Growing Tomatoes

For each of the last 15 years, I've grown between 50 and 100 tomato plants from seed, which gives me a year's supply of tomatoes, tomato juice, tomato sauce, and salsa. And plenty to give away, also!

In southeastern Kentucky, the "frost safe" date is May 10th. To grow tomatoes from seed, you should start them 6-12 weeks earlier than your local frost safe date. I remember to get started sometimes between the Super Bowl and the SEC basketball tournament.


Start your seeds in a very light soil medium, either a commercial starting mix or a homemade mixture of sphagnum moss and vermiculite. I add some anti-fungal agent to prevent mold. Mix it with just as much warm water as the soil will hold. I plant the seeds in leftover food containers, label the variety (there are four different kinds this year) and cover the tray with a loose baggie. Then place the trays in a warm area, like on top of the refrigerator. When they sprout, remove the plastic and place them in a window or under a plant light. Water when needed, then drain the excess.

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I built special shelves in my southern-facing windows for plants. Young tomatoes need as many hours of sunlight as you can give them. Some of these plants are peppers and marigolds.

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When the seedlings have four leaves, you can separate them into their own pots. I use 2- or 3-ounce plastic bathroom cups, with holes in the bottom made with an ice pick. Peat pots dry out too quickly. Use potting soil, or a homemade mix of topsoil and your seed-starting mix. If you use compost, make sure you're not bringing insects into the house. Carefully jiggle the roots apart. Handle the seedlings by the leaves, not the stems, and try to preserve the roots. Bury them up to their necks, so that more roots will sprout from the underground part of the stem.

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If you plant more than one variety, label each cup, or else you'll never know how many you have of each when planting time comes! The CHE here is to designate cherry tomatoes. Water them thoroughly immediately after potting and check the pots for drainage.

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There is never enough window space, so I have a couple of plant lights as well. They run 24 hours a day so I can rotate plant trays under them for 12 hours at a time.

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When the outside temperature is above 50 degrees, you can set plants outside in the sun. This can be a chore, carrying plants out in the morning and in at night, but eventually the weather will be warm enough to leave them out overnight. By the first of May, I figure out how many plants of each variety I will need. I sell the others, which pays for my planting supplies, and give quite a few away to family and friends.

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Get your garden plot ready before the frost safe date by tilling the soil, laying a plastic mulch (if you don't like to weed), and setting up a trellis. A trellis will keep the vines and fruit off the ground. I use whatever is available, of course, so this trellis is made of branches, broom sticks, pipes, and rebar. Tomatoes should be planted two feet apart in rows three feet apart. That seems like a lot of room, but you'll need every bit of it. Unless you kill the plants.

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A wise man once told me you should dig a ten-dollar hole for a one-dollar plant. I dig a deep wide hole for each tiny plant and fill the hole with compost. Then I push the plant out of its pot by pressing on the bottom and slip the plant into the compost, once again burying it up to its neck. You can use the pots again next year. Water thoroughly soon after you plant. Wipe your feet before you go inside.


Water your plants every week if you don't get a good soaking rain. It's astonishing how fast they grow once they're outside! Use some soft string and tie the vines loosely to the trellis as they grow. You can see yellow tomato blossoms in this picture if you look closely. A pint of liquid fertilizer per plant every week will do a world of good at this stage, especially if your soil isn't all that great. I mix up 15-20 gallons of fertilizer at a time for this garden.

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Before long, the vines will be huge and you'll see some green fruits. Since they are green, you won't see how very many there are. I don't need to use pesticides, but you should keep an eye out for symptoms, especially if you use heirloom seeds. Modern varieties are quite resistant to disease and pests. The border of marigolds keeps out nematodes. The only critters that are drawn to my tomatoes are turtles, which can be apprehended and redirected easily.


Eventually, you'll spy a tomato turning red. This is a glorious day in the garden! It happens in mid-July where I live; your mileage may vary. For the rest of the month, I have enough tomatoes for salads and sandwiches. Then in August, I have to take a five-gallon bucket out twice a day to relieve the straining plants of their burden. Grocery stores love to advertise "vine-ripened" tomatoes, but I finish ripening most of mine in a window. Otherwise, the weight would tear the plants down! I pick tomatoes that are orange or light red. Once they start to turn color, they won't grow any bigger. When they are all red, they are the most delicious thing you've ever eaten.


Through the month of August, I am up to my elbows in tomatoes. The ripest are in the refrigerator, the barely ripe are on the counter, and the ripening fruits are in the window. When a bushel or so are ripe enough at the same time, I peel, chop, cook, and can them. By the time I come up for air in September, I have a year's supply of tomato products, a kitchen spattered in tomato juice, and a garden that has settled down to producing just enough for salads and sandwiches until the end of October.

