Saturday, June 29, 2019

Tomatoes 101, everything you need to know to grow great tomatoes

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Tomatoes are Americans favorite vegetable to grow.  There really is no comparison between a home grown tomato and a store bought tomato.  There are just a few tricks to know about growing great tasting tomatoes. 

The first is knowing what type of tomato to purchase
There are two types of tomatoes-indeterminate and determinate.  Determinate grow to a set height and the fruit sets all at once.  These can be a great candidate for canning if you would like to get your tomato canning done all at once.  Indeterminate continue to grow and yield fruits (yes, the tomato is actually a fruit) until frost.  These are the best for fresh tomatoes all season long.
Choosing which tomatoes to grow

I grow only indeterminates.  For what we don’t eat, I freeze whole in quart freezer bags for chili and salsa until fall.  Come fall, I start canning the surplus.  I like growing a variety of tomatoes, with different colors, salad tomatoes, slicers, and paste tomatoes.  I like adding paste tomatoes to each freezer bag as they give a silky sauce.  And colors are just fun!  I always have red and purple tomatoes in the garden.
The Power of Purple

Right before the first frost, I pick all the tomatoes left on the vine and put in a dark place for them to ripen.  We have fresh tomatoes into December.  They are definitely not the same as summer tomatoes, but better than anything you can buy in the store!  For more tips on preserving the tomato harvest:  Preserving the tomato harvest

There are "storage" tomato varieties.  You can pick these at frost and they will keep for up to 4 weeks longer than typical tomatoes.  One option is Red October.  The downside is they are a hybrid so will not come back true to the parent with seeds from this year's crop.
Tomatoes kept in pantry at Christmas
All tomatoes are chock full of antioxidants and lycopene.  They contain vitamins A, C, E, K, and B-complex as well as potassium, manganese, and copper.  For a full listing of nutrition, SELF magazine has an informative nutritional database:  tomato nutrition

Tomato supports/cages
With indeterminate tomatoes, they definitely need something to help them grow upwards (although not required, it does make harvesting much easier and takes up less garden space).  A very sturdy pole can be used and the plant tied onto it as it grows.  The more popular option is a “tomato cage” that the tomato grows up in to.  This is what we use.  It is important to get the cage on while the plants are small or severe damage may ensue when you try to force the gangly plant into it’s cage.  Be sure to get a strong cage for large tomato plants.  I also add a stake to the really big tomatoes to give extra support.

If you grow dwarf or patio tomatoes, they may not need any support at all.  I did end up using a stake for each plant as they put on large tomatoes which caused the plant to lean when I grow the patio types.  
Staked dwarf tomato
Tips when planting
Tomatoes are susceptible to blossom-end rot and fungal diseases.  End rot is typically caused by not having enough calcium in the soil.  Fungal diseases remain the soil.  It is important to rotate vegetable plants and not plant them in the same spot every year.  

Another preventative of disease is to provide the right fertilizer and nutrients when planting.  In each planting hole, I add a handful of worm castings, balanced fertilizer, and dusted the roots with mycorrhizal life support which contains mycorrhizal, vitamins and minerals.  This blend improves soil fertility and the plants ability to take in the nutrition it needs.  It is not all about just the big 3-nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium.  They are important but vitamins, minerals, and particularly living soil makes a huge difference in how healthy and lush the plants become.  I use fertilizer made specifically for tomatoes so that they get the calcium they need.  As your plants take up minerals, you will get these minerals when you eat your garden produce.
The next step in garden production and your nutrition-soil minerals

When you plant your tomato, make sure to plant it deeply.  I take off all the limbs except the top couple and bury the plant up to these stems.  Roots will grow from where the removed and buried limbs were.  This gives the plants a much stronger root system to support growth.

I also like to plant early in the season and then again in the middle of the summer.  When the new plants come on strong, the early planted ones are slowing down.  It keeps the harvest going strong.

Pruning tips
Now that your plants have the right start, pruning is the next step.  To get the highest yields, some say it is important to prune your tomatoes.  You want no branches below 12” (some recommend 18”).  You also want to prune the plant to only 2 branches, the center stalk and one side stalk.  You want to keep the “suckers” cut or pinched off as well as the tomato grows.

