Sunday, June 10, 2007

Learning as I go: What to do better

The temps are sizzling here now.

I'm glad we've begun small because we can learn from our mistakes in minature. Here's what's transpiring with The Pot Ranch out back (no, not growing our own marijuana, lol):

1. Space/Room --
As I was forewarned by those who knew better than we did (yes, all you bloggers out there with your own better-maintained gardens!), the tomatoes ARE crowded because I never transplanted them to bigger ones. My work schedule picked up right at that point, and it never got done, and sooo.... they need room to stretch their vines. I staked them and used a pre-fab store bought cagelike thingy (triangular, repositionable grip strips). They just arent allowing enough air circulation among the vines if you squish all the burgeoning ones together within the cage. So I've run bamboo stakes horizontally between all the cages just to have something to tie the vines to, loosely so those new tomatoes I see going from flower to baby tomato have a chance to breathe.

What I would do better:
Take the advice of everyone here and give them PLENTY OF ROOM next time.

2. Fertilizers/Nutrients --
I was not prepared with enough homemade compost, despite the ease with which it can, in the right circumstances, be made. After 1 month, the yellowing of the vines led me to call the county extension service fellow and master gardener, who was kind enough to tell me they just arent getting enough nutrients despite the applications of epsom salts I was occasionally applying when watering. He said to get them fertilized ASAP, and often. Again, I acknowlege my need to have been more timely in taking the advice offered by folks HERE on the blog. I asked what a good organic fertilizer would be, and he had little or no suggestions. I'm fully capable of reading up on that and implementing some sort of fix when in a pickle, but without TIME, I did a fast fix...and I'm not too happy about it. I went off the organic track and bought store-bought "regular" fertilizer. Now, my tomatoes are no longer truly organic. They have to be better than storebought, because I've used no pesticides (and I won't...ever). But I'm disappointed that I wasn't better prepared...and sooo...

What I'd do better:
Oh, for the microbe!!! I would HAVE EVERYTHING I NEED...AHEAD OF TIME. INCLUDING ORGANIC FERTILIZER...which means compost compost compost, maybe some comfrey or manure tea, worm castings, decomposed rabbit manure, etc. Emphasis on having these ready Ahead Of Time. NATURALLY.

3. Water--
When you're balancing "outside" work schedules and car-sharing, procrastination ensues in other areas. Hopefully with this new job, once the three month mark has been surpassed, I'll be getting a predictable schedule so that I'll have a more reliable sleeping-waking clock rather than doing different shifts and hours every day. I have been faithful, however, in tending to my little seedlings AND the tomato plants with regular watering. Without it, here, they'd be dead in a day or two what with the heat.

However, I need a more efficient and less wasteful way of watering. Right now, we have several spigots at different points around the exterior of the house, but all of them are run through our water softening system, which utilize bags of salts to soften our home's water. I really didnt want salty water for watering our garden, which would likely kill everything off, so J hooked up a hose at the place out back where the well connects to the softener system, at a pipe that comes straight off the well. You can't pull on it very hard because there's a lot of PVC back there and it's not friendly to manhandling. So when you're dragging lengths of hose around and about to water things, you have to be careful. For the long term, anywhere else, we'll have to do something more practical (meaning if we don't stay here for years to come). In the meantime, I keep my pots pretty near the hose junction so I don't have to be dragging it everywhere. I water with a hand sprayer directly from the hose right now. I can control the force and make sure that it's not beating the plants to death or washing the soil away from the bottoms and disrupting the little seedlings too badly in their flats.

However, a soaker hose system would likely be the better long term option. There is a lot of runoff with even using a hand-held sprayer wand. The greatest waste is from the plastic pots, which do not absorb any of the moisture and don't retain water in the pots very well.

What I would do better:
In time, position the pots where soaker hoses or olla pots (or both) could be used for deeper watering with less waste.


Have a way to access (a) very durable spigot(s) directly from the well without a fragile PVC connection having to be babied.


