Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Frost is a real Danger for Tomatoes and Peppers

Here in Northern Kentucky, most people believe that everything should have been planted in the vegetable garden already. Most people plant on the first nice day in May and believe that planting on Mother's Day is definitely safe. Most of the time this is true but the official average last frost date in my area is May 15th.

It is now past May 15th so it really should be okay now, right? You would think so, but the May 15th date is an average of the last 50 years or so. If you remember from Math class how to find the average, that means that sometimes the last frost is after the average date. That is what almost occurred last night. The weather forecast called for a frost advisory, and since frost is deadly for tomatoes and peppers, I had to protect them. 

It was easy to cover the beds that I used last Fall as my stoop houses because they were already equipped with a place to add hoops. I then just covered the hoops with plastic. The main tomato bed that I have planted was not used last year for hoops so I had to do something different.

I simply pounded some scrap lumber in the ground as end posts and attached a cross beam.


Then I draped a piece of plastic sheeting over the beam to make a quick tee-pee over the tomato plants. The only thing you have to be sure of with this method is that the plastic is not touching the plants. The frost and cold can go right through to the plant leaves if they are up against the plastic.

The temperature in the garden got down to 35 degrees, only 3 degrees above freezing! I don't think we actually had a frost, but I was still glad to protect these heat-loving plants. They seemed to make it through the night okay.


I only have about 15 of my 75 tomato plants in the garden so far, so it wasn't hard to cover them all. I'm glad I still have the others inside the greenhouse because the weather this spring has been cold and rainy. I will not be getting ripe tomatoes by June 5th like last year. At this point, having ripe tomatoes by July 4th sounds good.

Oh well, I just hope that we don't have any more 35 degree nights at least until October.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Finishing the Greenhouse Construction

I have had a couple of email questions about tomatoes and about how my extra-early tomatoes are doing. There was also a comment from Amber asking for an update on our Greenhouse. These are related topics because we will not have ripe tomatoes in May this year due to how slow I was in finishing the Greenhouse. Renee and I built most of it last Fall, but there were several things not completed that prevented the early tomatoes from going in there in time. The tomatoes are doing well and I will post specifically about them later. Its just that I don't think they will be ripe early enough to beat last year's record of June 5th.

The good news is that I finally completed the rest of the Greenhouse construction. The things left to do this Spring were:

  1. Install an exhaust fan and run electric to it
  2. Build windows to use as vents
  3. Build inside grow beds and fill with soil/compost
  4. Extend retaining wall and back fill for future greenhouse expansion

That proved to be a little too much to accomplish quickly, but it is now almost complete. The first item on the list was the hardest and the most important. Most people think that a greenhouse needs to be hot, and that is true during cool weather. The biggest struggle with a solar greenhouse is that in the Spring and Summer it can get TOO hot. This time of year is particularly difficult because nights are cold and sunny days get hot. With all of the vents closed up for the night, our greenhouse can easily get to above 120 degrees by mid-morning. The new exhaust fan is thermostat controlled to come on and expel the hot air in that scenario.

Here is a picture of our hoop house from the back where the fan is:

I was able to install the fan myself.


Getting the fan put in place was all I could do since I am not an electrician. Later I had an electrician friend come to run the electricity to the fan. In the meantime I set about completing the other items on the list.

I built the windows so I could have flexibility in how much venting to allow each day.

Then I built the raised beds along one side and along the back. This is not a requirement for all greenhouse structures but it was in the book  The 12-Month Gardener by Jeff Ashton, where I got the plans from and I think it will be a great way to grow lettuce and spinach all winter long.

The hardest part was getting the wheelbarrow in to fill up the beds.

I was able to put boards down as plank ramps to go up and in.

I also had to tackle the retaining wall. The spot where we placed the greenhouse didn't naturally fit there. There wasn't enough space for it so we had to build a retaining wall and then fill in behind it with fresh dirt. Originally I wanted the greenhouse to be 14 feet by 24 feet. Since we had to move so much earth, we only built half of the wall and then built half of the greenhouse. Next year I want to expand to the full 24 feet so the rest of the wall needed to be put in and back filled.

