Sunday, February 23, 2014

Raising Tomatoes and Peppers

            Here are some practical tips on raising tomatoes and peppers.  As I said, I start them from seed in about mid- to late-March.  I prefer to start them a little on the “too late” side than on the “too early” side because they do not love growing indoors too long.  So if the packet says start 6-8 weeks before last frost, I start them 6 weeks before.  Peppers in mid-March, tomatoes in late March for my zone 5 climate. 

            I have a little, 4-shelf, indoor greenhouse that I put in a south-facing window, and I attach grow lights so I can give the seedlings as much light as possible.  (But they will still grow a bit lanky.)  As they grow, I make sure to turn them regularly and to brush across their tops with my hands.  This helps to strengthen the tissue in their stems, which would happen outside when the wind blows across them.
            About a week before I am going to plant them outside (early/mid-May for tomatoes, mid/late May for peppers), I begin to harden them off.  (Look this up yourself.)  It’s when you begin to slowly introduce them to outside conditions, in steps.  First it’s a half hour in the shade, then it’s longer in the shade, then in filtered sun, then full sun, until they can be outside all day in full sun.  If you do not do this slowly, the wind and sun will destroy your tender plants.  They need time to develop the ability to handle natural conditions.  When they are fully hardened off, it’s time to plant them in their new homes. 
            I plant the peppers in their own bed, about 12-16 inches apart.  (This bed is part of a 5-year rotation, so every fifth year it gets to rest and is filled with compost.  Right now, I make sure the peppers follow the compost so they get the most fertilizer possible.  There was a definite difference in the quality of the big, beautiful peppers that followed the compost last year and the scrawny ones that didn’t.) 
            I prefer the long sweet peppers, instead of the bells.  Just because bells don’t grow as well for me.  The sweetest pepper I ever tasted was Melrose.  I can’t find seeds for it so I have to buy this one as started plants.  And Sweet Banana produced better than any other last year, even if they are a little on the small side.  I plant a lot of pepper plants so that we have enough peppers to eat some fresh and extra to slice and freeze.  Then I just pull out a few slices, thaw them out, and use them for winter cooking. 
            And with the tomatoes, I have decided to do something different this year.  (And I’m sure there will be many people who call it stupid, but I’ve found a few people who say this is okay to do.)  I am going to put them in the same bed every year and see if they grow better than rotating them with the other crops.  I read that they can build up a resistance to pathogens in the soil and grow stronger for it.  So we’ll see.  If it doesn’t work, I’ll just add them to the rotation.  (But the beds will rest every fifth year and be filled with compost to add more nutrients.) 
            When I plant my tomatoes in the ground, I add this to each hole: an old banana peel (I save these over the year in the freezer), a handful of compost, a sprinkle of crushed eggshells (I save these on the deck all winter), a dusting of bone meal, and a bit of organic all-natural tomato fertilizer.  And a few times a summer, I add a handful of compost around each plant.  (I add some of this stuff to the pepper holes at planting, too.) 
            I prefer natural over synthetic as much as possible.  I would rather a plant slowly absorbs natural nutrients than be forced into wild, crazy, abundant growth before its time with fake fertilizers.  Plus, I strongly believe that being a good steward of our yard and a good neighbor to the wild-life in our yard means keeping it real and natural and safe.  I want to encourage life and healthy colonies of good bugs and worms and frogs.  I want to know that I am feeding my family the best stuff possible.  And I want to show my appreciation for God’s wonderful creation by treating it with the upmost respect and care.  And that means not polluting it with man-made chemicals.  It feels good to know that my plants are safe for the environment, the bees, the butterflies, my children, and the people who will come after us.  (I dream someday of getting a beehive, too, to do our part in giving bees a safe place to live.  We have such a bee-loss problem right now and I would guess it’s directly due to man’s overuse of chemicals.  Breaks my heart!  We are going to reap what we sow!  God help us!)
