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Archive for March 2010

Container Gardens for Tomatoes

March 31st, 2010

tomato plantMany growers of vegetables are purists and believe that you must have a traditional garden to grow the best tomatoes.  We beg to differ!

Container gardening will allow a huge variety of plants to grow where a garden plot isn’t practical or available.  For instance, apartment dwellers have only their small patio or balcony, but they shouldn’t be deprived of the pleasures of growing their own produce.

Others grow their produce in containers to be able to conveniently provide the most sun and personal attention to their plants.  And some just prefer the portability of containers, making their plants mobile.

The best part about container gardening is the choice of suitable containers.  Five- or ten-gallon plastic pails, wood barrels, feed troughs, decorative pots and even black plastic trash bags will hold soil and will provide excellent environments for your tomatoes to thrive.  You only need to ensure that your tomato plants are situated where they’ll receive ample sunlight.  Then, you’ll have to provide the right moisture to satisfy the watering needs of each plant.

Tomatoes love heat and should be grown where they not only get full sun, but also are protected from strong wind.  They also need well-drained soil, meaning your container should have proper drainage holes at the bottom, and the soil should not be allowed to dry out to the point that the plants droop.

Healthy tomato plants become top heavy, especially as they bear fruit.  They need support, whether growing in the ground or in containers.  One of the most well-designed support devices is the GroPole, made of recycled UV-protected plastic materials and reusable for years.  Stick it in the soil next to your young plant. It expands from 24” to grow right along with the plant, up to 60” tall!  And it’s notched so your support ties stay in place.  Its green color blends right in with the foliage. And best of all, it’s very affordable!

There are two types of tomatoes:  determinate and indeterminate.  The second type will keep growing taller and wider, and will produce fruit continuously throughout the growing season.  The first will reach its mature size and then produce its fruit all at once.  Both styles of plant will do well in containers.

The determinate varieties are best for people who can or freeze tomatoes and want to prepare them all in one batch.  Garden Harvest Supply carries:

Hybrid Tomato Varieties: ApplauseFloralina, Health Kick, Mountain Fresh Plus

Heirloom Tomato Varieties: Amish Paste, Arkansas Traveler

Open Pollinated Tomato Varieties: Green Zebra GiantRoma

If you’re interested in growing tomatoes but don’t want to commit to a full garden, these varieties will thrive with a nutrient-rich soil, consistent moisture and lots of sunlight, even if you’re limited on growing spaces.  The other advantages of container gardening are that you can keep your plants in locations that are pest-free, protected from adverse weather conditions, and are close to your water source.

Since the roots are more confined in containers, be sure to start with a good soil mix, and then fertilize your plants regularly as they’re growing to make sure they have healthy roots and stems.  Garden Harvest Supply carries everything your soil needs in the way of amendments and food to help you grow a bountiful supply of homegrown tomatoes this summer.  Bon Appetit!

Growing Habanero Pepper Plants

March 29th, 2010

I am interested in buying some habanero plants. Can can you tell me how to care for them? And do the plants grow all year? Thank you!  Robert M.

Answer: First, let me answer the last question. Habanero peppers are a perennial plant in tropical zones, but if you’re not in the tropics, you should treat these plants like an annual (toss them when the growing season is over). 

As for growing conditions, habaneros, like bell peppers, are a member of the nightshade genus and so prefer morning sun, hot weather and a soil with a pH between 5 and 6 (slightly acidic). They will do the best when night temps are in the 60s and daytime temps are ideal between 70 and 90.

They prefer a slightly drier soil than the regular bell peppers, so not more than one inch of water per week. Be sure to mulch around the plants with straw or dried grass clippings to help keep moisture in, the weeds out, and the soil cooler. 

Once they are around a foot tall you can fertilize them with a water soluble fertilizer. The best ratio is 10-20-20, or similar.  Just make sure you don’t use something high in nitrogen or you will only have lots of green leaves. A sprinkling of epsom salts is said to help them set fruit.

