Aug 15, 2018

Why Rabbit Manure is the Best Fertilizer Ever

Using Bunny Manure in the Garden
Though we are considering adding meat rabbits to our homestead, our two Polish rabbits are strictly pets. Even so, they are a huge boon to our homestead for one simple reason: They poop. A lot. And their manure is gold for the garden.

When my daughter got her first pet rabbit, I didn't know this. I only knew that rabbit manure didn't have to be composted before use (unlike horse, steer, and chicken manure). That meant I could take the manure from the rabbit enclosure and put it directly into the garden without fear of damaging or killing plants. My garden loved it - and it was so easy!

This year is the first time I've turned our rabbit manure into "tea" - that is, liquid fertilizer. The process is exceedingly simple (learn how here), and by turning the manure into a liquid, the nutrients hit the plants much faster. I am not exaggerating when I say that within an hour of application, I've noticed plants fertilized with rabbit manure tea have noticeably grown.

This lead me to wonder why rabbit manure is so very effective in the garden. What makes it different from other animal manures?

NPK Rating for Rabbit Manure

As you may know, commercial fertilizers all contain an NPK rating. N stands for nitrogen, P stands for phosphorus, and K stands for potassium.

Nitrogen is used by plants to make leaves and green growth. That means it's essential for growing leafy greens, and helps crops like tomatoes get off to a good, strong start.

Phosphorus helps transform energy from the sun into chemical energy the plant uses to grow. In addition, phosphorus helps plants become stronger and more able to handle stresses like too little water or too much sun, plus it helps the plant grow roots and produce flowers and fruit.

Potassium aids in the prevention of disease and helps produce better-tasting fruit by controlling water content, protein, and sugars.

Aged horse manure, which is widely considered the gold standard for garden fertilizer, has an NPK rating of .70-.30-.60. Steer, another popular manure for gardens, is .70-.30-.40. Sheep manure is .70-.30-.60 and chicken is 1.1-.80-.50.

Rabbit manure is 2.4-1.4-.60...the best of them all. No wonder I see such a noticeable difference when I fertilize with rabbit manure!

How to Collect Rabbit Manure

If your rabbits are in any type of hutch or cage, they should have a manure tray beneath them. Alternatively, some homesteaders allow manure to fall directly into bins beneath their rabbits' cages. It's fine if the manure has a wee bit of hay in it.

My daughter regularly empties the rabbit manure trays into a large plastic tub. We keep the tub in a sheltered location because weather (especially rain) leeches nutrients from the manure. When I want to fertilize the garden, I scoop up whatever I need, as I need it.

If you don't own any rabbits, check local Facebook and Craigslist ads. Often, local rabbit owners sell or give away their bunny manure. And if you don't see any listings, don't despair; put up an "in search of" ad.

How to Apply Rabbit Manure

When installing a new plant, I always add a scoop or two of rabbit manure to the hole. You may also sprinkle manure around plants and gently dig it in, then water. I've also sprinkled bunny manure onto the surface of the soil and watered it in as a top dressing, though this is the least effective technique.

Rabbit manure tea may be applied once a week. Whole manure that's placed in a hole, dug around plants, or used as a top dressing may be applied about once or twice a month.

In addition, rabbit manure can go into your compost bin, to help make super-compost, along with kitchen scraps and garden debris. (Learn more about composting here.)

Aug 9, 2018

Weekend Links & Updates

My clothespin apron makes a good harvesting apron, too.
In which I share my favorite posts from this blog's Facebook page.

This post contains affiliate links. All opinions are my own. Please see FCC disclosure for full information. Thank you for supporting this site! 

"Have I not commanded you?
Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go."
Joshua 1:9

It's been a long time since I've updated you about our mountaintop homestead. There have definitely been some difficulties, but there are blessings (as always), too.

Let's start with the blessings. I am feeling so much better since my surgery. It's a relief to not be utterly exhausted all the time! I'm catching up on work around here, and branching out to begin working on articles for several new-to-me magazines.

And then there's the orchard. It looks like it's going to be an abundant year. Our yellow plum trees produced so much, we've had the blessing of giving away many pounds of fruit, as well as preserving some for ourselves.

In the past, these plums have been tough to preserve because they turn to mush when canned and are not very flavorful when dehydrated. (They do make great jam, but my family eats very little and there are only so many jars I can gift.) Freezing is an option, but the fruit makes them fit only for sweets, and we don't eat those much. So I tried freeze drying them this year. And guess what? I think they taste even better freeze-dried than they do fresh! Plus, freeze-dried food lasts 25 years or more. What a win! (Read about our freeze dryer here.)

Yummy freeze dried yellow plums.


In addition, we had one hen successfully raise chicks to pullets (basically, teenage chickens) and another hen has decided she wants babies, too. Currently, she's sitting on a clutch of eggs in a cage that's separate from the other chickens.
Me in the canning kitchen...another thing I'm grateful for!
All good things.

The bad things are pretty much all financial. I'm still receiving unexpected bills for my surgery, and that expense is a big hardship on us. And because our health savings account is now empty, any time we see a doctor or dentist, it's going to cost us. And then...we accidentally ruined the main telephone/broadband line for our road. I won't even go into details, but suffice it to say we are at the mercy of the telephone company financially. Would you pray for us about that? We'd be so very grateful.

Pickles and blackberries!

* A smart way to help your teens out of bad situations

* 10 Truths for Middleschoolers.

* Many common garden flowers also have medicinal uses...including hollyhocks.

* I recently discovered that a clothespin apron I made years ago makes a good harvesting apron. It's very easy to sew, too. Instructions here.  

* Getting rid of aphids naturally. 

* A cheap way to keep deer out of your vegetable garden.

Oldies But Goodies:

* How to Cook with and Preserve Plums
* How to Dehydrate Zucchini into Zoodles
* Keeping the House Cool in Summer...even without AC
* Eating Maple Seeds

Jul 31, 2018

How To Freeze Kale, Collards, and Other Greens

Preserving Greens
For the first time on our new homestead, I've got too much kale and collard greens to eat fresh. This is amazing considering the deer love greens as much as my family! The abundance is a happy thing, though, because greens are easy to preserve for winter eating.

You may certainly can greens, but I find them mushy and disagreeable when preserved this way. You may also dehydrate greens to use in smoothies or to powder and add to various dishes. You may also freeze dry greens for similar purposes. (Learn more about dehydrating vs. freeze drying here.)

But my preferred method for preserving greens is freezing - because frozen greens are most like fresh, cooked greens. Typically, I defrost frozen greens, pop them into a skillet with a dab of bacon drippings or olive oil, season with salt, pepper, and maybe some onion or garlic powder, and saute until bright green. DEElish! You may also use frozen greens in any cooked dish, like casseroles or enchiladas.

But first, you gotta prepare the greens, which may include:

* collards
* kale
* spinach
* mustard greens
* turnip leaves
* kohlrabi leaves
* radish leaves
* Brussels sprout leaves
* broccoli leaves
* cauliflower leaves
* Swiss chard
* and orach.

But no, it's not quite as simple as popping the greens into a freezer bag and tossing them in the freezer. That, my friends, would result in goopy mush. (But it works well for green beans!)

Preparing Greens for Freezing

1. Wash the leaves, and remove all thick stems. I usually tear the leaves off the stems, but you may cut them if you prefer. The stems are edible, by the way, but they require more cooking than the leaves, and I usually just compost them.

2. Roll the leaves into a cigar shape and slice into thin strips. The thicker the leaves, the thinner the slice you'll need. For example, collards are pretty thick and tough, so I cut the slices just under 1/4 inch wide or so. Spinach is pretty thin-leaved, so I make the slices about 1/2 inch wide.
Chopping kale in preparation for freezing.
Blanching Greens for Freezing

3. Fill a large pot with hot tap water and place it over high heat.

4. While waiting for the pot to come to a boil, thoroughly wash and sanitize the sink. Pour ice cubes into the cleaned sink and add cold tap water.

5. When the water in the pot comes to a full boil, carefully add the prepared greens. Blanch for an appropriate amount of time:

Collards = 3 min.
Other greens = 1 - 2 mins.

The thicker (tougher) the leaves are, the more blanching time they require.

6. When the greens are done blanching, place a colander over the opposite side of the sink (the one without ice in it) and strain the greens.

