So many communication options....my choices, and a request for feedback

It feels like a good time to share how I am currently communicating, as well as receiving and responding to questions and comments. 

As some of you know, I once used Weebly as a blogging platform, with the website name nctomatoman, from September 2009 until December 2015..that was my switch date to this new website, created by my daughter Sara and hosted by Squarespace. (I had a second site on Wix briefly, which ended because it seemed overkill, and confusing). When I think that there are 6 years worth of blog entries of my gardens from 2010 to 2015 sitting on my old Weebly site, my to do list does include mining them for good information to share with you - at some point!

I am trying to blog at least every two weeks. During the height of gardening season - meaning now - it could be more frequent, depending upon time, energy levels and excitement levels of discoveries that feel share-worthy.

I've done a newsletter a few times a year since Epic Tomatoes came out, but am considering ending that and finding ways to enhance this website to make news events easier to find....the newsletter mailing list is really important to me, and we will use that to ensure anyone not aware of this blog will be. Definitely some work in progress and things to ponder.

Email remains my communication method of choice for quick interactions and responses. As many of you know, if you ask a question, you will get an answer - hopefully within 24 hours. If you take the time to contact, me, you deserve a quick response...that's just how I like to do things. Feel free to drop an email to me at nctomatoman@gmail.com any time!

Aside from this website - which has my blog (which you are reading), book info, my upcoming events, info about the Dwarf tomato project and some instructional videos, I've gotten into the habit of using Facebook to post a garden picture of the day. I am actually using Facebook two ways, which often overlap - my personal page is increasingly populated by gardening info, and my author page is primarily where I post my blog. I realize some of you ask questions on my author page, and I try to check that out regularly...sending a question to my email address nctomatoman@gmail.com will always get quicker and more regular attention. Facebook Messenger is another way I am touching base with some of you. Finally, I hope to do more and more Facebook Live videos - they seem to stimulate your questions, which I can answer in a follow up blog.

I use Twitter far less, primarily to tweet out a link to my blog, for upcoming events, along with an occasional picture. Instagram is finding more use now that there is so much happening in the garden - I will often post multiple pictures per day and enjoy reading your comments. 

For convenience, my Facebook Personal Page and Facebook Author Page are hot linked. My handle on both Twitter and Instagram is @nctomatoman. 

My question to you who are reading this blog - is there anything you would like to see me do more - or less - of? I love to share my gardening experiences with you all, as well as learn from the information that you share with me.  How is it going?

Back deck geranium

Back deck geranium

A Midsummer report - Progress From the Driveway

The daily garden grind is in full swing. The list is pretty typical - on any given day the tasks involve watering, feeding, tying, pruning, spraying, troubleshooting, harvesting, seed saving....and of course, fretting! Each day brings something new; today it was the disappearance of quite a bit off of the top of one of my dwarf tomatoes, courtesy of a huge tomato horn worm. 

Back of the driveway

Back of the driveway

Front of the driveway garden

Front of the driveway garden

 

On balance, I am pretty pleased with how things are going, yet there are some trouble signs. Keeping up with removal of lower infected foliage is going better than last year. The plants seem to be appreciating larger containers (the indeterminate varieties) and more spacing (especially the dwarf tomatoes). Fruit set is uneven; the dwarfs are setting very well, but the indeterminate tomatoes are struggling...and blossom end rot is rearing its head. It is clear that even the driveway area receives less direct sun than is optimal; I believe this is impacting fruit set on the larger fruited varieties.

As far as trouble....I've lost a few varieties to disease, and this could be my most challenging experience with peppers due to my first widespread infection of bacterial spot. A few tomato plants in straw bales are showing a baffling mid day wilt. Tomato spotted wilt may be appearing on a few tomatoes that I really don't want to lose.

On to some specifics, by crop type.

Eggplants - I am growing only 9 plants (fewest in a long time), but they are all thriving. The three named varieties from the Orient Express dehybridization mini project are mostly true to type, and thus far, I have two plants that fit my objective for Skinny Twilight (my first eggplant, one from each plant with many more to come), one for Midnight Lightning (the second is just a bit off), with Twilight Lightning about to set fruit. Work to reselect Mardi Gras (a novel lavender streaked, green eggplant out of a Casper X unknown cross) looks promising as well with the desired target fruit showing up on one of the plants, and the second now in blossom. All plants are healthy. Overall grade for eggplants is an A. below are, left to right, Mardi Gras, Midnight Lightning and Skinny Twilight.

