Watering Tips

When we don’t get enough rain to keep the garden producing goodies for my table, I have to water it. Here are some general watering tips for gardens.

  • Water from below. Never spray water onto the foliage or flowers. Remember that the roots need the water, not the leaves. Here in the humid Midwest many plants are susceptible to fungal diseases that are spread by overhead watering, so I shy away even from foliar fertilizers. I use soaker hoses in my raised beds. I attach the hose to the soaker hose and turn it on just a quarter turn, not full blast, so the water comes out at lower pressure and slowly soaks the root zone. Then I set a timer to remind myself when it’s time to move the hose to the next bed. Whenever I use the regular hose for watering, I attach a long water wand to it so that I can direct the water down toward the roots without bending over.
  • Water deeply and less often. Frequent light waterings will encourage your plants to develop shallow roots, and they will fade quickly in a dry spell. When we get no rain, I aim to water the kitchen garden twice a week. Remember, however, that newly planted seeds and plants will need to be watered more frequently until their roots have grown and they are established.
  • Know the water needs of your plants. This is as important as knowing their sun and shade preferences. Put plants that need more water, such as hydrangeas and astilbes, in the wetter areas of your yard. Keep plants like cactus, sedums, and begonias in the drier, quickly draining areas. Most vegetables require well drainingsoil and one inch of rain per week.
  • Keep accurate track of the weather. Your plants may need to be watered more often during a heat wave. What appears to be a heavy rainfall might be turn out to be only 1/4 inch of rain. I recommend using a good rain gauge. If you don’t have one, you can tell that the ground received one inch of rain if you dig down and see that it’s wet 6-8 inches deep. Watering just the top inch of soil is not watering the garden enough.
  • If you have rain barrels, you should be careful about using their water on edible plants because of possible contamination from roofs and gutters. You should water the soil only; do not get the plants wet. Stop using the rainwater a couple weeks before harvesting. I recently found this extension service article that discusses the question in much more detail.  If you don’t want to read the whole thing, you should at least scroll down to the “Best Practices and Recommendations” section at the end. It talks about using a bleach solution to lower the risk of contamination of edible plants. 

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Elegant Picnics

ENJOY — garden style living
Illinois Shakespeare Festival 2018

Summer is my favorite season—and nothing says summer like a picnic! Also, nothing tastes as good at a picnic as fresh seasonal vegetables and fruit from your garden or from wherever else you can get it. This is true whether you’re packing a simple lunch to take with your kids to the park or pulling out all the stops like I do whenever we go to a Shakespeare festival. 

My husband and I are huge Shakespeare fans, and we discovered the fun of outdoor Shakespeare performances over 20 years ago. I have been adding to our elegant picnic paraphernalia ever since. You may not be into Shakespeare, but perhaps there are concerts in the park or other events in your area that warrant a special picnic set up. Perhaps you’d like to have an extra-lovely picnic for two to celebrate a birthday or anniversary.

I started by getting a picnic basket and soon found tin plates printed with antique porcelain china designs (shown on the right in above picture). I like them so much that I keep them out all the time on a tiered stand in my dining room. Ceramic dishes are too heavy, in my opinion, so I recommend melamine plates (such as the one on the left in above picture) if you cannot find tin ones. Instead of plastic glasses, however, I’ve bought pretty painted glasses from thrift stores. We like to bring folding chairs and a tray table or camp table with us rather than a blanket, and I put a pretty tea towel or small tablecloth on the table. A little vase with a fresh flower finishes the setting. For easy transport, get a vase that can fit in your vehicle’s cup holder and that has a narrow neck to prevent spills.

I put crackers and food items that don’t need to be refrigerated in the picnic basket, and I put the beverages and other food in a shoulder-strap cooler. Nowadays, it’s possible to get a picnic basket that’s insulated. The food I pack for these picnics varies according to how much time I have and what’s in my garden, pantry, and freezer. There’s nothing wrong with buying some or all of the meal. It’s really up to you. If you’re an organic gardener and any of your edible flowers are blooming, then you must use them to decorate the food. You must!

