Friday, June 10, 2022

To do or not to do . . .

 They say there’s a sucker born every minute and it sure seems that way on tomato plants. Suckers are the new growth that sprouts at the intersection of a branch and the main stem of a tomato plant, and the long-standing advice has been to remove them by pruning or pinching them out.

To not do so is at your peril because it’s believed suckers steal energy from the plant. At least that’s the belief, except it’s not so. It’s one of those things that’s been done by gardeners forever because someone, somewhere, thought it was a good idea and no one thought to question it.

What is a sucker? On a tree, it refers to those fresh shoots that appear at the base of a tree. On a tomato plant, there are none. What are referred to as suckers are simply secondary branches, and with their leaves they contribute energy to the plant rather than steal it. These secondary branches will also develop flowers and fruit

So why have gardeners been removing them? First, we have to understand the two main types of tomato plants, determinates and indeterminates. Determinates were initially bred for commercial growers. This type grows only to a limited size and the fruit ripens more or less at the same time, making it much easier for mechanical harvesting. When grown as a large-scale commercial crop, determinate plants are not staked or supported, and you can be sure no one roams thousands of acres of fields, pinching off anything in sight that looks like a so-called sucker.

These smaller, bushier plants are suitable for the home gardener with limited space as they can be easily supported if need be with tomato cages, in ground or in a planter, so why bother with pinching off suckers if the commercial growers don’t bother — I’m getting to it . . .

Prior to the development of determinate varieties, most of the plants gardeners were growing in backyards in the old days were indeterminate plants. We still grow them, and many are heirloom varieties. They’re called indeterminates because they don’t stop growing. Tomato plants are vines and will grow that way when allowed, and for as long as conditions are suitable.

Indeterminates are also the type most often grown as hot house tomatoes in commercial greenhouses. There, they are allowed to grow and produce fruit throughout the season, ensuring a continuous supply for the market. In greenhouse production, the lower leaves are sometimes removed, mainly for hygiene purposes as disease can strike where the humidity is highest. Otherwise the vines are allowed to grow naturally and become a jungle of hanging fruit.

In the backyard, however, where the season is shorter, indeterminates won’t reach the size of the greenhouse plants, but they do need serious staking, with a large cage or strong stakes. And this is where the reason for pinching out the “suckers” probably began. With secondary branches shooting off in all directions, there’d be a need for even more support. By restricting the plant to a main stem, it made sense and was much easier to train the plant. Consequently, the habit of sucker pinching took off and it continues today.

If you need to keep your indeterminate plants under control, go ahead and remove any secondary branches that aren’t required, but don’t feel it’s essential to remove them all. Some like to remove lower branches to improve airflow or keep leaves off the soil. Otherwise, the question is, does it really make any difference?

The answer is yes — sort of. If you leave the secondary stems on the plant, you’ll likely harvest far more tomatoes than you would if you removed them, except they might be a tad smaller than the ones from a plant that had the suckers removed.

So there you have it, to pinch or not to pinch the suckers? The choice is yours. You’ll still get tomatoes.

Thursday, March 31, 2022

Visitors are welcome in the garden

Build it and they will come, and did they ever, everything from a wild turkey to an opossum, and all kinds of creepers and flyers. Thirty-five years ago, my current garden was a typical suburban lawn. Lawns are perfect for kids to play on and dogs to run, and mine accommodated both at times, but it wasn’t long before the vegetable garden and a couple of flowerbeds went in. Those flowerbeds became a floral amoeba, bulging out, expanding and encircling the lawn until today there’s barely enough to keep a rabbit fed for a week. If they’d stick to the lawn, they’d be welcome

I filled the flowerbeds with all manner of plants that thrived or died over the years as I experimented. I made my share of mistakes, planting things that behaved as though they owned the place. And then wildlife arrived that thought the same way.

I receive a lot of visitors, most of whom I welcome. I don’t much care for the slugs and snails, aphids, mosquitos, and that rabbit that makes an appearance every spring. I’ve had herons, groundhogs, raccoons, and recently an opossum that surprised me in the vegetable garden. I froze and it played dead until we both decided to go our separate ways.

Because my garden has never seen pesticides, I like to think all my critters are healthy. Only a few years ago it was the norm to spray everything that creeped or crawled without a thought to the importance of these creatures. However, most are beneficial in some way, as food for another or as a pollinator of plants. Some might not be so welcome, such as plant eating aphids, and yet even they’re food for ladybugs. The caterpillar or other insect that devours leaves is often a source of food for birds, especially when they’re also feeding bugs to their chicks. We might not like the less desirables, but without them we won’t have the ones we love to see, the colourful birds and butterflies.

