The Perils of Overgardening

Forty-five tomato plants.  Count ’em.  45!  And, despite the sound of it, I am not proud of that.  With a piece of property with a 25 x 60 back lot, that’s a lotta tomatas.  I was talking to my friend with property (serious property) in Mississippi, and she was up to her neck in tomatoes she had to can.  She said she had 60 plants, and tomatoes were coming out of her ears.  Although I promised to simplify (if not downsize) my gardening habit this season, the truth is I’m just a junkie.  That, and I completely underestimated my ability to save seeds that would ever amount to anything.  I read the instructions, and generally followed them, taking seeds from my tomatoes last year, putting them along with some of the tomato pulp and water in baby food jars on on the windowsill (and, when I was following directions, in the basement).  I covered them with paper towels and rubber bands until the seeds got all moldy and yucky, then I scooped out the mold and guck, rinsed the seeds, then let them air dry on paper towel covered plates.  I was surprised how very many seeds I was able to save this way.  But in the mindset of a typical novice gardener, I never imagined that one seed would equal one plant (I feel like a teenager thinking you can’t get pregnant if you have sex just once and we all know where that leads).

Even though it’s obviously illogical now, somewhere in my mind I must have been thinking that I wouldn’t possibly end up with plants from the seeds I saved.  I was sure that, somehow, I would fail. Maybe it was the votes of no confidence coming from outside my own self-doubt.  Most public seed saver exchanges require their participants to have at least a year of seed saving experience under their belts.  Since I wouldn’t be trading them online, I organized a fun, but intimate seed saver exchange with fellow blogger/gardener/revelers last fall (calling it, ambitiously, the Best BK Seed Exchange Ever … or something equally obnoxious).  And though I was able to unload some of the seeds there (sheepishly sharing them, since I had no belief that they would ever become anything but the lifeless pebbles they appeared to be), I ended up with more than I brought to the party.  As for the extra I had on hand from my own obsessive seed saving last summer, I threw several seed packets in with Christmas gifts and the occasional birthday card.  Others I tucked away with random greetings and how-are-you-doing-IhavetoomanyseedsIambeggingyoutotaketheseoffmyhands “care packages.”  Word from my mother is that New York-origin seeds winter-sown in Wisconsin  (I have a sister whose punctuality extends to her garden) have been producing bountiful fruit under the watchful eyes of my nieces and nephew.  But even with all those channels of seed distribution, I still had seeds coming out my ears.

I knew I wasn’t going to be able to winter-sow my seeds, and thought that, at best, maybe I would get some plants going early indoors.  But March and April flew by and I still don’t know where they went.  Then May came and it was on the top of my list to get the seeds in some soil.  Finally by late May, I had to get something in the ground, or I was looking at not having anything more than a measly container herb garden (not that there’s anything wrong with herbs or container gardens, just that I couldn’t shake that first delicious taste of backyard-grown tomatoes that I had last summer).  So, against my earlier protestations that all my tomatoes would come from seeds I sowed myself, I broke down and bought two tomato plants at a fundraising plant sale held nearby and threw them in the ground before I ended up without any tomato plants at all.  (And, since tomatoes were a staple in my garden last year with the four plants I bought from a farmer in Saratoga Springs, I feared not having much of a garden at all).  They shot right up and now there are tomato-heavy Martha Washington and what I thought was Dr. Wyche plants going wild in my backyard.  The Dr. Wyche is definitely not Dr. Wyche; it is way more interesting and beautiful (no offense, doc).  Any guesses on what variety it could be?

Apparently not a Dr. Wyche

Before I gave up for the season, though, I decided just to see what would happen if I tried to sow just a handful of the seeds I saved from my four tomato plants last year.  When I was at Shannon’s picking up some potting soil, the guy looked at me like I was nuts.  He asked why I didn’t just buy some tomato plants.  I explained that I already had tomato plants but I had saved these seeds from last year, and…. never mind.  I didn’t know why I had to justify my gardening habits to this guy.  So off I went and proceeded to plant more than a handful of seeds.  I thought I’d up my chances of getting at least a plant or two.  Little did I expect that every seed I planted would actually produce a plant.  I carefully labeled all of the plants because some of the seeds I had bleached and soaked before planting and some I just popped right in the soil.

