Garden Experiments

I love to experiment in my garden.  Every year, I grow something that I have never grown before or I try to grow an old stand-by in a new way.  This year, I am doing both.

My first experiment this year is potato boxes.  I am currently growing white potatoes (Kennebec) and new potatoes (La Soda) in wooden boxes that I “add to” as the potato plants grow.  According to the website that I found (, these 2’ X 2’ boxes can yield about 100 pounds of potatoes each.  While I am a little skeptical of these numbers, I will let you know how accurate that estimate is in a few weeks. 

One of my two potato boxes

The process for this is pretty simple (see the drawing below).  Basically, make four corner posts 33” long ( I used 4X4’s).  Cut two 1X6’s 24” long and two more 25 ½ “ long.  Screw them to the corner posts.  Place your seed potatoes (I used 12 whole potatoes) in the bottom of the box and cover with soil (I used mushroom compost).  As the plants grow, keep covering with soil or compost so that no more than 6” to 12” of plant is showing.  As the planting area gets full of soil, add another row of 1X6’s and continue the process until the box has sides that are 33”.  Once the box is full and plants are coming out of the top, you can remove the bottom layer of 1X6 and harvest as you need. 

 So far, my experiment seems to be working just as it has was described.  The Kennebecs are doing great.  I already have three layers of 1X6 in place and I will probably have to add another this weekend.  The new potatoes had a slow start but they are beginning to take off now.  I can’t wait to finally weigh my harvest and report my results back to you.

 I am also trying an experiment with my tomatoes.  Normally, I plant my tomatoes in my potager.  However, since I have decided to grow mostly herbs and flowers in the potager, I moved my tomatoes to the row garden.  While visiting with my friend Bill Adams, I learned that he grows his tomatoes in pure mushroom compost.  Since Bill is a true Master of Horticulture and the undisputed Tomato King, I decided to follow his lead and do the same thing.   I took my Mantis tiller and dug a furrow about 9” deep.  I then took my tomatoes out of their pots and placed them in the bottom of the furrow.  Next, I back filled with the compost and watered them in.  I am supporting them with a cattle panel and I gave the whole area a thick layer of straw mulch.  So far, everything looks like it is doing great.  I planted the same varieties this year as last so I will have some ability to judge which method did the best.  (Check out Bill’s book “The Texas Tomato Lover’s Handbook – 

In addition to these two “method” experiments, I am  growing three new vegetable varieties this year.  The first are daikon radishes that were given to me by blogging friend “The Gracelss Gaijin”.  Daikon is a staple of Asian cuisine and I can’t wait to try them.  I am also growing “Chinese cucumbers” that were given to me by my friend Emy Chen.  This variety of cucumber is supposed to have a very mild skin that makes it great for slicing.  Can’t wait.  My final “new veggie” for this year is the “Tigger Melon”. 


I got my seeds from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (  Tigger is a small melon with very sweet, white flesh.  These one pound melons have a great aroma and taste and are perfect for a single serving.  However, the most exciting thing about this melon is it’s orange and yellow stripped skin.  This heirloom has such a cute name and attractive wrapper that my wife had her second graders plant it in their school garden.  Check back in the summer to find out how these experiments went.

Green Strawberries (or fun with ethylene)

Have you ever purchased a green strawberry? We buy green bananas all the time.  Sometimes we even buy green tomatoes.  But why haven’t you ever bought a green strawberry?

All fruits (and many vegetables and nuts) fall into two categories based on their ripening characteristics: climacteric or non-climacteric.  Climacteric fruits will continue to ripen after the fruit has left the plant.  Non-climacteric fruits stop the ripening process the minute they leave the plant.  That is why you have never bought a green strawberry.  A green strawberry will always be a green strawberry.  It will never turn red, it will never get juicy and it will never taste good.  Strawberries are the quintessential non-climacteric fruit.

Bananas, on the other hand are the quintessential climacteric fruit.  Bananas are the most consumed fruit in America.  According to a 2006 report by the USDA, each American eats a whooping 25.14 pounds of bananas per year.  This is amazing when you think about how perishable bananas are and the distances they have to travel to get here (the top producer and exporter of bananas is India).  An understanding of the science behind this climacteric/non-climacteric thing is what allows us Americans to eat so many things that come from so far away.

Ripening is controlled by several variables.  One of these is ethylene.  When fruits start to ripen they produce ethylene.  Knowing this, we can hasten ripening by exposing the fruit to ethylene or we can slow down the ripening process by chilling the fruit (which suppresses ethylene production and is how they keep bananas fresh for so long).

The last of the yupneck’s 2010 tomatoes

O.K. I know you are thinking “This is a pretty cool horticultural fact and all, but what can I do with it?”  Well, it can help you save your fall tomato crop, that’s what.  Tonight, it is supposed to get down to 28 degrees at my house.  I am fairly certain this is going to finish off my fall tomatoes.  I have nursed them through two light freezes already.  Each time a little more of the foliage got burned and I had to cut it back.  Not much protecion left for the tomatoes that are still on the vine. So, tonight I am going home and picking what is left of my green tomatoes.  I will then take them in the house and put them in a brown paper bag with two or three ripe bananas.  I will fold the bag shut and leave it for three or four days.  When I open it up this weekend, I should have a bag full of red tomatoes!  The ethylene that is being released by the bananas will save my fall tomato crop!

Poinsettia grown by me in my Greenhouse Management course taught by a real Master of Horticulture, Dr. Terri Starman. Our poinsettia’s were wrapped in brown paper sleeves for shipment.

Here is another useful ethylene tip.  If you bring home flowers or potted plants this holiday season that are wrapped in plastic or paper  (this is common with poinsettias), un-wrap them ASAP.  You see, those plants are producing ethylene as well.  The wrappings will trap the ethylene and your flowers/plants will drop their leaves/petals pretty quickly if you do not get them out of their protective coverings.

Now that you have the facts about ethylene you can use the handy chart below to determine which fruits you can buy while they are still “green” and which fruits will never get ripe for you once they leave the plant.

Climacteric Non-Climacteric
Apples Bell Pepper
Apricots Blackberries
Avocados Blue Berries
Bananas Lemons
Cantaloupes Limes
Figs Oranges
Nectarines Grapefruits
Peaches Raspberries
Pears Summer Squash
Persimmons Egg Plant
Plums Pumpkin
Tomatoes Strawberries
Watermelon  Grapes

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.

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