Peppers - These make me pretty sad to look at. Bacterial spot showed up early, and despite applications of copper spray, it is possible that most will be severely affected. One Fire Opal in a Gardeners Supply planter is doing very well. All of the super hot peppers are struggling.  I will likely not achieve much progress in the Islander dehybridization project varieties - Carolina Amethyst, Fire Opal, White Gold, and Royal Purple are those I am growing, with less than stunning results. Overall grade for peppers is a C. 

Indeterminate tomatoes - It's funny how things turn out. Last year I squeezed large fruited varieties like Cherokee Purple into 5 gallon grow bags, crowded them in and they did fine. This year I've provided 10 gallon pots, more room - and results are all over the place. Unexplained wilt (retaining green foliage) is hitting three plants in straw bales - Egg Yolk, Sun Gold and Little Lucky. A friend thinks it could be an early indication of verticillium or fusarium wilt...we shall see. One plant in a bale - Violet Jasper - went down quickly to what looked to be bacterial wilt. A number of plants in the 10 gallon pots - Mama's Huge Orange, Anna's Kentucky, Abraham Brown and Brandywine - have top growth on a few stems that look suspiciously like tomato spotted wilt. But there is good news as well - Mexico Midget, Amethyst Cream, Swokla Heart, Green Giant, the two Cherokee Chocolate and the two Cherokee Purple and Cherokee Green all look great, as does Uncle Joe, Lucky Cross and Lillian's Yellow, in terms of plant health. Issues with BER - and blossom drop - are hitting some of the healthy plants, however. Green Giant, Brandywine, Anna's Kentucky and Lillian's Yellow are struggling to set fruit, and when they do, BER soon follows. Again - a bit of a mystery, and I suspect tied to weather and amount of direct sun exposure. So - a mixed bag, and overall, a B grade.

Dwarf tomatoes - So far so good - excellent fruit set, very good to excellent health, and more than a few pleasant surprises coming along from some of my recent, newer crosses. Only one went down to disease, a Worry offspring that never did look particularly happy.  The various variegated dwarfs all look good, very attractive plants, setting fruit well. The odd yellow leaf goal in the Scotty cross are pretty strange; more about them in the future. Those varieties bred to show anthocyanin expression in the fruit are for the most part doing so. Overall, they grade out as A to A-, with the denser varieties showing the expected issues with early blight and/or septoria leaf spot.  Below are harvested fruit, whole and cut, from a Speckly selection, Reddy selection, Sandy selection and another Speckly selection. They were all very tasty!

It is hard to compress all that is happening into a single blog report, but I think you get the idea. This really is the most action packed part of the process - when the tending and culture and care intersect with harvest and seed saving and cooking, there simply aren't enough hours in the day. There will be much more to come!

 

 

General Update - and answers to some recently asked questions

The Burlington VT/Sunset Lake NH trip is over, but in no way forgotten. Speaking at Mother Earth News was fun - thanks to my audience members for coming to hear me talk tomatoes and straw bale and container gardening. It was wonderful to reconnect with friends - Carleen and the Storey gang, fellow authors Shawna, Melissa, Ira and Pam, to name but a few. Aside from the Fair, this trip will be about great pizza and beer and biking and a totally unexpected Diana Krall concert in Burlington, and a few days listening to loons and Kayaking at a cute tiny house location on Sunset Lake (also the biggest ice cream cone in history at Alton Bay).

Here are a few pics from our trip

 

Our neighbors Kim and Tom took splendid care of the garden...it is so, so difficult to leave a vigorously growing, much loved garden in early June. All is well! At this point, it is about regular watering, regular feeding, removing lower diseased foliage, and pruning. I am also starting to do a very few crosses...more on that in a future blog. The main issue is bacterial spot on pepper plants, the origin (and widespread nature) of which is a complete mystery. I've had just a few seedling deaths to what appears to be bacterial wilt (again, origin of which is a mystery). Oddly, one Sun Gold plant in a bale is starting to wilt. Issues in a garden seem to random!

