Tomatoes, Who is Not Growing These?

Yesterday I spent the morning seeding tomatoes (they take a while to get started) and as I was gearing up for the season I thought about who wasn’t seeding them … I mean isn’t everyone?

I’m all about supporting your local nursery, but when they’re so easy and cheap to start and all you need is time and patience, why not? You’ll get much better selection with seed, and then you can swap with friends! 

So here are my Top 10 Tomato Growing Tips to get you excited!

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Tomato Growing Tip #1: Pick tomato varieties that you will use and are best for your zone. Besides trial and error, which while important and educational, is time consuming. You’ll get much better information about which varieties are good for what, grow well and taste good when talking with friends and neighbors (even your local agricultural extension).

Some varieties preform better than others in specific climates. There are even disease-resistance varieties available. So save yourself some time and ask around.

Tomato Growing Tip #2: Compost and feed your soil, don’t over think it! Get that nutrition in the soil BEFORE you plant your tomato seeds/seedlings. So many people I know add compost and fertilizer after they plant, but starting with a rich, compost soil first is much more beneficial.

Humus, present in healthy, rich soil provides all the potassium (K) your tomatoes need to develop strong roots and stems. And your compost contributes all the phosphorous (P) you need to flowers and fruits. So when you feed your soil a ‘balanced’ fertilizer you are adding more potassium and phosphorous to an already hefty supply. Then adding the extra nitrogen (N), which of course makes your tomato plant look green and lush, results in more foliage and less tomatoes.

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Tomato Growing Tip #3: Plant in a sunny spot. And by sunny I mean about 10 hours. The more sun the better. And if you can find a spot that has lots of air circulation that is even better. Not only will your tomatoes grow bigger with more sun, but the air movement keeps disease and pests away.

Tomato Growing Tip #4: Plant your seedlings deep. Whether you grow your seedlings from seed or purchase them at your local nursery, dig a hole deep enough so that the stem is buried up to the top 2 leaves (after removing the lower leaves).

Your plants will develop more roots this way. And more roots means a healthier stem, and a healthier stem means a healthier plant, and a healthier plant makes more tomatoes. Boom!

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Tomato Growing Tip #5: Mulch. So simple. Mulch your tomato plants. Use straw, pine needles, leaves, grass, seaweed, whatever! But mulch not only breaks down into yummy things for the soil, but it also keeps the roots cool, prevents weeds, and helps the soil keep its moisture. Which is especially important once the heat and dryness of summer arrive.

Tomato Growing Tip #6: Use Seaweed as a mulch. Your tomatoes will get some supplemental potassium (think stronger and quicker root development), and as the mulch breaks down it integrates into your soil, making it richer.

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Tomato Growing Tip #7: Grow your plants vertically. Keeping the stems and leaves off the soil helps keep pests and disease at bay. It also lets in lots of light to all sides of the plant, helping it grow stronger and healthier. I like to use the basketweave trellis technique (please ignore the pink twine … I ran out of the regular jute stuff and that was all I could find in a “trellising emergency”)  This complements the bright and airy spot in tip #3.

Tomato Growing Tip #8: Pluck the first flowers off your plant. This stops the plant from making its first tomatoes. Hence, sending its energy back into growing more stems, leaves and new flowers for new tomatoes. Most experienced tomato gardeners do this, and it is for a reason! Some are even more hardcore and pinch out all the flowers until the plant is a foot tall. I haven’t been that brave yet … but it is some good food for thought.

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Tomato Growing Tip #9: Pinch off suckers and non-fruiting branches. These divert your plants energy to places that lead nowhere. Instead by pruning these branches out your tomato plant can focus its energy on making bigger, tastier tomatoes!

Tomato Growing Tip #10: Water long and good. You don’t have to water everyday (except, maybe at the height of summer, in which you probably need to water more frequently) when your plant is growing. It is better to soak it once a week at the plant base. And avoid getting the leaves wet, that could cause some leaf scorch or lead to disease.

And plant, plant, plant! Plant a second (or third if you live in warmer climates) succession of tomatoes in 2-3 weeks of each other. This spreads out your harvests and increases your tomato yield. Which means more tomatoes, which is always a good thing.

For more on growing tomatoes, other vegetables and the organic kitchen garden, check out my new book, The Backyard Gardener!

My Top Ten Flowers to Grow

Even though professionally I’m an herb grower, you can still find lots flowers tucked in around the farm. Every year I tell myself to stick to my grocery list … and “buy only what you need Kelly” but inevitably I’ll add some sweet pea or foxglove seeds. And as space on my small plot is at a premium I have to get creative in not only where I grow them, but also how I explain to CJ why there are non-herbs planted in the hoophouse or field.

