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Archive for the ‘Tomatoes’ Category

Marigold – the miracle plant

I love this flower. It will flourish on poor soil, needs little fertilizer, feeds your pollinators, repels pests, all the while beautifying your homestead. This is dwarf French marigold, Tagetes patula. Our homestead is practically overrun with these. Our bees and butterflies love them.

(If you plant them, be careful never to contaminate the blossoms with pesticides that will kill off your pollinators.)

Bumblebee on marigold

Marigolds are much loved by bumble bees, Melissodes bees, and honey bees, and occasionally visited by other species as well.

DFMs are a non-chemical way to control root knot nematodes, which are the bane of many a gardener with sandy soil, especially in the South. Commercial vegetable growers have powerful fumigants for root knot suppression. These are unavailable to gardeners, and dangerous to use, as well.

One can use a cover crop of DFMs in a fallow year, to nearly completely suppress these nasty pests, or one can interplant with the veggies to partly suppress them.

Root knot nematode symptom on tomato plant

A heavy infestation of root knot nematode on tomato roots will result in many nodes on the roots, and the plant will be severely stunted and unproductive. This pest also affects many other vegetable crops.


Normal tomato roots - free of root knot nematodes

Normal tomato roots - free of root knot nematodes


Another nemesis of many gardeners is the squash bug. A heavy infestation can kill your squash plants.

Adult squash bug

Adult squash bug


Squash bug nymphs - the immature form of the bug

Squash bug nymphs - the immature form of the bug


Squash bug eggs, usually on the bottom of the leaves

Squash bug eggs, usually on the bottom of the leaves. You can see also a tiny parasitic wasp, which is your friend. It will lay eggs that will hatch and be parasites of the squash bugs.


The first year I had a border of dwarf French marigolds around one of my squash beds, I noticed that I had no squash bugs in that bed whatsoever. Yet within a hundred feet, I had another squash planting that was heavily infested. Since then I have surrounded or interplanted DFMs with my squash. And, in the past three years, I’ve never seen another squash bug in my garden – although my neighbors have them.

(To get photos of squash bugs, I had to visit other gardens that had them.)

DFMs seem to work with cucumber beetles as well. These have vanished from any spot near the marigolds, although there are usually a few on my sunflowers in the front yard. I think they help with other insects as well. But they have failed to be any help with squash borers or pickleworm.

While they repel many harmful insects, they seem to be good hosts for some beneficial insects. I see a lot of assassin bugs on mine, and I am careful to let them alone. They may eat a bee now and then, but they’ll also eat aphids, flea beetles, caterpillars, Japanese beetles and many other pests.


Hints for growing your own

T. patula will do fine in the North, but is especially suited for southern USA, because extreme heat doesn’t bother it a bit. It will continue to produce masses of bloom when other flowers have faded out. Of course sweltering heat is often accompanied by drought – and I would advise watering as needed in times of drought.
In the South, you can plant these seeds in beds outside in the fall, winter or spring, and they will grow when the soil warms in the spring. To start them blooming earlier, begin them inside as you would tomatoes. I find good results by sowing them thickly in trays in a sterile seed starting medium. Don’t overwater, as this encourages damping off. When they are in their second leaf, transplant into individual containers.
Here in South Carolina, I’ll be planting about January 20 to February 10 in the trays. They are set out in the ground about the same time tomatoes go out. Do not put in deep shade or boggy areas. Mine bloom from early May through early December. It takes a hard frost to kill them.
I use fertilizer VERY sparingly. I have tried deadheading flowers, but find it’s really unnecessary, and very time consuming, due to the large quantity of blooms. About mid-season, the plants begin to get a bit rank, so I prune them severely, removing about half the plants. This stimulates regrowth and dense clusters of new bloom.

