This week I appeared on the Vegetable Gardening podcast and the video version, The Vegetable Gardening Show. Mike The Gardener interviewed me about growing tomatoes, getting started in organic gardening, why I started writing Big Blog of Gardening, attracting birds to your yard and many other gardening subjects. Enjoy.
Mike: A great show for you tonight, we’re gonna be joined by Todd Heft. He is the purveyor of the BigBlogOfGardening.com and also the author of Homegrown Tomatoes: the step-by-step guide to growing delicious organic tomatoes in your garden. That’s coming up on The Vegetable Garden Show right now.
Coming to you from the Garden State studios here in Burlington, New Jersey, this is The Vegetable Garden Show. I’m your host Mike Podlesny. We have a great show for you. Todd Heft is gonna be with us. He’s the purveyor of big blog of gardening dot com and he is also the author of this book, Homegrown Tomatoes: the step-by-step guide to growing organic tomatoes in your home garden. He’s gonna be joining us to tell us all about his book, all about his favorite tomatoes. We have a ton of questions for him about that, always looking for new varieties of heirlooms to try. If you love tomatoes like I do, I always like to try a few different varieties every single year just to mix it up and get some new varieties out there and keep things fresh in the garden and exciting, and new adventures and challenges and all those great things that we can think of.
If you listen to us on the radio show or on the podcast you can watch the video show, just go to our YouTube channel. You can find that at either average person gardening dot com / YouTube and that will redirect you to the YouTube channel, or if you go to youtube directly and just search the vegetable gardening show we come up first on the list. So we appreciate everybody that has been tuning in as always. When you get there be sure to click the subscribe button and the bell notification which you’ll find below the first video there. That’ll notify you every time we upload a new video which as you know is every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday morning.
As always you can follow me on all the social networks at Mike The Gardener on Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram, on Facebook look for veggie gardening. I do about 30 seconds to 1:30 videos on different things going in my garden and some of the places that I’m visiting. So we’ve been getting a lot of feedback on that, a lot of positive feedback, been answering some questions with video, so I do like doing that, so be sure to check that out on the Facebook page, which you can find at facebook dot com / veggie gardening. As always send me your emails: Mike@averagepersongardening.com. I love getting your emails and this time of the year we’re getting a lot of, you know, my garden’s coming to an end, what do I do, how do I you know, take it down, and all that stuff. So we’re covering those emails on our blog and on the Facebook page, so be sure to check that out. Todd Heft will be with us right after this.
Mike: On the show is Todd Heft. Todd is the author of the book Homegrown Tomatoes: the step-by-step guide to growing delicious organic tomatoes in your garden as well as the purveyor of the Big Blog of Gardening which you can find at bigblogofgardening.com. We’ll link to Todd’s book as well as the website in the show notes. Todd, welcome to the show.
Todd: Hello, Mike. Thanks for having me on. I really appreciate it.
Mike: I got your book, I am in the middle of reading it. Anybody that knows me is… I won’t consider myself a super fast reader, but I’m just about done with it. I really like it, you did a really good job with it.
Todd: Thank you.
Mike: Let me start there. There’s a ton of books out there on varieties of gardening, a lot of it with tomatoes. What made you want to do a book on tomatoes and write a really good one? It is a really good book.
Todd: Thank you. Well there are a lot of books on tomatoes out there, but everybody has their kind of unique viewpoint on growing tomatoes and growing any kind of vegetables. You know there’s no one way to grow anything, as every gardener finds out. There’s all kinds of techniques. So I thought I’d also share some research that I did for the book [and] I’m kind of an amateur photographer too. All the images in the book are mine also, that I shot in my garden over a number of years. So I just thought it’d be cool to put together something like that, not a big tome like a professor would do, but just kind of what a home gardener does: here’s my techniques. I grow bushels every year and hopefully I can just share my techniques with somebody and they have some success on their own too.
The thing I ran into – actually mostly what kind of inspired me, was when I ran into somebody who hadn’t gardened yet, but wanted to garden. And they didn’t know where to start. And I felt this real intimidation coming from them, like they were afraid to, because they’re afraid of failing. So I thought let’s write something simple, show them it’s not that difficult, especially if you start small and here’s what you can do.
