foodgrower – Missed Questions/Tomatoes/Preserving Genetics/Fresh Manures

Missed Questions/Tomatoes/Preserving Genetics/Fresh Manures

Yeah, I’m late with this, my apologies, the hours of the days merge into a blur of activity until the day ends. One day becomes another and before I know a month has gone by and I’m just as far behind now as I was back then. Also, my enthusiasm for life is at a low ebb right now, partially due to the state of our country and the bleak outlook looking forward and partially because after getting rolled up like a cheap rug by a cow while sorting cattle a couple of weeks ago I’ve come to the tough realization I’m not twenty two any more. So after beating the shit out of myself everyday I park my carcass in a chair at zero dark thirty and the time and energy available for sitting down at the computer and composing these articles is at a minimum. I’ll strive to do better.

Orphaned Questions

  1. Q) John Cavanaugh – Great article.I’ve been scratching my head here in my NE Pa patch of woods trying to figure out how to get stuff to grow,just too many trees and I’m not gonna cuttem unless they are dead.Any ideas?Thanks for a great blog Wirecutter. III
  1. A) You have a tough situation. There are some plants that grow in shade or indirect light but most garden plants are going to need plenty of sunlight. You could try to garden in multiple smaller areas in the openings of your trees or consider going to a greenhouse and artificial light but this last option can really start driving up your costs.


  1. Q) Shawn – Got a question for you. How will you specifically keep the hungry hoards from stealing your food? Ok, I’m pulling your leg. Couldn’t resist that.

My real question concerns potatoes, and where to store the ones needed for planting next spring. I don’t have a root cellar. Would mulching work? I assume below the frost line by 6″ or so? Is moisture a problem, or not, since they are dormant?

I’m inexperienced at best as a gardener, but the only way to do it is to DO it, so here begins the learning process. I’ve really enjoyed your articles, and crystal clarity with which you explain WHY people need to become proficient growers. It made me look candidly at the gaping hole (perpetuated by a lack of hard knowledge) in my plan…. such as it is.

Thanks sir. I’ll keep reading.

  1. A) Nice sense of humor there fella <vbg> All the folks in the know will tell you potatoes need to be stored in a cool, dark, humid environment above freezing and below the temperature where they break dormancy. Storage temperature affects how long they will store before breaking dormancy (sprouting) and the rate of starch to sugar accumulation.You’re on the right track with your idea for storage but it needs tweaked some. In essence what you are attempting to do is use a trench cellar. Dig a trench around eighteen inches deep (the depth will depend somewhat on how deep your frost line is. Very cold environs will probably need a deeper trench). Line the bottom of the trench with several inches of straw and mound it up against the sides at the edges. Put a sheet of winter weight row cover fabric (or similar material) on top of the straw and drape it up against the edge of the trench. Put your potatoes on top of the fabric. Try to avoid stacking them deeper than about three layers of spuds and do not let them contact the soil. Put down another sheet of row cover fabric on top of your spuds. Heavily mound dry leaves (if you have them, dry straw if not) on top of that to a height of a couple feet above ground level. Make sure the top of the heaped leaves or straw extends beyond the edges of your trench. Cover this with something that will shed water if it rains, we use old sheets of tired plywood. Try to avoid using materials that will trap the moisture from the spuds, leaves or straw and soil (like a new nylon tarp). Excessive moisture will cause problems for your spuds, even though they are dormant they still breath oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide and water vapor. Damp or wet spuds will rot fast.

Several factors affect dormancy but the most important have to do with temperatures and relative humidity. Ideal storage temperature for most potatoes is between 40 and 45 degrees f. The higher the relative humidity the better. Commercial storage operations may use RH as high as 90~95%. We pretty much figure once spuds (depending on variety) reach 48 degrees F. they are at risk of breaking dormancy in a much shorter period of time. Within reason colder storage temperatures lead to longer dormancy periods. Too cold though and you increase the rate of sugar formation and this can lead to undesirable effects when cooking the potatoes. Storage temperatures below 35 degrees can contribute to an increase of IBS (internal brown spot). There’s quite a bit more to this but I don’t know how much anyone really wants to dig into the nuts and bolts of tuber storage.

