Category: Garden

Tomato Tales

This is an excerpt from my column in AY Magazine. Read the entire article here.

Long before social media was even a spark in our collective conscious, bits of “wisdom” have been going viral via word of mouth in the form of old wives tales and folklore.

For me, these stories are interesting because they are part of our oral tradition. For instance, how many of you have heard that it is bad luck to place a hat on a bed or that going out in the cold with wet hair will make you sick?

Of course, my favorite anecdotes are about gardening and some of the best are related to growing tomatoes. It seems everyone’s grandmother had a pearl of wisdom about getting the growing the best tasting tomato.

Matt's Wild Cherry Tomato

Here are a few tomato tales that I’m familiar with. Some are based in fact, while others are pure fiction.

  1. Sprinkle sugar in the planting hole or water your tomatoes with sugar water to make them sweeter. This is untrue. The sweetness of a tomato is determined by the variety. If you want a sweet tomato try planting ‘Sungold’ or ‘Mr. Stripey’.
  2. If you have a tomato plant that is lush, but doesn’t set fruit, beat it with a broom. The idea behind this tip is that the beating will stress the plant and prompt bloom. More blooms mean a better chance for tomatoes. I haven’t tried this one, but the old-timers swear by it.
  3. To prevent blossom end rot add crushed eggshells to the planting hole. This suggestion actually has legs to it. The eggshells are a good source of calcium, which helps reduce blossom end rot.How about you? What’s the best tomato growing “advice” you know? Have you tried any of these tips?

Soil Secrets from an Expert

It’s often said that the secret to successful gardening is good soil. But what’s the secret to getting good soil? I asked Jen Neve, President of Oppenheimer Biotechnology, to shed some light on the mystery.

I first met Jen in 2011 when she spoke to a group of garden writers at Moss Mountain Farm. Her company specializes in growing the microorganism Archaea. Archaea is like the Incredible Hulk of microorganisms. Aggressive, fast and tolerant of harsh conditions, it is used at oil spills to recycle contaminants into natural compounds. The microbes break down complex materials into basic nutrients and trace elements that are beneficial to plants. For this reason Archaea is also a great soil amendment, which is why you’ll find it in fertilizers offered by my friends at Jobe’s Organic Fertilizers.

While she was at the farm I noticed how Jen was able to take fairly complicated information and translate it into something we could all understand – sort of like Archaea! I thought she’d be the perfect person to explain the nature of good soil.

Here are the questions I posed to Jen and her responses.

Allen: A common mantra in gardening is “feed the soil, not the plants.” What does this mean and how can gardeners feed the soil?

Jen Neve: Plants get most of their nutrients from the soil – so the way to have a healthy plant is to make sure your soil is healthy. When you start your garden make sure you use sand, compost and organic fertilizer and mix it into your existing soil. Microbes are hugely important and often chemicals can harm them so they may not exist in sufficient numbers in backyard soil. I suggest using an organic fertilizer that has beneficial bacteria, mycorrhizal fungi and especially Archaea. Plant whatever you want, mulch, and once or twice a year apply organic fertilizer then leave it alone. Too much digging and fiddling disturbs the root system, in fact it disturbs the whole soil structure and can harm your plants. I know I started that way – dig, dig, dig…fiddle, fiddle, fiddle – it was just more work for me without really helping the plants. So my gardening mantra is now “get it established and leave it alone.”

Allen: How can a gardener tell is their soil is healthy? What do you consider to be the most important elements of healthy soil?

Jen: I think the best way to tell if your soil is healthy is to take a look at the soil. Soil is a complex assemblage of decaying organic matter, stable organic matter, fresh residue and many living organisms ranging in size from the tiny bacteria, Archaea, algae, fungi, and protozoa, more complex nematodes and micro-arthropods, to the visible earthworms, insects, small vertebrates, and even plants. The most important elements are signs of life and non-uniformity. By signs of life I mean can you see little creatures in it? Are there bits of plant matter (green as well as decaying)? Can you see grains of sand? Tiny rocks? Perhaps some leaves and sticks? Contrast that to sand in the desert – yes, it’s pretty but it’s uniform & for the most part lifeless.

Allen: How does Archaea contribute to soil health? How is it different from mycorrhizal fungi?

