A Garden Can Teach Anything

carrot harvest

Hey Memphians!

If you’re looking for a great place to get out of the thunderstorms today, I am giving a talk at 10:00 am at Palladio Garden all about incorporating horticulture into education. Horticulture isn’t just important for horticulture’s sake. A garden is the perfect model for using techniques found in nature for solving human problems. I’m going to tell you all about the unexpected ways we incorporate the school garden into wider educational objectives at Hutchison School. It’s going to be a great talk. Don’t miss it!

Happy growing,

Mary

Tasting Tuesday

A Tasting Tuesday harvest of Japanese turnips waiting to go to the dining hall

A Tasting Tuesday harvest of Japanese turnips waiting to go to the dining hall

Kids can learn all kinds of things from gardening. I truly believe that gardening isn’t the end-point of a lesson, but rather a lens for learning all kinds of other things in any subject on the planet. We use the school farm at Hutchison to teach history, foreign languages, geometry, engineering, poetry, and many other topics seemingly unrelated to the mechanics of making a seed grow. We also use the farm to teach our younger girls about bravery and being open to new things.

When kids take part in growing a vegetable, or any plant for that matter, they become emotionally connected to it. Growing food gives them ownership. They grew it. They harvested it. They want to know what is going to happen to it, and they definitely want a say in it.

Me on Tasting Tuesday

Me on Tasting Tuesday

At Hutchison, I developed a program called Tasting Tuesday. It gives girls in pre-K through 4th grade an opportunity to bring their crops from farm to table. Most weeks, girls help harvest one of our garden crops and deliver it to the dining hall where our chef turns it into something delicious. On Tuesdays, I take that culinary creation around the dining hall during lunch time, where the girls have the opportunity to try it.

Every single week, I see the pickiest of eaters try new vegetables, because it came out of the garden. I see girls who normally wouldn’t touch something green with a ten foot pole excitedly tell girls in other classes that their class helped grow this food so everyone better eat it. I can’t tell you how many parents have come up to me and said something like, “My daughter doesn’t eat vegetables, but because of Tasting Tuesday, she now eats kale.”

When kids have the opportunity to become invested in their food, and when they have a say in what’s done with it, they are usually far more open to trying it.

The girls at Hutchison take their role in feedback just as seriously as their role in harvesting. Every Tasting Tuesday, the girls who try the featured dish let me know if they like it or not. I celebrate with them when they find a new vegetable that they enjoy. When they tell me that they don’t like something, I always tell them that it’s okay, and I am just so proud of them for trying something new. Often, when a girl at a lunch table tries something and enjoys it, her reaction is enough to get the other girls to try it, too. Bravery is contagious. The love of good food is contagious.

They may not get tested on this subject, but learning to be open to new experiences is one of the best lessons that a kid can get. I love that every single week, the girls get to use food from the farm to learn a little more about themselves.

A Tasting Tuesday delivery of kohlrabi on its way to the dining hall!

A Tasting Tuesday delivery of kohlrabi on its way to the dining hall!

The girls LOVE telling Chef exactly what they think should happen with their harvests. This crate of kohlrabi became a giant bowl of kohlrabi cole slaw.

The girls LOVE telling Chef exactly what they think should happen with their harvests. This crate of kohlrabi became a giant bowl of kohlrabi cole slaw.

Planning and Planting for Fall

This is such a great time of year. The summer bounty is really starting to come in strong. I'm awash in tomatoes, basil, okra, cucumbers, beans, and eggplant, and the summer flowers are putting on a fireworks show. It's awesome, right? On top of that, it's a high of EIGHTY THREE DEGREES in Memphis today. I'm pretty sure we had warmer days this winter. It's been a mild summer, and the garden is loving it. 

Well, I've lived in this region too long to expect this to last. Late July and August in Memphis is (usually) oppressively warm. Usually, by mid to late July, my first round of zinnias, squash, cucumbers, and tomatoes have started to succumb to powdery mildew, southern blight, or some other kind of nasty fungal infection. I don't want all of the glorious summer bounty to end in July, though; there are still months to go before our frost date! So, I get ready now to make sure I've got delicious summer produce and bright, beautiful flowers pouring in from the garden until October. 

Berkeley Tie-Dye tomatoes germinating

Berkeley Tie-Dye tomatoes germinating

Fall tomatoes are some of the best. In the spring, I like to seed hybrid tomatoes that are bred to withstand some of the gross fungal infections that are so common in our area mid-summer. I've never found a variety (or an organic technique) that totally keeps the disease away, but by seeding hybrid tomatoes, I can usually get a few extra weeks out of them mid-summer. However, it's fall tomatoes where I get to have my fun. Usually, fall in Memphis means a slight reprieve from the high humidity and blazing temperatures, and it's usually a great time to grow heirloom crops that don't do so well for me in the height of summer. Last week, I seeded Berkeley Tie-Dye, Cherokee Purple, Blue Gold Berry, Brandywine, and a few other fun heirloom varieties. I'll plant them outside in a few more weeks. 

I also planted my next round of sweet peppers, zinnias, and beans. I can't keep the geese away from edamame during their nesting season. They love it! By mid-summer, though, they've chilled out enough for me to plant some of their favorite foods, so I got some edamame in the ground. I planted a miniature sweet pepper that takes fewer days to mature than standard varieties in order to maximize fall harvest time. I've been enjoying zinnias this summer that have a muted color palette: apricot, light lime, cream, and white. They're starting to succumb to a fungal infection, so in a couple of weeks I'll rip them out, and I'll transplant bright, festive, multi-colored zinnias and sunflowers that will be ready to greet the girls when they come back to school in the fall. 

What's going on in your garden right now? Drop me a line in the comments, on my social media pages, or send me an email! 

Happy growing, 

Mary Riddle

Color party in the garden!

Color party in the garden!

Solar Powered Girl Power

Have you ever been so bowled over by the brilliance of a teen that it leaves you speechless?

This past fall, I was busily tucking tiny kale seeds in to the warm soil of the Hutchison farm, when a freshman girl wandered in through the gate. 

