Battling Tomato Wilt

Gardeners have often heard the importance of rotating vegetable crops during seasons. Rotate your crops! Your plants will drain the soil of needed nutrients otherwise! Rotate your crops! Your plants will become more vulnerable to disease otherwise! I have gardened with this maxim in the back of my head, but often have found the tasty homegrown tomato bounties’ siren songs too difficult to resist. And so, bucking common wisdom, I grew tomatoes in the same spot as tomatoes years past. Until this year, all was well. Tomato plants flourished in the same locations year after year.

Well, the time has come to atone for my gardening sins. How I rue my confidence now, thinking that a major disease could never strike my plants. Well, fusarium wilt, or verticillium wilt, came this year with a vengeance. I guess I was due for my lesson from Mother Nature.

Wilting Yellow Pear Tomatoes Disease
What bucking common wisdom will get you.

Both fusarium and verticillium wilt share many characteristics, making it difficult for a gardener to distinguish between the two. Both are soil-borne fungi, so the disease travels from the roots of the plant through the stem. [1] , [2]  Both brown the vascular tissue of the tomato plant, and choking the leaves off from nutrients from the soil. These leaves yellow, then brown, and then die. Individual plants are affected, with symptoms appearing when the plant begins to set fruit.

Fusarium and veticillium are distinguished from each other based on their ranges and based on how quickly the plant succumbs to the fungus. Fusarium wilt is much more common in the southern range of the United States. Veticillum wilt is common in the north, so much more than Fusarium wilt that the University of Illinois Extension office only has a website on the former. [3] The streaking that accompanies verticillium wilt is lighter than that of fusarium wilt and typically does not extend all the way up the stem. Veticilum wilt also proceeds more slowly.

photo of yellow pear with streak in leaf stem
Dark vascular streaking on Yellow Pear stem.)

There is no easy solution for either fungus. Instead, crop rotation and disease management is the only way to control the spread. This year, I have pruned the first foot of each tomato plant of foliage and have cut back watering to every other day. Without those lower leaves, the tomatoes have more airflow close to the ground.  Also, the drier soil prevents the fungus from spreading. Finally, in desperation, I have also treated each tomato with powdered copper fungicide below the fruiting level. This is risky because the plant is also in danger of being damaged by the fungicide and the copper never leaves the soil (it is a heavy metal after all). [4] I have also pruned all diseased leaves from affected plants on a weekly basis.

Kims Civil War Oxheart Tomatoes
Pruning foliage has the added benefit of giant tomatoes!

 

My efforts seem to have stymied the spread of the disease in all of the tomato plants but the Yellow Pears. Yellow Pears are my mother’s favorite variety of homegrown tomato, and so she has been particularly disappointed with this year’s crop. I have grown the variety for her before and never had any problems with them.  Foolhardily, I only planted one Yellow Pear this year. Well, Mother Nature, I have learned my lesson.  Next year I will take heed of old gardening wisdom and rotate my tomato crop!

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They cannot be contained (except when they can…)

Hello to our fellow denizens of the soil, tenders of the garden! Our plants are loving this weather and are growing with purpose, enjoying these temperatures and humidity far more than I am, where the sun and the temperatures provide a persuasive reason for staying in the shade and air conditioning. Not even the hot weather has been able to keep us away from our burgeoning harvest, as we have been able to pick peas and radishes, cut garlic scapes, and tend to the beds to ensure the plants, especially the finicky peppers, can grow as much as they can during these stretches of ideal weather.

In addition to our beds, we are growing plants in containers. We have several, which adds an extra dimension to what is already a challenging enough pursuit. Unlike a garden bed, you do not have as much control over the environmental variables you can expose your plants to nor do you have as many options for maintaining growth. Once it’s in a pot, it’s in a pot. About all you can do is water and fertilize it. You do not have the relative freedom provided by a bed: fewer ways to control moisture levels, limited space for roots to grow, better exposure to the environment. Containers do have one obvious advantage though. You can physically move them. Not getting enough sun or water? Maybe the other side of the deck is better. Not getting enough nutrients? All of that fertilizer is going to one plant.