They can also be a little slower to set bloom and fruit than bell peppers, so be patient. Harvest the fruit as it reaches edible size. If you wait until it changes color, it could begin to lose some of its heat.

The only pest concern is aphids, so watch for distortion or speckling of leaves, as this is a sign they are present.

Otherwise, they are as easy to grow as your average bell pepper.  Just be careful handling the mature fruit with your bare hands.  While the concentration of capsicum is in the spines on the interior, all parts of the fruit contain the oil and it can be quite painful in open wounds or if you get it in your eyes.

Happy planting, and may your peppers be hot!

Karen

Roll-Out Rubber Mulch

March 16th, 2010

Are you tired of the back-breaking weed pulling required in order to keep your garden areas looking beautiful?  You must know what it feels like to lay out a garden area, mulch it with care, then a few short months later be pulling weeds because the wind has strewn your mulch to the four corners of your yard; or the rain has made small creeks through your mulch and garden plot, guaranteeing the germination of any pesky weeds that might have been deterred by your beautiful and expensive mulch!  Grrrrrr!  Back to the store or garden center you go!  You either have to start pulling weeds or buy more mulch…until now.

Garden Harvest Supply has the answer!  They have a handier than ever, roll-out mulch carpet that is made of recycled rubber and looks like expensive red or brown mulch.  Unlike mulch though, this simple-to-use mat will not blow with the wind.  It will not allow the rain to wash it away.  It will not decompose into your flowerbed, requiring that you re-mulch year after year.  You simply roll it out, cut out the areas that your plants will be growing through, and then watch your garden grow!

Each roll has a 1-inch fabric edge on two sides that enables you to connect rolls in larger landscaped areas with a seamless, attractive and effective weed barrier.  And, each roll also has the patented WeedBlock permanently laminated for superior weed control. The Roll-Out Rubber Mulch Mat eliminates all of the problems while giving you all of these benefits:

  • This mulch mat stops weed growth, but allows air, water and nutrients to your plants.
  • This mulch mat is eco-friendly.  It’s made of completely recycled materials.
  • This mulch mat is chemical free.  You don’t need to worry about the safety of your children or pets.
  • This mulch mat is also the perfect size for garden rows.  Imagine almost eliminating those weeding chores associated with your vegetable garden.
  • This mulch mat saves money.  You will not have to replace it annually.  It does not decompose or blow away.

What could possibly make your life easier at such a ridiculously low price?   Go here to have a closer look at this fantastic gardening tool.

Ivy Geranium Cutting

March 12th, 2010

stars_stripesWe have had this ‘Global Stars and Stripes’ Ivy Geranium for years and I have made cuttings of it, but for some reason some of the cuttings and some of the hanging potted plants have reverted to an all red color even though they are taken from cuttings of the parent plant. Is this normal? Any suggestions as to how to avoid this? Thanks, F.R.

Answer: Pelargonium peltatum Global Stars and Stripes is a hybrid variety and has been cross-bred with other varieties of geraniums to create specific bloom or growth characteristics.  Once the breeder has achieved what they are looking for and it has been tested for some stability, the plant is propagated using a means called tissue culture (think cloning), to generate mass quantities for public sale. When you try to propagate the plants by other means, like cuttings or seeds, the plants can be less stable and possibly “revert” back to parental heritage. It is possible that even your parent plant after several years could revert. These plants are bred to be annuals and so are not generally tested for stability over extended years of growth. There is no way of avoiding or controlling this except to purchase new hybridized plants or accept what the cuttings develop. You never know, you might have something even more interesting!  

Hope this helps,
Karen

Growing Lilac Bushes

March 11th, 2010

lilac_bushesThe Syringa, or Lilac Bush, as it is more commonly known, is widely recognized for its amazingly strong fragrance and its ornamental qualities, with its signature flower panacles one of the first to bloom in spring. The blossoms are normally of a blue or purple hue, but are also available in white, pink and even yellow.

