Monday, November 12, 2012

Beet thief and permaculture class

It just got very cold in Wisconsin. The weekend was beautiful, a 60° Saturday and a gentle, gentle rain much of Sunday. I was like to think of an autumn rain, especially one just before freeze, as soaking the ground in to get it ready for spring, and then the freeze is like a blanket that seals the moisture in.

While the actual growing season probably ended more than a month ago, there's still some kale, brussels sprouts and hearty spinach still out there.  But today's cold-weather brings the undeniable end to this year's garden.  My community garden plots have been cleaned out for more than a month, except the beets. In early August after I pulled all my onions out of the ground, I asked people who read this blog what I might plant in that space that could still grow enough to produce a crop before the end of the year.  A number of people suggested I plant beets, and visions of my moms pickled beets floated through my mouth, so planted two varieties covered at them with row cover and largely ignored them while I tended the rest of my abundant garden. 

Once tomatoes had been harvested, salsa and marinara canned, eggplant mashed into baba ganoush, etc., and Jay and I cleaned out our garden beds,  I once again noticed the white row cover, plump with beet tops pushing against it. I checked on the beets occasionally, and while small, they were still growing so I left them in the ground. A few days ago, while Jay, Dale and I were making apple butter, we found ourselves with a little extra time and decided to pickled the beets.

I went to the garden, pulled off the roll cover, and started tugging on beet tops. To my dismay, the beet tops broke off the roots quickly, and I realized I'd need to dig them out by hand. This is when I discovered there was nothing to dig out, and in fact some hideous creature had systematically eaten every one of my beets. 

I was disappointed, to say the least. This had been my first attempt at succession planting in my garden, and it would have been a success had not been for some lousy rodent. Next year, I won't leave them in quite as long.

I belong to a couple of email lists, one of them is the Madison permaculture list,  and the following entry caught my eye. MAPG offering Permaculture Design Certificate Training

I first had to learn a little bit about what permit culture means, and went to the trusty Wikipedia to find out. Has anyone reading this taken this or any other permaculture series of classes? I'd love to hear what you thought.

I think I'm going to enroll.

Canned salsas, tomatoes, tomato water for soup stock and dilly beans after one epic canning day.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Garlic, herbs and compost diving dinner

Jay and I put our garden to rest for the year. We spent a beautiful October day in our community garden preparing a bed to plant garlic and harvesting the last of the herbs.

Planting garlic
Last week I prepared a large piece of cardboard according to a wonderful schematic that I learned during my garlic class a few weeks ago. The piece of cardboard was conveniently the width of the bed where I wanted to plant garlic, and I measured out and cut holes in a alternating pattern which facilitated making sure the garlic cloves were spaced evenly.

Practically speaking, however, we found ourselves picking the cardboard up to dig a hole or place the clove and we finally decided that a string stretched the length of the bed with marks at the appropriate spaces would be easier to work with.

I hunted down some bale twine (it's lying all over the garden) and grabbed a black magic marker and tape measure that I always keep in my car and we quickly made a planting guide. Our garlic is five inches apart in rows (I split the difference between the recommended four to six inches), rows six inches from one another.

This year we planted six different types of garlic. I bought four new seed stock, and planted seed stock from two varieties we grew this year. We buried the whole thing in hay and it's now nice to think that something wonderful and green will come up early next spring.

Harvesting herbs
We also harvested a little lavender, most of the rosemary stems, and all of the anise hyssop, and  buried the whole thing in a heavy layer of hay mulch to keep it from freezing and thawing next spring. I have not had much luck overwintering Rosemary indoors or lavender outdoors, and am hoping that this helps. I am pretty sure the winter will kill the rosemary but the lavender has a fighting chance. The herbs went into the dehydrator, and Jay made a tea out of the anise hyssop after dinner. Absolutely aromatic and wonderful.

Compost diving for dinner
When I dropped things off in the compost pile I found a stalk of brussels sprouts. The brussels sprouts were small, I'm sure that's why a gardener threw it away. But what that Gardner did not know is my delicious recipe for cabbage soup that also can use brussels sprout plant leaves. Here's a link to that recipe in case you have cabbage or brussels sprouts that you want to cook up. We made it for dinner. Delicious.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Free permaculture class

Sorry this is so late, but if you're free Monday night Oct 29. and are interested in learning more about permaculture practices, this is for you.