Saving seeds

To save seeds cut off dead flowers when they are mostly dry, but not shedding seeds. If you wait too long, they will spill all the seeds from the capsules. Put them in a warm dry place with plenty of air circulation (flat trays or hung up). Protect from mice if necessary. When they are crunchy dry, and the seeds are starting to fall out, hold each seed capsule tightly, and pinch off the dried blossom petals. Then roll the capsule in your fingers over a tray or container and the seeds will fall out.
Flowers are produced by the thousands, but you’ll only need a dozen or so to supply plenty of seed for yourself for next year. Just be sure it’s dry before you put it into closed containers or it may mold.

I have not tried other types of marigolds, but others who have, indicate to me that these do not work for pest suppression or repelling.

How I cut my garden weeding to less than 15 minutes per week

Many beginner gardeners start off with a bang and are excited and encouraged when their seeds germinate and their started plants take off and grow. But then the weeds begin to show more vigor than the desired veggies.

Weedy garden

Weeds are about to take this garden.

Even experienced gardeners, who know that you cannot let the weeds even get a couple day’s advantage, sometimes lose the garden to weeds, when there’s several days of rain and it becomes too muddy to get into the garden.

Another weedy garden

You would think a tractor would help - but each pass turns up more weed seeds.

It’s pretty dismaying when you have trouble finding your plants among all the weeds. You can wind up spending many hours of catch-up work, and still find that your plants were severely set back, both by the competition with weeds, and the damage you did to their roots when you pulled up the weeds.

It’s been several years now, since I basically solved the weed problem. Sure, there’s weeds in my garden, but they are few and far between, compared with what they used to be. I find that just a few minutes a week is sufficient to pull up the weeds, and keep my own veggies growing without competition.

There are three basic reasons why the weed problem mostly disappeared:

1. I no longer till my garden. Every time you turn over the earth, you expose new weed seeds to sunlight and air. Weed seeds can lie dormant in the soil for many years, then suddenly germinate when you’ve given them ideal conditions to grow.

I’ve been able to pretty much eliminate tilling because all my gardening now is in raised beds. I was forced to go to raised beds, because our land is as flat as it can be, and we are subject here in coastal South Carolina to occasional heavy rains. These rains would flood my garden and pretty much spoil it. Few of our garden veggies can stand in water without dying or getting riddled with disease.

The raised beds took a lot of work to set up, but once they are up and running, the work forever afterwards is minimal. I started with a mix of about 40% sandy loam topsoil, 40% well rotted compost, 10% crushed coquina (for lime and minerals), and 10% crushed charcoal (to help prevent leaching when those heavy rains come).

Raised bed garden

Raised beds keep the plants from flooding rains, save my back, and help control weeds. Note how near weed-free the tomatoes in the front are. The middle section has not been planted, while the back is onions from winter.

These raised beds are in production year around. As soon as one crop is finished, I start with another. About the only disturbance to the soil is when I pull a deep rooted plant like tomatoes, or a root veggie like carrots or turnips. With smaller plants like beans or peas, I just snip them at the soil surface and leave the roots in the ground.

Ready to topdress

Asclepias (left) and Borage (right) are ready to topdress with fresh compost. Dwarf French Marigolds are in the cells of the blocks. These flowers among my veggies help to build up pollinator populations as well as other beneficial insects.

Load of compost

Compost is free from the town. It is screened to remove larger chunks that haven't rotted fully, and to separate any trash, which is put into the tin can on the trailer fender.

2. When planting or setting out a new crop, I topdress it with about an inch of fresh compost. This compost has very few weed seeds, as it reaches a high temperature during its formation.

Squash seedlings topdressed

As soon as the seedlings are big enough, I put an inch of compost around them. The compost pile heated up during formation and killed most weed seeds.

My soil remains soft; I can easily plunge my hand up to the wrist into the soil, just by wriggling my fingers and pushing. The soil smells sweet and it’s full of worms and insects, unlike most agricultural soils in the area, which are quite barren of life. I always figure that the worms are tilling the soil for me, as much as it needs and in a very natural way.

Growing squash is nearly weed free.

Growing squash is nearly weed free. The sparse weeds are well behind the squash, because they germinated in the soil and had to break through the compost/mulch.

