Friday, August 26, 2016

Shade Cloth Can Increase Tomato Yields

Some interesting research work from Jerry Brust, UME Vegetable IPM Specialist
(re-printed from article by Jerry in the  UDEL Weekly Crop Update- Aug. 26, 2016)

I have been experimenting with using shade cloth in tomato over the last 5 years and they have worked remarkably well in increasing the marketable yields of many different cultivars of tomatoes by 20-50%. I use a 30% filtering shade (using any more than 30% tends to reduce yields and size of tomato fruit). The shade cloth is draped over the top of the tomato stakes and held down at both ends (Figure 4). I know this does not seem practical, but only the top ¼ of the plant needs to be covered (not shown) which means a grower could use shade cloth with a 4 ft width and as long as they wanted it to be. The shades can be used over and over for many years; the ones I am using have been in use now for 5 years. The shade cloth helps tomato plants come through very stressful weather conditions, i.e., high temperatures with high dew points and even heavy rains in much better shape than plants that were not covered.
 Figure 4. Shade cloth over a section of tomato row

Figure 5 shows part of a row (with the red line) that had been covered with shade cloth for six weeks compared with the row next to it which had not – same cultivar planted on the same day. I arbitrarily selected that one section of row for the shade cloth in June. You can see how much better those plants that were covered look than the ones that were not covered. The benefit of using the shades is an increase in quality and size of tomato fruit, rarely in the number of fruit.
Figure 5. Part of tomato row (with red line) that was covered with shade cloth vs others that were not
Figure 6 shows harvest bins of tomato fruit with the bin on the left from plants that were covered from the end of June through July while the bin on the right was from plants (same cultivar) not covered. These experiments were replicated 4, 6, and even 8 times in the field over several years and the results were always the same – an increase in marketable yield each year. Some years it was an 18.9% increase and some years it was a 47.7% increase. Once plants are covered, the shade cloth can stay on the rest of the season until harvest. We sprayed through the shade cloth with fungicides and insecticides. Foliar diseases were reduced for plants under shade compared with plants outside shade. I am not suggesting a grower would shade an entire field, but you might select a few of your cultivars that bring a very good price, but are prone to producing ugly tomatoes during stressful weather conditions and shade those.
Figure 6. Harvest bins of tomato fruit; bin on left from plants covered with shade and bin on right from plants that were not covered.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Vegetable gardens for busy people

Which is everyone, right? I suspect this is a topic worthy of a long blog series, or an entire blog on its own, but I'm too busy for that *grin* so I thought I'd jot down a few ideas I had today and then perhaps all of you will have more to add in the comments.

It's very easy to get started on a garden in the spring, have big ambitions, and then find that both life and weather get in the way and you just can't manage to keep the beast caged. We've all been there, so when I display my community garden neighbor's tomato patch as an example:

I am in no way picking on him. (Though I note here one of my community garden etiquette principles, which is that I'll make two efforts to relocate things like flopping tomato plants and wandering squash vines, and after that anything that produces inside my plot, even if it got started in another plot, belongs to me.)

So here are a few hints that might assist the busy to keep their gardens relatively neat and productive, and then two strategies for crop choice that might also help.


