(Or, how to put in plant supports without loosing an eye)
So I got a late start on putting in my regular garden this spring. Putting solar on my house was a big time consuming project. No matter, cold temperatures delayed many a planted paradise. And now that plants are in full swing “grow like mad” mode, (as are the weeds) I find that my garden is never quite large enough to accommodate my ambitious plans. So the answer is to move on UP if you can’t spread out. Today’s blog will feature how to build strong supporting cages to support extra large, heavy juicy tomatoes.
Number one? Prepare your garden. Is it too late to plant? Heck no, garden buddy! You can dig and plant your garden up to the beginning of July in our wonderful part of Pennsylvania, because delicious plants like beans and tomatoes can go in way late in the season. Now, physically speaking, our garden is surrounded by a wire fence that dates to the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. It had been rolled up and stored away in my good neighbor’s barn for many years and one day they were going to sell it as scrap and I offered them some cash for it. I unrolled it, steel wire brushed it, primed and painted it, (it helps to be obsessive-compulsive for projects like this) and it found a new home as my garden fence. For the purposes of this garden project, the restored wire fence will be the outside supporting fence, and the inner supporting fence will be the inner, Bamboo structure.
As we check the existing metal fence structure, supported by reclaimed wooden fence posts, we discover a rotted wooden post and have to dig it out and repair it. The old posts I use were sturdy 200 year-old locust poles rescued from a pile on a local farm, destined to be burned. I can always seem to find a use for something that was considered trash by some one else. It’s sort of a curse. But when using old rescued items, there is always a risk that some of the materials will be defective. We turn the old post upside down and put it back in the hole it came from, and block it in with salvaged bricks. This way when I get another post to replace it, I just pop one out and another one in. No additional digging! When the new post goes in (one I bought at Lowes) I’m pretty well assured I’ll get many good years out of it, but probably not 200. I’ll save my receipt, though, just to be sure.
Wicked Weeds, Charming Critters
Now, when you plan your garden, you can not avoid the basics.
When you stand in it with your hands on your hips and your lungs full of fresh air, and you look upon a plethora of weeds, you say to yourself, “Where in the heck did all these weeds come from!” Well, the wind blew them in, or the birds contributed their lovely poop, or the soil itself already held years worth of them. (To be sure, many weeds have wonderful properties, and I’m the first to claim we can use as many local varieties of plant life as possible. But when my goal is tomatoes, or other conventional crops, the weeds gotta go. I simply don’t have enough space.)
There’s History in that thar Dirt
For as much history that your soil holds, whether weed seeds, arrowheads (tribe unknown), old rusty horseshoes, coins, marbles, animal bones, bits of old blue bottle glass, old shell buttons, or civil war gold, or whatever historic items appear, whether last century or last week, if its not going to help grow your plants, the stuff has got to go. For the record, I have found all of these things in my garden, except for the civil war gold. Darn it all. Pluck what is not dirt, out of the dirt, and save what you want. Start a treasure jar and also probably a garbage bucket, because trust me, you are going to find all sorts of things. Soil always gives up its secrets, eventually. Hey, check it out! We found a toad! (if you wait too long to dig, you WILL dig up nests of baby bunnies. Please don’t do this, it’s heartbreaking, avoid this at all costs.
This alluring female toad didn’t make it into the treasure bucket. I let her go hop around in an area we did not dig. When the garden is planted, I’ll put in a ground level solar light in a sunny spot in the garden, just for this lovely creature, so that nighttime bugs can come around investigating, and Toad Gal can have her fill of them. I will place a couple of clay pots half buried on their sides throughout the garden so that she can have several hang outs to lounge in and be her beautiful toad self. For the record, never, ever, by any means, kill a reptile you find in your garden. They have found your lovely space and made it their home and want to help you. By helping you, they help themselves. The harmless garter snake will eat pesky mice. The harmless toad or frog will eat unwanted bugs, mostly mosquitoes. These marvelous garden companions of yours will return year after year. Learn to look for their signs, and get to know their kids each spring. Trust me, it’s a fabulous partner ship. It’s good to have friends helping you in the garden, because gardens can be a lot of work.
If you have a rocky garden, keep an eye out for Killdeer birds, their eggs are perfectly camouflaged as rocks and the mama bird itself will do a particular “injury dance” to distract you from their soon to be family”. Bugs have jobs, too. Praying Mantis bugs, large as they are, will find a pleasant and wonderful home in your garden and will eat all sorts of terrible bugs. Ladybugs, in general, possess charming personalities in the first place and will happily consume all your aphids, without regard for their expanding waistline, which only makes them even more charming. These life forms are working for you, for FREE, and the first way to attract them to your garden is to NOT USE ANY CHEMICALS AT ALL. No weed killer, no chemical sprays, nothing of the sort. The only fertilizer I use is liquid seaweed, and trust me, it smells like the devil and works like a charm. More on that in a future blog. Now, back to the garden.
We weeded, and kept weeding for quite a bit, which was a really substantial workout, and tossed all that wonderful nutrient rich unwanted growth into the compost. Found out I had some poison ivy growing in there, the hard way. Always bag up poison ivy and or poison oak, and never compost it. It can re-root very quickly and take over and sow new seeds. Above all NEVER BURN POISON IVY OR POISON OAK WEEDS. You will inhale the smoke, especially since according to township and county rules (and common sense) you must never leave a pile of anything to burn unwatched. The smoke from burning leaves, vines or roots will clog and infect your lungs and as my mother used to say, you will wake up dead. It will be very, very painful. Respect that %*#$# weed and be safe. For real.
