Ugly Tomatoes

This year was not a good one for tomatoes. Most tomato varieties struggle with the cool summers of the coastal Pacific Northwest even in a good year – and since this summer was characterized by rain, clouds, and more rain, my poor tomato plants didn’t have much of a chance.

I started all three of my tomato plants from seed, as early as possible. And after quite a while, the seeds did in fact sprout and turn into tomato plants. The plants grew sloooowly, and after a while there were flowers. Boy, did I get excited when the first few green fruits appeared.

The first tomato plant to produce fruit was my ‘Silvery Fir’ variety, not a surprise since this particular variety was bred in Russia. I noticed right away that as the tomatoes got bigger, they were… well, ugly.

ugly tomato

Here’s what those tomatoes looked like after about six months of growing. No, there’s nothing wrong with your eyes, I had a focus malfunction on this photo.

Then, when I took a closer look at one of the tomatoes, I realized they were even uglier than I had thought.

Catfaced tomato

That’s one ugly tomato.

That, my friends, is a really bad case of catface. Catfacing occurs on tomatoes that have been exposed to cool temperatures during the fruit setting phase of development. If the temps dip below 50 degrees, it damages the embryonic fruit and results in some hideous looking tomatoes. I don’t know why it’s called catfacing because my cats are much cuter than that.

See, my cat’s face doesn’t look anything like that hideous.

Shortly after producing those big, ugly tomatoes, all three of my plants frosted and dropped dead. RIP, tomato plants. Next year I’m using transplants instead.

I’m Back

Greetings and big apologies for dropping out of sight for so long. I’ve sort of been a victim of my own success, going down for the third time with projects that had to be completed ASAP. Now I’m ready to launch back into edible gardening and share those details with you. So sit back with your seed catalogues close at hand and prepare for some more gardening words of wisdom.

Bitter Cucumbers

I had an “ick” experience recently when harvesting a fresh cucumber from my garden. The first bite was OK but a little bit odd… the second was downright nasty. The cucumber was so bitter as to be inedible.

Bitter cucumbers can happen to anyone. In fact, even gardening experts aren’t 100% sure what causes a plant to produce bitter cucumbers. We know where the bitter flavor comes from, all right – compounds called cucurbitacin B and cucurbitacin C, which are present in most wild cucumbers and make the fruit practically inedible. Most cucumber plants have these compounds in their leaves, stems and roots, but it’s rare for them to migrate into the fruit itself and the process isn’t entirely understood.

The number one risk factor for bitter cukes is variety. Certain cucumber varieties are much more prone to bitter fruit than others. Pickling cucumber varieties are more likely to produce bitter cukes than table varieties, for one. The University of Washington Extension tested different cucumber varieties and found that Eversweet, Ashley, Sunnybrook, and Saticoy Hybrid are all free from bitterness. Lemon cucumbers are also not prone to bitterness.

Even within susceptible varieties, not every cucumber plant will produce bitter fruit. In my case, I’m growing two Bush Pickle plants and one of them is producing bitter fruit while the other’s cucumbers taste just fine. And both plants experienced the exact same conditions! It’s believed that cool growing temperatures or wildly fluctuating temperatures will cause more bitter fruit to appear. Uneven watering may also be a factor. It’s possible that nutrient deficiencies may have an effect as well. So you can try to minimize your bitter cukes by planting on a south-facing slope or another warm location, by practicing regular watering, and by applying compost or fertilizer as needed.

Unfortunately, once a particular plant starts yielding bitter cucumbers it will probably continue to do so no matter what. The simplest cure in this case is to yank the offending plant and put in a new one. If that’s not an option, you can try to trim away the bitter parts. The compounds that cause bitterness accumulate in the stem end of the fruit, so removing that end can help. Remove the peel and the flesh just under the peel as well. What’s left will probably taste OK. Sadly, peeling the fruit in a specific direction doesn’t affect the bitterness.