*Introduction to Permaculture*

This *free* class will provide an overview of Permaculture. Learn about
ways to design sustainable systems. The three core tenants of Permaculture
are care of the earth, care of people, and sharing of the surplus.
Permaculture principles, plant guilds, and layers of a food forest will be
discussed. The class will have an empasis on designing for shady yards,
but the information will be applicable to other settings as well.

This class is free and open to the public. *Madison Area Community Land
Trust* <> is a sponosor of this class. This
class is held on Monday, October 29, 6:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. at Warner Park
Community Rec Center, 1625 Northport Dr Madison, WI 53704.

Mary Eberle
First Step Renew, LLC

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Blog for a blog

I work for American Family Insurance headquartered where I live in Madison, Wis. We just started a customer-facing blog and I was asked to write a post about my experience with our corporate community garden. Thought you'd like to see it.

This spring, seven gardeners moved 150 bales of hay one night to make way for our 2012 garden expansion.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Time to plant garlic - and a garlic problem

A couple of weekends ago Jay and I cleared out our community garden beds. We threw a lot of green tomatoes in the compost pile, but after having processed nearly 50 pounds of green tomatoes into salsa and a wonderful pie filling, I didn't feel too bad about adding some green material (pun intended) to our growing compost heap. Now, ask me about the folks who threw perfectly good red tomatoes in the compost and I have a different thing to say ;)

I'm now ready to do the last bit of garden work before leaving it alone until next spring. It's time to plant garlic! I ordered four new varieties of garlic from Territorial Seed Company,  and am going to plant them and some cloves from the garlic I raised myself this year.

I bought 8 ounces of each and will plant 30 cloves. This left me with some leftover which I am going to sell to a friend who didn't get her order in time (they're all sold out of the 2012 seed stock). Read more about planting garlic.

So you can imagine my surprise and disappointment when I cracked open some of the biggest crowns I had reserved for just this occasion to discover some of the cloves look diseased, desiccated and somewhat shrunken. I went online to see what it could be, and it appears that what I see is called “waxy breakdown of garlic.”

I took a photo of a healthy looking clove and one of these discolored clothes, and I also found an image online with a similar comparison.

Samples from my stored garlic, discovered Oct. 14 while preparing some for seed. The "waxy" sample on the left, and you can see it starting on the top of the "good" clove on the right.

An image from the Oregon State University Extension.

This article says that there isn't much that can be done about it, but what I want to know is can I eat them? I'm certainly not going to plant these inferior-looking cloves, but I'm distressed that all of this wonderful garlic may be going bad while I'm storing it to be eaten!

Anyone else experience this? Your thoughts? Thanks for your ideas and suggestions.

Free composting class 10/20

Saturday, October 20th
Composting Workshop with Joanne Tooley this coming Sunday at Guild Hoop

- Madison Area Permaculture Guild's Hoop House
- Token Creek Eco-Inn, 3919 Gray Rd., DeForest, WI (exit at Hwy. 19
and head east to Portage Rd.) Turn left and go right before the corner of
Portage and Gray Rd. Pull into back driveway and park in grassy area.
- 1-2:30 pm
- Taught by Guild Member, Master Composter and Permaculturist, Joanne Tooley
- Joanne Tooley is a master composter and has experience in composting using 3 different methods: Thermophilic, Bokashi and vermicomposting. Her Composting 101 class is an introductory about each method and provides enough information for you to choose the best method for your situation.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Soul Food Monologue Festival

Forward Theater Co. in Madison, Wis. is performing 12 food-based monologues, and I want to go with a group. You want to join me? Here's the dates and description, email me if you'd like to go together.

Soul Food Monologue Festival
Friday, Nov. 9, 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, Nov. 11, 2 p.m.

Ah food. . .everyone’s got a favorite dessert, a coveted midnight snack, a go-to take-out order after a stressful day, or a recipe that reminds them of home. Food is inextricably linked with first dates in restaurants, memories of summer picnics, tailgating before the big game, and holidays at grandma’s house. This year playwrights from across the country are invited to contribute to the company’s second monologue festival, focusing on engaging, embarrassing, hilarious, and heart-warming stories that revolve around food. Bring your appetite for fun and exciting new work, and enjoy a dozen monologues from our menu!

