Tomatoes have turned out to be one of my biggest challenges in Houston. In New England you bought your tomato plants and stuffed them in the ground on Memorial Day. You might toss down a handful of fertilizer at that time. Then in August you had 8′ tall plants with a bushel full of tomatoes each.

It doesn’t work that way down here. Which is bad. It is so hot down here all the market tomatoes have been refrigerated somewhere along the way and once you refrigerate a tomato you may as well throw it out. It has no flavor after that.

You have two growing seasons for tomatoes in Houston. The first batch goes in Mid March and is done once night time lows stay above 70’F usually late June or early July. The second batch goes in mid August and goes until nights stay down under 50’F. Tomatoes are picky about putting out fruit. You need low temperatures above 50’F and below 70’F for tomatoes to make tomatoes.

More importantly tomatoes do not like clay soil. Not even a little. They will grow but not well and seem to settle in to the spot where you don’t pull them out because they look like there is hope but they never do better than that. You will need to put them in a raised bed or in large pots.

Tomatoes are heavy feeders which is also a challenge in Houston. They need a steady supply of fertilizer. Too much and you will have gorgeous plants with no tomatoes, too little and you’ll have small scraggly looking plants with no tomatoes.

My best success so far has been to pot up tomato plants in large pots. I purchase a bag of fertilized potting soil for each plant and toss in a handful ( 1/4 cup ) of time released fertilizer. Then as your tomato plants grow use a liquid fertilizer that you can spray on the leaves as well as into the soil. When you plant your tomato bury it deep. Tomatoes are vines and will easily root all along the stem that is below the soil line.

Tomatoes need full sun, even here. If you do not give them full sun they will not be able to reach full growth in the short growing seasons we have.

Watering should be steady. Too much water and your tomatoes will split.

Tomatoes are the number one method to get nematodes in your garden. Check the roots when planting them and do not plant any with swollen roots or bumps on their roots. Nematodes are permanent.

Tomatoes are self pollinating. The flowers close and each flower pollinates itself. Feel free to give your plants a little shake to help if it hasn’t been windy.

The Master Gardener’s Handbook recommends the following varieties: Bingo, Carnival, Heatwave, Celebrity, Merced, Sunmaster, and Cherry tomatoes Small Fry and Red Cherry.

I was happy with the Big Boys I planted this summer.

Problems you might have:
Fusarium wilt: The plant is slow growing and wilts. Leaves yellow then brown and there is no fruit. The only way to know for sure is to kill the plant and do an autopsy. If you slice up the stem you will see brown streaks. There is nothing you can do. Future plants planted in the same area will also be infected Try pots or a raised bed somewhere else.

Lack of nitrogen: Bottom leaves are yellow with green veins, grow is slow. New leaves are tiny. Fertilize.

Lack of potassium: Slow growth and small brown spots appear on the leaves. Leaf edges turn yellow and leaves curl down. Fertilize.

Leaf miner: White squiggles appear on the tomato leaves. Remove all leaves that are marked. Apply an appropriate pesticide.

White flies: Wiggle plant and lots of them will fly off. Try a yellow sticky trap out in the garden. There’s not much that works on these guys.

Horn worm: Man these guys are big and ugly! They are exactly the same color as your green tomato. The tomatoes look like some large critter has taken a bite out of them. I pull them off and kill them.

No tomatoes: Too much fertilizer, too little sun, temperatures at night below 50’F or above 70’F.

Tomatoes have cracks in skin: caused by uneven watering.

Blossom end rot: The tomato rots on the bottom, usually from too much water or too much fertilizer or from a lack of calcium in the soil. Add calcium chloride 4 tablespoons per gallon of water.

Brown spots on leaves after a rain: Ozone damage, when the rain comes from the southeast part of the city it may bring ozone with it. The ozone damages tomatoes and peanut plants. While it looks bad your tomatoes should be fine.

More information:
Houston Vegetable Garden Blog
Cover your tomatoes for healthier, prettier produce and longer growing seasons

Perhaps you are thinking of an indoor farm now that food is so high?

