Tip of the Week – Week 11 in the Zone 9 Garden

Well folks, this is THE weekend in the Zone 9 vegetable garden!  If you have already prepared your beds then this weekend looks to be a perfect time to plant the spring vegetable garden.  If you haven’t prepared your beds the weather man says that you will have perfect weather to do it this Saturday and then plant on an absolutely gorgeous Sunday.

It is time to transplant the tomato you have been babying for the last three months.  Photo by Bruce Leander

It is time to transplant the tomatoes you have been babying for the last three months. Photo by Bruce Leander


March 15 is the recommended planting date for most of the vegetables that we think of as “spring” crops.  This weekend is the perfect time to plant some of them from seed and others from transplants.  For a complete list of what to plant check out the planting guide on the blog.

Seed – Now is the time to plant snap beans, Lima beans, cantaloupe, corn, cucumbers, black eyed peas, crowder peas, summer squash and winter squash from seed.  Be sure to check out the variety list on the blog.  Patty Leander has spent years determining the very best varieties for central to south eastern Texas.


My favorite variety of snap beans are Contender Bush Beans. Find out which varieties work best in our area on Patty Leander’s Variety list in the sidebar of the blog.

Transplants-Now is the “kind of recommended” time to put those tomato, pepper and eggplant transplants in the ground.  I say “kind of” because none of these plants really like temps below 55 degrees.  If you put them in the ground now be prepared to cover them or to cover and give supplemental heat if a late season cold snap comes through.  IMHO, if you don’t mind the extra care, it is best to go ahead and get your transplants in the ground.  The plants will mature quicker and provide you tomatoes earlier.

There are other great transplants for this weekend.   If you have not tried things like chard and kale pick up some at your local nursery and give them a try.  You can still find lettuce, collard and mustard greens starts at many places.  Get them in the ground now and enjoy fresh salads until temps start getting into the 90s.


Cut flowers early in the morning to extend their vase life. Also change your water daily once they are arranged


March 15 is also a great time to plant your spring color.  Right now is a great time to transplant things like salvias, portulaca, periwinkles, impatiens, marigolds and my all time favorite-petunias!  The “Carpet Series” is the most successful hybrid line.  However, my favoriote is “Laura Bush”.  This magenta petunia was developed by my friends at A&M and it is an absolute winner for our area.

Don’t miss this opportunity to seed some of our other old reliables.  I grow TONS of zinnias each year.  My favorite variety is Benary’s Giant.  Scatter them out, rake them in and harvest beautiful flowers up to the first frost.   Each spring I also plant lots of sunflowers, gomphrena and cocks comb.  All of these flowers can take the heat and actually seem to hit their peak when temps are approaching 100.


I grow zinnias in my beds but I also grow them in rows in my garden. They make great cut flowers and hopefully pull a few bugs away from the veggies.

Flowers don’t have to be grown in beds.  My wife and I love to have fresh arrangements in the house.  To make sure I have a ready supply I plant many flowers in rows in my vegetable garden.  You can plant things like sunflowers, cocks comb and zinnia every two weeks starting now.  This ensures that I have a ready supply of fresh flowers all the way through the fall.


****Be sure to check out my friend Bart’s blog (Our Garden View) for more great tips for the Central and South Central garden!

I share my posts on the HomeAcre Hop.  Be sure to stop by the hop.  It has tons of great information from gardeners and homesteaders all over the world!

2013 Garden Experiment-Companion Planting of Marigolds and Tomatoes

Each year I like to try some kind of experiment in the garden.  I truly believe that the best way to become a better gardener is to try new things.  This year I will be putting one of the most commonly talked about organic pest control methods to the test.  I am going to try a companion planting of tomatoes and marigolds to keep the stink bugs away.

One of my "porch grown" marigolds is about ready to bloom

One of my “porch grown” marigolds is about ready to bloom

If you believe everything you read, then you no doubt believe that marigolds are miracle plants.  It is truly amazing to me how many articles/posts there are on the internet making incredible claims about their bug fighting abilities. One of the more recent things I read swears that all you have to do is plant a marigold in each corner of your garden and all of your bug problems are solved.  While there may be some truth to the marigold’s bug fighting abilities, I really don’t believe they are going to very successful at riding my tomatoes of their stink bugs.

