After the summer garden...what comes next?

As I type this blog, the remnants of the extremely slow moving and stubborn (and wet and windy) Florence continue. We here in Raleigh were very fortunate, and our hearts go out to all of those who were not as fortunate. In thinking back to Hurricane Fran, this was a relatively minor inconvenience when compared to what could have been if the storm hadn’t weakened and changed paths.

 A volunteer, apparently Mexico Midget, soaked from Florence but still carrying on

A volunteer, apparently Mexico Midget, soaked from Florence but still carrying on

With the summer garden now but a memory (we are picking a few tomatoes and lots of peppers, but it is in serious and expected decline) it seemed a good time to bridge the summer 2018 to spring 2019 gap with a smaller scale gardening effort - this meant planting some seeds.

 My decisions on the fall garden seeds to start

My decisions on the fall garden seeds to start

Though much of the driveway garden will soon be removed and reorganized, there are lots of straw bales and containers ready to receive seedlings that will hopefully provide us with some good eating in late fall, and provide a head start for early next spring.

My planting list for 25 cells in a plug flat: Feaster heirloom mustard, Yellow Cabbage collards, Red Russian Kale, a spinach, arugula, Bright Lights and Rhubarb Swiss Chard, Detroit, Cylindra, Lutz and Golden beets, Scallions, 8 cells for various lettuce and lettuce mixes, and three cells for microdwarf tomatoes from seeds saved this summer - 80X F2 and 79X F2 - red fruit, and orange fruit. I also hope to plant a few bales with peas, for the harvest of pea shoots - a delicious addition to stir fries.

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The fall/spring planted flat after one week - planted Sept 9, status on Sept 16

I expect to start transplanting into 3.5 inch pots and/or plug flats within the week. Once the rain stops and we dry out, I will get the driveway arranged into the format that will take us through the winter….the key will be an ability to use floating row cover to protect against frosts.

We still hope that remaining warm days will give us come beans, squash and cucumbers from the second seeding.

 Second planted cukes (foreground) and summer squash, well watered by Florence

Second planted cukes (foreground) and summer squash, well watered by Florence

The garden report card/check list for late summer 2018.

 Various varieties in a mid-August picking, destined for canning

Various varieties in a mid-August picking, destined for canning

It is easy to take a look at the late summer, less-than-perfectly cared for garden, view the tippy plants, diseased foliage, blank spaces and feel less than thrilled with the outcome. Sometimes our mood is impacted by the persistent heat and humidity, or just a sense of being a bit worn down (a topic I covered in my last blog).

Yet, with 6 newly canned quarts of tomatoes in the cupboard, an ever increasing sleeve of coin envelopes of saved seeds, and newly sprouted squash, cukes and beans, a bit of reflection reveals a quite different outcome. 2018 was actually quite a splendid gardening experience. It was instructive, delicious, and interesting - and remains so, as the last varieties of tomatoes and peppers begin to ripen.

 plates of drying tomato seeds, coin envelopes of saved seeds, cups of ornamental hot peppers ready for seed saving

plates of drying tomato seeds, coin envelopes of saved seeds, cups of ornamental hot peppers ready for seed saving

It seems to be a good time and take a temperature check on the season, comparing expectations with results, even though there is still more to come.

some overall stats - varieties planted vs seed saved

  • Total number of tomato plants in my driveway - 96
  • Packets of saved tomato seeds from my driveway plants - 76
  • Seeds from volunteers - 10 (a number that will surely rise soon!)
  • Plants alive, optimistic for ripe fruit for seed saving- 4
  • Plants alive but not optimistic for ripe fruit - 11 
  • Pepper plants growing - 16
  • Pepper seed types saved - 16 
  • Eggplant plants growing - 6
  • Eggplant types seed saved - 5 
  • Eggplant types pending ripe fruit - 1 (hoping it matures - one fruit set, very late start)
  • So, from 118 plants total, there will likely be  only 11 failures - 91% success rate. That more than meets my expectations, particularly in a year where I thought I'd have little to no garden!