I moved about 50 wheelbarrow loads of dirt from the spot I dug out to fit the chicken coop in (more on that later). I forgot that we would need to run the electric through that space, so I had to dig part of it out again to make the trench for the electrician to run the pipe with electric wires in it.

My electrical friend came over and did a great job with the pipe and the wiring.


He was able to splice in to an existing outside outlet that used to power a swimming pool pump.


He put in an outlet and switches to control a light that we will install later and the fan.


And finally, here is the fan working!


Now we can put plants in our greenhouse without worry of them getting too hot.


We may not have been able to use it much this spring, but from now on this greenhouse will grow thousands of plants for us. Our goal is to be able to harvest something from the garden in all 12 months of the year by leaning heavily on this structure in the winter. I'll show you more as we get it all going.

This greenhouse was a little more work than I thought it would be, but it feels good knowing that we built it ourselves from scratch with only a little help from our electrician and a lot of help from The 12-Month Gardener. What a great book that is!

Happy gardening!

- Marc

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

A Few Problems With the Tomato Seedlings

Most of my tomato seedlings that I just potted up look really healthy and strong. They are a bit smaller than I would like them to be, but they look good.

 The transplanting session that I wrote about yesterday was not the first one. I began potting on the tomatoes about two weeks ago. Unfortunately some plants from the earlier sessions have problems. I don't know if they are victims of Damping off disease or if they have a different fungal problem, but they look pretty bad.


The above picture shows the most common problem in which the leaves are shriveling up from the ends. The below picture shows how some of the plants have gone so far as to drop all of the leaves. I bet if I touched that last leaf, it would fall off too. :(


I wonder why some plants are suffering from this while the majority look great. I guess it could be the difference in the varieties and their resistance to disease. I lost all of my Kentucky Beefsteak and Prudens Purple plants. Where it gets more curious is in cultivars like Persimmon and Climbing Triple Crop, because some plants look good and some look bad. Is this because they were separated in different trays, or is it just because the "good" ones are yet to show symptoms?

One thing that could have caused this is the fact that I used some trays that were left outside all Winter (I know, that is bad and pretty unorganized). I rinsed them out, but I guess they could still have been infected with something. Since I bottom-water all of the seedlings, I guess it could spread to the tomato seedlings that belong to the varieties that have less disease resistance. I really don't know.

I lost about 20 plants but that is still a pretty low percentage of my overall plants. Hopefully the other million plants will continue to prosper.

The other problem that I am having with the tomato plants is that many of them are purple.


Only the underside of the leaves are purple, and I know what that is. It is due to a phosphorus deficiency because of the soil being too cold. Hopefully that will remedy itself when the plants (and their pots) warm up. I gave them all a dose of Great Big Plants to try to help them out as well.

Well, there you have it - kind of a depressing post compared to most. Gardening isn't always roses and sunshine I guess. Stuff happens. In a week or two, all of the tomato plants will finally be planted outside and hopefully will take off from there. Until then, they will be waiting under lights on my grow-light stand.

I'll let you know how they work out later. At least my extra-early tomato plants are already outside and doing well.

Happy Gardening!


Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Potting Up Tomatoes is Now Easier!

As you may remember, I am growing at least 35 different tomato varieties from seed this year. Instead of using soil blocks, I am doing it the old-fashioned way by starting in cell-packs and potting up to 4" peat pots. That means that I have to transplant about 150 tomato plants!

This task is now a lot easier thanks to my new Portable Potting Tray.

The Portable Potting Tray is very simple but works great. It is designed specifically to be used for potting seedlings, re-potting and transplanting and enables me to do my potting at the kitchen table without making a mess.

Of course I still make a bit of a mess by taking over the entire table with tray after tray of plants.

The Portable Potting Tray is comfortable to work with since the front is cut out for easy access and there is a sort-of shelf across the top.

If I were only doing small amounts of re-potting, it would be easy to keep everything right in the bin, but the below picture is 150 tomato plants freshly potted.

I've also been potting up lettuce, spinach, zucchini, and loads of cucumbers to battle those raccoons! My biggest problem now is that I'm running out of room under my lights!

At least it is May now, so all of these plants will soon be re-located to the garden or the greenhouse.

Happy May, and Happy Gardening!

- Marc

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