Tomato Tomahto

Many people who don’t do a full blown vegetable garden still plant one vegetable that is best home grown.

Tomatoes.

Garden Bounty

I have found that tomatoes are easy to grow and the reward is fantastic.  Ask anybody who has grown tomatoes and they will tell you that what you buy at grocery store pales dramatically in comparison to what you get out of the garden.  The taste of home grown tomatoes has no equal.

This year I have a total of 8 tomato plants.  Two ‘Brandywine’, two ‘Early Girl’, two ‘SuperSweet 100’ cherry tomatoes, one ‘Arkansas Traveler’ and one ‘Mr. Stripey’.  So far the yield I have gotten from the ‘Brandywine’ and ‘Early Girl’ has far exceeded my expectations.  The plants are so heavy with fruit that picking can be a challenge when the fruit are jammed together in their supports.  In fact, one of my ‘Early Girl’ plants is threatening to bring down the stake and spiral cage that supports it.  I am using the Veggie Cage spiral tomatoe cages.  You just connect them to a stake (I have six foot stakes in the ground) and gently guide the tomato plants through the center of them.  As the plants grow, you guide the shoots through the sides to give them support.  Not only do they work exactly as advertised, with no tying of the plants, but they are attractive as well.  Four of my plants are in my Square Foot Garden.  My ‘SuperSweet 100’ cherry tomatoes are doing very well trellesed up with a nylon trellis, and I haven’t had to tie them or their neighbors up as well.  As the plants grow I gently weave them in and out of the trellis and they seem to be appropriately supported.

In the past, I had planted fairly standard varieties of tomatoes, usually ‘Big Boy’ or ‘Better Boy’ and that was the extent of my tomato experience.  This year I chose ‘Brandywine’ because all over the internet, I have read that they are possibly the best tasting tomatoes.  They certainly don’t disappoint.  Not only are they meaty with a rich flavor, but they can grow to fairly enormous size.  I have had two tomatoes that have weighed over a pound, and 4-5 more that hover around 14 ounces.

August16Harvest

The ‘Early Girl’ variety was a result of me possibly channeling the spirt of my grandfather.  Apparently he used to grow tomatoes all the time and the variety he planted most often were ‘Early Girl’.  These look much more like supermarket tomatoes.  They are almost perfectly round and red, not irregular and pinkish like the ‘Brandywine’.  They are not as meaty, but still have a good tomato flavor, just not quite as sweet.

Early Girl

My ‘SuperSweet 100’ are my husband’s favorite.  He has always loved cherry tomatoes, but we were shocked at how sweet these are.  They are truly like garden candy.

I have to say that the yield on ‘Arkansas Traveler’ and ‘Mr. Stripey’ is downright disappointing.  I suspect it has something to do with being in my Square Foot Garden (when the ‘Brandywine’ and ‘Early Girl’ are in the potager).  It could also be that I did some direct composting early in the season around the plants in the potager, but not in my SFG.  Next year, I will definitely put all of my tomato plants in the potager and probably direct compost early in the spring again.  I think I might plant one or two more ‘Brandywine’ and try a few other varieties as well.  I’d like a Roma tomato, maybe a yellow grape tomato, and something more exotic, like a ‘Black Krim’.  It all depends on what I can get at the nursery.  I’m not sure if I’ll start seeds again next year.  While I enjoyed raising my “babies”, I am horribly impatient and hate the hardening off process.  While that seemed to go well this year, most of my starts didn’t make it.  I may have started seeds to early.  We’ll see how the winter goes.  If it’s another tough one, I’ll probably start seeds again, just so I can have something green to look at when it’s still cold outside.

