Archive for May, 2010|Monthly archive page

The Simple Joys of Home-Grown Heirloom Tomatoes

If there is one topic that I end up revisiting again and again in the world of gardening, it’s that of the heirloom tomato. It seems the tomato is the most popular fruit that is grown by home gardeners. No, I can’t back this up with actual statistical evidence. But I’m willing to bet it’s true, because, well, who doesn’t love a delicious home-grown tomato?

One thing that many people often find surprising about growing heirloom tomatoes is that you have nearly an innumerable amount of choices when it comes to heirloom varieties. There are literally hundreds of different types of heirloom tomatoes that you can grow. You can find heirloom tomatoes in a great variety of sizes, and in every color from cardinal red, to brilliant yellow, to deep purple. (Cue: “Smoke on the Water” riff.)

Why not experiment with different varieties? Along with the different shades, shapes, and sizes, you’ll find that heirloom tomatoes have different textures and flavors as well. Some are mild, like the red Arkansas Traveler, and the white Beauty Blanc. Others, like the orangey Moskovitch are quite sweet. You may be most surprised by those tomatoes that have a naturally deep and slightly smoky flavor, like the green-shouldered Noir de Crimee.

So with so many wonderful heirloom tomatoes to choose from, how do you select the varieties that you wish to grow? Well, it’s not easy, I can tell you that much! One thing you may wish to consider is that some heirloom tomato varieties are great for slicing and eating raw, while others are particularly good for canning. So, consider what you wish to use the tomatoes for before planting. You certainly aren’t limited to just one variety, however. In fact, I personally plant 3 different varieties each year in order to satisfy all of my tomato needs and interests. Here are the three types of heirloom tomatoes that I particularly love, and plant each year:

The Druzba Tomato– The Druzba is a Bulgarian variety, with the name literally meaning “friendship” in Bulgarian. I originally received my Druzba Tomato seeds in my Survival Seed Bank, and I’ll tell ya, these tomatoes are real beauties. Their growing season is particularly long, so the plants bear a large number of fruits throughout the summer. The fruits top out at about 4 inches across, and are very red, round, smooth, and unblemished. Druzba tomatoes are particularly tart and high in acid, so these are our canning tomatoes. I would definitely recommend the Druzba for this purpose. Another bonus is that I have been able to successfully and easily save the seeds from my Druzbas each year to plant them the following year. For my tips on how to save seeds from your own home-grown tomatoes, you can click here.

The Besser Tomato– I have found that even people who claim to not like tomatoes enjoy eating my Bessers. These are a cherry tomato variety that are originally from Germany. They are a very old heirloom variety as well, and date all the way back to the 1800s. The plants grow quite large with vines that tend to sprawl, so make sure you stake or support your plants well. I find that cherry tomatoes are pretty good for just plain eatin’ as they are. For a little variety, try hollowing out each tomato with a little pairing knife, then filling it with basil pesto. Or, toss your Bessers in a large bowl with some extra virgin olive oil, fresh basil leaves, and mozzarella cheese. Delicious. If you have a really large cherry tomato harvest, which is quite possible with this variety, you can also make tomato sauce with them. Many people think you have to use full size tomatoes for sauce, but cherries work just as well.

The Giant Belgium Tomato- Yep, this one is called “giant” for a reason. These tomatoes can be downright huge- as large as 24 ounces, or the size of a small plate. Admittedly, I feel a little unoriginal when I plant these each year, because they are definitely one of the most popular heirloom varieties. But there is a reason they are so popular. Large, round, red, meaty, juicy, low in acid, few seeds and gunk inside… this is the quintessential slicing tomato. The flavor is sweet, mild, and delicious.

Okay, so there you have my three picks. But you should, by no means, limit yourself to my recommendations. Take your space, zone, and growing conditions into consideration, then check out the many sizes, shapes, flavors, and colors of heirloom tomatoes for yourself. For tips o how to successfully start your tomato seeds indoors, click here to read my article, Tips for growing heirloom tomatoes from seeds.

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Even Urban Dwellers Can Have a Crisis Garden

I’ll admit it: When it comes to gardening, I’m spoiled. I have plenty of land on which to sow and harvest, along with the space for a rain barrel and a compost heap. But for a great number of people all over the entire world, I realize that this is simply not the case. So if you’re gardening space consists of a small balcony, porch step, or cement patio, then you are not alone. In fact, I’d venture to say that you’re far from it, and that people like me with large plots of land, are actually a growing minority.

