Capturing Rainwater, No Barrels Needed

Capturing Rainwater, No Barrels Needed

When most of us think of rainwater capture, we think of rain barrels, tanks, or cisterns. That’s ok, but it presents a couple of problems—cost and space. Installing a storage system that holds a meaningful amount of water gets expensive.  It would also take a proportionally large amount of space from my postage-stamp-sized property.  

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Self Watering Garden Bed...!?

We know about self watering containers, but how about self watering garden beds?

This concept is simple, was used by ancient peoples, and is extremely efficient. It's called an olla.  Pronounced "oy-yah", it is a vase shaped unglazed clay terra cotta vessel with a slender neck and a lid.  Beautiful yet simple, the idea is to bury the vessel in the garden bed, fill it with water periodically, and plant around it.  Because the vessel is porous, it slowly releases water into the surrounding soil as plant roots need it, and because the pot is buried, evaporation is severely reduced.

I'd been reading about ollas and was interested in trying them, but hadn't acted on it.  As luck would have it, I was at at the Plant and Pottery Outlet in Sunol, and there they were...for $10 each!  I couldn't resist, so I took a couple of them home to try in my vegetable beds.

Ollas before they were buried, placed about 4 or 4-1/2' apart in my beds.

I placed my two ollas about 4-1/2' apart in my tomato/pepper bed.  
Buried up to their chins and filled with water. Now just waiting to see how the plants like it!
The History
From what I've read, olla irrigation has been traced back as far as 4000 years in China, and is thought to originate in Africa. It is and has been used by cultures all over the world.

Water Savings
Water tends to seep through the wide, bulbous part of the pot which is deeper in the soil, not through the neck, so the surface soil stays on the dry side.  The surface soil would act like mulch, reducing evaporation.  With the surface soil dry, it is said that fewer weeds will germinate.  I will still mulch deeply, to keep as much moisture in the soil as possible, and keep the soil life happy and thriving. 

I love to experiment in the garden and I love this concept.  It's so elegant and simple.  I'm excited to see how the tomatoes and peppers do.  I'll post pictures and an update as the season progresses.  

Gardens and Drought - 4 Steps to Reducing Water Use

With our governor’s announcement that water rationing is now an official reality and soon-to-be mandatory, I thought I’d review some of the things we can all do in our gardens to conserve water and still grow lots of great food. I 've written about this before, but given our dire water supply and the fact that it's planting season, I thought it would be a good refresher for me, and hopefully for you too!
  1. Amend your soil.  Work lots of compost as deeply as you can into your beds—up to 24” deep.   Loose soil with organic matter encourages bigger, deeper root systems that can find moisture and nutrients.  Your plants will be healthier and tastier too!
  2. Plant intensively and with diversity.  Leaving lots of space between plants makes for lots of exposed areas that dry out and compact quickly.  While you don’t want to crowd your plants to the point where you lose production, you can tuck different plants into bare spaces.  For instance, if you plant your tomatoes 24” apart, you can tuck some herbs, peppers, and beneficial flowers in between.  It’s pretty and all the plants tend to do better.  The soil stays covered (which slows evaporation) and the plants tend to take care of each other.
  3. Mulch!  This will drastically reduce the amount of water your beds need. Once planted, mulch your garden beds with several inches of organic matter.  You can use compost, straw, fir bark, dead leaves or wood chips to layer over your beds.  You will be amazed how moist the soil below will stay.  It’s like an insulation layer.  It also tempers heat and cold. 
  4. Water judiciously.  The fact is, overwatering is a very common error gardeners make.  We want so badly to take good care of our plants, and watering seems like such a kind and nurturing thing to do!  We tend to water when we feel it’s hot, and when the ground looks dry.  Just because it looks dry on the surface though, doesn’t mean it’s dry 6” down. Get in the habit of poking down into the soil periodically and feeling with your fingers or hand.  If it’s moist, you shouldn't need to water.
A note about tomato plants—they will sometimes wilt some during the day when the sun is intense or it’s particularly hot.  Don’t grab the hose yet though! Our first reaction is to water them, but that’s probably not what they need.  If the plant perks up again as the sun recedes and temperatures drop in the evening, then it’s not a watering issue.  They just responded to the light and heat by drooping some.  They will be fine.  Planting intensively will help, as plants help shade and protect other plants.

