Grower’s Library

How to Prune Tomatoes for Production

To fully understand how or if you should prune your tomatoes, you need to understand the three types of tomatoes.

Determinate tomatoes are tomatoes that are sometimes called “bush” tomatoes. They tend to be bushy, more compact and will yield tomatoes all at once. Common tomato varieties that are considered determinate are most canning tomatoes like Romas and similar paste tomatoes. The  main reason why people make sauces out of determinate tomatoes is that they tend to give all their fruit at once, making it perfect for sauce recipes. Determinate tomatoes make great tomatoes for those with little space like patio growers.

Indeterminate Tomatoes are tomatoes that are sometimes called “pole” tomatoes. That is because they grow long vine-like stems and tend to need a structure to keep them up off the ground. These tomatoes will yield over a long period of time instead of all at once. Popular varieties are yellow pear and green zebra. On our farm, we have seen these varieties get nine feet or taller with support. The benefit of growing this kind of tomato is that you have tomatoes all season long in small batches that are easy to handle. A potential negative is that they require a generous amount of staking if you want to keep them tidy. For a patio grower, we recommend determinate tomatoes because they are better suited for pots.

Semi-determinate Tomatoes are a mix of the two. They tend to be much more compact than a indeterminate variety of tomato but will yield over a long period of time.

Keep in mind for the southern California grower, all of this information is a bit strange because our mild climate can allow for tomato production year-round in many places. When we speak about setting fruit all at once, it is the difference of a plant ripening one tomato at a time or in the case of something like a San Marzano tomato, ripening handfuls of fruit all at once. Either an indeterminate or determinate tomato variety, in a mild climate, can yield for long periods of time.

Now that you know the various kinds of tomatoes, you can make better decisions on how to prune your tomatoes.

If you are growing indeterminate tomatoes, pruning is essential for maximized fruit production. An indeterminate tomato plant will grow copious amounts of foliage and very little fruit if not pruned in a way that tells them where to put their energy.  For indeterminate tomatoes, it is important to cut off the suckers. The suckers are the stems that grow between the main stock and a branch. They grow right in the crotch of these two parts and will suck energy from the tomatoes setting above it if not trimmed away.  In the photo below we show two types of pruning of the suckers. One is simple pruning which is recommended in mild areas or coastal areas that have more moisture. This pruning allows for better airflow and fewer disease pressures. In areas that get very hot, tomatoes can suffer from sun scald and because of this we recommend the Missouri pruning method. This allows for some foliage to be left to shade tomatoes.

Why do you prune off suckers? On Indeterminate plants, the suckers are growing new sets of shoots, flowers and eventually tomatoes. However, these tomatoes are going to take essential energy away from the already formed flowers and future tomatoes. By curving the plant ’s innate desire to grower more foliage, you can be sure the energy goes into forming tomatoes.

On determinate tomatoes, this practice is not as essential but still advised. The reason is that determinate tomatoes have a set number of tomatoes they are going to produce and pruning has little influence on that. However, you still want to prune to minimize the pest issues that are common with tomatoes, like whiteflies.  Increased air flow is vital for any healthy tomato plant.

How to Become Water Efficient in Your Garden

Growing a garden in Southern California can be expensive due to the high cost of water. This is appropriate given the fact that Southern California gets such little rainfall.  Even with many areas of Southern California being semi-arid, it does not mean you cannot grow a stunning and productive garden that will feed you and your family. There are a few tips we have to help you become more water efficient in your garden.

Tip #1

Install drip irrigation systems. For the small cost and time that it takes for you to install a drip irrigation system, you will benefit from huge savings on your water bill and healthier plants. Drip irrigation was invented in Israel in response for the need to irrigate precisely and efficiently. This modern-day invention has vastly improved the ability of home gardeners to do the same. Drip irrigation also will help to prevent disease issues like powdery mildew that comes from foliage being wet.  This type of irrigation also can help with garden management as you will be weeding less if the drip irrigation is getting the water right at the plant’s roots and not elsewhere. You can purchase drip irrigation supplies online or at a local nursery. If you go to a local nursery, you will most likely be able to be shown how to use the parts.

Tip # 2

Mulching is an essential farm chore for us. This is because we understand and value the water savings we get by heavily mulching our plants. We use straw to keep the surface of the soil cool in our hot summers and keep evaporation rates down. The straw also helps with weed control.  After Halloween, try your local pumpkin patches for free Straw bales. Be careful when using straw in your walkways for it can get quite slippery. You can also use mulch for your garden walkways and other plantings, like trees. Programs like Chip Drop will drop off several yards of mulch for free that you can use your garden.

Tip # 3

Add as much compost as you can to your garden beds. Compost can hold several times more water than regular soil. The particles in the compost act like little sponges and keep moisture in the soil for a long time.  

Tip # 4

When you do water your plants, it is generally a good idea to water deeply and infrequently. This rule does not apply to small transplants that can dry out quickly. However, plants planted in the ground, benefit from longer soaks that allow for the soil to become moist several inches or even a foot or more down. This allows for a longer period of moisture before drying out.

By using all these methods, you will see a significantly reduced usage of water in your garden. On our farm, our water bill is less than most people who own pools.  We are proud to be scrupulous about our water usage. Water is a precious resource in San Diego and beyond.

