Harry Cabluck’s Tips for Growing Healthy Tomato Transplants

If you want to grow and harvest the best tomatoes possible, you need to grow your own plants from seed and then get those little plants in the ground as soon as possible..  Growing your own plants at home ensures that the varieties you want are available and that they are at the optimal size for transplanting on your optimal planting date. 

Some of Harry Cabluck's home grown tomatoes are almost ready for transplanting.  Photo by Harry Cabluck

Some of Harry Cabluck’s home grown tomatoes are almost ready for transplanting. Photo by Harry Cabluck

I have a long time reader (and long-time tomato grower) from Austin named Harry Cabluck.  Many of my Austin readers know Harry as an award winning photographer that snapped some of the most iconic sports and political images of our generation.  What you may not know about him is that when he was not covering politics at the state capitol he was home working very hard to grow a perfect tomato.  The main thing he has learned is that early harvests of tomatoes come from plants that were planted as early as possible.  To do this Harry grows from seed in a home-made grow center in his garage.  Harry was kind enough to share some of the secrets he has learned about growing tomatoes from seed.

Media - Harry starts his seeds in expandable coir pellets.  These pellets provide a loose media that is perfect for germinating plants.  Early on, the expandable pellets fit nicely into a specially designed rack.  After the plants form their true leave, Harry transfers the entire pellet to 3-ounce bathroom cups that come from the supermarket.  These cups are just the right size to hold smaller peat-pellets and they fit perfectly into the pellet rack.  A red-hot nail head is applied to burn a hole in the bottom of each cup and felt-tip pen makes it easy to label the plantings.


Coir pellets fit nicely in a 3 ounce cup.  In addition, the cups are easy to label. Photo by Harry Cabluck

Coir pellets fit nicely in a 3 ounce cup. In addition, the cups are easy to label. Photo by Harry Cabluck

Warmth – Even though we live and grow in a mild climate, it is not mild enough to grow tomato seeds without some protection from the cold.  As Harry said “The recent cold front that blew through Austin has prompted the need for heat again for our tomato seedlings.”  To speed up the seeds germination and early growth, he places his coir pellet racks on heated grow mats.  Tomatoes grow best in temperatures above 50 degrees.  These warming mats ensure the soil that holds his seeds stays a toasty “70ish” degrees even in his garage.

Heat mats ensure quick germination and rapid growth.  Phot by Harry Cabluck

Heat mats ensure quick germination and rapid growth. Phot by Harry Cabluck

Light – All plants need light.  If you are going to grow your plants in the absence of natural sunlight, you are going to have to simulate that light for them.  Harry uses T5 fluorescent tubes to provide light to his young plants.  While florescent are not an exact match for sunlight, you can get pretty close by buying bulbs that emit light in the warm and the cool spectrum.  This is usually listed on the packaging.  Harry keeps four tubes above his seedlings.  He also recommends keeping them very close to the plants to avoid making the plants produce weak, spindly growth.

Strength- One of the true secrets of growing healthy tomato transplants at home is “keeping them moving”.  If tomato plants are grown in an enclosed area with no air movement, they can look very pretty but be very brittle.  To avoid this, you need to either run your hands gently through your plants on a regular basis or create some way to have a slight breeze blowing over them at all times.  Harry’s home-made grow center incorporates a whisper-fan that he salvaged from an old desktop computer.  According to him, this small fan provides the air circulation needed to strengthen stems and it also helps cools plants on warm days.

A salvaged fan from an old computer provides the movement needed to ensure Harry's transplants are strong when moved outside.  Photo by Harry Cabluck

A salvaged fan from an old computer provides the movement needed to ensure Harry’s transplants are strong when moved outside. Photo by Harry Cabluck

If you live in Austin it is a little late to start your tomato seeds at home.  However, if you live a bit further north, you may still have plenty of time.  By following Harry’s tips you can ensure that you never have to search for your favorite variety again.  If you follow Harry’s advice and start your seeds at home a couple of months before their recommended planting time, you will have strong healthy plants that will provide you with the earliest and best tomatoes anywhere.

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Signs of Spring

 Each year I like to do a post that announces the arrival of spring in our part of Texas.  In the past I have written about budding bluebonnets, magenta blooms on the red buds, sweetly scented narcissus and the return of the purple martins.  This year, I got a much less beautiful reminder that Spring is right around the corner.

Some of my wife's bluebonnets.  Sally has worked for years to spread our state flower all over our yard.

Some of my wife’s bluebonnets. Sally has worked for years to spread our state flower all over our yard.

Last weekend Sally and I were on the back deck.  She became very excited and told me she saw smoke coming from the back of the Cassita.  I of course ran to see what was on fire.  I was relieved to find nothing burning so I turned to tell her everything was ok.  As soon as I turned toward her the male cedar tree (ashe juniper) over the chicken coop literally exploded and released a cloud of pollen that looked very much like smoke! Now if I were not so allergic to cedar I might have found this a whole lot more fascinating.  Ok, I still found it fascinating, but I knew this natural marvel was going to cause me a whole lot of problems over the next few weeks.