Now, I gotta go plant!

The Greenhouse is Bursting

I'm almost afraid to look in the greenhouse every morning now.  The tomato plants are regularly having overnight growth spurts and I'm afraid one of these days I''ll have an angry tomato plant mob on my hands.

We thought a curbside sale would be in order in April, but the plants got together and voted for this weekend instead.  How could I say no?

The plants are prime right now, so come by and get your garden going!

Prepping our Beds and Containers, with Video too

Each year we grow tomatoes and peppers in the ground, in containers, and in raised beds. Almost always, the plants grown in-ground out perform the others. What, you ask? In our heavy soils? For most of us here in the Diablo valley, our soils are high in clay.  Heavy, sticky, compacted, hard as concrete, cracks-open-in the-summer clay. Frustrating. The upside, though, is that clay typically holds nutrients well and transfers those nutrients to plants well, and when we prep and maintain our beds appropriately,  our soils produce great gardens.

Our practices have evolved over the years as we observe our gardens and become more educated about soil. The fact is, there is an entire universe living below our feet. It's an incredibly complex and diverse ecosystem that, when kept healthy, is responsible for producing and nurturing healthy, abundant plant life.

For quite awhile we've advocated double-digging beds. We still do as an initial step in establishing a bed. We used to double dig each spring; however, we are evolving out of it as a yearly practice because it disturbs soil life too much on a continuum. Besides, it's a labor intensive process--a deterrent to actually doing it every spring. BUT, there is no substitute for this method as a way to start a new bed and plant it immediately.

Essentially, double digging is a method of loosening, aerating, and incorporating  organic matter into soil to a depth of up to 24". It's a proven method that improves soil tilth, fertility, drainage, water holding capacity, organic matter content and overall soil quality, providing a much improved environment for beneficial soil life, and a superb medium for growing an abundance of great food. What more could an eager gardener want? So, to start, here's a how-to on starting a new garden bed, and how to keep it healthy. Then I'll tell you how we treat raised beds and containers.

In-Ground Beds

You'll need a digging fork, a spade or shovel, a piece of plywood as wide or wider than your bed (you'll be standing on it), enough compost to cover the bed about 1"-2" thick, plus some compost in reserve--enough to cover the bed 1/2" thick. Also, you want the soil to be evenly moist, not wet.  When you get the moisture right, the whole process is WAY easier.

1. Define and mark the bed layout. I like to mark the corners of my new bed with stakes. A 4' or 4 1/2' wide bed allows most people to reach into the center without stepping in the bed. Any length will work, I like mine 10'-20' if space allows.

2. Using the plywood to stand on while in the bed, weed the bed by sinking the digging fork into the soil as far you can and just loosening the root zone. No need to turn the soil, just work the tines up and down a little, then pull the fork out and move it over a little, and sink it again. Do this to the whole bed, then pull the weeds. This step also makes double digging easier.

3. Time to double dig. It's honestly easier to understand if you watch this video, Be patient. Watch it. It gets a little goofy about how to hold your tools and such, but these folks are farming acres this way and are interested in saving their backs. (You'll note that they aren't adding compost during the dig. You DEFINITELY want to add a compost layer as I note in the next paragraph).  If you want to cut right to the double dig portion of the video, fast forward to 3:12.  It continues on the second video to about 3:15.

Before you begin digging, spread a 1-2" later of compost over the whole bed. As you are merrily digging away, before you loosen the bottom of each trench,  place 1/2" of your reserve compost in the trench.

4. Sprinkle your organic fertilizer nutrients over the bed, and work in to the top 2"-4" of soil. If you're not planting right away, water it in.

5. Plant! Make sure you don't step on the bed now. Use the plywood to stand or kneel on if you want to be in the bed.

6. Mulch mulch mulch! Place compost, straw, dry leaves, or other organic matter several inches deep over your bed. Pull the mulch away from plant stems a little so as not to smother your crop. Mulch will keep your beds moist much longer and as the mulch breaks down, it trickles down into the bed keeping it aerated and loose.

