Saturday, November 9, 2013

Putting Food By

Written for the Davis Enterprise  October 10 2013

Sorting through my mother's files recently, I came across a remarkable one in her household folders.

Starting in 1981, my mother recorded all the garden produce they had put up for the freezer. They had been gardening actively at this house since building it in 1953. I think the list began as a way of keeping inventory of what was in the large freezer, but my mother is a methodical and consistent archivist. So began an annual listing of what she and my father cut up, blanched, roasted, packed in syrup, and otherwise prepared for future meals.

We didn't live on a farm! This is a normal suburban yard in coastal Southern California. It wasn't so much the total volume that impressed me, it was the fact that they processed and froze something nearly every week, sometimes a couple of times a week, every year, from March through November. A couple of pints here, a few quarts there. And as my mother often proudly said, she ate "something from the garden every day of the year." For nearly sixty years.

It is a diverse list. The mild climate there doesn't happen to favor the traditional fruits, but it does provide exotic things like feijoa, nopales
, and loquats. In her tidy handwriting I also see olives and pickles, applesauce, and loads and loads of tomatoes, roasted Anaheim chili peppers for rellenos, beans, and squash.

I remember Brussels sprouts and chayote, prickly-pear fruit syrup, ridiculous quantities of zucchini, tomato vines that grew up onto the roof, and the year I grew a fourteen-foot tall sunflower plant. There were vigorous Olallie berries strategically placed for passers-by to help themselves. I remember my dad spending six Saturdays in a row trying to make the perfect berry pie. We kept telling him the recipe wasn't 'quite' right yet, so he'd try again the next weekend. Eventually he caught on to us, or ran out of berries. She grew horseradish (lesson: process it out on the patio, it's pungent!), and made the mistake of planting mint in the garden. In later years my father developed a passion for pepper plants and enjoyed growing as many types as he could.

They didn't process food because they had to. They did it because they liked growing their own food, and because it is what they, or at least my mother, had known growing up. A child of the later depression years, she came of age during World War II, and folks just did that sort of thing if they could. She told me of her childhood years in the Black Hills of South Dakota, finding chokecherries for jam and growing Victory Gardens. Mostly corn and cucumbers at that elevation and latitude.

Thinking back on it, very few of our neighbors had vegetable gardens. Fruit trees, sure. Maybe a couple of tomato plants. But few were as avid at growing food as my parents. And there has never been a time in my life, then or now, when I didn't have a vegetable garden at the place I lived, except for my brief stint in the dorms as a student. I've made my share of mistakes, mostly having to do with planting too much of a particular thing. But processing a big pot of tomatoes every few days is just part of the background in late summer and fall. So I guess I got that gene.

We are seeing a return to home growing of vegetables and fruits, not just as a trend but as a way of life. People want healthy, fresh food, and the best way to get that is to grow your own. And we're seeing a return to food preservation, which follows naturally from that. Our dry, sunny October weather leads to an abundance of early fall produce, and I talk to people who are a little overwhelmed by it all. So here are a couple of suggestions based on my experiences.

Keep it simple.

My favorite thing to do with a major harvest of tomatoes is just boil them to soften, puree them, strain them, simmer more to thicken by about half, and then freeze it. Process it now, season it later. What you want in December is fresh tomato flavor, and you can decide then if you're making pasta sauce or enchiladas. One exception: I do take the remainder of the basil in the garden and blend it into some tomato sauce before simmering it down. Basil also freezes whole. Just spread the leaves out on cookie sheets until frozen and then pack into freezer bags. The fresh flavor is there months later, but keep in mind the leaves will turn black.


I like to keep the yellow tomatoes separate and make a special puree just from them. Yellow tomatoes tend to be sweeter but milder in flavor. Their puree makes a great base for salsas because their tomato flavor doesn't overwhelm the peppers: you can just chop in some mild and/or hot peppers and onion, and salt to taste. One batch of the yellow tomatoes gets blended with equal parts tomatillos for salsa verde. Your family, particularly if they were raised on commercial condiments, may want more salt, more vinegar, and even some sugar in the final product (you can wean them off that later, or use a little fruit instead).

If you have the freezer space, small tomatoes such as Roma or Juliet can be frozen whole. Just spread them out on cookie sheets, freeze until solid, and then seal them in freezer bags. When you run the frozen tomato under tap water, the skin will peel right off.

