Friday, February 22, 2013

Mold and eggshells: tips for tomatoes I never would have guessed

Throughout my quest to understand this new endeavor of gardening, I have already encountered several "tips of the trade" that seem almost counter intuitive. Oddly enough, they all seem to revolve around tomato plants.

Bury it deep

One of the most basic things I encountered was the idea of cutting all branch growth from the stem up to the top 2 or 3 viable leaves (or nodes) at time of planting, then actually burying the base of the plant deep, so that only those top leaves are exposed. Plant starts seem so delicate that I couldn't have imagined literally cutting them up before planting them. The only plant I can recall burying deep like this was my first clematis plant. Also, the fibrous hairs growing off the stem are potential roots, so the more you get below the surface, the more faster your tomato plant will grow.

Shallow beds

In cases where raised beds are being used, and you cannot bury your plant 12" deep and allow it grow down another 12" or more, you can actually bury it horizontally. Start by cropping the lower branches the same as previously mentioned, dig a trench horizontally in your dirt, lay the root and stem in the trench, and gently bend the top leaves vertically so they are pointing to the sky. The roots will find soil no matter where it is, so as long as you have done your work properly there, it should be okay.

Collecting seeds
This is one of the more intriguing processes I encountered. Most fruits and vegetables have a general area of seed growth, and tomatoes are no different; just open one up and you'll know what I mean. The seeds are neatly arranged from the center columella, or core, in the locular cavity contained in a gel-like substance called gelatinous membrane. It's fun to collect seeds and figure out how to actually maneuver them -- this stuff sticks to EVERYTHING! I found that dropping the seeds into a strainer/sifter works well.

What was interesting was the variations I found for removing seeds. Perhaps the most odd of all is the fermentation process. You start by putting all the seeds and gel-like membrane into a jar, cover it with about 1"-2" of water and allow if ferment in a sunny window for 1-2 weeks. This will produce a moldy scum on the top and aid in killing any bacteria that might have affected any of the seeds. Strain it, rinsing the mold and membrane from the seed, then allow the seeds to dry on a brown paper bag or plate for 1-2 weeks.

I would never have imagined combining eggshells with the planting process. However, it turns out that eggshells are a great way to add extra nutrients (calcium) to your tomato plants, and the even act as a slug deterrent at the same time. One quick place I looked was ehow and this is the recipe offered.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

From Books to Dirt: a new chapter begins

Colored bell peppers (Ben Douglas)
February 1, 2013: My undergraduate work is complete, our boys are out of diapers, I have a full-time job in place, our debts are paid off, and it's now time to dive head first into a new phase of my life. This year I am eagerly anticipating sowing the first of many seeds for our vegetable garden, and as I prepare for this, I can't help but think back to my childhood.

I have always been one to admire the sights, smells, and overall craft of a gardener's touch. As a young boy I remember numerous times chasing basketballs, baseballs, footballs, and golf balls into our neighbor's garden. They were the classic traditional older couple next door with an apropos Midwestern last name, Smith. I recall numerous times how Mrs. Smith would bring over handfuls of cucumbers, peppers, and various squash varieties, or my mother walking across the yard with an empty bowl to pick fresh tomatoes.

My grandmother (my mom's side) - who died in 1978 just before she could meet me - was a teacher, farmer, preserver, and canner, of the things I know about her. She brought her love of farming with the family farm from Alexandria, Indiana in the 1960's, along-with all of her blue glass Ball canning jars and the family dog, when my grandpa began his tenure in the school of education at Indiana State University.

Although I couldn't be paid to eat a vegetable as a kid, and never really learned to appreciate the fresh taste of a crisp harvest until at least turning 30, I still loved the aroma of the Smith's garden as it eminated across our lawn from the north.

When my parents moved us out of town a few miles into the country, my mother finally had enough room to design a garden and begin harvesting for herself. I helped dad haul the rail ties home that would become her raised beds, and we nailed them together at the joints. Next, we laid the weed barrier felt, I helped him haul the river rock and spread it, and of course we hauled in several wheel barrow loads of dirt for the initial planting. Along-with tomatoes and other various vegetables and herbs, our property was also full of numerous flowering annuals and perennials until the annual fall frost hit.

Skipping ahead several years, after my grandfather passed away, my wife and I moved into his home. The first four years we basically spent updating the home he and his wife had decorated, but that he hadn't changed since her death. While most of the home was easily changed with the stroke of a paintbrush after many long hours peeling wallpaper, one of the areas I hardly ever ventured into was the attic. 

Glass jar collection (Ben Douglas)
The majority of things up there was just typical "old stuff," but after deciding to design and prepare a garden, I remembered I had previously run across something that would serve as a great inspiration for me: grandma's blue glass Ball "Perfect Mason" canning jars.

They were just at the top of the steps and upon realizing this I immediately lowered the attic ladder, climbed it, and brought them down. I spent an entire afternoon soaking them in warm soapy water and rinsing off the dust and cobwebs. But beyond the Ball Perfect Mason blue glass jars were several other: one Ball Ideal, one Atlas Perfect mason, one Presto Duraglass, and numerous clear glass Ball Perfect Mason (some round and some square) and unmarked jars with both regular and wide mouths.

Large Ball Blue canning jars (Ben Douglas)
After cleaning the kitchen sink and allowing the jars to dry, these sparkling collectibles are now perched on the bottom two shelves of grandma and grandpa's antique hutch in our living room.

While the temptation to use some of these is growing increasingly strong in me, I know realistically that many of them will remain in either the hutch as a mere decoration or possibly move to the kitchen to hold sugar or coffee.