Another option is to turn the bitter fruit into pickles. Any sweet or sour pickle recipe should be strong enough to overpower the bitter flavor and the resulting pickles should taste normal. That’s what I plan to do with mine – I have a couple of pickle recipes that I’ve been wanting to try anyway. I’ll post the results here once I’ve got enough cucumbers together to make a batch.

Medicinal Herbs For Your Garden

Before drugstores, people turned to the plants around them for help with illnesses and injuries. Did you know that the fiber on the inner side of willow bark is the same compound as you’d find in aspirin? That’s why old-timers used to drink willow bark tea for aches and pains. And some of the same herbs we grow to season our food are just as useful in returning us to health.

sage

Sage leaves are useful for mouth and throat ailments.

Basil – Supposedly, crushed basil leaves will reduce a headaches when rubbed on the temples. You can also use basil in aromatherapy… add the leaves to a pot of not-quite-boiling water, drape a towel around your head, and breathe in the steam.

Garlic – One of the strongest natural antibiotics in existence, crushed garlic cloves were often applied to wounds in pre-penicillin days to prevent infection. Eating fresh garlic regularly is also supposed to prevent blood clots. To prevent social problems, follow the garlic cure with a good rinse of mouthwash! Incidentally, the reason that garlic breath is so potent is because the fumes actually travel into your lungs and linger there for hours after eating.

Lavender – Lavender flowers are a common addition to potpourri mixtures and headache pillows because the aroma is a known stress-buster. The flowers are also mildly antiseptic, and a lavender water rinse is said to reduce acne.

Lemon Balm – The leaves of lemon balm are a safe, natural insect repellent. Try rubbing the crushed leaves on your exposed skin before you venture outdoors. Lemon balm can also soothe and even prevent cold sores.

Mint – Spearmint is the most commonly grown culinary variety, but peppermint has stronger medicinal qualities (to me, they taste about the same). Peppermint tea is an excellent aid to digestive problems such as stomach cramps, nausea, etc. When used for steaming your head as per the directions for basil, it’s a strong decongestant.

Rosemary – Some experts believe that rosemary tea eases SAD (seasonal affective disorder), the light-related depression that occurs during a long winter. It’s also supposed to ease hangover pain and lessen cold symptoms.

Sage – Before toothpaste, most people would chew a sage leaf to clean their teeth. The herb’s antiseptic qualities and pungent flavor would help with both tooth plaque and bad breath. A gargle with sage tea will also ease the pain of a sore throat.

7 Beautiful Edible Flowers

Edible gardening doesn’t have to mean ugly gardening. Many of the ‘standard’ vegetable species are actually quite nice-looking; climbing beans are a particular favorite of mine, especially runner beans. What’s more, you can add in some plants that most people think of as being strictly decorative but which actually make a nice change of pace in the kitchen, too. Here are some of my particular favorites.

Rugosa Roses – Rugosas aren’t the tempermental, almost scentless overbred roses of today. They’re the roses that are one step removed from the wilderness – tough, hardy, and quite beautiful. The blooms are single rather than double, but they make up for the simpler look with their wonderful fragrance. And unlike their delicate cousins, rugosas produce edible rose hips every fall. The hip is the bright red fruit that appears after the blossoms drop, and it can be used in jams, teas, and even pies or other desserts. Rose hips are both tasty and nutritious, containing more vitamin C than an orange and lots of A, D and E to boot.

Nasturtiums – Nasturtium blossoms make a nicely spicy addition to salads. They’re quite beautiful, are available in a wide range of colors, and can add a little excitement to your plate. Try floating a blossom on a bowl of soup as a garnish! Or add one to your next sandwich or mix a few in with a plate of otherwise bland vegetables. Nasturtium buds can be pickled and used as a substitute for capers.

Arugula – A well-known alternative salad green, arugula also produces pretty yellow flowers. Warning: by the time a plant blooms, it’s probably too spicy to be comfortably eaten raw in a salad. However, even mature arugula is quite good cooked as a pot green.