Topdressed watermelon

Weed suppression is nearly complete around this young watermelon plant. All that's needed is an occasional pulling of a weed or two.

3. I don’t let the weeds go to seed. By having raised beds, I never walk directly on my garden. I have more-or-less permanent walkways between the beds. This means that I can always pull weeds, even if it’s very muddy. The weeds never get a chance to get ahead of me.

I can’t take very much credit for this system of weed supression. Actually it came as a pleasant surprise. And I had to study it a bit to come to an understanding of why there are so few weeds.

Low-tech greenhouses extend the growing season

Our growing season for tender plants usually ends in mid to late November with a killing frost. But we can move fall tomato and pepper plants into a cheap homemade greenhouse to add extra heat for ripening and postpone the frost date. It would be nice if we could extend our season to Christmas, but we haven’t gotten quite that far yet.

Of course more cold-hardy plants can handle frost or even freeze, but when it gets really cold, they stop growing. This year I am also moving potted broccoli and cauliflower into the greenhouse, in hopes that the extra heat will serve to keep them growing and harestable through the winter. Otherwise we’d have to wait for warmer spring weather to continue their growth – and that sometimes ends with them bolting (flowering and going to seed), instead of heading.

In the spring the greenhouse is perfect for starting plants early. Actually the germination is done in trays at a southeast-facing window inside. But as the seedlings reach transplantable age, they go into separate containers and out into the greenhouse. We’ll tell more about this in a separate post.

We have two low-tech greenhouses to help extend our seasons. The smaller is on our deck on the southeast side, and the larger is attached to the southwest side of our house. Both are made of pvc pipe with some 1×2 bracing and covered with six-mil polyethylene plastic sheeting. The sheeting is attached at the top by being clamped between two 1x2s, but the rest is held in place with cheap spring clamps.

The sheeting is replaced seasonally, and is the only ongoing cost. I found that four-mil sheeting will not last long enough, but six-mil does okay.

We do not try to heat the greenhouses, but I do have water containers to help them hold the day’s heat and prevent night freezes as long as possible in the fall.

The larger one has served now for two years, and the smaller for a year.

Both will ultimately be replaced (we hope) by more permanent greenhouses, but for now, on a limited budget, they serve quite well. Neither cost more than a hundred dollars, though the larger one might go a bit over that now, with the recent rise in prices.

Here are some photos of our construction of the larger, so you can get a better mental picture:

Rebar anchors the pipes to the ground.

Rebar was driven to anchor one end of the hoops. Then the plastic pipe hoops were slid over the rebar.

Get's a little heady sniffing the glue on the other end.

Get's a little heady sniffing the glue on the other end.

PVC tee is cut in half for end anchor

Plastic tees were cut in half and screwed to a 2x2 which was attached to the wall with masonry anchors.

Mama is happy with the results so far.

Mama is happy with the results so far.

Spring clamps from Harbor Freight

The plastic sheeting was held by cheap spring clamps from Harbor Freight

Nearly finished - now to make up tables from recycled pallets.

Nearly finished - now to make up tables from recycled pallets.

Coastal SC tomato trials

This is a difficult place to grow tomatoes. The weather is hot and humid, yet tends toward drought in many seasons. For us, gardening is all about tomatoes before we even consider any other veggie. So we tried a number of heirlooms and two hybrids this spring, and rated them for a variety of characteristics.
We are trying to find the ones that will give us consistent yields under our conditions. Many varieties that do well in other areas are junk here. And even varieties that seem OK often fail the final test – taste!
We are now finished with our evaluation, except for Green Zebra, which was planted late and probably can’t be fairly evaluated. For most varieties, even those that claim to be heat tolerant, EARLY is the name of the game. Many folks around here won’t set out tomatoes until Easter weekend. That was nearly a month too late this year!
All were planted in raised beds (40% local fine sandy loam, 40% compost, 10% crushed coquina, 10% crushed charcoal), with minimal fertilizer, no pesticides, hot and dry weather except for a three day rainy spell in late May which didn’t give much rain, but stayed wet and started off early blight), watered with rainwater as long as possible, then town water, mostly with soaker hose to avoid wetting leaves. An exception was the two cherry types, which are planted in buckets; otherwise culture is similar. We have excellent biological pest control; no tomato worms or other insect pests have been present. Blossoms were actively pollinated by bumblebees, so early set was very good.
Main crop (red globe) tomatoes
Abe Lincoln tomato

Abe Lincoln has exceeded all other varieties this year in growth, fruit set, fruit sizing, and disease resistance.