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Swiss Chard Tortilla Española

EAT — garden-to-table eating
Swiss Chard Tortilla Española

promised on Instagram that I’d share this recipe in my newsletter, so I’m adding it here, too. Don’t forget: you could also make this with beet greens because Swiss chard and beet greens are practically the same thing.

This dish is what I remember my mom making whenever she got aselga (she couldn’t remember the English for Swiss chard) from my aunt. I always wondered why she called this frittata-like dish a tortilla, and thanks to the internet I’ve since discovered it is a variation of Spain’s tortilla made with potatoes, eggs, and olive oil. Apparently, the cuisine my mom learned when she lived in Argentina was closer to that of Spain than of Mexico, where tortilla means a different thing. Anyway, here is how I make it, more or less. Just like my mom, I’m not terribly exact about following recipes or measurements. I find that makes it much easier to use what I grow in my garden.

Swiss Chard Tortilla Española (Tortilla de Aselga)

  • 6-7 Eggs
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 large bunch of Swiss chard
  • 1 clove garlic, minced (optional—I used garlic scapes when I made it last)
  • Salt and pepper or a salt-free blend, to taste
  • Olive oil for frying
  1. In a mixing bowl beat eggs, and then mix in seasonings.
  2. Wash and chop the chard. Saute the onion and chard stems in oil.
  3. Cook in a nonstick pan on medium heat and keep adding the chard leaves as it cooks down. Cover the pan to help it cook down faster, and add a few drops of water if needed. When it is all cooked down, uncover the pan to cook off any extra moisture at bottom of pan.
  4. Pour egg mixture over all the chard—do not stir and mix up. Cover pan again and cook until egg is set and starting to pull away from edges.
  5. Loosen the edges and bottom. Cover the pan with serving platter and flip tortilla over onto it. Then carefully slide it back into the pan to cook the other side.

To serve, cut into wedges.
Serves 8

Flipping the tortilla over and sliding it back into the pan is the tricky part. Here’s an amateur video I made of that maneuver. Using a good non-stick pan helps. If you don’t want to try flipping it, you could just keep the pan covered until the egg is fully cooked or pop it in the oven and then flip it once onto a platter or serve it straight out of the pan.

Swiss chard is my favorite green. It’s easier to grow than spinach, and it’s tastier, in my opinion, than kale. This is my favorite Swiss chard recipe because it’s super delicious and it brings back fond memories of my mother. 

¡Buen provecho!

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Dealing with Tomato Diseases

GROW — practical gardening tips

I may earn commissions for purchases made through any Amazon links in this post. See disclosure here.

Tomatoes, alas, are not the easiest vegetable to grow. Here in the midwest and most of the U.S.A. our growing season is not long enough, so we have to buy seedlings and transplant them into our gardens. In addition, weather conditions and pests cause other problems. Just look at the “common issues” that the Bonnie Plants website lists with many of its tomato plants, even with its “super disease resistant” varieties.

Common issues: Plants may stop setting fruit when temperatures dip below 55˚ F or climb above 90˚ F. Blossom end rot can be a problem, as can misshapen fruit.

bonnieplants.com

I remember fondly my early years of gardening when I was a stranger to all these common issues. If you are still in that situation, count your blessings and garden on! But don’t be naive about it—do everything you can to prevent fungal and bacterial diseases from starting in your garden. Once they come, they overwinter in the soil and keep coming back.

Here is a rundown of what I do to prevent soil-borne diseases on my tomato plants and to keep them from spreading once they make their inevitable appearance.

