Nightshades: What To Do With Too Many Tomatoes

Revenge of the Killer Tomatoes

tying up tomatoes

In winter, I dream of tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. I go through my seed file, smiling fondly as I pull out last year’s successes and failures, new seeds from places we have visited, trades and gifts, deciding what to grow in the rising year. The fact is that I eventually can’t choose and I grow them all, and then I can’t bear to compost the hundreds of extra plants, so I take them to the farmer’s market, and then I still have bazillions, so I end up growing about half a football field of tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. It is kind of a nightshade nightmare. I must be crazy. Anyway. These are solanums; what people call nightshades, because they, -and potatoes, granadillas, groundcherries, henbane, etc., are in the same family as the mildly poisonous hedge growing plant nightshade. Some people think with a name like that they must be bad for your health. Well, imagine life without pizza, mashed potatoes, gazpacho, chili, eggplant parmigiana. Seriously. So now, if you are like me, you are drowning in tomatoes and something must be done, or you will be up to your eyeballs in rotten vegetables and your good work will be wasted.

Yes, We Can!

Canned tomatoes

Canned tomatoes

Seriously, canning is very easy. Today’s instructions make it sound very complex and dangerous. They just don’t want to be sued. Look at the older copies of Rodale’s Stocking Up. The newer versions are much more cautious. Just don’t eat anything out of a jar with a bad seal. Freezing is nice if you have the freezer space and you don’t mind risking a power outage. Dehydrating is fun, especially if you have a solar dehydrator, but I haven’t really been successful in producing really nice reconstituted vegetables. Dried tomatoes are like candy, but it’s really a sideline for me. Canning puts produce in glass jars which will be stable at a wide temperature range on your shelves for years, which makes them a favorite for preppers.


Glass jars about the size of mayonnaise jars: Mason, Kerr, or Ball jars mainly- but you can reuse any clean glass jar, any size, that the disposable lids and rings fit. I recycle just about every glass jar that has a lid I can trust for one thing or another, and I have always scavenged spaghetti sauce jars and mayonnaise jars for tomatoes. You can buy new canning jars at the dollar store, but people are always throwing them out. Let your friends and family know to save them for you.

A really big pot for submerging Mason jars in boiling water. (If you want to go whole hog and get a pressure canner, you can still use it to do the easy open water bath canning for things like tomatoes and applesauce.)

Canning lids and rings The button in the middle of the lid is how you check if your seal is good. The rubber gasket, usually red, built into the lid, should be smooth and soft.

Funnels, especially a wide mouthed canning funnel.

Jar grabber/lifter– Like a big set of bottle grabbing tongs-totally essential for lifting hot jars out of boiling water.Trust me.

Tongs and a magnetic lid lifter are nice too. You can get all this stuff cheaply in five and dime or hardware stores, online, etc.

Glass jars are reusable and non-reactive. I have some Mason jars that are older than me, so I just run my finger around the edge to make sure there are no chips, and reuse them. (The blue ones are collector’s items, but I think they make the tomatoes look sickly.)The metal sealing rings are reusable but rust easily, and lids are risky to reuse, because although the rubber seal might reseal, the plastic film on the inside of the lid is easily damaged and then the underlying metal will corrode into your food.  I have heard of reuseable lids, and then there are glass jars with wire bails, glass lids and reusable rubber gaskets. They are expensive so I just try to find them in thrift stores. The gaskets last years.


I put my jars in the dishwasher, but I also check very carefully that each jar is clean and has no chips or cracks. Set up enough lids and rings in a separate pot of water to boil and sterilize for 15 minutes when you are getting ready to fill jars.  Put the wide mouth funnel in the mouth of the jar you are filling – it will be an exact fit so the mouth of the jar stays clean. Fill the jar until you have a half inch of space left- this is for the air that will exhaust and create your vaccuum seal. Remove the funnel, dip a clean cloth or paper towel in the water of the lids and make sure the rim of the jar is food-free, as little microorganism threads will climb up on food and break the seal, like weeds in a sidewalk, if you don’t. Using your jar lifter or tongs, put a lid on the jar, add the ring, and finger tighten, repeat.

boiling lids for canning

boiling lids-this was from a jam jar but it was late and I had no pictures….

When you have about seven jars filled, if you have the canning pot I think you do, put them in the pot, fill to cover with at least a half an inch of water over the top of the jars, and allow to boil until bubbles have been exhausting from the jars for 25 minutes. Many canning books quibble about the time, but my garden mentor, Steve Moaney, told me to just submerge the jars in water  and count 25 minutes from when it boils.Then use the jar lifter/grabber to carefully place the jars on a mat to cool. Make sure you have a secure grip before lifting clear of the water. You could make a serious mess and get badly scalded if you hurry.

As they cool, you will hear the lids suck down with a clicking sound. Check the “button” in the center of the lid and make sure it is down. If it didn’t go down or pops up, throw the contents out, unless you just canned it and it hasn’t had time to spoil. In that case you can eat or refrigerate it.

When the jars are cool, remove the rings, wipe, label, and store someplace they won’t freeze. Dry the rings so they don’t rust and put them away for reuse.The lids will stay on from the vaccuum seal until you pry them off with the side of a butter knife this winter. Some people like to cap the lids with a square or pinking shears circle of cloth- old clothes are fine- and tie a string around the top to hold the cloth cap in place. This is cute and keeps dust off the lid, plus if your seal is bad and the contents spoil the cloth will stain and show it. Not necessary and a time consumer, but it looks nice at the county fair. You can get cute labels and alll that. I know what tomatoes look like and only label my jams, jellies, and pepper sauces using plain white adhesive labels.

Labor Saving

sphaghetti sauce from summer tomatoesI used to skin and seed my tomatoes, pile them neatly into sterilized jars, and cover them with strained tomato juice. Later I would open the jar, chop the tomatoes, and add them to fried onions, peppers, eggplants, etc.  Lots of work. Why not make my own convenience foods? Tomatoes are acid, like applesauce, another easy canner. So what if I just made huge pots of the mixture I would usually make? I start with fried onions, add herbs, garlic, salt, peppers, eggplants- what ever I have- even okra or zucchini, and then pile in chunks of tomatoes. Each tomato that ripens gets quickly cored, bad parts cut out, and tossed into the big iron pot. It sears and melts into red deliciousness. Eventually it gets too watery, so I ladle off juice into a seive over a funnel over a mason jar or a sealable bottle. That way, when I open the jars, if I decide to make lasagna or spaghetti, it is thick enough. The tomato juice can be drunk, thrown into rice, or used as a soup base. I don’t peel anything but the onions and garlic, and I only slice the zucchini, if I have it. I get through my work a lot faster, and we eat our own tomatoes all year.

