Sunday, January 25, 2009

Wake up.

Mystery tomato. Seeded 1/19/2009.


Saturday, July 19, 2008

The end of the line

Hey, what do you know, if you spend some time gardening, you get some ideas for your garden blog.

I took advantage of the sub-90 morning temperature to get out and check on the back 40.

Visiting the tomatoes, I was faced with the annual conundrum.

As you may know, once temperatures get consistently above 90 in the daytime and above 70 at night, tomatoes tend to stop blossoming or drop their blossoms before they set fruit. Here in Central Texas and other hot climates, that means that by mid-July, we're pretty much done seeing any tiny new green tomatoes. And this year, with a string of 100-degree days in early, we've been pretty done for a while.

What to do? You can keep watering the scraggly things in hopes that they'll still be healthy enough to start fruiting again when it cools off. You can chop them off at the kneecaps to make them put out new young sprouts and hope those produce fruit later. Or you can plant fresh seedlings, either grown from seed or rooted from suckers taken off the mature plants.

I've tried just about all of these and never had much success, yet I've still had trouble bringing myself to make the obvious choice. Not so this year.

Thanks for the memories and mouth ulcers, Brandywine, Persimmon and Black Krim. The compost pile thanks you for the greenery.

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Sunday, July 13, 2008

Bringing Practical Back

I seem to have been been too busy or unmotivated to come up with anything good to write about in the past week. Maybe it's time we got back to the basics of this here garden blog.

Saturday I dropped some nutrition on a few plants. Everybody is looking mighty tired in this every-day 100-degree heat, so I thought maybe they could use some encouragement. I pulled out my trusty fertilizer bucket and gave a handful each of cottonseed, bone, and kelp meal to the cantaloupes and the new Tromboncino and Butternut squashes. 

I also gave a little bone and kelp to the peppers which have, as usual, been disappointing me with their refusal to hold onto blossoms long enough to make peppers. Yes, Cayenne, that's right, you've been very good about making peppers, although I wouldn't get too cocky since you can't seem to turn any of them red.

And then I yanked three tomatoes -- the ones that were growing around the compost bin, Japanese tomato-ring style. That's a shady area and it doesn't get much water, so they were all pretty sad looking. The upside of that is that I can now get to the compost to turn it, which reminds me that I've been meaning to write up my compost situation, which I'm sure you will all be hotly anticipating over the next week.

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Thursday, July 3, 2008


Talk about a late bloomer. To be fair, these Persimmons have probably been ripe for a few days, but I just realized they weren't going to turn red. So I pulled one yesterday and sliced it up for turkey burgers.

They're pretty large and have an amazing creamy color. They're also probably the meatiest tomato I've ever seen.

The flesh is very firm and kind of tart -- actually almost salty.

A very interesting tomato, but I don't think I'll grow them again. This plant only ended up with 4 fruits, and honestly, I'm in it for sweet and tomato-y, not tart and salty.

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Monday, June 30, 2008

Sharing the wealth

A friend just sent me this.  It's funny 'cause it's true. 

This weekend marked the beginning of the endgame. Now that the tomato harvest is on the downside of the curve, every fruit is a little more precious and now is when the little bastards have chosen to strike.

Despite the maiming and the mauling, the squirrels have finally found the treasure. And none of us -- human, rodent or terrier -- will rest until it is all claimed.

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Friday, June 27, 2008

Brandywine, all the guys would say she's mighty fine.

Last year, I was just about convinced that I wouldn't grow Brandywines again. They're kind of the Platonic ideal of an heirloom tomato -- good size, sweet tomato flavor, meaty and tender -- but last summer they didn't bother to put on any fruit until about July, by which time I was only able to get about 2 or 3 of them. I figured they were just too big and thirsty for Texas, despite it being the year of the monsoon.

So fast forward to this year and my one Brandywine (I let it back into the garden on probation this time) has just given up a flush of nearly-perfect hefty pink fruits with 3 or 4 more coming soon and a couple of late setters on the vine.

It's good to see they can do so well. Probably all the rain last year caused a lot of the blossom drop, and possibly my new zeal for kelp and bonemeal helped with the fruit set, but it's safe to say that Brandywine will be getting renewed for the 2009 season.

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Tuesday, June 24, 2008


While I'm not really known for my flow, I feel comfortable saying that I kick Coolio's ass when it comes to Caprese.

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Saturday, June 21, 2008

Drying tomatoes

Pick a bunch of tomatoes. Generally, varieties designated as paste, roma, or plum are best since they're drier to begin with and are kind of mealy when eaten fresh. These are also the ones you'd want to use for making sauce. Certainly you can dry any kind, but you'd hate to wake up one morning in September and realize you could have had one more tomato sandwich or Caprese salad, but squandered it on tomato jerky instead.

Slice them up. Smaller tomatoes like these, you can just cut in half. I found that these Principe Borgheses had a flattened shape, and that if you cut them parallel to the flattened sides, the seeds where much easier to remove -- other tomatoes may vary.

Poke your fingers into the halves and squish out most of the seeds and gel, then lay them out on a rack on a baking sheet.

You can sprinkle them with a little bit of kosher salt to help get the juices out and add a little flavor. Actually, you could add all sorts of fanciness at this point, like fresh herbs, or balsamic, but keeping it simple will give you more options when you're ready to use them.

Put them in the oven somewhere between 150 and 225 and let them go for a few hours. The time will depend on your temperature and how dry you want them to be, but you can probably count on 3-4 hours. If you start too late at night and want to go to bed, just turn off the oven and turn it on again in the morning. This is some definite low-impact cooking.

When they're done, you can eat them like candy, add them to sauces for extra sweetness, use them whole or chopped in pasta or pizzas, or grind them up in pesto. We put them in plastic and freeze them, which is an especially awesome idea when you remember them in December. You can also cover them in olive oil and store them in the refrigerator for a while, which preserves them and gives you tomato-infused oil.

And that is all I know about oven-dried tomatoes.

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Sunday, June 15, 2008


Back from vacation. It was a relaxing week of sleeping, reading, swimming and visiting a most-curious village.

I ate my first tomato sandwich of the year -- Oatnut bread, Hellman's mayo, and a Black Krim, which I can recommend highly. My first BLT was quite acceptable, what with the home-cured bacon. I used a Mortgage Lifter for that, which was good, but I can't say it lived up to the hype.

The garden weathered a nine-day period of 98+ high temps and no rain pretty well, thanks to my gardensitters, one of whom won the raffle prize of the first cantaloupe of the year -- I can't wait to hear how it was. When I got back this afternoon, I picked 7 pounds of tomatoes. Most of those were Principe Borghese, which will get dried in the oven in the next couple of days.

I also picked a Brandywine, a Persimmon (I think) and about 10 of our mystery black tomatoes. Oh, also three skinny white Asian eggplants and a late-breaking artichoke from the second plant that got a late start in the Fall.

And I just finished a dinner of penne with the aforementioned eggplant, a Costoluto Genovese, spinach, and homemade pancetta.

And this concludes my entry for the most-riveting-blog-post-of-the-year award.

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Sunday, June 8, 2008


I know this is an awful-bloggery thing to do, but I'm noting that I'm on vacation this week so the thousands of you who spend your work days hitting the refresh button in hopes of finding new photos of produce won't be too disappointed. In an extra-bloggery move, I'm going to try to queue up a few quick posts over the week just to keep things fresh.

In fact, this very post was written in advance and queued. At this moment, I'm likely sitting on the beach drinking a cold beer and eating a tomato and mayonnaise sandwich. I'm not sure where the tomato came from, but I hope it ripened in my garden before we left town.

From last year's crop.

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Sunday, June 1, 2008

Here come the toms!

So these are the for-real first tomatoes of the summer.* The little ones are Principe Borghese, which are much smaller than I expected -- could be I need to water more. And the crazy-wrinkly ones are the Costoluto Genovese. 