7. Quickly transfer the strained greens to the ice water.*

8. When the greens are completely cool to the touch, use a slotted spoon or your hands to transfer them back to the colander. Allow to them to drain for a few minutes.

Freezing Greens

9. Transfer the greens to freezer-safe containers. Use within 1 year.
Greens blanched, bagged, and ready for the freezer.

*NOTE: A more traditional method is to pour the blanched greens directly into the ice water, without putting them into a colander first. However, I find my method cools the greens faster, thereby stopping the cooking faster, which in turn leads to a more nutritious and fresher-tasting end product.

Jul 25, 2018

Living with a Small Kitchen

Making a small kitchen work
This post contains affiliate links. All opinions are my own. Please see FCC disclosure for full information. Thank you for supporting this site!

When we began looking for a rural homestead, I knew that in order to afford land in our area, the house would necessarily be modest. I was completely okay with that...but I admit that a bigger kitchen was at the very top of my "must have" list. I felt my suburban kitchen didn't have enough storage or counter space. I was always struggling with having enough room to can and make three meals a day. What I wanted was a house with an old-fashioned "farmer's kitchen." You know what I mean: Tons of countertops, a walk-in pantry, and enough room to store pots, pans, bowls, and all the basic tools cooks really need.

Did I end up with any of that? In fact, when, as prospective buyers, we walked into our current home, we immediately entered into the kitchen...and I went into a sort of shock. Not only was the kitchen smaller than my suburban kitchen, it was smaller than the kitchen I had when I was 18 years old and living in a New York City apartment! There was one short counter, two small cupboards without doors, a sink, a stove, and an oddly-placed dishwasher. (But at least there was a dishwasher, right?) I was so shocked by that kitchen, later I couldn't even remember if there was a refrigerator in it - or whether there was room for one!
The kitchen on move-in day.

Nevertheless, my husband convinced me we could make it work. We bought the house and property and, somehow, I do manage pretty well.

Do I still wish for more counter space? Yes. There have been a few times the food I was preparing ended up on the floor because I was trying to crowd things onto about 2 feet of workable counter space. Do I wish for more storage space? Absolutely! But I have plans, people. And then...I'm actually imagining we might not need to add on to the house to make the kitchen usable. (Shhhh! Don't tell my husband just yet! I could change my mind.)

If you're stuck with a tiny kitchen like I am, here are some pointers to help make it work:

* Try to think positively. This kitchen is what you have right now. If you're clever, you can make it work better than you think. Consider it a challenge. And remember: Small kitchens means less to clean!

* Be creative. Find ways to store items that are less than traditional; turn a dresser into a sideboard, use plastic drawers (like this) for utensils and towels, hang things on the wall or from the ceiling...

* Conversely, think traditional. Previous to the 19th century, kitchens were tiny and had very little storage. What did women of yore do to make those kitchens workable that you could incorporate into your modern kitchen? Maybe you could use a hanging basket system (like this) for onions and garlic, and a pot rack for pots, for instance.

* Clear off the counters. My big kitchen problem in suburbia was mostly that I had too many things on the countertops. This left very little space for me to chop, roll out, and otherwise do the work of cooking. Now I recommend putting small appliances on shelves or in closets or cupboards, taking them out only as needed. Follow this rule: Never put something on the counter that could easily go elsewhere. For instance, if your paper towel holder is on the countertop, hang it on the wall instead.

* Think like Julia Child. Have you seen photos of her kitchen? (Click here for a good one.) She had pegboard on several walls, and her pans and utensils all hung from it. Yes, I agree it might be a pain to keep things clean, but it sure would make finding your tools easy...and it definitely takes up less cupboard space.
My kitchen today. Not pretty, but I get along okay.
* Space above your kitchen cabinets? Use it wisely! Put baskets (preferably with lids) or canisters up there and use them for storing things you don't often use.

* Consider storage in non-kitchen areas. For example, store your home canned food in a spare bedroom closet, under a bed, or maybe in the garage (as long as it's not so moist the lids rust). Then you can "go shopping" periodically for a few jars to pop into the kitchen pantry. Or, store small appliances you don't often use in a closet. For instance, my stand mixer is in a closet in the living room.