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The pros and cons of beds versus containers is one where the pros are firmly in favor of the bed, but you can still have success with a container. Living in rental apartments over the last few years has forced us to learn the best practices of container gardening, lest I end up empty handed. Other than large heirlooms, which I have given up all hope on successfully cultivating in a container, I’ve had varying levels of success. From an over wintered habanero to an especially precocious bell pepper plant, it is possible to have a good harvest even if it has to be done on your back porch or in your front window. Here are a few of the most important things I’ve noted from my attempts the last few years, bountiful and futile alike:

  1. Water. Unlike in a bed, where it’s hard to over water to the point of killing them because it’ll run off, if the pot is not well drained or in the sun, it’ll stay moist a lot longer than a bed will, meaning root rot is a distinct possibility. Only water when you are sure the dirt is completely dry or the plant has begun to wilt.
  2. Sunlight. This is one area where containers can be better than gardens. You have to work within the limitations of your space, but you can sometimes better accommodate the light needs of your plants because of the portability of pots.
  3. Fertilizer. This is a the toughest part and the lesson it took me the longest to learn. Even an unfertilized garden will have nutrients passing into the soil consistently from organic matter, worms, animals, and more entering the ecosystem. A pot is a relatively self-contained environment. Once the nutrients from the soil are gone, they’re gone and if your plants runs out of nutrients while it’s trying to fruit, you’ll be out of luck.
  4. Pot size. This is one case where bigger is better. Never underestimate the ability of a plant to grow roots. In a garden bed they’ll be able to go down as deep as they need, but in a container they’ll be constrained. Use as a big of a pot as you can manage to give your plant the most room to expand. Not to mention a bigger pot will hold more nutrients, decreasing the amount you need to fertilize.
  5. Optimism. Sometimes you just need to keep at it and hope for the best. Last year we had a black bell pepper that put out three delicious peppers by August and then nothing. We kept at it, watering and fertilizing regularly, and got another dozen peppers before the first frost.

Does anyone out there have any tips for container gardening? I’d love to be able to grow full-size heirloom tomatoes some year! Until next time!

I scape by with a little help from my friends — Garlic Scape Time

This weekend in Chicago is hot. Hot. Hot. Hot. After a lot of traveling around the country, we are finally back in Chicago and doing some much needed maintenance on the garden. It seems like everything is finally starting to take off and we are grateful for this truly hot week for the sake of the peppers.

In the meantime though, let’s talk about garlic. I’m in love with garlic. It is another plant that tastes remarkably different from what you would buy in the store. As hardneck types, these are the varieties waxed poetically about subtle differences that reflect regional soil and climate differences. Hardneck garlic (Allium sativum ssp. ophioscorodon) are closer to wild garlic and only keep for a few (8 – 10) months compared to the year plus softneck garlic you might see in a store. We planted several rows of cloves in two varieties (Sinnamahone and  Estonian Red) in late October 2016, and this week the scapes finally popped out.

Garlic Scapes Freshly Cut
Garlic Scapes Freshly Cut

Sinnamahone garlic is a variety we ordered off Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co.  According to their description they got this garlic from an area near the Sinnamahone River in rural Pennsylvania, where a farmer said he got the seed from a Sannamahone Indian who lived in the backwoods near there. Supposedly,  because it is a beautiful Rocambole type, the flavor is supposed to be incredible. Rocambole garlic is renowned for its complex and full flavor. These hardneck types are often referred to as “true garlic flavor.”

Estonian Red garlic is a more mild variety from — you guessed it. Estonia. Although it is popular enough to often be grown in other Scandinavian countries as well. It is occasionally mistaken for elephant garlic (which is actually a type of leek), this has five or six huge cloves and is a hardneck purple stripe variety.

Because these are both hardneck varieties, they grow scapes. These spirals are the garlic flowers, and in order to encourage greater bulb size, we cut them off using a sterile knife every time we see them.  Cutting off the flower cues the plant to divert its energy from growing flowers  and producing seed, into creating a bigger bulb.  The sooner you cut them, the more tender they are.  And that’s great because the nice part about scapes is that you can also eat them.  Scapes taste mild and sweet, like chives or scallions, but with a hit of unmistakable garlicky flavor. I like to use a food processor and make a pesto out of them. Although I am not a pickler, friends who are have given me jars of scapes which I would add to bloody marys on game days in the fall.

