Native Leaf Mulch for Tomatoes

Thick Live Oak Leaf Mulch

Thick Live Oak Leaf Mulch

Tomatoes are the most popular vegetable in South Texas gardens, but tomatoes are also one of the most difficult vegetables to grow.   The intense heat of our summers, and the relentless Gulf winds, are great challenges to the gardener.

Tomatoes can withstand a lot of heat during the day, 100 degree temperatures or higher.  But it is the nighttime soil temperature that matters.  Tomatoes can only set fruit when the nighttime soil temperature is between 55 and 70 degrees.  When the nighttime soil temperature rises above 70 degrees, the plant may live, but it will not make tomatoes.  That’s why tomato plants often stop producing by July or August.

But you can cool your soil and produce tomatoes through the heat of summer with good mulching.

Adding Live Oak Leaf Mulch

Adding Live Oak Leaf Mulch

Mulch serves as a blanket of insulation over the garden:  mulch prevents weeds, stabilizes soil temperature, and helps retain moisture in the soil.  Good mulching can dramatically reduce the amount of water required for the garden.

Mulch also prevents the soil from drying out in our relentless Gulf winds:  90% of the microbial activity of the soil is found in the top four inches, the layer that dries out the fastest.  Mulching protects this delicate layer of topsoil.

The best mulch material is always the most native, and the very best mulch of all is raked-up leaves from the trees on your own property.  Native leaves have a special relationship with your soil.  The leaves and soil have lived together in biological harmony for hundreds or even thousands of years.  Their chemistry is highly adapted and they are perfectly matched for growing vegetables.

Native leaf mulch is available in vast quantities, usually right in your own yard, and even better, native leaf mulch doesn’t cost anything.  Every year, millions of bags of freshly raked-up leaves are sent to landfills and transfer stations; leaves that would have made perfect mulch in backyard gardens.

Raked-Up Leaves in Bags Spread on Garden

Raked-Up Leaves in Bags Spread on Garden

On our farm, we have been using live oak leaf mulch for years.  There is a myth that live oak leaves contain an acid that hurts plants, but that is not the case.  Our gardens absolutely love their thick live oak leaf mulching.  And as the leaves slowly decompose, they add structure to our garden soil and actually improve the soil Ph.  We even use oak leaves in our compost piles, and as bedding for our laying hens.

The leaves of any native tree will work as mulch:  oak tree leaves, pecan tree leaves, and even the duff, or detritus, of mesquite trees make wonderful mulch for gardens.

The thickness of mulch applied to the garden depends on the heat; the hotter the weather, the thicker the mulch should be.  By the month of August, the mulch around our tomatoes is 6 to 8 inches deep.  This thick layer of mulch keeps the soil cool at night, and our vines are full of ripe red tomatoes into the hottest part of summer.

Live Oak Leaf Mulch 6 to 8 Inches Thick

Live Oak Leaf Mulch 6 to 8 Inches Thick

August Tomatoes

High, 98; Heat Index, 109; Low, 80; Humidity 76%; Wind SSE at 21

Friends, we invite you to stop by Coastal Bend Health Foods today for wonderful ripe red tomatoes, freshly picked from our garden.  We also offer eggplant, butternut and scaloppini squash, hot peppers, okra, mint, oregano, and basil.

You may find our pastured chicken in the frozen section, as well as our pork chops, ribs, pork roast, ground pork, and fresh bacon.  We collect our farm fresh eggs daily and deliver them to Kimmi’s store with our produce and herbs.

Tomatoes at 98 degrees

Wonderful August Tomatoes

It is nearly impossible to grow tomatoes in Rockport in the blistering heat of late July and August.  Tomatoes typically do not set fruit when the nighttime soil temperature rises above 70 degrees.  The noontime sun can rot tomatoes on the vine in a single day, and burn the vines to dust.

In our Spring gardening talks, we discussed some of the techniques we use to grow prolific tomatoes through the worst of our summer heat.  Drip irrigation beneath a deep oak leaf mulch, early morning and evening shading from oak trees, native wood ash and crushed oyster shell amendments, and strategic companion planting are some of these methods.

