So it’s Springtime and we’re all back in the garden anxious to get those jumbo packs of summer seedlings bedded down, tucked in and kissed goodnight. But first , it’s time to do some amendment. It’s not just our hair that needs to be revived and rejuvenated, the soil needs some pampering in between seasons, too. Winter crops will have used up a lot of the ambient nutrients and even those gardens lying fallow in Winter will also need a nutritional pick-me-up.
As I’ve said before, there is no better amendment than your own home compost. It is hands down the best and cheapest fertilizer you can get. So if you have it, spread a six inch layer over the surface of your vegetable beds. It will infuse an abundance of nitrogen, minerals and microorganisms into your soil. If you don’t already compost, I highly recommend it. There’s a detailed section in my free Beginners Growing guide.
For anyone feeling anxious that they don’t have, or can’t beg, borrow or steal some good home-made compost, fear not. I have invited Celeste Wheeler from EB Stone Organics to share her DYNAMITE DRESSING mix for preparing your vegetable garden for Spring planting.
Here’s her recipe for a 4’x4′ area :
Celeste’s Dynamite Dressing Mix
Two 1.5 cubic foot bags EB Stone Organic Flower and Vegetable planting mix.
One 1.5 cubic foot bag EB Stone Organics Worm Castings
One 4lb box EB Stone Organics Sure Start
Method: With a shovel, blend the Planting Mix and Worm Castings evenly (Hold the Sure Start. It comes later) then spread a 6″ layer of the mix over the surface of your beds. You don’t have to mix it in deeply. Just work it in four or five inches deep. The soil food web underneath works better undisturbed. Water well and wait a day before planting. When you transplant your seedlings, loosen the roots and dust the entire root-ball with the Sure Start fertilizer. Then sprinkle a little more of it into the planting hole before bedding down the seedling.
Like me, you are probably wondering why she chooses this particular combination. I’ve seen her garden and believe me whatever she does definitely works. Here’s what she says about the mix.
‘EB Stone Flower and Vegetable planting mix is excellent for vegetables as it contains 15% chicken manure (natures own fertilizer) it supercharges veggies and gets the up and growing quickly. It’s great for raised beds or to amend existing soil. It’s organic and does NOT contain any green waste (forest humus) or sewage sludge.’ (Editors note: It is a well known fact that most Big-Box store brands contain these kinds of nasties.)
‘Worm Castings are terrific because they make insects go away. Yep my garden has very few insects. I use worm castings on all plants (not just veggies) prone to insect damage. I found if I use a 1/4 of 1 cu ft per rose or hibiscus in early spring I have little to no insects all year long. It really works, and saves money on having to spray insecticides.’ (Editors note: It’s true. Really.)
EB Stone Organics Sure Start is an excellent organic starter fertilizer. Use at planting time on veggies, fruits, trees, annuals, perennials, and even lawns. It contains mycorrhizae fungi which increases the nutrient uptake of the plant root systems. Sure Start feeds the plant for 8 weeks and reduces transplant shock. If you don’t have a green thumb give sure start a try and you will see a big difference.’ (Editors note: See! A green thumb is only a little knowledge applied to nature).
Thanks to Celeste for sharing this great recipe. You can find out more about EB Stone Organics at www.ebstone.org, and for all you tomato growers out there, check out
It’s great to witness the rapid propagation that the long Spring days bring to the vegetable garden. However, this robust growth also sounds the feeding bell for a slew of uninvited pests looking to dine at your all-you-can-eat vegetarian buffet. Yes, we’re all trying to make a living and this is just nature at work, but it’s alarming to watch how fast a horn worm infestation can demolish a tomato plant. Pest control is a key element in the vegetable garden, and you can make your own organic pesticide solution, but it’s not a cure all and buying organic pesticides can get ‘spendy’. Needless to say the Big Box Store nasties are a non starter, so what’s an organic gardener to do?
Meet the Beneficials
Consider summoning Beneficial Insects to do the job instead. Unlike the failed dates of my youth, these guys are easy to attract and you never have to pay for them. This great compilation was put together by UC Davis ( Download it in full size here ) and tells you all you need to know about which ones do what. (I should add a caveat that this list was compiled with an emphasis on California, but much of it stays true for many parts of the country).
So how do you attract Beneficial Insects into your garden?
OK. You know what they are. Now how do you find them? The simple answer is Flowers. Every vegetable Garden should have a floral element not just for beauty but also for natural pest control. Here’s my top four floral attractors. I like to grow them interspersed with the vegetables and often in the corners of my MinifarmBox, so they don’t get overshadowed from the sun.
