As the summer winds down, it’s time to report in on my garden. To be honest, it was a lot more failure than success.
My tomato harvest was 2 Red Reif Oxhearts and about 15 Isis Candy cherry tomatoes. The third plant grew tall and green but did not produce a single piece of fruit. All three were heirlooms, and apparently this was a bad year for heirlooms in California. Almost all of my friends who grow tomatoes had poor harvests this year.
I planted 2 pounds of potatoes and harvested about 6 pounds. Not a bad haul, but I can’t store them properly in my Southern California house! I’m going to try planting some late fall starts to see if they do better. I’ll stagger the planting so that my harvest is also staggered.
I couldn’t get these going. Every time I planted another batch, we had a heat spike that killed the seedlings. So, again, I’ll try in the fall.
The lettuce seeds didn’t work – the heat spikes got them, too. But the seedlings I bought produced quite well. The lettuce was on the bitter side, but it was plentiful.
I bought onion starts for these and they did well. I bent over the stalks a bit too soon, so some didn’t get quite as large as I would have liked, but they loved my garden.
I had to buy a seedling, which quickly produced two peppers. They got sunburned before they got big enough, but the plant has tripled in size and has lots of flowers ready to go.
I’m getting lots of strawberries, but they’re tiny. No bigger than a raspberry! I think they need a sunnier spot.
I had to buy seedlings for all the herbs. Basil did great, as did oregano, sage, and mint. Chives are out of control! Rosemary didn’t make it.
I had several challenges. The first was that I started too late for seeds My region rarely has freezes, so I can’t go by “last freeze” advisories. Instead, I will start my seeds an appropriate number of weeks before the spring equinox and plan to plant then, or whenever the Farmer’s Almanac recommends. By the time I planted, it was too warm and I couldn’t keep the soil moist. I will also by clear plastic shoeboxes from the dollar store to put over the seedlings as mini greenhouses.
The second was heat. We had a relatively mild summer, but every time I started plants, we had a heat wave with a week of temps over 100. Not good for my new plants.
The third was water. I didn’t set up a watering system. Instead I used a watering can to water three times a week. I think I will install a bubbler system and set it to run at a low bubble for an hour every four days. That’s infrequent enough for tomatoes, and frequent enough for everything else.
Despite the failures, I really enjoyed gardening this summer. It only took about ten minutes a day, at the most. My box system looked lovely and made it easy to maintain. I turned a spiral notebook into a garden journal and will refer to it next year when choosing plant spots. I may rotate some things, but because it’s easy to just replace the soil in one box, it won’t be as necessary.
If you gardened, how did your garden fare?
Since I moved into my house almost two years ago, I’ve wanted to build a Square Foot Garden. But first I needed a place to put it. I have several existing planters, but two of them are too low for a SFG. One holds our barbecue, a rose bush, some bulbs, and a potato bush that I rather like. (Note: a potato bush is in no way related to potatoes.)
I did have a very large, triangular raised brick planter filled with a shrub I hated. My first thought was to rip out the shrubs, take a sledgehammer to the bricks, and put a couple of traditional Square Foot Garden beds in its place. But several people, including my husband, suggested that I use the existing planter instead, so I made my own version of an SFG. If you have a planter, you too can plant an SFG without taking additional space or building boxes. Here’s what I did:
- Remove the shrubs or hire someone to remove them. This is what the box looked like before. We asked the gardeners to cut down the shrubs and pull out the roots.
- Make a map. I drew the plan on graph paper I printed off the internet. Since my planter is 10 feet by 8 feet by 16 feet instead of 4 by 4 feet, I had to make a path. I roughed out a few potential paths and finally settled on one design.
- Lay bricks, stones, or gravel on the path. I didn’t bother to lay my bricks on sand and fill it in, like you’re supposed to, because this first year was an experiment. I also used a mix of old bricks my dad gave me and new bricks I bought.
- Dig out the existing dirt. We used some of it in the new planter, but most of it went onto our hill to try to snuff out some weeds. I didn’t dig out under the bricks because nothing grows under the path (except weeds).
