El Pepino Pequeño

Meet the Mexican Sour Gherkin, the tiniest little cucumber that you ever will see.  This little female bud is only about a quarter inch long, but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in vigorous growth.  These petite vines have been growing and climbing like crazy!  The male blossoms have been actively blooming for a few days now, and the plants are starting to set a heavy crop of female blossoms as well.  It shouldn’t be too long before we get our first taste of this unique heirloom variety!

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Tomato Suckers: To Prune or Not To Prune?

If you’re looking for a good garden debate, look no further than the question of pruning tomato plants. You’ll find no shortage of compelling arguments and strong opinions in both camps.  Some gardeners swear by it, others never do it, and both get tomatoes in the end, so how do you decide if you should prune your tomato plants or not?

The good news is that pruning is neither necessary nor harmful (assuming it is done correctly, of course), so you can do it–or not–and still have a successful garden. More important than if you are on Team Prune or Team Sucker, is figuring out what works best for you and your garden.

Tomato Suckers: To Prune or Not To Prune?

When gardeners talk about pruning tomatoes, they’re generally talking about removing all but perhaps a small number of the “suckers” that grow where the leaves branch off of the main stem (we’ll get to low-hanging leaves and leaves that show signs of disease in a minute).    These little shoots will grow leaves, suckers, and tomatoes of their own if they are allowed to continue growing.  This growth pattern is what gives tomatoes their tendency to grow both up and out and eventually into a full-fledged tomato jungle.

The pruning process is pretty straight forward: if the suckers are still small and flexible, they usually just snap off cleanly with a firm grip at the base; if they are not easily snapped off, sometimes a sharp knife or pair of garden shears is necessary to get the job done.  Just be sure you are not pruning out the main growth point at the top of the plant!

Tomato Suckers: To Prune or Not To Prune?

One of the most common things you’ll hear on the topic is that pruning will result in better tomato production, but there are studies (like this one) that suggests that all things being equal, it may not really make a difference in overall production.  Pruning tomatoes can produce larger, earlier fruits, because energy that would otherwise be spent growing foliage is redirected into growing and ripening the tomatoes.  However, tomato plants that have not been pruned can produce a larger number of tomatoes because there are more stems producing fruit and more leaves producing energy.  In the end, a smaller number of larger tomatoes adds up to be about the same as a larger number of smaller tomatoes.

Of course in the garden, all things are rarely equal, and there are differences in growing conditions, available space, and the prevalence of pests and disease, and the issue suddenly becomes much more nuanced and pruning or not pruning can have a much bigger impact.  There are short season gardeners that rely on pruning to ensure their tomatoes ripen by the end of the season and gardeners in locations that rely on un-pruned tomato foliage to protect their harvest from sun scald. Carefully pruned tomatoes make it easier to find and destroy tomato hornworms quickly.  Determinate varieties only grow to a certain size and set a certain amount of fruit, so pruning is counter productive.  Gardeners with big sturdy cages and lots of space might not have to worry about pruning, but small space gardeners who use stakes or twine trellises to fit it all in do.

Tomato Suckers: To Prune or Not To Prune?

As a gardener you really have to get to know your garden and figure out what works best for you and your goals.  Are you concerned with managing Early Blight?  Do you want to do things as simply and naturally as possible?  Do you just really like the way a perfectly trellised row of tomatoes looks?

Here are some of the more common reasons why gardeners prune tomato suckers:

  • To increase air flow + reduce risks for fungus/disease
  • To make more efficient use of space
  • To make certain types of staking and trellising easier
  • It can improve production (larger, earlier tomatoes)
  • To expedite ripening by forcing plant to direct energy to fruit instead of new growth
  • To cull flowers + fruit that will not mature by the end of the season
  • To more easily find + remove destructive pests
  • To make harvesting easier
..and a number of reasons why gardeners do not prune tomato suckers: 

  • If you are growing determinate varieties
  • To allow the plant to grow naturally
  • To allow more leaves to photosynthesize, producing more energy for the plant
  • To avoid introducing disease through pruning wounds
  • If you are using cages to support your tomato plants
  • To provide protection from sun scald
  • It can improve production (more tomatoes per plant)
  • To keep as much healthy foliage as possible in the event diseased foliage needs to be removed

Of course the important exceptions that even avid no-pruners should make are removing the bottom leaves from the plant that come in close contact with the ground (to prevent soil-borne disease from splashing up onto the leaves) and any leaves that show signs of disease (to prevent or at least slow the further spread of disease), as this is just good practice.