The above marigold two days after opening

The above marigold two days after opening

Now don’t get me wrong.  I really want my experiment to work.  In fact, I have gone out of my way to give the marigolds as much of a chance as possible.  Instead of trying to plant four plants in the corners of my garden, I am going to completely surround the tomatoes in marigolds.  For this experiment, I grew about 100 marigold plants from seed in my new back porch seed starting rack.  Once the little plants got up to about four inches tall I used them to line the triangular beds of my potager.  I planted the starts six inches in from edge and spaced them at six inches.  It took about 20 plants to line each bed.

My first "bug fighting" marigold of the year

My first “bug fighting” marigold of the year

Once the flowers were in, I planted the tomatoes.  For this experiment I am using romas.  Romas grow on nice, neat determinate bushes.  My thought is, those nice, compact determinate bushes will give all of those pesky bugs fewer places to hide.  I am also hoping that their relatively open form will allow whatever magic bug fighting qualities the marigolds possess to waft freely deep into the bush where the bugs are hiding.

Holidays mean free labor.  My daughter jessie helps me plant the marigolds for my experiment on Easter Sunday

Holidays mean free labor. My daughter jessie helps me plant the marigolds for my experiment on Easter Sunday

I apologize a little about my attitude here.  I really, really, really want the marigolds to run all of the bugs off.  However, I am very skeptical.  Even though I am doubtful of the marigold’s bug fighting abilities, I do truly expect they will keep any nematode issues at bay.  It is a proven, scientific fact that marigold roots secrete alpha-terthienyl.  This compound has insecticidal, nematodial and anti-viral properties.  It also stops nematode eggs from hatching.

I love my larkspur.  This has absolutely nothing to do with the experiment but it is lovely and i just wanted to include it!

I love my larkspur. This has absolutely nothing to do with the experiment but it is lovely and i just wanted to include it!

My last big garden experiment was growing potatoes in a box.  That one was a complete failure.  I had very high hopes for that one when the experiment started.  For this one, my expectations are a bit lower.  I expect to have almost aero nematode problems but I really don’t expect the marigolds to be very successful at keeping the bugs away.  Only time will tell.  Check back at the end of the season to see how it goes.

TLC for Your BLTs (Big Luscious Tomatoes!) By Patty Leander

I came in from working in the garden the other day and declared to anyone that would listen that my vegetable garden was looking AWESOME, and my dear husband hardly looked up from his work as he replied, “EVERYBODY’S vegetable garden is looking awesome this spring”. True enough, the rain and mild temperatures have been just what we needed here in Central Texas to shake off the drought doldrums, but I can still revel in the beauty and bounty of my own little piece of earth. It is my sincere hope that you are experiencing the same success.  One reason our vegetable gardens are so splendid is because tomato time is finally here, and for tomato lovers, especially those who try to eat local and in season, it has been a long and mostly tomato-less winter.

Hopefully by now your tomatoes are growing strong and you may have already savored that first juicy bite of your home-grown and sun-ripened treats.  But just when tomatoes are in the home stretch it seems a plethora of plague and pestilence begin a full assault, and that is when our plants will benefit from a steady diet of attention, inspection and TLC.

As we move toward summer make sure your plants receive at least 1½” of water each week, preferably from drip or soaker irrigation that places water at the root zone and avoids wetting the leaves. A 2-4 inch layer of mulch is essential to moderate soil temperature, to keep water from splashing soil onto the leaves (fungal spores are often lurking in the soil underneath plants), and to conserve moisture in the soil.  Dried leaves or grass, alfalfa hay, pine straw, or even partially decomposed compost are suitable mulches. Side-dress your plants with fertilizer as soon as the first fruit set, and then continue to dole out small servings of fertilizer every 4 weeks. One way to side-dress a tomato plant is to pull the mulch back and apply 2-3 tablespoons of fertilizer (feather meal, blood meal, ammonium sulfate or other packaged fertilizer) around the diameter of each tomato plant, scratch it into the soil, water lightly and then replace the mulch. Some gardeners prefer to spray their tomato foliage with a water soluble fertilizer every week (using a product like Miracle Grow or liquid fish emulsion) and that seems to work well, but remember that plants are not designed to take in nutrients from their leaves, so it’s important to also get fertilizer into the root zone. A hybrid approach may be best – side-dressing at the root zone every 4 weeks and applying a foliar spray every 7-10 days.

