Fruits & Vegetables Archives

June 30, 2009

Alert: Late blight disease, responsible for Irish Potato Famine, found on Long Island

>> Click for update (7/3/09)

If you're growing tomatoes or potatoes, especially if you've recently planted seedlings, be on the lookout for a nasty disease that's been detected on Long Island and elsewhere in the northeast.

Late blight disease is a fungus that causes white-mold encircled gray spots on leaves and stems that causes the plant to blacken, wilt and die. It's the same disease that caused the Irish Potato Famine in the 1840s, and it has never occurred this early or widespread in the United States.

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Stem lesions on a tomato plant in Suffolk County.

Fungi thrive in damp environments, so the abundant rainfall over the past month has created a perfect breeding ground for the disease. I've got tons of mushrooms all over the garden. Same principle, only blight can spread around and kill your plants.

Bonnie Plants, headquartered in Alabama, has growing stations in 61 locations nationwide. The fungus has been detected in Bonnie Plants stock in local big box stores, though that's not to say it won't be found in plants from other growers. I haven't heard word of any official recalls on Long Island.

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Brown stem lesions visible on plants in the center of the shelf.

Compare these photos to your plants and pull up any that show symptoms. Then bag them up tightly and put them in the trash. Don't compost them. And, obviously, don't purchase any symptomatic plants.

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Closeup of stem lesions.

blight4.jpgLeaf symptoms of late blight disease.

A reader snapped the above photos of Bonnie Plants tomatoes at an area retailer. Home Depot, Wal-Mart, Lowes, Sears and K-Marts stock Bonnie Plants vegetables.


Information about late blight disease
from Cornell University.

Tune in to Rutgers University's webinar on Thursday, July 2, from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. for a live chat with vegetable specialists from Cornell University and Rutgers University, who will provide more details about the outbreak, address concerns and answer your questions about late blight and other tomato diseases.

To access the webinar, Click this link (it will begin working at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday), type your name in the box, click login button and follow the on-screen directions.

For more information on the webinar, contact Steven Komar, Sussex County Agricultural Agent, New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station, at skomar@aesop.rutgers.edu or at 973-948-3040.

June 17, 2009

Wackadoo strawberry

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Sam Schneider of Elmont is no stranger to mutant produce.

Two years ago, he sent me a photo of a "mutant" 5-lobed strawberry, produced from a plant he purchased at Costco. This week, he sends along a photo of an 8-lobed berry, "Pretty freaky," he says. "And from just about the same place."

Though you didn't ask for an explanation, I'll give you one anyway. The berries are probably misshapen because of the cooler-than-normal weather we've been having. When temperatures dip below 60 degrees, especially when accompanied by high humidity, pollination can be affected in certain varieties of strawberries.

No worries, though, Sam, those berries are completely edible, unlike mine, which were eaten, presumably by birds, right from under their protective net.

June 15, 2009

Helping plants recover from too much rain

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Rain helps the garden grow and lifts the burden of supplemental irrigation off our shoulders, but lately it's been too much of a good thing. The soil likely has been leached of nutrients, roots may be vulnerable, and fungal diseases could be planning a party of epic proportions.

To counter the consequences of all that precipitation, replenish container and garden soil with a slow-release fertilizer, preferably organic. Check beds for spots where soil may have eroded and replace with compost and mulch to ensure roots aren't exposed.

It's very likely you have some standing water on your property, maybe in a tire swing, pot saucer, clogged gutter or overturned trash can lid. Drain it all regularly to discourage mosquito breeding; I'm fearful of another West Nile virus outbreak later in the season.

Core aerate the lawn and top dress with one-quarter inch of compost.

Spray roses, phlox and other plants affected by mildew with a solution of one tablespoon each baking soda and ultra-fine horticultural oil diluted in a gallon of water.

Apply 2 cups of dolomitic lime to each tomato plant that hasn't been limed in the past 2 years; spray liquid calcium on leaves at the first sign of blossom end rot (black mushy spots on tomato bottoms). And avoid walking on soggy soil.

Then, keep your fingers crossed.

>> More gardening how-tos

Handout photo

May 19, 2009

Frost alert! (or Snow Miser and the tomato mishap)

Much of the island experienced some frost last night, so for those of you who heeded the garden detective and resisted planting your vegetables a few weeks ago when we had a freakish heatwave: kudos! For the rest of you impulsive types, well, you'll reap what you sow, literally.

I'm afraid I'll be reaping some nasty stuff myself. I began hardening off my tomato seedlings a few days ago in preparation for transplanting next weekend, increasing their outdoor exposure in a shady spot by an hour each day. Yesterday, I was supposed to be up to 4 hours.

Fast forward to this morning when I woke up and turned on the TV to check the weather. Apparently there was frost overnight and by 5:30 a.m., temps were barely in the 40s where I live. Panic ensued, as I realized that of all days to be a scatterbrain, I picked the one when frost would hit -- I had forgotten my tomatoes outside.

I ran to the deck to retrieve them, shivering and pale (the tomatoes, not me), and brought them back in. I lowered the grow lights to coddle them and apologized profusely. Who am I kidding? I cursed profusely, but I digress.

Anyway, I think they'll be OK. Anybody else mess up?

April 24, 2009

Wait! Get your hands away from that dirt!

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With temperatures in the 80s forecast for this weekend, lots of you might be itching to do some planting -- I know I am.

I might be asking for the impossible here, but please, people, show some restraint. While the average last frost date for most of Long Island -- April 15th -- has come and gone, we're not out of the woods yet. An average is just an average, and it's entirely possible we might have another overnight freeze. If we do, all that money you plan on spending this weekend could go to waste.

Feel free to plant perennials and roses, but wait at least until May 15 before loading the cart up with annuals, unless you plan to keep them indoors under grow lights or outdoors in containers so you can bring them in if overnight lows are expected to dip below 50 degrees.

And refrain from setting out any herbs or vegetable plants like cucumbers, squash, tomatoes, eggplants, peppers or melons (yes, I know melons are fruit. So are tomatoes, cucumbers, squach, peppers and eggplants, actually. But I'd feel silly calling the latter fruits, and melons came to mind and I didn't want to write a separate sentence).

I know I'm not the Wardrobe Detective, but while we're on the subject, I feel compelled to advise you to leave your summer clothes right where they are, packed away in the attic or basement or wherever it is you stash it over the winter. I'm no expert, but experience has taught me that packing up the sweaters now and putting shorts and tank tops in your drawers will invariably lead to another trip to the attic a week from now, during which you'll search in earnest for your fleece.

You've made it through the winter and you're on the home stretch. Just hold on a little longer. Summer's almost here. I promise.


April 6, 2009

Pruning Montauk daisies,planting tomatoes for sauce, and fertilizing housplants

Should Montauk daisies be cut down the same as perennials at the end of the fall season? My plants are brown and dry, and I'm inclined to cut them down, but I see some green buds on some of the stems. It seems some pruning of the dead parts is necessary to make room for new growth, but I'm not sure what to do. They bloomed beautifully last year, and I don't want to ruin them. Your advice will be greatly appreciated. -- Libby Vittorio

Montauk daisies, also known as Nippon daisies (Nipponanthemum nipponicum), are fail-safe shrubby mounding perennials that prefer full sun but can tolerate partial shade and thrive in most soil. Reaching 2 to 3 feet tall, the late-summer bloomer continues to put on a show through the fall and is attractive to bees, butterflies and birds. You'll get the best performance from your daisies if you cut them almost to the ground in early spring. Don't worry, they'll grow back.

