When Life in the Garden Gives You Tomatoes…

The end of the growing season can get a little depressing. Ours usually comes suddenly, and this year was no exception. The weather turned cool, cloudy and damp. It was time to start garden cleanup and final harvests. A week earlier, we made homemade margherita pizza with some of our last fresh tomatoes and basil. But time was running out for fresh tomatoes (and pizza, darn it).

homemade margherita pizza
Homemade crust brushed with olive oil and crushed garlic. Top it with shredded and fresh mozzarella, fresh tomato slices and basil to make an easy and delicious margherita pizza

A couple of our tomato plants still were covered in fruit. But most of the fruit was not quite ripe. And tomatoes need temperatures of about 68 to 77 degrees to ripen. Our high the other day was lower than 68!

cloudy skies
We haven’t seen the mountains hidden in those clouds for days.

So, I grabbed my garden trug tub (a favorite gift from my daughter via Gardeners Supply) and set about gathering all the tomatoes I could before the weather turned. Most of the tomatoes left were snack-sized, between cherry and cocktail. And they were in varying states of ripeness. It really was a fun activity, and a good way to end the growing season.

tomato harvest
A tub full of tomatoes at varying ripeness.

Sort and Save

So, my next task was to sort the fruit I had gathered. Green and semi-green tomatoes went on a plate in a sunny window to finish ripening. Softer and ready-to-eat fruit went on the plate I keep on the kitchen counter all season so we can eat them soon. A few had holes or other problems; they went to trash or compost.

sorting and saving last tomato harvest
Left: tomatoes to ripen on windowsill. Right: tomatoes for immediate enjoyment Back: tomatoes ready to preserve in delicious sauce.

Finally, I collected all that were ripe, nearly ripe and even a little soft to make sauce. I then modified a recipe from my canning book, changing it to use what I had in my pantry and to more closely match the homemade sauce I make from canned tomatoes. You can do the same or turn to a site such as the National Center for Home Food Preservation or your local cooperative extension office.

fresh tomatoes in sauce
Sauce from fresh tomatoes cooking down for freezing.

A Few Tips

  • It’s essential to wash all tomatoes you preserve and check them for signs of damage, disease or pests.
  • After washing, we cut the fruit in half, removed the stem scar and scooped out the core and seeds. We didn’t bother to blanch and peel because our tomatoes were so small. This activity was a little messy but fun.
  • Preserved sauce needs a balance of sugar and vinegar (or lemon juice) to preserve the fruit and flavor. We also added chopped onions and celery, Italian spices and garlic.
  • Fresh tomatoes don’t always form the thick, pasty sort of sauce you get from recipes using canned. I cooked mine a little longer than suggested (about 45 minutes once tomatoes were added) to adjust for altitude, better loosen the peels and soak up flavor. If desired, you can add some sauce or paste when you use the sauce later, but not so much you disguise the fresh tomato flavor. I took my immersion blender and pulsed the cooked sauce. The blender also picked up some of the peels, making the sauce a bit smoother.
  • I chose to freeze my sauce. To do so, be sure to cool your sauce and place it in plastic containers (not bags). The reusable sealed containers from the store would work great. Be aware that some of the spices in a sauce lose their flavor after freezing. However, we already ate one batch of frozen sauce and it was delicious.
  • Frozen tomatoes in any form become mushy, so they’ll only be good for sauces, soups or stews. They typically keep about eight months in the freezer.

I’m so glad we took the time to use as many tomatoes from our garden as possible. And I wish we had tomatoes year-round because this is my new favorite sauce!

 

It’s Time to Harvest Your Vegetables: Here Are Some Tips

Sometimes, a home-grown tomato is so pretty that I hesitate to pull it off the vine. I’d rather take photos, smile as I stroll past the plant or point out the healthy fruit to anyone willing to listen.

fall harvest
It’s easy to know when to harvest your home-grown vegetables, mostly through trial and error.

Of course, watching a vegetable you started from seed grow into a healthy plant is a reward in and of itself. But it’s even more rewarding when the plant provides fresh, delicious and healthy food for you and your family (or friends and neighbors!).

What’s more, harvesting fruit helps the plant continue producing, sending energy to develop, ripen and flavor fruit instead of continuing to feed overripe ones. Here are some tips on when and how to harvest fresh vegetables in the garden or a U-Pick site, courtesy of the Home Garden Seed Association and my experience (including plenty of mistakes).

tomatoes on vine, varying maturity
Tomatoes at various stages of maturity show the deeper red color of ripe fruit that’s ready to eat.

Tomatoes

Color helps cue gardeners on picking tomatoes, which should be a deeper red than the ones you see in the grocery aisle. But color can be a tough cue when growing some varieties, such as yellow tomatoes. We have a few Midnight Snack tomatoes courtesy of All-America Selections and the National Garden Bureau. The delicious snack-sized tomatoes have an indigo color on top (and the fruit has extra antioxidants). You just feel the fruit and check for reddening on the bottom to make sure it’s ripe. Once a tomato feels somewhat soft when you squeeze it gently, it’s probably ready to eat. Just twist it slightly from the vine and it should give. Be sure to store tomatoes in a cool spot in your kitchen, but not in the refrigerator.

tomato how to harvest
Gently twist tomatoes of any size from the vine when the fruit is deep in color and slightly soft.