I put a brief video update on my Facebook author page yesterday, which raised some good questions - which are listed below, along with some answers.

Rose asks "Craig, do you like the plastic bags? We have that tomato disease again in the beds--wilt? If so, what size and where did you get them! Thanks"

Answer:  I love the plastic grow bags, which I get from Peaceful Valley mail order. They are inexpensive, last for years, have bottom holes - perfect for my needs.

Daryl asks "Do you find that you have more disease with the tomatoes staked closely together around the center pot? We've had rain nearly every afternoon and I've been picking off so much foliage that the plants are going to be sans leaves before too much longer."

Answer: Crowding plants always seems to cause issues. Last year I had four containers around a central large pot - too many. This year I am going with one (10 gallon pot indeterminate), two (released dwarfs I need seed from), or three (R&D dwarfs that I am less concerned re yield). Still, foliage on the back of the plants - away from the sun - is always first to get spotting from the fungal issues Early Blight and/or Septoria. The more room you give tomatoes, the more sun and air flow completely around the plants, the more lower foliage issues can be minimized.

David asks "Compare results on tomatoes of straw bales vs black plastic?"

Answer: From my experience, equivalent yields can be achieved whether in pots, bales or a traditional dirt garden.  It becomes more about how you care for them - the containers right-sized for the varieties and fed more frequently than ground-grown tomatoes. For bales, there is plenty of root room for two plants - so, again, keeping up with watering and feeding is critical. But a Cherokee Purple in the ground, 10 gallon minimum container, or straw bale can each yield 20 lbs of tomatoes per plant if happy.

Jim asks "Question, do u pinch off the suckers on all your tomato plants or just leave then on?"

Answer:  It depends!  I don't sucker cherry tomatoes because I want lots and the plants seem to be able to handle such productivity - I just let it all grow and use twine to loop the plant around the stake every 6-12 inches vertically up the stake. For indeterminate large fruited types, my plan is to top the growing leads when they get to the top of the stake. As far as how many suckers I let go, it depends upon fruit set on the clusters. If I can get 2 or 3 or 4 tomatoes to get per cluster, I would aim to let 3-4 suckers develop - giving me 4-5 fruiting stems. If I can get 2-3 clusters to fruit on each stem before topped, that would be a range of 16 to 30 tomatoes per plant - if the ave fruit size is 12 oz, that is 12-20 pounds of fruit or more per plant, which would make me happy in this challenging climate. The key is then to remove suckers regularly...they appear each night, it seems! 

Garden color

Garden color

Tomato blossom reaching for the sun

Tomato blossom reaching for the sun

 

 

Deep into "maintaining the garden" mode...the heart of the seasonal journey

We are having one of those days that I love. It rained over night, which meant no need to water. Throughout the day, clouds gather, a gentle rain falls, the sun comes out...rinse, repeat - over and over again. While the humidity is high, the temperatures are moderate, so lots can get done.

Today was pruning and tying day, and also offered a chance to take stock on progress. The news is largely very good, but as with all gardens and all seasons, there is a spark of sadness here and there. I wonder how many of you find gardening to be as emotional as I do?

As of early afternoon, all plants are appropriately tied to their supporting stakes. All damaged foliage has been removed. All plants have been assessed and graded, and the information now resides in my seasonal Excel spreadsheet that represents my garden log. The first ripe tomato awaits consumption on our kitchen counter; it is an early set fruit on one of our dwarf cherry tomato candidates in the Teensy line.

We are off later this week to Burlington, Vermont, for my speaking appearances at the Mother Earth News Fair, taking on a few days vacation on either end (it is so, so hard to leave the garden at this time of year, but it will be in the capable hands of neighbors for watering).

Mocha says "hello" - she spends most days with me while I work in my driveway garden...and will be celebrating her 13th birthday soon!

Mocha says "hello" - she spends most days with me while I work in my driveway garden...and will be celebrating her 13th birthday soon!

I can now proclaim that - finally! - the 2017 garden is planted!

