Monday, February 21, 2011

Reader's Questions, Part I

So to the questions! I might break this into two posts so it doesn't become a novella, but we'll see. And thanks to everyone who e-mailed me questions. I'm not posting names, etc., here (because technically, I didn't get everyone's permission to post these) but if you see a question you wrote, feel free to bask in my gratitude.

#1: Hi Jon In the photo below should I be concerned about anything and if so what is it and how do I treat?

Answer: This is a condition called catfacing. It's actually a malformation of the blossom caused by incomplete flower development. This, in turn, is typically caused by cold weather or cloudy weather that messes with the flowers as they first set fruit. Heirloom tomatoes are somewhat more susceptible to catfacing than some of the newer hybrids, which have been bred for uniformity of shape. For the most part, catfacing is a harmless, but strange-looking and even ugly condition. It does become a problem, however, when the skin splits and allows pinworms an entry point.

#2: I was reading some of your articles on your index but could not find if fertilizing should stop at a certain time prior to harvest or if I can continue to fertilize my tomato plants right up to and through completion of harvest.

Answer: Good question! Most people are growing indeterminate tomatoes (vines) that produce fruit over a period of time until the vine dies or the heat sets in and kills it. (Technically, tomatoes are perennials—a single well-managed vine can produce for nine months or more.) So yes, you can keep these plants going longer and producing longer by continuing to fertilize throughout the plant's entire life, even as you're harvesting fruit. You can also extend the harvest by removing brown and dead leaves and keeping the plant in good condition. Production will move from the bottom of the vine to the top of the vine. Of course, a major limiting factor for most people is space—who has room for a 12-foot vine?—so we top our plants. But we can still feed throughout to give them a boost. For indeterminate tomatoes, keep feeding up through harvest.

#3: A leaf-curling twofer ...
Is it a sign that my tomato plants are not getting enough water if the leaves are curling? AND

I have a mystery. Yesterday, I noticed the leaves on the upper half of my plant are starting to curl into burritos. I have changed nothing. I even brought the plant in when we had a very cold night a week ago. Can you diagnose for me?

Answer: Ah, leaf curl. It drives me crazy too, and I've spent untold hours trying to figure out what causes leaf curl and how to stop it. I ended up finding a lot of conflicting information and very few solid answers. In the end, though, leaf curl is a generally harmless condition and it won't affect your fruit set or harvest. As long as leaf curl is the only thing going wrong, no big deal. If it's accompanied by yellow leaves, brown spots, black spots, stunted or frizzy growth, or any other symptoms, that's a different ballgame and there's a problem.

#4: My local nursery sells their own mix of potting soil that sounds like what you get.

I don't have a list of the exact ingredient but from what I remember it contains

peat, fertilzer, dolomite, perlite. It comes in 2 cu/ft bags. Would this be good in my pots? Would you use only this or mix in something like Black Kow? How many bags are needed for a 25 gal. container?

Answer: At first glance, it sounds like a pretty standard potting mix and that's a good thing (with one caveat). The soil mix I typically use includes these same basic ingredients. But let me back up a few steps. A good potting soil mix has a few characteristics we care about: structure, water-holding capacity, nutrient-holding capacity, and an acceptable pH. Thus, a very basic mix might just contain peat (water and nutrient holding), perlite (structure, to allow drainage), and dolomite (a pH balancer). In higher end soils, you might also see pine bark fines (more structure). Anything after that is fertilizer or bonus ingredients, along with wetting agents to keep the soil moist in the bag. In general, I don't buy soil that has fertilizer already added to it—it's typically a balanced fertilizer and not geared for vegetable growth. Instead, I add my own fertilizer elements, like blood meal, bone meal and composted cow manure (Black Kow) to enrich the soil. I never recommend using soils with water retention crystals for tomatoes. So in answer, the question of adding organic fertilizer elements, like Black Kow, is a personal one. Personally, I do. BUT also remember, compost is heavy and reduces the soil's structure. So if you add stuff like compost to bagged soil, throw in 1 part perlite for every 2 parts of your compost addition. Keep the soil light, fluffy, airy, and able to drain quickly. You can always feed later in the season, but you can never correct for heavy, soggy soil.

Lastly, that's a good question about conversion rates, so here it is. There are 7.5 gallons in a cubic foot. So I use 25-gallon containers, which means it takes about 3 cubic feet of soil to fill them up and leave a little space at the rim. This can get pricey if you're buying custom mixes, so I tend to buy all my own bulk ingredients and usually spend about $100 in soil ingredients each season.


