By the sweat of thy brow pt 2- and Tomatoes!

When I lived in the city I had a neighbor who did a lot of stoop sitting. One hot day as I was passing by he commented,”I can take the heat. It’s the damn humility I can’t stand.”

Well, I guess I’ll work indoors for a while until the steam bath that passes for a sunny day in June around here passes off a bit.

Bolting spinach

Bolting spinach

I have the honor to be acquainted with beet seed warrior John Navazio, (that’s actually a link to an organic seed event his band performed at, for yuks) and he gave me some spinach seed; beta seed as it were. It is delicious, even bolted, and I will probably save seed and grow it again. Spinach is a real cold weather crop. You want to get it in early. I planted mine in early March and it was too late for the good crop we could have had.  I would say as soon as the soil can be worked by hand. Just scratch it up and plant. Some spinaches are best for spring and some are for fall. Here it would be good to get them seeded in July, but generally July is hot and dry and the garden is full of insects thirsting for baby spinach. Spinach is not super transplant friendly, but I could try starting them in the house. Probably better either to just plant when it gets a little cooler in September and shrug your shoulders or maybe try shade cloth over hoops. Tyee and Malabar are good spinach substitutes for summer. Chard holds up better than anything though.

Rocky Top seed mix from baker's creek

Nice heirloom mix from Baker Creek

I have really enjoyed the Rocky Top lettuce blend from Baker Creek. I actually planted it last winter, and it made small rosettes and waited for spring. The varieties included are not only delicious and pretty but they are intellectually stimulating- Amish Deer Tongue, Merveille des Quatres Saisons, Lolla Rossa….Lettuce, like spinach, does well in cold weather. The more headed it is the more it likes cold. The most heat tolerant I know is the open leaf lettuce Oak Leaf.  Long after Bibb and Romaine have gone to seed the Oak Leaf is still standing. It is not as sweet, of course, but by then you can mix it with sweet tomatoes.

OK, tomatoes. I know they say broccoli is the garden devi, but tomato is the love apple deva. I put a lot of time and thought into them. I plant all the solanaceae together, alternating rows of tomatoes with rows of peppers, eggplants, tomatillos and tamates. I space the tomatoes 3 feet apart, and more for giants like Brandywine. Peppers I space according to size. Anchos, pasillas, and Anaheims get 3 feet. Chiltepins and other teensies get a foot. One of the painful tasks I had to ask my DH to interrupt his train of thought for was pounding in the stakes, because it takes me so long with my lesser upper body strength.

pounding in tomato stakes easily

This gizmo let me pound in all my stakes in an hour.

Until the pounding gizmo came along. I really don’t know what it is called but it is genius. I did the whole solanum area by myself in no time. Anybody know what the name is? I put my longest, heaviest stakes at each end- recycled metal fence posts, stakes bought over the years, and the next strongest at the midpoints. The least sturdy go in between those. I walk through the garden and determine what goes where, put the stakes where I will be working, and stand on a folding chair for the taller ones. The flanges for the outermost ones should be perpendicular to the row, because of the weight of the tomatoes pulling them inwards. The inner ones should be in line with the row, because they tend to sag over.

Tomato stakes

Line them up exactly with the tomato stems.

Make sure you line the stakes up with the tomato stems. Next tie them up. This is easiest if you have been removing lower leaves and suckers from the tomatoes, and if the tomatoes haven’t gotten big and rolled over. I didn’t mention that? I’ve been busy. I like to remove lower leaves because those will catch the soil born diseases first, and suckers because I don’t want too thick a tangle of stems. You want to have good air flow and you want to see your fruit as it ripens. Anyway, I like to tie them with jute twine because it is cheap and in the fall you can just burn it all. You can get a big roll of jute twine at the hardware store for about $13. It comes in a paper sheath which helps it to stay together. This is good towards the end of the  roll, when it starts getting tanglesome. Tie one end to the end stake about a foot off the ground- it will stretch in the rain- and run it along the row, tucking it under the plants as you go. At each stake you see loop the twine, being careful to keep it taut. Go down to the end, come around the other side, and come back, tying the cut end of the twine to the same stake. Your plants are trapped between two pieces of twine and can’t lie down in the mud.

tying up tomatoes

If you do it early when the plants are small you can train them better.

Go along and pull and tuck everything into place. Be gentle- damage can allow the entrance of disease. You will need to add another layer soon. Eventually the whole thing will look like a tomato hedge. Don’t be afraid to prune, but do so on a dry day, and only one plant at a time, or you could spread disease with your cutting tool.

For now I am skimming up and down the rows with a weeder wedge. This handy tool slides along just below the surface and lops off weeds. It also skims under grass roots. So while it doesn’t kill everything, the easy action is like mopping the floor, and as long as you are careful not to hit your plants, it’s a big help. This really works best when the ground is not wet. It is really best to stay out of the garden when it is wet, because you compact the soil. Also if you work with the tomatoes when they are wet you can spread spores.

Once everything is planted and I have a moment to breathe, my husband and I will lay strips of old carpet down the rows. This smothers weeds, keeps down soil splash, and even retains moisture. Good carpet will last a long time. I have some that’s been out here 7 years. It’s a great use for stained carpet. Get a cheap serrated bread knife and saw the carpet into strips. It is easy. The strips should be as long as possible and as wide as your rows, which is generally 2 1/2-3 feet if you have a lot of space, but at least wide enough to sit down and do some hand weeding. You can also lay these strips over something you want to compost by dragging it sideways, and voila, you have some clean bare ground where the carpet was. Of course it might be a bit compacted from being a walkway, but you can easily work it up.

That’s all for today!

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