When Kent was living here, about ten years ago, he planted a bed of elephant garlic. After Kent left, the garlic was mostly ignored. Then I discovered that moles don’t seem to bother our tomatoes and summer squash if I plant a clove of garlic here and there between each plant. Little did I know how fast the garlic would multiply.
“Now what to do with it all?” I wondered. Elephant garlic is a pretty plant, with a lovely seed head. The bugs and animals don’t bother it. And it’s easy to grow. So I contacted Ray, our local grocer, who put it out for his customers. Last year Ray sold 100 pounds for us. The dollars went toward the purchase of a big table saw for finishing Rivendell, our new community shelter.
This is now the third year of pulling the garlic, cutting the stems off, and laying it in the shed to cure for a month or so. (The fun part this year was that Ron was here to help dig and carry the four buckets of garlic.) After Labor Day I’ll weigh and bag another 75-100 pounds, one pound per zip-lock bag, for Ray to sell. Then I’ll look for another “project or item” that could benefit from the sale of our elephant garlic.
I was born on a dairy farm in Sauk County, Wisconsin, about 30 miles NW of Madison, in 1940. Our farm had rolling hills, lots of hay fields to cut, and a very large yard to mow. As a kid in grade school, I started pushing the reel mower. It had a grass catcher attached to it and the clippings went to the chickens. There were no gasoline engines back then. The mower was “self-propelled,” by my muscles! I pushed it for weeks and months and years.
I also spent weeks and months and years on our tractor with a side rake, turning the cut hayfield into beautiful rolls. Round after round, acre after acre. Oh, the lovely smell of fresh cut hay. Later, the tractor would follow those rows with a hay chopper and wagon behind. Oh, the lovely smell of fresh chopped hay. Then the chopped hay would be blown from the wagon into the barn or silo. The lovely smell was still there, but so was the dust and the dirt. I remember the days being hot and humid.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Like the Energizer Bunny, I’m still going. Or should I say, “I’m still mowing!” Occasionally with a reel mower. Sometimes with a gasoline, self-propelled mower for trimming. Or walking behind the field mower for the overgrown hillsides and the 1-o-n-g grass.
But most of my mowing hours these days are on the John Deere riding mower. It has catcher bags for the clippings, which go to mulch the garden. Light Morning has a very large yard, similar to back home on the farm. Round after round, bag after bag, year after year. Dirt and dust. Hot and humid.
And oh, the lovely smell of fresh cut grass. And the beauty of the yard with a fresh hair-cut. Thank you, Johnny!
Every year I look forward to the day in June when I go to the garden and notice that my tomato plants are about to fall over and are in need of pruning and tying. It is hard to explain my sense of anticipation. Most people would dread the prospect of spending hours meticulously scrutinizing plants. Besides, it takes a good five minutes of hand-scrubbing to get rid of that nasty green stain from pruning the shoots. And for what gain? It is debatable whether yields are increased by all the hard effort. (They may even be decreased.)
I guess it has to do with intimacy. There is nothing like getting to know each individual plant from root to stem to leaf to fruit. Tomatoes are fascinating creatures whose ability to produce and reproduce never ceases to amaze me.
I first learned to prune and trellis tomatoes at Live Power Community Farm, a biodynamic vegetable CSA farm in Covelo, California. The technique practiced had been handed down from the infamous organic gardening mentor, Alan Chadwick. The other farm apprentices and I would spend hours keeping those tomatoes in line. While exploring and manipulating the anatomy of tomato plants we would also discuss the anatomy of our own emerging social and sexual lives. Those were the days!
These days I am mostly on my own in the garden, but I still enjoy the hours spent meditatively working with tomato plants.
The idea behind pruning and tying tomato plants is quite simple. As with other pruning systems, by controlling the vegetative growth of the plant, more energy is channeled into fruit development and maturation. More space for light and air is created. Plants are less unruly, with less fallen plants, disease, and rotting, while fruits are more visible and accessible. Fruits often tend to be earlier and ripen more evenly throughout the season.
Before attempting to train tomatoes you must be certain that your varieties are indeterminate. Determinate tomatoes usually terminate leaf and shoot growth with a single fruit bract, thus creating a low-growing, bushing habit not suitable for pruning. Most seed catalogues will note whether the tomato varieties they sell are determinate or indeterminate.
Studying tomato plants is a great way to learn about plant development. If you carefully examine a young tomato stem, you will notice leaves and, after time, flower bracts jutting out. At the vertices between each main stem and outgrowing leaf stem is a growing point. From this point a shoot usually emerges.
