Tomato Growing Tips

By Steve Salky 

Tomatoes are just about everybody’s favorite summer vegetable to grow, and certainly to eat as well. Having grown tomatoes every summer for several decades, I can attest that they are worth the effort. Here are a few tips learned from those many years of trial and error:

  1. First, I plant my tomatoes on the angle, almost horizontally, rather than vertically.
  2. Next, I dig a shallow trench, instead of a deep hole. 
  3. After pinching off some of the lower leaves, I lay the “root ball” and most of the stem/stalk into the trench. 
  4. I gently curl the top portion of the tomato plant to remain above the soil and cover the portion laying in the trench with soil. 
  5. I then place rich compost in the soil near the root ball and along the trench in order to encourage strong root growth. Tomatoes like well composted soil and do not work as well in clay soils. The plant will grow vertically, as it reaches for the sun, and no one will ever know that your plant started out laying down in a trench!

I recommend this planting method for several reasons. First, a tomato stem or stalk will sprout roots from those portions underground and so it will better support the growth of the tomato plant over the long growing season. Second, the shallow trench will have warmer soil than a deep hole. Third, the roots will not be directly under the plant, making it easier to keep the plant well watered over the long and hot growing season. This also allows you to avoid overwatering the leaves, which can cause mold or blight on the lower leaves especially.

Additionally, because we are all anxious about eating fresh tomatoes, we often “jump the gun” with tomatoes by planting them too early. Tomatoes generally prefer soil temperatures of at least 70°F to grow effectively. While many tomatoes that are planted too early will just sit there, some will die if the soil is not consistently at least 65°F. So, patience is a virtue when it comes to planting tomatoes. In our gardens in Washington DC, we generally wait until after Mother’s Day, when the soil has warmed and night time temperatures rarely fall below 50°F. 

When watering a tomato plant, water the soil (not the leaves) and water deeply. Allow the roots to dry before watering again. Tomatoes do not like wet roots for extended periods. This is also why soils with too much clay (clay soil holds water for a long time) can be bad, causing tomato plants to develop a fungal disease that rots at the roots. Steady watering, every three or four days, tends to work best for tomatoes. And during the brutally hot periods, you should water early in the morning or after the sun has set, to avoid unnecessarily wasting water on evaporation. 

Finally, tomatoes are heavy feeders, meaning they draw a lot of nutrients from the soil. Thus, giving them some fertilizer before, during, and after planting is appropriate and helpful. Tomatoes love phosphorus, so finding an organic fertilizer that contains phosphorus is ideal. Bone meal, particularly fish bone meal, is a good organic fertilizer for tomatoes. As with any fertilizer, it is best to carefully follow the directions on the package, as too much fertilizer can damage even a healthy tomato plant fairly quickly.

Enjoy growing your tomatoes! They are well worth the effort. 

 

Steve

Growing Microgreens During Quarantine

As we all deal with the quarantine these days, many are wondering how to adjust their gardens. We know that some of you who typically have gardens have been unable or chose not to grow outside this spring. We want to help you out and show you that you can still grow your own salad greens, by growing microgreens!

A  great alternative to growing your own lettuce, spinach, beets, and other leafy spring vegetables outdoors is growing microgreens, indoors. Microgreens are nothing more than miniature versions of lettuce, herbs, and other leafy veggies grown indoors and harvested when they are very young. Microgreens are easy to grow, to harvest, and to eat. Plus, they are nutritious and add both flavor and beauty to your salads, proteins, or almost any dish. Microgreens are beneficial because their nutritional value is concentrated in their small size, so they can often be higher in nutrition than more mature greens.

The most common plants to grow as microgreens are lettuce, kale, and spinach. To add a little more spice, you can add radish seeds, beets, or mustard. Indeed, almost any plant that is entirely edible from root to top is a good candidate for becoming an edible microgreen.

