Starting a garden in the Capital Region

tomatoes on vine

Should we try them this year?

The recent burst of sunshine and the longer days got us thinking about playing around in the garden. But we don't want a repeat of the great tomato disaster of 2009 (OK, maybe that's over-dramatizing a bit -- but you know what we mean.)

So, what should we plant? What should we not bother with? And when should we get started?

We checked in with Larry Sombke -- landscape consultant, gardening book author, all-around gardening guru -- for a few pointers this year.

Here's the scoop -- or, you know, trowel...

What to plant

David Austin Roses
These are old-fashioned, large-bloomed, fragrant roses that have been modernized and updated to make them disease-free, low-maintenance and repeat bloomers. They are also able to withstand the cold winters we have around here without having to cover them with mounded leaves or dirt as you would for the dainty but popular hybrid tea roses. Imagine what roses were like in Jane Austen's gardens, or her neighbors' in Hampshire -- that's the look you'll get this look in David Austin Roses.

Clematis recta 'Purpurea,' Dictamnus albus purpureus and Baptisia australis
These are my cool perennial picks for 2010. These are being produced by local growers so ask your plant store to get them for you.

The Clematis recta 'Purpurea' is an old plant that disappeared for many years and is now again available. This Clematis forms a mound-like shrub with trailing qualities. It forms white, star-like flowers in June. I first saw this plant in the perennial beds created by Lyndon Miller at the New York Botanical Garden and knew then I had to have it.

Dictamnus, a.k.a. "gas plant" is a rugged 36-inch-tall shrubby perennial that produces pink flowers and fragrance around July 4th. I've tried this before and couldn't get it established, but now I have another chance to put one in the ground. Some say the strong fragrance of the plant is flammable, but who knows? It is deer resistant and likes a mostly sunny place.

Baptisia australis, the 2010 Perennial Plant Association's Plant of the Year is another shrubby perennial that produces blue flower spikes on a three to four foot tall bush that likes full sun and is deer resistant. What's not to like?

Hudson Valley Seed Library
The Hudson Valley Seed Library is a new vegetable seed company that sells regionally-adapted vegetable seeds in gift-quality seed packs featuring works designed by New York artists in order to celebrate the beauty of heirloom gardening. Most of their varieties are rooted in the history and soils of New York or are chosen because they do well here. Really nice!

What not to plant

Tomatoes. Remember all the problems we had last year? Also, don't grow corn, green beans or zucchini, either. In fact, let the growers in the farmer's markets grow all of that for you. They need the money. I say grow flowers this year and forget the vegetables. But if you've got your heart set on vegetables, see the Hudson Valley Seed Library above.

When to start

You want to start your own seeds indoors for tomatoes, peppers, basil, zinnia, marigolds and other tender annuals. Try starting some tuberous begonias from tubers, too. They make great potted plants for shady areas.

Don't plan to plant your little plants outdoors until Mother's Day or Memorial Day when the soil warms up enough. Try starting your seedlings indoors this year in CowPots, small planting pots fabricated from composted cow manure. Find them at Gardener's Supply.


By the way: If Larry's name sounds familiar, it's because when he's not gardening, he makes a some mean southwestern sauces.


I'm confused about the tomatoes - are we not supposed to grow them, green beans, etc. because of The Blight that's in the soil, or more to support local farmers?

I'm curious about the recommendation not to grow tomatoes too. All for supporting the local farmers, for sure and do for many things I haven't the room to grow here. I started tomatos by seed indoors (sunny window plus a 2x6 fluorescent lamp) and had no blight whatsoever last year - though most of my neighbors in the community garden did. I have every intent to do the same this year - in fact, they're already underway.

AOA, Im worried you're (or I disagree with Sombke) giving the impression that you CAN'T plant tomatoes. In fact, it's quite possible we won't have any of the Late Blight problems we had last year. The disease was so bad mostly in part to the especially rainy season we had last year.

Look for varieties that are well suited towards the Northeast climate.

Please, please try growing Tomatoes.

For those hoping to grow tomatoes (i know I am), one tip I heard is not to plant them in the same spot you did last year, especially if you had the blight.

I've been wondering about tomatoes too. Bummer. I don't have the option of planting them in a different spot, so I guess no tomatoes for me this year.

Tomato plants (single ones!) will do just fine in one of those big 5 gallon buckets. Blight wiped out my tomato crop last year (5 plants, sad!) so I'm relegating a few plants to the buckets. Still planting corn, cukes, some flowers, various herbs, peppers, leeks, lettuce, spinach, etc. I'll go to the farmers market for fruit. :)

I echo the puzzlement about not planting vegetables. One of the most satisfying things is growing your own food and preparing fresh, healthy meals from the fruits of your labor. And it's a great lesson for kids to know that a pea comes out of a pod instead of a plastic bag in the freezer.

It doesn't mean we won't support the local farmers. In fact, I bet home gardeners are far more likely to also buy local farm produce than go to Price Chopper or Hannaford to buy produce from California or Chile.

I say don't give up on tomatoes. I had to pull 16 plants last year so I'll only try maybe 4, As for other vegetables, I say go for it. I think a cauliflower is as pretty as a peony.

OK, OK, OK. I give up! Go ahead and grow a vegetable garden this year. But don't come crying to me when things don't work out as well as you expected. Really, just joking. I will plop a few tomato plants in the ground this year, too. Probably even an heirloom or two. By the way, there is a woman who grows heirloom tomato plants and sells them at the Delmar Farmer's Mkt on Tues. and the Maiden Lane Mkt. on Thursday. Today I planted peas, radishes, arugula and mesclun mix seeds from Renee's Garden
Also, by the way, the Times Union just asked me to contribute to their new garden blog (finally!) so watch for me there as well as here at All Over Albany and Capital Region Living. Now, if I can only get Susan Arbetter to join me on a radio show!

I saw the Dirty Jobs episode on CowPots! That was fun, and also gross.

Let me add--the secret to ensuring success in vegetable gardening is diversity. If it's a bad year for some things, it'll still be good for other things. Last year (a bad year for tomatoes and potatoes due to blight; eggplant and peppers because it was so cool), I grew bumper crops of root vegetables, squashes, cruciferous vegetables, greens, and herbs. The beans and cukes started out strong, but were attacked by pests. This year will no doubt present a different array of success and failure.

The heirloom tomato lady (who also sells hard-to-find varieties of eggplant, peppers, and other vegetables) sells at the Empire State Plaza farmers market on Wednesdays starting the first week in May. I'm really hoping I can grow one of her Principe Borghese, the traditional tomato for sun drying.

Last year in my garden I found there are ways to cope with the difficulties of our northeast climate,

Thanks Kimelodic!

Larry also wrote about some solutions on his website.

Larry, Please press Susan to do a show with you! I miss you two on the radio! Your shows together were so entertaining and informative!

Have a couple of these (Earth Box) on the way.

Maybe should document the project. They'll be deployed on my back landing, interior of the block here in downtown Troy.

Unfair advantage: I'll use some tomato plants my mom's starting out on the farm.


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For a decade All Over Albany was a place for interested and interesting people in New York's Capital Region. It was kind of like having a smart, savvy friend who could help you find out what's up. AOA stopped publishing at the end of 2018.

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