Just the Recipe

2 onions chopped

6 cloves garlic

1 tsp sea salt

2 tbsp olive oil

2 green peppers

4 Asian eggplants (long skinny, don’t have to be peeled or drained)

2 medium zucchini

8 large tomatoes

small bunch basil

1/2 tsp italian herbs

Slice and brown onions until nicely caramelized, add salt, garlic, chopped, Italian herbs ( just something dried and aromatic- I have oregano) add chopped peppers, chunked Asian eggplants, cook until softened, add zukes, sliced, and tomatoes, chunked. Cook until liquefied, add chopped basil. This is a way oversimplified recipe. I just put things in in a logical order, and use up what I have, in a basic tomato sauce so it is acid enough to can. Add whatever, mushrooms, okra, etc., except meat. Meat has to be pressure canned, and that is a whole ‘nother deal. Make sure it is still mostly tomatoes, especially if you are using low-acid tomatoes, because the acidity, as in vinegar pickles, is what makes the open bath bath canning technique safe.

In winter, when you look at your rows of gleaming tomato sauces, you will be pleased. They are like a meal in a jar. You can throw them on pizza, spaghetti, rice, or make soup, and the blissful taste of the summer garden is still there.


Getting Ready for Spring

Plum tree in the snow

Plum tree in the snow

As I write it is wet and snowy out, but I can see the swelling of the buds on the plum trees. There is a lot to do, if you want to be ready for the warm weather. I am a little late in writing this for my area, but for those of you north of me, still timely.

Fruit trees

mostly done but I'm not happy about those two crowded branchesNot too late to prune. See my earlier article on that.

Spray dormant oil spray, which will smother emerging insects with a physical barrier rather than a poison. You will need a sprayer, and there are many kinds. If you have just a small garden you can get a small sprayer which holds a gallon or so, but I find a backpack sprayer frees your hands. You can get one for about $40-60, and 4 gallons is about all I can carry anyway. It has a hand pump on the side which you can work away at while scrambling around the trees. (Definitely prune before spraying.) The spray is sold concentrated, so designate a measuring tablespoon and hang it far from the kitchen. When using a sprayer be sure not to get any grass or dirt in it as this clogs the tip and then you have to stop and clear it. I use my sprayer a lot, primarily for applying a kaolin clay emulsion called Surround which I rave about- totally inert- you can eat it- but that can clog the sprayer occasionally.

With the oil spray- at our hardware store they sell Vollk- just mix in the oil, shake it a bit, pump your sprayer up to pressure, and wet each tree all over. If yo get a breeze- but try for a still day-, stand to windward. A fine spray gives better coverage to the smaller twigs. Do it now, as soon as you have pruned, and again after the buds open but before the blooms open. Then it will be time to stop freaking out about fungicides such as sulfur, copper, bacillus subtilis, and neem. In Maryland that is an issue. Here is the last article I wrote about sprays.

Veggiestomato seedlings (2)

Never mind the garden now- if you planted a fall and winter garden that will soon be giving you delicious greens and salads. You won’t be able to do more than scratch the dirt by hand for a while yet, but you can have seedlings ready to go when it warms up. I seeded onions, leeks, tomatoes and peppers indoors- see articles- in late January. February is still fine but we are going to Ecuador and I want them to be potted out and in the greenhouse before we go.

growing greens all winter in an unheated greenhouseSince I have an unheated greenhouse we eat greens all winter, but unless you get your lettuce to the eating stage by October, it will just sit there. However once the days lengthen my Egyptian onions, which are kind of perennial, and my broccoli start to take off, followed by the arugula and Chinese cabbages, which are planning to bolt shortly. Now the little lettuces which sat by all winter looking miserable are starting to grow, and I need to seed more. If I have too many I will tuck into the garden, since I noticed not too much of the lettuce I threw at the garden actually came up last fall. I will also seed some red cabbage

red cabbage

amazing color and symmetry of a red cabbage

since the ones I seeded in the falll are actually heading up in the greenhouse. Brassicas can take a certain amount of frost- it actually sweetens them. Things like that should go in the garden once they are about 6 inches tall and the soil is workable. Here that would normally be late March early April, when it is cool and wet but not bitter, so they actually do some growing and establish their rooots. Be careful seeding too early; in very cool wet weather your seed may rot.

Using mulches to ready the garden for spring planting

A good trellis makes the cucumber vines more productive and keeps your cukes off the ground.

Note carpet mulch

I am gone a lot so I have gotten very inventive at avoiding weeding. I lay strips of old carpet between rows, which kills and composts any plants beneath them. Come spring, I simply pull up the strips and lay them on top of whatever I need killed, using the bare strip beneath to plant in. All winter it has been frost heaving so it has somewhat uncompacted itself after being walked on all summer. Now I take a weeding hoe, (favorite tools article) which is a nice little four pronged cultivating rake, scratch up the soil enough to plant seeds, and I’m done. If you rototill wet soil, it turns it to concrete, crushing all soil structure. Likewise with bone dry soil. Hoeing wet soil is difficult and has a similar effect. My solution works pretty well. The carpet strips I have used seem pretty stable as they have not come apart after eight years. Newspaper decays well, and they do use soy inks nowadays so that isn’t a problem, but you must use 3 layers for it to be effective, and it is time consuming and likes to blow away if not very securely weighted down with dirt or pinned down with landscaping pins, which then are lost all over the garden. I mostly tuck it between tomato and pepper plants, between pieces of carpet. Cardboard takes a long time to decay and may have plastic tape on it, so it isn’t a good solution for this purpose. It is however a great way to smother weeds if you are going to build a raised bed on top of it.


nopales and verbena bonariensis

nopales and verbena bonariensis

Honestly, you really need to seed many wonderful fowers outdoors in the fall or early spring, when seeds would naturally fall. Definitely read the package for each seed you plant.Some actually need to get cold. Many seeds are very tiny and must be pressed into the surface only.  I like to fill those plastic salad boxes with soil, seed them, and put the lid back on, writing date and contents with a permanent marker. Later you can punch holes in the bottom and use the lid as a saucer. Check whether they need light to sprout, and what temperature they like. Tiny plants like impatiens and nicotania need constant moisture to sprout and then misting. Really easy ones are zinnias, morning glories, sunflowers, snapdragons, hollyhocks, nasturtiums, sweet peas- all those great cottage garden flowers. Cardinal vines and moonflower vines are easy but you should give them a little scarification (scratch up the seed coat with an emory board, or rub them on concrete with the flat of your finger) and soak overnight in hot water first. If you get them going 6-8 weeks before they go in the garden, you’ll have flowers sooner.