Having closer access to water for plant beds at different points on the property

4. Types of Containers-- These notes are only regarding container gardening. As we grow, so we hope our gardening graduates to the ground, and the blessed microbes therein, without further ado. In the meantime, I do think things can be grown in pots, and it can still be utilized later even when gardening in beds. As mentioned, I'm beginning to develop a preference for particular types of containers. Here are the types I'm using, and how they're faring:

a. Recycled cardboard boxes --
These were good for sprouting seedlings, and by the time the seedlings were ready for transplant to beds or larger individual containers, the boxes had begun composting themselves. That's fine, and I'll do that again.
Portability. If you want a container you can move around, say to mow or clean up weeds in between, these are not going to be the ones. Once they're there, they're there till you transplant and they decompose on the spot right where they sit. I'd think they'd be great in a bed-style garden, because they can be turned right into the existing soil once they break down, or used to suppress weeds as such. Mine were fine, except the ones I put flowers into. Those began falling apart, and the one I have the carrots in is still holding together, but only barely.

What to do better: I won't use these for larger plants. I won't use them for any plantings needing to be portable.
I'll use these cardboard boxes primarily as starter flats (cut them down to size) and as weed barriers/layers for mulching. I LOVE them in those capacities, as long as they are stationary.

b. Clay pots -- After experimentation, these are my pots of choice. Even though I incorporated the same square footage recommended in the Square Foot Gardening books per plant, it's probably functioning differently since individual pots dont have the benefit of surrounding soil and "spread-room" as do square foot gardens that position several square feet side by side. Though you can take a square foot of space in a pot and grow the same thing, there is the added complexity of it being a freestanding container that dries out and heats and cools differently than a raised bed. The Square Foot gardening book says you only need 6 to 8 inches of depth and a square foot of linear surface for each planting, and yet I found that to apply that reasoning to pots doesnt work the same.

The advantage of the clay pots is that I can literally SEE the moisture being retained and released slowly...after every watering, there is coloration to the outside of the pot that lasts most times at least through the next day. The tomatoes in the clay pots, whether crowded or not, show much less stress overall than any of the ones planted in plastic pots, no matter what the size.

What to do better:
If I intend to continue using pots for growing vegetables, or at least in this case, tomatoes, I'll need to get bigger pots, only plant one plant per pot, use round caging rather than triangular, use old pantyhose cut up to tie up the plants (rather than cotton string I have right now, which seems to be too hard on heavy-laden vines and not "give" as much), and not underplant the tomatoes with any other plants (marigolds, borage, etc).

c. Plastic pots --
Well, I already had these pots, and they worked well enough for certain flowers. And they are much less expensive than buying clay pots. They are also not as subject to being cracked, down the road, if moved about. They do not leach minerals that some plants find irritating.


I just don't like them as much, for many reasons, but the main one being that they don't operate in a natural way, not being made of natural materials. Polyester may be more "durable" in some ways than fabrics that are linen or cotton, but the wearability of the latter is hands-down more comfortable, in my thinking. Just as cotton wicks away moisture, but polyester just bakes it in, I kind of feel like that's how my pots are operating as well. I like the environment of the clay ones much better, and that surprised me. I was all about durable and long-lasting before. If I learn how to repair broken clay pots, however, I think I can justify adding to their numbers slowly, and raising everything else in composted beds. I'll still use the plastics I have, but just plant them with non-fussy annuals like coleus or zinnias, etc. I just don't think I'll be buying more. Even the most decorative ones (and I have some that are beautiful) just didnt perform the same way the clay ones did.

What to do better:
Don't buy any more plastic pots. If I freecycle existing plastic pots, use them for non-edible plants, such as hardy annual flowers.

d. Recyled plastic milk crates --
It was fun trying this! I lined plastic milk crates with brown paper grocery bags, for moisture retention, and planted some of them with bell peppers.

I planted the plants too closely together, and therefore they're too crowded and are bearing smaller peppers. But I do have to say this...they are very healthy and the idea did work. This would only be a very workable container situation if the milk crates are already pretty readily available. I still think the clay pots are superior to them in many ways, and are much more attractive.

There is one advantage to the milk crates, though...the side holes, when lined with brown paper grocery bags on the interior, can be punctured through and planted with herbs or strawberries very easily, and grow out from the sides. The moisture retention is quite good, surprisingly! I found that a very hard rain beats the daylights out of the soil, since it's pretty porous, though. I would NOT line the bottom heavily with multiple thicknesses of paper grocery bags, however. This time, I lined it too thickly, with about three or four bags thicknesses, and that was too much. It held in the moisture TOO well. Next time, I'd only use one full bag thickness, and still puncture a couple holes in that. These containers are a cinch to move after being planted, too. I'm glad I tried them!