I process (carefully! wear gloves) hot peppers much as I do tomatoes. In fact, I often combine some tomato puree with the peppers, boiling and blending into a puree. I often add some vinegar and salt and maybe a little fruit for sweetener, and then freeze the result. Note from mom: label these carefully! You don't want to put hot pepper sauce into your spaghetti by accident, and they look alike in the freezer.

Smaller and thinner-skinned hot peppers just get dried. I cut the plant at ground level when frost or rain threatens, then hang it upside down in the garage. You can do this indoors, but it smells funky for the first few days. Within a few weeks the peppers are dry enough to store. This is the simplest way to keep Thai, pequin, and cayenne peppers through the winter.

You certainly can process all of those tomatoes and sauces in canning jars and seal them that way. That's fun to do and saves on freezer space. My parents did that, and I have done it many times. An extra deep pressure cooker gives nearly 100% success at sealing jars. But my experience is that canning is something of a production, and I just find it's harder to get around to it. I think their approach of a little bit processed every few days is much less daunting to the average gardener with a busy schedule. Chop, simmer, strain, and freeze you can do in an evening while working on other things.

Mom's last entry was last October. Age and illness kept her from planting a vegetable garden this year for the first time in six decades. Good news, mom: you passed it on to at least one of your kids, and I have quite a record of accomplishment to live up to. Thank you.

An afternoon's harvest in early October. Our warm, dry weather before the rainy season extends our harvest of summer vegetables.
Thai pepper plant ready for harvest. Cut it off at ground level, hang it upside down in the garage. Foliage will wither away and pepper pods will dry out, ready for storage in a few weeks. They keep for months.
Cayenne peppers a few weeks after drying. You can store them in jars or just leave them in a basket on the counter. Caution: very hot!
Pineapple tomato is an heirloom variety with golden flesh suffused streaks of red. It makes a beautiful orange-gold puree with sweet flavor, great as a base for salsa.
Try something new? There are a lot of different colored tomato varieties on the market now; some hybrids, some open-pollinated. Your puree will be the color of the variety, so consider separating and processing the different varieties. Some are sweeter, some have stronger flavors.
Pork Chop is a new open-pollinated tomato that is light yellow. The flavor is sweet, and the production is phenomenal. I got more than 60 fruit, average 12 - 14 oz., from a single plant.

Red Boar is actually orange-pink with red stripes. It produced very well, has great tomato flavor, and made a bright orange-red sauce.
Wine Jug is a dark, almost purple-red tomato, very meaty with few seeds. This new open-pollinated variety looks like an interesting addition to a mixed tomato planting for colorful fruit, and it makes a very thick rich puree.

I've learned to cut back my basil plants in August when they flower to force new growth. That gives a flush of leaves that you can harvest in late September and October. Basil can be dried, frozen whole, or made into pesto and frozen.
It's a simple process when you're using the freezer. Cut the fruit and remove any bad parts. Simmer until soft, mash and blend. Simmer again for awhile. Strain to remove seeds and skin, simmer the remainder down to thicken it. Then freeze for use in winter and spring.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Here's my July Davis Enterprise garden column about what'll happen if you turn off your sprinkler system...

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Tips for summer garden success!

Tips for summer success!

Written for the Davis Enterprise, May 09 2013
With warm temperatures and summer vegetable and flower gardens getting underway, here are some quick pointers to help you be more successful.

Feed your plants!

Or feed your soil, and let your soil feed your plants.

I'm running into a frequent problem with organic gardeners who make their own compost. They're doing everything right: saving leaves and garden vegetation and composting it, then spreading it around the garden. Then their plants grow slowly and the older leaves are yellowing: a common sign of nitrogen deficiency.

You need to fertilize your garden for good growth and flowering. A standard rate of application that I find in soil service recommendations and fertilizer handbooks is Ò1000 lbs. of actual nitrogen per acre.Ó That's a useful statistic if you know how to convert your acreage to square feet, and how to read a fertilizer label. That's a little more than 2 lbs of actual nitrogen per 100 square feet; 2.3 to be exact, but you don't need to be exact. 2.3 lbs. of fertilizer? No: actual nitrogen. So you need to know what percentage of your fertilizer is actual nitrogen.

A little technical overview here.

Every fertilizer you buy, by law, has two things on the label. The N-P-K formula, and the "guaranteed analysis" telling you how much of each of those is in the bag, and what the sources are.

N = nitrogen.

P = phosphorus.

K = potassium.