Today saw the placement of the last two tomatoes on my grow list for the year. The first plants went in on May 1. So the span of planting was 24 days....now that's what I call gradual! It is also atypical for me, but a testament to a pretty busy, complicated spring - the intersection of travel associated with speaking engagements, the annual seedling sales, and planting of the garden. 

Garden - view from the street side

Garden - view from the street side

This year's garden is a departure from recent gardens in two significant parameters - less plants, and more spacing. It is also loaded with mini-projects and mysteries. Upcoming blogs will discuss each of the projects and all of the progress, delights, and frustrations along the way (all inevitable). 

To keep this particular blog short, let's cut to the chase....the statistics.

I am growing a total of 131 plants in containers of various sizes, with a few straw bales thrown in. Of that total, 91 are tomato plants, 32 are peppers, and 8 are eggplant.

The garden is in my driveway (of course!), and contains 6 straw bales and 3 special self watering planters sent to me for trial by Gardener Supply Company. Along with the plants along the driveway edge, the layout consists of 9 rows of plants with adequate space for easy observing and watering, and sun and air exposure.

Most of the plants are in 5 gallon plastic grow bags; a few are in one gallon plastic pots, and some special tomatoes being grown for maximum yield are in 10 gallon plastic pots.

Among the mini projects are:  Eggplant - further work on the dehybridization of Orient Express (testing the three main named varieties), and further work on the variety I named Mardi Gras.  Peppers - further work on the dehybridization of Islander (testing the four named varieties), as well as my named ornamental hot peppers Gemstone and Bouquet, and some super hot peppers from saved seed.

The tomato mini-projects are: a small number of newly obtained family heirlooms, a selection of our favorite eating varieties, a grow out of the most recently released dwarf varieties from our project, and lots of early generation work on dwarf offspring of my newer, wilder crosses, including chartreuse, yellow, carrot like and variegated foliage - as well as paste and cherry sized offspring.

There will be so much to show and discuss - I can't wait!

Garden from behind

Garden from behind

I'm just loving all of this right now....

Transplanting?  Check (I transplanted a few dozen Cherokee Purples just today)

Planting?  Check (just ask my lower back!  Update on what I've planted and what remains, when you read on below....)

Driveway garden beginning to take shape

Driveway garden beginning to take shape

 

Driveway tomato conversations with seedling customers?  Check! (Just a few weeks remain - and I am so grateful to my annual tomato friends)

Events?  Big Check! (lots of week end travel, lots of wonderful hosting by some superbly nice people, lots of engaged, interesting, energizing audiences).

Writing?  whoops (too much of all of the above - leading to spaces between blog and overdue work on the next book)

It really doesn't get any better for avid gardeners. Spring is simply where it's at. For those who like to flit about from one activity to another, it's perfect. So much happens each day - whether watching seeds germinate, planting seedlings, or monitoring them for progress and growth. The weather is often perfect, the bird songs plentiful.

Here are the news items....

I've got a few more speaking engagements, including White Flower Farm in Connecticut on Friday, and the NC Museum of History on Saturday. After that comes the Mother Earth News Fair in Burlington Vermont. And after that comes a bit of a sigh - it's been a delightfully busy winter and spring. I am now turning my efforts to setting up events for 2018.

The 2017 seedling sales are drawing to a close, and will culminate in PlantaPalooza in Durham on May 27, when I hope to find homes for what remains. Stay tuned for details. This was a smaller effort than previous springs, and I expect the decline to continue each year as I work to free myself up to do more traveling about with Sue. Thanks to all who support my tiny enterprise!

About 75% of the garden is planted - I am listing the varieties on my Facebook Book Page in a series of posts. In the next blog, I will begin to discuss the varieties and reasons behind growing them. Though I will be growing less than half of a typical summer, my strategy is to maximize yield and performance. As always, the plants represent numerous projects, including taking the Dwarf Tomato Breeding project into some unusual directions.

Now, if I can only avoid trying to do too much at one time and putting my lower back out of commission for a few days!

