411 on Cracked Tomatoes

I was out of town Wednesday night and came home to three inches of rain in the rain gauge and a handful of cracked tomatoes.  The two items are related.

Why Tomatoes Crack: To grow well and fruit profusely, tomatoes need even, consistent moisture. I water tomato plants during dry periods to encourage fruiting and healthy growth. But when Mother Nature dumps a bucket of moisture on the ground, the plant naturally takes it up and the fruits crack. Their skins can’t grow fast enough to take in the extra moisture. Cracking is most common with a heavy rain after a long dry spell, though this was not the case here because we have had an unusually rainy August. As typically happens, the fruits closest to ripeness cracked.  The cracks in the fruits provide an entry point for bacteria and fungi, and typically the fruit will rot quickly—in fact, I tossed one really rotten tomato before taking the picture.

Can you prevent cracking? You can’t prevent cracking from extreme storms, but you can prevent losing tomatoes due to cracking, by harvesting tomatoes most susceptible to cracking. Green or very unripe tomatoes are less likely to crack, so picking those that are ripe or nearly so before a big storm is a good way to prevent cracking. Since I was away during the last storm, I picked a lot of ripe or nearly ripe fruit right after I got home. You can prevent cracking if the problem is dryness by watering regularly.  You also can reduce cracking by growing tomatoes in raised beds, which drain more thoroughly than in-ground gardens, and by applying a layer of compost or other mulch to keep soil evenly moist in dry periods.

Are there tomatoes that don’t crack? Yes, there are some varieties that resist cracking. (Those that crack the most tend to be heirloom varieties and large tomatoes.) You can find a long list here of crack-resistant varieties. Popular varieties that crack less include Arkansas Traveler, Celebrity, Big Boy, Big Beef, Summer Sweet, Sungold and Yellow Pear. If cracking tends to be a problem with your tomatoes, you may want to choose a crack-resistant type.

What about calcium and cracking? Calcium helps tomatoes regulate their intake of moisture, and a shortage of calcium in the soil is also linked to blossom end rot, another really discouraging tomato problem. Some gardeners add crushed eggshells to the planting hole, antacid tablets or a commercial calcium to increase the calcium available to plants. Consider a soil test before you heavily supplement the soil.

We have more rain in the forecast for the next couple of days, so I will be harvesting more tomatoes today. How are your tomatoes doing during this rainy period?

Growing Vegetables in Raised Beds (and What’s Going on With This Soil?)

One of my backyard gardens is on the site of a former garage. We removed the one-car garage last summer and replaced it with a larger building to store cars and tools. The site of the former garage is now where I grow vegetables in raised beds and am trying to grow some perennials, shrubs and vines on the extremely poor soil.

The tomato has a fruit, but it’s so small, you can tell its struggling. Photo take July 15.

Raised beds can be a terrific way to grow vegetables, but as I am finding out, your beds are only as good as the soil in them. Witness the photo at left. The bed this sad tomato was planted in was one of two that were filled with a soil mix that was labeled as being specifically for raised beds, including those with vegetables. I planted beans, parsley, tomatoes, squash and marigolds in the two beds—in late May/early June. For weeks, they have sat there. And sat there.

With the exception of marigolds, which seemed to be growing a tiny bit and are flowering, none of the plants were thriving—or even growing much. On many of them, the leaves turned yellow. Nothing has up and died yet, but they sure have been struggling. Witness the photo below, a small raised bed (with less sun than other raised beds) where I used an organic bagged soil mix and some manure. These tomatoes and basil plants were roughly the same size as the ones in the other beds when they were planted a few weeks ago, yet they are growing, producing flowers and fruit and generally doing what a plant should do. (Update: Since I wrote this post a week or so ago, these tomatoes have grown so much I’ve had to lash their trellis to the fence.)

Planted in a bagged soil mix, these tomatoes have grown so much I’ve had to tie them to the trellis. Photo taken July 15.

So what’s up? It could be the plants have gotten too much water, but given the size of the beds and the dryness of the top 3 inches of the soil, I doubt that. I checked out this article on what yellow leaves on plants means and my yellow leaves don’t perfectly match any of the pictures—though they are close on a couple of them.  A couple of weeks ago, in absolute frustration, I decided to add some more nitrogen to see if that helped. One bed got composted manure; the other got liquid fertilizer. The plants have grown more since then—one of the beans has finally latched onto the trellis I want it to climb and a few bean flowers have emerged.

