May 2013 Archives

Water and Fertilizer - Tips to Help Your Plants Succeed

watering plants - frucelli.jpg

By Mary Frucelli

Watering and fertilizing your plants properly is the most important task you can do to ensure your plants success. Watering sounds simple but there are a few details you need to remember.

If you are watering indoor plants, feel the dirt and only water when you plant feels really dry. For most plants a once a week watering is enough any time of the year. Some plants can tolerate being watered every other week. Don't just water the surface of the plant but give it a thorough soaking. It is a good idea to clean the leaves of indoor plants to keep them dust free, but try not to get the leaves wet as watering leaves can promote fungus and mold. Your indoor plants will appreciate being fed with an all purpose fertilizer at least once a month.

Outdoor pots must have holes in the bottom of the pot for good drainage and pots in the direct sun will dry out before pots in the shade. Pay attention to the weather and if it will be raining soon to allow your plants to be watered naturally. Rain water is much better for your plants than city tap water that has fluoride and chlorine added to it. If you can collect rain water it would be beneficial to water all your plants with it. Well water would work just as well as rain water. You can use a regular hose, watering can, or soaker hose depending on your situation. An alternate method uses a plastic bottle or cup with perforated holes buried next to the plant. This will allow you to fill the bottle or cup and the water will slowly be released to the roots of the plant. Tomatoes especially like this method of watering. Only water when your plants are dry and give them a good soaking. Most vegetable plants need lots of water and in the summer they should probably be watered every two to three days. Be very careful as over watering can put your plants at risk for rotting their roots and the plants will die.

If you have started your plants with a good quality potting soil with fertilizer or compost your plants should be fine the first few weeks until they are well established. Once your plants are well on their way you can fertilize them every couple weeks with an all purpose fertilizer. You can experiment by using fish emulsion and/or Epsom salts on most plants by following the directions on the package. Roses love being fertilized with Epsom salts and tomatoes like the calcium from egg shells. Other plants such as azaleas and blueberry bushes like acid soil and would benefit from sphagnum peat moss, pine needs, or coffee grounds. Don't be afraid to try different fertilizers as long as you don't overdo it. If you notice your plant having a particular problem, look it up on the internet, research it at your local library or consult with a local garden center. Gardening is a learning experience that can be different every season. Even the most experienced gardeners can have problems with their plants so don't get discouraged and give up. Once you reap the rewards of fresh fruits and vegetables you will want to keep growing them every year.

Manure and You - What is It? How to Use It?

By Orion Darkwood

manure for gardening

Lots of people swear by manure, and say X manure is better than Y. But ask a person why and you will find they are not forthcoming with answers or information.

Manure is divided into two major categories--cold and hot. This refers to the NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium) levels. Cold manure is low level manure that has been mixed with bedding, dirt or some other bulking agent and can be used immediately in one's flowering or gardening. Hot manure or fresh manure is too "intense" for use on plants. However, it can be useful to bring up the NPK levels of cold manure or kill weeds prior to planting, as long as not too much is used.

The major sources of manure are bovine (cow, horse, goat, llama, pig), fowl (chicken, turkey, duck, goose) and small mammals (rabbit, and guinea pig). Manure from omnivores and especially carnivores is usually bad for your planting area. If you are using manure from local sources and not purchasing it, make sure the animals in question are healthy. If you are unsure, leave the manure out for a few weeks to ensure no disease causing bacteria or viruses are present.

You know the type of plants or garden you want to plant. Depending on what you want to plant the type of manure preparation can vary--manure mix to bulking agent. Some plants require a very rich soil, while there are numerous others that require a poor soil. Do a simple search for the plant you desire to plant to determine how you need to prepare your soil. All plants need some degree of fertilization. Most garden plants require a more nutrient rich soil to guarantee tastier veggies.

The best advice is too get pure manure (manure that has been pasteurized), or if it's mixed with a bulking agent make sure the package lists the agent. If the manure is in its pure form, mix it with dirt, compost, leaves, straw and other bulking agents. Mix it well and let it set for a couple of weeks before introducing it to a planting area.

Once this is done, there are various methods for introducing it to the planting area. However, the most important thing to remember is to make sure it is mixed in with the soil and done weeks before planting. If you are fortunate enough to have access to a free supply of manure from neighboring farms or from your own animal's stockpile for the next planting season. The longer the manure has been allowed to decompose the better off you will be. Also, a little goes a long way--unless you like manure flavored tomatoes.