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Early frost, false frost, we're done gardening

Last week Tuesday around 9 p.m. I got a WeatherBug frost warning for Madison. Had I known earlier I could have gathered whatever blankets and sheets we didn't mind putting over the tomatoes, peppers and eggplants, but we weren't prepared, it was late and the garden doesn't have lights in it. I went to sleep resigned with the end of the season yet hoping it was a false alarm.

At 6:30 the next morning I went to the garden. Most of my plants seemed fine. The beans definitely got touched by frost, but my tomatoes and peppers and eggplant were untouched. Our community pumpkin patch was, however, a different story. Leaves were slumped to the ground, revealing their unripened fruit. It was a disaster. Green pumpkins, unripe winter squash and lots of summer squash were all exposed, and attached to lifeless vines. I called Jay, depressed, upset and nearly in tears.

Our community pumpkin patch members had worked so hard, it was heart-wrenching to see all that work go to waste, cut short but a relatively early frost.  Our earliest frost potential IS Sept. 25, but we don't typically frost until early October, which would have given these plants a few more weeks to ripen the fruit on the vine.
Scene of destruction following the early frost.

That Friday I heard a freeze warning for Madison the following night. Jay and I were on our way out of town for a weekend at my parents' house - and I went into a bit of a panic. Again we weren't prepared with sheets or blankets, but it didn't matter, we weren't going be available to remove the blankets during the day for two days. I made the call to harvest everything - EVERYTHING.

We worked for a few hours pulling all our tomatoes - red, green and inbetween. We took all the tomatillos, ground cherries, and eggplant no matter the size. Finally, we picked all the peppers whether they had turned color or not.

We filled four boxes and several grocery bags with produce, put them in the trunk. A gardener friend of mine was picking produce and covering her plants. We walked over to Peg and took this silly self-portrait with my phone camera. The golden sun on our faces and pale blue gray sky was a fitting backdrop to this autumn ritual.

And the false frost? It turns out that it didn't freeze on Saturday night, but it did Sunday night, and to be honest, I'm not sure I had it in me to cover and uncover. 

Please write in the comments below your favorite ways to preserve green tomatoes - we've got a lot of them!

Jay, me and Peg in the garden before the next frost.

Spaghetti squash, pie pumpkins and three varieties of eggplant.

30# of green tomatoes and bell peppers.

A wide variety of roma tomatoes

A large box of jalapeno, cayenne and ancho peppers.

More green tomatoes.

A peck of peppers (before pickling)

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Trellising tomatoes III - those crappy cages (Part 5)

No matter how you stake it, tomato cages do a lousy job of supporting plants.
Several years ago I invested in tomato cages that I thought could stand up to a tomato plant full of nearly ripe fruit. I went out of my way to go to Farm and Fleet because they had an inverted tomato cage. These cages are wider at the base and narrow as they get taller, and come in 3 sizes, up to 60 inches tall. This spring when I planted more tomatoes than I had cages, I returned to Farm and Fleet and bought several more of these sturdy, tall and least-likely-to-tip-over-cages.

Regardless of the smart design of the wide bases, my heavily–laden tomato plants are still tipping over. I've had to drive extra stakes in my bed to secure the cages. I think I'm done with these crappy cages.

Using everything I learned about trellis thing this summer, I'm going to put new trellising into practice next spring. But what to do with the cages?

This summer I also found the need to stake my pepper and eggplants, because the heavy fruit tends to break off the rather fragile branches. I'm thinking about supporting these plants with the abandoned tomato cages because overall, peppers and eggplants aren't nearly as heavy as tomato plants. It'll be less work for me staking and tying up the plants, and will probably do a much better job supporting the fruit and branches than stakes and twine.

At least I won't have to worry about all the money I invested in these crappy tomato cages.

A note about the rest of this series. We are not well past watering tomatoes and pests/diseases. I'll pick this up again next summer when we're actually worried about these things. Happy tomato harvest!