MIke: Yeah you know and that’s what I took from reading the book. Through the sections that I have gotten through so far is you’ve really broken it down to a level – and I’m not trying to say this in a demeaning way to anybody out there who’s never gardened before – but to a point where anybody can understand it and you can almost just dive right in. Because you break down the composting in there that you talk about and of course organic gardening which we’re going to get to in a minute, which is a big topic of yours. So I think you’ve really done a good job with that, I think it really hit the point. And you just mentioned something there a second ago about how you talk to people and they do feel intimidated about gardening, like there’s that fear there. And I’ve come across that myself in my own travels. When you run across people that say “oh gosh Todd, I don’t know, I mean you’ve been gardening for a lot longer than me, it’s probably easy for you”, how do you convince them that yeah, there’s challenges but it’s not as hard as they think it is?
Todd: Start small is the basic thing. If you have property, use it. You know, get a nice sunny area. If you don’t have property, you can grow tomatoes in containers, certain varieties of peppers, lots of things can grow in containers. I have friends that do nothing but container gardening. And that’s the thing – if you break it off in small bites it becomes very easy. Because you know you’re gonna fail at gardening. You have to accept that. There are going to be failures. One of the things we all say is, there’s always next year. Oh well. I fail at gardening every single year.
Mike: And that is true, Todd. I was talking with somebody the other day and they were just saying, oh you know you make it look so easy. I go you know what? There’s not a year that goes by that something doesn’t go wrong or maybe you’ve run into this yourself, you get a little overzealous with your planting so you plant too much that you really shouldn’t, just things like that.
In the book you talked about determinate tomatoes and indeterminate tomatoes and I’ve actually received a couple of emails on that question, so I’m glad that you’re here tonight. Could you explain to our audience what those two terms mean and you can use them in reference to tomatoes.
Todd: Well determinate plants… basically the simple explanation is that a determinate plant produces all of its fruit within about a two week period and that grows more like a bush. An indeterminate plant grows on a vine and that will produce all season for you. That’s the simple explanation there. But you know if you’re going to grow like a paste tomato and your mission is to create an enormous amount of sauce, you grow a determinant plant because they all come in at once, you get this big bushel of tomatoes, and off you go into the kitchen. If you want to eat fresh all season long you get a vine variety and and eat them as you wish.
Mike: So in reference to tomatoes what are some of your favorites that you like to grow?
Todd: Oh okay…
Mike: Well I know it’s a limitless list, but break it down for us.
Todd: Ok. Here’s what I’m growing this year. What I do now is I have some things I like to grow every year because I like to make a lot of sauce. So I always grow the Amish paste which is really reliable. I also get most of my seeds from Baker Creek Heirloom. I’m not plugging them, I don’t get them for free or anything, but they’re a fantastic seed company, very reliable, the stuff is what it says it is. Sometimes, I don’t know if you’ve experienced this, but I’ve put things in pots and they’ve grown and it’s not what it was on the seed packet.
Mike: Yeah you’re absolutely right, Todd. I’ve come across that myself and you’re right. Baker Creek is an excellent company with a wide variety of different types of heirlooms and other vegetables and fruits and things like that.
Todd: There’s my Amish Paste now. One of the last of the season. I’ll be eating that soon. it’s a beautiful tomato, it’s great for fresh slicing, it’s fantastic for sauce because it doesn’t have a high water content and it’s just, it’s very reliable. But this… I’m going to turn you on to a new tomato. I discovered this at Baker Creek. This is called the Cosmic Eclipse, it’s a brand new tomato. Look at that. Look at the colors on that.
Mike: Wow that’s fascinating. It looks… is it striped? For those….
Todd: It’s not striped exactly it’s kind of… if I was a guitar player, I’d call that a sunburst finish. I’m going to cut it open for you and check out the inside. It’s really cool.
Mike: To our radio listeners and our podcast listeners get on over to our YouTube channel because Todd held up a really cool looking tomato. That is awesome! Yeah yeah. It’s sort of a dark ring on the outside, some red in the middle, that’s really cool. Is that an heirloom variety?
Todd. Yeah. It’s an heirloom – it’s actually a brand new variety from some guy at a farm out in California bred it. And I just thought I’d try it, it was just like a lark, that sounds interesting, so I tried it and it’s like my new favorite tomato and it’s a beautiful flavor.
Mike: And it’s called the Chocolate Eclipse you said?
Todd: No, its called the Cosmic Eclipse.
Mike: Oh I was close. Yeah I’m taking some notes here Todd. I’ve never heard of that one and when a guest gives me a recommendation… okay and you got it from Baker Creek, right?
Todd: Yeah, it’s wonderful.
Mike: Okay, awesome. So Cosmic Eclipse. We will link to that.
