Mulch Ado…

Not all mulch is created equal.  Types of mulch range from great to not-something-you’d-want-in your-garden.

The Compost Solution

If you’re looking for a rich, black mulch containing ample nutrients for your plants, the answer is simple—use garden or kitchen compost!

Hay and compost used for mulch

If you’re going to compost organic materials yourself, make sure to have just the right balance of brown (carbon-rich) and green (nitrogen-rich) materials, so that your compost will break down efficiently. If you don’t have a lot of material to work with and if quick-and-easy composting is of the utmost importance to you, you might want to invest in a compost tumbler. But here at Southern Exposure, we do it the old-fashioned way! If you, too, have an open-style bin, make sure to turn it with a garden fork every two weeks to aerate the pile and to move dry material from the outer edges to the center.

Compost has a dark crumbly texture

You’ll know when your compost is ready because it will look beautifully dark and crumbly, and should smell earthy. Still see an orange peel? It’s not done! You definitely should not be able to pick out any original ingredients.  If you don’t have the time or means to make compost yourself, give your township a call. Many municipalities compost the yard waste they collect and then offer the finished product back to their residents.

Hay: Not Just for Horses…

…it’s also for your garden! Here at Southern Exposure, we often use hay and straw to mulch our crops.

Hay comes from grasses and legumes such as alfalfa or clover that are cut, dried, and used to feed farm animals. Straw, on the other hand, has little to no nutritional value for animals–it is made from dried, mostly-hollow stalks of grain. Straw and hay make for different mulching experiences.

Hay Mulch

Hay is nice and heavy, so it is likely to stay put once placed in your garden. However, when mulching with hay, be aware that it could contain weed or grain seeds that may eventually sprout. This is not really an issue with straw, but straw is much lighter than hay, which means that you’ll have to use a lot more of it to get it to stick around come wind and rain.

Oak’s No Joke

Blueberries growing in oak leaf mulch

If you’re a fellow resident of Virginia, where live oaks are commonplace, you might want to try using oak leaves as mulch. Live oaks are classified as evergreens because they hold onto their leaves all winter long…but come springtime, keep your eyes peeled! You won’t have to look very hard to find fallen oak leaves in abundance, as live oaks drop their leaves over a two-week period each spring.

Oak leaves add acidity to soil, so make sure you’re using them on plants that can tolerate this. You can either directly mulch your garden with oak leaves, or compost them first (chopping them up with a lawn mower or other tool will help them to decompose faster, as will mixing them with nitrogen-rich materials).

The Electric Pine Needle Acid Test

Using pine needles as mulch, which is often called pine straw, is a good idea when you are looking to increase the acidity of your soil. Garlic, mint, onion, blueberry and tomato plants would appreciate this, as would azaleas, chrysanthemum, rhododendron, and roses.

And besides giving certain plants their acid fix, pine needles bind together to provide a weed-suppressing blanket that is unlikely to wash away with heavy rains.

Another great thing about using pine needles as mulch is that you can easily collect it yourself. Even if you don’t have pine trees on your property, neighbors with pines might happily agree to let you scoop needles off their grass—the needles’ high acidity makes for splotchy lawns!

Coulda Shoulda Wooda

Wood mulch is a common type of mulch because it’s good at suppressing weed growth. But if you’re planning on buying commercially produced wood mulch, be aware that it may be made out of trashed wood, which could add arsenic and other chemicals to your soil.

Wood chips for mulching a path

Also, if you want to avoid moldy mulch, using wood chips as mulch might not be the best choice. Now, some molds and fungi—natural aspects of the decomposition process for all organic material—are benign or even beneficial for plants. But others are nuisances. Case in point: wood mulch can breed a nasty mold called “shotgun” or “artillery” fungus, which leaves impossible-to-remove spores that look like balls of tar on homes and cars.

If you’re still into the idea of using wood mulch, why don’t you try sawdust? The founder of Southern Exposure originally used sawdust as mulch in his garden, and he had no problems with it.

Rubber Mulch: Old Tire Chunks on Your Plants?!

For instance, did you know that many types of mulch you can buy in the store are thickened with ground rubber, potentially from used tires? Though rubber mulch might be good for playgrounds (if you don’t mind exposing your kids to the chemicals components of artificial rubber, but hey—we’re not talking child rearing here), it simply does not belong in your garden.

The cons of using rubber as a mulch ingredient far outweigh the fact that rubber contains a small amount of nitrogen. Zinc, cadmium and other heavy metals from rubber mulch could seep into your soil. Plus, it stinks in the heat!

What’s Mulch Got To Do With It?

In conclusion, we just want to reiterate something you’ve hopefully already figured out—mulch is very important! All mulch types help soil and root health by retaining moisture, managing temperature, and preventing weed growth.

Finished compost

Let’s Talk Tomatoes!

Choosing tomatoes to plant in your garden can be a bit tricky if you don’t know a few key terms.  Since there are so many different tomato varieties out there, it can be hard to figure out which one is right for your garden.  Some varieties are perfect for making sauce, while others are great for tossing into salads all summer long.

Certified organic tomatoes grown at Southern Exposure

All of the tomato seeds Southern Exposure offers are non-GMO and non-hybrid.  Most varieties are heirloom tomato seeds.  People often debate about what “heirloom” means, but to us, an heirloom variety is generally one that was introduced before the widespread use of hybrid varieties in industrial agriculture. This began around 1940. The integrity of our heirloom tomato seeds has been preserved thanks to open pollination. Most of our tomato seeds are also certified organic, which means the seed was collected from plants grown without exposure to petrol chemicals.

