I have been so blessed this year … For the first time ever, I have canned enough diced tomatoes to keep me in chili and homemade salsa all winter long. I’ve never been able to grow a crop up here that could supply the pantry all year. After four years of trial and error and a little bit of improvement each year, the combination I’ve settled on that has worked well for me is
- a hybrid paste tomato (though my slicing tomatoes have done fine, too)
- brown plastic laid on the soil before planting.
- Regular watering
- Inter-planting garlic with the tomatoes (one clove between plants in the following pattern worked fine for me: g-t-t-g-t-t-g-t-t-g)
I’ve tried heirlooms, and I have a special, soft spot in my heart for heirlooms. But I haven’t yet found one that had all the qualities I need up here. So I picked a somewhat larger (4-5 oz) hybrid paste tomato. The brown plastic has been a crucial part of my success. These heat-loving plants just get hit every night that the temperature drops. It is certainly prone to do that this far north. They get stunted and it takes so long to recover that it’s difficult for the plants to set and ripen fruit early enough to avoid the early frosts we face. The brown plastic absorbs heat from the sun all day and keeps the soil nice and warm all night, radiating heat back up to keep the plants warmer. I’ve also planted my tomatoes along the south side of our metal pole barn, which radiates heat back to the plants during the day at least. But the brown plastic has been very important in this year’s success. We had our first hard freeze about two weeks ago. I was sure everything would freeze and die, in spite of being covered with sheets all night. But my heat-loving peppers and tomatoes, interestingly enough, survived. Their tops did freeze and die, but along the underneath of the plants where the heat from the ground under the brown plastic mulch was radiated back up to the undersides, they stayed alive. I am still harvesting from many of those plants. Even many of my Amish and Mennonite neighbors, whom I figured must surely know all the tricks of the trade, lost much of their gardens when the freeze hit.
Regular watering seems like a no-brainer, but we have *fought* with hoses and sprinklers and watering wands here at Aspendale Farm until I didn’t think it was even worth trying to water anymore. For my birthday this year, I asked for, and received (thanks, Honey!) a commercial nursery sprinkler on a stand. It was not expensive. In fact, it cost less by itself than I usually spend annually on worthless, junky sprinklers and watering wands from Wal-mart or the local hardware stores. Rrrrgh. I hooked it up to a double length of hose that reaches from the side of the house, and have been able to ensure a steady supply of moisture, so critical in our sandy soil.
Last, if you’ve followed my blog, you’ll know of my endless awe and appreciation for the wonders of garlic in the garden and orchard. I truly don’t understand why there is not some sort of loud hoopla in the organic gardening world about garlic. This stuff is just shy of being a miracle. I won’t wax eloquent about all of the times it has saved my fruits, vegetables, and seedlings from viruses, molds, mildews, and other funguses. But if you have a problem with any of your growing things and haven’t tried planting garlic in among the plants, or watering with a solution of water mixed with chopped garlic you simply must give it a try! Last year some of the tomatoes had blight, so this year I went ahead and interplanted the garlic.
When we were preparing for the freeze, my friend Laura Brewster of Barn Swallow Farm in Grand Rapids, Ohio reminded me of some tips her granny uses when the big freeze comes and it would, typically, mean the end of fresh garden produce. This was what she told me:
“You can … pick all your green tomatoes, wrap each in a sheet of newspaper and store them in a box in the basement. Keep an eye on them and pull them out as they start to ripen, or pull them out as you want to ripen them. My grandma always saves her last one to put on a salad at Thanksgiving. I had to look it up to be sure I wasn’t going crazy, because it seems doubtful even to me – and I’ve done it! …The hardest, greenest tomatoes will rot [so] choose the lighter green tomatoes. I haven’t done it in a few years, but I remember taking all of them, and I don’t remember any rotting.Grandma…said she doesn’t take the hardest, smallest ones. She also said you can just cut the whole plant and hang it up in the garage, harvesting tomatoes as the ripen!”
Now, I have tried picking green tomatoes that were just starting to change color in the past and ripening them on the counter. I’ve also picked the larger green tomatoes and wrapped them in paper, but they mostly rotted. So after hearing from Laura I did a little further research myself. It turns out that, like picking fruit for storage, you must make sure there is a little bit of stem attached to the tomato. If you pull the stem off, the little soft spot where the stem used to be will rot. Also, do not picked cracked or otherwise imperfect tomatoes (or imperfect fruit if you are applying this tip to your orchard fruits). So I tried her tips … I picked all the tomatoes on them with any color, and also the large green tomatoes. I’ve had a few start to rot – ones that were split or bruised or whose stem had come off. The others have ripened nicely and I’ve gotten more than a dozen more quarts of canned tomatoes out of those tomatoes. Granted, my counters were absolutely overflowing with tomatoes for nearly two weeks, but I’m not complaining!
I also, for kicks because it sounded interesting, pulled up one tomato plant by the roots and hung it upside down in the storm cellar stairwell. The tomatoes have continued to ripen on that plant because it is still warm in the stairwell. The trick to keeping green tomatoes from ripening too quickly, I believe, is to hang the plant upside down where it is quite cool. The colder the better as long as they aren’t actually freezing.
Now, since so many of my plants survived after we’d harvested as many tomatoes as we possibly could before the big freeze, the smaller green tomatoes on the plants have continued to grow and ripen. It’s going to get quite cold this weekend, possibly another deep freeze. So we will bring in yet another batch of tomatoes, perhaps pull up another plant or two, and see if we can get still another dozen quarts of canned tomatoes yet!
Last year (2010) I started our tomato plants waaaay too early and they were huge and sprawling by the time we got them planted. Danny harvested more tomatoes than he knew what to do with, though the season was cut short by an early frost (no surprise up here – we are blessed if we do not have an early frost). So we determined to start them at the proper time. I think I can get an extra couple weeks of harvesting if we go ahead and start them ten weeks early instead of eight weeks early. So we will try that this next spring.
Other than that, here are some fun things happening in the kitchen this week: We have made watermelon rind pickles out of the rinds of the first-ever successful watermelon grown here at Aspendale Farm. I grew my melons up a trellis with brown plastic. I’m still in awe that we ripened melons here in the northwoods! We are also about to pickle some banana peppers generously given to us by my father-in-law. He planted his own garden this year and it looks great! His tomatoes must be close to eight feet tall! I did not try to grow any banana peppers this year, but am looking forward to canning our own pickled banana peppers for topping homemade pizzas and sandwiches. Lastly, this is also the first year we have gotten a decent elderberry crop off our bushes. We will be harvesting all the elderberries tomorrow and making a batch of elderberry jelly! I’m super excited about that!
Four years ago we cleared our spot for the orchard and planted, over the course of the next eighteen months, the six apples, two pears, and the cherry tree that now grace our orchard. They range from the more common Bartlett and Red Bartlett pears, to Gala and Fuji apples, to more specialty and heirloom varieties like Honeycrisp and Fireside. I was chirked up all summer watching the first apples ripen on our Gala tree. It is the oldest and most mature. Frost withstanding, I expect to harvest more than six apples next year! Again, garlic to the rescue in an IPM home orchard! By planting garlic around the apple trees I have been able to withstand apple scab and other mildew and fungus diseases.
The following spring we began our first northwoods garden. And I have learned a little more each year, getting a little larger crop each year. Sometimes I have wanted to throw in the towel, certain I was miserably destined to have a black thumb. But I can happily say that insofar as I love to learn and explore new things and tweak until things are just right, I seem to be doing alright! God is good!