Cucumbers

Cucumber fruit seems to mature all at once, and the best way to know when to harvest is to have an idea of the fruit’s mature size from seed packets or through trial and error. We often note that the spiky part of the peel loses some of its sharpness at peak ripeness. When in doubt, though, opt for early rather than late. Cucumber seeds get large and tough and the fruit less sweet the longer the fruit stays on the vine. Use scissors or shears to cut the cucumber from the plant; avoid twisting it off. Cucumbers store best dry in the refrigerator. I keep mine wrapped in a soft towel and wash them when I’m ready to eat them.

cucumber on vine
Cucumbers are better harvested a little early than late.

Carrots

Carrots can begin to lose sweetness if left in the ground too long. Gently swipe away some dirt to check if the top (shoulder) of the carrot is bigger than about half an inch. For most varieties, this is a signal it’s ready to pull. Carrots tend to vary more than other fruits at harvest, especially if they have not been thinned adequately. But the taste of any nearly mature carrot from the home garden is so much better than store-bought carrots, regardless of its appearance. Carrots also store better dry, so either leave the dirt on and pack them in a vented plastic bag or let them dry completely after snipping the leaves just above the shoulders. I’ve found that our carrots store best in the ground (up to a point) and I only harvest what I need every day or two.

carrots straight from the ground
Just cut off carrot leaves above the shoulder and store with some dirt on them or wash and dry completely.

Beans and Peas

Harvesting beans is one of my favorite activities. I like looking for the elusive pods under the leaves. It does require two hands, however. You need to hold the stem of a bean or pea as you pull off the fruit to avoid breaking the stem and pulling off immature neighbors of the mature bean. I set a basket on the ground or hang a used grocery bag on my arm to free up both hands for harvesting. Pick beans while long and slender and before lumps form in the pods. Snap peas are best when peas are just beginning to form in the pod, but are not yet mature.

harvesting beans
Use one hand to hold the vine while the other gently tugs on a mature bean or pea.

Lettuce

Most lettuces taste best when leaves are four to six inches long. I love cutting loose-leaf varieties because you can harvest them two or three times. If a loose-leaf or head lettuce looks elongated, it’s getting to be too late for optimal flavor. Cut outside leaves of loose-leaf lettuces first, and cut head lettuce at the base of the plant, just above the ground. Wash and dry lettuce immediately; spinners are great for this. Store in a plastic bag that is closed but has plenty of air inside. I also sometimes add a paper towel to absorb moisture in the bag. You’ll be amazed how much longer your fresh lettuce keeps compared with prepared bags!

spinning lettuce
Organic mesclun leaves in the salad spinner.

Peppers

Whether growing sweet bell peppers or New Mexico chile peppers, it helps to learn the mature color for your variety. The good news is that peppers usually have a decent flavor even when immature, although the skins might be a bit tougher. So know enough about your pepper to watch for its expected mature color and pick as soon as it turns. Leaving peppers on the plant too long slows production of new fruit. All pepper types come off the plant easiest when fully ripe. Store peppers in a bag in the refrigerator crisper. With green chile, I wait until I have enough peppers to roast and then freeze them.

short-season-bell-pepper
The North Star Bell Pepper is an early-maturing pepper variety. Image courtesy of HomeFarmer (www.HomeFarmer.com)

Squash

Ah, the giant zucchini. Big enough to feed a family of 10, but not as sweet and tender as the one harvested at about 5 to 7 inches in length. Cut all squash fruit with snippers or a knife; don’t twist it off the vine. Winter squash should be ripe when the rind loses its shine and you can scratch the rind without puncturing it. Wipe squash clean with a dry towel; don’t wash before storing. Keep both summer and winter squash in a dry, but well-ventilated spot about 50 to 68 degrees. If you place it in the refrigerator, put it in a plastic bag in the crisper drawer.

zucchini harvest
Most of the zucchinis in this late-season harvest are too big to have flavor. My neighbor will take them off my hands and make stuffed squash.

Kale

Harvest kale and chard much like loose-leaf lettuce. You can begin to harvest outer leaves when they are about four inches high, cutting them about one inch above the ground. Avoid cutting the center tip of the plant, which can stop growth of new leaves. Wash and spin kale and store it in one of the coolest spots in the refrigerator inside a ventilated plastic bag.

In general, seed packets and other materials give you an idea of a fruit’s maturity date, but it varies from region to region and from one year to another.

Most vegetables are better harvested in the morning when crisp, healthy and dry. Or you can pick what you want just before preparing your meal. One final note: When harvesting several different vegetables, have a few containers handy. It’s no fun picking green beans out of lettuce leaves, and squash or cucumbers can flatten a juicy tomato.

5 Ways Organic Growing Methods Save Water

Growing with organic methods is smart for lots of reasons, both personal and environmental. Although there are plenty of strategies gardeners and homeowners can use to save water with ornamentals, such as planting native and xeric plants, it’s a little tougher with vegetable gardening.

Tomatoes and water
These yellow cherry tomatoes soaked up a summer rain from their container filled with organic soil and compost.

