Loving straw bale gardening more and more....the latest happenings

 View of the driveway garden on a cool, rainy July 7 morning

View of the driveway garden on a cool, rainy July 7 morning

What's not to love about straw bale gardening (assuming you can locate persistent herbicide-free bales at a decent price)? It removes the cost or preparation efforts of the planting medium used in copious quantities in container gardening. It provides a (theoretically) disease-free starting point. You can place them where the sun shines best. You can grow pretty much anything in them.

This is year 4 of my integration of straw bale gardening into my overall driveway lay out. Year 1 was the toe-in-the-water test in preparation for writing my book, with a focus on tomatoes, peppers and eggplants; year 2 was the big expansion into greens, herbs, squash, melons, beans, carrots, cukes, radishes, beets and potatoes, as well as tomatoes, completing my education sufficiently to finish the book. Year 3 was a bit of a pull back to exclusively tomatoes. The main things learned those first three years - that my side garden no longer worked for me (many of the bales were in there for year 2) due to significantly reduced sun and increased critter damage; that use of pre-started seedlings worked easily and superbly, but direct seeded crops needed some careful thinking (this was especially true of small seeded items like carrots, which dried and died due to insufficient attention to watering and an intense hot spell); that some crops worked better for me than others - all of which led to the selections for this season, year 4.

My 16 straw bales are all in the driveway (the side garden is now filled with a few fig trees, paw paw trees, and shrubby flowers such as butterfly bushes and beauty berries). Indeterminate tomatoes and a single basil plant in between occupy 8 of the bales, and the rest are split between dwarf tomatoes, summer squash, cucumbers, bush green beans and potatoes.

The basil and indeterminate tomatoes are largely flourishing. We've picked Cherokee Green, Cherokee Purple, Speckled Roman, Sun Gold and (later today), Egg Yolk.

 View of the edge bales with indeterminate tomatoes and a basil plant in between

View of the edge bales with indeterminate tomatoes and a basil plant in between

I have one big disappointment - Nepal has Fusarium wilt and is a goner (thinking it was seed-borne), but oddly, the neighboring Red Brandywine is (for the moment, anyway), thriving. I just purchased a product called Mycostop that will be used to use as a root zone drench for that plant, as well as a cutting of Nepal that looks good so far and is in a large container.

 Alas, poor Nepal

Alas, poor Nepal

The other main mystery is the Sun Gold tomato bale. Both plants consistently wilt in the heat, despite ample watering. The basil in between looks fine. Sun Gold didn't do well in a straw bale last year either. It is a mystery that I wish to solve; if anyone has ideas, please share them with me. Interestingly, I went out to take these pics and noted the two plants are pretty perky looking in our cool, morning rain.  Weird!

 Happier looking Sun Gold this morning, but something is clearly amiss.

Happier looking Sun Gold this morning, but something is clearly amiss.

 

The dwarf tomatoes in bales are kicking in well, at last....they were planted one month later than the indeterminate tomato bales and the seedlings were not in great shape by then, with significant early blight on most of the plants. Yet, they have all recovered and should provide a later tomato crop.

 Dwarf Tomato Project plants Dwarf Speckled Heart and Dwarf Banana Toes with basil

Dwarf Tomato Project plants Dwarf Speckled Heart and Dwarf Banana Toes with basil

The cucumber bale is pretty astounding. I am using two cone-shaped 4 foot tall tomato cages secured using two 6 foot stakes set into large pots of spent potting mix behind the bales. The plants are healthy and flowering - they were direct seeded into mounds of potting mix, and are in full flower, with many small cucumbers coming along; the variety is our favorite, Diva. The foliage is starting to show signs of mosaic virus (yellow spotting) - it seems quite inevitable here for that to happen based on years of past experience.

 Diva cukes happily taking over a bale

Diva cukes happily taking over a bale

The squash bale is remarkable - There are two "hills" of direct seeded Raven (zucchini) and Zephyr (summer squash), and I picked delicious samples from each hill at around 30 days from direct seeding. The plants are flowering and setting fruit freely, and there is no sign of mildewed foliage or effects of the vine borer. Fingers crossed!

 Raven and Zephyr summer squash

Raven and Zephyr summer squash

The bush bean bale is so promising - the plants are vigorous, healthy, and loading up with flowers and small beans; I could do a small picking today, 37 days from direct seeding. A 3 inch layer of potting mix was spread over the bale surface and bean seeds planted at 3 inch intervals in 3 rows. We've not had fresh beans in many years...this is a vegetable Sue and I love, and so are very happy with how things are looking.