What I'd do better:
I'll plant them less thickly, use them for things such as herbs and strawberries where the sides can best be utilized, as well. I will not use as many thicknesses of the interior brown paper grocery bag liner on the bottoms so that they will not waterlog, but will only use one thickness on each interior surface. I'll also use them for plants that need to be relocated as the sun's strength heightens, for burn prevention. Not so attractive, but could easily be "sunk" (where container is still on the ground but not visible) behind small edgings of flowers or very low hedges to cycle flowers and herbs in a flowerbed.

e. Recycled plastic flats --
I was pleased with these. They are durable, lightweight, FREE, and very portable...their only advantage over recycled boxes/boxtops. They drained well, and were great for starting seedlings AND for growing mesclun (I've not tried any other lettuce mixes). I LOVED seeing multiple flats all sprouting lettuces in different stages, right there for the picking!

The flats stay!

What to do better:
Never position them under a downspout. Those beautiful watched-over seedlings don't swim well in waterfalls. (Sheesh! lol) The rain wiped out several of my planted flats because I was a little slow in looking UP and deducing that the roofline would shed right on them. Lesson learned.
Whever I can get these free, I will! When I can't, I'll just use cut down cardboard boxes or box tops and make sure I have them where they dont need to be moved around. I'd like to have more of the plastic flats to start many many more seedlings the next time around.

5. Seed, or store-bought tomato seedlings? --
I don't regret buying tomato starts. I would like to know what other varieties out there taste like and how they do in my region, though. I planted two heirloom types of tomatoes...beefsteaks and Mr Stripeys. The other type, and I dont know if it's an heirloom, was Roma.

a. Beefsteaks --
I had an Ooops moment and mistook one for the other when they started fruiting. The beefsteaks produced first, and since the tops of the tomatoes were a light orange before darkening when fully ripe, I mistook them for the Stripeys. These have a basic classic tomato taste. Nothing surprising, except FAR FAR better than storebought. It seems the older the vine is, the smaller the fruits, and the more concentrated the taste. I like these second bloom tomatoes (the ones AFTER the die-off before I started fertilizing them) better. I'm not sure if I'd choose this variety again. After all, the die-off was MY fault and it may be my fault they arent up to par. Let's see how things go the rest of the season.

b. Romas --
These were planted in a large pot, some sort of plastic material container, that apparently didnt have adequate drainage. These little champions were the first tomato starts I bought, back in January. It was mild and sunny here outdoors then, and in the sun, they flourished. But then, in February, we had one of our only freezes of the year, and they blackened and died in a night....with little green tomatoes all over them...arggghhh! Surprisingly, they came back, though, and bore one very heavy bearing of LOVELY Romas! I LOVE the flavor. The longer they bore, the smaller the fruits...likely because of my fertilization faux pas and my ignorance. Then they died and were no more. If I had done a better job, I could likely have some pretty hardy vines still bearing just now. Lesson learned! (wahhh) I WILL want to plant some of these again.

c. Mr. Stripey --
Can I say how mesmerized I am by variegated tomatoes?? These are BEAUTIFUL...that is, the ones that survived my mishandling. I had to trim nearly half the vines and leaves off these plants because of starving them of fertilizer, along with the other tomatoes, before getting on the ball. But they bounced back beautifully. I'm disappointed with the texture, which is a hint mushy, and the flavor, which is mild (some would say bland). However, it's sweeter with less bite than the beefsteaks, and mixing the two type flavors in a salad is a perfect blend. The things I love, though, is the beauty of the sliced fruit...variegated stripes of gold and red make for a party on a plate. The vote's out on whether I'd actually try this variety again, but I KNOW I'll be trying variegated varieties from now on. Gosh, who knew they were so gorgeous?

d. The mystery tomato --
I have one vine, growing off of one of the aforementioned plants, that seems to be not of that variety...since these are not hybrids, I'm not sure what this tomato exactly is. But it is bigger, like a beefsteak, but is a LOVELY color...a pure deep gold. It's in the window, finishing ripening (in case it turns a different color?) but so far looks about ripe and has not changed color. If it stays the same clear gold (no stripes) once fully ripe, we'll nab a tiny taste, see if it's good, and if so, save the seeds to see if it will produce the same beautiful gold offspring. I'll have to read up on how to do that. It's came off a vine with completely different fruits not at all like it.