  • Start small. If you are a beginning gardener, don't till up that 50x100 foot patch and expect to keep up with what you plant there. Try 10x10 instead, and then expand. Or start with containers. Of course, if you have a community garden plot, the size is chosen for you, but if you know ahead that you won't be able to maintain 400 square feet or whatever it is, get a friend to help you and share the bounty.
  • Mulch early and often. The value of keeping bare soil covered cannot be overstated. Do it in the spring before things get out of control and it's just too hot to push wheelbarrows.
  • Expect to weed anyway. It'll be a lot less if you mulch, but remember that it has to be done and is best done on a regular schedule.
  • In fact, working regularly is another important principle. Put gardening on your calendar, however it works for you (but at least twice a week). If you schedule it, it'll be much more likely to get done. And you won't show up after three weeks and get discouraged because you appear to be growing nothing but weeds.
  • Use support structures. I mean that literally and not metaphorically, though it's good to have family and community support! But putting in those strong tomato cages (not skinny little stakes or flimsy wire cones) and good trellises when (or before) you put in the plants will help immensely with later maintenance.  And keeping plants off the ground helps limit fungal diseases and animal raids. For tomatoes, if you know you won't have time to prune, use big cages so they can go wild.
  • Figure out what happens when you can't be there. For vacations and other extended absences, find a backup gardener to handle harvesting and perhaps a little maintenance, and if it's possible install drip irrigation with a timer. (This saves you time otherwise as well - who needs to be standing there with a hose?)
  • Get vicious. Some plants just end up requiring too much fussy work. This will vary depending on your pest issues, weather, etc. If you can't grow something without spending hours picking off bugs or treating for diseases, it may not be worth growing. Rip it out before it causes more problems, and educate yourself over the winter about solutions - or else just don't grow it again.
  • On the other hand, floating row covers are a great thing. I would say "worth their weight in gold" if they weighed much of anything.
Okay, that's enough, but I am open to suggestions for more basic Hints for the Busy. What follows are two possible ways to plan your garden to limit time spent dealing with what comes out of it, since overwhelming harvests are another effect of gardening while stressed.

A. The Minimalist Approach

I don't mean to call up visions of three plants in a sea of mulch - you can be minimalist and still have lots of plants - but this is your approach if you just want to feed your family from the garden and not have to deal with huge amounts of extra produce. Plan your garden so you end up able to pick something for dinner every night that you cook, with a few tomatoes left over for sandwiches, and then STOP. Don't fill in the extra space with, oh it won't hurt to have three more squash plants and a half dozen peppers and a small field of garlic. Plant flowers instead. Or herbs.

And yes, it's hard to do the math here, because sometimes plants are prolific and sometimes they die, and how many vegetables do we eat anyway? But after a year or two you'll get the hang of it, and meanwhile you can share your extras with friends and neighbors (who will not yet be sick of you bringing over that extra zucchini or five) or donate them to the hungry.

B. The Specialist Approach

If you like having jars of tomato sauce or bags full of frozen greens to enjoy during the winter, and you enjoy spending a little time in the kitchen to achieve that, but preserving massive amounts of vegetables every weekend through the summer doesn't sound like fun, try specializing. Plant a lot of one thing and process it all at once, and go minimalist for the rest of the garden. (Or plant flowers. Good for bringing in those pollinators!)

If you do this, it may work best to plant a lot of the same variety of whatever crop you want to preserve, so you're more likely to be picking it all at once - and consider determinate tomatoes rather than rangy indeterminate ones, so you'll have an end point to your season. But remember that you can freeze whole tomatoes and then take them out of the freezer later to turn them into sauce.

Interested in learning more about food preservation? Contact your local Extension service, or visit our Food Preservation page.

By the way, the Specialist approach is also good for anyone who has big sweet corn feasts, since it is not really worth growing corn unless you grow a fairly big patch of it (think 10x10 or more), because of the way it's pollinated. Do not go minimalist with corn.

All right, I need to go process massive amounts of tomatoes now (more on that later, perhaps) but hopefully this was of help to someone! And please do add your thoughts and suggestions in the comments.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Don't forget you can pick tomatoes ahead of full ripeness!

One of the most frustrating gardening experiences is watching a beautiful big tomato get close to ripeness and then - just when it's reached peak eating stage - finding that something has ruined it. There's a persistently repeated myth out there that you need to let tomatoes ripen on the vine or they won't have "fresh-picked flavor." But really, this isn't true. A tomato picked early and ripened on your counter will be just as good as one left on the plant.

Pick your tomatoes at "breaker" stage, when they've just started turning color. Hard green tomatoes will not ripen to satisfaction indoors, but tomatoes that are beginning to soften and blush red (or yellow, or purple, or whatever the ripe color will be) will do just fine.