Which manure is best? There are numerous guides and links that advocate one over the other. Most NPK guides are for pure manure or manure freshly mixed with a bulking agent. What you purchase from the store may have been stored in a warehouse for a few months, may have gotten wet or even be an unequal mixture of manure and bulking agents. Find several manures from various sources. Try each one in small amounts until you find the manure and source that is best for you and your needs.

Orion Darkwood is an avid garden, self reliance instructor, writer, poet and small business owner. To learn more about Orion go to www.crossedswordsus.com.

Tomato Trellising Methods

By Caitlin Harwell

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There are dozens of ways that have developed over the years to trellis a tomato plant, from staking to compost trellising and even growing them upside down. It comes down to the right fit for each garden and its gardener. Trellising methods are dependent on several things:

  • type of tomatoes (determinate vs. indeterminate)
  • size of the garden
  • time a gardener is interested in dedicating to maintenance
  • cost

Let's start with the first thing on the list. Probably the most important factor regarding how a tomato plant should be trellised is whether it is a determinate or indeterminate variety. How do you determine what your tomatoes are? Check the seed packet or the tag. The information is usually easy to find. If it is not provided, trying searching the variety name on the Internet. You will be surprised at how much information there is for each and every type of tomato.

Now that you have the info, what is the difference between an indeterminate and determinate tomato?

Determinate, or bush, tomatoes are varieties that grow to a certain height and typically produce all of their fruit at once.

  • Pros: They are much lower maintenance than indeterminate tomatoes and are perfect for smaller gardens, containers and raised beds.
  • Cons: After producing fruit once, their time is up for the season.

Indeterminate, or vining, tomatoes are varieties that continue to grow and produce fruit throughout the growing season, until there are killed by frost.

  • Pros: They will produce all season. They can have ripened fruits and new buds all at the same time. Perfect for fresh slicing tomatoes all summer long.
  • Cons: They take up significantly more space than determinate tomatoes, sometimes growing 6-10 feet high, and they require a great deal more maintenance and pruning.

So what are some popular methods of trellising and which is right for your garden?

Cage trellising is probably the most common method. A "cage" is a small structure made of medium size metal wire. They are easily made and just as easily purchased from a local garden center. The cage is placed over a young tomato plant and secured by pressing the legs, or the ends of the wire that protrude down below the cage, into the soil around the plant. As the plant grows, the cage acts as a support for the main stem and branches.

  • Pros: Cages are very common and therefore easy to find at all garden centers and are also fairly easy to build. The level of maintenance is much lower than other trellising methods. The cost is relatively low and they can be used year after year.
  • Cons: Cages only allow for so much plant growth. If a tomato plant outgrows it's cage it can become entangled or end up falling over on the ground, allowing the fruits to rot.

*Best for determinate tomatoes.

String trellising is a little less well known but used often by commercial growers. A support system must be built with stakes, bamboo or posts placed between every 3-4 plants. A long support is then placed perpendicular above the tomatoes and secured onto the stakes. Holes are drilled through the top support (one for each plant) and "strings" (usually of garden twine) are threaded through the holes and secured by tying. The strings are then tied to the base of each plant loosely so as not to cut off the stem. As the tomato grows, the gardener must wrap the string in a spiral along the stem and secure with tomato clips or a similar fastening device that will allow the stem room to grow.

  • Pros: The string method works well for a long row of tomatoes and allows the tomato to grow to the height of the top support. If you prefer an organized and aesthetically pleasing set up, string trellising provides this.
  • Cons: String trellising is more time consuming than other methods and requires effort from the gardener in pruning, as well as maintenance of the strings and structure. The initial cost of building the trellising structure is also more of an investment, as is the time it takes to build it.

*Best for indeterminate tomatoes.

Basket weave trellising is similar to string trellising in the fact that you need posts or stake supports set between ever few plants. However, the maintenance and cost is much less. Strings (usually of garden twine) are tied to the first post in the series and then wound from front to back through the tomato plants. The first string begins only inches from the soil, and as the plants grows, more strings are added higher and higher. This method also requires close attention to pruning.

  • Pros: Basket weave trellising while it does require some effort in string lying throughout the season is much somewhat labor intensive than string trellising but provides similar support for the plants. It is also easy to set up in a larger garden where tomatoes are planted in long rows.
  • Cons: Strings can become loose later in the season due to rain, wind and simply the weight of the plants. Making sure the strings are tight and secure can be more difficult when weaving, rather than tying off.

