Summer 2010 Tomato Report

Tomato season began inauspiciously with unseasonably cold weather for Southern California. I simply couldn’t get any seeds to germinate. Thankfully, Craig of gardenedibles.com came to the rescue with a couple of seedlings for us. Here’s a recap of our tomato successes and failures:

Red Pear. I’ve grown this one before. It’s a plump, ribbed, meaty tomato. It’s flavorful and amazing both fresh and made into sauce. Craig concurs that this is a must grow variety.

Napoli. A paste variety with a short bushy growth pattern. Like San Marzanos this vine cranks out a ton of fruit. Did not taste great fresh but made the best canned tomatoes I’ve ever grown–I’m guessing this variety is bred for canning.

St. Pierre: not much to say about it. O.K., but not all that exciting.

Yellow pear. This small cherry tomato sprouted out of the compost. It’s kinda bland, but we got a ton of them. I borrowed some time in neighbors Anne and Bill’s dehydrator and dried them.

Sun Gold. Mrs. Homegrown stuck a Sun Gold tomato in the backyard which I failed to care for properly. Nevertheless, it still produced a decent crop.Very sweet and prolific.

Failures. I had three vines fail on me due to a combination of not transplanting soon enough and not paying attention to them–mainly, I think they got root bound in their pots.

Lessons
This year I took the watering advice of tomato guru Steve Goto of  Gotomato. Goto suggested a thick layer of mulch and a very deep watering when transplanting. The next watering comes when the plant droops in the morning–a whole month for me. Thereafter you water deeply only when the plant droops again in the morning, which worked out to be about once a week. You ignore any droopiness during midday and only water in the morning. I used in-line drip emitter tubing and all seemed to go well. Goto has tomato growing instructions you can download here.

Another big lesson is that even in sunny Southern California you need a cold frame to get good germination in the spring. We’ll blog about the cold frame I just added to our back patio soon.

So how did your tomatoes do this year? Drop us a comment with your geographical location and the tomato varieties you liked the most/least.

One of our favorite activities: Depaving

Taking out concrete with a sledgehammer may not be everyone’s idea of a great time, but believe me, Erik is having a great time in this picture. Any opportunity to get rid of a few feet of ugly concrete or asphalt,  and replace it with soil and plants, is not an opportunity to be missed. Depaving increases growing room for green things and it also gives more points of access for rain to enter the ground and renew the water tables–rather than being lost down into the sewers. Think about your home–do you have sidewalks that can be replaced with mulched paths? Can you reduce the size of your driveway? How much of your backyard is paved?

What Erik is doing here is pretty simple. He’s taking out a chunk of our back patio, ripping it down to soil. The next step is to build a big planter box above the hole. This way, our planter box becomes a raised bed rather than a simple container. While it’s possible to garden in containers, it’s always better, if at all possible, to open the bottom to soil.

We’re pretty fearless about messing with our back patio because it’s ugly, cracked and worn out.  Any yuppie worth their salt would have replaced it out years ago, but we’ve had more pressing repairs to do. You can see we built a sort of deck/arbor thing there behind Erik, but the larger area of the patio has long been a sort of unattractive work-zone/no-man’s land. A non-space.  Reclaiming it is part of our backyard renovation, and building a raised bed at the edge of the patio is part of that plan. This new bed will give us 200 square feet of new growing space, pulled from an area that did nothing before but collect junk.

The cement work on the patio is so poor that it’s easy for us to take out with simple tools. In this case Erik first defined the area of removal by slot cutting the concrete with a hand-held circular saw fitted with a blade called a “Masonry Cut-Off Wheel.”  (If our patio were made of better concrete, we’d have to rent a gas powered, water cooled saw with a diamond studded blade . These are available at equipment rental joints.)  The cool thing is that once you make that neat cut, you can bash around inside the lines with a sledgehammer and (hopefully) the cement will not crack outside the lines.

Here you can see the slot cut lines at the bottom and right. Erik has pounded this area with the sledge hammer, and is prying up thin layers of cement with a crowbar. Our patio was covered with archaeological layers of skim coats–so in our case, the work is a matter of taking out thin layer after thin layer. A more solid patio would be taken out in big chunks. At any rate, Erik kept hammering away–while I helpfully “documented”–until he hit the sad and sorry soil that’s been trapped beneath the concrete for perhaps 90 years. That soil will revive. That’s the amazing things. Soon enough moisture and worms will move in and it will live once more.

We would have liked to have recycled the broken chunks of concrete to use elsewhere, but its poor quality meant that it fractured into tiny chunks too small to use as “urbanite.”

Stay tuned to see the new raised bed.