This is the most vicious black peppermint; mentha piperata var. nigra

This is the most vicious black peppermint; mentha piperata var. nigra

Many herbs are easiest grown from a rooted cutting, but if you want to start a lot, as in for a big bed of thyme, start you seeds now. I use my salad box flats for thyme, lavender, ashwaghanda, and basil. Thyme and basil don’t mild a chill; in fact basil sprouts better when it isn’t too cold, but lavender is not fond of cold, soggy soil, and ashwaghanda likes heat. I usually start fennel, parsley and dill directly in the garden, since I have it in the greenhouse all winter anyway.

Other stuff

artichoke plant

artichoke plant

I really love artichokes, and with care and good drainage we can grow them in Maryland. Although I have been told that artichoke seed should be put in a bag of potting soil in the fridge for 6 weeks, and they do germinate very well that way, I have also seen them germinate without all that fuss. They have a tap root, so if I could I’d direct seed, but I can’t, because they need a long season. I start them in pots and plant them in my best, sheltered spot with the best drainage and all the honor I can convey. They are gorgeous- architecturally so, like a giant white thistle with brilliant purple chokes, if you let them blossom. One we had up against the house made about 40 buds, which we enjoyed enormously. It came back the next year, but died after that. A lady I know grew one for three years. This year I have one under a peach basket with a carpet over it.  It has been a hard winter so I am holding my breath.

As for all the other warm weather stuff, like cucumbers, melons, okras, etc., wait on that. You are going to get a more natural root structure if you direct seed, so do that if you can.

Flowering quince in the snow

Flowering quince in the snow


Harvesting Garlic: That was Easy!

garlic plants

Garlic sits all winter growing slowly. Very trouble free

In September and October my nieces and nephews helped me plant the garlic cloves from the previous year’s harvest into the rows pictured, and in June/July, without having to buy one head of garlic all year, we are ready to harvest the crop. If I sound smug, I shouldn’t be.  Many’s the onion maggot we have dodged only by the grace of God. I can’t say enough how important it is to make sure you leave three years between allium plantings in the same spot. That’s about all you have to do. I hardly even weed them. So here we are.

You should check them when the tops start to go yellow. This is generally in late June, but watch it because it varies, and you don’t want to leave them too late. The bulbs will get loose and not store as well, and it will be harder to clean them up, which matters especially if you plan to sell or barter them.

garlic harvesting

from left to right, good harvest, late harvest, really late harvest, hardnecks.

Feel down to the bulb and see if it is large and well formed. Pull one up and use it uncured. It is delicious, and you will be able to judge if the bulb is still growing. Softnecks will have a flabby feeling in the neck.

Softneck garlic

Softneck garlic, nice and tight and easy to braid.

Here’s where you need your spading fork I mentioned in the article on tools. If you just yank on the garlic stem it’s liable to break, and you need the stem for hanging or braiding. Stick the tines about two inches back from the stem, step on the back of the fork and push down about three inches, rocking if you have to. Grab the stem with one hand and push back on the fork handle with the other. The bulb should come up easily if there is no rot. (If it comes apart when you dig it out of the ground you will probably smell the slightly sweet smell of rotting garlic. That’s another story.) Tap and shake the bulb gently to get rid of extra soil, lay it in the row and do the next one. A child can be very helpful in this wonderful and satisfying job. By the time you are done with the digging, the soil on the roots will likely shake off pretty well. I have heard people say to leave them in the garden to dry for a few days (and I’ve done it) but to me that is asking for trouble. You could get sunscald on them which will lead to rot. I spread mine to dry and cure for a few weeks in the shed. To be honest, until this year I always spread them on top of the car cover of my father’s 1955 Morgan, but he gave it to my sister, so now I have to set up a real rack. We made some tables out of two by fours and covered the tops with ratwire instead of wood. Ratwire is welded galvanized wire screen of the kind people put on the bottoms of their screen doors, squares about a half inch, to prevent animals from busting through mosquito screens. It is great for greenhouse benches.

Watch drying garlic carefully. In Maryland two weeks is the time it takes me to cure my garlic. If you leave it too long the tops can get too brittle to braid well (on the softnecks). When you are ready to make it into bunches or braids, clean off the extra leaves next to your compost pile. The outer ones will shatter and come off easily.  Then pile as much as you are working with in a basket and carry it somewhere comfortable to work. Leave what you aren’t going to do today on the rack. I once piled my whole crop in a pile and I am convinced it spread onion maggots. I could be wrong.

The Scourge; Onion Maggots:

If you do smell that sweetish funky rotting garlic smell, you have onion maggots. I had some mold on a few bulbs this spring but it didn’t smell the same at all. Identify as best you can which heads are infected by the softened cloves and the smell, and peel those cloves.  Actually this is pretty easy to do because the rot moistens the skins so they pop off very easily. Don’t get grossed out; you worked hard for this good garlic and you need to keep those little worms from taking it from you. Trim damaged cloves and use as soon as possible. Preserve undamaged peeled cloves in glass jars of olive oil in the refrigerator. Use them for cooking. The flavor changes over time in oil in a way that is fine cooked but is different from regular raw garlic. People do dehydrate and powder garlic, and that keeps forever and is useful for cooking, but I haven’t gotten into that.

Two Groups of Garlic

There are softneck and hardneck garlics. Softnecks have a soft neck like an onion, and hardnecks have a hard stem in the center of a radiating bunch of cloves.