Indeterminate tomatoes in 10 gallon containers

Indeterminate tomatoes in 10 gallon containers

The first seedlings are planted - the 2017 garden is now underway

The days are really flying by now, as I juggle speaking engagements, social networking/blogging/email questions, seedling sales and getting our own garden underway. We are off to Washington DC tomorrow, then on to Baltimore - for two speaking engagements (Friday at the US Botanical Garden, and Saturday for the Horticultural Society of Maryland). I really wanted to get a few things planted.....and I did!

As I've said previously, this is going to be a much smaller garden than usual (meaning less containers/straw bales). Lack of time and a varied approach (less plants, more spacing, more attention on each plant - particularly in better pruning and topping) really left me no options but for something less complex and ambitious.

I am testing the Gardeners Supply Company Gardener's Revolution Classic Tomato Garden Kit, and have two of them planted so far (on May 1 - one with 2 dwarf tomatoes....Dwarf Sweet Sue and Dwarf Caitydid - and one with a sweet pepper (Fire Opal) and eggplant (Skinny Twilight)...the third will hold two Determinate tomatoes, which aren't quite ready for planting yet).

Today I dug into the Supersod Big Yellow Cube of planting mix (their Soil 3 product), added a bit of composted cow manure and filled 11 large containers for indeterminate tomatoes. I also began treating half a dozen straw bales - I am going to plant indeterminate tomatoes in them as well.

Once I get back, the rest of the planting will resume Monday - 5 gallon grow bags and pots with peppers, eggplants and dwarf tomatoes. There will be 60 varieties (maybe a few more, depending upon spacing and room) in all. I will blog my complete grow list next week.

I will have seedlings until the last week of May, so if you've not emailed me for a list, or scheduled a drop by; this is THE time!

This is one of those memorable moments - my appearance on the gardening show Growing a Greener World

I've known it was coming for nearly a year. My growing friendship with Joe Lamp'l started with a chance meeting in 2015 at the Northwest Flower and Garden Show. We really got to know each other a bit at the Seed Savers Exchange Campout in July. A few podcasts followed, then several filming trips in my garden (which of course means our driveway). 

Finally - Joe and I had chats recently indicating it was time - the segment was complete, and ready to air on PBS stations around the country on the morning of Saturday April 29. Joe sent me the link on Friday night; Sue and I watched it - and we are so pleased with the outcome; superb camera work by Carl, such kind and thoughtful editing and handling by Joe and his staff.  It is something that will create an indelible, positive memory for me.

The episode can be watched here.

....the blur that is my April

Though April has been a very busy month, I've not had much time to pause, reflect, blog (and rest!). This is not a complaint - it is actually a joy. Somehow, in parallel, I've had the privilege of participating in some thoroughly enjoyable events at some amazing venues.....had a really successful and interesting seed starting and transplanting experience.....met many old and some new friends in seedling transactions in my driveway. What I've yet to do is plant my own garden - but that starts today. Needless to say, work on my third book - focusing on our Dwarf Tomato Breeding project - is on the back burner. 

April has been workshops at the Well Fed Community Garden in Raleigh, Huntsville Botanical Garden, Pittsburgh Botanic Garden, and Moore Farms Botanical Garden, and this coming Saturday, at Atlantic Gardening Company (two free workshops on tomatoes - at 10 AM and 1 PM). It has been planting and transplanting and planning. It saw the beginning of annual seedling sales from my driveway (which will continue through mid May - email me for a list if you are close by!). I've had an interview or two, gardening phone calls, and asked to be on Mike Nowak's morning gardening radio show out of Chicago - and invited back to Niki Jabbour's radio show in May. It is planning for what lies ahead in May - workshops at the US Botanical Garden in Washington DC, in Baltimore, at White Flower Farm in Connecticut, and at the Raleigh History Museum.

 

I am just a few minutes from a visit from Joe Lamp'l (Growing a Greener World TV show) for a final chat before the airing of the episode on my tomato efforts - broadcast nationally (this Saturday from what I understand - watch for details on my Facebook page and Twitter feed and an update to this blog). 

April saw the flowering trees, shrubs and bulbs so confused by our unusual weather burst quickly into bloom - we watch our flower gardens daily to see our perennials begin to emerge and bud. The elephant and standard garlic are up and growing well, and we are enjoying the lettuce, chard, beets and arugula planted out last October. We had a wonderful visit from our Texas living daughter Caitlin, and our Seattle girl, Sara, heads home tomorrow. 