"Hi, Mrs. Riddle! My name is Elizabeth. I've designed a solar-powered vegetable wash station that will allow us to capture the gray water from the sink into a cylindrical chamber that will clean the water using a small motor and a UV filtration system. Would you like to see it?"

Me: [blink, blink]

"I've created a budget for it and preliminary blueprints."

Me: [jaw falls slightly agape.]

Pulling myself together, I ask her which class this is for, and who's giving her credit for this.

"Oh no," she says, "I'm doing this just for fun."

For fun, I later find out, in between her classes, quiz bowl competitions, and running tech for two school plays, but I digress.

Working with our director of facilities, Elizabeth fine-tuned her idea and got her plan and budget approved. This week, she's coming out to campus (during her summer vacation!) to build her brainchild. I'll show y'all the completed project once she's finished, but I was too excited to keep the lid on this for any longer. 

Here's to brilliant young women! 

 

 

When Should I Harvest Garlic?

Back in February, I told y'all all about how I fertilize, weed, and mulch to prepare for an awesome garlic harvest. Well, that magical season is upon us, so now I'm here to show you how to know when it's the right time to dig up your precious garlicky treasures. 

I grow two different kinds of garlic, hard neck and soft neck. I like to grow soft neck varieties, because you can make garlic braids from them. I like hard neck varieties, because the cloves are usually a bit bigger, and they also send up garlic scapes. 

There! That's a garlic scape.

There! That's a garlic scape.

Scapes are the blossom that the hard neck garlic plants send up just a few weeks before it's time to harvest. They are DELICIOUS. If you grow hard neck garlic, you should definitely pinch off the scapes and cook with them. They're divine. 

Usually, 2-4 weeks after you've harvested your scapes, the bottom leaves of your garlic plant start turning yellow and withering. With soft neck varieties, you'll see this yellowing without having the scapes tip you off first. When about one third of the leaves turn yellow, I know it's time to dig up the garlic. 

So here's how I do it. First, I always pull one or two bulbs up and cut them open, just to make sure I can see the cloves and everything looks like it's ready to go. If it looks like the cloves are fully formed, I go through my raised bed with a potato fork and loosen up the soil really well. Then, it's time to pull. Pull from the base to make sure you don't break off the stems. 

I move my garlic to the shade immediately and begin spacing them out on tables or hanging them up in my shed. Do not wash or trim them first! I gently tap the dirt off and hang them up just as they are. Your garlic needs 2-3 weeks in a cool, shady, well-ventilated room in order to cure. When garlic cures, the outside dries up, while the inside cloves are still moist and flavorful. After it's finished curing, you can wipe off the remaining dirt and trim the leaves and roots off.

After my soft neck garlic cures, I'll walk you through the process of making garlic braids. Stay tuned! 

Happy growing, 

Mary Riddle

Hanging up garlic to cure

Hanging up garlic to cure

Growing Young Entrepreneurs

The school where I work has a fantastic new program called Hutchison Invests. The program trains young women in social entrepreneurship, providing valuable services like business incubation, mentoring, and internship matching. Hutchison Invests is directed by an incredibly talented colleague of mine, Kim Ware. 

Kim reached out to me several weeks ago wanting to collaborate on a project for her young entrepreneurs. Social entrepreneurship and eco-friendly gardening seem to go hand-in-hand. We put our brains together and decided that we'd ask the girls to come up with a marketing plan to sell some of the honey that I was pulling off of the hives at the school farm. The girls took to the project like, well, bees to honey, and their results astounded us. 

These young women researched federal, state, and county health requirements to ensure that we were in compliance with all regulations. They designed a honey label that met those standards. They designed their own packaging. They researched honey pricing and helped determine what our break-even point would be. Then, they filtered, bottled, and labeled an initial prototype batch of about fourteen pounds of Hutchison-made honey, and took it to the Buzz Shop, our on-campus gift store.

The girls had already prepared a pitch to share with Bess, the Buzz Shop manager. Two of the girls prepared slides with consumer benefits, along with a proposed price (and class commission for their stellar marketing work!) Bess agreed to carry the honey, and they sold out in THREE HOURS. 

The girls are finishing up their exams this week before they leave for the summer, but they are already making plans about expanding their honey line this coming fall, and potentially adding other hive products like beeswax candles and lip balms.

It's a joy to work with such impressive young women and innovative colleagues.  We're going to be restocking our honey soon, so if you're in the Memphis area, make plans to come to the Buzz Shop this summer to try some of this honey for yourself. There can't be a more delicious way to support the work of young entrepreneurs. 

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Grow More by Interplanting

This is the time of year when we apire to garden greatness. We look at our freshly turned soil, the rising temperatures, and the glorious plants and seeds on sale at our local garden centers. We usually manage to sneak off to a plant sale unsupervised at least once, and we come home with more plants than we have space. (We've all been there, right?) If you've accidentally bought more plants than your garden can hold for the umpteenth year in a row, maybe this post can help you out.

I maximize the space in each of my raised beds through a process called interplanting. Instead of dedicating separate precious square footage to spring crops and summer crops, I plant many of them alongside one another. It's pretty easy to do. 

Mature radishes surrounding a tomato seedling

Mature radishes surrounding a tomato seedling

Here are some ways you can interplant your garden:

An interplanted bed of peppers, lettuce, and pole beans

An interplanted bed of peppers, lettuce, and pole beans

  • Are you looking impatiently at the seedlings in your tomato bed, trying to hurry them along? It will be weeks before they really spread out, so utilize the real estate surrounding them for quick crops like radishes. I planted radishes among my tomato seedlings and zinnia seedlings. Right about the time that the tomatoes and zinnias start growing up and out rapidly, it's time for the radishes to be harvested. 
  • I also like to take advantage of shade provided by vertical-growing crops like pole beans. In this bed, I planted pole beans along one side and peppers along the others. It will be several weeks before the peppers really spread out, so right down the middle, I planted some lettuce seedlings. The lettuce will be kept cooler in the afternoon sun from the shade of my pole bean trellis. By the time the peppers start encroaching on the space in the middle of the bed, it will be time to harvest the lettuce. I also trained pole beans to climb up over my low tunnel hoops and planted kohlrabi underneath. Again, the shade from the pole beans will extend the growing season for the cool weather-loving kohlrabi. 
  • You can also interplant with flowers. This season, I planted two rows of cosmos seedlings into my raised beds. I knew it would be several weeks before they would take up the space in the middle, so I transplanted some sunflowers down the center. I've harvested the sunflowers, and the cosmos are just now flushing out. 
Sunflowers harvested from the interplanted bed (pictured behind) of cosmos.

