Posts Tagged ‘tomatoes’

  Describe something as stronger, faster, and able to fend off foes, and most people think of caped crusaders in brightly colored tights.  Toss in a “and their tomatoes are amazing!” and you’re written off as talking to adolescent boys and Boris Vallejo fans.  But one look at the performance of this year’s hot new product, and you’ll be tempted to try a few in your garden to get a taste of what it’s like to live with a superhero.

 If you decide to plant a Mighty ‘Mato, buckle your seatbelts; it promised to be one wild summer ride.  The latest improvements to vegetables comes to us from the Pacific Northwest, where Log House Plants have perfected the art of fusing tomatoes to a rootstock that amps up America’s garden sweetheart with super natural powers. 

 “This is not a genetically modified organism; it’s a grafted plant,” says Brian Wheat, co-owner of Lafayette Florist, 600 South Public Rd. in Lafayette, CO, “it’s a modern tomato on an old world, wild tomato rootstock.  This is the same theory as roses, where they put roses on roots to have bigger flowers, bloom longer.  We want tomatoes to survive here, with our cool nights, poor soil, and temperature swings.  When people see how many tomatoes they get, how huge they are, they’ll be overwhelmed to see it performing so well.”

 To be honest, anything that touts itself as the must-have of the season gets a stink eye from me until it’s proven itself, because there are a lot of people who devote their lives to separating gardeners from our money.  Fads come and go, usually with late night television ads that, if you act now, will send you a few Ginsu knives they have lying around.  Wheat’s seen them all.  “Sometimes there’s a hula-hoop idea that is beautiful in its simplicity, like the Topsy-Turvy planter.  They’re perfect for certain places, like patios or those who don’t have gardens any more but want a little tomato plant.  I want my customers to get the most out of their garden; it’s the most important thing to me.”

 Getting the most from places in Colorado isn’t always easy, with changing elevation and a short growing season.  But this beauty and the beast pairing holds a lot of promise for gardens in challenging locales, like gardening at elevation, where Wheat sees the earlier cropping and tolerance to temperature swings of the Mighty ‘Mato beating out traditional tomatoes.  “When you look at its benefits, this tomato says Colorado, not Illinois, where I’m from.  They have rich soil, rain.  This makes sense for us; it starts producing earlier and gives fruit later into the season.”

If you’re growing it in a container, think big; the root system on Mighty ‘Mato requires a whiskey barrel or larger size pot.  And caring for a grafted tomato differs from a standard one:  you don’t plant them deeply.  Along the lower part of its vine, tomatoes have lumps, called root initials, that often develop into roots.  When this happens to a grafted tomato, the genetics of the top growth can take over, reducing or cancelling out the robust characteristics the rootstock provides.  Plant them at the same level as they are in the pot, making sure that the graft line – you can clearly see it – is above the soil. 

Many varieties of heirloom and hybrids are available on the Mighty ‘Mato, including:  beefsteak, Mortgage Lifter, Black Krim, Green Zebra, or Cherokee Purple slicers.  Cherry tomato fans will love the better-than-bumper-crop production of Sweet Million, Black Cherry, or Yellow Pear.  I’m trying Brandywine, because I’ve noticed a decline in its vigor in my garden and want to see if grafting gives it the jolt needed to grace our table with the tangy, old fashioned flavor love apples are known for.

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Today’s post can be heard on the public radio show Crop to Cuisine, hosted by Dov Hirsch.

Crop To Cuisine

September is my favorite month because I get to spend all of my spare time in my two favorite places – the kitchen and garden. All of the season’s toil and sweat comes down to this month, the one where the harvest takes center stage.

If you’re new to gardening, learning when to harvest is trial and error; in eagerness, you pluck a tomato too soon, or in anxiety, leave it too long on the vine. Either way, your harvest isn’t rewarding – pick too soon and the flavor doesn’t develop, too late and the fruit is mushy and not as sweet.

When the garden is packed with roots, leaves, fruits and flowers, how to tell if one pepper is better than another or when a ripe-to-the-point-of-sinful cantaloupe is ready?