However, the key factor in our ability to produce such sweet, flavorful, and prolific tomatoes in this intense heat is the health of our soil.  This factor is more important than all the other techniques combined.  There is no shortcut to developing this kind of soil health, and there is no possible way to duplicate it with chemicals.

Each successive year that we employ our heritage farming methods, we increase the health and vitality of our plants, animals, and environment.  And with each new garden cycle, the taste of our produce improves.  The taste of our food is very unique—it is the flavor of our farm, a distilled taste of Rockport.

More Tomatoes and Eggplant to Come

Click on the photo above for a better view of our tomato garden.  We plant one row of tomatoes on a fence trellis, then two rows of eggplant, then another row of trellised tomatoes, and repeat.  The tomato vines grow extremely tall and dense, and having eggplant on either side allows easier harvest.  We have just finished harvesting all the collards, cabbage, chard, lettuces, radishes, carrots, beets, and turnips that grew on that space as companions to our tomatoes and eggplant.

You can see many green tomatoes still on the vine, so we expect to offer tomatoes through the middle of August or longer.  Stop by Kimmi’s store to get yours.  Thank you for shopping locally!

Two More Weeks of Tomatoes

A Hundred Degree Harvest


We have enjoyed several days of triple-digit heat this week.  In this picture, Kayla is harvesting vegetables in 101 degrees of direct sunlight.  I don’t know how she stays so lovely in this heat.

Our vegetables, however, will not stay lovely for long.  We design our gardens to endure the blistering heat of a Rockport summer; but eventually our vegetables will play out  for the season.

A Diverse Harvest

Our harvest today includes:  tomatoes; eggplant; okra; butternut, spaghetti, and scallopini squash; sweet corn; Thai, serrano, jalepeno, and habanero peppers; collards; carrots; basil; mint; ginger; and more.

Stop by Coastal Bend Health Foods today for freshly picked local produce, while it is still available.

We feature fresh pastured chicken today in the four and five pound range, as well as half chickens, perfect for roasting.  We also offer fresh eggs and pastured pork chops, roast, ribs, ground pork, and bacon.

Companion Planting for the Heat

Several gardeners have asked how we continue to get such beautiful tomatoes and eggplant in this oppressive heat, much less collard greens and carrots.

One technique we use is to inter-plant our tomatoes with our collards.  The collards serve as a living mulch for the tomatoes and help keep the soil shaded and cool and moist.  As the tomato vines grow thick on their trellises, they in turn shade the collards when collards need a little protection from the sun.

Tomatoes and eggplant also grow extremely well when companion planted with carrots, lettuce, chard, mustard greens, and in many other combinations.

There are no monocultures in our garden–every row of crops features innovative combinations of two, three, or more vegetables.  Herbs and native flowering plants seeded among our vegetables help attract birds and beneficial insects to the garden, increase biodiversity and soil health, and add flavor to our harvest.

But our summer crop will soon play out in the South Texas heat.  We encourage you to stop by Coastal Bend Health Foods today and enjoy freshly picked local produce while you can.

Daily Harvest through End of June

Roma Grape Tomatoes, Four String Farm


Friends, we invite you to Coastal Bend Health Foods for the freshest and most delicious produce in town.

We are picking produce as fast as we can and delivering it fresh daily.  Stop by Kimmi’s store and discover the difference our heritage farming methods bring to the flavor and health of your food.

Daily Harvest for End of June

Our tomatoes are simply incredible this year.  We are giddy with tomatoes, eating them continuously even as we pick them.

We offer more than ten varieties of freshly picked tomatoes:  big fat sweet red tomatoes and little tart cherry tomatoes and everything in between.  As Kayla and I sample the fruit, we find that each tomato has its own unique flavor–even the same varieties in different areas of the garden take on their own flavor.  Our years of investment into the soil is paying amazing dividends.  Every single tomato is wonderful.  If you want to try the very best of freshly picked, ripe red tomatoes, stop by Coastal Bend Health Foods today.

We also offer cucumbers, crisp and delicious, and black beauty and Japanese eggplant.

We have butternut squash, zucchini, scallopini, and spaghetti squash.  We also have a new batch of beautiful edible squash blossoms, perfect for stuffing with ricotta, cream cheese, or other fillings, and so delicious.