Here is a shot of our little guest house that Sally thought was on fire. We call it the “casssita”.

Now I have lived 51 years and I have never witnessed this.  I actually grew up in a cedar break in McLennan county and I never got to see the trees release their pollen.  My itchy eyes, stuffy nose and headaches always told me the pollen had been released but I had never seen it with my own two eyes.


This is the male cedar tree that released its pollen in my face!

The timing of this has been interestingly fortuitous.  A couple of weeks ago a friend sent me a link from Austin’s KVUE News.  Someone actually caught this phenomenon on camera and sent the film to them.  If you would like to see it for yourself, just click on the video clip below.


So, in honor of almost historic levels of cedar pollen in our area, I am now pleased to announce that spring has arrived in Central and South Central Texas.  If you feel like gambling, realize that after February 15, there is only a 10% chance that there will be another freeze in the Houston area.  I am not much of a gambler.  I am still going to wait until March 15 to do most of my planting.  However, this is a good time to start getting your beds ready for planting.  This weekend I will be tilling, weeding and adding lots of compost to my beds.  If the weather holds (and I am not laid up in bed with a headache and a runny nose) I am looking forward to some very sore muscles and a very achy back on Monday.  Happy Spring Y’ all!!!

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Gumbo Onions

There are two things that really get my gardening juices flowing–pass along plants and discovering a new, exceptionally good variety of something.  This year I received a true gift – a pass along onion that has turned out to be the best green onion I have ever grown.  The “Gumbo Onion” is everything you look for in a green onion.  The white bulbs are firm and spicy and the green leaves taste great and are firm enough to be easily chopped. 


These “gumbo onions” have been grown in the same family for over 100 years

I got my “Gumbo Onions” from fellow Texas Gardener writer Patty Leander.  Patty got her starts from Chris Corby who is the editor of Texas Gardener.  Chris got these amazing onions in the mail from L. E. Andrews of Houston. L. E. sent Chris several of these amazing onion bulbs.  L.E. told Chris that the onions came from a family of Cajuns from south Louisiana who migrated to Texas.  They have been growing these onions in the same family for well over 100 years.

Shallots are grown just like regular onions.  Only they have no day length limitations.

Shallots are grown just like regular onions. Only they have no day length limitations.

Mr. Andrews’ “gumbo onions” are technically shallots.  Shallots (A. cepa var. aggregatum) are a variety of the onion family (Allium cepa) that reproduces primarily by division.  Plant a single shallot bulb and that bulb will create several “off sets” from the main bulb.  Because of this growth habit some people call them “garlic onions”

Each shallot bulb will reproduce by creating several "offsets" around the main bulb.

Each shallot bulb will reproduce by creating several “offsets” around the main bulb.

Shallots are not grown in large numbers in the U.S. I am beginning to see them in a few feed stores and nurseries in my area.  However, most of the varieties that I am aware of are still passed from gardener to gardener. Shallots are grown just like regular onions (except you don’t have to worry about any day length issues).  Plant them in the fall for an early spring harvest or in the early spring for a summer harvest.  Do not plant them in soil that has been recently manured.  Shallots should be planted with the root scar down and the pointy end up.  Stick them in the ground deep enough to just cover the top of the offset.  Now all you have to do is water and weed.    

L.E. Andrews' "gumbo onions" are the best green onions I have ever grown.

L.E. Andrews’ “gumbo onions” are the best green onions I have ever grown.

I am thankful for people like L.E. Andrews.  He, and others like him, are preserving our horticultural past by growing these old timey varieties that have slowly fallen out of favor with the nursery trade.  I am so glad that he decided to share his heirloom onions and their story with those of us that will appreciate them and hopefully keep them growing for another 100 years. 

BTW, if you live north of I10, it is time to get your onions and shallots in the ground!

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Winter Watering by Janet Laminack

“Should I be watering my lawn and shrubs this time of the year? It is extremely dry but has also been very cold and below freezing temperatures.”


You should definately water during the winter

This is a question I recently received from a local resident. It’s a great question and I have some answers for anyone else who may also be wondering that very same thing.

Yes, watering shrubs and perennials, especially before we have freezing temperatures, is recommended. Watering helps insulate the plants and can help them survive unusually low temperatures better. This is especially beneficial if you have perennials that are a little tender for our area or when temepratures drop below our normal temperature range. I also like to recommend watering evergreen shrubs and trees in the winter. Since they still have their leaves on they have more desiccation in the winter than deciduous plants. When we get warm, windy days, the soil is likely to dry out and plants with leaves could be losing moisture. Shrubs and trees without leaves may not need water as much. They aren’t moving water through their system, but their roots are alive and could be damaged if they dry out too much. And you are more likely to get freeze damage with roots in dry soil rather than roots in a well-watered soil.