A surprise winner for us was from a chance packet I picked up at a hardware store. It’s an heirloom from Illinois! Abe Lincoln has clearly won the overall race. In volume, it has produced more – and kept on going through the heat – better than any other variety. Almost every fruit is perfect; no cracking, no blossom end rot (BER), no sunscald – and the icing on the cake is the excellent taste. The plants are stocky and vigorous, and obviously the most disease resistant variety we have. I just can’t say enough good about them.
Ozark Pink from Arkansas was our taste test winner, until the Cherokee Purple finally ripened. But this would have to take second place as all around tomato, due to less production than Abe Lincoln. It’s also one of the four that is still setting significant fruit despite some three digit temperatures. I will plant this one again.

Marion tomato

Marion has done very well in this year's test

Marion came in pretty good, just a bit behind Ozark Pink, because it petered out earlier. But it gave us a big crop of fine tasting tomatoes with few blemishes.
Super Sioux BER

Super Sioux had serious blossom end rot at first, then improved in the latter part of the season.

We had high hopes for Super Sioux, a Nebraska heirloom, but it did not meet expectations. Taste is not to brag about, and it is susceptible to BER. The BER did clear somewhat after the first flush, and it went on to be a heavy producer for a short time, then tapered off, but is still making some late tomatoes.
Homestead is a popular variety, and I expected much more of it, but truth to tell, has now disappointed me three seasons in a row. Early blight, insipid taste, hard green shoulders, and unimpressive production give this one the boot from future trials.
Park's Whopper tomato

Park's Whopper has proven to be a reliable yielder.

Of our two hybrids, Parks Whopper was the best, but it’s certainly no match for Abe Lincoln! It produced quickly and heavily, then petered out just as quickly when it got hot. It also had more early blight than I want to see.
The second hybrid, Big Boy, is just not up to the task. It was heavily infected with early blight, and faded out just as it began production. Many of the fruits were also small. Both hybrids were decent in the taste department, but not outstanding. I won’t grow this one again.
Box Car Willie only had one fruit per plant (my grandson picked when I wasn’t paying attention, and mixed with others, so didn’t have a chance to taste). The dismal production was largely due to early blight.
Italian Heirloom was also very a poor producer, and very late. I got one tastable fruit off the dying plants (early blight). It was OK in taste, but not worth another try.
Sauce tomatoes
The traditional sauce tomato, Roma, was a big flop. Early blight hit it hard and production was poor, though the few fruits it did have were OK. Of course all the sauce tomatoes were insipid and kind of dry in our taste tests, so they aren’t really recommended for fresh eating.
Rio Grande tomato

Rio Grande - better than Roma for sauce - larger, more disease-resistant, much more yield. Some BER.

Rio Grande - a heat tolerant improvement on Roma from Texas waaaayyy outproduced Roma. It proved resistant to early blight and is continuing to set fruit even as I write this evaluation on July 1. It is also quite a bit larger than Roma.  Its main problem is BER, and this did cut production somewhat; otherwise it would have been a huge producer.
Black Plum tomato

Black Plum has excellent taste as a fresh tomato, except for a slightly mealy texture. Mainly for sauce.

Black Plum – small but mighty. I wish these were larger, as they add a lot of flavor to sauce. They’ve done well, disease resistant, and productive even after the heat came. Flavor is excellent, and it would be a great fresh eating tomato, if it weren’t a bit mealy in texture. I will grow it again.
Specialty tomatoes

Cherokee Purple tomato

Cherokee Purple won the taste test, but it was hard to get enough of one to taste, because most fruits split deeply as they were ripening, allowing spoilage and insects inside.