  1. Water from below—never spray water onto the foliage. This, by the way, is a good rule to follow for all plants. You always want to water their roots, not the leaves. Many other plants are also susceptible to fungal diseases that are spread by overhead watering. I use soaker hoses in my raised beds. Whenever I use the regular hose for watering, I attach a long water wand to it so that I could direct the water down toward the roots without bending over.
  2. Mulch to prevent rain from splashing soil up onto the plants. Years ago I used sheets of red plastic in my beds. Then I got Tomato Craters, the round red plastic things around the bottoms of my tomato plants which everyone always asks me about. These hold up better from year to year and give me more flexibility in placement of the plants. There are similar products available now which might work even better, called Tomato Automators and Tomato Halos.
  3. Rotate crops. I have six raised beds for rotating my vegetable plants, and I usually fill two of them with tomatoes and other nightshades like peppers, eggplants, and tomatillos. That gives me the minimum 3 years of rotation. 5-7 years would be better, but I’m not ready to cut down to just one bed of tomatoes yet. As it is, I still can’t fit all that I want into two beds, so I plant in containers, too.
  4. Space plants farther apart to improve air circulation. This is the “Do as I say, not as I do” part of my advice. I do space my tomatoes further apart than I used to, but I never got to the minimum ideal of at least 4 ft. apart in all directions. Again, I’m just not ready to grow fewer tomatoes! I keep hoping I could improve the air circulation around the plants with better pruning.
  5. Prune plants well. Removing suckers improves air circulation. Removing the lower branches prevents fungal spores from splashing up from the soil onto the leaves. Unfortunately, I tend to put this off until I see a fungal disease already beginning to affect the lowest leaves. Maybe next year I will finally do this earlier!
  6. Remove diseased leaves as soon as possible. I tend to get diseases that work their way from the bottom of the plant up. As I noted above, removing the lower leaves prevents rain from splashing the fungal spores up onto the higher leaves. In order to prevent my clippers from spreading the disease from plant to plant, I spray them with Lysol before moving on to the next plant. I used to use rubbing alcohol because a bleach solution is corrosive to tools and requires a ten-minute soak to be effective. Then I found a study which showed that Lysol is more effective than alcohol.
  7. Spray the plants with an organic fungicide with copper in it, such as Bonide, or with Bacillus subtilis in it. I prefer the latter and have had the best success with a Bayer product called Serenade, which is apparently no longer available. Next time I will try Monterey Complete Disease Control or Grower’s Ally Fungicide. Again, I tend to put this off until I see the disease beginning each year, so I’m writing this post as a reminder to myself as well as instructions for you. It would be better to start soon after I set the plants out since I know my garden is susceptible.
  8. Clean up! Clean up! Clean up! Remove the plants and as much of their debris as possible at the end of the season. Turn over the soil and try to bury anything left. We always add composted manure to the raised beds and mix it in with a shovel. Clean and disinfect the cages and other staking tools. I’ve always been careful to wash the Tomato Craters, and I’ve tried leaving the cages outdoors in sunlight and rain to sanitize them. This year I will try spraying or wiping them down with Lysol, too.

Those are my recommendations for dealing with fungus and bacterial diseases in tomatoes. If you find yourself dealing with fungus and bacterial soil borne diseases every year, there is one more option that you may want to try. When planting tomatoes next year, you could apply a root protection drench, such as Bioworks Rootshield or Gardens Alive Root Guardian. I had great success with the latter the first time I tried it, and Gardens Alive put my glowing review in their catalog and on their website. Unfortunately, the next year they sold me some that was too close to its expiration date and it was ineffective. It has a very short shelf life and is rather expensive. I then switched to the Bioworks product, but last year’s rainy spring made it a bad year for my tomatoes even though I’d done my best to get fresh product and apply it properly. This year I planted a couple weeks earlier than normal and could not get either brand delivered in time, and I gave up on them. This season has again been very rainy and humid, so it’s just as well that I didn’t try this option. Stay tuned for future developments in my ongoing fight against tomato diseases.

Best Tasting Tomatoes

ENJOY — garden style living
Custom Painted Shoe by Kate’s Kicks

I love gardening—from my head TO-MA-TOES!

