Garden Math

It's been a busy start to the school year over here! I hope you've been following along on my Instagram page. 

Balancing and weighing the garden harvest.

Balancing and weighing the garden harvest.

One of the best things about my job is working with such creative people. I wanted to take a minute to tell you about one of the projects I did over the summer. I was assigned to lead a camp this summer that uses the school farm to teach Kindergarten and first grade math skills, and I really wasn't really sure which subject material would be most important for these girls to review. My awesome coworker and fantastic Kindergarten teacher Heather Fontana came to the rescue. We came up with some great activities that builds age-appropriate math skills for the little ones, all while they're having fun in the garden. The best part is that these projects are easily adaptable to your home or school garden.

They graphed their harvest! 

They graphed their harvest! 

  • Our first project was designed to help the girls brush up on graphing and one-to-one correspondence. We harvested tomatoes, beans, eggplant, okra, and flowers. They had to count out the number of each item we picked, and then, they had to graph it. They counted out the number of little squares that corresponded with the number of each variety of veggies they harvested. For example, we harvested 17 eggplant, so they had to count out 17 little graph squares that represented each harvested eggplant. This was a challenge for them, but they loved being able to easily see which number was the greatest and which was the least. 
  • One-to-one correspondence proved to be a little tricky for some of the younger girls, so I made little cards with different numbers from 1-20. The girls had to take some of the beans that they harvested and fill the card with the corresponding number of beans. This task was challenging at first, but the girls got better and better at it. 
  • We also worked on weighing skills, as well as the concepts of less and more. We had a couple of pumpkins come in early. The girls had to predict which pumpkin they thought had the most seeds in it. Then, I cut open the pumpkins and let the girls remove the "guts." I asked them if it would be reasonable for us to count out each one of the hundreds of pumpkin seeds. We talked about other ways we could find out which pumpkin had more. This led us to discuss balance and weight. We talked about how a pan balance worked, and they filled each side of the balance up with the seeds from their pumpkin. They noted how when one side dropped, that meant it was heavier, and if that side was heavier, we could probably assume there were more seeds there. The girls also used the balances to compare like with unlike. They filled one side up with beans, and tried to discover how many of the other veggies they harvested it would take to make the sides balance. 
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The garden is a natural place to learn math and spacial reasoning skills. Do you have a favorite garden math activity? Let's hear about it! 

Happy growing, 

Mary Riddle

The Solar-Powered Girl-Powered Wash Station... finished!

Back in June, I told you all about a brilliant young woman at Hutchison who designed, planned, and built a solar-powered vegetable wash station at the farm. Well, she's finished it! Here's the full story, from beginning to end.

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Have you ever been so bowled over by the brilliance of a teen that it leaves you speechless?

This past fall, I was busily tucking tiny kale seeds in to the warm soil of the Hutchison farm, when a freshman girl wandered in through the gate. 

"Hi, Mrs. Riddle! My name is Elizabeth. I've designed a solar-powered vegetable wash station that will allow us to capture the gray water from the sink into a cylindrical chamber that will clean the water using a small motor and a UV filtration system. Would you like to see it?"

Me: [blink, blink]

"I've created a budget for it and preliminary blueprints."

Me: [jaw falls slightly agape.]

Pulling myself together, I ask her which class this is for, and who's giving her credit for this.

"Oh no," she says, "I'm doing this just for fun."

For fun, I later find out, in between her classes, quiz bowl competitions, and running tech for two school plays, but I digress.

Working with Henry Hampton, our Physical Plant Director, Elizabeth fine-tuned her idea and got her plan and budget approved. She decided that she wanted her station to be useful and educational, so she added a component to capture and sanitize rain water, because, as she said, "it's important for us to learn about water conservation."

Parts were ordered, and the plan was set in motion. Elizabeth came out to the school over the course of three weeks during her summer vacation to build her design. Two wonderful members of the Hutchison maintenance staff, Carnell Benton and Napoleon Logan, helped Elizabeth with the build every step of the way. Even on 100 degree days, she could be found at the top of a ladder, nailing shingles into a roof, or unloading the latest shipment of lumber. She ran the show with grit and grace. 

Last week, I am thrilled to report, she finally got to put the finishing touch on her project: the solar panel! With several second and fourth grade classes watching, she climbed up onto the roof of her building and installed  it. In a few minutes, the battery was charged up enough to get the pump moving. Elizabeth collected rain water in barrels over the summer, and with the flip of a switch, the rain water was pumped through her invention and into the sink. (I was able to wash a whole crate of cucumbers just using filtered rain water. That was a first for me!)

Installing the solar panel. Photo by Cathy Barber.

Installing the solar panel. Photo by Cathy Barber.

The younger kids (and, let's be honest, all of the adults) were stunned, and I could see the gears in their head starting to turn. The girls were full of questions. Their hands shot up in the air like popcorn as they asked her things like, "Did you have to make several versions of your plan, or did you get it right the first time?" and "How do solar panels work?" and "Where does the water go once it's used?" Elizabeth may have inspired an entire new generation of budding scientists and engineers!

One of the greatest things about working with kids and teens is that they show you on a daily basis to never underestimate them. With just a little bit of support and the proper resources, Elizabeth was able to invent something new and useful. I can't wait to see how she changes the world. Way to go, Elizabeth!

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The whole crew. Photo by Cathy Barber.

The whole crew. Photo by Cathy Barber.

The finished product! Photo by Cathy Barber. 

The finished product! Photo by Cathy Barber. 

Planning and Planting for Fall

This is such a great time of year. The summer bounty is really starting to come in strong. I'm awash in tomatoes, basil, okra, cucumbers, beans, and eggplant, and the summer flowers are putting on a fireworks show. It's awesome, right? On top of that, it's a high of EIGHTY THREE DEGREES in Memphis today. I'm pretty sure we had warmer days this winter. It's been a mild summer, and the garden is loving it. 

Well, I've lived in this region too long to expect this to last. Late July and August in Memphis is (usually) oppressively warm. Usually, by mid to late July, my first round of zinnias, squash, cucumbers, and tomatoes have started to succumb to powdery mildew, southern blight, or some other kind of nasty fungal infection. I don't want all of the glorious summer bounty to end in July, though; there are still months to go before our frost date! So, I get ready now to make sure I've got delicious summer produce and bright, beautiful flowers pouring in from the garden until October. 

Berkeley Tie-Dye tomatoes germinating

Berkeley Tie-Dye tomatoes germinating

Fall tomatoes are some of the best. In the spring, I like to seed hybrid tomatoes that are bred to withstand some of the gross fungal infections that are so common in our area mid-summer. I've never found a variety (or an organic technique) that totally keeps the disease away, but by seeding hybrid tomatoes, I can usually get a few extra weeks out of them mid-summer. However, it's fall tomatoes where I get to have my fun. Usually, fall in Memphis means a slight reprieve from the high humidity and blazing temperatures, and it's usually a great time to grow heirloom crops that don't do so well for me in the height of summer. Last week, I seeded Berkeley Tie-Dye, Cherokee Purple, Blue Gold Berry, Brandywine, and a few other fun heirloom varieties. I'll plant them outside in a few more weeks. 

I also planted my next round of sweet peppers, zinnias, and beans. I can't keep the geese away from edamame during their nesting season. They love it! By mid-summer, though, they've chilled out enough for me to plant some of their favorite foods, so I got some edamame in the ground. I planted a miniature sweet pepper that takes fewer days to mature than standard varieties in order to maximize fall harvest time. I've been enjoying zinnias this summer that have a muted color palette: apricot, light lime, cream, and white. They're starting to succumb to a fungal infection, so in a couple of weeks I'll rip them out, and I'll transplant bright, festive, multi-colored zinnias and sunflowers that will be ready to greet the girls when they come back to school in the fall. 

