Archive for the ‘How To…’ Category

See Part 1 of this topic here.

In the previous post, I went over how to cross reference seed catalogs with some great outside sources both paper and online. Now let’s pretend we’re on a hunt for a juicy slicing tomato that’ll be great in sandwiches for the summer. We’re going to stick to traditional types here and just look at pink or red tomatoes that look a lot like those at the grocery store, so globe shaped. Also, we’ll be growing in the ground so we can look at indeterminate varieties. And we don’t have any disease problems, so we don’t need to restrict the search to disease-resistant types.

We’ll start with Tomato Grower’s Supply catalog. Here are a couple that jump out at me and why:

Fireworks #6002 (30 seeds) $2.65
What makes this variety really special is that it is one of the largest, earliest red slicing tomatoes available, and it has excellent flavor. This combination of size, earliness, and good taste is truly uncommon, but Fireworks is an exceptional variety. Its bright red fruit are 6 to 8 ozs., round with a pointed tip, and borne quite heavily on vigorous plants. Indeterminate. 60 days.

Positive traits: indeterminate, early, still a decent size for slicing, and good taste.
The Skeptic in me says: early tomatoes, even if indeterminate usually have bland flavor. And the size listed is almost always the maximum size, not the average size, so I would guess you’d get tomatoes closer to 4 oz.
Cross references:
* Tatiana’s Tomato Base says: 4-8 oz and only “good” flavor, which isn’t great.
* Dave’s Plant Files says: 2 positive reviews, 2 negative and 1 neutral. In this case, even the positive reviews say the flavor is average.
Bottom Line Decision: keep on the list, but move from the “Grow” list to the “Maybe” list.

Costoluto Fiorentino #4974 (30 seeds) $2.75
This Italian heirloom variety from the Tuscany region produces loads of bright red tomatoes with terrific flavor. Tomatoes are typically about 8 ounces, but may be larger, with a smooth shape rather than the heavily ribbed shape typical of Costoluto Genovese. The flavor is high in sugar, but also high in acid, making for outstanding taste that’s wonderful fresh or made into sauces. Indeterminate. 80 days.

Positive traits: indeterminate, heirloom, 8 oz sounds like an average size, good flavor
The Skeptic in me says: is it consistently good or does it depend on growing conditions?
Cross references:
* Tatiana’s tomato base says: high yield and “excellent” flavor
* Dave’s Plant Files says: 1 negative and 1 neutral. Complaints that the tomatoes were undersized, mushy and bland.
Bottom Line Decision: keep on the list, but bear in mind flavor and output may be dependent on growing conditions more than variety genetics.

Let’s move on to the Baker Creek Catalog:

Arkansas Traveler Tomato
A medium-size pink tomato that is smooth and a beautiful rose color. An excellent heirloom from Arkansas, tolerant to heat and humidity; crack and disease resistant. Good flavor; an excellent Hillbilly favorite.

Positive traits: indeterminate, heirloom, tolerant of different growing conditions
The Skeptic in me says: how big is medium, and what is the days to maturity?
Cross references:
* Tatiana’s tomato base says: 80 days and “very good” flavor
* Dave’s Plant Files says: 12 positives and 2 neutrals, wow! Consensus says size is variable but overall a heavy producer of pretty good tasting tomatoes.
Bottom Line Decision: Baker Creek’s own reviewers were glowing about it being disease-tolerant. I’d keep this one on the “Grow” list for sure.

Depp’s Pink Firefly
An historical Kentucky heirloom that dates to 1890 in Glasgow, KY. One-pound fruit are deep pink, creamy and full-flavored: sweet and tangy. Named for the fruit’s iridescence that can sparkle in the light, reminiscent of fireflies on a summer night, and the Depp family who preserved the seed. Vigorous potato leaf vines produce well. Quite rare. $2.50

Positive traits: indeterminate, heirloom, full-flavored
The Skeptic in me says: Baker Creek is notorious for omitting the days to maturity in their descriptions, also this is a potato leaved plant famous for making great tasting tomatoes, but more susceptible to disease in my garden. I think it’s also a beefsteak more than a globe tomato.
Cross references:
* Tatiana’s tomato base says: 80-85 days, with excellent flavor, 12 to 16 oz each beefsteak shaped fruits.
* Dave’s Plant Files says: 1 positve, 1 neutral reviews, both complaining of slow ripening (late variety).
Bottom Line Decision: This is on my personal “Grow” list for the future, despite it being a later potato leaved variety. For the example here though, for wanting a summer slicing tomato I’d cross it off altogether as maturing too late in the season. How many people want to eat BLT sandwiches in September or later?

