Archive for May, 2010

How to Grow Tomatoes From Seed

   

Have you ever had bad luck growing tomato plants from seed? You planted your seed and eagerly awaited juicy homegrown sandwich slices or savory spaghetti sauce. The seedlings emerged from the ground and you helplessly watched them turn into spindly threads that died.  Sound familiar? You’re not alone.  

Growing tomatoes from seed is surprisingly simple, but there are a few extra steps you will have to take.  

First of all, tomatoes should be started indoors 6-8 weeks prior to your last frost date.  

Make sure you are using STERILE potting mix. If you use just any dirt, it could cause your plant to dampen off (fall over and die unexpectedly). I sterilize my own dirt. This process is easy. Simply fill a oven-safe container with dirt and bake or place in grill at 350° F for about 30 minutes. If I skip this process, I will have at least a 10% loss.  

As SOON as they seedlings begin to emerge from the dirt put them under light. Light from a windowsill IS NOT ENOUGH LIGHT. You will have to place your seedlings under a special grow light or under a florescent light, similar to one you would have in your garage or kitchen. Regular florescent lights will work fine, but your plant will need to be within 1″ of the bulb for 16-18 hours per day. This can be tricky as some plants can grow faster than others. In the picture below you can see a light in our little shed/barn I have dropped. I grab whatever is handy to tweek the height between my 2 week and 6 week old plants. It does not need to be fancy, although now that I am sharing these pictures I’m wondering if I could have used something more pleasing to the eye rather than the toolboxes. 🙂  

 

Under the shop light

Bringing the plants up 1" from light

Water your plants as needed but do not drown them. Wait until the soil is dry all the way through (a moisture meter works well for this and can be purchased in any garden center). Not bone dry but it should not appear damp or feel damp to the touch.  If you let it get too dry for too long, your plant will begin to wilt. Too much watering will also kill so find a happy medium.  

Some people suggest brushing the seedlings with your hands for a few minutes per day, gently grazing the tops of the leaves and stem with the palms of your hands. This is supposed to make the plant stem stronger. However, I have never used this method and have still had very sturdy and healthy plants.  

Another common recommendation is the use of a fan to circulate air. This will help prevent disease. I leave my shed doors open several hours a day to allow fresh air to enter and do not use a fan. I have never encountered problems. If you plants are in a non-ventilated area with no way of opening it up to some fresh air, you may want to consider using a fan.  

If you planted your seedlings in seed trays or close to one another you will want to transplant them once into about a 3″ pot or a few into one larger pot (equally spaced). Make sure this soil is sterile or sterilize your own.  

Two weeks before you plan to transplant your tomatoes outdoors you will need to “harden” them off. This means that you will introduce them to the outdoor elements slowly. Never introduce your plant into direct sunlight, as it will rapidly wilt (sometimes within as little as 10 minutes) and die. Start by putting your plant in the shade for an hour a day and increasing that time every day until your plant can remain outdoors all day and night. Check them frequently for any signs of wilting or drooping. If you do find any signs of wilting, move them to a safer place immediately. Do not wait too long to begin the hardening off process. The longer you wait to harden off a plant, the harder it becomes.
 
After planting your tomatoes in the garden there are a few things to remember:
 
Avoid using too much nitrogen. If you use fertilizer high in nitrogen, you may end up with beautiful 8′ plants that bear no fruit. I till organic compost into the ground weeks before planting and never fertilize my tomatoes.
 
Supply calcium to your plant to prevent premature fruit rotting. You can crush egg shells (great source of calcium) and  bury them around your plants. You can even use human calcium tablets (vitamins) and soak them in water until they completely dissolve then pour mixture on roots of your plants. However you supply calcium, make sure you do it! You don’t want to end up with tomatoes that have suddenly rotted at harvest time.
 
Every time you transplant your seedling to a bigger pot and perhaps eventually to the garden, bury it deeper than the last container. The buried portion of the stem will root, providing the plant with a strong root system.
 
Grow your tomatoes in different locations every year. Crop rotation helps cut down on potential diseases.
 

