tomato waiting

It seems extra long this year, waiting for the red tomatoes.  Growers in other parts of the country proudly show off their ripe, red fruits, but here it’s just tap tap tapping my toes, waiting.  Finally today I saw my first blush of orange.

Not a huge deal.  I got a late start, and then the seedling had to be nursed through some extra cool weeks at the beginning of the season.  But all that fretting about whether the plants had been sitting too long, whether they were too leggy to thrive?  I forgot about it a couple of weeks into June.

the best tomato cages...concrete reinforcing wire

the best tomato cages…concrete reinforcing wire

As in most things in life, there are as many ways to cultivate tomatoes as there are growers.  For me, using 5′ concrete reinforcing wire cages is indispensable.  The 2 1/2′ wide cages are strong enough to withstand monster plants, the openings are plenty big enough to get hands in and tomatoes out.  And it keeps the plants up off the ground, away from soil-borne nasties.

I’ve been babying the plants along, spraying them with worm tea, aspirin and epsom salt solution every so often.  With the soggy soil, I’m just waiting for the blight to swoop in.  But so far, so good…


Cherokee Purple #1 tomato


German Johnson Pink


Cherokee Purple #2 tomato


pepper plant revisited

In this episode: a revisiting of a pepper experiment started on February 8th. The object was to find out whether pruning a pepper plant does something good.

I know pruning helped keep the plant small enough to fit under my grow lights for an extended period without getting gangly. It would also theoretically mean that the fruits are more likely to fully develop with the extra growing time. After planting it in the garden though, things looked dim. The leaves turned sickly yellow, and I thought the idea was a bust.

pruned pepper a few weeks ago

pruned pepper a few weeks ago

But now there’s some healthy new top growth. Not sure why any of this happened, but I’m hopeful.

pruned pepper with new growth

pruned pepper with new growth

To add to the new hopes, my greenhouse-bought peppers are all doing well. I bought two plants each of three varieties. Pruned one of each and let the other alone.

While they’re all healthy and happy, I can see how the pruned plants will have a much lower center of gravity. They form a ‘y’ at the prune point instead of continuing to grow straight up.

two lead branches on the pruned plant in front

two lead branches on the pruned plant in front, unpruned plant in rear

It’s also time to start protecting the cauliflower heads that are forming. When they get to be about the size of a golf ball it’s a good idea to fold the leaves up around the heads, wrapping with twine. That keeps the florets nice and white.


size of a golf ball

tied up with twine

tied up with twine

And finally, a little more housekeeping, keeping the lower leaves of my indeterminate tomato plants trimmed a few inches off the ground. I believe that this keeps the plants healthier by limiting their contact with spores in the soil and allowing air flow. Could be wishful thinking. I do that.


thoughts on tomato culture

There are as many opinions about the best methods for growing tomatoes as there are varieties.  And I’d bet you that they all work for the right people in the right situations.

This is what I currently believe (and I reserve the right to change my opinion)…
First, and most importantly I’m convinced that mulch is fundamental.  It maintains more even temperatures and moisture for the plants.  It also keeps leaves from direct soil contact, reducing the risk of disease.  But I hold off on the mulch until the weather and soil surrounding the plants has warmed reliably.  Grass clippings are my favorite.
Then of course there’s the sucker debate.  Over the years I’ve pinched suckers and trained vines up stakes.  I’ve gone the hands-off route too, letting the plants sprawl. I’m not sure whether it’s a direct cause and effect, but it seems to me that in years when I’ve pinched out suckers, my plants usually succumbed to disease earlier.  And letting tomato plants sprawl can be a jumbled mess.
That’s why I heartily endorse remesh cages, 5′ tall by 2 1/2′ wide. The plants are supported well and kept off the ground. There’s no need for pinching out suckers; everything’s tucked in behind the wire.

But I also believe that it’s good practice to continually monitor the lower branches of the plants and trim them off when they touch the ground. It opens up air flow and keeps the plant away from soil-borne nasties.

I try to keep from touching the plants when they’re wet, and never water them in the evening, again for disease prevention.

The real key to tomatoes though is the soil. Start there. Compost, compost, compost. If your soil’s right you don’t need anything else. But if you feel the need to meddle (like me), eggshells or tums, Epsom salts, and banana peels are usually good additions from the folklore department. And a light dose of fish emulsion a few times a season doesn’t hurt anything.

Finally, two ways that I’ve had success with in keeping disease at bay are 1) Neem oil spray (which is derived from an evergreen, and is both a fungicide and insect repellant) and 2) aspirin dissolved in water sprayed on the tomato leaves every couple of weeks. I use a regular 80 mg tablet crushed and dissolved in water, which is supposed to stimulate the plants’ natural immune system.