Each shoot has the potential to grow into yet another main stem with its own leaves, flower bracts, and yes, of course, more shoots. Most plants follow some variation of this growth pattern. The fruiting habit of tomatoes is also somewhat predictable. Once the first fruit bract emerges, another will usually follow after every set of three leaves.
Since, unlike their determinate cousins, the stems of indeterminate plants keep growing regardless of fruit production, exponential vegetative growth results, creating the jungle-like plants many are familiar with. However, it is this same vining habit that enables tomatoes to be trained.
By de-suckering the young shoots off the main stem, one can contain the spreading nature of the plant and allow one, two, or even three main stems (often called “leaders”) to keep growing. Usually the shoot that emerges from the leaf right below the fruit bracts are the most vigorous and need to be removed promptly. I will often choose the shoot below the first fruit bract as my secondary leader.
As you spend more time with your tomatoes you will start to notice their crazy botanical antics. Tomato plants seem to have the potential to grow roots and stems from just about any nook and cranny of the plant. Keep a watchful eye for suckers emerging from below ground. (These can also be good, vigorous candidates for additional leaders.)
You may even find that some fruit bracts themselves will start developing their own infinitely reproducing stems. Also, any stem that contacts the soil will start to root out–a fact that can be used to advantage in certain circumstances.
I will usually train my tomatoes about two or three times a month. I go through picking off any side shoots from my leaders, exploring from top to bottom and gently tying my stem to whatever trellis I am using. By August my tomatoes are often taller than the fence and I start pruning back the tops and getting a little less thorough with my overall pruning.
As with all gardening, it is much easier to learn by seeing and doing than reading. If I have inspired anyone to attempt training his or her tomatoes, I welcome you to come see my own system in action.
Editor’s Note: We enjoyed the tomato pictured below on June 21st, the Summer Solstice. In our climate zone, to have ripe tomatoes by mid to late July is considered early! Jonathan got a big jump on the season using cold frames. See his posts on Cold Frame Gardening.
For several years now I have been experimenting with growing seedlings and plants in cold frames at Light Morning. The successes never cease to amaze me. From salads all winter to dried tomatoes in the summer, cold frames have kept my thumbs green (and sometimes shades of blue in January!) twelve months of the year.
People are sometimes surprised to find that after more than twenty-five years of intense gardening energy here, we still do not have a greenhouse. While I would like to have a greenhouse someday, I would not do without my cold frames for even a season. Not only are cold frames much cheaper and easier to build than greenhouses, they tend to be much more portable and therefore, in my opinion, more versatile.
It is this quality of mobility that has allowed me to develop a succession system that extends the season of various crops by about a month in the spring and in the fall. By successively rotating the cold frames to different beds and new crops (from hardier to more tender, and from January to June), I am able to keep virtually four times the area of plants protected in one season than if using a permanent greenhouse structure.
In order to verify all this for yourself, of course, you’ll need to build a cold frame. We use a variation of Elliot Coleman’s design. (See his books, The New Organic Grower and Four Season Harvest, for ideas.) I suggest first finding a cheap source of glazing material and designing your cold frame around them. We were fortunately gifted with some oversized tempered glass doors (61/2’ by 31/2’) that have proved to be excellent though heavy. I can barely manage carrying a single pane by myself. Sashes, though easy to come by, are headaches in my opinion, due to the ease of breakage and the annoyance and potential hazards of chipped paint. Be sure to design some thorough way of strapping down your glazing. (Rubber bungees work well.) I have regretfully shattered several panes due to insufficient protection from strong winds.
I’ll assume that you already have a cold frame or two. (We have about a dozen. Watch out–they’re addictive!) Now let’s get out in the garden. Next time there is one of those mid-winter thaws you should be ready to plant some greens. In fact, I never stop sowing. I plant successions of salad greens throughout the winter whenever I can (about once a month). Be sure the ground is well thawed, since working frozen ground damages soil structure.
All it takes is a little sunny weather to heat up the soil sufficiently for germination. I find things germinate in about twice the time they would under more ideal conditions. In the winter I sow thick stands of tightly-spaced rows of lettuce mixes and other mesclun-type greens. Harvested as baby greens, they are ready in about two months (also about twice the usual). I have found that the smaller plants are much less susceptible to freeze damage than mature heads. If you harvest an inch above the crown you should get three to four cuttings. This winter I am alternating rows of spinach with other greens so that the spinach can take over in March, once the salad greens are spent.