            I have found that it doesn’t matter all that much if the tomato plants get a little lanky inside.  (As long as the stems have been strengthened by brushing across them often.)  The thing about tomatoes is that they will sprout new roots all along the stem when it is buried underground.  So whenever you plant a tomato, always plant it deep, with only the top few inches sticking out of the ground.  The whole stem will grow new roots and the plant will be stronger for it.  (I plant the peppers a few inches deeper, too.) 
            And I don’t plant my tomatoes deeply, straight up and down.  I plant it more shallowly at a downward angle, like laying it in a sloping trench.  This way, the roots stay up a little closer to the warmer soil on top instead of being sunk deep into the cold stuff way below.  And don’t worry, the top of the plant will straighten itself out to grow straight up.  Just be careful to not bend the stem to the point of breaking it.  It can flex a bit, but it still needs to be handled carefully.
            The last few years, I put a stake at each tomato plant to tie it to as it grew.  And that’s fine.  But as the plant gets large and heavy, it pulls the stake over.  So this year, I am going to try to put a removable fence down the middle of the beds to tie the plants to as they grow.  (So far, the peppers stand up fine on their own.)  I don’t have the money to do things the best and most permanent way, so I keep trying new ideas every year until I find one that works best for our budget. 
            As the plants grew last year, I decided to see what happened if I didn’t prune out the extra “branches” that sprout at the base of each leaf.  And it got to be a jungley mess, way too much extra green growth.  So this year, I will try to be diligent about pruning off the suckers, the extra branches that take energy away from fruit production. 
            After planting, there isn’t much to do for the peppers but weed, water, and wait.  And for the tomatoes, there is weeding, watering, tying them to the stake, pruning off suckers, watching for bugs and animals eating them, and waiting for the fruit to ripen.  Last year, we had enough tomatoes to eat as many ripe ones as we wanted and we dehydrated a bunch to save for winter.  (I’ll get to that in a minute.)
            I love to grow a mixture of heirlooms, cherry tomatoes, and hybrids.  The heirlooms give you the best taste, but they can be a little sensitive.  The hybrids are stronger growers but less flavorful than the heirlooms.  And the cherry tomatoes are the kids’ favorite.  I love seeing them enjoy a handful of cherry tomatoes right out of the garden. 
            Names might not mean much to some of you, but I am a huge fan of learning the names of each type of plant I grow.  A tomato is not a tomato is not a tomato.  They are all very different from each other, and it’s neat to be able to recognize each one for the unique one it is.    And I love that homegrown tomatoes – especially heirlooms – do not look like the perfectly round, perfectly red orbs you find in a grocery store.  They have imperfections.  They have character.  Some are lopsided, some are heart-shaped, some have scars, some are streaked with yellow or green, some are just plain ugly.  And they come in a range of colors: yellow, orange, red, pink, purple, black, brownish, green.  But they all have character, and it makes it much more interesting. 
            Just like in people.  How boring if we were all the same, made from the same mold.  I love the differences in people – the shapes and sizes and imperfections and colors and personalities.  It makes life more vibrant and lively, like a wildflower garden.  If you grow tomatoes, you’ll learn to love that they don’t look anything like “perfect” store-bought ones.  Behind their imperfect appearance is incomparable juicy flavor, bursting out and dribbling down your chin the moment you sink your teeth in.
            I experiment every year with different varieties, and I am learning that some simply do not like my climate or yard.  So every year, I add a few more to my “don’t plant again” list and to my “must-have” list.  I’m hoping that I’ll eventually find the kind that work best in my climate and soil and that will accept being planted in the same spot every year.  Part of successful gardening is simply learning to listen to what nature is telling you.  It will tell you its likes and dislikes.  And you have to be willing to adjust if you want things to go smoother and more successfully.  Sometimes, it’s better just to get in line with nature than to expect it to get in line with you.  I’m still learning how. 
