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In the Garden

Reminder: Time to Start Sowing

August 20, 2015

Sprouts

Just a friendly reminder to start thinking about what you’re going to plant in your garden this fall.

Here in Palo Alto, USDA plant hardiness zone 9b, it’s time to start sowing seeds indoors for cool-season crops like broccoli, cauliflowers, brussels sprouts, and kale. These winter crops can be shockingly slow-growing so the earlier you can get them started, the sooner you’ll be reaping the rewards!

Happy sowing!

 

In the Garden

How to Harvest Basil for Maximum Yields

August 3, 2015
This is what the top of a basil plant looks like several days after removing the top set of leaves-- new growth is coming in

A couple of weeks ago we covered the basics of keeping a potted basil plant alive. Let’s dig in one step deeper. We don’t just want our basil to live, do we? We want it to thrive! Preferably, we’d like it to furnish us with countless verdant leaves with which to garnish our caprese salads and pizzas all summer long. These are attainable goals! It only takes a little know-how and a couple of minutes of maintenance to keep your basil productive well into the depths of summer.

The number one step you can take to encourage your basil to grow faster and more vigorously is… drumroll please…

Pruning Basil

Harvest it! It may seem counter-intuitive, but harvesting your basil actually encourages it to produce more new growth. So don’t be afraid to pluck a couple of leaves for your sandwich just because your plant isn’t all that big yet. The key is to harvest from the top. You can and should intentionally pluck off the very top set of tiny leaves when you first buy your basil plant to get a jump start on this process.

Top Leaves

Picking off the top leaves of your plant will encourage it to bush out, sending out additional side stems with new sets of leaves, rather than getting all tall and spindly.

New Leaves on Pruned Basil

 

IMG_5116

If it’s particularly hot or late in the season, you may notice your plant starting to put out pretty little flower spikes. These signal death for your basil plant.

Basil Flowers

Thai Basil Flowers

Basil is an annual, meaning it dies after it has completed its reproductive cycle, and the act of flowering is your basil plant telling you it’s wrapping up its time here on earth. You can halt this cycle, however, by plucking off the flowers (which are totally edible, and can replace basil leaves in many recipes). Better yet, whack off the entire top third of your plant, whizz it up into pesto, and watch as your plant miraculously regrows before your eyes.

New Basil Shoots

In the Garden

What’s That Black Spot on My Tomato? (And How to Fix It)

July 29, 2015
A ripe tomato with Blossom End Rot.

Tomatoes are a finicky bunch. They’re susceptible to an astonishing number of diseases, many of which are nearly impossible to diagnose without an advanced degree in plant pathology– and even then, you’d be surprised how hard it can be to determine what’s causing, say, a wilting leaf. It could quite literally be a hundred different things.

Thankfully, one of the most common tomato ailments is also one of easiest to spot. (Get it? Because it forms a spot? I crack myself up.)

The Dreaded Dark Spot

If you’ve grown tomatoes in pots before, chances are you’ve come across a tomato or two in your time that formed a grayish brown or black splotch on the underside of the fruit, right where the dead flower blossom once connected to the fruit’s skin. You may not have noticed it right away because these spots only form on the underside of the fruit, and the tops can looks surprisingly healthy.

Blossom End Rot- Tops

 

Blossom End Rot- Bottoms

These dark spots can be small or large, and will often grow in size as your tomato matures. They can be just a little spot just on the underside, or, in extreme cases, they can spread up the sides of the fruit until half of the tomato is affected.

Blossom End Rot- Green

If your tomatoes are experiencing these symptoms, it’s safe to say that you’ve got Blossom End Rot (or BER). It sounds nasty, but before you panic and rip up your plant in frustration, take heart in the knowledge that Blossom End Rot is relatively easy to correct, and even easier to prevent.

BER is a symptom of a calcium deficiency in your plant. While not one of the big three macronutrients that most new gardeners are familiar with– those would be nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium, abbreviated as NPK– calcium is still a critical nutrient that plants need in order to function at optimal levels of health and productivity. Calcium is particularly critical to plants in the nightshade family, which include tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and potatoes. If you’re noticing the telltale signs of Blossom End Rot on your tomatoes, then you can bet your plant is having trouble accessing this critical nutrient.

