The Southern Agrarian

Southern Agrarianism and the culture of the Old South

Tag: tomato

What’s In The Garden Now? June 1, 2016

Eggplant in the foreground and tomatoes in the background.

Eggplant in the foreground and tomatoes in the background.


I’m always interested in hearing what others are growing in their gardens, so this post is about what is in my garden now. But first, a note about what my priorities are and how I choose what to grow:

  • Sustainability – Everything that I plant in my garden is open pollinated. Savings seeds is just as important to me as the vegetables that go on the table. Hybrids are not even considered when picking varieties.
  • Resilience – Rather than start with “What do I like?” and then try to make it grow here, my strategy is to ask “What will dependably grow here?” and then find ways to prepare it so that I enjoy it. (See the section on Squash below for any example).
  • Organic – I avoid the use of any chemical pesticides or herbicides. I’m not fanatical about it, but it’s been many years since I used any chemical pesticides on the garden. When needed, I use BT and Neem Oil, which are both organic pesticides that are safe to apply immediately before picking and eating.

Eggplant – This is a hot-weather favorite that keeps on producing through all but the very hottest summer days. In the past, I have always gone with Black Beauty, but this year I am growing the Florida High Bush variety. My hope is that, based on the description I read, the plants will be stronger and less likely to be blown over in a wind, yet still have the good taste and texture of the Black Beauty. This variety was developed in the 1940’s for commercial fields, and the objective was to keep the fruit up off the ground. So far, so good.

Tomato – What’s a garden without tomatoes? Several years ago, I did some fairly extensive testing for taste, quantity, and general quality. I grew several varieties and kept careful records. I counted the yield from each individual plant, and I wrote a number on the individual fruits and gave them to friends and relatives and asked them to rate them by various criteria. The overall winner was Homestead 24. That has become my standard tomato variety and I see no reason to change. There will be some other varieties that may taste slightly better or have other desirable qualities, but – all things considered – the Homestead 24 beats them all.

Bell Peppers – I’m trying a new variety this year: Chinese Giant. As the name implies, these are a very large fruited pepper. I have read that if thinned (something I haven’t tried yet), they can reach 5″ – 6″ in length and width. My previous variety was California Wonder; they were good, but I wanted to try something new.

Okra – Another great hot-weather producer. This year is a test of a strain of Clemson Spineless called “Heavy Hitter”. In the past, I always went with regular Clemson Spineless, but when I read about Heavy Hitter, I had to give it a try. Heavy Hitter has a different branching pattern which results in more branches – and thus more fruit – from each plant. It was developed by Mr. Ron Cook in Oklahoma. If it works as I think it will, I’ll be doing whatever I can to help promote this strain of okra. This was planted quite late since I wanted to put it in some new ground that had been lawn up until a few months ago.

Squash – I suppose this one doesn’t really belong here since I turned the entire crop under two days ago. In previous years, I decided “No more squash” because they were always ruined by worms boring holes and ruining the fruit. Stubbornly, I wanted to give it one more try. The first few were great, but then the worms came (I avoid the use of pesticides wherever possible). Not wanting to feed the worms, I used my BCS tractor with the roto-tiller attachment to turn that part of the garden into dirt. Next year, I’ll go back to planting Seminole Pumpkin and use it as a squash.

Cotton – I like planting cotton every once in a while just to have it. This year, I planted Red Foliated White Cotton that I got from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. The stem parts of the plants are red – an interesting color in the garden – and it produces a short staple white cotton. What do I do with it? Not much. It is just interesting to grow, and there are plenty of folks who have never seen cotton growing.

So – what do you have in your garden now?

Cotton blossom, Red Foliated White Cotton.

Cotton blossom, Red Foliated White Cotton.

Tomato With Your Oil Change?

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I’ve been taking my vehicles to Classic Lube in DeLand since the early 1990’s. When you find a place you like, you stick with it. Last week, after finishing our oil change, the guys asked if we would like to see their garden. Of course, we said, “Yes”.

