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Garden to Table: Grow Your Own Organic Heirlooms

Companion Planting to Maximize Garden Space

Photos by Rebecca Anne Cole

When I first started my garden I made sure each vegetable variety had its own designated row. I wanted my garden to resemble a compact version of a farmer’s field, with meticulous crops carefully maintained in systematic rows.  

While my garden looked neat and tidy, it limited my ability to grow a wide variety of vegetables in the small space I had to work with. I soon realized that I could grow a lot more vegetables and experiment with different heirlooms if I was open to comingling plant varieties.

Three Sisters Planting  

The first companion planting I tried was a Native American method called Three Sisters. The technique consists of corn, beans and squash planted close together in the same garden space. The corn is planted first to provide support for the beans, followed by squash which serves as a ground cover. Using this method, I was able to grow three vegetable varieties in the space that would have housed only one using traditional crop rows.  

To plant the Three Sisters, I used the mouth of a 5 gallon bucket to imprint a circle in the soil, leaving enough room in between circles to walk. Then I sowed corn seeds (Dorinny Sweet and Country Gentleman are my favorite) 6” apart in the outline of the circle. When sprouts appeared, I planted bean seeds on either side of each corn sprout. Any variety of climbing beans will work. I used a combination of lima beans and pole beans. Squash is planted last, after the beans have emerged. I sowed squash seeds in the middle of the circle so that the vines would extend out and provide ground cover. A vine type of squash works best.

Other Companion Planting Ideas

Many vegetables grow well together. Take into consideration what each plant has to offer the others, then plan the garden space accordingly. Taller crops such as tomatoes and peppers can serve as much needed shade for tender leaf lettuce varieties, which can in turn serve as a ground cover to deter weeds and retain moisture.

Photos by Rebecca Anne Cole

Interplant vegetables within the same family, such as brassicas, to add variety and additional plantings. Instead of spacing rows for each variety, I plant cabbages, kale, and Brussels in a staggered pattern. The plants fill in the space completely, leaving just enough access room to harvest without wasting precious space. I have almost doubled my brassica planting by using this method.  

Root vegetables like carrots and radishes can share space with cabbages and broccoli. I like to sow Half Danvers and Early Scarlet radishes around my brassica seedlings at the time of transplant in early spring. Radishes will be mature and be harvested before the carrots, leaving plenty of room for the carrot roots to flourish.

Most herbs companion well with other vegetables, and some herbs may act as natural pest control for the plants they share space with. Flowering herbs will also add beauty while attracting pollinators. Dill, chives, bee balm, basil and parsley may be planted in corners and boarders around the garden. Edible flowers such as nasturtium and marigolds are beneficial to cucumbers and squash varieties by attracting bees. Nasturtium is also believed to be an effective deterrent for unwanted insects.   

Transplanting Tomato Seedlings

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Photos By Rebecca Anne Cole

Tomato plants are tender annuals that require full sun and warm temperatures to thrive. They are heavy feeders, needing plenty of moisture and well drained soil. Whether purchased from a grower or started indoors from seed, tomato plants need special care when being transplanting to the garden. 

When to Transplant Tomato Seedlings

Tomatoes are sensitive annuals that are susceptible to cold temperatures. Patience is imperative when it comes to transplanting tomato plants. One cold snap may wipe out an entire crop if set out too soon.

I wait until temperatures are consistently above 65 degrees F before I set out my tomato plants. I look for evening temperatures to be at least 45 degrees F, and all threat of frost has passed. If an unexpected frost threatens newly transplanted tomato plants, carefully cover them with an old sheet or blanket.

Harden Off Tomato Plants

Before setting tomato plants in the garden for good, gradually expose them to the outdoors. This is can be done in hour long increments, increasing the time over a few days until the plants have acclimated to the outdoors.

If conditions are windy, provide some protection to prevent damage to the plants. Purchased tomato plants should already be hardened off and ready for the garden, but it doesn’t hurt to confirm this at the time of purchase.

Plant the Seedlings

Tomatoes plants are heavy feeders. Before planting the seedlings, amend the soil with rich compost. After plants are hardened off, dig a hole deep enough to accommodate the entire root system and most of the stem. Fill in with soil and pack tightly. Roots will develop from the planted stem, providing additional support to the plant.   

I like to add natural supplements to the hole with my tomato plants. Crushed egg shells, coffee grinds, and fish remnants (bones and skin) may sound odd, but tomato plants love the nutrients they provide.

Provide Support

Tomato plants grow heavy vines with large fruits and will need additional support. Individual plant cages work well, but can be expensive if there are many plants to support. If using cages, position then with the tomato seedling at the time of planting. Trying to add the cages after the fact may result in damage to the roots or vines.  