Whew. OK, so that's it for today. More coming, and if you have any questions, send 'em over and I'll add it to the list.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Why Do I Bother?

I'm working on a Q&A post right now, answering some of the questions that have been emailed to me over the last few weeks ... but in the meantime, I'm going off on a tangent here.

Lately, the question of "Why do I bother?" has been on my mind. When you get into something like growing tomatoes and veggies in your own garden, if you're like me, at least a tiny part of your mind (or perhaps your spouse) is like, "Why are you doing this? There's a whole grocery store of fresh veggies down the street, and if organic is so important to you, just buy organic." Why bother indeed?

To me, growing vegetables is about more than plants ... it's about food, and food can be a complicated thing. It has a moral dimension to it, whether we like it or not. I find it depressing that, for a lot of people, they view their food as a moral failure. Perhaps they don't eat as well as they wished, perhaps they eat too much sugar or just too too much of everything, and their food becomes all wrapped up in self-loathing and body image. It ceases to be fun. It stops being a source of pleasure.

On the other hand, I know lots of people who bring an overriding moral and ethical dimension to their plates. They are concerned with the source of their food—they want food that was raised in an ethical, humane, environmentally responsible way. I have vegan friends who don't really LOVE vegetables, but to them, the trade-off is simple: their eating is an expression of their ethical concerns over the way we raise, slaughter and consume animals. This camp—the food ethicists—is varied. There are the locavores, the vegans, the raw foodies, the people who buy only organic, the people who go way out of their way to buy humanely raised meat.

I've written before that I'm not a "point of view" gardener—I'm not doing this to impose my values on your food. This isn't the blog where you'll find me railing against corporate food (flawed as it may be), nor the place where you'll find a stout defense of using (or banning) GMO organisms.

Which leads me back to my question: Why bother? If eating ethically isn't my point—if I'm even willing to ditch organic methods in the face of persistent fungal problems—then why go through all this trouble?

I grew up in a food family—in my house, cooking was communal. We'd plan meals as a family, shop for ingredients, then spend a day (or two) making obscenely difficult meals. As an adult, I've gone through probably a dozen food phases ... for a long time, it was nothing for me to spend 8 or 9 hours tending a wood fire to smoke barbecue. Then there was the artisan bread phase, when I was spending two days on hand-crafted loaves. There was an Asian food period. A soup era. A year of learning how to use Indian spices.

So the more I thought about it, the more I realized that my relationship with food has traditionally been without an ethical or moral component. My primary concern has always been quality. Because for me, food has always been about community and the privilege of feeding people things they like. To me, food has always been about people. About taste. I approach food as a cook, not as a cause.

And if my interest in homegrown, prime quality veggies happens to overlap with the crunchiest of granolas, then so be it. The fact is, homegrown, properly raised vegetables and fruits picked at their peak of ripeness, handled lovingly, and prepared immediately are by far the best. You know how many tomatoes I ate sliced and raw before I started growing my own? None.

Lately, I've noticed a quiet friction in the overlap between me and the people who want me to support their cause because I happen to like their food. But maybe my viewpoint is skewed. I spent two years covering the global produce industry for a leading trade magazine, and I really learned how the modern food chain operates. The truth? It's a miracle. Yes, there are trade-offs—and yes, there are many, many issues with mass agriculture—but I think the fact that anyone can walk into a grocery store any time of the year and find fresh, ripe produce is an amazing development. Anyone in this country today ... ANYONE ... can eat better than the richest kings of antiquity. It's true we have the choice to kill ourselves with processed food, but we also have the option to buy fresh cherries in December. That's something.

But lately, my ethical awareness of food has been growing. Having written extensively about agriculture, the meat industry, and farming, I'm finding new dimensions in my relationship to food. Not only am I eating many more raw tomatoes than I used to, I'm finding more satisfaction in it for reasons that have nothing to do with simply awesome tomatoes.

Ultimately, though, I suspect for me the issue will always come down to taste in the final sum. Call me a hedonist, but I'm indulgent by nature and I'm willing to go great lengths to satisfy these more basic urges. So even though I have an increasingly complicated relationship with the moral dimension of food, I know one thing for sure: I would grow all my own food if I could, or get it from people who I knew and knew how it was raised, when it was picked, and how it was treated. As miraculous as Mexican peppers in January might be, there is still nothing that compares to the variety, taste, and freshness of an heirloom pepper I grew in my garden, treated with minimal chemicals, watched warm in the sun, and picked a half hour before we ate it.