  1. Intro to varieties and classifications
  2. Pruning
  3. Trellising I - why bother?
  4. Trellising II - string trellis
  5. Trellising III - those crappy tomato cages
  6. Pests and diseases
  7. Watering

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Community and Food Pantry Gardens Fall Harvest Potluck

Monday, Oct. 29, 6 - 8 p.m.
Catholic Multicultural Center
1862 Beld St, Madison.
Last year, Jay and I attended the annual Community and Food Pantry Gardens Fall Harvest Potluck. We had a great dinner (imagine all that garden produce coming to roost at a pot luck!) and enjoyed getting to know community gardeners from across Madison.

I'm going again this year, and I'd love to meet you there!

This year, I'm hoping to entice some corporate community gardeners to join me at a table to talk about the unique aspects of this type of community garden.

All are welcome to:
All are welcome to attend. 
Please RSVP to Shelly
Please bring a dish to pass.

  • view photos from Community Action Coalition Garden Days and 2012 garden events
  • find out what's going on at other gardens
  • learn from one another
  • network with gardeners from across the city
  • share garden accomplishments - challenges and successes! and
  • try yummy food - heck, you could even swap recipes!
Monday, Oct. 29, 6 - 8 p.m.
Catholic Multicultural Center
1862 Beld St, MadisonCMC is just east of Park Street near Bram Street.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Becoming an A.G.G. (amateur garlic grower)

I recently took a class about successfully raising garlic. You may wonder "Why?" especially after my early boasting about garlic. I'm of the school that's there's always something new to learn, and in this case, the class confirmed everything I knew about garlic (not a bad thing to do), and I learned a couple of new things.

The class was presented by Gary Kuzynski, A.G.G. (amateur garlic grower :). This garlic class is actually one part of a series of five classes that Gary presents every springtime. He presents this part again in the autumn because it's nearly time to plant garlic. He said that at the end of the class, we were all A.G.G., that's cool, I got a title after a 90-minute class! I asked if I could write about some highlights in my blog, and he told me to freely share information on my blog. I'll let you know when I learn when Gary's springtime series will take place.

Planting according to the moon

My Duganski hard-neck garlic, planted in Oct. '11 and harvested July '12.
One of the highlights of the class and something I certainly didn't know about is that if you care, you can plant garlic (an all other plants) according to the phases of the moon.

Plants that grow up above the ground prefer to be planted during the first and second quarters, that's between the new moon and the full moon. On the other hand, plants that grow below the ground prefer to be planted during the third and fourth quarters, between the full moon and the next new moon. It gets even more detailed, for example, garlic is best planted during the third quarter shortly after the full moon.

In 2012, the ideal time to plant garlic, according to this moon planting philosophy, is either early October, or early November.

However, Gary cautioned us that it's possible to plant garlic too early. Last year, I planted my garlic sometime in October, and I know that it started to sprout shortly after I planted it. This is not disastrous, but does take a withdrawal from the seed clove in the autumn, which will result in stunted garlic the next year. If my garlic was stunted this year, I can't wait to see my garlic next year!

According to the moon table that Gary provided us, the very best time to plant garlic is on Saturday, November 3. Sunday the 4th is okay to, but starting the 5th, other elements that I won't get into right now could result in a less ideal planting time. During the class, I looked at my calendar, and found that I am free on Saturday November 3, so that’ s when I’m planting garlic.

Acquiring garlic seed yet this year

If you have not ordered garlic from a mail-order seed supplier, it's most likely too late to order from them, but don't worry. You can still acquire garlic to plant this fall from your local farmers market or greenhouse.

It's important to note that most garlic sold in grocery stores has been treated not to sprout. You may get a few successful plants, but you'd be much better off buying organic untreated garlic. If you've got little time, ask the farmer what variety you are buying and you can look it up later online.

I'll write post about planting techniques closer to planting time.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Trellising tomatoes (string trellis) Part 4

If you just discovered this blog, this is Part 4 in a series on growing tomatoes in the home garden. Check out the earlier parts:
Well, this series got a bit side-lined by an out-of-town vacation and garden work. I should write something like this in the winter when we're all looking for some reading about summer.

