“Eat your vegetables and you’ll grow up strong and healthy”, we were told as children, but things are different today. Today, much of our food comes from overseas, and hardly a week goes by without news of a tainted food product, usually from China. China’s agricultural exports to the United States surged last year, and I expect to see many more disturbing articles in the future. And sadly, we can’t rely on product labels for healthy eating. Some farmers in China are taking advantage of confusing rules to falsely label food. Chinese authorities have vowed to fix the problems, but the disasters keep coming.
Since the United States subjects only a small fraction of its food imports to inspection, it’s up to each of us to see that our families are eating healthy. With these things in mind, here are my suggestions:
1. Grow your own food. Preserve some of it for off-season consumption.
Canning, freezing, and storing food in a root-cellar are a few of strategies you might consider.
2. Buy locally-grown organic food when it is in season.
You can often find bargains, and will benefit by preserving some of those crops for off-season consumption.
3. Learn to grow food in the winter.
If you have a sunroom, or even a south-facing windowsill, you can grow your own vegetables and herbs year-round. Since full-sized plants might present a space problem, investigate dwarf plants instead. Red Robin, for example, is a tomato plant that grows to a height of only 16 inches, and produces bunches of great-tasting cherry tomatoes.
If you decide to grow your own vegetables indoors you’ll need to provide the right conditions for plant growth. This can be a little tricky, since each type of plant will have somewhat different needs. The small plant stand shown here includes a heater, and a shop light with fluorescent tubes. Upper and lower levels contribute to an efficient use of space.
Here are some things you'll need to know in order to grow dwarf tomato plants:
Seeds germinate best at about 70 to 80 degrees F.
The ideal temperature for new seedlings is about 60 to 65 degrees.
Mature plants need warmer temperatures for setting fruit (70 to 85 degrees).
Plants can tolerate night-time temperature drops, but avoid going below 50 degrees.
Avoid temperatures above 90 degrees. Extreme temperature variations will affect production.
Provide at least 6 hours of sunlight per day for seeds that have sprouted. More sunlight, up to 16 hours per day, will produce better tasting fruit. If potted plants will be getting light from a closed window, place the plants as close to the window as possible. If necessary, supplement natural sunlight with the light from a cool-white fluorescent bulb. For this to be effective, the light must be placed within a few inches of the top of the plants.
Use a good quality seed starting soil. Repot, when necessary, in a good quality potting soil. Provide good drainage and avoid compaction of the soil. The bottom of the pot should have holes to allow excess water to drain. Red Robin will do well in an 8” diameter container, but you can try a smaller one if your space is limited. If the plant cannot support the weight of the fruit, stake it with a ¼” stick or dowel. Tie the main stem to the stake with cotton or nylon cloth. Do not use string or thread.
Water and feeding:
Use an organic fertilizer formulated specifically for tomatoes according to the instructions on the package. Don’t use fertilizer heavy in Nitrogen. That will result in lush plants with very little fruit. Occasionally, use water with 1 tablespoon per gallon Epsom salts. This provides additional magnesium for the plants.
Avoid watering from the top. Too much dampness at the base of the plant can result in a fungal problem. It is best to water from the bottom, allowing the potting soil to soak it up. Do not add more water than can be soaked up by the plant.
Plants breathe. Use a fan to circulate air through the leaves or open a window (weather permitting). A strong breeze not only helps with respiration, it helps stalks and stems grow sturdy. Remember that roots need air also. Avoid watering too much, and soil compaction.
Once a day, shake or tap plants that have produced flowers. This allows the plants to pollinate, and therefore, set fruit. A gentle breeze also helps with pollination.
Cut a ripe tomato in half, scoop out the seeds and pulp, and place in a jar with a little water and cover with plastic wrap. Stir the seeds a few times a day for the next 2 or 3 days. During the fermentation process, the good seeds will separate from the gelatinous covering and sink to the bottom after which time you can pour off the liquid and junk. Rinse the seeds with cool, clean water. A fine mesh strainer or even coffee filters work. Dry seeds thoroughly before storing.
Gardening, indoor or outdoor, not only reduces your exposure to harmful pesticides, you’ll enjoy fresher and tastier food and cut your grocery bill. Exercise and fresh-air are a couple more benefits you’ll experience as a gardener. But, there’s more! Have you ever considered growing medicinal crops? Check back next week for more information on that subject.
Here is a good source of seeds and information:
Garden Web is one of the best informational sites I’ve found:
Washington Post article about tainted milk from China:
More bad news from China: