Canning Tomatoes

Photo courtesy of www.prudentbaby.com
Photo courtesy of http://www.prudentbaby.com

I have always loved putting up for winter. When I was young, it was always jam. Blackberry jam from hand-picked berries ripened inland from the coastal fog that swallowed the headlands in the summer – creeping up the craggy ocean cliffs and settling in the branches of the redwoods. We would drive east toward the sun, through the dappled light of the dense forests; on roads that curved and ambled under giant redwoods on pavement slick from the damp. We would reach the sunlight and, in the dry Mediterranean heat, would sweat under our sunhats as thorns stabbed our fingers and the regular sound of berries dropping in the buckets filled the air. All the scents of summer were amplified in the close heat. The cool damp scent of creek bottoms floated up on the breeze and mingled with the rich, earthy aroma of cows. Pungent mint crushed underfoot spiced the dusty air.

Once we made it home with what wasn’t consumed en route, we would rinse the berries and boil them down with sugar. Jars clinked in the boiling water as they sterilized and country music on the FM radio crackled through the speakers as Vince Gill, George Strait, and Leann Rimes serenaded us from the living room stereo. Sometimes, when the fog had receded and was sulking somewhere on the ocean horizon, we would open the top of the dutch door in the kitchen and the scent of lavender from the planter boxes on the deck would waft in on the breeze. The jam jars were filled and we would retire to the porch with ice in our drinks and listen for the ping of sealing lids.

Since growing up and moving out on my own, I get an itch deep down in my memory that starts in August. Most years, the produce to do my own canning comes from the farmers market, but this year I have my own garden. I started six tomato plants indoors from seed last spring and watched them slowly mature as snow blanketed the world. The learning curve for tomatoes in my area has been quite steep, but trial and error (actually, quite a few successes) has yielded a total of 14 pounds of tomatoes – minus the ones eaten in hand as I stand between the plants with juices dripping down my forearm. And they’re still flowering.

For fear of losing my crop of harvested tomatoes, I canned my first batch of tomatoes this evening. How ironic that preparing for the frigid days of winter must start in the heat of an Indian summer. A stove full of boiling water on a hot summer afternoon will be a distant memory as I make lasagna, sauces, and casseroles or fill my Crockpot with canned tomatoes from my summer garden as the snow hurls itself against the windows. The same can be said for gathering and stacking firewood. The American writer and philosopher Henry David Thoreau said, “If you chop your own wood, it will warm you twice.”

Canning this evening was only part of what is to come from my garden, but was a good start with two pints and three half pints of chopped tomatoes. The color and aroma of a garden fresh tomato is unlike anything else and I look forward to the lingering taste of summer as I listen to the January wind and the bubbling sounds of dinner.

As I listen to the ping of my jars sealing in the kitchen, I am so thankful for the bounty coming forth from my garden. Thankful, also, for the childhood experiences etched into my soul that cause me to reach into my cupboards for jars and lids as the days begin to shorten an the leaves begin to change. Perhaps it is something deeper than my own experiences – an evolutionary draw from an ancestral past that is passed down from generation to generation, sometimes suppressed, but nevertheless present in each of us.

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June Garden

Sunfowers
Sunflowers and Hyacinth Beans growing against the garden fence

My garden is warming up for a sprint into summer. Hops and tomatoes seem to be growing inches every day and the first lettuce is nearly ready to make its way into my lunch. Every morning, something new appears – this morning it was mature leaves on the radishes. Radishes are exceptionally rewarding to grow – they take a little water, a lot of sun, and in 30 days you have sweet, delicate roots bursting with zest and ready to be crunched in a salad or on bread with butter (my personal favorite). After two attempts, my melons were large enough to plant out this week. I am finding it hard to get over the short growing season. It seems like only last week I was debating the benefits of planting early and worrying about frost, but yesterday the temperature reached a sweltering 94° and I sat wilting inside and worrying about the state of my garden. Of course, the plants are much more adapted to the heat than I am and they thrived in the oppressive sun while I sweated like a glass of ice in what little shade I could find.

This morning I was greeted with an enormous Oriental poppy, blooming a deep red in a sea of purple salvia. The poppy was one of the first plants to green up this spring under several feet of snow, but it took its time to bloom – sending up to flower stalks 4 feet tall with plump heads waiting to bloom. And it waited, biding its time, until the weather, temperature, time of day, time of year, and moon phase converged and the protective sepals flung themselves open and the deep red petals unfurled themselves like the wings of a damp and newly hatched butterfly – reaching it’s royal purple stamens toward the sun.

A family of bluebirds is nesting in a nest box on our fence this year. So far they seem friendly enough, but our neighbors had a much less congenial pair last year. Trips to water the garden were fraught with danger. It would start innocently enough with a few chirps from the male – warning noises to be sure – but soon the chirps would turn to squawking as the paranoid bird launched itself into the air – dive bombing and circling. Our poor neighbor would send her dog out to run interference while she hurried past under a large hat to the safety of the garden. Hopefully our bluebirds are not related.

As the days get warmer I am looking forward to the first harvests of tomatoes. The smell of the plants makes me salivate just thinking of the tomato and goat cheese salads that await me in the coming months.

Tomato
One of six tomato plants putting on a show of growth
Pumpkin
Sugar Pie Pumpkin
Radishes
French Breakfast Radishes nestled in next to the pumpkin. Excellent garden companions
Strawberry
Flowers and immature fruits on the strawberries
Lettuce
Volunteer green leaf lettuce is doing quite well
Blue Flax
Native Blue Flax. The delicate petals fall off mid morning, replaced by new flowers the following day.
Hops
Golden Hops climbs up trellis’ I made from old window shutters. Strawberries are nestled into cinder block planters along the fence, framed by blue flax
Melon
Miniature cantaloupe finally large enough to plant outside. Happily, it put on two new leaves the first day
Columbine
Columbine and salvia bloom in the rock garden blow the house
Poppy
A gigantic Oriental poppy
Lizard Hunter
The lizard hunter terrorizes the local population
Rock Garden
Poppies and salvia bloom behind the house
Columbine
Columbine has avoided being decimated by the deer thus far, thanks to my home made deer repelant.
Blue Flax and Purple Salvia
Salvia and blue flax humm with bees from dawn till dusk
Peony
Peony ready to burst

Teapot Planter

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Yesterday was yard sale day. The Pioneer Museum had a fundraising sale and I found this fantastic copper teapot for $3.00. What a find! I took it home and scoured it to remove (most of) the black patina so it could start to age and color again (hopefully in a nicer shade of golden green rather than straight black) and I dug up a succulent from the garden to pot inside it. I also decided to work on my photography skills and see how that went.

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Garden | Early Spring Planning

Happy Spring! With the seasons changing here in the North, I have been so inspired to start planning my summer garden. The growing season here is only about 100 days, so there is plenty of time to plan and prepare so I hit the ground running in May after (hopefully) there won’t be any more killing frosts. Depending on which USDA zone you look at, my garden is either in 4B or 5A. I do live on a south facing hill side, so I get the full impact of the warming sun and avoid the bitterly cold inversion layer that settles into the valley below. There can often be a 10° temperature difference between my house and the river as the cold air settles into the valley below.

Snow clouds descending down Red Canyon
Snow clouds descending down Red Canyon

My husband looked up our property on the National Cooperative Soil Survey. I have taken a soil science class so I am familiar with the classification and nomenclature given, but if you’re new to soil naming, Google is your best friend. This is what we found:

Soil Classification: Thermopolis-Sinkson Association

  • I searched this online and learned that the Thermopolis soil type (the part of the association found on my property) is a reddish brown loam, 15 inches thick, moderate permeability, low water availability, medium to rapid runoff, and severe hazard of erosion. 

Soil Description: Loamy mixed calcareous superactive frigid shallow ustic torriorthents (whew!)

  • Loamy describes the amount of sand, silt, and clay in a soil – generally speaking, this has more silt than sand or clay.
  • Mixed calcareous  describes the parent material (bedrock) as being high in limestone – this type is sometimes alkaline in pH. The pH listed for this soil type is ~7.9 which is alkaline.
  • Superactive means they swell when wet and shrink when dry
  • Frigid soil has a mean annual temperature less than 8°C, among other things
  • Ustic soil refers to the available moisture during the growing season. In this case it is is limited
  • Torriorthents are highly erodible and exhibit cracks in the soil (I believe)

Anyway, this basically tells me that I have a highly erosive soil that has an alkaline pH and – when enough water is present – is pretty good for growing. Since not much grows here, there is very little organic material so I need to supplement.