The steps for growing microgreens could not be easier. To begin, you will need: 

  • A container that holds a couple inches of soil, such as a shallow tray or even an egg carton          
  • Soil (Both compost or soil mix work for microgreens)
  • Seeds       
  • Water (preferably delivered to the soil by a spray bottle) 
  • Most importantly, a strong source of light. Although we at Everybody Grows are growing microgreens under a grow light in a basement, they can also be grown in a windowsill with strong daily sunlight.     

We recommend starting with some compost or reasonably rich soil. Because you will be harvesting the microgreens early in their growth, you only need an inch or two of soil since the roots needed to grow a mature plant are not necessary. We started with two containers, each the size of a large plate. 

  1. Place the soil in your container. Lightly tamp the soil down and then moisten it with water. (This is where a spray bottle is handy). 
  2. Then, lightly broadcast the seeds (scatter the seeds across the soil). We mix all the varieties beforehand and broadcast as evenly as we can. No need to press the seeds, which are often tiny, into the soil. Rather, distribute a light amount of soil on top and moisten this layer as well.
  3. The soil will need to be kept moist. We mist the soil twice a day, both morning and night.

The key is the light. As mentioned, we use a grow light, which we leave on 12-15 hours a day. In other words, we turn it on when we get out of bed and turn it off before bed. However, if you have a good source of sunlight (say, your kitchen window) simply place the tray or container on the window sill. The warmer the spot, the sooner your seeds will germinate. Remember not to let the soil dry out by spraying it with water twice a day.

Within several weeks, your tray should begin to be full and thriving.

To harvest, you simply take scissors and cut the greens you want to eat, leaving others to grow for the next day, or the day after. When you are finished with a tray of microgreens, you can compost the soil and repeat the process again. Some people choose to use the same soil (with a little bit added in) a few times. This works as long as you pick out all the roots from before. For a continuous supply, simply start a new tray of seeds each week!

Spring Planting during COVID-19

by Steve Salky

Fellow gardeners, spring is arriving in the DC Metro area and it is time to plant our spring crops! Spring crops include leafy greens such as spinach, kale, carrots, radishes, and even beets. We plant all of these crops by seed. In some locations, we plant primarily by broadcasting a variety of seeds into the same beds. As these crops grow, we will harvest certain plants in order to make room for others to grow. Some of these plants will shade others as the spring begins to turn into summer, which often happens very fast in our area. In other beds, we will selectively plant seeds in rows, returning in a few weeks to thin the growth to make room for the neighboring plants to expand. This is especially true for the radishes, carrots, and beets, which grow underground and do better when their roots are not crowded.

In this time of the COVID-19 epidemic, we want to support you in a planting process that will allow your garden to thrive and to support your health. 

Lettuce seedlings that we planted last week at the E26 garden location.

Planting leafy greens during this time will allow you to have an abundance of vegetables in a fairly short amount of time since seedlings typically pop up between 5 to 10 days from seeding. Leafy greens are also a great way to get a lot of fiber, vitamins, and minerals in your diet. Greens like kale and spinach can be eaten raw and cooked and can also be frozen to eat at a later date.

  • We are planting spinach, kale, chard, and leaf lettuce in our gardens. Make sure to read the instructions on your seed packet, but most instructions for leafy greens suggest seeding every 1 – 2 inches and about ¼ or ½ inch below the soil. It is important to keep your soil moist, especially when your greens are being germinated and when they are small. Do not overwater, which can wash your seeds away before they germinate. 

Planting potatoes at E26, using a potato planting method called hilling.

One of our favorite crops for spring planting is potatoes. They are relatively easy to grow and produce a filling bounty. If you have not had the pleasure of digging into the dirt with your hands early in the summer, pulling out several new potatoes, and enjoying their sweet flavor, then make sure to try them out! Potatoes are hardy, and being rich in fiber and vitamins makes them a great crop at this time. If you are planting in a raised bed, your soil should have warmed to 50 degrees by now, the end of March, which is the soil temperature a potato needs to sprout effectively.