I plan to grow a large number of tomato plants to make tomato sauce and freeze it. I am tired of paying more than a dollar to buy a 28-ounce can of tomatoes. Plus it would be a welcome change of taste to have fresh tomato sauce like my father would occasionally make for me many years ago. I have a few questions: I saw a mention that it is good to add eggshells to the soil when planting tomatoes. Could you re-explain the benefits? What variety of tomato seed is recommended for sauce? I have heard of Roma, a plum tomato. What do you think? -- Charles J. Ritchie, Kings Park

Tomatoes require calcium to produce healthy fruit, which is why it's so important to incorporate dolomitic lime into their planting bed. But some people swear by placing a whole egg in the soil under the plant. Others crush up eggshells and mix them into the planting hole or side dress the plants with them. As the eggshells break down, calcium leaches into the soil, where it works to prevent the dreaded blossom end rot that can wreck tomatoes. And after boiling eggs, why dump all those nutrients down the drain? Pour the water into the garden to give tomatoes a nutritional boost.

Concerning sauce, this Italian says meaty plum tomatoes are the way to go - the riper, the better. Other larger, more gelatinous tomatoes would release a lot of liquid during the cooking process, making for a watery sauce.

I read with interest your article from several weeks ago about houseplants that you can't kill. I own a few on the list and can attest to their hardiness. You mentioned the need for fertilizing from time to time, and therein lies my question. I know that most sources state the importance of feeding houseplants, but I have some plants that have been in the same pots for years that haven't ever been given plant food but continue to grow and do well. They include pothos (15-plus years) and spider plants (5-plus years). So is plant food really that important? -- Andrew Keller, Whitestone

All plants require nutrients, and potted plants are no exception. In fact, they require more fertilizing than garden plants because their nutrient source is limited to the pot in which they live. When the nutrients in the potting mix are used up, their only hope for more is you. Having said that, not all houseplants are created equal, and the more light to which plants are exposed, the higher their fertilizer requirements. Pothos are low-light plants that can get by with little care. And though spider plants require a sunny setting, they're extremely low-maintenance otherwise. If you think they're doing well now, try giving your pothos a twice-monthly shot of fertilizer, diluted to half-strength (never follow package directions for fertilizing houseplants; you'll end up overfertilizing) during spring, summer and fall. Do the same for spiders during spring and fall.

April 4, 2009

White mold on top of seedling soil

I bought one of those larger sized "JIFFY" indoor greenhouse containers with the little peat things inside that you get wet and plant your seeds in...we planted them with tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers and watermelons(all organic seeds)and I think I must have severely overwatered them in the beginning because they are stiil very wet a week later now...and have never been watered again yet since the initial one.

So, i put the cover over them like it said to do and they have just remained very wet and now there is this weird spider-web looking mold growing on and between most of the little plants. they have started to sprout and there is not any mold on the sprouts, just all over the top of the peat with the sprouts in them.

I am very worried that if we eat off of these plants when they are grown( that have had mold grow with them) that we could get sick...is that true?

and is it bad for us to have this mold growing in the house? on the counter where the plants are growing?

Please help....if this is not good I can throw all of these plants out and start over..I have little children and dont want to feed them anything harmful and this is new to me...I have never done this indoor greenhouse seed thing before....just afraid it may happen again also if I start over!!!

Thanks, -- Rene', Oregon

Hi, Rene.
What you have going on is damping off -- a fungal disease that's caused by too much moisture. Just scrape it all off the top, removing all of the affected "soil" and don't replace it. They should recover and your vegetables will be perfectly safe to eat.

To avoid this in the future, only bottom water the seedlings, that is, set them into a tray or baking pan and add water to the tray or pan when needed. As long as you have drainage holes poked into the bottom of your containers, water will be taken up from the bottom. Only add water when the peat is dry. Once a week sounds about right.

Good luck!
Jessica

March 20, 2009

More details on the White House vegetable garden

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(AP Photo)

Michelle Obama and 26 local elementary school children broke ground this morning on the first White House kitchen garden since World War II.

Crops to be planted include spinach, broccoli, lettuces, kale and collard greens, and various
herbs, with the first harvest expected in late April. Don't expect any beets, though. Read why here.

White House officials have confirmed that some of the produce will be cooked
in the White House kitchen and some will be given to a local soup
kitchen where Mrs. Obama recently helped serve lunch.

And during the ground breaking, the first lady didn't just stand by. We have photos of her and the kids using shovels, rakes, pitchforks and pushing wheelbarrows. There's no telling whether they were staged just for the photo op, but I have my reservations, given that Mrs. Obama was attired in neat-but-casual attire and what appear to be dress boots and that she's holding a tool not ordinarily used to break ground.

I do have faith, however, that she's down to earth enough to work the land like the rest of us. She just might not actually do it, given her other first lady obligations. I'll cut her some slack for the 4, or maybe 8, years she's in the house. After that, I hope to see her in Crocs and overalls.

There will also be a beehive, but there's no word on whether the first lady will be head beekeeper.

C'mon President Obama, Give Beets a Chance!


Newsday photo / John Paraskevas

Back in 1990, the first President George Bush expressed his feeling toward a certain crucifer thus:

I do not like broccoli and I haven’t liked it since I was a little kid and my mother made me eat it. And I’m President of the United States and I’m not going to eat any more broccoli. Now look, this is the last statement I’m going to have on broccoli. There are truckloads of broccoli at this very minute descending on Washington. My family is divided. For the broccoli vote out there: Barbara loves broccoli. She has tried to make me eat it. She eats it all the time herself. So she can go out and meet the caravan of broccoli that’s coming in.

The American public was sharply divided. While many law-abiding citizens commiserated with him, there were lots of broccoli lovers who felt he'd shamed the stalky vegetable.

Now that the White House is planting it's own vegetable garden, President Barack Obama reportedly has put his culinary foot down, as well: There will be no beets!

Granted, beets are an acquired taste. Some say they taste like dirt, but they have an unmistakable sweetness and wonderful texture if cooked just right. I'm not talking about the canned version, which my cubby mate, Corris Little from the Cheap Thrills blog, confused for cranberries yesterday in the Newsday cafeteria. No, real beets, purchased with upper leaves intact, can provide two delicious and nutritious side dishes at once: Greens rich in calcium, beta carotene and vitamin C, and a root vegetable that provides potassium, folate and manganese.

Here's how I cook 'em:

Scrub the root portion well. Cut each in half, and place in an aluminum foil pouch on a roasting pan. Roast at 425 degrees for 45 mintues, give or take, depending on their size. (You'll know they're cooked when you can easily insert a fork or knife into them.) As soon as they're cool enough to handle, slip the skin off. Season as you see fit, with olive oil, a little salt and pepper, and maybe a splash of balsamic vinegar.