Next thing I knew I had more tomatoes than I knew what to do with, but only two plants in the ground that looked like they were far enough along to give me any tomatoes this season.  Then, the unthinkable happened.  Aimee, over at Red Garden Clogs, told me that she had some tomato plants that were just going to be tossed if they didn’t get in the ground, and did I want them.  I was thinking this might be one or two plants, which could be easily accommodated.  And, I thought, if one or two of my seedlings got big enough, I might try putting it in the ground and then I might have about six plants to last year’s four, which was a reasonable increase.  I was a hungry kid in a candy store with eyes much bigger than my garden when I got to Aimee’s.  I left with at least five tomato plants, including Cherokee PurpleBlack Krim, and the two I’m most excited about: Jaune flamme (from seeds that meemsnyc from Gardening in the Boroughs of NYC brought to the Big BK Seed Etc. Exchange last fall), and Paul Robeson tomatoes.

But it doesn’t stop there.  I have discovered tomatoes growing spontaneously in the flower pot near my front door, and also in a potted rose bush.  Every so often, as I’m traipsing my small grounds, I’ll notice a tomato plant with little baby fruit popping out, and only vaguely remember getting them in the ground.  On good days, I’m glad they’re all there, and I silently calculate how soon I’ll have to brush off the canning skills I picked up at a trial class from Red Garden Clogs (btw, invaluable!).  Other times, as I’m ripping away the out of control choke weed that has climbed over my neighbor’s fence (she is out of the country for the summer but would normally be a good neighbor and hack it away for me), I wonder what in the heck I was thinking, putting all the plants in the ground.

Moral of the story: have confidence that what you sow will grow.  Just know what you’re going to do with it when it does.

On Watering

Over-watering is one of the most common gardening errors.  Not only is it unnecessary to pour large doses of water on in-ground plants, but it also hurts the environment to water in-ground plants frequently.  Survival of the fittest plants produce the most useful produce.   Therefore, if you have a plant or two requiring lots of time and attention, it is okay (and good in fact!) to let it go.  Yank that whiny, pesky plant up out of the ground and toss it into the compost pile, where it will be put to good use.  I have had several tomatoes (I started late but they are starting to come up), but I am not yet harvesting the seeds because these tomatoes are not totally satisfactory.  Some have had a bit of blight (nothing serious), or they were not pickably ripe for very long.  Since I do not want these traits next year, I’m not bothering to save the seeds of those particular plants this year.  If I have learned anything so far this season, it is that I can save seeds and expect something to grow from them, and that I do not need to save every seed.   I may soon be overrun with tomatoes.  My problems could be worse.  I don’t mind the burden of abundance.  However, any of my plants that can’t stand the heat will have to be allowed to transition to the other side.  I am not a primping, preening, prompting gardener.  I admittedly want to put in as little effort as possible for the greatest harvest, and simply enjoy sinking my hands in the dirt to see what comes back up.

On the question of watering, remember that even house plants and potted plants are easily over-watered.  Use a gentle touch with them.  Do not doused or drown them.  Keep in mind that drowning is what happens when you give your plants too much water: you seal off the root ends which need to be open to receive nutrients from the soil.  Think of all the trouble you went to putting broken pieces of clay pots and other spacers for the roots to “breathe.”  Filling the root ends full of water defeats the purpose of creating pathways for the plant’s lifelines.  There is great variation in the amount of water plants need.  Fortunately for us, however, some of the signs they’re getting too much water are often the same plant to plant.  The following are a few such indicators.


1. drooping leaves all around and general wilted appearance

2. browning of young leaves

3. existing leaves turn yellow (or a shade lighter than their natural color), and wilt

4. the plant stops growing new leaves

5. the soil itself may have a greenish hue (this may be algae)

If your plants are showing these signs, take a break from watering for a few days, and see how they respond.  When you do water, as a general rule, it’s a good idea to check moisture at least an inch or two beneath the surface of the soil, since looks can be deceiving.  Some soil gets dry quickly on top but is masking saturated soil beneath.