Cherokee Purple makes a huge tomato that easily wins the taste contest. But alas, we had a hard time getting fruit to taste! It’s a very late variety, and is  highly prone to deep splits, which allow spoilage and bugs to ruin the fruit.
I will try it again, but won’t invest a lot of space, due to lack of net productivity. The fruits we did get are the best sandwich fruit we have.
Verja’s Paradajz have produced in great abundance and enormous size – some as big as a softball! The oxheart heirloom from Bosnia is reputed to be fantastic in other areas. But here, they are running about 90% BER – and it’s massive, not just a little on the end. And the ones that don’t have BER have split deeply and been ruined. We had trouble getting part of one to taste. The taste is good, but not good enough to enter our next tomato trials.
Cherry types
Large Red Cherry is a great tasting snack tomato (you can pop the whole thing in your mouth, crush it, suck out the good parts and spit out the skin – big tomatoes that you have to bite will squirt juice all over your shirt.) I have these all in two and five gallon containers, with the larger ones producing better.
Yellow Pear is also for snacks. It’s sweeter and has less zing than the Red Cherry, but still is nice. Both of the cherry types produce many fruits, but not a lot of total volume of fruit. They both continue flowering setting in the hottest weather (my bumblebees love them).
I’m planning my fall tomato production, and will be starting seeds soon. And we will continue testing varieties next spring, God willing. Some varieties that have been suggested to us for testing are: Black Krim, Arkansas Traveler, Stupice, Green Zebra, Kosovo, Matina, Red Calabash, Brandywine, Neptune, Zhezha, Red Georgia, and Floridade.
Anyone have any other suggestions, or comments on the ones already mentioned?
Note: Some varieties were obtained from swaps. Abe Lincoln was from Ferry Morse Seed Co.  Ozark Pink, Black Plum, and Super Sioux were from Hazzard Wholesale Seeds.

Garden snacks add to gardening pleasure

For many years I’ve taken a salt shaker to the garden in the morning with me when checking on ripe tomatoes. There’s nothing in the world that’s finer than to take a bite of a really ripe tomato. It’s one of the things money can’t buy – because all supermarket tomatoes taste insipid by comparison.

The problem is that a bite of a ripe tomato usually results in juice squirted all over your shirt! And who wants to wear tomato juice all day?

In recent years I’ve discovered cherry tomatoes. This year I’ve grown two types – Large Red Cherry, and Yellow Pear.

Large red cherry tomato

Large red cherry tomato is a real winner in tomato taste tests.

The glory of cherry tomatoes is that you can pop them into your mouth, crush out the goodness and spit out the skins, without the drench of your shirt! The Large Red Cherry above will compete with the best tasting large tomatoes in taste.

And Yellow Pear is like garden candy!

Yellow pear tomato

Yellow pear tomato is sweeter and less acid than red cherry types.

Both types are grown in buckets to save my precious garden space for main crop tomatoes and other important veggies. Both will survive and produce in two gallon pots, but I’ve found that they produce much better in five gallon pails. Drain holes are made in the bottom, and an inch of grass clippings or pine straw is added to keep from plugging the  drain holes. Then a mix of about 45% soil, 45% compost and 10% crushed coquina (our soil is very acid) are added to the buckets and the tomatoes set in them much deeper than they grew in their starter pots.

Not only can cherry types be grown in containers, but they will set fruit even in the scorching summer days. Last year, unlike my main crop tomatoes, the cherries produced all through the summer and into the fall.

They’ll never be much for processing; they don’t really produce near enough volume of fruit; but they make a nice addition to your garden, if you can find a few buckets and a place to put them.

Tomato variety trials – some notes so far

We are testing some tomato varieties to see how well they do in our unique environment. Many varieties that do well in the northland are pretty poor producers here. In Coastal South Carolina, heat is a killer; already in June we have hit 101 and have been in the mid to high 90s for the first half of the month. Humidity is also very high, though we are prone to drought – which we have right now. My tomatoes are all in raised beds, and are watered as needed – with rainwater if I have it; when that runs out we use town water.