7.  Keep the beds covered. Even after your crops are done, keep a mulch layer in place, and/or plant a cover crop. Cover crops send roots down keeping the soil friable, and when cut provide nutrient rich organic matter that you can chop and leave on the bed, or send to the compost pile.

So what happens next year? If we cover crop and keep organic matter on the bed, we have less compaction, and we ideally won't continue the double dig process every year. Which is fine by me. I'd rather spread mulch and seed than dig relentlessly, and the soil life is happier when not disturbed.

Raised beds

We use raised beds for various reasons. It's a popular alternative that reduces the need for digging and with the use of hardware cloth on the bottom can keep the ground varmints from obliterating a garden. But, it's also more expensive and materials intensive. If you opt for raised beds, here's how we prep them.

1. As the beds are built, we loosen the native soil below with a digging fork and add a bit of compost. This improves drainage and encourages roots to populate the soil, rather than acting like a barrier.

2. We fill the bed with a planter mix, not a potting mix or pure compost. Planter mix has some mineral soil in it which is key for transferring nutrients to the plants.

3. As noted in #4-7 in the in-ground prep section above, we work organic nutrients into the top 2"-4" of the bed, then plant, then mulch. Ideally, we keep the beds mulched or cover cropped between planting seasons.

4. Each year, we top off our beds with compost as the planter mix level recedes.


When growing in containers, we use potting mix. Not planter mix and not soil.  Each time we plant a new crop, we top off the potting mix with a blend of potting mix and compost. We work organic nutrients into the upper 2"-4". With container growing, it's challenging to get and keep healthy soil life, and we find that foliar feeding is a great supplement to just relying on nutrients in the potting mix. Every 3 years or so, the containers get cleaned out and filled with new potting mix, as the old mix has deteriorated. I wrote a more detailed post about container planting for tomatoes some time back, and you can read that here...

However you choose to garden, I'm happy you're doing it. The world is a better place with gardens and gardeners in it.

Tomatoes & Peppers & Herbs - Prepare Your Beds!

posted by Marian

Great news - last week we started 40 different types of tomatoes, 18 different types of peppers, and 5 different herbs.  Each week we'll start additional and different varieties.  We're on target to bring them to you both at the 3rd Annual Rodgers Ranch Urban Farm Expo & Plant Sale, Saturday, April 4th, AND the Walnut Creek Farmers' Market every Sunday beginning April 5th.  We're looking so forward to seeing you again!

As we head into our 4th year of drought, we hear rumblings of "Gosh, guess I shouldn't plant any vegetables this year..."  To the contrary, it's NEVER been more important that we all grow our own vegetables this summer!  We know that by growing vegetables in our own yards
  • We use less than half the water a commercial grower will use (even less if we're on drip irrigation and have mulched).  
  • We slash our carbon footprint as there's zero fuel involved other than you coming either to Rodgers Ranch for the farmers' market to select your favorites.  
  • The food is tastier and more nutritious because we pick it at peak maturity and eat it soon thereafter.
  • What we grow is much safer because we know what has gone into growing the plants.  (And you KNOW the plants are coming from a great home - Kelley and I use only open pollinated seeds, make our own transplanting medium, use compost and worm castings as Best.Fertilizer.EVER, and grow the seedlings so they're accustomed to our climate.)
And yes, we will all save money as well.  Rosalind Creasy, local author of bestselling Edible Gardening, found that in just one of her 100 square foot vegetable beds, she saved $700 in groceries over the course of a year.  That's a lot of tomatoes!

As if these reasons aren't enough, by lowering our food carbon footprint and growing at home, we're helping save our planet.  We'll help you get the most sustainable resources to help your plants thrive.

We'll get through this drought together.  And we'll eat quite well.

Water, Lack of Water, and the Edible Garden

...posted by Kelley

As I write this, it's 97 degrees outside and I'm thinking about our water supply, or lack thereof. Many gardeners questioned whether it's a good idea to grow this year, but I must admit that I didn't flinch. There was no question for me that I would continue to grow food. It has, however, made me hyper aware of how I use water, and what steps I can take to reduce my usage in the garden.  Here's 5 steps I'll take this year.