Tomato Suckers: To Prune or Not To Prune?

My personal preference is to just let my tomatoes grow without pruning the suckers.  I find it to be less fussy and In my current set up, I’ve encountered fewer problems with keeping my plants upright with the use of heavy duty cages than trying to tie everything up to a single stake.   I also think it’s best to let the plant produce as much energy as possible, as the whole point of growing tomatoes is to get tomatoes, so in my mind, the more the better (and my own anecdotal experience is that size has a lot more to do with variety selection than anything else).  Why mess with what Mama Nature has perfected? The other big reason I do not prune, is that Early Blight is hard to avoid in our humid summers, even with the best preventative efforts.  There will come a point in the next couple of months where I’ll have to start pruning out blighted foliage, so I want to keep as much healthy foliage to maintain production and protect the tomatoes as possible.

If I had more time, or a different set up, pruning might make more sense for me, but this approach works really well for me right now.  It’s manageable and it leaves time for me to enjoy my time in the garden, which is what we are all going for, right?

I’d love to hear from you: What works best for you and your garden?

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Tomatillo Flower

 

A good mix of rain and sun the past few weeks has the garden growing lush by leaps and bounds, which is helping it catch up from a little later than usual start.  I’m still waiting to see my first tomato blossom, but a tomatillo flower isn’t a bad consolation prize!

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Let me introduce you to some of the newest residents of my garden:

Garden Wrens

These two little wrens moved into the garden earlier this spring, built a nest, patrolled the garden for insects, hatched a brood, and have provided hours of entertainment along the way.

Garden Wrens

I started to notice their distinctive song in mid-May, and by the end of the month, both birds were spending their entire day singing and going in and out of the wren house with twigs to build their nest.  Though I’ve had the wren house in the garden for over a year now, I have to admit that I really didn’t know much about them or their nesting habits, except that they have a good appetite for insects.

Our wren house is hanging from the arbor on the side of the house where I am working on establishing a permanent herb and pollinator garden.   It has been a great location for them, as it gives the wrens (who are very territorial) a little space of their own, and it also allows us to observe unnoticed from inside the porch (if you notice that some of the photos are a little distorted, it’s because they were taken through the screen).  I also love having a little life in the garden, as well as the benefits of insect control.

Garden Wrens

After a while the songs quieted down a bit, and were gradually replaced by a more defensive warning chirp whenever I would be working in the garden.   Mama Wren keep a quiet eye on things from inside the house, while Pa Wren started to practice bringing his latest catch back to the nest.

Garden Wrens

Another couple of weeks later, and we could hear the chorus of chirps from inside the porch whenever one of the wrens would bring back a grub or moth.   These guys ate a ton of bugs!

Garden Wrens

Listening to their chatter was really fascinating.  They clearly have different vocalizations to communicate with each other, as well as with the new brood, who would hear the warning call, and instantly go silent.

They also provided a lot of entertainment as they would hop around the garden, gobbling up insects and perching on the fence.  I got a real kick out of watching their behavior and learning their personalities.  One was pretty chill most of the time, while the other was a little more high strung.  I thoroughly enjoyed sharing my garden space with these guys.

Garden Wrens

But of course, babies must leave the nest eventually, and I had my first clue that the time was imminent two nights ago, when I noticed that one of the little wrens had ventured outside of the house:

Garden Wrens

I watched from a distance on the steps of the deck, as the little guy tried to get his wings to carry him long enough to get back up to the house.  It took him a while (and multiple attempts), but he eventually made it all the way up the arbor and back into the house, with Ma and Pa Wren protectively perched above and guiding him with a series of chirps.

And yes, I totally cheered for him when he made it back into the house.

Garden Wrens

The very next morning, all of the little wrens left the nest.    I was off from work and was lucky enough to be outside watering the garden when it happened.   At one point I counted 6 little wrens hopping around in the garden and testing out their wings within the confines of the herb garden.  A few of them even ventured along the fence over to the vegetable garden I had just finished watering.

After a little while, the adults called them up into the Ash tree above the garden, and before I knew it, most of them had flown into the River Birch trees in our backyard.