I actually hope to also start my first root crops and peas the next time I am able. I plant both dwarf and tall varieties of peas at the back of the cold frame to be trellised later, once the cold frame moves onto other crops. That leaves plenty of room for carrots, beets, and whatever else you like toward the front of the frame. You should get your first tender samplings of these by May if they’re sown by early February. We start our onion seedlings at about this time, too, and transplant them into garden beds in April.
As I mentioned at the beginning, this is also the time I start my early tomatoes, as well as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, head lettuce, peppers, eggplants, and basil. Germinated indoors, these will eventually get potted up and moved to a cold frame (insulated with hay and blankets) in March. There they continue to grow until warmer weather, when more cold frame space frees up for their protection. I will describe how this works next month. For now, if you want those early fruits, get the seeds started!
I strongly recommend the Territorial Seed Company catalogue as a good source for certain seeds and for information on over-wintering crops in general. They even have a separate winter gardening catalogue. They have been a wonderful source for early determinate tomatoes (often bred by Dr. James Baggett, my hero), which are perfect for cold frames. My favorite is “Siletz,” though the more commonly available “Oregon Spring” is also good. This year I am trying a new Baggett creation called “Legend.” It’s supposed to be the first late-blight resistant tomato. Both are open-pollinated to boot!
Finally, I cannot conclude without saying a few good words about spinach. Whether you have a cold frame or not, this is a crop that all gardeners in this area should grow. For the past two years we have been eating fresh spinach salads from plants growing in the garden without any protection! Started in September, spinach gets to mature just enough to hold plenty of delicious sugary sweet leaves to fill bowlfuls of salad throughout the winter.
Though some leaves may get slightly discolored and limp with extreme temperatures, it invariably rebounds with warmer weather and will even grow some, given a string of mild days. Come March, these same plants will go crazy before bolting and will give you many pots of steamed greens.
As the spring equinox draws near, the cold frame gardener finds it easy to stay busy. With greens, peas, and root crops already sprouted, it is a good time to look for holes in the rows of plants (often due to rodents) to re-sow. Be sure to keep the frames vented on sunny days and well watered. You can even remove the glazing entirely to catch any warm spring rains.
Now that your confidence in cold frames is swelling, you can begin to focus on your transplant seedlings. Assuming that you have already started your broccoli, lettuce, tomatoes, and other such delights, it is important to get these seedlings into containers in order to sustain the seedlings until transplant time. I tend to be short on space and will use small, 2 1/2″ pots with the option of re-potting into larger ones as needed. Though this is more work, I find it easier to keep a smaller area well protected and watered when the weather outdoors is still harsh.
Most seedlings need to be pricked out into pots about two weeks after germination, once true leaves have emerged and before the seedlings get too crowded and leggy. If (like me) you are without a greenhouse, your potted seedlings can get by with a cold frame that is well insulated with straw or leaves. A blanket and tarp also help reduce heat loss through the glazing on cold nights.
It is important to keep a watchful eye on the seedlings after they have been transplanted (bare rooted) into pots. Shading from direct sunlight is often necessary for the first few days. Lacking the buffer of a large soil mass, potted seedlings tend to be even more sensitive to extremes. Venting the cold frame is often necessary by mid-morning on sunny days in the 50’s. And all it takes is one frozen night to permanently shock a potted seedling’s root system.
Caring for seedlings in a cold frame in March is a delicate and demanding art. Guided only by a thermometer, observation, and intuition, the dedicated gardener must ensure that the seedlings survive and ultimately thrive through the extremes of temperamental Spring weather.
Why does the eager cold frame gardener bother to take on such a challenging task? Of course, there is the obvious explanation of early produce. What a shame to wait until July or even August for tomatoes when June and often May are already sunny and hot.
Another reason for all the labor that goes into extending the growing season is that it reduces the need for labor- intensive food preserving. Since the quality and nutritional value of fresh produce is incomparable, the cold frame gardener is doubly rewarded.
Moreover, cold frames reduce the temptation to purchase non-local produce whose real environmental cost is hidden. And any surplus from the cold frames can be bartered or sold to neighbors for a premium.
But there are other, less tangible benefits as well. I have found plants to be good reflections of our spiritual selves, with many parallels between caring for early seedlings and caring for one’s soul. Living in the somewhat protective environment of this community and this county, I often feel like a sheltered seedling. The warmth coaxes me to grow and evolve, but there is also the risk of being blasted by extreme conditions or negligent care. Like seedlings, we must trust in the coming season. When we are transplanted into the garden, and our roots are finally free to stretch deep into the Earth, our ripening fruit shall serve as signs of what is possible for the human species.