Our sweet corn has come in.  Our Tres Hermanas gardens continue to supply an amazing bounty of produce.  For a real treat, try our sweet corn on the grill with a little butter and salt.  We offer five varieties of sweet corn and various heirloom beans daily.

We offer Thai, serrano, and jalepeno peppers and also sweet peppers.  We offer fresh basil, mint, and oregano daily, as well as fresh ginger from our garden.  For the best tea in town, boil our crushed ginger for ten minutes and add a handful of mint and some local honey from Kimmi’s store.  It is so good and so healthy.

Fresh Chickens Today

Enjoy fresh broilers in the 4 and 5 pound range, as well as half-chickens, perfect sizes for roasting. We offer blue, green, dark brown, and speckled eggs, lovingly gathered every day.

Pastured Pork Chops, Roast, Ribs, Bacon, and Ground Pork

Get the grill ready for pork chops! If you love hamburgers, try using our ground pork for the best burger ever. We also have roast, ribs, and bacon.

Thank you friends for shopping locally! Please enjoy!

End of May Harvest

End of May Harvest

Tomatoes, beans, eggplant, peppers, collards, carrots, zucchini, yellow squash, butternut, scaloppini, ginger, basil, oregano, and more!

Friends, we invite you to Coastal Bend Health Foods today and tomorrow to shop at a local store that would love to have your business.

To prepare for your Memorial Day weekend celebration, we offer a wide variety of freshly picked produce.  We offer fresh chickens today and tomorrow.

Stop by Kimmi’s store and discover the difference our heritage farming methods bring to the flavor and health of your food.

Daily Harvest for End of May

Edible Squash Blossom

Tomatoes, large, roma,  cherry, and roma grape.  Eggplant, Japanese and black beauty.

String beans:  stringless, purple pole beans, French long, Kentucky Wonder, and Mayflower beans (these heritage beans were brought over on the Mayflower, and the seeds have been continued unchanged for 400 years, and you can enjoy them grown on our farm).

Squash:  acorn, butternut, gray-striped zucchini, yellow straight and crookneck squash, dark green zucchini, yellow scallopini, Mexican, Italian long, and spaghetti.  We also offer our beautiful edible squash blossoms upon request, perfect for stuffing with ricotta, cream cheese, or other fillings, and so delicious.

Carrots, collard greens, and kohl rabi.  Our companion planting methods allow us to continue to harvest all of these winter vegetables until July.

Thai, serrano, and jalepeno peppers.  Coming soon, sweet peppers.

Ask Kimmi about our freshly picked ginger, as well as basil, oregano, and thyme.

Fresh Chickens Today and Tomorrow

Enjoy fresh broilers in the 3, 4, and 5 pound range, as well as half-chickens, perfect sizes for roasting.  We offer blue, green, dark brown, and speckled eggs, lovingly gathered every day.

Pastured Pork on the Grill

Get the grill ready for pork chops!  If you love hamburgers, try using our ground pork for the best burger ever.  We also have roast, ribs, and bacon.

Thank you friends for shopping locally!  Please enjoy!

Beans on Corn Stalk Trellis

Tres Hermanas: Harvesting beans from a corn stalk trellis.

Spring Gardening Series, Final Meeting this Saturday

Companion Planting Peppers in Carrots

Companion planting peppers with carrots

Friends, join us at Coastal Bend Health Foods this Saturday, May 5, from 11:00am to noon, for the last meeting of our Spring Gardening Series.  We will recap highlights of our gardening program and address any problems you may be having in your garden.  Also, we will provide you with the resources, literature, local authorities, and on-line support to enable you to continue to grow vegetables and herbs free of chemicals.

Our Methods Put to the Test this Season

This growing season, we have experienced endless challenges in our gardens.  Every caterpillar known to science has attacked our plants.  Gophers, cut ants, squirrels, raccoons, deer, grasshoppers, aphids, spider mites, stink bugs, on and on, every type of garden pest in this area, has been active in our crops.  We even had a tornado pass over the farm and play havoc with our corn stalks.  Worst of all, our spring weather only lasted a few days.  The oppressive heat of summer kicked in early this year to begin the slow burn on our gardens.