* Consider getting rid of stuff. How many of your kitchen gadgets do you actually use? Could one gadget do the job of two (or more)? Do you ever really use your fancy china? (If your answer is once or twice a year, store it in a place other than the kitchen.)

* If your cabinets have doors (!) use the doors for storage. For instance, you could use chalkboard paint on the inside of one door, for keeping a running grocery list, or install command hooks on the inside of cupboard doors for storing measuring cups or pot holders.

* Use the sink as a workspace. All you need is a large cutting board. Center it over the sink and voila! You have a little more counter space.

Some specific plans for my tiny kitchen:

* Right now I have an automotive crash cart with a makeshift wood top as an island. Classy, right? But it does help some. My plan is to replace it with a larger, moveable island (like this one) with storage beneath and a countertop above. I will probably do it on the cheap, turning an old dresser into a kitchen island.

I'm working on making my small kitchen more functional...and attractive.
* Recently I bought a hutch at a thrift store, and it's solving a lot of my storage problems. It sits in the dining/living room area, and I've put pots and pans, bakeware, and bowls in the bottom, hidden storage part. Plates and bowls are in the top, glassed part. It's missing shelves, but once my hubby builds some new ones for it, I'll even have room for some pretty china in there. (Because a pretty house is uplifting, that's why!)

* I want to get rid of the doorless cabinets that are too high for me and replace them with something bigger and more practical. They will definitely have doors on them, so the contents of the cabinets don't get dusty and greasy. (Open shelving is definitely not practical in a kitchen!)

* One of these days, we'll get the pot rack (similar to this) hung, so most of my pots and pans don't take up space in the hutch. This will give me even more storage space.

* Let's face it: Having a separate canning kitchen (see it here) makes my life easier, too. (Although I did make canning work last summer when I was using the house kitchen and an outside burner.)

* And then there are things I want to do to make the kitchen prettier. The original owners just put primer on the walls - no paint - and it's badly stained. So just getting paint up there will help tremendously. I also want to put a curtain under the sink, to hide the mess down there. I avoided this at first because I was afraid of the open flames on our gas stove, but I've decided I can push the curtain away from the stove while cooking. Finally, I'd love to replace the burnt orange Formica countertop with something more attractive. That could be more Formica (I like that durable stuff!) or it could be wood.

How do you manage in your small kitchen?

Jul 20, 2018

Why Homemaking Matters

When I was a girl in the midst of the feminist 1970s and 80s, my mother pooh-poohed homemaking. She kept a reasonably tidy house, but she was forever in a hurry to get the house cleaning done so she could do "important things" - like her job or her artwork. She never had me do chores - I rarely even picked up my own room until I reached my teens. She didn't see any value in home keeping and wanted "better" things for me.

This was a great disservice to me (even though I know she believed the opposite and was doing her best at the time). When I was a teen and she wanted me to start caring more for myself and my things, I didn't know how. No one ever taught me. Housekeeping was apparently something so ridiculously simple, I was supposed to just know how to do it.

Later, when I had a home of my own, I was still unprepared. Like my mother, I generally saw home keeping as a chore to get out of the way as soon as possible so I could do "more important" things. By then, I'd figured out - the hard way, through experimentation - how to do things like wash the dishes and vacuum reasonably well. But I still had a great deal to learn.

All this came to a head when children came into the picture. That added responsibility is what tipped the scales of my life into chaos. I didn't understand the foundations of home keeping, so I couldn't control my household.

I saw immediate negative effects. My house was a mess. The dirt and disorganization made me feel depressed. My husband - ever gentle when it came to criticizing me - began to complain some. Being in the house was stressful for him - and for me. And what was I teaching my children?

It was then I realized that the old ideas about home keeping - that it was an important job - were correct. The feminists were wrong. There was a reason the Bible held high the good home keeper - the Proverbs 31 woman. Her work - her job - made it possible for her and her family to thrive.

