Urban Gardening


Although last year was a banner year for snow peas and cucumbers and other summer garden delights, the tomatoes here were a bust. And even the usually reliable yellow tomatoes didn’t perform well.  The cool summer was lovely, but not ideal for our beloved Solanum lycopersicums. While we can’t control the weather, there are some things we can do to tilt the scales towards happy, healthy and productive plants. Here are a few tips to get the tomatoes off and running this year:

  1. Build good soil – work compost into the soil (homegrown is the best – you know where it came from) before planting, use more of this good compost as a mulch
  2. Buy tomatoes from reputable nurseries  if you didn’t start from seed this year
  3. Balance hybrids with heirlooms – hybrids are bred to be resistant to wilts and blights and other diseases while heirlooms, grown for their superior taste, are less resistant
  4. Try grafted tomatoes – hardy root stock and heirloom top
    ~ Grafted tomatoes are starting to show up in some nurseries, or you can experiment with grafting (more on that topic later)
  5. Wait to plant until the soil has  thoroughly warmed before planting as there is no real benefit to getting the plants in the ground when it’s still cool
  6. Good drainage, good spacing between plants (2-3 feet), good support (here’s how to build a better tomato cage )
  7. Limit your use of fertilizer – excess fertilizer can lead to vegetative growth but not so much fruit production
  8. Rotating planting for all members of the nightshade family – not planting tomatoes, peppers, eggplants or potatoes in the same spot where a tomato, pepper, eggplant or potato was planted the previous year (hard to do in small urban garden!)

Other tips for growing good tomatoes?

Here’s hoping that Mother Nature cooperates and helps make this a banner year for tomatoes (and all the other good summer garden veggies). Because there’s nothing in the world like home grown tomatoes!

A bitter winter, a long and cold spring and still a ways to go before the soil is warm enough to plant the summer garden mainstays (tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and melons). Garden stores have some plants for sale but the stock is still limited because of the cold. But getting a jump start on gardening is still possible through an unexpected (and inexpensive) source for gardens — the nearby grocery store. Below are just a few examples of grocery store produce that will produce in your garden.

Herbs:
The nearby grocery store sells potted herbs – basil, cilantro, parsley and mint. As an aside, basil and cilantro are easy to grow from seed, parsley and mint not so easy. The basil pot I bought  has 12 plants,the parsley pot has 6 plants – both on sale for $2.49/pot – twice the plants and half the cost($4.98) for an herb pot from the big box store.  Taking the herbs from a sheltered indoor environment to the outdoors requires a few days of hardening-off, but then into the ground they go and, based on previous years experience, up they’ll grow.

Lemongrass:
If you enjoy Southeast Asian cooking,  you’re probably familiar with dishes flavored with lemon grass (Cymbopogon citrates). Buy a stalk of lemon grass (choose one with the root end intact) from the grocery store, cut the foliage down to a few inches then place the stalk in a glass of water. In a few days, roots will emerge (as well as offshoots). Plant out when the weather has warmed, and the stalk will quickly turn into multiple stalks. Lemon grass is a grass, after all.  Tips on using lemongrass in cooking here and here.

Garlic:
Ever have a clove of garlic sprout? While the sprouted clove may be past prime for cooking, it is primed for planting. Plant with the tip pointed up; chances are it will sprout. And if it doesn’t, you haven’t lost anything but a few moments of time to plant the clove. More on growing garlic here.

Taro (and other roots):
Elephant ears are a tuber with dramatic heart shaped foliage, pricy at upwards of $10/tuber at gardening places.  Elephant ears is the descriptive name for the ornamental plant; they are  in the same family (colocasia) as taro or poi – important food crops in many parts of the world. While elephant ear tubers are not edible, you can buy taro roots (similar foliage as the ornamental elephant ear) for a fraction of the cost at the grocery store. Plant out after the danger of frost has passed, root side down. If it isn’t clear which is the top and which is the bottom, plant sideways and let Mother Nature figure it out!  Other grocery store roots to try are horseradish and ginger – both have grown successfully in my backyard garden.

Bottom line:
Twelve basil plants, six parsley plants, two lemon grass stalks (that will both become a large clump of stalks), an ornamental foliage plant (taro) and six garlics growing, all for under $8.  The frugal gardener in me approves.

grocery gardening

Tete a tete“In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt” ~Margaret Atwood

Spring blooming bulbs are (finally!) underway and require no attention other than regular admiration but there is plenty to do in the garden during the longer spring days.

  • Start out with spring garden cleaning – cut down stalks of dead plants you left up all winter as habitat for overwintering insects, shake any remaining seed pods onto the ground (if you want plant seeds to self-sow) and clear away debris
  • Check your tools to see if any any wooden handles are dry (linseed oil is good for this) or need sharpening; check pots left outside to see if any have cracks.
  • If you haven’t had your soil tested, now’s a good time to do it. While local cooperative extension services often offer soil testing, UMass Amherst is also a good option.
    *  More useful information on soil testing in a previous post
  • Get going (if you haven’t done so already) on indoor seed starting – tomatoes and peppers and other plants that need to wait for warmer soils to be planted outside should be started 4-6 before average last frost date.  Useful instructions on seed starting from a previous post are right here, and instructions for an easy DIY seed starting stand (also from previous post) are right here.
  • Give the garden a good raking over to loosen the top soil and break up any clumps of dirt – this in preparation for sowing seeds for cool season planting.

GardenSeeds_2015What can be planted this time of year? Lots!

