A Garden Visit With Harry Cabluck

I love this sign that Harry has hanging in the back of his garden

I love this sign that Harry has hanging in the back of his garden

Over the next twelve months we will be visiting with 12 gardeners from all over Texas.  They will be sharing some of the knowledge that allows them to garden successfully in our beloved, but climatically challenging state. I have a masters degree in horticulture and I have gardened for years.  However, most of my gardening knowledge came from visits with other gardeners.   I hope these monthly visits will provide you, and me, with a few tips and tricks that will help us all become better gardeners.

Patty and I visited harry Cabluck and his incredibly well done garden earlier this month. We were blown away by how well down it was. Always humble, Harry gives much of the credit for his garden infrastructure to his good friend Tom Lupton.

Patty and I visited Harry Cabluck and his incredibly well done garden earlier this month. We were blown away by how well done it was. Always humble, Harry gives much of the credit for his garden infrastructure to his good friend Tom Lupton.

Our first gardener is Harry Cabluck.  Harry gardens in the back yard of his central Austin home.  While his garden is not the biggest I have ever seen, it is one of the neatest and most well managed gardens that I have ever been in.  Harry was gardening organically long before it was “cool”.  He collects rainwater for irrigation, makes tons of compost, has the nicest cold frame I have ever seen and grows tomatoes from seeds (click here to read how Harry grows his tomato transplants) and then grafts them onto other tomatoes that he has grown from seed.

Garbage bags over tomato plants Thursday, March 19, 2015, in Austin, Texas. ( Photo/Harry Cabluck)

Garbage bags over tomato plants Thursday, March 19, 2015, in Austin, Texas. ( Photo/Harry Cabluck)


Harry uses a piece of string and a rubber band to quickly and effectively secure his garbage covers to his tomato cages

Harry gives his beloved tomatoes a head start by growing them in an ingenious cage method that he developed.  As early in March as he can, Harry plants the tomatoes he started in January in his neatly bordered beds that are extremely well worked with compost.  He then takes a 55 gallon trash can liner, splits the end and bunches it around the tomato plant.  Then he uses his heavy duty cages to anchor the the trash bag in place.  To keep his trash bag liner secured to his cage he uses an ingenious string and rubber band fastener that is incredibly effective and easy to use.  With bags in place he is able to easily pull the bags up over his frame at the earliest sign of cold weather, high winds or heavy rain.  I was so impressed with this cage method that I seriously considered changing the way I grow tomatoes!  Now let’s hear more from Harry:

Cabluck garden on Tuesday, May 13, 2014, in Austin, Texas. ( Photo/Harry Cabluck)

Cabluck garden on Tuesday, May 13, 2014, in Austin, Texas. ( Photo/Harry Cabluck)

Name: Harry Cabluck

Location: Central Austin.  **City garden of three 100-sq. ft. raised beds.  We rotate a plot holding 12-15 tomato plants a year.


(Photo/Harry Cabluck)

Years gardening: 43+.  First gardened as a child in late 1940’s.  My mother had a green thumb and a source for manure, as her father was a dairy farmer.  As an adult we have had small plots in Dallas and larger plots in Pittsburgh, Pa., and Columbus, Ohio.  We made good use of our Troy-Bilt 6 hp rototiller.  Often improved the soil in these gardens by importing soil, manure and/or spoiled hay.

Years in this plot: 20.   **Our backyard was once the corral area for a nearby home.  When we moved in it was black gumbo clay that would hold ankle-deep water for a few days after each rain. De-ionized the soil with gypsum. Built multiple compost piles 20-feet long before starting to plant in 1995.


Tomatoes under lights Sunday, March 2, 2014, in Austin, Texas. ( Photo/Harry Cabluck)

Favorite crop: Tomatoes.  Usually start 60 seeds in trays under lights in the garage in January.  This is the first year to use LED’s instead of T-5 or fluorescent lights. Hope to yield 36 heirloom/hybrids along with 18 rootstock for grafting.  After starts in trays become root bound, transplant to four-inch pots.  Some 12-15 pots stay under lights, the remaining pots are moved to the cold frame.  Sometimes need to run an extension cord and heating pad to cold frame.  Usually give away the tomato plants that are not planted in our garden.  Crop rotation includes basil, green beans, arugula, spinach, marigolds.  January crops include greens, carrots, elephant garlic, shallots, gumbo onions.  Would like to attempt parsnips.  Have never had good luck with sweet peas.

Best tips:  Make good garden dirt.

Compost!!!  This year’s compost pile of ground leaves, mixed with kitchen scraps, cottonseed meal, bat guano and molasses, seems to be the best ever.  In previous years used cooked barley malt (byproduct of brewery) mixed with coffee chaff (byproduct of air roasting).  That stuff needed to be turned at least once daily, as it would putrefy.