I also sent a sample of the soil to the U of M Soil Testing Lab to find out exactly what kind of soil I’ve got here. (I contacted the landscaping firm that sold me the soil, but have not heard back from them.) The U turned around the soil test results quickly and I found out that while the mix had a good percentage of organic matter (12.5 percent), it had sky-high levels of potassium (that’s the K in the N-P-K ratio on most fertilizer bags.) Potassium’s main role in plant growth is to regulate how other nutrients are taken up by the plant and to regulate certain processes. Too much potassium in the soil will interfere with up-take of nutrients such as calcium and magnesium. The U recommended I add nitrogen but nothing else to the soil to improve plant growth.

One of the main reasons to grow vegetables in raised beds is that you can control the soil better. In my case, the dreadful soil that was already on the site made growing vegetables impossible without raised beds. If the beds are tall (mine are about 14 inches tall), they should be treated like a container, with regular watering and fertilizing to enrich the soil. Needless to say, come fall, I will be adding leaves, compost and manure to all my beds in hopes of getting the soil in better shape for next year.

Do you grow vegetables in raised beds? What’s your favorite soil mix?

Ratatouille Rumble

For a simple ratatouille, you'll need onions, zucchini, eggplant, peppers, garlic and herbs.
For a simple ratatouille, you’ll need onions, zucchini, eggplant, peppers, garlic and herbs.

Ratatouille may be one of the most delicious late-summer garden recipes. Traditional ratatouille includes eggplant, zucchini, onions, peppers and tomatoes, but since the dish is essentially a vegetable stew, you could add green beans, yellow squash or anything else that is fresh and suits your fancy.

A while ago, I paid a visit to Sam Kedum’s Nursery in nearby Hastings to buy some tomatoes for preserving. While I have had a decent crop of tomatoes this year, it has not been huge and most of the tomatoes I grew were slicers that have been quickly consumed in salads and on BLT sandwiches. At the nursery, which includes a community-supported agriculture farm, I also bought cherry tomatoes for drying (recipe to come next week) and some peppers, eggplant and zucchini, which looked firm and delicious.

You can find lots of recipes for ratatouille on the web and mine is a modified version of Alice Waters’ take. Feel free to adjust vegetable and seasoning amounts to suit your own taste and veggie supply.

Ratatouille

1 medium eggplant, cut into 1/2 inch cubes

1 onion, cut into 1/2 inch cubes

1 large or 2 small zucchini, cut into 1/2 inch cubes

2-3 colored peppers, cut into 1/2 inch cubes

5 Roma tomatoes, cored, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch cubes

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 TBSP tomato paste

1/2 cup  white wine (optional, but tasty)

1/4 tsp red pepper flakes

1/4 cup olive oil

salt and pepper to taste

Cut pieces about the same size.
Cut pieces about the same size.

Cut up the eggplant first, then salt the pieces and set them in a colander to drain for about 20 minutes. (Cut up the rest of the veggies while the eggplant is meditating.) After 20 minutes, rinse the eggplant and pat the cubes dry. Heat up a large pan — I love my big cast iron skillet — so that’s a good choice, if you have it. Add about half of the olive oil. Add the eggplant cubes in a single layer and cook for about 3 minutes. Then, move the pieces around for another 3 minutes and remove the eggplant from the pan. (It will be only semi cooked.)

Add a bit more of the oil to the pan and add the onions. Season with a bit of salt and pepper and cook the onions for about 4-5 minutes, stirring often until they are translucent. Add the garlic and cook for another minute. Push the onion, garlic aside (but still in the pan) and add the a bit more oil to the pan and add the zucchini. Let it sit in one layer for about 3 minutes to get a bit of brown on it, then stir with the onions for another 2 minutes. Add the peppers and stir everything around together for about 3 minutes. Add more salt and pepper if you like and the 1/4 tsp of red pepper flakes. Push the veggies to the sides of the pan and in the space in the center, squirt about 2 tablespoons of tomato paste. Move that around with your spoon or spatula for about a minute to cook the paste a bit, then add the wine and the tomatoes. Stir the eggplant back into the mixture, and let it all cook together for about 10 minutes.

Ratatouille could be eaten as a main course with cheese on top or as a side dish to grilled chicken or fish. The flavor improves upon sitting, so leave it in the fridge a day or so for optimum deliciousness. I planned to take a photo of the finished product, but we ate it all before I had a chance.

What’s your favorite way to eat your fall vegetables?