Sunflowers harvested from the interplanted bed (pictured behind) of cosmos.

Make the most out of every nook and cranny by pairing slower growing summer crops with quick growing spring crops. 

How do you make the most of limited square footage? Do you have any interplanting tricks? Share them below! 

Happy growing, 

Mary Riddle

Zinnias and radishes

Zinnias and radishes

Snapdragons are a Snap

Armloads of snaps!

Armloads of snaps!

I'm in the midst of the most prolific harvest of snapdragons you've ever seen. Not only are they fragrant, but their beauty is the kind that almost hurts your heart. With a little bit of planning, they're pretty easy to grow! I'm here to tell you how. 

Plan now for fall planting. I usually recommend placing orders for your desired flower seed as that particular flower's season comes to a close. I'll have these snaps for a few more weeks, then I'll go over my harvest records, decide which snaps I like the best (or if there was one I wouldn't order again) then place my seed order. Once the seeds arrive, I keep them stored in a cool, dark, dry place until I need them in the fall. I always like to order early so that I don't get caught in a pinch if the varieties I want are back-ordered. 

I planted these snapdragons with my students back in October. They are a little finicky. (The snapdragons, not the students!) The seeds are TINY and must be kept on top of the soil, because they need light to germinate. I germinated them indoors, then planted them outside after they had several sets of true leaves.This took about six weeks. While I was waiting for them to grow, I made sure my beds were free of debris, and I applied Mighty Grow fertilizer. Once ready, I planted my snapdragons about a foot apart. I planted them this far apart, because I wanted lots of side branches on mine. If you want longer, stronger stems, you can plant them four inches apart. If you do it this way, you'll only get one cut from each plant.

Potomac, Rocket, and Madame Butterfly snapdragons

Potomac, Rocket, and Madame Butterfly snapdragons

If you want perfectly straight snapdragons that never tilt over, you'll want to add an extra step before you plant: installing Hortonova. I recommend pounding rebar into the corners of your beds and about every four to six feet along the length of your beds. Stretch your Hortonova tight over the top of the bed so that it is completely parallel to you soil below, about a foot above the ground. You can even use taller rebar and add a second layer of Hortonova another 8-12" above your first layer for extra support. I like to make sure the netting is extra secure by using small zip ties to attach it to the rebar. The Hortonova makes it a lot easier to perfectly space your plants, because it basically lays out a perfect grid on top of your soil. It's also great for all you perfectionists out there: I've gotten a few funky shaped snapdragons, because snaps are geotropic. That means that if the stems have fallen over and are at an angle to the ground, the blooms will bend themselves back up to try and grow straight up to the sky. 

Snapdragons with row covers, March 2017

Snapdragons with row covers, March 2017

I pinched my seedlings back to about half their height when I transplanted them in early November. I made sure to keep them covered with frost cloth during times when the temperatures were dropping well below freezing. I pinched them a few times throughout the winter.

I planted three different kinds of snapdragons to try and extend my snapdragon season. My Rocket snapdragons bloomed first, followed by Potomacs, and then Madame Butterfly. Madame Butterfly snaps are frillier open-faced blooms that don't have the traditional snapdragon look. But I think they're stunning, so I grow them, too. 

Stunning Madame Butterfly snapdragon

Stunning Madame Butterfly snapdragon

These flowers have just shattered my heart with their beauty and fragrance. I've gotten hundreds of stems over three feet tall, and lots of beautiful side stems that are a little smaller that have been wonderful for smaller arrangements. I harvest them when the the flower spikes are about 1/3 open. I strip all the leaves off before putting them in my harvest bucket. I've been posting pictures of the snapdragons' progress over on my social media accounts, so check them out. 

If you like what you see, I highly recommend planning now to plant them this fall. You won't be disappointed!

Happy growing,

Mary Riddle

 

First snapdragon harvest of the year on April 9, even after several pinchings! These are Rocket snapdragons.

First snapdragon harvest of the year on April 9, even after several pinchings! These are Rocket snapdragons.

Spring Chaos

Phew! It's been a minute since I've written, huh? Spring is in full swing, and I'm in peak chaos! I thought I'd take a minute today to share some of the cool things going on in the garden. 

French breakfast radish

French breakfast radish

The girls in pre-K became intrigued by root vegetables recently. They just love it that some veggies grow underground. (I love how wondrous the world is through a child's eyes!) They decided to plant one of the raised beds on the farm with three different kinds of root vegetables to observe how they grew. The girls planted French breakfast radishes, Easter egg radishes, and Chioggia beets. They came out to the farm almost every day to observe, take pictures, and measure the plants' growth. Well, last week the radishes were ready, and they got to pull them up! They loved making predictions about what the radishes would look like before they pulled them out of the ground. That was especially fun to do with the Easter egg radishes, because they were all different colors! The Chioggia beets are still in the ground and will be ready in a few weeks.

Blue bonnet rice

Blue bonnet rice

I've also been working on a cool project with upper school girls. Our sophomore English class read The Things They Carried, which is a novel about the Vietnam War. Many of the scenes take place in rice paddies in Vietnam. To help the girls better understand the setting, we learned about traditional methods of growing rice. We watched videos of rice production, looked at pictures, and then got to start our own rice from seed. The plants are shooting up in our grow light station, and we'll plant them outside next week. This rice is a highland variety, which takes less water to grow than lowland varieties. I've never grown rice before, so I'm looking forward to learning about it more. I'll keep y'all posted!