Several things are going into my garden planning. I have a rampant deer population in my neighborhood, so I have been searching for “deer tolerant” plants. This means that the deer may nibble, but they won’t brows it back to dusty nubs. These type of plants can recover from occasional browsing. Also, our water is on a cistern so I’m looking for drought tolerant plants. There are many options available, and I have been looking into a drip irrigation system to minimize water use. Ground cover plants are another great option since they shade and cover the soil, keeping it moist longer. Wind breaks also help in my area to reduce the evaporation of water form the soil.

To help with this planning, I have started a garden journal. I did some research about the bare minimum things that make a garden journal effective, and then altered to suit my needs. I used a spiral bound notebook and added some stick-on tabs for different sections. The following is a list of some of the items I have included:

  • Temperature – I track the high and low temperature every day both outside and in the laundry room where I have started my seedlings. This will help me in future years to look back and notice trends and the approximate dates when temperatures start to change 
  • Precipitation – We finally bought a rain gauge and mounted it on the deck. We also measure snow accumulation which will later be converted to rainfall inches
  • Garden sketches – I sketched out what was already in place and also use it to plan how I will organize my vegetable garden and future flower beds around the house
  • Daily notes – I use this to mark wildlife observations, when certain plants emerge, when I last watered, etc
  • Planting schedule – I plan to add a small calendar to mark when certain activities need to be accomplished. Additionally, I take copious notes as to when I started seeds, when I expect to transplant, when I expect fruit, I drew out color-coordinated diagrams of which seeds are in which seed-tray and how long they should take to germinate.
  • Research – I have a section for research notes: how to plant and care for tomatoes, when to start certain seeds outdoors, ideas for plant species based on my requirements (drought tolerant, deer tolerant, shade or sun, etc.) This is not necessarily a section, but I just add it in with the daily notes.
  • To Do list and Projects – I have a running list of things that need to be done outside (fix vegetable garden fence, repair bluebird houses, call contractor to regravel driveway, etc.) and I happily cross them off when they get done!
  • Contacts – Name, phone number, and address of nurseries, landscaping companies, local extension office, contractors, etc.
High and low daily temperature records
High and low daily temperature records
Garden plan with structures and plants
Garden plan with structures and plants
Diagrams of seedling trays with germination dates and notes
Diagrams of seedling trays with germination dates and notes
Research notes on tomato planting
Research notes on tomato planting

I have also started seedlings! I had several seedling trays from last year that I washed to sanitize and dried in the sun. I filled them with a starting medium and added 2-4 seeds per soil pod. The seedling trays have clear plastic lids to maintain humidity and temperature within the trays and to create the best environment for seeds. I will end up sacrificing some of the seeds when I thin, but I would rather have too many sprout than too few. I did learn that the best way to thin is to use tiny scissors (like for embroidery), and snip off the seedlings you wish to remove at the soil level to keep from disturbing the roots of the growing seedlings.

Tomato varieties freshly planted
Tomato varieties freshly planted
Tomato seedlings after 9 days
Tomato seedlings after 9 days
Lupine seedlings after 9 days
Lupine seedlings after 9 days

Our gardening plans this year include quite a bit of general landscaping. We have been working to make our home FireWise which means clearing most of the juniper around the house out to 20 feet and thinning out to 100 feet. The local conservation district is selling native trees and shrubs in lots of 25 plants so we ordered one lot of Golden currant, one lot of Douglas fir, one lot of Pinon pine, and a one gallon Colorado blue spruce, and three one gallon Ponderosa pines. We get to pick those up on April 24.

We visited the local nursery last weekend and the father of the owner (who used to own the nursery himself) gave us a tour of the whole place. They sell everything from fruit trees to hanging plants to native plants; vegetables and seed packets, berries and conifers; they also sell grass seed mix and bulk soil which we will take advantage of. They are really an exceptional resource and start almost everything there from seed. The plants take a little longer to mature, but are all well naturalized to the environment in the high mountains and do very well. We bought several seed packets while we were there, including cantaloupe, pumpkins, radishes, black-eyed Susan’s, and purple cone flower. I will be starting the cantaloupe and pumpkin indoors, and seeding the radishes directly in the garden, as well as direct seeding the flowers. I also collected poppy seeds from the house we lived in last year and will be seeding those directly.