1. Prep Your Beds Well.  This is SO important.  I double dig my beds, which is initially a pain in the a**, but it makes a world of difference. Why? Many reasons, but simply put, plant roots need air. The farther down from the surface you can loosen and amend the soil and provide air, the farther down plant roots can go after water and nutrients. The deeper the roots, the less water needed at the surface. I also space my beds close together. Narrow walkways mean less hot, dry, exposed, compacted ground. 

2. Plant Intensively.  In a double dug bed, or in raised beds and containers, you can space plants quite close together. As the plants grow and mature, they help shade each other and the soil surface, slowing evaporation. Water vapor also stays in and under the plant canopy longer. Additionally, planting a diverse group of plants together enhances the health of each, especially if you include flowering plants and those that tend to have different root depths and similar water requirements. 
3. Install and maintain a drip system.  Not only does it save water, but it makes life a lot easier. I set up my beds with dripper line spaced quite closely. I want the dripper system to wet the entire bed, not just the base of each plant. That way I can plant intensively and not worry about whether there is a dripper exactly at the base of each plant, and next season I can plant again without rearranging the system. I also believe that an evenly moist bed supports soil life and nutrient supply better than a bed with wet and dry spots.

4. Mulch.  Lots and lots of it. 3-5" of it over the whole bed and over the drip system. Just as planting intensively slows evaporation, so does mulch. Compost, straw, mini bark or fir bark, all work fine. I don't suggest wood chips, because as they break down, they use nitrogen, making it less available to your plants. Bark doesn't do this, wood does. I like compost because it's the same material I double dig my beds with and it will only make the beds better. It also looks better to me than straw. Make sure your drip system is working well before you mulch and pull the mulch away from plant stems a little.  

5. Stop Watering So Much!  Tomatoes, peppers, most herbs and well chosen beneficials don't need an abundance of water. If fact, too much water makes tomatoes taste like...water. Additionally, a plant that gets watered frequently has no need to send roots down deep. In the August heat, tomato and pepper plants in my double dug beds get water every 10-14 days. That's it. With deep mulch I'm sure I can stretch it farther than that. My squashes, beans, cucumbers and melons get water every 7 days or so. I'm curious to see how far I push it this year.

I wish us all an abundant and drought friendly gardening year!

Leap of Faith and the Magic of Worms

Potting mix

Posted by Kelley...

About every January, as we plan for our seedlings, we review some lessons learned from our past years and make adjustments to improve our little venture.  Of course, our #1 concern is raising healthy plants, and as such I get obsessed with improving our potting mix.  After all, it all starts there.

This year, I focused on dialing in nutrients and incorporated dairy vermicompost into our mix.  After reading studies done at Cornell University and OSU about dairy vermicompost I was eager to try it.  It’s not cheap…REALLY not cheap, but after agonizing over the cost, we decided to take the leap of faith.   

Vermicompost?  Dairy Vermicompost? What’s that, and why is it so special?

No, it’s not pure worm castings. Our dairy vermicompost came from Sonoma Valley Worm Farm. It started out as manure from an organic dairy.  That manure was hot composted for a few weeks to kill weed seeds and pathogens, then introduced to the worms. The worms processed the material for an extended time, and then it was harvested.  It’s beautiful stuff.  It’s friable and earthy, has some structure, some nutrients, and is loaded with diverse microbes.  Those microbes are the basis for a healthy environment, and some of those microbes make nitrogen and other nutrients available to plant roots.

In addition to the vermicompost, we’re also using worm tea regularly as a foliar feed. So far I’m totally impressed.  We have not had to resort to any artificial feeding methods so far, and that has us happy and hopeful.  Greenhouse and container culture is a tough one to do completely organically.  There’s temperature and moisture fluctuations, drainage issues, and the many challenges of keeping the mix in a 4” pot healthy and balanced.  We try our best every year, and while we avoid using chemicals for pests and diseases, we have always had to resort to feeding the plants non-organic nutrients after they’ve been in their pots awhile.  Thanks to the magic of worms, this year it looks like we’ll get our plants to market on the natural plan.  We’re SO hopeful and excited!