I am not concerned about P or K. Neither is deficient here.

Here are some examples of guaranteed analyses of N-P-K:

o          4-6-2 (starter fertilizer, organic)

o          5-10-10 or 5-5-5 (common synthetic tomato-veg foods)

o          6-2-1 (cottonseed meal)

o          13-0-0 (blood meal)

o          16-16-16 (multi-purpose)

o          10-1-4 (natural lawn food)

o          21-0-0 (ammonium sulfate)

That's a lot of numbers. What should you use? How about manure; is it a fertilizer?

Manure is popular for gardens because it tends to be inexpensive and readily available. It's a pretty good source of nitrogen, and provides organic matter that makes the soil looser. Manure ranges from 1 to 3% nitrogen (steer is lower, chicken is higher). But to provide your nitrogen completely with manure, you'd need (for that 100 square foot bed) 75 lbs. of chicken manure (about four bags) or 230 lbs. of steer manure (six to ten bags).

You can provide ten to twenty percent of your nitrogen needs by growing a cover crop in the fall and winter. Legumes, which are plants in the bean family, 'fix' nitrogen from the atmosphere in the root zone, helping to feed other plants. A solid bed of fava beans, vetch, or clover can reduce the amount of plant food you need to apply. But they won't provide it all.

Your own home-made compost doesn't have much nitrogen. It's a great thing to add to your soil, but not for its plant food value.

Here's what I do.

o          I incorporate some all-purpose garden compost to the whole garden bed each year, spreading an inch layer on top and turning it in. What I use contains 15% chicken manure. If you're using your own compost, add some extra manure. That's four bags (2 cubic foot) per 100 square feet.

o          I add a small handful of an organic fertilizer that's 10% nitrogen in each planting hole as I put the seedling in. That's about 10 lbs. of fertilizer per 100 sq. ft.

o          I grow cover crops, mostly fava beans or vetch, in garden beds in the winter, and I just mow those off in spring and spread the leafy top matter around. That provides about 10% of my total nitrogen, and the tops and roots enrich the soil as they decompose.
By my estimates, that all adds up to about 2 lbs. of actual nitrogen. I sometimes feed high-yielding plants like peppers and eggplant again during the summer, simply by sprinkling some more fertilizer alongside them and watering it in. And I plant bush beans in as many little corners as I can, because they put nitrogen in the soil as they grow.

Already planted your vegetables or flowers? That's fine. Just spread some fertilizer around them and carefully cultivate it into the top inch of the soil, then water it in.

Organic or synthetic?

Organic fertilizers are lower-nitrogen, so you need more pounds of them. They are somewhat more expensive than synthetic fertilizers. But there's a big difference: they release their plant food more slowly and steadily through the season. And the plant food is in the form of organic matter that breaks down and improves the soil structure.

With organic fertilizers, the nitrogen availability is a function of soil temperature, so they tend to be there for the plant when the roots are growing and the plant needs it. Organic fertilizers only need to be applied once a season. And you're very unlikely to mis-apply them and burn the plant.

Common sources of organic nitrogen, often blended in mixes, include:

o          Alfalfa meal (very low nitrogen)

o          Bat or seabird guano

o          Blood meal

o          Cottonseed meal

o          Feather meal

o          Fish emulsion or meal (great to get seedlings going)

Synthetic fertilizers are higher-nitrogen and cheaper. They are derived from petroleum products. You can feed a garden bed for a few dollars, and you see faster results. But they release all of their nitrogen very quickly, promoting vigorous and sometimes tender new growth. They're salts, which can damage roots if applied at rates higher than the label recommendation, and can damage those beneficial soil organisms that help plants feed themselves. They can burn the plant if they aren't watered in immediately and thoroughly. Within a few weeks they're gone, so you may need to fertilize again a couple of times during the season.

Common sources of synthetic nitrogen include:

o          Ammonium phosphate

o          Ammonium sulfate

o          Potassium nitrate.

o          Urea

Water carefully.

"Check daily, water as needed."

Newly transplanted vegetable and flower seedlings may need water every other day for the first few days. Within a week or so their roots have made a surprising amount of growth, at which point you can water longer and less often. Water thoroughly, deeply, and as infrequently as possible. We see a lot of young plants watered more often than needed.

Be aware of special situations.

Raised planter beds, and loose sandy soils drain faster and need more frequent irrigation. They don't hold nutrients as well, so you may need to apply nitrogen a couple of times during the season. In most other situations, one application would be fine.