  • One key to planting potatoes is spacing. We generally plant our seed potatoes at least twelve inches apart in a row to allow each tuber that will be sprouted from your seed potato to fully size up. To endure proper germination, it is important to cut your seed potatoes with at least two or three eyes per each piece and plant with the eyes up, approximately 2-3 inches deep. (A seed potato is either a small potato about the size of an extra large egg, which is planted whole, or a larger potato cut into blocky pieces, usually 4-6 pieces per tuber). Although some people leave their seed pieces out in the kitchen a few days before planting to let the cut surface callous over, we simply cut and plant. (We have not had any problems with our seeds rotting, but if you are worried you can even dust the cut surface with calcite or sulfur). We order our seed potatoes from a mail order farm in Maine, but if you are confident that the organic potatoes in the grocery store have not been sprayed to slow their sprouting, you can use potatoes you bought at the store.

    Our bed of herbs at E26 with newly planted ginger.

At Everybody Grows, we are specifically planting crops that have immune boosting properties. Although ginger is a root that is grown primarily in more tropical climates, ginger can grow in this area in pots.

  • We are planting ginger in pots and in one of our raised garden beds this spring as an experiment. Because ginger roots grow horizontally, we are using long pots rather than tall ones. Other immune boosting crops include garlic and turmeric, which we recommend growing in the fall. We typically plan to plant these two crops in October. Ginger, garlic, and turmeric are all considered “nature’s antibiotics” since they contain compounds that work against viruses and infections. 

In this time of uncertainty, we hope gardening can be a meaningful grounding for you and a way to help get the nourishment you need. Please reach out to steve@everybodygrows.org with any questions you may have around gardening as our gardening team would like to support you.

Everybody Grows Highlights 2019

This year, Everybody Grows continued to invest in our core community projects. We deepened our relationships with partners and participants and improved our growing methods. We are deeply excited to build on these projects as well as expand in the coming year! Please enjoy these highlights and pictures.

Scotland Recreation: Garden and (new!) Nature Trail  In 2019, we continued to develop our vegetable garden adjacent to the Scotland Recreation Center. We hosted children of all ages on a weekly basis in programs designed to teach them about the joys of vegetable gardening and eating freshly picked foods. We also continued our successful nature and foraging youth program. In the spring, we partnered with Montgomery County Parks and Recreation to open a new nature trail for the community to use, giving them easy access to Cabin John Park. The trail has allowed our expert naturalist Andrew Shofer to lead the weekly programs for the community, surrounded by trees and fresh air.

Engine 26: Feeding our Firefighters  We had a productive season at our fire station farm! We produced an abundance of food for firefighters and created an inspiring outdoor classroom to share with school groups and organizations about urban growing. We now have a dozen raised beds at the fire station. We grew a significant variety of produce, including summer vegetables such as cucumbers, tomatoes, strawberries, eggplants, radishes, herbs, zucchinis, green beans and fall vegetables such as cabbage, snap peas, lettuce, beets, herbs and radishes. The produce is used primarily by the firefighters and emergency personnel who live and work out of this busy station and the garden space has been shared this year with groups including Sidwell Friends Middle School. There is a productive three-bin compost system which we have used to enrich the beds.  

Fort Stanton: Growing with the Community The garden at the Fort Stanton Recreation Center in Ward 8 really took off this summer! What started several years ago as an abandoned plot with depleted soil has now became an engine of productive gardening. This summer, the garden space in the rear of the facility featured vegetables and herbs used by a group of older adult patrons of the Recreation Center, primarily through the Chat & Chew program. The spring crop of potatoes and greens was followed by a cornucopia of summer vegetables, including yellow squash, zucchini, cucumbers, peppers, okra, and tomatoes. Notable successes included a fall planting of garlic, harvested in June, along with beautiful eggplants harvested in August and September.

Backyard Garden Initiative Everybody Grows dedicated a day this past summer for building raised garden beds for community members in SE, DC for their backyard gardens. These community members, primarily from the Fort Stanton Rec Center, enjoyed being able to grow food right in their backyards for themselves and their families.  

We look forward to another great year working with communities across D.C. to grow food together. Stay tuned for more information about future programming and ways that you can volunteer and support Everybody Grows in 2020! 