Breaker stage tomatoes: photo by Bob Nixon. They can be greener than this!
So remember, if your vine-ripened tomatoes get savaged by birds and squirrels - pick early. If your lovely soft red fruits end up with hard spots from stink bug damage - pick early. If your plants are losing leaves fast to fungal diseases, and you're worried the fruits will get sunburned or rot - pick early. If you don't get to your garden every day to pick, and tomatoes often over-ripen and fall off - pick early. If your fruits tend to crack after rain - pick early.

We've been saying this since 2011! Read Bob's post about tasting kitchen-ripened tomatoes. This is the best advice I've had about tomatoes ever. It doesn't always work, and you will still lose a few of your precious fruits to really greedy visitors or rots that set in early, but your yields will be far higher and your frustration levels much lower.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Another (smaller) tomato tasting, suggestions for having your own, and a few notes on the season so far

The MGs at the Derwood demo garden have our own tomato tasting on a Tuesday in August, just for those gardeners who show up on that workday. It's not as big an organizational challenge, or as formal, as the terrific GIEI open house tomato tasting (or the upcoming Washington Gardener event in Silver Spring), but it's fun for us and a chance to show off what we've been growing at home and in the demo garden.

MGs enjoying tomatoes; photo by Robin Ritterhoff
Our organizers, Joslyn Read and Dan Ward, did take a poll of tasters and tallied the following (out of about 20 offerings):

Best Tasting Red/Pink Tomato:  1st - Pink Bumblebee, 2nd - Dester, 3rd - Black Ruffles
Best Tasting Yellow/Gold Tomato:  1st - Summer Sunrise (runaway winner!), 2nd: Sungold (cherry type), 3rd - Amy's Apricot (cherry type)

Summer Sunrise (upper right in photo) is a product of the Dwarf Tomato Project, breeding heirloom flavor into container-size tomato plants, and although the plant (grown in our African keyhole garden) has not been super-productive, the taste was fantastic. As was Pink Bumblebee:

It's pretty easy to pull together a tasting like this if you have a group (community garden, garden club, neighborhood association) that has a bunch of tomatoes to share and can meet together at one time. Necessary materials include tables (the more the better, we find, so that folks aren't crowded in and there's lots of space for the tomatoes) with tablecloths to minimize cleanup, paper plates and Sharpies to label them with, cutting boards and knives, toothpicks, hand wipes or soapy water and cloths, and a few volunteers to do the slicing (just in advance of the tasting lineup) plus one person to tally votes. You can organize the tomatoes by type if desired, and decide how you want tasters to vote - division by color worked well for us, but slicers/cherries/paste would also work. Leftover cut tomatoes can go into a nice salad!

Also make sure that people bringing tomatoes label them. Of course it helps if they're labeled properly in the garden to begin with - you can see a Mystery Tomato in an above photo, from the demo garden, so oops, and one year we had the amusingly labeled "If I Told You I'd Have To Kill You Tomato." But so it goes.

My own tomato season is going pretty well. I've heard varying reports from others, including people who have had absolutely no ripe tomatoes to this point (which may have to do with the heat, since ripening is difficult in 85F+ temperatures. I suggest harvesting early, at "breaker" stage (tomato just blushing color), and letting them ripen indoors - also helps with those thirsty birds and squirrels taking bites). Since we had such a chilly wet May I put my plants in on the late side, which helped them avoid fungal diseases for a while (septoria and early blight are pretty rampant at this point), and got the first ripe fruits in the third week of July, later than usual but not unreasonable.

The biggest success (until sunscald started affecting the fruits in recent weeks) has been my grafted Cherokee Purple, which is vigorous despite some fungal disease, and loaded with tomatoes. I grafted it myself! although since it was the only survivor out of ten attempts, I can't boast (will do better next time).  I've also been enjoying one of the new Wild Boar Farms varieties, the crazy Cosmic Eclipse:

This is an accidental twin fruit; they aren't all like this
Some others have been disappointments, especially Chocolate Stripes (very prone to cracking), though for some reason (probably soil-related) all the plants on one end of my garden are stunted and under-producing, whereas the other side is lush and loaded, so that may be part of the issue. I've been determined to only plant one cherry tomato so I don't get overwhelmed, and this year it was Blue Gold Berries (another Wild Boar Farms product), though somehow I ended up with an Amy's Apricot plant another MG was giving away, and they do look good together:

and offer a nice contrast in taste, the Apricot being bright and acidic while the Berries are sweet and mild. And I've had reliable and pretty good tasting fruit from Garden Gem and Garden Treasure, two new (and not commercially available) tomatoes from the University of Florida, which you can get seeds of for yourself with a donation if you like being ahead of the crowd.

