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Gardening with Ollas

I, like most gardeners, like to try new things in my garden.  This year Mt. Garfield Greenhouse carried a new product that represented old-school technology–the Olla (pronounced oy-ya)–from Dripping Springs Ollas.  Ollas have been used by native cultures for decades as a way to farm crops in dry areas.  The idea is to bury an unglazed terra cotta vessel, fill it with water, and let that water move through the vessel into the soil to water plants around it.

I don’t have irrigation water, so I must use domestic water in order to garden.  My husband set up a mini-soaker hose system in our raised beds, operated on a timer to water the garden 3 days a week, once in the early morning, and again in the late evening.  The system works great to conserve water, and is enough for great plant growth and productivity.  However, in the scorching summer heat, the soil doesn’t stay as evenly moist as tomatoes would like, resulting in blossom end rot on the fruit.  This year, I wanted to see if ollas could help with maintaining soil moisture through the hot season.  So, at the start of the season, I purchased four ollas for the two 8×4 raised beds I planned for tomatoes this year–two ollas per bed.

I buried them up to their necks about a foot and a half in from the ends and centered from the sides, filled them with water and replaced their lids.

plant up to neck

Tomatoes and marigolds were planted around them.

plant around it

2 in a 4x8 garden

The hardest part about using ollas, was that my plants got so huge it was hard to find the ollas to fill them!  At the end of the season, I pulled the plants and uncovered the ollas.

uncover

Check out the roots growing around the neck of this olla–all the ollas had roots growing to them like this–the plants LOVED having this water source!

roots at top

Here’s a look at the roots surrounding the bottom of the olla.

roots at bottom

Roots had actually become attached to the ollas, and stayed on them after I pulled them out.

clinging roots

I let the ollas sun-dry on my deck for a few days, and I’m storing them in the garage for the winter to prevent freezing and cracking.

drying out

The result?  Blossom end rot almost non-existant!  Hurray!  I’m buying more ollas for the rest of my garden beds next spring.  Ollas help me keep soil moist and plants happy even on the hottest days.  I had a great tomato crop this year, with minimal loss due to blossom end rot–the only rot happened when the ollas dried out when I was out of town for a couple weeks.  Because my gardens are on a watering system, I filled the ollas every other week or so.  If you plan to use ollas as your only watering source–something that really works–you’ll need to fill them more often.  Soil composition and drainage as well as soil and air temperature will affect how often you’ll need to fill them.  Ollas can also be used in large container gardens!

See Mt. Garfield Greenhouse for ollas for YOUR gardens next spring!

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Filed under drought, General gardening, soil, tomatoes, water-wise landscaping

Let’s Talk Tomatoes!

According to a site called Tomato Dirt, 93% of American gardening households grow tomatoes.  Many of our  customers, as well as many of us, have favorite varieties they plant year after year.  Regardless of the preferred type, tomato lovers all seem to agree that nothing beats the flavor of a home-grown tomato.  Both veteran tomato growers and newbies to gardening often have questions about the tons of varieties we grow:  What’s the difference between determinate and indeterminate?  What’s the difference between heirlooms and hybrids?  When is it safe to plant and how do I plant them?  Do I need to prune them?  Do I need to worry about bugs or anything?  So.  Let’s talk tomatoes!

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Determinate vs Indeterminate:

Tomatoes are classified by their growth habit.  Determinate plants, like Roma, Husky Red, and Husky Cherry Red will tend to be shorter and easier to manage than indeterminates.  Most won’t need to be staked and may have a tendency to bear fruit over a shorter amount of time.

Indeterminate plants, like Goliath, Brandywine, and Fantastic will continue growing and bearing fruit throughout the season and will need support of some kind.

Heirlooms and Hybrids:  

Heirloom tomatoes, such as Brandywine, Amish Paste, and Pineapple Hawaiian, are open pollinated and true to seed, meaning you can save seed from them to grow next year that will result in tomatoes identical to those from the parent plant.  Most heirloom varieties were introduced prior to 1940, and tend to be more flavorful and unique in both shape and color than hybrids.  However, they may take longer to mature and produce fewer fruits than a hybrid.