School Garden Tips

Are you a parent of a student who has a garden at school? Are you a teacher in a classroom that cares for a garden? If so, you may know the challenges that come along with growing a garden in a school setting.  With divided responsibilities, school breaks and hectic schedules, it can be hard to get a school garden thriving. We have worked with many school gardens in San Diego county and beyond to help establish guidelines that help teachers, students and parents create and maintain a thriving school garden. Here are our top tips.

Tip #1

The most critical advice we can give a school garden is to install drip irrigation. The reasons why this is so important are numerous.  Drip irrigation allows for consistent and direct watering of the plants. With school breaks, the drip irrigation will continue to water the plants even when school is not in session. This also helps with holidays, long weeks and other periods where students or teachers are not physically on campus. Why drip irrigation?  The benefits of drip irrigation are countless. For the small cost and time that it takes for you to install a drip irrigation system, you will benefit from huge water savings and healthier plants. Drip irrigation was invented in Israel in response to the need to irrigate precisely and efficiently. This modern-day invention has vastly improved the ability of home gardeners to do the same. Drip irrigation also will help to prevent disease issues like powdery mildew that comes from foliage being wet.  This type of irrigation can also help with garden management as you will be weeding less if the drip irrigation is getting the water right at the plant’s roots and not elsewhere. You can purchase drip irrigation supplies online or at a local nursery. If you go to a local nursery, you will most likely be able to be shown how to use the parts.

Tip # 2

Mulch your garden bed to keep moisture in the soil. In most school gardens, raised beds are installed. These are great ways to grow but come with some issues. Raised beds dry out much quicker than in-ground beds because there is more surface area for the dry wind to suck moisture out of the soil. By mulching, you can keep the soil moist for longer. Mulching is an essential farm chore for us. This is because we understand and value the water savings we get by heavily mulching our plants. We use straw to keep the surface of the soil cool in our hot summers and keep evaporation rates down. The straw also helps with weed control. After Halloween, try your local pumpkin patches for free Straw bales. Be careful when using straw in your walkways for it can get quite slippery. You can also use mulch for in your garden beds and for other plantings, like trees. Programs like Chip Drop will drop off several yards of mulch for free that you can use for your school garden.

Tip # 3

Add as much compost as you can to your raised garden beds. Compost can hold several more times the water than regular soil. The particles in the compost act like little sponges and keep moisture in the soil for a long time.  Compost not only creates excellent soil structure it also plays an integral part in how plants take up nutrients. By adding compost, your plants and soil will be happier and healthier.

How to Fertilize Your Organic Garden

Fertilizing your garden can be a confusing task. It’s no help that when you go to the nursery to buy fertilizer there are hundreds of options. This article will help you understand the basics of fertilizers and how to fertilize your veggie garden.

Fertilizers come in two main categories. Organically derived or chemically derived. Organically derived fertilizers contain ingredients that come from natural sources found on earth. These are usually from plants or animals. Examples are bone meal which is made from crushed bones, blood meal which is made from the blood and by-products of slaughterhouses.  Bat guano is from the droppings of bats. Kelp meal is made from kelp. Fish emulsion is made from fish. And of course, you know what horse, chicken, and steer manure are.

Within the category of organically derived, there are minerals that are mined from the earth that are used in organic agriculture. This includes calcium, lime, greensand, and rock phosphates among others.

Chemically derived fertilizers are those made from chemical reactions. A common example is ammonium nitrate. The industrial production of ammonium nitrate entails the acid-base reaction of ammonia with nitric acid.  Ammonium nitrate is a high nitrogen fertilizer and commonly used in the upkeep up lawns. Another chemically divided fertilizer is synthetic urea. Even though urea is a compound formed from the breakdown of protein in mammals bodies and excreted in urine, synthetic urea is made by a chemical process.

This does not intend to be a complete list of fertilizers but only an example of the two classes of fertilizers.

Both organically derived and chemically derived fertilizers will always display three numbers on their packaging. This represents the NPK ratios. That is the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. These are the three essential nutrients that plants need to grow. However, they are not the only ones they need to grow prolifically.

The three main macronutrients are:

Nitrogen (N): leaf growth

Phosphorus (P): Development of roots, flowers, seeds, fruit;

Potassium (K): Strong stem growth, movement of water in plants, promotion of flowering and fruiting;

Other essential macronutrients that are not represented in the NPK ratios are calcium (Ca), magnesium (Mg), and sulfur (S).

Micronutrients  are copper (Cu), iron (Fe), manganese (Mn), molybdenum (Mo), zinc (Zn), boron (B). Of occasional significance are silicon (Si), cobalt (Co).

When you are looking to purchase fertilizer you will notice that the proportions of NPK vary depending on the products. Products with higher phosphorus and potassium typically are marketed for increasing the number of blooms on a particular plant.  Common products names are “More Bloom” “Super Bloom” and so on. High nitrogen fertilizers are typical for lawns. This is because a lawn requires mostly nitrogen to be green and beautiful.

Fertilizers that are marketed for a particular plant are often formulated for those specific plants. For example, tomato fertilizing will most likely have calcium added to it to prevent blossom end rot. A tomato fertilizer may not be high in nitrogen since too much foliage on a tomato plant can decrease the number of tomatoes.

