Tomato season in high gear

Artisan Pink Tiger tomato is tiny, but packs a big punch. Very thin skinned and sweet.

Tomato season is in high gear at Little Cedar. You know we’re calling our property Little Cedar, right? That’s because my sister-in-law, Maria, said our garden reminded her of Big Cedar Lodge when she visited us in spring, and she dubbed our garden “Little Cedar.” We loved the name so much it stuck. In fact, Bill had a sign made for my little she shed out back.

We go to Big Cedar almost every year so this name means a lot to us.

'Honey Drop' tomato from Hudson Valley Seed Co. is the best and sweetest cherry tomato I've ever eaten.
‘Honey Drop’ tomato from Hudson Valley Seed Co. is the best and sweetest cherry tomato I’ve ever eaten. I started this one from seed and have been eating them for a month. These are much sweeter than my former favorite, ‘Sungold.’

But, back to tomato season in my Oklahoma hills, and what a tomato season it is.

Whopper tomatoes in the green. Good eating coming soon.
‘Whopper’ tomatoes in the green. Good eating coming soon. I always grow ‘Whopper’ tomatoes. They aren’t huge, but they have a great acid balance, and you don’t always need a giant tomato on a sandwich although I ate a huge ‘Cherokee Purple’ one on a sandwich today.

I spoke to the Tulsa Perennial Club on vegetable gardening the day before yesterday so I’ve been taking a few photos here and there with my iPhone while I’ve been out working. Vegetable gardens are unforgiving this time of year. If you don’t go out every single day, they expire from hot weather–we’ve been over 100F lately–or the squash bugs arrive without warning and kill your squash plants in a day. Use diatomaceous earth on squash bugs nymphs, but be careful not to get it on blossoms. You don’t want to kill your pollinators. If anyone has any other great organic squash bug killing advice, other than squishing them–I do–please let me know. I told my Tulsa friends that I didn’t have any, but they arrived that night.

This is my two-day harvest from seven raised beds. The new raised beds are 8' x 16' so they are pretty big, but over halfway full of flowers for cutting.
This is my two-day harvest from seven raised beds. The new raised beds are 8′ x 16′ so they are pretty big, but over halfway full of flowers for cutting. Those large tomatoes on top are ‘Cherokee Purple’ which is one of my favorites. It’s often available locally in spring.

Stupid Insect-tards.

You can plant tomatoes now and reap a harvest in September before sunlight lessens. Just be sure to keep everything well watered. We’re having some terribly hot temperatures this week in the 100s°F. When the temperatures soar above 100°F, tomato blossoms just fall off.

Try not to worry. Just keep your plants healthy and water because temperatures will lessen, and you should have time to grow and ripen more fruit. Speaking of ripening, I usually harvest my tomatoes just when they start to turn like the photo below. I know articles tell you to wait, but if I wait, the stink bugs will suck them dry and cause sores on the skin which is just gross. I bring partially ripened tomatoes inside and finish them on my kitchen counter. They still taste delicious and don’t even need the sunshine to ripen. I also don’t refrigerate tomatoes until I must because they don’t taste as good and quit ripening. Any tomato you grow at home tastes 100 times better than one bought in the store.

Partially ripe tomatoes on the vine. I harvested these and brought them indoors to finish ripening.
Partially ripe tomatoes on the vine. I harvested these and brought them indoors to finish ripening.

I started a bunch of seeds in the greenhouse last February, and while I didn’t have time to write about it on the blog, the tomatoes didn’t know. They grew just fine.

My transplants never look as big and bulky as those you buy at the nursery or box store, but they quickly catch up. After transplanting in late April or early May, I watched my plants grow all spring and worried over them. We had very cool temperatures and loads of rain. I planted some tomatoes in the potager in new spots–crop rotation to repel root-knot nematodes–and after the raised beds were built, I planted more out there.

 

The good folks at Burpee Plants/Burpee Home Gardens sent me several tomatoes and peppers to try. I really appreciate the markers they sent with the plants, along with a very helpful laminated card. Vegetable and flower companies who send out trial plants don’t realize how easy it is to lose tags in the middle of spring planting season. If you receive plants from several companies to trial, as I do, you may not be able to identify the plant later on. I so appreciate Burpee’s extra step. All of the plants showed up super healthy and not stressed for which I was thankful. Overall, I’ve been very pleased with the plants they sent me.

