Learn how the Snarky Gardener created his own tomato variety.
In 2012, before the Snarky Gardener grew his own starts, he purchased way too many SunGold cherry tomatoes (6 if memory serves) from a local garden shop. SunGold is an F1 hybrid, meaning that it’s produced by crossing two varieties to get a better, stronger plant. Conventional wisdom says not to save F1 seed because one doesn’t know what or how the next generation will produce. With this knowledge, I saved none of this seed, but biology had a different plan. Last spring, while prepping the garden for planting, I noticed a massive clump of “volunteers” (plants that just grow on their own from the year before). They were obviously SunGolds as the orange outer skin of the parent fruit could still be seen. So in a flash of inspiration, my shovel relocated them to 4 different spots along my tomato fence. Each clump had several plants, so I thinned them out over a period of weeks until just one remained in each spot. Here’s the strange part – of the 4 remaining plants, 2 produced orange tomatoes and 2 produced red tomatoes. The orange fruits were as tasty as its parents, the red not so much, so I collected only orange seed last fall, naming them Snarky Orange cherry tomatoes as they can’t really be considered SunGold anymore. In biology terms, these 2013 volunteers were F2s, AKA the second generation, and 2014’s version is considered an F3. I am currently growing a Snarky Orange F3 in my AeroGarden and it’s orange like the original F1.
The question is “Why would anyone go to the trouble of breeding out an F1 while there are so many tomato varieties in the world?” I think the answer for me is “Just to try and see what happens” as I love to experiment. Also, if you save seeds from your own garden, they are adapted to your growing conditions. Think about it – these Snarky Orange volunteered and thrived so the environment was exactly what they wanted. And when I raise and save them this season, they will be even more adapted, something you’re not going to get out of an F1 hybrid you need to buy every year.
Last year, the Snarky Gardener discovered wintersown.org, which gives away seeds that can be used to grow plants outside during the winter. The idea is to sow your seeds in milk jugs (or other recycled objects) and then put them outside until the temperatures are correct for germination. I had mixed results with the WinterSown system but I believe I made several mistakes that I am pledging not to make this year. First of all, I tried plant too many seeds at once – 8 different varieties in just one carton!. This time, I’m using my new 2” square soil blockers to keep the number of plantings to a minimum – just 7 starts per carton. And only one variety per carton with identifying labels (what a concept!). I’m also keeping the choices to those I know well, and that I have too many seeds of already – Red Russian kale, spinach, cilantro, parsley, and leeks. All of these are cold weather hardy, so they are perfect for being winter sown.
Another issue I ran across last year was watering. The instructions explicitly said to open the milk carton to water but I got lazy and sprayed into the opening at the top. The one carton I didn’t put bottom slits in did the best as it didn’t go dry like the others. For me, putting my seed starting efforts outside leads to the “out of sight, out of mind” problem. This time around I’m putting them right outside my back door, which I will pass everyday on my way to work and back.
Spend some time to observe your chosen spot. You are going to want at least 3 hours of direct sunlight a day with more than 6 preferred. If you can’t get the minimum 6, then look for plants that will be OK with a little shade, like lettuce, herbs, Swiss chard, kale, spinach, turnips, and mustard greens. Another option is to plant in containers and move them to the sunny spots throughout the day.
2. Start small
Don’t go hog wild with a giant garden first thing out. Keeping it small will allow you to learn what grows best in your area without a lot of investment of time, money, and effort. Containers or a 4 foot by 4 foot raised bed would be a good place to start.
3. Grow what you like to eat
Sounds straight forward, but I’ve known a few snarky gardeners to grow things before they know how they taste (like me with my sunchokes). If you think you want to grow it, buy it from the store first.
4. Grow easy stuff
Some vegetables are easier to grow than others, by a significant margin. Talk to people in your area to learn what grows well in your area. For instance, in Northeastern Ohio (my neck of the woods), cherry tomatoes, beans, peas, onions, zucchini, potatoes, and turnips do well with little trouble. Broccoli, watermelons, Brussels sprouts, peppers, and eggplants are much harder to grow, to the point I’ve given up on some.
5. Mulch a bunch
Mulch is anything that covers the ground around your plants. Straw, grass clippings, newspapers, wood chips, and leaves (my favorite) all make good mulch. You can also use plastic mulch, but it won’t make your soil better over time like organic materials will. Covering the ground is important as it will keep weeds from overtaking your edible plants plus it holds in moisture which will keep you from having to water as much (or at all!)
6. Visit often
Gardens are probably ruined by neglect more than anything else. Visit a few times a week to keep up with the weeds, watering, and ready to pick food. Think of it as that exercise your doctor keeps telling you need to do. I find the garden as a quiet place to get away from it all. Also, try to plan around the weather (early or late on hot summer days, etc).