It is important to note that while it is a good idea to buy a fertilizer listed for your particular plant, it is not necessary to buy individual bags of different fertilizers for each crop.  A well-balanced fertilizer will serve the purpose of feeding all your garden plants. As a beginning gardener building a new garden plot, we recommend you get a general purpose well rounded organic fertilizer.  Your fertilizer choice should be economical and have at least a 3-3-1 N-P-K ratio. Organic fertilizers break down slowly over a long period of time and will also help your soil microbes flourish. Depending on the nutrient requirements of your plants, you may have to apply additional fertilizer to your plants during the growing season.

Composting Tips

Composting is the single most important thing that you can do for your garden. Not only will you reduce your household waste, but you will also be creating a vital amendment that you can add to your garden.  Composting is relatively simple but there are a few key concepts you must understand to be a great composter.

What can you compost? What can you not compost? Here is a little review. Unless you are a master composter you probably should stick with composting things like your kitchen vegetable scraps, yard trimmings, cardboard, and paper waste.  You should steer clear of composting meat, dairy, and diseased plants or weeds. In theory, a compost should get hot enough to kill weed seeds and pathogens, but in the chance it does not, we recommend you steer clear of composting those items.

Now that you know what to compost and what not to, you can get composting! But how?  There are many ways to compost food and yard waste. No one method is great for each garden. You can buy a system that helps you compost like a tumbler or you can simply pile your scraps in a area of the garden that is out of your way. During our many years of farming we have done it every way and feel the best way, is the easiest way. If you have a small yard, perhaps a container style compost bin would be the best to keep flies and bugs controlled.  Survey what other gardeners have in their gardens and see what fits you best.

Here are some general tips to help you be successful.

Tip #1

Control your nitrogen and carbon ratios. To get sweet smelling healthy compost as quickly as possible, you must keep your carbon and nitrogen ratios to 25:1. This means for every one part of nitrogen you put in your compost pile, you must add 25 parts carbon. What does all this mean? SImply put, you need to make sure you have more carbon than nitrogen but not so much carbon that it slows down the decomposition of the materials. If you have too much nitrogen, your compost pile will begin to smell foul. What is considered carbon? Things like paper, cardboard, wood chips. Nitrogen is anything from the kitchen or garden like food scraps, garden waste.

Tip #2

Maintain moisture levels. Compost needs moisture to continue breaking down. If you let your compost dry out, you will slow down the process. Keeping your compost too wet will also slow down the process. Evenly moist compost is key.

Tip # 3

Aerating your compost is key. You can aerate your compost in many ways. On our farm, we simply turn the compost by hand. Some compost bins turn to move the compost around. The idea is that you are moving the compost and getting air into the middle of the pile so that the breakdown of materials can continue.

These key tips will help you get beautiful compost quickly.

Contaminants to Avoid in Your Garden

When starting a new garden it is tempting to use recycled materials to get your raised beds growing.  We are big fans of the frugal gardener but want to warn you of possible contaminants in your garden that you should be aware of to keep your family safe.

When using recycled wood to build your garden beds, make sure they are not treated. Treated lumber will often have a tag on it or have small cut marks in it where the chemicals have been pushed into the wood. Other sources of contamination from wood in the garden is using items like railroad ties. They are soaked with chemicals that would be not healthy for you or your family.

When growing in an urban setting, there can be higher chances of soil contamination. Heavy metals like lead can accumulate in soil and cause harm to you and the plants. Urban areas often suffer from this ailment after years of development, inadequate waste management and zoning changes among other things. Lucky for you there is a simple and economical way you can find out what is in your soil. University-run soil lab facilities, like that of the University of Massachusetts, can test your soil for a reasonable cost. To this date, the cost of a soil test is less than thirty dollars. Do not be pressured into getting an agricultural scale soil test for a hundred dollars or more. Although there is a relevant place for these, unless you’re an agronomist, you won’t be able to understand the data that these test present. Consequently, you won’t be able to make informed decisions about how to fix any issues brought to light by the test. The most valuable information you want to know for your garden is whether or not the soil is clean and useable. Another reason to perform a soil test is so that you can identify the fertility of your soil. Many times in urban spaces that held lawns, nutrients like nitrogen in the soil can be at an excessive level. This is an unhealthy symptom of over-fertilization.  All of this information is essential to creating a fertility plan for your garden that will get your plants thriving without wasting money on unneeded amendments.

Seed Starting Instructions

Planting your own vegetable garden by seed might sound like a difficult task but the age-old tradition is probably easier than you think. While in recent generations planting gardens by purchasing starts has become very popular, planting a garden by seeds gives you diversity you cannot find just by purchasing starts at a nursery. Whether your motivation is to plant rare varieties to impress gardening pals or whether it is to find varieties that are better suited for your climate, planting by seed can make gardening even more exciting.

How do I get started?

The first question that most people ask is how do I start seeds? The next question is, do I start them indoors or out? Here, we will give you the best advice to make planting your seeds, as easy as possible.        

Inside or out?