Bumper Crop

About a week ago, I caught my youngest daughter picking raspberries and popping them in her mouth.  She was enjoying them and we only had a few ripe at the time.  This morning I looked out the kitchen window and saw a bunch of red dotting my raspberry bushes.  I grabbed a container and headed out to pick.  On the way, I was distracted by the peas and realized I hadn’t harvested any in a few days.
Peas

After picking a small container full I reversed course and went back into the house to grab another container for the berries.  When I approached my raspberry patch I was amazed at what I saw.  More ripe berries than I had ever seen in the 3 1/2 years we have lived in this house.  I started picking, swatting at the japanese beetles that would occasionally buzz my head trying to protect their turf (they haven’t actually been bad this year, might be because I killed HUNDREDS of grubs when setting up my kitchen garden – a thought that still causes me to retch when thinking about it).  Soon I fill my container and head in to give them to my husband to rinse (there were a lot of fat happy bugs all over and around the berry bushes).  I dump the berries in the colander and head back out.  Soon my container is full again and my husband and I are totally amazed at how many we managed to get in one harvest.  I really should have weighed them, but I was already drooling over the plump red fruits.  My guesstimate is that I picked about 2 pounds of raspberries this morning, give or take a few ounces.  It totally filled one of my bigger plastic containers.
Raspberries

The best part is that there are still a lot of mostly ripe berries out there that I will be able to pick in a few days.  I’m not sure I’ll get quite as many as I got today, but I’m hopeful that we’ll come close.

Kitchen Garden Plan, or the Petal Potager

After admiring Ceae’s (Folia link) beautiful kitchen garden, I realized that ever since I became a homeowner 12 years ago, I’ve wanted a vegetable garden that is part of my backyard (not just raised beds) and I got cracking on designing something that would work.  Growing up in my parent’s home, they were on again/off again gardeners.  They had a plot at the back of their house that was about 10′ x 18′ and would often grown peppers and tomatoes and the chives from my grandfather’s house.   One year when I was in college, I decided it was time to revive it after years of it getting overgrown with grass and weeds.  I spent a weekend double digging (in clay soil!) and in the end, grew a lovely patch of tomatoes and sweet & hot peppers.  I spent a lot of time in the garden, watering & weeding it.

Finally, we are in a house that feels permanent.  Our first house was a starter home and we knew we wouldn’t be there long.  I also had a newborn and a toddler at the time.  Our second house would have been fantastic for a garden, but we had absolutely NOTHING in the way of landscaping in the back yard and I was frozen with indecision.  We only stayed there 4 years.  We are entering our 4th year in our current house and have no plans on moving soon.  The existing landscaping is, for the most part, fantastic.  Yet there is still freedom for me to play and experiment.  This year is also the first year of having a garden in the time we’ve been homeowners.  Oh sure, I’ve had the random tomato or two, but I never really put much effort into making vegetable gardening a big part of my life.  I decided to start with square foot gardening, but I think that those methods are going to be adapted to be used in a permanent kitchen garden next year.  I’ll still keep my square foot boxes, and probably use them for smaller crops (like lettuce & onions).  By my estimations, the plan I posted below should give me about 60 square feet of gardening space for vegetables & herbs.

I really like the idea of the design.  It’s close to the house, it gets full sun until late afternoon, and if I decide to scale back on the vegetables, it would still work very well as a flower garden.  Also, if I decide to add on I can keep encroaching on the backyard adding “petals” as I go.  There is currently daffodils next to my SFG and those shouldn’t pose a problem since they usually fade by the time my last frost date comes around (the greenery can be tied down to eliminate any potential shading) and the Ozark blue star on the other side could be relocated fairly quickly and easily.  There is a spot that used to house yarrow (have no idea what happened to it) and upon moving it, I could put my second SFG next to the first one.

Depending on how long the weather holds, and what my schedule and budget looks like, I may just get started on it this week.  On Folia, I said that I wasn’t going to remove the turf, but I think I changed my mind.  In order to get things relatively level and even with each other, I think that is the best way to proceed.

From Backyard

My Babies are Growing Up!

I spent a few days last week potting up my seedlings.  My tomatoes were the first to graduate to plastic cups and they are thriving with the added nutrients and room to stretch their feet.  Most of them look like actual tomato plants now, with lovely stocky stems.  The broccoli and cauliflower seem to be happy as well, growing quicker and straighter.  A few days ago, the peppers, cilantro and dill moved up.  They seem to be stretching out and enjoying their newfound freedom as well.  The cilantro is no longer laying on it’s side, and neither is the dill.  Could be that I yelled at them and told them that lazy seedlings don’t get to go out to the garden.