Thankfully, calcium deficiency is easy to correct with a liquid or powdered calcium supplement. While not available at all nurseries, most stores catering to hydroponic growing carry calcium amendments for gardening purposes. Call ahead if you’re not sure if your supply center carries it. Once you’ve got your hands on some calcium, dilute it with water according to the package instructions. Now, many of these supplements will instruct you to spray the calcium-fortified water on your plant’s leaves, but I prefer to use it to drench the affected plant’s roots instead. I might sprinkle some on the leaves as well, but I definitely suggest you pour at least a gallon of the diluted concentrate on the soil around the roots. Repeat the process once more a week later.

Calcium Supplement

It’s important, once you’ve supplemented your plant’s deficient soil with the missing calcium, that you then keep up a regular watering schedule. Under-watering and irregular watering can seriously exacerbate the condition of plants affected by Blossom End Rot. This is why it is so much more common to find BER in tomatoes which have been grown in containers, because they have a harder time holding onto water and generally tend to be under-watered as compared to their in-ground compatriots. A full-sized tomato grown in a properly sized pot (at least 15 gallons) will probably need to be watered once per day in the middle of the summer, depending on climate conditions. Hot sunny weather obviously requires more water than overcast or rainy weather. Windy weather can be deceiving, for while it can help keep temperatures down, wind also has a strong drying effect on the soil.

While it’s relatively simple to diagnose and correct for Blossom End Rot, it’s still always preferable to take steps to prevent the issue so that you never deal with it in the first place. So what can we do to keep BER at bay next time we plant out our tomatoes?

First of all, make sure that you’re fertilizing your tomato adequately when you transplant it to its final destination– be it a pot, a raised bed, or just a plain old hole in the ground. In addition to an all-purpose fertilizer (which typically contained some calcium– check the package to be sure), and any other amendments that you like to use to feed your tomato, I like to add a big handful of a high-phosphorous and calcium supplement, such as bone meal or bone ash. The phosphorous is critical for blossom production, and the calcium will help keep Blossom End Rot at bay. It’s also a great idea to throw some saved, crushed eggshells from your morning omelet in the bottom of your planting hole to build in a little slow-release calcium source for your plants to draw on throughout the season. Continue to fertilize with an all-purpose fertilizer throughout the season for best results, particularly if you’re growing in a pot. Making sure your soil is rich in calcium from the get-go, together with a good watering routine should keep your tomato plants BER-free and growing strong all season long (…just as long as one of the other 100 tomato diseases doesn’t get them!)

 

In the Garden

Keep Your Container Plants Alive on Vacation

July 17, 2015

If you have container plants that you water by hand, then you may be familiar with the vaguely terrifying feeling that accompanies going out of town for a few days. Will your precious plants survive the neglect? How long can they go without being watered before they give up the ghost? In drought-stricken California, where I live, it may only be a matter of days before the most tender of potted plants passes the point of no return.

Container Plants

I’ve just arrived back from a week-long sojourn to the east coast, and I’ll tell ya, I was definitely nervous as I disembarked from my airport shuttle and walked back to my apartment. The first thing I would see when I turned the corner to my building would be my handful of container plants, which had been thriving when I left, but hadn’t been watered or checked on in nearly a week. Would they still be going strong? Or would the Palo Alto sun have burnt them to a crisp while I was gone?

I came around the bend and breathed a huge sigh of relief– they were alive! My tomato plant was a bit bedraggled and was clearly ready for a sip of water, but my pepper plants were looking fabulous and were dripping with new peppers.

Poblanos

Scotch Bonnets

I’m not sure they would have made it though if it hadn’t been for a little trick I used to keep them watered for a couple of extra days. Most of my pots were inherited from a friend and didn’t come with the water-retaining saucers that go underneath the containers to keep dirt and water from staining the ground below. Since I didn’t have any friends in the building to water for me while I was gone, and no time to pick up any handy self-watering gadgets, I had to get a little creative. I grabbed a couple of large mixing bowls, filled them halfway with water, and then placed one under each of my containers, which I also watered deeply.

Mixing Bowls Under Containers

My tomato plant was too big to fit a mixing bowl under, so I used the only thing I had handy that was big enough to hold the plant and some extra water– my laundry hamper! While I’m not sure I would recommend that (too much fuss to clean out later), a big ice bucket or washtub would work well here.

