Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Great Organic Mind Game

I've been working my way up to this post for a while now, but you know ... it's been one of those things where reality has crashed into my preconceived notions, and that's never pleasant.

When I first started growing tomatoes in South Florida, I was a nut for organic gardening. Why bother growing your own if you're not going organic, right? I initially shied away even from chemicals you're allowed to use, like copper fungicide and BT for chewing bugs. Gradually, I got more comfortable with these and eventually decided that BT was the greatest thing since sliced bread and copper was crucial.

But for those first few years, I also didn't stray too far into TomatoLand. I grew mostly disease-resistant hybrids and loved the enormous harvests of perfect red tomatoes. Slowly, though, I started adding more heirlooms into the equation and discovered I loved those too. I like funky, knobby, weirdly colored tomatoes. And I like the huge ones. You know what I want? A black tomato the size of a basketball. That's right. Bring it.

Then came this season and my run at Brandywines and Cherokee purples (in case you're wondering, that's a Brandywine up there). You don't have to look far to find people who think these are the royalty of heirloom tomatoes, and I figured, hey, I've done this a million times before, so how hard can it be? And that's when reality crashed my little party.

Turns out that my two fondest desires ran headlong into each other: growing knobby heirlooms in South Florida and being an organic maniac.

So that's been my big lesson this season so far. I'm no longer sure it's possible to grow some of the more famous heirlooms in South Florida without using more powerful chemicals to control diseases and pests. I've been asking around among the professional growers I know, and they generally agree: you want to grow heirlooms, you need to spray. Simple as that.

Now, I'm not saying there aren't exceptions. I've done hardier heirlooms before that didn't get sprayed and turned out fine. And I have a feeling this year is particularly bad for diseases for me.

I'm not saying I'll stop growing the weird heirlooms. But from now on, when I grow a tomato that isn't naturally disease resistant, I'll be following a spray schedule from the moment that plant is outside, because preventing diseases is a lot easier than treating existing diseases. This means the new Brandywines, etc., are all going to be treated from planting onward.

I don't know exactly why this feels like a let-down. I have relatives and friends who garden up north, and while they openly (and sometimes in unhealthy ways) envy our weather, they also scoff at our disease problems. These are people who can grow huge heirlooms organically and hardly worry about anything more serious than a caterpillar. They just don't get how different it is down here—that growing in the ground isn't automatically easier, that our bugs could eat their bugs for lunch (literally), and that our environment teems with bacterial and fungal diseases.

Anyway, there it is. I'm working on a spray program this season for the heirlooms, relying on research conducted at the University of Florida and North Carolina State University. I'm just about to put the second crop of heirlooms into their pots outside, so I'll keep you posted on how it's going.

And p.s., I also read that we've had the coldest December in Florida history, thanks to some annoying weather pattern known as the Arctic Oscillation. Thankfully, they say the AO, which has been in place for a year now, is beginning to break up and the "worst is over." Hats off to that.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Season's First Bite

It seems we've made it through the first cold snap(s) okay ... Overall, I had a little bit of leaf burn and some browning, but it wasn't all that bad for the tomatoes, lettuce, broccoli, cucumbers, herbs or strawberries. The peppers are another story [draws finger across throat].

But today is good for more reasons than the return of warmer weather. It's always kind of a momentous day when you get to harvest and eat your first fruit of the season. Delayed gratification has never been my thing, so the whole idea of working at something and waiting for three months ... well, let's just say it's not the most natural posture in the world for me.

Today, I finally harvested and ate my first tomatoes of the season, and they were yellow pears. Actually, not only were they my first tomatoes of the season, they were also my first yellow pear tomatoes ever and HOLY CRAP, THESE ARE GOOD! They are juicy and tender, and easily one of the sweetest tomatoes I've ever eaten. It's not hard to picture people eating these things out of a bowl like candy ... they're that sweet. The only problem I can foresee is we won't have enough of them. I enthusiastically recommend these little guys.

I've also started my second planting of the season, and I'm hoping to get them outside in the next week or two. This time around, I'm doing Early Wonder (an early harvest variety, about 55 days from planting to harvest) and I'm doing another round of Brandywines. I've got lots of plans for the Brandywines this go round, but I'll save that for another post. I've been talking to some professional tomato growers, and let's just say my thinking is evolving on certain issues. If anybody is having success with Brandywines, I'd love to hear how you're doing it. So far, I've set one measly tomato on the two Brandywine vines I'm growing. So a quick word to the squirrels, caterpillars and rats: touch that tomato and die. You can have the paste tomatoes, the Big Boys, even the yellow pear and Cherokee purple (which are setting fruit like maniacs). But paws off the Brandywine.

Anyway, my final thought: in the interest of experimenting, I'm going to plant this next round into homemade self-watering containers. I poked around the Intrawebz and found some basic plans for EarthBox-like containers, and honestly, it doesn't look like rocket science. Let's just say the whole principle of the thing isn't too complicated. I think all it will take is a few buckets, a few pieces of PVC, and a drill. I'm on it. I'll post pix and plans when I'm done.

Finally, thanks to everybody who has written me. I'm ridiculously envious of some of the growing set-ups I've seen. We're all dealing with the same thing down here—frequently poor soil with nematodes, cold weather protection, and lots of disease. So it's pretty cool to see all the ways people have figured out how to deal with it.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

So How's Everybody Faring?

One more night of cold left ... I hope. At least that's what the weather says.

My tomatoes are actually doing fine. I live near the coast, so the temperatures have been cold, but not deadly cold. I feel for some of the growers in the western suburbs, where I've been hearing about frost and truly damaging conditions.

I can't say things are going so well for the peppers, however. Peppers like warm weather—they are more cold-sensitive than tomatoes—and I'll probably have to end up harvesting early. Oh well. There's still plenty of time to get some more peppers in the ground.

Otherwise, how are you faring?

Monday, December 6, 2010

Cover 'Em Up

Whew, it's cold out there! I just got back inside from watering and my feet are freezing ... which of course is my own fault since I'm in shorts and barefoot, but still. It's cold.

This past weekend's cold snap wasn't much to worry about, but I think tonight and tomorrow are expected to be rather colder. I even heard the dreaded F-word for the inland areas. (If you're wondering, the word is "frost."). Tomatoes do fine to about 50ºF. Below that, they'll stop setting fruit until it warms back up. The 40s can be tricky—a few hours dipping into the 40s won't really hurt your plants, but they're not going to love it much.

But the 30ºs can be a real issue. This is when you can start seeing cold damage on your plants in the form of brown leaves (anybody remember this from last year? Warning: it's graphic.) And freezing (the other other F-word), of course, can be a disaster.

So ... judging from the fact that we're supposed to hit the upper 30s or lower 40s over the next few nights, and the wind chill can make that even worse, it makes sense to take a few precautions:

  • Water deeply in the evening. Hose water in South Florida comes out the tap in the mid-60s, and it will protect your plants' roots. This is especially important for container-grown plants, which don't have the insulating benefit of the earth.
  • Cover them with sheets. It doesn't have to be an airtight seal, but a sheet will help shield the plant from the wind, trap radiant heat from the ground, and in the very worst-case scenario, protect the plant's leaves from frost (which will cover the sheet, not the tender leaves).
  • Move 'em inside if you can. If you only have a pot or two, and that pot is on wheels or you just happen to be extremely strong, and you have a garage or covered patio, drag the plant up into shelter. Personally, I can't do this--too many plants, too large of pots--so you know, don't rub it in if you can.
Hopefully, the weather people will be wrong. Not a lot. Just a little. Four or five degrees would be nice. And let's be honest—it wouldn't be the first time they'd blown a call.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Caterpillars, Cucumbers, and Cool Weather

So it's finally supposed to cool down a little bit this weekend. I'm actually looking forward to it—as long as it doesn't get below 50ºF (or even if it does for a little while), the cool weather shouldn't be a problem in the garden. Actually, I'm expecting it'll help some ... it should slow down the fungus I've been dealing with all season.

Right around this time of the year is when I also start seeing caterpillars show up. I've already picked off my first few tomato hornworms and treated the plants with BT (bacillus thuringiensis). BT is a beneficial bacteria that kills chewing insects; it's often sold as Dipel dust. You can buy it anywhere. It's rated for organic growth and it's great stuff. Oftentimes, it's nearly impossible to see caterpillars on your maters because they blend in so well. Instead, look for tiny black pebbles on the leaves. That's caterpillar poop, and if you've got caterpillar poop, you've got caterpillars.

Outside of Tomato Land, I'm getting excited about my other veggies. I'm doing romaine and broccoli in EarthBoxes, cherry bomb and chocolate habanero peppers in pots (those are cherry bomb pictured below), and cucumbers in coconut grow bags. I haven't written much about EarthBoxes this season, but I will say this: if you're new to growing veggies and you want to have a pretty much guaranteed successful crop, use an EarthBox. You can pick up the basic box, with no wheels, fertilizer, potting media or trellis, for $30. They also sell potting media, fertilizer, and staking systems (which are essential if you're doing tomatoes in an EarthBox). It's easy to use (my five-year-old planted one this season), easy to maintain, and works like a charm.

But this morning was big for another reason: I picked my first vegetable of the season. It was a cucumber ... and yeah, I realized after I took this picture that there really isn't a good way to hold a cucumber.