My garden might be primarily for plants, but there’s a whole other world within it. There are hoards of essential creatures that dwell in the soil, at the bottom of the food chain that eventually links to us. It’s the bigger, visible ones that intrigue me. I often see something that is as interesting as the plants I grow. There are curious beetles that scurry beneath the leaf litter, unusual spiders, hoverflies, lacewings, butterflies, and some of the four hundred species of bees found in Ontario. All are feeding on plants and on each other, each one filling an important role in the ecosystem that is my garden.

My garden might be an oasis for me, but today I like to think it’s a haven for wildlife, too, and I’m happy with that. I might step out to inspect a flower only to discover a rare bug or an unusual bee or be startled by hummingbirds zooming in. Sometimes I’ll catch a glimpse of something furry and remember that it’s probably keeping the slug and snail population under control. In the pond are three frogs that help, keeping an eye on the water beetles and dragonflies during the day before going out on night patrol.

With a greater knowledge of the importance of wildlife in all forms, especially the ones that inhabit a garden, gardeners are now taking a different approach by adding more native plants to support beneficial insects. With a wide range of plants, a water feature, and an acceptance of the essential creatures that occupy a garden it is possible to create a balance where one group keeps a nervous watch on the other groups, with neither getting the upper hand. Nature was designed this way, to be in a state of equilibrium.

Yes, build it and they will come, but I really wasn’t expecting that opossum.


Monday, March 21, 2022

Triple mixed up about soil?

Enthusiasm for gardening is at its highest this month, for life-long gardeners and for those about to stick their trowels and shovels into soil for the very first time. But what soil? It used to be easy: call up someone and get a load of topsoil dumped in the driveway. Then the big yellow bags appeared offering a tidier delivery system for regular soil. Tidy yes, but getting the soil out of the bag with a shovel and into a wheelbarrow does make demands on rarely used body parts.

Most plain topsoil is what was stripped from farmland prior to the building of new homes. It might have started out as good soil, but after being stockpiled, sometimes for years, it becomes compacted. This results in the loss of much of the important microbial life. Adding compost will help restore life to the soil.

Also available in bulk is triple-mix. Recipes vary, but it’s typically a blend of soil, peat moss, and compost from leaf and yard waste, and it’s a good choice for most situations. The only drawback is it tends to settle as the organic matter decomposes and after one season it will need topping up, so maybe allow for this when ordering.

When the opportunity arrived to pick up small, easily transported bags of soil, it became so much easier to tentatively begin gardening by filling a planter or two with bags of soil brought home with the groceries. These small, colourful bags are currently stacked up at grocery or hardware stores like sandbags in anticipation of a flood.

The sight of all these bags must be confusing for the new gardener. I wouldn’t have a clue what to use in my garden or in planters if I was just starting out. Garden soil, three-way mix, black earth, potting soil, and what about the equally attractive bags of compost that buttress those bags of soil? There’s sheep compost, cattle compost, maybe horse or even chicken compost. Whenever I pass by I find myself humming Old MacDonald’s Farm.

Which one to choose? For small raised beds, the three-way mix, much the same as triple mix is fine. With the one labelled simply as garden soil I’d be inclined to add the compost of your choice. Plain garden soil is fine for a garden, but not recommended for planters — a soil-free mix can be better for that purpose.

A soil-free mix is composed mostly of peat moss and perlite and may be labelled as potting soil. If unsure, simply check for the bag that’s soft and feels light compared to ones containing more soggy soil. The latter can be lightened by adding peat moss or coir. Major brands are now adding fertilizer or mycorrhizal fungi to the mix, though not essential.

Black earth can be a puzzle, and I don’t know why it’s called earth and not soil. It would be easy to assume that because it’s black it must be nutrient rich soil; however, that isn’t necessarily so as good soil comes in all colours, like the red soil of Prince Edward Island, for instance. Black soil (or earth) could have come from a swampy area or it could have been darkened by adding leaves. Unlike the composts that are produced and sold, there are no requirements for the analysis of plain soils unless the producer does it voluntarily.

Compost is regulated by the provincial government as well as federally through the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Regulations are set out to ensure heavy metals and other toxic materials etc. are not present. . For more information on compost, see The Compost Council of Canada website.

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Winter Sowing

I’m going to sow seeds outdoors, this week — really. If you’re imagining me pushing a snow shovel across the veggie garden to get to the soil, forget it. I won’t be in the garden as most of the process takes place indoors.

