Monday, June 15, 2009

Tip the Scale in Your Favour!

Here are some tips to increase the production and quality of tomatoes and cucumbers

1. When you dig the hole where you intend to transplant the tomato, mix Talk of Tomatoes in the soil. This is a name of a calcium based material that prevents blossom end rot. There are others that accomplish the same thing. Some people even use crushed egg shells.
Blossom end rot occurs because of inconsistent watering, which we cannot sometimes prevent since we can’t control the rain. It appears as a dark brown spot on the bottom of the fruit. The spot grows and rots.

2. After you transplant your tomatoes and have firmed down the soil put in two tomato spikes per plant. These are fertilizer and they have several names like spikes, boosters or boomers, and are made by several companies. You can even get organic ones now. The important thing is to get ones with these numbers: 8 – 24 – 8. This means the Nitrogen is at 8, the Phosphorous (good for roots and blooms) is at 24, and the Potash is at 8.

3. Both tomatoes and cucumbers produce better when they are near something red. No, I’m not kidding. The effectiveness of red plastic mulch has been researched by several university agriculture departments and has proven to increase yields by 20%. Several seed catalogue companies sell red plastic mulch, so price check before you purchase.
And yes, I know it’s plastic, but it is reusable. I have a four-year old strip with holes cut in it that I use for the cucumbers—I plant the cucumbers in soil through the holes—and 4 to 2 year-old strips I run between the rows of tomatoes. I’ve cut a few slices in these so the water and rain can drain away.
Red plastic mulch has an added benefit for tomatoes: it helps prevent blight. Blight is a naturally occurring disease that exists in the soil and it is triggered when the soil is too wet. Since we can’t control rain, fog or heavy dew, we can’t control how wet the soil around tomatoes can become, but this plastic mulch helps us do that.

Blight in this case means the leaves first get brown spots, then become all brown and withered. Not a pretty sight, but more importantly, no leaves means no photosynthesis and that means dead plants.

Have a great time playing in the dirt.


Friday, June 12, 2009

Jack should have tried bush beans: The AbFab Vegetable!

Whether you’re a novice gardener or an experienced one, the most important thing to remember about beans is that the soil to be warm: 18-24 degrees Celsius or 64 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Beans of all types, bush or climbing, need these temperatures to germinate

The second most important thing is this: once germinated, beans are one of the easiest most productive vegetables to grow.

The third thing, is do not touch the bean leaves when they are wet. They tend to get a disease on their foliage when you do.

And I’d bet Jack a dozen seeds, that your garden grown beans will be the best you’ve ever tasted! Positively melt-in-your-mouth yummy, in fact.

So here goes. You have worked your garden soil, likely transplanted some tomatoes, popped in some onion sets, maybe even put in some potatoes (more on these later), and the soil is now the right temperature for beans.

Bush beans, some times called snap beans, will give you maximum product from few plants. You can plant them in a block, like the Square Foot Gardener suggests, or in rows. Depending on the yearly layout of my garden, I have done both.

I do find it easier to pick them when I plant them in rows, but they tend to topple over more easily, so if I plant in rows, I also place inexpensive (cheap!) wire fences around them for support. Normally, bush beans don’t need support, but my garden soil is high in nitrogen, so the plants get taller than they should.

Sow seed 1 inch deep and 2 inches apart. Some books recommend that rows be 18 inches apart, but because I have really good soil, I put mine approximately 10 inches apart. If you are new to gardening, play it safe and follow the instructions on the seed package. If you have limited space, cheat a little, and put the rows closer together.

Bush beans come in three colours: green, yellow and purple. Yes, purple. These are often called Royal Burgundy and though they look lovely fresh, once cooked they turn green. One advantage of Royal Burgundy is that it just keeps on producing. It’s the energizer bunny of beans.

If you are a cold climate gardener like I am, try a green variety called Labrador. They have better cold soil tolerance than other bush beans. They also produce well for a fairly long period and taste great fresh or frozen.

Another green bean worth a try is a fillet type. I use Straight ‘N Narrow. It is highly productive, absolutely fabulous (Ab Fab) fresh, is good for preserving either frozen or as pickles.

Yellow bush bean varieties I have consistent success with are Roc d’Or and Indy Gold. Occasionally, I have so many, I sell them, and people have said they’ve never tasted such good beans before.

I grew yellow fillet beans last year, but these were not terribly successful, so no recommendations for those as yet.

There are other bush bean varieties available, and you will find the most tried-and-true varieties in seed display racks and in seed catalogues. Use some of these, but don’t be afraid to experiment with a new variety since you don’t need many seeds to begin with.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Do you want to stand upright or crawl on the ground? Tips for making cucumbers climb.

First of all, since I like cucumbers, I use Kozy Coats (KC), so I can plant them out earlier. If you can’ t or don’t want to us a KC, or a similar apparatus, do not transplant or seed until the soil has warmed up and there is no longer any danger of frost.

Next, I need the space and don’t like crawling around on my hands and knees to pick cukes, so I train the cucumber vines to climb 6 foot bamboo poles. There are several ways to make the poles form a skeleton version of a tee-pee. For example, you can bind the tops of three poles together and firmly shove the bottoms into the soil and plant around them.