The Bottom Line:
Looks like we’ll be growing Arkansas Traveler for sure, and possibly getting Fireworks. If we really want an early variety, our best bet would be to get a determinate but with the knowledge that the flavor isn’t always up to par with other, later types. If I only wanted to order from one company to save on shipping, sorting through Baker Creek is a harder job as the tomatoes are sorted solely by color, forcing the gardener to read through each description to find the medium-sized globes and determinate varieties.

But that’s what all of winter is for, right? Studying up on the catalogs like you’re preparing for your final exam in tomatoes. And if you pick the “wrong” types this year, there’s plenty more to choose from for next year! And don’t forget that swapping varieties with other gardeners through online forums can really save on cash and shipping, plus you get the first-hand account of how the varieties grew in their gardens.

Have fun!


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When I was first starting out selecting tomato varieties, I was overwhelmed by the catalogs glowing descriptions. How could every tomato be this good? How is someone supposed to choose honestly amidst all the positive descriptions and pick something that is the best for them? How do you narrow it down when the seed company’s job is to sell you seed packets?

After a few years pouring over glossy seed catalogs, I think I’ve discovered a non-biased way of reading between the adjectives and picking the very best tomato varieties for me.

Important information:

  • determinate or indeterminate (or growth habit)
  • hybrid or heirloom
  • best use (paste or cooking, salad, or slicing)
  • color
  • taste (subjective but key words to look for are: balanced, sweet or tart, fruity, old fashioned–see this post)

Cross references:
These are my secret weapons in the search for non-biased information about varieties. I try to check as many as I can, usually sticking with online resources as they are only a few clicks away and can be looked up quickly. The books are more limited in their selection, but can be quite detailed. Some seed catalogs have online reviews by customers, but those are really hit or miss.
Amy Goldman’s The Heirloom Tomato
Carolyn Male’s 100 Heirloom Tomatoes
Tatiana’s Tomato Base
Dave’s Garden Plant Files: Tomatoes
Baker Creek Customer Reviews (very limited)

First Steps before diving into the Seed Catalogs:

  1. What is your intended use for the tomato? If you mainly just want to make marinara sauce to last through a delicious Italian-themed winter, you shouldn’t waste your time reading about beefsteak varieties. Stick to the Paste section. If you think you want to have a couple BLT sandwiches over summer as well, then you should plant more than one variety, a paste (or a couple of paste types) and either a beefsteak or a globe tomato.
  2. How will you grow the tomato? If you are planting in the ground, space isn’t as much of an issue and you can try and get the biggest tomato plants you want. But if you are limited to containers, you’ll want to stick to determinate varieties or short indeterminates.
  3. How long is your growing season? If you live in zone 7 and have a long season, you can afford to look at varieties with maturity dates of 90 days. But if you are like me and live in zone 5, you’ll want to stick to tomatoes that mature in 80 days or less. This will assure you’ll actually get some tomatoes (and possibly a second flush of tomatoes) before frost.
  4. Are you open to non-traditional types like fun colors or potato-leaved foliage?Then have fun exploring the tomato descriptions for white, yellow, orange, and green fleshed varieties as well as striped, spotted, and ones with variegated leaves.  Otherwise, you could just stick with red or pink globes.To be Continued in Part 2!

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Those new to organic gardening may have never heard of such a thing. So what are trap crops? These are plant varieties planted specifically for bugs to eat. These varieties are so delicious to bugs that they’ll leave your other, more boring varieties alone to flower and make fruits that you and your family can enjoy. For example, in my garden the pesky slugs love pepper plants. This year their top pick is Purple Jalapeno. If I were to plant trap crops for slugs, I’d plant Purple Jalapenos for the slugs and some other variety for myself. Except that I really wanted the Purple Jalapenos for myself. So in that case, I’d have to research and find a different pepper plant that is even tastier to slugs than Purple Jalapeno—irresistible in other words. I’d plant tons of that variety and cross my fingers that the slugs eat to bursting and leave my Purple Jalapenos alone!

I’ve heard of trap crops being used for Tomato Hornworms (though I usually only get one hornworm per year and I just let it live), Squash Vine Borers, and Cucumber Beetles. These varieties are discovered through pure observation: one variety over another seems to be an attractant to certain bugs. The downside is that trap crops don’t always work. They may even backfire, attracting more quantities of bugs than usual and spreading the misery to all your delicious varieties. They also take up space in the garden, something that is quite lacking in my suburban plot.

