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?

It’s Time for Some Pickling and Jamming

Fall seems to be rushing in here in Minnesota, which is all the more reason to preserve some of the garden harvest for enjoying over the winter.

This past weekend, I spent some time pickling and jamming, using vegetables from my own garden and a few I bought at the farmers’ market. Here’s the round up with links to all the recipes:

Pickled onions, bread and butter pickles, yellow tomato jam and a stray bottle of pickled red cabbage.
Pickled onions, bread and butter pickles, yellow tomato jam and a stray bottle of pickled red cabbage.

I’ve never pickled onions before, but both my Chicago daughter and our Northern Gardener Kitchen Garden columnist Rhonda Hayes tell me that they are all the rage on tacos, pulled pork and other foods that need a bit of zing. I had good luck this year growing these onions from Seed Savers Exchange. The mixture is super tart, but just right to brighten up a meaty sandwich.

I had half a head of red cabbage left from a salad I made so I decided to pickle that as well using the same method, but adding some raw ginger to the container. Ginger is a great companion to cabbage, adding a little heat to an otherwise bland vegetable.

Of course, I had to make a batch of Grandma Lahr’s Bread and Butter Pickles. Minnesotans like a sweeter pickle and these have just the right sweet-tart blend. I grew up eating these alongside a tuna or meat sandwich — yum!

Finally, I made a batch of this Yellow Tomato Jam, a sweet way to preserve the harvest. To me, this jam is like the first taste of fall because it has some of the spices of fall. If you like your tomatoes sweet, you may want to try this  recipe for a tomato peach pie!

The preserving is just starting here — my raspberries are ripening fast so I’ll be picking, freezing and eating them daily, and I have bunches of herbs to make into pesto and a sauce I call salty herb blend, which is great for putting in soups or on meats.

What are you preserving this fall (oops) summer?

Best Tips for Starting Seeds Indoors

Over the years, I’ve had lots of successes and lots of failures with indoor seed starting. While seed-starting time is in February or March in many parts of the country, early April is actually a really good time to start seeds indoors in Minnesota, especially if you are planning to grow warm season crops such as tomatoes.

So, here are my top six tips for starting seeds indoors successfully.

seedlingNo. 1 — Put them where you will see them. Many gardeners have to put their seed-starting set up in the basement. They end up forgetting to check them and before you know it, the seeds are dried up or overgrown. Put them in a prominent place so you are inclined to coddle them.

No. 2 — Let the breezes blow. Outdoors, your little seedlings will experience wind (where I live, it’s gale-force a lot of the time), so get them used to it with a fan set up near your seed starting area. Keep the fan on low to get the seedlings used to wind. This will also help reduce fungal diseases.

Tomato seeds planted and labeled.
Tomato seeds planted and labeled.

No. 3 — Label, label, label. You think you will not forget which of the six varieties of tomato seeds you started are in which pots — but you will. My latest trick is to use a label maker to create labels on the seed starting trays. This is much neater than writing it out on a popsicle stick and less likely to fall off or get washed away. When the plants move to the hardening off stage, the label maker will be employed again.

No. 4 — Water gently and sparingly. More seedlings have been killed by drowning than by drying out. Water regularly, not too much, and if at all possible, from the bottom. My current set up includes really great trays I got when I ordered prairie plants from Prairie Moon Nursery. Each cell is 5 inches deep and the cell tray stands in another tray. I just pour the water into the lower tray and the plants drink it up from below. This encourages the roots to go deeper. When seed-starting season is over, I wash the trays thoroughly and give them a dip in a 10 percent bleach solution to kill any bacteria.

No. 5 — Don’t spend too much. If you only are growing a few tomatoes, it may not be worth your time and money to start from seeds. Just buy a few plants at a local farmers’ market or a garden club plant sale. You don’t need a fancy grow system either — a basic shop light, a couple of flourescent bulbs and a way to suspend the shop light above your seed trays, trays of some kind and seed starting mix — that’s all you need. Do buy or make your own seed starting mix rather than using old potting soil or garden soil.

No. 6 — Pot them up. Depending on the size of the cells you use to start your seeds, you may have to move them to larger pots as the plants get bigger. This is particularly true in my experience with those little pellets that expand when you add water. I’ve got some seedlings that were planted about two weeks ago that are going to need to go into a bigger pot very soon. Save small yogurt cups or the pots that purchased plants came in, add some potting soil and very gently move the seedlings into a bigger pot. Pot them up gradually. A tiny seedling might go to a 2-by-2-inch pot or a 3-by-3, even if it eventually will fill a large container.

For more information on seed starting:

Slow Roasted Tomatoes

Ready for a long roast in a low oven.
Ready for a long roast in a low oven.

The tomato season is about to close, so about a week ago, I bought a nice batch of beautiful cherry tomatoes. I didn’t grow cherry tomatoes this year, but slow-roasted tomatoes are too good not to have on hand. They could not be easier to make either.

I poured about 3 tablespoons of olive oil on a cookie sheet, then rolled the tomatoes around in it so they were all covered. I salted them lightly and ground some pepper over them. You could also put a couple of cloves of garlic (in the skins) on the tray, too. Then I set the oven to 225 degrees, put the tomatoes in and forgot about them. About six hours later, they were soft and wrinkly. I put some in a jar and covered them with olive oil and put the rest in freezer bags for later use.

Yum!
Yum!

These are like candy. They make a great addition to a salad or slice some soft cheese on a cracker (gouda is good-a!) and top it with a tomato. Instant hors d’ourves elegance.