Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Check tomatoes for damage after heavy rains

A rain-guage adage:

Summer showers give gardeners hours
(that would otherwise be spent watering),

but what does too much rainfall bring?


My area had a huge rainstorm yesterday that, while a welcome respite from my having to drag the hose around, delivered too much water at once for the tomatoes. Nearly every red and orange tomato I picked today sports a gaping crack that wasn't there two days ago. It's not a loss; these tomatoes are perfectly edible as long as I use them right away, but when does a batch of "do-or-die" produce ever fit neatly into the day's itinerary? These tomatoes cannot be stored for another day (I generally avoid refrigeration), because the split skins invite rot. And fast! 

Some of these tomatoes show small white cracks that formed earlier in the growing season and closed over. They are likely the result of other periods of excessive water -- it's been a doozy of a rainy summer this year, as my twice-flooded basement can attest! The difference between the old, healed cracks and the new ones is that the former occurred when the tomato was still growing. Once the green tomatoes reach full size and start to ripen, split skins will not close over and will instead be a gate for ravaging insects.

If a big storm is in the forecast, it is worthwhile to harvest ripening tomatoes ahead of time to ensure the plants don't get overwatered and cause the fruits to split. Any tomato with a hint of color can ripen off the vine just fine. A pre-emptive harvest gives you more control over when to use the ripening tomatoes. Removing the fruit also lightens branches and spares them from damage when winds and rain are fierce. Worse than a split-skin tomato is a tomato that a storm pushed to the ground off a broken branch. Guess I'm off to make sauce!

Friday, October 2, 2015

Eat the Seasons: Roasted tomato sauce and soup base

Small tomato varieties -- such as grape, cherry and yellow pear -- get typecast as salad fare. Harvest some greens, throw in these little tomatoes, BAM! Done.

Last year I had way more little tomatoes than salads in my future. I experimented with ways to cook and preserve the bounty.

My favorite was to roast the tomatoes with olive oil, salt and garlic, and then puree the mixture for pasta/pizza sauce or as the start to a delicious tomato soup. These are guidelines rather than specific quantities.

To make, spread tomatoes in a single layer in a pan or on a cookie sheet. Drizzle lightly with olive oil and sprinkle with salt, then stir. You want enough oil to coat the tomatoes, but not so much that the tomatoes swim in the pan. If desired you may also add garlic cloves and herbs, although I like to throw the fresh herbs in at the end of cooking. Don't chop garlic, because the smaller the pieces, the more likely they will burn.

Cook in a 350 degree oven, checking after a half hour. You want the tomatoes to be wrinkled and release their juices, but only barely start to caramelize and show a bit of brown on the skin. Once they reach this point they can burn quickly. Behold, the pan of tomatoes that was almost there, and for which I decided to turn off the heat but leave in the oven when I picked up a child from school:

Oops! In the oven too long.

All the juice and olive oil cooked away, and the skins were papery. It was a mess! Not good.

In contrast, here's what you want the cooked tomatoes to look like:

Ah, perfect.

Roasting tomatoes will fill your home with the most tantalizing aroma. Puree in a blender or food processor to make the sauce. You may choose to run the sauce through a strainer to remove seeds and larger skins. I list this as an option, for if I plan to use the sauce on pizza I don't bother to do the straining step.

For sauce: Adjust seasonings, adding salt and pepper to taste. Some sauces made from larger tomato varieties benefit from the addition of sugar, but I have found that the grape tomatoes especially impart just the right amount of sweetness.

To make soup, add more liquid (water or broth) to desired consistency. Depending on how fine your strainer is, you may find it easier to strain the seeds AFTER adding more liquid instead of pushing the initial puree through a sieve.

When your soup start is nicely blended, season to taste with salt and pepper; place in sauce pan to warm. Add chopped fresh basil and a touch of cream (about a 1/4 cup per quart of tomato mixture) and serve as soon as cream is warmed through. OK, this makes a fine soup all by itself, but the cream sends it over the top on the yummy scale.

The roasted tomato puree freezes well.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Garden fatigue

It's confession time, folks. I'm tired of my garden this year! I came across this picture of my garden from years ago and laughed.

There's a lush grouping of pole beans on the back left, stout silver-green broccoli plants in front of that, tall tomatoes on the right, and zinnias in a colorful pompon border between the wooden garden box and the row of large rocks.

Here's that zinnia border:

And a look inside the box, with kids to show the scale of the plants (perhaps that's why she's holding a stick?):

A drip line? Holy cow! I'd forgotten my garden ever had that.

Look at my garden today:

Granted, this shot is September and the others are July, but come on! My garden path has turned to garden apathy. The pole bean frame is bare because so few seeds below it sprouted this summer that I didn't bother attaching strings for them to climb. Overgrown, woody sage plants have all but obscured the large rock border, which once was distinct from the lawn it abuts (if we can call it a lawn anymore!). The light green hose -- the only source of water here --  is never put away. Weeds are everywhere. Even the fence looks defeated.