Real estate under the grow lights is starting to become a problem though.  If anything else needs to be potted up in the next month, it will have to grow by a windowsill, which in our house is still relatively shady.

The experience of starting these plants from seeds has been far more rewarding than I could have ever imagined.  Last fall, when the idea to start a vegetable garden took root, I thought for sure it was a whim, the enthusiasm for which would fade.   If anything it has grown.  The idea that I can feed my family tasty, nutritious, fresh, organic food from something as tiny as a tomato or pepper seed is amazing.  God help the poor bunny or squirrel that decides that my plants are a salad bar.  They have become my little green babies.  I check on them multiple times a day, talk to them, pet them, rotate them.

I have big dreams for my two little square foot gardens.  I have dreams of adding more, and dreams of converting my family to fresher whole foods instead of the processed crap we have all become accustomed to.  My dreams went so far as to look into the possibility of raising chickens.  Alas, that one will not happen, as the regulations here prohibit it with our parcel of land.  Maybe I can invest in my friends chickens when they move.  They are building a house and along with the three quail she currently owns, is looking to add chickens.

Does everyone get so delirious after reading Michael Pollan?  I’ve read The Omnivore’s Dilemma and am nearly finished with In Defense of Food, and have found that I already follow some of his suggestions, and have done so out of instinct.  Years ago, I gave up on margarine, somehow I just knew butter was better.  I’m currently trying to find sources for stuff like real yogurt (sorry Dannon and Yoplait, you don’t qualify) and local eggs.  I could get more local milk, but unfortunately with two growing kids, I can’t really afford it.  It’s twice the price of “regular” milk (but tastes twice as good as well).  My ultimate goal is to wean my family off of convenience foods full of preservatives and goodness knows what else, and back to more whole foods.  I’m sure there are still times in our busy schedule when McDonald’s really is the only option, but with some careful planning, perhaps I can wean us off of that as well.  Not surprisingly, we all feel better when we eat real food, and we tend to lose weight and be healthier as a consequence.  I’ve lost more weight using olive oil and butter, and eating good cheese than I ever did using reduced fat margarine, or low fat cheese.  After only once eating fresh shredded parmesan, I can never, ever go back to the stuff out of the can.

Interestingly, I think the whole catalyst for this shift in thinking sprang from my trip to Paris a year ago.  My husband and I ate very well there, and after the second day we noticed something.  We noticed that the food tasted so good.  Better than anything I had in a long time.  Not only that, but we noticed that after a meal we felt good.  Not just good, but great.  Too many times after eating out here at home, we leave the restaurant overfull, bloated, and headachy.  Some of that I’m sure is from the huge portions, but I suspect it is more from lower quality food.  Since that trip, I am still in search of the perfect baguette.  I’m thinking I may have to learn how to bake bread and make it myself.

Chicken with White Wine Sauce

Part of my motivation for growing vegetables this year is to force encourage myself to cook more often.  I am SO out of practice with cooking and lately if it wasn’t something from a recipe, I’d shy away from making it.  Well last night I was in the creative zone, and I decided to try to cook something on the fly.  I was inspired by the Pollo Arrosto alla Romano from La Sorella Di Francesca here in town.  A few weeks ago I went there for lunch with my parents and was very impressed with the food.  Chicken can tend to be boring and pretty much the same anywhere you go.  Well at La Sorella the chicken was spectacular.  I had never had anything like it.

So yesterday I got some bone-in chicken breasts and went to work.  The following recipe is what I came up with.  Keep in mind that I was doing this on the fly so the amounts are very approximate.  If I can recreate it I will try to get the measurements more accurate.  The dish at La Sorella di Francesca isn’t a flour based sauce or gravy, and I’m not sure there is wine in it, but I was not looking to imitate the dish, just get a little inspiration from it, and I think I did.  While the sauce is nearly thick enough to be considered a gravy, it is more grown up and nuanced than the plain stuff.  I surprised myself with how well this recipe came out and wanted to write it down so I could at least have a place to start when I want to make it again.  This kind of dish is exactly the kind of thing I hope to come up with when I have fresh veggies and herbs from my garden to use.