Todd: So yeah, I’ve been growing that this year, the Amish paste always. I also grow usually some kind of Italian tomato like this because they’re real nice for slicing they’re also real nice to put in just sauces too, I’m mostly a sauce guy. I grow another Sicilian, a nice Ox Heart I was growing this year, that’s a real big tomato. And the Sioux tomato is a great old heirloom too. The Sioux is a really popular tomato. So next year I’ll probably add two more things into there, take two out, you know just kind of rotate through and see what works and what doesn’t.
Mike: Okay so it sounds like you do a lot of the same things that I do when it comes to tomatoes. There’s like two or three that I always grow every year just because they’re my favorites and then I rotate some of the heirlooms around. So it sounds similar to what I do. In your book and also on your website the Big Blog of Gardening, you talk a lot about organic gardening. Obviously it’s very big for a lot of people because you’re eating the food that you’re growing. For our audience members out there or for anybody who’s new or maybe they’re a little unfamiliar with some of the organic gardening practices, what are some things that you could recommend to kind of ease their mind? Because they hear “organic gardening” and immediately they think oh my god, I gotta invest thousands of dollars on special soil…
Todd: No, absolutely, absolutely untrue. I’ve taken a lot of classes that were provided by Rodale. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Rodale in Emmaus, Pennsylvania, who does cutting-edge research on organic gardening. In fact it’s funded by the U.S. government at points too. So I’ve taken a lot of their classes, and basically organic gardening is… you’re putting fewer inputs in, you’re not buying fertilizers. Organic gardening is not swapping a synthetic fertilizer for an organic fertilizer. It’s a different way of looking at gardening. It’s sort of from the bottom up instead of the top down. You know, synthetic fertilizers you’re going from the top down. You’re throwing everything on the plant. With organic gardening, it’s about the soil. You work the soil, you get the biological activity happening in the soil, you add tons of compost, and you can either buy it or make it yourself. I make my own. And once you have the soil cooking in organic gardening, you have to do so little it’s amazing. I mean I don’t add fertilizers hardly at all anymore. Once in awhile something’s having a little trouble I put a little on there, like when you’re growing celery you usually have to add a little nitrogen to it. But I just add a ton of compost every year, I make it myself from all the yard clippings I get, and I let it cook down and I put that on my flower beds and in my vegetable beds. And that’s it.
Mike: Alright. So with organic, you start with the soil you get yourself a good foundation. Somebody’s going to come back and they’re gonna ask me “all right, Todd mentioned the soil, that’s great, that’s sort of an easier one to do. What happens if I start getting some bugs on the plants and neighbors start telling me I gotta spray, what do I do at that point?”
Todd: Yeah that’s really common. You’re gonna have insect problems, I won’t lie to you. When you’re making that transition from synthetics to organics there’s this period of about two seasons that I found… because I moved onto a property that had been all synthetics. And so when I started organic gardening I was having some issues with the soil and with pests. But what I found is, after about that second season, sort of the break-in period for your micro environment, you end up attracting a lot of birds, a lot of beneficial insects, and they take care of business. Especially since I really got wise about attracting birds. Oh my god. I mean I have bird feeders out there that are about maybe 40 feet from my garden beds and I’ve planted a lot of native shrubs and trees now in my surrounding areas, and so I have all these birds living on the property and they eat all the insects. It’s amazing.
Mike: Do you find with the birds, I do, I find this with my blueberry bushes, that I’ll have to put a net over them, otherwise I won’t get any.
Mike: Okay so that’s common, so people should expect that the birds are gonna help you but there’s certain things that you should cover.
Todd: Even if you’re not attracting them. Hey you know the biggest enemy is squirrels.
Mike: Oh yeah.
Todd: And look, you can’t do anything about that, I mean they are they’re Satan’s spawn.
Mike: Yeah you know we have a joke here, I don’t know if you’ve said it. If we put out a bird feeder or something and it says squirrel-proof, the squirrels just laugh at it and go after it anyways. So about your website the big blog of gardening. It’s a really well-designed website. Tell us about what goes on there, what are you trying to accomplish, because there’s a lot of information there.
Todd: Well I’ve been writing it since 2009. I actually started it because I was getting back into gardening after a time living up in New England. I moved back to Pennsylvania and I bought a house here in ’06 so I really was starting gardening immediately. Pretty much in ’07 I really got my beds going. And at that time I was looking for information online and I was basically finding things that were written by people who had never gardened before. At that point a lot of the state extensions, the universities, didn’t have much information online, it was very bad and there was a real lack of information out there. So it’s like, I know about gardening, so let me just start to write and share what I know. Little by little I started one of the free wordpress blogs and I just sort of started putting things up and lo and behold I started to get some traction on it, some people were commenting and asking me questions, like I was all of a sudden this expert. But I just started sharing what I knew. But I took a line then and I started really thinking about the information I’m putting out there. I didn’t want to be like a lot of people who are doing very superficial information like top ten reasons to do this, top ten reasons to do that. I don’t go down those roads. I really like to make science-based articles. When I write articles – I have guest bloggers come in too – but when I write an article I not only write it from my standpoint, most of the things I’ve grown myself. Like I just put up an article on chamomile. But what I do to reinforce my techniques is I take information from the extension websites from the universities so I can back up what I’ve been doing and add information to that as well. So I really try and take a science-based approach to organic gardening. And you know I don’t even mention organic gardening in half of the posts when you come down to it. It’s just gardening, you know? This is how I do it.
