Garden Tomatoes: An Uninspired Tale

I’m not sure what to think about this season’s garden tomatoes. The expression “failure to thrive” comes to mind. Sadly, the basil and the corn in this box aren’t doing so hot either.

VegTrug with corn, basil, tomatoes

VegTrug planted with basil, tomatoes and corn. They’ve all remained small

Generally speaking, tomatoes are fairly easy to grow. The plant is part of the nightshade family, so their poisonous leaves remain untouched. The small yellow flowers attract the bees and before you know it (usually!) you have a vine of ripening tomatoes. Sometimes it’s hard to keep up with the production as they fruit all at once. That has not been a problem this year.

I planted half a dozen bedding plants in the spring. Some years I start from seed, but I didn’t save any last year so I went the lazy route. I put several small tomato plants in my raised VegTrug and three more in my vegetable box.

native garden and veg trug

May, 2017. Everything looked healthy in May. The nasturtiums surrounded the tomatoes, until the heat set in

I had one more plant in need of a home, so I popped it into the curb garden where it would get plenty of sun in the company of the perennials.

It’s taken nearly four months for three of the plants to produce.

orange cherry tomatoes

The first of the tomatoes

orange tomatoes in planting box

The first of the tomatoes in the planting box. They’re small but delicious

The plant in the curb garden never grew more than a few inches tall and the same goes for the plants in the VegTrug.

curb garden tomatoes orange

Tomatoes growing on the left side of curb garden box…all five of them!

I amended the soil, and watered faithfully once the rain stopped. The plants aren’t drooping or diseased and there is no sign of garden pests. They’re just small and sad and completely unremarkable.

Poor soil could be the culprit though I amended the soil with coffee grounds which I got for free at our local Starbucks. I kept an eye on the water and I know they’re getting full sun.

Since I really wanted at least one healthy tomato plant, I bought a larger bedding plant in a different variety and planted it in the curb garden. It’s too late in the season to start over with a small plant or from seed. All the perennials are thriving in the box so I know the soil is robust. The new plant looks healthy so far, no thanks to my mad gardening skills.

tomato plant curb garden

Newly planted curb garden tomato plant

newly planted tomato

Flowers on the newly planted tomato

Time will tell.

Meanwhile, fire season is upon us. Locally, we’ve seen three small fires, two in San Jose and one in nearby Saratoga. They were all extinguished within 24 hours. A fire in nearby Saratoga burned on the other side of the ridge from the camp where my son volunteers. That definitely gave me pause.  The emergency alert system sent out a text saying to shelter in place, but when I checked on my son he said all was fine. We learned the following day that the alert went out to everyone in the county!  I’m glad the system works, but the error unnecessarily alarmed a lot of people, including this worrywart of a mom.  The largest active fire is in Mariposa/Detwiler. It’s burned 76,000 acres so far, but crews have it 40% contained. My hat is off to these firefighters that work tirelessly under unimaginable conditions throughout the fire season.

2017 Detwiler Fire map

Source: Google Maps

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A Garden Under the Influence of Rain

wisteria vine

Wisteria refreshed

It’s been an extraordinary spring!

Everywhere I turn I see a happy garden under the wonderful influence of rain. I’m taking none of it for granted.

From the self-seeded pumpkins,

2016 garden pumpkin near patio

Self-seeded pumpkin, impervious to the cool night temperatures

to the spontaneous cottage garden

2016 sweet peas love in a mist poppies

My all-volunteer (self-seeded) garden

everything seems larger than life.  It’s rare for San Jose to get rain this far into the year, but we continue to get small storms every week or so keeping things fresh and alive.

I prepped an Earth Box for some pumpkin seeds, and following the package instructions, waited for warmer nighttime temps. I needn’t have bothered. There are two self-seeded pumpkins growing across the back garden doing just fine. They don’t mind the cooler nights and show no signs of slowing down. Emboldened by last year’s pumpkin success (no water, no squash bugs) I’m happy to see these two doing well.

