Everyday Gardeners

Plant. Grow. Live.


Spring is in full force now and the U.S. Compost Council (USCC) just launched their Million Tomatoes Compost Campaign, a tomato growing campaign using donated compost. So go ahead: Start your own vegetable garden with a special spot for some tomatoes. With the help of Nathan Lyon, celebrity chef and campaign spokesperson, you’ll have a thriving garden in no time.

Lyon is well known for his delectable cuisine and his PBS show “Growing a Greener World”, but this spring Lyon is taking time between cooking and filming for a great cause: the Million Tomatoes Compost Campaign, which focuses on spreading the word about the importance of compost for a healthy garden. Compost has been donated by several USCC STA certified compost producers to participating community gardens that will grow tomatoes, either for their own use or for donation to local food banks. The campaign hopes to exceed one million tomatoes by the end of harvest in August.

When Lyon was first approached about the campaign, he was instantly hooked. The project fit perfectly with his interests and what he had been working with on his show. His passion for gardening was cultivated long ago as he used to spend his after-school time with his grandparents in their Virginia garden. Ever since he has been expanding on his skills as a gardener and sharing them with those around him.

“That’s what’s so great about this campaign: You are empowering people by showing them how easy it is to grow your own food and get involved with the community,” says Lyon.

Lyon—as well as a number of other chefs—will be working with the community gardens, schools, and other organization to educate people on using locally grown food. Recently, he created several kid-friendly tomato recipes for the campaign so kids can also get involved, too. Lyon urges others to pay attention to their kids wants. A lot will be excited to get in the garden and grow their own food if you give them the chance.

“Have them grow their own produce and they will be really excited to taste it because they are now stewards,” Lyon explains.

Getting kids involved starts with you. So why not take the time to start your own tomato garden this year? You can easily get involved in the campaign by starting your own tomato garden at home or in a community lot. Go to www.buy-compost.com to see how you can contribute to the campaign.

—Kelsey Schirm, BHG Guest Blogger


Don’t get me wrong. I like turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy as much as anyone. My expanding waistline is weighty evidence. But this year for Thanksgiving dinner, I’ll stray from the bland beige foods of my Midwest upbringing by adding to the holiday table a rainbow of fruits and vegetables from my garden. Red and yellow will come from heirloom tomatoes still ripening on the workbench in my garage, despite a killing freeze almost a month ago. Baked ‘Georgia Jet’ sweet potatoes from the root cellar provide a splash of orange. Green will come from parsley and ‘Panther’ cauliflower. I harvested the last of the ‘Panther’ cauliflower (more chartreuse green than forest green) and purple ‘Graffiti Hybrid’ cauliflowers a week ago, but they’re holding well in the fridge. Blue was the most difficult color to introduce, and I’ll admit that I’m stretching it a bit by using frozen black chokeberries harvested earlier this fall. (Blueberries and blue/black raspberries never made it to the freezer. They were devoured as soon as they were harvested!)

Will colorful fruits and veggies will grace your Thanksgiving table? If not, consider planting some next year to perk up your plate with diverse hues. After all, the first seed catalogs arrived this week. It will soon be time to place seed orders for next year’s colorful feast.

By harvesting green mature tomatoes and ripening them in the dark, I often have fresh tomatoes well into December.

'Furry Yellow Hog' is a blocky yellow heirloom tomato with fuzzy skin and mild flavor.

'Georgia Jet' sweet potatoes have reddish skin and deep orange flesh.

Curled parsley is a decorative garnish that also works well to cleanse the palate.

'Graffiti Hybrid' cauliflower is a gorgeous lavender purple alternative to plain white cauliflower.

Black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) looks like blueberries, and has some of the same tang as cranberries.

The official low temperature this morning was 41 degrees F in Des Moines, but the frost on the narrowleaf zinnias, at left, prooves that it was colder in my yard. My home is in a frost pocket, despite its location at the top of a hill. Every time the weather forecast calls for “scattered frost”, it’s a sure bet that ice crystals will develop on exposed plants.

Last night I prepared for the cold by moving container gardens under the deck canopy, onto the front porch, or into the garage. I also pulled out the floating row covers to protect tomatoes, peppers, and some of the more cold-sensitive bedding plants, such as coleus. But Christo-draping the yard with fabric can only go so far. Inevitably, some annuals remain unprotected.

Floating row cover protects the coleus planting by the mailbox.

I may have salvaged some of the uncovered flowers by watering them early this morning before sunrise. After melting the ice out of the hose, I sprayed water on the icy plants to melt the frost. If the ice crystals were only on the surface of the blooms, this may be enough to rescue the frosty flowers. I hope so. I’d like to get another month of color from them. Mid-September is simply too early to call it quits on the gardening season, don’t you agree?

