The Educated Gardener


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Planning a Vegetable Garden

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New Jersey Planting Guide

Learn How to Grow Tomatoes From Seed
June 2013
by Dan Helming

I just wanted to catch up and say that we might all have fallen behind our gardening a little bit over the holiday weekend. I popped by the FAS, and noted that the beds were very dry. We’ve really got to keep up the watering in these beds because they are elevated and don’t retain a lot of water. We don’t have the natural advantage of our clay-ridden ground as a backstop to hold the water in, and we don’t have the benefit of the ground moisture, groundwater inside to supplement the water that we put on top.
Most people are tomato growers. Tomatoes are a SUCCULENT. They benefit from the soil being wet, all the time. Tomatoes grow so rapidly that you could break off a branch, stick it in wet ground and it would root by itself.
You would know dry from sticking your finger in the ground: if no ground sticks to it, your ground is too dry. Tomatoes need a lot of water content, both for their rapid growth and for the tomatoes themselves. Our tomato plants should yield about 20 pounds, that’s 2 1/2 gallons of water just in the tomatoes themselves! So water your tomatoes, keeping the water off the leaves so that they don’t get fungus.
In the part of the season where the tomatoes are maturing, tomato plants can use up to a gallon a day of water. I put gallon bottles on the ground with a hole in the bottom and fill them up so they can trickle irrigate my tomatoes.
There is some other knowledge about tomatoes. Red mulch (plastic) is supposed to increase their yield. I also use a supplement from Gardens Alive called Tomatoes Alive that supplements phosphorus and calcium. They are known to like a splash of lime (calcium) and leaf mold compost (phosphorus).
This is an easy season in which to garden, but just know that seeds may not germinate when the temps get to 80F (soon). And the limited root structures of new plants/seeds may not let them survive in the hot soil. You can germinate seeds and plants in your cool basement, even without a light. But some things you don’t plant now, you won’t be able to plant until it cools down again.

May 2013
by Dan Helming

Well, here we are in May! We have 50 F degree nights, and I feel I can harden off my plants, which is to leave them outside in partial sun so that they get accustomed to it, also the wind and the temperature, before I put them in the ground. We had a fun seminar at FAS with a dozen people a few Sundays ago. We discussed concepts like keeping your tomato plants spread about 24” from each other, to allow the plants to soak up sun and air without being crowded. Companion plants to tomatoes are basil and marigolds, though the research is still out as to whether planting them together really helps.

Some aspects of tomato planting you might not have suspected: you dig a trench about 4“ deep and a foot long, pull the leaves off the plant except for the top, and lay the plant in the trench, covering it up so only the top is exposed at the end of the trench. This will allow the plant to grow a deeper root network and absorb more water, air and nutrients, and yield more tomatoes!

Other plants can be planted around the outside of tomatoes: the inside will grow so dense that plants won’t survive in the shade except some fast lettuce plants. There are nutrients that can be planted with tomatoes, like Garden’s Alive, that are supposed to increase the yield, and the use of red plastic mulch will help as well. Tomatoes are a succulent and love water, but avoid watering the leaves. Others or the Internet can help you if you wish to do pruning.

We are rapidly getting so warm that seeds won’t germinate in the plot. You can always start them in the window or the basement and transfer the pre-germinated seeds or plants! Put the seeds in a wet paper towel to sprout them.

I am searching for a trellis solution because I don’t believe in wire cages. They won’t support the 20 pounds of tomatoes you should expect from your plants, and they don’t allow the plant to stretch out and seek air and sun. More in a future article. Your plants won’t need staking for a month.

