Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Argh! Cornstalks!

These cornstalks didn't produce many ears, but they would have made a nice decoration bundled up and tied and surrounded by pumpkins.

I'm an urban farmer, devoid of acres of land, so I make do by having several gardens at different sites, one of which is in the back yard of my father-in-laws house. I had a crop of corn growing that just didn't materialize. The growth was stunted, and the ears were just not good enough to pick. Sad, but it happens sometimes. I was ready to clear them out and had a thought. Why not bundle them up and save them to give away as Halloween and autumn decorations. It's hard to find bundles of dried cornstalks here in the city. So, I bundled them up with twine by size. I had some very cute bundles ranging in size from 2 to 6 feet tall. They still had some small ears of corn on them that I thought would look nice once everything dried out. I thought the smaller bundles would make nice centerpieces for the holiday table. I left them out to dry and decided to go over and take some pictures of them today.

Imagine my disappointment when I found they were gone! Every one of them. Did someone come by and take them? I'm still shaking my head in disappointment. Now, I can't even post a picture to remember them by.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

An Experiment: Worm Composting in Pots

These black nursery pots are serving two purposes: 1) they raise the lettuce planters off the ground making them easier to work, and 2) they are worm composting bins!

This is my newest experiment. I got this idea from another experiment when I tried growing potatoes in big pots. Unfortunately, I left the potatoes in too long and by the time I turned over and emptied the pot, the potatoes were gone, but I was left with some dark soil filled with worms. At first I was disappointed that my potato experiment failed, but then I realized as I dumped the soil and the worms into a planter box, that hey, there is a silver lining here.

So, I decided to expand on my idea and filled some of these big pots with mulch and garden scraps. Instead of putting the debris into my compost pile, I put some of the damaged cukes, bruised berries and other waste into the pots with the mulch. Then I topped the pots with planters of lettuce. When I water the lettuce, the water drains into the pot, the worms come up from the ground and have a party in the pot. I'll just keep adding vegetable waste to the mulch in the pots to make sure the party continues, and hopefully in a few months, I'll have not only nice big buckets of worm castings, but a ton of worms to go along with them.

The other benefit of this is that the lettuce is easier to harvest since it's off the ground and it's easier to keep them away from some of the night crawling insects.

I'll let you know later how this experiment turns out...

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Everything I know about tomatoes

I am a long way from being an expert on growing tomatoes, but I have experimented quite a bit over the past few years, and thought I'd share what I've learned. Some of what I do might pertain to my soil and weather, so take whatever I say not as fact, but as opinion.

Basically, the three most important points are:
1) Prepare the soil
2) Choose tomato varieties that do best in your location
3) Plant them at the right time of year

The way I prepare the soil, whether it's heavy clay, loam or sand, is to dig a nice deep hole, at least 1 foot deep, and 1 foot wide. Even deeper is better. It won't hurt to add some organic mulch and work it into the soil. The mulch will loosen up clay soil, and add water retention to sandy soil. Leave at least 18 inches between plants. If I had the luxury of more room, I'd give them 3 feet between plants. Add a couple of shovelfuls of composted steer manure. What I do with steer manure, is buy it from the store in bags and let the bags sit for a couple of months before I use it. Sometimes when you by it from the store, the bag is still warm to the touch which means it's still hot and very smelly. After a few months of letting it sit, it mellows out and smells earthy. Don't use hot manure or it could burn the roots of your seedlings. Work the steer manure nicely into the soil, then add a handful of tomato and vegetable food (I've used EB Stone Organics and Plant Tone), a handful of bone meal and a handful of Epsom salts. The Epsom salts are a natural mineral and adds magnesium to the soil. I'm not too scientific about amounts. A handful to me is probably about 1/2 cup.

This will take some research on your part. I've been planting several varieties and keeping notes of what grows best for me. If you are in an area where the summer is short, then choose a tomato with a short maturation time, if you have a long season, then you can choose just about any tomato variety. If you are going to buy your seedlings from the local garden center, they will have the varieties that grow best in your area, but the selection will be limited. If you grow from seed, the variety is enormous and you can have a lot of fun trying out new ones every year. Check out my blog on "Best tomatoes of 2008" to find out which ones I'll definitely grow again next year. By the way, I am very fortunate to live in the temperate climate of Southern California with a long growing season.

This also depends on where you live and what your weather is like. Basically, don't plant tomatoes between late September and February unless you have a heated greenhouse. You'll be wasting your time. Even with that, it's risky to plant in March. Tomatoes need night temperatures of at least 55 degrees. Below 55 degrees, you might get some flowers, but you won't see any tomatoes develop from them. The exception is if you grow a cold season tomato like Sub Arctic or Stupice, which I think still need a minimum temperature of 50 degrees. Of course, you can still try if you want, but don't expect a lot of tomatoes. Remember that just because they have tomato plants for sale at your garden center, it doesn't mean it's still the season to grow them. It could depend on the microclimate you have in your particular area. In general, I start tomatoes three times a year. The first set goes in the ground in late March, the second set around June and the third in August. I start harvesting tomatoes in May and it continues into late October.