Tomatoes are the most popular vegetable to grow in a home garden–and for good reason. This is where your tongue gets the most bang for your gardening effort. The dramatic difference in taste between homegrown and store-bought tomatoes is often what drew us food gardeners into this hobby in the first place, isn’t it?

If you haven’t gotten into growing your own tomatoes yet, don’t despair. There is a super easy way to begin: get a tomato plant that does well in a container.  There are several varieties that do well even in a 10-inch pot or hanging basket–Tiny Tim (which I’m growing this year), Tumbling Tom, and Sweet ‘n’ Neat to name just a few. If you have room for a larger container, then your options increase.

Buy the seedling and plant it in your own container with an organic potting soil or get a patio tomato plant that is already in a sufficiently sized planter. Put it in your sunniest spot and keep it watered. Don’t forget: the smaller the pot, the more often you will have to water it. Even so, one little plant is better than none!

If that idea doesn’t work for you, then look for a local farm, farmers market, orCSA. Make sure that their early tomatoes are coming from their own farm, not from a hothouse or a farm further away. Buying LOCAL is important if you want that homegrown tomato taste. Conventionally grown supermarket tomatoes are bred to look pretty, travel far, and store long—not to taste good!

Once you get your tomatoes, store them at room temperature and out of the sunlight until you’re ready to wash and eat them. Whatever you do, don’t put fresh ripe tomatoes in the refrigerator! It will ruin their taste and texture. Use the fridge for storing cut tomatoes and tomatoes that are past their prime and getting soft. Whether they’re homegrown, market fresh, or store-bought, your tomatoes will taste better if you keep them out of the fridge and eat them when they’re fully ripe but not overripe.

The Great Scape Pesto

Garden-to-Table Eating from my newsletter archives

June is when it’s time for me to cut off the garlic scapes—those curly things forming at the top of my garlic plants. These taste like garlic and can be used like garlic in any recipe. They’re also a nice addition to stir-fry dishes. But my favorite thing to make with them is garlic scape pesto. I freeze this pesto to use it year round.

Before making anything with the scapes, I wash them and remove the seed pod ends. As with any pesto, the measurements in this recipe do not have to be exact—you could use different nuts and add other herbs, salt and pepper, or even a little fresh lemon juice and zest if you want. This is approximately what I use:

Garlic Scape Pesto
  • 2 cups garlic scape, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 1/2 cup whole almonds or walnuts
  • 3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/3 cup Parmesan cheese, grated

Directions: First, put the nuts in a food processor and pulse them until they are coarsely chopped. Add the garlic scape pieces and process about a minute or less until the nuts and scapes are blended together. Scrape down the sides of the processor and then cover. Turn it on again and drizzle the olive oil in while it is running. Add the Parmesan and process until blended, about 30 seconds. This comes out rather thick, but one could always add more olive oil if needed. 

For the batch in this video, I actually used 3 cups garlic scapes, 1 cup almonds, 3/4 cup olive oil, and 1 cup Parmesan. It’s all good! I pack it in small containers and freeze it for later use. It’s delicious on pasta or just eaten straight as a dip with bagel chips or crackers. I often coat my garden green beans with it.

If you’re not growing garlic, you could find garlic scapes when they’re in season at your local farmers market.

Harvesting Tips

Practical Gardening Tips from my newsletter archives

Now that most of the planting of the kitchen garden is done, I’m hoping to settle into a routine of harvesting, watering, and weeding. I also have some pruning (tomatoes), deadheading (flowers), and thinning (squash and Swiss chard) to do. It’s exciting to be harvesting snow peas now after several weeks of cutting greens like lettuce, kale, and amaranth. As I was harvesting snow peas this morning, I thought of several good harvesting tips to share with you.

  1. Harvest frequently. When an annual crop is producing well, as the snow peas are now, I try to harvest it at least every other day. This helps to keep the harvest going as long as possible. If the fruit stays on the plant long enough to mature fully (pea pods will grow thick), the plant will slow down and then stop producing fruit. Its mission is to reproduce, and that mission is accomplished when it has produced mature seeds. Don’t let that happen!

