I opened my hoop house doors at noon today and knew immediately I should have done it a bit earlier in the day. It has been a gorgeous late-winter day. There’s still the nip of winter in the air, but the sun has a spring warmth to it. As I pried open the door, a gush of steam greeted me as the warm air in the hoop house collided with the cool outside air. I had to wait a while before I could head in to pick—it was that hot.
The work of winter and spring are colliding just like that warm and cold air. I’m still harvesting nice winter greens to sell, although many of the plants are doing what they need to do to keep their species in existence: The seed stalks are shooting up. Some mustards and arugulas have flowers, and there are some small (and tasty!) seed heads.
My leeks and onions have been in for a while now, and I have some lovely baby green onion tops to add to my favorite dishes. Onions, when growing from seed, need a regular “haircut” to keep their tops at 1 to 2 inches. This directs the plants’ energy back to the roots, helping the onions size up nicely. I’ll direct seed my favorite onion—the fabulous ‘Long Red Florence’—right in the garden as well, so I can harvest early, from transplants, and late, from seed.
I also have some herbs growing along nicely. Oregano, parlsey, thyme, sorrel, plus a few oddities. There’s my cultivated apple seed from Germany and an early-maturing type of cotton that I hope produces the most wonderful fluffy cotton balls ever on my Wellandport plantation. One must try these things. Or at least I must.
I love having one of my grow-light stands in the kitchen, right near the woodstove. Two weeks ago I seeded all my eggplants, early brassicas, and lettuces for transplanting into the garden in April. Amazingly enough, a mere 24 hours later, some of the kale varieties were up. With the woodstove kicking out heat, those little kale seeds decided to pop. Miraculous.
Then there’s my favorite early tomato, ‘Stupice’. I have a 4-inch pot that must have 200 or so little baby ‘Stupice’ sprouts in it. These will be my June tomatoes, I hope. I’ll get them planted in my hoop house in April. Then, with a bit of luck and some row cover fabric thrown over them for extra protection, I should have ripe tomatoes 55 or so days later. Those first tomatoes are always the best!
As for the peppers, hot and sweet, they will all go in tomorrow. I’ll soak the super-hots, like ‘Scorpion’ and ‘Carolina Reaper’, for a better germination rate. I wish I’d planted them a little bit earlier, but I’ll get that fire rolling in the kitchen and hopefully they’ll jump up quickly. I just hope the weather stays cool so I need and want the fire. If you come to visit and I’m wearing my bathing suit, you’ll know why—I’m just trying to get those hot peppers going!
It’s so wonderful to see all these things sprouting and growing. Great also to feel the warmth of the sun and to dream about what this year’s garden can do. I never get tired of it because it is different every year. My gardens…my blank canvases await! —Linda Crago, Wellandport, Ontario
As another mostly-annual tomato-tasting party approached, we knew that this year’s record-setting stretch of warm, dry days here in Olympia, Washington, had to end soon. Hopes for ripe tomatoes were high in this region where growing tomatoes is always a challenge. But as equinox approached, reality set in. Evening temperatures dropped into the 40s and we remembered this year’s cool, wet spring that seemed to last into midsummer. Like most years, we awoke on party day to gray skies, scattered showers forecasted for the afternoon – drats!!! My hope was to not repeat past parties where, huddled on the covered back deck with tomato juice dribbling down our fingers and chins, a constant drizzle chilled us to the bones.
As people started to arrive, the weather seemed to improve. Many contributed their best homegrown tomatoes for the tasting.
With a crunchy baguette sliced thinly to cleanse the palate between tastes and volunteers ready to slice and dice tomatoes, we gathered outside. Many folks had wandered through the garden while we waited for everyone (and tomatoes) to arrive, and I was barraged by questions about the “black tomatoes.” So to introduce the tasting, I told the story about the ‘Indigo Rose’ tomatoes and the experience of our test group, but we didn’t taste them first—no need to start with disappointment.
The heirlooms ‘Prudence’ and ‘Moskovitch’ were grown by neighbors in cloches to minimize blight and maximize heat potential. A riper specimen might have improved the blah response to ‘Prudence’. Many liked ‘Moskovitch’, with its tangy, citrusy zing. Sweet and dependable ‘Juliet’, a mini-Roma-type, is favored by a gardener friend and was grown outdoors in the open without fussing. People generally liked its firmness and flavor. My next-door neighbor brought full-sized Romas. The not-quite-ripe sample got muted comments that included sweet and firm with the texture of melons.
In contrast, little ‘Cherry Roma’ got people excited. They loved the crunch, the acid, the splash in the mouth, the burst of concentrated flavor. People also liked ‘Black Cherry’, a test variety, for its wide range of flavors, a complexity that included a limy tartness with a savory flavor that “stays with you.”
‘Early Cascade’ is my standard, usually a small, dependable slicer. A few were ripe weeks ago, but the not-quite-ripe samples got expected responses, including “a little supermarket-y.” The flavor of ‘Momotaro’ makes it worth growing for me even though it ripens only in the best of seasons. Tasters agreed even with the barely-ripe sample. Animated descriptions included smoky, meaty sweetness, great for sandwiches. Also “a mellow, understated pleasantness.”
The sun peeked through the clouds as we tasted ‘Early Girl’, my neighbor’s standard for ripening and being blight-free in our drizzly climate, and ‘Indigo Rose’. People found ‘Early Girl’ agreeable and the eating quality of ‘Indigo Rose’ horrid, “definitely flashy in appearance but not in flavor.” They hadn’t yet colored up to the shoulders, but flavor at full ripeness could still be a question.
