Thursday, April 30, 2015


Over the long, dark days of winter, I found myself reading an unusual blog.  Somehow, through one of those long link clicking trails, I'd stumbled upon a blog called Ask Jackie on the Backwoods Home website.  She's such a cool lady!  She answers all kinds of canning questions, plus she blogs a lot about her life as a homesteader in zone 3 Minnesota.  I think I spent about three weeks reading through her entire blog, and ended up with strong desires to start canning and longing for my own farm and chickens.

One thing that caught my attention while reading through several years of her blog was how she uses a product called wall-o-waters to get her tomatoes out soon enough to get a decent harvest.  Living in Minnesota and having a pretty short season, I assume this is just about the only way she can get a good harvest.  I assumed, having been gardening and homesteading for several decades, that she wouldn't be using them unless they really worked, so I decided I'd check them out myself. 

I'd actually heard of wall-o-waters before, but I guess I figured they weren't worth the effort of expense.  I mean, so they give you a little head start, so what?  But when I read up on them, I found out that you can actually start your plants 6-8 weeks early!  And then I started thinking about how that would effect my harvest.  In our part of NY, I can put tomatoes in around the end of May, and don't get any ripe tomatoes until, at the earliest, the beginning of August.  Our last frost date is around the middle of October, but I usually tear the tomatoes down about a week before then just so I can get everything to bed before bad weather comes.  To make things easy, we'll call that two months of harvest.  I got about 30 pounds of tomatoes last year.  If the wall-o-waters give me another month of harvest, that means I could conceivably see a 50% increase in my tomato yields.  Holy cow! 

This is, of course, just speculation, but the thought of all those tomatoes was just so tempting.  I had originally planned on only getting one 3-pack of the walls, but Chad convinced me to get enough to protect all 8 of my plants.  (I accidentally ordered four packs instead of three, so now I have four extra to experiment with.)  Only time will tell if I'll actually get another month of harvest.

I actually ended up buying a knock-off brand by Gardeneer called Season Starters because, at the time I bought them, they were only $11 for a package of three (whereas the wall-o-waters were $17 for a similar pack of 3). 

I can tell you already, after a week and a half, that these things are awesome.  The weekend before last, so April 19th, we were having some great weather; it was in the 60s and 70s, and the soil was very warm.  I saw in the forecast a week and a half of very cold weather.  I knew that I could plant the tomatoes that day, five weeks before our last frost date (I had originally planned on putting them out four weeks before the last frost date), or I would have to wait two more weeks because the soil would be too cold.  So I decided to put these walls through the ultimate test.

The tomatoes before I planted them.

I got the tomatoes in the raised beds, and then proceeded to fill up the walls with water.  That's not too hard as long as you have a bucket to put the walls around while you fill them, and a decent hose (and patience).  I was worried for a bit that they would be too big to fit in my square foot garden, but I was eventually able to convince an 18 inch circle to fit into a 12 inch square just fine.  I then tied up the tops with some nylon twine and waited for the cold weather to hit.  And boy did it.

You have to understand that even in western NY, a snow storm in late April is pretty crazy.  

The temps went down into the 40s on Tuesday that week, then into the 30s on Wednesday and Thursday, with at least three nights into the 20s with bitterly cold winds.

I went out and checked the walls daily.  The tomatoes, despite my desperate fears, were fine.  The air inside the walls was frigid and damp, but there was no frost damage to the plants.  On the first cold night, Chad and I went out at 9PM with hot water bottles to put into the walls next to the plants; no luck.  There was no room at all to put the bottles inside, and in fact, I ended up nearly crushing the one plant while trying.  So instead, we laid the bottles between walls.  By that time, the water was starting to freeze pretty good, and we had just enough time to get the bottles out there and run back inside before frost bite started setting in.  I got very little sleep that night, worrying about my plants and what I'd do if they died.  I kept telling myself that I could just buy starts from the nursery, but that didn't ease my worry at all; after all, most of my plants were heirlooms and hard to find varieties.

The next  morning, I went out with several gallon jugs full of hot water to place around the walls, hoping to help thaw the frozen water and keep the plants safe.  They were fine!  The water wasn't even frozen any longer, and the tomatoes had survived with no problems.  I was shocked!  Dumbfounded!  Amazed  by the power of water, and the determination of my tomatoes to survive.  For the next few days, I hunkered down inside and decided not to worry about the tomatoes.  I left the extra water out there as insurance, but didn't refill the bottles with hot water after that first night.

Then this week, the weather started thinking happier thoughts and turned warm again.  I opened the walls up to let some fresh air in, and to get a good peek at how everyone was doing.  Despite spending a frigid week inside tiny green cells, it looks like everyone is fine; and not only that, bet I'm positive they've all grown by at least an inch or possibly more!  Can you believe that?

My side garden tomatoes with the added insurance bottles.

A peek in at one of the beef tomatoes.

The main garden.  I added two extra walls to start early squash in.

Look at how happy this cherry tomato looks!
I still have yet to see where this will lead, as far as harvest goes.  But if they're doing this well at 3-1/2 weeks before the last frost, I can only imagine what they're going to look like by the end of May, when I would normally plant out my tiny tomatoes.  Will I get tomatoes by the fourth of July?  Wouldn't that be cool!

As a bonus of accidentally buying too many walls, I'm going to start some summer squash early to see how they do.  I set up the walls yesterday to help warm up the soil, and plan on planting the seeds this weekend sometime. 

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