My Precious Tomatoes

A rainbow of fall tomatoes.

My compulsion to garden began with my quest to grow an abundance of tomatoes. I didn’t even like tomatoes until I was about 22 years old. The first time I remember loving the flavor of a freshly-picked, salted tomato was when I lived in Chicago working my first post-college job. I visited friends in Champagne one weekend and bought tomatoes at the farmers’ market. That first bite of beautifully ripe tomato was like heaven on a plate and since then I’ve been hooked. Two years after that tasty bite, I moved to Michigan—where the climate is just right for tomato growing.

My first garden was a success in Michigan, which has a much milder climate than North Central Texas. The harsh Texas summers and drought conditions make gardening a challenge. I decided to approach the objective from a different angle by looking for the best-performing vegetable varieties for my area.

I consulted the Texas Agri-Life Extension Service’s list of recommendations but only found a few tomato varieties for sale at local vendors– Celebrity, Beefsteak and Big Boy are the most commonly available. So I started looking to seed sources and catalogs, hoping to find varieties that would grow well where I lived. Over the last few years, I’ve amassed quite an assortment of seed stock and catalogs. The more I learned about the plentiful tomato varieties, the more intrigued I became with open-pollinated and heirloom varieties of all plants, not just tomatoes.

Peppers: Jalapenos and Serranos

Even though Texas “technically” has a long growing season, the hottest part of the summer is about keeping things alive, not producing. So really we have two short growing seasons with fall being best of all. In the spring I try to grow bush-type tomatoes that ripens (55-70 days) all at once. In July I pull the spent vines and start seeds in the same beds. What sprouts and makes it will produce the best fall fruit. If a volunteer tomato comes up, I let it grow. Every time I’ve done that, it’s produced the most awesome fruit.

After three trial-and-error growing seasons of starting tomatoes from seed, I’ve found that Porter and Porter Improved are the top performing tomato cultivars in my backyard; Willhite Seed has the highest germination rate of all the sources I’ve used; and when a volunteer tomato plant starts growing, let it grow because you will be rewarded for it.

My favorite resources:

Texas Agri-Life Extension http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/ — a great resource for all Texas gardeners. If you live in a different state, look for your local extension service. It will be affiliated with the land grant university in your state (Auburn, Michigan State, University of Illinois, Purdue, Texas A&M, etc.)

Willhite Seed
www.willhiteseed.com – everything I’ve ever grown from this supplier has been top notch. They breed their own watermelon seeds! The first year I grew their Porter tomatoes, I had a 98 percent germination rate – that is quality seed!

Botanical Interests
www.botanicalinterests.com – this company is part of the coalition of non-GMO growers and suppliers of seed. They have the best information on their seed packets – tons of information about each variety and cultivar.

Totally Tomatoes
www.totallytomato.com – the 2013 growing season is the first year I’ve used seeds from this supplier. So far so good. They have the most comprehensive selection of tomatoes I’ve ever seen. They also have a wonderful selection of other seeds, especially night shade plants (tomatoes are part of the night shade family).

RH Shumway
www.rhshumway.com – this company has the coolest retro-style catalogue and is one of the best sources for beans. 2013 is the first growing season I’ve used this seed provider. The germination rate has been excellent. It will be awhile before I can report on production.

Victory Seeds www.victoryseeds.com – one of the best sources for open-pollinated and heirloom seeds that grow in most parts of the United States. They produce their own seeds and are a non-GMO seed source.

Baker Creek (rare seeds) www.rareseeds.com – another comprehensive source for heirloom, open-pollinated and non-GMO seeds. I have not grown any seed from this supplier but they have great reviews.

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Garden Variety Peace

Almost every night I go out into my greenhouse and garden and look at all the wondrous things that are growing. I’m always surprised when I see little sprouts emerging, even when I’m expecting it. It’s the awesome miracle of life in one tiny little seed and the journey of nothing to something from start to finish. I love witnessing the plant’s lifecycle, growing from seed to blossom then returning to its genesis.

