Skinning a Cat

Something I've learned over the years is that there frequently is not just one right way to do things.  I think this probably applies more to gardening than just about any other activity.  Every gardening book and expert out there gives advice that contradicts all the others.  What I've come to believe is that the right way to do things is however it works best for you.  Like the old saying goes, there are many ways to skin a cat. My two favorite gardening authors are Eliot Coleman and Steve Solomon.  I like what they write about and how they say it.  I agree with and try to do most of what they recommend, but some of it doesn't work for me, as well as other methods do.  So, I try new things, but pick and choose what to retain, based on the results.

As an example, drip irrigation is widely regarded as an effective and efficient method of watering.  I tried it a couple years ago, and didn't really care for it.  I found it expensive, hard to maintain, and not as effective as I'd expected.  Maybe I just didn't give it a fair shot.  But this year I built inexpensive sprinklers that I'm extremely happy with.  (Most store-bought sprinklers are designed for lawns, not gardens.)  For me, it's both easier to use and to maintain than drip irrigation.  Plus I get better water distribution than I did with drip.  Here are some pictures of some of the sprinklers in action.

I could go on and on.  Whether to mulch or not to.  How to make compost.  How to fertilize.  The topics are endless.  And so are the opinions of the experts.  Like I said above, it all boils down to what works best for you.

I'll wrap up with an example of almost everybody's favorite out-of-the-garden vegetable - tomatoes.  (That's because store-bought, hard, ethylene-gassed tomatoes taste like cardboard.)  There are many ways to grow them: let them sprawl on the ground, grow them in cages, up stakes, trellises, fences, etc., etc.  For years I grew them unpruned in wire cages of various sizes and shapes.  Then, a few years before we left California, I read an article showing how to prune them to four leaders, each growing up a separate post, and to keep pruning off all vining branches and suckers.  My first reaction was that this was throwing away possible extra fruit.  But the root system will only support a certain amount of growth anyway.  By pruning the vines, it lets in more light to ripen interior fruit, allows more air flow through the plant to help prevent disease, and makes it easier to pick the fruit.  Or so the theory went.  So I tried it,  liked it, and did it for the last few years we were in California.

This year, we've tried the method Eliot Coleman describes in The Winter Harvest Handbook.  He calls it "vertical growing".  We strung wire cable in the overhead of the greenhouse, on which we hung wire frames that hold spools of plastic twine that can ratchet out.  As the tomato vines grow up, we fasten small plastic clips that hold the vines to the twine.  We keep the vines pruned to a single leader. By the time the vines reach the top of the twine, the bottom hanging fruit have ripened, and we cut off the lower leaves from the vine.  Then we move the spool and its frame along the cable, while lowering the twine from the spool a couple feet.  Every time the plants grow back up to the cable, we repeat the process.  We have two rows of tomatoes that are moving in a circular pattern around the greenhouse, with longer and longer vines.

plastic tomato clips
plastic tomato clips
twine spools overhead
twine spools overhead
twine spool and frame
twine spool and frame
tomato vines
tomato vines
Carol standing between tomato rows
Carol standing between tomato rows

We really like how this has worked for us this year and plan to keep growing tomatoes this way.  Or at least until we find something that works better for us.   Steve