Saturday, April 19, 2014

How to Make Tomato Cages that will Last Forever

Have you bought the typical metal tomato cage at a garden center? They are everywhere at this time of year. They maybe quick and easy to buy and install, but in a southern garden when indeterminate tomatoes reach 7' tall or more, a little 54" tomato cage just doesn't work. After a season or two the welds come undone and you're stuck with a useless piece of metal. At $5 or more a piece, it can add up to a lot of wasted money.

This year I bit the bullet and made my own tomato cages. I thought it was going to be really difficult, but as it turned out I was able to make 19 cages in 2 hours all by myself. Not bad for something I will never have to do or buy again!

The kicker here is the price for materials. I used concrete remesh. Since I needed 18 cages, I had to buy a large roll of 150', which costs $107 at Lowes. It's a lot up front, but I was able to get 20 tomato cages out of one roll, which makes each cage $7.50 to make. That's less than one of the fancy, plastic tomato cages.  If you only need a few cages, you can buy remesh in smaller sheets for about the same price.

This roll is heavy. I had to have someone load it in the truck for me, and my husband and I had a heck of a time getting it out. Once on the ground, though, I just rolled it to where I needed it to be. I started out this process on one end of my yard. Keep in mind, I'm a smallish woman and I managed to make 20 of these in a few hours so once it's on the ground, it's not too labor intensive.

1. Roll out the mesh to your desired length. My cages are 2 1/2' in diameter, you could make them up to 3'  but of course you would get fewer out of the roll.

2. I weighed the loose end with a large block, measured my cut (7 1/2') and used bolt cutters. When cutting, I cut right behind the squares so that I had a long piece of metal to hook around and latch. This way I didn't have to purchase additional fasteners.

 3. Once my 7 1/2' piece was cut, I made a tube by securing the wire around the other end.

4. There are a couple of options to secure the cages to the ground. You can use stakes or rebar to secure them, or simply cut off the bottom bar, similar to how we cut the sides to leave wire to wrap around. If you cut just the bottom bar off, you have 6" prongs to push into the ground.

I now have indestructible, non-tippable, long-lasting tomato cages ready for even the largest indeterminate varieties. I have seen these in action in other people's gardens and they are amazingly strong.

If you already have a bunch of those flimsy cages, don't worry, they have other uses. They make great structures for growing cucumbers and beans.

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Thursday, April 10, 2014

How to Make Newspaper Pots...the Easy Way

I've seen a lot of videos and blog posts about making newspaper pots. Here's my review of the collection I've seen: They're fussy. Look, if there's folding and taping involved, and what seems like a necessary third hand somewhere, it's too fussy. Here's my way. You only need two hands, a can and some soil.
Soda cans will work for this project but not as well. The beer cans are made of thicker aluminum and do not bend or warp as easily. They are also taller which makes them easier to pull out of the wrapped newspaper. Just use whatever you can get your hands on.
Step 1: Cut the newspaper into 3" wide strips.

Step 2: Wrap one strip around the base of the can leaving about 1" to hang over the end.

Step 3: Starting with the seam, fold the extra newspaper under the base of the can. 

Step 4: Press the base of the can into the palm of your hand. 

Step 5: Pull the newspaper pot off the can.

Step 6: While it's still cupped in your hand, fill it with soil. The bottom of the pot MUST be cupped in your hand or the soil will go right through. 

Step 7: Set the filled pot carefully in a water tight container (storage containers, glass cookware and plastic take out containers are all good for this project.)

Step 8: Insert your seed. 

Step 9: Add water to the holding container NOT directly over the seed pots. If you water directly your seeds may get dislodged and tiny seedlings can be damaged. The newspaper will wick the water to the top of the soil gently. Start by filling your container one inch at a time to make sure you don't over water. It may take a few waterings to get the top of the soil damp. 

Step 10: Place your containers of newspaper pots in full sun, a greenhouse or under grow lights. Pour water in the container when the soil starts to get dry. Once seedlings have gotten their first true leaves, water only when they begin to droop.  This will start the hardening off process and prevent root rot.

There you go! It's a simple process and goes very quickly once you get the hang of it. This is probably the least expensive way to start seedlings and I like it much better than peat pellets, tiny seedling mats or anything else I've tried. When it is time to plant, I'll put the whole pot in the ground to keep from disturbing the root systems. Newspaper decomposes very quickly in the soil. Here's an example of what they look like after a few weeks. 

What is your favorite seed starting container?

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Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Garden Walk- Week 15

Each week more and more of my perennials and trees break out of dormancy. The longer, warmer days and frequent rains have really brought life back in the garden. It's tiny life, but life nonetheless!