Because most of Southern California has a mild climate, there are very few occasions that warrant starting seeds indoors. Areas far inland or in the mountains take exception to this rule. Mild areas don’t have harsh winters and freezes in most areas so, we can safely start most seeds outdoors. If you live in an area that does receive frost, it is beneficial to start some seeds inside to get a couple of weeks ahead of the growing season. Crops like carrots, leafy greens and tomatoes can easily be grown indoors and starting these crops indoors can give them a head start.  You can also increase the germination rate by protecting the germinating seeds from harsh weather conditions.

Why start seeds indoors?

Starting seeds indoors offers a wide variety of benefits. They can be started earlier in the season and gardeners will often experience a higher germination rate due to the more controlled conditions.

How to start seeds Indoors or out:

It’s a simple process and anyone can do it. Simply choose a shallow container with holes in the bottom for drainage and fill it with rich potting soil or seed starting soil. Make sure to water generously. It is important that the soil is thoroughly moist all the way through. Be careful not to drown the soil. After the soil is moistened all the way through you can simply press your vegetable seeds into the top of the soil. As a general rule, vegetable seeds will be planted at a depth that is twice that of the seed size. Meaning that a pea is much larger than a carrot seed and will be planted much deeper than a carrot seed. Note that, the large seeds of fast-growing vegetables such as corn, melon, squash, beans, and peas tend to deteriorate quickly if grown in containers for too long. For this reason, we usually recommend them to be planted directly into the soil. It is important that you provide an adequate light source. In most cases, a sunny window will be sufficient. You can choose to use an artificial light source but it must be a full spectrum light bulb. Seeds should start to sprout within 10 to 14 days but note that some can take as many as 21 days.

Transplanting indoor seedlings into larger containers:

As your seeds continue to grow, you need to either thin the seedlings or transplant them to allow for more space. They will also need to be prepared for eventual planting outdoors. To safely transplant your seedlings, water just prior to removal and gently lift out with a spoon or small trowel. Set the seedlings into the new pots and make sure to carefully break up some of the roots from the soil. It is important that you gently disturb the root ball so that the roots of the transplant will grow and expand into the larger container. This guarantees faster-growing transplants. Continue to water and lightly fertilize with a water-soluble fertilizer as necessary.

Transplanting outdoors:

If you’re transplanting outside, it is vital to note a few important things. First of all, if you are transplanting seedlings that were started indoors, you must first help them become accustomed to the harsher outdoor environment. This process is called “hardening off”. To harden off seedlings, simply set the seedlings outdoors for a few hours a day to help them become acclimated to the new conditions. Once they’re ready to transplant outdoors, it is important not transplant them on a very hot day. We recommend that you transplant in the cooler part of the evening and also provide shade cloth if needed in the hotter months of the year.

Direct Sowing Outdoors:

For Southern California gardeners, direct sowing is the preferred method of planting. It is the easiest and most straightforward. The most important aspect of direct sowing is timing. In Southern California, we have two major growing seasons. One is the warm season. The other is the cool season. During the warmer months in San Diego, you will grow corn, squash, tomatoes, peppers, sunflowers, and eggplant, among others. During the cooler months in San Diego, you will grow your leafy greens, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, kale, onions, carrots, radishes, and potatoes.

Steps to prepare the planting area:

1.)   Loosen the soil in the planting area

2.)   Add nutrients and compost

3.)   Thoroughly water

You can plant in a prepared bed in a variety of methods. The most common method is the row and the furrow method.  To use the row and furrow method, simply make a row in your garden and create a furrow by pressing down the handle of a shovel or rake. This will make a nice little area to plant your seeds.  Plant your seeds in the furrow as evenly spaced as possible. Then you can cover the seeds with finely sifted soil. Remember the smaller the seed, the closer to the surface they should be planted. Lastly, make sure to water thoroughly but not wash away your seeds. We recommend using your garden nozzle attachment on the “mist” setting. This helps to get your seeds moist and stick to the soil.  The soil must remain moist until seeds have sprouted.

Caring for your newly planted veggies, herbs, and flowers:

If you direct sow into the ground, you will want to thin the seedlings and fertilize.  Keeping the garden bed or pot evenly moist is important. Weed to prevent competition. For specific instructions on vegetables, refer to each on our online catalog at www.sandiegoseedcompany.com.

Planting Herb Seeds

Most gardeners start by planting herb seeds for the ease of having fresh herbs to cook with. Herb seeds can pose special challenges as they tend to be very small seeds.  We recommend soaking your herb seeds in water a few hours prior to planting. Plant in pots that have rich potting soil and can hold moisture. To plant, press the seeds into the surface of the soil and water lightly.  Give a light dusting of finely sifted potting soil. It should be similar to dusting the top of a cake with powdered sugar. Error on the side of light dusting instead of covering up the seeds with too much soil. Once sprouted, follow instructions above.

Happy Growing!  

Understanding Seed Types

We are constantly asked the difference between heirloom, hybrid and GMO. It’s a great question to ask and one that can be a bit complicated to answer. Here, we have summed it up for you.

