Thursday, June 28, 2007

Tomato Emergency!

Mother-in-law and Father-in-law were in town this past week imparting their gardening wisdom on our lowly patio. This morning, as they were getting ready to leave, I looked out only to find that the Santa tomato plant had a severe injury. A fruit-laden branch had broken halfway through! How can I save this?

I thought I might be able to tape it together so that it can heal. However, Husband and I tried this with a jalapeno pepper branch that held a flower bud. I think it was too late for the pepper because it had already started to wilt. The day after the tape bandage, it was clear that the operation was not a success. Mother-in-law said that we could try the tape bandage on the tomato, but that success hinged on the operation being performed very soon after the injury. To be honest, I have no idea when it happened. I don't remember anything unusual yesterday when I watered. However, I haven't been spending as much time in the garden for observation because it has been so Hazy, Hot, and Humid! Still I have hope that the injury was recent because the leaves haven't wilted yet.

So that's what I did. I tried to make a supportive, binding, tape bandage. I don't know how it'll work. It occurred to me that I could try to make a clean cut and try to re-root the broken branch. If I see the leaves start to wilt, I will attempt the re-rooting procedure.

How do you perform surgery on your broken tomatoes? Amputation or reattachment? Do you think my tape bandage will work? Is there a better way to bandage your plants? Should I try re-rooting the broken branch? If so, how should I do this? I'm frantic for answers, as the six or seven vulnerably attached tomatoes must be saved!

Friday, June 15, 2007

Transformation on the Patio

We made big changes on the patio last weekend. We bought some wee cherry tomato plants two weekends ago from the semi-local farmers' market. We go there every weekend, and it tends to be the thing I look forward to doing all week. The problem was we didn't have containers for the cherry tomatoes. Hence, the cherries demanded major changes. So we moved the Santa and Patio tomatoes to a large bin, giving them some more root room and perhaps crowding the above-ground growth. We moved the cherries to some large bins, because Father-in-law said they need a lot of room. We also bought some purple sweet peppers and potted those in the old tomato pots.

Here's what we did. We bought two 18 gallon, and one smaller, galvanized steel tubs and rinsed them. These were cheap and functional, working nicely into our limited budget. Ideally, we would have filled them with water for 24 hours to leach and surface chemicals. I learned this trick from my short stint in oyster aquaculture for my research.

Then we filled the bottoms with about an inch or so of gravel and spread it around. I would have liked to soak the gravel, too, but we never quite got around to it.

Next, we filled the pails with ORGANIC potting soil
purchased from our favorite farmers' market. Then dug holes and transplanted the potted tomatoes.

These three tomato plants went from this:

To this:

And the cherry tomatoes went from packed and thirsty here:
To these two roomy, moist pails:

The new Purple Beauties peppers went from packed (here) to potted (above and below).

So in all, my patio garden has undergone an expanded transformation.

My legs were sore for a few days afterward, but I think it was well worth the hard day's work and subsequent pain. What do you think of our set up? Are things too crowded? Is galvanized steel bad? Any suggestions for improvement?

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Inside Out

We've done a lot this season, and a lot has changed since we started our patio gardening in March. Firstly, we didn't even start on the patio. We started our goodies inside: the rosemary from the indoor winter garden, five cayenne pepper seeds, five jalapeno pepper seeds, a lot of spinach seeds, and six marigold seeds. The rosemary was in it's own container, a small four inch pot. We planted each of the pepper types at opposite ends of a long window box along with four marigolds. In a smaller window box, we planted about 100 spinach seeds with two marigold seeds.

The spinach went out immediately because it's happy in cold weather. As soon as frost was no longer a threat, which was pretty late this year, the pepper box and rosemary moved out. We added about 16-24 seeds of cilantro and basil to the big window box in mid-April. At the same time, we bought a three tomato plants (one Santa F1 and two Patio F1). Only three cayenne and two jalapeno seeds germinated. The spinach, cilantro, and basil had high germination rates. Here's what everything looked like by the beginning of May:

As you can see, the spinach did great! You might wonder why we planted so many seeds. A friend, who has a successful balcony garden, said he did it this way. You get lots of baby spinach and progressively thin things out as you eat the baby spinach. Plus, we are trying to grow as much as possible in as little space as possible. It may lead to crowding or disease, but that's part of the experiment. How much do you think we can squeeze things? We are just finishing up the remaining spinach now and are looking for a summer nutritious green for sandwiches and salads. Chard, kale, who knows? Any suggestions?