Cress produces delicate, bright golden flowers in addition to its tasty leaves. Even my cat likes them.

Poppies – Growing your own poppy seed is not only easy, but you also can enjoy some stunning flowers along the way. Poppy seed of the edible sort comes from members of the Papaver family, not the California poppies we Westerners are so familiar with. You can find poppies in zillions of colors, shapes and sizes. But for the best results in the kitchen, look for a culinary variety such as Breadseed. Poppy seeds make an exciting addition to almost any bread recipe and you can also grind them in quantity to create a tahini-like spread or dip.

Sunflowers – Sunflowers are knock-your-socks-off dramatic flowers. And fresh sunflower seeds, roasted in your home oven and lighly salted, are far tastier than the stale ones you find at your supermarket. If you’re up for a project, you can even crush them to produce your own sunflower oil, an excellent monounsaturated cooking fat. Usually the gray seeded varieties are preferred for fresh eating and are less attractive to birds, while black seeds make better oil.

Saffron – This member of the crocus family is the source of the most expensive spice on Earth. Saffron regularly retails for several thousand dollars an ounce, making it even pricier than gold! You can grow a few plants in a container or in your garden and enjoy this delicacy at a much more reasonable price. The part of the flower that’s used for seasoning is the stamen, which must be harvested by hand (one reason for the insanely high price). Saffron flowers are also nicely decorative in their own right, with pretty lavender-colored blossoms.

Borage – The flowers and leaves of borage are both edible, with a taste reminiscent of cucumber. Be aware that borage will self-seed and can spread aggressively under the right conditions. Bees and other beneficial insects are fond of borage too. You can add the leaves and flowers to salads and sandwiches. A fun party trick is to freeze the flowers in ice cubes and use them in your guests’ drinks.

How to Plant a Tree

Trees are a key component of edible gardening. The classic ‘gardening’ plants are mostly annuals, meaning that you have to rebuild the beds and replant every year… sometimes more than once, if you grow multiple crops of a veggie. With trees, on the other hand, you plant once and can harvest for years with a minimum of maintenance. The best choice of trees for you depends on several factors: your climate, how much room you have, and your taste preferences.

Some trees can’t make it through a frosty winter. Citrus trees, almonds, olives, figs and so on are good examples. On the other hand, other tree species require some winter chilling in order to produce fruit the next year – many apple varieties fall into this category. Trees that blossom very early, like most cherry varieties, will not produce much fruit in late-winter regions because the blossoms will freeze and drop off. So do some research into temperature requirements before putting a lot of time and money into buying and planting a tree.

Space is also a major consideration. Almost everyone will have room for at least one tree. If your yard is very small, you probably want to stick with a small or dwarf tree. Many fruit trees and a few nut trees come in dwarf varieties, which will be both shorter and narrower than full-sized trees of the same species. Careful pruning can help keep the tree under control. Some trees can be espaliered, meaning they’re trained to grow up against a fence and spread almost entirely along two dimensions. When considering space issues, also keep in mind that many trees require a second tree of a different variety for pollination. You’ll need room for at least two trees if you decide to plant that particular species.

Before you plant any tree, be sure it produces something you’ll want to eat! The best way to be sure is to munch a sample of the fruit or nut before buying the actual tree. Common types can be acquired and sampled at the supermarket. On the other hand, apples come in zillions of varieties that have very different tastes, textures and uses (such as cooking versus fresh eating). Your local nursery may have samples of a particular, unusual variety to try before you buy.

Choosing the right planting spot can make all the difference in how well your tree will produce. It’s especially important if you’re planting a type of tree that’s marginal in your area. Trees that prefer warmer temperatures shouldn’t be placed in a low spot in your yard because cold air flows downhill and will gather in such spots. On the other hand, if you have a tree that really needs colder weather than you’re likely to get, planting it in a hollow might be enough to give it the extra cold it needs. The planting spot should be an area that gets plenty of sun and should have good drainage – permanently soggy soil will drown your poor tree.