Jen: Within the soil the mycorrhizal fungi establishes a symbiotic relationship with plant roots by penetrating plant root tissues and surrounding root mass to more effectively take in needed nutrients. The Archaea are microorganisms similar to bacteria that work in the soil to release greater amounts of nutrients so the plant can take in nutrition as required. There is a natural cooperation developed between Archaea and beneficial bacteria making them more effective as a group. Archaea also breaks down organic matter into usable forms that plant roots and mycorrhizal fungi can identify, absorb, and ultimately incorporate for new growth. There has been some interesting research in Europe indicating that Archaea have an important role in the nitrogen cycle, one that is completely different than the traditional role limited to bacteria only.

You can think of the mycorrhizal fungi as an extension of the plant roots allowing the plant to use more of the nutrients the Archaea have made available.

Imagine a family all sitting around the dinner table with different kinds of food all along the center of the table – where most of the food is in unopened cans. The Archaea are the can openers, allowing the food to be available but only to the people right in front of the food. If you hand some of the people 2-foot long forks (aka mycorrhizal fungi) they can grab food from anywhere on the table – allowing them a more varied diet and therefore a healthier life.

Allen: Beyond good soil, what’s your best tip for a successful garden?

Jen: Plant what grows & be patient. Seems simple but we all try to make plants grow where WE want them NOW. I always scour all the local nurseries and even big box stores looking for plants in small pots (lots of native plants) and then plant several different kinds all in one area and wait a season to see what happens. Then I buy & plant more of what thrived without extra attention from me. If a “weed” happens to grow and looks pretty then I leave it in the garden. I happen to love the wild English garden look so this method works for me. My friends all say I have a green thumb but actually, I just plant more of what has grown for me. Also, as I mentioned earlier – get the healthy soil established and just leave the soil alone.

Five Tips for Container Gardens

Whether you’re working with limited space or just looking for more versatility in your gardening, containers are a great option. Container gardens provide statement seasonal color and allow you to add more variety to your garden in spite of space limitations. Here are five tips that will ensure your success!

Select the right container

Begin by selecting the right container. First, consider the size; you want to take into account the mature size of the plants you’re working with. Also, look for a container with drainage holes, so that the roots don’t sit in water. I love a classic terra cotta pot, but they are a little fragile, so to prevent cracking over the winter, you’ll want to be sure to store them before the temperature drops below freezing. If you don’t have sheltered storage, remove the saucers. This will help keep the containers dry.

Use quality soil

The next tip is to select a quality potting soil that’s formulated for container use. When you squeeze the soil in your hand and release it, it should crumble, not clump. You can find soil formulated for container gardens with fertilizer included.

Select the best plants

Now that you have the container and soil ready, it’s time to choose the best plants for your container garden.

You can really use any color combination you like, but to create visual interest, I like to use the thriller, filler and spiller structural concept. You start with tall thriller plants that add a vertical element to the combination. Next, use more rounded plants as fillers to give the container the look of abundance. Finally spillers are trailing plants that are placed closest to the container’s edge to balance the height of the thrillers.

Fertilizer is key

Once you have your plants in place, another key to successful container gardening is fertilizer. It’s like a daily vitamin for your plants because it helps them perform to their full potential. Begin by applying a controlled release fertilizer at the time of planting. Then, mid-season apply a water-soluble fertilizer to really increase your flower power.

Water correctly

Now for the final step – properly watering your plants. Apply water at base of plants instead of over the top. This helps hydrate the plant at the roots and prevents wet foliage – which can leave plants vulnerable to disease. Knowing when to water is also important. This may seem a little basic but it really works. Simply touch the soil with your finger. If it feels dry, that’s when you want to water it. Also, remember that just because one pot needs water, it doesn’t mean they all do. Differences in pot and plant sizes will determine how quickly a pot dries out.

Give these tips a try the next time you garden with containers, and see what a difference they can make in the health and beauty of your plants.