            So if you’re wondering about all the varieties out there, here are my “must-haves” every year: Aunt Ruby’s German Green, Black Cherry, Pink Brandywine, Tigerella, Black Krim, Cherokee Purple, Celebrity, Caspian Pink, Sungold, Black Carbon, Early Girl, Juliet.
            I have found that the most flavorful ones are not the red ones.  I like the purples, blacks and pinks best.  Even the greens are great. 
            Aunt Ruby’s German Green is so flavorful, but it stays green, so you have to watch closely.  You know it’s ripe when it feels ripe and when it gets a slightly pinkish color on it.  I always plant this one closest to the house so that it’s not mixed in there somewhere with the other colors.          
            Black Cherry, Sungold, and Juliet are cherry/grape tomatoes.  They are small, flavorful, and they grow well for me.  (While Juliet isn’t the most flavor-packed, it did produce the longest and the most out of all my cherry types one year, thus earning it a “must have” spot.)  Nothing looks cooler than a bowl full of colorful cherry tomatoes: red, black, orange, yellow.  It looks like a bowl of gemstones.  Almost too pretty to eat.  I also plant a Sweet 100, but I wasn’t happy with last year’s performance.  I’ll try again this year.  And I’ll probably add the old classic Yellow Pear, just because they look cool and I am partial to old favorites.  Usually there’s a good reason why they have been around as long as they have.
            Tigerella is also a small-ish one and has neat-looking stripes.  These produced very well all season and tasted great.  If you can only plant one, this one is worth trying.  It has it all in a cute, small package.
            Early Girl may not have the best flavor, but it does produce the earliest and it is reliable.  So it’s also a “must have” simply for reliability. 
            For some reason, I prefer Pink Brandywine to Red Brandywine.  I think it’s because the pink did better than the red one year.  Plus, pink is prettier.  But the problem I have with Brandywine is that it needs a long growing season and lots of heat – more so than my other plants.  So when the summer is mild, I might not get any Brandywines.  If you plant this one, give it the sunniest spot you can.  But the flavor is so rich that it’s worth trying it every year.
            Celebrity and Caspian Pink are just as flavorful as Brandywine, but they are not as picky about conditions and they produce better.  These are definitely worth growing if you want “Brandywine flavor” without “Brandywine problems.”  (Unfortunately, I lost last year’s Celebrity to Verticillium Wilt, but I’m going to try again this year in a different spot.)
            My favorites to grow are the dark ones: Black Krim, Cherokee Purple, and Black Carbon.  They have the best, old-fashioned tomato taste and the coolest look to them.  But they are not as reliable as other types.  Last year, I lost Krim and Purple to the wilt.  But I’m not going to give up on them until I have no choice.  They are just my favorites, and so I’m hoping a new spot and a lot of TLC will be worth it.
            These tomatoes form the foundation of my “must have” tomato garden.  And then every year, I will try out a few other ones until I have a plan that works well for me.  It’s different every year as the weather fluctuates, but by planting a variety of tomatoes, I am almost always assured that at least some will do well. 
            Even with the ten or so that I lost last year to wilt, I still had a lot to dehydrate, sliced into thin-ish slices.  I did this in a dehydrator on my kitchen counter.  There were so many tomatoes that it basically ran for several days solid.  And then I just stored them in a big plastic jar.  However, the juicy heirloom types and the orange/yellow ones did not dry well.  They were just too delicate for it.  So I am going to stick with the meatier red ones for dehydrating.
            And now throughout the winter, I have been using the dried slices on pizza and in chili.  But dry tomato slices will burn easier than fresh ones, so before putting it on a frozen pizza, I have to let them sit in a bowl with a little water to soften them up.  And then I put them on the pizza still wet and cover the pizza lightly with foil so that the tomatoes have time to soak up the water without drying again in the oven’s heat.  And then at the end of the cooking time, I remove the foil and let the cheese brown a little.  They are a little tougher to bite through, though, so I started cutting them up with kitchen shears right in the bowl of water they are soaking in so that they are in smaller pieces that I sprinkle around the pizza.  (If you are making a pizza from scratch, just put the soaked tomato slices right in the sauce before topping with cheese.  This will keep them softer than if they were on top.)