QUESTION: do you remember the first time you watered a plant?  picked a flower?  became aware of the interdependence of people and plants?  Go ahead … gimme the dirt.

New Faves Added – Gardens and Arts

Hi all, please check out the “blogs I like” list below.  I added Jason Akers, the Self Sufficient Gardener, whose philosophy and approach to gardening is harmonious with mine (although his experience far exceeds my own).  If you have particular gardening questions, I recommend checking out the site.  His approach tends to be low-maintenance, non-fussy gardening.  Please check out his site, and help support his efforts.  He has done a lot to get others comfortable with gardening, from participating in community events in Kentucky (and beyond) to preach the pesticide-free approach to providing a forum for fellow gardeners everywhere to get specific questions answered.  He also welcomes called in questions to feature on his pod cast — give him a call, and you might hear yourself on his show.

Also added to the RSS feed is a site featuring the work of my favorite contemporary (and rural) artist, Dave Lundahl.  He has been doing cutting-edge art-ography (check out the site, and you’ll “see” what I mean) for many years.  Enjoy his work, and check out more about Dave’s innovative and inspiring work at The Art of the Rural (a blog on rural arts and culture in America), Sugar Magnolia (a blog on photography, mommying, cooking, and living), the New Light Studios site  (this is the artist’s website, maintained by friends and fans, since Dave, himself, is even more of a Luddite than me – although I have been changing my ways of late), and the Facebook page.  Dave, too, is a revel gardener, and has provided many gifts from his art and garden.  They have always been welcome visitors on my return trip to NY from WI, except for a time several years ago when one of his gifts almost got me detained by airport security.  After clearing the metal detector, I watched with curiosity, wondering who around me had such interesting wares that TSA officers were huddled around the screen, whispering to each other.  To my surprise, I got pulled aside and interrogated about what was in my bag.  I had no idea there would be anything of interest, and it crossed my mind that someone had slipped something surreptitiously into my suitcase.  Finally, a gloved officer very carefully dragged my bag out, whisking it away to a secure area and, with nearly comic caution, pulled out an enormous cucumber, plucked fresh that morning from Dave’s garden.  It was a nice, big, plump one.  It may have been around the time they started limiting liquids, and this one exceeded the limit.  Either way, the takeaway: careful what fruit you fly with.  Cucimus sativus is not an easy travel companion.

The link to Dave Lundahl’s art here seems particularly fitting because the sun is crucial for his creations.  While items grown in the garden might not all be masterpieces (check out my recent sunflower failure, in the comments section to Patience is an Amalgam), a lesson we can take away is that art is process, and process is art.  And every garden is a process.  To this revel gardener’s eye, the garden, too, is often art.  (Check out my recent post on the NY Botanical Garden’s exhibit inspired by Monet’s garden at Giverny).

QUESTION: what are some of your favorite blogs, gardeners, artists?  Check out these sites, and let me know what you think.  What’s your strangest travel story?  Have you ever been stopped for flying with juicy fruit?  Live plants?  Stowaway garden goodies?  Go ahead … gimme the dirt!

Patience is an Amalgam

These words came to me tonight.  The sound of them came, and the meaning is still flittering its way in.  I think it has to do with the expression and experience of patience coming in many forms, and that some combination and piecing together of them is what makes patience happen and work.  Patience is a tool as crucial as hands to the gardener.  I am piecing mine together.  In time, in time.

Please don’t mind my absence/break.  I have been busy with the garden (lots of tomatoes, a bunch of herbs, and a few random plants – peppers, cukes, eggplant, etc.) as well as work and other things.  I considered posting a sign stating “OUT TENDING GARDEN,” but then I realized it might be quicker and easier to pop back in just and only when I was ready.  Please know that I enjoy your comments and am happy to hear your news, even if I don’t get back right away.  It encourages me, and I learn so much from them.  Please keep them coming.

I hope you all are having beautiful and bountiful gardening days.  Please let me know what’s growing your way.  Go ahead … gimme the dirt.