* Plant that seedling deep. Remove all the lower leaves below the top 3 and plant that baby deep. Roots will grow all along the buried stem and make the plant stronger.

* Stick a long 7 to 8 foot bamboo pole in next to the plant when you plant it and train the plant up the pole by tying it up as it grows. Use something soft and stretchy like fabric strips or just tie it loosely with twine. Don't bother with those cheap 3 foot wire tomato supports. They're only good for very small plants.

* Prune off the suckers. Do this so the plant doesn't become an out of control monster. It'll be easier to stake and you'll get bigger tomatoes too. Prune off the shoots that might pop up at the base of the plant too. Or you can save those shoots and plant them somewhere else.

* As the season goes on and the bottom leaves start yellowing, pull them off to slow down the spread of late blight.

I've experimented with many things like soaking the roots in seaweed emulsion before planting, fertilizing with fish emulsion, spraying with BT (a natural bacteria) to control tomato worms, using a fungicide to prevent blight, even using compost tea and foliar feeding with worm tea. But to be honest, I just didn't see where the expense and effort paid off. If it did, the benefit was so incremental, that I couldn't tell. Therefore, I found that if I just followed my basic 3 steps of 1) preparing the soil, 2) choosing the right varieties and 3) growing it at the right time, I could get a decent harvest. Sure some plants will not make it through the whole season, so that's why I plant more than I need and have enough to share...

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Favorite Tomatoes of 2008

I could kick myself for not taking photos during the peak of season. These are end of season tomatoes, clockwise from top: Kellogg's Breakfast, Aunt Ruby's German, Big Beef, Carbon

I've been trying out new varieties in the garden each year trying to hone in on my favorites, and so far, here is the hit list. These are the tomatoes I'll definitely grow next year, chosen based on flavor:

1. Big Beef (Park Seed) I grew these tomatoes in different plots with different soils, and compared to other tomatoes, it preformed the best. The tomatoes are a rich red, the skin has a beautiful complexion and the meat is juicy and flavorful. Very good yield.

2. Carbon (Tomatofest) - This is a pretty dark red/purple tomato with dark green on the top. The flavor is rich and complex.

3. Aunt Ruby's German (Tomatofest) - The color of this tomato is dark yellow/green, and inside bright green. Very unusual. The flavor is spicy and rich.

4. Kellogg's Breakfast (Tomatofest) - A huge, bright yellow beefsteak tomato. Juicy and sweet. A meal in itself.

Other varieties I grew this year: Stupice, Paul Robeson, Clint Eastwood Rowdy Red, Brandywine OTV, Rutgers, Pomodoro, Black Cherry, Black Crim, Black Prince, Lime Green Salad, Eva Purple Bell, Japanese Black Trifele, Slava, Beefsteak, Ruth's Perfect, Aussie and Subarctic (in progress).

The cherry tomatoes I grew: Sungold, Sunsweet, Supersweet 100, Red Currant, Isis Cherry, Hawaiian Currant, Blondkopf Cherry, Honeybunch.

Of the cherries, I liked Sungold, Red Currant, Supersweet 100, Honeybunch and Isis Cherry.

I'll post later about how I grow tomatoes.

I always look forward to a tomato sandwich for lunch after working in the fields. I take my pick of the day from my tomato harvest, slice it up and eat it on toasted sheepherders or sourdough bread with a slice of provolone, some mayo and mustard. Good eating.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Three best crops of summer 2008

There are 3 things growing on the farm this summer that I am very happy about. I can't wait for next year to grow them again:

1. Ambrosia Melon - WOW. People who tried it said "Amazing". The foliage grew like crazy, the yield, prolific, and the melons were big, sweet and juicy. The seed came from Thompson and Morgan.

2. Big Beef Tomato - Want a perfect looking, juicy, flavorful tomato on a disease resistant plant? Think Big Beef. It's now my absolute favorite tomato. Oh, and high yields. What's there to complain about? Seeds were from Park Seed.

3. Rattlesnake Pole Beans - A friend of mine gave me these seeds and he got it from another friend. They are the BEST pole beans I've ever had and my mouth is watering just thinking about them. I'm not even sure I've got the name right. I did a search on the internet and the Rattlesnake Pole Bean was the closest match. These green pole beans have a purple marking when fresh, but turn all green when cooked. They are tender and soooooo delicious. I boil them and serve them with a dressing of mayo and a dash of soy sauce. Because of their coloring, they are easy to see when you harvest, and also, they pull right off the vine with one hand. I can't wait for next year to start a new crop. Check this link for a picture of the bean. http://www.humeseeds.com/beanrtl.htm

Thursday, September 18, 2008

I'm Susie!

Welcome to my blog. I'm Susie, and actually I'm a wannabe farmgirl. I grew up in the big city of Los Angeles, California, but I'm sure I was meant to be on a farm. I'm hoping one day to have a real one, with a huge vegetable garden, chickens and maybe even a llama. Who knows? Meanwhile, I'm starting this blog to dream about it.

I'm an avid vegetable gardener (no...I mean FARMER) interested in urban sustainable living, who loves, loves, loves animals, especially my cat Dusty, and just recently dove into the world of creative crochet. I've decided to try creating my virtual farm world in yarn.