Hybrids, like Goliath, Celebrity and Early Girl, have been bred to be stronger, more resistant to common tomato diseases, more productive, and maintain consistency of size and shape.  While hybrids are the perfect shape for your BLT, they may not be as flavorful as an heirloom.

When is it safe to plant and how do I plant them?

In the Grand Valley, it’s usually safe to plant on Mother’s Day Weekend (later for higher elevations).  Tomatoes are tropical plants that will not tolerate a frost; usually our last frost is mid-May.  Planting them early risks death from frost (unless you have wall of waters) and often doesn’t gain much of a head start–tomatoes need warm soil and warm temperatures day and night before they’ll really take off.  A cool spring often results in not much growth until the weather warms.  Tomatoes are heavy feeders and enjoy organic matter in their soil.  Be sure to amend the soil with an organic compost, such as Soil Pep, Mesa Magic or Happy Frog Soil Conditioner, and include a time-released fertilizer.  Plant your tomato babies a bit deeper than they are planted in their pots; tomatoes will root from the main stem and this deeper planting will result in a stronger plant.  (Big exception to this deep planting in the case of grafted tomatoes, but that’s another post!)

Do I need to prune them?

Pruning tomatoes refer to cutting out suckers–new stems that form in the crotch between a stem and a branch.

Tomato_Suckers

If you plant determinates, no pruning is needed.  Pruning indeterminates is a personal preference thing.  Some growers leave suckers alone for a larger  harvest–more but smaller tomatoes.  Some feel their harvest is better–larger but fewer tomatoes–if they prune.  Pruning is a sort of trial and error process to see what works best for your garden.  Pruning can help control the monster-like spread of an indeterminate, provide better air circulation and make harvesting easier.  According to About.com Gardening:  “As long as you have a strong main stem, it’s fine to leave a few suckers on the plant. The general recommendation is to leave 2 or 3 suckers to improve yield, but not to let every sucker grow. After that there is no general agreement.”  It’s best to prune suckers while they’re still small enough to pinch them off with your fingers.  (Image from About.com Gardening)

Do I need to worry about bugs or anything?

In a word, yup.  There are some viral diseases that tomatoes are not yet bred to be resistant to.  The one you’ll hear the most about is “curly top virus.”  It is transmitted by the teeny-tiny feet of a leaf hopper and is fatal for your tomato.  Tomatoes with curly top need to be pulled out and thrown in the trash–not the compost.  Less fatal, but huge in the ick department is the tomato hornworm.

hornworms

Hornworms are the caterpillar of the pretty hummingbird moth and can grow from tiny to gigantic in no time.  They can strip entire branches of their leaves overnight.  The best and easiest solution for them is to watch carefully, pick them off and squish them or drop them into a quart jar of rubbing alcohol.  (I prune off a bit of a branch with my nippers, take the beastie, branch and all, to a dirt place where I have an old shingle that blew off my shed.  I put the shingle on top of the bug and step on it.  Ick.  I know…but I’m never gonna let a bug beat me out of my yummy tomatoes!)  Another common tomato issue is blossom end rot–a black patch that forms on the bottom of the fruit.  This is most often caused by inconsistent soil moisture.  Tomatoes like their soil to be evenly moist–they hate to be wet then dry out, then be wet….  Mulching is a great way to help retain soil moisture.  Another cause for blossom end rot is not enough calcium in your soil.  Crushing up eggshells and working them into the soil around your plants can help, and Fertilome makes a spray to help prevent the rot.  One last issue to talk about: blossom drop.  When daytime temperatures exceed 85F, your tomato can feel stressed and might drop its flowers without setting fruit.  This will right itself as temperatures cool, and once again, Fertilome has a spray that can help.

That bug section got kind of big and scary, huh?!  Don’t be frightened away from growing tomatoes, though.  As picky as they can be, there really is nothing like that first ripe tomato of the season, still warm from the sun, maybe with a little salt…….

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The friendly folks at Mt Garfield are there to help, from selecting the perfect tomatoes for your garden space and culinary desires to finding solutions to any problems that arise.  🙂   Also, new this year–grafted tomatoes!  Squeeee!  So cool!  More on them in another post.  🙂

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Filed under General gardening, tomatoes