Anyway, pictured at right is a trellis I built from an idea from my friend Diane. I built one of these last year to support beans, but they didn't grow a hill of...

I used this 10-foot long trellis to support a climbing variety of tomatoes that I don't recommend. (Olds Trip-L Climber. It splits at the shoulders and this year for me, it didn't yeild much). The trellis, however, did the job and I have an idea of what to do next year.

In a previous blog post, I lay out how to build this type of trellis, down to the parts and cost for each one at Home Depot. 

In my small garden, positioning the trellis is important, and here are the changes I'm making next year.
You can order these from Territorial Seed Company.

I have 4-foot wide beds. I'm going to position the 10-foot long by 5-foot tall trellis down the middle of one bed. Then, I'll alternately plant indeterminate tomatoes a foot from either long-edge of the bed. Instead of the netting, I'm going to tie a cord to the top of the trellis and drape the cord down either side of the trellis.

As the plants grow, I'll prune viciously and use tomato clips to direct the remaining vines up the cord.

Just in case you're wondering, I do not get anything for mentioning products or stores. I just tell you what I like.

  1. Intro to varieties and classifications
  2. Pruning
  3. Trellising I - why bother?
  4. Trellising II - string trellis
  5. Trellising III - those crappy tomato cages
  6. Pests and diseases
  7. Watering

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Dehydrator decision

I used my parent's dehydrator last autumn to preserve part of my hot pepper abundance and at once saw the value and practicality of dehydrating food. The benefits are compounded by the limits of our smallish freezer and inability (for now) of buying a chest freezer.

A few weeks ago I took a great dehydrating class (through the Willy Street Coop by Polly Reott, master food preserver) where I pretty much decided to buy a dehydrator.

Now the decision is which one to buy. Please post your opinions and comments to my three questions below. If you are reading this by email, please go to the blog to post your answers so all can see! Thanks.

Vertical pros and cons

The obvious benefit to the vertical air-flow models is that there are stacking trays, which in some cases can be stacked pretty darn tall. This means that the dehydrator is always the right size for the job. My research (so far) is that vertical (round) dehydrators are cheaper to initially purchase.

However, the trays on the far side of the heating element receive cooler air, and often stacks need to be changed around. The vertical airflow also means that for the most part, you can't mix vegetables in the unit, because peppers below could flavor the tomatoes above.

Also, most vertical units are round. Geometrically speaking, most round and square units will take up about the same counter space but a square unit would provide more tray space.

Horizontal pros and cons

I went online to do some research. Polly highly recommended the "horizontal airflow" models such as the Excalibur they had at Willy West.

You can deduce two of the pro's by reading the cons above; less chance of flavor mixing with the horizontal air flow and more even heating.

However, these units have a fixed number of trays. And, horizontal airflow models tend to be pricier.

My needs

I expect to dehydrate peppers, tomatoes and herbs from my garden. But with one, a whole new world opens up. Crackers? Fruit? Squash?

So,  my three questions are:

  1. Would you recommend buying a round vertical or square horizontal airflow unit?
  2. If side airflow, I have to choose a size, generally 5- or 9-tray. What would you recommend for home use?
  3. With either choice, what brand do you recommend.


Thursday, August 30, 2012

Garlic cultivation class in Madison, Wis.

I just got this notice for a garlic cultivation class in the Madison, Wis. area. I had great garlic luck this year, but was it beginners luck? So I'm probably going to take one of the classes.


By Gary Kuzynski

The class with cover:
  • Seed selection
  • Soil preparation
  • Planting info (spacing, depth, winter care)
  • Best planting times this fall
  • Harvesting guidelines (summer of 2013)
Please sign up with the contact specified for selected class.

Sept. 7, Friday 10:00-11:30am
Madison Senior Center - Downtown
Contact: Pat Guttenberg (608) 267-8650

Sept. 11, Tuesday 6:00-7:30pm
Lussier Community Center - West Madison
Contact: Gary Kuzynski (608) 228-4172

Sept. 12, Wednesday 6:00-7:30pm
East Madison Community Center - Near MATC
Contact: Gary Kuzynski (608) 228-4172

Cost: $5 or 1 Dane County Time Bank hour

Questions: Call Gary Kuzynski (608) 228-4172

Monday, August 27, 2012

Get ready for garllic

Garlic. Tangy. Tasty. And fairly easy to grow.
And you have to start thinking about it now. 
Really, I mean it, NOW. 