What I'll do better:
I'll research my area for organic growers to see if anyone is selling starts of other heirloom varieties.
I'll definately grow more Romas, only not killing them this time around, hopefully!
I'll try growing some of those mystery gold tomatoes from seed.
I'll try ordering some heirloom seeds from Baker's Heirloom Seeds (blissful sigh!) to include variegated, purple, and other colored tomatoes.

8. Pesticides --
NONE. We had aphids on some of our tomato plants, but they didtn seem to harm them. I spray water on the leaves regularly, and I believe the increase of the little friendly lizards possibly is due to their having eaten any insects thereabouts...there have been no aphids since. Little birds also frequent the soil beneath the vines. We've had a few tomatoes with spots, but I think those may have been due to extremes in my care of the plants, such as fertilization and watering rather than disease. Since fertilizing more, the plants returned to vigor.

What I'll do better:
Continue to never use pesticides. I caved on the non-organic fertilizers because of availability and my limited time schedule. But I'd rather have dead plants than douse them with chemicals. Down the road I'll read up more on some simple home remedies for addressing specific bug problems, if they arise. But I prefer to let nature take its course. If there is an imbalance, likely I caused it or contributed to it. I'm of the opinion that if there is biodiversity, likely there will be some loss but overall the health of all will be consistent. Let's see if that's idealistic. Gardening is idealistic. We do nothing but cooperate with some invisible tenets that are already in place, and for our efforts get to see miracles before our very eyes. I may use natural deterrents, sprays made from vinegar and such if needed...things like that, in the future. Fences to keep the deer from decimating all the efforts in a single night. Plants that attract beneficial insects and pollinators. It's likely that any plagues of "pests" are just a response to an imbalance in the surroundings, and that it's trying to "right" itself to a better balance in the end. I'll shut up till I have more experience to draw from on this.

But I won't be using pesticides. They kill bees. And people.

7. The things I started from seed:
Bell peppers of different colors
Eggplants, different colors

Not bad for a teensy little beginners garden?

They all grew!! I get points for their survival :)

What I'd do better:
Mesclun -- grow this in our mildest weather. It got bitter quickly as the heat increased. Did GREAT in fuss whatsoever!
Carrots -- well, I think I have the prettiest carrot tops ever. I did finally thin them, per the suggestion of a commenter here...but maybe not in time? let's see.
Bell peppers -- these took time to get bigger. They are about ready to transplant. I will be transplanting them into containers large enough for them to have plenty of elbow room, and fertilizing them regularly. They seem so far to be quite hardy...yay!
Eggplants -- these took the longest to materialize from seed, and I didn't get a lot out of the total seeds planted. However, about ten or twelve have sprouted to become pretty healthy sized seedlings that will soon be outgrowing their little starter pots. On to bigger pots for them!
Basil -- I had no idea these would be as easy to grow as lettuce. They also endure the heat marvellously! I'll surely be growing more of these in the future. And different varieties, as well. The ones I have now need trandsplanting soon. Can't wait till they're big enough to nibble and make into pestos!


Consistency, planning, and adaptation. These are the areas I can continue to improve the most.

Whether we have busy work schedules away from home or not, our lives are made better from doing what we love in tandem with what is best for us. It's nice when those are the same things, such as gardening....even in pots (for now). Some things still change as you actually do them. One thing that has changed in my mind is that I believe now that when it comes time for us to garden on a larger scale, we might forgo the raised bed concept and simply "stack" the layered compost, green manures, green and brown material, manures, and cardboard (not necessarily in that order) into untilled rows or manageable squares that we add more compost and plant materials to throughout the season. In between the rows would be cover crops. We'll see. Eventually I'd love to see my containers hold smaller plants and the more vigorous ones, like tomatoes, have plenty of room to spread their vines out in a deep, rich, composted bed directly in the ground in direct contact with worm and microbe.

Increasing our efficient useage of waste:
MUST compost. We're just not doing that right now. MUST come up with a basic and simple system to begin.

Enough for now :)

My job will be a major time demand, and it may seem like this detracts from the hands-on outdoor projects for a time. It, too, is a season, and is for a greater purpose, to enable our overarching goals. It's my hope this season will be as fruitful as our very first beginner efforts in homesteading have been so far.

1 comment:

Phelan said...

good plans. About bugs, companion planting and insect ordering will be your best bet and will help with your time problem. Most catalogs {well the ones I get} have a section for you to order helpful bugs, like ladybugs}