Garden Wrens

A couple of little wrens seemed to be a little less sure about the whole flying thing than the others, and they hung back in the garden for most of the morning.  They would fly short distances between perches on the fence and tomato cages, occasionally resting for a while when they were tired out (learning to fly is hard work, you guys!).   The whole time one of the adults was perched on the powerline over our driveway, halfway between the garden and Birch trees, calling back and forth with the straglers.  By lunch time, the last couple of little ones had joined the rest of the brood up in the trees and the whole family spend the entire day chattering and occasionally testing out their song.

Garden Wrens

They didn’t return to the nest last night, but we spotted a number of them around the yard as we enjoyed a couple of beers on the deck last night, and I heard their distinctive chatter up in the trees early this morning as I left for work.  It feels so quiet in that little corner of the garden now, but it’s hard to be sad when you suddenly have six more little bug hunters patrolling the garden!   Plus, there’s also a possibility that we could see another pair of wrens take over the nest and hatch a second brood in the house before they begin their fall migration.

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Second Generation

My inner garden nerd is totally geeking out over this second generation variegated Opalka tomato plant.

Last summer, I saved some seeds from this plant, in hopes that this unique trait might show up in my garden again this year.  I will admit that I hedged my bets a little bit by starting just one plant with the saved seed, and another from the original packet, just in case the saved seed wasn’t viable or the plant unfruitful, but the second generation plant appears to be good on both accounts so far.

I had almost forgotten just how pretty these variegated leaves are!

 

 

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Strawberry Sauce

Strawberry season may be a fleeting moment in the course of the entire gardening season, but it definitely packs a punch while it’s here.  A few weeks of overflowing bowls of sun-ripened fruit, berry stained fingers, and the sweet taste of summer… I just want to bottle can it all up–and that is exactly what I did last week!

With a few jars of strawberry jam still in the pantry from last summer, I decided to go a slightly different route this year, making two versions of strawberry sauce: a canning-safe version of a fresh strawberry sauce I have been making for a number of years, and a batch of Marisa McClellan’s Strawberry Caramel Sauce.

Strawberry Sauce

My own version of a basic strawberry sauce is a great option for beginners.   The ingredients and process mirror jam-making closely, so you have a pretty basic recipe and process to follow, but the application is actually easier than making strawberry jam.  Strawberries are naturally lower in pectin, which can sometimes make obtaining a firm set jam more challenging if you are just learning the ropes of jam-making (particularly if you are going the no added pectin route), but with strawberry sauce, a product that is a little runny is exactly what you are going for.

The end result is a very bright and fresh flavored sauce that tastes just like you took fresh strawberries and tossed them in the blender.

Strawberry Caramel Sauce

The process for making the strawberry caramel sauce is a little more involved, but as long as you are comfortable reading a candy thermometer, it really isn’t difficult at all.  By caramelizing the sugar first, then adding in the pureed berries, a really rich and decadent flavor develops.  The thought of making a fruit-based caramel had never crossed my mind until I discovered this recipe, but now that I’ve tried it, I can’t imagine a strawberry season without it and my mind is already starting spin with different variations to try.

Strawberry Sauce

The possibilities are endless with strawberry sauce.

Of course ice cream is at the top of the list (and highly recommended), but it would also work well on any number of desserts (um, hello strawberry caramel cheesecake!), as an add-in to your morning yogurt or oatmeal, as a substitute for syrup on pancakes, waffles, or french toast, and the basic recipe could easily be used to add a burst of strawberry flavor to smoothies, lemonade, and even a well-deserved garden cocktail or as the base for a strawberry vinaigrette.

Strawberry Sauce

I’d be hard-pressed to pick a favorite, as I like different qualities about each one, so perhaps a 4th of July strawberry sundae taste test may be order.  I wonder where I could find some willing participants for that… :)

Strawberry Sauce

Strawberry Sauce

4 lbs of strawberries
1 cup of sugar*
2 tablespoons bottled lemon juice

Trim hulls from strawberries and combine with sugar in a saucepan.  Cook over medium heat, stirring regularly until berries are soft.  Remove from heat and use an immersion blender to puree until smooth.

Add lemon juice and return to burner, cooking and stirring until sauce comes to a steady boil that can’t be stirred down.

Remove from heat and transfer into prepared half pint jars.  Process for 10 minutes in a hot water bath.

