Central Virginia Organic Gardener

"And 'tis my faith that every flower enjoys the air it breathes." - William Wordsworth, 1798

Monday, April 27, 2009

Planting Tomatoes

How I plant tomatoes


Tomato plants

Organic tomato fertilizer (I like tomatoes Alive! from Gardens Alive!)

Calcium supplement pills, 600 mg broken in half

Toilet paper tubes

Stakes or cages.

Good soil, with compost tilled in, in which tomatoes have not been planted for at least 3 years, 4 is better.

Place your tomato plants, leaving about 3 feet between each plant. Dig a hole. Drop in a half of a calcium supplement into the bottom of the hole (this helps prevent blossom end rot by giving slow release calcium to the plant). Add 1 to 2 tablespoons of organic fertilizer. Now, pinch off the bottom leaves of the tomato plant, leaving 2 to 4 leaves on the plant for photosynthesis. Plant the tomato into the hole deeply, to about the level of the first set of leaves. This allows the tomato plant to root among the stem. A good root system is crucial to good tomato development, and the plants that root deeply will require less water through the growing season. This is also called trench planting.

Cut the toilet paper tube in half lengthwise, again across the middle. This will leave you with two circular tubes. Fashion them to fit into a circular ring around the base of the tomato plant (see photo above), pressing lightly into the soil. You have just made a cut worm collar (cut worms love to wrap around newly planted seedlings and cut them off about 1 inch about the ground. The collar prevents this).

Stake or cage the plants right away, before they have a chance to root (staking later can damage the new roots). Water in well. Tie the plans to the stake of cage with soft strips of old t-shirts, flannel shirts or even old stockings as they grow. Feed a few times per season with diluted liquid fish emulsion (yes, it smells bad and yes the smell will go away) and a few foliar (leaf spray) feedings of diluted liquid kelp. Mulch with cured grass (grass THAT HAS NOT BEEN RECENTLY SPRAYED WITH YARD CHEMICALS and was mowed a few days before and left to dry), compost, pine needles or leaf mold.

The process is similar for peppers, though I add 1 T. Epsom salts to that planting hole and do not stake them.

This is how I spent my morning. 20 plants in, 5 more to find room for! Tomorrow I plant eggplants, cukes, beans and some herbs.

Happy Gardening!

Friday, April 24, 2009

Arbor Day

Happy Arbor Day! Plant a tree!

[photos: some of my favorite trees: the leaves of a Dove Tree (thanks Jeannie!), a Japanese Maple and a dogwood].

Go to:


Though fall is the best time to plant a tree in our region, spring is pretty good too. Make sure you select a tree that is right for your site, and keep it well watered during the growing season. When you plant a tree, make sure it is planted at the right depth, usually the same depth as planted in the pot you get it in at the nursery (though I have seen some bad repotting from some garden centers and the tree is buried too deeply in the pot). Make the hole about twice as wide and as deep as the pot. Do not over enrich the soil- the tree must learn to live on the soil you have. If you over-enrich the soil, the tree will send lots of roots into the rich soil area and not form a branching root structure. After you plant the tree, tamp the soil around the base with your foot to make sure there are no large air pockets in the soil. Water it in and add more soil as necessary. “The Southern Gardener’s Book of Lists” (1994, Taylor Publishing) by Lois Trigg Chaplin gives lists of trees for dry sites, wet sites, heavy clay sites…and so forth. It is a great resource to consult in planning your tree planting!

Happy Planting!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Earth Day

Earth Day 2009
Today is Earth Day. Act for the Earth, no matter how small:
1. Plant a tree
2. Swap out an incandescent light bulb for a compact florescent light bulb (go to: http://www.ewg.org/greenlightbulbs to find long-lived models- some inferior CFL bulbs are on the market).
3. Stop using bleach (or use less)- try an alternative, gentle cleaner.
4. Open your windows and air out your house.
5. Make a promise to let your house be a little warmer this year when AC season starts.
6. Buy local produce at your local farm stand, even just once a month!
7. Walk or bike instead of drive for a few short trips here and there.
8. Feed the birds!
9. Get rid of a patch of grass at a time and plant hardy, native plants. Grass uses immense amounts of water and chemicals.
10. Take a walk with your family, equipped with trash bags and clean up your neighborhood!

Happy Earth Day!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Greatest Bang for Your Organic Buck

Greatest bang for your organic buck

[Photo: My humble, but delicious, 'Nova' and 'Fall Gold' raspberries]

One thing I have been trying to figure out is what is the most worthwhile fruit or vegetable to grow to avoid the most heavily pesticide-laden, conventional produce in the grocery, and also grow plants of higher value (like peppers and herbs, which seem to cost a lot in the grocery versus potatoes, which cost less) or ones that are hard to find (I like lovage, alright?). And I will add into that our personal preferences. [Side note: did you know that it is perfectly legal for US manufacturers to produce, and sell overseas, pesticides, herbicides, etc., that are banned in the US? And that is it perfectly legal for those growers to use these US-banned chemicals on fruits and vegetables that are legally shipped right back to the US, into your grocery stores and onto your tables?]