...now for a bit of detail on various categories from my driveway garden

Indeterminate tomatoes in straw bales

I planted 15 of my favorite tall growing tomato varieties in straw bales on May 1, doubling up on Sun Gold. The following were stars both in terms of flavor and yield - Dester, Brandywine, Ferris Wheel, Cherokee Green, Cherokee Chocolate, Cherokee Purple, Polish and Egg Yolk. The flavor was great but the yield less so for Speckled Roman, OTV Brandywine and Lillian's Yellow Heirloom. One variety was either mislabel on my part...or perhaps a cross. Lucky Cross produced tomatoes that were oblate and a bronze chocolate color, more in what was expected from Abraham Brown (a variety grown last year; I grew lots of seedlings to distribute). Then again, Lucky Cross grew next to Abraham Brown last year, so it will take growing out saved seed next year to solve the mystery - wrong label, or chance hybrid. Sun Gold was delicious but disappointing in health...the two plants live on still, but have been the unhappiest looking plants in my garden all summer.  It seems odd that there would be a straw bale problem two years in a row (last year Sun Gold performed similarly in a straw bale), so this is an as yet unsolved mystery. Well, except for poor Nepal, an even sadder story than the sick Sun Golds. Nepal went down quickly to either Fusarium wilt or Bacterial wilt; too bad, because it was loaded with green tomatoes and it is a long time favorite of ours. Finally, Red Brandywine yielded superbly, but the flavor is a tick off when compared with the best, listed above. 

The main issue was one my ability to maintain the plants well. A summer beach vacation was sufficient interruption of my daily attention that control was lost by late July. I never did top them for reasons I'll explain in a later blog. All of the summer rain and humidity finally resulted in widespread issues with fungal attacks of the foliage.

One of the most interesting observations was that of comparative fruit set in a challenging season. Two varieties clearly didn't like the temps and/or humidity and were very skimpy with yield; Lillian's Yellow Heirloom and OTV Brandywine. Ferris Wheel went through a period of early blossom drop but then turned things around and was one of the biggest tomato producers of the summer. Dester, the three Cherokees, and Red Brandywine had little blossom drop and gave us lots of great tasting tomatoes.

All in all, this portion of my 2018 garden rates an overall grade of A.  

Microdwarf tomatoes in 1 gallon grow bags

The microdwarfs - from seeds sent by my gardening friend Dan Follett, responsible for this sub-project (he carried out all of the crosses and subsequent selections that led to the seed he sent me) - provided some early season fun, but also confirmed that those early cherry tomatoes tend to get forgotten when the larger tomatoes ripen. All in all, the plants were productive, cute, potentially useful, but, ultimately, lacked the flavor of indeterminate cherry tomatoes. The best was a Dwarf Sweet Sue offspring that produced lots of nice yellow cherry tomatoes in a plant that was less than one foot tall. A second one of interest had fuzzy, dusty miller type foliage and produced red and gold striped, quite flavorful cherry tomatoes on a similarly short plant. Those, to me, are the two most promising; two plants have yet to produce a single tomato, but they live on. 

This garden mini project gets a grade of B.

 Variegated hot pepper Trifetti in a one gallon container

Variegated hot pepper Trifetti in a one gallon container

Indeterminate and dwarf tomatoes in 5 gallon grow bags or self watering containers

These got a relatively late start due to my time availability in the early spring, which, I feel, hurt them a bit. The seedlings in most cases were already coming down with some early blight and/or septoria leaf spot. The hot, humid and often wet days provided further challenges. Despite the cards being a bit stacked against things, results were quite stunning in most cases. The two new family heirlooms given to me at events - from Mimi Koch at the Carolina Arbors talk in RTP (unnamed family heirloom) and from Nora Wojciechowski at the Oakland County event near Detroit (20 year old seed from a tomato grown by AZ Cutler) - did very well, and I hope to find a way to get each released through a seed company. Most of my grow bag tomatoes live on and are providing daily joy. The biggest issue was having time to stay on top of diseased foliage removal, and my loss of control on these tomatoes coincided with our summer vacation.