Tomatoes, for example, need consistent watering! But growing tomatoes organically can conserve water. Here are five ways how:

  1. Organic soil retains water better. Anyone can improve their soil’s water retention by up to 5 percent by adding organic matter. It also helps to avoid use of chemicals and pesticides. Using pesticides and chemical fertilizers in gardens can throw off the natural balance of the soil, making it less able to retain moisture around plant roots and making fewer nutrients available for plants. On the contrary, planting cover crops in the fall and use of compost or other organic matter help restore valuable soil nutrients. Organic matter also helps soil structure for water infiltration and retention. Healthy soil can respond better to drought conditions.

    soil organic
    Before: compacted, poor soil in a newly designated garden area.
  2. Organic growing protects water supplies. By avoiding chemical pesticides and fertilizers, gardeners also protect the water supply. Pesticide chemicals can remain in the soil for years; some are more toxic than others and break down in the soil more slowly. The chemicals from these products can run off into bodies of water, such as rivers. And eventually, they can seep into groundwater. That might seem a distant concern to some urban gardeners, but those of us using wells live right above available water. The more chemicals that run into water supplies, the less safe drinking water is available.

    organic matter on garden bed
    AFTER: Organic matter added to the vegetable garden raised row.
  3. Use of mulch reduces evaporation. A layer of appropriate mulch above the ground around a plant helps reduce ground-to-air evaporation, making the soil take longer to dry out. The mulch also helps cools plant roots. Using organic mulches such as bark, nut shells, compost and others adds organic matter to the soil slowly over time for an added bonus.

    mulching organic pecan
    Rock mulch helps lavender stay hot and dry, and on the lower left, pecan bark mulch surrounds a plant that needs more water.
  4. Organic methods can minimize erosion. Traditional gardening and farming uses rototilling and deep plowing to turn the soil before each growing season. Plowing deeply and turning the soil over can disrupt soil microorganisms, harm soil health, and place looser soils on top, where they’re subject to erosion from water and wind (think Dust Bowl). No-till methods help control erosion and build soil structure. The soils, in turn, better retain water. This can be a problem if the soil drains poorly, but a definite help in low-water regions. Not tilling involves building up beds with organic matter, much like nature does as plants drop leaves that decompose. If you want to work organic matter in, it’s best to grab a shovel. A broadfork is the best tool for breaking up compacted soil.

    watermelon organic
    Healthy babydoll watermelon plant in organic soil.
  5. Growing organically creates healthier plants. Healthy soil is the foundation needed to grow healthy food. When soil has good nutrients and structure, it supports root growth and uptake of nutrients, improving plant health.  Plants that are not healthy are more vulnerable to insect and disease damage. The plant might not use water as it should when it’s stressed, and the gardener certainly guesses that if a plant looks bad, it needs water. So, keeping plants healthy saves the extra water the plant needs or gardener applies in times of stress. And healthy plants keep on going, so you don’t waste water on establishing a plant that later dies from poor conditions.

Five Easy Foods to Grow at Home

It’s warming up outside (finally!) and lots of Southwest homeowners will be planning changes or additions to their xeric and edible gardens.

easy grow vegetables
Three easy vegetables to grow at home: cucumbers, tomatoes and green beans.

1. Small tomatoes – cocktail, cherry, grape
Pros: Tomatoes are by far the best crop to grow at home to enjoy the flavor and quality of the fruit. Small tomatoes ripen in most climates, and if you plant in succession (such as one plant every two weeks), you can enjoy them all summer in moderate climates. Colorful cherry tomato varieties look terrific roasted or in salads. And these smaller tomato varieties can grow right on your patio in a container (minimum about 12 inches).
Cons: Heirloom tomatoes are  pretty and often large, plus great for slicing to add to sandwiches and green chile cheeseburgers. But unless you live in a warmer zone (Las Cruces, Deming and lower elevations of Arizona), or have a greenhouse, it can be tough to grow large heirloom tomatoes. At zone 6B, we have a relatively short growing period.

yellow cherry tomatoes container
Yellow cherry tomatoes growing on the vine.

Care: Tomatoes need sun and heat; larger fruit seldom ripens completely if temperatures drop or clouds roll in at the end of the summer. It’s possible to keep tomato plants going, and we probably could have grown larger varieties last year. Look for short-season varieties. Water tomatoes consistently for best results, using a timed drip system when possible and a routine for hand watering containers.

2. Cucumbers
Pros: When you grow your own cucumbers, they’re fresher, tastier and lack the wax coating applied to commercial cucumbers. They’re easy to grow and typically produce for months each summer. You can find burpless, slicing and pickling varieties. Cucumber flowers are bright and pretty, so the plant can look great mixed in with ornamentals.
Cons: A cucumber plant needs lots of space, and should have a trellis or similar structure for climbing. You can grow one in a container, as long as you have something for the plant to climb on or around or choose a bush variety (they take 2 to 3 feet of space vs. 6 feet for vine plants).

cucumber in container
Cucumbers can grow on patios if given a place to climb.

Care: Plant cucumber seeds directly in the ground based on seed packet instructions for your zone. Cucumbers don’t transplant well and don’t germinate well until the ground and air are warm enough. Learn when to harvest for best flavor and smaller seeds, usually before the fruit gets larger than its stated size. Give them full sun and well-drained soil.

3. Green beans
Pros: Green beans come in bush or pole (climbing) varieties, along with filet shape, are super easy to grow and are pretty plants. Snap beans (with an edible pod), shelling beans, and dry beans are all choices for home gardeners. You can find purple beans and other colors to liven up the kitchen garden and your dinner plate. Green beans grow well in a range of zones.
Cons: Beans can produce! Although you can freeze or can extras, you can become overwhelmed by the harvest. Plant beans several weeks apart to extend the season and grow only what you need. And be sure to provide stakes, tee pees or fencing for pole beans.

Green bean plant
Green beans have delicate white flowers and are fun to harvest.

Care: Sow seeds directly in the ground in full sun when possible and after the soil warms. Beans need well-drained soil and regular moisture. There is no need to soak bean seeds before planting; the plants germinate quickly and soaking can damage bean seeds. Beans do best when temperatures are not too high (above 90 degrees F) or too cool.