A Few Benefits of Good Home Keeping:
* A restful home
* Less stress for everyone in the household
* A more peaceful family
* More money to spare for charities, savings, vacations, etc.
* The home maker develops useful business skills
* Saves times
* Makes it much easier to entertain
* Is one way to show our family we care about them

A Few Side Effects of Bad Home Keeping:
* More stress for everyone in the household
* Less money to spare
* Inability to find things - and the frustration that accompanies this
* Time is easily wasted
* Makes it difficult and stressful to entertain
* Feels embarrassing and can lead to feelings of resentment in family members

In short, a woman who wants a restful home, a peaceful household, and more money to spend will take home keeping seriously. And while there are many things to learn about good home keeping, it's far from true that the good homemaker must wear herself out or spend all her time cooking and cleaning. In fact, one of the joys of keeping house well is that the home keeper will have more time for her family, her friends, charity, and her passions than the disorganized woman.

A version of this post originally appeared in Februrary of 2012.

Jul 10, 2018

Low Carb and Keto Pizza Options

This post contains affiliate links. All opinions are my own. Please see FCC disclosure for full information. Thank you for supporting this site!

 Whenever people hear I'm on a keto diet, first they are amazed at my results (blood sugar normalized after previously needing insulin, blood pressure and cholesterol normalized, hidradenitis supporativa in remission, regained energy, and 45 lbs. lost effortlessly!). But then most people say something like, "Wow, I could never eat like that. I need my [insert carby food here]." I think this shows just how addicted to carbs (which are reduced to sugar in the body) many people are. Still, I always let them know that you can almost always find a keto version of whatever carby food you think you can't live without (which I recommend they save as a treat, rather than eating daily). For many people, this food is pizza.

Turns out, there are a lot of ways to eat pizza without a fattening crust. (Cause with keto, we aren't worried about all that cheese, unless someone has an intolerance to it - in which case they can use dairy subs.) Here are just a few you can choose from.
Fat Head Pizza by Fat Head.
Many people consider this the Holy Grail of low carb/keto pizzas. It is pretty dang good, in my opinion. You can also omit the egg and have a decent crust, also (which is good for people like me who are allergic or intolerant to eggs).

On Pinterest, you'll find a lot of variations for this type of pizza, but this basic recipe is a great start. This stuff is so popular, you can even buy a version in the frozen section of many grocery stores!

Ultimate Cheese Crust Pizza by Cut the Wheat.
Cheese crust pizza is a quick and easy favorite at my house. I often simply scatter shredded mozzarella onto a parchment paper lined baking sheet, pop it into the oven until it's just beginning to turn golden, add pizza sauce and toppings, and return to the oven until a little more golden. I can never seem to get a crispy crust, but it sure is delish! Here's a skillet version to try, too.

Pork Rind Pizza by Hey Keto Mama.
I don't like eating pork rinds by themselves. (Yuck!) But I have learned that you can turn pork rinds into some pretty amazing dishes. (My favorite keto pancakes are made with pork rinds!) I haven't yet tried making a pizza crust from them, but folks tell me it's pretty amazing.

Cauliflower Pepperoni Pizza Casserole by Closet Cooking.
Sometimes you don't need a crust at all, as with this tasty pizza casserole. When I make this,  I like to add more meat - like sausage - to make it a heartier meal for my growing kids.

Zucchini Pizza Boats by Cooking Classy.
Using a low carb veggie as the crust is another way to go. Zucchini is a popular choice, as is Portabella mushrooms.

Or you can shred the zucchini and make a more bread-like pizza crust. Here's a similar recipe using spinach.
Cauliflower Pizza Crust by Eat a Great Deal.
No low carb pizza collection would be complete without at least one cauliflower crust pizza. You can also buy cauliflower crust pizzas in the frozen section of many grocery stores, but they often have questionable ingredients and are too high carb for true keto-ers.

Spinach Tomato Meatza by Low Carb Yum.
Meatza is a popular low carb choice. Basically, instead of a crust, you use meat (usually ground beef or ground beef and sausage), then put pizza toppings on it to make a sort of casserole.

When I don't have a lot of time to make dinner, I throw pizza into my Instant Pot. I double this recipe for my family of four. Sometimes I also make this recipe in the oven: Layer the ingredients in a casserole dish - using cooked beef - and bake at 350 degrees until heated through and bubbly.

For a quick pizza fix, using deli meat as a crust works well. Just add the toppings of your choice.