Between rising prices and tomato scares this year, and spinach scares last year who isn’t thinking of an indoor garden?

Farm Fountain is a system for growing edible and ornamental fish and plants in a constructed, indoor ecosystem. Based on the concept of aquaponics, this hanging garden fountain uses a simple pond pump, along with gravity to flow the nutrients from fish waste through the plant roots. The plants and bacteria in the system serve to cleanse and purify the water for the fish.

This project is an experiment in local, sustainable agriculture and recycling. It utilizes 2-liter plastic soda bottles as planters and continuously recycles the water in the system to create a symbiotic relationship between edible plants, fish and humans. The work creates an indoor healthy environment that also provides oxygen and light to the humans working and moving through the space. The sound of water trickling through the plant containers creates a peaceful, relaxing waterfall. The Koi and Tilapia fish that are part of this project also provide a focus for relaxed viewing. [ to learn more about how to create your own Farm Fountain and view the movie and more photos see Farm Fountain]

Visit the site to see more photos, read how to build your own Farm Fountain and chat in the forums.

credit to: Inhabitat who always has really cool stories like this one.

Start a Chia pet kitchen salad garden

So you have this Chia pet that’s been in the back of your hall closet forever. Did you know that the Chia seeds are very high in omega-3 fatty acids? Perhaps they would be better added to your salad.

( Just kidding, the seeds may be treated with something, buy some food grade ones to eat. )

Several U.S. researchers maintain the seeds used in products such as Chia Pet are actually good for the human body, it was reported Sunday.

The research that determined the seeds are high in omega-3 fatty acids comes as the omega-3 supplement market in the United States is reaching new heights, the Chicago Tribune reported. . . .

Chia seeds are derived from Salvia hispanica, a mint-related plant, and chia is regulated as a food by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Researchers: Chia seeds are good for you

Better to find some Chia seeds and plant them yourself for a healthy addition to your salads and sandwiches.

Turn your balcony into a space station garden

This is a really cool idea. Yagil was looking for a way to grow food on the space station and came up with the perfect balcony garden.

Yagil’s technique relied on floral bricks made from phenolic foam, that familiar green and spongy material which, placed at the bottom of a vase, is used for holding the stems of cut flowers.

Yagil, who worked for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, believed that his floral brick growing technique could be used in a space station, where room for growing plants is limited. Each of Yagil’s plants requires only 1 square foot of growing space.

Yagil’s method results in incredibly rapid growth. A 4-inch tomato seedling, for example, can grow into a 4-foot tall, fruit-laden specimen in only 60 days.

To grow any plant according to this technique, you will need to take a 3-by-4-by-9-inch floral brick. Remove a plug from one of its short ends that is equal in size to the root ball of the seedling you wish to plant. A seedling that has produced two to four leaves – available at the nursery in six- or eight-packs – is perfect.

Wrap the brick, except for the bottom end, in black plastic and secure it with strapping tape. Stand the brick up in a 1-gallon (6-inch diameter) plastic container – the kind you get when you buy a 1-gallon plant at the nursery – with holes in the bottom. Keep the brick stable by running pieces of strapping tape up one side of the container, across the brick, and down the other side.

Place a deep, water-retaining dish under the container. Keep the brick wet by filling the dish. The dish is filled as soon as the water in it evaporates, as often as once a day in summer. Liquid fertilizer is added to the water every third time the dish is filled.

. . . [

I wonder if you couldn’t just stand the brick up in a water dish and put some rocks around it to keep it stable? Or place the brick in a pretty flower pot and toss some gravel at the bottom to hold it in place and upright? Totally cool and a great way to have a garden in a very small space.

Sugar Cane ( Saccharum )

I picked this up at the Jerry’s Jungle Sale about a month ago and it’s been growing like a weed ever since. It’s about 4 times bigger now than when I took this picture.

(Sugar cane is the grassy looking plant in the middle of the photo. )

Sugar cane has been adapted to grow in dry and boggy warm climates. Home growers say it loves lots of water, so I’d try it in a damp spot. I’m also told it can be invasive, plant it with care. It grows well with banana plants and they like water.