Mike: Yeah I mean it’s funny, I was just talking about this with somebody else the other day. Our parents and our grandparents, they just gardened. There was no organic gardening that’s just what it was. And now we have all these fancy terms and whatnot. So that’s really cool that a lot of the stuff that you write about and of course in the book, all the pictures come from your garden. Because a lot of books and I’m going to hold this up for our viewing audience…
Todd: Thank you
Mike: A lot of the pictures in there, they took you like a few years to kind of compile that all together, so that’s really cool. Cuz you see a lot of books and they use stock photos. I don’t have anything against that, but it’s really cool when you see somebody actually use the gardening photos from their own garden. So obviously you love tomatoes, you wrote a book on it. I took a look at the website – you have a bunch of other articles besides the tomatoes. What would you say is sort of your second favorite vegetable or thing to write about?
Todd: Well I always grow peppers, because you know, you can’t grow tomatoes without peppers. I mean you need a good sauce, right? I always grow onions, I usually grow garlic. I try to get some more interesting varieties of garlic, I like elephant garlic a lot, that’s really cool. I’m always experimenting with that. And I have a patch of raspberries. I do raspberries every year because that’s a perennial basically. That comes back year after year, I have them trained along a fence at the back of my property and they just produce like crazy, that’s almost maintenance-free. I have a patch of blueberries, ummm… I’m trying to think of what I have out there… I grew sweet corn this year which was awesome.
Mike: How did that go for you?
Todd: It went pretty well. I was worried because we had a very cool summer here in Pennsylvania. You’re in New Jersey right?
Mike: Yeah, it was the same thing here.
Todd: So you had the same weather. My tomatoes didn’t do so well this year, this was probably one of the first disappointing years I had, it was just too wet and cool. But fortunately it became kind of warm, a little drier for the corn, so that came in pretty well and I just harvested that and we’re still eating that. I grew celery, carrots I’ve got in there right now, lots of greens of course, you know I grow kale all year and that lasts the entire season along with a lot of other greens too so…
Mike : Oh wow.
Todd: Whatever I can squeeze in there, I squeeze it all in there, I don’t leave more than six inches uncovered.
Mike: Awesome. Hey Todd I’m looking at the clock, we’re just about out of time.
Mike: I know. When you talk gardening it goes by quick, at least in my world. But we’re almost out of time. But before you go, tell our listeners how they can find you online, get a hold of your book and if they could reach out to you, maybe have some questions for you, that I didn’t ask here tonight.
Todd: Yeah just go to BigBlogOfGardening.com, my email address is there and the book once again is Homegrown Tomatoes, available on Amazon as an e-book and as a soft cover and yeah I’m always happy to answer questions or comments on the posts.
Mike: Awesome. To our viewers and our listeners out there, the website is the big blog of gardening dot com, and his book is called Homegrown Tomatoes: the step-by-step guide to growing delicious organic tomatoes in your garden. So pick that up, we are going to link to that in the show notes, so be sure to check that out.
Todd, thank you so much for coming on this evening and sharing with us all of your great information on not only growing tomatoes but now you’ve given me a new one to try that Cosmic Eclipse, it looked really cool. So like I said for our radio and our podcast listeners out there, check out the video because he showed us and cut open one of the Cosmic Eclipse and it looked really awesome. So thank you for coming on tonight sharing your expertise.
Todd: Thank you Mike, I appreciate it.
Mike: Well that’s all the time we have for today. If you’ve got something from this video, click that like button below. Also let me know if you picked up Todd’s book Homegrown Tomatoes , and what kind of tomatoes are you growing? He gave us a lot of great heirloom varieties to try – I’m gonna definitely give that Cosmic Eclipse a try next year. It sounds like and it looked like a great variety and it’s just really awesome when you can try different types of tomatoes. But let me know in the comments below what kind of tomatoes you’re growing in your garden and how you’re doing with it. For the Vegetable Gardening Show I’m Mike Podlesny.