So by mid to late March you can begin to think about transplanting your hardier plants into cold frame protected garden soil where they ultimately belong. One of the main benefits of having individually potted seedlings is that there is virtually no transplant shock. Nevertheless, it is helpful to time the transplant during a period of mild weather and to warm the soil by moving the cold frames into place a few days prior to transplanting. You should hopefully be able to safely steal cold frames from the peas, root crops, and greens that you sowed last month.
Because my cold frames are precious real estate, I tend to pack them with plants that use extra compost and premium garden soil. When transplanting, I will crowd broccoli and cauliflower in staggered rows with 15″ spacing, even squeezing in some quick-growing lettuce in spare corners, to be harvested before their larger neighbors take over.
Less hardier crops like tomatoes, peppers, and basil will need to remain potted a month longer, until the cold frame housing your broccoli and lettuce frees up in April. The tomatoes especially may need quart-size pots before long to tide them over until then. More on the care of these warm weather crops and the maturing plants in your cold frames next month.
April is a busy and exciting time, especially when gardening with cold frames. While convincing signs of spring are just beginning to emerge outdoors, summer is well under way under the glass. With temperatures consistently 70° or above by day, and the danger of frost essentially gone, almost anything can be grown in the frames by mid April.
By early April, my broccoli and cauliflower plants will be pushing against the glass, exposing them to frost and sunburn. To avoid this, I have built extension boxes that essentially raise the height of my cold frames. By the middle of April, those plants are getting little benefit from the extra heat and protection of the cold frames and I carefully find the proper timing to remove the frames and let the young plants fend for themselves.
I eagerly look forward to the day when I plant out my tomatoes, peppers, and basil into the freed-up cold frames from my liberated crucifers. I again aim for the middle of a warm spell. Started in January, the tomatoes are usually bursting out of their pots, some of them with flowers blooming.
I will plant those tomatoes as deep as I can to encourage extra rooting from the stem, making sure to leave the flowers above ground for the possibility of some early fruits in May. Since determinate varieties of tomatoes have a bushing habit and do not vine like their indeterminate cousins, my cold frame plants don’t need trellising. However, the plants do have a tendency to flop over, so to prevent the fruit rot this encourages I have learned to put a hoop tunnel made from fencing for the plants to grow through, giving extra support for the luscious, pendant fruits.
This year I am growing twice as many cold frame peppers as last year. If you have ever struggled, as I have, with getting peppers to flower and fruit in the summer, cold frames may be your solution. I probably got more fruit, in one quarter the area, from my cold frame peppers than I did from the main-crop plants I started outdoors, all due to one month of extra, early protection.
The early-started plants, moreover, were spread out through the whole season and had plenty of time and fruit for early red peppers, unlike the regular plants that were mostly foliage all summer, with an excess of unripe fruits just before frost. Once again, a good example of how concentrated energy and attention can pay for itself multifold!
If you don’t have early tomatoes or peppers to plant, don’t fret. It is still not too late to start some fast-growing cucumbers and summer squash in pots to be planted out later this month. Kept in a warm, bright location, the large seeds will germinate quickly and will need to be planted out into cold frames before the roots crowd the pot, since cucurbits are not that fond of being transplanted in the first place. In fact, by mid April you could even direct seed those plants right into a free cold frame if you prefer.
Being such powerful tools of growth and transformation, cold frames do not come without certain costs and dangers. They will need constant monitoring, especially at first while getting the hang of it. Expect to learn the hard way, since all it takes is a couple of hours of midday sun without venting to find the foliage of your tender plants burnt to a crisp. Transpiration is also extreme in the greenhouse environment, so frequent watering is necessary. Opening the cold frames completely for soaking rains is ideal.
If you do find your plants burnt or withering, don’t give up. I have been amazed at how quickly well-rooted plants (much like their human counterparts) can regenerate themselves. Nevertheless, I hang onto any extra seedlings I have, in order to fill in holes caused by pests or problems. There is nothing more satisfying than a full house of plants.
It is also helpful to have family, friends, and neighbors who are supportive of your cold frame initiative. Otherwise, being tied down to cold frame maintenance will start feeling like a confining chore and not like the labor of love it was meant to be. Those early cauliflowers and tomatoes make flavorful rewards and compensation for the hard work of yourself and others.
Moreover, any mistakes and shortcomings will ripen into lessons for next year’s experiments. Already this year I have regretted my early broccoli transplant that left my tender kale and chard unsheltered. Shocked by a sudden drop in nighttime temperature, they lost most of their foliage to frost and windburn and have taken three weeks to recover. In the May article, I will share my revised timeline for next year’s sowings and plantings. Until then, happy gardening!