When are your tomatoes ready to pick?

by Sandy Swegel

You might think this is a completely obvious question. You pick tomatoes when they are red and falling off the vine ready to eat. But I asked a few gardening friends how they decided when to harvest tomatoes and as always, with gardeners, there are more opinions than people.

The basics:
Tomatoes ripen from the inside out, so if they look ripe they are. General characteristics of a ripe tomato are good bright even color, firm with a little give (not too hard and not soft and mushy.) Several people claim the tomato pulls easily off the vine when it’s ready and doesn’t need to be cut.

If you’re going to make a mistake in picking, pick when the tomatoes are slightly under-ripe They do not have to be on the vine to finish ripening. You might pick early because you won’t have time to harvest tomorrow, or because it’s about to rain and excess moisture often makes tomatoes split open. Hot temperatures in the 90s are a good reason to pick a little early…the tomato will ripen more evenly on your counter than in the blistering sun.

 

To finish ripening tomatoes inside, you know the rule. Never put tomatoes in the refrigerator. Makes them mushy. They also don’t need light as much as they need warmth. So skip the hot sunny window sill and put them on a kitchen counter.

Heirlooms. Tomatoes used to be red and it was kinda easy to tell when the red was the right color. But now tomatoes are pink and green and yellow, or green on the neck or mostly black. The “firm but not squishy rule works”. Also, there’s an esoteric description of the color: the color just “brightens up” and you can tell it’s ready.

I recommend lots of sampling and fine-tuning your picking strategy.

I also recommend eating at least one tomato completely ripe in the hot afternoon sun. Take a big mouthful and let all the juices and seeds run down your face and shirt as you savor the awesome tomatoey flavor of summer. My neighbor used to take a salt shaker with him out to the garden and salt each bite!

 

 

Photocredit:
http://www.heirloomtomatoplants.com

 

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Why Won’t my Garden do What I Say?

by Sandy Swegel

That’s the kind of questions I’m hearing these days.  Why won’t my plant bloom?  Why aren’t my tomatoes red? Why does my garden look so bad? Why is my tree dying?  Let’s tackle a few of these questions so you can figure out why it seems your garden is disobedient?

Why won’t my pineapple sage bloom?  It’s so beautiful in the magazines. Salvia elegans or pineapple sage smells deliciously of pineapple and hummingbirds flock to it.  Alas, what I discovered after a season of coaxing and fertilizing is that it will never look so beautiful in Colorado as it does in the Sunset magazine pictures of California.  It’s one of those plants that bloom according to day length and short days to stimulate blooming.  So no matter what we do, it simply is not going to put out blooms till late August.  Since our first frost can be in September, this is a very unsatisfying plant to grow in a northern area with long summer days.

The second part of this question is “Why did all the other fancy hybrid flowers I bought in Spring quit blooming?”  Some may be day length sensitive like the pineapple sage.  Most have issues with our hot dry summer heat.  If you keep deadheading as soon as the weather starts to cool, the blooms will restart.  And there’s no changing Nature’s mind with more fertilizer or water.

“Why won’t my watermelon plants get big?” a friend asked over afternoon tea.  The answer to most questions is to put my finger in the soil. It was dry, dry, dry.  There was one drip tube on the plant but that’s not nearly enough for a watermelon which needs lots of water.  I looked up. The garden was right next to a big spruce tree. The tree was on the north side so the plant had lots of sun, but the sneaky tree roots ran all through the garden sucking up irrigation water. If you’re going to grow a plant with a name like “water” melon…you have to put a lot of water in the system.

The second most-asked question is “Why do I have so many weeds?” The answer is, alas, because you didn’t spend enough time in July keeping after them.  Who wants to weed in the heat of summer?  And summer weeds grow really fast and tall.  You can’t even blink.

The most-asked question, of course, is “Why won’t my tomatoes turn red?”  This year everybody has lots of green tomatoes but not nearly enough red tomatoes. The truthful answer is “D***d if I know. I wish mine would turn red.”  A Google search shows thousands of people ask this question.  People who answer have all kinds of pet theories about leaves and fertilizer and pruning the plant etc. I’m just learning to wait and making a note to grow more early tomatoes next year.