The softnecks are fun to braid. As soon as your garlic leaves have dried but there is a little moisture left by the bulb so it won’t just break, it’s ready to braid. First rub off the dirtiest layers of outer skin on the garlic, and also the stem. You want it to look like Martha Stewart did it, -and it will! Get about 4 feet of jute twine and tie three big heads of garlic together with one end of it. Start braiding them, keeping the twine in the braid for strength, and add a head to each turn. I will put photos in when I do it. It’s like French braiding.  When you have done about two feet of heads, it will be getting heavy. To finish the braid, stop adding garlic, and braid the dried tops with the twine in it out to the end. Tie it off with the twine, bend it over into a loop handle, tie it off again, and make a twine loop as well. Now you have several options for hanging it. Go over the braid with scissors and neaten it up- trim the dried roots off. loose bits of skin, etc.

I have tried braiding hardnecks but it is awkward. Last year was the first year I grew them. They grew really well. I actually bought cheap garlic on sale at Wallyworld and planted a lot. Each tiny clove makes a nice big head of garlic. I cleaned off the outer, dirty skins, leaving plenty of tight, satiny white skin protecting the garlic, bound about 8 into a neat bunch with twine with a loop, and trimmed the stems to an identical length. I hung them and gave them to people. They looked nice, but not as nice as the braided softnecks.

garlic braidStorage: Mine are hanging all over the kitchen, but honestly, you should look for a cooler place to store them if you expect them to last until next summer. The dry heat of a house will dry them out over a year. Oddly enough the ones I hung on the back porch seemed unaffected by damp or freezing, and kept well. The ones on display sprouted and dried by spring. The elephant garlic kept better because of its size but was a tad spongy by the end. Possibly they would do well in a root cellar.

Garlic is a really good food which stores well and isn’t a lot of trouble to grow. Try it!

Got Raspberries?

Red Heritage Raspberries

Red Heritage Raspberries

I think God really hit the nail on the head when He made raspberries. How could anything be more delicious?  And they are really not hard to grow. Once you have them established it’s easy to develop a big patch and keep them forever and ever, amen.

Raspberries like the edge of the woods, so dappled sunshine is better than shade or blast heat.  I find that Purple Emperor, which has more rugose (wrinkly/ridgy ) leaves, seems more tolerant of full sun than Red Heritage, which seems to develop more yellowish leaves and less abundant fruit in those conditions.  Purple Emperor has huge purple berries that look incredible on a cake, and bears heavily in June, then no more. I like Red Heritage though, because it has a better flavor and, beyond the two flushes- summer and fall- seems to usually have a few berries on it, even in warm patches of winter. It is a kid magnet beyond compare.

Red Heritage Raspberries

My niece in the razzes

I worked up a rich, fairly well-drained bed for mine years ago and planted them not too deep, as they are subject to crown rot. I put down landscape fabric and mulched them with wood chips, again, not too deep around the canes. I pounded in heavy metal stakes at either end and strung wire at three levels, with turnbuckles to tighten them as the wire stretched. A turnbuckle is a small, inexpensive tightener which you can get at the hardware store. Loop the wire at each end and it will be easy to keep your wires taut. I use the wires to keep the raspberry canes in some kind of order and up off the grass, using quick twists.

In winter I prune the canes to 2-3 feet, weeding and removing dead canes. These canes will produce berries in June. in zone 7. As those canes peter out, new, taller canes will emerge and bloom. I am tying those up right now. After a while the first canes will turn yellow and you will be able to remove them. Notice that established bushes will produce offsets- baby plants that come up  short distance from the parent plant. You can dig these up and replant them. The best way to do this, as they are at first not well rooted, is to drive a shovel into the dirt between the parent and child plants without digging it up. This severs the runner and forces the new plant to develop a more independent root system before you dig it up. In any case, plant it in line with the other plants, approximately 2-3 feet from the next bush, and definitely keep it well watered until it is established. This takes longer than you think. You aren’t out of the woods until the fall rains come. But once established, your raspberry bushes will be there for good, barring a serious crown rot epidemic.

stem borere damage on a raspberry bush

stem borere damage on a raspberry bush

Stem borers are a nuisance, as they take out the growing tip, and Japanese beetles  eat the leaves.  I remove and burn parts of the stem with borers in them, and crush Japanese beetles with my fingers as I see them.

Pick raspberries that are darker pinkish red and pull easily off the cluster. The soft ones are still good but may have lots of little beetles in them. These can be easily blown or rinsed away if you like. If the berry is too squishy I usually toss them somewhere inhospitable. Keep bushes well picked as unpicked bushes encourage beetles and a rotten raspberry is a tragic waste.

I eat them fresh, in a bowl of milk, cream or yoghurt, with granola, scattered in a salad, crushed in a drink over ice, cooked into a jam or a sauce, or made into a syrup that can be canned and diluted into a drink. Today I poured some ginger ale my kids bought into a glass of raspberry flavored plum juice with ice cubes. Yummy.

raspberry jam

raspberry jam

Raspberry Jam, conventional

Prepare 6 jam jars and boil the lids in water for 15 minutes. Take 4 or 5 c. raspberries and crush them thoroughly with a potato masher. Measure the lovely slop. Boil without lid for 5 minutes. Measure and add an equal amount of sugar. Boil without lid 5 minutes or less if it sheets before that.  No need to skim, really. Just don’t let it boil over- big mess! I know it’s a lot of sugar but if you use less it won’t gel so well, and the raspberries are very tart, especially if you pick a few under ripe ones- not white but just a little lighter and firmer.

Don’t bother with seedless raspberry jelly unless you are dealing with a dietary condition like diverticulitis. The pectin is in the seeds, and the crunch is nice. I haven’t even tried making it. I’m guessing you would strain it after boiling 5 minutes, which would give you the pectin.

What is sheeting? My mother had a cookbook that showed a picture of sheeting. Joy of Cooking, I think. Here’s what to do. Stir the cooking jelly or jam with a wooden spoon that has a smooth shape. Scoop up a little and spin the spoon so that the liquid runs around on the spoon and cools a little but doesn’t spill. A few seconds. Then hold the spoon sideways with the edge down in front of you. Watch the drips coming down the face or back of the wooden spoon. Two drips will run down and drip into the pot, sometimes running together at the end. As the jam or jelly begins to jell, the quality of the drip will change, and eventually the two drips will run together in a sort of small sheet, rather than one running into the other. That’s it. Turn off the heat, fill the jars, leaving 1/2 inch headspace, and seal with the clean, boiled lids. Process in an open water bath for 15 minutes. Cool and label. Awesome.