I like to use a weave method to support my tomato plants. Place stakes in the ground at each end of the tomato row, then secure one stake in between every other plant. Tie garden string at one end, then carefully weave the string in between the plants, tying to the middle stakes as you go along. Tie the string to the opposite end once the row is secured. Add strings to the weave as plants grow taller to ensure proper support.     

Starting Tomatoes from Seed

When most people think of heirloom vegetables, the tomato comes to mind. Here in Maryland, we love our tomatoes, and no vegetable garden is complete without an heirloom tomato plant. Many common tomato plants can be found for purchase in early May, but availability and variety are limited.

Growing tomatoes from seed allows gardeners to experiment with an endless variety of heirlooms. Whether growing paste tomatoes for canning, or showy fruits in hues of purple or gold, starting tomatoes from seed is the surest way to grow tomatoes that suit your taste and needs.

Starting Tomatoes from Seed

Photos By Rebecca Anne Cole

When to Start Tomato Seeds

Most planting guides suggest starting tomatoes indoors according to the last frost date for the planting zone. Since tomatoes are warm weather annuals that are susceptible to cold snaps, I like to start my seeds six to eight weeks before transplanting to the garden. Once temperatures are consistently above 65-70 degrees F, the seedlings are ready to go out. I look to transplant my tomato plants in mid to late May.

Planting Instructions

Plant seeds in moist starter soil, about 1/8” deep in a warm location. Light will help the germination process, which usually takes a few days. I set my tomato seed trays on a table in front of a large window.

When sprouts start to emerge, move the plants under grow lights for 8-10 hours a day, watering regularly. If I have more tomato trays than lights available, I rotate the trays; one day shift, one night shift. The plants will adjust to natural daylight times when transplanted to the garden.

Heirloom Varieties to Try

Black Krim

One of my favorite heirloom tomato varieties is Black Krim. I received a packet of these seeds as a free gift with a seed order, and I have grown them ever since. This Russian heirloom is sweet and rich, and has a beautiful deep red hue. I use them in salads, or blend with Amish Paste tomatoes when making sauces.

Gold Medal

Another one of my favorite tomato heirlooms, Gold Medal develops beautiful orange fruits that complement any fresh preparation. I like to slice them for sandwiches, or eat them right from the garden with a sprinkle of salt.

Green Zebra

Similar in size to cocktail tomatoes, Green Zebra grows fun fruits that develop bright green and orange stripes when ripe. Green Zebra is a good choice to introduce tomatoes to finicky eaters; my kids love the look and name of these little guys.  

Amish Paste

For cooking and canning, Amish Paste is my go to tomato variety. The size and color are similar to that of a Roma tomato. The thick skins come off easily when dipped in hot water, and the flavor is enhanced when cooked. I use them alone with herbs, or blend with other heirloom varieties when making tomato sauces.  

Tappy’s Heritage

If your goal is to grow a bumper tomato crop, look no further than Tappy’s Heritage. When I planted a row of these beauties, my plants were so weighted down with fruits I had to harvest daily and add extra support. Tappy’s Heritage make delicious slicing tomatoes. They also freeze well when blanched, peeled, and placed in air tight containers. During the winter months I pop a couple of frozen tomatoes in soups and stews.   

When and How to Transplant Cabbage Seedlings to the Garden

Cabbage Seedling

Photo Credit: Rebecca Anne Cole 

Cabbage seedlings, those precious little plants that have been nurtured so tenderly throughout the winter months, will eventually need a final place to call home. The effort expended to start each plant from seed, careful watering and adjusting under grow lights to give them the best start in life, could all be lost without proper planning and care when it comes to setting them out for permanent placement in the vegetable garden.

Knowing when and how to transplant the tender seedlings is essential to successful growth and production of abundant cabbage heads. Cabbage plants are one of the first vegetables to be set out in the garden after weeks under indoor grow lights, usually in early spring. Once the plants have developed two to three true leaves, they are ready for transplant. True leaves, although small at first from underdevelopment, resemble the plant’s mature leaf in shape and color. They differ from sprouting leaves, which appear just after the seed has germinated.

True Cabbage Leaves

Photo Credit: Rebecca Anne Cole 

Prepare the soil with rich compost a couple of weeks before transplanting. Decayed leaves work well when they are incorporated several inches into the soil. In the fall I shred leaves and turn them into the soil of the cabbage bed so that the material is well rotted and ready for incoming spring plants. Cabbages needs full sun and moist soil for proper growth and development, so select a spot with plenty of sunlight exposure. 

Set delicate cabbage seedling trays outside gradually for a couple of hours, then longer each day until they are accustomed to be being outside. This process is called hardening off, and can begin for hardy vegetable plants like cabbages when daytime temperatures and consistently above 40 degrees F. Once the cabbage plants have been exposed to direct sunlight, wind, and outdoor conditions, they will be more resilient to a light frost, and acclimate to their new habitat. Choose a location where the plants can be easily moved and protected from high winds and harsh sun. I use an outdoor shelf with a cover, enclosing three sides at first then gradually exposing more as the plants become accustomed to the elements.  