4. Snap peas
Pros: Snap peas are my new favorite vegetable to eat right off the vine. Sugar snaps are delicious raw and a great addition to salads, vegetable trays or stir fry. You can start pea plants earlier than green beans, as soon as soil temperatures warm to about 45 degrees F. The peas grow best in cool weather, which makes them perfect for early spring and late summer planting. The flowers are pretty and delicate, and the leaves are more attractive than larger green bean foliage.
Cons: Sugar snaps have annoying strings along the entire pod, but you can find stringless varieties. The plants need more water than some vegetables.

snap pea seeds
Sugar snap pea seeds go right in the ground in spring.

Care: If using a drip system for your kitchen garden, add a few extra emitters or more pressure for your peas. Vining varieties do best if supported by a trellis or other structure. Mulching around the base of the plants helps keep them cool and moist.

5. Carrots
Pros: Every child (and adult) should get to pull and taste a fresh carrot to get hooked on vegetables. Carrots do well in cool weather, and are one of the first crops you can plant in spring (about 3 weeks before your last frost). Often, you can keep them going well into fall or winter with the help of a row cover fabric or similar method to warm the ground slightly. Carrots come in a rainbow of colors or several sizes and shapes of typical orange roots.
Cons: Carrots require thinning to grow best, and it’s hard to pull up any of your many seedlings. But thinning helps – this is a root crop and you want the root to have plenty of room beneath the soil. If your soil is too compacted, the carrots won’t grow well.

carrots easy vegetable
Delicious, home-grown carrots.

Care: Keep seeds evenly moist and be sure to thin when leaves reach a couple of inches high. Until ready to harvest, keep the crowns covered with soil. Harvest carrots when the top of the root, or crown, is under an inch in diameter, depending on the variety.

A Microclimate Experiment

Microclimates can be a farmer’s or gardener’s best friend. A few years ago, I wrote about how use of microclimates, or pockets of a garden that have varying temperatures and exposures to weather elements, can expand your choice of xeric plants.

cactus greenhouse atlanta
This greenhouse in an Atlanta-area garden provides extra heat and sun for the homeowner’s succulent collection and keeps rain off the plants!

The easiest example of a microclimate is a greenhouse. Windows let sun in and walls, a roof and other strategies help maintain the warmth. Add a heating source (and enough space) and you can grow nearly any plant any time of year.

lava rocks microclimate
The Desert Garden at the Huntington in San Marino, California, is a perfect microclimate for cacti. Not so perfect for humans on the day we visited. The lava rocks intensified the 100-plus temperatures.

Subtle microclimates exist all around your yard and gardens. Structures and hardscaping absorb heat during warm hours and release it gradually, helping to protect plants from cold; they also can protect plants from wind. Partial shade shields plants from heat, and slopes or other topography alter how the overall climate affects a given plant.

pond water lilies
Not far from the Huntington, a homeowner’s pond was filled with blooming water lilies in basically the same climate.

The Zinnia Experiment

I would like to say that we planted zinnia seeds in three different places simply to later show how microclimates affected their growth and hardiness. But I’d be pushing the truth. I did plant them in several different spots to see how well they grow here and how quickly they bloom, so I can use them as an easy annual filler to add color and even more pollinators to our gardens.

So, we put seeds in open space in our vegetable farm rows, mostly for the pollinators. We also planted some on a fairly exposed raised bed in our xeric garden. Finally, we planted seeds in the lower part of the xeric garden, close to the rock wall. All of the flowers did fairly well, although the ones in the farm area had better soil and more consistent drip watering. They were the tallest and healthiest. The ones in the raised bed took longer to come up, likely because of poorer soil and an inconvenient hand-watering location. The flowers planted in the lower bed did almost as well as the ones in the farm area.

zinnia cold damage
The healthiest zinnias froze the most, likely because of the farm area location and the fact we had pulled up several rows of faded vegetable plants, so these zinnias were open to a pocket of frost.

Then the frost came and the healthiest plants burned the worst. They more or less bit it overnight.

The zinnias in the raised bed were nearly as bad, but at least the flowers kept their color (I planned to take photos of them, but hard-working hubby cleaned up the bed before I had a chance.)

zinnias minor frost damage
These zinnias suffered some frost damage, but the flowers were still vibrant, thanks to their protected location near the rock wall.

The zinnias in the lower bed fared the best. I doubt they will grow or flower more, but they don’t look like they belong in a horror movie.

How to Use Microclimates

The experiment helped me get a sense of microclimates on our land. We’ve always assumed that our farming area is cooler because it is in a sort of mini-valley jut above the river. The dead zinnias demonstrated we were right, especially since those plants were the most robust before the freeze hit. The flowers in the raised bed are more open to cool air; there were no other plants nearby or much hardscape to absorb heat either.

The hardiness of the zinnias in a more protected and “solarized” spot near the rocks was telling. It’s always important to think about sun and shade exposure, but sometimes we fail to consider how placing a few large rocks behind a cold-sensitive plant can help it survive winter. In vegetable gardening, for example, using fabric to cover plants creates a micro-greenhouse effect. And when growing a plant that needs a little less sun or heat, shade cloth or plant placement can lengthen growing seasons.

shade for vegetable plants
Peppers love heat, but these pepper plants in Tucson had shade over them for protection.

Microclimates, like the general climate, can vary. For example, a tree that drops its leaves provides no shade until it fills in late spring. As trees mature, they can begin shading a plant that once received full sun; it might be time to transplant a shaded shrub. Windbreaks help slow the flow of cold air streaming up a slope.

rio Ruidoso bench
Every gardener needs a microclimate too! we placed this bench in a shaded area near the river as a spot to cool off on warm days working outside.

