giveaway: high mowing seeds’ can-do creed, and how to grow better melons, healthier tomatoes

high mowing collageYES YOU CAN: Grow melons (even up North). Beat the damn flea beetles to the pak choi (really!). Prevent some of the most common tomato diseases—even without acres of space to rotate your crop. And most of all: Yes you can expect an organically grown, GMO-free seed supply. These are the kinds of messages of horticultural empowerment I heard in a recent phone conversation with founder Tom Stearns of Vermont-based High Mowing Organic Seeds. Let his can-do energy get you as revved up as it did me—and win one of three gift certificates I’ve purchased to get you started on your 2013 seed-shopping.

tom stearns high mowing

the backstory

TOM STEARNS fell in love forever at age 18. The object of his undying affection: organic agriculture. “I was fascinated with this tool of self-reliance for people: with the seeds,” he says now, nearly 20 years later.

But Stearns “didn’t want to grow food to sell to people,” he recalls. “The genetics were what was really interesting to me, because I knew that if we want agriculture to look different on this planet, we’re going to need different seeds.”

Ones that weren’t raised with a reliance on heroic amounts of supplemental irrigation, in a world that’s getting drier. Ones that don’t insist on other inputs like lots of fertilizer—especially synthetic chemical fertilizers, or other chemicals.

“Organic gardeners are using a dull tool when they use seeds from conventional agriculture,” says Stearns, who also originated the Safe Seed Pledge that more than 100 seed companies have signed on to since 1999, speaking out in unison against genetically engineered crops.

What is now the High Mowing Organic Seeds company was created to make sharper tools: organically grown seeds suited to the conditions we want to grow in at home, without chemicals and other heroics. (Why I order organic seed, and hope that you will when possible, is here.)

“Being connected to the source of our seeds comes out of the same desire as gardeners who want to be connected to the source of their food,” says Stearns.

yes you can grow melons

Sivan melon
TOM STEARNS’S favorite day of the season is melon taste-test day—“walking around the field and hacking open melons,” he says. It’s a day that’s only so sweet and juicy because Stearns knows how to select the right variety and grow it well.

“You just need to know how to give them a good strong start,” he adds. “Melon plants grow pretty slowly at the beginning of the season, when it’s still coolish out.”

The protocol for success: By covering the young plants with Reemay in their first weeks outdoors, Tom can cheat the season by maybe two weeks—meaning his transplant date will be mid-May instead of the end of the month or later.

Counting back four or five weeks from his transplant date, then, in early to mid-April he sows melon seed indoors. At set-out time a month or so later, hardened-off seedlings go into raised beds (where soil warms up fastest); each bed is about 3 feet wide. The soil is covered in black plastic (for trapping even more heat, and weed suppression).  Small holes are cut in the plastic to space melon plants a foot apart within the row in each bed.  Water in well, then tuck in under a one-layer Reemay row cover; again, more heat, meaning faster, stronger growth without setbacks.

“They can even handle 29 degrees that way,” Tom says. The Reemay stays on until about 7-10 days into the plants’ flowering cycle, when it’s removed to allow pollination. Why not take it off when the first flowers appear?

“For the first 10 days with melon plants, all the flowers are males, so you’re not missing out on pollination,” he explains. In all, the Reemay would have been on for about four to six weeks.

So which melons to grow? Short-season varieties are good no matter what kind of a season you’ve got, says Tom, not just the rigors of a northern Vermont Zone 4b season. “Even Southerners do well with them—because they can avoid later disease pressure, or drought pressure.”
hale's best melon
He especially loves the Charentais type called ‘Sivan,’ seen at the top of this section, for instance; a small hybrid of 1-2 pounds. Among open-pollinated types, Stearns has a soft spot for the 4-to-5-pounder called ‘Hale’s Best,’ just above, with good field resistance to mildew. But the melon choices are many.

yes you can prevent tomato troubles

‘THE FIRST SEED I ever saved was a tomato’s,” Tom Stearns recalls, who today trials many heirlooms and hybrids, and develops new varieties.

He’s impressed for 2013 with a number of newcomers, including a possible alternative to the cherry called ‘Sun Gold,’ which has great color and a distinctive tropical fruitiness–but a troublesome tendency to crack.