Keeping Your Container Plants Alive on Vacation

If you happen to have a kiddy pool, or other large water-tight container available, you could group all of your potted plants together in it instead.

The extra reserve of water allows your plants to suck up the moisture as they need it, giving you a couple of extra days before their supply runs out. Employing this technique before going out of town for a couple of days could be the difference between coming home to find healthy plants or dying, water-stressed plants. Despite the extra water, my tomato plant was still starting to wilt after a week away, so I wouldn’t recommend this as a long-term solution for vacations more than a week in length. But for just a handful of days, it’s a simple solution that will allow you to rest easy, knowing your plants are cared for while you’re gone.

In the Garden

How to Grow Basil: A Beginner’s Guide

July 1, 2015

Basil is the quintessential beginning gardener’s herb. It seems so accessible, sitting pretty in its pot outside your local Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. But who among us isn’t guilty of snagging a bushy pot of happy-looking basil from the supermarket on a whim, only to find it limping along, close to death, only a week or two later? If that sounds like you, don’t be discouraged! I’m going to walk you through it.

The Basics

If at all possible, try to grow your plant outside. A sunny, south-facing window will do in a pinch, but basil really prefers the outdoor air and unfettered access to sunlight. It needs a lot of light to thrive, so make sure you choose a spot that gets all day sun.

If your basil plant came in a decently sized container you may be okay leaving it in that pot, but it’s certainly not going to complain if you give it a little more room to spread its legs. A 10 to 14-inch diameter pot will be more than enough room for a single basil plant. Alternatively, if you have a garden patch, you can plop it straight into the ground.

Don’t go crazy on the water. Basil likes to dry out in between waterings. It’s a fairly drought-tolerant plant, and many a wilted, dying basil plant has actually been the victim of overwatering.

Feed it! You’re not very productive at work if you haven’t eaten in a while are you? So why expect your basil to go all season long without being fed? Find yourself an organic fertilizer– whether compost, worm castings, or one of the pre-mixed dried or liquid versions at your local nursery (look for one that says “all-purpose”), and give your plant a little spruce once a month according to the package instructions.

Follow those simple steps and your basil should be one happy camper.

Just don’t expect it to live forever. After all, basil is an annual. Eventually it’s gonna croak on you, but that’s okay because by the time your basil is on its way out, arugula, and mustards, and all the other wonderful fall and winter greens are on their way in. That’s the beauty of seasonality, y’all.

 

In the Garden

Gone Gardening

June 26, 2015

 

Hi there! I’m Danielle Arostegui, and I’m the girl behind Girl Gone Gardener.

Roadtrip

My story, like many, started with a decision to make a change. After two years of city living in the heart of LA, I decided to quit my job writing for TV, pack up my bags, and move six hours up to the coast to apprentice at a little biodynamic farm growing fresh veggies and herbs in sunny,  beautiful Santa Cruz.

Santa Cruz Tree

 

Santa Cruz Beach

On January 2nd, 2015 I moved from a Brentwood apartment to a communal bunkhouse shared with three other apprentices on the farm’s property, and from a 45-minute commute in the morning on the dreaded 101 to a short stroll from my bed to the garden where I’d be spending most of my days. Talk about a new start for a new year!

Love Apple Farm Sign

 

Indie on the Farm
Moving to the farm was one of the best decisions I ever made, and rather than sating my desire to get outside and dig in the dirt, those five short months only fueled the fire.

Harvest on the Farm

Now that my apprenticeship is over, I live in a little apartment in Palo Alto, with no balcony and no yard, but I don’t see that as an impediment to my gardening habit. I just see it as a new challenge.

This blog is the space where I hope to share photos and stories from my gardening addiction, my thoughts on sustainable living, recipes featuring my favorite seasonal produce, and any green thumb wisdom that I accumulate along the way. I’m also a big fan of the outdoors, and I promise to keep you posted on any awesome surf spots, backpacking trails, or roads less traveled that I stumble upon in my travels.

Sunset on the Farm

One thing I’ve learned since I moved to the farm is that every day is a new adventure. I’m really looking forward to sharing those adventures with you all here at Girl Gone Gardener.