  1. Q) Debutromance – In the fourth paragraph under ‘collecting and drying’ you state you slice peppers from side to side then hang them to dry. I get the hanging up to dry part, but what do you mean by slicing from side to side?

Do you mean slice the peppers into rings, leaving the seeds and membranes intact and hanging up the rings?

Thank you.

  1. A) Sorry for the confusion, I slice the pepper lengthwise down the sides (two slices, one each on opposite sides of the pod) leaving the end near the stem and the tip of the pepper intact. This way I can still string the pepper up by running a string through its stem. I only do this on peppers that have thick walled fruit. Thin walled peppers like cayenne peppers are hung to dry without slicing.



Some Quick Thoughts

An inexpensive solution to bird proofing your berries.

We use ½ inch diameter X 10 feet long EMT (galvanized metal conduit), ¼ inch nylon bird netting 7′ wide by any length that meets our (your) needs and plastic wire ties. Drive the conduit into the ground so you leave at least 7 feet plus a few inches above ground. Wrap the bird netting around the outside of the EMT uprights and hold in place with the wire ties. Pull a span of the netting over the top of your area and secure it to the top of the side netting with wire ties. If the span is wider than 7 feet, pull a second span across the top with an overlap of a few inches and use wire ties to hold the seam together. Cost, about 2 bucks an EMT section, 22 bucks for a 7 foot wide by 100 foot long roll, and a buck seventy nine for 100 plastic wire ties. I can bird proof an enclosure with space for six high bush blueberry plants for about 45 bucks.


For bedded plants like strawberries, use ¾ pvc pipe to make a rectangular frame with one foot tall legs. Wire tie the netting to the frame with enough overlap you can weight the edges down to the ground with rocks or bricks or boards or soil. This will keep the birds from getting under the netting and provides enough height to keep the birds from jumping on the netting to push it into the plants so they can peck the berries through the netting yet be light enough for you to pick up and move when you want to harvest berries.


A frustration for us with dry, seed starting mix or potting soil is its resistance to readily absorb water. Instead of cold water, use hot water for your initial wetting of the mix. Every brand or type we’ve tried has wetted better with hot water.


This may be the extreme of common sense but unfortunately that is lacking in all too many folks these days. When you are working with ropes or cables and livestock or equipment never put parts of your body like fingers or arms or legs between the rope or cable and something that will not give. During the aforementioned cattle sorting where I got my ass handed to me by a cow, a full grown man almost lost a finger while tying off a cow that had been roped. In the process of throwing a half hitch around said post he slipped his ungloved index finger between the rope and the post. Yeah, you can see where this is going. I saw the wreck coming as it happened but my shouted warning wasn’t quick enough and the cow bolted. If I hadn’t been standing there, wearing a stout pair of leather work gloves and been able to reel in the cow enough to take the tension off the rope we just might have had an amputation. And no, before someone gets the wrong idea, a pair of gloves will not protect you from losing a finger in such a situation, what they will do is help prevent you from getting a bad rope burn or tearing the hell out of your hands when the rope goes sizzling through your grasp as 900 lbs of cow decides she wants to be somewhere else while you’re the only anchor on the rope.

My reason for bringing something like this up is if/when we end up in a survival situation you may not have a doc close at hand to deal with the trauma of an accident, think safety at all times.



What came first the tomato or the egg? This is actually somewhat of a real question and if you aren’t saving your egg shells you need to start now!

Blossom End Rot (BER) is the bane of many a tomato (and pepper and squash and eggplant and cucumber and …) gardener. If you’ve ever had this problem you know it, the blossom end of the fruit will develop a soft dark spot or lesion and before long the rot can progress to involve thirty percent or more of fruit. Though many factors can contribute to BER it is primarily a manifestation of a calcium deficiency. Cold, heavy soils, uneven watering and rapid transpiration can contribute to and/or exacerbate the condition.

