Archive for the ‘Container Growing’ Category

Big Boy Versus Early Girl

Big Boy (on the left) and Early Girl (on the right).

Big Boy (on the left) and Early Girl (on the right).

Big Boy and Early Girl are duking it out in my garden.  I planted both at the same time, and the plants were about the same size.  They both are in the same Earthbox, so they have identical soil and water.  So what’s going on with these two tomato plants?

Tomato Twosome

Here are the specs on the two tomato varieties:

  • Big Boy:  Indeterminate plant with large red beefsteak-ish fruits.  The days to fruiting averages 78, making it a mid-season variety.
  • Early Girl:  Indeterminate plant with medium-sized fruit, typically called a “slicer”.  The days to fruiting averages 52, making it a very early season variety.

Based on the above, what would you expect for my tomatoes in their Earthbox garden?

I’d expect that Early Girl would be flowering, maybe even having teeny-tiny tomatoes.  I’d expect it to be about the same size as Big Boy, but possibly a little smaller.

The Reality

My expectations and reality are two different things.  While the Big Boy plant is bigger (even a bit bigger than expected), it also has flowers that are open.

And Early Girl?  She’s a nice plant, but no flowers are in evidence — although I do see some flower buds.

Hmmmm….

What’s Going to Happen?

Just because Big Boy flowers first, it doesn’t mean that its fruit will be ripe first.  Ripe fruit is at least somewhat dependent on the size of the fruit, and Early Girl has that advantage — the fruit are generally  between 4 and 6 ounces.  Big Boy is more along the lines of 12 ounces to 16 ounces.

Here’s something to think about as well — early-fruiting varieties tend to have less-flavorful fruits than those that ripen later.  I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that because the fruit spends less time on the vine, less sugars and other goodies make it into the fruit.   There are exceptions — some early tomato varieties like Matina and Stupice that have flavor that rivals the later ‘maters.

So…why grow early tomatoes?

Days to Maturity Versus Growing Season

I’m pretty lucky in that the area in Florida where I live (zone 9B), I can grow pretty much any variety (as long as I don’t try to grow it in the summer).  Others aren’t blessed with a long growing season, though, and early varieties may be the only option, for vine-ripened fruits.

Then again, varieties like Matina and Stupice are grown because they taste terrific!

However, a vine-ripened early season tomato will still taste better than one you buy at the grocery store!  And sometimes you want tomatoes sooner rather than later.  Tomatoes you can eat while waiting for the later-season fruits to ripen.

What Does the Future Hold?

How will the duel between Early Girl and Big Boy play out?  Time will tell, certainly.  I still do expect that Early Girl will provide me with some ripe fruit before Big Boy does, but the question now is how much earlier?  A week?  Two weeks?  A day?

Stay tuned for updates!

 

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What’s in the 2016 Spring Garden?

Earthbox with Tomato Plants2016 02 23Tomatoes get planted early here in my part of Florida.  Unfortunately, I got a really late start this year, so the majority of my plants are starts that I bought from various garden centers.  Not that using starts are bad — they are actually quite convenient.  There just isn’t a really big selection of tomato varieties.  So what do I have in my February garden?

Tomatoes on Parade

I have the following tomato varieties in my late winter / early spring garden; they are a mix of heirloom, open-pollinated and hybrid:

  • Big Boy – Indeterminate
  • Early Girl – Indeterminate
  • Big Beef – Indeterminate
  • Black Cherry – Indeterminate
  • Cherokee Purple – Indeterminate
  • Red Beefsteak – Indeterminate
  • Juliet – Indeterminate
  • Husky Red Cherry – Semi-determinate
  • Better Bush – Determinate

I also have three Isis Candy Cherry wannabes that I did start from seed — but more about them later.

Containers or In-Ground?

Everything is in a container now; I don’t do any in-ground gardens anymore.  I have a dedicated area of the yard (i.e., where my old in-ground garden was) that I have overlaid with landscape fabric and placed my containers.

I did have a greenhouse of sorts, but the covering (kind of a translucent tarp material) had the seams disintegrate in a storm.  While that may seem like bad luck, it’s actually good.  The “bones” (the steel frame) of the greenhouse are in excellent condition, so I am using it for hanging planters.  It’s great for strawberries and orchids!  The frame is also great for strapping on really large stakes that I can use to support my tomatoes — I just park the tomato container in front of the stakes.

I’ll take some photos of the garden area, once I get it a little more cleaned up.  I am afraid I let part of the garden area go au naturale for a little too long, so I have about a 150 square foot area that needs some serious TLC.  Oops!

Kinds of Containers

I have quite the mix this year!  I have one Earthbox, one “City Pickers” container (kind of like an inexpensive Earthbox), some fabric grow bags, and then some standard plastic pots.

Better Bush Tomato Plant 2016-02-23You can see my Earthbox in the photo at the top of the page.  I have my Big Boy plant on the left, and the Early Girl on the right.  I did use the Earthbox for the first time during my last tomato-growing season, and I must admit, it works really well.  Unfortunately, my plants expired due to a combination of heat and insects (both of which were much worse than usual).  Then again, all my plants had the same fate, no matter what kind of container they were in!  (I was just able to get in a small harvest from my Earthbox plants because they did better.)

If I had the money, I’d convert everything to either Earthboxes or the fabric grow bags.  One of my grow bags is to the left, holding my Better Bush plant.  However, seeing as I have a ton of regular plastic pots that are in perfectly fine condition, I’d rather spend any extra dollars on soil amendments and/or fertilizers (all organic).

What’s New?

I bought some insect screening to drape over the plants, as well as some 6-foot bamboo poles.  I have some new soil/plant amendments that I am trying out — and I will use my Isis Candy Cherry wannabe plants for some experiments to see what kind of differences (if any) there are between the various amendments.  I also have two Red Beefsteak plants where I have another experiment running.

Stay tuned!

I am also retiring my old method of tying up the tomato vines.  I used to use cut-up strips of old (but clean!) pantyhose, but I am moving to plant clips and flexible padded wire.  While I do have some tomato cages, the plants inevitably migrate outside the cages on either the sides, the top or both!  So cages or not, I need to support branches with a heavy fruit load.

To Prune or Not?

And finally, I am trying some different methods of pruning the plants.  Traditionally I have done minimal (which means barely any) pruning.

This year, I will be pruning off a lot of the suckers off some plants, do some heavy pruning of at least one staked plant, and then do my normal method on the others.

I also have one plant that I plan to let just do its thing — no caging, staking or pruning.  It’s the Juliet tomato.  I actually bought it to be a “sacrificial” plant, so the bunnies and the birds would have a little something.  Juliet is a grape cherry tomato, but it’s not one of my favorites.  Well, at least it wasn’t when I last grew it.  I like tomatoes with a more assertive taste, and Juliet was just a little too mild for me.  But I have to admit — Juliet produces its fruit with absolute abandon!  And who knows, it might be a much better year for Juliet in my garden — we’ll see.

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Soil for Container Gardening

You’ve decided to create a container garden of one or more containers, or are using raised beds.  You have the containers/beds…but what do you fill them with?  As I mentioned in my tomatoes in containers post, it’s time to talk soil.Tomato in a Container

Ready Made or Mix Your Own?

To be honest, I would rather go with pre-bagged, if I could find exactly what I wanted, in the amounts I needed, at a good price.  Given that I am still trying to fill something along the lines of 15 containers from 5 to 25 gallons each, that doesn’t quite work out — for me or the plants.  For that kind of quantity, quality bagged potting soil can be expensive.  However, if you are just filling a couple of 5 gallon containers, bagged potting soil might be just right for you.

The most important thing for container plants is that the roots have enough water and air.  In order for water and air to penetrate the soil, it needs little spaces to slip into.

As a somewhat exaggerated example, it’s almost impossible for air and water to penetrate much into concrete.  However, water and air pass easily through gravel.  (Although I don’t recommend trying to grow in either, LOL.)  😉

So what you are looking for is soil that has enough space for air and water, but not so much that water pours right though it.  Just keep thinking about Goldilocks and getting the mixture “just right”.  😉

Potting Mix, Garden Soil – What’s the Difference?

A potting mix is made especially for growing plants in containers.  A bag of garden soil, though, is made to be mixed in with your current soil — not just placed in your containers without any intervention.

A good potting mix is fluffy, with plenty of perlite or vermiculite and sphagnum peat moss or coconut coir (in addition to compost, of course).  Garden soil tends to be heavy, with little or no perlite, vermiculite or moss/coir.  Putting the bagged garden soil into your containers without lightening it up some will doom your plants to a slow death.  Or at the very least, a much smaller harvest, because the plant roots have a hard time breathing.

What About “Mel’s Mix”?

Mel Bartholomew, of Square Food Gardening (SFG) fame, recommends the following mix.  Although I don’t use the SFG method with the grid, etc., I do like the basics of his soil mix.  It is:

  • 1/3 Compost
  • 1/3 Vermiculite
  • 1/3 Peat Moss or Coconut Coir

The catch is that the compost needs to be from several sources.  In other words, look at the ingredients that go into  the compost you plan to use.  If you’re not making the compost yourself (and maybe even if you are), you don’t want everything to be from one source.

For example, instead of buying 3 bags of compost that are all based on cow manure, you would want a bag of the cow manure-based compost, one of humus-based and another of poultry litter-based.

That being said, if you can’t find compost made from varying ingredients, try to at least get some from different manufacturers.

BTW, I do recommend reading Mel’s book, the All New Square Foot Gardening, Second Edition.

Other Ingredients?

Well, there are other “goodies” you can use to feed your soil, but that is a whole separate post.  I’ll come back and put a link to that post when I have it completed.  I am doing some experimenting, and so far the results have been quite interesting.

Mixing it Up

I typically mix my contain gardening soil up in a wheelbarrow — those 20 gallon pots really take a lot to fill them up!  But sometimes, I only need to make up enough for a small planter.

For a small batch, I get one of those 5-gallon buckets (like you can get at Home Depot or Lowes) and scoop in a few trowels worth of compost.  Next I’ll put in a trowel of vermiculite, another of perlite and then a scoop or two of coconut coir.  I’ll mix that around with my trowel until it’s nice and blended, then pour it into its pot.

If the pot doesn’t end up being quite full enough, I’ll just throw in a handful or two of each of the above, then mix it all up by hand.

Compost is Your Plant’s Friend

I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk a little more about compost.  If you have your own pile, you have ready access to it, and it’s probably full of all sorts of goodies for your tomato plants.  If you don’t have a compost pile, you’ll need to go with a bagged compost.

When you walk down the aisles of your garden center, you’re likely to find several different brands of bagged compost.  Take a look at the bags and read the ingredients.  In Florida where I live, it’s heavy on the composted cow manure — believe it or not, we’re one of the top states for producing cattle (and you just thought we were beaches).  What’s harder to find are composts from forest humus or mushroom compost.  Read the labels, and if you can, get at least two different kinds.  Each type is a little different with the (good) soil bacteria and/or (good) fungi, and so provides a more balanced set of nutrients.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that all you need in your container is compost, though — it’s a bit too heavy (been there, done that).  You will need to mix it with one or more of the perlite, vermiculite, etc. before planting your tomatoes in it.

For the few times I’ve planted in straight compost, the plants didn’t do so great.  Yes, they grew and produced tomatoes but they seemed didn’t grow or produce as well as the containers where I had a mix.

Whew — that was a long post.  Hopefully this has been helpful for you!

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