken down and stored during the winter.

This afternoon, when the sun is warm on the plants and the leaves are dry, we will install the new trellis. It is 7 feet high and the cross pieces are 3 feet across. It will sit just inside the raised bed walls and a bit higher than my monster trellis.

Once the trellis is sunk into the ground, I will gently untie the tomato plants from the old trellis and tie them to the new one which will sit about 6 inches higher.

I am moving to the new trellis in the nick of time as the 13 plants that are relying on it for growth are literally loaded with fruit.

Tiffen Mennonite Tomato

My Tiffen Mennonite, the replacement for the Brandywine, are growing in clumps and getting huge.

The Consueleto Genovese and the Fox Cherry tomatoes are flat out laden with green tomatoes.

However, none of the fruit is ripening due to the chillier June nights we have been having.

Black Vernissage tomato

Black Vernissage tomato

Only the Black Vernissage, this year’s tester tomato is showing any color…but it’s not ripening, either.

Our temperatures have been in the mid to upper 50’s in Southeast Pennsylvania. Tomatoes like warm nights – 70’s+ and even warmer days. Over the next week, we will be hitting the 70’s at night and the 90’s during the day so I expect that just about all of the tomatoes on the trellis will ripen, all at once.

Once they start to come in, my neighbors better get ready! It will be tomatoes all around.

 

 

 

ps – please forgive the long silence. Since May 25th, I have been working valiantly to save the life of one of my two West Highland terriers. Unfortunately, my beloved Spike died on Saturday.

2018 Organic Garden Update – June

Fruit is set and ripening.

Blackberries & apple trees

It’s mid-June and we’ve had 4 decent days in a row, weather-wise.  The sun was out most of the time and on two days, the temperature actually rose into the 80’s.

The sun and the heat encouraged the plants to get on with their jobs! And I am happy to report that is just what is happening in my 2018 garden!

The blackberries are loaded with flowers and going about the business of creating their fruits.

 

Elderberries flourishing in the meadow.

Elderberry bushes

Burssel sprouts growing with blackberries

Brussel sprouts & blackberries

So are the elderberries that I planted in the back meadow.  They moved from bushes to trees, this spring!

It helps that Comfrey is inter-planted with the elderberry bushes as this herb pulls up nutrients from the soil but doesn’t use them so the elderberries get fed.

 

Most of my readers know that I trial a seed or two every year; Brussel sprouts are my trial this year. They seem to be growing pretty well, tucked in under the blackberries.   There was a bit of bunny damage but the plants got past  the nibbles and kept growing. I gave Brussel sprouts a try after listening to Margaret Roach’s podcast on the best ways to grow these and other cruciferous vegetables.

Tomatoes setting on my vines

Tomatoes despite the weather!

Considering the Septoria outbreak from all the rain and the cool days and nights, I am surprised to find that I actually have tomatoes on the vine, not a lot but there are baby tomatoes peeking out of the plants.

Cutting off all the infected leaves on every tomato plant appears to have thwarted the Septoria spores from taking over my tomato plants but we are under a flood watch again, today. So hyper- vigilance will be needed, again.

The onions and garlic are growing like mad and I took advantage of the clear weather to fertilize both.

Onions and garlic get fed

Onions and garlic

I normally just use fish emulsion and only from Neptune’s Harvest but this year,  because of all the rain, I supplemented with some organic worm castings.

Why supplement? Both onions and garlic are being grown in raised beds and both looked like they could use a bit of food this year. I usually only put crushed eggshells around my tomato and pepper plants but this year, because we have had so much rain, I also used fish emulsion and worm castings to feed these plants.

The eggplant and the cucumbers are growing well this year but I topped them up with some worm castings and poured a bit of fish emulsion on them as well, just to add a bit of food to their roots and leaves.

Cucumbers enjoying the sun

Cucumbers in the sun

Eggplant enjoying a warm day

Eggplant enjoying a warm day.

2018 Garden Underwater, Again

Normally, mid-May into mid-June are the weeks where you grab a tall, cool glass of Kombucha and sit down in your comfy deck chair and watch things grow…normally.

2018 garden underwater

My garden in the mist

This year, 2018, what I am frequently doing is sighing, drying off my dogs and hoping that the cold (low 50’s right now), wet weather doesn’t finish off all the plants I raised from seed.

This is my garden, in the mist. It looks pretty good, from a distance.

But my tomato plants are really starting to show the wear of 4 weeks of wet weather. The yellowing and spotting on the leaves is spreading and, because of the persistent wet growing conditions, I don’t think I will be able to stop the destruction.

What my tomatoes have is called Septoria Leaf Spot.   

Septoria fungus

Septoria on my tomato babies.

Septoria is a fungal disease. In normal weather conditions, you can usually prevent or at least slow it down by following good gardening practices like:

  • removing diseased leaves quickly
  • watering with soaker hoses,
  • never watering at night,
  • spacing your plants so each one catches the breezes and dries out,
  • rotating where you put tomato plants from year to year.

But I’m not experiencing normal weather conditions. And this fungal disease loves it when it’s wet out.

According to Michigan State University Extension (MSUE), my back yard is the perfect storm for Septoria, “When conditions are wet, spores are exuded from the Septoria fruiting bodies present on the infected tomato leaves. Once the spores land on a healthy leaf, spotting can appear in five days if weather conditions are ideal.”

Septoria will affect my 2019 garden

Septoria will affect 2019 garden, too

Worse than experiencing Septoria, this year, is the fact that the spores shed by the fungus live on in the ground cover and even in the soil. So, even if I remove the infected foliage, even if I rotate my plants, the chances of recurrence in 2019 are high.

I certainly have ideal conditions for this fungal invader!

I will fight back this year by using an organic fungicide called Serenade. I don’t like resorting to this solution but it is non-toxic to birds, bees, beneficial insects, fish, and wildlife.

As an organic gardener, I hate introducing this into my eco-system but I know the long-term damage Septoria can cause and I have to take necessary measures to reduce or eliminate this “perennial” from my garden.

And I will soldier on with the rest of my plants because that’s what gardeners do and because there are other plants growing quietly, albeit slowly, in my garden that need tending to. Here are some photos of these brave, green soldiers.