Dealing with frost

Here in eastern Ontario, we could get our first frost in a couple of weeks (although the forecast looks pretty good so far).  When freezing temperatures occur, the water inside plant cells freezes and expands, bursting cell walls.  Frost is certain death for many types of plants.  Cool season vegetables, on the other hand, produce more sugar as the temperature drops.  The sugary water doesn’t freeze until the temperature drops much lower, and the additional sugar improves the flavour.  That’s why root vegetables such as carrots and rutabagas are often harvested after a frost, or left in the ground late into fall.

At this time of year, monitor the weather forecast carefully.  If a frost warning is issued, you may choose to harvest your frost-sensitive plants, or cover them for the night, if the cold spell will be brief.  To cover plants, loosely drape them with blankets or plastic sheets (prop heavy covers up with stakes or something similar, so they do not crush the plants), or place plastic containers or the like over each plant.  Remove the covers in the morning so that your plants don’t suffocate.

These plants are extremely sensitive to frost:

  • Beans
  • Basil
  • Corn
  • Cucumbers
  • Dill
  • Eggplants
  • Melons
  • Peppers
  • Pumpkins and winter squash (the fruit will survive the frost, but the vines won’t, so you can play the odds and wait until the next day to see if the frost actually hits)
  • Tomatoes
  • Tomatillos
  • Zucchini and other summer squash

The following plants can tolerate a light frost:

  • Bok choy
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Celery
  • Chinese cabbage
  • Cilantro
  • Lettuce
  • Mint
  • Oregano
  • Rosemary
  • Spinach
  • Swiss chard
  • Thyme

These plants will tolerate a heavy frost, and in fact, most of them prefer the cold weather:

  • Beets
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Cabbage
  • Carrots
  • Chives
  • Endive
  • Garlic (although it is usually ready before the frost hits)
  • Kale
  • Leeks
  • Onions
  • Parsley
  • Parsnips
  • Peas
  • Potatoes
  • Radishes
  • Rutabaga
  • Turnips

Plant of the week: Eggplants

Eggplants (also known as aubergines) belong to the nightshade family, along with peppers and tomatoes.  Although they’re not that flavourful by themselves, they are great when added to spicy dishes, or marinated and grilled.  Eggplants are a good source of vitamin C, iron, potassium, and fiber.

Ideal growing conditions

Start seedlings inside 6-10 weeks before the last frost date.  Ensure that the seeds are only lightly covered with soil.  After the final frost, begin to harden off the plants, then transplant them into your garden or large pots, spacing plants at least two feet apart.  Eggplants like warm, sunny, well-drained soil that is slightly acidic. Adding composted manure to the soil will make your plants happy.

Water the plants regularly, but don’t drench them or let them sit in water.  Some varieties of eggplants may require supports, such as tomato cages or stakes.

Types

Eggplants come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colours.  As a general rule, light-coloured varieties are less bitter than dark purple varieties.

  • American (aka Globe) eggplants are the largest variety.  Their large size and meaty texture makes them ideal for grilling.
  • Italian eggplants are smaller, thinner, and sweeter than Italian eggplants, but otherwise they’re quite similar in appearance.  Both American and Italian varieties are usually deep purple.
  • Chinese and Japanese eggplants are smaller and thinner, which makes them ideal for stir-fries.  They’re also a lighter purple than their American and Italian cousins.
  • Indian eggplants are shaped more like tomatoes.  They are often cubed and stewed, cooked whole, or used to make sauces.
  • Thai eggplants are quite tiny compared to their counterparts, and quite a lot more bitter.  They come in a variety of colours, although they are often green.  They’re commonly used in curries.

Harvesting, using, and preserving

Eggplants are ready to pick when they stop growing, and their skin becomes glossy.  You’ll know for sure that they’re ripe when you cut them open and their seeds are mature and light-coloured (rather than hard and dark).  Harvest them by cutting their stems with pruners.  There’s no easy way to break them off without damaging the plant.  Regular picking will encourage more fruits to grow.

Like avocados, eggplants begin to discolour as soon as they’re cut, but lemon juice, vinegar, or salt can prevent them from darkening too much.

Eggplants generally are eaten cooked rather than fresh.  Try them grilled, in baba ghanoush, veggie burgers, stir fries, ratatouille, moussaka, and more.

To freeze eggplants, peel and slice them, then blanch or roast the slices and place them in ice water to cool.  After the slices have cooled, drain the water off and place them in freezer bags.  Eggplants can also be dehydrated or canned, or chopped and placed in a mason jar of oil and refrigerated.