Ingredients
4 chicken breasts (bone in)
3 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp butter

White Wine Sauce
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tbsp butter
1/8 cup flour
1 small bell pepper, cut in small strips
2 cloves garlic, minced
1-2 green onions, finely chopped
1 tsp rosemary
1/4 tsp thyme
1 can chicken broth
1/4 cup white wine
Directions
1. Heat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Heat olive oil and butter in large fry pan.  Brown chicken breasts (5 minutes).  Transfer to baking dish and transfer to oven.  Cook for 1 hour, turning every 20 minutes.

3. In small saucepan, saute garlic and onions, do not overcook.

4. Add peppers and saute until tender.  Add rosemary and thyme to moisten and release flavor.  Set aside.

5. Wipe out fry pan and heat olive oil and butter.  Add flour to create a roux.  Lightly brown.

6. Add chicken broth and white wine.  Adjust to taste (either reduce chicken broth, increase white wine, etc.)  Add salt and pepper to taste.  Cook for 5-10 minutes, being careful not to boil.

7. Whisk in reserved sauteed vegetables and herbs.

8. Remove chicken from the oven.  Add drippings to sauce/gravy and whisk.

9. Serve and enjoy.

I supposed you could take the cooked chicken and put it in the fry pan with the sauce, turning to coat, if you so desired.  I was going to, but my daughters are fairly sauce averse, so I decided to spoon it on top.

Will It Never End?

Apparently we got a dusting of snow overnight. I’m so sick of it. Knowing what I was going to find, I went in the backyard yesterday to check my soil in the SFG closest tot he house. The soil is still frozen pretty solid. I even had it covered during that last storm when it rained buckets the entire day. The other SFG’s soil is still loose and fluffy. I think the difference is in the amount of sun. I’m just hoping that it will get warm enough for long enough in the next couple weeks so I can work it and sow my peas. I NEED to get something in the ground. I guess it doesn’t help that the tines of my pitchfork are all wonky. A few years ago when we moved in, I removed English Ivy from a 6’x6′ square that is separate from all the other landscaping. It was well established and the network of roots under the soil was incredible. Some of the roots were thicker than my thumb and strong as hell. I managed to hook a couple tines under a root and bend them. It’s surprising I didn’t break the handle of the pitchfork.

What do you use to work your soil if it gets hard and/or clumpy? I know if it’s frozen I pretty much have to wait, but I’m tempted to keep at it to try to break it up and encourage it to thaw. I still need to work in the peat moss. I couldn’t find it in the fall (most of the garden centers were bare bones at that time) and I didn’t find it until fairly recently. I think if I could get even one day where it thaws, once I work in the peat and vermiculite, it will be fluffy enough to not freeze as easily.

Go Grow!

Finally got my rear in gear and planted my seeds. Part of my ghetto set up is a heating pad for the seeds. I’m going to keep an eye on it to make sure it doesn’t get too hot, but I think it will be ok. I have it sandwiched between some ceramic tile so it’s not directly in contact with the plastic seed flat.

For whatever reason (probably that last snowstorm), I haven’t been in the gardening mood. Today I figured I need to bite the bullet and get started. I never really put much thought into starting seeds before, so I usually got these spindly things that didn’t do well. This time I have a heat source AND a plant light, so we’ll see how that changes things.

Looking at my plans, I made a last minute substitution and threw in Sugar Baby Watermelon instead of the zucchini. If it does well, it will get a much better reception in the household than a vegetable type crop.

Peas are supposed to be planted outside soon. It was actually snowing a bit this morning and I haven’t tried to work the soil that was frozen last time (where the peas need to go). The weather is showing it’s usual schizophrenia for this time of year and I’m not quite willing to suffer the cold to try to get that soil ready. Maybe today….maybe.