Saturday, May 14, 2016

Not putting the tomatoes in yet

Skinny tomato seedlings yearn for the sun

"Have you put your tomatoes in yet?" The question echoes through all the vegetable gardens in chilly rain-soaked Maryland. And no, mine aren't in yet, despite having sat on my back porch desperately short of sunlight for weeks now; let me tell you why.

This is one reason - soil temperatures still short of 60 degrees. To be honest, I didn't measure in the spot I'm planting my tomatoes, since that's over in my community garden plot, and I wasn't going to drive over just to take a photo. But I think my backyard is pretty close, temperature-wise. The full-sun community garden may be a smidge warmer, enough to take the chance on this (finally!) sunny Saturday - except that another cold front is coming through this afternoon, and temperatures will plummet, settling as low as the high 30s on Sunday night. Not to mention possible thunderstorms. I'm not going to put my poor babies through that. I'm waiting at least another few days.

Now, if you have already put your plants in - I'm not shaming you. I have been there, often enough - in fact I lost most of my tomatoes two years ago in the freak mid-May frost. But the thing is, weather swings like this are just not freaky anymore; they're the way it is. We can't rely on formulas like "plant your tomatoes on Mother's Day" any longer (lovely as this Mother's Day was, for a few hours between drizzle and rain). We all need to get soil (or compost) thermometers and use them; we all need to check long-range forecasts and obsess over weather with the best of them. (My personal favorite sites are Weather Underground and the Capital Weather Gang, but everyone has opinions.)

And we need to be ready to keep those tomatoes inside, or have something ready to protect them when they're planted outside. Just throwing a light blanket, sheet, piece of floating row cover, or even a paper bag over them helps if temps are going down (make sure it's anchored if wind is expected), and there are many protection devices on the market if you are determined to get those early July fruits. You can also warm the soil ahead of planting by putting down black plastic (it does help if the sun is shining, though). Also, if you are in the habit of planting your tomatoes deep (which helps them form stabilizing roots off the stem), consider laying them sideways in a trench rather than digging a hole straight down - soil is warmer near the surface. Raised beds can also help, since they warm faster than in-ground gardens.

Just think how you'd feel if someone tied you to the ground out in a mud-pit through cold rain and high winds and frost! We are all yearning for the sun around here these days, but we can't change the weather, so we might as well stay inside (you can give your seedlings a cup of (compost) tea and a good book if it makes you feel better). I wish mine were still under grow lights, but I don't have room for them there anymore - too many other plants!

Remember to check out our Year of the Tomato page for good advice on keeping your tomatoes healthy. And if you haven't bought tomato seedlings yet (good for you for waiting!), Jon has a new video on how to make your selection.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Story Yet to be Told

Guest author: Susie Hill, Frederick County Master Gardener
This article originally appeared in the Frederick News Post 
“Can’t we pay someone to do this?” my husband asked. He was delivering his second wheelbarrow of mulch to my side and trying his hand at weeding for the first time in our 19-year history of home ownership.
While he loves the outdoors, Chris prefers that his fresh air experiences involve skis on his feet or a boat keeping him afloat. As one who comes from a family of gardeners and wildlife admirers, it is beyond my comprehension how Chris could perceive yard play as work. I think that the real issue is that he doesn’t feel part of the story that is playing out in front of him; stories of relationships with friends and family. These are stories that don’t have an ending, but they continue to unfold.
While one can garden alone, there is generally a history of community and friendship involved. For me, digging in the soil generates memories of friendship. I have a beautiful ground cover of native ginger that was given to me by a friend, Kim. This week I passed some along to another friend, Nicole.
My hearts-a-bursting, (native Euonymus) were a gift from Ellen. They are spectacular in the fall, so I would like to plant the runners myself and help it along as it establishes itself on the bank. A family friend, Kelsey, now 15, loves lamb’s ear because it is soft and it reminds her of her mother. I keep it growing in remembrance of her. My friend Ria planted borage after my back surgery five years ago and it continues to re-sow itself, every edible periwinkle flower reminding me of her.
There are plants in my yard that reflect my family history too. For Christmas my mother gave me an 80-year old Kingsville boxwood, propagated by my grandfather. That tiny, miniature boxwood is a treasure to me. In another corner, I am reminded of Aunt Derrick and Uncle Heidi. (Yes, that is really what we call them.) They gave my daughter a gorgeous Southern magnolia for her baptism.
Elsewhere in the yard, I see lupines that Liza planted. She was 6 when we planted a flat of seeds. Only six germinated, and two survived transplanting. Those two have gone on to reproduce prolifically. Some of those lupine babies went to live with my friend Marie.
Sometimes the stories of friends and family come together. There is a redbud growing by the creek that was a gift from my sister, Annie. Ria taught me that the pea-like magenta flowers are edible and full of vitamin C. I have in turn taught many children to eat redbud flowers.
If this story unfolds according to plan, my own children will pass this fact along to my grandchildren. Then they too will enjoy munching on the purple buds just for the novelty of it. I don’t know exactly how this story ends, but I am going to enjoy being filthy dirty as I witness how it unfolds.
To answer Chris’ original question, of course we could get help with the yard. We have done that in the past and I will get help if I feel that I really need it. But I want to manage the beds in my yard myself so I can keep a lookout for lupine babies that take me back to a time that I can remember fondly, but I can’t relive. I want to mulch, water and tend all these plants myself because I would like to have a hand in this story as it is written.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Grafted Tomato Plants