It Takes a Garden to Raise a Village

The first thing I noticed entering the Scotland neighborhood in Potomac Maryland is that eyes were on me. But not in a bad way, in a way that felt safe and protected. Maybe I was just being paranoid. Those eyes were probably just waiting on kids to arrive from school. It was that time of day after all. The scene reminded me of an old school way of living where neighbors actually knew each other, and someone always knew who was coming in and outside the neighborhood. A type of community that if you were doing the wrong thing at the wrong time, you would definitely getting snitched on by someone’s auntie or grandmother. 

I hopped out of my Uber to find Ronald Martin aka Ron, the Recreation Specialist at the Scotland Neighborhood Recreation Center. When I entered the community center it had a new yet home-like vibe to it. If it wasn’t the obvious centerpiece and biggest building in the culdesac shaped area, I would have had thought it was just another home. It looked like it belonged and fit perfectly in that way. 

I enter the community center to find a young lady probably in her mid-teens working the desk who greeted me and told me that Ron would be with me soon. As I waited I noticed how nice the building was and all the different resources at the communities disposable. There was a gym, computer lab, gathering hall and game room making the place a sanctuary with plenty to do for the entire neighborhood. I also saw a few kids coming into the building hanging out and engaging with each other as kids do. 

Ron came out to greet me and we eventually found a place to sit down and do our interview at a picnic table near a fenced garden area. Ron brought out this big insect candle to put out on our table so the mosquitos wouldn’t eat us up too bad. The building and most of the neighborhood is completely surrounded by forest and a man-made trail that leads to the Potomac River. Although this makes for beautiful scenery, my ankles and wrist never stood a chance. Unfortunately, after many fumbles with technology I decided to just pursue this interview of Ron and Scotland with the good old conversation, here were some of my key takeaways:

The Story of Ron

Ron is a product of the DMV, he has served the county for over 19 years and has been assigned to now his 3rd community center. He does more than lead the community in its day to day operations, he also serves as an on-site garden liaison for Everybody Grows and is a Tae- Kon- Do instructor. The kids greet him with respect but also fondness upon starting to arrive on-site after school. He jokes around with the kids during my visit. It’s not hard to see that Ron is committed to the kids and they are equally committed to him. You can tell that there is much love for Ron in the community. When I asked Ron, what it’s really like for the kids growing up around here he says “They treat their kids like gold”. But he didn’t have to tell me that I could see it in their faces that they were loved and well looked after. 

The Impact of the Garden 

The impact the garden has on the community is significant for the small amount of land it takes up. Ron talked to me about how it’s not just the kids interested in learning about good food and it’s the effect on their bodies, but also the adults as well. The kid’s excitement reaches back to their homes, and parents become just as invested in the garden. The beautiful brick path leading up to the garden space to the main building is a contribution of one of the families that lived in the neighborhood. The kids are highly engaged and excited about whatever is growing in the garden. I witness them first handpicking and eating some of the newer peppers ready to be harvested. I asked one of the young people, “that looks good what type of pepper is that”? She continued to eat and responded, “ It’s a pepper” in a very a matter of fact type way. I smiled and let her continue to eat her pepper in peace. It was awesome to see how fond she was of that pepper, she ate multiple and harvested it like a pro. When I  spoke with Ron about the importance of growing food, he discussed how back in the day, growing up we at least saw where our food came from. Montgomery County is rapidly becoming more urban but it was a rural place not too long ago. That’s why it’s so important to have a garden now in order to bridge that disconnect between people who live in more urban areas to the land. 

The History of Scotland 

The history of Scotland is one of the first of its kind in Montgomery county. Starting back in the 1880s the land was first settled by former African American slaves. The community has been around for hundreds of years. Scotland was originally known as the “Snakes Den” from all it slithering inhabitants in the area. Everyone who lived in that neighborhood was literally and figuratively family. Whenever one of the family members felt threatened, you had to deal with the whole neighborhood. They were a formidable and resourceful group that no one wanted any smoke with. To this day the descendants of the original people who settle on the land long ago still live in this neighborhood.