            And for chili, I soak them in water a few minutes and then chop with the shears or run through a food processor to blend it well.  And I add it right to the chili to add more fresh tomato flavor.  (If I blend it up, the kids don’t notice the chunks of tomato, and so they eat it without complaining.)
            Tomatoes are one of the crops that are totally worth having, considering the price of fresh tomatoes in the stores (especially organic ones).  It is so deeply satisfying to be able to pick your own and eat them fresh out of the garden or to be able to add homegrown tomatoes to your winter meals.  If you can, plant enough tomato plants so that you can save some for winter, either by canning or drying or freezing.  You will appreciate it so much during those long winter’s months.  Oh, and make sure to give some away.  Sharing the bounty is as satisfying as eating it yourself!

Fresh and Dehydrated Tomato Salsa
            What is one thing store-bought tomatoes lack?  Tomato flavor!
            What is the best part about your own homegrown, dehrdrated tomatoes?  Tomato flavor!
            This salsa combines the texture of fresh tomatoes with the flavor of dehydrated tomatoes.  And we are addicted to it.  It is excellent on tacos, salads, and pizza.  (Spoon it onto your pizza slice after the pizza is cooked.  It adds so much flavor and freshness to it that you won't want to eat it plain anymore.)
            All you do (at least 30 minutes before eating) is break up or chop several slices of dehydrated tomatoes into small pieces and put them in a bowl.  Add a drizzle of water and let it sit while you dice a red pepper, a store-bought tomato, a bit of red onion, and a clove of garlic.  Drain off a little of the water from the bowl, add the other chopped veggies on top and let it sit a few minutes so the water from the fresh tomatoes soaks into dehydrated tomatoes at the bottom.  When ready to use, add salt and pepper.  (You could also add a drizzle of olive oil, fresh herbs like basil, parsely, oregano, or cilantro, and a bit of jalapeno pepper or dash of cayenned pepper, if desired.)  If you don't have dehydrated tomatoes, it still works good with just the store-bought ones.  We almost never eat pizza anymore without this topping.  It adds a lot of veggie-goodness to a meal full of white-flour-crust and fatty cheese.   

Heather’s Vegetarian Chili:
            In a large stock/soup pot, melt a pat of butter and add a diced onion.  Saute and stir occasionally until onion is softened.  Add your liquid tomato base: tomato sauce or watered-down tomato paste.  I use about two or three 6 oz cans of tomato paste that I water down until it’s runny like a thick soup. 
            Then add chopped carrots and garlic and the soaked, chopped dehydrated tomatoes and any other veggies you like.  If I have them, I also add the frozen/thawed sweet peppers after I run them through the food processor (sometimes blending the soaked tomatoes with them, too) so that the kids don’t find pieces of them.  It adds a lot of flavor, but you can’t tell they are hidden in there.  (Sometimes, I saute the carrots with the onions, and also add the chopped garlic for the last few minutes to soften them up a little.  But don’t brown garlic; it gets bitter.) 
            And then I add cooked black beans, either canned or ones that I prepared.  You can really use any bean you want.  They are all great.  (You can add browned ground beef or turkey, if you want.) 
            Then add your chili seasoning, either homemade ones or store bought mixes.  I prefer Lawry’s Chili Seasoning, 2 packets per large soup pot.  And simmer for a few hours at least, stirring occasionally.  Serve with cheddar cheese and sour cream, and you can top the chili on cooked rice if you want.  And add some cornbread on the side. 
            This makes a great, healthy winter’s meal and it’s a wonderful way to use the produce you saved.  I even dehydrated sliced zucchini and I could totally add that sometime.  I’m just not that big of a zucchini fan, so maybe I’ll have to blend that, too, so that I don’t see them.  Enjoy!  And start planning your own garden for this summer!  You’ve got just enough time left.