They took us back behind the building to an area where a utility pipe comes up and where there used to be some of the usual landscape plants that most businesses have. There, instead of the usual sterile and unproductive living decorations, we saw a garden planted with tomatoes, radishes, onions, basil, lettuce, cilantro, and probably others that I can’t recall at the moment. The dirt that was originally there was replaced with some good top soil. They tend the garden during the normal down time that any business has during the day – and they have fresh vegetables for their lunch

Wouldn’t it be great if other businesses followed the lead of Classic Lube and helped make their communities just a bit more resilient and self-contained?

In addition to the photos, we left with a fresh radish.

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Commercial vs. Homemade

“But of course a commercially formulated growing mixture is going to be better than something I make at home.” How many times have we said, or at least thought, this same thing? I certainly have. The assumption is that what is commercially available has been well researched and thoroughly tested. As much as I try to stay focused on the basic concepts of Southern Agrarianism, the influences of modern-day American society are a powerful force to overcome.

Several weeks ago, I started this year’s garden project – to plant several varieties of tomatoes and decide which variety I will be focusing on. As usual, the seeds were planted in soil blocks. I would be taking careful notes throughout the life of the plants. Unfortunately, a careless mistake a few hours after planting resulted in losing track of which variety is planted in which block. I ended up having to start over. Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately), I had already prepared a commercial seed starting system for another project. I decided to press that into service for the tomato project.

I ended up with two groups of tomato seeds. They were planted hours apart using seed from the same seed packets. Although it wasn’t part of the original plan, this would be a good opportunity to see how my homemade seed starting mixture and soil blocks compared to a commercial seed starting system, since all other factors were the same.

Commercial seed starting trays and commercial seed starting mixture.

Commercial seed starting trays and commercial seed starting mixture.

VPC seed starting mixture formed into soil blocks.

Homemade seed starting mixture formed into soil blocks.

In this case anyway, homemade clearly wins over commercial. The seedlings in the PVC (Peat/Vermiculite/Compost) mixture and soil blocks are over double the size, have twice the number of leaves, and have much thicker stalks than those started in the commercial mixture. They were watered at the same time and the same rate, and were set side-by-side under the grow lights and timer. Here are the details:

Commercial System:
• Ferry-Morse seed starting plastic trays
• Jiffy Organic Seed Starter Jiffy-Mix

Homemade PVC (Peat/Vermiculite/Compost) mixture:
• 2 parts Peat Moss
• 2 parts medium Vermiculite
• 1 part Mushroom Compost
The Peat Moss and Mushroom Compost were sifted to remove any stick or large pieces.

Summary
I suspect that much of the difference comes from the Mushroom Compost that I added. I suspect that Black Cow composted cow manure would work just as well. Since this was used in soil blocks, the physical consistency was also important, and the compost helped hold it together as well as providing nutrition to the seedlings. The instructions in the commercial mix call for applying fertilizer after the seedlings have been transplanted into the ground. It is clear to me that this is a much better way to start seedlings than using a commercial mixture in the plastic trays. If I were inclined to use the plastic seed starting trays, I would try them using my PVC mixture in the plastic trays rather than the soil blocks, but I see no advantage in using plastic rather than soil blocks.

The PVC mixture is nothing special. It was not the result of careful research – it just seemed like a good mixture adapted from what I currently use in our raised bed garden. I am planning other test mixtures, but that mainly involves improving the handling characteristics of the soil blocks rather than the nutrient levels. Most of the soil block seed starting mixtures I have seen are a lot more involved than my PVC mixture. I wanted something simple to put together using readily available materials.

I have since started another batch of seeds using the PVC mixture and soil blocks, only this time they are carefully identified as to which variety is planted where. I’ll publish the results of my testing later this year.

Deep Planting Tomatoes

One of the first things that anyone learns about transplanting tomatoes is that they should be planted as deep as possible. All the leaves and branches except for those at the very top of the plant should be pinched off and then plant it deep enough so that only those leaves at the tip of the plant are above ground.

I suspect that I’m not the only one who has wondered if the plants ever really catch up in height after being buried that deeply. I decided to find out.

When I plant the garden, in addition to the plants that are spaced out as they should be, I try to always plant some extras so that any that don’t survive or are the victim of bugs or other pests can be quickly replaced. In this case, I planted the spares right next to the primary plants so we can compare them. The primary plants were buried as deep as the plant would allow. The spare plants were planted at the same depth they were at the soil blocks and pots. After a couple of weeks, you can see that the deep buried plants quickly recovered their “lost” height. In addition, the plants had much thicker trunks and are generally more vigorous plants.