A tarter jam: Now, you can also just sweeten your crushed, cooked raspberries to taste and can them. It won’t gel, but there is enough thickness that it is still useable on toast. It just sort of soaks into the bread more the less sugar you use.That is more to my husband’s taste, You can also make a syrup of raspberries and sieve out the seeds, and can that. Easy, if you know how to can. Or you can just put it in the refrigerator and eat it before mold sets in. Awesome.

What I don’t know about: I haven’t used honey because I love to eat all my honey, which has such a delicate flavor. Also sugar interferes less with the taste of the berries. I know sugar is death, but we use it so rarely, and we try to afford the raw sugar in bulk. I just want to put all my prejudices aside and show gratitude for the berries by making sure we have them all year! I haven’t tried yellow raspberries. They say they are less attractive to birds. I don’t have a bird problem so far knock on wood. My experience with pigment lacking fruits and vegetables is that they are sweeter because they lack a counterbalancing strong flavor. This isn’t all bad- white sweet potatoes are heavenly- sugar sweet and delicate, almost vanilla. White tomatoes are subacid and very sweet- highly attractive to bugs, I found. White peaches are very pretty and slightly more delicate tasting. I don’t remember if I’ve tasted a yellow raspberry, but I am suspicious that they would lack oomph. I’ll let you know when I do. But remember I am of Virginian descent, and you know how many Virginians it takes to change a lightbulb.

Saving Lettuce, Coriander and Arugula Seed

Rocky Top seed mix from baker's creek

Nice heirloom mix from Baker Creek

You can go buy some seed in a packet and go ahead and toss your spent plants in the compost pile, but if you have the room and the patience to let your plants mature, you can save your own seed. Will it come true- will the new plants be like the old ones? Depends if you used a hybrid seed, if there are other varieties it could cross pollinate with, and if it is likely that it did.

I have a speckled romaine that comes from romaine and some red lettuce I grew that crossed, probably Red Sails. I like it. My own quasi Forellenschuss. I have just cleaned seed from a Brune D’Hiver French heirloom lettuce plant that was all by itself in the greenhouse, so probably it didn’t cross. I plan to save seed from the cool Baker Creek Rocky Top mix and see what happens. Life is too short to just grow one lettuce a year so you can save pure seed. Luckily I only have one kind of arugula. It volunteers in my garden all year long, but it is fun and easy to save.

Let your plants bloom and go to seed. This is actually good for your garden because you attract beneficial insects. I also find that the dreaded Harlequin beetles

Harlequin beetles on Kale! the worst!

Harlequin beetles on Kale! the worst!

will stay on flowering brassica crops and leave leafy crops alone, if pressure is not that high, It’s also pretty. Endives are in the chicory family so they have pretty blue flowers. Once the seedheads are dry enough for the seed to “shatter;” fall into your hand when you crush the seed head, you’re ready. Get a big clean bucket and cut the tops of the plants into it. Sometimes I just pick the tiny dandelion looking heads of the lettuce into a little bowl. If you pull up the plants it is easy to get crumbs of soil in with your seeds. This is fixable but extra work. Set the bucket somewhere  to dry if there is any flexibility in the plant material.  When you are ready to clean the seed out, crush the seed heads so the seeds fall into the bucket. Discard the stems. At this point I generally transfer the seeds and chaff to a light mixing bowl.

Arugula seeds with chaff in a bowl

Arugula seeds with chaff in a bowl

Arugula and mustards drop a lot of seedcases. The seed settles so you can actually pick most of that off the top and compost it. You should do this outdoors. Put a wide bowl on top of a sheet in a place where there is  a light breeze. Holding the other bowl about 2 feet in the air, pour it into the bowl on he sheet. You will see that the chaff falls at a different angle from the seed, and even that different colored or sized seed falls differently. You will soon get the knack of winnowing- humans have been doing this for thousands of years- and won’t need a sheet any more. Look through your seed, blow on it to remove last bits of crud, check it for dirt and insects. Light seed will tend to blow away, leaving you with the best seed. Crush a seed with your fingernail to make sure it is dry enough to store. If you put moist seeds in plastic they will mold. Let is sit out in an open bowl until you are confident that it is dry enough to store. It’s less critical if you are using a paper envelope.  Put it in an envelope, label and date it, and put it in your seed file.

With lettuce I tend to sit with my morning coffee and pick off seed heads, then crumble them into a small bowl. The fluff comes off as you rub it between your fingers. You can then go outdoors to winnow out the fluff. I just pour it into my palm, pour it into the bowl, blow on it, and play with it until I have a few teaspoons of clean seed to put away; enough to seed several hundred lettuces. Some people knit.

The next seed I will be saving is cilantro. It makes a lot of seed, and guess what- that is coriander seed! You should never have to buy that from the store. It’s too easy! I use a lot of that for Indian cooking, like this fabulicious venison curry, inspired by lamb vindaloo but not,

venison curry

venison curry

and it is so good for you! This keeps me from being too sad when the cilantro bolts. Speaking of which, it is now cool enough for me to go back out and seed some more cilantro. Later.

OK. I forgot to take pictures. I cut off the dead cilantro plants, carried to the shed, and let them sit on a rack out of the rain for a few days. Then I put them on a sheet and crumbled the seed heads to make the little round seeds come off. This left me with a lot of broken up dead plant material which went right in the compost. It rolled into a bunch on the sheet and I picked it up together. What was left I poured off the sheet into the big mixing bowl. I took a smaller bowl- no particular reason, – and went outside to winnow. I crumbled the seeds against each other to break off little stems, and rubbed them to get tiny chunks of dirt to become dust which is easy to winnow out. I poured the chaffy seeds from one bowl to another, holding the bowls up in the slight breeze. The chaff poured off to the side while the heavier seeds poured straight into the bowl. Eventually I had to resort to blowing, swirling, etc., and the dust was clinging, I wonder how hard it would be to get them dry if you washed coriander seeds. I poured them into a couple of small jam jars and labeled them.