Pizza in a Bowl by My Montana Kitchen.
An even quicker and easier way to tame your pizza craving is to put all the toppings you love in a bowl, then heat it in the microwave or oven.

There are almost too many low carb pizza choices! You just have to find which ones you like best. Happy sampling!

Jul 6, 2018

Why Apples are the Best Homestead Fruit Crop

Why Apples are the Best Homestead Crop
This post contains affiliate links. All opinions are my own. Please see FCC disclosure for full information. Thank you for supporting this site! 

I've already written about the perfect homestead vegetable crop; it's high time I write about what I believe is the perfect fruit crop, too. There are lots of easy to grow fruits out there, and all of them have their importance for urban and rural homesteaders, but as far as I'm concerned, there's a hands-down winner every homestead should have: Apples.

I can't take credit for being the first to  think apples are a must-have. If you've ever explored old homesteads, you know you can almost always find apple trees on them. This is, in part, because apple trees are hardier than most other fruit trees, tending to live longer, even with neglect. But it's also because apple trees were considered the fruit tree every family should have. Why is this? Let me count the ways:

* Apple trees are reliable and prolific. Many farmers and homesteaders will tell you fruit trees have a tendency to produce bi-annually, meaning one year you may get little to no crop, and the following year the harvest is abundant. Yet in my experience (both as a suburban homesteader foraging for apples in public areas and as a rural homesteader with an orchard) apples rarely have a bad year. And did you know that a
a single apple tree can provide 130 lbs. or more of food each year? Holy smokes! I'm so thankful for their heartiness and abundance.

* Apples are filling. In my opinion, apples are more filling than any other fruit (probably because of their water and fiber content). When times are hard, you can count on apples to fill bellies. It's the reason Johnny Appleseed gifted pioneers with apple seeds!

These beauties from our orchard are a meal unto themselves!
* Apples are nutritious and medicinal. According to the USDA, one apple contains 148 mg of potassium, 3.3 g fiber, and even a wee bit of protein. Apples are also high in antioxidants, polyphenols, iron, and vitamin C, while also containing vitamin K, copper, manganese, and magnesium. Some studies link apples to reduced risk of heart disease, Altzheimer's and dementia, and asthma. They also are a prebiotic, meaning they feed the good bacteria in your, dentists say apples help clean your teeth. Herbalists use apples (especially wild or crab apples) to treat constipation, indigestion, stomach cramps, diarrhea, high cholesterol, and minor wounds. They also use apple leaves to treat minor wounds and act as an antibiotic - and the apple tree's bark as a treatment for fevers. Additionally, apple pectin is used to treat diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, cancer, and radiation exposure. (Click here for instruction on how to make and use apple pectin.)

Immature apples on our homestead.
* Apples can be preserved a myriad of ways. Many varieties store well in cold storage (in a cellar, garage, or refrigerator). Apples are easy to dehydrate; they freeze (and freeze dry) beautifully. You may also can apples to make halves in light or heavy syrup, jelly, jam, "butter," applesauce, cider and juice, apple pie filling, and more. You can easily use apples to make vinegar, too. (Click here for more tips on preserving apples.)

* Apples are versatile. Eat them by themselves, make them into a dessert, turn them into a savory dish, squish them to make something to drink, and use the scraps to make vinegar!
Homemade applesauce is healthy and delish.
* Apples are good nutrition for homestead animals. Pigs, cattle, goats, sheep, rabbits, and chickens all enjoy eating apples. Not only are they a natural, healthy food for animals, but it helps cut down on homestead feed costs, making critter-keeping more affordable.

So if I had to choose just one type of fruit to grow on our homestead, it would, without a doubt, be apples.

More Posts about Apples:

What to do with Crab Apples

Apple Peel and Core Jelly

Picking Unripe Apples for Making Apple Pectin

Apple Skillet Cake Recipe

Apple Spice Bread Recipe 

Apple Butter Oatmeal Crumb Bars Recipe

Old Fashioned Baked Apples Recipe

Canning Apple Pie Jam

Freezing Apples

Freezing Apple Pie Filling

The Best Tasting, Easiest Applesauce Ever

How to Make Apple Cider with an Electric Juicer

Making Dried Apple Rings in the Warmer Drawer

Wax Costing on (Store Bought) Apples: Is it Safe?