The tomato variety shown here is Jaune Flammé (often just referred to as Flammé). These are a French heirloom tomato that produces golf-ball sized tomatoes that are an apricot color when ripe. This is a very prolific indeterminate variety – and clearly the best tasting variety that I know of. They’re too small to make a good sandwich tomato, but for salads and just eating by themselves, they are incredibly delicious. The fact that they don’t turn bright red makes them less attractive to birds, and that’s always a good thing.

The tomato plants are set out using the tomato cages turned upside down to get the correct spacing.

Tomato plant as-grown, before the pre-planting pruning is done.

After pruning, ready to be planted.

Pruned and ready for planting.

The growing mixture we use is easy to dig by hand, so we don't use the garden trowel very often. The hole is deeper than you might think.

In the past, I have had problems due to missing trace elements. Adding a small amount of tomato-specific fertilizer should eliminate such problems.

Add just a bit of tomato fertilizer to the bottom of the hole.

The roots have been growing around the sides of the pot. It's best not to let them go much longer than this stage.

With a bit of tomato fertilizer in the bottom of the hole, then a small amount of soil mixture to cover it, the plant is added.

The hole is filled and gently tamped.

Finally, a tomato cage is pushed down around the plant, and that's it.


22 Days Later

This is one of the spare plants that was planted at its original depth. The plant to the right (in the cage) was deep planted at the same time this spare was planted.

This is one of the primary plants. When planted, everything except the very top of the plant was pinched off and then it was deep planted so that only the top of the plant was above ground level. A spare plant can be seen to the left - the primary and spare plants have reached the same height despite starting out very differently. Note how thick the plant trunk is on the primary plant.

Pruning Tomatoes – Sucker Removal

Until very recently, I did not prune my tomato plants. I figured that the more leaf surface, the better. Up to a point, that is true. The problem is that if you have good fertile soil and plenty of water, the plant can quickly grow far to dense. Too many leaves and branches mean that:

  • Plant energy is going into producing more plant – not more fruit.
  • Fruit, unless it is growing on the outside edge of the plant, is difficult to see and to pick.
  • Poor air circulation means that disease and insect infestation can quickly get out of hand.
  • Leaves and branches tend to yellow and die for lack of sun. They then rot and become a magnet for insects and disease.
  • If you can’t see all of your plant, you can’t care for it.

The first type of pruning is sucker removal. We’ll look at the other type of pruning in a future post. Suckers are what grow out of the top of the joint between the main trunk of the plant and a branch. In the following two photos, I’ve indicated the suckers. These are pinched off or cut off as soon as the appear. They grow quickly, so check your plants regularly.


An added benefit to removing suckers is that they sprout roots very easily by just sticking them in the ground.

This is what happens when plants are not pruned. These are too dense for a healthy plant and a good yield.

Lessons Learned – Part 1

I’m titling this one “Part 1”, not because I have a “Part 2” in mind, but because learning new things is an on-going process. I’ll write “Part 2” (and 3, and 4, and …) as soon as I have more lessons learned that I want to record.

More Plant Spacing – I have been planting too closely for most plants. By the time the plants mature, they are so densely packed together that the inner leaves do not get sufficient light, so they just yellow and die. There is not enough air circulation to dry the inner parts of the plants, and though I can’t prove it, I suspect that the plants would be healthier with more room to “breathe”.

Use Plant Cages – Primarily for tomatoes, but also for plants like peppers, some way to stabilize and contain the plants is a major advantage. Some of the tomato plants have grown over the sides of the garden and down to the ground. When they grow that big, they are much more difficult to work with, and much more susceptible to broken branches and other damage. We haven’t had any high winds yet, but plant cages will keep the plants from being blown over by the wind.

Prune Where Needed – The tomatoes ended up putting too much energy into growing branches and leaves rather than in growing fruit. Although pruning tomatoes is more commonly done in the northern parts of the country, I will be pruning my next crop of tomatoes. This is also related to using tomato cages to contain and train the plants.

Upon doing some more reading, it looks like this year’s poor blackberry crop may be due (in part) to not having done any pruning on them. I’ll do that next season. I also neglected to give them the fertilizer and water that they should have gotten.