*Works well with both determinate and indeterminate varieties.

Cait Harwell has been gardening and farming for a good portion of her life and has developed skills in small industry vegetable production and farm maintenance. She lives in the Northeast where she has a small garden homestead and cultivates everything from squash and tomatoes to exotic plants. She recently received her Masters in Writing from FDU and hopes to pursue her life-long dream of owning her own farm.

Organic - Or Is It? An Un-Commonsense Approach to Food

By Todd Wilson

organic vegetables

Organic, especially recently, has become a buzzword, a trend. I go to Whole Foods. I buy organic! I must be saving the environment, right? Well, to answer a rhetorical question: "Not exactly."

The Unsustainable Food Journey

To start off, if your organic food is coming from California, say, (assuming you live on the East Coast) or better yet South America, there is a lot of energy expended to ship said foods across the country or world. Agriculture uses about 20% of all of consumed oil resources in the United States yearly. That's a pretty staggering number, falling just behind the amount of energy passenger vehicles expend. Of that 20% only about one-fifth is used on the farm. The other four-fifths is used for travel, processing, packaging, more travel, refrigeration, etc. That being said, a lot of energy, too much, goes into what happens to your food after it leaves the farm, and, in that case, whether or not it's organic doesn't really matter. The point being, in this type of situation, organic is just trading one problem (i.e antibiotics, fossil pesticides) for another (unsustainable food travel). There are actually studies out there that claim the average distance organic food travels, from farm to plate, is actually further than the 1500, or so, miles the average food piece travels. Wowsers.

But It's Not That Simple

Now, just for example's sake, let's say you decide to stick to your guns and make a difference. Yeah! Good for you! You say, "It's time that I start treating the world better, reducing my carbon footprint and I'm going to eat organically, and more locally." Is this better? There are studies out there that say "no," and others that say the opposite. Truthfully, I'm not entirely sure, in terms of energy use, which is more efficient. Stocking railroad cars full of produce packed tightly and rolling them across the country may, very well, consume less energy per vegetable than a local farmer driving his truck, partially packed, to a farmer's market. (Who knows if this farmer can even sell all of that produce?) What I'm talking about here is more a problem of moving away from localized diets over many, many generations, and becoming accustomed to having whatever you want, whenever you want it. Our agricultural infrastructure that took decades to develop for our globalized agriculture has decimated our local infrastructures, and due to economies of scale, has commoditized everything we eat. It's, as Joel Salatin says, a "faster, fatter, bigger, cheaper," mentality. This fossil fueled party may very well, for now, make it more efficient to eat a salad from California (again assuming you're on the east coast). This type of thinking may just be a blip, short-lived, in the whole of human history. The idea of compromising one ideal for another continually comes to the forefront when thinking about what you eat: Even if it's organic.

For instance, the other day I was reading the side of my organic raisin bran and posted on the side was the "USDA Organic" definition. It pointed out that organic products are not always 100% organic. There may be exceptions for some ingredients, so producers have only to reach a 95% organic composition to be labeled "USDA Organic." This type of "loophole" is not something that is completely obvious, and, at times, downright misleading. Organic...or is it? Come on!

Best Bet? Grow Your Own

That being said, it makes more sense to use your common sense when it comes to your food. Whether you are buying from the supermarket or anxiously harvesting from your backyard garden you're going to be incorporating what's in/on your food into what will be you. You are what you eat. I personally have decided to grow as much of my food by myself as I can. Writings initially by Michael Pollan, but then by Wendell Berry, Joel Salatin, Joan Dye Gussow and a slew of other writers really opened my eyes to the fact that what you eat can really affect the world around you. I also felt it was one way in which I could make a personal impact. Wendell Berry says that, "Eating is an agricultural act." Our collective decisions do impact our immediate environment. I'm hoping to bring some people along with me, producing some of their own food, reducing waste, or converting waste into something useful, and overall, just living a more healthy sustainable life.

I hope this gets you as excited as I am about gardening organically and in the weeks and months to come, I'll have more articles that will be more practical, and helpful in the garden. Whether they are about pest problems, fertilizing organically, composting, seed saving, or one of any number of trials and tribulations that my garden presents, I'll be here to let you know how it's going, and anxiously waiting to hear what's happening in the wild world of gardening.

Until next time, let's garden responsibly.

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