The dwarf project plants in grow bags did very well, and I got a good look at some candidates from the Anthy, Acey, Speckly and Lampy families, along with a few others. This was never meant to be a big time dwarf project research year for me, so everything learned was a bonus. 

The self watering containers I used last year (as a trial gift from Gardener Supply) were not as successful this year....a bit of a late start, less than optimal location, and some interruptions on care and maintenance.

Overall grade of this category - B+

Center straw bales - tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, squash, potatoes

I was utterly delighted with our Jade bush green beans, Zephyr and Raven summer squash, and Diva cucumbers. They all came on shockingly early (29 days from seed for the squash!), and produced very well. I've pulled the plants and reseeded them - the replants are up and growing. Straw bales are a great way to go with all of these.  As for the potatoes, I planted some sprouted pieces from a friend, but not all of them thrived. There are still living vines in the bale, and I am yet to dig in to see if any potatoes developed....so, the jury is still out.

Overall grade of this category - A (with an Incomplete for the potato bale)

 Royal Purple showing it's unripe, dark purple color....it will ripen deep red

Royal Purple showing it's unripe, dark purple color....it will ripen deep red

Peppers and eggplants in 5 gallon grow bags

As always, I find great success planting peppers and eggplants in black plastic 5 gallon grow bags, though last year's widespread attack of bacterial spot left me wondering what to expect this season. Happily, I had no disease issues at all with either peppers or eggplants. I was pleased to have advanced my eggplant Mardi Gras another generation, though my two Skinny Twilight plants did not fare all that well. Late planting once again seems to be the culprit. My Islander dehybridization peppers - Carolina Amethyst, Fire Opal and Royal Purple - all did wonderfully and we are right in the middle of peak harvest. Three plants from a variegated variety growing in a test garden at JC Raulston Arboretum are quite beautiful and prolific, and show slight differences...the best is that they are sweet, rather than hot. Finally, my single Espelette is thriving; rather shocking considering the one seedling I managed to germinate had a stuck seed coat issue and was at risk of never developing a central growing stem. We are just beginning to pick them. 

Overall rating of this category - A-

 Sweet pepper Fire Opal on its way from lavender to golden yellow

Sweet pepper Fire Opal on its way from lavender to golden yellow

Ornamental hot peppers in 1 gallon pots

I decided to revitalize my colorful pepper efforts, focusing on a named variety that is yet to be finished - Bouquet. Six plants from last year's saved seed, as well as a pepper plant from my friend Ralph that looks just like Trifetti, are providing color to the driveway and heat to our cooking. The six plants are all slightly to very different, and my job is to decide which is THE Bouquet that I want to further refine; all are attractive, so more selection and naming is likely.

Overall rating of this category - A

 A lead candidate for a new variety, Bouquet

A lead candidate for a new variety, Bouquet

Dwarf tomatoes and basil in straw bales

This is my single disappointing category for this year's garden. My second batch of bales were prepared late, and the delayed planting put their maximum growth at a time when my garden attention wasn't what it should have been - staking, and diseased foliage removal, lapsed. Most of my tomato misses - no fruit at all - were in this category. The basil thrived, however.

Overall rating of this category - C-

In future blogs I will get a bit more specific about the dwarf project tomatoes, and share thoughts on what may be on the grow list for 2019. I will also discuss what will be planted for the late summer/fall into next spring containers (greens, beets, perhaps some microdwarf tomatoes). In fact, tomorrow I hope to start taking down the dead plants, rearranging the driveway, and starting some seeds.

 Variegated sweet pepper selection

Variegated sweet pepper selection

 

 

 

Time for the honest blog - the garden (and I) are a bit worn out as mid-August arrives

 Cherokee Green and Ferris Wheel tomatoes waving in the breeze in mid August

Cherokee Green and Ferris Wheel tomatoes waving in the breeze in mid August

Turn your back - blink your eyes - take a week's vacation (or do all three) and the garden goes out of control. Spending hours each day when the thermometer shows temps in the mid-90s and humidity is high takes its toll. The promises and resolutions made in the spring start to feel a bit superfluous months later. Top the plants? Stake everything with care and attention? Remove every bit of blemished foliage? All important, all great ideas, all on the radar screen - and all easy to dismiss in the dog days of summer. 