 

*If sauce is not sweet enough for your taste, the amount of sugar can be increased to as much as 2 cups

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Well, it’s here: the first “Measuring Up” post of 2014!   However, this year’s posts will look a little different.  Just as my gardening has evolved over time, I feel it’s time for these Measuring Up posts to evolve as well.  Even though I have a good system that has worked really well for me, and even though it only takes a few minutes out of my day, simplicity is appealing to my senses these days, and I kind of like the idea of not feeling as though I have to weigh everything in at the end of the day.

But I also like the idea of documenting the harvest, so I’m going to try out a new format for these monthly posts.  I will still include some quantitative measures of what I harvest from the garden, but I probably won’t include it for every crop, every time.  Instead I want to focus more on some of my observations about the garden harvest and how I’m using it.  I may return to the good old fashioned weigh-in at some point; we’ll see how it goes! If you find one or the other type of post more helpful or interesting, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

Measuring Up: June 2014

Rhubarb

Dividing the rhubarb patch last year was clearly a good move, because the rhubarb has been unbelievable this year!   The leaves are bigger and the stalks are longer than they’ve ever been in the time we’ve owned the house.  After harvesting just a few stalks here and there in May, I harvested at least 15 lbs. of rhubarb this month.  I could have easily harvested more, but life has been such that I just haven’t been able to keep up with it.  As a result, most of what I have harvested has been frozen for future use, but we’ve also enjoyed a few good rhubarb recipes in-season–particularly rhubarb salsa.

Measuring Up: June 2014

Lettuce

Just in the past two weeks I harvested 4 large heads of Red Romaine Lettuce.  These heads are from fall-sown seed that didn’t germinate until early this spring.  This is the first time I’ve been able to grow heads of any type of lettuce, so I’m quite excited about having a crisper drawer full of beautiful homegrown romaine.  Garden salad season is on!

Measuring Up: June 2014

Strawberries

The strawberries came in fast and furious this year!  I started picking in mid-June, about a week or so before the local u-pick patches opened up, and picked steadily (usually in the rain) for about two weeks, which seemed like a shorter span of time than in previous years, but the overall total harvest feels about the same (perhaps it was our record rainfall that pushed everything to ripen all at once?)  In addition to a few bowls that we ate fresh and shared with my in-laws, I processed a little over 10 lbs of strawberries into two batches of strawberry sauce (stay tuned for tomorrow’s post!).

Measuring Up: June 2014

Kale

I’m just starting to harvest a few of the larger leaves of kale.   I feel like this is about as big as I want to let the Red Russian get, so I’m going to continue to harvest this one regularly, but I want to let the Lacinato get a little bigger before I start harvesting too aggressively (the plants have had a few setbacks at the hands of the neighborhood bunny population).  Both varieties have been very tender and delicious!

Measuring Up: 2014

Herbs

I had a really good harvest of volunteer cilantro this month (which ended up in several batches of rhubarb salsa).  I also had a nice little handful of thinnings from my winter-sown dill that were a nice addition to a salad.  My overwintered mint, oregano, and chives continue to grace the table here and there, and even though it hardly counts as a “harvest,” I have been sneaking a taste or two from some of the still-smallish new herbs I started from seed this winter: summer savory, tarragon, caraway, and sage.

 

What are you enjoying from the garden right now?

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Garden Photography 101: 10 Shareable Garden Photos [Guest Post on Minnesota Locavore]

Today I’m wrapping up my guest post series on garden photography over on Minnesota Locavore with a list of 10 “shareable” photos to take in your garden.  Check out the post for a little inspiration and then start sharing your best photos to spread the good word about gardening and local food!

Garden Photography 101: 10 Shareable Garden Photos

 

I want to extend a very heartfelt thank you to Amy for inviting me to collaborate with her on this project.  It has been so much fun to work on and I hope you have all enjoyed it as well!  If you’re not already doing so, be sure to follow her blog when you click over to check out today’s post – I’m sure there will some great recipes for the garden harvest coming over the next few months!

Creating a Squash Garden

Earlier this year, I made the decision to give up my community garden plot.  There were a number of factors that played into the decision, with almost none of them having to do with community gardening or the community garden itself and most of them having to do with my desire to spend more time in my own backyard this summer (but I’ll save that for another post).  In order to compensate for some of the extra  space I’ve become accustomed to over the past two years, I started looking for areas of the backyard that could easily be transformed into productive garden spaces, particularly spaces that could accommodate the sprawling vines of pumpkins and winter squash.