Friends

  • Beans
  • Peas
  • Peppers
  • Potatoes
  • Spinach
  • Tomatoes

Foes

  • Corn

Fun facts

  • Eggplant contains the highest amount of nicotine found in any vegetable! Yuck!  You’d have to have eat about 20 lbs them to get as much nicotine as what’s found in a cigarette, though, so don’t worry.
  • Not all eggplants are purple–some white varieties resemble goose eggs–hence the name.

Making salsa

Salsa is one of the most satisfying things for gardeners to make, because you can use so many things from your garden: tomatoes, tomatillos, onions, garlic, cilantro, peppers, and herbs.  Although you need to follow canning recipes closely in terms of ingredient proportions, you can often use whichever varieties of tomatoes and bell peppers you have on hand.  A mixture of different types of each will produce salsas that are both colourful and flavourful.

Here are a couple of recipes I’ve made recently that have been added to my favourites:

 

 

Plant of the week: Broccoli

Got milk?  How about broccoli instead?  Broccoli has as much calcium in it as the equivalent weight in milk, plus it contains phytochemicals, folic acid, phosphorous, fiber, calcium, iron, and vitamins A, B2, B6, and C.  Plus, it’s delicious.

Ideal growing conditions

Broccoli is a cold weather plant, which means it is generally grown in the spring and/or fall, and timed so that it matures when the weather is cool.  If exposed to too much heat, it will bolt and produce a showy array of pretty yellow flowers.

Start broccoli indoors 4-6 weeks before the last frost date, then transplant the seedlings into rich, slightly acidic soil that retains water and gets at least 6 hours of sun.  Space the seedlings at least a foot apart.

Broccoli is prone to several pests such as cabbage worms and aphids; place floating row covers over your plants to protect them.  It can also be grown in very large containers — 5 gallons or larger is best.

Broccoli tolerates frost and can live in temperatures as cold as -12 Celsius.  Its growth is accelerated after a frost.

Types

  • Calabrese broccoli is the kind of broccoli you see in the store.  It’s named after the Italian province of Calabria, where it was first grown.  Its stalks are topped by a compact head containing clusters of green florets.
  • Sprouting broccoli has multiple small green or purple heads that branch of its main stalks.
  • Chinese broccoli, or gai-lon, is smaller and darker than western broccoli.  It doesn’t produce heads; the whole plant is eaten, including the flowers.  The flavour is stronger and may be bitter.
  • Broccoli rabe, or rapini, is actually a separate species.

 

 

 

 

Harvesting, using, and preserving

Cut broccoli heads before the flowers have opened, when the individual buds are the size of pin-heads, dark green or purple-tinged, and tightly closed.  Cut them in the morning before it is hot.

After the main head has been harvested, the plant may grow more heads on side-shoots.

Broccoli can be refrigerated for up to a week, or blanched and frozen.  It’s delicious when lightly steamed, eaten raw, or added to soups and dishes.

 

Friends

  • Beets
  • Carrots
  • Celery
  • Chives
  • Cucumber
  • Dill
  • Garlic
  • Lettuce
  • Onions
  • Potatoes
  • Spinach

Foes

  • Beans
  • Peppers
  • Squash
  • Strawberries
  • Tomatoes

Fun facts

  • Thomas Jefferson brought broccoli to America; he imported broccoli seeds from Italy to America and planted them in his own garden in 1767.

Harvesting and freezing corn

The corn is a bit late to mature here this year due to the cold, wet summer.  The cobs are getting larger–but how do you tell if they’re ready?

There’s a simple way to determine if a cob is ready to be picked for eating fresh.  If the silky end of the ear is blunt or slightly rounded, rather than pointed, the cob’s ready to be picked.  Some suggest that you peel back the husk and pierce one of the kernels to see if the liquid is clear (not ready) or milky (ready), but if you do this test, and the cob isn’t ready, you’re opening the door for earwigs and other pests to crawl inside and eat your unripe cob.

For some varieties of corn, as the plant ages, its cobs develop chewy kernels that aren’t very appetizing eaten fresh.  These can be used for chili, soups, and other recipes that call for canned or frozen corn.  To get the kernels off a cob, cook the entire cob as you would were you to eat it fresh, then let it cool and cut the kernels off with a sharp knife.  Start at the top and cut down each side to the bottom.  Use the kernels fresh, or put them in a freezer bag and freeze them.  There are special tools, called corn strippers or corn cutters, which you can purchase, but a knife works just as well.

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Fresh tomato sauce made easy

Back in the day, it used to be a bit of a chore to remove the skins and seeds from tomatoes before making sauce (seeds make the sauce bitter; skins make it lumpy).