What's going on in your garden right now? Drop me a line in the comments, on my social media pages, or send me an email! 

Happy growing, 

Mary Riddle

Color party in the garden!

Color party in the garden!

Solar Powered Girl Power

Have you ever been so bowled over by the brilliance of a teen that it leaves you speechless?

This past fall, I was busily tucking tiny kale seeds in to the warm soil of the Hutchison farm, when a freshman girl wandered in through the gate. 

"Hi, Mrs. Riddle! My name is Elizabeth. I've designed a solar-powered vegetable wash station that will allow us to capture the gray water from the sink into a cylindrical chamber that will clean the water using a small motor and a UV filtration system. Would you like to see it?"

Me: [blink, blink]

"I've created a budget for it and preliminary blueprints."

Me: [jaw falls slightly agape.]

Pulling myself together, I ask her which class this is for, and who's giving her credit for this.

"Oh no," she says, "I'm doing this just for fun."

For fun, I later find out, in between her classes, quiz bowl competitions, and running tech for two school plays, but I digress.

Working with our director of facilities, Elizabeth fine-tuned her idea and got her plan and budget approved. This week, she's coming out to campus (during her summer vacation!) to build her brainchild. I'll show y'all the completed project once she's finished, but I was too excited to keep the lid on this for any longer. 

Here's to brilliant young women! 

 

 

Things get better.

On May 28, 2015, I got my foot tangled up in a lawnmower and kicked off the worst year of my life. 

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The first thing I felt, after the panic, was embarrassment. I was sitting there, half-naked on the ground waiting for the ambulance to arrive (I'd ripped off my shirt to wrap around my foot to try and stem the flow of blood), and through the pain and the terror, I remember feeling just plain stupid. HOW could I have so flagrantly ignored the safety rules that I would never have let my employees or students disobey? I had my boots with me at the farm that day, but I decided that those blisters that the boots gave me were getting too obnoxious, and I'd just finish mowing this last little area IN MY CHACOS.

The worst part was, I'd paid for my flippant disregard of safety rules before. I've dropped a T-post driver on my foot. I've accidentally kicked the sharp end of shovels as I ran in flip flops through my fields. I still didn't learn. I felt like a complete fool.  

Fast forward through 18 days in the hospital, seven surgeries, and weeks at home in recovery, I lost my big toe and my foot was being held together by pins and a device called a wound vacuum that still gives me nightmares.

See that stack of papers? Trying to work from the couch. Photo by Jenny Brandt.

See that stack of papers? Trying to work from the couch. Photo by Jenny Brandt.

At the time of my accident, my husband and I ran a non-profit training program for aspiring farmers together. We had big, overly-idealistic dreams about saving the world through the proliferation of sustainable farms. Between us, we made up half of the executive staff. Needless to say, neither one of us were able to give our attentions to work, and the employees were beginning to burn out from pulling all of the extra weight. (They were admirable and heroic, but even heroes need a break!) I threw myself into physical therapy to get back to work as soon as possible. I consulted with students by phone while bed-ridden. I graduated from wheelchair to walker to crutches to a slow walk. By the end of June, I was able to do seated farm chores with my foot propped up, like seeding or veggie processing. By mid-July, I was slowly working my way back into the fields. 

I perfected the art of seeding with my foot propped up.

I perfected the art of seeding with my foot propped up.

I was finally back up on my feet in the fall, only to be pushed back down again. As I mentioned, I used to train aspiring farmers. Farming is really hard work, and the truth is, most people can't hack it. During this time, a small group of former students who had failed out over the years for a variety of reasons got together and decided to harass and stalk both my husband and me. They embarked on an online disinformation crusade that would make the Russian intelligence service give them high-fives. This lasted for close to a year. Anyone who has ever been through prolonged harassment knows what kind of damage it can cause. At the time, I honestly would have preferred to lose another toe than endure the onslaught of relentless harassment. 

The team.

The team.

I'm not sure what makes people suspend better judgment and act in ways that are purposefully malicious. I don't know if they got it into their head that their failures were so fully a result of a moral or professional failing on my fault, that they felt justified in doing what they did. I even tried to empathize with the people that were hurting me, put myself in their shoes, and rationalize their behaviors. It's impossible, though. There is no justification for harassment. None.

Dealing with months and months of harassment was almost more than I could bear. I became pregnant with twins, then lost one of the twins. I was still losing weight from the stress of the harassment well into my second trimester. I was scared. We would triple-check the locks at night and make sure all the curtains were pulled. I was scared to go to work. I was scared of losing my other twin. Every day, every mundane task, became a whirlwind of anxiety. 

But you know what they say, about the night being darkest just before the dawn? 

I think it's true. 

There came a day when I was sure I couldn't face another moment of false accusations, name calling, and malice. I couldn't take another day of feeling like that stress that I couldn't escape was killing my other baby.  

That day, a friend reached out to me to tell me about a similar situation she had been through. Another friend dropped soup off on my front porch.

The next day, another friend reached out just to tell me he cared. A little bit at a time, things got better. Terrible, stupid accidents happen, mothers lose and grieve their babes they'll never meet, and human beings do cold-hearted, myopic, and selfish things. And things can still get better.

Neighbors and friends brought me a hand bike to use while I couldn't use my feet!

Neighbors and friends brought me a hand bike to use while I couldn't use my feet!

As it got better, I was able to better realize that they only reason that I was able to walk through this storm at all was through the love and grace of those friends and family who were there through the entire journey. They brought me smoothies in the hospital when I couldn't eat solid food. They hung up a porch swing at my house so I could sit outside while I was stuck at home. They threw me a surprise birthday party. They poured money into a GoFundMe to help me cover my bills, even though the whole damn accident was my fault. They came to my house EVERY DAY to change my wound dressings. They took my husband out for a beer to give him a break. They knitted me socks to keep my healing foot warm. They hugged me when I was sad. They walked my dog. They spoke up for me when I was being harassed. They gave me grace to be imperfect in the face of adversity. They welcomed my child. They never let me forget that I was loved.

May 28, 2015 was the start of a year I didn't think I could survive. But things got better. They get better.

The funny thing is, the year of trial by fire helped me better realize who I want to be, the friendships I want to cultivate, and what I want to do. It made me who I am, and I like who I am. I still carry the scars of that year, both obvious physical scars and deeper emotional ones, but even scars fade. I never thought that this could be true, but right now, save for an occasional night of uninterrupted sleep and a whole and healthy foot, there is nothing about my life that I would change. I am truly happy. I am content. I love my husband more than ever. Our child is the light of our lives. My friends and family are my rock and my joy. I love my job. I love who I am. I love my community.

I share my story to say don't give up. You're not alone. It gets better. When they try to bury you, just remember that you're a seed. 

You had a good run, lefty. 

You had a good run, lefty. 

When Should I Harvest Garlic?

Back in February, I told y'all all about how I fertilize, weed, and mulch to prepare for an awesome garlic harvest. Well, that magical season is upon us, so now I'm here to show you how to know when it's the right time to dig up your precious garlicky treasures. 

I grow two different kinds of garlic, hard neck and soft neck. I like to grow soft neck varieties, because you can make garlic braids from them. I like hard neck varieties, because the cloves are usually a bit bigger, and they also send up garlic scapes. 

There! That's a garlic scape.

There! That's a garlic scape.

Scapes are the blossom that the hard neck garlic plants send up just a few weeks before it's time to harvest. They are DELICIOUS. If you grow hard neck garlic, you should definitely pinch off the scapes and cook with them. They're divine. 

Usually, 2-4 weeks after you've harvested your scapes, the bottom leaves of your garlic plant start turning yellow and withering. With soft neck varieties, you'll see this yellowing without having the scapes tip you off first. When about one third of the leaves turn yellow, I know it's time to dig up the garlic. 