It didn’t take long for me to set my sights on the potential in this little space in the back corner of the yard:

Creating a Squash Garden

This space behind our shed has been an out of the way temporary catch-all for some of those things we don’t know what else to do with: fallen branches that need to be cut down to fit in the fire pit, rocks we removed from old landscaping around the yard, a couple of extra fence posts and panels, a section of gutter I’ve been saving for a gutter garden, and also weeds–lots and lots of weeds.  As it was, it was not a particularly useful space in the yard (if anything, the constant weeding made even more work for us),  but it definitely had a lot of potential: it is actually a decent sized area, there’s really great black dirt under there, and it receives a lot more sunlight than it would first appear.

My creative wheels were already turning, and so I started to observe this area at different times of day, trying to get a good sense of when and where the sunlight hit, I trimmed the tree branches back a bit, and started to clear everything else out.

Creating a Squash Garden

I prepared the squash hills for planting.  I plotted out where I wanted each hill to be.  I spaced my hills about 4’ or so apart on each side of the garden, with the two sides offset so the plants alternate from side to side as you walk down the path in order to give as much distance between each hill as possible.

Once I was happy with the placement, I started to turn over the soil a bit, adding some compost and manure to add nutrients to the soil and loosen it up a bit.  With the hills ready to go, I transplanted my squash seedlings (three seedlings of each variety) around the top of each hill.

Creating a Squash Garden

The next step was to address the weeds.  I wanted to make this garden as low maintenance as possible, so good layer of mulch was in order.  In order to keep the weeds from continuing to grow through the mulch and compete with the squash for water and nutrients, I put down a thick layer of newspaper to smother them.  Most of the weeds were still pretty small, so I didn’t even bother pulling them, but anything that had enough size that it was difficult for the newspaper to lay relatively flat was pulled first and then placed on the ground (there were also a few pockets of dried leaves and pine needles from last fall hanging out in random places behind the shed, and I left those right where they were as well) before layering on the newspaper.  All of this organic material will compost in place under the newspaper, returning all the nutrients back to the soil.

After the newspaper was down, I added a good 2-3″ layer of wood chips on top.  This holds the newspaper in place to smother the weeds, helps retain moisture, and gives the garden a nice clean look and feel.

Creating a Squash Garden

As a finishing touch, I added a path with the flagstones that were stacked behind the shed from when we removed our patio a few years back.  I think they go a long way to make the garden feel complete, and as the vines grow, they should also be useful for maneuvering through the garden.

Creating a Squash Garden

A couple of squash hills continue around corner of the shed, but only in the sunnier spots.  For consistency and weed control, I mulched all the way up to the strawberry and raspberry patch.  I would anticipate that a good portion of this extra space will fill in with vines as the season goes on, and we are seriously considering this spot along the back fence for our bee hive next summer.

Creating a Squash Garden

We’ve had a crazy amount of rain this month so the work has been spread out over several weeks, but the transformation is just about complete (I just need to pick up one more bag of wood chips to finish off a small area next to the raspberries after I transplant a couple of new raspberry canes first).  I really like how it turned out and the squash seem to be enjoying their new home as well.  The plants are already starting to stretch out and a few varieties are even starting to form buds (for a list of varieties I’m growing check out this post).

I’m also kind of digging the food forest vibe that this corner of the yard is starting to take it on. Granted, it’s missing a few elements and isn’t integrated in the truest sense of the term (perhaps it could be considered a partial deconstructed food forest?), but regardless, turning this underutilized space into productive garden space is still pretty cool and I’m super excited to see how it continues to transform as the season goes on.

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My Very First Head of Lettuce

 

Growing a head of lettuce has been an elusive dream for this gardener. Every year I would leave a few of my spring-sown lettuce plants in hopes that I would be able to grow a head of lettuce (I harvest the rest by the  “come and cut again” method), and every year those plants would bolt in the early summer heat before heads could form.  But this year is a little different: some of my fall-sown lettuce seed remained dormant all winter and came up early this spring, and now I have not one, but four gorgeous heads of Red Romaine Lettuce forming in the garden.  They are filling in very nicely and holding quite well, even with all the rain we’ve gotten lately.   I should be able to harvest the first one later this week!

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