The Diversity of the Neighborhood

Although there is a lot of history in Scotland, many things have changed over time including its residents. It’s no longer just the descendant of the people who founded the land but also the diverse groups of multicultural people. For an individual neighborhood, it’s one of the more diverse ones I’ve ever seen. You can find people from, Egypt, Sudan, Ghana, and African Americas all living in close proximity to each other. There are around ten different nations represented on one street in the community. Ron discusses cultural diversity through one of his favorite hobbies which is map-making. When listening to the different backgrounds and culture of where the community attendants came from, Ron actually draws out the map based on just a few references and stories the children tell him. He says, “ The kids tell stories of their culture and I turn them into pictures”. Once he completes them in about a day or two, he posts those maps on the wall for all to see. It is truly a cultural exchange and a melting pot. 

Scotland is what happens when a community takes the saying ” It takes a village to raise a child” and runs with it. When adults actually care and resources are fought for, through people like Ron, good things happen. Is it perfect? No. But no place is, it takes a lot of hard work. But when everybody chips in the neighborhood take care of itself. The kids take responsibility for their community just like the adults do because they know they matter. It’s a place were hangouts for destructive behavior become rain gardens, and were the warmth of a community becomes the fire in the soul of its youth who inhabits it.  

Planting Herbs and Writing Tunes at Scotland Rec

We collaborated with a group of young gardeners to start our first plants at our new inspiration garden at Scotland Recreation Center.  We are really excited about our new inspiration garden there, and we are off to a great start building a partnership with the staff and children at the recreation center. I want to thank Whole Foods and their Whole Kids Foundation for generously supporting this project with their Extend Learning Garden Grant.

We kicked off the season by planting six herb plants in two large containers.  It was fun to provide a hands-on activity to start the growing season with the children.IMG_1218

Our first step was to get to know the herb plants by smelling them and touching them.  I chose cold-hardy herbs that the deer avoid, including spearmint, peppermint, dill, lemon balm, lavender and oregano.

Next I had them fill the bottoms of the containers with rocks to help with drainage and to conserve soil.
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The children worked in groups of two to lift up bags of potting soil and pour them on top of the rocks.

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We added water before filling the pot to the top in order to create more evenly moist soil.  We topped off the pots, and it was time to plant.  Each pot received three different variety of herb seedlings.IMG_1243

They suggested we plant the seedlings in a triangle shape, and dug holes first where they thought each plant should live.IMG_1245We finished our gardening by watering of course, but before we watered we added the extra rocks to the top of the soil for aesthetics and as a mulch.   Rocks also hold heat, so they will help keep the soil warm during the cool month of April.IMG_1247 But the fun wasn’t over yet.  We had a nice jam session and made up a few songs about gardening.  The children took turns playing my dulcitar, which is my favorite instrument to bring to the garden because of its light weight and its twangy sound.  One of our Scotland gardeners wrote a short song about planting and pest management.  Listen here:

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The pots looked great and we moved them out to the garden, where they received a nice serenade.IMG_1257

Our next steps together will be to fill the beds and plan the layout of our summer vegetable garden.

Here’s to a spring full of growing together.

Best wishes,

Jake

Volunteer Training Event

All gardens benefit from watchful, caring gardeners.  Our inspiration gardens are no exception.  When I visited all of them recently, I was reminded that the more caretakers each of our gardens has, the more it will flourish and provide a great experience for everyone.   It is in this spirit that we have created a program to help volunteers grow their urban agriculture skills in order to support our gardens and the people that live with them everyday.

Everybody Grows  is happy to announce we will be holding a volunteer training event to brief both experienced and new volunteers on the skills and routines we use to maintain our inspiration gardens.  We will go over harvesting, transplanting, and pruning techniques in order to prepare volunteers to work in our gardens.   The event will be Sunday July 12th at 2 PM at Engine 26, 1340 Rhode Island Ave, NE.

Please email jake@everybodygrows.org to RSVP if you will be attending.  We will keep you updated on future volunteer training events through our website and social media.