Our compost has currently reached a terrifyingly large size. We will surely have to build a new one, and that’s a subject for another blog. Once the good sized weeds are all pulled out, I dig around a bit with a shovel by hand, and then do a once over with a good sturdy garden tiller. More things will come to the surface and will be easier to remove. Watch out for tree roots, they can reach long distances underground and you don’t want to damage any trees. Tilling is really a lovely way to deal with hard compacted soil, and is not always necessary. Plenty can be accomplished with no till garden methods, but since I’ve got the tiller and the time, lets dig! Its possible and even advisable to add granular plant fertilizer at this time, I always use organic fertilizers, if I don’t just till in straight compost from my compost bin, which is above all the best approach. Be mindful, tilling will also bring long buried weeds to the surface where the exposure to sunlight, warmer temps and additional moisture will aid their growth. We will later USE several types of weed blocker to stop this.
Once we completely dig the planting area, we collect old bamboo from last years green bean teepees, that had overwintered in the garden. It was mostly in good shape, with a plentiful amount split and cracked. This is not fatal to its strength. Its not as strong as fresh cut bamboo, but will do for this project. We measured what we considered a good height, discarding the most damaged bamboo, and cut the poles to around 5 feet in length, using our table saw. A handsaw is just as good, if not better, in my opinion. Safer is always better. And ALWAYS wear safety goggles.
We anchored these cut poles into the dirt, sometimes using a post hole digger, at four feet distance from each other, working our way around the entire perimeter of the existing garden fence. Perimeter is a good word to use here, you are building a solid defense against low lying tomatoes that will rot and stink and smell and bring in other critters to your garden, to munch and chew and destroy all your plants. Big tomatoes are heavy. Those vines NEED Support. Build this interior bamboo support about a foot and a half inside the outside wire fence that already exists. You are building an INSIDE FENCE. This is not complicated. Our bamboo poles were sunk about a foot deep into the freshly dug earth. With your foot, press the dirt down around them. Once placed, and tied together with strong baling twine I saved from last year’s rotted straw bales, they form a substantial structure that acts as a reliable support for heavy vegetables. We anchored the inside bamboo poles to the wire metal fence with a smaller cut bamboo, sectioned to fit inside the wire design. This acts as a “connector” and helps keep everything balanced on each other. These Beefeater tomatoes will get pretty large, and the more supports the better.
Finally Getting to Plant!
About time, right? Good gardens always require a lot more in preparation then is usually considered. Experienced gardeners know this, and do not skimp on steps. When it comes to planting the tomato plants, I dig a good-sized hole, about 10 inches to a foot deep. The tomatoes that I had grown from seed and kept in a handmade cold frame have grown to such a height that they could not be kept inside any longer and MUST be transplanted.
I was able to plant them in the holes 36 inches apart, to accommodate the large size they will grow to. Before I plant tomatoes, I always add two heaping tablespoons of Epsom salts at the base of each tomato plant. I kind of dig it around in the base of the hole and mix it around a bit. It helps add nutrients needed very specifically by tomatoes, and peppers. You do not want the salt to come into direct contact with the roots. Once your tomato is planted, really mound that earth up to nearly the top, leaving a few inches exposed. The purpose of this is that the tomatoes will grow additional roots all along their buried stem, thus feeding better and more securely and growing and producing magnificent food for you and yours.
Skewers Save the Day
I always use a handy stick, or in this case, a bag of discount bamboo skewers used for grilling. I break it into thirds, so I get to really use them on a lot of plants. Why do this, you ask? It is necessary practice to always put a stick alongside whatever part of the tomato stem (or what ever plant) stands above the dirt it is planted in. Cutworms simply adore chewing on your lovely garden plants, and their deal is to literally wrap their entire body around the stem of plants you love and gnaw away until they have happily eaten their fill and your plant has been beheaded. Your plants will be sad. The cutworms will be happy. You will be angry and start kicking the earth and throwing things and start cursing and alarm your good neighbors. They already think you are nuts as it is, to be this engrossed in a pile of dirt. Be a good neighbor, and a good gardener. Use the bamboo skewers or small sticks. Save yourself the time and agony and expense of having to do this all over again. Remember, placing a small stick in the dirt directly alongside and touching the plant stem prevents the cutworm from getting a good grip on your plants, and thus, it lives. On a lighter note, if giant mutant cutworms ever invade the earth, starting with your garden, always wear ankle- high boots.
Holy Moley, Get that Weedblocker!
Now, cast back into your cobwebbed memory of last year’s meticulous garden, and don’t forget how tired you grew of weeding, and weeding, and more weeding. You made a promise to yourself to use weedblocker. Keep that promise. USE WEEDBLOCKER.
Holes can be easily cut, one by one, to accommodate each plant you want to keep unmolested by weeds. The easiest way to do this is to measure and ascertain where each plant will be, and cut an X across the space needed to “open it up”. Thus the weed blocker can also be put down on top of each pre-planted plant. I usually plant first and weedblock afterwords, its sort of backwards, but I may have to dig and move a plant several times before I actually get it to its permanent home for the year, and prefer not to keep cutting my weedblocker until it is confetti.
If you don’t want to purchase weed blocker, you can easily use about 20 pages of newspaper, all in one layer, or sections of cardboard. Lay it right down on the ground next to your plants. Saves you from worrying about cutting holes in the proper place as well. Paper is fiber, and will be good for your garden dirt as it will hold moisture, add fiber to an already clay-based soil (regionally speaking) and is free, and recyclable. It will literally dissolve into the soil and help the right plants to grow, all while impeding the weeds. This is a good thing.
Follow these instructions, in whole or in part, to help assist and support in growing your structure-needing plants, to be healthier, more beautiful and bountiful.
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