Trellising Tomatoes and Increasing Yield

Last summer, we were plagued by heavy rains and blight so bad that we lost more than 75% of our tomato crop.  And though we always grow a lot of tomatoes, and 25% of a 60 plant crop was still enough to get us through the winter in pizza sauce (a staple at our house), I spent the last year purchasing crushed tomatoes, tomato paste and tomato sauce from the grocery store in quantities that I wasn’t particularly comfortable with.

Our Current Garden
July 29, 2012

One of the easiest ways for us to be self-reliant is by putting up our own tomato products.  While tomatoes aren’t necessarily as easy to grow in the far north as they are in the south, we’ve discovered a few tricks that have helped us with this year’s crop.

2012 Tomato Crop

We usually start big.  Tomatoes are a huge part of our diet, and we don’t fool around with them.  This year, I planted seventy-two tomato seeds under a growing light about eight weeks before planting, and at this time, we currently have 68 plants thriving in our garden.  Since we are so far north, and larger tomatoes take more days to develop, we usually grow a mixture of cherry and plum-sized tomatoes (about 70% of our crop) and one larger variety that will thrive some years and really struggle in others.  This year’s Constoluto Genovese heirloom variety from Park seed is growing like a weed, despite the fact that the fruit are also ENORMOUS.  We’re just hoping that the growing season is long enough that I can bring in the bulk of these beauties.

Constoluto Genovese Heirloom Tomatoes

While cherry and plum tomatoes are not your traditional sauce tomatoes, I’ve found that all tomatoes can go into sauce after a whirl through the food processor (skin and seeds intact) and a few hours on the stove top.  This flexibility has given me a lot of room to play with different types of tomatoes in my sauce and has made for a lot more variety and better taste.

Orange Paruche Hybrid cherry tomatoes ripen almost three weeks before all of our other tomatoes and make a delightfully sweet (and orange!) pizza sauce.

If you want to grow this many tomatoes, you need a system.  For years, both Jason and I used cages.  And cages are great if you want to grow five or six tomatoes.  But cages tend toward weakness, plants usually need additional support, and I don’t want to be worried about my crop 24/7.  So last year, we started switching over to welded wire fence as a support.  I carefully wove the plants through the fencing, and they did okay, but that weaving caused quite a bit of leaf damage and may have later contributed to the blight (since the plants were already a bit stressed.

This year, I’m using a mixture of cable ties and string to gently train the plants onto the fences, then marveling as they weave themselves between the wires.  The cable ties (smallest I can find) run about $1.99/100 and we’ve gone through about four packages this summer. My only advice is that if a large wind/thunder storm is predicted in your area, try to get out beforehand and secure your plants if you’ve been letting them go a bit too long (they need to be re-secured about once a week in June and once every 2 -3 weeks in July and August with careful monitoring for heavy fruit that might be weighing down the plant).

Cable ties secure plants firmly to the wire when they are already in close proximity.

String or twine can be used for added support in situations where plants are too far from the fencing to use cable ties. We just use a basic twine.

The added benefits of this system are that it gives us a solid wall between our squash plants and the rest of the garden and it allows us a nice pathway to bring the hose through when we’re watering our beans and peas in the small secondary garden that we put in last year.  And while welded wire did have a substantial upfront cost, it was comparable to buying 72 tomato cages and will likely last for years without all of that tomato cage hassle!

Row between the tomatoes. Each row of tomatoes is 25′ long, and this year, we’ve planted five rows of tomatoes.

How do you support your tomatoes?

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Homestead Update

When I went to Boston a week ago today, I had every intention of continuing to write regular posts, but between a hotel with limited wi-fi access and a weekend of wedding-related activities (and my 30th birthday!), not nearly as much got done on the blog as needed.  This time of year always feels a little breathless, as the first truly hot summer days descend in a haze of weeding, home reorganization and preparation for canning.  Throw in a wedding to prepare for and host, and everything that used to feel normal about my days has pretty much evaporated.  That said, I wouldn’t want anything else at this point.

