More Tomatoes: Giving some support

16 06 2013

Our plants are in the ground; and though they may be small at first, they will eventually grow into amazing specimens with that desirable tomato harvest. This will be a thing of beauty: globes that are large, round and smooth; I just need one in my mouth for a taste. When the ripe orb touches your lips it’s just heaven. It is important to provide appropriate support for the girls, keeping them high and proud for the world to admire. Am I still talking about tomatoes? Um… yes, tomatoes.

Tomatoes need to be kept off the ground, away from the dirt, pests, and soil-born pathogens. How can we accomplish this?

Let’s explore four different categories of tomato support:





Poles are the easiest to place in the garden, but may require maintenance through the growing season. You drive the pole into the ground next to the Ms Tomato, being careful to stay away from the roots. Then just gently tie her to the pole, working your way up the main stem as she grows. Note that indeterminate varieties continue to grow throughout the season, and may outgrow a post if not long enough.

Just like me, this corkscrew post is twisted and fun...

Just like me, this corkscrew post is twisted and fun…

Just for fun I purchased some corkscrew posts to use in one garden bed this season. I’m sure the neighbors got some ideas if they overheard me talking about a screw in the garden or even a corkscrew in the garden. Either way, it sure makes gardening more fun. I just installed the post in the ground and gently wrapped the main stem around the corkscrew. Those limbs wrapping themselves around the pole is a thing of beauty.

In honor of Father’s Day, I am reminded of something comedian Chris Rock said. It’s a father’s job to keep his daughter off the pole. Of course he was referring to a different kind of pole. In our situation, it’s better to revise the quote. It’s a gardener’s job to keep the tomato plant on the pole.

Trellises are used in a similar way to posts. The plant is gently tied to the trellis as she grows. Some can get creative by tying up side shoots as well, having the plant grow flatter against the trellis. Have you ever had all of your limbs tied up? Trust me, the tomatoes won’t mind, either, as long as the ties aren’t too tight. What’s that? You haven’t had all of your limbs tied up before? How presumptuous of me. And I guess your level of enjoyment would also depend on whether somebody is tied up during a bank robbery, a kidnapping, or a third date. But I digress…

Trellis picture I "borrowed" from another site... I don't have a tomato trellis. This is for illustration purposes only.

Trellis picture I “borrowed” from another site… I don’t have a tomato trellis. This is for illustration purposes only.

Have you ever been to a vineyard? Think tomato plants instead of grape vines and you get the trellis idea.

Nothing but net... The netting underneath the tomato plant allows her to roam free while staying off the ground

Nothing but net… The netting underneath the tomato plant allows her to roam free while staying off the ground

By nets I don’t mean trellises, although netting can be used on a trellis. What I am referring to is netting installed under the tomato plant. The net is either in combination with a series of posts or the walls of a garden bed. It provides support for the tomato plant, keeps the fruit off the ground, but lets the tomato plant continue to grow au naturelle without other support. Using lingerie as an analogy, think of this growing method as the under wire shelf bra of the gardening world. And who said gardening couldn’t be exciting?

Now let’s stop my mind from wandering and get to my current favorite method of keeping the tomato plants up. Of course I am referring to cages. Time for the cage match, it’s a rage in the cage, starring Nicholas Cage… Yes, a cage…

Row of tomato cages... Aren't they pretty?

Row of tomato cages… Aren’t they pretty?

Why cages? Without them things can eventually get out of hand. Just ask Siegfried and Roy. Cages allow the plant to continue to grow upward without encroaching on other real estate in the yard or garden. The netting discussed above can lead to sprawl. You don’t have the continual maintenance of tying up the plant during the growing season, as with the pole or trellis.

Looks good in the right kind of cage...

Looks good in the right kind of cage…

Looks bad in the wrong kind of cage...

Looks bad in the wrong kind of cage…

You can purchase cages or make your own. It’s important to choose the best design for your garden. Some will look better than others. Kind of like a cage dancer… She may look hot on stage, not so hot in a holding cell…





I decided to make my own using a huge roll of 5 foot tall 14 gauge galvanized wire fence. I don’t think I would have succeeded without my bolt cutters and pliers. The assembly was a lot of work, but check out the results. The cage is basically a wire cylinder with larger holes created at different levels for harvesting. The cylinders have diameters ranging from 19 inches to 24 inches. All wires are wrapped into curves to prevent sharp edges. Keep things smooth and rounded for your comfort and the comfort of your plants. Send me a note if you would like more assembly details.