2016 pumpkin vine self seeded

Another self-seeded pumpkin, already setting flowers

The tomatoes doubled in size within a few weeks. I’m glad I staked them from the start. They always looks so small when they’re just getting started, but I’ve learned the hard way how difficult it is to stake them once they are under way.

2016 garden tomatoes

Tomatoes Doubling Down

The raspberry canes survived the move and several of the canes are setting flowers. There is nothing quite so good as a fresh, warm berry from your garden. Grow, berries, grow!

I missed the memo about Nasturtiums taking over the garden, but I don’t mind. They’re beautiful, colorful and edible and they’re supposed to keep the bad bugs away. So far so good so I say “go Nasturtiums.” There are strawberries hiding under the flowers which is probably just as well. If the birds don’t see them, they can’t eat them.

nasturtiam close up

Variegated Nasturtium

Thanks to the heat and rain, the basil is already flowering. The flowers are pretty but they take away all the energy from the leaves so I’m pinching them back every other day. I made this same mistake last year. The tomatoes take longer to fruit so while I’m waiting for tomatoes, I’m having to discourage the basil from flowering. Hopefully I can stay on top of it. Caprese salad is in my future!

I’m really happy with my raised (Trug) planting bed. I wrapped the legs with copper tape before adding a single plant, and it worked. No snails! I used strips of burlap as mulch this year, with plenty left on the roll for years to come. It was also supposed to discourage the cats from using the boxes for other purposes, but they think it’s a delightful place for a nap.

2016 slinky in the planter box

Slinky found her way to the planting box

slinky in the planter box

Cozy

mouse in the garden bed

Nasturtiums and Mouse the Cat

What an incredible spring.

March 10th vegetable garden

March 10th, 2016

vegetable garden may 5th

May 5th, 2016

 

Tilling the Soil, Tending my Soul: Planting a Summer Garden

Over the years, the arrival of spring usually means one thing: it’s time to plant a summer garden. Last year I skipped the garden entirely. Year four of the drought and mandatory water rationing put the kibosh on a summer garden. Instead of planting tomatoes, I finished sheet mulching the lawn in the back garden and let the rest of the grass die. What a summer, eh?  It was disheartening.

This year is different. For starters, the lawn is gone. In its place: native plantings that will thrive throughout our hot, dry summers. Also in place this year is our newly installed rain catchment system. Harvesting rain water for our vegetable garden should see us through at least half the summer if not more. Mike is connecting a drip system to the tank so that we can water judiciously. I’m hoping it will last all summer.

All this is to say that I’m gardening guilt-free this season.

I’ve also nearly doubled my planting space using a space-efficient gardening box called a VegTrug Elevated Garden.

The only practical place for a vegetable garden in our yard is along the back of our house. Unfortunately, that same spot houses an electrical outlet, a low-voltage transformer and an irrigation manifold intake valve.

collage irrigation manifold

The “business end” of the garden

All of those unattractive components used to hide behind shrubs. Several years ago we removed the shrubs to make way for a vegetable garden. We added a pair of 4 x 4 elevated beds assembled from a kit, fitting them around the boring but necessary items that are part of the business end of the garden.

planter box one

Planting Box One: Upper half, transplanted raspberry vines, nasturtiums, lower box, cosmos and nasturtiums

nasturtium

Edible Nasturtium

planter box two with tomatoes

Planting Box Two: Heirloom tomatoes, three varieties, cosmos and nasturtiums

We added gravel to fill in the odd spaces.

When I grew pumpkins, the gravel provided space for the vines to grow, but otherwise it wasn’t any use for planting.

I spotted the VegTrug in one of my gardening catalogs and inspiration struck. I went out back and measured the distance between the two existing boxes, allowing for the immovable pipe protruding out of the ground.

Oh-my-gosh!!!

The longer of the two Trugs would not only fit, but would have the perfect amount of clearance off the ground and away from the house. I placed the order.