The production and planting schedule is just going gangbusters over here. In the last week, we've harvested hundreds of pounds of leeks, bok choy, radishes, sorrel, arugula, green garlic, herbs. We've planted okra, basil, cantaloupe, cotton, kohlrabi, cosmos, and tomatoes. And the flowers! The flowers are stunning right now. Snapdragons, anemones, bachelor's buttons, nigella, and larkspur are at their peak. It might be chaotic right now, but I wouldn't trade it for anything. It's good to be a grower in April!

What's going on in your garden this month? Tell me all about it in the comments or on one of my social media pages! 

Happy growing, 

Mary Riddle

My leek-y sink. ;) 

My leek-y sink. ;) 

Girls harvesting baby bok choy

Girls harvesting baby bok choy

Beneficial Insects

As growers, so much of our time is spent scouting for harmful bugs in the garden that sometimes we neglect the good guys. The truth is, there are lots of insects that can provide valuable services to you, from pollination to pest control. With just a little bit of research to learn what good bugs are out there, and a little bit of patience to wait for them to get to work, you can save yourself time, energy, and money. There are lots of beneficial insects out there, but I'm just going to go over a few of the more common ones today. 

Lady beetle eating an aphid.

Lady beetle eating an aphid.

Lady beetles are well-known garden friends, because they have a voracious appetite for aphids. As I've written about in a previous post, releasing ladybugs in greenhouses or other enclosed areas is a good way to fight aphids. While their larvae also like to snack on aphids, adult lady beetles can eat up to 50 aphids a day, so you want to make sure you release them in an area with a heavy infestation. It's not a method to use if you have a mild aphid outbreak. Lady beetles also eat pollen and nectar, so inter-planting your vegetable garden with flowers is a good way to attract them naturally. Planting several different kinds of flowers helps ensure a nectar and pollen source over a longer period of time. This may encourage lady beetles to stick around. 

A wasp eating a cabbage worm

A wasp eating a cabbage worm

There's a great beneficial insect that has a particularly bad reputation due to its mean sting, but wasps also provide a great pest control service. Wasps feed on the bugs that feed on your plants, so think about that next time you want to spray one of their nests! (Side note: if anyone in your household is allergic to stinging insects, or if there is a wasp's nest in an a high-traffic area of your household, I always recommend getting rid of them. Safety first!) 

There's another species of wasps called parasitoid wasps, or parasitic wasps, that are probably the creepiest of all beneficial insects. Parasitic wasps feed off of nectar from the plants in your garden, but when it's time for them to make babies, they temporarily paralyze unwitting caterpillars with their venom and lay eggs in or on them. The host caterpillars remain alive while the wasp eggs develop, but when the wasps pupate, they eat their way out of the caterpillar to emerge into the world. The caterpillars are eaten alive. It sounds horrifying, but once you have a few too many Tomato Hornworms destroy your beautiful Brandywines, you'll start to feel less sympathetic! If you've got the stomach for it, you can check out these cool photos of parasitic wasps emerging from caterpillars over at this NC State Extension page.  (Side note: you should follow that page anyway, because it's run by Extension Agent Debbie Roos, and she's a genius.) 

There are some bugs that are both good and bad. Praying mantises are some of the coolest insects you can find in your garden, but they don't discriminate when it comes to their meals: they'll eat good bugs and bad bugs alike! They'll even eat other mantises if they get hungry enough. Generally, though, they're good for a garden, so I like to keep them around. They're especially great to have around for the hard-to-kill hard-shelled bug infestations like Colorado potato beetles or harlequin beetles. You can even order egg cases online and hatch them into your garden.

Last but not least, pollinators! If you're growing any kind of vegetable, you should definitely be planting flowers to attract pollinators. At my school's farm, we have an entire bed dedicated to perennial flowering plants for pollinators, including milkweed, coneflower, Joe Pye Weed, elderberry, salvia, and more. 

Hutchison pollinator garden 

Hutchison pollinator garden 

It's a pollinator party!

It's a pollinator party!

Pollinators are essential for ensuring a stable food supply. One third of our agricultural products depends on them! We have over 4,000 species of bees in the United States. Most people know about the plight of our honeybees, but there are dozens of native pollinators with vulnerable populations in rapid decline, too. Planting diverse flowering crops that bloom throughout the growing season is critical for supporting pollinator populations. A diversity of flowers also supports a diverse pollinator population. I love sitting out in the garden and seeing the honeybees, bumble bees, mason bees, sweat bees, beetles, and even flies visiting bloom after bloom.

I also love watching the butterflies in the garden. Many people know that milkweed is essential for monarch butterflies. Attracting other kinds of butterflies is easy. They like nectar sources from flat-topped broad-petaled flowers that they can land on, like zinnias, coneflowers, and dahlias. Planting just a few of those flowers will attract beautiful butterflies throughout the warm seasons. Many butterflies and moths need to warm up before they take flight, so if you head out to your zinnia patch early in the morning, you can often see them soaking up the morning rays on top of the flowers. 

Eastern tiger swallowtail

Eastern tiger swallowtail

Your garden is an ecosystem of all kinds of six-legged critters, and if you plan ahead and have a little bit of patience, you can put the good ones to work for you.

If you're not sure if a bug you're looking at is good or bad, take a look at NC State's great visual guide to beneficial insects here

Do you have a favorite garden bug? Let me know about it in the comments, or by hopping over to one of my social media pages

Happy growing,

Mary Riddle

Photobombing the bees! 

Photobombing the bees! 

The Dirt on Dirt

Let's talk about your garden soil. You can't grow healthy plants unless you've got healthy soil, and there's more to it than haphazardly adding a bag of fertilizer or some half-baked compost. I'm going to walk you through the basics of garden soil management from soil testing to fertilizers to crop rotation to cover crops to composting. It's a lot to talk about, so I'm going to break it down into a few parts.