Always a welcome sight at the end of a long day…

In the garden, things have finally started progressing at a rate that I’m excited to discuss.  This year, we’ve been plagued by a super slow growing season and the fear that not one of

Tomatoes … finally growing!

our seventy-something tomato plants would make it.  Apparently, our problem was soil temperature because as that has climbed over the last nine days, so have our plants!  I think one of the things I struggle most with on this blog is adequately cataloging our failure and my fear of failure, as putting it in words somehow makes it seem that much more eminent.  So in that vein: I’m worried about the peppers, which have been plagued by flea beetles all season.  We’ve been hitting them up regularly with a mixture of garlic, hot sauce, Dr. Bronner’s natural soap and water, and we’re hoping to see some progress, but it has been SLOW.  We’ve also really struggled with flea beetles in our cucumbers and have had to replace some of the plants (a complete repeat of last year).  We’ve planted nasturtiums with them to try to cut back on cucumber beetles, and – cross your fingers – we haven’t seen any yet!  What do you do to protect delicate pepper and cucumber plants, and how do you keep the dreaded flea beetle away?

One Week Old Chicks – Note the Feathers on the Wings!

And in the coop?  Chicks!  Our hatch yielded 21 of the healthiest, most active chicks we’ve ever had.  So healthy, in fact, that after six days in the back bedroom nursery, they had to be moved out to the coop.

Chick-mania!

This year, rather than constructing our modified coop brooder out of cardboard, I used some scrap wood from our earlier coops and the clear panels from an old cold frame that blew apart in a storm last year.  I’ve slowly begun to expose them to a bit more light and sun from outside (keeping a careful eye on drafts).

Abby keeping a watchful eye on her “babies”. Do note that at this stage, she is never left alone with the chicks. In about three weeks, I’ll be less careful about chaperoning her, but the chicks are still way too small to protect themselves, and I’m not sure she realizes they are chickens (and meant to be protected) yet.

Rather than keeping a thermometer in the coop with the little ones, we’ve been monitoring their activity and adjusting accordingly.  Right now, we have one lower and one higher lamp and lots of space for them to move around in, and we’ve only begun to see the first hints of flight!

Flight!

Planting the Gardens

It’s been a busy week in Northern Maine.  Jason and I are celebrating Memorial Day weekend with graduation at school (me), a great canoe trip (him), a big end of the year gathering at the house (both of us), and putting in our vegetable garden.  I love this time of year in Northern Maine because the sun rises at just after 4:30 a.m., offering me the opportunity to get up early, write and head to the garden, usually before six a.m.  The mornings are crisp and cool and the black flies are usually still cozied up wherever it is that black flies go at night.

Since Jason had Friday off, he spent the day preparing the garden with Abby.  Using my garden plan, he built raised beds by mounding the rototilled soil and hammered in the fence posts for our tomato fences (we had 2.5 row fences and a handful of old tomato cages).  He also planted beans and half of the carrots.

First thing Saturday morning, I was able to get outside early (5 a.m.) and plant 3/4 of our tomatoes before having to shower and dress for graduation.  Luckily, this early planting gave me the opportunity to realize that we had once again expanded our tomato operation and were a row short of tomato staking devices.  We decided that it would be in our best interest to just invest in another tomato fence rather than 10 – 15 more tomato cages.

We choose to fence with welded wire galvanized fencing because it allows us the opportunity to provide the plants with a stronger support system.  I’m hoping to include a tomato-specific post later in the week.

So, on my way to graduation, I swung by Tractor Supply and was able to secure 50′ of fencing (quite a bit more than we needed) and five fence posts for about $60 (just a bit more than what I would have paid for 15 tomato cages & totally reusable!).

We were also lucky to get our window boxes planted earlier this week.  Given that the wedding will be at the house (in six weeks!), I’ve been paying a lot more attention to flowers this year, and I have a great tip!  If you’re still in the market for hanging baskets/bulbs, check out your local box stores this weekend!  I was able to pick up four huge hanging baskets for $40 because they had stocked them for mother’s day, not sold them, and then let them flounder a bit.  Granted, none of them are currently flowering, but once I trimmed back any dead foliage and hit them with fertilizer and water, the transformation was pretty impressive.

I need to get out to my garden, but I’ll try to update this post with a few photographs later this evening.

Have a great day!

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes… The May Garden

This week, I walked into the back bedroom and was nearly knocked over by the aroma of tomatoes.  Even though we planted on March 24, a mere five weeks ago… are you ready for the progress?

