Thursday, November 29, 2012

Reflections on the 2012 tomato season

Post by Sabine Harvey

It is almost December and I still haven’t written my reflections on this past tomato season. Let me
start by saying that I grow all my tomatoes from seed. I grow these seedlings not only for my own
garden, but also for “my” school garden. In order to make a good comparison, I make sure the
seedlings get transplanted to the gardens in the same week. These gardens are located within a few
miles of each other, so you might wonder about how different they could be. Well, you might be

First, let me introduce this year’s “players”. Of course there were the yearly recurring performers,
who have proven their worth in the garden: Celebrity Hybrid, Early Pick and Juliet. In addition, I
grew Best Boy, Marglobe, Big Rainbow and three paste tomatoes: Amish Paste, San Marzano and

Celebrity Hybrid and Early Pick are mid-size tomatoes with a good flavor. Juliet is a large grape
tomato with a great taste. It is one of the first tomatoes to start producing and it is usually still going
strong in October. It is a great tomato for eating straight off the vine or for cooking. Once again,
these tomatoes did not disappoint.

After last year’s experiment with beef steak tomatoes (I am still not a fan), I may need to add Best
Boy to the list of recurring performers. 2011 was a tough year for tomatoes and Best Boy did not do
too bad. So I decided to give it another chance; it did not let me down and performed well in both
gardens. It is a big tomato, but not super gigantic. It has a good flavor and it is a pretty tough plant.

The fact that it is a tough plant came in handy, because the tomatoes in the school garden were
struck by a nasty disease early in the season. By mid June, the lower leaves on many plants looked
terrible. All I could do was remove the diseased foliage, make sure no one splashed water onto the
plants and keep my fingers crossed. While the weather stayed dry, the disease slowed down. Things
went downhill rapidly once it started to rain in August. Of course, I was fairly concerned that I would
bring this disease to my own garden. I made sure to disinfect my tools, I had a separate pair of
gloves for the school garden and I even went as far as changing my clothes and shoes before I went
from one garden to the other.

A local garden center donated the Marglobe seeds. Although the description on the seed packet
sounded promising, I was not impressed. Marglobe did okay in my own garden. The tomatoes were
about the size of an Early Girl, but they had very little flavor. The tomatoes were also very prone to
crack after a rain event, more so than other tomatoes. In the school garden Marglobe was downright pitiful. There, the tomatoes never grew any bigger than a very large cherry tomato and it was
also one of the first plants to succumb to the disease.

I thought we needed some color among our tomatoes, so I decided to grow Big Rainbow. This is a
yellow heirloom tomato with red stripes. Wow!!!!! The tomatoes were gigantic! Yes, I know, I am
not a fan of beefsteak tomatoes, but the flavor was absolutely amazing. In fact, I am not sure I have
ever tasted a better tomato (sorry Juliet). What is more, my teenage children agreed. On numerous
occasions I would find them in the kitchen making some sort of wonderful dish for themselves with
this tomato.

The only caveat – and I think this is true for all heirloom tomatoes – is that I find it really hard to
grow heirlooms in a garden where I only come a few times a week. Heirlooms are funny; you really
need to pick the tomatoes before they are at their peak. Unlike so many hybrids, that will happily
stay on the vine even when they are perfectly ripe, if you don’t pick that heirloom on time, you
won’t get to pick it all. So often I would see a beautiful Big Rainbow tomato but it just wasn’t ripe
yet. I would come back two days later and it would be cracked, rotting or eaten by the squirrels. Just
like me, the squirrels preferred this tomato over all the other ones!

Now for the paste tomatoes. My family eats a fair bit of tomato sauce. Since I haven’t bought a
tomato in a store for years, I decided to take it one step further and try to can my own sauce as
well. Hence the 3 different kinds of paste tomatoes. According to the literature, if you are going to
grow a paste tomato, you really ought to grow San Marzano which is kind of the standard of paste

Well, as one of my teachers at Longwood Gardens once said: Plants do not read books! I have no
idea what happened, but it wasn’t a pretty picture. In my own garden, this plant got some sort of
dwarfing disease. It looked very odd and it managed to produce a total of 3 tomatoes. Yes, you read
that right, 3 tomatoes. Clearly I should have yanked the plant out of the ground, but I am an eternal
optimist and I was hoping that it would simply start to grow at some point. Clearly I was wrong. In
the school garden, San Marzano did grow to full size, but the tomatoes just weren’t very impressive
and the above mentioned disease didn’t help either.

I tried Amish Paste for the first time in 2011. I’ll admit, it wasn’t the greatest producer ever, but I
thought it could have potential. I am glad I gave it another chance, because it did much better this
season. It produced nice, fat tomatoes, great for making sauce. It also managed to hang on in the
school garden longer than San Marzano.

However, my new favorite paste tomato is Gilbertie (It is a really cool name, especially when you try
to say it with an Italian accent). The tomatoes are huge and very, very fleshy. It is absolutely perfect
for making sauce. Yes, it was a little slow to get going. It also suffered in a major way from blossom
end rot, but so did the other two paste tomatoes. I now know that this tomato needs extra care
when it comes to watering and a supply of calcium.

This week, the first seed catalogues for 2013 started to arrive in the mail. Before I order any new
seeds for the next growing season, I would love to know what you grew in your garden and whether
you have any recommendations for me.

Sabine Harvey

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Leafy greens, sweet potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes, and thankfulness

Grow It Eat It wishes you and yours a happy Thanksgiving!

I am thankful for much this November, including my Master Gardener friends and particularly my new Derwood Demo Garden vegetable co-leader, Robin Ritterhoff, who has taken it on herself this year to turn our vague and occasional association with Manna Food Center into a regular donation program.  We have donated 480 pounds of produce this year!  And we hope to do even better next year.

Tuesday's donation was 20 pounds of leafy greens, including mustard, kale, lettuce, Swiss chard, and lovely purple pak choi.  Here we are posed with the bounty:

photo by Nancy Woods

And a close-up:

And here's me with the purple pak choi, which is definitely my favorite leafy green of the year:

photo by Robin Ritterhoff
I'm also thankful to Robin for pointing me to the recipe for Maple Roasted Brussels Sprouts, Rosemary Sunchokes and Sausage, which I'm going to make today using vegetarian sausage and sunchokes (Jerusalem artichokes) I had forgotten I planted until they bloomed this fall.  I think I brought some home to plant and stuck them in a corner since I didn't, as usual, have a plan, and now I am hoping I managed to dig them all up though one never does.  They really are a great edible native plant to have around, but you have to ride herd on them or they start having sneaky notions of conquest.  Well, pretty overt notions of conquest, actually.  Last week at the demo garden we dug out about 100 square feet of Jerusalem artichokes which I'm sure were never meant to be, but just happened.  This produced FORTY POUNDS of tubers which Robin delivered to Manna; they were, luckily, very pleased to have them.

I'm also serving the remainder of my modest sweet potato harvest in all its multi-colored glory.  Let me regale you with a photo of my All Purple sweet potato (the only large one of the bunch) which we ate a couple of weeks ago.

I tried, I really tried, to get a picture of the interior once I'd baked it, but it ended up looking kind of gray and threatening when it's really a beautiful dark, dark violet, and the only way I can describe the taste is by analogy: Georgia Jet is to orange juice as All Purple is to burgundy.  And I do love orange juice, really, but the purple sweet potato is just so complex and earthy and much less sweet and quite fascinating, though it's not what I'd want every time and it would be terrible with marshmallows.

Speaking of sweet potatoes, here is this Tuesday's sequel to the story of Voles in Paradise: so nearly all the tubers inside the fence were chewed up and unusable, alas, and this week it was time to roll up the hardware cloth fence that didn't keep the voles out this year and put it away, and so Barbara started digging a trench around the outside to free it.  And she kept finding sweet potatoes (for "find" read "put her shovel through," but never mind that, it happens to the best of us, and Barbara is the best of us).  And every one of those sweet potatoes was in perfect shape, aside from being recently cleaved by a shovel.  Because all the voles were inside the fence.  Ha!

I hope all of you have some sweet surprises in your lives this holiday, potato or not.  Enjoy your vegetables!

P.S. Barbara relates "the sad sequel to the sweet potato story":

"After bringing home the chopped off pieces of the “outside” sweet potatoes, I cleaned them up as best I could for dinner; mostly they had enough bad spots that I peeled them completely; then I boiled them, but even after plenty of time boiling some were too hard to stick a fork in. However, I persisted, and the grandchildren gamely gave them a try; we all agreed that they were inedible. No flavor at all, hard to chew, and they definitely proved what I had always heard. Once there is a frost, and the vines have died, you have to dig the potatoes right away, or they will be no good. So next year I will know to look for potatoes all around the outside too."