NOTE: When you’re cutting the stalks of perennial crops such as rhubarb and asparagus, you should stop harvesting after a certain point to avoid weakening the plant.

Look up. Look down. Look through and all around. Look for friends hanging around. Reverse and repeat.

  1. Harvest thoroughly. This is the tricky part—especially if you are harvesting something green that blends in with the plant leaves, such as snow peas or green beans. I usually circle around the bed at least four times—twice in each direction, looking downward around the top and then crouching down and looking upward through the leaves. Look up, down, and all around the plants. Sometimes a gentle shake of the vines will reveal more pods dangling down. Whenever I spot one, I look for any of its friends that may be hanging nearby because fruit tends to grow in pairs or clusters. I also try to look through the plants that I’m harvesting. When I see a pod on the other side of the bed, I try to reach it from where I am because it won’t be visible when I am on the other side. (With thorny plants like raspberries, you must reach in as carefully as you can to get all the ripe fruit. I never could trust my kids to harvest raspberries well!) Despite all these precautions, I always discover some overripe ones I’d missed the next time I harvest the bed.
Where to Cut

Those are the main rules. The rest of my advice boils down to preferences. When I harvest things like peas, beans, tomatoes, and cucumbers, I leave a little bit of the stem and sepal, if there is one, attached to the fruit. (Raspberries are an exception since you must leave the core behind as you gently pull the fruit off.) I was taught that if you leave the sepal behind on the plant, it does not realize that its fruit is gone and it will soon think it has succeeded in producing seeds and so stop fruiting. I have not found any scientific support for this idea, but I continue to follow this practice since it doesn’t hurt anything.

I also prefer to use scissors, pruners, or snips rather than to harvest by hand. I always say there is no such thing as a green thumb, but you can literally get a green thumbnail if you pinch fruit off by hand. You could also get a notched or cracked thumbnail! Beware that pea vines are very easily uprooted, so if you do harvest peas by hand, you should hold the vine with your other hand as you pull the pods off it—don’t just yank them off.

I may earn commissions for purchases made through any Amazon links in this post. See disclosure here.

Garden Walk Adventures

ENJOY — garden style living

We just had a garden walk come to my kitchen garden this weekend. This was the first garden walk sponsored by the Homer Glen Junior Women’s Club, and it was the third time I’ve put my garden on a garden walk. It was a panic to get everything planted, weeded, and looking nice so early in the season, but it was definitely worth it. Thankfully, my best friends helped with the weeding. Garden walk day itself was a blast! I loved talking to everyone about what I’m growing and how I use it.

I was surprised at how many people had not been on a garden walk before. One said she “didn’t even know it was a ‘thing’!” If that’s you, too, I strongly encourage you to go on one this summer. Whether you have a garden of your own or not, it’s fun to walk through private gardens that others have created and tended. Plus, it’s educational and inspirational for those of us who do garden: you get to see what’s growing well in your area and how other gardeners have designed their space. I go on two or three every year, and I take lots of photos to remember them by.

You can learn about garden walks in your area from local garden clubs, from local newspapers (Here’s an example from the Chicago Trib.), and by searching online.

Door to Door Gardens

An ENJOY post from my archives

Garden Walk, Garden Design, Garden Adventure, Travel

I just came back from my first trip to Door County. Although we did not go there for any garden walks or shows, my friend Danelle and I could not help but notice the beautiful gardens we saw as we antiqued our way through several towns.  Everywhere we looked, there were colorful flowers blooming!

Oo, look at THAT! This garden in particular stood out as we drove by, so we made a mental note to stop and look for it on the way back to take some pictures. Despite its many colors and different plants, this roadside garden is very pleasing to the eye. I think the repeated pattern and its undulating shape is the key.  The dark leafy plants keep the bright blooms from getting too busy, and they give the eye a place to rest.

Here you can see how the pattern changed further down the road and away from that gray fence.

