Tomatoes: To Prune or Not to Prune

I hear these questions every year: Should I prune my tomatoes? When? How do I do it?

First things first, only indeterminate-type tomatoes should be pruned. Because indeterminate plants continue to grow and produce tomatoes throughout the season, you can prune their side shoots (also known as “suckers”), whereas if you pruned determinate tomatoes that produce only once a season, you would be reducing the overall yield.

Pruning indeterminate tomatoes can, however, increase fruit size, help tomatoes ripen faster, and help reduce disease. It will not increase the number of tomatoes you get, but you will probably get more “perfectly” shaped and sized tomatoes. Even though I love even the small or ugly tomatoes, I prune some of my tomato plants for the sheer beauty of a big, hearty tomato.

There are 3 different strategies for pruning suckers off  tomatoes:

Minimal
Prune only those suckers below the first flower/fruit cluster.

Moderate
Wait until suckers have four leaves and prune off the top two, leaving the first two leaves to protect fruit from the sun. This is a more common practice in the south, where they are cautious about the intense summer sun.

Aggressive
Prune off all suckers.

Once you decide which way you’re going to go, keep these “rules” in mind:

  • Wait until plants are almost 2′ tall before pruning.
  • Leaves should be dry. Touching wet plants can quickly spread disease.
  • Tools should be clean and sharp. I wipe mine down with rubbing alcohol to make sure I don’t accidentally spread disease.
  • Prune prudently. Leaves create shade for fruit, which prevents sun damage. Leaves also make food for the plant, including sugars, resulting in energy to produce more quantities of sweeter fruit.
  • Prune early when suckers are small. This reduces the wound size and also saves the plant’s energy, which can be used toward developing fruit.

Here’s a tip I’ve gotten from one of my gardener friends: Late in the season, you can cut the top off of the plants (“topping”) to prevent more flower and fruit production, directing energy to ripen the existing fruit on the vine.

By the way, I still love the tomato supports I started using used two years ago. Re-read the blog as I have made some updates for improvement!

Share your tomato tips in the comments!

10 Flowers for Quick Color

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The growing season has arrived in Colorado, and I couldn’t be happier! The garden calls, so I have been making a list of some varieties that can be direct sown and flower quickly adding some new bursts of color this summer. I am always able to find a little bare patch here and there between my long-standing perennials that can use a punch of color. You probably already know about bachelor’s buttons, cosmos, and zinnias. Here are more of my favorite, throw and grow, last-minute lovelies.

  1. Sweet Alyssum is oh so fragrant, attracts beneficial insects, and ever-blooming in my climate. In hot areas, expect it to take a mid-summer siesta.
  2. California Bluebells remind me of hiking amid the dazzling wildflowers of California. I sowed these in a rock wall bordering the garden and fell in love with the color!
  3. Calendula accepts neglect and keeps producing sunny flowers all season, and year after year if you let them reseed. ‘Oopsy Daisy’ is really compact and cute as a button!
  4. Flax flowers quickly and handles dry, hot conditions with ease. Expect them to reseed for years of color!
  5. Moss Rose Portulaca creates a carpet of color that doesn’t flinch at hot, droughty conditions.  Expect these practically care-free flowers to reseed too.
  6. Nasturtiums, which I affectionately call “nasties” (partly because one of our warehouse managers couldn’t pronounce “nasturtium”), have not only lovely blooms, but also gorgeous foliage. But don’t let the nickname fool you, they add a nice peppery kick and wonderful color to salads.
  7. Poppies are so easy to grow; just scatter seeds! With so many shapes and sizes, it’s easy to fall in love with them. They’re drought tolerant, too! The color of ‘Mikado’ is really eye catching and ‘Lauren’s Grape’ is a dramatic purple!
  8. Sunflowers seem to go from seed to towering flower in almost no time and they feed the birds in the fall!
  9. ‘Striped Japonica’ Ornamental Corn adds big, bold texture and colors with its striped magenta, white, and green leaves. At 5’–6′ tall it makes an excellent backdrop for other flowers or a lovely privacy screen.
  10. Violas are the first and last to bloom, since they thrive in cooler weather. I love the royal purple faces of ‘King Henry’ or and the tri-colored ‘Johnny-Jump-Up’ always makes me smile. Violas  I love these edible cuties in a salad!

    Violets in Judy's Salad
    Violas in my salad!

Flower mixes are also as easy as throwing and growing. With some watering of course, they provide endless color all growing season! Flower mixes may be sown as early as 4 weeks before your average last frost until the end of May.

