Category Archives: Gardening

Seven tips for a better tomato harvest

“It’s difficult to think anything but pleasant thoughts while eating a homegrown tomato.”
–Lewis Grizzard

Several varieties of tomatoes being weighed on a digital kitchen scale.

On July 2, I picked my first ripe tomato of the season, weighing in at three-quarters of a pound. I have a total of 18 tomato plants, several purchased as seedlings from my local garden center and the rest sprouted from heirloom seeds I bought mail-order for last year’s garden. Last year I got no tomatoes by the first week of August and blamed the heirloom seeds, then pulled up the plants because I was tired of fretting over them. I have learned several things since then.
1. Be patient. When starting from seeds, it can take a while for plants to mature
2. One yard may have several varieties of soil; some areas may be much healthier than other areas. Mine is toxic in some places and capable of producing prize winning produce in other areas, specifically where I sowed wildflowers two years running (note blog photo), but then stopped because it was attracting every gopher within a quarter mile radius and that’s a lot of gophers in this neighborhood.
3. If planting several different varieties, tag them so you will know what you are harvesting. I didn’t and don’t.
4. Water as regularly and evenly as possible; otherwise the tomatoes may split along the top by soaking up too much water at one time. The split portions will need to be cut out (and you can’t barter split tomatoes).
5. Use a non-hazardous pesticide when dealing with tomato worms. I have a variety that claims to be safe to use on pets so I expect it is safe for humans but the tomato worms bite the dust. It’s easy to tell when a tomato worm is at work as it will start stripping the plant of leaves and will eventually strip it bare if to its own devices. On closer inspection you will detect black droppings. However, I can never spot the actual ugly, green-horned tomato worm; it blends in so perfectly with the plant.
6. It’s not necessary to plant tomatoes in raised beds as nothing bothers the plants (except the tomato worm in my experience) so it’s a waste of space that could be better used for other crops. Do not plant too close together and do not plant too close to buildings. These points may seem obvious but it’s all stuff I learned this year.
7. If you plant in several areas you will need to water in several areas. I know this seems self explanatory but it’s not something I thought about in advance, but only as I’ve had to water five different areas around the side and rear of my house.

Four tomato plants too close together and too close to the white gardening shed so there is no room to get behind them.

Last week I weighed the bounty in my vegetable drawer and discovered I had accumulated seven pounds of ripe tomatoes. I thought about bartering with our local organic veggie vendor who puts in an appearance at the White Barn every weekend. But I promised myself when I decided to seriously garden that I would consume as much as I could and preserve as much as I thought I would use in six or eight months, first by drying and then by canning. But tomatoes have such a heavy water content they are a nuisance to dry even though tomatoes are much more flavorful after the water is removed through drying. I especially like using them on homemade pizza.

So I passed on the veggie vendor this week and despite a predicted high of 101 degrees, decided to water-bath can my tomatoes. My kitchen in this 130-year-old house is not air conditioned and fans only help circulate hot air. It was only 98 according to my kitchen wall thermometer when I was canning. I ended up with eight pints of home-canned tomatoes.

I must say it feels truly virtuous to not only grow, but parboil, peel, chop and can your own organic vine-ripened tomatoes, especially at sauna temperatures. (And I confess I usually do cooking projects closer to sunrise when the kitchen is still cool.)

Come winter I’m looking forward to some homegrown, homemade tomato soup (with no extra sodium or preservatives) as well as spaghetti sauce, homemade chili, etc. here in the backcountry.

P.S. Have harvested another seven pounds this week so it’s back to the waterbath canning tomorrow morning when the weather will be much cooler.



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and I shall have some peace there

My homegrown tomatoes, perhaps to barter with.

“My depth of connection to gardening, my elemental drive to be one with it, to meld with other living things who do not yell or put forth unrealistic expectations… being truly at attention, at one with the task: That sense of perfect was what I had not found anywhere else…”

–Margaret Roach from her book AND I SHALL HAVE SOME PEACE THERE: Trading the fast lane for my own dirt road

Margaret Roach, former New York Times editor, fashion and garden editor at Newsday, first garden editor for Martha Stewart Living magazine and the editorial director of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia left “thirty-two years of corporate servitude” for a life of meditation, gardening and bird watching from a house she had purchased 20 years previously on some acreage in upstate New York.

Upon starting her life in the country full-time, Roach immediately sets up a garden blog named for a book she wrote years before, A Way to Garden. “As in just one way, my way, not the way, necessarily.” But it is not all smooth sailing. Roach has her share of doubts expressed in the following aside: (Note to self: need to write a companion volume called A Way to Live, and urgently, and then please buy yourself copy.)