Nature just doesn’t work the way we want sometimes.

Photo Credit: http://eugenebirds.blogspot.com/2010_11_01_archive.html

Straw in the Garden: Be Careful!

by Sandy Swegel

Straw bales are one of my favorite garden tools.  They are useful to the gardener in so many ways.  All nicely tied up, straw bales are like giant Lego blocks that can be stacked to make so many things. I’m using the term “straw” bale, but old “hay” bales have the same great features.  Three bales make a great compost bin.  A row of bales makes excellent walls that double as sitting places.  Open the bales up and you have the perfect mulch to keep strawberries or squash off the ground or to make a path protected from mud.  Give the chickens one bale and an hour later they have spread it evenly over the coop floor in their pursuit of worms or food in the bale.  A square of bales with some plastic thrown over is an excellent cold frame.  And I haven’t even begun to touch on the usefulness of bales as a fort.

So it was distressing this week to be reminded that we can no longer just trust the wonderful bales that we scavenged in the past because modern agriculture has rendered hay, straw, and even the gardener’s best friend, manure, unsafe for growing food.

This conversation came up because tomatoes are very sensitive to herbicide damage.  The most common cause of herbicide damage extension agents used to see was from “herbicide drift” where chemicals sprayed nearby go airborne and are spread by the wind onto your garden.  But my experience this week was with tomato plants, a very susceptible plant – sort of the canary in the mine.  After considering dozens of diseases from virus and fungus and bacteria that might be stunting a friend’s tomatoes and keeping them from setting fruit, we had to face the likelihood that the culprit was last year’s straw that was liberally mulched throughout the garden.

Hay and straw become hidden poison bombs in the garden when farmers use the new generation of weed killers (that are very effective on weeds) like Milestone or Forefront or Curtail.  Milestone is aminopyralid it is a very persistent killer of broad-leaf plants.  Farmers like it because it kills weeds and because unlike other weedkillers, they can feed treated pasture to their animals without any waiting time.  The label says clearly that while animals can still feed on the pasture, the herbicide survives being eaten by the animals, and it survives composting.  So even year old hay that you’ve composted or nice old manure from free-range animals on pasture still has enough herbicide in it to kill your tomato crop.

The bottom line is you can’t just get straw at the feed store or old hay or manure from a neighbor’s barn to use in your garden unless you know how the original pasture was treated this year and last year.  It’s another sad but true example of the destructive environmental impact even small actions such as applying some weedkiller can have. And it’s not even just the farmer who has to take care.  Grass clippings are a gardener’s favorite mulch…and some of the new weed killers or weed and feed products contain these long-lasting poison time bombs.  It’s easy to want to kill some thistle…but you have to read the very tiny small print to see if you are destroying your own garden by using the organic practices of mulching with grass or hay or straw that generations of gardeners have sworn by.  It’s not your father’s straw bale anymore.

http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/fletcher/programs/ncorganic/special-pubs/herbicide_carryover.pdf
http://www.motherearthnews.com/Grow-It/Milestone-Herbicide-Contamination-Creates-Dangerous-Toxic-Compost.aspx

Trellis like a Pro

by Sandy Swegel

My tomatoes are only a few inches tall and still indoors, but this is the ideal time to start thinking about how to trellis them.  For years I fiddled with the dinky round tomato cages sold everywhere that just fall over when faced with a large indeterminate tomato. One year I even tried tying two cages on top of one another and it still fell over.

Market Farmers don’t use wussy home-gardening-type trellises.  They bring out the T-Posts and plastic baling twine or string. (This is one time you can’t use natural twines like jute or cotton…they are too stretchy.) The most common technique is called the Florida Weave. Basically, you place tall (7 foot min)  T-posts at each end of your tomato row. Every two or three plants, add a stake (or another T post). You will then “weave” the twine around the T-posts and tomatoes in a basic figure-eight shape.  T-posts are super sturdy and stay put once you pound them into the ground.  Ideally, you can string the T-posts before the tomatoes are tall or perhaps even planted.  As the tomatoes grow you can tuck the growing edge into one of the rows of string. The beauty of the Florida Weave is that even if you are late getting your trellising in place, you can still do a pretty good job pulling up the overgrown tomatoes.

Photo Credits and More Info:

http://www.specialtycrops.colostate.edu/techniques/trellis.htm#tomatoes http://www.foogod.com/~torquill/barefoot/weave.html http://www.organicgardening.com/learn-and-grow/cat-s-cradle-tomatoes http://www.finegardening.com/how-to/articles/supporting-cast-for-tomatoes.aspx

Inviting Orioles for Summer Dining

Inviting Orioles for Summer Dining

by Sandy Swegel

This is the best time of the year.  Summer Harvest is coming in strong.  Cherry tomatoes and grilled marinated zucchini make wonderful summer suppers followed by fresh cherries and peaches.  A bottle of cold Prosecco and French brie and a couple of friends make for lovely summer evenings.  The only thing needed is the entertainment.  Hummingbirds are a favorite to watch buzzing in as dusk falls.  Mind you there is a garden full of flowers planted just for hummingbirds, but the little darlings are just like humans…who wants good healthy food when you can have dessert: some fresh sugar water in the colorful plastic feeder.  We put the feeder quite close to the picnic table so we could see the hummers coming to feed.  But last week there was a big surprise.  Something had pecked out the cute little openings on the feeder and drained it dry.  At first, I had unkind thoughts about the neighborhood squirrels, but then, the evening’s star performers appeared, a pair of bright orange Orioles.  What a perfect accompaniment to dinner with friends.

Now everyone wanted their own Orioles.  Turns out they’ve always lived here in the big cottonwood trees along creeks. But we learned what every midwesterner apparently knows.  If you want Orioles, you put out orange pieces and grape jelly.  The grape jelly is the guaranteed winner.  We heard stories from Wisconsin cousins that they can’t even buy grape jelly in the store right now because everyone is buying it for the Orioles.  Ahhh, our songbird overlords.  But they are lovely dinner companions.

Enjoy the summer harvest and invite friends over.  You’ve worked hard all season for this.  Lean back and watch both human and avian friends dine on your deck! Life is good.

photo credit:

http://www.duncraft.com/Oriole-Fest-and-Orange-Swirl-Guard

 

 

 

 

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Best Supporting Actor – Dark Opal Basil

by Sandy Swegel

Some plants are meant to be the star of the garden.  Dahlias, for example.  You can see them from across the yard and they elicit gasps of delight at their beauty.  While stars do make the garden, they only really dazzle when surrounded by a strong supporting cast. And that’s where Dark Opal Basil really shines. Its black shiny leaves provide a color background that makes white and brightly colored flowers in the garden “pop.” But as they say on late night TV, “That’s not all…”

Here are five more ways Dark Opal Basil really is a superstar.

Dark Opal Basil is super cute planted as a border in front of the tomato bed.  Brushing along the basil releases its great hot summer aroma.  Some say Dark Opal Basil, like all basils, helps repel tomato hornworm.

Its own pink to white flowers on dark purple bracts shine on their own.

Its dense foliage fills all the empty space in containers and display beds.  Visually, it pulls together a lot of other plants like zinnias and salvias that can look bare at the bottom.

It is yummy.  I like it growing near the cherry tomatoes so on a warm summer afternoon I pick one leaf of basil and wrap it around one cherry tomato for a refreshing flavor burst.

Dark Opal is said to be the favorite purple basil for cooks because of mild flavor and a tender leaf.  It looks and smells great in a salad, served with fresh mozzarella or use a sprig of it in a Bloody Mary.

Hurry up Springtime. I’m ready to plant Today!