And why the marigolds? The same friend said this would help with our past aphid problem by emitting noxious chemicals that aphids and other pests hate. For the most part, I think it has worked. I still have to do some aphid squishing, which I think is best kept under control by daily squishing. The only suspicious thing is that I sometimes find them on the underside of the marigold petals. What's that about? All I know is that there are WAY less aphids than last year. I think the marigolds have kept most of the aphids away and provided some pretty color to an otherwise monochromatic green patio garden.

I think the spinach provides additional support for my marigold success hypothesis. The marigolds didn't grow as quickly in the spinach box because they were shaded by the spinach, which grew quickly in the cold weather. When we harvested the last of the spinach, the clearance revealed a small, flowerless marigold and that the box had lots of aphids, both winged and unwinged, big and little. What do you do to deter garden pests from ever taking hold?

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

No Aphids!

I visit my organic patio every day to check for aphids and other pests that need to be destroyed. Given how the aphids loved the cilantro last summer, I feel I must be on a mission to save our new patio garden. See my summary of Last Year for all our past aphid woes.

I have read that you can use a strong spray to knock them off, leaving their mouth parts behind. Apparently, this prevents them from ever feeding again and leads to their imminent death. However, some of our herbs are fragile. Maybe the herbs could survive the strong spray, but I never try. I've also read that you can use natural predators like ladybugs to eradicate the buggers. Some other sources suggest a garlic spray will deter and kill them. Have you used any of these methods? Usually, I squish them right there on the plant. I hear the smell of their dead comrades gives them cause to retreat. Do you have problems with aphids? For more information on aphids and their control, read here and here. Remember, no chemicals--it's the organic way.

Today was the first day that we had no aphids! Victory! I've won today's battle, but what about the war?

Monday, June 11, 2007

My Indoor Winter Garden

After last summer's near failure at the old apartment, we started anew and a bit late in our new place--a townhouse. We moved in at the end of last July and traveled for most of August. Alas, we didn't get to plant anything until Labor Day! We tried the same stuff (basil, cilantro, and rosemary, but no spinach) in the same small window box, only this time we started outside. Things went a little better, but it started to get cold before anything was harvestable.

One mistake we made was that the dirt didn't come up high enough in the box. We think there was too much shade for the wee germs to get a good start. This year we made sure to have the dirt near the top of the box.

We brought things inside when it started to get cold and put the box at the floor of the door to our southward facing patio. Things were growing a little leggy. As the days grew shorter, we caved and bought a grow light. Then everyone was happy and reaching for the sky. Instead of wasting power, we decided to supplement the natural light by extending the light hours using a timer. The light came on about an hour or so before sunrise and went off around 8 a.m. Then it would come back on about an hour before sunset and stay on for another couple of hours. It worked great, though the herbs didn't have the best start.

Have you had any success with growing herbs indoors over winter? Did you use a grow light? How many hours of grow-light light did your herbs get each day?

Again, the basil and cilantro had the best germination rate and the fastest growth. We thought the rosemary was a failure, with only three seeds germinating out of about 12. Plus, the little rosemary stayed small FOREVER! I didn't understand it, but kept hope alive.

When spring came around, we scrapped whatever basil we still had. The cilantro was well past done around the holidays. We transplanted the tiny three rosemaries to a small pot (about 4-inch diameter). The root structure was virtually non-existent. Only one had a couple pairs of actual rosemary leaves. The others just had two little pairs of round leaves. Can you believe it, after six months since planting the seeds?! I thought for sure they were goners. Scientists we are, we were up for the trial and expected error.