Propagating herbs via cuttings

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Say you have one lavender plant, but you’d like to have more. Or your trusty sage plant is getting old and woody and needs to be pulled, but you wish you could save a bit of it and start fresh. One way to accomplish this is to grow new plants from cuttings taken from your existing plant. This is process called taking softwood cuttings. You cut small bits of plant, dip them in a rooting hormone, then baby the cuttings until they grow roots of their own. Basically, it’s cloning.

Herbs are particularly suited to this sort of propagation, since it’s better to have a fresh young herb plant than scraggy woody old herb plant, and this is a way to renew your herb plants. Also, it may be hard to collect seeds from your favorite herbs, particularly if you live somewhere cold.

It takes a good while for cuttings to root, so you don’t do this when you’re in a hurry to get plants in the ground. But if you plan it right, this is a cheap and satisfying way of propagating plants.

Erik and I are ripping up our back yard, basically taking it down to bare soil. I’m taking cuttings of many of the things I’m ripping out, so that I can replace them later.  I decided to document the process for the edification of all ya’lls.

A note on timing:

If you live in a cold winter climate, this will be the wrong time of year to take cuttings–wait til spring. But in a warm winter climate this is the ideal time. We plant perennials in the winter, so that they can use the rains to get established before the long, dry summer.

You’ll need:

–Something nice and sharp to take cuttings with, ideally a grafting knife, but really any very sharp cutting implement. What you don’t want is to take cuttings with something so dull it crushes the stem. Think like a surgeon.

–A seedling tray or a bunch of little plastic containers filled with good potting soil.
(Note: Don’t use peat pots or egg cartons or anything similar. In general I don’t think they’re good vessels for starting plants, but in this case in particular it would be disastrous because they’d disintegrate in the constant moisture, and/or attract mold.)

–A bottle of rooting hormone powder (available at nurseries)

–A glass of water

–A small dish or tray

–A plastic bag or two, or a plastic lid for your tray, or some plastic bottles. See below

–Maybe a spray bottle full of water–for watering later

How to to do it:

This is your set up:

On your worktable you’ll want a glass of water and a dish or tray with a bit of the rooting hormone in it. You don’t need much. You dip in the tray instead of the rooting hormone bottle to keep the contents of the bottle clean and dry. One jar of rooting hormone will serve for hundreds of cuttings.

You’ll also want your seedling tray or plastic pots or whatever you’re using full of soil and ready to go before you start.

Take some cuttings and trim them down:

Go forth ye into the garden and pluck a branch of herb. When choosing a branch to propagate, look for the freshest, plumpest, prettiest sprigs you can find. The ones that seem to be flushed with life force, not ones that seem mature, or worse, in decline. The stems should be pliant, not woody. Look for tiny leaves sprouting at the tips. That’s always a good sign.

Here’s a nice bit of lavender that will be used for this demo:

Next you’re going to strip your cutting down to just a little nubbin. You start by plucking off all but the very topmost leaves. Do this cleanly, try not to strip skin from the stem. The reason you do this is because leaves are a site of moisture loss during the rooting process. Excess leaves would die anyway, and too many will imperil the cutting. Pluck it down until there’s only a pair or two pairs at the top. Erik says I always leave too many. Consider what you see in the following photos a generous quantity.

The next photo is the same sprig stripped down. It’s not the clearest picture–I was having serious problems with the macro lens on the camera–but I hope if you look close at the bare stalk you can see the swelling in the stem in the places where the leaves used to emerge. These are called nodes.  There are three in that picture. The first a little bump just beneath the leaves, the second a kind of busy node, midway down, and the third just above the bottom of the picture. Ignore that tiny stray leaf between nodes 2 and 3. 

The next step is to make a cut at a node–make the cut just beneath the node, as cleanly as possible. Remember, you don’t want to crush the stem at all when you make the cut.

Which node you choose depends on what sort of herb you’re working with. It’s just a matter of common sense. The cutting will be planted in soil, so the stem needs to be long enough to bury–about an inch, more or less. The lavender cutting is large, relatively speaking, so in this case it was cut at the topmost node. But that day I was also rooting thyme cuttings. These were much smaller and more delicate, so I was cutting them three or four nodes down. I hope that makes sense.

Dip it, Dip it Good:

After you cut the stem, dip the cut end in the glass of water and then dip it in the rooting hormone. Dip only the tip of the stem–try not to get it on the leaves. So you end up with this:

Okay, again, not the best pic. The crap on the end of the cutting is the hormone powder. The pen is for scale. I should have/could have removed another set of leaves from this cutting.

Plant the Cutting:

Next, make a hole in the soil with you fingertip, plant the cutting up to its leaves and gently pat down the soil around it.  Here’s a portion of my tray, showing sage and thyme cuttings:

Now, here’s an important tip. Make lots and lots of cuttings of each plant you plan to propagate. Many more than you actually need because there is a high failure rate. Expect that a good number of them will wither up and die of various causes. I figure my failure rate will be 50%, so I make twice as many as I need.

Cover it in Plastic:

The cuttings are very delicate, so they need a moist, hothouse atmosphere. They must be completely covered in plastic. If your tray comes with a plastic lid, that’s great. If you don’t have one, put a plastic bag over your pot(s) or tray. It does not have to be clear. A regular plastic grocery bag or a white plastic bin liner is fine. Cut plastic bottles are good for pots, too.

If you’re using a bag, contrive a way to keep the plastic up,  so it doesn’t lay on the cuttings. Prop it up with sticks or plastic utensils or arcs of wire. Encase the entire pot or tray in the bag, so no air gets in. If they have ventilation, there won’t be enough moisture inside.

Aftercare:

The cutting part is the easy part. The hard part is waiting, and keeping these babies alive. They must always be moist, but not boggy. The plastic should make keeping them moist easy, but they will need a bit of water now and then. You might find it easiest to water them with a spray bottle, because if you water with any force before they root, you might dislodge them.

Every couple days take the plastic bag off and turn it inside out, so that there’s not too much condensation collecting on the underside of the plastic and splattering on the cuttings. It’s a delicate balance between nicely moist and too wet.

If you see any fungus or mold–anything suspicious at all– on one of your cuttings, pull it out. You don’t want that spreading.

If the cuttings are outdoors, you also have to protect them from heat and sun. Remember, the plastic could make your tray into a solar oven. We’ve come home after a day of unexpected heat to find our cuttings steam cooked in their trays. Move them to a shady spot if the weather is expected to be warm and sunny.  They like to be warm, but not too warm. The 65-70ºF zone is perfect.

You know your cuttings are succeeding when they put off new growth. They should be well rooted and ready for transplant in about 4 weeks.

New Squash Baby Theory: Aliens

Photo courtesy Piero Fiocco

At the risk of becoming the “squash baby blog,” one final post on the subject. Reader Piero Fiocco sent some photo evidence that conflicts with Doug Harvey’s “Sass-squash” theory. Fiocco sent a brief, cryptic note:

“I from Italy once again.
I came in possession of this evidence….
Use it as you wish, but keep Erik cool :)

Ciao from Italy!”

It seems as though I “grew” an Internet meme rather than summer vegetables this year!

Squash sibling wants to send a text message but can’t due to outdated tech at Homegrown compound.

But at least I got “squash baby sibling,” which weighed in at a mere 17 pounds, shown above with a phone for scale .

Squash sibling was mercilessly chopped up and turned into four squash galettes, plus lots of leftovers.

Unfortunately squash sibling was harvested prematurely, to prevent theft, and tasted more like a zucchini (if it were ripe it would have pumpkin-style flesh). Because of this, the galettes were sub-standard.

Funny, writing this post reminded me that I had completely forgotten about the big, fat Greek pumpkin I grew last year. Read that post for a link to the galette recipe.

Grow a Fence

Image from Mother Earth News

Why build a fence when you can grow one? Permaculturalist Harvey Ussery has an article, “Living Fences How-to Advantages and Tips” in the latest Mother Earth News that describes several plants and strategies for creating living barriers that do more than just keep the livestock in. Hedges such as Osage orange (Maclura pomifera) provide fodder as well as fencing. Others, such as black locust fix nitrogen into the soil. For  USDA zones 8 to 9 Ussery suggests Jujube (Ziziphus jujuba). I’ll add that prickly pear cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica) also makes a nice edible fence in warm and dry climates.

Read this article and more on the voluminous Mother Earth News website.

Squash Baby Reconsidered

An entertaining lecture by permaculturalist Larry Santoyo last night at Project Butterfly was the perfect place to reflect on the whole squash baby debacle. During the talk I thought about just how completely I had abandoned the principles of permaculture in my management of the publicly accessible parkway garden where squash baby once resided. Some thoughts:

1. Rather than try to keep people from taking vegetables in the parkway garden, why not encourage them instead? Put up a sign describing what’s growing and when it’s ready to pick. One problem I’ve had in the past has been folks pulling up unripe vegetables. So some education, in the form of signs, might help. Maybe a chalkboard could detail when things are ready to pick.

2. I could create an honor stand like the one at the organic farm I visited up in Bolinas, Gospel Flat Farm.  At Gospel Flat you drop your money in a box. Most of the time the stand is unstaffed. I could do the same and donate any (admittedly small) funds to a charity–perhaps a school garden.

3. In permaculture you value edges and marginal areas. It’s at these intersections where life and culture happen. The parkway is an edge space between the private and the public. Rather than fight this space and try to privatize it, perhaps I should celebrate its public nature. I could add a bench and a water fountain. I could also do a better job of keeping it looking good (my summer garden was hideously ugly and unkempt). A more public parkway garden might also have the paradoxical effect of making it more secure and self-policed, since it will have communal value to folks walking by.

Permaculture works better as social engineering rather than horticultural dogma. Permaculture is not about creating that stereotypical herb spiral. It’s about our relationships both to each other and the natural world. Squash baby provided a much greater lesson by being taken than ending up as gnocchi on our dinner plates.

Squash Baby Stolen!

Squash Baby’s empty cage


This morning we woke to find that Squash Baby had been taken during the night.

Erik just returned from searching the neighborhood, hoping to find traces, remanants or, heaven help us, the perp him or herself.  Needless to say, he is cursing. He’d planned on harvesting Squash Baby today, so it is particularly heartbreaking. It had stopped adding inches (I believe it held at 36″), and had started taking on golden tones.

I only hope that the people who took it plan on eating it. If it’s feeding a family (which it could do for several days), that’s fine. If some kids took it and smashed in an alley…well, that’s best not pondered. Forensic examination of the stem stump, however, reveals that the perp did not use a knife, but rather pried the squash* free. This speaks ominously to an impulse theft.

Once I saw a Buddhist monk on TV. He held up a pretty glass and said, “This glass is already broken.”  My attitude toward Squash Baby has always been, “This squash is already stolen.” But poor Erik was much attached to the squash, and his head was filled with images of squash galettes and squash gnocchi and squash soup.  He wanted to have a squash butchering party.  Now he’s hunched over his breakfast cereal, disconsolate, and muttering about never planting anything in the parkway again.

He harvested Squash Sibling this morning, though it could have grown some more, I believe.  We’re hoping it’s ripe enough for good eating. It’s no inconsiderable squash, despite being the runt of the litter. It measures 22 inches.

Next year we will plant Lunga di Napoli again, far from the street.

* N.B. Squash Baby was technically a pumpkin, as noted in a previous post.

Least Farvorite Plant:–Heavenly Bamboo–Neither Heavenly nor Bamboo

Chickens assist in heavenly bamboo removal.

About a year ago, while searching for a spot for our new and larger compost pile, Mrs. Homegrown suggested ripping out a stand of heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica) that occupied a shady spot in a corner of our backyard. My reaction? I think I said something like, “No way, it’s been there for twelve years and it took forever to reach three feet.”

Some time later Homegrown Neighbor came over and took a look at the yard. She said, “Why don’t you rip out that awful heavenly bamboo.” Once again I ignored the suggestion.

Last week Tara Kolla of Silver Lake Farms came over to rethink the garden. Eying the heavenly bamboo she scowled and demanded, “rip it out,” noting that it was ugly, diseased and caked with Los Angeles smog dust.

A few hour later I ripped it out. Needless to say Mrs. Homegrown is dismayed that it takes two experts to confirm something before I’ll listen to her advice.

Marital landscaping disputes aside, it’s not that this plant is inherently evil, it’s just not that interesting. Heavenly bamboo is not a bamboo It’s a member of the Berberidaceae or Barberry family. All parts of the plant are poisonous except to birds who can ingest the berries.While it’s draught tolerant (we never watered it), I don’t miss it. Typically, you see it tucked into forlorn plantings alongside 1960s era bank buildings. I suppose it provides some fodder for the birds, but that’s about it. Perhaps in some Japanese fantasy garden it would fit in next to the tea house, but we ain’t got no tea house.

I guess the lesson here, in addition to listening to your wife, is that gardens change and you’ve got to change with them. As Heraclitus said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” Gardens, especially, should celebrate that impermanence. Now I have the beginnings of a big compost pile where it once stood.

We’ll detail some of the other changes we’re making in future posts and put up some before pictures. Stay tuned.

Hops Growing Resources

Reader Matt sent a couple of detailed links on growing hops. First an organic hops growing manual (pdf) by Rebecca Kneen of the Left Fields organic farm in British Columbia. Secondly, a PowerPoint presentation by hops farmer and breeder Jason Perrault here (pdf) along with the transcript here (pdf). I’m going to go through these resources before transferring the hops I’ve been growing in containers to the ground in the spring.

Thanks Matt and happy brewing to all!