The best time to plant most trees is late winter or early spring, as soon as you can get a shovel into the ground. Earlier is better because your new tree will still be dormant, which is the best time to make such a drastic change to its living conditions. The next best time to plant is autumn, after the tree has entered dormancy but before the ground freezes. If you live in a warm-climate area, you can plant during winter, too.

Once you’ve selected the right time and place and brought your new tree home, it’s time to dig. Dig a hole at least twice as big as the tree’s rootball. Bigger is better – you can always sweep some of the loose dirt back into the hole if you get carried away. As you dig, try to keep the topsoil and subsoil separate. You’ll want the topsoil to go into the bottom of the hole, as the extra fertility in such soil will encourage roots to grow down instead of out. The deeper the tree’s roots, the better it will resist droughts and windstorms. It’s OK to add some fertilizer and/or compost to the hole, but don’t make the soil too much richer than the surrounding area. Once you’ve put the tree in the hole and filled in the soil, pour in enough water to turn the hole into a soupy mudhole. Once the water has drained away, there will be a depression around your new tree. Fill it in with more displaced soil and water again. Your tree will tend to settle over the next few days, so you should put it fairly high to start.

Newly planted trees need plenty of regular watering for the first year or two. It will take awhile for its roots to fully bind to the soil, and until that happens it will be far more vulnerable to drought. Most tree species require at least one inch of water per week for the entire growing season. That works out to roughly a half gallon per square feet of root area. For most tree species, the roots will go out about 50% wider than the widest branches. Mulching the roots for at least the first year will greatly improve your tree’s odds of survival. You can create a low-maintenance mulch out of a circle of heavy cardboard; just cut out a hole in the center about twice as wide as the tree’s trunk and put it in place as a collar on the ground around the tree.

5 Plant Foods You Already Have at Home

One person’s trash is another person’s treasure, right? Well, your garden plants will really appreciate some of the things you would normally toss into the garbage can. Try some of these remedies to give your garden a boost.

Coffee grounds – Used coffee is actually one of the most powerful fertilizers, packed with nitrogen, phosporus and other nutrients. So the next time you dump out your coffee filters, toss the grounds onto your plant beds instead. Heavy feeders like corn will particularly appreciate a little coffee to wake them up. Some urban gardeners will cruise local coffee shops and collect their grounds; a clever way to get high-quality plant food for free.

Milk – ATTRA posted an article a few months ago about farmers who buy up surplus milk and spray it on their fields. According to the article, those farmers experienced quite a boost in crop performance on the milk-treated fields. The next time you have a gallon of milk that’s about to go sour, why not give it a try?

Eggshells – Eggshells are very high in calcium, a mineral that’s often lacking in garden soils. It’s especially important for tomatoes because a lack of calcium is believed to be the primary cause for blossom end rot. For best results, dry the shells in the oven at 250 degrees until they are crispy-crunchy, then break them up (a rolling pin works well) and mix them into the soil.

Beer – I kid you not, beer is supposedly a great soil amendment, especially for lawns. Mix one part beer with 1/2 part ammonia, add a little dish soap to break surface tension, and add it to your watering can. The next time you water your plants, you’ll be feeding them at the same time. Some gardeners add a little molasses to this cocktail as well, although I’m not sure what effect it’s supposed to have.

Coca-cola – Farmers in India swear by half-strength Coca-cola as the best foliar feeder. Foliar feeding means that you spray the fertilizer directly on the plant’s leaves instead of adding it to the soil. If you find a half-empty can of Coke sitting around, mix the soda with an equal amount of water and spritz your plants for a quick nutritional boost.

3 Ways to Eliminate Mowing

The whole concept of lawnmowing is kind of silly, if you think about it. We spend time and money seeding, watering and feeding a patch of grass to make it grow, and then as soon as it really gets going we cut off its head! Wouldn’t it be nice if you didn’t have to bother? Here are some ways that you can ditch the lawnmower without ending up with a hayfield in your yard.