The amount of pruning is controversial among tomato growing connoisseurs.  Some swear by pruning, others say it makes no difference.  If you live further south, keeping the greenery helps protect the fruits from sun scald.  If your plants seem to get fungal diseases, doing some pruning to open up the plant for air circulation can be beneficial.  For plants up north, increased greenery helps the plant have more energy going to its fruits.  I have tried both and for my garden, very limited pruning has worked the best.

Watering and fertilizing
Now, to on-going watering and fertilizing.  Many think more is better when it comes to watering and fertilizing.  Not so for tomatoes!  What you end up with are tons of greenery, mushy tomatoes, and very few of them.  Some tomato afficiados recommend a deep watering and fertilizer at planting, then again at flowering, and that is it.  I do water when there is a long dry spell.  Overwatering or erratic watering can also cause the fruits to crack.  

For the tomatoes in the garden, I fertilize when planting, again when the first flowers appear, and monthly thereafter.  If growing in containers, I fertilize every other week with a liquid fertilizer when flowering.  I also add either kelp meal or Azomite every season to make sure the plants are getting all the trace minerals they need.  The first time I added Azomite, my plants seemed to grow and bush out within a few days.  If they respond favorably, then they really needed those nutrients.

If your plant will not flower and fruit with lush green foliage, quit fertilizing and watering.  A little stress should jump start it into producing flowers and fruits.

Although tomatoes love hot weather (they will not flower until night time temps get above 55), they also don’t like it too hot.  If daytime temps get above 90 and nighttime temps above 76, the plant will drop its flowers.  Not to worry, as soon as temps come back down, your plants will begin flowering again.
 Summer garden tips

Growing in containers
If you want to grow tomatoes in a container, you need to either have a really big container for full size tomatoes (5 gallon) or plant varieties that are adapted for containers. Tomatoes for containers would be labelled as dwarf, patio, container.  Some varieties that fit this bill:  BushSteak, Patio Princess, Bush Early Girl, Tumbler, Bush Big Boy, Baxter’s Bush Cherry, Lizzano, Sweetheart of the Patio, Tumbling Tom Yellow or Red, Bush Better Bush, Balcony (look for bush/patio/container types), Husky Bush.

If you grow in containers, you will need to water weekly or maybe even more depending on the container and plant size combo used.  For more on container gardening and types to purchase for pots, Decorative container gardening for edibles

Seed saving

If you are growing open pollinated or heirloom tomatoes, you can save the seed from the best fruits and plants to grow for next season.  If you are growing hybrids, the seed will not produce a plant like the parent.  Why save seed?  Saving seed from the plants that produce the best fruits year on year will give you plants acclimated to your garden conditions and the best producers.  Save seed from plants that have the characteristics you want in future plants.  The ones with the best fruit, the largest fruit, the best tasting fruit, the earliest producer, the latest producer or the best producer.  You get to choose what you want in your future tomato plants.
Seed saving-fun, easy and a cost saver

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Garlic harvest is here!

Garlic in foreground, starting to die back
Sunday, June 23, 2019

Garlic is rich in lore.  This allium has been around for thousands of years.  It originated in Asia, was cultivated in Egypt and has been a Mediterranean cooking staple for centuries. Over the ages, garlic has been reputed to repel vampires, clear the blood, cure baldness, aid digestion.  

Today’s studies have shown garlic has antibacterial, anti-fungal, antiviral properties. And, it tastes great!  For a breakdown of specific vitamins and minerals, garlic nutritional value  It is easy to grow and has little pest issues.  All you do is put them in the ground in the fall and by early to mid summer, they are ready to harvest.
The clove puts out roots in the fall.  Depending on how warm the winter is, there can be green shoots showing through the cold months.  Garlic will be some of the first greenery to start growing in early spring.  The stems resemble onion greens.  The hard neck garlic flower, or scape, has a cute little curl in it.  They are great in salads.  Harvesting them also gives you bigger bulbs.
For more on fall planting and growing garlic, Time to plant garlic! With growing tips......

Soft neck and hard neck garlic are slightly different in telling you when to harvest.  For soft neck garlic, you wait until the tops fall over and die off.  They are ready to harvest about a week later.  Typically this is mid-summer, but ours is ready now.  Hard neck garlic is ready to harvest when about half of their lower leaves have turned brown.  Try digging one up and see if the bulb is large and firm.  If it's not ready, just wait another week or two.