So let's dive in! First up, soil tests. 

If you're serious about growing anything, you need to get a soil test. If you don't know what's in your soil, you're flying blind. Your local agricultural extension office should be able to provide you with a small box for gathering your soil sample along with written instructions. (If you don't know what an extension office is, Google your county name and "agricultural extension." A wealth of knowledge is available to you there!) You'll probably have to mail your sample box into a lab specified in the test directions, along with a check for the test fee. They usually cost in the ballpark of $10. You'll want to gather your test sample when the soil is dry and before you add any fertilizers to your soil. Fall is the best time to get a test, but any time is better than no time. 

There are definitely soil tests that are better than others, but your basic soil test should show you your pH and nutrient levels. If you can get one that shows you your level of organic matter, that's even better! The soil tests will come with recommendations about what kinds of amendments to apply and at which rates in order to achieve optimum nutrient levels. 

So, let's say you've gotten your soil test back, and it has the recommendations for how much of each nutrient you need to add to your soil. How do you know how much fertilizer to apply? Well, you could get out your pencil and paper and practice your basic arithmetic, but I love a shortcut. This calculator from Texas A&M is great. You can enter the numbers from your soil test that show how many parts per million of each nutrient is present in your soil. You'll also enter the numbers from the fertilizer grade of your preferred fertilizer. (The grade is the numbers that you find on the front of your fertilizer bag. It might say "4-3-4" or "20-20-20." Those numbers indicate how much nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium is in the mix.) The calculator tells you how much of your specific fertilizer to apply per 1000 square feet.

Your animals will thank you for using animal-safe fertilizers.

Your animals will thank you for using animal-safe fertilizers.

So which fertilizer should you use? Lucky for you, I have a strong preference to share. For generic garden fertilizers, I highly recommend Mighty Grow. It's organic, processed poultry litter that slowly releases over a 90 day period. I've used it for a couple of years now, and it's my favorite. I particularly like it, because it's considered pet safe, and I have a dog that will gladly roll around in and lick the soil when it's extra-fragrant from fertilizing. In my raised beds, I add 13 lbs of Mighty Grow per 1000 square feet. My beds are about 72 square feet, so I need just under one pound of Mighty Grow per bed. (Three cups of Mighty Grow fertilizer equals one pound.) I top dress with the Mighty Grow, meaning that I just use a scoop to scatter the pellets right on top of the soil, then water it in thoroughly. I fertilize with Mighty Grow every three months. 

Alright, you've made it through the tedious part of garden soil management! Stay tuned; we've got cover crops, crop rotations, and composting ahead of us. Do you have a favorite fertilizer that you like to use? Any questions about soil tests? You can drop it in the comments below!

Happy growing, 

Mary Riddle

Ready, Set, Tomato! (Part 2)

San Marzano tomatoes make the best sauce. And noses, apparently. 

San Marzano tomatoes make the best sauce. And noses, apparently. 

We left off yesterday talking about planting tomatoes from seeds. Let's pick right back up with what you do after you've got your seedlings! Fast forward four or five weeks from your planting date. You've kept consistent moisture levels on your seedlings. You've fertilized once with fish emulsion. Now what?

Memphis is in agricultural Zone 7b. That means our last frost date usually falls in the second week of April. Tomatoes are cold sensitive, so you don't want to plant them out if there is a risk of temperatures falling below freezing. You can plant them out a little earlier if you've got low tunnels built, or some other form of frost protection. (I have rudimentary instructions on building low tunnels here.)

If the risk of frost has passed in your area, you've prepped your soil, and your seedlings are looking healthy and strong, then you just have one more step before you plant them out. You've got to decide how you want to stake your plants. Tomatoes need a little bit of help to stand up and be productive. Keep in mind, you don't absolutely have to stake your plants. You could just let them flop over. However, the more they're in contact with moist soil, the more susceptible they are to disease, and the closer your tomatoes are to the ground, the more likely they are to be eaten by rodents. So I highly recommend staking! 

Allegra the farm dog running through rows of tomatoes staked with cattle panel.

Allegra the farm dog running through rows of tomatoes staked with cattle panel.

If you've got a long row of tomatoes, the best way to stake them is to construct a wall out of T-posts and cattle panels. You can use a handy little device called a duratool to affix your tomato plants to the panel. The duratool is one of my favorite farm tools ever. If you've got a lot of tomatoes, this drastically reduces the time it takes to stake. The down side of cattle panel staking is that it's pricey, so I would only recommend this option if you've got more than 30 or so row feet of tomatoes planted. Otherwise, metal tomato cages or wooden stakes work well. Whichever way you plan to stake your tomatoes, make sure your stakes are in the ground before you put your plants in.

How far apart should you place your stakes? Many northern farmers swear by close tomato spacing for maximum production. I've seen recommendations as close as 18" spacing for tomato plants. If you grow below the Mason-Dixon, I find that this recommendation is a recipe for disaster. Southern climates are humid, and if you're in the Delta like I am, the soils are dense and full of clay. This is perfect breeding ground for blight and other fungal diseases. The best way to prevent the spread of those diseases is by spacing your tomato plants at least three feet apart, and make sure you have plenty of room for air flow between your tomato rows. 

Okay, so we've got our stakes in to our beautifully double-dug soil. Now what? I know some growers swear by this, but I recommend against ripping stems off to plant tomatoes deeper in the soil. First of all, open wounds on the plants are entry points for disease. Secondly, those leaves are little solar panels, making energy for your plants to grow. I dig a hole 2-3 times the size of the tomato root ball, fill it with compost, then plant the tomato starts about an inch higher than the root ball's soil line. 

Here in Memphis, my favorite tomato grower is Steve Fulwood of Cold Comfort Farm. He can grow beautiful, tender heirlooms long past the time my hybrids have succumbed to blight. His Brandywine tomatoes are my favorite. They're sweet, smooth, and the perfect slicing texture. My husband asked him last year what his secret was, and he shared his fertilizing plan. He saturates the soil under his tomato plants with Grow Big fertilizer from Fox Farm once a week until the plants start to bud, then he switches to Tiger Bloom. That plan has worked well for us, thought I have to admit... even with his fertilizer secret, I've still never been able to grow an heirloom tomato as perfect as his!