 June 25 view of the garden

June 25 view of the garden

At some point, the objectives for the garden start to take precedence over discipline and attention. If we had canning targets (20 quarts of tomatoes in the cupboard), or neighborhood bragging rights for yield (just to name a few possibilities), some of the omissions and oversights would have been dealt with more carefully.  But as a research and development and daily eating garden, a few ripe tomatoes on each mystery plant, and enough yield to make daily meals throughout the summer interesting fit the bill just fine for Sue and I.

 July 11 view of the garden

July 11 view of the garden

It has been a truly excellent season, in many cases exceeding my expectations. Yields and flavors of the indeterminate tomatoes planted in straw bales on May 1, and cucumbers and summer squash and green beans (also from straw bales) have been wonderful. Later (June 1) planted seedlings - particularly dwarf tomato plants in bales and dwarfs and eggplants in 5 gallon containers - didn't reach such heights. Peppers are doing very well in their grow bags, though later than typical due to the late start. Fortunately, last year's bacterial spot issue is a no-show this year. Basil downy mildew is also limited to the plants in deck containers; the straw bale basil is in great shape.

 August 12 view of the garden

August 12 view of the garden

All was well and in good control until about mid-July; that is when our daughter Sara and our grandchildren arrived from Seattle for their two week visit, one of which was spent at Topsail beach. Quality time with family - and then distance - took me out of my garden care routine. When family departed, on August 1, it was clear that it was time to switch to a different mode - less maintenance, more "let's harvest what we can". And that is where things currently are....no longer an aesthetic beauty, but still reasonably productive and providing a few daily surprises and delights.

The carousel of pics below show cucumber and squash plants that were pulled and now replanted (you can see each bale - seeds await germination in the center refreshed potting mix). You can also find various issues on this or that plant. That's enough for now - time to go out into the heat and pick beans, peppers, eggplants and tomatoes.  I hope that your 2018 gardens were, or are, successful. As you can see, productive gardens are not necessarily very "pretty" once time and weather and fatigue hit...even for the NC tomato man!

The joys of a tomato and wine dinner at a great restaurant...such the one coming this week. What are they like, you ask?

On Wednesday, August 8 at 7 PM at Hummingbird Restaurant's sister event space (Whitaker and Atlantic), one of those perfectly magical summer events will take place - a multi course dinner prepared by a great local chef focusing on that most treasured summer crop - tomatoes - enhanced by specially chosen Rose wines for each course. All that you need to know about the event - menu, opportunity to sign up - is at this link.

I can tell a few stories about summer time tomato dinners. My rather well known obsession with heirloom tomatoes led to my involvement in many such events over the years - starting with two at Enoteca Vin, by Ashley Christensen, the countless dinners over many years at Zely and Ritz hosted by Sarig (how I miss you, my friend) and Nancy Agasi - then again with Ashley for two at The Bridge Club, one by Arthur Gordon at Irregardless Cafe, and most recently, wonderful dinners at Acme Food and Beverage prepared by Kevin Callaghan. Now I get to add to my stories with the creativity of chef Coleen Speaks in what looks (judging from the menu) to be a memorable and delicious evening.

All of the events described about were marvelous, delicious, memorable and eye opening, in a culinary sense. But perhaps it's best to discuss what one of these events are like (and yes, I am working to entice you to register for the event, attend and see and taste for yourself!).

Tomato dinners bring out a mix of the adventurous, the tomato lover, the wine lover, the curious, and the social. For some attendees it is one in a series of every tomato dinner that is locally held - they are that beloved. For many others, it is something totally new. 

All of us who grow and/or purchase and love tomatoes understand a few - some of us more than a few - perfect uses for great tomatoes. At a tomato dinner, the application is extended beyond what is imaginable - whether used creatively in starters, soups, salads...or stuffed, or made into chutneys or sauces - the desire to apply tomatoes to four courses - pair with wines - and perhaps the biggest challenge of all, in a dessert - results in many surprising and delicious combinations and memorable creations. 