 Bush Bean Jade

Bush Bean Jade

The potato bale is the iffy one, but was not really set up for success. I pre-started some small pieces of potato shared by a friend, and set the resulting tomato plants as deeply into the prepped bale as I could. It has been fearfully hot. A few of the plants are growing fairly well, and a few didn't make it. I am pondering planting some sprouting Yukon Gold into the bales in a few weeks, to see if I can grow them into the fall and hoping that cooler weather will provide some yield. The other option is to take a loss on this one, rethink my strategy for next year, and overspread the bale with potting mix...then use it to grow another bale of squash or beans.

 Partially successful potato bale

Partially successful potato bale

Considering this was to be a small or no garden summer, Sue and I are ecstatic; this is shaping up to be one of our favorite gardens. Straw bales will be a growing element of future gardens, slowly replacing containers over time. In the next blog I will feature those plants growing in my many containers - peppers, eggplants and the majority of the dwarf tomato project work that I am doing this season.  Stay tuned!

Brief update on the indeterminate tomatoes - relative height and fruit set at the two month mark

I thought that this would be interesting data to share. Two months ago, 8 straw bales were planted with seedlings for 16 indeterminate tomatoes, many of which our favorite eating varieties. Though all are indeterminate, there is distinct height variation between types. 

The tomato seedlings went into straw bales that are 18 inches tall. The supporting rear stake, after hammering into the lawn, are 7 feet tall. On each plant the central stem is typically the tallest, and are being quickly joined by suckers that were allowed to develop. All growing stems are secured to the support stake using sisal twine. Following is plant height and a bit of explanatory text, along with observations on fruit set.

Egg Yolk - 6 feet tall, loaded with fruit - excellent set. I plan to not top this plant, or prune suckers (my custom with cherry tomatoes - they are not heavy so don't bend or break the stems as they bend over at the last tie point near the top of the stake)

Speckled Roman - 4 feet tall. I would tend to call this more of a semi-determinate variety, based on my observations. Fruit set is excellent.

Polish - 5.5 feet tall, excellent fruit set for a tomato of this potential size (one pound range) and considering the heat and humidity experienced thus far. 

OTV Brandywine - 5.5 feet tall, poor lower fruit set but high hopes for upper blossoms.

Red Brandywine - 5 feet tall, excellent fruit set, just a stunning plant, lots of foliage cover to prevent sun scald.

Nepal - 4.5 feet tall, excellent fruit set, similarly excellent foliage cover.

Sun Gold - 6.5 feet tall, waving in the breeze, see decision to not prune cherries I described above with Egg Yolk. One simply can't have too many Sun Gold.

Cherokee Purple - 5 feet tall - excellent fruit set. One tomato with a touch of blossom end rot (the only one from all of the plants so far) that is coloring a bit prematurely.

Lillian's Yellow Heirloom - 4 feet tall, got off to a slower start and typically takes its time; will end up as a monster plant.  Good fruit set so far.

Cherokee Chocolate - 5.5 feet, excellent fruit set

Cherokee Green - 5.5 feet, excellent fruit set

Ferris Wheel - 5.5 feet tall, poor lower fruit set, hopes for better with upper flowers. The weather is impacting this one, which is not surprising based on past experiences.

Brandywine - 5 feet tall, and delighted to note excellent fruit set.

Lucky Cross - 4.5 feet tall, started out life as a bit of a runt but catching on well now, will be a very tall plant, flowers just now open, so no assessment of fruit set yet; will be late.

Dester - 5 feet tall, excellent fruit set.

I plan on topping growth points as they near the top of the stake, and hope to do a brief how-to video when I do so. In the past I've been terrible at following through on topping, but this year I vow to do better!

Below is a carousel of pics of all plants above, two in a pic, starting with the first two, ending with the last. Just click on each picture to advance.

A blog about dogs, and for tomato nerds (like me!)

Let's start with the dogs news. Convinced by Sue, we decided it was time to add a dog back to our menagerie. First came the marvelous Mikey - 85 lb 6 year old yellow lab, a splendid fellow, found at Peak Lab Rescue.

 Mikey on June 11 - we had a nice week with him, but it just didn't work

Mikey on June 11 - we had a nice week with him, but it just didn't work

Mikey was affectionate, loved walks, water, swimming, sprinklers - but, alas, he saw our cats as squirrels, and his super strong prey instinct meant that it was a poor fit for our family. Though we will miss him, we are sure he will have no problem finding a (cat-free) perfect fit.

