Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Don't forget you can pick tomatoes ahead of full ripeness!

One of the most frustrating gardening experiences is watching a beautiful big tomato get close to ripeness and then - just when it's reached peak eating stage - finding that something has ruined it. There's a persistently repeated myth out there that you need to let tomatoes ripen on the vine or they won't have "fresh-picked flavor." But really, this isn't true. A tomato picked early and ripened on your counter will be just as good as one left on the plant.

Pick your tomatoes at "breaker" stage, when they've just started turning color. Hard green tomatoes will not ripen to satisfaction indoors, but tomatoes that are beginning to soften and blush red (or yellow, or purple, or whatever the ripe color will be) will do just fine.

Breaker stage tomatoes: photo by Bob Nixon. They can be greener than this!
So remember, if your vine-ripened tomatoes get savaged by birds and squirrels - pick early. If your lovely soft red fruits end up with hard spots from stink bug damage - pick early. If your plants are losing leaves fast to fungal diseases, and you're worried the fruits will get sunburned or rot - pick early. If you don't get to your garden every day to pick, and tomatoes often over-ripen and fall off - pick early. If your fruits tend to crack after rain - pick early.

We've been saying this since 2011! Read Bob's post about tasting kitchen-ripened tomatoes. This is the best advice I've had about tomatoes ever. It doesn't always work, and you will still lose a few of your precious fruits to really greedy visitors or rots that set in early, but your yields will be far higher and your frustration levels much lower.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Another (smaller) tomato tasting, suggestions for having your own, and a few notes on the season so far

The MGs at the Derwood demo garden have our own tomato tasting on a Tuesday in August, just for those gardeners who show up on that workday. It's not as big an organizational challenge, or as formal, as the terrific GIEI open house tomato tasting (or the upcoming Washington Gardener event in Silver Spring), but it's fun for us and a chance to show off what we've been growing at home and in the demo garden.

MGs enjoying tomatoes; photo by Robin Ritterhoff
Our organizers, Joslyn Read and Dan Ward, did take a poll of tasters and tallied the following (out of about 20 offerings):

Best Tasting Red/Pink Tomato:  1st - Pink Bumblebee, 2nd - Dester, 3rd - Black Ruffles
Best Tasting Yellow/Gold Tomato:  1st - Summer Sunrise (runaway winner!), 2nd: Sungold (cherry type), 3rd - Amy's Apricot (cherry type)

Summer Sunrise (upper right in photo) is a product of the Dwarf Tomato Project, breeding heirloom flavor into container-size tomato plants, and although the plant (grown in our African keyhole garden) has not been super-productive, the taste was fantastic. As was Pink Bumblebee:

It's pretty easy to pull together a tasting like this if you have a group (community garden, garden club, neighborhood association) that has a bunch of tomatoes to share and can meet together at one time. Necessary materials include tables (the more the better, we find, so that folks aren't crowded in and there's lots of space for the tomatoes) with tablecloths to minimize cleanup, paper plates and Sharpies to label them with, cutting boards and knives, toothpicks, hand wipes or soapy water and cloths, and a few volunteers to do the slicing (just in advance of the tasting lineup) plus one person to tally votes. You can organize the tomatoes by type if desired, and decide how you want tasters to vote - division by color worked well for us, but slicers/cherries/paste would also work. Leftover cut tomatoes can go into a nice salad!

Also make sure that people bringing tomatoes label them. Of course it helps if they're labeled properly in the garden to begin with - you can see a Mystery Tomato in an above photo, from the demo garden, so oops, and one year we had the amusingly labeled "If I Told You I'd Have To Kill You Tomato." But so it goes.

My own tomato season is going pretty well. I've heard varying reports from others, including people who have had absolutely no ripe tomatoes to this point (which may have to do with the heat, since ripening is difficult in 85F+ temperatures. I suggest harvesting early, at "breaker" stage (tomato just blushing color), and letting them ripen indoors - also helps with those thirsty birds and squirrels taking bites). Since we had such a chilly wet May I put my plants in on the late side, which helped them avoid fungal diseases for a while (septoria and early blight are pretty rampant at this point), and got the first ripe fruits in the third week of July, later than usual but not unreasonable.

The biggest success (until sunscald started affecting the fruits in recent weeks) has been my grafted Cherokee Purple, which is vigorous despite some fungal disease, and loaded with tomatoes. I grafted it myself! although since it was the only survivor out of ten attempts, I can't boast (will do better next time).  I've also been enjoying one of the new Wild Boar Farms varieties, the crazy Cosmic Eclipse:

This is an accidental twin fruit; they aren't all like this
Some others have been disappointments, especially Chocolate Stripes (very prone to cracking), though for some reason (probably soil-related) all the plants on one end of my garden are stunted and under-producing, whereas the other side is lush and loaded, so that may be part of the issue. I've been determined to only plant one cherry tomato so I don't get overwhelmed, and this year it was Blue Gold Berries (another Wild Boar Farms product), though somehow I ended up with an Amy's Apricot plant another MG was giving away, and they do look good together:

and offer a nice contrast in taste, the Apricot being bright and acidic while the Berries are sweet and mild. And I've had reliable and pretty good tasting fruit from Garden Gem and Garden Treasure, two new (and not commercially available) tomatoes from the University of Florida, which you can get seeds of for yourself with a donation if you like being ahead of the crowd.

Which tomato varieties are successful in your garden this year? Let us know!

Thursday, August 18, 2016

TBT: Tips for making "quick" tomato sauce

While many of our regular contributors are enjoying summer vacations, let's go back into the archives for Throw-Back Thursday! Here's a post from August 24, 2010, written by Bob Nixon.