Lilacs prefer full sun, but will also grow in spotty shade, though their blossoms will not be as abundant. Their fragrance also seems to intensify in the sun. Highly adaptable, they can grow in almost any type of soil, though their preference will be soil with a neutral pH (7.0) and one that is rich in organic matter. The roots on lilacs grow horizontally and close to the surface, so they benefit from mulching and from mixing organic materials into the topsoil prior to covering the roots. As plants mature and age, also add manure or compost mixed with the soil if it appears the roots are becoming too shallow due to water drainage or soil erosion. Spent flowers should be removed so as to encourage an increased output for the following year. You may want to cut older plants almost back to the ground once the leaves have fallen. This tends to regenerate them when they’ve gotten a little tired. Also be aware that some cultivars only produce good quality flowers every other year, seeming to rest in the off years.

When cutting lilacs you do not want to sacrifice future blossoms, so use a bypass shear as opposed to an anvil shear, so that the stems are not crushed. Your shears should be sharp and it is also best to cut them early in the morning when they are well hydrated. Flowers dehydrate during the day and the mid-day heat tends to wilt them. Flowers cut at the end of the day may not recuperate well from the cutting and will have a shorter vase life and choosing stems on which the panacles are still at least one-third in the bud stage will also insure a longer vase life. If you prefer to have foliage displayed with your flower stems, then cut leaf-only stems to use for this purpose. Cut stems approximately 1-inch from the bottom of the main stem at a 45-degree angle, providing a larger area for water absorption. You should actually carry a water-filled bucket or container with you, so you can immediately put the stems in water as you cut.

Once you are back inside, strip the leaves that will be below the water line on both flower and foliage stems and cut a 1-inch split in the bottom of the stem with a sharp knife, placing it back in the water. In fact, if you are able to do this while the stems are under water, all the better. Some people will run lukewarm water or fill their sink to bathe the stems, but don’t submerge the whole flower head. Then use fresh lukewarm water with a commercial or homemade floral preservative (see recipe below) to extend their life. As soon as the water starts to get cloudy, change it, including the addition of new preservative, and rinse the stems well, cutting the bottom of the stem off and re-splitting the end so as to provide a new cut for the best water absorption. To further extend their beauty, keep your cut lilacs out of direct sunlight and avoid putting them next to fresh fruit. The same gases that cause fruit to ripen can shorten the life of your lilac blossoms. Lilacs, when cared for properly, can last up to 2 weeks in a vase. Place a vase in every room, inhale deeply and enjoy!

Homemade Flower Preservative

1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon household bleach

2 teaspoons lemon or lime juice

1 quart lukewarm water

Growing and Using Elderberries

March 10th, 2010

elderberriesChances are that if you live east of the Rockies you have seen elderberries growing wild and may not have even realized it. They commonly grow in moist soils alongside roadbeds, irrigation ditches and streams. Elder trees, also called elderberry plants, are hardy in most climates and fast growing, becoming quite large and full with densely clustered bunches of petite blossoms that produce a small, dark, extremely tart berry.

Elderberries grow best in soil with a pH between 5.5 and 6.5, but will tolerate a wide range of soil texture, acidity and fertility. They do not like constantly wet feet, though they love moisture, so make sure the area is well-drained. Shallow-rooted, use mulch to prohibit weed growth rather than disturbing the soil around the plant and use compost or manure mixed with the soil for the first planting in order to establish a sturdy plant. After the first year you will find that reinvigorating that layer of mulch, if necessary, and feeding once in the spring will result in a prolific harvest. Over fertilizing can be more detrimental than none at all, so if using a chemical compound, use a slow-release, balanced formula. Jungle Flora, an organic soil conditioner that works wonders, is also an option.