Taste and color are big clues in the maturity of what you’re picking, but all of your senses should be used when gauging ripeness, so feel the vegetable for signs it’s ready to harvest. Cucumbers may look green and pretty, but if their middles are soft and spongy, or the rind is hard, they’re overripe.

Whether slender or globe-like, eggplants should be shiny, uniformly deep in color with a bright green cap. Avoid those with dull color, a green tinge or brown discolorations; all of these are signs of bitter or old fruit. Eggplant becomes bitter if stored too long, so harvest it just before you need it or store it in the fridge for up to a week.

Sweet corn is a darling of the season, and fans love the creamy yellow, pearly white or bicolor ears of this hallmark of the summer. Watch your ears for the silk to turn dark brown and the ears filled to the tip with tightly packed, plump kernels. When lightly pressed, the kernels should ooze a milky juice. Corn with dry brown husks and indentations on the kernels are likely to be past their prime and the sugars have turned to starch. Super sweets, especially, lose sugar quickly. If you’re looking to freeze some, go with bi-colors or yellows.

Heirloom tomatoes pack plenty of taste in funky colors like striped, purple, pink, orange or white. Usually we can tell when they’re ready, but try growing a green tomato – one that never really colors up, and you’re reduced to tasting the tomato to learn when it’s ripe. Most of the time, those green tomatoes will blush slightly, so look for a color change and firm, glossy skin before tasting it.

Once you’ve mastered the tricks to telling ripeness, it’s easy to spot cantaloupes ready with melt-in-your-mouth sweetness. Look for well-defined grey-yellow netting over tan skin and a crack developing around the stem where it connects to the melon. Cantaloupes slip from the vine when ripe, and when this crack is two-thirds of the way around the fruit, your melon is perfect. At the store, follow your nose when choosing cantaloupe. Ripe ones smell like melon.

While bells are the best known sweet peppers, sweet bananas and Italian bull’s horn types add thrill to the grill and fresh salads. Long and lean, these may look like their chili cousins, but don’t have the spice. Pick peppers with deep, rich color that feel heavy for their size, and compost those with thin walls that give when pressed. But know what you’re growing before following my advice – some bull’s horn types have thinner walls that give when you press them. When harvesting those, keep the ones that are wrinkle-free and sleek.

Green beans are best when picked young, then cooled quickly to store in the refrigerator. The best snap beans are harvested slim while the seeds are small and not swelling. Clip your pods – don’t yank them – from the plant when they’re less than one-quarter to one eighth inch around and have bright color. Discard those that are spindly, blemished or limp or those that are stringy when snapped.

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 In July we quietly suffered, patrolling the plants for the first signs of blush.   As early August came and went, we paced the rows morning and evening, hoping for color in the green mass.  By mid August, rumors of those who got a harvest began to swirl, whispered like Big Foot sightings or UFO encounters.   But now the truth is out there, in the garden and on the vine. 

 Yes, folks, tomatoes have finally begun to ripen.  This year along the Front Range tomatoes are slow to mature, leaving gardeners scratching their heads and wondering if they’ve done something wrong.  Though the fruit was plenty, those green tomatoes just sat there, tantalizing us with promise but refusing to ripen.

Why do I consider the tomato the difficult diva of the garden?  Aside from the hornworms, blossom end rot, spotted wilt virus, early blight, and Psyllids, the plant’s response to weather can drive you nuts.  And that’s what many experts believe is going on with our love apples.

This season began with soil temperatures staying chill well into June.  Unless your plants were tucked in with plastic mulch, the cool soil kept growth steady but slow until the soaring heat set in at June’s end.  But despite the sweltering days our nights stayed cool; temperatures dropped into the high 50’s and recently went lower.

The nightly cool down slowed tomato plants, delaying the ripening of fruit until every gardener in the area lost their self confidence.  Friends began reaching out for reassurance, texting and emailing their fantasies of filling their mouths with sweet, tangy tomatoes, begging to know what’s happening. 

Even I succumbed, sidling up to buddies to ask, casually, if they’d gotten any ripe tomatoes yet.  “You neither?” They said in response, after which we felt better for the shared torment.