There are several things you can add to your soil to boost the calcium. The problem with most of them is they also boost something else, possibly to a damaging level. Your get out of jail free card to boost calcium is crushed eggshells. Chemically eggshells are composed of around 95% calcium carbonate, the very thing your plants suffering from BER are deficient in. An added benefit is they don’t boost any other essential nutrients. The finer you can crush the shells the faster microbial action in the soil will make it available to the plant. We’ve had great success with running our saved eggshells (thoroughly dried) through an old blender and turning them into a powder. We throw about half a handful in the bottom of the hole at planting time and have really cut down on BER in our garden. You can’t get away with just tossing some in the bottom of the transplant hole though. You need to think about how big the root ball of the mature plant will be and mix your crushed eggshell into a soil volume large enough to accommodate the root ball. This way as the roots grow and extend through the soil they will continue to encounter the extra calcium rather than growing through it. This is something to keep in mind for all your garden plants and things you do like fertilization. Don’t just look at the plants size when you plant it but take into consideration how big all the parts of it will be at maturity, this can affect a lot of your success, or failure, as the case may be. If your plants are already in the ground you can still realize some benefit from amending the soil under the plant with the crushed eggs shells, just be careful to avoid damaging the roots as you work them into the soil.

Tomatoes are heavy feeders so they will benefit from a rich soil and proper fertilization. If you use inorganic fertilizers be sure to follow application rates so you avoid burning your plants. Also you’ll want to avoid fertilizing later in the season which will drive foliage growth but not do too much for fruit development. Beyond amending our soil prior to planting with healthy helpings of compost we usually give our tomatoes a supplementary shot of liquid fertilizer about a week or so after transplant. This is a home made liquid fertilizer made by perking water through finished compost and chicken manure mixed at a ratio of 80/20 (compost/manure). After setting for a week or two the resulting tea is then cut by mixing about a pint of it with two gallons of water. Depending on how the plants look and somewhat subjectively on whether we feel we need it, we might fertilize again just at blossom set with the aforementioned manure tea. Usually we don’t fertilize after this.

On irrigation you’ll be better served if you water with a drip line or hand water at the base of the plant. If you use aerial irrigation it is best to water early in the day so the foliage can dry out before night fall. This habit will lead to a reduction in plant diseases. Avoid over watering your tomatoes as well, over watering can lead to reduced fruit development, poor root formation and deprive the roots of oxygen. A reduction in irrigation at the end of fruit development can drive ripening but this is a careful balancing act and works better with determinate varieties than indeterminate ones.

We get lots of people questioning how hard we prune our tomato plants. A lot of what we do will be determined by whether the plant in question is a determinate or indeterminate variety. Determinate varieties produce the bulk of their fruit in a relatively narrow time frame. Once the fruiting is over, it’s over. For the most part we lightly and selectively prune these early on in their growth to establish shape and open the interior of the plant to air flow and then we leave them alone. Once they reach full size (maturity) the most we prune are suckers and perhaps failing lower limbs and leaves or damaged branches. If you’re not careful, anything you prune away from the plant at this point is just reducing its productivity.

Indeterminate tomatoes keep growing and producing until the plant dies. We kind of figure we prefer fewer larger fruits rather than lots of smaller fruits. To this end we prune the heck out of our indeterminate varieties and many times we will prune them back to only one or two main stems. The plant will have a tendency to keep growing up and out and we routinely prune the tops down to maintain control of the foliage.

Normally tomato fruit aren’t thinned like say apples, so I’m not sure of how to answer the culling question. We view culling as the removal of an undesirable, this applies to plants and animals so I suppose it could apply to tomato fruit, I’ve just never heard it used in this manner before. In this vein we do remove any damaged or diseased fruit whenever we spot it. We’ll also remove split fruit and if we catch it soon enough many times we can salvage a lot of it.

On the topic of split fruit, this often happens because of poor watering habits (or a badly timed rainfall). The tomato is basically ripe, the soil is starting to dry out and the plant is low on hydration. Then you or mother nature gives it a big shot of water. The plant sucks up the water and because it’s fruiting sends a lot of it to the fruit. The skin on the fruit has pretty much stopped growing due to its ripeness and the swelling of the fruit interior from the extra water has no where to go so the skin splits. We will often reduce our watering late in the season to force more ripening and have been known to cover our plants with plastic sheeting to divert rainfall in an effort to minimize this hazard.


