Monday, October 24, 2011

And They're Underway ...

How weird was last week, right? After three days of rainy, windy, overcast weather, I felt like I was back in Michigan where I'm from (and where the sun never shines in the winter). I'd wanted to get my tomatoes into their containers last week, but considering the weather, I just moved them under an overhang and waited.

And then this weekend! Wow. Talk about perfect fall weather. This is the kind of weather that reminds me why I live in Florida in the first place. So I spent a thoroughly pleasant Saturday buying my soil ingredients and getting things ready to transplant. Over the next few days, I'll transplant everything into their containers and expect to start harvesting in January. Once again, I'm doing tomatoes (25 gal. containers and 15 gal. containers), broccoli (Earthbox), several kinds of peppers (Earthboxes), strawberries (vertical towers), mustard greens (vertical towers), lettuce greens (vertical towers), and herbs (small containers).

A few early season developments ...

Believe it or not, the first bugs have already appeared. I've discovered both white flies and tiny tomato hornworms on several plants already. I'm handpicking the tomato hornworms and using Neem oil everything else. This brings up a good point: spend a little time with your plants, every morning if you can, and watch very closely. Pest problems almost always begin on the underside of leaves, so make sure to flip up the leaves and look closely. Downy white filaments (webs), holes and tiny droppings that look like pepper grains are all signs of pests.

After much wondering, I've finally decided on my anti-fungal approach for the early season. First off (and most importantly), I'm going to be treating proactively, but I'm sticking with organic products:

  • Neem oil. I've not used neem on tomatoes, but overall it's kind of wonderful stuff. It's an insecticide with anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties. It's very safe for humans, and I've already started treating the plants once a week with it.
  • Copper fungicide. This is an organic fungicide. I'm using it as a weekly spray to prevent early season fungus from taking hold (hopefully).
  • BT (bacillus thuriengiensis). This is the mother of all anti-caterpillar treatments. I use the powder and sprinkle it on the plants liberally maybe once a month or so.
Aside from neem, I've used these other two products, but I think the difference this year is I'm acting proactively: I'm going to hopefully prevent the kind of early season problems I had last year that took out several of my plants and reduced my yield.

Oh yeah ... and the soil mix. In the past, I've grown tomatoes successfully in all kinds of potting soils, even the ones that plant snobs turn their noses up. I've also mixed up my own potting mix with excellent results. This year, I'm doing a bit of a hybrid mix:
  • Fafard 3B Professional Mix, which is basically just composted peat moss, perlite, pine bark fines, and dolomite lime
  • Composted cow manure, for a slight organic food boost
  • Perlite, to air out the mix after I add the cow manure (which is too heavy for good drainage, and good drainage is ESSENTIAL for good plant growth)
  • Dolomite lime, just a few tablespoons to boost the calcium and counteract the manure's acidity
  • Blood meal, for nitrogen
  • Bone meal, for another boost of calcium
So you see, it's some of this and some of that. Some bagged potting soil and some additions of my own. We shall see.

In general, though, I'm really excited about this weather: there's nothing like walking outside on these mornings and spending some quality time with the plants before the day starts.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Now Here's Something Interesting

One nice thing about blogging is I have a permanent record of what I've done in the past. And check this out ... I didn't realize exactly how much faster the hydroponic tomato seedlings were growing until I went back and checked.

Here is Day 15 from this year:

I know that's the same photo I just used, but I wanted it for contrast. This plant already has several sets of mature leaves and is as tall as my hand.

Here is Day 18 from last year:

This plant was 3" tall at most and had only one small set of mature leaves. It's nowhere near as robust or large. Food for thought, right?

What this really makes me want to do is go full hydro ...

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Seedlings, Day 15

I love this time of year. This mildly cool, breezy spell we're having is great. I'm outside every morning, watering and moving seedling trays, and it only reminds me that we're really heading into the fall and winter almost-Mediterranean growing season.

About those seedlings ... I might have over-reacted a little bit last weekend, after I first transplanted the seedlings from their hydroponic home into soil (I used 4" Jiffy pots). It's true that I'll never do this again, but I didn't actually lose any seedlings. Everything perked up after a day or two in a shady, protected spot outside, so here we are on Day 15, with tomato seedlings between 4" and 7" tall (depending on the variety), lots of greens, and much smaller peppers. The trays are currently spending most of the day outside, and I've been acclimating them to more sun and wind every day. I'm watering every other day and feeding with a diluted fish emulsion fertilizer, plus the worm castings in the soil mix.