No More Turf. The simplest way of eliminating mowing is by eliminating the grass itself. Some folks choose to lay down landscape fabric covered with pebbles, but I’m not crazy about the ‘no greenery’ look. A more attractive method is to plant a nice ground cover in place of a lawn. You can borrow a trick from the Elizabethans and plant fragrant ground covers like mint, thyme and burnet – then every time someone walks on the lawn, the plants will smell nice!

Low-Growing Grass. Another option is to replace your Kentucky bluegrass with a naturally low-growing bunch grass. The exact variety to choose will depend on your climate, but there are several types to choose from that will only reach a few inches in height before they stop growing. Bunch grasses won’t look as seamless as turf grass, but it will look quite nice in its own way – particularly if you seed a few clovers and wildflowers along with the grass. Territorial Seed sells a ‘No Mow’ lawn mix of this type, and I’m sure other seed companies have similar products.

Get Livestock. I’m not talking about plopping a cow down in your backyard (although I suppose you could, if you have enough room). Geese are excellent grazers and will thrive on a diet of grass, all while keeping your lawn trimmed and fertilized. How many you’ll need depends on the size of your lawn and how fast your grass grows, but get at least two – geese are social animals. If you desire, you can choose to keep both genders on hand and enjoy the occasional roast goose. If not, just get a gaggle of girls and then you won’t have a population explosion on your hands. Ducks (especially Muscovies) and chickens will eat grass too, although not as enthusiastically as geese. Muscovy ducks have the added benefit of being almost silent, which means fewer complaints from the neighbors.

Growing turf on your property is not necessarily a bad thing. Turf helps to catch runoff after heavy storms, and prevents erosion. It can also act as a filter of sorts for contaminated water. But you don’t necessarily need a whole huge lawn for that – often a small but strategically placed strip of grass is enough. The rest of your yard can fulfill other purposes while sparing you the hours you spend shoving a heavy mower around.

Plant Profile: Zucchini

Zucchini is one of the most prolific garden vegetables. It’s a common joke among gardeners that if you plant one zucchini seed, you’ll end up with enough squash to feed your entire neighborhood. The good news is that if you harvest the squash while they’re quite small, they’re much tastier and more tender… and you won’t have such an overwhelming quantity to cope with. It’s definitely a good idea to keep an eye on the plants and harvest regularly, because once the squash are monster-sized, they’re only good for chicken feed.

There’s a bit of naming confusion because zucchini is actually one type of “summer squash” – the official term for squash plants that are harvested when the fruit is immature, as opposed to “winter squash” such as pumpkins. However, many people refer to all green summer squash as zucchini. Summer squash of all shapes and colors can be used interchangably in recipes, so I suppose it doesn’t really matter.

All squash, summer and winter, thrive in warm weather. They won’t germinate at all if the soil is cold, so hold off on planting until soil temperatures are holding at 60 degrees or above. Summer squash are much easier to grow in short-season gardens than winter squash, as they need far less time – and heat – to reach harvestable size. Most squash require lots of room to do their thing, but there are a few specialized varieties for tiny gardens or even container growing.

Zucchini plant

This is a ‘Patio Star’ variety, developed specifically for container growing. It stays compact but grows tons of full-sized zucchini.

Cold, damp weather is fatal for zucchini plants. Not only do the plants themselves suffer, but these conditions encourage molds and mildews that love to take over your plants. If your weather turns nasty soon after planting zucchini, wait until it clears up and then plant some more ‘insurance seeds’ in case your first planting succumbs. You can also use cold frames or hot caps to help nurse the young plants along until the weather turns summery.

