The Backyard

The Backyard

Friday, April 8, 2016

I Want to Grow a Tomato Plant on My Patio

Yes… container growing is easy and you CAN grow that tomato plant on your deck.  There are a couple of key items you must know and do to get that plant to bear fruit.   Some vegetables require specific care such as potatoes, so for this post, we’ll focus on a tomato plant.  It’s really this easy:
  • Pick a spot on your deck or patio that gets 8 hours of sunshine a day.
  • Select a container that is at least 18 inches in diameter and 18 inches deep with holes in the bottom for drainage.
  • Use good soil – my mom has been having good luck with the Miracle-Gro brand soil – the fertilizer is mixed in with the soil.
  • Plant only one plant in that big pot.  The plant will fill the container in short order.
  • Put a cage or support in with the plant.  Tie it up as it grows, or let the tomato cage do its thing and keep the leaves and branches inside the cage.
  • Fertilize with an organic fertilizer such as fish emulsion if you didn't use Miracle -Grow soil.
  •  Water, water, water.  This is really important as the summer heats up.  You’ll water once a day in the heat of the summer.  Check the pot every day by sticking your finger in the soil.  If it’s dry, give it about two quarts of water.
There are literally hundreds of varieties of tomatoes.  Many nurseries now carry tomato plants to grow specifically in a container.  Ask for the best variety for containers.  Early Girl” would be my choice, or “Sungold” cherry tomatoes for a container, but don’t be afraid to try others.  Burpee has a nice selection of container tomatoes and you can order them from the comfort of your chair.   Here’s the link to their page.

 Want to grow an heirloom:? Tomato Headquarters has suggestions here.  Heirlooms are harder to find unless you have a well-stocked nursery near you or can find plants via mail order, or grow your own from seed.   Treehugger also has a good article on heirlooms here.

My mother has been container growing for several years now, and for her, the key items were a big enough pot, don’t overfill with plants, good soil and water.  It’s so easy to think your plant looks so tiny in that big pot, so you add more plants or get a smaller pot.   Don’t do it!  That little plant will fill out the container fairly quickly.  The bigger the pot, the better.  And remember to check every day and water.  One day without water in summer sun will kill your plant.   Burpee has some other tips in this article such as putting the pot in a protected location away from winds.  Burpee also gives advice on pruning.  Follow these tips and you’ll be enjoying the fruits of your labor from mid-July or August until fall.  Happy planting.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Direct Seeding 101

In the gardening world, direct seeding refers to planting seeds directly in prepared soil outside.  This is the time of year when we can start direct seeding these early spring crops:
  • sugar peas
  • shell peas
  • Sugar peas popping up
  • snap peas
  • lettuces (all - romaine, leaf, and head)
  • carrots
  • red beets
  • kale
  • spinach
  • all other greens: Asian greens, mustard, collards, etc.
  • radishes
  • onions (plants or sets, no seeds)
  • kohlrabi
  • parsnips
  • turnips
  • swiss chard
There are others, but these are the most common.   Broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower are best planted from already-grown seedlings from the nursery (or what you started yourself under lights) in a week or two.  Yes -- these seeds and plants are cold hardy and you can plant these right now (except broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage). The Mother of a Hubbard website has a great post of the cold temps these plants can endure.  It's pretty astounding how low the thermometer can go for these (i.e., 18 degrees for carrot tops).  I've moved snow to pick spinach already.  Snow tonight?  I'm not worried.   Ideally, most of these seeds would already be in the ground for most of central Pennsylvania as the traditional start date is St. Patrick's day if the ground is ready.  Not sure how to tell if your ground is ready?  Take a clump in your hand and ball it up, if it crumbles when you touch it lightly, its ready.  If it stays in a ball, its too wet.  If you can't ball it, you'll need to water as soon as you seed.   Here's a visual from Organic Life
     Ok, you got your seeds and your ground is ready (you dug it, removed most weeds, stones, and grass clumps, and added some amendments such as peat or compost.  Not sure?  Here's a prepping your soil article from Eartheasy).   Planting the seeds is the easy part -- just follow the instructions on the back of the seed packet making sure you plant according to seed depth and spacing between plants.  Lightly firm the soil over planted seeds.  Mark the row with some sort of marker (I just lay the empty seed packet at the end of the row.) Getting them to grow is the fun part.  Note that some seeds can take as long as two weeks to sprout.   My sugar peas are just now popping through and they were planted mid-March.   Carrots and spinach can sometimes be finicky.   Radishes and kale can't wait to sprout.  
      One really important part to getting the seeds to sprout is MOISTURE.  When you plant them, water them if it wasn't raining when you planted.  Yes, watching the weather and planting just before it rains is the absolute perfect time to plant.    Check the soil in a day or two by sticking your finger in the ground.  It should be damp just under the surface.  If not, water.  Use a setting that will not drown and flood the seeds out of the ground.  A sprinkling water can is ideal.  It should be a gently watering.   It's not unusual to water every other day -- every day if in a super-sunny, dry spot.  Seeds need water to sprout.  
     Not sure if its your vegetable or a weed?  Let it go until it gets a little bigger.  Or... google it!  Seriously.   Until I learned what the vegetable seedlings look like, I referred to a seed book to see if it was a seed or a weed.  Seeds by Sam Bittman (1989) was my bible when first learning.  I still refer to it at least once a year.  
    It's wise to fence your seeded area.  Rabbits, ground hogs, and deer love seedlings and will munch them off to the ground.  It's amazing how they'll find their way to your freshly planted garden.   With good amended soil, water, and no critters, you'll be eating salad in about 6 or 8 weeks.  Early spring seeds grow amazingly fast.  They hate the heat, so most spring crops will be finished by the time the heat of the summer rolls around.    Have fun. 

Friday, March 25, 2016

Seed Starting 101 - Under Lights

A topic near and dear to my heart, yet I never wrote about.  This will get you started with seed starting under lights.  Why start your own?  Variety, variety, variety.  Once you taste a Cherokee Purple heirloom tomato you'll never eat another and that's not a tomato you find at the local grocer.   I also start my own to assure 1) organic seed (in most cases) and 2) non-GMO seeds and boycotting of Monsanto (did you know Monsanto controls many seed companies?  Here’s the list of who to avoid and who to buy from.  Fedco and Baker Heirloom are my two favorites)   3) disease-free.  One year I lost a dozen or so tomatoes and a dozen or so pepper plants to late blight and I’m fairly certain it was from diseased pepper seedlings from a local nursery.   The following year I started ALL my own plants and they grew beautifully with nary a blighted plant in sight.     Variety selection can be mind boggling.  When choosing your seeds, start with what others recommend or by the descriptions which are pretty true in the Fedco Catalog.  Eventually, you’ll find a variety you go back to every year such as Arcadia broccoli.  The Burpee choices at your local Walmart aren’t too shabby either.    I’ll save choice varieties for the next post.  

      Lights.  Low and behold, this too has already been written about and I found one site that is nearly identical to my set-up and process.  Simple, Green Frugal Co-op has a step-by-step process with all the details here.   Summarizing:  
  • Cheapest lights to use are 4 ft fluorescent shop lights.  (Short on time to build one?  Most larger nurseries have seed starting lights already to go.  Here’s an example in the Burpee Catalog  
  • You can either hang on chains, or set-up a nice stand with chains.  Below is a picture of my husband’s handy-work that served me well over the years.  Chains are a must.
  • The chain needs to be adjustable to keep the lights close to the plants as they grow.
  • Start the seeds in a warm room (70-degree range or above) or use a heating mat.  You can purchase a seed tray and dome and seed starting formula from your local nursery.  Don’t use potting soil… it must be seed starting formula which contains a little more organic matter.
  • Once sprouted, get the cover off and put under lights.  The seed pack will tell you the timeframe for sprouting.  No need to put under lights until they sprout.
  • Keep in a warm, dry room.  If the room is damp (like a cool basement), the soil may form mold on top of it.  This will damage the seedling at the base and eventually kill it.  No room for aesthetics here.... just set the lights up where the temperature is best.  Mine sets in the middle of my living room right now.
  • Keep the lights virtually on top of the plants and on for the same amount of time as daylight.
  • Bottom water is best, or use a spray bottle on the soil.  The tender seedlings are easy to flood with water.  Be gentle.
  • Keep under lights until about 3 days before planting outside.  At this time you’ll “harden off” the seedlings by setting them outside in a protected area (still in the tray for ease) to get accustomed to the out-of-doors.  You’ll know they are ready to go in the ground when you see roots growing out of the holes in the bottom of containers.
  • Electric costs:  About $10 a month for two 4-ft fluorescent lights going the entire month. 
My light stand built by my hubby. Usually sets in a warm bedroom.
Simple, Green Frugal Co-op has all the detail you need to get this started and as mentioned, their set-up mimics mine.    It's a little late to start your own early crops such as broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower; but, the timing is perfect to start your late spring (planting between May 1 and May 30 depending on your last frost) plants such as tomatoes and peppers.   A good time frame for starting is about 6 weeks before your last frost date.  Here in outskirts of Gratz, I seldom plant tender annuals before May 15 or May 30 because we've had frost on Memorial day.   If the forecast looks promising, I'll gamble and plant prior to Memorial day.   Watch the evening temps like a hawk to assure no frost.

It's super-rewarding to start your own seeds.  If you have kids, they love watching the sprouting process too.   It's even more rewarding to pick that first tomato you grew from a tiny seed and having the satisfaction you know exactly where that seed came from and the purity of it.  Have fun!

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Welcome to the Wonderful World of Backyard Gardening

It’s a world of satisfaction, rewards, and good health.   “What’s for dinner” takes on new meaning when you’re in the garden.    I’ve noticed a rise in interest in starting a garden the past few years.    Many try to buy organic but find the costs prohibitive.  Yet, they want to know they are getting healthy, non-GMO foods with no pesticide residue on them.    You ARE doing the right thing and today starts the first post on how to start that new garden. 

I’ll start by summarizing the most important things to think about and move into details of each in a post later in the season.   As I started writing this, I found an article already written similar to what I’m stating here, so you can also refer to the Better Homes and Garden site.     There are hundreds of articles on the web too.  Trusted sites I’ve used through the years are Mother Earth News and Rodale Organic Gardening.  Organic Gardening is where I learned everything I know, but they recently changed to Organic Life and the gardening sections are not as extensive as in the past.   I still refer to my first “bible” of gardening, “A Garden Primer” by Barbara Damrosch.  Barbara and her husband, Eliot Coleman, run a Four-Season Farm in Maine.  

Picking the spot - You’ll need a minimum of 8 hours of sunlight for most vegetables.  The more full sun the better.  There are a handful of crops that can take less sun and shade such as spinach, lettuces and other greens, but full sun is preferable.  Fruiting crops need sun.  Some root crops can take some shade also.

Prepping the soil – I started with a barren field, so my experience has been with a rototiller, a shovel, and my two hands to remove the sod and weeds.  It takes time.  Obviously the smaller plot you have, the easier it will be.  Mother Earth News suggests cutting the grass super-short, then covering with newspaper and a thick layer of compost.  I’ve done this method also (minus the newspaper and used pure horse manure) and it works.    Raised beds are popular too and here’s a good article on those.   Do you need a soil test?  To be honest, in 24 years, I’ve never once tested my soil (contrary to my master gardening experience that tells you to do so).  My philosophy has always been if the plants are growing and producing, why test (but the experts will say differently).  My harvests have gotten better and better through the years.   And the secret is….

Amending the Soil – Plants need more than dirt.  They need organic matter mixed in to aerate the soil and also help with water retention.  There are numerous ways to amend the soil – with compost, manure, peat, and other methods.  This article will help you.  I’ll post on composting which is my preferred method.  

What to grow – Grow what you like and will eat.  It’s easy to get carried away and dump a whole pack of lettuce seeds in a row, only to have SO much lettuce in a couple months you’ll be knocking on neighbor’s doors trying to give it away.   Here’s a great guide on plants.  There are some plants that take a lot of space and this will guide you.   

My recommendations for a first-time garden:  spinach, lettuce, radishes, carrots, kale, onions (to plant now); tomatoes, peppers, green beans, zucchini or summer squash (to plant later this spring).  Early crops can be grown from seed; late spring crops can be purchased at a nursery.  Be sure to buy organic seedlings so you aren’t getting GMOs.  You can start your seeds too.  I’ll try to post on starting your own seeds.

Keep the weeds down – If you don’t they’ll zap the moisture from the soil and your vegetables.  Weeds will quickly crowd out your hard work, so keep them under control.  I use a thick compost which serves double duty:  keeping the weeds down AND amending the soil at the same time.  The plants love me for it.

Water when dry – super important if you want good harvests.  Stick your finger in the soil and if it’s not damp underneath, water.   Make sure it’s a decent soaking too as the sun will dry the top quickly.

It’s warm enough now to plant early spring crops like lettuces, greens, onions, carrots, red beets, peas, sugar peas and if you have the room broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower.   So start thinking about what you want to do and do it!  You’ll be so glad you did.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Where Have I Been?

There's WAY too much social media these days and after last year's 1/2 ton harvest, my on-line socializing and updates went to the simplified Facebook more often than naught.   Blogging is time consuming.  Writing is creative and informative, yes, but also takes a good chunk out of a busy day.  Retirement gave me happiness to be in the garden and exercise as much as my little heart desires.  But living in the moment (the key to happiness), has taken me on a path that puts a smile on my face every day, no matter the situation -- and I'm NOT always in the backyard garden or on a bicycle seat.  Thus, that path didn't include a trail to the blog everyday.  Today, is the first time in months I felt inclined to share on this blog what's going on in retirement life and the backyard.  There have been regular updates on Facebook.  The garden is still a real thing and while everything is pretty much put to sleep for the winter, I'm endeavoring to find out what exactly lurks under the soil.  My curiosity the past couple years of why aren't there any worms in the manure led me down a road to the realization that the horse manure likely contains GMOs from the ingredients in the horse feed (soybeans, grain "products").  Horrified, I'm trying to find a laboratory that will provide an affordable test for glyphosates.  Standard soil and compost testing will NOT give that information (but are quick to tell you what to ADD to your soil - no thanks - my produce is beautiful).  Some folks say the composting process will break down any pesticide residues in the manure.  But studies show that's not the case. I have no worms.   So this quest continues.  Outside of the garden, my aging mother gets attention every day.  I'm grateful for living next door to her and being able to walk down over the hill and help her out with whatever she might need.  She makes me smile -- even when she's in her pessimistic moods. Mothers are special people. Dad's too.  He's 83, but is super-healthy.  My 94-year old mother-in-law passed in the Spring, so hubby and I are in the process of cleaning and doing small maintenance jobs at her home to get it ready to sell.  We're finding ourselves spending a great deal of time there -- but it's fun and I'm enjoying the fix-up projects (I always did like cleaning and making things "pretty").  And of course I'm always moving and exercising doing something.  I took up stand-up paddling in whitewater and spent a bunch of time this summer on the Lehigh River in Eastern Pennsylvania.  I still run, bicycle, mountain bike, lift weights, do yoga, and hike.  I try to mix it up everyday to keep it interesting -- whatever I feel like doing is the rule of thumb.  So there you have it.  Visit me on Facebook.  It may be awhile until I blog again!

Sunday, March 31, 2013

An Unplanned Easter Sunday Celebration in the Backyard

Yesterday was filled with outdoor play for hubby, myself, and several of our friends.  We paddled the annual 7.5 mile Red Moshannon Downriver Race in north central Pennsylvania -- hubby as a spectator, myself as a racer. I raced on a stand-up paddleboard and needless to say, I was exhausted by the end of the race and couldn't wait to get home, eat, and rest.  My shoulders/arms hurt and my lower back was ached.  But alas, no rest for the weary and the mailbox was stuffed full of onions that I ordered.  They weren't supposed to be delivered until next week, but I guess the onion grower was anxious to get their orders out.  It was a bittersweet moment -- happy to start planting, but SO tired from the day I couldn't even think of bending over to plant 400 or so onion plants.  Sure, they could wait until Monday or Tuesday, but the weather prediction for today and tomorrow is rainy.  What's the best time to plant things??? Yup - just before a rain. There's truth to the farmer's saying "make hay while the sun shines."  With an achy back and sore shoulders, I trudged to the garden this morning to plant the onions.  Easter Sunday or not, the planting must begin.  (Don't worry, I gave thanks while in the garden).  Dixondale Onion never lets us down with a couple extras in the order.  I ordered 60 leeks, 120 yellow Spanish and 120 Red Zeppelin onions.   What I received and planted was 110 leeks, 170 yellow spanish and 206 red zeppelin.  The onions and leeks are in the ground.  Time to praise.  Let the rains come.  

Monday, January 21, 2013

January Blues - Getting Garden Ready

It's January and it's been 4 months since the last blog post.  When the tomatoes got blight last fall and they all were removed, I opted to take a break for awhile and "refresh."  I went for a 26 mile hike, ventured down a 7-mile stretch of a whitewater river on a stand-up paddle board (twice), started and finished the 3-month P90X training program, and just enjoyed retired life for a change.   Now its time to get back in the swing of things and get ready for garden season 2013 (but still do my fun-stuff in between it all).   I learned a lot from last year's growing-our-own-food quest.  I overwhelmed myself with a LOT of food and now that we're in the heart of eating what I harvested, preserved and stored, I can make a fair judgement on what to add or lessen this year.  Here's the initial thought:
  • Less canned pickled beans, more frozen local ham and green beans.
  • More frozen green beans -- we gobbled those up first.
  • No white or red potatoes - we just don't eat that many.  Can buy fairly cheap at the farmer's market. 
  • Grow a couple BLUE potatoes - rich in antioxidants.
  • May not grow dried beans - a lot of work and garden space for a relatively small harvest.  Dried beans are inexpensive to purchase.
  • The onion harvest was PERFECT. 400 seedlings ordered.
  • Butternut Squash goes back to the main garden.  It was grown on a slope in the herb garden last year and didn't do well. Hubby and I both missed our beloved butternut squash this winter.
  • Sweet potatoes are getting started from my own harvest last year.  Had great success starting my own slips (last year was an experiment... this year I'm not purchasing slips).
  • More sweet corn. Didn't have enough for storage.
  • No soybeans.  Didn't do well.
  • Broccoli soon to be started.
  • Shell peas this year and sugar peas only to eat.  Sugar peas didn't freeze well.
  • I found out hubby doesn't like tomatoes nor cucumbers!  So no more cukes.
  • Tomatoes mostly for canning for winter.  Only 1 or 2 plants to eat fresh (heirloom of course).
  • Peppers only for freezing... had to make WAY too much salsa last year (although my friends and family enjoyed the jars they received as gifts). May still do that.
  • Lots more to come.... just beginning the process.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Quazi End of the Season Tally

There's probably two more months of good produce-growing left in the season, but I'm calling it quits for the year.  My tomatoes got the blight and were all pulled (about 20 plants), and the pole beans were blown over by a wind and killed them.  Since I met my goal of a half ton, it's truly time to celebrate and relax a little.  I'll continue to harvest some odds and ends like carrots and spinach, but besides the white and red potatoes to get out of the ground, most big harvests -- and definitely preservation -- are done for the year so I can get a little R&R.  Here's the final tally of everything.  The total tomato harvest takes the top honors at 184.5 pounds. 

Food 2012 Total Weight
Asparagus 5.00
Beans, Lima 1.75
Beans, Kidney 1.75
Broccoli 36.75
Carrots 12.00
Celery 11.50
Corn, Sweet 114 total 45.25
Cucumber 31.00
Fennel 0.50
Kale 4.50
Leek 0.25
Mesclun Mixed Greens 4.25
Greens, beet 2.00
Green Beans 39.50
Onions 164.50
Peas, Sugar 13.25
Peas, Snap 13.00
Peppers 72.50
Potatoes 26.50
Radicchio 0.50
Radishes 7.00
Red Beets 26.25
Rhubarb 5.75
Romaine Lettuce 6.00
Squash, Butternut 20.50
Squash, Dumpling
Squash, Spaghetti 11.75
Spinach 3.00
Sweet Potatoes 77.50
Swiss Chard 1.25
Tomatoes 184.50
Total Vegetables 829.75
Black Raspberries 10
Strawberries 36
Watermelon!  85
Cantaloupe 38.25
Red Raspberries 11
Grand Total 1010.00

Thursday, September 6, 2012

One Half Ton Celebration

I'm having a BIG glass of wine tonight to celebrate the half ton mark of harvested produce from the backyard in 2012. The wine will help my aching back relax a little too after hauling in the 68 pounds of sweet potatoes and 30ish pounds of tomatoes that put me over the 1/2 ton mark.  The tomatoes gotta get cooked up this weekend along with the 10ish pounds of peppers that also gotta get picked.  Banana peppers salsa here we come.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Harvest Monday - September 3, 2012 - Closing in on 1/2 Ton

896.75 pounds with this week's 59 3/4 pound harvest.  I never, in a million years, thought someday I'd be hauling in a half ton of food into our house from the backyard.  I have to be honest though - I'm tired!  I've never wanted frost to come as I am wishing for it this year.  I even started pulling live, producing plants out of the ground.  Two peach tomato plants were pulled that were vining everywhere --  into the sweet potatoes, onto the other tomatoes, on the pepper plants -- they were truly invasive and just lost their life.  But don't fret folks, there's about 3 other plants still producing WAY too many peach tomatoes.  Oh, and the green  beans are about to die too.  I hit 33 pounds of green beans with this week's 10 pound harvest.  That's plenty of beans to get me through the winter.  So here's the tally for the week:

3/4 pound Kidney Beans (disappointed with the kidneys: only got 1 3/4 pounds total)
5 pounds carrots
1/4 pounds mixed greens
10 pounds green beans
6 3/4  pounds peppers
1 pound red beets
18 pounds tomatoes
16 1/2 watermelon
1 1/2 red raspberries

59 3/4 total for the week

896.75 total for the year