So here's how I do it. First, I always pull one or two bulbs up and cut them open, just to make sure I can see the cloves and everything looks like it's ready to go. If it looks like the cloves are fully formed, I go through my raised bed with a potato fork and loosen up the soil really well. Then, it's time to pull. Pull from the base to make sure you don't break off the stems. 

I move my garlic to the shade immediately and begin spacing them out on tables or hanging them up in my shed. Do not wash or trim them first! I gently tap the dirt off and hang them up just as they are. Your garlic needs 2-3 weeks in a cool, shady, well-ventilated room in order to cure. When garlic cures, the outside dries up, while the inside cloves are still moist and flavorful. After it's finished curing, you can wipe off the remaining dirt and trim the leaves and roots off.

After my soft neck garlic cures, I'll walk you through the process of making garlic braids. Stay tuned! 

Happy growing, 

Mary Riddle

Hanging up garlic to cure

Hanging up garlic to cure

Growing Young Entrepreneurs

The school where I work has a fantastic new program called Hutchison Invests. The program trains young women in social entrepreneurship, providing valuable services like business incubation, mentoring, and internship matching. Hutchison Invests is directed by an incredibly talented colleague of mine, Kim Ware. 

Kim reached out to me several weeks ago wanting to collaborate on a project for her young entrepreneurs. Social entrepreneurship and eco-friendly gardening seem to go hand-in-hand. We put our brains together and decided that we'd ask the girls to come up with a marketing plan to sell some of the honey that I was pulling off of the hives at the school farm. The girls took to the project like, well, bees to honey, and their results astounded us. 

These young women researched federal, state, and county health requirements to ensure that we were in compliance with all regulations. They designed a honey label that met those standards. They designed their own packaging. They researched honey pricing and helped determine what our break-even point would be. Then, they filtered, bottled, and labeled an initial prototype batch of about fourteen pounds of Hutchison-made honey, and took it to the Buzz Shop, our on-campus gift store.

The girls had already prepared a pitch to share with Bess, the Buzz Shop manager. Two of the girls prepared slides with consumer benefits, along with a proposed price (and class commission for their stellar marketing work!) Bess agreed to carry the honey, and they sold out in THREE HOURS. 

The girls are finishing up their exams this week before they leave for the summer, but they are already making plans about expanding their honey line this coming fall, and potentially adding other hive products like beeswax candles and lip balms.

It's a joy to work with such impressive young women and innovative colleagues.  We're going to be restocking our honey soon, so if you're in the Memphis area, make plans to come to the Buzz Shop this summer to try some of this honey for yourself. There can't be a more delicious way to support the work of young entrepreneurs. 

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Grow More by Interplanting

This is the time of year when we apire to garden greatness. We look at our freshly turned soil, the rising temperatures, and the glorious plants and seeds on sale at our local garden centers. We usually manage to sneak off to a plant sale unsupervised at least once, and we come home with more plants than we have space. (We've all been there, right?) If you've accidentally bought more plants than your garden can hold for the umpteenth year in a row, maybe this post can help you out.

I maximize the space in each of my raised beds through a process called interplanting. Instead of dedicating separate precious square footage to spring crops and summer crops, I plant many of them alongside one another. It's pretty easy to do. 

Mature radishes surrounding a tomato seedling

Mature radishes surrounding a tomato seedling

Here are some ways you can interplant your garden:

An interplanted bed of peppers, lettuce, and pole beans

An interplanted bed of peppers, lettuce, and pole beans

  • Are you looking impatiently at the seedlings in your tomato bed, trying to hurry them along? It will be weeks before they really spread out, so utilize the real estate surrounding them for quick crops like radishes. I planted radishes among my tomato seedlings and zinnia seedlings. Right about the time that the tomatoes and zinnias start growing up and out rapidly, it's time for the radishes to be harvested. 
  • I also like to take advantage of shade provided by vertical-growing crops like pole beans. In this bed, I planted pole beans along one side and peppers along the others. It will be several weeks before the peppers really spread out, so right down the middle, I planted some lettuce seedlings. The lettuce will be kept cooler in the afternoon sun from the shade of my pole bean trellis. By the time the peppers start encroaching on the space in the middle of the bed, it will be time to harvest the lettuce. I also trained pole beans to climb up over my low tunnel hoops and planted kohlrabi underneath. Again, the shade from the pole beans will extend the growing season for the cool weather-loving kohlrabi. 
  • You can also interplant with flowers. This season, I planted two rows of cosmos seedlings into my raised beds. I knew it would be several weeks before they would take up the space in the middle, so I transplanted some sunflowers down the center. I've harvested the sunflowers, and the cosmos are just now flushing out. 
Sunflowers harvested from the interplanted bed (pictured behind) of cosmos.

Sunflowers harvested from the interplanted bed (pictured behind) of cosmos.

Make the most out of every nook and cranny by pairing slower growing summer crops with quick growing spring crops. 

How do you make the most of limited square footage? Do you have any interplanting tricks? Share them below! 

Happy growing, 

Mary Riddle

Zinnias and radishes

Zinnias and radishes

Installing New Bees (In a Kid-Friendly Apiary)

The girls at Hutchison School love their bees. Not only is it their mascot, but the school's resident honeybees play an integral role in the academic programs. Harvesting honey is everyone's highlight, and the girls are fascinated by the intricacies of bee colony life. 

When I started at Hutchison, there were just two hives. The boxes were starting to fall apart, and the bees were showing signs of aggression. I knew I wanted to expand the apiary, help calm some of the bee aggression, and update the bee's lodgings to make it more kid-friendly, but I wasn't sure of the best way to do this. Luckily, my dear friends Rita and Richard Underhill of Peace Bee Farm are bee experts and consultants. Richard is a Master Beekeeper. They came over to Memphis a few weeks back to help me come up with a plan. 

First, we decided to get rid of the ten-frame medium hives and switch the existing colonies over to eight-frame medium hives. Each medium frame of honey weighs about six pounds, so the smaller and lighter we can make our equipment, the better it is for our kid-beekeepers. We also decided to get two new packages of bees, and we ordered eight-frame equipment for them, too. 

The hives arrived first, and one of our third grade classes signed up to come help put the hives together. The girls installed beeswax-coated plastic foundations into wooden frames and painted the hives. 

Next, the bees. We ordered two three-pound packages of Italian honeybees from Bemis Honey Bee Farm in Little Rock, Arkansas. Last Saturday, we drove to Little Rock to go pick them up.

When you order bee packages, they usually come in a small box, like you see below. There's a little cell inside for the queen and her attendants, and a can of corn syrup with holes punctured into it to slowly feed the bees during their journey to their new homes. 

On Sunday, Richard and Rita met me at Hutchison to help install the bee packages and try to diagnose what was going on with those aggressive bees. (More on that later.) Richard also moved the frames from the existing ten-frame hives into the eight-frame hives. 

Here's how we installed the bee packages:

First, we placed the bottom boards of the hives on their platform and then put one box on top of that. We sprayed down six of the frames with a spray bottle containing sugar water, then placed them in the box, leaving a gap in the middle.

Richard spraying new foundation with sugar water

Richard spraying new foundation with sugar water

Leaving a gap to install the bee package

Leaving a gap to install the bee package

Next, we turned our attention to the queen. She was in a little wooden and mesh wire box with a sugar candy plug, topped with a cork. She was definitely sending off some strong pheromones, because her little cage was covered with layers of attendants. We pushed them aside gently to make sure she was okay. She was plump and marked with a yellow dot. 

Richard inspecting the queen cell (covered with attendants!)

Richard inspecting the queen cell (covered with attendants!)

