At the garden center I see different varieties of tomatoes described as “determinate” and “indeterminate.” Which kind tastes better?
When in doubt, go for the indeterminates. The two terms describe general growth habits of tomato plants. The wild ancestors of tomatoes, as well as many older heirloom varieties, are indeterminate. Their stems continue to grow indefinitely, continually cranking out new flowers and fruits a few at a time, until they are mowed down by frost or blight. The tall, rangy growth of indeterminate tomatoes requires a staking system or cages to keep the “vines” and maturing fruits off the ground. Because the fruits are produced over a long harvest season, indeterminate tomatoes are a good choice for home gardeners.
Determinate tomatoes, on the other hand, grow to a genetically predestined height, then stop. Their harvest period is shorter and more intense, allowing commercial growers to harvest a crop all at once. Compared to indeterminate tomatoes, determinates are a recent innovation, often bred to emphasize the shipping and mechanical-harvesting characteristics needed by commercial farmers instead of the culinary qualities desired by consumers.
There are good reasons to include determinate tomato varieties in your garden. Some of the best early varieties are determinate, as well as certain varieties recommended for cool-summer climates. Small-space gardeners appreciate the compact habit of determinate varieties, which can even be grown in containers. But in general, you’ll find better flavor among the indeterminates. —Doug Hall
Excuse me, but just what is a flat hill? I read about a gardening expert who plants her squash in flat hills. I don’t know what that means.
In gardening parlance, “hill” refers to a cluster of plants—usually vining vegetables such as squash, melons, or cucumbers—that have been sown as a group. I suppose the term got its start in an exceptionally rainy climate where raised planting was necessary to provide drainage for such crops. In this situation, or in poorly drained soil, it’s customary to make a small mound of soil upon which the seeds are planted—a literal hill.
But in regions where soil drainage is adequate or rainfall is scarce, the mounds dry out quickly. In most cases it’s better to form a shallow basin in the soil and plant the seeds in the middle of it. The basin facilitates watering through the course of summer. And even though there’s no elevated ground involved, gardeners refer to this technique as “planting in hills.”
Seed packets for pumpkins and other sprawling crops often recommend planting in hills. The usual procedure is to plant 8 or 10 seeds in a circle about a foot across. Once the seeds are up and growing, select the most robust 3 or 4 seedlings and pull out the rest. Space the hills of rangy melons and squash up to 10 feet apart; those of compact cucumbers or bush-style zucchinis can be much closer. —Doug Hall
Please define organic where using superphosphate is concerned. Also when using 10-10-10. Thank you.
Superphosphate is a synthetic chemical fertilizer that is not approved for use in organic agriculture. It is manufactured by treating mined phosphate rock with sulfuric acid. It’s toxic to the microbial life of your soil. Because it’s water soluble, it can also contribute to phosphorus pollution of waterways.
If your garden soil lacks phosphorus, it’s better to apply it in the form of bone meal, rock phosphate, composted poultry manure, or compost made from yard waste and kitchen scraps. These organic materials release phosphorus to the soil slowly as they are broken down by soil bacteria. Fish emulsion and liquid seaweed fertilizers offer a quick phosphorus boost.
The ratio 10-10-10 describes the quantities of nutrients within a fertilizer but doesn’t reveal whether or not it’s organic. That said, the vast majority of fertilizers with a 10-10-10 analysis are synthetic. The three numbers represent the percentages of available nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium in the fertilizer.
Gardeners who are in the habit of regularly feeding their soil with rich compost often find that they have no need for additional fertilizers. If necessary, you can supplement compost with complete organic fertilizers that blend natural sources of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, as well as micronutrients such as iron and calcium. You’ll know which products at the garden center are organic by their “OMRI Listed” label. —Doug Hall
In your article on starting seedlings indoors, you recommend using fluorescent shop lights with cool white or daylight tubes. Are we being duped into buying those expensive specialty bulbs or are there other benefits I am not aware of?
No, you’re not being duped. Fluorescent tubes that are designed for growing plants indoors work exactly as advertised, providing plants with the specific wavelengths of visible light they need for optimum growth. It’s up to you to decide if the incremental improvement in plant growth is worth the premium price you’ll pay for the tubes—three or four times the cost of standard tubes.
Natural sunlight provides the full “rainbow” of visible light, from red through violet. Plants use mainly the red, blue, and violet wavelengths to photosynthesize and grow. The manufacturers of grow lights design tubes to concentrate light production in the areas of the spectrum needed by plants. So if you want maximum growth and are willing to pay the price, you’ll get the best results from these specialized tubes.
But other fluorescent tubes also produce the wavelengths used by plants—just not quite as much. I have had excellent results growing seedlings under regular cool white or daylight tubes. I often mix the tubes in a single fixture—for example, one grow light tube, one daylight tube, and two cool white tubes in a four-tube shop light.
It’s also important to remember that fluorescent tubes produce less light as they age. When tubes begin to dim, move them to basement or garage fixtures, where the quality of light isn’t essential, and buy fresh tubes for your seedlings. —Doug Hall