 

 

 

Cherry Harvest and Clafoutis!

My small ‘Bali’ cherry tree is especially productive this year. So far, I’ve picked about a gallon and a half of nice cherries off the tree and there are plenty more where those came from. I’ll be picking daily over the next week or so, or until the birds clean out the rest.

A very small portion of this year's harvest, ready for baking.
A very small portion of this year’s harvest, ready for baking.

This is by far the best crop I’ve had from my cherry tree, which has been in the ground about eight years now: abundant cherries, no pests, and the birds haven’t cleaned out the tree even though I did not put a net on the tree this year as I have in the past. I attribute some of that good harvest to the pruning we did last fall, which opened up the center of the tree and improved air-flow through it.

‘Bali’, sometimes called ‘Evans’ cherry, is a sour cherry, discovered by the Canadian horticulturist Ieuen Evans in the 1920s. The trees stay relatively small — mine is under 10 feet tall. It’s a pretty tree for a smaller landscape and is covered with delicate white blossoms in the spring. The cherries are pretty, too, and make a great pie, cobbler or — what I did Saturday — clafoutis. A French confection, clafoutis lies somewhere between custard and a pancake. It’s easy to put together and, in my mind, works as a breakfast as well as a dessert.

Here’s the recipe I used, which is enough to fill a standard 9-inch pie plate:

clafoutis tight

Cherry Clafoutis

Preheat oven to 375 degrees; thoroughly butter (or use spray) a 9-inch pie pan

Cherries

Clean and pit enough cherries to fill the bottom of the pie plate–2 to 3 cups. Because my cherries are sour, I covered them with about 1/3rd cup of sugar and rolled them around so the cherries were coated with sugar.

Batter

3 eggs

1/3 cup sugar

1 tsp vanilla

1/2 tsp cinnamon

1/2 tsp salt

3/4 c. all-purpose flour

3/4 c. milk (I used whole)

Whisk the eggs together with the sugar, vanilla, cinnamon and salt until well combined. Add the flour and whisk to incorporate it. Then, add the milk and whisk. The batter should be similar to a thick pancake batter. Gently ladle or pour the batter over the cherries in the pan. You want even distribution of cherries in the clafoutis. Bake the clafouti for 45. It will be puffed (though hopefully not so lopsided as mine was!). Lightly sprinkle with powdered sugar, if desired.

This tastes wonderful fresh from the oven as is, or you could put a dollop of whipped cream on it for even more decadence. I also ate a piece for breakfast the next morning and that was wonderful, too.

Enjoy!

 

 

Repel Rabbits with Plants

Another nice thing about marigolds is they stay blooming well into the fall.
Another nice thing about marigolds is they stay blooming well into the fall.

I’ve had a mess of garden troubles with critters, most of which are of the burrowing variety. But over the past couple of years, my number one garden enemy has been the rabbit. Or rather, rabbits, since I seem to have an endless supply of them eating vegetables, pulling up bean plants and doing lots of unauthorized shrub pruning.

Last year, I put a low fence around my main vegetable area and that certainly slowed them down. But my goal this year is to make peace with the bunnies even more, and a couple of recent garden talks I’ve attended have given me some new ideas. This past weekend, I combined a trip to the Chicago Flower and Garden with a visit to my daughter who lives in the city. Shawna Coronado, noted blogger, author and urban gardener, gave a talk on planting sustainable containers, but also offered a bunch of tips on front yard garden design, composting and growing vegetables in shade.

According to Shawna, you can repel rabbits with plants by growing spicy globe basil combined with marigolds. She particularly recommends ‘Taishon’ marigolds. Both plants have a strong scent and make lists of “rabbit resistant” plants. Will the two together provide extra protection? Generally bunnies don’t care for stinky stuff, so it makes sense that combining two smells might be extra effective.  I’m not sure, but I plan to try the combination this summer.

I already plant parsley for caterpillars/butterflies, so why not a few more plants for the bunnies.
I already plant parsley for caterpillars/butterflies, so why not a few more plants for the bunnies.

Earlier this winter, I reviewed The Wildlife Friendly Vegetable Gardener, a helpful book by Tammi Hartung, who is a big advocate of “decoy plants.” These are plants pests like that you plant somewhere you don’t care about. For bunnies, that means ample parsley planted away from the vegetable garden.

For more ideas on making peace with rabbits, check out the article by Samantha Johnson from the latest issue of Northern Gardener.

Beauty in the Vegetable Garden

During these last cold days of winter (hope, hope, hope!), I’ve been taking refuge in the garden photos I took last summer. Among the images are many from vegetable gardens that are truly beautiful spaces as well as nourishing.

mixed lettuce bowlMy vegetable garden usually has the shabby chic look (or maybe just shabby), but I’ve found that lettuces planted in pots or window boxes can be very attractive, especially those with rose-tipped, ruffly foliage. But a couple of the gardens I visited last summer took vegetable gardening beauty well beyond that.

vertical cabbageThe vegetable garden at Squire House Gardens in Afton, for example, was lush, colorful and full of texture on the warm August afternoon when I stopped by. Planting green and purple cabbages together created a round contrast. Big ripe peppers hung from plants, like green ornaments, ready for plucking. A tall trellis covered in green beans created a produce wall at the back of the garden. The gardeners included a water feature and garden art, too, which encourage visitors to linger. Even the asparagus plants, long past their picking prime, added soft texture with their mature fronds.

Amy archwayEarlier in the summer, I visited the garden of Amy Andrychowicz, proprietor at the Get Busy Gardening blog. You can read all about Amy’s garden in the March/April issue of Northern Gardener, which will be out in about two weeks, but suffice it to say, she has a way with vegetables. The big arch covered with squash is like a grand entry to the garden, and she mixes annuals, such as nasturtiums among the vegetables to add color and encourage pollination. It’s a lovely garden and I was delighted to be able to write about it for Northern Gardener.

For more photos of vegetable garden prettiness, see the gallery below. What will you be planting in your vegetable garden this year?

Bees, Apples and My Bumper Crop

apple basket
Ready for saucing and pie!

For the first time in 13 years, I have a bumper crop of useable Haralson apples off the tree in my yard. I credit it to good luck, the University of Minnesota and lots of bees. Here’s the story.

I’ve had two apple trees in my yard for 13 years (the Haralson and a Connell Red) and I’ve barely harvested a fruit from them in all that time. I’ve never wanted to go through the bother and risk associated with spraying apples and haven’t had the get-up-and-go to put little bags around each apple I wanted to harvest.  I like the look of apple trees and I’d resigned myself to finding a few decent apples and giving the rest up to the maggots and the worms.

An Unintended Consequence

haralson tree
The tree is loaded with fruit this year.

I’ve read a bit more about apples in the last year or so, and last fall I decided to at least get serious about sanitation around my trees. I picked up as many of the crappy apples that fell in autumn as I could in an effort to reduce pests, which tend to overwinter in the soil.

Last year and again this spring, I also participated in a University of Minnesota research project to track the arrival of the spotted wing drosophila in Minnesota. The project involves setting out traps — a plastic jar baited with apple cider vinegar and a sticky paper — to catch the bugs. This year, I set the trap in the Haralson tree.

About midway through the summer, I noticed a lot more apples — and I mean, a LOT more apples on the Haralson tree. (The other tree looked like it always did.) Later in the summer, I noticed that not only were there a lot more apples, but many of them (not all, of course, but enough) looked good. No signs of maggot damage or worm holes.

Oddly, the good-looking apples concerned me more than the lousy looking ones. (It’s all a game of expectations.) Were they safe to eat??? I hadn’t sprayed and I hadn’t bagged and I hadn’t even put out the traps that are recommended for apple growing in Minnesota.

After consulting a variety of web sources that basically said, if there are no visible signs of damage, they are OK to eat, I decided I needed a human to confirm that. I had some pots to return to Knecht’s Nursery in town from three shrubs I’d planted recently, so while there I asked Heidi about the apple situation. She confirmed that yes, bad apples would be showing their badness by this time of year, so anything that looked OK was OK.

My Traps are SO Attractive

apples looking good
They are not perfect, but lots of decent apples here.

She also offered an interesting hypothesis about why I have so many apples. Heidi’s theory is that the apple cider vinegar traps I had in the tree this spring not only attracted the spotted wing drosophila bugs, they also attracted bees. “You probably finally got good pollination on the tree,” she said. With good pollination came the bigger crop — plenty for the worms and plenty left over for me.

This past weekend was the first of what I expect will be a few weekends of canning applesauce, making apple butter and baking apple pies. Next year, I plan to try the same system. I’ll be cleaning up the area around my tree extra thoroughly this fall, then setting out an apple cider trap next year. We’ll see then if this was a fluke or simple way to get more, better apples.

How was your apple crop this year?