Until this past week, when the fruit began to turn.  Announcements on the arrival of the colorful bundles of joy filled my inbox; texts of the first harvest sent gardeners rushing to their tomato patch to comb through their plants.  Songs of praise and encouragement filled the air as gardeners lifted their arms to the sky to find…

…rain.  And not just a little storm either; we had a mighty downpour yesterday, followed by a steady, soil drenching night. 

Don’t get me wrong – I love rain, and miss it more than I care to admit.  But when it arrives just as tomatoes have begun to ripen, known as the breaker stage, the sudden influx of water can cause those love apples to crack.  This is different than catfacing, which are indentations on the blossom end of the fruit caused, in part, by temperatures dropping into the 50’s during fruit set.

In advance of ripening the skin cells of tomatoes harden, leaving it unable to stretch if they get a sudden burst of water and resulting in concentric and radial cracking on the stem end.  Concentric cracking are rings circling the stem, while radial cracking are splits that run from the stem down towards the bottom of the fruit. 

Some tomatoes are prone to this, others a bit more tolerant, with certain cultivars doing this in the green stage.  Like most of the quirks of a difficult diva, ignore the cracks from the rain; there isn’t a lot you can do about it.  Cut off the damaged area, slice up the rest and enjoy.

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 “May you live in interesting times,” is a curse that seems to dog gardeners this summer.  If late snow, shredding hail, and humid conditions weren’t enough, Mother Nature is now sending a wave of insects to perk things up in the tomatoes. 

Tomatoes top the list for most kitchen gardeners, ranking number one in popularity across the country in a recent National Garden Bureau poll.  With thousands of love apples blanketing the area, it’s no wonder the Front Range is a hot place for psyllids to take their summer vacation. 

These tiny tomato boogeymen have begun assaulting plants this season in what may be the vanguard of thousands of migrating psyllids (Bactericera cockereli).  Dr. Whitney Cranshaw, Professor of Entomology at Colorado State University, has seen large numbers of these insects several parts of the state, including Larimer county.  Sightings of the insect have also been reported in Louisville and north and south Boulder gardens.  

A classic sign of psyllids is their waste, called lerps.


The aphid-sized adults are lovely, with jewel-toned eyes and dark abdomen banded in white.  Their young, yellow at hatching, gradually turn green with each molt; being flat and elliptical they look like scale.  Though adults move about actively and fly in migration, the young are sedentary, content to sit quietly, feed, and excrete white, waxy frass that resembles sugar. This is their waste, called lerps, and is an easy to see clue that your plant is being attacked. 

We should prepare for their arrival in our area soon, since these small, winged sap-feeding insects have toxic saliva that causes the plant to grow oddly.  Look for leaves turning yellow with purple veins, fruit that’s small and tasteless, or the plant appearing as if sugar were spilled on it.  

  Start scouting your plants, carefully checking them for insects or disease every three days until you spot signs of trouble.  Psyllids can mean big problems for tomatoes, severely stunting fruit; so at the first sign of them begin spraying plants with insecticidal soap to keep them at bay.  Coverage of both upper and lower leaf surfaces is crucial to control, and may not be enough. 

Dusts of sulfur can help, if care is taken to cover all leaf surfaces, but should the insects get the upper hand, stronger products with pyrethrin or esfenvalerate can be used.  

 Several diseases show up in gardens at this time.  Green plants turning blonde by yellowing from the lower leaves upward should be closely examined.  If they have brown spots with concentric rings, suspect early blight (Alternaria solani). 

Water, insects, and gardeners spread this fungus.  Pick off diseased leaves and keep the ground free of debris. Dust healthy leaves with sulfur to shield them from infection.  Once the plants have gotten three feet tall, pluck off leaves in the lower foot to prevent the spreading climb of the fungus.  Give plants room to grow without crowding them, and use drip irrigation to prevent splashing water.   

Black, sunken, rotten spots on the bottom of fruit are blossom end rot, a disorder caused by poor uptake of calcium.  Though calcium is plentiful in our soil, irregular watering and excessive heat prevent the plant from using it.  The key to control is watering consistently, so use a timer to automatically turn on and off the irrigation.  Mulch plants to keep the soil from drying out too rapidly.  