Which tomato varieties are successful in your garden this year? Let us know!

Thursday, August 18, 2016

TBT: Tips for making "quick" tomato sauce

While many of our regular contributors are enjoying summer vacations, let's go back into the archives for Throw-Back Thursday! Here's a post from August 24, 2010, written by Bob Nixon.

Tips for making "quick" tomato sauce

I couldn’t believe it. I had picked so many large red tomatoes—Celebrity, Big Beef, Biltmore, Brandywine—that I had filled two colanders and had to stack scores more of tomatoes on the nearby sidewalk. And then I put them into buckets—one large bucket and two smaller ones—to carry to the house.

What was I going to do with all the tomatoes? I picked out a dozen reasonably nice ones for our daughter to take to workmates. The remainders were blemished—several of the Brandywines split after a recent rain—many others showing significant damage from stink-bug sipping.

It was obviously time to pull out our big stainless-steel pot and make tomato sauce to freeze for winter. The recipe I use really isn’t a recipe. It’s “common knowledge”—at least for me—based on experience. Ingredients: ripe tomatoes, onions, garlic, olive oil, basil and thyme, and seasoning.

The big chore is to prepare the tomatoes. I used to blanch them and then skin, core, and remove bad spots. Note the past tense. Last year I just washed and cored them and cut out bad spots, tossed them into a pot, and after they cooked for a while, ran them through a food mill to remove skins and returned them to the pot to continue cooking.

I was ready to do that again this year, but a couple of hours before I started, I stopped at the Home & Garden Information Center to drop off a couple of diseased cucumber leaves for analysis. One of the staffers, Ria Malloy, suggested a quicker way to process the tomatoes. She suggested that after I washed them, I should puree them—skins, seeds, all except core and bad spots—in a blender and then begin cooking.

“I literally wash off the tomatoes, cut out the core and any bad parts, and cut the tomatoes in large chunks over the blender to capture all the juices,” she explained. “And then I cook the tomatoes and other sauce ingredients for about two hours or until the sauce looks and tastes about right before eating or freezing it.”

Hey, I might save an hour’s work with that shortcut—and the sauce might be richer and more nutritious with the minute pieces of skin included. I did it—and admired the bright pink, frothy liquid that turned deep red as it cooked down with the onions and garlic I had sautéed in olive oil, plus some fresh basil and thyme that I added later.

Even though I had squeezed some juice and gel out of the tomatoes as I cleaned them, I ended up with lots of liquid that slowly evaporated as the sauce simmered for more than three hours. I was happy with the medium-thick result that I transferred into plastic freezer cartons, but it would be even thicker if I had simmered it another hour.

Thin tomato sauce isn’t really a problem at Meadow Glenn—because we just add a small can of store-bought tomato sauce or paste to thicken it when we heat it in winter. Ria’s sauce is even thinner, but that doesn’t worry her a bit. “I cook pasta in the thin sauce rather than in a pot of water,” she explained. “The pasta soaks up the extra liquid and ends up exceptionally tasty. Actually, extra liquid is good when you’re making lasagna with no-boil, ready-to-bake noodles.”

Now that the Tomato Sauce 2010 is in our freezer, I’ve just learned something on the Internet that may save me additional time when I make sauce next year: cook the tomatoes about 5 minutes after they come from the blender, and then let them cool for a half hour. The solids will float to the top, and the liquid and most of the seeds will remain on the bottom. Skim off the solids—or remove the liquid with a baster—and proceed with cooking your sauce.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Tomato tasting at the MoCo MG's GIEI open house

Guest post by Gail Ifshin. Photos by Donna Starkweather.