Harry composts directly in his beds

Although not necessary, we get great results using our cold frame and 800-gallon rainwater catchment.  A two-inch rain on our 20X20-foot garage roof will fill the tank.  It is usually empty around July 4.

Make use of store-bought soil for seed-starting and transplanting. Happy Frog brand seems best.  Don’t waste time and money on cheap tomato cages. Read Bill Adams’, “Texas Tomato Lover’s Handbook.”


Cold frame in Cabluck back yard garden Saturday, March 7, 2015, in Austin, Texas. ( Photo/Harry Cabluck)

Pest control:  Havahart traps for varmints.  For bugs, mix a one-gallon cocktail containing 50-squirts Tabasco, one ounce of liquid seaweed, one ounce molasses, one ounce fish emulsion, dash of dishwashing liquid…when necessary add BT.  I love my Hudson sprayer.

Weed control: We control weeds by cultivating and mulching regularly.  **Best stuff seems to be wood chips. Long-tined rake, six-inches wide, four tines.

Biggest challenge: Thwarting the squirrels and leaf-footed bugs.  **Would like to have a moveable pergola, because a hoop house is always a challenge to erect and doesn’t look good.

Favorite amendment: Cottonseed meal AND anything with trace elements…especially glauconite, WHICH seems to help blossoms set fruit in heat and cold.

Do we preserve:  No.   **Not large enough garden, small yields.

Favorite advice:  Have a good friend who has great ideas.   ***Thanks to Tom Lupton.

What would you like to do better?  Would like to learn more about tomato biology. How to ensure more tomato blossoming and fruit set and how to improve brix.

Drought-Busting Rains by Patty G. Leander

As the designated voice of vegetables for Jay’s blog, it seems fitting to commiserate with all the vegetable gardeners out there who are dealing with the challenges of May’s drought-busting rains. First let me say that my heart and deepest sympathy go out to those who have experienced tragic losses as a result of the flooding and I extend my admiration and gratitude to the hard-working first responders, rescue teams and dedicated volunteers who have come to the aid of the distressed.

Here in Central Texas we broke the record for total rainfall for May with a little over 17 inches; our average May rainfall is normally around 4 inches. The experts have declared that we are officially in an El Niño year which means more rain and hotter temperatures can be expected. After receiving almost 10” of rain the last week of May things are starting to dry out around here and a look at the latest drought monitor map indicates that the rains have finally pulled Texas out of the extreme drought category:


Not the most stylish look but it works!

Not the most stylish look but it works!

All of this moisture has created an ideal environment for lots of pesky mosquitoes and each individual gardener must decide how far they want to go to combat this pest. After a recent morning in the garden spent waving my arms hysterically to shoo the mosquitoes from my face, I abandoned fashion and style in favor of practicality and protection and pulled out my secret weapon: a mosquito hat my nephew bought for me at a Boy Scout Trading Post during summer camp a few years ago. He told me it worked great and he was right. I get tremendous satisfaction when I hear the buzzing around my ears and I know the little buggers can’t get to me. If you don’t have access to a Boy Scout Trading Post, look for these nets at hunting, camping or sporting goods stores – you might even find something more stylish.


Potatoes growing in open-ended bushel baskets

The excessive rains and water-logged soil caused some rotting among my onions and garlic but fortunately I planted my potatoes above ground in open ended bushel baskets and got a modest harvest of Red LaSoda, White Kennebec and La Ratte fingerling potatoes.


‘La Ratte’ fingerling potatoes


Hoping for tasty tomatoes

It’s been a good year so far for cucumbers and green beans but not so good for tomatoes. From Houston to Austin to San Antonio and beyond I have been hearing reports of delayed ripening and watered-down flavor due to the rainy weather and cool, cloudy days. My favorite variety from a couple of years ago was ‘Marianna’s Peace’, a rich red tomato with juicy, complex flavor, but the first fruits I’ve tasted from this year are washed out and bland tasting. Has this been a good tomato season where you live?  Hopefully the warmth and sun and drier weather will help intensify that flavor we crave in the tomatoes yet to ripen. Hope you are blessed with a good harvest and many sumptuous tomatoes in your future!

Planting Etiolated Tomatoes

This year, I am pretty certain that I have ruined my tomatoes.  To say I am disappointed is an understatement.  I am not really sure what went wrong. I created a grow center in my mudroom out of a metal shelving system and florescent grow lights.  I kept the lights just a couple of inches above the plants.  However, in spite of my care, everything went terribly wrong.

My tomato seedlings under the expensive grow lights that apparently weren't worth what I spent on them

My tomato seedlings under the expensive grow lights that apparently weren’t worth what I spent on them

Now don’t get me wrong.  Its not like the plants didn’t grow.  No, they grew and grew and grew.  In all honesty, I knew something was wrong about 30 days into it.  They were just too tall.  I thought they were growing so fast because of the expensive “grow lights” I bought for the fluorescent fixtures.  Boy was I ever wrong.  Looks like my expensive grow lights have left me with a whole bunch of etiolated tomatoes.