Meanwhile, cut off the green leaves and rise well. Cut into inch-wide strips. Saute in a tablespoon of olive oil, sprinkle on some garlic powder, salt and pepper, and cook until leaves wilt. So easy.

C'mon, President Obama, give beets a chance!

Michelle Obama is a like-minded vegetable grower!

First Lady Michelle Obama is expected to be on site today for the groundbreaking of the new White House Kitchen Garden on the South Lawn . She'll be joined by students from Bancroft Elementary, who will be participating in all aspects of the project, from sowing to harvesting.

This will be the first time edibles have been grown at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, since Eleanor Roosevelt planted a Victory Garden during World War II.

I can't wait to find out what they're planting. Stay tuned: I'll post details as they become available.

March 9, 2009

How to make a newspaper seed pot

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(MCT Photo)


Recycle newspapers into free, eco-friendly, green seed pots. Here's how.


Not sure when to sow? Check my seed starting schedule

February 20, 2009

Fertilizing vegetables with human urine?

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(Photos.com Photo)

Reader A. Abdeen Ahamed from Kochi, Kerala, India, sent an intriguing inquiry last week: Can human urine be used as fertilizer in the organic vegetable garden?

Well, that's a Question of the Day, if ever I heard one! And the answer might surprise you.

In 2007 the Department of Environmental Science at the University of Kuopio in Finland released results of a study that found human urine to be a great source of minerals, especially nitrogen. Scientists there had experimented with three groups of cabbage plants, treating one with commercial fertilizer, another with urine and a third with nothing. Naturally, the fertilized plants fared better than the ones that weren't treated at all. What you might find surprising, though, is that the urine-treated plants actually grew a little bigger and fuller and reached maturity more quickly and had a bit less insect damage than the commercially fertilized group.

Though this might seem gross to some, using urine for its nutrients could be a boon in places where commercial fertilizers aren't readily available or where they're just too expensive. But in our backyard vegetable patch?

"I would recommend that as an alternative, since you can save some money and you can reduce greenhouse gases, since the making of industrial fertilizers needs energy and the nitrogen fertilization industry also produces N2O (nitrous oxide), which is some 300 times more harmful than CO2 (carbon dioxide),” Helvi Heinonen-Tanski, leader of the Finnish research study, told me last week. And because our phosphorus mines are running low, with supplies estimated to last only 90 or so more years, we might be well served by exploring substitutes, like urine. "I would like to protect the lives of my grandchildren, too,” she added.

As for the risk of transmitting pathogens to our vegetables, Heinonen-Tanski says it's not much of an issue in the United States. "In principle, there are some pathogens which can be transmitted to urine, but they are really not usual in Western countries. A person having tuberculosis or bilharzia could cause risks. You do not have bilharzia in the USA, and also tuberculosis is not usual.”

(In Kochi Kerala, that might be a different story. I really don't know. Heinonen-Tanski did say risks were low with people eating a "western diet," but I'm not sure which component of the diet makes it so. Ahamed should do some local research to rule out any risks before using urine on his vegetable plants.)

Another question that came to mind was the risk of groundwater contamination. Heinonen-Tanski replies, "The risk depends on the amount of urine that is used. All urine produced by one person eating a Western diet can be used without any risk for some 200-400 square meters if you would get only one yield per year. If you are able to get two yields, these areas will be 100 or 200 square meters. This contamination risk is the same as with the industrial fertilizers. Human urine contains urea and many [one third] industrial fertilizers contain exactly the same compound.”

There are some guidelines to follow, however. Fertilize the soil, not the plant, and do so only in the early stages of growth. Heinonen-Tanski recommends applying urine to soil 4 to 8 inches away from the stem, and ceasing applications at least four weeks before harvesting. Either dilute the urine with water or irrigate after applying. The urine-to-water dilution ratio can be anywhere from 1:2 to 1:10.

So there it is.

- WOULD YOU TRY THIS AT HOME?

- Check out readers' photos of their gardens

February 19, 2009

How to test old seeds for viability

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(Photo by Lee S. Weissman)


It's almost time to start vegetable seeds indoors, and you've got a bunch of packets left over from last year. Should you waste valuable germination time on them when they might be duds, or should you just toss them?

Neither. If you have a paper towel, a plastic bag and some water, this quick and easy test will save you the trouble. Get started.

January 30, 2009

Great vegetables to grow in 2009

I found some unusual, exotic and just plain delicious edibles to grow this year. Check them out:


Click photo to get started.

November 13, 2008

When to move a fig tree

Q: I have a beautiful fruit-bearing fig tree that, unfortunately, is planted next to an air-conditioner unit. It is now so large I need to move it. When is the best time to move the tree? Fall or spring? Should I move it to full sun? -- Mary Fran Jeffrey, Manhasset

A: The best time to transplant your tree is when it is dormant in late winter (early March), before new growth begins. Be sure to dig up as much of the root ball as possible to avoid transplant shock. Since the tree is large, this will be a big job.

For the fig tree's new home, dig a hole twice the size of the root ball and exactly as deep as the original hole. Be sure to water regularly throughout the entire first year, until it's fully established. A spot with full sun would be ideal.

October 9, 2008

How to harvest in autumn, or 'What do feet have to do with tomatoes?'

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It's beginning to feel a lot like autumn, and frost might be threatening your fruits and vegetables. When to harvest and how to store? I generally let my feet guide me: When I find I'm sleeping with my socks on, I know it's time to bring in the last of the tomatoes and cut down the basil. Some crops will ripen after picking, but others won't. Here's a guide to harvesting and handling some common crops:

Tomatoes

Ripe when red. Green tomatoes will ripen on countertop. Best to store ripe tomatoes stem side down.

Peppers

Will ripen on countertop. Can be eaten before mature. Green peppers turn red when fully ripe; hot peppers lose heat as they ripen.

Cucumbers

Best when slightly immature. Ideally, pick when color is dark and spines begin to soften.

Figs

Will not ripen off the tree. What you pick is what you get.

Plums

Will ripen on countertop. Best picked when soft and swollen.

Zucchini

Best when young and tender. Harvest when 6 to 8 inches long.

Pears

Ripe when stem releases fruit with a gentle tug. Will ripen when stored in sealed paper bag on countertop.

Grapes

Pick only when fully ripe, about two weeks after full size and color are achieved. Will not sweeten after harvest.

Watermelon

Ripe when bottom of fruit, which sits on soil, lightens in color to yellow

Pumpkins

Ripe when rind is hard and color deep. Cut with at least 1 inch of stem to prevent rotting.

RECIPE

So you've just saved a bunch of green tomatoes from those frigid overnight temperatures. While you can always let them ripen on the countertop, there's another tasty option to consider: fried green tomatoes. A Southern delicacy introduced to most of us Yankees in the 1991 film of the same name, they're a good way to use up the last of the season's bounty. Here's my version:

Fried green tomatoes

Vegetable or olive oil for frying (south of the Mason-Dixon Line, folks prefer using bacon grease, which is yummy, to be sure. Use whatever you like - or whatever you think your arteries will tolerate.)