Evergreen shrubs lose water even in the cold months

When thinking about watering your lawn, think about watering St Augustine like a tender plant with evergreen leaves. St Augustine does not like the cold weather.  Bermuda grass is much more cold tolerant and goes very dormant in our winter. It does alright with supplemental irrigation when we’ve been very dry for a long time.

Watering before a freeze will protect the roots of trees, shrubs and lawns

Watering before a freeze will protect the roots of trees, shrubs and lawns

The last thing to know about watering is not to do it during freezing temperatures. Turn off your automatic sprinkler system, icy landscapes are not our goal. Wait until we get a warm up and then give everything a good soak. You won’t need to water as frequently during the cold season, but about once a month, when we are dry will be very beneficial.


It is time to think about planting asparagus, onions and potatoes in North Texas

It’s getting to be time to start planting onions, asparagus and potatoes! Check out our vegetable gardening information under North Texas Gardening at www.dcmga.com. While you are there, you can find out about our upcoming classes and be put on our e-mailing list.   And as always, if you need more information or just have landscape or gardening questions contact us, at  940.349.2892, email master.gardener@dentoncounty.com, we are here to help.

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The Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers 2014 Grower’s School

In my opinion, my friend Kim Haven of Billabong Fresh Flower Farm has the best job in the world. She makes her living growing flowers. Kim is part of a movement that is creating a resurgence of American floriculture. Right now, approximately 90% of the cut flowers sold in the US are grown oversees. Thirty years ago, only 10% of cut flowers sold in the US came from abroad. More and more people like Kim are using their knowledge and love of horticulture to try and recapture market share that has slowly been lost to foreign competition.


A lovely bouquet grown by Kim Haven of Billabong Fresh Flower Farm in Hempstead, Texas

Here in Texas we have several growers who are making their living by producing high quality flowers, grown in a responsible manner, to the cut flower trade. With the support of The Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers, these growers have developed a community that works together to help each other grow, market and sell their beautiful products.

If you have ever thought of turning your flower growing hobby into a business, now is the perfect time to get started. The Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers is holding their 2014 Grower’s School at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden on March 3 and 4. This year’s conference features several leaders of the field to vase movement from all across the country. Below are highlights of some of the presentations.


These lovely “boot bouquets” are bursting with beautiful flowers grwon and arranged by Frank and Pamela Arnosky of Texas Specialty Cut Flowers in Blanco, Tx

Frank and Pamela Arnosky of Texas Specialty Cut Flowers in Blanco are the true pioneers of this market. Frank and Pamela Arnosky are the owners of one of the most successful field grown flower farms in the U.S. (and probably the whole world if the stats were checked). Starting with nothing but a chain saw and a dream, they have built a business that now provides the absolute finest quality, locally grown, fresh cut flowers to companies like HEB, Central Market and Whole Foods. Frank will pass on his growing knowledge in his presentation “Seeds or Plugs? Both?” and Pamela will provide you with the information you need to get your product into supermarket chains and also teach you how to harvest and handle your crop post-harvest.


This lovely row of zinnias on Rita Anders farm “Cuts of Color” is ready for harvest

Rita Anders is the South Central Regional Director of ASCFG and she has worked very hard to put this workshop together. She is also the owner of Cuts of Color in Weimer, Texas where she grows and sells to Central Market and Farmer’s Markets in the Houston area. She also has a thriving design business where she works closely with her brides to create beautiful weddings full of sustainably grown flowers. Rita will show you how to sell directly at Farmer’s Markets and also teach you how to quickly assemble your products into stunning arrangements.

Cynthia Alexander, of Quarry Flower Farms in Celina, Texas, harvests poppies for her floral customersCynthia Alexander of Quarry Flower Farms in Celina, Texas grows a variety of roses, Texas natives and other specialty flowers for the floral trade. She uses and teaches sustainable growing techniques on her many farm visits. She also offers a unique wedding experience by letting the bride come to the farm and pick the flowers that will be used in her bouquets and arrangements. Cynthia will teach you all you need to know about developing relationships with florists and how to prepare your flowers for delivery to them.

Right now is an exciting time to be a flower grower in the US. Demand for locally grown sustainable products is high and supply is low. If you have ever thought of turning your hobby into a money maker now is the time to act. You may never get a better chance to learn the ins and outs of this industry from the leading producers of local, sustainable flowers in the country. Click here to go directly to the full schedule of events and a registration form. Happy gardening y’ all and I hope to see you in Fort Worth!

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English Cottage Garden Deep in the Heart of Texas

Did you see Downton Abbey this past Sunday?  OMG!!!!  I did not see that coming!!!!  I am not going to spoil anything for any of you that missed it but OMG!  Killing Matthew – yep saw that one coming, but this past episode truly blew my mind!