I try to console myself (and my pocketbook) by telling myself I can always sell the flowers in bouquets at market or stems to a florist and then I’ve made money, rather than waste it. But mostly, I just want them for me-I’m greedy that way. I want all the plants! (I hope you read that in the same stick-figure cartoon meme voice I used in my head)

So here are my Top 10 Favorite Annual Flowers:

1. Bells of Ireland

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I love these green spikes because they lend such elegance and height to any arrangement or border, and best of all they’re super easy! Just condition the seeds by tossing them in the freezer for two weeks in a jar and you’re good to go! Most seed packets recommend direct sowing, but up here in zone 5 that doesn’t work for me. So I start the first batch 8-10 weeks early in large 3″ pots so as not to disturb the roots too much. Give them plenty of water and sun and they will produce up a storm. If you don’t harvest regularly, your plants may require staking. Also I succession sow these twice.

 

2. Ammi & Queen Anne’s Lace

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The traditional Queen Anne’s Lace has been a favorite of mine before I knew much about plants, but a couple of years ago I saw these in a friend’s garden and I was SOLD! Technically an ornamental carrot, they’re called Ammi ‘Dara’ or Chocolate Lace Flower, and come in shades of pink, mauve and purple. And they’re just stunning! As a carrot relative, they too don’t like being transplanted, so if you start them early–like I do–make sure to chill them in the fridge for a couple (1-2) weeks and sow 4-5 weeks early. I’ll succession sow these babies every 2-3 weeks till mid-summer. These are one of those flowers that the more you cut, the more they grow.

 

3. Heliotrope

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As a scented plant enthusiast (read: true fanatic and addict) I’ve grown heliotrope almost as long as I’ve been gardening. They smell HEAVENLY! My mother used to grow them in containers and borders so after a rain or as you brushed by, they would release their delightful scent. These little purple beauties are one of the stars of the cottage garden and even though they’re considered perennials in more temperate parts of the country, they’re annuals here in Maine. Start these seeds early (10-12 weeks) as it can take up to a month for them to germinate, but you will be rewarded for your patience with their sweet scent once they get going. I also make sure to pinch these gals back 2-3 times (just like you do to basil) to encourage bushier plants.

 

4. Zinnias

IMG_3871Initially I was not on the “I love zinnia bandwagon”, they were a slow burn for me. My sister kept bugging me to grow them for years and so I grew a few traditional varieties to placate her. But I soon learned that the zinnia is a little worker-bee. It just keeps going and going, and does especially well in my cooler climate. So I began experimenting with some varieties like the ‘Zinderellas’ and ‘Benary Giant’ series (6″ wide, double bloom). They come in almost every color you can imagine, vigorous, tolerant and are super easy. Follow the directions on your seed packet,  transplant your four-week old seedings after the danger of frost has passed and pinch back for more stems. And don’t bee surprised by their height. By the end of the season mine reached my shoulders (although keep in mind I’m just a few inches over five feet).
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5.  Nasturtiums252.Flowers.Herb.Nasturtium.©KellyOrzelPhotography

What I love about nasturtiums is how easy and useful they are. I prefer the vining forms in salmon, yellow and variegated gleam varieties. Sow two seeds at a time, three weeks early or direct sow. They are a great choice to soften borders or cascade out of raised containers. And guess what?! … they’re actually an herb! Their petals will brighten up any bland-looking salad or chop up their leaves to add a peppery bite!

 

6. Cosmos

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Cosmos are tall! Make sure wherever you plant these powerhouse flowers that that will not shade out any sun-loving plants. Mine were taller than me, making garden cleanup at the end of the season a little trickier for me. Start cosmos seed 5-6 weeks early and transplant after frost. I prefer the soft, fluffy ‘Double Click’ varieties over the more delicate ‘Versaille’ or ‘Seashell’. The more room you give them, the thicker and stronger their stems will be.

 

7. Verbena Bonariensis

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This is not the same verbena you traditionally see at the garden center, they are tall, billowy and look great in borders and bouquets! Again, they’re a tender perennial, meaning they won’t survive the Maine winter (which lets me keep it on this list!) so I sow them 8-10 weeks before the last frost. Keep in mind germination can take a while and they’ll rot if the soil is too moist. A heat mat will help get them started. Transplant outside once frost has passed literally anywhere. They don’t have much of soil preference and only need a small footprint. I plant mine between the vegetables in my kitchen garden to add some color and height. They’ll go like gangbusters from the Fourth of July till frost!

 

8. Chinese Forget-Me-Nots

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I saw these for the first time in my farm-market-neighbor’s bouquets and I was a goner. After this introduction I was so in love with these blue babies I ordered 1/4 lb. of seed! Needless to say I didn’t have to order more of these, like ever. Mainly because their seed is easy to collect once they’re finished. On a side note I would suggest only allowing a select few at the edge of your garden to go to seed, and pulling the rest before they get to the seed stage. Each plant makes so many seeds, but it’s more than that, the seeds have sharp spines that stick to your clothes when cleaning up at the end of the season. I still can’t get them all out of my shirt. So, learn from my mistake; grow them, love them, cut them and compost them-before they set seed! As a bonus, the bees love them!

 

9. Rudbeckia

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Rudbeckia come in many more colors and shapes than the traditional yellow and black combination you know as the classic Black-Eyed-Susan. My current favorites are the ‘Cherry Brandy’ and ‘Chim Chiminee’ mix. Get them off to an early 8-10 week start. They preform exceptionally well in summer with warm, long days. Their stems get shorter and flowers smaller as the weather cools in the fall, but the’re a strong summer producer as long as you deadhead regularly.