The openings in the  tomato cages invite your hand to explore the plant for a delicious harvest...

The openings in the tomato cages invite your hand to explore the plant for a delicious harvest…

I’m glad you took time to join me with my exploration of tomato supports. Remember to provide them with support, and they will reward you with a beautiful, and bountiful, harvest.

Garden on Rye, Hold the Mayo

29 10 2012

“Hay, hay, hay!!”

“Hay is for horses!”

“And for gardens…”

You may be wondering what the heck this guy is talking about. Well, since you asked, I decided to continue my gardening through the winter by growing some green manure. Green manure? What are you doing with that crap?

Well, technically green manure isn’t “crap”. It is a cover crop that establishes itself in the Fall , overwinters, and will continue to grow through the Spring if you let it. For my garden beds, I chose Winter Rye.

Winter rye getting a start in the garden

What are the advantages to a cover crop?

  • Helps prevent both wind and water erosion- especially if your garden lies on a hill, grow a cover crop to keep your soil from washing away or blowing away during the winter
  • Increases organic matter in the soil- when you till the cover crop into the soil in the Spring
  • Increases plant yield- shown by studies conducted on experimental farms
  • Helps control weeds- just like in a lawn, established plants reduce the likelihood of weed growth
  • Improves soil moisture- Plant coverings retain more moisture than bare soil
  • Homesteader/farmer bonus- Your cows, sheep, goats can graze on the plants

Growing winter rye

To start, I planted the rye in October. This being my first time planting my seed, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Everything was so dirty- my boots, my gloves, the rake… Note I’m sowing winter rye, not sowing my wild oats, so we’ll keep the commentary from getting too out of hand.

Sprouts are starting to turn green.

Anyway, the first week of October gave the plants plenty of time to establish themselves. Apparently, the seed will germinate even with nighttime temperatures approaching freezing. Gently cover the seed and let it grow. I am looking forward to seeing green in the garden beds this winter. Note that you may need to mow down the plants before tilling into the soil. Did you plant in an area where you will not garden next year? Then let the crop grow. Winter rye can grow up to 4 feet tall depending on variety, and you can harvest the plants for animal food or for mulch.

I hope you have fun with cover crops this Winter. Enjoy.

Zucchini not knocked up yet? Let’s help them get busy…

1 07 2012

Oh, the joy of eating fresh zucchini! Grilled with olive oil, sauteed with onion and tomato, the bread, mock apple pie… The meals are endless. And with the plants being so prolific–

What’s that? No harvest yet? But the plants are so huge! The leaves are so beautiful and the plants are quite healthy. The veggies start to form and it all seems so promising. Then the unexpected happens; the squash starts to shrink and wither away. Someone’s got a problem. Mr zucchini appears <unable to perform>. Looks like somebody needs a little blue pill.

Er, not exactly. Let’s blame the absence of our little bee friends. The crazy summer weather has many of them just trying not to get cooked alive. They haven’t always been making it over to the squash patch to spread a little loving, and pollen, around. What to do? What to do?

First, let’s go back to the bees part of the birds and bees talk that some of you got in high school / middle school / elementary, depending on when and where you were born. I promise you that this is something you did not hear in health class. Zucchini is interesting in that there are not boy parts and girls parts in its flower. No, there are actually boy flowers and girl flowers. And we need to be the wing man for those boy flowers so they can get lucky and drop off some pollen in those girl flowers.

Female flower

Female flower on a miniature squash

Let’s set the mood for some pollination magic. Let’s start with the lighting; natural works in this case. Put on the mood music. Listen to some Barry White? Nine Inch Nails? Frank Sinatra? Take your pick. After all, you are a major player in this show. How about you slip into something more comfortable? My personal choice is shorts, tee shirt, and garden sandals. Maybe a little wine for the gardener? Keep it real and have a beer? No thanks. Better to stick with coffee. One thing I failed to mention is that the flowers are only open between 6 and 9 in the morning. The only other supplies you need are a Q-tip or a small artist’s paintbrush.