New ‘Esterina’ is crack-resistant, says Stearns, and very sweet and complex-flavored (though admittedly without that tropical tang).

Indigo Rose tomatoAnd then there’s open-pollinated ‘Indigo Rose,’ an Oregon State University development, and “the first tomato with a truly black outside,” he says. “It looks just like a plum.”

One grail of current breeding: improved disease resistance, and a recent breakthrough he’s excited about centers on “triple resistance,” meaning to early blight, septoria and late blight. In cooperation with w/Cornell and North Carolina State (“they do the crosses, we do the trialing in our fields,” he says) the breakthrough, triple-resistant ‘Iron Lady,’ below, a mid-sized red slicer, is ready to be put to a test in home gardens.

iron lady tomatoBut what Stearns calls “hygiene management” can go a long way in helping farmers and gardeners growing any variety to have greater success.

“Especially in the Northeast, mid-Atlantic and upper Midwest, septoria and early blight are in your soil all the time,” he explains. “Rotating where you grow your tomatoes is not really going to help—so you must manage the disease.”

Some of High Mowing’s tips for doing that:

  • “We trellis and stake all our tomatoes, and we prune them all, to get rid of suckers.”
  • “We strip the lower leaves so that we eliminate the ladder for spores splashing up from the soil.”
  • “Think air circulation: Put your tomatoes on the edge of a bed, not the middle.” [High Mowing spaces staked, pruned plants 18 inches apart within the row, with the rows wide enough for their giant tractors to pass through–10 feet.  In our home gardens, we should figure 4-6 feet between rows with staked and pruned plants.]
  • “Never do a tomato teepee. Inside it will be like 100 percent humidity–dew will never dry off in there. All the plants need is 24 hrs at 100 percent humidity and disease is happening, disease you can help prevent.”
  • “We grow our tomatoes on plastic, increasing soil heat, providing weed control and for soil-splash control.”
  • “We don’t overfeed; overfertilized plants grow fast at the expense of fruit and are sitting ducks for troubles.”

yes you can succeed with pak choi

Shanghai Pac Choi
THIS TIP’S EASY—and I should have thought of it myself. I love the tender, “newish” all-green baby pak chois such as ‘Shanghai Green’ (above)—meaning the stem isn’t as white as traditional types, nor is the plant so tall and stem-heavy. But I’ve been direct-sowing in the garden, and having so-so results.

Pak choi like to grow in the cool weather, says Tom, so he gives them a four-week headstart indoors, in the cool part of the greenhouse. Sturdy month-old transplants also help outsmart flea beetles, who can decimate seedlings trying to emerge from the garden soil. Pak choi are best in the Northeast in April-June and again September-October, and can even take a few frosts.

While I’m at it growing transplants, I’ll sow some of the amazing-looking new pak choi called ‘Vivid Choi’, below, with its mix of colors more like a beet or chard mix. Temptations, always more temptations.

Vivid Choi Stalks


how to win the high mowing gift certificates

high mowing gift certI’VE PURCHASED THREE $15 gift certificates from High Mowing Organic Seeds to share with you. To enter to win, all you have to do is comment below, answering the question:

Did you have a big “aha” last season in the vegetable garden–did something grow better because you tried a different variety, or a different tip for growing it? Do tell.

Feeling shy? No worry; just say “Count me in” or the equivalent, and your entry will be recorded. But I love hearing how your garden grew.

I’ll choose the winners at random, using the tool on random [dot] org, after entries close at midnight on Wednesday, January 9. Good luck to all.

(Disclaimer: High Mowing is a seasonal advertiser on A Way to Garden, though my enthusiasm for the company predates that relationship. Other favorites seed companies are listed in my Resource Links page here. All photos copyright High Mowing.)

  1. Rosemary Race says:

    I grew lupins, comfrey, tomatoes again this year from seeds, plants and tubers a friend gave me two years ago from her organic garden, we have a swap once a year, I swap my homemade worm juice of about 8 litres for seeds and cuttings from her organic flower and vegie garden and everything she gives me always grows and looks fantastic too.

  2. margaret says:

    I think seeds are little miracles that are life affirming as a gardener. I can’t wait to order and sow the seeds in spring!