Diving right back in, we are so pleased to welcome Coda (or Cody, originally Claude) into the family, also from Peak. 

 Taking a Sunday morning walk with Coda

Taking a Sunday morning walk with Coda

Coda is a year old yellow lab/??? (border collie, perhaps?) mix, around 25-30 pounds, sweet as can be. He is not at all sure about me (his former relations with men perhaps not so good?) - but loves Sam the cat, and is happy to let Pico decide when to be friends. This feels like it will work out wonderfully, and we are so happy.

Now, on to tomatoes!

I want to talk about the indeterminate tomatoes growing in straw bales, and discuss my seed source for each variety. Non-hybrid tomato seed source is really important. With so many seed savers (which is great!), and companies offering heirlooms (also great!), AND so many varieties available to choose from (the widest variety in gardening history), accurate tomato identity is critical. Many people growing variety X or Y are actually not, due to accidental crossing, mislabeling, or misidentification. This is the basis for lots of reputedly fine varieties not working out for some gardeners - they are actually not growing what they hoped to be growing. 

I am really fortunate for the timing of my tomato obsession; in the mid 1980s, just when the Seed Savers Exchange was really getting going and new heirlooms were emerging from families all over the world. Using my extensive collection of old seed catalogs and complete collection of Seed Saver Exchange yearbooks, combined with my own experience growing hundreds (thousands, more recently) of varieties, it is often easy for me to spot the mistakes. 

Given my great respect for historical accuracy, I've developed a numbering system for my seed collection that lets me track the stability of so many cherished varieties. 

Here is the list of my tomatoes, and a bit about their journey into my collection. For those who got seedlings for me, you may be interested in this information. For the rest of you, this may confirm your suspicions of how obsessed I really am!

The numbering I use, seen below, is as follows. T16-135, for example, means "tomato grown in 2016 - the saved seed in packet 135". A number such as "6204" means tomato number 6204, the list starting with 1 back in 1986; from the beginning of my seed saving work, I've used ever increasing numbering as varieties purchased or sent to me by others enter my collection.  All of my seeds are labeled with a number of one type or another. The information is cross referenced to an Excel spreadsheet which is backed up in several places!  The very first tomato in my collection is Sweet 100 hybrid, purchased from Stokes in 1986 - my list is currently at number 6393 (and I still have some to catalog in, sent by friends and dwarf project volunteers over the past few months). The very first saved tomato is T86-1, which is a volunteer paste tomato, probably Roma, that grew in my garden that year. 

Here goes!

Egg Yolk - T16-135 or T17-15 (I started some of each for seedlings, then chose one to grow). T17-15 came from T16-135, which came from T14-69, which came from T13-110, which came from 3672 - which was sent to me by the Seed Savers Exchange in 2012. You can see the direct line between the introducing seed company (SSE) and the plants I sold, and what I am growing, this year.

Speckled Roman - T15-82 is from 5234 - which was purchased from Tomato Growers Supply Company in 2015. The oldest seed I have for this variety is 1144, obtained in a SSE trade in 2001 - I grew that out in 2002. The Tomato Growers tomato looks and performs identically; they've been a reliable seed source for heirlooms for decades.

OTV Brandywine - packet from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (not numbered). Since Southern Exposure was the original company to introduce this variety, which was a collaborative breeding effort between Carolyn Male (who did the majority of the work) and I (the cross between Yellow Brandywine and ??? happened in my garden and was identified by a SSE member when seeds I sent them did not come true).

Polish - T12-21, which is from T01-45, which is from T90-08, which is from 89 - Vial 89 was sent to me by the variety discoverer, Bill Ellis of Pennsylvania, in 1988. This means that Polish growing in my garden, and in gardens of those who got plants from me, is only a few generations removed from seeds that were sent to me 30 years ago!

Nepal - T14-4 - derived from T12-23, which came from T10-5, originating with T02-39, which came from T90-7, which was saved from the seed I purchased from Johnny's Selected Seeds in 1986 - my tomato #31. Nepal is the tomato that convinced me it was time to switch from hybrids to heirlooms! 

Red Brandywine - T13-135, which came from 1887 - sent to me by my friend Darrel Jones in 2007. I sent it to Darrel some time around 2006, and first got the variety via a Seed Savers trade in 1990 with someone at the Landis Valley Museum in Pennsylvania.