Grow Up – Not Out – I had planned to use bush beans and determinate variety tomatoes and plant in stages, thinking that I would then get enough beans in a single flush to be able to can the surplus. Somehow, that just didn’t work out as planned. I’ll be going back to pole beans and indeterminate tomato varieties so the harvest is spread out over the life of the plant rather than one large flush of produce and then the plant dies. This also allows for better utilization of the available area in the garden. The various trellis designs that I have been experimenting with look very promising.

Better Planning – I have been pretty much planting wherever there was an empty space in the garden. That kind of haphazard planting just doesn’t work very well in the long term. I will be dividing the garden into 4 sections, and making sure that crops are rotated so that it will be 4 years before a section contains the same type of plant. That should help reduce soil-borne disease and balance out the nutrients in the soil.

Earlier starting – I did fairly well this year, but I still want to start my seeds for the Spring garden around the end of December or first of January. In this part of the country, with the seedling setup that I have, that should work out just fine. There may be some risk of a late frost, but the plants can be covered if needed. I usually try to have at least twice as many seedlings as I plan to use in case of a problem like that. If they aren’t needed, there are plenty of folks eager to take them.

Color Makes a Difference – This year, we planted both yellow squash and zucchini. Both grow about the same, both taste about the same, but both look very different. I discovered that the dark green zucchini is very easy to overlook among the dark green plant. Several times, I have discovered huge zucchinis that are far bigger than I wanted (although they do quite well when baked). They got that way because I overlooked them. Next year, we might be growing yellow squash and not zucchini, we’ll think that over carefully before planting. The bright yellow squash stands out and is a lot easier to see when it’s time to pick them.

Mix it up – I have noticed some differences in the sections of the garden that I can only attribute to not having mixed the growing mixture up well enough. When the hot weather garden is finished, I will be adding some more compost and doing a better job of mixing it up. Just to make sure though, I’ll be doing some soil testing.

First Fruits – 2011

This evening, we had fresh squash and zucchini from the garden. The first of the beans are ready to pick, and the tomatoes should be ready soon.

Squash from the garden, and 11 eggs from the hens. What a great way to live!

Tomato plants overflowing - this is a group of 4 plants, with zucchini to the left and beans to the right. Photo taken on 05/19/2011

Squash - 05/19/2011

Tomatoes - It won't be long... 05/19/2011

How Close to Plant?

These tomatoes were planted about as close as I would ever attempt. The results of this planting will determine whether or not next year’s crop is planted this way or not. The advantages of close planting are mainly from better utilization of space, but for tomatoes, it also means that they support each other. Staking is only needed for the plants on the outside edges. Disadvantages include less air flow which could mean greater potential for disease, and more difficult to pick from the inner plants.

My guess is that this will prove to be too closely planted, but it’s an experiment, so it’s not always supposed to work. No matter what a book or web site may say, you never really know what will work for your situation until you try it yourself.

Gardening is experimenting. I take notes and adapt as needed.

Planting in Stages

Looking from back to front in this photo: Tomatoes, the first batch of beans, the second batch (planted 2 weeks later), and dirt where the unsprouted next batch of beans will be coming up in another day or two. These are the Blue Lake variety – our all around favorite.

Bush beans tend to produce in one large flush of beans, followed by a few sparse beans later. By planting in stages, we get fresh beans while also having them ripen in a large enough quantity to make it worth cranking up the canning operation.

Pole beans tend to produce regularly throughout the life of the plant. Those are great when you have a good place to plant them. We have some planted so that they climb up the water tower that supplies water for the chickens (more on that project in another post).

The Need For Light

Seedlings need light – lots of light. This photo was taken on March 2, and shows two tomato plants that were both raised under artificial light, 18 hours per day. The plant on the right was transplanted about 3 days before the photo was taken. You can see how much darker the plant on the left is, having received 18 hours of bright full-spectrum light, while the one on the right received much less light during the relatively short daylight in early March.

Before I had the lights and timer, my seedlings were tall and spindly. They were not strong enough to stand up straight and take full advantage of the sun. With a full 18 hours of light, the plants grow very sturdy stalks and make a much healthier plant.