But just because you do not have an expansive backyard does not mean that you can’t grow your own food. Far from it! In fact, container gardening and rooftop gardening are becoming increasingly popular, because the truth of the matter is that even if you live in an urban setting, you should be exercising your right to grow your own food and maintain a crisis garden.

Along these lines, I found a terrific article this week that left me feeling downright inspired. Check it out. These folks are building a rooftop garden in Queens, and it is covered in the New York Times:

“Six Stories Above Queens; A Fine Little Spot for Some Farming”

Now before you rush to the roof of your apartment and lay down some topsoil, there are a few things you should be aware of. Rooftop gardens present some pretty specific conditions, so here are some precautions for you take note of. So read them, then rush to the roof of your apartment to lay down some topsoil!

(1)   Plant veggies and fruits that do well in full sun. Since your rooftop is above trees that provide shade, it is unlikely that your crops will get any shade, and it’s normally several degrees hotter on a roof than on the ground. Veggies such as tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, eggplants, corn, beets, summer squash, and pumpkins are all warm weather crops that will do well in full sun. Make sure to allow room for things such as trellises, stakes, and supports.

(2)   Again, because your garden will be in full sun, you’ll need to water your plants frequently and adequately. Make sure you have a reliable water source on your rooftop. You don’t want to have to lug a watering can back and forth from your kitchen 100 times a day.

(3)   All of the crops listed above may be grown in containers. However, if you plan to plant directly on your rooftop, make sure you put down some kind of water proof liner. You’ll definitely want to protect the roof from all the soil and water you’ll be using.

(4)   Use extremely good quality, organic soil and compost matter, and lots of it. You’ll need a depth of at least 8-9 inches whether you are planting in containers or directly on your roof.

(5)   A small container garden is probably no biggie. But if you plan to go big, (like the folks in this article,) you probably want to check it out first with your HOA or landlord. Ensure that the roof is strong enough for the size of garden that you are envisioning. Better safe than sorry!

Radishes Out the Wazoo

Remember back in early spring when we discussed vegetables that can be planted in March? Well, the first one that I had listed was radishes. I often refer to these as the gardener’s “instant gratification” because they are ready to harvest quite quickly. This year, mine went  from seed to ready-to-pick in just about a month. And I planted a very large crop of them. The result? Radishes out the wazoo.

You may be wondering, what can you do with that many radishes? They do not seem to be an ingredient that is frequently used in recipes or cooked dishes. But it does get old after a while to eat them all plain or just on top of a garden salad. And most of us simply don’t possess the creative talent to construct an Aztec God out of radishes…

Well, my lovely wife has come up with a whole array of ways to use radishes, and the terrific thing is that they’re all quite easy, (though perhaps not as visually stunning as the Aztec God). Try grating a handful of radishes and carrots, then mixing them with a dab of dijon mustard and mayonnaise. It makes an excellent sandwich condiment. Or, for a quick appetizer or snack, slice off the top and bottom of your radishes so that they are level on a plate, then use a small knife to make a little hole in the top center. You don’t need to core the whole thing, just a little hole will do. Now, fill this hole with a dollop of room temperature butter or cream cheese. Give it a sprinkling of salt, and maybe a few fresh herbs if you wish, and that’s it. You’ll want to eat these right away, because if you put them in the fridge, the butter hardens back up, and the texture is just not as delicious. My kids used to eat these butter radishes by the pound. No kidding- I actually got my kids to eat a vegetable by the pound.

With all the great uses for radishes, my favorite is pickling them. Now my wife and I pickle quite a few different vegetables, including green beans, cauliflower, beets, and many others. Her favorites are pickled okra and asparagus, and my favorites are pickled yellow squash and radishes. Yes, much, much more than just cucumbers can be pickled. Plus, pickling is an excellent way to keep the fresh vegetables from your garden, whether you want to give them as gifts, or store them in preparation for crisis.