When I start seeds, I always choose unique varieties. Then, I run up to my local nurseries and buy my standard favorites like ‘Supersteak,’ ‘Big Beef,’ ‘Cherokee Purple,’ ‘Rutgers,’ ‘Beefmaster,’ ‘Super Sioux’ and ‘Whopper.’ I may not grow all of these in a particular year. It depends on what I find locally. The ones I start from seed will almost always be weird like ‘Artisan Pink Tiger.’ This elongated cherry tomato has a very complicated taste and such thin skin it is easily bruised. These are the vegetables I like to grow at home, the ones grocery stores don’t carry because of shipping considerations.

Artisan Pink Tiger tomato is tiny, but packs a big punch. Very thin skinned and sweet.
Artisan Pink Tiger tomato is tiny, but packs a big punch. Very thin skinned and sweet.

It’s been a great tomato season so far. One step I made sure to complete was to ferilize the tomatoes again when they started to bloom. In other words, I fertilized their planting holes when I transplanted them and mulched them heavily to stop dirt and diseases from splashing up on the leaves. Then, when they started to bloom about five weeks later, I fertilized them around the drip line with an organic fertilizer like Jobe’s Organics All Purpose fertilizer. If you’d rather, you can buy  Jobe’s Organics Vegetable & Tomato Fertilizer, but I just use the all-purpose one everywhere. I don’t have time to mess with all these distinctions. For my Tulsa friends, this is the fertilizer I was talking about the other night.
I also tied everyone up nice and neat and braced my tomato cages with rebar. It’s how I like to do it. I could build more extensive cages, but I haven’t so far. I like the colored cages, and so many of the determinate and patio type tomatoes do just fine in these as long as I tuck in their canes as they grow. The rest I tie up as needed.

I think that’s all I have this Saturday. How is your tomato season going?

Growing plants in the greenhouse

'Republic of Texas' orange tree that grows in the greenhouse over winter. The oranges are very good.

Have you ever wanted a greenhouse? Most obsessive gardeners do, and who could blame them? Growing plants in a greenhouse is one of those exquisite pleasures Victorian gardeners understood. A greenhouse or sunroom full of plants gets a gardener through the cold, dark days of winter.

The greenhouse and cold frames on a cool morning. Notice the condensation on the windows. Everything is nice and warm.
The greenhouse and cold frames on a cool morning. Notice the condensation on the windows. Everything inside is nice and warm.

This is the third winter for our greenhouse, and we’ve figured out a few things after the first two years of growing. Here are my greenhouse musings from last year when it was eternal summer all winter long. After reading these, you may be green with envy, but may I give you some advice before you order that freedom greenhouse kit like I did?

Inside the greenhouse, the scent is heavenly because the string of pearls plant blooms most of winter.
Inside the greenhouse, the scent is heavenly because the string of pearls plant blooms most of winter. Soon, I’ll start sweet pea seeds, and have lily of the valley pips blooming too.

First, if you order your kit to be shipped to your house, you’ll need to be there with a forklift and someone to put it together. My husband and son spent two weekends building the greenhouse. Some of the process is shown below.

Also, note that you need level ground for the vents to open and close. Since we live on a hill, we had to level the space first. That took some work too.

Greenhouses require a good and reliable heating system. As for ours, it’s all automatic up to a point. We have a small electric heater that we use for backup in case the propane runs out, and just before last week’s ice storm, the propane heater did quit working. After much troubleshooting, speculation and testing, we figured out the propane regulator was busted, probably because it got turned upside down, and water got into it. At first, we thought we were out of propane, but we checked and that wasn’t it. Then, we thought it was the heater so we bought another for approximately $250.00, but we were able to return it after replacing the regulator.

See how tall the plants have grown in the greenhouse.
The electric heater was at the end of the greenhouse for the first two winters, but I now need that space so we put it on the side.

The electric heater has an automatic thermostat. We set the propane heater on the lowest setting because it has a mechanical thermostat.

Propane heater for the greenhouse. Bill thinks he bought it a little large.
Propane heater for the greenhouse. It’s now three years old. See how we set it up on bricks to keep it out of water and off the cold floor?

We did run out of propane once last year which is why we have the backup electric heater. If the electricity goes out in a storm, propane is the backup plan.

We watch the condensation line on the propane tanks to see how much is left. We also have a gauge, but remember gauges break. You also must watch the condensation line, but it only appears when propane is burning. So, if you’re having a warm day, you won’t see it. We also have a thermometer we can read from the house so we know the temperature inside the greenhouse whenever we look out the kitchen door. If the temperature drops below 40 degrees, the tropical cuttings I took in fall probably won’t recover. Heat is the most important factor of the greenhouse operation. Normal temperatures run between 50 and 60 degrees F. I could make it warmer, but then, I’d spend more on fuel. I try to keep costs down.