For us "northern" climate growers, don't make the same mistake I did last September and order softneck garlic. Only the hard-neck varieties thrive in our latitudes. Last year I planted a soft-neck and it was a major disappointment. Fortunately, the hard neck variety I bought (Duganski) did amazingly well, some of my crowns weighed in at four ounces. We harvested 10 pounds of garlic from one pound of crowns!

I highly recommend Territorial Seed Company. They have a wide variety of garlic and great customer service. If you don't know what you want, call them, they are very helpful!

The best part about raising garlic is you can use the seed over and over; so once you purchase a variety you like, you can keep using your own seed stock from year to year.

What are your favorite varieties?

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Pressure-canning class

Jay and I took a pressure-canning class tonight. We're now feeling competent enough to enter Phase II of garden domination, food preservation. It's been great to eat fresh tomatoes and salsa, but we're ready to venture into canned marinara and salsa, and may even hit some single-vegetable canning such as carrots, beans and beets. 

Shout out to FAIRSHARE CSA Coalition for organizing this and many other food preservation classes, and to instructor and master food preserver Polly Reott of Polly Jane's Pickles and Jams.

From left to right: pickled zucchini and salsa (water-bath canning class from a few weeks ago); carrots and green beans from tonight's pressure-canning class.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Solution for not enough tomatoes

I have 13 tomato plants in my community garden. They are producing beautiful fruit (seem to be past blossom-end rot now), but slowly. My paste tomatoes are small and tasty, but I don't have enough to actually do anything with them such as can salsa or a marinara sauce. And the really big paste and beefy tomato varieties are still green and getting bigger. But we really wanted to can this weekend because we're out of town next weekend - we had the time today but the tomatoes didn't cooperate.

Then it occurred to me. There must have been someone in my community garden who, this weekend, had a lot of tomatoes and had to go out of town and was wishing his or her tomatoes had come in a week later. What if I had offered a trade - "You give me 30 pounds of tomatoes this week. I'll have enough to can and you won't have any vegetables drop on the ground while you're away. And next week, I'll give you 30 pounds from my garden."

Is this a new idea, or have I just not come across the right bunch of vegetable swapping people, website or email list?

How do you glean enough produce to put it up with tomatoes ripening at different times?

Good and tasty, but not enough to do anything with - yet.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Baba Ganoush

Looks like we're making baba ganoush this weekend. What's your favorite way to prepare eggplant. PLEASE comment on the blog so all can see your wonderful ideas.

Here's a nice recipe. I char mine on the grill and whip up the skins and all in a food processor.

Also in today's harvest are some tomatoes and a few tomatillos.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

What would you plant?

I pulled all of my onions out of the ground earlier this week. Not newly 1/3 of my garden is empty. I haven't started any plants, and greenhouses and nurseries are already thinking about poinsettias.

What would you plant here?

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Trellising tomatoes (why bother?) Part 3

If you just discovered this blog, this is Part 3 in a series on growing tomatoes in the home garden. Check out Part 1 (intro) and Part 2 (pruning).

There are several reasons to trellis tomatoes. Determinate tomatoes, also known as "bush type" tomatoes, have a generally upright postion while growing and bearing young fruit, stop getting bigger but tend to flop over as fruit matures and gets bigger. 

Indeterminate tomatoes, on the other hand, never stop growing. Check out good old Wikipedia for more info on tomato classification.

One of the main reasons to trellis either type of tomato is to get the plant, leaves and fruit off the ground. In my five years of growing tomatoes on my own (that is, not with mom's guidance on the farm) I find this protects them from:
  • soil splashing on leaves, which can infect the plant with early blight.
  • keeps plants tidy, out of paths or from crowding other plants.
  • keeps fruit up off the ground away from the soil (potential rot issues) and animals (though chipmunks climb into my plants to steal fruit anyway).
Trellising also helps increase airflow and sun exposure, both of which help decrease the likelihood that a fungus will attack the plant. 