Determinate vs. Indeterminate Tomatoes

The distinction between determinate and indeterminate tomatoes sometimes leaves people baffled, so here’s a little tutorial.

Determinate tomatoes will stop growing at a certain point, and generally they are shorter in height than indeterminate varieties. Here in Virginia, if a determinate tomato plant grows to be five feet tall, the same plant could be three feet tall in a colder climate. Either way, there is a limit to how tall a determinate tomato plant will get.

Determinate tomatoes include: Glacier, Roma VF Virginia Select, Marglobe VF, Neptune

Glacier Tomatoes are one of the first to ripen

Indeterminate tomatoes, on the other hand, will just keep growing and growing! Factors that affect height are climate/length of season, trellis size, and plant health. In tropical areas, indeterminate varieties can be like perennials and grow for a few years. Most tomato varieties, especially cherries, are indeterminate. One of our customers who planted our Matt’s Wild Cherry seeds in her greenhouse told us that the vine grew to be 17 feet long! (Please keep in mind that this is very unusual.)

Indeterminate tomatoes include: Yellow Brandywine, Georgia Streak, Abraham Lincoln

Georgia Streak- heirloom tomato introduced by Southern Exposure

An advantage of growing determinate tomatoes is that there is less trellising work involved. Also, if you are going to be canning fresh tomatoes, you will probably want to go with a determinate variety as most of the fruit will need to be harvested over a short period of time. The disadvantage of determinate tomatoes is that they have fewer leaves than indeterminate varieties, meaning that the plant is less likely to receive nutrients. More leaves = more nutrients = tastier fruit. So, if you are hoping for a tomato plant that will consistently bear smaller amounts of tomatoes for snacking, sandwiches and salads, you’ll want to go with an indeterminate variety.

Cage-free Tomatoes?

We’ve been asked if it’s absolutely necessary to trellis tomatoes. In other words, is it OK to let them sprawl on the ground? The short answer is yes. But it’s not the greatest idea! Cage-less tomatoes will bear less fruit than trellised tomatoes, and the fruit you will get

Newly caged tomato plants

could be more vulnerable to rot and critters. If you really don’t have the funds for trellising materials, make sure to mulch the ground heavily to protect the tomatoes. If the mulch

gets wet, however, the ripe tomatoes sitting on the ground will certainly rot, so I’d recommend only trying cage-free tomatoes in hot, dry weather.

Although tomato trellising requires both time and money, it’s a worthy investment! You can reuse your tomato cages year after year. At Southern

Exposure, we use five-foot-tall cages made with concrete-reinforced wire cut into pieces that measure two to three feet in diameter. Also, we make sure to secure our cages with sturdy posts so that they don’t fall over.

Husk Tomatoes

Thanks to some of our seed growers just up the road, we now carry fives types of tomatillos! Our most recent addition is called Purple Tomatillo. In honor of this, I’d like to briefly explore the world of husk tomatoes with you.

Purple Tomatillo - ripening

Husk tomatoes, as our catalog describes, “are distinguished from tomatoes by the light-brown, papery husk which enlarges and covers the maturing berries.” Picture Chinese lanterns with goodies inside of them, and you’ve got husk tomatoes!

Cossack Pineapple - ground cherry

Ground cherries and tomatillos are the two most commonly cultivated species of husk tomatoes.  Tomatillos are commonly used for salsa and other Mexican foods, and they are often cooked to bring out their full flavor. Ground cherries, on the other hand, can be eaten raw. They are deliciously sweet, so you could also try them in sauces, preserves, pies and other desserts!

Lastly, Some All-Time Favorites!

Garden Peach- bears fruit until frost

For storage –  Garden Peach*

For sauce – Hungarian Italian Paste

Cherry tomatoes – Matt’s Wild Cherry

All-around good – Eva Purple Ball

*Personally, I’d say that Garden Peach is the most scrumptious tomato I’ve ever tasted. These little pinkish-yellow bulbs make the perfect snack, and if you pick them when light green, they’ll store well without splitting.

Matt's Wild Cherry Tomatoes were a favorite at Mother Earth News Fair and the Heritage Harvest Festival!

Welcome Home

Time is a funny thing. We can make time; we keep time; once in a while (if we’re lucky) we can even find time- yet there never seems to be enough time. In times like these, we look to our community for support- our friends, our families, our loved ones. Meanwhile, big business is getting bigger and small businesses are getting smaller. We pray for abundance and hope for sustenance. And while personally, my little farmhouse is two seasons late for spring cleaning and there are always more bills to pay, I’m always grateful for my involvement with Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.

Ashley and Arlo

As one of the newest members of our co-operational family here, I am constantly reminded that we are the exception to these rules. In a shrinking economy, Southern Exposure grew (and continues to grow). We make money by selling seeds, yet exist to share the skills of saving seed. Big business seed companies might try to fool themselves into modifying their seed. They might only produce one crop. They may sell the same seed variety to the same gardeners, season after season. At Southern Exposure, we realize by empowering our community of growers- we might sell a seed variety only once to each gardener- but that’s OK. We’re constantly adding different seed varieties to our catalog and our scope of growers is constantly widening.
You see, we are all community; and we always have time for you. Your success is our success, and ours is yours. Together we can overcome any drought, and at the end of the season we will share a fruitful harvest.

Saving the Past for the Future