DowntonSince Downton Abbey is such a hit, our friends at KLRU’s Central Texas Gardener decided to do a tie in on their program for the season opener.  I must say, they did “a jolly good job!”  The clip below feature’s a Texas interpretation of an English Cottage garden in Austin.  Click below to see how David and Jennifer Stocker utilized their English heritage to build their beautiful and water wise “English Garden” deep in the heart of Texas.

If you garden in the US, there is a very good chance that a lot of the design principles you use and the plants you choose came to you from the English.   The English are great gardeners and have been for centuries.  Dr. William C. (Bill) Welch from Texas A&M talks with Tom about the many ways that the English horticultural traditions have shaped our views about landscaping, especially in the south.  If you have not heard Dr. Welch speak before, or read one of his many books, you are in for a treat.  Dr. Welch is one of the most knowledgeable horticultural historians in the entire United States.  Enjoy!

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Resolve to Grow More Veggies in 2014 by Patty Leander

In a nod to the ubiquitous cell phone and the trend of sharing one’s life in pictures, The Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year for 2013 was ‘selfie’. But there’s another word that has crept into our vocabulary that may have more relevance to gardeners: Blandscaping. What image does that one word bring to mind? A cookie cutter landscape? A rectangle of grass? Uniformly trimmed hedges lined up in a single row? I bet it doesn’t make you think of a vegetable garden! A vegetable garden is vibrant, dynamic and engaging. It is full of sights, sounds and creatures and best of all an edible harvest.



This resourceful garden was built using materials available on site – native rock and unused concrete blocks with discarded fencing laid down in the paths to deter weeds. Photo by Bruce Leander.

If your landscaping has become a little too bland try incorporating a few edibles or a small vegetable garden this year.  Be sure to include crops that grow well in your region and start with vegetables your family likes to eat. Mid-January through February is the perfect time for planting broccoli, sugar snap peas, radishes, turnips, beets, Swiss chard, lettuce and spinach here in Central Texas. Check with the local AgriLife Extension office or Master Gardener organization in your county for the best planting dates in your area. 

 Get some exercise while tending your edible landscape, savor the nutritious results and you have the start to a healthy new year!  If you are new to the diverse vegetable kingdom or if the thought of eating turnips, Swiss chard or radishes leaves you feeling underwhelmed, check back here for some tasty ideas for bringing these health-promoting veggies to the table. I’ll be posting some occasional suggestions for preparing the bounty from your garden – you may be surprised how delicious it can be!   



This vegetable “bed” causes visitors to pause and admire the gardener’s sense of humor. Photo by Bruce Leander

There are numerous ways to include vegetables in a landscape, as you’ll see from the accompanying photographs, but there are also universal pitfalls to avoid in the process. It’s easy to get caught up in the garden frenzy of a new season but do try to start with a manageable plan. Believe me when I tell you that vegetables will respond much better when you don’t torture them with the following approach:


Vegetables are living things; they may not need as much time as a pet but they do require regular attention. A garden that is too big means plants will not receive the care that is required to bring them to fruition. 



Vegetable gardens can be as varied as the gardeners that tend them. Some gardeners prefer the contemplative solitude of a morning tending tidy rows of plants. Photo by Bruce Leander


Vegetables growing in the Texas heat may appreciate a little dappled shade at the height of summer but vegetables growing in the cool season need lots of sunlight to counter the cloudy and chilly days in early spring. Farms don’t grow in the shade.



A double row of broccoli grows in a narrow bed bordered by 16x8x8 inch cinder blocks. Lettuce fills the small space within the concrete blocks. Photo by Bruce Leander.


Consult a planting calendar for your area or ask an experienced gardener about planting dates. When planting in the cool season months use a soil thermometer to monitor temperature before planting. Different vegetables thrive at different temperatures and most cool season plants will do best when the soil temperature is in the 40-50° degree range.


Give your plants plenty of growing room so they don’t have to compete for nutrients and water. Follow spacing recommendations for transplants and if sowing from seed be sure to thin to the proper spacing after seed has germinated. 



Some gardens exude energy, enthusiasm and learning, like the vibrant Children’s Garden at the San Antonio Botanical Gardens. Photo by Bruce Leander


Create a checklist or purchase a gardening to-do guide and stick to it. Allow time for weeding, watering, fertilizing, inspecting and grooming plants. Remove diseased leaves and keep an eye out for harmful insects and hand-pick or spray to keep populations in check.

Remember, for most gardeners growing vegetables is an enjoyable and productive hobby…but when all else fails visit your local farmers market for a healthy dose of locally grown produce.  Here’s to a happy and successful gardening year!



Vegetable gardens naturally attract children and other living creatures!. Photo by Bruce Leander.

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