According to Wikipedia, “etiolation (pronounced /iːtɪəˈleɪʃən/) is a process in flowering plants grown in partial or complete absence of light.[1] It is characterized by long, weak stems; smaller, sparser leaves due to longer internodes; and a pale yellow color (chlorosis).”

This is what a seriousllt etiolated tomato plant looks like

This is what a seriously etiolated tomato plant looks like

What all this means is my “grow lights” were evidently not producing the right wavelengths required by the tomatoes to grow correctly.  We all know that plants need light.  However, what a lot of us don’t know is light is really a pretty complex thing.  Light comes at you and your plants in waves.  Some of these waves are long and some are VERY short.  Different plants respond to different wavelengths.  So, even though my expensive grow lights provided a lot of light, it wasn’t the right light.

Technically speaking, etiolation causes a lengthening of the internodes of the plant.  This makes their branches weak.  However, the really bad thing (as far as I am concerned) is that it does not allow the plants to properly develop the chlorophyll need for photosynthesis.

This lack of chlorophyll thing bit me when I set the plants out to “harden off”.  Since their chloroplasts weren’t fully formed, they got a pretty bad burn pretty quickly.  This “hardening” almost immediately killed about a third of my 58 plants.

I nursed the plants along and continued hardening.  However, they were hurting.  I was really afraid I was going to lose them all.  In order to try and save some of them , I decided to do the only thing I could think of to salvage some of my plants – I planted them sideways!

The long holes I dug to plant my etiolated tomatoes

The long holes I dug to plant my etiolated tomatoes

That’s right, I dug a big old long hole and buried almost all of my etiolated plants.  I left about 8” of stem and leaves sticking up.  Hopefully, they will quickly develop their weak little chloroplasts and they will start growing normally toward the sun.

Planting the entire plant in the long hole

Planting the entire plant in the long hole

I was able to bury my plants because tomatoes have the ability to grow roots anywhere along their stem.  In fact, even if you plant healthy tomato plants, it is a good idea to bury them deeper than they were in their container.  By planting them deep, the buried stem will produce more roots that will in turn help produce a bigger, healthier plant.

One of my poor old etiolated, sunburned tomatoes after transplanting to the garden.

One of my poor old etiolated, sunburned tomatoes after transplanting to the garden.

Right now I am hopeful that I will be able to salvage some of my seedlings.  However, I have been wrong before.  If things don’t go my way over the next week I will be at my local garden center fighting for plants with all of the other last minute tomato gardeners.  Wish me luck!

Cheap Tomatoes

A friend at work told me that she wanted to start growing her own vegetables as a way to cut down on her grocery bill.  I encouraged her to start a small garden but I warned her that she probably would not be saving money by doing so.  She was not to be deterred.  She had done the math!  She would grow tomatoes in hanging baskets that cost $19 each.  Since each plant would produce 10 pounds of tomatoes her cost would be just $2 per pound.  Any fool could see that was cheaper than what Whole Foods was charging for a pound of organic tomatoes.

After a couple of weeks I checked in on my friend to see how her hanging tomatoes were doing.  She was pretty pleased with all things horticultural, but she was a little dismayed about how much she had spent.  The two hanging bags set her back $38, soil and tomatoes were another $20.  Then she had to figure out a way to hang them.  Since her patio did not get enough sun, she fashioned a rolling support out of galvanized pipe and fittings and a patio umbrella stand.  This cost her another $100.  My friend had learned a very important lesson.  Gardening can provide you with many things.  Unfortunately cheap food is not usually one of them.

I am happy to report that my friend did not allow her initial start up costs to deter her gardening efforts.  In fact, she has now expanded her gardening operation and is successfully growing herbs and veggies in giant pots in her yard.  She no longer tries to justify her hobby as a money saver.  She now gardens just for the fun of it!  She is growing her own food, spending time out doors, reading books and talking to other gardeners.  She has definitely caught the gardening bug.

A lovely pot of chard and parsley at Thompson and Hanson’s in River Oaks

Watching my friend get so excited about gardening put me in a reflective mood.  I started wondering, “What is it about watching things grow that makes me, and countless others like me, kind of nutty?”  What exactly does gardening provide that makes us return to this pursuit year after year?  I know this, gardening provides me with a link to my past.  As I get older being connected to my history gets more and more important.  I also get the majority of my exercise and all of my sore muscles and back aches in the garden.  It gives me a place to express my creativity and it provides me with a window into the wonder of life.  Gardening relaxes me, humbles me and keeps me ever watchful and hopeful. It is place where I gather and pass on my knowledge.  I have talked to many gardeners and they all seem to agree.  The garden is a place where we invest our time, talent and resources.  We all receive many gifts from the garden.  Unfortunately, cheap food is not generally one of them.

Here are the links for the vendors mentioned in this article: