Category Archives: Tomatoes

Plan now for a Fall-Winter garden

by Peter Heffelfinger

Posted July 5, 2020

 

Pivot Point

Having just passed the summer solstice, the garden is at its seasonal pivot point. Even as summer begins, hopefully with some good sunny weather to end the extended rains, the days are getting slightly shorter. It’s time to start planning for fall and winter crops. Summer harvests will start to pile up, the weather will assuredly turn dry and hot, and watering will become the daily issue. But amidst all the garden rush, it pays to start planning now where the following season’s plantings will go.

The first winter crop I think of is leeks. Since this year’s onions have been hindered by the rains, developing mold on the bulbs, or generally not thriving, I turn to leeks, the reliable allium. Being an extended stem rather than a terminal bulb, they resist rot in the ground, and hold up all winter long against the cold and the wet. I already have an early, summer/fall leek crop going, but I need to put in a second wave of leeks that will mature in the fall and continue to be harvested through the winter months. No need for drying and storage. The leeks are always in the ground, ready for use, whatever the weather.

The outer leek sheaths will get eventually soft and mushy by mid-winter, but with a simple stripping, the clean white inner core is ready for the pot. The key is the hardy root system that keeps growing slowly all winter. When you dig up a hefty leek in February, a large bolus of soil comes out as well, held onto by the extensive white roots. To form that solid foundation get them in the ground now so they can slowly develop all summer and into the fall. The reward will come in the short days of winter.

 

Other Fall Plantings

The nursery starts for fall plantings began showing up a few weeks ago, so seek them out before they disappear in this year of increased demand for garden supplies. Look for late varieties of cabbage, such as January King, as well as hardy collards. Seek out fall and winter varieties of broccoli and cauliflower, as well as any of the hardy kales. There is also the hardy Tatsoi mustard, the standard Winter Bloomsdale spinach, plus Daikon and Black Spanish winter radishes. Lots to choose from if you look. Not to forget the perennial garlic chives, which will stay green if you keep it protected during cold spells.

Last winter I had fresh turnip greens lasting all the way into spring from a fall-sown Tokyo Cross type designed to produce leafy tops, rather than roots. The large woody root, eventually rising above ground like a small dome, kept sending up fresh sprouts deep into spring, trying to go to seed. As long as I kept snacking on the shoots and buds, it kept sending up new growth. At the end, the dome was a hollow shell that came easily out of the soil, but it had completed its mission, like some long-lived interplanetary voyager with little leafy antennas.

 

Summer Duties

At this point in the season, things have settled into a regular pattern:

watering, weeding, and harvesting. In the hoop house, the cherry tomato plants have grown to the ceiling and will need to be trimmed; the regular tomatoes have filled out their cages and should start setting more fruit in the warm weather. Now is the time to start thinning out the suckers and removing central foliage to allow better air circulation.

The peppers are starting to form and ripen, along with the first cucumbers and eggplants. Each day I help the curlicued tendrils of the cucumber vines grab onto the trellis to help support the coming weight of the mature cukes. Outside, the pole beans are climbing their trellis, and there again I make sure the emerging vines at the ground level latch onto the nearest vertical support. Vegetable kindergarten, helping little hands grab onto things.

 

Bee Swarm Update

With the loss of the queen and some of the bees, I thought the hive had failed, since I hadn’t seen any bees in flight for days on end during the recent cold and wet weather. After a follow-up inspection, our keeper said all was ok. The newly installed queen had been busy making new brood to fill out combs, with the workers staying at home, relying on bottled sugar water. On the first sunny day two weeks later the restored bees were out again, finding the waiting winter squash and zucchini blossoms. Now that the first 6-inch zucchinis have appeared, it’s truly summer.

 

A New Backyard Pest; and much more

By Peter Heffelfinger

Posted June 8, 2020

A new backyard pest

I spent several days this week dealing with an infestation of what looked like tiny, black, leaf-eating caterpillars that swarmed over a mature stand of highbush cranberry shrubs and also onto one nearby snowball bush. The leaves were skeletonized, leaving the stems and veins intact, by what resembled tiny leeches with legs, crawling up the main trunks to get to the foliage. The only solution was to cut down the tall shrubs completely and take them to the burn pile for immediate incineration. I am hoping I got rid of enough of the pests before they invade a nearby prized Japanese maple or a Korean dogwood that is in full bloom.

The soft cranberry shrub leaves were more susceptible than the thicker leaves on an adjacent shiny laurel, which was also covered by what looked like sticky frass, the technical term for insect droppings. So the laurel went as well, just to be safe. The recent heavy rains and lush undergrowth may have been part of the cause, but it is the first time I have seen such an invasion on mature shrubs that I have been growing and pruning for several decades. It certainly felt like an outbreak that had to be dealt with firmly. I will be on the lookout for further signs and will try to identify the critters specifically.

 

Tomato pollination

As the tomatoes climb up their supports and start to flower, it is important to remember that in order to set fruit the plants need to be kept above 50F degrees at night. When closing up the hoop house in the evening to maintain the heat, I give the tomato cages a quick shake to get the pollen out into into the air. Hopefully the small green buttons of nascent tomatoes will soon start to appear. The cherry tomatoes always come first, given their small size, leading the way for the larger standard varieties.

 

Vegetable perennials: artichokes and asparagus

I grow a bed of the standard Green Globe artichokes, which are just coming on. They are a welcome treat, but somewhat bland-tasting, and must be picked before they get too tough. I do have one bush of purple artichokes, Violetta de Provence, an Italian variety that produces smaller chokes, but with a much more delicate flavor. When picked early, you can eat almost the entire bud. Gourmet thistles.

The other garden perennial is the bed of asparagus, which is just reaching maturity in its third season. It has been worth the wait. Now one can pick a high percentage of the stalks, which are decidedly sweet when eaten straight from the garden. A key to a sustained harvest is to keep the bed well watered as the roots send up the shoots.

 

Broccoli

The first rush of ripe broccoli is also here, having recently emerged from their floating row cover. I blanch the flowerets for a few minutes just until they turn bright green, then quickly chill in cold water. I like them as an appetizer dipped into a sauce of mayonnaise mixed with a bit of dry mustard and a spritz of lemon juice. I have also found that the plain stems can be eaten as well if you cut them into small slices or julienned strips and blanch them a bit longer than the tops before chilling. If the stem is particularly tough, use a vegetable peeler to get rid of the thick skin. Eat the whole vegetable.

Late Spring in the Garden

By Peter Heffelfinger

Posted June 1, 2020

 

First Brassicas

The early spring plantings of brassicas finally emerged this week from their protective cocoon of floating row cover, revealing small heads of broccoli that will be cutting size soon, as well as cabbages just starting to head up. It’s always a pleasure to free up the maturing plants straining against the white cloth, having successfully avoided any root maggot fly infestation, and only a few snails hiding out on the lower leaves. It is also a reminder that the late spring/early summer crop of brassica starts will need to go in soon. The cycle of year-round cole plants keeps turning.

Corn

I usually wait until June 1st to plant corn, allowing the soil to heat up to 60F degrees. Too often early sowings succumb to seed rot and poor germination. This year I jumped the gun a bit during the sunny week after Memorial Day and got my corn planted. Hopefully the day of rain that came soon after will be just enough to start the seed growing, but not too much to cause a problem.


Corn is always a favorite crop, if you have the space to grow it, as well as a reliable supply of water. Corn plants require consistent watering for their tall stalks, large leaves and the eventual ears. I enjoy the sound of the rustling leaves in the wind, and am always amazed at the process of the tassels shedding pollen down to fertilize the delicate hairs that lead to each individual kernel.
With the recent pattern of warmer summers, sweet corn has become more reliable to grow in the Northwest garden. I plant three varieties, a standard yellow such as Bodacious, a bi-color called Peach & Cream, and my favorite, a long-season white such as Silver King.
Corn is one of the easiest vegetables to process for freezing. I blanch the ears for several minutes in boiling water, quickly chill in cold water to stop the cooking, and then slice off the kernels with a sharp knife. To preserve the real sweetness of fresh corn, use the back of the knife blade to scrape down all the milky juice from the cob and mix it in with the cut kernels. When defrosted and cooked for just a few minutes you will have the taste of fresh corn, almost as good as ears of corn fresh picked from the garden.

