Beach to Deck

Just because you’re growing vegetables, doesn’t mean you can’t have a little fun. Or, for that matter, import a little bit of beach beauty into a city garden.

michigan rocks

Here, basil is accented with lake-evoking glass tiles from last summer’s miserable (but successful) bathroom renovation; bathroom tilelong walks on the beach are commemorated by pots bearing herbs and seashells; shattered pottery finds new life with still more basil; iron- and copper-infused rocks, petoskey stones, and granite from the shores of Lake Michigan keep the bachelor buttons company; actual beach glass lends some contrast to the slow-growing bay; and Kalamazoo’s and Battle Creek’s finest brews — the delightful Bell’s and Arcadia —  shellsare honored alongside some beautiful eggplants.

beer capsbroken potterybeach glass

Independent Spirits

It’s cocktail hour.

Philly's Bluecoat and Milwaukee's Rehorst
Philly's Bluecoat and Milwaukee's Rehorst

In honor of this fine July Fourth holiday weekend, independent distilleries, home-grown mint, and recent travels, POD offers you the Southside:

serves 2

4 ounces Rehorst (Milwaukee’s finest) or Bluecoat (Philly’s even better) Gin
1 ounce simple syrup
1 1/2 ounce freshly squeezed lime juice
15 small mint leaves
5-8 drops cocktail bitters

Muddle the mint — squish with the back of a spoon — in a large cocktail shaker. Add plenty of ice and remaining ingredients. Shake until the shaker is nice and frosty and your pinkies hurt.  And then shake some more. Strain into a martini glass.

Return of the Fungi

Stupid tomatoes.

If someone tells you tomatoes are easy to grow. Ignore them. They don’t know what they’re talking about. Then again, maybe they do. Maybe they’re tomato jedi. In that case, listen carefully to their sage advice and then send them this way.

As you can see, some random fungus or another has struck. The cold spring evenings and the torrential May and June rains that Philly suffered didn’t help.  Fusarium or verticillium? Who knows and who cares — the result is the same: sad, sad tomato plants with a low yield. At this point, all that can be done (snipping affected leaves mercilessly) has been done.

Return of the Fungus: 2009
Return of the Fungus: 2009
Nugget's First Haircut
Chocolate Cherry's First Haircut
tomato fungus trimmings
Grrr. Arg.

A glutton for punishment? But of course. Here are a few notes for next year (additional suggestions most welcomed):

  • Shop for disease-resistant varieties — don’t be suckered by heirlooms, as much as you love them.
  • Start the seeds in mid March, using new sterile soil — no earlier!
  • Wash and sterilize containers, purchase new drainage materials.
  • Carefully harden off — no cheating!
  • Plant early to mid-May (strip off the leaves that are submerged in the soil) — no earlier!
  • Spray regularly with Neem and feed them.
  • Continue to mulch, water in the morning, and do the anti-fungus-some-rain-but-not-too-much-warm-but-not-hot-weather dance.

Body by POD

bicep builder
bicep builder

See that? That’s the medieval-looking pulley system that services the little blue deck.

Obviously the builders of our 100ish-year old South Philly row home didn’t think to install a spigot on the second floor exterior. (Heck, we think the current kitchen was built over the space previously held by the privy.)

For the first few years, we hauled buckets of water up the sladder to service PODS blooms or poured water — by the measuring cupful — from the bathroom tap into a watering can just outside the bathroom window. A slow process at best, dangerous at worst. (Just ask the friends who’ve missed a step.)

A couple of years ago POD’s mom imported a carload of plants from her favorite Michigan greenhouses and POD’s dad carted along this massive bicep builder. Thanks, guys.

Container Gardening: Making the Most of It, Part II

lettuce and indian eggplant
lettuce and indian eggplant

This little guy is chock-full of goodness. Last year this pot quite successfully housed two prolific Thai eggplants. This year we’re giving three a whirl (one Thai from last year’s seed collection and two Indian Udmalbet). Sure, it may well be too crowded, but you never know until you try.

While the plants are still young, they’re sharing some space with a couple of very leafy lettuce plants.

Lettuce, by the way,  is POD’s moneymaker. It gets crammed into every available cranny and with diligent re-seeding and plenty of water it produces almost all season long into November.  It saves us at least $6-8 a week. (Next year a cost-benefit analysis is in the works for POD. )

Typically we just snip or tear off the outer leaves until the plant starts looking a little leggy (usually at least 4-6 harvests). When it starts tasting a little too bitter for your tastes, just yank it up and start over again. (Or, in this case, yank it out for tonight’s Cobb salad and give the eggplants a little more breathing room.)

Since eggplants take about 120 days to go from seed to vegetable, it’s gratifying to see something edible emerge from the pot within just  a few weeks.

Choosing Cherries

Tomatoes, that is.

Tomato quiche with 2008 farmers' market cherry tomatoes.
Tomato quiche with 2008 farmers' market cherry tomatoes.