Monday, February 7, 2011

And Now, A Word from Strawberries ...

I'm taking a little break from tomatoes here to bring an update from Strawberryville. Last year, I did a few plants in little pots, just to see how it went, and I was pleasantly surprised. So this year, I scaled up a little bit into a stacked planter (I picked one from Agro-Tower). I don't have loads of experience growing strawberries, but I definitely have the desire—homegrown strawberries are so much better than store-bought strawberries, it's like they're barely even the same plant.

Anyway, I planted them in Fafard 3B and I've been watering every other day and feeding weekly with a Fox Farm liquid fertilizer I happened to have laying around. I haven't sprayed or treated them in any way. Taking advice from people much more knowledgeable about strawberries than myself, I picked off all the runners and plucked off brown leaves. I rotate the whole tower every morning so all sides get even distribution of sun.

I lost about seven plants within a week of planting, which sucks in a planter of 30 plants. The loss was limited to one side of the tower, so I'm not sure what happened but maybe they were overwatered, or maybe that was the "dark" side. I don't know, but oh well. I didn't replant.

Overall, though ... look! An actual tower of strawberries. The berries are medium sized and intensely sweet. I don't know how many I'll eventually harvest, but if all those berries swell and ripen, it looks like we'll get a few quarts of fruit. I suspect if I want bigger fruit, I should pinch off about half of the flowers.

So will I grow strawberries again? Um, hell yeah. Next year, I'm thinking of adding another tower and putting in a drip irrigation system to control the watering better ... Pretty soon I'm going to run out of yard space, but one cool thing about growing in containers like this? When the season is over, it all goes bye-bye into storage and the pool area goes back to looking like a regular old pool area. You'd never know a thing.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Heirlooms Are Coming!

So ... this is a weird season all around. After everything getting off to that slow start, in the last few weeks, my tomatoes have turned a serious corner. Remember how I couldn't get the Brandywine to set fruit to save my life? All of a sudden, it set about a dozen tomatoes, and they're growing fast. The first one (the top picture) is nearing harvest and looking like a monster. You can't tell from the picture, but that's a 1.5 lb. tomato. The same goes for the Cherokee purple. In general, this plant is more vigorous than the Brandywines have been, and it's just loaded with fruit. Pretty soon, I'm going to start picking daily, and they all look like the one pictured below (in a word, lovely). The Cherokee purple, btw, is a excellent, excellent tomato. You should grow them. Really. They are thin-skinned and won't save at all—you pretty much pick 'em and eat 'em. But it's so worth it. They taste just exactly like a tomato should taste. Finally, even the yellow pear is setting fruit heavily now, and my second planting is doing exceptionally well. The new Brandywines are already three feet tall and growing fast. No fruit yet ...

Obviously, the key this season has been effective spraying, and for about the past six weeks I've been following a program that rotates between chlorothalinol (Daconil), maneb and copper fungicide spray, supplemented with a micronutrient foliar spray (Key-Plex). I've been a little surprised how well the plants have responded. Nevertheless, I'm not in love with all the chemicals, so next season--having proved that spraying works--I'm going to see if I can do a preventive spray program based on organic chemicals, including sulfur- and copper-based fungicides and stay away from the chlorothalinol and maneb. It's a work in progress.

Oh yeah, the Victoria Supreme paste tomatoes have also been bearing heavily. I made a fresh tomato sauce this week with Italian sausage and fresh basil that was seriously amazing.

So all in all ... I'm a little afraid that I proved my wife right yet again: that I'm reactionary and maybe a little hyper. It seems that every year I freak out early on, then end up with a decent harvest anyway. But I swear, I was really worried this season was going to fall flat—I even worried I might be skunked for a while there. And while I'm not going to complain that things seem to have turned around for the moment, let's just say I'm feeling rather ... chastened.

But enough about that, because you know what else is going on? I'm starting to get seed catalogs already and staring to think about next season. I know, I know. But there are a zillion varieties out there I think I need to try, and some I can recommend with confidence. Before I write that post, however, I'd love to hear from anybody else out there: what varieties of tomatoes have done well for you down here in Zone 10?