*  Greens: Lettuce, spinach, chard, mustard, kale
*  Root crops:  Carrots, radishes, beets, turnips, kohlrabi
*  Early peas such as snow peas and sugar snap

Here’s a planning calendar for what to plant and when plus an article on preparing your soil.

As happens every year, winter finally arrived which meant the real absolute final end of the growing season for warm weather vegetables and herbs. Arugula, chard and kale – you guys keep growing while we focus on preserving your less hardy brethren.

This photo shows some of my favorite ways to preserve the harvest which include drying, brining, canning, fermenting, and freezing:

  • Lacto-fermentation (red and green cabbage sauerkraut, Kim-Chi)
  • Brined cucumbers (aka pickles)Preservation Nov14
  • Hot packed tomatoes (and a bowl of soon-to-be frozen yellow tomato sauce)
  • Dried peppers, oven roasted/dehydrated cherry tomatoes
  • Herbed vinegar
  • Drying purple basil, lemon verbena, bowl of thyme/oregano/Mexican tarragon
  • Not sure whether it is rooting or pre-drying – green pepper basil

Take your pick of processes and produce – these are all quick and simple ways to enjoy summer’s bounty during cold winter months.

Even though the calendar says summer is winding has wound down, it seems like my garden is was kicking into high gear in the fall.

GardenAugust  Just look what I picked not long ago!  This harvest includes lots of varieties: 7 kinds of tomato, 5 types of cucumber, 3 different peppers, two types of kale, an assortment of beans, bouquet of basil and some bonus sunflowers.

TomAug

The tomatoes deserved special mention – these are Pink Brandywines. They are large, hefty, juicy and just plain delicious. Everything a tomato should be.

 

 

 

What is the point of having a bike if not to carry your Shiitake mushroom spore-ed and waxed log home from a mushroom cultivation workshop? This was just one of the many great workshops offered at a nearby rec center through DC Parks and Recreation.

Turns out it’s easy –

*  Got a (fresh cut hardwood) log?
*  Got a drill to make the right sized holes in the log?
*  Got mushroom spawn (medium that holds the spores)?
*  Got a wax to seal the spore in the holes?

If the answer to these is yes, then you’re well on your way (in just a few months) to enjoying homegrown shiitake mushrooms.

Why mushrooms? They’re nutrient rich (Vitamin B, D, iron), low in calories, high in fiber – and isn’t it fun to eat fungi?

You can also check out this TED talk on 6 ways mushrooms can save the world.

 BikeLog

Garden cooking classes, for one. Also Intro to Permaculture, Food Justice, Music in the Garden and more.

While summer is winding down (according to the calendar) there is plenty more gardening to be done in the fall.  Information on this and other gardening classes can be found on the DC Parks and Recreation website here.

 

 

HeliosMonroe turned eight this year – happy blog birthday!

Recent Helios highlights include good gardening, giant sunflowers, house renovations, and lots of walks around Mt Pleasant with Mazie.  Other endeavors include the beginnings of a hop yard, planting a patch of  Allium tricoccum (ramps) and letting the sun shine in.

There are plenty of good looking tomatoes ripening on the vine in various plots in my community garden. There are also a number of very sad looking tomatoes with yellowing/brown leaves and withering stalks.

Are DC gardeners destined to eventually lose their tomatoes to wilts or blights or other diseases?  My answer is no, and here are some tips to help combat tomato collapse:

  1. Testing your soil. You can improve your chances of growing good crops if your soil has the right balance of nutrients. Right now UDC is offering free testing during July and August. Another  option is UMass Amherst’s soil testing lab.
  2. Watering slowly and deep – slowly so water doesn’t splash onto the leaves, deep so that roots grow down and pick up more nutrients. Best time to water is in the morning
  3. Cutting off leaves when there is a hint of yellow or brown – or proactively cutting off the bottom sets of leaves to mitigate splashing spores onto the leaves in the first place
  4. Practicing good sanitation – don’t touch the tomato leaves when they are wet, don’t inadvertently spread disease by touching unaffected plants after you’ve been handling diseased plants
  5. My alley neighbor, who was a knowledgeable gardener, swore by using a copper spray to combat these diseases. I’ve also read of an effective spray using baking soda or potassium bicarbonate called the Cornell spray. The Internets also shows gardeners using copper wire (inserted into plant stem just above soil line) or making a cut and inserting a copper penny. I think I’ll stick with the methods listed above.

In some cases, the tomatoes aren’t affected (although the plant looks stunted). But if the stalk is withered then the plant should be pulled up and put into your trash (not compost pile). Any tomatoes on the vine should be fine to eat. If they’re green, leave them on your counter top to see if they ripen. Or look up some good green tomato recipes (like this green tomato curry).

What are your tips for growing good tomatoes?

 

 

Or, why is there a big pile of basil on my counter? They looked so modest when first planted back in May – one stem, a few leaves…who knew that they would turn into 5′ multi-stemmed plants? Well yes I knew, but between one growing season and another that lesson was un-learned.

And another lesson un-learned is that basil leaves needs to be picked regularly. When the plants started to outgrow consumption, it needed to be whacked back. Cutting off half – or more – of the stems is about right. Otherwise the basil starts to go to seed and the plant’s energy turns from leaf production to seed production.

And if you forget both of these lessons, you’ll end up with a  big pile delightful overabundance of basil on your counter. Next up, what in the world will I do with this big pile?

Basil

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