Sun Gold - 1076 - This is always grown from hybrid seed. I purchased it initially from Johnny's Selected Seeds in 1987 and it has been a garden fixture ever since. I've purchased it from Pine Tree and Tomato Growers Supply in addition to Johnny's....and buy it in bulk (as in 5000 seeds at a time), which works fine - tomato seeds will last for 14 years or more just stored at a typical room temperature.

Cherokee Purple - T17-6 or 7 - Though this seems imprecise, it's fine because both 17-6 and 17-7 came from plants grown from T16-104. I went back to T02-3 for the plant that gave 16-104, which came from T91-27 - and that came from 287, the vial that held the seed sent to me by J D Green unnamed in 1990. The available plants this year are therefore only a few generations removed from the variety as sent to me. 

Cherokee Chocolate - T17-8 - This came from T16-120, which is from T03-132, which is from T95-47, the vial that holds the seeds from the original chocolate colored mutation found when planting Cherokee Purple T91-27. So once again, the plants this year are only a few generations removed from the variety I discovered in my garden 23 years ago.

Cherokee Green - packet from Tomato Growers Supply Company (no number). Cherokee Green originated in my garden in 1997 from some Cherokee Chocolate seed saved in 1996. I was the original supplier of the variety to Johnny's Selected Seeds and Tomato Grower's Supply, hence my trust of those sources. 

Ferris Wheel - T14-24 - which came from T13-9, which was from T01-50, my first grow out of seed 1107, obtained upon request from the USDA using the GRIN portal in 1999 - it is their tomato NSL 27341; they obtained it from the Salzer Seed Company (who released it in 1894) in the 1940s. This is an example of a "commercial heirloom" - a great tomato that has been around for over 100 years but was a seed company development, not a family heirloom.  

Lillian's Yellow Heirloom - T12-15 - This came from T07-9, grown from T96-60, which is from T90-14, grown from 212 - sent to me" by Robert Richardson, Seed Savers Exchange member in 1989 - and labeled at the time "Lillian's Yellow Heirloom #1". Once again, plants this year are only a few generations removed from seed sent to me 29 years ago.

Mexico Midget - T15-126 - This seed actually came from a large bag of Mexico Midget tomatoes given to me by a nearby gardening friend Chris as "windfalls" from his plant. He got his starts from me, and this tomato goes back to #251, sent to me by Barney Laman of California in 1990. I've grown it many, many times, and it is THE hardest variety to germinate.

Dester - T16-172 - this came from T15-70, which came from T12-19, my first growing of the variety from seed 3506 - this was sent to me by friends at the Seed Savers Exchange as a favor in 2012 after I got to taste it at the tomato tasting there - it blew away the competition. 

Lucky Cross - T17-21 - this came from T16-87, which is from T11-50, which is from T03-39, which is from 1327, sent to me by my PA friend Larry Davis in 2003 - I shared T01-30 with him, which came from T00-24, which I initially named Lucky Cross - this came from my co-developer friend Larry's seed 1118, which came from T99-46, which came from T98-66, the initial potato leaf, large fruited bicolor from T97-21, the F1 hybrid between Brandywine and Tad, found in seed T93-58. Lucky Cross is a really fun, complicated adventure!

Brandywine - T17-25 came from T16-106, which is from T11-60, which is from T01-5, which originated with T97-27, which came from T93-58, which came from T88-9, which came from #29 - obtained from Seed Saver member Roger Wentling of PA in 1987 - Roger obtained it directly from Ben Quisenberry - so this indeed is the real thing - and the flavor is legendary!

I confess that this blog entry is as much for me as for my readers (and especially local gardeners who have some of the above plants in their gardens) - it tells each of their stories. (you should see the power point diagrams of the family trees of many of my varieties!)

 A cluster of Cherokee Purple progressing nicely

A cluster of Cherokee Purple progressing nicely

 

 

Mid June - 45 days in - time for a garden update. And an important anniversary. And a new family member.