I have scavenged the bicycle tires of an old two wheeler, stripped off the chains, rubber tires and anything else that would make it too heavy. Once stripped, I purchased approximately five and a half feet of an appropriately-sized dowel from a lumber yard and jammed it into the center hole of the bike tire.

Before I set out the cucumber plants, I work up the soil, dig a hole roughly ten inches deep, put the dowel end of this contraption in the hole and firm the soil around it. Where I live it is very windy just about all the time, so the pole has to be in the ground at least this deep and the soil must be firmed in around it—I stomp on it with my foot.

Once this stand is in place I transplant the cucumbers around it, put KCs around them, and wait. Depending on the size of the transplant and on the weather, in a week or two the cucumbers are near the top of the KC. I open up the top and turn down the plastic. Some water will spill out but that’s okay, just don’t wear your best shoes!

At this point I haul out my collection of 6 foot bamboo poles and slide them through the spokes of the bike tire and down into the KC before gently pushing them into the soil beside the cucumber plants.

Cucumber vines have tendrils and will naturally climb given the opportunity. But help them out by tying the vine to the pole. Use something soft like:

• an inexpensive and boi-degradable piece of jute twine.
• a strip of old panty hose or a strip of soft fabric, non-biodegradable, but reusable.
• more expensive but reusable options are gardeners Velcro or soft twist ties, both of which can be purchased from seed catalogue companies like Stokes, in Canada, or Parks in the United States.

As the cucumber plants continue to grow, keep training and tying them. Eventually you will see small cucumbers which will eventually become large eating-size cucumbers hanging down from the vines. These cukes will not get dirty from rain or water splashing on them; they will be green all over and not pale on the underside from lying on the ground; and, most importantly, they will be easy to pick. No need to get down on your hands and knees and crawl amongst those prickly cucumber vines!

Happy Gardening!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Now that Your Hands are Dirty, on to Cucumbers

Your tomato transplants are in the soil and protected from high winds and strong sun by tall tin cans, shingles and newspaper, Kozy Coats or Walls of Water and there’s still room for more veggies in your garden. Now what? Well, cucumbers are another summer time favourite.

Again, the first thing to consider is how much space you have to grow a vine vegetable like cucumbers. They will ramble and cover up quite a patch of soil where you could be growing something else if your space is limited. Also, when you allow cukes to spread out on the ground, the fruit is 1) harder to pick since you have to bend over and 2) one side of it is pale green or yellowish because it doesn’t get any sunlight lying on the ground.

You can take two routes with cucumbers: start or purchase plants to transplant or direct seed into the garden.

When to plant or seed? Transplant or seed cucumbers outdoors after the last risk of frost. If you want a head start, use a Kozy Coat(KC)or Wall of Water and put the transplant or seeds inside it. The sun will warm the water in this apparatus, and the water will warm the soil, and so protect the plant or seeds from the cold. Once the plant is near the top, remove the KC or turn the top of the KC down—some water may spill, but that’s okay. If you choose the second route, use a give the vine something to climb on.

If you have a garden, work the soil with a roto-tiller, or hire someone to do it.
If you have a small space, say a raised bed or two that are no more than three feet wide by five feet long, by ten inches deep, grab a fork and start to dig. Remove large stones, of course, and break down large lumps of soil. Hit ‘em with the fork or a hoe until they are smaller or disintegrate.
Why so fussy? Well, initially, cucumbers have fine roots and they don’t transplant that easily, so give them every courtesy you can.

If you have a small patio or balcony, purchase a pot large enough so that a tomato cage, a small trellis, or three five-foot bamboo poles can be made to stand safely upright in it.
For potting soil, purchase a good triple mix: top soil or humus, peat moss, and manure.

For the balcony gardener, you just might get lucky and find a pot variety already growing at a garden centre. If you can afford it, go for it. If you can’t afford it, buy a smaller plant, an inexpensive pot and some soil.
As for variety, try the Burpless Bush Hybrid. It has small plants, and tasty cukes.
Personally, I would buy a pot large enough to hold a tomato cage and use it for supporting the cucumber vine, and then grow a variety called Cool Breeze.
This variety is self-pollinating: it has all female flowers so every bloom is a potential cucumber and you don’t need bees! The cucumbers are ready in approx. 45 days—
pick at 4-6 inches long—and are good for eating fresh or pickling.

For the gardener with more space:
Again, I recommend Cool Breeze for the same reasons. But I also like the English style cucumbers—those long ones you see in supermarkets. Two excellent varieties are Sweet Slice (60 days) and Sweeter Yet (45 days).

Water, fertilizer and shelter:
Water when needed, but underwater rather than over water, especially if you are growing cukes in pots. Remember it is easier to add a water than to get it out!

Fertilizer: I can’t say that I’ve ever need to fertilize my cuke plants, but for those in pots, it may well be necessary. Try a 15-15-15 type of water soluble fertilizer. Be careful not to over-fertilize.