1/2 cup cornmeal

1/2 cup dry bread crumbs

Garlic powder, salt and pepper to taste

4 large green tomatoes, cut into 1/3-inch-thick slices

1 cup milk

1 cup all-purpose flour

3 eggs, beaten

1. Pour about 1/2 inch oil in the bottom of a frying pan; heat.

2. Combine cornmeal, bread crumbs, garlic powder, salt and pepper

3. Dip each tomato slice in milk and dredge in flour.

4. Dip in beaten eggs and coat with bread crumb mixture.

5. Fry in hot oil about 4 minutes each side, until golden brown.

Storing herbs

You can always rinse, dry, crumble and store herbs such as basil, parsley and cilantro in a glass jar, but I prefer to freeze them:

1. Remove stems from leaves and discard stems

2. Rinse leaves with water

3. Lay in a single layer on paper towels; dry overnight

4. Place in a Ziploc bag and freeze. Leaves will remain separated for easy retrieval later.

September 23, 2008

I've been victimized, I think

I'm very confused. In late June I posted photos of my pear tree, which had more than 70 pears on it, and I complained about squirrels pilfering my pears and not even eating them.

Well, a month later, all at once, overnight, those pears went from 70ish to zero.

ZERO.

There's not one pear left on the tree. I cannot believe a squirrel carted off 70 pears all at once. Even a family of squirrels couldn't have squirreled them all away. And, no, there aren't any pears on the ground either. And no remnants of half-eaten fruit. No evidence whatsoever.

Could it be possible that someone trespassed into my backyard when I wasn't home and picked all my pears?

I'm incredulous, but I think that's what happened.

September 4, 2008

How to save tomato seeds

Now that you've enjoyed beautiful heirloom tomatoes all summer long, why not save some seeds for next year?

Here's the proper way to collect and save tomato seeds:

Select the most desirable tomato from the strongest, healthiest plants. Slice tomato in half and scoop out seeds. They be encased in a gelatinous liquid. Drop the seeds and goop into a glass jar and cover with water.

Cover the jar with a paper towel and secure it with a rubber band. This will allow air in and keep fruit flies and other airborne particles out. Place it in a warm spot. On top of the refrigerator is nice and cozy.

After a few days, fermentation will begin. Fermentation breaks down the germination-stalling gell that surrounds each seed. You'll notice mold forming on the surface, and the seeds separating from the pulp, which will float to the top. You might also notice some seeds floating on the surface; they're duds. Good, viable seeds will sink. When this has happened, pour off the liquid, mold, pulp and floating seeds, and spread the wet seeds from the bottom of the jar onto a paper plate to dry. Shake up the plate every day to promote even drying and prevent sticking. Store dry seeds in a paper envelope in the refrigerator.

Now that I've shared the right way, here's how I do it:

Click photo to learn how.

August 14, 2008

How to grow a pineapple plant

It's easy! Click photo to learn how.

June 26, 2008

How to grow tomatoes

Click photo for a step-by-step slideshow:


Click photo for a step-by-step demonstration

What's bugging your tomato plants?

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Ewww. Aphids.

Here are some common pests that can interfere with happy tomato gardening endeavors, along with the best ways to deal with them.

Aphids

Wash aphids off with as hard a stream of water as the leaves and stem can handle. If you need to pull out the big guns, order up some lady bugs. They'll keep aphids in check.

Colorado potato beetle

These are best picked off by hand. Squash beetles, eggs and larvae.

Cutworms

Keep weeds in check to discourage their presence. Use cardboard collars around new transplants to protect their vulnerable lower stems.


Flea beetles

Row covers will protect transplants, but need to be removed before temperatures get too hot. Keep the bed clear of weeds to reduce populations.

Tomato hornworms

Usually kept in check by natural enemies, but if you hand pick larvae you'll nip them in the bud, so to speak.

Whiteflies

Your best defense against whiteflies is a good offense. Carefully check plants for infestation before purchasing.

June 19, 2008

What's wrong with this picture?

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&%$#@ Squirrels!

They do it every year. I don't mind sharing, but they're like toddlers who've just acquired a box of chocolates, biting into one piece, abandoning it and taking another. Take one and finish it. Sheesh.


June 18, 2008

Plant of the week: Black Krim Tomato

This heirloom tomato is new to me, but I received four plants as a gift today while volunteering at the Cornell Cooperative Extension. I was there for a Beautification Committee meeting. In everyday speak, that means I was pulling weeds for 2 hours.

In any event, I'm looking forward to planting these tomatoes, which couldn't have come at a better time, what with the early demise suffered by their predecessors. It's a little late to plant, but in 85-90 days, say around Sept. 15, I hope to be drizzling them with olive oil.

Lycopersicon esculentum promises 10-12 ounce dark reddish-brown beefsteak tomaotes. Most tomatoes I've encountered have been red, aside from the ones that disappear into the black hole at the back of my refrigerator. When discovered, those are often green and black, but I digress.

They're said to have gotten their name from their land of origin, the Island of Krim (or the Crimean Peninsula) in the Black Sea off the Ukraine.

I don't have any photos of this one, but you can check out their freaky good looks here.

June 16, 2008

Wacky Tomato update

seedling.jpgOf the 6 freaky tomato seedlings I planted last week, only one has survived. I noticed this morning that it has sprouted two tiny little leaves. It just might make it.

In the meantime, Matt Ippolito, a reader who was a top contender in last year's "Garden Detective Great Long Island Tomato Challenge," sent me an email:

"Some info to pass along on your tomato seed sprouting question-----------

http://www.ppdl.purdue.edu/PPDL/weeklypics/3-3-03.html

http://www.cookingforengineers.com/article/57/Surprises-In-Snacks"

Apparently, Bernadette isn't the only one to have stumbled across a sprouting tomato. There still doesn't seem to be an adequate explanation for it, just evidence that it sometimes happens. Hmmm.

earthtom.jpg

In the meantime, all my in-ground tomato plants might have suffered a tragic fate, but the four I have growing in Earth Boxes are taking off like crazy.

The box on the right contains contains the Earth Box organic mixture, lime and fertilizer; the one on the left has standard issue stuff. Aside from health benefits, I'm curious to see if there's any difference in the way the plants develop. So far, no.

They're all just about ready for staking now. Problem is, the Earth Box staking system is prohibitively expensive, so I'm going to try to improvise with stakes and string or something. Any ideas?

June 13, 2008

What's up with this tomato, Part 3

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OK -- so I just heard from Bernadette. Here are the details concerning the freaky tomato:

"It was sitting on my kitchen table in a ceramic bowl for over a month and I have been ignoring it. I decided to feel it last Saturday morning, in the dark. Thinking that I would have to get rid of a rotten tomato. Instead, I felt this firmness and tiny bumps, which scared me some, so I turned the lights on and you know the rest."

So this was a store-bought tomato (obviously, because we won't be seeing any backyard-grown ones for at least another month) and it wasn't like this when she purchased it. Somehow it sprouted at room temperature after sitting around awhile.

Explanations? Anybody?

June 12, 2008

What's up with this tomato, Part 2

So when John came home tonight, naturally I showed him the tomato.

"What are you going to do with it?" he asked. "Plant the sprouts?"

Great idea! That'll make for a great experiment, especially in light of the recent tomato plant tragedy over here at the Damiano house.