Once the zucchini starts pouring into the kitchen, you may find yourself wondering what to do with all those squash. I like zucchini sliced into rounds and sauteed in a nonstick frying pan; if you start with young, tasty fruit, the flavor is remarkably buttery and nice. Slightly more mature zucchini will need a little TLC to do their best. Peel larger zucchini and grate them down to the seedy core (toss the core out) and then wrap the grated zucchini in a towel and let it sit in a colander to drain for 10 minutes. Squeeze out any remaining water, form the grated squash into a patty, and fry with a little nonstick spray. This process gets rid of most of the water inside the fruit; said water is what makes mature zucchini seem tasteless. Zucchini rounds are also excellent breaded and baked in a hot oven.

The flowers of any squash plant are edible, and can be breaded and deep-fryed. Mature flowers can be stuffed first with a variety of fillings (try ground beef in a tomato sauce, yum). Most squash plants have both male and female flowers. The males contribute the pollen, while the females turn into zucchini fruit. If you take only the male flowers to eat, you won’t lose any future zucchini.

Working With Your Garden’s Soil

In the last post I spelled out how to determine what type of soil you have in your garden: sandy, clayey, or in between. Now I’ll go over how to use that information while you’re gardening.

If you have sandy soil, which is defined as a soil that’s less than 10% silt or clay, your garden will tend to be droughty. That’s because sandy soils don’t hang onto water; it passes right through to the subsoil, beyond the reach of your plants. Sandy gardens do best with frequent, light waterings – extremely sandy soil may need watering several times a day during hot weather. This condition can be improved by adding compost or other organic material to your soil. The compost will hang onto water like a sponge and disperse it gradually for your plants to use. A sandy soil with a deep clay subsoil will do much better in this regard because the clay will catch all the moisture that passes through the subsoil and release it back to the surface later.

If you have clayey soil (meaning that it contains more than 35% clay) you’ll need to do the opposite with regards to watering – clay does best with infrequent but heavy waterings. Drip or soaker irrigation works well because clay is slow to absorb moisture, so trickling the water in slowly will keep your garden from turning into a mud hole. The biggest problem with clay is that it tends to compact to the point that it deprives your plant’s roots of oxygen. Again, adding compost will help because it opens up tiny pockets in the soil where the roots can breathe.

Clay is usually the most difficult gardening soil for several reasons. It’s much heavier than sandy soils, so activities like digging beds will be much more tiring. If you work clay soil while it’s wet, you’ll end up forming rock-hard clods that can take months to break up. And the chemical composition of clay soils cause them to suck up plant nutrients, depriving your garden of those nutrients – so you’ll need to work in far more fertilizer than you’d expect. Just how difficult your soil will be depends on how clayey it is. If your topsoil is more than 50% clay, you’ll have a real struggle on your hands.

Sandy soils are much easier to work, aside from the drought issue. The main problem you’ll encounter while working sandy soil is that those coarse granules will tend to wear down shovels and hoes fast – every time you drive the shovel blade into the ground, you’re essentially rubbing it with sandpaper. Be prepared to replace digging tools more often with a sandy soil.

In many parts of the USA, you’ll find a layer of dense, almost pure clay under the topsoil. This type of subsoil is called “gumbo” and it’s basically inpenetrable for your plants’ roots. So if your topsoil layer is only a few inches thick, many of your plants are going to suffer unless you space them quite far apart so that their roots can spread horizontally. Some deep-rooting plants, like celery, are fairly impossible to grow in such conditions – and root vegetables are going to be a real struggle.

If you have such conditions in your garden, your best bet is to import some decent topsoil and lay it down on your garden area – essentially turning your current soil into the subsoil. In most areas it will cost several thousand dollars to cover a large garden with a foot or two of good topsoil. If you don’t have that kind of money lying around, buy topsoil in smaller quantities and use it to build a new row or two each year. You can put your root veggies in the new soil and do the best you can with the rest of your garden until you’ve managed to get ahold of enough topsoil for all of your plants. In the meantime, adding as much compost as you can manage to your existing soil will make working it a lot easier.