Do you grow hardneck garlic? What varieties? What do you do with your scapes?

Sigaretta di Bergamo — Sweet and Skinny

We only have one of these seedlings this year because this is a pretty obscure sweet pepper and we do not want to invest our precious real estate until we know the sweet pepper is as delicious as it looks.  These peppers have a beautiful resemblance  to the pepperoncini type. They are very long, curled thin peppers that mature to a bright red color. Fruits are usually about 0.75″ in diameter and can grow up to 12″ or maybe even longer. The flesh is said to be thin. I am excited because because they are early maturing, compact, and very prolific. Great for our northern urban garden!

The name of this pepper translates to “Cigarette of Bergamo” or “Bergamo Cigar”. Bergamo is a small city in the Lombardy region of Northern Italy. It is not too far north of Milan.

Italian food itself is more regional than national, with people from different provinces eating vastly different food. What someone eats in Lombardy may be very different than what they eat in Sicily. Because there is a lot of cattle rearing in Lombardy, people tend to eat more more beef compared to Sicily’s seafood. Also, possibly because of the higher number of cows, dairy consumption of butter, cream, and cheese is higher than what you would find in other parts of Italy.

As for these peppers, because they tend to be rather small and sweet with a tiny kick, I plan on using them in salads and just pan fried or grilled whole. Because this pepper is supposed to be similar to a pepperoncini, and I cannot find much info on it, I think I will also have to adapt some pepperoncini recipes and see how those go!

Sigaretta di Bergamo Seedling
Sigaretta di Bergamo Seedling Enjoying Some Sun

As for the seedling itself, it looks unique compared to our other peppers. Although small, it is incredibly busy already with several branches shooting off in different directions. The roots are now busting out of the bottom of the holes I drilled in the red plastic cups. The plant is begging to be put in the dirt, and I plan on obliging this weekend! I have scaled back on watering my peppers until their leaves begin to wilt and have been using a very diluted fish/seaweed based fertilizer. It seems to have had a great affect on the plants, all things considered. They are making quite the comeback and the root systems seem much more robust.

I cannot wait till harvest time late this summer, when we can start posting and experimenting with new recipes for these little known heirloom peppers. Do you guys have any ideas for how to eat these Sigaretta di Bergamo peppers? Maybe some old family recipes?

Until next time, Ciao peppers!

Growing Up and Hardening Off

They grow up so fast, don’t they? One day they are only seeds, small, hard and so unlike a plant and then it seems all do is blink your eyes and they have grown into strong, tall, and independent seedlings. We weren’t as successful as we were hoping, our inexperience reared its ugly head as we moved through the spring and saw many of our seeds either not germinate or die soon after giving us a glimmer of hope. The weather, so cold and gray for March and April certainly did not help either, but despite all that we still managed (with the help of the local gardening store) to bring almost two dozen tomato and pepper plants far enough along to start planting them in our garden for the summer. Due to the number of seedlings versus available planting space, we are being more gentle with some plants than with others, as we can afford to lose a few but wanted to get as many plants into the ground as we could in time to take advantage of the great weather (mostly sunny and in the seventies and eighties much of this week) to try and make up some of the ground we lost due to the lousy spring.

The plants we planted this weekend fell into two categories: plants that were ready for the outdoors, like our tomatoes and cucumber plants which had both been spending time outside in their containers and grown unwieldy, as well as few varieties that were struggling inside and we were willing to risk to the whims of the garden gods: eggplant, garden store Serrano that was muddling along in the gardener’s limbo of not growing but not dying, and the single Ostra Cyklon pepper plant that survived, albeit barely, and was obviously not thriving in our apartment. I’ll be curious to see if the warm temperatures and full days of sun will be enough to revive those. Those varieties (excepting the Serrano) are also from cooler climes and should be able to handle the variances in the weather patterns of a Chicago spring.

