Plant of the week: Tomatoes

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Tomatoes originated in South and Central America, where they were likely small and yellow–ancient versions of today’s cherry tomatoes.  After they were brought to Europe, they were grown as ornamentals before finally being adopted as a food staple.

Tomatoes are fruits, by definition, though they have a much lower sugar content than other fruits.  They are excellent producers, as many varieties grow quite tall and can produce a few pounds of fruit per plant.  The German pink tomato variety, for example, often produces tomatoes that weigh 1-2lb each!

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German pink tomato

 

Ideal growing conditions

Tomatoes like sun, and they prefer a rich soil.

Start them indoors six to eight weeks before the final frost.  When you transplant them outside, plant them deep into the soil, burying most or all of the stem.  The stem will develop roots that will help stabilize the plant.  Pinch off the last row of leaves, either at transplant time (if there are many leaves) or later, as more branches are added.  The plant will then concentrate its effort in producing fruit, and it will not grow too densely at the base where it is most liable to break.

Most tomatoes, aside from dwarf varieties, require some sort of support, whether it be stakes, cages, or other structures.

Preserving tomatoes

To freeze tomatoes, core them, then throw them in freezer bags.  To remove the skin later, simply run the frozen tomato under hot water, and it will peel off.

Tomatoes can be canned as is, as a sauce, or in many variety of salsas and chutneys.

If you are left with a multitude of green tomatoes at the end of the season, try green tomato mincemeat, salsa verde, or chow chow.  You can layer green tomatoes in newspaper and keep them in a cold, dark place, and many of them will ripen.

If you have a food dehydrator, you can make your own “sun-dried” tomatoes.

Types

There are two types of tomato plants:

  • Determinate (bush) tomatoes grow to a set height, usually around four feet.  As soon as the top bud starts to produce a fruit, the plant stops growing.  All fruits ripen over the same interval of a couple of weeks, then the plant dies.  Determinate plants are ideal if you want to cook batches of sauce or other dishes in which you must have a lot of tomatoes ready at one time.
  • Indeterminate (vine) tomatoes grow all summer, to heights from six feet and onward.  Blossoms and fruits are produced all summer long until the frost kills the plant.

The type of tomato will vary as well, from densely fleshed varieties suitable for sauce (such as roma tomatoes) to juicier types suitable for eating raw and fresh (such as beefsteak tomatoes).

Tomatoes also come in a variety of sizes, shapes, and colours.

Friends

  • Basil
  • Beans
  • Chives
  • Cucumbers
  • Garlic
  • Lettuce
  • Onion
  • Parsley

Foes

  • Black acorn trees
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Corn
  • Dill
  • Potatoes

Fun facts

  • Cooked tomatoes are better for you than raw ones.  Cooking release more of their beneficial chemicals.
  • During the annual La Tomatina festival in Bunol, Spain, participants throw an estimated 150,000 tomatoes at each other over the course of one week.
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Protecting plants from frost

You can extend the growing season of some frost-intolerant plants by planting them before the last frost in spring and/or continuing them beyond the first frost in the fall if you cover them during cold spells.  There are a couple of devices you can purchase or make that will protect them from the cold and frost.

Cloches

A cloche is a portable cover that is gently pressed into the soil and over (usually) one plant.  Manufactured cloches are usually made of glass, and they come in a variety of sizes and shapes, such as bells and pyramids.  In a pinch, you can use any clear plastic or glass container.  Ensure that you remove them during warm weather, as plants can overheat and burn under the glass when the sun is on them.

Cold frames

Cold frames may be permanent or portable.  Unlike cloches, they usually have walls that extend into the ground, so they keep both the plant and its soil and roots warm.

Portable versions can be made by arranging hay or straw bales on the edge of the garden and then resting storm windows on top of the bales.  You can pull the windows apart a bit to let air in on warmer days, and close them tightly on colder days.

Permanent versions are often made by inserting wooden walls directly into the ground, then attaching old storm windows to them by means of a hinge that can be propped open or ajar, or closed, depending on the weather.  You can buy or make many types of cold frames.

