Saturday, May 31, 2014

Straw Bale Gardening II

The bales are cooking, and some have almost completed the conditioning process. We should be ready to plant those in the next few days.

Mushrooms have appeared in some of the bales. They appear to be "shaggy mane" mushrooms, Coprinus comatus. They are harmless, and if they show up in one of your bales, you can ignore them. They are edible, but I do not recommend eating any mushroom without confirmation of its identity by an experienced mycologist. DO NOT EAT the mushrooms that appear in your straw bales.

In order to get a jump on the season, we have started several of our plants in containers, so they will already be up and growing when we transplant them to the bales. We took this step to facilitate producing images for the upcoming book. However, it is not necessary merely to produce a crop. We have about 140 days remaining in the growing season. Plenty of time for summer favorites like tomatoes, cucumbers, corn and squash.

Now is also a great time to check garden centers for clearance pricing on both vegetable plants and spring blooming perennials. Bloomed out perennials are often marked down to a fraction of their former price. If transplanted now and kept well watered for the coming months of hot weather, they will be just as beautiful as their more expensive bench-mates come next spring.

Tomato plants can become leggy by this time of year, but you can rejuvenate them for a late crop. Remove the plant from its container and loosen the root ball with your fingers. It won't matter if you tear off a few roots. Strip all the leaves from the stem, leaving only two or three clusters at the top. Remove any flowers or flower buds that are present. Put two tablespoons of organic vegetable food in the planting hole. Bury the stem to within an inch of the lowermost leaf cluster. Water in and mulch well. The stem will root all along its length, and soon these plants will be vigorous and stocky, ready to support a bumper crop of delicious tomatoes.

Southern food is trendier than ever this season. I just read an Associated Press report on the resurgence of sorghum, both the molasses-like syrup and the grain, as an ingredient in fine dining restaurant fare. Sorghum-glazed foie gras anyone? How about sorghum and grits ice cream? Seriously.

Sorghum grain is being used as a substitute for couscous, and demand is growing by leaps and bounds in these days of gluten-free everything. Who would have predicted this grass, brought to our shores by Africans in bondage, would find a modern following? I remember seeing it growing here and there in my neighborhood when I was a child. Theoretically, sorghum is a suitable grain crop for a small space garden. The grain-bearing varieties are short and stocky.

I will have to explore at the market in search of a local source of sorghum syrup. It's pretty good on biscuits. I cannot say regarding foie gras.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Time to Plant Tomatoes

Mother's Day is the traditional time to plant tomatoes in East Tennessee. Another way to determine the correct planting time: the dogwoods should have dropped their blossoms and be fully leafed-out. These are convenient ways to remember that tomatoes should be transplanted after the soil temperature is above 65 degrees.

I know, I know, many people plant tomatoes in April in hopes of an early harvest. They use all sorts of season extenders in hope of having ripe fruits before anyone else in the neighborhood. Nevertheless, despite all the effort and expense, these tomatoes ripen around July 4, just like everyone else's. The most effective way to get a jump on the season is black plastic mulch, applied around the base of the plant at transplant time. This will help increase the soil temperature. But it is unlikely to shorten the time to maturity by much more than a week.

Assuming you are planting some tomato plants this weekend or next week, here are a couple of tips for a bigger harvest:

1) Plant deeply. Remove all but the top three clusters of leaves and bury the stem deeply enough that the lowermost leaf cluster is about an inch above the soil line. This encourages development of a large root system to support the eventual crop.

2) Remove blooms. Pinch off all blooms that are present on your transplants. These will sap energy, and although they may produce some early fruits, the overall harvest will be reduced.

3) Feed early. Put a couple of tablespoons of balanced organic fertilizer in the planting hole. As growth resumes about a week after transplanting, you can also side-dress the plants with another round of food. Feed about every two weeks until blooms appear, then stop feeding. Too much nitrogen after blooming begins will reduce the crop.

4) Mulch immediately. Apply two or more inches of mulch as soon as your plants are in the ground. Mulch not only helps maintain even soil moisture, important for tomatoes, but also prevents soil splashing up on the leaves during a rain. Soil can carry the spore of disease organisms such as Fusarium and Verticillium.

5) Grow hybrids. If you are an inexperienced gardener, grow modern, disease resistant hybrids and buy your heirloom tomatoes at the Farmer's Market. Heirlooms are delicious, but many of them have no resistance to common diseases, and can be a challenge to grow in our hot, humid climate.

Also, if you use tobacco, wash your hands thoroughly before going into the tomato patch, and don't use tobacco in the garden area. Tobacco can transmit TMV (tobacco mosaic virus) to your tomatoes.

I will be giving a presentation this afternoon at 2:00 at UT Gardens, as part of the annual Bloomsdays event. Stop by the South Greenhouse, say hello, and catch my talk on growing hardy orchids in the Tennessee Valley. The event is open today and tomorrow from 9:00Am to 5:00PM. I hope to see you there!