With a tomato press, you can make tomato sauce much more quickly:

  1. Select and rinse some ripe tomatoes.  Roma-type tomatoes work best, but any kind will do.
  2. Immerse them in boiling water just long enough to loosen their skins, then let them cool.DSCN1311
  3. Put the cool tomatoes in the hopper of the tomato press, and crank the handle (pressing lightly on the tomatoes), until they are all through.
    The sauce will flow out one side, and the seeds and skins out the other.DSCN1313.jpg
  4. Press the seed mixture through a second time to get all of the juice out.
  5. Cook the juice until it reaches your desired consistency.
  6. Use fresh, or, if canning sauce:
    • Add citric acid or lemon juice to each bottle.  For pints, add 1 tbsp. lemon juice or 1/4 tsp. citric acid; for quarts, add 2 tbsp. of lemon juice or 1/2 tsp. of citric acid.
      Follow a recipe if adding herbs or spices.  It is dangerous to experiment with canning recipes.
    • Process the bottles in a conventional water-bath canner for 35 minutes.
    • When using your canned sauce, add some natural sweetener to counter-effect the bitterness of the lemon juice.

Plant of the week: Tomatillos

Although tomatillos (aka Mexican husk tomatoes) are commonly prepared with tomatoes, they’re quite different from their cousins.  The tomatillo is a tart, firm fruit that is covered in a papery husk that it gradually fills as it matures.  It more closely resembles a cape gooseberry than a tomato.

Tomatillos are a good source of fiber, potassium, niacin, manganese, iron, phosphorus, magnesium, copper, and vitamins A, C and K.  Furthermore, they’re easy to grow, fairly resistant to pests, and bees love them.  Look at the beautiful flowers on them, too!

Ideal growing conditions

You will need to grow at least two tomatillo plants in order to ensure proper pollination.  If you only have one plant, most of the husks will be empty or underdeveloped.

Start plants indoors about six weeks before the average final frost date, then harden them off and transplant them outside when the temperature will remain at least 10 degrees Celsius.  Sow the transplants deep into the soil, as you would tomatoes.  I find the seedlings are often unavoidably leggy, so don’t be afraid to bury 2/3 of each plant when you transplant it.

Tomatillos need full sun and soil that is well-drained and rich in compost.  They require a lot of support, as they can grow several feet tall.  If left to sprawl, the fruit may rot on the ground.  In my experience, tomato cages are insufficient.  Before transplanting your plants, pound some four foot high, thick metal stakes into the ground where you intend for them to grow.  Space these 2-3 feet apart; each plant will grow many branches and yield hundreds of fruits.  As the plants develop, loosely tie them to the stakes, using soft twine or tomato ties, avoiding tying areas where flowers are developing.

Tomatillos are native to all areas of the Americas except for the north; they are accustomed to heat.  They do not need much maintenance or watering, but they do tolerate drought.

Types

  • Green tomatillos turn apple-green or yellow when ripe, and stay tart.  They are used for sauces and main course dishes.
  • Purple tomatillos start off green before turning purple.  They are less tart than the green varieties, and as such as used in jams.

Harvesting, using, and preserving

Tomatillos are ready to be picked when they fill out the husk.  If left to split the husk, they are not as good for cooking, because their flesh becomes softer and sweeter.

If they do not ripen before the frost, you can hang the entire plant upside down inside until the fruits ripen.

Tomatillos are most commonly associated with salsa verde, but they are a staple ingredient of other sauces and many Mexican dishes, such as enchiladas, burritos, and tacos.  They can be eaten raw, or in stews, sandwiches, and salads.

Fresh tomatillos (with husks) can be stored in the fridge for two weeks, in a paper bag.  Remove their husks and place them in a sealed plastic bag, and they can be stored an extra week.  You can also freeze them as is, with husks removed, of course.  The husk is never eaten.

 

Friends

  • Asparagus
  • Basil
  • Brassicas
  • Carrots
  • Chives
  • Garlic
  • Onions
  • Parsley
  • Sage

Foes

  • Corn
  • Dill
  • Eggplant
  • Fennel
  • Potatoes

Fun facts

  • Earlier this year, scientists found a 52 million year old tomatillo fossil in the Patagonian region of Argentina.

 

Harvesting, curing, and storing potatoes

When your potato plants begin to die back, it’s a sign that you can start to dig them up for winter storage.  You can leave them in your garden until the plants die back almost completely, but they don’t tolerate cold temperatures or frost.

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Before you dig up the entire patch, dig up one plant and test its tubers.  If their skins are thin and easily rubbed off, it’s too early to harvest.  The skins need to be thick and firm so that the potatoes will cure properly.

If you can, avoid harvesting your potatoes when the soil is damp.  You want the potatoes to be as dry as possible.