Great gardening tools: Rogue hoes and others

Rogue Hand Cultivator

My fave hand cultivator is a Rogue.

Good sharp tools that are the right weight make a gardener’s life much easier.  I would put them under the categories of hoes, rakes, shovels and trowels, forks, and clippers and loppers. Tools should be cared for so the handles will stay tight and not rot, and metal should be occasionally cleaned and sharpened.

My hoes are probably the most often in my hand. My husband bought some very high quality hoes from Rogue, which continue to be my favorites.( I see they are listed as Prohoe.)

Heavy Rogue hoe

If you need to power through some ground, use a heavy hoe.

I have a heavy field hoe which is strongly built and easy to sharpen, with enough weight that you are basically lifting and dropping it, using the weight to power through tough root clumps.

Medium weight Rogue hoe

I have to grind that chip out. I just hilled the leeks with this.

I have a long handled hoe with a small shallow blade which is great for hilling up soil and fine work around plants. But my all time favorite is the hand hoe, pictured at the top. This is the tool I would be lost without. It is sharpened on three sides so you can work like a surgeon amongst the plants. It has the perfect weight and balance so you just get the chopping rhythm going and move along effortlessly. It almost works by itself. I just cultivated a badly weedy 10 foot rhubarb bed and 60 feet of okra in less than an hour. There are many exotic hand hoes and cultivators but this is the one that I know makes my life easier.

Another great tool is the weeder wedge. Mine is a Rogue as well. It is sharpened on all sides so you cut on the push and the pull, and you just sort of mop the garden with it. It is a bit dangerous. An intern at Colchester Farms told me she kept sliding through plants so she eats the evidence. It doesn’t get things like Canada Thistle which come straight up from Hell so you’re just giving it a haircut, but it cuts through shallow roots and Morning Glories and creates a sort of shallow “dust mulch” which prevents other weeds from germinating until the next rain. It’s great for keeping ahead of weeds, but only if you stay on it. It’s less good with established weeds. I also have a stirrup hoe that works the same way but I like the wedge better. It is a finer shape for cutting where I want to cut with minimal effort.

Weeding Hoe

Weding Hoes actually are rakes

The weeding hoe is actually a small 4 tine rake. Now, this may be the wrong name, but this is what I was told it was called. It can be used to comb through hoed soil and remove weeds so they don’t reroot, it can be used to loosen weeds so they are easier to pull, it’s great for mellowing soil in preparation for seeding, and I love it for pulling out ground ivy. Mine belonged to my grandmother.

A spading fork is very useful for turning over new soil when amending by hand, and I like it for digging leeks, carrots, garlic and potatoes. Just step on the fork and lean back. Easy. Handles tend to rot because I leave them in the soil too often,and then when I lever back it cracks or the fork falls out. I need a better quality fork, or I need to take better care of my cheap forks.

Hand trowels have many purposes. I have one with a cutting edge for dandelion roots, but my favorite is my grandmother’s, which is large and has a heavy wooden handle. I use it mostly for transplanting. It is deep enough to get under the plant and get more of the root system. There are so many cheap ones for sale at big box hardware stores. If you use a cheap one enough to bend it, you’re ready to get a decent one.

garden clippers

Plain old Gilmour clippers from the hardware store

Clippers and loppers are indispensable to me. With the clippers, or secateurs as the British say, I can do quick trimming and minor surgery. I have some stem borers in the raspberries so I need to carry them with me tomorrow and cut below the wilt until I believe I got the critter. This is why smart people unlike myself have clipper holsters.



Loppers are great for anything too small to bother sawing and too big for the clippers. For me I feel it is important to get loppers with leveraging action. I am not a weakling but but I do a lot of lopping and I have less upper body strength than a man. Maintain your cutters with a lubricating oil- I have always liked 3 in 1 oil because I want to drip it in place rather than spray it. Notice that you can tighten them with the screws that hold them together. They do loosen, and then they don’t cut well. They can be sharpened, either professionally or by you but whatever you do only sharpen the OUTER edge of the blade or you will ruin the clippers by creating a permanent gap between the closed blades. I use my Dremel tool with a rotating sharpening stone. Makes life easier.

I should mention a hand cultivator with tines. I had one from my grandmother that finally came out of its handle. It did a great job going into tight spots and with the raking action you wouldn’t accidentally cut a plant. I loved it for getting ground ivy out of the flower beds because it both dug and raked, and it combed the ivy and grass out of the flowers without injuring their roots much. It had a nice springy action. Maybe I’ll fix it.

A shovel is such an important tool for everyday life. I used one a lot this spring digging big holes for new shrubs and fruit trees, and for digging up saplings that came up where I didn’t want them. Girls should understand that digging a hole is just a matter of shovelfuls. You can do much more than you have been told you can. I dug a hole 3 feet deep and five feet long when my dear old Labrador died. It was good to dig at that point.I understand that as a flower of the South I should have a man dig holes for me that so my little hands don’t get callused, but when the man is on the road or isn’t properly educated in these matters, I can drop that act and do it myself.

Take care of your tools. Don’t leave them lying in the garden. Hang them in in a dry place. In winter, give them a going over. Organize. Clean and sharpen blades. Make sure handles are in good condition; you can buy replacements at the hardware store for most decent tools. I have applied homemade beeswax/turpentine polish to my handles, but something ate it- you can see the grooves-, but perhaps maintenance with linseed/turpentine oil might work. I admit I don’t oil my handles; maybe I should. Tools that are taken care of last forever, and can be passed on. They develop a sort of well-loved feeling in the handle. I like to think  my grandmother and our friend Steve Moaney would be tickled to see me using their tools today.

By the sweat of thy brow pt 2- and Tomatoes!

When I lived in the city I had a neighbor who did a lot of stoop sitting. One hot day as I was passing by he commented,”I can take the heat. It’s the damn humility I can’t stand.”

Well, I guess I’ll work indoors for a while until the steam bath that passes for a sunny day in June around here passes off a bit.