You Can Try it Too.

We’ve put together a nutrient mix that includes a healthy dose of vermicompost and bagged it.  It’s suitable for both in-ground planting and containers.  Good stuff!  We’ll have it on hand for our customers at the Expo, the farmer’s market, and our curbside sales.  

Stormy Weather

Posted by Arti what I wish we had more of, but oh well -- I'll take any amount of precip we can get.  Short of acid rain, that is.

"My" baby CA buckeye
Well, we are back in the game and the heck with the drought.  That's because despite popular belief, tomatoes are not the water hogs that people fear.  In fact, for less than the water it takes for a 5 minute showers, you can water your plants for an ENTIRE season.  Being dirty was never so good.  

However, changes are afoot in our business.  I am "retiring" after this year mostly because I'm just getting too old to lift approximately 1-2 tons of soil and plants in a 4 month stretch.   Instead, I am going to go deeper into native habitat restoration and preservation for homeowners.  

main picture 901x453 v2
Be there or be square
Our good friend Marian is coming aboard in my place.  She and Kelley are going to take the business places too -- watch for some awesome products that they will introduce at our first event of 2014, the 2nd springtime Rodger's Ranch Urban Farm Expo and Plant Sale on April 5.  The event is going to be amazing, at least in part because we are hosting Toby Hemenway.  Yes: the father of permaculture.  We still cannot believe it ourselves.  Of course, we will also have free classes, cool vendors, and food.  So come hang out, get some plants, get educated, and get connected.

Full Speed Ahead!

Posted by Kelley...

Strap on the seat belt and pull it tight.  Keep your arms and legs inside and hold on.  Time will warp.  That's what the last 6 weeks have felt like.  It peaked today as we wrapped up our final tasks for the Urban Farm Expo tomorrow.  Time has found a speed that I've never seen.  I'm not moving faster, but the days are really really short!

It's been quite a ride, and we're about to see what our weeks of hard work and planning will produce.  We hope to see a lot of curious, happy, excited gardeners and soon-to-be gardeners enjoying the event, the workshops, the gardens, and each other.

For a map to the ranch, complete information, and list of classes and exhibitors, go to Urban Farm Expo.  

We have some great workshops and presentations.  Kathy Echols will lead a workshop on propagation.  If you know of Kathy, you know how amazing she is.  Chris Shein will talk about permaculture and his newly published book on the subject.  Another very knowledgable person.  We'll have workshops on garden irrigation, biodymamics, chickens, bees, garden planning, and much more.

I hope to see many friendly faces there.  Wish us good success.

Coming Out of Hibernation

Posted by Kelley

It snuck up again. I swear every year that I'll be well prepared. Maybe it's that we still haven't had our rainy season. Maybe it's just like all those grown-ups said when I was a kid...time flies by faster and faster as we get older.  Well this last one was a blur, and here we are in March.  Daylight savings time is days away!  
Potting benches almost finished
We have come out of hibernation.  I built some potting benches to replace our old one--which was an old steel door propped up on garbage cans.  I put a canopy over them too so we don't have to pot up in the rain.  Our seedlings are looking great and are growing like mad.  Most are screaming to get potted up and into the greenhouse.  We still have some seed to start, but most of the tomatoes and peppers have germinated.  

We have some new varieties to add to the mix, and I'm working on getting them posted.  Tune in again shortly!

"Oh my, all those tomatoes" Part 1

You believe that you are raising too many tomato plants.  You even fear, a la Garrison Keillor, you'll resort to leaving anonymous bags of fruit in people's unlocked cars.  I have many suggestions for this non-predicament, and will start sharing them throughout the season.

Suggestion 1 - Fresh tomatoes in winter  All that green fruit remaining on your vines when the weather turns cold can still be ripened -- inside your house!  They won't taste like those that develop in-season on the vine.  But they will be better and cheaper than anything you buy after Thanksgiving.  Here are several nice 'n lazy methods (my preferred style) for ripening tomatoes at home.