1. Calendula (Calendula officinalis)
Also known as Pot Marigold, this vibrant orange flower attracts bees, butterflies and Hover flies (whose larva feed on aphids). It is also an edible and is known to have antiviral/antiseptic medicinal applications. In fact during the American Civil War, doctors on the battlefield used the flowers with great success to treat open wounds.
Sweet Alyssum is known to attract Minute pirate bugs (who eat aphids, thrips, mites, psyllids, and insect eggs), Parasitic wasps (who lay eggs in aphids, beetles, flies, moths, sawflies, mealy bugs, and scales), and Hover flies. This fragrant edible flower is quite invasive but easy to control by hand pulling.
3. Zinnia – (Zinnia elegans)
This multicolored flower is not only attractive to us, but also hummingbirds, hoverflies, parasitic wasps and butterflies. Regularly deadhead or remove old flowers to keep plants attractive and encourage more blooms.
4.Cornflower (Centaurea sp.)
Also known as Bachelors Button, I love this one as it is so unusual to have blue (it actually is true blue) flowers in the vegetable garden. Cornflower will attract Lacewings, Ladybugs, Hoverflies, Parasitic Mini-wasps, Bees and Butterflies. It is the national flower of Estonia and super easy to grow.
Lots of people are limited by lack of space or seasonal sunlight. But it doesn’t mean you cant grow great organic vegetables and herbs on your balcony, deck or side yard. You just do it on a smaller scale. The big plus with small space gardens is that they’re easy to maintain, and because they’re closer to your kitchen, you’ll pay more attention to them and get more use from them.
I designed all my Rolling planters with the space and sun challenged in mind. And because they give you a full 18″ depth, you can grow deep rooting plants like tomatoes and root crops. One 2’x4′ Rolling Patio Planter can grow up to 20 lbs of tomatoes or 40 heads of lettuce. The Rolling Tomato tower can grow full size tomato plants. And our Rolling Balcony Box is ideal for narrow balconies such as those in Condos and Apartments.
1. KNOW YOUR LOCATION– Make sure you get 6-8 hours of sun (full sun) in some area of your patio, deck, balcony or side yard. The benefit of having casters is that you can move your planters to maximize seasonal sun. Winter sun is lower so you get more shade in places that you might get full summer sun. And when that August heatwave arrives, you can relocate to a more shaded area for a few days. Remember to keep tall vegetables and plants to the north side of your planter and shorter ones to the south, ie: tallest plants farthest away from the sun, shortest plants nearest.
2.CHOOSE THE RIGHT SOIL – Smaller container gardens require high performance soil because they don’t have access to ambient nutrients like ground plants. Start with a good rich potting mix like Edna’s Best Organic Potting Soil . This mix has more peat moss and pumice in it which gives it greater water retention properties than planting soil. Regular planting mixes dry out too fast and when they get dry, they tend to repel water.
3. FERTILIZE MORE – You will need to fertilize containers and planters more often. At least once in between growing seasons with some good compost or organic soil amendment. In addition to that, you will need to supplement your plants with a good organic fertilizer like EB Stone Tomato and Vegetable Food once or twice during the growing season. This will help improve your yield immensely.
4. SELECT THE RIGHT VARIETIES – There are great dwarf varieties for almost every vegetable out there. For example grow heirloom cherry tomatoes instead of big vining tomatoes. Cherries are easier to prune and you can train them grow over the side of your planter instead of up. This gives you more space for other plants like eggplant, peppers, even squash. Here’s my list of favorite dwarf summer vegetables ideally suited to small space gardens.
Eggplant – Japanese pickling – This gem produces lovely long eggplants from a relatively small bush.
Peppers – Red Ruffled Pimiento – An absolutely top notch pepper, this low growing prolific producer yields sweet, smoky fleshy fruits and lost of them.
Basil – Greek Basil – Perfect for small spaces, this 6-9″ umbrella-shaped beauty produces strong, sweet leaves. Perfect for your Cherry Tomato Caprese.
5. BE CAREFUL NOT TO OVER WATER– Container gardens have much different watering needs than ground planting. You’ll need to keep an eye on moisture content when the days get long and hot. The sides of the containers dry out quicker than the middle, so those juicy strawberries you planted in the corners will need a little more TLC than your big centre pieces. Having said that, resist the temptation to over water your plants in hot weather. Do the finger test. If the soil is moist (like a wrung-out sponge) as deep as your index finger can go then you are doing OK. Over watering will leave your plants vulnerable to root rot and molds.