It was 2008. Roach had the credentials and the connections. She sent out her book proposal. AND I SHALL HAVE SOME PEACE THERE was published in February 2011. It doesn’t get much faster than that in traditional publishing. In her mid-fifties, unmarried, childless and without a pet until she was adopted by a two-year-old neutered black cat, Roach writes with wry humor and sage advice, her own and that of Zen masters.

“I admit it: I garden because I cannot help myself,” she writes and I understand, completely. “It is no wonder so much gardening is done on one’s knees; this practice of horticulture is a wildly humbling way to pass one’s days on Earth. Even the root of the word humility comes from the soil: from the Latin humus, for earth or ground, and a good soil is rich in partially plant and animal material called humus.”

Actually I have sat on a short swivel stool and a plastic ice chest on wheels to do weeding until I got my new kitchen floor and in the process discovered knee pads which my tile guy wore. I bought myself a pair at Lowe’s and now wear them for both in-house floor work and outdoor gardening—a wonderful invention these gel-lined, Velcro attaching knee protectors. Roach has a knack for inventing words. She made one observation that is posted on the clipboard of my mind. “I prefer to think I’m an about-to-be in spite of my own un-spring-chickeness.”

Roach’s house was built in the 1880s as was mine. And I am just now becoming a professional gardener, in that I am bartering some of my produce with the organic produce broker who sets up shop at the White Barn every Friday afternoon and Saturday morning. Last week I bartered seven pounds of zucchini and eight pounds of apples for a baggie of green beans, three Spanish onions, one bunch of green onions, four peaches, a small round seedless watermelon, a red pepper and a green one, and a box of a blackberry/raspberry hybrid berries that were amazingly delicious. And I still have two dollars on account. I also left fifteen pounds of butternut squash on consignment.

I only barter what I cannot absolutely use myself (I am currently pretty sick of apples and zucchini. In fact I tore out two of my three zucchini plants while they were still producing). And now the tomatoes are rapidly ripening on my sixteen plants, faster than I can use them but still not in quantities generally suggested for preserving. Maybe dried?

Roach admitted to moments of doubt (while inventing more new words): “The giddiness of my new life, it seems, is wearing off, and frankly I (jobless, scheduleless, and incomeless though I may be—seemingly without encumbrances or restrictions) am feeling increasingly free but also completely trapped.”

But it’s about transitions. A friend sends her a postcard offering up a new slogan, “Survival is the new success.” Works for me. If you think life in the backcountry would suit you, I recommend And I Shall Have Some Peace There. Especially for single women. Enjoy.


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Wild, Flowers

Guess I should not have made such a big fuss about growing sunflowers (last week’s post), but I like the utilitarian factor—a beautiful flower that also produces edible seeds for me and the birds. Unfortunately the birds sometimes pick them all off before the plant reaches maturity.

But there are flowers that grow around here with no bidding whatsoever. The place came with some antique rose bushes that flower with large fragrant blooms several times a year, especially now.

Irises love it here. It quickly becomes a matter of thinning back the plants. Irises don’t care if they are planted in rocky, sandy soil or rich humus, well drained or damp, sun or shade. They do well in any location here in the foothills.

My apple tree is blooming. Looks like it will be a light crop this year as there are not so many blossoms. Last year the crop was so heavy I froze all I could then bought a food dryer to dry the rest of the apples, a healthy and tasty snack, much more flavorful than dried apples available in grocery stores.

Scotch Broom is not a native plant so members of the native plant society would probably frown on its use in my landscape. But it produces a gorgeous mass of yellow blossoms for a brief period every spring. It also makes a great thick bush for privacy and a favorite landing place for birds.

I planted the whole side yard in wildflowers a few years ago. I have not reseeded it so get fewer wildflowers each year, but they attracted what has become a healthy habitat for ladybugs and butterflies. Unfortunately gophers are also keen to burrow among the tall blooms. I’m frankly sick to death of gophers, cheeky little buggers, a lot more than my feral cat can keep in check.

California is generally considered to be a place of no seasons, a place of perpetual sunshine. We do get a lot of sunshine, and in the mountains we also get a sweet taste of the seasons. Fall, winter and spring are brief, but so gorgeous before the long hot summer.

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When Hope Springs Eternal

Yes, the image was photoshopped, but it is a real butterfly on my one sunflower.

It is possible to spend six solid hours doing yard work if I am listening to an audio book.

Not while mowing or using the weed whacker because I don’t want to turn the volume up to ear splitting. The trick is to break it down. A little mowing then listen to a disk while weeding the flowerbeds. A little weed-whacking then listen to a disk while planting new seedlings, or pruning, or pouring kitty litter down gopher holes or whatever needs doing in your yard/garden.

Repeat until you are too exhausted to continue or dark, whichever comes first.