I’ve written previously about manures and composting but thought I would explore a few more aspects of fresh manures. My usual recommendation to people is to compost manure before they use it, but why not use raw or fresh manure? To get it out of the way, you can use fresh manure in your garden, its just that there are a lot of things you’ll need to take into consideration if you do and you might be playing with fire in a few cases. Trust me it’s easier if you just compost it.

Fresh manure is commonly referred to as being too hot to use without burning your plants. Usually this is understood to mean there is too much nitrogen (N) in it. Actually this is a somewhat incorrect statement. It isn’t that there is too much N in it, what really happens is we put down the wrong amount (virtually guaranteed to be too much) of the manure and drive the N level of our soil too high and end up burning our plants.

If we know the lbs N/ton of the particular manure and know how many lbs N/acre we need and are monoculture growing is would be relatively easy to figure out how many tons/acre fresh manure we can put down without damaging our crop.

Therein lies the first problem, most of us do not grow monoculture crops, at least in our gardens. The lbs N/acre our corn needs is different than the lbs N/acre our tomatoes need. Application of fresh manure across our garden at a rate suitable for one garden crop is almost certainly to be incorrect for another crop.

The second problem is it is difficult to vary application rates of fresh manures on small plots of ground. This is why you will usually see application rates expressed as lbs or tons of manure/acre. Do we need one, two, three or more shovel fulls of the manure to provide the correct amount of nitrogen for our one or three tomato plants? It can be a tough call and a mistake could cost you your plants.

Another issue with fresh manures is the presence of undesirable components like weed seeds, insect larvae and in some instances disease vectors. I’ve got to give another nod to hot composting because the heat of an active, properly maintained pile is high enough to stop a lot of these problems.

It’s not all negatives with fresh manures. Most of the time the levels of the various elements will be much higher in fresh manure than composted manures. For example the nitrogen component of a couple of animal manures are listed below. (note: values are approximations only, there are many variables that affect this)

Chicken – fresh – 4.5% of dry weight

Chicken – composted – 1.5% of dry weight

Dairy Cattle – fresh – 3% of dry weight

Dairy Cattle – composted 1.9% of dry weight

As we can see composted manure has lost a lot of its N content. That’s one of the reasons composting is viewed as a long term, building your soil type of endeavor. If you need a quick N fix you might want to try perking water through a compost/fresh manure mix and use the resulting manure tea to deliver more N.

I don’t know, I’m probably just boring you with this stuff, I guess if there’s any interest someone will hit me up in the comments.

Preserving Genetics

In a word preserving genetics is ‘hard work’, ok, so that was two words. All joking aside if you are sincere about this topic it will mean having a few supplies around, as broad as possible selection of seed starting out, a thorough understanding of each plants reproduction methods/cycles, impeccable attention to detail, meticulous record keeping and a rock solid work flow regimen.

Also unless you are 100% on the same page as your spouse/significant other/helper you’ll most likely want to do all of this type of work yourself. I’ll share a minor disaster of my efforts from this years garden to point out how things can bite you in the ass. Last year I ran out of the plastic plant tags we record critical plant information on. So rather than wait for the tags before putting the new starts in the greenhouse I just grouped a bunch of pepper starts together on some trays in a particular order figuring when the plant tags got in I would tag them then. Well my wife needed some more room for her growing efforts and she and my daughter “organized” my work. Only problem is, they assumed all the pepper starts on a particular tray were the same and when they reordered the trays they didn’t keep track of what went where. Now I no longer know what is what and will not be able to figure what variety some of the plants are until they are bigger. In some cases I won’t know what variety they are until they start setting fruit. Even once I’m able to correctly identify the variety I’ve completely lost track of year groups and genetic strains. This will make tracking very difficult, if not impossible this year.

If you are not detail oriented find someone who is, to help you and let them do it their way. If you decide to help them make sure you understand their methodology.

