Monday, July 27, 2015

Thinking About Tomatoes

It won't be long before every gardener in the Valley is inundated with tomatoes. August is traditionally our best tomato month, but many people are already harvesting early fruit. We have been getting good production from our Chadwick Cherry, Amy's Sugar Gem and Marglobe plants for about a week.

The Chadwick Cherry and Amy's Sugar Gem plants have been grown in straw bales, after conditioning the bales as described in my book, Idiot's Guide: Straw Bale Gardening. The book is available here. Supported by a sturdy trellis, one plant per bale, these have grown into some of the finest tomato plants we have ever produced. See the photo. This is only two Chadwick Cherry plants, and the trellis is 6'6". The reason they are doing so well is probably the absence of soil-borne fungal diseases on the leaves. Growing in straw bales offers nearly complete protection from this problem. I was pleased to learn that Holly Jones, who is in charge of the kitchen garden at UT Gardens, has had similarly good results with tomatoes in straw bales. I strongly urge anyone interested in heirloom tomatoes to give this technique a try.

We have had a bumper crop of cucumbers and squash. The early cucumber plants came down last week, and the early squash plants are showing signs of exhaustion. We have already made second plantings of these crops for harvest in September and October.

If you grow okra, pick it every day to keep the plants producing. Okra keeps about five days in the refrigerator, and is easy to freeze. Just wipe the pods with a kitchen towel, drop them into freezer containers, label and freeze. If you want to slice the okra, you can do that before freezing, but you can also cut them up after thawing. The choice is entirely yours.

The high temperatures and heavy rainfall we have experienced this month have stressed some plants. Tomatoes, in particular, have shown signs of heat stress. If the leaves on your plants curl upward but look otherwise normal, the plants are heat stressed. Apply mulch early in the morning hours to help keep the soil cool and evenly moist. Also, pay attention to rainfall patterns. A good downpour should suffice for about two days before your plants need irrigation. When in doubt, stick your finger into the soil. If it does not feel moist in the first inch or so, it is time to water. Avoid wetting the foliage, as this encourages fungal diseases. Water the plants deeply and thoroughly. Uneven soil moisture levels lead to cracking and blossom end rot. Be especially careful with watering during hot weather. It is probably best to water late in the day, as the air is cooling off, rather than early in the morning. A drenching followed by hot sun can cause fruits to absorb water so fast they split.

Our present weather pattern favors peppers. Green fruits should be setting on most varieties by now. This would be from plants transplanted around the first of June. Bell peppers and other large-fruited varieties will benefit from thinning. Multiple fruit clusters should be thinned to a single fruit. Use the removed ones in the kitchen. Thinning will lead to larger and more flavorful fruits, and helps prevent branches from breaking under the weight of a heavy fruit set. You can also thin hot peppers if you want prize-winning size fruits, but the hot varieties are so vigorous it is not really necessary. If you do thin, take care. Hot pepper juice can burn your eyes and skin, and the stems have heat just like the fruits do.

Small hot peppers, either green or fully ripe, can be easily preserved in vinegar or sherry. Select a bottle and thoroughly clean it. Place some peppers in the bottom of the bottle, then fill it with sherry or the vinegar of your choice. Apply the cap and set the bottle aside in a cool, dark place for at least two weeks before you use it. The amount of heat will depend upon how many peppers you use. About half a cup of peppers for each cup of liquid will produce a product comparable to commercial hot pepper vinegar. Small fruited peppers work best for this, or you can cut larger peppers into chunks. Always wear plastic gloves when handling hot peppers, and take care not to get the juice in your eyes.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

More Ways to Save Summer

Jerry and I will have a table at the UT Gardens Farmer's Market on Wednesday, July 15. We will be there to answer gardening questions from 4:00 to 7:00 PM. There will be food, music, and of course multiple vendors of local produce and other farm products. The market is pet and kid friendly, so why not bring everyone and join us? Free parking near the entrance to UT Gardens.

Important Note: The UT Gardens Farmer's Market always has a special table where you can leave excess produce to be donated to Second Harvest. In our case, we have a bag of cucumbers. I have made all the pickles we will use until next season, and we still have plenty coming along. This is a great way to deal with all that summer squash or whatever abundance your garden has been blessed with. Some people even buy extra vegetables from the vendors, just to donate to this worthy effort.

One thing I always look for at the summer markets is fresh local fruit. Whether it is wild blackberries, peaches, or something else, the flavor and quality of locally grown, naturally ripened fruit is impossible to obtain in fruit shipped here from California. One of the best ways to take advantage of seasonal fruit is to use the simple, time-honored technique of making preserves. Of all the sweet treats you can make from fresh fruit, preserves are the simplest. They will also provide you with the greatest number of options when using the finished product.

You will need a kitchen scale for this recipe.

Universal Recipe for Fruit Preserves

1 pound fresh fruit
12 ounces sugar

Prepare the fruit as you would for eating it fresh. That is, peel, pit or stem fruits as needed and cut larger fruits, like peaches, into bite size pieces. To prevent darkening, use a commercial product such as Fruit Fresh(TM) according to the label directions. Place the prepared fruit and the sugar in a large, heavy bottomed saucepan. Stir the fruit and sugar together, bruising the fruit slightly and allowing some juice to be released. Don't get carried away with this. You want to retain the shape of the fruit as much as possible. Set the pan over medium heat and bring it to a simmer, stirring occasionally. Watch carefully and regulate the heat so the mixture does not scorch. As soon as the boiling point is reached, remove the pan from the heat, cover, and allow it to cool to room temperature. Leave it sitting overnight, and do not open the lid. The following day, you should have slightly translucent fruit floating in flavored syrup. You can store the preserves in the refrigerator for a month, or can them. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the fruit to half-pint canning jars. Ladle the syrup over the fruit, leaving 1/4 inch head space. (Store any additional syrup in the refrigerator. It is delicious on ice cream or to flavor whipped cream, etc.) Wipe the rim of the jar with a damp kitchen towel to ensure a good seal. Apply lids and bands and process the jars in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes, or 15 minutes if you live above 1000 feet elevation.

Preserves can be used as a dessert topping, or can be mixed with other ingredients depending upon your needs. For example, peach preserves can be thickened with cornstarch paste to use as pie filling. I have made cherry preserves into a killer barbecue sauce, The possibilities are limited only by your imagination. Make a batch of preserves and enjoy summer flavor all winter long.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Time to Re-Plant

Early July is a good time to replant certain crops for a late harvest. Among the choices are beans, beets, carrots, cucumbers, squash, tomatoes, peppers, parsley, basil, and scallions.

Most bush bean varieties mature quickly, allowing you to plant them in succession all summer long. Unfortunately, when we have a spate of temperatures above 90, as we did in June, beans suffer from heat stress. It appears that temperatures will be more moderate for the next few weeks, which bodes well for late crops of beans.

Beets and carrots perform best in cool weather, but will nevertheless germinate and produce a crop in about 60 to 70 days, or early September if planted now. You can expect smaller roots, but more intense flavor, in summer-grown beets and carrots.

Cucumbers mature in about 60 days, and will appreciate the cooler night temperatures that will be arriving in late August. High heat stresses cucumbers and may interfere with proper pollination, resulting in deformed fruits. Later crops will not have this problem.

Late plantings of summer squash are less likely to be attacked by the squash borer, although it is wise to keep them covered until flowers appear. Squash borer populations are at a low ebb this time of year, so there are simply fewer females out flying around looking for plants on which to lay their eggs.

Tomato and pepper plants will respond quickly when transplanted into warm soil. Some garden centers will have plants ready for this time of year. If you cannot find pepper plants, there is not a lot you can do, as it is too late to start them from seeds. In the case of tomatoes, however, you can remove suckers that naturally form on your earlier plants. Remove all but the top two tiers of leaves from each sucker and drop the stems in a glass of water. They should root before the end of the month and can be transplanted as soon as the roots are two inches long. Keep them well watered until new growth is obvious, feed with a balanced fertilizer, and expect tomatoes right up until the first frost. You can hasten rooting of the cuttings by placing some willow cuttings in the water with the tomatoes. Cut six to eight inches from the tip of a willow branch and remove most of the leaves. In a glass of water, the willow will root with remarkable speed. As it does so, it releases plant hormones into the water that will encourage rooting by other cuttings.

Parsley, basil and scallions can all be direct seeded now. Barely cover the seeds with fine soil and keep them watered if rain does not arrive. Thin them as soon as true leaves have appeared, or when scallions are two to three inches tall. It won't take them long to get big enough to harvest. You can also root cuttings from established basil plants, following the instructions for tomatoes.

Keep garden fresh produce coming all season long by re-planting now.