Catlin's Giant Ajuga, Catalina® White Torenia, Sunshine Blue® Caryopteris and Efanthia Euphorbia

ColorBlaze® Sedonia Coleus, Supertunia® Royal Velvet Petunia, Lucia® Lavender Blush Lobelia, Sweet Caroline Raven Sweet Potato and Red Riding Hood Purple Fountain Grass Vine

Supertunia® Bordeaux Petunia, Lucia® Lavender Blush Lobelia, Angelface® Blue Angelonia, and Sweet Caroline Raven Sweet Potato Vine

March Bloom: Daffodils

We’ve planted 280,000 daffodils at the Moss Mountain Farm Garden Home. You might say I’m a little daffodil crazy, but what’s not to love about this cheery little flower? They are one of the first blooms to appear in spring, the fragrance is heavenly, and they are perennial. Plus the deer won’t eat them.

Right now the daffodils are in full bloom out at the farm and it’s a sight to behold.


If pictures aren’t enough for your daffodil loving heart, make a trip out to farm for one of our Daffodil Days open houses. Click here to learn more.

February Giveaway – Jobe’s Organics Fertilizer

What’s the secret to a bountiful vegetable garden? Healthy soil. Good soil, combined with ample sunshine and consistent moisture will produce a garden that’s easy to maintain and very productive.

Out at the farm we give the soil a leg up with Jobe’s Organics Fertilizer. Their products contain three essential microorganisms – bacteria, mycorrhizal fungi and a unique species of Archaea. Archaea sets Jobe’s apart from other microbial fertilizers because it is so aggressive, quickly breaking down material into nutrients for plants. Our tests of Jobe’s resulted in better looking plants, with increased resistance to weather extremes.

Do you want to try Jobe’s Organics out in your own garden? Leave a comment below for a chance to win an 8 pound bag of their Heirloom Tomato and Vegetable Food.

I’ll pick a winner on March 6th at 9:30 a.m. CST.


 Congratulations to Jim Allen! He’s the randomly selected winner of the giveaway. Get ready for a a bountiful vegetable garden this summer Jim!

Essential Tools for the Vegetable Garden

Walk into any garden center or flip through a garden supply catalog and you are bound to see an overwhelming number of garden tools. From hedge shears to hukari knives there is a tool for every task. When it comes to vegetable gardening there are seven essential tools you want to have on hand – a trowel, sharp shooter, garden fork, watering wand, hand pruners, staking materials, and twine.

Trowel – A trowel makes actions like digging, mixing and planting easier on you because it’s basically used as an extension of your hand.

Sharp Shooter – To create deeper, more precise holes, you’ll need a sharp shooter. This is a specific type of shovel with a long, narrow blade. It provides you with more leverage than a trowel and more control than a large garden shovel.

Garden Fork – Another great tool for working with the soil is a garden fork. Its primary function is to loosen or turn over soil, but it can also be used to rake out weeds or large rocks.

Watering Wand – Once your plants are in place, you will really appreciate the value of a watering wand. This tool allows you to be more precise in the amount of water applied to a particular area, which means more consistent watering with less waste. It also prevents some of the achy muscles associated with bending and stretching to water those hard-to-reach areas.

Hand Pruners – There’s nothing better than a great pair of pruners to manage the size and shape of individual plants. This is especially true when it comes to the lanky varieties that can easily over grow their bed companions. They are also handy for harvesting fruits and veggies with tough stems like tomatoes and peppers.

Staking and Twine – The last two things that every gardener needs to have on hand are staking materials and twine. These two work together to keep your vegetable garden in order. First, they provide an area for climbing plants to grow. And secondly, they create an aesthetic design element as a focal point in the garden.

Having the right tool for the job simplifies things and will ultimately give you more time to enjoy your garden.

Growing Edibles in Small Spaces

This is an excerpt from my column in AY Magazine. Read the entire article here.

You don’t need a lot of space to grow vegetables and herbs. In fact, in a 4 x 4 raised bed you can grow enough food to feed a family of four. You can supplement your groceries with edibles grown in containers, hanging baskets, pallet gardens and window boxes.

Need inspiration? Check out these photos.

You can grow many ebibles in a window box. Here I've planted cool season herbs, lettuce and strawberries. Geraniums are in the mix to take over when the weather warms.

Drill a few holes in the bottom and a galvanized pale turns into a chic planter.

GrowBoxes are ideal for limited space and time. The water tank and slow release fertilizer strip take the guess work out.

A pot of annuals or colorful vegetables creates a focal point in a raised bed.