Seeds: nothing to something in 10 days or less

Seeds are a beautiful promise of the future. They represent both the result of nurturing and just plain science. There are some seeds that need coaxing to sprout and coddling to produce fruit.

Then there are those seeds that need nothing more than a drop of water and something for roots to cling to. Some seeds need to be in the cold for extended time while others need fire to crack the hard seed coat. Some seeds lay dormant for years waiting for the perfect conditions before they will sprout.

I’m thankful that I have this hobby and get to see the true value of time. A garden helps you understand the difference a day, week or month can make. It also teaches delayed gratification and the payoff of hard work.

Micro greens day 1
Micro greens day 5
Micro greens day 8

I’m fortunate to have a handy husband who has been willing to work beside me while I guide (more like boss) him on what goes where and when to do this or that. We don’t eat exclusively out of our garden and I’m thankful that there are many, many farmers around the globe who produce food abundantly so that we have plenty with a variety on our plates nightly.

Strawberries in February
Strawberries in April (the difference 2 months can make)
Strawberries — it’s almost pay day

Most days I go to look at the plants, monitor their progress and contemplate whatever comes next – what’s for dinner, what’s the weather going to be like tomorrow, did the washer’s spin cycle work … Sometimes I get to harvest the crops and enjoy a special dish or meal – maybe it’s the one rewarding, sweet bite of strawberry that makes me offer thanksgiving. Some days I look out on our garden plot and feel like shouting—prideful Tarzan style—”I have grown this!”

Then there are times when I go to my garden at the end of a hard day to find peace.

On those days I go looking for something to be hopeful about, something positive, something to remind me of why I have made certain choices. It helps me right myself and to remember that all I really need is all that I already have.

The New Victory Garden

Gardening: the original patriot act. (source: Michigan State University)

I have been salivating over gardening books, seed catalogues, blogs and ag extension websites for weeks. It’s only January and I’m anxious to start a spring garden. My seed box has many great leftover seeds from previous growing seasons. There are numerous sources for all kinds of seeds—organic, heirloom, F1 hybrids, new plant breeds, etc. I want to plant them all.

Over the last three years, I’ve noticed a surge in the availability of heirloom and open-pollinated seeds. Considering the growing popularity of locally-grown, non-GMO or organic food, it’s not surprising that the market is meeting the demand. This trend toward organic and local foods has sprouted the long-dormant victory garden concept. Urban and community gardens have become all the rage in big cities and small-town classrooms.

The victory garden’s inception came during WWI, but really took off in America during WWII. It was a way for the war department to send all available food supplies to the troops. The idea was for private citizens to grow their own produce in their backyards, so the large-scale farm production could be sent to the war overseas. Eleanor Roosevelt championed the first victory garden planted on the White House grounds in 1943 to publicize gardening as a patriotic act. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that more than 20 million Americans planted gardens during the WWII years.

Fall tomatoes collected before the killer frost 2012.

Today’s victory garden trend is a more grass-roots movement. People are driven by health consciousness, environmentalism, self-sufficiency, and the emerging “food culture” in America. Fueled by available resources focused on cuisine, there is a schmorgesborg of food blogs, print publications, websites, TV programs, all focused solely on cooking methods, recipes and food preparation. When celebrity chiefs cook, they use the best ingredients, which are fresh, locally-grown produce and meat.

Market demand for homegrown food—favoring organic, heirloom and specialty items—is the byproduct of our food culture. Thus, boosting demand for seeds, especially the unique and old varieties. The benefits of healthy eating is a major contributor to the new victory garden effort. The first spring in the White House, First Lady Michelle Obama created a kitchen garden as part of her healthy living initiative. Ironically, Mrs. Obama’s kitchen garden is the first White House vegetable garden since Eleanor Roosevelt’s.

Other groups advocating gardening are Americans who want to be self-sufficient, or are ecologically minded. There is also a group of people who are opposed to Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). There is big debate about the long-term safety of consuming food from GMOs. Stewardship and nostalgia factor in too, since many gardeners and horticulturists want to preserve the world’s rare and unusual plants.

For me, I’m just happy these forces are culminating into a perfect storm for gardens and seeds, both rare in nature and scientifically cultured.