Here are some more examples of plant protectors, both premade versions, and those you can make on your own to suit your particular garden:

 

Composting 101

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Most Canadian municipalities now offer curbside collection of yard and kitchen waste.  Some even allow you to pick up free bags of compost in late spring.  So why make your own compost onsite?  Aside from avoiding the costs associated with purchasing compost, you can control what’s feeding your plants.

Composting kills many of the weeds, seeds pests, and diseases that may be present in your food and garden waste, but it retains most of the nutrition.  It’s recycling at its finest!

But compost stinks, doesn’t it?  And it attracts maggots?

You can avoid having stinky and maggot-infested compost by excluding animal products (meat and dairy) from your compost.  Eggshells are fine.

Many of the commercially available compost containers are made of plastic, which contains vents but are not very breathable.  The compost does tend to smell when you open the lid.  Once the lid is closed, they’re usually fine.

If you place your compost in a container made of wood or other natural materials that are spaced to allow air flow, and add grass clippings or other yard waste over any particularly fresh kitchen scraps, it should not smell.  You may also want to avoid using manure as an activator (see more in hot composting, below).

But I don’t have a backyard

Worm farms are great.  The worms can’t eat all of your compost, but they can eat some of it.  They’ll create beautiful dark earth for you.  They don’t smell and you don’t need to take them for walks.  You may be able to purchase worm farm kits locally.

Types of composting

There are two main types of composting: cold and hot.  Cold composting is basically the “throw in what you have” method.  The compost does not heat up enough to cause rapid decomposition, so some weeds seeds may not be killed, and the process takes longer.  Hot composting is like making a lasagna; you have to have enough ingredients on hand to make one set of layers, because you don’t want to cook it with the sauce on the top.  If properly assembled and monitored, it will typically produce compost in two months rather than the year or more needed for cold compost.

The specific details of how much material you should add will vary according to the type of container and composting you choose.  As always, what follows are guidelines.

Cold composting

Cold composting is the easier option, and it also produces more fertile soil than hot composting, because the material does not get hot enough that all of its nutrients are broken down.  Some are retained and then released when the compost is added to the garden.  Worms find their way into the compost to help break down cold compost material.  To accelerate decomposition, consider cutting materials into small pieces.

The layers are simple:

  1. On the bottom, add sticks to let ait infiltrate the compost.
  2. Follow this by garden waste, grass clippings, and kitchen waste as they are produced.
  • You can add straw, or straw-like plants, to aid with air circulation.
  • You can add manure to the compost to act as an activator to increase heat (and therefore the rate of decomposition).

Once or twice a year, turn the pile to improve decomposition.  I use two side-by-side wooden compost bins, so I turn them in the fall once the garden is almost empty, and often in the spring.  One bin contains last year’s compost, and the other one contains the current year’s compost.  Both are at least half full when I turn them.

Turning does not involve rotating the bins, but its contents. I transfer the intact plant material from the first bin to the second, removing the composted dirt and putting that in the garden.  Then I move the intact plant material from the second bin into the first bin, adding a bit of composted dirt between layers, and move the rest of the composted soil from the second bin to the garden.  I am left with one full bin of rotated compost and another that is empty and ready to accept new spoils.

Hot composting

Hot composting relies on manure to heat compostable materials up so that they break down quickly and thoroughly.  Roots and woody materials are thoroughly broken down, and weed seeds and diseases destroyed.  Hot composting is not an ideal solution for small lots because when manure is exposed to high temperatures, ammonia is released into the air.  In other words, it can be smelly.

The layers are more complex.  You must complete steps 2-5 each time you top up the compost.

  1. On the bottom, add sticks to let ait infiltrate the compost.
  2. Add 4-6 inches of rich green organic matter, such as grass clippings and kitchen waste.
  3. Add 1 inch of cow, sheep, or horse manure.
  4. Add 1 inch of soil.
  5. Add 4-6 inches of brown organic material, such as straw.
  6. Repeat steps 2-5, ensuring that 5. is always on the top.
  7. Once the material has begun to decompose, don’t add any additional layers.  Check the temperature, which should be between 54C and 60C.  If it gets waterlogged, cover it with a waterproof tarp.  If it is too dry, water it.
  8. When the temperature drops, turn the pile.
  9. Repeat the process until it is decomposed.