 Listing of Cherokee Purple in the 1994 Southern Exposure Seed Exchange catalog...it was introduced the prior year (I no longer have that catalog, sadly)

Listing of Cherokee Purple in the 1994 Southern Exposure Seed Exchange catalog...it was introduced the prior year (I no longer have that catalog, sadly)

Twenty Five years ago, the tomato Cherokee Purple made its appearance on the world stage, available to gardeners for the first time. My friend Jeff McCormack, owner of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange at the time, and recipient of seeds of the variety from me in 1991 (just after I received seeds from J. D. Green of Sevierville TN, grew them and named the variety), decided it was of sufficient uniqueness and quality to carry it in his fine catalog. I love Jeff's phrase "for the adventurous"; it reminds us all that the so-called "black" tomatoes (purple or brown due to the retention of chlorophyll after ripening, deepening the color of the flesh) were essentially unknown back then (the only one being the weird Purple Calabash). Those who were enticed by the description certainly were adventurous. Watching the variety increase yearly in availability and popularity just makes me smile. 

Above are a series of pictures that show the state of my driveway garden in mid June. The garden consists of:

  • Two edges that contain straw bales and self watering containers holding indeterminate or dwarf tomatoes and basil
  • One row of beets, chard, sorrel, variegated water celery and lettuce in large containers come next. I am using those large pots for the stakes that support a row of tomatoes in 5 gallon grow bags that reside just in front of them.
  • Next come three mixed rows with straw bales and grow bags. Up and growing well are numerous dwarf tomatoes, microdwarf tomatoes, basil, bush beans, potatoes, cucumbers and summer squash.
  • Finally come several rows of dwarf tomatoes, eggplants and peppers.

It is certainly more garden than I expected to have. I love the size and diversity, and am pleased thus far with progress.

Going very well so far are the indeterminate tomatoes in straw bales, the basil in between each pair of plants, all of the greens (though the lettuce is coming to an end), the microdwarf and dwarf tomatoes and peppers and eggplants in grow bags, the cucumbers and squash and beans.

Issues to date are a worrying portion of one of my Sun Gold plants in the bales (surgery was carried out and the remaining leaders look good), the dwarfs in the central straw bales (the plants were not in the greatest health when planted and the bale prep was rushes - we shall see), one eggplant that may have a bit of rot on the stem (I took a cutting today to root), and the usual regular removal of lower foliage blemished with early blight and/or septoria lesions. The potatoes in the central location bale are touch and go as well. 

Below is a selection of recent pics that show some of the excitement - and good eating - to come.

Finally - welcome to our new pal, Mikey - arriving on June 10, spotted by Sue on Peak Lab Rescue's website. He is 6 years old, and totally wonderful (and the cats will realize it some day soon, we hope!).

 Mikey!

Mikey!

The garden is planted - now is when the learning starts.

 May 31 - and finally everything is planted!

May 31 - and finally everything is planted!

The final total is 105 plants - 83 tomatoes, 6 eggplants, 16 peppers. Though my "least ambitious" garden in many years, it is still factors larger than I expected. The decision to not make the long spring cross country trip freed up the time to both plant and maintain a garden of this size. Sue and I are really happy about this - thoughts of a summer with little fresh produce and no opportunities to preserve a harvest were not pleasant. 

These are just a few of the things I hope to learn from my 2018 garden.

  • The true potential of indeterminate tomatoes in straw bales
  • Comparative tastings of so many of our flavor favorites - some we've not grown in awhile such as Red Brandywine, Nepal, OTV Brandywine, Polish and Ferris Wheel - vying for our attention with Cherokee Purple and Green and Chocolate, Lucky cross, Dester, and Lillian's Yellow, just to name some of the indeterminate varieties.
  • Effectiveness of the Gardener Supply Gardener's Revolution Classic Tomato Planter in a repeat try, focusing on just tomatoes (last year they excelled for a sweet pepper/eggplant combo, two Roma type tomatoes, and a single dwarf...this year, each of the three gets a pair of dwarf varieties)
  • Effectiveness of straw bales for bush beans, potatoes, cucumbers and squash when used in my driveway. My previous experiences with these four crops in bales were mixed due to poor sun exposure and pest issues.
  • Progress in both Dwarf and Microdwarf tomato projects, as I have lots of each growing - far more than I anticipated. 
  • Two new heirlooms given to me during events - one in Durham (currently "Mimi's Heirloom), and one in Detroit - are out there and growing - but what will they be like? Exciting!

I've already been receiving SOS emails and Facebook, Instagram and Twitter posts and questions. There simply are no guarantees with gardens, because the number of variables is enormous. For one family, straw bale gardening did not go well. Another gardener is being plagued by tomato spotted wilt, and another by late blight. There are examples of apparent herbicide damage - either from mulch, or blowing in from neighboring yards. The most common tomato issues - lower foliage fungal attacks of Early blight and/or Septoria, are popping up all over. And, of course, critters - deer attacks, mostly. It's enough to.......which leads me to......