Indeterminate tomatoes, such as these in my community garden
plot, need to be trellised to keep them in line.
Finally, good trellising will keep plants from touching one another so you don't get those back seat arguments that start with "Mommmmmm, he's touching me." Seriously, keeping plants from touching can reduce disease transmission from plant to plant.

Here's a great resources from our own UW-Extension on growing tomatoes in Wisconsin

If you're convinced that trellising is a good idea, stay tuned for the next two parts of this series:
  • My version of a string trellis and how to build one
  • Those crappy tomato cages

If you'd like to learn more about growing veggies in person, check out Madison FarmWorks and their Urban Gardener series of classes. It's one thing to read a blog post, it's another to get into the field, see their best practices in action and most importantly, ask questions.

If you liked this, please subscribe to the blog so you don't miss any of the rest of this tomato series!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Pruning tomatoes (Part 2 in a series)

If you just discovered this blog, this is Part 2 in a series on growing tomatoes in the home garden. Check out Part 1 here.

Pruning tomatoes is key to healthy plants, which in turn increases production, decreases susceptibility to disease and makes  fruit easier to harvest.
Pruning is particularly important for indeterminate tomatoes. (learn more about indeterminate tomatoes).

Pruning for better production

Pruning helps direct energy from growing lots of leaves into fruit production, and helps with producing more, larger and earlier fruit. Sure, every plant needs leaves for photosynthesis, but not that many leaves. Tomatoes can get particularly leafy when presented with lots of nitrogen as well, so careful with the fertilizer.

Pruning for disease management

There are a number of soil- and air-borne diseases that you can minimize with proper pruning. Early blight is a soil-borne fungus that, when splashed up on leaves, will infect the plant. The good news is blight won't usually kill a plant, but will begin to defoliate the plant from the ground up and will compromise the plant's ability to produce lots of fruit.

As my plants mature and get taller, I start pruning them from the bottom up until I have no leaf branches up to about a foot up from the ground. I also trim back branches that sag down towards the ground, so that there is little to no chance of soil splashing up on the leaves. (A good thick layer of mulch will fortify pruning efforts by minimizing soil splash up as well.)

Pruning will also help with other air-borne diseases that require a moist, still environment to take hold on your tomato. Plants with dense foliage crammed into a tomato cage are just asking to harbor diseases such as fungus that like dark places.

When to prune, and tools

Tomato pruning can begin once a plant is established and has several sets of branches with leaves. As plants get larger, you need to be careful about how much you remove (it's also much more psychicly more difficult to do). And, a heavy pruning after fruit has set risks sun scalding the fruit (which would have toughened up with earlier pruning).

You don't need a fancy pruning tool for tomatoes. In fact, the best tool is already right in your hands. I snap branches and suckers off with my fingers. When I need to remove a particularly large branch, I use a simple scissors. 

What to prune

The big picture here is that you want two main stems to have leaves and fruit. The plant in the image above shows a plant that has been pruned to allow the main stem and one sucker to grow, leaf and bear fruit.

You can read more details about how to prune tomatoes on the Home-grown tomatoes for Wisconsin document. See page 3.

If you'd like to learn more about growing veggies in person, check out the classes offered by Madison FarmWorks and their  Urban Gardener series of classes. It's one thing to read a blog post, it's another to get into the field, see their best practices in action and most importantly, ask questions.

If you liked this, please subscribe to the blog so you don't miss any of the rest of this tomato series!

Monday, July 23, 2012

All about tomatoes in seven parts

Bush type determinate tomatoes
"Bush type" determinate tomatoes.
In a little more than two hours, I got a great lesson in growing tomatoes. In a little more than 15 years of writing for a living, I got a great lesson in writing short articles. This starts a series of (mostly) brief illustrated articles about tomatoes that will cover the following:

  1. Intro to varieties and classifications
  2. Pruning
  3. Trellising I - why bother?
  4. Trellising II - string trellis
  5. Trellising III - those crappy tomato cages
  6. Pests and diseases
  7. Watering
If you'd like to learn more about growing veggies in person, check out the classes offered by Madison FarmWorks and their  Urban Gardener series of classes. It's one thing to read a blog post, it's another to get into the field, see their best practices in action and most importantly, ask questions.