On August 6, we celebrated the Year of the Tomato at the Montgomery County GIEI annual summer event.  You could explore solutions to problems with your tomato plants and learn about seed saving with MG experts.  And of course, most deliciously, participate in the tomato tasting contest.  A big thank you is due to everyone who took part - whether by donating or tasting!

At the tomato tasting event we showcased 53 varieties of tomatoes, most of which were donations from individual Master Gardeners and the Demo Garden.  And the winners are...

1st Place — Golden Jubilee (Gerrie Wetzel)
2nd Place — Juliet (Demo Garden)
3rd Place — Blueberry (Robin Ritterhoff)
4th Place — Black Ruffled (Lily Bruch)

1st Place — Sungold (Terri Valenti, Dan Ward, Dara Ballow-Giffen, Robin Ritterhoff)
2nd Place — Black Cherry (Merikay Smith, Alice Pare)
3rd Place — Yellow Brandywine (Gerrie Wetzel)
4th Place — Pineapple (Gerrie Wetzel)

1st Place — Pink Berkeley Tie Dye (Market)
2nd Place — Beefmaster (Market)
3rd Place — Black Prince (Market)
4th Place — Cherokee Carbon (Market)

*Interestingly, none of the winning ugliest tomatoes came from the gardens of MG's!

Monday, August 8, 2016

GIEI tutorial at Selborne House's newly created community container garden

Earlier this year, I was asked by the the property manager at Selborne House in Ellicott City, if I would design a small community garden for residents interested growing their own vegetables.  After viewing the area around the residence, I gave the property manager several options from which she chose to make two large raised container gardens, measuring 10 feet long, two feet wide and a foot deep and three feet off the ground, along with multiple 5 gallon bucket containers.

In May, we filled the containers and I conducted a class with the residents, discussing the vegetables which would grow best in the containers.  I also made the residents aware that the growing media needed to be kept moist and fertilized every two weeks, since the planting media contained no nutrients.

From the looks of the following pictures, the residents are doing well.

They are growing green beans, carrots, onions, lettuce and peppers in double 5 gallon buckets.  In early September, I will be conducting a class on planting fall vegetables (spinach, beets, lettuce, broccoli and other brassicas) as their summer vegetables are harvested.

It's been an interesting experiment in container gardens and I look forward to talking to the group about fall vegetables and planning for the so called short day factor which adds two weeks to the to days to maturity because there is less daylight in the late summer and early fall.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Cucumber issues - and GIEI Open House!

Quiz: what the heck is up with this cucumber? (Or is it a tiny barbell??)

This is a question that MGs get a lot during the summer (not the barbell part, usually). The answer: the poor thing was incompletely pollinated. To encourage more pollinators (mostly bees) to visit your plant's flowers, put in lots of herbs and annual or perennial flowers that will provide them plenty of nectar and pollen. Sometimes there will be a drop-off in pollination anyway, due to wet or (we could only hope) chilly weather, but the bees will come back if you help them along. And yes, you can still eat the misshapen fruits, though often they start to rot and fall off by themselves.

Anyone else having a difficult cucumber year? Like squash, cucumbers seem to be either too abundant or complete failures. This year, at the Derwood demo garden, we've had a hard time getting our cukes to grow tall enough to climb their new gorgeous trellises (which you can admire, unfortunately all too clearly, at our Grow It Eat It Open House this Saturday - poster below!). Slow start due to weather, munching by cucumber beetles, heat stress, a bit of disease - some years it's just every problem at once!

If you're also having a terrible cucumber year, try reviewing the Grow It Eat It cucumber profile page, and maybe you'll find the information you need to fix the problems. Quick suggestions: floating row cover over the young plants; a late start to the season to avoid the worst of the cucumber beetles; frequent watering; growing on a trellis up off the ground. And crossing your fingers!

Here's our upcoming event - it's going to be great!