Intro & a few veggie garden questions

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Hi! I occassionally lurk here, but haven't posted in a long, long time. My name is Irene, and I garden in Zone 5 (far northern Illinois)
Anyhow, I have a couple of questions:
Has anyone tried Burpee's Tomato Towers? They look like they'd be nice & space-saving if they work, and very annoying if they don't. Or, do you have a preferred staking method for indeterminate tomatoes?
Do mini pumpkins result in smaller plants, as well? I've done normal-sized ones before, and am considering doing Wee Be Little this year (per request of the 3 year old). I'm considering using a so-far not planted section of the garden about 2' wide by 15' long, sloping, next to the house.
Irene
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I can't answer the question about the pumpkins, but I have strong opinions about ready-made tomato cages: Avoid them. The Burpee item looks sturdy, but they give no indication of how deep the things go into the ground. So, consider this time-tested idea:
Buy a roll of galvanized fence wire. If you can get the plastic covered stuff, use that instead of the bare wire version. It's smoother against the plants' stems. You want the kind that's 5 or 6 feet wide. The width becomes the height of your cages because you're going to cut pieces and shape them into cylinders. While you're at the hardware store or home supply, head to the electrical department and buy a package of nylon cable ties, medium or large width. You'll need 10 ties per cage. And, for each cage, you'll need two metal stakes, the kind that have notches for the wire. They're usually in the same department as the rolls of wire. If you buy 5' wide wire, buy 6 foot stakes. One foot of each stake goes into the ground. You want the above-ground part of the stakes to reach at least 2/3 of the way up each wire cylinder. Incidentally, don't use the notches in the stakes for their intended purpose, which is for permanent fencing. I'll explain why later.
Cut the fence wire in pieces long enough that when it's rolled, the diameter is about 4 feet. After cutting, use needlenose pliers to twist the cut ends to the other side of the piece you've cut, fastening it into a cylinder. Stand the cylinder on its end. Drive two stakes into the ground opposite one another. If you can pull them out by hand, they're not deep enough. Keep hammering. Use the nylon cable ties to secure the cylinder to the stakes. 4-5 ties to each stake should be enough. If you put the stakes deep enough, the only way to knock these cages over would be to hit them with a car.
Now, back up a step. Plant the tomatoes, THEN secure the cages to the stakes. The holes in the fence wire won't be large enough for your hands, or to remove large tomatoes. You'll need to use wire cutters to make a few of the holes larger. The access holes will be hard to see when there are masses of green sticking out the fence wire. So, tie pieces of white cloth or brightly colored ribbon at the spots where you've enlarged the holes.
At the end of the season, just cut the cable ties to release the cages from the stakes. If you had used the stake notches, you'd have a hell of a time removing the cages. That's why you use the cable ties - they're quickly and easily cut with pruning shears or wire cutters. Grab the stakes, rock them back and forth a few times, remove, knock off the soil, and store. The cages can be pressed flat for storage and bent back into shape next season.
This sounds like a lot of work, but you only need to build these things once every ten years, unless you leave the cages outside to rust through the winter. The stakes will rust a bit, but they're pretty thick, so it doesn't matter. Mine are 20 years old.
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Irene said:

I use plastic-coated metal stakes and tie up the plants (pruned to two stems).

Mini-pumpkins grow on long vines. You might be able to grow them up the side of the house, if you give them something to cling to.
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Pat in Plymouth MI ('someplace.net' is comcast)

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No idea about the size of the pumpkins themselves, but if they're anything like canteloupe, you'll want to support each pumpkin with some sort of mesh sling. Pantyhose works.
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The thin wire cages do have a tendency to fall over when the plant becomes large, since they are only anchored by about 6" of wire pressed into the ground. The plastic coated metal stakes and some form of tomato ties work fine for a few plants. If you plant more than about 20 tomato plants in a single row you might consider the "Florida weave" method (google florida weave tomato). I use this technique without pruning the plants. I use biodegradeable (Jute) baler twine (about $25-30 for 9000 feet, and it's useful for all sorts of other things also [try Agway]).
Note that pruning the tomato plants is reputed to produce earlier fruit (if done correctly) but decreases the overall productivity of the plant somewhat. If you have several tomato plants you might consider pruning a couple of them and leaving the rest to produce what they will. Leave lots of space around the unpruned plants since they can get large. I plant rows of tomatoes 10' apart to allow for air circulation and also to be able to get a garden cart down the rows. However, my rows are 100-200 feet long, so this spacing may not be necessary for a home garden.
There is a moderately strong correlation between the size of a pumpkin and the length of the vine. Having said that, the mini pumpkins still produce a vine that can spread 5' in all directions. (still better than 15' for some of the large pumpkins).
I don't support canteloupe. It's too much work. I find that a handful of straw under the fruit will keep it fairly dry and free from wireworms.
Doug Kanter wrote:

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Right, but I was referring to vines grown on a trellis. The melons have a tendency to fall off.
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Doug said:

These pumpkins are pretty darn small - I think it's the same variety as the mini-pumpkins you get in the grocery store. So, if I did a trellis, I probably wouldn't need to support them individually.
However, I'd actually been thinking more along the lines of having them cascade down the hill, rather than up the side of the house. (I realize my original description was a little confusing).
Presumably I could also combine the two - but with a 3 year old, a nine month old, and other gardening plans for the year, I probably will stop with just the cascading idea. If they really are only 5' long vines, that would probably be pretty manageable for the area I'm considering. When I did full size pumpkins before, I didn't have room for much else in my regular veggie garden!
Irene
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Thanks for all the information! I've only used cages before, but haven't been terribly happy with them. This past summer, I grew 5 tomato plants, total. I didn't do anything with them (since my daughter was born in April, I was lucky to get anything into the ground at all!), and they totally took over the veggie garden (about 12'x12'). Well, that was also probably because the one big garden thing we did do was to fill in our raised beds with nice new dirt mixed with compost. I had 2 Early Girl, 2 Brandywine, and one Mr. Stripy, and the Brandywine especially were just gigantic!
I may try the Florida weave, or some sort of variation - that looks like a promising idea from my googling, even though I'm only planning on doing 4 plants this year.
Irene
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If you have storage room for the winter, the rebar cages are always the best. One cage is about a 5X5 piece of rebar that you will bend into a cylinder. Cut off the last wire at the bottom so you can have stakes at the bottom. Then you will occasionally gently pull the branches through the rebar to support the plant in as many places as possible. They are rusty, and ugly, and will stain your white T-shirts, but they will take a large plant without toppling, they last forever and need no labor, and harvesting is a breeze. The only problem I have with them is that I should have cut them into 7X5 pieces, because occasionally a cherry tomato will climb well above 5 feet.
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Doug Kanter said:

Mini-pumpkins are really small, and shouldn't need any extra support.
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Pat in Plymouth MI ('someplace.net' is comcast)

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It's interesting that nobody has quantified the word "small" so far in this discussion. You say "really small", and I'm thinking grapes, but I'm being a wise guy. Are you picturing pumpkins the size of lemons? A softball?
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The smallest pumpkins I know of are about 2-3" in diameter, e.g. Jack-be-little. The JBL is flattened and ridged like a larger pumpkin. I believe it's actually a gourd, but it is edible. You can scoop out the insides and bake it with some sort of filling. There is another version (I've forgotten the name at the moment) that is rounder and more spherical, but about the same diameter.
There is also something called a "putka", or pumpkin pod. I've not seen seeds available for these anywhere. You can buy them dried for decoration (generally they're dyed orange or green). I've tried to extract the seeds and start them, but got zero germination. These things are about 1/2 inch in diameter, maybe 3/8 inch high. I believe they're actually a dried pepper of some sort.
Doug Kanter wrote:

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On 1/13/05 10:01 AM, in article 41e68d02$0$578$ snipped-for-privacy@senator-bedfellow.mit.edu, "dps"

http://www.hirts.com/cgi-local/catalog.cgi?cat=1,3,&item 94
Physalis alkekengi (Chinese Lanterns)
Cheryl

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No, thats not it. They are called "putka pods". The Chinese lantern has a papery skin with a fruit inside (like a tomatillo), whereas the putka pod has a really hard skin that takes a pair of pliers to break. The inside is divided into 3-4 sections containing the seeds attached to a thin skin, similar to a pepper. The seeds are rounder than all the peppers I've handled. Definitely not a physalis.
I suspect that the process of drying the pods kills the seeds. Some of the advertisements are from oriental sources, so it may be an oriental plant (just a guess). The skin may not be hard until the pods are dried for sale. The natural color appears to be a medium to dark brown-grey (judging from the broken edges of the pod). They may be baked. They may be treated to avoid pest imports. Since I don't know where they come from these are just guesses.
Google putka pod. There are several sites listing them for sale, but none of them has a really good picture of one (I didn't look at all 2400 sites Google came up with).
Cheryl Isaak wrote:

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On 1/13/05 1:54 PM, in article 41e6c38b$0$579$ snipped-for-privacy@senator-bedfellow.mit.edu, "dps"

Thanks! dang those are cute!
Cheryl
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wrote:

Cute vegetables? Uh oh. Suddenly, I'm worried. Cheryl, tell the truth: Do you have cow-motif towel pegs in your kitchen?
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On 1/13/05 10:34 PM, in article A5HFd.3907$ snipped-for-privacy@news01.roc.ny, "Doug

Nope! Very Mission style all through the house. Cheryl
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Doug Kanter said:

than that), and about half as tall as they are wide." I once toted some I'd grown in an empty canning jar box (with the dividers in place).
They are edible, very sweet but a little bland and quick to get stringy in storage. The little single-serving pumpkins are very cute on the plate.
Haven't grown them in several years.
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Pat in Plymouth MI ('someplace.net' is comcast)

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Palm of your hand.....are you referring to metric palms, or the kinds of palms measured in inches?
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Doug Kanter said:

Now you're just being cheeky.
The palm of my size-large-gloved hand. Pretty close to the standard 'hand' measurement ie, 4 inches (or just over 10cm).
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