                                               Garlic ready to harvest           Freshly harvested garlic
It is best to dig your garlic when the ground is dry.  When you go to dig up your garlic, proceed carefully.  If you cut the bulb, it will not keep and needs to eaten soon.  The garlic should be left in dry shade for 2-3 weeks or brought inside and stored in a cool, dry location with good air circulation.  They can be hung or placed in a perforated bin or paper bag to dry and store.  I keep mine in a paper bag on the covered deck.

After they are hardened, I will cut off the dry stalks above the clove and trim the roots.  I'll keep them in a  bag with good air circulation indoors until I am ready to peel them.

If you planted a combo of elephant garlic (which is actually a type of leek), hard neck and soft neck garlic and are wondering how to tell them apart now.

Leek flower
Garlic scape
You can tell the difference in the two by looking at the flowers.  Leeks have a onion type flower while hard neck garlic has a curly scape flower.

Your soft neck garlic will have a much smaller stem than the elephant garlic does.

For the longest storage, soft neck garlic is the ticket.  It is also the strongest flavored.  Hard necked is milder and easier to peel.  I like elephant garlic because you get so much from each plant.

To preserved my garlic, I peel them and put them in apple cider vinegar with a few hot peppers for pickled garlic.  A trick I saw recently for quick peeling is to just stab the clove with a paring knife and pull out of the skin.  I keep my pickled garlic in the frig and they have stayed firm for me for two years.  I had tried keeping the dried, fresh cloves in years past, but always lost some.  This way, I don't lose a single clove!

I use my garlic for garlic cheese bread, cooking, and salsa.  Quick, homemade salsa

Everyone knows of garlic in sauces and on cheese bread.  A few years back, we tried roasted garlic.  It dramatically mellows the flavor.  I just put a few heads in a small baking dish, add chicken stock to just about level to the cut heads, and let bake covered at 350 for 30-45 minutes, until soft.  It is a great spread on french bread!

For those on keto diets or have gluten issues, I found a recipe for bread that takes about 3 minutes to make with almond flour.  I mix in a small pyrex storage bowl, 3 tablespoons of almond flour, 1.5 tablespoons of olive oil, 1/2 teaspoon of baking powder, and 1 egg.  Microwave for 90 seconds and you have instant, hot bread!  You can use butter or coconut oil as a substitute for olive oil.  I also add about a teaspoon of dried herbs and mix in with the other ingredients for a more savory bread.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

How to use all your zucchini-really

Zucchini bush in flower
Saturday, June 22, 2018

Ah, zucchini.  One of the first summer veggies to fruit.  You know summer is officially here when your zukes are flowering and producing nice long fruits.  By mid-summer, the novelty has worn off.  By August, you can’t give the things away!  I even saw a box in my local hardware store with free zucchinis!

So, what’s a gardener to do with all that excess bounty?  Well, you can donate them to a food pantry, you can preserve them in a few different ways, or you can use them in ways I’d never even thought of!  

For preserving, you can freeze them, can them or dry them.  I don’t care for canning zucchini as they are not acidic enough to just use a water bath; the full pressure canner set up is required.  You could pickle them, lowering the pH enough to use a water bath.  There are all kinds of fun pickling recipes out there.  Adding peppers is a way to add zing to an otherwise bland taste.  Just make sure you follow the recipe exactly as the proper pH is critical to safe canning.
Blanched zucchini ready for freezer

I have used the freeze and dry methods.  For freezing, first slice them, blanch them, then lay them on a cookie sheet and freeze them.  After they are frozen, you can put them in a freezer bag.  When you need a few, they are easy to get out of the bag.  If you put them into the freezer bag fresh, they will freeze together.  I am trying a few frozen whole.  With a sharp blade, I can slice them when I need them, kind of like frozen cookie dough.
For drying, slice and either use a dehydrator, the sun or your oven.  Zucchini has a great deal of moisture so it will take a while to completely dehydrate.  You can speed the process by salting, squeezing out the excess (cookie sheet weighted down on top of another cookie sheet is an easy way to do this) for about 15 minutes, then either popping into the oven, setting them out in the sun or placing in a dehydrator for a couple of hours should do it.  Keep an eye on them to make sure they don’t burn if you are using an oven.  Recommended temp for drying is 120-200 degrees F max.