Bolting spinach

Bolting spinach

I have the honor to be acquainted with beet seed warrior John Navazio, (that’s actually a link to an organic seed event his band performed at, for yuks) and he gave me some spinach seed; beta seed as it were. It is delicious, even bolted, and I will probably save seed and grow it again. Spinach is a real cold weather crop. You want to get it in early. I planted mine in early March and it was too late for the good crop we could have had.  I would say as soon as the soil can be worked by hand. Just scratch it up and plant. Some spinaches are best for spring and some are for fall. Here it would be good to get them seeded in July, but generally July is hot and dry and the garden is full of insects thirsting for baby spinach. Spinach is not super transplant friendly, but I could try starting them in the house. Probably better either to just plant when it gets a little cooler in September and shrug your shoulders or maybe try shade cloth over hoops. Tyee and Malabar are good spinach substitutes for summer. Chard holds up better than anything though.

Rocky Top seed mix from baker's creek

Nice heirloom mix from Baker Creek

I have really enjoyed the Rocky Top lettuce blend from Baker Creek. I actually planted it last winter, and it made small rosettes and waited for spring. The varieties included are not only delicious and pretty but they are intellectually stimulating- Amish Deer Tongue, Merveille des Quatres Saisons, Lolla Rossa….Lettuce, like spinach, does well in cold weather. The more headed it is the more it likes cold. The most heat tolerant I know is the open leaf lettuce Oak Leaf.  Long after Bibb and Romaine have gone to seed the Oak Leaf is still standing. It is not as sweet, of course, but by then you can mix it with sweet tomatoes.

OK, tomatoes. I know they say broccoli is the garden devi, but tomato is the love apple deva. I put a lot of time and thought into them. I plant all the solanaceae together, alternating rows of tomatoes with rows of peppers, eggplants, tomatillos and tamates. I space the tomatoes 3 feet apart, and more for giants like Brandywine. Peppers I space according to size. Anchos, pasillas, and Anaheims get 3 feet. Chiltepins and other teensies get a foot. One of the painful tasks I had to ask my DH to interrupt his train of thought for was pounding in the stakes, because it takes me so long with my lesser upper body strength.

pounding in tomato stakes easily

This gizmo let me pound in all my stakes in an hour.

Until the pounding gizmo came along. I really don’t know what it is called but it is genius. I did the whole solanum area by myself in no time. Anybody know what the name is? I put my longest, heaviest stakes at each end- recycled metal fence posts, stakes bought over the years, and the next strongest at the midpoints. The least sturdy go in between those. I walk through the garden and determine what goes where, put the stakes where I will be working, and stand on a folding chair for the taller ones. The flanges for the outermost ones should be perpendicular to the row, because of the weight of the tomatoes pulling them inwards. The inner ones should be in line with the row, because they tend to sag over.

Tomato stakes

Line them up exactly with the tomato stems.

Make sure you line the stakes up with the tomato stems. Next tie them up. This is easiest if you have been removing lower leaves and suckers from the tomatoes, and if the tomatoes haven’t gotten big and rolled over. I didn’t mention that? I’ve been busy. I like to remove lower leaves because those will catch the soil born diseases first, and suckers because I don’t want too thick a tangle of stems. You want to have good air flow and you want to see your fruit as it ripens. Anyway, I like to tie them with jute twine because it is cheap and in the fall you can just burn it all. You can get a big roll of jute twine at the hardware store for about $13. It comes in a paper sheath which helps it to stay together. This is good towards the end of the  roll, when it starts getting tanglesome. Tie one end to the end stake about a foot off the ground- it will stretch in the rain- and run it along the row, tucking it under the plants as you go. At each stake you see loop the twine, being careful to keep it taut. Go down to the end, come around the other side, and come back, tying the cut end of the twine to the same stake. Your plants are trapped between two pieces of twine and can’t lie down in the mud.

tying up tomatoes

If you do it early when the plants are small you can train them better.

Go along and pull and tuck everything into place. Be gentle- damage can allow the entrance of disease. You will need to add another layer soon. Eventually the whole thing will look like a tomato hedge. Don’t be afraid to prune, but do so on a dry day, and only one plant at a time, or you could spread disease with your cutting tool.

For now I am skimming up and down the rows with a weeder wedge. This handy tool slides along just below the surface and lops off weeds. It also skims under grass roots. So while it doesn’t kill everything, the easy action is like mopping the floor, and as long as you are careful not to hit your plants, it’s a big help. This really works best when the ground is not wet. It is really best to stay out of the garden when it is wet, because you compact the soil. Also if you work with the tomatoes when they are wet you can spread spores.

Once everything is planted and I have a moment to breathe, my husband and I will lay strips of old carpet down the rows. This smothers weeds, keeps down soil splash, and even retains moisture. Good carpet will last a long time. I have some that’s been out here 7 years. It’s a great use for stained carpet. Get a cheap serrated bread knife and saw the carpet into strips. It is easy. The strips should be as long as possible and as wide as your rows, which is generally 2 1/2-3 feet if you have a lot of space, but at least wide enough to sit down and do some hand weeding. You can also lay these strips over something you want to compost by dragging it sideways, and voila, you have some clean bare ground where the carpet was. Of course it might be a bit compacted from being a walkway, but you can easily work it up.

That’s all for today!

By the sweat of thy brow

Michihli (Napa)Asian heading cabbage

Michihli (Napa) Asian heading cabbage

I love working in the garden- I think I just love work in general. Not so much paperwork and organizing, but real work; swinging a maul, cutting wood, hoeing weeds. I used to work in the garden at high noon when my children were small, because that’s when they were down for their naps. On the Eastern Shore of Maryland, which absolutely counts as the South, no lady stays in her garden after 9. Mad dogs and Englishmen.

One of the main reasons I got started on this blog was because of a friend’s excitement over digging sweet potatoes in my garden. She was raised in an affluent New Jersey town by parents who were one generation from the Georgia clay, and considered it good riddance, but she remembered the wonderful things her grandparents did, and felt robbed of an important heritage. I think so many people are, and more and more they know it and are doing something about it. But the ignorance is incredible. I met a girl who was at our farm a few weeks ago who looked at the shining bok choy heads in my arms and asked wonderingly “Did you grow that in the dirt?” She was a very nice person; she just hadn’t ever seen a vegetable outside of the context of buying it, and dirt was something to clean. I understood- I lived in a city for 12 years. The dirt there is

seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;.

And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil.

Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.”

Gerard Manley Hopkins, God’s Grandeur.

As Joel Salatin would say, folks, it ain’t normal.