Chump that I am, I took this photo on the patio, then stepped over to the garden to take some other photos. When I looked back over, she was at it again and had devoured both PBs and the multi-colored CG. I blame myself.

Principe Borghese -- first picked 5/29/2008

Costoluto Genovese -- first picked 5/31/2008

Both seedlings were planted out March 15, so that makes 75 and 77 days. Interestingly, these are rated at 75 and 78 days, respectively, but I think time to maturity is supposed to measure from seed under optimal conditions. I plant out relatively early, and these seedlings had some other circumstances to overcome.

*Here I have to admit to having picked a prematurely-ripened-by-BER Black Krim on 5/31 and, after slicing off the damaged portion, eaten it with a little salt. It was good. 

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Saturday, May 24, 2008

First tomato!

No surprise, it was a Sungold.

I didn't get a chance to take a picture, but here's where it was ...

Sadly, I didn't get to pick it or eat it either. That honor went to junior gardener Bink ...

I've already threatened to send her to the pound if she does it again. I don't think that will stop her though. During the summer, she frequently comes inside smelling like tomato leaves with yellow streaks of pollen on her head. My wife built a fence around the East bed this year to keep the dogs out, but I think she was able to reach over for this particular low-hanging fruit.

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Friday, May 16, 2008


You would have thought that running out of ground after planting 19 tomatoes would have been a sign that I should stop planting. Alas, the Internet made an appeal to my garden-nerd sensibilities and offered me a spot for one more tomato.

That spot is an on-the-cheap homemade version of a popular self-watering container that retails for 40 to 50 bucks. It's a planter that extends partially into a water reservoir so that water is constantly being wicked up to where the plant's roots can reach it.

There are plenty of fine tutorials online for this project, so I'll lay out the rudiments here and let you delve deeper elsewhere. Josh Mandel is the apparent originator of this thing -- and holy crap, I just found out, also the designer of Space Quest, a classic of computer adventure games. Also, if you wade into the Gardenweb tomatoes forum you'll find two guys who post under the names "rnewste" and "bingster" who are like a couple of tomato-planter mad scientists and have contributed some great innovations.

(update (6/16/2008) "rnewste" is Ray Newstead and he's teamed up with the TomatoFest folks to make his plans widely available as a public service. They've got a great guide online that will tell you everything you need to know and then some.)


Start with a pair of big plastic containers. The main problem with the commercial version is that it's not really large enough for a big robust indeterminate tomato growing anywhere south of Canada. I bought Rubbermaid 18-gallon bins for $6 each.

You also need a rigid basket-like container of some sort. I used a plant basket, which is meant for planting aquatic plants in a pond, although I've seen people use coffee cans punched full of holes. It has to retain soil, but let water in. And you need a piece of pipe, at least an inch-and-a-half wide and taller than your bin.

That's it for required materials. Everything else is optional.

Start by hacking off the bottom of one of the containers at a height equal to the height of your basket. Flip the bottom piece over and cut out a hole slightly smaller than the mouth of your basket, then attach the mouth of the basket to the hole so that the basket is inside the bin piece. I drilled holes and used zip ties.

Drill a bunch of little holes all over the top of the bin piece and one big hole at one end wide enough to fit your pipe.

In that photo, you can see that I lined my basket with a paint strainer for added soil retention, but it's probably not necessary.

Drop that whole assembly into the bottom of your other bin and you're mostly done. I cut some row cover cloth to seal the crack between the pieces to keep soil from dropping down into the bottom compartment, some people have used styrofoam peanuts for that, but again, it probably isn't necessary. Drill a couple of holes in the side of the outside bin slightly below the height of the other piece -- this is to drain excess water.