So I spent my evening separating pulp from sprouts, rinsing and planting. (Alright, not my whole evening. I also cooked dinner, helped my daughter with her Latin America project on Costa Rica, watched half of "The Song Remains the Same" and spent 1 1/2 hour in the driveway with John, who was trying to get my car's dead battery started, to no avail.)


DSC01941.JPG

Aren't they cute? Notice the little roots on the ends. I wonder if they'll grow...

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I'll keep you posted.

What up with this tomato?

When you're the garden columnist for a daily newspaper, you hear all sorts of things.

One woman once told me about a problem with a tomato plant that didn't produce tomatoes, only yellow flowers, which were diligently removed because they were "ugly." A coworker complained about a grape vine that for years has produced tons of grapes that never, ever ripen. All the usual suspects, sun, etc., apparently aren't the problem. Reporters and editors and photographers and artists approach me at work with their questions. I like to help, especially if I know the answer. But sometimes, I'm just stumped.

When I got into the newsroom this morning, I found a "gift" left on my desk by my friend Bernadette. It was one of the weirdest things I'd come across, even though I can pretty much figure out what's going on. I don't have the back story because I wasn't in the office yesterday when she left it, and she was out today. Check this thing out:

DSC01935.JPG

There are tiny pin-prickly things just below this tomato's skin, and running my finger over them reveals there's some pressure in there, like they're just waiting to burst out, Alien style. Some already have emerged, and they look like -- sprouts.

Could the tomato's seeds actually have germinated and sprouted from within the tomato? I brought that baby home with me tonight so I could investigate further.

Then, on the way home, some idiot driving perpendicular to me runs a stop sign, forcing me to slam on my brakes and sending everything on my front passenger seat hurling to the floor. The tomato, which was overly ripe, smashed open, spewing juice on the carpet, my backpack, my canvas lunch tote, cell phone, water bottle and travel mug. So I don't travel light. Don't judge me.

Anyway, when I got home and looked at the smashed specimen, its insides were revealed:

DSC01936.JPG

Freaky, right? Here, take a closer look:

DSC01937.JPG

So I cut it in half to get an even closer look:

DSC01938.jpg

It's clearly a case of the seeds sprouting. This tomato wanted to give birth. I wonder what would have happened if it had remained on the vine.

Anyone have a clue what's going on here?

June 9, 2008

My dog peed on my tomato plants

... and now they're all dead.

Damn dog.

May 28, 2008

Quick tip: Plant those veggies!

Time to get your vegetables into the ground.

Choose the sunniest spot in the yard and incorporate compost or well-rotted manure into the soil.

Apply mulch after planting to keep the soil warm, inhibit weeds and retain water. Throughout the season, water thoroughly in the early morning hours. Hand watering is preferable to using automated sprinklers because it conserves water, minimizes leaf diseases and concentrates water where you want it (not where weed seeds are waiting to germinate).

March 18, 2008

Wacky things you might find in your garden

There are some wacky gardening photos making their way around the web this month in forwarded emails. I'm sure many of you have seen them by now. The first time I received them, from a reader, I marveled, chuckled and decided against posting them on this blog, what with Newsday being a family newspaper and all. The second time I received this obviously widely circulated email, from a friend, it gave me pause.

Though I have no way of knowing whether the photos have been doctored, they are vegetables, which many of us grow in our own gardens. If a specimen such as those - uniquely and unmistakably shaped like unmentionable body parts, mostly -- would grow in our own vegetable patch, I don't think any of us would be offended. However, I wasn't able to obtain official permission to post them here.

For my own part, I can still be entertained by the photos readers have sent of their irregularly shaped fruits and veggies. They include this tomato, to which J.B. "couldn't resist adding a mouth and eye" ...


jbtomato.jpg


... John Kluko's "mutant duck tomato"...


kluko1.jpg



jules.jpg



... the "Jimmy Durante schnozzola eggplant," grown by Jules Lewis of Coram, who took the liberty of adding a paper eye.






Of the photos on the aforementioned-yet-unmentionable email, here's one the boss-man has no problem with. Cute, isn't it?

gardenhand.jpg


February 27, 2008

Seed starting guidelines

veggies.jpg
Ladies and gentlemen: Start your seeds!

It's finally seed-starting time for some vegetables here on Long Island. Here's a handy planting chart to help you time your garden. These dates are based on tried-and-true research conducted by Cornell University.

Here are details on how to start seeds indoors.

VegetableSow indoorsPlant transplants outdoorsSow outdoors
BroccoliMid. Feb.April, and mid-June to Mid-JulyLate May
Cabbage, earlyFeb. to MayMarchn/a
Cabbage, laten/aJune-JulyLate May-Early June
Carrotsn/an/aApril - July
CauliflowerMarchApril and June-JulyMay
Corn, sweet earlyn/an/aMid April-Early May
Corn, sweet laten/an/aMid May-Mid July
Cucumbersn/an/aLate May-Late June
EggplantAprilLate May-Early Junen/a
Endiven/an/aMid July-August
Lettuce, headMarchMid April-Early MayJuly
Lettuce, leafLate Feb.March-MayApril-Early Sept
Parsleyn/an/aApril-May
PeppersAprilLate May-Early Junen/a
Squash, summern/an/aMarch-April and Aug.
Squash, wintern/an/aLate May-July
TomatoesLate March-Early AprilLate May-Mid JuneApril-July
Watermelonn/aLate MayLate May

February 25, 2008

Doomsday Vault has us covered

svaerial.jpg
Aerial view of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault | Photo courtesy Cary Fowler/Global Crop Diversity Trust

When I start seeds indoors for my vegetable garden every spring, invariably some don't grow. Last year, I sowed an entire package of carrots and didn't get one viable plant.

What if those were the only seeds I had -- and there were no grocery stores? I'd be up a creek, I'm afraid, without the proverbial paddle.

To avert such a calamity should disaster strike, Norway has created a "Doomsday Vault," and placed within it 4.5 million seed samples from around the world. At a cost of $9.1 million, the concrete vault dug into the side of a mountain was built to withstand climate change, wars, natural disasters such as earthquakes, and nuclear attacks in order to protect those seeds, and will reside deep in the permafrost of an Arctic mountain. Its steel airlock doors ensure a tight seal.

Its aim? To make it possible to re-establish crops should they be obliterated or become extinct.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault will be officially inaugurated officially tomorrow, less than a year after crews started drilling for it in Norway's Svalbard archipelago.

svinside.jpg

Photo at left (courtesy Mari Tefre/Global Crop Diversity Trust) shows the inside of the Doomsday Vault.

But this isn't the first time anyone has thought of such a thing. There are some 1,400 other seed banks in the world. Svalbard is a Plan B of sorts, in case those others don't make it. A few have already bitten the dust: Seed banks in Iraq and Afghanistan have been destroyed by war, another in the Philippines was wiped out in a 2006 typhoon.

Though Norway owns the vault, each country that 'deposits' seeds will continue to own their contributions.

Armed guards protect against polar bears, but threats such as war aren't a likelihood in the isolated region, some 600 miles from the North Pole.

The vault is expected to last at least as long as Egypt's ancient pyramids.

It's good to know my carrots will have a backup.

January 23, 2008

It's National Pie Day...