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Planting Hardneck Garlic in Indian Summer

Four kinds of hardneck garlic broken into cloves
The past three days were gorgeous, like a return to spring, so my mind naturally returned to the garden -- which I  confess I had left pretty much to its own devices the past several weeks.  I had planned to plant hardneck garlic this year as usual, but had left it kinda late. Came the hurricane, and chill weather, and a feeling that I had missed the horticultural boat. Then Gary, spurred on by the brief Indian summer, foolishly sweetly asked what he could do to help. Over morning coffee, I gave him the chore of prepping two small beds, figuring he would forget it during a day of brushing goose blinds. Wrong. He went out immediately with a garden fork, looking a little like a man marching into battle, and not only weeded and dug and fluffed the beds, he also spread two loads of compost over them, which meant I really had to follow through that day instead of sitting in a garden chair with a beer and book and a blissful expression on my face enjoying the last balmy days of the year.  So I did. Get up off my duff, that is.
Two prepped beds awaiting garlic cloves
Garlic is the Rodney Dangerfield of the larder. It gets no respect. Even sophisticated cooks settle for those aging white knobs in the supermarket, most of which come all the way from China, which is the world’s largest garlic producer last time I checked.  But most of us settle because we haven’t experienced the locally grown difference. I hadn’t until a few years ago when I tasted Music hardneck garlic, a large-cloved Italian variety with a sweet pungent flavor named for Al Music who brought it to Canada in the 1980’s. Compared to the store-bought stuff I’d been using for years, it made me feel as though I’d been cooking with oven mitts over my taste buds. Crisp and juicy, it brightened everything  – aioli, pesto, chicken cacciatore, pepper hummus, Moroccan beef, and 10-minute pasta. (Throw together in a bowl: torn brie cheese, chopped fresh tomatoes, fresh basil, and mashed garlic. Add salt, pepper and a splash of olive oil. Cook linguine then dump the hot drained pasta over the raw sauce and mix. Supper’s ready. Don’t forget the red wine.).
Softeneck garlic varieties grow a bulb that’s a clustered clump of cloves, while hardneck garlic has five to seven cloves in a single ring around a hard center stem. Hardneck types also produce a late spring scape, an elegant edible green curly-cue at the top of the stem, so hardneck’s a kind of two-fer culinarly-speaking. Softneck garlic, which has no center stem (hence no scape) usually stores better and some say they’re easier to grow, but hardnecks, which store up to six months in a cool, dry place, have better flavor in my estimation. 
Planted cloves stuck waiting to be covered
Planting garlic is simple. (And once you’ve grown it, you can save some and plant your own for next year’s crop.). Each planted clove produces a new bulb. It needs well-drained soil and will rot (as mine did one year) if you plant it in too-wet ground without enough steady sun to dry it sufficiently, or if you mulch it too heavily and leave heavy sodden mulch on during a damp spring. Having said all that, it's actually easy to grow.
Last year's planting at Colchester Farms CSA
The two beds Gary prepped are both new to garlic in our garden and are fairly well-drained so we have high hopes. Break the bulbs apart into cloves, being sure to leave the plate (the flat foot of each clove) intact; it's where the coming season's roots will emerge. Push each clove down into loamy earth on a dry day (like yesterday -- it was lovely, warm breeze, sunshine, gorgeously prepped bed I could get my fingers into easily) about 6-8 inches apart. I plant mine in a grid and will mulch them lightly with fresh straw once I get hold of some in the next few days.  
Bulbs of Music garlic waiting to be broken apart

Friday, November 9, 2012


西洋菜 (Watercress)
Watercress (Nasturtium Officinale) is a native plant of Europe and Asia. It was not popular here in the states in the distant past. But how I love watercress when I was younger growing up in Hong Kong. And I still love it. Watercress is one of my favorite vegetables. Thank you, mom, for introducing me to these great veggies when I was wee old.
Recently, I noticed that our local supermarket actually carries watercress. I was pleasantly surprise because normally I can only find it in the Asian markets. However, the price was somewhat higher than what I am used to. So, I am going try my hand in growing them.
As an inspiration, I cooked some watercress soup for tonight. Here are some pictures of it.