.....gardening is best enjoyed, I think, when fully immersing into the complete journey - delighting in and learning from each step along the way, from seed starting to transplanting, feeding and watering to trouble shooting, to harvest and seed saving. Often the final part is the most iffy - when varieties are lost along the way, when disasters big and small hit, we don't have tomatoes - we have lessons, and ideas for next year.

My problems to date? The deer paid a quick stop to my driveway garden edge a few nights ago, but just nipped the tips of a few hot peppers. I re-aimed by water scarecrow...we shall see.  By the time I got the last of the tomatoes planted, nearly all of which are dwarf project varieties, the plants looked pretty sick of being in their 3.5 inch pots - lots of lower foliage disease.  But - they are now in 5 gallon grow bags and most are recovering nicely.  Lettuce is starting bolt, beets starting to wilt, all of the cole crops got "cabbage loopered" into swiss cheese and are now gone. The tomatoes in the latest set of bales are not catching on as quick as I would like - it got quite hot quite quickly, and it is a race between keeping them sufficiently watered to get their root development going before the tops wither away.  And I found my first copperhead snake of the season when sorting tomato stakes in the side garden (it partially crawled across my hand - yikes!).

But it is all so exciting.  This is garden 37 for me - it feels just as fun, interesting, wonderful as the very first because it is filled with mysteries, gets me outside where the birds provide the best soundtrack, and feels like really good physical work to keep this body going. My seedling babies - far fewer than usual, but still lots - are growing in gardens all around the area. Our customers are simply wonderful people - the various visits this spring were all memorable reunions. Opportunities for podcasts, articles, interviews come in when I least expect it, and provide such fun.

May all of your gardens be successful this year....just ask me anything you wish to about your own adventures when issues arise and I will see what I can do help.  I hope you are enjoying my posting of tomato of the day - it goes to Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. Those will just keep going until we are well into harvest, so you will get to see what varieties look like when ripe.

Oh yes - somehow I still aim to finish book 3 - on the Dwarf Tomato Project - by late summer, for publication and availability in the fall.  Fingers crossed!

 The 2018 driveway garden from a different angle

The 2018 driveway garden from a different angle

Let's catch up - the planted, and the planned....

This was to be the year of little to no garden - too many events, the need to finish book #3, timing just not working out.  Yeah, sure.  All those who didn't believe me are now vindicated.  It won't be a typical garden, or a huge garden - but things are happening, and there will be tomatoes on the table in the summer of 2018!

This will be one of my worst years for record keeping and staying on top of things. Certainly, the busy winter and spring speaking and travel schedule meant squeezing things in. The rather unusual spring weather created its own special kind of havoc. 

Yet - seedling sales are done (it's donation time - I am working on it!), the driveway has already been rearranged, and 8 new bales are in preparation, joining the 8 that are now hosting vigorously growing tomato plants. I have time to get things planted each day, and the odd timings mean more staggering - an extended growing season, hopefully.

 View of the driveway garden at the end of my day's tasks

View of the driveway garden at the end of my day's tasks

 

This is the list of what is planted and growing well:

Indeterminate tomato varieties Dester, Lucky Cross, Brandywine, Ferris Wheel, Cherokee Green, Cherokee Purple, Cherokee Chocolate, Sun Gold (two plants), Egg Yolk, Speckled Roman, Polish, Lillian's Yellow Heirloom, Nepal, OTV Brandywine, and Red Brandywine - 8 bales, 16 plants.  Today I hammered in the 8 foot stakes, and also planted one basil seedling in between the plants in each bale. 

 Straw bales with indeterminate tomatoes (these are Cherokee Chocolate and Cherokee Purple with the basil plant in between

Straw bales with indeterminate tomatoes (these are Cherokee Chocolate and Cherokee Purple with the basil plant in between

 

Why those particular varieties?  Flavor and/or long time fondness. 9 of them are on my top 10 of all time list, with Dester, Ferris Wheel, Egg Yolk and Speckled Roman right up there as well. It also felt like time to grow the excellent OTV Brandywine and Red Brandywine, since it's been years since I've grown either.

Today, I planted 18 one gallon pots with some experimental micro dwarves - part of a separate breeding project led by others, using the concept of Red Robin and using crosses to expand the flavor and color and foliage. Some interesting updates will come from this fascinating set of plants.

 2 of the 18 microdwarf project plants in 1 gallon grow bags

2 of the 18 microdwarf project plants in 1 gallon grow bags

I also planted the three Gardeners Supply self watering classic tomato planters sent to me last year for evaluation. Rosella Purple, Dwarf Walter's Fancy, Dwarf Blazing Beauty, Dwarf Firebird Sweet, Wherokowhai and Dwarf Sweet Sue are now in place.

 Self watering container with two dwarfs - Dwarf Walter's Fancy (a variegated potato leaf work in progress), and Rosella Purple

Self watering container with two dwarfs - Dwarf Walter's Fancy (a variegated potato leaf work in progress), and Rosella Purple

The 8 new straw bales won't be ready for a little over a week - I plan to dedicate one to Jade bush beans, one to Zephyr summer squash, one to Diva cucumbers, and one to some potatoes from seed pieces shared by a friend. The other 4 will go to tomatoes from our dwarf tomato project, most likely.

Starting tomorrow, it will be 5 gallon grow bag planting - for sweet peppers (Carolina Amethyst, Fire Opal, Royal Purple, a plant from saved seed from a variegated leaf sweet pepper growing at Raulston Arboretum last year, and Espalette) and eggplants (Skinny Twilight, Midnight Lightning, Twilight Lightning and Mardi Gras) - two new heirloom tomatoes shared with me at events (one from Durham, one from Detroit)....then as many dwarf tomatoes (both released and in development) as I wish to fit into grow bags.

That will keep me out of trouble this summer....it will be more manageable than usual, but will provide some drama, information, progress and good eating.

A very brief blog about seedlings aimed at local (triangle area) gardeners

 Driveway two weeks ago

Driveway two weeks ago

Yes, there are some seedlings remaining. I can't accept any more orders to ship (not even sure I can fulfill the requests I do have due to plant size, availability or my available time - each person will here from me soon).

But - the plants are perfect planting condition, well-hardened off (what a spring they've endured) - and there is a very limited window to contact me to set up a time to come and get some.

Indeterminate varieties (variable number of each - first come, first served) - 

Red – Gallo Plum, OTV Brandywine, Mexico Midget; Pink –Anna Russian, Brandywine, Polish, Cancelmo Family, Dester; Purple – Cherokee Purple; Chocolate – Cherokee Chocolate, Yellow – Hugh’s, Egg Yolk (tiny - just transplanted)l Bicolor – Lucky Cross, Little Lucky, Green – Cherokee Greenl Orange – Sun Goldl Striped – Speckled Roman; White – Coyote (tiny - just transplanted); Mystery – Abraham Brown – free for the asking (I will tell you about it).

Dwarf varieties (variable numbers of each - first come first served) - 

Red – Tanunda Red; Pink – TastyWine, Pink Passion, Rosella Crimson; Purple – Rosella Purple, Wild Fred; Yellow – Sweet Sue, Golden Gypsy, Sean’s Yellow; Bicolor – Caitydid, Wherokowhai; Green  - Beryl Beauty; Orange – Uluru Ochre, Blazing Beauty; Striped – Beauty King, Firebird Sweet, Tennessee Suited, Chocolate Lightning; White – Mr. Snow (tiny - just transplanted); Mystery – Zig Zag Wattle – free for the asking (I will tell you about it)

There are also a selection of microdwarfs and Dwarf project works in progress that are free, but if you take some I would love feedback and a ripe tomato or two - join and participate in our project.

Availability is just today (Wednesday), Thursday and Friday...then, again Sunday May 13 until they are gone. You must email me at nctomatoman@gmail.com to set up a day and time.

More news coming in a future blog soon - I planted my first 8 bales yesterday (16 indeterminate tomatoes), and hope to purchase 8 more this week and get them going.  My spring speaking schedule is complete, ending with wonderful programs in Gillette Wyoming, and the Detroit area. I am ready for a vacation!

 Deutzia in full bloom

Deutzia in full bloom

Loving this unusual spring (pollen, cold nights and all!) through pictures...

The cars, deck, porch - everything outdoors - is covered with a fine chartreuse colored dusting of pine pollen. A neighborhood walk means gunk in the eyes and a scratchy throat (it feels like inhaling chalk dust). The tomato seedling growth rate is super slow motion, due to a complete lack of consistent warmth, particularly at night.

But - it is spring. Warm weather is inevitable. And it is beautiful out there.  Take a look! (just click each pic to advance them)....some of these are from our yard, some from Raulston Arboretum, some from Duke Gardens.  Enjoy! 

We need to grow more gardeners.

When I was 3 or 4 years old, I loved to spend time with my grandfather Walter (not Water, as I first had it - thanks to a sharp eyed friend for letting me know. Walter was "dry", so Water would not have worked! That's what happens when I blog late at night...). He and my grandmother lived in a tenement in Pawtucket, RI. The landlord let him use the back lot for a big garden (it seemed huge at the time, but sadly, no pictures exist - it is only in my mind). His dahlias, strawberries, sweet peas, tomatoes and more left an indelible mark on me. It planted a seed...that seed lay dormant until 1981, when, newly married, Sue and I created our own first garden in West Lebanon, New Hampshire. 

 My gardening buddy, my grandfather Walter Gibbs, left, with my mom and grandmother

My gardening buddy, my grandfather Walter Gibbs, left, with my mom and grandmother

I've been so fortunate to be speaking in some very cool places in front of highly engaged audiences. Last week I was at a stunning event in White Stone Virginia, in the Northern Neck area - a master gardener event with an audience approaching 400.  That simply staggered me. I had the privilege of speaking on the same program with Thomas Rainer and Bob Lyons, both of whom gave wonderful lectures featuring topics around creative landscaping and biodiversity. All three of us touched upon the need to elevate knowledge of gardening, particularly in reversing troubling trends in the standing, availability of and interest in botanical topics in college, as careers, and inspiring young people to become involved in far greater numbers.

 Talking tomatoes to a wonderful audience in White Stone VA

Talking tomatoes to a wonderful audience in White Stone VA

I've been a member of the Seed Savers Exchange since 1986, when the organization was just 11 years old. Excitement in the SSE was starting to really take off and the number of listed members (those who offered saved seeds in the annual yearbook) was climbing steadily. That number peaked a bit over 1000 in the 1990s.  Think about that - the number of gardeners in the world - and only 1000 - an infinitesimal fraction - were actively involved in saving and sharing seeds through the exchange. When I received my 2018 yearbook a few months ago, I was alarmed to see the listed member number well below 400. 

When I am lucky enough to be invited to provide a workshop, I sincerely hope that the information that I share helps audience members grow better gardens; the information shared back to me from all who attend certainly help my own gardens improve.  But - most important - it is really important for all of us with this passion for growing things to excite young people that we know in our lives - nieces, nephews, grandchildren, neighbors - about the joy of planting seeds and watching what happens.  We all need to grow more gardeners. It is beyond important - it is critical.

 The joy of a tomato - taken at Tomatopalooza by Stephen Garrett

The joy of a tomato - taken at Tomatopalooza by Stephen Garrett

Waiting for spring

 early March cherry blossoms

early March cherry blossoms

This really is the hard part, isn't it? Teased by a week of mid-70 temperatures that initiated all sorts of blossoms (daffodils, azaleas, redbud, cherry, plum, magnolia, Bradford pear, forsythia and more), we now sit in a pool of stubborn gray, damp, cool weather. Some frosty night time temps already bit some of those early bloomers, lending an unwanted brown tone to the kaleidoscope of colors. 

The forecast shows a reason for optimism; real spring temps are of course inevitable. My flat of tomato seedlings are in that strange purgatory of "ready to transplant, but the time isn't right" - the night time temps are simply not yet accommodating. Today I will plant some more seeds because there simply seems to be no way to control myself! Area gardeners better get ready to host some really interesting works in progress.

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Most recent view of the babies

It certainly has been an interesting past few weeks, though, aside from seedlings, flowers and weather. I've had the good fortune of talking tomatoes, container and straw bale gardening to audiences at the Connecticut Flower and Garden show, Robeson County Master Gardeners in Lumberton NC, and a local county library. Next up - another library, then Chicago! Plans are being finalized for Virginia, Detroit and Wyoming. 

 My gathering audience at Lumberton NC

My gathering audience at Lumberton NC

I've also been a guest on The Grow Guide podcast  (episode 22) and, along with my daughter Sara, on the Burnt Toast podcast. Tomorrow at 3 PM EST I will be a guest on The Thomas Jefferson Hour, an NPR radio show. I feel so fortunate to have opportunities to share my adventures with tomatoes and gardening.

 One of our spirea in full bloom

One of our spirea in full bloom