Seed starter

You can use your compost to create soil to use to start your seeds.

Remove some of the compost you created, and set it in a pile for at least a year.  Store it in cloth or burlap bag for the winter in a cold room or root cellar so that it retains its moisture.  You may wish to run it through a sieve before you use it to remove any sticks or large particles.

 

Succession planting

Succession planting maximizes yield in small spaces

There are a few types of succession planting:

  1. Planting one type of crop in a space, then harvesting it and planting a second crop in the same space.  Typically the first crop is one that likes cool weather, and the second is one that prefers heat.
  2. Repeatedly planting the same type of crop a few weeks apart to ensure a continuous harvest.  This is commonly done with lettuces and other salad vegetables.  Make note of the number of days that the plant takes to mature so that you can accurately calculate the last sowing date.
  3. Planting different varieties of the same crop at the same time, wherein each variety matures at a different rate, so that, again, a continuous harvest is available.  For example, one could plant early and late maturing tomatoes together.
  4. A variation of 3, above, wherein the same rules are followed and the same outcomes are met, but the two crops are of different, but complimentary species.  This is also known as intercropping.

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Resources

Plant of the week: Corn

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Corn is the most common staple food in the world.  It’s grown on every continent except for Antarctica, and used as an ingredient in everything from marshmallows to fireworks and shoe polish.  It is a significant part of our diet both directly (thanks to high fructose corn syrup), and indirectly–through the livestock we consume.

Corn is high in carbohydrates and fibre.  It also contains some protein, and B and C vitamins.  When it’s mixed with lime, such as in tortillas, some amino acids and niacin are made available to our bodies for absorption.

Most of the corn on the market is genetically modified.  It’s hard to avoid GMO corn entirely, but if you grow a heritage variety, you can ensure that at least some of the corn you are eating has been proven safe for consumption.

Preparing corn

Some varieties of corn, such as the heritage variety Bloody Butcher, shown above and below, produce pale yellow cobs when the plant is young.  As the plant matures, the kernels darken and grow tougher.  This might sound unappealing, but it’s actually not.  You can eat the first few batches on the cob.  As they toughen, you can cook the cobs, cut the kernels off, and freeze them.  Frozen corn is perfect for chili and other dishes.  You can leave some cobs on the plant to dry, then grind the kernels into cornmeal or corn flour for breads, tortillas, and polenta, for example.  Some varieties of corn can be used as popcorn once their kernels have dried.

Ideal growing conditions

Corn likes well-drained, nitrogen-rich soil, and full sun.  It does not like cold soil, and frost may kill it.  Corn is a heavy feeder which takes a lot of nutrients from its neighbours.  Be careful what you plant next to it.

As it is pollinated by the wind, it is best to plant it in blocks of at least 4 rows, in which both the seeds and the rows are spaced a foot apart.  Do not plant different varieties next to each other, unless they mature at different times, or they will cross-pollinate.

Most commercially bought corn is treated with a surface coating that prevents fungus and disease.  Your local heritage seed supplier should have some untreated varieties for you to try.

Types

Often, we think of corn in terms of sweet corn, baby corn, popcorn, and cattle corn, but the six main types of corn are catalogued quite differently.

Friends

  • Beans, peas, and other legumes
  • Melons
  • Sunflowers
  • Pumpkin
  • Squash
  • Cucumber
  • Parsley

Foes

  • Tomatoes
  • Celery
  • Cabbage

Fun Facts

  • The average ear of corn has 800 kernels.
  • Popcorn kernels contain a small amount of water inside their thick-walled casings. When they’re heated, steam builds up until the kernel explodes.

The great zupumpkin!

124_2466.jpgIn one of my first small gardens, I planted a pumpkin plant and a zucchini plant next to each other.  I didn’t save any of their seeds, but the next year, when I spotted a pumpkin plant coming up from the compost, I let it grow.  It started out looking like a bit like an elongated pumpkin or some sort of squash.  Then it ripened to the above specimen, which was christened the zupumpkin.