Tomatoes generally stop setting fruit when the daytime temperature hits 90º and nighttime temps reach the mid 70s, though cherry varieties may often produce through the heat. If your tomato plants are healthy and you can keep them that way you might be able to carry them through the summer for a fall crop. If you would rather start with fresh tomato plants for the fall garden most local nurseries will have transplants available in late summer or you can grow your own. It takes 6-8 weeks to grow a good size tomato transplant so plant those little tomato seeds in early June so you’ll have decent size transplants by late July or early August.

Inspect your tomatoes every few days for signs of insect damage or disease, and as the plants grow gently guide the stems so they stay within the cage. Eventually those stems will be laden with fruit and they will need the support that the cage provides. Below is a rundown of some of the most common problems associated with tomato cultivation:


Leaf Footed Bug. Photo By Bruce Leander

Leaf-footed Bugs: these grayish brown bugs with the flattened hind legs are a common pest of tomatoes. They have what entomologists call “piercing-sucking” mouthparts, and that is exactly what they do to tomatoes. They pierce the skin, inject an enzyme to dissolve the juices, and then suck the juice out, leaving small, hard, white spots or lesions on the surface of the tomato.

Leaf Footed nymphs and eggs. Here you can clearly see how they are laid in "a chain". Photo By Bruce Leander

Their eggs are laid in long chains along the stems or leaf midrib; after hatching the nymphs, with their orange bodies and black legs, congregate together making them easy to spot. Do not be deceived – the nymphs may not look like adult leaf-footed bugs, but they will in approximately 30 days after morphing through five instar stages.

Adult and nymph Leaf Footed Bugs on a tomato leaf. Photo By Bruce Leander

These soft-bodied orange nymphs cannot fly, they can only scatter, so this is the preferred stage to treat them with insecticide, squish them or drop them into a bucket of soapy water. Also destroy any egg cases that you find. Spinosad and insecticidal soap may be effective against the nymphs, but nothing seems to bother the adults – they just glare at you and fly away. Handpicking is the best way to get the adults, but beware – they are a type of stink bug and when you squish them it is not pleasant.


The first sign of early blight. Photo By Bruce Leander

Early Blight: Alternaria solani, a common fungal disease that attacks tomatoes, especially during rainy periods. Foliage starts to yellow at the base of the plant and then gradually moves upward. Ideally we should prevent this disease by providing adequate spacing and air circulation, mulching below the plants and avoiding overhead watering that wets the leaves.

Early Blight can decimate your tomatoes. Photo By Bruce Leander

Once the disease takes hold it can be treated with an approved fungicide; if early blight is a perennial problem it’s best to start treatment early in the season, to prevent spreading of the disease. Serenade and neem oil are organic controls and Daconil (active ingredient chlorothalonil) is a conventional fungicide that is effective in combating early blight. Using these products on an alternating schedule may give better results. Even though Daconil is not organic, it requires approximately ½ teaspoon per quart of water and the solution can be judiciously directed at foliage, not fruit.


Spider mites can cause a strippling effect on leaves. Photo By Bruce Leander

Spider Mites: a nuisance in most spring and summer gardens, this tiny pest inhabits and feeds on the underside of leaves, causing a stippled effect on the surface of the leaf. If left untreated spider mites can quickly destroy a crop. It is amazing how many teeny tiny mites can be on the back of a leaf, they are just near impossible to see without magnification. Their numbers usually increase in hot and dry conditions, but I am already seeing huge numbers of spider mites on my tomatoes even though we’ve had more rain than usual this spring and the temperatures have been mild.