My part in these dinners tends to be one of sharing information, education, telling stories - helping the dinner guests move beyond the red tomato into the people involved with the very route of many varieties that grace the plates in front of the diners. Each tomato variety has a history and a lineage. Each has a personality - a size, shape, color, flavor - and each elicits a response from we who eat it. Tomatoes are nostalgia for many of us. They take us back to gardening with loved ones and back yard cookouts. I also love to answer questions - gardening questions for those who want to grow them (or grow them more successfully themselves). If anyone has a hankering to purchase my books, I will have them there with me as well.

Tomato dinners are noisy, festive, fascinating, delicious - and rare. I am so excited that Hummingbird is joining the growing list of area chefs who can't wait to show off their creative skills by incorporating an ever increasing selection of tomatoes into a complete multi-course dinner.

I hope to see some of you at Hummingbird on Wednesday...be sure to say hello - my wife Susan and I will be pleased to meet you.

 

Absence makes the heart grow fonder - starting vacation and missing my garden!

I am completely smitten with my 2018 garden. Whether it is because this was to be a mostly to totally garden-less season (due to a lengthy road trip that never materialized), a more focused plan leading to better results, or the integration of different crops, enabled by expanding straw bale use - or a combination of all three factors doesn't matter. It is simply a blast and a pleasure - one that is providing consistent delicious results.

 Raw materials for a Caprese pasta salad

Raw materials for a Caprese pasta salad

We started a week family vacation today at the coast. Ordinarily this would completely stress me out, as it is prime time and in need of regular care (watering, feeding, pruning, picking) to maintain its productivity and health. However, I will head home briefly on Tuesday (for an event at Duke Garden that evening), so will be able to check things out that day and the following before returning here, armed with squash, beans, cukes and tomatoes to sustain us through the rest of the week.

Additionally, the forecast is showing a moderation of temperatures and chances of daily rain. If that happens, and the battery in the water scarecrow holds out (newly changed last night), the return home next Sunday should result in a reunion with a still-happy driveway of plants.

Some highlights of an already exciting garden

The following are just thrilling me so far: some of my favorite indeterminate tomatoes in straw bales, basil planted in straw bales, bush green beans in straw bales (picked while sitting!), summer squash in straw bales (the first picked less than 30 days from direct seeding),  cucumbers in straw bales, and eggplants in 5 gallon grow bags.

 Dwarf Moby's Cherry - a Dwarf Tomato Project work in progress, in a 5 gallon grow bag

Dwarf Moby's Cherry - a Dwarf Tomato Project work in progress, in a 5 gallon grow bag

Future joy will come from dwarf tomatoes in straw bales and 5 gallon containers, which for the most part are doing very well and loading up with tomatoes. The peppers in the 5 gallon grow bags simply look great. Newly received indeterminate family heirlooms and dwarf tomato project plants are all on the cusp of revealing their mysteries. 

Disappointments are very few and far between. The basil in containers on our back deck is, alas, now severely impacted by downy mildew. Two Sun Gold hybrids in one of the straw bales never have kicked into gear and look pretty consistently unhappy. Nepal went down to Fusarium wilt (and yet the Red Brandywine that shares the basil is thriving still). My 18 plants in 1 gallon pots that represent my dip into a micro dwarf breeding project initiated by a few gardening friends are interesting, doing well, but for the most part, the flavor we are seeking isn't there yet.

Best tomato performers thus far - Cherokee Green, Cherokee Chocolate, Cherokee Purple, Egg Yolk and Polish have been outstanding in yield and flavor. Coming along now and similarly heavy yielding will be Dester and Brandywine. OTV Brandywine and Ferris Wheel, though delicious, didn't like our early summer heat wave and experienced the most blossom drop....the plants are reloading for a mid August bounty.

 Cherokee Green, Polish, Cherokee Chocolate, Red Brandywine and Cherokee Purple - clockwise from upper left - green, pink, brown, red and purple tomatoes!

Cherokee Green, Polish, Cherokee Chocolate, Red Brandywine and Cherokee Purple - clockwise from upper left - green, pink, brown, red and purple tomatoes!

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