YUMPIE.JPG
Photo by Charles Eckert


... And I can think of no better way to celebrate (aside from the obvious indulgence) than by ordering up some plants for spring planting.

fruit.jpg

How about some Bluejay Blueberry bushes? Bluejay bushes, available at Burpee, grow 5-6 feet tall and promise a very high yield of very large berries perfect for pies and preserves. What's more, these babies are ornamental -- with foliage that turns dramatically crimson in autumn.

And no self-respecting baker would consider strawberry pie without the rhubarb! John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds is selling Victoria rhubarb, which it touts as one of the easiest rhubarbs to grow from seed.


Pair that rhubarb with Festival, Surecrop or Earliglow strawberries from the Cook's Garden catalog. All three old-fashioned varieties are included in the collection, and you get 75 plants. That's a lot of pie!

Dig in!

January 15, 2008

Growing killer tomato plants

vincen.jpg


While we're on the topic, and in the wake of The Great Long Island Tomato Challenge of 2007, I would be remiss if I
didn’t use this opportunity to provide a little coaching for next summer’s competition.

Though not necessarily new introductions, tomatoes with greatest size potential include Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter, which I found available at Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (southernexposure.com; 540-894-9480) and the Dutchman, seen at Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company (rareseeds.com; 417-924-8917).

Naturally, any of the giant Belgium or red Beefsteaks could qualify as contenders, and Burpee’s exclusive Supersteak hybrid looks good, though I didn’t have much luck last year with their highly-touted Porterhouse Beefsteak.

I can't promise any of these will rival Vincenzo Domingo's beast of an "Ugly" tomato last year (left), but I think you're up to the challenge. I know I am.

If you have any other suggestions, post them, and let us know which variety provided you with the biggest tomatoes last year.

New for the vegetable garden

Given that January is National Mailorder Gardening Month, it comes as no big surprise that catalogs have begun trickling in. I’m expecting I’ll have a nice collection covering my dining room table by the end of the month. Last week, I posted a slide show about new flowers and trees and shrubs that have been introduced for 2008. This week, I’ve put my money where my mouth is — literally — and added photos and descriptions about new edibles to grow this summer. Click the photo below to get started.

veg.jpg

September 7, 2007

10th Annual Tomato Contest at Hicks Nurseries

Did you miss my Great Long Island Tomato Challenge? Now worries: You still might have a shot at glory. Hicks Nurseries in Westbury is holding their 10th annual tomato contest tomorrow (Sept. 8.)

Long Island gardeners are invited to bring their home-grown tomatoes to the nursery from 8 am to 10:45 am. Winners will be announced and prizes awarded at 11 a.m. for the heaviest, largest circumference, most unusual and tiniest red tomatoes. No frozen or previously frozen tomatoes will be accepted and tomatoes must be ripe.

Children also may enter their 'own-grown' tomatoes, and the efforts of 12-and-unders will be rewarded with special certificates.

Hicks Nurseries is located at 100 Jericho Turnpike in Westbury. Call 516-334-0066 with questions or visit www.hicksnurseries.com.

July 23, 2007

Meet contestant #4

NAMEHOMETOWNVARIETIESPLATFORM
Karen VatiMassapequa ParkBeefsteakForget cages!

vati.jpg

"My garden is my therapy, relaxation, and pride and joy," says Karen Vati, 49, of Massapequa Park. "This year I am growing 12 Beefsteak, 1 cherry and 2 Campari plants that we've started from those little tomatoes in the grocery store as an experiment."

Vati, a design consultant with Drexel Heritage, grows her crop in 10 raised beds lined with 12 x 12 pavers "to keep the weeds out." She removes the bottom leaves on the plants and keeps them upright with bamboo "teepees" made from bamboo grown by her husband,Tom. "Forget cages!" she says, asserting that her homemade contraptions work better.

Every two weeks, the mother of two -- Marisa, 18, and Michael, 15 -- gives her plants a shot of Miracle-Gro, and so far, she says, "the crop looks to be outstanding."

How to grow a pineapple at home

pineapple1.jpgEver since I was a little girl, I dreamed of one day visiting our 50th state. Ever since 1972, when I sat on the edge of my seat, three weeks in a row, watching The Brady Bunch's cliffhanging three-part episode -- the one where Greg finds an "ancient" tiki idol, which he believes is responsible for the string of unfortunate events that follow.

I finally made it to Hawaii this summer. I didn't nearly drown, nor did I have any run-ins with tarantulas or Vincent Price. I didn't see any ancient burial grounds like my Brady friends did, but I did get to visit some beautiful gardens. I wore a Plumeria lei, watched my kids surf in the Pacific and said things like "mahalo" and "aloha" whenever the opportunity arose. I attended a luau, took a ukulele lesson, ate Poi, sat on Kailua beach and hiked to the top of Diamond Head, the crater of an inactive volcano. I even learned how to propagate pineapple plants during a visit to the Dole Plantation in Waialua.

It's an unusual process. So simple. And fun for the kids, too.
pineapple2.jpg
To get started, cut the leafy crown off the top of an ordinary, store-bought pineapple, keeping the knife blade as close to the crown as possible. Slice off any remaining flesh until you see small dots circling the underside of the crown. Those are the root buds.

Allow it to dry at room temperature -- upside down -- for 7 days. You'll notice the cut end will become hard to the touch.
pineapple4.jpg
Strange as it sounds, all you have to do next is place the crown on top of a potful of soil. Twist it in a bit, but don't get any soil in the leaves. The crown and the leaves should stick out of the soil so that it appears you've buried an entire pineapple and left the top inch or so exposed with the leaves attached.


Dole experts recommend using a porous clay pot and lining it with an inch of gravel before filling with a mixture of 70% light soil and 30% compost.

pineapple3.jpg
Place in a sunny indoor spot, water every week and fertilize every four months with ordinary houseplant food. In 18-22 months, you'll be eating your own, Long Island house-grown pineapple.

At around 18 months, the plant should sprout a red cone.

Soon afterward, you'll be rewarded with rows of beautiful blue flowers -- the predecessors of fruit. Allow the fruit to remain on the plant for 6 months. When it's rich gold in color, it's time to feast. Your plant will be shot, but you'll have another crown to plant.

TIP: If a red cone doesn't sprout by month 20, Dole recommends coaxing it by placing the entire pot in a sealed plastic bag with a ripe apple and setting it in a dark spot for 3 days. The apple emits ethylene gas, which induces flower production. Remove the plant from the bag and place it back near the window. Look for the cone within 2 months.

July 18, 2007

Meet contestant #3

ippolity.jpg


NAMETOWNVARIETYPLATFORM
Matthew IppolitoSeldenBurpee PorterhouseSun, water, Garden-Tone

ipptom.jpgMatthew Ippolito from Selden believes he has a shot at growing Long Island's biggest tomato. His 15 x 20 foot garden has yielded two-pounders in the past but he's banking on Burpee's Porterhouse hybrid tomato this year, hoping for a four-pound whopper.

He's also growing Mortgage Lifter, Black Brandywine and Cherokee purple varieties, but he says the Porterhouse is his "strongest competitor."