           When I first heard of grafted tomato plants, I thought: Grafting? Of annuals? Really? Grafting woody perennials, yes. The time, attention and effort required to produce a successful graft rewards us with years of fruit (trees) and/or beauty (think: roses). But all that work for the tender stems of tomato plants that only last a season? Yet grafted tomatoes, watermelon, cucumber, eggplant, and peppers are catching on worldwide  -- and for good reason.
         The process of grafting annual vegetable plants is theoretically simple. Take a plant with a strong rootstock, slice off its green top at an angle then slice through the stem of the desired top-growth plant (scion) cutting off its roots. Mate the sliced ends of the two plants and clip them together until the slice heals.
         “The plant can begin to draw nutrients within 10 seconds,” says Peter Zuck, vegetable product manager at Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Winslow, ME, which sells grafted plants, “but the after care of the newly joined seedling is critical.”
         As soon as the graft is made, plants must be kept at just the right temperature (70-74F) and humidity (80%-90%) and remain in low light to prevent top growth while the graft heals completely.
Root stock cut with tops being added
         “Some people incorrectly think of it as similar to genetic engineering,” says John Bagnasco, managing partner at SuperNaturals Grafted Vegetables in Vista, CA, “but it’s not at all.”
         Grafting has been a horticultural practice for centuries. The Bible mentions grafting olive trees in the book of Romans. The Chinese grafted the strong roots of wild tree peonies to their favorite cultivated stems in the 9th century.* But grafted annual vegetables and fruits are a relatively recent addition to the horticultural pantheon.
         “The Japanese began grafting them about thirty years ago,” says Bagnasco, who notes that Japan struggles with depleted, disease-prone, and challenging soils. “They have to graft to get them to grow.”
         Additionally, the 1997 Kyoto Protocols, which outlawed methol bromide used to control soil-borne fungal, bacterial and viral diseases, prompted an upsurge in the use of grafted annuals among its 197 signers, who needed an effective alternative to the pesticide.
          “Almost 100% of the watermelons grown in Mexico are grafted now,” says Zuck.
Graft clip over where the two sliced stems meet
         In 2011, it was estimated that 1 billion grafted fruiting annuals were sold worldwide. In 2015, the number was 1.5 billion.
         “Most were watermelon plants and most were sold in China,” says Bragnasco.       
         In addition to disease-resistance, the grafted plants tend to stand up to the kinds of climatic and regional stressors -- soil salinity, temperature extremes, short seasons, and lower light -- that can doom a vegetable garden, especially that succulent emblem of summer: tomatoes.
            “Tomatoes don’t care for the broiling hot weather we have in summers around here,” says John Campbell of Annapolis, MD. Campbell has been growing grafted tomatoes in his home garden for ten years. “If the weather stays above 90 degrees for more than five days, they slow up on production. What I have found is that the grafted tomatoes suffer through this rotten summer weather with no problems, and I have not had any problems with disease.”
         In addition to withstanding stressors, grafted vegetable plants can produce well despite less than optimal light. Most vegetables require six to eight hours of direct sunlight a day to fruit well.
         “I had a small lot in Belfast [ME] with mature trees,” says Zuck. The tomatoes got about five hours of direct sun coupled with dappled sunlight and shade the rest of the day. “I found that the grafted plants helped me overcome that. They were much bigger and more productive than the non-grafted plants.”
         The plants produce anywhere from twice to three times the fruit, and they are exceedingly hardy,” says Campbell.
         Another advantage for the home gardener with limited space is that grafting bypasses the need to rotate crops, a common practice used to avoid recurring soil-borne problems. Although grafted vegetable plants are obviously more expensive than non-grafted, for many home gardeners it’s worth it.

* An Illustrated History of Gardening, by Anthony Huxley, Lyons Press, 1978.