Harvesting normally occurs from late August through early September. You should harvest the whole cluster, stripping the fruit from the clusters for use. Keep the kids and grandkids from eating as they help with the harvest. The bitter taste may not deter them, as sour seems to be the flavor of the day for the younguns, but they are quite astringent and liable to result in a bad belly-ache, or even nausea. Keep harvested fruit at a cool temperature for later use and process or cook thoroughly prior to consumption.

Elderberries are most commonly used in pies, tarts, jellies and wine. Recipes abound, but for jelly we recommend using a combination of 3-parts elderberry juice to 1-part grape juice and reducing your sugar by 1/2 to 1-cup. Grape and elderberry seem to be a winning combination. The berries can also be dried and added to oatmeal as it cooks, added to muffins or steeped for tea; the flowers are also often dried for tea. About 1/2 cup of elderberries has only 73 calories, but is loaded with vitamin C and A, Potassium and viburnic acid which is beneficial for asthma, bronchitis and nasal congestion. Some people add elderberries to their diet when they feel a cold or flu coming on and swear that it shortens the duration and lessens the symptoms.

If you harvest in the wild, beware the red-berried variety of these bushes. Mother Nature has built in her own warning system for this toxic variety. These bushes will have thorns, whereas the common, edible variety does not. The wisest choice is to grow them yourself.

Happy Planting!

Find the Tomato Type and Variety That is Best for You

March 5th, 2010

tomatoConsidering that there are more than 4,000 varieties of tomatoes available, it can be quite a project for a gardener or farmer to decide what types and varieties to grow. In this newsletter we’ll summarize—or should we say “boil down” or “condense”—the vast amount of tomato info so that you won’t have to try to digest it all yourself. J And to help you determine which types are best for you, we’ve come up with a handy quiz that will quickly determine whether you should concentrate on open-pollinated types or hybrids.

Click here to take our 5 question tomato quiz.

All right, now you know which of the two broad types of tomatoes are best for you. The next step is to determine which varieties to get within that category. To help you determine this, read on, skipping to the category that best suits you.

Open-Pollinated Tomatoes

Technically speaking, open-pollinated are tomatoes that were pollinated naturally by the bees and the wind. The only breeding they have been subjected to is the selection process that has naturally taken place as growers saved seed from plants they were happy about, and discarded seed from plants they did not much care for. Thus over time, varieties that exhibited the best qualities were replanted and preserved, while plants with less desirable qualities “fell by the wayside.”

That a grower would be able to save seeds used to be a given, but with the advent of hybrids (which produce plants that are not “true to type”), being able to save seeds is now is considered an advantage of open-pollinated varieties. People generally save seeds in order to reduce expenses, live more self-sufficiently, and support crop diversity.

Many people like to grow open-pollinated varieties because of their superior taste. Other enjoy their unusual size, shapes, and colors. For instance, the Green Zebra Giant is famous for its flavor, as well as for its size and coloring. Some open-pollinated varieties do exceptionally well in certain areas, because that’s where they’re from. For example, the Old German Heirloom and the Tiffin Mennonite Heirloom originated in Tiffin, Ohio.

old_germanHeirlooms are simply open-pollinated varieties that have been handed down for many years. How long a variety has to be handed down in order to be called an heirloom is not strictly defined, but the range is generally considered to be between 50 and 100 years. Some heirlooms date back even longer than that such as the Brandywine Red, which has been around since 1855!

One of the interesting things about heirlooms is that you are not only growing a tomato but you’re tapping into a history. Often that history is quite elaborate, and there are some fine books available that go into depth as to the origins and history of the most notable heirlooms.

Master Gardener Renee Shepard writes that the Brandywine Red is “widely considered the tastiest heirloom,” but other heirloom experts beg to differ, even if only slightly. In her beautiful coffee table book The Heirloom Tomato From Garden to Table, acclaimed food writer Amy Goldman discusses the origin and history of two hundred heirlooms, comparing and contrasting them, and also rating them. We carry three varieties that she ranks among the very tastiest: Brandywine Yellow, Great White, and Black Krim.