"I picked up the hobby from my grandfather," said Ippolito, 36, a human resources assistant with the I.R.S., who is growing plants in the same plot his grandfather nurtured years ago. "Nothing too fancy in the dirt," he said, when asked about his methods. "Just lots of sun and water. And I put down some Garden-Tone about once a month."

ARE YOU IN?

Think you'll grow Long Island's biggest tomato this year? Tell me your story, your plan and your secret. Drop me a line at jessica.damiano@newsday.com. Be sure to include your name, town, phone number and tomato plant details. You must be willing to be photographed and be available for periodic visits. If you have photos of yourself in your garden, send them too. No experience is necessary. The winner will be announced at the end of the season.

Progress will be followed right here, on the Garden Detective blog.

July 13, 2007

The Great Long Island Tomato Challenge - The Heat Is On!

Meet Contestant #2


NAMEHOMETOWNVARIETIESPLATFORM
Larry GoldsteinPlainview"Mortgage Lifter,"
Various Beefsteak
Red plastic mulch, manure


Larry Goldstein, 75, of Plainview is our second contestant, challenging Matthew Barcia of West Hempstead in the quest for Long Island's biggest tomato. This year, he planted 48 seedlings, which he grew indoors from seeds. Some of those seeds were hand-scraped from store-bought Campari tomaotes.

Goldstein fortifies his plants only with composted manure and covers the bed with red plastic mulch from the Gardens Alive! Catalog. He says he never has the need for fertilizers or pesticides.

Over the winter, Goldstein started 72 plants in a seed tray on a windowsill in his home. He placed ordinary heating pads on a timer under the tray. "I know you're supposed to, but I can't bear to pick out and kill the little extras so I transplant the doubles into the garden," he said. "If they're weak looking, I take them out, but if they're healthy looking I keep them. They work."

Goldstein has been growing tomatoes for nearly 40 years. "My father was born on a farm, so I guess it's in the genes," he said, adding that he recently discovered the red sheet plastic that covers his tomato beds. Trying to save money a few years back, Goldstein tried using red plastic tablecloths instead. "They didn't work. By the end of the season they were all faded and ripped," he said. So he began using the Gardens Alive! product. He even left the cover in the garden over the winter. "This year, when I took the plastic off the tomato areas, there were no weeds underneath, so all I did was take my little power cultivator and plowed up three strips where the tomatoes are going to be. I rototilled the strips with composted manure."

And therein lies his secret.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

ARE YOU IN?

Think you'll grow Long Island's biggest tomato this year? Tell me your story, your plan and your secret. Drop me a line at jessica.damiano@newsday.com. Be sure to include your name, town, phone number and tomato plant details. You must be willing to be photographed and be available for periodic visits. If you have photos of yourself in your garden, send them too. No experience is necessary. The winner will be announced at the end of the season.

Progress will be followed right here, on the Garden Detective blog.

July 6, 2007

Missing 'The Big One'

The Great Long Island Tomato Challenge is heating up, so here's a little comic relief. I'm sure all you serious tomato growers can relate.

tomato.jpgSome people are really protective of their tomatoes. I spoke with Vivian Sesto of Lindenhurst about the great tomato caper that played out in her backyard last summer:

"My husband, Greg, and his 80-year-old father are Italian, and are obsessed with growing tomatoes. They have a big garden, but they'll stick extra plants anywhere there's a spot, even between my pom pon bushes."

Greg is so well known for his bountiful crop that neighbors "beg him for tomatoes, but he won't give them out."

One night in August, Sesto overhead Greg and his father having a "very serious conversation" in the backyard. "We'll pick that one tomorrow," they schemed, pointing to "a giant, deformed" specimen that they'd been eyeing for days. Sesto evesdropped as they strategized about how best to use their precious fruit: "We'll make half into salad, use part for burgers," they whispered giddily.

"I just don't understand how they take it so seriously," Sesto shrugged, continuing: "The next day Greg goes out, and in a minute he comes flying back into the house, screaming, 'Where's my tomato?'"

"There were about 300 tomatoes in the yard at the time, so I didn't think it was a big deal, but Greg was livid. He was pacing in the yard. Then he called my neighbor, who has been known to come into the yard and help himself. But he swore he had nothing to do with it."

Trying to quiet her husband, Sesto told him it would be best to calm down. "Let's think," she said. "The only people in the yard were the landscaping crew, whom we've had for 15 years."

Demanding justice, Greg called the landscaper. "I wouldn't care if they stole my Jet Ski, but I want my tomato back!" he shouted into the phone.

The landscaper hunted down his employees, who were on a lunch break, and then reported back: "There are several small tomatoes on their dashboard," he said sheepishly. "My crew has tomato seeds in their teeth, but 'the big one' is no where to be found."

"That crew wouldn't come back for weeks," Sesto said, laughing. And when they did, "Greg wouldn't even look at them."

Join The Great Tomato Challenge

Meet our first contestant


NAMEHOMETOWNVARIETYPLATFORM
Matthew BarciaW. HempsteadBelgian Giant"I've got the secret!"


Matthew Barcia of West Hempstead claims he has the secret to building a better tomato. Having grown the fruit in his backyard gardens for more than 20 years, Barcia believes he has perfected the process. I'm going to grow the biggest tomato on Long Island this summer," he says confidently.

"I've gotten insight on a tomato called a Belgian tomato. After talking to many different people, I learned there's no specific secret, but there are many many different techniques that could be used," says Barcia, 48, a case worker in foster care for the Department of Social Services in Nassau County.

One of those techniques is the "V" technique, he says. "Old-time Italians from the other side claim you should make a V out of the plant by pruning into a V shape so you have two stalks going up in a V formation. My father grew tomatoes that way, but I've learned it's not necessarily the best way to get the biggest tomato."

So what is? "Strong roots. I was informed recently that when you pruchase a plant, make sure you bury the plant to develop a strong root system, use a good top soil and plenty of water on a daily basis," he says. "Also use a solution of sulphur and nitrate -- I'm using a Miracle-Gro solution."

Barcia has planted 3 Belgian Giant plants, purchased at Hicks Nurseries in Westbury, and 20 Super Hybrid beefsteaks purchased at Garden World in Franklin Square and at an Ace Hardware store in Pennsylvania. Each plant is surrounded by either a 42-inch or a 54-inch wire cage, and they're planted about two feet apart. "I'm being very particular this year about making sure it's completely weed free so the plants can absorb as much water and nutrients as possible."

And now he waits for what he's certain will be a whopper.

Barcia, a single father raising three children alone, has passed along his love of gardening to his children, Jaclyn, 12, Julie, 13, and Kristin, 16. "They enjoy it tremendously," he says. "I taught them everything I know about watering the right way so you don't knock off the flowers, and keeping the garden weed free. They're all very motivated about working in the garden and helping out."

With the whole family involved, Barcia is sure he'll produce a killer of a tomato. And he believes some newly acquired sunlight will increase his odds. "My neighbor just removed a very large maple tree that was shading my yard, so for the first time in 20 years I believe I have not only the right technique and the right plant, but as much sun as possible."