Beyond the record keeping it’s really an exercise in logic and there’s some subtle things like starting more seed than you need from different year groups and genetic strains each season and making sure you don’t duplicate the same strains/seed years the next season.

As the seeds progress through the various stages of development toss the ones that aren’t performing well. This is the reason for starting more than you need. Keep track of the ones that germinated the fasted and sprouted first. If find a strain that germinates fast and sprouts quickly that also produces a strong plant you have a winner from that group of seeds. Consider using these as some of your seed plants.

Practice sound isolation methodologies on the plants you plan on cross pollinating with. Don’t be afraid to try different reproduction methods. Instead of collecting seeds maybe try to start cuttings (if it’s a viable options for the plant) which will give you a genetic clone of of your parent plant.

I’m brain dead. I’m going to send this to Wirecutter as is. I deal with any fallout in the comments section.



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13 Responses to foodgrower – Missed Questions/Tomatoes/Preserving Genetics/Fresh Manures

  1. Steve in Ky says:

    Thank you sir. I appreciate your efforts and I am using all the information I can. Getting better every year.

  2. Jack Crabb says:

    Thank you so much for all the information-heavy contributions. They always take me considerable time to wade through. Thank you, again.

  3. One of the things that has me all paranoid about my garden is the stories about folks using what they thought was organic manure, only to find out (too late) that it is contaminated with a weed killer called, “Grazon” that stays potent even after ingested and composted in the manure.

    Apparently, a lot of farmers and ranchers don’t know if the hay they are feeding has been treated with the stuff, either.

    • fjord says:

      That is good information. I’ve never heard of Grazon.

      This has some good info on that.

      I use chicken manure from my own chickens – composted, which is the main reason I have chickens. We can’t keep up with the egg production, so I end up bartering eggs for other stuff. Win-win.

      non-composted manure would NOT be a good idea if you have dogs. It’s irresistible and they’ll roll all over your plants.

      • foodgrower says:

        I guess I should have mentioned that fresh manure should be tilled in or turned over as soon as it is applied otherwise, besides the dogs getting in it, a lot of the nitrogen will be lost by volatilization of ammonia.


    • foodgrower says:

      It’s not only Grazon, many selective herbicides (and other chemicals) can end up in your supply chain if you’re not careful. I touched on this problem in the article ‘The foundation of it all, this thing called dirt’ and is one of the reasons I harp on local, local, local. When you procure items, no matter what they are, from a local source it gives you the opportunity to ensure what you are getting is what you want.

      We’ve even taken it a step further and only use materials from our own grounds for our composting just to avoid any surprises.


  4. Jeffery in Alabama says:

    That is good and accurate information. Thanks for sharing. Regarding the potatoes, it is best not to ever wash fresh dug potatoes if one only plans to “store” them. As the author stated, moisture has the potential to facilitate rot and unnecessary handling can cause bruising which can speed up rot too. The trench/straw/burying method works well. If a person doesn’t have a cellar or room to bury them, potatoes can be stored in unused bedrooms underneath beds that are closed off from the heat sources for the rest of the home. Apples and onions can also be stored this way. Green tomatoes is another food than can be picked at the end of the growing season, wrapped and in newspaper, stored this way and eaten ripe at at Christmastime. Try to place these things where one does not touch the other. In closing cabbage is another “cool weather” plant that can be grown when many other vegetables cannot. Also, cabbage will keep for almost a year buried below the frost line.

  5. miriam noland says:

    Well, about the potatoes….year after year I have potato plants come up wherever I missed digging one. I’m in Ohio. So just leave them in the ground to overwinter. Easy Peasy. Same with tomatoes. I just throw them where I am going to want them to grow the following season and they come up by the hundreds! I guess this won’t work if you till every year. I have raised beds. The beds are never walked on so they never need tilled. I also leave my carrots in the ground and cover them with about a foot of straw. They are still sweet and crunchy the next spring. I go out and dig them as I need them all through the winter. One more tip…easiest way to preserve green beans….rinse, towel dry, spread out in one layer in cardboard boxes and put into a closed up car for a few days in the hot sun. Don’t overdry. They shrink up to incredibly small, easily storable amounts. I store mine in canning jars. As a single person, 3 jars does me for the whole winter. A cup of dried green beans cooks up to about 4 cups. When you want to use them, soak in water overnight before cooking them up the next day. So good! I do the same with zuchinni slices and use them in my veggie soups. My garden has become contaminated with verticillium wilt and it affects all tomatoes and peppers, so for the next few years I will plant those in straw bales!

