Q: We are planning to grow vegetables in 5-gallon or larger containers instead of using part of a lawn for a vegetable garden. We are planning to put earthworms in the containers to help water percolate through to the container bottom. Would this work out for us or is this a bad idea?
J & M. H. of Millstadt
A: For growing plants in a large container, use an artificial soil mix (media) that contains peat moss and other media particles such as vermiculite, perlite, or components that are coarser in texture with larger pore spaces than garden soil. This helps drainage.
Earthworms, which work very well in a garden, will not work in a large container. In fact, earthworms will wipe out the conditions that you desire. Earthworms destroy the structure by ingesting the media and passing the undigested material as fine-textured castings. These castings, or organic form of fertilizer, will build up. With repeated watering, they will form a soggy layer that resists draining. This usually happens near the bottom of the container because there is more moisture there and it remains cooler. The shallower the container, the more this will become a problem.
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I have found from experiments with students that whenever you place earthworms in a container, they behave like any caged animal. They will wreck a perfectly good plan by eating the roots of plants, doing other unexpected damage or climbing out of the container after a short period of time.
In field studies, earthworms can produce about 700 pounds of castings a day per acre.
Q: I have grown tomatoes in many areas because I have been relocated many times in the military. The tomatoes were always delicious. But in this area, I have not had much luck because they end up thick-skinned with no flavor. What can I do to prevent this problem?
D. L. of Scott Air Force Base
A: An older gardener in our area taught me that the best flavored tomatoes are produced before and after the hot weather of July and August. He said to put out tomato plants in the garden early after the last killing frost of spring (around April 15). Either start the plants from seed in late March or buy plants that do not look stressed at a garden center.
Mulch the plants and make sure you water them when the soil begins to dry out, add mulch and also mix into the soil a lot of water-holding organic matter. Water stress produces thick-skinned tomatoes.
Another trick he used was to make cuttings just before the hot summer weather begins. These cuttings will produce vigorous plants ready to be set out in the last part of August, just in time for great tomatoes for fall harvest. Make sure to use an indeterminate variety for this because they continue to produce fruit throughout their complete life cycle.
Also, if your plants remain in good condition, it does not hurt to prune plants back by removing any weak and/or broken stems and tipping back the other remaining stems. Also, put tomato fertilizer on the surface of the soil and follow this with regular waterings if Mother Nature does not provide any water.
Charles Giedeman is a local contributing writer. Send your gardening questions to Lifestyle Editor Patrick Kuhl, Belleville News-Democrat, P.O. Box 427, 120 S. Illinois St., Belleville, IL 62222-0427, or email them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Do it now:
- Make a map of your vegetable garden so you know how many plants to grow or buy for this coming year.
- Map out a flower bed as well.