UPS left the box on our front deck while my husband was away on business and my son at school. I couldn’t get it to budge. I opened the box where it sat and carried the pieces through the house and out the back door.

vegtrug assembly

Assembling the VegTrug

I watched a YouTube video ahead of time so I would be able to assemble it (mostly) myself. I sorted the pieces, doubled checked the parts and assembled the legs. No problem. The long planks were a bit unwieldy and they suggested a second person help with that part. In my impatience, I tried to do this on my own, and promptly dropped one of the boards on my little toe. Boy did that hurt. And before you ask, yes the foot with the recent surgery. I felt like a fool.

Later that afternoon, my son helped me with the larger pieces before it started raining. When Mike came back from Brazil at the end of the week, he helped me finish the assembly and move the planter into place.

I have to say, I am in love with this planting box. It’s elevated, making it easy to plant. The inverted triangle means that you use less soil. Deeper rooted plants go in the center where the soil is deep. I planted the shallow rooters along the sides.

fish bowl view before

Fish-eye view of garden boxes before placing the Veg Trug

fish bowl view after

Fish-eye view of garden with new VegTrug

It comes with a removable cover to keep the bugs out, while allowing water to flow through.  The cover frame breaks apart into smaller pieces for easy storage when it’s not in use. They’ve thought of everything.

Not willing to take any chances, I wrapped the legs with copper tape. Sorry snails, you’ll have to look elsewhere for dinner.

Thanks to tips from Pauline and Sarah, both New Zealand gardeners, I’ve added nasturtiums to the mix this year. I had a vague notion of companion planting, but somehow never researched the pros and cons. I’ve just been lucky most years, other than snails of course, that the pests stayed away. A couple of seasons of nasty squash bugs sent me scrambling for an organic deterrent. Nasturtiums help keep the bad bugs in check.

If all grows well, it will be a summer filled with raspberries and strawberries, three varieties of heirloom tomatoes and delicious sweet basil. The nasturtiums are also edible, but I’ll let them grow and do the job of keeping nasty pests at bay. I planted the lower boxes with one of my new summer favorites. Cosmos grow like weeds, providing cut flowers all summer long.

vegetable garden march 21 2016-003

Newly planted vegetable garden

Soil, tilled.

Soul, tended.

I am one happy gardener.

Basil: Round Two

In case you missed it, my first attempt at growing basil this season failed miserable.  The basil grew fine, but then the snails ate it to the quick.  Turns out basil is one of their favorites.

basil fail

Two tiny ‘sticks’, formerly known as basil, right

Today I planted more basil, but with additional precautions.  I bought a packet of copper tape and wrapped it around the planter bed. A small electrical charge will keep them from crossing the copper tape.  One package was just enough.  The new basil is now planted next to the tomatoes.  The plants do well together, so they already have synergy going for them. Last year’s basil grew close to the tomatoes and remained healthy all season.

Since snails are resourceful, I needed to take additional steps to keep them out of the bed.  Clippers in hand, I removed all the lower, over-hanging tomato leaves.  There is no sense wrapping the box in copper, only to provide a nice bridge into the box for tasty dining.

Snail bridge?  All Clear.

Snail bridge? All Clear.

With my gloves firmly in place, I ran my hand along the under side of the upper box, making sure any hiding places were clear.  You don’t want to box the snails *inside* the planting bed.  I’m going outside one more time around dusk to be sure I haven’t missed any interlopers.

Meanwhile the tomatoes, no doubt confused by our warm winter, are growing like weeds.  They volunteered in the planter box…

volunteer tomatoes

Self-sown (volunteer) tomatoes

in the gravel walkway…

tomato in gravel

I’ll just set seed here if you don’t mind

and they volunteered in the compost bin.

tomatoes in compost barrel

Tomatoes growing through the cracks of the composting barrel

No shortage of tomatoes this year.

On the subject of compost, I’ve stopped turning the bin for now.  I want those adventurous tomatoes  to have a fighting chance.  I scooped out handfuls of compost and used it to dress the tomatoes and basil.  I’m still amazed when I see the rich, black compost, knowing it came from dried leaves, twigs and kitchen scraps.  It feels like my own little magic show in the garden.

newly planted basil

Newly planted basil, dressed in organic compost, surrounded by copper barrier tape

Now that basil, round two is safely tucked in and the tomatoes are sporting a few flowers, I’ll soon  have the makings of a delicious caprese salad.

