It's no secret that the tomato is a favorite summertime staple.  Yes, the tomato does perform differently than other vegetable crops.  And yes, your growing region or zone may have something to do with how successful you will be.  But becoming aware of the following common misconceptions will help set you on the right path to getting the great harvest you're after. 

1. Tomato seedlings are fragile.  They are small, perhaps, but they're not fragile.  Centuries ago, tomatoes were just sturdy weeds on a South American hillside before someone decided to eat one of the plant's fruits and though it could be food.  These plants are far hardier than they are given credit for.  So choose a seedling, select a sunny spot, and bury it deep. There's no need to coddle it.

2. Growing tomatoes in pots is the same as growing them in the ground.  No, it's different.  In some ways, it's more challenging to grow tomatoes in pots, but in other ways, it's far better.  Soil in containers warms up quicker than ground soil, so the same variety can ripen up to two weeks earlier in a pot than it would in the ground.  If you live in a cool zone with a short summer season, container growing a a great way for you to finally get a decent harvest.  Container growing, however, does require more work.  You'll have to fertilize more (at least every 10 days because of sharper drainage.)  Mulch the top of the pot or cover the outside of the pot to protect the root system from high heat.  I also generally plant short-season tomatoes and small fruiting varieties in containers because huge beefsteaks need optimal conditions for the entire summer season to produce well in a pot.

3. The more sun, the better.

Commercial tomato plants growing infields that receive sunlight from sunrise to sunset are hybrids specially bred to thrive under those conditions.  But not all tomatoes are built to withstand those conditions.  Most tomatoes only need six to eight hours a day or full sun.  I recommend planting inroads that run north-south, especially if your garden plot gets more than eight hours of sun per day.  Doing this ensures that one side of the pant gets early sun and the other gets later sun.  This orientation also means that each side of your plant is spared blazing hot sun all day long.  Sun scald can be a problem if ripening fruit is exposed to all-day sun.

4.  Use only paste tomatoes for sauce. 

Large commercial companies use paste tomatoes, like Roma, to make sauce because those tomatoes produce heavily, ripen at the same time, and are easy to process. But great tomato flavor is generally not paramount among those tomatoes' qualifications.  Great-tasting tomatoes - regardless of type - make great sauce.  These varieties may be more watery, so it can take longer to get the sauce consistency you want.  And if you decide to remove the skins, it may be hard to process them (especially cherry tomatoes). But in the end, when you use amazing tasting tomatoes, you'll get an amazing tasting sauce.  

5.  Tomatoes need lots and lots of water.

While waters doesn't cause problems directly, consistently soggy soil can encourage diseases.  As the season progresses, your plants will look less vigorous (or look awful), and you'll feet sorry for them.  Resist the temptation to hate more.  At the end of the season, excess water is channeled into the developing fruit, and that water dilutes flavor.  You should water your tomatoes deeply but infrequently.  "Deeply: means soaking the root-ball each time you water.  New plantings don't require much time with the hose, but as the season progresses - and the roots expand - you'll need to water longer.  "Infrequently" means every four or five days. Your soil, site, and even your zone may require an adjustment to these guidelines.

6. When the leaves turn yellow, fertilize.

You should fertilize on a schedule, following the directions for the product you're using.  Tomatoes in the ground, in decent soil, shouldn't need aggressive fertilizing to perform well. Some leaves on your plant will turn yellow as the season progresses, especially lower ones.  The leaves that no longer get sun are not useful in producing food for the plant, so they're sloughed off.  That's just how it goes.  Early on, your plants will be gorgeous, fat, and green. As the season progresses, the temperatures rise; the plant gets larger; and, most important, the plant's focus shifts from producing leaves and stems to fruiting.  This new stress causes the plant to drop leaves and to look bad.  More water and more fertilizer won't fix this problem.  

7.  Pruning is essential for great tomatoes.  No, it's not.  You have a choice to make: Do you want (a) large, wide plants that may become a bit unruly and produce a lot of small fruit or (b) more manicured plants that have fewer but larger fruit?  Your garden site or zone can help you with this decision.  Are you growing where it's hot?  You may need the heavier leaf cover to protect developing fruit from the scalding sun.  Are you growing at a cooler area? Pinch at least a little so that more sun gets into the center of the plant and warms it up.  Remember -- you shouldn't need to prune most determinate plants.  Pinching is a big job, and as the season progresses, it's often hard to tell what you should pinch and what you shouldn't .  Relax, and rest assured that you won't have a doomed season if you go to the park with the kids instead of pinching all weekend.

8.  The fruit is ripe when it's red. 

If this were true, how could you tell when a yellow tomato was ready to be eaten?  The fruit is ripe when it has reached its true color (depending on the type) and its is softening.  A hard fruit at the grocery store isn't ready to eat, right?  The same is true in the garden.  The acids and sugars in tomatoes are, in fact, perfectly balanced and fully flavored just before the fruit goes bad.  If critters are a problem in your garden, pick the fruit as it breaks (when the true color begins to show), and let it ripen in a cool part of your kitchen or pantry.  It will flavor up just fine.

What you’ll need: 
A shipping pallet, 4 mounting brackets* (one for each corner of the pallet – we used L brackets), weather resistant screws, roofing nails or staple gun, drill, level, weed cloth (aka landscape fabric), thin plywood cut to size to cover back of pallet, potting soil, plants

*When it comes to how and where you choose to mount your pallet, make sure to consider the weight of a fully-planted pallet after watering and choose the appropriate hardware and location that can support it.