New leaves on the Liberty Apple

Sweet peas growing up the trellis

bulb onions

Transplanted cabbage recovering after a rough start.

Radish bed

Letting the clover grow to choke out weeds on the perimeter of the garden.

How is your garden growing?

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Monday, April 7, 2014

What to Plant in April

fall-planted lettuce that survived the winter is ready to harvest
It has been a rather nice start to April. We've had a few 70 degree days followed by tornado watches, but the warm and rain is really making the garden grow. Every day I go out, I see growth. This is my very favorite part of gardening! I can practically taste those sweet peas now.

In Northwest Arkansas, April marks the transition from spring to summer planting. Our spring season is quite short, which is primarily why I grow fast maturing crops (60 days or less) in my spring garden. Sometimes it gets hot fast and suddenly everything bolts. In fact, I was surprised to discover my winter kale bolting already. I will let it bloom and save the seed.

Since we are starting our summer garden, most of our list consists of summer crops. As noted, you will need to check your soil temperature. I use a digital kitchen thermometer, stuck into the soil between 2 and 4 inches deep, to check my soil temp. Once that number reaches at least 60° for several consecutive days, it's time to plant summer crops! I checked my soil temperature last week and it was around 54°, so it's obviously not time to plant yet. Also, keep in mind that April 15 is our last expected frost date, but that's not a guarantee. Last year we had snow in May. Keep a sharp eye on the weather forecast and have a plant of frost protection in place through the beginning of May.

Here's what we can plant in NW Arkansas, SW Missouri and SE Oklahoma in April:

  • Asparagus
  • Lettuce
  • Radishes

Mid-late Month (when the soil temp has reached at least 60 degrees):
  •  Sweet Corn
  • Summer Squash
  • Peppers (transplant)
  • Eggplant (transplant)
  • Tomatoes (transplant)
  • Cucumbers
  • Snap beans
  • Dry beans
  • Lima beans
It's not quite time for the heat-lovers like okra and sweet potatoes yet, but our monthly list of veggies is growing!

What have you planted so far this year?

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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

April Garden Plan

A new month requires a new garden plan. As you can see, the garden is really going to start filling up in April!

There is still time to plant some fast-maturing spring crops like radishes and lettuce before the heat hits, but it's probably too late to start cabbage from seed. You might be able to get by with planting cabbage plants right now. 

As for summer planting, we play the waiting game. Most of the summer crops we can plant this month will require soil temperature of at least 60, preferably higher. Next week, I'll publish the list of crops to plant in April. In the meantime, get that soil worked!

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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Q&A with Songbirdtiff: Warming the Soil

Exposed soil warms quickly
As promised, I am adding an advice column to my website. I love visiting with folks and answering their questions! One of the best ways to learn is to have someone to ask those specific gardening questions you might have. I always found that having my few little questions answered often put all the pieces of the gardening puzzle together for me in a way that google just can't fulfill. I want to help you put those puzzle pieces together. Please send me your questions in the comments of any post, use the "contact me" form on the right side of the page or email me.  Keep in mind, there are a lot of different answers to different problems, and I answer based on my experience and my preferred gardening methods. Click here to ready my gardening philosophy.

Today's question is timely as we move into warmer days.

Q: What can I do to warm the soil before planting?

A: It is important to place your seeds and young plants in soil that is the right temperature. If the soil temperature is too cold, seeds will not germinate and plants won't thrive. A tomato seedling, for example, won't die in soil that's too cold (unless the plant is exposed to freezing temperatures), but it also will not thrive and grow until the soil temperature raises, subjecting it to weakness, pests and disease. Stressed plants attract pests, and that's not a battle any of us desires.

While I encourage heavy mulching, particularly over the winter, one of the first ways I warm my soil is to remove all mulch and expose my soil to direct sun. This is about the only time you actually see exposed soil in my garden. When things warm up after planting, I mulch again and keep the soil covered for the remainder of the year. This is about all I do to get the soil warm, I like to take my cues from nature and plant when she's ready, rather than trying to manipulate things.

In general, I like to avoid plastic products, but if you're in a big hurry to plant, you can use black or clear plastic to attract the sun's heat and warm the soil beneath. Either cut a hole in the plastic to plant, or remove it before planting. I would suggest removing all plastic and add mulch around plants before it gets very hot to keep soil temperatures consistent and to prevent evaporation.

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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Garden Walk- Week 13

Welcome to the first garden walk of 2014! Sure I could have started in January, but we would have had about 12 weeks of empty, mulched garden beds. Thankfully, there are finally some signs of life in the garden!

First asparagus.
Fuzzy yarrow greens are emerging.

New growth on strawberries.

The garlic bed is really growing!

Sassy was jealous that all my attention was going to the garden instead of her, so she did a dance.

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