6. PLANT IN SUCCESSION – Because you’ll harvest your small space planters more often, try to grow things in succession. So when your eggplants are done in the fall, plant some lettuce. When your basil stops producing, put in some parsley or sage.
7. THREE ‘NO-NO’ PLANTS FOR PATIO PLANTERS – Do not plant mint in a container with your other vegetables. Mint, though delicious is very invasive and hard to get rid of. I always plant it in separate pots. Ditto for Potatoes, and Sunflowers, Corn and Artichokes just get way too big, blocking out the light from the other plants. Perennial Herbs like Rosemary and Sage can be planted in a patio planter but they’ll get big over time. What I like to do is just take them out after one or two growing seasons. I replant them in pots and start again with smaller plants in the patio planter.
8. HERBS ARE GREAT VALUE – Smalll space planters are perfect for easy-access Herb gardens. Lots of herbs are perennials, meaning they will keep on growing, Here’s my top 10 herbs which will all grow well in a Rolling Balcony Planter.
Basil, Sage, Lemon or English Thyme, Fennell, Parsley, Marjoram, Rosemary, Tarragon, Lemon Verbena, Cilantro.
If you are growing vegetables and herbs together, plant the herbs at the corners where they will get more sun.
Heirloom tomatoes can’t be beaten for their outstanding flavor and beauty, so when purchasing seedlings, skip the Home Depot hybrid-factory and support organic growers and your local nursery. Check out tomatomania.com to see where their spectacular heirloom tomato sale is pitching its next tent, or if you’re in Los Angeles, contact Nysha at ardenwoodsedibles.com. She always has unusual all-organic heirloom varieties.
Tip # 1) Plan what to grow – Variety is the spice of life, so I like to grow several varieties of tomatoes for flavor, size and function. It also gives me a longer harvest period so I don’t have to bushwhack my friends and family into canning duty when my tomatoes all ripen at once. I’ve created five categories to help you decide what and how much of each you want to grow.
THE EARLY RISERS – Early tomatoes are great if you live in a short season growing zone, or even better if you live in a warmer climate because you can plant in April and get your goodies by June. All these ‘short season’ varieties mature in 50-65 days depending on the weather. My favorite varieties include Stupice(love this), Matina, Anna Russian, Bloody Butcher and the excellent Cuore de Toro (Bulls Heart).
THE BIG PRODUCERS – Everybody likes a workhorse in the vegetable garden, and I call these varieties the ‘Jerry Bruckheimers’ because they are simply huge producers. Thankfully, that’s where the comparison ends as all thesevarieties have impeccable taste and you’ll never get tired of their endless re-runs throughout the season. They are all indeterminatesmeaning they continue producing after the first crop. My favorite ‘episodes’ include – Arkansas Traveler, Brandywine, Black Krim, Texas Grapefruit, Jaune Flamme and Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter( I grew this one for the name alone) .
THE ‘MISS AMERICA’S’ – I always try to plant a few beautiful and unusual heirlooms that I’ve never grown before. Just like beauty queens, Heirloom tomatoes come in all shapes, sizes and colors. There’s no end to the weird and wonderful heirloom gems out there. This year I planted Michael Pollan and Haley’s Purple Comet. Past pageant winners in my garden include Dakota, Black Zebra, Mr. Stripey, Purple Calabash, Old German, Orange Oxheart, Chocolate Stripe and Zapotec Pink Ribbed.
GOOD FOR COOKS – Paste tomatoes generally have more flesh than water which makes them great for cooking. The best ones are usually Roma tomatoes which tend to be determinate,meaning you get only one crop from each plant. Amish paste, Big Italian Plum, San Marzano, La Roma and Mama Leone are all great heirloom varieties. A good tip for making sauce is to mix in some paste tomatoes with other non paste varieties. You’ll get big, rich flavors this way.
THE ‘DURACELL BUNNIES’ – What I love about Cherry tomatoes is that they just keep on going. By the time fall comes round and your 25 Mason jars are safely tucked away in the sauce cellar, these sweet, relentless little producers will still be on hand for Autumn salads and school lunch boxes. Cherry Tomatoes tend to grow more like bushes than vines so plant them in a space where they can sprawl out as they grow. My favorite non-stop drummers include: Black Cherry, Tumbling Tom, Black Plum, Coyote, and Isis candy.
Tip # 2) LOCATION. LOCATION. LOCATION. Tomatoes need sun and lots of it. Plan to grow tomatoes in an area that gets at least 6-8 hours sun (aka full sun). If you can, choose a site that gets the most morning sun – it will help evaporate excess dew and moisture from the leaves – a great way to prevent mold and disease problems before they start.