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The plants we are holding onto are exclusively hot peppers.  This is mainly due to their size (pictured below) and their geographic region of origin. While tomatoes, eggplant, and cucumber find their homes in more temperate continental climates in the Northern Hemisphere, our pepper’s homes can be mainly found around the equator, meaning they’ll prefer to let the cooler nights of May pass indoors to await the warmer days of June and July more akin to their homes. As such, we are taking a more traditional hardening off approach with these, where we are placing them outside during the hottest part of the day and bringing them in at night. Over the next few days if they’re all looking good we’ll probably start leaving them out at night in preparation for their planting sometime next week.

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I’ll be curious to see if these end up doing better or worse than the plants we put in the ground this past weekend, with the Serrano serving as a perfect control. Feel free to share some of your approaches for kicking your adult plant children out of your home! I’m of the opinion that plants are fairly resilient organisms and can survive many conditions, so my approach to hardening off is accordingly lax, somewhat to the chagrin of Super_C#. This year might make me eat those words and adhere to a bit more rigorous routine for hardening off, but only time will tell. Until next time!

Fish Pepper Seedling Update. Things are looking fishy!

Well, it has been now been a month and a half since our initial fish pepper germination and twenty days since we first sowed the seeds. The seedlings are coming along nicely, the leaves are getting bigger, and finally showing signs of variegation. As mentioned in my previous post on these guys, fish peppers are an African American heirloom pepper from the Chesapeake Bay Area popular in seafood thought to be from the Caribbean.

Fish pepper seedling one month
A month and a half of growth and a week after first topping.

I am growing these at the recommendation of my sister and while I am primarily excited about all the fun history of the plant (food history is the best kind of history), something else that I love about it is its variegation. Some of our seedlings were so white that the amount of albinism they had meant an inability to photosynthesize and they died almost immediately after popping out of the ground.  The splashes of white on the leaves make the plant beautiful and on top of being tasty, a great ornamental addition to the garden.

So where does variegation come from and why is this the only pepper we have heard of to have it? Well, it’s just a wonderful freaky mutation and we don’t get out much! The white spots on its leaves arise because of a lack of the green pigment chlorophyll in a blotch of the plant cell. Those white patches cannot photosynthesize. Since green is still the dominant color of the plant, it survives and thrives. This variegation is usually the result of a cell mutation, and in fish peppers is apparently genetic (it has also been chimeric in other plants).  I imagine what happened is that a hundred fifty years ago the mutation occurred in the plant and as can happen, the characteristic stabilized in the plant’s offspring. From some reading, it seems that a season’s climatic condition can affect when leaf variegation and fruit stripe appears.  It can sometimes appear at first or second set of true leaves, but sometimes not till a bit later in the season for a plant. Anecdotally, mine have been all over the place  in terms of pepper variegation. Since these peppers cross pollinate so easily, I would be interested in setting out my fish peppers near some sweet peppers and seeing if I could come up with some sort of hybrid!  As for why this is the only pepper I’ve heard about for variegation, it seems like I simply have not done my research! There are plenty of other variegated hot pepper varieties such as Trifetti, Variegata, Filius Blue, and Golden Nugget. These are going to have to be a few varieties I consider for next season.

Fish Pepper Variegation
First signs of variegation

But for this summer, I am super excited about these fish peppers. They are a great ornamental addition in the garden, and unlike all my squash, I don’t think all the Chicago critters will be able to chomp down on these too much!

Track the growth with us:

  1. Early March: Sowing the seeds.
  2. Late March: Germination!

Thyme is not always on our side

I love thyme. It’s my favorite herb and I cook with it as much as I can. The distinctive strong aroma and bold taste means it easily stands on its own as the star of a dish but the flavor profile also blends well with many other herbs and seasonings from warm climates, creating beautiful medleys on the stove top and in the salad bowl.  I always have some on hand in the spice cabinet and when in doubt with what to add to a meal I’ll usually give it a few shakes of thyme.  The only problem is that the dried version is nowhere near as flavorful as the growing plant and much to my chagrin I can never seem to keep a thyme plant alive! We’ve tried to grow a thyme plant in a container the last few years and all have kicked the bucket on us. An attempt or two directly in the garden failed as well. This year, instead of leaving the fate of our new thyme plant up to fate and our incapable hands, I’ve done some research and aim for better success for our humble plant this year.

