"Growing Cities" and growing tomatoes

Last night, I went to see the screening of a film called "Growing Cities." I've recently discovered the Institute of Urban Homesteading in Oakland, and I saw the trailer for this film on their website. I contacted my good friend Barbara, who also happens to be into this stuff, and she got us tickets, which was good because it was sold out and a long line of people were turned away at the door. I'm sorry there wasn't more room, but I am always so glad to see that there is so much interest in the subject of urban gardening!

The motto for Growing Cities is "Grow Where You Are." And the film showed people (heroes, really) growing nourishment in every major city across the United States; gardens in small reclaimed lots, on roofs, in windows, even in the back of a truck. Many of these were community gardens that also provided jobs for people in need, people transitioning from homelessness or prison. Many serve children, teaching them where food comes from and how to prepare and cook it so that it's delicious. All of them required hours and hours of volunteer time and care. It was an inspiring movie, and I'm glad I'm growing where I am.

Which makes me think of the tomato sale I attended last weekend. A friend of mine has recently completed the Master Gardener training and told me about the tomato sale the volunteers put on in April. I showed up at 9, mistakenly; the sale didn't start until 10. There was already a long line of people with folding chairs and boxes and carts to wheel away their purchased bounty. I waylaid a volunteer (there were many) and asked if I came back at 10, would there be anything left? She assured me that there was plenty, so I did some grocery shopping, unloaded at home, grabbed some of Dad's Shaker Chip Boxes for my purchases, and went back to the sale.

Here's what I found:

While standing in line, I chatted with a volunteer. She mentioned that this particular garden (behind Civic Arts in Walnut Creek, it's called Our Garden) is completely volunteer run and last year donated 10,000 pounds of food to the Monument Crisis Center. It made me feel good to know that my purchases were helping further that good work! The volunteer also gave me a sheet with a list of the products I could buy. There must have been over 50 different varieties of heirloom tomatoes, of every variety you can find - cherry, slicing, paste, patio. I chose six tomato plants (with advice culled from other customers and ready-to-help volunteers) and six pepper plants. I was glad that I was limited in my carrying space so that I couldn't buy too many!

(Aren't those boxes gorgeous? Dad makes them in large quantities and we use them for absolutely everything. They have dovetailed corners and steam-bended arms, plus what I believe is a French finish. Every single volunteer (and more than a few customers) at the tomato sale commented on the boxes. If you'd like to see more of Dad's wonderful work, take a look at killenwood.)

(If you have yet to buy your tomato plants, don't despair! The Master Gardeners are having another sale this coming Saturday the 12th. For details, see here.)

Once the tomatoes and peppers were in the ground, we had to decide about cages. And oh my gosh, if there's anything people are passionate about, it's how to support tomato vines. In the past, I had used the cheap cages from hardware stores and nurseries. Well, of course they are utter crap for tomatoes, because a healthy tomato can grow 8-10 feet tall. As the plant grew, the cage grew with it, until it was four feet in the air. Then it toppled over as the tomatoes reached jungle proportions. Luckily I was growing them in an area of my garden that was out of sight, but by the end of the season, even I was scared to enter the forest that had become my tomato patch.

So in the spirit of doing things 'right,' and knowing that our new garden is in full sight of God and country, not to mention my fastidious neighbors, I set about researching tomato cages. Talk about going down the rabbit hole. Yikes! I read about trellising, both wooden and mesh. I read about staking, with wood or rebar. I read about the Texas Tomato Cage, which looked perfect, but would have set us back $200 for six.

Finally Tom and I decided on making our own wire cages, five feet tall, about 20" in diameter, and it cost $60 for a huge roll at Home Depot, plus we have leftovers for the cucumbers and tomatillos. It took us 1/2 hour to make them and put them up. We staked them on one side with green garden stakes, which were $1.28 each. We don't expect huge weather or wind this summer, so we could get away with just one stake holding each cage.

The only drawback is that the mesh isn't wide enough to put my hand through to pick tomatoes. So we'll snip some areas in the mesh in order to allow that, and hopefully the vines will grow through the cage enough that most of the fruiting will happen outside it.

Maybe some of you experienced gardeners can weigh in on how you like to stake your tomatoes.

Meanwhile the peppers get the benefit of all the old cages, and they'll do fine with those.

I did a little companion planting with the tomatoes, too - some borage, plus some basil. We'll see how that all works out. I'm also hoping the tomato roots can push down through the rotting cardboard at the base of our sheet mulch, and can get into the ground below that. Those roots are gonna have some digging to do.