Gardening Tips: Not-So-Deadly Nightshades

Editor’s Note: This column first appeared on 19 June 2019.


What to do this week

It’s been a long time coming this spring, but the apples are in bloom and it’s time to start thinking about – nightshades! Not the deadly kind, of course, but a lot of my favorite foods are in that family. Namely, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and potatoes.

Since the spring has been so protracted, you may find that your tomato plants are getting a little tall and leggy from reaching out towards what sunlight there has been. It’s not a good idea to plant them just like that – they will be too susceptible to buffeting by the wind. I usually remove a few of the bottom leaves and plant them in soil half-way up their stem. It looks sad at first, just a little tuft of leaves coming up out of the dirt. But after a week, the plant will send out roots all along that buried stem and more than make up for lost time. The resulting plant will be more robust and wind-firm than it would be if you had let that weak stem fend for itself. You can lay that buried part of the stem horizontally, too, to keep it in the warmest part of the soil.

Eggplant. (Photo by Македонец, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The same goes if you decide to plant your tomatoes in a container. Container planting is only suitable for determinate or dwarf tomatoes, but it is an excellent choice if you have limited space. Make sure your potting mix has a good amount of perlite in it to prevent soil compaction, and it won’t hurt to sprinkle in some bone meal as well. Normally tomatoes do not appreciate too much fertility in the garden. They get the idea they will live forever and make lots of leaves and no flowers or fruit. In a container, however, the fertility is already constrained and you may have to top it up with a solution of fish fertilizer every once in a while.

Containers will also dry out more readily, especially those on a hot sunny deck or patio. In the garden, I would only water tomatoes with a once-a-week thorough soaking, but container bound plants will need a soaking every couple of days in hot weather. If you frequently see it drooping, you know you’d better step up your watering regime.

I grow my peppers and eggplants exclusively in containers. These guys just love the heat and many summers here don’t get warm enough for them to even leave the greenhouse. There are some advantages. I can set up a trickle irrigation system to water them and the basil, which reduces the moisture stress they’d get in the garden. In the fall, it is easy to bring the peppers indoors to overwinter as they are already in pots. Eggplants are a truly beautiful plant with large tropical-looking leaves and big purple flowers. In the past, I crowded so many of them into my greenhouse the humidity and consequent whitefly infestation became a major headache, so now I confine the aubergines to half a dozen, which produces plenty for my own table. Neither they nor the peppers mind pollinating themselves, so greenhouse production is not a problem that way. (Trickle or drip irrigation, by the way, is the only way to go to save water and control pests and diseases. Inexpensive kits are available from most quality seed and garden supply companies.)

I don’t grow potatoes in the greenhouse, and really, they take up a lot of space to be worthwhile in a small home garden, but they are such fun to grow and so delicious, that you may want to try planting them using the old burlap bag technique. Potatoes are clones and produce by making little potatoes genetically identical to the parent seed potato. You can use any potato you like as seed, but unless they are organic, the ones you buy at the grocery store may be sprayed with a sprout inhibitor. If you want to plant ones you saved yourself from last year, that will work. Potatoes are virus accumulators so plant the smaller ones to prevent your stock from getting run down. I had a rare old variety that was pretty ugly from scab and viruses. I managed to clean it up over the course of a few years by planting the small ones and harvesting the seed stock while the plants were still green so as to minimize the transmission of viruses. If you want to avoid the virus issue altogether, plant certified seed stock which has been specially grown to be as virus free as possible.

Put a few seed potatoes in a burlap or other porous sack with the sides rolled down and cover them with dirt. As the plants grow, add more dirt leaving just six inches or so of stem showing each time. You can do this until you run out of sack. The plants will put out the baby potatoes all along the buried stem and you can harvest them by rolling the sack sides down again. Be sure to water them with this method!

There are a large number of potatoes available to plant. Many Cape Bretoners prefer the older, dry-fleshed varieties like Irish Cobbler or Green Mountain — the ones that practically mash themselves. I like them, but I prefer those with a firmer, waxier texture that holds up well in potato salad or casseroles. Try the older types for this, like La Ratte or German Fingerling. If you like the exotic, try some of the varieties like Purple Peruvian. Their dark purple flesh makes a great conversation piece when served oven-roasted, though many of those traditional folks may look askance. I have a good friend who doesn’t even like the ubiquitous Yukon Gold, telling me that if she wants yellow potatoes, she’ll put butter on them.

Featured image: Deep-planted tomato by Dave Wallis / The Forum)



Market gardener, farmer, workshop leader, seed-saver, political candidate and mother, Michelle Smith has spent over 30 years coping with the challenges of our bioregion and in the process has built a store of practical and technical knowledge. The Inverness resident has served on the board of Seeds of Diversity Canada and represented Alternative Producers with the Federation of Agriculture but can do nothing about her hair. She is pictured with a head of Club Wheat, a seed that shares her approach to hairdressing.