The first picture is from 2006, the first year we had a garden at this home. We cleared the area and made the boxes that spring. Clearly, I tended the garden better then! I think I laugh at the comparison because really, I am confused. I don't get it. I was in the throes of raising little kids then. They are older and more self-sufficient now, which should leave me with MORE time for gardening, not less. Right? I don't get it.

There's a season for everything, they say. If memory serves, the mom/gardener of 2006 felt a bit frazzled, too, but I laugh with new assurance that I don't need to knock myself out on the gardening front. Bedraggled September gardens still yield rewards.

But not too much, because that would be crazy.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Gardening up close -- do you have photos to share?

One of the things I love best about gardening is the time spent rubbing shoulders with plants helps me see amazing details I may otherwise overlook. Here are a few of my discoveries this summer.

The majesty of light and water in trapped rainfall on a pea leaf.

Two sleeping bees in a pod: (OK, gaillardia flower)

The energy of a cucumber vine ready to unfurl:

Do you have favorite garden shots you'd love to share? Email them to me at If you don't already have a word mark on your photo, tell me what you'd like me to add before I post -- so you get all the credit. (Please, your work only.) If you have a website include that information for me to share. Email me by Sept. 30.

Let's inspire each other with the beauty we see!

Monday, September 14, 2015

Planting convictions

Like many people, I spent the weekend reflecting on 9/11. I measure it most in the pregnancy of my third child. What kind of world, I wondered that day with horror, am I bringing this baby into?

I feel for all those who lost loved ones. I myself was very removed from the tragedy; my closest tie was an in-law's brother working in New York, but whom we established early on was OK. Still, I felt a personal pang deep inside and couldn't shake my fear. What kind of world was I bringing this baby into?

My friend, who was also pregnant on 9/11, recently visited the memorial and took this photo.

Later in the week on the way to my job at a wedding reception center, I passed a row of flags staked for blocks along the curb. Dozens of flags, dancing in the breeze of the late summer day. I wept.  I didn't see the people who lived in those homes, but I imagined them standing next to those flags in a show of solidarity. Politics didn't matter. We can go forward. Together. It will be OK.

My daughter arrived, past her due date, on Election Day. (I didn't make it to the polls that year.) 

In the 14 years since 9/11 my circumstances haven't changed too much. My daughter is older, sure, and I am ever grateful that we have a home, a piece of land, education, and doctors to help us when we are broken. I am mindful that people all over the world lack these. I tremble at the horrors others must face. What kind of world do we live in? Sometimes I get discouraged that I can't do more to ease their suffering, that my sphere of influence is so tiny. 

As I sat to write this my phone rang with automated messages from our school district about a police lock-out order issued and lifted earlier today following an area armed robbery.  What in the world?

Yet, I want to see the good. This afternoon when my daughter comes home I will hug her and be excited about her ballet audition.  I'll watch her go to the garden and pick yellow pear tomatoes, her favorite snack. 

I want her to know that every time I plant a tomato seed, it is because I have faith it will sprout. I want her to know that every baby and every wedding represent hope of a bright future. I want her to look forward to making her own big choices  -- and trust that she lives in a world where planted trees and planted flags speak of promises worth championing. 

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Effective use of parking strip space: raised beds for strawberries

Many communities have an area known as a parking strip, which is a narrow piece of ground between street and sidewalk on private residential and business lots. This is also called a parkway. Sandwiched between two pieces of city property, the parking strip isn't exactly a prized canvas for landscape design. Most parking strips I've ever seen are either filled with rocks or lawn. In the case of lawn in the strip, this can be a terrible water-waster when sprinklers irrigate more of the sidewalk than grass.

This yard, in contrast, shows a great use of the narrow parking strip space with raised beds for strawberries.

The homeowner attached reflective panels to the beds on the street side for greater visibility when people park their cars. The beds are built around the water meter.

Note: some city may have restrictions on whether structures can be added to a parking strip; check with your town first if you're thinking of making garden boxes there. (How I feel about such nitty-gritty oversight is a post for another day!)

I'm always on the prowl for productive uses of the parking strip, and would love to learn what ideas you've seen or implemented. Strawberries taste better than grass, don't you agree?

Friday, September 4, 2015

Do gardeners make good neighbors?

These kinds do!

I saw this handmade box coming home from errands on a new route. Isn't this the most charming thing ever? It gives me hope in humanity, and in cukes and zukes, too.

I drove by another day to see the box brimming with pears. This time I was bold enough to knock on the front door to introduce myself and chat with the homeowner, Becky. She told me her family decided to do this after seeing a picture of a similar box. Neighbors help each other in a give-and-take all summer. "We always have enough to share," she said.

And that, my friends, is one secret of raising a good garden: when you desire to share you will have abundance.

Check out Maple Hill's seed to table series today about avocados.