Edibles and flowers make beautiful companions. Here I've planted dwarf cherry tomatoes, purple basil and red geraniums.

These 3 containers will yield plenty of strawberries, chard and English peas for me to eat.

Tomatoes are happy in pots. Choose a determinate (grows to a determined size) variety and stake as soon as you plant.


February Bloom: Camellia Japonica

One of the showiest blooms in a Southern garden makes its appearance in late February when everything else is still asleep. It’s the Camellia japonica, cousin to the autumn flowering Camellia sasanqua. While sasanquas tend to be delicate, Camellia japonica is a bold, fleshy flower that screams, “Look at me!”

With their dark, evergreen leaves Camellias make beautiful hedges and the blooms create a seasonal focal point.

January Giveaway – Self-watering Seedling Greenhouse

Congratulations to Anita Spence! She’s the randomly selected winner of the Self-watering Greenhouse. Check your email Anita for confirmation!

When it comes to sowing seeds I love English peas, sweet peas, hyacinth bean vine, gourds, yard long green beans and of course, sunflowers.

What’s your favorite plant to grow from seeds? Tell me for a chance to win a Jiffy self-watering seedling greenhouse. This handy seed starting tray comes with starter pellets, a no-mess self-watering mat and a lid to keep in moisture.

Enter your response in the comments section below and I’ll pick a random winner on Wednesday February 6, 2013 at 10:30 a.m. CST. Click here for the official rules.

Apple Seeds Teaches Kids Healthy Nutrition through Gardening

I want to get on my “seed box” for a minute about a topic that shouldn’t be a topic in one of the richest countries in the world – childhood hunger. Arkansas has the highest rate of childhood hunger in the nation. At the same time, approximately 38 percent of Arkansas students have been found to be overweight or at risk of being overweight each school year. My recent visit to Northwest Arkansas and the Apple Seeds afterschool program introduced me to those baffling statistics, but also made me wonder “how do we fix it?”

According to Beth Ashbaugh, executive director of Apple Seeds, it’s all about community buy-in.

Apple Seeds is an after-school program based in three Fayetteville schools that focuses on creating healthy lifestyles for students and their families. School gardens, cooking, field trips, and farm-to-fork initiatives are what make healthy living come alive for these students. Their hands-on activities help teach them to make lifelong nutritious food choices and to create a sustainable food system.

“Gardening is just the catalyst to get the kids interested in something they wouldn’t be likely to care about otherwise,” said Lucy Kagan, an AmeriCorp VISTA volunteer and the Plant to Plate coordinator for Apple Seeds.

At Owl Creek Elementary, one of the afterschool gardening programs, there are six adult volunteers that make the program a success. They have students work in the gardens, write about what they’re seeing, cook with the ingredients that they’ve grown, and eat these healthy snacks.
“The organization has been growing and empowering healthy children for seven years, but we saw a huge jump in the impact of the program once we started getting more community participation,” Ashbaugh said.

While Ashbaugh organizes the gardens and shows kids how to plant, she says that it’s the knowledge of the other program leaders that truly brings that information to life. A local chef teaches the students’ parents how to cook simple, healthy meals, the 5th grade science teacher uses the gardens as a lab for the students, and the school nurse instructs the kids on fitness and healthy living choices.

“Our mission can go so much farther when other people, especially experts, offer their skills,” Ashbaugh said. “One of our goals is to find community partners that we can set up with the resources that they need and support them. They, in turn, support these kids.”

Kagan’s goal is for every child to know where his or her food comes from, and she thinks the program is making that a reality.

“The change in attitudes that you see from kids after three weeks of working in a garden is amazing,” she said. “There’s an attitude of positive peer pressure with ‘who can eat the weirdest thing’ and the students see a connection with their bodies and what they eat. You never know what will lead kids to make better eating choices in the future, but it’s happening here every day.”

Just witnessing the program in action was an inspiration, but like Kagan and Ashbaugh pointed out, “there’s something like this in every community- it’s going mainstream now.”

“People are looking for alternatives. The economy is weak, we have more access to information about good foods versus bad foods, and people want to know about and cook their own food. They just need a little guidance and advice, and we can do that.”

I encourage you to reach out to these types of programs in your own community. You never know how your skills might help create healthier lives.