But if pesticides aren’t your thing, you’ve got the space to plant varieties just for insects, and you can do enough research or talk to enough gardeners to find the trapping varieties, trap crops could be an organic solution to a universal problem.

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There seem to be lots of articles out there about how to save seed once you get fruits, but a lot is lacking about the more important (to me) subject of keeping the seed pure. While not entirely necessary, especially if you don’t grow a lot of varieties that will cross-pollinate, using this technique will insure the seed you save will be true-to-type.

This easiest and least costly technique is called “bagging.” This is simply putting a cloth bag over the flower truss to keep insects from cross-pollinating your tomatoes or peppers. Tomatoes are self-pollinating. That means that the flower is constructed so cross-pollinating by wind is very difficult. But insects can still reach in to the flower and carry foreign pollen around. So the bag simply keeps those insects out!

If you don’t bag your flower trusses, there will always be a chance of impure seed, anywhere from 5 to 50%. So if you are growing a very rare hierloom plant and want to guarantee pure seed, go ahead and bag. It’s super easy.

This year is the first year I’ll be bagging any of my varieties. Since tomato seeds are viable for 3-5 years (if stored properly), saving seed every year is not necessary. So since I didn’t save seed last year, I’ll bag and save this year for fresh seed.

I started with a very thin white and blue cotton ticking fabric. I decided to use this fabric because I could easily breathe through it–the tomatoes might appreciate being able to breathe through the bag too. I cut double squares out about 7″ x 8″. I’ll be making 12 bags today though I have a little fabric left if I want more next year.

The bags are cut out and ready to be sewn.

Next, I started sewing. I made a larger hem at the top to thread a ribbon through. And I sewed the sides and bottom. This can be done with a serger tons faster, but I decided to sew on the sewing machine today. I actually used a very old technique: I sewing wrong-sides-together first (very narrow) then turned right-sides-together and sewed the seam again (wider). Then turn right-side-out for a finished bag with no raw edges. I’m making these bags to last!

The first bag is finished.

Here is the same bag with drawstring pulled.

Very nice! You can see how a tomato truss will fit in there easily.

All 12 bags are finished, yea!

And now for a demonstration of them in action:

Find yourself the first tomato flower truss on the variety you want to save. In this example, I’ve pictured my first and only tomato flower truss with the flowers already open. Don’t bag trusses like this one! Pick trusses with flowers that are not open yet, such as the ones I circled:

Pick trusses that have flowers unopened, like those I circled.

Gently place the bag over the truss and pull the drawstring closed. The bags are bigger than necessary to allow fruit to start to grow inside.

See the flowers in the bag? Those seeds will be pure!

When the fruit begins to grow, you can be assured you will have pure seed inside those tomatoes. When the tomatoes start to outgrow the bag, take the bag off and mark the truss with colorful ribbon or surveyor’s tape. Then save seeds from the marked ripe tomatoes.

If you aren’t handy, just buy some party favor bags made of tulle or organza. These come in festive colors (I’d stick to neutrals unless you want to attract more insects!) and are pretty inexpensive per pack.

These are a generous 8″ x 12″ and are cotton, both of which would be great for peppers (just put the bag around the whole plant).

Or these are about 5″ by 4″ and are extremely inexpensive for 12.

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I’ve been an allergy sufferer forever, it seems, and have only been tracking my symptoms and home remedies for just over 2 years now. My allergy symptoms are the best they have ever been, and I now feel comfortable writing about my regimen here.

A note about taking herbal pills or other OTC medications: Please consult your doctor about the best treatment for your specific allergies. Always try to avoid the allergen before taking any treatments internally. I am relaying my regimen for anecdotal informational purposes only, I am not advising anyone to take these specific herbs or drugs into their bodies unless they have fully researched them throughly first and consulted with their doctor.

With that said, these were my symptoms in the past:

  • itchy, watery eyes
  • sneezing
  • sinus congestion
  • large amounts of clear mucus from sinuses
  • overall irritation and tickling of nose/face
  • coughing, wheezing
  • phlegm around vocal cords
  • itchy throat

And this is what I am allergic to:


  • the rain and/or high humidity: specifically mold in the air
  • pollen, possibly ragweed and any/all others
  • grass, freshly mown
  • cottonwood tree (this is the worst!)
  • leaf mold
  • smoke (esp. from burning leaves)


  • pets: hair or dander (does it matter?)
  • dust, inc. kitty litter dust
  • dust from the carpet padding
  • feathers (feather bed, down blankets)
  • hay, and hay dust (for feeding Chestnut)
  • perfumes and scented lotions
  • Commercial detergents and fabric softeners

Hmmm, it’d probably be easier to list things I’m not allergic to! The point is that I have allergies all year-round, not just during “pollen season.”