Tomatoes, Peppers, and Cukes

In the hoop house, tomato plants are leafing out vigorously and climbing up the rungs of the cages and a few flowers are appearing. The important thing is to trim off any lower leaf stems touching the soil, to avoid fungus infections. Consistent watering is required to promote steady growth as well as to avoid leaf curling, which can be a sign of either too much or too little water. To complicate matters, individual varieties may show different levels of water tolerance. Out of my 20 tomato plants, only one variety, a Sweet Million cherry tomato, has signs of leaf curl but still looks healthy, so I eased up on the water a bit. Gardening is always a mix of monitoring and adjusting.

Some of my peppers, bought early on from one source, were lagging behind others purchased later, so I dosed the smaller plants one time with liquid fish fertilizer, 2 tbsp. per gallon of water, to green them up a bit. I also pinched back all the peppers after they were planted, removing the first solo top buds in order to encourage branching and a greater number of secondary buds.

The cucumbers are finding their way onto their wire trellis, from the early Marketmore slicers, to the later planted Persians just starting appear, as well as a few pickling cuke starts just added to round out the collection. At some point in the summer there will be a first salad featuring homegrown cukes, tomatoes, and peppers to go with all the fresh lettuce that has been growing outside the hoop house.

More about Trenching-in Tomatoes

By Jan Hersey

Regarding Peter’s TWIG post on planting tomatoes, here’s what I did with tomatillos (same technique for tomatoes).

Remove lower leaves from tomato plant.

Dig about a 14-in trench, 6-8” deep on the end where root ball will go, sloping the trench up to original soil level at opposite (stem/leaf) end. Place tom as shown below, gently bending up leaf end, supporting it with and securing it to a small stick.

Cover root ball and stem with soil, then create a moat around the former trench. Trim off more leaves if needed. Ultimately, you’ll want a foot of leafless stem (helps prevent getting water on leaves) before allowing plant to branch into 1-3 stems).

Weight down an empty gallon plastic pot with some stones and place it on the soil between the root ball and growing stem. Throughout the season, water into the pot, which will slowly release the water into the trench.

Growing Tomatoes 🍅

by Peter Heffelfinger

Posted May 4, 2020
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I plant a mix of cherry tomatoes, beefsteak types for slicing, Italian sauce tomatoes for freezing, and always a few heirlooms to try out for intense flavor or unique coloration. Once the soil has warmed to a toasty 60F inside the hoop house, usually by the end of the first week in May, it’s time to transplant. This year I have an improved metal soil thermometer that looks just like a large meat thermometer from the kitchen, but geared, of course, for much lower temperatures. Well worth the expense to know exactly when the ground is warm enough for heat-loving plants. I put a large pot or a box over all new transplants to shield them for a day or two to reduce shock, especially on the sunny days that have been more prevalent the past few years.

Growing tomatoes involves some form of staking, wire cages, or a vertical string assembly. When I was a kid back in the hot and humid East Coast, we just let the vines spread out on the ground, with the suckers sprouting laterally in all directions over a wide area, just like a pumpkin patch. With smaller gardens, and tomatoes inside greenhouses or hoop houses in the Northwest, growing them vertically saves space. A support system also helps prevent diseases, such as the blights that come from foliage contact with soil, and of course elevates the clusters of fruit, making them easy to pick.

The big issue is pruning: removing suckers on a regular basis. Otherwise you end up with a tangled mass of too many stems, too much overlapping foliage, and smaller, less numerous fruits. For me, the best advice comes from local NW Garden maven Cisco Morris: select 3-4 main stems and then let them rip. Prune out any additional long skinny stems that start creeping up from the base.