Male flower

Male zucchini flower on a thin stem

Hand pollination is quite simple, really. Use the Q-tip or brush to gather pollen from the middle of the male flower and lightly brush the middle of the female flower to deposit the pollen. OK, I will save you the embarrassment and tell you the difference between the male and female flowers. The male are simply attached to a stem. The female appear to be attached to a miniature zucchini squash. Spread a little pollination around and you will be harvesting fresh zucchini in no time.

Invasive Landscaping

15 05 2012

I like making gardening easy. That includes plants that are simple to grow. But some plants are a little too easy.

For example, I am growing three kinds of mint in my yard. I never planted any, but they sure keep growing. They crept under the fence from neighbors yards. They must be looking for rum. Pitcher of mojitos, anybody? Maybe not. The mojito was Ernest Hemingway’s favorite drink, and we all know how things turned out for him. <gasp>

Mint invasion from the neighbors

What’s the story, Morning Glory? What’s with the nasty root system and vines that choke out other plants? I never planted them but they managed to trash more than one garden bed.

I had challenges with varieties that I put in the ground, too. Oregano is great in Greek dishes. Vegetation killer is great for removing the Oregano that established itself in the middle of the turf in the back yard. That was one of the few times I was willing to use poison on the lawn. And I’d do it again in a similar situation.

Knowing the risks of invasive plants, it is important to plan ahead and prevent disaster. Here are a few tips to keep your plants, and yourself, happy.

Plant it in a pot (Then plant the pot in the ground)

The pot will keep the plant in check, and the clean border will make the garden look neater.

Oregano in a planted pot

Use plant fabric or garden barrier

Just make sure the barrier is deep and strong enough, or it may not work.


A 2×4 board will not stop raspberries from spreading

Pick the flowers, watch out for seeds

Chives can spread far and wide when they go to seed. So can mint. Bonus tip: Let some parsley and cilantro go completely to seed, and it will self-sow for the next season

Mow it down

Patches of Raspberries, Lilly of the Valley, Day Lilies can be kept in check with mowing around the edges on a regular schedule.

Some of these invaders can be a great addition to the garden. Just don’t let them conquer your yard.

Artichokes in the Fridge – Vernalization 101

22 04 2012

I love artichokes. I enjoy them marinated, in dip, in pasta, cooked or fresh, straight out of the can. They are a tasty treat. Wouldn’t it be a bigger treat if I grew them in my own back yard?


There was one minor problem with this plan; artichokes do not natively grow in the South Central PA climate where I live. I was sure that with a little research I could figure something out.


Did you know that the artichoke that people eat is part of the bud from a large thistle plant? How did they figure out that was edible? And what happened to the unfortunate souls that tried the other parts of the plant? If the scales and thorns were a problem on the way down, what about the following day? Ouch! However, I digress.


These plants take up a lot of space – 4 to 5 feet tall, and just as large around. Fortunately, there is an unoccupied corner of the yard that will accommodate the thorny monster. When do I plant these for harvest in my area? The seed packet said 180 days –or- 360 days. I started them in January to hedge my bets. Why did the packet list two different maturity times?


I dug further, so to speak, and discovered that in most cases the plants just won’t produce the first year. It is not until year number two that those globes of goodness will line my plate. That is just not an acceptable option. Why did the packet list 180 days? Apparently, you can fake out the seedling into thinking it survived its first winter. In turn, it will produce a harvest at the end of the first growing season. This neat trick is called vernalization. The plant needs a week or two of temperatures below 50 degrees for the strategy to work.


Challenges, challenges, I sure love challenges. Mother Nature greeted my first attempt at chilling the plants with a week of outdoor temps in the 60s and 70s. When the weather doesn’t cooperate, Dave gets inventive. Artichoke plants, say hello to the Beer Fridge, um, the Beverage Fridge in the garage. I made a little room on the shelf and the plants were good to go. They got very chilly, and looked sad, but they survived.

Happy artichoke seedling

This is a picture under the basement grow lamp, before the plant made its journey to the refrigerator


Only time (approximately 180 days) will tell if the effort was successful. I will keep you updated.