28 May 2013

5 Steps to Better Tomatoes

I didn't always like tomatoes. In fact, I grew up hating them.

Y'all (insert overly Southern accent here), I was born and raised in Georgia where every roadside stand sells tomatoes and every old lady between Valdosta and Ellijay grows them in her garden.

And I spent most of my life having feelings of disgust toward this regional staple.

So one day not long after graduating college, I was bored and got lost in a long train of thought relating to food (yeah, I'm that kind of dork). I had been picky long enough, and I decided I was a dumbass for not liking tomatoes. I walked to the grocery store behind the apartment I shared with my friend, bought a tomato, took it back to our kitchen table, and ate it. The twenty-two years of hatred between woman and fruit ended right there in apartment A17. And every week on my grocery run, I bought another tomato and found a way to put it in my diet: salad topping, sandwich layer, chunked on pasta.

I didn't know whether to call my mom to brag that I was no longer as picky as my 8-year-old self, or call Italy and ask forgiveness for my prior stupidity.

Tomatoes are not only one of our favorite foods to cook with and eat, they are also one of our favorite crops to grow. Even though you can buy a tomato plant at any feed and seed store, they do require more than a hole in the ground to produce the gigantic, bright red fruit you see in the produce department. Here are some of our personal practices that help us harvest tomatoes worthy of anything from a burger to homemade pasta sauce.
  1. Give them nutrients. This goes way beyond planting them in well-conditioned soil (BTW--we condition with homemade compost and/or composted cow manure). Create a fertilizing schedule and do your best to stick to it. Aim for fertilizing once per week with veggie-friendly fertilizer. Fertilizers with 10-10-10 and 3-4-6 ratios (ratio of nitrogen-phosphate-potash) are a great place to start. If you are going the truly organic route, use banana peels, epsom salt, and fireplace/wood ash in your soil. Banana peels add potassium. A couple of tablespoons of epsom salt to the base of each plant every two weeks give a magnesium boost. Wood ash contains potassium and lime.
  2. Water the RIGHT way. It's easy to get into the habit of broadcasting the spray from your hose. It's what you see folks doing on TV. But when you garden is small scale like ours, this kind of watering really isn't the most effective way to hydrate your tomatoes (or most other plants, for that matter). Broadcast watering is more waste than help. Water gets "lost" in the atmosphere, and you're making the leaves and stems of your plants susceptible to mold, mildew, and certain pests. So remember these three things when watering your tomatoes:
    • Water at the soil line (see photo).
    • Water regularly. 2-3 times per week is ideal if your summers are hot and dry like the ones we have in Georgia. Skip watering when it rains.
    • Water slowly. Use drip irrigation or deep-ground watering systems. We inverted milk jugs with small holes poked in the sides to send water slowly and directly to the roots (also in photo behind the tomato plant).
    • Aim for the base of the plant.
  3. Prune the plants. Let a tomato plant grow willy-nilly, and you'll grow lots of lovely leaves and not a whole lot of fruit. So aim to spend at least once a week pruning your indeterminate tomatoes to encourage each plant's energy into growing fruit.
  4. Identify a sucker before removing.
    • Start by removing the suckers. These are the shoots that grow between the main stem of the plant and an offshoot (see photo). When they are small, they are easy to remove with your fingers. If they happen to get rather large, use snips to remove.
    • You don't want leaves touching the ground (this encourages disease), so remove the leaves/offshoots from around the base of the plant.
    • If your tomatoes are determinate, just remove the suckers from the lower third of the plant.
  5. Mulch. Pine straw, cypress, wheat straw, pine bark, whatever. Laying mulch is one of those steps that should never be forgotten in gardening. It helps trap moisture in the soil around your plants on those hot days.
  6. Weed. Duh. There is a battle for nutrients between good plants and the evil ones. Don't let your tomatoes get cheated. Pull up those weeds, though. Spraying herbicide on weeds can kill your vegetables, and it can leach into future edible plants, which you would rather not consume.
There are many other tips and tricks you can use in your garden to produce bigger, juicier tomatoes, but I feel that these are a good place to start. Enjoy your harvest, and share your gardening successes in the comments section below!

04 May 2013

We Were Supposed to Move This Week

Have you ever attended a funeral where the sun was shining and birds were chirping? Or attended a local fair and fireworks show, only to have the summer's worst thunderstorm blow over the funnel cake stand and soak the Roman candles to utter uselessness?

In other words, have you ever felt that the weather didn't quite match up with the spirit of an event or your own personal mood?

Yeah. Me, too.

Except, this week, the weather has been a perfect match. The forecast called for sun and temperatures near 80. Instead, Mother Nature sent cool, cloudy days with drizzle and chilling winds. Great for our budding garden, and even better for our melancholic state of mind.