Watering the tropicals in the greenhouse with my Haws Brass Watering Wand.
Watering the tropicals in the greenhouse with my Haws Brass Watering Wand.

Although I paid extra for them, the flood tables aren’t my favorite feature. You need a large tank sitting beneath the benches to flood the benches. As you can see in the photos above, I need this space for other things like pond plants now that we have a pond. We hired a company to bore under the driveway and tie in a water line to our well. Inside the greenhouse, we installed a frost free faucet and shortened a garden hose that reaches only to the cold frames outside. I then attached a Haws V360 All Brass 24-Inch Watering Wand with Ball Valve and Rose, an extravagance, but I love it. It wasn’t very expensive to bore under the driveway because we traded out the work with some friends. Bill said that at retail it would probably cost $200 or so. I can now flood the tables if I want with the want, or just spray the plants with water every few days. I do like how the flood tables hold the water beneath the plants for a period of time before it drains into the brick floor below.

These are the vent and flood table controls. I keep the vent controls turned off if the weather is very cold.
These are the vent and flood table controls. I keep the vent controls turned off if the weather is very cold.

Don’t build a greenhouse unless you have someone handy around to figure out what’s going on at any given time. Ice storms can make the vents that open on top of the roof stick and and tear up the gears inside. That was last year’s fun. Bill spent most of a cold winter’s day fixing the gears when that happened. If you’re expecting an ice or snow storm, or any extended cold period, go ahead and turn off the automatic vents. If they stay closed, you won’t tear up your greenhouse and will save money on heat. Also, the vent control batteries always seem to go out on the warmest day of the year, or if we have extended cloudy weather, i.e., most of February. The batteries are normally charged with a solar panel, but we have a small battery charger as backup. You don’t want your plants to fry or freeze.

Amaryllis soaking up the sunshine in the greenhouse. I want it to bloom by Christmas.
Amaryllis soaking up the sunshine in the greenhouse. I want it to bloom by Christmas.

Because the greenhouse is heated, you need to water plants every three or four days. One of the joys of greenhouse growing is the ability to stage how quickly forced bulbs grow. If they are growing too slowly in your house, you can always take them out to the greenhouse for a spurt of growth. All of the sunshine is captured by the greenhouse. Even though temperatures in your home are warmer, sunshine wins every time. I started my amaryllis late this year so I put several pots outside in the greenhouse to get a jump on things. I’m also growing paperwhites that don’t stink like ‘Ziva’–which I hate. This year I’m growing ‘Ariel,’ ‘Early Pearl,’ ‘Erlicheer,’ ‘Cheerfulness’ and ‘Nir.’ All are growing well except for ‘Early Pearl.’ I haven’t a clue why it’s not growing yet. I put it in the greenhouse to see if that will get things started. Here’s my other post on how to force bulbs. I’ve read that ‘Erlicheer,’ ‘Early Pearl’ and ‘Cheerfulness’ need two to three weeks of refrigeration before forcing so I did that. Here’s more information from Old House Gardens about forcing bulbs indoors. This winter I also bought prechilled lily of the valley pips to force indoors for later winter because I get a little sad after the holidays. It’s pricey, but well worth it for those of us who can’t grow these fragrant flowers outdoors.

About the bugs…a greenhouse environment is perfect for insect production too. I have trouble with fungus gnats, but my friend, Layanee, of Ledge and Gardens, suggested I put gravel on top of my soil to prevent them. I use chicken grit, and it helps. I also find black aphids on my citrus. When they show up in late winter, I drench the stems and leaves of the orange tree to drown them. After the foliage is dry, I then spray the tree with neem oil, or another organic insecticide. It keeps them down to a tolerable level, and I have oranges this year. The other big pest I have in the greenhouse are the mice. I use mouse traps to keep them from digging into larger plants and burrowing down into the soil. I like these Tomcat heavy duty mouse traps because I don’t have to touch dead mice. I find peanut butter to be the best bait.

'Republic of Texas' orange tree that grows in the greenhouse over winter. The oranges are very good.
‘Republic of Texas’ orange tree that grows in the greenhouse over winter. The oranges are very good.

What else would I tell someone about owning and operating a greenhouse? Before you build it, buy a kit that is two times larger than you think you’ll need. My greenhouse is always full to overflowing by the end of the season. I now want a Meyer lemon tree and a variegated Pink Lemonade tree, and, on Matt Mattus’ of Growing With Plants suggestion, a ‘Nagami’ kumquat to join my orange tree, but I don’t know where I’m going to put them. Bill says we’ll figure out someplace. I love that man.