Then, Richard showed me how to place the queen cage in the new hive. We took the cork out of the end of the cage that had the sugar candy plug. We gently probed the candy to make sure that it was soft and pliable enough for the bees to chew through it. Then we placed the cell snugly in between two of the frames at an angle, with the candy facing up. Richard explained that you keep it facing up so that if an attendant bee dies, it doesn't fall down and block the queen's exit from the cage. 

Installing the queen cell at an angle

Installing the queen cell at an angle

Richard removing the sugar can

Richard removing the sugar can

Shaking three pounds of bees into the new hives.

Shaking three pounds of bees into the new hives.

Once the queen was safely ensconced in the hive, we took the syrup can out of the bee package, turned it upside down over the gap in the hive, and shook it like a bottle of Heinz 57 ketchup. The bees came tumbling out into the hive. It took several good shakes!

Then we placed the final two frames into the hives and placed a feeder on top of the hive. We filled the feeder with sugar water to help nourish them while they expend lots of energy building out their new honeycomb. We placed plastic mesh floaters in the sugar water to help the bees access the syrup without drowning, then placed the inner and outer covers directly on top of the feeders. And voila! A new hive is born. 

I'll feed them once a week until they've drawn out their comb. Over the next few weeks, I'll add another brood box, then a queen excluder and a honey super. I opened up the hives today to check and make sure they got the queens out. They did. I noticed an unusually high population of small hive beetles in one of the hives, so I'm keeping an eye on that as well. 

Do any of you keep bees with kids or students? What do you do to make it kid-friendly? 

Happy growing, 

Mary Riddle

Richard Underhill, Master Beekeeper, and the Hutchison Apiary

Richard Underhill, Master Beekeeper, and the Hutchison Apiary

Snapdragons are a Snap

Armloads of snaps!

Armloads of snaps!

I'm in the midst of the most prolific harvest of snapdragons you've ever seen. Not only are they fragrant, but their beauty is the kind that almost hurts your heart. With a little bit of planning, they're pretty easy to grow! I'm here to tell you how. 

Plan now for fall planting. I usually recommend placing orders for your desired flower seed as that particular flower's season comes to a close. I'll have these snaps for a few more weeks, then I'll go over my harvest records, decide which snaps I like the best (or if there was one I wouldn't order again) then place my seed order. Once the seeds arrive, I keep them stored in a cool, dark, dry place until I need them in the fall. I always like to order early so that I don't get caught in a pinch if the varieties I want are back-ordered. 

I planted these snapdragons with my students back in October. They are a little finicky. (The snapdragons, not the students!) The seeds are TINY and must be kept on top of the soil, because they need light to germinate. I germinated them indoors, then planted them outside after they had several sets of true leaves.This took about six weeks. While I was waiting for them to grow, I made sure my beds were free of debris, and I applied Mighty Grow fertilizer. Once ready, I planted my snapdragons about a foot apart. I planted them this far apart, because I wanted lots of side branches on mine. If you want longer, stronger stems, you can plant them four inches apart. If you do it this way, you'll only get one cut from each plant.

Potomac, Rocket, and Madame Butterfly snapdragons

Potomac, Rocket, and Madame Butterfly snapdragons

If you want perfectly straight snapdragons that never tilt over, you'll want to add an extra step before you plant: installing Hortonova. I recommend pounding rebar into the corners of your beds and about every four to six feet along the length of your beds. Stretch your Hortonova tight over the top of the bed so that it is completely parallel to you soil below, about a foot above the ground. You can even use taller rebar and add a second layer of Hortonova another 8-12" above your first layer for extra support. I like to make sure the netting is extra secure by using small zip ties to attach it to the rebar. The Hortonova makes it a lot easier to perfectly space your plants, because it basically lays out a perfect grid on top of your soil. It's also great for all you perfectionists out there: I've gotten a few funky shaped snapdragons, because snaps are geotropic. That means that if the stems have fallen over and are at an angle to the ground, the blooms will bend themselves back up to try and grow straight up to the sky. 

Snapdragons with row covers, March 2017

Snapdragons with row covers, March 2017

I pinched my seedlings back to about half their height when I transplanted them in early November. I made sure to keep them covered with frost cloth during times when the temperatures were dropping well below freezing. I pinched them a few times throughout the winter.

I planted three different kinds of snapdragons to try and extend my snapdragon season. My Rocket snapdragons bloomed first, followed by Potomacs, and then Madame Butterfly. Madame Butterfly snaps are frillier open-faced blooms that don't have the traditional snapdragon look. But I think they're stunning, so I grow them, too. 

Stunning Madame Butterfly snapdragon

Stunning Madame Butterfly snapdragon

These flowers have just shattered my heart with their beauty and fragrance. I've gotten hundreds of stems over three feet tall, and lots of beautiful side stems that are a little smaller that have been wonderful for smaller arrangements. I harvest them when the the flower spikes are about 1/3 open. I strip all the leaves off before putting them in my harvest bucket. I've been posting pictures of the snapdragons' progress over on my social media accounts, so check them out. 

If you like what you see, I highly recommend planning now to plant them this fall. You won't be disappointed!

Happy growing,

Mary Riddle

 

First snapdragon harvest of the year on April 9, even after several pinchings! These are Rocket snapdragons.

First snapdragon harvest of the year on April 9, even after several pinchings! These are Rocket snapdragons.

Spring Chaos

Phew! It's been a minute since I've written, huh? Spring is in full swing, and I'm in peak chaos! I thought I'd take a minute today to share some of the cool things going on in the garden. 

French breakfast radish

French breakfast radish

The girls in pre-K became intrigued by root vegetables recently. They just love it that some veggies grow underground. (I love how wondrous the world is through a child's eyes!) They decided to plant one of the raised beds on the farm with three different kinds of root vegetables to observe how they grew. The girls planted French breakfast radishes, Easter egg radishes, and Chioggia beets. They came out to the farm almost every day to observe, take pictures, and measure the plants' growth. Well, last week the radishes were ready, and they got to pull them up! They loved making predictions about what the radishes would look like before they pulled them out of the ground. That was especially fun to do with the Easter egg radishes, because they were all different colors! The Chioggia beets are still in the ground and will be ready in a few weeks.

Blue bonnet rice

Blue bonnet rice

I've also been working on a cool project with upper school girls. Our sophomore English class read The Things They Carried, which is a novel about the Vietnam War. Many of the scenes take place in rice paddies in Vietnam. To help the girls better understand the setting, we learned about traditional methods of growing rice. We watched videos of rice production, looked at pictures, and then got to start our own rice from seed. The plants are shooting up in our grow light station, and we'll plant them outside next week. This rice is a highland variety, which takes less water to grow than lowland varieties. I've never grown rice before, so I'm looking forward to learning about it more. I'll keep y'all posted!

The production and planting schedule is just going gangbusters over here. In the last week, we've harvested hundreds of pounds of leeks, bok choy, radishes, sorrel, arugula, green garlic, herbs. We've planted okra, basil, cantaloupe, cotton, kohlrabi, cosmos, and tomatoes. And the flowers! The flowers are stunning right now. Snapdragons, anemones, bachelor's buttons, nigella, and larkspur are at their peak. It might be chaotic right now, but I wouldn't trade it for anything. It's good to be a grower in April!

What's going on in your garden this month? Tell me all about it in the comments or on one of my social media pages! 

Happy growing, 

Mary Riddle

My leek-y sink. ;) 

My leek-y sink. ;) 

Girls harvesting baby bok choy

Girls harvesting baby bok choy

Beneficial Insects

As growers, so much of our time is spent scouting for harmful bugs in the garden that sometimes we neglect the good guys. The truth is, there are lots of insects that can provide valuable services to you, from pollination to pest control. With just a little bit of research to learn what good bugs are out there, and a little bit of patience to wait for them to get to work, you can save yourself time, energy, and money. There are lots of beneficial insects out there, but I'm just going to go over a few of the more common ones today. 