- Mix new dirt. If you read the book, you’ll find the recipe for Mel’s Mix: 1/3 vermiculite, 1/3 peat moss or coir fiber, and 1/3 blended compost. (Calculate your needs by the cubic foot.) I used E.B. Stone’s compost, or you can buy five different kinds of compost to get a balanced mix. If you make your own compost, then it should be well-balanced already. My old dirt was primarily sand, so I used some of that, too.
- Fill the box with the new dirt. Wet it down. Fill again.
- Buy 8 foot strips of lath and a box of lath screws. Look in the gardening department for the lath – I found it in the back of the Home Depot garden area. The people in the lumber area had no idea what I was talking about.
- Lay out grids in the box. Because I was creating my own layout, I made each box exactly 12 inches across. The result shifted my graph paper plan slightly, but it looks good and each box is a good size. To cut the lath, I laid it in the planter, then drew a cut line so it would fit just against the edge of the box. A hand saw was all I needed to cut it. I needed a drill to get the screws in, but it went quick. When I needed to connect sections, I screwed three pieces together.
- Add a trellis (optional). I propped the six-foot tall tomato cage I broke open last year in the back of the box, then tied it to my fence. I supported the open edge with an extra piece of lath. I’ll use this to vine my tomatoes and peppers.
- Plant. I may add bubblers or a drip system at some point, but I’m still deciding about that.
So far I’ve planted tomatoes, onions, and peppers. I also put in germinated seeds for carrots, lettuce, sage, basil, oregano, chives, scallions, and parsley, but we had a heat wave and the soil wouldn’t stay moist. I’m still working on a square covering system to maintain moisture. Since we’re already in May, I’m buying seedlings this weekend rather than attempting more seeds. I’m also growing mint and rosemary, but they go in separate pots. Do not put them in your regular garden. My strawberries are in a strawberry pot so I can roll it around the yard to produce different levels of shade.
The total time for this project was about two days – one to shop for bricks and lath, and one to lay the bricks, dig out the dirt, fill it in, and lay the lath. I dug out the dirt by myself, but my best friend helped me fill it back in.
The total cost for this project was about $120, but most of it was a one-time expense. I will buy some row cover coil, for about $30, and clear plastic sheeting for another $5 to create plot covers.
Next year, my only costs will be a new path if I opt to get something nicer than the bricks and more plants. I’m making compost, so I won’t have to buy more dirt.
My tomatoes did pretty good last year, but I’m already making plans for a better location and more plant varieties this year. I just received my first of three seed orders, and am busily preparing my garden.
Last summer, I planted my tomatoes at the top of my yard on the north fence where they had plenty of space. I ran them up a grid, and they came to about seven feet high. I think I overpruned them, so there weren’t enough leaves to prevent sunburn. We had an unusually mild summer, which helped protect them, but most of them had some degree of sunburn or blossom rot, even late in the summer. I partly blame my soil, which is sand. My yard used to be riverbottom and the soil is horrendous. It doesn’t hold water or nutrients. I had dug a trench with compost and garden soil, but the tap root went much deeper than my trench.
This year, I’ll be moving all of my plants into a pre-existing planter on the north side of the yard. In the heat of summer, it will receive some shade from the lemon tree and the adjacent retaining wall. It currently houses two shrubs that look terrible when pruned to a manageable size, so I have no problem taking those out. It already has a sprinkler, so I should able to convert that to a drip system.
What I’m Planting
Last year I only planted three small tomato seedlings. I attempted strawberries from seedlings in a strawberry pot, but they died.
This year, I’m planting one or two varieties of tomatoes at the most. I won’t do paste tomatoes again – they don’t ripen in batches large enough to sauce when you only grow one paste tomato plant. So, I’ll just go with heirloom tomatoes good for eating fresh. I may also try a late season tomato, a Russian or Hungarian variety, because we don’t usually have freezes and our climate is apparently suited to them.
I will try another strawberry seedling, but plant it properly.
I also ordered seeds for the following:
four lettuce varieties (two green, two red in one seed packet)
red bell peppers
green bell peppers
I missed the shipping date for garlic, and my yard isn’t ready for it yet, so I’m skipping garlic this year. I do plan to order yellow onion sets.