Part 1. Intro to varieties and classifications

Tomatoes are part of the Solanaceae family. This family is also known as "nightshades," which includes potatoes, peppers, tomatillos and eggplant. (Good news, I took another class called "Solanaceae - everything but tomatoes" which if I get through this series in a reasonable amount of time, I'll also write up).

Tomatoes are generally heat-loving plants, but really prefer warm days accompanied by cool nights. In fact, tomatoes will often drop their flowers if hit with prolonged hot days and nights, like, say, this July.

Originating in South America, the tomato was spread around the world following the Spanish colonization of the Americas. Read more about them on Wikipedia.

Tomato varieties

Here are the most recognizable tomato varieties:
  • "Slicing" or "globe" tomatoes are the usual tomatoes of commerce, used for a wide variety of processing and fresh eating.
  • Beefsteak tomatoes are large tomatoes often used for sandwiches and similar applications. Their kidney-bean shape, thinner skin, and shorter shelf life makes commercial use impractical but make for a great home gardening variety.
  • Plum tomatoes, or paste tomatoes (including pear tomatoes), are bred with a higher solids content for use in tomato sauce and paste, and are usually oblong.
  • Pear tomatoes are obviously pear-shaped, and are based upon the San Marzano types for a richer gourmet paste.
  • Cherry tomatoes are small and round, often sweet tomatoes generally eaten whole in salads.
  • Grape tomatoes, a more recent introduction, are smaller and oblong, a variation on plum tomatoes, and used in salads.
Indeterminate tomatoes need trellising to
keep them in line, such as this net trellis
in my community garden plot. More on trellising
in Part 3, 4 and 5!

Tomato classification

There are two classifications of tomato, determinate and indeterminate
Determinate tomatoes tend to put energy into first the plant, then the flowers and then ripening the fruit, which tends to come at (generally) the same time. These are great for canning because you get a lot of fruit at one time. Determinate tomatoes are also called "bush" tomatoes because they stop growing up at a certain height (determined by the variety).

Indeterminate tomatoes, on the other hand, are a wily bunch that, given the chance, will outcompete many varieties of zucchini. Before I knew how to reign in indeterminate tomatoes, I had a cherry tomato that had a wingspread of at least 25 feet. Indeterminate tomatoes need to be pruned, which I will hopefully get to before your plants take over your garden. These produce fruit all season long, which make them ideal for fresh eating or small-batch processing such as freezing or drying.

Hybrid and heirloom

Finally, it's good to understand that there are hybrid and heirloom seeds to choose from.
Plants from hybrid seeds will carry on desired traits from the two parents, but the resulting seeds can't be saved from year to year because you never know what you'll get.

Heirloom seeds will be true to their type, which means you are able to save the seeds from year to year and count on getting the same plant and fruit each year. The plants tend to be hardier, but the fruit tends to crack easily and sometimes aren't so "pretty.


When planting tomatoes, it's a good idea to select the classification according to your needs (determinate and/or indeterminate) and a variety of species to ensure at least a few of your plants survive disease, pests or a drought, because not all plants are susceptible to the same things.

If you liked this, please subscribe to the blog so you don't miss any of the rest of this tomato series!

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Solanaceae, disease and dehydrating

This has been a great week of learning about gardening and what to do with the produce.

On Tuesday, I spent a couple of hours with Megan and Claire from Madison FarmWorks talking about Solanaceae (everything but tomatoes), including peppers, potatoes, eggplant and tomatillos. Will write more about it just after I write about the great tomato class I took last week.

Thursday, Brian Hudelson, a UW-Extension plant disease expert, visited the American Family Community garden to see what he might find. The good news is there wasn't much disease in the garden, thanks to the dry weather we've had. I'll browse my notes to see what I can write here. Check out what Brian had to say about blossom-end-rot when he visited our gardens last year. 

I spent Thursday evening at a dehydration workshop put on by the Fair Share CSA Coalition. LOTS to write about from this one. 

Jay and I are signed up for two-class canning series. Jay is going to take the water-bath class for high-acid foods on Aug. 12 (4-7 p.m.) and I'm taking the pressure-canning class for low-acid foods on Aug. 26 (4-7:30 p.m.) You can learn more about these at