Containers offer excellent microclimates, not only because they warm up quickly, but because you can move them to solve sun and wind exposure issues, and all the way inside before the first frost.

adenium in container
This Desert Rose (Adenium) in Tucson is about 10 times the size of ours. But its location in a container means that botanical garden staff can move it if necessary for changing seasons and microclimates.

Late Summer Garden Problems? Don’t Give Up

It would be fun to see a chart of gardener enthusiasm from May through September. My guess is that it would look something like this:

summer-garden-dont-give-up (11 of 1)

After all, gardening can take time and effort, and summer vacations, heat, family time or work all interfere. It’s easy to get discouraged when bugs and weeds take over and plants don’t look their best. This morning, I had to water for the first time in weeks following a period of regular rain. It took all the effort I could muster, especially since most of our time is spent controlling insects and weeding, usually the same spots over and over again.

low-water southwest garden midsummer
Some people might see a lush low-water garden. I see weeds that need pulling, flowers that need deadheading, beds that need mulching and even a bird bath that needs water!

Then I came inside and remembered: So maybe the horn worm stripped about a fifth of the leaves from one of our tomatoes? At least we finally got control. The plant doesn’t look its best, but the tomatoes are ripening. If we don’t get as many as planned, I can live with that. I can’t just let the plant go, which wastes all of the time, attention and water put into getting it this far.

Staying positive can be tough, but here are seven tips for getting past midsummer doldrums in the garden:

Don’t consider problems as failures. Plants naturally begin to decline and leaves yellow in midsummer. Vegetables and some ornamentals are annuals, after all, and go through a seasonal life cycle. Plus, your plant is putting more energy into fruit or flower production than forming perfect green leaves. And you really can’t control the weather, but only help your plant through rough periods such as drought.

We nearly pulled this tomato up because the leaves have looked awful since an early heat wave. But we're getting some gorgeous roma tomatoes!
We nearly pulled this tomato up because the leaves have looked awful since an early heat wave. But we’re getting some gorgeous roma tomatoes!

Take some photos and share them. You might see brown leaves on a fading green bean plant, but others might see how high the plant has gotten. A close-up of the bean or bloom, along with blooms on flowering ornamentals, focuses your own attention on the beauty that you’re nourishing. Likewise, a photo of your entire garden compared to how it looked two months ago should represent the pride of the work you and nature accomplished.

These lantana blooms make me smile. I need to look past problems to this pretty container.
These lantana blooms make me smile. I need to look past problems to this pretty container.

Change your routine. Although it’s always best to water in the morning, sometimes it’s more fun to go out to breakfast first. Spending time in the garden still is important, especially as plants get crowded, which gives insects more places to hide. If it’s too much to water before work, add a timer to a drip system. Spend time pulling weeds and checking for insects in evening just before the light fades. Or make it a family activity a few days a week.

Share your harvest. Everybody gets tired of zucchini. I love harvesting fresh vegetables early in the season, but my enthusiasm tends to wane when every plant is at peak production. I’m more jazzed this year because we’re selling most of our crops at a farmers’ market. Home gardeners can share with colleagues, neighbors, family members or food pantries. Your enthusiasm is sure to rise when work friends comment on how delicious your fresh cucumbers taste.

Herbs for sale at a local farmers' market.
Herbs for sale at a local farmers’ market.

Take a tip from nature. Often, birds spend more time in the garden as flowers seed out and fade. The birds don’t care if the plant is a little leggy or faded. They still appreciate the seeds, especially if they’re migrating. Really, would you rather be trapped indoors in winter than out here tending your garden? Picture fewer weeds next spring because you got to the ones in the garden now before they seeded out. You can save yourself some time next year by keeping up now.

Keep notes and plan strategies. Gladiolas deer resistant? I think not. I’ve grown some gladiolas as this year’s splurge in terms of water because they are a perfect cut flower. And yes, I should have cut some stalks and brought them inside before last night. The newest flowers and buds are gone, thanks to a deer with discriminating taste who left the fading flowers alone. I’ll have to change where I grow the bulbs next year or keep up with deterrent sprays and methods. I’m looking into doing a better job with trap crops for insect control. And we’ll choose the plants for our microfarm that do the best in our typical conditions (if there is such a thing) and that people like to purchase the most. Plan now, while problems are fresh in your memory, for fall and spring planting.

Gorgeous salmon-colored gladiola blooms in the morning dew. Gone the next morning...
Gorgeous salmon-colored gladiola blooms in the morning dew. Gone the next morning…

Scrutinize social media posts. Obviously, don’t ignore everything on social media. But anyone who posts photos of perfect plants and huge flowers isn’t including photos of the plants they had to pull up because of disease or the really weedy area of their garden. It’s especially important to ignore posts like “How to Yield 300 Tomatoes From One Plant.” First, that’s just to get you to click through. Why compare yourself, and besides, do you really need 300 tomatoes? Lastly, it’s probably not the best advice around. Look for real, solid and credible information and set realistic expectations for yourself and your plants.

Pears that need picking? Or a dreamy shady spot to sit and enjoy yard and garden labor!
Pears that aren’t ripening? Or a dreamy shady spot to sit and enjoy yard and garden labor!

Finally, enjoy reading a book in the shade after you’ve worked in the garden, maybe while munching a fresh cucumber. It will be more relaxing!

 

Grow Food on Your Patio, Deck or Balcony

 

I’m on a quest to encourage more people to enjoy and even grow fresh vegetables and herbs. We’ve started selling some of our edibles from Rio Ruidoso Farms at the Alamogordo Downtown Farmers’ Market. We also make sure to nab plenty of tomatoes, cucumbers and other food for our own meals and snacks.

cucumbers grown on patio
An old screen door makes an excellent trellis for patio cucumbers.

