Friday, August 27, 2010

The Plan, Part II

I just took delivery of four—count 'em, four—5-gallon coconut coir grow bags. I used these last year to grow Better Boy tomatoes with decent results. Basically, these are black plastic 5-gallon bags with expandable growing media already packaged in them. You simply add water, the coconut coir growing media expands, and you plant. Well, it's almost that simple. Coconut doesn't exactly have the same properties as composted peat, which is the main ingredient in most bagged potting soils, so you have to make a few adjustments to it along the way. But as with so many things, I'll get into that more later.

For now, I wanted to round out the growing plan for this year. The big news is that I'm expanding the tomato garden this year to cover a whole bunch of stuff, including strawberries, cucumber, hot peppers, romaine lettuce, broccoli, and a full herb garden. I'm dropping the cabbage and eggplants, which I grew last year. It turns out there's no way to convince the family to eat cabbage and eggplant, so it's kind of wasted effort to grow it.

So here is the final plan, including a brief mention of how I'll be growing each crop. In the coming days and weeks, as I start to raise seedlings, I'll go over each of these in greater depth, because of course there are details like potting media, soil amendments, and fertilizers that must be attended to. As always, my goal is to find the best way to get the most food from the smallest space, which explains the hodgepodge of growing methods. Here goes:

  • Brandywine tomatoes in a 25-gallon container
  • Cherokee purple tomatoes in a 25-gallon container
  • Victoria Supreme paste tomates in a 15-gallon container
  • Heinz tomatoes in a 15-gallon container
  • Broccoli in an Earthbox
  • Romaine lettuce in an Earthbox
  • Jamaican hot chocolate peppers in a 10-gallon container
  • Big Bomb cherry peppers in a 7-gallon container
  • Yellow pear tomatoes in a 5-gallon coconut grow bag
  • Cucumbers in a 5-gallon coconut grow bag
  • Strawberries in stackable containers
I'm especially excited about the strawberries. Stackable containers are just what they sound like: multi-ported containers that stack one upon another to yield a tower of growing space. You're growing vertically, not horizontally, so I'll be able to grow something like 60 strawberry plants in one 2-foot square tower. The towers can be rotated so the strawberries receive equal sunlight. I've never grown this way before, so I'm hoping it works. Incidentally, so is my five-year-old son—last year, not one strawberry from my test plants made it into the house because he'd sneak outside and eat them all. If you're interested in stackables, mine are being shipped from here.

So there it is. In my way of thinking, you don't need a ton of space to grow enough vegetables to feed your family for the season. You just need to grow smart, so each plant yields as much as possible. And if there's extra, you can always give it away.

My last thought: it's still too early to plant seeds, so resist. And definitely resist buying tomato plants from the garden center. It's waaaaay too early for that.

Up Next: Getting Dirty—The First of Many Posts About Potting Media and Why It Matters So Much

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The 2010 Plan, Part I

The vegetable season always starts on a surprisingly apprehensive note. I'm always worried about making the right choice and getting the right seeds—and buying tomato seeds is a little bit like buying a car. It's not exactly easy to back out once you're committed.

Last year, I grew big pink tomatoes, striped tomatoes, and yellow tomatoes. And oddly, one of the things I realized was that my favorite tomatoes are the big, acidic red ones. I like tomatoes that taste like tomatoes. And because I preserve my own salsa, I also like paste tomatoes, which have fewer seeds and liquid and make thicker, richer salsas and sauces.

So this year, I've spent a fair amount of time with my nose buried in my favorite tomato catalog, trying to decide what kind of tomatoes I should grow. I wanted to strike a balance between big, juicy red tomatoes and the more interesting varietals. In the end, this is what I've decided to grow:

  • Brandywine. These are probably the most famous heirloom tomatoes in the world. They are big, luscious, red tomatoes with a deep tomato flavor. Because they are not naturally resistant to any of our diseases or pests, they must be grown in containers.
  • Cherokee purple. Another heirloom tomato. These are deep purple and known for their striking color and taste.
  • Victoria Supreme. These are paste tomatoes I'll use for sauce and salsa.
  • Heinz. Yep, the actual Heinz tomato. I've never grown these before, so I'm curious what ketchup tastes like off the vine. These are determinate tomatoes.
  • Yellow pear. These are advertised as "garden candy," and they're tiny and cute and yellow and pear-shaped. Last year, I had horrible luck with yellow tomatoes, so I wanted to see if I could get it right this year.
As always, I bought all my seeds from the Tomato Growers Supply Company. I highly recommend them; I've never had a bad experience.

Obviously, I'm growing mostly heirloom and non-disease-resistant tomatoes from seed. If you're planning on buying tomato vines from your local garden center, you'll likely be getting Celebrity, Big Boy, Better Boy, Roma, or cherry tomatoes. I've grown all these before, and had a great experience. Better Boy are still among my favorite tomatoes in terms of flavor, and these varieties all have the advantage of being resistant to the pests and diseases that are so common here in South Florida (that's another entry). So if that's your plan, don't fret—but don't buy them yet. It's WAY to early to plant vines. Just hold off for a while, and later on, as we get closer, I'll give some quick pointers on buying tomato vines from a garden center.

Finally, my choice of tomato varieties this year will definitely affect my growing methods. Because I'm growing tomatoes that cannot resist our soil-borne pests and diseases, I'm growing 100% in containers this year. I've found over the years that I've steadily gravitated toward containers, until I'm finally growing ONLY in containers. While you can grow excellent tomatoes in the ground, ultimately I find that containers make it possible to grow more varieties and control the growing environment more completely. To me, these are good things.

But all that will be coming up later. For now, I've got my seeds in hand, and it's almost time to start germination. But not quite yet. Patience is in order—and unfortunately, that's usually in short supply right around this time of year. In the meantime, I'll try to keep myself busy with all the new stuff I'm planning on growing this year ...

Up next: Beyond Tomatoes (The Total Edible Winter Garden)

And p.s., I added a subscribe option to the bottom of the page if you wanted an automatic update every time a new post is added ... you know, for convenience sake.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Is It Really Time Already?

If you're anything like me, you probably started planning this year's vegetable garden as soon as you harvested your final tomato last spring. And as much as I've enjoyed the South Florida summer, I can't wait to get back into the vegetable season. My Earthboxes are packed away, my containers are stacked neatly by the shed, and the tomato cages are lined up alongside the house. But not for much longer. The time is almost here ...

If you're new to this blog, the whole idea is pretty simple: I grow tomatoes and veggies in South Florida and blog about it. Part of the idea is to experiment with different varieties and growing methods to see what works best in our unique environment. Last year, I grew a bunch of varieties of tomatoes in a bunch of different environments (the ground, containers with peat-based soil, self-watering containers, expandable coconut grow bags). I used organic and synthetic fertilizers, and I tested various exotic soil amendments and nutrient systems. This year, I'm going to do all that, plus add a few new twists ... including a tower of strawberries in a really cool set-up that should be adaptable for even the smallest of sunny spots.

But I don't want to get too far ahead of myself. As always, I want to begin at the beginning, and in this case, that means ordering my seeds now so I can start them in early September. Last year, I started seeds on September 6, which meant I put plants in the ground on October 2. We had a fairly massive heat wave in October, so the plants struggled for the first week or two, but everything worked out in the end, so I'll follow the same basic schedule this year.

So if you're returning to the blog, welcome back. And if you're new, I hope you enjoy following along and perhaps you'll grow some great tomatoes yourself. I try to post as often as possible about what's going on in Tomato Land, and if you have any questions, feel free to drop me a line.

Better yet, share pictures.

Next Up: This Year's Garden Plan, Part One