I ran across some recipes in Capper’s magazine that looked tasty: zucchini spaghetti and meat balls, stuffed baked zucchini, and zucchini parmesan.  I have tried a variation on the baked zucchini and the zucchini parmesan and both were quite good.

They have this nifty little gadget called a spiralizer that you put a zucchini in and it will make nice long spaghetti noodles.  You can use them just like spaghetti but with no carbs or gluten.  Cool, huh?  Just toss with your favorite sauce and serve.
Zucchini made into noodles
Grilled zucchini is tasty with sea salt and olive oil.  It is one of our standbys.  Just be sure to not heat your olive oil above 340 degrees F; the smoke point of this delicious, nutritious oil.
Grilled zucchini
There is also fried zucchini.  It is easy to make.  Just whip up 3 eggs with a little milk.  Mix together 1/2 cup of cornmeal with a 1/4 cup of flour, salt and seasonings to taste.  Dip the zucchini slices first in the egg batter then in the dry meal.  Place in 350-375 degree F oil and fry until golden.  If you are going to eat by itself, using a Cajun season salt adds a welcome zing of flavor.

For any extras you have, you can freeze them, too.  Just put a single layer on a cookie sheet and let freeze through.  Then, put all the pieces into a freezer bag.  You can pull out any time you have a craving for fried zucchini!  Just thaw and warm up in the oven.

The baked zucchini was good.  Take a large zucchini, cut in half and scoop out the seeds.  Stuff with your favorite meat stuffing recipe and bake until the zucchini is tender at 350 degrees F.  Mine took about an hour and a half to become tender.  Top with marinara sauce and mozzarella cheese and put bake in the oven until cheese is golden and bubbly.
Zucchini lasagna
There was a recipe in the magazine for zucchini parmesan.  Basically, you layer sauce, sliced Italian sausage, breaded and fried zucchini to fill a baking dish, then top with mozzarella cheese and bake at 350 degrees F until the sauce is bubbly and the cheese golden and melted.

We didn’t have any Italian sausage, so I made up a stuffing mix which is below.  I just then layered sauce, then breaded and fried zucchini, then meat stuffing until the baking pan was full.  For my pan, it was 3 layers of each.  Then top with mozzarella and parmesan and into the oven at 350 degrees F until the sauce is bubbly and the cheese is melted.

I was amazed at how delicious the zucchini lasagna was.  It is low carb, gluten free, full of just harvested veggies and a great way to utilize the bounty from the garden!

Here is a meat stuffing mix I really like:  1 small diced onion, 3 eggs, 1 piece of whole wheat toast crumbled, 2 teaspoons of ground garlic, 1 teaspoon of sea salt, 1/2 teaspoon of fresh ground pepper, 2 teaspoons of dried mixed herbs from the garden, and a half pound of burger (bison, grass fed beef or venison).  Just mush it all together by hand.  When combined, use to stuff the zucchini or layer as part of the zucchini lasagna dish.

Another option would be to wrap the stuffing in zucchini creating zucchini cannelloni.  Stuff, wrap, cover with cheese and bake until cheese is warm and bubbly.

Then there is the ever classic zucchini bread. Recipes abound on the internet and cookbooks for this perennial favorite.

Now you have several ideas for fully utilizing all your wonderful zucchini besides the compost pile :  )

For other tips on preserving the harvest from the garden, see Preservation garden

Sunday, June 16, 2019

What's happening in the mid June edible garden

Potted peppers with petunias
Sunday, June 16, 2019

This is the in-between season in our garden.  The spring veggies have wound down and the summer veggies are just starting to fruit.  The spring flowers are long gone and the summer lovers are just beginning to bloom.

The spring crops like lettuce, spinach, broccoli, cilantro, mustard, sorrel, chard, rat's tail, snow peas are at the end of their peak.  The lettuce, spinach, sprouting broccoli, cilantro, sorrel and mustard greens have gone to seed.  You can still pick leaves, but look for the ones at to bottom of the lettuce and cilantro plants where they are still sweet.  For the chard, sorrel, cultivated dandelions, and mustard greens, the new leaves are the sweetest.  Seed saving-fun, easy and a cost saver

Now is a good time to do a another sowing of lettuce.  Be sure to sow seeds of heat tolerant varieties; every three weeks is optimal to be able to have continuous lettuce harvests.  Bolt-free, sweet summer lettuces  

There are other greens that can be used for salads that thrive in the heat.   Chard, dandelion greens, sorrel, arugula, mustard greens and chick weed harvested first thing in the morning are all salad worthy.  I've added Malabar spinach, New Zealand spinach, and strawberry spinach to my summer greens garden this year.  They are not true spinach but have the flavor of spinach and are heat tolerant.  