Tomatoes ripening, Nov. 2011
a.  Put up to 2 layers of unripened tomatoes in a cardboard box with crumpled newspaper.  Leave the box in a dark, dry place (like the back of your closet).  Check weekly to see which are ready to eat; remove any that have gone bad.

b. If you have counter space, set them out in a bowl.  No need to put them in the sun.

c. Put the green tomatoes in a paper bag with a ripe apple and check daily.  Apples are efficient emitters of ethylene gas which accelerates ripening.

Suggestion 2 - Ketchup  One of the requirements for becoming a U.S. citizen is a lust for potatoes (especially fries...duh) with ketchup.  But the bottled red stuff is insipid compared to what you can make. I never write anything down, so I borrowed a close-enough recipe from Susy Morris' beautiful blog about organic gardening in Ohio.

Regular ol' Tomato Ketchup (but better)

1 cinnamon stick
1 bay leaf
5 whole cloves
5 cardamom pods (crushed) - Susy used 1/2 t. ground cardamom
1 star anise
10 black pepper corns
28 oz. whole tomatoes - Susy roasts hers; I don't bother
1 large yellow onion, quartered
2 T olive oil
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/3 cup packed brown sugar - I use about 3 Tablespoons maple syrup
1/2 cup organic white balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon hungarian paprika - Susy and I use smoked paprika, i.e., pimenton
freshly ground black pepper

1. Using a piece of cheesecloth or empty tea bag, tie the cinnamon, bay, cloves, anise, and peppercorns into a bundle.  Set aside.
2. Put tomatoes into a food processor or blender (or put roasted tomatoes thru food mill).  Puree till totally smooth, and set aside all but 1/4 cup.  To the 1/4 cup, add the onion and puree together.
3. In a large dutch oven (this will splatter so use a large tall pot), heat the oil over medium heat.  Add the onion puree and salt and stir well.  Cook for 8-10 minutes, letting the puree reduce and lightly brown.  Add the tomato puree, maple syrup, vinegar, and spice bundle, turn heat to low simmer and reduce for about 20-25 minutes uncovered, with an occasional stir (cooking time is reduced if using roasted tomatoes).  When it's done reducing, it should be a bit less thick than commercial ketchup.  Stir in paprika; season with salt and pepper to taste.
4. Let ketchup cool and remove spice bundle.  Pour into a jar and chill overnight, or at least 6 hours.  Will store in fridge for up to 2 months (if i feel it is in danger of passing that time frame, I freeze some).

----- Arti

Planting Basics

I am going to cheat and re-publish parts of posts from 2010, partly because they are basic, and partly because I think I did an amazing job being succinct (a personal best).
Here are 3 basic things to help grow a successful crop of tomatoes.

1. Plant deep - As we all know, root development is key to the life of almost all plants.  And all those hairs on the stem of the tomato plant are actually potential roots, ready to develop and suck up nutrients. So, to take advantage of the tomato's root-iful characteristics, lower at least 50% of the green part our plants into its planting hole.  The hole, by the way, should be approximately the size of a half-wine barrel: 18 inches deep, 2 feet in diameter.

Be sure to fill that hole with good stuff.  Tomatoes like well-drained soil -- they will suffocate in our lovely Contra Costa clay.  To get that result the easy way, fill the hole with a good, balanced mix like Navlet's Planting Mix.  Then, give the hole with the plant in it a great, big initial drink.  Fill the hole basically to overflowing so that the entire root ball and contents of the hole are wetted.

We also recommend the following for the initial planting.  These additions should be mixed evenly into the hole, except for the fish head:

1 fish head at the bottom of the hole for nitrogen, phosphorus and calcium, and for a big boost to the wonderful soil life that digest the fish head and make nutrients available to the plants.  I got mine at Ranch 99 for $.79/lb, but any fish monger or Asian-style market is likely to have them.  If the heads are big, like salmon, it's perfectly OK to cut them in half;
3-4 crushed eggshells, for calcium, that I saved over the winter;
1 handful of bone meal which is rich in phosphorus and critical to fruit production;
1 modest handful of worm castings for a delicious first feed;
the recommended dose of mycorrhizae from Bountiful Gardens, where you can read about the amazing things this product does.