Tips for making "quick" tomato sauce

I couldn’t believe it. I had picked so many large red tomatoes—Celebrity, Big Beef, Biltmore, Brandywine—that I had filled two colanders and had to stack scores more of tomatoes on the nearby sidewalk. And then I put them into buckets—one large bucket and two smaller ones—to carry to the house.

What was I going to do with all the tomatoes? I picked out a dozen reasonably nice ones for our daughter to take to workmates. The remainders were blemished—several of the Brandywines split after a recent rain—many others showing significant damage from stink-bug sipping.

It was obviously time to pull out our big stainless-steel pot and make tomato sauce to freeze for winter. The recipe I use really isn’t a recipe. It’s “common knowledge”—at least for me—based on experience. Ingredients: ripe tomatoes, onions, garlic, olive oil, basil and thyme, and seasoning.

The big chore is to prepare the tomatoes. I used to blanch them and then skin, core, and remove bad spots. Note the past tense. Last year I just washed and cored them and cut out bad spots, tossed them into a pot, and after they cooked for a while, ran them through a food mill to remove skins and returned them to the pot to continue cooking.

I was ready to do that again this year, but a couple of hours before I started, I stopped at the Home & Garden Information Center to drop off a couple of diseased cucumber leaves for analysis. One of the staffers, Ria Malloy, suggested a quicker way to process the tomatoes. She suggested that after I washed them, I should puree them—skins, seeds, all except core and bad spots—in a blender and then begin cooking.

“I literally wash off the tomatoes, cut out the core and any bad parts, and cut the tomatoes in large chunks over the blender to capture all the juices,” she explained. “And then I cook the tomatoes and other sauce ingredients for about two hours or until the sauce looks and tastes about right before eating or freezing it.”

Hey, I might save an hour’s work with that shortcut—and the sauce might be richer and more nutritious with the minute pieces of skin included. I did it—and admired the bright pink, frothy liquid that turned deep red as it cooked down with the onions and garlic I had sautéed in olive oil, plus some fresh basil and thyme that I added later.

Even though I had squeezed some juice and gel out of the tomatoes as I cleaned them, I ended up with lots of liquid that slowly evaporated as the sauce simmered for more than three hours. I was happy with the medium-thick result that I transferred into plastic freezer cartons, but it would be even thicker if I had simmered it another hour.

Thin tomato sauce isn’t really a problem at Meadow Glenn—because we just add a small can of store-bought tomato sauce or paste to thicken it when we heat it in winter. Ria’s sauce is even thinner, but that doesn’t worry her a bit. “I cook pasta in the thin sauce rather than in a pot of water,” she explained. “The pasta soaks up the extra liquid and ends up exceptionally tasty. Actually, extra liquid is good when you’re making lasagna with no-boil, ready-to-bake noodles.”

Now that the Tomato Sauce 2010 is in our freezer, I’ve just learned something on the Internet that may save me additional time when I make sauce next year: cook the tomatoes about 5 minutes after they come from the blender, and then let them cool for a half hour. The solids will float to the top, and the liquid and most of the seeds will remain on the bottom. Skim off the solids—or remove the liquid with a baster—and proceed with cooking your sauce.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Tomato tasting at the MoCo MG's GIEI open house

Guest post by Gail Ifshin. Photos by Donna Starkweather.

On August 6, we celebrated the Year of the Tomato at the Montgomery County GIEI annual summer event.  You could explore solutions to problems with your tomato plants and learn about seed saving with MG experts.  And of course, most deliciously, participate in the tomato tasting contest.  A big thank you is due to everyone who took part - whether by donating or tasting!

At the tomato tasting event we showcased 53 varieties of tomatoes, most of which were donations from individual Master Gardeners and the Demo Garden.  And the winners are...

1st Place — Golden Jubilee (Gerrie Wetzel)
2nd Place — Juliet (Demo Garden)
3rd Place — Blueberry (Robin Ritterhoff)
4th Place — Black Ruffled (Lily Bruch)

1st Place — Sungold (Terri Valenti, Dan Ward, Dara Ballow-Giffen, Robin Ritterhoff)
2nd Place — Black Cherry (Merikay Smith, Alice Pare)
3rd Place — Yellow Brandywine (Gerrie Wetzel)
4th Place — Pineapple (Gerrie Wetzel)

1st Place — Pink Berkeley Tie Dye (Market)
2nd Place — Beefmaster (Market)
3rd Place — Black Prince (Market)
4th Place — Cherokee Carbon (Market)

*Interestingly, none of the winning ugliest tomatoes came from the gardens of MG's!

Monday, August 8, 2016

GIEI tutorial at Selborne House's newly created community container garden

Earlier this year, I was asked by the the property manager at Selborne House in Ellicott City, if I would design a small community garden for residents interested growing their own vegetables.  After viewing the area around the residence, I gave the property manager several options from which she chose to make two large raised container gardens, measuring 10 feet long, two feet wide and a foot deep and three feet off the ground, along with multiple 5 gallon bucket containers.

In May, we filled the containers and I conducted a class with the residents, discussing the vegetables which would grow best in the containers.  I also made the residents aware that the growing media needed to be kept moist and fertilized every two weeks, since the planting media contained no nutrients.

From the looks of the following pictures, the residents are doing well.

They are growing green beans, carrots, onions, lettuce and peppers in double 5 gallon buckets.  In early September, I will be conducting a class on planting fall vegetables (spinach, beets, lettuce, broccoli and other brassicas) as their summer vegetables are harvested.

It's been an interesting experiment in container gardens and I look forward to talking to the group about fall vegetables and planning for the so called short day factor which adds two weeks to the to days to maturity because there is less daylight in the late summer and early fall.