西洋菜湯 (Watercress soup)

This veggie is pack with vitamins & minerals (Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Vitamin K, Thiamin, Riboflavin, Vitamin B6, Calcium, Magnesium, Phosphorus, Potassium, Manganese)It is also a good source of Protein, Folate, Pantothenic Acid and Copper.
There are two methods of growing. You can start from seed or propagating it from the original plants. I will pick the latter. 
Take the grocery bought watercress and stick it in a soil medium and keep it moist. Watercress normally grows in fast moving water, like shallow streams. Sounds simple but I do the same with scallions and they grow well.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Soup and Winter Squash

Winter squash taking over west side of the garden

My summer squash did diddly this year -- I planted seeds three times and three times the critters ate the plants before they could get to any size at all. Fortunately, I managed to grow some winter squash, started from the saved seed of an Iranian and a long neck pumpkin of two I had bought last year from a nearby farmers' market. I started the seeds in flats that I put up on sawhorses in the back yard in about early July. (Sawhorses were to keep the foraging groundhogs, cats, slugs, squash bugs and whatever else that  inhabits our little wildlife acre from eating the plants –AGAIN!). I planted out decent-sized plants in mid-July and by September, they were sprawled all over the west side of the garden. They produced some really great squash, which we harvested before Hurricane Sandy tromped through. And the cardboard box of Iranian squash and long neck pumpkin now stored on our unheated back porch has bucked me up no end. (I had gone into a deep, existential funk; if I couldn't even grow ZUCCHINI for pete's sake, what GOOD was I!?).
The cukes have been composted, but the squash is still just fine
Winter squash, a member of the Cucurbitae family that includes melons and cucumbers, is called that not because we harvest them in winter, but because many have very dry flesh and as a result store wonderfully so we can eat them all winter. (I once grew a 15-pound Blue Hubbard that I harvested in October and we ate in late May).  Not only that, they are packed with beta carotene (Vitamin A, critical to eyes and other body parts), Vitamin C, and potassium among others, and retain as much as 85% of their nutritional value over months of storage.  (Generally speaking: the darker the flesh, the harder she shell, the longer it stores and the more nutrients it retains.).
Winter squash are theoretically easy to grow. You stick the plant in the ground in about June and harvest between 90 and 120 days later, depending on variety. In my experience here on the Upper Eastern Shore, they are squash bug magnets.  If you don’t catch those suckers early and crush ‘em – or regularly squirt them off plants with soapy spray (but crushing is better and infinitely more satisfying), you won’t have winter squash.
Roasted vegetables. Toasted almonds went into the romesco.
I’ve roasted some crescent Iranian slices for salad with arugula, toasted walnuts and goat cheese, cubed another and roasted it with paprika, garlic, maple syrup and salt and pepper then added it warm to a plate of spinach and French lentil salad. A couple of days ago, when it was chilly and blustery, I finally roasted the spare butternut our daughter dropped off months ago before she went to sea along with the very last of the mild habaneros and Big Mama tomatoes and made soup. The rest of the winter squash still sit in a cardboard box on our unheated mud porch waiting to be used throughout the winter. Yum yum yum.
Roasted squash and pepper soup

Roasted Butternut and Pepper Soup

1 butternut or other winter squash,    halved and seeded
1 small onion peeled and halved
4 small very mild habaneros or other mildly spicy pepper
1 medium sweet pepper, halved and seeded
2 cloves garlic, unpeeled
4-5 paste tomatoes, halved ( a tin of fire-roasted tomatoes would work just as well)
olive oil for rubbing over vegetables
1 small apple, cored
1-2 tsp berbere spice
1 tsp smoked paprika
dash of Pick a Pepper sauce
salt and pepper
3 cups chicken stock or vegetable stock or water

Grease or cooking-spray a baking sheet. Lightly oil the vegetables, rubbing them all between your hands. Put the butternut cut-side down on the sheet and surround with the rest of the vegetables and the apple. Roast in a 350-degree oven for about 45 minutes or until they’re all soft (the onion may still be a little stiff). Pull skin away from squash, tomatoes and apple (if you do this when they are hot, it helps to wear rubber gloves to keep from searing your fingers). Peel garlic. Put it all into a pot with the spices and simmer for about 15 minutes. Run a hand-blender through it, or wait until it cools some and puree it in the blender. Serve with chopped herbs, a dash of chili oil, and some crumbled feta or blue cheese. It’s really nice on a cold evening by the fire with a glass of red wine and some toasted baguette or fresh whole grain bread.