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June 4th, 2012

Baby Vegetables

At the farmers’ market they charge twice as much for so-called “baby” vegetables. Is there a trick to growing my own?

blog-dougThere are two ways to achieve a miniature harvest: select vegetable varieties that mature at a diminutive size, or plant regular-sized vegetables and pick them before they get big.

In the first category I’d put things like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants—vegetables that aren’t fully flavored until they achieve maturity. My favorite tiny tomato is ‘Wild Cherry’, about the size of a currant and available from Tomato Growers Supply Co. We’re trialing Burpee’s ‘Cherry Stuffer’ sweet peppers in the Organic Gardening test garden this year. There are tiny eggplants, too, like ‘Little Prince’ from Renee’s Garden.

Other vegetables, including many roots vegetables and leafy crops, develop their flavors at a young age. There’s no need to wait for carrots, turnips, beets, radishes, or onions to reach full size before harvesting them. Kohlrabi, zucchinis, cucumbers, and crookneck summer squash have a superior taste and texture when harvested small. The early thinnings of salad and cooking greens—think of them as microgreens—are deliciously tender. And don’t forget the wonders of new potatoes.

John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds has gotten on the bandwagon with The Happy Baby Garden, a seed collection of kid-size vegetable varieties. Just remember to plant a few extra rows to compensate for the scaled-down harvests.  —Doug Hall

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May 24th, 2012

Deliciously Indeterminate

At the garden center I see different varieties of tomatoes described as “determinate” and “indeterminate.” Which kind tastes better?

blog-dougWhen 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

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November 8th, 2011

Knotty Tomato Roots

I just pulled my tomato plants out and the roots are a mass of ugly bumps and warts. They were planted in new raised beds with a mix of soil and compost from the city. What am I dealing with, and how do I correct the problem?

blog-dougWhat you describe sounds like the galls of root-knot nematodes. Nematodes are small soil-dwelling roundworms; when they parasitize or feed on plant roots, crop yields suffer. It’s possible that the tomato transplants you purchased were infected. Destroy the infested tomato plants—don’t add them to your compost pile.

There are thousands of species of nematodes, and most are beneficial. Good nematodes are part of the soil “food web” in which nutrient components of organic matter are released in forms that plants can use. Other beneficial nematodes prey on cutworms, beetle larvae, and destructive nematodes.

Even though many vegetable crops are susceptible to nematodes, each is parasitized by different nematode species, so crop rotation helps to minimize the damage. Plant your tomatoes in a place where tomatoes or related vegetables (peppers, eggplants, potatoes) have not grown for at least three years. Another control tactic is to fortify your soil with plenty of compost, which feeds the beneficial microbes that keep root-knot nematodes in check.

Next spring, look for nematode-resistant tomato varieties, or invest in grafted tomato plants, which are grown on a vigorous rootstock that is resistant to nematodes and soil-borne diseases. If these efforts fail, consider solarizing the soil by covering it with a sheet of plastic for 6 to 8 weeks in summer. Because solarizing kills beneficial microbes as well as pests, consider it your option of last resort.  —Doug Hall

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