Lots of gardeners worry about making mistakes, solving problems or maintaining a full mini-farm or kitchen garden. But I’m here to tell you that growing food in your landscape, and especially right on your patio, can be easy and way more fun than the time you spend watering or maintaining your plants.

Why Container Edibles on the Patio Are Easier

One of the best ways to keep plants healthy is to frequently “visit” your garden. We love to sit on our balconies, decks or patios this time of year during cool mornings and evenings. Sometimes, you only spot hornworm damage or drought stress in a plant when you’re not looking for problems. Spending more time near the plants helps monitor their health and gives you the satisfaction of seeing the first fruit ripen. It’s easier to fill up a container with excellent potting soil and compost than it is to try to amend and weed bad soil in the yard.

Patio tomato plants
We had to stake these tomato plants because they’re thriving in the warm environment of a south-facing patio.

Containers also grow healthier plants in many instances, although some plants are too large or unruly. It’s a little harder, though not impossible, for snails and bugs to attack plants in pots. You’ll usually need a large container – at least 12 inches wide for even a cherry tomato – but you can clean it out and reuse it for years. Most patios are warmer (or shadier, depending on exposure and the plant you want to grow) than the ground. This can cause problems because of extremes – containers warm up more rapidly and release warmth faster to cool down at night. But in many cases, this is a bonus, especially for starting a plant such as tomatoes earlier in the season. If you think your container is getting too much heat, move it to a shadier area. Or keep containers near walls for added heat. Don’t place them too close to walls and windows, however. Leaves can burn and plants need air circulation.

Gorgeous cherry tomatoes after the rain.
Gorgeous cherry tomatoes after the rain.

In the long run, containers generally use less water than plants in the ground. But be sure to be consistent and regular with watering to avoid stressing edibles. Containers dry out faster than the ground.

Vegetables Can Be Pretty

The movement toward growing food near the house and even as part of a front lawn is a wonderful and sustainable trend. I know some plants can grow a little wild in containers, but that can be a pretty look, too. Most vegetable and herb foliage is attractive, and a spot of yellow or red as fruits flower and ripen adds to the lush look of a patio. Mix in a few potted ornamentals, and you have an outdoor space worthy of any of the best botanical gardens.

I get as much joy looking at the tomatoes in this patio arrangement as I do the flowering geraniums in the background.
I get as much joy looking at the tomatoes in this patio arrangement as I do the flowering roses in the background.

Growing on Decks and Patios Is Convenient

With deer and other animals roaming a yard, home gardeners might need fencing to protect yummy tomatoes and lettuces. If you lack time, money or space for a fenced-in garden, the deck or patio can be a perfect alternative. I might jinx my plants, but I have never had a patio plant munched on, even though deer or rabbits have enjoyed dining on other edibles just a few feet away in the garden.

Cucumbers for lunch or dinner just steps away from the kitchen door. How can that be anything but beautiful?
Cucumbers for lunch or dinner just steps away from the kitchen door. How can that be anything but beautiful?

It’s easier to water plants right outside your door, and often near a faucet or rain barrel, than it is to water in the back corner of the yard. You’re more likely to harvest and eat patio-grown edibles simply because they are right outside your door. Be sure to choose the ones for this location that you eat most often. You won’t find fresher food anywhere.

Keep Your Kitchen Garden Convenient for Most Success

At least 35 percent of households now have kitchen gardens; that’s an increase of more than 60 percent since 2008. Whether the point is to save money or just to have fresher produce, it’s a trend I love to see. Anyone who lives in a rural area especially understands how difficult it can be to find a variety of fresh vegetables and herbs. Expecting produce to be affordable? Well, that’s just asking too much in most cases.

home-grown bell pepper and green beans
Why not grow your own green beans and bell peppers? Place them near your kitchen for ultimate convenience and freshness.

Farmers’ markets are great resources for fresh, local, and often organic food. Of course, you can bring it even closer to home and grow some of your own food. If you’ve never tried, don’t let that stop you. Every gardener makes a few mistakes, and weather is unpredictable. But you’re bound to have some success, and I’ve got a few tips to help:

Grow as close to your kitchen as possible

Back in 2008, before interest in kitchen gardens peaked, I wrote an article for Out Here Magazine about edible landscaping, interviewing expert Robert Kourik. At the time, Kourik pointed out that the closer you can grow herbs and vegetables to your back door, the easier it is to use them. He’s absolutely right; I love walking out into our backyard garden to cut a sprig of rosemary for a recipe.

tomato in container
Have an empty container? Grow a cherry tomato right outside the door.

Although walking certainly is good for you, and my walks to and from our microfarm give me much-needed activity breaks on heavy work days, dinner prep can be a busy, stressful time. Keeping edibles close at hand means you’re more likely to use them and more likely to remember to water them! If you can’t plant herbs and vegetables in a nearby flower bed, place a few in containers on your sunny patio or balcony. All the container needs is to be clean, have drainage at the bottom and be large enough for your plant (about 12-inch minimum in diameter for tomatoes).

cucumber in container
I’m growing a few cucumbers in this container on our back patio for fun and convenience. I’ll trellis the vines up a salvaged screen door.

Involve your family

When you’re busy preparing a meal with fresh ingredients, you can also enlist the kids for help. Send one of your children outside to harvest a tomato. And even before you’re ready to harvest, have the family contribute to your kitchen garden plan. If kids choose and help grow the produce they like best, you’re less likely to have family dinner-table battles. If the kids can help with planting or watering, even better.

home grown carrots
Kids usually love carrots. These might not come prewashed, but they are sweet and fresh when grown in your yard.

