Tag Archives: gardening

A New Emily in the Gardens

Emily, the new Community Garden Outreach CoordinatorHello Gardeners!

I am the new Community Garden Outreach Coordinator. You might have seen me digging in my garden at the Northside or ASUM Community Gardens, teaching a compost workshop or helping out with Opening Day on the ASUM Garden Leadership Committee. I have been gardening with the Community Gardens for the last three years, and I look forward to working with you and for you in this new role at Garden City Harvest.

Originally from Salt Lake City, Utah, I earned a degree in landscape architecture from Colorado State University before discovering the wilds and wonders of Montana. My love of plants and sense of adventure has provided me with a variety of professional experiences around the West, including wilderness trip-leading, ecology research, farming, permaculture and landscape design. I spend my spare time hiking up mountains, tending to my chickens, experimenting with new plants and new foods, and water-coloring.

I will also continue to cultivate my plot at the ASUM Community Gardens this year. Like all of you, I will be battling the same weeds and pests while juggling the needs of a tomato plant with the needs of my job, my partner and other life pursuits. I try to keep in mind the sage words of a fellow ASUM gardener: “If it’s not fun, then why are we doing it?” Although keeping up with bindweed isn’t exactly fun, I believe there are plenty of things to appreciate, celebrate and share when it comes to community gardening.  Keep your eye out for my weekly Community Garden blog posts this season as I share tips and tricks, gardener spotlights, events, recipes and creative ideas to fill our gardens and minds.

See you in the garden!

Patrick 2

Head Starts With Starts

Patrick, the Community Gardens Operations Coordinator,  grew up in Wisconsin, and from day one wanted to be outside whenever possible. While earning his degree from the University of Montana, Patrick enrolled in the PEAS Farm class, and couldn’t give it up – staying for two semesters and a summer session. Through the PEAS Farm and his Environmental Studies Program classes, he’s decided he wants to keep working on local food efforts now that he has earned his degree. When he’s not digging in the dirt, he is hiking, biking or fishing with his dog, Lola.

With spring officially just around the corner, many of our garden crops will be getting off to an early start.  With our cold and lengthy winters in Montana, several crops that we love to grow and eat need to get a jump on the season.  Farmers, nurseries, and gardeners around the area are getting busy seeding and tending to our favorite plants.

Patrick 3While it gets nice and hot in Missoula, our nighttime temps in the late spring and early fall allow us a mere 120 frost-free growing days, on average.   Many of our favorite plants are capable of braving the cold, so we may choose to focus on these crops.   However, many others will wither away at the first sign of frost.  Extending our seasons by starting some of our plants in controlled environments like greenhouses, allows us to grow many crops that we otherwise simply couldn’t produce in our climate.  Others we can simply direct seed into the ground and will do great with our natural climate.


Early Start Recommended

Tomatoes                       Peppers

Onions                            Cabbage

Squash                           Cucumbers

Broccoli                         And More!

Can be Direct Seeded

Carrots                          Beets

Peas                               Radishes

Corn                              Most Greens

And More!

It is certainly possible to grow starts in our houses, utilizing sunny areas or even supplying supplemental lighting.  However, starting seeds at home can be surprisingly tricky. Tending to watering needs can be time consuming, and often our home starts don’t receive the adequate amount of light to sustain proper growth.  This often results in lanky, stunted, or otherwise stressed plants.  We want our starts to be as healthy and vigorous as possible when we plant them out. The process of leaving their comfortable, pampered lives in their climate controlled homes will be stressful enough; we want them to hit the ground strong.

Patrick 1Most homes are not designed with plant growth as their primary function, and most people’s days are already busy enough as it is.  For this reason, many gardeners decide to leave the starts to the professionals.  Greenhouses are designed for the sole purpose of promoting plant growth, and are maintained by folks who dedicate their days to ensuring successful starts.  Farmers markets and nurseries are great spots to look for strong and healthy starts to grow.  They are also great places to make sure you are picking the right varieties for your needs and wants.

But! If you want to hit the ground running and start those starts early yourself, it can be an incredibly fun and rewarding process.  There are a few things we need to consider when starting seeds at home.  We need to choose the right varieties for our climate and preferences; sauce tomatoes vs. slicing tomatoes, for example.  We need to sow the seeds indoors and re-pot if necessary at the proper planting time; we want them to have a good head start while not outgrowing their containers and becoming stressed. We want to let them “harden off” before transplanting to reduce shock by moving them into a cooler and less controlled environment.  This can be done using cold frames or floating row cover. (Both of these can be used to extend the season for bedded plants as well).  Lastly, we want to make sure that the beds and weather are suitable for the plants before we transplant them outdoors.  Check out the links below for some more information!

Garden “Calculator”

Helpful Hints

Cold Frame

Gardens of Missoula, A Tour De Flora

I spend majority of my job garden hopping around Missoula. With ten gardens, this takes me to nearly every corner of the city. I’ve racked up countless hours spent in the work truck, watching the neighborhoods change as I cruise across town in every direction. Considering Missoula has a population of +/- 70,000 people, the community interest in cultivating local foods is quite impressive. Garden City Harvest oversees ten community gardens, with 370 plots, catering to roughly 750 Missoulians, with a lofty waitlist on top of that.

CG Tour_Page_01

Visiting the ten community gardens makes for an inspired tour of our city. Every garden emulates it’s surrounding environment, with individual characteristics which make each a unique experience. Make it a bike tour, walk it, or a Sunday drive. In any way, they’ll take you to every neck of these woods.

For a digital, downloadable, and reader-friendly guide of our community gardens, click below.


Pester Those Pests!

This week The Real Dirt is featuring a guest blog from Patrick, Community Gardens Maintenance Coordinator. Patrick grew up in Wisconsin, and from day one wanted to be outside whenever possible. While earning his degree from the University of Montana, Patrick enrolled in the PEAS Farm class, and couldn’t give it up – staying for two semesters and a summer session. Through the PEAS Farm and his Environmental Studies Program classes, he’s decided he wants to keep working on local food efforts now that he has earned his degree. When he’s not digging in the dirt, he is hiking, biking or fishing with his dog, Lola.

Whether you are brand new to gardening or have the greenest thumb in town, community gardens offer a place to share ideas, knowledge, conversation, growing materials, and so much more.  Unfortunately, some of the many things that can be “shared” at the gardens are pests, which are not what your friends and neighbors are looking for.

With this in mind, this post will focus on a few common Missoula pests and how to keep yourself, your neighbors, and your plants happy and healthy.  No matter if your garden is in your own yard or you share four borders at one of our community gardens, pest awareness and control are crucial to a thriving garden.

The best defense against garden pests is to have a healthy and diverse garden, strong plants, a bit of knowledge, and time in the garden.

Healthy Soil:

Healthy soil will have the fertility to grow strong and resilient plants and will have all sorts of beneficial life in it that will aid in fighting off garden pests. Incorporating organic material such as compost and plant material will go a long way towards healthy garden soil.  Keeping up with pests before the need to spray any pest control will help ensure the garden life we want won’t be harmed.

Crop Rotation and Diversity:

Rotating your vegetables will ensure that the same nutrients are not being taken out of the soil year after year and degrading your soil.  It will also make it tougher for pests to find the plants they prefer. Planting a diversity of different crops and varieties, including flowering plants, will reduce the effect that any one pest may have on your garden as well as attract an array of beneficial insects.

Healthy plants:

Similar to when we are stressed and unhealthy, an unhealthy or stressed plant will be much more susceptible to and less able to fight off pests and diseases.  Our vegetable plants are especially prone to pest issues when they are young and/or have recently had the stress of being transplanted out to the garden.  For this reason, growing or purchasing healthy starts for your garden and keeping a keen eye early on can greatly reduce pest problems in your garden.

Time in the garden:

The small scale of most of our backyard or community gardens allows us to keep a closer eye on each individual plant in the garden. Physically removing pests as they arise early on disrupts their lifecycle and reduces some negative effects that other eradication practices may have on the critters we want. Timing is crucial when controlling pests.

No matter how hard you try, you will undoubtedly run into some pest problems in your garden at some point or another.  But don’t stress it too hard; as long as you keep an eye out for potential pest problems and address them as soon as you notice an issue, you should be able to get things under control. Fighting off pests and damage requires energy, reducing energy going toward plant growth and food production.   Delays in addressing a pest problem will make eradication more difficult, plant damage more severe, and reduce garden productivity.

Key Elements of a pest free garden

-Healthy soil

-Healthy plants

-Diversity in the garden

-Crop rotation

-An alert presence in the garden and attention to detail

Common Missoula Pests:

Below is a list of a few pests common in Missoula gardens, what they look like, what they like to eat, and how to control them.

Leaf Miners:  Most common on beats, chard and spinach, they produce large blotches and tunnel like markings on leaves.  Keep an eye on the underside of leaves for rows of small white eggs to squish, and remove and destroy any damaged leaves from the garden.

Leaf Miner Eggs. (photo: www.utahpests.usu.edu)
Leaf Miner Eggs. (photo: www.utahpests.usu.edu)
Leaf Miner Damage. (photo:  www.garden.org)
Leaf Miner Damage. (photo: www.garden.org)

Cabbage Moths:  Most common on cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and kale.  They will eat holes in the leaves, leaving jagged holes or edges.  Look for and squish any green caterpillars on the underside of leaves, also try to catch and kill adult cabbage moths flying in your garden.  Covering plants with a floating row cover will also help keep cabbage moth numbers down early on.

Cabbage Moth. (photo: http://www.arbico-organics.com)
Cabbage Moth. (photo: http://www.arbico-organics.com)
Cabbage Worm. (photo: www.almanac.com)
Cabbage Worm. (photo: www.almanac.com)

Flea Beatles:   Usually affects tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants early on in the season before plants are well established.  They are tiny black beetles and will produce numerous small holes in plant leaves.  Hand squishing in the morning or evening when they are a little slower can work well, place sticky traps around the garden to catch them, and shaking them off the plant into a tray of soapy water can help get rid of them.

Flea Beetle Damage. (photo: www.extension.umn.edu)
Flea Beetle Damage. (photo: www.extension.umn.edu)
Flea Beetle. (photo: www.garden.org)
Flea Beetle. (photo: www.garden.org)

Cut worms:  Commonly affects corn, onions, broccoli, cabbage and kale.  Cut worms will eat away the stem of plants at soil level.   By scraping the soil around affected plants and removing any caterpillars you find will reduce cut worm numbers and damage.

Cut Worm. (photo: www.extension.umn.edu)
Cut Worm. (photo: www.extension.umn.edu)

Aphids:  Aphids are common on kale, collards, cabbage, broccoli, and Brussel sprouts.  Aphids will make curled and distorted leaf growth, and will also be visible on the leaves.  Spraying them off the affected plants can help reduce aphids. A soapy water bath to the leaves is also effective.  Promoting or introducing beneficial insects such as ladybugs also help control aphid populations.

Aphids. (photo: www.onthegreenfarms.com)
Aphids. (photo: www.onthegreenfarms.com)

This is just a short list of common garden pests – – there are many others that we may find in our gardens.  There are many good sites online that can help identify garden pests and samples can be brought into the Missoula Extension Service to be identified.

Happy gardening!



Garden Therapy

Molly and Clark (the dog)
Molly and Clark (the dog)

Meet our guest community garden blogger for this week…Molly Kimmel! Molly is an occupational therapist at St. Patrick Hospital and a community gardener at the ASUM garden. She earned her  masters in occupational therapy from University of Washington in Seattle. Right after school, she moved to Missoula and quickly fell in love with a smaller town lifestyle. When not working, Molly likes to travel, spend time on any of Montana’s many rivers, and of course, tend her garden plot at the ASUM garden.  

In addition to the ASUM garden, Molly also actively participates in the Providence Garden – a different kind of community garden — where plots are rented out. This particular garden provides a communal space for St. Patrick’s patients, staff, and the surrounding neighborhood to enjoy and to provide a place of respite from hectic work and life schedules. The Providence Garden is located behind the Providence Center, which is a part of the St. Patrick hospital system and is a partnership between St. Pat’s and Garden City Harvest. Garden City Harvest garden coordinators (with lots of help from interns) manage the space and most of the produce grown at the garden gets donated to the Missoula Food Bank (over 1,000 pounds have been donated so far this year!).

Meet our wonderful 2015 garden intern, Brenna!
Meet our wonderful 2015 garden intern, Brenna!

We (Patrick and myself) sure enjoy working with staff and patients in the Providence garden and learning about garden therapy from a therapist’s perspective. In Molly’s blog post below, she writes about how she uses the garden as a therapeutic space for some of her patients.

(And for more information about another initiative taking place at the Providence Garden, check out this Missoulian article about prescriptions for veggies!)

Raised beds at the Providence Center Garden
Raised beds at the Providence Center Garden

When Michael started sautéing fresh onions, garlic, zucchini, tomatoes, and carrots for his pasta sauce, I knew it was going to be a good day. Not many people get a homemade meal cooked for them at work, but I have one of the best jobs on the planet. As an occupational therapist at St. Patrick Hospital, I work with people after illness or injury to help them regain their prior level of function with everyday activities. We try to make therapy patient-centered, functional, and meaningful, so when I heard that Michael used to work as a chef in a restaurant and enjoyed gardening, I knew I wanted to take advantage of Garden City Harvest’s Providence Garden as part of his plan for therapy.

When the Providence Garden was getting underway this spring, staff reached out to the different units in the  Providence Center (PC) to see how the space could possibly be used for staff, visitors, and patients. Since the garden is fully accessible with crushed granite paths for wheelchair users and beds of various heights for standing/sitting/kneeling, I knew immediately that it would make an excellent space for patients during therapy.

Up on the 4th floor of the PC at the St. Patrick Inpatient Rehabilitation Facility is where Michael was sautéing his veggies, as well as receiving intensive occupational, physical, and speech therapy, along with 24-hour rehabilitation nursing services, to help him recover from a stroke. Prior to this summer, when I wanted to put together a cooking task with a patient, it meant a trip to the grocery store. Now, thanks to the Providence Garden behind the PC, I had a built-in produce department right in our backyard.

The day before Michael made me lunch, we walked down to the garden to procure our harvest. In doing so, we were able to work on maneuvering over uneven terrain, kneeling down to gather items, interacting socially with the staff at the garden, and getting back to one of Michael’s favorite leisure pursuits: gardening. For other patients, the garden can serve as a place to work on fine and gross motor skills, sensory integration, item identification, or simply as a place to get some fresh air or socialize with family members.


Every Thursday morning of this summer, I have taken 1-4 patients to the garden for a therapeutic group. Everyone enjoys their break from the therapy gym and their time outside, whether they are hunting for the ripest tomato or sampling herbs to decide what will best accompany their upcoming lunch. Then on Friday, we often use what we harvest to make a simple appetizer or light lunch while practicing meal prep skills and kitchen safety. When we begin cooking, not 5 minutes go by before other staff, patients, and family members come walking into the kitchen saying,   what smells so good?

The garden itself has become an invaluable extension of our unit and our therapy offerings – allowing patients (and staff!) the chance to spend time outside, gather healthy, fresh produce, and get back to “normal” life. I am incredibly grateful to the staff at Garden City Harvest for their hard work making this garden accessible and I look forward to our continued partnership in the seasons ahead. For more information about St. Pat’s Inpatient Rehabilitation, visit our website or call 406-327-3260.

Many thanks to the kiddos in the adolescent  outpatient program who made these beautiful signs for the garden!
Many thanks to the kiddos in the adolescent outpatient program who made these beautiful signs for the garden!

{If you’re interested in checking out the Providence Garden for yourself, join us for a Garden Party this Thursday, October 8, from 4-6pm. The Clove Cart will be selling pizza slices, there will be liquid refreshments and live music. Come celebrate the season with us!}

Community “Fall” Gardening

It’s that time of year when many spring crops have finished producing and a bare spot in the garden is left in their wake.  But the fun doesn’t have to end yet! There is still time to turn that beautiful blank soil canvas into a fall garden masterpiece. Even though we have a shorter growing season here in Montana, fall gardening is still possible.

At Garden City Harvest, we don’t close down the gardens until October 24th. And even then, if you have some kale left standing or carrots under your mulch, you’re welcome to continue to use your plot as long as it’s cleaned up and looking good.

To start planning your fall garden you must first look closely at your seed packets and find the average days to maturity for the particular crop you want to plant. Many crops, such as cabbage, broccoli, and tomatoes, take too long to mature and there will not be enough heat and/or sunlight in our shorter days to boost them along. For the most part, you only want to plant crops that will mature before our first killing frost or that are cold-hardy and grow well in our hardiness zone.  Missoula’s estimated first fall frost date is September 27 and we are in USDA Hardiness Zone 5b.

These radishes can be sown all the way until the first frost comes, but too be safe, you'd probably want to sow them sooner
These radishes can be sown all the way until the first frost comes, but to be safe, you’d probably want to sow them sooner
These pea seeds are only recommended for fall gardening in zones 8 or warmer. These guys will have to wait until next year to be planted
These pea seeds are only recommended for fall gardening in zones 8 or warmer. These guys will have to wait until next year to be planted












Fall crops that need some protection

The types of crops that will mature from seed in time to enjoy in the fall include:

  • radishes
  • lettuce (most lettuces don’t germinate well when it’s very hot out, so consider planting these in a cooler area of your plot, where there is still some shade from other plants)
  • arugula
  • chard
  • beets
  • turnips

If planted soon these crops should begin maturing in time for fall, but you’ll want to keep your eye on night-time temps. The leafy greens on these crops need some protection from the cold. Try covering them up with reemay (a white gauzey cloth used for row cover) or even an old sheet or blanket. Covering these crops up at night will help keep their surrounding temperature just a few degrees warmer so they will survive through the night.

Reemay covering crops at Orchard Gardens. Photo by Amy Harvey
Reemay covering crops at Orchard Gardens. Photo by Amy Harvey

Cold-hardy and frost tolerant crops

These crops are a bit hardier and don’t need quite as much fussing. Some of them even taste a little sweeter after a frost hits them, such as kale.

  • kale
  • carrots
  • Asian greens, such as bok choi  and tatsoi
  • spinach
  • kohlrabi
Kale. Photo by Erick Greene.

Other fall gardening tips

If you are buying new seeds, keep a lookout for winter varieties. There are varieties of some crops that grow a bit faster and/or are more tolerant of colder temperatures. These varieties are perfect for your fall garden!

Use extra mulch around your fall crops, especially over top of carrots. The mulch  helps keep the soil temperatures a couple degrees warmer.

Add some compost when planting new seeds to make sure there are still nutrients in the soil, especially if the space you are planting in was previously occupied by a heavy-feeder such as cabbage or broccoli.

For more information about fall gardening or winter seed varieties, check out some of these resources:

Please leave us your fall community gardening tips in the comments below!


Vegetable Triage: three things you need to know

curing onions at the PEAS Farm
Hanging onions for curing at the PEAS Farm. Photo by Chad Harder.

It is that time of year when our CSAs and gardens become heavy with produce.  I find myself scrounging for enough bags and stacking leftover containers strategically so I can fit all my veggies in the fridge.

Fresh veggies

Lettuces, kale, chard, collards, beans, zucchini, eggplants, herbs. . . These will all go bad within a week or two if stored in a plastic bag in your fridge.  These are the items you need to use, or freeze/can in the next week.  That can be easier than it sounds.  So long as we don’t get another huge storm with tons of power outages. More about that in a minute.

River Road Farm kale. Photo by Erick Greene.

Storage and Storage-ish Veggies

Carrots, beets, garlic, and onions (the sweet onions — walla wallas for example don’t last as long, but will last up to 3 weeks in your fridge, in a plastic bag — other stronger onions you can cure for 3 – 4 weeks and will last for the whole winter!)  will last a good deal longer in the fridge.  I have kept a bag of carrots in my fridge for months at a time with no problem.  Sometimes they require a bit of peeling before use.

There’s a theme here — they are all roots! Winter squash will be here before you know it, and they are another crop that you can cure and store for the winter.

curing onions
Onions hanging in the PEAS Farm barn, curing over 3 – 4 weeks. Photo by Chad Harder.

Finally, processing veggies


There are many resources on how to process and store all of these veggies.  Some have the patience for canning — and as Amy Poelher says, “Good for you, not for me.” I freeze instead.  It is easier, so long as you have the freezer space and doesn’t require you to cook out as many of the nutrients in the food.

Pesto is something I just made this past week — so much basil! And froze it in an ice cube tray which will make getting meal-sized servings out of the freezer a snap in the middle of winter.  There are many herbs you can preserve the same way using olive oil and minimal hassle.

Fruits often can be slipped right into a gallon-sized plastic bag and right in the freezer.  However, blanching is often required for things like zucchini or green beans.

pesto in ice cube tray
Pesto ready for the freezer. When winter comes, pesto and pasta will be easy PEASy


Drying your food is also a great way to preserve it — it can be used for all sorts of things, from fruits to veggies (ever tried making beet chips? Dehydrated Kale chips can also be amazing.) and even jerky.  I use a dehydrator, but you can also use your oven on its lowest setting for many things.


I have done it before, and know and respect many who do it.  I am no expert, however.  The folks at the National Center for Home Food Preservation know all about it.  Also,  our local book stores sell some great guides to canning.  You certainly need to know the right methods, cooking times, and sterilization techniques to make sure you keep those ugly bugs out of the cans.

canning at home
These two are prepping cukes for their journey to becoming pickles. Photo by Chad Harder.

Enjoy the fruits of your labor – Harvesting basics

In order to enjoy the fruits of all that labor you put into your garden you’ll have to  harvest, but sometimes it’s hard to tell when something is ready to go. As gardeners we know our food is good even when it doesn’t look perfect, so the good news is that it’s not absolutely necessary that we have our harvesting techniques down to a science (like many of our fellow farmer friends do).  So go ahead and give yourself a break, but read on for some harvesting tips.


I would argue that as gardeners we are mainly concerned with harvesting crops before it is too late…… Too late generally means the plant has started to flower, which means it is putting more energy into growing seed rather than its various parts that we like to eat. And this generally results in a bitter-tasting veggie that is starting to lose its nutritional punch. But even when it’s “too late,” it’s often not really too late. You’ll see.

On the other hand, many things actually taste a little sweeter when harvested on the early side, for example, carrots, beets, and pretty much any kind of green. We miss out on some growth potential if we harvest our crops early, but they’ll still pack plenty of nutrients! (and look cute too…?) This also comes in handy when you are thinning your rows — big or small, they are still edible.

Carrots and Beets and Greens – oh my!

Crops like the aforementioned carrots, beets, and greens are fairly straightforward. You can tell just by looking at their size if they are ready. In general, if your veggies look like something you could get at the grocery store, they are ready to go! Carrots are typically at their peak around 1″ – 2″ in thickness, while beets are typically at their peak around 2″ – 3″ in thickness. You can poke your finger in the ground to feel how big your carrots and beets or other root veggies are, and of course you can just admire those beautiful leafy greens from afar to figure out if they’re ready for pickin’.

Note that regular, timely harvest of greens (including kale, lettuces, swiss chard, etc.) usually increases the length of harvest. And if you’re not going to eat them right away, it’s best to pick greens in the early morning or evening when the sun isn’t so hot – it helps to keep the greens from wilting.

A few other common crops are harder to determine – like squash, cucumbers, potatoes, onions, cabbage, and broccoli and cauliflower. Here’s a little more info on those:

Squash – summer and winter varieties

Summer squashes are best harvested when young and tender, when their skin is easily penetrated by a fingernail.  Zucchinis grow a ton in a day, so these guys require a careful eye. If you run late harvesting one it will probably taste better shredded in zucchini bread than used fresh. Or, hollow out the seeds, stuff it with a yummy filling, and bake!

Unlike with your zukes, you don’t want to watch winter squash so closely every day – at least not for awhile (unless you enjoy watching water boil). The hard skin of winter squash develops over time and is what helps it store so well, so you don’t want to rush on harvesting these gems. Mature winter squash will be hard and impervious to scratching. Once that thick skin has developed and you perform the fingernail test (press a thumbnail against the skin; your nail shouldn’t leave a visible dent) harvest your squash,  leaving at least 1” of stem attached. It’s also best to harvest before a frost comes, which could decrease their storage time.

Young, tender zukes about ready to harvest
Young, tender zukes about ready to harvest
This big guy should have been harvested a few days ago for best flavor
This big guy should have been harvested a few days ago for best flavor








These also can grow a lot in a short amount of time and so require a watchful eye. Cucumbers are best when slightly immature. Most varieties will be 1.5”- 2.5” in diameter and 5”- 8” long, except for pickling cucumbers, which will be blocky and not as long. Immature cukes are spiky, but will become less spiky as they mature. You can easily wash off the rest of the cucumber spikes after harvesting by running your hand over the cucumber under water. If you get to a cuke too late, it will still taste pretty good pickled!

These cukes will be ready in no time!
These cukes will be ready in no time!


You can harvest potatoes early or late, depending on your preference or what you plan to use the potato for. New potatoes, or earlies, can be harvested soon after the plants start blooming their beautiful flowers. Early potatoes are generally smaller and don’t store well so you want to eat them right away.

Or you can wait to harvest a crop of potatoes later – after the tops have died down and when the ground is dry. These potatoes will store much better, as long as they are cured for 10-14 days in a dark, well-ventilated location at 45 F to 60 F.


Onions can be harvested at different times according to what you’ll be using them for. If using them fresh, harvest at ¼”- 1” in diameter (basically, when they look big enough to be useful for whatever you need them for). If harvesting onions for storage, wait until they are bigger, their tops have fallen over, and their necks are shriveled. A mature bulb will not be dented if you push your finger into it.  To cure onions, place them in a single layer or mesh bag in a dry, well-ventilated area out of direct sunlight for 3-4 weeks. Remove their tops when fully dry.

An onion ready for some pickin'
An onion ready for some pickin’


A beautiful cabbage head ready to harvest
A beautiful cabbage head ready to harvest

Cabbage is ready to harvest when the leaves surrounding the head start to open up a bit, and when the heads are solid. If cabbage heads become over mature they may split. If your head splits, it’s still edible. It just won’t last as long and you’ll likely have to cut out the parts around the split.



Broccoli and Cauliflower

Broccoli and Cauliflower may be the trickiest plants in regards to timing their harvest. Broccoli is best harvested while heads are a deep green, still compact, and before buds start to open into flowers. If the buds start to separate and the yellow petals inside start to show, harvest immediately. I often get to my broccoli a little too late (oops), but I still eat it, flowers and all!

This broccoli head should be harvested immediately. Many of its buds are about to pop!
This broccoli head should be harvested immediately. Many of its buds are about to pop!

When harvesting, cut the stem at a slant about 4 to 6 inches (10-15 cm) below the head. Removing the head on some varieties will produce side-shoots in the axils of leaves and you can get 4 to 6 additional cuttings of shoots per plant over several weeks.

A beautiful broccoli head ready to be harvested
A beautiful broccoli head ready to be harvested

Follow the same rule of thumb for cauliflower, but when the curds are about 1”-2” in diameter fold some of the outer leaves over the cauliflower heads. This helps prevent the head from becoming yellow and/or blemished. Once you cover the heads they should be ready for harvest in 1-2 weeks.

Broccoli buds starting to open and flower
Broccoli buds starting to open and flower

Take-aways from a Tomato Tutorial

Why did the tomato go out with a prune?….. Because he couldn’t find a date!


Bad jokes aside, a group of community gardeners recently took some time to ketchup on tips for improving their tomato harvests, thanks to Northside garden mentor Sarah Johnson. Last month Sarah wrote a blog post to lay the groundwork for choosing and transplanting tomatoes (read it here), and last week she followed it up with a hands-on tomato workshop focused on tomato care throughout the growing season (bruschetta included).

Here are a few of my takeaways from the workshop. If you couldn’t make it last Tuesday but have a tomato-related question, feel free to email Sarah at sarah_nside@gardencityharvest.org, or leave a comment at the end of this blog post so we can all learn more.

The good news is that caring for tomato plants doesn’t have to be very complicated. In fact, if you just leave your tomato plants to grow on their own, you’re still likely to get a good harvest from them. However, if juicier, more flavorful tomatoes are what you’re after, there are three main things to do to keep your tomato plants healthy and happy: Support, Prune, Fertilize.


Caged tomato
Caged tomato

Providing tomato plants with proper support helps keep the fruits off the ground so they are less likely to rot or get eaten by pests or become afflicted with some disease. The best support structure to use depends on if your plant is determinate (more bush-like, grows to a certain size and fruits pretty much at once) or indeterminate (continues to grow new vines and will fruit throughout the season).

Since determinate plants only grow to a certain size, they do best when caged or staked and tied. Determinate plants do not need to be pruned, so cages work well because they are simple and you only have to worry about being able to pick the tomatoes.

Determinate plants do best when staked or trellised. These methods allow you to more easily access the whole tomato plant when pruning.

Staked tomatoes
Staked tomatoes
Trellised tomatoes




If left to their own devices, indeterminate tomato plants will continue to grow and grow, putting lots of energy into more and more vines (also known as suckers). We prune these suckers so that the plant focuses its energy on growing bigger, more delicious fruits instead of more vines. The suckers, although they look small to start, will eventually grow into a whole new vine that will flower and set fruit, so it’s best to get them early.

Photo from Sarah Johnson
Photo from Sarah Johnson

I imagine that writing about how to prune tomatoes won’t be very effective. Here’s a short youTube video that demonstrates the basics about pruning tomatoes.

Other tips on pruning:

  • Start pruning relatively early (about when the tomato plant has three suckers beginning to grow), then try to continually prune about once a week or so to keep up with the plant’s growth
  • The verdict is still out about what is the best number of vines to allow your tomato plant to grow. Both Sarah and I have found the general consensus among area farmers to be 3-4 vines per plant; 4-6 vines for a cherry tomato plant. Once you’ve picked the *chosen ones* (those few vines that look the strongest and will be allowed to continue growing) trellis or stake them so they are easily identifiable. This will make future pruning much easier and will allow you to train the vine around the string it’s tied to as it grows
  • Smaller suckers can be pinched off by hand, but larger ones (thicker than a chopstick) should be clipped with scissors or pruning shears to avoid damaging the plant


Tomatoes are heavy feeders, meaning they take a lot of nutrients out of the soil as they grown. To ensure your tomato plants have enough nutrients, you can fertilize throughout the season.

If you decide to purchase fertilizer, remember to look for non-synthetic fertilizers that meet requirements for organic production. For one, it’s part of the Garden City Harvest community garden policy and sustainable gardening guidelines. One of the reasons we don’t promote the use of non-synthetic fertilizer is because they tend to deteriorate soil quality, rather than build it. Plants then become dependent on continued applications of synthetic fertilizer in degraded soil. Plus, synthetics contribute to water pollution and when used in excess can be ingested and contribute to health problems. You can read more on the effects of synthetic fertilizer in this discussion from Organic Valley. And this article better explains how to identify organic fertilizers.

Here’s the skinny on fertilizers:

  • Complete fertilizers include a balance of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. All fertilizers have a ratio printed on their label which indicates that particular fertilizer’s balance of these nutrients (for example: 5-10-10 or 10-10-10)
  • Other fertilizers, such as manure, bone meal or cottonseed meal provide just one of those nutrients
  • Nitrogen promotes the growth of dark green foliage; Phosphorous promotes the growth of flowers and fruits; Potassium helps build a strong stem and root system

Here is the secret for fertilizing tomato plants:

Use a fertilizer higher in nitrogen in the beginning of the plant’s life (such as fish emulsion), BEFORE the plant starts producing blossoms. This promotes the growth of foliage, which promotes better photosynthesis.

Once the plants start producing blossoms, use a fertilizer higher in phosphorous (to help the growth of flowers and fruits)

Some tips on watering

Tomatoes are best watered at the base of the plant, rather than from over head. Watering the foliage can cause the leaves to get sunburned during the day (there’s no SPF to protect from that). Water left on leaves overnight can also lead to disease.

Throughout the summer consistently give your plants a deep watering (2 – 3 times/week). If the soil is dry one inch below the surface, those plants need a drink (mulching around your plants will help them retain their moisture). However, once the end of the season is in sight begin to water your plant a little less. Yes, that’s right. All summer long you took extra special care of that tomato plant, only to stress it out at the end of summer. By watering less you slightly stress out the plant, which triggers it to go into full fruit production.

Stay tuned for more info about extending your tomato season, harvesting, and storing tomatoes. In the meantime, leave us a comment if you want more information about a particular topic – tomato-related or not. 

heirloom tomatoes

The Tomato of My Eye

sarahjGuest post: Sarah Johnson is a Northside Community Garden Mentor, and also an expert on tomatoes.  When she agreed to do a blog post for us on tomatoes, and we were tickled pink (or should I say red?).  If you want more info, Sarah will also be leading a workshop geared for community gardeners on July 14th, 5:30 – 7 pm at the Northside Community Garden.  Give Garden City Harvest a call 406.550.3663 if you’d like to join in the fun (it’s free).