I figure I'm about two weeks away from planting. I find at this stage it's helpful to stake up the young transplants, especially after thinning them out. The young plants typically lean on each other for support, so the combination of cutting away their neighbors (you want only one plant in each pot) and exposing them to wind means they appreciate a little help in the form of a bamboo skewers.

If you're not doing seedlings, it's a good time to go out and buy your tomato transplants. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

1. It's great to see the expanding variety of tomato transplants on the market now. Even Lowe's and Home Depot typically carry a dozen varieties of tomato or more, including bicolor, cherry, beefsteak, and plum-type tomatoes.

2. Pick the healthiest plants possible, with sturdy stems and healthy leaves, but try to avoid buying tomato plants in bloom or especially plants that already have tomatoes on them. These plants are already acclimated to a smaller pot and have experienced an abbreviated "adolescence," or vegetative stage. They will never bloom as vigorously as a plant that's allowed to grow to its natural size before setting flowers. Plus, it's still really too hot to set tomato fruit. Most tomatoes will still be dropping flowers until the nights cool off a little more and the plant can actually set fruit.

3. Beware of these "three in one" 5-gallon or 3-gallon pots. I've seen a lot of these lately, with three tomato plants in a single 5-gallon container. I don't quite get it. A 5-gallon pot is too small for one plant, let alone three. And if you transplant them, are you supposed to separate the root ball? Or grow all three in one cluster? Even though the plants are large, I think you're better off just getting a standard 6" or 4" transplant.

4. Beware also of tomatoes labeled "heirloom." I'm not saying these aren't wonderful plants--maybe they are, and maybe they will yield great fruit--but paying more for an heirloom label has more to do with marketing than anything else. I've spoken to a bunch of nurseries, and almost no one in Broward County actually stocks true heirloom tomatoes. Flamingo Road Nursery is an exception, but they don't have heirlooms in stock yet (I called them this morning to check). Part of the problem arises from confusion over the word "heirloom." There really isn't a single definition, and there's no oversight body that decides what plants can be called heirlooms. Various definitions have been proposed. Here's an article I wrote about heirlooms that contains more information about what is and isn't an heirloom tomato (this links to a tomato-related website I've been slowly building based on material from the blog ... it's still less than half-done, but you know how these things go).

5. Buy your transplants within a day of planting them. It's best to get them into their permanent home as quickly as possible.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Oct. 1 ... 1,000% No

Very cute, right? A nice little tray of seedlings popping up in their hydroponic home. Before I get to the part about wanting to poke my eyes out with a bamboo skewer, I'll talk about how the AeroGarden seedling tray worked. At first, I was amazed. Most of my seedlings sprouted within a day or two, instead of the usual three to four days (I took this shot just a few days after planting, not today), and they grew faster than I'd ever seen seedlings grow. Within no time at all, I had a bushy little garden of seedlings going and I was starting to think I was pretty smart.

Then our power went out yesterday and it forced me to transplant all the seedlings into soil today. And that turned out to be a good thing.

As Mark pointed out on the previous blog post, roots that grow in water are not actually the same as roots that grow in soil. They are, in fact, structurally different. Incidentally, this is why it's better to start cuttings in moist soil rather than a vase of pure water. Because when you transplant the cutting into soil, the plant will go into shock.

See, I knew this when I decided to start in water, but I thought it couldn't be that bad, right? I mean, how bad can the shock be?

It turns out pretty bad. Bad enough that I can't bear to even post a picture of the results. I've got trays right now of droopy, sad seedlings. I'm pretty sure the greens won't make it, but I've got my fingers crossed and hoping the tomatoes and peppers will. I staked up the little buddies and buried them deep, hoping their stems will sprout new roots. Now it's just a waiting game.

Will I try this again? One thousand percent no. The only way I'll start in water again is if I plan to grow the tomatoes in water their whole lives. And I'll never use the AeroGarden for seedlings again. They grow too close together and their roots get all tangled, so when it's time to move them, you have to rip off most of the roots. I'm sorry to harsh on AeroGarden like this ... it's a nifty product if you want to grow some herbs on your desktop ... but it's ill suited for serious seedling production.

Anyway, I'm sticking from now on with my traditional seedling method: fiber pots; a seedling mix of composted peat, perlite and worm castings; and regular fluorescent lights. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

As for the season itself, I think we're getting underway. The temps are supposed to drop tomorrow, so it should start feeling like fall. I'd say it's time to plant tomatoes outside any time—my trays of seedlings are already outside, in dappled sunlight.