I aim to transplant cabbage plants a couple of weeks before the last threat of frost, to take advantage of the colder temperatures and hopefully have less hassle from cabbage devouring pests. This means that I am starting to harden off cabbage seedlings mid to late March for my zone 7a garden. The early start also allows for an earlier harvest in the coming weeks. I am mindful to cover the cabbage bed with a sheet or tarp should a late hard frost arise.   

After the cabbage plants have been property hardened off and the soil has been prepared, they are ready to make their final transition to the garden. Dig a space large enough to accommodate the starter soil and plant roots. Gently nestle the roots into the hole and pack in enough soil to support the plant from the base, leaving the stem and leaves exposed.  

Depending on the variety, cabbage plants need 12-18” spacing in the garden. I like to use smaller, conical shaped cabbage head varieties like Kolibos and Early Jersey Wakefield, which require about a square foot per plant. Larger varieties such as Brunswick and Aubervilliers need more space to thrive and produce significant heads, so allow 16-18” or more in the garden per plant.

A layer of mulch applied after transplant to help retain water and keep weeds at bay. Biodegradable paper weed barrier has worked well for me in my cabbage beds. After I have dug all of the holes, I lay the weed barrier paper over the bed, then X out spaces to match. The plants are then set into the holes and covered with soil, which holds the paper in place. Putting in the extra work at the time of transplant is well worth the effort a few months later when I am not breaking my back pulling weeds from the cabbage bed.

When the cabbage plants are settled into their new places, water and weed as needed. The early start outdoors will help minimize insects and allow cabbage heads to develop for harvest in time for a second planting. I like to follow behind with snap peas and green beans, as the ground will be sufficiently warmed by the time the cabbage heads are harvested.  

 

Beautiful Beneficial Nasturtium

Orange Nasturtium Flower

Photo Credit Rebecca Anne Cole

Nasturtium, also known as Indian cress, is a climbing annual plant, with vines reaching up to 10 feet in length. The intricate flowers mature into impressive displays of yellow, orange, and red. The dainty flowers, leaves, and green shoots are edible, and have a peppery flavor similar to watercress. Leaves may be used like lettuce, and the vibrant flowers make for a colorful garnish.

I ended up with several packets of nasturtium blend by accident after an online checkout order went awry. I had refreshed the page one too many times to unstick the frozen screen and ended up with multiple orders. Thankfully the page was stuck on the $2.49 nasturtium seed packets and not the elaborate high dollar cucumber trellis I had been wistfully contemplating.

I scattered a few nasturtium seeds in my front garden bed in between sweet potato slips and perennial herbs, then pretty much forgot about them. Once the seeds germinated and the vines began to spread, the round green leaves provided a useful groundcover, acting as an umbrella to shade the waning weeds underneath. The bed required minimal weeding most of the season.

It wasn't until the flowers started to bloom in showy vibrant hues of yellow and orange that I fully appreciated the beauty of the plant. Only afterwards when I did some research on nasturtium did I understand their value in the garden for insect control. Nasturtium are natural repellents to many unwanted garden insects, including beetles, aphids, cabbage worms, and slugs.

Based on my research, two theories emerged as to how and why nasturtium is effective with unwanted insect control. The first theory infers that the plant repels bugs by expelling a chemical that many garden pests find intolerable. Contrary belief suggests that pests are actually attracted to the plant, preferring nasturtium to other options, thus serving as a diversion to spare vegetable crops when planted near them. I plan on further researching these theories first-hand in my garden, but either way nasturtium is a natural option for insect control.

This season I am inter-planting nasturtium with my brassicas, which suffered a terrible fate at the hands of cabbage beetles last fall. I lost an entire crop to the voracious bugs whose insatiable appetites were not satisfied until each and every plant had been stripped clean. At first I thought rabbits were taking their nibbles, but by the time I realized it was in fact beetles the entire crop was lost. I plan to monitor whether the insects are repelled from the companion planted bed altogether, or if they prefer to feast on the nasturtium, sparing the cabbage and broccoli.

Nasturtium do best when directly sown in place about two weeks before the last threat of frost, but they may be started indoors for transplant a few weeks earlier. Seeds are planted 1 to 2 inches deep, about 3 inches apart. Look for seeds to germinate in about 10 to 14 days, then thin seedlings to about 10 to 12 inches apart. Vines may reach up to 10 feet in length and may be trellised or allowed to spread on the ground, which can act as an effective groundcover and weed deterrent, as I discovered. They also make excellent container plants; I plan to use them in my hanging baskets. Plants mature in about 60 days.

Starting Onions from Seed

Rebecca Anne ColeOnions require a long growing season and are usually started indoors 10-12 weeks before they will be set out in the garden in early spring, after the threat of frost. Onions need abundant sunlight, which determines the size and development of the bulb, and are categorized by the amount of daylight needed for proper bulb maturity. Short day onion varieties need around 12 hours, while long day varieties require 14-16 hours of sunlight to develop. Intermediate onion varieties fall in the middle, needing 12-14 hours. Onions may also be planted directly in the garden after the threat of frost by using onion sets, small dried onion bulbs, but the varieties are usually limited. I prefer to grow my onions from seed for this reason.

One of my favorite heirloom onion varieties, Australian Brown, was originally introduced by W. Atlee Burpee in 1897. It was the first onion I attempted to grow from seed in my garden. Australian Browns are a reliable intermediate day variety that develop medium to large sized bulbs, depending on growing conditions, and are known to be good keepers. My first planting yielded robust, medium sized onions that stored exceptionally well, lasting through the winter. Australian Brown onions are a classic style cooking onion, bearing a sharp, eye watering bite, and are suitable for use in many cooking preparations.

Red of Florence is an Italian heirloom dating back to the 1800s. They have an oblong reddish purple tinted bulb and have a milder, sweeter flavor. I like to dice them fresh to use in salads, or chop with vine ripened tomatoes and basil for a delicious bruschetta. Red of Florence onions are a good substitute for shallots in cooking recipes, and work well when sautéed as part of a roux base for sauces. Red of Florence is a long day onion variety. They take up little space in the garden, requiring only a few inches to accommodate their small, oblong roots.

Australian Brown and Red of Florence Onions

There different methods and techniques for starting onion seeds indoors, and I have tried many of them, with varying degrees of success. The most important thing is to get the roots healthy and established while still indoors, to where they are strong enough to withstand being set out in the garden. I have found the most success by using a two tiered tray method, which requires less work in the beginning and more time when transplanting, and by using an individual potting container method, which is more tedious in the initial planting process but smoother on the transplant side.       

Two Tiered Tray Method

For the two tiered tray method, I use a flat 11” x 22” x 5”tray set. The top tray contains drip holes to allow for drainage, and sits inside of a solid bottom catch tray. I purchased my set specifically for my grow rack because it fits nicely in the frame, but any flat container with holes to allow excess water to drain into a slightly larger container will work.  Plastic clam shells can be used when seeds are sown in the base after piercing holes, then cut the top off to use as the catch tray. 

The seeds are surface sown, then light covered in seed started mix in the top tier tray. Water carefully so as not to disturb the delicate seeds. Sprouts will start to emerge within 7-10 days in temperatures of 70 degrees F or warmer. The tray may be covered and placed indirectly near a floor heating vent to help the process along, then move the tray under grow lights when sprouts appear.

Thin plants as needed to allow enough room for the roots to develop and keep moist. I like to use a spray bottle for misting so that I don’t disturb the fragile roots as they are grow. If more than 14 days go by without a sprout, it’s time to try again.

When it comes time to transplant, the tedious work sets in. I use a fork to break loose and separate each tiny onion by the root, then gently place it into its designated spot in the garden. This process can be time consuming, depending on how many onion seedlings you are working with, but extra care when transplant each little plant will help yield healthy, well-formed onions come harvest time.

Individual Potting Container Method

Another method I have used to start onions from seed is to sow seeds in individual planters that can be transplanted along with the onion when they are moved to the garden. I have purchased mini biodegradable pots in the past, but found that they didn’t decompose fully once the onions were transplanted. I was left with underdeveloped onion bulbs, still tasty and usable, but disappointing in that they were not allowed to grow to their true potential.

The best onion seed planter pot I have discovered is made by repurposing toilet paper tubes. I start collecting them in the summer, and by the time February rolls around, I have toilet paper roll planters to spare. To make planters, cut each tube in half, then cut four slits on one side of each half. The slits are then folded into each other to make a solid base. One tube makes two planters. The planters may be set in a large solid bottom tray, then fill each tube with seed starter soil. Carefully sow 1-2 onion seeds per planter tube then water until moist. Cover the seed tray and keep in a warm place until sprouts appear, then move to grow lights until the plants are ready to be set out in the garden.

Transplanting onions is less tedious when working with individual seed planters since they are already separated into perfect little planting packages. By now, after 10-12 weeks, the tubes should be starting to decompose. If not, gently spread apart the folded bottoms when putting the seedlings into the ground to ensure the cardboard will not inhibit bulb growth.

Once transplanted after the threat of frost in the spring, keep the onion bed free of weeds and wait for the tops to fall over to indicate they are ready for harvest. Cure onions for ten to fourteen days before storing.

Photo credit: Rebecca Anne Cole