One useful source of information in my quest was the Environmental Working Group’s ranked list of the fruits and vegetables, from most to least amount and number of pesticide residues. You can find the complete guide, along with lots of other info at:


It was their list of the Dirty Dozen and Cleanest 12 that convinced me to grow many of the top-ranked, most pesticide-laden foods OR to buy organic: here is the list:

Dirty Dozen

Peaches (96.6% of samples contaminated, 9 pesticides found in one sample, 42 pesticides over all samples combined) Rank 1


Sweet bell peppers






Grapes (imported)



Potatoes (81% of samples contaminated, 4 pesticides found on one sample, 31 over all samples tested)

(I grow all of these except celery, nectarines, cherries and grapes-though I just bought my first Muscadine (fox) grape plants!).

The Cleanest 12:

Onions (.2% contaminated, 1 pesticide found max on a single sample, 2 over all samples) rank 45


Sweet Corn (frozen)



Sweet peas (frozen)






Eggplant (23.4% contaminated, max 4 pesticides on one sample, 15 over all samples)

(I feel comfortable buying conventionally raised versions of these low-ranked items, but if the price difference is low, I will still buy organic. Less pesticide, herbicide, and fungicide spraying is better for the environment, for animals, for farm workers and me). (I do grow my own onions, asparagus, peas and eggplant).

I grow baby lettuce greens, because they are so pricey in the store and highly contaminated. I grow tomatoes, because nothing compares to a home-grown tomato (ranked 29 of 1 to 45). I grow eggplants because I love all the cool new varieties and I adore roasted eggplant! I grow onions because I think they are fun!

Hope that gives you a little guidance.

Happy gardening!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Brief Note: Composters for Central VA

(photo caption: another photo unrelated to the topic at hand: my "Cherry Cheeks" day lily)


The Central Virginia Waste Management Authority has reduced-cost compost bins available for residents in their area: Ashland, Charles City, Chesterfield, Colonial Heights, Goochland, Hanover, Henrico, Hopewell, New Kent, Petersburg, Powhatan, Prince George, and Richmond. Just go to:


If you don’t live in one of these districts, contact your local waste management authority…or dig a compost pit! Or do the poor man's composter: wire together wooden pallets!

Happy Composting!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Rotation Rotation!

[photo: my moonglow pear in bloom]

Rotation, rotation.

The old saying in real estate is that what matters is “location, location.” Well what matters in organic gardening is “rotation, rotation!” What is rotation? It is the practice of planting crops of the same family in a different location or garden bed each year, trying to work it out so that the same family does not occupy a bed or area but one out of every 4 years.

Why rotate?

Rotation takes care of two problems, soil fertility and pests/diseases. Members of different plant families are heavier or lighter feeders and some strip the soil of one particular nutrient. Rotating gives you time to get the soil back into shape before that particular crops comes through again.

If you rotate, you may avoid certain pests or diseases. Some pests overwinter in the soil and, when they come up in spring, will be disappointed to not find their fave crop in the same place. Some diseases are soil borne and splash up into the leaves of plants and infect them during watering or a rain (many tomato diseases do this). If you rotate the plant family, there is no nearby susceptible host for the disease to infect.

What plant families should be rotated together? Here are the main ones:

Solanaum: eggplants, tomatoes, peppers, white potatoes.

Curcubits: cucumbers, squash, gourds, melons

Root crops: carrots, turnips, beets

Brassicas: broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale

Alliums: onions, leeks, garlic.

Cover crops

One part of the rotation, if you can manage it, should be the use of cover crops. In late fall, after harvest, sow some cover crops to help fix nitrogen in the soil, break the soil up below, keep the soil on top from running off in a heavy rain, and provide organic matter for the soil when tilled under. I tend to use clovers, but you can use buckwheat (if you have a tiller to dig it under), vetch or other leguminous plants (legumes, you know, peas and beans- they fix or lock nitrogen into the soil).

Happy gardening!

Monday, April 6, 2009

Spirea transplanting

The Easiest Shrub to Propagate and "Passalong": The Bridal Wreath Spirea

Some shrubs are difficult to transplant (like the tree peony, only transplant in fall, in great soil, perfect moisture and provide animal sacrifices and even then it might croak) and some are so wildly easy to propagate that you should never actually buy one! The lovely Bridal Wreath Spirea is just such a shrub (many of the spireas are a snap to transplant).

My friend Jeannie gave me my first BW Spirea. She dug it out of the ground and plopped it into a pot so cavalierly that I though it would never take. It is pictured above, 8 years later. I have propagated three more for me and 5 for a friend just this past week. All you need to do is find a sucker that has come out of the ground (they will send up multiple suckers from the base). Uncover the soil from the rooting runner and cut it off at a point past a few roots. There don’t need to be many roots and they do not need to be very long nor very strong. Pop it into a prepared hole in the ground (or a pot to share with a friend). Make sure you tie it to a stake, as the plant has so few roots it may easily tip over. Water well, then water weekly. It will bloom the next spring and grow into a handsome, flowering shrub.

One don’t: I would not do transplant any shrub in the high heat of summer, only in spring or fall. This spirea can be transplanted even when in flower, which is unusual for many plants. I am also trying this with a lovely, double pink spirea that invaded from my neighbor’s yard and will let you know how this turns out!

Happy gardening!