April 2013
by Dan Helming

Today on 3/20 I saw on Facebook that the Garden Club planted their tomato seeds this past weekend, in preparation for the May plant sale. So as you read this on 4/1, it really isn’t too late to plant your own tomato seeds, and certainly other seeds. 4/1 is “6 to 8 weeks prior to end of frost” date of May 15.
I’ve kept a simple seed starting setup at home for 10 years.
Lighting- You really don’t need fancy natural spectrum lighting. You can use simple fluorescent fixtures from Home Depot for $40. You need to keep the lighting within a few inches of the seeds/ plants as they grow because light dissipates so much. Look for a fixture with a pull-chain on/off. I have a rolling wire rack with 4 shelves and 2 light fixtures: I only actively use 2 shelves. You should adjust a timer to give your plants 17-18 hours of light a day. You could double-time your resource by leaving the light on all the time and just alternating trays into it every 12 hours: I’ve done it. The window shelf at this time of year is adequate…only. The quality of light depends on your setting and it will bend your plants. There are not enough hours of sunlight now to be optimal. You are not supposed to reverse your window plants to unbend them for some reason.
Medium/soil- The medium needs to be loose to allow air into the roots, and also so that tender roots can easily grow. There are recommended mixes you can make yourself of peat moss, perlite, vermiculite, compost, etc. The mix has to provide steady moisture to the seed and plant, but also good drainage so that the seed doesn’t rot before germinating nor that the plant damps off, which means it dies because of a fungal infection.
There need to be some nutrients to feed the growing plant, which need starts when the plant has 4 leaves. The first 2 are called false leaves, for the reason than that they don’t help the plant produce food independently: the plant is initially living off the nutrients that were stored within the seed.
A complication is that the nutrients cannot be a hot fertilizer that will burn/wilt the young plant. I don’t know if that hotness is a temperature hotness: I think rather that what gardeners are referring to is an intensity of nitrogen that can chemically burn a young plant. So e.g. don’t put fresh horse manure or cat urine in your new seed beds. I dig some of that older solid gold horse manure for my garden in the north. And even the rugged pasture grasses won’t grow in the fresh stuff. When I see pasture grasses growing in it, it is an indicator to me that it is safe to use on my plants.
The medium also has to be sterile so that it doesn’t have bacteria that will rot the seed before it can sprout. Also it should be seed sterile so unwanted weed seeds are killed. But you are not supposed to kill all the microorganisms in the soil that help the plant get nutrients, etc. To accomplish all this you are supposed to heat it in the oven at 150F. for an hour. You will smell the hot soil in your house, and in my experience, I haven’t gotten satisfaction that it is sterile in the ways described.
With all I’ve told you, you can see why I buy my starting medium. Commercial seed starting mediums are fine; they have more drainage and fewer nutrients than potting soil.
I like the Natural Beginnings product by Gardens Alive! It has coconut fiber that fosters healthier roots and growth, and organic bat guano for nutrients. I reuse the soil for later transplanting and eventually recapture the spent soil to recharge potted plants and the like. It promises higher yield from your seed, and seed is expensive too!
You can start most seeds on top of the soil, follow the instructions on the seed pack, this minimizes rot. A plastic cover over the seed tray can keep the humidity in and increase yield. But don’t make it so wet that the seeds drown or rot.
There needs to be an appropriate temperature to germinate the seeds you grow, usually 65 or better. Tropical imports, e.g. petunias are sensitive and may require a heated seedbed. Most don’t.
Have you seen the ingenious one-cup homemade planters made of a paper cup with a plastic cup over the top?
Transplanting should happen when the seeds have 4 leaves so that the plants each have enough nutrients. I read that there should be additional half-diluted fertilizer after a month but I have avoided it with this particular product.
Workshop- If you wonder how you will plant your 4 x 12 bed, please come to a workshop we are having on Saturday, April 13, 2013 at from 9:00-11:00 AM to at the First Aid Squad. I and any other Board or other interested volunteers will be talking about appropriate planting, spacing and depth of your plants and seeds as you start putting them in and also how to support and stake them up. Write anyone on any committee or the Board with any questions!

March 2013
by Dan Helming

Boy I’m glad it snowed, because my organic lawn needed water. It stays deep green and grows its roots all winter, and water is necessary. Snow also protects it from the deep cold and allows UV light through to allow it to live. If our coldest winter spaces in the world weren’t covered by snow, most greenery and even its seeds would die and we would have only tundra with lichens. I aerate and feed my lawn compost in the fall and this provides its food all winter. If your lawn is brown it’s OK, it’s dormant (not actively growing). It has no food (or chemical food) that is accessible to the grass when the water isn’t frozen or the fertilizer hasn’t washed out of its tract.

In the beginning of February here, you should be buying your seeds if you want interesting/diverse plants this summer. For example, I am buying seeds for tomatoes. I feel it separates me from the crowd of what I see at the farmer’s markets. I buy indeterminate seeds: this means they don’t have one season and don’t all ripen once each season, but continue to bud and ripen late. Heirloom: meaning that they aren’t hybrids; the seeds from these have been proven over generations to be in the same form. Alan’s recommendations for Johnny’s and Seeds of Change are great.

Ideally tomato seeds here need to be planted March 1, that’s 10 weeks to May 15 when tomatoes can be set out. Windowsill and paper cups are ok all the way up to a normal fluorescent light that can give them 16 or 18 hours of daily sunlight instead. This will get the mature plants into that August timeframe when the beating sun and humidity in Jersey make those great tomatoes.

For seeds that require different starting periods, look at the packs. The ones you’d be missing at this time if you were really ambitious would be the likes of impatiens and petunias, tropical transplants that need more time and even heated seedbeds to help germination. I’ve given up planting those, instead I keep a plant or two under a light all winter and just grow cuttings with rooting hormone.

I tossed my compost last week. The Recycling Center on Boyden Ave is doing a great job this year tossing its own leaf mold and the piles are steaming. What a sight! In the last few years, leaf mold hasn’t been as available from them, but you need it for better tomatoes because the leaves have a lot of phosphorus that tomatoes adore. The chipped branch and leave compost lately hasn’t been as good. I make my own leaf mold compost. I catch all my leaves (from the backyard only, I have plenty) in 6 4x4x4 wire bins (great aeration is possible). I don’t “get” those black bins, it takes 2 seconds for them to smell like rotten eggs, which is anaerobic and wrong. And how do you toss or use them? There are straw bales out on the street after Halloween; I grab a few and spread them into the bins. I deposit my kitchen waste (vegetation only) on top. Grasses and vegetation are nitrogen-based and have to be in at least 1:40 mix with the leaves (phosphorus-based) to help them rot and balance the nutrition content. When I pull up a wire bin, I replace the bin somewhere else and remix the contents into it mixing rotten and dry, wet and dry, straw and leaves. If I was ambitious, wetting the contents would help, but this stuff will rot anyway, eventually.

2 Responses to The Educated Gardener

  1. Hilda Silverman says:

    Please let me know how to register for the class on Sat., 4/13. I am participating in the S. Orange Community Garden, and missed their class. They suggested this as an alternative, and I didn’t receive a response to my first inquiry. Thanks for your help!

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