Use the comments to let us know what quick color you are sowing in your garden. Wishing you a colorful spring!

Patio Gardening is Easier Than you Think!

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I do not remember a time when I haven’t gardened. Even as a 20-something living in an apartment with a small balcony, I gardened. I suppose I am the epitome of “If there is a will, there is a way.” With some creativity (most gardeners’ middle name) and some specially selected varieties, my containers became absolutely beautiful, productive, and, as a thrifty 20-something, I was able to do it on a budget.

These are the essentials:

  • At least 4 hours of sun
  • Water
  • Containers with drainage. (Think outside the box! You can use 5 gallon pickle buckets from the local sub shop as long as you drill holes in the bottom.)
  • Potting Soil
  • Liquid Fertilizer
  • Most importantly, if your space is really limited, narrow down your list by choosing only the plants you love to eat & flowers to attract pollinators.

With 4 hours of sun you can grow leafy crops like lettuce, rainbow colored Swiss chard, mustards, and herbs. Leafy crops are beautiful with so many textures and colors; they almost look ornamental. Leafy greens and herbs will be happy even in short or smaller pots; however, the smaller the pot, the more often you may need to water. I would recommend pots that are around 8″ deep or greater.

Garden at the balcony

With 6 or more hours of sun, the possibilities with fruiting crops like tomatoes, peppers, melon, eggplant, beans, and cucumbers are nearly endless! In the case of tomatoes, determinate types or semi-determinate types stay shorter, but if you have a trellis that can support a 6′ indeterminate tomato, go for it! Tomatoes, in particular, need a good amount of root space; I would recommend a 5-gallon, bucket-sized pot. Peppers and eggplant do well in a 3-gallon pot. Beans (pole or bush) cucumbers, melons, pumpkins, and squash need at least 1.5’ or so. Left untrellised, cucumbers, melons, pumpkins, and squash will appreciate about a 2′ wide pot to support plants.

Typically, cucumbers, squashes, melons, tomatoes and pumpkins are generally thought of as space hogs, so we intentionally carry some real space-efficient choices. ‘Spacemaster’ is an excellent bushy, rather than vining cucumber especially for small spaces. The same is true of ‘Gold Nugget’ winter squash, which is very compact, and I love that each squash is a perfectly delicious serving for two! ‘Emerald Delight’ gives and gives dark green, tasty zucchini all summer from productive, compact plants that are resistant to powdery mildew and other diseases. ‘Minnesota Midget’ is also a space saver and produces the most delectable, 4”, sweet melons in no time! ‘Lizzano’ is a well-behaved cherry tomato, perfect for hanging baskets or other small spaces. ‘Jack Be Little’ is the cutest little pumpkin you have ever seen, and the flavor is actually amazing. These diminutive pumpkins make perfect bowls for pumpkin soup, or beautiful, long-lasting fall décor.

Young Cucumbers on vine

Here’s another great tip I learned: Growing vertically gives you more room! Use wall planters, hanging baskets, or trellises. A piece of lattice, cattle panel, or remesh (the less expensive option) is sturdy enough to hold up tomatoes, small winter squash, and cucumbers. Create your own vertical planters using pallets, gutters, or sticks and strings to help you bring your garden to new “heights”. If you build it, plants will climb it.

Remember, no matter the space, the miracle is in the seed. Seeds are programmed to grow, they just need you to give them that little bit of soil, sun, water, and love.

We love to hear what and how you are growing! Please share your patio garden tips with us in the comments below.

 

4 Transplanting Steps

Planting vegetable garden

The precious seedlings you started indoors need time to adapt to life outdoors. Their climate-controlled environment and perfect growing medium has given them a great start, with little to no stress, but now it’s time to give them a new home in the garden.

No stress here! To reduce any transplant stress, harden off your seedlings to help them adjust to the outdoor conditions. Gradually expose your plants to more sunshine and elements each day until they are acclimated. (Read complete instructions in our article, 5 Steps to Hardening Off Seedlings.)

Get ready! I dig a hole with my transplanter, the same depth as my starter pot, but three times as wide. The transplanter has measurements on it, making this task really easy. I’ve found that this is also a good time to mix in some compost if needed (two parts soil to one part compost is a good ratio). Water seedlings before transplanting them so that their roots are more flexible and less likely to tear. A dilute mixture of liquid kelp or seaweed fertilizer in the water can help them handle the stress of moving, too.