I know this may seem excessive, but given the resources that you are going to give the plant in terms of time and water, do yourself a favor and make sure to give the plants the best start.

2. Feed well - tomatoes need to be fed about once a month after planting. There are many and complicated recipes. However, a balanced organic fertilizer that emphasizes phosphorus is a good choice, e.g., a 4-6-4. Phosphorus, the second number in all fertilizer forumulas, is key for fruit production. Many good organic fertilizers can be purchased at your local nursery. We got our plants off to their great start with combinations of products from Dr. Earth, Whitney Farms (currently, a Scotts company), and E.B. Stone.

3. I'll have another sip - be consistent in watering tomatoes after planting to avoid "bingeing". It's not good to drown them one day and follow up with a week of neglect. You can easily monitor the plants' needs by sticking your finger down a couple of inches into the soil. If it's dry, they may need a drink, but maybe not: tomatoes like a bit of drying, even to the point of mild wilting. Mulch also helps -- it slows down moisture loss and keeps roots cooler by providing shade for the soil. Put the mulch up to about 6 inches from the stem; that way, certain pests won't be able to stage a sneak attack under the cover of the mulch.

One last thing: rotate your tomato sites year over year for disease control. Many of the most common tomato pests live in the soil, but you can usually outrun 'em by planting in different locations.

----- Arti

Container Planting

We get a lot of inquiries about growing tomatoes in containers. While neither of us are experts, we are opinionated, so I get to give you my 2 cents.  If you're a seasoned container gardener with a solid history of success, then I probably need your opinions more than you need mine.  If you have spotty success or are new at this, I hope this helps.

The Container:  Most tomato varieties want a large container.  15 gallons minimum.  A tall pot is better than a short wide one.  Don't skimp on the size of container, those roots need room!  There must be a hole in the bottom for water drainage.  I don't like those saucers that catch water under the pot.  What's the point of a drainage hole if the pot is going to sit in a pool of water?  Also remember that pots, especially dark plastic ones, can absorb a lot of heat.  That's a plus in the spring when temperatures are cooler, but bad when it gets hot and the sun is intense.  Draping shadecloth around the container will help.  Thick terracotta pots don't seem to have this problem.

The "Soil":  Container growing is not like growing in the ground. Do not use garden soil, topsoil, or that pile of dirt in the corner of your yard. The pot serves up some challenges, and using soil makes those problems worse.  Don't use pure compost either.  Use potting mix.  A good one.  Why?  I could write a whole missive about this and tell you greenhouse horror stories involving 1000 tomato seedlings, but that's for another time. So, what's a "good" mix?  Good mixes have structure, hold a lot of air and some water, but drain really well.  Typical mixes in our area contain partially composted fir bark or bark fines (sometimes rice hulls), peat moss or coir, perlite, and some nutrients and ph adjusters.  It's hard to recommend a brand, because I've had great results some years and bad ones the next with the same brand. Cynthia Sandberg, who farms for Michelin rated Manresa restaurant, swears by Gardner & Bloom potting soil.  That's the best I can do for a brand recommendation.  If you open a bag of potting mix and most of the contents are very fine (less than 1/16"), you don't have a good mix.  It won't have enough structure, won't drain well, won't hold air, and will "collapse" or compact in short order.  All bad news.

Planting:  Tomato plants benefit from planting deeply.  Very deeply.  You want to bury much of the stem,  I'd say halfway up the stem is good general rule.  Clip off all the leaves below that halfway point just before you plant.  The part of the stem that's buried will grow roots, which will produce a healthy productive plant.  Before you place the plant down into the container, gently pull the rootball out at the sides, so it loses the seedling container shape and encourages the roots to grow outward.  Once planted, water thoroughly.  You want the potting mix and the rootball to get evenly moist.  Just because water drains out the bottom doesn't mean everything is evenly moist.  Water once, come back in 5 or 10 minutes and water again, then wait another few minutes and water a third time.