Hybrid Seeds

A hybrid vegetable is created when plant breeders intentionally cross-pollinate two different varieties of a plant. This is done to create a plant that has specific qualities. Think of it much like crossing two specific types of animals to get a specific offspring. Seed is, after all, offspring of its parent plants.  A hybrid contains the best traits of two parent plants that come from “pure lines”. These are two parent plants that have been grown for many, many seasons to ensure the desirable traits that the breeder wants to cross are prominent. The breeder then carefully creates offspring from the two pure lines (parent plants) to get an F-1 hybrid. This is the first generation hybrid.  There are some advantages to hybridization. Plants can be created that have outstanding qualities. Particularly they can create varieties that have heavy yields and uniform plants. This is advantageous to large scale farms who depend on mechanical harvesting. The drawback is that you cannot save seed from a hybrid plant as that seed will not give you the qualities of the hybrid.  The seed planted will result in one of the two parent plants. Here at San Diego Seed Company, we only offer heirloom seeds. We do that because we want gardeners to save seeds successfully and heirloom plants are the easiest to do that with.

GMO

GMOs are Genetically Modified Organisms. This is a process during which the plant’s DNA is altered in a way that cannot occur naturally, and sometimes includes the insertion of genes from other species. Here at San Diego Seed Company, 100% of our seed is GMO-FREE.

Heirloom

Heirloom seeds are old varieties of plants that have been around for some time. Although

how experts define heirlooms can vary,  it typically means they are at least 50 years old and are often pre-WWII varieties. Most heirlooms come from seed that has been handed down for generations in a particular region or area and hand-selected by gardeners and farmers for a special trait. Some varieties have been created by agricultural programs. Heirlooms tend to have more flavor, color and other characteristics that are beneficial to home gardeners or small scale farmers.

How Local Seeds Play Vital Role in Sustainability

Creating sustainable agriculture, one seed at a time

Sustainable agriculture is defined as the production of food or animal products using farming techniques that protect the environment, public health, human communities, and animal welfare.   In the arena of sustainable agriculture, you will hear many times about organic farming practices, ecological diversity, and alternative energy practices. Not too often, unfortunately, do you hear about the important role that local seed production plays in sustainable agriculture. Here are just a few reasons why local organic seed production is a vital part of sustainability.

Local seed production increases the genetic diversity of food crops with traits that are advantageous to local growing conditions.  By producing seeds in the very place that they are intended to be grown, the food crops can be adapted to local growing conditions. This makes these crops more resistant to local plant diseases and pests, as well as better adapted to environmental conditions and soil structure. For those of us growing in Southern California, this is even more important than ever as we have faced record drought conditions. The seeds that grow in Southern California should be adapted to the dry conditions that we have faced. Unless seed production takes place in Southern California, growers face the possibility of huge crop failures due to the lack of area-specific varieties of food crops. Another issue facing those of us growing is southern California is the lack of land. We need seed varieties that are well adapted to growing in small spaces and give maximum yield in those small areas.

In addition to the need for area-specific plant varieties, genetic diversity is critical to sustainability. Currently, genetic diversity overall is on the decline. It is estimated that large-scale agricultural companies own 90% of seed genetics, according to Neil Harl, an agriculture economist at Iowa State University. To curb and even reverse the imbalance of genetic ownership, consumers and gardeners must choose organic, local seeds. By purchasing these local seeds, they are supporting small-scale organic seed producers that are consciously choosing to plant, produce and preserve the genetic heritage of produce in the United States. By purchasing from local, organic seed producers they are ensuring that rare heirloom varieties are continuing to be produced and preserved for future generations. These thousands of rare heirloom varieties could have growing characteristics that would be suitable for future growing conditions.  As global warming continues to change our daily weather patterns, we must work to preserve as many plant varieties as possible to utilize in these varying conditions.

Local seed production on a large scale is important for commercial farmers, but we must not overlook the huge importance of small-scale seed production. These small operations encourage seed saving and community involvement.  By seed saving, individuals and farmers are allowed to retain seeds for future crops. This allows them to lessen their dependence on large-scale agricultural companies while selecting seed from the food crops that were the most successful in their own region. By doing so, these farmers are ensuring that the next generation of that particular crop is even more equipped with the genetic traits to handle the local growing conditions.

To add to the benefits of local seed production, there is an increased need to support pollinator populations.  It is no secret that the bee population is on the decline. The US national agriculture statistics show bee population decline by 60% between 1947 and 2008. One way to help stabilize bee populations and even help to raise them is by creating environments that welcome pollinators.  Since seed production depends on pollinators to spread pollen and increase seed production, this process can be a mutually beneficial relationship between agriculture and bee population restoration.

As you can see, the benefits of local seed production are numerous and an intrinsic part of sustainability. To produce food sustainably, we must grow plants that are adapted to our specific climate and can survive with the least amount of chemical and energy input. To do that, we must continue to plant and produce seeds in the very place where they are intended to grow.   

Greenhouse Management for Beginners

If you have recently built or purchased a greenhouse that you are wanting to propagate vegetable starts in, here are some of our tips from our beginning days managing our greenhouse.

Tip #1

If you are building a greenhouse from scratch, remember to think carefully about your plans. Airflow and venting are critical to your greenhouse.  As a general rule, you want at least 25% of your total square footage to be vent space. That can be a door that is open, vents at the top of the greenhouse and/or roll up sides.  When making your plans, make your greenhouse as easy to manage as possible. This means easy to roll up sides and close enough to electricity to run a fan if needed.