 Time to transplant. I usually transplant in the evening or on a cloudy day to ease the seedlings into their new home. You will find that even well-hardened-off seedlings may wilt if they are transplanted in the heat of the day. They will recover, but the stress can slow progress. I love how our paper pots reduce stress at transplanting, so I use them every chance I get. I’ve found that if I soak the bottom, the perforation tears even easier. I just place my seedlings in the hole and backfill, making sure the garden soil level matches the soil level in the pot and cover the top of the pot with soil. You really only want to bury a lot of the stem of plants like leeks or tomatoes.

Grow baby grow! While the seedlings are growing new roots in their new home, they need lots of water, so for the next few weeks after transplanting, I’m diligent about their moisture levels. I poke a finger in the soil (just far enough away so that I’m not disturbing roots) every couple days and make sure not to let them dry out.

It’s that simple! By following these transplanting tips and more organic gardening tips found inside Botanical Interests’ seed packets you are well on your way to enjoying a beautiful and bountiful garden season!

As always, we welcome your trusty tips and tricks in the comments section!

 

Sowing it Forward!

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My May Day tradition is to share seedlings with friends, family, and neighbors. It is easy and enjoyable in late winter to sow a few extra seeds with loved ones in mind. I would label little plastic cells with masking tape and cut the cells apart—it wasn’t elegant but it was functional.

Then a few years ago, eureka! I had the idea for our fun, recycled paper pots that make it easy to not only start our seed, but share the seedlings with friends, family, and neighbors! There is nothing like seeing the excitement of a gardener’s face when given a little life to tend in spring! The pots solve other gardener obstacles as well—they can be individually labeled with variety, date sown, and at transplanting, the perforated bottom tears away so I can plop the whole biodegradable pot in the ground. Before we designed the larger 3” and 4” recycled paper pots, I never bothered starting cucurbits indoors (squash, cucumber, melon) because they do not like the inevitable root disturbance at transplanting. The perforated bottoms on these pots means I no longer have to worry about root disturbance, and I can grow longer season watermelons!

I knew there had to be other home gardeners that were not only plant-sharers like me, but that were also looking for a greener, easier way to start seeds. Because so many gardeners loved the 3″ paper pots, we added a 4″ and 1½” pots with a tray so gardeners have more options. More options equals more sharing!

Share what you are sowing! Tag us with #botanicalinterests or comment below.

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And the Award Goes To…

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‘Bright Lights’ Swiss Chard in Judy’s Garden

For me, gardening is a labor of love. I make a thoughtful plan every year and try different tricks (like my grandpa “Pop’s” advice to soak beet and morning glory seeds), but even after all that, sometimes I get a less-than-desired result. It’s been one of my missions to share my passion for gardening, helping home gardeners be successful no matter what level of gardener they imagine themselves to be. That’s why offering varieties that are proven performers is a must! All-America Selections (AAS) winners and other Botanical Interests-tested, reliable varieties are essential to ensuring our customers have the best choices for home gardening.

In 1932, W. Ray Hastings, the Southern Seedsmen’s Association of Atlanta’s president, suggested that a network of trial gardens be grown and evaluated by skilled, unbiased judges in different U.S. climates. With this evaluation process, gardeners could truly know if a new cultivar was actually improved and how it might perform in their area. Industry leaders must have thought that was a great idea because from this, AAS was born, and began announcing winning varieties the very next year.

The AAS objectively trials and chooses reliable, high-performance winners. They judge varieties on yield, novelty, earliness to bloom or harvest, pest and disease tolerance, and overall performance. In more recent years, they have added that varieties need to have at least two improved qualities and cannot be genetically engineered (commonly referred to as GMO). AAS is still the only national, non-profit agency evaluating plant varieties, and we are so grateful for their work!

At Botanical Interests, we strive to inspire and educate our fellow gardeners, supplying varieties you can trust because we value your trust! Just in case your Pops didn’t give you all the tips you need, we research sowing and growing tips for easy-to-follow instructions inside each seed packet, so you can simply get growing! 

The Value of Gardening from Seed

garden with seedsThere is nothing like harvesting supper right from the garden. One of my favorite memories is of one of my daughters’ sleepovers. I handed out some old wooden bowls to the girls and told them to go get something from the garden for dinner. They were so surprised to get food right from the back yard! The fresh flavor and high-nutrient value of just-harvested food cannot be denied, but there is also something so special about eating something that minutes before, was growing in our garden, having been tended with loving kindness, and is free of pesticides and GMOs. Seeing those young ladies use the same bowls I harvested in as a child really brought it all full circle, and that they wanted to repeat the tradition every time after, made my heart soar!

