Friday, February 28, 2020

A journey toward food self-sufficiency, part 2 Watering, trellising, tomatoes

Imagine picking a warm, juicy tomato, perfectly red, straight off the vine. The sun is warming your shoulders. Birds are singing all around you. You take the tomato inside and slice it for a sandwich. Or you put it in a salad, or in your omelet. Or you stand in the garden and bite into it like an apple, and the juice runs down your chin. Perfection.

It takes a bit of work to win through to that experience.

When last we were together, I had you put in a 4 ft-wide bed—either 4 ft long or 8 or 12 feet, (1 meter square, or 1 meter by up to 4 meters) whichever size you think you could handle. I don't recommend going any grander than 4 x 12 your first year ever of veg gardening. It's easy to be overwhelmed and burn out, so go small at first.

If you have a rainy spring as I do, you can forget about watering for now. Your only job that first spring is to pull any weeds that pop up. Which are weeds and which are plants? It's hard to tell in year 1! You can google "radish seedlings" or "lettuce seedlings" or whatever to see photos. By year 2, you'll recognize all your seedlings just fine, but year 1, it can be confusing. If in doubt, let it grow a little longer until you decide if it's food or weed.

You need 1 inch of rain per week. If you don’t get that much one week, you have to water. Set out a tuna fish (or equivalent) can outdoors and measure the water and toss out the can every Saturday. If you had an inch in there, great. If not, add water to your garden.

If something eats your seedlings, don't be shocked. Birds can. Rabbits can. If this happens, plant again and cover your bed with deer netting or bird netting and see if that does the trick to deter the hungry critters. If not, you may need to fence your garden to get food. If netting doesn’t work, sometimes draping chicken wire over a bed keeps things out. Or you might have to put that chicken wire onto 3-foot-tall t-posts and make a fence. If you have deer, you'll need to fence in a major (and expensive) way. In Arizona's deserts, there were a lot of thirsty pests who'd eat anything in my garden just to get the moisture, and many gardeners built six-sided cages of chicken wire to protect their garden. I grew my tomatoes there in containers up on a picnic table or rabbits would eat all the flowers off. Learning to live with wild animals is a challenge. In a survival situation, I'd trap or shoot all of them I found in my garden and make critter stew later that day. In this current life, living in a town that frowns on gunfire, I fence and net.

If you have climbing plants, you need to put in trellises. The cheapest alternative is branches, about your finger width size, from off your and your neighbors' trees that perhaps fell in a wind storm, stuck into the ground in teepee formation, wrapped with cotton string or jute to give a climbing plant (peas, pole beans, cucumbers) something to attach to. For tomatoes, you need a heavier stake, like a 1 x 2 wooden post sunk into the ground a foot, or a t-post, or a 8-foot metal electrical conduit post, with or without a cage of heavy-duty wire mesh (like 2 x 2 fencing from a roll) attached to it. The cheapest choice is probably the EMT (electrical metal) conduit, unless you happen to have some scrap 1 x 2 lumber sitting around, which would be (sort of) free. When I moved in, the prior owner had left some scrap lumber in my shed that worked well enough for year 1.

Tomatoes are great tasting. Tomatoes are also complicated compared to every other crop. First, there are 1000 varieties, and that can get overwhelming to choose from! Ask your gardening neighbors or garden center what variety people around you grow, and grow that your first year. (Around here, it's the F1 hybrids Early Girl and Jet Star and the yellow cherry F1 Sun Gold.) You have to decide what sort of trellising you'll give the plants, and that will determine how you care for them. In most places, you want to remove the lowest leaves once every 2 weeks. You never want leaves touching the soil—it's likely plants will get one (or more!) fungal diseases, and that just accelerates the process. The less trellising you have for them, you more you want to pinch out suckers. (again, Pilarchik and OneYardRevolution on Youtube will explain how/when/why to do that). And you need to tie them to their posts somehow. I use cotton twine. Some people use masking tape or jute or old t-shirts cut into strips. If you have a cage of 2 x 2 fencing, you can weave the growing tips in and out of the fencing instead and won’t need to tie.

heirloom tomatoes from Slow Food Nation

See? Complicated! And I didn't even touch on determinate vs indeterminate tomatoes, or hybrids vs open pollinated. Short version of that discussion: eventually, for survival reasons, you don't want F1 hybrids like those varieties I mentioned and what you’ll probably find as plants in your local stores; you want open pollinated varieties because then you can save your own tomato seeds. In a SHTF scenario, you aren't going to be able to order seeds online or run to Lowe's for plants, and you'll have your own seed bank, collecting seeds every year as part of your harvest. But in year 1 of your garden, to make life easier, I suggest buying 1-2 tomato/pepper plants of a variety people in your locale like growing, and those are likely to be F1 hybrids. Get used to growing with those, okay? Later on, switch to heirloom or open-pollinated varieties and the hassle/expense/joy of starting them yourself indoor from seed.

All right, we've gotten you started with your first veg garden and dealt with the topic of tomatoes. Next week, some more advice

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