In Search Of The Perfect Tomato

…And The Search Still On

Plant and seed catalogs start to pile up at this time of year.  It’s always fun to leaf through them as there’s not much I can do in the garden and they give me ideas for next season.  Now is the time to look for new plants, plan new arrangements for the garden, and order new seeds to experiment with.  The growing season starts in less than two months.  March is when I start my chili pepper and tomato seedlings.  It doesn’t matter how cold or how high the snow is outside.   If I don’t start seedlings for these two vegetables early, there will not be enough time for them to produce mature fruit.  The growing season in the Northeastern part of the US is very short I have to start early in the house.

We love tomatoes, especially home grown tomatoes.  We did really well with our tomatoes last year.  Not just what we grew in our garden, the seedlings we had given to friends and colleagues did well too.  I think the weather really helped.  I experiment with new types of tomatoes every year and continue to grow only the ones we like best.  Our favorites are Brandywine, Mortgage lifter, Cherokee purple and Rose for large tomatoes.

Holy basil, Thai basil, Rose tomatoes, Mortgage lifter, Brandywine, Cherokee purple, Chocolate tomato, Nova, Indigo cherry, Tomatoberry and some self-sown tomatoes
Holy basil, Thai basil, Rose tomatoes, Mortgage lifter, Brandywine, Cherokee purple, Chocolate tomato, Nova, Indigo cherry, Tomatoberry and some self-sown tomatoes
These Brandywine tomatoes were over a pound each and very tasty too
These Brandywine tomatoes were over a pound each and very tasty too
Mortgage lifter is another large tomato we have been growing. This one is also over a pound
Mortgage lifter is another large tomato we have been growing. This one is also over a pound
Cherokee Purple has very thin skin and easily split when there is too much rain but has an exceptional taste.
Cherokee Purple has very thin skin and easily split when there is too much rain but has an exceptional taste.

We love cherry tomatoes too but never had much luck finding one whose taste we really loved until last year.  We have been depending on the self-sown tomatoes for our cherry tomatoes.  They grew fast, strong and very sweet.  The seeds or plants I bought have been disappointments until last year.  I found Indigo cherry and Nova, which are very beautiful and tasty.  I will grow these two cherry tomatoes again this year but I am still looking for a new one to try.

Indigo Cherry drop bears plenty of beautiful fruits and is very sweet when it's very ripe
Indigo Cherry drop bears plenty of beautiful fruits and is very sweet when it’s very ripe
I bought one Chocolate tomato at the Union Square Farmers market in 2014 because of its color, but it tasted so good that I kept the seeds. The ripe fruit has a reddish brown color with green stripes that drew my attention initially.
I bought one Chocolate tomato at the Union Square Farmers market in 2014 because of its color, but it tasted so good that I kept the seeds. The ripe fruit has a reddish brown color with green stripes that drew my attention initially.

At this point we still debating between the Black Krim-Heirloom from Crimea or Burpee’s Steakhouse Hybrid.   But our favorites and the Chocolate will always have their place in our garden.

 

Cold Frame – Spring

Early Start

I finally had a chance to do something in the garden.  My spring itch has subsided a little bit once I had the chance to get my hands dirty.   The garden is still covered with a foot or so of snow that is slowly melting away.  We made a path to the bird feeder a few weeks ago and today I made an extension path to the vegetable garden.

I opened up the cold frame for the first time today.  It has been closed up for the last three months.  I had good intensions to grow and harvest vegetables in winter but I couldn’t get access to it.  With three feet of snow covering the vegetable garden and temperatures that dropped to below 0 degrees Fahrenheit and sometimes double digits below, I didn’t expect to see anything alive in there.  I also haven’t been able to water inside since I closed it up.

This is what our cold frame looked like in winter.  Snow covered up to half of the frame.
This is what our cold frame looked like in winter. Snow covered up to half of the frame.

The temperature was hovering around 40 degree and I managed to dig my way there so it’s a good day to check the inside.  As soon as I pulled the tape off and opened the plastic ‘door’, I could feel the heat rushing out.  To my surprise, there were some red lettuces, mustard greens ‘Dragon tongue’, Mizuna, Red Russian Kale, Swiss chard and some carrots that survived the ordeal.  Not in such a good shape though.  These are the ones that made it through winter as seedlings and now they are not much bigger.  There are also some new seedlings that sprouted up.  I have no idea what they are.  My best guess is either Broccoli Raab or Pak Choi.

The survivors: Mustard green 'Dragon tongue', Mizuna, Swiss chard 'Ruby red'.  A lot of their leaves have dried up
The survivors: Mustard green ‘Dragon tongue’, Mizuna, Swiss chard ‘Ruby red’. A lot of their leaves have dried up. Even without watering for the last three months, the soil in side is still moist.
As much as their leaves look very fragile, this red leaf lettuce pulled through.
As much as their leaves look very fragile, this red leaf lettuce pulled through.
I pulled one of this Mustard green 'Dragon tongue' and tasted it.  It was surprisingly sweeter than in summer.
I pulled one of this Mustard green ‘Dragon tongue’ and tasted it. It was surprisingly sweeter than in summer.