So for me, the real value in growing from seed isn’t just “dollars and cents”—it is in the quality of my food, the joy of fresh air and productive exercise, and even a bit of a spiritual connection to the earth, definitely a kind of therapy. 

Costs less. Growing from seed costs exponentially less than purchasing plants and produce. For example, a 4″ tomato plant can run you $4, while a plant sown from seed costs 35 cents or less on average. A bunch of colorful, organic carrots is typically priced around $4, while a packet of the same organic carrot seeds is about $2.99, and typically results in about 160 carrots, even after thinning!

Diverse varieties. Don’t limit your bouquets and cuisine to the mainstream! We frequently hear from new gardeners that they never even knew they liked tomatoes until they grew a variety bred for flavor, and not shelf life. Botanical Interests offers over 600 proven varieties so you can sow and grow exactly what you are looking for. 

Organic garden. The choice of organic food and goods is a lifestyle path that many have adopted. Whether you want to support organically-grown food for health concerns, reasons of environmental stewardship, or aiding pollinators, growing your own food and flowers using organic methods ensures you know exactly what goes onto and into your plants, where your food came from, how fresh and nutritious it is, and green; you simply cannot get more local! When goodness and love go in, goodness and love come out in the harvest.

Size matters. While buying big, beautiful, ready-to-transplant plants gives us instant gratification, studies show there is an ideal amount of time from germination to transplant, so when roots overgrow their little “cells” it causes stress on the plants, leading to lower yields, bolting (premature flowering), and bitter flavors. Bigger isn’t always better!  Starting from seed allows you to choose the ideal transplanting time frame for your area, which is based on your average last spring frost date. Also, ornamental plants (especially tall varieties) grown in small cell packs may have been sprayed with growth inhibitors that result in cute, stout plants, unnaturally flowering in tiny cell packs. While the look draws you in, that inhibitor lasts, meaning plants won’t be as big and beautiful in the landscape as those grown from seed.

No root disturbance. Nature direct-sows and so should we, in many cases. Many varieties perform best when direct-sown. Plants sown in place experience less stress, and because of that, mature more quickly. This is especially true of quick-to-mature crops like mesclun and cilantro, or  root crops, sunflowers, and those in the Cucurbit (cucumbers, squash) and bean and pea families to name a few.

Growing from seed is a skill anyone can learn that gives back “in spades”; the pinnacle of freshness, pride in the harvest and beauty, and natural therapy, not to mention cost savings,  plus, you get food and flowers!

 

 

 

 

Giving Back All Year

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Donation thank-you card from Lower Columbia School Gardens in Washington.

This time of year reminds us of what we are continually grateful for—our customers! We are always looking for ways to give back to the community to show our gratitude, not just at this time of year, but all year long. A few years ago, we began cultivating relationships with local schools and community outreach programs that may be interested in donations of seed packets for their gardens. The recipients were delighted, and soon the word spread, growing the program organically. 

As our company expanded, so did the amount of available seed without a home. Thus began our nation-wide seed donation program. We have been happy to provide seed for non-profits all over the U.S. that promote the joy of seed gardening—not only school gardens and community outreach gardens, but also 4H clubs, master gardener conferences, university sustainability centers, Earth Day urban garden projects, correctional-facility gardens, foster care gardens, and many more! We also donate seed-starting guides to schools, master gardener programs, and other educational programs.

It is truly inspiring to hear the wonderful feedback from those who have harvested from our donated seed. We love getting photos of 6-year-olds in the school garden who have just pulled their first carrot from the earth, or baskets full of home-grown veggies at the community outreach garden. One thing that especially touched our hearts this year was a heart-felt ‘thank-you’ from a correctional-facility garden.

So far this year, Botanical Interests has donated almost 50,000 seed packets! We love our donation program because it’s a great way for us to give, to educate, and to inspire, growing the gardener community!

We would like to thank everyone who has accepted our seed, and taken the time and effort to share their experiences, showing others just what pleasures come from planting a garden.