Cage your tomatoes well.

The time to plan for the rambunctious growth of your tomato plants is when you plant them. Once they get going they become increasingly difficult to corral into reasonable production units. Most tomatoes are what we call indeterminate, meaning it is a vine that keeps growing all summer and into the fall, often to ten feet or more. Those cute little tomato cages sold at most garden stores are no match for a normal tomato in the Sacramento Valley! Make your own cages out of concrete wire that you buy from the lumber store. They need to be at least six feet tall, and staked securely.

Don't freak out about the weather.

When we get our first day in the 90-degree range, people start to ask Òisn't it getting kind of late to plant?Ó No! Soil temperatures for summer vegetables and warm-season flowers are just getting where we want them! I plant peppers and eggplant in May or June, and continue planting beans into July. Some of our favorite flowers love heat and loath cold: verbena, lantana, zinnias are some of the easy stars of the summer garden. Shrubs and trees go in just fine during warm weather so long as you water them properly. Summer is the very best time to plant citrus trees; plants root and grow very quickly in warm soil.

Manage your summer pests wisely.

Wash off your plants regularly with a strong blast of water. This kills aphids, mites, and other insects and removes dust from the leaves. A regular vigorous shower, preferably early in the day, can prevent a lot of pest problems.

Know the good guys! Beneficial insects are hard at work in your garden. Summer gardens rarely need any pesticides.

Smother summer weeds. Weeds that sprout in May grow very fast and take over by August. Good quality landscape fabric can minimize weed problems and help conserve soil moisture.

Plant some flowers among your edibles.

Or some edibles among your flowers. Certain flowers draw beneficial insects into your garden. Cosmos and marigolds draw butterflies, borage draws bees, sweet alyssum attracts beneficial predatory insects. Diversity is always good in the garden.

For picture links, visit the original article at

The label on the fertilizer bag or box tells you what's in it and what it's made from. On the left is a typical synthetic fertilizer. Most of the nitrogen sources are petroleum products. The nitrogen in the organic fertilizer on the right is mostly from animal byproducts.

Get your cage on your tomato plants while they're still small! This simple cage system is shown about four weeks after planting. It's made from concrete wire available from your local hardware or lumber store. Ask for the six inch grid, so you can get your hand through to pick the tomatoes! Just poke branches back in when they try to escape. Note the landscape fabric to reduce summer weeds. Good quality fabric can last for several years. 

Borage is usually sold in the herb section of your garden store. The leaves smell like cucumbers! The beautiful blue flowers attract bees and other pollinators into your garden. 

Cosmos is a great addition to the summer vegetable garden, and an easy annual for the flower border. Plant directly from seed, or transplant purchased seedlings; they bloom from June through September and attract butterflies, beneficial pollinators, and hummingbirds.

A gardener's great friend, the leatherwing beetle is a voracious aphid eater. They can often be found near your porch light at night. Entirely beneficial, once these show up in your garden your aphid problems usually disappear. 

© 2013 Don Shor, Redwood Barn Nursery, Inc., 1607 Fifth Street, Davis, Ca  95616
  Feel free to copy and distribute this article with attribution to this author.

    Click here for Don's other Davis Enterprise articles

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Don’s pick -- tomatoes!

                             Don’s pick     

I was asked, “if you could plant just five tomatoes, which would they be?”
What is this, purgatory?!? Well, that’s a tough choice, but here are five I wouldn’t be without. Ok, with a couple of alternates.

Early Girl -- reliable yield early and late in the season, great flavor, good disease resistance.

Champion or Better Boy -- high yield, large fruit, great flavor, good disease resistance.

Costoluto Genovese (shown at right) – beautiful fluted fruit, very meaty, wonderful rich flavor, great for cooking.

Juliet or SunGold – very high-yielding small-fruited types. Juliet is my preference, but Sungold is the most popular cherry tomato of all time.

Pineapple – golden yellow fruit with red striations, very sweet, very large fruit. Makes a beautiful salsa.

Can I please plant some more types?

How about….

Abraham Lincoln
Better Boy
Giant Belgium
Lemon Boy
Mortgage Lifter
San Marzano
Sweet 100
Oh, I’m sure I could come up with another dozen….

In sum: plant some reliable hybrids, some heirlooms that are known to do well in our area, and try something new every year. You may discover a new family favorite! Now is the time to plant tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and all your favorite summer vegetables.