Convenient also means easy care

The best way to ensure success with your first kitchen garden is to start small. You don’t need an acre and a greenhouse. If you choose too many plants or get too ambitious with your space and plant variety, it’s easier to abandon the garden midsummer. That’s such a waste of your time, well or community water, and good food! So start with one or two containers or a tiny plot. We also mix perennial herbs in with our flowering plants. Many are just as pretty and produce edible leaves or stalks.

culinary sage with bees
Sage is perennial in zone 6B. You can harvest the leaves and enjoy some flowers, as can pollinators

Choose easier plants to grow in your garden. If you have a short season, select cocktail, grape or cherry tomato varieties. Otherwise, choose the ones you and your family are most likely to enjoy. If you’re concerned about losing interest, start with a fast grower, such as lettuce or spinach. You’ll save more money growing your own asparagus, but you might not have stalks to harvest for three years.

If you have time to set up drip watering well before planting, you’ll have fewer day-to-day chores related to growing food. Plus, drip irrigation is better for plants and water savings. In sem cases, you can run drip to containers, or place an olla in the container. It’s a clay bottle that slowly seeps water and can be refilled every few days. This also frees you up for weekend outings. I’ve seen people make their own using milk jugs or similar items.

herb scissors with sage and oregano
My daughter gave me these awesome herb scissors, which cut (sorry) prep time substantially.

Have the right tools

Finally, keep a few tools on hand to save time when using fresh ingredients. Your produce won’t be prewashed (but then it also won’t have chemicals all over it).

  • A salad spinner. These are so handy for quickly cleaning lettuce, other fresh greens or bunches of herbs. And it’s another fun way to have the kids help.
  • Clean kitchen scissors. Just grab and carry outside to clip off an herb leaf or stem or to help free a cucumber. An old knife works better for zucchini and other squash.
  • Herb scissors. One of the best gifts ever; the multiple blades make faster work out of slicing or chopping basil, cilantro, parsley and similar leafy greens.
  • Other herb helpers, such as stripper tools for rosemary or dill. And Tim gave me a great storage container that keeps herb stems immersed in water, but the leaves above. I can put it right in the fridge.
Garden lettuce in the spinner, an herb saver, stripper, and scissors.
Garden lettuce in the spinner, an herb saver, stripper, and scissors.

 

Protecting New Plants From Wacky Weather

There’s nothing worse than watching a tomato grow from seed into a healthy start and then having it die soon after planting. Of course, paying for a plant at a nursery and then having to buy another is not much fun either.

Sometimes, gardeners can’t control everything, though we hate to admit that.  The new plant you purchased might have been doomed from the start, or an unpredicted hail storm hit while you were at work, beating all of the leaves off your tender start.

double rainbow ruidoso downs nm
Less than two weeks ago, it was rainy and in the 40s. Today, it will be in the mid- to high 80s with sustained winds of at least 25 mph. How do plants adapt?

Although I wish I could control the weather, I realize I can only manage a few steps to increase the chances of successful transplanting. Here are a few ideas:

  • Don’t assume the problem is water. I have been guilty of this, assuming if a plant wilts, it must need water. But that’s not always the case. The problem might be related to water, such as soil that doesn’t drain or drains too quickly. It also can be heat, changes in sun exposure, or wind. Some wilting is temporary.
geranium leaves damaged by wind and sun
These geraniums were ready to head back outside for summer, and we only want to move this pot twice a year. The wind (and likely hot sun) has damaged leaves, so as soon as it calms, I’ll trim off the damaged foliage. It needs a haircut anyway, so no need to panic!
  • Pay attention to the plant. Although overwatering can cause problems, underwatering is likely more dangerous, especially in dry climates of the Southwest. Water brings nutrients into a plant and helps it avoid or withstand weather damage or insect attacks. Walking by and touching a plant and looking for signs of insects can give you good clues about the plant’s health. Check for weeds under the plant. Field bindweed and morning glories wrap around plant stems and can damage them.
  • Harden off the start or new plant. It’s way fun to plant your new shrub as soon as you get home from the store. And planting right away can help a plant that’s rootbound in a plastic pot. Hurrah for plant rescue! However, if the new plant was in shade and sheltered from wind, give it a little time to adjust before you plop it down in a sunny, open location. Keeping the potted plant up against your house where it gets afternoon shade can help. When hardening off seedlings, choose a calm day and gradually increase the time the plants stay outside, especially in sun, for several days or weeks.
tomato and basil starts harden off
Hardening off starts on one of the few calm mornings we’ve had.
  • Choose the right location. Read the tags that accompany a new plant or the seed packet. It’s also good to double check with guides from local authors or master gardeners for more information on sun and watering. A plant can survive in mostly shade, but fail to bloom, for example. Microclimates can warm or chill plants.
yarrow and poppy
Yarrow in foreground and Oriental poppy in background. Both love heat, and the rocks help warm the poppy. BTW, the fencing around it is for protection from deer, not weather.
  • Protect the plant from weather elements. Oh, our poor tomatoes have had to endure full days of high winds for nearly a week, and today winds will be worse and humidity lower, to the point of fire weather warning. I start all tomatoes with a 5-gallon bucket around them. We simply saw out the bottom so we can set it into the ground to protect the plant, increase warmth around leaves and still have air circulation. The other day, the wind blew two of the buckets off the plants, right up by our house. Then, I got all excited on a calm day and put cages around the plants, which are growing above the top of the buckets. The wind beat them up, so I have buckets around three and a cage around the strongest tomato.
row cover and bucket protect tomato from cold
I was determined to start some tomatoes, and so far they are growing well. The container, bucket and row cover all increase warmth and the cover would have held up to small hail. It looks weird, but the plant will look gorgeous later!
  • Other ideas are to shade a plant during hot sun with permeable landscape fabric or by simply setting or tipping a woven lawn chair upside down over a small plant to block rays during peak heat. Of course, if you have wind, you will need to secure the chair with ground staples.
ground stakes
The staple on upper left is holding that poppy cage in place. These are handy garden tools!
  • Flexibility and patience help. Our weather went from too cool and damp to hot and windy. I haven’t been able to harden off the rest of my tomatoes and basil. And even though I’m anxious to get them in the ground, I have to wait until conditions are better. If you need to plant early or during a cool spell, use row cover or other methods to warm the plant, or place it in a container instead of the ground.
basil cover homemade
We used short pieces of rebar and stiff drip tubing to hold up my basil cover. I buried the cloth under dirt in the back. It waters with drip, so I only have to lift the cover to check or harvest. This helps protect the basil from cold, hail, wind, and insects.