My Red Pearl tomatoes from Johnny's Selected Seeds went bonkers after implementing Steve Fulwood's fertilizing plan. 

My Red Pearl tomatoes from Johnny's Selected Seeds went bonkers after implementing Steve Fulwood's fertilizing plan. 

As your tomato plants become established, scout your plants twice a week for pest pressure. Look for holes or chunks taken out of leaves or fruit, as that may be a sign of tomato hornworm or fruitworm. Look for signs of wilt, as you may have aphids or stink bugs. Colorado potato beetles like to chew on tomato leaves until they turn to lace. The good news is that many of the pests that plague tomatoes are big enough for you to easily see and squish on-site. (Or brush it into a bucket of soapy water if that makes you squeamish.)

I also scout the soil line two to three times a week for signs of blight. If you see a fuzzy, dotted fungus along the soil line and base stem of your tomato plant, there's a good chance you've got Southern blight. Southern blight is horrible. It is a soil-borne disease, and once it's in the soil, there's a good chance it's going to plague you year after year. If I see southern blight in my tomatoes, I dig up the infected plant, including all of the soil around the root area, and I put it all in a plastic bag and put it in a dumpster. I even cover my boots with plastic bags and wash my shovel with a 10% bleach solution after using it so I am sure that I'm not transmitting it. If I have handled a plant that I've suspected of blight, I don't handle any other plants until I've washed up and changed clothes. I take out the stake and soak it in a 10% bleach solution. 

Tomato plants that have succumbed to southern blight.

Tomato plants that have succumbed to southern blight.

To reduce your susceptibility to blight, or to any other disease or infection, it's important to water at the beginning of the day and close to the root zone. Using soaker hoses or drip tape is ideal, because it reduces the amount of water that splashes from plant to plant, potentially carrying disease with it. Also, keep your tomatoes as weed-free as possible. Weeds can carry pathogens and provide good hiding places for pests. I like to keep my tomatoes covered with a leaf mulch in order to keep weed pressure down. 

Mary Riddle tomato eyes

If you've fended off pest and disease, you've made it to the best part of growing tomatoes: harvesting! I recommend that you harvest your tomatoes in the morning, before the sun is high in the sky. For the best flavor, keep your tomatoes at room temperature until they are used. I harvest into wide crates or buckets, in just one or two layers, to avoid bruising. I also make sure that I wash my buckets in between harvests, so I'm not accidentally spreading diseases. (Have I mentioned that I'm a little neurotic about pests and disease?)

That's it! You've made it through Tomatoes 101. Do you have any tomato questions or grower advice that you'd like to share? Drop it in the comments, or on one of my social media pages. 

Happy growing, 

Mary Riddle

Supersweet 100 tomatoes from Johnny's Selected Seeds

Supersweet 100 tomatoes from Johnny's Selected Seeds

Ready, Set, Tomato! (Part 1)

It's the time of year when I start really craving tomatoes. It's been months since I had a flavorful, juicy tomato, and the mealy pink things in the grocery stores right now just won't cut it. The good news is that we can start prepping now for a season of plenty.

Like all good growing, the most important thing to focus on is soil. You won't have good crops unless you have good soil. Wherever you're growing, it's a good idea to add fresh compost to your tomato beds each year. My favorite kind of compost to use is cotton burr compost. We have it in abundance here in Memphis, and I get the best results from it.

I also highly recommend double-digging your beds. (You can find my instructions for double-digging here.) Tomatoes need ample space for root growth, at least 12-18 inches. Don't think you have that kind of top soil? Double-digging helps create it! The photo below shows one of my raised beds. The foreground has been left alone, but the background has been double-dug. You can see from where my hand is that I've added four or five inches of soil space just by double-digging. Mixing in your compost amendments and loosening the lower layers of soil help the plant's root zone access essential nutrients that don't move around through the soil, like phosphorus. Aerating your soil helps water flow through your soil instead of puddling on top, which helps prevents the spread of disease.

Double-digging builds soil, as seen here. 

Double-digging builds soil, as seen here. 

After you've got your soil plan in place, it's important to figure out what kinds of tomatoes you want to grow. If you aren't interested in starting tomatoes from seeds, please consider shopping for your tomato starts at your local farmers market. Plants that you purchase at big box stores are often chemical-laden and stressed. I've seen plants at those stores with hiding aphids and early signs of disease. Buy your tomato starts from the farmer whose tomatoes you like the best. That way, your starts will probably also come with some good, region-appropriate advice. 

Here's what you should know about before selecting your tomato plants:

  • Do you want an heirloom or hybrid? Heirloom tomatoes are often beautiful, but they are much more susceptible to disease. Hybrids are often grown to be resistant to certain diseases. If your tomato patch has suffered from disease pressure in the past, I recommend going the hybrid route. 
  • You should also decide if you want indeterminate or determinate tomatoes. Determinate tomatoes flower all at once and are more compact than indeterminates. They usually bear fruit over two or three weeks, then begin to die. Indeterminate tomatoes will keep growing vines and flowering and thus require more staking, pruning, and support. 
  • Most importantly, what kind of tomatoes do you want to eat? There are cherry, beefsteak, sauce, plum, and grape tomatoes, and each one of them has their own culinary personality.

I start all of my tomatoes from seed. Personally, my three favorite varieties to grow are from Johnny's Selected Seeds, and they are Celebrity, Tiren, and Red Pearl. They're all hybrids. I like to grow hybrids, because we have heavy pressure from fungal infections in our muggy climate. I plant my seeds in 50 cell 1020 trays filled with Pro-Mix and put them under grow lights. I plant my seeds four to five weeks before I plan on planting them outdoors. I water them lightly every single day. They can germinate beautifully in trays without the use of fertilizer, but they need feeding about three weeks after germination. At that point, I soak each cell with a diluted fish emulsion mixture.