Tomato and Eggplants

 

 
 
 

   

 

 

Inexpensive Seed Flats and Pots

I have spent endless hours searching for affordable seed flats and 3″ pots because I refuse to pay 15 bucks for one flat when I need SO many.

Well, I finally found an extremely affordable site and thought I would share!

Plastic pots http://www.circlehgrowers.com/plastic-pots.htm

Seed Flats http://www.circlehgrowers.com/seed-flats.htm

Now if I could just find some affordable grow lights!

Gardening in Style

I love my apple boots. Wearing them is like throwing on some good music while cleaning house. Slip these babies on and your ready to plant. Whether it be mud or 3′ of soft dirt these shoes can handle it. A few days ago I went out to check on some blooms in the garden after a big rain and decided to forgo the boots and throw on some flip-flops as a quick fix. Oh how I missed my boots after sinking 1′ in the mud and losing a flop.   These rainboots look great on your feet and in the garden. What gardening tools or clothing are you attached to?

Squash Seed Preservation Techniques

 
There are many ways to keep seed pure. We use caging techniques  in our garden, but it’s so large that caging is sometimes unrealistic or cumbersome with some varieties.
 
Taping some varieties of plants you intend to self-pollinate (for saving pure seed) may be a good idea for your garden.
 
 
 

Flower Taping

Above is a taped female blossom from a Butternut Squash plant. Notice the ovary (which will later become fruit). Male flowers are on a straight stem that contain no ovary.  Every morning I check for blossoms that will open the following day (You can see them cracking open, exposing a tiny bit of color). I tape these (male and female) to ensure I get to them before Mr. Bee does. The tape is ripped off along with the tip of the flower the following day and pollinated.
To pollinate, pick several male flowers and pick the petals off, exposing the anthers which are covered in pollen. You then rub several male anthers onto the females stigma and then tape the female shut again to ensure insects do not visit, introducing a cross pollen from your neighbor’s garden. This tape falls off with the flower as it dies. I then tie a bright piece of surveyor tape below the ovary. When harvest time rolls around I will only save seed from the marked veggies, as I know they will be pure. Vegetables that are going to be eaten and not saved for seed, do not have to be covered or self pollinated.
 
Many plants can be eaten and saved for seed (think tomato)  but others require over-ripening on the vine for good seed collection. Most squash seeds benefit from over-ripening (approx. 20 days after fruit is ripe) . It makes them hardier and disease resistant, giving your next years crop a wonderful start. Of course the over-ripening process kind of stinks because many squash (depending on variety) will be squishy at this point and un-edible. Winter squash like Butternut will remain nice and firm allowing you to collect seed and still enjoy the fruit. Other varieties like summer squash saved for seed will generally be mush by this point.
 
Self pollination should be practiced on the first sets of fruit as these are the best for saving.
What’s in your garden this year?
 

Insect Barrier

Insect Barrier

I mentioned in the last post about an inexpensive insect barrier from Gardens Alive. Above is a 100′ row I layed down. Use a hoe to quickly cover the edges and your all set!

The Caging Method

DIY Caging

DIY Caging

 There  are many reasons to cage your growing plants. Caging keeps insects out which minimizes damage from caterpillars, leafhoppers, vine borers, aphids, and more.  Caging also keeps your seeds pure and true-to-type. For example, if you are growing 3 different types of beans this year that you intend to keep seed from, they can cross via bee pollen transfer. Although your plants will grow as they should this season, the seeds you collect from them will not be pure the following year. 

Please note that some plants require pollination. In order for a squash to grow, an insect must visit the male and female flowers on your plant. If the blooms were caged no insects could reach the flowers to complete this process and the plants would bear no fruit. Caging is still very beneficial to keep insect pollinating plants pure, however they must be uncaged, pollinated by hand, and re-caged. When this process is used it is important to mark each of the female flowers you pollinate (we use surveyor tape gently tied under the ovary so we know which veggies are pure to keep for seed). Generally, it is easier to bag individual blooms on a plant like this, instead of  the cage method. Bags made from organza, spun polyester, or pantyhose are ideal for this purpose and can be removed as soon as the bloom closes. 