Lady beetle eating an aphid.

Lady beetle eating an aphid.

Lady beetles are well-known garden friends, because they have a voracious appetite for aphids. As I've written about in a previous post, releasing ladybugs in greenhouses or other enclosed areas is a good way to fight aphids. While their larvae also like to snack on aphids, adult lady beetles can eat up to 50 aphids a day, so you want to make sure you release them in an area with a heavy infestation. It's not a method to use if you have a mild aphid outbreak. Lady beetles also eat pollen and nectar, so inter-planting your vegetable garden with flowers is a good way to attract them naturally. Planting several different kinds of flowers helps ensure a nectar and pollen source over a longer period of time. This may encourage lady beetles to stick around. 

A wasp eating a cabbage worm

A wasp eating a cabbage worm

There's a great beneficial insect that has a particularly bad reputation due to its mean sting, but wasps also provide a great pest control service. Wasps feed on the bugs that feed on your plants, so think about that next time you want to spray one of their nests! (Side note: if anyone in your household is allergic to stinging insects, or if there is a wasp's nest in an a high-traffic area of your household, I always recommend getting rid of them. Safety first!) 

There's another species of wasps called parasitoid wasps, or parasitic wasps, that are probably the creepiest of all beneficial insects. Parasitic wasps feed off of nectar from the plants in your garden, but when it's time for them to make babies, they temporarily paralyze unwitting caterpillars with their venom and lay eggs in or on them. The host caterpillars remain alive while the wasp eggs develop, but when the wasps pupate, they eat their way out of the caterpillar to emerge into the world. The caterpillars are eaten alive. It sounds horrifying, but once you have a few too many Tomato Hornworms destroy your beautiful Brandywines, you'll start to feel less sympathetic! If you've got the stomach for it, you can check out these cool photos of parasitic wasps emerging from caterpillars over at this NC State Extension page.  (Side note: you should follow that page anyway, because it's run by Extension Agent Debbie Roos, and she's a genius.) 

There are some bugs that are both good and bad. Praying mantises are some of the coolest insects you can find in your garden, but they don't discriminate when it comes to their meals: they'll eat good bugs and bad bugs alike! They'll even eat other mantises if they get hungry enough. Generally, though, they're good for a garden, so I like to keep them around. They're especially great to have around for the hard-to-kill hard-shelled bug infestations like Colorado potato beetles or harlequin beetles. You can even order egg cases online and hatch them into your garden.

Last but not least, pollinators! If you're growing any kind of vegetable, you should definitely be planting flowers to attract pollinators. At my school's farm, we have an entire bed dedicated to perennial flowering plants for pollinators, including milkweed, coneflower, Joe Pye Weed, elderberry, salvia, and more. 

Hutchison pollinator garden 

Hutchison pollinator garden 

It's a pollinator party!

It's a pollinator party!

Pollinators are essential for ensuring a stable food supply. One third of our agricultural products depends on them! We have over 4,000 species of bees in the United States. Most people know about the plight of our honeybees, but there are dozens of native pollinators with vulnerable populations in rapid decline, too. Planting diverse flowering crops that bloom throughout the growing season is critical for supporting pollinator populations. A diversity of flowers also supports a diverse pollinator population. I love sitting out in the garden and seeing the honeybees, bumble bees, mason bees, sweat bees, beetles, and even flies visiting bloom after bloom.

I also love watching the butterflies in the garden. Many people know that milkweed is essential for monarch butterflies. Attracting other kinds of butterflies is easy. They like nectar sources from flat-topped broad-petaled flowers that they can land on, like zinnias, coneflowers, and dahlias. Planting just a few of those flowers will attract beautiful butterflies throughout the warm seasons. Many butterflies and moths need to warm up before they take flight, so if you head out to your zinnia patch early in the morning, you can often see them soaking up the morning rays on top of the flowers. 

Eastern tiger swallowtail

Eastern tiger swallowtail

Your garden is an ecosystem of all kinds of six-legged critters, and if you plan ahead and have a little bit of patience, you can put the good ones to work for you.

If you're not sure if a bug you're looking at is good or bad, take a look at NC State's great visual guide to beneficial insects here

Do you have a favorite garden bug? Let me know about it in the comments, or by hopping over to one of my social media pages

Happy growing,

Mary Riddle

Photobombing the bees! 

Photobombing the bees! 

The Dirt on Dirt

Let's talk about your garden soil. You can't grow healthy plants unless you've got healthy soil, and there's more to it than haphazardly adding a bag of fertilizer or some half-baked compost. I'm going to walk you through the basics of garden soil management from soil testing to fertilizers to crop rotation to cover crops to composting. It's a lot to talk about, so I'm going to break it down into a few parts.

So let's dive in! First up, soil tests. 

If you're serious about growing anything, you need to get a soil test. If you don't know what's in your soil, you're flying blind. Your local agricultural extension office should be able to provide you with a small box for gathering your soil sample along with written instructions. (If you don't know what an extension office is, Google your county name and "agricultural extension." A wealth of knowledge is available to you there!) You'll probably have to mail your sample box into a lab specified in the test directions, along with a check for the test fee. They usually cost in the ballpark of $10. You'll want to gather your test sample when the soil is dry and before you add any fertilizers to your soil. Fall is the best time to get a test, but any time is better than no time. 

There are definitely soil tests that are better than others, but your basic soil test should show you your pH and nutrient levels. If you can get one that shows you your level of organic matter, that's even better! The soil tests will come with recommendations about what kinds of amendments to apply and at which rates in order to achieve optimum nutrient levels. 

So, let's say you've gotten your soil test back, and it has the recommendations for how much of each nutrient you need to add to your soil. How do you know how much fertilizer to apply? Well, you could get out your pencil and paper and practice your basic arithmetic, but I love a shortcut. This calculator from Texas A&M is great. You can enter the numbers from your soil test that show how many parts per million of each nutrient is present in your soil. You'll also enter the numbers from the fertilizer grade of your preferred fertilizer. (The grade is the numbers that you find on the front of your fertilizer bag. It might say "4-3-4" or "20-20-20." Those numbers indicate how much nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium is in the mix.) The calculator tells you how much of your specific fertilizer to apply per 1000 square feet.

Your animals will thank you for using animal-safe fertilizers.

Your animals will thank you for using animal-safe fertilizers.

So which fertilizer should you use? Lucky for you, I have a strong preference to share. For generic garden fertilizers, I highly recommend Mighty Grow. It's organic, processed poultry litter that slowly releases over a 90 day period. I've used it for a couple of years now, and it's my favorite. I particularly like it, because it's considered pet safe, and I have a dog that will gladly roll around in and lick the soil when it's extra-fragrant from fertilizing. In my raised beds, I add 13 lbs of Mighty Grow per 1000 square feet. My beds are about 72 square feet, so I need just under one pound of Mighty Grow per bed. (Three cups of Mighty Grow fertilizer equals one pound.) I top dress with the Mighty Grow, meaning that I just use a scoop to scatter the pellets right on top of the soil, then water it in thoroughly. I fertilize with Mighty Grow every three months. 

Alright, you've made it through the tedious part of garden soil management! Stay tuned; we've got cover crops, crop rotations, and composting ahead of us. Do you have a favorite fertilizer that you like to use? Any questions about soil tests? You can drop it in the comments below!

Happy growing, 

Mary Riddle

Blini Two Ways

A few weeks ago, an upper school teacher happened to ask me in passing, "Do you know anything about Russia or Russian food?" She was wrapping up a unit in her Comparative Governments class about Russian agriculture, and she wanted to celebrate by making some kind of Russian dish with her students. 

A buttery, fluffy, airy, delectable blin. 