Potatoes in Buckets
I’ve also decided to attempt potatoes in buckets, rather than growing them in the ground. I plan to grow red potatoes and Yukon gold potatoes. I might try Russets, too. The advantage of the buckets is that I can move them around the yard as the weather changes so they get sun in spring and some heat protection once the peak of summer sets in. Potatoes are best grown from seed potatoes, which I’ll order from the same California grower as the onion sets.
I’m currently debating what sort of buckets I want to use. If I can find free/cheap food grade buckets at a bakery, I might use those. I could also get some cheap plastic bins from the dollar store, but they wouldn’t be food grade. I’m not sure that’s as important for growing something in soil as it is when storing grains or brewing beer that will touch the plastic directly. I could also visit our local garden store and buy some cheap five gallon plant containers.
Herbs in Individual Containers
Some herbs must be in their own containers. Mint and rosemary in particular don’t play well with others. Mint will overrun everything else in the planter. Rosemary grows so large that it will also take over. My parents have a rosemary plant that has grown to fill a 4×8 brick planter. In fact, it broke the mortar! So, I will start them both in smallish pots and hope to contain their size.
When to Plant
My garden books recommend planting six to eight weeks before the last frost, but the first frost in Los Angeles is typically early December and the last frost is typically late January or early February, if we have a frost at all. If you plan to plant, check your frost dates at Victory Seeds. I will start my seeds indoors in January and then transplant them a few weeks later as seedlings. So, that means I’ll have a lot of garden work to do in January. I’m up for it.
It’s been another six weeks or so since my last tomato update. No picture this time because my plants are looking pretty crappy right now! The leftmost one is nearly dead. The center one is dying, with just three small tomatoes left growing. The rightmost plant is dying on the bottom and thriving on the top. I’ve completely abandoned pruning so that they stopped growing out of reach. Pretty soon I’ll have to pull the plants out. Two are destined for my compost bin. One is destined for the green bin.
End of Summer Means End of Tomatoes?
In some areas, the end of summer usually means the end of tomatoes. I thought it would, too, but I just checked and the rightmost plant has seven or eight flowers showing. Only time will tell if they get fertilized and start producing. However, the days are getting shorter, so the plants will have less sunlight to do their magic. I got my largest tomatoes in the middle of summer when the days are nice and long.
Bad Soil Means Mixed Tomato Results
My soil is the epitome of sandy soil. That’s not good for plants. I’ve fertilized and fertilized, and even replaced the soil initially with a mix of compost and garden soil. Next year when I have my garden box, the whole box will be filled with good soil, but I might dig down a bit further to deposit some fertilizer and good soil, too. Most of my Stripe Romans have had some form of blossom end rot. Of course, it’s always been a weirdly cool summer. The rot could indicate a lack of calcium, or a lack of heat. Next summer should be normal, so I should know better then.
And now for the question of the day: how many tomatoes did I get?
As of right now, I have 83 tomatoes. If the third plant hadn’t died, I’d probably be over 120. Not bad for three months! If those other buds become tomatoes, that will bring my total to 90. I’ll take it!
If you want to grow tomatoes, it’s easy. You don’t need a backyard as long as you have a sunny balcony. If you plan to start from seeds, order now. If you plan to start from seedlings, watch for seedling sales in your area. It’s usually early spring.
So it’s been about six weeks since my last tomato update, and boy do I have an update. I have tomatoes coming out my ears!
Tomato Harvest to Date
Two of the three tomato plants are thriving. The third has recently started to produce, but they’re pretty sorry looking tomatoes and I’m not sure I trust them. However, the other two plants are thriving. They’ve been producing about 7-8 tomatoes a week since my first harvest. I was worried my plants would have stopped producing by now due to heat, but we’re having an unusually cool summer, so my plants are going strong!
I created a garden journal by grabbing a sturdy spiral notebook out of the closet. I labeled each page with a plant. I record the planting date, and how much fruit I pick each time I pick it. I also record any issues with the plant, as well as the dates I fertilized it.
So far I’ve picked 41 tomatoes between the two plants. At one point, I had to give them away because I was going out of town and didn’t have time to eat them all.
Eggshells Make Great Fertilizer
Although I have an organic tomato fertilizer, I noticed that my tomatoes were getting blossom end rot. This usually indicates a lack of calcium. Since my soil is sandy, I need to fertilize more often. Rather than buy a special calcium fertilizer, I dried a bunch of eggshells and then ground them up. I’ve been adding lots of eggshells to my compost as well, so it should be very healthy once it’s ready.
Future Tomato Plans
If I’m going to make sauce from my tomatoes, I either need to plant more tomato plants or find a way to preserve them until I have enough ready. My plants are vined, so they produce over time rather than all at once. I can’t make sauce with 6-7 tomatoes, but I’m not sure if freezing them is a good idea. Anyone have experience with this?
So, next year, I have four options:
Plant more tomato plants. 3-4 healthy plants would give me more to work with.
Don’t vine them. If I let them be bushes, they’ll produce around the same time.
Vine one and bush one. The vine one can be for eating, and the bush can be for sauce.
Just enjoy fresh tomatoes as they come and make sauce from canned tomatoes. This is probably the easiest option since I plan to grow so many other vegetable next year. That would mean planting 1-2 plants max and vining them.
Is anyone else growing tomatoes? How is your garden growing?
It’s been almost three months since I transplanted my tomato seedlings into the garden. The plants are still growing. Two are four feet tall and still growing. The third is also tall, but I suspect it has a virus and I’m going to have to pull it.
Harvesting My First Tomato
I have my first striped Roman tomato. It weighs in at five ounces. It came in a full month earlier than the others, so it will be a few more weeks before I have more tomatoes to show for my efforts. At my current count, I have 23 more tomatoes growing on the two plants combined, and it’s still early in the season. So far, that would come to about $1.80 per tomato, but I’m hoping it will get down to $1/tomato or less.
Pruning Tomato Plants
Be careful not to overprune the tomato plants. I think I might have done that with my suffering plant, however I’m also pretty sure it has a mosaic virus. There’s no cure for that, so I’ll have to pull it before it gets onto my other plants.
Each week, I visit my plants to pull off any suckers or new vines that are forming. Right now each plant has two vines growing off the base. One of those branched out into two more, which is really the limit.
Securing the Plants
My plants have outgrown their original cages, so I have to add taller stakes. The tricky part is avoiding the roots, so I’ll have to be very careful to put the stakes far enough back in the soil, while still offering support.
I’m enjoying this experience of growing my own food. Next year I’ll have much more to show for my efforts, but I’m learning as I go, which is important, too.
As I’ve mentioned before, I have several Home Depots and a Lowe’s near me. Both have garden centers, however I’ve found that I usually prefer to go to the local small chain nursery for plants, even though the prices are higher. Sometimes, the better service and quality is worth the higher prices.
Soil and Compost
If I just need a bag of garden soil, I’ll hit Costco or Home Depot. In this situation, the higher price isn’t justified – the name brands sold at the big box stores are better. However, I like to mix the soil with compost. I’ve found that the nursery’s compost is better – I get a good mix instead of a single-source compost. Ultimately, it’s cheaper to buy the mix instead of several different kinds of compost if I only need a little. Of course, home compost is the best, but mine’s not ready yet.
Planters and Garden Supports
Definitely go to the big box store for these. The nursery will have a similar selection, but the prices will be much higher. One ceramic pot is as good as another, so there’s no reason to pay more. Unless, of course, you’re buying a lot of plants and don’t want to make an extra run to the big box stores. In this case you have to decide whether an extra hour of your time is worth more than the price difference.
This is one area where I find the real difference. Although the big box stores have decent plants, the plants at the nursery are generally healthier. They may also be locally grown instead of shipped in from out of state. Interestingly, your local insects (especially our greatly suffering bee population) prefer locally grown versions of the same plant to those shipped in from elsewhere. If you plan to plant a vegetable garden, locally grown flowers and plants that attract bees will greatly improve your success with pollination. Depending on the plant, you’ll usually pay anywhere from $1-$5 more at the local nursery, but it might be worth it.
The local nursery wins, hands down. I can walk into my local Armstrong, which is about two blocks from my house, and ask any of the employees for advice. If they can’t answer, they’ll get one of the managers to help me. Twice I’ve taken in tree leaves to ask for help correcting a problem. They told me exactly what type of food I needed and how to apply it. When I said I didn’t want to use bug spray, they offered other solutions. Try that at a big box store. You might get lucky, but you might have to wander for a while to find someone with enough knowledge to help you.
As another example, I wanted to plant bee-friendly flowers or herbs near my tomato plants. I asked the first guy I saw and he immediately named two plants. As we walked to the plants, he asked me a little more about my goals, then pointed out the plants, advised me on their maintenance, and told me that they didn’t need a lot of water (important in Los Angeles).
The plant food at my local nursery is much more expensive, but it’s also usually organic. When the nursery recommends a food, I usually buy it there the first time, but then I buy it from the big box store when the first batch runs out.
Both types of stores have their advantages, so it’s really a matter of choice. Do you want higher quality or lower prices?
It’s been almost two months since I transplanted my tomato seedlings into the garden. This is the waiting period where it’s growing, growing, growing, but I don’t have much to show for it.
Staking Tomato Plants
I chose indeterminate tomato plants. Indeterminate plants can be made to grow on a vine, whereas determinate plants will form flowers at the top of the stalk then stop growing. The plant will grow into a bush, which must be contained.
The first step after planting was to wait. And wait. And wait.
Once I saw the first flowers, it was time to go to work. I started by erecting my tomato supports behind it. I’m not sure I did this right, and now it seems I’ll need to buy some poles, but I started with two folding tomato cages. Rather than place one around each plant, I flattened them out and dug them into the ground behind the three plants.
Cost for two tomato cages: $9.86.
I already had plastic floral ties on hand, but heavy-duty twine works, too.
Pruning Tomato Plants
Once you see flowers, it’s time to prune. I cut off everything below the first flowers, but left any leaves above it. I also cut each plant down to two stalks to force the sugar production and growth upwards rather than outwards. I probably should have done this when I transplanted them, but I wasn’t sure which stalks would survive. I think I wasted a lot of growth energy on those unnecessary stalks. There were so many leaves on one plant that finding the stalks to prune was really difficult!
Nevertheless, I pruned them back and then tossed the leaves in my compost bin. The bin desperately needed green matter, so it wasn’t a total waste.
After the initial pruning, you have to be vigilant. If you spot suckers growing out the spots where branches meet the stalk, pluck them out. If you spot dead blossoms, pop them off.
Securing the Plants
I attached the stems to the cages by looping the tie around the stem, twisting it into a figure eight, and then tying the other end to the cage. This weekend I’ll repeat the process for new growth.
My First Tomato!
So far I have precisely one tomato growing. It’s on the earliest producing plant, but the plant isn’t supposed to reach maturity until the end of May, and could be later depending on temperatures. I have what appear to be the beginnings of tomatoes on another plant. I don’t expect to see a real crop until mid-June.
Why You Should Compost
There are two main reasons you should compost:
1. It’s cheaper than buying potting mix or garden soil. And you don’t have to drive anywhere to get it. You’ve got a ready supply on hand.
2. It reduces the amount of trash you produce. If you live in an area that offers smaller trash bins at a reduced price, this could also reduce your trash collection costs.
What You Can Compost
You can compost a great variety of things. There’s a long list at Planet Green. In short, you can compost:
Fruit and vegetable kitchen waste
Coffee grinds and tea bags
You can’t compost:
Protein and bones
Fats and oils
Weeds with seeds or infected plants
Pet waste from carnivores (cats, dogs)
Citrus (you can use a little, but not a lot)
Glossy paper printed with non-biodegradable in (soy ink is OK.)
Where to Get a Compost Bin
You can buy a compost bin online for $100-$200. If you don’t want to spend that much, you can see if your city or county offers bins free or at a reduced price, or you can make one.
Los Angeles County offers free composting workshops where you can buy a yard bin for $40 or a worm bin for $65. My friend tells me that even if you get a regular bin, the worms will get in there, so you don’t necessarily need a special worm composting bin.
To find out if your city or county offers bins, either Google “Your City/County + compost bins” or visit the website for your waste division. It will probably be under the Programs or Information for Homeowners section.
If you want to build one, try one of these sets of instructions.
How to Start Your Bin
Starting a bin is easy. I saved three bags of dead leaves from the fall, but you can start one now even if you didn’t do that.
Choose a Site
First, assemble the compost bin. It took me about ten minutes to put this one together. Then find a spot for it. Ideally it should be on ground, not concrete. You can put it near a fence, but not right up against the fence. It should also get some sun, but not all-day sun. You’ll need to water it occasionally, so it should be close enough to a water source that it’s convenient. We put it near our trash cans, which are also near the kitchen.
Next, gather your supplies. You’ll need garden gloves, a shovel, dead leaves, green matter, kitchen waste, pruning shears (for cutting up the larger items), a water source, and a shovel. I got the white kitchen compost crock at Cost Plus World Market for $15. It sits on my counter, then I take it out to the bin when it gets full. It includes a charcoal filter, so it doesn’t smell or attract bugs.
Fill the Bin
Ideally, you want to use a 50/50 mix of green matter and brown matter. My gardeners haven’t come yet this week, so I was a little light on green matter. I started with about 6 -8 inches of leaves.
Next I dumped in the kitchen waste. The egg shells should be dried and crushed.
Next I cut the green yard trimmings into smaller pieces and added those.
Add water to moisten and help it build heat.
Stir. You’ll need to water and stir it every 7-10 days.
Cover and wait. Add more kitchen waste as your container fills up. Add yard trimmings when you have them. Want to dispose of shredded paper? Toss it in. Got an empty egg carton? Add it. I’ve got a container full of dryer lint. That’s going in, too.
It will take about 3 months for the compost to become soil. It shouldn’t smell during that time. If it does, it needs water, stirring, or it may not be getting hot enough. It should be about 140 degrees.
With the plastic bins, you can then open a door in the bottom to scoop out the soil. Always add to the top, and remove from the bottom.
As I’ve mentioned before, I have grand plans for a vegetable garden in raised boxes, but I haven’t had time to build the boxes or decided where I’m going to put them. So, I decided to start learning how to grow vegetables in the meantime. When I have the boxes, I’ll start from seed, but these tomatoes started from seedlings.
Tomato Project Part 1
My decision to plant tomatoes was a rather spontaneous one. A member of my gardening meetup scheduled a meetup at Tomatomania. It’s the largest tomato seedling sale in Los Angeles County. They have hundreds and hundreds of seedlings in at least one hundred varieties. Frankly, it was hard to choose, because how different is a stupice from a striped Roman from a bull’s heart? I did opt for heirlooms because I’ve heard that hybrid tomatoes don’t taste as good and the seeds may not be savable.
The week before Tomatomania, I went to Costco to stock up on some supplies. I purchased:
1 2.5 cubic foot bag of potting soil (also needed for other plants)
5-pack of gardening gloves in different styles
I also went to Armstrong Nursery to buy a 1.5 cubic foot bag of planting compost.
I initially planned to put the tomatoes in pots, but that would be expensive, so instead I went to Ace and bought a shovel so I could amend the soil with the planting compost and potting soil.
At Tomatomania, I bought three seedlings: black oxheart, chocolate stripes, and striped Roman.
The next morning, I used the shovel and a trowel to dig a trench in the clay soil near our fence (sunniest part of the yard) and mixed the potting soil and compost into the trench. Then I planted the seedlings about two feet apart and watered them. I was very happy my gardening glove set included heavy-duty leather gloves while I was using the shovel. Even with the shovel, my hands had red marks from the hard work.
A week later, I stopped at Armstrong again to buy Tomato and Vegetable food and then fertilized each plant. So far they’ve each grown three to four inches. They grew at least three of those inches after a nice hard rain last week.
Costs to Date
I’m not necessarily growing my own tomatoes to save money, although I probably will. I’m mostly growing them to have fresh food in my backyard. Nevertheless, I’m tallying the costs.
Potting soil: 13.14
Tomato food: 7.66
The compost and potting soil were both used for other projects, though, so I’ll only count half of it for the tomatoes. The gloves and shovels can also be used for other projects, so I didn’t include those in my tally.
The cost of the tomatoes to date is $32.80. I will need to build a support system for them because I plan to force them to grow up rather than become bushes or crawl across the ground. That will be part two of the project.
Are you growing food this year? What have you planted?