Growing Thyme

Our thyme plant will be a primarily indoor plant with some time spent outside during the summer months, so most of my planting plan is built around that.  Thyme originates from the Mediterranean region and likes a well drained soil on the sandier side.  In retrospect, this was our most common mistake, as we have planted it in potting soil designed to retain moisture as well as garden beds heavy on clay in the past.  This year, I’ve mixed some cactus soil (heavy on sand and perlite) with potting soil to create a more hospitable environment for our thyme plant.

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In addition to this, thyme requires mostly full to full sun to grow. Last year we had it on our back porch, which gets only a few hours of the morning sun. No wonder it died so quickly! Heavy potting soil and limited sunlight does not do a thyme good.  We will be keeping it in our front windows with the occasional trip up to our roof deck for the summer months. Hopefully the better sun and soil conditions will yield a healthy thyme plant whose leaves will impart their fragrance to our cooking this summer, instead of the usual dried out and dead mess we have by June.

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(Here it is in its new home! Hopefully the more spacious confines will give it space to fill out over the next few weeks.)

Anybody have any other tips for growing thyme or other herbs? We’d love to hear them! Also, if you have a favorite recipe featuring thyme please feel free to share! We always love trying out new recipes in the kitchen.

Espelette pepper — A basque vacation in a plant

Capt.Capsicum has been lovingly coddling our Espelette pepper seedlings ever since he glimpsed the Basque food article in the foodie Saveur magazine we subscribe to. He decided to order these seeds from the internet, and as soon as they arrived, went germinating.  Since then, we have been dreaming of visiting Basque country, soaking up the sights, culture, and especially cuisine. Unfortunately, such a vacation will preclude us this year, and we will have to settle to cooking our own Basque food! Hence the Espelettes. Week by week we are slowly getting closer to harvest as our seedlings grow. With the rough, grey weather we have been having, these guys are special enough to get some of the brightest spots in our grow light station. The Espelettes grow bigger and leafier by the day.

While we wait for them to grow up and dream of spring, we to make plans for the peppers and while away the time learning about their origins. In Basque, this pepper is known as the Ezpeletako biperra, and festoons can be found hanging in markets and window-boxes in the Espelette commune in southern France along the Pyrenees mountains,  the northern most area of the Basque region.

 

As mentioned before in the previous post, these peppers are so special to french culture and cuisine they have the designation of Appellation d’origine contrôlée, a certification granted by the French government for significant regional foods. There are a few other french Basque A.O.C foods which I do not expect us getting our hands on. For example, the cute black spotted Kintoa Basque Pig which just got its designation last year or the Irouléguy wine of the region. And yet there are a few others which I expect we will, like the sheep cheese Ossau-Iraty, which is apparently sold at Trader Joe’s as Basque Shepherd’s Cheese. We are definitely going to have to make tapas come fall and hang up a festoon of peppers to dry and decorate our kitchen as well.

For now, back to Chicago though and an update on our pepper’s progress. Although the germination rate was not as vigorous and fast as the petit marseillais , they are making quite a come back at the moment. The leaves are growing and the plants are not looking at all anemic.  Just in case, I also germinated a few more in some coconut coir just in case because for a while some of our peppers weren’t looking too good.  (A few security seedlings never hurt).

Espelette Seedlings Growing in Chicago
Babies ready for their own containers

A bit of heat and light always does a pepper good. I fully expect that these guys will be able to succeed outdoors and we will be collecting fruit and cookin’.  We are about two weeks away from our last frost date in Chicago and every day I grow more anxious.

Until then, we dream of spring, read gardening blogs, read food blogs, learn javascript (my life has been strictly backend development), and anxiously look at the weather forecast getting ready to dig and plant our summer crops.

Oh and these are getting gently transplanted to their own containers tonight!