Now, put your pipe into the hole and fill the container with soil mix, starting with the basket, and wetting it down as you go. Your soil mix is kind of important. Since all of your watering will be done from the bottom, the mix has to have enough wicking capacity to pull the water up to near the top of the planter. The gold standard for this is apparently Miracle Gro Moisture Control Potting Mix. But if you're going organic, you'll need to be sure to have plenty of absorbent content like peat, vermiculite, or perlite. Sadly, I didn't really write down what I used, but I think it was something like this:

2 parts peat
2 parts commercial compost
1 part peat humus,
1/2 part each vermiculite and perlite
a few handfuls of my cottonseed/kelp/bone meal mix

Fill it up to overflowing, then dig a shallow trench near one side and fill it with a strip of your preferred fertilizer. The idea is that the wet soil will gradually dissolve the fertilizer and keep the plant fed over time. I'm not sure if I buy it, particularly using organic fertilizer, but that's what They say to do.

Cover the whole thing with a layer of plastic (I finally found a use for that red plastic tomato mulch I've had laying around) then put on one of the bin lids, after cutting out holes for your fill pipe and your plant in the lid and the plastic. The covering serves to retain moisture, but also to keep rain from getting in -- you mainly want the plant's water coming from below so that the fertilizer doesn't get washed out.

And there it is. Just keep the reservoir full (I've got a stick stuck to a wine cork to test my water level) and play the waiting game.

So is it worth it? Dunno. The tomato I planted in mine, Mortgage Lifter is doing quite well, so I think my soil mix is getting the water to the plant. It is nice to not have to worry about whether it needs watering or not, and I've only had to fill it once so far, although we haven't had real heat yet. I am also desperately needing to set up some supports for the plant, which has blown over in storms twice now.

I'll let you know how it goes.

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Thursday, May 8, 2008

Costoluto Genovese

I hate to commit the sin of pride, but I think the tomatoes are doing really well this year.

Blossoms have been generally prolific all around, and fruit is setting left and right. But none seem to be doing as well as the Costoluto Genovese. This variety doesn't get very good reviews as a slicing tomato, but there's always drying and saucing.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Feeding tomatoes

Dang this site needs more pictures, y'all.

The tomatoes are getting visibly bigger every day and most of them have tiny blossoms. I'm taking that as a sign to stop the weekly dousings with fish emulsion to let them burn through all that nitrogen so it doesn't distract them from blossoming and fruit setting.

Today I paid some mind to the neglected East-side bed. That's the one that's in-ground, and along the fence, so it doesn't get morning sun. That hasn't kept it from producing a healthy crop of tomatoes the past 2 years though. However, I didn't do anything at all to the soil this year, just stuck 6 plants in among the onions and leeks. So, after work today I scratched in two handfuls of cottonseed/kelp/bone meal around each plant, laid down the soaker hose, which takes 3 loops to fit in the bed, and covered it all with a wheelbarrow full of grass clippings and leaf mold from the pile in the West-side bed.

Everything but the well-mulched raised beds was looking a bit dry, so I put a little water down on the cantaloupe, squash, artichokes and the corner-bed tomatoes. I also soaked the cream peas I planted on Saturday. Then I plugged in the soaker hose and let it run for 20 minutes on the East bed.

Basil's smelling good -- I can just taste the tomatoes ...

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Thursday, March 27, 2008

I've had a terrible time with my tomato seedlings this year.

Things started out pretty well -- I sowed about 9 seeds each for 9 different varieties. This was on January 22nd, which is maybe a week later than I've done it previously.

After the first true leaves appeared, I thinned them to 6 per variety and potted up to 2 inch cells.

On March 1, I bumped them up to 16oz plastic cups.

And there's where my troubles began. I don't think they grew much at all after that point. The lower leaves turned yellow and eventually fell off and they gradually got to looking pretty sickly.

My best theory at the moment is that I drowned them, through a combination of not punching big enough holes in the plastic cups and using too much compost in my potting mix. Tomatoes are resilient though. I planted 17 of the wimpy things and after 12 days in the ground, they're all quite green and about double in size.

It's killing me though that after weeks of coddling them indoors under lights, I'm now happy that they're just alive, and it's almost April. I think plenty of people in Austin plant about this time anyway (at least to judge by what's available in the stores), but what's the point of being obsessive compulsive about tomato growing if you can't beat your neighbors to first fruit?