Nutrients:  If you're using an organic potting mix, or one that does not contain a CRF (control release fertilizer), your greedy, hungry tomato plant will use up all the available nutrients in 4-6 weeks.  I like to mix an organic dry vegetable food (such as Dr. Earth, Whitney Farms, Espoma, etc) into the upper 2 - 4" of potting mix at planting time with a little extra bat guano or alfalfa meal, used sparingly. Still, at 4-6 weeks, you'll need to start feeding again. Then I'd switch to an organic liquid food, and feed weakly weekly--a weak solution once a week, like 1/2 the strength suggested on the label.

Watering:  Don't kill 'em with kindness.  Tomato plants don't like to be wet all the time.  They prefer to go just a little on the dry side (slightly moist), and then be watered well.  Frequency will change over the season.  Hot or cool temperatures, longer days, wind, sun exposure, your potting mix and the size of the plant all influence frequency.  You may only need to water once a week in spring, and then once a day in summer when it's hot and the plant is larger.  You'll need to get a feel for that.  Don't be shy about sticking a finger down into the soil.  Just because the top looks dry doesn't mean it's dry 6 or 8 inches down.

Staking:  Most varieties need to be staked or caged, even in a pot. Unless you're growing a determinate variety or a specifically compact variety, don't bother with those crappy little wire cages. They are a waste of money and resources. One day you'll come out for a visit with your tomato friend and it will have pulled that thing out of the soil and be wearing it like a hat. Then it will fall over. You'll then have to figure out how to extract the plant from the cage without destroying both. Does it sound like I've been there before? Go to your local home improvement store and find the aisle with sacks of concrete. You'll see remesh mats--4' x 7' welded wire mesh sheets made for reinforcing concrete. Buy one. Roll it into a tube shape and wire it together so it will stay in the tube shape. Now you have a functioning tomato cage. Slip it over the plant, tuck it's arms and legs inside and secure the cage to the container with a long stake driven into the soil and wired to the cage. If you don't stake the cage down your tomato friend will one day yank it out and try to heave it across the yard. Continue to tuck it's arms and legs inside the cage as it grows.

A Note about Varieties:  I think people assume that they must grow cherry varieties if growing in containers, but it's not the size of the fruit that matters as much as the growth habit of the plant. We offer a couple of cherry varieties that I swear would knock a 15 gallon container over, drag it around the yard and then become very unhappy. That said, I don't recommend most of the big, late season beefsteak varieties because the chances of getting only 2 or 3 tomatoes all season are just too high. If you're growing more than a couple of plants, the risk may be worth it. Many of the early and mid season varieties, and those that are prolific producers will do well for most people.

A Note on Drainage:  Here's the part where I feed you more information than you wanted. One major problem with container growing is drainage. Even with a good potting mix you are likely to get water that just won't drain out of the pot, and it pools in the bottom making a soupy, airless layer that roots don't like. This is "perched" water. We all used to think that putting gravel or sand or pot shards in the bottom of our pots would eliminate perched water, but it turns out that physics doesn't work that way. I won't bore you with the details here (I'll bore you with it in another post), but gravel in the bottom of a pot only takes up space, and the perched water will still stick in the bottom layer of potting mix above the gravel. Now, sometimes plant roots will colonize that zone before it gets bad and use that water, but many times not. So what's the solution? Before you fill your container with soil, take a mop string, or absorbent length of rope and coil it around the bottom of the inside of the pot, then thread one end through the drainage hole and let it dangle a couple of inches below the bottom. Elevate the pot with pot feet or something that will keep the pot from sitting on the ground.  Now fill your container with potting mix. The mop string/rope acts as a wick, drawing excess moisture down the string and out of the pot. It's the same idea as sticking the corner of a paper towel in a cup of water and watching the water get pulled into the paper towel. Are you asleep yet?

Wow, that was more like 10 cents worth of opinion. How about you? What works for you? Please share!


Playing Hookey

We couldn't help ourselves.  Sure, there was lots of work to do around our little nursery, but the mountain was calling.

View from Wall Point
It's that magical time in spring, when the grassland turns brilliant green.  The oaks are leafing out, new growth is tender and bright and spring blooms are starting.  So it just made sense to shirk all responsibility and get a much needed fix of Mt. Diablo.

Good for the soul and the senses.

Big Leaf Maple in bloom
Work?  There's always tomorrow.