* * * * * * * * * * *

TIPS FOR HEALTHY TOMATO PLANTS

The key to growing good tomatoes is planting them in warm soil, removing the lower leaves and burying them very deeply (don't worry, they'll grow roots along their stems,) regularly pinching off small stems that grow in the joints between branches, and making sure they get plenty of sunlight and regular watering. Irregular watering leads to blossom end rot, a disease caused by a calcium deficiency. Tomatoes need calcium, so some people add crushed egg shells to the soil for this purpose. Others bury a whole uncooked egg under the plant, while some water their plants with water in which they're boiled eggs. Dolomite is a good soil amendment.


ARE YOU IN?

Matthew Barcia believes he'll grow the biggest and best tomato on Long Island this year. Will he -- or will yours be bigger? I'm challenging my tomato-growing readers to join the quest for the biggest tomato.

To be considered as a contestant, you must be willing to be photographed and be available for periodic weigh-ins. No experience is necessary. The winner will be announced at the end of the season.

Tell me your story, your plan and your secret. Send an email to jessica.damiano@newsday.com. Be sure to include your name, town, tomato growing details and contact information. If you have photos of yourself in your garden, send them too.

Progress will be followed right here, on the Garden Detective blog.


May 17, 2007

Growing crops in pots

earthbox.jpg
A reader from Oyster Bay Cove asks, "What is the correct size pot for growing little cherry tomatoes? "

You're wise to ask that question, as many people make assumptions that end up costing them dearly. Using a pot that's too small could result in a root-bound and unhealthy plant. Likewise, a too-large container could hold too much water and lead to root rot. Neither scenario will yield many tomatoes.

My personal preference for growing tomatoes in containers these days is the EarthBox (photo above.) I saw them at Hicks Nurseries in Westbury recently, but they're pretty widely available in local garden centers and online. You can buy the optional trellis system for your tomatoes to climb on and you'll probably get a much larger harvest than if you planted them in the ground. You'll never need to worry about weeding, over- or under-watering or feeding. On the downside, the box is pricey, and you can only put two plants in each box.

If you'd prefer a standard container, get one that holds at least five gallons of soil (a 5-gallon paint bucket would work nicely) and don't forget to poke or drill holes in the bottom for drainage and provide something for the plants to climb on. Fill the container with good-quality potting soil and place only one plant in each pot.

Tomato plants require calcium, and some people swear by placing a whole egg in the soil under the plant. Others crush up egg shells and mix them in with the soil. The plants will benefit similarly by an occasional watering with water in which you’ve boiled eggs. Any of these methods will help prevent blossom end rot.

Be sure to check moisture levels diligently, as potted plants require more frequent watering than their garden-planted counterparts, and fertilize with a balanced fertilizer (one with equal parts nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) when the plants are a month old and then regularly after they’ve set fruit. To avoid over-feeding, fertilize at half the strength recommended on the package instructions, and do it twice as often. Over fertilizing could result in big, beautiful foliage but an unimpressive crop.

Place your pots in a bright, sunny spot and in no time you'll be enjoying the fruits of your labor.

February 15, 2007

How to start seeds indoors

1. If you haven't saved cell packs from last year's plants, you can purchase inexpensive ones at your local nursery. Alternately, you can start seeds in clean yogurt containers or even in egg cartons. Fill the container with a soil-less seed starting mix (never use garden soil, as it's too dense and can contain organisms that could lead to disease) and sow 3 or 4 seeds per cell. You can thin them later, applying 'survival of the fittest' methodology. Water thoroughly (taking care not to wash away the seeds) and cover tightly with plastic wrap.

2. Set in a warm, cozy spot, out of direct sunlight. The top of your refrigerator is ideal. Check moisture levels periodically and water as necessary. Keep an eye out for "damping off," an airborne fungal disease that thrives when seed trays are kept in cool, damp, dark locations. You'll recognize it by a characteristic white mold layer on the soil's surface. If this happens, scrape it off and allow 'soil' to dry completely between waterings. Some people swear by their home remedies to prevent the scourge. I haven't tried any of these personally, but that doesn't mean they don't work. Here are some of the most popular:
          Cinnamon powder has fungicidal properties. Sprinkle some on your seed trays.
          Mist seedlings and mediums with cool Chamomile tea.
          Combine 1 minced clove of garlic with 2 cups of water. Cover and allow it to steep for 24 hours. Strain and mist over seedlings.

3. When seedlings pop up, remove the plastic wrap and place containers in a bright, sunny location or under fluorescent lamps, where they'll be exposed to a good 14 hours of light daily.

4. After the last frost -- no sooner than tax day -- "harden off" your plants by placing them outdoors for increasingly longer periods. Pick a shady spot that's protected from the wind and start off with just a half hour the first day. Over the next 2 weeks or so, work up to about 8 hours of outdoor time per day. Be sure to continue watering throughout the hardening process. Your plants will be ready for transplanting in the garden after hardening as long as nighttime temperatures are consistently above 50 degrees. I usually wait until Mother's Day.

February 9, 2007

Suggested vegetable varieties for Long Island

It's time to start seeds indoors for springtime planting. (Interested in swapping? click here.) Before getting to work, though, you should consider past successes and failures. Experts at the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Nassau County say the only way to control certain diseases, like wilt in tomatoes and mosaic virus on cucumbers, is to stick to resistant varieties.

Vegetable specialists from Cornell University have prepared a list of suggested varieties for 2007 that perform well on Long Island. Recommendations for early tomatoes include Cascade, Sunrise, Early girl or Lemon Boy. For cucumbers, try Marketmore 76, Burpless Hypbrid ll, Orient Express, Spacemaster or Sweet Slice.

For the complete list of suggested vegetable varieties and heirlooms, consult the Nassau County CCE's Home Grounds fact sheet.

February 7, 2007

CA-CHING!!!

Just quickly want to let you know about a Web site that posts current sales and ever-elusive, never-available-when-you-need-'em discount codes for seeds, plants and garden supplies. For a listing of online deals, from nurseries and garden product catalogs and Web sites, visit GardenBargainsOnline.com.

October 1, 2006

Brrr

Don't chuck those unripe tomatoes -- bring them in before they freeze and fry 'em up.

It's beginning to feel a lot like autumn. I slept with my socks on last night, a sure sign it's time to bring in the last of the tomatoes and harvest the basil. But so many of the tomatoes are still green.

Not to worry. I have a great, yet very simple recipe for fried green tomatoes. A southern delicacy introduced to most of us Yankees in the 1991 film of the same name, that was created, I'd imagine, to use up the last of the season's bounty.

Look at the size of that baby! My basil "tree" measured in at 4 feet tall.


What you'll need:

4 large green tomatoes
Salt and pepper
1 cup milk
1 cup all-purpose flour
3 eggs, beaten
2 cups breadcrumbs mixed with garlic power, salt and pepper to taste
Vegetable or olive oil for frying (south of the Mason-Dixon line, folks prefer using bacon grease, which is yummy, to be sure. Use whatever you like -- or whatever you think your arteries will tolerate.)

1. Heat the oil in a frying pan.

2. Slice the tomatoes into ½ inch rounds. Sprinkle both sides of each slice with salt and pepper.

3. Dip each slice in milk and dredge in flour, then dip in beaten eggs and coat with breadcrumb mixture.

4. Fry about 4 minutes each side, until golden brown.

If you try this recipe, let me know what you think.

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