I am so excited to start my other garden projects once this snow that just started melts again. I plan to build a compost pile and add a functioning gate to my vegetable garden, as well as repair the fence that the deer busted through this winter. I would love to build raised beds and arbors in the garden, too, but I also have dreams of moving the vegetable garden so they need to be transportable if I decide to relocate.

The first day of Spring has arrived here with thunder, lightning, snow, sleet, and hail. Such a tumultuous environment I live in! I guess I will curl up with a mug of tea and wait for the thaw.

Indoor Gardening | Paperwhites

I am so excited that the weather will break freezing almost every day this week, I can’t even tell you. Yesterday morning it was -12. To celebrate, I think it’s appropriate to talk about plants.

In November, I purchased several varieties of bulbs to plant outside around the house, as well as 25 or so Narcissus paperwhites. Paperwhites are really stunning, especially since they bloom indoors in the dead of winter when everything else is fairly dormant. The smell is absolutely intoxicating.

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(Photo courtesy of Simply Me)

What is even more exciting, is they’re extremely easy to grow. They will grow just about anywhere, and in any planting medium. I have several pots around the house with media ranging from soil to pebbles to shells to nothing but water. You can start paperwhites any time in the winter – I’ve heard up to about February – and they will bloom nicely.

To pot up your indoor paperwhites:

1. Start with whatever large, wide-mouthed vessel you have on hand. I have a few in small baking dishes, mason jars, and pots. Sometimes you can find fantastic wide glass containers at the dollar store for a steal. Same goes with decorative rock. I have purchased rock from Michael’s arts and crafts stores, but aquarium rock would be fine, or beach or river rocks you have collected. I used shells this year since I had bags add bags collected from beach trips.

2. Add a layer of pebbles or shells that is approximately level to the bottom. Depending on the size of your pot or jar, a minimum of 2″ is best. More is always fine.

3. Nestle as many bulbs as you can cram into the pot or jar. Seriously, the cozier the better. This will give you a zillion blooms at once, and help keep them upright until the roots form.

4. THIS IS IMPORTANT: Add water, but only so the base of the bulbs is just barely sitting in the water. If the water is too high, the bulbs will rot. If the water is too low, they will dry up. Less water is better. As long as the bottom of the bulb is just barely damp, the roots will grow down into the water.

5. Sit back and enjoy. Depending on the temperature in your home and the amount of light, bulbs will start to grow in about a week, you will see roots in about 2 weeks, and flowers in as little as 4 weeks. This is all dependent on where your plants are located. A sunny, south facing window is best. These babies can take a lot of direct sunlight.

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Any compact baking dish will work well. This is a four quart CorningWare dish. I added about 2″ of shells into the bottom and nestled the bulbs in. They are happily growing away on the kitchen table. I also placed eight bulbs into a Pyrex loaf pan. The loaf pan is a great size for setting on a window sill since it’s long and narrow.

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Two of these three are filled with rocks and shells. As you can see, any amount of planting medium works fine. The roots will grow down through and around the shells and stones. The middle bulb is placed directly in a bud vase with the base just touching the water. This is also fun because you can see the roots do their magical thing and they will eventually fill up the vase.

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This is a little difficult to see, but I planted these two in soil. The terra cotta pot is nested inside of a decorative ceramic pot. Even in soil you can plant them directly next to each other. I had hoped to fit three in there, but the bulbs were just a little large. When you plant in soil, be sure the soil stays damp, but not saturated.

I also want to make note of a few additives you may wish to take advantage of:

1. For bulbs in water, sometimes the water takes on a particularly funky, sulphury smell. I have heard that adding a tablespoon or two of aquarium charcoal will help absorb the odor.

2. Also for bulbs in water, as the stalks grow, sometimes they can become extremely long and leggy and have more of a tendency to flop over. When the stalks are 8″ – 12″ tall, add a little splash of rubbing alcohol to the water. This will stunt the growth and keep them from becoming too lanky.

This is my first year growing paperwhites, and I’m hoping to find out a way to store them for next year, too. Does anyone know of a good way to store them? Have you grown these before? Please let me know. Also, I’m always looking for additional information so share your secrets to perfect indoor bulb growing!

XOXO