Got my first strawberry; smaller and sweeter than the woody monsters in the grocery store. The trick is to keep everything else that likes strawberries from eating your little crop first, from the smallest bug to, say, a good sized deer. I do this with both a pet-safe pesticide and a big deer net (that keeps everything bigger than a moth out). Growing the strawberries in a raised bed is particularly helpful out here in the backcountry where birds and critters abound. The only question is, do I eat each sweet berry as it becomes ripe or do I freeze them and possibly make jam?

Speaking of birds, I wish it were that easy to keep them off my sunflowers. Last year only one of two dozen seedlings made it to maturity. If you plant the seed directly in the ground, chances are that something will come along and eat the seed. If it makes it to seedling status, something will chew on the leaves. If it grows tall enough to actually produce some young seeds, the birds will peck them out before they reach maturity. I do all three—plant seeds in the ground, transplant seedlings I start in egg cartons, and try to keep birds off the maturing plants by hanging shiny stuff around them.

Like I said, only one plant made it to maturity last year but it was so gorgeous that I snapped the photo that I now use as my Google picture ID. I’m planting a bunch more this year. HOPE springs eternal every spring.

By the way, the book was Angela’s Ashes—so sad.

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Pass on the Peas, Please

pea pod crop

When I was nine, my step-brother, at the wise old age of eleven, said we could get new bicycles by selling garden seeds and he showed me the ad in the back of a comic book. I don’t recall how his end of the business turned out. I clearly remember that my sales started out great, with friends and neighbors buying lots of pretty flower seeds and even some vegetable seeds. But at the end I was stuck with rutabaga and kale seeds or whatever unpopular vegetable, packets which I couldn’t even give away and make not one dime toward a new bike.

Flash forward to me, the retiree, who orders a bundle of organic seeds from an online grower. I already know I don’t like radishes, never have, but what the heck, there is some good stuff in the bundle and these are non-hybrid, unaltered seeds as nature intended, maybe. The first year the only crop to thrive was some crook-necked squash. Aphids ate all the corn. The tomato plants blossomed but not one piece of fruit appeared. The cucumbers were prolific because they were so bitter that nothing would eat them. Some yellow fungus took the normally indestructible zucchini.

So at considerable expense I planted a raised bed with a winter garden (bought the dirt and everything else for a garden as if I were planting on a New York rooftop instead of out here in the country). I succeeded but I would hate to figure up the real cost of fresh arugula and romaine divided by the cost of the 4’x8’ raised bed.

About the peas: I planted the peas in my failed summer garden space early last December. Considering the cost of a box of frozen peas, growing your own is an extravagant waste of time. The aesthetics could justify the time because pea plants are quite pretty. But—the fruit had just begun to ripen when some fairly good sized critter came burrowing into my garden and decided to carouse in my pea plants, many of which now lay broken and dying. I just harvested the remainder and I am pretty sure this is my entire crop.

When will I ever learn?

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Growing a Winter Garden

Sierra winter garden

Here in the Sierra Foothills there are a lot of critters that would love to eat your garden, from leaf fungus to aphids, to gophers and bunnies, to birds and deer. The summers are very dry so one must be vigilant about watering.

Weary of these problems I decided to plant a winter garden in a raised bed. The one pictured above is made of old lumber I had on hand, 1″x12″ cedar planks that were in eight-foot lengths, so the bed measures 4’x8’. This way you can do most of the gardening without having to get into the bed. I painted them white to deflect heat as well as help preserve the wood.

The bed is lined with corrugated wire to keep out the gophers, and anti-weed cloth to stop weeds from poking through, then filled with organic dirt and soil amendments. During the full moon in September, I planted cold weather crops including (your right to left) cabbage, spinach, arugula, romaine and kale, using heritage seeds (or non hybrid).

I topped whole bed with deer netting to keep out both deer and birds. The great thing about a winter garden in this zone 10 neighborhood is that it takes very little care, unlike all the watering and weeding of summer. I took this photo this afternoon, the day after Thanksgiving.

 There is really nothing quite so rewarding as putting your own homegrown food on the table.

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I’m back. As promised, if I won the contest, I would give a review of How to Survive a Garden Gnome Attack—from the backcountry point of view. I won, so here goes.

This particular backcountry is the Sierra foothills in California. In my sparsely populated community (1,109 as of the 2000 census) where rattlesnakes far outnumber residents, garden gnomes are no threat. Most residents have a big dog and I would venture a guess that most own guns, although I have neither. I do own a feral cat that has killed a rat as big as she, as well as bats, birds and bunny rabbits, and countless gophers whose numbers never seem to decrease.