More information on tomato troubleshooting can be found on the Colorado State University Extension website.

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Brace yourselves for the strip show of summer, coming soon to a garden near you.  With tiny jaws and a will to chew, insects intent on turning your garden into an all-you-can-eat buffet are on their way, struggling up out of the soil as the weather warms.  First to lose leaves will be the evening primrose, then sumac, tomatoes, cabbage and potatoes.  

When flea beetles arrive, your garden will be a hot spot of trouble.  Hordes of these small, shiny bugs chew leaves to a nub, threatening the survival of fledgling plants.  Just mention them and gardeners panic, dusting and vacuuming the garden to get rid of the vermin. 

If your seedlings are going to survive, you need a plan to thwart the flea beetle attack.  But with this bug problem, there’s no quick fix.  Like swallows to Capistrano, the beetles keep returning, so several methods should be used to help your plants grow large enough to ward off harm.

What:  Wrap vegetables in floating row covers that allow sun and water, but not insects, to get through.  

Results:  These fabric tents keep insects out, as long as the bugs are not already on the plant.  If your plants are hosting the party already, clean out the buffet first.

What:  Vacuuming the seedlings.

Results:  Hand held dust busters do an excellent job and are easy to move around the foliage.  As an added bonus, the small capture bag can be quickly emptied of bugs into a plastic bag for disposal.

What:  Diatomaceous earth

Results:  This powder, made from crushed fossilized diatomes, is a good way to repel flea beetles.  The dust irritates the body of the bug and they hop off to find less grating haunts in your neighbor’s yard.  Since plants keep sending up new growth, the dust needs to be reapplied often. 

What:  Spinosad

Results:  Spinosad, a fermented by-product of microscopic actinomycetes (bacteria found in the soil), stops bugs cold.  For it to work the bugs have to eat it, which means beneficial insects that don’t eat plants are safe from harm (caution: don’t use this on plants in bloom, or it may harm honeybees).  Once the bad guys have eaten Spinosad, their nervous system gets overexcited, and they drop dead within hours. 

What:  Neem oil

Results:  As a repellent, neem, an extract of the neem tree, can slow feeding of flea beetles.  But it must be reapplied often and doesn’t affect the larvae, many of which develop in the soil.

Act early to protect your plants from attack, and practice safe gardening by reading and following directions on the label for all products. 

This post was previously published in the Longmont Ledger.

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  After reading the post about catalog shopping, reader Martha S. asked which tomatoes and peppers I’ll be growing this year.  The list is a little long so I decided to put it here instead of in comments.  Feel free to debate with me on which tomatoes everyone should try – I love to try new varieties, especially if they are highly recommended. 

Here’s my list, so far, of the tomatoes:

Cherry tomatoes:   SungoldGreen Doctors 

Salad slicers:  Jaune Flamme 

Paste:   Amish Paste

Oxheart:   Orange Russian 117

 Beefsteaks:  Great White ,  Brandywine (Sudduth’s strain) *,  Gold Medal,   Stump of the World,  Tajik giant tomato,  Aunt Ruby’s German Green*

  Sweet Peppers:     Shishito Pepper , Wisconsin Lakes

  Hot peppers:   Shishito Pepper ,  Red Peter (no link to photo because this novelty pepper looks like its name),  Mucho Nacho,  Anaheims,  Ancho Gigantea

This is the short list I’ve come up with, but I know there will be more to add once I’ve finished swapping seeds with a few folks.  Chan, the globe-trotting gardener who gave me the Tajik giant tomato plant last year (fruits weighed 1.8 pounds each), is at it again, talking me into giving the Shishito Peppers a try.  You’ll notice they’re listed under both “sweet” and “hot” because Chan tells me that you never know what you’re going to get from your plant – one pepper will be mild, another will flame your eyeballs out.  Sounds fun.

 Stuart has promised to send me seed of his favorite tomatoes, Creole, Old Brook, Gail’s Sweet Plum, and Demidov, which he says were both tasty and productive in his Colorado garden.  As a dwarf plant, Demidov did well in containers, but if you can’t find it, give Super Bush a try.

I admit, I don’t grow vegetables in pots – I’m fortunate to have enough space for a good-sized garden.  To be honest, I have a little problem called “forgetting to water” that I’m guilty of with my containerized plants.  This is never bad enough to kill them off, but they seesaw between drought and drowning, which is a recipe for blossom end rot in tomatoes.

When choosing your tomatoes, try to plan for early, mid-, and late season fruit, to ensure that you have love apples throughout the season.  We have a short growing season, due to snow squalls that pop up to surprise us in late May or mid-September.

Any variety that sets fruit at higher temperatures is also a plus, since our summers can be scorching hot.  One of the more common causes of blossom drop – where the tomato doesn’t set fruit and the flower fades – is daytime temperature above 85-degrees F plus nights that remain above 70.  Black From Tula is one type that likes the warmth, or if you prefer a hybrid, look for Heat Wave.

*Denotes tomatoes listed on Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste.

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If you’ve been following this blog, you might know that I have a passion for tomatoes.  One that borders on obsession and yes, today’s post is yet another ode to the love apple.  Rating flavor

We had a tomato workshop last Friday, one that brought 45 Colorado Master Gardeners out to Loveland to learn fall tips for growing and harvesting, plus a bit on how to preserve them. Politely the crowd listened to the history, varieties and uses of the tasty fruit, but throughout the two-hour lesson, their attention was somewhere else.

It was on the tables of tomatoes just to the south, filled end to end Tasting tablewith 52 varieties of lovely love apples waiting quietly for tasting.  They were shiny.  They were juicy.  And when the crowd was finally given permission to go forth and stuff themselves, a few of the contenders rose to the top as favorites amongst the crew.

Everyone was asked to rate the tomatoes on taste, texture, color, and any other criteria that mattered to the person sampling.

 We tasted blindly – the varieties weren’t identified – then voted on our favorites in each of the four classes:  cherry, salad slicers, pasting/canning, and beefsteak.  Two of the top vote getters are no surprise; these tomatoes sweep the competition whenever they compete.  Brandywine and Amish Paste are truly tops in their class.  Aunt Ruby's Green

Others delighted everyone who tried them, such as Aunt Ruby’s Green, a slicer with a bright, green flavor.  Here’s the list of top three in each group, in case you’d like to grow them next year. 

If you do, or if you have a tomato you think is tasty, we’ll hold this workshop again next fall, and let anyone who’s interested take part (this was the first time we did this, so tried it out on our MGs).


 First – Amish Paste

Second – La Roma II

Third (tie) – Grushovka and Goldman’s Italian American

 Cherry Tomatoes:  Green Doctors

 First – Green Doctors

Second – Sungold

Third – Sugar snack

Salad slicers:

 First – Aunt Ruby’s Green

Second – Rose De Berne

Third – Black Zebra


 First – Brandywine

Second – Gold Medal

Third – Aunt Ginny’s Purple

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It seems like the problems are coming fast out in the vegetable patch.  One that I’ve battled every year has reared its ugly head:  early blight on the tomatoes.  This fungus gets its jollies by attacking plants as the temperatures soar, and now that we’ve gotten toasty warm outside my plants are showing their first signs of disease.

Early Blight is the common name of the fungus Alternaria solani.  It overwinters on leaves or other plant parts left in the garden, then colonizes the plant by spores splashing up during irrigation or driving rain – something we’ve had a lot of this season.   early blight

 Once symptoms show they appear as brown to black, target-like spots on older leaves lower on the plant.  Effected leaves turn yellow, then drop from the plant.  Once this begins it seems that the rest of the summer is a race against the disease.  Fruit may or may not be effected, and you can still get plenty of love apples from the vine.  But in severe outbreaks the fruit is ruined. 

In the long term, good sanitation in the garden is the way to keep the disease pressure low:  cleaning up all fallen leaves every fall and destroying them.  Experts recommend rotating tomato plants out of the area for a couple of seasons, but in a backyard this isn’t exactly do-able.  I have one vegetable garden and the plants will have to get tough or suffer.  earlyblight3

Spacing plants far apart to get good air circulation is another way to keep disease low.  I’m a big proponent of this and try to give my plants plenty of room when I pop them in the ground.  But they have a nasty habit of growing, filling out and touching one another, then all hope for order in the garden is lost to chaos.   Vines ramble where they want, grapes reach out to throttle their neighbors, the tomatoes stick shoots out at odd angles and the pumpkins produce leaves big enough to diaper a baby – there’s no such thing as good air space when August rolls around.

Fortunately this season I have a new weapon to try in the battle for tomato dominance:  Potassium Bicarbonate, a.k.a. Green Cure.  This organic fungicide was developed by Dr. Ken Horst of Cornell University to combat many fungal problems on roses, but it is also labelled for use on tomatoes and other crops.  Green Cure

Dr. Horst found that potassium bicarbonate keeps fungus at bay, although it doesn’t completely eliminate it.  It’s useful on early blight, powdery mildew (I’m keeping an eye on my squash for that) and other common leaf problems.

 Green Cure is a wettable powder – you mix a couple of tablespoons in a gallon of water and spray it on the plant.  As with ALL pesticides, organic or not, read and follow the lable.  I like to spray early in the morning, before breezes kick up and the sun becomes intense on the leaves.  With this product, coverage of upper and lowersides of leaves is important, and will have to be reapplied every two weeks until I decide I’ve had enough tomatoes.

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Amy Goldman is on a mission to keep heirlooms in the hands of those who grow and enjoy them.  Chairperson of Seed Savers Exchange and author of The Heirloom Tomato, she spoke with alarm of the seedless tomato offered by Burpee.  “Breeding the life out of a fruit is anathema to me.  Taking seeds out of the hands of gardeners and farmers is the ultimate in seed monopoly.  For the last 11,000 years it’s farmers and gardeners who have domesticated all of our food crops and passed seed along to next generation.”

Order seeds now to start your own gourmet garden.

Order seeds now to start your own gourmet garden.


Goldman’s concern for preserving the diversity of plants goes far beyond the limits of a backyard garden; like the plants she champions she looks to the welfare of generations who will follow us.  “In a world of homogenized taste where industrial agriculture dominates, heirlooms are the natural alternative and give biodiversity – they’re the genetic reservoir of our croplands. That’s our common legacy heritage and birthright, but it’s disappearing at a rate of one- or two-percent per year.


“We need to preserve the past – the future depends on the past,” she said in a telephone interview from Long Island, New York.  Dependence on the hybridized plants from a few seed companies reduces the variety of food finding its way to dinner tables, with flavor and nutrition giving way to convenience. 


Should all gardens be reduced to a handful of plant choices – often the same as those commercially produced – the kaleidoscope of flavor, texture and aromas that fill our homes would turn pale.


“It’s not just that they’re breeding the life out of tomatoes – they’re breeding the flavor out too,” she said, “It’s the seeds and the gel that surrounds them that gives a lot of flavor to the tomato, because that’s where the acid lurks.  I can never understand when some chefs or cooks take the seeds and the gel out – they’re taking out half the flavor.


“But that’s the bottom line, isn’t it?  The flavor.  I love to feed people… (and when working on this book)…nothing went to waste, whether it went into my soup pot or their soup pot.  One of the great joys is sharing the bounty with others.”


Passion for the food she grows has led to several books that delve deeply into growing – and eating – popular garden staples.  Melons for the Passionate Grower inspires readers to love the sweet, succulent fruit, and the Compleat Squash will have you plowing up the front, side, and backyards just to grow the rambling vines.

Heirlooms are our heritage.

Heirlooms are our heritage.


If Goldman knows she’s the pied piper leading us along the path to obsession, she doesn’t show it.  Witty, gracious, she plants herself firmly in the group of devoted green thumbs bemused by the surprises that garden has in store each year.  “This is how it gets out of control – one thing leads to another.  But isn’t it time we got back to real tomatoes?  Heirlooms are real tomatoes – these are real vegetables.”


So what tomatoes will you be trying this year?  Along with Goldman’s Italian American, I’m trying Stump of the World, Pruden’s Purple, Gold Medal, Great White, Jaune Flamme, and Orange Russian 117.


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