See also: A Dozen Pumpkins, Do-It-Yourself Molded Pumpkins, and Salsa Time!

8 Surprising Uses for Peeps

You can eat marshmallow Peeps, and you can put them in someone's Easter basket. But that's just the beginning of what you can do with those small blobs of sugary goodness. Branch out and use your Peeps in new ways this year.


Peeps are marshmallows, and can be toasted over a campfire just like their plain, non-sugar-coated brothers—which means you can make classic S'mores out of them. Best of all: You don't even need a campfire to do it. Serious Eats has a recipe for them that they call S'meeps, which only requires that you pop them in the oven for a short time. If you're a Peeps purist, forget the graham crackers and chocolate and enjoy the unique taste of campfire-toasted Peeps all by themselves.


Vanessa Brady at Tried & True has made several Peeps wreaths that are sure to inspire you to do the same. (She even has a tutorial to get you started.)


If you want to trick a kid into eating a fruit salad, just serve it up on a stick—with a marshmallow Peep in the middle. Blogger Melodramatic Mom made these for an irresistible after-school snack for her kids.


With their consistent shape and size, and variety of bright colors, Peeps can be used as pixels for larger artworks. Ang Taylor made this Mario jumping a Piranha Plant out of marshmallow chicks and bunnies. To be honest, there are many ways Peeps can be used as an art medium, as we've seen many times before (like in this collection of Peeps dioramas).


Peeps chicks and bunnies are ready-made decorations that will easily stick to cake frosting and make for desserts that are both seasonal and colorful. If you need a recipe, check out this one for a Marbled Cake with Peeps and M&Ms. See some more cake decorating tips here.


There's no danger of misshapen cake pops or drippy lollipops when you start with a Peep on a stick. Michelle from Sugar Swings made these candy pops out of marshmallow Peeps, and using Peeps left her plenty of time to decorate them as Star Wars characters. Michelle has plenty of other Peeps pops ideas you can try out, too.


We've seen that Peeps can be substituted for marshmallows in recipes, but remember that Peeps come in a variety of colors and can be bought in small batches. That makes them really useful for coloring separate portions of your Rice Krispies treat recipe. Kristen at Yellowblissroad has a recipe for Layered Peeps Crispy Treats, and a video of the process at Facebook.


Using Peeps as characters in a diorama, where you can let your imagination run wild, has become somewhat of an Easter tradition. Kate Ramsayer, Helen Fields, and Joanna Church put their heads together to recreate the Broadway musical Hamilton in marshmallow with a diorama that featured the lyrics to the show's opening number.

While The Washington Post has suspended its annual Peeps Diorama Contest after 10 years, other newspapers—including the Twin Cities Pioneer Press and the Washington City Paper—plus local libraries across the country are carrying on the tradition and holding Peeps diorama contests. But you don't have to enter a contest to have fun making a scene with your family.

This piece originally ran in 2017.

The Bloody Benders, America's First Serial Killer Family

In 1870, a group of new families moved to the wind-ravaged plains near what would become Cherryvale, Kansas. They were Spiritualists, a religion that was foreign to the homesteaders already in the new state, but locals tended to accept newcomers without asking too many questions. Two of the families moved away within a year, discouraged by the difficult conditions, and the others kept to themselves. But the Benders were different.

At first, they appeared be a normal family. John Bender, Sr., and his troupe settled near the Great Osage Trail (later known as the Santa Fe Trail) over which innumerable travelers passed on their way to the West. The older Bender, called "Pa," made a claim for 160 acres in what is now Labette County. His son John (sometimes called Thomas) claimed a smaller parcel that adjoined Pa's land, but never lived on or worked it. The Benders also included "Ma" and a daughter named Kate, who advertised herself as Spiritualist medium and healer. Ma and Pa reportedly mostly spoke German, although the younger Benders spoke fluent English.

The group soon built a one-room home equipped with a canvas curtain that divided the space into two areas. The front was a public inn and store, and the family quarters were in the back. Travelers on the trail were welcome to refresh themselves with a meal and resupply their wagons with liquor, tobacco, horse feed, gunpowder, and food. Kate, who was reportedly attractive and outgoing, also drew customers to the inn with her supposed psychic and healing abilities. These men, who usually traveled alone, often spent the night.

The trail was a dangerous place, and there were many reasons for travelers to go missing on their way out West—bandits, accidents, conflicts with Native Americans, disease. But over the course of several years, more and more people went missing around the time they passed through Labette County. It usually took time for such disappearances to draw attention—mail and news traveled slowly—but that all changed in March 1873 after a well-known physician from Independence, Kansas, named Dr. William York seemingly disappeared after getting off the train at Cherryvale. Dr. York had two powerful brothers who were determined to find out what happened to him: Colonel Edward York and Kansas Senator Alexander York.