Meanwhile, check out this fabulous site All About Slugs: find out what really works to control the slimy menace.

We focus on reliable information and natural, tested solutions that really work. We never recommend anything that isn’t safe for children, pets, wildlife and the environment. You can control these pesky pests and still enjoy a beautiful, safe and natural yard and garden.

The site provides a list of slug and snail resistant plants, many of which already grow in my garden. Of course I’m trying to grow three of their favorites too: basil, lettuce and strawberries (the fruit, not the leaves).

For a chuckle or at least a guffaw, take a look at Slugapalooza. You’ll find clever poems, drawings and photos and (I kid you not) an ‘interview’ with a snail. Enjoy!

Tomatoes: Last Call

tomatoes

Tomato Goodness

It’s hard to say goodbye to summer tomatoes.  Unless you buy heirlooms or ‘cherries’, the tomatoes in the store are flavorless.  I used to think I was having a streak of bad luck, until I read that farmers have spent nearly 70 years perfecting the look of the tomato, at the expense of flavor.  They’ve removed the sweet, wonderful taste.

We grow our own every summer and enjoy the harvest for a few months.  This year we had plenty of orange cherry tomatoes, a few red heirlooms, one or two orange ones and a ton of Roma’s.

It’s mid-October now, and the plants are looking tired.  Today I finally pruned away the dying branches on most of them.  I’m still seeing one or two small tomatoes a day, so it’s hard to let them go.

Spent tomato plants

Spent tomato plants

The Roma plant is still going strong, pumping out at least a dozen or so a day.  Even the garden pests can’t keep up, so we’ve had plenty for salads and salsa.

If you’re a salsa fan, here is my husband’s quick and easy recipe:

  • 6 – 12 tomatoes (we’re using the Roma)
  • 1/2 sweet or yellow onion
  • a few ounces of Jalapeno peppers (or to taste)

Combine and blend.  Serve with corn tortilla chips or as a garnish.

Halloween Countdown:

cat inflatable

Halloween at our house

Tomatoes: Ripe for the Picking

I have nothing original to say about tomatoes.  Grow them. Eat them. Love them.

Fresh off the vine they are sweet and delicious. They resemble nothing you get in the grocery store, unless you’re lucky enough to find heirlooms.

I seem to be a two-crop wonder this year: my first optimistic attempt at growing them from seed; then round two with starters from the nursery.  No matter.  They’re here now and I’m enjoying them while I can.

Given our temperate climate, tomato plants can produce well into late October.  If that holds true, I’ll have a beautiful bounty for the next six weeks.  Yum!

Here’s what’s ripening on the vine:

Orange cherry tomatoes

Orange cherry tomatoes

roma tomatoes

Roma Tomatoes

green tomatoes

Indeterminate (hopefully Baker Heirlooms)

Thanks for stopping by!

Tomatoes and Basil, Together at Last

My husband made a delicious Caprese salad for dinner last night with store-bought tomatoes and basil. It’s one of our favorite dishes. He found plump, flavorful heirloom tomatoes, filled with juicy sweetness. Today, at last, we have our own ripening tomatoes on the vine and a healthy crop of basil.

I planted three organic starter plants on one side of the City Picker planting system, and three sets of seeds on the other. Everything came up. When the pumpkin vines took over the area between the garden beds, I simply rolled our tomatoes to a sunny spot on the walkway, something I couldn’t have done otherwise. I’ll definitely plant tomatoes in the box again.

Okay, all you tomato growers: are your tomatoes ripening on the vine?  Ours took 94 days from seed to red fruit.

Tomatoes and Basil from the Garden

Tomatoes and Basil

Tomato Quirks: I learned a thing or two from this article.
The Green Grower: Bonnie vegetable starters now come in biodegradable “pots” that go straight into the ground with the plant.  No more plastic pots!
The World’s Largest Tomato: A record holder at over 7 pounds.
Insalata Caprese: My husband usually just wings it, but here is a recipe similar to the one he prepared.