This is the week we would have moved 3,000 miles...to Vancouver, Washington. You can blame us for the sunless, Northwest-like weather we've had all week here in Georgia, but we won't feel a bit of guilt. We have welcomed the unusual change in the climate. It reminds me of what drew us to the Northwest in the first place. And it's perfect weather for sulking.

You see, ever since we visited Seattle and British Columbia a few years ago, we were determined to go back. Whether it be through travels or taking up permanent residence, we didn't care. We wanted milder winters and cooler summers. We wanted a longer growing season (hence, the weather--hello, deliciously fat tomatoes). We wanted access to the Pacific and countless national parks and open-air markets.

And I wanted to live amongst the hippies and tree huggers.

Then on the day we delivered Nerd, we decided to come up with a 7-year plan to start saving money for a down payment on a house and move our entire lives to the West Coast. (No joke--we were still in the mother and baby wing when this conversation began.) So when a hospital job opened in the tiny logging town of Longview, WA right before Christmas of 2012, we threw the 7-year plan out the window. Michael had been searching for jobs for months, and this one felt like the perfect fit. The job description was exactly what he does now. It was a drivable distance to both Seattle up north and the beach to the west. And the pay? Well, it would have been worth moving 3,000 miles with a toddler who hates her car seat and a dog who barfs on any car ride over 15 minutes. A call to the vet, and we could have a pack of potent tranquilizers for the road.

Without hesitation, Michael submitted his resume to the hospital. They gave him a phone interview. They loved him and wanted to meet face-to-face. The HR rep (stupidly) gave us a flicker of hope, telling Michael that the position had been open since the summer and that he was the first qualified candidate to apply.

So we started shopping for houses online. With the job in a town so small and...limiting...we turned our sights to Vancouver, right across the Columbia from the progressive city of Portland. I started scouting school districts and job openings in education. Hell, I even looked for jobs outside my career. I envisioned selling souvenirs in the Mt. Rainier gift shop or learning beer brewing techniques in Portland. I was pumped at the mere idea of new opportunity and experience.

Then it was time for the real interview. The hospital flew Michael through Portland for a long weekend, set him up with a rental car and hotel in Longview, and had him meet with a real estate agent who used to serve on the hospital board.

She drove him around town and showed him houses.


When he wasn't touring with locals, he was finding random coffee houses so he could write papers for his class and drive under the grey-veiled skies from riverside to oceanside. He texted photos. I pined.

Then the day of the interview came. I was a wreck just thinking about it. When I hadn't heard any news by the time I was bathing Nerd that evening, I was downright panicky. My husband was on the other side of the country, and I just knew he was laid up in a hospital bed with amnesia in some remote town, eating green Jell-O and being treated by a nurse who resembles Miranda Kerr. And of course, his phone had been left in a coffee shop in Astoria, so his doctors didn't know how to reach his next of kin.

After a dozen texts and as many phone calls, I finally heard from him. No amnesia. And no Miranda Kerr look-alikes. *phew*

He had been in the interview ALL DAY. Over six hours. He pretty much met everyone on staff and was treated to lunch. We knew it was a done deal. It would come down to numbers and finding a date in our crazy schedule to move. We told a handful of friends and family. Some were sad at the idea. Others couldn't bear it. We were silly with excitement.

I called a real estate agent. She came to our house the morning he got home from his return flight. She told me what walls to paint and that the spring was the best time to put a house on the market. How could everything feel so...right?

That was a Tuesday. The HR rep from the hospital called on Wednesday.

She told Michael they weren't offering him the position. Michael expressed surprise. She was just as surprised, having thought he was perfect for the job, especially since they had been searching for the right candidate for months.

And there it went. Our dream of being West Coasters. Poof, gone. I am one of those who believes everything happens for a reason, but I'm convinced the reason here was more about politics and resistance to outsiders.

So listen up, Washington (and Oregon and California, too, just in case): we'd make awesome residents on your side of the Lower 48. We drive an eco-friendly car, use green bags and cloth diapers, and recycle everything from beer bottles to toothpaste boxes. We promise to cut our grass on a regular basis and buy bicycles. Yeah, yeah, we'll pay our taxes and do our civic duty when asked to serve on a jury, but I assume you figured that out.

Yes, this would have been the week our lives would have changed dramatically. Thirty-one years in Georgia traded in for new years in Washington. And the chance to raise Nerd among West Coast hippies and hipsters.

For now, we'll just wallow in our gloom while the rainfall waxes and the daylight wanes. Mother Nature really delivered on this mood-matching game.


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