Much to our surprise, the wee rosemaries started to grow in their new pot. When our next crop of seeds for the new season were ready to move outside, we moved the now slightly bigger rosemaries outside. They took off immediately! It was only a month before the roots were growing out the bottom of the pot. We happily re-potted the success to a larger pot. I couldn't believe it.

And now look at them, nine months after seeding:

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Waiting for pictures...

I keep seeing things happen in the patio garden and want to say something about them. Alas, I do not feel the topics would be adequately addressed without photos. So why don't I just take some photos? Well, our batteries for the digital camera have been out of commission. One's lost, the other dead. Maybe both are dead, but until I find the original, I can't say for sure. Anyways, I ordered some new batteries and have been patiently, or not so patiently, waiting for their delivery. Maybe they'll come today...

Can't wait to share some photographic stories with you.

P.S. I'll be recycling our dead battery properly. ;)

Monday, June 4, 2007

Go Green!

While I'm at it, I may as well talk about the green movement. I have to admit, I don't have the guts to go green head first. I'm just a regular person that tries to do little things when they're convenient and to push myself to do little things when they're not. I encourage, sometimes strongly encourage, friends to recycle when it may have slipped their mind and have, on occasion, moved items from trash to recycling bins. Anyways, I thought I'd make a list of the little things I try to do so that it might encourage others to do the same kinds of things.

My Little Green Things:
  1. Save water. Yes, Earth's surface is 3/4 water, but did you know only 3% of that is freshwater. Furthermore, groundwater and water in rivers and lakes make up only 0.3% of the water on Earth. Don't believe me, well maybe you'll believe the BBC. Read it for yourself here. It's hard to imagine, growing up on the East Coast, so I try to remind myself about the Southwest and large regions of Africa. I try to do everything I can to limit the amount of water I use to a minimum.
    1. Navy-style showers. Well, I'm not sure that's the real name, but I think I heard that somewhere. This means I turn the shower OFF while lathering up my bod, while shampooing, while conditioning, while shaving.
    2. Navy-style dish washing. Okay, I made that up, but it's the same deal. Turn the water OFF while scrubbing and soaping up the dishes. I try to use the water only to rinse.
    3. Navy-style tooth brushing. Again a made-up term; you get the idea. I've been doing this since I was really little.
    4. Navy-style face-washing.
    5. I also try not to waste water when I'm washing my hands by not having the faucet on full blast.
    6. I'd like to capture rainwater for watering our patio garden, but we have bad mosquitoes. That stagnant pool of water would make a very happy breeding ground for them and very itchy skin for me. If any of you can do it without the same risk of sanity, more power to ya.
  2. Recycle. We recycle everything they'll let us, though I'm still very suspicious about what happens to it after they take it away. Certainly in some counties I believe it actually gets recycled, but I've also seen some very questionable recycling centers. Maybe I should start an investigation. Do you know where your recycling goes? What about your batteries--do you recycle them? Did you know you can even recycle your average AA, AAA, etc. battery? But you have to take those to special places. What about your old electronics, including old computers? I am going to try to take my old PC to be recycled this weekend.
  3. Reuse. This is a hard one because American consumer products are so disposable. Here are the things I reuse on a regular basis.
    1. Lunch items. I take my lunch to work almost every day. I always use a washable and reusable plastic container. I often have sandwiches and bring crackers in a plastic bag. Since the same crackers go into the bag everyday, I just keep using the same bag. Is that gross? I don't think so. If I bring carrots in a plastic bag, I reuse that, too, but I rinse it between uses.
    2. Water bottle. This is very important: I use a hard plastic water bottle at work instead of consuming dinky pre-packaged bottled water. Usually, the water in those things isn't any different than filtered tap water anyways. My husband and I just ordered aluminum water bottles for ourselves because I learned this is better for you than plastic. Plus they're recyclable if you decide you want to switch to a new one.
    3. Grocery bags. We use these to bundle our recycling, as bathroom trash bags, to carry a few things around, etc. They just keep piling up. I wish grocery stores wouldn't waste them. Sometimes they'll only put a couple of little things in one bag. We like to bag our groceries ourselves whenever we can.
    4. Paper. I like to use bad print jobs for scrap paper. Everyone in my lab does this. We all also print double-sided whenever possible. Speaking of paper, does anyone know how to stop all the junk mail? It saddens me to think of all the wasted paper in credit card offers. Plus, they can be a security risk for people who aren't diligent about shredding.
  4. Save electricity.
    1. We've changed almost all our light bulbs to those energy efficient ones.
    2. We turn off the lights whenever we leave a room.
    3. We use a programmable thermostat in the heat and air condition months. However, we try to extend the months when we don't need either by opening windows and strategically opening or closing curtains/blinds, which allows or prevents the entrance of natural sunlight into the house.
    4. We've only just started to try to turn off some of those electronics that sit in standby mode until they get used.
  5. Save gasoline and reduce pollution. I'm currently in a data analysis stage of a research project. This allows me to work at home instead of making the half-hour to hour long commute in each direction. It saves me time and money. Plus, I get to look after our patio garden, which brings happiness to every day. Not everyone has this flexibility, but what about public transportation?
  6. Use natural cleaning chemicals. We're just trying to phase these in now. Sometimes we can't afford them.
These are just some of the things I do. The great thing about many of them is that they also save money, which is a welcome side-effect for poor graduate students. Do you do any of these or anything else? Do you want to try to be more green? I saw some good tips on Ellen's May 22 episode. You can find lots of good links to green-related products and info on her website and navigating to that day. I found some more ideas for going green while saving green, if you know what I mean, and realized there are some that I do but didn't list.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Go Organic!

