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Archive for June, 2011

Block Island, Rhode Island

Irvine, California

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Is there any plant in gardening that provokes more passionate discussion than tomatoes? There are as many “surefire” tips for growing the “best tomatoes ever” as there are gardeners who grow them, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. Here are a few tips that will help you grow great tomatoes.

The first thing you need to know is if the plant is a determinate or indeterminate variety. Determinate varieties bear fruit over a one to two-week period. (You may want to consider growing several varieties that set fruit at different times so you can have a longer harvest period.) These plants are usually more compact and good for growing in containers. Some people will tell you that you don’t need to stake this type of tomato, but it’s usually a good idea to tie them loosely to a stake or put a wire cage (the commercial type will work here, but it should be 4′ tall) around them when you plant. As for pruning, determinate don’t require it.

Indeterminate tomatoes are larger vining plants — from 6′ to 12′ or larger. These tomatoes will produce fruit throughout the growing season until they are killed by frost or the days are too short to support their growth. Many old varieties and heirlooms are indeterminates. These plants definitely need to be supported. You can let them sprawl on the ground, but you will lose a lot of fruit to rot and pests.

There are lots of ways to stake tomatoes, but there are two important points to keep in mind. First, indeterminates can get really, really big. Add lots of fruit and you’ve got a surprising amount of weight to support. Second, it’s best to stake your tomatoes when you first plant them; just be sure that you’re thinking about how big they’ll eventually get.

One method of staking is to make a cage out of 5-foot tall 6″ x 6″ hardware cloth. Cut a piece long enough to create a 2 foot wide cage. Bend it into a circle and secure the edges. Be sure to stake the cage into the ground so it doesn’t get blown over in the wind. Another option is to drive 8-tall stakes a foot or two into the ground and to tie the plants to the stake as they grow.

The last method we’ll talk about is a trellises. This is our favorite option and there are several ways to do it. Here’s one that I built for a client last year.

These plants (Better Boys I think) were in a very tight space, but it was really sunny and warm and the plants grew like crazy. As a matter of fact, I should have used 2″ x 4″s instead of 1″ x 2″s and I should have used a metal rod across the top because by the time we got to August the plants were so heavy with fruit that the wooden dowel was bent to the breaking point. In spite of its limitations this trellis worked great and my client harvested an unbelievable amount of fruit.

The list could go on and if you’re interested search the web where there are lots of clever staking systems. One thing you shouldn’t bother with are commercial wire cages. They are too short and will not be able to support a mature plant that’s loaded with fruit.

To prune or not to prune indeterminates? Again, there are lots of opinions about this. My client never bothered and I can’t say it was a bad choice. Still, when I grow my tomatoes I always remove any leaves or stems from the bottom few inches of the plants to keep them disease-free (water can splash fungus spores up onto low-growing leaves) and I remove suckers early on so that there are only two or three main stems. After that I remove enough of them to keep the plants somewhat controlled and to ensure good air circulation. Plants need leaves for photosynthesis so don’t take off too many. It’s a little bit of an art and you’ll just have to get in there and develop your technique.

The stem growing out of the crook is a sucker.

Small, thin suckers like this one can be pinched out; larger ones should be cut with clippers. Make sure that your clippers are disinfected before you prune your plants and clean them when you move to the next plant to avoid transferring disease from plant to plant. If you’ve previously had blight, it’s probably best not to prune your plants, as cuts might leave the plant open to infection.

Finally, tomatoes need full sun, fertile soil with lots of organic matter dug in, organic fertilizer (fish emulsion and seaweed extract or Stress-X will make your plants happy) and regular deep watering.

Then just sit back and enjoy those delicious red, ripe beauties.

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Irvine, California

The second pair of hummingbird babies that our Mama Bird has hatched this year.

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Block Island, Rhode Island

Irvine, California

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Our gardens are starting to take off this month and we’re really excited to see how it’s all going to come together as our plants begin to fill out. Don’t forget to make notes in your journal about what you’re doing. (Where did I put that journal???)

Water and Weed

  • It’s been hot and dry lately on Block Island (and will be soon in SoCal) so make sure plants have enough water and plenty of mulch. Mulch will slow water evaporation, keep weeds down, and keep soil temps more consistent; all of which will make your plants happy and less stressed.
  • Keep ahead of the weeds. Removing them before they have a chance to set seed or spread too far will make your job easier later in the season. Weeds consume resources that should be going to the plants you want to grow.
  • In heavy clay soil it’s so much easier to weed right after you water.

Feed and Prune

  • Roses should be fed with an organic fertilizer like Rose-tone or fish emulsion. Kellogg also has a good organic fertilizer for roses. (In SoCal it’s rose slug season again. If your leaves are beginning to look like skeletons, it’s a good bet that these little buggers are feasting. Spray with spinosad to get rid of them, but be sure to do it in the early morning when the wind is calm and before the bees and other beneficial insects are out and about. Here are links to posts about rose slugs and spinosad.)
  • Feed fuchsias, camellias, ferns, tropicals, and all your other annuals and perennials.
  • Take care of your container plants, including succulents, by keeping them well watered and fed with a light solution of fish emulsion.
  • Deadhead flowers to encourage new growth. The first spring flush is just about done for a lot for plants, but you can keep many of them going by snipping off the dead blossoms. Feed them a light solution of fish emulsion when you’re done.
  • Deadhead lilacs after they bloom so they won’t spend their energy producing seed heads. (Give me a moment to mourn lilacs and peonies — two favorites that don’t grow in SoCal. Miss them so!)
  • Pinch asters, chrysanthemums, and Montauk daisies back to encourage bushier plants and more flowers for the fall.
  • Pinch off growing tips of fuchsias for bushier plants.
  • Divide iris every 3 years after they bloom. Make new beds for your extras or offer them to gardener friends. I’ve had fun leaving extra plants on my curb with a sign telling folks to help themselves. Some have even brought me plants in exchange.
  • Cut lavender blooms in the morning while the aromatic oils are the strongest.
  • Tie up clematis during their growth surges, the new growth is fragile and will break off in the wind.
  • Feed staghorn ferns by tucking a banana peel behind the fronds every couple of weeks, or drench with diluted fish emulsion (per package directions).

Fruit, Herbs and Vegetables

  • Feed citrus and avocado; both are heavy feeders. Use a good organic fertilizer formulated especially for these trees and follow package directions.
  • Stake or cage tomato plants. Keep tying them up as they grow.
  • Plant herbs and summer vegetables and side-dress with a good organic compost.
  • Make sure your plants are getting enough water and mulch them well. Drip irrigation works especially well in the vegetable garden.

When planting or transplanting Mary Beth and I have had great success in reducing or eliminating plant shock by watering with a diluted solution of 1 tbs fish emulsion + 1 tsp Stress-X, or 1 tbs kelp/seaweed extract to a gallon of water.

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Block Island, Rhode Island

Irvine, California

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