The process of pickling radishes can be done many different ways. But the recipe that we use is pretty easy, and allows you to eat them just a day later. (Again, radishes are great for instant gratification. This is quite unlike our cucumber pickles, which take a good 6-8 weeks to cure.) This particular recipe also cuts down a bit on the hot, peppery flavor of the radishes, while still preserving their crisp, crunchy texture.

To pickle your radishes, you’ll need to first gather the ingredients for a brine:

  • 1/2 cup of red wine vinegar
  • 1/4 cup of white table sugar
  • 1/4 cup of water
  • 2 teaspoons of kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon of yellow mustard seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon of whole black peppercorns
  • 1/4 teaspoon of celery seed
  • 1 dried bay leaf. 

Combine all of these ingredients in a saucepan and bring it to a simmer over medium heat. Stir it until all of the sugar has dissolved into the liquid. Once the sugar has dissolved, remove the brine from the heat and set it aside on the stove.

Next, wash and trim your radishes. Then, slice them thinly with either a mandolin or a knife. Place all your radish slices in a glass heat-proof bowl.

At this time, your brine should have had 5-10 minutes to cool. That’s perfect. You’re ready to go ahead and pour it over your radish slices. Leave this on your counter and let it cool for about 20 minutes. Then, tightly cover it and place it in your fridge.

That’s it- easy! These pickled radishes will be ready to eat in 24 hours, and will keep in a covered bowl in your fridge for about 5 or 6 days. If you want to pickle large quantities, you’ll probably want to go ahead and can them. You can use the exact same recipe above, and just go through the same canning process as you would any other pickled vegetable. If you need instructions on how to can properly, including selecting the right jars and sterilizing them, you can click here.

Also, the brine recipe above is good for just one bowl, or about 12-16 pickled radishes, depending on their size. I plant French Breakfast Radishes each year, which came with my Survival Seed Bank. They grow in a sort of oblong shape, and should be picked while they’re still fairly small. French Breakfast Radishes are pictured below. If you plan to use a round variety, such as Beauty Heart or Cherry Belle, these get quite a bit larger. And of course Crimson Giant is the largest, hence the name.

One additional thing worth noting: When you make your pickled radishes, keep the windows open. It’s a very stinky process! I can assure you, though, it is one that is well worth it.

The Seed Banks of the World Continue to Grow

 

Did you know that there are a total of 1,400 seed vaults that are located in various locations around the world? Yup, over one thousand seed banks. That is about 7 seed banks for every country in the entire world.

This is usually an interesting fact that I bring up to those who are skeptical about purchasing a Survival Seed Bank. All over the world, leaders have acknowledged the need to safely store seeds in the case that war or natural disaster should wipe out crops. (Well, actually, I should say, they have decided to store seeds for WHEN their crops get wiped out, not if.) So, if all the smartest and most powerful people in the world all bought the same brand of shoes, wouldn’t you want those shoes, too? Especially if they were affordable? Sometimes popular trends are popular for a pretty dang good reason.

In Norway, just 620 miles away from the North Pole, you’ll find the biggest seed bank in the entire world. As of March 2010, this seed vault contains more than half a million samples of seeds, making it the largest and most diverse seed repository on the planet. And believe it or not, it’s not complete yet. There are types of seeds from areas such as India and China that are not yet included. As the collection grows, it could reach more than one million different types of seeds. The seed vault was built to withstand just about anything- flood, global warming, earthquakes, even nuclear strikes.

The need for a truly secure, resilient seed bank has already presented itself throughout history. Seed vaults within both Afghanistan and Iraq have recently been destroyed by war. Another bank was destroyed in the Philipines after the typhoon in 2006. The arctic seed bank was then started in 2008 when experts realized that the other 1,400 seed banks may need a back up plan. The reality is that the other 1,400 seed banks do risk losing their deposits.

Now all of this brings us back to the Survival Seed Bank. Obviously, if there were no need to safely keep seeds, there wouldn’t be 1,400 seed banks in the world, right? I think it is a fantastic idea to use the arctic seed bank as an example. Purchase your own Survival Seed Bank. Each packet of seeds is specially packaged in order to have a shelf life of 20 years. You could bury your bank for a full 20 years, dig it up, and have seeds that are still in perfect condition. 

Be prepared to plant your own crisis garden when you need it most. It is one of the best things you can do to protect the health and safety of your family.