A buttery, fluffy, airy, delectable blin. 

She came to the right person! I studied Russian in a past life, and one of my favorite high school memories is the time our Russian class made blini for Maslenitsa. Maslenitsa is kind of like Russian Orthodox Mardi Gras. It's the time just before Lent when Russians eat all of the butter, eggs, and milk in their homes, because (theoretically) they won't be eating animal products until Easter. Blini are the perfect way to use up those ingredients. They're thin, buttery crepes that are delicious vehicles for equally delicious fillings. I could eat my weight in blini. They're divine. (Note: "blini" is plural. Just one is a "blin.")

The timing of her request was perfect. We spent Thursday afternoon during Maslenitsa week making delicious blini and talking about various Russian Orthodox traditions. 

Well, this teacher's Human Geography class got wind of her Comparative Government's blini celebration, and they were jealous. They wanted to make blini, too. The Human Geography girls weren't studying Russia, but they just so happened to be in their modern agriculture unit and were learning about farm subsidies. Making blini provided a great opportunity to talk about that.

Blini has five ingredients (flour, eggs, sugar, butter, and milk), and they're all heavily subsidized commodities. We worked out the price of the blini batter we made, and it came out to about $7. If you took away farm subsidies, though, the cost of the same bowl of batter jumped to about $22. That's a huge increase!

We made a platter full of blini and sat down to a table of different fillings, both savory and sweet: smoked salmon, sour cream, jams, and honey from our school apiary. Over our meal, we discussed the pros and cons of farm subsidies. Some of the girls came from families that owned farms, and they provided personal perspectives. They noted how subsidies help keep farm families stable and therefore helps regulate our national food supply.

Other perspectives were offered, too. Some girls didn't agree with how farm subsidies were distributed and didn't like that their tax dollars supported that. We also talked about how in a global food marketplace, our system of subsidies makes our food cheaper than food from farms in other countries. That can lead to food insecurity and systemic poverty in already unstable regions of the globe. I love how food can be a catalyst for a variety of conversations and learning experiences.

If you want to make blini with your family, the original recipe from my high school blini making days is below.

Ingredients

2.5 cups flour

4-5 eggs

1/2 cup sugar

14 Tbsp. butter, melted

3-4 cups milk

Directions

Separate the egg yolks from the whites. Stir sugar into the egg yolks, then add milk slowly while stirring. Add a dash of salt and melted hot butter. Add flour very slowly while stirring the mixture and smoothing the batter. Whisk egg whites until they're airy and fluffy, but not stiff. Fold them into the batter. Add about 1/3 cup of the batter to a hot frying pan and circle the pan around to spread the batter evenly over the surface. When the edges appear golden and small bubbles appear in the middle, flip it over and cook another minute or so. No need to add oil to the pan. There is plenty of butter in the batter. 

Serve with smoked salmon, sour cream, and dill for a savory dish, or jam and sour cream for a sweet option. 

Whipping egg whites by hand for true Russian street cred.

Whipping egg whites by hand for true Russian street cred.

International Women's Day with the Hutchison Honeybees

I spent International Women's Day with 50,000 of my favorite ladies. 

Well, lady bees anyway. 

I love working at an all-girls' school. I get to celebrate the work of bright girls and strong women every day. This International Women's Day was especially fun, because three classes of Hutchison Honeybees (our school mascot!) joined me for an early spring inspection of our school apiary. This time of year, there are only female bees in the colonies, and we cracked open the hives to see what they were up to.

The first thing that we noticed were the small hive beetles. According to Master Beekeeper Richard Underhill, the honeybees don't actually kill the small hive beetles that invade their hives. Instead, they build little jail cells out of beeswax to keep them isolated. They even feed their prisoner beetles. Isn't that incredible?

Girls with a frame of capped honey

Girls with a frame of capped honey

This is the time of year that many bee colonies die from starvation, because not much is in bloom yet. To keep their population levels strong, I brought along a couple of frames of capped honey that I saved from the fall to put in their hives for the bees to eat. The girls passed around a frame of capped honey, and we took out a partially-emptied honey frame from one of the beehives to examine the differences. One thing is for sure, honey is heavy. 

I showed the girls how the bees communicate danger to their fellow bees. They raise their backsides up in the air and release an alarm pheromone. The girls were amazed at the different ways that animals can communicate. Honeybees don't have mouths and tongues to form words, they observed, but they can communicate through scent. 

The bees seemed a little agitated, so we closed the hives up early and didn't inspect their brood. (I'll do that some soon time when there aren't a bunch of kids around!) We're going to be adding new colonies to the apiary soon, and the girls will get to help with that process. Seeing the girls' excitement as they learn about honeybees is one of the sweetest parts about life at Hutchison.  

Bees cleaning up an old honey frame.

Bees cleaning up an old honey frame.

Mary Riddle Memphis apiary

Ready, Set, Tomato! (Part 2)

San Marzano tomatoes make the best sauce. And noses, apparently. 

San Marzano tomatoes make the best sauce. And noses, apparently. 

We left off yesterday talking about planting tomatoes from seeds. Let's pick right back up with what you do after you've got your seedlings! Fast forward four or five weeks from your planting date. You've kept consistent moisture levels on your seedlings. You've fertilized once with fish emulsion. Now what?

Memphis is in agricultural Zone 7b. That means our last frost date usually falls in the second week of April. Tomatoes are cold sensitive, so you don't want to plant them out if there is a risk of temperatures falling below freezing. You can plant them out a little earlier if you've got low tunnels built, or some other form of frost protection. (I have rudimentary instructions on building low tunnels here.)

If the risk of frost has passed in your area, you've prepped your soil, and your seedlings are looking healthy and strong, then you just have one more step before you plant them out. You've got to decide how you want to stake your plants. Tomatoes need a little bit of help to stand up and be productive. Keep in mind, you don't absolutely have to stake your plants. You could just let them flop over. However, the more they're in contact with moist soil, the more susceptible they are to disease, and the closer your tomatoes are to the ground, the more likely they are to be eaten by rodents. So I highly recommend staking! 

Allegra the farm dog running through rows of tomatoes staked with cattle panel.

Allegra the farm dog running through rows of tomatoes staked with cattle panel.

If you've got a long row of tomatoes, the best way to stake them is to construct a wall out of T-posts and cattle panels. You can use a handy little device called a duratool to affix your tomato plants to the panel. The duratool is one of my favorite farm tools ever. If you've got a lot of tomatoes, this drastically reduces the time it takes to stake. The down side of cattle panel staking is that it's pricey, so I would only recommend this option if you've got more than 30 or so row feet of tomatoes planted. Otherwise, metal tomato cages or wooden stakes work well. Whichever way you plan to stake your tomatoes, make sure your stakes are in the ground before you put your plants in.

How far apart should you place your stakes? Many northern farmers swear by close tomato spacing for maximum production. I've seen recommendations as close as 18" spacing for tomato plants. If you grow below the Mason-Dixon, I find that this recommendation is a recipe for disaster. Southern climates are humid, and if you're in the Delta like I am, the soils are dense and full of clay. This is perfect breeding ground for blight and other fungal diseases. The best way to prevent the spread of those diseases is by spacing your tomato plants at least three feet apart, and make sure you have plenty of room for air flow between your tomato rows. 

Okay, so we've got our stakes in to our beautifully double-dug soil. Now what? I know some growers swear by this, but I recommend against ripping stems off to plant tomatoes deeper in the soil. First of all, open wounds on the plants are entry points for disease. Secondly, those leaves are little solar panels, making energy for your plants to grow. I dig a hole 2-3 times the size of the tomato root ball, fill it with compost, then plant the tomato starts about an inch higher than the root ball's soil line. 

Here in Memphis, my favorite tomato grower is Steve Fulwood of Cold Comfort Farm. He can grow beautiful, tender heirlooms long past the time my hybrids have succumbed to blight. His Brandywine tomatoes are my favorite. They're sweet, smooth, and the perfect slicing texture. My husband asked him last year what his secret was, and he shared his fertilizing plan. He saturates the soil under his tomato plants with Grow Big fertilizer from Fox Farm once a week until the plants start to bud, then he switches to Tiger Bloom. That plan has worked well for us, thought I have to admit... even with his fertilizer secret, I've still never been able to grow an heirloom tomato as perfect as his!

My Red Pearl tomatoes from Johnny's Selected Seeds went bonkers after implementing Steve Fulwood's fertilizing plan. 

My Red Pearl tomatoes from Johnny's Selected Seeds went bonkers after implementing Steve Fulwood's fertilizing plan. 

As your tomato plants become established, scout your plants twice a week for pest pressure. Look for holes or chunks taken out of leaves or fruit, as that may be a sign of tomato hornworm or fruitworm. Look for signs of wilt, as you may have aphids or stink bugs. Colorado potato beetles like to chew on tomato leaves until they turn to lace. The good news is that many of the pests that plague tomatoes are big enough for you to easily see and squish on-site. (Or brush it into a bucket of soapy water if that makes you squeamish.)

I also scout the soil line two to three times a week for signs of blight. If you see a fuzzy, dotted fungus along the soil line and base stem of your tomato plant, there's a good chance you've got Southern blight. Southern blight is horrible. It is a soil-borne disease, and once it's in the soil, there's a good chance it's going to plague you year after year. If I see southern blight in my tomatoes, I dig up the infected plant, including all of the soil around the root area, and I put it all in a plastic bag and put it in a dumpster. I even cover my boots with plastic bags and wash my shovel with a 10% bleach solution after using it so I am sure that I'm not transmitting it. If I have handled a plant that I've suspected of blight, I don't handle any other plants until I've washed up and changed clothes. I take out the stake and soak it in a 10% bleach solution. 

Tomato plants that have succumbed to southern blight.

Tomato plants that have succumbed to southern blight.

To reduce your susceptibility to blight, or to any other disease or infection, it's important to water at the beginning of the day and close to the root zone. Using soaker hoses or drip tape is ideal, because it reduces the amount of water that splashes from plant to plant, potentially carrying disease with it. Also, keep your tomatoes as weed-free as possible. Weeds can carry pathogens and provide good hiding places for pests. I like to keep my tomatoes covered with a leaf mulch in order to keep weed pressure down. 

Mary Riddle tomato eyes

If you've fended off pest and disease, you've made it to the best part of growing tomatoes: harvesting! I recommend that you harvest your tomatoes in the morning, before the sun is high in the sky. For the best flavor, keep your tomatoes at room temperature until they are used. I harvest into wide crates or buckets, in just one or two layers, to avoid bruising. I also make sure that I wash my buckets in between harvests, so I'm not accidentally spreading diseases. (Have I mentioned that I'm a little neurotic about pests and disease?)

That's it! You've made it through Tomatoes 101. Do you have any tomato questions or grower advice that you'd like to share? Drop it in the comments, or on one of my social media pages. 

Happy growing, 

Mary Riddle

Supersweet 100 tomatoes from Johnny's Selected Seeds

Supersweet 100 tomatoes from Johnny's Selected Seeds

Ready, Set, Tomato! (Part 1)

It's the time of year when I start really craving tomatoes. It's been months since I had a flavorful, juicy tomato, and the mealy pink things in the grocery stores right now just won't cut it. The good news is that we can start prepping now for a season of plenty.

Like all good growing, the most important thing to focus on is soil. You won't have good crops unless you have good soil. Wherever you're growing, it's a good idea to add fresh compost to your tomato beds each year. My favorite kind of compost to use is cotton burr compost. We have it in abundance here in Memphis, and I get the best results from it.

I also highly recommend double-digging your beds. (You can find my instructions for double-digging here.) Tomatoes need ample space for root growth, at least 12-18 inches. Don't think you have that kind of top soil? Double-digging helps create it! The photo below shows one of my raised beds. The foreground has been left alone, but the background has been double-dug. You can see from where my hand is that I've added four or five inches of soil space just by double-digging. Mixing in your compost amendments and loosening the lower layers of soil help the plant's root zone access essential nutrients that don't move around through the soil, like phosphorus. Aerating your soil helps water flow through your soil instead of puddling on top, which helps prevents the spread of disease.

Double-digging builds soil, as seen here. 

Double-digging builds soil, as seen here. 

After you've got your soil plan in place, it's important to figure out what kinds of tomatoes you want to grow. If you aren't interested in starting tomatoes from seeds, please consider shopping for your tomato starts at your local farmers market. Plants that you purchase at big box stores are often chemical-laden and stressed. I've seen plants at those stores with hiding aphids and early signs of disease. Buy your tomato starts from the farmer whose tomatoes you like the best. That way, your starts will probably also come with some good, region-appropriate advice. 

Here's what you should know about before selecting your tomato plants:

  • Do you want an heirloom or hybrid? Heirloom tomatoes are often beautiful, but they are much more susceptible to disease. Hybrids are often grown to be resistant to certain diseases. If your tomato patch has suffered from disease pressure in the past, I recommend going the hybrid route. 
  • You should also decide if you want indeterminate or determinate tomatoes. Determinate tomatoes flower all at once and are more compact than indeterminates. They usually bear fruit over two or three weeks, then begin to die. Indeterminate tomatoes will keep growing vines and flowering and thus require more staking, pruning, and support. 
  • Most importantly, what kind of tomatoes do you want to eat? There are cherry, beefsteak, sauce, plum, and grape tomatoes, and each one of them has their own culinary personality.

I start all of my tomatoes from seed. Personally, my three favorite varieties to grow are from Johnny's Selected Seeds, and they are Celebrity, Tiren, and Red Pearl. They're all hybrids. I like to grow hybrids, because we have heavy pressure from fungal infections in our muggy climate. I plant my seeds in 50 cell 1020 trays filled with Pro-Mix and put them under grow lights. I plant my seeds four to five weeks before I plan on planting them outdoors. I water them lightly every single day. They can germinate beautifully in trays without the use of fertilizer, but they need feeding about three weeks after germination. At that point, I soak each cell with a diluted fish emulsion mixture.

You should only start your tomatoes from seed if you can commit to lightly watering them every day. Consistent moisture is crucial while they are in trays.

 

This should be enough to get you started! I'll follow up tomorrow with information about how to transplant, fertilize, stake, and harvest. 

Tell me about your favorite tomato varieties! You can leave a comment here, or tell me all about them on one of my social media pages

Happy growing, 

Mary Riddle

Public Enemy Number One: Aphids

Aphids are the only garden pest that regularly give me recurring nightmares. They're not the most destructive of garden plagues, but nevertheless, I hate them. I hate how they move, I hate how they reproduce, and I especially hate how their population levels can sneak up on you out of nowhere. 

Aphid and ant symbiosis

Aphid and ant symbiosis

I have to admit, aphids are remarkable from an evolutionary perspective. They have a highly successful and complicated reproductive system. To boil it down to what we need to know as gardeners, aphids reproduce asexually and give birth to live young, so their population can go from negligible to crisis seemingly overnight. One female aphid that emerges in the spring will give birth to thousands of descendants over dozens of generations.

Did you know they also live symbiotically with ants? Ants actually raise them like little tiny cattle in order to extract a sticky substance that aphids secrete. Aphids are bizarre, resilient creatures. 