Summer Volunteer Program

Thank you so much to everyone who has inquired about summer volunteer programs.  Everybody Grows is happy to announce we have developed a summer volunteer program that will give participants the opportunity to learn about urban agriculture and nonprofit development through hands-on work. The program will begin July 8th and take place every Wednesday through August 17th.  We will offer five hours of volunteering and learning opportunities each Wednesday, with the option to work more on other days.  Minimum age to apply is 15.

 

If you are interested in applying, please email jake@everybodygrows.org by Wednesday, July 1st.   Please write a short note about why you would like to work with Everybody Grows, and answer the following questions:

 

  1.  Please share briefly about experience you have in one or more of the following areas.  Gardening, cooking, carpentry, teaching, social media, photography, online research, elder care, and community organizing.

 

  1.  Do you have access to a car during the day, and if so at what times?  Are you comfortable driving other people?

 

  1.  Are you currently attending school, and if so where and what are you studying?

 

Thanks again for your interest.  We are happy to answer questions about the program.  This will be our first year doing this, so we reserve the right to modify the program above, but trust that it will be a priority to provide a meaningful experience for each participant.

Garden Therapy

During our recent planting day at Stoddard Nursing Home, I had a moving conversation with a resident who told me how she had recently undergone surgery, and how the garden gave her an extra reason to recover the ability to walk.  She wanted to be able to help out as much as possible.  She also told me how great the sun felt, and how she was so happy to be outside in the garden.  Her words reminded me of the optimism that gardening can instill.Gardens-Everybody-Grows-Stoddard-Baptist-Home-02

 

Gardening certainly has therapeutic power.  The physical therapist at Stoddard, Michael Kramer, was highly supportive and interested in the garden.  On our planting day, he was the first staff member to plant in the garden, along with his patient Ms. Farley, who was the first resident to work with us in the garden.  I had an interesting conversation with Michael about the ways gardening can help in rehabilitation.  Gardening involves a variety of physical activities, ranging from the fine motor skills used to harvest herbs, to the gross motor skills of digging and watering.  I look forward to continuing a dialogue with Michael about how the garden, and by extension Everybody Grows, can be of assistance in his work with his patients.IMG_0090

 

I had another interesting conversation about the therapeutic power of gardening with deputy fire chief David Foust.  We talked about how firefighters work long shifts, and how their vital work can often be stressful and intense.  We discussed the potential of the garden to help enhance mindfulness and offer a temporary relief.  I know that in my work as a teacher the garden serves this role.  Leaving the classroom behind and leading a small group to work in the garden can be be a welcome change for me and for my students.  When we return to the classroom, we are refreshed and ready to learn and play.

 

I also want to share a recommendation for a book, called Accessible Gardening: Tips and Techniques for Seniors and the Disabled by Joann Woy that a staff member at Stoddard, Linda Ripley, shared with us.  Thanks to all of our gardening partners for generously teaching us about their fields!

First Nursing Home Planting Event

On May 14th, Everybody Grows planted our first nursing home inspiration garden with the residents and staff at Stoddard Baptist Nursing Home.   We had a great turnout and participation from many who live and work at the home.  We all worked together and got our hands dirty planting in the ten of the raised beds that live on a beautiful patio area that runs alongside the home

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Ms. Farley planted the very first plants, a row of sweet peppers.  Mr. Goldring was a gardening machine, and once he got going, he did not stop until he had filled nearly two of the beds with edible plants.  Ms. Nelson was particularly drawn to the Thai basil, and she planted it in a prominent spot so she could come back and check on it.Gardens-Everybody-Grows-Stoddard-Baptist-Home-04

 

Part of the joy of the planting event was spending time together.  Our planting events are always as much about meeting new people and building community as much as they are about getting plants in the ground.  Volunteers, staff, and residents sat under umbrellas and drank lemonade, talked gardening, and looked over seedlings before planting them.

stoddard juice

We are looking forward to seeing my new friends at the nursing home again very soon.