I love to see city folks growing nutritious food in whatever space they have available. It’s a reconnection to our roots (no pun intended) as Americans that carved out a way of life in a harsh and rugged environment. It’s also gratifying as an “ag woman” to see a renaissance of agriculture—growing our own food so we don’t have to travel, scavenge or starve. And the important lessons of knowing where food comes from; the work involved to grow it; and the patience required for a bountiful harvest.

I will be planning an entirely new garden space this year … more to come.

Ladybugs are a garden’s friend.

Fun Photos from Arcadia

It’s been a very long time since I’ve posted fun photos from our life here in Arcadia.

Black eyed susans from my front flower bed. This is a perennial favorite of North Texas gardeners.

Jdubs on the “Fastcat.” His grandfather rigged up a stampede string from a left-over strip of leather.

The real deal.

Textbook wall cloud. A few minutes after I snapped this, the sky opened up and hail stones rained down.

This photo represents the “why” of living where I do.

Spring Critters in Photos

The birds of Spring have been here for about a month. I’m not a serious birdwatcher but I always have bird feeders out year round so I can watch them. I love birds in the wild but hate birds in cages. The bird society and pecking order among the different species is fascinating.

Our backyard has been abuzz with the activity of Spring. And occasionally you have a sweet surprise among the critters of Spring.

House sparrow

 

Carolina chickadee

 

 

Downy woodpecker

 

 

Grass lizard

 

Spring is Here

Spring is here in North Central Texas. It is obvious in all the sprouting and flowering plants.

Icelandic Poppy
Daffodil
Ornamental Pear

The winter wheat practically glows in the sun. The daffodils are a bloom and the perennials are starting to come back to life. But I happen to have a greenhouse so I’ve got a bit of a jump on things.

Today it was 78 degrees. It’s February 28. I don’t know what that is going to mean but I don’t think it bodes well for the garden season this year. We’ll see.

But for now I’m happy with what I got going on in my little garden.

View into the greenhouse to the left.
View into the greenhouse to the right.
The herb project.
Someone spilled some of my seeds ... I'm not saying who (Jdubs) but I didn't want to throw them out so I just stuck them in a pot to see what sprouted. I have no idea what this is, maybe tomatoes or peppers
A little tomato is forming. And considering how warm it's been, early season is best.
More tomatoes ... these are Celebrity.

Spring: It’s Coming

I started cleaning up and getting my greenhouse ready to start seeds. Today is February 11, but our last average frost date is about March 20. That means it’s time to start thinking about the spring garden. Even as we have a harsh cold snap, I was making way for planting tender annuals from seed so we can transplant after the danger of killing frost.

As for most gardeners, my ultimate prize is a crop of beautiful, tasty tomatoes. Next week we’re taking Jdubs for a checkup at the ENT in Cowtown, so we will have to stop in Poolville on the way home to visit Wilhite Seed. Many sellers of seeds only produce a few of their own (if at all), the rest they resell from other specialized plant breeders/dealers. Wilhite’s domain is melon seeds, especially watermelon seeds. All the seeds I bought from them were exceptional quality, with near 100% germination rates.

Even my county extension agent was surprised. I have no idea what was so extra special about last year’s seed starting exercise – but everything I started from seed did really well, until the heat set in. I knew we were in for it last year when we had a 100-degree day on April 8, 2011. That just set the tone for the rest of the summer.

Last year’s weather was horrible. We had a record-setting hot, dry summer. Nothing would grow. There was no rain. It was abysmal, even the okra was eaten by the grasshoppers. Needless to say, I’m looking very forward to a better year, for growing vegetables and herbs.

 

Nothing says spring like the return of the birds.

That’s the beauty of spring … it’s the time for beginnings … starting seeds, nurturing and caring for them, watching them grow, then harvest. Nothing is better than eating something wonderful that you grew.

The greenhouse.
Left side.
Right side.
My seed box: organizing, sorting, planning.

More gardening posts to come …

There was another squirrel in the backyard. Jdubs helped his daddy aim.