Cross-pollination

Cross-pollination occurs when an insect or the wind carries pollen from one variety of plant to another.  The resulting seed, when planted, sprouts a hybrid of its parents.  Since zucchini and pumpkins are both varieties of the same species, they can create the zupumkin (or zumption or pumcchini–your choice) but a cucumber and squash can’t procreate because they’re different species.

Cross-pollination does not affect the current year’s crop, but rather the next year–with one exception: corn.  If the pollen from the tassels of one variety of corn are blown into the silks from another variety, the cob that develops is a hybrid.

Self-pollinating plants

Vegetables like beans, peas, peanuts, eggplant, peppers, lettuce, and tomatoes are self-pollinating. Their seeds will produce plants like the parent, but insects will occasionally cross them, so if you want to be absolutely certain that your seeds will grow true to type, plant each variety at least 10 feet apart.

Insect- and wind-pollinated plants

Vegetables that are pollinated by insects or wind need to be separated by variety, and grown a distance apart (the distance varies with each type of plant).   To ensure that your seeds grow true to type, grow one variety of each type, or separate the different varieties.

Vegetables that willingly cross-breed

The following plants or plant families are prone to cross-pollination.  If you are planting them with the intention of keeping their seeds, keep varieties well separated.

  • Beets and Swiss chard
  • Cauliflower, cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts, kale, collard greens, and broccoli
  • Corn
  • Cucumbers
  • Honeydew, cantaloupe, and other melons, excluding watermelons
  • Peppers (hot and sweet)
  • Squash (some varieties)
  • Zucchini and pumpkins

 

From the side dish to the main course

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Recent studies have shown that the ideal diet is one that is rich in vegetables and fruits.  The benefits to our health increase if we go beyond the traditional options, such as carrots, potatoes, and beans, and eat a wide variety of vegetables and fruits.  No one plant contains all of the nutrients we need, so it’s best to mix it up, and enjoy a rainbow of colours, textures, and types.

Health benefits

The benefits are widespread:

A diet rich in vegetables and fruits can lower blood pressure, reduce risk of heart disease and stroke, prevent some types of cancer, lower risk of eye and digestive problems, and have a positive effect upon blood sugar which can help keep appetite in check. (source)

There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that dietary patterns emphasizing fruits and vegetables may be linked to better psychological health.[i] A recent study found that higher fruit and vegetable consumption may increase well-being, curiosity and creativity, possibly related to micronutrients and carbohydrate composition.[ii] This is probably related to the fact you are giving your body and brain more healthy vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and fiber. (source)

Meatless Monday

The Meatless Monday campaign, which started in 2003, encourages participants to abstain from meat on Mondays as a way to improve their health and that of the planet.  Why not expand this campaign to your garden, and try to grow a favourite vegetable, or something new, and use it as a centrepiece for your Monday meals?

Fun vegetables to grow

Here are some suggestions for interesting and healthy vegetables to try:

  • Rainbow chard is rich in vitamins.  There are many ways to cook it, or you can enjoy it in salads.  You can use it as a replacement for recipes that call for cooked spinach.
  • Sweet potatoes are extremely high in vitamin A and rich in fibre.  They are delicious baked and in soups.
  • Beets are versatile.  You can eat the greens or the beetroots themselves, or grate them and add them to cake.  They come in a variety of colours, like red, gold, and white.  They’re high in folates, iron, and other minerals.
  • Kale, like most green vegetables, is high in iron.  It likes the cold weather and doesn’t mind a little snow.
  • Eggplants/aubergines are often used as replacements for meat.  There are several varieties to choose from.
  • Winter squash are great in soups, casseroles, or as side dishes.  You can grow them in many colours and unusual shapes.
  • Ground cherries taste like a combination between pineapples and strawberries.  They can be eaten fresh or used in preserves, pies, and other sweet treats.

More resources

Information on plant-based proteins.