Nonetheless, according to the author, Chuck Sambuchino, I am at high risk of a gnome attack, having answered affirmative to five of six questions in the “Assessment” section about vulnerability. I was particularly interested to find that gnomes “taint” homegrown tomatoes as none of my 14 heirloom tomato plants, grown from seeds, produced a single tomato—which still has me steaming.

The second section is titled “Protect.” Mr. Sambuchino is probably directing his book at an East Coast audience as here in the arid West, building a two-foot deep by four-foot wide moat around one’s house (a good portion of which might be sitting on giant boulders) is simply not feasible, even if the little varmints can’t swim.

I did like the idea of Diatomaceous Earth, but more as an ant deterrent (from my annual August ant invasion), a product I had never heard of. It is the fossilized remains of microscopic shells created by one-celled plants called DIATOMS. Diatomaceous Earth kills by physical action, not chemical, by puncturing the insect’s exoskeleton and absorbing its body fluids, thus posing no harm to warm-blooded life.

Don’t ask organic gardeners to use synthetic fertilizer, and nobody should make quicksand—too costly and time consuming—plus, you know, if it could suck up a gnome, it could suck up a toddler, small dog or feral cat.

In the third section, “Defend,” I think it’s safe to say we in the backcountry keep weapons in every room. On my living room wall is a two-man saw and a large, rusted meat cleaver. The builder of this 135-year-old solid-wood house built the first sawmill up on the north fork of the river. I dug up the meat cleaver while digging out my garden. Both are “aesthetic as well as practical choices” per Mr. Sambuchino’s instructions. And using a garden hose at full pressure to “punch and knock a gnome clear out of its rabbit-skin boots” just sounds like fun. I once rolled a gopher a good 50 feet out of my yard that way.

 In part four, “Apply,” I think maybe it is Mr. Sambuchino who has gone round the bend. Not that we would not go to the ends of the earth to protect our homes, as Chuck has actually suggested.

So, Chuck, I know you will think it is part of their insidious plot for world domination,  but the many photos in your 104-page book published by the highly respected Ten Speed Press, out of Berkeley no less, of little gnomes in their blue tunics, pointy red hats and sporting white beards are just so cute, almost Christmassy…especially as holiday decorations. I confess I feel I must purchase a couple for my yard.

If you, dear reader, fear garden gnomes, this is the survival manual for which you have been searching. If you just like the idea of gnomes and are looking for stocking stuffers,  Christmas is coming soon.

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How about them apples!

They look to be a cross between a Granny Smith and a Fuji, but they are smaller and more tart than a Granny Smith, and very few get red enough to be confused with a Fuji. Perhaps they are a larger relative of crab apples which, by definition, only grow to two inches in diameter. Regardless, they are the best baking apples I have ever used, bar none.

It was the only tree on the property when I bought the place, and looked as tired and battered as the 120-year-old house. It had been burned and hacked at with some rugged implement. But then came spring and the little tree was soon arrayed in pale pink blossoms. Every year I would collect the apples and bake pies for friends and relations to rave reviews. When I tired of that, I fed the remainder to the horses corralled across the road.

This year the horses did not appear, but the apples sure did, a bumper crop. I baked and froze apples and mailed pastries to far off friends.  The birds got their fair share but I still had a couple of bushels left. In desperation I bought a food dehydrator. Yesterday I dried my first batch of apples. What a treat. At their peak, my raw (fresh) apples are sour and tough to chew. Drying turns them tart/sweet and chewy, infinitely more tasty than the store bought variety. Pre-treating with a honey and sugar bath to hinder oxidation no doubt aids the sweetness.

More importantly, drying preserves almost all their nutritional value which is, in itself, amazing.  Studies show eating apples:

  • Lowers bad cholesterol. Researchers at UC Davis reported that eating two apples or drinking 12 ounces of 100 percent apple juice daily demonstrated a significant slowing of the cholesterol oxidation process that leads to plaque build-up.
  • Aids digestion, improves bowel function and promotes weight loss. A medium apple contains about five grams of fiber, more than most cereal servings.
  • Reduces risk of a stroke, prostate cancer, type II diabetes, asthma and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). The National Cancer Institute has reported that foods containing flavonoids like those found in apples may reduce the risk of lung cancer by as much as 50 percent.
  • Apples are one of three foods (along with red wine and pears) that decrease the risk of mortality from both coronary heart disease and cardiovascular disease among post-menopausal women, The findings were published in the March 2007 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
  • Consuming apple juice may protect against cell damage that contributes to age-related memory loss including dementia and Alzheimer’s according to a study from the University of Massachusetts Lowell.  

Are you impressed? I am. And best of all, my apples are 100 percent organic. Dried apples can be stored for up to six months. I’m thinking about sending them as Christmas presents, if I don’t eat them all first. For now though, it’s back to slicing, coring and drying.

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