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Posts Tagged ‘tomatoes’

The first few years we grew tomatoes in Seattle, we went to great lengths to ripen the loads and loads of green fruit still on the vines when the season was over. Come the October rains, the tomatoes begin to split and rot, the vines fall apart, and it’s impossible to find an unspoilt, red tomato still in the garden.

We tried harvesting all of them in their various states of ripeness and setting them out in the basement to ripen over the winter. We tried covering the vines with plastic cloche to protect them from the rain. We tried pulling up entire vines with green tomatoes still dangling, and hanging them upside down in the garage. Very few made it with any of these methods. Perhaps the most successful was stripping each vine of it’s flowers and leaves late in the summer- forcing them to pour all they had into their fruit (like Leslie Knope’s “going out of business sale”), but that still required foresight and willingness to admit the summer was nearly over.

Then, two years ago- and I can’t remember why- we used our green tomatoes green instead of struggling to ripen them. We made pickled green tomatoes (based on a combo of the basic pickle and garlic dill pickle recipes here), and they were the best thing ever. I loved them. David loved them. We barely had enough to give away over the holidays, and friends and family immediately demanded more. Thus we entered a new era and solved two problems: no more stressing out over un-ripe tomatoes, and no more need to to grow cucumbers (another thing we’d not had much success with, but after seeing Beth and Aaron’s huge, sweet cukes this summer I’m willing to try again!!).

Then, of course, we made things more complicated, and experienced near-total failure of all things green tomato over the next couple years.

The very next year, we actually selected a specific variety to leave green- a big, long roma type that could be sliced into spears like cucumbers. The first problem was that lots of them ripened before I could pick them green- they need to be totally green lest they get soft in the pickle jar. So I couldn’t keep up. Why not use them ripe? Because I was, at that point in time, opposed to saucing- something felt wrong about processing ripe tomatoes, even though these romas were pretty terrible slicing tomatoes. (I remember bringing my boss a quart of cherry and slicing tomatoes a few summers ago and being horrified the next day when he mentioned he and his wife had cooked them (GAH!) to have with pasta.) This year I discovered the glory that is homemade fresh tomato bloody Marys, so I can deal with ripe romas now.

The second problem is that, in our ever-tightening spiral toward Portlandia, we feel a need to live-ferment everything. In giant batches. Our first live-fermented green tomato batch went well- it produced delightfully savory pickles, the last few jars of which have managed to stay crisp and tasty in the fridge for a year now. The second batch turned out terribly, with white mold and a rotten taste that could not be washed off. This year I went back to vinegar pickling cherry tomatoes, but somehow they got squishy when processed in the water bath, perhaps because I used fruit from the volunteer plants. Very disappointing.

We’ve also attempted green tomato chutney two years in a row, both failures. The first batch was ruined by using brown instead of golden raisins, and my unwillingness to use as much sugar as called for. We canned it anyway, and it sits in our cupboard. The second batch, this year, I ruined by putting in lots of half-ripe tomatoes. It ended up tasting like ass-ketchup and didn’t even make it into jars.

This year in our new garden, I picked 5 huge mixing bowls of green tomatoes at the end of the season, stashed them in the basement, and was super excited to make all sorts of things. And then…. life and laziness happened…. and much to my surprise, half the tomatoes had started to get ripe in the basement. Shoot!! I managed to make just 3 jars of fridge pickles out of the remaining green fruit, and the half-ripe fruit gets eaten when ripe or thrown out if it rots first. Sigh.

Lessons learned:
1) Triage tomatoes into ripe saucing (freezer), ripe slicing (eat), and totally green (pickle immediately). Do not, under any circumstances, negotiate with half-ripe tomatoes.
2) Be prepared for massive failures, which could possibly be reduced in scale by not growing so many damn tomatoes in the first place.
3) If we do happen upon a good batch of pickles/chutney/anything, brag about it but don’t give so much of it away.

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Stringing up the tomatoes

On the Seattle Urban Farm and Coop Tour last weekend we visited a house over near Madison Ave that had quite an impressive garden and produced meat and held farm to table dinners and everything. Very cool- 41 Legs Farm. They manage to make enough money selling extra plant starts and garlic to fund their gardening hobby, and take donations for their farm dinners to cover those costs. Very, very cool. Kinda want to be like them when I grow up.

In addition to being impressed with and jealous of their huge city lot and nice set up, I learned a new technique for growing tomatoes. They had their tomatoes trimmed down to one or two leaders and strung up vertically on tall supports (which I’ve seen before- I think most commercial tomatoes are grown this way) but they had also trimmed the lower leaves off the vine to allow more air circulation between the plants and prevent disease. They had some rule of thumb like for every foot above four feet the plant reaches, trim off one foot of leaves from the bottom, or for every 2 feet of growth, trim off 1 foot of branches below… Can’t quite remember.

This weekend I did the same for my tomatoes… Kind of. I don’t follow the trim to two leaders rule, but I do trim out suckers, especially on indeterminant (sprawling) plants so mine end up with 4-5 leaders each. I tied closeline-like cords from the garage to the tree across the top of the garden bed (stronger than tying individual plants to individual posts) and hoisted long floppy vines up off of the tomato cages. Then David helped me remove the wall o’ waters that have been around the plants since transplant.

Side note: Last year we left the wall o’ waters on all season because they’re hard to get off once the plants are so big, but the fruits that grow within the wall o’ waters invariably get eaten by snails who think it’s cozy in there. This year we slit the wall o’ waters open- linearized them like a plasmid, if you will- and slinked them out from under the bushes. Next time we use them we’ll have to circularize them with clips, but they’ll be easier to put on the plants that way too!

Next I clipped off all of the leafy branches growing within the tomato cages- up to about a foot and a half off the ground. I left the fallen leaves on the soil under the plants (apparently tomatoes like to eat the composted bodies of their fallen comrades) and then spread a layer of hay on top to insulate the soil even more from water loss.

The bed looks good now- the vines will get more light because they’re not piled on top of each other, the plants will get more air between them and hopefully we’ll have fewer losses to snails and rot, and we can actually see where the fruits are to pick them!

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The mini greenhouse worked!!

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So this weekend David and i went window shopping… literally- we bought windows to build a mini-green house for the garden.  There’s a store down the hill from us in Ballard called RE-store that takes stuff from old houses, buildings, schools and sells it second hand to people who are building or remodeling their own houses.  They’ve got everything from lumber to doors and windows to cabinets to bathtubs and toilets to light fixtures.  They currently have a set of three confessional booths from a Catholic church, several walls of lockers from a junior high school, and a super nice kitchen counter/sink/cabinets that i totally would have bought if we owned our house.  They have an amazing collection of windows- newer double-paned, metal framed ones and old, craftsman style lead or wood-paned ones and huge sets of bay windows and sliding glass doors.  When we own a house and have our own yard, we will definitely assemble a real green house with windows from RE-store.  But for now, a transportable mini-greenhouse made from $24-worth of windows will do.

The mini green house will sit just inside our 4ft wide beds and will be 4ft wide by 3ft long (that’s the size of the big, single paned window i found for the lid), 1.5ft tall in the front sloping up to 2ft in the back.  I brought my tape measure to RE-store and found matching windows to make the four walls; these will be arranged in a box on the ground with an open floor so that the lid will be sloping southward for maximum sunlight and heat absorption.  The lid will be set on a hinge so that it can be opened and propped up with a stick during planting and harvesting times.  There will be little triangle gaps between the side walls and the sloped lid that i will cover with some sort of hard plastic from home depot or a couple layers of plastic cloche cover or autoclave bags, which are quite durable.  I may caulk or weather seal the seams, and i may weatherize the windows with that thin plastic you can stretch across your windows and blow try smooth to keep heat in your house during winter.  If i do those things, this green house will be pretty toasty inside and will allow me to protect a 4×3 section of garden bed during one of Seattle’s biennial harsh freezes, or to start tomatoes or peppers or squash waaaaay earlier than normal.  But- lesson learned from forgetting to open the plastic cloche on hot days and frying the pepper plants this summer- we’ll have to watch the temperature and vent the green house appropriately.

I also bought 2 more big, single pane windows (slightly smaller than 4’x3′) that will become cold frames- essentially what i’ve just described above, but the side walls are made of wood.  This allows less light in but keeps more heat in, and with a southward slope these structures let in enough light to grow greens over the winter.

I’m stoked.  Must hurry up and pass general exam (November 9th!) so i can get back to gardening!

 

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Tomato-splosion!

It’s 8:30 in the morning and several of the chickens must have just laid eggs- they’re cackling like a bunch of proud, frantic Jokers.  We’ve been delivering little half-cartons of eggs to the neighbors every once in a while to make up for the noise… but jeezus.  I did not know that chickens would be this loud.  I knew that they would crow a little egg song after they laid an egg, but i did not know that they also have an “I’m about to lay an egg!” song, and a “Oh wait, i was wrong before, but now i’m REALLY going to lay an egg!” song, and an embarrassingly early morning “Hey!  Let us out of the run so we can go tear up your grass!” song, which is more an incessant squawk than a song.

The neighbors on either side of us say that the chickens don’t wake them up- so they either get up way earlier than i do, or they sleep like rocks, or they have amazingly insulated windows.  In any case, it’s a good thing we have extra eggs to give away.  It is also a good thing that our tomato plants are literally exploding with ripe tomatoes.  (I do actually mean literally- some burst open when i attempt to pick them.)  Last weekend we picked a humongous basket full of them, gave quart yogurt containers full of them to 6 neighbors and friends, and were still able to fill up all the fruit bowls in the kitchen.   Yesterday (3 days later) i picked another huge basketful and gave another 5 tubs away to coworkers who have been helping me with my experiments, and there remains a large pile of tomatoes on the kitchen counter in addition to a bowlful from last harvest that we haven’t finished yet.  Good grief.

I think this means that i need more indeterminant plants (grow and produce fruit all summer) and fewer determinant plants (produce most of their fruit in a small harvest period).  And then i need to start them earlier, so that they will actually be ripe before August.  I’ve found that, if you are going to start your tomatoes from seed indoors under a grow light without bottom heat (they’ll grow more slowly, but will be heartier), and you’re going to protect them with a cloche or wall-o-waters when you transplant them, you can and should start them way earlier than most regional gardening calendars suggest.  From a combination of NW garden books, i have on my calendar to sow tomato seeds in the last half of February, but i will definitely start them earlier next year.  Hopefully that will get the harvest started earlier so that we are not inundated by tomatoes for a couple weeks surrounded on either side by severe tomato shortages.

Anyways, i’m going to go eat some cherry tomatoes for breakfast.

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