I took my time cleaning up inside the cold frame; pulling up the dead, clipping off dry and rotten leaves, and pulling up weeds and moss.  Then I put new seeds in.  The day time temperatures are still around 30 and 40 degrees fahrenheit and at night will drop down ten points or more most of the time.  However, the temperature inside the cold frame is much warmer because of the heat trapped inside.  So, this is a good time to put seeds in to get a head start for salad and transplanting later on.

I’m happy and satisfied getting my hands dirty.  In two to three weeks, we will have baby greens for salad.  The vegetables that survive the winter will also be big enough to harvest for soup and stir-fry.

After cleaning up, sowing new seeds and watering.
After cleaning up, sowing new seeds and watering.
Ready to close up again.  See you in a couple of weeks or when the weather allows.
Ready to close up again. See you in a couple of weeks or when the weather allows.

By the time we finish with the greens, the temperature outside should be warm enough to transplant Swiss chard and kale to their permanent spots.  The following are the seeds I put in, most of them do well in cooler temperatures.

  • Lettuce: Green Oakleaf, Danyelle (red leaf), Black Seeded Simpson
  • Swiss chard: Fordhook giant, Ruby red
  • Kale: Red Russian, Nero Di Toscana
  • Radish: French breakfast, Sparkler white tip, Red meat
  • Edible Chrysanthemum (Shungiku or Tang Oh): Round leaf, Serrated leaf
  • Chinese broccoli
  • Pac choi:  Green, Red choi
  • Komatsuna
  • Arugula ‘Astro’
  • Carrot ‘Short ‘n Sweet’
  • Mesclun (arugula, red Russian kale, endive, chervil, Raddichio, red romaine, and Bibb)

Vegetable Garden

Summer Vegetables

Our vegetable garden this year is very different from last year.  We had a lot of cherry tomatoes last year from seeds that sprouted up in compost I used.  There are not many of them this year as I’ve pulled the sprouts out early before my guilt set in.  I just can’t bring myself to demolish a perfectly good plant.  I didn’t expect the uneven weather we’ve had that caused a lot of the tomato flowers to drop and the fruits to grow very slowly.  Beans, Kale, Broccoli and Swiss Chard are doing well though.  I can’t pick them fast enough.

August is here and the temperature dropping close to 50°F for a few nights has not helped either.  What happened to summer?  I’m debating whether I should sow winter vegetables now or wait until mid-September as usual.

The Swiss Chard is doing fine this summer
The Swiss Chard is doing fine this summer
I have no idea how this Morning glory got here but I let it grow since the flowers are so beautiful. The Bitter melon doesn't seem to mind sharing space on the fence either.
I have no idea how this Morning glory got here but I let it grow since the flowers are so beautiful. The Bitter melon doesn’t seem to mind sharing space on the fence either.
Winged beans in the foreground are just starting to flower. The Italian and Asian long beans in the background have been producing a lot of beans this season.
Winged beans in the foreground are just starting to flower. The Italian and Asian long beans in the background have been producing a lot of beans this season.
The lush Red Asian Long beans and Italian beans are growing faster than I can harvest.
The lush Red Asian Long beans and Italian beans are growing faster than I can harvest.
Sad looking tomatoes.  I had to cut most of their leaves off when black spots started to grow after  raining continuously for a few days.
Sad looking tomatoes. I had to cut most of their leaves off when black spots started to grow after raining continuously for a few days.
Holy basil are doing fine amongst the Kale, Dill and Genoese basil.
Holy basil are doing fine amongst the Kale, Dill and Genoese basil.

Mix and Match

For a Better Effect and Benefit

It doesn’t matter how much space we have for our vegetable garden, it’s never enough.  We just expanded our fenced in vegetable garden from 16′ x 16′ to 16′ x 22′ this year but I’m still looking for space to put many more seedlings that have sprouted up.  I’ve already hand-crafted 3 trellises for the beans to climb on.  They extend over the garden walkway to save space.  The Bitter Melon (Momordica charantia) is allowed to climb on the fence since neither deer nor rabbits will eat them.  Strong scented herbs like Mint, Oregano, Thyme and Sage surround the fence outside to fend off the deer and rodents and draw in beneficial insects at the same time.  Since we don’t use pesticides we have to enlist nature and our winged friends to help out.

Still, the extra space just disappears so quickly.  The culprit?  Tomatoes…plenty of sprouted tomato seeds from our compost pile.  I have a soft heart when it comes to pulling healthy plants out of the ground only to throw them back in the compost pile.  I’ve put a few of them up for adoption.