Finally, sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose. And sometimes you just don’t know what happened. But don’t give up on gardening, or even on growing a particular plant you love if it’s hardy in or native to your zone. Have fun!

Grow Leafy Greens in Containers

Lettuces and other leafy greens are healthy and some of the easiest edibles to grow. In fact, I would recommend them as the starter kitchen garden plant for new gardeners.

grow-leafy-greens-containers (3 of 5)
Organic heirloom mesclun from Renee’s Seeds is pretty to grow and even better to eat!

Here’s why growing greens is so easy:

  • Lettuce, arugula and other greens generally germinate quickly, often in less than a week, from seed. Instant gratification makes gardening way easier and more fun.
  • One reason the plants grow quickly is that you eat the leaves – there is no need to wait for flowering and fruit. In fact, if your lettuce flowers, it has bolted, or grown too quickly and too large. And it’s likely bitter or lacking in flavor.
  • Since lettuce is a cool-season plant, it can be started earlier in the spring. That’s perfect for impatient gardeners. And you can plant it again in the fall to have a vegetable ready to harvest as other plants fade. It all depends on where you live and the microclimates you can create. But kale, for instance, can be harvested even in light snows.
Black Magic kale covered in snow. Image courtesy of Home Farmer.
Black Magic kale covered in snow. Image courtesy of Home Farmer.

Here’s why containers work so well for leafy greens:

  • I grow my lettuce with more intensive methods. In other words, leaf lettuce in particular can grow more closely together than many crops. Perfect for a container! Head lettuces such as romaine and bibb also work, but require more spacing.
  • Containers offer more flexibility in location than a designated garden area. I believe they also help reduce pests.
  • Greens can be so pretty! I love the shape and deep green color of spinach bunches. By ordering variety mixes, you can add nearly as much color to a patio or balcony as you can with a flowering plant.
  • Need I mention convenience? How easy it is to have lettuce steps from the kitchen door.
spinach in metal container
We grew spinach in an old milk pail last year.

Planting greens in a container

Start with a good-quality potting or seed-starting soil. Fill it an inch or two below the rim to prevent soil, water, even seeds from running over once filled and watered. Dampen the soil and sprinkle seeds. If you prefer more orderly arrangements, make a shallow furrow to drop seeds in. Most greens can germinate in temperatures of 40 to 60 degrees F.

I love to plant loose-leaf, cut-and-come again lettuces, especially in containers. Plant lettuce seeds at about one-fourth inch depth. Lightly cover the seeds and pat the dirt gently. Water slowly and carefully at first to prevent seed migration (a big bunch of mesclun in one corner of an otherwise empty container). Keep the soil evenly moist until seedlings emerge.

mesclun mix in container
These loose-leaf seedlings came up quickly in a patio container. You can see that I either distributed them unevenly or watered a little too quickly, causing some bunching of seeds.

Caring for container greens

Once seedlings are up, you can water less often, but more deeply to help the greens establish roots. It can still help to thin seedlings, at least in areas of the container where the plants are bunched up. One of the biggest benefits to growing cool-weather greens in containers is flexibility. As weather warms or shadows change, you can move your container to a spot that gets afternoon sun, or to the north patio of your home to extend the plant’s season.

arugula in decorative container
Arugula prefers cool temperatures, but this container gets only morning sun. Works for now.

With loose-leaf lettuce, you can harvest in a matter of weeks, and again later (maybe even three times). It’s best to cut outer leaves when they reach about two to three inches. Harvest all but baby greens in the morning and cut some every day if you have enough!

Cleaning and storing greens

Even though you’re growing your own greens in sterile pots with organic methods, you still should rinse harvested leaves at least once in cold water and spin or shake them to partially dry as soon as you harvest. Spinach is notorious at hiding little specks of soil that splash up on leaves when watering. And birds or bugs can get between leaves. Don’t have a spinner? Use a clean kitchen towel or hosiery bag for the washer. You’ll get a little exercise as you stand on the patio swinging your greens around!

spinning lettuce
The pretty organic mesclun leaves I picked this morning in the spinner.

Store most greens in plastic containers in the refrigerator. We place a small paper towel with our loose-leaf varieties (and spinach) in a sealable bag and date it. It usually lasts at least a week, and spinach typically lasts longer. Kale should be in a sealed bag, and lasts only a few days. Wrap arugula in a damp paper towel and put it in a vented plastic bag.

mesclun
After spinning, I bag greens with a paper towel, push out most of the air, and mark the date.