Tip #2

When we built our greenhouse we made it twice as large as we originally thought of and still we very quickly ran out of space. When considering what size of the greenhouse to buy or built consider this. The larger the greenhouse the more expensive and difficult it is to heat and cool. The smaller the greenhouse the easier it is for you to manage. Greenhouse space very quickly fills up. Our 10×16 greenhouse is always packed with plants.

Tip #2

Greenhouses are ideal breeding grounds for insects and bacteria in the greenhouse. Cleanliness is key. Do not let water stand and become stagnant. Do not over water your plants, since the greenhouse will hold in moisture, they will have a hard time drying out.

Tip #3

Choose your propagation mix depending on the time of the year. During the winter when temperatures are cooler and the sky is cloudy, our greenhouse can have a very difficult time drying out. This means that a mix that holds a lot of water will cause mold to grow on the surface. This is detrimental to the starts. During the winter we use a propagation mix that holds less water. In contrast, in the summer we use a propagation mix that holds water well to keep plants from drying out too quickly.

These are our tips for beginner greenhouse management that really helped us make our greenhouse as efficient as possible.

Soil Building Tips

Even if you are a new grower, you are aware of the incredible impact that healthy thriving, microbe-rich soil has on your harvest. Our farm is a testament to this farming practice.  We have healthy dark soil teaming with microbes and full of nutrients. We have a strong soil food web. Soil food webs are the connection between the tiniest bacteria in the soil to birds and mammals. Without this, your farm or garden will never thrive.

Improving soil fertility in your new garden or farm.

We would hope that there is a wide range of readers enjoying this information. Readers from all ends of the economic spectrum. Because of this, there will be readers who do not have the means to bring in truckloads of compost or amendments, and there will be readers that don’t mind spending a chunk of change to get delicious organic food. In hopes to get all readers growing, here are our suggestions according to the amount of money you want to put into your new garden or farm.

The cash strapped gardener.

For the new grower that is trying to get up and going with as little investment as possible, we give you two strong suggestions. One, get your compost started right away and two get creative. There are countless resources that you can pull from for organic amendments on the cheap.  Local horse ranches will give away horse manure. Chip drop is a program that will drop off truckloads of mulch for free to your residence. Cafes and juice shops give away the pulp and food waste that you then can compost. Coffee shops give away coffee grinds you can add to your compost.  The resources are endless if you are creative. We are not the only ones who have enjoyed the unlimited resources available to get compost ingredients. Cities around the United States are realizing they can make high-quality compost that their citizens can enjoy. In San Diego, we have an incredible city program that creates high-quality compost that is free for city residents.  We hope that these practices become more common in cities across the United States. We suspect as urban farmers become a stronger and stronger voice in their communities and more and more people strive to grow, this will become a common city practice in America.

Once you have gained multiple streams of free or low-cost inputs for your farm, start composting! In Ben Hartman’s wonderful book “The Lean Farmer” he talks about how his farm is a compost making farm. This is a strong statement that speaks volumes for the importance of compost. Making compost is the cheapest and healthiest amendment you can add to your farm. You really can never make enough of it.  Here are some creative ideas on where to source compost ingredients:

-food waste from small local restaurants

-coffee shops

-Moldy straw bales after Halloween from pumpkin patches

-manure from local horse ranches

-yard clippings

-kitchen waste

Remember that compost making is a simple process that is rarely done well.  The better you can make you composting practices, the better quality your compost will be and the better your soil will turn out.

Gardeners with a small amount of start-up money

Should you find yourself with some funds to spend on amendments but need to use those funds judiciously,  here are suggestions on low-cost amendments.

If we could only purchase one inexpensive fertilizer, our money would go to composted chicken manure.  A large bag of composted chicken manure can be quite inexpensive and paired with a native American “hilling” practice it can provide impressive results. Simply concentrate the manure in hills (mounds) that you will grow the plants in. This practice allows for the nutrients to be right where the plants need it.  You will avoid wasting amendments to feed weeds or unwanted plants. It is important to remember that when you buy chicken manure, it has been composted for some time. Raw, uncomposted chicken manure can actually burn your plants when applied directly to small seedlings. If you have a chicken manure source, be sure to apply it sixty days before you plan on planting in that area or add it to your compost that you can then apply to your plants when it has finished.

Gardeners with adequate start-up money

If you find yourself in the position to spend money on amendments and inputs, then count your lucky stars and then proceed judiciously. This is an easy place to overspend money on unnecessary items. Your soil test should tell you what your fertility and organic matter percentage is. Once you have identified your areas of deficiency then you have some choices to make on which organic fertilizers to use.

Our farm has always fertilized with a well-balanced mix of organic fertilizers and rock dust. This has lead to a very happy farm. Fertilizers like bat guano, feather meal, bone meal, fish meal and so on are available at nurseries and farm stores nationwide.  When choosing a fertilizer look for the NPK makeup and choose one that helps with your particular soil test results. Remember that like a human diet, a variety of inputs makes for healthier soil and a healthier food web. Rock dust, like a product called Azomite, are available online and at many nurseries. This product is made from crushed rocks and has high mineral content. Typically you only have to apply this product once because it supplies significant amounts of trace minerals like magnesium, selenium, and zinc.