‘Sungold’ got passed around last as in year past, like a comforting dessert that everyone loves.
We concluded that here in the Puget Sound region of western Washington, growing cherry tomatoes are where it’s at. Our growing season is very long, but conditions that favor tomatoes are short and unstable. Ripening slicers takes short-season varieties, weather luck, and fussing with microclimates and plastic.
Eleven-year-old Emily summed up the event. The tomato lover travelled 75 miles with her parents and grandparents for the rare occasion to eat her fill of tomatoes. Her favorites? ‘Black Cherry’, ‘Cherry Roma’, and ‘Moskovitch’. She helped polish those plates clean.
Postscript: As people left, they asked what I would do with all the leftover tomatoes. Sauce! My lazy method, easy enough to make even after a long day of party preparation and socializing, starts with quartering the tomatoes, skins and all. Throw them into a pot to simmer. Stir occasionally, especially in the beginning as the tomatoes in the bottom of the pot cook first. When the tomatoes are soft, use a hand-held blender to dissolve the chunks and skins right in the pot. Continue to simmer until it thickens as desired. —Debbie Leung, Olympia, Washington
It’s still warm enough to wear T-shirts, but it is definitely fall here in Olympia. Mornings are chilly and days are in the 70s. You can feel it in the air and see it in the light. Days are getting shorter. I could use a bit more summer!
Last week I thought I’d start slug patrol again since another planting of lettuce seedlings got devoured. I found hundreds of those pesky little slugs. Then I started counting. Yesterday there were 61; today 58. Most were on the Portuguese kale and ‘Little Jade’ Napa cabbage (the fall crop that is growing very quickly), followed by ‘Ozette’ potatoes and kohlrabi. I also found some on arugula, beans, and peppers.
A brief report on some of this year’s trial varieties: ‘Black Cherry’ tomato is starting to ripen and taste quite fine. ‘Indigo Rose’ tomato plants are still filled with large cherry tomato-sized shiny black balls. I let a Portuguese kale grow without harvesting its leaves, and it’s starting to form a head! Got small ‘Purple Peacock’ broccoli heads, one off each plant, and the side shoots are quite slow in coming. ‘Jester’ acorn squash is putting on squash and they look beautiful. I had high hopes for the ‘Chersonskaya’ winter squash, which were starting to make a number of squashes, but they look like they probably didn’t get pollinated—they’re drying up while only a couple inches across.
Here’s a picture of the ‘Yellowstone’ carrots. They look great but don’t taste so great fresh; it’s a good carrot to cook with. The ‘Atomic Red’ carrots are about an inch tall. I’m growing them for the winter season. —Debbie Leung, Olympia, Washington
After dinner this evening, we did a tomato taste test. I can’t tell you how full I feel! Our faves so far this year are ‘Indigo Rose’, ‘Black Cherry’, and ‘Tang’.
• ‘Indigo Rose’ has sweet flesh with acid seeds and a bit of an earthy musk essence. Earlier in the season its flavor was boring, but now it’s very good. Black shoulders on orangey/red fruits.
• ‘Black Cherry’ has a complex flavor; sweet without being too sweet, and tangy. The fruits are olive-blushed red and the plants are quite productive.
• ‘Tang’ is a medium-sized bright orange/red tomato with a very good balance of sweet and acid. It’s moderately productive.
People rave about ‘Green Zebra’ but I’ve never been that impressed by it. This is the first year I’ve gotten a reasonable-sized crop from it, but fruits are mushy. It’s sweet and tart but not exciting. —Nan Sterman, Encinitas, California
I have grown ‘Green Zebra’ tomatoes for a while and they are one of my favorite varieties. If you leave them on the vine to ripen they will go a yellow-gold color and be quite sweet. Personally, I like them a little greener so they are a bit tarter. Interestingly, ‘Green Zebra’ starts to soften before it turns yellow; I like them just as they start to soften.
Yesterday I picked ‘Pilcer Vesy’, another of the tomato varieties we’re trialing. It has been my most vigorous grower this year and loaded with large fruit. However, I’m not so certain I like that neon yellow color. Something in my biological makeup warns me against eating neon-colored foods. I’m thinking that about ‘Indigo Rose’, too, but will make judgement on both when I taste them. I already have two wonderful yellow slicers I grow every year so ‘Pilcer Vesy’ will have some stiff competition.
My main planting of tomatoes are doing very poorly this year. They are on ground that I’ve only had developed for 2 years, and despite my efforts to build the soil they are very stunted. My other regret is that I went away for 2 weeks mid-June with my drip system just set up and we hit 2 weeks of unseasonably high temperatures. When I came back my heart fell as I could tell immediately that they hadn’t been getting enough water. Interestingly, even though I have pygmy plants this year most are loaded with fruit. I wonder if the water stress triggered fruit production over vine growth? Anyway, three lessons learned:
1. Get my drip set up at least 2 weeks before going on holidays. (Hah, I’ve been saying this for years. Maybe it’s better not to go away on holidays till July…)
2. Divide and conquer. My paste tomatoes located elsewhere in the garden (on soil I’ve been gardening and enriching for longer) are looking super.
3. Put your tomatoes on your best soil. Next year they’re going back on my more well-developed soil. Even though that area is a bit more shaded they’ll be wonderful, leafy 9-foot giants by this time next year. —Tracey Parrish, Boulder, Colorado