Shelter: Since it is very windy most of the time where I live, I drape fabric row cover over my cucumbers. This does three things: stops the wind from beating the stuffings out of the leaves and whipping the vines into a knot, helps maintain warmth around the plant and, finally, acts as a protection from light frost.

Good luck and happy growing,

Thursday, June 4, 2009

So, You Want to Get Dirty?

You either have a patch of 'dirt' that can easily be turned into a vegetable garden, or you've ripped up a piece of the lawn. If you've done the second, make sure it's in a sunny location.

Still on the topic of tomatoes, if you have a garden space, consider planting a cherry variety, a slicing variety and paste variety. My favourites are Sun Sugar, an orange cherry that is early and very sweet, Celebrity and Lemon Boy, red and yellow slicing types, and Viva Italias for the paste variety. I prefer the Viva Italias to Romas or Mama Mias because they produce even more uniform fruit. They are good for fresh or canned salsa, good for slicing and good for freezing whole, so you can enjoy them over the winter.

Enough about varieties. How do you start?

Ensure it has been well worked and is reasonably free of grass roots. If it is heavysoil, add compost and/or peat moss. If it is light or sandy soil, add compost if possible, some top soil and manure.

I mud in my tomato plants. This means I dig a hole slightly larger than the pot the plant is in, add water and allow it to soak in almost entirely. Then I pop the plant out of the pot and into the hole. Fill the hole with soil and firm it down around the plant to remove as many air pockets as possible.

Place a large can, wooden shingles, or if you can find them and afford, them use a Kozy Coat or Wall of Water.

Kozy Coats and Wall of Water: These are large plastic circles that consist of individual tubes. When filled with water, they hold themselves up in a t-pee shape. The water warms from the sun, and the whole affect is that of a miniature green house. The tomato will eventually grow too large for this space, so open up the top of the Kozy Coat and turn it down.

Fertilizer: I use a blossom booster variety, 15-30-15 once the plant begins to bloom to encourage even more blooms. Whatever brand of fertilizer you purchase, a no-name or Miracle Grow, follow the instrucitons.

Tomato cages and stakes: These are useful if not absolutely necessary. Some plants, like the cherry types, tend to grow and grow, so they need both cages and stakes.

Water when needed and from the bottom of the plants as often as possible. If tomato leaves get wet too often from above they are prone to tomato blight, a disease that kills the leaves. No leaves, no breathing and no plant. As for watering from above, well, we can't stop the rain, but do limit your own watering from above as much as possible.

At any rate, have fun, get dirty, get green fingers from the tomato plants and enjoy the fruits of your labour, literally!

Best of luck,

To Garden or Not to Garden: A Veggie Patch for Beginners

The recession has many people looking to the garden for ways to save money. While this is a good option, remember two things. One, don’t go hog wild and plant everything because you will spend too much money and too much time on your first effort, and, likely, have too much produce. Secondly, plant only what you like to eat and can preserve if that is an option.

If you’re as green as grass when it comes to gardening, North Americans’ favourite vegetable is the tomato. You can grow a decent cherry tomato, like Tiny Tom, or even Sweet 1,000,000 in a container on a sunny patio or balcony.

What will you need?

The pot:
Well, if you start with a small tomato plant, also start with a small pot, say a six inch pot. When the tomato outgrows the pot size (the soil will dry out quickly, and the tomato will likely topple over, pot and all), transplant into a larger pot.
If you end up with a tomato in a large pot, say, fourteen by fourteen, and have a large tomato, get thee to Wal-Mart and buy a tomato cage. This will help support the tomato and stop it from falling over and breaking.

Look for a good triple mix blend of soil. It should have peat moss, humus or top soil and some manure. Potting mixes with too much peat moss will dry out quickly and need fertilizing often.

While fertilizer is important, be gentle. Many people over fertilize. They read the label and think if 1 teaspoon per gallon is good, 2 must be better, so the fertilizer is too strong and may eventually kill the plant. Follow the instructions. Your plant will love you for it.
Fertilizer has three basic elements. These are nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P) and Potash (K). The safest bet is a fertilizer that has the same number in each category, like 10-10-10. However, for a tomato, since you want fruit, you need it to bloom, so get a fertilizer that has a higher middle number, something like 15- 30-15.
By the way, Miracle Grow really is good. So if you are serious about having blooming plants that bloom, invest in some.

All too often people over water their plants. Get real and get dirty! Stick your fingers in the soil to test for moisture. If this is utterly repulsive to you, perhaps you shouldn’t be gardening (ha ha ha), buy a water metre. Or, lift the pot. If it weighs more than your five year old son, it’s over watered. If it lifts off the floor very easily, it is too dry.
With watering, less is more. It is easier to add more water when needed than to wring it from the soil.

If you are in a hurry, and want tomatoes FAST, go to a reliable and reputable garden centre and purchase a cherry tomato that is already large, flowering and may even have tomatoes set. Do stay in your price range and do look after it. The point is to save money and have a tasty result in the end, not an empty pocket book and a dead stick that sort of resembles a tomato.

Happy Gardening,