Jun 26, 2018

The Biggest LIE About Growing Tomatoes

The biggest myth about growing tomatoes
This post contains affiliate links. All opinions are my own. Please see FCC disclosure for full information. Thank you for supporting this site! 

 Am I a tomato-growing expert? I'm not sure I'd give myself that title, even though I've successfully grown tomatoes for 16 or more years. But Craig LeHoullier? Yep, he's definitely an expert. He's trialed more than 1,200 varieties of tomatoes and introduced 100 new or "lost" tomatoes to the world. This guy knows his stuff. So when he says there's one big lie - a persistent myth - that haunts the gardening world, we should listen. Especially since it's something that wastes our time and reduces our tomato yields.

"I am most often asked about pruning and suckering of tomato plants," LeHoullier writes in his book Epic Tomatoes. Suckers are side-stems that grow at the junction between the plant's main stem and its leaf stems. Conventional wisdom says gardeners must remove all suckers from tomato plants - or end up with a smaller tomato harvest.

I've long wondered about this, because back in the days before I "knew better," I never did cut off suckers. When I finally read somewhere that I should, and began implementing my new found "wisdom," if anything I saw a reduction in the production of my tomato plants. Well, LeHoullier confirms my observation. "Contrary to pervasive urban legends, " he writes. "[suckers] do not sap energy from the main tomato plant."

Suckers grow between the plant's main stem and a leaf stem.
Further, LeHoullier maintains that removing suckers may result in a smaller tomato harvest. He explains:
"Picture a tomato plant that has all of its suckers removed, tied to an 8-foot stake. A blossom cluster is produced at 8- to 12-inch intervals, starting at 2 feet from the soil line. During the season, the majority of the flower clusters open a times when the temperature and/or humidity is not suitable for pollination, leading to blossom drop*. As a result, only a handful of fruit is produced on the 8-foot tall plant, with no mechanism available for producing additional flowers. If just one sucker would have been maintained, the number of flower clusters would have doubled, and it is highly likely that flowers on that additional growing shoot would have opened under more suitable conditions, thus significantly increasing the yield of the plant."

* "Blossom drop" is when a flower is produced, but is never pollinated and therefore cannot produce fruit.

Allowing suckers to stay on the plant also offers an additional bonus: giving the plant more leaves, which in turn helps reduce sunscald on fruit.

But LeHoullier doesn't just leave it at that. He goes on to further explain why you might want to prune your tomato plants, anyway:

* Snipping off some suckers helps control the size of the plant. You don't want the plant sprawling all over the ground, where it may pick up disease. Too many branches may lead to poor circulation, which also may cause disease.

* Removing some suckers prevents plants from becoming so big you have a tough time harvesting tomatoes that aren't on the edges of the plant.

* If you want additional tomato plants, and your growing season is long enough to allow younger plants to produce, removing suckers is a cheap and easy way to accomplish this. After snipping off suckers that are about 6 inches long, put each one in a jar of water. (Alternatively, push the cut ends into a pot filled with wet potting mix.) Keep out of direct sunlight and the suckers should begin producing roots within 2 weeks.  If you've started the rooting process in a jar (which better allows you to see how many roots each sucker has), transfer well-rooted suckers to a pot and keep in a shaded location for a few weeks before planting out with your other tomatoes.

* Topping plants also maintain control over the plant's size. This is an especially handy technique toward the end of the season: If frost is nearing and the plant is producing flowers that likely will never have a chance to turn into ripe fruit, topping puts the plant's energy into growing and ripening fruit already on the vine, instead of putting it into creating new flowers. This method also prevents large tomato plants from breaking or topping over. To top a tomato plant, snip off the top stem just above the final flower cluster you want to turn into fruit.
Staked tomatoes, courtesy of
However, do bear in mind that determinate varieties (which have a natural growing limit) should never have their suckers removed because this considerably decreases yeilds. (Indeterminate tomato plants lack this growing limit and will get bigger and bigger until frost kills the plant.)

So there you have it. Growing tomatoes is easier and less time consuming than some people would have you believe! Happy growing!

* Cover image courtesy of Jennifer C.