Sunday, September 11, 2016

Baltimore County MG Year of the Tomato Update

Guest post by Angie Goodman, describing yet another wonderful tomato tasting!

Baltimore County Master Gardeners
2016 Year of the Tomato

Let me set the stage for you: It is 8:59 am on the morning of the 2015 Baltimore County Master Gardener Plant Sale.  We have 3 members behind the Tomato tables in the back of the “Sun Barn”.  All is calm. 

The clock clicks over to 9am and the barn doors open.  People come rushing in, pulling Plant Chariots (wagons) and carrying boxes.  One of our Tomato sellers described it as a stampede coming toward them; they were sure they would be crushed.  The next few hours could only be compared to a crazy day on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.  I even lost my reading glasses early that day (not good since I was a “cashier”).  They were later found smashed into the dirt floor, an apparent victim of the stampede.

The tomatoes sold out early, and it was determined that there were not nearly enough.  Out of this realization was born the Tom Team, led by Baltimore County Master Gardener Lisa Airey; a team dedicated to improving the variety, quality, and number of tomatoes at the next plant sale and tomato tasting.  Over the next several months, we met, and we planned, and we asked Master Gardeners if they would grow for us.

Our expectation was that we would have approximately 800 plants for the sale, many of them heirlooms.  But our incredible group of Master Gardeners went above and beyond our wildest dreams.  We started the sale with over 2,000 tomato plants as we opened the doors at 9am for the sale! (Red tablecloths designate the tomato tables)

At 1:00, as things slowed down, we did a quick inventory and determined that we sold over 1,200 tomato plants in the first 4 hours.  We moved an amazing 300 plants per hour!!  At the end of the day we had a lot of plants left over, but many were distributed to Master Gardeners in the hopes that they would donate some of their fruit to our Tomato Tasting in August.

As we moved through the summer, the weather seemed to get more and more unsettled.  Cold, hot, wet, hot, wet, stormy and windy, hail, hot, wet.  The call went out to the Master Gardeners for donations for the August Tomato Tasting, as part of our annual Gardenfest event.  As one of the organizers of this event, I always worry that we will have only a few varieties on the tables, a concern supported this year by the many emails that I receive from Master Gardeners telling me how horrible their tomatoes are doing.  That doesn’t really matter though.  What matters is that people care enough to make an attempt.  In general, we never know what we will get, until the morning of the tasting.
Again, Master Gardeners came through with flying colors.  The day of our Gardenfest event, we had 50 varieties of tomatoes.  Some people donated several varieties, others just one or two tomatoes.  All were very much appreciated.  As many of the volunteers had helped with the tasting in prior years, they jumped in and self-organized, having the tasting set up and ready to go by 9am.

One gentleman informed us that he didn’t like tomatoes.  But, after tasting several of the varieties, a Master Gardener was helping him gather some of the seeds together from the tomato he liked the best, explaining to him how to save them for planting next year.  One little girl was tasting many varieties, while her mother shared with us that her daughter won’t eat tomatoes at home.  We suggested that possibly she wasn’t serving the kind (or colors) of tomatoes that her daughter liked.   It is always fun to chat with tasters as they taste varieties of tomatoes that might never taste otherwise.
As part of the tasting, we asked tasters to complete a short survey, mostly to vote for their favorite tomato.  87 surveys were collected.  9 of our tasters had never tasted an heirloom tomato prior to that day. 

Here some of the top rankings:

1st place: Sungold F1 – 19 votes
2nd place: Black Cherry – 13 votes
3rd place (tie): Black Krim -- 9 votes
3rd place (tie): Hungarian Heart – 9 votes

Cherry Tomatoes:
1st place: Sungold F1 – 19 votes
2nd place: Black Cherry – 13 votes
3rd place: Indigo Rose – 3 votes

Paste/Plum Tomatoes:
1st place (tie): Purple Russian – 3 votes
1st place (tie): Striped Roma – 3 votes
2nd place (tie): Juliet F1  – 2 votes
2nd place (tie): Royal Chica Roma – 2 votes

Slicer/Salad/Beefsteak Tomatoes:
1st place (tie): Black Krim – 9 votes
1st place (tie): Hungarian Heart – 9 votes
2nd place: Pineapple – 7 votes

Heirloom/Open Pollinated:
1st place: Black Cherry – 13 votes
2nd place (tie): Black Krim – 9 votes
2nd place (tie): Hungarian Heart – 9 votes

1st place: Sungold F1 – 19 votes 
2nd place: Red Beefsteak (variety unknown) – 5 votes
3rd place: Earliana – 4 votes

--Angie Goodman (Baltimore County Master Gardener)

Monday, September 5, 2016

Roasted summer vegetables

We talk a lot on this blog about roasting vegetables, but the majority of those posts are about fall/winter veggies like squash or root crops. Summer seems a time for quick stir-fries or cooking veggies on the grill (mm, grilled zucchini, eggplant, etc.). And sure, when it's in the 90s we don't really want to have the oven on to slow-roast. But in the years when I've had a big harvest of tomatoes and peppers (which I've been lucky enough to get this year) and just can't deal with them all fresh, I've turned to roasting and freezing. Maybe I'll use the results soon (like on one of those super-hot days), or maybe I'll pull them out of the freezer in mid-winter - either way, convenient and delicious.

Roasting brings out rich, concentrated flavors in vegetables, and those flavors contribute well to mixed vegetable dishes or to combinations with meat. And they make terrific salsas and sauces. I made a quick and delicious pasta sauce by burrowing in my freezer for last year's roasted tomatoes and winter squash, similar to the tomato-sweet potato sauce I've described here before. Because the tomatoes had already been cooked to reduce moisture content, the sauce was ready much faster than if I'd had to wait for fresh tomatoes to cook down.

Here's a post by Nancy about roasting tomatoes. This is about the same method I use, though I don't bother removing most of the seeds and pulp in the middle, add the step of putting the cleaned and cut tomatoes in a colander over a bowl to drain (you can push them around with a wooden spoon, pressing a bit to get the juice out - and then use the drained juice in other recipes or to drink), and roast at a higher temperature for a slightly shorter time (more like 375/40). There's a big variety in temperature and time in recipes. I think generally if you want a result more like sun-dried tomatoes to eat as snacks, you want lower temperatures and longer roasting time (over an hour is not unreasonable), whereas if you're going to freeze them like I usually do, a greater level of goopiness is okay, and higher/shorter works.

Here's my latest batch of roasted tomatoes.

Any tomatoes can be roasted, and I'll choose first the ripest (since I'm doing this to get them off the kitchen table before they rot) and those I'm least tempted to slice and eat fresh. So this year I wouldn't be roasting my Cherokee Purples, but would choose the prolific and average-to-good tasting tomatoes like those University of Florida varieties I mentioned in a previous post. Cherry tomatoes are also awesome when roasted (and we often end up with way too many).

I've had a great year for peppers, and have put several batches of roasted ones in the freezer so far, both bells and a bunch of jalapeƱos from a plant that mysteriously dried up and died. (Another advantage to roasting-and-freezing - never could I have eaten all those spicy peppers fresh all at once.) There are several methods for roasting peppers, and I will point you to this blog or this other blog for instructions. Basically you can roast in the oven on bake or broil settings, or directly over the stovetop flame. I have found broiling the easiest method for me (just make sure you don't forget about the peppers and walk away distracted!). It's also much faster, which is an advantage on hot days.

Getting the skin well-blackened and thoroughly loose is important, since unlike with tomatoes you really do want to bother removing as much pepper skin as possible. Don't sweat it if you can't get it all off, but do try. Speaking of sweating, I think it was that first blog link that showed me the inverted bowl method for steaming the skin off after roasting, and it really does help. Here are a few of my jalapeƱos under the bowl:

where you can see how much condensation they're putting off, and here they are with nice wrinkled skin that slipped off pretty easily. (Do remember to wear gloves with hot peppers!)

Thick-walled peppers work the best for roasting; with thin ones you sometimes end up with practically nothing once you've peeled the skin off. I find it easier with bell peppers to cut them in quarters first, removing the seeds, and roast afterwards, but you can roast whole too (as long as the peppers are perfect with no suspicious insect holes or evidence of interior damage).

The other veggie I've been roasting this year is tomatillos, since I had a heavy crop earlier in the summer; it's slowing down now.

I did these in a 375F oven, I think, rather than under the broiler, but that would work fine too. They make a great salsa, among other things.

All of these I freeze by the same method: 1) Let cool on the cookie sheet they roasted on; 2) Stick the cookie sheet in the freezer for 30-60 minutes, until the veggies feel semi-frozen; 3) Remove veggies with a spatula and put into labeled freezer bags. Freezing ahead on the sheet makes it less likely that you'll end up with a big lump that needs to be defrosted all at once; instead you can pull out individual pieces.

Anyone else roasting their summer vegetables? Which ones?

Friday, August 26, 2016

Shade Cloth Can Increase Tomato Yields

Some interesting research work from Jerry Brust, UME Vegetable IPM Specialist
(re-printed from article by Jerry in the  UDEL Weekly Crop Update- Aug. 26, 2016)

I have been experimenting with using shade cloth in tomato over the last 5 years and they have worked remarkably well in increasing the marketable yields of many different cultivars of tomatoes by 20-50%. I use a 30% filtering shade (using any more than 30% tends to reduce yields and size of tomato fruit). The shade cloth is draped over the top of the tomato stakes and held down at both ends (Figure 4). I know this does not seem practical, but only the top ¼ of the plant needs to be covered (not shown) which means a grower could use shade cloth with a 4 ft width and as long as they wanted it to be. The shades can be used over and over for many years; the ones I am using have been in use now for 5 years. The shade cloth helps tomato plants come through very stressful weather conditions, i.e., high temperatures with high dew points and even heavy rains in much better shape than plants that were not covered.
 Figure 4. Shade cloth over a section of tomato row

Figure 5 shows part of a row (with the red line) that had been covered with shade cloth for six weeks compared with the row next to it which had not – same cultivar planted on the same day. I arbitrarily selected that one section of row for the shade cloth in June. You can see how much better those plants that were covered look than the ones that were not covered. The benefit of using the shades is an increase in quality and size of tomato fruit, rarely in the number of fruit.
Figure 5. Part of tomato row (with red line) that was covered with shade cloth vs others that were not
Figure 6 shows harvest bins of tomato fruit with the bin on the left from plants that were covered from the end of June through July while the bin on the right was from plants (same cultivar) not covered. These experiments were replicated 4, 6, and even 8 times in the field over several years and the results were always the same – an increase in marketable yield each year. Some years it was an 18.9% increase and some years it was a 47.7% increase. Once plants are covered, the shade cloth can stay on the rest of the season until harvest. We sprayed through the shade cloth with fungicides and insecticides. Foliar diseases were reduced for plants under shade compared with plants outside shade. I am not suggesting a grower would shade an entire field, but you might select a few of your cultivars that bring a very good price, but are prone to producing ugly tomatoes during stressful weather conditions and shade those.
Figure 6. Harvest bins of tomato fruit; bin on left from plants covered with shade and bin on right from plants that were not covered.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Vegetable gardens for busy people

Which is everyone, right? I suspect this is a topic worthy of a long blog series, or an entire blog on its own, but I'm too busy for that *grin* so I thought I'd jot down a few ideas I had today and then perhaps all of you will have more to add in the comments.

It's very easy to get started on a garden in the spring, have big ambitions, and then find that both life and weather get in the way and you just can't manage to keep the beast caged. We've all been there, so when I display my community garden neighbor's tomato patch as an example:

I am in no way picking on him. (Though I note here one of my community garden etiquette principles, which is that I'll make two efforts to relocate things like flopping tomato plants and wandering squash vines, and after that anything that produces inside my plot, even if it got started in another plot, belongs to me.)

So here are a few hints that might assist the busy to keep their gardens relatively neat and productive, and then two strategies for crop choice that might also help.


  • Start small. If you are a beginning gardener, don't till up that 50x100 foot patch and expect to keep up with what you plant there. Try 10x10 instead, and then expand. Or start with containers. Of course, if you have a community garden plot, the size is chosen for you, but if you know ahead that you won't be able to maintain 400 square feet or whatever it is, get a friend to help you and share the bounty.
  • Mulch early and often. The value of keeping bare soil covered cannot be overstated. Do it in the spring before things get out of control and it's just too hot to push wheelbarrows.
  • Expect to weed anyway. It'll be a lot less if you mulch, but remember that it has to be done and is best done on a regular schedule.
  • In fact, working regularly is another important principle. Put gardening on your calendar, however it works for you (but at least twice a week). If you schedule it, it'll be much more likely to get done. And you won't show up after three weeks and get discouraged because you appear to be growing nothing but weeds.
  • Use support structures. I mean that literally and not metaphorically, though it's good to have family and community support! But putting in those strong tomato cages (not skinny little stakes or flimsy wire cones) and good trellises when (or before) you put in the plants will help immensely with later maintenance.  And keeping plants off the ground helps limit fungal diseases and animal raids. For tomatoes, if you know you won't have time to prune, use big cages so they can go wild.
  • Figure out what happens when you can't be there. For vacations and other extended absences, find a backup gardener to handle harvesting and perhaps a little maintenance, and if it's possible install drip irrigation with a timer. (This saves you time otherwise as well - who needs to be standing there with a hose?)
  • Get vicious. Some plants just end up requiring too much fussy work. This will vary depending on your pest issues, weather, etc. If you can't grow something without spending hours picking off bugs or treating for diseases, it may not be worth growing. Rip it out before it causes more problems, and educate yourself over the winter about solutions - or else just don't grow it again.
  • On the other hand, floating row covers are a great thing. I would say "worth their weight in gold" if they weighed much of anything.
Okay, that's enough, but I am open to suggestions for more basic Hints for the Busy. What follows are two possible ways to plan your garden to limit time spent dealing with what comes out of it, since overwhelming harvests are another effect of gardening while stressed.