Plants that are self-pollinating like most bean and pea varieties do not require insects, as they pollinate themselves as the name implies. These varieties can be caged to ensure pure seed. 

Caging is fairly simple. Window screen, organza, and spun polyester are popular choices of material. In the picture above I pounded wood stakes 1″ into the ground and then laid organza over that, burying all edges firmly in the dirt to ensure that no bugs could enter. The organza will be removed as pods develop and are ready to eat or we will allow them to dry on for seed collection. 

It is very important that no bugs are present before you cage your plants. The cage will protect insects from any outside predators and create a perfect environment for them to thrive on your plants. 

Cages are great for organic growers who do not wish to use pesticides. Notice the caterpillars unable to get into my organza cage in the picture below… 

Catepillars on caging material

Caging method keeps the bugs out

 A cheaper and better alternative to organza is spun polyester. I happened to have some organza on hand for this project. A great site for spun polyester is… http://www.gardensalive.com/product.asp?pn=82274 . The material is hardier than what it appears in the picture and water can penetrate it. It also provides great air circulation and does not hold heat in. Right now they have a 20.00 of of purchases totalling 40.00 or more. You can see the ad for this on the home page in the right-hand corner.

NOTE: Organza does retain some moisture. This was my first year using it over beans and the bean sections that the orgranza covered became TOO damp.

DIY Veggie Trellis

Many vegetables are climbers and benefit from a trellis, which can  also optimize space in the garden.

We recently had a bean bush which is a semi-vining and it seemingly went from bean sprout to jungle wonder in a matter of 3 weeks. But, that is what beans do best!

  I like to recycle items and use what is available to me so that I can avoid unneccessary purchases.  A couple of  years ago I came up with a quick and inexpensive way to make my own trellis and have used this method ever since.

You will need:

  • 2 PVC pipes (height depending on your needs but figure in 2′ extra to bury to ensure stability
  • Twine or thin braided roping of some sort
  • Darning Needle (large hole to accommodate the twine)
  • Drill
  • Scissors
  • Hammer or sledgehammer
  1. Pound both PVC  firmly 1.5 – 2′ into ground with hammer, one on each side of  the plant row you want to trellis.
  2. Drill holes completely through both PVC where you intend to run string through (spacing does not need to be measured or exact), space accordingly to your needs. Viners will vine wherever they can reach. We space our holes about 4-6″ from one another.
  3. Thread your string through the darning needle
  4. Begin to weave in one PVC hole, stretch to hole on opposite PVC pipe and then back again, ensuring you keep the line fairly tight.
  5. Repeat weaving until you reach the height you desire. Semi-vining plants may only require a 3′ height whereas 6”+ may be more appropriate for full vining varieties. Tie off ends, knotting at beginning and ending PVC hole.

NOTE: It is normal when you pull tightly for the PVC to want to lean in a bit. This is ok. Afterall, we’re not in it for the looks but the functionality.

Ending result should look something like this:

DIY Trellis

DIY Trellis

This particular trellis was strung about 5′ in height. In about 1-2 months it will be completely covered and resemble a wall. PVC pipes can be pulled from ground and stored for next season.

Of course there are other options to trellis if you are not a DIY person or if you don’t already have the tools mentioned above. A great trellis material is available at Gurney’s for a reasonable price. All are 5′ in height and you choose between 15′ to 60′ in width. http://gurneys.com/vegetable-trellis/p/12871/ Note that you will need wood on hand to mount it to.  this material can be re-used for years.

There are so many ways to create a DIY or recycled trellis project.  I have  seen items like old rusty swingsets placed over a patch of peas that made  an extremely functional trellis. Some create hoops on the ground made out of PVC. At harvest time you simply walk through your hoop tunnel and collect your beans or peas. Pods will hang from overhead vines and make picking a cinch. No matter how you trellis, be creative!