Another excellent source of heirloom information is Dr. Carolyn J. Male’s book 100 Heirloom Tomatoes for the American Garden. The author, a professor of microbiology, goes into detail about the history and pedigree of the Brandywine Red, Brandywine Pink, and Brandywine Yellow, along with Box Car Willie, the heirloom we are featuring this month, and other heirlooms we carry including Amish Paste, Cherokee Purple, Mortgage Lifter, and Tiffin Mennonite.

Hybrid Tomatoes

Hybrids are the direct result of crossbreeding two or more different varieties with some specific purpose or purposes in mind. For example, a highly disease-resistant variety might be combined with a strain that produces very tough skins to produce a disease-resistant tomato with a thick skin: just what a commercial grower who ships long distances would need. And, in fact, big producers grow hybrids almost exclusively because there are varieties that are high-yield, disease-resistant, and produce highly uniform fruit that travels well and will not split.

Though some hybrids developed in the last ten years are bioengineered and might even be considered genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the hybrids we carry do not fall into that category, and have proven themselves over time as being among the very best. For example, the Burpee Big Boy, which was released in 1949, still is a bestseller due to its abundant yield of flavorful fruit. We also sell the Big Beef, which tops even the Burpee Big Boy in productivity. The Better Boy is another great hybrid whose superior disease resistance offers it protection against the triple threat of Verticillium, Fusarium, and nematodes.

Mountain Fresh Plus is one of the few varieties that is not only resistant to Fusarium and nematodes, but also to early blight. If you want to choose a variety based on its resistance to a particular disease or pest challenge, you will find this chart from the Cornell University Department of Plant Pathology to be very useful.

Cherry Tomatoes

Last but not least, don’t forget about cherry tomatoes, which we carry in a variety of colors ranging from red and yellow, to brown, antomato_vined even black. One of our yellows, by the way, is none other than the Yellow Pear Heirloom, which Renee Shepard counts among her favorite heirlooms.

All of these cherry tomatoes will thrive with less attention and care than full sized tomatoes, and because the fruits are lightweight, most cherries will grow just fine without the need for staking.

Don’t miss our next newsletter which will be chockfull of additional information to prepare you for the next growing season, and will include another quiz to help you further narrow down your growing choices.

Growing Rhubarb

March 4th, 2010

Rhubarb stalks growing in the garden

Rhubarb is a hardy perennial in all but the hotter and dryer climates and will most often bear a productive crop for 8 to 15 years.

That said, it is advisable to properly prepare the soil for your first planting, as the rhubarb will be relying on the nutrients and soil structure for a good long time. So, cultivate the soil to a good depth, preferably between 12 and 24 inches, and mix in a good amount of organic matter such as compost or manure. It’s best to do this about one month prior to planting so as to allow the soil to consolidate. If you have heavy clay concentration, replace about half of the soil with sand when adding the organic material. Rhubarb needs good drainage and for the most prolific harvest, full sun, though it will also grow in partial shade.

Also, remove as many weeds as possible so the rhubarb is not competing for nutrients and so you don’t stress the new growth by digging weeds in close proximity before the plants are fully established.

For a single rhubarb plant, dig a hole at least 2 feet in diameter and in depth, partially back-filling the hole with a 50/50 mixture of soil and compost or well-rotted manure. If planting multiple plants, dig a trench and do the same, allowing about 3 feet between plants. For each plant, you should mound the soil, spreading the roots down over the sides of the mound and then covering the plants with the remainder of the soil so the buds are 1 to 2 inches below the surface. Lightly tamp the soil and water well. As the new growth emerges, make sure the new plants get at least an inch of water a week.