A. The Minimalist Approach

I don't mean to call up visions of three plants in a sea of mulch - you can be minimalist and still have lots of plants - but this is your approach if you just want to feed your family from the garden and not have to deal with huge amounts of extra produce. Plan your garden so you end up able to pick something for dinner every night that you cook, with a few tomatoes left over for sandwiches, and then STOP. Don't fill in the extra space with, oh it won't hurt to have three more squash plants and a half dozen peppers and a small field of garlic. Plant flowers instead. Or herbs.

And yes, it's hard to do the math here, because sometimes plants are prolific and sometimes they die, and how many vegetables do we eat anyway? But after a year or two you'll get the hang of it, and meanwhile you can share your extras with friends and neighbors (who will not yet be sick of you bringing over that extra zucchini or five) or donate them to the hungry.

B. The Specialist Approach

If you like having jars of tomato sauce or bags full of frozen greens to enjoy during the winter, and you enjoy spending a little time in the kitchen to achieve that, but preserving massive amounts of vegetables every weekend through the summer doesn't sound like fun, try specializing. Plant a lot of one thing and process it all at once, and go minimalist for the rest of the garden. (Or plant flowers. Good for bringing in those pollinators!)

If you do this, it may work best to plant a lot of the same variety of whatever crop you want to preserve, so you're more likely to be picking it all at once - and consider determinate tomatoes rather than rangy indeterminate ones, so you'll have an end point to your season. But remember that you can freeze whole tomatoes and then take them out of the freezer later to turn them into sauce.

Interested in learning more about food preservation? Contact your local Extension service, or visit our Food Preservation page.

By the way, the Specialist approach is also good for anyone who has big sweet corn feasts, since it is not really worth growing corn unless you grow a fairly big patch of it (think 10x10 or more), because of the way it's pollinated. Do not go minimalist with corn.

All right, I need to go process massive amounts of tomatoes now (more on that later, perhaps) but hopefully this was of help to someone! And please do add your thoughts and suggestions in the comments.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Don't forget you can pick tomatoes ahead of full ripeness!

One of the most frustrating gardening experiences is watching a beautiful big tomato get close to ripeness and then - just when it's reached peak eating stage - finding that something has ruined it. There's a persistently repeated myth out there that you need to let tomatoes ripen on the vine or they won't have "fresh-picked flavor." But really, this isn't true. A tomato picked early and ripened on your counter will be just as good as one left on the plant.

Pick your tomatoes at "breaker" stage, when they've just started turning color. Hard green tomatoes will not ripen to satisfaction indoors, but tomatoes that are beginning to soften and blush red (or yellow, or purple, or whatever the ripe color will be) will do just fine.

Breaker stage tomatoes: photo by Bob Nixon. They can be greener than this!
So remember, if your vine-ripened tomatoes get savaged by birds and squirrels - pick early. If your lovely soft red fruits end up with hard spots from stink bug damage - pick early. If your plants are losing leaves fast to fungal diseases, and you're worried the fruits will get sunburned or rot - pick early. If you don't get to your garden every day to pick, and tomatoes often over-ripen and fall off - pick early. If your fruits tend to crack after rain - pick early.

We've been saying this since 2011! Read Bob's post about tasting kitchen-ripened tomatoes. This is the best advice I've had about tomatoes ever. It doesn't always work, and you will still lose a few of your precious fruits to really greedy visitors or rots that set in early, but your yields will be far higher and your frustration levels much lower.