10 Essential Fall Garden Tasks

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  1. Compost disease-free or frost-killed annual plant material, or work it into the garden soil to decompose before spring. Simply cut disease-free plants off at the ground, leaving the soil intact. The root material will decompose and feed the soil. Diseased plant material should be removed from garden altogether and disposed of, preventing disease from re-entering the garden as compost or mulch. Clear out any other garden debris, too, eliminating pest habitat.
  2. Weed. Weeds are a haven for certain diseases to survive the winter, later spreading to your spring garden through soil, contact, or pests.
  3. Add fresh or aged, weed-free compost or manures to the fall garden soil so they have time to mellow before spring planting, feeding beneficial soil microorganisms over winter.
  4. Mulch fallen leaves with a mower (bagger on) or a leaf sucker, so they break down more quickly. Incorporate mulched leaves into beds or compost. Leaves increase organic matter, which helps soil absorb and hold water, as well as feed soil organisms. Save some mowed leaves for applying a 3″–4″ mulch to any overwintering plants like carrots, garlic, or perennials you may have in the garden (or save it for next year). Mulching bare winter beds can also help protect beds from wind erosion and keep cool weather weeds from germinating during winter. In addition to stifling weed germination, mulch reduces evaporation, saving water and keeping roots moist, and temperatures consistent.
  5. Cut back perennials. If you live in a wet winter climate, cutting back in fall can help plants from staying too wet and rotting. Because I live in a dry climate, I leave perennials standing because the stems gather leaves and snow, which keeps roots moist, and the seed heads draw birds to my yard.
  6. Clean tools. Remove any soil left on tools with a stiff, steel-bristle brush. Remove rust by scrubbing your tools with steel wool until the signs of rust are gone. Then rub the metal and wood with mineral oil, and store in a dry area.
  7. Make notes. As gardeners, we’re already thinking about what to do differently next year. For example, my oldest child ate cherry tomatoes faster than I could harvest; add one more plant! In your notes, record where vegetable crops were so you can rotate properly, not growing the same family in that bed but once in three years. Proper rotation reduces disease and pests.
  8. Soil test. Fall is a great time to do a soil test. For around $20–$30, a soil test will tell you what macro- and micronutrients your soil needs, how close you are to the ideal 5– 6% organic matter, pH, and other information that can help you get your garden in prime form next spring. Look to your local county Cooperative Extension Service, which often performs soil tests, or can advise you on a local place to submit your test.
  9. Store seeds in a cool, dry area. This is a good time to take inventory, creating a reorder for next year. Also, any liquid garden fertilizers and organic pesticides should be stored in an indoor area that won’t freeze, preserving the quality of these items.
  10. Request a Botanical Interests catalog!

Tidying up the garden is so satisfying, and also appreciated next spring. Fall garden, get ready for a sprucing up—here I come!

5 Tips for Long-Lasting Pumpkins

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Autumn is here, and nothing says October like “pumpkin”—pumpkin lattes, pumpkin hummus, pumpkin ravioli, and roasted pumpkin seeds. In addition to delicious food dishes, there are so many creative ways to decorate pumpkins for fall, and I feel inspired!  (Speaking of pumpkin decorations—did you know that the Jack O’Lantern came from an Irish myth? In the myth, Jack put an ember in a hollowed-out turnip, and he became known as “Jack of the Lantern” which was shortened to Jack O’Lantern over time. The full story can be found inside our carving pumpkin seed packets along with other facts and organic gardening tips.) No matter what your creative inspiration, here are some tips to enjoy your creations longer.

  1. Choose your pumpkin carefully. A soft stem, nicks, or bruises are indications that they may have started rotting, so these pumpkins will not hold up as long.
  2. Decorate pumpkins. Painted, glittered, and stenciled pumpkins are beautiful and hold up much longer than carved pumpkins. Painting pumpkins is a creative, interactive, and fun project for your “little pumpkins”, too!
  3. Carve only a few days ahead: All carved pumpkins look their best in the first three days, so schedule your carving party accordingly. Keep carved pumpkins clean and sanitized to prevent mold from taking over. Soaking your carved pumpkin in a diluted bleach solution has proven to be the most effective method for keeping a carved pumpkin fresh and rot-free for a full week (possibly a little longer). Read our article for more tips on this method: Keeping Carved Pumpkins Fresh.
  4. Do nothing. Really! For carved pumpkins, several so-called remedies like glue and hairspray actually cause mold to build up more quickly than doing nothing. An all-natural pumpkin can last up to a week, too, although the carving may shrivel a little bit (a great asset for a spooky, witch face carving!).
  5. Be sure to bring pumpkins inside (carved or not) if the temperatures drop below freezing, as they could be damaged.

Inspire us! We would love to see your pumpkin photos! Enter them in our photo contest for a chance to win a $25 gift certificate to Botanical Interests online.