It occurred to me that I hadn't even explained why we're doing an organic patio garden. After all, it is our first time attempting a patio garden. Why give ourselves additional constraints within which to work when we're just trying to get things to grow at all? Then again, maybe the reasons to go organic are obvious. Sometimes it seems like a problem would be easier solved if we just used more conventional methods (e.g., pesticides, herbicides, artificial fertilizer). But I'm a biologist who loves a good field experiment and am up for the challenge!

My Organic Reasons:
  1. No harmful chemicals in food. Seriously, the chemicals used for growing conventional foods are nasty and can cause health problems. Imagine putting something that was sprayed with chemicals to kill an insect (an animal) into your digestive system. Remember you're also an animal. Have you ever looked at a super-shiny apple in the supermarket and been completely disgusted by the amount of wax that must be covering the fruit? Being that I'm the gardener, I especially want to avoid handling such nasty chemicals.
  2. Saves the environment. Where do all those synthetic chemicals sprayed on conventional crops go after a rain? They can't all stick to the target crops and can end up harming non-target wildlife on land, in stream, and in ocean. The pesticides could also harm the beneficial critters helping your garden grow. Considering all the environmental problems facing the world today, I can't see a justification for contributing even just a little bit. As a biologist by day, I love to do even the little things that I can to save the environment. And who doesn't want to do that?
  3. Supports family farms. Okay, so our patio is the family farm in question, but this is why we like to buy organic whenever we can. Yes, many organic products are now getting commercialized and perhaps larger scale. Still many large distributors are supplied by smaller farms. Ultimately, we try to buy local produce at our semi-local farmers' market or local natural food market, even if it's not always organic.
  4. It's natural. What a learning experience about nature! It's great to figure out and observe how natural things can work together to give desired results.
  5. Tastes great. I'm not sure how our garden will turn out, but I hope what they say is true, though I've never seen any statistically supported taste test studies to confirm the claims (the scientist in me talking). I can at least say from experience that the organic tomatoes my father-in-law grows are the best I've ever had. Believe it or not, before eating his tomatoes, I didn't like tomatoes that much. I could take 'em or leave 'em. Now I love a good tomato and am always in search of one.
  6. It's cheaper than store-bought. It's not a reason to go organic because organic food is obviously more expensive in the stores. In fact, prices are so high that we can't afford to buy organic as often as we would like. Given our reasons to go organic and the fact that we are poor, struggling grad-students, we may as well grow our favorite things ourselves and save ourselves the store mark-up.
So, hey, let's all go organic and save the environment and the local family farm!