 

It has been an exciting, somewhat breathless, memorable month. Spring is my favorite season, and this has been one of my favorite springs. And so - on to more trips, planning, planting (finally!), delightful reunions with gardening friends. We've had some challenging gardening seasons, and there is no doubt the one to come will bring its own particular challenges.  Let's face them together and have a great year in our gardens.

Blogging from Pittsburgh - my most requested presentation slide - the "favorites" list!

I can't remember such a fun (or busy!) spring - zipping about here and there, my latest event - last evening at the Pittsburgh Botanical Garden - provided once again a wonderful opportunity to be inspired by and learn from a warm and welcoming audience of fellow tomato lovers.

"Who loves tomatoes?"

"Who loves tomatoes?"

I like to vary my presentation so that it fits each location, each audience - working beforehand to understand the particular challenges faced by audience members.  It is really an enjoyable challenge, and builds my own capabilities and understanding of tomato success.

There is one slide that remains pretty constant, however - my current "favorite varieties" list. It therefore seemed a good time to simply post it in this blog - I will expand a bit to offer my reasons why.  OK - here goes...

  • Cherokee Purple - combination of performance, flavor, beauty - and my luck in getting to name it!
  • Lucky Cross (or Little Lucky – both great!) - the only big yellow/red bicolors I enjoy eating because they takes like its mother, Brandywine! This is also the first variety that I collaboratively created, starting from a surprise bee-made cross (Larry Bohs of NC was my partner in crime on these)
  • Cherokee Chocolate - first mutation I found, equal to Cherokee Purple in every way except skin color (this one has yellow skin, Cherokee Purple clear). One of "tomorrow's heirlooms", born in 1995.
  • Cherokee Green - another surprise - a flesh color flip out of Cherokee Chocolate, and so delicious. The amber skin is the ripeness/ready to pick indicator - born in 1997.
  • Lillian’s Yellow Heirloom - One of my top 3 (along with Cherokee Purple and Sun Gold) - spectacular in every way - incomparable flavor.
  • Green Giant - descends from Lillian's Yellow, sent to me by a German gardening friend - spectacular flavor - barely changes color when ripe. 
  • Dester - a new favorite, first sampled in a Seed Savers Exchange tomato tasting a few years ago. Looks like German Johnson, tastes like Brandywine.
  • Sun Gold - the only hybrid on my list, and one of my few "must grow every year" varieties.
  • Brandywine - perhaps the most famous heirloom tomato of all, well known since the mid 1980s - finicky and variable season to season, but when it is great, it is superb - the single greatest large tomato I've eaten is Brandywine (this is the pink potato leaf Brandywine).
  • Sweet Scarlet Dwarf - one of the very best flavored of our 70 new Dwarf Tomato Project releases - beautiful potato leaf plant, medium large scarlet red fruit that awaken your taste buds.
  • Dwarf Sweet Sue - my favorite of all of the dwarfs - so I named it after my wife!  Medium sized, bright yellow, scrumptious.
  • Dwarf Blazing Beauty - another of our dwarfs, this time rich orange juice hued, and unusual in its relatively low sugar level...this is one tart, zippy tomato.

The Dwarf varieties are found in an increasing number of seed catalogs.  Our foundation companies - those that offer the most and that we work with faithfully on releases - are Victory Seeds, Tatiana's TOMATObase, Sample Seed Shop and Heritage Seed Market.  Recently, Restoration Seeds and Fruition Seeds are jumping in big time....and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange and Sow True Seeds are ramping things up as well.

My other favorite trusted seed sources for great tomato varieties (in addition to those above) are Johnny's Selected Seeds, the Seed Savers Exchange commercial catalog, and the Tomato Growers Supply Company.  There are many great seed companies, but it is the ones noted here with whom I've developed a long time trust and friendship. Lack of a mention does not mean lack of respect or quality.

Cut samples of some of our new dwarf varieties.  Big tomatoes, big flavor, lovely colors on 3-4 foot tall plants!

Cut samples of some of our new dwarf varieties.  Big tomatoes, big flavor, lovely colors on 3-4 foot tall plants!