Other home growers report sugar cane reaching about 8 feet in height with 2″ canes. The canes have ridges horizontally and look very similar to bamboo. The leaves are long and thin and more grass like than bamboo. Be careful they are sharp and will inflict paper cut type wounds if you make the mistake of running one through your hand.

To start a sugar cane plant, obtain some sugar cane in the grocer’s. Cut it into one foot or so pieces and stick it in the soil. Plant them sideways not upright. I have not tried this yet but several sources report successfully starting sugar cane this way. I’m also told that summer is the best time to start new plants.

If you just want a grassy look, cut the stalks as they grow and the grass will grow more upright. Personally, I like the look of the stalks, it’s my favorite part of the plant.

Houston heat and freezing temperatures are both fine for sugar cane plants.

The sugar is in the syrup in the cane. The water is evaporated from the sap leaving the sugar behind. Or you can crush the stalk to release the sap.

Sugar cane is originally from Asia and was brought back to Europe by Alexander the Great.

I cut this back and it died. So tread lightly with the pruning shears. It’s a more than a little scraggly looking, might not be the best plant for suburban gardens

The secret of the scent of basil

Their study, published in the Oct. 4 issue of the journal PLoS ONE, provides a three-dimensional snapshot of the enzyme basil Eugenol Synthase frozen in mid-action as it produces eugenol, the fragrant molecule responsible for basil’s spicy overtones reminiscent of cloves and cinnamon. This particular enzyme is very interesting since it belongs to a large family of enzymes that perform what we call household reactions but, through evolutionary selection, acquired an additional and completely new function, says Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator Joseph P. Noel, Ph.D, director of the Jack H. Skirball Center for Chemical Biology and Proteomics, who led the study. Eugenol Synthase takes a basic building block that is usually employed to make wood and turns it into something that is almost the complete opposite of wood a volatile molecule that easily becomes airborne, is highly aromatic and possesses antimicrobial and pain-dulling properties,” marvels Noel. . . .

[ read more How basil gets its zing]

The scent that make your basil smell and taste so wonderful is one of many scents plants use to attract bees and butterflies for pollination, and use to scare off critters that might find the plant tasty. It would seem the basil plant missed on that part, since we all find basil so tasty. Eugenol rich plants, like basil and cloves help preserve food and often have antiseptic properties.

Scientists hope to learn enough to be able to produce these enzymes with out the plants to use in food production and to better understand how and why plants evolved into todays versions of themselves.

PLoS One, Structure and Reaction Mechanism of Basil Eugenol Synthase

Pineapple ( Ananas comosus )


Pineapples can easily grow outside here in Houston. After you’ve cut up a pineapple for serving, trim the remaining fruit away from the bottom of the leaves. Leave it sit on your counter a couple of days to dry. Otherwise the bit of fruit left on the bottom will mold or attract critters who will dig it up.

Then just stick it in the ground and wait. This one was planted about a month ago.

I’ve some locals tell me they get a fruit after a year, some have waited five years and still not gotten a fruit. So there is a bit of luck involved. Your pineapple should bloom and bear fruit its second or third year. If not you can help it along by covering the plant with a large clear plastic bag and placing an apple under the bag with the pineapple. Do this once the cool weather breaks in Feb. or Mar.

Once the plant fruits, it dies, new plants come from offshoots.

Plant it in the sunniest, warmest area of your garden. Pineapples are bromeliads so do not rely on the soil for nutrition. Don’t worry about planting them in bad dirt.

It will rot if the soil it is planted in is too damp, build a small mount to plant it on if necessary to keep it from sitting in water.

Something keeps stealing my pineapples. As quick as I plant them they are absconded with in the dark of night. I’ve taken to placing 4 short stakes about the plants and criss-crossing over the top with string to keep them in place until they get established.

Pineapples will not tolerate a freeze, they must be protected. They also don’t survive 100’F heat or drought.

So far I have not had much luck with pineapples but since they are free ( just just the top off a pineapple you bring home from the market and let it dry a few days before planting ) I will try again this year.

See also:
Pineapple growing in Florida