Most importantly, make sure the first set of stems is 4-6 inches above the ground to avoid contamination. Then, as the plant bushes out, trim off any lower branches of leaves that start to touch the ground. No leaf contact is the order of the day, to prevent disease.

As the bushes fill out, it’s also vital to thin the crowded upper areas of leaves for better air circulation and to allow sunlight to penetrate into the central area of the plant to ripen fruit. Be vigilant with your pruning. Remember that this is a rambling, tropical ground vine being reoriented to growing on a vertical support.

I prefer the tall conical tomato cages that allow the branches to drape over the hoops. I tie up a series of cages in a conjoined row so that the bed becomes one long connected tomato hedge. To keep the heavy clusters of ripening tomatoes from breaking their fragile branches, I run lengths of rope along the sides, connected to the wire cages, to hold them up. A bit untidy looking, but I think of it as a seasonal espalier.

A tomato orchard.

Tomato Season Opens!

By Peter Heffelfinger

Posted April 21, 2020
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Early May is the time to transplant tomatoes, perhaps the most wished-for home vegetable in the relatively cool Northwest.The raised beds inside my 40-foot long plastic hoop house have been warming up for several weeks. Tomatoes are a tropical vine that needs warm soil to start out as well as a minimum nighttime temperature of 50F degrees in order for the flowers to set fruit. And of course, warm daytime temps to fully ripen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where I garden even on the warmest days of summer the onshore wind starts to roll in every afternoon around 4 pm and the temperatures start to drop. Each evening the hoop house needs to be closed up to maintain a constant overnight warmth. Conversely, the house needs to be opened up early in the morning before it gets above 80-85 F inside, which can happen quite suddenly on a sunny morning with no wind. If it gets too hot, say above 90F, the flowers will drop off. In addition, condensation forms each night on the ceiling; the droplets need to air dry in place instead of falling on the plants and causing disease. And, for watering I let the chilly well water sit in a large tank for a few hours in order to warm up a bit. Warm soil, warm air, and slightly warm water, allows a tropical plant to grow well in the cool maritime Northwest.

What with watering, pruning and staking, and watching the temperature gauge, tomato production is a full time gardening chore. But large, ripe beefsteak tomatoes, Italian Romas for sauce, and handfuls of cherry tomatoes for eating out of hand are worth all the work.

Note on transplanting using the Trench Method:

I use 1-2 foot tall starts (pinch off any flowers that may have appeared). If you dug a 2 foot deep hole in the ground, the roots would be buried in cool soil. To keep the roots close to the warm topsoil, and to propagate additional root growth, make a lateral trench with one end 8-12 inches deep, but with a gradual slope of dirt rising at 45 degrees up to the other end. Gather a small berm of dirt at the far end, rising 1-2 inches above ground level. Add a standard organic fertilizer for vegetables, mixed into the soil at the bottom of the trench.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trim off the lower suckers and branches, leaving intact the top three branches and the main growth bud at the top. Make a small puddle of water at the deep end, put the root ball into a small depression in the mud, lay the bare stem gently on the inclined plane, with the stem of the top 3 branches resting against the berm at the other end. Use a thin bamboo stake to gently secure the exposed top branches in a slightly vertical position. Fill in the trench and continue the berm around the entire root and stem planting area. This is the permanent watering crater.

Make sure you water consistently above where the roots are, not at the stake. Water by can or hose gently onto the soil, without splashing dirt up onto the leaves, which can transmit disease. I place the gallon plastic pots the tomatoes came in, with a few pebbles inside for stability, at the center of the crater and then water directly into the pots to avoid splashing dirt on the leaves. The water also drains out slowly into the crater instead of arriving all at once and possibly breaking through the berm. Never water from above; keep the foliage dry at all times to avoid the dreaded tomato blight.

Happy Tomatoes!