You should only start your tomatoes from seed if you can commit to lightly watering them every day. Consistent moisture is crucial while they are in trays.

 

This should be enough to get you started! I'll follow up tomorrow with information about how to transplant, fertilize, stake, and harvest. 

Tell me about your favorite tomato varieties! You can leave a comment here, or tell me all about them on one of my social media pages

Happy growing, 

Mary Riddle

Getting Ready for Garlic

Garlic is one of my favorite crops to grow. It's a crop that doesn't take a lot of time or maintenance, but the payoff is huge. Who doesn't love fresh garlic? No one. I wouldn't trust someone who doesn't love garlic.

Two fertilizers and the view from my kitchen window.

Two fertilizers and the view from my kitchen window.

I order my garlic every year from Peaceful Valley. I typically grow both hardneck and softneck garlic. I like the scapes that the hardneck garlic provides, but I like to be able to braid my garlic for storage, like you do with softneck. Back in early October, I planted two beds of Music, a hardneck variety, and three beds of California Early White, a softneck variety. I planted an extra bed of California Early White, because I plan on harvesting one of the beds early before its bulb fills out to use as "green garlic." (I'm serious about my garlic, okay?)

Like I said, garlic doesn't require a lot of maintenance. I weed the beds fairly regularly. It likes to be mulched over the winter. It does require a little bit of fertilization, though, and that's what I spent this balmy, 78 degree President's Day doing. 

My rule of thumb is to fertilize garlic three times: once in planting, once on Valentine's Day, and once on St. Patrick's Day. (I'm a little bit late this year, but that's alright.) Garlic likes a lot of nitrogen when it's still in its leafing stage, before it starts growing its bulb, so I use a 50-50 blend of worm castings and blood meal. Once I combine my fertilizers, I side dress each garlic plant with a small scoop of the mix and try to work it down into the soil an inch or two. I'll do this exact same thing again in a month, but then after that, I stop fertilizing and let nature do its thing. If you fertilize too late, it would encourage the plant to continue a vigorous leaf growth when you want it working on growing a bigger bulb. 

As I keep saying, it's been a bizarrely warm winter, so I'm guessing that my garlic is going to be ready earlier than usual this year. I can typically harvest green garlic in April, scapes in May, and bulbs in June. If the weather keeps this current pattern going, I'll be about a month ahead of that schedule. If the bulbs start filling out early, I'll adjust my fertilization schedule. Good growing is all about watching what nature brings you and adapting.

 

Short sleeves and short dresses in February. 

Short sleeves and short dresses in February. 

Learn How to Grow Your Own

I wanted to let y'all know about some upcoming horticulture classes that I'll be teaching in Memphis, Tennessee. The classes are for children and adults, and they're brought to you by the Hutchison Center for Excellence. The class descriptions are below.  

  • Creating a Family Garden, for families

Learn the basics of planning a garden for the whole family to plant, nurture, and watch grow! The Starter Session will cover the basics of planning your garden, soil preparation, what to plant when, and basic composting. The Intermediate Session will cover more advanced topics, including ongoing plant care for better harvests, organic pest control, and composting. 

Date/Time: Starter Session: Tuesday, June 6; 8:30-11:30 am, Intermediate Session: Thursday, June 11; 8:30-11:30 am

Cost: $30 per person per class

  • Beekeeping, for girls and boys entering grades 1-8 and their families

Discover the basic components of a hive and how to maintain your own bee colony. 

Date/Time: Wednesday, June 7; 8:30-11:30 am

Cost: $30 per person

  • Homegrown Start-Up: Garden Product Projects, for girls entering grades 4-8

Learn business basics by creating spa products and craft food items from the Hutchison Garden, designing a stand, and marketing them through an original marketing plan. 

Date/Time: Monday-Friday, July 10-14; 1:00-3:30 pm

Cost: $135

I hope to see you and your families at one of these classes! 

Happy growing, 

Mary Riddle

A Southern Horticulturist's Valentine's Day

This is my husband, Wes. Before he met me, he never guessed that his future would include things like building hoop houses, digging trenches for irrigation, or diagnosing tomato fungal infections, but here he is, and I love him for it. 

We've never made a big deal about Valentine's Day. (My strong cynical streak may have something to do with that.) Wes has always used the day as a good excuse to get me flowers or a card. Usually, we'd try to make a nicer-than-usual dinner at home. But that pattern changed this year!

Our friends Caitlin and Stephen love beautiful flowers and good food as much as we do. We love spending time with them and their family. This year, the fellas put their minds together to plan something extraordinary, and I have to say, they outdid themselves.

On Saturday evening, our children's daycare stayed open late for a parents' night out, so our Valentine's Day came early. Caitlin and I sipped champagne while the gentlemen dropped off our boys at their school. 

They came back and presented us with these stunning seasonal corsages from Garden District. I love the succulents and the pussy willow branches. It's a perfect late winter posy. The gentlemen had matching boutonnieres, and they looked positively dapper. 

Then, they took us to Catherine & Mary's, a new restaurant by the Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen team in the old Chisca building in downtown Memphis. If you haven't been, stop what you're doing right now and make a reservation. Our meal was nothing short of life-changing. It affirmed everything that was good and right with the world. 

The gents chose our menu in advance, so Caitlin and I just sat down, and course after course just appeared in front of us, along with perfectly paired wines chosen by our waiter. We started with chickpea crepes with whipped ricotta and hazelnuts and a cheese board with pickled apricots. I didn't know whipped ricotta was a thing, but I want it on everything now. Our pasta dish came next. It was a radiatore with a green pistachio mint pesto, and I'm pretty sure I died and went to heaven right then and there. Then, the waiter brought out a fabulous Cabernet Franc, and it got even better. Our entree was a seared halibut on a bed of shaved Brussels sprouts with celery root puree, and we all shared cannoli and house-made gelatos for dessert. 

We clean up real nice, don't we?