March 24, 2012

May 3, 2012

About two weeks ago, we transplanted from initial trays to peat pots; however, things had gotten a little out of control while my attention was focused on grading rough drafts.  Since we’re growing four different kinds of tomatoes… some were still sort of okay, while others were sprawling in all manner of directions.  I remembered last year’s staking catastrophe, whereby I just waited FOREVER before staking and ended up with some really oddly-shapen stems.  I also remembered a temporary solution that I had come up with much too late.

I went to the kitchen and came back with a package of 10” bamboo skewers, the type available for about $3 at our grocery store that I use to make kebabs.  And for a mere $3, you can stake 100 tomatoes!  I drove each stake into a peat pot, about 3/4” from the base of the tomato and then used some left over embroidery floss to loosely tether the tomato to the stake, leaving plenty of room for growth!  Do note that over the next few weeks, until these girls go in the garden, we’re going to have to keep a close eye on their tethers and replace them if they get too tight!

Skewered Tomatoes

It also became necessary to separate out the tomatoes, as their previous trays had become way too crowded… so we split two trays off onto my writing desk for the time being (a nice, sunny window) and plan to work a rotation schedule together, so everyone gets a nice mixture of sun exposure and grow light.

The only problem we’ve had with the tomatoes is with the TCG variety (Costoluto Genovese Tomato).  With this variety’s leaves, we’ve noticed some serious curling, discoloration and withering.  I’m trying to keep a closer eye on things this week, but the phenomenon has me concerned.  You can see in the photo below that the leaves do tend toward curling back in on themselves.  I will note that as soon as I see signs of leaf-decay, I usually remove the affected leaves immediately, in the hopes of containing any bacterial/fungal issues, and we haven’t seen any signs of such decay on any of the other plants, so it may just be a problem with this specific tomato variety.

TCG Leaves

This weekend, we’re hoping to start our kale, squashes, cucumbers and other vining veggies indoors (with what little space we have left!).  Yesterday, Jason managed to get our garden rototilled in preparation for outdoor plantings of peas and ranunculus.

I also finished up this little project for my friend Kate’s baby shower!

The pattern came from the lovely little book Quilts, Bibs, Blankies, Oh My! by Kim Schaefer and was super-easy to amend to our particular needs (smaller, with a soft flannel backing).

Enjoy your weekend!

Seed Starting ~ What’s Going in Our Garden

Given that we have about eight weeks before we will be able to safely plant some of our most tender vegetables (tomatoes, peppers, artichokes, basil, etc…), we decided that it was time to take out the grow-light and get everything situated.  We use an old metal table (which does a great job reflecting heat back into the plants), a recycled florescent four bulb T8 fixture, and a timer that ensures the plants get a solid 12 hours of light/day.

On Saturday morning, we set everything up and refilled the seed starters that we used an saved last year with fresh potting mix.  Given that the soil had spent the last few days in our garage, we warmed it under the lights for an hour before planting.

Warming the Soil

We then planted the following:
Greens:
1 Full Flat of Bloomsdale Long Standing Spinach (Cold Frame in 2 Weeks)
1 Full Flat of Salad Bowl Lettuce (Cold Frame in 2 Weeks)

Herbs:
76 Italian Basil
9 Cilantro
9 Fernleaf Dill

Artichokes
18 Carciofo di Romagna Artichokes (CA)
*I started with nine but the seeds were so pretty…

Tomatoes
9 Container Choice Hybrid Tomatoes (TH)
32 Golden Gem Tomatoes (TM)
27 Costoluto Genovese Tomato (TCG)
10 Orange Paruche Tomatoes (TO)

OR Peppers

Peppers
36 Oregon Hybrid Peppers (OR)
27 Sweet Rainbow Peppers (SR)
10 Early Jalapeno Peppers (JAL)

Given the outrageous cost of plant markers, I also purchased a box of popsicle sticks (which we can recycle after use) to use as plant markers.  Above, each parenthetical corresponds with the popsicle stick plant markers I plan to use.

Once done, we gave everyone a nice drink of water, put on the greenhouse caps and turned on the lights.  Keep checking back for our weekly plant update!

Waiting for Sprouts!