7. Learn about food seasons
Some plants can tolerate and sometimes prefer cold (like spinach, turnips, onions, peas, potatoes) but don’t like heat and others can’t handle frost (tomatoes, peppers, corn, beans, squash, pumpkins, okra) and love warm weather. It still surprises me that this isn’t common knowledge (it wasn’t for me when I started). Your frost dates (last frost in the spring and first frost in the fall) are the most important gardening times. They tell you when you can plant certain vegetables and when they need to be reaped. Too early or too late and you’ll be sad, sad gardener.
8. Watch out for critters
If you notice animals in your neighborhood, know that they may think of your garden as a free meal. A small fence (2 or 3 feet tall) will keep out rabbits, but you will need a taller fence (6 feet or more) to deter groundhogs, raccoon, and deer from invading your space. There are also garlicky sprays and fence clips that will deter them some. Most animals don’t like strong smells, so planting herbs and garlic/onions on the outside of your garden is not a bad idea. Also, keep an eye on your plants for damage, as even the best fencing can be leaped over or dug under.
9. Think outside the box
There are a lot of different ways to garden besides the standard “till up the backyard and plant in rows”. Indoor gardening can be done with systems like the AeroGarden. Containers or individual planters work well for situations where you can’t plant into the ground (apartments, limited sun, etc). If you don’t have a tiller or want to go to the trouble of tilling, you can build gardens on top of your grass, whether it be raised beds, straw bale gardening, or lasagna mulching. And don’t be limited to your backyard. Front yard gardens, if done tastefully, are a possibility as long as there are no prohibitions where you live (like city ordinances or home owner association rules).
Good luck and happy gardening!
Have any questions about your first garden? Please leave a reply.
With the new year comes the best part of gardening – the planning.
The Snarky Gardener just loves garden planning because it’s never finished. It’s an ongoing process of tweaks and rewrites put together using software like GrowVeg.com. I’ll think I have a “final” version, then 2 or 3 days later, a flash of inspiration will come over me (“Put leeks there instead of peas”) and before I know it, I’ll be making changes. I’ve been working on 2014’s since summer of 2013 as one needs to know what’s going where next year to know what to plant in the fall (if that makes sense).
For example, I knew where my potatoes were going in 2014. I try hard to rotate my crops properly (no same plant family in the same spot for three years) and the northeastern corner of my garden (by the comfrey in the graphic above) had no nightshades (tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, eggplants) since 2011. But I had read somewhere that planting mustard in the fall before helps potatoes, so ta-da, mustard planted.
So now that we are into the new year, I’m ready to go full steam ahead to firm up the plan I already had sketched out in my crazy little brain. For March, it will be mostly uncovering mulch from overwintered turnips, peas, onions, corn salad, and spinach and planting spring hardy vegetables like peas, onions, and leeks.
May brings the last frost date and much activity. Leeks, carrots, and lettuce in early April, potatoes in early to mid April, corn (mid May), and dry bush beans (late May). I’ll obviously be planting the corn in the middle of the overwintered turnips and peas, but I’ll try to make room by eating my way out.
Last year, I planted some of the tomatoes in April and early May and paid dearly for it. This year they are not going in until Memorial Day weekend at the earliest. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, I’m a moron. The watermelons are small F1 hybrids I saved last year (now named Personally Snarky). I’m going to try to get them to climb up my fencing and use hosiery to secure them. Hopefully no little critters try to eat them. The pumpkins are at the back of the corn as they will probably try to take over like they did last year. Two pumpkin plants ended up covering 10% to 20% of my garden. The Snarky Girlfriend wanted carving pumpkins – ah, what I won’t do for love.
Saving pepper seed is really easy. The most important step is the first – leave the pepper on the plant until it gets very ripe. This will mean the pepper will turn color from the standard green to its final hue, either red (like the above jalapeno) or yellow or orange or whatever. The fruit will feel a little soft when squeezed.
Important note: If the pepper plant is a hybrid (aka F1), it was a cross between 2 different varieties and your saved seed may not produce the same fruit as its parent. Also, there is a small chance your pepper was cross pollinated with other nearby peppers, so again, your results may vary. Ah, plant sex.
Once it’s ready, pick your pepper Peter Piper style and cut it up. You will want to have something the seeds can be stored in for drying, like this medicine bottle cap. Be careful not to slice through the center of the pepper as that’s where all the seedy goodness is. If you cut up peppers on a regular basis for cooking, it’s the same, except you keep the seeds instead of tossing them. Remove all the seeds from the pepper and membrane, and put them in your drying vessel. Then cut up the pepper for use now or bag it up and freeze for later (peppers freeze really well).
Warning: If you are saving hot pepper seeds, be careful with burning your skin. You will want to wear gloves if you can. And if you’re like the Snarky Gardener, you won’t and then you’ll need to use dish soap, rubbing alcohol, milk, or yogurt to wash away the hot irritating oil.
Leave the seeds out to dry for about a week or two, shaking them back and forth every couple of days. Now they will be ready for storing or planting.