I also added Calendula (Calendula officinalis), Nasturtium, Alyssum and Borage (Borago officinalis) inside the fence this year.  These flowers help draw in good insects and create a much livelier look for the vegetable garden.  If the vegetable yield is the same as last year but has more bad bugs than good ones, the flowers will stay outside the fence next year.  We already have birds patrolling and they have been working out pretty well.  This year, we are experimenting with having good insects patrol.  We’ll see how that works out.

Trellis for Italian beans along the walkway
Calendula mixed in with basil and tomatoes
Nasturtium, Squash, Scarlet Emperor bean, Borage and Strawberry squeeze in together.
Bitter melon entwines itself along the fence
Self-sown Cherry tomato, Swiss chard and Scallion
Trellis for Asian Long bean with Alyssum at the base

Salad

First Salad of the Season

That magic moment we wait for every spring has finally arrived, consuming the first salad of the season from our garden.  Don’t get me wrong, we eat salad all the time but no supermarket salad can equal five minutes of picking fresh greens from our backyard.

Garlic, pak choi and a lot of arugula.

Organically grown, without pesticide, crispy, crunchy greens give us great satisfaction.  We aren’t just satisfying our palate but our minds as well; a sense of accomplishment arises.  When you are able to walk out to your backyard or down to the basement (ginger & kaffir lime leaves) and pick your fresh produce, you can feel a lot closer to the earth.  The food seems to taste better.  You may think I romanticize this, but it’s true for most people.  You feel accomplished because you see the outcome of your work within a short period of time, the product of your labor you actually enjoy eating.  You also gain a sense of independence from mega-supermarket chains that otherwise dictate what you should or shouldn’t eat.

We cheated a bit on our first dish.  I added tomato and bell pepper in it since our tomato and peppers are still little seedlings.  It was a great lunch….a fulfilling one too.

Here is our Shrimp Salad

  • Fresh shrimp, cooked and peeled.
  • Fresh greens (lettuce, arugula, dill, radish..these are what we have now, but you can use any fresh greens you like). 
  • Tomato
  • Pepper
  • Fresh squeezed lime or lemon juice. (Squeeze it yourself, not from the bottle, it tastes better.)
  • Two mint leaves, finely chopped. Too much mint will fight with the dill.
  • A clove of garlic.
  • Chili pepper. (Just to add a spicy taste.  Skip this if you can’t take hot pepper)
  • Soy sauce
Voila; the end product

Clean all the vegetables, spin dry, toss.  Keep a couple of dill leaves for decoration. Crush garlic and chili pepper in a mortar then transfer the mix to a small bowl (big enough to accommodate the shrimp), add soy sauce and lime juice.  Adjust the ingredients to taste.  Add cooked shrimp to the sauce, mix them well.  Add chopped mint and toss.  

Put salad on the plate, top with the shrimp you just mixed.  Decorate with dill.  If you have any liquid left in the bowl, pour it over the salad.  Done!

Great with chilled chardonnay or beer.  Bon Appetite!

A Satisfying Day

Love Thy Neighbor

What did I do on my last day off?  I spent three quarters of my day creating a vegetable plot for my neighbor, Natalie.  I hadn’t planned to, I was actually trying to set up a platform for my bee hive when I saw my 79 year old neighbor in her driveway.  I walked across the lawn to say hi and chat a bit.  We talked the usual talk…her health, her family, my family and gardening.  When the subject came to gardening I could sense her disappointment.  The gentleman who worked her garden last year kept postponing his arrival and it had been over a month now.   She couldn’t do much bending herself to weed, let alone tilling .  I saw she had a lot of seedlings waiting, but couldn’t plant them all herself.  It would be more than her back could take.

Our garden is pretty much done at this point.  We have arugula, Pak choi, garlic, green onions, swiss chard, peas and a few more veggies growing while my friend Natalie’s remained a weed haven.  I’m just waiting for the weather to get warmer so I can put more heat loving vegetables in my plot and then bring the tropical plants up from our basement winter training camp.

I hated to see her disappointment so I offered to start her vegetable garden on the spot.  I started weeding, tilling, made a walkway down the middle laid out with hay for her convenience and put some chicken manure in the plot as fertilizer.  We both worked at this together and had fun.

What do I get out of this?  A lot of satisfaction just to see her look at it and smile.  Her vegetable plot is ready for her to plant in a couple of days when the chicken contribution dissolves in the soil.  Just to see that smile on her face and and the eagerness in her voice…of where she’ll put this or that vegetable, what she is going to do with the strawberries….and so on, makes it all worth it.

Most of all, just to see someone happy and to see the soil become fertile and productive again.

Finished plot in the back ground, more to do in the foreground