The soil is a mix of about 40% fine sandy loam, 40% compost, 10% crushed coquina, and 10% crushed charcoal. Some of these beds are in their second year and were amended with about one inch of new compost. The soil has been stirred as little as possible.

On all tomato varieties the lower leaves and lower suckers are removed. No leaves are allowed to touch the soil. No chemicals have been used, although we are considering the use of some mild ones for the future to see if we can retard early blight.

Biological control by the many paper wasps and assassin bugs apparently is keeping tomato worms out of the picture. Marigolds are also planted around the raised beds. These are reputed to be helpful in repelling insects, but we don’t know if it is a factor for any tomato pests.

Pollination is ensured by abundant bumble bees on our wild bee refuge, and the bumbles are often seen “buzzing” the flowers. This is called sonication, or buzz pollination, which releases great quantities of pollen with resonant vibrations.

Two varieties have already been sufficiently tried to say they’ve passed the taste test with flying colors. These are the large red cherry and the Abe Lincoln. For others, we have not harvested or we are wanting more samples to give a fair test.

One variety has a serious weakness – Super Sioux:

Super Sioux BER

Super Sioux BER

This one is close to being disqualified for further tests, with blossom end rot (BER) spoiling about 20% of the early harvest. If all the rest of the production comes clean, MAYBE, I’ll try it again.

Another one that’s pretty sorry is Homestead, which is supposed to be a heat tolerant variety. But this is the third year of testing for me; the plants are puny and they aren’t very heavily loaded with fruit, nor is the fruit sizing up well. They are also highly infected with early blight. I see no reason to continue testing this, especially with the limited amount of space I have.

Marion has proved the opposite of Homestead, though they are supposed to be related.

Marion tomato

Marion tomato

This variety produced large stocky plants that set a large quanty of tomatoes that are sizing up very well. They have some early blight on the lower branches, but the harvest appears to be outracing the disease. Only the taste test awaits to see if these get the thumbs up.

Abe Lincoln is already a winner, having proven its taste as excellent. The plants are extremely stocky, vigorous, and deep green, with no sign of any disease whatsoever. They are heavily loaded and already yielding ripe tomatoes.

Abe Lincoln tomato

Abe Lincoln tomato

Rio Grande looks very good, with a very good set, and no disease. It has not yet produced a ripe tomato.

Rio Grande tomato

Rio Grande tomato

Cherokee Purple also looks good, with good set and large tomatoes. None have ripened yet for tasting.

Cherokee Purple tomato

Cherokee Purple tomato

Black Plum is supposed to be more of a sauce tomato, but we find it to be excellent in taste. It has some early blight, but the yield should be good before the blight takes over.

Black Plum tomato

Black Plum tomato

One surprise for us is Verja’s Paradajz. It was tried last year and it just didn’t set enough fruit to really test it. This year, perhaps with our much higher bumblebee population, it set fairly well and the tomatoes are very large. It also has no disease evident at all.

Verja's Paradajz tomato

Verja's Paradajz tomato

And finally, besides the heirlooms, we have two hybrids this year – Park’s Whopper and Big Boy.  I am cutting back on hybrids, partly because I want to save seeds from at least some varieties. But these two are long respected as heavy producers, so I continued to try them. I must say that Big Boy is out of the running at this point. I won’t be growing it again. It is full of early blight, and I think some of the later tomato set is just not going to make it. There won’ be enough leaf surface to feed the fruit. We will get some of the early fruit, and that’s it.

Whopper is doing well, though it also has some early blight. But I expect we’ll get a very good crop before the blight gets these plants. I’ve grown Park’s Whopper several times over the years, and it has proven to be a very reliable producer. The flavor is also quite good.

Park's Whopper tomato

Park's Whopper tomato

We’ll return to this topic soon with more comments and photos.

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