  3. Theresa says:

    I like to buy seeds from local seed companies and farms in my area. They know what will grow best in our tough Colorado growing conditions, and I’m also able to support local farms

  4. Jean says:

    I had a really good year for sweet potatoes. I use to think that they were difficult to grow, but they are not. You need to water until they have rooted and started growing. Mulch to control weeds until they start to run. Then they are on their own.

  5. Rob says:

    I used the tomato collars from Johnny’s to trellis – 2 end poles, 3 braided coated wires at 6″ vertical gaps. You must brace up the poles *and* using sticks 3 or 4 feet apart to support the wire — those tomato plants get really heavy! So if the poles get tilted then the wire will droop.

    The advice to get air circulation is important, and I had damage by growing so closely together – lesson learned!

  6. Tammy S says:

    No big AHAs here unfortunately. Still struggling with my raised beds, and still forever hopeful for the next spring!
    Thank you for the blog and the chance!

  7. Tammy says:

    My artichokes were a dismal failure, but I managed to grow okra, even though I had hated eating it before, but fresh out of the garden was pretty darn good. I think I will give it a try again this coming season. I am going to try melons again and keep them covered to prevent the dreaded cucumber beetle and their viruses. I just need to give a plug here for HMS, if you have never tried the Gilbertie sauce tomatoes, they are AWESOME!. Very prolific, and large fruits. I plant them every year and cracking open a can of these tomatoes in January, well, it makes it smell like summer in the kitchen.

  8. Sharon Zwald says:

    My AHA was my tomatoes last year. I had 20 different varieties, many of them heirlooms. The Cherokee purple was my favorite. Production was tremendous!! Can’t wait for next spring!

  9. Kate says:

    Count me in, please! I was, sadly, without a garden for the past two summers thanks to moving, so no AHAs there. I’m excited to start back in with a container veggie garden this summer, though.

  10. joann says:

    My aha moment was when my mother in law brought over a big bowl of cherry tomatoes from her garden and my sons couldn’t devour them fast enough. They don’t normally like tomatoes at all, so that’s when I knew we have to start a vegetable garden of our own next summer.
    Thanks for the giveaway!

  11. Barbara says:

    One daughter’s AHA moment who just moved to Jackson, WY is the short growing season. I would use the gift certificate to buy her the Winter Seeds Collection from High Mowing. I love their seeds….unusual and reliable!

  12. Gene says:

    I figured out the importance of air circulation for my tomatoes. I pruned them up off the ground and learned what “suckers” are and how to prune them off too. My tomatoes suffered from a lot less disease this year. Also, the old milk and water spray really works on mildews.

  13. bren says:

    This past summer I trellised a few tomato plants on cattle panels and it worked much better than anything else I’ve tried. It was really easy to just weave the vines in and out as they grow. I plan to do that for most of my tomatoes this summer.

  14. Sonja says:

    There were several AHA moments this past year in my southern California backyard garden as my family caught the squirrels in action picking apples off our tree! Wouldn’t have believed it, but we saw with our own eyes. Less surprisingly, they went for the seed heads of my beloved sunflowers by jumping from a wall onto the 6′ high flowers which bent over almost to the ground under their weight. So, protection is in order this year so we don’t lose half of what we grow to our little friends!

  15. Anita Lane says:

    After an exciting hands-on seminar on organic gardening I started 72 seedlings. A week before planting in the framed proposed raised beds my general contractor asked me if I could put off planting for “a few days” since the electric subcontractor needed to dig a rather substantial trench which might run through the middle of both of my beds. I agreed, but after over a month passed before the work was actually done, all of my seedlings died. Alas, no garden. This year I will have renewed confidence that despite drawbacks I will find alternatives like pots. I will not be stopped this year from growing organic veggies and fruits and canning for my family’s enjoyment.

  16. margaret says:

    ENTRIES ARE NOW CLOSED — but your tips and tricks for vegetable garden success are always welcome in continuing comments.

    The winners (who will be notified by email) are: Sharon, who used azomite for success; Pat, who grew peppers, and Sharon Elaine. Congratulations, and thanks to all for participating.

  17. Kim R says:

    Artichokes can be grown from seed! Since thistles grow like weeds (tee hee) why not plant artichokes! And we did. We still have vegetables coming up in the garden…kale, chard, spinach and lettuce. Running low on some seed…

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