Remember, soil building is a process that takes time.  Each year you plant, you should notice an improvement in your soil texture and the growth of your plants. On our farm, we add compost each time we change seasons.  We add 4-5” of composts and lightly mix it into our rows. After three years we have seen vast improvements in plant growth, vigor, and flavor of our produce.

Seed Saving for Beginners

Seeds can be put into two categories when it comes to seed saving. Wet and dry. Wet seeds are any seeds that are encompassed in a moisture environment. These are things like tomatoes, melons, and cucumbers. Although not all seeds need to be fermented, things like tomatoes benefit greatly from fermentation.  The fermentation process will yield seeds that have better germination rates and kill off many seed-borne diseases.

Cleaning Wet Seeds

Wet seeds are easily cleaned and separated from the mature plant by rinsing away the seeds. You can use a bucket of water to separate the seeds and allow the lighter (unviable seeds) and plant particles to float to the top while heavier seeds sink.

Tomatoes and Cucumbers need an additional step called fermentation.

  1. Squeeze or scoop the seeds together with the pulp that surrounds
  2. Place into a vessel (bucket, jar, etc.)
  3. Add a tablespoon of water for every 8 ounces of seeds and pulp you have collected
  4. Store this seed/pulp mixture in a warm place (75 to 85º F) for 1½ to 5 days depending on the seed type and temperature
  5.     Allow the mixture to fully ferment which is evident by bubbling and white/grey mold on top. The mold layer should be completely covering the top of the mixture
  6.     After the white/grey mold has covered the top of the mixture for at least 24 hours, you can clean away the seeds from the rest of the mixture. Accomplish this by rinsing away the mold through a strainer.
  7.     Dry seeds on aluminum foil or wax paper to prevent sticking and place in front of a box fan on low for at least 3 days

Tips:

Do not add too much water to the mix as this will slow the fermentation process down. Do not let the seed ferment too long, as they will germinate or rot.

Cleaning Dry Seeds

Dry seeds are seeds that mature and dry on the plant. These are the easiest to harvest. Examples are sunflowers, beans, peas, and dill among others.

  1.     Harvest dry seeds from their plants when their pods or husks have dried.
  2.      Once pods or husks have been harvested, store them in a dry place and wait until they are thoroughly dry.
  3.     Use a screen or winnowing to filter out the chaff and seeds
  4.     Dry seeds on aluminum foil or wax paper to prevent sticking and place in front of a box fan on low for at least 3 days

Tips:

Harvesting at optimal time is key! Do not harvest too early or after rains. Dry seeds completely after harvesting and before storing.

Easy Tips For Growing Great Tomatoes

Tomatoes are pretty easy to grow and can yield tons of tasty fruit from early summer to the winter holidays in many parts of sunny southern California.  Most parts of America have relatively short growing seasons compared to us, and I have heard many people utter the phrase, “we generally start tomatoes after Mothers Day, just be safe from the last frost.”  Lucky for us, we can start tomatoes in February or March and maybe even have fruit by Mothers Day. Here are our tips for growing tasty tomatoes.

Types of Tomatoes and Varieties

Sometimes the hardest part of growing tomatoes is deciding what kind of tomatoes to grow.  Understanding your use of the fruit is essential in determining what size and style of tomato to choose.  Are you going to use your tomatoes for sauces mainly? Are sandwiches going to be a staple this summer? Maybe you love small tomatoes to pop in salads or specialty dishes?  The fun is in choosing and experimenting with all the different varieties of tomatoes.

Tomato sizes generally have names associated with them like grape, cherry, plum, paste, and beefsteak.  If you like typically slicing up your tomatoes for sandwiches, then beefsteak varieties are for you. If you prefer smaller tomatoes for salads, then grape or cherry varieties will be your best bet.  Do you enjoy canning or making sauces? Then look into plum or paste tomato varieties. We love our San Marzano tomatoes for making yummy salsas and pasta sauces that we freeze in the summer and use all winter long.

There are three types of tomatoes to concern yourself with, Determinate and Indeterminate.  Determinate types are also called “bushy” because they tend to grow more compact. These types of tomatoes are great for patio growers because they do not take much space when grown in pots, usually 3 to 4 feet tall.  Indeterminate types are known as “vining” and can grow up to 9 feet sometimes with the right support to keep them off the ground. Of course, a patio grower can grow indeterminate varieties as well, as long as they are given the right support. For us, on our farm, we use 9 foot T posts for strong support.  Tomato cages are rarely effective. The third kind of tomato is a semi-determinate. Semi-determinates are a mix of both indeterminate and determinate varieties.

When to Plant Tomatoes

Since tomatoes are a warm season crop, it is important to wait until the soil has warmed up and the danger of frost has passed.  Fortunately, that time is usually around March in southern California. In coastal communities, that is generally in early March.  Inland valleys are usually a month later. Remember, if you are not in southern California, then the Mothers Day adage pretty much still applies. The point is to be past the last possible frost date. Depending on the type and variety of tomato you choose, consider planting a second round of tomatoes in mid-summer to ensure you are enjoying fruit come Thanksgiving and beyond.

