Friday, August 19, 2016

Tyrant tomato plants in the garden

By August, our tomato plants are raging tyrants, tumbling out of their cages, colonizing every square foot they can reach, scrabbling for more land, more sun, more water, so dense you can barely reach in to check a cluster for ripeness.

They are definitely producing; but we lose so many in the thicket of branches. We can't reach the ripe ones without knocking half a dozen off their stems.

This year, we had three tomato plants: one hasn't thrived, although the bugs on it did; one bushy plant that still has colonial aspirations; and one that is well over six-feet tall and making a mockery of its bamboo tripod.

Yes, I've heard of pruning -- I just don't know how it's done. With tomato plants it always seemed oxymoronic:  first, you nurture the tiny little things; then, you want all the tomatoes you can possibly get as they flower and bud; and finally, you never want to see another tomato in your life and definitely don't want to be fiddling in the brambles.

Recently, I had a "come-to-Mother-Nature" moment:

  • Open my eyes and see the truth: these plants have a growth imperative; they redefine the word "excess." They need to be pruned. They won't die from it.
  • These plants don't take are of themselves. I have to spend quality time with them from their first planting.
  • These are major jungle vines. A cage is only going to work for about two-and-a-half weeks.  Tomatoes need fences to stretch out on.
  • August is a really bad time to start pruning a tomato plant.
Turning to the Google Extension Service, I learned:
  • A tomato plant will double in size about every two weeks during its first month or so.
  • A vigorous, unpruned tomato plant can easily cover a four-foot by four-foot area with as many as 10 stems, each three to five feet long.
  • Side branches (or suckers) behave just like a main stem if they aren't pruned.
  • Starting from the bottom of the plant, the suckers drain the plant of fuel and compromise the fruit higher up.
  • When the side branches are pruned, the main stem of the plant gets stronger and more stable.

So, in an ideal world -- the Garden of Eden, let's say -- a tomato plant is staked from its first planting (definitely from its first flowering) and pruned of most of its side branches so its production goes into fruit and the main growing tip. Each leaf has plenty of air and sunshine and the plant stays up off the ground. You'll have fewer but bigger fruit that can be harvested earlier.

The suckers need to be removed below the first flower cluster. If you want multiple stems, you can let a second or third grow from the first node above the first fruit, but you want to keep the branching as close to the first fruit as possible.

In our case, most of our fruit is ripening on the lower branches of the tomato plant that should have been removed weeks ago. So we took the clippers to new suckers coming off those stems to thin out the tangle and let in more light.  We also took the clippers to the upper parts of the plant where there's less fruit.  We tried to leave flowering branches alone, but take out suckers below the flowers.

We could have used Missouri pruning, where you pinch off the tip of the growing branch, but what we did makes it much easier to harvest and see what's going on with the plant.

Of course, the danger of what we've done is that we've removed a lot of leaves that produce fuel for the plant, and we've exposed the fruit to the sun. Fortunately, a lot of our fruit is about to ripen any day now, so it may not be too much of a problem.

It's an experiment.  We'll do better next year.

Friday, August 12, 2016

The harvest of neglect: lost veggies

We've always struggled to grow simple things like carrots and radishes.  Children are given these seeds as an introduction to gardening because it's so easy to succeed with them.

But we never succeed.

For one thing, we have so many tree roots in our garden plot that long-rooted vegetables like carrots grow into shapes like tuning forks or bad plumbing.

For another, we're eager and start pulling them up to see if they are done yet. They never thrive after that.

This week, coming back to the garden after a long, long hiatus, we started clearing out the overgrowth and discovered some forgotten veggies that we planted long, long ago.

In case you're wondering, that beet-like root and its companions in the photo are different kinds of radishes.  Not a beet among them. I suspect they are exotic rainbow and watermelon radishes.

We couldn't harvest without tasting. Woody -- I expected woody from such a big, old radish, but it wasn't particularly.

The flavor was fierce and fiery.  Not the light zingy, tangy flavor of a radish at its peak. These radishes taste angry. It made me think of something an up-and-coming West Hollywood bar chef would to infuse vodka with for a signature cocktail.

Assuming, of course, he could find his way to the Neglectful Farmers Market for a supply of slow, soil-aged radishes.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Herbal challenges

The thought of an orderly, scented kitchen garden like I've seen at The Huntington gardens or in books is so appealing. Ranks of herbs -- thyme, oregano, basil and parsley -- lining neat pathways in easy reach for cutting. A garden right outside the kitchen when you need a pinch of marjoram for a sauce . . .