    • foodgrower says:

      Unfortunately crops like potatoes, that will volunteer from tubers missed at harvest, can exacerbate disease problem by growing the same crop in roughly the same place year after year. Potatoes are one crop that benefit greatly from crop rotation.

      There are hundreds of non crop hosts for the verticillum pathogen and the pathogen has been found to survive for up to seven years in the soil even if there is no host plant for it to infect making it extremely difficult to eradicate once it infects the soil.

      Fumigation is one treatment for this problem but it is expensive and not available as a do it yourself solution.

      A non chemical means of attempting to control the fungus is solarization. Use clear plastic weighted down over freshly tilled soil. The soil temperature needs to be raised to a level high enough to kill the fungus to a depth of several inches so this method takes several weeks in the summer to be effective.

      Drawbacks include killing everything else in the soil, beneficial as well as non beneficial, it’s not 100% effective, especially around the margins of the plastic, and the pathogen can be transferred relatively easily from a non treated area reinfecting the treated area.


  6. Shannon says:

    Our potatoes grow really well here and we’ve had good luck SOME winters leaving some in the ground…heavily mulched. Other years…not so much. But….we absolutely have not found a way to work for winter storage when dug. We’ve tried everything …they rot. We live on the water and kind of in a Alabama. Last year we stored and of course shared with a friend. That worked out well…but sure wish we could store here without costing an arm or leg. Thank you for all you write. I look forward and always enjoy and learn. Thanks:)

  7. foodgrower says:

    These are extremely abbreviated instructions. If anyone is actually interested we can explore building this in more detail.

    If you don’t mind incurring some cost, scrounging some materials, are handy with tools, minor woodworking and some pretty simple electrical wiring you can build an environmentally controlled storage unit for pretty cheap. Of course this requires power so it’s not the best option for a post collapse scenario.

    Scrounge up an old freezer that still works. Often times you can get them free for the effort of hauling them off. These are usually insulated better than refrigerators.

    Build an insulated box out of lumber big enough to hold your harvest plus at least .5 times that volume. Build a few shelves in it and most likely a hinged lid. Leave an opening in one end of sufficient size to match the dimension of your freezer. Cost will obviously vary depending on how big you build it.

    Chase down a PID controller, thermocouple and solid state relay large enough to handle the start current and voltage required by your freezer. Wire these components so that the freezer is powered through the relay rather than directly from the wall outlet. You should be able to get these for less than 50~75 bucks.

    Drill a small hole in the freezer shell in a safe spot (not hitting any control or refrigeration components), drop in the thermocouple and seal the hole with silicone.

    Cut an opening in one side or end of the freezer for connecting to your storage box. You’ll need to decide on the opening size while you are building the storage box. Using some flashing and silicone or expanding foam, seal the box and the freezer together.

    Being a freezer the thermostat will not be designed to hold temperatures above freezing, which is what you need, so just set the thermostat to the lowest temperature and forget about it. The thermocouple and PID controller will now become what controls when the freezer compressor runs.

    The PID controller programming will vary slightly depending on manufacture and model but they all pretty much work the same way. Program the PID controller for cooling, set the upper and lower temperatures you want to maintain, connect the thermocouple wires and wire in the solid state relay.

    Now you have a temperature controlled storage unit that will keep your spuds (and other harvest) at exactly the optimal storage temperature for that crop. If you need to increase the humidity simply place a shallow pan of water in the freezer.


    • Shannon says:

      Thank you fg….I’m giving this info to dh and we will see what we can come up with. We have space under the house that we call our tornado…potato…carrot hidey hole. Since adding a dehydrator down there has helped a lot. We really need to finish off this storage issue and have that behind us. Lots of other projects to do!! Thanks for all you do! Shan

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