Tag Archives: straw mulch

Transplanting Tomato Seedlings

Most of you have probably already transplanted your tomato seedlings, but here at SESE we do it a bit later than most. Why? Because we want the vast array of tomatoes we grow for the tastings at our late August open house and at the Monticello Heritage Harvest Festival in September to be ready for picking just at the right time for those events. We’re growing more than 70 varieties for you to come and taste!

Just a tiny selection of the tomatoes going in our tasting patch
Just a tiny selection of the tomatoes going in our tasting patch

Here’s the technique we use for quick and successful transplanting of tomato seedlings:

After hardening them off for a couple weeks in our cold frames, we’re ready to take them out to the garden. For us, this means lots of careful labelling and mapping to keep all those varieties clearly separated!

Step 1: We start by spreading hay thickly over the whole area where the plants will go. This serves to keep the ground cool, hold moisture in, and choke out weeds, and in the long term it adds organic matter to improve the soil. If you try this, make sure you get hay that hasn’t been treated with herbicides or pesticides. You’ll also want to get hay that’s been sitting for a year or so, giving all the seeds a chance to have sprouted and died, or you’ll be growing grains alongside your tomatoes.

Step 2: Make a nest in the hay at each place where you want a tomato to go. Space them about 4 feet apart and make each nest about a foot in diameter, pushing the hay away until you can see the ground.

tomato planting nest

Step 3: Dig a hole at the bottom of the nest, toss in a double handful of compost, and mix the compost with the soil you have loosened.

removing tomato seedling from flat

Step 4: Gently pull the seedling out of its container and lay it on its side at the bottom of the hole you’ve dug, all the way at one edge of the nest space. This way you can cover not just the root ball, but also a good portion of the stem with soil. You want to bury a third to a half of the plant. Tomatoes will grow roots along any portion of the stem which is underground, and this method gives you a much sturdier root structure. Be careful that the sideways portion of the stem is supported by soil so it doesn’t break.

tomato seedling planted

Step 5. Cover the root ball and stem portion with soil and press it down firmly. Good soil to root contact is essential to get the plant sucking up water and nutrients right away. Then pull the hay back into place all around the stem of the plant, tucking it in cozily. Finally, give it a good watering and watch your baby grow!

Tomato seedling tucked in

If you do come to the Heritage Harvest Festival, here are a few of our top picks to look out for:

  • Rutgers 250 This is a brand new variety which brings added durability to a flavourful old heirloom and we plan to add it to our 2017 catalog.
  • Matt’s Wild Cherry This one is always a favourite at tastings, an intensely sweet wild cherry tomato originating in Mexico.
  • Garden Peach A delightful novelty tomato disguised as a peach.

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