The smooth, juicy, sugary flavors of heirlooms are, by far, POD’s preferred tomatoes. One of life’s greatest pleasures is a plate of glistening multi-colored tomato slices with just the lightest dash of quality balsamic vinegar, a teeny pinch of salt, and a sprinkling of fresh basil.

Cherries? No way! Small, sour, acidic, red and boring. Or so we thought. We were wrong. And nearly went broke buying buckets of them at the farmers’ market last summer. Seriously, it was like an addiction.

Given the various tomato frustrations last year’s crop of full-size heirlooms brought, cherry tomatoes seemed like a fine way to go. Prolific, earlier yields seem appealing. Furthermore, the little blue deck gets a decent amount of summer sunlight (5-10 hours), but given the houses that surround it, the hours of sunlight vary widely from May to August and containers are constantly shifting locations to keep up with maximum sun. Cherry tomatoes, evidently, are a little more flexible than their full-size brethren.

This year POD’s sprouting a yellow Tumbling Tom, Chocolate Cherry, Gold Nugget, and an Isis Candy.

Freakin’ Fungi

Show of hands, please. Who here has watched with horror as the leaves of their formerly healthy tomato plants suddenly turn yellow, cankerous, and then wither up and die? Well, join the club.

Arrgggh!!!
Arrgggh!!! (stock photo, not 2009 POD toms)

Here’s a primer on what POD’s tried and trying.

Supposedly these fungi (early tomato blight, fusarium wilt, and verticillium wilt) spread through contaminated soil or seeds.  So conceivably POD’s initial years of  infections could well have come with the well-started plants. Since new soil is purchased each year,  it’s unlikely contamination comes from the soil. Last year’s disaster is a mystery since the plants were started from seed in fresh soil. Unless, of course, the seeds themselves were contaminated. Hmmmm. The containers weren’t scrubbed clean this year, so perhaps there’s still some cause for concern. Something to remember for next year. We shall see.

Shop Wisely: Look for the following information on your plant’s tag or seed description (it means the variety is resistant to that particular evil disease)A – Alternaria leaf spot, F – Fusarium wilt, FF – Race 1 & Race 2 Fusarium, L – Septoria leaf spot, N – Nematodes, T – Tobacco mosaic virus, V – Verticilium wilt

An apple a day: Keeping plants well fed and happy will increase their resistance to fungus. A little calcium, and a fertilizer solution that’s not too heavy on the nitrogen. Next year we’ll try fish meal and more seaweed but for now, I guiltily confess, very diluted Miracle-Gro Tomato food is doing the job. (The nitrogen seems a little high, so this year I’m diluting it to half the strength they recommend.)

Patience, young Skywalker, patience: Wait until temperatures have stabilized and your seedlings have been properly hardened-off before planting. This increases immunity.

Thirsty Suckers: Tomatoes are 90-95% water and therefore, need water. Containers dry out quickly. Fun times. Don’t be afraid to get dirty. Stick your finger into the soil. Is it dry an inch or two below the surface? Water. Is it wet? Don’t.

Rise and Shine: Watering at night is like sticking a big “Fungus Welcome Here” sign on your tomato. Do it in the morning. Avoid getting water on the leaves. Mulch to avoid splash back. Do not touch the plant when it’s wet. Step away from the tomato.

Fumigate: Okay, POD can’t bear to use industrial fungicides and has been using Neem. Perhaps we’ll brave a baking soda, dish soap, and milk solution this year.

Give ‘em a Buzz Cut: So you’ve practiced your due diligence but suddenly, leaves are turning yellow. Nip ‘em off as soon as they begin to turn yellow. Avoid touching adjacent leaves with the diseased cast-offs. Hope for the best.

No Smoking: Tomatoes don’t like tobacco. Don’t smoke and don’t plant those pretty tobacco flowers anywhere near a tomato.

A History of POD Tomatoes

Over the past few summers tomatoes have increasingly become a bit of an obsession. The husband is known to mutter, “damn farmers” at least twice a day. Why? Because we urban gardeners are never happy. And, well, because there’s always something to complain about up there on deck. Especially when tomatoes are around.

So, here’s an abridged history of POD tomatoes over the years and a preview of topics to come.

Mr. Stripey (because the name was awesome). He was the very first and he came well started by the time I acquired the guy. The first year, it grew beautifully. Tons of luscious, juicy, sweet, tomatoes. Subsequent years? Some fungus or another (more on that tomorrow) took over before most fruits could be harvested.

Early Girl (because you many have noticed, this gardener can be impatient). Purchased in plant form. So-so yield, not particularly to our tastes. It was disease resistant, though.  Big Boy and and a Black Zebra succumbed to the fungus. There were a several other varieties sprinkled in there, but nothing was as phenomenal as that first Mr. Stripey.

2008: Nebraska Wedding, Gold Nugget, Purple Calabash, and Purple Cherokee All raised-from-seed determinates (more on that later).  Serious disaster. Maybe one thick-skinned Purple Calabash. That’s it.

2009: All cherries, all the time. Tune in for more…

An open appeal to Zone 7(ish) container gardeners: What tomato varieties work for you?