Beginner’s Regimen:

Continue to take OTC medications if needed. I started to notice a difference in 2 weeks, and had no more symptoms with in 3 months.

Intermediate Regimen:

  • Turmeric capsules: 2 a day at breakfast and dinner
  • Yerba Mate capsules: 1 a day at breakfast
  • Yerba mate iced tea: as needed

After my symptoms decreased, I stepped down my herbals. I was able to go outside without having allergy symptoms, even after a rain. I still had an occasional swollen throat while sleeping, so I still kept some turmeric by the bed and took a capsule as needed. The mucus would break up about 30-60 mins after taking the turmeric.

Advanced Regimen:

  • Turmeric capsules: 1 a day as maintenance
  • Yerba Mate iced tea: because it tastes good!

This was about 6 months after I started the regimen. At this stage, I put the featherbed back on the mattress. I had no symptoms. I still had turmeric by the bed, but it just gathered dust.

During the winter, I usually have a relapse, and become hypersensitive to the rabbit’s hay, and high humidity (so I am allergic to snow as well as rain—go figure). I wear a super-duper filter mask while feeding the hay and scooping the cat litter. I always wash my hands thoroughly afterwards. We put an air purifier in the bedroom to help with the air quality. It’s not a fool-proof method. When I have a relapse, I still take an OTC product (generic Zyrtec), and drink Yerba Mate tea (hot or iced).

More Info:
Yerba Mate and Allergies
More Info about Yerba Mate
Turmeric and Allergies
More Info about Turmeric

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The grass seed I spread around the playset is starting to sprout, finally! But that area is infected with the weed Canada Thistle, otherwise known as the bane of my landscaping.

Yep, it's nasty alright!

I’ve found the most effective treatment for this weed is:
  1. Cut the weed off close to ground level. Very important to cut the weed and not pull at it or disturb it’s roots in anyway. I’ve found that if its roots are disturbed, the plant will send up 2+ new shoots in different locations. If it is just cut, and if it grows back it will be in the same location and you’ll be able to keep track easier of the progress.
  2. Spray the cut stem with weed killer. Hopefully the stem will suck this poison directly down to the roots and kill the plant.
  3. Get as many of the weeds in one location as possible as they are all one plant. Think of the weed as a huge root system with many branches. Each weed above the surface is merely a branch of a bigger plant. You must get as many as possible in order to stress the root system (and its stored energy) enough to kill it.
  4. Repeat the process at least every week, and possibly more than that. This is the only way to kill the plant for good.
  5. Never ever let the weeds get big enough to flower. If the plant makes seed, you will be fighting thistle for years to come.
Unfortunately, I let some thistle flower last year. I didn’t care enough to take care of the lawn cause I was so busy working on the interior. Since the weeds made seed, I’ve got thistle galore this year. It’s really hard to keep up with because the cutting and spraying is hard on my body and I can’t get enough done in one morning to make a real dent. I would have to work at weeding 3 or more times/week to get all the patches of thistle in my yard and garden. Yuck! But at least I’m not letting the weeds flower this year! And I killed all the weeds along the fence line this year. I killed the grass too, but at least the weeds are gone.

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Long title, great info!

After reading this book, I decided to amend my soil with some hard work! This is not something I took upon myself thinking it would be easy, that’s for sure!

Double digging is a method of tilling your garden by hand that allows for the maximum amount of amendments, air, and fluffing of the soil all for the benefit of the plants. If you do this kind of tilling, you will be able to grow vegetables and produce closer together (french intensive method).

Of course, with clay soil there’s even more work involved:

  • You first remove the weeds/sod in your garden plot
  • Layer on top your amendments: manure, peat moss, compost, other humus, and fertilizer (if desired)
  • Trench (as in dig) the dirt out up to 2 spades deep (you can use a spade or a garden fork. I prefer the fork)
  • Start breaking up the clumps
  • a. Turn over a huge clump of clay dirt
  • b. Bang it repeatedly with the side of your garden fork until it breaks into small bits
  • Finally, work your way one forked trench at a time to the end of the plot.
  • Take a well-deserved break!

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