You can also add herbs for a fresh taste and zing like salad burnet, parsley, basil, dill, onion stalks/tops, chives, thyme, oregano, tarragon.   Growing summer salads   For fun, you can add edible flowers.  Flowers that are edible

Most of the tomatoes are flowering.  Some have grown into tall, sturdy plants; others are still on the small side.  When tomatoes, squash, peppers and eggplants first flower, it is time to give them a boost with fertilizer.  I use a tomato fertilizer on all my fruiting plants as it is designed to boost the fruiting of plants.  I'll watch the plants that are not growing as well and give them another round of fertilizer in a couple of weeks.  With fertilizer on fruiting plants, you don't want to over fertilize with nitrogen or they will grow lots of greenery and not so many veggies.  Tomatoes 101, everything you need to know to grow great tomatoesI used a combo of Espoma Tomato Tone and Azomite to give the plants the minerals they need.  Minerals in the soil is minerals in the plants and fruits which gives you minerals when you eat them.  I have seen a real difference in plant growth using Azomite.  Another mineral supplement is a Sea Mineral supplement.  I always put the fertilizer under the mulch to make sure it all goes to the plant and not lose the nitrogen into the air.To keep from having blossom end rot on tomatoes and squash, consistent water is key.  They shouldn't be overwatered.  Over or under will affect the fruit flavor.  They are kind of like Goldilocks; they like it just right.  No worries, though, if you do overwater, the fruit will be fine, just not as flavorful and may crack.
Zucchini plant in bloom

I got a late start on zucchini this year.  I just planted it 10 days ago.  They grow fast so it is fine to get started in June.  You need to keep a close eye on the zucchinis because they seem to get huge overnight!  The more you pick veggies, the more the plant produces for you.  What to do with all that zucchini?!  

My spaghetti squash plants are flowering with baby squash on them.  Spaghetti squash are harvested in the fall.  They also tell you when they are ready.  When the vine dies, the squash is ready.  Growing zucchini and summer squash

The pepper plants have blooms and small peppers.  Peppers seem to have a built in counter.  They will drop flowers when the plant has reached its max peppers.  Pick the peppers when green to keep the plant producing. You can ripen on the counter, if you like, or go ahead and enjoy green.    Preserving peppers
Baby peppers
Our cucumber vines, which I have growing up a trellis to save space, have baby cucumbers on them.  They typically give 2-3 cucumbers per week per plant and are care free plants.  How to grow cucumbers-in pots or in the garden  Cucumbers just smell and taste fresh.  They are commonly used in fresh pressed juices and smoothies.  Grow your own smoothie and juice garden

For any I don't eat right off the vine, I make pickles.  One large cucumber is enough to make a jar of sandwich pickles.  My husband loves sandwich pickles on his burger.  Make your own pickles without a store bought seasoning mix
Garlic is about ready to harvest.  Soft neck and hard neck garlic are slightly different in telling you when to harvest.  Soft neck garlic is ready to harvest a week after their tops fall over and die off.  Hard neck garlic is ready to harvest when about half of their lower leaves have turned brown.  Try digging one up and see if the bulb is large and firm.  If they are not, just cover back up and try in another week.  After pulling, keep in a warm shady spot for 2-3 weeks for the bulbs to harden.  Hardening lengthens the storage time.  Save the biggest cloves for planting in the fall.  Garlic harvest is here! 
The snow peas are about done; they don't like the heat.  I have plenty of beans in the freezer so I am not growing them this summer.  Legumes-peas for spring, beans for summer
Background-potatoes blooming potato box.  Foreground-pepper and snow peas in pot with nasturtiums
All the herbs are going strong.  Many are large enough now to cut and dry for preserving.  Harvesting and drying herbs  The sage has not yet bloomed, but it will put on lots of lavender blue flowers that the bees and butterflies love.  My mother read recently that you can use sage tea to help with hot flashes.  You can have up to 5 cups of tea a day.  Make your own teas from garden grown herbs