Because we didn't get an extended cold period here in Memphis this winter, they're back early and with a vengeance. They've already colonized all of my kale plants and some of the radishes, too. Aphids feed on garden plants by puncturing holes in the leaf surfaces with their mouths and sucking all of the fluid out. As a double whammy, like any piercing-sucking insect, they're vectors for disease. I've watched a small aphid infestation take out an entire greenhouse operation by transmitting Tobacco Mosaic Virus from one suspected plant. 

Winged and non-winged aphids on a collard leaf

Winged and non-winged aphids on a collard leaf

Aphids like to hide on the underside of leaves, especially pushed up next to leaf veins. Most aphids are slow-moving six-legged wingless creatures. However, their confoundingly frustrating adaptive genius lets them know when their population levels are getting too high for a plant, and when that happens, they have babies with wings, so they can fly off in search of new crops to destroy.

So what do you do about them? Well in low numbers, nothing. (Except to squish them out of cold-hearted fun.) Low numbers of aphids don't cause much harm. But the trick with the sustainable management of any garden pest is to not allow for population explosion. 

I'm slightly neurotic when it comes to garden pests. I scout for insects at minimum twice per week. That means that in every single one of my raised beds, I turn over four or five leaves in different locations looking for signs of harmful insects or insect damage. With aphids in particular, I look for ants running up and down the stems of my plants, because there's a good chance that they're harboring aphids. 

Aphids congregating near the stem

Aphids congregating near the stem

If I see aphids, I squish them immediately. If I see lots of aphids, I'll rip the whole leaf off and stomp on it while cussing colorfully. (It helps, promise.) Sometimes, though, there are too many to pick or stomp. If that's the case, I spray the plants with neem oil. Neem oil is botanical; it's pressed from the neem tree. It works basically by making the aphids forget to eat and mate. I purchase a concentrate and dilute it to label specifications in my two gallon sprayer. With bad infestations, I wait a week and follow up with a concentrated pyrethrum spray, again buying in concentrate and diluting. 

While both pyrethrum and neem are derived from plants and generally considered safe, I take as many precautions as I can. I did not use either of those products when I was pregnant. We had one bad aphid and flea beetle outbreak during my pregnancy, and my husband sprayed pyrethrum and neem twice each. I also waited a couple of days before handling the plants after that. I wear chemical-grade neoprene gloves and a rubber jacket that I only use when spraying for insects. This might seem like overkill, but I am of the mind that I'd rather be safe than sorry. Putting on gloves and a jacket takes me an extra thirty seconds, and I'd like to have that peace of mind. I also never spray if it's windy. 

As I said, aphids are adaptive geniuses, and they can quickly build up tolerances for pesticides, so whatever your pest management plan is, it's important to keep it as varied as possible.

There are ways to manage infestations that don't use any chemicals at all. If you have an aphid outbreak in a greenhouse or under a low tunnel, I have found that purchasing ladybugs and releasing them is a great solution. It's trickier to use this technique in open areas, because ladybugs will often just fly away. If you decide to go this route, I recommend watering in the late afternoon so that there are little pools of water available to the ladybugs to drink, then releasing them in the evening. If they have food and water sources, they're more likely to stick around if they wake up in your desired location. Also, I know this is obvious, but you don't want to release ladybugs if you are also using pyrethrum or neem. 

You can also make soap sprays. Now, I don't care what you saw on Pinterest, but please do not make soap sprays out of Dawn dish soap! Detergent-based soaps will strip the protective coating from the leaves of your plants. I have used a diluted Dr. Bronner's Peppermint Oil Soap spray before. It can suffocate the aphids when the soapy water is sprayed directly onto their skin. It is really only effective for smaller infestations in smaller areas, but it can be a helpful method to use in combination with other techniques. 

I hope your aphids stay away from your garden as long as possible this year. Do you have other aphid management techniques that you like to use? Drop your advice in the comments. 

Happy growing, 

Mary Riddle

Farm to Blanket

Every spring, the second graders at my school work on a quilting project with their mothers. It's a part of their unit in which they study Faith Ringgold, an African American artist well known for her narrative quilts. They study chemical reactions in science at the same time, so to tie it all together, the girls make natural dyes using vegetables from our farm and dye fabric squares to create their own narrative quilts. Cross-curricular learning is so cool, isn't it?

First, I bought a couple of yards of muslin and cut it into individual squares. I boiled the squares in salt water for an hour in order to make it more receptive to the dye.

While the squares were boiling, I chopped up the vegetables and put them in individual pots. I had one pot of red cabbage, one of spinach, and one of beets. I added about twice as much water as vegetable matter to each pot, then turned the heat up to medium high. I let the vegetables simmer for about an hour. I watched the color slowly leech from the vegetables and into the water.

As an aside, the red cabbage dye was fun, because it reacts to a change in its pH. I added just a little bit of lemon juice and the purple water turned to a bright magenta.  

I took the muslin squares out of the boiling water and let them cool. Each second grade girl got to help ring out their fabric squares. Then, they dropped their squares into whichever pot of dye they liked. I didn't remove the veggies before adding the muslin.

I let the muslin and veggies simmer for several more hours, then drained the pots and rinsed the fabric squares. It was a little tedious washing veggie specks off of the fabric, but I liked the visual effect of letting my students see that the vegetables were causing the colors to change.

The spinach dye didn't do much for me. The squares are just marginally darker than the original shade of the muslin. The beets turned the muslin a pretty light rose color, and the lemon juice-cabbage concoction turned the fabric a kind of muted fuschia. 

If you have any leftover garden scraps and a plain shirt or tablecloth to dye, I highly recommend this process! It was fun, educational, and let us use some of the plants that we might normally compost. 

Happy growing, 

Mary Riddle

spinach, beet, and red cabbage dyed muslin

spinach, beet, and red cabbage dyed muslin

Getting Ready for Garlic

Garlic is one of my favorite crops to grow. It's a crop that doesn't take a lot of time or maintenance, but the payoff is huge. Who doesn't love fresh garlic? No one. I wouldn't trust someone who doesn't love garlic.

Two fertilizers and the view from my kitchen window.

Two fertilizers and the view from my kitchen window.

I order my garlic every year from Peaceful Valley. I typically grow both hardneck and softneck garlic. I like the scapes that the hardneck garlic provides, but I like to be able to braid my garlic for storage, like you do with softneck. Back in early October, I planted two beds of Music, a hardneck variety, and three beds of California Early White, a softneck variety. I planted an extra bed of California Early White, because I plan on harvesting one of the beds early before its bulb fills out to use as "green garlic." (I'm serious about my garlic, okay?)

Like I said, garlic doesn't require a lot of maintenance. I weed the beds fairly regularly. It likes to be mulched over the winter. It does require a little bit of fertilization, though, and that's what I spent this balmy, 78 degree President's Day doing. 

My rule of thumb is to fertilize garlic three times: once in planting, once on Valentine's Day, and once on St. Patrick's Day. (I'm a little bit late this year, but that's alright.) Garlic likes a lot of nitrogen when it's still in its leafing stage, before it starts growing its bulb, so I use a 50-50 blend of worm castings and blood meal. Once I combine my fertilizers, I side dress each garlic plant with a small scoop of the mix and try to work it down into the soil an inch or two. I'll do this exact same thing again in a month, but then after that, I stop fertilizing and let nature do its thing. If you fertilize too late, it would encourage the plant to continue a vigorous leaf growth when you want it working on growing a bigger bulb. 

As I keep saying, it's been a bizarrely warm winter, so I'm guessing that my garlic is going to be ready earlier than usual this year. I can typically harvest green garlic in April, scapes in May, and bulbs in June. If the weather keeps this current pattern going, I'll be about a month ahead of that schedule. If the bulbs start filling out early, I'll adjust my fertilization schedule. Good growing is all about watching what nature brings you and adapting.

 

Short sleeves and short dresses in February. 

Short sleeves and short dresses in February.