Pallets are everywhere, so take the time to find one in good condition and that is not made from pressure-treated wood (due to the leaching from potentially harmful chemicals). They come in different shapes and sizes so don’t assume all pallets are the same. Make sure it’s cleaned off and you’ve inspected it for any stray nails or splintered wood. It’s a good idea at this point to wear a sturdy pair of gloves while inspecting and cleaning the pallet.

Once the pallet is cleaned up and before you add any additional weight to it, go ahead and position it against the wall where you’ll want it mounted. Use the level to ensure proper alignment. Make your marks and install the L brackets to the wall. (Once the pallet is planted out, you’ll then simply slide it into place between the mounted brackets.)

Return the pallet to a flat surface. Although you could plant out your pallet with it resting on the ground, placing it on a tabletop or sawhorses makes it easier to work with from a standing position. Place the pallet so that the side with the widest openings is facing up. This will be the backside, which you’ll mount against the wall. Lay out the landscape fabric or cloth to cover the back and bottom and cut to size. Pull tautly and secure with nails or staples.  Some pallets have wood covering the bottom of the pallet, which will help prevent soil from falling out the bottom. If not, you may choose to add another piece of wood, like a 2×4. But in either case, make sure the fabric covers the bottom as well as the back to catch any soil that may otherwise fall out. This would also be the time to add a thick layer of plastic or other waterproof barrier. This step wasn’t included in the DIY segment on the episode but this is an important part of protecting the exterior of the house from the moisture and grime of the pallet garden.

Next add the thin plywood over the cloth and/or plastic and secure.  Now turn the pallet over and fill with good quality potting soil or container mix. Don’t use ordinary garden soil or soil that is designed for planting beds, as it’s too heavy and won’t drain as well. Be sure to add most of your soil before adding the plants. Now, go ahead and tilt the pallet up nearly vertical to allow soil to settle without it spilling out between the cracks. Then continue to add soil until the pallet is full.

Next add the plants. Don’t be afraid to pack them in. Position the plants so their root balls are securely placed between the slats and tuck them in firmly. Once you have all your plants in position, add additional soil if needed but be sure to reserve some to add once the pallet is mounted. Don’t water yet due to the added weight.

Now it’s time to mount the pallet.  Get two helpers and position the pallet between the brackets already secured to the house. It’s helpful to have something to rest the pallet on while it is being secured to the wall. With helpers holding the pallet in place, the third person can attach the brackets to the pallet.

Finally, make sure all the plants are positioned firmly in place and that the roots are in good contact with the surrounding soil. This is also the time to add the reserve soil to fill those voids. Thoroughly water the plants and soil. Again, you’ll have more settling and some soil loss here so have some extra soil on hand and add as necessary.

Over the next few days, continue to monitor the garden and add soil and water as needed as the plants establish and soil continues to settle. Once the roots fill out in a couple weeks, then just make sure to keep it watered. Because this garden is above ground, it will dry out more quickly. Like other containers, daily watering is likely.

Enjoy the harvest!


Looking for some mid-winter local food or St. Patrick’s Day staples? Consider cabbage as a healthy winter vegetable option.
Posted by Kaitlin Koch Wojciak, Michigan State University Extension

  • According to Google trends, cabbage was one of the top ten United States recipe related searches in 2015. The search data shows that cabbage recipes are popular year round, but have increased interest in December and March. 

  • Cabbage, prepared in various ways, is a traditional dish for the St. Patrick’s Day holiday. This might explain the increased search frequency in the month of March. While cabbage is a staple in Irish cuisine, it is also a key ingredient in cultural dishes from around the world. In fact, cabbage is used in recipes from every continent. Nutritionally, it is a source of potassium and is high in vitamin C. 

Fortunately for Michigan residents, cabbage is in season for the majority of the winter. The MSU Center for Regional Food Systems has developed a Michigan Produce Availability Chart , detailing when various fruits and vegetables grown in Michigan are available. If eating local food in the winter is new to you – cabbage is currently in season because producers are able to store it after it has been harvested. 

Cabbage is harvested in two batches from the field, an early crop from July through mid-August and a late crop from mid-October through November. These ranges may vary depending on where you live in the large state of Michigan. After the end of the harvest in November, when producers store cabbage in appropriate conditions, this vegetable can be purchased locally through the month of March! Including season extension and storage time, local cabbage is available for more than half of the year. That gives plenty of opportunities to experiment with preparing and cooking cabbage with recipes from around the world! 

Another way of storing cabbage is by fermenting it. Lacto-fermentation is becoming more popular, and is a fun and fairly easy process to do at home. An MSU Extension initiative, Michigan Fresh, has a free fact sheet on cabbage which includes a sauerkraut recipe. If the finished product is more appealing, look for some thriving new companies that are selling lacto-fermented sauerkraut locally, including The Brinery and Cultured Love. 

Look for cabbage at your year round farmers market, grocer stocking local produce, or for value-added products that source from Michigan producers. 

Michigan State University Extension supports the growth and consumption of local produce year round.

This article was published by Michigan State University Extension. For more information, visit To have a digest of information delivered straight to your email inbox, visit To contact an expert in your area, visit


Star of recent Google searches

(by Scott Daigr, Owner of Tomatomania, The world's largest tomato-seedling sale; 'Edible Garden')

Creating a Pallet Garden – Step by Step Instructions
By Joe Lamp'l from Grow a Greener World



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