Saturday, August 23, 2014

Tomato Tales Part 1

It's been a challenging tomato growing season, at least in my garden. No matter how hard I tried to protect the plants from the early summer rains and hail (7 times), then a quick transition to a week of searing 95 degrees days, the plants weren't happy.  Along with severe leaf curl on the container tomatoes, I have puny growth on two plants in the raised bed and I think I know why.

Check out the photos below. The top one was taken in early spring right before I turned over the bed with the green growth...that's a cover crop (aka green manure) I planted last fall. I mixed both Austrian peas and winter rye seeds so I had a good amount of nitrogen from the A. peas going back to the soil.  Plus lots of organic matter from the rye and the peas were returned to the soil after being turned over and left to decompose in mid-March.   

Bed near fence was heavily mulched all winter, cover crop in other

Ferris supervising the cover crop turn in mid-March

Fast forward to now - going into the last week of August. The two beds together are growing a total of five tomato plants.  There are two plants in the bed that was mulched all winter and three plants in the bed that grew the cover crop. "Do you see the difference in plant size and girth?" The picture is rather bright, so you may not be able to see the number of tomatoes (many) on the plants in the cover crop bed. The plants have healthy foliage covering the fruits and are just starting to turn red (that's another complaint...late, late, late).  The two plants in the other bed should be huge, one is a 'Better Boy', the other 'Sun Gold.'

Tomato Comparison - Two Raised Beds
'Better Boy' and Sun Gold' aren't prolific plants like the other three where cover crops grew

No doubt you agree with me that part of the growth problem could be the weather, but I covered and babied all five plants exactly the same. All five were watered and fertilized on the same schedule. If they were children I'd say that all were given vitamins, water and time in the sun equally!

Cover crops are the way to go. Their role in improving the soil both physically by breaking up clay and adding organic matter, along with nitrogen is more than obvious and a help to plants located where they were grown. Read more about cover crops by clicking on the links below. The seeds are sold in local garden centers or mail order.  

Ferris checking out the beds in winter
Cover Crops and Green Manure Crops

Cover Crops 

Cover Crops: Winter Rye 

Monday, August 11, 2014

For the Love of Basil

Basil (Ocimum basilicum) is one of the most familiar and easy to grow herbs for the garden.  Folklore says that when a man presents a woman with a sprig of basil, she will fall in love and never leave him. Give that a try or just grow it, there's still time to plant more annual basil seeds before the end of the season. They can easily be seeded in containers or directly in the ground.  You may need to use cover cloths or sheets for chilly nights later to extend their season.

Assortment of Basil Varieties in Containers

There are over 160 varieties of basil.  Pick your favorites (or what seeds are left on the garden shelf). The purple leaves of ‘Dark Opal’ or ‘Red Rubin’ are a wonderful contrast to the usual green varieties, they taste great and add a pop of color to green salads. 'Purple Ruffles' produce large leaves making them a pretty culinary garnish or a very attractive plant in containers or beds.

Try the large leaf varieties 'Italian Large Leaf' or 'Napoletano' to use in place of lettuce in sandwiches. They are large enough to use for wrapping pieces of chicken or fish before grilling (outstanding yum). 

'Napoletano' Large Leaf Basil
Scented basils add a unique flavor to dishes and can be used to make jams, jellies and vinegars and teas. They include lemon, lime, cinnamon, and licorice basil. 'Sweet Thai' is served as a condiment in Thai and Vietnamese dishes.  Basil leaves are used for seasoning many Italian dishes and are the main ingredient of pesto sauce.  Use the traditional 'Genovese' variety for authentic pesto flavor.  

'Red Rubin' Basil and Golden Sage

Basil prefers well-drained, amended soil. Keep the seedbed moist during germination, and watered throughout the growing season, the soil can dry a bit between waterings. Basil prefers full sun with late afternoon shade. Do not fertilize basil unless the soil is very depleted of nutrients, it will have better flavor if not fertilized.

Pinch off flower spikes as they form. This will maintain basil’s full flavor. Harvest leaves regularly during the growing season. Cut or pinch directly above a set of leaves so the plant becomes bushier. Start harvesting early, at the four leaf stage - younger leaves taste the best, especially when tossing into salad. 

Cut or pinch leaves directly above a set of leaves

Basil leaves can be preserved by freezing or drying. Remove leaves from stems, then rinse, then dry with a salad spinner. Toss leaves (not stems) in a food processor with oil. Chop well, add more oil if needed, the mixture shouldn't be dry but not too oily.  Freeze in small containers.  For quicker processing, rub olive oil on leaves first then place in ice cube trays or bags. Dry plants by hanging them upside down in a dry area. Crumble leaves and place in an airtight container to use all year. Dried leaves don't taste nearly as good as fresh or frozen, but they are better than dried store bought.

Although not university research-based, companion planting with basil is said to repel insects such as aphids, mites, tomato hornworms and asparagus beetles. Whether true or not, basil looks great inter-planted throughout the entire garden.  Basil is vulnerable to slugs, whitefly, red spider mites and Japanese beetles. Fusarium wilt, a fungus can attack plants leaving them yellow, stunted with discolored stems.  Rotate where basil is planted each year and look for resistant varieties. 

To end a stressful day, steep one-teaspoon dried leaves with one cup of boiling water.  It’s good for the digestive system but even better to boost your outlook!


Friday, August 1, 2014

State of Tomatoes

It's August 1st, 2014, we received two and a half inches of rain at our house this week.  All I can say is WOW!  The tall plant cages allowed me to cover the tomato plants to shield them from the rain and being batted around, which could possibly open up some wounds and invite disease.  I've been told that bacteria diseases on tomatoes may be widespread this summer - unusual for the Front Range.  Regular fungus problems will be out there too. Read more about many of these issues on CSU Fact Sheet - Recognizing Tomato Problems or my most recent Denver Post Punch List - August 1, 2014 Punch List  I will be writing about more tomato problems next Punch, so be sure to check back.

My best advice is to monitor your plants every single day. Familiarize yourself with what disease or issue you think it might be. Send a photo to your local extension office or take it in personally for a correct diagnosis.  Please don't rush out and buy the first product you see that covers lots of diseases and or insects.  You'll only add to your plant's problems by using the wrong product.

Here's the direct link to find your closest extension office. Colorado State University Extension Offices

If you see infection starting at the bottom of the plant, then cut off leaves or stems with diseased leaves right away.  Do this when the plant is dry and don't water right after pruning them. Sterilize your shears with a 1 to 10 bleach solution or spray the shears in a bucket with Lysol in between cuts.  Be sure to wipe your shears clean after using products on them and dry them with a cloth. 

Also note some of the lower hanging leaves, in fact they touch the ground, which only helps soil borne diseases get into the plant easier.  I'll trim these up too, I should have done this weeks ago.

The day after 2 1/2 inches of rain
A bit of yellowing and brown on a leaf, could be the start of early blight