Photo Credits:
gardening.ktsa.com/pages/7670364.php?
foodwineclick.com/2013/08/25/basil-tasting/

 

Grow Your Own Food: Best Return on Investment.

by Sandy Swegel

There are so many vegetables you can grow in your garden. If only there was enough time. If you have limited time or space for your garden, think about what is the best return on your investment of time and money as well as the best outcome of flavor and nutrition.  Three things I grow even if I don’t have time to grow anything else are:

Salad greens. Loose-leaf lettuces, spinach, kale, chard, and arugula are up and ready to eat in as little as three weeks after planting.  You can pick what you need for tonight’s salad, and let the plant continue to grow for another night’s salad.  Baby greens and mixed lettuces cost $6 per pound add up at the grocery…and they aren’t necessarily that fresh…sometimes they’ve been traveling in a semi-trailer from California for a week already.  Grow your own greens to get maximum nutrition and taste for a couple of bucks worth of seed.

Tomatoes.  You’ve tasted one of those grocery store tomatoes that look perfect and taste like absolutely nothing?  Enough said. You have to grow tomatoes because homegrown tomatoes taste so much better than anything you can buy.  But tomatoes have also gotten really expensive.  One or two tomato plants easily save you a couple hundred dollars if you regularly eat tomatoes in your salads and sandwiches.  Cherry tomato plants are especially prolific.

Herbs. Fresh herbs are the best way to give oomph to your cooking.  They taste so much better than dried herbs and can often star in a simple dish …such as a basil leaves served with mozzarella and tomato.  Many herbs are perennial (like thyme and oregano) and only have to be planted once.  Annual herbs such as basil and dill produce lots and lots of flavorful leaves.

It’s always fun to grow everything there is to grow, but if you’re strapped for time or space, let the local farmers grow the long-season crops like winter squash, the root crops like onions and carrots, or the water-hogging melons.  You’ll be enjoying your own magnificent home-grown healthful salads all season.

Eggplant Pizza

by Michael Scott of Eagle Rock Backyard Farms

Ingredients:

5 cups heirloom tomatoes, chopped 2 large eggplants, sliced into 1 inch discs 1/4 cup onion, sliced 1 large red, yellow, or orange bell pepper, seeded and chopped 1 cup fresh mozzarella cheese, grated 1/4 cup parmesan cheese, grated 4 or 5 large garlic cloves 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes 1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar 2 tablespoons olive oil 2 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped Salt & pepper to taste

Directions: Lay sliced eggplant onto a paper towel and salt lightly. Place a couple more paper towels on top of the eggplant. This will help draw some of the moisture from the eggplant and will make it a little more firm instead of soggy.

With a food processor, finely diced tomatoes, onion, bell pepper, and garlic. In a large skillet heat olive oil over medium heat. Add diced tomatoes, onion, bell pepper, garlic, balsamic vinegar, red pepper flakes, and salt & pepper to taste. Cook for 30 to 40 minutes until sauce cooks down and becomes thick.

While you are cooking the sauce down, heat oven to 350. Place eggplant onto a cookie sheet single layer and bake for 25 to 35 minutes until eggplant is slightly brown.

Top each eggplant with sauce, grated mozzarella, and parmesan cheese. You can either place the pizzas back in the oven until cheese melts or under the broiler to give your cheese a little crispness. This is how I prefer them. Sprinkle with chopped basil and Enjoy!

Two Midsummer Tasks

July can be hot in the garden.  If you’ve kept up with weeding earlier in the season, there may not be too much work outside of harvesting veggies.  Two tasks are important now.

Fertilize plants that have been working hard.

Tomatoes….because I want lots of tomatoes and the plants are growing like crazy in the summer heat.  I fertilize with a liquid organic bloom fertilizer.

Roses….because they just finished their big summer grand blooming and will rest a bit….but I want another big flourish as soon as the weather cools a bit.  I like the organic granular fertilizers although if there are dogs in the yard who try to eat the blood meal and bone meal in them, you’ll need to use a liquid.