Patty is blasting away her mites with the MiteyFine mister created for her by her brother. Photo By Bruce Leander

Spider mites are difficult to control, but my first line of defense is to wash the mites off using a strong spray of water directed at the underside of the leaves every 3-5 days. My favorite tool for this purpose is the Mite-Y-Fine Sprayer™ – a tool that my engineer brother built for me. It is a long-handled tool with a high pressure nozzle that allows me to wash mites off of leaves efficiently and without stooping – it’s such a useful tool I told my brother he should make more and sell them – and he is! They are made of quality materials, hand built by him, his wife and their son. I use mine almost every week during the spring and summer growing season. See www.miteyfine.com for more information.

Insecticidal soap, neem oil and wettable sulfur are labeled as miticides and can be sprayed on leaves to help control mites. Many gardeners swear by a weekly seaweed spray to keep them at bay though I prefer to use the Mite-Y-Fine because I like to eat tomatoes off the vine while standing in the garden, and I’d rather not spray them with anything.


A great shot of a serious tomato predator - the hornworm. Photo By Bruce Leander

Tomato Hornworm: prevention is the best control here. A single tomato hornworm can defoliate a tomato plant in short order if left unchecked, so it’s best to scout the plants for signs of damage (large chunks of missing leaves and moist, dark green worm poop on the soil or in the branches. These large caterpillars usually show up as an army of one, rarely do I see more than two on a plant. When there’s only one or two it’s easy to pull them off and toss them into your neighbor’s yard, or do as one lady told me – she just goes after them with a pair of scissors (ugh).


Nematodes can decimate a tomato's root system. Photo By Bruce Leander

Nematodes: if your healthy tomato plant begins to gradually decline, turning yellow, drooping, losing vigor and/or wilting without reviving by the next morning then you may have nematodes. Nematodes are microscopic worms that get into the roots and form small galls or knots in the root, blocking the uptake of water and nutrients and causing the plant to gradually decline. Once a plant has nematodes you might as well pull it up as there is no treatment and leaving it in the ground will only allow the nematodes to increase in numbers. When pulling an infected plant be careful not to fling nematode-infested soil to other parts of the garden.

Below are two of my family’s favorite recipes for utilizing the season’s tomato harvest:


Patty's salsa is made with only fresh veggies from her garden. Photo By Bruce Leander

4 fresh tomatoes, chopped (peeled and seeded if desired, but I usually don’t)
2-3 jalapenos, chopped
1 onion, chopped
1-2 cloves garlic, smashed
1/4 cup cilantro
1-2  tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
1/2 tsp cumin
2-4 Tbsp lime juice
1/2 tsp sugar

Chop the onion, jalapenos, garlic and one tomato in a blender or food processor. Then add the seasonings and the remaining tomatoes, and blend till it seems right. This is personal taste. You can leave it chunky but I usually blend out most of the chunks. Then I taste and usually end up adding more tomatoes, lime juice and sometimes another jalapeno. I let it sit a bit and then go back and taste and adjust seasonings if necessary. It gets a little redder and a little spicier as it sits.

** You do not have to use a blender/food processor. If you prefer, finely chop the first five ingredients by hand, then stir in the seasonings and adjust to your taste.

Roasted Tomatoes

Roasted tomatos - Yum! Photo By Bruce Leander

Roasting tomatoes brings out an amazing, concentrated flavor – they can be used in sauces, pasta, sandwiches or simply as a savory snack. They don’t last long around my house, but they can be stored in the refrigerator for 2-3 weeks or frozen for up to three months without compromising the flavor. ‘Juliet’ tomatoes and small roma varieties are perfect for this recipe.

Wash, dry and slice tomatoes in half vertically. Remove seeds and juice (don’t worry about removing every single seed, you just want to scoop out most of the wet pulp). Arrange on a foil-lined pan, cut side up. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast in a 325º oven for 1½ -2 hours. Watch carefully to be sure they don’t burn and adjust temperature or time, depending on size of tomatoes.