Above is a closer shot of one of the sections back by the gray fence. You could play Name That Plant if you like. I see some Persian Shield, some pink zinnias, some Angel Wing begonias—but what are the bright yellow flowers with yellow centers? Danelle said they were Black Eyed Susan, a variety without the familiar black or brown centers. I looked them up, and sure enough there is a variety of rudbeckia hirta called “Irish Eyes” or “Green Eyes”—who knew!

The discovery of this plant variety that I was not aware of before is my favorite takeaway from this unofficial garden walk. I had already been planning to move one of the clumps of Brown Eyed Susan in my back yard bed because it is covering up the pretty rose behind it. I like the brighter yellow of Irish Eyes, too, so I will start using it instead.

Backyard Cottage Garden – 8/27/17

See the two clumps of Black Eyed Susan here in my garden. Can you see the rose behind the one on the right? No. That’s why that rudbeckia must be moved.

Below is part of the pretty garden we found by The Shoreline Restaurant, where we ate dinner. I was pleased to see white daturas, which seed themselves in one or two of my containers, and pansies, which I always try to grow from seed as edible flowers, both blooming very nicely. Now I want to find a good spot in my garden for growing a nice clump of daturas!

Danelle in the garden of The Shoreline Restaurant
Danelle in the garden of The Shoreline Restaurant

There were many other beautiful gardens in Door County. It seemed like pink hydrangeas were blooming everywhere. The towns by the bay, with their cute shops, cottages, and gardens, reminded me of Mackinac Island. And that reminds me that I have yet to sort through the hundreds of pictures I took there last year at the Grand Hotel Garden Show. So many blooms, so little time!

Fight the Blight

GROW — practical gardening tips
Tomato Beds – 7/25/17

Everyone knows that I love tomatoes, but not everyone knows that for a long time I have been dealing with soil borne diseases on my tomato plants. Despite various preventative measures I’ve tried, this year is no different. Early blight has hit several of my tomato plants. After I posted a picture of them and said that I would begin rescue operations when it was drier outside, a friend in Chicago said she had the same problem and asked what to do about it. I’m writing this post to answer that question for her and anyone else who is dealing with early blight and other fungal diseases.

As already noted, I wait until the tomato plants are dry before I do anything. Then the first thing I do is prune away all the yellowed and spotted leaves. These do NOT go into my compost.  The disease moves from the bottom up, so the plants will start to look leggy as the season progresses. With clean pruners, I also remove any non-fruit bearing suckers I see higher up the plant. Removing those unneeded branches will provide better air circulation for the plants, which also helps keep the disease from spreading.

In order to avoid spreading the disease from plant to plant, I spray the pruners with Lysol whenever I move from one plant to the next.  When I first took the master gardener course, I learned that bleach is not instantly effective for sanitizing tools because it requires at least 10 minutes of soaking. Who has time to do that between every plant? Moreover, bleach is corrosive, so it could damage your tools. Someone in the class suggested we do what he had heard rosarians do: spray rubbing alcohol on the pruners. I did that for years until someone in Midwest Fruit Explorers passed around a study that suggested that straight Lysol was more effective, so that is what I have done ever since. You could explore the various options for yourself. I keep the Lysol in a little spray bottle, and I use a paper towel or a clean rag for wiping off the clippers.

Then I spray the plants thoroughly with an organic fungicide to help keep the disease from spreading. Years ago I tried an organic copper fungicide, but I have had better success in recent years at slowing the disease down with an organic biofungicide called Serenade. I buy it at local garden centers and go through a bottle or two every year. After I prune each plant, I spray it from the bottom up. When all the pruning is done, I spray all the plants in the bed from every angle, all around, as best I can.

I have also taken to wearing latex gloves when I perform this whole rescue operation. I can just throw them away when I’m done and not have to wash them before I use them again (as I should with regular garden gloves). I do not recommend doing this job with bare hands–they can get irritated by the sprays and plant oils.

That’s how I fight the blight! At another time, I will talk about the measures I take each year to try to prevent these soil borne diseases.