Where to Plant Tomatoes

Tomatoes love sun and heat. Therefore it is best to plant them in the sunniest part of your garden or patio.  Generally, the more south facing the better. This ensures at least 8 hours of sunlight a day. Since the days are starting to get longer, southwest facing is ok too.  If planting in the garden, try to reduce the amount of competition from nearby shrub and tree roots as well as the shade they may provide.

How to Start Tomatoes from Seed

There are numerous benefits to starting tomatoes from seed. First, it is much more economical. For a few dollars for the price of a seed pack, you can get anywhere from 15-30 tomatoes depending on the amount in the seed pack and your ability to get them all to germinate. On our farm, we start all of our tomatoes from seed because it is also easier to get them up and growing quickly than direct planting them. We also can start them in early December in our greenhouse and get them ready to plant outside by March. For those of you interested in starting your tomatoes from seeds, please check out our information on seed starting.  Another great reason to grow from seed is that you will have access to thousands of varieties of seeds that you can’t find in transplants.

Soil Preparation and Fertilizers

Tomatoes will grow in many types of soil.  Loamy soil is not a must to produce healthy, active plants.  Lucky for us, tomatoes thrive in a wide range of soils as long as there is good drainage.  Adding composted organic matter to your soil will help nourish your plants for the long season ahead.  If using chicken or horse manure, remember to put it into your soil and irrigate it several for weeks before planting, to ensure time to break down into the soil and not damage your seeds or transplants. A well balanced and organic fertilizer is best. You can add a powder fertilizer at the time of planting. On our farm, we fertilize with fish emulsion if the plants don’t take off immediately.

Small Space Growing

For those seeking tomatoes but lacking garden space, try growing in pots.  Large pots are preferred, but smaller pots are ok, as long as you choose smaller (determinate) varieties.  For an indeterminate variety, try a twenty-inch pot or larger. These plants will have to be cared for a little more since they will not have as much soil volume.  Your pots should be filled with potting soil, which ensures better aeration and keeps moisture better than your garden soil. You will need to water and fertilize more often but your results will totally be worth it.  As with all potted plants, make sure there is enough drainage to keep your plants from rotting. If you suspect your pots are not draining well, you can place them on bricks to ensure the water drips out of the bottom drainage holes.  You can use slow-release fertilizer or a soluble fertilizer every two weeks. Keep the soil damp to prevent the roots from drying out.

How to water your tomato plants

When watering your tomato plants consider this. Tomatoes that receive too much irrigation often have bland flavors, excessive foliage growth, and fewer tomatoes.   Your tomatoes will benefit significantly from deep, infrequent watering at the base of the plant. NEVER water the plant with an overhead sprayer. This will cause disease and fungal issues.  You can decide when your tomato plant needs water by checking the soil with your hands if they are planted in a pot. If they are planted in the ground, you can tell by the foliage if they are thirsty. Check your plants in the morning, or early evening for signs of wilting of curled leaves, this will indicate you need to water. Mulch at the base of the plant can help prolong periods between watering and will help with weed competition.  

Harvesting tomatoes

Tomatoes have the best flavor when they are picked at the peak of their flavor. This typically is when you give them a slight squeeze and they are tender.  Tomatoes can be harvested green and left to ripen on the counter, but these do not offer as much flavor.

Common Tomato Issues

  • Worms

Tomato hornworms are a very common pest for tomatoes. These large and intimidating worms are a sphinx moth. They are very easy to control by either hand picking them off and/spraying the plants with Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). This is an organic product. Because they are so easy to spot, we suggest you hand pick them off. You can follow the trail of damaged leaves to find the worm on the plant.  Another common pest is the tomato fruit worm. This green worm can cause damage to your tomatoes. You can control it with Bt.

  • Aphids

Aphids are a common pest in the garden and afflict numerous garden plants. We often called them plant lice. They are tiny soft-bodied insects that come in a wide range of colors. They suck fluids from a plant and can cause infestations of ants. This is because the ants like to enjoy the sweet exudates from aphids.  If the plant is large enough, the aphids will pose little harm. Controlling infestations is important. You can simply spray off the aphids with water or with insecticidal soap.

  • Whiteflies

Whiteflies are a sneaky pest that are often not spotted until the infestation is quite massive. These small fly-like insects reproduce very quickly and the larvae suck out nutrients from the plants and can cause yellowing of the leaves. The sweet exudates from the whiteflies can be colonized with sooty mold, causing yet another issue.  If the plant is large enough, the whiteflies will also pose little harm. Controlling infestations is important. You can simply spray off the whiteflies with insecticidal soap.

  • Bloom End Rot

This is a common issue that new gardeners are very concerned with. Blossom end rot causes the bottom of the tomato to turn brown. The tomatoes are still edible, but this can degrade the quality of the fruit. To prevent this make sure your plants have access to calcium in their fertilizer. A well-balanced fertilizer should contain some amounts of calcium. Uneven watering can exacerbate these issues and gardeners should be sure to check their watering habits in addition to adding calcium to the tomatoes when dealing with a blossom end rot issue.

  • Sun Scald

Sun Scald can happen to any plant. It happens when the sun burns the tender skin of a tomato. Prevent by allowing the plant to produce foliage that shades the tomatoes. The Missouri Pruning method allows for more foliage to be kept on the plant but not too much to prevent all the energy from setting and growing tomatoes.

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