Now you must exercise extreme patience. You should refrain from harvesting any rhubarb the first year. It’s hard, but it is critical to establishing productive plants. Clip the flower stalks and remove seed stalks immediately. Seed stalks will normally form later in the summer; they are tall, round and thick and look quite different than the edible leaf stalks. In the second year, in the early spring, you can harvest a few leaf stalks (petioles) as they reach finger thickness, but leave the majority on the plant to enhance root development. From the third year on you can harvest as much as you want.

Now, if you live in the desert regions like Northern and Western Texas, Southern Arizona and parts of New Mexico: you, too, can grow rhubarb, but as an annual rather than a perennial. If planting in sandy soil, plant the crown a little deeper than normal. You will be planting in the early fall as the nights start to cool and harvesting in the late fall and early winter. You may want to choose a spot with dappled shade or mostly morning and early afternoon sun, but if you have to plant in full sun, you can use a shade cloth when necessary.

To harvest, snap stems off at the ground or gently twist at the base. Trim the leaves off immediately, as they contain oxalic acid, are poisonous and should not be eaten. It’s fine to throw them in the compost bin, though. Then you can store rhubarb whole in the fridge for up to 3 weeks in sealed plastic bags, or you can clean and cut into 1-inch pieces and freeze them for up to 1 year. You can substitute chopped rhubarb for half of the fruit in any dessert recipe; it’s nutritious and adds texture, color and interest. One cup of diced rhubarb has only 26 calories, no cholesterol, low sodium, and very high levels of calcium, dietary fiber, manganese, potassium and vitamin C.

In late fall or early winter, an application of composted manure or leaves is beneficial. However, do not cover the crowns, since it may promote rotting. We don’t recommend using fresh manure when mulching, as it can burn the tender rhubarb plants.

Horseradish Growing Tips

March 1st, 2010

horseradish_plantsHorseradish is a perennial, so you should plant it away from the garden plot that gets tilled every year. Some people plant it in the herb garden and some just plant in a large container, such as a half whiskey barrel. If planting directly in the ground, we recommend that you use some form of containment, as horseradish is a prolific grower and will spread quickly. You can use a portion of a large drainage pipe or a plastic tub with the bottom cut out to bury in the ground around the horseradish to prevent its spread.

Horseradish can be planted as soon as the ground is workable in the spring, or planted in late fall, the same as for garlic or onions. It will thrive in full sun except in the hottest parts of the country, so if you live in the desert southwest, you might want to plant it in dappled shade or use a shade cloth during the hottest parts of the season. Horseradish will also grow in partial shade in most areas of the country, but the growth will be slower.

Horseradish is pretty adaptable to different soil composition and type and really doesn’t need to be pampered. The pH of your soil should be between 5.5 and 7.0 and for best results the soil should be well-worked with loosened soil at the bottom of the hole. Depending upon the length of the root you are planting, dig the hole wide enough for the root to lie horizontally and about 6-inches deep. The root should be able to lie at a 45° angle with the top of the root just at the top of the hole. Refill the hole with a mixture of compost and dirt or with just compost and mound slightly as the level will settle with watering. If you choose to fertilize, use a low nitrogen organic fertilizer 2 or 3 times throughout the season. Be aware that high nitrogen content in the soil may inhibit root growth. The best thing to do is just to leave it alone; only making sure the soil stays slightly moist.

For the most pungent flavor, wait to harvest until the leaves have been frost bitten. If you live in the south, harvest in the late fall. Once it is well-established you can harvest almost anytime and preserve the excess by mixing 3-Tbsp finely grated horseradish with 1-Tbsp white vinegar, 1-tsp sugar and just a pinch of salt. Put into sterilized jars, seal and refrigerate. Horseradish will last up to six months preserved in this fashion and will not lose much of its heat. Fresh horseradish roots will last for a couple of weeks in the fridge if you put them in dark plastic wrap and keep them from the light, fresh grinding them as needed. You can also dry horseradish and grind it into a powder for use later, but the heat is usually not as strong after drying.

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