The only tomato pest I’ve had trouble with is the tomato hornworm, a gigantic green worm that can devour plants like I devour ice cream. The first, and most sure-fire defense is search and destroy. Look for devastated leaves and dark green droppings, then look again. They’re masters of disguise. Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis, an organic bacteria) works when you don’t have time to survey all the plants.

But in the end, sometimes even with your best efforts, the weather intervenes or something just goes blooey. Hazards of the game.

That’s my 2 cents. If you don’t see pictures of my tomato plants in this blog after a while, you’ll know you shouldn’t have believed anything you read here.


still kicking

The first two of four very cool nights is over. The prize of the garden, my tomato seedlings, are still with me, and so far no signs of wear. Two more nights in the 40s, and then Easy Street.

I have to admit that even I have to do a double take when I pull in the drive and see the conglomeration of metal, cloth and plastic that decorates my tomato crop. But the rest of the garden is doing fine with the cool weather. Tomatoes are sissies.

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I love this time of year. Few weeds, lots of green, the promise of tomorrow. Two more tomorrows, and I’ll breathe a little easier.

the wages of impatience

I can’t explain some things. Like how, year after year after year, I can’t resist planting tomatoes out earlier than I should. It’s not a problem with other vegetables. Just tomatoes.

After an initial assessment of the ten day forecast a few days ago, I decided that it was worth the risk. Now I’ll be making extra work and worry for the next week or two, trying to keep them healthy. In two days, the low is now projected to be in the high 30s.

But before that gets here, there are three or four days with highs in the 80s.

So instead of planting the seedlings next week and sitting back, I need to protect them from both heat and blazing sun. Ever more contraptions.

IMG_4689 IMG_4690

This is actually working pretty well for sun protection. I lined up the unused tomato cages and fastened shade cloth to them. So far so good. There are t-posts at either end with a wire strung through the cages to prevent the whole thing from blowing down. Even my understanding wife is looking at me sideways.

Then on Tuesday, the hoop houses and tarps and blankets will come out, and the fingers will be crossed.

There are two things that I can do to solve this; one, plant the tomato seeds still later so that the seedlings don’t get so tall that I feel like they have to go out too early. And two, pay attention to the promises I make myself every freaking year to be patient.

planting by natural signs

Maybe there’s a load of truth to these old wives tale-type nuggets, maybe not. It makes sense to me that nature can clue in an observant person about what’s going on with soil temperature and weather trends. But read these with an open/skeptical frame of mind:

  • Tomatoes can be set out when lily-of-the-valley is in full bloom.
  • When the flowering dogwood is in peak bloom it is time to plant tomatoes, early corn and peppers. Another is to plant tomatoes and peppers when daylilies start to bloom.
  • When you see new growth on green ash, grapes and bur oaks it is safe to plant tender vines, annuals and perennials
  • Plant peppers and eggplant outside when bearded iris is in bloom.
  • When black locust and Vanhoutte spirea are blooming, plant cold tender seedlings of: zinnia, marigolds, tomatoes, and peppers
  • When the daffodils begin to bloom it is time to plant peas.
  • Plant corn when oak leaves are the size of a squirrel’s ear.
  • When the blossoms of the apple tree begin to fall, plant your corn seeds.
  • When the common lilac plant has leafed out, plant lettuce, peas and other cool weather varieties. When its flowers are in full bloom plant beans and squash. When its flowers have faded plant cucumbers and squash

At any rate, the lilacs are blooming along with some of the lily of the valley, so I took the plunge and planted my main tomato crop yesterday. It’s not a total leap of faith. I have small hoop house to cover them if need be, and backup plants if…don’t even think it.

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And finally, a random picture of our burning brush pile, just because fire is cool…


still twiddling

It all moves so agonizingly slow, the tomato wait. I should be happy that I have most of the garden in at this point, but I can’t see past tomato planting time. The temperatures flirt with 80° for a few days and then laugh and run back into the 40s for a few weeks.

Meanwhile, the plants that mean the most to me, the homegrown tomatoes, sit under the lights and grow taller, a little lankier every day. Four or five weeks is perfect for them. The problem is guessing when the weather will cooperate more than a month before it happens.  The problem is that now mine are pushing 7 weeks old.  What was I thinking?

They’ll end up fine. They almost always do. But you can’t blame a guy for wanting to plant the stocky, bushy four week old plants rather than the teenaged six week olds.

Warm days ahead. But then in a week, two more upper 40s nights. To keep my hands busy, I dug some holes. Filled them with compost, worm castings, a few coffee grounds, a little peat to hold water in this sandy loam, a dash of Epsom salts and some eggshells. Now I have to make the decision whether to let the plants get a week taller or risk the weather.