 

Gardening in a small lot

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You don’t need to have a large lot to grow vegetables and fruits.  When we lived in a townhouse, we kept some herbs in pots on the patio stones, and grew half a dozen tomato plants along one fence, with beans, peas, lettuce, and occasionally potatoes and pumpkins along the other side.  The yield was not large, but for a few months, fresh vegetables were available onsite.

The biggest obstacle you may find in a small city plot, besides lack of space, is lack of sunlight. Most plants need at least six hours of sunlight to produce. If your property faces the north, is surrounded by fences, or contains a garden shed or similar structures, you can find sunlight limited.  Unfortunately, too, in some developments and municipalities, there are regulations prohibiting you from planting vegetables in the front of your house, or too close to the sidewalk.  Check before you plant.

Here are some ideas for growing in small spaces:

  • Plant berry bushes, such as strawberries, blueberries, currants, honeyberries, lingonberries, and raspberries.  Many berry bushes are just as attractive as ornamental shrubs, with the added bonus of being productive, too.
  • Plant a few tomato and or pepper plants in the ground or in pots.  When selecting seeds, check to see how big the plant is expected to grow.  You may be able to purchase dwarf varieties.
  • Sow lettuce and other greens, radishes, and onions in successive batches.  That way, you’ll have fresh produce available all summer.
  • Sow pole beans and peas against the side of your house or fence, and add trellises or stakes if needed.  We once grew a variety of purple pole beans that climbed to the second storey!
  • Fruit trees such as apricots can also be grown against a wall.  You can purchase dwarf varieties of these and other fruit trees, such as pears and apples.
  • Grow cucumbers and similar plants up a trellis, or down from a window box.  Place containers of herbs on your deck, patio stones, or step.  Remember that anything planted in a container needs to be watered frequently.
  • Plant vegetables that are harvested early with ones that mature late, so they can share the same space.  For example, peas are one of the first vegetables to die off, whereas broccoli takes a long time to mature.

Rotating crops

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Unless you grow plants exclusively in containers, it is important to change where you sow your crops each year.  Rotating plants protects them and improves the nutrition that they have available to them:

  • Disease organisms and insects that are harmful to a particular plant may build up in the soil over time, leading to crop failure should the same plant be sown in that same area.
  • Some plants may consume more of one nutrient than others, leading to soil depletion and crop failure should they remain in the same area year after year.
  • Some plants, such as legumes, benefit the soil.  Moving them around helps to improve the soil throughout the garden rather than in just one spot.

How it works

The easiest way to rotate your vegetables is to put them in groups (keeping the principles of companion gardening in mind), and then rotate the groups.  The most common grouping scheme employs the following four groups, although you may choose to use more complicated groupings if you have a large garden or a large variety of plants:

  1. Legumes, which restore nitrogen in the soil, such as peas and beans, as well as potatoes.  Potatoes are root vegetables, but they can suffer from the same blights as tomatoes and other fruits, so we do not want them to follow each other.
  2. Leafy plants that quickly use up nitrogen, such as cabbage, greens, spinach, herbs, broccoli, and corn
  3. Fruits, such as tomatoes, peppers, melons, eggplant, and squash.
  4. Light feeding roots, such as carrots, onions, garlic, and rutabaga.

So here is how we would rotate our vegetables:

  • Leafy plants go where the legumes were the year before, because they need a lot of nitrogen.
  • Fruits follow the leafy plants because they need the phosphorus that the leafy plants provide, and too much nitrogen stifles the growth of their fruit.
  • Roots follow the fruits because they need the potassium that the fruits provide, but less nitrogen.  They don’t like rich soil.
  • Legumes follow the roots to put nitrogen back in the soil.  They also like that the root crops loosen the soil.

So, if you split your garden into four sections, you could plant each section with one of the above-numbered groups, using the following four year schedule:

  • Year 1: 1234
  • Year 2: 2341
  • Year 3: 3412
  • Year 4: 4123

If you use raised beds or planters, and change the soil yearly or so, you may not need to rotate your plants.  Some plants, such as lettuce, have few pests, so they can remain in the same place for a few years if you have a smaller garden.

 

 

 

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