Methods that Work

Despite the relentless attacks on our gardens, we have hardly lost a plant this season.  For every problem we encountered, our program provided a solution–completely without the use of chemicals.

Lacewing hunting

In our gardening talks, we demonstrated the paramount importance of maintaining healthy soil.  Healthy soil, well mulched, watered appropriately, and fertilized effectively, is the best possible pesticide. When our gardens were attacked, the natural health of the plants resisted disease and bug damage, and gave us time to control for specific pests.  The lacewings and trichogamma wasps we seeded into the garden matured into voracious pest-eating machines.  Our native lizards, ladybugs, wasps, dragonflies, birds, frogs, toads, and other beneficial predators have been hard at work cleansing our gardens of pests.

I am convinced, now more than ever, that if we had used a chemical program, our gardens would have failed this spring.  First, we could not possibly afford to buy all the chemicals required to fight the problems we faced.  Second, I have been far too busy this growing season to apply chemicals, and still get all my work done.  And finally, even if the chemicals killed some of the bad bugs, they would also have killed the beneficial predators, diminished the soil health, and simply made matters worse.

We spent less time, less money, and less labor using our methods, than if we had used a chemical program.  And best of all, we are now enjoying a stunning harvest of the most healthy and delicious produce in town, completely free of chemicals.

Companion Planting for a Summer Harvest

Corn, beans, and squash seedsWe are currently harvesting yellow squash, dark green and striped zucchini, ripe red tomatoes, along with our carrots, kohl rabi, and collards.  We will soon begin to harvest beans, sweet and hot peppers, and eggplant, and a little later we will pick our sweet corn, winter squash, melons, and okra.

By inter-planting, or companion planting, our tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and okra into shared space with our mature winter vegetables, we have been able to continue to harvest our carrots, collards, kolh rabi, and etc., throughout the summer, until they are sold out, and still provide summer produce.

Our Tres Hermanas (corn, beans, and squash) gardens are extremely prolific this year.  The Tres Hermanas gardens continue to increase in productivity with each successive planting.  The bean vines growing up the corn stalks stabilized them and held them in place when the tornado passed over.  Companion planting is the only reason our corn survived the direct 70 mph or greater winds from the tornado.

Recap of Program

This Saturday, we will provide a general recap and offer detailed resources around each of the following topics:

Focusing on Healthy Soil 

Growing Tomatoes in Rockport

Tres Hermanas and Other Companion Vegetables

Easy and Powerful Homemade Fertilizer 

Watering the Garden

Chemical-Free Pest Control:  Beneficial and Bad Predators

Mulching, Compost, and Native Resources

Bring your passion for gardening and your questions and suggestions and join us Saturday from 11:00am to noon!The Three Sisters

Spring Gardening Series: Ideas for a Chemical-Free Garden

Friends, we are pleased to announce that Four String Farm will host a series of gardening discussions, “Ideas for a Chemical-Free Garden”, at Coastal Bend Health Foods this spring.  Join us on the first and third Saturdays in March and April from 11:00am to noon, for a fun and interesting exploration of chemical-free gardening.

The first session is this Saturday, March 3rd, from 11:00am to noon.  There is no charge and all current and future gardeners are welcome.  Bring your passion for healthy and delicious food and a desire to grow a beautiful, chemical-free garden.

Saturday, March 3rdPreparing the Soil and Getting Ready to Plant

Saturday, March 17thGrowing Tomatoes in Rockport.  How to Grow Tres Hermanas.

April:  Easy and Powerful Homemade Fertilizer.  Watering the Garden.  Chemical-Free Pest Control.  Beneficial and Bad Predators.  Maximizing Native Resources.  Potent Compost.  Efficient Harvesting.  Preparing for Fall Companion Planting.

Experience not Required

If you do not know the first thing about growing vegetables, do not be worried; I have been where you are.  I was not raised in a farming family and probably never saw a vegetable planted during my entire childhood.  I didn’t even have a cactus in my dorm window in college!

However, I am profoundly grateful that I had no early influences on my farming.  I was never schooled in a particular method and consequently locked into a flawed model through habit or fear of change.