I’ll be winter sowing, and compared to growing seedlings indoors or under lights, it’s less finicky and costs almost nothing. Winter sowing produces tough, sturdy plants, unlike the weak-kneed specimens grown on a windowsill. You can start tomorrow or anytime over the next couple of months.

Most annuals and familiar perennials, and cool season vegetables can be winter sown, but you won’t have any luck with tender plants or exotic species. A good choice are plants that are referred to as hardy, or come with instructions to direct sow outside in fall or in early spring. These are plants that would normally cast their seed in fall, and then sprout up the moment conditions are right. Sure, many may be considered weeds in the garden, however in my garden they’re more likely to be popular garden plants that I grew the previous year. I look on these as free plants — or grandchildren.

When we grow plants indoors, some seeds come with instructions for special treatment that simulates what they typically experience in their normal outdoor environment. They have to be soaked for a time or scarified, that is, nicking or using sandpaper to wear down the hard husk. 

Others have to be given a spell in the freezer for the purpose of cold stratification. This freezing and thawing or cool dampness outdoors is what breaks down the tough husk of the seed, allowing it to germinate. To reproduce the same process indoors can be tedious and not always reliable.  Winter sowing takes care of this naturally.

You’ll be pleased to hear there’s no need to go tramping through the snow, but simply plant seeds in jugs and set them on the deck or patio. All you need are a few clear or opaque containers, soil and seeds. Gallon jugs are perfect, and all those windshield washer jugs are fine, just rinse well. Some gardeners use two litre water bottles. I really like the large water dispenser bottles.

First, drill or cut a few small holes in the bottom of the container. This is to allow excess water to drain but not so large that the soil could fall out. If the container has only a very narrow opening, make a couple of extra holes or cuts near the top to allow for air circulation. Next step is to slice open the container about two thirds up on three sides, leaving one side (or a small section if the container is round) to act as a hinge.

Now place soil in the container. Garden soil is fine, but you don’t want to be out digging in the garden at the moment. Most any potting soil will do. Moisten the soil then sow your seed. Cover them as per packet instructions, or if unsure, about the same as the diameter of the seed. Close up the container and tape it shut along the sides but leave the screw cap off. Now all you have to do is set them outdoors.

If snow buries them, don’t worry. A little snow will fall in and that’s okay too, however, check occasionally to be sure the soil hasn’t dried out or become waterlogged. If the weather is especially warm in early spring, remove the tape and open the containers for a while during the day. As the seeds sprout in early spring, you can open them up and leave them open. When the seedlings are large enough they can be planted in the garden.

There, you’re almost gardening already. What a great start to the new year.

Monday, December 6, 2021

A Very Prickly Christmas

Maybe it was the six poinsettias I had to stare at for two hours and thirty-three minutes while sitting in a greasy waiting room as my car had its annual oil change, or the Vegas style Christmas lights that can now be seen from space. This must be why I've been feeling nostalgic for a time when decorating for the season was a simpler, heartwarming experience.

Every year at this time, when I was a little sprout, my dad would take us holly gathering. It was such an exciting event, gathering berry laden sprigs to brighten the house at Christmas. Of course, in those days we were blithely ignorant of the times ahead when Christmas decorating would be raised to a unique art form with plastic penguins, inflatable Santas, and flashing flamingos.

Each December we’d make the trek to our secret wood where the holly trees grew, hoping to discover a bounty of berries. We weren’t always lucky; some years there would be a good crop, with lush clumps clinging to each twig on the tree, while other years there would be hardly a speck of red to be seen. My dad always blamed the berry vultures — I don’t know if he meant birds or the people who’d been there before us.

Even in the best of years, only half the trees would bear any berries at all. Having only a limited understanding of procreation, we didn’t realize that only the female holly bears berries while, as usual, the male hangs around taking up useful space. Now that I’m older and wiser, I realize the lack of berries was likely due to SOMEONE not in the mood.

Nonetheless, collecting was never easy. Holly has wicked prickles, and you could be sure the best sprigs were always at the top of the tree, at the outer limits, barely within reach. Since we had no concept of a limb lopper, someone had to climb the tree.

“Go ahead, Dad,” I’d say, after yet another prickly plunge from the tree, “Show me one more time. Maybe next year I’ll be able to do it.” In this way the ancient tradition of holly gathering was slowly passed down through our family.

Yes, holly gathering was a challenge, but it was worth the struggle. At Christmas, friends and family would visit our home simply to admire our lovely sprig of holly, burdened with two, maybe three berries. Meanwhile, Mum would serve mince pies and Dad would lie on the couch, groaning, band-aids stuck to his face, a mustard plaster taped to his back.

Ah, yes, the good old days. I often wonder what Dad would have thought of inflatable Santas.