 

10. Sweet Peas

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Sweet Peas. Oh my. I didn’t forget about these lovelies, I just saved the best for last. If you’ve never grown them. DO IT! The heirloom varieties are the most scented, but I think they all smell wonderful! They come in plenty of colors and are a super productive flower! They need some help getting started-which I do in early February. They need to break dormancy and to speed that up, soak your seeds overnight (no more than 24 hrs), they should look swollen by the morning. If not, use a sharp knife to nick the seed coat and soak for an additional 6 hours. Plant in 2.5″ pots and label!! I cannot overstate the importance of remembering to label. Three years ago I thought I’d remember which varieties were which since I made this handy-dandy map in my garden notebook … after a few waterings I realized the trays had been reoriented and moved about. So I had to plant them and wait to see where each variety popped up. Also, they need something to climb on. I’ve used everything from wooden lattice, cloth netting, and chicken wire to metal mesh fencing, which I think works best when stretched between metal T-posts. Give them plenty of water and harvest regularly! They will produce all season long as long as you don’t leave spent blooms on the plant, otherwise they begin seed production mode. So pick, pick, pick and if you have too many, share a bouquet with some friends, it’ll be sure to make you the most popular girl (or guy) on the block!

So there you have it, my Top 10 Annual Flowers! And you can be sure I will find a home for these plants, and probably others. My willpower is only so strong when I’m looking through seed catalogs in these cold, Maine winters!

For more on growing and the organic kitchen garden, check out my new book, The Backyard Gardener!

 

By |February 27th, 2017|Annuals, Cut Flowers, Growing & Gardening|

Scented Geraniums

 

Scented Geraniums are one of my favorites to propagate from cuttings and grow. I love the variety of smells, particularly right after a good rain. And while summer is drawing to a close (sniff, sniff) you don’t need to day goodbye to this pelargonium (a.k.a. scented geranium), now is the time to take some cuttings and pot them up!

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You can take cuttings of this woody geranium anytime from spring to late summer, but I have found that cuttings taken in August and September do especially well. And don’t worry if you are a first-timer or experienced grower, scented geraniums are easy to propagate.

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And we all lose a few, so don’t be worried if you see a casualty or two, it’s not you – it is just the nature of the beast. Even the most experienced propagator will lose some cuttings.

Cuttings root best in moist (NOT wet or soggy) soil. I use a mixture of potting compost or soil and perlite. The perlite gives the mix just a bit of extra space so the cutting can spread its roots out.

Take a clean, sharp razer blade, knife or scissors and snip your cutting from the fresh, fleshy green stems. If you keep your scented geraniums around long enough you will notice they can become rather woody at the base of the plant. That is NOT where you want to take a cutting.

I like to take 2-3″ cuttings from a healthy stem. I always include at least one leaf, but if I have a node (branching) available I take it below the node.

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And although it is tempting to take a cutting from a flowering stem, resist! Either find a new stem or cut the flower off first. If you take a cutting that is flowering the plant’s energy is not going into developing the roots (which it needs to), but rather to the flower, which almost always results in a cutting casualty.

Rooting hormone … ehhh.

I don’t find that it helps the rooting, but if it makes you feel better you can give it a light dusting.

Plant your cutting in a moist potting mix. You can use small 3-4″ pots, or trays if you have the zealous propagator disorder (which I have been known to to suffer from). Use your finger to create a hole, insert your cutting, then gently firm the soil around the cutting.

Place your cuttings in a warm, sunny spot. Right now I have mine on tables in my backyard, but a windowsill will do just as nicely. Then water and wait.

When it comes to watering I find it best to water from the bottom of the pot (if it has holes) or at the base of the plant. You can tell it is time to water when the top of the soil is dry. Be wary of overwatering your geraniums. Let them tell you when they need a drink.

On average it takes 3-4 weeks for the roots to develop, but will happen sooner if given the right conditions (sun, moist soil, and time). You can tell that your cutting has taken if you give a gentle tug on your cutting, and you feel it anchored in place.

Once your cutting has taken, pinch back some of the leaves (only if your cutting has enough leaves) and you will be rewarded with a bushy, happy scented geranium.

I keep my scented geranium babies in the greenhouse, but a kitchen windowsill and/or counter that gets bright light throughout the fall and winter will be all you need so they are ready for the garden (or a container planting) come spring.

If you’ve propagated enough, pot-up your extra scented geraniums in a pretty pot, and give them away to friends and family. They make wonderful holiday gifts and housewarming presents.

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With their subtle flowers, lush leaves and their delicious scents, scented geraniums are a sweet garden surprise to many. For me it was love at first sight. And now I’ve been growing and propagating these ethereal little plants for many, many years.

And now you can too!

For more on growing and the organic kitchen garden, check out my new book, The Backyard Gardener!

Warmly,
Kelly
By |March 27th, 2016|Annuals, Growing & Gardening, Propagating|