We clean up real nice, don't we?

To top it all off, we picked up our little baby from daycare, took him home, and he slept through the night. A Valentine's Day miracle! I couldn't have asked for a better date or for better people to have spent it with. 

It's a rainy day here in Memphis, so I'm spending Valentine's Day proper starting the first of my solanaceous seeds indoors. I can't believe it's that time of year again! Spring is in the air and love is all around. 

The Girl-Powered, Math-Powered, Poetry-Powered, Chinese Vegetable School Farm Project

It was sixth grade when I first learned that I was bad at math. It was our pre-algebra unit, and it was the first time I'd ever felt challenged by a math problem. I was trying to quickly wipe away my frustrated tears when I was told, "That's okay. You're more of a reader than a mathematician."

I did as little math as I could get away with in high school and college. I remember feeling confused: I noticed that I could add and multiply sums more quickly than many of my peers. I even tested into one of the more advanced math classes at my school, but I thought it was all a fluke. "I'm a reader, not a mathematician," I thought. 

I became interested in agriculture, because I was interested in the spiritual, poetic, Wendell Berry aspect of farming. Little did I know at the time that my chosen career path was inherently mathematical. My job a a horticulturist is just a series of mathematical word problems, all day long: fertilizer ratios, days to plant maturity, row spacing, building with the Pythagorean theorem, estimating yields. 

MathPoetryChineseGarden2.jpg

At the girls' school where I work, I collaborated with the fifth grade math, English, and Chinese teachers to create a cross-curricular project that shows the girls that math, poetry, world languages, and farming are all complementary, and they can be good at all of it. 

The girls were in the midst of their poetry unit called "Bloom Where You're Planted" in their English class. They read Maya Angelou's "Still I Rise," then came to my farm lab to learn how to plant. 

We divided the girls up into three small groups and had them create mathematical arrays out of these Jiffy peat pellets. (As an aside, I prefer to plant in these peat pellets for school projects, because they're much easier for young ones to handle while planting.) The pellets come dried and compacted, and they need to soak in water to expand into plantable little nuggets.

Once they created an array, they filled their trays with water. While we waited for the pellets to puff up, the girls were given an assignment to start writing a poem, using some of the themes and imagery of planting, growing, and blooming, as well as some of the poetic structures they learned about in a previous English class.

Once the pellets were ready, pencils were put away and the girls were given their Chinese vegetable seeds to plant. They had to work with one another to ensure that each peat pellet got only one seed. The trays of veggies went into my grow light station. 

A few days later, the same group of girls came out to the farm with their math class. They were given measuring tools and a bundle of little flags. They had to figure out the dimensions of the bed. Then, I told them that each plant needed to be at least 8 inches apart from one another in rows that were at least 12 inches apart, and the plants couldn't be closer than four inches from the edge of the bed. Using those parameters, they had to figure out the maximum number of plants we could plant in each bed. They flagged out where each plant should go. They also figured out the volume of empty space in the raised bed and calculated how much compost I should add to the raised bed to reach the very top. 

The weather turned cold, so I transplanted their Chinese vegetables on the farm for them. Now, I'm collaborating with their Chinese teacher to plan the next aspect of the lesson. We'll harvest the bok choy and green garlic from the farm in a couple of weeks. The girls will learn how to cook and eat bok choy, while simultaneously learning Chinese culinary vocabulary words. 

One of my favorite tools for transplanting vegetables with kids: the dibbler.

One of my favorite tools for transplanting vegetables with kids: the dibbler.

The girls are learning that nothing is in a silo. What they learn in one class connects to their other studies and connects to the outside world. They're learning that math shows up in places that they may not expect. Their mathematical computations helped me solve a real-life problem, and they'll soon be able to harvest and taste the fruits of their labor. I hope they're learning that they can become poets, mathematicians, linguists, farmers... or even all of those things at once.

Happy growing, 

Mary

Growing with Children

I love teaching. I've taught children, and I've taught adults. Showing people how to grow is my passion. I'm lucky to be teaching horticulture on a school farm at a fantastic girls' school here in Memphis. It is a joy to come to work every day.

I wanted to share a fun project that I'm working on with my pre-K girls. This class of girls worked with me in the beginning of the school year planting carrots. We grew two beds of carrots, one purple and one orange. They got to plant, harvest, and cook with the carrots. They counted how many they picked and performed a taste test to see if they could taste the difference between purple and orange carrots. They also made carrot cake.

The carrot project got them interested in other root vegetables. The school where I work uses the Reggio approach, meaning that the girls get to guide much of their own learning. This particular Pre-K class decided they wanted to learn about other kinds of vegetables that grow under the soil, so I visited their classroom and showed them photos of lots of different root crops: different colors of beets, radishes, leeks, and turnips. They decided they wanted to grow D'Avignon radishes, Easter Egg radishes, and Chioggia beets.

We divided this bed into three equal sections. I planted most of the rows before the class came out to the farm to ensure production quantity, but let the girls help me plant the last row of each section. I showed them pictures of their chosen vegetables to refresh their memories, and they made predictions about what the seeds would look like. They poked a hole in the soil with their finger, placed their seed in the hole, and lightly covered it with soil. 

I used the low tunnel hoops and some mason twine to partition the bed into three sections.

I used the low tunnel hoops and some mason twine to partition the bed into three sections.

Easter Egg radish seeds

Easter Egg radish seeds

The D'Avignon radishes take about 3 weeks to mature, the Easter Egg radishes take about 30 days, and the Chioggia beets take around 55 days to mature. The girls come out to the farm every few days to look for changes to the bed that they planted. They're going to observe and discover which of the root crops take the longest to grow, and they'll get to taste new vegetables in the process. 

We also got to smell the cilantro emerging from its winter hibernation, taste the lemony sorrel, and smell the apple blossoms. It wasn't a bad way to spend a sunny, 75 degree February day!

Happy growing!

Mary Riddle

The girls loved comparing how dirty their hands got while planting. 

The girls loved comparing how dirty their hands got while planting.