Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Of Weeds, Lettuce, and Tomatoes

OK this is going to be a boring garden post. So if you’re tired of me writing about gardening, you can skip this one. I checked though and I haven’t written about gardening in nearly two weeks! Gardens require maintenance, sad but true. There was a time when I just planted seeds and left them to their own devices. I figured whatever I got was better than nothing. But now I know better. A minimal effort can bring great rewards.

Take weeding. I hate it most days, but I’ve come to find a sense of satisfaction in a weed-free tidy garden, or at least patches of weed-free tidy garden. My garden keeps getting bigger and it becomes impossible to keep all the weeds out. You do what you can.

Mulch is one tool in the battle of the weeds. You can lay newspaper around your established plants and hose it real good for an inexpensive, if unsightly, mulch. If you’re rich, you can just buy mulch and surround your plants. Be careful though, I would caution you that most mulch is not the least bit organic and could leach any number of chemicals in to your soil. I save the commercial mulch for flowers. I don’t worry if they aren’t so organic. Straw is another good choice for mulch, and it will compost in to your garden during the fall and winter.

Mulch aside, it comes back to weeding. I prioritize my weeding efforts. I weed closest to established plants by hand, careful to get the entire weed. Between the roes, I use a stirrup hoe (looks like a real stirrup with sharp edges that you work back and forth over the soil) to just scrape off the top layer beating back the weeds in mass and keeping the weeds from going to seed and expanding my problem. It doesn’t always look pretty but it keeps things under control. Most importantly, weed after a good rain. There’s no point in weeding when the ground is dry as bone, unless you use a hose and hose the area you are weeding, which seems a little backward to be watering your weeds.

Weed every chance you get. Don’t leave all your weeding for one day – can’t be done – or it can and your back will complain about it later. You’re outside admiring how beautifully your tomatoes are taking to their training, you pull a few weeds. You’re killing time waiting for your kids to be ready to go to soccer, you pull a few weeds. Your kids are driving you to drink, instead go outside and pull a few weeds. Every chance you get – pull a few weeds. Sorry, but it’s a never ending process. I've considered using my children as indentured servants to take care of my weeding problem, but I don't want them to resent the garden or anything that comes out of it. Some children can be convinced to help by cold hard cash. Good luck with that.

How is your lettuce growing? As painful as it may be, it’s important to thin your lettuce. You need to pull baby plants that are crowded. You’ll want to keep thinning (and eating the babies you pull) until your plants aren’t touching. This necessitates that you thin as they grow. If you’re lettuce stays cramped and crowded the leaves on the bottom won’t get sunlight and they’ll rot, rotting all the leaves around them too.

If you eat lettuce like I do, you’ll soon have bare patches in your lettuce rows – plant more lettuce. In fact, plant lettuce in any spare spot you have. They love to grow in the filtered sunlight under other plants. Tuck in more lettuce in any spare space you have, and that includes flower beds. Walk around in the early afternoon and figure out if there are places in your gardens that only get morning sun – perfect spot for some more lettuce (or spinach).

Once you’ve picked your lettuce, washing it can take time. Know this going in. When you buy store bought lettuce it has been washed by some high pressure lettuce washing gadget and still you have to wash it because there are little specks of dirt. The lettuce you pull out of your beautiful garden will be covered in dirt, grass clippings, and bugs. The lettuce you bought at the store was once covered in those things too, plus some chemical fertilizers. When you are washing your home grown lettuce, take care to wash it one leaf at a time. Nothing can put you off homegrown lettuce like a bite of slug with your salad. I soak all of my lettuce in my sink as I’m washing it so the bugs will detach themselves or drown. I pick up one leaf at a time for a gentle hand scrubbing before placing it in the salad spinner. Once all my lettuce is clean and dry, I place a dry paper towel in the bottom of a plastic bag and load in the lettuce on top. The paper towel will soak up any water and keep my lettuce from rotting. I keep these bags in the crisper drawer of my fridge and the lettuce will stay fresh for nearly a week.

On to tomatoes – hopefully yours are looking happy and bushy by now. It’s time to give them a trim. Grab your hand clippers or kitchen shears and carefully trim off any of the lower branches whose leave are touching the ground. Then as your plant grows and you begin tying it up to your tomato fence or stake or basket, gather the leaves that are in danger of drooping to the ground and wrap your tie around them as you tie to keep them off the ground. This may sound confusing, that’s why I added the picture up top. The bottom line is you don’t want any leaves touching the ground. If they droop on the ground they can rot and spread that rot to your entire plant. That’s why you sometimes see tomato plants that are bushy and green on top and brown and scraggly on the bottom. They may survive, but they won’t product nearly the same number of fruits.

When watering tomatoes, do all you can to water the ground under them and not the leaves themselves. A good deep watering at their base is much better for them than a sprinkle from your automatic sprinkler. It takes time, but everything that matters takes time. You should know that by now.

Tomatoes need support, like all of us. You can buy tomato cages at the store that do a great job of supporting your tomatoes. The problem I’ve had with them in the past is that it’s impossible to pick the tomatoes that grow inside the baskets. You’re stuck like the monkey in that experiment – you can’t get your hand back out of the cage unless you drop the tomato. Maybe you’ve had success with these cages, but not me. There are lots of other options – fences, stakes, trellis, use what works for you. We’ve used fences in the past, but after last years six foot high tomatoes, this year my husband has made it his personal quest to accommodate the tomatoes no matter how tall they get. He borrowed his system from the tomato gardens he sees in China where he travels for his work. Using skinny boards, he has built a wooden frame that is six feet high with boards going across it at one foot intervals. As the plants grow he uses torn pieces of cotton clothing or sheets to tie the plants. This is a great way to recycle your old t-shirts. He plans to train the tomatoes to snake in and out of the cross boards as they grow up so that the weight will be evenly distributed and the fruits will grow on both sides of the frame. I’ll post a picture on my blog so you can see the tomatoes’ progress. I’ll let you know how this plan works out.

Peas of all shapes and sizes should be ready about now. Remember to pick early and often if you want to prolong your season. It’s just about cherry season too, so watch your local farms for pick your own local cherries.

1 comment:

  1. I trimmed my low lying tomato branches and my plants look so happy! Thanks for the great tip... I'm trying the chinese trellis next year!