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

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Bagels & Bugs

Bagels & Bugs

Join Us for Breakfast & Organic Pest Prevention Talk
Join fellow gardeners to learn about organic pest prevention and control from local entomologist,
Phil Pellitteri. Bagels, coffee and juice will be provided. Please bring along your questions and specimens!
Saturday, July 21st 9:30-11am
East Madison Community Center, 8 Straubel Ct
RSVP to Michelle Shively 246-4730 ext 208. Save your spot today!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

More about watering

Watering Tips from Madison FarmWorks

I just received some great watering tips from Megan Cain of Madison FarmWorks. She asked people to forward to gardeners, and while I did just write about watering, this is a bit more comprehensive and comes from a true "expert" from the field.

Most plants need only 1 inch of water per week

I am still watering my garden like I always do - once per week very deeply. In more typical weather, if it rains during the week I will skip watering if my rain gauge says it rained close to an inch. The exception to this rule is newly seeded crops - depending on the crop I water seeds every 1-3 days. I have also noticed that new transplants are suffering from the excessively dry soil - so they might need more watering until their root systems get established.

Many plants will suffer from being overwatered

There is no reason to water already established plants more than once per week unless there are visible signs of distress. This is not good for them! You can cause disease to spread in your garden by overwatering. Many vegetables like tomatoes and squash like drier conditions. Mature plans prefer the soil to dry out a bit between watering.

Water less frequently and more deeply

Frequent and shallow watering will cause your plants' roots to stay at the surface of the soil. You want deeply rooted plants - so water less often and for a longer duration. Deeply rooted plants will be more equipped to handle dry conditions because they will be able to access the moisture deep in the soil. 

Water at the base of the plants

Overhead watering is inefficient and can be damaging to plants because it is more likely to spread disease. I like to use a wand and hold it at the base of each plant for 20-30 seconds. Yes, this takes a long time - but you're only watering once a week now that you've read this message! Drip hoses or tape are also a good option for watering at soil level.

Water early in the morning or in the evening

Much more water is lost to evaporation when you water in the middle of the afternoon.

Mulch, mulch, mulch

Bare soil is not advisable for the vegetable garden. Mulching thickly with hay or straw retains moisture in the soil. It also will keep down weeds, help with disease issues and break down and add organic matter to your soil.

Please forward to all of the gardeners you know! If you have any questions, contact Megan at Madison FarmWorks at

And don't forget your daily rain dance!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

New look for the blog

Now more than a year into this blog, it was time for an update. Big shout-out to Molly who created the new header for the blog. It was a nice barter for some gardening phone support! I've also been playing with the layout to make it easy for people to subscribe and find previous posts. 

Shout-out as well to my friend Tim who, during a great Facebook thread about a new name, came up with The Urbane Farmer. It fit all my criteria, short, catchy and descriptive of who I am.

It's hard to believe that I've been blogging now for more than a year, starting with a post titled "You can take the man out of the country, but you can't take the country out of the man." My mom often said that about me, so shout out to MOM as well, who has inspired me more than she knows to reconnect with gardening, grow my own food, prepare it well and to take the next obvious step, preserve it for good eating in the winter. Watch for adventures in canning this autumn!

I'd also like to acknowledge my husband and silent partner in this blog. I write 'em, and he quietly goes in and fixes grammar and the occasional typo that I miss because I'm so excited about the first garlic or earthworms or mulch.

Finally, thank you to those who read and follow this blog, I truly enjoy the experience, relish your comments and hope you are having as much fun with this as I am.

American Family Gothic

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Revisting Tara's mobility-accessible garden

In mid-June, I helped my friend Tara wrestle a neglected mobility-accessible garden into submission. We won that first "Battle of the Weeds" (see blog post) and had a nice time connecting while we worked.

I wanted to see how the garden was progressing and reconnect with Tara, so Jay and I invited ourselves to visit her community garden bed. The heat had kept Tara away from the garden -- who didn't it keep out of the garden? But with the welcomed break in temperatures, the three of us went to see how it was doing.

The bed didn't look anything like when we first planted it. The tomatoes were progressing nicely and there were peppers soon to be harvested. Tara also planted kale and basil (she kept nibbling on the kale during our time in the garden :) and we all removed basil flowers and kept "oohing" and "ahhhhing" at the heavenly scents our work released into the air.

A few things that make this garden bed mobility accessible:

  • it's located just off a paved bike path (easy wheelchair access).
  • it's located just off a road with parking, again, easy wheelchair access.
  • the garden is built up 36 inches on the bike path side, and 25 inches off the ground in the back (there is a bit of a slope). This makes it easy to sit on the sides and work without standing or squatting. 
  • there is a path around the bed (that is to say, there aren't gardens immediately adjacent, allowing for easy access from all sides).
This bed isn't 100 percent wheelchair accessible because of the slope and the unpaved path around the garden. But Tara is able to wheel to the garden and, because she is able to get around on crutches, can access the rest of the bed when she needs to.

Tara showing Jay the kale (behind the tomato plants).

Tara and I pruned the tomato plants, removing suckers to improve fruit production and removing the lower branches and leaves to delay the inevitable blight later in the season.

What a lovely way to spend a Sunday evening -- in the garden with a friend!

Friday, July 6, 2012

Proper watering techniques in a drought

We're having practically drought-like conditions in Wisconsin. But you can still overwater your tomatoes (and the rest of your garden for that matter). All the reading I've done says that at this stage in the growing season, you need to soak your plants with an inch of water (remember rain gauges?) once a week. Overwatering will produce leafy plants with little fruit and can weaken plants. Here's a great article explaining blossom-end rot and what can and can't be done to prevent it.


You can help the soil maintain moisture by heavily mulching your tomatoes. Our community garden provides bales of marsh hay for garden mulch. Use "slabs" of hay around the base of the plant to both maintain even moisture between watering, to protect the soil from erosion and to keep weeds to a minimum. Straw, plastic and any number of other materials work as well. Wood chips are not good for annual plants such as tomatoes, wood consumes nitrogen from the soil as it decomposes, stealing it from your plants.

Even watering

If a plant receives excess water, the roots can’t breathe, and will rot. The gardening Web site says, “Over watering also leads to fungal diseases and mold. Once root rot begins the plant will start to die, but if it’s caught early enough, it can be saved. Signs of over watering include: wilting, yellow leaves, mushy stems and mold growth on the soil.” 

Check out the rest of this excellent article on proper tomato watering techniques.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Construction has started in community garden

I was in the garden at noon, watering, and there was nothing to be seen. After work, I arrive to find the new electrical junction box into huge pieces of construction equipment sitting on top of our ex- pumpkin bed.