At Fink Farms, it never works out like that.  Unruly bunches of herbs grow into each other, or bolt or shrivel in the sun without water.  When we first started the farm, we were growing herbs in the main garden with the tomatoes, and beans and lettuce greens.

I decided to set up a separate herb area along the cinder block wall, first because of squabbles about what should go where between the then three partners and secondly because I'd read that herbs like adverse conditions.  Since we were composting up the main garden, I thought perhaps the herbs would do better in less rich ground.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Gardening by the Square Foot

When you have three people working the same garden, you're bound to have a clash of styles.

I like having a plan.  I have a yet-to-be-realized fantasy that I will one day have a visually pleasing garden with plants arranged to allow variations in scale and color. A delight with every step and change of perspective.

A Long Hiatus Ends

Two years have gone by and we've scarcely stuck a trowel into dirt.

I blame these fallow periods on California's lack of seasons. It's even worse with a four-year-old drought on. Planting time seems to begin earlier and earlier and there's always something else to grab our attention.

The oregano, thyme and mint that we moved away from the main vegetable plot are still going. There are brown paper bags hanging from my balcony with drying herbs. They should be ready to put into jars tomorrow. The biggest challenge is harvesting before they go to flower.

Monday, May 20, 2013

New Season, New Garden

Last year was a fallow one for us, but new things are sprouting in the garden in 2013.

We rearranged the garden, for starters. While we hardly have an over-cultivated plantation, we like to plant our regular favorites in different places each year. Our plot gets intense sun from mid-morning until nearly 7 p.m. We've shifted our bean trellis so that it cuts across the garden diagonally.  We've added a new and colorful knitted trellis for growing beans on.  We're hoping that will provide a little bit more shade or filtered sun across the hours of the day.

Our most ambitious addition is an herb garden. Seeds have been started and purchased plants have even been transplanted to larger pots.  The gardener is clearing lawn from a strip along the western cinder block wall. Karen has started exploring border devices to see the plot off and provide a little bit more raised bedding.

I've been clipping the oregano we had more often.  I've also trimmed the thyme I purchased and mint.  I'm discovering the herbs do much better when trimmed.  I have a pile of herbals and instructions for drying, distilling, decocting and infusing with herbs.

In the front of the house, we planted seeds for hollyhocks, nasturtiums, zinnias and daisies. So far only the nasturtiums have come up.  There's some interesting double-leafed sprouts coming up, but it's hard to tell at this stage if they are planted seeds or volunteers.

Photos to come with the next post.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Remembering Stephan Megerdichian and His Gardens

Several of us are remembering a neighbor who recently passed away, Stephan Megerdichian Sahaki, with a donation to the Los Angeles Master Gardener program.

Mr. Megerdichian loved to garden.  In Iran, where he lived until the 1990s, he had rose bushes. In Sherman Oaks, his last home, he had geraniums happily tumbling through the railings of his balcony to brighten the streetscape. It is a tradition in his culture to send huge bouquets of flowers for display at the funeral and the grave. Forgive us, but we have chosen to make a gift in his name to a program that will keep blooming forever.

Master Gardeners in Service to the Community

The Master Gardener program is part of the University of California Cooperative Extension program for Los Angeles County. Offered every spring, the Master Gardener Volunteer Training Program provides intense gardening training to enable volunteers to help low-income residents grow their own food.  They learn about organic gardening, growing vegetables, fruits, flowers, shrubs, trees, soils, composting, pests and harvesting.

After their training, the Master Gardeners provide free gardening workshops and give technical expertise to community, school, shelter and senior gardens throughout Los Angeles.

In 2011, the 236 Master Gardeners volunteered 14,909 hours, serving 132,363 low-income gardeners in Los Angeles County at 271 locations including community gardens, school gardens, homeless and battered women’s shelters, senior gardeners and fairs and farmers markets.

University Caliber Knowledge Applied to Your Backyard

The 64 Cooperative Extension offices in California are local “problem-solving centers,” according to the Extension’s Los Angeles County website. They are the “bridge between local issues and the power of UC research.” Their focus ranges from helping farmers (both commercial and backyard) solve pest problems, grow more efficiently, apply smart water-use strategies, promote healthy diets and nutritious foods.

The website offers the home gardener wonderful information including Los Angeles-focused gardening tips and checklists by month, gardening articles on a wide variety of subjects, informational brochures on growing tomatoes, saving water, pruning trees and amending soils.

The Extension also offers classes as part of its Grow LA Victory Garden Initiative. Planning ahead to a bounteous harvest, you can also get involved in the LA County Master Food Preserver Program. This 12-week program teaches you how to use canning, pressure canning, freezing, drying and fermenting to preserve food.