Monday, February 27, 2012

The Tomato Test--More Beyond the Bed

This year I plan to try something new with our tomato crop.  I am going to create an upside-down hanging tomato garden.  Mostly I am going to do this because I always forget to stake the tomatoes in time.  We lose a good amount of the harvest to the fact that it is lying on the ground.  Also, I figure this will free up more of our limited sunny garden space for other crops.  Now I just need to convince my husband to attach plant hangars to the south side of the house.

From what I have read there are mixed thoughts on this idea.  Some say you get a better harvest others say your yield is less.  It seems that the smaller tomato varieties do best in this arrangement.  That works for me since smaller tomato varieties do better in the Pacific Northwest anyway.

Below are the steps for what I hope will be a great hanging tomato harvest:
1.      Start with a “hanging planter.”   Almost anything will do, old utility buckets or fancy hanging baskets.  You will need to make a 2-3” diameter hole in the bottom of whatever you choose. I plan to use one of those wire hanging baskets with a fiber liner.
2.      Make your hole in the center of the bottom of the basket (or a as close to center as you can get).
3.      With your bucket/basket right side up place some anchoring material (sphagnum moss, newspaper landscape fabric, etc.) around the hole. 
4.      Then find a friend to hold your bucket/basket (or hang it) and feed your tomato plant, pointing down, through the anchoring material and hole.  Now you should have a basket with a root ball in the bowl and the stem poking through the bottom.
5.      Fill the pot with good potting soil.  Cover with mulch or something to help keep the soil from drying out too quickly.

*Extra credit*
If you want to go a step further you can plant herbs such as marjoram, oregano or parsley on the top portion of your basket.  According to my sources, these herbs should not interfere with or steal nutrients from your tomatoes (it has to do with the configuration of the plantings-I am not going to get into it here) as long as you give everything enough water and start with good soil. 

I will post some pictures once I get my upside-down planter going.  It is too early in the season to start this…though I could get the planter ready.

Trashcan Potatoes--beyond the bed gardening

For the past month or so I have been doing a lot of research on outside the box edible gardening methods.  After speaking to a few local gardening professionals and doing a little reading I have found a few techniques I plan to implement this year, and several to try in the coming years.  One of those techniques is growing potatoes in a garbage can. 

There are several reasons I am convinced this method is worth a try.  Christy Scerra of Serenity Garden Design in Tacoma explained how this was both a great method for the space compromised and families with children.  She suggested when it is time to harvest you just dump the can on a tarp and let the kids dig through the soil to find the potatoes.  Sounds like fun to me.  Then, I was speaking to the guys at GardenSphere in Tacoma and they further sold me on the idea.  Since you can’t plant potatoes in same place each year (disease and other issues) this is a shortcut method of crop rotation.  Another plus is the trashcan is portable (and heavy), as the summer sun moves so can your crop.  After several years of growing potatoes in our sun challenged garden we are running out of potato growing spots.

Below are directions I have compiled for growing potatoes in a trashcan.  I have combined my knowledge and tips with those of others to create what I think are a useful set of instructions for the novice:

1.       Seeds-Start with seed potatoes purchased at your local nursery or garden store (grocery store potatoes can carry disease).  Cut the potatoes into quarters, with two to three eyes each.  Let the quarters dry for at least 24 hours (I would let it dry for a few days in our damp climate).  This will help prevent rot; a rotten seed is not going to result in any fruit.  Honestly, you don’t need more than a few seed potatoes.  I suggest you plant 4-6 seeds (potato chunks), that’s 1-2 potatoes cut up.  More than that and your can will be overcrowded.
2.      The can-while your seeds are drying go find a 32 gallon trashcan. New or used it does not matter.  Dark colors are a great choice since they will provide extra heat for germination.  Drill or punch a few holes in the bottom of the can (you can even put some on the sides near the bottom).  You want to make sure you have good drainage, potatoes don’t swim.
3.      Soil-Fill the can with about ten inches of good soil to start.  On or after St Patrick’s Day plant the seed about four inches deep (Pacific Northwest timing).  If you prefer, you can fill with 6 inches of rock then four inches of soil  (some prefer this method to enhance drainage, but you will be picking rock out of your soil when you harvest).   
4.      Good Growing-When your potato plants are about six inches tall add another layer of soil (compost, potting mix, whatever) around the plant.  About a third of the plant (the leaves) should still be visible.  This is known as the hill method, hilling, or mounding.  You will do this several times over the summer.  You may even fill your can.
5.      Harvest timing-You have two options here
a.       For immediate consumption-Your yummy home grown potatoes are ready to harvest after the plants have flowered.  Go ahead and carefully grab a few of the ones near the top of the can to enjoy now.
b.      For storage and later use-If you want to store your potatoes for later use then you will need to wait for all the foliage to die back.  If life gets busy don’t fret you can leave them in the soil/can for a few weeks as long as the soil is not wet.  Just make sure you harvest before the first frost
6.      The Fun Harvest- When you are ready to harvest your potatoes grab a tarp and spread it out on your lawn, patio, porch etc. Call the kids and get ready for some fun.  Tip or dump your trashcan out on the tarp and let the kids have a treasure hunt looking for all the potatoes.  Remind the kids that you started with just a few pieces and have them estimate your yield. 
7.      Clean-up- Now you will need to clean up that mess you made harvesting the potatoes.  Collect the soil and add it to your garden or compost bin.  Simple enough?  Just don’t put the soil in any beds or containers you plan to use for tomatoes, peppers or eggplants next year because the soil likely harbors some insects or disease from this season's crop.  If you decided to line the bottom of your trashcan with rock (I told you it was not a good idea) you will want to remove as much rock as you can before spreading the soil in your garden.
8.      Final Step- Put your empty garbage can away for next year. Then Eat and enjoy your harvest!

Tips and Hints
·         Be sure to water your potatoes.  They like moist well drained soil.
·         Once harvested store your potatoes in a cool dark place.
·         Don’t put the lid on your trashcan during the growing season.  The plants need light.
·         If you plan to share this experience with children you may want to avoid the blue potatoes.  Kids don’t think they are as neat and appetizing as we do. I learned the hard way.