Tip # 3) SOIL IS EVERYTHING. Don’t plant your seedlings without amending your soil. Tomatoes are big feeders and attention to your soil will pay you back in spades. If you don’t have your own compost, pick up some good organic soil amendment at your local nursery (many big box store amendments contain nasties like sewage sludge). Add to this some egg shells(calcium) and fish emulsion (diluted to 1 tbl spoon per gallon). Some people swear by placing fish heads in the planting hole, but I find it can attract digging animals. I also like to use an organic starter fertilizer like Sure Start from EB Stone. It will give your plant a great kick start to bed down and start rooting faster. The mix contains Mycorrhiza which is actually a beneficial fungus which not only facilitates growth but protects your tomatoes from pathogenic wilting diseases such as verticillium and fusarium wilts.
Tip # 4) CHOOSE HEALTHY SEEDLINGS
If you haven’t started your own seedlings by May, it’s probably too late. So go to your local nursery or organic grower and pick out sturdy seedlings with deep green, perky leaves. Don’t worry about the size of the plant so much as the condition. Larger plants with fruit and flowers on them have probably been in those little containers too long, so sometimes it’s better to get the small ones that look robust and ready to run.
Tip # 5) BURY THEM UP TO THEIR NECKS –
Those little hairs on the base of the main stem are roots. Cut the bottom two leaf shoots off your seedlings and plant it right up to the next set of leaves. Tomatoes like to root deep so don’t be afraid you are suffocating the plant, it will thank you for it later.
Tip # 6) WATER WISELY –
Watering practices will hugely determine the quality of your crop. When planting your seedlings, water heavily so that the root zone is saturated. After that, water evenly to keep the moisture content consistent. Don’t let the plants dry out then saturate them. I water my seedlings deeply about once a week then check in with them depending on the weather. A good rule of thumb is 1 to 1 ½ inches of water a week until the fruit sets. Don’t let the soil go dry before re-watering or you will be vulnerable to blossom end rot or a blighted plant! Warm windy weather will dry the plants out faster than hot humid weather and if there’s a heatwave, all bets are off. Keep an eye on the plants in hot weather. If the leaves start to wilt, give them a drink. If you get a lot of rain on the other hand, just let nature do its job. It’s also important to remember not to water the leaves or you will expose them to mold. When the plant sets fruit and it gets closer to maturity, water a lot less frequently but deeply. Lots of water will give you big tasteless fruit because the water goes straight to the fruit.
Tip # 7) MULCH LATER– Wait for a couple of weeks of growth, then mulch heavily above the root zone. Make sure you mulch after the ground has had a chance to warm up. If you put it down too early it will also shade and therefore cool the soil. Mulching will help conserve water and prevent soil born diseases from splashing up on the plants, and will keep the root zone cool in the hot summer weather.
Tip #8) GET A GOOD CAGE – Tomatoes get big, so don’t buy one of those scrawny little coat-hanger cages. Make sure it’s at least 4ft high and 18″ in diameter. It is virtually impossible to cage a plant once it has grown over 2ft (because the stems break very easily), so install your cage when you plant your seedling. On another note, Tomatoes are nay impossible to transplant once they have started rooting. So plant them where you intend them to blossom. As your plants grow, trim and snip – Trimming your plants lets more sunlight in, giving you bigger healthier vines and fruits. You can make your own cages easily. Watch the fabulous Julie Chai from Sunset Magazine make one here.
Tip # 9) DON’T GO NUTS WITH THE FERTILIZER. Don’t use synthetic fertilizers like Miracle Grow on your tomatoes. Besides having the potential to burn your plants, synthetic fertilizers are too heavily nitrogen-based and while you might get big green foliage, your plants will bear very little fruit. Organic fertilizers like EB Stone Tomato and Vegetable Food is non burning and should be applied 4-6 weeks after planting. Work some fertilizer into the top 2″ of soil around the root zone and water it down. Once during the season is enough.
Tip # 10) MARK YOUR PLANTS AND SAVE YOUR SEEDS. It’s a great idea to mark your plants when you first plant them. But don’t put the plant marker down in the ground beside the stem. Why? Because when you have that huge tomato plant producing bushels of tomatoes, you wont be able to reach under the cage to tell what it is and the water will probably have washed the name off anyway. I like to punch a hole in the plant marker and tie it to the cage when I lay down the seedling. That way you can identify each plant easily. It’s nice to remember their names when the neighbors are wowing your darlings. Save some seeds from each variety you grow. It’s easy to do and a great way to share and swap with other growers. It preserves biodiversity and it’s how our forefathers gave us these great heirlooms in the first place.
Happy Planting – Conor