Colonel York led an investigation in Labette County. When questioned, the Benders denied all knowledge of York's disappearance, although Ma Bender "flew into a violent passion," in the words of The Weekly Kansas Chief, when asked about a report of a woman who had been threatened with pistols and knives at their inn. Ma defended herself by claiming that the visitor had been a witch, a "bad and wicked woman, whom she would kill if ever she came near them again.”

Around the same time, the township held a meeting at the Harmony Grove schoolhouse; both male Benders were in attendance. The townsfolk decided to search every homestead for evidence of the missing—but the weather turned bad, and it was several days before a search could begin.

Eventually, a neighbor noticed starving farm animals wandering the Bender property. When he investigated the inn, he found it empty: The Benders had fled. The volunteers who later arrived for the search noted that the Benders' wagon was gone; little else had been taken from the home besides food and clothing.

Though the house was empty, all else seemed normal—until someone opened a trap door in the floor. What they found beneath it was chilling.

The trap door, located behind the curtain in the Benders' private quarters, led to a foul-smelling cellar, which was drenched with blood. Horrified, the group lifted up the cabin from its foundations and dug into the ground, yet found nothing. The investigation then turned to the garden, which was freshly plowed; neighbors recalled that the garden always seemed freshly plowed.

Working through the night, the volunteers first unearthed York's body. The back of his head had been smashed, and his throat slit. Soon, they found more bodies with similar injuries. Accounts differ about the number of bodies excavated from the site, but totals hover around a dozen. In all, the Benders may have committed as many as 21 murders. Their terrible work garnered the family only a few thousand dollars and some livestock.

Investigators later pieced together the group's modus operandi. It's believed that guests at the inn were urged to sit against the separating curtain, and while dining, would be hit on the head with a hammer from behind the curtain. Their body was then dropped into the trap door to the cellar, where one of the Benders slit their unfortunate victim's throat before stripping the body of its valuables.

One man, a Mr. Wetzell, heard this theory and remembered a time when he had been at the inn and declined to sit in the designated spot near the curtain. His decision had caused Ma Bender to become angry and abusive toward him, and when he saw the male Benders emerge from behind the cloth, he and his companion decided to leave. A traveler named William Pickering told an almost identical story.

The crimes created a sensation in the newspapers, drawing journalists and curiosity-seekers from all over the country. "Altogether the murders are without a parallel," read an account reprinted in The Chicago Tribune. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported over 3000 people at the crime scene, with more trains arriving. A book published in Philadelphia soon after the murders were discovered, The Five Fiends, or, The Bender Hotel Horror in Kansas, described how "large numbers of people arrived upon the scene, who had heard of the ... diabolical acts of bloody murder and rapacious robbery. Hardened men were moved to tears." The house in which the murders took place was disassembled and carried away piece by piece by souvenir seekers.

1873 stereographic photo of the excavated grave of a victim of the Bender murders
An 1873 photo of the excavated grave of a victim of the Bender murders

Senator York offered a $1000 reward for the Benders, and the governor chipped in another $2000, but the reward was never claimed. In the years following the sensational crimes, several women were arrested as Ma or Kate, but none were positively identified. A number of vigilante groups claimed to have found the Benders and murdered them, but none brought back proof. The older Benders were allegedly seen on their way to St. Louis by way of Kansas City, and the younger Benders were supposedly seen heading to an outlaw colony on the border of Texas and New Mexico, but no one knows what ultimately became of them.

Investigators were likely hampered by the group’s deceit: None of the Benders were actually named Bender, and the only members who were likely related were Ma and her daughter Kate. "Pa" was reportedly born John Flickinger in the early 1800s in either Germany or the Netherlands. "Ma" is said to have been born Almira Meik, and her first husband named Griffith, with whom she had 12 children. Ma was married several times before marrying Pa, but each husband before him reportedly died of head wounds. Her daughter Kate was born Eliza Griffith. John Bender, Jr.'s real name was John Gebhardt, and many who knew them in Kansas said he was Kate's husband, not her brother.

Today, nothing remains to indicate the exact location where the Bender house stood, although there is a historical marker at a nearby rest area. Though rumors still surround the case—some say Ma murdered Pa over stolen property soon after they fled, others that Pa committed suicide in Lake Michigan in 1884—after 140 years, we will probably never know what really happened to the Bloody Benders.

A version of this story originally ran in 2013.


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