We are now into summer temps; most days in the upper 80's.  The garden will soon need supplemental watering.   Summer garden tips  For veggies I am growing in pots, I am watering them twice a week now.  The best veggie pots are those that have a reservoir in the bottom.  This will allow you to probably get away with watering once a week.  At some point, I'll remember and take the time to add a reservoir to my existing pots over the winter to cut down on the summer watering time!  Decorative container gardening for edibles

The hard part of gardening is over now.  There is minor weeding, occasional fertilizing along with watering and keeping an eye out for pests.  Most of the time from here out is just harvesting, enjoying and preserving.  For more tips on preserving the extra, see Preservation garden

Saturday, June 15, 2019

5 Tips for a More Productive Garden

Saturday, June 15, 2019

To maximize the production in your garden space, there are few things you can do to make the most of your time, energy, garden space and money.  Even if you have oodles of space, maximizing your production per square foot saves time and money.  Less to weed, less to fertilize, less to mulch.

5 Tips for a Productive Garden

1.  Healthy soil.  It all starts with the soil.  You need nutrient and microbe rich soil.  Chemical herbicide, pesticides and fertilizers all kill microbes and worms scatter when chemicals are applied.  For alive soil, use organic, natural fertilizers and compost.  Weed free, self fertilizing, till free garden beds  Apply both in early spring so the nutrition can seep into the soil, ready to nourish the seeds and plants you put in the ground.  For more details on creating healthy soil, see this blog:  next step in garden production

2.  Smart garden plan.  You can maximize the production of the plants you put in your garden with a well thought out plan.  Divide out what you like to eat into the seasons they thrive in.  Plant your veggies in the right season and you will be rewarded with healthy plants and bountiful harvests.  Before you plant, check the heights and sun requirements.  Plant the tallest plants in the back so they don’t shade out the shorter sun loving plants.  Using trellis for vertical gardening of cucumbers, beans, and peas is a great use of space at the back of the garden bed.  For those that appreciate some shade, interplant between taller varieties.  Get the most from your space-plant intensively!  Look for those that help each other out.  This is called companion planting.  For more information on companion planting, see this blog:  Companion planting

3.  Choose wisely.  Choose the most productive varieties to maximize the production per square foot of space.  Dwarfs are a great choice for small spaces and containers.  You can get the same production from many dwarfs as you can the full size varieties.  Look for those that have “abundant”, “prolific”, and “heavy yields” in the descriptions.  Some great choices are cucumbers, pole beans and peas, zucchini, tomatoes, peppers, and many varieties of greens.  Decorative container gardening for edibles

4.  Think 4 season gardening.  Use as much of all 4 seasons as possible.  Start seeds indoors in late winter to get an early start on spring and summer.  You can plant out as soon as the weather is willing.  Help heat up the soil so your plants or seeds get a jump start when planted.  You can put down plastic or cloches where you want to plant to help get the soil warm.  Your seedlings will appreciate it!  You can also cover your seedlings with a row cover or cloche after planting to keep the warmth of the sun past sundown.  Be careful with cloche’s as they can get really hot and fry your plants.  A good choice is one with vents.  Extend the season with protection for plants  Also look for varieties that are adapted to the season.  There are tomatoes adapted to cooler temperatures to get a jump on summer and lettuces that are heat tolerant so you can continue to have salads into summer.  For more on 4 season gardening, see this blog:  garden year round

5.  Eliminate competition.  Weeds and pests take away from the vigor of your veggies.  Use mulch to keep weeds suppressed.  Mulch does triple duty as a fresh coat of mulch in the spring can help warm the soil, helps keep moisture from evaporating during the summer, adds organic matter while suppressing weeds.  There are good bugs and bad bugs.  Attract the good bugs by interplanting your veggies with flowers like marigolds and calendula.  Good bugs help pollinate your veggies, increasing yields.  They also eat bad bugs.  Be careful using sprays as a spray doesn’t know a good bug from a bad bug.  If you are just starting your organic garden, it may take a couple of seasons for the garden to come in balance.  For more on pests, see this blog:  controlling bugs naturally