On the contrary, I have been privileged to study farming methods in many diverse places, particularly in developing countries, where the failure of a garden means starvation for the families that depend upon it for survival.  The stakes are very high for these farmers and they can’t afford to miss.

In the upper Himalayas, the growing season is only five months of the year.  The tiny terraced gardens carved into the cold mountain must produce all the food for the community for the whole year.  And they are vegetarians!  A single failed harvest brings devastating consequences.  Those folks do not use chemicals in their gardens.  In the tiny islands of Japan, every tillable square inch of land is under cultivation, right up to the roads, sidewalks, sides of buildings, even the tops of buildings.  Japanese farmers, for the most part, use traditional methods and shun chemicals.  I visited a farm in California where the “beneficial predator garden” was nearly as big as the vegetable garden.  They raised enough good bugs to eat the bad bugs so they never needed to spray chemicals!  On little farms across America, innovative farmers are developing highly successful programs free of chemicals.  I have been blessed to learn from many good teachers.

Sometimes the best innovation is simply re-discovering old methods.  I found the Tres Hernamas companion planting method in a history book about early American pioneers.  However, I could not find anything about this method in gardening books, on the internet, or from local experts, despite the fact that Tres Hermanas was the dominant method of growing food in America for over 1,000 years.  Native American Indians and pioneer settlers survived on these gardens without any chemicals whatsoever.

Today, corn, beans, and squash are a significant portion of our farm income and the Tres Hermanas method is an indispensable part of our overall program.  We are professional farmers; we make our living with our gardens and animals.  Like the Indians who developed Tres Hermanas, we cannot afford to miss.  Our methods must work.

The Pastured Method of Agriculture

On our farm, we employ the “pastured method” for growing food.  Our animals and gardens work together to create incredibly healthy and flavorful food.  We employ our native resources and a little ingenuity and a very few store-bought items.  We never use chemicals on our gardens.  We do use a chemical for one specific case on our farm (the dreaded cut ant) and never apply it close to animals or plants, and we will talk about this.

To my knowledge, my friend Greg Edelen of Edelen Farms, 100 miles away, is the only other farmer in South Texas who uses a pastured method of agriculture.  I would love to see more farmers adopt this method!  Pastured farming requires less money, less labor, and less time than chemical agriculture.  It is easier on the animals and actually improves the environment.  The gardens are more vital, more nutrient rich, and more prolific.  The health properties of pastured food far surpass chemical-soaked produce.  And the taste of pastured food is beyond comparison.

My challenge has been to translate the elements of a pastured program into methods that home gardeners, who are not able to keep animals, can implement.  We will explore those concepts at our discussions and will learn from your ideas as well.

Don’t Bash the Chemical Guys!

There are many gardening classes and lectures in our area open to the public.  However, most of those programs are based on the chemical model of growing food.  Some of the classes seem more like chemistry than gardening.

If you use chemicals, you will not get a hard time in our discussions.  Many of our farm customers are local master gardeners who use chemicals, and some have been out to our farm to observe our methods in detail.  The owner of a large chemical fertilizer company sits down the pew from me in church, and is the nicest guy you will ever meet.  It is not in my nature to make anyone feel uncomfortable.  Our goal is simply to create a forum to share ideas about growing vegetables without chemicals.

I believe the chemical model of growing food does not work.  Chemicals usually kill gardens gradually, and sometimes all at once.  And besides, who wants to eat vegetables that come out of a chemical garden, if you can grow them in a natural way?  When home gardeners use chemicals, they benefit the chemical companies more than their gardens.

“If I Knew a Better Way, I Would Do It!”

A home gardener recently told me that every time she fills her cart with Round-Up and Miracle-Gro and other chemicals, she can’t help feeling a little uneasy.  She assumes the products are safe, or they wouldn’t sell them at the store, right?  But she wants to raise her own food, and if she knew a better method, she would use it.

Friends, our “Spring Gardening Series:  Ideas for a Chemical Free Garden” will show that there are chemical-free methods to grow food that work better, are safer, healthier, and taste better!  Stop by Coastal Bend Health Foods on the first and third Saturdays during March, April, and May, from 11:00am to noon, to find out more.

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