  1. Insert a shovel or garden fork at least a foot away from the plant, dig down about a foot, then carefully lift the plant up.
    Some varieties of potato plants develop tubers right under the plant, and others develop them quite far away, so you may need to adjust where you shovel to avoid impaling–or overlooking–any tubers.
    The tubers should become obvious as the roots are lifted and the dirt is loosened.  You may need to dig around the plant several times to find all of your treasures.
  2. Sort your potatoes according to size, type, and condition.  Knock off any clods of dirt that cling to them, but don’t wash them.
  3. Set aside any damaged potatoes; you will need to use these as soon as possible.
  4. Lay the rest of the potatoes out to cure in a relatively warm (~8-16 degrees Celsius) but dry place, for a week or so, until the skins have hardened.  I arrange mine on newspaper atop a hardwood floor in a room that gets some sunlight but is not too bright or hot.  If potatoes are exposed to too much light, they may turn green.
  5. After the potatoes have dried and their skins have hardened, arrange them in baskets, mesh bags or any containers in which the air can circulate around them (but light cannot get to them), ensuring they don’t touch each other.  At the time that you are packing them into their baskets, you may be able to gently brush off some more of the dirt that clings to them.
  6. Place them in dark, dry, cool (~4 degrees Celsius) location such as a root cellar or cold room.
  7. Periodically go through your stores to check for, and remove, any potatoes that have rotted.  One rotten potato can spoil others!
  8. Enjoy!  Potatoes can last up to a year if stored properly, but refer to the guidelines for the specific varieties you’ve planted for specific expectations regarding longevity.  I use small potatoes before large potatoes, and red-skinned potatoes before white and yellow-skinned potatoes.

 

Blanching celery using paper bags

Blanching is the process of blocking light to celery in its last few weeks of growing to reduce its natural bitterness and woodenness.  This process also lightens the colour of the plant and reduces its nutritional value.  It may not be necessary, depending on the variety of celery you are growing, how much sunlight your plants are exposed to, and your taste.

There are many ways to blanch celery, such as by gradually building up dirt around it so that it is in a trench, or wrapping newspaper around it.  One of the simplest ways to blanch celery involves using inexpensive brown lunch bags.

  1. Stretch out the fold in the bottom of the bag, and cut it off.  You now have a paper tube.DSCN1267
  2. Grasp the bottom of the celery, then move your hands up the plant, bringing all of the stalks together in the middle (being careful not to break or bend any).  Imagine you are smoothing a head of hair to ready it for a ponytail.DSCN1281.JPG
  3. Slide the paper tube down over the top of the plant.  You may have to stop occasionally to tuck in the shorter stems.DSCN1265

That’s it!  Though thin, these paper bags block out the light and withstand heavy rain and wind.

 

Plant of the week: Parsley

Parsley is more than just a garnish; it’s an excellent source of icon, folate, and vitamins A and K, and it contains more vitamin C than oranges.  Parsley is biennial; the first year it produces its tasty leaves, and the second year it goes to seed and further grows its taproot, which is actually tastier than its leaves.  Yes, you can eat the entire plant!

Parsley is great for small spaces.  You can grow it in a pot outside all spring, summer, and fall, and then bring it inside and continue to enjoy it until it goes to seed, at which point you can start all over again.  Or, you can keep it inside year round.

 

Ideal growing conditions

Parsley likes full sun or partial shade, and soil that is rich in compost.  The soil pH should be between 5.5 and 6.7.  If you are planting your parsley indoors, place it near a sunny window.

Sow seeds 6-8 inches apart, or sow them closer and thin the plants as they mature.  Parsley is notoriously slow to germinate.  It may take 4-6 weeks, even after soaking the seeds in warm water for a few hours.  Make sure to keep the site watered at all times.

Types

  • Curly-leaf varieties of parsley are primarily used as garnishes.
  • Flat-leaf varieties of parsley (pictured above) are more flavourful and nutritious than curly-leaf varieties; they are typically used in cooking.

Harvesting, using, and preserving

Parsley is ready for picking when it has grown a few stems.  Cut off one stem at a time and let the plant recover, or thin entire plants.

You can freeze or dry parsley.  It also keeps well on the counter in a glass of water.  The stems are more nutritious and tasty than the leaves–so don’t discard them.  Use parsley in sauces, soups, salads, and yes, as a garnish.  It freshens breath after a garlicy meal!

Friends

  • Asparagus
  • Carrots
  • Chives
  • Corn
  • Onions
  • Peas
  • Peppers
  • Tomatoes

Foes

  • Lettuce
  • Mint

When parsley blooms, it attracts beneficial insects such as hoverflies and predatory wasps.

Fun facts

  • Sprinkling parsley leaves around rose bushes is said to improve their scent and the overall health of the plant.
  • To reduce the pain and swelling of a bruise, apply chopped fresh parsley to it.