Tomatoes in cages and pepper plants covered for frost protection

Binder clips attached to the tomato cages work pretty well to hold floating row cover in place when it doesn't reach all the way to the ground. Otherwise, I use bricks or rocks to secure the row cover.

It’s finally happened. I succeeded in getting ripe tomatoes to add to summer salads before the spring-sown lettuce, spinach, and snap peas melted out in summer’s heat. (After two successive days with 100-degree F plus heat indices, that may soon change!)

The successful tomato variety? It’s ‘Lizzano’, an All-America Selections winner for this year. It certainly gets my vote as a keeper. Never mind that it’s “just” a cherry tomato. I don’t care about the size of the fruits as long as they’re flavorful and productive. So far, ‘Lizzano’ fits the bill. It’s certainly earliest of the 20 varieties of tomatoes that I’m growing this year. And unlike some cherry tomatoes, the plant is staying compact (less than 2 feet tall). It also reportedly has excellent disease resistance.

I’m especially celebrating the early harvest because not only has the tomato harvest coincided with the bounty of salad fixings, I have ripe peppers to add to the blend! ‘Sweet Heat’ pepper, from Ball Seed Company grows a compact 12 inches tall, and is bearing 1- to 2-inch long red fruits with a nice blend of sweetness and mild heat–somewhere between the flavor of a bell pepper and a hot pepper. Last year I grew it in a container with some herbs, but this year it’s growing in the ground. It has done well in both locations.

Local growers tell us that because of cool spring weather we won’t have ripe Iowa sweet corn this July 4th, but I can gloat a little and say that I have ripe peppers and tomatoes to enjoy. Summer has arrived!

Lettuce, kale, chives, and pansies make a colorful and edible garden accent.

Why not celebrate Earth Day by jumping on the grow-your-own-veggies bandwagon? Colorful salad bowls are a great way to grow your own produce in a limited amount of space. And they can be far more than strictly utilitarian. Combine salad greens with edible flowers and herbs for a showy and tasty mix.

The folks at PanAmerican Seed and BallHort have made creating your own salad bowl a snap with their new SimplySalad seed pellets. Each pellet contains a mix of several edible greens. Global Gourmet provides Asian flair with lacy red and green mustards paired with lettuces of the same color. The Alfresco blend brings a Mediterranean vibe with arugula, endive, and radicchio combined with red and green lettuces. And for the less adventuresome, the City Garden mix teams mild leaf lettuces in a variety of burgundy and green hues.

This photo shows the Global Gourmet salad mix in a container garden, along with Alfresco mix seed pellets in a vial attached to its store display card.

By planting several salad bowls you can have a steady supply of greens for your dinner table. This bowl is ready to harvest. I’ll simply cut the greens off a couple of inches above the ground. In about 3 weeks, they should be ready to harvest again. I expect to get several cycles of harvest from the bowl before summer’s heat puts an end to the harvest. A bonus with growing the greens in a bowl: I can move the container to the shade when temperatures heat up, extending the harvest season. And I’ll be sure to plant some more pellets in mid-summer for fall harvest. By then, I’ll have lots of tomatoes and peppers from my garden to add to the salads!

DSCF3100 Although we’ve had a few frosty nights here in Des Moines, IA, my veggie garden continues to produce prolifically. I took this shot of some of the home-grown bounty on my dining room table last evening. The center bowl contains a mix of baby lettuces and mesclun (Both were protected from frost in the garden by floating row covers.) and a couple mini cabbage heads–secondary heads that developed after the main crop head was harvested earlier this summer. I use them like large Brussels sprouts or as I would regular cabbage.

Surrounding the bowl (from the center foreground) are purple ‘Graffiti Hybrid’ cauliflower, ‘Golden’ beet, heirloom red tomatoes, Swiss chard, ‘Small Sugar’ and ‘Long Island Cheese’ pumpkins, collard greens, ‘Red Cored Chantenay’ carrots, ‘Soldier’ beet, and ‘Furry Yellow Hog’ tomato, another heirloom variety.

Shortly after I took this photo, I enjoyed a tasty dinner that included a lettuce-mesclun salad with chopped tomatoes and carrots. Some of the other veggies will make it to the Thanksgiving table–either in the form of a side dish or as part of the centerpiece. They’re so colorful that they’re a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach. For more ideas on beautiful vegetable varieties to grow, see our slide show on growing colorful vegetables.

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