As the garden comes to life, so does the hardware. The beans have popped, which means they’re at they perfect stage to be mowed off by fat groundhogs. I’ve learned that if you put aesthetics aside early, you have something left to please your senses and your stomach later.

So it’s time to drag out the bean thing. Remember that we had chickens so long ago that I cant tell you when that was? Well, I kept two of the walls of the old chicken pen, which has become my repurposed bean cage. A twenty-something year old investment is still paying off. It ain’t that pretty, but I ain’t that proud.


plan c

Went out to the coop this morning and found that my genius chickens had figured out the new perch ladder I’d made and were roosting on the poop board. Yay for me, yay for them.


But that’s like a P.S. At the beginning of the post. I actually wanted to talk about plans and reality and tomatoes.

For the past several years I’ve been starting a couple of extra-early tomato seedlings to go into the garden when it’s dangerous, under protection. Last year things went smooth as a baby’s bottom. The two seedlings took off and gave me some extra-early fruit that extended the season by several weeks.

This year? Pretty much the opposite. I had four early seedlings of two varieties. I thought it’d be cool to experiment with lopping off the tops of two of them to see if it created bushier plants, like the pepper plant that worked so well. Not so much.

To add some extra kicks in the pants, I mistakenly chopped the tops off of both plants of one variety. The two early plants of the other variety grew leggy.

Yesterday it was off to plan C. I put in one early seedling from the main crop seedlings and called it a day. I know leggy seedlings would likely turn out fine, but somehow I just can’t bring myself to start out the tomato season that way.

So besides planting about two weeks later than last year, the single plant I put in is an additional two weeks younger than last year’s early plants.


It’s easy to realize what mistakes I made; experimenting on more than one plant, not reading the labels, scheduling a vacation right in the middle of hardening off season (which meant basically starting over with that process).

It’s a hard knock life.  And a whole summer’s worth of dealing with weather, disease and pests coming up. How do I enjoy this so much?

tomato roulette

This is the time for us Michiganders to start looking forward to gardening overdose. Winter’s really dead. Hail to Dorothy! In our particular corner of the world I can feel the life waiting to bust out and run.

But it’s a dangerous time for zealots. With 10 day forecasts, it’s not quite as dangerous as in earlier decades, but you can still get bit. (See ‘Me, This Year’). That’s why I believe the hardest part of gardening isn’t planting. It’s not planting. The flowers are bursting, the thermometer says yay, and tomorrow all your plants are pale and drooping.

Especially with the warm-weather stuff like tomatoes and peppers, I theorize that you might actually gain on your time to first fruit by waiting those extra couple of days or weeks. Tomato plants definitely weaken and regress for a bit when they’re subjected to too-early planting.

That being said, there’s a little thrill in playing the odds with a plant or two, and crossing your fingers for a surprising warm spell. If tragedy strikes, I’m ready to lose one or two plants and also willing to pull ruthlessly and start over with a couple of backups.

It’s an intricate dance here in the upper Midwest; wait too long and the tomato crop hangs there in its greenness come the chilly nights of late September. Jump the gun and you have to replant, risking the same or worse.


put me in coach

You take your thrills where you can get them.

an ugly selfie

Sometimes you just need a little vacation from retirement. We took two days to get away from the endless busy-ness of the ‘easy life’ in a rustic cabin in Indiana. The trip was great, the return so-so.

It’s natural to try to present your best side, your beauty shots, when you blog. I do it often. You probably do it. But I’m not so vain as to deny mistakes and miscalculations. They’re part of gardening.

When I returned from our excursion, the first thing, of course, was to check the seedlings in the grow room. Not a happy thing. Only half of the sweet corn seeds had germinated. I plant them early to give them a head start in the warmth of the house. But having enough seedlings to plant a block of plants is critical for pollination with corn. I don’t have enough sprouted seedlings to start a block, so it’s back to square one, and my corn season got a few days shorter.


Next up, the very early tomato plants that I decided to experiment on by clipping off the growing tips. Oops. The two seedlings that I trimmed didn’t look so happy.


I’d chalk it up to sunburn if I didn’t have another seedling, a control plant, that received identical hardening off. Be very cautious if you’re considering this. Better yet, don’t. Luckily I’ve learned that setbacks don’t have to be disasters with a backup plan. There are extra plants under the lights for just this reason.IMG_4614

And finally, out in the garden, the effects of a hard freeze a few nights ago showed plainly. I didn’t have enough grow tunnels to cover the whole bed of young onion plants, so there’s a wilted, sickly patch right in the middle. Again, the backup plan should save my silly rear. There are more plants sitting in a cold frame ready to take their places.

IMG_4617Anyway, mistakes were made, and will continue to be made.