Greens and other vegetables.  The chard and kales have been working hard and I will treat them to a nice kelp foliar spray.  It also makes the garden smell like ocean breezes!

Start seeds for your Fall Garden. This is hard to remember in the summer heat.  But now is the time to start broccoli and cauliflower plants so they’ll be ready to mature and sweeten in crisp Fall nights.

And if you like peas….it’s a good time to get them started again.  I waited till August last year and didn’t get much of a Fall crop.

Of course, you should always keep up your succession planting….keep putting in new plants or seeds where you’re pulling old ones out.

Happy Summer Days!

Tomatoes: What to do When There are Problems in Paradise

by Sandy Swegel

OK so only gardeners think of their tomato gardens as paradise, but what a grand time of year this is.  In some places, tomato growers are boasting about having ripe tomatoes before the 4th of July. Here in Colorado after a long cool spring, we’re just happy to see them thrive in the heat.  But with tomato plants comes the anxiety over pests and diseases.  Aphids are having a banner year and everyone is fearful of the psyllids that fly up from Mexico or the early blights/late blights, middle of season blights.

A friend with a bunch of kids compares growing tomatoes with having kids.  Parents are so worried about the first-born—you call the doctor at every sniffle. You watch the kid constantly, fearful that impending disaster awaits around every corner.  My baby sister wails that when you’re the last kid you have to practically be on fire to get mom’s attention.

As the first born, I am greatly amused by this.  But this is no way to grow tomatoes. You’ll go crazy if you try to treat or prevent every affliction.  If you can remember last year’s garden, you’ll remember similarly panicking over tomato problems at the beginning of the year.  But by September, you had to see the tomato plant in distress from the neighbor’s house two yards over before you thought, “Gee, maybe I should check that plant, the next time I am pulling buckets of tomatoes off of it.”

Most of the time your tomatoes survive the diseases and pests that come at them.  Your job is not hypervigilance, but simply creating the best environment to make them strong.

• Good Air Flow. Air circulation is one of any plants best defenses against disease and pests. Space your plants so they aren’t all crowding one another so that if one tomato does have a problem, it doesn’t instantly spread to everyone else.  The market farmers here help air flow on larger plants by pulling the leaves off of the bottom six inches of plants so fungal spores don’t splash up on the plant.

• Adequate and Consistent Water.  Tomatoes thrive when they can count on their soil being evenly watered…and not going through dry as dust or swamp cycles.  Put a soaker hose on a timer if you have trouble remembering.

• Food.  As I’m sure you’ve heard before, tomatoes are heavy feeders.  If you planted in a big potting hole full of compost or manure and natural fertilizer, that might be enough. Otherwise, you’re going to have to do some feeding to get the big crop of tomatoes you want.

• Tolerance. Most pests of tomatoes resolve themselves.  Flea beetles leave their shotgun holes all over the leaves, but the plant outgrows them.  Aphids fester, but in a pesticide-free garden, the ladybugs will usually show up a few days later. Or you can use the garden hose to spray them off. For more serious diseases like viruses, there’s not much you can do this season (just like antibiotics don’t treat colds.) You can pull the plant if it’s dying and start deciding where you’re going to rotate the tomatoes to next year.

• A little bitty bottle of Dr. Bronner’s. Dr. Bronner’s is pure castile soap and available in little bottles for $2.  Mix a couple of drops with water in a spray bottle and that’s enough to treat most pests and fungal disease. Don’t overdo it.  And don’t go to the store to get all the chemicals to kill those pests that just end up killing your soil and you.
• Look at websites about tomato diseases.  If you have a healthy environment with air and food and water for your plants and you still see disease you worry about, go in and research it.  With any luck, the internet will suck you in and soon it will be dark and it’s too late to do anything today. By tomorrow you’ll forget and by next week your tomatoes will be pumping out tomatoes so you won’t worry anymore.

So just pretend tomatoes are your last kid. You love them just as much and you give them everything to grow healthy and happy and strong, but you don’t hover.  Relax and watch the miracle of tomatoes happen in the paradise of your garden.