My tomato education began five years ago on a cold June afternoon.  I was working on Killarney Farm that summer,  nestled in North Idaho surrounded by nothing but national forest.  Farmers Paul & Ellen of Killarney Farm grow over 30 different tomato varieties.

On the afternoon of my arrival, I stood in a warm moist greenhouse seeking respite from the rain, breathing in the scent of hundreds of potted tomatoes bound for market.   Over the next five years I worked closely with farmer Ellen learning how to tend, care for, and appreciate the unique attributes of the many tomato varieties.


One of my favorite parts of the job was helping customers choose their tomatoes at the Kootenai County Farmer’s Market. The chance to educate customers on features and planting techniques was key to their success at home. Here are some of the questions I learned to ask our customers as the decided what to plant.

Top 5 questions to ask yourself when choosing a tomato for planting:

  • What am I gonna use it for? (proper North Idaho back woods English)
  • Do I want small, medium, or large fruit size?
  • Heirloom? What does heirloom mean anyway?
  • Determinate or Indeterminate?
heirloom tomatoesWhatcha gonna use it for?

There are so many ways to use tomatoes: salads, salsa, sauce, sandwiches, snacks… it makes your head spin. These questions will help narrow down the variety of tomato that will be right for you. For example, if you plan on making sauce till the cows come home then a nice meaty paste tomato will serve you much better than a juicy salad tomato.

Fruit size
  • a small cherry tomato is 2 to 5 oz or the size of a large gumball
  • a medium tomato is 6 to 10 oz or approximately the size of a tennis ball
  • a large tomato is 10 oz+ and can be the size of a softball
Heirloom – what does it mean?

An Heirloom is open-pollinated (by birds, insects, wind) and has been cultivated for at least 50 years. An heirloom must be open-pollinated, but not all open-pollinated plants are heirlooms.

This is in contrast to a hybrid where different varieties are cross-pollinated by human intervention. Hybridization may also occur naturally but when buying plants the seed is usually denoted by ‘F1′. Heirloom does not always mean a better tomato. Choose a tomato that fits your taste!

Determinate vs. Indeterminate

A determinate tomato grows to one size (also called bush tomatoes), sets its fruit over a couple of weeks, ripens, and is done for the season. These tomatoes may be caged for support. An indeterminate tomato, or vine-type tomato, continues to grow and shoot new flowering tops, getting infinitely taller and producing fruit over a longer period of time. An indeterminate tomato needs pruning and a greater support structure during the growing season.

Transplanting tips

Growing space: Cherry tomatoes and compact determinate tomatoes work well in containers 18”-24” in diameter. Tomatoes planted in the ground should be 24”-36” for the best production.

Choose a sunny location that receives 6 hours or more of direct sunlight each day.
Prepare the soil:

Dig a hole large enough so that you may transplant the tomato up to its second set         of leaves. A trench may also be dug and the plant can be laid into the soil at a slant with only its head sticking out of the ground. Throw a handful of compost or composted manure into the hole & mix well with soil. At this point you may add an organic tomato/vegetable fertilizer to the soil or water your transplants in with an organic liquid fertilizer such as fish emulsion.

Prepare the tomato for transplant:

Pinch the bottom leaves off the stem of the tomato plant. Gently pull the tomato out of    its container and massage outer roots slightly to loosen the root ball without damaging the root system. Place tomato into hole or trench so that the entire stem will be buried up to its leaves. The tomatoes will form roots from the stem that is planted underground forming a more solid root structure for the plant. (Tomatoes are super cool plants!)

Watering Tomatoes:

Water transplants in thoroughly. After initial watering, water regularly but let the soil dry out between watering, as over-watering can lead to disease in plants. Give the plants an inch* of water every week, two inches when the weather gets really hot (that equates to soaking the plants thoroughly every 4-5 days for well-drained sandy soil and every 7-10 days for heavy soil).

*There are many ways to measure ‘an inch’ of water. The easiest way is to set a container out under your sprinkler, drip line, etc & water until you have 1 inch of water in the container.


Make sure your tomatoes are hardened off (aka being introduced slowly to being outside over a week or two). Tomatoes may be transplanted after the last frost date (May 19th in Missoula!) and when the night time temperatures are consistently above 55 degrees Fahrenheit.  If you have already planted your tomatoes, don’t fret! Tomatoes can be covered with an old sheet or fancy row covers at night to ensure that they stay warm. Tomatoes can tolerate temperatures below 55 degrees F but start to show cold damage if the temperature drops to 40 degrees F.

Want to learn more?  I am hosting a workshop for community gardeners on tomatoes.  Join me Tuesday, July 14th from 5:30 – 7 pm at the Northside Community Garden.

Happy Growing! I wish you a plateful of Tomatoes later this season!