So here’s what we’re up to. Because of the cool spring, our cold season crops- lettuce, spinach, radishes, endives- lasted longer than usual. As a matter of fact I actually have beautiful cabbages which were planted later than they should have been in our area.

Napa and Red cabbages

Notice the handy carpet strip? Keeps down weeds as well.

The Michihli (Napa)B.rapa are almost ready to turn into kimchee and stir fries, but I am not sure that the red cabbage or cauliflower will make it. In the dry heat they become really attractive to harlequin beetles, and I’m not sure what to do about that except cuss, pick them off and squash them, and try to seduce them with other sacrificial brassicas, like the bok choy that is flowering.

Harlequin beetles on Kale! the worst!

Harlequin beetles on Kale! the worst!

They are not affected by Neem or Safer’s Insecticidal Soap. As far as I can tell they are down there happily brushing their nasty little teeth and scrubbing their gaudy carapaces with those products. I had a friend who always took her cordless Dustbuster to the garden to suck up squash bugs. But since the dry heat, which concentrates the sugars in plant sap and makes it even more delicious, is conspicuously absent this year, the beetles have been controllable by hand. So far.

onions and leeks

the leeks are on the left by the beans

I have high hopes for the onions this year. Not only did I educate myself about the different between short-day and long-day onions so I could stop trying to grow onions that don’t do well in my zone, but the constant moisture that onions love has been provided by God. Onions are pretty high maintenance that way. They absolutely will not get big if you are hit or miss with the watering, which I have to say I am. They need careful weeding because they can not tolerate competition. You have to be very strict about crop rotation because onion maggots can reduce your pretty bulbs to a stinking mess, and they have multiple generations in a growing season. Never plant onions where there have been any alliums in the last three years. Onion maggots are very legalistic about this. Two years won’t do. I have my garden mentally divided into 6 sections, and I can remember where they were. Since I grow garlic as well, but in the fall, it’s tricky. I have leeks growing next to the onions. I used onion starts this year, because I was late seeding the ones I grew last year that did well- the lovely white cipollini Bianca di  Maggio, and the all purpose old French Jaune des Vertus.  I recommend the bundled green onions starts over the bulblets because the bulbs sometimes believe it’s time to go to seed. I planted Walla Walla because some onions growers in our area said they were the correct day length. They seem good so far. I also got some red onion starts from a farmer at our farmer’s market who is growing in Bivalve. He advised me that my starts would grow better next time I sprout onions from seed if I trim them back with scissors. Since each new leaf adds to the size of the bulb, that makes sense, since cutting would stimulate leaf production. Unfortunately that leaves me without a good storage onion. The big sweet onions don’t keep well and I forgot the names of the ones the guy from Bivalve had. Stuttgart and Ebenezer are great keepers, but usually don’t get bigger than an egg for me- doubtless my watering neglect again.

planting leeks

They seem threadlike, but they will grow.

push small leek root end into soil leek seedlingLeeks are a wonderful crop in Maryland, because the winters are just right. Cold enough that they sweeten, but mild enough that they are undamaged. They are labor intensive when they are small. I start them in January- February in flats, in the house, so they will germinate, and then set them in the cold greenhouse, where they slowly develop. By the time I am ready to plant them they are still tiny, but they have a tough root system. I plant them in a trench, lay them along the wall of it, and then push soil down around their roots so they stand up. As they grow, I hill them up. This helps them to grow straight, fat, white shanks, and keeps their roots more constantly damp. In winter they stand in a military row, glaucous blue, and I leave a spading fork right there to dig them up for delicious leek and potato soup, braised leeks, yum. I cut the root system and the long leafy tops right into the compost bin, unless I’m making vegetable stock. In spring any uneaten leeks send up giant mauve pom poms that bees adore, a rival to any drumstick Allium in a flower catalog. From this I save seeds. The circle completes!

Garlic will be ready soon. I have been enjoying garlic scapes, the flower top which loops out of the top of the garlic plant in May. You snap them off and steam, boil, or grill them, and they become sweet and surprisingly starchy in texture. I made a garlic scape and potato soup that was as nice a hot vichyssoise as I’ve had, and a bowl of boiled scapes with butter is a fine treat for hungry gardeners. You have to snap them off anyway so they won’t waste energy on seeds. A handful of them tied with twine is cool looking, because they all loop the same way.

sugar snap peas

Sugar snaps coming on

Sugar snaps and snow peas are about done- past their glory anyway. The picture is from a few weeks back- ephemeral delight!  I tried a nice tall French heirloom, Carouby de Maussane, from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, bless them. It has bi-colored flowers prettier than some sweet peas I have, and the pods are 5 inches long. You really do have to string them though, both sides; pull the strings off that have been bred out of many modern peas, along with the flavor. I planted them in March. We say plant peas and potatoes on St. Patrick’s Day, the 17th. Easy to remember, with some wiggle room for the moon and the weather. The 3 1/2 foot tall pea fence is fine for most sugar snaps and English peas but snow peas need about 4 feet of support and maybe a bit wider spacing. Vegetable candy!

bamboo trellis for cucumbers

bamboo trellis for cucumbers

Next to them I built a bamboo trellis for my pickling cucumbers, about the same height. I didn’t see the need to grow slicers because picklers are like Kirby cukes anyway; smaller, sweeter, and all purpose. That way I can save seed as well if they do well. The jury is still out on how high to go with cukes- Some people let them rambler on the ground, others hang them high. I have a lot of bamboo which is easy to tie together with twine, and I like the way it looks. I do make a lot of kosher dills though, so if another way works better, I’m interested.

In this picture you can also see that we have a ton of kale, which I transplanted out of the greenhouse salad bed at the end of March. The seeds were saved, a bit mixed, yet the Russian Red Kale, or Ragged Jack and Scotch Vates curly type seem to have retained their separate characteristics. The Vates hasn’t gone to seed yet, whereas some of the Russian has, and is a magnet for harlequin beetles, so I go straight to them to pick them off, while the Vates is staying relatively unblemished. I direct seeded some Lacinato kale- what we call dinosaur kale because of its weird frosted dark blue pebbly leaves, and it is now doing well. My friend in Ecuador has some plants that have not gone to seed in  years. I saw them myself, still producing. Perhaps the unchanging day length confuses them.

This is getting a bit long and work calls so, to be continued